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Sizzlin Feature

Summer in Sulawesi

A Taste of Life--and Death--in Indonesia

Photos by Kathy Link

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By Kathy Link | Posted 5/24/2000

I'm sitting in a small restaurant in Tentena, at first glance not much different than any American restaurant: dimmed lights, nicely fanned cloth napkins, uniformed waitresses moving casually between the tables and a back kitchen area. The front door is wide open, allowing in soft breezes and the chirping of crickets. I could be in Canton or Columbia, if not for the lizard. From within the cone-shaped lamp above the table, a beacon to swarming insects, peeks the shadow of a gecko, 4 inches long, steadily working its way through the light-drawn protein feast. Three more geckos are staked out on the ceiling above the lamp. I casually drink my too-sweet tea, noticing two of the insects drowning in my pitcher of condensed milk, and wait patiently for fresh pineapple pancakes to arrive.

In the summer of '99, I chose to take my vacation in Indonesia. In the weeks leading up to my trip, there were riots in Jakarta, violence leading to deaths in East Timor, and a groundbreaking election to decide the fate of the world's fourth-most-populous nation. I had planned my trip a year and a half in advance, unaware of any impending unrest. Friends and family became concerned as my tentative departure date approached and headlines about political and religious clashes in Indonesia mounted. But I was determined to carry on as planned.

Earlier in the year, President Raden Suharto had been forced out of office after 30 years in power, accused of corruption, nepotism, and despotism. Vice President B.J. Habibie took over, under the careful scrutiny of an unhappy citizenry. Pressed by angry rioting and questions about his legitimacy as the nation's leader, Habibie called for new parliamentary elections in June 1999--three years earlier then scheduled--in preparation for presidential elections in October. The results would be announced in July, the month of my trip, and how the public would react to them was anybody's guess.

At the same time, the multi-island nation was still recovering from economic devastation, brought on by the Asian financial crisis and spurred by fear of a crumbling government. The value of the rupiah, the local currency, had crashed from 2,000 per U.S. dollar to 17,000, an all-time low. The unemployment rate skyrocketed, and banks closed left and right. Coinciding with the political and economical turmoil was the continuing struggle in East Timor over the half-island's independence.

To date, my most exotic trip had been a cruise to the Bahamas. Now, here I was headed to the opposite side of the globe, to a nation that was, according to the headlines, a whirlwind of chaos.

And yet, come July, on the large, sheltered island of Sulawesi where I stayed, all was calm, quiet, and peaceful. There were few signs of the disturbances broadcast throughout the world. Even the announcement of the parliamentary-election results, with Megawati Sukarnoputri's Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle leading and the ruling Golkar Party trailing, caused barely a ripple in Sulawesi. (Abdurrahman Wahid, who would be elected president a few months later, was not even seen as a serious contender at the time; his party came in fourth.) People went about their daily business--harvesting or planting new rice crops, working in shops, observing weddings, funerals, and house-raisings. The closest we came to signs of unrest were a banner in Ujung Pandang, one of the larger cities on the island, that read a woman should not be president (a reference to the controversial Megawati, then the front-runner), and few burned-out homes along the road to Central Sulawesi--reminders of previous months, when political and religious tensions were at their peak and anger burst into flames.

Local news coverage of events was limited. During my two and a half weeks there, I heard almost nothing about East Timor, where pro-government militia continued to clash with Timorese seeking independence after 24 years of Indonesian rule. East Timor, located among the southeastern Indonesian islands just north of Australia, is separated from Sulawesi by about 300 hundred miles of ocean. Travel within Sulawesi, pocked with half-built roads and broken bridges, can take days; an island so far away seems almost like another country.

Indonesia itself is another world. Home to more than 210 million people, it's an improbable nation to those of us brought up on the notion of a country as a large land mass, comprised as it is of thousands of islands that from tip to tip would reach from Maryland to California. Formerly under Dutch control, Indonesia has been an independent country for only 54 years; until this year, its only rulers had been two authoritarian presidents, Suharto and his predecessor, Achmed Sukarno. It is home to more than 400 ethnic groups speaking 600 regional dialects. Even if the country, or at least the chunk I visited, wasn't awash in turmoil, the Indonesian way of life was still a shock to this untraveled Westerner. In Indonesia, you're living in the lap of luxury if you have an indoor bathroom, a tiny refrigerator, a telephone, a television, or even enough windows to get a cross-breeze.

I was not fending for myself in this brave new world. I was visiting my Aunt Barbara, who'd come to Indonesia as missionary in 1973 and stayed on, teaching in a theological university and leading the occasional English class in a nearby school. "She was born to be a teacher," my grandmother says, recalling Barbara patiently giving lessons to her two younger sisters in a make-believe classroom.

In graduate school, Barbara felt the calling to combine teaching with her faith and joined the Overseas Missionary Fellowship, which took her, at the age of 29, to Indonesia. Her first years in the country were spent in a home without electricity or running water. But she fell in love with the people and the culture; outside of a five-year return to the States to obtain her Ph.D., she has lived in various parts of Indonesia for 26 years, the last five in Sulawesi.

Barbara's home these days is not so rough as her first here, but it is still not quite up to American standards of convenience. "I spend half my life playing with water," she jokes. And it's true. Her water is on only about eight hours out of the day--and not eight consecutive hours. When the water is off, she turns on several taps and keeps an ear open for its return. When it's on, she hustles through the house, filling up containers for laundry, baths, toilet flushing, and drinking. Drinking water first has to be boiled in stew pots on camp-variety burners, then cooled, run through a makeshift filter for taste, and finally bottled or put in pitchers.

Barbara had prepared me for much of what awaited me--no toilet paper in public bathrooms, squat toilets, "splash baths." I adjusted very well to the toilets, both splash-flush and squat (talk about your leg workout), and I rather enjoyed the splash bath, wherein you use the entire bathroom as a shower, dipping water and splashing it all over yourself. I even managed to deal with the fact that the lines between indoors and out are rather gray for bug life. But the hardest thing to get used to was Indonesian driving habits.

Public transportation is available everywhere cheaply, be it by taxi, bemo (minibus), or becak (the Indonesian version of a pedicab). Traffic patterns are much like ours, but the unwritten rules of the road are somewhat different. They were, as near as I could glean them:

· The largest, fastest vehicle automatically has the right of way; all others must get out of its way.

· Lanes? What lanes? The lines on the road, including the double-yellow ones, are merely there to give someone a painting job.

· Honk every few seconds to let other drivers know you're there.

· Rip all seat belts out of the car; they are unnecessary.

· Pack as many people into a vehicle as possible.

This last rule applies mainly to bemos (although I did see a motorbike with three passengers). A bemo driver will have 10 people packed into a space meant for six, two more standing on the back bumper, the doors flung open (and exhaust fumes billowing into the vehicle), and still yell out to prospective passengers, "Empty! Empty!"

Fortunately for those packed into public transit, Indonesians are also a very social people. Solitude is not indulged here as it is in the States. Many people do not have phones, so it's normal for friends to drop in on you unexpectedly. We had company every day of the week I spent at Barbara's house; one day there was a constant parade of visitors, from 9 a.m. until well into the evening. A typical egocentric American, I hadn't thought too much about the language barrier--everyone speaks some English, right? I had proudly memorized a few phrases of Indonesian, but it was nowhere near enough to get by, and after a while Barbara gave up translating. I was able to pick up the gist of some of the conversations, but by midafternoon my head hurt.

There's little use for English in the highlands of Tana Toraja, where Barbara lives. The area is secluded by mountains; reaching it from Ujung Pandang, the nearest city with an airport, requires a winding, seven- to nine-hour bus ride that will make the strongest stomach turn. With its strange boat-shaped houses, beautiful carved-wood sculptures, and unique death rituals, Tana Toraja is popular with tourists of the rugged National Geographic variety. I visited during peak season, but this year it was largely barren of foreign faces, even as it remained largely separate from the national turmoil. The political crises have not affected daily life much, but they have discouraged tourism, adding to Indonesia's economic woes.

This foreign face drew much attention from the locals--even downright gawking. I am told that Indonesians are fascinated by Western society and think our way of life is better. (Here I was admiring their ways--friends and family socializing, instead of zoning out in front of the tube.) Western culture and ways are rapidly intermingling with local customs. The younger generation wears Western-style clothes; jeans and corporate-logo shirts (I spotted Nike and Adidas) are replacing native dress. Cigarette ads line walls, sometimes 10 and 15 in a row. Kentucky Fried Chicken has invaded the cities. (No McDonald's . . . yet.) Bootleg music tapes are sold in grocery stores, and in buses you hear an '80s hit parade (Air Supply, Chris Isaak). And the favorite wedding song? Elvis Presley's "Can't Help Falling in Love."

Aside from the gawking, everyone I met made me feel welcome; people went out of their way to greet me with "hello" and to practice the little English they knew (which generally wasn't much more than "hello"). Andarias Sitammu, a former student of Barbara's who spoke English quite well, spent two afternoons with me, exploring cave tombs and showing me the capital of South Sulawesi, which was really not much more than a small town.

We also visited his mother's rural village, where barefoot children in ragged clothes stared at me and pleaded "gula, gula" (sweets, sweets). Clothes hung over bushes and fences to dry, and chickens and scraggly, unfriendly dogs ran rampant. Andarias' mother lives with her husband and several children in a house made up of three rooms and barren of furniture; the kitchen and newly added bathroom are small outside structures. Thanks to the indifference of the local government, she has been living without electricity in her home for more than two years--yet the power lines are only about 20 feet away.

While everyday life is basic, the people of Tana Toraja spare no rupiah when it comes to death. They save for up to two years, and even go into debt, to stage a proper funeral; in the meantime, the body is pumped full of preservative, put in a casket, and placed in the living room among the furniture. When the time finally comes, the funeral is a three-day affair, with friends and family from all over the nation put up in temporary bamboo housing. Practically the entire town is invited by word of mouth to pay respects; more temporary structures are built for seating. Various ceremonies are performed, pigs and water buffalo are slaughtered (the number of water buffalo depends on the status of the family), and sometimes water buffalo fights are arranged to entertain the guests.

Luckily, my vacation coincided with funeral season. (Yes, there's a season for funerals.) Barbara's friends Daniel and Young Me Keum invited me to go to the first day of one funeral gathering.

Tourists are seen as good luck at funerals--a sign of better times to come--so I was considered an honored guest. The grandson of the deceased took Daniel and I up into the traditional family house where the casket lay. It was closed and draped with a long patterned cloth. A papier-mâché-like cross of pink, white, and blue leaned up against the casket, and quilts hung from the walls surrounding the body. We were told that the man had been dead for a year and a half, but the funeral had been put off by the difficulty of getting the far-flung family members together.

Our talk was cut short, as the slaughtering of the first water buffalo was about to begin--an opening ceremony, so to speak. Daniel and I were given front-row seats, but for this I would gladly have given up my place of honor. The swing of the long la'bo knife to the animal's jugular vein was so quick I almost missed it. The enormous beast immediately collapsed with a squeal of pain, blood spouting from its neck in a 5-foot radius like water from a fire hydrant. Young men rushed to the scene with long bamboo tubes, shoving them one by one into the red stream. The buffalo lay still on the ground, alive and wild-eyed but unable to move. I watched through the flip-out viewer of my video camera, the TV-like screen somehow making it less real and less awful. Behind me a circle of women sat, not watching the slaughter but singing some sad song in soft, lovely voices. After a very long 10 minutes, it was over. We left shortly after, not wanting to stay for the six pigs next in line.

The water buffalo fights we saw later on that day were less traumatic. Hundreds gathered to see the animals paired up, betting outrageous amounts of money on them. All were bustling with excitement, whooping and hollering, running alongside the creatures as they fought. The water buffalo, normally treated as pets by their loving owners, fought much like my cats: They would wrestle for a few minutes with their great horns, then one would give up and run away; the winner would give chase for a moment, then change its mind and stop. Two of the docile creatures refused to fight, preferring to gnaw on some grass and stare at the sky. In the end, water buffalo and humans alike remained unscathed, and a feeling of elation and kinship prevailed.

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