Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Trekking in the Tana Toraja

Language difficulties and 'Shaun The Sheep' in the heart of Sulawesi

Tana Toraja scenery
We had thought it would be straightforward to find somewhere to stay in the Tana Toraja- na├»ve optimism combined with an inflated opinion of our very basic Bahasa Indonesian convinced us that we could turn up at a village at nightfall, armed with the magic phrase 'Saya kari tempat tidur tolong' (I would like a bed for the night please), and locals would be falling over each other to offer their hospitality. It didn't work out quite like that, but it did work out. 
The first family we asked shook their heads with some vigour, eventually pointing to a house down the road and telling us 'losmen' (guest house). Wow, a guest house? We weren't expecting that....neither was the owner of the house, which emphatically was not a guest house. When we asked him if there was anywhere in the village we could sleep he shrugged, and eventually and without much enthusiasm said 'I'll ask my mother'. It was starting to get dark now, so luckily his mum agreed and we were shown upstairs and offered tea. The conversation was stilted to say the least, but we managed to learn quite a lot about each other none the less. We felt pretty guilty for imposing like this, but our host and his mother's friendliness towards us grew, aided by lots of smiling if not much actual conversation.

Torajan houses and rice barns
It had been a very interesting day. We wanted a proper adventure, and that this was. Armed with a map, the essential phrase 'Ke mana' (Which way?), and not much else, we'd set off on an exploration of the Tana Toraja. This is a fascinating area of Sulawesi with a very strong traditional culture. The most notable feature is the architecture of  wooden houses and rice barns on stilts, covered with beautiful carvings and an oversized curved roof shaped like a pair of buffalo horns. 

Cliff tombs and tao tao

Torajans are devoutly Christian, but with an unusual twist in their attitude to death. Funerals are the most important events in the calendar, often lasting days and consuming a life time of savings, with valuable buffalos and dozens of pigs slaughtered for the occasion. After the funeral the coffin is either placed in a tomb carved out of a cliff, in a cave, or even hung in a tree. These cliff tombs and cave graves are everywhere, the coffins piled up and sometimes rotting, with bones and parts of corpses sticking through. In front of the caves are placed effagies of the deceased called tao tao, grouped together on wooden balconies so they look like spectators at a sports event. It's all very odd and I think unique to this area. 

Despite the amount of money spent on the dead, the villages still seem very prosperous and each family has quite a number of traditional tongkonan houses and rice barns. When you picture traditional tribal areas it's easy to fall into the trap of imagining a way of life preserved as in a living museum, unchanged for hundreds of years. This wasn't the case here, with satellite dishes and motorbikes as much a part of life as buffaloes and ceremonies. The torajans have held on to many of their traditions while still embracing some of the comforts of modern life.

Karl helps build a house!
Earlier in the day we had stumbled upon a celebration to mark the completion of a massive tongkonan. The old man who's building it was invited us over, his wife gave us coffee and Karl got to help in the raising of a large cross that formed the final support of the house. On the count of  'satu, dua, tiga' three teams of men on different ropes pulled with all their strength to raise the massive structure a few more millimetres. The whole community was there to help and there was a bit of a party atmosphere, with our appearance adding some novelty to the event. 

Karl and his entourage
This was the great thing about our trek- with no guide and no fixed route, we wandered through villages not knowing what we might come across next. The common feature was the interest the villagers showed in our arrival. Usually it would start with a group of children giggling and shouting 'bule bule' (foreigners). They were fascinated by us, but usually too shy to respond when we asked them their names. The adults would greet us warmly, often asking us where we were from, while some would go a step further. Like the old lady Maria and her husband Jakob, dressed in their sunday best on their way back from church, who showed us up to their balcony for coffee. Maria kept talking fast, long sentences and didn't seem to quite understand that we could speak barely any Bahasa Indonesian. Luckily she seemed satisfied with us smiling and nodding.

A landscape of rice paddies and villages
We had a compass with us but couldn't get lost with so many helpful people around, going out of their way to find out where we were headed and point us in the right direction. In this way we travelled from village to village, through a scenery of hillsides terraced into verdant green rice paddies, pine forested ridges with views into valleys of rushing rivers, attractive tongkonan in every village and cave graves and tombs in between.

Petrus helps Karl with Bahasa Indonesia Level 1!
On our second night we enquired at a village shop (a wooden shack) about accommodation. After serving us tea the shopkeeper, Petrus, sorted out everything for us. Initially he took us to his family house where we tried our hardest at conversation, aided by a very limited phrase book and Petrus' patience. We saw a lot more of village life accompanied by Petrus than we ever would have on our own
The tongkonan were arranged around dusty open yards where the community gathered, sifting baskets of rice, packing avocados for the market, children playing badminton or 'keepy uppy', women sitting on their front steps chatting. The men were gathered in a shelter akin to the village pub, wrapped in traditional patterned cloth that made it look a little like they were wearing their bedsheets.

Torajan village life (complete with satellite dish!)
That night we stayed with Petrus' brother and his family, who were very welcoming and didn't seem to mid that we couldn't answer many questions. Despite the elaborate woodwork on the outside of the buildings, furniture seemed to be completely lacking inside the house. Mats were laid out on the wooden floor for us to sit on, but the only object in the room was a TV. After we'd exhausted our conversation skills with the family (which didn't take long) we all sat and watched Shaun the Sheep- a perfect choice to traverse language boundaries! At night we were shown to a thin mattress in a room so dusty I was scared to shift position in case clouds of it fell in our faces. After a not entirely restful night came an early start- at 5.30 am the TV was blaring at maximum volume and everyone was up, the kids having combs dragged through their hair as they were got ready for school. This was village life, and there was nothing for it but to get up! 

Contouring between rice paddies with expansive views
After a breakfast of noodles and spinach, we set off on the third and last day of our trek. It was the most scenic section, contouring along a hillside between rice paddies. The path teetered along the mud wall between the pool of one rice paddy and the drop to the next terrace, and we passed through attractive hill side settlements far from the road, finding the way by following school children on their way home to their villages. 

It was a long day and we arrived back in the town of Rantepao well after dark. The awaiting hot shower, beer and soft bed were so very welcome, but it's those three improvised days we spent out in the Tana Toraja that we will remember best from our time in Sulawesi.

1 comment:

  1. I am really impressed along with your writing skills and also with the format on your blog.
    Toraja Trekking