The rite stuff
The midnight assault on our hotel compound comes with no warning. Six rangy figures race through the darkness, each hauling a long, tube-like canister across a boggy marsh no more than 50 metres from the hotel garden.
A minute later, an ear-drum-bursting 'KAH-boom' shakes the balcony, rattling the windows and sending me and other hotel guests ducking beneath our sweaty shirt collars. A second then a third blast light up the swampy darkness. We tensely await each 'shell burst'.
Beirut? Baghdad? Bogota? No. These are fireworks - local-style - in Sulawesi, the curiously shaped Indonesian island midway between Borneo and the Spice Islands.
The 'heavy artillery' pieces are the playthings of giggling village teenagers, who call them barattung. They are large sections of hollowed-out giant bamboo into which droplets of petrol are inserted then ignited with a taper. The resulting explosion of fumes sends nothing but a puff of white smoke into the air, but December's inter-neighbourhood barrages ensure restless nights for travellers during the end of the rice-harvest season, when celebrations reach their peak.
While the real-life bomb blasts that have plagued the area, amid sporadic sectarian violence between Muslims and Christians, since 2000 have been anything but a cause for celebration for the tourism industry, provincial administrators are reporting a cautious comeback by foreign tourists to central Sulawesi and hot spots such as the Togian Islands scuba-diving site near Poso.
Tana Toraja, a highland province with a unique heritage, remains a favourite for those brave enough to endure the eight-hour bus trip from the port of Ujung Pandang, in southern Sulawesi. High up in mist-shrouded valleys, the predominantly Christian province appears blissfully cut off from sectarian conflict, while the
rattle and hum of the rapidly modernising Indonesian archipelago seems a world away.
Dutch missionaries made biblical inroads towards the end of 20th century but failed to convert the entire Torajan population. Their doggedness is evident in the decrepit whitewashed churches that perch like watch-towers atop the grassy knolls around the region's hub, Rantepao.
While Christianity permeates many aspects of life, with Sunday churchgoing observed by many of the 350,000 inhabitants, there are a significant number of Torajans who still practise aluk to dolo, or 'ways of the ancestors', and their funeral rituals, which include animal sacrifices, are conducted in accordance with these.
Travel agencies in Rantepao have never been slow to cash in on these events, providing tourists with dates, times, buses, packed lunches and multilingual guides to boot, all at the flash of hard currency.
Today is no exception. Dazed and sleepless from the night-time bombardment, I pay the going price of HK$88 and tag along on a three-person tour to the tiny mountain hamlet of Balusu, where more than 1,000 guests have gathered to send off their deceased head man.
My guide for the event is Marcus Kerbau, a short man with biceps the size of Popeye's and legs like tree trunks. By day, he guides tourists around the Mamasa Valley; by night, he plays electric bass guitar in the local Catholic church band.
Beneath the eves of Balusu's boat-like tongkonan houses, bunches of betel nuts jiggle and photographs of the dead man swing on the morning breezes. Foreign visitors are regularly invited to join relatives for coffee beneath one of these tongkonan. 'It brings prestige to the occasion,' says Kerbau. But bad behaviour and disrespectful dress by some of these tourists have had village heads throughout the valley reconsidering their invitations to the Rantepao tour agencies.
The atmosphere is more festival than funeral as guests mingle and chat among hundreds of 'gift' buffaloes assembled for the ceremony. These offerings, explains one man, are needed to send the deceased to heaven, where the success of his past life will be determined by the number of animals he takes with him.
No tourist is prepared for what happens next. The field transforms into a corral for more than 100 buffaloes and their handlers, mostly elderly farmers who stroke their beasts of burden with loving yet sombre faces. They know that one of them is about to die.
I hear the spine-tingling sizzle of a small knife being sharpened on steel behind me and turn to find a man with sinewy arms honing his kris to a razor-sharp edge. A final puff on his fragrant kretek cigarette and he moves with a purpose through the crowd to where the first of the buffaloes stands, oblivious to its fate. Crouching bodies stand bolt upright and stiffen. Some back off to a safe distance. The man with the knife knows what they are thinking - if the throat is not cleanly cut, the buffalo will panic and rampage through the crowd; two funerals in one day would not look good.
With one hand resting gently on the buffalo's head, the other makes a deft swiping movement so fast that if you were to blink you would miss it, and the huge beast lumbers to the ground.
In keeping with Torajan tradition, no part of the animal is wasted; horns and hide are cleaned and stretched to dry in the sun while the meat and offal are immediately distributed among guests.
Rain begins to fall and hundreds of swiftlets fill the late afternoon sky. Across the valley, a fine white cloud rolls down Mount Tomonga to the river plains, where music and laughter constitute background noise to the rhythmic slash of farmers' krises across rice stems. It's hard to believe there has been a death in paradise today.
Getting there: Cathay Pacific (www.cathaypacific.com) flies to Denpasar (Bali), from where Garuda (www.garuda-indonesia.com) flies to Ujung Pandang, Sulawesi. Long-distance buses run daily from Ujung Pandang to Rantepao. Services with domestic airline Merpati are unreliable and not recommended. Rantepao has a wide range of accommodation.