S U L A W E S I 


Sulawesi, Celebes as it used to be called in the West, is an island that seems, on the map, to be all coastline. Its shape has been likened to that of a windblown orchid, but it more closely resembles one of John Wyndham's triffids. We landed at Dr Sam Ratulangi Airport, Manado, near the end of the outflung north-eastern arm of the island, up by the triffid's sting.

This is hill country, well populated but not overcrowded, with good soil and plenty of water to irrigate the rice fields. Around these intricate coasts and offshore islands are rich feeding grounds for fish, and shoals of tourists come to dive and snorkel among the coral gardens of Bunaken and Manado Bay. There are many Christians here, and the extravagant designs of white­washed churches, inspired at least partly by a wish to see how far the architect could go with reinforced concrete, reminded me of those of the Philippines, not very far away across that ultramarine sea.

Dr Sam Ratulangi was a charismatic leader of the nationalist movement in this part of Indonesia. After independence, he became the first governor of the province. Every Indonesian town of any size has a street named after him. A member of his extensive family still practices medicine in the town of Tomohon, about 20 kilometres south of Manado and 700 metres up, on the saddle between two active volcanoes. It was the doctor's wife, Ibu Bernadeth Ratulangi, who met us at the airport, put us into her Kijang and drove us up the winding road to the Gardenia Homestay, which is also their house, just outside Tomohon. Soon we were sitting on the broad verandah and eating a late lunch. It was four o'clock in the afternoon. We started with panada as an appetizer. Then came a splendid fish soup or stew, chilli-hot and sour, and a dish of pakis or young fern-shoots, also with a lot of chilli. The main course was ayam rica-rica, a grilled chicken, brought to table whole, spreadeagled on its serving plate, and accompanied by plain white rice.

The verandah faced south, and as we ate the sunlight was gradually levelling across the garden. At the edge of the lawn lay several massive logs, the trunks of sago palms in which sago grubs would soon breed, ready for the indefatigable William Wongso to sample on his next visit. All around us was the sound of running water, pouring from bamboo pipes on its way through the fields and down the hillside. Dr Ratulangi, Pak Dokter, arrived home from work and showed off his own pondful of fish just below the verandah. These carp and goldfish were not for eating, they were his pets and were all named after pop stars and other notorious people. He called to them, dribbled fish meal from his fingers and laughed as they frothed the water in a feeding frenzy, leaping to grab his fingers and then letting go with loud sucking kisses. "Hey, Madonna! Saddam! Gorby!" He joined us at the table and we handed over the parcels we had brought from William Wongso in Jakarta: many photographs of Pak William's last visit to Tomohon, and an extremely heavy book, which turned out to be the English edition of Larousse Gastronomique.

We wondered nervously if we were going to be faced by an equally large dinner in a couple of hours' time, but by now it was dark, the party had been gossiping about places and people and recipes for nearly four hours, Pak William had telephoned from Jakarta to make sure we had arrived safely, the clouds had returned and it was pouring with rain. Everyone was ready to call it a day, and we were lulled to sleep by the plash of water from the bamboo conduit outside our door and the relentless thump and rattle of rain above our heads.

At six in the morning we were woken by a haranguing from a loudspeaker in the village. Lists of names were being read, tasks were allotted, exhortations to work alternated with traditional songs and rock music. This, the doctor explained, was a special day which came round about once a month, a day of gotong royong or mutual help, co-ordinated by the loudspeaker. As the morning wore on, the master of ceremonies either grew hoarse or lost interest in the names of participating families; the music took over.

Breakfast was a huge bowl of tinutuan, from which we all helped ourselves. Pak Dokter pointed out how healthy it was, and added that this is the favorite breakfast of Bapak Presiden, President Suharto. We also had tai kuda, which means, politely, horse droppings, though it refers only to the shape of these rather delicious fried sweet-potato cakes. For breakfast we ate them stuffed with palm sugar, for tea with cheese.

The doctor announced that he was taking the day off and would drive us to Lake Tondano and other local sights. For a start, there were the village boundary posts. Boundaries and boundary-markers are very important in Indonesian life and legend; this pair stood half-way down the village street, where they marked the line between Tomohon and the village of Kakaskasen. Pictures of bloodthirsty warriors were painted on their sides. On top of one post was a carved and painted garuda bird, and on the other an owl, burung hantu in Indonesian, ghost-bird.

"In the old days," said the doctor, "all the Minahasa suku, the tribal groups, used to fight each other all the time. But our suku always did better than anyone else, because we had the owl, which flew over the country and told us where the enemy was hiding." He sounded as matter-of-fact about this as he did when he led us into the caves where Japanese soldiers stowed their weapons and stores during World War 2, caves dug by local labour at the cost of much suffering and many lives. Seeing how friendly everyone is today, I wonder whether human beings may after all have learned some­thing. But I wrote in my diary: "The typical local expression is worried rather than fierce." The rain descended without a break from a leaden sky as we drove around the lakeside and called briefly at the little "resort" area, deserted except for a large brown rat. It must be a pretty spot when the sun is shining, but it is one of those places that needs people.

We stopped to eat at a little restaurant that, according to Pak Dokter, is one of the last in the neighbourhood to cook in the traditional way. The cooks set up a row of short, stocky bamboos beside a line of smouldering charcoal; the top segment of each bamboo, open at the end, contains a packet of meat or fish which will be cooked by the heat of the fire. This process takes time, however, and they were preparing for the evening meal, so for lunch we had grilled tilapia from the lake and drank saguer, unfermented juice tapped from coconut flowers. It is a pleasant, mild-tasting drink, which, when allowed to ferment naturally for a day or so, becomes palm wine. It can then be distilled into tuak, at about 70 proof. We were to drink excellent tuak a week or two later, in Tana Toraja; it is not, of course, encouraged in Moslem areas (that is, in most of the country), but this and rice wine are, as far as I know, the only cheap alcohol in Indonesia.

Next morning we felt we could face Tomohon market. It sits on the side of the hill, its network of alleys made more confused by a one-way system that is compulsory for motor vehicles but not for horse traffic. The place is well crowded, as a market should be, and the people are relaxed and friendly, with faces that often show strong personality and even eccentricity, something one rarely sees in conformist Java. I admit it is not altogether as clean and well-regulated as Bukittinggi's Pasar Bawah, and the hifi systems blasting out the wares of the cassette sellers are as noisy as anywhere else.

But I could shop there very happily; the vegetables are profuse and splendid, the flowers gorgeous (Tomohon likes to call itself "the city of flowers"), and the smoked tuna is a gourmet's reward for a long journey. There is a wide-ranging fish department in which many of the stock are still gasping for oxygen, and only the meat section gave me any qualms. We did not see (I think we were not taken towards) any recognisable dogs, cats, rats, bats etc., all of which are eaten here; but the flayed limbs of cattle hanging by the heels from gigantic hooks in the roof were impressive enough.

Later we went down to the coast, to have a look at the Manado Beach Hotel, which is immense. None of its hundreds of rooms seemed to have a view of the sea, but it must be there somewhere, beyond the palm trees. We had dinner with the General Manager and his wife and the Marketing Manager, all Balinese. There were about half a dozen other people in the dining room. Like the Pusako in Bukittinggi, the Manado Beach was waiting to be hooked up to its market. A direct international air service was scheduled to start flying into Manado in a few months' time. The GM said there was plenty to do before that happened.

"Twenty years ago, in Bali, there were only three vegetables you could get all year round: white cabbage, carrots and pak choy. The chefs in the big new hotels were going crazy. So the managements got together, they imported seeds from America, they called in farmers who were interested and gave them the seed and told them how to grow it. Now there's a network of professional growers who can supply the chefs with anything they want."

We were told that plans to build three more hotels as big as this one had been shelved. There is a me-too drive that motivates much of Indonesian business. On the grand scale, because Bali has done well by building clusters of monster hotels, it is assumed that Lombok or Manado can do the same. At the other end of the market, a successful warung or coffee-house with a good recipe soon finds itself surrounded by imitators, far more than local demand can support. In a few months they are all out of business, often including the one that set the original good example.



A day or two later we flew south-west to Ujung Pandang, where we impressed taxi drivers by telling them that on our last visit, thirty years before, the town had still had its old name of Makassar. On the main road north, mikrolets had the alarming message UP BONE written above their windscreens, but these were simply the endpoints of their route: from Ujung Pandang to the old seaport of Bone (two syllables, of course) on the other side of this leg of the island.

We hired another Colt in U.P. to take us to Tana Toraja. The road runs parallel to the coast, but always a kilometre or two inland, so we rarely saw the sea. But the coastal plain is a sea of rice, uniformly emerald green, bounded on the east by an extraordinary range of contorted limestone hills, looking like geological soufflés that have failed and flopped. Every 20 kilometres or so we crossed a girder bridge over an estuary, with handsome white-painted sailing ships tied up below us, rafts of green bamboo being floated to market or simply left to soak and season, and a busy town nearby.

Between the towns, we passed farmers' houses built high off the ground, and roadside stalls selling fruit and dried fish; there were always a few large flatfish, split in half and then opened out and hung from the eaves of the stall like bony grey-brown or silvery shop-signs. There were limekilns and brick furnaces, and sawpits where teams of men sliced forest trees into planks with two-handed or four-handed crosscut saws. A buffalo luxuriated in a deep roadside ditch, munching fresh grass from the waterside. A man in a coolie hat fished with a long pole in a ricefield, the rice thick and green around him. We had a glimpse of sea, with mangrove trees teetering below high tide mark, and just above the tide mark the rice, doubtless a variety that can tolerate salt.

The road meets the coast again at Parepare, where we had lunch - well-cooked, unimaginative, from a menu that contained nothing anyone could quite object to. Then we turned inland, towards the hills. There is a fine view of the sea behind you, as you leave the town; but the only image that sticks in my mind is that of the dome of a small mosque, classically onion-shaped but given no solid form, merely outlined by metal rods like a birdcage. Inside it were two captive loud­speakers, ready to chant the call to prayer.

From here until you get into the mountains beyond Enrekang is a long hot journey through low hills and across a plain where several small rivers rise and the much larger Sa'dan river leaves the mountains and turns west towards the sea. This long road north from Ujung Pandang is now in good condition, having been resurfaced and upgraded as part of the Trans-Sulawesi Highway that will run all the way to Manado. The journey to Rantepao, the centre from which most people explore Tana Toraja, has been made an easy and comfortable one, taking seven or eight hours, provided there are no floods or landslips on the way.

The trip through the mountains is still spectacular. Because of the way the island was formed, its central limestone block has been shoved violently upwards and folded into dramatic shapes which have then weathered and broken under the stress of earthquakes and several million years of tropical storms. There is a wall of shattered rock running several kilometres southward from the town of Cakke, ending in a huge pyramid of almost naked stone; as you climb up from Enrekang, this peak is a landmark from afar and helps you keep a sense of direction as the road twists and dips. If it is the bones of landscape that impress you, they are laid out below you very elegantly in this largely barren, deforested countryside.

Roadworks become more and more frequent as the hills close in. Deprived of their trees, they let their stony soil rip downwards under the impact of the rain. We were intrigued by the little signs that the Highways Depart­ment had set up before every patch of resurfacing. They all apologised politely for the delay the work was causing, but they were only in English. My niece, who was travelling with us to Toraja, thought about it for a while and then said, "Well, it's typical. Indonesians don't apologise to each other, only to foreigners."

At Salubarani the road crosses the Sa'dan river and we entered Tana Toraja, with its extraordinary houses and still stranger burial customs. We were soon in a more friendly landscape: the rocks were as contorted as ever, but there was water, soil and forest, and new plantings of casuarinas to hold the soil against erosion. The Toraja people have been skilled farmers for centuries, and the ricefields are green and gold, lying in the river basins like irregular patches of mosaic, or descending the curve of a valley in a flight of shallow steps. In the late afternoon light, the countryside looked like a stage set, one that would have done equally well for grand opera or musical comedy.

Next morning everything was silvery in early mist. It was February; the hotels were empty, apart from the occasional party of retired Germans or Dutch. The Toraja villages we went to see treated us more reticently than they might have done in the high season. We still had to pay to get in, and were still accosted, without conviction, by children asking for money. Otherwise we were left pretty much to ourselves.

I don't see how anyone can come to such a place without wondering about the impact of tourism. Not every small regional culture has the exuberant toughness of the Balinese. If the villagers want to make a little money out of their visitors, good luck to them. I only hope the little money we paid for our entry fee went to the villagers, not to a government office. As to whether their way of life can survive, my diary contains a string of questions, ending, a little exasperatedly, "What is a 'genuine' tau-tau?" It is a bit like asking, "What is an 'authentic' recipe?"

A tau-tau is a carved and clothed wooden effigy of a deceased relative, set up outside his or her rock-cut tomb. Art collectors of all kinds love them, and they became some years ago magnets for any thief with a ladder. The tau-tau in the cliff face at Lemo village are almost all recent replace­ments. In other villages the originals have been taken in and locked up by their families for safe keeping, which means of course that they cannot do their job of guarding the dead; this is taken over by inferior copies of tau-tau, not worth stealing. However, if the copies fulfil their function as guardians, or if people believe they are doing so, how are they not genuine? And if people don't believe the "real" tau-tau are effective, they surely are fakes just as much as the bad copies? But these questions are already too familiar to anyone who has tried to work out what happens to religious art when its backbone of belief is filleted out. A well-made tau-tau is certainly an impressive figure, and a line of them high up on a rock gallery are quite frightening.

We went south again the following day. From the notes that I scribbled as we drove, I recall an old man reading in the deep shade of a carved wooden verandah, the eaves hung with birdcages; a broad ricefield being expertly planted out with seedlings by a line of women; a woman in another field distributing bundles of rice seedlings by hurling them vigorously to all corners; painted window glass in houses, usually with flower patterns in white or full colour; floor-to-ceiling shutters that opened to reveal prettily-carved balustrades; in the open spaces under the houses, people deeply asleep on bamboo beds, their mopeds parked nearby, or sociably playing guitars or grooming fighting cocks. And there were, as always, the pendant deep-purple heartshaped flowers of banana trees, clove trees glowing russet, pink and gold with the sun behind them, and white herons in green fields. At Kotu we stopped to admire the mountain view and met a friendly cat in the coffee shop. We ate bajek, a sweet made like most sweets from palm sugar and glutinous rice flour but wrapped up most ingeniously in dried sweet corn leaves, with four little cylinders gathered by their ends to make a kind of tetrahedron.

 At Rappang, in the hot central plain, we left the Parepare road and kept directly on into a long valley between two mountain ranges. Roadworks held us up again. There was a rasping sound of machinery on our right. "Ah. Gilingan padi - rice mill," I said, for the sake of saying something. The driver pointed to the other side of the road. "Gilingan ayam", he said, "chicken mill." And indeed it was a battery farm for chickens. These chicken factories are becoming common now all over Indonesia. Some are vast, owned by big businessmen, others, like this one, quite small and makeshift. They account for the scarcity of the ayam kampung, the village chicken that lived beside or on the road and was always dodging traffic; it was a muscular bird, tough to eat, but it had character and flavour.

At Watan Soppeng, the next large town, every tree was festooned with sleeping bats, and insomniacs were flying around and uttering harsh cries. No one seems to know why they are there, or why they congregate in such a clearly-defined area, but there seems to be an agreement between towns­people and bats that neither shall eat the other - or at least that the bats shall stay away from the local fruit trees. Indeed, there is intense civic pride in the bats' presence, and everyone is convinced that if they were driven away the town would come to a bad end. The bats have the usual Indonesian respect for boundary lines. As soon as you cross the border of their territory, there is not a single one to be seen or heard.

The obstacle that we still had to pass was the high range of hills on our right, the same fantastically lumped rocks we had seen from the coast road two days before. All afternoon we ran down the narrowing valley, through rich country­side with many prosperous villages. Before us the sunlit sky darkened, and as we entered the mountains a thunderstorm burst over us. When the rain slackened, we were among steep hills covered in forest, the backdrop for further heroic scenery of rocky walls and towers. The road ran beneath cliffs that arched above us like natural fan vaulting. This was the geological soufflé that we had seen from the coast road; we were now in its heart, and the weather arranged for us some fine lighting effects. We ran on, into the grey streets of U.P. and a watery sunset.