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Published: February 4th 2020
Tana Toraja-A Land Like no Other. I went, my time there seems like a dream. 22 December, 2019. 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 mis 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. 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 event's came rushing back to me. I formed a "wow" with my mouth, i would remember this day for the rest of my life.
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