Banda Islands 1991
The Banda Islands are difficult to get to.
There were no flights and it took us three days to get there from Jakarta. My new boyfriend and I eventually got to the capital, Bandaneira by boat from Ambon. It took a long time, we seemed to visit every island in the Java Sea buying and selling coconuts. He sat up the front discussing engines and wind factors and I lay at the back feeling sick.
There were no available hotels or hostels we discovered on arrival, but because I’d been working in the National Museum in Jakarta, we were given a couple of rooms in a courtyard at the back of the local museum. We were the only people there. An old lady named Eva would bring us breakfast and make our beds, but she lived at the other end of the village and we hardly saw a soul else. The museum consisted of everything that people had found after the Dutch had left that they didn’t know what else to do with. Lots and lots of plates and cookery equipment. It was like a fantastic junk shop. I had been asked to write an article about it for the National Museum’s magazine, but it was difficult to find anything to say.
The island was much more interesting. On a walk one day I found some old coins with a hole in the middle and VOC embossed on the side. These were from the Old Dutch East India Company. The whole island was full of the most incredible finds.
While we were there we made friends with the self-appointed king of the islands, a man called Des Alwi. He had been a cohort of Sukarno, the president of Indonesia in the 1960’s. Sukarno had had close links with Russia and had therefore incurred the wrath of the United States. He had been deposed by Suharto, who had led an (alleged) CIA-encouraged military coup against him. Des Alwi had found it expedient to escape to a place where he could lie low and found his own little empire. He owned the only hotel on the island; an enormous affair, with rooms for hundreds of people and two swimming pools. While we were there though, I think only about three rooms were ever occupied and we could not rent a room. He was very pleased to find bearded American boyfriend, who wanted to be a journalist and had lots of interesting connections in the US. He was less pleased to meet me, as I would lecture him. I was very upset about the enormous eagle he had tied to a tree outside. It was a distressing fashion in Indonesia at that time, to tie beautiful birds to trees in your garden. They would flutter desperately to get away and this supposedly was decorative. I took it upon myself to change his mind about this and release this poor bird.
Life in the Banda Islands consisted of breakfast served by Eva of nutmeg jam and soggy bread and then days of writing or exploring. I went for long walks through the jungle, which covered most of the island. My boyfriend would read a lot and write. I managed to borrow some tanks off Des Alwi and I taught him to dive. I had done quite a lot of diving previously, but I had never seen diving like this, it was spectacular, amazing numbers of fish and sharks. We took down loaves of bread to feed them and they swarmed around us.
One day Eva told us that there was to be a festival. The Dutch descendants of the last rulers of Banda were coming for a commemorative festival, so we made our way to the harbour to see them arrive.
Everyone was out, there were bands and dancing and singing. We were told that these visitors were the descendants of the Dutch families who had controlled the islands before Indonesia became independent. The Dutch had control of the islands after wresting it away from the British. The islands were desirable because of the precious spices that could be found there, the nutmeg and the cinnamon and the cloves. The Dutch had used the islanders as a slave workforce until they rebelled. Instead of quelling the rebels, the Dutch rulers decided that it would be easier to just remove them altogether. The twelve leaders of the Islands were killed and nearly all the other people were transported. A new workforce was shipped in from Ambon and some of the other Spice Islands. The islanders now are direct descendants of these workers and no one can trace the original people. In the light of this, I wasn’t quite sure why anyone would celebrate their arrival, but everyone seemed very excited to see them.
Beautifully decorated canoes went out to greet the ship and dancers with bird of paradise hats danced traditional dances of welcome. They carried poles with twelve ribbons on them, these, I was told, stood for the twelve headmen who were killed by the Dutch. It all began to be a little surreal to me at this point. The newly arrived Dutch did not help matters much. There were about eight of them, dressed in comic cut-off shell suits and carrying video cameras. They were spectacularly badly mannered. They were greeted by the headman and given leaves as a symbol of the fertility of the island. They responded by videoing all proceedings, sticking their cameras in people’s faces without taking the time to acknowledge any of the men who lined up to greet them.
We tagged on the end and followed the procession about. The streets of Bandaneira were lined with the Bandaneireans, dressed in their finest and waving handkerchiefs. Eventually everyone boarded boats, mostly decorated with ribbons and feathers, and we all set off for another island of the Banda group. This island was very undeveloped in comparison to Bandaneira. The people wore grasses and had built their huts deep in the forest. We tramped through in the heat and stickiness of mid afternoon until we reached a group of wooden houses where we were given a feast of sticky rice and a very spicy stew. The day grew ever more surreal, firelight and pigs in the huts, the Dutch and us trying to talk. It was an amazing day; the Dutch in their shell suits kept videoing and the dances went on all night.
Another day we were encouraged to climb the volcano that loomed over Bandaneira from an island on the other side of the harbour. The volcano had erupted the year before, showering the harbour with lava dust and making the people of Bandaneira run for cover. Des Alwi showed us a video he had taken of the actual eruption. It was very dramatic, but not necessarily a good thing to watch just before we climbed it ourselves. We struggled up, the ground was still hot and the cinders and lava blocks underfoot, made it extremely difficult to climb. We reached the top and looked down, one side of the mountain had been completely blown away by the explosion; we were walking around a brittle, black crust. I skittered down quite quickly and was met by Des Alwi at the bottom with a certificate for me, which announced that I was the 25th person/tourist to have reached the peak. This seemed a little unlikely to me, but it was nice to be recognised. Later when we were diving near the mountain, we discovered that the water around the island was still hot and that underwater you could see black billows of lava, formed as it had cooled down in the sea.
I fell sick whilst in the Bandas and flew to Singapore to go to hospital there. It was a shame to leave Indonesia, but I was going back with the bearded American to Connecticut and that seemed like a pretty good alternative. The Museums Journal published my article about the Banda Museum in the UK and I decided to write a few more. I was interested in the idea of museums being political. The way that a museum could dictate how a country looked at its history. In particular I was interested in peace museums and museums of indigenous art.
Written for a local newspaper when I was 20
- Nutmeg and the Roundabout Creation of New York City (longstreet.typepad.com)
- The Secret Lives of Kitchen Spices (neatorama.com)