|We leave our quiet, extravagant, 5 star resort and reluctantly dive back into life as a budget traveler. Our first stop is the Rex Hotel in downtown Manado. It is a complete dump. Not comparatively, period. But, there we meet a local tour guide named Jo-Jo. He gives me his card, and I think this is some kind of hustle, so I blow him off. Little did I know that he would soon become our best friend.
Manado is a big city. As we jalan-jalan (walk) through downtown we risk certain death simply trying to cross the street. Then endless stream of blue mikrolets (small, public buses) lined bumper to bumper stop and start, moving sometimes only 1 foot at a time. They leave no more than 8 inches of space between their bumper and the vehicle in front. They weave in and out of this maze like a shopper searching for quickest checkout line at the grocery store. And, of course, they always pick the wrong route of escape. In this chaotic mess there is no escape. They appear to be built for hobbits. It is simply impossible for a full-grown human being to sit comfortable in one, yet they are always packed. The onset of claustrophobia is compounded by the unforgiving heat and the thump-thump that blasts from the speakers situated directly behind your ears. They compete for customers be luring them in with the latest and loudest tunes. What an interesting concept for public transport. I think I'll walk.
We plan to leave Manado directly for Maluku, a province of many smaller islands east of Sulawesi. We will island hop all through the fabled spice islands just in time to make a visa renewal to East Timor. But, on our second day there were read that rebels try to assassinate the president of East Timor, a state of emergency is declared there, and UN troops are sent in. This pretty much destroyed that plan. So, we decide to stay put and apply directly with Indonesian immigration for a 30 day extension. It turns out to be a nightmare.
Our new friend, Jo-Jo, convinces his cousin, a travel agent, to be our local sponsor for the visa process. Of course, we present her with a small "gift" to thank her for her help in advance. Over the next five days the immigration officers bug her incessantly; they call her at work numerous times and even visit her home to ask about what are true intentions in Indonesia are. We visit the immigration office in person several times, but the process drags. On our final visit we spent the entire day waiting in the lobby before we got the stamp. Thank God Jalan Sesama (Sesame Street) was on TV to entertain us.
We go out to the club one night with some of the friendly staff from our former dive resort. I'm watching one our friends juggle whiskey bottles behind the bar when, all of the sudden, the lights come on and out of nowhere the military shows. They march inside in perfect unison, carrying rifles. They surround the dancefloor, and the Captain grabs the mike. He announces that they're looking for on their troublemakers who left the base without permission for some R&R. They locate him rather quickly. They leave, and as soon at they walk out of the door the lights come on , the music resumes, and people dance as if nothing happened.
One day we visit a nearby mountain village market. This city is Tomohon, and the local people are known as Minahasan. I've heard about the interesting aspects of this culture, particularly its cuisine, but I was certainly nor prepared for what I encountered this day.
We are one block away from the central market and already my nose burns as an indescribable, foul stench oozes over my olfactories. But the curious noises, the bells and whistles, the sounds of 30 cleavers chopping through flesh and cutting into wood, the chickens squawking, the dogs barking, the hustle and bustle, they draw me nearer. As I approach the entrance the putrid odor intensifies. I breath only through my mouth, and my sense of smell shuts down completely. It is effortless, a shill one inevitably masters after using many Indonesian toilets.
Around the corner at the stall nearest the entrance sits a table covered with unidentifiable animals which appear to be roasted on sticks. The vendor mutters something I don't understand, and he smiles. Fried forest rat, it is caught wild and used in many local dishes. Three stalls down a man works hard to prepare a fresh shipment of bat for sale. Unlike the rats, the bats are farmed in nearby caves. Appreciating our intrigue with his work, the man stretches the bat in hand for the perfect photo. Across the dirt path another man is hacking into something. He raises his cleaver high above his head and drops it with heavey, forceful precision as would an expert swordsmith strike his anvil, molding the steel with his hammer into a lethal work of art. For a moment, I forget my training and inhale a single breath through my nose. I nearly gag. this is the culprit, the source of the rancid smell. "Apa nama ini daging?" (what is the name of this meat) I ask the man. "Anjing," he replies. I stand there with a puzzled look on my face. "Woof woof," he mimics. "Dog?" "Yes, dog," someone from behind me chimes in. Flies relentlously dive bomb the ugly, tough flesh. Despite its dark red color, the meat is rather bloodless. Perhaps I would've thought twice about eating it weeks before had I first seen it in its uncooked state. I'm disappointed to discover that because we arrived late (10:00 am is late in Indo time) we've missed the preparation of snake and horse. "Finish, finish," we're told.
As we wander the stench of rotten meat fades and is overpowered by the smell of 1000's of fish fillets roasting in the sun. All shapes and sizes are available. And, as always, the locals are ready to showcase their product and strike a pose for the camera. 100's of tables are piled high with an endless variety of fruits and vegetables, each plot contributing to the massive tapestry of bright colors. The chilis are so ripe I just want to shove a handful in my mouth. The corn cobs are the color of the tropical sun. I wan to eat no less the 4, nibbling each row of kernels on an ear before methodically rotating it and starting anew from the opposite end, like an old typist working furiously to keep pace with an emotional attorney's long-winded dictation. With some freshly fried bass and bluegill, moist cornbread and mom's homemade scalloped potatoes we'd have the perfect meal. But, in the words of Eric Burdon, "Please don't let me be misunderstood." With the right blend of Indo spices, man's best friend makes a tasty entree. Hell, meals with red meat are now so few and far between that I would eat stewed Snoopy if they served him to me.
That night we're invited by our friend, Jo-Jo, to attend his cousin's 11th b-day party. In Indo culture, this is a big event. Most years the celebration is smaller, consisting only of the immediate family members. Other years, however, such as 5, 11, 16, and 18 warrant a larger gathering of extended family and friends. 11 is significant because it means that she will soon be a young woman and will be ready to start dating boys. Sounds young, I know. But, here most people are dead by the age of 60, so everything is fast-forwarded. It is uncommon for a girl over 20-23 to be unwed without children. Because wealth, however, is valued more than love or romance, men often don't marry until well into their 30's or 40's. They cannot afford to marry earlier. Many times they marry girls 1/2 their age. Jo-Jo keeps trying to hook me up with his niece who can't be a day over 17. I try to explain to him why that's not acceptable where I come from. He laughs, "Not same here!"
We eat like royalty. There is a massive table filled with every type of food imaginable outside, dominating the entire alleyway, above which hangs a massive blue canopy. It is the rainy season after all. This is where extended family and friends sit. But we're invited inside to the kitchen to eat with the immediate family. A more intimate location, we chat, drink, laugh and eat toll we can't eat anymore. The food is fantastic. The gado-gado (green vegetables with tofu, egg and peanut sauce) is the best I've ever had.
At Nan's house on X-mas Eve the grownups ate at the large dining room table and the kids, treated like 2nd class citizens, were relegated to the kitchen. this was the revers setup, the cool place to be. Although I must admit, Nan's kitchen became a far cooler place when we were old enough to know the ease with which we could sneak beers from the unobserved fridge.
After dinner we go outside to sit down and enjoy the entertainment, however, I never sat down. It was not until 30 minutes and 100 pictures later as I stood there exhausted that I realized that WE were the entertainment, like clowns at an American child's b-day. But she had better. She had tourists. There were countless cheesy smiles, unnatural poses, fake kisses and a few awkward moments when the unattractive women danced a little too close. We earned our dinner with our performance. Although I felt like a clown, it was clear by the family's profuse thanks that they were really happy to open their home and share their live with complete strangers who are interested in their culture. I fired away 1000 "tarima kasi banyaks" (thank you very much) for their hospitality, but I was simply outgunned by the endless barrage of simple head bows and sincere "thank you's." It was pretty cool.