Touring Toraja with Newman

My first day here, I hired a guide, a man named Newman, to give me a tour of the Southern part of this country. I hadn’t intended to go with a guide. When I stumbled upon his “tourist information” place on a side street and asked him a couple questions, he got out a map and gave me clues on where to go. He was so enthusiastic describing what was available! Listening to him, I realized there was a lot to learn about this valley and the burial rituals of the ancient religion.

I’ve heard stories of guides who told people there was a funeral and “today is a good day to go” only to find out it wasn’t. My friend from Denmark was impressed when he asked Newman about going to a funeral. He picked up his phone and started making calls until he discovered the best place and time to go over the next several days.

Our first stop was a place called Lemo. Parking the bike and walking down the path, we were embraced on one side by the tourist booths selling souvenirs and on the other by a stunning view of rice fields in various shades of green. Down many steps and turning to the right, I was surprised by the doors and effigies in the side of the mountain. From a distance, I would see more than a dozen of them with more above barely concealed by the vines growing down the hillside.


This spot has been used for around 400 years. In those days, it took craftsmen three to four years to carve out a hole the same size as the door. Rudimentary tools were used as that’s all that was available. The craftsmen were generally paid by barter system and might have been paid meals for their labor.

At the base of the wall were tiny traditionally shaped houses. The peaks represent the horns of the buffalo, a sign of strength and courage. These tiny houses cover a platform where coffins or bodies are placed when transported to the burial cave.

Only noble class is buried here. If a person couldn’t afford at least 12 buffalo, they couldn’t be buried here and might simply be left outside. The buffalo is a crucial aspect of the burial ceremony here making an offering to help the journey of the Soul. Lower class might only be able to afford 1 to 3 buffalo, middle class 5 to 8 buffalo (or generally less than 12) and the nobility 12 buffalo or more.

Today’s value of a buffalo ranges from $1,500 to $20,000 US. I saw an albino white buffalo with blue eyes being fed at one of the homes there. The people living there are paid to feed the buffalo every month for the owner and it will be used for a funeral ceremony one day. This buffalo cost $20,000 US!

The caste don’e change. Noble class are usually the land owners, they own the paddies and fields where the rice is grown. The lower caste are the poorest cast and the middle sits somewhere in between.

Today, the caste system is a bit strange because of money. Many locals go to Borneo to work in the petroleum industry or to Papua to work in the gold mines. In Toraja, a single man might be able to earn $100 to $150 per month, enough to buy cigarettes and palm wine. A family with two children that’s middle class might earn as much as $500 a month. When a family member goes to Papua to work in a gold mine, the minimum payment there is $700 a month, that’s starting wage. Some earn $1,000 to $3,000 a month sending money home to family and have more than one person working in the mines.

Because of the economy challenge here and the fact that nobility won’t work in mines but get jobs with the government working behind the desk, the financial status doesn’t equate to social caste. The way Newman described it, the caste sit in different areas during a funeral ceremony. A noble class person will be sitting in that caste but have no money in their pocket. A lower caste person will sit with that group but have a ton of money, big new house, nice car and so forth. It really must cause some confusion!

As we drove through the country side, occasionally we came across a really nice painted concrete house in the midst of the more typical wooden homes. Those are homes with family working in the mines. Of course, working in the mines also means a much higher risk so they heave to deal with that.

Once a person dies, they believe the body dies but not the Soul. Within a day, they go to the pharmacy for some chemical they inject in the body. Two or three days later, the body is dried out and the put it in a coffin. The coffin sits in the house with the family from several months to several years.

They treat the “person” as if they were still there. The ceremony is crucial to them to help the Soul make it’s journey which is why they wait as long as it takes to make a great ceremony. They put food out by the coffin to nourish the Soul, call it at dinner time and so forth. Often, it takes several years to get plans laid and money put aside for the funeral ceremony which might involve 500 to 1,000 guests.

A King in the South died. He was in the coffin in the home for 5 years before they had the ceremony. Because of his importance, they offered 60 buffalo at his ceremony which may have cost well over $150,000 and had over 1,500 guests. In the North last year, a family not of nobility but of money from the mines, had a ceremony with 100 buffalo offered, perhaps $300,000 US spent on the buffalo!

I didn’t go to a funeral ceremony but traveled by several. The yard is littered with the heads of buffalo, entrails, and so forth which was a bit gory for me!

Back to the burial caves, the effigies are clothed. They normally would get together every 3 to 5 years, have a ceremony and then replace the clothing on the images of their deceased family members. Yes, they are carved in a likeness of the person who departed.

Today, that ceremony is more difficult because of changes in the environment of all things! The area around Lemo has no irrigation. There is a river but it is lower than the rice fields. Because it doesn’t rain as consistently as it did in the past, the rice harvest has changed. In the past, all the rice was harvested the there was a period where people could concentrate on the ceremony.

Today, the water is carefully channeled to where it is needed the most. Rice cultivating into a plant needs about 5 weeks to grow big enough to be planted. Then, it needs another period of 5 weeks to be established. If there isn’t enough water, plants perish so it’s now planted in smaller lots. Water is channeled to where it is needed the most while other paddies might be empty. I looked down the valley at fields below having just been harvested while fields above were being planted. This new cycle makes it more difficult to have an extended period of time for the clothing ceremony.

When I was cycling yesterday and this morning, I rode through areas that have irrigation. All the fields are in the same phase of growth having just been harvested!

Now, as I ride around, I’m finding myself guessing the value of the buffalo I see! The most prized buffalo are the large, thick animals with the largest horns. Most prized of all, the albino which cost up $20,000 US or more for the perfect animal.

Rantepao reflections, leaving on the overnight bus tonight

A cloudy Saturday here and rain is threatening. I’ve been very fortunate with the weather! Many travelers I meet are planning their trip by looking up weather forecast on the web. It’s driving them crazy!!! They ask me what I think about going to the Togian Islands because they heard….blah, blah, blah, rain every day and horrible!

My recommendation, forget about the forecast and check in to see if it “feels right” to go there! I was advised in Kuala Lumpur not to go to Taman Negara; then not to go to the Cameron Highlands; then not to go to Penang; certainly don’t go to Northern Sumatra and especially not Lake Toba; “I cancelled a trip to Sandakan because I heard it is so wet; and so forth. I had great experiences in all those places because “I am here NOW” and it felt right to go check them out.

My arrival here was perfect! We paid $120,000 rupiah for the bus ride from Tentena with a new company named Bintang. The bus is perhaps the most comfortable I’ve ever ridden on! It was supposed to get us in around 6:00 pm so we could get the bus onward to Rantepao. Suzana, Jon and I were able to negotiate the private car for $250,000 and made it to Rantepao that night after a long day. However, it was a great decision to get in all the travel in one day.

The next morning reflected some of the contrasts I’ve encountered here. Even though it is a tourist hub, the people here are very simple, don’t speak much English, and want to be very helpful. There are a few, as would be expected in a tourist town, who tell you whatever it takes to get your money.

My first morning at Wisma Maria, I walked into the dining room for breakfast which is included in the price of the room. Doris in Tentena told me Maria’s has a great breakfast but she didn’t know anything about the rooms. The breakfast was indeed superb with fresh baked bread!


The young woman serving it wore a T-shirt with the message: darkness can’t drive out the dark, only light can do that. I don’t believe she had any idea of what it meant but it was a nice reminder for me.

Then, I saw a man outside who turned his back flashing a message: “Fuck It All”. Well, there is the other side!

I tried to make conversation with a young woman sitting at the next table but she would have none of it and was putting out the vibe to stay our of her space. When I finished eating, she turned and said hello. “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” was sitting in front of her so I asked if she enjoyed the book? That broke the ice.

She began telling me of all the bad experiences she’s had. WOW! I hadn’t experienced one of those. Then she said she thought it was because she is a woman traveling alone. I’ve only met one other woman who ranted about bad experiences and both seemed to radiate an energy that was distancing and uncomfortable.

Once you make your mind up, you radiate an energy that comes back to you. Blame the world or, once again, look in the mirror! I was going to help her with ferry schedules for the Togian Islands but never saw her again.

My first day was a chill day of walking around, getting oriented, finding tourist information, and meeting Newman. I did find two internet cafe’s that weren’t totally baffled by the fact I had my own computer, were able to get me connected and provided fast connections.

I asked Dani at one of them for a restaurant recommendation and walked North about 7 or 8 blocks for Restaurant Riman. It was so good, I went back and thanked him! I may go back there for a nice dinner before getting on the bus at 9:00 pm for the overnight bus trip to Makassar. Suzana and Jon are on the same bus, it’s the line we traveled with getting her but their even more deluxe air cushion ride version!

My day with Newman learning about the funeral rituals was great! I’m so glad I did that and I learned a ton which I will write on another post. Yesterday, I rented a motorbike and headed off in the opposite direction from the day before. North, into the mountains, climbing to gorgeous views and their own version of the funeral rituals.

More contrast up there. Most people were very friendly with their smile and wave accompanied by “Halllow Meesteer”. The higher I got, the more shy people became and a few left once they saw me waking into their homes. Some boys, near the highest point of my trip, started screaming at me. They wanted their picture taken. As I took out my camera, they dropped their shorts to their knees and lifted their shirts dancing wildly and rudely. I put the camera away and could tell, by their screams raising in volume, they weren’t happy with me.

At dinner last night with Suzana and Jon, we were talking about the five or six phrases people here know in English: 1.) “Haaalllloooowww Meester”, 2.) “Where going”, 3.) “What’s your name”, 4.) “How you”, 5.) “Where u from”, and 6.) “What u looking for”.


I found a travel office here, the ONE travel office here. They have a sign for flights listing numerous airlines and also ticket for one of the bus lines. Apparently, there is fierce competition between the bus lines here! Tonight, between 7:00 and 9:00, their might be a dozen buses lined up on the street heading mostly in the same direction.


From Makassar, I wanted to get a flight to Lauban Bajo. Searching the internet showed no direct connections but flights did connect through Denpasar, Bali. I went to book a ticket. They did a quick look at one airline, Lion Air, and said it was only possible on Saturday or Tuesday! Saturday was too soon, Tuesday a bit late, so I went back to the web. I found flights every day.

Back at the agency, I had to “coax” them to look for options with other airlines. Specifically, I had to ask them to LOOK AT…Garuda Air, Batavia Air, etc. Finally, I decided it might be better to simply arrive at Denpasar since it’s an early flight and then look for an afternoon flight to Luaban Bajo. Once I decided to buy that one little ticket, it took 40 minutes to complete the transaction! Whew!

Coming back from the mountains yesterday and recalling a left turn on the map, I turned left. After a short time, I had a distinct feeling I was headed the wrong way. The wrong way in this case meant I was seeing more rice fields, scenery up to the mountains I had just descended, and small villages.

I stopped and did a decidedly “unmanly” thing, I asked someone. His answer baffled me at first! I pointed the way I was headed and asked if this goes to Rantepao? He spoke one word I didn’t understand so I asked again. Because I had seen the name of the town on the map, I suddenly realized he was telling me the next village.


He didn’t seem to have the capacity or understanding to be helpful and tell me where to go so I asked pointing in the direction I had come, “Rantepao”. More confusion! After several more tries and offering different variations of the same question, I got what appeared to be a head nod. When I thanked him, he beamed me with a huge smile and I turned around.


I’ve had the same sort of reaction here at cafe’s where I ordered french fries and got rice, was told only one room with single bed and had a huge room with king bed, and am learning I have to be extremely specific and detailed in asking!

Moments ago, I went to a photo place to get a copy of Doris and I so I could mail it to her. I asked the lady at the photo place where the POS (post office) was. First, some nervous giggling, then some discussion with others, more giggling and then pointing. I asked with my hands and words if it was on this road? And, how far indicating one block or two blocks or three blocks. A pow wow followed with three other ladies talking before she came back and said about 5 kilometers. I thanked them and left for the copy center and an envelope.

I got the envelope easily enough then caused a bit of stress asking where the POS was. One man asked another man who asked another man, another pow wow, much pointing, then a lady came in joining them before saying, “down there” pointing down the street. More confusion as they tried to think what it was near. I asked if it was near Restaurant Riman and they excitedly gestured that it was just a little beyond.

Then, I really put a twist in the conversation by pointing at my watch and asking if it was open. “OH NO….CLO….SED”….that’s the detail I have to remember!

It’s a nice town, easy on the Soul, simple friendly people and I’ll be a little sad when I leave tonight. However, with Bali looming on the horizon, I won’t be that sad. If I run into challenges getting a flight to Luaban Bajo, I’ll take a taxi to Ubud, reorganize my pack for Luaban Bajo and Komodo, leave my extra things, have a session with Eddy and then fly off.

Ciao…..