Tana Toraja, Sulawesi and Thoughts on Indonesia

I had to hit the road again, needing to see something new and found it in Sulawesi, that weirdly shaped island east of Borneo. The flight was near empty but the passengers gave the pilot a healthy round of applause for landing safely. (What else was he meant to do?) All the usual chaotic signs appeared early at the airport; the long-winded immigration lines, the surly taxi service, near-death on the way to the bus terminal, the drunken offers to carry your bag. The ‘we have seats….ahh sold out’ ‘Which bus? That bus? No, that bus…? No bus? WHERE IS THE BUS?’. The third world looks the same the world over. Too many people chasing a living and poor infrastructure lamented a hotel manager I spoke to a few days later.

I didn’t want to stay in Makassar, the largest city so instead took the risky option of hoping there was a nightbus to catch. I got the last seat which i knew meant the B seat at the front of the bus, the seat the guide sits in, the most uncomfortable seat created. How these guides smile and put up with dumb-brick tourist questions is incredible. They need a humanitarian award. Never again.

 

The ride wasn’t a good one, uncomfortable and windy, full of patchy sleep. But I got there and now I sit in Rantepao, surrounded by curious, traditional houses called a tongkonan. The roofs rear up at both ends in the shape of the boats thought to have brought the Torajans to this land and the higher the roofs, the greater status the house has. I have never seen anything like them. In uniqueness, they reminds me the hobbit houses of West Timor.

 

It was Sunday when I arrived, the busiest day in many countries. The locals were holding a mini football tournament on a bumpy, shorn pitch that reminded me of childhood excepting the rubbish strewn across the sides. The green team showed a lot of talent, strong in defence, fluent passers in midfield. The young fans jumped around enthusiastically, running onto the pitch at close efforts before getting forced back by policemen with sticks. The players are genuinely admired, for the most obviously reasons that they are blood family to the fans. They all ride to and from the game in the back of pick-ups, fans and players sitting over each other, 25 people squeezed into the back, singing, waving and smiling.

<– Old dude watching the football

 

A older local spoke to me after the game using the standard opening lines of ‘dari mana?’.. where are you from? Football is an easily understood language, appreciated for its simplicity and universality. (I’ve seen games in East Timor, Bali, Lombok and Sulawesi on this trip). We talked about the various teams on display that day and our favourite teams and players (everyone loves Man U and Cristiano Ronaldo). I explained what I thought of the two teams I had seen; an absent midfield the nifty winger and a complete failure to take advantage of the off-side rule on goal kicks. Then the pak (local elder) informed me he was the coach of one of the teams! He smiled, agreed and thanked me for my thoughts. That, of course, could mean anything!

 

I was in Tana Toraja to see the famous funeral ceremonies held every July and August for the weather is better, the families can save up money and prepare elaborate costumes to honour their dead with processions, singing and live animal sacrifices. I waited until there was to be a large funeral, walking most days and taking pics of the scenery. It was a very long 4 days in such a small town where the only entertainment is a noisy joint called Cancer Karaoke and the electricity has a tendency to crap out for hours on end! Being the centre of attention for teenage girls gets boring pretty quick even for someone with rock and roll hair like me. I had discovered a new Indonesian dish though, Bakso Babi. Essentially merely meatballs and spicy noodles but it was tasty and $1.

 

My room was in a traditional tongkonan, set in a pretty, manicured garden with overly attentive staff. I did have a TV for the first time in a long time and the classic Cinemax channel which specialises in pumping out the 3rd world favourites, Steven Seagal and Jean Claude Van Damme. As bad actors as these guys, these films do kill time before sleep calls.

 

Breakfast every morning was provided by the neighbouring restaurant. The owner told me how handsome I was every morning and how I should take a Torajan wife. The dark skinned but broad faced Torajans are very proud of their culture, their independence and the ridge-lined homeland. Anyone who is a good Sulawesian is probably actually a Torajan accordingly.

 

The ceremony day finally arrived. With my guide Anton, we took local transport through the paddy fields, a stunning panorama. The SUV also had a famed, aging French anthropologist on board who had written books in the 1960s and 70s about the Torajan people. Anton confessed to her he had read her books during his childhood. He was genuinely touched. Along the way, we picked up 7 women, dressed in black satin and lace. They too were going to the ceremony. Two of the ladies were in fact daughters of the deceased woman. I had worn black as a sign of respect. When I saw what some of the other tourists were wearing, I had to wince. Pinks, whites, short shorts usually with a large camera in hand, placed in a local’s face without asking permission. It’s truly bewildering and disappointing. More about that later.

The ceremony was in the home village of Randanbatu. The husband of the deceased woman greeted me and invited me to sit with his family. I felt humbled even as the French kids ran around like in a playground. The grieving family was relatively rich and had built no shy family shrine. It consisted of large viewing bays surrounding the coffin which was housed in a mobile tongkonan. After solemn prays and dedications, the celebration of the deceased woman’s life began. Around 30 local men and relatives picked up the coffin and its shelter and excitedly carried it down the road to the other villages accompanied by jumps, cheers and screams. The 18 buffalo walked alongside (included a prized albino bull) and the women behind carrying a red train above their head. Smiles abound as did tourists, scrambling to get the best view.

 

 

The younger girls and boys were dressed in beautiful, black satin, with elaborate bead necklaces and colourful headbands. I asked permission to take a picture of the most beautiful girl. She posed like a Japanese schoolgirl which was cheeky and enlightening. Asian culture has even spread out here as have advanced mobiles and the love of texting. Many small cultures have embraced the conveniences of the modern world; the young for teenage fun away from adult supervision, the adults for more practical business reasons. But they maintain their cultural identities, piety and honesty. Tana Toraja is not an area seeking to usurp their present, rolling existence.

Once back in the family shrine, the coffin is carried up a steep rampart to rest for the remainder of the 8 day ceremony atop of the family viewing platform. We then came to the most famous part of the ceremony. During a long sermon from a local leader of the traditional, animistic faith and then a Catholic priest, a female buffalo stood sniffing the air, the unfamiliar smells of foreigners. I wondered was tied to stake in the middle of the shrine and to the click of tourist camera, quickly had it throat opened by a professional buffalo killer(?!).

 

 

The buffalo bucked and jumped as its veins poured blood from its neck onto the soon matted earth. After a minute it collapsed and the knifeman carefully moved in to open up the throat more widely. The buffalo took a further two minutes to die, lifting its head in a final death throes before passing out to it’s death. I watched it all from close-up. It was pretty horrendous. Large pools of blood slay around the sacrifice. I had some pinkish blood on my toes and a small dog lapped at the pools.

 

The Toraja believe their animals must follow them into heaven as do some of their possessions like the ancient Egyptians and the Azetcs. The number of sacrifices depends on the wealth of the family (and I guess how much you like the family member). Other relatives bring along their own animals to be slaughtered as a sign of respect for the deceased. As the relative cost of the funeral is shared, (unlike in poorer Sumba where, according to a Sumba man I met, parents must sometimes choose between the cost of the funeral and the kid’s education), the potential waste is negated. The dead animals are also eaten. It took the men 16 minutes to total decapitate and divide up the buffalo! After all, it’s an 8 day ceremony. I was told 24 buffalo and numerous pigs would be sacrificed over the ceremony. And we complain about turkey sandwiches on Boxing Day eh!

 

The rest of the afternoon was spent watching male buffalo fighting in a field with the locals close around, cheering and whooping. The locals bet on a buffalo but for me it became fairly tedious. The bulls tended to grind at each other’s head, rarely one giving in. When one does get the upper hand, the weaker tends to make a run for it followed by the stronger bull. The crowd have to run for it too as the bulls have poor eye sight and run away in blind panic. Only once did we get a great battle. Two evenly matched bull fought for 30 minutes, one getting underneath and flipping the other over. But they fought on, the testosterone burning until they both fell down the bank into the river. I left soon after that. My flip-flops and feet were covered in literal bull shit. A ride took me back to Rantepao and that night I left Tana Toraja, to leave this island of Sulawesi and the country of Indonesia.

 

Yet again, Indonesia has proved inspiring. For Indonesians are optimistic people. They are kind and polite and curious, shy yet full of smiles. It’s so vast on so many indicators with diversity like few other places in the world. It holds such fascination for me. Over 17,000 islands with more than 245m people, 300 spoken languages, the world’s 3 major religions, impressively endemic corruption and all spread over an area the size of the United States. Yet despite this, it is one country. Just. Numerous internal conflicts of late have upset that cosy image pumped out from Jakarta. Aceh, with its Muslim majority sought greater independence as did Irian Jaya. Neither, unlike East Timor, gained independence and for familiar economic reasons.

 

East Timor was the poorest area of Indonesia with proven oil reserves but too deep to be harvested with present Indonesian oil technology. And no foreign oil company could realistically get involved. So it could leave though not without a brutal backlash. Irian Jaya has the world’s largest gold mine while Aceh maintains accessible oil. The central state in Jakarta was never going to let those areas go so fought, repressed and in some cases, perpetrated massacres to maintain control. Ironically, Aceh was ultimately subdued by the 2004 tsunami which nearly washed out everything and everyone. Nearly 200,000 people perished in the disaster. Aceh needed help and the world, to varying degrees of success arrived to help. The outside intervention smothered the separatist efforts for the time being at least.

 

Irain Jaya suffers from its isolation. Few foreigners outside of the mining industry make the trip and certainly very few to tell their story. It isn’t helped that Inodonesian military has huge influence over the region particularly border controls. And why? Because the gold mine is the single biggest tax payer in the whole of Indonesia. The military even provides protection for the mine perimeters and staff. They has even gone so far as to kill the political independence leader on grounds of terroristic behaviour.

The military’s role in political affairs may have visible reduced after Suharto was deposed but they remain important, not least because tensions simmer and erupt all over Indonesia at any time. Religious violence in Central Sulawesi seems to erupt every few years including the random beheading of 3 schoolgirls in 2004. The Banda islands also see their own violence, again usually along religious lines. I’ve witnessed student demonstrations in Yogja while Iran Jaya and and Aceh still simmer. These tensions will be especially tested as the world economy depresses, pressurising exports and Indonesian state fuel subsidies comes under pressure from rising oil prices.

 

But enough of the uncertainties. Go to Indonesia. I didn’t make it to Java on this trip (I did in 2006. blog here) and still haven’t made it to Sumarta but I have seen enough to make me want to get back here. It may be difficult to travel (come in low season) but the welcome, the sights, food and culture are worth it.

See ya again Indo.

**

(Regarding the tourists and their dress, I have started to wonder whether countries with a strong national pride and belief in their own cultural correctness become the worst tourists. The British have imposed their own language and traditions on many countries and the trashy British tourists continue to do this. But I don’t think the modern British backpacker does. They are generally respectful of foreign language cultures. (Generally.) It comes from the British belief in privacy, respectful and politeness. Again this has to be taken generally.

 

<– Funeral attire in France.

However I have noticed here and in other places countries like France, China, Italy and Russia with proud nationalistic people tend to ride rough-shod over local cultures, happy to wear what they like and put their cameras in people’s faces. I’ve Chinese men sneaking around Sacre-Coeur in Paris trying to get shots of the inside of the Church despite the huge signs everywhere saying ‘no pictures please.‘ Italians walking across a prayer mat to get a close shot of a devotee. Russians being, well Russian. And now the French arriving at funerals in white short shorts, pointing their cameras in people’s faces, seemingly thinking this is a tourist attraction rather than a family funeral they are fortunate to be attending. Presumably they don’t dress like that at their own family’s funerals.

It’s just a thought and certainly not wholly developed yet. There may be nothing much in it and I certainly think it depends on the age of the tourist. Backpackers tend to be more culturally aware and speak the local language or at least English better.)

**

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3 thoughts on “Tana Toraja, Sulawesi and Thoughts on Indonesia

  1. cool 🙂 I’m from Torajan and curious with your post since it was pop up at the first page of google images when I just search ‘Indonesian Beautiful Smile’ hahaha
    very nice post, yeah, we really poor at infrastructure 😦 but soon will be better since we really concern about our nation’s leader.
    for the next 5 years…come to indonesia again? lol.

    you rocks.
    aurora

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