It was our last day in Manado, and while some decided to sleep in a little, others intended to make full use of it. Joel, Melvin and I decided we wanted to have one last taste of what Manado had to offer, and headed to a nearby hole-in-the-wall eatery with Dr John. The place served traditional congee and coffee, quite similar to the kind we would have in Singapore.
After that, we headed off to buy some snacks at a local traditional pastry shop. They had a huge variety of sweets and savoury breads, spoiling us for choice. We even managed to find some durian popsicles by the counter which were delicious. After stocking up on these pastries, we headed to the National Museum of Manado. It was about a 15-minute walk from our hotel, punctuated by potholes and gaping cracks in the pavement every few steps.
The museum proper was actually a squat, two-storey bungalow atop a gentle hill about just as high. The hill had been decorated with statues and replicas of cultural artefacts: cannons used by the Dutch to defend their once-colony, facsimiles of traditional rickshaws being pulled by bug-eyed buffalo statues, all gaudily repainted for the benefit of tourists and their cameras. Almost at the summit of the hill was a large tree (or perhaps multiple trees intertwined) overgrown with vines and providing shade to a couple of stone waruga – upright sarcophagi used by the Minahasa people – which our professor believed were authentic. As we followed a path up the hill towards the entrance of the museum, we were greeted with wide smiles by the museum staff, who immediately got into position behind traditional instruments called kolintang – essentially vibraphones made entirely of wood, with a duller and more muted sound. However, while the instruments were traditional, the songs they played to welcome us were modern lullabies and classics, no doubt to appeal to tourists.
The content of the museum was interesting, too. Contrary to the Balla Lompoa Museum we visited on our first day in Makassar, this one had complete (if still somewhat typo-ridden) explanations in English as well as Bahasa Indonesia.
The few floors in the building adequately showcased the history of Sulawesi, and the cultures that flourished decades to hundreds of years ago. There were many quirky artefacts on display that I quite enjoyed learning about. In addition, it provided historically accurate records – along with sculptures and illustrative vignettes – of the development of human civilization in the region. There was also a room dedicated to showcasing Sulawesi’s musical heritage, with a few kulintang available for visitors to play with.
Unfortunately, this museum was not as well-maintained as it could have been. Dust had collected on many of the replicas, and some pieces left in the open had been vandalized. There were entire rooms where the lights wouldn’t turn on, and there were parts of the museum where we had a trail of ants to point us in the right direction.
Overall, however, it was a rather pleasant experience. As we arrived back in the lobby, the museum staff asked us how the experience was, then got into positions behind the kolintang. The rightmost staff member held a cigarette between his lips, and they played their welcome tune again, but this time bidding us farewell.
We decided to seek shelter from the heat in a local cafe we came across. While we were there, we ordered iced tea to go with the snacks we had bought earlier. We found the snacks to all be very delightful, in particular a mysterious sweet tart with a Dutch name: “Klappertart”. After having a taste, however, we soon deduced a probable origin for the dessert’s name: one bite and we knew it was made of coconut, which in Bahasa was kelapa. It would hardly be a stretch to surmise that “Klappertart” was simply a Dutch corruption of local vocabulary. Since we did not have much of a plan for the day, we decided to walk around and see where our feet took us. We ended up walking up a hill through a cluster of houses -- each house was right next to another, with a narrow pavement separating them. We also saw many domestic cats and dogs around, all of them peculiarly docile.
As we reached the top of the hill, the walls were taller than we were, and the pavement was still quite narrow, thus we were walking in a single file with me leading. As we turned a few corners, I heard the rumbling of motorcycles, and thought we must be close to some roads. As we walked further, the rumbling got louder, almost as if the motorcycles were right next to us. I stuck my head out around the corner, to check if my suspicions were true, only to be met by a pair of motorists coming to an abrupt stop just inches away from me! Both I and the motorists could not help but release a little exclamation of shock. By the looks on their faces however, it seemed they would have would have run into us, should their reaction have been any slower.
We started to make our way back to the hotel to meet up with the others before deciding what to do for the rest of the day. With some reference to Google Maps, we realised that we were actually just behind our hotel, but could not head straight back as there was a construction site in the way. However, if we had learnt anything from our past ten days in Indonesia, it was that where there’s a will, there’s a way. Perhaps it was the sense of exploration that filled us, but I looked at Joel and Melvin, and I could tell they were thinking the same thing. Our professor, too, had the same sparkle in his eye. There were a few construction workers sitting right by us, at the entrance to the construction site, having a smoke. I looked at them, and pointed at the site, asking "Can we...?". To our surprise, they perked up and nodded enthusiastically, practically inviting us in. Dressed in shorts and slippers, we began climbing through the heaps of rubble to get across -- honestly, this was one of the highlights of the trip for me. We could see the child in our Professor rearing its head too. As he skipped over some parts, he called out, laughing, "Come on! I skipped over that part in no time at all!" When we finally got to the other side, there was a fence in our way, but we easily squeezed around it to get to our hotel's parking lot. After we got back to the hotel, Joel decided to join Dr John in visiting a traditional Minahasan burial ground, while Melvin and I met up with the others.
You can tell a lot about a people by how they treat their dead. The Minahasa of northern Sulawesi are no exception: a visit to a Minahasan cemetery during STEER Sulawesi taught me as much about their ancient burial customs as it did their unique outlook on life. The centerpieces of Minahasan death ritual are the waruga: stone sarcophagi comprising a box-like base and a ridged "roof", giving the appearance of a miniature hut.
Upon death, the Minahasa would place the departed, seated upright in a foetal position, inside the roughly chest-high box, which was then covered with the roof. The design of this roof, however, can vary astonishingly from one grave to the next, something I observed first-hand in the waruga archaeological park in the village of Sawangan. The park – in reality a cemetery open to the public – houses, at the time of writing, a total of 114 waruga, no two of which are identical.
As the park’s caretaker explained, each motif on a waruga tells a story not just about its occupant, but the world in which he or she lived. The number of notches on the gable-end of each roof, for instance, indicates the waruga’s occupancy – for it was common for entire families to be buried together, the waruga being re-opened each time another family member passed away. Waruga carvings also appear to reveal a great deal about their occupants, from social status to occupation: one grave, depicting a woman birthing a child, appeared to belong to a midwife; while another, which our guide claimed housed a village chief, was inscribed with a carving of two men conferring at a table, purportedly symbolic of the chief’s achievements as a military strategist.
In spite of their significance to Minahasan cultural life, Dutch colonists banned the use of waruga in the early 19th century due to fears about the spread of disease. Still, those that remain serve as important connections to the past for the people of northern Sulawesi, keeping the stories of their ancestors alive for generations to come.