Tana Toraja and Madagascar

Terrace farming, Sulawesi

Terrace farming, Madagascar

As I’ve said many times before, much of what is great about traveling in so many different places, especially within a relatively short timeframe, is that many connections can be made.

As you may know, the Malagasy (as the people of Madagascar are called), although they live just off of the coast of southeastern Africa, originally came not from Africa but from Asia. The Austronesian ethnic group arrived by boat from now Indonesia (across all those thousands of miles of Indian Ocean), and settled on the huge island of Madagascar over a thousand years ago. The island was not yet significantly inhabited by Africans from the mainland, who have arrived since to intermarry with the Asian Malagasy. To this day, especially in the highlands of central Madagascar, people look pretty much Southeast Asian. Even relatively African or dark-skinned Malagasy, as you find on the western coast, are quick to distinguish themselves from “black” Africans, who are thought of as a somewhat inferior race. (One man, who was to us indistinguishable from a black mainland African, when we said that we were American, remarked that we too had “red” people like him.)

Although we had not been to Indonesia or Malaysia prior to our Madagascar trip, some “Asian” aspects of the Malagasy were obvious to us. First, as I mentioned, many Malagasy look Asian. Second, they speak an Austronesian language that I understand is most closely related to a language spoken on Borneo. Third, they grow rice, and not the grains common to mainland Africa. Now in Tana Toraja in southern Sulawesi, I see even more clearly the genuine cultural closeness that the Malagasy retain to their Indonesian ancestors.

The most distinctive and telling of the new connections I have made is funerary customs. When we visited Madagascar in 2005, we had read much about the unusual local traditions, including the infamous famadihana, or the turning of the bones, in which the bodies of the deceased are disinterred so that they can be covered in a clean shroud and reburied. The custom may seem quite morbid to us, but it is really a huge celebration demonstrating the Malagasy connection to their ancestors, a continuation beyond death of the familial relationship. We were in Madagascar during famadihana “season,” but did not have the fortune to be invited to an event, which are, perhaps thankfully in this age of mass tourism, still largely private affairs.

We are now in Tana Toraja (the “land of the Toraja”) in central south Sulawesi, and learn that they have similar funerary traditions, including a ceremony remarkably similar to the famadihana. Again we did not see any such disinterment, but we were fortunate enough to be invited to and present for part of a Torajan funeral–alas, tourism here has caught up to tradition. Upon the death of a loved one, the body is left within the home for up to one year (and continues to be treated as a member of the family), until an elaborate funeral ceremony is prepared for after the next harvest. The Torajan relationship to the dead to be at least as intimate as the Malagasy one. Some pictures of a Torajan funeral:

The elaborately decorated coffin and the “emcee”

A team of women working a local drum-like instrument

The location of the funeral, a rectangular lawn surrounded by traditional houses. The people walking alongside the left of the picture represent one of many delegations paying their respects to the deceased, bringing with them gifts of livestock. One water buffalo has already been killed and skinned. We were not there for the day of the great slaughter, but were told that up to fifty animals would be sacrificed.

The Malagasy and the Torajans are also similar in their unusual choices of burial locations. We saw cliffside tombs in Madagascar, and, in Sulawesi, coffins in cliffs, caves and trees. All in all, most unusual.

Tombs cut out in a cliff, Sulawesi

Detail of the “tau tau” effigies protecting the tombs

Coffins hanging on the side of a cliff, Sulawesi

Tree tombs for babies, Sulawesi

Cave tombs, Sulawesi

Cliff tombs, Madagascar

There are many other connections. Both the Torajans and the Malagasy have caste systems. Both the Torajans and the Malagasy excel at terrace farming of rice. Both the Torajans and the Malagasy place great value in the ownership of cattle (water buffalo, especially albinos, in Sulawesi; zebu in Madagascar), the number of animals in particular being a primary indicator of status in excess of the actual utility the animals provide. If there was any doubt that the Malagasy indeed came from Southeast Asia… The persistence of culture over hundreds of years and thousands of miles is truly astonishing.

Zebu market, Madagascar

An albino water buffalo, the most prized of all, Sulawesi

Food in Indonesia

Why there are not many Indonesian restaurants all over the world is a great mystery to me, as Indonesia is one of my favorite countries in the world for eating, hands down. From the lesehan of Java to the numerous Padang-style rumah makan, delicious food is always steps away in Indonesia, dirt cheap and full of flavor. In this post, just a few Indo-staples, along with a couple regional dishes from our trip.

There are three “dishes” that I would consider the holy trinity of quick and dirty eating in Indonesia: nasi campur, nasi goreng and mie goreng.

Nasi campur, which means “mixed rice,” isn’t really a dish per se, but a sort of table d’hote–white rice served with whatever dishes are on offer that day. A nasi campur often includes some vegetables, fried tempe (a sort of meat substitute made of grains and pulses), flavored boiled egg, chicken curry or fried chicken and sambal. Nasi campur is the absolute most basic food that is available anywhere–since you are just served what is available–and cheap (around USD 1). It is, along with its Malaysian cousin nasi lemak, one of the tastiest, cheapest meals known to man.

At a restaurant in Lombok. Fried scallions are a common seasoning.

If you’re in the mood for something hotter/more freshly prepared, a good step sideways is Indonesian fried rice, or nasi goreng (literally, “fried rice”). Nasi goreng packs a bit more flavor than Chinese-style fried rice and almost always comes with a fried egg for extra protein.

Served on a leaf

Somewhat more simple and less tasty is mie goreng (“fried noodles”). Mie goreng is essentially a sort of dry instant noodle, often very salty but always appetizing.

A fourth typical dish, and Indonesia’s most common and unique vegetable plate, is gado gado, a plate of blanched vegetables served with peanut sauce and usually a shrimp chip or two. To be honest I don’t like it too much, but Derek does, comparing it to Chinese cold sesame noodles.

Some more localized specialties:

Seafood is common in Indonesia, with fish often baked in banana leaves. This dish was from Flores.

From Lombok, a spicy chicken dish, flavored in part with kaffir lime leaves

From Tana Toraja in Sulawesi, pa’piong, pork and chicken cooked in bamboo

Waria, or Transgendered around the World

In much of the first world, the battle for “gay rights” is largely won. Gay men and lesbians can legally marry (or enter into some contractual facsimile of marriage) in many Western European countries, as well as Canada and some of the most important of the United States. Even if public acceptance is not yet totally here, and some anachronistic laws remain, the overall trend seems clear, and young people today find little astonishing or controversial about sexual orientation (as Derek’s then nine year-old niece remarked, even SpongeBob is gay). This is of course not the case in many other parts of the world. Even if east Asia lacks much of the religio-moral condemnation of homosexuality, most gay men in Japan, Korea or China are deep in the closet, with “Brokeback” marriages the norm. In the macho-er parts of the developing world, gayness is perceived as weakness and shunned. In some parts of the Islamic world, homosexual activity can be a capital offense.

Some in the world may still try to deny the existence of hard-wired homosexual orientation, or its “legitimacy” to exist and manifest itself, but some facts of life are impossible to deny, and it is sometimes quite surprising to see how well-established the transgendered identity is in seemingly unlikely locales, including three on our itinerary: India, Iran and Indonesia.

Homosexuality as an identity in India may be just barely nascent–even the megalopolis of Bombay does not support one proper gay bar–but there is an ancient class of transgendered persons, known as hijra. Either male or intersex at birth, hijra assume essentially feminine identities, going so far as to “marry” men (either with or without having undergone castration). Some hijra work in the sex industry, but they are also known for performing a sort of exorcising role at births and weddings, to ensure the masculinity of male children and promote fertility. While hijra are not exactly “accepted”–they suffer a great deal of discrimination and are also feared as a sort of cursed race that may, if you offend them or refuse their services, curse your children to suffer their fate–they are a well-established community, a category of person, which has its defined (albeit difficult) niche within Indian society.

The second place on our itinerary that has a sizable and recognized transgendered population was, believe it or not, Iran. While Iran executes (or at least Iranian law calls for the execution of) gay men, Iranian doctors and theologians apparently have found no religious reason to deny the existence of transgendered people. Even if being a transgendered person is not exactly “well accepted” by society, the state recognizes it as a medical condition that can be “remedied” by the surgery of the sex change operation (partly covered by the national health insurance), and Iran is, after Thailand, a world center for that procedure.

Southeast Asia as a whole seems to have an unusually large transgendered population. In Thailand they call them kathoey or ladyboys, and many a male heterosexual traveler has mistakenly fallen for one (they can sometimes be, as U2 would say, even better than the real thing, in terms of sheer knockout beauty). The visibility of the transgendered population of these countries may have some genetic component or, as likely, may be due to widespread public acceptance, especially in Thailand and some of its neighbors. Indonesia may be the largest Islamic country in the world, but in terms of its transgendered population, and seeming acceptance of their gender identities, it is very much a part of Southeast Asia.

In Indonesia they are known as “waria,” which is an amalgam of the words for woman (“wanita”) and man (“pria”). I have read one estimate of fewer than 30,000 waria, but in a country of over 200 million it seems likely that the real number is far higher, and simply traveling about Indonesia one sees them everywhere, from the seedier parts of Bali nightlife along Jalan Dhyana Pura to quiet Labuanbajo on Flores to Islamic Makassar on Sulawesi. I have also read reports suggesting that many or most waria are sex workers or have at least engaged in the trade, and while of course there are some (such as the ones on Bali) who are, most waria I have seen in Indonesia seemed like regular people doing regular jobs. Waria are often quite friendly and outgoing with travelers. Labuanbajo had a sort of waria hangout (the Matahari–two English guys in our dive group seemed to hang out there quite a bit). We saw some mild teasing of waria by other locals but no open hostility, given the warias’ very open presence.

I am inclined to think that transgendered people, in India, Iran or Indonesia, or in some Native American cultures (whose transgendered people were at one point called berdache and now, “two spirits”), are accepted in part because of the indubitable existence of people who are born intersex. It is a fact of nature (up to 1% of all human births, according to some studies) hard to deny the existence of, that it forces the creation of a category. Presumably, once the category is created, it admits not only those who are born physically ambiguous but those who, psychologically, are transgendered.

I wonder: In societies where the transgendered identity exists and is tolerated, is there any pressure on non-transgendered homosexuals to try to squeeze themselves in? That is, if you are a gay male, would you be tempted to identify as a hijra or waria to be able to express your sexual preference? I would think not, because gender is a much more core aspect of identity than mere sexual preference, but it is clear to me that there are different “kinds” of homosexuals, and it is possible that some may be tempted by an open identification. If indeed culture helps shape sexuality, to what extent can sexuality be affected by the gender/sexual roles available in a given culture? Does the existence of the category of waria or hijra affect the number of people who may come to identify, in their adolescence or adulthood, as transgendered or homosexual? These are difficult questions, of course, but one thing is clear: “deviance” from the male/female heterosexual norm is incredibly widespread, and recognition of this fact has existed from time immemorial.

Indonesian Ferries

Indonesia is the world’s largest archipelago, and even in this jet age travel by water is an essential mode of transportation in Indonesia. Ferries are varied, from fast tourist catamarans operating out of Bali to local ferries crossing the narrow straits between islands; from small boats carrying people a couple miles to great ocean liners operating across the vast country.

Even on our short Indonesia trip we found ourselves on multiple boats, not including the boat trips we took for diving, and I thought a post in order especially to relate our voyage to Sulawesi.

Our first stop in Indonesia was the island of Gili Trawangan, one of the three “Gili Islands” off of Lombok that have become in recent years enormously popular beach/diving destinations. Trawangan is known as the “Party Gili” (we went not for the party but because we thought it would have the best range of food and accommodations), but is in fact still quite relaxing and peaceful–nothing at all like, say, the Kuta/Legian/Seminyak urban agglomeration of Bali. The Gili Islands are served by both fast medium-sized boats from Bali and small local ferries from Lombok. We flew into Lombok and took the latter, which just pull up on the beach, with passengers wading to shore.

From Lombok we traveled east to the next island in the chain, Sumbawa (something of a rarity–an Indonesian island that is not a real tourist destination). Our bus from Mataram in Lombok to Bima in Sumbawa took the ferry to cross from Lombok to Sumbawa, as often happens with long-distance buses in Indonesia. During the ferry portion of the trip, the bus passengers get off the bus to relax in the passenger sections of the boat, a nice way to break up a long ride. The boat ride itself is only about a couple hours, comparable to the distance from Sumatra to Java or Java to Bali (and shorter than the distance from Bali to Lombok or Sumbawa to Flores).


From Sumbawa to Flores, the next island east, is a somewhat longer trip, taking the better part of a day. The boat passed through the islands of Komodo National Park, the home of the Komodo dragon. I was nervous due to reports that the passage can be rough (and because some surfers on their way to Sumbawa had told us that a “perfect” swell was approaching from Australia), but the sea was perfectly calm. Both the Lombok-Sumbawa and Sumbawa-Flores ferries, while in reasonable condition, seemed to be secondhand ferries from other countries–the Lombok-Sumbawa ferry even had safety instructions in Japanese and a full (though not functioning) Japanese vending machine, complete with cans of Japanese beer.


The great journey of our Indonesia trip, however, and really one of the most memorable single rides that we’ve ever been on, was the PELNI trip from Flores to Sulawesi. PELNI is the state-owned shipping line that operates very large passenger ships among the islands of Indonesia. Numerous ships run on various two-week itineraries, connecting all of the major (and many minor) islands with services ranging from posh first class to cattle-class economy. I had fantasized about taking a PELNI journey ever since I first saw a map of PELNI routes, the curvy lines connecting Indonesia’s many remote ports, and we traveled to Sulawesi instead of staying on Flores in no small part because a PELNI ship happened to be departing.

What helped make the trip so memorable was the advice we were given by people on Flores when we bought the ticket: buy economy class and upgrade on board by renting a crew cabin. Now, usually, this is not bad advice–we did confirm on board that crew cabins are generally available for rent, at a substantial discount from the first and second class cabins. But we were not in the usual situation.

As I mentioned above, millions of Indonesians still rely on boats for transportation–either they cannot afford to fly or boats offer the most direct transport for a given route. In our case, the ship had been docked for a couple weeks and the voyage we were on was the first Flores-Sulawesi run in a month.

Our first indication of trouble came while waiting for the boat to arrive. We had been told that the arrival of the large PELNI ship would be the biggest event in town but the number of people piling up at the dock was well beyond our expectations. When the boat arrived and the gates finally opened it was an hours-long slow sweaty march to get on board.

To say that no cabins were available is something of an understatement–every space onboard was packed with people. There were piles of luggage (boxes and sacks as well as proper suitcases) everywhere. People claimed not only seats and every available space on the many decks but also space on stairs, banisters and railings. It was difficult even to move about the ship, let alone find a place to set down one’s bags and body.

Finding space


Getting comfortable

Lower down were the economy class bunks, not only crowded but also hot and sweaty with the air conditioning failing especially on the fourth deck, which was unbearably hot. The bathrooms were complete with showers, but the squat toilets were overflowing pools of dirty water. To put it crudely, I was reminded of diagrams of 17th century slave ships from history textbooks. We were told later that a woman had delivered a baby on board.

In the economy class sleeping area

It was hard to stomach the thought of the next twenty hours to Sulawesi. I imagined what the rush to the lifeboats would be like if something were to happen to the ship, unsurprised to see that people were already occupying the lifeboats as seating space. (Later, I figured that there were easily over 1,000 people on board and only about room for 750 on the lifeboats.) I wondered whether there was sufficient food, or sanitation facilities, for the crowds. In a couple moments of panic I thought we should disembark before we left port.

So where did we end up? Derek’s resourcefulness and pushiness again won the day. Through a door marked “crew only” on the sixth deck Derek noticed that some passengers had settled down in the air-conditioned hallway. They were mostly women and children, but a few feet away was another length of hallway, unclaimed. After convincing the crew member controlling access to let us in, Derek set our bags down and we made ourselves comfortable.

Our space

Down the hallway, to the left

Now, this hallway was the one leading directly to the bridge, and I thought that there was no chance that the crew would let us stay. Fortunately, they felt sorry for us (“Why aren’t you in first class?”) and let us stay, in almost the only open space on the boat. A woman who had gotten on earlier and was able to rent a crew cabin lent us a couple of mattresses, making our little home even more comfortable. The next morning, one of the crew invited us onto the bridge for tea and a chat. Sometimes we are so grateful of the hospitality and lenience shown to us as foreign travelers–it would have been so easy and fair to just say that we should tough it out with the other economy passengers, who had after all paid exactly the same fare that we had. Could we hope that such a reception would be offered in a similar situation in the U.S. to overseas visitors? “You’re in America, learn to speak American” comes to mind.

The bridge. Calm seas, the PELNI boat on a bearing of 352 degrees.

Traveling with Technology

People have asked us what we have on us, in terms of gadgets, and we thought that it would be illuminating to do a post on technology. First, an inventory:

Computer:
– MacBook laptop computer and charger
– 3 external hard drives
– stack of blank DVDs and CDs
– 1 FireWire cable
– 3 USB cables
– thumb drive

Camera:
– Canon digital SLR camera
– four lenses
– filters, extra lens caps
– 5 backup batteries
– two chargers
– 14 GB in compact flash
– compact flash reader
– Canon S70 for backup, videos and underwater use
– underwater casing for the S70

Others:
– iPod touch and cable
– GPS unit for geocoding with two chargers (wall and car)
– two backup batteries for GPS unit
– Motorola cell phone and backup battery
– flashlights / headlamps
– two watches and an alarm clock
– various adaptors

How many outlets do we need in our hotel room? Only one, but that’s because we also carry a power strip.

A rundown:

A computer is pretty much essential for our trip. First, given the volume of photographs that Derek takes, it would be simply impracticable to store the photographs any other way than by carrying our own personal computer. The computer is also essential for processing the photographs, both for selling and for posting on the blog. Second, having the computer lets us write blog entries and emails offline, for uploading when there is an internet connection. Third, having our own computer along simplifies handling of our finances and other affairs back home. The choice of a MacBook was a no-brainer (especially helpful, Macs have great WiFi reception and handling). Why three external drives? One for supplemental space because our MacBook hard drive was not big enough (although we recently installed a new 320 GB drive), another (the only USB 2.0 drive, the others being FireWire) for backups and the third an emergency drive with the system and other essential software in case we have some sort of failure on the MacBook drive. The thumb drive is for moving files to/from internet cafe computers when we cannot hook up our laptop directly.

Getting our laptop online deserves perhaps its own discussion. The cheapest and most convenient access is, of course, free WiFi. We’ve found free WiFi not only in upscale cafes and restaurants all over the world but in some budget hotels. In relatively developed places, an open network can be found using our iPod Touch simply by walking down the street, and we’ve used such random open networks in cities such as Hamedan in Iran and Kashgar in China. In heavily touristed places, such as parts of India and Indonesia, and in some other relatively sophisticated places, such as Damascus and Kuala Lumpur, internet cafes have had desks set up for customer laptops–you simply connect via ethernet and pay the same rate as you would for a computer. Some Chinese hotels (including notably the Super 8 chain) offer free wired access, and in a couple instances we’ve paid the extortionate rates for access at more upscale hotels. Getting our own computer online is far more efficient than using an internet cafe computer, as you might imagine.

The camera equipment is pretty self-explanatory. We purchased a second charger in Iran because, a couple times, we found ourselves dangerously close to not having sufficient batteries charged and because the charger was a weak link–if something happened to it in a remote location, we would be without the use of our camera. Our backup camera uses the same battery as the SLR, allowing us to travel with one set of batteries and chargers.

The “others” category requires perhaps the most explanation:

– We use the iPod touch not only for listening to podcasts on long bus rides, but also as a WiFi detector. If we’re walking along a commercial street in a decent-sized city in a reasonably developed country, odds are not bad that someone will have left an open WiFi signal, and we can do some quick emailing and surfing using the iPod itself or sit down and take out our MacBook. The iPod touch is also a great tool for photo show-and-tell.
– We purchased a Wintec G-Rays 2 GPS logger in Taipei and use it in combination with HoudahGPS and HoudahGeo to geotag all our photos. We aren’t currently doing anything with the GPS data, but we figure, in the future, we can put together some interesting displays using the data. The GPS battery lasts only one day and is our “weakest link,” power-wise, and so we carry around a car-charger for it as well (which we used in Tajikistan).
– We decided to carry a phone for a few reasons. For one, we thought it useful in case of an emergency. Second, while roaming rates for calls are too expensive for casual use, we can use the phone to send/receive SMSs to/from friends and family, or people we meet on the road (since other long-term travelers also generally have phones). Finally, in countries where we are staying for a few weeks, we buy local SIM cards (generally quite cheap) and use the phone to make local calls, such as for making hotel reservations. We chose a Motorola phone that can be charged through our computer over USB so that we would not have to carry a separate charger.
– We carry around two headlamps and one flashlight, all LEDs.

We may be able to trim one hard drive, but all of our other gear is pretty essential to what we want to accomplish on the road. Every time we settle into a room, we take stock of what needs to be charged; if we are without power for a day or two (such as remote locations or overnight transport), we are even more careful the next day. The weight is considerable–probably more than our clothes, although perhaps less than the books we carry. Theft risk means that we are extremely careful, carrying on our person or storing in our hotel room the most valuable items depending on the risk profile of a given country. Ever since meeting in Ethiopia a Japanese couple that had had their laptop (with thousands of photos and many months of journal entries) stolen from their Egyptian hotel room, we tend to err on the side of carrying it on our person (trading risk of hotel theft for increased risk of physical damage). When packing we take care to separate redundant systems into separate packs in case one is lost or stolen.