Tana Toraja, Sulawesi

We were sad to leave the beautiful underwater world we discovered in North Sulawesi, but I had heard such amazing things about Tana Toraja (Toraja Land), in Southern Central Sulawesi.

Arriving in a Southeast Asian country is always an interesting experience…you get off the plane and are shuffled around to various customs lines where you almost always pay some fee and are set loose upon the waiting cabbies. Makassar was no different, but we have become smarter.

We got to the bus station at 9 and the bus we had expected to take leaves at 8. Oops. We took another bus line called Litha, the “eksekutif” bus – aircon AND they don’t let food/drink/crap sellers come on at every stop!

It’s an 8 hour bus ride to Toraja…on a good day;  it took us 10 hours by the end of it. And the poor guy next to Jacob kept puking into plastic bags and throwing them out the window.

We got to Rantepao, the main city in Tana Toraja, at around 9PM and checked into our “hotel” (really a guesthouse). Run by a family who lives on the premises, the room was immaculate, with hot water even, and the price was right: $8 per night! They have a cute little restaurant, but we discovered that service is extremely slow (a couple Dutch girls waited 2 hours for their dinner one night) – I think the family has to make everything from scratch to order.

The next morning, our guide, Gibson and our driver [forgot his name] took us on the first tourist path of Tana Toraja. It involves some deeply rutted roads (some worse than dirt because of the huge rocks in the road), turning on streets with no signs,  stopping for buffalo in the street, and artfully dodging stray dogs and chickens.

Tana Toraja is known for its funerary practices and architecture. Here’s a typical Torajan village:

They believe that after death, you are brought to a kind of heaven by buffalo, and the more buffalo sacrificed at your funeral, the faster you get there. So if a family doesn’t have enough money to buy a buffalo to be sacrificed at a family member’s funeral, the dead family member is loaded full of formaldehyde and kept in the house in bed until they have the money for the buffalo. This can sometimes take years, so the family member is treated as if they’re still alive, but sick – their favorite meals are brought to them, their favorite tv show is played, etc. Here’s a guy who’s been dead for 3 years (well, his coffin, anyway):

On the first day, we got to go to a funeral – it was the grisleyest affair I’ve ever seen: giant stacks of animal innards, live pigs tied to stakes, and the sound of squealing pigs struggling against their ties piercing the festivities. We brought the customary carton of cigarettes as a gift to the family and we were offered cigarettes (for Jacob) and betelnut (for me) and tea and cakes. We sat as long as was expected and then went off to look at the gloom and doom which is the killing of the animals.

After watching (or in my case, not watching) the killing, we headed out to look at some of the human graves. They carve a hole in the side of a rock face or sometimes a large rock and bury an entire family in the same hole. Every time someone new dies, they open the little door in the front of the hole and pop the body in. There’s an older method that was used too: where they bury the family in a “hanging grave”, where the coffin is put on wooden planks driven into the rock wall. Most of these are falling apart now, so many of the grave
sites have piles of old bones just sitting out or in broken-open coffins that have fallen from their shelf. As you are only allowed to touch the bones once a year, they sit untouched on the ground the rest of the year.

A little known exception is if the person is dead but they don’t have the body, they “fill a sarong with air from the mountain”, that is, they literally take a sarong to the mountaintop, fill it with a breeze, and bury it in place of the person. We learned this because 2 of our guide’s sisters died when a PELNI boat sank off the coast of Kalimantan and the bodies were never found, they were buried in this manner.

We spent the entire next day going from gravesite to gravesite with some stops for beautiful views and to gawk at buffalo. The most interesting grave was a “baby tree”. When a baby that hasn’t gotten its teeth yet dies, they cut a hole in a special kind of tree and bury the baby in it. As the tree grows, it brings the babies to heaven. The trees heal the holes and new ones are cut in the place of old ones. Most baby trees are sacred and only accessible by villagers, but a few villages have trees that aren’t actively used anymore and now allow tourists to look at them (for a fee, of course).

The buffalo are sacred in that they are only killed for funerals, so the family takes amazingly good care of their family buffalo(es). They nearly force-feed them grass by hand and the children walk the buffalo and clean them. They are kept docile by a nose-ring and a short leash by which they are tied to a stake or walked.

The cost of a buffalo in order of price is (lowest to highest): mostly black buffalo around 1 year old, mostly black older but healthy buffalo, and then the best is white or mostly white buffalo of any age, but the larger the horns the better (large horned white buffalo are referred to as “Mercedes Buffalo” because they cost as much as a Mercedes).

The next day we went trekking – first we took a bemo (public bus) to the market. The market is an all-encompassing trip for a family; you can buy your veggies, spices, coffee, clothing, booze (palm wine or ARAK, a local bathtub brew), fish of every shape and size both live and dead, roosters (for cockfighting), grown pigs (tied to a stretcher for easy transport on your scooter), baby pigs (sold in a bag!) and buffalo (but you provide the nose

After the market, we took the bemo to the end of the line, a small village, where we hired motorcycle drivers to take us the rest of the way to the trailhead. The night before it had rained a long, hard, cleansing rain, so our trails were a muddy, buffalo-poo mess. After lots of slipping and sliding and more rice fields than you could imagine, sometime around 4PM we arrived at the house where we would stay the night, our guide’s aunt’s house. They lived in a standard village house and had 2 Torajan-style rice barns in the back. The house was 2 stories; upstairs has only bedrooms and the living room, downstairs has the pantry room, the cooking room, the eating room, the toilet room, the mandi (Indonesian bath – a tub with a ladel/bucket that you dip into the bath and pour on yourself while you stand outside the tub), and a dirt floor. Downstairs chickens, dogs, and cats all wander in and out while aunt and uncle cook.

We got comfy under one of the barns in the yard and drank some tea until the rain started again. Moving into the house, the tin roof made it so loud we couldn’t talk, so Jacob, Gibson (our guide), and I played dominos (they play with domino cards).

For dinner, our host family made us a wonderful meal, but didn’t join us until we finished eating. At that point, they came upstairs and we all tried to have a conversation. Gibson’s aunt offered me some betelnut which I was dying to try. It’s a concoction of: 1 piece of a plant that looks like a green bean, 1 part a piece of a nut, and a dash of white powder, which is ground up snail shells. You put it all in your mouth and chew chew chew, then stick it in your lip. It makes you salivate so you have a little spitoon and it makes your teeth and lips red. My mouth went a little numb and I got a medium-sized jolt of energy.

The next morning, they made us a lovely breakfast of banana pancakes and we ate downstairs (maybe once they knew us better?). Then we headed back off to the muddy trails for another 4 hour trek.

We walked for another 4 hours or so, then the guide and I took a bemo back leaving Jacob to walk the last few km.

Just an aside: Jacob asked our guide how you say “trekking” in Indonesian. Apparently, it translates to “white person walking through village”!

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