17.08.2016 - 15.09.2016 30 °C
It's one month later, August 17th, Indonesia's independence day, as we board a daytime bus to make the familiar 9 hour trip from Makassar to Rantepao.
The road winds along the western coast of Sulawesi for hours, making stops at all the same restaurants and facilities along the way. By nightfall, we've reunited with Daoud, Riana and their kids at Riana Guesthouse (12 euros with breakfast) and settled in to our room as if we never left.
We've come back to Sulawesi in search of Ma' Nene the rather unusual practice that takes place at the end of August in Pangala, Baruppu and surrounding villages in the northwest region of Toraja. The seat of the scooter is damp and the road is slick from overnight rain on this chilly morning.
As we ride into the hills, the road morphs into a muddy, potholed obstacle course, made more harrowing by occasional road works. We do take some satisfaction in seeing locals struggle through on their motorbikes, though for the most part we're in awe of their fearlessness and agility. Within a few days however, one of us is pretty adept in navigating all road and weather conditions!
A few inquiries and a lot of finger pointing leads us to the minuscule village of Tembo where a family is gathering. While we feel awkward trespassing this private moment, we are immediately welcomed, given a seat of honor under a rice barn and served coffee and cake. Oni, the patriarch of the family, speaks English and explains that today they will be honoring his deceased parents. A priest will conduct a mass and after they will open the grave house which sits on a nearby hill commanding a spectacular view. "We always choose the nicest location to build a grave house. It's important for our relatives to be most comfortable." Sure enough, the interior of this tomb has a cozy bedroom feel to it.
At his cousin's property nearby, people are gathering around an open tomb. A glimpse inside reveals a much simpler affair with a number of coffins and a few bodies wrapped in several layers of red cloth. Despite the language barrier, the banter of calls and texts indicates that they are waiting for important family members to arrive and discussing the order of events.
So what exactly happens at a Ma' Nene ceremony? Bodies are exhumed, cleaned, placed in the sun to dry, given a change of clothes, wrapped in fresh cloth and returned to their resting place. Far from macabre, for the families that continue this practice it is a time of renewing bonds, honoring their loved ones and simply never letting go.
Sometimes we wait for hours by a grave house and then suddenly, in a flurry of activity, we are surrounded by open caskets!
Mummified bodies in various states of decomposition are unwrapped and carefully liberated.
While there are a few solemn moments for some,
the atmosphere is decidedly cheerful as corpses are stood up, undressed, dusted off, groomed (amazingly, fingernails and hair continue to grow for some time) and placed in the sun to dry while relatives clean the tomb, spray for critters, catch up, recount stories of the deceased, eat and drink, etc.
There is no end to the photo opps.
In some cases, where there are many generations sharing space, it's necessary to label the bundles.
Other burial sites include caves or a slot cut into in a massive rock which can require making an impromptu ladder to reach the entrance. We wait patiently over 2 hours while a few men fell a tall bamboo and cut footholds into it. Then, one agile man climbs to the opening of the tomb and tends to his relatives. He also cuts the weeds that have grown around the entryway leaving the tomb and its inhabitants refreshed.
Some days, the main event is moving bodies to new resting places.
And everyone wants to participate.
There is no schedule. Ceremonies are organized by families who must gather relatives from afar. One man notes how much easier this is today with mobile phones and internet. Given the extraordinary expense of Torajan funerary traditions, many have left for better-paid jobs elsewhere in Indonesia and further, so organizing Ma' Nene is hardly a precise affair. The only certainty is that as a death ceremony, Ma' Nene can only take place at the end of August after the summer rice harvest. In some villages, these rituals take place every year, in others, every 3 years or more. A communal Ma' Nene ceremony at the massive Locomata burial rock will be held over 6 days after the next rice harvest.
Ma' Nene activities usually take place in the cooler morning hours and before the soaking afternoon rains. The most information we can get is the name of the village, the night before. So for 10 days, we are on the road by 6AM for the 1-2 hour ride from Rantepao to Pangala where we've gotten into the habit of stopping at Vegas' Guesthouse for information, not to mention his wife's mouthwatering pancakes. Sometimes, we literally have to drop our forks to follow someone on a motorbike. The roads go from decent to horrendous if it has rained overnight and the tombs are located down frighteningly steep paths, off dirt tracks; everywhere but easy. Keeping up with the locals, walking along the muddy, narrow ridges of rice paddies or climbing rocks is always an exploit. Luckily, there's often an outstretched hand to help me negotiate the rugged terrain.
Once you process the idea of coffins being opened, and think about the motivation behind these practices, you realize that in fact perhaps it is our society that has the strange rituals. In our culture, we fear death and send-off the deceased once and for all as soon as possible. In Toraja, death is merely the next step in life, quite possibly the most important. For the deceased, it's the beginning of a long journey to Puya, the afterlife. For the family, it is an opportunity to show respect and give back. Most people are quite superstitious believing that they will be rewarded by the spirits for their good deeds towards them.
After 2 weeks of chasing corpses, we once again head to northern Sulawesi, but with a little more time to spare, we make our way to the remote Togian Islands for some snorkeling and diving. Getting there (on our budget) is a 3 day journey by bus, car and ferry. The reward is an underdeveloped island paradise which in terms of infrastructure is not (yet) for those seeking luxury, but pristine in its raw beauty.
The bus from Rantepao begins with a 6 hour mechanical delay, so we decide to skip Tentana where most people spend the first night and continue directly to the town of Poso arriving at 6AM. Nothing stirring. As we scan the rather bleak surroundings, a lady and friend offer each of us a ride on their scooters to a closed office/bus stand that should open in a couple of hours.. Within a seemingly premeditated beat, a man in a well-worn Toyota offers to drive us the 4 hours to Ampana for 33 euros. Who can resist.
Infrastructure in Ampana is basic. Hotel Lawaka (20 euros with something resembling breakfast, A/C and cold shower) offers enough comfort to recuperate from the long trip.
The following morning, it's a tight squeeze but fun ride in a tuk tuk with the motor bike behind, to the Togian islands ferry. Luckily, the boat is more seaworthy than it looks.
The manager of Harmony Bay Resort picks us up in Wakai in a long wooden boat with just enough room for our bags and a seat on the floor. Forty minutes later, the boat turns right into Harmony Bay on Kadidiri island and glides up to 3 large beachfront bungalows where we step off in the water right in front of ours, No. 1 (53 euros with full board for 2). Meals are served at a communal table. There is no menu, but food is plentiful, good enough and the beer is cold.
Seriously rustic chic. There's a queen bed covered by a deluxe mosquito net, and that's about it for furniture. Wood beams converge high above under a thatched roof, and the large glass doors that open onto the terrace are set in a skeletal structure of wooden beams with open space above the frame. Call it A/C! The private, outdoor bathroom attached to the back has modern facilities and a, truly luxurious, fresh water shower. It's just a matter of getting used to the idea that the bungalow is open to whatever's out there. Thankfully, we have no unwanted visitors for the duration of our stay, unlike our neighbors who make the mistake of bringing food in.
Black Marlin Resort, 2 coves away, picks us up outside our bungalow for snorkeling/diving trips.
On a day trip to Malenge island, we snorkel around the rich California reef then visit a Bajo village. The Bajo fishermen live in small wood houses over the water.
In 2006 a long bridge was built so that their kids could go to school on the neighboring island. It's a 1.8 km walk on narrow wooden planks.
The sun sets as we head back to Harmony Bay and one of the hands sits on the front of the boat guiding the captain through shallow water with a lighter!
I can't say the trip to Jellyfish lake was on my bucket list, but it's one of those experiences I figure I won't be doing twice. The boat ride over is pretty rough. Our driver cannot reach the dock safely, so we have to jump in and battle the current to shore. As we come up over a ridge, the stillness of the lake is startling in comparison. Normally, the water is clear, but the weather has been agitated the last few days and it is unusually dense giving the scene (and my imagination) an eerie feel. As we swim around, jellyfish of all sizes come in and out of focus, but instead of the hundreds we're expecting, they appear one or two at a time, here and there in the opaqueness. Though they truly do not sting, Instinct forces you to move of their way.
The ferries of Indonesia are legendary and even though we've splurged for a cabin (33 euros + 9 for 2 boat ticket) the scene is unreal made more intense by the pouring rain.
We enter on the lower deck, where cars, trucks, bikes and animals are loading. Entire families grab floor space in between setting up camp. We climb 2 levels to our deck. On one side there's a room with rows of reserved airplane-type seats and a blasting A/C. In between the seats, on the floor, people are settling in as well. Our cabin has two bunk beds and is obviously crew quarters, but it's ours for the night and the first order of business is putting that big can of bug spray to use. The cockroaches on this boat are big enough for reserved seats!
The scene in front of our cabin is horrifying. Dozens of people have claimed space on an open platform sitting, lying, eating, smoking and chatting at very high decibels. We head to the top deck for air. There's a mix of locals and tourists and a snack bar. Many people will spend the cold night up here. I refuse to discuss the bathrooms...
One of us is extremely excited about arriving in Gorontalo where a short distance from town it's possible to swim with whale sharks. Another one of these experiences I'm not sure about, but apparently, like the jellyfish, they're not too concerned with humans. However, this experience will have to wait as it seems the sharks moved on a couple of weeks ago. We continue to Manado but finding ourselves choked in the city's traffic, we decide to head straight for the port and hire a boat to take us back to Bunaken island to spend our last 2 nights in Sulawesi snorkeling and diving. While Bunaken may not have the beaches of Togian, it's very easy to get to and though the diving is different, it's just as good.
We've pretty much covered Sulawesi, but there are many more Indonesian islands to visit and we'll be back soon to explore Papua, Raja Ampat, Komodo...