On the small island of Hoga off Kaledupa, we share a beach shack with an adventurous Moluccan couple that we met on the last leg of our journey. Karina is from Kalimantan, Putra from Aceh. They met and fell in love in Aceh, where Karina worked for the Peace Brigade. Dating was tough, they say with a laugh, in a place governed by Sharia law where even holding hands in public will land you in jail, or worse.
They now live on the island of Buru in the Mollucas where Karina works on a maternal health awareness campaign for Mercy Corps and Putra, a painter, earns money airbrushing motor bikes. For us, they are excellent housemates and their friendship is an unexpected bonus on our journey.
We snorkel together (them in life jackets strapped on over t-shirts), and cook and eat together. They sleep inside on the big bed and we sleep on a smaller mattress outside on the deck. Even after they (reluctantly) return to the Moluccas, we continue to sleep outside.
The deck wraps around the side of the shack and there we have set up our kitchen. Lined up on the floor are a kerosene stove, a basket of bowls, glasses, and utensils, and two plastic jugs of “cooking” water. Between two posts we have tied a line from which we hang our food: bananas and oranges brought from Bau-Bau, black rice, instant noodle packets, and a pink plastic bag of flour. To a rafter we tied up two pineapples and a clump of long green beans also bought in Bau-Bau.
Just beyond the steps leading to the deck—between the shack and the sea—are two coconut palms supplying us kalapa muda (tender coconuts), which we gulp when the days get hot. In the morning, we mix sweetened condensed milk into our coffee and sip it on the beach as prahus laden with firewood pass by in the shallows.
In the evenings, we slow roast baby tuna over coals of dried-coconut shells using bamboo slats as grill grates. We wash our dishes and utensils in the sea, using sand as our scrub brush. It’s a sweet life. The sound of the tiny waves seep into our subconscious. We slow to the rhythms of island life.
At the Kendari gate in Jakarta airport the landscape is already distinctly un-Javanese. In the faces of our fellow passengers on homeward bound journey, eyes are set further apart than those of Western Indonesians. Hair frizzes.
We wake in the morning to a view of Kendari harbor from Hotel Cendrawasih—named for a bird species from the easternmost islands of Indonesia. A bird that has been overhunted for its golden plumage.
The first day for a quick study on Bajaus with local journalists and a stop-in at the studios of Radio Republik Indonesia (RRI) for the weekly Bajau radio show. Then an early-morning departure on a boat heading south.
Our newest journey begins on a Kendari-bound afternoon flight from Jakarta hardly a quarter full. We jet a time zone eastward through an orange sunset and land at a small terminal building surrounded by darkness. Kendari, the largest town in southeast Sulawesi, is a thirty-minute taxi ride away.
To jog your memory, our last travels documented here took us around north and south Sulawesi. In between now and then, Melati has been working at the Centre for International Forestry Research. Brian snuck off to trek around Ladakh (in the northern reaches of India) with a spirited group of American teenagers.
Leaving Makassar nearly four months ago, we felt we had missed a critical part of Sulawesi: the southeast arm, which includes the magical grouping of islands called Wakatobi. Now we return to explore it, with scuba masks and snorkels and a curiosity about the Bajaus, nomadic fishing communities that populate the coastal areas and small islands here.
Since it culminates in excreta (of luwak, or civet cats), how apt that the life cycle of the world’s most expensive coffee should also begin with quality manure.
For gourmet coffee connoisseurs worldwide, the highest of high-end coffee beans come from the hindmost low-end of a civet cat.
We shared the back seat of a jeep with this stylish Luwu gentleman on our journey westward to the coast from the Torajan highlands.
White buffalo in Pasar Bolu, Rantepao. Allegedly sold for as much as 400 million rupiah (43,000 USD), these animals are the most highly prized sacrifices at Torajan funerals. Here, our peripatetic friend Rod Davis, inspects one specimen with his fisheye lensed GOPRO camera. The man has since motorbiked on to Northern Sulawesi
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.