FAR EAST INDONESIA
Periodically, I will post content from my old blog with two purposes; to give my content new life, and to capture my growth as a traveller and creator.
Written from July 16-July 21/2013 in Banda Neira, Indonesia.
Banda Neira is the small, central island in this tiny archipelago, where two thirds of the population of 15,000 live. Most make their living as a fisherman, while others sell goods in retail or work in tourism. Islam is widespread here. In fact, most of the Christians fled in 1999 during a cultural conflict, making the islands nearly 100% Muslim. Just one small example of how history has shaped the culture of the Bandanese today.
History in the Bandas goes back for centuries. These little islands had a monopoly on something so special that it beckoned European explorers to make the voyage there in the 17th century. It was nutmeg. A beautiful spice, no doubt; but nutmeg drove the Dutch and the British into conflict and eventually, the Dutch even gave up Manhattan to control the last piece of the Banda puzzle.
Dutch rule did much to create the present day physical and cultural landscape in Banda. The Dutch influence is never forgotten, as much of the architecture is from the colonial era. Impressive Fort Belgica, the restored stronghold against the British, stands tall on Banda Neira. Old cannons are scattered around the island like rubbish and a perfectly preserved Christian church from the era stands in the middle of town. Dutch currency can be found with a metal detector and a little patience. Like many colonial influences in history, the Dutch slaughtered the native Bandanese in mass numbers. While the Portuguese and the British sought only to trade for nutmeg, the Dutch sought to conquer. The few natives that survived fled to the Kei Islands. Today, what it means to be Bandanese is not clear, as the island was repopulated with a mix of ethnicities from different parts of Indonesia. Furthermore, the islands lost their monopoly on nutmeg. Today it is commonly found all over the world and nobody in Banda is rich because of it. However, locals and travelers alike still enjoy it in its many forms.
I have become completely intrigued with how such a tumultuous history can extend its reach into the present day, even affecting the life of a visitor. We took a historical walk around Naira one day, climbing Fort Belgica and imagining what this place would seem like to a foreigner 400 years ago. With the Ramadan firecrackers going off below the fort, I envisioned this peaceful island undergoing such violence. The history has been so well preserved here by the people, through their stories and the structures, that any visitor can leave an expert on Bandanese history. Evidence of Banda’s extraordinary past is everywhere, all of the time. The result is that I can’t enjoy my nutmeg jam in the morning or even stare at the old crown moulding in this guest house without thinking about where this island has come from.
Banda, though inextricably tied to its fables, has created an intriguing contemporary identity for itself. Intriguing enough for us to make the epic journey here, which was worthy of a 17th century explorer. As an outsider, the culture and identity of the new Bandanese is quite transparent. The people here are friendly, curious, passionate and resilient. They are both rooted in the past and geared toward the future. Through the people we have met, we’ve been able to tour the ancient almond and nutmeg plantations on one day and explore the coral reefs with brand new diving equipment the next. We have drank cinnamon tea and discussed history with our host and also helped him improve his online TripAdvisor listing. People answer the call to prayer in their traditional Muslim dress, but are seen later in the market in jeans and flip flops. Both the old and the new world exist here in a harmonious juxtaposition. In Banda, history is celebrated, it is relevant and it is acknowledged. These are a people who understand that you cannot know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve been.
The Banda Islands’ unique and isolated nature is what attracted us here. However, this same nature is not without some cultural nuances that create some difficulty for travelers. Though culturally rich and physically beautiful, it is no backpacker’s utopia. It is impossibly remote, so your time here is earned through hard travel. This isolation has created a traditional and conservative society; knees and shoulders have to be covered at all times. Not easy to do in a tropical climate. There are no places to relax, enjoy a beer and just be. The few cafes are dry and since it is Ramadan, there is no chance of mingling with locals in an eatery since they are all fasting. Much of our time is spent in flux between our guesthouse and walks around town. Furthermore, garbage disposal is a massive problem that begs the question of sustainability in these islands. The incredible isolation of Banda makes it both a rewarding and challenging destination.
In Indonesia for my second time, I have learned to take the good with the bad. That traveling this far from the nearest beachside bar or backpacker cottage might not be for me. But, I also know that don’t want to leave; the indicator that you might have fallen in love with a place. The challenges are nothing compared to the beautiful people we have met, the stunning reefs we have dived and of course… That feeling of having traveled off the beaten track. A tough day of 4:30 am wake ups from the call to prayer or craving McDonald’s after your 30th fried rice meal are easily dissolved. It doesn’t take much.
The Portuguese, British, Dutch, Japanese and even the Bandanese threatened to destroy these islands, and some were nearly successful. What emerged from those monstrous obstacles is a peaceful, beautiful and unique destination that could consume any traveler. As I sit here watching the relentless monsoon rain, listening to the call to prayer, I feel honoured to have been a part of a history so incredible, if only for two weeks.
Terima Kasih, Banda!
Thank You :)