Becording to me, Tana Toraja is Terrific!

Tana Toraja, Sulawesi

Tana Toraja is world famous for having its own incredibly unique culture—especially when it comes their rituals surrounding death.

A bigger group—seven of us, traveled to Tana Toraja together, but not before meeting up in Makassar, with 3 other Fellows who had just visited Tana Toraja.  We met up at Bu Liz’s house—one of our Senior Fellows.  We had the day to hang out because our bus didn’t leave until 9:30 that night. 

So to pass the time…we tried durian! Finally, I have tried durian.  Durian is the most famous fruit from Indonesia.  And let me tell you, I wasn’t missing out.  This stinkiest of stinky fruits is often seen on hotel and elevator signs with a big red slash through it (=NO DURIAN).  It is THAT stinky.  It smells like feet.  People say you either love it or you hate it (I’ve also heard it takes 3 times to like it).  Regardless, it’s all a lie!  After all the hype, I didn’t know what to expect other than eating stinky socks, so I have to report that it wasn’t as terrible as I’d expected, yet I would be happy not to eat it again.  The texture is something like custard, and (TMI) you can taste it the rest of the day.  They say the trick is to drink water out of the outer layer of the fruit after you eat it, and that way you won’t taste it for the rest of the day—so I did that.  However, that was yet another lie.  But we survived—and I wasn’t the only one who had been holding out this long.

I should mention, my students did bring a durian-juice/shake type thing to class when Conor was visiting, so technically we tried it then.  It was grosser in shake form. 


Holly & Ron are ol pros with the durian



a bit..chewy..


Jen gives it a try


That face means; “It’s not that bad, but I kind of want to spit it out!”


hacking open the durian


Autumn is especially excited at the prospect

We also decided we needed cream baths that afternoon.  I might need to devote an entire blog to cream baths.  I think that is what I will miss most when I leave.  It is not (as I first thought when invited by a girl here) an actual bath.  Nor does it exactly involve cream.  It’s basically a deep-conditioning treatment for your hair.  Every time I have one I’m reminded of Hugh Grant’s character in “About a Boy” who goes to the salon to have his “hair carefully disheveled.”  It feels that extravagant sometimes, yet at the price of about $5—it’s a bargain.  Having someone wash your hair, massage your head, rub conditioner into your hair (that smells of avocado, ginseng, chocolate, or a range of other ‘flavors!’), and then massage your shoulders and arms—holy moly.  Heaven.  So how did I know this would digress into a blog about cream baths?  Anyway, some of us are addicted; others had never tried this joyous tradition, so we went to the mall in Makassar before our bus left for Tana Toraja.  Unfortunately it wasn’t the best place to have your first cream bath, but we coped, and had luscious locks to get us through our harrowing night-bus journey.


Christen & Jackie enjoying their creambaths



Is she massaging? or resting? Kate’s face says: “make her stop”



An assembly line of happiness

The bus.  Oooooh the bus.  It is a common mode of transportation to get up to Tana Toraja, which is pretty far out of the way from anything.  It takes about 8ish hours I believe, and we were traveling overnight.  We arrived at the bus station ‘just in time’, but of course, since it’s Indonesia, it actually didn’t leave for another hour after it was scheduled to.  The buses themselves appeared pretty great in terms of having room to spread out.  The seats reclined and they had a lot more room in between rows with kind of leg rests so you weren’t smushed.  However, upon entering, it was discovered that the bus had already been claimed by an army of bugs.  Some of us coped better than others… One of us had had a terrible experience with bedbugs at a guesthouse in the Gilis and so was convinced they were bedbugs that were going to eat us alive.  Other bugs included little cockroaches (not the big kind at least) and perhaps a spider or two in there? The little ‘bed bugs’ were the creepiest because we just didn’t know what they were.  It took some people a little longer to sit completely on the seat, and then we got our rain-jackets and scarves out to wrap ourselves up in protection.  We set in for a long night.  One notable occurrence through the night was a stop at the scariest hole of a bathroom ever.  It was this dungeon-like place under a building with spiders hanging from the ceiling, dirt floor, faded light bulbs, holes in the ground as toilets, dark corners with possible creepers and shadows.  Freeeeakyyy!  


“get me the hell out of this bug infested bus!”

We arrived in Tana Toraja around 6am the following morning in a tired stupor.  We lumbered over to our hotel which was really nice (heavenly compared to the bus!).  Christen, Autumn, and I shared a jr suite. Sweet!  It had a big bed, table and chairs—like our own little apartment.

We hit the ground running and spent our first day with a hired tour guide who took us to a typical Torajan village that had amazing Torajan houses.  We looked at the wood carvings being made there, and most of us bought something. 

Our tour guide was kind of hilarious (without meaning to be) and most of us didn’t understand anything he said—but Christen—ever the devoted student—listened attentively, and so he directed most of his statements towards her.  One of our favorite lines was: “Becording to Torajan language _______” (Fill in the Torajan word).  He was rather endearing, attempting to teach us Torajan words when we couldn’t even understand his English words.


“becording to torajan language, I am awesome” says our tour guide






More about Toraja:

From the Lonely Planet guide: “A trip to Tana Toraja is like a cultural documentary brought to life.  Sweeping and elaborately painted houses with boat-shaped roofs dot terraced rice paddies where farmers work the fields alongside their doe-eyed buffalo…Life for the Toraja revolves around death, and their days are spent earning the money to send away their dead properly.”  Their Christian beliefs brought from the Dutch have combined with their animist beliefs surrounding death.

Funerals are incredibly important, and families will wait several years to save money after a family member dies.  They keep the body intact and people must buy water buffalo to sacrifice.  The more buffalo you can sacrifice, the better off your family is. 

In Toraja, they are used to tourists coming to view their ceremonies, and as a gift, we were told to buy cigarettes to give the hosts.   We attended a traditional funeral celebration (day 2 or 3).  The funerals are usually several days, and I think we saw it a day or two in.  We watched as a procession of relatives filed through the square.  It was a pretty bizarre experience, because we were basically just crashing someone’s funeral (Wedding Crashers anyone?)  It seemed somber, but not sad.  It was sunny, hot, there were probably a couple hundred people milling about.  The family sat in one covered area and boys walked around with tea and coffee.  There were maybe 10-12 other tourists there spread around taking photographs.  I didn’t go too camera crazy because I felt a bit strange about it.  Although they are used to it, it still felt a bit personal.  That being said, there were so many people there it couldn’t have been completely personal. 


As we stood by, men walked through into the middle clearing, carrying large pigs, hung up by their hooves on bamboo sticks.  They plopped em down, while the pigs were squealing.  Yep, we knew what was going to happen.  They just left them there for a while during other things.  It wasn’t exactly a ceremony, in that no one spoke or preached.  People talked to each other, but we just took it all in.  We were led to another covered place to sit and brought tea and coffee.  I don’t think any of us knew what exactly it was that we were waiting for.  There are several vegetarians in our group, so we asked our guide when the sacrifices would begin (because we wanted to be gone), and he said “much later”.  So we believed him.  Fools.  They next brought in a huge water buffalo.  We got a bit nervous.  We asked him again, “can we please leave before they sacrifice the animals?”  I’m pretty sure he understood, and he nodded and assured us we would.  And yet…there they came, with their knives, and the slaughtering of the pigs began.  We were sitting in a position where we didn’t have to see if we looked away; but you could hear it.  Next, the water buffalo.  Much bigger. Much louder.  A few of our more tender-hearted veggies started to tear up, and it was really horrible to hear.  And of course I felt a bit guilty about being one of those meanies who eats meat.  It wasn’t as traumatic as it sounds really. It was weird, but it is their culture, and we know the meat gets eaten, the skins get used, and these animals had a good life.  When we wanted to leave, we had to walk by it, hopping over the stream of blood running down the mountain.  It’s reality.  It is important to remember that as an omnivore!  Needless to say, I had a vegetarian lunch that day.  (I don’t remember about dinner…might have been over it by then).


After lunch, we went to another area where there were coffins raised along a cliff and bones piled in areas along the rocks.  Because Lonely Planet can sometimes do it better than I can, “High-class Toraja are entombed in cave graves or hanging graves in the steep cliffs, which are guarded over by tau tau (life-sized wooden effigies) carved in their image—you’ll find these eerie yet beautiful cliff cemeteries scattered throughout the region. “

The hanging graves were a bit creepy, and I think I had had my fill of skulls and bones in Kostnice—‘the bone church’ in the Czech Republic.  There were piles of bones along the walk we took up one of the cliffs.  I think we were all being respectful and good little tourists… but then…

When we were all walking down this mountain, a skull actually fell and bounced down the stairs past each of us, making a hollow, haunting sound. (Or as my friend Jackie noted—it sounded like a whiffle ball).  We all just looked at each other and were like “holy $%&@ did that just happen?!”  We looked to our guide (I thought he had done it for effect) but Jon was behind him, so it couldn’t have been him.  I don’t know where it came from, but it was CRAZY.  We high-tailed it out of there after that. 


the very steps we were walking down when the skull tumbled past us


That afternoon we got back to our hotel and we started a karaoke party in our hotel’s restaurant.  They guy on the keyboard was ready for any request and we had a grand ol time.  Goodbye Earl was one of my personal favs. We had passers-by peering in the door laughing at the crazy foreigners.  That might be the second thing I’ll miss most about Indonesia—karaoke culture. Love it. 




Our adoring fan (s?)

The next day we went for a bumpy ride (terrible roads) up the mountain and visited a café about halfway up and had an awesome view with our tea or coffees.  Then we walked maybe two miles further up the mountain along a pretty calm road, passing through more Torajan villages and seeing more tombs along the way.  It was really beautiful walk.  There were spectacular views of the mountains and everything was so green—and it wasn’t your typical sweltering Indonesian weather.   We passed kids playing soccer and walking home from school.  We talked about the fact that for those kids, this is just normal.  The views, the beauty and everything are just part their regular lives.  Isolated perhaps, but beautiful.   We had lunch closer to the top and had another awesome view while we ate.  We were also harassed by cats.





probably the best intro to a menu I’ve ever read





Our night bus ride back to Makassar was much less traumatic.  I remember looking out the window at the stars and thinking I had never seen so many or such a wide open sky. 

We arrived at Makassar airport at 5am—with most of us not leaving until after noon (4PM for me & Holly), so we set up camp at the Starbucks, and completely took over a corner of the café with the seven of us and all our bags.  It was actually kind of fun, and I applied for a job and wrote a blog in my free time. 


Thank you Starbucks


Way too much fun. Gotta sleep


Bye to the island of Sulawesi—it’s been real!


About Deirdre Hand

"To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted." Bill Bryson
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9 Responses to Becording to me, Tana Toraja is Terrific!

  1. Glenda Brouwer says:

    My goodness, the sights you have seen!!! Love reading your blog and seeing the photos. I sent the photo of you eating Durian to Ming Bee and Tom. I am sure they will enjoy it!

  2. Elizabeth Williams says:

    I am right there with you with every post. Best travel I will every have!. FloydFest will be a ‘piece of cake’ for you this summer. Love the pic of the skull, cigs, flip flop will be sure to show it to Ben as he has been trying to quit the ‘habit’

    • Deirdre Hand says:

      Thanks Elizabeth!! 🙂 So glad you enjoy them. FloydFest is always a piece of cake 😉 haha, yes, Show that pic to Ben! It is a sign of what is to come. As a matter of fact, I should send it to my dad too!

  3. Molly Cox says:

    Loved the picture of the little boy with the water buffalo. (okay, loved it all but the little boy is so darn cute.) Wow, that is an amazing place. xoxox

  4. Jennifer Hand says:

    Awesome. Thanks so much for taking the time to share all this with us… Its like watching the travel channel!

  5. Felicia J. says:

    Hi Deirdre,
    I’ve been reading you blog for quite a time and your adventure around Indonesia looks awesome.
    The durian experience reminds me of my friend from San Francisco. She told me; “durian is that kind of fruit, which taste like sh*t, with no benefit at all.” 🙂
    I live in Palembang, and I have to say it’s not a common sight for the locals to see a foreigner in this town. But I’m glad you can blend in well.
    Take care.

  6. Kate Bu says:

    You get pictures of all the best stuff! Including that little boy with the water buffalo–that’s a great shot. And I love that the Starbucks cup in the last picture is for “Ms. Holy.” I bet she gets that a lot.

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