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Whatever the sights, there's no doubt that the highlight of a trip to Tana Toraja, the area of central Sulawesi whose capital is Rantepao, is to visit a funeral. This is easier than it sounds: because the funeral celebrations take a lot of preparation, not to mention expense, the Torajans have two funerals for each death, much like the Balinese; the first one is a private affair straight away after the death, and the body is preserved in the house where it died until the necessary cash has been saved up for the second one, a much bigger, more public affair. Because the second funeral is effectively a huge party and can be held at any time, it tends to be organised for between July and October when the relatives can come to visit more easily, during the school holidays. This leads to the strange concept of the Funeral Season, which Rose and I were lucky enough to catch the end of.
It was pure luck, but Rose and I managed to get 'invited' to a medium-sized funeral in a place called Buntulepong, somewhere that didn't even appear on the local maps. We had just returned to our hotel after our evening meal when this local guy called Sam rushed up and wondered if we would like to go to a funeral tomorrow, in his home village: we had no plans, and so we agreed. Of course our 'invitation' cost us US$15, but our cynicism was short lived: the three of us – the two of us plus a third girl from the same hotel – were the only tourists at the whole event. And what an event.
Torajan funerals are, by English standards, badly named: 'funeral', at least in English, is a word that conjures up images of black-clad mourners, weeping by a graveside on a cold winter's day, the priest's mournful words forming frostily in the air. In Tana Toraja they wear black, but that's where the mourning ends: the second funeral is a celebration of the person's life, of him or her making the step into the next world, where those left on earth make sure they send all the help they can to the person's spirit.
The theory goes something like this. When a Torajan dies, the spirit journeys to a netherworld. Here it is judged, and one of the ways it is judged is on how successful it was in its previous life, and this is influenced by looking at the number of animal spirits that have been sent along with the person... in other words, the larger the number of animals that get slaughtered at the funeral, the better the spirit's chance of getting to the Torajan version of heaven. And of course the best animal to get sent along for your journey to the netherworld is the water buffalo, the most expensive animal around. Is it any wonder that throwing a funeral can, literally, bankrupt a family? Still, it's a hell of a way to blow the family fortune.
The Funeral Celebrations
We were welcomed like long lost family members when we finally arrived at the village, having traipsed through paddy fields and some stunning mountain views. Arabica coffee was offered – without a doubt the best coffee I'd had in Indonesia – and kreteks were passed around, for this is the way of the party. Guests are expected to bring presents, whether it's water buffalo, pigs, food or cigarettes, and our gift of a large box of Gudang Garam kreteks went down a treat. And if we were concerned about breaching etiquette with our cameras, we needn't have been: within two minutes of our arrival, the locals had whipped out their own cameras to snap the three white people who had come to pay their respects to the deceased.
The entertainment began in earnest at about 10am. Our first experience of what was to come was the screeching of pigs: strapped to long pieces of bamboo, the pigs were brought in, dumped on the ground and left to squeal at their fate. Seeing as the pigs were soon to end up as roast pork, the locals didn't exactly worry about how they treated the bacon: animal lovers would have been horrified. And if the sound of squealing pigs was disturbing, the water buffalo took the spectacle from the unnerving to the downright shocking.
The smell of death is distinctive: it permeates utterly. We took a seat right by the rectangular area where the killing was to take place, and as the slaughtering continued, I couldn't help thinking of Orwell's Nineteen-eighty-four: at the end the hero is a broken man, sitting in his local café every day, drinking nothing but clove-flavoured gin, sweating clove-flavoured sweat, crying clove-flavoured tears... the smell of death, of blood and faeces and frightened animal, is similarly overpowering in its permeation.
The first water buffalo of the three we saw ritually murdered was the most intense sight: it's amazing how the human mind accepts the unacceptable after a while. I made my mind up to watch; I am not a vegetarian and I have never had any inkling to become one, but I still have some morals when it comes to what I eat. I don't want to stick my head in the sand, I want to know what it takes to kill an animal, what's involved, and if I can live with that knowledge, I can continue to eat meat with a clear conscience. So I watched everything.
The buffalo is surprisingly calm as it is led into the arena: its keeper pulls it along by a rope attached to the ring in its nose, a method of control it has been obeying since it was born: why should today be any different? Even the dismembered pigs strewn across the centre of the arena – killed elsewhere, as only buffalo are honoured enough to be killed in front of everyone – don't worry the huge beast. It doesn't seem to notice, or care, as its front left foot is tied to a rock outcrop in the middle of the arena. After all, its owner is there, the person who has been working alongside it in the paddy fields for years.
The knife is out before you know it: about six inches long, it's the same type of blade that every farmer seems to carry in central Sulawesi. In the wink of an eye the young man holds up the knife for all to see, and in one quick, fluid movement he takes a swing and slashes a huge cut across the buffalo's neck, as calmly as if he's cutting through an inconvenient bush, or cutting down rice during the harvest.
The buffalo changes in an instant. Eyes roll in their sockets, searching for something, like a young child in a crowded shopping mall who suddenly realises that his mummy isn't by his side any more. The buffalo's legs jerk involuntarily, trying to run away from the pain, but its tied foot brings it crashing to the ground, convulsing. The cry of fear, loud and hoarse, becomes a loud gurgle as the buffalo throws its head backwards in a confused reflex action, turning the slit into a huge, gaping wound, pumping bright crimson blood into the arena with every heart beat. Dust from the ground sticks to the buffalo's hide, mixing with the blood and sweat, attracting flies in clouds as the buffalo gradually slows down, jerking less and starting to shiver.
Is it dead? It certainly looks like it, but after a couple of minutes its hind left leg starts to twitch spasmodically, and as the young man who made the cut walks over to the body and wipes the blade of his knife clean on the buffalo's stomach, the beast reacts to the touch. It thrashes around, aware now that the creeping numbness is permanent, that it is dying, and for another two minutes its breathing changes from a gurgle to a hoarse coughing, a rattle that signals the final struggle: and then the beast lets its bowels go, its eyes change from panic stricken to glazed, and finally it's dead.
Within ten minutes of the buffalo's demise, the local boys have started to chop it up. It's amazing how this previously proud animal soon becomes nothing more than an exercise in butchery, and somewhere there's a point at which it ceases to be a buffalo, and becomes a selection of prime cuts and offal. Looking at the huge pile of red cutlets, it's strange to think that just half an hour ago, every piece of bone and flesh had a function, every globule of glistening gut was essential to the existence of a water buffalo: now it's off with the skin, slice open the stomach and discard the cud, chop through bone and sinew by taking huge axe swings with the butcher's knife... bits of body fly everywhere as the flies home in on the smelliest parts, and odours of guts, blood and stomach contents fill the air. No wonder everyone smokes kreteks at funerals.
After the second and third sacrifices, I see steak, not slaughter. Western sensibilities about cruelty to animals seem out of place here: this is no more horrific than inventing factories where chickens, cows, pigs and sheep are murdered on conveyor belts. The roasted pig fat and rice for lunch tastes good, too: and the pigs are even killed quickly, with a knife straight through the heart. Unlike the water buffalo.
Tuak and Bemos
Many more sights made the rest of the day a fascinating glimpse into the Torajan way of life. Every half an hour the people from another village would arrive, bearing gifts of pigs and buffalo, cigarettes and food, parading themselves and their gifts round the arena, stepping lightly round headless carcasses and piles of excrement. A woman clad in a bright yellow dress guided the villagers, men first and then women, in a line round the edge of the arena, making sure that the details of every gift were noted down in a little book, so that every gift would be reciprocated at the next funeral; in this way a vague balance of payments is kept between villages, helping to prevent too much of an imbalance.
And then there's the tuak, or palm wine, served in long, green tubes of bamboo, and tasting rather like a fruity cider. If there's one justification that living in the tropics is as close to heaven as you can get in this life, it's the existence of palm wine. Certain palms naturally produce a sweet, sticky liquid, and if this is tapped in the morning, it slowly ferments during the day to produce a truly delightful alcoholic drink that's perfectly in tune with the way serious drunks like to drink. For tuak starts off in the morning almost free of alcohol, and is as easy to drink as lemonade, but as the day progresses the alcoholic content increases, the taste becomes more intense, and by the end of the day it's gone red, and it'll blow your mind. Drinking tuak all day not only rots your brain, it gets stronger just when you need more alcohol to give you the same effect: it's nature and man's self-destructive tendencies in perfect balance.
But surely the strangest experience, the icing on the cake, came on the way home after a day of celebrating, a day full of shocks and surprises. As the bemo rattled its way back towards Rantepao, the driver slammed on the anchors, swerved, Rose and Cora gasping in the front passenger seat. A kitten had run out across the road, and as the bemo backed up I saw a little girl cradling a tiny tabby kitten, its paws limp and lifeless as its head lolled unnaturally to the side, its neck broken. In the West there would have been tears, a difficult time for the parents and a tearful ritual burial in an old shoe box. But in Tana Toraja death has less of a sting, and there was no reaction at all. Instead the bemo driver found a stick and started digging a shallow grave, right there on the roadside.
'If we don't bury the cat, then this bemo will have a crash sometime in the next two weeks,' explained one of the locals, jammed into the back of the bus alongside me. Apparently cats have a special meaning in Toraja, and as the driver finished off his work, everyone seemed to consider that that was the end of it: the child whose pet it was didn't bat an eyelid as we shot off, leaving rubber and black exhaust as the only sign that anything had happened. I'd read about Buddhist attitudes to death and I'd seen Christian funerals, but I'd never seen people react so calmly to loss of life before, and that wasn't just when it came to cats.
I sometimes wonder if life would be easier if we didn't fear death so much. It happens to us all: acceptance would be a wonderful thing if it weren't so difficult. But then the image of a water buffalo with mad, rolling eyes comes back, and I can't help but suppress a shiver. Perhaps it's just too late for me to learn to accept death so calmly?