North Sulawesi & Balinese Gluttony

After 4 weeks on Java participating in a researched based field school (which I will talk about in a later post), I flew to North Sulawesi for some good old fashioned solo meandering. I first headed for Bunaken Island, just a 30-minute boat ride from Manado harbor, famed for its Marine Park. I arranged to stay at Two Fish Divers on a friend’s recommendation, an ex-pat British owned collection of bungalows tucked behind the mangroves. I opted for the most budget option with shared bathroom and no AC- to me the hot shower was pure luxury and I got fat on pumpkin curries and marinated tempeh. I whiled my time after each morning of diving lazing in the bath temperature pool or snorkelling the reef just out front, chasing hawksbill turtles with my camera.

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The diving consisted of many wall dives with strong currents and healthy corals, HUGE hawksbill and green turtles and various schools of small fish, squid, nudibranchs and lobsters. Most dives were at about 20-25m.

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One afternoon my dive guide offered to accompany into Bunaken Village, supposedly a 10-minute walk. I forgot that Indonesians don’t walk, they scooter. Next thing you know I’m bumping along down the narrow path on the back of his motorbike, past pigs and ducks and locals going about their Saturday. He was a wiry 19-year-old with little-to-no English but enough to ask me “you- married?” and tell me “I- single.”

The village was a couple of paths with modest houses in the sand and a few stalls peddling junk food centered around an oversized Anglican church. My new friend invited me to go snorkelling that afternoon, but I was wary of rumours I’d heard of women coming to Bunaken as sex tourists. Whether these rumours held any water I never found out, but another dive guide, old enough to be my father, had already proclaimed me his darling- I played staunchly aloof. Snorkelled alone.


The guests at the resort were varied and well travelled. From a 20-something Dutch girl, Athena, whom had solo travelled South America for 6 months to an American couple that had met in the Peace Corps and since lived in more countries than I could count across Africa, Europe, the Middle East (including Afganistan) and Asia. The wife, Kristy, currently worked for the US Embassy in Jakarta, while Paul did contract development work throughout Indonesia. Another guest was a British widower who retired early and travelled for up to 5 years at a time, going back only for a few months to visit his mother and manage his properties. Needless to say I picked all their brains. Paul and Kristy invited me to stay with them, should I come back through Jakarta.

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After 4 nights and 6 dives I left one morning back to Manado harbor with only a vague sense of how to get where I wanted to go, having received conflicting and equally vague advice from locals and other travellers. I hopped off the boat and began walking in the 35C morning, my bulging blue backpack bobbing along like a tourist pride flag, under which I shuffled along, clutching a ukulele in one hand and scratching my head with the other.

At a traffic-clogged roundabout I asked a young schoolgirl, “Pall Dua dimana?” and discerned that it was loorus. Straight. But an angkot driver amidst the intersection chaos was yelling “pall dua” so I shoved my obese pack and ukulele into the cramped minibus and nodded to the grandmothers that followed me on, trying to discern whether to pay now, or when I got off.

30 cents later I was at the main bus terminal, being shoveled onto the back of a tin relic resembling a bus, supposedly headed for Bitung. With 2×4’s across the aisle for extra seating, there was no floor or legroom, and I was forced to pay double for the extra seat my bag occupied. Frankly I may have even paid triple- I nodded knowingly to the long-winded explanation from the woman beside me, the Bahasan numbers doing backflips in my frazzled brain, and handed over a wad of sweat-crumpled bills.

This matronly figure took an amused interest in me, and relayed my fumbled Bahasan monologue about where I was from and where I was going to the gaggle of mothers in bedazzled hijabs sitting a few rows in front of us. Over the next hour of sitting in machet she repeated the directions to Batu Putih village and I tirelessly thumbed my phrase book, committing the jumble of angkots and town names to memory. What did she mean by mobil? A taxi? Hitchhiking?

In Bitung we piled off the bus and the mother hen swept us and the giggling gaggle onto an angkot headed for Girian.

In Girian there was some confusion over which mobil I should get on. A mobil turned out to be the local bus, or rather a pick-up truck with 2×4’s across the back for benches. Soon I was being led away from my 4 mothers by a man in uniform, eager to ask me if I had a husband.

He led me around the corner to a white pick-up with an assortment of families loitering around it with their groceries. I climbed on and sat, the centre of attention as people milled about for the next hour, piling supplies into the truck and nodding towards the buleh. Starving and needing to pee I dared not abandon my 2×4 for fear it would leave without me. Every so often a friendly man would chat me up about where I was from and my marital status. A bundle of blonde chickens lay in a bloody heap in the cracked concrete. Tied by their feet, they were a mass of flopping broken wings, eyes wide and beaks gasping in dehydration.

Towards the end a French couple arrived, travel worn and unimpressed. I could tell they were French because they were tanned and grumpy looking and sure enough responded “oui” to my “vous etes francais?” Finally, the truck was laden with produce, eggs, pastries and families; our bags, a bike and the chickens were strung to the back and we pulled out, bumping out of the dusty city up into the mountains.

We curved along on the narrow jungle road, canopy growing increasingly thicker and pop music blaring out the radio. The road hugged cliffs that gave way to densely green valleys as it began to rain.

IMG_4571The truck dropped us off just before Batu Putih village, in front of 3 home-stays side by side along the road. The rooms were simple, with mosquito nets and cold water with a hole in the bottom of the wall for a drain. 20 dollars a night included meals.

At the Ranger Homestay, we chatted in Frenglish and were served fried rice by the mother before being chatted up by a guide. Another young couple arrived, the man a Finn raised in Kenya and the girl from Queensland, they’d been living in central Java volunteering at a monkey rehabilitation centre.

They explained about the underground business of monkey pimps, who leased out trained macaques to street performers. I had seen such an act along the side of a highway. A macaque sat in a miniature wedding dress trying to open a chocolate bar while a young boy walked down the line of traffic for change. Apparently the cycle is vicious for the performers since they ultimately become indebted to the pimps with no alternative income. For the monkeys the reality is horrifying; bred from wild captured mothers, the monkeys are “broken” from a young age to become subservient before starting training. They only last a few years in the business before going mad. The Indonesian government had started a program that offered to buy the monkeys; the program resulted in hundreds of monkeys (among other seized animals) sitting in cages in a compound while officials and NGOs argued over what to do next.

Batu Putih village is nestled into the border of Tangkoko Batuangus Nature Reserve, an 8700-hectare national park hugging the coastline and home to several endemic species such as the elusive tarsier and the endangered black macaque.

Tours came in the form of 2-hour evening “treks” to see the tarsiers or 4 hour early morning hikes to see the macaques. A flat rate was paid at the park entrance.

The tarsier trek was yet another lesson in “Indonesians don’t walk they scooter.” The French girl and I on the back of the guide’s bike, we wobble down the dirt path into the jungle. The trekking consisted of a few hundred metres down a trail, stopping at a gnarled tree to wait for dusk. As darkness drew, the little marsupials roused from their slumber. Impossibly large eyes and disproportionately long legs make for a little cuddle monster.

Is it illegal to steal wildlife for the purpose snuggling?

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In the morning, we rose early and followed another path that we soon abandoned when we came upon a family of black macaques. We stalked them as they languidly migrated deeper into the jungle, enflamed red bums wagging through the lush greenery, indifferent to our presence. Soon there were at least 100 moseying about and playing in the trees. Babies sliding down tree trunks like firefighting poles and jumping between branches. I sat down with a few, not a metre away, and snapped portraits as they inspected me. We kept walking and a group of friends came running past, one lunged at me and smacked me on the back of the thigh, looking back as he ran off cackling. Little brat.

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Later in the hike we saw cuscus far up in the distant canopy and baby green and hawksbill turtles being raised for release.


One day I will live in a tree.

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I left the jungle the same way I had came, a pick-up in the rain, this time accompanied by two American teenagers on a rotary funded gap year on their way to a moonshine distillery. They were covered in sand flee bites from sleeping the last 4 nights on the beach and carried spear guns. One whiled the drive by telling his friend of his date with a Balinese stripper. Their fluent Bahasan and local friend helped me find my way onto an angkot with a driver who nodded when I confirmed where he was going and took me somewhere different than I thought.

No matter, I found my way onto a bus for Tondano, which appeared to be on the way to Tomohon. Unfortunately buses don’t follow schedules, but rather leave when every last seat is filled. In this case it took hours, in the sweltering heat, for travellers to saunter on. Meanwhile the toddler in front of me took fascination, and played peekaboo behind her seat. I got the impression she’d never seen a buleh before. Another girl, about 7, came and sat adjacent to me. Smiling. She said few words, but stared in bashful awe, every so often reaching out to rest her hand on my leg or touch my bag.

Coming from anyone else but this little girl, I may have been… less receptive.

The bus finally pulled out, after I went to great lengths to convince the driver that I would pay for the unfilled seat my bag, (that I’ve named Olivia) was occupying.

After a few hours I stumbled off in a parking lot and was immediately ushered onto an angkot, here called mikrolet, for Tomohon. Blasting pop favourites, the powder-blue mini bus stopped frequently as I watched the late after noon sun burn purple into dusk. When we reached the bus terminal it was growing dark and I was still nowhere. Taxis don’t exist outside large cities, so the mikro driver, with relatively good English, offered to take me to my destination for sepuluh ribu rupiah. $1 for a private bus. Sure.


I was headed for the base of the Lokon Volcano, where my battered lonely planet printouts had told me there was accommodation. Unfortunately for my Rihanna-loving chauffeur, he had never heard of such a place, and it wasn’t until after a detour up the wrong volcano and several stops for directions (each time bragging about his buleh passenger) that we arrived at the little wooden bungalows well after dark.

I paid him triple for his trouble and was greeted by an old woman and young child. She showed me a bungalow and made up a price after sizing me up. Dua ratus. Ridiculous. But I was too tired and starving to haggle.

She served me fried rice in a gazebo floating on a mosquito-clouded pond. Plain fried rice never tasted so good; I inquire about climbing Gunung Lokon, the goal of my pilgrimage.

“Oooooh Lokonnn. Noooo. No climb…. Actiiive….. danger… active yeah…..BOOM!”



Well. I’m here now. What else is there?


Breakfast, lunch & dinner

The next morning a man with a van, likely her son, offers a tour of Gunung Mahale and a sulfur lake. We fix a price and off we go, switch backing up past rice paddies, vegetables and flower farms, for which the region is known. The “hike” up Gunung Mahale is a 10-minute walk from the end of the road up a concrete path to a concrete platform with panoramic views of the region including several adjacent volcanoes, Manado and Bunaken island. After tromping through many spider webs to a second viewpoint, we head back down and drive 30 minutes to a sulfur lake turned snazzy tourist enterprise where an entrance fee included coffee.

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As pretty as the views were, it wasn’t exactly the epic hike I had envisioned. Instead I went for a long walk through town and stuffed my face with Indonesian pastries. Bright green pandang leaf crepe rolls with sweet shredded coconut, palm sweetened sticky rice, and fried sesame dough balls filled with sweet red bean paste…. Among others…

That night there was two European couples staying at Volcano Resort. A Dutch and a Swiss. The Dutch lamented of their toilet paper shortage while the Swiss generally offered a few squares. Chuckling to myself, I shrugged that I’d given up the stuff. Wide eyed and baffled, they couldn’t wrap their heads around the logistics. The Swiss had decided they hadn’t come all that way for nothing. They were climbing the Volcano in the morning and had requested a guide; I asked to tag along.

Our guide was a jolly young man in shabby fedora who brought along two of his friends. Flip-flopped and sporting a DSLR, none particularly knew the way, but they figured it out between them. First past small farm plots up through mine pits and whacking through jungle until we reached the smooth rock of the lava river, then following the rather slippery riverbed to the steaming crater.

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I took off that afternoon, throwing Olivia together in a hurry and catching a mikro to the bus terminal. It was Saturday. Market day. The other thing Tomohon is famous for, besides volcanoes, is their veritable market where everything from bats and snakes to pigs and dogs can be purchased live for dinner.

I hadn’t decided if I would subject myself to a gander, but curiosity got the best of me. I wander in past the spices and resist the pastries, heading towards the vegetable section when I see two pink pig heads looking towards the sky on the table in front of me. I turn and walk past crates of chickens toward the sound of yelping dogs. There are 3 make shift wood and chicken wire cages with various sizes of street mutts I had come to know so well in Indonesia. On the table beside them were several spit-roasted dogs, charcoal black and frozen in a toothy snarl.

I left and hopped on a bus for Manado. The skies poured as we wound down the mountains and I whiled the hour binge eating salak. Snake fruit.

The worst part of seeing the dogs was that I didn’t feel a thing. As I surreptitiously snapped a picture, all I could think was that they didn’t have it any worse than the pigs back home in Canada. How they probably had it better, having been free to roam the streets before they were swiped up. Perhaps not the rant you were expecting from a lifelong animal welfare advocate. But honey I was never a sentimentalist.

In the rain I flip-flopped back and forth along the Manado waterfront, haplessly trying to find a hotel, any hotel, hours later finally GPSing myself to a sun yellow building someone, at some point, had said was “alright.” It was alright, more but mostly less. I ditched my pack and went to scavenge food.

Women on the street were pointing and laughing as I walked by. I was used to this by now, “buleh buleh,” but after some time I realized everyone was staring at my legs. They we’re filthy. Caked in mud up to my thighs. A woman behind me on an escalator felt the need to reach down and rub some of the dirt off, then directing me to a bathroom to flood the stall making use of the butt-spray hose.

I left the hotel at 4am, passing on my way out my young American friends returning from a night on the town. Their Tuesday night in the Manado clubs was described as “a weird vibe… kinda sleazy.”

I flew to Bali.

I proceeded to the baggage claim, mildly confused by advertisements for Makassar. An eager cabbie, who I tried to brush off as a solicitor, informed me that I was not, in fact, in Bali. I was in Makassar, South Sulawesi. He proceeded to guide me to the connection counter to claim my next ticket and onto security, waving goodbye. One of these years I’ll learn to stop being so cynical. Until then, I should learn to read my flight details.

Bali was a final stopover on the way home. I had two days and no time to waste.

After wasting several hours in lineups battling China Airlines beaurocracy regarding my home flight, I made a hard bargain with a cabbie to take me to Ubud. I bartered a tad hard, as I am apt to do, but during the hour-long drive the driver eventually warmed up to my awful Bahasan and invited me to come to a lake with his family the next time I was in Bali.

No sooner had I said goodbye than a gregariously friendly elderly man is chatting me up to see his homestay. My lesson learned about cynicism, I hop on the back of his scooter, ukulele, fat Olivia and all. His son’s homestay was a gorgeous complex of stone bungalows in the typical Balinese Hindu style. I splurged for a 20 dollar palace.

Over the next day and a half I ate and shopped and ate. There are far, far too many vegan friendly cafes in Ubud, it should be illegal and the shopping seemed to have burgeoned since the last time I was there 3 years ago. Yeah yeah, consumerism and stuff- but what’s a trip to Bali without a pair (or 2) of tie dye pants?


Vegan pizza on rye crust


Soy latte


Tempeh scramble with spinach, mushrooms & fresh sambal


Choco banana smoothie, coconut nectar in background

bali pancakes

Red rice flour pancakes with caramelized banana, coconut cream & coconut nectar

I ate a lot. I took a badass power flow yoga class in an open air barn. And I had my first real massage, which included a flower petal bath. And so ended my Indonesian jaunt, for now at least. I will definitely be back soon.