A student of mine died this year and then I traveled to this place called Tana Toraja to see a pig get set on fire and after that I got a voicemail from my mother about looking death in the face. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. We’ll start with the pig.
My husband and I landed in Bali and beyond the hotel we had booked for the first three nights, we had no plan except to show up for our return flight that would be leaving from Ho Chi Minh City in roughly six weeks. After a few days in Seminyak, an area of Bali that felt like the closest I would ever get to Cancun during spring break, changing course felt paramount. The perfect anecdote? Deep inland on the island of Sulawesi, one of the largest of the long strand of 18,307 islands that make up Indonesia, families engage in elaborate funeral ceremonies and burial rites. Nothing says the opposite of string bikinis and tequila shooters like mass animal sacrifice and communal mourning. My husband and I booked the plane tickets and made jokes about “Our trip, our adventure,” a slogan we had seen splashed across t-shirts displayed next to the over-sized penis bottle openers. We were ready to leave the overly beaten path.
We were taking the long way to Tana Toraja, stopping in an out-of-the way beach town for a few nights, before making our way inland. To get to Bira, we flew to Makassar from Bali, then hired a driver to take us the seven hours to a sleepy, goat filled town on the Flores Sea. In Bira, we would connect with a driver who threw us, and a German couple who were headed the same way, into the back of his family mini-van. The twelve hours of car travel were spent on one lane highways along curvy mountain roads and rutted out jungle thoroughfares shared by goats and chickens. It was the kind of twelve hours where you book the first hotel you look at, even though it’s way fancier than you wanted to pay for, because you’re so happy you even got there and so physically unsettled and so joyous to be out the car that all you can manage to do is very inaccurate math on how much it will cost in U.S. dollars, and produce your credit card. You’re thrilled even though the food is trying to be Western and in doing so is just bad and the bed is hard and the shower curtain is moldy, because the beer is cold and there’s HBO that’s coming in snowy and “Kingpin” is on.
The phone number for Henrik, who would be our guide, had been passed along by some fellow travelers and I arranged for him to meet us in the lobby of our hotel the next morning. He wore jeans, a polo shirt and a stone ring the size of a small egg, a fashion trend popular among men in Indonesia. The day was already at a low swelter by 9a.m. as he issued us a trigger warning with his smooth English.
“Are you ready for today? For the funeral ceremony tradition?” Henrik asked us, while smoking and repeatedly running his hand through his thick, black hair.
“Yes?” I answered, looking hesitantly at my husband.
“First, we will get an offering for the funeral, an item for you to bring to honor the family.”
“Oh, yes, what should we bring?”
“A carton of cigarettes will make a nice offering.”
The last time I’d bought a carton of cigarettes was at the LaGuardia duty free in 1998 for a friend studying in Paris who was fiending for her Parliament Lights. As most people brought a pig or a buffalo, we were getting off easy in the offering department.
“I would like to tell you, you will see some dead animals. Maybe this will make you feel upset. I would like to tell you this so you are not surprised. Some tourists get upset and are surprised. I do not want you to feel this way.”
“Oh, thank you. Yes, we, well, we have read about some of the things we are going to see and we understand.”
“We can go then, if you like?” Henrik gestured toward his car, the large amber stone of his ring catching the morning sun.
As we arrived at the first funeral ceremony we would attend, it looked like little more than a bunch of parked motorcycles and a dirt path lined with piles of garbage. As we walked further into the towering bamboo stalks, I realized that beneath the cardboard were live pigs hog-tied to bamboo carriers. With the first pig squeal, I was teary. Not only were pigs screaming as they were carried around, somewhere a microphone was picking up the pigs’ screams and broadcasting these carnal wailings through speaker towers. While I was trying to take it all in, the surround-sound of pigs fighting against their death was turning it into a poorly edited Kubrick film. My husband seemed intent on using the camera as a shield from feeling too much and I walked around, both looking and not looking. Pig carcasses and entrails lined the road, kids waved at us and wanted us to take their picture, men chain-smoked, and women passed out trays of treats and tea in the makeshift structures set up for the occasion. We lasted about twenty minutes.Tana Toraja had remained an insular community practicing animism until 1909 when the Dutch missionaries arrived. Anthropologists coined the term “Animism” to describe societies whose interweaving of their reverence for the earth into their lives and spirituality is so seamless that the groups themselves have no word for it. The Dutch settlers brought with them their brand of Protestantism and the culture became a blend of animism and Jesus. Before this, death and life rituals in Torajan society were kept separate under the belief that performing the two together could ruin a corpse, compromising its afterlife. These rituals were practiced with equal importance, but the Dutch missionaries prohibited the life rituals from being observed and the death rituals rose to become a primary focus of Torajan life. The version we were seeing was peppered with rhinestone embellished denim, ubiquitous smart phones and lots and lots of cigarettes.
The pervasive image of Tana Toraja is the Togonkan. These large wooden boat-like structures sitting on stilts abound in Tana serving as everything from home to mausoleum to silo. One may hold a family, another a year’s worth of rice and still another a corpse, embalmed and awaiting its sendoff. Their saddleback roofs and massive, sweeping gables present as a fleet of ships separated from their sea. The outsides are hand-carved with intricate patterns of crimson, charcoal and yellowy gold. The size and level of decoration is relative to social status. The more pigs and buffalo a family owns, the bigger the Togonkan. There is an abandoned field-of-dreams quality to Tana. Our hotel was massive and elegant: enough rooms and the facilities to accommodate several conferences, a spa and pool and hundred person restaurant, along with a separate bar area and space for twice weekly Zumba classes. Some Indonesians we talked to said this was due to poorly maintained roads, and all the driving necessary to get there — nine hours of driving by the shortest route from the closest airport, if you already happened to live on the island of Sulawesi and felt like spending your vacation at someone else’s funeral. Some Indonesians told us the tourism elements had been built up in anticipation of an airport that had yet to be completed, but would be soon. Even with an eventual airport, I didn’t think it would become a thriving tourist destination. Just as films about terminal illness win Oscars, but no one is ever in the right mood to watch them. While we can award it importance from a comfortable distance, death just isn’t on people’s itineraries until it has to be.
The funeral ceremonies last four days and with different events occurring on each day. Day two, which we had just seen, involves a lot of sacrificing of pigs and buffalo as a way to honor the person who has died. The more well-to-do a person is, the more animals the attendees will bring. It is also a sign of affluence to have many people at your funeral, which is why we were allowed to tag-along. The Torajans had a more-the-merrier attitude and hundreds of people were partying in the jungle. The mood was undeniably celebratory, carnival like. Amongst the hundreds, I only saw a single woman crying, and she was elderly. It might just have been that she was upset with all the kids on their phones.
We also got to attend the first day of a ceremony when the casket is transported from the family home to the celebration site. A beginning of something long awaited lent the air an electricity, stoked by the many people who had traveled great distances to be here, convening in one spot. Families save for years to put on these elaborate affairs, hence the Togonkan specifically used as homes for corpses. The crowd had more the air of a cocktail hour at a large wedding than a funeral. A life-size wooden model of the deceased waited on the sidelines to be carried in front of the casket while women primped in their phones’ reversed lenses. There were few spots of shade in the heat that shown down on people wearing black and blue, some red and purple, the traditional funeral colors. I wore a bright blue t-shirt that I had put on after Henrik advised blue or black. It seemed like the wrong shade of blue. But people still wanted to take selfies with me, so must have been #totesappropriate.
A group of the close family gathered and sang songs that seemed to be in the key of “Amazing Grace.” Women wore large, Hollywood sunglasses and carried traditional black velvet purses covered in designs of red and orange seed beads. Several children in the front wore the same black t-shirt with a gold Superman ‘S’ on the front. The coffin was transported on a large bamboo carrier and a man handed out packs of cigarettes and cans of Bintang beer to the pallbearers who seemed like they had partaken in a few already. Another group of kids, sporting yellow bandanas jauntily tied so that a yellow triangle flagged up from their foreheads, carried tall spears and readied to lead the procession.After a lot of whooping, the bandana boys lead the way down the main road framed by the green, jungle thick hills on one side and a sun-glinted river on the other. Following them were all the women, carrying above their heads a long red banner. No men are allowed under this awning and I watched a drunk one get sassily shoo’d out. Behind the red cloth came the hearse that looked like it weighed 800 pounds with its bamboo carrying frame, the casket and the small Togonkan perched atop it all. The men carrying it heaved and ho’d, laughing and throwing plastic cups of water in the air, running forward for about thirty feet and then stopping, collapsing in a pile of laughter and setting down the whole apparatus before starting the process over again. They journeyed a mile or more in this fashion. There was some comical tugging of the red banner as they walked more quickly than the casket could keep up and there was laughter. Lots and lots of laughter.
Along with the funeral ceremonies, there were a myriad of burial sites to visit. The Cliff Grave, the Baby Grave and the Cave Grave were all stops on our two day itinerary. The Cliff Grave is for those of higher social status, as they are challenging to build and expensive. A high, small tunnel is dug into the rock and the corpse placed inside. A wooden effigy of the dead person guards the entrance of the grave on the cliff-face, looking out at the rice paddies and tourists. Several in a row from a family plot resembled a morose and stoic puppet show, the red painted parts of the faces had remained bright while the other colors were long since faded by the tropical sun and storms.The Cave Graves are similar to the cliff style in that coffins are placed high within the rock walls, but different in that some are also suspended from the ceiling. The work of time has separated some bones from their caskets and the floor of the cave we visited was lined with rows of broken skulls and the small piles of cigarettes placed in front of them. These caves are hundreds of years old, and Henrik seemed to think that there were probably many Cave Graves yet to be discovered in Tana. He politely offered to take our photograph with us posing our heads next to a stack of skulls, as if we were in the line up. There seemed like no surer way to bring home a gnarly curse, so we politely declined feigning the need for a restroom.
Our last grave visit brought us to a Banyan tree amongst a forest so tall it produced a strange music of centuries old bamboo creaking far above us in the breeze. When a child dies before she has cut her first tooth, a hole is carved out of the Banyan’s trunk, the child placed inside, and then she is covered with a burlap thatching that is then stitched closed. The tree we visited held at least fifteen children. It felt macabre and witchy until our guide explained that the tree eventually grows around this scar, healing over it. Above the blackened marks, you could see the puckered seam of the tree that had grown completely over the burlap. The belief is that once this happens the child has reached heaven or paradise. As I stood in the shade of the tree a bit longer, it felt peaceful. It felt like a way that came close to making sense of the unsensible. And I had been struggling with that since the beginning of the year.Kellen was a student of mine who had been ill with brain cancer. It had struck him suddenly, taking him out of school at the end of sixth grade. After a year of intensive chemo, he started school again in September as a slightly-too-old seventh grader, before the cancer returned and he died. A grief counselor addressed the staff about a week after his passing. He explained that there is a window of time for such events, a grief window, and it’s much smaller than we think. Communities begin to move on; it’s what they do. I saw the truth in this. Still part of me wanted to rage against it. Shouldn’t life be disrupted just a little? This terribly young person has died! Windows should be thrown open and bellowed out of! Windows should be smashed to pieces! But, with very little smashing of anything, life at school moved forward.
At this exact time, I began clenching my jaw while sleeping worse than I ever had before.
During stressy times, I have vivid dreams of spitting my teeth out, blood and shards of tooth pour from my mouth into my hands. I can’t stop spitting out teeth. After Kellen’s death, I woke with splitting headaches, sought out acupuncture and even considered finally getting that mouth guard my dentist had been pushing for years. My body actively protested against business as usual and wanted me to acknowledge more what a big fucking deal it is for a fourteen year old’s life to end. Does not compute, brain says. Eat your own teeth, body says.
The last day of touring Tana was spent visiting the second day of another large funeral. We were the only non-Indonesian people at this one and we were invited into one of the shelters to share coffee and cakes with the family. After I stepped over several live pigs, I tucked into the corner and looked out on the crowd. Indonesians paced around in black traditional outfits, but also jeans and t-shirts. Women carried steel tea kettles that glimmered in the sun and pig blood shimmered on the dirt and words I didn’t understand were sung through a loudspeaker while sweat dripped down the inside of my shirt. Laying in the center of this was a massive severed buffalo head- ring through its nose, guts spilling out the back, eyes gazing nowhere in particular. A young boy, walked up to it, stopped, looked down at it, gave it a swift kick to the snout, and kept walking.I turned my gaze and saw a group of men stab a pig and its blood pour out into the dirt. Then one fired up a large blow torch and began setting it on fire. Ashes flew around, creating a hot snow and the pig was torched until its head, its body, everything was blackened and crisped. Another man cut into it with a machete and the white, white skin shone in the sunlight. I looked down the path in the jungle that leads to this scene. It was filled with pigs waiting for the slaughter, children running and shrieking, a vendor selling Hello Kitty balloons and candy.
We decided to wrap it up and Henrik agreeably said he would help us buy our overnight bus tickets back to the airport in Makassar.
Tickets acquired, we said goodbye to yet another person we had spent a lot of time with and who we wouldn’t see again. He thanked us and we thanked him and he kindly reminded us to write him a good review on Tripadvisor.
No sooner had I stopped waving at Henrik, then I looked down to see a bizarre mark on my arm. It was about a half an inch and what was extra strange about it was that I hadn’t felt anything happen. At all.
“That’s really weird looking,” Kevin stated. The concern in his voice was not at all hidden.
“Yeah…it is.” I was less concerned and more confused at how this thing had gotten on my arm. Was it a bite? A scratch? A burn?
“Look at that. That is weird.”
“Yes, it is very weird. I mean, well, we’re leaving soon, so I guess I’ll just keep an eye on it?”
“Do you think we should go to a doctor?”
“Nooooo…that’s…it’s…no. It’s fine. We’ll just keep an eye on it.”
We had about eight more hours to kill before our overnight bus left and every ten minutes we were looking at my arm. This is because the arm had gotten much more alarming looking. The raised burn/scratch/bite had now developed a red ring around it like a halo of sunburn and from that halo were four, what can only be described as tentacles, stretching off of it, one in each of the cardinal directions.
“Now it doesn’t just look weird, it looks, like, bad. Really bad. Like an infection. I think we should try to get you to a doctor. What if it was some weird jungle bug? What if it was from one of the dead animals?”
“We’re in the middle of nowhere, and we’re about to get on a nine hour overnight bus, and, it’s finnnnne. Let’s not talk about weird jungle bugs that jumped off a dead pig carcass, please.”
I remain calm, even though the undisclosed jungle disease mark is on my arm. The mark I noticed after we had just spent a few days in the jungle surrounded by bleeding livestock. And, exactly when I thought it couldn’t get scarier looking, it does. One of the tentacles had reached the visible artery that runs up the middle of my inner forearm and once it had connected to that, had begun, with quiet determination, to travel north on that thoroughfare.
We made an attempt at seeing a doctor, but after fifteen minutes on the phone, the hotel concierge put us on with someone who seemed to be telling me I could come into their clinic, but they were presently eating lunch. We showed my arm to someone at the hotel who thought the problem could be solved with putting some iodine on it, which I allowed, because the rusty solution does offer a “some sort of healing is happening reassurance,” although it was also just making my skin orange and the bitescratchburn harder to see. Still dubious, we slapped a bandaid over it — out of sight, out of Toraja, and onto the overnight bus we went.
Once on the bus, we decided that I should start taking the Cipro my doctor had sent me off with in case of traveler’s diarrhea or a UTI. It seemed like pretty multi-purpose stuff, so I popped one before we put on a documentary about Theodore Roosevelt. This segment happened to focus on his trip to the Amazon where at one point he was so ill, he begged his son to leave him to die there and men in their party had run off screaming into the jungle, never to be heard from again, mad with disease. I looked down at my arm, over at my husband, and tried to fall asleep. By the time we blearily arrived at 5:30a.m., the red tentacles had retracted. Modern medicine seemed to have protected me from begging Kevin to just leave me outside the KFC at the Makassar airport and save himself.
Tana Toraja and the biteburnscratch became several of the go-to stories about our six weeks away. You think when you’re on a trip like this, you’ll come back and tell it all, communicate so much, but mostly it boils down to a few good stories and a handful of swipes on your phone. You can’t communicate the rest. You just can’t and it stays that way, filed away with those things that are only yours in this life, with your love and your grief.
Home a few weeks, I missed a call from my mom and pressed play. Cradling the phone to my ear, I distractedly picked at the chipped neon green on my toes. Her message began with a sigh.
“Hi honey, it’s your mum. Just on my way to the office…seeing clients this afternoon. Things have been a little crazy around here with Trigger dying. I know he’s only a cat, I mean and really more your dad’s cat, but, I have to say, in all my years on this planet, I’ve never been there the moment that…the moment that the life goes out of something. And, well, it was pretty intense.”
On the final stretch of our trip, the bus ride home to Seattle from Vancouver, my husband received a text that his childhood dog was going to be put to sleep. Cancer, her back legs had stopped working. His parents brought this dog everywhere. She was beloved and spoiled. An alpha, vicious killer as far as other animals were concerned, but a lover of people. Goofy, golden retriever smile looking up at you as she would rub her butt against your leg as a signal she was ready to be petted.
“I want to have a little ceremony for Sadie when you’re all out here.” My mother-in-law, Debbie, requested this via a group text. I could hear the silent, collective groan of people discomforted by death as event, death as interrupter, death as stirrer of the feelings deep within our primal wells.
We did it in the morning, walking the short trail behind their house where Sadie had often frolicked and often pooped. Once again, I found myself in the woods, walking a path to confront death. We formed a small circle of six, and Debbie, apologizing for crying, read a generic poem that had been sent along with the cremated remains in the paw print tin.
My father-in-law walked behind us, shaking the dust of Sadie along the edges of the trail, over moss and large sword ferns. The others walked ahead, Debbie seemed glad it was done and the others glad it was done too, but for the resumption of living, of football and guitar playing and brunch making. I turned back to see Bob walking alone with quiet tears, so I asked to see the remains. I had envisioned a uniform, ashy substance and it was more like sand with chunks in it. I looked into the box, and he shook it around as if sifting gold, and then we walked out of the clearing.
“I don’t know, I just wanted to do a little ritual.” Debbie said.
I know, I thought to myself, me too.
Kids die too soon sometimes. Planes disappear into the ocean. Pets can’t live forever. People get weird jungle diseases that popping Cipro doesn’t cure. Eventually, some sooner than others, we return to the Earth, head down the unbeaten path. I’ve not been with something when the life goes out of it. Watching that pig get stabbed then set on fire in Tana Toraja was the closest I’ve come. But I wasn’t cradling that pig’s head, I wasn’t petting its coat or weeping on its chest. Kellen was my student, not my son. Perhaps with the fiery pig and the daily specter of his empty desk, I was starting to peek beneath death’s veil, so that when I was face to face with it, while fear would remain, I could find a little piece of sacrament, a bit of comfort to turn to and try to celebrate that which cannot be captured with words.
Stifled one afternoon, the routine going on as it should being too much to bear quietly when I was still coming across papers with his name in scrawly handwriting and pairs of scissors lovingly labeled ‘Kellen,’ I sat. And instead of planning my next lesson or numbing out on Facebook, I took out a piece of construction paper and my favorite blue glitter.
I sat and cut paper. I methodically painted letters with glue and covered the pearly trails with flecks of sparkle. I sat while it dried. I taped it over his locker.
At our school’s art festival a few months after Kellen’s passing, a group of students spontaneously broke into a musical performance. Before starting they shouted out to the crowd, “This is for our friend Kellen!,” then banged on a piano somewhat musically, yelled into a microphone and beat some drums off time. Ritual emerges from an underground spring, eternal and waiting, unpolished and jagged, white bone from dark, damp earth. The grief window closes, but the light still shines through.