Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Toraja South Sulawesi

The second portion of our Sulawesi trip involved a fascinating combination of cultural experiences. We flew 1 ½ hours to Makassar in South Sulawesi where we met our guide and boarded a small mini-van for an 8 hour drive to Toraja.

I first learned about Torajan culture in a comparative religion class I took in the early 80’s. We were studying animist religions and theirs was one of the main cultures featured. Though their culture has changed over the years, they still maintain some traditional practices. One is the elaborate funeral ceremonies that last for up to a week and involve animal sacrifice. Family and friends offer pigs and water buffalo to the deceased. The water buffalo has a significant role in the ceremony. It is the animal that must be sacrificed in order to provide transport of the departed soul from this world to the next. By providing this donation for the deceased, he may assist in facilitating blessings on family and friends as an ancestral deity. The social status of the dead dictates how many buffalo will need to be sacrificed. The higher the status, the greater the number of buffalo needed. Hundreds of people attend the multi-day death celebration. There is recounting of the ancestral history and that of the departed. There is song, dance, gift exchange, feasting and communion amongst the guests.

Outsiders are welcome to attend the ceremonies and as luck would have it, there just happened to be one during the time we planned to visit. Most funeral ceremonies are held during the months of July, August and September. When a person dies they are considered to be sick and not buried until the official ceremony. Do to the great expense involved to perform the ceremony; it may be several years before enough donations are received and the body is buried. In the meantime it is kept in the family home.

There is of course much more to know about their culture and religion, too much to expound upon within the contents of a blog. So, I will share with you a sampling of our brief encounter with this amazing culture. On our first morning in Rantepao, Toraja we found ourselves trudging up a dirt road along with many others to the site of a funeral ceremony. There were men toting squealing pig offerings and in the background the voice of the master of ceremony booming over a loud speaker.

The site was a large arena surrounded by small bamboo viewing booths that were decorated with bright red, yellow and black banners in traditional design. Inside the arena there were hundreds of people of all ages, several buffalo off to one side and small clusters of pigs scattered about. In front of the booths was a large tower that held the dead mans bright red coffin. Below it was the master of ceremony and a man with a large gong.

Our guide led us over to a front row viewing booth, which we purchased with the recommended donation of a carton of cigarettes. After being seated we were served tea and cookies as the first buffalo was led to the center of the arena. There were periodic processions of people dressed in red, black and yellow traditional clothing. The women in yellow carried tea and other food items to the family’s booth while those dressed in red either led the processions or greeted people at the family booth.

Soon a young man in black, wielding a long ceremonial knife approached the buffalo. Normally the cutting of animal’s throat and its subsequent demise from profuse blood loss is a rapid process, however this one was prolonged – I suspect from the young man’s hesitant technique. It was heart wrenching to witness. Luckily an older man took over and finished the job. We were told by our guide that this was a bad sign, which meant that someone in the audience was not allowing the soul of the deceased to pass on to the next realm.

Fortunately the second buffalo died swiftly with no apparent suffering. This ritual was difficult to witness as an outsider with drastically different culture and severely limited knowledge of the meaning of the event. Still – it is a rare opportunity these days to witness even a small piece of an ancient tradition that remains.

The rest of our time in Toraja was spent visiting various ancient burial sites. The bodies have been buried inside the cliffs or are hanging in old wooden coffins on the side of the cliff. Rows of wooden effigies line the outside of the cliff. There are also burial sites inside caves and one in which babies are buried in little compartments inside of a tree

In addition to visiting burial sites, we also saw traditional villages with elaborately decorated Tonkonan (traditional style house). They stand on stilts, have boat shaped roofs, and symbolic carvings, and paintings on the sides. They are also adorned with rows of buffalo jaws and horns.

We had a mere glimpse of cultural event that involves much more than animal sacrifice. To get a deeper understanding of this ritual it would be beneficial to take part in it over several days. To witness the entire event one would need to arrive on the weekend and plan on staying a week. It is possible to find out when these ceremonies will be held prior to your trip.

After 4 days we left the mountainous region of Toraja and descended into fields of bright green rice patties. We learned and saw so much in such a short amount of time, yet I feel as if we barely scratched the surface. Sulawesi is a land that is rich in culture, and natural resources - its people and their warmth radiate its beauty.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Minihasa Highlands

After leaving Tangkoko Reserve we passed by a small coconut processing operation where we learned about how many uses there were for coconut trees. The wood from the trunk is used for furniture, the roots are used as coals for kilns, the husk is used for fire wood, woven mats, and filling for upholstery and then of course there is the meat, juice and oil all used for consumption. What a useful tree.

Moving on, we entered a small town where we saw many homes with cloves drying on tarps outside on the patios. We were also taken to a cemetery where the government had moved many ancient tombstones.

Leaving the town behind, we made our way up through the Minihasa highlands. We stopped by a couple of caves that were used by the Japanese during WW11. Inside the caves were several tunnels. Shining my light into one of the tunnels I noticed several pairs of beady red eyes staring back at me from the ceiling and walls. Upon closer inspection we discovered they belonged to huge rather ghastly looking spiders. Our guide assured us that they weren’t poisonous – still we all jumped when one of them scampered toward us while taking its picture. Another one of the caves inhabitants was swallows. These were the swallows whose nests they use for birds nest soup. There were several nests along the ceiling with baby birds in them.

From the caves we continued up through a stunning array of agricultural settings. There were immaculately terraced gardens that sported a wide variety of vegetables. Spice trees (clove, vanilla, nutmeg, and cinnamon) were growing right beside the road.

Our next stop was a traditional Minihasan market. This was the first of our sights that revealed some startling cultural differences. There was a lovely display of many fruits and vegetables, but when we came to the meat section there were fruit bats and dogs. Our guide confirmed that many of the people eat bats, rats and dogs on special occasions. Sometimes they even eat their own dog, but often they will go to a neighbor or another village and request to purchase someone’s dog. He said sometimes they also eat cats, but that the cats are less often consumed as they are considered useful in controlling the rat population. Hmmmm….. Ok moving on to a happier topic.

As luck would have it (with us all feeling slightly nauseous), our next stop was lunch. We stopped at restaurant on the banks of a large lake. Luckily, we had no unidentifiable meat on the menu. All around the lake were homes with fish farms and oddly there was almost nobody out on the lake.

We had 2 more stops to try and squeeze in as our incredibly full day was coming to an end. We breezed by Lake Linow known as the color changing lake. It is a volcanic lake that changes color from red to yellow, green, and blue. It is surrounded by exotic looking pine trees and has beautifully manicured grounds – perfect for a picnic.

Our final stop was to see prefab traditional Indonesian-style homes. They can be purchased for $5000.00 - $20,000.00 depending on the size and shipped anywhere in the world. They are made primarily from a local wood called Iron Wood.

Whew!!!! It was a lot of things to see in one day, but what an incredible experience.

Tangkoko Nature Reserve North Sulawesi

After a fabulous week of diving at Tasik Ria, we left the splendor of the Celebes Sea and headed for the hills – the Minihasa Highlands to be exact. First we traversed the island to Tangkoko Nature Reserve where we hoped to view Tarsiers (one of the smallest primates in the world), Black Macaque Monkeys, Great Hornbills, and Fruit Bats.

We started our tour at 4:45 P.M. after checking in at Mama Roos Homestay (a basic accommodation located just outside of the reserve). We headed off on a dirt road, but quickly moved off into the brush at the side of the road. We were forewarned about the abundance of biting midges or chiggers, so were we well armed with DEET. Along the way our guide handed me a piece of fruit he picked from a tree. It turned out to be wild guava. It was delicious!

Eventually we arrived at a large Fichus tree, where we were told to wait with flash lights, and cameras standing by for the star attraction of the night – the Tarsiers. It wasn’t long before the first little guy poked his head out. At that moment everyone fell instantly in love. Its huge bug eyes, little turned up nose, expressive (Yoda-like) ears, and perpetual smile elicited a collective awwhh!!!! One after another the rest of them appeared and went on about their business seemingly unaffected by our presence. Our guide informed us that they can jump up to 3 meters and perform 360’s while jumping from tree to tree.
On our way back from the Tarsier encounter we passed by a brown tree snake and 2 Tarantulas.

The next morning we were up at 4:30 A.M. to see the Black Macaque Monkeys, Great Hornbills, and Fruit Bats. We got skunked on the Fruit Bat sighting and had only a fleeting view of a Great Hornbill as it took off - never to return. We were taunted periodically throughout our hike with the sound of its massive wing beat. The heavy whoosh, whoosh, whoosh sounds like it might belong to something the size of a Pterodactyl.

We located a large troop of Black Macaques chattering up in the canopy. We waited patiently and after
about 15 minutes they all descended upon us to begin their morning foraging. Like the Tarsier, they too seemed unaffected by our presence and approached within a couple of feet.

We spent about 5 hours traipsing around the reserve, stopped briefly by Mama Roos for a quick bite and a shower, then piled into our Zebra-stripped van and sped off to our next series of adventures.

Monday, September 13, 2010