A Day in Makassar
September 28, 2009 2 Comments
By Rob Packer
I flew into Sulawesi’s metropolis, Makassar from Denpasar last July. Things seemed promising compared with the relative chaos in the domestic terminal in Denpasar. My flight was continuing to Manado and quantity over quality was the order of the day at check-in: a group of four women in front of me in the queue were trying to travel with forty bags, quite a few were designer bags (possibly fake). Meanwhile, Makassar’s Sultan Hasanuddin Airport is a light, airy, pseudo-Norman Foster conservatory that wouldn’t look out of place in the Gulf. It’s also the gateway to eastern Indonesia and was going to be my jumping-off point for the highlands of Toraja.
Makassar invites people to believe it’s your quintessential Indonesian city, but in hindsight it comes out far better than the smoggy sprawl that is Sumatra’s Medan. It was once the centre of the spice trade out of the Spice Islands, which attracted Portuguese then Dutch invaders and colonists from the 15th century. The reversal of its name change in 1999 (from 1971 until then, it was called Ujung Pandang) seemed to be an attempt to recapture past glories, although only government officials seem to have really been told, as everyone else I spoke to seemed either to be unaware of the change or not to care. For all its historical past, however, it really doesn’t have a whole lot to show for it and it’s really the people that make the city.
I spent the morning at the historic Dutch fort of Genteng Rotterdam (Fort Rotterdam), a.k.a. Genteng Ujungpandang, and by the time I was done I’d been tired out by Makassar’s notoriously humid heat. The coconut stall on the other side of the road with its smiling owner suddenly looked tempting, and I started on what became an afternoon of talking to strangers and practising Indonesian with plenty of good-natured misunderstanding. I must’ve spent over an hour chatting to Epeng, the coconut stall holder, his wife and young daughter. As often happens in Indonesia, the early parts of the conversation ran as if according to script, with questions about age, marital status, hometown, itinerary in Indonesia and the question that would never go away: money. The money question came up a lot in Indonesia and despite trying to dodge it, Epeng wanted a number out of me. His determination and the wild overestimation of a man in Bali the day before, who’d guesstimated my budget for a month’s travel at a ridiculously high $40,000 (!) encouraged me to try a new approach: honesty. I gulped and gave them a ballpark figure of my monthly wage and quickly followed it with how much I spent on rent in Hong Kong with visions of travel nightmares in the back of my mind. The only thing that happened was that I think I slipped down in their estimation at being crazy enough to pay $1,400 on rent.
I spent the rest of the day wandering through Makassar with my camera, taking photos and striking up conversations, being sure to call everyone mum (bu) or dad (pak) as you’re supposed to in polite Indonesian: after all, everyone is your relative in Indonesia. I met becak (rickshaw) drivers on break between shifts and got a reputation as a joker by taking photos of one driver asleep in his becak. On the same street, I went into a small coffee shop run by a Chinese Indonesian woman and tasted some amazing coffee as the sun was setting.
Makassar was an easy highlight to my trip because of its people alone; and I relearned that one of the things I love about Indonesia is what a conversation can lead to. One moment I was asking where the kamar kecil (toilet, it literally means small room) was and was answered that they only had a kamar besar (big room); ten minutes and a good-natured smile later, I was onto a culinary adventure, jumping on a motorbike heading to new friend, Dedet’s favourite coto Makassar shop. I can never imagine coto Makassar becoming hugely popular as it’s a citrusy soup made of cow liver and offal. A delicious end to a fantastic day.