The Cycle of Life and Death in Tana Toraja

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November 20th 2010
Published: November 20th 2010EDIT THIS ENTRY

It was extremely hard to leave the beauty and sanctity of the Togean Islands. Indeed we could all have stayed there forever, but there was still a lot more of Sulawesi to see.

We moved from travelling by sea to travelling in a Kijang (4WD) that had a criminally low amount of tread on it's tyres. Having stopped at a garage we hoped that perhaps a new set of tyres may be on the menu but all they did was put the tyre on the other way around and off we went. We then journeyed in the Kijang all day, arriving in Poso under the cover of darkness as the town experienced a complete power cut. By 10pm we were on a rickety old bus bound for Makassar that was being piled up with ice boxes full of fish. There were more boxes of fish on that bus than people and with the heat you can imagine the smell. This last leg of the journey was tiring and in this thing we all feared we might be sleeping with the fishes, but two hours later we gratefully got off at Tentena, where we planned to stop for a day before another long journey to Tana Toraja. However, the trip was not over yet. In the quiet 'out of town' surrounds (buses always drop you out of town) we had to negotiate an ojek (motorbike taxi) ride to town. Travel in Indonesia is certainly diverse!

We spent an enjoyable day in Tentena hiring mopeds and visiting the stunning waterfalls where we cooled in the afternoon heat. We also scooted out along beautifully windy lakeside roads, passing extremely fertile land rich with cocoa trees, coffee plantations and cloves, to the huge Poso Lake where we swam and relaxed on the beach. It felt good to have our own transport and with it a sense of freedom.

Having experienced two hours of the fishy nightmare of a bus from Poso there was no way we were going to do that again. So the next morning we agreed a price with a Kijang driver who was on his way back from a lucrative private hire trip from Toraja to the port town for the Togeans. He had an empty car so we managed to persuade him to take us for only a fraction more than the bus would have cost. The bumpy yet scenic journey to Rantepao, the main town in Tana Toraja, passed quickly and nine hours later we were there. The town was a bit of a culture shock at first with tourist restaurants, eager guides and even fancy hotels but we weren't here for that, we had come for the mountainous surrounds and the traditional Torajan culture.

The best way to see this land was by hiring mopeds and once we had agreed on a day price we were off. Within minutes we were out of the nondescript town and driving through lush rice paddies along suitably rubbly roads with the mountains sweeping down before us and the locals waving after us. The beautiful buffalo horned roofs of the traditional Torajan houses so pleasing on the eye. The intricate craft work on the doors matched by an openness of it inhabitants. The arched roofs are said to mimic that of a boat and the lines of this communities sea faring past. The houses always face North - South and the intricate motifs and buffalo skulls at the front symbolise wealth and prestige. As we drove along the road you could just sense the culture and tradition. The small settlements had an earthly value so different to Rantepao, it's concrete neighbour sprouted through the rise of tourism. It was fortunate that the real Toraja in the outer hills had not been lost. At least not on the surface anyway.

Of course Rantepao would not have been the way it is today without the surrounding countryside. People come here to visit these rural areas and to enjoy the vistas but most, as macabre as it may seem, come to witness the unique Torajan funeral rites.

It was not long before we saw the hordes of people dressed in black heading for a funeral and were soon invited up. It felt strange to want to witness a funeral whilst at the same time being respectful. The ceremonies are an amazing cultural experience but you are of course very aware that somebody has still died.

We bought some gifts of sugar and cigarettes for the family (as is expected) and wandered in with an old lady. Luckily an English speaking guide was there who was able to explain what was happening and to offer us coffee. We sat with some of the family as he explained how death and their subsequent ceremonies are an important way of life for the Torajan people. Once enough money has been raised the family of the deceased buy as many buffalo and pigs as is equal to their status and begin the ceremony. A huge portion of the community attend as the buffalo are slaughtered with great pomp. It is believed the more buffalo sent with you to the afterlife the better.

We sat in the smokey hillside surrounds as pigs were slaughtered (the buffalo's had been the day before) and then all the meat was cooked inside bamboo. Although the sight of dead carcass and guts were hard to stomach you couldn't help but respect this tradition. We ate delicious bamboo cooked buffalo with rice and helpings of arak (rice wine) and then began the auction. To generate some money for the widow and her family the remains of pig were auctioned off. Frantic numbers were shouted out and then our impromptu guide urged us to bid. We did not really want a piece of pig but felt it was the least we could do to thank the family for their hospitality. So we bid and won a whole pigs head for 50,000 rupiah (£3.50). It was then bought over to us as and plonked down on the mat. Han and Caren were not too amused as Ali and I had our picture with it before offering it to our host.

It was an experience to be part of a funeral ceremony here in Toraja and to witness their unique rituals . We were the only tourists at what was deemed a small (poor persons) funeral with only two buffalo sacrificed. As many as one hundred buffalo can be sacrificed depending on the wealth and importance of the family. Status is very much part of Torajan culture but what I liked most was how the community helps each other. No person will go to the afterlife without at least one buffalo being sacrificed and if a family does not have the money then others will help. With a single buffalo costing as much as a car a lot of money can be generated. Many young men from the villages go to Kalimantan or Malaysia to work or further their education. When a family member dies they return to the region and pay a farmer for a buffalo or three. The farmer then uses that money to pay for his children's education and thus the economy improves. The cycle of life and death works here.

We left the ceremony saying our "Terima Kasih's" and hopped on the mopeds again. We went in search of Toraja's famous produce, coffee. It took us a while to find the Toraca Jaya Coffee Plantation and sent us over and off very bumpy roads. It got so bad, steep and slippery at the end that we had to get out and walk the last two kilometres. It was quiet up at the plantation but a rather bemused man showed us around the small factory where most of it's coffee was bagged and labelled for export to Japan. The man seemed even more shocked when we motioned to try some and possibly even buy some of the this locally produced coffee. He regained his composure and came out with four cups of the Aribaca coffee but buying was beyond him. He did have the courtesy to drop us back down the mountain to where we had left our bikes as it was quickly getting dark. On the slippery way back down Ali and Caren came off their bike but were ok with only a few scrapes. We got back to our guesthouse in the dark and much in need of showers.

The next day we took a bemo (van taxi) to the central market where we were able to buy some coffee. We also bought a litre of Arak to sip on the rest of our days travel. After lunch at the market we took a Kijang to Batutumonga, a town twenty kilometres out of Rantepao. Here we saw some of the burial caves in the huge cliffs. Our Arak, in a plastic bottle, had been fermenting some more on the journey and once opened at our higher altitude the lid nearly blew my head off. A few glugs of the fruity tasting spirit calmed my nerves. The views from up high were spectacular. Bright green rice terraces, tall limestone outcrops and bamboo groves set against a backdrop of blue misty mountains. We walked for a few hours until it began to get dark and the Arak ran out. Then a Kijang took us back down to Rantepao.

Our final day in Tana Toraja was spent going out to Makale market where we ate great food and wandered around under the steaming canopies. From there we went to some more caves where clothed effigies were sat up in the cliffs. The family is dutied with keeping these guardians of the graves looking fresh and new, it was decidely eerie. We then walked into a dark cave where skeletons were barely buried. We declined a guide with a gas light and went solo with our fading torch light. We reached as far as a huge tarantula and then got the hell out of there.

That evening we celebrated 365 days of travelling. What an amazing time it has been. It has gone so quickly and yet felt such a long time. The richness of experience added to this effect. We gulped some of the arak wine with Ali and Caren and reminisced our joint adventures. Bring on the next days of travel!

It was then time to take the overnight sleeper to Makassar from where we would fly to Kuala Lumpur. Once there we did some pre-Australia shopping in the Makassar malls, stocking up on cheap Asia goods such as shampoo, toothpaste etc. On the afternoon of our departure we went to the famous Lae Lae Cafe where we had some of the best seafood in Asia. Plates and plates of perfectly bbq'd fish, copious sauces and rice all eaten using our hands. Just how we like it.

Tana Toraja had been a fascinating place. The sleepy rural region rich in culture and with land so fertile. Rice, chocolate, coffee and clove are all help to make this part of Southern Sulawesi a fairly profitable area. However, it is it's people, the Torajans, who are most endearing and create an aura unto it's own. As strange as some of there customs are, I was impressed with how their togetherness as a community helps sustain their wellbeing and maintain their culture. Besides, where else can you witness a buffalo being slaughtered, drink coffee with the deceased person's family and buy a pigs head at auction. All in the same day!

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20th November 2010

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21st November 2010

WILSON!!!! The picture of you together is awesome - It's Movember here for charity Lewi so I think you should try a Moustache for solidarity. I have been reading your stories for over a year now and still can't get enough! The closer I get to 30 the more I want to jack it all in and follow in your awesome steps! Keep enjoying it x

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