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Rhymer´s Travel Diary: Entry 17, June 18, 2002
Extreme Tourism, Angry Men, Football, (Eating) Bats and Dogs
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Photos:
Gruesome, yet oddly stylish imagery in the extreme cuisine gallery
Observer article on watching football and eating dogs:  

 

 

Extreme Tourism

Central Sulawesi is one of those exciting destinations with a Foreign Office health warning on it. On its website the FO politely suggests that her Majesty’s citizens would really be better off avoiding this part of the world. In fact, the part of it to avoid is very small – a large town called Poso and its environs. A couple of years back the local Christians and Muslims (as the joke goes) had another fight over who had best imaginary friend. Anyway, the scrap got a little out of hand and in an appropriately biblical (or Koranic) fashion, the Poso River ran red with blood and decapitated corpses were found bobbing around in the local lake. Still we’d spoken to a number of people, both locals and foolhardy tourists and decided that, as long was we kept out heads, we’d keep our heads.

Despite the exciting and ever-present threat of religious strife, the journey began beautifully. Sulawesi is roughly the size of the UK but has a fraction of the population and also has far better mountains. So the first part of our drive wound through vast stretches out uninhabited land – soaring peaks covered in virgin rainforest and lush valleys. I was just getting into this and generally digging all the biodiversity when out our bus gave a funny little jolt. Looking back, it appeared we had clipped a motorcyclist who was now wobbling dangerously. Then, just like they do in the A-team, bike and rider executed a graceful somersault off the side of this high mountain road. The bus stopped and naturally we all got out to have a good gawp at this potential fatality. But even more amazingly (and also uncannily like the A team) both bike and rider had landed three meters down the hillside in a bed of sort ferns and were completely unhurt. So we pulled him back onto the road, then fixed a rope around his bike and hauled that back up too. No apparent harm done to either. Back home, of course, this would be the starting point for a lengthy lawsuit. But in less litigious Sulawesi both driver and rider shrugged: these things happen.

From this (literal and metaphorical) high point things went swiftly downhill. The road wound down onto a steamy coastal plain through a nausea-inducing series of bends. And our bus started stopping every ten minutes, largely so the bus driver could give lifts to his innumerable mates. He seemed to have a lot of friends in these parts and no wonder – he was prepared to act as a taxi to anyone he knew along the route. Then we entered an area called sector C. I had no idea what sector C was but judging from the number of police checkpoints, my guess would be that sector C was a place where very bad things had happened and recently.

Still the only very bad thing that happened to us was a switch of bus drivers. Driver no 1 had been a confident go-getting type, casually flipping his vehicle round hairpin bends but his replacement was another Indonesian who thought hills were best tackled in fourth. Naturally this strategy was causing the bus to overheat and every time it did his mechanic buddy would go into the engine compartment and spend half an hour fiddling around. This would give the engine time to cool down and, sure enough, when they tried it again the problem would be ‘fixed’. Now climbing back into the hills, the bus was boiling and full of smoke and sweat, the driver’s mates were, if anything, more irritating than he was and his driving style added an (entirely unnecessary) extra six hours to our journey. So it was in a thoroughly foul mood that we pitched up in Tentenna at 2am. Then, as a perfect end to my perfect day, I stepped in an open sewer. One of those great moments that makes you very, very glad, you’ve had your hepatitis jab.

Extreme Cuisine

Naturally at 2am in ‘towns’ in the boondocks most hotels are closed but, after making a lot of noise, we found a scuzzy looking place where we managed to wake someone up. He was a weird, twitchy looking guy with a Keith Richards shock of frizzy hair and a left hand that looked like it might have leprosy – a sort of deformed Norman Bates. But we had no choice so we checked into Deformed Norm’s fleapit and hunkered down for the night. The next day the town seemed decidedly spooky. Everyone walked around with sickles and the town had an uneasy, tense feel to it. We were starting to feel decidedly uncomfortable until we met a bloke in the market with a cage full of bats, all greedily snapping at bananas. ‘You want to try?’ he asked me.

As this was the first friendly overture I’d received in Tentenna I replied ‘Sure’ and he led us into a Warung where he bought a plate of curried bat for me and a piece of spiced chicken for Jane who disapproves of eating the local wildlife. I was told that bat would make stronger for running, fighting and, yes, that too - judging from the number of purported aphrodisiacs in Asia, there must be a serious impotence problem. But bat is actually delicious. The sauce, while hotter than many vindaloos was undeniably tasty and the bat itself a little like pigeon – dark, gamey and with a lot of small bones. It was the best thing I’d eaten in weeks. Pronouncing it ‘bagus’ I ordered a second plate to the astonished gasps of the local diners and when I finished received slaps on the backs and cries of ‘Batman!’ And then the owner actually undercharged me. I suspect this was because around 20 extra customers had stopped by watch the tourist eat bat.

I don’t know if my lunch put any lead in my pencil, but post-bat, Tentenna seemed an altogether more agreeable place. We chatted with the locals, haggled with the fruit sellers and swam in a beautiful local waterfall. Back at our hotel and even Deformed Norm (who turned out to be the cook) seemed to have become stand up sort of chap who made pretty good pancakes.

Later that evening and the hotel’s owner, a pleasant yuppified sort of guy was bemoaning the internecine violence in central Sulawesi. The Muslims, he said, always started it, and it gave the area a very bad reputation. He seemed a bit down, so, to cheer him up, I said that things weren’t so bad, pointing out that Catholics and Protestants were always fighting in northern Ireland. He was astounded, incredulous. What he said, Catholics and Protestants fighting each other - it couldn’t be – here they were the best of friends, united against the Muslims. How could they possibly fight each other? ‘Perhaps’, I said, ‘it’s because there are no Muslims.’

Angry Dan, The Worlds Angriest Man

After Tentenna we headed up to Poso where we had to wait for a connecting bus at the terminal on the outskirts of town. I must say, although the suburbs are the closest we ever got to central Poso, the foreign office is bang on the money here. From what little we saw of the place, Poso boasts a fine collection of burnt out churches and homes; the latter make it look a little as like the KKK had been in town recently. And the day after we were there three bombs went off.

But I will remember the bus station for another reason: it was there we met Angry Dan. At first Dan seemed OK: he was a Canadian in his fifties with a deep tan and steely grey hair and he was chatting to a pleasant Dutch couple we’d met. But as the wait grew longer and longer, Dan became more and more restless. Innumerable buses to our destination cruised through, but all were too full. Though their fullness seemed self-evident to us, this wasn’t good enough for Dan. ‘That’s our f—king bus,’ he’d yell at the man in charge, who’d patiently reply that it was full. The Dan would start fuming and swearing, telling anyone who’d listen that we were being prevented from boarding the bus, though this was hardly the case as there were also ten Indonesians waiting.

Then the bus man offered an alternative: the five of us could charter a car. It would cost Rp200,000 or around three pounds fifty each. And Dan went apoplectic: ‘Can’t you see what he’s doing? He’s trying to f—king rip us off! He says the bus is full so we’ll take f—king his taxi and pay twice as much.’ Then he turned to the guy: ‘It’s a f--kin’ stitch up job. Don’t you f—kin’ try and rip us off.’ At this point I became a little angry myself and tried to explain to Dan that in my long career of taking taxis, they had always cost several times more than public transport and that was because they were better. Besides which, I added, we’re talking about three quid a head. Big mistake – never tell a skinflint he’s arguing over peanuts. Now choking on his own rage Dan replied, ‘Well that might be alright for you, but I’m not f—king paying it!’

Our debate was cut short as another bus, also full, pulled in. Propelled by self-righteous indignation Dan ran out towards it and charged on. Unsurprisingly he was told there was no room. But this time he wasn’t taking no for an answer. He forced his way in and, crab-like, wedged himself in. The people on the bus tried to kick him off but he was sprung in too tight. And eventually the bus pulled away with Dan cursing and holding on for all he was worth. And although there are few things less dignified than a watching real cheapskate in a country where people are desperately poor, it’s one of the funniest and most ridiculous things I’ve ever seen. Twenty minutes later (and proverbially enough) three near empty showed up at once. We told Dan this when we bumped into him the next day but it didn’t matter: even though he’d sat on a bus floor for five hours, he was absolutely convinced he was right.


The next afternoon we arrived at a resort in the Togean islands called 'Kadidiri Paradise.' In fact, this is one of the few places that can justifiably put ‘paradise’ in its name. It’s a handful of cottages clustered round a small beach on an almost deserted island, surrounded by fine coral in an azure sea. And weirdly for these parts the guests were almost entirely Brits in their 20s and 30s. There were two couples who were a bit like us and Steve and Brenda; she was our age, he rather older. These two were more new age travelers than the regular kind and had a distinct whiff of Greenham Common about them. Then there was Ray, a Filipino-American who looked 25 but was 45 and Klaus, a German diving enthusiast and his Indonesian wife. The place cooked great food and its only link with the outside world was a satellite phone and a TV. It was utterly tranquil and is exactly the sort of beach – The Beach – that all those idiots in Thailand are looking for.

Real England Fans

The first evening, in the spirit of British bonding, we all got horrendously drunk, tackling the local palm based liquor, Arak. And while I had fun, Arak will join the list of drinks that I will never, ever, ever drink again. Not in a million years. Out of drinking practice, I was very, very drunk. But not ultradrunk, not uberdrunk. Not drunk enough to feel as bad as I did the next day and the day after that too. I think I was one of only two people who wasn’t sick and my reward was a sheen of toxic oil on my skin for the next couple of days a splitting headache and limbs that ached whenever I moved. At one point it got so bad I was beginning to seriously entertain the possibility that I’d caught malaria.

Still in the evening of hangover, day I, England were due to play Argentina and we couldn’t get a TV signal. Perhaps the satellite was down or the tuning was out…some of the men even muttered darkly that football weary female staff might have sabotaged the satellite dish. The management themselves were eager to see the match; worse still their British guests were desperate to see their team play the Argies.

With kickoff fast approaching it was decided there was nothing else for it: we’d have to take the hotel’s barely seaworthy boat to the nearest village, some 40 minutes away. It was a tense journey but, after the asthmatic engine had been coaxed back to life several times by our patient skipper, we arrived, presciently enough, a minute before Beckham’s penalty. As there can't have been more than couple of TVs in town we watched the proceedings in a smoke filled concrete room (all Indonesian rooms are smoke filled) on
a 14-inch portable with two thirds of the village. Actually it was an unbeatable atmosphere, even if most of them were Argentina fans and half the kids were wearing “Osama Bin Laden is my hero’ T-shirts. Unfortunately we still felt so poisoned from the Arak, we couldn’t face a single celebratory beer.

Soon after our arrival though the British contingent - many of who had been there for weeks - began to drift away and were replaced by the ubiquitous eurotourists. And, presently our little expat enclave was no more. We were left with a pair of impossibly fat Germans, a rather eager but pleasant Canadian and a Dutch couple. He was dull but alright, Renate, well…. she was quite the silliest girlie girl I’ve ever met. She cried about everything, at one point bursting into tears when she found the water tank in her room was empty she started crying. Impossibly sensitive and rather dull, she also had verbal diahorrea and while her heart was in the right place, she was one of the most irritating people I’ve ever met. Bless her, sweet as she was, she’d definitely be on my desert island death list: that is people you’d eventually have to murder if you were stranded on a desert island with them.

More Anger

So six days after our arrival we left the Togeans on a very homemade looking wooden. Twelve seasick hours later and we landed in Gorontollo, a place remarkable only because it’s the current holder of Indonesia’s coveted ‘best kept city award.’ I can hardly imagine there’s much competition for this title but the Gorontollans take their municipal appearance seriously. Streets are lined with flowerpots, borders are meticulously maintained and there’s not a scrap of litter to be seen – a sort of tropical Letchworth. And, as ferries only run once a week it was no real surprise when we turned out to be sharing our hotel with half the people from the islands, including Angry Dan, his ire entirely unmellowed by a week on the islands.

Klaus, the German had injured his ankle and he and his wife intended to rent a 4x4 and driver for the journey to Manado, the northern capital. As, between the seven of us it would be little more than a bus, we agreed to share. But by the next morning it was all going pear shaped: the driver said with our luggage he could only take five. Naturally this made Angry Dan, well, angry. He saw a stitch up, he saw a conspiracy, he saw people trying to take his precious money. We saw a car that couldn’t take seven people and their rucksacks. But eventually we had to concede that angry Dan had - sort of - agreed to the car share before us and that he and another (equally parsimonious) German guy were welcome to it. Irked we said we’d make our own arrangements. But we hadn’t counted on Dan’s tightness. The car was 450,000 Rp – about five quid apiece between seven. But between five….my God, those devious, thieving bastards were expecting Dan to pay 90,000 Rp to be driven 500 kilometers. So Dan and the other bloke announced ‘they weren’t f—king paying that’ and suddenly there were two free seats which we jumped into. Klaus and his wife – who were a thoroughly decent pair – even bought us lunch to thank us for sharing the cost of the taxi.

From a distance the northern capital of Manado looks a little like Naples, sitting as it does on the arc of a great bay with a volcanic backdrop. Close up, it’s not that dissimilar either – a rather grubby place with a bit of character and a reputation for good food. In fact this is an understatement – Manado and its hinterland enjoy a reputation for cuisine of the most extreme kind and its eateries serve not only bats, but also rats, snakes and puppydogs. Manado wasn’t a destination for us, rather a transit point: we needed to flying to the southern Philippines to renew our visas. But our flight wasn’t for four days so we decided to head up to Tomohon, a charming town in the local highlands for a spot of R & R.

Tomohon was indeed pleasant, but it was also, as we would shortly discover one of the wettest places on earth. On the day we arrived it rained (and I mean tropical downpour, not English drizzle) for six hours. The next day we climbed a volcano where it also rained and visited some hot springs where it rained as well. The day after that we sat on our porch and watched the rain. Indeed, the Mahissan highlands are the sort of place where nothing ever dries: spend long enough there and I have no doubt, you’d develop all kinds of exciting fungal infections.

Bats and Dogs

But one morning the sun did make it scorching equatorial presence felt and we decided to visit Tomohon’s bustling market. From the outside it looked like any other country market – the usual mix of photogenic fruit and veg. But pass through this vegetarian veneer and you enter the grisly meat market, a place of almost mediaeval gore. I like to think I have a strong stomach and Jane’s work has taken her into abattoirs and meat factories, but nothing could prepare us for this.

The deal with most meat markets is that you usually get to see pre-dressed meat, neatly cleaned and butchered carcasses. Here whole animals were disemboweled in front of you. Decapitated pigs’ heads stared sightlessly, one stall was covered in still hairy cows’ legs and great piles of innards glistened nauseatingly. Plus there was the smell – blowtorches were being used to singe the hair off the various beasts and the smell of this mingled with the reek of punctured intestines. I know I’d have been disappointed if I hadn’t been grossed out – tourists come here specifically to be disgusted - but the market exceeded my expectations in almost every way.

And in saved its best surprise for last. Just past the stalls selling oven ready bats was a table with four strange looking animals on it. It took a moment before I realised that this is what dead puppies look like when you burn all their fur off. The dog butcher was a cheerful chap, happy to pose for the tourists before he went back to skillfully dismembering dogs with mutt splitting swings of his cleaver. And when, a little unsettled by this I turned away, I could see the beef butcher opposite him pretending to be a Viking. He was wearing the top of a cow's skull, horns still attached, on his head.

It would be nice to tell my vegetarian chums that my experiences at the market converted me to their cause. But I’m afraid there’s no hope for me. Later on, watching Korea vs. Portugal, I showed my personal support for the plucky underdogs by ordering a dish of ‘Anjine’ or spiced mutt. But I can honestly say that the dogs of this world have little further to fear from me. Man’s best friend (or ‘doorstep deer’ as some Asians know it) is tough, unpleasant and not a patch on curried bat.