Saturday, March 26, 2011

Banda Spice Islands Nutmeg Sojourn

Panoramic View of Fort Belgica, Banda Neira, the Banda Islands, Southern Maluku, Indonesia.
In 2006 I spent seven days in the Banda archipelago otherwise known as The Spice Islands. Ever since then, when asked about my favorite destination in Indonesia, my enthusiastic response has been the Banda Islands. No other destination offers the same unique mixture of laid back tropical island pace of life, unpolluted environment, ruined and restored old world dutch villas, ancient Spanish, Dutch and British stone forts, an active volcano, groves of nutmeg and mace and pristine crystal clear oceans alive with colorful multitudes of fish, coral and all manner of other vibrant sea life and all within a very short trip of one another. I am writing this five years after my visit and the memories are still strong.

The Dutch East India Company Symbol, this one on the stone floor of the
Chinese Temple. Banda Neira, the Banda Islands, South Maluku, Indonesia
For many solid reasons the Banda Islands could be one of Indonesia's most visited traveler destinations. Perhaps due to its remoteness and the challenges posed in getting there, quite fortunately, it is spared the maddening crowds of mass tourism that put such pressure on the environment and culture elsewhere. Many do not realize it, but that this small and remote archipelago played a historically pivotal role in European history and especially in the huge gains in wealth experienced by the Dutch from the sixteenth to twentieth centuries. The Banda Islands was the only source of highly prized nutmeg and mace, used for a variety of purposes from cooking, flavorings, preserving meats, and believed to have medicinal properties. Spices that could be acquired for a pittance in the spice islands of the Dutch East Indies were regularly sold for hundreds of times their purchase price and just a small amount acquired in Banda and sold in Amsterdam could make a man rich beyond his dreams.

The red outer membrane is mace and it encases the nutmeg nut.
The Banda Islands are located in the Banda Sea in Eastern Indonesia directly south of the sparsely populated island of Ceram and to the southwest of the more populated island of Ambon in the province of South Maluku. They are made up of six main islands and a number of smaller rocky outcrops. The main group consist of Banda Naira (Neira) where the main town, also called Banda Naira and bristling with historical buildings and forts is located, Banda Besar (Pulau Lonthoir), a long banana curved island forming the edge of an ancient caldera and where much of the nutmeg is farmed, and Banda Api (or Gunung Api), a 666 meter high active volcano which has been steaming away happily since it last properly erupted in 1988. Islands situated further out include Rozengain Island (Pulau Rozengain) to the south east of the main group, and Ai Island (Pulau Ai) and Run Island (Pulau Run) directly to the west.

Banda Neira in the foreground, Banda Besar in the background, and Rozengain
barely visible in the  distance. View from the summit of the Gunung Api volcano.
Remnants providing an indication of Banda Island's historical importance to the western world can be seen scattered all around the islands. The township of Banda Naira has the most amazing colonial character and charm to it given that the majority of the buildings are old dutch villas, mansions, forts, and churches some of which have been restored or maintained, and some of which have fallen into disrepair, yet all of which combine to give it a wonderful old world mystique that is hard to find anywhere else in Indonesia. It is a reassuring feeling to see there are few modern buildings in Banda Neira and those that have been built more recently, for example the Maulana Hotel, have taken into consideration the extremely valuable architectural heritage of the island and were built in a style respectful of this and aiming to preserve it.

A view of the governor's residence from his lawn. Banda Neira, Banda Islands, South Maluku, Indonesia.
I spent two days roaming around Banda Neira's township soaking up the atmosphere. Around every corner there is another historical treasure. Kids in red primary school uniforms playing on scattered old rusting Dutch cannons bearing the Dutch East India Company symbol. One of the glass windows of the large dilapidated waterside governor's residence etched with writing in French, the sorrowful musing of a European resident of the islands far from home who is said to have committed suicide out of loneliness. The hands of a church clock frozen in time, supposedly the moment the islands were bombed by arriving Japanese soldiers during World War II. The restored ramparts of the pentagonal Fort Belgica on the hill above Banda Neira from where exceptional 360 degree views of the main islands and especially of the Banda Api volcano can be enjoyed. The house where two Indonesian revolutionaries and founding fathers, Muhamad Hatta and Sutan Sjahrir, spent years in exile . The ancient Chinese temple, where Banda's small community of Chinese traders and pearl farmers pay respects to their ancestors. Nutmeg tree seedlings growing in the shadows of nutmeg nurseries out of the way of the beating tropical sun and ready to be transplanted to one of the other islands. The list of gems goes on and on.

The church silhouetted in the Gunung Api volcano.
Banda Neira, Banda Islands, South Maluku, Indonesia
During my visit I stayed in the Maulana Hotel situated on the Banda Neira waterfront next to the port and boasting inspiring views of the Banda Api volcano just across the narrow strait between the two islands. The Maulana hotel is the best hotel on the Bandas and was built by the renowned and iconic character Bapak Des Alwi, otherwise known as the King of the Bandas, serving as one of his retirement activities. Des Alwi made my trip to the Bandas special. Every evening at the Maulana dinner was served with all guests sitting around the dinning table devouring seafood and sashimi fished from the Banda seas that same day with wasabi squeezed from a large Buddha shaped bottle. The evening after I climbed the Banda volcano Des clapped his hands and announced there would be a ceremony. He made a small speech and summoned me to the front of the table where he presented me with my certificate of citizenship to the Banda Islands. Des had made it a custom to present all who ascended to the summit of the volcano with such a citizenship paper granting free access to the islands and upon which it states the time it took the recipient to reach the summit.

Hotel Maulana. I wondered what the large bollard was for until a
massive Pelni passenger liner moored outside of my bedroom
Des Alwi's family featured large in the Banda's archipeligo's history, and Des himself was a historically significant figure in Indonesia's formative years and beyond. When he was a kid, the Dutch government exiled two leading intellectuals in the Indonesian nationalist movement from Java to the Bandas. These revolutionaries were Sutan Sjahrir, who went on to become Indonesia's first prime minister, and Mohammad Hatta who became the first vice president under the charismatic Sukarno. Sutan Sjahrir who was an educator, must have sensed the talent, latent passion and hunger for learning in Des Alwi, for he took him under his wing and when he finally returned to Java, was accompanied by the young Des. Des went on to play a role in Indonesia's revolution and exploiting his talent for communication was active in the mass media and in particular with the state radio station, Radio Republik Indonesia, and recorded on film the many dimensions of Indonesia's freedom struggle. Later he represented Indonesia internationally first as a cultural attache in the embassy in Bern, Austria and the Philippines. Sadly Des passed away in November of 2010.

Des Alwi presenting me with my citizenship papers.
One night while staying at the Maulana I awoke to the hum of large diesel engines and upon taking a glance out the window discovered a monstrous Indonesian Pelni passenger liner had docked just outside the Maulana to offload and onload produce and passengers. The arrival of this ship had woken the sleepy town of Banda Neira from its slumber and for once the streets teemed with life. Villagers from all over the islands had arrived in small boats and set up stalls in and around the port selling seafood, sate, bottles of nutmeg jam, mother of pearl ornaments, and real pearls to passengers who alighted to stretch their legs on a voyage that stretched almost the entire the length of the Indonesian archipelago, from Jakarta in the west to Papua in the east. It was strange to see so much activity in Banda Neira in the middle of the night but I can imagine that in such a small and isolated community the ship's weekly arrival would be a welcome injection of cash and stimulus of commercial activity.

The Pelni Passenger Liner that Moored Outside My Bedroom At Hotel Maulana
The Pelni Passenger Liner that Moored Outside My Bedroom At Hotel Maulana
The Pelni Passenger Liner that Moored Outside My Bedroom At Hotel Maulana
The Gunung Api Volcano.
Semi Restored Dutch Villa


nyrkfifi said...

Hi, I loved reading your post. I was wondering - could you give me a phone number or an email address so I could contact the hotel please? Thanks so much! Fiona

Benjamin Reader said...

Hi Fiona.

I have a bunch of numbers you could call to contact Maulana. There are two in Banda Neira :

+62 910 21022 and +62 910 21024

And two in Jakarta as well, cos I think they have an office there:

+62 21 4240151 and +62 21 4251613

Hope this helps.


Red Rackham said...

Good one Ben - I remember when you went. Will get along there some time soon.
Simon D