Our first day in Manado began early (at around 7:30am) with the hotel’s sumptuous breakfast buffet, which far exceeded that at our Makassar lodgings. In addition to western fare (eggs, sausages, toast), the spread also included local delicacies such as tinutuan, a congee made of pumpkin or cassava.
By the time we were done with breakfast, Bemo was already waiting for us in the hotel carpark, and readily whisked us off to our next location for the day – Tondano crater lake in the volcanic highlands of North Sulawesi. Our first stop was perhaps our most macabre throughout the whole trip: the infamous Tomohon market, known for its sale of exotic meat. From the gamier options such as snakes and bats to what would anywhere else be considered household pets, the market’s goriness is surpassed only by its variety. Two main demographics evinced themselves here: locals for whom these animals were merely multifarious sources of sustenance, and tourists who wanted to see how much cruelty they could stomach.
The cool mountain air hit my cheeks as soon as we stepped out of the bus. The market buzzed with activity, mostly locals pushing past each other in a manner that suggested all this was routine for them. Warily, Joel and I wandered down a wide, jam-packed thoroughfare lined on either side by makeshift stalls comprising pushcarts and umbrellas, their rattan baskets brimming with produce spilling into the middle of the street. Other stallholders peddled their wares on foot, pushing through the crowd and touting boxes full of ondeh-ondeh and other local snacks. So far, we had seen none of the brutality with which the market had made a name for itself. Rounding a street corner, we came face to face with a stall selling live chickens, tied up and sitting defeated in rows on a large tarp; but nothing worse.
As we ventured further into the market, we began to see more and more of the mobile street vendors, who mostly sold the same kind of produce: ostensibly a strange tuber covered with a layer of black soil, roots protruding at awkward angles. We initially gave these little thought, but as we looked closer something just seemed off about the tubers.
“Rats; those are rats.” No sooner had my companion said the words that I made the connection myself: the “tubers” were in fact bush rats on skewers, charred beyond recognition. What we had taken to be “soil” was flaking, carbonized flesh and skin; while the “roots” we had presumed to see were twisted tails and contorted limbs. Shaken, I clung on instinctively to my companion’s sleeve and we turned away.
Uneasy as we were about this expedition, a morbid curiousity drove us deeper into the labyrinth. Soon we spotted a man behind a kiosk, little more than a large cage about a square metre across containing, at a glance, no less than two dozen small, colourful birds. Hanging off the larger cage were several smaller cages, each only large enough to fit in the palm of your hand and yet somehow containing one or two of the birds. There was so little room in the cages that as they hopped or fluttered about, presumably attempting futilely to escape, their wings would strike each other or the wire bars of the cages, despite their small size. Again, something peculiar about their hue made us look closer; with a start, we realised the birds were simply common sparrows, covered head to toe in red or green dye and looking like something out of a child’s colouring book.
My companion asked him how much each bird sold for; with an inscrutable face, the man replied simply “10”, which we understood to be 10,000RP. Familiar by now with the exchange rate, we knew this to be just under a dollar back in Singapore. I didn’t know what appalled me more: the squalid conditions under which the birds lived, or the minute price attached to their lives. With growing misgivings, we pushed on towards the centre of the market, where many locals seemed to be heading as well.
We followed the cul-de-sac, entered the shade of a tarp; I saw some chickens in a cage, their legs bound in a single bundle. Then, without warning, the main market complex loomed before us, a large warehouse-like building housing rows upon rows of butchers, chopping blocks, display cases filled with fresh meat. The coppery smell of fresh blood hit me, and I finally witnessed the horror that gave this market its name. Rows and rows of dogs – resembling little more than uncannily dog-shaped blocks of charcoal – lay stacked on wooden tables, some missing their heads. Directly facing me was one of these decapitated heads, its eyes deathly slits and its jaw open in a perpetual silent scream. At other tables lay bats and huge pythons, prepared and blowtorched in similar fashion and sold by the kilogram.
On the ground before us was a cage, this one filled with dogs and cats – and some puppies and kittens – awaiting their fate. A man stood over the cage, a club in one hand and an unconscious dog in the other; as I watched, unable to tear myself away, he dropped the club with the casual ease of a chef changing knives, and picked up a blowtorch. With a sickening hiss, the torch roared to life; it was all too much. I stifled a scream; my companion covered my eyes and shepherded me back to the outer market. We endeavoured to see a little of the more palatable parts of the market, but my tear-stained eyes took in little, and we soon headed back to the bus.
Bemo then brought us to a restaurant nearby for lunch, a quaint complex of wooden huts on stilts protruding into Tondano lake. After realising our only co-diners were a few European couples, however, Dr John proclaimed we must have fallen into a tourist trap. Though we required extensive help from Bemo to understand the menu, we managed to order our food, which took over an hour to arrive despite the restaurant being nigh empty. It was very satisfying, though not worth the wait to me.
Our next stop was Bukit Doa, otherwise known as "Hill of Prayers", named so for various temples and places of worship of various religious that had made their home atop and around it. More interestingly, the hill also happened to be an active volcanic vent. At first glance, the hill looked like any other hill, sheer cliffs blanketed with vegetation; but the side facing us look as though it had been obliterated by some kind of explosion. In its place was mess of jagged white rock and loose gravel, scored with streaks of yellow sulphur and emanating a constant cloud of thick white steam. As we approached, we saw that a river – cloudy with minerals and also steaming – trickled from a small valley beginning in the side of the hill.
At varying paces, we eventually made it partway up the mountain, trying not to slip on gravel in the process and avoiding small hidden flumes in the rock spewing scalding steam. The heat was oppressive and the smell of sulphur almost unbearable, but the view made up for it. Some of us took samples of yellow sulphur crystals and powder, which most of us had never encountered in the natural world before. Others soaked in the scenery and the sight of the afternoon sun cutting through the thick curtains of steam. Higher up the mountain were two stone faces carved into the mountain, each at least two storeys tall; I found their serene expressions and pursed lips peculiar, and later found out that they were representations of Minahasan deities.
We spent a lot of time exploring the volcano, having Dr John explain the geography of it. We headed back on the bus, with Bemo as our guide. Seeing as it was our first day in this Christian-majority country, we found a place that was famous for its roast pork for dinner.