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Indonesian adventure ... rituals and culture in Tanah Toraja.

Tucked away in the mountains on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi is the regency of Tanah Toraja. You might want to include Toraja as a three-day or longer side trip from Bali or Jakarta. Here you can get an anthropologist's glimpse of an ancient culture, fantastic building styles, unusual burial customs, and possibly witness a festive funeral.

Only 80 years ago, the Torajan people were untouched by Western influences. Missionaries quickly modified traditional life. Just 15 years ago, lack of lodging and poor roads still kept all but the most intrepid travelers away.

This year, perhaps 6,000 tourists--most of them Europeans--will visit Sulawesi (formerly celebes). In the capital city of Ujung Pandang, you can arrange of a English-speaking guide to take you from the hot, humid lowlands to Toraja. On the 8-hour car journey, the road twists up past small villages and glistening green Rice paddies to mountains and more pleasant weather.

Rantepao, where you can stay, is the commercial center of Toraja, and a visit to its market is the best introduction to local life (largest markets occur every six days). Merchants sell locally grown chilies, cloves, unroasted coffee beans, fruits, tobacco, and live animals.

Traditional villages, burial sites. You guide can lead you to ancient burial sites in villages scattered in a 12-mile radius of Rantepao. Walking by footpath avoids a spine-jarring ride over rutted roads. You'll see bright red cocoa pods, huge banana flowers, clove trees, and slender cassava plants (the source of tapioca).

In the village of Siguntu, intricate houses (tongkonan) perch on stilts, beautifully carved and painted red, black, white, yellow. The boat-shaped roofs are a 3-foot thickness of bamboo. Rice barns (alang) are miniature replicas of the houses.

At Lemo, 30 stone graves have been chiseled out of a cliff. Wooden effigies depicting the deceased stand in front of most.

You'll also see large and elaborately carved communal coffins. At Londa, boys with gas lantens will guide you to a coffin-filled cave.

The village of Kete Kesu has traditional houses and hanging graves (cliffs holding the coffins have eroded away). Here you can buy wooden crafts carved and painted with traditional designs.

Funerals are social affairs. If you're adventurous, ask your guide to scout out a Funeral. Foreign guests are welcome to attend these affairs; be sure to dress modestly. Wealth in Toraja is expressed in the accumulation of rice, animals (pigs and especially water buffalo), and children; the ultimate expression of status and worth is the ability to stage a big funeral ceremony, which usually lasts three days.

We attended a typical one, wading up muddy paths, past professional mourners and guests bringing gifts (buffalo, pigs, rice, and palm wine) to a village where hundreds of guests sat on mats under houses and on the platforms of rice barns. The buildings were draped in red. Sweets and tea were served.

The second day of the funeral is not for the faint-hearted: animals are slaughtered and prepared for a feast. The third day involves dancing, feasting, and burial.

Trip logistics. Before you leave the U.S., your travel agent can arrange a tour from Ujung Pandang. A four-day outing to Toraja, with guide and driver, costs $500 to $650 for two persons, depending on accommodations. The Indonesian Tourist Promotion Board (3457 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles 90010) has a list of tour operators; many offer trips to Toraja.

In Rantepao, hotel prices range from $8 (room with cold-water bath) to $45. Small restaurants serve regional food (rice or noodle dishes with chicken or beef). More expensive hotels serve Western food. Bottled water, soft drinks, and tea are widely available.

Travelers here must take some medical precautions, including antimalarial drugs. For comfort, wear light cotton clothing.
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Date:May 1, 1985
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