November 22nd 1983

posted in: The way back | 1

We were a bit sluggish getting started this morning, taking our time over getting up, mandying (the water that one tips over oneself to wash is called mandi water) + breakfasting.  Our excuse was that we were fatigued after our journey,  but that may have been pure self-justification.  We went to the money-changer to cash another cheque – tho’ the lady didn’t have enough money to change more than $20, she did tell us that there was a funeral service taking place at Keite, a village just 6 kms from town.  This may not sound like too much of an attraction, but in Tana Toraja one of the musts to see are these ceremonies, which are, by all accounts, elaborate affairs.  So we immediately found a bemo heading out there, + leapt on. 

And immediately we arrived there were strange things to see – ladies wearing the wide-brimmed straw hats that one associates with China or Vietnam, men carrying pigs.  These were slung on bamboo poles, which the men carried on their shoulders, like hunters carrying a dead stag, except the pigs weren’t upside down.  They obviously has some intimation of their imminent fate, or else they were simply uncomfortable.  Either way, they were making a squealing racket.

As we came within sight of the village, we were greeted by a very pleasant sight.  The village was in traditional style, a row of ship-shaped houses all facing N-S, with each one’s rice-barn, a smaller version of itself, facing it.  The whole village was draped with red cloth, with extra temporary shelters built to accommodate the guests.  The funeral takes place some months after the death, so that enough money can be raised to do it in style.  The more important the person, the bigger the affair, the more guests, the more gifts, the more pigs + buffaloes are slaughtered.  The local religion takes the view that you can take it with you, + the more the better.  So all morning guests processed into the village, bringing gifts of rice, tuak, pigs, buffaloes – it is quite a sight, most extraordinary.

We were just congratulating ourselves on having escaped the rest of the tourists, when we spotted them, half a dozen or so, including our German friends, wielding a cine camera on a tripod.  Worse was to come, however, when 2 large groups of tourists filed in as part of the procession.  They had brought gifts for the dead man, so had earned themselves, or bought themselves, the right to join in in this way.  I felt it rather made a mockery of the whole thing, tho’ one group had gone to the trouble of dressing themselves in the appropriate costumes, while the others were in the usual tourist assortment of Bermuda shorts, baggy cotton trousers, etc.  Just after they arrived, + presumably delayed until their arrival, the fun began.

A buffalo was led into the centre + tied to a stake there by a rope around his foot.    His attendant stroked him under his chin, so that he lifted his nose, his head, to the sky, so trusting, so trusting.  And the betrayal.  The man took  a large heavy knife, like a machete, + with one heavy blow like a forehand drive at tennis, slashed + leapt back.  The beast’s neck erupted blood, + the animal heaved + pulled at the stake, fell, pulled himself up again, fell.  And all the while, the red blood poured into the earth.  I don’t know how I can describe it, since I’m not aware I saw it, I’m sure that at the moment the knife struck, my head was in my hands.  I knew it was going to happen, yet still couldn’t believe it would, till it did.  And then, when the animal finally had no strength left, was dead, bar the occasional twitch + the look in the eyes, another was led in, tied to the stake, + it was gone thro’ again.  Not such a skilful slaughterer this time, tho’ it seems to require more strength than finesse, or perhaps this one had more will to live.  In any event, he lived, struggled + suffered longer, tho’ the end was the same.

I left at this point, + went for a walk, returning when it was over, + 7 buffaloes lay dead or dying in the mud + blood + shit.  I missed too, the obtaining of blood, when men inserted sharpened pieces of bamboo into the necks of the creatures to collect what blood was still flowing.  I also missed, tho’ Val witnessed it, the even more horrific killing of the pigs when, while still trussed + unable to move, they had small knives or sharpened bamboo thrust again + again into the heart.  They took a hell of a long time to die, + squealed hideously.

I don’t know what I think about it really.  I eat meat, so shouldn’t object to seeing meat killed.  (Should be prepared, I’m told + logically accept, to kill it myself, if necessary.)  Also, the people weren’t cruel to the animals, were gentle + kind, in fact – up to the moment of killing.  The buffaloes anyway; the pigs had a bit of a raw deal.  My distaste was turned more upon the watchers than the doers.  And not so much the villagers, who at least have some legitimate beliefs to account for their interest.  It was the tourists I didn’t like, the cheap voyeurs, getting a cheap + vicarious thrill out of the barbarous customs of this strange people.  And I do not exclude myself from censure.  The ceremony certainly had the effect of focusing one’s mind upon death, much more so than a western funeral.  When death comes my way, will I be a buffalo, accepting my coming fate with dignity, fighting against it but not protesting.  For they must have known what was about to happen, for as they were brought in they could see their dead + dying comrades.  Or would I be more like the pig, squealing all the while.  I’m afraid I detect porkish tendencies.  Anyway, the meat was not wasted.  When the slaughter had finished, the hides were removed, the meat cut up, + then distributed among the guests, according to the gifts they had brought.

During my walk I had explored a path leading to some hanging coffins, some of which had decayed so far as to fall to the ground.  Because of this, there were many human bones on display, as well as carved wooden effigies of the dead.  Val stayed to watch the killing – one becomes immune after a time, she said – but when it was over I took her up there.  Unfortunately, all the other tourists were also now unoccupied, so they were there too – it had been better when I had had the place to myself.

We wandered around the village for a while, looking at what there was to see, but ending up chatting to 2 of the other tourists, tho’ perhaps I should say travellers, since they have been on the road as long as us.  And as they haven’t travelled the same distances, they’ve obviously seen the South Pacific in considerably more detail.  Plus Japan, China, Hong Kong, the Philippines, etc etc.  They told us a lot about Sarawak, which converted me to visiting the place (Val, to her credit, has long been keen.)  They’re Americans, Tom + Jan – I enjoyed their company.  We started to walk back with them, tho’ they hopped on a passing bemo – they had walked out.  I had my usual feeling, when meeting other travellers, that their experiences have been so much better than ours.  (And in this case, I think my inferiority complex is justified.)  We decided to look them up in the evening, to see if they would like to eat out with us, but this proved more difficult than anticipated.  They had mentioned the hotel they were staying in, but the first time we went there the receptionist denied having any Americans in the place, the second time another guest showed us what he thought was their room, but there was no-one in, + the 3rd time they were in…  but had already eaten.  Still, I was pleased we had tracked them down – I had become extremely depressed when it looked as tho’ we wouldn’t, since I’m starved of company + anything approaching friendship.  We spent all evening with them, swapping stories, listening to the BBC news, drinking beer, having a generally good time.  Or at least I thought so.  So we never did eat a meal.  Tho’ we did have some bread + jam when we got in.  Not that getting in was easy – it was now 11.45 + the losmen was locked.  We knocked up the young guy who more or less runs the place tho’, + he was fine about it.  Quite a day.

Quite a day indeed, and one to live long in the memory. Of course, it had been somewhat corrupted by the presence of the tourists (present company included) but it was still pretty special, and I guess the sort of event that ought to be maintained, barbaric though aspects of it were (though worse than factory farming? I think not.) And good to make contact with some like-minded fellow-travellers, with a similar sense of humour. Tom is still a good friend, though he and Jan have parted ways now, and still the most inveterate traveller I have ever known.

  1. Pamela Blair

    What an experience! I can understand your revulsion, both at the buffalo slaughter and all the tourists. I know, when I was traveling and came upon a dramatic cultural scene, I didn’t want any other tourists to reduce my experience to simply one ANY tourist could pay for. I remember, walking the Inca Trail in Peru and after four days finally reaching Macchu Pichu, and seeing all the tourists who’d arrived by train and bus. And yet, their photos would be as good or better than mine. I also love your distinction between tourists and travelers, thinking I was the latter, although from the outside we might look alike. I also loved that you didn’t exclude yourselves from the category of morbid onlooker (I don’t think you used those words). I’ve loved your travels from mainland Australia into Southeast Asia, an area that I never made it to.

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