Hello again to all my faithful and devoted readers – I’m back! For those out there who were starting to get worried, keeping this blog perpetually open in one of your Firefox tabs and refreshing the page at the beginning and end of every coffee break on the off-chance I had returned to the land of the living and posted in the interim, you may now heave a deep sigh of relief. Your favorite reading material is back online. You can go ahead and close out the New York Times and Chronic Boredom Support Chatroom tabs now.
The reason for my long absence was that I work for a Catholic university, which meant I got a week off for Easter, which meant I obviously did a little finagling of my schedule so I could take a glorious, eleven-day vacation on the island of Sulawesi, famed for the boat-shaped roofs of its traditional houses, mythical funeral ceremonies, and some of the best diving sites on the planet. While we did not, unfortunately, get to partake of the diving (that’s for later in my life, when I have a better relationship with my bank account), we did manage to squeeze in some snorkeling, as well as our fair share of – you guessed it – caves and graves.
My trip started out solo, as I wasn’t due to meet up with my travel buddy Megan until a few days later. I flew in to Sulawesi’s capital city, Makassar, early in the morning, and marched myself straight to the bus station where I boarded a bus for the town of Rantepao in the mountains of Tana Toraja, the heart of Sulawesi’s traditional village culture. Within the first 15 minutes of the bus ride, as I was settling in for what the Lonely Planet promised would be a scenic, 7.5-hour journey, the woman sitting next to me struck up a chat and, upon establishing that I spoke Indonesian, proceeded to talk to me for the remainder of the 10-hour journey. Since I didn’t seem to be required to do anything more than nod and smile in response, I was fine with this arrangement -- just as I was with her decision to buy me lunch at the roadside rest stop, and to generally look out for me for the duration of the ride. At one point some of the Indonesians across the aisle began to take an interest in the bule (foreigner) who spoke at least enough Indonesian that she could pretend to hold a 10-hour conversation, but Chatty Cathy deftly fended them off, as I had clearly been established as her bule and she was not about to share me. I mean, let's face it: who would?
Chatty Cathy disembarked at Makale, the city before Rantepao, so I rolled into town alone. Since it’s still low season for tourism in Indonesia, I hadn’t bothered to make hostel arrangements beforehand, figuring I’d just swing by a few of the places I’d circled in my LP and decide when I got there. It wasn’t until I was standing in the middle of a circle of Indonesian taxi, becak and angkot drivers who all wanted to take me somewhere and who couldn’t understand why I did not yet know where that place was, in the dark, in the middle of a tiny town in the mountains of Sulawesi, that I realized this decision had lacked foresight. So I did what any solo traveler must do, and decided on the spot. Deciding on the spot simply involved blurting out the name of the first hostel I could remember from the guidebook – Wisma Monton – and allowing myself to be taken there. In general I operate on the faith that it all shakes down the way it’s supposed to shake down, and this situation was no exception. Set around a little garden, clean, quiet, run by a lovely family and providing stellar mountain views from the third floor (as I discovered in the morning), Monton was the right choice. No matter that I was absolutely the only person staying there. Creepy? No way. More mountain views for me!
The next morning I hired a guide for the day, mostly because I really wanted to see one of Toraja’s famous funeral ceremonies and they are hard to find without local guides who know the dead people’s schedules. Luckily for me there was a ceremony happening nearby that very morning, and when we got there I’d only missed the beginning of a series of speeches in Bahasa Toraja, the local Torajan language, which I couldn’t understand anyway. (On the note of speeches, I've realized lately that it's going to take a lot of adjustment when I get back to the States and can suddenly understand everything that happens at ceremonies, meetings, and over loudspeakers. It will be total data overload. My poor brain will not know what to do.) The coffin was set up in the center of a swept clearing surrounded by a compound of covered platforms where all the guests were seated, and where I also sat with a handful of other bule and their guides. After about an hour and a half of speeches, chants, and songs, the special Torajan dish pa' piong was served, in which meat and vegetables are stuffed all together into the thick tube of a stalk of bamboo and smoked over a fire for several hours, before being pushed out of the stalk and eaten with rice. In this case, the meat was pork from a pig that, as my guide informed me, had been slaughtered that morning. Fresh meat, anyone? It don’t get a whole lot fresher than that. Animal sacrifices (usually of pigs and buffalo) are a common feature of Torajan funeral rites, and with the number of animals sacrificed being proportionate to the status of the person who has died, I’ve heard that as many as 14 buffalo could be slaughtered at one funeral. Needless to say, I was kind of glad I missed the sacrifice part. I’m all about partaking of cultural experiences, but I’m also all about keeping large quantities of buffalo blood out of my direct line of sight, so, you know. I was content to eat my pa’ piong and move on.
After everyone had eaten, we all moved down to the clearing and stood in big circle around the coffin and held hands and chanted, while the close family of the deceased gathered tightly around the coffin and commenced to weep and wail with a degree of hysteria that I’ve seldom witnessed in real life. It was kind of strange, actually, to be present at an event that for Americans is usually quite private, privy to obvious human pain that the family of the deceased did not in any way try to hide. What was even stranger, though, was how quickly the hysterical wailing gave way to buoyant gallivanting, as the young men in the family, along with others, picked up the coffin and pranced it out of the compound, transitioning into the next phase of the ceremony where the coffin is brought to the grave. People were laughing and shouting as we all scampered after the coffin-bearers, up a hill, down a hill, through several rice paddy fields, across a stream, up a steep embankment through thick jungle foliage and finally into another clearing in front of a tall flat cliff face of solid rock. The singular feature of Torajan graves is that they are traditionally located inside caves, either natural ones or – more spectacularly, as in this case – manmade. As with all Torajan cut-rock graves, a large rectangular chamber had been cut into the side of this cliff face, big enough to hold maybe up to 10 or 12 coffins, and enterable only through a small square opening – big enough to fit a coffin through, basically. According to custom, all members of a family are buried together in one grave in death, just as they lived together in one house in life. It took a lot of huffing, puffing, heaving and hoeing to get the coffin up to the opening and in to the cave, but then it was done. It was an interesting sight to behold, as at American burials coffins are often lowered into the ground – a horizontal piece of earth – but in this case the coffin was hoisted up above head level and slid into the side of a cliff – a vertical piece of earth. It was a great reminder that all it takes is a few little instances of ancient cultural tradition at work to wonk with the needle of your Normality Compass. I love traveling.
That was the name of the game over the next few days, as I traipsed all over the hills and valleys of Toraja checking out sweet burial site after sweet burial site – I saw life-size wooden effigies lined up like spectators at a sports event in balconies above cut-rock graves, coffins stacked in natural caves, human skulls strewn on the ground beneath the columns of hanging graves, babies buried in miniature chambers in the sides of more cliff faces. Megan made it to Rantepao safe and sound, and one of the mornings we met up with some friends of hers and did a 7-hour hike through a handful of traditional Torajan villages, dropping our jaws around every corner at the views of the soaring distorted roofs of the houses and the cascading rice paddies down into the valley. Legend has it that the original settlers of this region came up the river from the coast on boats, and used their vessels as the roofs of their first shelters, which is why the roofs of the traditional houses bend up at both ends today. Whether or not that folktale holds water (…get it? HA) it’s hard not to stare out over the expanse of Torajan hills and see the clusters of bended red roofs as fleets of tiny ships on the green patchwork ocean of rice paddies. A couple of the afternoons when it poured end-of-rainy-season-wonky-weather rain, I just sat up on our third-floor balcony at Monton and watched the storm and the mountains and wrote in my journal. I ate every meal at the same restaurant around the corner from Monton, and made friends with the 19-year-old girl who worked there, Tata, who sat down to chat with me (and Megan, when she got there) before and after every meal, and brought us free desserts of fresh fruit cups and sliced papaya, and walked us to the bus station on the morning we left, holding my hand and making me promise I’d keep in touch. I got some beautiful Torajan handicrafts as gifts for family and friends back home, drank sweet, thick Torajan coffee, and soaked up the cool Torajan weather. Toraja, in other words, was pretty much perfect.
But, as we all know, what goes up must come down. And lest this blog begin to sound too much like a greeting card from Ten Thousand Villages, I can assure you that what went up soon came down. Stay tuned for Part II, and in the meanwhile, get a firm grip on your hats. You cannot even begin to fathom the meaning of the phrase "bumpy ride."