Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Java Travels

I'm writing from a steamy train looking out the window at rice field after rice field in a glowing green.  Every inch of Indonesia seems to be cultivated with something or crowded with houses and traffic filled roads.  In the last few years as the economy here has grown many people have bought motorbikes and they crowd the roads and weave in between the cars.  The roads and infrastructure can't handle it all and its made for some extra long rides for us, especially since its the holiday season and school is off so people are on the go.  On the bright side this means that we get to join them at the local sights which can be quite fun since for some reason many people ask to take photos with us like we are some exotic creature.  It feels fun to be special! Plus Indonesians have wonderful big smiles and endlessly giggle which is infectious and the inevitable response to a photo session.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Buffaloes are revered in Tana Toraja.  This boy was proud of his who was waiting to be given as a gift at a funeral.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Exploring the Culture of Tana Toraja

A typical Torajan compound
At the suggestion of my wise travel friend Grace, I spent a week in Sulawesi exploring the culture of the Torajan people, a culture that believes strongly in the passing of ones spirit from death to their next life.

The great thing for a low budget traveler like me is that in Tana Toraja I could afford hire a guide, jump on the back of his motorbike and go off and learn about the culture.  I heard so much over my 5 days there that I am a bit afraid to even attempt to repeat it for fear of inaccuracies but here goes.

Torajans are renowned for their elaborate funeral rites, burial sites carved into rocky cliffs, massive peaked-roof traditional houses and colorful woodcarvings. Toraja funeral rites are important social events, usually attended by hundreds of people and lasting for several days.

The funeral procession
The Funeral Ceremonies

I was able to attend two funerals and see different rituals.  Day one is for receiving guests and gifts.  This meant an elaborate ceremony where all the guests are honored and led in a procession around the courtyard by the family of the deceased.  Although on a daily basis the extent of traditional dress in Tana Toraja is more like jeans and a t-shirt on the first day of the funeral everyone is decked out in their finest Torajan clothes.  Each guest or family has brought a gift which often is a live pig or water buffalo.  These gifts are displayed in the courtyard and recorded and announced in a ceremony to the crowd.

A display of buffalo horns from funerals
Day two is when water buffaloes are sacrificed to create a vessel for the dead person's soul to find their way to their next life.  Buffaloes are deeply revered in this area and very very valuable and the more prominent the person the higher the number of buffaloes that are sacrificed.  They display the horns on their houses going forward to show their status. For many visitors this can be hard to watch and guides warn you before you even decide to attend, but for a heartless carnivore like me, I snapped photos and enjoyed the spectacle along with the rest of the excited crowd.  I watched 12 buffaloes fall from a quick stroke to their throats followed by lurching bloody drops to their death.  I even got spattered with a little bit of blood!  (I took many great gory action photos which I wish I could share, but I know many of you are squeamish so I'll just show one to give you the idea.)

The sacrifice!!!
The story of these funerals is even grander than this.  Since these funerals are BIG occasions they take a long time to save money and prepare for.  Viewing stands and temporary housing for out of town guests have to be built. Also its really important for all family members to attend so it takes time to get all the out of towners back for the celebration.  All of this means a funeral may not happen until a year or more after the person dies.  So what happens is right after a person dies, there is a small funeral service, then the body is somehow embalmed, wrapped, put in a casket and kept in their house until preparations can be made for the full funeral.  (Yes, I know, how can the body not smell?  I'm not sure buy somehow they don't.)

Throughout these two days I kept having to pinch myself to prove I was really there.  The enormity of the celebration and the total "Wow, I'm having a National Geographic moment" was incredible.  Torajans have realized that tourists are interested in their traditions and welcomed us with open arms and bright smiles.  On each day there were a small handful us but comparing that to the 1000 local attendees were certainly did not affect the spirit of the celebration.
Lemo cliff graves

The Graves

On the last day of the funeral the casket is placed in the family tomb.  Over hundreds of years, Torajans have been carving graves in stone cliffs, caves and building elaborate mausoleums that look like little individual houses bigger than many New York apartments.  The deceased is buried with some valuable possessions and ancestors continue to leave offerings at the side of the these tombs.  Family members are often entombed together over the years.  The idea is that the spirit will live on.  Some tombs also have tau tau effigies with them that represent the people who were placed there.

The Weekly Livestock Market

The buffalo market
Another interesting thing I got to attend when I was in Toraja was the Rantepao Weekly Livestock market which takes place once every six days based on the Torajan calendar.  At this market they sell water buffaloes and pigs, the two major gifts for funerals.  The hierarchy of these two animals couldn't be more pronounced.  Buffaloes are brought to market and washed and cleaned and cared for to improve their value.  Owners pet them and feed them handfuls of grasses that are sold in huge sacks.  They sell for 1000s of dollars so they are definitely something to be proud of.

Pigs on the other hand aren't treated as nicely.  Small ones are kept in grain sacks which are opened for prospective buyers to peer into.  Larger pigs are strapped to bamboo sticks so that they lie flat all day on display.  Watching the process of tying them down was painful.  They squeal and kick.  I must say though I like pigs even better after watching them.  They are fighters.  They kept kicking as if they really believe they could set themselves free and save themselves from their inevitable death.  (The buffaloes at the funeral just stood passively at the funeral as others beside them were slaughtered.  They stood in pools of blood and had no reaction at all.)
Pigs for sale!

Watching the pigs in the market and at the funerals was one of the rare times I wondered why I eat meat, but then when I was offered pork as part of the funeral I swallowed it up.  You know the saying.  You just have to get back on the horse!  For now I'm meant to be a meat eater.

All in all, visiting Tana Toraja was well worth the two days travel it took from Jakarta to get there.  I feel like I learned a lot and met a lot of wonderful people and hope I have been able to give you a small piece of the experience.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Christmas Season in Torajaland

I didn't think coming to Indonesia, the largest Islamic country in the world would mean learning new Christmas traditions.  But arriving in Tana Toraja in Central Sulawesi, I could tell my expectations were wrong.  The drive up the main road was lined with Christian churches and I arrived into the main town, Rantepao, in the dark greeted by the colors of blinking Christmas lights everywhere which made it clear that this area celebrated Christmas in a big way.

This meant Christmas Carols playing in every store and restaurant and Christmas trees decorated with big puff of white stuff to simulate snow, something they definitely never get in this part of the world.

It meant the constant crackling of fireworks which apparently are let off every night of December.  I decided to partake is this tradition and bought a bunch of different explosives and set them off to the thrill and entertainment of a whole bunch of kids.
In Tana Toraja, Sulawesi, Indonesia, the big tourist activity is attending funerals and visiting many different kinds of graves.  This one is in a cave from 100s of years ago.  Tau Tau effigies are created for some of the buried.  Ancestors continue to maintain the graves and leave offerings like clothes, cigarettes and bottles of things besides the graves.
Rice paddies cover ever inch of available land in Torajaland.