Sunday, 2 October 2011

SULAWESI, PART 1 – SAIL AWAY, SAIL AWAY


Where we are!

Makassar and Pantai Bira

An incident occurred in the first few minutes we were in Sulawesi (actually we were lining up to pass through immigration at Makassar airport), that set the tone for our time here. A young couple (he British, she from Makassar), approached us, and after a few minutes of chatting, we were invited to their wedding the next night! We exchanged details, and the event ended up saving us from an average time in Makassar. Our first night in a crappy backpackers, passed in a blur of traffic, noise and fumes. The next day wasn't much better, and after we had changed money (and become instant millionaires, as $100 equals 1,000,000 rupiah), and tried to find out about ferries out of the place, we were thoroughly exhausted and over it. We made ourselves get dressed up in our finest gear (pretty pathetic!), and caught a $2 taxi to the address on the piece of paper we had been given at the airport. We arrived to find a huge celebration in full flow at the bride's family house. We were instantly glad we had made the effort. It was really amazing for us to see such a traditional Muslim/Sulawesi ceremony, and to have everything explained to us in perfect English by the couple. It was not the actual wedding- that was to take place in a couple of days. This was the occasion where the groom is formally introduced to the bride's family. The bride sat on a huge, ornate bed for the whole night, with heavy makeup and resplendent dress, in the intense heat of the house, surrounded by her family. The men sang songs, the groom stayed outside, and everyone ate copious amounts of food. We left with promises to visit the couple in their home in Penang.

Bride and ladies in finery, Makassar

With groom at wedding, Makassar

Our rough plan had been to catch a boat to the South-east of Sulawesi from Makassar, but after some efforts in trying to decipher the Pelni (national ferry) timetable, and communicate what we wanted to the staff, we discovered the boat going in the direction we desired was not leaving for another Three days. I could not bear the thought of two more nights in the city, so we opted for a bus trip to a “nearby” beach. I say “nearby” because we stupidly were led to believe by our Lonely Planet it would be a simple three hours on a bus. We forgot how things are in Indonesia. After a dawn one hour ride in  a pete pete (city minivan), we had an uncomfortable seven hours in a crowded bus with very few windows, filled with cigarette smoke, on what a policeman described to us as a “broken” road.

I’m going to go off on a tangent here. Indonesians smoke EVERYWHERE. We didn’t remember it being as bad on our previous trips to Indonesia- maybe it’s more in Sulawesi, but all men seem to smoke here, and don’t mind lighting up anywhere at all, whether it be on public transport, in internet cafes, hotels or shops. No-one ever says anything, but the non-smokers (mainly women and children) must suffer terribly from it. The tobacco companies have huge influence here, with every second sign we see advertising cigarettes. HATE it!! It has made us realize how most of the world (even in places like India) has changed for the better in this respect, with stricter non-smoking laws.

So, anyway, we arrived at Pantai Bira , south-east of Makassar, and checked into a lovely old wooden house high on a hill overlooking the stunning coloured sea, and instantly forgot the horrible trip to get there. We discovered in our five days there two different beaches. There was the local’s beach, where holidaying Makassarese come for the weekend. This took up the first 300 meters, and was filled with stalls selling food, renting inflatable toys and rides on banana boats. Beyond this was kilometre after kilometre of the most gorgeous beach with powdery white sand, and the bluest sea water we’ve ever seen, where we spent our days. It was a great spot to celebrate Richard’s birthday, and in typical Richard style, we spent the day taking a big walk along the beach, swimming, relaxing on the verandah taking in the view, chatting with fellow guests and the lovely local woman running the place, with a meal of prawns and more prawns for dinner with a beer or two!

Clearest water, Bira

Richard on long beach, Bira

Beach, Bira


The South-east
While we were in Bira, I started to study a bit more Indonesian. We’ve always picked up a bit from our previous trips to Indonesia (quite a few years ago), and Malaysia (where most people speak English), but I knew we were heading into a more remote area, so I began to revise more earnestly. I still know only a little bit, but the comparison with trying to speak Thai is startling. People here actually understand me when I speak to them, instead of staring in wonder as they do in Thailand. Indonesian isn’t tonal, so it’s quite a bit easier, and conversation nearly even flows! It was to become apparent very soon, that this small bit of language was to come in very handy, very quickly!

From Bira, we bussed it to the town of Watampone, another noisy, polluted town, with not much to see. However, the bad side of the town was balanced by the astonishing openness and over the top friendly attitude of the people. They literally never see bule (foreigners) here, and sometimes their reactions to us were hilarious. We had countless people stop driving to run over to us to chat or take a photo. There were quite a few near crashes on the road thanks to us. We have had the movie star treatment before, of course, in India especially, but people here are so dramatic in their responses to us. 

Our reasons for being here was to travel to the South-east region of Sulawesi by ferry. We didn’t realize this, but in August, there had been a terrible accident when a ship sunk on this route with 500 people drowned. We showed up at the ferry terminal to buy our ticket for the afternoon boat, but when we tried to enter the gates, we were told the ferry was full, and we had to wait for the evening boat. We were pretty pissed off, as we had turned up early. But what could have been a long, hot, boring wait anywhere else, was not to be in Sulawesi! We had the best time of our trip so far making instant friends with the Bugis hawkers waiting to get on the same boat as us; practicing Indonesian, making them laugh, and having the resident lady-boy fall head over heels in love with Richard! The Bugis people are famous throughout Asia for their sea faring past, and in times gone by, they fought with the Makassarese over who had the superior kingdom.

The ferry trip was overnight, and passed without incident. That is, once everyone had been over to see us, learn where we were from and how much Indonesian we could speak, inspect what we were wearing and what was in our packs, we all settled down on mats on the floor and got a bit of sleep.

Boat Watampone to Kolaka


Our introduction to the South-east passed in a blur of two big towns, Kolaka and Kendari, which we passed through quickly by kijang (4-wheel drive share taxi, holding up to 13 people). Even though the local’s reaction to us here was just as positive as in Watampone, the big town thing was starting to get old. We found the Pelni office in Kendari. There were no other customers there, and a very nice man who worked there and spoke English (very rare in these parts) helped us with our ticket purchase. We were counting on catching a particular ferry up the east coast, and were shocked when we saw it wasn’t leaving for another three weeks. The Pelni timetable only comes out once a month, and the dates are always different each month. The difficult part is not being able to plan ahead, as until you arrive in the town with the port you are leaving from, you can’t know when the ships are leaving!! So, we had to make some quick choices. The only way out of Kendairi (apart from overland the way we had just come- not appealing at all!), is by boat, so we chose the only one going to roughly to the area we wanted (north!), and hoped for the best! The fact that we knew next to nothing about the destination (Banggai Island), we hoped would make for a good adventure!

Rubbish Kendari

Rubbish Kendari

To catch the Pelni ship, we had to travel to an island port further south called Bau Bau. Our second boat trip in Sulawesi, the “Superfast” ferry from Kendari to Bau Bau (and it was very fast) was very different from the first. As it was an expensive speed boat, the people were more affluent, and more restrained (ie: they didn’t stare at us in wonder for hours on end!). We all had plush air-con seats allocated, and it wasn’t crowded. We spent most of the five hour trip out on the back deck enjoying the beautiful view of isolated islands, beaches and small fishing villages.

Fancy speed boat from Kendari to Bau Bau

Scenery Kendari to Bau Bau

Richard on speed boat

Speed boat Kendari to Bau Bau

Bau Bau was literally a breath of fresh air. It’s small, just as friendly as our previous towns, with a huge port, great little market,  several low key guesthouses, and of course, many smiling faces and “Hello Mr!,  Hello Mrs!” greeting us every few seconds. More churches started appearing in this part of Sulawesi, in addition to the mainly mosques we saw in the south-east. Bau Bau also has a huge fort area left from when the Dutch were here, which we spent a day exploring. There are lovely traditional old wooden houses inside the walls and people living here, so we weren’t alone, and had crowds of kids following us most of the time.

Bau Bau

Ergonomic carnival ride

Traditional house, Bau Bau

Traditional house Bau Bau

Kids at Bau Bau fort

Bau Bau fort

Sea Eagles

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