After a 10 hour journey from Donggala (with a few stop offs on the way) we were deposited at Ue Datu Cottages just outside Tentena. It was dark and relatively cool and, after we bade farewell to our driver, Wowi and his friend, the night security man at Ue Datu interrupted his YouTube viewing for a moment to seek out a few ice cold Bintangs which we drank on the shared veranda outside our little cottage, which we drank watching the frogs hopping around catching flies under the light and listening to their croaking compete with the trill of cicadas.
The sounds were very different from those we had become accustomed to. On the coast we heard the birds, cicadas and the occasional distant call to prayer but in the background there was always the constant rhythm of the ocean lapping the shore.
We had travelled inland to lush countryside surrounded by mountains the sometimes deafening cicadas were joined by a chorus of frogs and, here in Christian Tentena, the intermittent call to prayer was replaced by a constant blaring of Christmas songs and carols emanating from the tinny loudspeakers of several competing churches, it being December and all that. This caused us to have a brief mosque versus church discussion and after a couple of days enduring an almost incessant bombardment of various versions of “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” we decided that close proximity to a mosque was eminently preferable and positively soothing.
Ten hours in a car travelling along badly maintained roads had taken its toll and we spent the first day just relaxing. The morning after we arrived we went for a walk into town in search of a bank and soon discovered that although it was much cooler and comfortable at night, daytime temperatures and humidity varied little from Palu but I did dig out my fleecy to wear first thing in the morning and last thing at night and it was oddly comforting.
On our second day we embarked on a two day trip to the Lore Lindu National Park.
Our guide, Nain, had approached us on the evening we arrived at Ue Datu and we negotiated[*] a price to spend two days touring the park, which included all food and staying overnight at a losmen (guesthouse/homestay). There are many trekking opportunities here but unfortunately, due to the dodgy knees and cracked rib we had to reluctantly accept that any long distance hiking, particularly over rough terrain, was not going to be possible. However Nain assured us we would be able to access most of the sites we wanted to see.
[*I say negotiate, but Nain provided a price that was below that which we had already decided we would be happy to pay so there was no negotiation at all, just an agreement and a handshake.]
Nain spoke English well enough but was happy to speak with Paul in Bahasa Indonesia which was a bonus as most guides would rather speak English to get more practice. Our driver, Feri, didn’t speak very much English at all, but he was a lovely and polite, and a brilliant driver to boot – no mean feat on the many unmade roads and those in the mountains of Sulawesi which are washed away by landslides on a regular basis. Driving around this part of Sulawesi requires skillful navigating along little more than uneven tracks, particularly in the mountains on the narrow sections where the road has been chiseled into the mountainside. You find yourself with a mountain soaring up on one side with a sheer drop on the other leaving little room for error when manoeuvring past oncoming vehicles.
After a 4 hour journey across the mountains we arrived at our losmen, a simple affair with a large room and small shower room although the shower didn’t function but that wasn’t a problem for just one night. The family running the losmen were the only Muslim family in the Christian village and even had their own tiny family mosque. That Nain (a devout Christian who fled Poso during the troubles – see below) gave his business to the only Muslim family in this small village was a testament to the culture and way of life in these parts, and that people are defined as being part of a community and not by what religion they follow.
This is probably a good point to mention the not insignificant problems Sulawesi (and elsewhere in Indonesia) suffered 15 years ago which was portrayed simplistically in the media as being between Muslims and Christians. Digging a little deeper into the history of these troubles uncovers much more complex reasons behind the conflict and reveals it to be less about religion and more about community frustrations and more about the local people (irrespective of religion) being pushed out of jobs and housing by transmigration policies. For decades, the wealthier and better educated Javanese (who are mainly Muslim) have been migrating across Indonesia and settling in places like Borneo, Sulawesi and the Malukus taking lucrative jobs away from the locals, building themselves larger, more modern housing and benefiting from better infrastructure. The indigenous population have not benefited from this migration and it has only entrenched them in deeper poverty which led to local disputes and escalated to riots, bombings and killings. In places like Sulawesi it was framed in religious terms.
Tourists were never targeted but obviously during the height of the conflict in the early 2000s people stayed away. Despite the conflict being resolved and communities settled back down to living harmoniously as they had done before, several western governments including the UK and Australia have not updated their foreign policy and continue to advise travellers against visiting. The people we have spoken to (both Muslim and Christian) are insistent that the situation would never arise again and everyone is quick to point out that the police and other security services do an excellent job of nipping any potential problems in the bud.
I find it curious that Kalimantan (Borneo) has experienced similar problems although to a lesser extent (and those problems are still simmering) but this is not news in the west because it lacks the Muslim against Christian angle when it is not about religion but about local people being marginalised. Here too, Javanese are coming in and taking all the good jobs and building themselves new houses while the local people continue to live in shacks on the riverside and scrape past with whatever they can make on a day to day basis.
Nain was born in Poso (the scene of some of the worst atrocities in the Sulawesi troubles) and lived there until he was a teenager but in 1999 his family fled from the erupting violence to the safety of Tentena. Nain subsequently met his wife is Tentena and has made his home there. He told us he did not want return to live in Poso and we could detect no resentment about being forced to flee his home city. He was optimistic about his future in his adopted town. While reluctant to discuss the issue at first, when he realised we had open minds and just wanted to hear his personal experience he was happy to open up and talk about it.
After checking in our losmen we set off for the afternoon to explore those parts of the park accessible by car and in particular two of the megaliths. One was reached via a forest track next to an uninhabited traditional bamboo house, and another just over the brow of a hill in rolling countryside not dissimilar to what you could describe as typically English.
No-one knows anything much about the megaliths except that they are about 5,000 years old. No-one knows why they were made or how they were carved. No archaeologists have spent years studying them and it seems that most of the information is simply that which has been handed down through the generations. The megaliths are not signposted (as far as I could see) and as is often the case in Indonesia, each time we arrived at one of the ancient stones I wondered how the hell anyone ever knew they were here. I often wonder how anyone ever finds their way to anywhere in Indonesia.
We drove through tiny villages, dodged sleeping dogs and roaming goats, waved at countless children and received smiles from almost every stranger. We were the only bule (white people/foreigners) and were welcomed wherever we turned.
Upon our return to the losmen we invited Nain and Feri to join us for a beer so the boys went off in search of Bintang. It was clear that neither of them were regular drinkers but we sat down together and Paul practised more Bahasa. Feri came out of his shell a little and grew in confidence trying out his English more and more.
Dinner was a simple meal of rice and chicken and afterwards Paul sat down with Nain and Feri again for another beer while I retired early to read, exhausted. They chatted until about 10.00pm and really opened up about their life and culture. Paul told me later that they explained how their traditional beliefs still held sway despite their Christianity. For example, when they were first married Feri’s wife suffered a series of miscarriages. They went to see the village elder woman who performed a traditional massage claiming this would realign and rearrange anything out of place. Feri’s wife went on to produce three children, one after the other without problem and it was clear Feri believed that it was the village elder’s powers that had made this possible.
They made jokes about people from Manado in north-west Sulawesi (they are all crazy apparently, partly due to the particular brand of hooch brewed up in those parts but partly due to the fact that they are simply from Manado), about cannibalism (a custom they claim is reserved for West Papuans), and sacrifice (animal and human) but the way they spoke hinted that it was not so far back in their own history that these customs and traditions formed part of their own culture but that they had moved on and modernised. They were open about Christianity’s influence and that conversion by the Dutch had successfully prohibited human sacrifice entirely and in the most part outlawed animal sacrifice but, as we were to witness in Tana Toraja, compromises were reached.
We were heartened to learn that Christianity hadn’t completely eradicated their local culture and traditions (although secretly quite pleased about their apparent aversion to human sacrifice and cannibalism).
The next morning after breakfast we headed out to see more megaliths (including the big wonky one). We also walked through rice fields and visited more traditional bamboo houses (one inhabited by a rather large huntsman spider). We visited a village elder (she was apparently 80 years old) who carried on the old craft of making material out of tree bark. We both tried on a hat, bought said hats and posed for a picture. We sat in this old woman’s simple house with a mud floor and a fire burning in the area which musts have been the kitchen, with sleeping areas partitioned off, and sparrows flew in and out at random, while Nain chatted to her and her daughter explaining who we were, where we were from and what we had been up to.
Towards the end of the afternoon we headed back to Tentena.
On our final day in Tentena Nain drove us to local sites such as the Saluopa Waterfall, a local American sponsored education centre for women built on the shore of Lake Poso in elaborate bamboo, and we had lunch at a restaurant on a beach on Lake Poso. We bumped into a Slovenian couple at the waterfall (which was well worth the trek up the steep steps) and met them again at the beach. The road to the beach closed at certain times of the day so we had to wait for a couple of hours before it reopened and sat chatting to them for a while.
We enjoyed our stay in Tentena and our two day tour around the Lore Lindu National Park and we enjoyed the time spent with Nain and Feri. Our Tentena guesthouse was comfortable and the decking area where we ate breakfast was surrounded by ponds (hence the frogs), and shaded by overhanging trees was also a lovely place to sit and drink a few beers in the early evening after dark. There was no bar, we just asked the night security guard to fetch us a few beers and iced glasses, and sat at one of the tables listening to the frogs, the geckos and the cicadas, and hoping the Christmas songs would stop sometime before we went to bed! We also watched fireflies darting around in the bushes, something we hadn’t seen since the Mekong.
On our final morning Nain and Feri turned up as arranged to whisk us off to Rantepao, the capital of Tana Toraja, on a journey which took 12 and a half hours. We made a few stops on the way to take in some amazing views over Lake Poso and, as we headed south, the roads improved and we released our grip on the door handles slightly for the blood to reach our knuckles and turn them pink again.
It was still a long journey for all concerned and by the time we reached our destination that evening we were all a bit frazzled and ready for a beer and a rest and Christmas.