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.
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.
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.
Landed in Manado on an early flight from Jakarta, we thump into town. The blue mikrolet (small passenger van/bus that ply the streets in most Indonesian cities and towns) is blaring remixes of Lady Gaga and Jaya Ho (the theme song of Slumdog Millionaire). The mikrolet’s powerful subwoofer sends reverberations thru our bodies.
Cream puffs and banana bread on the rocks by the sea for breakfast to celebrate Brian’s 27th birthday. We catch a packed bus to Tomohon, an hour south of Manado. The last to board, Melati is seated on a plastic chair in the aisle, its leg secured by twine to the bench next to it. Brian gets a short stool just behind and to the left of the driver.
We ascend out of Manado into lush hills to begin our travels in Sulawesi.
Heading south out of Jogja, we saw this masked musician at a traffic light. His gamelan notes keeping tempo with the countdown to green light on the LED sign above. Two ladies accompany his performance, lithely dancing in the crosswalk before revving motorbikes, minibuses and kids on bicycles squinting through the sharp sunlight. Seconds before the switch to green, the dancers collect coins from their impromptu audience as the musician plays on.