March 17, 2015

In the Valley of the Dead

Let me tell you how I got here.
It's the whole point of traveling, isn't it ? They always say it's about the journey, not the destination.
I got to Sulawesi airborne, watching the city of Makassar glimmering under the wings of the plane like some tempting light map. I'm not staying, I am just coming through. It's 9pm, I have been traveling for 12 hours, not done yet. As I exit the terminal, I am engulfed in a swarm of cab drivers, all fighting for the obvious privilege to drive the little white girl with the crumpled shirt badly tucked in her faded silk skirt. Here they stand, an army of uniforms and loud voices, grabbing my hand and offering me their price, as I try to gather my last remaining bits of energy and brace myself for the bargaining to follow. I turn to the man next to me and ask him his price – he answers a ridiculously high figure and I compose my highly-amused-face, crowned in raised eyebrows that mean : « Come on, it's not my first day here ». It takes five minutes, a lot of charming smiles and several friendly threats to ride in another car, until we settle on a price – a third of the initial one – and he pushes me into the back seat, rushing out of the airport. At the bus station, the swarming occurs again, but at that point I am too tired to discuss and let myself be hurled into a massive, crazy looking bus, spray painted, covered in blinking lights, terminus : Rantepao. Head leaned against the glass, I watch the lights of the city zoom past, then fade away, and be replaced by the deep, lovely dark of the countryside.

At 5am the next day, the driver wakes me up (I must have eventually dozed off in spite of the terrible pop music being blasted inside this vehicle of hell) and now I am standing in the main street of a sleepy, dusty mountain town. I start walking to find a hostel and am soon approached by a biker who makes this strange offer : There's a funeral today, do you want to go ?

Now, I understand you might be puzzled by the last sentence, but bear with me, as I am just about to present to you Tana Toraja – a world where life revolves around death. You might argue that this is true of any society but for the Torajas, that concept is more explicit, In the « aluk » (the ancestor's way, the indigenous set of beliefs), death is the essential pillar of the community.

I awoke a second time late morning after a couple hours of heavy sleep, and with a two germans met at the breakfast table, we take a couple motorbikes and make our way to the funeral. Funerals are public matters in Toraja, often gathering several thousands of people, and are also open to foreigners in exchange for a pound of sugar or a small donation. We drive through a surreal landscape : ricefields where enormous buffalos graze peacefully, surrounded by high peaks covered in forests of deep green, until we reach the village where the celebration is held. We sit down and are offered strong powdery coffee and dry cakes, followed by a meal of rice and spicy egg and fish. Several groups of people are gathered in mourning, but discuss joyfully as they are called in line to present their offerings to the dead's family. The lady being buried is of high status, which means the funeral will last between five and seven days as distant relatives and friends arrive from all over the continent.

The most impressive part of the celebration is the traditional slaughtering of animals. The numbers are mind-blowing : it is not uncommon for a family to slaughter between twelve and sixty buffalos, and more than a hundred pigs, thus proving their status in the community as well as providing gifts of meat for all the guests. In the few hours we spend there, the screams of pigs tied down and awaiting slaughter is deafening, and the yard is covered in rivers of blood diluted by the rain. People cut up the dead animals in the middle of the yard and the smell of bodies being burned is everywhere. As I am a vegetarian but not bothered by blood, this evokes a vague unease mingled with deep fascination. To understand precisely the incredible amount of money spent by the family on a funeral, I need only say that a single buffalo is worth up to 3000 euros in Toraja, way more than a car. Funerals can be a ruining affair, and it often happens that the family will postpone the ceremony for a few years in order to save the money they need. During that time, the body of the deceased will be embalmed and put on display in the family house, sharing a room with the living, while awaiting a final resting place. The lady being buried today has been dead for four years.

After this very unusual first day, we spend a couple days exploring the countryside with a local guide. We visit several caves whose floors are lined with hundreds of deads, their bones surrounded by small offerings, usually small coins or cigarettes – a way to appease Puang Matua, the elder lord, that the Torajans honor above all. The caves also hold several carved coffins that are placed in a high spot, hanging from ropes. On the face of big cliffs, you can spot doors open in the stone, holding more coffins – these are usually coupled with wooden puppets (called tau tau) representing the dead. You can tell their age by looking at the realism of the features, who has increased over the years. Only noble people, the tau parange (guardians of tradition) are buried this way.

Dead children are dealt with differently : their funeral is not nearly as important as an adult's. Stillborn, babies or very young children are buried inside sacred trees, their body placed upright, sometimes holding a chicken egg as an offering. The torajans believe that as the tree swallows the remains of their infant, the child will continue to grow as part of the branches and the leaves, until it reaches the top, where he will spread his wings and join the angels – the pagan tradition meeting the catholic beliefs that the region is steeped into.

I try to listen hard and remember what people here share with me, and this story stays vivid : Torajan believe in ghosts (quite obviously), but even if they don't mean harm, their presence in a house is to be avoided. In a case of haunting, the man of the family will sit on the first step of the stairs and will invoke the spirit of the dead with the help of a sorcerer (or a minister). He will then ask the spirit to take place on his shoulder, so he can carry it outside and set if free. My guide remembers his father doing so to get rid of his father's ghost, and moaning in pain as he walked outside, as the spirit was so heavy on his back. He tells me this as we are sitting in a magnificent cave, surrounded by bones scattered on the ground – and I think that as different as our cultures and beliefs may be, when it comes to death, we are really all alike. We all want to believe that it's not an end, but a threshold, and that it can be crossed both ways.

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