Gorontalo: What’s in a Name?

It may sound more like a wasting foot fungus or a grisly stomach infection – got a bad case of the Gorontalo, man – but it’s actually an oddly pleasant place to visit.

The storied isle of Sulawesi splays like a maimed starfish across a swath of Indonesia’s equatorial seas – just south of the Philippines, just east of Borneo. Both a province and its capital city, Gorontalo splashes across the narrow northern hook of the island. While it’s been a trading hub and a fishery and a big fish in a small pond for centuries, its main draw for visitors such as Andy and me lay in its strategic transit location – a logical pit stop between Manado to the north and the Togeans to the south.

Map 2

Like most, we didn’t come to stay. Unlike most, we certainly could have stayed. First though, we needed to find a place to stay.

At boarding time in Jakarta our accommodation request was still in the air, so to speak, and upon arrival, we found that there was no room in the inn. So we got friendly with the Gorontalo airport: one runway, one luggage belt, one exit door leading to a half-dozen taxis whose drivers craned and stretched through the sliding doors to catch a glimpse of incoming targets — anyone looking foreign.  They circled like sharks, smoked like torches, threw more glances than the would-be dancers of a middle school dance. We gulped. Andy took my hand.

We googled homestays. Within a minute we had a number, within another, a room – less than twenty bucks with a breakfast thrown in to the mix. And within ten minutes we were lugging our backpacks out of the airport gate, bypassing the airport-taxis and their inflated prices, and hiking the one-kilometer distance needed before you can order a ride-sharing app taxi.

That one cost us some sweat and an argument, but in the end, we did save ourselves a couple bucks and a few minutes of tense haggling. Added bonus – the very warm and pleasant saunter down the shaded boulevard to nowhere, corn fields on one side, sugarcane on the other, mountain ranges ringing the horizons.

Airport Hike

The driver, when he finally reached us, was friendly enough – a smiling young man with no stable income, a recent make of a Honda, and a smartphone. He wafted the taxi talk – how many kids we have, how many days we’ll stay, how much money I make in Jakarta. You know, the typical just-met-you kind of topic.

First impression of the city? sleepy – in a dazed-from-the-heat sort of way. The soil steamed, and the gray clouds proved a low, wool blanket stifling the city within its hills. We circled roundabouts awash in coffee stalls and fried-rice carts; we rolled through a steady stream of motorbikes; we turned through a half-dozen intersections with no street names and no one using any turn signal. We pressed on, further into the city’s core, closer to the harbor, further from the wide, divided highways leading to the airport and into the narrow lanes cramped with tin-roofed huts and vegetable saleswomen.

Turning left and right through dusty lanes scarcely wide enough for the car, we peered through clustered homes and cluttered shops for any sign of our homestay. Everything dusty, everything narrow, most things more or less the same. Then, next to an alley scarcely wide enough for a bike, a modest sign with the name of the homestay. A round of applause: We found it.

Rainy Alleys

The guy working the office was chummy teen out of Java, content to lean back in his chair, light up a cig, and chat. And chat. And chat – on and on and on as if he had other responsibility in the world to attend to.

He probably didn’t.

Filling himself another glass of Indonesia’s ubiquitous jasmine tea, plopping back down in the chair, he rambled into his story about the local whale sharks one more time.

The place was called “Harry and Mimin’s,” but here too the name failed. Neither Harry nor Mimin ever showed up – one on a business trip, the other manning another property in the countryside, Java Guy said. The closest I got to either was on a drizzly afternoon. I parked the motorbike outside, ran in to grab the rain jackets, and upon reappearing in the dining room, I found a lanky fellow with a head full of curls. His eyes lit up, he spread his arms wide for a hug, and he blurted a gregarious, “Heeeeeey.”

“Harry?” I faltered.

“Noooo,” Curly snorted. “I’m a neighbor. I live across the street. What’s your name? Where are you from? Sit down a while.”

Friendly, to say the least. I ducked the hug, shucked the chair, donned the raincoat, and motored off to reconnect with Andy. Curly, by the way, apparently didn’t feel too slighted. He would be back at breakfast the next morning, alongside a whining accomplice in a glitzy hijab. The two would watch us butter our flimsy toast and sip our tea while rehashing Indonesia’s celebrity gossip and dropping hints about how they like to talk in English.


Java Guy lit up another cigarette, and about that time a grumpy Frenchman – as dour and melancholy as an existential waiter on the Champs Elysees, and smoking nearly as often – joined our table and promptly fired up a cig. Andy coughed, waved away the blue fumes, and looked mournfully at her single fried egg. In the armchairs, a newly arrived German couple fidgeted impatiently, hoping that Java Guy would curtail his hiking narratives and show them their room.

Around the corner from the homestay was a restaurant called Roemah Marley – or Marley’s House, if you’d like it in English. It provides a pleasanter dining experience–and a parking lot big enough for to host a tour bus rodeo. But looks proved deceiving here as well – not only did we never catch a glimpse of any tour bus in the entire province of Gorontalo, but Marley’s house was misnamed as well. I cringed when Java Guy recommended it – the parking lot suggested mass quantity and mediocre quality dishes, and the name spoke dreadlocks, Rastafaria, and weed. Inside, though, the décor was classily minimalistic, the vibes hip rather than groovy, and the food as artful as South Jakarta at prices fit for East Indonesia. Waitresses smiled. Murals invited Instagram. Menus showcased dishes in flattering rather than oily light.

We treated ourselves to a sizzling tray of grilled tuna skewers slathered in local sauces, and a couple steaming bowls of milu siram – the local delicacy. “It’s a corn stew,” I would later try to explain to my dad on a video call, “mixed with chili peppers, fish, and coconut!” I was enthusiastic about discovering this. Andy and I would hunt down more milu siram for another two meals before leaving the city the next day. “Yeah, it’s pretty—”

“Humph,” my brother managed.

“Sounds interesting,” attempted Mom.

“I know it sounds strange, but really, it tastes—”

“They grow corn in Indonesia?” Dad wondered aloud.

More Corn More Cocos

Yep. And as strange a combination that milu might seem to outsiders, it plays brilliantly into Gorontalo’s strong suits. I would learn this the next morning as we drove out of the city and into the province. The hills are jagged as rip-saw’s teeth and blanketed with the young, green spikes of corn poking through the wispy shade of the coconut palms. Seaward, the waves teem with bountiful harvests of tuna that keep Goronatalo’s fisheries some of the most lucrative in the eastern half of the nation. The road weaves through river valleys, climbs crooked paths skyward again, and twists back down to the narrow plains. It’s breathtaking country—if you’re not in a hurry to get anywhere.

Corn and CoconutsI stared a moment at the jagged inclines brimming with bushels of corn. I tried to explain to the driver that my home state also grows its fair share of corn. I tried to explain about plains – that in the flatlands, a man can see to the horizon as clear and flat as if he were on the sea, that enormous tractors can harvest vast acreage in a day, and that I supposed in order to work these hills full of corn by hand must take an incredible dedication.

“No,” he laughed, “Don’t worry. They use motorcycles. They attach baskets to the back and drive up and down the hills by motorbike. Otherwise it would be too tiring.”

Country RoadsDad seemed disappointed that I didn’t see any of these motorbike harvesters in person. Grandpa would have loved a video of that.

The motorbike would only come into play on that drizzling afternoon and evening. Andy and I, armored by rain jackets, armed with a GoPro, and guided by Google Maps, navigated the sleepy streets and one-storied buildings of the capital. We splashed through the puddles toward the rugged coast, winding our way up and along the ever-steeper walls of the port, where the city’s river sludged brownly, languidly toward the crystal depths of the sea. Cranes and cargo vessels, rust and fish. Rain.

It was Christmas Eve. But again, naming the day as such had little effect. It didn’t feel anything like a Christmas.

Around the corner from the port, in a hamlet wedged between cliff and sea, in narrow streets stuffed with houses shoulder-to-shoulder, we encountered a ragtag band of wiry fishermen happily hauling in three days’ worth of catch from the deep sea. Shouldering massy yellowfin tuna nearly as heavy as themselves, they grinned all the way up from the boat to the waiting pickup truck. The fish were shiny, bright-eyed, and fresh. They weighed up to forty kilos each. Happily the wiry, smoking fishermen slung them into the bed of the waiting truck and packed them in ice. They calculated market values roughly in their minds, described the fishes’ journey from here down to Bali, and then up to Japan to be featured in, they imagined, the finest sushi dining. Each fish, one man calculated, would net something like a hundred bucks. Maybe more.

The sun was setting behind the gray, raining clouds. For the fishers, it was an afternoon for singing and for smiles. They closed the tailgate, slapped one another on the back, and watched the truck putter off toward the port.

Big CatchHappy FishermanLater, after the new year, I read an article on BBC about the opening of Tokyo’s new fish market. To inaugurate the place, they auctioned off the finest fish available – an enormous Pacific Bluefin tuna. It brought over three million dollars.

True, it was a shameless publicity circus, and that fish weighed as much as the entire truckload these men sold. But even so, reading that article, I couldn’t help but picture these fishermen in that rainy dusk, and how happy they were to get a hundred dollars each for three days of labor on the seas. Gorontalo is one of the poorest provinces in Indonesia.

The sun was setting, and the coastline was sleepy already. Lights burned in the windows, but no one had cookies out for Santa Claus. Christmas is a foreign concept here, even though most workers in town will receive the government-mandated day off from work in a nod to the Christian minority in the archipelago. Indeed, when Gorontalo province broke away from the neighboring North Sulawesi in the early 2000’s, much of the reason was religion. Here, ninety-eight percent of the inhabitants are Muslims. The Manado-dominated North Sulawesi, just a few hours’ drive away, is heartily Christian, even featuring one of the world’s largest Jesus statues – sweeping on the hills over the city with arms widespread in benediction on the populace below. While that probably sounds like nothing more than geographic trivia to most, it matters here.

Buddhist TempleLazy RiverComing on the heels of the race riots in Jakarta and Moluccas (and elsewhere) in the late nineties, the Indonesian government was getting a little antsy about regions such as North Sulawesi—where staunchly religious regions were forced to live and vote and make business in the same provincial boundaries. It seemed the simplest solution to carve out the Muslim chunk, let it keep the traditional name of Gorontalo, and leave the neighboring ethnic groups pursue their happiness as separate states in the republic. True, Indonesia’s official policy of “Unity in Diversity” still rings loudly in the mouths and ears of the diverse populace, but reminders of religious violence, and potential for more, in the not-so-distant past are plentiful. Today, often the simplest short-term solution for pursuing peace is through de facto segregation of different communities. The slogan is certainly more idealistic than factual, but at this point, I was beginning to grow a little leery of any names at all I was encountering in Gorontalo.

Muslim majority notwithstanding, Gorontalo city features a giant Chinese temple – right across the street from Roemah Marley, actually – and the coast gaudily boasts a neon-lighted, pagoda-styled beacon farewelling and welcoming ships to the harbor. Andy and I tooled past the auspicious temple that rainy Christmas Eve, its blazing purple and green lights bouncing off the wet pavement and back to the skies.  We puttered through another fishing village, waved to local children, stopped to watch the moonrise, and forded a flooded-out intersection before pulling in to a darkened string of cliffside warungs for a bite of roasted corn.

All the bamboo-and-tin shacks were lifeless save this one. A lonely old lady wrapped in a weary hijab fanned the wheezing coals into flame and stuck a pair of glistening, golden ears on the grill. We chatted a bit before retiring to the back. There, crunching through the blackened, buttered corn, we watched the sleepy lights twinkle their reflections in the water. Rain sputtered down on the tin roof.

We reminded each other that it was Christmas Eve, and wondered aloud what our families must be doing back home.

It was almost cold, there in the rain and the sea breeze reaching up the cliff and into the warung. I remembered Christmas Eves or yore, in front of the fireplace, surrounded by family and laughs.

I wiped my eyes, and I suddenly felt thankful it was dark.

Corn for ChristmasWe paid, climbed back on the wet seat of the motorcycle, and started back to town. The old woman wrapped her shawl around her and settled back into her chair to wait on another customer to blow in.

The city was likewise sleepy; it couldn’t have been much past eight, but people behaved as if midnight were bearing down on them. Shops closed their doors, and late-night restaurants opened theirs. We cruised through stop lights that seemed to serve no purpose, caught a glimpse of the tiny two-story mall that caters to the local elite, bought Andy a pair of flip-flops from the sidewalk pop-up shop, and hunted down yet another bowl of milu siram.

We found it – eventually – in the front porch of a guy living in back of the mosque. He had a quick smile and no regular job – sometimes driving tourists, sometimes manning the little shop (no biggest than a ticket stall at a movie theater) attached to his front-porch restaurant while his wife simmered up the dishes back in the kitchen. It wasn’t exactly what the name “restaurant” would suggest, but then again, what fuss can I make about names in place like Gorontalo? Before the dinner would end, Andy would be a welcome guest in the home, would have all the wedding photos off the wall, would share her wonder at each of the local wedding outfits they had donned on their big day, and would have the wife out of the kitchen and into her arms for a hug.

There’s nothing in the world equal to traveling with Andy.

In the literature classes I teach, I often return to names – names are chained to identity; a change in name is a change in person; a name is never an accident but a conscious choice; a name implies, suggests, demands attention to character traits. Names are loaded. Good old Shakespeare tried to derail the trend a little—letting Juliet ponder on her balcony one starlit night about the nature of names, about how they aren’t true reflection of the worth of a person. It sounds poetic. But she’s young and foolish and hasn’t yet experienced just how fatal her and her man’s name would prove. In poetry, I’ll bring in euphony and cacophony, of course. I’ll remark on the harsh, grating, throaty sounds—like “Gorontalo”—and how they’re used for grating effects in the content. It’s amazing all an author can communicate in a name.

Village by the BayBut maybe, I started thinking as we tried to snap a few selfies with the new buddies, names in the real world aren’t as binding as those in art.

At least they’re not for Gorontalo.

Which is kind of nice in a way; it keeps surprising.

Gorontalo, coincidentally, is trying hard to make a name for itself. For years it’s been a sideshow on the tourist path, a stepping stone between the highlights of Manado to the north and the Togean islands to the south. No one spends more than a day here. If the old real estate maxims of “location, location, location” is of any import, then I have to admit that Goronatalo doesn’t exactly occupy the most auspicious square footage. While the Portuguese were initially drawn to the deep harbor, the mouth of the muddy river, and the relatively calm waters of the giant Tomini Bay, Manado sat on a more natural trade route for ships laden from the Ambon and Ternate spiceries to meet the calmer, shallower waters of the straits pointing the way back to Europe. In the colonial world, Gorontalo would soon be eclipsed. Even the missionaries stayed north, Christianizing the Manado tip of Sulawesi’s peninsula and leaving Islam staunchly planted further down.

The Portuguese stuck around long enough to erect a fortress on a steep hilltop to the west of the city. Yes, it was built by the Portuguese, though nearly everyone assumes it’s another remnant of the Dutch, though its name – Otanaha – clearly derives from the local dialect. Yes, yes, names fail to do justice to the history. And even calling the thing a fort – Benteng is the loan word Indonesia has picked up from the Dutch – is a misnomer. The thing is more like a trio of stone circles sprouting atop the jungled crown of the hill.

Rainy Benteng

I don’t know if any battles ever bloodied this fort’s hill or stained its stones, whether Gorontalo’s muscle in the ancient spice wars was ever put to the test.  I tried to imagine the old colonial soldiers garrisoned here—what they must have thought those long afternoons laboring to cut and place and seal the thousands of stones, how they sweated by day and slapped mosquitoes by night, how they stared over canon barrels to the lakeside villages below, the population doubled in the glistening reflection careening off the bog while roosters and mosques cackled and the sun sank out of existence.

Did they dream of home? Did they curse their destiny to be a sailor and land on the hillside slopes of the far end of the known globe? Did they guzzle grog and get nasty chasing the local ladies? Or did they pray for the souls of the pagans below, farming their fishes, training their ducks, mucking through the lush paddies without a clue of the Gospel?

And what of the villagers – what sense did they make of the strange newcomers cutting stones they can’t eat to build towers they can’t keep to house menacing canon trained on the simple populace below? Did they want protection? Would they be protected? And how did they ever communicate? And what on earth would they ever understand from one another?

Imagination aside, we crinkled on our raincoats and carefully navigated the rounded footpaths toward the largest fort’s circumference. We braved the local good-old-boys’ cigarette smoke long enough to snap a selfie or six. Above, we waited for windows of lightened rain to drag the camera out and click a few sloppy snapshots. The other forts – named “mamma” and “child” in the local dialect – feature well-trimmed grass. The entire drive up, actually, was well-paved and lined with newly-fashioned park benches and landscaped garden walks. Gorontalo wants tourists’ traffic, and they’re investing in infrastructure.


According to the driver, on weekends these forts are quite the draw: families clamor over the stones; lovers chase furtive glances among the arches; Pop-mie wrappers spread themselves wantonly across the walks. I sighed and stared across the valley, watching a clouded sun steam across the glistening façade of the lake, across the hundred tiny fish farms marked off with bamboo stakes and rusty wires. In the “papa” fort up the hill, that rowdy crowd of local loudmouths was shouting and waving to us. They were the ones we’d taken selfies with earlier.

In name, Gorontalo might sound like a Tolkien-esque realm of barbarians, a mountain crag filled with trolls or orcs, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a more becoming band of friendly faces in all of Indonesia. Gorontaloans don’t just serve you up a corn soup, they invite you in to look through the wedding albums. They don’t just smile and nod, they pose for pictures with their giant fish. Sometimes they invite themselves over for a chat and cigarette at breakfast. Sometimes they shout their greetings from a hilltop away.

And maybe it’s exactly this sort of old-fashioned, warm-and-friendly populace which proved the strongest pull to stay.

Even so, with the sun slanting down in the late afternoon, with the bustle of take-away food and lugging luggage, we bought our tickets sailed south. That very twilight would find us aboard a ferry plying the high waves out of Gorontalo’s storied harbor, waving farewell to one of the most aptly misnamed cities I’ve visited. Wikipedia lists a half-dozen possible meanings to the original name of Gorontalo, everything from “noble” to “caveman” to “cork fish.” I’m not sure any of those fit any better than the names I’d witnessed so far around the city. But then again, what’s in a name, anyway? Maybe Gorontalo has sided me with Shakespeare on this one.



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