Category: Travel

Living with the dead: Indonesia’s Torajans downsize burials amid pandemic

She had been dead for two years and was ready to be buried. After restrictions to curb the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) were imposed in March, however, villagers in the La’bo village of the North Toraja regency in Sulawesi Island had no choice but to suspend the ceremony at the last minute.

On Saturday, they were finally able to hold a proper burial for the deceased village elder in a toned-down version of the elaborate, centuries-old ceremony known as Rambu Solo. The ceremony is central to the lives of the Toraja ethnic group, who are predominantly Christian but hold some animistic belief.

The Torajas inhabit two administrative areas — the North Toraja and Tana Toraja regencies — in the South Sulawesi province.

For Torajans, the deceased are not dead yet; they are seen, rather, as sick. Family members still talk to them, bringing food and drinks and keeping essential items nearby. The mummified corpse remains unburied in the family’s tongkonan, or a Toraja traditional house, while years of preparations for the burial ceremony is underway. It is a large family affair which would last for up to a week in pre-COVID-19 times, involving the entire village and requires the sacrifice of dozens of buffaloes.

“We condensed the ceremony to only two days. We also conducted the burial in compliance with health protocols by providing a hand washing station at the entrance. All mourners who came in had to wear face masks,” Yohannes Limbong, a family representative said.

The family was supposed to hold the ceremony on March 25, but it was suspended after the regency administration issued a stay-at-home order on March 23, advising citizens to hold off on any events involving large gatherings of people such as the Rambu Solo.

A relative mourns on the deceased’s coffin. (Photo: Lisa Saba Palloan)

As of Saturday, the regency has not reported any COVID-19 deaths, but there were four confirmed cases, all of whom were travelers from virus-infected areas, including the provincial capital, Makassar, about 317 kilometers away. 

The province has had 3,635 confirmed cases so far or about 8 percent of the 45,029 national caseloads. North Toraja, which has a population of 230,000, has lifted some restrictions in recent weeks after the region was considered an area where the risk of infections is low, allowing for religious events. Participants are nevertheless required to observe health protocols.

“There were less than 100 mourners who attended the ceremony. Normally, it would be double that amount or more,” Lisa Saba Palloan, a local tourist guide, said.

Romba Marannu Sombolinggi, chairwoman of the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago Toraya chapter, said that families who conducted the burials recently had to compromise between the obligation to perform a respectable send-off and compliance with social restrictions.

“A complete ceremony could take at least five days,” she said.

“But we are obeying government regulations. There are some disappointments, but we understand the situation. We do not want people to be infected because we insist on having the long ceremony.”

A few people had died who were under treatment but who had tested negative for COVID-19. They had to be buried in accordance with health protocols as soon as possible, which meant that the surviving family members could not keep the deceased embalmed in their houses as they would traditionally do.

“The families still performed the most essential rituals, including sacrificing at least a pig or a buffalo before the burial,” Sombolinggi said.

Sombolinggi said that buffaloes are sacrificed to mark the symbolic passage to death since they would serve as the deceased’s “carriage” in the afterlife.

“It is very much about the family’s dignity. They would otherwise experience social repercussions if they were not able to hold a presentable burial,” she added.

Read the full story in Arab News

Indonesia taps into Muslim tourist market with Shariah hotels

Hotel-Cut-Meutia
Shariah-based Hotel Sofyan in Central Jakarta. Photo: Sofyan Hotel

With a rising awareness to promote Muslim-friendly travel, the widespread adoption of Shariah-based accommodation is not always successfully put into practice, as Octine Riyantini realized during one of her stays at a hotel that claimed to be Shariah-compliant.

Riyantini has stayed in two Shariah-based hotels in Indonesia and had a good experience with the first one, where she found that hotel staff always greeted guests with the Islamic greeting, had call of prayers blasted from a speaker and provided prayer amenities as well as a Qibla sign in each room.

“The ambiance was very much Islamic and the hotel itself was clean and well-maintained,” she said.

She had a different experience with the second one, despite the Shariah label that goes with the hotel’s name in an online hotel reservation website.

Although they provided a prayer room on each floor, Riyantini said it seemed like it was hastily prepared and a bit spooky, so she and her family chose to pray in their room. Moreover, the hotel was not properly maintained.

“Maybe they consider their hotel to be Shariah-compliant just because they provide a prayer room on each floor and a Qibla sign in the room, yet the overall ambiance hardly felt like it was Muslim-friendly,” she said.

“I learned that not all hotels that claimed to be Shariah-based are really compliant to the value. If we have to stay in such a hotel another time, we will have to consider which hotel chain it is associated with,” she said.

Muslim-friendly travel and tourism in Indonesia continues to rise, with Indonesia named as the number one destination, out of 130 countries, for halal tourism in the world by the Global Muslim Travel Index 2019.

Service providers have been quick to tap into the growing market, despite the controversy and misconceptions about halal tourism in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country.

According to a survey conducted by accommodation network operator Airy, 60 percent of Indonesian travelers think that it is important to have Shariah-based accommodation. The figure was consistent with data from the Alvara Research Center, which showed that 64 percent of Indonesian millennials travel and go on holiday at least once a year, providing a market of about 26 million holiday-hunting Muslim millennials.

Responding to the market demand, Airy in 2016 began offering a segment called Airy Syariah or a Shariah-based accommodation network.

“Our Airy Syariah properties offer Muslim-friendly accommodation so that guests can stay comfortably and worry-free. The market response has been good and demand for Shariah-based accommodation continues to rise every year. Our occupancy rate so far stands at 40 percent to 70 percent,” Airy vice president for marketing, Ika Paramita, said.

Paramita said Airy cooperates with more than 400 Muslim-friendly properties in some 50 cities across Indonesia and it has been growing at a triple-digit rate year-on-year.

“The food and drinks in our properties are halal-certified, and we provide Muslim-friendly amenities. Guests can immediately experience their stay in our Shariah-based properties, where hotel staff uniforms and attitudes conform to Islamic values. Moreover, we validate the marriage status when a couple is checking in,” Paramita said.

Shariah-compliant accommodation is not new in Indonesia. The Sofyan Hotel chain in Jakarta has implemented the concept in its two properties since 1992 by removing nightclubs, bars and alcoholic drinks from its facilities.

But the concept does not always appeal to all Muslims in Indonesia. University lecturer Ratna Djumala said she prefers to stay in a conventional hotel to show her children about meeting people of various backgrounds.

“I want to show my children about diversity and tolerance, especially this coming December when hotels are adorned with Christmas decorations. I want my kids to experience the ambiance, too. A family-friendly hotel doesn’t always have to be a Shariah-based one. What’s important for me is the food has to be halal,” she said.

Muslim-friendly travel was valued at $189 billion in 2018 and is estimated to reach $274 billion by 2024, according to the State of Global Islamic Economy Report 2019.

The story was first published in Arab News

Poor tourists are unwelcome in NTT, Governor Says

The governor of an Indonesian province that is home to the famed Komodo dragon said poor tourists are not welcome there, local media reported on Friday.

East Nusa Tenggara Governor Victor Laiskodat said his province was on the list of Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2020 and therefore should be a premium destination.

“Tourists who come here must be rich,” Laiskodat was quoted by the Kompas newspaper as saying Thursday. “Those who are poor may not come … we have many people like that, so we don’t want to see more of them.”

East Nusa Tenggara is one of the poorest provinces in Indonesia.

Laiskodat has proposed that people who want access to Komodo island, home to the giant lizard, should be charged a hefty entrance fee. Visitors are currently charged 150,000 rupiah (10 dollars) for access to the park.

The government this year dropped a plan to close the island for a year in 2020 as part of conservation efforts and instead decided to turn it into a premium tourism destination.

Officials said visitors who do not want to pay the entrance fee can visit nearby Rinca island, where smaller Komodo dragons live.

Komodo National Park, home to more than 5,000 Komodo dragons, is listed by National Geographic as one of the world’s top 10 destinations. It receives more than 10,000 visitors per month.

Indonesian nationalism at a peak

Indonesians always find new ideas for celebrating the Aug. 17 Independence Day. While the most common celebration is a simple raising of the national flag, it has become a tradition for people to do it in extreme places, such as the top of a mountain.

In a vast archipelago that stretches 5,245 kilometers along the equator, Indonesian thrill-seekers who want to raise the flag on high are spoilt with options with 500 mountains, of which 127 are active volcanoes and 22 are showing increased signs of activity.

Upacara bendera Rinjani
Mountain climbers held a flag-raising ceremony on the edge of a crater at the top of Indonesia’s second-highest mountain, Mount Rinjani, in Lombok island on Aug. 17, 2019. Photo: Balai Taman Nasional Gunung Rinjani  

Miena Muzdalifah, a mountain climber from Bandung, West Java, had her first high-altitude flag-raising moment in 2018 on Mount Hawu, a limestone mountain in Padalarang, west of Bandung. It was part of a simultaneous flag-hoisting ceremony in four compass directions that surround Bandung that her group, the Bandung Mountain Climbers Community, held last year.

“There was a special sense of pride to be able to raise the red-and-white (flag) at a high altitude. We had to undergo a certain process to read the limestone cliff’s summit,” Miena said.

“It was a great feeling and it boosted my sense of nationalism and patriotism,” she added.

The high enthusiasm to celebrate Independence Day by climbing a mountain, especially the most popular ones and those located in national parks, has resulted in such an excess of climbers that park managements have to impose quotas. The limit fills up so quickly that climbers have to book online far ahead of their trip.

Mount Rinjani in Lombok Island, a 3,726-meter-high active volcano and the second-highest mountain in Indonesia, imposed a quota of 500 climbers per day. The restriction took effect after all four trails on the mountain were reopened for climbers on June 14. They had been closed following the 6.4-magnitude earthquake struck the island on July 2018.

Sudiyono, head of Mount Rinjani National Park, said the mountain is also popular with foreign hikers, who have made up 80 percent of its climbers since the reopening.

Last year, rescuers had to evacuate 1,226 climbers, including 696 foreigners, who were stranded in various spots on the mountain, including its iconic crater lake, Segara Anak, due to landslides triggered by the powerful quake.

“It was always very crowded with climbers celebrating independence each year. After the earthquake, we have been improving our climbing procedures. We want to maintain manageable numbers for safety and for conservation purposes,” Sudiyono said.

Rahman Mukhlis, secretary-general of the Indonesia Mountain Guide Association, has had the chance to celebrate Independence Day on two of Indonesia’s seven highest summits, Mount Rinjani and Mount Latimojong, a 3,478-meter-high non-volcanic mountain in South Sulawesi.

“When we climb mountains, we get to know more about our country. We gain a better understanding of our socio-cultural environment by interacting with the locals and seeing first-hand our country’s beautiful nature. We see a different view of the country from above,” Rahman said.

Dody Permana, a long-time mountain climber, had his Independence Day moment years ago on Java’s highest mountain, Mount Semeru, which sits 3,676 meters above sea level in East Java province and is one of Indonesia’s seven highest summits.

Mount Semeru used to host thousands of climbers for Independence Day celebrations. But since May, the Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park has imposed a quota of 600 climbers per day after months of closure following intense rainfall at the height of the rainy season in January.

“The Independence Day holiday is always a good opportunity to climb together with a group of friends. It felt heroic when we had a flag-raising ceremony in an unusual place, such as the top of a mountain,” Dody said.

Read the full story in Arab News

 

Garuda sues YouTube reviewer over handwritten menu post

 An Indonesian YouTube personality said on Tuesday he had been sued by national airline Garuda over a social media posting about a hand-written business-class menu.

Rius Vernandes, a popular vlogger, posted an Instagram photo showing the menu written on a piece of notebook paper on Saturday with the caption: “The menu is still being printed, sir.”   

The post went viral and prompted Indonesian social media users to mock the airline. 

Rius said he has received a summons from the police in connection with the post.   

“We’ve been reported for defamation. I’m sure you know I had no intention whatsoever to defame anyone,” he said on Instagram. 

“I hope you can support me because I don’t want anyone to be prosecuted for an honest review and constructive criticism,” he said. 

Garuda said the handwritten menu was made by a cabin crew member for personal use and not intended to be handed out to passengers.

Police confirmed that Garuda had filed a defamation case against Rius. 

Garuda came under more criticism on Tuesday after a circular instructing the cabin crew to prohibit passengers from taking photos or videos mid-air circulated on social media. 

The airline later clarified that the directive had been withdrawn, but said that passengers are advised to respect other people’s privacy by not taking their photos.     

“Passengers can take photos for personal use such as selfies as long as they do not inconvenience other passengers,” the company’s spokesman Ikhsan Rosan said in a statement. 

Jakarta’s first metro line sparks enthusiasm, but not traffic panacea

Commuting in traffic-clogged Jakarta is not for the faint-hearted, but the journey to and from work will be less dreadful for some after the launch of the city’s first metro system.

Jakarta’s Mass Rapid Transit (MRT), the first metro system to be built in Indonesia, began its public trial run on March 12 and was greeted with enthusiasm by many in the city of 10 million people.  

“My impression riding MRT Jakarta? It’s very fast and comfortable,” said Helen Heldawati, an office worker in central Jakarta.

“Security is also very good. There are guards in all entrances and around the stations,” said Helen who, like about 200,000 other people, registered online to be the among the first to try the service.

Officials hope that the 16-kilometre MRT line will reduce Jakarta’s legendary traffic jams, which each year get worse as a growing middle class buys more and more cars and motorcycles.

A study by the app-based transportation firm Uber and the Boston Consulting Group released in 2017 revealed that Jakarta residents spent 22 days a year in traffic, longer than residents in any other major Asian city.  

The study also found that 74 per cent of Jakartans had missed important events such as wedding parties, appointments with doctors, job interviews and funerals because of difficulty finding a parking space.

President Joko Widodo, who tried the service for the first time last week, said it would motivate people to use public transportation instead of private cars or motorcycles.

He said this month that traffic jams in the greater Jakarta area, home to about 30 million people, cost 4.5 billion dollars a year.

“I’m pleasantly surprised that members of the public are very enthusiastic in trying the MRT,” Joko told reporters.

“This is the beginning of a new culture of commuting,” said Joko, who officially launched the service on Sunday.  

Joko, who became president in 2014, has made improving the country’s dilapidated infrastructure a priority during his first five-year term in office.

He is seeking re-election in the April 17 presidential poll and is eager to tout his achievements to voters.  

After years in the pipeline, construction on the 16-kilometre line, funded by Japan, began in 2013 and cost 16 trillion Indonesian rupiah (1.1 billion dollars).

The line, stretching from Lebak Bulus in southern Jakarta to the Hotel Indonesia roundabout in the city’s centre, consists of six underground and seven elevated stations.   

Construction will begin this year on a second line, extending 8.6 kilometres to the city’s north, officials said.  

A light train service is being built to connect Jakarta and the satellite cities of Bogor and Bekasi and is expected to be completed by 2022. 

The city administration has to heavily subsidize MRT Jakarta’s operations to keep fares low and affordable to commuters.

Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan estimated that the MRT cost 1 trillion Indonesian rupiah in subsidies a year.

Fares have not been set despite the planned April l commercial launch, but Baswedan said he expected commuters to be charged 1,000 rupiah per kilometre.

“Money is tight, so there’s no way we will make it free,” Baswedan said, commenting on suggestions from some city councillors that Jakarta residents not be charged.    

Some experts are sceptical that the new train service will reduce traffic congestion.

“It was long overdue and it should have been built many years ago,” said Djoko Setijowarno, a transportation analyst at Soegijapranata University.

“A 16-kilometre line won’t make a dent in traffic. The network has to be widened and it has to be more integrated with other modes of transport,” he said.    

MRT Jakarta chief executive William Sabandar agreed.

“The MRT alone won’t solve the problem of traffic jams, but with integration with other modes of transport, such as the rapid bus system, hopefully congestion can be reduced,” he said. 

Nonetheless, some Jakarta residents are relieved that their wait for a modern metro system is over.

“Jakarta is now on par with other modern cities,” said Albert Hendrik, a university student.

“The subway stations are very modern, like in Japan,” he said.  

Akbar Mapaleo, a 35-year-old graphic designer, brought his wife and two young children to ride one of the shiny new trains.

“It’s very comfortable. I feel like I’m in Singapore. I’m going to ride it to and from work,” he said.