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A Sea of Pigs (Part 1) Rantepao, Sulawesi, Indonesia | We're Not There Yet

We were both sick when we woke up in the morning for the first of two days of touring the Toraja region. R had been dancing with it for a few days, but finally succumbed to a moderate cold, while mine was just getting warmed up. Sniffling and woozy, we managed to arrange a guide the night before by just showing up at a touristy restaurant and asking if there were any guides around. We met with a nice enough guy who offered to lead us around on scooters (we’d rent one, he had his own), which would spare the cost of hiring a car and driver. It is kind of a crapshoot to choose a guide if you don’t really know what your options are in the first place. We actually came armed with some very detailed suggestions from our Spanish friends in Labuanbajo, but it seemed like the trips were all more or less the same. We had been approached by several guides upon arrival in town, but weren’t up to sitting down and hammering out a deal. Although we had no shortage of options, we went with the last guy because a) the scooter scenario, b) we were just too damned tired to comparison shop, and c) he promised to take us to a cock-fight.

And so we found ourselves zooming around the unpaved backroads with Uchu. R and I shared a small rental scooter while our guide led the charge on his worn-in Honda dirt bike. His vehicle was considerably more powerful than ours and had the added comfort of suspension- helpful in keeping your sanity over all those paving stones and pot-holes- so he had a tendency to zip ahead of us while we were still struggling up a winding hill. Being tourists, we also liked to stop for photos and take it slow, but where he was taking us, there was little time to dally.

The major attractions of the Tana Toraja area are its distinct and beautiful slope-roofed houses, unusual grave sites, and the exotic ceremonies that the locals practice, particularly surrounding funerals. Typical one- or two-day tours try to take in major burial sights (located in caves, trees, and even rock faces), a photo-friendly village with lots of tongkonan (the iconic traditional houses), and at least one day of a funeral ceremony (typically 3-days long).

Here are a bunch of those houses

Buffalo horns indicate social status. They are from sacrifices at old funerals.

These light carvings are very important symbols and are on all of these buildings. The funny faces are stylized representations of buffalo

And the reason so many people want to see a funeral ceremony is for the animal sacrifice. Torajan culture revolves heavily around death and its attendant rituals. Grown children save money to contribute to their parents’ funerals, which may occur more than half a year after their deaths and whose preparation includes building ‘temporary’ structures with longer shelf-life than Ikea furniture and acquiring enough water buffalo to sacrifice in the ceremony, dependent on the deceased’s social status. Water buffalo are a sign of status and power and can carry price tags of over US$10,000. They are rarely used for agricultural purposes (plowing fields and whatnot), but are bred principally for these ceremonies. Like all symbols of status, the bigger the better and unusual markings (albinism being particularly favored) add even more value.

In addition to the expensive and labor-intensive funeral ceremonies, conspicuous gravesites everywhere you look are physical reminders of the prominence of death in Torajan culture. The landscape of Tana Toraja is hilly and rocky and all arable land is used to grow rice or other crops- there is simply no ‘spare’ land to bury the dead. To get around this, ancient Torajans stowed their dead where they could: caves, trees, and even rock faces.

Graves cut into the face of a boulder (the bodies go inside)

The last of these are the famous ‘hanging graves’; actually wooden platforms with supports wedged into holes in the rock face. Over time, a huge number of these graves have collapsed with age and piles of bones can be found amidst the elaborated carved decorative wood of the original coffins. With advances in rock-carving techniques over the years, Torajans were able to transition from the hanging graves to individual graves carved into the rock itself, very much like a modern mausoleum. The result is that any sizable rock scattered around the region is more likely than not to have at least one coffin stuffed inside it. People today still bury their dead in the traditional ways and when we visited a well-known cave grave, our guide pointed out a coffin that had just been ‘interred’ a few weeks prior.

Hanging graves

But back to our tour:

The reason we were bumping around the very back of these back roads is that our guide was taking us to a ‘house ceremony’- kind of like a house warming, but with a lot more dead pigs. In lieu of a high-status, high buffalo-count funeral ceremony, our guide knew of a village where a family had recently constructed a new tongkonan. This happens when a family grows to a capacity that a family reunion will no longer fit in the existing tongkonans, of which there may be several, passed down from both parents’ sides and considered homebase to any number of siblings, cousins, and assorted relatives. To celebrate the finished product, the family will invite all of their friends and neighbors, who will bring their own guests, and everyone will bring enough food to feed any stray tourists who might wander in for a photo op. Guests will bring a pig or two to contribute to the ceremony. The pigs’ throats are slit and then they are dragged into smoldering charcoal to burn off all of the hair and whet the appetite. When we arrived there was a sea of pigs, throats already slit, laying hairless and smoky on every available inch of ground. We were invited by an English-speaking guest to join him and his family to eat the food they had brought (black rice and bamboo stuffed with chicken and vegetables) and have a place to watch the ceremony. There wasn’t much ceremony going on by the time we arrived and we had to leave after about an hour to head to our next stop, but we did watch as the young men and boys began to wrangle the pigs and butcher them to be either cooked on the spot or for the meat to be given to family members and guests of status.

Everyone waiting around until the pigs are cool enough to eat

More pig carnage

Our next stop was back down the bumpy dirt road, now beginning to become physically impairing to me, to a funeral ceremony. Foreigners are tolerated- welcome, even- at these events in the spirit of sharing, but always with the expectation of brining ‘gifts’ to the host family (these can be cash, but are typically cigarettes, chocolates, or other ‘essentials’). We were a bit put off when we arrived to the funeral ceremony and our guide crept around like a wedding crasher- he didn’t seem to know the family and we never stopped to purchase ‘gifts’ even though I had asked him if we needed to do so that morning. It turned out that he was a friend of the MC and, after we were spotted, we were invited to the main platform to watch the events. This was a moderate-sized funeral, although it seemed small after the mass and chaos of the house ceremony, and was comparatively somber (though funerals are not necessarily sad affairs). We watched some dancing (R and two other foreigners participated) and saw the beginning of the procession of the coffin, followed by a palanquin carrying the deceased’s widow. There was a single water buffalo tethered to a tree and munching at the grass, who would probably be steak by nightfall, but we decided against waiting the several hours it would take for the procession to return from its route through the nearby villages and decided to call it a day.

We were a little underwhelmed with our guide. He felt more like a friend-of-a-friend showing us around his hometown rather than a knowledgeable, well, guide. Aside from the glaring faux-pas of not bringing a gift to the ceremony, he didn’t have all that much to add about much of anything. We felt that we got better general information from the bullet-points in our guidebooks than he could provide and he seemed kind of disinterested in the whole thing. Still, we did see a lot of the countryside and he certainly led us to places that we never would have seen without a guide, so we decided to stick with him the next day. Not to mention his promise of taking us to a cockfight.

R speaking now: Hey all, the most annoying part of making this blog is inserting the photos one by one. To make this go way more smoothly, I’m just gonna start putting all the photos in at the end. Hope that doesn’t ruin it for you all (whoever it is that reads this). If you don’t like it, email me and we’ll figure out a better way.

With that: the rest of the photos from the day’s trip through the abattoir that is Tanah Torajah.

Pigs getting hauled around.

More carnage

The buffalo horns that adorn the buildings are from water buffalo sacrifices of funerals past. A lot of them indicates status.

Roasted pig

These pigs were HEAVY. Definitely over 400 lbs. each.

Skinned water buffalo at a funeral

We passed by this cemetary while on the motorcycles. They just killed three buffalo.