The Spice Islands: Indonesia’s Secret Paradise

Where am I? I asked myself this a few hundred times a day as I pondered all the things I would have been doing had I not rolled up on this remote tropical island. I had fallen off the map, or it felt that way. I was in a place were clocks don’t matter because the time of day falls into two categories: before sunset and after sunset. From my two-week home on Pulau Hatta, I stared north across the open Banda Sea and thought that the scene before me could not be real. I could step out onto the glass surface of the water and walk to the edge of the world, dance on it, hang from it or simply peer over its edge. If I sailed straight forward from where I sat, I would touch the eastern most part of South Korea. But that would take days and a really big boat. And it might mean interrupting the pod of dolphins that danced by each morning. I watched them move from one side of my view to the other as I sipped my cinnamon coffee and sank my teeth into fresh roti slathered with nutmeg jam. Just another Tuesday.

I spent two weeks in October on three of the Banda Islands in Indonesia, snorkelling in water so pristine you could see your reflection’s reflection in it, besides the thousands of happy fish, sea turtles and shag-carpet coral. I once tripped over my own shadow cast on the sand a metre below the water, thinking it was algae. The Banda archipelago is made up of 13 small islands in the Banda Sea, southeast of the island of Ambon, which is the capital of the Maluku province. It’s close to infamous Raja Ampat–a world renowned diver’s paradise and if you don’t know Indonesia at all, it’s directly north of Australia. When I looked at the blue location dot on Google Maps, I giggled with glee. Sure I was on the map, but I couldn’t really see the landmass until I zoomed in 100x.

The Banda Islands are also referred to as the Spice Islands. Where the name Banda Islands didn’t immediately push me on to the next boat, hearing “Spice Islands” incited images of time travel, back to an era when pirates dominated the tropical seas and the warm scents of clove, nutmeg, and cinnamon permeated the dense jungle, untouched by people or industry. It also made me think of pumpkin pie and, equally delicious, Captain Jack Sparrow. But the original Bandanese people don’t actually live in the Banda Islands anymore. The Islands were first occupied by the Portuguese and later the Dutch. The ethnic Bandanese escaped a massacre in 1621, which was the start of the Dutch colonial period. The Dutch established plantations of nutmeg that grew wild all over the islands, with the majority on the largest of the islands, Pulau Besar (literally “large island”). They brought workers from the islands of Java and Sulawesi to work as farmers in the plantations, who were required to pick, collect, peel, and dry nutmeg, which was later traded and scattered across Asia, the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean. The history of a place is not usually the first thing to capture my interest when travelling but when you fall in love with something you want to know everything there is to know about it.

Pulau Bandaneira is the centre of tourism and the most populated island of the archipelago. Exploring the villages of this place is like going back in time, like taking a walk through a museum or a pioneer village on your grade school field trip, except that real people are moving about, selling, bartering, driving motorbikes. They scatter mace and its fruit on wicker trays to dry under the sun. A variety of guesthouses line the island’s edge closest to the harbour, which is only a tiny, rickety old jetty but is the island’s industrial and social hub. Bakers, fishermen, and shopkeepers don their wares next to the jetty. Locals saddled with baskets and boxes full of produce and perishable items sit on rough crooked planks waiting for the next boat back to the smaller islands scattered nearby. Chickens graze the narrow dirt paths with their chicks in tow, crowing far too often. Further into the village, in front of colonial houses and tin-roofed shanties, local women sit on an empty street at night, under a single lamp selling grilled tuna and nasi kuning–whores of a foodie’s red light district.

Even laundry is beautiful here. Clothing the colours of whipped butter and watermelon hang from twisted rope pinned to the sides of houses–a cleverness that negates the use of clothespins. This is the kind of place where you can’t decide where to rest your eyes. You have to choose one thing to focus on to avoid becoming too overwhelmed or missing a shred of purple sky that will change your life. Or the kids. They’re a little self-governing society of daisy faces and sun-baked heads that chase each other, push each other and cry about it, pick each other up, and then carry on playing. They play in a front yard littered with natural dangers. They clamber in and out of canoes, naked five year olds floating on a sea with unpredictable currents and a 10 metre drop off just steps from its shore. Chunks of broken wood wash up on shore with token rusty nails jutting out. The children grab them and draw circles in the sand. They run barefoot and play made-up games. It’s a scene that supports why we decide to give our children tetanus shots, or mere supervision. I saw one child walking around, scratching his head with the point of a kitchen knife. As I warned him to be careful (necessary at that point?) his laid-back, smiley family lounging beneath the arm of a palm tree laughed as if to say “kids will be kids!”

This is life, tiny Third-World island life. There is no running water, electricity is limited to a few hours in the evening, and local men shimmy up and down trees collecting coconuts. One guy strums a ukulele, playing one song over and over to create a sound almost as permanent as the waves.
It doesn’t make sense to me, the simplicity of such a life amidst the complications of poverty and substandard sanitation, world wars, and days wasted shopping for unnecessary things. In a village of 26 people there are rainbow coloured houses with swept front gardens and Frangipani trees where lovebirds sit. It precludes complication against another mainstream world that moves so fast it smears our vision, blurring the beauty of stillness. This is when I realise that how we’re told life is supposed to go is a work of fiction, of half-rate fantasy, not an Encyclopaedia Britannica. This is when Indonesia begins to make sense to me, for its incapacity to make any sense at all. It’s a life without mobile phones and speakers and ridiculous wastes of energy in environment and spirit. But this is island life, tiny, Third-World, remote, tropical island life. It’s pre-Bob Marley island life, if you can imagine that.

But this place is not a resort. It does not offer holiday accommodation to serve the likes of those who are used to Bali’s combed sand retreats and tikki bars. You will not find internet or a mobile network in most places. You will have to ask for toilet paper. You will be lulled to sleep by strange insect sounds and lizards and awoken each morning at a ridiculous hour by the irritating cockerel praises to Allah. Your clothes will never be thoroughly dry. But the stars will go on for miles in the absence of any other light but the moon, and the sea will show you impossible shades of silver at sunset. Every day I was drawn into the island’s magic. It was all the time and kept promises in the world sprinkled across the sand, drifting upon the sea, nestled in the cotton clouds, resting in the trees, camped out in the jungle, cradled in the sticky palms of children. It was in the few footprints that remained on the beach, in the night sounds of crickets and peculiar orange insects with metre-long tentacles. It finished the stars’ course of light to finally touch the ground. This place is every kind of beautiful.

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