Torajan Sojourn

October 23, 2010


We’ve had a busy few days enjoying the daily routines of life here.  We spent a day walking with Martin through the rural villages to the north of Rantepeo.  We set off from town by bemo, then when the road became, to our eyes, pretty much impassable, we got out and began to walk.  We climbed quite high above Rantepeo, the air was noticeably crisper, and the views were spectacular.  Rice seedlings were being set out in some fields, while others held the brilliant lime green of new rice plants.  With the background of lush tropical foliage, like papaya trees, coffee plants, palms of various types, bananas, as well as flowering bushes and trees, the variety of shades of green was just overwhelming.  Everyone seemed to be helping get the rice planted, men, women and children along with water buffalo pulling the plows in the unseeded fields.  It is hellishingly hard work, up to the thighs in thick mud, bending all day in the hot sun to poke the plants into the muddy soil, hour after hour.  Martin seemed to feel their pain quite acutely as his family are rice farmers and he did the work until he was twenty.

The villages are much as we remembered — one or two large family homes facing a number of small rice barns.  The roofs are the steeply pitched boat like shapes on both houses and rice barns, and in many villages both types of building are painted in an ornate fashion with symbols which reminded me of the batik sarongs people often wear here.  The main difference from the past is the presence of modern homes set beside the traditional houses.  Some of these are simple wooden structures, others are elaborate concrete mansions.  Martin told us there are 500,000 Torajans living in Torajaland, 4 million others live in other parts of Indonesia and it is their job to support the family at home.  Generally one son and his family stay at home to help the parents and farm the land and the others (and Torajan families are huge) go off to seek their fortunes and send money back.  Martin’s family lived in their traditional home until 15 or so years ago when they built a modern house.  As Martin pointed out, the traditional houses look nice but are quite uncomfortable with no toilet, no chimney to allow the smoke to escape and very tiny wooden shuttered windows.  The ground level is an open platform for lounging on during the day, they ascend by ladder into the main body of the house which is actually quite small under the soaring roof. 

Little trails connect the villages and we walked along these from place to place greeting people sitting in the villages, admiring all the dozens of small children about the place.  Most villages were very tidy with swept yards and porches.  One or two others however, were depressing places with lethargic looking adults, malnourished runny nosed kids and sick dogs. These were the exception though.  We stopped for lunch at a small restaurant perched on a rise overlooking a patchwork of rice fields with Rantepeo in the distance far below and the horizon blue with  mountains.  Since this is a volcanic area large boulders about three storeys high dot the rice fields and it is into the sides of these that the funeral crypts are hollowed out.  Yet another reason to delay the funeral, it takes about a year to get a crypt hollowed out of the solid rock and decorated properly.

The next day we returned to the site of the funeral for the final buffalo sacrifice day.  We had met the granddaughter of the deceased woman the day previously when we went to watch the dismemberment and distribution to the villagers of the pigs which were sacrificed on the first day.  Quite a sight to see people balancing whole hind quarters of pork on the saddle of the motorbike, then getting on holding a box full of entrails and precariously jouncing off down the impossibly bumpy road, dripping pig blood as they went.  At any rate, this young woman and her parents live in Jogja where she goes to university, her English was perfect and she told us quite a bit about her grandmother and the funeral, and suggested we really should attend the buffalo sacrifice.

On the last day of the funeral, all the buffalo which the family has provided have to be sacrificed.  For a noble family there must be at least 24 and this family was doing 40.  Keep in mind that each buffalo is worth a few thousand dollars and the beautiful albino one which was the piece to resistance was valued at 12000 and you will have an idea of the expense involved in this ceremony before even thinking about the cost of constructing all the bamboo pavilions, the funeral dais and elaborate coffin, the preparation of the crypt and food and drink for up to 2000 people over 4 or 5 days.  Quite makes expensive Canadian weddings pale in comparison!

Twenty of the best specimens were paraded into the ring, marked with the initials of the branch of the family that had donated them.  A man with a microphone and a couple of judges went around and examined them all, apparently they were being ranked, the albino one being number 1.  Each donor family had their own handler, but there was a kind of buffalo whisperer, a tiny wizened little man with a long mane of black hair wound round with a black head scarf and a huge knife attached to the waist of his sarong with string.  If the buffaloes became nervous or agitated, he spoke to them and they immediately calmed.

When the judging process was over, all of a sudden, out came a knife and number two had his throat slashed.  He was a huge buffalo and he thrashed and tried to run away while hosing blood from the hole in his neck.  He struggled so hard he broke the bonds on his feet and began to run around the compound, people were scattering and blood was spraying everywhere.  It was exceedingly disturbing to watch.  He finally succumbed, and then each buffalo was dispatched in the same way.  After that though, if the owner of the buffalo made a hash of the throat slashing, the buffalo whisperer would pull out his knife and slash the throat properly sending the buffalo immediately to the ground.  Only one other one got away, and it managed to wedge itself under one of the pavilions sending all the observers in there scrambling to the back.  Truly, though I am not squeamish, I felt a bit weak at the knees at the end of the slaughter of the first 20.  They immediately began skinning and dismembering the animals, quite an interesting sight actually, I was thinking about Andrew having to do the same in the bush with a moose which is probably similar in size.  Considering the squalor of the butchering area, what with the mud, buffalo feces and blood I think the meat would have to be thoroughly cooked to kill the e Coli! We left at that point, as watching the whole process over again for the next 20 was quite beyond me.

Friday we went to the weekly local market at Pesar Bolu a few kilometres outside of town.  We caught a bemo along with all the other locals heading to the big market.  In addition to the usual fresh market, the main draw of this one is its huge livestock component.  At least 1000 buffalo are brought each week to sell, and even more pigs of all stages of maturity.  We wandered through the buffalo area where small boys lead the massive animals around by ropes through the rings in their noses.  They are not all that docile though, and everyone is really wary of the unneutered males. We are gradually becoming quite the buffalo afficionados, the really valuable ones are albinos with some spots of black on them, and horn size is crucial in the mature ones.  One of the horns attached to a house was eight feet across when Doug measured it so the horns are impressive.  They never sacrifice the purely albino ones as legend says it is taboo to eat the meat of the pure white ones, even a spot of black on a leg is enough to make them valuable though.  They also don’t kill the females, they are bought as breeding stock, so the light coloured females are also more valuable. 

The pig area was a cacophony of pig screams, as they very much dislike being tied to the bamboo carrying frames, in fact, I don’t see why it doesn’t kill them as they lash them very tightly.  As soon as they are bought however the new owner calls for a porter with a pink wheelbarrow and they transport it to his truck, where they cut off the bindings and the pig happily scampers around the back of the truck and ceases screaming, so apparently no ill effects.  The small ones are carried in in bags and when a potential buyer wants to inspect one, it is hauled out by the feet and held up while it shrieks its head off, to get it back in the bag they just put the bag over its head and the silly thing tries to run away by running straight into the bag and they tie him up again.

Yesterday we toured again through some very interesting old villages still with the bamboo roofs all covered with ferns and plants growing on them.  Many interesting cave grave sites with the hanging coffins and some very very old tau tau high up on inaccessible cliffs where they escaped robbers.   Very eerie to walk through these grotto areas and see these ancient, decrepit figures staring down from their balcony 100 feet above.  One of the places we climbed to I think we went with the kids.  The hanging coffins in the cave had decayed and fallen so the bones are scattered on the ground and many have reverted to dust. Twenty one years ago there were piles of bones and I remember the kids climbing behind them for a photo and the coffins were still suspended from the roof.  People do not use the hanging coffins any more, they all hollow the crypts out of the rock and seal them with wooden doors.  Since the dead are thought to be able to use the things of this world, families provide some of their favourite things at the grave site.  One man’s tools were there, another who was a teacher, had his chair and table with books and papers piled on it, along with a fan and a reading light.  Oddly he had the 1994 Manitoba phone book…figure that out!

We had a different guide, Joseph who was a young guy of 32 and very interesting to talk to.  An election is coming up in November and the whole place is plastered in signs with pictures of the candidates for the 8 duos running for bumiputra (kind of a premier of the region we think) and vice.  Joseph was quite politically minded and knew the backgrounds of all the candidates.  They are all Torajans living outside of Toraja and have all made fortunes either in Java or Papua mostly.  It turns out that any government position is a licence to print money.  Indonesia is in the top five of most corrupt countries in the world.  He also pointed out the huge mansions, complete with multiple rice barns and elaborate traditional houses that two of the candidates were building  for themselves.  Since he had spoken a lot about corruption, for example the road from Makassar to Rantepeo now takes 10 hours instead of 8 fifteen years ago because the money to fix it has gone into pockets and not into construction, I asked him if people did not think that someone with the money to build a several million dollar compound for himself in such a poor country might not be such an honest candidate.  Well he agreed with that, but as he pointed out, money means power, and you can’t get anywhere without a large dose of both in this country.  We had been noting the horribly dangerous behaviour of motorbike drivers in this town, and we passed hundreds of people heading into an illegal cock fight.  The reason for all this, according to Joseph, is that the police are not doing anything to enforce the laws until the new government is elected and tells them which laws they want enforced!  Different system, as we learned to say years ago in some other country…

Today we are having a rest in preparation for our 10 hour bus journey to Makassar tomorrow, then flying to Ambon in Maluku on Tuesday.  I wish we were staying here longer, we have been here a week today and when we bought the tickets we thought that would be such a long time but it is so pleasant and relaxing here that inertia has seized us!  It probably is time to move on though, and there are lots more places to go.  Doug is now talking about Papua which he has always thought he would like to see.  It depends on us being able to do a visa renewal in Ambon, an American guy we met here said he had trouble renewing in Denpassar so gave up and flew to Singapore, then reentered the country.  Inconvenient so I hope we don’t have to do that.

We are still not finding good internet connections here — found one place where we could at least plug in the netbook but it is horribly slow even for email and syncing Doug’s pictures is almost impossible.  The American guy I mentioned had worked his way here from Java via Bali, Lombok, the Gilis and briefly Flores, he was aghast at the lack of connection here as he needs to download The Economist to his ereader weekly and what to do?  Traveling has changed.


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