The Macabre & the Massacre


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Asia » Indonesia » Sulawesi » Tana Toraja
January 7th 2012
Published: January 10th 2012
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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.

As 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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10th January 2012

Hi, from Argentina
From which place did you arrive on the area you mention? Those places are in my itinerary but I think it´s very complex and it might take a lot more days than I am planning. Another question: is that the place of the famous long houses? I would like to see some of those. I don´t know if there are long houses in other places in Indinesia. Thank you. Graciela.
11th January 2012

Plan for it to take longer than you expect...
Sulawesi is a nightmare to travel around but always worth it when you get to your destination. We arrived into Tana Toraja from the airport at Makassar (Ujung Padang) after we took a kijang for 8 hours.
10th January 2012

Gross!
If you hadn't felt like ending the trip after getting sick, you certainly should have felt that way after all the slaughter. I hope your next blog is much more pleasant. Where do you plan to visit if you don't end the trip shortly. I'm sure there are some really nice places yet to visit if you can get over the events of this blog.
11th January 2012

Thankfully we continued our trip...
we visited the Togean Islands and finished in Ubud after leaving Toraja. We're actually in Bangkok at the moment waiting for our Burmese visas to come through (and we need to catch up with these posts!). It seems our wanderlust has returned!
11th January 2012

FASCINATING
Great story Chris...and the pics show some A-Lister cliff tombs...exotic or what...you lucky guys..!
11th January 2012

Thanks Dave!
They were creepy to say the least but well worth the visit! Sorry to hear about the passing of your Cat! Since we've been away Amy has had her two dogs pass away, both of which we were very close to so we can empathise!
11th January 2012

Great as always...
Great blog guys... We hoped to visit Sulawesi on this trip, but once we got on the road the realities of traveling with the boys made us realise it just wasn't going to happen. Getting round Indo is a pain in the ass, the distances aren't great but it takes forever.... Looking forward to your blog and pics on the Togeans, They\'ll have to stay on the bucket list for now, at least till the boys are old enough to endure hours and hours (and hours) on public transport. :) Mike
11th January 2012

Pain in the ass is an understatement...
I dont think there are adequate adjectives to describe the journeys! If you do go, fly through Makassar and then connect up to Gorontalo. From there you can take a ferry straight down to the Togeans...ah, hindsight! Of course if you want to go to Tana Toraja, i'd go back to Makassar after, then up to Gorontalo...anything but the overland trip we did!
11th January 2012

Striking!
Wow, I rarely get surprised by blogs on here, but this one really was an eye-opener! Torajan culture seems fascinating, I wonder how I'd never heard of them before. What struck me in particular was the fact that they bury their children standing up inside trees...that gives tree-hugging a whole new dimension! The wooden puppets are a tad scary, though. I just hope this won't get 'discovered' by too many tourists and put on the banana pancake trail, it would probably deteriorate into a pointless freak show. Great pictures and intriguing writing, gotta check out more of your blogs! :) Cheers, Jens
11th January 2012

We were surprised also
That things like this really do still happen! Rantepao has a bit of a tourist feel, but they were local Indonesian tourists there for Christmas, i'd imagine the rest of the year to be quiet!
11th January 2012

Great pictures and an awesome blog. What a waste of cattle,the blog was great to read about other cultures burial ceremonies. The wooden effigies would be scary to walk past on a dark night. makes you wonder if the place is safe to live in after all the blood and guts don\'t spawn dieseases in the ground. looking forward to the next Blog. Enjoy your travels and stay safe.
11th January 2012

The blood and guts dont last long
since the villagers take away the meat and then eat it! Bloody good feast if you ask me! haha
12th January 2012

You guys share the good and the raw. Thanks!
I've been reading/checking in on you guys for a quite bit, and just wanted to say thanks for sharing. Really love all the fantastic photos and enjoying the writing as well. Sending good thoughts!
13th January 2012

Thank you!
Thank you Celeste, for both your lovely comment and for reading! :)

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