Mike's photo adventure weblog

Mike's photo adventure weblog

Monday, October 27, 2014

Blood and Bone (Indonesia #4)

Dear reader,

My few days in Tana Toraja really embodied the Indonesian flag: Red and white — which to some, symbolise dara and tulang.

Blood and bone. 

It was a fascinating cultural and emotional experience. So this photographic adventure is devoted solely to those few days around Tana Toraja — "The Land of the Heavenly Kings".

Note these stories are not intended to embellish or sensationalise the Torajan traditions. They showed respect to us foreigners, as we did for them: following their custom by bringing gifts to the villages we visited. I also spent much time interacting with people as fellow human beings, not just taking photos (which have all been taken with permission, and often encouragement, from those portrayed or their families).  

Oh and one more thing. If you don't like the sight of blood... be grateful you weren't born a Torajan! And during the latter half of this article, just pretend you are someone who doesn't mind blood

Torajan traditional 'tongkonan' houses, always facing north, display evidence of many past buffalo sacrifices

Day One

The angry water-buffalo signalled defeat against the other bull, by turning tail and bolting across the dry rice paddy that was their battleground. Standing a very safe 50m away, we watched the pair of charging bulls change course. Straight towards us. I had always considered those who participate in the famous 'running of the bulls' to be a very special kind of idiot. Now I found myself in the path of a 500kg bull. I felt pretty 'special' indeed.

The women and children around me began a fear-induced crescendo of alarm, and I realised that that our elevated terrace might not be such a deterrent for the bull, as it grew before us, seconds away. We all shuffled to one side -- then ran, shoved, dived. A child stepped knee-deep in the gloopy rice paddy —  as the bull leapt onto the lower terrace beside us, and disappeared into the next rice field.

As happy as a buffalo in a rice paddy 

It was Day One of the funeral ceremony in this Toraja village: The day the bulls, slated for sacrifice, are pitted against each other. Hundreds of villagers  come to watch (and definitely do not stand 50m away); gamble sometimes hundreds of dollars on the outcome (most fights ended immediately, with one bull just running away); and try to avoid getting hurt (it's a bad omen for the ceremony). In the two hours we spent in that village, we only watched a few bull fights, but had to flee from half a dozen runaway bulls. Giant buffalo would suddenly materialise, like hoofed, furry ninjas, and sprint through the village; down our walking path; or into our rice paddy. They seemed to have a compass for us, the only three foreigners in the village.

I suppose it's fair enough the bulls were trying to inflict maximum damage while they still had the chance. Perhaps they knew what was planned for them on day three?

Just kidding —- they were clueless 

Day Two

We arrived in the village early. Four men were dismantling a buffalo, peeling it's skin like an orange, then hacking off its hooves for the children to play with (before taking them to home for soup). The men carved out massive meat slabs, and heaved them onto the makeshift butcher shop: Layers of banana leaves placed on the ground, eight men sitting around them in a circle, slicing flesh into reasonable serving sizes on wooden boards with rusty knives.

Their proficiency was commendable.                                                    I felt fine until the end, when the intestines spilled open.

The sacrifice hadn't begun yet; that's day three. They just needed something to feed the hundreds of guests who were attending this funeral, and what better snack for a buffalo slaughter than.... barbecued buffalo. Our guide sat us down beside the MC on one of the many low bamboo seating platforms. The entire array of platforms and ceremonial tongkonan was temporary, built over a month with the help of many hands in the community. Just for this funeral. He pointed to the platform directly over our head. "The coffin," he whispered. She had died two months ago, preserved with formaldehyde while the arrangements were made< for the funeral.  

After a few hours, it was clear the rest of the day would be occupied by the formalities of introducing every family in attendance, deliberating about fair allocation of gifts, speaking on the deceased, and partying. We left to see the great variety of places where Torajan put their dead, including the old caves ("when our ancestors got annoyed with bodies getting eaten by animals, they started hanging the coffins instead, from the cave ceilings"); tombs hand carved into solid cliff faces (I climbed 10m up a ladder made from a single shoot of bamboo to speak to one of the grave diggers in action: He told me it takes over 6 weeks of hammering and chiseling to make one grave); and even the 'dead baby tree' where the richest Toraja would, decades ago, carve open a hole in the trunk and place inside their dead infants ("because they're too small to reach heaven on their own, so the milky sap of this tree will feed the baby while it slowly grows its spirit towards heaven"). 

The day someone gets a jackleg drill, there'll be a lot of unemployed grave diggers

One tradition I missed that takes place each August was the Ma'Nene ritual. Families exhume their mummified relatives to be washed, re-dressed in new clothes, and posed for photos with family members.  That would certainly make for an interesting 'selfie'.

Even dead Indonesians love cigarettes

Day Three 

Our guide explained the origins of the animal sacrifice at Torajan funeral ceremonies (always pigs and buffalos; never chickens or other 'symbols of life'). The ancient Toraja could communicate with their many gods directly, via a stairway to heaven. But there was—you guessed it—a fall from grace: The 'upper world' (heaven) and 'world of man' (earth) became divorced. Ever since, people could only communicate to heaven via either life rituals (banned by the Dutch a century ago, and no longer practised), or death rituals. ("So, animal sacrifices are like an SMS to heaven?" I observed, to nobody's amusement).

My interpretation is that Torajans believe the spirit of the deceased is conveyed directly to heaven on the wave of gratitude all the animal sacrifices create. It was also a method of carrying one's wealth into the afterlife: Before 1909, the wealthiest people would have their slaves sacrificed along with the buffalo (to continue serving them). Nowadays, people are just buried with their mobile phones.

I try to avoid casting western-biased judgements upon traditional beliefs and practises, unless they're inflicting serious suffering on the earth or other living creatures.  In this Toraja tradition, no parts of any of the animals are wasted -- the meat is given to friends, relatives, attending families, local churches, and preserved to be eaten the rest of the year. The butchers are trained professionals (though one cowboy killer tried to hold the buffalo by its nose instead of tying it up before slitting its throat; the beast nearly bowled over ten of us in the ensuing chaos). Only two of the twenty slaughtered buffalo I witnessed (and dodged) at the funeral took more than two minutes to die; and all of them lived extremely well in the years prior, compared to how we treat our livestock.  The Torajans are both more connected to, and (likely as a result) less wasteful with, the animals they kill.

Ensuing chaos

Ours was a modest ceremony: only 24 buffalo sacrificed. Black buffalo are standard funeral currency, and apparently worth about $3,500. White, albino, and mixed black/white buffalo are all worth more — up to and sometimes beyond the staggering sum of $50,000. Each. 

I couldn't get my head completely around buffalo economics — for instance, if all Torajans gave up the buffalo sacrificing and sold them elsewhere, could they actually realise these super-profits? It's more likely that these 'dollar values' are rarely realised (except when sold to wealthy families for elaborate ceremonies, like the one my friend Liz attended where they sacrificed 100 buffalo) as most buffalo are raised in people's own villages, and gifted to others' funerals as repayment for previous bovine gifts. This view is supported by the fact that funerals have meticulous record-keeping and elaborate announcements regarding which families attended the funeral; what and how many animals they gifted; and which animals were re-gifted by the deceased's family to others in the community, either as meat or alive. I'm sure there's an Economics PhD just waiting to be written here. 

The Torajan people welcome visitors to their funerals, and encourage photos, because it all adds prestige by enhancing memories of the life and death of the deceased. By reading this, you too are honouring the spirit of the deceased woman of Tallunglipu. Along with the other photographers there, I reckon she's been bestowed at least 300 megapixels. I wonder how many buffalo that's worth.

Buffalo contain a lot of blood


The perspectives through which traditional cultures see the world around them absolutely fascinate me. Most likely because we live in an age defined by rapidly increasing ubiquity and mono-culture. What do I mean by this?

For simplicity sake, an example of the ubiquity: Available in the tiniest villages are sugar-laden processed foods, which unfortunately our own biology compels us to desire. Even in western countries, with some (albeit flawed) nutritional education, we have a diet-induced health epidemic. But many people in the world don't even have the nutritional education which we are so privileged to ignore. They're on a sweet, sugary slope to diabetes. And all this isn't to say the Torajan don't eat candy too — but they also eat barbecue bamboo buffalo. And that's not ubiquitous.

As for mono-culture, I mean the treadmill of mindless materialism for which many in the west flog themselves, in this age of unimaginable wealth, comfort, and technological wizardry. The secular society our ancestors fought so hard for has eroded into a cult of consumption. And now, we are steamrolling it over the rest of the world, with television, advertising, and foreign policy.  But before anyone suspects me of celebrating the 'noble savage', or romanticising poverty, I'll quote an inspiring spokesperson for all cultures, the ethnographer Wade Davis.  

"I’m not suggesting that anybody try to go back to a pre-industrial past any more than I’m suggesting that indigenous people be somehow kept from the benefits of modernity and science. It’s not about the traditional versus the modern so much as asking “What kind of world do we want to live in?” Do we want to have just one way of looking at the world? Those voices are there to remind us that there are other options... "
"....when you consider that our species descended from our progenitor 250,000 years ago and that the Neolithic revolution occurred 12,000 years ago, and that our industrial society is scarcely 300 years old – you start to see that the well of history our "modern" culture draws from is very shallow. It suggests that maybe we don’t have all the answers to the challenges facing us in the new millennia."

Modernity does not require mono-culture.  Some people may look forward to a future where we all speak English, browse Facebook from smart-phones in the wildest jungles and remotest mountains, get McDonald's in every town. Well, I'm not lovin' it — nothing scares me more. 

While in the remote Togean Islands, two days journey from the nearest airport, we kayaked to a Bajau community. These 'sea gypsies', spend their entire lives either in, on, or slightly above the ocean. The village was little more than a few dozen stilt-houses built over the shallow sea. I jokingly asked three teenagers, "Where's the McDonald's?" 

They stared blankly at me. They glanced at each other. "What's McDonald's?"

I am accustomed to people not laughing at my jokes. But this was the first time I was delighted by it.

Sampai jumpa,

I could totally eat a McBuffalo burger right now 

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Beach breaks and Bogeymen (Indonesia #3)


Wayan, Made, Nyoman, Ketut (banyak!)

Ask someone what the word 'Kuta' conjures and you're more likely to hear cringe-worthy stories of sleeve-tattooed bogans (Aussie rednecks) abusing the local Balinese, than you are to hear about the surf breaks, world famous since the late 1960s. I actually lost interest in visiting Kuta after hearing about a friend at the beach swimming face-first into a soiled diaper. So I was imagining the beach to be like recent photos from Java of pro surfers in magnificent barreling waves laden with trash (to raise awareness about the waste management epidemic in Indonesia*). Never say never: My adventures further afield in Sulawesi required a day layover in Bali, and I have an academic fascination with famously awful places (like Vang Vieng), so I decided to see how bad a combo of bogans, Bintang, and beaches could be.
As usual, I chatted with my taxi man. His name was Wayan, a very common name around these parts, because depending on religion/caste, Balinese people are named accordingly to their birth order. So I knowingly said, "Ah, you're the oldest boy?"  pretty sure that I had the facts straight. "No", he said.  I wondered if I mixed up the naming sequence. "I'm the 9th boy." 

He noticed my furrowed brow. 

"My brothers are Wayan, Made, Nyoman, Ketut,
Wayan, Made, Nyoman, Ketut, 
and then there's me, Wayan." 

I'd always assumed that parents with four boys got free reign for naming the rest. How wrong I was. Wayan#3 wove us through the narrow streets of Kuta, threading laneways so narrow even motorbikes couldn't fit past us. I was glad he knew our way, because in Kuta it's not easy navigating the dizzying tangle of lanes; or the repeating businesses: Touristy shop, hotel, tattoo parlour, touristy shop, restaurant, sports bar (now showing: Aussie rules football!), touristy shop, massage parlour. Ad infinitum/nauseum. 

Exceptionally common death-defying sight

Having a grandfatherly appetite for partying, I got up early to catch some waves before check-out. I headed north of Kuta to avoid the largest crowds (and errant diapers). Despite the reputation for crowded waves in Bali, I had to give up only one -- to the lifeguard of all people, surfing on his rescue board. I thought that people who consider Bali crowded mustn't have been to Perth, where two-dozen people fight for barely-surfable waves. But it was still early, and after 11:00am, the hung-over partiers and surf school students crowded the now wind-wrecked waves. I happily handed them over. 

Drying off, I met an 8-year old girl with an enviable life: In her perfect english -- which she learned at an international school in Japan, her mother's homeland -- she explained that she now lives in Bali -- her father's homeland -- and she surfs every day. She also takes care of her two adorable dogs, both named Stella ("because it's a good name!").

Curiously terrified 

Though I only spent 24 hours in Kuta, I declare that it's not completely awful.  Even though I've never felt so out of place -- I don't have any large, colourful tattoos -- the lovely Balinese treat everyone well (my amazing hotel staff knew every single guests' name). And I was able to sleep well, despite the distant thumping music, and much louder ubiquitous flock of squawking chickens and raucaus roosters. Thank gods (there are plenty here to choose from) for earplugs.

All that being said, the point of my trip was not to review a tourist trap in Bali. 

* The rubbish issue is inescapable in Indonesia: like many travellers here, I witness it chucked on the street or into the sea on a daily basis; and each time it breaks my heart a little more. Last week while crossing a bridge over a river, traffic was partially blocked while three garbage trucks stopped, then slowly reversed towards the railing. In what seemed like slow motion, they lifted their trays, and dumped the load of rubbish into the river's already expanding plume. 
But there are shoots of hope, one of which is my friends' NGO, Bottle for Botol. She's already having wins across Indonesia, getting plastics out of schools, and environmental education in. If this is something you care about, check them out, and make a donation.

Can't you feel the tension? (and notice the lensing effect in the shadow)

Of bogeymen and transgender sailing priests

As our domestic flight pushed back from the gate to depart Bali, the PA clicked on. "Attention passengers, " the woman began, in that melodic, syrupy tone, "We'd like to remind you that the possession or trafficking of drugs is a serious crime. It carries the maximum penalty--" 
she even paused an instant -- 

"... of death. Thank you."  The mic clicked off. Thanks, I thought, but isn't it a tad late now to bail on my drug run?

The point of my trip was not (this time) to run drugs. It was to explore Sulawesi -- that bizarrely shaped island consisting almost entirely of peninsulae -- which few people have heard of. Despite it being the world's 11th largest island (one place above NZ's South Island) and having a population nearing Australia's.  

But most people have heard of the bogeyman. 

Though contested, the origin may be the Bugis people, the seafaring culture of South Sulawesi. Bugis are famous for the magnificent schooners they have built for centuries; sailing those ships to trade (mostly sea cucumbers) across thousands of kilometres -- the Makassan kingdom even extended to Australia's Northern Territory, and is still evidenced in the Yolngu language; and for their swashbuckling piracy. Yarr. Those Bugis attacks on Dutch and English trading ships could have given our ancestors the 'Bugi men' stories we've told children for many generations. Shiver me timbers, indeed.

Another random factoid about the Bugis is the inadvertent impact their traditions had on modern Indonesia culture. The Bugis define not two genders, but five: male, female, and three different 'transgenders', one of them called bissu. Each Bugis schooner always had on board a bissu priest, who was said to be able to channel the gods when in a trance; perhaps because god is also neither male nor female. The status of those priests has contributed to the acceptance of transgendered people (known as 'waria', a mashup of the words for woman 'wanita' and man 'pria') in today's Indonesian culture.

But the point of my trip was not to conquer the bogeyman (if only!). My fascination with Sulawesi began when I learned of the Toraja people's unique cultural relationship with death, but you'll hear all about them in Indonesia #4. My drug-running airplane landed in Makassar, a port city rich with history. Here, for nearly two centuries, the Dutch colonial spice-junkies had a major port for their Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (a.k.a. the Dutch East India Company, or VOC). This is a company whose powers eclipsed most nations', and would raise eyebrows even amongst today's exceedingly powerful corporations: The VOC could establish colonies; negotiate treaties; execute convicts, even wage wars. Typically a quarter of their ships were warships; a sixth of their employees soldiers. Their regional base for these 'trade activities' was Fort Rotterdam in Makassar, named in honour of the Netherlands' major port city (and today, Europe's largest port). Though this fort is more colloquially referred to as "Turtle Fort" due to its uncannily amphibious shape.

The guidebook warned about the density of students invading the fort every Sunday, but I thought my seasoned defences should hold. The next few hours, however, were quite the battle: I was barraged with photos requests, posing for over a hundred photos (not an exaggeration) and receiving dozens of giggly-shy greetings from swooning teenage girls (a slight exaggeration). I even got cornered by one student for a 5-minute english interview: As we began I looked up and -- surprise! -- I was being filmed. My favourite request for a photo, though, came from a girl in a competition with her friends. ("selfies with strangers")

I've never denied photo requests before, but if I hadn't drawn the line, I'd still be there now. Defeat never hurt my smiling-muscles so much. This experience makes me wonder: If the Dutch invaders had been confronted by armies of teenagers asking them to practise their Dutch and pose for selfies, how differently could history have turned out?

Nobody had ever before seen buffalo fighting in a rice-paddy dam. My money was on green-ring

Family Karaoke

In any sizable capital city like Makassar (population 2 million) you're bound to find some hidden gems; things that aren't found in the Lonely Planet. There was, for example, a silly trend of hotel name one-up-manship: I walked past "The Fave Hotel"; "The Legend" hotel; the "Numero Uno Hotel"; and the "Grand Popular Hotel". (these quirky trends are reminiscent of Perth's punnily-named optometrists). I also stumbled across a carnival, quite clearly, and abundantly, sponsored by a major bank. Perhaps I arrived too early, because the attendees were mostly either in booths advertising banking services, or security guards (dressed like soldiers) melting around under fan-cooled tents in the humid midday heat. Ironically the most entertainment came not the band, wailing out incredible covers of 90s pop music, but -- at least for the kids in the play area-- from the filthy hobo clothed in just a single rag, rifling through the trash bins for food. He noticed the kids watching, and began clowning around, pretending to eat cardboard, making trash into hats, clothing, and even a dance partner. The kids loved it. I felt a strange mix of joy and sorrow. 

Like most crossroads, however, Makassar also had a seedy underbelly. Another legacy of sailing is, of course, sailors, and specifically what their preferred activities while in port. My hotel was in the 'lively' part of Makassar, and during my street wanderings I noticed a peculiarly high density of karaoke bars: Perhaps Makassarans really love karaoke? But even on a Saturday night, none of them looked very busy. What was going on? Turns out they're almost exclusively brothels. (Though I really hope some of them weren't, especially the brightly lit "Family Karaoke").  This street is aptly referred to by locals as "Vagina Street".  

But the point of my trip was not karaoke -- actual, or euphemised. So the next day, I sped northward on a comically decadent coach-bus, towards the Tana Toraja ('Land of the Heavenly Kings'), and Indonesia update #4.  

A warning: the next update is going to be deadly.

There will definitely be blood


I've been learning heaps of Indonesian over here, and a few really great phrases that most foreigners never learn. For instance, whenever people on the street ask you what you're doing, or where you're going (which happens all the time), you can reply "makan angin", which literally means "eating the breeze". It's guaranteed to get a smile.

As usual, plenty more photos and mini-stories are in need of attention at www.michaelfuller.ca.

Selamat jalan,
-Mike (pronounced 'mee-kay')

Thursday, August 14, 2014

One well-adventured pair of pants

This is a letter I recently sent to prAna clothing company:

Dear prAna,

There's no use in starting out softly: I'm going to be bold. I believe I have the single longest-lived and hardest-travelled pair of pants you've ever sold. And as a result, you've created a lifelong supporter and single-man-marketing-campaign for your brand. Let me tell you a short story:

On my first proper hike in the BC mountains, I trudged 12 hours through rain,  slush and snow wearing running shoes and jeans. The agony of swollen feet and soggy underwear convinced me: It was time to get serious about my gear. 

I had just moved to Vancouver, opening limitless outdoor adventure possibilities with many likeminded new friends. For Christmas 2005 I received a pair of prAna pants — the closest current model being the Stretch Zion. The appeal of the button-up legs, ventilation, and a security-pocket was enough to be excited about; if only I knew all the future adventures I'd share with these pants. 

From Amritsar and Akureyri, to Urumqi and Zanzibar; I have travelled hard through all six continents, often for months at a time, with these as my only pair of pants. They've endured climbing the sea-cliffs of Western Australia, backcountry skiing in BC, mountain biking in Nepal, sea kayaking in Haida Gwaii, epic train rides through India and China, and hiking in New Zealand. (please see the photos attached below, for some photographic evidence)

These pants are now in their 10th year, and I estimate I have worn them for over 400 days. They've witnessed, and lasted through, more outdoor adventure experiences than most people have in their lifetimes. Alas, despite all my efforts at mending small holes, the fabric is paper-thin and these pants are now turning into dust. It is the end of an era.

Yours in awe and gratitude,


p.s. If you'd like, I can send you these pants for your prAna museum, if you have such a thing (you should!) 

<><><><><><><><><><><><><> the evidence <><><><><><><><><><><><><><><><>

La Paz, 2006. The first international test of these pants: They were a mere 6 months old. Ah, to be young again.

The brownish colour was handy at times like this 

Even the locals in Machu Picchu loved my pants

Keeping me dry during the coldest, wettest summer trip of my life: sea-kayaking in Haida Gwaii

Through all the extremes: I even tested these pants near the Arctic Circle

Well prepared atop Wedge Mountain, BC

Conquering the Old Man Pillar in Western Australia

Glad to have quick-dry pants when my mother and I were soaked by the blow-holes in Tasmania

Examining ancient Inca bouldering routes in Cusco, Peru

Beneath all that climbing gear, the same Prana pants, still going strong after 7 years

Still looking good in their 9th year. Haida Gwaii, 2013

The pants today, turning to dust in their 10th year. RIP.

(For more evidence visit www.michaelfuller.ca )