Sulawesi, according to the papers and travellers I've managed to consult en route, is looking like a pretty dangerous place to visit in early . There have been riots in the capital of Ujung Pandang between the Chinese and the Indonesians, resulting in a military infiltration to keep the peace, but not before a number of people were killed and huge amounts of property burned; there's been an earthquake in Parepare, some 100km north of Ujung Pandang, that is supposed to have caused chaos; and northern and central Sulawesi are apparently on fire and full of smoke. However, like most news you hear along the grapevine, some of the facts have given way to fiction somewhere in the telling.
The earthquake and riots did happen, but now that we've arrived, peace is reigning once again in Ujung Pandang and Parepare is back to normal. The fires were relatively small, apparently, but there's one major piece of news that Peter and I have managed to confirm in an English-language paper we tracked down: the chaotic fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan are definitely still burning.
It hasn't been a terribly good couple of months for Indonesia. On Friday 26th September a Garuda airbus plying the Jakarta-Medan route crashed into a ravine, killing 234 people in Indonesia's worst ever plane disaster; the blame was put on bad air traffic control, with the pilot and the ground staff apparently reaching a misunderstanding on the meaning of 'left' and 'right'. At the same time, the currency slump in Southeast Asia is seriously devaluing the Thai baht, the Malaysian ringgit, the Philippino peso and the Indonesian rupiah, and to cap it all, serious bushfires have started raging in Kalimantan and Sumatra.
Plane crashes and currency slides are fairly common round these parts, but the bushfires are among the worst ever seen; a smoky haze covers northern and western Borneo, Sumatra, most of Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines, and Indonesia is being squarely blamed. The smoke is posing a serious health hazard to people in affected areas, tourists are being warned off the area, airports are being closed, and the monsoon season is late, with rain not expected for months. Back in 1982 fires in Kalimantan spread to the peat beds underneath the forest and continued to burn for two years, and concerns are rife that a similar disaster will happen this time. More affluent Malaysia and Singapore have had 'several sunless weeks', according to The Indonesia Times, and are evacuating their residents to better areas.
The blame for the fires is being apportioned in typical Indonesian fashion; the loggers blame the farmers for their slash-and-burn farming techniques, and the farmers blame the loggers for chopping down the trees and leaving dry, tinder-like areas behind, but whatever the real story, one thing is clear: Indonesia is destroying its countryside by degrees, and fires like this are simply a symptom of a country that doesn't even know how to spell 'conservation'. The Borneo jungle is fast becoming a myth, and by some accounts, in ten years' time it won't even exist, especially if fires like this continue to occur.
However, I digress. Sulawesi, being east-southeast of Borneo, is potentially at risk of being smothered in smoke, but due to fortunate winds, it's managing to stay clear and fresh for the time I'm planning to be there. This is lucky: the thought of putting up with an environmental smoke hazard on top of the usual Indonesian kretek habit is daunting, to say the least. But despite these worries, in reality Ujung Pandang is turning out to be a pretty cool place.
Maybe it's because I've gained a travelling companion – Peter and I have decided to team up for a few days, as our plans coincide fairly well – but I actually thrived on the 'Hello Mister's in Ujung Pandang. And they came thick and fast when we first struck out to explore the city; every two seconds there was someone calling out as we wandered the streets, first in search of a bank to exchange money and then in search of the Pelni office to work out times for boats out of Sulawesi. We bought a bus ticket for the overnight bus heading north, we went on a short bus ride to Old Gowa in search of some sultan's tomb that proved too elusive for us to track down, and we explored the city's sights such as Fort Rotterdam (an excellent example of colonial architecture) and the bustling market... but nothing prepared us for the evening meal experience.
In preparation for our forthcoming overnight bus experience, Peter and I decided to stock up on essential vitamins by buying some fruit from the market, and after some hard bargaining we were the proud owners of a water melon and a handful of sumptuous mangoes. So we sat down on the sidewalk to eat them.
The first observers turned up after about ten seconds, mainly people from the shop just down the road from where we'd sat. Then some more drifted in from the sides, a group of kids stood there watching, and before we'd got halfway through our melons, there must have been about 30 people just standing round, staring at us and giggling to each other. Some brave souls attempted to talk to us, and one woman was so intent on practising her English with us that she got a chair and sat in front of us, as if we were a television. She screeched at us in pidgin, we smiled politely and ate our fruit, and marvelled at the total lack of privacy in a culture such as this. For some reason, the sight of two foreigners eating a water melon was the most exciting thing happening in Ujung Pandang that evening, and we drew a huge crowd, especially when we started eating our mangoes in the Polynesian manner, slicing off half of the mango, crisscross cutting it and turning the skin inside out to give a pleasing, cubist design, perfect for guzzling. It was amazing to the Indonesians, who perhaps had never seen it before.
It was here that I began to get an inkling, albeit a small one, of what it must be like to be a celebrity...