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)



12 responses

10 04 2008

It’s good to hear from you again! Thank you for letting us have a tiny taste of your adventures! 🙂


28 05 2013
dhea Sierveld

Hai, I am promoting the kei islands with my new website after two visits we dicided to open our guesthouse in 2014 with snorkeling diving and more, the kei islands are the new or maybe last frontier in adventure.

12 01 2009

kei kecil is were my grandparents are born. Ive bin here 2 times now.. and i think its a treu paradise!.. tnx for sharing your story & pics.

3 05 2009

ah… love your pictures…

22 06 2009

beautiful pictures,

Soon i will return to my beloved islands
so far but still in my heart, and mind….

Thanks for your interest for our beautiful home (is)lands

24 10 2009

indonesia is the best. i love indonesia. i will visit indonesia for next month.
Mark, England.

10 08 2010

Wow …. that is a wonderful pictures Andy, Kei island is one of the best island in indonesia. I was born in Kei and now I worked in Jakarta. I am happy to see your best picture. The pictures remind me about my experiences in the past. Hopefully I will be there in my next holiday with my family. Well done Andy .

14 01 2011


Wonderful pictures…. Really…
Just wondering if you have contacts to that Savannah Cottage. Tried looking but couldn’t find…


14 01 2011

I found the info in Lonely Planet Indonesia, should have email and phone # in there. My copy is in storage, I can look it up in a week or so if you still need it.

8 04 2013

Hi! Someone in my Facebook group shared this site with us so I came to check it out.

I’m definitely loving the information. I’m bookmarking and will be tweeting
this to my followers! Excellent blog and brilliant style and design.

28 05 2013
dhea Sierveld

Hai , the Kei islands are great, been there twice and we will open our Rodhea guesthouse in desa Namar in 2014 , with diving snorkeling motor bike rental and more. visit my info site about kei
Ron and Dhea.

29 05 2013

Nice, Ill go there on September, got useful information from your blog thanks !

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