Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Slaughtering Buffalo in Tana Toraja

Maud was getting on my nerves. The French girl had been on the bus with us to Rantampao, 10 hours from Makassar in the south. She was friendly enough, but I could sense there was something off about her. She followed us to a budget hotel and had been the one to tell us about the chance to observe a funeral ceremony that same morning, but when we met with Johnny, the guide, to arrange a tour the following day, she'd whispered conspiratorially, "You leave the negotiating to me."
"That Austrian couple you took today was on a honeymoon, and they had a lot of money to spend, but we're backpackers, and we're traveling for a long time, so you have to give us a good price, okay!" Her tone took us off guard; I think we'd expected her to be aggressive, but not belligerent. Haggling comes with the territory of budget travel, but getting in people's faces, shouting, and wrecking relationships for the sake of $5 usually makes us squeamish.
Johnny thought for awhile, wrote out his expenses on paper. He was a local, but as a Christian convert, had followed the tradition of taking a western name. He listed his costs, stated what he needed to make, and came down to about $50, from the $90 he'd charged the Austrians earlier that day.
"No, I said you have to give us a good price!" Maud yelled. "That's not a good price!"
The two of them bickered back and forth, he more politely than she, but he refused to budge from 450,000 Rupiah. Maud turned him down, then went back later that night to track him down and book his services. The next morning, when he met us for breakfast, she was still whining and badgering him about a discount.
Our tour turned out to be pretty fun. Torajans are fixated with death and the afterlife, and we visited sites where bodies had been interred in caves, a living tree where the corpses of infants where inserted into crevices and twists to grow into a part of the trunk, and saw life-sized tau-tau carvings, wooden effigies of the dead, which somewhat resemble muppets. In the last cave, dessicated skulls where gathered in piles on the floor and jammed into crannies. Above them were tau-taus looking out.
After visiting three sites, Johnny took us to a funeral celebration 30 minutes away by car. Maud slept in the front seat as we passed scenery of rice terraces and traditional villages.
Funeral celebrations in Tana Toraja are gorgeous and complicated events that last for days. The following is a mix of what we observed, plus some explanation provided later by our trek guide. In the center of a traditional village, the teardrop shaped coffin is placed on a palanquin resembling a Torajan house and marched from one end of town to the other, to the accompaniment of a parade of uncut cloth, beating gongs, and what can only be described as war-whoops. Torajan homes uniformly have 3 rooms, are shaped like ships, and face north, to remind the inhabitants that their ancestors were sailors who arrived from boat from the south. While the coffin is carried, the whole of the village follows, carrying an uncut length of white cloth, empty spirit chairs over their heads, leading water buffalo by the nose, and, shaking the palanquin.
They return to the village center, move the coffin to a special platform, serve lunch to all guests and say a special prayer before sacrificing two buffalo.
Tea and cookies are served as the men in the village get down to the grizzly business of flaying and butchering the animals. Dogs circle, flies hover, and choice cuts of buffalo are auctioned off to raise money for the local church. When this is finished, several buffalo are led down to the rice paddies to fight. We thought this would be inhumane and awful to watch, but the buffalo turn out to be fairly stupid, aggressive, and cowardly animals that will lock horns a few minutes if they just see another male in their direct line of vision, then turn tails and run away if they think they're outmatched.
Torajan cosmology holds that death is the start of a journey to the afterworld, but that journey cannot begin until a proper funeral has taken place. Often, families will spend 6 to 24 months saving for a ceremony after a member has died. During that time, the dead person is kept in the home, served regular meals, given cigarettes and betel nuts, and addressed by others as a living person.
The funeral marks the start of the deceased's journey to the next world. It's a long, difficult, and perilous trip over mountains and through deep caves. When the deceased arrives at their destination, they meet a judging god who examines their life and assigns them status in the afterworld. Someone deemed worthy and virtuous can be made a demi-god, and can go on to influence the destinies of their descendants.
A good funeral helps the trip and transition. It can give the spirit a head start on the journey, and make the dead look good in the eyes of the god. Women gather together and pound rice in large mortars during the funeral, to give the appearance to deities listening that the deceased was an important person with servants. Water buffalo, usually 26 to 100 of them, are sacrificed over the course of the day. They carry the dead and their belongings into the next world, and the quality and breed of the buffalo make a tremendous difference: two-toned buffalo are extra valuable, because the black color allows the animal to walk on land, and the white allows it to fly; a buffalo with a patch of white on its forehead will cast light in the darkness of a cave; for reasons unexplained to Julie and me, it's better if the buffalo has a long tail.
In the public markets, these buffalo sell for up to a few thousand dollars each.
I wasn't quite prepared for the slaughter of these animals, but Johnny was very excited for us to come and witness. We watched from a peanut gallery as a short stick attached to a ring in the animal's nose was raised high, forcing the buffalo's head up. Someone would dash in with a machete and, using a forearm swing, cut the animal's throat, wide and deep. The bull would fall down, make snuffling noises, kick its feet a few times, and the eyes would glaze over just as flies began gathering near the bright pools of blood. The other 25 buffalo, meanwhile, stand around the body of their companion, dumb and unfazed, chewing grass, probably thinking, "Well, it won't happen to me."
Johnny returned us to our hotel that evening, the Wisma Maria I, and we spent the night trying to avoid Maud while listening to our neighbor's cancerous hoiking and spitting. Everyone smokes here. No one considers it dangerous, and everyone in Sulawesi will tell you the same thing: It's a sign of friendship to give and share cigarettes, usually a sweet and aromatic blend of tobacco and cloves. On the hill trek the next day, Julie and I spotted a four year-old hanging out under the village rice barn, taking French inhales from a discarded, burning butt.
The trek was incredible, by the way. Photos on Flickr will do a better job illustrating the scenery than I can here: steep, emerald green, rice farming terraces; friendly families offering tea when we stopped to rest; village chiefs stuffing coffins into caves hewn from massive boulders and outcroppings, and spending the night in one of the traditional, boat-shaped homes. Everywhere, the mountains were dotted with fleets of these houses, all pointing north.

Mark and Juliah

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