Banda Quest 4: Fruits, Nuts & Beaches

24 July, 2011

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.

Wanna help?

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.

A basket full of nutmeg, note the bright red mace

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.

Hey mister!

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.

Goat on a Boat

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 and mace dry in the sun

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?

Old Dutch plantation entrance

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.

Fresh almonds in a flash

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.

Worthwhile clichés

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.

I'll take Manhattan, you'll get hot, dusty Run island in return

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


5 Responses to “Banda Quest 4: Fruits, Nuts & Beaches”

  1. Claudia Says:

    More! More!

  2. Eleanor Says:

    As I type from my chilly Pacific Northwest living room and look outside at the cloudy sky, this post makes me yearn to be on a hot beach in a bikini drinking a cold beer.

  3. Wow, what a fascinating article – and gorgeous pictures! Thanks for the ‘road posts’ – I’m still inspired, even when the jealousy’s worn off 🙂

  4. Nitsos Says:

    Fascinating history (and I’m not a history buff, I swear)! I wish all my history lessons had been this much fun to read! Or maybe, if they had been prefaced with the promise of swimming in the salty surf in my underwear, I would have paid more attention.

  5. Erin Says:

    Excellent glimpses into the lives of some of the Banda residents. Thanks.
    I like the description of the islands like the different parts of the nutmeg … and the underwear link. Very clever.

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