Getting away from the crowds: A Taste of Tana Toraja, Sulawesi, Indonesia

Updated November 18th, 2017.

I’d been in Indonesia now for a couple of weeks serving hard beach time in Bali and the Gili Islands. Now it was time to take in some culture.

Indonesia is the largest archipelago in the world consisting of 17,000 islands, so something for everyone! Whether you love beaches, volcanoes, extraordinary wildlife (Komodo Dragons are exclusively native to Indonesia and Orang-utans), delicious food, the list goes on and on…

Gili trawangan - to be compared - Sulawesi article
Had enough of hard beach time in the Gili Islands?

My journey was taking me to the peculiar headless monkey shaped island of Sulawesi.

I wanted something different, an adventure; a place where the majority wouldn’t go because it’s out of their comfort zone. Sulawesi seemed like the perfect island! I had heard about the spectacular countryside and macabre funeral rituals. The sun began to set as I gazed out of the plane window looking down at the ocean. From above, it looked liked someone had sprinkled hundreds and thousands all over it.

I turned my attention back to my guidebook and tried to find a suitable place to stay so I could at least walk out the airport looking like I knew what I was doing, instead of taxi drivers trying to drag me from taxi to taxi telling me they have a cheap place to stay. The passenger next to me kept glancing at my guidebook and noticed I was looking in the budget section for cheap digs.

‘I usually stay at the Losmen Semeru. It’s cheap, clean and central for anything you want to do. Here’s a card. Show it to a taxi driver and he’ll take you there’ she said.

‘Cheers.’

The airline captain made an announcement telling us we’d started our descent into the vibrant city of Makassar, the gateway to Sulawesi.

I’ve never been much of a city kid so the thought of staying in an Indonesian city, the oppressive heat and damaging pollution fills me with dread. Therefore, my plan was to stay in Makassar for one night, catch an early morning bus to Rantepao and base myself there to explore the mysterious area of Tana Toraja which surrounds it.

I collected my bag and made my way to the taxi rank. As soon as the doors opened I was mobbed by screaming taxi drivers, trying to get me into their cab.

Now I know what Beatlemania feels like.

I jumped into one, gave him the card and said ‘Take me here please.’

‘This hotel no more sir’ he said glancing at me through the mirror while dodging other cars. If you’ve travelled around Asia before, you get used to taxi drivers trying to rip you off.

‘Why what’s happened?’

‘It burn down sir, very sorry. I take you to good place, good price, very clean.’

He was aggressively pressing the car horn and getting quite angry with his fellow motorists. A stock answer, I thought.

‘No, take me here’ I was tired, hungry and in desperate need of a shower.

We drove through the crowded streets of Makassar.

Street vendors were selling their wares to vulnerable tourists. Food-hawkers knocked on the taxi window trying to sell me chicken satay, and the delicious smell sneaking through the open window. I took out my digital camera and clicked away at Fort Rotterdam which was built by the Dutch. If you didn’t know, Indonesia was once a Dutch colony; the spicy jewel in the Dutch-East Indies crown. It wasn’t until 1949 that Indonesia gained independence. I finally reached my guest house which was open, surprise, surprise!

The bus was scheduled to leave for Rantepao at eight. However, this is Indonesia therefore, buses leave when they’re full. The heat and humidity were already insufferable. I managed to book with a company called Litha Bus and the flyer in the tiny steaming hot office stated:

The VIP bus of choice; a modern bus with air-con and a toilet.

Well, I was sold on the air-con, but a toilet, wow!

There was a small warung (a local eatery) outside the bus station. I nipped over and ordered an Indonesian favourite nasi goreng, vegetable fried rice with a fried egg on top. I got my food and made my way back onto the bus. The journey was to take around 8 hours. So, I decided to relax, read and take in the sights this weird and wonderful shaped island had to offer.

I drifted off on the bus but woke up freezing cold. The driver had the AC blowing out at sub-zero temperatures. The scenery was breathtaking; spectacular rice terraces rising in every direction and to top that off; volatile volcanoes letting out puffs of smoke.

The bus pulled into the small town of Rantepao.

The rain had stopped and the air was cooler than in Makassar. Across the street was a bustling night market, which appeared to be selling everything from clothes and food to livestock. The smells were heavenly. I was greeted at the back of the bus by a slim looking man with slick jet black hair, warm brown eyes and a perfectly groomed moustache who introduced himself as Augusto.

‘You want hotel sir?’

‘Yes, is it cheap?’

‘Very good price sir, come look.’

I agreed to take a look. Augusto had a friendly smile which I took to. We walked to his guest house and made small talk. I heard about the troubles Sulawesi had in the mid 90s. Augusto assured me that everything was okay and the violence between Muslims and Christians was in the past.

We arrived at his guest house called Duta 88 Cottages. Immediately, I was impressed. Each of the cottages was in the Tongkonan style (the traditional Torajan house. I’ll get to that later). It had a nice veranda and inside was a double bed and a wardrobe, all in keeping with the rustic feel outside. The price was 150,000 rupiah (roughly 10 Euros) including breakfast. I showered and went to sit outside. Augusto came over.

‘You want drink?’

‘Bintang, (local beer) please.’

He brought it over and sat down next to me smoking a kretek (clove cigarette). These cigarettes smell awful. Thick black smoke filled the air around me.

Augusto told me he was a tour guide and for a good price, he would take me around showing me what Tana Toraja had to offer. He also told me that in two days time there would be a traditional Torajan funeral ceremony. We agreed on a price and for the next two days, I was at his mercy.

The next morning I awoke to glorious azure skies and Augusto waiting outside my door, smoking and smiling.

‘Good morning sir, good sleep?’

‘It was okay. What about you?’

‘Always good sleep sir.’ (I’m a woman)

‘You want breakfast?’

‘Yes, I’m starving.’

The restaurant was a makeshift shack at the back of the hotel. The dozen green plastic tables and chairs had battered old menus on top and there was a tiny kitchen out back. The smell of fresh coffee coming from the kitchen was wonderful; so I ordered a full-flavoured fresh Indonesian coffee and banana pancakes. While we waited Augusto showed me the itinerary for the next couple of days. All of it looked fascinating.

‘At lunch time, we eat delicacy. Many people like it’ he said.

‘What is it?’

‘It surprise.’

We set off in his jeep south of Rantepao to the village of Ke’te Kesu. On the way, I saw many men scrubbing their buffalos.

‘Why are there so many buffalos about?’

‘They’re status symbol of power and wealth, important in religious ceremonies’ he explained.

‘So the more buffalos you have, the richer you are?’

‘Yes sir.’

We arrived at the quiet village of Ke’te Kesu. We walked through the middle of the village which had an eerie feel to it as if it had been abandoned during some kind of natural disaster. Down one side of the village and up the other were Tongkonans. I admired these carefully built traditional houses with their towering roofs, which were built out of bamboo and reared up at both ends.

Houses of Tana Toraja, Sulawesi, Indonesia
The traditional houses of Ke’te Kesu, Sulawesi.

‘Have they always been built like this Augusto?’

‘Yes, some Torajans believe the roof represents the horns of buffalo, others believe it symbolises the bow and stern of boat’ he said.

I stopped at one in particular which had VIP on it.

‘I take it this person was important and why does it have so many buffalo horns and the head of a buffalo on the side?’

‘Yes, this person important. If you see many horns of the buffalo and this albino-buffalo head on Tongkonan it means the person was very wealthy and gives good status.’

The front of the Tongkonan had a variety of carvings on it. Dull colours of rusty red and coffee brown were neatly painted into intricate designs of buffalo horns weaved with chickens standing on a sphere, symbolising the sun.

The morning had flown by and now it was time for my surprise lunch. I kept asking Augusto where we were going his only response was a grin.

We sat outside a local restaurant in the garden surrounded by trees, plants and caught a refreshing breeze. It was very basic; white plastic tables, brown stained windows, dirty red chequered tablecloths and unusual smells coming from the kitchen. There was no menu so I left it to Augusto, who spoke to the waiter and grinned. I ordered a Coca-Cola and it came out in the classic glass bottle style. I don’t drink it at home but for some reason, Coca-Cola in a glass bottle tastes unbelievable. After a while lunch was served. One plate was boiled rice and the other was pieces of meat which looked like it was laced with chilli.

‘What’s this?’

‘Very delicious you try.’

I picked up the meat and examined it as if it was a diamond. I noticed that it had white hairs on it. I took a bite. It was very spicy and tough like over cooked beef. I took another bite and meat stuck in my teeth. But it wasn’t meat, it was a hair.

‘Okay, what is it?’

‘Delicacy’ he said laughing.

‘C’mon, what is it?’

‘It is dog.’

I spat it out and didn’t know whether to be annoyed with Augusto or laugh. I glanced back and saw that a dog started to eat the piece I’d spat out.

‘Let’s go’ I barked at Augusto.

The dog incident had left a peculiar atmosphere in the car and Augusto hadn’t said much since. What I didn’t want was for him to lose face; so I assured him everything was okay, no damage done. Once again he was smiling and smoking. I wound down the window to let the smoke out and get some natural air in. We drove over to a place called Londa where we would see the spooky figures of tau taus (wooden effigies).

Tau Taus in Sulawesi Indonesia
The Tau Taus, wooden effigies that represent people who have died.

We followed a beaten track through stunning rice fields to reach the entrance of a burial cave. The heat was now brutal. The sun was at its highest point making this the most lethal part of the day. Above the entrance to the cave was a balcony carved into the rock face. Inside the balcony and in a sitting position looking out over the paddy fields were two tau taus of the dead, an old man and woman. The man was dressed in a black velvet hat, a grey suit jacket, white shirt and trousers. The woman had greyish hair, a large conical straw hat, a red velvet dress and glasses. Both had their arms reaching out as if they were trying not to let loved ones go.

The cave was completely pitch-black and had a supernatural feel to it. I took out my Mag-Lite and shone it around. Drops of water dripped down from the roof onto our heads. In the corner, I noticed a coffin which looked like it was rotting. I twisted the torch head and it turned into a spotlight. I could see a human skull staring back at me. We went deeper into the cave. Coffins that were once suspended in mid-air were now smashed and the remains of the dead were strewn across the cave floor. We carefully made our way across without stepping on any skulls or bones to a coffin that wasn’t rotting. It had what looked like gifts surrounding it.

Coffins-in-a-cave-Sulawesi-Indonesia
Spooky coffins inside the cave.

‘Why do they leave all of this stuff?’

‘Family members come here and bring the dead presents; flowers, cigarettes and alcohol. Gifts for the afterlife, they take with them’ Augusto said.

Caves-Sulawesi-Indonesia
People leave presents for the dead inside the cave.

Death was getting a bit claustrophobic; it was time to get out. We stepped out into the dazzling sunshine and strolled back to the jeep. I was dropped off at my guest house and we arranged a time for tomorrow so I could see a funeral ceremony.

He picked me up after breakfast and we set off to a small village outside Rantepao. Again, down one side and up the other were Tongkonans. I was asked to sit down and not to say anything. Underneath an open-plan building which had broken terracotta tiles on the roof with bamboo as support was a huge cask-like coffin.

The family members were all sat around it, holding hands. Two buffalos were led into the clearing in front of us by a short, stocky man smoking a kretek and holding a machete. With one unbroken motion, he slit the buffalo’s jugular and blood came streaming out. The buffalo didn’t make a sound, its front legs buckled and it crashed to the floor head first. A shower broke out and the mixture of blood and rain formed a small stream that trickled down the middle of the village clearing.

Buffalo-Sulawesi-Indonesia
A sacrificial buffalo.

Machete man casually strolled over to the other buffalo and repeated his sacrificial duties. He lit another cigarette and took out a hacksaw and a huge axe making him look like a psychopathic butcher. He quickly and expertly skinned and gutted the buffalos. So much grass came out of their stomachs, enough to fill a wheelbarrow. He began to chop them up. At first, the axe cut through the bone like a knife going through butter. Sometimes the hacksaw was needed to finish the job. This was the first time I’d seen someone sawing through bone. The sound was grating and sickening. In the distance, a pig squealed for its life, probably knowing it’d be next.

Buffalo-head-Sulawesi-Indonesia
The buffalo’s head.

Augusto explained to me that even though most of the Torajans are Christian they still have Animist beliefs. So when a buffalo is sacrificed its spirit guides the soul to the afterlife. Just before lunch, the coffin was carried through the village by family members then heaved up a ramp and placed on the roof. The skinned and chopped up buffalos were put into many cooking pots and women prepared lunch.

Just before lunch, the coffin was carried through the village by family members then heaved up a ramp and placed on the roof. The skinned and chopped up buffalos were put into many cooking pots and women prepared lunch.

Lunch was served. I had mixed feelings about eating it. It was the first time I’d seen an animal go from being alive then slaughtered, put into a cooking pot and then onto my plate. However, the buffalo was seasoned perfectly and served with sticky rice. It was very tasty and fell off the bone.

I sat and thought how unusual the last two days had been. I was the only westerner here. I felt privileged to have been able to see this strange service. Well, to an outsider it’s strange but to the locals, just a normal way of life.

About the author: Kristian Benitez lives in Vejer de la Frontera on the Costa de la Luz, south-west Spain. When he’s not travelling, he loves going to the beach and socialising with friends.

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