This is the first of a three-part account of our group’s travel to Tana Toraja. There were eight of us with a 6-year old in tow and we had a fabulous time. There is so much to share about Toraja, the Torajanese’s relationship with Death and their strange rituals and the culture there that I’ve split the account into three posts: the first is on the Batutumonga area and Toraja Melo that organised the trip for us. The second post will deal with death, funerals and crypts but into solid rock. The final post will be about the Bolu Market at Rantepao village that boasts a Buffalo market, a pig market and almost everything else. Enjoy.
Toraja is one of those places you put on your bucket list. There are tales and myths about the mysticism, the breath-taking scenery in a land above the mists and the elaborate — some would all it bizarre — death rituals.
It’s been on mine for many years but the closest I got to the area was Soroako for a media training assignment and to the Togian Islands for a diving trip.
This time, however, the opportunity cropped up. Through one of those meetings where we realise that the world is smaller than we think in terms of overlapping circles of friends and interests, my wife and I met Dinny Jusuf , the founder of Toraja Melo (melo = beautiful in Torajanese) , when she was invited to speak at a Pecha Kucha session hosted by Maverick.
Toraja Melo is a social enterprise started by Dinny in 2008 that aims to alleviate poverty among rural women by organizing the community into a weavers’ cooperative, teaching them to make quality hand-woven products and by designing and marketing community-based travel.
With 10 years of effort behind it, Toraja Melo was ready to move onto marketing its community-based travel concept, and by serendipitous happenstance our group of 8 adults and a six-year old became the third group to experience it.
We were not disappointed.
Getting to Tana Toraja is now relatively easy. A few years back you had to fly to the Sulawesi capital of Makassar and then take an 8-hour car ride into Rantepao or Makale, the main towns deep in the central highlands of the island.
These days all you have to do to get there is take a short flight from Makassar to Bua Airport near Palopo and from there it’s a mere 2.5-hour car ride into the Toraja heartland.
The ride, as expected, is spectacular as the car whisks you through winding roads into the mountains that rise up to 2,800 meters above sea level and carpeted by paddy fields.
You start to see buffalos that constitute a vital part of the economic and cultural life in Toraja
From Rantepao onwards you start to see the traditional buildings of the Torajanese – the Tongkonan and their accompaniments, the Alang.
The former are the distinctive saddleback-roofed ancestral houses where the family stay, the latter are smaller and are used to store rice after it is harvested. Tongkonan are male, Alang are female. They face each other. There was too be a lot of this male-female dichotomy one the next few days.
Tongkonan are also decorated with a rooster and buffalo carving in the front. There is also a pole in which buffalo horns from the animals slaughtered are hung. Obviously the more horns there are the more prestigious the family is.
Our starting point and base for the next three days was the Batutumonga area. This is where Dinny and her Torajanese husband Danny have built their house, a modern, minimalistic concrete and hardwood two-storey structure with balcony that has a view to die for.
The view from Dinny and Danny’s house balcony
We stayed with them for our trip and was plied with an endless supply of snacks and local dishes in between our forays into the Torajanese countryside. Our first day was just chilling and drinking win on the balcony as we rested from our trip there.
Dinny explained that the name of the area came from a sacred rock that, like its name (Batu = stone Tumonga = upward looking) suggests, seems to be looking upwards . It was the male counterpart, and the locals believe that the rock emanates great power. The female counterpart was about a hundred meters away.
Nearby, we saw some Alang being reconstructed as they were blown off during strong winds a few months ago.
The Tongkonan are built on pillars but not all touched the ground. Only the corner pillars and those every 3 meters apart did. The others were suspended, propped up by cleverly constructed cross beams. This was apparently to allow the buildings to survive earthquakes.
We got to go into one of the Tongkonan. Narrow stairs lead into a common area where there was a fireplace and an area that served as the kitchen. On the back was a room where the family slept and corpses were kept. Our guide told us that some families have been known to have kept a corpse for 40 years as they saved up enough money for a funeral. In the meantime, the family shared the room with the corpse, who was embalmed in a mystical process so it never decomposed. That was our first exposure to the strange rites surrounding death in Toraja. There is more in the next instalment of our trip to Toraja.
We then walked a small distance to the Suloara’ Tourism Village. Dinny and the Toraja Melo Foundation are working with the local tourism body comprising 65 members and 20 homesteads from four villages in the area in a community based tourism project that they have called the Toraja Mountain Valley Tour.
Under this project, Dinny through Toraja Melo designs and markets the tours. The villagers become tour guides and hosts and agree to maintain cleanliness and sustainable practices in their villages. In return they get a large chunk of the revenues paid by the tourists.
At Suloara’ we were taken to a hut that was the Tourist Information Center. There Simon, the village secretary, who had been trained by Swiss Contact to speak English, explained the sights we would see in the area.
Swiss Contact had also helped the villagers prepare brochures and a map of the area’s attractions. Simon’s English was halting but he made himself understood.
After that we were off to the Bamboo Forest.
We arrived at a village with the prerequisite collection of Tongkonan and Alang and walked along a path into the Bamboo Forest.
There were at least three types of bamboo that the Torajanese use for different purposes growing in the forest. There was a bamboo for building and one for preparing food in and a third that I forgot the use of.
At the end of the walk we were offered some local snacks – corn and fried cassava and yam — accompanied by the most mouth-watering and tongue burning sambal made from the local pepper, the katokkon. They look like Habanero peppers but they are way more potent. Five alarm fire and sit in the toilet the next morning kinda strength.
Some of us got to practice our dexterity by getting to colour small pieces of wood carvings with the Toraja traditional method of using bamboo liners as brushes.
Toraja Melo also works with about 250 weavers in the Sa’dan Matallo area, where Dinny’s mother-in-law grew up in. The weavers live in the hills and bring their handiwork to stalls set up beside the Tongkonan of Sa’dan village. The village takes its name from the Sa’dan river that flows from the mountains.
We had time to get our feet wet in its cold clear waters before having home-cooked lunch of chicken and coconut, vegetables, corn fritters and steamed fish under an Alang.
Our next destination after lunch and a little shopping at the stalls, was what many tourists hope to see when they came to Toraja – a funeral, elaborate, grand and featuring hundreds of guests and clans.
If you are interested in the Community-Based Travel that Toraja Melo organises you can contact them here.
Up next — Toraja is indeed Melo II: Death, Funerals and Graves