Toraja revisited

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How have tourism and, more pressingly, Indonesia's forest fires affected Tanah Toraja? Emily Drake returned there after a gap of 17 years.

There they were, as they had been in 1980, the effigies of the Torajan dead crowding the balconied ledges high up on the limestone cliffs, looking out over the fertile valleys they once farmed, as if lining the railings to view some great parade. From a distance they are amazingly life-like, and their clothing, laundered and updated annually, is as fresh as the skeletons in the nearby interment caves are fleshless with age. I almost felt that they were old friends.

When I first met them, Toraja Land had been far more difficult to reach and involved a car journey of at least eight hours from the port of Ujung Pandang. Now an airstrip has been made outside the principal city of the region, Rantepao. It is by no means a grand airstrip, being both small and cliff-locked, but 12-seater aircraft make regular return flights daily from Ujung Padang. Daily, that is, if there are enough passengers. Toraja Land was hardly seething with tourists this time, probably because publicity about the forest fires in Indonesia and the consequent smog had put them off.

Arriving by air gave a birds-eye view of the country, with the great cliffs breaking through the rainforest and the cultivated narrow valleys that lay between. There was no evidence of either forest fire or smog, but the effects of the drought afflicting most of Indonesia could be seen here in Sulawesi. There had just been a rice harvest, which accounted for some of the brownness of the paddyfields. But the rivers and streams had dwindled to trickles, and the trees around the villages had lacklustre leaves dulled with dust.

The harvest of valuable Torajan coffee is likely to be small this year. However, the buffaloes appeared to be as enormous as before. They apparently found plenty of nourishment in grazing the reaped rice fields. From the roadside they looked like huge, inflatable toys, especially the two-tone jobs (baby pink and grey) which the Torajan people prize. Each one is worth about pounds 40,000.

Despite the increased accessibility of this area, there is no aggressive development of tourist hotels. These are more numerous than before but mostly come in the form of chalets a la Torajan house. There is still no intrusive attempt to sell tourist tat, though every village has at least one house whose owner urges the visitors to climb the outside wooden stairs to the living-floor where local crafts are displayed.

What will have happened to the place in another 17 years? There is already more widespread availability of electricity; cables, even now, snake somewhat precariously along mountain tracks to reach remote villages. I hope the Torajan way of life won't be debauched by the impact of tourism. For now, life in the area appears, delightfully, to be almost the same as before. There was even another fortuitously timed funeral (timely for me, that is, not for the deceased) taking place with all the panoply of bright pavilions and colourful processions. And, of course, much parading of the sacrificial buffaloes and squealing pigs.