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Sulawesi Travel Report

I always regretted not to have gone to see the Bada Valley and the Palindo megalith in particular on my first trip to Sulawesi in 1980. At the time I was a naïve world traveler and had no idea of the distances involved. I was with my Swiss girlfriend Georgette Maag and her hometown friend Regula Steiner and I found myself beholden to their ideas, not that we were in any super big hurry to get anywhere else but Lake Toba and Nias were calling and we followed their siren's song.

I had hoped to be able to get to Central Sulawesi after that but again, events got in the way. My good friend Irene Lim died of malaria (some say poisoning) on the spot back in 2003 and that was not very encouraging, nor were the reports of Taliban training camps and wars between the Christian and Muslim militias, with headless bodies floating in rivers and bombings in the market places around Lake Poso for much of the time between 1999 and 2006. Then my old friend John Strusinski went up there a couple of years ago and he ended up in intensive care back in the US with severe malaria, although that could also have come from Sumba which he visited on the same trip; he was close to being a goner...

Perhaps I have a death wish or perhaps it was because after being on the Omo River of Ethiopia where 90% of mosquitoes are malarial, I was not intimidated this time around. And on a practical basis, I was able to get that extremely elusive seat on the plane to Palu, the small port city of Central Sulawesi. I brought with me my great friend Imron Chan from Bali as aide de camp and when it came to finding a local guide we went for the best: Iksam, shown in one of the photos, is the chief curator of the Palu Museum of Culture in Sulawesi.

Along the way we passed Lake Poso, a truly grand and scenic body of water with a diversity of ethnic enclaves living in the vicinity of its shores. That there are Muslims to be found comes as no surprise as they are the Bugis and the Makassarsese, great traders whose ancestral home is in the south of Sulawesi and their boats made their way almost everywhere throughout the Archipelago including Poso. And so too with Christians, many of whom were formerly indigenous tribal people, for lack of a better word, who converted during the early to mid 20th Century at the encouragement of European missionaries who were ready to lose their heads to carry their message. No, the astonishing thing is to see communities of Hindus, specifically Balinese. How they got there is one of the lesser known stories of the politics of land, through the policy of transmigrasi, initiated by the Dutch Colonial administration in the 1930's and carried on later by the Javanese themselves, designed to move people from over-populated areas like Bali to places where it seemed there were almost no people, like in Sulawesi. There the transplants built whole communities which greatly resemble the kampongs of Bali to the extent that as you pass through the images you will think surely his images are out of order this can not be Sulawesi but they are! Please note as you scroll through the images photos of great Balinese temples, houses, and gardens nearby Mosques and Christian  churches. Of course what seemed like empty land did belong to via the ancestors to some person or clan and when it was taken away by an outside government, of course that set the stage for some communal friction. the  transmigrasi policy has been termed by social anthropologists as "one of the greatest disasters of human ecology visited upon indigenous peoples ever devised" and their struggles are still going on in West Papua, Borneo and Sumatra but I did not sense any longer in Poso, where there were nothing but big smiles where ever I went!

I am glad I went there and could finally see in person what is rightly regarded as the finest megalith in Indonesia and what can rightly be called owing to their common Austronesian roots, the “Easter Island figure of Sulawesi!”

While basking in Palindo's spiritual gravitas, I was checking the surface of the stone and trying to get a sense of its sculptural stylization, monumentality, and antiquity but I confess that after all these years of looking at that old photo seen on the back of the card (which still hangs in my kitchen) I found myself a bit disappointed; with no jungle foliage surrounding it, and instead a lawn? I was imagining it to be still completely savage!

Making the effort to get out to the more remote and less famous stone figures, crossing rice fields and trekking to places where the car could not get to, with the reward being that while not as tall or as grand, many of the other megaliths captured my imagination even more.

The dating of these enigmatic megaliths remains unknown, and while many scholars think they were made during the first Millennium AD, after being there I confess to some sympathy to the idea they were placed in their present position by beings from outer space! But assuming a terrestrial origin, one thing is for sure: the transporting and carving of a giant boulder taken from a distant river required a major commitment of labor and logistics by the community, a very significant sacrifice. And it was only until recently, with the “success” of missionaries to create a “disconnect” between the villagers and the stone they considered an Ancestor, that their kampongs were relocated away from the statues that formerly gave the villages great protection. Thankfully the pieces had not been vandalized, but how long that will remain true is anybody’s guess.

Are they personifications of fertility as, shall we say, their iconography suggests, or are they representations of ancient great kings, with only one notable and very easily recognizable queen noted? Or indeed both? In any case they are very evocative and I found myself deeply moved to be in their collective presence.

For me, by way of personal mythology, that giant stone in that particular valley, the Palindo in the Bada, symbolized the most remote place in all of Indonesia. True or not in fact, as it was only 13 hours down what at times became some very questionable roads and another 15 to get out that is how it feels. For this Marin County boy who came up out of the neighborhood, I feel that in achieving that "touch-stone" pilgrimage, I made contact with one of the shamanic podes of the earth, an Animistic antenna if you will, and I lived to tell the tale and bring it back to share with you… the tale, not the stone!

-tm