By Rich Juro
Fran and I first journeyed to Indonesia about 35 years ago with a small group. There are 17,500 islands in Indonesia. We visited the large islands of Java, Sumatra, Bali, and even Irian Jaya (the western part of the island of New Guinea that is a province of Indonesia). A lot occurred on the trip, but the strangest happenings were on Komodo and Sulawesi, which is why this true tale was written.
Komodo is a small island near Bali, about half-way between Singapore and Australia. It is home of the Komodo Dragon, the big monitor lizard, and the largest lizard on earth. It grows to about 150 pounds, 10 feet long, and can live 30 years. The dragon feeds mostly on Timor deer, with wild pigs and other smaller critters in its varied diet. Yes, it will occasionally eat humans. There have been 24 recorded attacks on people, one happening every couple of years.
The first time we went to Komodo Island, we were escorted to a big enclosure with a sturdy see-through metal fence. Then the park rangers took some raw meat, threw it over the fence, and we watched as the dragons came and devoured their food. It was fascinating to watch the big lizards open their mouths, extend their forked tongues, and start ripping away at their meal with their big jagged teeth.
We went back a few years ago. It was a completely different experience. This time we went in small groups around the paths with a park ranger. We were looking for the dragons, hoping they were not looking for us. The authorities said not to worry: the rangers were armed with a wooden stick that they would poke the reptiles. Frankly, the stick was not very reassuring to us. As the dragons can run rapidly to catch their prey, we were not too calm. When we were told that the animals digest slowly, and only eat once a month, Fran and I wondered how we could tell if one of the big lizards was hungry or not. Would one of us be a dragon dinner ? The ranger did stand between us and the dragons we encountered, with his stick ready to defend us. When they were sleeping, we were told not to get too close, in case they woke up. When they were walking past us, we got out of the way. It was exciting to see them up close, especially when they were looking at us hungrily. Obviously, we survived.
Sulawesi is a big island east of Borneo and south of the Philippines. Its name was Celebes before Indonesia achieved independence from Holland in 1949. We landed in Ujung Padang, a large city and one of the major ports of the country. It was formerly called Makassar, named for the infamous Makassar Straits where most ships have to brave the pirates on the route from Southeast Asia to India or Europe. After we left, the city was renamed Makassar in 1999, for reasons unknown. I don’t think it was because Western tourists could not remember “Ujung Padang” (it has a nice sound to it, don’t you think?).
Our guide in Sulawesi was Ahmad. He was short with black hair, like most Indonesians, in his twenties, and spoke excellent English. Ahmad said he was a member of the ethnic Bugi (pronounced boogie, like the 20’s music). Centuries ago, the Bugis’ leader was none other than King Bone. That great leader helped the Dutch force out the Portuguese from Makassar, and it remained semi-independent for hundreds of years.
Ahmad went on: “Most Bugis have always been rice farmers or seafarers. Bugis who were in maritime in the past either were regular sailors or cruel pirates. Bugi is where the term “boogeyman” came from. When English-speaking mothers were trying to scare their little kids, the mothers would say: ‘If you don’t behave, the boogeyman will steal you away.’”
We took off in the bus for the highlands of Sulawesi. We drove for hours on rutted, mucky roads. It rained a lot, even though it was supposed to be the dry season. All of a sudden, the bus stopped, and couldn’t go forward. It was stuck in the mud, and the tires just spun when the driver pressed on the gas pedal. So all of us got out, most of the women stood to the side, and the men pushed the bus while the driver stepped on the accelerator. I’m not sure if it was due to less weight in the bus, or us pushing, but it worked! The bus got out of the mud, we clambered in, and resumed our journey.
We drove through the villages of the Torajans, the people who live in the highlands. The houses are on stilts, large, and shaped like a boat but with the roof shaped like a saddle and high on each end. There are unique carvings in each house or meeting place. Eventually, we got to the highlands inn. It was basic, but clean, and there was hot water in the late afternoon to wash off the mud. We went to the dining room for a local soup/stew called “pallubasa”. The pieces of meat were either water buffalo or regular beef (we didn’t ask) combined with grated coconut and several spices (Indonesia is the home of the “Spice Islands”). Anyway, it was delicious.
After dinner, we went back to our rooms. Fran and I soon fell fast asleep. All of a sudden, I woke up to Fran’s screaming. Fran is an inveterate traveler, and she is never terrified during the night. I turned on the flashlight. There was a giant snail, almost a foot wide, that had dropped from the ceiling right onto her neck. In the dark, I’m sure Fran thought the big snail was a Komodo dragon. I grabbed the large squishy critter and threw it out the front door. Fran washed herself well, but we didn’t get much sleep that night. The next day, when we went out, we saw lots of the snails. Even though they were quite big, they weren’t as scary in the daylight as having one drop on your neck when you’re sleeping.
The next day Ahmad told us he had arranged for us to go to a funeral. Not just a regular funeral, but a celebration of life and death for an honored person who had died….8 months ago! The ethnic group called the Tana Torajans live in the mountains of Sulawesi. They converted to Protestant Christianity generations ago, but the people kept their polytheistic animism and their death rituals.
When a Torajan person dies, he is considered sick, not dead. His body is kept in the house for months and embalmed. Usually the family even gives the “deceased” food and water. Depending on the status of the person, the funeral is not performed until everyone in the extended family returns to the highlands and the celebration can be conducted with due honor. The funeral is more expensive than weddings or any other celebration during the person’s life. The older and more esteemed the deceased was, the bigger and more expensive the funeral. Several water buffaloes are usually provided by the family. They are to help the person on the journey to Puya, the land of souls. Then, the animal is ritually slaughtered to supply the food for the feast.
We drove to the “parking lot” by the village. The further one comes, the more honor is given to the body, so we were considered special guests as we had come all the way from the USA and Canada. Nevertheless, the tradition is for all guests to bring a gift, usually a pig or a water buffalo. As the shortest female in our group, as we entered the compound, Fran presented our gift to the hostess: a carton of Marlboro Cigarettes. Fran hates smoking, but she knows tradition is tradition. Then men went to one area, the women to another.
Fran said: “They served us tea and food tidbits. I noticed that the women were wearing the same dresses, and that they changed them three times during the day. That’s probably an indication of how much they honored the deceased.”
At the men’s tent, I was expected to eat a local unidentifiable raw snack, or smoke a clove cigarette. I had given up smoking ten years ago, but I gladly inhaled the clove cigarette. Fran would have eaten whatever they served. There were also cockfights which we chose not to witness.
In order to raise funds for the family, or for the village, there was an auction of water buffaloes and pigs. A good water buffalo goes for over a thousand dollars, but a pig costs only a few hundred dollars. Fran and I thought our group should buy the pig and donate it to the family, but we couldn’t get our fellow guests to chip in. Maybe they thought the Indonesian currency is like a US dollar, but each rupiah is only worth less than a penny. It would have been a good story, but it was not to be.
On the way back, we stopped to look at the tombs and effigies of long-dead persons. They were half-way up on a niche or crevice on limestone rock cliff, to honor them and to prevent grave-robbing. The effigies are of painted wooden or bamboo, made in the likeness of the person, and look out over the tomb. Torajans do not really consider dead those who we call deceased. For them, the dead are never really gone. It’s very different from our culture, but it works for the Tana Torajans.