Chapter 4, Part 10
Blessed with fertile soils and pristine waters, which at one point in history turned out to be a curse, the Banda Islands today is a place where avid divers go for its world-class reefs (the islands lie at the heart of the Coral Triangle – the world’s most biodiverse marine area), as well as where aficionados of history retrace the vestiges of European colonialism in the world. But many overlook what makes this chain of islands in a remote corner of Indonesia an even more memorable place to visit: its people.
From the playful and inquisitive children on Banda Neira, to boatmen on Hatta, a homestay owner on Run, and local people on Banda Besar attending a wedding ceremony, all the Bandanese I met were more than willing to have their picture taken. Some gave their best smiles when I pointed my camera at them, but some turned to expressionless faces as I was trying to capture the laughter a moment earlier – a classic pose among some rural people in Indonesia.
The following are some of the Bandanese, and a few visitors to the islands, who I encountered during my two-week stay.
Boatmen and some locals on Hatta Island; they were all laughing and making jokes a moment before I took this photo. The man on the right told me that the best time to visit the Banda Islands is between October and December for a calmer sea and the absence of jellyfish in the water. They said they could still travel between the islands when the sea is rough and the waves are high because they know how to navigate them.
Bang Uci (bang is a term used by people in some parts of Indonesia to address a man who is not too much older than you, or a polite way to call a man who is about your age and who you’re not familiar with), our trusted skipper from the village of Salamun on Banda Besar. When he was younger he had to paddle a small boat to Banda Neira to go to school. One day his boat flipped due to bad weather, and he learned more from his father and grandfather since then on how to deal with such situations.
Bu Rosani (bu or ibu is Indonesian for ma’am) runs a small restaurant called Nusantara. She served the best fruit smoothies on Banda Neira, as well as some of the best dishes on the island. Each meal usually took at least half an hour to prepare, but no one really was in a hurry. James and I were regular patrons, and by the end of our stay on the island she gave us complimentary slices of chocolate cake. From her I learned that the Bandanese way to say sorry is “please don’t be angry.”
Rizal Bahalwan, better known as Abba, is the owner of a guesthouse and a brand new hotel which started receiving guests six months prior to our visit. Taking the name Cilu Bintang, after a princess from local folklore, the estate was designed as a colonial house with a conspicuous emblem of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) embellishing its gate. Dila is Abba’s wife who co-manages the hotel and is also its head chef. Fried eggplants smothered in rich kenari (wild almond) sauce was just one of many delicious dishes she cooked during our stay.
We were joined by a local guide called Maga Firaldi the day we went to Banda Besar to see the island’s nutmeg plantations. However, the most interesting part of the tour was not the explanation he gave us, but rather his devotion to the environment in Banda Neira. Due to the lack of a waste processing facility on the island, in 2009 he began collecting used bottles, containers, and everything else made from plastic to be sold to a local Chinese businessman. The garbage was then compacted and sent to Surabaya in Java for further treatment. The machine suddenly broke one day. A replacement had been purchased and stored at a local government office, but some officials demanded profit-sharing as a prerequisite for Maga to be able to use the new machine. He never said yes.
On the island of Banda Besar, we saw an entourage that seemed to be heading for a wedding ceremony. The men were wearing Islamic-style garments with one in particular – I assume he was the groom – donning an thawb (white robe usually worn by some Arab men) and a keffiyeh (traditional Middle Eastern headdress). The women were far more colorful with matching hijab (head scarves), long dresses embellished with intricate embroidery, and jewelry.
On the day when James and I had to say goodbye to Torben and Fiona as they only stayed on the island for one week, we passed Banda Neira’s main port and I spotted a medium-sized white cruise ship with a familiar logo emblazoned on it, right below the funnel. The unmistakable yellow frame logo of National Geographic was suggestive of a special guest aboard the ship as it is the norm for such expeditions to have at least one expert giving the passengers brief scientific explanations of the places they go. Near the former administrative seat of the VOC in the Banda Islands, dubbed the ‘mini palace’, a group of young women in colorful costumes were patiently waiting for the cruise ship passengers to arrive. Meanwhile a dance troupe appeared to be making a performance on the grounds of the mini palace, and suddenly I spotted that special guest, taking photos of the troupe from the veranda of the palace.
Dr. Birutė Galdikas is one of Leakey’s Angels – along with Jane Goodall who studied chimpanzees, and Dian Fossey who studied gorillas – and specializes in orangutans. Prior to her studies, little was known about the gentle ape native to the jungles of Borneo and Sumatra. She appeared on National Geographic’s cover in the October 1975 issue, and is still active in conservation efforts particularly in Borneo. When I saw her I finally understood why many people react the way they do upon seeing an A-list Hollywood celebrity or a famous K-pop star. Fortunately I could keep my composure when I was talking to her.
On the weekend or after school, local children played around and chased one another on the streets. Banda Neira’s remoteness, small size, as well as the low population meant that cars were a rarity on the island, making the streets a relatively safe place for the kids to play. Boys and girls were seen riding their bicycles, running around, and doing some silly games. Ah, the bliss of being young and innocent.
On our last day in the Banda Islands, just before dark, we went to a place where a special historic vessel was berthed. Vega is a 120-year-old Norwegian-built boat which sails across Indonesia to distribute food, books and medicines, among other things, to those in need who live in some of the most remote corners of the country. Shane Granger and his wife Maggi are the owners of the wooden beauty, and together with their cat, Scourge, they call the small and cozy boat home. Aboard Vega, the smell of stewed meat permeated from the cabin below, and we were welcomed by Shane himself and we thanked him and Maggi for their invitation.
As we were telling him about the spice route and our six-month journey across Southeast and South Asia to retrace parts of it, he was thrilled to tell us about another version of the story. He believed that world history had been told from a Eurocentric perspective. In an archaeological site on the Iraqi-Syrian border, a pot was found containing cloves dating back to 1,700 BC. He explained to us how the ancient Egyptians were able to sail across the oceans, and how early humans migrated from the Bandas to other parts of Asia. Definitely not a theory many would agree with, but it was fascinating and entertaining to hear nonetheless.
Click here for the full list of stories from the Spice Odyssey series.