Terrific Toraja

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October 10 2010

We flew from Labuanbajo to Makassar in Sulawesi via a 6 hour stopover in Denpassar. During the wait we took a taxi to check out our 1974 stomping grounds at Kuta Beach in Bali. In 1974 it was a jaw dropping sweep of lovely white sand with huge waves. A half dozen small losmen (simple hotels) and warungs (hole in the wall restaurants) lined the unpaved road leading to the beach. I won’t even dignify it with a description as it stands today — of course the surf is still there but that’s all that remains, the beach is littered with half drunken twenty somethings being chatted up by young Balinese selling — who knows? — and the streets are a traffic clogged mess, but crawling with elderly foreigners … shopping. Suffice to say we had lunch and decided we’d rather wait in the airport — it took 45 minutes in gridlock for the taxi to make the 5 kilometre trip. What a travesty! Some places you can never go back to.

Makassar, formerly called Ujung Padung is as hot and sweaty as I recalled, but seemed much more overtly Muslim. Who knew there were so many ways of wearing a hijab? The population is about 1.7 million and it appears to be extraordinarily prosperous after Sumba and Flores. We had a good but sweaty time there, visiting the old Fort Rotterdam, and the docks where we went with the kids in 1989. They are just as crowded with the Bugis style high prowed boats, still being unloaded by men in bare feet, but the holes in the dock had been mended so that no six year old would be in danger of falling through nowadays. Some of the old dock had been removed in favour a number of smaller cement docks, not nearly as perilous to walk on as before but not quite the same pirate port atmosphere. An enormous fish market is a few blocks away, and a smelly, fascinating sight.

People are just as friendly and interested in the strange foreigners here as in Sumba and Flores. This is sure a country for big smiles. A lot of people have one or two phrases of English, so we answer over and over, “I’m very well, how about you?” “My name is Carol, what is your name?” “Canada.” Sometimes I try my similarly small stock of Indonesian but then they get really excited thinking maybe I can actually speak to them, only to be disappointed.

We traveled from there after a couple of days to a town called Sangket on the shores of Lake Tempe. We had heard that there were some interesting floating villages there. It was kind of an interesting, extremely muddy and low lying, little town, but hotter even that Makassar and humidity from all the standing water in the low areas like you can’t imagine. Sitting in a small restaurant at 7 o”clock at night on my birthday, the sweat ran down my body in rivers and dripped onto the table from my face. I decided that I would celebrate my birthday on Canadian time when we reached Rantepeo the next day. The floating villages, which we went to in a narrow dug out canoe with a motor late in the afternoon (no cooler) were ramshackle floating shacks–hard to imagine living in such an environment. One lady made us tea and fried bananas. Her open fire, which was set on a layer of metal on top of the bamboo slats of the raft’s deck, was stoked with pieces of bamboo. On it she boiled her kettle and fired up a wok of boiling oil for the bananas. I guess when fire consumes the place, there is at least a handy boat to escape into. >> By the time we left the town I was so looking forward to the cool, the greenery and the fresh air of Torajaland. This is one of the most stunningly beautiful places on earth. Just high enough at 800 metres to be cool in the evening, the daily early evening downpours nurture a magnificent array of tropical plants. Rock escarpments rise straight from the rice paddies with greenery cascading over the rocks like waterfalls.

When we were here in 1989 Rantepeo was a small village with an unpaved main street, a few cheap guesthouses and, as I recall, no decent places to eat. All has changed due to the influx of mainly European tourists who come here for the funeral season in July and August. Torajan culture is based around its ceremonies, with the most important one being the funeral. Again, today’s Torajans have combined their traditional animist beliefs with those of the Christian religion which followed the Dutch here in the early 1900’s. The Torajans are a proud group, with it seems to me a resilience in the face of change similar to that of the Balinese. This is a notably wealthy area, with many large cement mansions lining the road into the town.

As in Sumba and Flores, the traditional house remains the centre for the family group, and can never be sold. Though many Torajans have left the land and do well for themselves as one of the most educated groups in Indonesia, they return to the family home for all important occasions, particularly the ceremonies. When we were here before the government was trying to convince people to move out of the traditional houses and into more conventional homes with chimneys as living in a cloud of smoke which rises out through the rafters is not conducive to lung health. That seems to be what has happened, but thankfully the houses remain the focal point for the family, with more conventional houses arranged around the compound.>> Torajan houses are spectacular. Rising from an ornately carved and decorated base the roof is shaped like a Bugis ship with its soaring prow and stern. Traditionally the roofs are made of layers of bamboo, nowadays they top the bamboo layers with tin to increase the longevity of the roof. The fronts of the houses are adorned with buffalo horns representing the sacrifices made at the ceremonies. Arrayed in the front of the house are a number of rice barns, like miniature houses with the same soaring roofs, set on stilts to prevent rodents from getting into the rice. A large number of rice barns indicates a family’s prosperity. Again Torajan society is based on three social classes, noble, middle and low. The slave class was abolished 300 years ago and Martin, our guide yesterday, was shocked to hear it is still referred to as that in Sumba. Here unlike in Sumba and Flores, intermarriage between the classes is accepted, though Martin said that until 20 years ago it was unheard of.

We have decided to stay here for a week. We are happily ensconced in an absolutely beautiful brand new hotel with all mod cons and only the second decent breakfast of the trip! Only the second dry bathroom too. I had a lovely birthday dinner in the hotel the night we arrived and we toasted in Bintang. Sadly there seems to be no wine in Indonesia, in fact Muslim Makassar was virtually dry. At least Christians drink so there is plenty of beer here in Rantepeo. There is so much to see here and the opportunity for some “treking” so we are happy to stop for a while.

Our first day here we went out with a guide as I said, and were lucky to attend the first day of a large funeral put on by a noble family near Rantepeo. It deserves its own journal entry so I will send another — IF I can find an internet today that will let me connect my laptop. I have given up on wireless, this was not the trip to experiment with carrying the netbook. Internet here is quite primitive compared to the other parts of Asia, terrible keyboards, rival even those destroyed by the Chinese gamers, and no one understands computers at all so react with horror when I want to connect to their modem by taking the Ethernet cable out and using it in my laptop. We also desperately need to access my Kobo books library to download the books I have bought as Doug’s kobo reader seems to have gone mad and ceased to function and we cannot manage without reading material. One of us will have to read on the laptop if I can get to the kobo site. Couldn’t be a worse country to have this happen in, absolutely no English books available anywhere. The kobos seemed like such a wonderful solution to the book problem until Doug’s quit. Technology…

Thanks so much to all who wrote, what with the terrible internet conditions (I actually had to sit on the floor in the last place, not enough room for my knees between the wall and the keyboard which was completely non functional, every key stuck, could hardly log in to gmail) I just haven’t been able to send many replies. We sure appreciate the news from home though, and if things look up computer wise we will be in touch! 

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