Maluku: Banda Islands

11 04 2008

Last post in this series, after which we will be up to date.

A flight from Ambon to Kei was not too hard to work out. Kei has a decent sized airstrip, big enough for medium size, reliable twin-prop airplanes that come five times a week. Getting there was no problem. Getting to Banda was harder – there’s only one flight a week from Ambon to Banda and back (all flights in the region go via Ambon) on a tiny, lightweight cargo plane. Turns out the biggest flat spot on Banda Neira (the biggest of the small group of islands) is too small by half, so the runway consists half of landfill into the bay, has a pretty steep gradient to boot, and the plane has to make a sharp dive on takeoff or landing to avoid a volcano. Banda has no instrumented beacons, so all landings are on visual approach only. If the pilot can’t see the strip, he can’t land (four crashes in ten years), and since there’s no fuel depot, he must return immediately to Ambon rather than circle and wait for the low morning clouds to rise. Anyway, the one flight a week wasn’t nearly on the right day for me.

So I took a boat directly to Banda, on the state ferry line Pelni. “Ferry” doesn’t really do it justice – think cruise liner size with half of the boat consisting of steerage-class sleeping benches, covered with cigarette burns, cockroaches, and mysterious drip stains on the walls. The other half is perfectly serviceable, clean first- and second-class cabins. The boats cruise continuous circuits between Sumatra and West Papua, many stretches taking 3-5 days (luckily the bits between the islands I visited are only half a day). There are a couple of karaoke bars, video games, a room showing movies, sometimes live bands. Also a permanent traveling merchant class seems to live aboard, selling everything you can imagine. At each stop, an army of small boys rushes aboard and runs around the halls selling bottled water and cigarettes, screaming “air…rokok” at the top of their lungs, rushing out again before the boat sails. Middle aged ladies trundle around with big baskets of whole fish, rice, oily boxed meals, hard boiled eggs. Men wander around selling stuffed animals, huge varieties of clothing, perfume, fake gold watches, jewelry, shoes, luggage. The noise and fuss settles down a while after setting sail, and at night every available horizontal surface in the Ekonomi class has someone sleeping on a mat, surrounded by a fortress of boxes and luggage. Uniformed officers keep these locals out of the upper class cabin areas when possible, or simply lock the gates when not. It’s always worth a good exploratory wander first off, inspecting which routes towards the lifeboats are actually unlocked.

So I arrive at Banda stupid early, around 3:30 a.m. Another trepidacious walk around town, looking for an open guesthouse. Luckily this time the first one, recommended by fellow travelers in Kei, had space and the Ibu woke up when I came in. Ten minutes later I was asleep. Sleep is difficult in Ekonomi class, from the noise and movement and eternal light, and the abundant stories of organized gangs of robbers working the boats in teams. Many other travelers expressed surprise that I would even go down on the ekonomi decks, much less book a ticket there. As always so far though, I saw nothing worrisome and felt no threat. It may have something to do with me being a foot taller and 50 pounds heavier than almost anyone I see around me…

The Banda Islands were once the world’s only source of nutmeg. This is an apricot-sized tree fruit, containing a hard dry flesh (can be dried and candied into something resembling a bland, cloying candied ginger), a hard seed (to be dried in the sun and ground), and a red, rubbery skin over the seed (this is mace, to be dried in the sun and powdered). The island’s whole economy is still dominated by nutmeg, and it takes two hours to load the bags of nutmeg for export onto the Pelni boats on their bimonthly visits. Nutmeg groves abound in all the villages I visited, and nutmeg is laying around everywhere drying in the sun. Also peppercorns, eggplants, cassava (a staple starch in the small villages, wealthier communities having long ago switched to imported rice), cloves, chili, corn, greens, green beans, cabbage, papayas, jackfruit, breadfruit, guavas, bananas. Hard to find mangos and pineapples though.

Enough words, here are the pictures:

Drying fish in the sun. The woman uses a whisk to shoo away the flies, entirely too infrequently for comfort

Thin, curled strips of cork bark – used to waterproof the seams of home-built wooden boats. All the small boats here are simple dugout canoes from a single tree (have been searching everywhere to get a shot of the carving in action, but apparently it’s a rainy-season activity). Larger ones are built from planks and always have some water sloshing in the bilge…

Bamboo nutmeg pickers

Locally grown chilies

Nice t-shirt. One of the guidebooks notes how common this kind of thing is, and asked people who he was. Many didn’t know, and some said “I think he’s a nice old man who gives money to children.” This guy was a relative of the guesthouse owner, fishing with a net right off the waterfront guesthouse.

There are a dozen or so islands in the Banda group. Most day trips involve looking at the couple guesthouses in town for other tourists, and chartering a boat together. My first day trip out was through the owner of one of those guesthouses, who keeps track of the quality of the five or size boats available. His preferred guy was making repairs, so we used a new guy with a supposedly brand-new boat. You can see the result. The single-cylinder diesel engine failed in the open ocean and the boatman spent hours trying to fix it, with tools like a single rusty spanner and a fishhook. Turns out the fuel gasket had failed before and been replaced with some wraps of a black plastic bag. Guess what, that disintegrated under high-pressure diesel fuel immersion, and sprayed all the fuel into the engine compartment rather than the engine. After several fruitless hours, he pulled up a plank from the deck and started paddling. The three of us bules (Indonesian for whites) paddled too with steadily increasing panic levels as darkness approached. I fashioned a distress flag from a sarong and the long bamboo pole used for maneuvering in shallow water – it was ignored by several nearby ships until around 4:30, when the fishing boats head for home. Then we got a tow back to town with only severe sunburns to show for the day. This is the closest I’ve come to disaster on any of my trips abroad.

The open water is like glass here, in the calm season. No strong currents, no winds, no swells – eerie.

Nutmeg fruit on the tree

Nutmeg seeds and mace, drying on someone’s lawn.

Our boatmen – these ones trusted and reliable. Perfectly clear water, healthy corals, lots of fish. I snorkeled a lot (diving hasn’t really caught on here yet) but often you don’t even need a mask to see the fish, the water is so flat and clear.

Perfectly clear night skies too (alternating with torrential downpours)

This kid was sitting on the jetty at one of the tiny outlying islands, fishing with homemade goggles and a homemade speargun. The goggles are bamboo, carved perfectly to fit, inlaid with a bit of glass epoxied in place. The speargun is a bit of scrap wood, powered by a strip of inner tube, firing a straight bit of steel rod, triggered by a bent piece of wire.

Last day in Banda, on the way back to home base.

The plan was to leave Banda via the cargo plane (along with the other five tourists on the islands… one week is about the right amount of time to stay, so every week’s crop funnels together to the airplane). The pilot didn’t bother to phone the Banda airport for conditions before departing Ambon, and arrived to heavy, low cloud cover. So they sounded the klaxon to clear the dogs and motorbikes from the airstrip, he circled around a few times invisible in the clouds overhead, then turned back to Ambon. The crowd of locals (including a nine-months-pregnant woman with urinary complications) launched into a real shouting match with the airport agents. The local feeling is (I later learned) that (mostly Protestant) Banda is suffering from a deliberate campaign by the Muslim government in Jakarta to marginalize and cripple their economy, the lack of coordination with the plane being just one of many symptoms.

An hour later, clear blue skies. No rescheduled flight, there’s only one plane and it visits other islands on the other days. Got a refund from the ticket agent (tickets are purchased at his house, where he sits you in his living room with the kids watching TV and makes you tea. You don’t get a ticket or a receipt, just your name in a little notebook and an assurance that he’ll be at the airstrip and know you by sight!). Got on the next Pelni ferry to Ambon, luckily only a day later.

Ambonese kid, selling cigarettes on the street.

Next day, flew on to Bali. What a shock! Kuta Beach (epicenter of Bali tourism) might as well be Key West. Heavily developed, all concrete, packed with cars, motorbikes, plus-size package tourists (there are actually Americans here), “backpacker” food everywhere (horrifying mealy pizzas, watery pastas, steaks made of leather, and always European soccer matches on the TV) and endless touts and sidewalk sales pitches. Still it’s nice to have water pressure, a wide variety of food, abundant services, internet, pharmacies, etc etc. And there’s still a bit of magic left here behind the westernized verneer, when the devoutly-Hindu locals leave daily offerings to the gods on ever street corner and storefront, and in the light on Kuta Beach itself. Never seen anything like it – a mile wide, perfectly flat, clean, fine sand, endless sets of perfect surf tubes curling all day long just off the beach.

I’m only sharing one day’s worth of photos from Bali so far, more variety to come.

The area around Kuta is swarming with motorbikes, many of them piloted inexpertly by western tourists with no experience and maybe a couple of cocktails. Moving around here is a lot more dangerous than other dense parts of Indonesia, where every kid was practically born on a motorbike. Fuel for these diminutive two-stroke engines is different than car fuel from official gas stations, containing two-stroke oil. It’s usually sold from old cooking oil containers on the side of the road. This one was a little different.

Magic light.

That’s all for now. Next stop is Sabah, in Malaysian Borneo. My one-month visa is expiring, so I’m engaging in the familiar maneuver of longtime Southeast Asian backpackers – the visa run. Leave the country for as little as a day, get stamped back in with a fresh visa. This one will be almost three weeks though, climbing mountains, diving in Sipadan, and catching the famous Sabah Festival of culture, food, dancing, and music in Kota Kinabalu. Then back to Bali, visiting Komodo for diving and dragons, and eventually on to Java for the Waisak Fest – a celebration of Buddha’s birthday at the world’s biggest Buddhist temple complex at Borobudur. Looking forward to your comments and emails…




2 responses

14 04 2008

Hey Andy!

I’ve been reading this for a while in silent awe, but was inspired tonight to say that the last photo of this post is absolutely unreal.

9 05 2008
Steve Haley

Hi Andy
Wow!! Wicked photos from Sipadan it seems the next two days after i left were as amazing as i experienced!!
If you have any good photos of me diving maybe you could send them to me!!
I have one of you and i will send it if you give me your email address or remind me which one of the three to send it to?
Ive just arrived in Kuching after a 5 hour boat from Sibu. Its been raining all day here and i hope it changes tomorrow?
I just spent 2 days in a longhouse with the kenyah tribe in Belaga and it was an unforgetable experience!
Ok hope all is well in Indo
Speak soon

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