5/1/16 - 1/2/16 30 °C
The capital of Sulawesi is Makassar in which I arrived in the evening after a flight from Labuan Bajo and a three hour stop-over in Denpassar, Bali. To put it politely, Makassar, which is huge with a population of 1.5 million, is a dump and I spent my only day there arranging a bus ticket to Tana Toraja. This involved a bemo (a beaten up mini bus which runs on a fixed route picking passengers up from the roadside) ride of almost an hour to the bus terminal (5000 ruppiah or 26p for a 5 mile journey). I managed to get the much prized seat next to the driver and after telling him where I came from he took much pride in telling everyone who climbed aboard. Given the large numbers of bemos that ply the roads and the relatively small number of tourists that come here having a foreigner on board must be a bit of a rarity.
Indonesia (and quite a few other places) continually confounds my expectations and the bus to Toraja was unexpectedly luxurious with large, well uphostered seats that reclined to an almost horizontal position. Thus, the eleven hour journey to Toraja passed in comfort and I was even delivered right to the door of my guesthouse when we arrived in Rantepao at 8.00 that evening. The Wisma Maria guesthouse, however, turned out to be the dirtiest place I've had the misfortune to lay my head and I began to wonder if coming to Sulawesi had been a mistake. The following morning, without even bothering to shower as the bathroom was so filthy, I set out to find alternative accomodation which I did at the other end of town. This place was far nicer and from that moment things began to look up. During the four days I spent in Rantepao I hired a motorbike for three and explored the town and the stunning scenery around it. A couple of friends, Andy and Carolin, turned up and it was great to have some company in the evenings and swap stories about our travels in the few days since we had been in Flores.
Toraja is famous for the lavish and very expensive funerals that are such an important part of the local culture. The local belief is that unless the deceased is given a proper send off their spirit will return to haunt any relatives who failed to make the required effort to bury the corpse in style. This means that it may take anywhere between two and ten years to save enough money to put on a bash that keeps up with the Jones's and saves face. During this time the dead body is kept in the family house - embalmed to stop it rotting, I think. I heard of one young woman who lived and worked in Java and had saved the equivalent of twenty thousand pounds (an enormous amount of money by local standards) towards the burial of her grandfather. She was furious that she had had to contribute so much towards the ceremony but was under huge pressure from her family to do so. Unfortuately I didn't get to attend a funeral but people who did have told me that all and sundry (including tourists) are welcome to attend. Several buffalo are ritually slaughtered (throats cut) and butchered to feed the masses and when one realises that a decent buffalo can cost the equivalent of an average car one begins to understand why funerals can be so expensive.
Traditionallly, bodies were interred in wooden coffins and suspended on a cliff face or buried in holes in large rocks though now concrete tombs are more in vogue. Effigies of the dead are placed nearby and offerings, including cigarettes, are left to accompany them in the afterlife.
Toraja is also famous for the unique and distinctive style of the roofs of traditional buildings. Some say that the upcurving ends represent the prow and stern of boats while others claim they represent the horns of their beloved buffalo. This seems the more likely explanation as buffaloes are status symbols and play an important role in Torajan culture.
My next bus journey was nothing like as comfortable as the one from Makassar. This time I was squeezed into the corner of the back seat and the journey seemed endless as we slowly crawled along the narrow, winding roads of central Sulawesi. As the crow flies it's only 99 miles between Rantepao and Tentena but by road it must be twice that. We finally arrived at 10.00pm after thirteen agonisingly uncomfortable and bruising hours. The only saving grace, some beautiful wild and rugged scenery. I shouldn't really complain; some people I met took seventeen hours and I heard stories of the journey sometimes taking as much as 24 hours. After a day's rest in Tentena I chartered a car together with a Finnish couple, Olli and Aino, first for the three hour ride to Poso and then in another car to Ampana. This took a further six hours, including a half hour stop while the driver went to a mosque en route for Friday prayers.
Eventually we were dropped off in Ampana and spent most of the night trying to sleep through the karaoke from a nearby bar that went on till 3.00am. This was quite a surprise in such an obviously Muslim town which I imagined would be extremely conservative in its outlook. The next day it was up early for the one and a half hour speedboat ride to The Togean Islands. I stayed at Paradise Resort and it was. Good food and company and lots of snorkelling from the beach - a two metre walk from my very comfortable bungalow. Also a nearby lake which was teaming with jellyfish. It was quite surreal snorkelling amongst them, watching them bump into each other and head off indifferently a new direction. They also bump into the snorkellers but as they are stingless it's not a problem (the jellyfish, that is).
Unfortunately, after three days paradise was lost when my bungalow was broken into and some money was taken. Not a large amount but enough to spoil the experience. On the advice of the resort manageress I callled the police and four young "detectives" arrived about eight that evening from the mainland. They interrogated the staff and, I heard later, slapped some of them around but unsurprisingly couldn't solve the crime. If I had known they would get violent I'd never have involved them in the first place. Anyway, fearing that they might just frame anyone to get a result I decided to take no further action and they returned to Ampana. The whole episode soured the atmosphere and many guests decided to leave the next morning, myself included.
My bungalow at Paradise Resort
Aino and Olli from Finland
Together with Olli and Aino I sailed in a small outrigger for the PoyaLisa resort, a vey small island near Bomba. It was possible to walk from one end of the island to the other in less than five minutes and it boasted the curious feature of having sea on both sides of the beach. At high tide part of the beach was submerged, thus forming two islands which one had to paddle between. There was no fresh water on the island and this was brought over from the main island everyday so we could at least make tea and coffee and have a bucket shower in the very, very basic bathroom. Electricity was available for five or six hours in the evening and there was no internet or telephone connection available at all. I stayed for nine days and it was utter bliss!!! While there I qualified as an open water diver at the dive school on the main island a couple of hundred metres away. It's a very strange feeling to sink 20 metres below the waves and once or twice I had to fight the urge to get back to the surface as fast as possible. But as my confidence and skills began to increase I grew to love the feeling of being weightless and so incredibly close to beautiful corals and the most amazing creatures.
Outriggers -the local taxis
Sunset and my bungalow at PoyaLisa
My other bungalow at PoyaLisa - I moved - the three minute walk to the beach from the other one was far too tiring!
Bomba Dive Centre
My gorgeous diving instructor, Pia
On the way back from the last dive on the open water course - now a qualified diver
From the ferry leaving the Togeans
They say that the Togean Islands are very difficult to get to (they're right) but even harder to leave, and again I agree. I could have spent weeks there, swimming, snorkelling, diving, swinging in my hammock and eating freshly grilled fish (and cake for breakfast - the locals think this is what westerners do!) but sadly my visa began to run out and so with great reluctance I tore myself away and took a two hour outrigger ride through very choppy seas (quite scary) to the nearest large town and then the twice weekly ferry to Gorontalo where six of us jammed ourselves into a rented a car for the ten hour trip to Manado. Our driver was only a young lad and he spent much of the journey talking and texting on his phone. He was also very tired and at one point we had to insist that he stop and sleep for half an hour before he managed to kill us all. But we made it in one piece and after couple of days in Manado I boarded a plane for the next leg of the adventure. Borneo!