A backpackers guide to visting the Tana Torajan dead PART ONE

by Will Sanders on January 7th, 2010


I told you about hell night.  I wanted that to be a short anecdote leading into the rest of this, but the tough time stories tend to stretch themselves.

The next morning I slept in.  After letting the water run for more than ten minutes I gave up and made the best of a cold shower.  Cold showers being the norm here it wouldn’t bother me most days.  My house in Surabaya doesn’t have any hot water, which is fine because the best thing about a shower here is that it cools you down from that heavy sun, but this was in Rentapao which is in Tana Toraja which is up up in the mountains.  First I got my hair wet, then my back which a yell, when it hit my chest it knocked all the wind out of me.  The whole thing was over in less than five desperate shivering minutes.  This could prove to be quite a smelly week indeed.

I left my hotel for a hike, which is what I came all this way to do.  This hotel exits into an alley way, the alley way feeds into a side street, the side street in the mornings bustles with activity.  There is a market place covered with tarps made of stalls divided by thin sheets of plywood.  The outside of the place was teaming with motercycle versions of the bicycle rickshaws we have in Surabaya, the bicycle ones are called becaks, I don’t know the Bahasa Indonesian for the motorcycle ones, I haven’t seen them in Java before.


Inside the market place the mud was thick and wet and went squish squish squish under my boots.  Mainly, people were selling produce, eggs, pillow case sized bags of whole coffee beans.  But also there were plastic crappy toys, watches, combs, purses, I picked up a flash light for the cave I planned on going to.  I also bought a sarong in the clothes area, nice one too.  It has just now dawned on me how nice it is to have a saraong.  It can be a blanket, pants, a bag, extra pillow.


After a quick breakfast I was off, I figured from the guide book the right way to walk to get to the villages and headed out, through lush green fields of rice paddies where big horned buffalo sleep in deep mud with one or two white birds hanging out on their backs, don’t know the real reason for this but I like to think that in a place of such beautiful peace a buffalo and a bird can just be good mates.  And I saw the houses that are shaped like boats, but I didn’t seem to be going anywhere.  I hired one of the motor rickshaws who drove me for 20 minutes and then stopped, insisting that I had no idea where I was going and neither did he.  I kept telling him in Indonesian I wanted to walk through the villages, he told me he was going back to town and I let him go.  All alone for a second I began to second guess my decision, but then a pick up truck hauling boulders stopped and offered me a lift to town, I hopped in the back with the big rocks and we bounced around all the way back.  This guy dropped me off at the main transport station which is where I should have gone in the first place.  After a half hour of people trying to sell me guides I didn’t want to pay for and private cars I finally found a local transport car, or bemo which was heading to the interesting shit.  Ten minutes down the road I was dropped off at a road where I hiked a few kilometers to the tourist attraction.  I bought a ticket, not sure what this place was.  I struck up a conversation with the guy who worked the ticket office.  I asked him if it was strange to see Bule (Indonesian for white person) here.  He said no, the have seen them for a long time.  The first were in the 60s he told me.  He also told me that in the 60s it was very strange, but now not strange.


So next I see this.  A big pick albino buffalo with snake eyes.  A big crowd of Indonesians are hanging around checking it out.  I pointed to this thing and said in Indonesian “ini sapi bule?” (is this a white foreigner cow?)  Which made everyone pretty much loose it.  One guys said me and the buffalo were same, same.  I asked the buffalo, again in Indonesian, you are from America?  I am from America!  And the crowd ate it up.  Another guy pointed to me and called me the sapi bule, which I am fine with.  Another guy said my face the same as the buffalo face and I had to give him a sarcastic “thaaaaaanks” and another guy sensed I was angry, which I wasn’t, but he assured me that he found me very handsome, I had to smile to show all was good.  Got to be more careful in Asia with that sarcasm.


At the front of the cave were teams of kids with old timey minors lanterns, they were charging for the cave tour.  Hey, I just bought a flash light this morning, this white cow don’t need no high faluting tour guide.  It’s a cave of skulls, what’s the worst that can happen?  That was rhetorical.

The outside wall of this cave had coffins hanging from the cliff wall.  There were sculptures of all the ancestors who had been laid to rest here, inside this cave grave.  There were also piles of human bones outside and skulls as well.


Inside, the first chamber was littered with skulls.  They looked very much like they had been robbed from their graves and put on display for the tourists, all along ledges, in neat piles in this corner or that.  And if anyone was robbing the graves of the Tana Torajan ancestors it could have been nobody but the Tana Torajans themselves.  As this narrative continues, I will be telling you about the great inexhaustible lengths the Torajans go to for the funerals of their dead, the ceremony and burial.  But, right now I want to point out that after all is said and done and the dead are buried, aparently they are fine with making the bones of their family into a disney land.  I saw one skull at the entrance of the cave that someone had tagged their name on.

But I don’t pass judgment on the Torajans, I can’t imagine what a strange riddle the intrusion of tourism has played on these quiet jungle people.  And being a jackass taking pictures of it I really wouldn’t have much room even if I did judge them harshly, which I don’t like I said.  Also, they really seem to have a much different relationship with their dead than we do, here death feels different, a continuation rather than an end.  My only point was that as far as caves of skulls go this one was strange.


So, armed with a flashlight I took a deep breath and in I went.  It wasn’t too bad either.  Wide tunnels, big enough for walking.  Every so often a skull would be looking back at me from the cave wall.  I was soon in what seemed to be a really big chamber.  There was a smaller area on one end which looked like it could have been a tunnel going upwards.  I stuck my head in and shined my flashlight to find that it ended, I looked a few inches from my face and happened to see a huge fucking evil looking spider!  I jumped several feet, and when I shined it back on him his eyes were glowing from the light.  A group of school kids came in after me, I showed them the spider.  They were more interested in what the hell I was doing in there alone, I showed them my flash light.  After a short time they started heading back where they had come from, I pointed further down the way and asked if they were coming.  They said it was a kilometer.  Hmmmm.  I went around the first corner alone and shined the light on one wall and it was the beginning of Indiana Jones raiders of the lost arc with spiders.  Just all over the wall.  Yep.  From the other direction I could hear school children hollering to me “bye mister, you crazy mister, you crazy man, mister” so tail between my legs I backtracked the hell out of there, allowing the brave school children to lead the way to the sunshine.

Every day in Tana Toraja the rain hits at exactly 2:30 on the dot.  It hits like a someone turned a faucet, all of the sudden with thick battering drops.  After the cave I ran for a ways and saw a bar on the side of the road, the locals spoke no English, the girls wanted to flurt and and the men wanted to ask me questions.  The beer was cold and cheap, the locals were good company so I drank watching the rain fall on a a buffalo who sat in a rice field which sat under a jungle covered mountain, all of which was right across the street.

Later I went back to my hotel.

4 Responses to “A backpackers guide to visting the Tana Torajan dead PART ONE”

  1. Amy Bugg Burke says:

    This is my favorite kind of stuff to read Will…keep it coming!

    (Also, I have not checked my facebook, but it did send me your comment to email, and yes, I am getting a little fat, but not overly. =) I expect that before this is all over I will have a giant balloon of a belly, and I will be sure to send you a picture of the ridiculousness).

  2. Marcus Rosentrater says:

    Mr. Sanders. I do not like big spiders. Spiders scare me. And big spiders scare me also. I do not like when you go into cave with spiders. Many spiders crawl on your back and your front. If spiders like flesh, you are in big trouble. Please stay away from cave with spiders. Stick to cave with skulls. You crazy mister!

    Also, I think you should get a cowbell and hang out near the albino buffalo. When you notice the crowd has changed and about 75% of the surrounding people are new, you should walk up and do your routine. Then walk around and have everyone put money in your cowbell. Go buy booze. Repeat until intoxicated.

    I seriously wish you had a picture of the spiders. I can’t believe there eyes glow. That gives me the willies!

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