Thursday, August 20, 2009

Been to a good funeral?

We backtrack to Kupang in West Timor and catch a flight to Makassar. It's delayed five hours and we arrive in the capital of Sulawesi at midnight. It's a huge city with a clutch of cheap hotels in the Chinatown. We find a room with air-con and fairly reasonable pancakes for breakfast. So far so good. There are a few old Dutch buildings still in good nick in the city centre near the port, but otherwise not much to distinguish it from any other Indonesian city. We are hard to impress.

Our escape route out to a not-so-far beach place recommended by others is thwarted when we find that after a two-hour wait at the bus terminal no vehicle is actually going where we want to. We return to our hotel to find our room has been taken. Thus we end up in a newer, nicer and cheaper hotel run by a garrulous Chinese Indonesian. We tell him of our plans to visit China, stopping in Bangkok for the visa. His eyes light up and he begins to wax lyrical about the joys and sights of Bangkok. "Ahh, Bangkok! So much to see there! Woman and Woman. Man and Man. Half and Half." (Half and half???) All of this is said with the requisite but unnecessary hand gestures. Funny though, he failed to mention the other infamous sex-show standard which is the ping-pong ball trick. I thought the Chinese are big on Table Tennis.

Our next escape plan almost fails too, when we take a bemo out to the bus terminal to buy onward tickets. After nearly an hour riding out of the city, we begin to think we might already be on our way to Tana Toraja, but then realise that there is some debate amonst the other punters and the driver. They laugh a lot and then finally explain that we have passed our terminal way back, but not to worry as the minibus will eventually return the same way. But Makassar's a big city, so we jump off and hop on another going back into town. Our little detour takes about an hour and a half. However, we do secure tickets for the air-conditioned 'luxury' night bus to Rantepao in central Sulawesi.

Rantepao is a breath of fresh air after the big city. It's a small place up in the hills and a popular destination for all tourists in Sulawesi. But it doesn't feel too touristy. The drawcard here is the local culture and funerary traditions of the people of the Tana Toraja region. Despite being nominally Christian (all Indonesians must officially have a religion), the Torajans have proudly continued to follow many of their traditional customs and beliefs. The most famous is the funeral season of July and August which is after harvest time. Should anyone in the family have died during the year, there is a quick small ceremony but the deceased is kept in the house, fed and watered and spoken too as if they were still ill. Then, when money has been saved and the harvest completed, a bigger public ceremony is held. Buffaloes are bought and offered by guests, slaughtered and cooked at the event, which can last a few days. To witness one of these events it's recommended you hire a local guide, which puts us in a quandary. We absolutely do not like to hire guides. We discuss this with Nacho and Adri at our guesthouse. Nacho too has a dislike of guides who like to point at a flight of stairs, for instance, and say "Here is a flight of stairs for going upstairs!" In the end they find a small group to join, whilst we decide to go for a walk and just enjoy the surroundings. The scenery is lovely - hilly,green, full of rice-paddies and small villages. The traditional building style has just about survived in some places - there are houses and big rice barns that are built in wood on stilts with long curving thatched roofs. The thatch is oftern replaced with corrugated tin these days. There's plenty to see - in other villages there are still tau tau which are graves cut into cliff faces. A wooden effigy of the deceased is carved and placed outside the grave. Every six days there is a big market nearby - busy with seasonal buffalo sales. The buffs can be expensive and are shipped in from other parts of Indonesia. The local albino breed fetch the best prices. We're surprised to find many groups of tourists here with guides. Who needs a guide to look round a market??

One night we eat in a crap restaurant. I have fried chicken and rice. Gayle thinks she does too, but hers looks like a fried rat to me. Still, it's all protein. Afterwards we find a better restaurant, so naturally we order a pudding - grilled banana with chocolate and cashews. At first the waitress will only let us order chocolate
or cashews, but not together. But we insist we have them mixed and eventually she says okay. This is all in Indonesian by the way. We sometimes feel a bit smug because we speak enough words to get by and feel we get better treatment than other tourists who don't bother. Anyway, the bananas turn up, with chocolate sauce and, not cashews, but grated cheese. So much for our grasp of Indonesian. Mind, we eat it all up.

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