Maluku - Spices, Black Magic, and Beach Hopping
Trip Start Jun 29, 2011
16Trip End Ongoing
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This seemed to be a desirable combination, so off I went on the notoriously difficult journey to the Banda Islands. In Kota Ambon, the capital of Maluku, which has often been struck by violent conflicts between Christian and Muslim inhabitants, I arrived just before the end of Ramadan. There were several things to organise within a short time, like withdrawing a small fortune from the bank, as there are no ATMs on Banda and other islands. Finding a place to eat was tricky, and whilst walking through the crowds near the market I fought off flirty men and cursed an idiot who drove his motorcycle over a juice pack whose sticky contents squirted all over my legs
In the morning we approached the Banda islands - all was misty - and we passed by the volcano island Banda Api, sporting some dark lava from a recent eruption, and arrived in the capital Bandaneira, a small town with colonial architecture and warm-hearted people. Many things here reminded me of Brazil - the combination of tropical climate and vegetation, and colonialist past gave the islands a Latino feel. We checked into a guest house by the waterfront with volcano views and hoped for the damn rainy season to finish, which was about time. After lunch we went to see Fort Belgica, and were followed by a group of kids who were all able to introduce themselves in perfect English - a set of phrases they had learned by heart. They soon knew all our names and all the latest gossip about us
The next day it rained all the time, and there was nothing to do. My father had told me on many occasions - it was one of his favourite stories to tell - that if you sniffed the powdered surface of a nutmeg, it would have a mild hallucinogenic effect. But it had to be a very fresh nutmeg, he had always pointed out. Now we happened to be on Banda! The strong smelling surface of a very very fresh and probably unripe nutmeg stone was quickly scraped off, and after a few attempts of sniffing and then smoking it, the threedimensionality of a bunch of bananas or a blossoming tree were brought to a completely new level. Or was it just our imagination?!? For breakfast we were served jam made from nutmeg fruit, which looked like earwax and tasted just sweet - the nutmeg spice itself is its stone.
It seemed like the end of Ramadan was now really just around the corner: People stayed up all night, but stayed indoors with their families mostly, there were fireworks, and from the Mosque they played a prayer's chant electro music mix. It would have been lovely to stay on the Banda islands for longer, but my fortnightly connecting boat to the intriguing Kei islands happened to leave the next day, so I said goodbye to all the nice travelers I had spent the last days with - an Afro-French girl who worked for Unicef and was in the process of writing her PhD thesis, her Dutch boyfriend who worked for the World Bank in Jakarta, a Swiss business student who financiated his studies by working as a tennis teacher, an eccentric French guy who was plotting his trip to Japan, and an Indonesian from Jakarta on his business trip
The staff on board of the ship were very helpful and offered me to sleep on their cockroach-infested matresses in the early morning hours. There were many male passengers who wanted to speak to me and I thought they were going to harrass me, but after I gave in to telling them some basics about myself, their curiousity was satisfied, and they left me alone. As we got a distance to the Banda islands, the ever-grey sky suddenly cleared up. We passed some uninhabited islands on the way and later approached the Kei islands, which were surrounded by some wooden constructions in the water used for fishing or seaweed farming. A small army of uniformed porters stormed the boat as soon as we arrived in Tual.
An American lady named Rachel, who had organised the snorkeling tour on Banda, happened to be on the same ship as me, and was stopping over on Kei on her way to the wild Aru islands. We shared a room in a hotel with surrealist candy wonderland garden decorations, had deep life-consulting conversations, and watched "Game of Thrones" on HMV - great! It seemed like the end of Ramadan was still not there, so we tracked down a hidden Chinese restaurant with sweet and sour cashew chicken, the best dish we both had on our whole trip
My onward journey was more than uncertain - the only ship due to depart to Papua in the near future was a cargo ship which normally didn't accept passengers, and even at the shipping office they only knew and cared about what ships would depart the next day, no further. If I couldn't go to Papua by ship, I would need to backtrack by plane as far as to Sulawesi - what joy of traveling in Maluku!
I wandered around the old town in the southwestern neighbourhood of Tual - many children approached me and gave me a warm welcome. Everybody wanted to be in a huge group picture. We sat together in an old atmospheric Muslim cemetery, and I handed out some bisquits and answered all the questions they had, as far as my Bahasa Indonesia went
Ohoidertawun was a cute little village by the sea, with a small church, palm trees, and mini cannons, which are used to pay the bridal price until today. At Savana Cottages, the owner Gerson, his fiancee, a dutch couple and two brave watchdogs who only barked at Indonesian people welcomed me. The place had quite a crueso-esque feel to it - white sand which was fully revealed at low tide, palm trees, a hammock, and wooden houses on the beach. Gerson and his fiancee were just preparing for their wedding which was due in 10 days - she wanted children, and it was not socially accepted to have any if one was unmarried. It was a tricky situation as one of them was catholic and one of them protestant.
A special feature on the beach was the Magic Tree just next to the resort: It's said to keep good spirits, bring people together and create peace. At Ohoidertawun beach there had once been an attack by Muslim people from the nearby islands Pulau Ut and Pulau Kus in their holy Jihad war mission. After the attack people with different religions swore to each other under the Magic Tree that they would help each other in case of a new attack. A legend says that people who go missing over time are still around as ghosts who wear red turbans, and who can be asked for help. During the Jihad attack, only 11 real people were on the beach to defend the area, but they were able to intimidate the intruders because they were supported by the turban ghosts
The sunsets were dramatic and colourful - symphonic would be a good way to describe them. After a rich dinner there was a ritual every night - dancing to the Shakira song "Africa", which felt a bit forced in the beginning, but was really fun, and later it was me who requested it. They also played some native music from Kei - a choir of angelic voices singing a tune that sounded like a cross between a pacific folk song and christian church song. Gerson and his Dutch visitor both had Moluccan blood, but grew up in Holland - their fathers had been brought to Holland in WWII as soldiers. The Dutch couple had come to visit their relatives, who, however, lived in a part of the island where there was a water shortage. The next day the Dutch visitor proposed to his wife on the beach - they had been married for 25 years, but had never married in a church. Everything was documented on video for the rest of the family - in 10 days there would be a double wedding of two protestants marrying two catholics, and we were joking about swapping their partners to remove the complications. They went into Tual to buy some traditional wedding outfits, which consisted mainly of woven cloths that you wrap around your body. In the meantime, Gerson's uncle was "looking after me", together with the dogs.
- Head hunting and territorial fights between different villages were still ongoing a century ago. If a stranger entered the beach, he would be considered an intruder and killed, and small parts of the enemy's body would be eaten in a symbolic way. There was a cave on the beach where human bones were kept.
- Some beaches are haunted, and you can't enter them at night. On the West side of Kei Kecil there are islands that you may not enter because they are also haunted. If you go there, fake voices will mislead you so that you get lost. However, there is a pearl farm.
- There are evil spirits around Kei which look like the Klabautermann.
- Some likely facts about animals: There are toxic lizards on Kei
- The Kei islands got their name when Charles Darwin or Edgar Wallace were asking the islanders what the name of their home is. "Whitt Kei" means "I don't know". Australia got its name in a similar way. When the Western explorers were sailing together with Kei islanders in misty weather, the Westerners were asking for the way. Australia means "Can't you see it?" in Moluccan language.
- Kei people prepare pig by heating up stones on the fire, putting the pig on top of them, and covering it with leaves. The same practice is done in coastal Papua and Fiji, which is the evidence for some Papuan tribes and Fiji people descending from Kei people. When Kei people were sailing far out to sell their boats to other islanders, they got carried away by the current and reached Papua and Fiji.
- The souls of the dead live in Komodo Dragons.
- Every year there is a migration of giant leatherback turtles southwest of Kei Kecil
- Around Pulau Walir, there is a giant octopus with arms 12 meters long. When sailing past, people throw tobacco into the water, which the octopus dislikes and thus stays away.
- By the waters around the island Pulau Tayando there was once a dragon. People were very scared of this dragon and threw children into the water to satisfy it when they were sailing past. Then the welders of Pulau Ut and Pulau Kus poured hot iron down the dragon's throat and so defeated it. Ever since, the skeleton of the dragon can be seen when snorkeling around the North-Eastern edge of Pulau Tayando.
The next day I went out at low tide to see the ancient cliff paintings, about half an hour's walk away from my hut. Figures and symbols were painted high on the cliff with red colour, which is said to be made from plants. Possibly the water level was higher in former times, and the painting was done while sitting in a boat. There were primitive figures such as hand prints and human figures with bow and arrow, but also more abstract symbols like suns and spirals, which reminded me of Australian Aboriginal art
Another fascinating feature of the Kei islands is the Sasi, a magical charm object which is used for the regulation of natural resources. The Sasi itself is a braided palm leave which is put up in order to indicate that it is not the season to remove a certain crop or animal. For instance, on a tree bearing edible fruit which are not ripe, yet, a field which is not ready for harvesting or simply is the property of someone special, or a fishing beach during the breeding season, in which the fish population is endangered and needs to regenerate. The Sasi can be interpreted as a respected "Stop" sign of agricultural regulation, but the locals believe that magic is involved when a Sasi is active, and horrible things happen to the person who breaks the restrictive spell. A special ceremony is required for putting up and removing a Sasi. In the past, people had secretly put up Sasis on a much-frequented bridge so that anyone who wanted to pass needed to pay for a boat, and in front of the government building when the politicians had once acted against the citizen's will. I saw a few pale, sun-bleached Sasis by the roadside in front of fields, and in front of a piece of land whose owner did not want anyone else to build on it
To escape from the cheesy wedding madness and to also see a beach which has sand as fine as flour, I moved to nearby Pasir Panjang, which means "white sandy beach", and this very creative name hits it on the spot. It was visited mainly by Indonesian tourists and is spotted with Karaoke shacks. The day I arrived there was a large birthday party, and the beach was full of people playing very loud party music and littering. So I walked along the whole beach to the uncrowded, supposedly haunted end, which was just next to a jungle and some caves. Along the way people were harvesting seaweed, and there were lots of curiousities such as bones and stranded handbags to be found on the beach. For sunset I sat down on a bandstand and was joined by Burhan, a young, progressive-minded man who lived in Kota Ambon, where he worked for the local government, and who had traveled to Kei for the end of Ramadan. His far ancestors lived in Banda Eli, a settlement on Kei Besar of the original people from the Banda islands who fled from extinction by the Dutch. He showed me some pictures of Banda Eli town and explained some traditions and history of his ancestors to me:
- The people of Banda Eli own a stone which is supposed to have supernatural powers. When they escaped from the Banda islands and were looking for a new place to stay, they chose today's Banda Eli because the stones in this region have a similar texture and composition to their magical stone they brought from Banda.
- Houses and graves are decorated with floral designs which are individual for every family. Traditional colours of the paintings are green, yellow/gold, and red
- Streets are built from stones, and their shapes remind of drainages/canals.
- At the end of Ramadan, people get together and play percussion, assemble in a circle around the village and dance. There are special rituals for people who are planning to go on a pilgrimage to Mekka in the following year - a goat is killed for them to clear them of their sins, called "apologetic goat". In preparation, a hole is dug into the ground to collect the goat's blood.
As Burhan explained some more rituals to me including people playfighting with palm leaves 7 days after the end of Ramadan near Ambon, the owner of my guesthouse appeared on his motorcycle. He had been searching the whole beach for me because I HAD to come home NOW (!) - my dinner was waiting for me on the table. I felt treated like a teenager, and sat on the motorcycle for my safe escort home. They had prepared some fish for me, rice, and vegetables. The smoked fish was cold, and as I opened it, there were larvae and flies inside!! The forensically interested part of my mind immediately made some assessments of how old this fish must have been, for a fly to lay eggs into the fish, which then turn into larvae, which then turn into flies! Or were the flies inside the fish the ones who had laid the eggs? Which got me to the most philosophical question of all: "Which was there first: The fly or the egg?" Anyhow, I decided that it was probably wiser to not eat the fish. As I returned the fish, the young daughter of the house mocked me: "Ooh, she would only eat fish if it was FRESH!" To my hosts this meal was completely acceptable
The next morning the whole beach was full of rubbish, which the residents later burned. The sunlight reflected by the white sand and the water was so bright that I couldn't actually open my eyes... In the afternoon Burhan visited, as we wanted to drive to the haunted lake by Ngur Bloat. There is a very entertaining legend of how this lake was formed: Once some people dumped lots of rubbish in front of an old lady's house in a village where now the lake is. The old lady got very angy about this, came out ouf her house, and stomped her foot on the ground so hard that the whole village sank into the earth, and the lake was formed
The next day, I went back to Tual to see what the boat situation for moving over to Papua looked like
After two days the boat finally departed for the Aru islands. We had a colourful and lively parrot on board who was my very special friend, and who was fed with some sort of porridge for babies. The staff played chess on board, and I had a few goes, losing badly! The small chef, Benny, always supplied us with coffee and fresh food from his tiny kitchen. The captain, who came from Papua, was quite an Alpha Male, and thought he had a special right to spend time with me, often asking me if I wanted to sleep in his cabin! When I played chess with someone and the captain came along, he told the other player off and continued the match with me, and nobody was allowed to protest! The engineer on the ship was so masculine, he could have counted as a robot - his mind was all mathematical, and even his whole body was just muscles and steel and square shapes. A worker from my room, dressed in an orange overall, always made fun of Benny's size, saying he was a baby, but he himself was the one who had the mind of a small child in a massive body
The next day we had a stopover on the Aru islands. I walked into the town Dobo and wandered around the market, which was set on stilts over the water. From a vendor I bought some small fish with long noses, and the locals agreed that they suited me because also I had a very large nose. From a lady I bought some cucumbers. A young girl followed me curiously, and I gave her an apple as a present. There is hardly any tourism on these islands, and people are not used to foreigners. Back on the ship, Benny fried the long nose fish for me, which were simply delicious. A few new passengers came onboard, including some fighting cocks which were tied to poles on deck in a distance so that they couldn't fight witch each other.
We continued our journey around the Aru islands and towards Papua, and the sun went down. On the deck there was a cage with some colourful birds called Merpatis, who were much too cold in the wind
The sea became very rough and the boat started rocking violently. I took a few anti-sickness pills and went to bed - that was all one could do. Whilst I found an awkward position which stopped me from falling out of my bed, I thought of the poor Merpati birds outside in the storm, and was also a bit scared that out boat might be turning upside down, as it was rocking so hard. "Jangan takut, tida papa", the experienced crew members said to me - don't be scared, there's no problem. The next morning two of the Merpati birds were dead. Soon we got into the mouth of a quiet river and went upstream. Papuan land was in sight - Pomako, a stilted town near Timika, appeared. I almost cried when I said goodbye to the crew members and some other passengers - the boat trip, even if it were just for two days, had been a great adventure, and I had grown close to some animals and people.
Papuan porters and drivers awaited us at the harbour - they looked completely different from people from the rest of Indonesia. The name Papua actually means "curly hair" in Portuguese. The Captain and Benny came with me to Timika, as the gas bottle for the kitchen needed refilling - without gas, nobody on the ship could eat. We were driving past many stilted houses connected by wooden stilted piers as it was getting dark
The floor was still rocking under my feet - I was land sick after the boat trip! The next morning I headed to the airport in order to get a connection to Wamena, in the center of West Papua. In the domestic part of the airport, many Papuan tribespeople were waiting. Women wore traditional Noken bags over their heads, and men had wrapped their spears, other weapons and large cauldrons in sticky tape for safe transport. They strongly disliked having their picture taken and looked at my camera as if it were a gun. A flight from here straight to Wamena, however, only left once a month. A small machine approaching Wamena had crashed in a storm two days before, so I decided to take a large plane to the transport hub Sentani - my first Business class flight ever. I never would have guessed I'd sleep at a police station that night!
To be continued....