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A parade, a dancer and a tree: Tomohon, a hidden gem in Sulawesi

Lynn Mc Donnell experiences the unexpected in Indonesia. In the North-eastern tip of the state of Sulawesi in Indonesia lives a collaboration of winding roads, idyllic deserted islands, busy transport hubs and a volcano or two. Manado, the principal city in Northern Sulawesi is not unlike other Indonesian cities in that it is functional and quite clogged up, a description that I have found difficult to expand upon. Four hours on an enjoyably overcrowded bus south from the city toward lush mountains and sheer cliff drops you come upon the overtly delightful village of Tomohon.

The perfect antidote to Manado’s dullness, Tomohon is a sweet and dynamic little place. With two striking volcanoes towering over the village, it is a welcome pleasure to the eyes. The scenery is not the only highlight. As with many other places in the world remote from the backpacker scene, it comes down to the people of the area; the local population not only welcomes you but entertains and teaches you. Looking for a specific place to stay that had been recommended by a fellow traveler, I strolled through the town looking for a local to lend a helping hand in the form of directional inspiration. Unfortunately, the innate need to help a lost visitor far outweighed an innate sense of direction. After taking several different roads in all directions I was glad to stumble across a joyful little settlement of five tourist huts and a grassy communal area that turned out to be the same place recommended to me.

Early the following morning, preparing to hike up to one of the volcanoes’ crater rims, I was perturbed to find the patch of grass outside my room unexpectedly awash with local Minahasan tribesmen in full costume bearing large drums and machetes. The evident confusion in my eyes was met with that of the other travelers outside, the first I seen since arriving in town. They now stood side by side with the Minahasan dancers and the owners of their guesthouses who had clearly dragged them here without much in the way of explanation. The bizarre events that followed were made that bit more humiliating by the matching t-shirts that were produced by the local mayor. With a stylish ‘I love Tomohon’ motif on the back we resembled some 1980’s advertisement. Clearly this was not a spontaneous event.

All dressed and presented, my newfound confused community and myself were ready. But for what? All we knew was that more than likely, our morning was about to enter the paradigm of strange and more importantly, memorable. I took out my camera still unaware as to who or what was the spectacle and attempted to establish my role as ‘watcher’. Gathered together, this small but bewildered group of tourists was instructed to follow the dancers as they began an obviously symbolic march through the villages’ streets and to the base of Gunung Mahawu, the dominant volcano in the valley. Needless to say, this march broke down any of my preconceived roles of watcher and watched. Passing by schools on recess to watch the ‘parade’, I felt a shift in emotion from one of confusion to one of humbleness and gratitude. This small society welcomed ‘us’ as foreigners into their homes and their lives and as it soon turned out, into their community and traditions.

As the now expanding parade that included the tourist group, local shop-traders, priests and school children marched on through the valley, the reason for the event no longer seemed important. Arriving at the base of Mahawu, the cart that had been leading the parade emerged as a home to 100 tree saplings. Asking the few English speakers in the surroundings I learned that in an effort to combat global warming and the inevitable deforestation of their green state, the people of Tomohon were actively planting trees as part of pre-existing traditional ceremonies. Humbled as outsiders by our inclusion in these plans, we attempted to help plant these 100 trees and make our own mark on the future of this impressive village.

After the tree planting, in an attempt to get some relief from a very public morning, I spent the afternoon summiting Gunung Lokon, the other volcano in the valley. A stunning crater in an active volcano, Gunung Lokon looks down upon the whole village of Tomohon. The view more than compensated for the sulphuric stench that wafts uninvited into your senses. The volcano willingly took over from my newly established role as spectacle and allowed me to revert back to ‘picture taker’. Since then I have tried to find out about the ceremony that I took part in. I couldn’t find out much except that it was not a regular occurrence. The traveler inside me wants to ignore the cynical side of my mind that points out that it was indeed election season in Sulawesi and that the mayor was running for re-election that week. The same traveler inside me wants to ignore the religious support of the local church in the purchase of the saplings and the association of said church with the mayor. The fact is that, regardless of motive, the parade and ceremony introduced me to a proud society of high moral stature, healthy family and neighbourly virtues and a positive outlook on life. Although being paraded through the town clearly emanates the sense that as a ‘foreigner’ we are different, the townspeople and children especially still welcomed us as one of them. For this reason, my ‘I love Tomohon’ shirt was proudly worn as a comfortable sleeping shirt during my travels.


About Itchy Feet Magazine

Itchy Feet Magazine is an online travel magazine for independent and adventurous travellers. Our aims are to champion sustainable travel, provide a platform for new journalistic talent and last but not least provide a fresh and inspirational e-magazine covering all corners of the globe, from hidden gems to well-trodden paths.


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