A Fistful of Dollars
Our favoured local, back in Rantepao in the Tana Toraja, was the hangout of the local Guides Association, a Teamsteresque conglomerate of the most amiable rogues since Dick Van Dyke.
Sporting various permutations of Aviators, moustaches, long hair, cropped hair and funeral sarongs as night-time outerwear, the chaps spent most of their time out back smoking clove cigarettes, drinking Bintang beer and swapping stacks over rupiah a card game not dissimilar to shithead.
We liked them a lot.
Didn’t play cards with them, mind.
I mean, that would have been just stupid.
Days in the Tana Toraja tend to the surreal, thanks to the buffalo death cult (and, well, Indonesia in general). So stumbling across an entire Christian school marching band parading down main street on a Sunday morning followed by a traffic jam of cattle trucks and pickups crammed with chaps phased us not one jot.
This chick, however, at the head of it, sporting quite the sluttiest cheerleader’s outfit I’ve seen outside of fetish clubs and the sort of bars I hurried the nine-year-old past when we took the wrong road to the night market in Chiang Mai did give me pause to wonder.
I guess it behoves me, at this point, to explain that Indonesia is a Muslim country. Admittedly, in the Togians, folk celebrate Eid ul Fitr (and anything from the arrival of the boat with the arrack to the policeman giving the fish harpoon back — watch this space) with arrack (palm spirit) mixed with beer and/or Coca Cola, but still…
Admittedly, also, Indonesia is Sufi Muslim. Not Shia. Not Sunni. And definitely not Wahhabi (that’s the crazy oppressive Saudi/Taliban one).
But Muslim, basically, nonetheless.
The Torajans are, essentially, evangelical Christians. Buffalo sacrificing, corpse-reburying, ancestor-placating Christians, sure.
But Christians, all the same.
Now, while Islam on Sulawesi (and, in fact, in most of Indonesia) is pretty relaxed, it would be fair to say that neither the Muslim nor the Christian womenfolk of the region generally expose flesh above the knee or the upper arm.
Anywise… A few more cattle trucks idle by, guys waving and wearing baseball caps, before the jingle sparks up. At which point, finally, we realise what is up.
One of the joys of our stint in the Philippines were the local elections happening at the time. (Philippine politics, like, I suspect, Indonesian politics, is something better experienced as an observer than one whose life will be affected by the result.)
Every smalltown dignitary or business owner worth their salt was running for some post or other at one level or the other: from market stall holders up. Those running for mayor or deputy had their very own jingles, as catchy as syphilis, almost as unappealing and with a remarkably similar brain-gnawing effect.
So to the near constant squawks of cockerels and karaoke that pervades even the smallest town in those parts, was added the synthesiser blast of smalltown glitterati in glad-handing mode. Almost every tricycle in town sported a flapping poster for one politico, or several of the same family (Philippine politics is dynastic at every level), PhotoShopped into a state somewhere twixt rigor mortis and Nicole Kidman’s forehead.
PhotoShop, by the way, is a standard part of the photographic process in most of Asia. The equivalent of Snappy Snaps is a bank of 20-somethings labouring over pirated software to glaze newly-weds into a state of glossy, luminescent anonymity, and apply eyeshadow, too. Politicians, though, take it to a whole new level.
Anywise. From the jingle, it appears there are elections in Toraja. The band emerges, on a float.
And then, this chap, making like JFK in Texas from an open 4WD, in a Nehru jacket.
I pull out my camera. The nine year old gawps.
Now, this dude has serious presence. He makes eye contact with the nine year old which is, honestly, presidential in its dignity, if, to my mind, uncomfortably reminiscent of John Malkovich in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. (My spawn, to his credit, does not giggle.)
He bestows on us both a nod and a wave in the fashion of the Queen.
Then proceeds on his regal path in the direction of the buffalo market, there, no doubt, to wade through buffalo manure to an accompaniment of screaming pigs, while we proceed to the beautiful countryside (sans guide).
Where our new friend’s picture is outside every church in town.
When we get to our local for dinner, a rather depleted meeting of the Guides Association is in session. There are, in fact, only two of them left, and neither of them is drinking beer.
“What’s up?” I ask our friend with the moustache. He’s in his 50s, I would guess. Substantial chap. Been around the block a few times. Very fond of the nine year old. Likes to explain stuff to me, too.
“Ah,” he says. “We’ve had a meeting with a politician.”
“A politician?” I say.
“Yes,” he says. “You know. Before the elections, the politicians, they come to see the Guide Association and we decide whether they can get our members’ vote.”
“Aha!” I say. “Just like the union vote in England!”
I pause. I’ve seen no English language news for a while, and my dictionary, even now I’ve got a handle on Indonesian prefixes, ain’t much help on the Indo language papers. But I really can’t imagine having missed an entire bloody election.
“So these elections…” I ask. “Are they just for the Tana Toraja?”
“Just for the Tana Toraja,” he says.
“And this guy,” I say. “With the, erm, y’know, the band and, erm, the girl in the short, umm… You know. The guy this morning.”
“Ah,” he says, recalling the morning, when he had, from the goodness of his heart, since, as a duo, the nine year old and I have “cheapskate, does not require your professional service, thank you, sir” written all over us, flagged us a rickshaw and negotiated local price. “He is a Christian. We have five Muslims and four Christians in the election.”
“What parties are they from?” I ask.
“It’s not so much about the party,” he says. “More about the people. Indonesian politics is quite complicated.”
I do not doubt him. “So what are the issues?”
“Well, tourism,” he says. “And some say the government is planning to put a tax on buffalo because they don’t want us to kill so many of them. But, you know. Buffalo are expensive anyway. So a small tax will make no difference.”
I ponder his logic. Yer entry level buffalo for funeral sacrifice comes in at north of $2000: albino, blue-eyed, gold-horned buffalo can run a hundred times that price and more. I decide not to get into percentages.
“Oh,” I say. “So what did you talk to the politician about?”
At this point our friend with the Aviators dives in. He’s stunning. 30ish. Long, slicked back hair and stunning, sculpted features, pure Bollywood idol until you get to the Torajan teeth. Scarily bright. Self-taught in several languages. Put him on Wall Street and he’d be minting money, dating babes.
Here? He’s, well, a tour guide.
“We want a coherent strategy for the development of tourism in the region,” he says. “We want creative solutions… I am very disappointed that there is no difference between what one politician has to say and another on the issue of tourism…”
The chap with the moustache looks wearily at our matinee firebrand, then back to me. It has clearly been a long evening.
“He does,” he says. “I just want the bribe.”
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