Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Mamasa To Toraja Part 2: Christian Politics in a Muslim World

Our trekking guide from Mamasa to Tana Toraja was a Mamasan man named Domingus, which he told us is derived from the word Sunday, "Domingo" in Indonesian. The Mamasa region is known for being staunchly Christian, but because Indonesia is a very Muslim country and this is what both Emre and I were used to, we were more drawn to the fact that "Domingus" sounded Latin, not necessarily religious. Our guide however proved to be much more of the latter.

Domingus was as clean cut a guy as you could ever hope to lead you on a trek. He had a big, round, smiling clean-shaven face, perfectly trimmed short hair with a few strands of distinguished grey and he wore brown dress slacks, a long sleeve button shirt and a guide's vest with an official looking emblem on it. Over the next three days he would wear this exact outfit every day and never get so much as a smudge of mud or a wrinkle in it. He never smelled bad or had a hair out of place. Emre and I would come out the Toraja end of the trip covered in stains, feet encrusted with dirt and hair flying in every direction. I have no idea how Domingus stayed so well put together.

On our first night we saw him put up some political posters around the village we were staying in. He explained that he was a major supporter of the Indonesian Christian party and while he was on our trek he was going to spread the word about his favorite candidate to all the small villages who didn't get much news. That emblem on his jacket - ends up it was for his political party, not a guiding organization.

It's interesting to visit Christian areas in Indonesia because the locals immediately assume that white people have the same beliefs as them and therefore, they feel a certain kinship with them. Domingus and all the families we met made this assumption with me. As minorities in their own country (where they often feel discredited and mute) this kinship can be stronger than you might expect. Our group however was a little off kilter because Emre is Turkish and was brought up Muslim. I wasn't brought up anything but because I'm American no one ever bothered to ask me about my spiritual leanings and just assumed I was as Jesus loving as the Mamasans. This suited me fine. Domingus however was immediately a little suspicious of Emre and quietly brought me aside a few times to ask me about how strong a believer she was and if this was going to cause us any problems. Everything ended up happy and peaceful but it was interesting to feel what in Indonesia would be considered a sort of reverse racism. Here I was sticking up for my "Muslim" (Emre is slightly more Muslim than I would call myself Christian) friend in a country where most women wear veils. Emre later confided in me that as a Muslim she often gets preferential treatment in Muslim countries, even getting offered special discounts etc. This was the first time it ever really hit me how different we all get treated in foreign countries because of our perceived religion.

It soon became clear that even though Domingus was a perfectly good guide and knew the area well, his main goal was to spread the word about politics. Luckily, the Mamasans seemed happy to get any news or visitors at all and welcomed the news by promptly posting Domingus's posters all over the place. In fact, they seemed to genuinely respect our guide for bringing them this information. There were a few earnest conversations about the exceptional nature of the Christian candidate but for the most part the villagers were more interested in hosting two exotic white people in their homes than talking politics.

The children had no interest in politics and followed us everywhere. From our first homestay two kids followed us a good half our before the returned home. At the second homestay kids came from all around and hung around trying to keep our full attention from the time we arrived (about 5pm) to nightfall. It was pretty exhausting trying to entertain all those kids after trekking all day uphill through a jungle but they were so sweet and had such good senses of humor that it was well-worth it. Plus we got some great photos and this video:

That night we stayed up till the un-Godly hour of about 10pm in our one room shack drinking sour-sweet palm wine with Domingus, the owner of the house and our horseman (who is worthy of a whole other blog post I'll probably never write). Then to bed on our thick quilts that were supposed to be mattresses but fortunately some warmer blankets this night. We slept well.

Then the next morning it was off again but this time downhill through rice fields, tiny one-room churches on ridges and villages of small wooden shacks on stilts.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Mamasa to Tana Toraja Part 1: The Long and Winding Road

I move around fast when I'm researching for Lonely Planet but every now and then there's something I want to do so badly, I'll slow down and make time for it. The trek between Mamasa and Tana Toraja on the culturally-overloaded island of Sulawesi in Indonesia, was one of those things. There are two ways to get to Tana Toraja from Mamasa: a 13-hour barf-inducing bus ride over pot-holed mountain roads, or a three-day hike through a region of boat-shaped roofs, terraced rice fields, isolated villages and jungle mountains. Walking it seemed like the obvious choice.

Traditional Mamasa houses

Unfortunately for my travel buddy Emre, the long, long trip began straight from the airport. Her flight from Turkey arrived in Makassar, Sulawesi's capital, in the early morning and I hadn't been able to reach her via email to tell her the plan, so at 5am I met her at the gate, explained what we were doing (in hopes she was OK with this which fortunately she was) and took her directly to a bus station. The minibus from Makassar to Mamasa was a rickety, non-air-con tin can of a rumbler that was soon jammed packed with clove cigarette smoking locals, big boxes stuffed with food supplies and two giant television sets. It took over 14 hours to get to Mamasa, and half that time was spent bumping over the last 60km on a rutted dirt road that wound like a coil up into the mountains.

It was dark when we arrived so it wasn't until morning that we awoke to the green-hills and cool temperatures of Mamasa Village where we had a day to explore by motorbike. The traditional roofed houses here are similar to the famous, dramatically arched ones of Tana Toraja but are less curved and shorter so they don't pack such a punch. The biggest difference however between these oft-compared regions is that Mamasa has hardly any tourists. So while popular Torajan villages are swarming with photo-snapping visitors and insistent hawkers, in Mamasa families invite you in for tea and everyone wants to chat. We saw no other foreigners and were welcomed everywhere like royalty. It was magic.

The lunch crew - near Mamasa Village

We spent the night before our trek began in a traditional house where we soon discovered the reality of what we were in for. There are no mattresses in Mamasa, just thick quilts on the floor and a synthetic blanket to cover you. It was so freezing that first night that Emre and I ended up under the "mattress" to keep warm. The floor with or without this light padding felt equally hard. Dinner had been noodle soup with hunks of home-butchered, gamey-tasting pork floating in it, that tasted as if it had been sitting in storage (no refrigeration) a bit too long. Emre puked hers up in the middle of the night. Dogs howled and a mosquito kept buzzing in my ear even though it felt far too cold for them to survive here. Neither Emre or I got more than a few hours of sleep.

Our house the first night

But rest or no rest, we were up by six, breakfasted on sugary tea and omelets, said good bye to our smiling hosts promising we had slept marvelously, and were off to theoretically walk up hill until the end of the day. We had no idea what we were going to encounter and that was just fine.


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