2016
07.10
RICE TERRACES

RICE TERRACES

SYNOPSIS:  About a two-day village trek north of Rantepao.  About rice terraces and beauty.  About sleeping in a 320 year old traditional house.  About “the moment”.

At times, it seemed almost too much to bear.  Every few steps I looked around and a new view into a valley or down a terrace, towards a small church in the distance, or a curvy-roofed family compound, had opened up.  It is hard to describe how something this gentle and beautiful could be so overwhelming.  But it literally took my breath away.

I thought I had seen nice rice paddies in Java and Bali.  I had seen nothing! 

Yussuf and I had started at 9 AM in the morning with public transport in Rantepao.  It works like this:  You figure out in which direction you want to travel and put yourself at a convenient spot on the road — that means convenient for a car to stop.  Then you flag down any of the minivans, preferably with a yellow license plate — that is a car designated for public transport — but any private minivan that is not full will also likely stop.  When there is a fork in the road you are either in luck and keep going or have to start the process again.  And if all else fails — that means if the road gets too steep for a car or is traveled less frequently by cars, then you find yourself a guy with a motorbike who is surely hanging around not too far from you and negotiate a price to your destination.

That’s how we arrived on two motorbikes in Bori, our starting point for the trek and one of the more impressive menhir grave sites (see blog for Funerary Practices).  For the next day we hiked up village roads, took shortcuts through people’s properties only to miraculously come across another little path, and finished up with a 2-hour-walk through and up the rice terraces to our destination, Batutumonga.  We passed numerous grave boulders, family compounds, cacao and coffee plantations, buffalos, streams, farmers.

In Deri at a little coffee shop, we stopped for lunch.  When I walked out to the terrace overlooking the land, my heart almost skipped a beat.  The panorama that unfolds is known as the “1000 rice terraces” and that is hardly an overstatement.  I have not seen a greener, gentler, more expansive landscape anywhere.  You could see all the way to the end of the Toraja mountain range.  No image can do it justice and the coffee shop spoiled the immediate view very unfortunately with a protruding tin roof…  They should be fined for that!

Water comes gushing down from the top of the mountains and is in endless supply.   I can only imagine the amount of manual labor it once took to carefully direct the water into irrigation channels to supply each and every rice paddy all the way down into the valley.  To lay out these terraces must have been equally labor intensive.  Their curves are dictated by the conditions of the land, by rocks for example or water channels.

It crossed my mind that if everyone had a rice paddy, a stream of water, a small house, and a buffalo, there most likely would be less trouble in the world.  The thought of paradise crossed my mind, too.  Paradise must look something like this, if there is one.  It hardly gets any better.

Tana Toraja, the land of the Torajans is now populated by about 70,000 people.  Counted are females above 18 and males above 17 only.  Once, way back (I am not sure anyone knows precisely when that was), multiple families moved into these mountains, pushed up here by other groups of people moving into the low lands.   Torajan really means something like “hillbilly”. They  staked out their plots in this vast valley and to this day, each of the plots of land is held by the same family even though it multiplied over the centuries.  The one that owns the swoop right below the coffee shop (and the coffee shop itself) now numbers about 167.  Families here include anyone like cousins, aunts and uncles, or as far out as you can trace them.

I had made the assumption that rice is a cash crop, but it is not!  Rice is produced for the family and eaten.  If you can afford three rice meals a day, you are rich.  Wealth, as I have mentioned, is measured by how many rice barns, buffalo and pigs you have.  Each barn can hold up to 5 tons of rice.  Rice is good for three years.  If you have continuously good harvests and produce a surplus, at some point you will sell off some rice in the market; but only then.  First you will make sure that your barns are stacked to the brim.  Yussuf has only a small rice paddy and makes about 300 kg of rice per year.  For his family that means only one meal of rice per day.  He has to supplement with potatoes.  Around here, that is an indication of lower class.

Walking through the rice fields sounds easier than it is.  In any case, there would only be a small foot-wide grassy path.  Add multiple nights of rain to this and the fact that this is not an area of rice fields, but rice terraces, that means frequent climbs up or down. 

I guess it’s time to sing my praise for my Keens again. They were perfect for this terrain and the mix of water and dirt. Of course I slipped here and there into the muddy rice fields, especially when I focused on the views or on taking pictures.  The path is also not always solid.  It is cut by tiny channels of water that are invisible.  Each step has to be carefully considered.  I always anticipated to slip into the shallow parts rather than tumble down a terrace.  For the most part it worked.  But I did come out by the end of the day with a muddy butt as not even my walking stick could always find ground in the mud. Thankfully nothing worse happened.  I don’t know how Yussuf would have gotten me out of the rice field had I sprained an ankle or such.

The next day we went up by sunrise and the trek went downwards.  It was a much shorter walk.  But the walk down was even more breathtaking than the walk up.  From Batutumonga we crossed over to Lokomata and Pana via Kata to Tikala.  And from there we caught a minivan.  By 11 AM we were home.

But overnight, another treat was in store for me:  a sleepover in a 320-year-old tongkonan.  It was another homestay.  The family who owned the land had built itself a larger modern home along the road with a small restaurant and a garage.  The two traditional homes on their property were converted into homestay-guesthouses.  Each of them had two queen-sized sleeping areas and two twins, or a capacity of 6.  But I was the only guest.  Yussuf stayed in the house.  It was quite special to experience these old living quarters.  I stayed in the raised “kids” room as it faced North with a window going East.  I was hoping for a sunrise, but good sunrises seem to escape me in Indonesia.  But once again, I found myself between the clouds.  Rantepao in the valley had a cloud cover onto which I was looking from above.  Above us, there was a second layer of clouds and some blue sky.  Picture perfect walking weather.

I will designate this walk as “the moment”.  When I travel it sometimes “overcomes me”.  Either it is the disbelief that I am here (or there) at all.  After all, I grew up in East Germany and thought I would see none of this ever!  Or it is something else, something undefinable.  This time it was the unbelievable beauty of this land.  That something like this exists!  I still can’t get over this.

Perhaps, I will dream about paradise tonight.  I know I will sleep well.

Good night.