Sometimes I’m in the right place at the right time. It usually involves food. Like that time many years ago when I first moved to NYC and my friend and I decided to use our day off to go to the Chelsea Piers driving range. We were walking on 23rd Street and as we approached a Krispy Kreme my friend excitedly pointed at the illuminated “Hot Now” sign. At that time I wasn’t familiar with this KK phenomenon, but my very knowledgeable friend walked right into the shop and I followed him. As we approached the counter, an angel disguised as a Krispy Kreme employee asked us if we wanted a free sample of the fresh, hot donuts. We both managed to drool an affirmative response. The Krispy Kreme angel handed us each a fresh, hot glazed donut. Say WHAT?!?!?! A free, fresh, hot donut?!?!?! Talk about being in the right place at the right time. If you don’t see the magic in this then you need to re-evaluate your life.
Anyway, I recently found myself in the right place at the right time again and this time it didn’t involve food. Crazy, I know.
We were in the town of Makassar where most people only spend a day or two before heading up to Torajaland or down to Bali or Flores. We didn’t have plans to stay long, but we both fell ill at different points during our stay so we ended up spending a lot more time than we had planned. Before we had arrived in Makassar we read in the news that a huge discovery was made regarding the cave paintings at Maros-Pangkep on Sulawesi. These cave paintings were thought to be no more than 10,000 years old, but very recent research now dates them back to around 40,000 years old. This makes them the oldest cave paintings in the world! We don’t know shit about archaeology, but the possibility of seeing the cave paintings with our own eyes was something that we couldn’t pass up. I mean, how often are you in Sulawesi and close enough to see cave paintings from 40,000 years ago? Exactly.
We asked the manager of the hotel if he knew about the caves and how to get there. He was familiar with the area and knew exactly where we needed to go, but he couldn’t understand why we wouldn’t want to go rafting or do something touristy in the area instead of just going to see the paintings. He said he could take us there, but wanted to charge us quite a bit to be our driver and tour guide for the day. Since we were only interested in seeing the paintings we negotiated the price down and met him after lunch to head over to the caves.
The drive to the Leang Leang caves was about 45 minutes through the city. It wasn’t a pretty ride at all because, like many cities in Indonesia, the roadside litter is quite appalling. They haven’t quite figured out a waste management system yet and most people don’t see a problem with tossing a plastic bottle right out of their car window.
When we arrived at the cave, our hotel manager tour guide fella took us to the office to sign the guest book and pay the entrance fee. Of course, the tourist rate was double the local rate, but it was still under $2 per person if I remember correctly. We paid and signed the guest book which we noticed had about 10 names in it. I guess the cave paintings aren’t that popular yet. An unenthusiastic security guard walked us over to the painted caves. The cave where the paintings were found are behind a locked fence because there are people who don’t appreciate history and think it would be so much fun to etch their names into the walls. Fools.
Our guide, Arru, dumped us on another guide for our second day of touring Torajaland. This worked out perfectly fine for us because we clicked with our new guide, Amos, immediately. Amos was very knowledgeable, patient, and spoke great English. He and the driver picked us up at 9am and we headed to the buffalo market.
The market is very close to town and I’m sure you could explore it on your own, but it helps to have a guide point out the best black and white buffalo to spend your money on. Speaking of black and white buffalo, this is the first time I’ve seen these majestic beasts. We saw many a fine buffalo in Vietnam, but they were all a dull blackish-brown color. I know I’d pay an extra 50,000,000 Rp for a fine blue-eyed, black and white, beast of burden. The buffalo handlers were all standing around waiting for buyers and I was impressed by how caring they were with their beasts. They sprayed water on the gentle creatures to keep them cool and caressed their faces to ease their anxiety. I guess it makes sense to take good care of such valuable assets. We did our best to avoid the massive cow patties as we walked through the buffalo market towards the pig market.
Unlike the majority of Indonesia, the people of Torajaland are not Muslim so pork is a big part of their diet. You wouldn’t see this swine market in Java or Sumatra, or even in other parts of Sulawesi. There were squirming piglets in sacks and larger pigs hog-tied to bamboo gurneys. The more desirable specimens were allowed to strut their stuff in pens to show that they were in good health. It’s too bad that all of the pigs couldn’t just be put into pens rather than tied up. I’m no animal rights activist and I’d be the first person to steal a strip of crispy bacon from a baby, but I’m not keen on seeing the poor creatures strapped down unnecessarily. Then again, I bet their treatment here is immensely better than that of pigs at factory farms back in the States.
On the way out of the market we saw guys gathered around showing off their beautiful cocks. Get your mind out of the gutter! I’m talking about people selling roosters for fighting. Some tourists ask their guides to take them to cockfights where the roosters have razor blades attached to their talons so they can inflict lethal injuries on their opponents. We had no interest in seeing such a thing and I was happy to find out that our guide felt the same way about this barbaric form of entertainment. We continued to our car and headed up to see the monoliths.
We flew to Makassar for the sole purpose of immersing ourselves in death in Torajaland, where the indigenous ethnic group in the mountains of Sulawesi have a fascinating culture of celebrating their deceased. It’s doable on your own, but we hired a local guide because it’s really hard to learn anything otherwise. And learn we did.
I wish I remembered the name of the village our guide Arru hails from, but I have a crappy memory. Anyway, it’s a good representation of traditional Torajan homes. We walked through the short row of houses as Arru explained that homes always face north and rice barns face south. Buffalo horns are stacked high up the center of the front of these homes to signify how many buffalo were sacrificed during the funerals of their family members, which in turn shows off the wealth of these families. There are reasons for the placement of almost everything within these villages.
Most tourists don’t visit or stay long in Makassar and that’s what makes it interesting to us. We hired a rickshaw to visit a fish market and “traditional harbor” in Makassar and got dropped off by the harbor. We slowly picked our way around puddles and trucks and came upon a tiled area covered in blue tarp with a god-awful stench emanating from it.
There were boys and men everywhere, and as soon as we started walking around, the attention was on us. It was a reminder that once again, we are in an area in this country that sees few tourists, which means we are a fun spectacle for the locals. Hawkers beckoned us over to take photos of them and their fish, and guys jostled each other as they approached us in turns and asked us where we were from before turning around to their buddies and letting them know very loudly where we hailed from.
We felt perfectly safe but we don’t like to be the center of attention for too long in unfamiliar places (just in case), so we didn’t stay long. It was still an unexpectedly cool experience. The harbor wasn’t as interesting but we got to see some pretty big old school wooden boats being loaded and unloaded.
Makassar is the biggest city in Sulawesi, situated on the southwest coast of the octopus-shaped island. Biggest is relative though, because while it might be a big port city, there really isn’t much going on. We flew in to recharge before taking on Tana Toraja and Bunaken.
While there isn’t much happening yet in Makassar, there is a growing number of enterprising young people who are making Makassar their own, opening the kind of places where they can hang out with their friends.
We got to know the son of the owner of the Hotel Agung, a clean, new and budget-friendly hotel near Fort Rotterdam. A graphic designer, Christian designed the interior and exterior of the hotel, which has a simple, modern look. We ended up using this hotel as our base and recovery place (after we got stomach troubles), staying there for a total of ten days.
Christian took us to a nearby cafe opened two years ago by a young local who loves coffee. It was the sort of place you might see in a hipster neighborhood in Brooklyn. For a little over a dollar, we had a tasty cappuccino and an Americano, with delicious homemade peanut cookies to nibble on (two for 3000 rupiah, or about 25 cents). It was busy when we got there in the late afternoon, and groups of young people sat chatting and smoking.