Sulawesi was a bit of a delayed trip for me, one with plenty of built-in drama and heightened expectations. I had flown into Singapore one day, after a 24-hour journey including my layover in Tokyo’s Narita Airport, to the news that my mother had a stroke. So I got my bags in Singapore and headed back home to be with my family. A month later I left again and made it to Sulawesi and connected with my crew who had returned to Tana Toraja for the second time. My mom was doing a lot better and let me give a big shout out of THANKS to all the fans who got wind of this somehow and sent emails of support, that was really amazing. Anyway the crew’s stories of what I had missed the first time around flipped the dynamic a bit, usually I am the one with all the in-country experiences and this time I was the one who was the new guy on the block. It made for a great trip.
Makassar is Sulawesi’s big city and we spent little time there, but on our way to the mountains of the Tana Toraja we came to the land of the Bugis. In Indonesia, they’re famous as seafarers, who spent hundreds of years trading and exploring far from home. Today they still build their distinctive boats using the same design and building techniques their ancestors did. Their food is distinctive, too, fried fish, boiled fish, dried fish, fish cakes, fish rolls, fish porridge, fish everything, but for Westerners the most unusual thing about this culture is how they view the sexes. The way they see it, there aren’t just men and women. There are also feminine men and masculine women. The Bugis don’t see that as a contradiction, they welcome it as a valuable blend of human attributes, useful for different tasks. They have 6 distinct genders. Calalai are anatomical females wearing the clothes and doing the work of men; calabai are anatomical males fulfilling roles other cultures assign to women. One of the most important roles for a calabai is Wedding Mother. As a Wedding Mother, he takes charge of planning, organizing, and executing all the aspects of a family’s marriage ceremony. But the most highly prized gender is the one that blends male and female to the point where they become indistinguishable. These are the bissu. Because they combine male and female attributes, it’s assumed they also combine physical and spiritual elements. So they become the way for humans to access the spirit world. In a ceremony known as the mabissu they become possessed by spirits, and those spirits have the power to bless anything from rice planting and harvesting to a marriage to a journey. But the most bizarre moment in the bissu’s world is the way the spirits actually take possession of them. First they awaken the deities with a ritual dating back countless centuries. Then the bissu choose which deity can best confer the needed blessing, and go into a trance to allow the deity to possess them. Awakening from the trance, their personality often changed, a bissu must prove that the possessing deity is powerful enough to confer the blessing. The proof? Stabbing yourself with a kriss (ceremonial knife), often in the palm or temple and sometimes in the throat. If the kriss draws blood, the possessing deity is too weak. But if it can’t penetrate the skin, the deity is powerful enough to grant the blessing.
SO after that day of gender bending mind-blowing cultural immersion, we set off for the main purpose of our journey, to spend time with a mountaintop culture of Torajans outside of the town of Rentepao, people who believe that when you die, you don’t really die. You are just ill … that is until years later when you finally are buried, and in the meantime, you just lie around the house waiting for your funeral attended by thousands of your closest friends, all bearing gifts of pigs and water buffalos. Sound too wild to be true? Trust me, that’s not the half of it. This was one of the most outrageous episodes we ever made, and one that you will never forget. So settle in on the couch, make a large batch of these amazing Indonesian-style shrimp and lemme know what you think.