A Familiar Surprise: Sumba

I had first heard of Sumba when I was reading Indonesia, Etc.—one of those books passed around by over-excited ETAs (English Teaching Assistants)—as Elizabeth Pisani opens her tale of solo travel around much of Indonesia with a scene in a village on the island, with a little boy inviting her to meet his grandmother, who, it turns out, has passed away and it awaiting burial in his family’s home.  Her focus on this brief description of Sumba was on the traditional culture that still very much prevails on the island, a way to entice her readers into her exploration of a country that was so different from the Western world.

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Just one example of the beautiful fabrics to be found in Sumba.

Later, when I was living in Indonesia and friends caught on to my interest in Indonesian fabrics, Sumba was again talked about almost incessantly.  It is well known amongst Indonesians that the most beautiful ikat (a type of woven fabric) is found on Sumba and as I eagerly added to my ever-growing fabric collection, friends encouraged me to go there, to truly make my collection complete.

Whether I was coming across descriptions in books or blogs, or hearing about the island from friends who had visited or lived there, Sumba was always painted as somewhere different.    “It’s so dry, and arid… more like Australia than any other place in Indonesia,” a friend who visited said.  “The culture is very different from other parts of Indonesia,” my friend whose family was from Sumba told me.  Sumba was indescribable, undefinable: no one could quite pin it down for me.  It was just… different.

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Different, check.  Beautiful, also check.

So of course, I had to see it.

Sumba is not an easy place to get to, so it wasn’t a trip that I was able to manage during my two years as an ETA.  But after I extended my stay in Indonesia past the end of my third grant (this time as the ETA Researcher/Coordinator), I made sure to schedule time for Sumba into my travels.  A friend from the office suggested I stay with her family while I was there, and I happily took her up on the offer.  My trip to Sumba was actually the last bit of travel I did while in Southeast Asia, and I could not have picked a better place to visit.

Sumba was absolutely gorgeous, and it is true that it’s terrain was quite different from anything I had seen yet in Indonesia (this was also my first time traveling so far Southeast in the country, so, to be fair, it made sense that the landscape was not the same from the northern and western parts I was more accustomed to traveling in).  Beautiful white sand beaches stretched along the shore, and rolling hills with dry grasses, a burnt brown under the fierce sun, stretched on, seemingly forever.  I never got enough of staring out the window when I found myself in a car: Sumba is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.

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Just a few of Sumba’s beautiful landscapes.

As dry as the hills were (it was the dry season when I visited), there were still streaks of vivid green wherever there were rivers, and I spent a lot of time around the waterfalls and swimming holes the area offered.  As a Central New York farm girl, I have always enjoyed rivers and lakes more so than the ocean, and while I have come to appreciate the distinct freshness of a salty breeze and the plethora of wildlife in coral reefs, I still feel most at home in the clear, cool waters that meander through a forest—be that forest tropical or deciduous.

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Just a few of the rivers and swimming holes we swan in.  I may or may not have also jumped off of some of those rocks.  (Don’t worry, I clearly lived to tell the tale.)

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A few of the horses and riders waiting for Jokowi.

I was very lucky in the timing of my trip to Sumba, as I was able to see some rather decorated kuda (horses), while I was there.  In addition to having a unique landscape and beautiful fabrics, Sumba is also known for the horse races that occur a few times each year.  The race season does not start until August, so I thought I would have to miss much of the kuda part of the culture.  However, President Jokowi (Joko Widodo, if you are looking for his long name, the president of Indonesia), happened to be visiting Sumba during my trip to the island, and the bupati (regent) of the area greeted Jokowi with an entourage of one hundred kuda.  We already had plans for the day, and no one seemed interested in changing them to watch the parade through the city, but I was able to visit where the horses were gathering that morning, preparing to greet the president.  The riders all wore pieces of ikat, and the freshly-washed kuda gleamed in the sunlight.  I was so glad I was blessed enough to be there.

I also made sure I did not miss out on the beautiful Sumba fabrics I had heard so much about.  I had thought that I would mostly be exploring ikat, the kain Sumba (fabric from Sumba) I was most used to seeing at fabric festivals in Jakarta, and which I had previously seen made in Toraja, in Southern Sulawesi.  But when I arrived in Sumba I learned that ikat is only made my those who live in the inland portion of the island.  The Sawu people, who live along the eastern coast of the island, near where I was staying, use a different process to make tenun Sawu (sawu weaving).  Ikat means “to bind” or “to bundle,” in Indonesian, and the name is given to several fabrics across the archipelago that are made using the ikat process, in which the threads are tied (or “bundled) before dying, in order to create the pattern.  Because the threads are dyed before they are put on the loom, a sort of jagged pattern results.  The Sawu people instead use reeds to hold threads in place before weaving the motifs directly into the fabric, creating a much neater pattern.  Both fabrics are full of earthen colors and detailed motifs, and it was difficult for me to resist buying every piece I came across (not that I could have afforded this even if I didn’t have better self-control: larger ikat and tenun Sawu pieces can cost hundreds of dollars, depending on the pattern).  I visited several kampung tenun (weaving villages) while in Sumba, and was able to learn so much about the processes involved in making ikat and tenun Sawu from the women there, who patiently answered all of my questions.

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A few women waving different fabrics.  The first women is weaving ikat, the second woman is weaving tenun Sawu, and the third woman is creating a pattern for a tenun Sawu piece.

Sumba’s landscapes and fabrics were beautiful, but the most memorable part of the trip, for me, was the people I met.  My friend’s family was absolutely lovely: they took me to all the best places to eat, and the children were the best companions for playing in gorges or running along the beach.  In this way, Sumba was no different than any other place I have been in Indonesia: the hospitality and openness I received in Sumba was no different than that I have been so fortunate to experience throughout the archipelago.

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Just a few of the wonderful people I met during my trip to Sumba.  Thank you so much to all of them for giving me such an amazing experience. 

Sometimes Indonesia surprises me because of how different it can be from place to place, and sometimes it surprises me because, no matter where I seem to go, there is something somehow the same, an intangible undercurrent that is the essence of the nation.  Sumba illustrated this perhaps better than any place I have yet had the chance to visit, and so it seemed appropriate that this was my last trip in the country: leaving me astonished once again, reminding me that I still do not know everything about this amazing country, and making me feel so comfortable, as though I had somehow found a way to feel at home almost anywhere in this vast archipelago.

Tumbilotohe: Nights without Darkness

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The lapangan (field) in my old neighborhood.

When I was a first-year Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA), one of the speeches at the WORDS Competition (a speech and talent competition planned and executed by ETAs every year) from one of the students from Gorontalo centered around the tradition of Tumbilotohe, a festival of lights that is khusus Gorontalo (special or unique to Gorontalo).  Listening to her describe streets lined with oil lamps and fairy lights, it was clear to me that Tumbilotohe was a very special occasion for those from Gorontalo.

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Playing with a sparkler.

As a second-year ETA, I found myself placed in Gorontalo, and all year students, teachers, and friends from my community would tell me about Tumbilotohe, and insist that, if I could, I should stay past the end of my grant, so that I might experience it for myself.  Unfortunately, because as the new ETA Coordinator I needed to attend the Pre Departure Orientation in D.C. around that same time, I was not able to do so.

They say that the third time is a charm, and the old adage rang true for Tumbliotohe.  I extended my stay in Indonesia this year past the end date of my Coordinator responsibilities, and thus would remain in Southeast Asia for the entire month of Ramadan, and would be able to plan a trip to Gorontalo for Tumbilotohe.

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Some of the traditional lights set out on a wall.

Tumbilotohe, in Bahasa Gorotnalo (the language of Gorontalo), literally means something along the lines of “The Placing of Lights,” but as this does not really capture the essence of the festival, is often translated in English to “Nights without Darkness.”  It takes place during the final three nights of Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month, throughout the province of Gorontalo, in northern Sulawesi.  Traditionally, throughout Tumbilotohe Muslims, and sometimes even non-Muslims, line the streets outside their houses with oil lamps, sometimes placing them on the ground or on the fences around their houses, and sometimes tying them to bamboo archways.  The belief is that these lights will attract the attention of angels to Gorontalo, and the timing of this festival is due to the larger Muslim belief that acts of ibadah (acts of devotion) have more value during the last days of Ramadan.

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One of the streets closed to traffic so that pedestrians can walk.

In more recent years, the traditional lamps have given way to strings of fairy lights in every color of the rainbow, arching over the streets of Gorontalo.  The colors and designs are chosen by committees in each neighborhood, so no street is quite the same.  In some places, the streets are closed to vehicles during a few hours each night, so that people can walk under the lights and take it all in at a much slower pace.  Teenagers jovially compete to take the best selfie, and children dash through the crowds, waving sparklers as they go.  It truly does feel like a festival, and I found myself quickly swept up in the joy of the evenings.

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One of the lapangan in my co-teacher’s home village.

I missed the first day of Tumbilotohe because I was still visiting friends in Manado, but I arrived in time for the second night, which my friends assured me is always the peak night of the festival.  One of my co-teachers and I went by bentor (becak motor, or a rickshaw operated by motorbike), and explored the displays near the neighborhood where I lived when I was an ETA in Gorontalo.  Because I lived on the edge of the city, just a short ride from some of the closer villages, these displays were generally more traditional, and even if they were mostly composed of fairy lights, they did include the oil lamps in some way.  My favorite displays were in the lapangan (fields), usually used by local teenage boys to play sepak bolah (football/soccer) in the evenings: hundreds of oil lamps were tied to stakes and organized throughout the lapangan, truly giving meaning to the English translation of the festival, “Nights without Darkness.”

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The little girls who followed me around during my second night of Tumbilotohe.

The second night some of my previous students picked me up in a car and took me to some of the farther, more modern displays.  While I must admit that I have a preference for the more traditional lights, the tunnels of twinkling lights captured my imagination, and getting to experience that with some of the students I know and love so well was an absolute joy.  The highlight of the night was befriending a group of young girls, who insisted I take some of their sparklers; I taught them how to paint with light, and they were enthralled with the concept, and even as I was leaving they were teaching some of their friends this new magic trick they had learned.

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A very modern edition to Tumbilotohe.

The tradition of Tumbilotohe has been in existence for as long as anyone I know can remember, and is looked forward to with great anticipation each year.  As one of my friends from Gorontalo, who has since moved to Jakarta and who unfortunately could not mudik (go home for Idul Fitri) this year, said to me, “It just doesn’t feel like Ramadan without Tumbilotohe.”  After having had the privilege to experience Tumbilotohe myself, I can see why she feels that way, and I am certain that no Ramadan I celebrate will ever quite be the same.


It was really difficult to capture Tumbilotohe on camera, so I also took several videos, which I compiled into a larger clip which can be viewed here.  The song I chose for the background is a song in Bahasa Gorontalo, celebrating the city.

Snapshot: Bandar Lampung, South Sumatra

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Beautiful Bandar Lampung, from the top floor of the hotel where I stayed.

I have been bouncing around Indonesia quite a bit recently, as anyone who follows my Instagram might have noticed.  Most of these visits have been for research, but a couple have also been to assist with the WORDS Competitions at certain schools.  One of the sites I visited for WORDS Competitions was Bandar Lampung, at the very southern tip of Sumatra.

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Ancient writing from Museum Bandar Lampung

Bandar Lampung is a medium-sized, extraordinarily diverse city, and I wish I had had more than a few days there.  The driver who took me around was a fountain of information about the history and politics of the area (elections for a new governor had just occurred before I arrived, so the latter was a very hot topic at the time), and he would pipe up every time we entered a new part of the, letting me know if the population there was majority transmigrasi[1], Chinese-Indonesian, orang Palemband (the people of Palembang, a region north of Bandar Lampung), or one of the ethnic groups native to the region.  I learned later, while visiting Museum Bandar Lampung, that while the city encompasses the whole area now, there is apparently still to this day a significant difference in the traditions of those ethnic groups who live close to the sea, compared to those who are from the hills.

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The Butterfly Garden.

Bandar Lampung is very much situated in a beautiful space.  With the mountains on one side, and the ocean on the other, it really has the best of both worlds for anyone interested in escaping city life.  My driver told me that a large number of tourists from Jakarta frequent Bandar Lampung on the weekend, and that most of them go to Bandar Lampung for the snorkeling and diving near the many small islands right off the coast.  However, as I was there for tugas (an assignment, or work), that was not something I planned for.  But the teachers at the schools I went to happily took me to more in-land tempat wisata (tourism spots), such as the butterfly garden and the deer sanctuary, and, especially after having spent this grant period in Jakarta, I was so thankful that they took the time to accompany me to such beautiful green spaces.

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Some of the SMP dancers, and the wonderful ETA

I was also lucky enough to be in Bandar Lampung during a festival budaya (cultural festival), and was invited to go by the ETA placed there. where I got to see beautiful examples of tapis (a fabric native to this region), taste local kopi (coffee), and watch part of a SMP (middle school) traditional dance competition.  This was my favorite part of the whole trip.  I have always loved dance competitions in Indonesia, but have not attended one since I stopped being an ETA.  Being able to see dances from all over the region (some students were from as far as Palembang), and performed by such talented students, was such a privilege.

The hospitality of the teachers and the ETA of Bandar Lampung meant I got to see much more of the city than I ever thought I might on a mere work trip.  I am ever so thankful, and hope that someday I will be able to return.

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Some of my favorite little dancers.  These lovely ladies are actually in SD (elementary school), and had performed earlier that morning.

[1] Java is the most populated island in the world, and over population was such a problem that as one point the Dutch Colonial Government (and the Indonesian Government later continued this program) moved the people from entire villages on Java to other places around Indonesia.  Or at least, that’s the official narrative.  Many people say that the real goal of the program was to spread Javanese culture, as it was seen as superior to the culture of the people who already lived in those areas: these villagers were to integrate into the surrounding community, and instill Javanese language and values, replacing that of the people native to the region.  If this was, in fact, the goal, it wasn’t particularly successful.  Many transmigrasi sites have become very insular communities, which maintain their own language and culture, without necessarily integrating fully.  Opinions abound regarding these communities, both from those who live near them, and those who live (or lived) in them, and it has been a fascinating topic to explore since coming here.

Benteng Otanaha

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One of the watch towers at Benteng Otanaha.

One of the few tourist sites listed in the Lonely Planet for Gorontalo is a place called “Benteng Otanaha” (benteng being the Indonesian word for fort).  I have passed the entrance to this tempat wisata (tourist site) many times on my way to visit one of my sitemates, but have never found the time to actually stop and see what the fuss is all about.

So when my school canceled classes the Friday before the national exam, and the other English teachers asked if I had time to jalan-jalan (travel around[1]) with them, and maybe go to Benteng Otanaha, I most assuredly said yes.

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The co-teachers on some of the stairs we did actually climb.

We left in the morning, so that we could be there before it became too hot—and it is sweltering by about ten o’clock in Gorontalo—in the car of one of the teachers.  There are over three hundred stairs leading up to Benteng Otanaha, where it overlooks the surrounding area.  But, in part because we had limited time (there is a special Muslim midday prayer on Fridays, and my teachers did not want to miss it), and in part because the idea of willingly making yourself sticky and gross from sweat is a somewhat baffling idea for most grown Indonesians, we bypassed all of those stairs and drove to the top.  I’ll have to go back and count the stairs at a later date.

The fort, believed to have been built by the Portuguese, itself is not very big, and is essentially made up of three watch towers.  But the stone walls are simultaneously sturdy and crumbling, the way any historical site should be, and scrambling up and down them with my co-teachers (taking plenty of photos along the way, of course), made for quite the enjoyable excursion.

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Taking in the view.

It also gave my teachers the opportunity to regale me with tales of the bravery of Nani Wartebone, the local hero who was instrumental in helping Gorontalo gain independence from the Dutch[2].  I have heard all kinds of stories about Nani Wartebone since coming here, from the believable (he was born and raised in a desa right near one of my sitemate’s schools), to the not-so-believable (some say he was able to teleport, and that’s how he was able to beat the Dutch).  The man who has become a legend here did much of his fighting in the area around Benteng Otanaha, so the site is especially significant for a place that has been free from colonial rule for less than one hundred years.

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Danau Limboto, as seen from Benteng Otanaha.

Because Benteng Otanaha is so high up on the hills, it offers a wonderful view of the surrounding areas, including Danau (Lake) Limboto.  The lake used to be much larger than it is now, and from Otanaha my teachers pointed out the old boundaries; in many cases, there are now whole neighborhoods where there used to be water, because those areas have been dry for so long.  It was a sad reminder as to the damage humans can do to their environment.  Nonetheless, what remains of the lake is still beautiful.

We finished our jalan-jalan in time to enjoy a delicious lunch of ikan bakar (grilled fish) together, before heading back to our respective homes.  My co-teachers have become something like family here, and it was fabulous to spend a morning with them outside of school.

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The fam.  A little sweaty, but still happy as can be.

[1] Jalan is the word for “walk,” but when it is doubled like this, it can mean almost any activity that can be done outdoors: going for a walk, wandering around, traveling…

[2] Gorontalo was actually independent from Dutch control two years before the rest of Indonesia, and there was even a still-often-talked-about visit from Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president, to make sure that Gorontalo was actually going to become part of the rest of the nation.

To Market, To Market

When I first came to Indonesia, I was terrified of the pasar (market).  It was loud, crowded, hot, and full of entirely unfamiliar and not always pleasant smells.  And in Indonesia, unless you are at the rare stall that uses harga pas (fixed price), you are expected to menawar (bargain), and I am terrible at haggling: I’m never aggressive enough, and always end up either stubbornly walking away on the principle that I should not be grossly overcharged just because I am a foreigner (therefore empty handed), or submitting to being charged harga bule (the foreigner’s price) (therefore with damaged pride).

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Approaching the market, surrounded by bentors, as it always is.

Throughout my first grant, I rarely had any need for the pasar, as I ate all of my meals at school and wasn’t overly fond of berbelanja (shopping), generally speaking.  Every so often, I stopped by the fruit stalls that were near the entrance of a market I would pass on my way home from school, and bought batik fabric (the one thing, other than books, I do enjoy shopping for) from the market a handful of times, but for the most part, I avoided them.

This year, I live right in the middle of two of the main markets in town.  Pasar Selasa (the Tuesday Market) is perhaps a ten minute walk from my house, and Pasar Rabu (the Wednesday Market), is a mere five.  And both semesters, my class schedule has allowed me a free morning on at least one of these days.  Since I am on my own for meals this year, and wanted to do some of my own cooking—instead of just eating at the warung near my house—without paying ridiculous grocery store prices, I decided I would need to brave the market.

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The tarps give everything in the market a warm orange glow.

For the first few months, market day was my least favorite day of the week.  I would wake up early, knowing it would take me at least a half hour of hovering in my front room to work up the courage to actually walk out the door and head to the market.  Market day was a day of dripping with sweat under the make-shift tents, no matter how close to opening I arrived.  Market day was trying to get fair price for the vegetables on my list without having to go to too many sellers.  Market day was trying to weave through the crowd amidst the cacophony of shouting (in Indonesian mostly, but the occasional English, too)—“Ayam! Ayam! (Chicken! Chicken!) Miss! Cantik! (Beautiful!) Ikan!  Ikan! (Fish Fish!) Mister! You like fish?”—as I tried to find the one tempe and tahu (tofu) seller that I had been promised was at the back of the market[1].

Some people are good at this kind of chaos.  I am not one of them.

Still, I kept going, every week, week after week, month after month.  I told myself the fresh vegetables were worth it (and they absolutely are), and refused to give up and only eat out.  And slowly, market day became a bit less intimidating.

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My tempe/tahu lady on the right, and Mr. Kopi on the right.  They’re always teasing one another, and I ended up capturing it when I tried to take a picture of them.

By this point, I am well-known at Pasar Selasa (Pasar Rabu is no longer as convenient because of my new school schedule).  I have my favourite sellers from which to buy various delicious, fresh vegetables and fruits, and they are always telling me what is in season and how the weather is affecting various crops (it has been particularly dry this year, and the manner in which they lament this fact takes me back to my own farming community in New York).  The man I buy eggs from asks me about my classes.  The fish sellers know by now that I do not buy fish, and have ceased to try to tempt me with their fresh, still-flopping wares, except occasionally in jest.  There is a man who sells coffee next to the only stall that sells tempe/tahu, and it has become a running joke for him to try to convince me to buy coffee from him, even though I always tell him that I only drink tea.  I didn’t make it to the market at all in January (except for the occasional quick trip to get eggs for breakfast), because I had gotten busy, and when I finally went for a full-fledged shopping trip in early February, my tempe/tahu lady actually asked me if I was okay: after not seeing me for so many weeks, she thought maybe I was ill; I smiled warmly at her kindness, and noted to myself that I wouldn’t have this element of community if I had given up on the market  experience entirely.

Though I feel I have gotten much better at the ins and outs of market life in Indonesia, I have yet to master it, and I look forward to my relaxed, quiet farmers’ markets at home.  But nonetheless, the pasar has become a key part of my life here, and I have come to find joy in the chaos.

[1] While I am not a vegetarian, I find that cooking meat for one person is far more work than it is worth, especially with only a single burner in which to cook anything, so I tend to only eat meat when I go to a warung.

The Magic of Tana Toraja

Tana Toraja is the sort of place you read about in National Geographic, the sort of place that fascinates and inspires, but which you never think you’ll get to see.  But I am lucky enough to live on the same island as this cultural treasure, and so when I had a week off from school because of testing, I decided to take a few days to head south and explore.

The most popular way to get to Tana Toraja is to take a bus from Makassar, and so after spending a day in the capital of South Sulawesi, I hopped on a night bus to Tana Toraja.  (The nicer buses to Rantepau, the town I used as a base for my exploring, are rather nice, so I decided to splurge on a night bus rather than paying for an extra night in a hotel.)

I arrived in Rantepau just as the sun was rising, and already I was in awe of the tong-konan, or traditional houses, that dominate the landscape.  These houses are built and meticulously cared for by the families they belong to, and apparently can never be sold.  At the entrance of each house is a tower of buffalo horns, reflecting the status of the family that resides within—the more buffalo horns, the higher the status.  The roofs curve upwards at either end, jutting out against the blue sky and challenging anyone who sees them to not stand in awe.  On the older houses these roofs are thatched, but tin roofs—some painted a brick red, others a shiny aluminum color that reflects the sky—are more popular for the newer houses.  It didn’t matter how many houses I passed, either on foot or on motorbike, I was dumbstruck by their beauty and detail every time.

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Various houses I came across in my travels.  The oldest houses I found are pictured on the far right.

In Tana Toraja, life revolves around the dead, and it is the complex funeral ceremonies that attract so many tourists to the area.  Though I was not in Tana Toraja during the peak funeral season (which happens in July and August, and which is also the peak tourist season), and though I chose to go without a guide (I joined a group of other fabulous backpackers who were going about on motorbike instead), I did catch the end of one funeral.  Dozens of pigs and water buffalo, bought by the family and brought by friends, are sacrificed during the funeral (it is believed the dead can take this food with them to the next life), and family and guests arrive in the beautiful traditional beading and weaving that makes up the traditional dress of the area.  These funeral ceremonies go back centuries, reminiscent of a time when the Torajan people worshiped the god of their ancestors.  Though Christianity has since been (quite forcibly) brought to the area, and is now the dominant religion in the area, some traditions have survived.

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In the far left picture, family members, wearing a mix of modern clothes and traditional fabric and beads, are being received into the house; the center photo shows many pigs waiting to be slaughtered, and in the far right picture, the coffin is displayed for all to see, with a mix of Christian and traditional Torajan iconography

The animals sacrificed at these funerals, though sometimes bought directly from the families that raise them, are more often purchased at Pasar Bolu, the main market in Rantepau.  Though this market runs every day, it only runs at full capacity every six days.  I was lucky enough that my second day in Toraja was one of those days, and I was able to wander through the many rows of stalls selling everything from souvenirs to toothbrushes, as well as the area where the water buffalo were sold.

It was a sea of kerbau (buffalo)—far more animals in one place than I have ever seen before in Indonesia—and some of the farmers were more than happy to chat with me (thank heavens for my rudimentary Indonesian skills) about the various prices most animals go for.  Even a young animal, not yet a year old, can easily be sold for 800 U.S. dollars, while adults are sold for well over a thousand, and the rare, very sought-after albino buffalo can go for about the same cost as a used car.

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Our first glimpse of Pasar Bolu is in the far left photo; in the middle photo a rare albino water buffalo waits to be sold; and in the far right a few buffalo get a bath.

Perhaps even more impressive than the funerals are the graves themselves, which are carved out of solid rock, and then enclosed with elaborate wooden doors.  Photographs and other objects are found outside every grave, and the graves themselves can be found almost anywhere there is stone.

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The far left photo shows one of the largest grave sites in Tana Toraja; in the center is one of the decorated doors found on every grave; and the far left is a road-side grave site much like so many others we passed while on our motorbikes.

Perhaps one of my favorite sites was what is apparently the oldest grave site in Tana Toraja.  Tucked back in a bit of jungle, many of the doors of the graves are rotting away and falling, which means the forest floor below is littered with wooden remains, along with a few skulls that are displayed at bottom of the ravine (which we were able to reach with the help of a particularly graceful Ibu).  Though the grave site is certainly less glamourous than it probably was in its prime, there is something about it that seems to epitomize the endurance of the Torajan culture, and that is beautiful.

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The oldest grave site in Tana Toraja, pictured from above on the far right; the middle photo shows a few bones found at the base of the site; and in the far right is the woman who showed us how to slide our way down to the bottom of the ravine.

I am a bit of a fabric geek, and I am especially fond of the various fabrics found around Indonesia.  In Toraja, it is weaving that creates the traditional fabric.  While in a weaving village (which I have a funny suspicion has been created solely for the benefit of tourists, but was still lovely), I talked to one of the women making fabric there, and she explained the various iconography that is often seen in Torajan fabrics.  Water buffalo and people are especially common, and to a lesser degree the sort of fresh-water eels that are found in the rice paddies, but the most important symbol is the eye.  While it sometimes is very recognizably an eye, often this symbol is merely a diamond incorporated into the pattern somewhere.  According to the woman I spoke with, the eye must be included in any piece created in Toraja, and the idea is that when Torajan people meet somewhere outside of Toraja, they will, with the help of the eye, be able to see and recognize someone of their own people, and know that they are of one family.

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A couple of pictures from the weaving village.

Beyond the magical qualities of the culture that prevails, the area itself is simply magnificent.  From the back of a motorbike, weaving in and out of the jungle and the rice fields, it is easy to fall in love with Tana Toraja.  I was only there for a little over thirty-six hours, and I know I did.

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Various shots I took from the back of a motorbike.  I hope that someday I can go back to beautiful Tana Toraja.

Wedding Season in Gorontalo

It seems inevitable that when one is in Indonesia, one goes to a lot of pernikahan (weddings).

This was certainly my experience last year, and it did not take long for it to begin again this year: I attended my first wedding during my first week at site, prior to even going to orientation, and continued to do so for quite some time following orientation.

Weddings in Indonesia have always seemed ornate affairs, and if anything they seem to be more so here in Gorontalo when compared to the ones I experienced in East Java last year.  The bride and groom are completely desked out in matching outfits, with elaborate hats and headdresses that come from traditional Gorontalo dress.  The parents and other family members are in their very finest—and are often also matching one another—and everyone in attendance, from the smallest child to the oldest Ibu, is wearing their finest; even in my favorite dress from Indonesia—which I’ve taken to calling my “wedding dress” because I always wear it to any wedding I am invited to—I often feel very underdressed.

The funds for all of this comes from the family of the groom.  While paying an actual “bride price” in the form of cows or goats goes not seem quite so common anymore, or at least not in metropolitan places (Gorontalo is a small city, but it is still a city), it still falls on the man to provide funds for the wedding.  The level of extravagance of the whole affair is often directly related to the wealth of the groom and his family.  I attended a wedding with one of my sitemates and her teachers that was held in a giant hall, which the couple would have had to rent out, complete with giant fake trees and the largest spread of food I have ever seen at an Indonesian wedding, here or on Java.   Most of the weddings I have attended here, one the other hand, are held in tents outside of the family’s home; they are still warna-warni (colorful) and indah (beautiful), but there are certainly no fake trees.  I asked one of teachers once what happens if the groom cannot pay for the wedding, and she told me that while in the past that might mean the couple could not marry, now they tend to have what is essentially a court-house wedding at the local ministry of religion[1].

Weddings almost never start on time, in keeping with the jam karet (rubber time) that is so pervasive here.  While everyone waits for the ceremony to begin, neighbors catch up on gossip, teenagers play with their hand phones, and young children become progressively more restless until they amuse or annoy everyone around them with their antics.  Often there are singers performing pop ballads in various languages, with varying degrees of talent.  But sometimes, in between songs or at weddings where there are no performers, the background to the waiting period is just friendly chatter.

Once the ceremony actually begins, I don’t usually fully understand what is happening.  Different family members speak, and there are various prayers said, that is certain, but I am never sure exactly what is being said, due to the fact that the prayers are in Arabic (a language I do not yet speak) and while I might be able to understand the Indonesian speeches in a different situation, I find it extremely difficult to hear clearly over the sound systems which are always used at weddings.  To be honest it, it never seems as though anyone in attendance is paying close attention to what is happening; most continue to whisper to the people sitting next to them or distract themselves with their HP (hand phone, or mobile phone).

Meanwhile, I sit peacefully and people watch, and admire the grandeur of the whole set-up, including the extravagant stage the couple and their parents sit on.  One of my co-teachers told me that for the wedding night the bed is also decorated in a similar fashion.  To be honest, if I were in their place, I’m not sure whether I would find this incredible, amusing, or intimidating.

After the actual ceremony is over, various individuals are called up for photos with the couple and their parents.  Then, sometimes the bride and groom sit in the ornate throne, and sometimes they change into a second set of wedding clothes, just as colorful as the first.

As soon as the first set of photos is finished, however, it is time to eat.  People swarm the tables on which the food is laid, and pile their plates with daging, sayur, and, of course, nasi.  In my experience, queuing is not a concept in Indonesia.  I’m never quite assertive enough for this bit of craziness, and still find the mild chaos a bit terrifying.

Then, it is time for a second round of photos, and then everyone goes home.

Indonesian weddings are always a particularly interesting experience as a foreigner.  Often, I find myself in a position of honor at the wedding, even though I really have no connection to the bride and groom at all.  I continue to find this position quite uncomfortable, as I have done nothing to deserve this attention, but I feel I have gotten better at navigating it less awkwardly as my time here increases.

While I found myself at a number of weddings during my first month and a half or so here, the invitations seem to have waned.  Because it is considered lucky to get married around the time of the pilgrimage to Mecca, there were a lot of weddings in the months of September and October.  But now, the Wedding Season is over in Gorontalo, and while this makes everything a little more peaceful, it also makes everything just a little less colorful.

[1] I’m sure there are all sorts of prejudices and politics wrapped up in this, but it is reassuring to know that some progress is being made.  I’m a hopeless romantic who believes love can conquer all, but I’m also a realist who knows the world is not always kind to love.