Late for a Torajan funeral, we arrive to blood-soaked mud at the foot of a tongkonan (traditional arched roof house). Ten ritually slaughtered water buffalo lie on the ground. Loud gurgles rise from their slit throats, the sound of lungs still trying to draw air.
One floor up sit the coffins of the couple being feted finally, eight months after they passed on.
According to Torajan beliefs, the deceased couple’s spirits have lingered in the earthly realm waiting until their family accumulated enough money to purchase the required buffalos. Now, finally, their spirits can ascend to Puya, the afterworld, accompanied by the slaughtered buffalo.
The more buffalo, the better. Several months ago, four hundred were slaughtered to honor the father of a wealthy contractor at a mine in Papua.
This family has bought a modest eleven. Still, the price tag is heavy. The black buffalos cost several thousand dollars, and those with white heads, the most prized, go for ten times that.
Here, there is one remaining buffalo alive. A relative of the deceased grabs the rope tied to the buffalo’s snout. Unsheathing a small sword hanging from his belt, he yanks up his arm, raising the buffalo’s head and exposing its neck. The first slash sends blood gushing to the ground. It spills like water being poured from a bucket. The blood-filled lungs of the buffalo send out the same eerie gurgles we heard on our entry.
The animal riles and bucks, and the executioner loses grip on the restraining rope. The buffalo makes a run for the crowd encircling him, blood continuing to pour from the neck wound. Mourners run for safety. Then suddenly he stops. After a half minute he plops on the ground to the hollering approval of the crowd.
Surrounding the area where the buffalo are slaughtered are temporary structures of bamboo where relatives live while attending ceremonies, which can run between four and ten days. Guests eat cake and drink black coffee or whitish liquor made from the fermented sap of a local palm. At the moment, most take to the milk colored yeasty liquor. Its intoxicating properties soothe the scene just witnessed.
Having started the spirits of the animals towards Puya, the executioners now turn to the task of feeding the living. The water buffalo are butchered on the spot, and meat is divvied into party favors for the funeral attendees. Starting with the legs, butchers cut a streak up the thigh and peel back the skin. The fat coating the meat shines white against the mud, now a murky purple from the absorbed blood.
A cousin of the deceased grabs a hold of a foot and brings it over to where we sit with a five-year-ole relative. He washes the appendage in a black plastic bin and ties a short rope around it. The boy gleefully trails his newfound toy.
To answer our many questions about motifs on family homes at Ke’te Kesu, Heru turned us over to a chain smoker with a toothless grin and leopard print shorts. The unlikely looking elder turned out to be Tinting, an honored local casket carver, who had been written up in a government tourist brochure as “a national treasure.”
To our many questions, he sagely gave few answers. The motifs fell in three categories: symbols from the sky, the animal world and local plants. All the colors were locally and naturally sourced. Black came from cooking fire coal; red and yellow from local clay; and white from regional ocean dolomite. A University of Columbia researcher, one Kathleen Adams had spent four years here at K’ete Kesu. Really, for any answers, we best read her book.
Then he led us through his workshop, where two helpers rested against elaborately carved, tear-shaped coffins. Crosses indicating the Torajan’s Christian beliefs intermingle with traditional motifs dating back to a much earlier era. Tinting explained that each took three months to carve.
Working on caskets day in and day out, I thought that maybe he would have a clear idea of the way he would like to be buried.
When we asked, Titing flashed a toothless grin and said, in regular sage manner, that would be for the living to decide.
We rise to strong Torajan coffee in the land famous for funerals. We’re primed for our introduction this morning to the ritual buffalo slayings that accompany funerals here.
But first to old, broken tombs. Heru, a young local photographer, meets us at 8 am with his side-kick donning a legalize marijuania t-shirt. They have already rented us a motorbike, so we’re off (still buzzing on the morning brew) to K’ete-Kesu, bumping along mountain roads flanked by terraced paddy fields.
The hills are pockmarked with traditional houses characterized by long roofs upturned on either end to resemble the buffalo horns fastened to their front posts. We stop at a cluster to inspect their stenciled designs in natural reds, oranges, and black. Roosters, pigs, and the revered buffalo are the major motifs. The houses are on stilts, harkening back to the days when a raised house offered protection from marauding enemies. On the roofs, ferns proliferate among the thatch.
Behind the village a path leads us to a hill at the base of which is our first tomb. A wax sculpture of the deceased, dressed in a white sarong and sporting a cane, stands encased in glass. Heru explains that this is the likeness of the man within, ready to hold court with any who stop to commune with him.
Up a rocky hill path further on, we find wooden caskets with intricate wood carvings. Many are cracked and broken. One resembles a pig, apparently a symbol of wealth reserved for women who have passed. The casket’s lid sits ajar, revealing a jumbled pile of bones—a femur, a section of pelvis, and a skull sit on top. Beyond, jutting out of the rock face are other burial chambers fashioned as mini traditional houses. On one ledge, skulls are lined up. Cigarettes are left in front of them as offerings to the departed.
During this trip in Sulawesi, and occasional jaunts in Java before that, Brian has repeatedly proved to be a magnet for Indonesian school girls. “Excuse me Sir, can I take your picture;” “Can I ask about your country?” At Borobodur, two brave middle schoolers even asked him to sign their school uniforms.
At first, I thought the popularity was mistaken. They must have found Brian a ringer for some Hollywood star. A couple girls in Manado, and later a whole English grammar class of merchant marines in Makassar, clarified these delusions of grandeur.
Brian, and every other foreigner they come across, is just part of their homework. Middle school and high school students from various districts are asked to photograph foreigners they encounter, and record on their cellphone a conversation with them. Then the conversations are compiled together on a school computer. And voila, where there were no e-language resources, now there is an entire digital library of English conversation lessons, complete with a pick of accents to choose from: American Student, Swiss Diver, Japanese Businessman, etc.
Brilliant as an idea for extra credit. Often, the kids get flustered or distracted after the photo portion of the exercise though.
Next time a pre-teen in Indonesia approaches with a blackberry in hand and an eager-beaver gleam in her eyes, you might know why.
We head north along the seaside in Makassar to Fort Rotterdam, a Dutch fort, and apparently the best preserved example of Dutch architecture in Indonesia. It looks like it’s just had a new paint job—all tan and red.
No crumbling buildings here. We have to go to the outer wall to feel its four centuries of existence.
Walking along this outer wall, we find a class is in session taught by a thin, tall man with a wiry beard in a long white kurta and Islamic skull cap. I take it for a religious class, but the teacher calls to us, “Hello, where are you from?” with a contrived London accent. “America”, I shout from fifty meters away. He then requests that I come to the front of his makeshift classroom and his forty young adult pupils.
It is an English class and the guru laments that his students are less than enthusiastic about trying out their English language skills. I encourage them to make lots of mistakes using the example of me today asking for a haircut. Instead of using the bahasa word for hair I used the word for head—potong kapala means to cut my head. They all laugh and seem to get the point.
The teacher, Lala, wants Melati and I to come stay at his home in Makassar and be taken around the city tomorrow by some of his pupils so they can practice English. When I tell him we are to go to Toraja, he offers his pupils to accompany us there and stay in their house. When I say we wish to take a motor there, he says that his pupils will take us on their bikes. I politely decline the kind though overzealous offer, but insist that we will get in touch with him when we return to Makassar.
We hurry out to a dock across the street to catch the sunset. Here we find three guys peering at fish between the planks at the end of the dock and dangling a line held by their hands between them.
I laugh at the prospect of them catching fish this way, only to be shown twenty minutes later that indeed you can when one of them lands a 12 incher.
Melati and I sit atop a small, wooden boat moored at the dock to watch the sun dip into the water and disappear.
A light sprinkling of rain finishes off the sunset. Nearby is the container port and its large cranes, and closer than that is an Indonesian navy vessel with cannon out front.
We drink a cold Bintang beer at a deck near the dock and retreat to street-side to sip kalapa muda (tender coconut). The old man cutting the kalapa has a seasoned face and a cigarette dangling from his mouth. He makes change for our 10,000 rupiah bill from his cash collection kept under his black skullcap.
First Southern word of the day
Kuah cumi — simple Bahasa Makassar for blanched squid in a spiced, black, squid ink broth. The local South Sulawesi delicacy is surprisingly tasty.
Mikrolets: North Sulawesi’s public mini vans that look much like Jakarta’s sky blue angkotans. Pay 2000 rupiah (30 US cents) and climb in: you’ll find yourself in a party on wheels. Whether Indonesian folk, American pop or miscellaneous rock, the Minahasan mikrolet seems to be defined by its sub-woofer system.
To accentuate the ride, some drivers even sport tiger stripped plush coverings or bouncing hello kitties on their dashboard. Others, in the sleepy Minahasan mountain towns of Tomohon and Tondano, turn on rotating disco lights at night.
On our final ride to the Manado airport, we came our favorite mikrolet yet. Our driver made the unique choice of playing American country music. His 45-year-old neighbor came along for the ride. And she crooned along with Dolly Parton as long as she had a cigarette in hand.
She filled us in on her absent husband who was away with the merchant marine for six months at a time. She had managed fine, singlehandedly raising three kids on her own. One was still in school but two others had already produced grandchildren for her.
To hear her sing though, you could almost hear her yearning for her man in a way that only country music can draw out, even from a Minahasan jumbling the words.
The fishermen gather in light rain that gets heavier, taking shelter under the overhang of a rusted shed. We wait in the dark on the beach of Bunaken island for the rest of the crew to arrive.
It’s one in the morning and Bartolo, stocky and cheery (even at this early hour), sits cross-legged in the sand sorting his hooks from a yellow pouch. Another fisherman, wearing a traditional woven bamboo fishing hat, stands under a light bulb smoking an unfiltered clove cigarette.
We board the 30-foot Elang Laut, lift anchor, and lightly rev out of the shallows. Except for the men steering and on lookout, the crew nestle into blue plastic bags or under tarps on the deck.
The sea is rough, and I focus on the moonlit silhouette of mountains in the distant. But soon my efforts to ward off seasickness succumb to sleepiness. I wedge my body between the port side of the boat and a snoring fisherman, and yank a section of his plastic tarp.
A few times I awake to rain hitting various parts of my body and reposition under the tarp. My pants are soaked from the water rolling down the deck. I think of Melati in a warm bed back at the home-stay (she has remained in the village to interview for an upcoming story on bamboo music). I’m tired and sleep comes back easily.
Just before dawn we reach a net framed with bamboo and floating between two islands. We will collect bait fish here. The crew crawl out, change into work clothes, and prepare to work. One crewmember shimmies out on a bamboo pole to retrieve the far end of the net. The bait fish are scooped in cut-off plastic jugs and passed between four crew members until they are poured into our center hold.
We leave as other boats arrive nearby to also collect their bait from other holding nets. The lookout, sitting in a chair above the deck, scans the surrounding waters for the telltale splashing created by a school of tuna. Not more than twenty minutes pass before the deck erupts in shouting. A school has been spotted.
The engine revs to full speed. The crew argues about the best direction for intersecting the school. “Kiri, kiri, kiri” (left), the most veteran and salty fishermen shouts, his kretek cigarette still dangling from his lips.
As we close in on the splashing school, the fishermen select their bamboo rod. Cigarettes are tossed into the sea. Seven gather at a bench at the stern, bamboo rods in hand with lines in the water. A pump sends sprays of water into the air and another crewmember starts slinging baitfish from the middle of the boat over the fishermen and the stern.
One bamboo rod bends, then another, and another. The fishermen throw their weight back to lift their rods, tugging the lines towards the boat. Once yanked out of the water, the tuna swing into the fishermen’s chests. They catch the tuna with one hand while still grasping their rods with the other. Tucking the tuna under their arms, they unhook the lures, and with quick twists, flick the tuna behind them into the boat with the swiftness of an NFL quarterback making a lateral pass to his running back. The fishermen’s lines are back in the water before the tuna hits the deck.
On the deck of the boat, the tuna’s tails rapidly beat against the wood. The sound rises like a drill into wood and becomes louder as more and more tuna are caught. Their powerful tails, which propelled them effortlessly through the water seconds before, now futilely flick back and forth until they exhaust themselves.
In three minutes, the fishermen land fifty tuna. Within five minutes, a hundred. Tuna pile on the bloody deck and slip into the rear hold. A bamboo rod cracks. The fisherman grabs the top end of the broken rod until he reaches the line and then pulls in the line by hand until another tuna is in the boat. He races to collect another rod.
When the school of tuna finally goes below the surface, the fishing and excitement ceases. Plastic cola bottles filled with water are passed around and cigarettes are lit again. Now they begin the process of taking the fish out of the rear hold, clubbing any tuna still slapping their tails, washing the catch, and tying them off in pairs by the tail. The tuna are then taken up to the forward hold and hung by the ties across bamboo poles.
We find schools two more times. It’s a bumper crop day—almost 500 fish! The bait hold is empty and we head to Manado to sell the catch. At the port, the fish are handed over the side of the boat two at a time to the fish seller employees standing waist deep in the water.
They drag these beautiful fish with their big black eyes and shiny, muscular bodies through the port’s murky water. Nearby, several naked children use a broken Styrofoam box from the fish market as a raft. The fish are stuck vertically in blue plastic crates, weighed, and tossed in the bed of a waiting pick up truck, embedded between layers of ice.
The count is in—1567 kilograms of tuna. This is a big catch and the crew gathers in the wholesale fish market to celebrate over a case of arak (local palm liquor). Seated on fish crates, we pass around a common plastic cup and take big gulps of an arak and cola concoction mixed by the bait-slinger.
For the forty-five minute voyage back to Bunaken island, several villagers that had been shopping in Manado join us. The arak continues to make its rounds among the crew. Fifteen hours after we set out, we arrive back on the beach. The fishermen return home, each bearing a fresh-caught tuna for dinner.
Mata Sapi: Cow eyes. Bahasa Bunaken for an egg done sunnyside up.
Learned this today when we walked into this island town of 2000 close to lunchtime. The scorching hot streets were empty save for kids. Their entire schedule seems to consist of games, riding bikes, and selling home-fried donuts to one another.
After a short stroll on the beach, we manage to find the mothers. Gathered under a cashew tree overlooking the aquamarine waters and reefs, they gossip here everyday at what one participant calls Café Perempuan (the womens’ café).
Mata sapi and rice is available for lunch. We politely refuse cow eyes, before someone clarifies that the protein on offer is fried eggs.
Few of our meals in Indonesia have tasted so fresh: A cool breeze blowing over papaya leaves in a coconut curry, rice and mata sapi.
“Situated in the very midst of an Archipelago, hemmed in on every side by islands teeming with varied forms of life, its productions have yet a surprising amount of individuality…Poor in the actual number of species, it is yet wonderfully rich in peculiar forms, many of which are singular and beautiful…absolutely unique upon the globe.”
Alfred Wallace writing on diverse Sulawesi, The Malay Archipalego, 1869.
Sitting in a damp tent somewhere in the wilds of Sulawesi, shivering through a malarial fever, this lesser known founder of theory of evolution came up with the brainwave of biogeography.
If he had ventured underwater to see any of the surrounding reefs though, I believe that the confusion of diversity would have pleasantly slowed the progress of science.
To be totally honest, I don’t know if Wallace did peer below the waves or even if the snorkel had been invented by his time. What is clear is that Wallace doesn’t mention the coral reefs near Manado in his travel tome, The Malay Archipelago.
Through the generous birthday gift of Brian’s parents, we visited the coral reef walls of Bunaken Island, thirty minutes outside the old Northern Sulawesi capital of Manado over this last week. On the risk of sounding cliché, we really did see all the colors of the rainbow among the fish along these reef walls. Sometimes, it almost seemed like the whole range in single fish alone.
Squatting on the beach, watching the tide come in, each eddy seems to teem. Flounders camouflage against the sandy bottom, only to be given away by only their eyes, awkwardly popping up on one side of their bodies. Hermit crabs wave bright blue pincers at one another in a territorial dance. A palm sized eel or sea snake challenges my big toe.
Past the sandy shore and down the walls of the reef, the creatures only get weirder. Worms look like Christmas trees. Fish have beaks, many change gender over thee course of their lifetime and others have burrows cleaned by symbiotic shrimp. Green sea turtles launch off the wall and seem to fly (in slow motion) into blue depths beyond.
Musing on this newfound understanding of “diversity” on the beach beside a tall, fossilized reef with the texture of crusted sourdough, I’m joined by four kids that add another lesson in the diversity of “play.”
They’re looking for toys that have washed up on the beach. Now distracted, they demonstrate their somersaulting skills. One five year old stuffs a toy truck in his underwear, reminding me of why shorts with zippered pockets are one great invention of mankind.
March 26—A friend of ours told us that the Minahasa people of North Sulawesi eat everything but stone. And we found evidence of this fact our first day here, forty kilometers south of our touchdown in Manado.
By 7 am, the market in the mountain town of Tomohon has been bustling for hours. Preparation and sales happen simultaneously. In the vegetable sellers section, women peel the outer layers off spring onions and wash greens in worn plastic buckets. In the fish market—filled with local varieties of salmon and tuna—an old lady scales small fish with a sharpened spoon.
Tuna and needlefish stand in racks around a fire of scrapwood and paper. The smell of their slime mingles with the smoke. Sellers shout their prices to passing buyers, enticing them to their stalls. Overhead, last night’s heavy rain still drips from orange and blue tarps. Nearby, Styrofoam boxes of baby tuna from the port town of Bitung are being offloaded from a pickup truck. Two men offload them onto the back of a motorbike, which shuttles them to different stalls. Another man runs behind the bike, steadying the box.
[DO NOT READ ON IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO HEAR ABOUT DOGS, RATS, AND BATS]
It is in the meat market where our Javanese friend’s words ring true. The clop of cleavers hacking through flesh and bone resounds through the pavilion. The cement floor is matted with a black layer of fur and dried blood. Fresh blood and guts accent the blackness and my toe bumps against a dog paw.
Bats, dogs, rats, pigs and jungle hogs are on offer.
Two cages at the periphery are packed with brown-furred dogs, stuffed in so tight they are hardly able to move. Behind them, other dogs are killed with a knife to the neck. Their hair is burnt off with a blowtorch. Then they are butchered and their meat displayed on a table a few meters from the cages of live dogs. Each of the blackened, dead dogs has a grimace frozen on its face.
The wings of fruit bats are in a jumbled pile on another table. The bodies of the bats are lined up next to them, their small teeth also bared. A woman asks for five, and the seller deftly slices off their heads, flays their bellies, and extracts their intestines. “Enak sekali” (very tasty), the bat buyer assures me in response to my skeptical facial expression.
Next to the bats are forest rats spitted on a wooden stick. Behind the rat table, a man scorches the rats one at a time, while his partner scrapes the remaining hair detritus from their skin and rinses them in a murky bucket of water.
The pigs and wild hogs are the largest animals brought in whole to the market—the cows seem to be already apportioned by the time they arrive. (Though Indonesia has the largest population of Muslims in the world, here in North Sulawesi the majority of people are Christians and pork is eaten openly.) The scent of burned rat, dog, and hog hair hangs in the air.
But in the midst of all the blood and flesh, a young family gathers for breakfast behind their stall. The father cleans a stump of wood used as a butcher block and the mother unwraps rice, egg, and vegetables from brown paper. One plate is set on the butcher block. A three-year-old boy, sitting on the table and propped against his father’s leg, digs in.