Venturing Out of Java: A Trip to Northern Sulawesi

Over 17,000 islands come together to create the archipelago that is Indonesia, and three months into my placement I had still only been to one of those islands, Java.  There are certainly plenty of advantages to being placed on what my sitemate perceptively calls the “favorite child” (Java has significantly superior infrastructure to the other islands, creating an extremely interesting kind of privilege which I hope to further explore during my time here), but one of my goals for my nine months in Indonesia is to try to get a more complete picture of Indonesia as a country, in what capacity I can in such a short time.  I am able to accomplish some of this by talking to my students from my second campus, who come from all across Indonesia, but I still wanted to see some of Indonesia’s great diversity with my own eyes.

My first opportunity came fairly recently, during my school’s final period.  (Due to restrictions from the Indonesian government which have been put in place to discourage cheating, I am not allowed to be in the classroom during the final examinations.  As a teacher, this drives me a bit insane, but there is little I can do about the situation.)  Encouraged by my co-teachers to travel during this time—“Go!  See Indonesia!”—I packed my backpack and boarded a plane to Gorontalo, a city in the northern part of the island of Sulawesi, where a fellow ETA—whom I have come to adore—is placed.  I knew very little about the city, or even the island itself, but I had someone there who could show me around, and it was somewhere new; and so, somewhat impulsively, I confess, I went, not knowing that North Sulawesi would soon become one of my favorite places in Indonesia.


Upon stepping off the plane and getting into the travel car my friend had pre-arranged for me, I found myself unable to decide whether Gorontalo was exactly like Malang, or completely different.  I was surrounded by rice fields, a familiar site for me because I live a bit outside of the actual city of Malang, but there was a noticeable lack of sugarcane, which seems to be the primary crop in the area in which I live.  I had been told the rest of Indonesia would cook me alive next to the relative coolness of Malang, but I found Gorontalo to be much cooler than I anticipated it being, though the breeze I felt had the distinct taste of the ocean, rather than the cool mountain freshness I have in Malang.

Perhaps the biggest difference that I first noticed was the abundance of sapi-sapi (cows) in Gorontalo.  Though I live near the city of Batu, one of the only places in Indonesia with temperatures cool enough which can support a dairy industry, and am surrounded by fields and farms, the only time I have really seen cows since coming to Indonesia was during the period before Idul Adha.  In Gorontalo, you cannot throw a rock without hitting a cow, and I immediately began babbling like an excited two-year-old (and probably with a more limited vocabulary than most Indonesian two-year-olds) to this man I had just met about how excited I was to see cows: “Ada banyak sapi di Gorontalo!  Tidak ada sapi decak aku di Malang!  Keluargaku punya sapi di Amerika!”  (“There are many cows in Gorontalo!  There are not cows near me in Malang!  My family has cows in America!”)  He immediately began trying to persuade me to take a cow home with me, and to point out every cow we passed; I knew from that moment that I was going to like Gorontalo.

(Later, my friend used the same driver to get to the airport for a trip of her own, and he apparently talked for most of the ride about my love of cows.  I find it reassuring to know that even halfway around the world I am still known as the girl with an eccentric passion for all things bovine.)


As soon as I had dropped off my bags at my friends’ house, we hopped on her motorbike to explore more of the rural aspects of Gorontalo.  During her time there, she had befriended a family who had invited her to see their rice harvest, and it happened to be in full swing on the day I arrived.  I had the opportunity to ask questions about rice of one of the workers who was busy harvesting, and even got to get into the paddy and try my hand at doing it myself.  My route from one campus to the other takes me past many rice paddies, I have become more and more curious about this unfamiliar grain, and have been harboring the somewhat-secret wish to step into a rice paddy for quite some time now.  So though both the Indonesians present and my fellow ETA were calling me gila (crazy) as I stood ankle-deep in mud and cut down stalks of rice, I smiled and was senang (happy), for a dream was coming true.



Gorontalo might be immediately surrounded by cows and rice, but it is also quite close to the ocean.  Malang is set in the mountains of East Java, and I am at least four hours from the nearest beach, so being in a place whose fishing industry is ever-present and the air tastes a bit like salt was a new part of my Indonesian experience.  On my first night there, my friend wanted to take me to a beautiful beach she had been to, but we were unable to get there before dark.  Instead, we pulled over at a small beach next to a desa (village), and enjoyed Indonesian waters the way they should be: with fishermen tossing their lines into the waves and anak-anak (children)—ranging from fully clothed to stark naked, but never in a proper bathing suit—leaping off of dilapidated foundations into the shallow waters near the shore.


Watching the sun set into the ocean, as the sky veritably exploded into shades of red, pink, and orange, I was stunned, once again, by the beauty of the place in which I have found myself.  It was my first proper ocean sunset since coming to Indonesia, and I could not have asked for a better one.


The following day, we met up with another ETA who is placed in Gorontalo, and went on a quest for additional stunning shorelines.  One of my friend’s teachers had told her about a pulau (island) off the northern coast of the Gorontalo province, Saronde, which was supposed to be gorgeous.  Two hours on a motorbike through fields and jungle and one boat ride across the bluest water I have ever seen later, we reached a place so beautiful it evades even this English major’s description skills.


Saronde is a small island whose only permanent residents are a husband and wife, their pet monkey, and a few wandering chickens and stray cats.  There are a few cabins on the islands which can be rented out, but when we went no one had yet arrived for their weekend stays, and so we had the island almost entirely to ourselves.  We soaked in the bright sunshine that made the white beach impossible dazzling and waded in the clear, warm waters, feeling all the while that we had somehow stumbled upon paradise.


Although it is surrounded by the precise kind of mostly-unspoiled nature and humble farmland that my soul has been craving, Gorontalo itself is, indeed, a city, albeit one in which cows are found even in the town center.  It is a small city, with a population less than one-fourth that of Malang, but one which has the feel of a swiftly developing  metropolis which in some ways is seeking to leave its more rural roots behind, with its growing number of cafes and chain restaurants, and its Eiffel Tower replica towards the center of town.  Much of my infatuation with Gorontalo stemmed from its small-town feel and its availability of quieter, emptier space—something I have struggled to find living on Java, Indonesia’s most densely-populated island—and so I find this rush towards perceived progress somewhat bittersweet, but I have not the expertise in development to claim that Gorontalo will become less as it strives for more; I am only sure it will continue to change with time, as all places do.


All too soon, it was time to say goodbye.   In barely forty-eight hours, I had explored new places, sampled new culinary delights, visited with friends, discovered that Bahasa Indonesia is almost a new language when you leave your island, and scratched an Indonesian cow behind the ears.  As I sat on the back of my friend’s motorbike one last time, enjoying my last few glimpses of this beautiful place, I found myself snapping photographs not only with my camera but with my heart, determined to somehow save the enchanting experience I had had.  Gorontalo might eventually transform into something almost unrecognizable, but I will forever carry my short time there with me, the little piece of perfect paradise I had not expected to find.



2 thoughts on “Venturing Out of Java: A Trip to Northern Sulawesi

  1. Pingback: Indonesia Blog 40: Gorontalo Girl | All for the Love of Wandering

  2. Hey grace. I really love a lot of these pictures. I would like a print of people on the beach in the sunset. If I find a way to do that, would you like one too?


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