Sulawesi Toraja, Second Helpings

My second time to visit the coffee regions of Sulawesi was more immersive, but I still wish it could have been longer! Toraja is beautiful!

Sulawesi is not that easy to get to … well, at least the coffee areas. Long ago they canceled the air service to the Toraja coffee fields from the main city of Makassar in the south (Sulawesi Selatan).

The flight would be just 55 minutes and land near the capital of the Tana Toraja highlands, Rantepao. The drive is 8 hours, if you are lucky, but more like 9 or 10 if you stop for a couple breaks.

Yet another typical Toraja family cluster
Yet another typical Toraja family cluster – Metal roofs have replaced the pure bamboo type of roof on homes here. Near Sapan Toraja Sulawesi

It’s sweaty and hot in the Makassari and Bugis lowlands, following coastal rice fields, and eventually you catch site of a tall escarpment with huge volcanic cliffs, a sign of relief from humidity.

As you wind upward the temperatures drop, but as in so many places with winding two lane roads, you risk getting stuck behind a smog-belching bus or truck crawling up the inclines at 10 mph.

Rantepao itself is a bustling center of commerce but also has the tarnish of a tourist destination past it’s prime and half empty. Even in this season, July and August are the prime tourist months because it is the time of the famously elaborate Torajan funerals, the hotel was only slightly more occupied than last time I was here.

It’s when you leave this town that the beauty of Toraja becomes apparent, and I can’t possibly hope to do it justice with these photographs here.

The most fascinating aspect of Toraja is the culture, and in that too my knowledge is regrettably lacking. But this was the first time I was able to see many things in Toraja, including the more remote local markets of Sapan and Minanga towns, local processing at small farms, and the conclusion of a 6 day funeral.

While, like many visitors, my contact with the local life is insubstantial, I take it for what it is, and try to learn as much as possible, not just about coffee production but about people. The more I travel, the more I know that coffee is not about trees, it’s about the practice of the people who tend those trees, and in that sense, my wayward interests in road signs and trucks, t-shirts, food, graves, dogs and children is all about coffee. -Tom, August 2010