Just a warning that amongst the images of coffins and skulls this blog will contain images of mass animal slaughter which you might want to skip.
We landed into Makassar on the southern most tip of one of Sulawesis spiral arms and after pottering around for a day, hopped onto the surprisingly comfortable overnight bus waking up in the town of Rantepao. As we arrived we passed numerous examples of the bizarre Buffalo horn architecture that the area is famed for along with the cultural significance of death and burial to the locals, fortunately burial season is just kicking off so we had a good chance of catching a few ceremonies. Fascinated by what we saw on the way in we rented a bike and headed off into the countryside to find more examples of torajan architecture. The area is littered with villages all having their own collection of buffalo horned burial houses usually two lines of 5 or 6 houses facing each other, their roofs like inverted bridges decorated with carvings, paintings and skulls of Buffaloes.
We caught chatter of a ceremony taking places in a small village to the south, the occasions are public events but we stopped along the way to pick up a couple of packs of cigarettes as an offering to the family. Smoking is big business here, even the kids are heavy smokers and there are advertisements everywhere but it seems only the men have picked up the habit. We decided to wander around the village, curious as to why this village in particular was so busy with people and vehicles and inadvertently walked into the middle of a huge buffalo slaughter. There must have been nearly twenty carcasses lying on the floor in various states of butchery, while others had clearly just been slit and were lying on the ground slowly fading towards death, watching as men slipped around with red feet, swinging their long curved knives. Each one of the prized animals can cost up to and over the price of a decent house or a brand new pick up in Indonesia, testimony to how important these rituals are to the locals here. For me the most uncomfortable thing was watching the single live animal in the corner watching the slaughter unfold in front of him, his eyes proof if ever there was doubt that he was fully aware of what was happening and what was coming.
From the brutal to the bizzare the ceremony itself had the feeling of an English village fete, the coconut throws and apple bobs replaced by coffins, squealing pigs and more Buffaloes. Despite the best efforts of the man shouting through the megaphone to get things in order it looked chaotic to the untrained eye, once the women started bouncing their bamboo poles, the tribal rhythm kicked people into action and the small burial house with coffin inside was lifted with difficulty by the local youths and taken for a short procession around the village. While they went off we sat down and had a bowl of noodle soup and meatballs called bakso babi which is extremely popular here, we both found the soup ok but the meatballs even worse than those found in Thailand. There was some difficulty towards the end of the funeral ceremony as bits of wood were hacked off to allow the coffin to slip into its final resting place. Having seen enough we ventured back out into the winding country roads and spent the rest of the afternoon sitting amongst the rice paddies.
Needing a walk after the colossal three pancake breakfast served up by the guesthouse we took the backstreets though town and found lovely little neighbourhoods with short squat modern houses, plenty of green spaces and in them, kids spending the morning flying home made kites of wood and string. Again we set off on the bike, this time North and found even more beautiful landscapes to meander through, passing buffalo hides stretched out to air and emerald green paddies stretching out in all directions.
The burial site we intended to visit was being guarded by a group of particularly furious dogs who were barking and snarling the moment we got off the bike so we gave that one a miss. Instead we headed to Londa, a cave burial site where tens of coffins were stacked carelessly on top of each other wedged into corners and suspended from the cave roof by ageing rope. It seemed all of Indonesia was there to see and everyone was intent on taking photos with us, which got a little stale after a while, I ventured off alone into the depths of the caves while Sarah retreated back into daylight where a queue of people where waiting for her. Above the cave was a peculiar gallery of the dead, likenesses carved in wood peering down at the hoards of tourists some like dolls but others so realistic it was hard to believe they were wooden.
The cliff burial site was much nicer, less people and a peaceful place to be, I’d definitely be opting for a spot in the cliff. Small holes hollowed out of the face each with its own ornate little door, the wooden pavilion of the dead was still here but they looked out over the distant rolling hills and the timeless rice paddies.
A clueless man was watching all of his videos of the animal slaughter on full volume during tea which made for a nice atmosphere, me and sarah playing cards and people making polite conversation over screaming pigs, moaning Buffaloes and falling knives. Our last day was spent killing time before the bus, I settled down with a Guinness which for some reason is everywhere here in Toraja, while snacking on local biscuits that look exactly like something a cat would deposit on the lawn.
We spent a sleepy day and night in Makassar making the most of the port side street food fish restaurants before flying back to Bali and continuing our Indonesian exploration, this time from East to West towards the volcanoes of Java.