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Published: December 9th 2016
Getting to Sulawesi involved a lot of time and patience. It involved a twenty hour journey across the Sulawesi Sea on an overcrowded Pelni ship where I had to sleep on the floor and fight 3,000 Indonesians and god knows how many cockroaches for any space to stretch my 6' frame. Once I arrived in Makassar I had a quick overnight sleep and then booked a night bus for a ten hour journey to Tana Toraja, my first destination in Sulawesi. I arrived in the outpost town Rantepao as the sun was coming up and found a place to stay via a friendly guide; of whom I decided to hire his services for a couple of days. I've been to a lot of countries, experienced a lot of cultures, and seen a lot of things in my days. Nothing could prepare me for what I was about to witness in the Tana Toraja region of Sulawesi. I warn you, this is not for the faint of heart.
Tana Toraja is a region located in the highlands of Central Sulawesi. The region is dominated by hillside villages where the way of life has changed little for thousands of years. I based
myself out of Rantepao which has most of the accommodation and services in the area. Upon arrival I met Luther who offered to take me to a hotel. Usually I do not accept such offers but after 30 or so hours of travel in the last 48 I was happy to have the help. Luther is a guide and I planned to hire one as it were, so this worked in my favor. For two days I paid a sum of $IDR450,000 for transport throughout the region via moto, but more importantly information and locations of ceremonies happening whilst I was here in the area.
After five hours of sleep I was on the back of a moto winding through the mountains of Tana Toraja amidst the neon green rice fields and the ever present buffalo wading in the reeds. Luther and I were on our way to a house ceremony which is akin to a house warming party. These are a big deal here and this one especially was a huge event as the house belonged to the governor of the region. We showed up to a festive atmosphere of about 5,000 people singing, dancing and wandering about
in traditional dress. Here I was to see my first glimpse of the obsession with death that the Torajans hold dear. To ring in the completion of the new home somewhere near 100 pigs were to be slaughtered, butchered, and consumed onsite. The whole spectacle was quite the site and the smells and sounds of the dying pigs is something I won't ever forget. Nothing went to waste and the meat is slow cooked and served in bamboo shoots along with vegetables and coconut in the regional dish named pa'piong. Quite tasty actually. Man this was a house warming party to remember.
Leaving the party Luther took me to a burial site high in the mountains south of Rantepao. The site was at Lemo and was a stone side cliff face with tombs carved out holding the bodies of Torajans, some for thousands of years. Guarding these tombs were the pau pau - carved wooden effigies eerily peering at me below. The Torajan people have a unique view on death and funeral rights, as I was to come to find out. The people here prepare their entire lives for the time that they die. The funeral is the most
important part of the life cycle for them. When a member of the family dies they are kept in a room of the house, sometimes for years, until enough money is raised for the elaborate funeral ceremony. During this time the deceased is considered to be sick and not quite dead yet. Family regularly bring food and have conversations with their "sick" member. Once enough money is available for the funeral (which can last for seven days) the deceased is prepared to be buried and several daily events celebrate the persons life culminating with the sacrificing of buffalo which will send the spirit to the afterlife. I was to attend such a ceremony the following day.
Early the next morning I wasn't sure how I felt about attending a funeral of someone I obviously knew nothing about but I was reassured by the extremely welcoming people. After a beautiful ride through the mountains of Toraja we arrived at the burial site for an elder of the village. After a few introductions to some of the locals the ceremony was going to begin. Today about ten buffalo would lose their lives to transition the elder into the afterlife. Milling about
were the massive creatures who had no idea what was about to befall them. The men of the village pull the buffalo close and with one slice through the air a rapier splits the throat from one end to the other and the animals are left to bleed out. Just like that it had begun. I was filming one such act when I realized their were about six other buffalo around me all meeting their demise as well. I was in a bad spot. One injured animal charged, blood flying through the air. What could I do? I guessed, I ran right and thankfully he ran left crashing into the bamboo seating area opposite of me. All around me the great beasts were being slaughtered and chaos reigned supreme. My heart has never beat so fast and my hands were left shaking. And as soon at it had started, it had all ended. In the center of the burial ground there I stood in the stench of death with arterial crimson splattered on my clothes and rivers of blood running at my feet. I was in a state of catatonic shock with the carcasses and carnage all around me. I
tried to process what I had just witnessed. It was brutal and beautiful at the same time. Life, death, and dying unsanitized before my eyes and a cultural highlight I won't soon forget. This place is so different than my own and the whole experience here, where I've been, and where I'm going is the reason I left and days like this remind me of that fact.
I was still in another state of mind as we carried onto a place called Londa which holds a cave deep in the limestone filled with the coffins and bones of the dead villagers. I had to ask myself what I was doing here as I crawled through the narrow passage ways with skulls of the dead lying about. I felt like I was being disrespectful, but was again assured by my Torajan host that I was not. Death is an experience to be celebrated here and for the dead it is an honor to have the living among them. Nonetheless it is a little strange crawling around a dank, dark cave with femurs, mandibles, and the like around every turn. Outside the cave also hung coffins of the dead, some in
better conditions than others, with whole families and their remains eternally at rest.
I do not think I am gifted enough of a writer to sum up in words my time in Tana Toraja. I will certainly never forget my experiences here, nor the sights I witnessed. What I do know is that these people invited a total stranger into the most intimate of human ceremonies with open arms and warm smiles. Everywhere I went and every family I visited I was given a hot plate of food and a large glass of palm wine. Never was anything ever asked from me in return. I did however offer up my smile, conversation, and open mind. All of which were readily accepted.
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