Friends and acquaintances who are so talented and must have accomplished so much and shown such promise that they have been singled out time and again to receive one plush fellowship or another.
You know them. They are the ones that pop up in your timeline proclaiming they feel so “humbled” to be selected for such fellowships, then proceed to bombard you with photos of the hallowed halls of influence and scholarship they’ve been sent to and the beautiful super smart people they’ve met.
At first we feel very happy for them, to be recognised for their contributions and being sent out on fellowships so they may learn of developments in their field by others in other countries.
Presumably, this would open their eyes give them new insights with which to come home and put new ideas into practice for the benefit of recipients of their cause.
So we like their posts when they so generously share on social media the great times they had and the illustrious people they meet.
Then they come home and before you know it, they are on yet another fellowship again. And again with barely a year’s hiatus in between.
Which makes you wonder,
About the institutions dishing out these fellowships. Is Indonesia so thin on talent and worthy people that the same people keep being selected all the time?
About the recipients themselves. Where do they find time to put their new learnings and insights to work if they are busy going form one fellowship to the next?
Unspun recently had conversations with his friends and and we tried to analyse what these recipients do after their initial spurt of productivity that saw them establishing causes, movements and organisations for the public good. Out conclusion was that we couldn’t see how their fellowships had benefitted their causes.
In fact, in some instances, we felt that their causes had suffered from neglect because their founders/main movers were too busy traveling father fellowships.
We counted a couple of serial fellows who must have gone on three or four fellowships over the past five years.
There comes a point in life when anything, even the best intentioned ones involving very talented people, become ridiculous.
Ostensibly the man who insulted and hurled verbal abuse at a beer promoter in Kuala Lumpur’s Ampang Point shopping mall day before yesterday has apologised.
After being whiplashed by Netizens and apparently lost his job since a video of him abusing the beer promoter that he himself uploaded went viral, Edi today released the video below. In it he said he was sorry to Malaysians and the beer promoter for what he did. He has since apologised to the DAP parliamentarian defending the beer promoter, the parliamentarian will be visiting the beer promoter to convey his apologies and Edi now hopes this issue can be left behind.
That is one of the sorriest (excuse the pun) apologies I’ve heard. If Edi had wanted to make a sincere apology he should explain why he think he was wrong in harassing the beer promoter. He should unequivocally say that he was being a racist and explain to people what made him say those things including flipping the bird at the beer promoter. As an atonement and a public service, he should caution others not to make the same mistake as him in the future.
I could not fathom the reason why Edi was apologising to the DAP politician. Via a video that he was savvy enough to release he could have done it direct to the beer promoter.
In the social media responses to Edi’s apology, many Netizens have said that Edi should be cut some slack because he’s had the nerve to apologise. I disagree because his apology is perfunctory and does not seem sincere, nor was there any evidence that there has been some self-realisation and he’s a changed man for the experience.
He deserves everything coming at him. Hopefully, the continued assault on his insensibilities would send a message to him that he cannot shrug off the import of what he’s done with a trite video apology and that the rest of us can differentiate what’s genuine from what’s ersatz.
This is the second of a three-part account of a recent short trip to Tana Toraja. Situated in the highlands of central Sulawesi, it is a land of breathtaking beauty, rugged landscapes and and a unique culture that embraces death, bloody sacrifices and all the things about life than that sanitised urbanites have lost touch with. The title of this post comes from the phrase Toraja Melo, which in Torajanese means Toraja the Beautiful.
What makes Toraja so alive in the minds of many tourists is Death.
Toraja has always been known for its mummies, the ease in which the living live with the dead and its elaborate and bloody funerals. Its death rites are so well known that Toraja was featured in a recent Netflix documentary on destinations with a touch of the macabre, Dark Tourist. In an episode focusing on Southeast Asia the documentary featured the cleansing of a mummy as well as funeral rites of Toraja, the latter of which we got to witness first hand.
We were a group of 8 adults and a 6-year old. Our first encounter with the Trojanese attitude toward Death took place during a seemingly innocuous walk after we arrived at our host’s house at Batutumonga, in the heart of Tana Toraja.
Our host was Dinny Jusuf. She was born in Pekalongan but she fell in love with Toraja and a Torajanese, Danny, who’s clan was from the Batutumonga area. They eventually got married and these days Dinny runs Toraja Melo, a social enterprise that aims to help and empower the weavers and villagers of Toraja.
After we had arrived and rested, we took a walk around Dinny and Danny’s home, a beautiful three-roomed concrete and timber house in Batutumonga, deep in the Toraja highlands.
During the walk, Dinny told us about the re-burial of her father-in-law. Her father-in-law had married into a family from the valley from a kingdom called Sa’ Dan. He was buried there when he died some years ago. Dinny, however, kept having dreams where her father-in-law told her that he wanted to be buried at Batutumonga among his family and clan.
After some negotiations (lots of that go on in Toraja as consensus building is a major part of how the society works), the Sa’Dan family consented to the family moving his remains. A Rock Whisperer was called in. These are shaman-like figures who are able to “ask” the selected rock if it is willing to be opened to accommodate a crypt.
The rock consented, but it named a price. It wanted a dog sacrificed before they could start chiseling out the entrance to the grave. Once they had opened up the entrance there would be another consultation with the rock and another sacrifice demanded. And on an on it went. That grave cost six dogs their lives.
When the grave was completed they transferred the remains of her father-in-law there. Several years later, his daughter died and was also interred in the same grave. Torajanese graves can be quite large.
The next morning we walked to the Suloara village where we saw several Tongkonan and Alang belonging to the clan. We were allowed to go into one of the Tongkonan.
Inside, there was a central area with a fireplace. Then there were two rooms, one to the front and the other to the back. These are where the family slept. Our guide told us that often the embalmed bodies of their relatives were kept in the back room.
As funerals in Toraja can be very expensive, families have been known to keep these bodies for years until they can afford to hold one. Some families, our guide told us, have kept a body in the back room for as long as 40 years.
In the meantime, the family carry on their lives normally, including sleeping in the same room as the mummified body. The Torajanese believe that the body, when embalmed by experts, would not decay or smell. There must be a huge amount of truth to this if they can sleep with the bodies for 40 years.
We did not get to see the mummies that they apparently bring out each year for a bit of spring cleaning, before wrapping them up again, putting them back in their coffins and into the graves for another year. Apparently this year that ritual takes place on August 20. There is footage of this in Netflix’s Dark Tourist.
Funeral at Palawa
It’s macabre, but tourists virtually live for Death to come calling in Toraja.
That’s because of the elaborate and sanguine funerals of the Torajanese.
When someone dies, and the family can afford it, they throw a huge funeral party of hundreds from neighbouring clans. Makeshift bamboo shelters are put up to house the neighbouring clans.
In the funeral we went to, at Palawa, it looked like an organised affair. On the way to the common area of the village we saw men with blowtorches burning the bristles off the skins of slaughtered pigs. They then proceeded to carved them into small pieces to be distributed to the visiting clans.
Then there were the buffalo tethered in the central area. Most of the buffalo were black. The black ones were the hoi polloi of buffalo but still fetched something like Rp 5 mio each. Then there are the albino ones that usually have black spots or patches. These are the, if you’ll excuse the pun, Brahmin of buffalo. They are prestigious because of their relative rarity allows them to command a price of over Rp250 million per animal.
The buffalo and pigs are donated by visiting clans as a sign of respect to the family. These animals, after slaughter, are supposed to carry the deceased to the afterlife. The gifting of buffaloes are all tallied up by the families, who never forget a debt.
When the donor’s clan leader dies the receiving clan is expected to reciprocate by donating the same amount of buffalo or pigs to redeem their debt. In this way, the society is bound together in a web of obligations. It also locks them into a cycle of poverty trying to square their debts as clans may have to donate up to 24 buffalo each.
The visiting clans were allocated their own areas, all numbered, in makeshift shelters. It was ironical to see the decorative pennants and numbers of the shelters being sponsored by a purveyor of death, the cigarette brand, LA Bold.
The more socially established clans got spaces under the Alang or Tonkonan. All over the compound you can see traces of animal parts or blood.
When we arrived there were a group of about 30 men gathered in a circle chanting. Apparently this is a rite after the body has been put into the coffin, which is shaped like a tear-shaped cylinder.
Each of the men received a cigarette each for their participation.
Then there was a troupe of dancing girls who performed in front of guests seated at a makeshift cluster of platforms in the centre of the compound. When they finished the audience would drop money into a basket that is covered by a cloth to hide the amount donated.
There was activity everywhere. Buffalo were being led here and there. Pigs were trussed and left to lie in the hot sun until their time came when men with spray cans would mark them up and they, squealing, were taken to slaughter by a group of workers.
I did not see it, but one of our group, who was in the best of times was queasy with the sight of blood, had to pick her way through a wasteland of remains and blood on her way to the toilet. Being accompanied by a local she found it difficult to say she would not go and had to run the gauntlet of gore.
We felt uncomfortable with the treatment of the animals but we were also aware that city slickers like ourselves were so sanitised from the taking of life for food; and so removed from Torajan culture that it would be unfair for us to impose our values on them.
One of our group remarked that the killing was part and parcel of Torajan culture and you cannot separate it from the other more appealing cultural aspects. We left the funeral wondering if we should turn vegetarian.
The Graves of Loko’Mata
One of the most well-known grave sites in Tana Toraja is Loko’Mata, which is a gigantic granite boulder riddled with more than 20 grave chambers, spread roughly over five levels. The higher the level the higher the status of the departed when they were alive.
At the base of the rock are miniature Tongkonan that were used to carry the coffins to the area. Each of the graves had a carved door decorated with traditional Torjanese motifs. Photos and portraits of the departed were hung on them. You can also see bottles of water, Sprite and other foodstuff put on the entrance of the graves as offerings to the dead.
All the graves belong to a single clan. The rock has apparently been used for two to three hundred years but at the side of the boulder away from the road, another grave was being opened on the rock.
The graves at Loko’Mata also had some Tau Tau, effigies of the dead. One had a buffalo head carved into the rock.
The gravesite, however, that is most well-known for its Tau Tau is Lemo.
The graves there date back to the 16th century and are dug into a limestone cliff. There you can see rows of Tau Tau looking down at you and the valley.
The Tau Tau are life-like and are carved by the artisans in that village who have been plying their trade for hundreds of years. There is a shop near the base of the cliff whose owner carves Tau Tau. At the back of the shop I saw with the corner of my eye two women, one young and another old, sitting on a bench, seemingly holding hands.
It was when I looked more carefully that I realise that the old woman was a Tau Tau. The young woman seemed at ease sitting together with her. I was spooked.
We also visited Ke’te’ Kesu’. The village was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site that is known for its well -reserved Tongkonan, as well as its hanging coffins.
Unlike recently built ones, the roofs of the Tongkonan at at Ke’te’ Kesu’ were made from bamboo, the original material for their distinctive roofs. These days Tongkonan are built with corrugated zinc roofs.
What was even more fascinating about Ke’te’ Kesu’, however, were the hanging coffins on the limestone cliffs behind the village.
Walk up a flight of stairs and you will see finely carved coffins hundreds of years old in various states of decay. Some are propped up on timber poles high up in the cliff.
Others are clustered at the base of the cliff. They might have fallen down when their supports decayed. Some of these coffins are split open, others had gaping holes. Inside and on top of these coffins are stacked human skulls and bones.
A particularly beautiful coffin was carved in the shape of a buffalo head.
As they are just beside the cemented path that visitors use, and are unguarded, they are vulnerable to vandalism and theft. Apparently, a few days before there was much hue and cry from the locals when some Indonesians from out of town, to satisfy their Instagram urges, began to take photographs with their legs on skulls.
Tourists, in my experience, will do anything. Some tourists must have taken the skulls and bones home as souvenirs. The problem is such that on the noticeboards along the visitors path are warnings to visitors against taking the bones or skulls. “Please show respect,” said the notice, and then the clincher warning: “We receive reports of the taker being haunted by the spirits.”
That about sums up our experience with deaths, funerals and graves for this trip. Coming up next – Toraja is indeed Melo III: Buffalo Market and a night of Torajanese culture, food and the local fire water – balloc.
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
Drive down Jalan Sudirman today and what do you see?
You’d probably say you see workers putting the finishing touches on smooth, wide walkways flanked by generous islands of grass, in a process of tarting up Jakarta for the Asian Games that starts on the 18th of next month.
What I see, however, is a potential eyesore. The authorities here are very good at erecting monuments, public works, parks and grandoise infrastructure. The look great.
Then comes the hard part – maintaining them, and this is where things unravel. What will the walkways be like a year from now? Will the islands still have grass growing? And what about the ornamental plants beautifying the scene?
Unspun’s prediction is that it will all go to seed because maintenance just isn’t a forte of the authorities.
Jakarta Deputy Governor Sandiaga Uno (the Dumber of the Dumb &Dumber Duo) yesterday admitted just as much when he told Kompas.com that the City could build Kalijodo, the former red light district converted into a public park, but it could not maintain it.
Of course being Sandi he was not concerned by the truth (It was Ahok who converted and built the park, not his administration) and he had to blame others for his own failings. He said that the public was unable to take care of their park, so it was futile building things like that.
What is wrong with this guy? Cities have by laws against littering, destruction and defacing of public property and unruly public conduct precisely to prevent people from degrading the facilities. It’s a rather alien concept called enforcement that is required here.
Cities also have a budget for maintaining parks. But ensuring that the money is spent properly rather than ending in people’s pockets takes effort and hard work so its not something that he would concern himself with.
So here we go again, seeing magnificent erections but none of the energy to maintain them. When will this country ever learn that implementation and enforcement is as important, if not more, than grand gestures and magnificent new structures?
Yesterday evening was billed as a special session with the Malaysians living in Indonesia with the new old Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. It was part of his first official visit to neighbouring Indonesia where he would meet Jokowi.
I went with mixed feelings. I was curious to see the old warhorse, still flushed from his electoral victory in May, how he might have changed and how he was holding up. I was also curious to observe the reaction of the Malaysians living here toward him. At the same time there was a feeling of unease. After all, this is the man that set in motion most of the things that are wrong in Malaysia today, including Najib, his cronyism and the corrupt system and is now returning as a saviour of the people.
But go I did and these are some of the observations from last night.
Mahathir himself. He is still sharp and spry at 92. He was lucid but he seemed less intimidating than before, when I was a reporter in Malaysia in the mid 80s. Back then he seemed someone that you did not want to piss off at all. Perhaps he was tired from the trip. Perhaps times have changed. Or perhaps I myself have changed.
In his speech he hit on the theme again about how his government was gathering the evidence to prosecute Najib for his corruption. This to me seemed unnecessary for a Prime Minister (and for his Ministers in the Cabinet). Prosecution of Najib should be carried out by the Attorney-General and investigations should be carried out by the Police or the anti corruption commission. The Prime Minister should stay above the fray to let the law take its course and to avoid any hint that the prosecution of Najib might be politically-motivated.
The audience. Was remarkable. Clutching their handphones they all wanted a piece of Mahathir. The adulation and hero-worshipping was almost embarrassing. Sure , Mahathir had achived something great by toppling the Barisan Nasional government in the polls, but surely the appreciation must be tempered by some wariness, considering the track record of the man when it comes to curbing press freedoms, using the draconian Internal Security Act to lock up political rivals, instituting a system of cronyism and other foibles? What I saw was the forgetfulness of crowds and their willingness to embrace heroes.
Then there was question time after Mahathir’s speech and it was absolutely cringeworthy. A Malaysian student used the time to ask Mahathir to attend a Malaysian-Indoensian student event they were organising in November, as if a Prime Minster did not have more important matters to attend to. Mahathir politely told him no.
A Malaysian woman married to an Indonesian asked if her husband and kids, all residing here, could have Malaysian citizenship. Mahathir explained that she and her husband had a choice to become Malaysians or Indonesian citizens. So do their children when they came of age.
A woman from ASEC, like everyone knew what ASEC meant, asked how and when Malaysia would lead the ASEAN Countries to better economic integration. Even Mahathir was not clued in on what ASEC was and had to ask. Asean Secretariat it turns our ASEC was. His answer was diplomatic and cheeky: that is a question we will ask the ASEAN countries when we meet, but anyone with half a brain would have realised that Malaysia’s priorities were to overcome the massive national debt of $1Trillion that Mahathir talked about his speech and to get its house in order after a decade of Najib’s rule (also takes about in Mahathir’s speech) than to lead ASEAN.The conceit and self-enteredness of the ASEC woman was astounding.
Then there was grandstander, some Malaysian who imputed that he had been tod to get out of Malaysia from before who insisted on sharing his views to all and sundry when question time was for asking questions. He blustered on about values and things that mattered to him and no one else. Mahathir cherry picked and said something about values.
The only question that made some sense was a Sarawakian who asked when the Government was going to get the anti-corruption body the MACC to investigate the chief minister of that state. Mahathir said that for the government to investigate a report would have to be lodged. The questioner said that some Malaysian from Miri had actually filed a report. Mahathir averred.
The food. The only other interesting thing about last night was the food. For a country and people who are so proud of their cuisine it was a bit of a surprise that the Embassy was serving in their buffet Nasi Padang instead of some Malaysian fare. Chalk one up for bilateral relationships, one down for the yearning Malaysian palette.
All of these elements combined left a funny taste in the mouth but that is Malaysia today, I suppose.
Indonesian friends, your help is needed to ensure that this man, who is not unlike those who incite hatred in Indonesia, doesn’t use Indonesia as a refuge from the justice he deserves in Malaysia.
His name is Jamal Yunos and he used to be a division leader of Umno, the party that was under the control of now-ousted Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak.
Yunos was Najib’s hatchet man, the leader of the Red Shirts, Umno’s equivalents to Hitler’s Brown Shirts.
In his heyday, which has been the past few years up until Najib’s coalition lost the elections in May, Jamal has been terrorising Malaysian Chinese, Indians, Malays, Christians and others who dared to disagree with Najib and Umno.
Here’s a video of his terrorising days, this one directed against Bersih supporters. Bersih was a movement by Malaysians to ensure elections. See the similarities of him an cohorts bullying others while police look on, even supporting.
Now that Najib has lost the election in Malaysia, Jamal is a wanted man in Malaysia. He escaped police custody and is now on the lam. He’s purported to have fled to Karimun in Indonesia.
So if you see this scum, please take a photo or video of him and share on social media. Better better still get the attention of Kepong Member of Parliament (Twitter handle @limlipeng) and claim your reward.