Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

Tana Toraja, Indonesia


“There are three spirits that drive us: The spirit within us and the spirit of a place, and then that third thing, that story like thing—the ignition, or spark, that occurs between us and it.”

Rick Bass, Why I Came West, 2008

An elderly woman—perhaps she is my Indonesian twin— walks along the road, her head buried under a huge bundle of empty rice stalks. Youngsters thrash the rice and shake it in shallow bamboo baskets that catch the impurities; a man hauls a 5-yard-long trunk of bamboo on his shoulder, probably for a house under construction; chickens with their miniature offspring flutter about and a flock of ducks bursts out of a gate; buffaloes covered in mud are tethered to a pipe in the middle of the sawas (rice fields).


“You are going to love Puangbembe in Simbuang,” my colleague Dr. Stanis S. tells me. Stanis, a linguistic anthropologist, hails from Toraja, Indonesia, where we have been carrying out research on mothers and infants, on baby birth and death rituals.


Torajans live in fertile valleys, in hamlets or clan communities dotted across a large mountainous landscape. Its unique culture is still preserved, and to the casual tourist manifests itself primarily by the architecture of the community clan houses (tongkonans) and the elaborate funeral rites that draw relatives from all over the world and can last for over a week. While the inhabitants are now predominantly Christian with a sizable Muslim population as well, the elaborate funerals derive from the original animistic religion called Aluk To Dolo.

According to Stanis, complex changes are taking place as a result of modernization. Television programs beam into many homes, and movies have imported Western ideas, including ideas about modern medicine. Nonetheless, many people in rural Toraja, especially in remote regions still adhere to Aluk To Dolo which attributes illnesses to spirits and other ephemeral influences.

Stanis has spent three years off and on studying funeral rituals in Puangbembe one of the most remote villages in Toraja, and our destination. He tells me that depending on the condition of the weather and the trails, it can take three days to get there and sometimes it is altogether impossible. Five hours of hiking; am I up to that after my hip replacement a year and a half ago? I decide not to consult the surgeon. He might say “no.”

I arrive by the end of April in Toraja, when it pours every day.  “Better wait a few weeks until the rainy season has ended before we tackle that trip to Simbuang,” Stanis counsels, so we plan the last week of my stay for that research target. I have seen Simbuang only on satellite pictures. What seem from afar to be rice field terraces turn out to be sheer cliffs.

Once in Toraja, I hire Daud, an experienced guide, to accompany me on a stiff hike from Tikala to Batutumonga.  I want this extra challenge, two hours up in tropical rain over muddy trails. Lush green foliage, coffee bushes; in other places palm and banana trees cover the path. Several rante, sacred circles of ancient stones adjacent to isolated houses, form a reminder of the traditional religion with its ancestral spirits.

After a short rest in Batutumonga, we begin our steep descent right down the open rice terraces. During this practice trek, to a level of 3000 feet, Daud helps me negotiate slippery rocks. He observes me and the path intently, and then lets me try it without assistance. Only when I ask for his help or when it is obvious that I can’t manage it, he offers a hand, directs where to place my foot. He knows not to say much. Calm in the vortex of beauty and danger is the mark of an excellent guide.  This trek has only beauty, but I am confident that I can trust Daud in danger as well.

With my two Nordic poles it isn’t difficult to balance myself on the pematang, the grassy walls between the sawas (rice fields). We pass through a number of villages with their circle of intricately carved tongkonans (ancestral houses), their rice barns, their small warungs (food stalls), and the elementary school, where classes for the day have just ended.  A bunch of kids loiter around, joking among themselves; the girls giggle when one makes an inaudible comment in my direction.

After four hours, we arrive at a panoramic view of the entire area we have crossed. Canadian and Dutch tourists, who have pulled in by car, are admiring the sight. I have a wild sense of accomplishment when I meet them, hot and sweaty from the trek.


Daud and I have to wait at least an hour for a bemo (local transportation) to come down the mountain. When we press ourselves into the last two empty spaces, it begins to pour. Next to me, two young mothers hold their babies, sound asleep, on their laps. The four rows in the narrow bus are packed with children, teenagers and an elderly couple.  The driver, undeterred by the rain, barrels down an endlessly curving mountain road through potholes and deep puddles of mud. When the baby next to me wakes up in the switchbacks, I notice the little guy has a mouthful of teeth. That doesn’t stop Mom from bringing him to her breast.

The women in the front seat, also with babies, hand out black plastic baggies to the kids behind me, most of who become increasingly sicker. The door next to me doesn’t close and through rusty cracks in the floor I see the rain run-off from the surrounding mountain fill the road. Water also blows in from the top of the window. “You can write about public transportation in Indonesia,” Daud, who sits in the row behind me, tells me dryly.

As a child, I would have been retching, as the Indonesian children are, but blissfully, as an adult in this country, my stomach handles these assaults with unbelievable grace.  While I’m aware of the sheer terror this kind of driving would elicit if it were a mountain pass in the American West, a calm sense of fate typically descends on me in these rural settings. A tectonic shift in expectations about safety automatically takes hold. If not, I wouldn’t be able to travel in this part of the world.


My career has revolved around the enigma of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). I began to study SIDS in the early seventies, when with the hubris of youth I fully expected to be part of the solution. In 2008, 36 years later, the enigma has not been solved. I have been drawn to study SIDS in Indonesia because a number of customs are associated with low risk for SIDS: babies sleeping on the back, breastfeeding well into the second year of life and a lack of maternal smoking, factors that reduce the incidence of SIDS in the West.

Once in Toraja, we train six young men with motorcycles to go out to their clan villages and ask mothers how they raise their babies throughout the first year. It turns out as we suspect: Virtually all babies sleep on their backs; the bedding is firm, a kapok mattress on the floor, sometimes only a mat; mothers do not smoke, and more than half of the fathers don’t smoke either. Lastly, all mothers breastfeed their babies for more than a year, beyond the age of highest risk for SIDS. By contrast, only 25% of mothers in the West breastfeed beyond three months of age.

We also discover that mothers sleep cradling their babies in bed. This contradicts everything we teach parents in the West. In fact, mother and baby are not even alone on the mattress.  Father, grandmother and even siblings can be found in the same bed. “Are you ever afraid that you’ll’ roll over on the baby?” Some mothers answer “Yes” to that question. But a mother typically lies on her side with her knees pulled up. Her knees form a wedge and she can’t roll over easily. Furthermore, this position blocks the baby so that others in the bed can’t inadvertently roll over and crush it.

Despite these significant field observations, we have been baffled by the challenge to obtain accurate records of births and deaths. The Health Department in the capitol, Makale makes valiant efforts to obtain data, but has to rely on what contemporary midwives in outlying health clinics (puskesmas) report to them. In those places, actual numbers of births are conflated with estimates and targets. Many women deliver at home with or without the assistance of traditional midwives (dukuns); those births may not appear at all in the official records. Birth certificates exist in Indonesia, but are rarely issued at the time of births. Parents often don’t request the document until children are high school age. Causes of death are noted, but in four babies the cause of their deaths was missing. Despite a search of the records at the puskesmas, these four babies simply could not be found. “They probably died in Puangbembe, high up in the mountains where there is no puskesmas, the staff tells us.

If we can get the numbers right in one or two communities, I reason, we can compare them with the official numbers, perhaps extrapolate the magnitude of the error and obtain more solid estimates. We have obtained 350 reproductive histories in Ratte Talonge, in the district of Salaputti, a semi-remote village, reachable by a potholed but passable road. We interviewed all the marriageable and married women since we discovered that everybody in the village was on one of five lists: Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, Pentecostals or indigenous women belonging to Aluk To Dolo. Does the Health Department receive reports of births and infant deaths from communities in inaccessible areas?  That question has drawn us to Puangbembe.


“Why don’t we ask Arru to come along as well for this trek to Puangbembe?” Stanis keeps urging.

“No, no, I‘ll ask Hendrik to come to help us carry stuff, but that should be enough,” I answer. Later, I am to find out that Stanis doubts my ability to negotiate the difficult terrain; he wants more men in case I have to be carried up or down the mountain. I have no such fears.

We start out early in the morning in Makassar, the capitol of Sulawesi. This remote part of Toraja, our destination, is reached from the west side through Pare Pare, Poliwasi and then into the mountains, in the direction of Mamasa. We are four in the Kia: Hendrik, Stanis, the driver Eddie and I, plus a load of water and food.

“There are no shops in the villages and people are quite poor,” Stanis tells me.

I have prepared research materials, an extra blanket to hold off the cold at night and food for us and our prospective women research assistants, who are yet to be selected and trained.


After a brief stop in the mountains very high above the Makassar Strait, we run into a deluge. It is time for a pit stop, so we park the car close to a small hole in the wall that serves lunch, but where I don’t even dare to drink coffee.  One of the main concerns for Westerners traveling in these parts of the world is trying to dodge dysentery that can lay you up for weeks. It’s a fate that you have to circumvent if you are heading for a five-hour trek. From the young mother who runs the place with her three toddlers trailing behind her, we find out that we will not be able to get very far. Soon, at the junction to Nozu, the road will become impassable for even Stanis’ sturdy Kia.

A dozen or so young men, who use that cross road as a gathering place to shoot the breeze and down some local beer, advise us that the road can only be negotiated in a 4-wheel drive. We linger awhile. It is getting late. I try to start a conversation with an elderly woman in her warung but as everywhere we have to resort to smiles and my half dozen Indonesian words, such as bagus (good), slamat sorre (good night) coupled with hand gestures. The men do the negotiations and deliberations, activities that belong to their gender in this part of the world. In their company, I have nothing useful to contribute except the crucial element, money.


I have been paying for these research trips mostly out of my savings. I’d much rather use the money for research than for a cruise to the Caribbean —though there is going to come a time when I will prefer cruises to assisted living. Not yet.  I have been more than happy to be the bank and to carry the bills in a blood-red pouch on my belly.  Everybody has discovered that it opens easily, and it should, when on the spot solutions to problems have to be fashioned.

The women who collect the reproductive histories receive 5,000 rupiahs ($0.50) for each form they fill out. One research assistant in Salaputti ordinarily sells palm wine to the local men in a small, 6x 6 ft warung. She is particularly entrepreneurial and completes almost a hundred forms in two or three days, the equivalent of half a million rupias or $50.00.  She re-invests that bounty immediately in additional palm wine to sell during the ongoing huge funeral in that hamlet. I also provide reimbursement to research subjects for time spent. “You must pay them at least the price of milk,” one of my research assistants proclaims, and I can’t agree more. So the money I dole out, 10,000 rupiahs ($1.00) per mother, is spread among all women in the community.


After the guys walk around the Kia, judge its height from the ground and declare it unfit for the two hour drive, two of them jump on a motorcycle to see whether a jeep and driver can be found. After they re-appear, we park the Kia in a safe place and jam all our belongings in the back of the jeep. The gas smell is unbearable, despite our exposure to the night air.

It takes less than a mile to know that the $55.00 for the jeep is the best money I have spent in a long time.  This jeep goes over enormous boulders, through deep standing water and yawning car tracks. We are shaken and thrown. I have the passenger seat and one time I let out a scream, when the car approaching a big puddle seems to go over a cliff, an optical illusion. My travel companions in the cargo space poke me from behind teasing me to be careful. I have never seen the sky so bright with stars and what seems stardust from afar. It is lightning throughout, but not raining.

An extra man from the village accompanies the driver and helps him fill up the radiator every five miles. Stanis has told us that villagers fear the trip, especially in the dark when bad spirits can lure men away. He tells the story—probably for its effect on Hendrik and Eddy and the rest of the crew —of one villager declaring that his penis shrank as a result of the trip and he refuses to do it ever again. The excitement of the first hour gives way to an hour of boredom and muscle pain in the second, tempered only by the knowledge that we are going to make it.

Sure enough, two hours later we unload in front of a tiny hovel that has a dozen partitioned off cubicles, typical bedrooms in Toraja. The next morning around seven we begin our five-hour trek to Puangbembe.


I’m used to hiking alone in the mountains. Thoughts come and go. Since Hendrik and Eddie speak little English, it’s easy to turn inward. I think of Ingrid, my lover who died in 2003 at 63. Two years earlier in December of 2001, I ask her: “Is there something you would like to do?”  She is in a hospital bed at home, weakened from surgery, with no appetite to speak of. She directs me to a faded copy of the LA Times travel section: A trip to the Andes to ride with Gauchos at 12,000 ft.  I wonder if she can still attain a sense of exhilaration given the universe she lives in: a diagnosis of ovarian cancer, stage 3C.


Argentina, February 2002.

The incomparable beauty of the terrain, the widest vistas, sharp drop offs, snow on distant mountains. Ingrid rides for five days, six hours a day. Her photographs will fill a book. She feels the horse under her; she is up to the task, negotiating the inner and outer worlds in awe. Exhausted, they sleep in the open on dune-like sand. She tells me how they made camp. Twenty-five people bed down in a row upon the same large tarp in a sleeping bag, with two blankets under and over them; altogether they are under a twenty-yard long tarp, to protect them from wind and freezing cold. Ingrid brings home exhilaration that lasts for another year.

February 2003.

I sit next to her bed. She can wake up any time and propose a project outside such as painting the beams for her horse Tezzie’s stall and sawing them on angle. It was only weeks ago we did that together. The completed beams are symbols of hope that the surgeon refused to give her. We both succeed at keeping the fear at bay.  We look at part of the stall that is already up.  “It will look good,” she says, “and it is roomy. Perhaps I can be laid out here in his stall.”

Her friends Jane, an accompanist and Toni, a soprano comes by to sing for her the selections she makes for her funeral: “I like the Bach, but in the Poulenc you should really make Apollinaire’s lines, ‘I do not want to work. I want to smoke,’ shadier.”

What is it about Ingrid that two strong, married men in their forties come to visit her? One massages her feet, and then they hoist her between them and carry her toward her bedroom, her bare thin legs dangling between them. They do not fear to touch her dying body.

My own gestures confirm that she sets no impenetrable boundaries.  During that twilight time, I’m again as close as during our courtship some forty odd years ago. The important things have not been expressed but are in the air, and accidental physical brushes reverberate far deeper than seem justified.


About halfway into the hike to Puangbembe, not too far from taking off boots, rolling up pants and crossing the now-calm river, Stanis decides that it is time for lunch.  I don’t know what food I paid for in Nozu, where we started.  Sometimes I’d rather not know; for instance, when the rice is accompanied by a stew of dog meat.

For myself I have stowed some chocolate in my fanny pack, along with the iTouch that I mostly use for its world clock. It has hours of music that I have barely sampled up to that point. During this lunch hour, I decide to listen to music. I look into a clear blue sky through a bunch of spiky plumes that resemble pampas grass. An enormous need for rest makes me plop down off to the side to nibble on my chocolate. I touch the music button then close my eyes.

The melody of “The Farmhouse” floats into my ears, a cello and piano piece, commissioned for the film Hilary and Jackie, about the cellist, Jacqueline du Pré.

Several months before Ingrid’s death, I had made a film of her life as a means to celebrate it and reminisce with her about its hardships, joys and successes. It had been a comfort to both of us. For the last scene before her face disappears behind a closed window, a symbol of her life’s end, I had chosen this piece of music.

Before I know it, silent tears are streaming down my cheeks. Immediately, I find yet another answer to my recurring question: “Why am I doing this extreme traveling in my old age?” Besides testing my mettle, I have been on an adventure for two, making the journey for Ingrid as well. This emotional catharsis makes my steps lighter during the remainder of the trek.


“I’ll show you heavenly, unspoiled Toraja,” Stanis declares, the second day of our stay. We hike up a steep incline to a house on top where, from its windy verandah, we can see the entire area. Four villages are discernable in the distance. He has worked in two of them. When people die in Toraja, they are considered sick and their body is wrapped in cloths and put in an ornate cylinder in the house, where they may stay for years, tended to by family members. In these villages in Simbuang, the body of the deceased is also crushed and the body fluids separated from the bones. The latter are kept in the cylinder while the fluids are dripped into the soil.

At the end of the day, we wander past a lush green area, the place where these fluids are spread, supposedly attracting ground water; springs arise when laba and tabana (bronze dracaena) seedlings are planted in the vicinity. This age-old, mini-forest at the entry of Puangbembe has many mature, shady trees, and water trickles down a stone wall.

Order is an essential element of the Torajan culture. For instance, the placenta is considered the living sibling of a newborn. After birth, it is buried on the east side of the tongkonan where it “lives” throughout the individual’s life. A spontaneously aborted baby or a stillborn, by contrast is buried on the south and west side. In other words, directions have symbolic meaning. Harmony is visible also in the tongkonans and rice barns and their orderly location, opposite one another.

Historically, the villagers in Puangbembe have had to protect themselves from invasion by neighboring villages, and perhaps from the seafaring Bugis who live in the areas we have traveled through to arrive here. In Puangbembe, the order is deliberately distorted so that enemies lose their way.  The rice barns are not opposite the tongkonans but randomly dispersed among the living quarters. The dwellings are built close together with deep gullies separating one house from another, a maze to confuse the enemy. The doors are so small that a person can barely get through. Should an intruder enter, the armed family inside would fell him immediately.


Several dozen kids follow us around, hiding their faces when we try to photograph them. Later during the walk they relax, and toward the end they make silly faces in the viewfinder when it is turned in their direction. Later, at the Chief’s house where we are staying, a toothless medicine woman named Pine, who is probably younger than I, proposes that I be her adoptive sister. She offers me the gift of a macadamia nut and an aromatic piece of wood, both helpful against a stomachache. Pine also offers me a massage. She senses immediately that I have a peculiar left hip. “Sakit, sakit” she exclaims pointing to it—sick, pain? Afraid that she will begin a vigorous massage of the titanium hip, I call out to Stanis to explain a metal hip to her.


Ultimately we learn that in Toraja the number of infant deaths from unknown causes between the first week of life and the end of the first year is 0.38 per thousand life births. In the US, the SIDS rate currently stands at 0.58 per thousand life births. Thus the overall infant mortality when the cause of death is unknown is lower than the SIDS rate in the US. However, we never arrive at certainty about the precise number of births and infant deaths. Nor do we know for sure whether these deaths are SIDS. Torajan doctors or contemporary midwives have never heard of SIDS—but babies die. Mothers and traditional midwives talk about spirits that whisk the baby away. This happens with Mata Tinggi, a seizure-like condition. “Baby blood smells good and spirits know this,” we hear. Therefore, mothers cradle their babies at night and don’t let them sleep under a window. Does Mata Tinggi masquerade as SIDS?


On the day of our departure, the Chief decides to take a morning off from teaching and accompanies our men to Nuzo with his two horses that are to carry our luggage, lighter but still substantial. Since Stanis’ last trip in 2002, motorcycles have penetrated even this far-away territory. Stanis urges me to take the back of a motorcycle whose driver has been requested to return early. Indeed, he arrives at 6:00 AM just when it gets light. “Be extremely careful with this woman on the back,” I imagine Stanis tells him, because the driver promises to go slow and to make a detour if the trail gets particularly difficult to navigate. He more than doubles the price for this human cargo.

We follow the edges of staggered, bright green rice fields and pine forests. The driver crosses a bridge over the wild river that feeds this terrain. Before long, we arrive at the small inn where we had spent the night, four days earlier. About two hours later, the rest of the party arrives. From there, the 4-wheel drive jeep ride is as rough as ever; my insides jumble ferociously.


Visiting Indonesia as a tourist, especially such places as Bali and Java, with their temples and music, allows for romanticizing the country. By contrast, working in Toraja, traveling deeply into areas where Westerners rarely, if ever, come, bares the dualities of the land and its people, the beauty as well as the flaws. Under Stanis’ guidance, I recognize my own flaws, such as moving with an excess of entitlement.

Stanis is a remarkable man, extremely intelligent, with an easy, gregarious disposition. He is willing to laugh about my impatience and complaints. “I procrastinate, it’s true,” he tells me. Sometimes, we have a frank conversation about each other’s idiosyncrasies. “You jump on me before you have the evidence,” he berates me, or, “I invite you to come to Indonesia, but then later I have to solve the problem that I create by making conflicting commitments.”


The jeep ride over this rough terrain is an apt metaphor for my determination to live life perhaps for the first time on my own terms. From the outside, it is as if I have lived my life on my own terms all along—but this is different.  I’m willing to test my resourcefulness, without accountability to anybody, except my own standards of decency and fairness toward the people I encounter.