Driving along green paddies and a backdrop of grassy mountains until the village of Nanggala, we take a concrete side road up a steep hill, and soon find ourselves at the edge of a slope. Right below, makeshift tents and buffalo-horn shaped pavilions stand around a field full of busy humans and relaxed animals. We have arrived. We rock down the muddy slope, mixing with the crowd.
But a voice stops us.
“Are these your tourists?”
It’s a man dressed in a black coat, small stripes of yellow and red running around the neckline of his black gown.
“No, I’m not the guide. Saya bapak,” Sam answers, meaning “I am the father”. We both freeze upon hearing this new important piece of information we hadn't been informed about. Father? We just met him the night before.
But it seems to make the trick: the man in black steps back, still serious in the face, but seemingly satisfied with the nature of us camera-toting intruders. Sam turns to us to explain that the man is one of the sons of the departed: the golden and red wooden coffin rests inside a makeshift tower-like structure standing right above us. It's surrounded by the wife, children and other women, all dressed in black. Right opposite and at the center of the field, there’s another similar structure, occupied by a single rooster. Beneath, 18 buffaloes graze free inside a perimeter of red-draped pavilions, some occupied by family members, sitting and waiting while women dish up and distribute coffee and cakes.
“Funerals are public affairs, but after all, you need some sort of introduction to participate,” says Sam as he chaperones us around the grounds.
It doesn't take long before a man with a mike and a spear topped with a lime in each hand enters the field, inspecting the animals up close, and inciting the crowd in Torajan language — which neither of us can understand. Soon enough, when the elation of the crowd is so thick it could be sliced with a knife, the gong strikes again. Two young men are ushered into the field, and all the spectators start humming.
The youngsters pull two long machetes out of their holders: the buffalo marked with number one, as expected, will be the first to go. One man approaches from the side, grabbing the rope secured through the animal’s nose, and pulls it towards the center of the field. The buffalo follows, only wobbling his head, never sensing what’s about to come... not even when the second chap stretches out his left arm to gain power, and then slams his blade right across the buffalo’s throat.
There’s no sound: my eyes gape like that new and dark hole in the animal’s neck. It takes a while before an intermittent shower of blood starts coloring the soil crimson, and only then my legs fill with knots. Such a savage way to go.
When the blood flows, we go back to the stone age: men and boys scream together in excitement, while the women next to the coffin, who have been silent thus far, shriek and cry out as loud as they can. It's a slow, cinematic death: each scream fills the void between each intermittent gush of blood. And even with a severed throat, the buffalo seems unaware it's slowly dying: it takes a good minute before it shakes its head, its body jerks, and with a final twist and turn on its haunches, the beast collapses on the ground.
Buffalo Number Two is less fortunate: the first strike doesn’t cut deep enough, and after a minute of agony or two, the young executioner comes forward to strike back, finally severing the jugular, sending a shower of blood in the air — and the beast to Heaven's waiting room. When the slaughterers approach Number Three, I notice that the first has changed color: flies already flutter around its horns and mouth, while some people get closer, cameras and smart-phones in hand, to catch their gruesome mementos.
To the Torajans all around us, this may be normal funeral business. But before Number Four is pulled by the nose out of a corner, I decide I have had enough. A sunbeam shines on the tip of the thirsty blade, and I know well it won’t be quenched until Number Eighteen is face down in the mud. Before another throat weeps red, I grab my wife by the shoulder and push her towards the main road.
Sam, who has been distractedly observing the ceremony from the road above the slope, makes his way over to us in the crowd. “Are you leaving already?”
“Yes,” I answer, “I’ve just had enough of the blood”.
“But you said you wanted to see...”
Like an alpha-male of a father, Sam seems disappointed upon realizing that his acquired Malaysian daughter is married to a queasy wuss who can barely stand the smell and sight of buffalo blood. He tells us he must stay on with his maddened fellows, as “it’s bad etiquette to leave too early after an invitation”.
That’s fine with us: despite us breaking a social taboo, nobody seems to notice our departure. I exchange a glance with my Malaysian Chinese wife: it will be a long walk to the main road to find a lift to town—but I'm happy to slog downhill, knowing that the tribe I married into approaches death in far less daunting and taxing ways.
Marco Ferrarese is a book author, freelance travel and culture writer, and metalpunk guitar-slinger based in Southeast Asia. He toured most hellholes of Europe and North America, hung out with Kurt Cobain's alleged murderer, and rode with truck drivers from Singapore to his native Italy. He shares his Penang knowledge at penang-insider.com, blogs about overlanding in Asia as a couple on monkeyrockworld.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @monkeyrockworld.
Orangutan Warfare in Borneo - Marco Ferrarese
The Guilt Cafe in Vietnam - Kirsten Koza
Following My Fixer into the Underground in Laos - James Michael Dorsey
Street Walking Demons in Sumatra - Marco Ferrarese
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