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EINDHOVEN (THE NETHERLANDS) - Finally we found ourselves in the heart of Tana Toraja, seen as one of the few places in Indonesia where tourists go to see something that has to do with the everyday life, which is also Ďprotectedí by the Indonesian government. Itís good that they see that such an important part of Sulawesi (and so Indonesian) history is preserved. And I was about to see some of it. I realised that it was not possible to see everything as thoroughly as I normally would, with my little four days in the area.
After breakfast we left the hotel with itís lush gardens for the main road to Rantepao, the hotel is located a few kilometres from the centre of Rantepao, the capital of Tana Toraja. The road here was good as well. I was still thinking about people who told me it wasnít much of a good travel there. It must have been ages ago when they were here, or they just took a very bad side road. Thatís possible too as well. Until now, I was still enjoying the good road conditions.

The scenery was as nice as elsewhere in Indonesia in my eyes, at least from a distance. Recently formed mountains (from a geological point of view) with high peaks and steep slopes blocked off the far views you can have on Jawa, outside some active volcanoes. Every village seems to be located in itís very own valley. In fact itís just mountains everywhere. Together with some early morning fog, it will create an always changing background when travelling here.
First of all I would be introduced to the already world famous tau-tau puppets, which represent the dead buried in the wall behind them. After parking the car on an empty parking lot, several of the shop owners woke up from the after-breakfast nap. I had nothing to look for in the first place, but upon entering one of the shops to stretch my legs I saw several things I would like to buy all of a sudden. There was something telling me I could better buy something now, because I would probably not get a chance again after these four days had passed.
Scrambling some wooden plates (commercial woodcarvings) and key-chains together I walked towards the cashier. I bought a shirt as well. They were even cheaper as in Jogja here, how come? I mean, if there are no tourists at all, there is no use of having a shop here. Selling it this cheap makes it hard for me to think there are still profits being made. Upon payment, there was even a diskon for me, since I had passed the Rp.100,000 mark. Ooh, just wonderful. When walking to the car with two white plastic bags I just assumed that all shops belonged to at least the same family, since the others were not in a hurry at all to invite me to have a look in their shop as well. They probably sell the same, but generally that is not an excuse at all for not being invited.
As the sun started to heat up the new day, I had my first glimpse of the wooden puppets on their balconies. There are some small balconies with one or two puppets, but there is one big one which houses somewhat like a dozen of those somewhat eerie puppets. I made some pictures. These things are not even the original ones, because they were stolen back in the 1980ís, but still, this place is one of the most visited places for tourists in Sulawesi. Not in March however, I was the only one with a second van just arriving on the parking lot.

A row of tau-tau puppets on their balcony
A row of tau-tau puppets on their balcony

Another of those strange things, according to my way of life that is, because however it may be very odd to me to stuff dead babies in a tree, it is still something I really need to see. Together with loads of other tourists which have visited Kete Kesu before me, I paid the entrance fee, made pictures there, walked around the tree and sat down on the new concrete tree stems which represent the modern-day chairs near the tree.
The tree has died several years ago, it snapped about 6 meters above the ground, miraculously preserving most of the baby burial shelters, which are located at more standard levels for humans, in the first few meters of the tree. It is said to have died in a fierce early monsoon thunderstorm. Possibly weakened by the fact that dozens of dead-born or deceased babies are buried here.
What amazed me as well around here is that there are only a handful of shops, all located near the entrance of the tourist site. I was almost that lucky that I didnít have to pay, since there was no one. Ooh, Iím never that lucky. The women which had her stall along the main path to the road was also the one selling tickets. A little girl handed me the ticket and also took my money. At least here I can see where my Rp 10.000 is spend. There is a good path, not a washed-away rock collection. The site is maintained and cleaned as well.
The big bamboo which surrounds the tree gives protection to the tree, but most of all to the visitors which can have a very nice rest under the hanging bamboo branches. This kind of big bamboo is also used as construction material. With a diameter over ten centimetres it can be used as bridge building materials, scaffolding and all kinds of other products.

The other day it was time for a cattle market with loads of kerbau and pigs. The pigs had their legs tied together on a bamboo structure, so it was easier to carry them around from one truck to another after a price had been agreed upon. Itís kind of strange to see people walking around with pigs as if it were bags of cement. Most of the pigs were inside a smelly market building, or at least something what looked like it. It was hard to see since there were a lot of blue screens around it, used as temporary roofing, protecting against the direct sunlight as well as heavy downpours, which follow each other virtually within half an hour.
The big field of the market was home to the kerbau and their owners, which tried to sell them for a variety of uses. Most of them are traded and traded again after they have become bigger, thus more precious. Some of them are sold as working animal to plough the rice fields, but others end up as sacrifice at burial ceremonies. One such adult animal costs an average of Rp. 5 million, sometimes over 100 are sacrificed at one single burial ceremony.
The people on the market were wearing those same simple sandals on which I walk as well, with the difference that I donít have to walk around on the field with the animals and their droppings. You know what big animals drop, heh.. they are not quite small to say the least. Just as easy they are walking around and jumping over their droppings, they smoke a cigarette, make a deal and anything else.

Worker on his rice field
Worker on his rice field

During these days I also had the chance to have some time on my own. It was a hot and sunny afternoon, and for over two hours I had the time of my life with wandering around somewhere in Tana Toraja, close to the tau-tau puppets. But that wasnít really the setting of my trip on bare feet. It was the fresh green sawahís in sharp contrast with the lush green mountains in the near background and some farmers ploughing their fields with their working animals.
In the near distance I could hear one farmer working with a machine to plough his fields. It caused a constant background roar, something that doesnít quite fit the descriptions of Tana Toraja with itís quiet villages, but well, you canít have everything of course. As soon as I slipped out of my sandals, several people passed. Stopping, walking again, then there was a small laughter. Probably they were asking themselves why I was putting out my sandals. I wanted to feel just the same as they did, walking bare footed.
My guide warned me that the paths around the sawahís would be slippery, since it had rained all night long. That was a pretty good warning though. When he strawled back to his van, I almost had my first experience in falling down into a rice field with more water in it than an average public swimming pool. Luckily the high grass and some strong branches prevented me from slipping down further than a few footsteps. Time to get ahead, but a little more careful this time, that is when I want to get back to the van without having to sit on the floor because Iím all muddy.

As paths got more narrow and wet, it was up to me to be even more careful. A mere 30 centimetres as a complete path between two rice fields which is also used as barrier between those two rice fields. The balancing act lasted until the paths got somewhat wider. There was a shed there, and some rocks. Not really a place to make a nice paddy of course. It was a nice place, however, to take a rest and to enjoy the nature, because directly outside the cultivated area the hills are steep and densely vegetated to keep the soil together so it doesnít get washed away with the first rain.
An older man working with his spade to reinforce the paths surrounding his rice field. He is shopping away chunks of fertile soil in the burning hot sun. I approach him without he even noticing me. When I passed him and I looked around, he accidentally saw me. He put his spade in the groundand started working again after whipping his forehead. I made my way to the other side of the valley, which isnít really much of a distance, itís just slippery, very slippery.
The irrigation around the rice fields and from the hills is just ingenious. An abundance of water, clean mountain water, is redirected around the paddies right away. Only a little bit of water flows into the fields to refresh the water little by little. The animal life in the water Ė frogs and fish - and the ducks eating away everything but the rice, can have a pleasant bath in the fresh water near the stream. On the other side of the field there is a water outlet again. Then the water has become muddy already.

This karbau caused a big roadblock
This karbau caused a big roadblock

Crossing a small stream I approached probably the most obvious of all obstructions you can which for here, a giant karbau, eating grass and walking around on a stretch of dry field in between dozens of sawahs. I had two choices; walking back all the way I came from, probably too far for the amount of water left in my bottle of Aqua or trying to get past that huge animal, which was not looking at me as he would make sure I would never get past him, ever. When his attention faded as I was making some pictures, I Ďslippedí passed him on my way to a series of big rocks to take a short rest before I was heading back to the van again.

Posted in Travel @ 20 November 2004 by Jeroen · 'Blog' RSS feed · permalink

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