Palu: Coffee, music and no more sectarian conflict

Palu, which in Indonesian means hammer, may be taken to suggest the local community’s stern character. In reality, visitors readily dispense with the mistaken notion as soon as they enter the city known as Bumi Tadulako (Land of Royal Warriors).

Citizens of Palu, Central Sulawesi, are very friendly and highly appreciative of the spirit of solidarity. At least, this has been the experience of most visitors to this city of nearly 500,000 residents.

No research has yet been conducted on the origin of the city’s name. But some elders in Palu indicate that it is derived from the name of trees that once grew along the river that divides the city.

At the time, seafarers and merchants from Bugis, Makassar and Mandar selling their goods in this place would take a rest under the shady palu trees and even build huts with the wood, whose species is unknown due to their extinction. “Asked where they were going, the traders said they were heading for Palu, hence the name was adopted,” said Tjatjo Tuan Syaikhu, a cultural expert in Palu.

Palu used to be a small town, serving as the center of the Palu kingdom. This region was formerly split into the districts of East Palu, Central Palu and West Palu as well as Kulawi and Sigi Dolo in Dutch colonial times.

In 1950, the Indonesian government named Poso the capital of Central Sulawesi, giving Palu only district status. In 1957 Palu was promoted to Central Sulawesi’s provincial capital, which several years later was further established by Law No. 13/1964.

Sublime: A fisherman row across Palu Bay. Apart from its natural beauty, tourists can enjoy bars and coffee stalls that flourish in the city.
Sublime: A fisherman row across Palu Bay. Apart from its natural beauty, tourists can enjoy bars and coffee stalls that flourish in the city.
In 1978 the status of Palu was raised to administrative city and in 1994 further to municipal city. Today Palu is composed of eight districts: North Palu, East Palu, West Palu, South Palu, Tatanga, Mantikulore, Ulujadi and Tawaili. These areas are separated by a rapid-flowing river with four bridges about 500 meters long.

Poso suffered sectarian conflict between Christians and Muslims from 1998 until 2000 with more than 2,000 people reportedly killed or missing. Several small incidents involving alleged terrorists occured until recently.

In the past, due to the sectarian conflict, Palu was deserted as most visitors never stayed long enough in the city. After a major facelift, the capital has now changed a lot. Cafes, restaurants, hotels and various accommodation facilities have been mushrooming. Even with its continuous growth, different parts of the city are easy to reach in minutes, without traffic jams like those in Indonesia’s other metropolises.

This city is also very appealing, with a strait, bay, mountain and an in-between river. The Mayor of Palu, Andi Mulhanan Tombolotutu, has called it a ‘four-dimensional’ city. While by the end of the 1990s it was rather difficult to answer visitors’ question as to where to dine, enjoy entertainment or relax, it is not the case in present-day Palu.

For hard music, tourists can go to Space Bar and Resto, only a around a kilometer west of Palu’s Mutiara Airport. Planet Palu, abbreviated to P2 by local youths, stages Jakarta and Bandung music bands, with sensual dancers coming from other regions on Wednesday nights.

For dinner Palu’s restaurants range from cheap-and-cheerful to fine dining, mostly making use of the plentiful local fish and various kinds of seafood. These restaurants are found in Kampung Nelayan, Taman Ria and Silae Beach and many other places.

If visitors wish to savor European food, Maestro is the place. This restaurant is owned by a German citizen. To enjoy dinner while watching Palu’s glittering evening cityscape, Panorama restaurant on Kawatuna Hill is the right choice. Traditional food is just about 20 minutes’ drive to the west, where Palu’s ethnic Kaili cooking can be found in Padanjese village, Donggala Kodi subdistrict.

Local citizens boast their specialties including uta dada (chicken with flavored coconut milk sauce), to be consumed with ketupat or boiled rice in coconut leaves. Customers sit on the very clean floors instead of chairs, and the food’s rather hot taste will make diners sweat. South of Palu in Biromaru market, there is roast chicken with pepper, served along with ketupat and uta dada, on Thursday and Saturday evenings.

For outdoor leisure after dinner, tourists can relax on the banks of Palu Bay, where vendors of roast corn and the traditional ginger drink saraba ply their wares. When in season cheap durian is usually eaten along with the corn and drinks.

There is another place where people ranging from bureaucrats, businessmen, professionals, politicians and policemen to soldiers and even the unemployed hang out; the warkop (coffee stall). Among the more famous in Palu are Harapan Baru on Jalan Pramuka, Aweng on Jalan Ki Maja and MJM on Jalan Setiabudi, which are all uniquely managed by siblings.

These hangouts are often dubbed Palu’s DPRD III, or grass-roots legislative council, due to the presence of people from all walks of life, who mingle with each other without social-status discrimination or hard feeling as they chat, argue and joke in peace.
Sea horse: A man bathes a horse at a beach in Palu.
Sea horse: A man bathes a horse at a beach in Palu.

The other distinctive feature of the warkop is the tradition of greeting each other and the ‘consensus’ of paying for the coffee consumed by another. Visitors arriving at the stalls will greet fellow customers with ‘assalamu’alaikum’ or ‘selamat pagi’ and handshakes. Those better off will automatically treat any unknown guest to a drink, but this has nothing to do with bribery.

Nobody knows who started the tradition of greeting, handshakes and treating others to a drink at the warkop, but it has been practiced for a long time. “The tradition dates back to the 1970s,” said Bustamin Nongtji, former assistant rector III of Tadulako University (Untad), Palu, who is a customer of Aweng.

Some warkop customers also apply a locally acceptable trick to get cheaper coffee, by ordering half glasses only. So if a glass of coffee costs Rp 5,000 (51 US cents) they only pay Rp 2,500. But the trick is that after several gulps, they will ask waiters to add some more hot water and sugar, thus making it a full glass. Yet they still pay half price.

The shops are also furnished with broadband facilities to enable customers to access the Internet at a high speed with very satisfactory browsing quality.

As for the flavor of local coffee, an official of the Office of the Coordinating People’s Welfare Minister once had to buy a kilogram of Palu coffee to take home to Jakarta. “Well, I’ve never tasted this type of coffee in Jakarta,” said Tono Supranoto, a deputy at the people’s welfare ministry, when he visited Harapan Baru.

Those in Jakarta wishing to try Palu coffee and at the same time enjoy the atmosphere of the
warkop with their unique traditions can go by Lion Air, Wings Air, Batavia, Merpati or Sriwijaya Air Lines, via Makassar or Balikpapan with fares of between Rp 900,000 — Rp 1.5 million. From Mutiara Airport, Palu, a taxi will take passengers to a hotel for only Rp50,000. It’s worth a try.

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— Photos By JP/Ruslan Sangadji

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