Stiff Neck Tours to Toraja

by Harry Clark - based in Makassar, working around Sulawesi

     Sulawesi has many interesting things to do and see for foreign tourists and there are lots of tour and travel companies ready to arrange everything to make the trip enjoyable, with friendly knowledgeable tour guides for large or small groups. Toraja Land in South Sulawesi is probably the most interesting and unusual destination and even though it is about 7 hours drive on reasonable roads from the airport in Makassar, there are lots of hotels and tourist facilities in there. Tourist numbers have dropped off since the crisis and the various troubles from 1998 to 2003, but recently numbers have picked up again and the local tour guides have been polishing up their performances.

     Toraja’s attractions are the landscape and the unique culture. It is located high up in a remote mountainous area. There are several cave burial sites, very eerie with bones and skulls from ancient and modern times. The burial ceremonies are unique cultural events. For a prominent Torajan it is big event lasting several days, and takes place in a specially constructed temporary village. The ceremonies are part of the living Toraja culture, not specially arranged tourist events. However, Torajan people are friendly and outgoing so tourists are welcome to attend, but must be ready to witness the bloody sacrifice of buffaloes, goats and pigs right there in front of their eyes. The meat is cooked and used to feed the hundreds of mourners attending the ceremony. The traditional Torajan houses are magnificent to see and they seem to fit perfectly into the rugged mountain scenery. While these houses can be seen everywhere, there are certain organized sites which are extremely fine examples and where the road access has been improved for tourist busses. Toraja is also fine walking and trekking country, and local guides are available for long or short treks, staying in small guest houses along the way. Once any sensitive, alert, person has experienced all of the main elements of Toraja – the cave graves, the funeral ceremonies, the unique houses, the stunning landscape, the fresh mountain air, the friendly welcoming people – they usually get a special feeling for Toraja which stays with them after they have left. It is described as an aura of mysterious, haunting beauty with overtones of death and eternity. Anyway, that is the way my tour guide friend Andre always describes it!

     My Indonesian friend was a tour guide at that time, leading groups of foreign tourists to the tourist areas of Tanah Toraja, in South Sulawesi. His job was to explain everything about rural Sulawesi on the road journey up there from Makassar (7 hours), then guide them around Toraja. There, under the piles of old bones in the cave graves, he had to tell them about that haunting land with the stunning scenery and beautiful traditional houses. After a few years, the guides had visited the same places so many times with similar groups of people that they evolved into accomplished actor/actresses, putting on a show for the public, with the same script and scenery varied only by the skill of the actor. My friend Andre became one of the most accomplished actors.

     With so much experience over so many years, he got to understand and appreciate the various national stereotypes and characteristics. He once spilled out all his ideas to me about stereotypical Westerners:

The French always smell strongly of perfume (even the men!). They always complain (about everything), but ……………. they also always love their tour guide intensely, and …………………also, always give a big tip at the end of the trip.
The Germans are always big bodied-people. They seem to circle the small Indonesian guide and overpower them. On arriving at a hotel, they always race off to check their room and the bathroom. They are always looking for German-made goods (cars, phones, generators) and are extremely happy when they find some.
The Spanish always bitch and complain all of the time. They are always talking talking talking babble babble. They love the funeral ceremonies with the blood splattering slaughter of the buffaloes and they applaud BRAVO BRAVO! To stop their jabber jabber complaining, the guides know that the Spanish are always ready for a party.…………….. any time anywhere ……….. and just 1 sppprrrrlllllunnnngggg of a guitar………….. they will forget everything and start dancing and singing.
The Americans are always very inquisitive and expect value for their money. They ask questions endlessly about everything, and talk non-stop until they are satisfied. Then they go to sleep for the rest of the journey from Makassar to Toraja. They insist on value for money and must see everything on the tourist list, especially the funeral ceremonies where the buffalo are slaughtered right there in front of the crowd, sometimes smattering them with blood. However, after getting what they want, the Americans always weep for the slaughtered animals ………. every single one of them!
The Dutch are always so relaxed and cool. They are renowned for being “careful” shoppers and it is common for a whole busload to get down off the bus, swarm around the souvenir stalls, closely checking everything and the prices, calling for their friends to come over and “see this”. Then they all get back on the bus without anybody buying even a single thing. They are proud of this and even have a phrase for it - “Kijken, kijken, niet kopen” - meaning looking but not buying. The guides also call the Dutch tours “banana tours” because the Dutchies may spend a whole day going around the sites nonstop, just grabbing a bunch of bananas to eat along the way, never thinking about the poor Indonesian guide’s stomach. Indonesians MUST eat 3x a day, and MUST eat rice. However, the stamina of other Dutchie groups for endless sightseeing is pretty limited, and before mid-day they want to be back around the hotel pool relaxing and drinking beer.
The Italians are always dressed well and expensively. Even starting early morning, the make-up is complete and the shoes match the sweater. That’s just the men! The men will lightly romance a female guide from morning to night, and similarly the women with a male guide. At any stop, the Italian women will talk quietly together but from their eyes and gestures, it is obvious that they are talking about some man. The tour guides call these tours “dolce vita” tours.
The British are very reserved. The guide can do their very best performance for hour after hour without getting any reaction at all from the tourists. A joke or funny line that would have Americans rolling about in their seats, with tears in their eyes, may just force a gentle, cold “Haw Haw” from the Brits. The guides call these kinds of tours “stiff neck tours” because they are put in the front seat of the car, and have to turn their heads to talk to the passengers in the back, non stop for 7 hours!

(September 2006)

| Back | Home |