Mad ferry to Papua, triple loaded

Things just couldn’t get any smoother, less hot nor more comfortable, when leaving Makassar and Sulawesi for good and heading on to the wild and wicked corner of Indonesian archipelago, to the land which stereotypically provokes thoughts of cannibalism and naked people living up on trees. 

I stress again, stereotypically. Yet the truth was that we were going to Papua, and oh, I had been looking forward to get there for years. But the truth was also, that I had no idea how harsh it can be to get there!

As it was mid-January, there were huge crowds heading to back Papua to work after some Christmas holiday break at there families in surrounding islands, like Maluku and Sulawesi. Namely, Papua is probably the most well-off area in Indonesia, where there’s plenty of mineral resources, thus the need for work force and not so many people to carry out the need. The population in Papua is not more than 3 million, while the land is huge. The rates of pay are supposedly double from what is paid elsewhere in Indonesia, but also everything is more expensive. But at least – money is moving.

So together with around 4500 people in the ferry that is normally meant for 1500 people (indeed!) we were heading towards the promised land. It took us 3 days and 3 nights. People were sleeping everywhere – inside, outside, in the corridors, on the stairs, heads and legs all together, in this heat and humidity, along with rats and cockroaches, but pleased by the warm sea breeze and great view over Maluku islands.

Crowds queuing up for the ferry. Ferry overloaded, sweat, stink and party everywhere. 

Short stopover at Ambon, Maluku – great chance to stock up with some sweet fruits from local market.

I only had one problem with the ride – and that was my health. For all the travels I’ve done in my life, rough times in South America, Russia, Africa – I have never had much trouble with myself. Traveling mode does its job to keep me fit in whatever circumstances. But perhaps this was all too different here, as I was not only traveling for my own self-interests and joy, but I had a job to do here, I was here to conduct some fieldworks, I had some serious responsibility, and I was so very passionate about it, and still I was all alone doing the rough travel as always, where you have to improvise and figure out the next step every moment in this heat and sweat, so lovely when I come to think about it again.

But the moldy rooms I had been sleeping in the village of Sulawesi, had caused some allergic reaction n me, which couldn’t get any better with the lack of sleep and pressure from the police and all the guys that wanted to meet and talk to me, get married or pose together for some photos. Life had been a mess. Which is common for a traveler, and I love it, but I was far from my best.

Another thing you should never do when feeling weak and sick – take some pills of malaria. As Papua is a serious area of malaria threat, I did that mistake, and that bloody pill did nothing but knocked me down for another three days. I was so weak I could barely move, nor breathe. But this was a great excuse for us to hassle out a room in the ferry’s hospital after a night we had shared with hundreds of people and thousands of cockroaches.  Even though I was sick as hell, we still had to bribe to get it. This, by the way, is a very common practice on these ferries, as most of the crew prefers to earn some extra rather than sleep in their bed, so they give it away for passengers for 500 000 rp or 2 million rp, however, everybody’s happy.

Buginese princess: the making of it

A sufficient amount income for the warias who work in salons, comes actually not from daily hairstyling, but from wedding preparations. Every other week, if not more often, this is the waria who makes the bride and groom pretty and decorates the wedding room. Already at our very first meeting Jaka was thinking that we should do a make-up session, to make a Buginese bride out of me.

When I looked at the photographs of some other brides I had seem before, I thought this is a way to big job we can experiment with. But Jaka told me to relax and give her an hour. And so we did it.

Pardon my narcissism if it looks this way, but I wanted to share the whole process with you. The making of it. The making of a Buginese princess. It took around one hour to cover all my face with powder, attach some fake eye-lashes, paint my forehead, my eyes, my lips, make my hair amazing and dress me up. Jaka could explain every detail of my outfit, some for Allah, some for adat (the local culture).

I felt I was turned into a princess, a Buginese princess, that has to do all the dirty work in the kitchen and elsewhere, but still, she always has to be a beautiful princess and smile. And later when already married, get pregnant, and smile. Just as most of the women in the world, just as we are so often expected.

All photos by Minna Hint

Makassar: pleasantly mad

Jaka is a chill-out waria in her 40s. She has a quite popular salon in downtown Makassar, where she keeps  herself busy from morning til night. Once I caught him straightening girls’ hair until 2am.

Makassar, Sulawesi

But she always wakes up early in the morning, brings fish from the market, serves the first customers, cooks the fish, she is social with all her friends who constantly come over to hang out in her salon. And it’s always raining in Makassar, so it’s a good spot to wait until another shower is done and they can make a move.

As it was Saturday night, and this is the night when all people in Indonesia take it all with fun, some young even say they go hancur – they go crazy. So Jaka took out her high heels and we went for a rendez-vous in downtown. The city was full of young people, there were crowds of guys with all their crazy motorbikes. Built up and wild, retro machines, and the busy bikers with their blinking motorbikes. There was also a lot of crowd hanging around the waria hot-spot. Jaka knows the girls, but she’s already grown out from nightlife of the youth. She doesn’t bother anymore to go out that often. She has a salon to keep and a boyfriend with whom she feels happy with.

We stayed at her salon for couple of days, and truly enjoyed the company of Jaka.

Jaka and Minna

Makassar: who gets the business, and who don’t

I had met Jaka already previous time in Makassar. She had a pretty popular salon in downtown, pleasantly busy each day. Eka suggested we can stay at her salon and get to know her better. Eka was her junior.

On the way to Makassar, we met a party of warias around the area. We stopped and had a chat, I took a photo.

But Eka had to hurry, because she had an important meeting in one of the big hotels of the city. Makassar is the capital of Sulawesi, and its huge. There are big roads and colorful neighborhoods, something for everybody, including the rich fucks, as the anarchists would see it. Eka was sitting attentively behind the desk together with couple of other ladies from the village, who are running good in business and have some extras to invest. The hotel had some 20 floors, we all were served expensive fruit cocktails and chocolate cake – rarity in Sulawesi. There was young and smiling man explaining on a fake iPad how the money they give starts to grow. Like a tree. It’s growing. They could all see it in the graphics. The arrow moves up, more money is coming back. Especially when you give in bigger sum.

But how?

They never asked.

Eka has played with investing before – she has got already two cars. “From internet,” as she puts it. Maybe she’s been the lucky first one, or maybe this is the reality of Indonesia? Economic crash has not touched this base here, Indonesia is booming, but it still has a long way to rise. 

Actually I was invited to come over to Makassar to screen “Wariazone”. Professor Halilintar Latief, the largest researcher on bissu on earth, and that’s true, invited people from various background and different religions to see the documentary and have an open discussion on the matter of the waria in Indonesia. Makassar is a well-known hub for warias, although lately they are crying more of the lack of basic economic needs. There is so many people, so many warias and competition is high. Even when you open a salon. It feels unsafe to work on the street. And again I can’t help of seeing the social reality that is behind this situation, that is creating it. This is because of the narrow zone for the waria that is left out there. This is exactly the socially constructed playground the warias are trapped in and which thus also shapes their identity. Zone, zone, wariazone.

Death around us

“You have to eat, you can’t go without!” they told us again, and made us sit down again and eat. Whatever it was, we had to eat. “There is so much death around us, if you don’t eat, an accident might happen!”

Toraja, Sulawesi

To believe it or not, but of course I ate. I ate even the strangest food we were sharing, even such that you cannot bite but you just have to swallow the semi-transparent thing down. Having done that, they catch a chicken in the garden. “This is for dinner.” Earlier that day there was a phone call for our mom in the house were we were staying, that her once had passed away. Yeah, the death was certainly around. We had already been to so many funerals, and saw so many lives taken, one more bloody than the other. But there was also something magical in the air, in these mantras, and under this bright-starred night or humid and hot daytime. There was sweat and rain in the air, mud and blood everywhere. So the men are singing their mantras in the language of Toraja, unknown for me, but it definitely sings about eternal things, such as the circle of life and the worlds beyond. The life does not stop here with the moment we have named a death, but there’s so much more life out there. It’s in the trees, in the rocks, in the places untouched by human far away. Puang Matua, the creator is behind all that. There is much more than bare life and death and flesh and blood. There is much more than killing of thousands of animals, that definitely don’t deserve it.

People are often buried in the caves, inside the rock. And there are always guards outside, keeping everything in peace, being there for a reason. This is just beautiful who much the respect and love their ancestors, whose deal actually doesn’t matter much anymore, but they still do it, irrationally, in belief.

Little babies who die when they are still so little, under a year – they are buried inside of the big trees. This tree was so powerful, that it almost knocked me down emotionally. 

Flesh and blood, earth and divine: game of status in Toraja

It is midsummer. People in many parts of the world, most likely where I am from, eat a lot of meat now. Here’s a story from another meat fest in Toraja, Sulawesi, Indonesia. We drove off on motorbikes up to the mountains to the world, which doesn’t know the price of the respect for their ancestors. This is proud Toraja, above the green hills in Central Sulawesi, where life and death get another meaning.  Rumors that right now there should be the largest ceremonies of the years had reached me already earlier. They said there’s gonna be 500 buffalos sacrifices, not just 5 or 50, but as many as 500 oxen, plus thousands of pigs. After arrival I couldn’t question these numbers. There was three big funerals going on in the area, one more ambitious than the other. Yes, all these hundreds of oxen, plus thousands of pigs are to be killed for the glory off dead, in order to ensure a smooth movement to the next world – to the world of spirits. Here when the body gets quiet by death, it doesn’t actually mean the death in our sense. People can keep the body in their house for about one year or so, treating it almost as if he was still alive.  But when the family doesn’t organize such funeral, the dead will be dangling somewhere around the village, and probably merge into one gang with all the ghosts that make up Indonesian everyday experience. The entire site of the funeral service is slightly hilly because of the piles of the pigs laying down in the mud, in pain of the heat. There’s a team of men around them, one stating loud in the microphone who has brought the pig here, another one is marking the pig with spray color. Again and again there are three-four men entering, a shouting pig on their shoulder, lips already foamy. Again and again some of them move a step away and there’s a knife thrusting into the throat of a pig, followed by intolerable squealing. Blood splashes around, the butcher pushes the vein with his toe. Then someone grabs a flamethrower and burns the pig into crispy pork. The bloody action is passed by a column of beautiful ladies with bleached faces and cherry red lips. I hear the trance-lifting mantras of Toraja. This here is some other world, which has evolved so bizarrely on this island with strange shape somewhere in the mountains. The buffalo-fetish of the community is also looking back to us from the houses of Toraja, shaped as if they were ships and topped with a head of a bull and many horns of sacrificed buffalos hanging over the doorway. The more horns hanging – the higher the social status of the household.

“And who was that woman?” I asked after hearing more about the market price of buffalos.

“The dead? Oh, she was a housewife. “

The next burial is particularly spectacular. There are tens of people with tens of buffalos in the huge square surrounded by thousands of spectators. At the same time, hundreds of men try to push the shell of the corpse to the top floor – in order to be closer to the natural world. Later I hear from kepala adat (cultural head of of the community, in other words, the most important man in region), that these white oxen cost about 350 million rupees each (about 35,000 euros!) There are some 24 of those, in addition to the normal buffalos, which cost around 20-40 million each. “We can estimate that the total financial budget for this ceremony can reach about 40-50 billion rupees. But nevertheless, this amount does not express how much the people of Toraja respect their ancestors, “said the man of importance. Namely, the white bull is especially considered a sacred animal, whose cost can be ten times more expensive than of usual bulls.

Why is that? Mostly the locals justified the high cost, because a white bull is just a rare occurrence. So the owners of the white buffalos stand proudly next to their animal, until it will be killed a couple of days later. I also confirmed, that there is no difference in the flavor of the meat. For this special occasion there are lots of media representatives around and every other visitor reaches out a hand with a smartphone to hit some shots of this bloody action or pose with a bule-buffalo, (or with me, as I’m also a bule – white person- here). Thousands of eyes recognize the sacrifice of the next bull – an arc of blood erupting from the throat cut wide open and the animal staggers between the worlds of the living and the dead for several minutes. Ugly. The dead used to work as a school teacher. She raised up 12 children.

In the next funeral there’s a family of our local friend, whose family automatically became our generous host. Thousands of people have gathered here, so the funeral place is surrounded by kilometers of deadlock. Before the comménce of the fierce bullfight, the men are singing mantras, holding their hands together in a circle. It even creates a certain sense of majesty. “At least once a year we gather together in such a funeral, there’s certainly someone who passes away every year,” says our friend’s cousin. “This time I brought one buffalo. But anyway, oh well, this is such a status game,” she laughed. “Everything here is publicly announced, who brought how many buffalos, all written down!”

After a few days in the funeral in Toraja, where according to the custom, I tried a bit of buffalo meat, I did not want to eat a single bite of meat for several months. The experience of Toraja can be a challenge for a fan of vegetarianism in principle. Though I must admit I was enjoying it in a sense I like blood and human perversion for example in the films of Jodorovsky or the revenge of inBOIL to iDeath in Brautigan’s “In Watermelon Sugar”.