Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Celebes Good Times, Come on!

Lebaran comes but once a year (or slightly more often now I come to think of it) and the dilemma, as always, is to either waste the holiday in Jakarta's evacuated Idul Fitri ghost town or brave the mass, sectarian exodus out of the city and attempt to go on holiday somewhere.

Non-Muslim areas of the archipelago are usually the best bet at this time. Bali may be a familiar choice for many of you, however, this year, myself and a couple of chums elected to sample the far-flung delights of the predominantly Christian Manado and its environs which remained mercifully clear of all the hullabaloo (although God only knows what it's like Christmas). A return ticket will cost you over a million Rupiah with only a possible heart in mouth landing and transit in Makassar to break up the three hour flight.

The city of Manado lies about half an hour from the airport and is, in itself, nothing much to write home about. All of the usual urban Indo. motifs are present and correct, from the dusty streets ploughed by several million public minibuses to the nostril singeing markets to the greasy KFC's to the rusting, corrugated iron roofs. However, the pleasures of a holiday here, as with so many of this country's towns and cities, lie in venturing outside of the metropolitan area and communing with nature in a big Byronesque shirt as you run through the paddies with a butterfly net.

Primarily, tourists visit Manado in order to hop over to Bunaken island which lies 40 minutes away by local public boat crammed with island bound cargo and dwellers and which costs a mere Rp.25,000. On Bunaken, you can rent an agreeable, wooden beachside chalet for between Rp.150,000 and Rp. 250,000 per night, which includes three meals, and enjoy some of the best reef diving/snorkeling on the planet. A Rp.150,000 surcharge is also levied on tourists wishing to visit the island and this money is supposedly used for the environmental protection of the reefs that encircle it. This green tax seems to be working because, where as much of the coral around Jakarta's Pulau Seribu (1000 islands) is sadly dead as a doornail, Bunaken's reefs constitute a breathtaking underwater ecosystem through which an incredible variety of multicoloured, psychedelic fish and rays shimmy and groove through the water.

Not being divers, my cohorts and I stuck to our limp-wristed snorkeling. The snorkelling is superb though as the strong sunlight hitting the shallow reefs and fish makes for a riot of color; an underwater light show that would make a National Geographic Channel cameraman weep. Well worth checking out before global warming dissolves it all.

In the evenings, there is basic but very fresh seafood to feast on and you can drift off to sleep next to the mangroves listening to the local boys singing and strumming Indonesian ballads (which all seem to consist of the same three chords) on their acoustic guitars. It all proved to be a pleasing alternative to Bali with its posy cafes and arse-kicking Aussie tourists in tangerine bikinis.

After Bunaken, it was back to Manado and then up into the hills surrounding the city. We ended up in Tomohon, Manado's equivalent of Puncak, and spent the night at the Volcano Hostel (Happy Flower is the other option). From here you can enjoy scenic strolls through the hills and around the ominous Volcano. In the town there are restaurants with spectacular Puncak style views over the distant lights of Manado below. The eatery we tried had an unbelievably cheap all-you-can-eat deal for only Rp.12,000. This included plates of cubed dog. Not to everyone's taste but I gave it a go and regretted the decision the next morning as I sat on the porcelain throne. Also the dog barking outside the front of the restaurant put me off my stroke a bit as I was eating the old Anjing. Still, today's rowdy mutt is tomorrow's dinner.

Simon Pitchforth