It is the end of the dry season and the fields are heavy with grains, the stalks rustling in the wind like a sea of grass. Higher up the valley, the terraced paddy fields give way to thick deciduous woodlands interspersed with coffee plantations. At this altitude the air is clear and the breeze has a fresh edge to it. It reminds me of British summers spent walking through the countryside of Devon and Cornwall. Everything is green, lush, fertile and vibrant.
It is easy to forget that this very landscape protected the culture and peoples of Toraja from the outside world until late into the 20th century. The mountainous terrain, steep valleys and thick forests which are so beautiful to look at made the region difficult to access. It was only as Islam spread through the lowlands of Sulawesi that Dutch missionaries, supported by the VOC, pushed into Tana Toraja and sought to convert its people to Christianity.
Today Tana Toraja is a place that struggles to find and maintain a balance between its traditional local culture and the changes that are happening around it. The lavish funerals, that can cost tens of thousands of dollars, have become tourist attractions. Snaps from child cemeteries appear in holiday albums and crypts sit next to shops selling trinkets to tourists.
Away from the crowds, black magic and local shamans hold sway over much of the rural population. Hundreds of bulls are slaughtered at government sponsored festivals, Christianity is preached in churches whose designs are inspired by animist architecture, while large mosques are popping up all over the countryside.
Tana Toraja is a fascinating and beautiful place, where for the most part society appears to be in some sort of well managed flux. The area has avoided many of the violence and problems that has plagued North Sulawesi and has found a strange compromise with the tourist trade. I’m just wandering when they stop inviting tourists to their relatives funerals…