Saturday, October 27, 2007

October 24, 2007

So the Indonesian experience has been pretty crazy this far. I’ve told many of you that I’m learning a truer meaning of the word “foreign” here. Sarah and I have had to make several adjustments, inventories, re-evaluations, reassessments, and revisions in our almost three months here. And I’m sure there are more to come.

Well, all of these new things were turned upside down during a short trip up to Tana Toraja the other week. It’s taken a while to let it all settle before we wrote anything down. I’m no expert, of course, but I’ll try and give some observations.

We chose to go up to this remote area that’s about a nine-hour gorgeous bus ride north of Makassar to see some true Indonesian culture. This area is difficult to get to and remains very rural and cut off from many Western influences. There are no chains there – Western or Asian – even the ever-present KFC is not to be seen. The closest thing I saw to the corporate world was a pirated Starbucks t-shirt in a little shop near our hotel.

One thing Toraja is known for is its many little coffee plantations. Some of the best beans in the world are grown here on giant 100-year-old trees that families cultivate and process themselves. I learned about Toraja during my time with Peet’s Coffee and Tea. The harvest happened in July and August, so I didn’t get to see any of this first hand.

But what Toraja is best known for are their huge, elaborate funerals and unique houses. Death is an ever-present reality here. It’s not eerie or creepy. It’s just there. We hired a guide and attended part of a funeral. There were hundreds paying their respects to one man. Guests brought hundreds of pigs and a couple dozen water buffalo as condolences. We saw several groups paraded in with their pigs, and then the family names were read (they were either repaying from a past funeral or giving with the expectation that the favor will be returned). The guests were given coffee and cigarettes, and then after a short time they left to butcher the pigs. The meat was then distributed among all the other guests. They cook some right there over open fires and take some home in bags. It was like a big block party – only with a bunch of tied up, squealing pigs around knowing their end was near.

The ancient ancestral belief is that these animal spirits will accompany the man to the afterlife, but my detached view saw this as a way of distributing wealth. Some things I’d read called the Torajans’ old religion (who converted to Christianity in the early 20th century but have kept some of their old beliefs – like every culture has to some degree) as “ancestor worship.” I don’t think this is accurate. From what I understood and saw, Torajans do not worship the dead in the way I understand worship.

They keep the dead – or “sick” – person in their home for a while. (Their houses are something we’ll write about later.) Then they offer things to help them in the afterlife, but they do not pray to them. It’s just a posthumous ritual, which every culture needs to do to mourn a loss. In the West, we do similar things “in the memory” of someone who died – donations, plaques, flowers, expensive gravestones. These all seem strangely related to me. Both cultures do things in hopes that the person is well where their spirit has gone. But ultimately there is nothing we can do, so we comfort each other.

I told our guide, I’d be a meat eater if I got my meat this way.

* Sarah has set up a blog site with pictures of our time in Indonesia. You can check them out at

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