Tana Toraja-A Land Like No Other. Bizarre, Heartfelt Funerals, Beautiful Landscapes, Cold Beer and Buffalos Everywhere.

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February 4th 2020
Published: February 4th 2020
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Tana Toraja-A Land Like no Other. I went in December 2019, my time there seems like a dream. Woke in my little room near the harbor in Bau Bau, SE Sulawesi in the early morning hours, 4AM. Bad sleep night, excitement on my mind, reflecting for hours on my great journey so far and what was to come. Walked outside, toward the end of the lane I found a guy I had talked with the night before about a lift to the airport. We hopped on his moto, streets almost empty, zipped up the hills of this lovely city and headed south in the cool (ish) morning air. Though I had only spent 2 whole days in this town, I had grown to love it. Something special, beautiful setting, pretty much no tourists around. I think I'll be back someday.

The Bau Bau airport is a bit of a ride, I'd say 7km outside of town. We rolled up to the terminal, no one there except for a few people milling about the mosque next to the airport, finishing the first call to prayer. I threw my pack down, sat and just listened to the sounds of the morning. I felt perfectly safe, think I dozed off for 30 minutes. Someone nudged me, I woke up and was surrounded by people, the airport was opening. for the early morning 5:30 flight I was on. At the counter, the woman tried to charge me more for my larger backpack, I just said "no thank you" and she didn't ask again, funny. We loaded up, lifted off, I looked back fondly at the harbor and hills beyond, blue water. I had been in this region for ten days, very fond of it. I still found myself blown away by how few tourists were in this area. Beautiful..the islands, cultures, jungle, animals.

Quick one hour flight to the major city of Makassar, tasty coffee in the airport. I got lucky and got the last seat of a hopper flight to Palopo, had hatched a plan to get to Tana Toraja this way instead of the 10 hour bus ride from Makassar. I think the flight to Palopo was 45 minutes, we flew over a beautiful highland area to get there and up the interior SW Sulawesi coast, an area that looks ripe for a return visit. I think a trip from Makassar this direction to Tana Toraja on motorcycles would be great. We landed at the small terminal in peaceful Palopo, a Muslim seaside town, very hot and humid outside, verdant hills rising to the west. I walked out of the terminal, as usual walked past the drivers and touts. Strapped on my pack, walked down the long airport road (probably 1 mile) to the main road. Just before there, a nice group of Palopo people (who had done an airport pickup) stopped and asked me what i was doing. I told them I was going to hitchhike to Palopo, they looked at me like i was a crazy and told me to hop in, gave me a ride the 10km or so into town. I had asked them to drop me at a place I might be able to catch a bus up to the Tana Toraja region, looked like it might be about 2 hours away.

Lucky, lucky. I was waiting for a bus and a guy came up and said hello, asked me where I was going, told me to hop in with him, her was headed to Rantepao, perfect. He was from there, but lived in Palopo with his family, a mixed Christian-Muslim family. The people of Tana Toraja are Christian, I'll get to that later, so much to tell. We jumped in his comfortable little car, headed up steep but good roads, the rains hadn't come yet so they were very passable. We climbed thousands of feet, the sweltering coast quickly transitioned to vast bamboo jungles and slightly cooler temps. We stopped at a little place to use the bathroom and grab a bite to eat and strong Torajan coffee. I felt the sun on my face, looked down over the jungle, felt so grateful for another day beautifully falling into place, wonderful people along the way. It's like that all over the world, put your heart out and you will find beauty and love.

The guy who gave me a ride was fortunately going right up to Rantepao, where I was headed, he was going to see his parents for Christmas. More lush pretty bamboo jungles as we headed higher into the hills, I started to see the famous tongkonan dwellings this area is so famous for. We came into Rantepao proper, it was a bit of a shock after the idyllic countryside we had come through, a bustling little city with traffic, scooters zipping around everywhere. I think I read that 50,000 people live here, many more in surrounding villages. My friend told me that this Christmas time is busier than normal in Tana Toraja, people come back from all around Indonesia (and even abroad) to be with their families during the holidays. He also told me that the elaborate Tana Torajan funerals. which normally happen late summer, also at times are around Christmas, as families can come back on their holiday break to attend.

We slowly worked our way through town, turned left on the Kete Keso road, so glad that I was staying a little outside of the city. The guesthouse I was staying at didn't have a sign on the main road (I guess so they don't get noticed by the tax authorities), my buddy was very patient as we asked question about where it was and we finally found it, Mama Tia Homestay. He dropped me by the main road, gave me a big hug. I strapped on my backpack and walked up the little lane that had been identified as the path to where I was going. Really hard to find, finally went down a little lane and was greeted by the owner. It turned out to be convenient to everything but peacefully set looking over rice paddies. He showed me to me little $12 room, gave me a hot coffee and some local fruit, told me they had cold beers here. I liked this place instantly, seemed like there were a few Western backpackers about, though they were out for a walk.

I headed up the little lane on foot, passed closeby to some of the magnificent Torajan traditional homes I would see so many of in the next few days. Saw a local Catholic church, more large stands of bamboo, big boulders in the woods. The rolling hills were beautiful, the land looked fertile with veggie crops and rice fields everywhere. This is a good time to tell you a bit about the Torajan people, unique in all of Indonesia. History suggests that they came as a large group from southern China more than 2,000 years ago, were expert navigators and made their way to Sulawesi, settling along the coast, migrating more to the interior as it became apparent that that was a safer place to be to avoid coastal raids. Because of their isolation, they avoided for so long the spread of Islam and were mostly buffered from Dutch missionary efforts that came with colonialism. They remained completely animist in their beliefs right up to the beginning of the 1900s. At that time the strength of coastal Islamic settlements was starting to spread, there were actually some attacks from the coast with the goal being to subjugate and convert to Trojans to Islam. The Dutch (in essence) proposed to the Torajan people that they convert to Christianity and that it would be the best way to preserve their culture, traditions, love of pork and alcohol 😊. The Indonesian state at this time provided protection for Christians, Hindus and Buddhists, animists wouldn't have had the same.

So the Torajans agreed, embraced Christianity to a degree, though maintained deep animist traditions, most notably around funeral rituals, which I'll get to later. I came down to the main Kete Kesu road after my walk, just milled about, found a place that sold beer and local food dishes. I found out that there were many food choices in Rantepao, but i could get basic stuff close to my place. I walked back up the land, met a sweet sound Belgian couple at my guesthouse, told them I knew where to get cold beer. they had just arrived the day before and we all agreed that a cold one sounded tasty. We got a bunch of beers, came back and met up with 2 other groups of French travelers who had just rolled in after a hike. It was late afternoon, we had a great little group, sipping beers, telling stories, looking over the pretty rice paddies as the sun went down. It didn't seem that there was a mosquito problem, probably due to the fact that it was a little cooler up here and the rainy season hadn't really developed yet. The guesthouse cooked up a huge plate of rice, veggies, tempeh and tofu, delicious, we all shared with more beers.

I learned that the French couples were taking off on a 2 day hike the next day with the guesthouse owner guy. The Belgians and I were very interested in attending a Torajan funeral, the son of the owner (a talented guide about 24 years old) said he would call around and see if he could find anything. He came back excitedly an hour later, a cousin of his had told him about a very traditional multi day funeral happening about 8 km outside of Rantepao out little roads. I guess it was a huge 5 day affair, we could go to the last 2 days. Tomorrow would be the main day for the sacrifice of buffalos (vital in their culture) and the next day the final funeral and progression to the burial site. We could go, the owner's sone told us that foreigners are welcomed as honored guests and that we would see things different from anything we had ever known. He smiled and said "I have some surprises for you tomorrow". We all headed to bed, the combination of weary travel, 3 beers, good food and the promise of tomorrow sent me quickly into a dreamy haze. I had pulled my mosquito net over my mattress on the floor, a simple room in this special part of the world. There is something magical to me about a mosquito net, sounds weird but i have used them all over the tropics. When I cover my bed with a good net, it is a little chamber that protects me and perhaps a capsule that is all part of the dream that I have had and am currently having to get to the place I have come.

The next morning, Dec 24th I think, I was up early with excitement and had a strong coffee. The Belgians, me and the guide's son grabbed scooters, pretty powerful actually. Zipped back the Kete Kesu road through Rantepao, not so busy yet as it was earlier in the morning. He told us that where we were going, not many tourists went, that it would be a very authentic experience. We drove out into a beautiful valley, rice terraces everywhere, bamboo jungle all around. This place was exceeding my expectations for sure. We curled up into the hills, visited a few traditional villages, including one that was a tourist site, beautiful monoliths everywhere, baby "graves" in trees, babies who die (in past days-I guess the custom is dying out) would be places in a hollowed out area of a tree to "grow" with the tree). We then headed way up some steep roads, had to explore a bit to find out where the funeral was, our guided had heard about it from a friend of a friend. We asked directions, were pointed about a mile from where we were, finally saw a little road where people were heading up, clear that there was activity up there.

We parked our scooters, had been told that even though the locals dress in modestly at these affairs, it was okay for us to wear shorts and longer sleeve travel shirts, flip flops. Thank God for that, it was hot and sunny, probably 90 degrees, a beautiful day. We joined groups of people heading up toward the funeral, rounded a corner and saw it in front of us. A magical location in the middle of tall bamboos, special platforms had been erected for the affair, tongkonan dwellings erected specially, including a beautiful one front and center where the body of the person being buried was kept in a very pretty elaborate cloth casket. The immediate family was up on top of the dwelling platform with the body, other family members and friends milled about, I bet there were about 200 people there when we arrived. We were welcomed, the only Westerners there, quite a few people shook our hands, really nice people. This funeral was a 5 day affair, today (we learned) would be the main animal sacrifice day. There would be a total of 8 buffalos killed, I would call this a mid-caste funeral, maybe costing $25,000. Some high caste funerals have 30 animals sacrificed and cost upwards of $50,000, hosting, feeding all the visitors and family, the main cost being the buffalos themselves.

I'll try to set the scene, it's not easy, such an evocative place, unfamiliar sights, sounds and smells everywhere, yet curiously familiar and welcoming. We had been told that this time in a person's "life" was the most important, the people honored it with joy and happiness, sending them to the afterworld happily. There were large probably 10-15 foot tall skinny monoliths all around the village, I guess each person who gets buried get's one carved in their honor. I've seen monoliths all over the world but never seen a place that is actively creating them to this day. There are craftsmen who are specialists in this, other craftsmen who build the beautiful houses, others who carve stunning lifelike wooden replicas or the person who has died, in this case it sits on a chair up on the platform, later will be placed outside the burial site.

We were treated to more local coffee, buffalo meatball soup and rice. More people started filling in the funeral grounds. We learned that the woman who had died was named Marta, and that she had been dead for 2 years, kept in mummified state by her family, as they saved the money necessary to host the funeral. Family and friends had indeed come back during the Christmas break season from all over Indonesia and even some living abroad in places like Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. Something that would be considered bizarre to Westerners, the mummified body is brought out in the years leading up to the funeral (I guess this happens years after the person is buried too), dressed up, hat put on, cigarette placed in their mouth and drink of local palm wine placed near their hands. The people talk with them as if they can hear everything, they truly believe that they can. It seems shocking at first, but then sweet and connected.

I perceived the family platform to be sacred space but learned (the first of many times when I was here) how wrong I was. There were a group of men in circle chanting, almost sounded like a Native American chant. They smiled when I walked by, I bravely walked up near the family platform, which had a large bamboo base below sheltered from the hot sun. Family members (there were about 30 below) beckoned me over, handed food to me and told me to sit, more of the buffalo meatball soup, called bakso. I was then, amazing to me, invited to climb the platform and sit next to family members who were right next to the casket, beautiful looking out over the surrounding village. I felt like I was in the middle of a dream, which was hilariously shattered when the family member next to the body started taking selfies with the body and me, sitting on my lap for photos, passing whiskey and beer around to drink, laughing and joking, many of them knew a little English. Before long, I gathered myself and started laughing too. This was curious, amazing, like nothing I had even seen.

After a bit, I got some family hugs, climbed back down the ladder and joined my Belgians friends, who were sitting on a little platform out of the sun, having more coffee. After a few more speeches in local dialect, the buffalos and one horse were brought out in procession. The ceremony was very reverent, everyone gathered close, probably 500 people around now. There was a man who's job was to sacrifice the animals. It was quick and graphic, I'll save you the details. This went on for probably an hour, chanting and singing going on, blood soaking into the ground of their ancestors, connecting everything and everyone. The Torajans believe that it is literally impossible for the soul of the departed to make it to heaven without the buffalo spirit as their guide. We walked away, heads spinning, hopped on our scooters and headed up into the high hills, the rest of the day exploring caves, the beautiful Loko Mata cave burial site and just enjoying the cooler air and high rice paddies of Northern Tana Toraja. Beautiful terrain and so fun to see it on scooters, I had grown so addicted to this way of seeing things on this trip. We had a late lunch and cold beer at a stunningly located little cafe looking over the valley below.

Really fun day with the Belgian couple, we vibed super together, hopped on the books for the long ride back to Rantepao, maybe 1 1/2 hours back. Rolled through bustling Rantepao as the sun sunk in the sky, back to our guesthouse, hopped in the shower, the cool water felt great. rested a bit and then headed out for dinner with a sweet Muslim young woman traveler who had come in from Java. Great food choices in Rantepao, which again was just a mile or so from our guesthouse. Dinner, conversation, cold beers, many stories recounted from the day. I felt tired, happy, still in a bit of a dream state from what i had experienced. it was clear that this place was a land of many layers. My Belgian friends planned to leave the next day, I would go with my new friend from Java and the owner's son to the same village tomorrow, for the final day of the funeral, supposed to be amazing in a different way. As I crawled under my mosquito net and went to sleep, the day's events came rushing back to me. I formed a "wow" with my mouth, I would remember this day for the rest of my life.

The next day was the day before Christmas, the 24th. As the Torajans have become Christians over the years, there is absolutely happiness, drinking, fireworks and celebration in the air. Families are together, people come from all over Indonesia to be home. No one articulated this exactly to me but I imagine it must be considered an auspicious time of year for a funeral. So got up, had tasty break of eggs and rice, the woman from Java (Mita) and I headed off with the owner's son again on motos, stopping at a buffalo market, then heading back to the same village I had been at the day before. We hung around for hours, lots of speeches, I was invited to sit with a bunch of village guys on a platform, they waved me over. Huge pots of cooked buffalo meat were passed around, a put of veggies, long bamboo tubes filled with palm wine were thrust at me, I couldn't say no. Though the sacrifice had been graphic the day before, I'll say that there people ate every part of what they slaughtered, including intestines and organs. I wandered over to my Javanese friend, chatted a bit.

I heard noises behind me, lots of laughing and speaking, the beautiful cloth casket with the "sick" (dead) woman Marta was lowered down from the high platform by about 15 guys. Beautiful gongs then sounded, 4 or 5 men lashed the casket and it's heavy wooden platform to bamboo poles, held together with sisal looking natural rope, creating something very strong that could be carried. Then it was time to depart. They hoisted the heavy platform and casket, about 15 guys per side. Then the fun started unabated: fireworks being blown off dangerously in all directions, loud laughter, smiles, people throwing water all over the place at each other. The guys carrying were mostly younger men, i was walking next to them to get a few photos and they asked me to join them. I grabbed the side of a bamboo pole and pushed and lifted, really really hard work in the hot sun, they cracked up laughing and seemed to love that I was in the mix. All at once, the guys on both sides started to shake the body up and down violently but playfully, again they are shaking joy into the departed for their journey. We turned left and started walking up an steep small first road, heading higher into the hills. Both sides worked together in the stepper parts, during places where it would level out, things would quickly get playful again, more casket shaking, boisterous laughter. On the second flat area, the guys on each side started doing a "push of war", trying to knock each other. It was crazy, I was right in middle of it. My side started to lose, we all fell down, the casket and platform slumped sideways on the ground, the guys all ran out of each other and did this playful but real kick fighting thing, placing glancing blows on each other's midsections, other people throwing water all over the place. After a minute of so, they all drank water, picked up the casket platform again and then headed on up the rise.

This shaking, push of war, kicking, water throwing, loud laughing, shaking the casket was like nothing i had ever seen, it kept going all the way up the steep hill. Though I refrained from the cockfighting, I did full get into the other things, it was utterly fantastic. I was completely taken away by the moment, lost all sense of space and time, i think everyone's spirit blends together to create this most wonderful thing that they believe the dead person feels. We finally, exhaustedly made it to the to the burial site, a lovely clearing with a huge boulder with the inside carved out and a wooden door on it. I'm sure there were other members of Marta's family in there. In the end, there wasn't a lot more fanfare. An elder asked the younger guys to quiet down, he said one beautiful prayer, the door to the rock was opened and Marta placed in. people took one more look, gave each other hugs and walked down the hill, dispersing as quickly as they had gathered. Mita, the owners son and I hiked up a long jungle path, went to a really cool cave nearby that actually was cool in temperatures toward the lower levels. We saw thousands of old rotten caskets, skulls all over in the open. This place is hardly visited by tourists, not very well kept but that's what made it real and unique. Things I had seen this day made my head spin.

We cruised back to Rantepao, got invited to Yakob and Yanson's (the owner's son's) family compound on a hill right outside of town. beautiful little complex, a touch higher in elevation so a little cooler. We got to visit with many relatives, Yanson had the family in hysterics telling them about me pushing and shaking the casket. They fed us tasty meat and veggies, with fiery chili peppers and more booze, beer and palm liquor. On the way back (I was on my won scooter) I stopped and found a large cake in Rantepao at a proper cake shop. I got the shop owner to write Merry Christmas on the cake, help it between my feet on the bumpy scooter ride back to the guesthouse, arrived just after the two French couples had gotten back from their two day hike, whipped out the cake and surprised everyone, propped a little fern up in a vase and it even looked a little like a Christmas tree. We drank beers and told stories about what had happened to each of us the last couple days, them telling me about great hikes they had through little villages.

I had one last full day in Tana Toraja land. Nice Christmas breakfast with coffee and special cake, said good bye to the Belgians and one French couple, the other French couple (Pauline and Melchior) and I grabbed motos and headed for the hills, wanting to go for a long ride up to higher elevations, north part of Tana Toraja. I was getting pretty confident on the high powered scooters, had ridden them so much this trip. After 4 days, the roads of this area were getting familiar. I set Loko Mata rock as a reference point, got directions there. We had no guide, just the three of us. It was such a beautiful say weather wise, people waving to us as they came out of Christmas church services, all dressed in their holiday best. We knew, somewhere along the way, we'd find a party. We kept riding and riding and riding, trying to find a waterfall we had heard of. I was getting dangerously low of gas and it seemed there wasn't any at roadside stands because of the holiday, petrol is usually everywhere. Finally when I was almost on fumes we found a little shop with some gas in the back, we both gassed up, continued up little roads, beautiful, beautiful rice terraces and bamboo forests, smiling people everywhere. I had started to feel so in love with this place, a magical land.

We road on for another 30 minutes, stopped to ask direction, saw a large group of people lavishly dressed, amazing, a wedding that was just finishing up, about 50 people in a charming little village, traditional dwellings all around the lush jungle, some of the highest elevation of all of Tana Toraja so cool even during the day. You know the drill, they invited us over, gave us large hunks of buffalo meat, more palm wine and rice, grabbed us and showed us their church, we sang with the youth choir that was practicing. A small group of people lead us all around, showed us a very old structure, which we kind of got trapped in for awhile when the skies opened up and it started raining very hard. W could have easily been adopted and stayed in this village for days, I think in the future I'll just rent a scooter and ride all over this region with no plan, such is the hospitality. The rain finally relented just a touch, we decided to make a break for it as it was getting a bit into the afternoon.

We too off back to the south, the skies soon opened up with massive rain again, we found a little shop awning to seek refuge under, then realized that we were going to have to carry on as we really needed to start heading on the long ride back to Rantepao. Problem was, we had one rain slicker between the three of us. Being chivalrous, Melchior and I gave it to Pauline to wear, he and i ride bare chested, getting soaked by the cold rain but at least it bounced off of us instead of drenching our clothes. The locals laughed hysterically at the bare chested white people barring down the road. We finally could take no more and pulled into a little shop next to the road, not knowing if anyone was there as it was Christmas. We were shivering cold, knocked at the door, a smiling, surprised man let us onto his humble cottage, introduced us to his shy wife and daughter. They were amazing, warmed us by the fire until we had our body heat back, they made us delicious coffee, we shared some food we had with us and some colored pencils for his daughter. Amazing people, we bought a couple more cheap raincoats from his little shop and headed out. The man's works to us as we left, "I hope our humble home wasn't too ugly". We told him it was one of the most lovely little things we had ever seen.

The rain relented a little more and with huge smiles on our faces, we zipped down the hills back toward Ratepao, taking in the beauty, majesty and memories of the great day we had just had. Super day with my new friends, I'm sure one none of us would ever forget. We made it back to town, cleaned up, went out to a really nice restaurant in the city, walked all over town taking in the vibe. Back to the guesthouse, one more shower for my tired bones and then collapsed in bed. The other French couple was back, I guess they were going to go to another funeral that was starting the next day. I felt like my funeral experience had been amazing and that was enough, I crashed hard in bed, slept very soundly.

Up early the next morning, Dec 26th. I got Yanson to drop me in Rantepao, it was very very busy and bustling with after Christmas stuff and maybe people leaving town. I walked over to the Bola area, found a minibus with one seat left, hopped on just before it pulled away, really reasonable like $3 for the two hour ride to the coast. Easy, beautiful ride with one coffee stop all the way through bamboo jungles, down steep roads to Palopo, the same roads I had traveled 5 days earlier. So much had happened since then, they dropped me in the middle of sweltering Palopo, I got a centrally located room with nice AC, of course close to a very loud mosque again. I explored the town, really friendly people, tasty durian and avocado juice, back to the room and rested awhile. My guidebook had mentioned that this town was nothing special, I decided to try to find something otherwise. As they day cooled just a little when the sun went down, I walked down to the docks and sea, saw a lovely sunset and about 40 booths set up. i thought they were little restaurants, turned out they were all hybrid restaurant/karaoke joints. I had delicious fish and prawns, a woman on the table next to mine brought over her extra mike and asked me to sing. I had no idea what the Indonesian words on the screen meant but i belted them out anyway, in this little town, with wonderful seafood and people but no alcohol in sight.

I walked back the long pier, alone in the night air and with my thoughts. What a great trip this had been so far and there was more to come. I watched some English soccer on TV, slept again very well, woke and went downstairs to a quite tasty breakfast buffet with prawns, chicken, begins, coconut pancakes, all kinds of juices. The owner of the restaurant was there and beckoned me over to talk with him, I guess hardly any foreigners stop in this town. I met another great guys, sat with he and his wife and daughter. they have a construction company now but he regaled me with stories (and his memories) of working of a cruise ship for years that went to the Caribbean, Alaska, Europe. he told me that those were some of the best memories of his life, I returned the thought and told him that I felt the same about my travels. We spoke of meeting people from all over the world, connecting as brothers and sisters and how important that is in this crazy world. He offered me a ride to the airport, popped me on his very fast high powered motorcycle. Up and over pretty hills, then he was gone and I was alone (but never alone) with more smiling people, ready to catch my flight and head to Makassar and then on to Java. Goodbye Sulawesi, you are amazing and we will meet again.


14th February 2020

Isn't Tana Toraja Amazing?
I went there in July 2019 and I was blown away. I plan to go back someday to observe their ma'nene ceremony which apparently takes place in August in some villages north of Rantepao. You made a wise choice flying to Palopo instead of taking the bus. Although it was one the most comfortable buses I have taken in Indonesia, the 10 hour roller coaster journey was a little trying.

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