A visit to Indonesia, just in time

Indonesia is like a dish of tropical fruit: flamboyant colors, lavish tastes and pungent smells. I dream of visiting this astonishing land of islands, even while I am still here.

A YOUNG Balinese dancer performs in traditional dress (photo credit: YOAV DIKSTEIN)
A YOUNG Balinese dancer performs in traditional dress
(photo credit: YOAV DIKSTEIN)
Indonesia is like a dish of tropical fruit: flamboyant colors, lavish tastes and pungent smells. I dream of visiting this astonishing land of islands, even while I am still here.
I am part of a smallish group of like-minded Israelis who are traveling in Indonesia in search of new horizons and adventures. My group is on a scouting trip. Even our Israeli guide, Ittay, has not been to Indonesia.
It is April. The flight is a long haul between Israel and Indonesia, countries that have no diplomatic relations. Only groups are permitted entry to Indonesia. We wait in neighboring Singapore to receive visas. For us Israelis, an entry visa to Indonesia is not a given and we feel apprehensive. Exploring Singapore for two days is a bonus, but our destination is Indonesia.
The visas eventually come through and we are on our way.
Indonesia is located in southeast Asia and is made up of an archipelago of 17,508 islands. Only 8,000 of these islands are inhabited, with around 262 million people who speak not only the official language, Bahasa Indonesia, but also ethnic groups living along the equator speaking 300 different languages.
Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim country, with more than 200 million Muslims. This might be awkward for us Israelis, and Ittay suggests ahead of time, answering a favorite Indonesian question, “Dari mana kamu berasal?” “Where are you from?” with “We are from Europe.”
At first our group is wary and self-conscious. We look around to see if anyone is listening or staring at us. However, within the first days of our stay, we discover that there is no need for anxiety. We speak Hebrew freely amongst ourselves, and wear our Hebrew-lettered T-shirts with slogans both in the front and the back. The people we meet are all charming, friendly, smiling and helpful, no matter whether they are Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or Christian. We feel very comfortable wherever we go in this striking landscape of smoldering volcanoes, unusual religious ceremonies and white beaches, with the sultry, muggy weather reminding me of Tel Aviv in the summer.
Bali is the first of our island visits. Through the windows of our bus, I glimpse the cerulean sea and the hot, white sand lacing its edge.
Further inland, lush green vegetation grows in the fields and in the water-drenched rice paddies. Here, the sapling rice shoots rise determinedly upward from the water-logged fields.
Bali is a riot of blues, whites and greens.
During our four days in Bali, Madeh, our Balinese guide, wears a tie knotted around his head, each day a different color. With his ebony skin, and dressed in a long, cream hand-woven shirt, loose knee-length pants and heavy leather sandals, he looks exotic. Each day he travels through the streets with us on our bus, pointing out highlights as we pass through some of the 500 villages spread around the island. My favorite stops are at the small, hidden markets with rough pathways that snake around and behind the family houses, and I marvel at intricately woven bamboo boxes and baskets, even forgetting to haggle over the price.
One of the stops we make is at an extended Balinese family house. This house is a dance school for teenage girls. The typical traditional Balinese dance they are studying is slow and stylistic with precise, stilted body movements. Their feet hardly move, their hips sway, and their arms and wrists are twisted in a strange but beautiful position, while only their fingers flick delicately back and forth. We watch how these young girls in traditional, long and colorful dresses apply their heavy stage makeup. When they are ready to perform, they invite us to dance with them. We all laugh at how ridiculously clumsy we are.
Madeh takes us to observe the religious rituals in various temples, of which there are two or three in each village. At one of the temples, steep roughly hewn steps lead down to a purification pool. Before we enter the site, we wrap sarongs with large yellow sunflowers on a bright blue background around our clothes, as a sign of respect. Long lines of worshipers holding up flowers and food offerings are waiting patiently in the pool to dip themselves under the ancient holy water spouts. This ritual will purify the soul.
I close my eyes and imagine the soothing water purifying my scorched skin.
Suddenly I hear a shout. One of our group has missed his step and fallen into the shallow pool, his sarong billowing wildly out around him in the holy water. I laugh, but Madeh frowns, and his chirpy demeanor becomes stern for the rest of the day.
On our bus journey through Bali, we stop each day for a lunch break at simple, local eateries. We savor local dishes washed down with cold Bintang beer. Many in the group order meat but I often go for Gado-gado, my favorite vegetarian Indonesian dish. I ask and understand from the cook’s gestures and generous smile that the Gado-gado sauce of crushed peanuts, palm sugar, garlic, chilies, salt, tamarind and lime juice is prepared using a pestle and flat stone. The vegetables, chopped and drenched in peanut sauce, are steamed greens such as green beans, cabbage and spinach together with boiled potato slices, fresh cucumbers, and hard-boiled egg slices. Fried tofu soaks up the diverse flavors on the plate. Gado-gado is so delicious that I am tempted to order another serving, but instead I hold back and gorge on the sweetest of tropical fruits: pineapple, papaya, mangosteen, rambutan and orange coconut.
There is one fruit though which does not belong in the category of heaven. It has ominous spikes on the outside and sickly, yellow, fleshy innards, and it smells of decay. Only the bravest among us dare taste the durian fruit.
My group has an invitation to a unique event. We fly to Sulawesi, Indonesia’s fourth largest island. Then it is a day’s bus drive to reach Tana Toraja in the highlands of South Sulawesi. For those prepared to make this journey, it is an extraordinary experience to attend an ancient religious ceremony, a Torajan funeral.
A 92-year-old grandmother has died, and her funeral ceremony is traditionally elaborate and impressive. It is a great honor for us to take part together with hundreds of locals, and we bring gifts of cigarettes, palm wine and betel nut (for the women to chew).
I make my way by foot with the others in the group, on an uneven and narrow dirt track leading to the family compound where the funeral ceremony will take place. I pass a rider on a motorcycle, a large pig with glazed eyes lying docilely across the handle bars. A water buffalo strolls nonchalantly in front of me.
OUR LOCAL guide in Sulawesi is Yulius, a Torajan by birth. He is a handsome young man with sleek, dark hair and a bright smile. He wears all black for the occasion. He gestures to us to find a place to sit: on a rock, an empty crate, a crumbling wall, away from the sacred coffin area and the noisy, milling crowd.
Yulius tells us that Islam is dominant on the island of Sulawesi except for this one unique ethnic group, the Torajans. They are Christians.
I know that religion as well as different cultures are integral parts of the Indonesians’ identity and that they hold tightly onto their traditional and often mystical beliefs. But the Torajans, Yulius explains, are especially known for their unusual death rituals, burial customs and elaborate funeral ceremonies, such as the one we have come all this way to witness.
Today marks the second funeral of this woman. She had her first funeral after what we Westerners recognize as “being dead,” but what the Torajans think of as “being sick.” It has been a year since her first funeral, and Granny’s body has been sleeping in her bedroom, symbolically fed and cared for, while living in the family home for almost a year. For the Torajans she continues to be a natural part of the family.
Granny, after all, is preserved in a solution of formaldehyde and water.
This is something we have not been prepared for, and when Yulius sees our shocked expressions, he explains that death for the Torajans is not an abrupt and final end to life, but a gradual progression, a transition toward an afterlife of the soul.
It is up to the Granny’s extended family to decide on the day when they will bury her preserved body. It is at this second funeral, in an ornate coffin decorated with gold and silver fabrics, when she is thought of as finally “being dead.” We are here today to witness her second funeral.
I listen with wonder to this unique concept of facing mortality, this shift in perspective of death as we Westerners know it. Instead of death being a private grief, there is a communal sharing of a process melding life and death. Here, the definition of death expands naturally to encompass life.
While I am wandering around the family compound trying to fathom this concept of death, loud music, gongs and drums begin to rouse the crowd. Buffaloes arrive, straining at the tight ropes around their necks; pigs shriek shrilly. It is clear that an important event is about to take place.
In the Torajans’ world, the souls of animals must follow their masters.
Torajans raise buffaloes, the symbol of status in religious ceremonies, and pigs with the sole purpose of sacrificing them at the funerals. The water buffaloes, for example, will never work at plowing fields. Instead, they lead a pampered life, eating freshly cut grass, rolling around on the sodden ground and contentedly caking mud on themselves, knowing that they will get a daily wash and massage until they glisten in the noonday heat.
Upper stratum funerals receive more buffaloes and pigs as gifts from funeral attendees than lower strata. The traditional hierarchy of animal sacrifices at a funeral, from the highest stratum to the lowest is as follows: 24 buffaloes and two pigs; 12 buffaloes and two pigs; four buffaloes and two pigs; one buffalo; two pigs.
TODAY WE are attending a second-stratum funeral. The buffaloes and pigs are arriving for the ritual slaughter. It is a brutal and horribly painful experience for me. Although I usually take countless photos, the butchering of these animals is a line I cannot cross. I slink away to the side with my camera back in its bag, so as not to hear the desperation of the animals. Yulius follows me and reassures me that less fortunate neighbors in the community will receive part of the meat from these animal sacrifices.
Though I understand that the tradition of animal sacrifice is an integral part of the Torajan culture, my Western beliefs find little comfort in his words.
I find so much sense in the merging of the death-life beliefs of the Torajans, but at this moment I just wish they would bypass the cruel animal carnage.
A few days after our return to Israel, a series of events shifts the future of the two countries’ relationship. I hear that in May, Indonesia will probably allow entry to individual Israeli travelers. This is good news. However, US President Donald Trump moves the American embassy to Jerusalem, now recognized as Israel’s official capital. A violent demonstration breaks out on the Gaza border. As a consequence, Indonesia closes its gates to Israelis. Israel subsequently closes its doors to Indonesian pilgrims. This is the official news.
One step forward, two steps backward. Our group may very well be the last Israelis to obtain an entry visa for some time.
And I am grateful that I made it to Indonesia, just in time.