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Rhymer´s Travel Diary: Entry 16, June 11, 2002
Japanese Ovations, Heavy Metal, Funerals, Buffalo Sacrifice
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Gruesome, yet oddly stylish imagery in the extreme cuisine gallery

 

 

More Volcanoes

You hope Indonesian journeys are going to get better, but they don't. Many Indonesians had told us that in Java the roads are 'just like Europe'; I can only assume they were talking about some forgotten corner of Bulgaria or Macedonia. Plus our driver either couldn't drive or was so new to the driving game he'd picked us up straight from the test centre: he decelerated or changed up or both while overtaking. As the land rose as we neared our destination, Mt Bromo, he gamely climbed the hills in fifth, occasionally allowing himself to slip into fourth if a stall looked imminent. I know my driving has been the subject of considerable comment (little of it favourable) over the years but this fellow had scaled new peaks of ineptitude. And there is something incredibly frustrating at watching the truly incompetent at work, knowing all the time that you could do so much better. I could see Jane, who takes her driving a little more seriously than me choking back her rage as she fought the urge to seize the wheel from this moron.

By some chance (and some hours late) our man delivered us to the 'Lava lodge' on the lip of the main crater. Despite its cheesy moniker, the Lava Lodge was a fine establishment with great food and friendly staff; indeed one of the waiters later became so friendly I suspected he wouldn't have minded watching the male members of our group in the shower.

As the Lava Lodge's name would suggest, Mt Bromo is no stranger to tourists; in fact this spectacular volcano is Indonesia's premier tourist draw outside Bali. And big attractions draw big tour groups. What is it with big tour groups? I can't imagine anything worse than being cooped up with a coach load of ill-dressed, loudly grousing idiots, treated like cattle, forced to eat in sanitised restaurants and occasionally allowed out to gawp out some MUST SEE attraction. But clearly a lot of people disagree with me, because big coach groups are everywhere. I suspect the answer to this conundrum is to be found in that adaptable old adage: nobody you know likes all-in package tours, but everyone you don't know just loves them.

The deal with Bromo is that you (and the several dozen economy sized tour groups present) get up at 3:30am and leave at 4am to watch sunrise. Because, if there's one rule of big tourist attractions, it's that they look just great at sunrise. No matter what time you might want to see them, you simply have to see them at sunrise: that's the law. And, sure enough, by 5am we were drinking tea at a chilly observation point surrounded by camera clicking, video-shooting hordes. We readied our cameras and waited. Sure enough, on cue the eastern sky turned all sorts of fabulous shades shot through with some of the finest iridescence nature has; dutifully we clicked away. After enjoying the strident, fiery show in the east for a while, we looked over at the crater where the clouds were targeting a more sensitive audience with a series of delicate pastel shades.

Land of the Rising Sun

As we were marveling at nature's broad spectrum appeal and commendably inclusive approach, there was a tremendous round of applause from behind us: an entire Japanese tour group was clapping and cheering. And the occasion for this ovation The sun had just peeped above the horizon; and - naturally enough - those from the land of the rising sun felt honor bound to applaud the sun as it rose. Ian, one of the Irish guys showed his cultural flexibility by joining in enthusiastically: 'Well done God!' he yelled. We all agreed that we'd have to get up at 3am the following morning to see if the sun was prepared to repeat this remarkable feat.

But in fairness to the volcano, after all this build up it was worth it. Within a fog filled 10-kilometer wide crater were three smaller cones, one of which was still spitting brimstone. It's one of those fantastical, rather unbelievable vistas like Yosemite Valley or Ayers rock at sunset - nature getting a little too cute for its own good. Heavily vulcanised as we were (averaging one a week) it was difficult not to being impressed; and we gave the volcano a final sotto round of applause before filing down into the crater.

Metal Fatigue
Our final Javanese volcano box ticked, we bid a fond farewell to my younger brother and the Irish guys who were off for a little R&R on the Gili isles; we were heading to Surabaya, Java's eastern port. Exhausted and in no mood to talk at the train station, I got to enjoy one of those conversations. Here was a skanky looking guy, clearly trying to sell me something. Within five minutes he'd sussed I wasn't buying, but Indonesians aren't as mercenary as the Indians and, if you're not interested, they'll hang around and talk for another half hour for appearances' sake. And, like so many other conversations, this particular conversation's topic was great heavy metal bands. What is with Indonesians and heavy metal? - they can't get enough of this dubious art form. Luckily I'd enjoyed enough heavy metal in my early to mid teens to bluff my way. And the curious thing is that heavy metal doesn't seem to have changed one bit since, aged 16, I decided that U2 were probably better than people who strutted around in sequined codpieces and pretended to worship the devil.

Just as we were getting to the real reasons behind the black Sabbath split, our train arrived. I bid my new metal chum a fond farewell and once again - the train was 'Ekonomi' Class only - we were keeping it a little realer than we'd hoped, crammed between a bulkhead and a cantankerous family. But then we were rescued by a charming group of teenage boys who insisted we came and sat with them. They were great: they chatted a little in pretty good English, got Jane a fan and then left us more or less to our own devices. They didn't want anything - not even a conversation about Iron Maiden's glory days. What was more there had clearly been a fire sale down to the endangered species pet store and the boys had an entire menagerie of cute creatures (baby owl, baby wildcat, etc.) covered by the CITES agreement to keep us amused during our journey.

Surabaya is a place of little charm and big shopping malls, that is a typical Indonesian city. The only moment of real surprise came outside a cash machine in one of the malls when we bumped into a group of Americans: they were all young, all male and all had that huge look - both well-muscled and fat - that comes from eating way too much hormone fed beef as a child. Plus they were having the kind of conversation that doubtless inspired the creators of Beavis and Butt-Head; one of them seemed to be having genuine trouble chewing gum and standing still.

So what you might say - big dumb yanks are everywhere. But they're not really. A few days earlier, I'd been talking to David, the American anthropologist and he'd been bemoaning his fellow Americans' world-view or lack of it. When I said that I'd met quite few well-informed Americans in my travels, he told me that almost any American I met in Indonesia would be atypical: it was, he explained a selection bias. He went on to cite that well-known statistic - that only 15% of Americans (around 42 million) have passports. But, he continued, that stat, amazing enough in itself, was only the start. Of that 15%, he said, around half only ever go to Canada or Mexico and of the remaining 7.5% half only ever do a whistle stop tour of Europe. So only 10 million or 3.8% of the population has every traveled in anything like an remotely adventurous sense.

None of which is a dig against Americans; it's just by way of explaining why I was surprised to see fifteen prime meatheads in Surabaya's swankiest mall. I tried to ask one what they were doing there, but I think he thought I was French or something and, after a couple of tries, I gave up. But the next day this mystery was solved: a copy of the Jakarta Post told me that the US Navy was in town and conducting join manouvres with its Indonesian counterpart. In my day-to-day life I have never before encountered real life members of the sole remaining superpower's armed forces, but I must say, I'm glad I've seen them up close. Suddenly all those 'friendly fire' incidents make a whole lot more sense.

We'd planned to take the boat to Sulawesi, the K-shaped island east of Borneo but Garuda Indonesia plane tickets were so cheap - around 25 quid for 1000 km - that we decided to fly. As I boarded the plane I was a little unsure whether my ticket was an unbeatable bargain or whether Garuda is Indonesian for 'Ha ha ha - you're all gonna die.' It proved the former: for less than the price of most UK rail fares, we enjoyed a faultless flight. The stewardess - snazzily clad in a pleasingly tight-fitting red jump suit - even provided a tasty box of cakes to soothe Ms Treasure's aerophobic nerves.

At first, the Sulawesi landscape looks ominously malarial, particularly when you've decided to ditch the malaria tablets - all rice paddies, mangroves and fishponds. One gigantic swamp. But then things pick up and its gets hillier and hillier and, within a few hundred kilometers you're in an area reminiscent of southern Thailand with limestone buttes rising out of rice paddies rather than the sea. Then the palm trees merge into pines and you're in the Highlands, with peaks up to 3500 meters. For some peculiar reason, a lot of countries like to style themselves 'The Switzerland of the Orient' (this despite no snow or Nazi gold) but Sulawesi with its towering peaks and impossibly neat little houses and gardens actually does look a little like the Swiss alps in summer.

The Welsh

Our bus had stopped for lunch and we were a little surprised to see a short red-faced man in his 60s with a video camera glued to his eye. Espying us, he turned off the camera and announced: 'I'm Andy from Redcar'
'Where's that?' asked Jane, not unreasonably.
'Wales' I said, but he wasn't listening and launched into a spiel about how ludicrous it was that someone could possibly not know where Redcar was. Although he was droning on I was well impressed with this adventurous senior citizen, all the way out here, apparently by himself. Then his wife appeared: some twenty years his junior (a mere blink of the eye by the usual standards of Euro-Indonesian marriages) she was from the island and in 25 years of marriage this was the first time he had visited her home. I was a little less impressed. Andy then started grousing afresh about those whose geographic knowledge didn't include Redcar and, to break the tedium, I commented on the extraordinary and unexpected beauty of the scenery. 'Yes,' he said, with a satisfied smile 'Just like Wales. It looks exactly like Wales. Amazing, just like Wales...etc.'
'Except the palm trees' said Jane eventually.
'Yeah' he said, put out 'apart from them it looks just like Wales.'
'Actually,' I said, 'I think it looks more like Scotland.' This did the trick and he stomped off in huff, video camera back in place muttering: 'Just like Wales.'

The Torajan way of Death

We were staying in Rantepao, the largest town in the beautiful and culturally rich Toraja region. Tana Toraja is Sulawesi's biggest attraction and the Torajan way of death draws visitors from around the world. Specifically the Torajans - although they've converted to Christianity - believe that you can take it all with you and retain strong elements of their pre-Christian animist beliefs. The funerals are fantastically elaborate affairs and, if the stiff is important enough can involve the sacrifice of dozens of buffalo; even a loser gets at least one animal. Eventually after several days' pomp and ceremony the dead guy (and his stuff) gets buried. But because well heeled corpses are natural targets for grave robbers, the burial usually takes place half way up a cliff face or in some similarly weird, tourist friendly location.

So, peculiar as it may sound, the thing to 'do' in Toraja is to go to a funeral; not as odd as it sounds, these are affairs that involve whole villages. And this is perhaps why so many of tourists in these parts are French and Italian - you need to be Catholic to be that fascinated by death. Anyhow, dilettante just about Protestants that we were, we engaged a suitably lugubrious guide and bought 200 fags, the traditional strangers' gift to the family of the deceased. And a very apposite gift: given the quantity most Indonesians smoke, there's a very good chance the subject of the funeral died of lung cancer.

Buffalo Bloodbath

But before we could go and intrude on very public grief, we got to go to the market which, as things turned out, was the highlight of the day. The Torajan market is basically all about buffalo - the rest, interesting as it is, is a mere sideshow. Indeed, for a suitably flash buffalo to sacrifice a Torajan will pay thousands of pounds, more than many people here earn in a year. And, in the way that Americans save for college education and the Brits save for weddings, Torajans save their whole lives for death: if you can't kill a few buffalo when Granddad karks it, you're nothing in Torajan eyes. A number of Indonesians on other islands have cottoned on to this fact and bring their buffalo over to Sulawesi where they fetch twice the price they would back home. All this is because, way back in their pre-Christian, animist days the animist Torajans worshipped the buffalo. And, when you think about it, worshipping buffalo makes a lot of sense - after all, at least buffalo definitely exist.

Once we'd left the buffalo paddock, the market got even more exciting. Two groups of locals were having a knife fight, the participants doubtless hoping to give their village another reason to sacrifice a buffalo. Then a guy ran down the street with a gun and we all piled inside, lest we wind up having a couple of buffalo killed on our behalves.

After this excitement, the funeral itself was something of an anticlimax. From the blood and chunks of meat, we'd clearly missed the buffalo sacrifice. All we got was a load of downbeat music and waiting around. Paying our respects to the dead we met a Portuguese couple (on their Honeymoon) who posed next to the swaddled corpse with a black-garbed relative for pictures. I know that Torajan funerals are, by any standards, very public affairs, but this felt a little distasteful. Back outside again and our guide finally broke his silence: the man had been dead for five months, marinating in herbs and ointments, waiting for his relatives to get together and organise his funeral. We did a lot more waiting and eventually they put him in a big tent and carried him around a bit. All in all, I was a bit underwhelmed by the whole affair. I think the real problem was that our corpse wasn't a particularly wealthy or well-liked chap. If only he'd been a bit richer or more popular we might have got a real buffalo blood bath. As we were about to walk away, we heard a family voice:
'Hi,' it said, 'I'm Andy from Redcar.'
I assumed he'd forgotten me and said: 'Yes we met a couple of days ago - at that rest-stop, remember?'
'Course I remember,' he said, triumph rising in his voice, 'I was being sarcastic you stupid wanker.'

Still stinging from Andy's own brand of sarcasm, we headed back to the hotel where we told the owner who was busily trying to get us to provide employment for all his mates, about the man with the gun. 'Hahah', he said, 'It's nothing.' No, Jane replied, we weren't worried, but it was definitely not nothing. 'No, really' he said, 'It's just fun.' I told him that very few people jogged down the street with home made rifles for kicks, but he persisted and we eventually agreed: gunfights were either nothing or fun. Then he went back to trying to convince us to pay another of his miserable mates to hang around all day saying nothing.

The next day, continuing in our funereal theme, we went to see some burial sites sans (entirely unnecessary) guide. These were actually rather better than the previous day's funeral and we kicked with an impressive cliff face filled with graves and effigies of the dead before heading up to a village with some seriously weird dead stuff. First we saw a coffin suspended from a limestone overhang, then we dragged a local guide away from a minor world cup match to take us round a couple of caves full of bones. Despite our sepulchral surroundings, this man was a cheery chappy and I for one was glad to have him there as we ambled round the kind of place people are never seen again.

Grinning, our man pointed to an impressive rack of skulls - these, he said, were his ancestors - before guiding us to a number of very recent coffins, members of his village who had been buried (with appropriate buffalo bloodletting) in the last month or so. All around us were small offerings of food and bottles of mineral water which rather spoiled the look of the tomb but, hey, you wouldn't want be seen drinking tap water in the afterlife. Then after following our guide through a series of gloomy passages and spooky chambers we were back in the blinding sun of the equatorial day, more or less beneath the hanging coffin. His duties over, our man sprinted back to catch the rest of the game, but not before advising us that, if we fancied it, there was a nearby village where they buried dead babies in trees.