Sunday, November 2, 2014

Pantai Losari and the pete-petes

Well, here we are, 3 days out from packing our bags and heading back to Melbourne. After nearly 9 months the Sulawesi project is drawing to a close. So just time for one last post. Packing our bags will actually be some feat, because we've accumulated a lot of stuff in our time here, including a computer monitor and keyboard we brought over last time! See if we can get that into the hand luggage.

Apart from our trip to Kalimantan to see the orangutans and back to Australia to see our closer relations, we've been happily ensconced here in room 1119 at the Fave Hotel, subjected to nightly sunsets over the Makassar Strait through our massive picture windows. Hard life, but someone’s got to keep the hotel industry afloat. Photos don’t do it justice, but here’s one anyway.

Tough gig, I know.
In fact, we've been lucky (or profligate) enough to have two connected rooms, so as well as the bedroom with the panorama we also have a kitchen/living area with a sink and microwave, which we've used to keep up a steady supply of 2-minute noodles with veggies and tofu – a semblance of normal life. It also means we can have separate desks that are more than a metre apart: Sue to carry on her arcane statistical jiggery pokery with the data we collected during our first 4 months, and me to ... what is it exactly I've been doing?

Well, I have started jogging again, along with the rest of Makassar, at Karebosi sportsground. You have to go before 7 a.m. or it's too hot.

"Jogging" here means walking in sportswear. You'll be pleased to know I have been doing it properly.
I've also been doing some volunteer English teaching at a nearby private English language school, ELC Education, usually one 1.5 hour class a day. It’s about 500 metres from the hotel but I do like cycling, so ... I take a becak

Another tough gig ... for the other guy.

Somehow in the 6 weeks or so that I've taken classes there, I haven't taught the same class twice. I estimate I've seen around 300 different students. The final class was a group of about 20 Papuan students who have scholarships to go to university in the USA starting next year. They are here in Makassar to hone their English skills before they sit a final IELTs test that will determine if they can go. They are a wonderfully positive bunch of youngsters.

My finishing up at the school coincided with their arrival in Makassar, so a combined welcome/farewell party was held last Friday at which I was presented with a trophy and a huge tiramisu cake, and the Papuan students performed a couple of songs with great gusto.

Steve's abridged history of Australia, including diagram showing early seafaring contact between Buginese sailors and Top End Aborigines, plus boomerang-throwing technique.
The Papuan students

When I look back at my first blog post from February, I was joking about putting the mysterious town of Polewali 'on the map'. As it turns out, I don’t expect Polewali will experience a huge upswing in tourism due to my blog posts, which were more a 'warts and all' kind of expose. What I have turned my attention to is putting Makassar on the map; or more correctly, putting the map on Makassar.

Living in Melbourne you get the sense that whatever you want to know about the place – which restaurants are hot, what’s on at the rooftop cinema, how to get from Footscray to Doncaster by bus – it’s all just a Google search away. You can be confident the information's out there somewhere, probably in an interactive user-friendly format. It’s been interesting to be somewhere where that isn't the case. Makassar doesn't exist in cyberspace, except in random bits and pieces.

One of the first ways I bumped up against this was when I started using the tiny micro-buses called pete-pete that are Makassar’s only form of public transport. The vehicles themselves are Suzuki "Carry" vans fitted out with rudimentary bench seats for up to 10 passengers, plus the seat next to the driver. Many of them are seriously beaten up but any discomfort is usually offset by a sound system with sub-woofers playing dangdut.

The humble pete-pete (route E: Makassar Mall to Panakkukang)

The not-so-humble sound system
You see them darting around everywhere, and they have route numbers and destinations printed on their windscreens, but being a Western rationalist kind of person, I wanted a map so I could see all the routes. Not an unreasonable expectation you might think. But after asking at town hall, and being sent on a bit of a wild goose chase, it became evident that there weren't any maps. Who would need maps? The locals all know where they go.

That turned out to be the thrown-down gauntlet I needed. 

I spent the next couple of weeks travelling the pete-petes, tracking the routes on my phone, comparing them with some lists I had managed to find on a blog site, then combining it all into some new Google’s maps. I got to about 10 and figured I’d probably covered most of the main routes that other tourists would want to travel.

Here's one I prepared earlier. You click the little white box to see the routes.

Getting a bit carried away with the whole mapping thing, I created another one showing all the places we've eaten, shopped, visited, etc. The kind of information we've found out by being here and being shown around by locals and expats, and that other travellers might find useful too.

Great, so I now had a bunch of maps. But to be of any use to anyone, they needed to be findable, and to be findable they really needed to be part of a website, and to be part of a website, I would need to ... make a website. Which was how I ended up on Weebly, a kind of "Make Your Own Instant Website for Dummies". About 3 weeks later, it's just about done. (Heck, I needed a project to keep me busy.) It still has a few gaps to be filled, and I'm sure you'll spot typos on the first page, but here in all its glory is [drum roll, please] ...

(aka The Other Sulawesi Project)

So tell all your friends, click on it a lot and help me push it up the Google charts to fame and fortune.

OK, so that's done.

This week we're also saying goodbye to the small group of people we know here in Makassar. One of them is a young man called Azimi, who we met maybe 2 months ago on one of our nightly walks at Pantai Losari. Azimi is a young Hazara man from Afghanistan who has worked, indirectly, for the international forces there. Those two things make him a target for retribution by the Taliban, which is why he left Afghanistan and made his way here. He has been in Indonesia for a year now and is still waiting for his case to be assessed by the UN to determine whether he is a genuine refugee. He's quietly confident that will occur, and also that his chances of being accepted into Australia are fairly good. But he may have to be here for another 12 months or more, waiting.

I can't help but be struck by the difference between his treatment here and the treatment of asylum seekers who made their way to Australia. Here Azimi is living in a basic hotel along with a group of other Afghani men, supported by the International Office for Migration. He's not able to work but he is able to move around freely in the community. He's not vilified by the locals, in fact he has made some Indonesian friends and is learning the language, as well as running English lessons for his compatriots. He is not locked up like a criminal. And this is in a country that is still struggling to lift 28 million of its own people out of poverty. Meanwhile asylum seekers in Australia are suffering extreme hardship with no prospects of resettlement.

Over the past couple of months, Azimi and I have had lots of walks around Makassar and adventures trying to find our way by pete-pete. I really hope I can take a Melbourne tram ride with him sometime soon.

Me and Azimi, out on a pete-pete adventure. We didn't plan the matching shirts, honest.

And that's just about a wrap. It's been a crazy 9 months, a jump into the unknown. We've seen a lot of South Sulawesi and a lot of cocoa trees and just when that started to wear thin we stayed put in Makassar long enough for me to rediscover my inner editor and try to bring order to chaos. So, if your partner comes home one night and says they've taken on a project in some place you've never heard of ... I say go for it. If they don't, suggest a trip to Polewali anyway. Maybe you can put it on the map!

Am I sad to be leaving? Yes, I am. Despite the heat and the noise and the lack of footpaths and our slightly surreal hotel-based daily life, I must have put a few roots down into Makassan soil and I will feel the wrench as our plane takes off on Thursday evening. I'll miss the people we've shared our time here with, and the smiling "Selamat pagi"s as I step out of the lift each morning.

Bye Makassar, South Sulawesi. Sampai jumpa lagi!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

A riverboat on the Sekonyer River, Central Kalimantan

By way of a diversion from Sue's studies and my life of leisure in Makassar, we decided to make the most of our location and take a trip to Borneo to see our near cousins, the orangutans*. 

Tanjung Puting National Park in Central Kalimantan (the Indonesian part of Borneo) is one of the best places to see this endangered species, which is only found there and in Sumatra. To see wild orangutans is actually quite difficult for the average traveller. Even taking a trek into the rainforest is no guarantee. Tanjung Puting National Park, however, is the home of a major conservation effort involving the rehabilitation and release of orangutans that have been injured or orphaned as a result of human contact. As a result, it's a very good bet that you will see the great apes at several places in the park.

Another thing about the national park is that there are no roads into it. This means that you need to access it by riverboat, which was certainly part of the attraction for me.

As usual, we booked with minimal planning by contacting some tour organisers online. I'd like to say we deliberated carefully over the available options, but, being the tail end of the peak tourist season, we pretty much had to go with the first operator that had a vacancy, Mr Ali Mashuri of Happily, as it turned out, we were in good hands. We erred on the generous side and booked a 4 day/3 night tour.

The next challenge was to get there. The airport nearest the national park is in Pangkalanbun, which unfortunately is not easily accessible from Makassar. In the end, the simplest way was to overnight in Surabaya, Java, then take the early morning Trigana Air flight to Pangkers.

We were met on arrival by Mr Ali, who drove us the 20 km or so to his office in the riverside town of Kumai, the leaping off point for all the boat tours of Tanjung Puting. We were early and our boat wasn't in yet, so we spent some time looking around Kumai's market and buying a few provisions. Towards midday we walked down to the docks to board our boat.

The style of boat used on the river trips is called a klotok. They come in a range of sizes, but essentially are narrow and have two levels: the lower one for the captain, crew and engine, and the upper one for guests. The upper deck has a roof but is open at the sides. The wash room is right at the rear of the boat. Sorry, the 'stern'. (See, I resisted making jokes about the 'poop deck'. How adult.)

Our klotok was one of the older style, as we later found out, and lacked the refinements of the newer breed of boats, but we were comfortable.

Sue boards our klotok in Kumai
On board, to make our trip possible, were our captain, Suma, his deckhand, Are, our cook, Uwah, and our guide, a young Dayak man named Sepon.

Getting underway

The Kumai River is wide and brown, a bit like the Yarra at Fishermans Bend. Kumai itself is a working river port, so not exactly picturesque. It also has a lot of buildings that look like 4-storey concrete walk-up flats with only tiny windows, but which are in fact bird's nest farms. The overwhelming sound you hear as you chug down this part of the river are recorded bird calls being played over loudspeakers, designed to lure the swallows to come inside and build their nests, which are then sold to the Chinese for ... you guessed it, Bird's Nest Soup.

Within about half an hour we had turned up a smaller tributary, the Sekonyer River. The water was still muddy, apparently the result of small-scale gold mining upstream, but now on one side we had the lowland peat forest of the national park. On the other side, beyond the riverside buffer zone, were plantations of palm oil, one of the main crops in the area, and the reason behind land clearing that has reduced the orangutans' habitat in Borneo.

Our first stop, about two hours upstream, was Tanjung Harapan, one of three orangutan rehabilitation sites in the park managed by Friends of the National Parks Foundation. A short walk into the bush got us to the feeding station where, at 3.00 pm every day, national park rangers bring loads of bananas to feed orangutans that have been released into the park. 

Bananas being uploaded at Tanjung Harapan

The bananas were distributed, the rangers made a series of loud hooting noises and within a minute or two we heard crashings in the tree canopy and got our first glimpses of orange as the apes assembled. 

Orangutans emerging from the forest

At the feeding platform. When the alpha male is present (right), other orangutans need to negotiate their presence very carefully, or just hang out up in the trees until he's eaten his fill.

After the larger males had eaten and left, this mother and baby got to pick through the remaining bananas. This seems to be a popular stance.

Having only ever seen orangutan in zoos before, being able to get this close to them in the wild and just stand and watch their behaviour was thrilling, and we stayed for an hour or so until they'd dispersed into the forest again. Back on the klotok we continued upstream to the second camp, and our overnight stop, Pondok Tanggui. Along the way, as evening approached, monkeys from the forest make their way to the trees at the river's edge, and we were lucky to spot lots of macaques and the odd proboscis monkey from our lounge chairs on the deck. We had to pinch ourselves (or at least I had to pinch Sue) as a reality check.

The morning feed at Pondok Tanggui attracted only three orangutans: a large male (notable for the cheek pouches or 'flanges' they develop) and a female with a baby. But you can banish any thought of a cozy family group. The adult males live solitary lives, only socialising to make babies. Sue made a video of the event, which has some wonderful behaviour and body language between the two adults. 

Camp Leakey, the third and largest rehabilitation area, was our next stop for the afternoon feeding session. This camp was carved out of the jungle in 1971 by Dr Biruté Mary Galdikas and has been the site of her lifelong research into orangutans, as well as a rehabilitation centre for previously captured animals, now under the banner of Orangutan Foundation International
Together with the better-known Dian Fossey (gorillas) and Jane Goodall (chimpanzees), Galdikas is the third of the 'big three' scientists inspired by anthropologist Dr Louis Leakey who have devoted their lives to studying apes.
Camp Leakey was by far the most popular of the orangutan visitor sites. Here we encountered 'klotok jams' as dozens of boats tried to tie up at the jetty or offload their passengers by boat-hopping. It was all negotiated with typical Indonesian patience and good humour, and some wise-cracking from the older boat captains on the sidelines. Apart from one day-tripper boat carrying around 20 Indonesians, the majority of the other visitors were Spanish. According to our guide, Sepon, this has been the case for years now. Someone must have written an article in El Mundo. Whatever the reason, we felt slightly grungy in contrast with their brand new adventure-wear, smart haircuts and designer jewellery. (We were slightly consoled by Sepon's comment that they were dressed "like they were going shopping".)

The orangutans at Camp Leakey are the most habituated to human contact, but we were still surprised to be accompanied by a mother and child walking along the path to the afternoon feeding session, stopping regularly for photo opportunities.

Mother and child orangutan being very cooperative with some Spanish visitors

The big crowd and the 'tamer' orangutans led to a couple of very lively feeding sessions. Orangutans crashing through the trees on their approach to the platform, people straining to photograph them up close, while a ground-walking ape tries to squeeze through the crowd from behind. There was no crowd control of the humans, and the "Keep 5 metres away" rule was happily ignored by both species, but no harm was done as far as I can tell.

Some of the crowd at Camp Leakey

Heck, everyone else was doing it. Sue elbows in
with the 
Europeans for a close-up.

Sepon, our guide, had previously worked at Camp Leakey for 10 years, so was the perfect person to take us on a trek along some of the lesser-travelled trails there one morning. We caught glimpses of a kijang, a native deer, and a some kind of squirrel, but alas no up-close encounter with a cloud leopard or sun bear.

For our last night we decided to head for a quiet stretch of river, downstream of Camp Leakey. Captain Suma was keen to find us a crocodile along the way, just to prove that they were there. Apparently their numbers are down due to the amount of traffic on the river, but they did manage to spot a small one doing its best log impersonation. Cross swimming off the list.

Spot the croc (or more properly the false gharial). This one was about 1.5 metres long. I'm sure I could have taken him.

Once again, we tucked into a very tasty dinner cooked by Uwah in fairly tricky conditions: the boat's 'kitchen' was only about 1.5 metres high, so she had to do all her cooking on a small gas stove sitting down! Try that on Master Chef.

After dinner there's not much to do except go to sleep inside our mosquito net on the deck, listening to the hoots of gibbons and owls.

In the morning, Sepon and Captain Suma indulged in a little fishing, first catching the small bait fish, then threading a few of them (live) onto the hook and casting it out for 'the big one'. Meanwhile, Sue had her binoculars on a beautiful stork-billed kingfisher that had flown onto a nearby branch, a day-glo version of the kookaburra.

All was calm and serene, the day was fresh and still cool, God was in his heaven. Until the captain cast his line and the kingfisher spied the bait fish sailing through the air. It swooped and rose up again with the fishing line trailing from its beak. Before anyone could do anything except gasp the bird had dropped the line again, unhooked. A birdwatcher's worst nightmare narrowly avoided.

Despite this little drama, we were well and truly happy and relaxed as we hauled anchor and headed back downstream towards Kumai, feeling that we'd had four days in another world – Tanjung Puting National Park – and glad that riverboat was the only way to see it. 

For me, the icing on the cake was taking the helm for an hour or so as we re-entered the wider, muddier section of river taking us back to civilisation, feeling like Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen, but remade in glorious technicolor.

*Orangutan' comes from the Indonesian/Malay words orang (person/man) and hutan (jungle/forest).


There are quite a few tour companies that do klotok tours of Tanjung Puting National Park. Trip Advisor is useful. We went with Ali Mashuri of

Our orangutan video:

Orangutan Foundation International:

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Tana Toraja Part 3: A short walk from Lempo to Batutumonga

Lest you think that all my time in Tana Toraja was taken up with funerals and graves, here are some photos of a lovely walk we did (twice, with different guests) from Lempo to Batutumonga. Although it starts only a few miles out of Rantepao and is by no means ‘off the beaten track’, the walk takes you through some really stunning mountain scenery and through some real villages that are not (yet) official obyek wisata. This was definitely the most enjoyable part of both trips for me.

Passing by an average Torajan village
View from a rice barn
Happy as a buffalo in mud
View across the valley towards Batutumonga, with church on the left
On our second visit, the green rice fields had turned to yellow and it was harvest time. As we watched the locals threshing the rice, one lady joked (in Indonesian) that we had come to help. So we did, to great amusement. (photo by Wayne)
View back across the rice fields. Two girls having lunch on a rock. (photo by Wayne)
Our destination: Cafe Mentirotiku at Batutumonga.
Enjoying the view, but feeling the chill at 1300 metres, with Chris, our guide, Martin, and Wayne (photo)
The extended version of the walk took us further up the road to the impressive rock graves at Lokomata ...
... for a photo opp with this lovely local lady. In the background are the used saringan (funeral biers), used to bring the coffins to this burial site.
Would I go back to Tana Toraja again? Yes, definitely, but next time it would be to do some longer treks. Funerals and graves? Been there, done that.

© 2014 Steve Dobney

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Tana Toraja Part 2: Two funerals, no weddings


First, two caveats:
  • Cultural tourism is, to say the least, tricky, both in its production (what’s presented to tourists as being valuable) and in its consumption (viewing the lives and traditions of one group of people through the lens of another). I fess up here and now to being a Western rationalist materialist. (God, how dull that sounds!)
  • There’s no way I can give an overview of Torajan history and culture, just my own impressions, and information given to us by our Torajan guides. For a bit of background, the Wikipedia entry is not a bad place to start.
OK, now that we have that out of the way ...

Two funerals

The majority of Torajans identify as Christian (mainly Protestant) but they have certainly put their own unique spin on Christianity, in that Torajan culture seems to be fixated on death. The main obyek wisata (tourist sites) in the region are death-related, including cave tombs, rock tombs, hanging cliff tombs, and fields of megalithic standing stones commemorating the dead.

Megaliths at Bori, Tana Toraja. Traditionally, only high-class Torajans can have a megalith, and their size represents the importance of the person (and often the number of buffalo sacrificed at their funeral). The stones used to have a spiritual significance, but under Christianity have been redefined as simple memorials.
Stone graves at Lemo (above), and (below) close-up of the tau tau (effigies of the dead). Only high class Torajans can have tau tau. While they were once believed to hold the spirit of the deceased, under Christianity they are considered to be simply statues. (Photos by Wayne)

Torajan culture wasn't always this heavily focused on death. Apparently, Pre-Christian Torajan culture had many rituals revolving around life, but these were outlawed by the Dutch missionaries, so only the death-related ones remain today.

Torajan funerals are big. The biggest ones, for the most important people, can run for 3 days or more, with hundreds of guests attending each day, including not a small number of tourists, who are openly welcome. The most important thing to do at a funeral is sacrifice some buffalo – the more the better – and extra marks if they are rare, such as albino, or blue-eyed. Poor folk may only be able to afford to sacrifice two or three buffalo, but it’s not unheard of for 50 or more buffalo throats to be slit at wealthy funerals.

Funeral 1

I’ve been to two Torajan funerals, each for only a few hours. The first time it was day 2 of the funeral. As we approached the funeral site, we joined a procession of other guests arriving in the backs of trucks. Others arrived on motorbikes with live pigs on bamboo pallets strapped to the back. At the entry, a couple of local bureaucrats collected a tax for each buffalo and pig that was donated, and someone else was keeping a list of them for the family, with the pigs having ID numbers spray-painted on their sides.

Guests arriving at the funeral, with gift

Funeral banners at the entry to the site

The funeral site itself had a kind of village fair atmosphere, with people standing around chatting or sitting in the temporary pavilions built especially for the event, arranged around a central square. In the middle of the square, a few buffalo were ominously tied to posts. There were hundreds of guests and probably about 50 tourists. 

At some point, without much fanfare, a man standing next to one of the buffalo slit its throat with a knife. I’d made the decision to stand up the back, to deliberately obscure my view, so there are no videos here of gushing blood. Quite quickly the buffalo was on the ground in a pool of blood, and my main thought was that it had all happened in a very casual way – no drum rolls, no shrieks from the crowd, just on with the show.

The overall scene: temporary guest pavilions forming a square, with animals to be sacrificed (and one already gone) in the middle. The coffin has already been carried up above the main table where the protokol (MC) sits.

A guest catches all the action on the iPad while I hide up the back!

There were some formal processions as the close family filed into the main pavilion, followed by the first group of important guests. In the other pavilions, people sat around chatting, drinking coffee and smoking while an MC (called the protokol) narrated proceedings in a very upbeat tone. According to our guide, he was urging the audience to remember the fine qualities of the deceased.

Food and drinks are served to the immediate family and guests in the VIP pavilion, courtesy of the PKK (Family Welfare Guidance association)

Hanging out in the VIP pavilion
We left soon after that, having seen enough for the day. In Western terms, the closest thing I could liken it to is having a party at an abattoir, but it was certainly an important social event.

Funeral 2

The second funeral we attended on day 1. The ceremony began with a Christian service, including hymns and prayers. After that, a crowd of about 20 young men gathered around the coffin, which sat on an elaborate bier (saringan) in the shape of a tongkonan. After some preliminary warm-up noises, they hoisted the construction onto their shoulders and started the procession. Attached to the back was a long piece of red material, which close relatives held over their heads, forming a train of about 20 metres.
Yours truly in front of the coffin, which sits on a bier in the shape of a traditional house (tongkonan)

The procession headed off through the funeral site in a jaunty fashion, a bit like a conga line, with the bier-carriers hoisting it high then dropping it down low, with lots of chanting, shouting and laughing. They then headed off down the road with the coffin, basically going around the block, with lots of rest stops and chanting. It seemed like a lot of fun and a great release of energy for everyone involved. Having followed the procession to the road, we took the chance to leave, happy not to have witnessed any more animal sacrifices. According to our guide, that was still to come.
The peak tourist season of July–September coincides with the Torajan ‘funeral season’. Funerals are scheduled for this time of the year because (a) it’s the dry season, and (b) it’s the holiday season, when Torajans living in other parts of Indonesia are most likely to be able to get time off to help organise and attend a major event. Which raises the question, what happens to the dear departed while they are awaiting the funeral? Well, they are embalmed and stay in the tongkonan, ‘unwell’, sometimes for several years, until an appropriately elaborate funeral can be funded and organised.

The buffalo bubble

Buffalo hold a very special place in Torajan culture. A family’s buffalo never work in the fields and are looked after lovingly. On our travels we often saw a man or a boy taking great care while washing their buffalo in a stream. Some buffalo are free to roam and wallow in muddy rice paddies, but often we saw them tied up on short ropes, so they had to stand with their heads raised. Our guides told us this was to build up the muscles at the back of the neck, to make them look stronger. So the buffalo get the VIP treatment right up until funeral day. Then, it is their role, by being sacrificed, to help the deceased get to heaven. So the more buffalo sacrificed, the easier the road to heaven.

At least, that was the idea before the Christian missionaries revised things. Now, as all good Christians know, ‘it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God’ (Matthew 19:24). So these days the killing of buffalo at a funeral is seen as a way of following a tradition and being able to share a resource (buffalo meat) with your extended family and local community.

Except that there is something of a buffalo bubble in Tana Toraja: the animals are worth a lot more than their ‘meat value’. (See, I told you I was a rationalist materialist.) 

As best we could ascertain, your basic black or brown beast is worth around €3000–5000, and the price goes up from there, with albinos or black-and-white spotted ones worth anywhere from €10,000 to €30,000. At the Rantepao buffalo market we saw a boy minding a spotted buffalo and were told that his family had turned down an offer of $50,000, the price of a new BMW X1. There aren't enough buffaloes in Tana Toraja to satisfy demand, so canny entrepreneurs are bringing them in from other parts of Indonesia and abroad.

Top of the range model: a spotted buffalo

So you can see that a Torajan funeral can end up being a very expensive event indeed. Our guide estimated that one of the funerals we attended had cost the family around €300,000 ($430,000).

As you can imagine, this topic occupied a lot of our dinner table conversations, and a lot of questions to our Torajan guides. How can people living in a farming community that grows mainly rice and coffee, and makes some money out of tourism, afford this level of expense on a funeral?

The answer seems to be that Tana Toraja exports its sons and daughters. There are simply not enough jobs in the region. We were told that more than half of all Torajans live outside Tana Toraja. Hopefully, they are working in decent jobs that allow them to save some money, because when there is a death in the family, they are going to be called upon to make a substantial contribution! This is the main reason for the lag between someone dying and holding the funeral: amassing the necessary cash. To put it in purely economic terms, Torajan funerals are sucking cash from other regions in Sulawesi to pay for buffalo that are massively over-valued and have no productive use, only prestige value. But heck, I guess you could say the same about a BMW X1.
Apparently the Pentecostal church in Toraja is the only denomination that is against buffalo sacrifice at funerals, but even then there are exceptions. One of our guides, a well-educated man and Pentacostalist, has told his kids in no uncertain terms that they’d better get good jobs so they can put money away for his last rites, buffalo and all.

See Part 3: A short walk from Lempo to Batutumonga

© 2014 Steve Dobney

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Tana Toraja Part 1: The living and the dead

Tana Toraja (land of the Toraja people) occupies the mountainous region in the northern part of South Sulawesi. It is Sulawesi's premier tourist attraction, at one stage hoped by Indonesian tourism officials to come second after Bali as a tourist destination. Many visitors to Sulawesi arrive at the airport and head straight up the highway to the north on the 300 km drive to Rantepao, which takes around 8 hours at the average Sulawesi highway speed of 40 km/h (no matter what Google says), not bothering to stop in at Makassar, 20 km to the south.

And there are a number of good reasons to visit Tana Toraja (or Tator, as it is abbreviated, of course):
  1. it’s cooler up in them there hills
  2. you can get a beer there (or any other alcoholic drink that takes your fancy), as it’s a mainly Christian community in otherwise mainly Muslim South Sulawesi
  3. the mountain landscape is pretty damn spectacular
  4. Torajan culture is … interesting.
  5. if you are researching cocoa in far-flung locations, it's the quickest way to get from Wotu, in the northeast of the province, to Pinrang, on the west coast
For the first 4 months we were in Sulawesi, our trips to Tana Toraja were limited to reason 5 above. Several times we drove up the long and winding road from Palopo to Rantepao, only to head straight down the longer but equally winding road to Enrekang, simply to get from A to B. Our windscreen surveys allowed us only tantalizing glimpses of outlandish looking curved-roof houses with elaborately carved walls, water buffalo grazing on the side of the road, and terraced rice fields stepping down the valleys enclosed by bloody big mountains.

As the fieldwork came to an end and some visitors dropped in from Oz, we had the opportunity to head back to Tator with a bit more time on our hands, for reasons 1–4. There’s lots to see (and think about) in Tana Toraja, so I’ve had to do this in three instalments!
Once again, both our trips were organised by Dodo the Penman and we were ably accompanied by our driver, Bayu, and two great Torajan guides Enos and Martin. All are highly recommended.

The mountains

On the way to Tana Toraja from Makassar the road starts to wind upwards through the Enrekang region. A popular place to stop for coffee is at one of the roadside cafes overlooking Gunung Bambapuang, also known as Lady Mountain or Erotik Mountain, because it is meant to look like a lady’s genital region. Whether or not your imagination leans in that direction, the view is pretty speccy.

Lady Mountain, Enrekang (photo by Yuto Fukui/Panoramio)
Man and lady, Enrekang (photo by Wayne)

From here on, the mountains provide backdrops to almost every vista. I can’t help feeling that there is an untapped potential for hang gliding in this part of Sulawesi. (Stay tuned for Steve’s Sulawesi Hang Gliding Tours!)

The houses

One of the first signs that you are entering Tana Toraja is the appearance of the remarkable traditional Torajan houses, with their wildly upswept roofs and carved and painted wall panels. These start appearing along the side of the road, accompanied by smaller versions, which our driver explained were rice barns. At first we thought these houses were some kind of tourist accommodation – how could they just be someone’s normal home? But no, we were reassured, they’re ordinary Torajan houses and people do just live in them.

Our first sighting of Torajan houses (tongkonans), these ones with corrugated iron roofs
Houses (left) and rice barns (right) with traditional thatched roofs + greenery; modern homes down the back

As we found out later, it’s actually a little more complicated than that. The traditional houses, called tongkonan, are culturally important family properties that are passed down through the generations. So every family has one, and some belong to extended family groups, like a beach house at Dromana. The upswept roofs possibly represent the Torajans’ previous lives as seafaring people, before they took to the mountains, but on the other hand, maybe not. Apparently, though, the curve of the roofs has become more exaggerated over time, as a particularly Torajan fashion statement.

The carved panels on the outside represent important motifs in Torajan culture, including the rooster, the buffalo and the sun. As in any culture, the bigger the tongkonan and the more elaborate the carvings, the more prestige the family has.

Painted carving on the side of a tongkonan, Tana Toraja

The rice barn – the Mini Me of the tongkonan – is the culturally correct place for the storage of rice but also has a prestige value, so that the number of rice barns a family has may be many times more than the rice storage required.

On the inside, though, tongkonans are pretty basic and have only a few small ‘portholes’ for light and ventilation. As a result, many people are building more conventional-style homes to live in, a bit like Queenslanders, keeping the tongkonan for family ceremonies.

Inside a traditional tongkonan

There were also a few hybrids – conventional houses (rumah) with tongkonan roofs stuck on the side. I christened this style the rukonan©, which caused much mirth as I repeated it every time we saw one!
In Rantepao we stayed at the charming old-world Toraja Heritage Hotel, located on a ridge above the town. The more expensive rooms and suites are housed in pseudo-tongkonans, traditional on the outside, but modified on the inside for modern living. Being cheapos, we stayed in the equally comfortable rooms located in the conventional wing.
Inside a pretend tongkonan; a suite at the Toraja Heritage Hotel

Awas, kepala jatuh!*

Probably the most visited obyek wisata (tourist object) in Tana Toraja is the village of Kété Kesú, a few kilometres out of Rantepao. Here you can walk through a ‘traditional’ village, go inside a tongkonan, and also visit one of the oldest hanging grave sites in the region. While people do still live here, most live in newer houses out the back, leaving the original village feeling a bit like a Torajan theme park. Locals rely heavily on income from tourists rather than farming.

The awesome part is beyond the village, where a path leads you up the side of a cliff that has been used for hundreds of years as a burial site. Hanging graves were constructed by recessing beams into the cliff and placing coffins on them, cantilevered out from the rock face. Over time, of course, beams and coffins have rotted away and fallen, so that now there are crazy jumbles of bones, skulls and coffins here and there. At the top, coffins are also crammed into a cave.

Visiting Kété Kesú for the first time did make me wonder how, in a place where what happens to the dead is so important, human remains could be left lying around for tourists like us to pose with. The only answers that made any sense where that (a) the bones are so old that no one knows whose ancestors they are, and (b) if they tidied them up, it might make the place less appealing to the ghoulish fascination of tourists.

The hanging graves at Kété Kesú
Who's who at Kété Kesú? (photo by Wayne)

* In Indonesian, the words for coconut (kelapa) and head (kepala) are very similar. Confusion between the two words is a well-worn source of jokes in Indonesian classes. Falling coconuts can be a danger in many parts of Indonesia, with appropriate warnings:Awas, kelapa jatuh! (‘Watch out, falling coconuts!’), but here in Kété Kesú they need a different warning sign:Awas, kepala jatuh!’.

Postscript: As you might expect, not everyone has been happy about the touristification  of Tana Toraja, particularly the process of selecting the official obyek wisata. For the keen scholar, you can find out more here:
Cultural Commoditization in Tana Toraja, Indonesia, Cultural Survival website 
Art As Politics: Re-crafting Identities, Tourism, And Power in Tana Toraja, by Kathleen M. Adams (see especially the section ‘Zoning and the Touristic Homogenization of Elite Sites’). You can read a fair bit of this for free on

See Part 2: Two funerals, no weddings

© 2014 Steve Dobney