Sulawesi, Tana Toraja
Jan 18, 2010
|The blond curly haired guy, mid-twenties, walks across from the bus bay opening of the covered Makassar bus station to the bench where I am sitting on the right hand side: “Water is 4.000 rupees”, he says in Dutch to the slightly Indonesian looking guy on the left, while he sits himself between us. He is wearing a thin purplish shirt and an almost indecently thin rainbow striped pair of trousers with a hint of a flare; are these the seventies again? “So where are you guys headed?“, I ask, continuing in Dutch, when the other guy has left to buy something for himself. Like me, they are on their way to Rantepao in Tana Toraja, renowned for the unique and elaborate funeral ceremonies the Toraja people hold. They flew in from Bali last night after a week of having fun touring the island on rented motorbikes and getting pretty soaked on occasion. After two days in Makassar I can tell him that there is little beyond Fort Rotterdam, the best preserved Dutch fortification in Indonesia, unless you fancy a dirty sprawling city with a littered boulevard, however there is the mall Ratu Indah with the last good espresso places this side of Tana Toraja.
“Jaap”, the slightly Indonesian one introduces himself when he gets back (he is wearing some brown almost woolen type of sweatpants and a drab blue-gray shirt; did I miss the latest fashion tips?): “Joris”, the blond guy adds, while we shake hands. They are old friends from Breda (southern province of Brabant, mostly catholic and more joyous in lifestyle than the protestant north of the Netherlands) and Jaap has met up in Bali with Joris who has been organizing some kind of event in Australia and promptly fell sick relaxing on Bali when the work stress fell away, I know how frustrating that is, since it happened to me on many similar occasions and we come to talk about that Indonesian habit of chucking all their junk on the street.
“Yes, if I were the boss of the Netherlands, that is one thing I would do“, Joris tells in that Breda accent of his (which transports me back to 1967 when I dated Carla, my ex [before we got engaged in 1968 and had to rush our marriage a bit in 1969], who also hails from Breda and we used to go out to café ‘het Voske’ and ‘Klapcot’ around the Grote Markt and friends would say: ’En dat gaat dus mooi niet gebeuren, mannen’ [that is not going to happen, guys], with the exact same intonation as Joris does now, 42 years later). “I would make people clean up after themselves”, while he points at the rubble, broken pavement and littered curbs in front of us. He made a friend walk home every time he threw an empty can out of the car window: “And he still cleans up today”, he says with that engaging brawn of his. There maybe more to that hippie exterior than I thought.
A bus enters, swaying badly while negotiating the broken threshold of the bus bay entrance, first with its left and then with its right front tire. It is the one to Rantepao and we get up to store our luggage in the side compartments. “They have moved your bag into the back of the bus”, another guy tells me, when I am seated. “I know, they already told me”. On a Vietnam trip J&J’s luggage got soaked in the compartment, so on second thought they have put theirs and mine in the back; good thinking as it turns out, because outside Makassar the fields and road are flooded and the bus sprays curtains of water hitting some seriously deep puddles.
The tongkonans, the traditional houses of the Toraja, have upturned roof ends, like the Batak and Minangkabau houses. One myth has it that they represent the bow and stern of the boats the Toraja ancestors sailed up the river Sa’dan to the rugged mountains and lush valleys of mid South Sulawesi (former South Celebes), and another suggests that it is derived from the horns of a buffalo, the status symbol and an animal central to the Torajan life style. But even more remarkable are the Torajan funerals, which take three or four days and are so costly and elaborate that they may only be held months, even years, after a person has died, in order to save the money and make the necessary preparations. During that period the deceased is not considered dead, but sick, is kept in the back room of the tongkonan, gets food and is kept company. The Toraja mix Christianity with animism and ancestor worship; the latter plays the most visual part in the burial rituals, where the body is placed in graves chiseled in a rock boulder or rock face and an effigy in the likeness of the deceased (tau) are placed in front. After the appropriate rituals the soul of the deceased will enter the effigy (tau tau) that than acquires magical powers and can protect but also harm if proper respect and offerings are not given.
“The strange noises we’re making is Dutch”, I explain to the guy sitting next to Joris over lunch (the same who warned me that someone messed with my luggage), we’re five hours into the bus journey now. “I know”, he says, I’m German and can follow it a little bit. He is Steve (‘Rambo’ or the German, as he will later be called), a student from Heidelberg and considering to go study a year in Utrecht. “Why don’t you visit Utrecht and find out how the city and the Dutch are. Which actually should not be that difficult“, I answer my own question, “Because they always want things on the cheap. “Yeh, that‘s right”, Joris ads, “When people offer me something for $100.000, I’ll always try to get it for half of that. The Australians I negotiated with just now are not accustomed to that and began to call me the ‘Dutch Jew’”. There are two more Dutch guys on the bus, Marcel and Jeroen, both students ‘bedrijfskunde’ (applied organizational management), who followed a semester at the university of Jogjakarta. ‘At least another five hours’, is our estimate when we get on the bus again and leave the coastal plain and head into the mountains with the peak of the Gunung Rantemario (3440 metres) in the distance. The five hours turn into six and it is 9 p.m. when we finally arrive in Rantepao and half arranging to jointly do a tour, the five young guys descend on Hotel Indra Toraja, while I seek the luxury of the Hotel Marante Toraja, but have to do that perched on the buddy seat of a motor, because, contrary to what the booking girl had assured me, it is four kilometres out of town.
“No, I don’t want a guide now, maybe tomorrow”. I’m back from breakfast and on my way to collect the motorbike I rented when I arrived last night, my plan being to check out the region today on my own, and check in with the guys in the Indra Toraja to see if we can join and do a tour tomorrow. But then Budi, the guide who was tipped by the hotel staff and waiting for me, tells me a funeral party is on in Lolai village and today, the second day, guests are received. “Can tourists come too?”, I ask, they can, provided they bring along a present for the family. J&J had already told me that they had heard a funeral was on (they had not been sure if it wasn’t a ploy to lure them to Tana Toraja though). So this maybe indeed be a unique opportunity to see it up close (wouldn’t be surprised if that young lot would show up there too). I decide to hire Budi for the day and since I already rented my motor bike, I follow him trough the busy traffic of Rantepao and along a confusing sequence of small roads (I would never have found this on my own) until after some 40 minutes, parked cars, small trucks and throngs of parked motor bikes along the lush vegetation of the small road, tell me that we have arrived at the party.
And a party it is. A whole temporary village is built around the tonkonangs of the family clan the deceased belongs to (somehow the present tense seems more appropriate than the past tense), divided in numbered open family rooms for the guests (some 50 rooms, totaling about 500 guests).I follow Budi up the path to the centre of activities, scores of pigs, bound up in bamboo frames are lying along the path and men and women are congregating separately, probably discussing what happened yesterday (the first day), what is on the menu today, some 60 pigs will be slaughtered and what is on for tomorrow, the slaughtering of the buffaloes. Their number and quality (there are seven categories), will really determine the success or failure of this funeral, after which the deceased will be carried to the site of his grave and his soul will be sent on its way to the Puya helped by the buffaloes sacrificed to find his way.
“We’re invited to come and sit here”, Budi motions me, and I follow him in one of the rooms with a view on the centre of the proceedings, greeting the women squatted on the bamboo floor and trying to fold my legs into the same position. “Terimah kasih”, I thank the lady who pours me a cup of sweetened tea, she is family, and explains that for them the preparations have already started two days ago, before the guests started arriving yesterday. The oldest brother of the deceased leads a group of guests to a special area to the right, while the pigs they present are being carried up to the central area left of the position of the master of ceremonies who reels of the names of the people, elaborating on their titles and far away abodes, if that happens to be the case, and detailing the gifts they have brought. I present my gift to her, a carton of cigarettes, as per Budi’s instructions. “Sorry“, Budi tells me, when I sit down again after taking some pictures, “Not good to stand in the room, disrespectful to stand in front of important guests, sit inside or stand outside, sorry”. He shouldn’t be sorry I tell him, that is what I want him to do and he goes on to explain that anything special, someone giving less than his status requires or people not coming who were expected to do so, will be talked about for month and his imitation of the yapping, vividly illustrates how everyone’s place in the social hierarchy of the Torajas is under constant review, as this ceremony is as much for the living as it is for the (finally) dead.
I spotted the Indra hotel crowd on the other side of the choir performing a rhythmic funeral chant and when I reconnoitre the village I run into Jaap who shows me the area behind the temporary rooms where the pigs are moved to and slaughtered after the master of ceremonies is done accepting. “The blood spurts out when they puncture the heart where they aim for, but a few times they missed and it took minutes before the screaming pig would finally die”, he tells me, while we’re looking at three or four ‘workstations’ where the next stages of the slaughter are performed: letting the intestines flop out, burning the hair of the skin, chopping the pig systematically in half and finally dividing it up in small portions. One half is for the family of the deceased and one half goes back to donors (during ’funeral season’ meat prices on the market are depressed because everybody, family, neighbours, shares in the meat bounty).” Some in my family come from Indonesia“, Jaap continues: “My aunt was is born in Medan, but I do not really feel connected to the life style“. We are discussing how sanitised our world is, compared to the bloody slaughtering going on before our eyes.
’Partly Indonesian, that may explain his ’Indonesian’ good looks’, I muse. Like Iwan, an old friend of mine from when I was in high school (Iwan’s father was a diminutive Indonesian medical doctor who had married a tall Dutch woman and his dark skin and her good looks produced Iwan and Yantho, both pretty successful with the women and daughter Dewi, a rare beauty). And while I was studying seriously (after a certain point that is), Iwan was seriously concocting fantastic get-rich-quick-schemes and I would not be surprised (have not seen him since) if some woman has turned out to be that perfect scheme.
The others and Niko, their guide, join us and while Steve the German tries a slice of pig’s liver straight from the fire (and the pig for that matter) and Marcel & Jeroen wash down their slice with fermented palm wine, we tacitly agree (to avoid loss of face for Budi who also has shown up) that Niko’s minibus will pick me up tomorrow, for a tour north of Rantepao.
“I may be poor, but I am a proud man, if my brother, who is rich, offers to sacrifice two buffaloes for my mother’s funeral, than I will also offer two buffaloes. I am not less than he is and love my mother as much as he does”. Budi is almost carried away when he explains to me how the family discussion over a funeral would go and that he, to keep up with his brother in showing his respect for his mother, would sell his motorbike, his house and even get a loan from the bank to pay for the two buffaloes. He might well have to so, if indeed he is poor, because the highest category of buffalo (there are seven), the black and white skin patterned ones, would cost somewhere around RP80 million (€6.000).
After an hour and a half Budi and I have left the funeral festivities and motored south over more scenic country roads and we are now at the rock face ‘tau tau’ in Lemo. “Why black and white?”, I wonder. The best, he explains, is, if the buffalo has a white spot on the forehead and a white tail, because after the funeral the soul will go to the Puya (place where all the souls go to first) and pass through a dark tunnel through a mountain, the white spot will shine ahead to find the way and the white tail will make it easier for the soul to follow. Then rituals are performed at the grave and the soul (tau) of the deceased will enter the effigy (tau) carved in his/her liking and becomes the 'tau tau'. Before that ritual, you can do anything to the wooden statue, but after, ‘Aahh‘, you better not do a thing, or you will be severely punished, because the tau tau has magical powers.
The Torajans are mostly Christian, but have also retained their animist (Aluk) beliefs and ancestor worship (Aluk to Dolo: ‘the way-of -the-ancestors’) and from what I learn from Budi’s stories when we visit the hanging graves of Ke’te Kesu and the intriguing baby graves in a living tree, is that the ‘way-of -the-ancestors’ governs daily life far more than the Christian part (‘the ancestors will punish you in this life and Jesus will do so in the next‘), and above all that the custom of funeral gifts is aiming at collecting as many ‘debtors‘ as possible, who all will (have to) come to your funeral, because in the Toraja world the importance of the guests and the gifts at your funeral, is the real measure of the success of your life.
“Why don’t you tell these young guys why they have to marry a Torajan women”, I ask Niko, who has explained all that to me before. We are all sitting on a big rock boulder in Bori, north of Rantepao, just a bit higher observing the villagers who have a meeting in the open Tongkonan below us and next to the towering megaliths to our right. Niko obliges, explaining to them that Torajan women will wake you in the morning and breakfast is already on the table and than your clothes are nicely laid out and in the afternoon she will call you and ask when you are coming home so she can cook you a nice meal and I think that between the lines he suggested that also otherwise they would take good care of you.
“But what about Balinese women than, they are known to be very beautiful, are they not a better choice maybe?“, I am trying to needle him a bit, but that does not fly: “No, not at all”, he looks almost pained at the thought,“ Bali women are dirty”. “Dirty?“, “Yes when they work in the field, they just pull up their skirt and pee standing”. I don’t think the guys were particularly shocked by that revelation and happily start discussing the phenomenon, but a week later on Flores I would run into a Dutch couple, Ferry and Paulien, who have stayed already for a year in a rented house on Bali to write a book, and they told me that in Bali you are considered invisible when you are bathing (which would explain the two women bathing naked in the irrigation channel Olive and I ran into) and that Paulien coming home on her motor bike, sometimes has problems to avoid staring at the bare buttocks of somebody doing (his/)her business along the path. So Niko may have had a point after all.
It is getting late and we are getting a bit peckish when Niko finally stops for lunch at a restaurant at the top of the Gunung Sesean, with 2150 metres the highest mountain in the Tana Toraja, but the views from the terrace over the valley all the way to Rantepao in the distance are worth the wait.
“What kind of ’events’ are you are organizing then?” I ask Joris over lunch, who has let it slip he travels the world (Europe, Australia, South America) doing it and even has left his laptop at home to avoid working constantly during this break. The five Dutch are sitting on one end of the table and Steve, who has a bit of an individualistic streak, sits at the other end with Niko. “House parties”, Joris tells us and not just any house parties, but 'Sensation' (house, with everybody dressed in white), the ones where 40.000 people attend and Joris, independent but under some contract with ID&T (the Amsterdam guys who started it all), young as he is, is the one producing them. “You can best compare them with ‘Cirque du Soleil‘, the Canadian shows“, he continues: “We even have hired two of their top managers now“. Well I am impressed and I am not the only one since ID&T has won Dutch Export awards. Olive and I visited the Cirque du Soleil show in Las Vegas and that was a fantastic spectacle and when later I visit their website (www.sensation.com), the YouTube video on the Sensation event in Melbourne on New Year’s Eve, where Joris flew straight from to Bali, looks sensational. There indeed is more to that hippie exterior than I thought.
“I don’t know what to do”, Marcel says, after he and Jeroen have told us about their experience at the Jogjakarta university: “I am the first one from ‘bedrijfskunde’ in Rotterdam to study there and the university said it will pay extra attention to the report I have to make about how it all went“. The classes were long, three hours, something they were not accustomed to and during discussion time they discovered it was not really meant to discuss anything. When the first time they questioned the solution put forward by their professor at the end of a business case, an embarrassed silence reigned before the professor ignored their remarks and went on with his version. “In the end they more or less accepted us, I think, but of course uncritically swallowing what you are spoon fed is not what university education is about”. The dress code, suit and tie, did not bother them much and in general they had a great time in Jogjakarta with a lot of friendly Indonesians whom they would rather not disappoint. ‘If you are leading the way for other ’bedrijfskunde’ students who may follow, you have no option’, is the feeling of the others. ’you have to tell it as it is’: ‘uncritical top down education and great cross cultural experience‘.
“What do you know about working with other cultures then?”, they ask me, since I mentioned a few things in passing. They probably still regret they ever asked, since from my years in Paris I have quite a few stories I like to tell. Like how I discovered that in France decisions are not made in the Directors meeting, they are made beforehand, and politely confirmed in the meeting and nobody is keen to hear about my ‘Dutch style’ frankness, expecting that an exchange of views may still change the decision, or that when in Germany a decision is made on the ‘Chef’s Etage’ it will never be questioned by lower minions, no matter how ill advised or even stupid that decision maybe; or the political patronage in appointments in Belgium; how Italians can only say ‘yes’ when someone higher up asks something and rather not respond when they can’t, as I discovered after weeks of waiting for a clear ‘yes’ or ‘no’, so I could move on. But also how I came to recognise how rude and offensive the blunt Dutch style is in the eyes of others and how the Dutch fail at the art of massaging decisions in the corridors in Brussels and see their well qualified candidate fail against an incompetent Italian or whatever. To be fair, when I had a similar discussion a few months ago with somebody who worked in the Dutch diplomatic service all his life, the Dutch are also often used as chairpersons in international organisations like the UN, because their frankness than often helps to move subjects forward where others are just politely trying not to offend anyone. And to be honest, when I came back in the Netherlands again, I was often annoyed when my collaborators questioned my decisions: ’Didn’t I tell them what they had to do and should not they go out and just do it?’
We are walking downhill as an after lunch exercise and Niko will pick us up after an hour or so and Joris tells me how his career started as a high school friends venture in organizing disco’s, the others liked being the DJ, but he and one of his mates liked to organise stuff and as one thing led to another, they fell on their faces hard a few times and learned even more from that, the two of them eventually owned a production company, then sold it, and after producing the Sensation events for a few years as an independent he is now in the process of setting up a new company with a few others that will broaden the base of their activities.
“And what did you do before you retired?”, and I tell them a bit of the railway politics and operational and technical conundrums of introducing competition on the European rail network by separating railway operations and infrastructure ownership and some of my projects with then EU DG Transport and Energy. They are quite interested (or very good at feigning) in the kind of challenges I was involved in; they are not too bad these guys.
Guide Niko has come down from RP 11 million to RP 8 million for a four day trek for four of them to Palu. We are sitting at a table outside his home in Rantepao where he has invited us to come and have a coffee. His aim was obviously to have some time to hammer out a deal with J&J and M&J. Steve, being a Jacques Cousteau fan, has decided to go on his own to some islands off the south east tip of Sulawesi where Jacques Cousteau made his first under water films and I now plan to take the bus back to Makassar and then choose between the Moluccas or Irian Jaya for my last ten days or so. The discussion is already going on for an hour and it is getting dark. “What if we do our own food? How much would that save?”. “And how much would it save if we take the bus from Gimpu to Palu on the last leg?” and so on. 'Take out the food? When you're trekking? That does not sound like a good idea when your trekking in the jungle', I mouth to them. “Guys this goes nowhere”, Joris intervenes, slipping into 'Dutch Jew' mode: “Let’s just make him a proposal for the lot and that's it“: “Niko we are poor students and we can only afford RP 5 million, can you do it for that amount or not?”. Meanwhile Steve is telling me about how people he met told him the Moluccas are the best they had experienced in Indonesia, but that flights there are often canceled and you would need at least two weeks to do it properly and about his own trip across Flores to see the Kelimutu volcano and the three differently coloured lakes in its crater and his visit to Komodo Island to see the Komodo Dragons.
Niko is still muttering under his breath when we have dropped off the guys at their hotel and he drives me back the four kilometres to mine. “Eight million is a good price for four days, transport, food, hotels, what do they think?” They have not agreed yet and he is to do some more phoning. I mumble something about them being poor students and actually I am a little bit curious how it ended, but I leave early tomorrow so I won’t know how it ends.
“Welcome to the Marante Hotel”, I say impulsively to two new guests sitting in the lobby when I get back. I have been the only guest for the last three nights in the 111 room hotel & resort and somehow I feel responsible. They are an older Dutch (again) couple, coming from Cambodia, staying four nights in Tana Toraja before they go on to Bali. I tell them a bit about the funeral I visited, their guide has not mentioned yet if they can visit one, and the other sights. The next morning I see them shortly over breakfast: “I’ll leave you in charge of the hotel now, take good care and I hope you have a good funeral”.
At least that is what I liked to have said, but I only thought of it when I sat perched again on the buddy seat of a motor bike back to Rantepao to catch my bus for the 11 hour trip to Makassar.