Our last day in Makassar was to be spent meeting with the mayor. While a fitting end to our trip, we were still eager to see as much as we could of the city. In particular, Joel, Melvin, Weijian and I set off at 7:15am for Coffee Shop Phoenam, part of a fairly established chain of local coffee shops.
Stepping through the shop’s rusty accordion doors, we were met with a familiar sight. From the traditional marble tables, around which sat elderly Chinese patrons browsing the morning papers, to streamers on the walls lined with Chinese characters, it was a scene that would not have been out of place in a sleepy Singaporean suburb. We were led into an adjoining section shared by a group of old ladies chatting in Cantonese, where we found a table and ticked off our choices on an order sheet. The chain’s specialty is its traditional kaya (a spread made mainly of egg, pandan and coconut milk) toast, which we duly ordered, along with some noodles and coffee.
The toast – a delicacy back in Singapore – was a little different from what we were used to: the bread was sliced thicker and had a toasted crust surrounding a fluffy interior, while the butter came evenly spread instead of in a thick slab. Nevertheless, it hit the spot and reminded us of home, despite being one of the pricier meals we’d had thus far.
After breakfast we adjourned to the hotel to meet the others and pick up our gifts for the mayor. For his secretary we had settled on a simple gift of loose-leaf tea; for the mayor himself, we’d intended to prepare something conveyed both sincerity and an affirmation of strong bilateral ties between our nations. After much consideration, an excursion to several hardware stores, and a few sleepless nights, this turned out to be a piece of hand-made string art comprising a wooden board first riddled with nails which were then linked with red and white thread (red and white being the national colours of both countries). The eventual picture which emerged (or at least, which we hoped the mayor would see) was a continuous skyline of Singapore and Makassar.
The mayor’s house was a mansion of sorts about a stone’s throw from our hotel. Our Grabs pulled up in the driveway to a welcome party of well-dressed assistants (we assumed), who ushered us through a pair of ornate doors, up several flights of stairs and past what appeared to be a small auditorium till we reached the dining room. This was dominated by a long glass table, portraits of Mr. Pomanto at various diplomatic events, and of course Mr. Pomanto in the flesh seated at the head of the table.
We’d prepared to go the length of the meeting without any sustenance, for it was Ramadan and we were afraid it would have been insensitive to eat in front of those fasting. When we sat down, however, we saw that dessert trays had been laid out for us, laden with local pastries; and the welcome party had followed us up and begun serving us tea and coffee.
“Please, help yourself!” exhorted the mayor, seeing our reluctance to start on the snacks. It seemed impolite to refuse, and any further misgivings we may have had vanished as soon as we tasted the viands (what the mayor identified as a steamed banana cake quickly became my personal favourite).
The food, however, was not what we had come here for; and after the initial awkwardness wore off, the mayor invited us to open with any questions we had after a week in his city. From Makassar’s efforts at environmental conversation (which I personally take a particular interest in) to issues of surveillance and security, it was a unique opportunity (link to my piece) to pick Mr. Pomanto’s brains for ideas about governance and urban planning. At the same time, the opportunity was short-lived: we had a flight to catch and Mr. Pomanto was a busy man, and understandably we were only able to gain a broad but superficial understanding of Makassar’s socio-political landscape.
After a mere 2 hours, we bid farewell to the mayor, posed for obligatory selfies, and then it was back to the hotel for our luggage, onward to the airport and from there to Manado, North Sulawesi. Such was the frantic pace of our trip: no sooner had we begun to scratch the surface of Makassar than were we already rushing to our next stop. Nevertheless, a week in the city had taught us enough to begin to give some order to our observations: on the way to the airport, a statue which had perplexed us upon arriving was readily identified as a likeness of Sultan Hasanuddin, the city’s de facto hero. These takeaways are no accident, I realised, but a product of attentiveness and wonder, attitudes I now resolve to take with me wherever I go.
The domestic flight was, not to mince words, short but not short enough. We were welcomed by our hired driver Bemo, a rotund and cheerful man whom we were privileged to have as our “guide” for the next few days. We had been told Manado was one of the only Christian-majority cities in Sulawesi; leaving Sam Ratulagi International Airport, we quickly found out just how Christian it was. Neon crucifixes and other Christian imagery adorned every other lamppost; the headscarves we were so used to in Makassar were replaced by coy smiles (at our Caucasian professor) and catcalls (at the ladies in our group) in Manado. It was as if Manado had taken the hustle and bustle of Makassar and layered it with a festive air.
Nevertheless, some things remained the same – most obviously, the state of the roads. Every few steps I took, I had to sidestep potholes and dodge rats scurrying for cover. The hotel, at least, was a relieving sight, far grander than our Makassar lodgings. Upon arrival we were greeted by doormen who ushered us perfunctorily through a metal detector into a cavernous lobby lit by warm chandeliers. A few main attractions presented themselves: the entrance was flanked by a bar on one side and a little cake shop on the other. In the middle of the lobby stood an uncanny, life-sized model camel complete with its own palm tree, presumably something out of a nativity scene. In a corner beside a spiral staircase with impractically wide treads, a Malay duo supplied live acoustic renditions of local hits.
Or at least, they did until we arrived. The duo – a heavyset, balding man sitting behind a grand piano accompanied by a buxom middle-aged diva in a flowing black dress – quite conspicuously, at this point, switched from their mother tongue to Mandopop. With no other guests in the lobby, it was clear they had realised their latest guests were Chinese (for we weren’t exactly discreet) and were just reading the terrain. Equal parts touched and impressed – both by her pronunciation of a foreign tongue and her powerful vocals – we found ourselves gravitating towards them while waiting for Haw Wen to settle our check-in.
I must have been running on autopilot at this point; little else can explain the events of the next few moments. The duo had been singing “童话”, a veritable classic in the Mandopop pantheon, for some minutes and were reaching its climax. I drew closer, and seeing my curiosity, the lady beckoned me over to the microphone; and against all reason, I humoured her, took the mic, and took over the chorus, with Joel doing backup harmonies.
In hindsight, I regret nothing. It was, after all, my first and probably only chance to sing in a hotel lobby in front of a live audience.
After our little concert, we were famished, so we freshened up and went out to find dinner. Some of us settled for a seafood restaurant; a smaller group of us, rather sick of grilled fish, ventured a little further to a hole-in-the-wall shop selling rice and dishes not unlike Singapore’s ubiquitous nasi padang stalls. We each ordered our own plates of rice topped with curry and sides such as bergadil and fried chicken thighs. The curry, surprisingly, put Joel in mind of Hainanese curry served at most Singaporean economical rice stalls.