Saturday, April 25, 2009

Where a Yurt is Not a Yurt

When most people hear the word "yurt", what place do they think of? Mongolia, of course. Quite unexpectedly, however, in Mongolia, these nomadic homes are referred to as "gar" - which, when pronounced, rhymes with "care" rather than "car" as expected.

Mongolia is vast, sparsely populated outside the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, and highly unpredictable.

Last Saturday was a warm gorgeous day, and I was anxious for some exercise. Just before setting off on a long hike, I snapped the top picture from the door of the gar where I would be spending the night. The next morning as I woke in my toasty gar, kept warm by a small stove that was stoked throughout the night by the evening watchman, I stared in disbelief at what appeared to be snow falling through small openings in the top of the structure. When I stepped outside, the scene in the bottom image greeted me. More snow had fallen that spring night than had fallen throughout most of the winter months.

According to a Mongolian colleague, when a person's temperament is volatile or erratic, they are said to be like "weather in the spring". How apropos!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Ten Years and a Hundred Buffalo

Death is a big part of life in Tanah Toraja, a region of Sulawesi – the third largest island in the Indonesian archipelago. People there spend much of their lives saving money for ritual burials. When a favored family member dies, the deceased is laid out in the home and considered ‘sick” until the time of burial. But that can’t happen until sufficient funds are raised – which could take up to ten years depending on the status of the person and the scale of the funeral that is planned. An extravagant affair will run for 5 to 7 days, during which time all visitors will be housed and fed. Considering that 1,000 people could attend such a funeral, you begin to understand why it could take such a long time to raise the necessary money.

While waiting, the body is preserved with a salve made from plants, herbs, and other local ingredients. Since the lotion is not completely foolproof, in years past family members would rotate to ensure that someone was with the body 24x7. If any part became exposed, more salve had to be applied immediately to avoid decay. Now, however, obligations to earn money or attend school make it hard to perform this ritual. So, increasingly, formaldehyde or other embalming fluids are being used.

To reach the next realm successfully, a spirit needs to be accompanied. Generations ago, slaves, buffalo, and pigs would be slaughtered. Thankfully, in modern times the killing is limited to highly prized buffalo and pigs. But even then, the numbers could get extreme. So the government passed a law capping the buffalo sacrifices at 100.

The last part of the funeral process is the transfer of the body from its ancestral home to it final resting place – generally in a cave or rocky hillside. Tombs are carved out of solid stone and closed with elaborately decorated wooden doors that can be removed to add the next family member. Individuals that have been revered by their families are immortalized with wooden effigies that are placed in specially constructed porticos overlooking the burial sites. Originally, these carved images were relatively crude, but over time they have become eerily realistic.

Of course, not everyone gets ten years and a hundred buffalo. A common person is lucky to get a pig and a toss into a cave.

Although Tanah Toraja is probably the most fascinating part of Sulawesi from a cultural perspective, there are a lot of other interesting things on the island. If you want to see more, check out my photo archive.