Indonesia - Sulawesi - Tana Toraja
Sep 12, 2003
|In my next life I want to come back as a water buffalo. Sure, they're not the prettiest of animals, but until the age of around 8-10 years they lead a blessed, pampered life in Tana Toraja. They no longer work in the rice fields (unlike the Indonesian farmers who work very hard all day), they get to roll around in the mud and leisurely graze in the harvested rice fields all day, and they get bathed every evening ... just cause they're special! Of course the down side is that because they are such special animals (and we never really did find out why that is), they are given as gifts and are sacrificed en masse at funeral ceremonies - to transport the deceased person to the spirit world. Why they need 2 dozen dead buffalo to transport one dead person is anyone's guess. Okay, so maybe I'll stick with being a cat in my next life after all!
While waiting for the boat departure date to arrive, JP and I decided to escape the noise and dirt of boat repairs and tour around South Sulawesi for a week. We crammed ourselves into a hot and dusty minibus (and I mean "mini") for the drive to Makassar with 8 other passengers, luggage, boxes of who knows what ... and one live chicken! The next day we spent 8 more gruelling hours bumping and twisting up a winding washed out mountain road to reach Rantepao in Tana Toraja, a district in South Sulawesi. Right in the heart of rice country.
Unlike Bira and Makassar which are very hot and dry, Tana Toraja is very hot and humid with frequent showers/downpours. Perfect for growing rice, coffee and cocao. Not always so perfect for hiking and touring around. Buying an umbrella has been the smartest purchase to date! We also hired a guide and driver, Raysid and Bertose, who were vital in our attempt to understand Torajan traditions and culture.
Traditional Torajan homes and rice barns are scattered throughout the villages and countryside; their most unique feature being their massive bamboo and palm leaf roofs which slope upward at both ends. In some cases corrugated steel has replaced the palm leaves as roofing material, but otherwise they look today very similar to what they did hundreds of years ago. The homes are quite large structures but seem to have very little useable living space inside. I'm sure I could redesign it to be much more functional! The rice barns are a miniature version of the houses and always face the home. All buildings are ornately carved and painted, and decorated with the horns and sometimes jaws of the water buffalo sacrificed during the funeral ceremonies. Buildings are raised up on thick poles - the lower level is used as a place to chat with friends by day and to contain the livestock by night. Rice barns are an outward sign of wealth; the more rice barns, the wealthier the family. Rice barn poles are smoothly polished to prevent rats from climbing up and nesting in the barns ... thankfully I've seen no rats to date!
Unlike the majority of Sulawesi which is muslim, Toraja is mainly Christian (influenced no doubt by the Dutch who once occupied the land, and missionaries after that), but they still live more by the old traditions of their ancestors. Life is mainly spent preparing for death. Funerals are a time of great and lengthy celebration, and often the family must save up for years to afford the appropriate number of buffalo that will be sacrificed on the last day of the ceremonies. Which means that at time of death the body is chemically infused to preserve it, placed in a coffin, and stored in the family home until the funeral takes place. We were invited into the house of a fairly wealthy man whose wife had passed away two years ago. Sure enough, there was the coffin of very ornately carved and polished teak. Her funeral ceremonies are being held next week, many buffalo will be killed, sadly we cannot attend!
We did attend a couple of funeral ceremonies, the first being on the day when guests are received and gifts accepted. Gifts ranged from cigarettes or betelenut (a mild narcotic) to live pigs and buffalo. Not knowing the deceased, we brought cigarettes. This was also the day when the pigs were killed and the meat distributed to the guests. I'm not sure that I'll ever get the sound of 100+ squealing pigs out of my head. We didn't stay for lunch.
Another interesting funeral tradition is buffalo fighting. They put chili pepper up their butts to motivate them to fight ... kinda sounds like bull riding during Calgary Stampede! It all seemed quite contradictory to me ... normally the buffalo are so revered, why would they make them fight? But I guess the Torajans feel that since the buffalo are going to be killed the next day anyway, why not use them for a bit of gambling today!
We also attended another funeral ceremony - the last and most special day of all ceremonies when the buffalo are killed. Much arguing went on between the family of the deceased (who wanted many buffalo killed at the ceremony) and the village leader (who wanted to kill a few, but keep some alive to be sold to raise money for the village). In the end, 8 buffalo were killed and 9 were spared ... at least for now. Maybe next time, not so lucky! We figure with the number of buffalo that are killed during these ceremonies, it may be very profitable to set up a buffalo breeding business. I won't bother going into detail about this day's events ... let's just say it's a good thing I grew up on a farm and have a strong constitution. I did, however, turn vegetarian for a few days!
Finally, after all the funeral ceremonies the coffins are placed in big caves if you're a common person, or in individual holes cut out of the mountain rock with effigies outside if you're of higher status. I kinda felt like Indiana Jones fighting my way through thick underbrush and climbing up steep moss covered stairs to peer into dark cool caves scattered with coffins (some new, some old and disintegrated) and a variety of skulls and bones. Possessions are often buried with the body and visitors also leave offerings for the deceased, so it's not uncommon to see coffins covered with an assortment of cigarettes, bottled water, hats, clothes, books, etc.
To change the topic from killings and funerals (finally, you say?!), the rice fields are amazing. Toraja is very mountainous so rice fields are terraced to facilitate growing crops up the hills. I cannot imagine the amount of work that went into terracing the land. I'll admit that I had no idea of the amount of work or the processes involved in growing rice. First the land must be prepared which means flooding it to soften the soil so it can be levelled and cleaned of the last crop's stubble. Then they plant the seeds which, when sprouted, look like a lovely golf course putting green. The seedlings are then bundled and moved to the fields where they are separated and planted in small clusters. After a few cycles of fertilizing, pest control and weeding, the plants begin to bear rice which is eventually cut down, thrashed against wood to release the rice from the stalk, and then finally moved to the farmyard where it's dried before taking it to market or storing it in rice barns. All of this work is done by hand of course, in the heat and in fields that are often infested by rats and snakes.
Needless to say, rice is the staple food here. However, after 2 weeks of nothing but rice and noodles I'm already starting to crave a good old Alberta beef steak and fresh garden vegetables. We did try a meal of water buffalo (before we saw the killings!) and tuak, the local palm wine. The buffalo was quite tasty although a bit on the chewy side. Sanitation and distillation concerns aside, I'd have to say that tuak is an acquired taste, kinda on the bitter side, and something that I don't care to try again. I'd do almost anything for a nice chilled bottle of Chardonnay right about now!
The Indonesians, at least the ones we've met in our travels through Sulawesi so far, have been very friendly. Adults and children wave to us, and we get calls of "Allo Mister" everywhere we go. They often don't know the word for Miss, so I get called Mister as well. Their English is better than my Indonesian so I really don't complain. The Indonesians like to practice their English so we get asked many questions which can be quite personal. What's your name? Where do you live? Where did you come from? Where are you going? Are you a Christian? What religion are you? Are you married? How many children do you have? By the way, I'm now married with 3 children - it's easier telling them this than explaining why someone as old as me isn't married and has no children, simply unheard of!!
Often we see women with what looks like white powder smeared on their face. Apparently they use this to make their skin lighter, although I'm not sure that it works. They just don't understand our obsession with suntanning and making our skin darker. Sarongs are the common clothing for both men and women and are quite versatile - I've seen them used as a skirt, dress, jacket, shorts, blanket, sash, turban and carrying device. One thing that I didn't expect to be so popular here is karaoke or country and western music!
Our final adventure in Rantepao was attending the market. No big deal normally as there's a small market every day, but once a week it attracts many more vendors and visitors as it's the day of the buffalo and pig market. More pigs squealing, and there must have been over 150 buffalo on display. In contrast to low Indonesian wages, ie. a teacher may earn around 6 million Rupiah per year (1USD = 8400 Rupiah), buffalo are extremely expensive ranging from 5 million Rupiah for a yearling, 15 million Rupiah for a regular buffalo, and 60 million Rupiah for a spotted buffalo (the most special). I guess you just can't stress over the price of the buffalo that are going to transport you to the after life!
Well, we're leaving Tana Toraja tomorrow to return to the boat. We decided to splurge and each paid US$23 on a plane ticket to Makassar and will hire a car there for the 5 hour drive back down to Bira. We'll find out at that time if the boat is leaving soon or if departure is further delayed.