Sulawesi Travel: the Minahasa Highlands

  • Horse-drawn carts, called bendi, are still used for short-distance transportation.

    Horse-drawn carts, called bendi, are still used for short-distance transportation.

  • The four hash marks on this waruga capstone indicate that four family members have been buried inside.

    The four hash marks on this waruga capstone indicate that four family members have been buried inside.

  • Local fish and garden vegetables at the Gardenia Restaurant in Tomohon.

    Local fish and garden vegetables at the Gardenia Restaurant in Tomohon.

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Above: Horse-drawn carts, called bendi, are still used for short-distance transportation.

Indonesia’s Manado region is best known for its underwater attractions, but the Minahasa highlands are still the place to go for a taste of the island’s traditional culture

Story and photography by Isabel Esterman

Eat first, talk later. We have snake. We have frog. We have lizard. We have dog. Please, eat.”

 

My eyes still adjusting to the house’s dimly lit interior, I try to get my bearings. Arrayed before me is a buffet table laden with a classic Minahasan feast, a veritable smorgasbord of the animal kingdom. And above it all stands my beaming host, who has welcomed me off the street and into his home with such speed and insistence I don’t even get the chance to introduce myself.

For the people of the northernmost tip of Indonesia’s Sulawesi Island, there seems to be only one rule: if it is physically possible to consume something, it is, by definition, fit to be eaten.

“Even the table legs. We like to say that if you just add some chili and put shallots on them, you can eat them,” I was told earlier in the day by Grace O’Nelwan, a native of this highland town, Tomohon. “And instead of saying ‘how are you,’ ” she added, “the greeting here is ‘come and eat.'”

I never actually see anyone frying up the furniture, but I quickly learn that Grace—whose varied career has included stints as Miss Minahasa, a short-story writer, and manager of Manado’s Bumi Beringin restaurant—has exaggerated about little else. Before setting me loose in her hometown, she also instructed me that the important thing is to mengotori piring, or dirty my plate. As long as I accept a respectable portion of food—gingery sticky rice with shallots, traditional sweets made from palm sugar, at least one of the cans of beer pressed on me by grinning old women—I can avoid grave offense without overturning decades of vegetarianism. Fortunately, I’ve also brought along a ringer from Jakarta, my boyfriend Yerry, who has inherited some of the tastes of his Minahasan father, and views many of these dishes as familiar favorites rather than exotic challenges.

As Yerry peruses the buffet, I get settled in and survey the scene. From the outside, the house looked calm and ordinary enough, with a distinguished-looking older gentleman seated among a profusion of potted plants and Easter decorations. The only sign of the action within is a wide-open door, signaling that the house is hosting what’s known locally as a pengucapan, or thanksgiving celebration.

Inside, though, is one of the most rollickingly good parties I’ve ever attended. Three generations of one extended family are packed into the dining room, along with any passersby they’ve pulled off the street. They laugh, tell jokes, and when one older man pulls out a ukulele and starts up a song in the local Tombulu dialect, people are quick to join in; one silver-haired woman, with a smile of pure joy on her face, rises to her feet in a dance that veers stupendously between stately and saucy.

The gathering, and similar events in neighboring houses, coincides with Easter, a major holiday in this overwhelmingly Christian area. But the tradition predates the arrival of Christianity, and throughout the harvest season, from May to September, neighborhoods, villages, and—in one particularly spectacular extravaganza—whole districts host pengucapans, which function something like a giant rotating party around the entire region.

“Anybody who passes by can come in,” explains the host of another celebration down the road. “They drink, make music, and celebrate. If they want to go on until tomorrow, it’s okay with us.”

As I wander from house to house, treated to unique music, food, and dance by families delighted at the novelty of a foreign guest, I find myself thinking back to my first night in Manado, the coastal provincial capital, where a British expat offhandedly informed me that there’s really not much of interest in the area, because, unlike Bali or Java, North Sulawesi has “no sort of real heritage or culture.”

I don’t hear anyone else repeat the same sentiments quite so baldly, but there does seem to be something of a consensus that Manado and the Minahasa region have little to offer beyond natural beauty. Tourism here is concentrated along the coast, where a string of dive centers and resorts provide access to the famed coral gardens of Bunaken National Marine Park, or organize excursions to the powdery white-sand beaches of Lembeh, Gangga, and other offshore islands, with perhaps a quick trip for bird-watching or tarsier spotting in the lowland forests that fringe the seashore. Little attention is given to inland attractions—which is a shame, because there’s plenty to explore.

***

Climbing away from the coast, the road to Tomohon makes hairpin turns through gently rolling hills, furred with grass and dappled with tall, straight trees. The air cools and softens as we ascend, and each turn yields dramatic views of fields and valleys, flanked by the Lokon and Mahawu volcanoes.

Sulawesi travel: Minahasa waruga capstone

The four hash marks on this waruga capstone indicate that four family members have been buried inside.

Near the highland town of Airmadidi, we stop to look at intricately carved tombstones known as waruga, among the few surviving relics of precolonial Minahasan life. Once scattered among individual households, they have been transplanted to a few communal cemeteries like this one. According to local legend, each was carved from a single block of mountain stone, which was carried back to the village by a single person, balancing the triangular cap on his head, and with the rectangular base, into which a body would eventually be placed, lashed to his back. Many of the carvings are beautifully done, though admittedly not on par with the stonework produced by the old kingdoms of Java or Bali. Depictions of birth (complete with eerie, upside-down fetuses) indicate that one tomb’s original occupant was a midwife, while a figure capped with a Western-style hat suggests a village headman, or a wealthy trader who had commerce with passing European traders.

Volcanic activity creates some of the Minahasa Highland’s most interesting features. Lake Linow’s brilliant blue and aqua water looks inviting from a distance, but closer inspection reveals that the tiny disturbances on the lake’s surface come from bubbles of hot gas boiling up from the lake bed. On the far shore, pits of sulfurous mud appear even more forbidding.

Less spectacular, though more salubrious, are the small hot springs that pepper the highlands. In the towns around Lake Tondano (whose residents, I’m told, are famed for their cleanliness and flawless skin), even the most humble neighborhoods have superheated spring-fed public baths, and a cottage industry has developed along the road between the towns of Airmadidi and Tondano, with small establishments renting out private bathing rooms that offer a scalding dip for a few dollars an hour.

Sulawesi travel: fish and vegetables dish

Local fish and garden vegetables at the Gardenia Restaurant in Tomohon.

Volcanoes also mean astonishingly fertile soil, and the cooler highland climate is perfect for growing crops as varied as cabbage, pea-nuts, potatoes, and the tropical blooms that have given Tomohon the nickname Flower City. “Land here can sell for 500,000 rupiah a meter,” Yerry tells me. At almost US$60, that rivals the cost of some residential plots in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital. But for most, there’s little incentive to sell; with a healthy crop of 100 coconut palms, small-scale farmers can earn enough income from copra to send their children to university.

Real wealth, though, has historically come from cloves trees, whose aromatic buds helped put Indonesia’s Spice Islands on the global trade map centuries ago. Clove is still a big business here, thanks to a steady demand from the manufactures of kretek, the country’s wildly popular clove-laced cigarettes. Great fortunes were made in the hills around the highland town of Sonder, especially during the golden years of the 1960s and 1970s.

“My father used to come here to pick cloves during his school holidays,” Yerry recalls. “These farmers were so rich, they sent their children to school in Australia, and took shopping trips to Singapore.”

Alas, the good times ended in the 1990s with the establishment of a quasi-governmental clove monopoly agency based out of Jakarta, 2,180 kilometers to the southwest. Minahasan farmers were required to sell their crops to the agency at rock-bottom prices. “They became so frustrated they cut down many of their trees. Some even burned their fields,” says Yerry. The monopoly lasted until 1998, when the International Monetary Fund mandated its dissolution. In recent years, clove prices have soared again, approaching US$8 a kilo. But the episode marks one of many low points in what has often been an uneasy relationship between North Sulawesi and the rest of Indonesia.

Having enjoyed a privileged position under the Dutch colonial regime, not all of Minahasa was enthusiastic in backing Indonesia’s independence struggle. Unlike their counterparts in Ambon, the Minahasans never openly sided with the Dutch against the new Indonesian National Army (TNI), but they certainly hedged their bets. Yerry’s grandfather, the redoubtable Alexander Borang, is a prime example. He began his military career in the service of the Dutch, but was able to maintain a postrevolution posting in the TNI. In 1957, when North Sulawesi’s leaders launched an ill-fated rebellion against the young Indonesian republic in a bid for regional autonomy, Bor-ang became a Permesta (a portmanteau for “Universal Struggle Charter”) guerilla leader. Working alongside him was his wife, who, like many local women, couriered weapons and supplies to the rebels. He escaped punishment as part of a general amnesty in 1961, and was able to settle back into civilian life, eventually serving in an administrative post as a village chief.

There have been no major conflicts with the central government since then. But locals still seem to take pride in their warlike reputation (the sister who time and again fights with her boss and storms off the job is applauded as “very Minahasan”) and their independent spirit.

“We never had a monarchy, we never had a caste system,” Grace O’Nelwan tells me. “For a long time, men and women here have called each other karia, which means ‘colleague’ or ‘comrade.’ ” This egalitarian spirit couldn’t be more different than the traditionally stratified societies of Java or Bali, where kings and priests were able to mobilize scores of peasant laborers to construct massive temples like Borobudur.

There may be no such monuments in this corner of Sulawesi to lure travelers. But as I prepare to make my exit from a pengucapan, embraced (quite literally—I don’t escape without both an old man and an old woman sneaking a kiss) by these warm, lovely people, I know that there is much else to admire—not the least being the Minahasans’ endearing sense of hospitality.

THE DETAILS:
NORTH SULAWESI

Getting There
Silk Air (silkair.com) flies four times weekly from Singapore to Manado; from Jakarta, Garuda Indonesia (garuda-indonesia.com) operates three daily flights.

When to Go
The highlands are most pleasant May–September.

Where to Stay
The region’s best lodgings are concentrated in the lowlands.
** Novotel Manado: Pleasantly situated northeast of Manado, it offers easy access to the highlands. 62-431/818-889, novotel.com; doubles from US$156.
** Hotel Sedona: Fronted by a lagoon, this resort is ideal for those wanting to mix beach time with daytrips to the hills. 62-431/ 825-888; doubles from US$175.

Originally appeared in the June/July 2011 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Head for the Hills”)

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