After leaving the volcanoes of Bali behind, we jetted over the Celebes sea to Makassar in South Sulawesi. The lush vegetation and blue skies seemed to indicate that we were in a lesser developed agrarian area of Indonesia. However, Makassar is the hub of Eastern Indonesia and was a bustling city. The modern airport and its emphasis on the Bugis culture was an unexpected delight compared to the dingy domestic terminal at Denpasar Airport.
Our guide Ferry met us at the airport and took us to the waiting vehicle for our journey north to Tana Toraja. This would be a leisurely 8 hour drive through the rice paddies of South Sulawesi and then up to the hills of Tana Toraja. The first three hours was flat and had karst landscape in the background with rice paddies nearby and ocean to the west. We stopped for some local grilled cakes (dange) made on the side of the road. The architecture was also quite different. The roof lines had interesting designs on them that were unlike any we had seen before.
We stopped for lunch at a beach side restaurant. Delicious meal of fish topped with coconut water surrounded by lush tropical vegetation.
The highlight of the afternoon was the stop in Barante, the village that Marg was in 34 years ago as part of the Canada World Youth exchange programme. Barante was only 5 minutes off the main highway, but seemed a world away. While there was now more electricity and cell phone service, the houses looked much the same as they did when Marg was there.
Marg wandered around the village taking some photographs. This piqued the curiosity of the locals who came out to see why she was taking photos of their house. Between her Indonesian and their English she was able to explain why she was there. She was then joined by more villagers and children. Peter and Ferry showed up a few minutes later, and Ferry explained in more detail why Marg was visiting the area. An elderly man mentioned that he was the village headman, and remembered Marg’s group. She was skeptical at first, but he described one of their Canadian group members very accurately, which made Marg realize that he did indeed remember their group. He pointed to a dirt road and said that that road was the one that their group had built and infact its name was Canada Street.
We continued driving another three hours north into the hills, stopping along the way for some refreshments and to look at the scenery. In the mid afternoon, we were greeted by a gate with a Tongkonan (traditional Toraja house) on it. This literally was the southern entrance to Tana Toraja. The Tongkonan were quite popular and seen everywhere we went in Tana Toraja. The toraja people are a mixture of Christian and animist. The mosques seen in the lowlands were replaced by churches. The pace of life and the landscape reminded Peter of rural Jamaica.
We arrived at the Hotel Maranti in the early evening in the village of Rantepeo. This would be our base for the next three days. The hotel was the best one in the area, and had villas that were in the style of the tongkonan. We stayed in the main building and saw some Dutch tourists. There were few tourists in the Toraja area while we were there. That night we had a Toraja buffet which featured local food, that was very delicious.
One of the main highlights of a trip to Tana Toraja is to witness a local funeral. This is rather strange as funerals in the west are generally private affairs. However, in Toraja it is a more public event and takes months of preparation, with family and friends coming from far and wide. The more elaborate ceremonies involve the slaughter of numerous water buffalo. the water buffalo is idolized by the people, and status is conferred by the number of water buffalo horns that you have on the outside of your Tongkonan.
The guide books had indicated that the funeral season was later in the year, in the summer, so we had no expectations of seeing a funeral. On the drive up to Tana Toraja, Ferry asked us why we had decided to come to Toraja. After much discussion about the cultural sights, he said that we must have come to see a funeral. We said that would be interesting, but that we had no illusions about seeing one. He said in the 20 years of guiding he had only had 5 groups that didn’t see one. He was pretty certain that we would be able to see one, but would not guarantee it.