The M&M Trail of Sulawesi: Makassar to Manado (via The Togean Islands)
Part 1 (of 2)
“South East Asia” – A totalizing geographic label I’ve grown to find increasingly vapid, does an especial disservice to the complexity of Indonesia. Two hundred and Fifty Million people flung across a galaxy of richly soiled volcanic diamond islands, lapping up the superbly lush waters of the Indian Ocean. Busy rainforests, dense jungles, handsome mountains, glowing sulfuric lakes, glowing sulfuric lakes on the tops of mountains, Salvador Dali-esque rice terraces cascading down massive rifts, deliciously grassy bluffs, sprawling valleys, white sanded beaches against post card white waters, sparkling architecture of reef, trippy coral, vibrant green paddies everywhere, all of it, all furnished and fertilized by an innumerable amount of volcanoes that align the vast Sunda and Banda arcs that together makeup Indonesia’s firey spine.
And mirroring all this earthly diversity are the people and their impossible to believe milieu of a population equal in size to that of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand, and Burma combined. With the exception of the western circus that is Kuta, Bali and the dreary, carbon-poisoned lipsticked pig that is Jakarta, the rest of Indonesia (and Bali) is a wild frontier, densely diverse, and loaded with potential adventure.
Although Indonesia is considered by modern measure to have the largest Islamic population in the world, the variations on Islam across the archipelago is abundant and largely take cue from their local animistic traditions, that to me, a person who has lived and traveled in the middle east, makes this place a muslim-lite nation. (obligatory PC explanation imminent)Not that there’s anything particularly wrong with Islam nor with Islamic nations in toto. All I mean to point out is the heterogeneity within their religious practice. To me, the Abrahamic religions are only as open and tolerant as the people who practice them. And in Indonesia, its wide open.
My most recent tour across the scatter of Indian oceanic islands took me to the scorpion shaped island of Sulawesi, the world’s eleventh largest. Reflecting much of Indonesia’s spiritual and natural milieu, the island is a mixture of a youthful Christianity, an Islam flung far from Mecca, but if pressed a little their deeper animistic perspectives reside right alongside their veils and crosses (especially so in Torajah). The island’s largest cities are not unlike other choking cities of Indonesia, less any remarkable destinations. However, if there’s one thing to remark on, it’s the kindness you find still in these densely populated areas…I don’t think they get too many visitors.
Most travelers come to Sulawesi for its pristine nature, scuba diving, and indigenous cultural experiences, which are well worth the little more you spend say going to the hackneyed touring dens so many foreigners trample through each day across Indonesia.
The M&M Trail
To begin the M&M trail, you’ll have to begin in either Makassar or Manado. Makassar is the capital city located in the south and is up and busy. The airport touts were reminiscent of my first step out of New Delhi Indira Gandhi international and into their gropey swarm. However, unlike their Delhian counterparts, the Sulawesian passion for business doesn’t seem to super-cede their welcoming kindness. I know this may seem like a traveler’s idealization, but I’ve never seen pushy touts so non-pushy, but rather get easily distracted by their more authentic curiosities. However the travel gods gave us a pass on that mess and delivered us up to an angelic local named Margaret who was just returning from a visit with her daughter in Bali and offered us a ride and more. And if you think I’m being harsh towards Delhi’s toutiverse…then, in that case, you’re an idiot.
Margaret invited us to her house to relax while we awaited our bus to depart to Tana Toraja, our first stop along the trail. A medical doctor by trade, she was a natural caretaker providing us with a tasty local dinner, refreshments, and quickly offering us a room to nap in along with a nice bathroom/shower. It was all too much considering we’d spent the previous couple weeks stationed in a “rustic” provincial dwelling in southern Lombok. We couldn’t believe our luck with finding such a hospitable interlocutor. Her husband, a social science professor at a local university shared her humanitarian flare and they both had been providing a boarding house for university students. Together, they inspired me ever more to pay it forward at every turn. The world instantly becomes softer and more enjoyable in these instances and to that lovely couple, I give them thanks for deepening that lesson ever more. On top of it all, they had one of their borders give us a lift to the bus station. He took his post very seriously and saw to it that we had no problems purchasing the ticket and getting great seats on what was perhaps the most luxurious bus I’ve ever taken in all my travels, and that will be the last time I experience any thing resembling comfort for the next few weeks.
Once we arrived in Rantaepo, the central city in the land (Tana) of the Torajans, you’re immediately welcomed by funeral touring touts. That’s right, among the most unique tout markets I’ve ever seen. Many have their own motorcycle tuk tuks, gotta be the most dangerous I’ve seen in design where instead of being carted in the back of some motorized bike, you’re carted in front.
Summer is funeral season in the land and this attracts tourists Indonesian and Farang alike to their bloodbath funerals. Although the dead may have passed earlier in the year, and the initial ceremony complete, it’s not till the summer that they hold this particular ceremony meant for the public, with a corpse that has most likely long been embalmed. So naturally, the ancillary tout funeral tour market would emerge that proves its worth for if it’s a blood bath funeral with exposed corpses that you fancy, these guys will get you there. Either at the bus stop or through your guesthouse, you will most likely have to hire one to get to the blood, the mud, and the beef (food that follows). But you might want to leave your western sensitivities on that luxurious bus, because shit gets weird quick in these funerals (and that’ll be the last remotely comfortable bus you’ll take).
The whole affair is some kind of after-life popularity contest where the most popular and wealthy dead throw the most extravagant funerals with the most bulls and pigs slaughtered. And the more that people show up, the smoother the sail is for deceased’s soul on its way on up to the Christian heaven, and in turn the family’s sense of peace. If there is one word to summarize the experience, it is BLOOD. We made our way to what seemed to be a wealthier funeral where several bulls got the chop along with some large pigs that ringed the main event. Following the sacrificial massacre, the meat is bbq’d and served to guests (no pics here, look it up).
However, do not let this practice scare you off. The entire ordeal is managed by a smiling mass that loves nothing more than to show their cordialness and/or gratitude towards your attendance. Forget anything you heard about other lands of smiles, nothing beats the kindness of Sulawesi, blood bath and all. Following the ceremony, we retired up to the mountain village of Batutamonga to stay in a traditional Torajan boat home, the Tongkonan. If you’ve never seen these interesting communities then you are in for quite a “weeeeee”…look at the roofs:
Many Torajan people live in these small communities of boat homes, which as explained by Wikipedia:
“The word ‘Tongkonan’ is derived from the Toraja word tongkon (‘to sit’) and literally means the place where family members meet.
According to the Torajan myth, the first tongkonan house was built in heaven by Puang Matua, the Creator. It was built on four poles and the roof was made of Indian cloth. When the first Torajan ancestor descended to earth, he imitated the heavenly house and held a big ceremony. An alternative legend, describes the Toraja arriving from the north by boats, but caught in a fierce storm, their boats were so badly damaged that they used them as roofs for their new houses.
There are three types of tongkonan. Tongkonan layuk is the house of the highest authority and it is used as the center of government. The second type is tongkonan pekamberan, which belongs to the family group members, who have some authorities in local traditions (known as adat). The last one is tongkonan batu, which belongs to the ordinary family members.”
The village is kinder than it is stunning. The mountainous villages are lined with wild coffee in all directions. Wide-open valleys dripping with stunning rice terraces.
Dense with natural beauty, all you need to do is get a lift there (via the back of motorcycle) and walk back down to Rantepao, or hitch a ride if you’ve walked enough. The bird watching along that walk…WATCH THE BIRDS! Small communities of Tongkonan homes dot the hike down and never get old in design. You’ll notice the older, centered homes usually have a collection of bull horns rising up the front mast. I’ll let you figure out why.
Thank you Bulls. Although you’re slaughtered en masse every summer, atleast it’s done with honor as opposed the McWest’s factory sacrifices for those who a want their burger and life on the go.
Getting around in Rantepao is probably best if you rent your own motorcycle. But if you must, I’d say hire a bike and ride on the back if you’re trying to get out to the mountains. You can find some drivers by the main bus stop area. Getting north of Rantepao is not easy no matter how you cut it. We went through one of 2 local bus companies, and it was not like the bus from Makassar….not like that at all.
To be continued….
Primary Transit summary:
From Makassar a 12 hour luxury bus to Tana Torajah via Charisma -> 14 hour butts to nuts buss to Poso (Buses can be arranged via your guest house or just go to travel agents, near Café Aras) – Good driver, crazy roads, cramped but charming ride -> 4 hour 3 am drive via minivan to Ampana arranged through guest house in Poso -> 3 hour large ferry to Wakai arranged at the ferry terminal via “the harbor lady” Ufha, sat on roof under makeshift canopy -> 30 min Boat to Kadidiri, also arranged via Harbor lady –> 3 hour Boat to Una Una arranged through guest house “lestari” –> 3.5 hour Boat back to Wakai arranged through guest house “sanctum” –> 10 hour overnight ferry to Gorontola, shared cabin, well worth it arranged via “Una” Losmen, near main harbor –> short tuk tuk into Gorontolo from harbor -> 10 hour Mini Van to Manado arranged via guest house “Melati”.