Bau Bau

The island of Buton has various elements that are as attractive as the Wakatobi islands. The geological features of the two are similar: they both have long, calm beaches, some good dive spots, caves and natural pools. Buton also has highlands where tropical rainforests, rivers and waterfalls can be found.

As the largest city on Buton, Baubau is better known as a stopover point. Since ancient times, this city has been an important hub connecting the eastern and western islands of Indonesia. Baubau, with its strategic position, was the gateway for sailors and explorers to enter the Maluku peninsula, the islands of West Papua and the Lesser Sunda Islands to the south.

My guide Edi Djufri collects me at the arrivals gate and we drive straight to the city centre, to Wameo Market. Edi introduces me to a group of architects and researchers from Bali who are documenting the various local commodities that are sold at Baubau’s traditional markets.

Ayu Gayatri Kresna, the research coordinator, explains that there are still many high-quality ingredients in the traditional markets of Baubau and that they haven’t all been replaced by modern conveniences. Examples include palm sugar, various types of processed cassava, spice blends, herbs and local fruits and vegetables. Ayu and her team are leaving no stone unturned to document all of these, as well as recipes and the cooking utensils made by Buton craftspeople. “We plan to publish the findings of our research in a book,” explains Ayu. Previously the team has published books about the culinary and architectural riches of Bali.

With Ayu and her team, Edi takes us directly to Buton Palace Fortress. At three o’clock, there is a haroa ceremony in one of the residents’ homes. The haroa ceremony is held by citizens of Baubau to give thanks when entering a good month in the Islamic calendar. It takes place several times a year, including the ceremony being held now to celebrate Maludu or the birth of the Prophet Muhammad. The ceremony is led by a lébé, or imam, who reads some holy verses as a way to give blessings. The room is covered in red, white and black fabric, which are the sacred colours of the Buton Kingdom.

Around the lébé sit a circle of men and in the middle of them are trays of food. Etje, the home owner, says that she has prepared 30 trays. On each tray there is fried banana (loka), fried yam (kaowi-owi), fried doughballs (onde-onde), palm sugar sponge, sweet potatoes with coconut and sugar (baruasa), glutinous rice-flour cakes (palu) and a sweet glutinous rice cake (waje), which are all arranged according to tradition. After offering their prayers, the guests then eat lunch together with a plate of red rice, a mug of chicken curry (nasu wolio) and a bowl of pumpkin cooked in coconut milk (konduru). These three dishes form the special menu for the haroa ceremony.

Although it is still commonly celebrated by the people of Baubau, nowadays the haroa is only conducted in an orthodox manner inside the Buton Palace Fortress. This fortress was originally a centre of culture that became the main driver of the Buton civilisation. Inside, there is the palace of the kingdom and the homes of several respected families from the La Ode and Wa Ode clans, the descendants of whom continue to hold important positions in local politics.

The fortress, which is spread across more than 23 hectares, is believed to be the largest in the world. The limestone rocks that make up its structure are said to be glued together with egg white. Burhan Basran, a young historian I meet, offers an alternative version. According to him, the limestone rocks used in the fortress were joined together naturally by the rain and heat over many years. “Eggs were only used as a supplement by the builders while constructing the fortress,” says Burhan. However, there has been no scientific investigation to find out which version is correct.

In the afternoon, the fortress, which is located at the top of a hill, becomes a favourite gathering spot for Baubau teenagers. The

view from the top is truly beautiful: the landscape sweeps across to the crowded and vibrant city centre, and in the distance I spot several ships going back and forth through the narrow gap between Buton and the Muna islands. The sky is so clear that afternoon that I can see Sambapolulu mountain on Kabaena island. As the sun lingers in the west, the city lights begin to come on.

The following day, I set off in a rental motorcycle for Karya Baru, a neighbourhood around 20km from Baubau city centre. Several years ago, this area, which is inhabited by the Ciacia people, became famous when it adopted the Korean Hangul script as a method of communication. Although the script is imported, they have kept their original Ciacia language. “Our language doesn’t have a script; it is oral rather than written. This made it difficult for us to pass on knowledge to the next generation. That is why we borrowed a script from outside,” says Abidin, a high school teacher who pioneered the use of the Korean script in Karya Baru.

I feel bemused when I first enter the neighbourhood and see the Korean alphabet in various places, from road signs to school gates. It is as if I am on the edge of Seoul or Busan, except without the K-Pop atmosphere. Visually this is certainly a unique experience for me.

I continue on to visit the Pasarwajo and Palabusa areas. All along the way, the asphalt road surface is smooth, even into the villages far from the main road. In the centre of Pasarwajo, hot-mix asphalt covers the road, which is as wide as a futsal pitch. In Palabusa, right up to the edge of the village beside the beach, the quality of the roads is better than in rural areas of Java. This is because Buton is a producer of asphalt.

Palabusa is a small village that farms mabe pearls. Its calm and protected sea makes it an ideal location for the cultivation of pearls. Away from the beach, the pearl farmers float rafts to hang their shells. I approached a raft belonging to La Izu, whilst travelling on a small wooden boat.

Here, La Izu was the first person to develop small-scale pearl-shell farming, an industry that has been taken up by his partners from the village. He greets me with a smile and invites me to watch him work, for which he uses simple tools. La Izu is busy tying string to the lips of shells that have been fitted with a nucleus. He is preparing 2,000 shells for this planting season. Afterwards the shells will be put into wire baskets that are hung underwater. “In four months’ time I will harvest them,” he explains.

Seeing the shells I begin to imagine that, as a destination, Baubau is like a pearl in its shell blanket, waiting to be found. It won’t be long now.

5 Senses – Sight KAMALI BEACH

One of the best ways to enjoy Baubau city is to visit Kamali beach at night and enjoy a mug of saraba,
a warm drink that is a Sulawesi speciality, made from a mixture of ginger, palm sugar and milk. After
sunset, there is a vibrant atmosphere on the city-centre beach. Crowds come to see the impromptu markets that are run by local residents every night.