Was it safe?
I did as much research as possible to verify the safety of traveling through Sulawesi. I spoke with persons knowledgeable of the region, and I studied the politics and history of Sulawesi. I also exchanged several emails with Rich, the guide of this particular tour.
Rich was patient enough to answer all the questions I had regarding safety, and after several emails back and forth, he had convinced me that we would be safe. Rich has lived in Sulawesi off-and-on over the past several years (he is originally from Maryland) and is knowledgeable with the region. Rich speaks Indonesian, he knows the areas to avoid, and he can confer with persons ‘on the ground’ if there are any problems.
A significant factor in deciding to visit Sulawesi, particularly after the Bali bombing, was that we were going to non-touristy areas. During the entire ten-day trip, I saw no more than 20 westerners. The lack of westerners was partly a result of the terror warnings, as people in Bunaken (a famous scuba diving island we visited at the end of the trip) said vacancy rates were below ten percent.
The first thing I recognized when visiting the country was the kindness and warmness of people in the region. As we walked through the streets, and as we biked through towns and villages, we were ominously and enthusiastically greeted with ‘Hello Mister!’. It is no exaggeration that I heard the phrase ‘Hello Mister’ at least 500 times per day, every day.
There are two experiences that come to mind that should demonstrate the safety and friendliness of Sulawesi. The first experience occurred on the second day of the trip, the second occurred near the end of the trip.
On day two, just as we were beginning to cycle, I went into a small store to buy some water. I had left the store and the woman operating the store ran out to hand me a 5,000 rupiah bill (about 60 cents), telling us (in Indonesian) that the money dropped out of my pocket. I didn’t remember losing the money, and I thanked her for being so honest (translated through Rich).
Rich emphasized in his emails the honesty of people in this region, and early in our trip I saw an example of this. The woman could have kept the money. In many places traveled by tourists she would have barely given a second thought to keeping the money.
There is very little crime or theft in this part of Indonesia. After spending a short time in Sulawesi, I had not doubt that if I had something stolen (such as a bag), I could tell somebody and within 5 minutes I would have 50 to 500 people helping me find bag and the person who stole the bag. This is no exaggeration!
People always asked were we come from (Tuan dari mana?). By the second day I had no fears at all telling people I was from America. Despite the terror warnings posted by the US on Indonesia, and despite the general anti-Muslim sentiment emanating from US foreign policy, the Sulawesi people were solidly pro-American. When we told people we were American, the most common response would be ‘Oh, Indonesia and America good friends!’.
The second example to demonstrate the safety of Sulawesi occurred on my last evening in Sulawesi. We were in Manado, where Rich arranged a party with some friends. We all met at an apartment in the center of town, then went to a nearby. We drank in the club until 3 in the morning.
We left the club, and everyone had gone home except for three of us: Rich, an Indonesian acquaintance of Rich (a friend of a friend, who was very drunk), and myself. We were walking down the main shopping street, and Rich began to search for a cab. The Indonesian guy and I walked ahead, with the Indonesian about forty meters ahead of me.
The Indonesian proceeded to run up to an older stocky guy on a motorcycle. He said something to the guy, and he must have said something offensive because the guy on the motorcycle gave him a surprised and angry look and proceeded to punch our friend in the face! He didn’t punch him hard, but it was probably enough to give him a black eye.
Our friend was not in the condition (too drunk) nor was he big enough to retaliate, and he backed off a step from the guy, grimacing. After a couple of seconds I ran up to our friend, grabbed his arm, and began to pull him away from the conflict and get him into Rich’s cab.
The guy on the motorcycle recognized that this guy and I were friends, and the motorcycle guy began to apologize to me (I believe he said ‘permisi, permisi’) for punching my friend. He looked sincere in his body language, as he stepped back and pointed at the two of us. As I helped the drunken guy into the cab, I nodded my head to the guy on the motorcycle, giving him a feint smile. We left the scene and let our friend out a kilometer down the road, safe from the danger in town.
I give this example to illustrate how safe it is for Westerners. In the US, I would have been apprehensive to get in the middle of a fight. Somehow, Westerners (the few westerners there are) are respected and immune from this type of violence. He actually apologized to me for punching my friend!
This mentality is perhaps one of the reasons why everyone believed Bali seemed so safe.
There are a few areas in Sulawesi to avoid. An obvious place to avoid is Poso, in the central part Central Sulawesi. Between 1998 and 2001 there was severe fighting between the Christians and Muslims. At least 1000 people were killed in Poso during this conflict.
There are rumors that al Qaida use Poso as a safe haven, and there are rumors that Osama bin Laden is hiding there.
The area has been quiet for the past year, but it still a place to avoid. One major concern I had traveling to Sulawesi was that the fighting would spread to other parts of Sulawesi. From the research I did and according to Rich and his sources, the fighting remained isolated in Poso.
Another area of recent conflict is in Kotamobagu, a highland region in the central section of North Sulawesi. Supposedly some mining companies began exploration, and there were open questions as to which nearby village owned the land. This resulted in some sporadic fighting between villages (mostly teenagers fighting with knives). For westerners, this area should be safe, since the fighting is so localized. Rich has been informed that the conflict has ceased as mining companies have pulled out of the region altogether.
We heard stories from locals about other areas to avoid. The woman who owns the Maleo Cottages outside Luwuk (Day 8) told us many people avoid driving the stretch of road to the south of their hotel at night because the area is inhabited by ghosts. Locals in North Sulawesi are also afraid of Lake Mooat because of events that happened there centuries ago. There are probably hundreds or thousands more stories like these.