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Published: January 10th 2012
NOTE: Not suitable for vegetarians or animal lovers in general...
What should you do when it’s the Christmas period; you’re feeling quite homesick and coming of the back of food poisoning? Why, venture into the heart of Sulawesi to a land where the people are completely and utterly obsessed with death of course...
We’ve hit the wall! Almost 700 days into our trip, we’ve come to that point where we’ve questioned the worth of continuing. When you’re so far into a journey, the mundane just isn’t enough anymore – the things that amuse and amaze in the honey-moon period of travelling barely merit attention anymore and as such, it becomes more difficult. That’s not to say we don’t enjoy Indonesia; on the contrary, we’ve thus far found it to be one of our personal favourites, a land where the place and people combine to make a country truly special. In the case of our current predicament, it’s a combination of a number of factors coming together at the same time.
For the first time on this voyage, I had been feeling a little homesick, particularly missing people from back home (not that I don’t continually miss the company
of those closest to me but I had started to feel it much more), and after Ste had departed from Hanoi, Amy had been feeling the same way. The holiday season only compounded our nostalgia, and of course there is the small matter of Indonesia itself being an exceedingly frustrating country logistically, such that every journey is punctuated with some drama, mild or more-so. The icing on the cake for us in this instance was the nasty episode of food poisoning we both suffered after leaving Danau Toba.
On our bus to Medan, I had immediately started to feel nauseous, feeling the scrambled eggs I had eaten for breakfast starting to repeat on me. After vomiting not once, but three times on the bus journey between Danau Toba and Medan, Amy had begun to feel similar symptoms once we had arrived at the airport. After throwing up once more in the airport, I was pretty much emptied of all bodily fluids and feeling extremely weak so we rearranged our flight to Sulawesi for the following day, checked ourselves into one of Medan’s ‘finer establishments’ and braced ourselves for an eventful night.
Surprisingly, the following day we were able
to muster the energy to get ourselves to the airport. Bound for Sulawesi, the excitement we had felt about visiting this island when we had originally planned to do so was a truly distant memory, with nausea and nostalgia thoroughly dampening our enthusiasm.
Arriving into Makassar at 4am is not a pleasant experience either, or rather heading straight for the bus station was a mistake. Naturally, the station was deserted, save for a few goats and the odd shady-looking character or two, one of which approached us and offered us a kijang (4x4 private car) for the eight hour journey up to Tana Toraja. We were extremely hesitant about getting into a car with a random guy by ourselves in a deserted bus station, but were more tentative about waiting there five hours for a bus, so along with an Indonesian guy who showed up with his guitar and personal belongings, we hopped into the kijang and headed for Toraja...
Luckily, our concerns were not justified and the driver turned out to be quite safe and generally nice! The journey itself was long and horrific but which journey in Sulawesi isn’t? Arriving into Tana Toraja a
little after 3pm, we traipsed around in the rain for around an hour before finally finding what appeared to be the only vacant hotel room in town. Not yet recovered from the food poisoning, our energy was depleted, we were very wet and the melancholy was ever-increasing! We considered just booking a ticket straight out of Tana Toraja (Rantepao, the town we were staying, is not at all easy on the eyes and didn’t offer much to help our mood) and even enquired about the possibilities of doing so but all buses were booked up for the next day – we’d have to stay here whether we liked it or not, but given the mood we were in, remaining seemed to be the last thing we wanted to do at that time!
Thankfully, we did stay and after hiring a guide for the following day, we found Tana Toraja to be quite beguiling. As I indicated earlier, life in Tana Toraja completely revolves around death. The members of this community, the Torajans, essentially work their whole lives saving money where possible so that when their friends, family or even members of the community they scarcely know pass away, they
can afford to send them off in the appropriate way (more on that bizarre and ghastly tradition later!).
Our tour began by taking our hired motorbike to the village of Lemo, where we would be visiting some of the famous graves of Toraja. Of course, these are not graves like you or I am familiar – rather they consist of elevated tombs carved into cliff faces, where the family members will be put to rest. Torajans take the bodies of their relatives into the hillsides and store them in tombs which can fit around 50 or so coffins, all of which must pass through a tiny outer door. As we passed, we noticed some of the doors to the tombs were missing or had broken, and asked our guide why they had not been replaced. Basically, he explained it’s taboo to replace these broken doors and they can only do so if all the family agrees and a few buffalo must first be sacrificed. So, instead, most just leave them open to the world!
What makes Lemo especially fascinating is the number of wooden effigies, or ‘tau tau,’ placed on the cliff faces to commemorate the dead. In
Torajan culture, it is custom to have a life like wooden figure carved in memory of the deceased placed outside their grave, supposedly to ward off evil.
After Lemo, it was a short ride to Londa, an extensive burial cave and one where viewers can venture into the cave itself to view the burial chambers. Inside, the way was lit by oil lamps as we clambered over rocks and through narrow passage ways, passing rotting coffins tucked away into small caverns, the bones of their owners on display through holes in the wood. These graves, whilst open to tourists are still visited and ‘cared for’ by the families of the deceased and we were told by our guide that Torajans will visit graves regularly to change the garments of the dead! It was time to move on from Lemo for the main event and the reason I had wanted to come to Tana Toraja in the first place – to attend a funeral!
When a person dies in Torajan culture, their body is kept in their family home, sometimes for as much as twenty years. However, during that period, the deceased can have a number of funerals, depending
on the wealth and status of their family and how important they are in the community. Funerals can last for up to four days, with the initial days reserved for introductions of those in attendance together with the sacrificial livestock they brought along with them. The final days are set aside for Buffalo fights and finally a slaughter of all the livestock, mostly comprised of buffalo and pigs. Astonishingly, our guide informed us that a single Buffalo cost something in the region of $1000 and that villagers consider it an honour to sacrifice their Buffalo for someone they barely know sometimes, despite the fact it literally costs a fortune.
Arriving into the village of Siguntu, we walked a short distance to the arena where all of this would take place. Central to the whole thing were two large rings; one where Buffalo fights would take place and the other where they would be slaughtered, their meat then placed high on a meat tower. Surrounding the two rings were Torajan style buildings, similar to those found in Batak culture, tiered two high, where some of the more important families from around Toraja would be seated for the event.
we walked about the setting, there were some horrifying scenes. Pigs being carried into the central ring, suspended by their legs and screaming as they went, to be then dumped on the ground and left to wait for their ultimate slaughter. Over in the second ring, the massacre was already underway! As we walked, we passed buffalo heads and disembowelled pigs, vast quantities of blood staining the earth red and stifling the surrounding air with the smell of death. The whole thing resembled a Torajan attempt at an Apocalypto-esque recreation. And as horrifying and outdated as some of these actions and traditions may seem, it was very difficult to take your eyes away!
Ultimately, we did manage to pull ourselves away. We were each given a cup of tea by a member of the deceased’s family in exchange for a gift we had brought along (our guide had advised cigarettes!) before departing in the early afternoon. On our way, we stopped off at other Torajan graves, in particular the tree graves of children – in Torajan culture, the bodies of young children were placed into graves carved into the trees, where they would be left in a standing position,
supposedly because they tree would continue to give them life! After, we headed up to the mountain village of Batutumonga for lunch and fine views of the Tana Torajan landscape before heading for our hotel in the early evening.
It is truly amazing that such a culture still exists in the world, particularly in a place that isn’t at all remote. Modern life absolutely exists in Tana Toraja and Rantepao, but it takes a backseat to tradition. Despite the feelings we were having when arriving in Tana Toraja, the funeral ironically took our minds away from it, at least for a few hours. Next up is another awful (I’m sure) journey up to the Togean Islands for what I hope will be the perfect tonic...
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