Ferdinand Magellan and me (5):Sulawesi

Ferdinand Magellan and me(3)

Across the Ceram Sea and through the narrow Butan Strait we sailed to Makassar, aka Ujung Pandang, famous as the haunt of Dyak pirates. Makassar is terminus for pinnis praus, the world’s largest fleet of sailing vessels still in commercial use. They ply the route between Makassar, Borneo and Java, a three-cornered course ideally suited to the reversing monsoons of the Java Sea.

Makassar is a cosmopolitan city where Christians and Muslims seem to live in harmony with the lingering memory of the Dutch occupation ever-present in the form of Fort Rotterdam, now a museum. In fact, the province has a turbulent history involving its indigenous Bugis people who inhabit Tana Toraja. It’s a lush land of winding roads, damp forests and terraced padi fields on the slopes of misty mountains.

Ferdinand Magellan was one of the first Christian evangelists on this side of the planet, followed by Catholic missionaries, Dutch pastors and Salvation Army corps keen to stamp out the heathen practices and animist beliefs of the Torajans. One Salvation Army officer is reported to have described the Torajan culture as a kind of disease, devoid of God. Magellan captured a couple of natives of South America and clapped them in chains planning to convert them to Christianity and take them back to Spain like zoo specimens. Unfortunately, the religious prisoners died before that could happen and so did Magellan but Pigafetta made a study of their language and culture.

Nowadays, the Torajan culture is a tourist event, a gathering of the clans for the funeral of a former chief, not the sombre occasion of the western world but a festival lasting a week or more. The late chief’s relatives had come from all over Sulawesi to celebrate the great man’s life. Kids rode bareback on buffaloes that were later butchered and barbecued. Old friends and relatives squatted in groups to catch up on family gossip in ornately decorated open houses with saddle-shaped thatched roofs. Ladies balancing trays on their heads delivered the vittles.

Going to market with the goods balanced on their heads.

They can walk for miles with these things on their head.


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Sailor from wayback with a Master's degree in Technology Management. Prefer classical music to rap and chicken curry to steak.

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