Maluku: Kei Islands

10 04 2008

Sulawesi was already a world removed from the ease and comfort of Malaysia, and even from the abundant transport of northern Sumatra. But my next stop was Maluku – a giant, watery province of all the loose groups of islands east of Sulawesi, bound only by their outlier status. Politically as well as geographically and racially – the Ambonese backed the Dutch against the Java-based independence movement after World War II, the Sundanese are more Philippino than Indonesian, many people are visibly more related to Austronesian Papuans and Aborigines than the Asiatic bulk of Indonesia, and most of Indonesia’s 5% Christian minority lives here. These are the original Spice Islands, source of such excitement to medieval Europeans as to spark centuries of foreign military and economic warfare and colonization. At the time of the Dutch and British East India Companies, tiny specks of land in Maluku (which you may remember from your history books as Malacca) were the world’s only source for cloves (revolutionary for making spoiled meat palatable), nutmeg (a magical, multi-purpose medicine in its day), and mace (also derived from the nutmeg fruit). Colonization by Portuguese, Dutch, and British brought Christianity along with it. For centuries the Christians and Muslims lived side-by-side, in relative peace.

Until 1999. The whole region exploded in neighbor-on-neighbor violence, starting with protests and riots, ending with church arsons and murder as extremists moved in from more radicalized parts of the country like Java. Every town I visited had all the churches under reconstruction, or abandoned and quickly being overtaken by jungle. One island would be solidly Christian, with a big church and lots of Papuan faces, and a tiny moldering mosque in a corner of the village. The next island over would have a great shiny new mosque, beautiful brand new concrete paths, seawalls, and street lighting – all paid for by the Indonesian Islamic political party – while the former Christian side of the villages looked to have been abandoned in a hurry, the church in ruins. There’s been quiet since 2004, it seems mostly because partition into separate communities was nearly complete. That’s a recipe for further conflict, who knows when. Dutch tourists I met told me that the racial and religious conflict here goes so deep that Ambonese and Kei Island emigrants living in Holland for generations are still hostile towards each other – Amsterdam features a tensely divided Indonesian quarter.

Moving from Sulawesi to Maluku, everything took a giant step away from easy. English speakers are rare and unpracticed. Transport withers from once or twice a day, to once or twice a week. Distances increase. Services dwindle. Toilets in Sumatra have water pressure and flush, with showers and hot water (if you pay extra for it). In Sulawesi, you have a seat but no flush, rather a big bucket and a scoop to supply water, but still water pressure and a shower. In Maluku you have a hole in the ground and you shower with the scoop, and the Ibu (the guesthouse mama, she’s the one in charge) reminds you please not to waste the water.

First, Ambon. Drab, concrete seat of Malukan government, epicenter of the 1999 violence, home to an astounding concentration of army and police barracks (there was briefly violence between them in 1999, and today public platoon marches are entirely too prominent and loud), and the only transport hub in southern Maluku.

Shoe store

Fish sticks
Kid in a bucket. Seemed to be some sort of bathing activity?

Night market. Power is unreliable, cutting out repeatedly all night long. The markets are lit by kerosene lamp and candle.

Ambon is home to some spectacular diving, but as a transport hub it’s best enjoyed as briefly as possible. My first destination was the Kei Islands, a remote little archipelago closer to Australia and New Guinea than Java. Kei Kecil is home to a guesthouse with the most glowing, effusive review in the entire Lonely Planet (sole Bible for independent backpackers in the region, until the new Rough Guide comes out in 2009 anyway…) – calling out the “pure narcotic tranquility” of Savana Cottages in a special “best of Indonesia” section in the front. Judge for yourself:

I only saw this kind of bubbly, joyous enthusiasm and carefree play in Christian villages. The Muslim villages were more home to cold stares, reluctant greetings, reserved children.

This big fella crawled in my window one night

The semi-legendary Savana Cottages. Run by a Kei man who lived in Holland for 30 years, interesting patois of Indonesian, English, and Dutch – particularly after non-infrequent bouts of heavy drinking. However the place is more than a little magical – the bay in front of the village is no more than 2-3 feet deep for at least a quarter mile, covered with pure white, silky soft sand. The light reflecting off the sand provides an ever-changing palatte of sun-drenched blue and green and turquoise:

This speaks for itself

Christians on this island. The tiny mosque is visible down at the end of the street.

Quite a bit of this, too. Under-represented in photos, though there have been moments I regretted not taking the waterproof housing out to take photos of kids playing in the rain, bathing in the downspouts…

After the rain. This reminded me of a Rothko painting…

(one more post coming in this bunch)



10 04 2008

This is going to be a long one. It’s been a really long time since I’ve been able to use the internet, so I apologize for the long silence. Everything is well, I’m safe, no troubles other than infrequent and unreliable transport in these far reaches of Indonesia. This update will come in a few parts since it’s so long coming, so I apologize for the flood of emails for you subscribers.

Last you heard from me, I was on my first stop in Indonesia – Sumatra. I didn’t really intend to stay there long. Sumatra used to be more on the backpacker trail, but the chaos and troubles created by the combination of separatist violence in Aceh province and the devastation of the 2004 Christmas tsunami have really shut down foreign tourism there. End result is less income but just as many mouths to feed, so ever more pressure on the few foreigners who do show up. I was craving something a little more low key, and honestly more pleasant than fighting off guides and ojek drivers and greedy hoteliers all day long. So I bailed on some of the other common destination in Sumatra, leaving me some things to see on the next trip.

A couple short flights later, I show up in Manado. This is another big drab city in the north of Sulawesi – well to the north of the political and population center of Java, home to a significant Christian population, and closer (geographically, and in some ways ethnically and culturally) to the Philippines than to Java. Again Sulawesi is full of interesting sights that take days of rough traveling to get to, which I skipped. By this point I was starting to get the idea that to see everything worth seeing in Indonesia would take several years, so I began triaging very strictly. And my priority was Pulau Bunaken, a sizable island north of Manado, home to relaxed beachside guesthouses, cool blue waters, and spectacular diving and snorkeling. But first I had to escape Manado. I arrived at 11pm after crossing the bulk of Indonesia via three flights and two transits (highly chaotic to book and travel due to a countrywide holiday – every flight booked beyond capacity). By the time I get out of the airport and into town it’s past midnight, and every hotel is full. So there I am dragging my suitcase around on the empty streets, shooing aside rats, being stared at by the motorbike drivers who seem to be omnipresent on Indonesian street corners at any hour of the night. This would be a bit much for even the most seasoned travelers, but once you’re in that situation there’s nothing to do but grit your teeth and keep walking around and going down the list of hotels in the guidebook until you find something open and with a space, which I eventually did.

Very few white people in Manado. I attracted stares and yells everywhere I went.

At the Manado market

The next morning serendipity struck – I headed to the wharf early morning to look for a boat to Pulau Bunaken. Through luck I found a couple of French guys looking for the same boat. This means not only someone to split the rather stiff fare for a boat charter, but others to help watch each others backs and bags, and potentially good conversation and company. As it happened, one of them – Blaise – was a diving instructor based in Ko Phi Phi, Thailand, traveling for a bit of fun diving before returning to France. We were immediate friends. Not only is Blaise into French independent and punk rock music, but he has played in bands, done some recording engineering, and most incredibly he knew of and has actually SEEN my old band Funeral Diner. This was definitely the first time for that, and will almost surely be the last. Anyway, we talked music and engineering quite a bit, he tutored me quite a bit on diving, and taught me some excellent French card games.


The boatman, who ended up being a good friend to us (especially after we let him take us to his family’s guesthouse… cheap, comfortable, excellent food…)

This one is dedicated to the cast and production crew of ABC’s “The Bachelorette”

The only boats that visit the island are small outboard-powered launches, and the tide goes out for a ways. So why did they build the jetty ten feet high? At low tide everything has to be carried in, wading through the warm, shallow water.

This island is beyond cute. There are no roads or motorbikes (let me reiterate that the smoky, unmuffled snarl of two-stroke motorbikes is the ubiquitous soundtrack of Indonesia), just some marginal paths through the interior jungle that double as rivers when it rains. Every inch of viable beachfront holds a sandy guesthouse of beach bungalows, with attached dive shop, and bamboo-thatch restaurant serving home cooked meals.

Local kids swimming and watching the sunset

Local boat, in the Philippine style – narrow and deep, with bamboo outriggers.

Pet black macaque belonging to the guesthouse. We bonded, ruffling through each other’s hair. Someone suggested in the comments that I should style my hair like hers…

But enough about the island. The reason to come here is to dive the amazing coral walls – the waters just off the island plunge from 5 meters deep to 200m open ocean, supporting every zone of coral and oceanic ecosystem. The island is a protected national park, so has never been fished with cyanide or dynamite (chief killers of coral and sea life in southeast Asia). I needed a diving refresher, which Blaise helped with, and I got a head cold so I only got a few dives in:


Happy coral

Bunaken is famous for its variety of diminutive nudibranches

Nemofish, or technically clown anenome fish

Blaise, enjoying the traditional Indonesian apres-dive snack of banana

Some observations I had made at this point. Lots of things are thrown away in this country – you could build a raft from all the broken foam flip-flops washing up on every beach – but nothing with utility. I sent a box home with some extra things (why did I think I’d need two pairs of pants? On this trip I have already spent four consecutive days not wearing a shirt or even shoes, long pants are useless). Obtaining a box meant going to a little stall next to the post office, where the fellow inside carefully reconstructed a shipping box for bottles of drinking water, I put my things inside, he carefully cut it down to the minimum possible size, then wrapped it in paper, then tied it up with miles of plastic twine. Something like 50 cents. One of my generic Chaco-style sandals came apart, the lower sole unglued from the upper bit. My guesthouse took it to someone in town, and it came back exquisitely sewn back together with fishing line, each stitch secured with a lockstitch. Far better craftsmanship than from the factory, to be sure.

Indonesians are in a terrific hurry in any kind of line. Expect to be elbowed in the gut and subjected to a slow-motion shoving match. But once free of the line, all sense of haste evaporates and people fall back on a languid stroll, texting on the handphone, stopping dead in traffic, not a care in the world. My naturally long strides are completely out of place here. I often feel safe walking through even the most shifty-eyed group of young hoodlums, knowing they’d have to practically run to keep up with my walking pace – just a bit too much to be worth the effort.