Banda Quest 2: Flight to the Bandas?

20 July, 2011

The biggest challenge of reaching the Banda Islands – the original Spice Islands of Indonesia – is simply getting there. Irregular ferries (more on these rustbuckets in post #5) shuttle between various islands in Maluku and can take more than 9 days from Ambon, the closest major city. There’s an airline called NBA which has one or two flights a week, but they prefer sunny weather so when conditions aren’t ideal, you have to wait days for another shot.

No Problem!

“No problem” is the perpetual refrain of Michael Erenst, the ebullient force of nature at Ambon airport whose job is securing me a ticket on NBA (they don’t have a phone or a website). When I arrive – still burping the previous night’s meal – Michael sends me off to my Ambon hotel with a breezy “no problem” when asked about the odds of my Banda flight actually leaving the next morning.

The wet road ahead

Awakening in Ambon at the unthinkable hour of 5am, I look out the window expecting to see the same dry street I’d seen before passing out the previous night. Instead – horrors! – I see water, lots of water and it’s coming down in the proverbial buckets. And my view remains wet on the one-hour dark and stormy drive to the airport.

When Michael finds me in the rain outside the terminal I ask him if he thinks I’ll be going anywhere. After a glance skyward with a quizzical look, he declares “no problem! It will be sunny!” Inside, the NBA check-in process doesn’t begin until I give the pen-less agent my own. He scribbles out a boarding card for “Jenefer Rian” and off I go, retrieving my pen as the odds of bribing my way to an upgrade seem slim. (In fact one of Michael’s main tasks is seeing that his clients aren’t bumped off the NBA Banda flights by those with more clout.)

Security is a breeze as liquids, shoes, gels and presumably machetes and other tools of mayhem are all allowed. When the terminal’s lights go out, those waiting are simply waved through. Michael jumps the queue while the rain batters the windows in the dim light of a soggy dawn and introduces me to a fellow Banda passenger. Danny van den Broeke is a university student from the Rotterdam whose great-grandfather was born in the Bandas. Now on summer break, he’s using his money earned as a musician for a visit to his ancestral homeland.

“No Problem!”

Slightly manic with both excitement and exhaustion from three solid days of flying, Danny explains that his great-grandfather was taken to Japan to work in a factory during WWII and that no one from the family has been back since. Does he know of any relatives still on the Bandas? “No.” Does he have any contacts on the Bandas? “No.” Instead he’s come almost 8000 miles (13,000km) to find out where he’s from. “I have no idea what to expect,” he says, staring across the sodden tarmac.

Like a sparrow, Michael flits past (he’s wrangling several passengers onto flights this morning) and with a wave says, “You guys can board. It’s clearing up, see, no problem!” And there really is a new shine in the sky. However this does little to brighten the sole member of the NBA fleet. Our twin-engine prop job is an old Spanish military transport from the Franco era in the 1960s. Comforts inside are few; with parachutes we could launch an unsuccessful invasion.

More power to the shields

Still, the pilots have a certain spit and polish (they’re retired Indonesian navy guys) and the duct tape that seems to cover every seam looks recent. We trundle into the air and we’re off. Actually, “off” might imply an alacrity that’s foreign to our plane as we are scheduled to cover the 100-mile distance to the Bandas in just under 70 minutes. A strong headwind could make this an all-day affair.

Danny's first shot

There are no lights in the battered cabin and the few windows are minute and look suspiciously like gun portals. But the cottony clouds slowly passing below have a mesmerizing appeal that’s rather poetic and the time passing becomes a blur. Eventually we come out of the clouds and out of our trances to see the Bandas arrayed below. Danny gets his first photo of the islands that have lured him this great distance. Jutting from the deep midnight blue waters, the three main islands cluster together while the others are scattered in a line running east and west across the seemingly limitless Pacific.

Bandas found

I catch a glimpse of the islands and their lagoons and with a bump we’re down. As I soon discover, it would have been worth flying all day to get here.

Next: The most amazing islands ever


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6 Responses to “Banda Quest 2: Flight to the Bandas?”

  1. Neal Says:

    So glad that the duct tape was recent Ryan… I’m thoroughly enjoying reading about your great eastern escapades – and look forward to more room posts too!

  2. Geir Says:

    I really want to visit those islands, but after reading this I don’t know. If I wasn’t scared of flying before, after a trip like this I’m not really sure… 😉 As Neal, I’m enjoying this tremendously.

  3. Lisa Says:

    Yes, when’s the next installment? I love the way you look at things. As one of my good friends says, some of the best trips are better in retrospect.

  4. Claudia Says:

    Can’t wait to read more! What kind of people were on the plane with Danny and you?

  5. josh Says:

    Is there any way to contact MIchael before we leave our country to have him reserve two seats on the plane ?

    I appreciate your help !

    Love your blogs !

    Josh


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