We arrived in Rantepao totally exhausted, and as is always the way when you're tired beyond comprehension, we discovered that we'd arrived on market day. As market day in Rantepao is only every six days, we just had to make the effort to go, so go we did, catching a bemo to Bolu where all manner of produce gathered dust on the ground under makeshift tents and the wilful gaze of the hawkers. It was hot and strenuous, but Rose saved the day by announcing that she had a mission: as she was going to go home in just a few weeks, she had to buy presents for her close family, and she had seen the perfect thing. Torajan boxes, stuffed with Arabica coffee beans, the best coffee in Indonesia, would make a wonderful gift, and we spent a few entertaining hours buying ten boxes and a big bag of coffee beans, haggling the price from ridiculous to almost acceptable, and discovering plenty about coffee merchants in the process.
For it is the Torajan people that attract tourists to Rantepao, and it's not just their boxes that are interesting. Hidden away in the folding hills of the central highlands is an animist religion with myriad rituals and ceremonies that have miraculously survived the steamroller effect of Islam. Chief among these unique aspects of Tana Toraja, as the area is known, are the traditions associated with the dead; never has dying been such a huge event.
The Torajans are animist: they believe in the spirits of the dead, spirits of dead animals, the underworld and so on. They believe that when a person dies and goes onto the next plane, they can take their possessions with them, which means that people are buried with all sorts of expensive items. In the past this led, not surprisingly, to a serious amount of grave robbing, so the Torajans began to bury their dead in caves, hewn from the surrounding cliffs and closed off with doors, thus preventing the robbers from getting in and the dead from oozing out. There was one problem, though: the local rock is so hard that digging a burial cave is a highly expensive exercise, so the cave diggers are traditionally paid in the well-known currency of water buffalo, which are very expensive. This means that only the rich can have cave graves, and as a result the whole burying and funeral process has assumed an important status: the better the cave, the more expensive and elaborate the funeral preparations, and the higher the status that is afforded to the family.
So far this sounds fairly reasonable; after all, westerners are just as fickle in wanting to show off their wealth, except it generally happens at more celebratory events that at a funeral. But the Torajans are really into celebrating death, from throwing multiple-day funeral parties to carving spooky wooden effigies of dead people and sticking them outside the cave graves; the carving of these tau-tau, as they are called, can cost nearly a whole year's wages, for just one effigy. In fact, families have been known to bankrupt themselves to put on a good funeral show and build a good cave, something that seems illogical to me, but which is perfectly acceptable to the Torajans; they live for death, it seems, and everywhere you go there is something to see that's connected with the next world. It's quite eerie, and utterly fascinating.
The funerals might be the most famous events in Tana Toraja, but the most obvious cultural objects are the houses. The tongkonan, as the traditional houses are called, are distinctively ornate in a way that makes the layered paddy fields of central Sulawesi look totally unique; everywhere you look there are houses whose roofs curve up at opposite ends, not unlike a water buffalo's horns, or a huge, thatched banana. It is a beautiful sight, an architectural study in symmetry and precision that could teach modern builders a thing or two, especially when you consider that the wooden houses don't use nails: they are built so everything just slots together and holds together through rain and shine.
But, like everything the Torajans do, this wonderful tradition is tinged with something that smacks of idiocy to the casual observer. They don't live in these beautiful constructions, they live in normal crappy Indonesian tin-roof squats right next door, saving the tongkonan for special occasions, ceremonies and status symbols; size is everything in Tana Toraja, and if your roof doesn't curve at the right angle, you're a nobody. Then there are the rice barns, built in the same style as the tongkonan, and the more rice barns you've got, the richer you are – or, rather, the richer you appear, because if you build too many rice barns, you'll have precious little capital left over.
The reason for this distinctive house design has baffled historians. Some think the roof is based on the design of the water buffalo's horns, another reflection of the Torajans' obsession with the beast, while some say that the design is based on the shape of an overturned boat, something I can't really see myself. All the houses face north, possibly because the Torajans came from the north, carrying their boats, and the theory goes that they then inverted these boats to make shelters, hence the curved shape. Though that sounds like a load of buffalo to me...
Oh, and one more thing about the houses. They each have a wooden carving of a water buffalo's head stuck on the front, as well as a collection of genuine buffalo horns tacked to the front beam, again as a show of fiscal superiority. I didn't quite appreciate the reason for all these horns when I first saw them, but I was to learn the hard way exactly what they symbolised... and where they came from.