Follow me to Indonesia’s fabled Banda Islands, one of the best places I’ve visited. Start here
Posts Tagged ‘Banda Islands’
I’m loving the Banda Islands but I’m really here for work – updating Lonely Planet’s legendary Southeast Asia on a Shoestring – and I can’t dawdle, much as I’d like to for a week or more. The next plane is not for several days (and then it’s on the cancel-o-matic NBA Airlines) so my options are two:
- Swim the 100 miles back to the regional capital and transport hub Ambon through (cliché alert!) shark-infested waters
- Enjoy the ferry voyage of a lifetime aboard an ocean liner operated by Indonesia’s Pelni line
I soon learn that the sharks might have the advantage.
Pelni operates close to 30 ships on labyrinth routes and schedules which link many of Indonesia’s 17,000 islands. Depending on the age of the ship and the crew, the vessels can be tolerable or not so nice. Regrettably, I’m scheduled aboard the KM Kelimutu, which the sharp-eyed website east-indonesia.info describes as “less reliable and rather filthier” compared to other Pelni ships. But none of those are calling in Banda anytime soon, so it’s the Kelimutu for me.
The ship is scheduled to arrive at 7am and sail shortly thereafter. But the night before my unflaggingly helpful host Abba learns it is due in at 2am with a 3am departure. “Not bad” I think. This will give me that much more time to research in the bright lights of Ambon. (Call that Dopey Assumption A.) A retiring Abba leaves me to my own Waterloo and I catch a few hours sleep.
A couple hours later, bleary-eyed and sleep-deprived I wait at Bandaneira’s dock for the Kelimutu, which slowly floats down the channel. I figure I can catch up on snoozing once aboard (Dopey Assumption B). Scores of other passengers jostle around me, some hefting enormous bunches of bananas fresh from the tree, others carrying chickens. The ship is brightly lit and I am unhelpfully reminded of the images of the glowing Titanic sitting dead in the water. Fortunately the surrounding waters are unlikely to harbor icebergs; unfortunately I’ve also been reading about those Southeast Asian maritime disasters that are in the news all-too-often. In the past decade, Indonesia’s had three, including a bad one in 2009.
Gazing up the battered side of the docked Kelimutu I see hundreds of people gazing back down – all have boarded at previous ports of call on the ship’s peripatetic wanderings around eastern Indonesia. The gangplank hitting the dock sets off a mad scramble to board as hundreds of people, bananas, chickens and more jam together, making no collective progress whatsoever. I wait, since I have secured a “first class” ticket and have a cabin with my name on it. Optimistically, I have Dopey Assumption C: “What could be so bad about first class?”
Once aboard, it is the living embodiment of “overcrowded vessel,” that cliché found in almost every ship disaster story. There are people, goods, bags of every size and not just chickens but at least one goat crammed into every available space, including all the passages and even the stairwells. On first glance my cabin looks okay. But I soon notice that the TV is smashed, the electrical outlets are smashed, the fixtures in the ceiling are smashed and of the two beds, one has a sheet littered with an array of human and insect detritus that could inspire a graduate degree in forensic biology. Of the bathroom, one glance and I decide that I’ll drink as little water as possible so I’ll never need see it again.
The second bed in the cabin has a sheet that at least looks clean and I sit down. Surveying my domain I notice plastic water bottles that have been cut in half and taped to the ceiling. Curious, I inspect one and discover that it is filled with roaches who have fallen in and can’t get out. It seems that nature has given roaches the ability to withstand a 50-megaton nuclear bomb but it hasn’t equipped them with legs that can scale the sheer sides of a polycarbonate container. I should be really grossed out but I’m diverted by an odd hissing noise. Suddenly I’m really, really grossed out as I realize that it’s the sound of hundreds of roach-feet trying to find purchase on the plastic. Yech!
Turning away, I see a thumb-sized cousin of the doomed masses who has easily found purchase on the wall right next to my bed. He waves his antenna at me. I turn on every light, which sends him darting off to some dark crevice and I lay down on the bed. I spray a halo of bug repellant on the sheet around me, put my hat over my eyes and pass out; it’s too late to send an SOS to Abba.
A few hours later I awaken to thin grey light streaming in through my porthole. Gazing out through the salt encrusted glass I see a tattered sheet featuring the long-faced character Eeyore of Winnie the Pooh fame. Strung up by the people on the deck outside my cabin for protection from the sun and the rain, it recalls this classic – and all-too-appropriate – Eeyore quote:
“Everybody crowds round so in this Forest. There’s no Space. I never saw a more Spreading lot of animals in my life, and in all the wrong places.”
Despite the general din of the engines far below, a cacophony of rattles and squeaks and the dull roar of the ineffectual air-con, I start to imagine I can hear the roaches trying to escape their traps. It’s clearly time for me to escape the cabin. Opening the door, I discover an entire family has set up camp on the cabin threshold and have stacked three or maybe four generations in a space no larger than a small table (there may be the remains of additional generations in some of their battered bags stacked to the ceiling).
Without a grumble, the family looks at me – this large sweaty apparition – and rearranges themselves to allow me by. The rest of the passage is equally jammed, but the 100 or so people slide around enough for me to hopscotch along, my size 13 sandal landing near an armpit here, a sleeping head there. I reach the thronged open deck and head up to the top deck for some air; whole families are residing on each step of the narrow staircase. [In the few parts of the Kelimutu I visit, I estimate I see at least 300 people. The official capacity is 920. Given the crowding, we must be well over that.]
Yet as crowded as conditions are inside, it’s worse for the hundreds of people on the top deck as they’re unprotected from the frequent tropical squalls. Indeed the only protection up here is a barbed wire fence to keep a mutinous mob away from the bridge. I find a tiny spot to stand and look around the ship which has been ridden hard and put down wet since it was new, shiny and fresh from a German shipyard in 1985.
I’m soon joined by a young guy who is somehow rather nattily dressed despite conditions which would seem to mandate the opposite. As so many such encounters go he starts by asking me in English where I’m from, where I’m going etc. His name is Lemah and he’s a school teacher on his way to Ambon for meetings with provincial officials. He gets right to it and asks me if I think the boat is bad. I try to demur but he’s got me and says “Of course it is. I don’t like it but it’s all the school can afford to send me to get more rupiahs [Indonesian currency] from the bosses.
“It looks bad up here,” he continues, looking at the people huddled around us. “But these people live hard lives. They’re going to Ambon to try to sell something, to try to survive by living with relatives or even to go to the university. But for some, the days spent on this boat mean they have a holiday from the work they do all day everyday.”
I accept this, although it still has few comparisons to my trip on a Caribbean cruise ship earlier this year – I never saw a single goat on that boat.
Back below, the tiny dining room for the “elite” in cabin class is truly off-limits to the rest of the mob. I hop around more stoic families and duck in. A smiling steward appears and unnecessarily points out that I am tall and might hit my head on the low ceiling. Another is listlessly stirring some greenish horror in a pot that is probably lunch and might be a mutineer. Karaoke blares and two women in hot pants perk up at my presence and offer me comely and crooked toothsome grins framed by vivid mace-red lips. I flee.
Once more the passengers in the first class cabin passageway shift about affably to allow me to pass. One woman even gives me a sweet smile as my stinky foot lands an inch from her head. Utterly chastened back in my cabin I vow to STFU. I have no right to complain about anything. What’s a few roaches? Maybe I can organize races… The economic truth is that I’ve paid $40 for my ticket, which gets me a cabin, a door to hide behind and even thousands of potential six-legged friends. Outside, the people have paid $11 each for accommodation on filthy decks – if they can find space.
No more jaunts justified by a quest for fresh air but which really allow me a chance to gawk at others. Instead I’ll sit in my cabin and read my book (The Broken Shore, a Melbourne mystery with lots of good cussing) as we should be in Ambon by noon… Wait, it’s actually 1pm and the only life on the horizon is Eeyore flapping in the breeze. I belatedly come to terms with Dopey Assumption D, that the boat leaving Banda early might not even require its scheduled nine hours to reach Ambon. Instead it takes close to 13. At 4pm we’re docked and the mass of humanity cascades down the gangplanks with chickens and goats, thousands of bags and bundles and impatient kids and mute old people. The roaches mostly stay behind.
Threading across the crowded docks, I’m looking for a room and a shower, in just that order.
Next: Visiting the Islands
Four hundred years ago nutmeg was a spice worth more than its weight in gold, a rare seasoning used as a status symbol by European royalty, swells and miscellaneous knobs. Its trade funded Dutch colonialism in Asia and was the heart of their epic struggles to preserve what was ultimately a doomed monopoly on the remote Banda Islands in eastern Indonesia.
Today I’m off from Bandaneira, the main town on the tiny island of Neira, to explore some of the other 10 islands. First stop is Pulau Banda Besar, the largest island and still the center today of nutmeg production. We hop in one of the boats that shuttle constantly across the main channel between the islands and I’m struck how there’s a certain resemblance between the main cluster of islands and nutmeg itself: the irritable volcano Gunung Api is the nutmeg with Pulau Neira wrapped around one side like the mace, which surrounds the nut in the wild. Finally the much larger Banda Besar wraps around the first two just as the nutmeg fruit surrounds the nut and the mace.
Landing at Banda Besar’s main town Lonthoir (pop 2000), our host, the tireless Abba, leads us on a jaunty walk through the village. Joining me are Banda-roots-seeking Danny plus Joachim and Flore from Amsterdam. Together we comprise 50% of the visitors in the Bandas this day.
Nutmeg harvesting is a family occupation and as we wander the waterside houses there’s a woodpecker-like “tap, tap, tap” in the air. It’s a school holiday and as kids whom are part of family businesses the world over know, days off from school don’t mean days off from work. One girl whacking nutmeg shows a wisdom beyond her years by giving us the opportunity to crack nutmeg shells ourselves. While we set to it, she giggles with her sister in the best tradition of Tom Sawyer. Unsurprisingly the work proves quite tricky, with the shells needing a just-right whack to properly split open. We are soon shooed away.
While most people live down by the water in Lonthoir village, the nutmeg trees are up the hill in the slightly cooler forest. Climbing the 400+ concrete steps we meet a woman on the way down with her morning’s harvest. The fruit looks like a small peach and ripens twice a year – although rogue elements don’t follow the calendar and ripen at random. When ready, the nutmeg – the tree’s actual nut – pops out, encased by the shockingly blood-red lacy mace.
We climb the 400+ steps and I think of the François Truffaut’s classic The 400 Blows, probably because I’m a huffin’ and a blowin’ by the time I’m halfway – a point where a really irritating dude zips past effortlessly carrying a refrigerator-sized speaker bound for a wedding celebration on his back. Up top we stop by a flowing well where moppets spared nut-cracking duty ponder the spectacle of big white people so drenched in sweat we look like we’ve been yanked out of the well.
In the deeply shaded forest, women wander about plucking fresh nutmeg hidden amongst the leaves on the ground. Huge mahogany trees arch overhead and one has been shorn of some huge branches that are being used to construct a new boat. A goat chilling out gives us a doleful look from its odd perch on the upturned hull.
Nutmeg is mostly familiar today as a spice sprinkled on eggnog at Christmas or used to “enliven” the flavor of slow-cooked (aka boiled-to-death) brussels sprouts in English and Dutch holiday meals. The Greeks use it memorably in their luscious honey dripping pastries while in India is turns up in curries and other stews. You can buy it in a powder but you might as well just use pencil shavings because unlike the stench of the Dutch colonials, the sweet, slightly spicy flavor rapidly dissipates once grated. [Trivia buffs note: “the nutmeg state” is the less-than-salubrious nickname Connecticut garnered because early colonials thought the wily residents were carving fake nutmeg out of wood and selling it to unsuspecting dupes for grating.] Mace is much less widely known but has a flavor more delicate than nutmeg and can be used to give dishes a rich, orangish-brown color. Oh, did I mention that in the Caribbean islands around Grenada, where the English started nutmeg plantations with purloined Banda cuttings, you can swill some very tasty rum drinks seasoned with the spice?
Bam! Crash! Boom! Yow! are a few of the noises and cries from the speedboat as we blast through ocean swells to our next stop Palau Ai, an island about five miles west of Palau Banda Besar. It’s warp factor eight as the skipper meets the sea head-on and we have our spines rearranged as if by a mad chiropractor using a sledgehammer. Arrowhead-shaped Ai is the second most important producer of nutmeg and was the center for many of the plantations in Dutch times. Wandering the one main road/path that circles the island there are many artifacts of the Dutch plantations dating back to the 1700s. You can just make out the names of dead colonials in the fading carvings on stones bleached white in the sun. Of the thousands of islanders who were killed by the Dutch during the same period, there are no memorials.
Walking amidst the tidy little houses, we hear the familiar “tap, tap, tap” of the kids cracking nutmeg. But there is a much louder “whack, whack, whack” and I follow it to find a young woman with a large machete shelling almonds. About 10 locals are arrayed languidly in the shade watching her toil and one explains: “she’s faster that the rest of us so we just watch.” It’s hard to tell if the almond-whacker’s grim look is a commentary on the indolence of her companions or simply concentration. I try to take a picture of the blade as it cleaves into the odd tri-holed shells but she is simply too fast. Briefly, however, her stern visage cracks and I get a smile that proves as fleeting as the flash of her machete. I also get a handful of fresh almonds that are soft, luscious and utterly unlike the sad little salty numbers sold in foil pouches.
A brief 10-minute hike through bunches of wild banana trees brings us to the best beach of the trip. Encircling a few kilometers of Ai’s coast, the powdery white sands live up to the full, awww-invoking promise of the cliché. And the beach is utterly deserted. My three tourist companions strip down to swimsuits and are soon frolicking in the – another cliché alert! – turquoise waters. But I’ve made a strategic blunder: I have no swimsuit, instead toting tediously useful items like a clipboard, notes, camera and other workish ephemera. Stripping down completely might cause a mutiny amongst my companions so that’s not an option, yet there’s no escaping the remorseless allure of the – cliché alert! – gently lapping surf. “Wait!” I think, remembering my basic black undies… Soon I’m frolicking with sufficient modesty in the utterly perfect waters. On shore, Abba and the two boatmen look at each other, shrug their shoulders with a laugh and also take the underwear-clad plunge. It’s the first and likely last time I’ll set any kind of fashion example.
Back lounging in the shade, I gaze out at Palau Run, a small rock of an island visible from the beach. In colonial times it was the only one of the 10 Banda Islands the Dutch didn’t hold as the English had laid claim first. Not blessed with much water and not especially good for nutmeg the island was worth little – except to the English, who used it to taunt the Dutch not unlike the French taunted the English in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. During sporadic visits, various rogueish, part-pirate English captains raised their flags on Run simply to irritate their wool-clad rivals on the other islands. By 1667 the Dutch were driven to make one of the worst real estate deals in history: in return for receiving hot, dusty Run from the English, they gave up their claim to New Amsterdam, otherwise known as Manhattan.
All too soon, we’re bouncing across the water back to Palau Neira. In just a few short hours I’ll be fondly recalling the wind whipping my ears, fresh salty water spraying my face and even the constant compression of my spine as I find myself trapped aboard the worst boat ever.
Next: Voyage of the Damned
Perched on the back of a motorbike on my scoot from the airport I see my first Dutch colonial building. Then another, and another and myriad more beyond. Amidst lush tropical surrounds, I’ve plunged back 400 years to another era.
The 18 years it had taken me to reach the Banda Islands suddenly seems trivial; the worry, concern and indigestion from the dodgy flights and meals of the previous few days mere inconveniences. I’ve landed on the short dusty airstrip on Pulau Neira, a small island with the main town of the Bandas, Bandaneira. My room at one of the handful of homestays is spotless, my host Abba (no relation to Dancing Queens or Swedes) extraordinary. He’d set me up with “No Problem!” Michael in Ambon and had otherwise figured out how to get me to these, the original Spice Islands.
Bag dropped I’m soon out exploring and marveling at streets and buildings with evocative appeals I’ve not seen in such profusion anyplace else in Indonesia or Southeast Asia. Sporadic efforts by locals have kept hundreds of years of history in decent repair and the isolation of the islands has kept modern influences at bay.
You can’t escape the phrase “undiscovered country” as you wander Bandaneira. At best the Bandas receive about 600 visitors a year (Bali gets 2.3 million). Round a corner and there’s Istana Midi, the old Dutch governor’s residence looking out onto the harbor where ships from Holland once arrived. The doors are open and you can wander among rooms with decayed crystal chandeliers and stone floors polished for dignitaries never to come. When the museum proves locked, somebody sees me outside and a woman appears with the key. While I look at dusty of artifacts, she is joined by friends and an impromptu – I kid you not – badminton match starts in the street, just a couple meters from an old brass Dutch cannon laying in the gutter.
Although the Dutch colonial past gives the Banda Islands much of their surprising intrigue today, it’s a legacy that shouldn’t be romanticized. Prior to their arrival in 1599, the Bandas had enjoyed a mutually beneficial trade in nutmeg with Chinese and Arab merchants for centuries. All sides profited and the Bandanese had the time and the resources to develop a rich culture on their remarkably fertile islands.
The Europeans proved to be turds – and very smelly turds at that – in this punchbowl. Willard Hanna writes in his fabulously readable and tragically almost forgotten gem Indonesian Banda about the locals’ initial impressions:
The Dutch soon came to be regarded mainly as curiosities, not altogether harmless but diverting eccentric, their peculiar aversion to the comfort of near-nudity and the refreshment of frequent bathing being considered only mildly offensive.
In other words, the Dutch, in their heavy woolen duds which they wore for months at a time, stunk.
Through the Dutch East India Company (VOC), the sweaty, smelly colonialists declared that they had monopoly on trade in the coveted nutmeg (which only grew in the Bandas) and they declared that henceforth the price paid to locals would be much less. As commercial strategy it was a failure from the start and relations with the Bandanese rapidly soured. In one of their earliest of what would prove to be centuries of boneheaded moves, the Dutch built their first fort, Benteng Nassau, at the lowest point in Bandaneira. Soon locals, stiffed by the Dutch price for nutmeg, were raining destruction down from the surrounding hills.
A new Dutch governor, Jan Pieterszoon Coen, arrived in 1621 to sort out the mess. Today if he is recalled it all, it should be with a phlegmy spit of disgust for Coen soon set about eliminating the roughly 15,000 Bandanese through mass slaughter and exile to far away islands. In their place he brought in slaves and the dregs of the Dutch empire, who get this description from Hanna:
Most were drifters or misfits, rakes or scoundrels, nobody’s first choice for model colonials.
In the coming centuries the Dutch efforts in the Bandas continually tottered on the brink of failure, hobbled by fiascos that included double-dealing, crop-failures, volcano-blows and slave revolts. The bosses back at corporate HQ in Amsterdam continually complained that nutmeg shipments were filled with spoiled goods and faux nuts (although they managed to turn on a profit on this subpar merchandise by selling it to the English).
In 1795 the spectacular mismanagement of the Bandas caught up with the VOC and it went bankrupt, becoming the Enron of its day. The Dutch government took control for the next 150 years with only somewhat better success. (In the early 1800s the English got their revenge for all that third-rate nutmeg when they briefly took over the islands during the Napoleanic wars. Cuttings from the best nutmeg trees were spirited away by the thousands and taken to plantations in Sri Lanka, India and Grenada in the Caribbean, thus ending the Banda’s monopoly and ensuring that the English larder was only supplied with proper, first-rate nutmeg.)
No matter where you are in Bandaneira, you feel the looming presence of Gunung Api, the small but deadly volcano just across the narrow harbor channel from town. Topping out at a mere (but devilishly appropriate) 666 meters, it erupts regularly. During the Dutch times it had a propensity to blow whenever a ship carrying dignitaries arrived, maybe due to their stench. And while Bandaneira radiates a low-key serenity, in 1999 boatloads of thugs from Ambon arrived to start deadly riots as part of Muslim attacks on Christians and other atrocities that occurred across Maluku province here in eastern Indonesia.
Meanwhile, Danny, my friend from the somnolent plane ride from Ambon is here, there and everywhere. News that someone had arrived looking for their Banda roots quickly spread by the word-of-mouth local news service (the landing of a good haul of fish at the market is transmitted with a speed that rivals Twitter) and locals begin dropping by Abba’s guesthouse to help bolster his few fuzzy facts about his family’s past. “This is fantastic, I can’t sleep” he says, despite days of bleary-eyed travel from Rotterdam.
At night Abba’s wife Dilla provides the “Mama Mia” moment when she lays out dinner. Highlights include cinnamon soup (brothy, spicy and tingly going down the throat) and roasted eggplant with a locally special almond topping. As I’ll see the next day when I explore the other islands, everything grows in the Bandas. Besides getting the low-down on the deeply strange fruit that is nutmeg, I’ll see where the almonds came from, sacrifice my undies for a plunge into gorgeous turquoise waters and gaze out at the reason for the most idiotic international trade ever.
Next: Fruits, Nuts & Deserted Beaches