This one’s a belated post.  It’s actually more than 4 years late.  But the sights and memories are still fresh and the promise of BIMP-EAGA – especially for our beloved Mindanao – remains strong and just now unfolding.  At that time, going to Indonesia on a few days notice was not my idea of a fun-filled trip. I was a late filler to a group of travel agents who got invited for a familiarization tour to promote the revived Davao-Manado flight.  The idea was to push the sagging East Asean Growth Area initiative thru intra-ASEAN travel and tourism.  My sister-in-law, who could not make it, facilitated my inclusion.  It was a grab or miss thing. And I took it . . . boarding my first foreign airline courtesy of Indonesia’s Sriwijaya Air.

We arrived in the city of Manado late afternoon and I immediately felt queasy going through Indonesia’s immigration protocols.  Sam Ratulangi International Airport is dry and airy, unmistakably Asian in look and feel but obviously in need of a renovation.  Or maybe even just a fresh coat of paint.  It reminds me of the old Davao Domestic Airport in Sasa.  But make no mistake about it:  It may look small and weary but it’s busy and buzzing with tourists looking ready to spend not just a few bucks: white, yellow,  brown-skinned busy-bodies hulking their gears and equipment in one hand and their bulging bags with the other indicating they won’t be staying here for just a few days.

A few minutes after being whisked downtown and catching our first glimpses of the city’s landscape, I was startled to see more church buildings than mosques.  I saw “Baptist”, “Evangelical”, Lutheran”, “Methodist” written on doorposts and at least two Catholic-looking church buildings standing on prime locations.  For a while I couldn’t figure it out.  Then it dawned on me: there are more Christians here than Muslims.  That was a pleasant surprise.  Indonesia after all is the most populous Muslim nation in the world and yet we saw strong Christian influences all over.  Mindanao has so much to learn here.  Really.

For 3 full days, we explored the city of Manado and the nearby towns of North and South Sulawesi.  The sprawling Hotel Santika, where we stayed, served as our base.  The resort, facing Bunaken island, felt like Davao’s Waterfront Hotel (facing the island of Samal) but with larger and better amenities.  I have no complaints really.  Except the food.  We got served hot and spicy Minahasa cuisine – morning, noon and night.  Not only in Santika but everywhere we ate.

On our first day, we had shopping at their one and only mall at that time – Manado Mega Mall – and had our few hundred pesos exchanged to tens of thousands of rupiahs in one of the outlets outside.  If my memory serves me right, the peso-ruphia exchange rate then was 1:228.  Yes, we felt “loaded” but only for a little while.  Prices there were steep.  Even so now I would suppose.  We were treated to a Minahasa Highland Tour the next day.  We passed by the flower city of Tomohon on our way to a Buddhist temple and had lunch at a roadside restaurant overlooking Lake Tondano – the largest lake in Sulawesi.

While it has a thriving fishing industry, Manado’s increasing draw is diving.  Bunaken National Marine Park and Lembeh Straits are the two lynchpins to this draw.  They pack in the beach-loving leisure-seeking beginner-divers as well as serious dive enthusiasts from around the world who then laze around for days in the many white sand beaches of North Sulawesi.  We checked out one of their many dive centres not far from the hotel and came out impressed by the comprehensiveness of their dive packages.  A day trip to Bunaken Island aboard a transparent glass-like floorboard displayed the richness and diversity of their marine life.  Truly for them, tourism has richly paid back their renewed commitment to protecting their reefs and sea beds.  I can only hope that we’ll reap the same for our Davao gulf.