Part 3, a backpackers guide to visiting the Tana Torajian dead

by Will Sanders on March 22nd, 2010

If you missed part one and two don’t worry, they don’t all depend on each other, they are all about skull caves and spiders with glowing eyes and indescribable beauty and rice fields and that sort of thing.  This is all about my time in a place called Tana Toraja in Sulewesi.  It is unlike anywhere else.

This is the final installment of the Tana Toraja story, could easily be the final installment of the Indonesia blog before my first year here ends.  I will be going home in less than a month, I will be in ATL and around for a little more than one month and then back to Indo for year two.  I hope that is the right choice, it’s a big old world but I do like it here so much.  Ok, this one is a little bumpy so buckle up, blog believers.

The people of Tana Toraja don’t go to college, a few may but as far as I can tell most don’t.  They do not drive fancy cars, you may see a dirty beat up old pick up truck, but the main mode of transpo seems to be motor scooters.  The people of Tana Toraja spend their lives living in the same houses that their ancestors had lived in.  They look like this:


Crops are sold, cattle and pigs are raised and traded, money is made from tourist suckers like me, not alot but enough.  The odd daily necessity is picked up with this money, but most the needs of the Tarajans are taken care of by the land which is just as it has always been.  Any extra money not spent on this and that which does come the way of a Tana Torajan is carefully put away and saved.  As it happens it is not cheap to die in Tana Toraja.
The process of a funeral can last for anywhere between half a year and a year.  The final ceremony where all the little piggies and buffalo get done in is where the person is officially considered dead, up until that point they are slightly sick and slightly quiet.  Between the actual death and the official death (following the last ceremony like I said) the corpses are laid carefully on the kitchen table with draining tubes running into buckets.  Visitors to the house are expected to make one sided awkward conversations with the dead, ‘thanks for letting me into your wonderful house’,’ I love what you’ve done with the place, the buffalo horns really complement the patio furniture set nicely’, that sort of thing I imagine.  And its customary to offer cigarettes to  your host, a great gift idea considering his recent lack of interest in personal health.
For the next several months while the departed lays in the house the family and village start to pitch in to put together a proper send off.  The importance of a person is related to the amount of pigs and buffalo that are slaughtered on the final day and the soul can’t rest unless the final party is done just right.  They arn’t cheap either.  The highly sought after albino buffalo can go for between 10 and 50 thousand US.  I am not lying.   The regular colored buffalo go for several thousand.Great open single room structures are made special for the family, all the men in the village assist with the construction.  Buffalo and pigs must be procured, everything has to be just right.  The funeral itself winds up lasting a week, the week before the family sleeps in the same room next to the dead relative.  The whole thing ends with a pig and cow throat slitting slaughter fest which I understand leaves the ground bright red.  That I did not particularly care to witness.
My friend Albin (the Slovenian geologist) and his girlfriend had found a member of the family who would be willing to ‘guide’ us to the funeral.  Here is where things got very ify for me.  I would not be cool with tourists at the funeral of anyone I loved.  How is this ok?  I demanded to know, I am not a funeral crasher, not typically anyways.  Well, turns out members of the family are allowed to make a little scratch off the whole thing.  They charge backpackers money to check out a traditional ceremony and that way the family recoups a little of the expense they shelled out in the first place, I guess.  The point is everyone I talked to says it was a cool thing for us to be doing and nobody would be pissed about seeing us there, and I asked lots and lots of people around the town of Rentapao just to make sure.  The idea of going still felt strange.  When I talked to the guide she recommended that I show up with a bag of flour or rice for the family, which I did.  Albin also thought to buy candy for the kids, along with small toothbrushes in case the parents worried about their little teeth.
Armed to the teeth with flour, candy, and tooth brushes to the village we rode up bumpy mountain roads, once again through rice fields of amazing glory.  From thick in the jungle we finally emerged in a huge mud flat of parked vans and motorcycles.  Hundreds of people all around.  Some carried pigs hog tied in bamboo poles over shoulders.  Some of the pigs knew what was up and still had fight left in them, the first thing that hit me was the aweful shrieks.  We walked along a dirt path up a hill along rows of pigs on the ground tied this way, their ribs heaving and their skulls slamming into mud, some were already bankrupt of all hope and lay still.  phpBdPUzA Pick up trucks were parked with the poor pigs piled up in the back, I have no idea how many pigs we are talking about here, but easily more than a hundred.  Meanwhile the buffalo where led around by ropes which went through hoops in their noses.  They seemed blissfully unaware of the situation.
We were taken to the outside of a ring of open buildings which formed a courtyard in the middle which was where everything seemed to be happening.  Long processions of mourners in traditional dress were walking in solunm silent rows into the center.
“where the hell are we?” I wondered out loud.
Our guide asked if we wanted to go visit the family.  I was numb, I had no answer, I haven’t been that far out of context ever.  It was worse than the worse awkward moments of being a teen, you know when you were 14 and the cooler kids were 16?  Or the first day of a job where you don’t know anyone, or farting on a date, hell it wasn’t like any of that.  It was stranger.  My friend Monty tells a story of getting dragged to an Ensynch concert by a stripper from the Clairmont, he had a lime green mohawk spiked up in tall pins and a leather jacket with chains hanging.  He told me later that he felt at some point in everyones life they should try to feel that out of place, just once to know how it feels.  Hey Monty, I get it!  I really do!  I know now how it feels to be out of place and to stick out like a sore thumb.
“Do you want to go in and visit the family?” the lady asked me again.  And I said, “uh”  so we started walking.
Our guide stuck us in the back of a long line of woman in black robes with ratton rice picker hats, heads low.  There were about a hundred of them in a file, at the end of the line were three very conspicuous foreigners.
We were lead in this parade around the edge of the courtyard with crowds of people watching, the middle of the the ring people and buffalo were hanging around, stepping over the screaming pigs who were tied and littered all around, the dirt on under them was already stained with blood from some previous slaughter.  On the end was a huge special building draped with red curtains, a specially built raised stage for the family to view the events.  The roof came to a point with a coffin at the very topmost point.  It dawned on me like thunder that we were being led into this holy chamber, the dead center of everyone’s attention.  I felt like a fool, an introding fool.  I can’t explain with words how uneasy I felt, how insensitive I imagined them taking me to be.  Inside the chamber the woman are lead to one side and the men to the other.  Everyone was taking off their shoes, here I was with these hiking boots with the long laces that wrap around the metel hook thingies, and I was trying to balance myself and get these things off and everyone was watching.  Albin and I sat down and smiled profusely at everyone, they all smilled back.  They seemed so happy to see us, and so curious about us.  The man next to me offered me a cigerette which I took and lited, and nodding like it was the greatest thing ever.  Another foriegner was led in, they offered him a cig, he actually refused and turned to me asking if he could have my marbaro.  ‘I can’t smoke that kind.’ The guy sounded Australian maybe.  All the men around him, the family of the decesed seemed unable to understand this insult.  I was having trouble with it too.  It didn’t seem obvious to him that it is very impolite to sit in a room with the family of the dead directly underneath a coffin and refuse a gift from the morning family.  I don’t think that is generally done in Tana Toraja.
I haven’t had a single cigarette now for over a month and going strong so, by the way.  Not really related I just love telling people that.
The man next to me spoke no English, so I was doing the best I could with Indonesian.  He was from Jakarta, or many people had come from Jakarta just to be there, one or the other I don’t know which.  I do know that I asked how he was related to the dead, the guy smiled a toothy smile and said ‘father’.  I told him how great this ceremony was and how anyone would be so happy with such a thing, and I said his father must be very, very important.  This all made the guy super happy, but he really didn’t seem like someone would at the funeral of a parent.  I guess it has been happening for over six months and by now he is fairly ok with the whole thing.
And I wasn’t sure about taking pictures but I saw everyone else doing it and my guide told me that to the Tarajans taking a picture shows respect to the spectacle of this enormous event.  So I got some great shots.  Check these out.
The famous and expensive albino buffalo, or as I like to say sapi bule.
After a few minutes we were lead out of the main pavilion and taken to the side with the rest of the spectator crowds to watch.  The processions went by one after the other, it seemed like it had been happening that way all week.  At one point there was a procession of live stock.  First were the albino buffalos, there were two which is like the price of two new cares.  Anyone interested in giving me a little seed money to start an albino buffalo farm?  Then came the regular buffalo and then the pigs were carried around on bamboo poles.  With each animal a name was read, the contributor I suppose.  And these three guys (pictured above) in ceremonial clothes danced around the whole area, little notice seemed to be taken of them but I thought they were cool.  And I noticed in the processions the older were always first, and their was an all old man line followed by an all old woman line.  And nobody seemed to notice the constant screaming pigs, every so often one managed to get on it’s feet and charge the crowd in a last ditch effort only to be tackeled and retied.
I wandered from the crowd for a bit when the whole scene got too heavy, I walked around a corner and found a pit where they were roasting whole pigs.  A guy came up and offered me a hit off a long piece of bamboo filled with my favorite palm tree south east Asian libation tuack.  The locals were all impressed and cheered when I did a shot with the guy.  Lots of old ladies gave me a thumbs up of approval.
here is the guy:
Would you drink palm tree thunder juice with this guy?  Yeah, I know me too.
After an hour it was too much and we split.  Didn’t seem to be anything happening anyways.  If we had hung around the whole day they would have fed us some very fresh pork but we felt like we had seen it and it was sort of a heavy place to be so we split.  The rest of the day we visited some of the other villages, then we had a nice lunch in a tiny restaurant overlooking the valley with Rentapao off in the distance.
We didn’t see any animal slaughter that day, which I am thrilled about.  I later learned that the animals were all killed the next day.  A Dutch man explained at my hotel had been there that day and told me that all the buffalo get their throats cut and fall after a few seconds, blood showering.  But he said that one took ten minutes to fall, and a girl was watching and crying.  It had been her buffalo, she had spent every day in a field caring for it.  I shouldn’t tell that story, it makes me so sad just thinking about it.  Poor buffalo.  I will say again though, from what I saw the rest of that buffalos life was really nice and peaceful.
Ok, last adventure and then I am done with talking about this one trip.  I think I told you that this was last Christmas, and here I am writing about it in March, well it was the week after Christmas and I met some great Brittish guys and we did new years up with screaming whoops and drunken kareoke.  Well the next day I had two days left before I had to head back to Makasar for my flight back to Surabaya.  I went to the bus company and was told they were sold out.  The next one said the same thing.  Place three, place four, all of them, hot Jesus they aren’t running buses because of the new year, meaning I am trapped.  Finally I found a plane company, I had been told by a fifty year old Dutch man and his maybe 18 or 19 year old Indonesian boyfriend about the flight out of Tana Toraja, and they told me the price which was cheap.  The price I was now being told was easily four times as much.  The deal was that some poor fool had already bought the ticket for the plane and they would gladly sell me his ticket for four times the same price.  I had a sour feeling about doing that to the other guy and sore as hell about paying so much but I had no options.  The guy behind the desk smiled and shrugged, he must look forward to this all year.  I paid.
That night I stayed up with the Brit backpackers listening to David Bowie and playing cards.
We all went to the plane the next morning with hang overs, it was an hour drive through the jungle to get to the airstrip on top of a mountain, the airline picked us up in a van.  The airport was a tiny two room affair and it didn’t fill me with confidence when they made me stand on a scale wearing my bag.  I met a chatty older Indonesian guy who told me that he worked on an oil rig.
“hey man, you’re American?  I work with an American man, I can speak American.” The guy’s English was great.
“Really?  You can speak American?” I asked the guy.
“shit fuck cocksucker asshole goddamn” the guy said and we both laughed our heads off and I cursed right back at him.
“You see?  I can speak to an American!” He exclaimed triumphantly.
We watched the plane land, it was tiny.  Man that was a small little two engine prop plane.  The pilot was near us, he pointed at the plane as it taxied in.
“too many noisey, but engine gooooood!” He gave a thumbs up.  I now hope to hear this statement from all of my airline representatives in the future.  And I flew out of the jungle in a tiny two engine prop plane, thinking about Indiana Jones and watching the jungle go by below.
But it was ok, took a couple of hours, we had headphones for the noise.
Before flying back to Surabaya they had accidentally canceled my seat, I was really cool about it and they fixed it.  I wanted to freak out and yell but I smiled and was cool so they were cool too.
Yeah, that’s all I can think of about that trip.
I have more pictures, but I may have to show them in person, I will be back in the States soonish.  I hope to see you guys there.

One Response to “Part 3, a backpackers guide to visiting the Tana Torajian dead”

  1. Amy Burke says:

    Now I’m really glad you’re not a buffalo! Not sure what else to say Will…amazing adventures as always.

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