Exploring the Banda islands

There’s still a bit of a side roll slapping Totem around when we head out to Banda, but it’s manageable and we’ve got a bit of moonlight to help us along. The rich history of these islands have made them one of our most anticipated stops in Indonesia. As they fade into view in the early morning light, I can’t help but feel a little tingly with excitement.

Summary backstory, for those unfamiliar: this handful of islands, in something of a nautical no-man’s land of Indonesia, were once the world’s only source of nutmeg. Nutmeg’s wonders are written of as far as ancient Greece, and it was long credited with a variety of health and medicinal properties. In Europe, it more costly more per ounce than gold, offering these distant nations incentive to find the source. When nutmeg was purported to aid bubonic plague, popularity exploded and the opportunity to get rich through the trade headed exploration up further. The first Portuguese ships arrive in Banda in 1511, and broke centuries of Venetian control (through their trade with Constantinople). By 1609, Neira (one of the primary settlements in the islands) became the first Dutch territory in the archipelago they would one day help to consolidate as Indonesia. For a while, the English maintained a foothold in the spice islands through Run island, just west of Neira, but eventually traded it to the Dutch for their small territory in the New World. We know that the island as Manhattan today. The voyages of Columbus, Magellan, Drake and countless others who do not have historic fame to recall their names were all centered around this race for control of spice.

So, yeah, in the scheme of modern world history, it’s kind of an important place.

The nutmeg, cloves, and cinnamon which once drove explorers to Indonesia have long since been dispersed to grow in other places around the world. It’s a sleepy island town now, but reminders of the past are everywhere. To be able to walk through and touch pieces of this history feels just a little surreal.

The older if the two forts on Neira is little more than overgrown ruins, but can still be imagined.

The “newer” (1611)  Dutch fort is restored and somewhat maintained. We have it entirely to ourselves for about half an hour before the caretaker arrives. He’s happy to help fill in some gaps to the extent that we can ask questions and understand answers in Indonesian.

In the Rumah Budaya museum, Ibu Feni cranks up a gramophone to give us an audible peek into the era of colonial wealth and extravagance. The kids test drive traditional local weapons and a ceremonial Porteguese helmet, while Jamie weighs a piece of ‘uang potong’- cut money, the first currency introduced by European traders- in his hand.

There are shades of the past sprinkled around… from the cannons that look cast aside along the road to those placed decoratively along waterfronts, to the marble patio tiles that were almost surely brought by ship around Africa to enhance to a wealthy Dutch perkenier’s residence.

We treat ourselves to dinner ashore at the lovely Mutiara guesthouse, and feel a touch of colonial elegance at their garden table- shaded by nutmeg trees.  It’s a delicious dinner- high end dining for $7/plate. A vegetable soup cooked spice-island style with cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg… whole grilled fish with a tangy, spicy sauce…roasted eggplant with a sauce of kenari, the wild almond trees interplanted in nutmeg groves to offer shade…two kinds of rice… stir fried vegetables with shrimp… an avocado and chocolate puree for dessert. I have probably forgotten something. The bubbly Abba put on a Travel Channel show program that gave a tour of the spice islands, another vehicle for us all to learn from. Needless to say we rolled ourselves out of there.

See the cockatoo on the chair? How about that monster shell?

There’s so much more here than we can see. Great Indonesian statesmen spent years here under house arrest. But I guess that once again we’re feeling a bit of our own slant on history, and more interested in reliving the aspects that touch our lives than those that are specifically Indonesian. We could probably rush around and “do” everything on the historical points list here, but who wants to rush? We get so much more out of leisurely visits, getting to know people, then blindly gawping at all the sights. There’s still never enough time.

Reading notes- Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, by Giles Morton, is a fascinating and highly readable book about the history of the Banda islands. We highly recommend it for anyone coming this way! Jack Turner’s book Spice offers a broader context and more interesting reading on the subject.

The boat as a platform for entertainment

Good weather is elusive, and we’re not interested in a bash to the Bandas, so a week passes in Saparua. With the extra time, perhaps it’s not too surprising that we made a few friends ashore.

Twelve year old Jundri was the first: he and his friend Onget paddled out to Totem on a raft of lashed-together sago trunks. They came back to play, swim and visit many times. He invited us to his home, where his mother fed us delicious doughnuts and sold us some arak. For the uninitiated, arak (or arrack) is Indonesian moonshine, made from fermented palm flowers. I predict this bottle will sit unconsumed for a while.

One of Jundri’s relatives had the same first and middle name as Jamie. Brothers from another mother.

Flying a kite with Jundri near the fort, we met a couple of Fullbrights who had been English teachers at the local high school in prior years- they work in Jakarta now, and were back to visiting their former students.

After a fun afternoon on the boat with the whole crowd, their students were back a number of times in the following days. I’m sure it was all about practicing their English, right?

Squalls didn’t matter much. Just keep swimming.

They brought is local snacks to try: crunchy treats, all of which included either cinnamon, nutmeg, or kenari (nuts similar to almonds). Good times!

[photos photos photos]

Waiting for weather in Kota Saparua

We had a mostly grey week of watching for weather to sail down to the Banda islands. The anchorage off the main town was much more flat and secure, so we had a comfortable place to wait and felt in no hurry.

Saturday is the big market day. Best to go early! I was hoping to score some chicken… the earlier you buy, the fewer flies come with your purchase. Siobhan tagged along and caused quite a stir.

This lady decided to kidnap her and show her off to friends. All in good fun.

Siobhan is being held at the rear right of the picture

Everyone is always watching Siobhan.

I just like watching all the market goods: like these gorgeous chilies, and the mountains of sago.

look: NO PLASTIC PACKAGING! It can be done.

Most days, the village was a lot slower, and a lot sleepier.

Dried cloves in a shop wait to be packed and shipped.

A small warung, the ubiquitous little restaurants of just a few tables (or even just one).

Salt for sale.

It’s all your point of view

We nestled into the south harbor of Saparua, right in front of an imposing fort. Fort Duurstede was built by the Dutch in the 1670s.

The ruins were interesting, but other than a guest book and a guy collecting fees there was little to illuminate us about what we saw. We can speculate about the trace evidence of jail cells and the sanitation, but wish we could learn more.

that would be the jail

that would be the facilities

The museum adjacent did have a series of dioramas (with annotations in both Indonesian and English) depicting the 19th century uprising that took place there. In the early 1800s, it was occupied by the English, then turned over to Dutch as holdings were consolidated with a bit of colonial horse trading. The local community didn’t want the Dutch back, and one man led a successful attack to take over the fort. He was given the name “Pattimura,” which means big heart, because he didn’t kill all the Dutch within- he spared the Resident’s young son.

The museum tells almost nothing about the history, purpose, or structures remaining of the fort. It is chock full of Pattimura’s story. It seemed odd at first, but we had to change our point of view. Foreign tourists of (ultimately) European origin, we’re drawn to understanding a particular aspect of the history. But most of the visitors to the fort are Indonesian, and they’re much more interested in their national hero’s role here. Pattimura, an inspiration to Sukarno, and important enough to pictured on Indonesia’s smallest denomination of currency- the 1,000 Rupiah bill.

the 1,000 Rp note, from Wikipedia. Currently worth about US$0.10.

So we roll with it. But we wish we’d brought a few headlamps, because the someone didn’t pay the electric bill and we are squinting in the dark at the displays.

drama, in miniature

In search of pottery, we find a fort

At the Siwa Lima museum in Ambon, our docent showed us old pottery that was still made at Ouw village at the southeastern corner of Sapaura island. We don’t often hang our destination choices on much information, so that was enough to peg Pulau Saparua for the next stop. Besides, we need to break up our trip to the Banda Islands, and waiting there for gentler conditions to make the overnight run sounds perfect.

Our last night in Ambon was sleepless: we moved to the outer harbor, Amahusu, where the rally boats congregate in August. I don’t know how they tolerate it: rolly anchorage, no bemos, just one hotel/restaurant ashore. Chalk up another tick against going with the crowd. We had a motorboat ride going to Ouw in the morning. Unfortunately, we haven’t don’t a lot of sailing happening in Indonesia… winds rarely crack 10 kts. But there was plenty of garbage in the water to watch floating by.

Scant wind ripples but lots of trash, our typical Indonesian water view

It was a relief to find a large anchorage area with depths of 20-30’ just off the village- no more of the crazy depths from Papua!

Walking ashore and asking around, it was pretty easy to find a potter- literally, the first place we stuck our heads in for directions turned out to be making pottery in the back. It’s neat to see that pieces just like those we’d seen in the museum were still very much in modern day production- and apparently using techniques that haven’t changed for centuries.

shaping clay bowls is an entirely manual process

Besides the museum pieces, we’d seen these bowls used for Pepeda (for serving gooey sago mush) and evidence of them in the market (where rectangular sago bricks to dunk in your coffee are fired in clay baking dishes).

The home that welcomed us to see pottery work in progress was built against some old ruins, sharing an exterior wall with a crumbling structure of limestone/coral brick. I thought it was a little strange that nobody knew the history. Was it 200 years old, or 400? Was it Portuguese or Dutch, or even English? A standard-issue, rotted out government sign in front identified it as “Benteng (Fort) Ouw” and bade visitors not to damage the creeper-covered walls, but offered no clues to the history.

The old fort at Ouw village

Back on Totem, it was “sweaty hour”.  Every afternoon we seem to reach a point where if we don’t hose down or jump in the water, we’ll succumb to heatstroke. It’s not hard to be enticed into the pretty water. Underneath is a different story. No pretty fish, no healthy corals, just the gray rubble of blasted reef. Dynamite fishing is illegal, but still practiced.  A few straggling soft corals grow, but they just serve as a counterpoint to set off the wasteland of the rest of the bay. It meant our anchorage wasn’t great, either, gravel not being the best holding. With stronger winds forecast, we decided to move farther inside Saparua’s harbor.

A quick trip home to the USA

In just a few weeks, I’ll be back home on Bainbridge Island for the first time in almost five years. It’s only for a few days, but I’m so excited!


Most important is the chance to see and hug and catch up with friends. I also want to see our house. We didn’t sell it when we left in 2008; instead, it’s been under the watchful care of a dear friend (without Tracey’s help, I really don’t know how we would have managed this). I’m glad to have the chance to see it again meet the family who lives there now.

Jamie and the children will be staying behind in Indonesia, on a mooring in Bali’s Serangan harbour. They keep trying to tell me how jealous they are. I keep trying to remind them they’ll be in Bali. At the moment, we’re at an impasse.

The impetus for the trip is to help my parents move out of a house they’ve sold after more than three decades. It’s not on Bainbridge, though- it’s in northern Michigan. Whether there’s mud or ice waiting, I’m sure it will only take a few minutes to remind me why the tropics are so heavenly and just how lucky we are! But I’ve missed seeing my family, and it will be special to be with them and lend a hand. Hopefully I’ll be able keep myself from getting lost in the nostalgia and offer some meaningful assistance, since the purpose is to get the place packed up.

Traveling will give me a chance for a little blog catch-up. Over the last couple of months, our lack of internet access put the blog a bit out of sync with real time. I still write pretty much every day, but only schedule posts when we can get online- until recently, those were often big gaps. The time away will give blog and life a chance to get re-synced again, since we’ve now reached “connected Indonesia”- every hilltop seems to have a cell tower.

Although I can’t wait to be stateside, I’ll admit to being a little apprehensive. How much has the place I call “home” changed? How much have I changed? I considered trying to surprise a few old friends by just showing up, but had the horrifying thought that they might not recognize me. I’ll try worry about things that are a little more in my control, like whether I can stuff three weeks worth of cold weather clothes into a carry-on backpack. I suspect I’ll be looking for luggage when we get to Bali…

More underwater loveliness

We had a lot of comments on the underwater photos, so I thought I’d share a few more. Raja Ampat was simply breathtaking. Several people asked what kind of camera we use- ours is a Canon Powershot D20. It’s just a nice point-n-shoot, not a fancy setup (but I learned that if you’re fancy you probably use “lights”!). But we were lucky to be in Raja Ampat at the best time of year, and enjoy sparkling water clarity.

Our friend Dan took some really spectacular photos. These are a few of my favorites (thank you Dan!). He’s a pro freediver, so was able to get down and hang out with some of the really cool stuff that we didn’t see closer to the surface. Freediving isn’t just about getting down deep- it’s about being able to stay below the surface, and look around for a while. We weren’t in any crazy depths, so the photos are all done with natural light- it’s not super deep. But the difference is that Dan can hang onto his air and take the time to explore when he’s down, and as a result saw some really beautiful things. As these show, his specialty is macro.

First, my favorite: just look at this amazing thing! I can’t remember (and maybe we didn’t know?) for sure if it’s eggs or an anemone. I think the conservation crew saw this and speculated that it was a clutch of cuttlefish eggs. Whatever it is (anyone? Buehler?), it’s gorgeous.

After an expedition underwater, we liked to sit with our field guides and look up the plants and animals we’d seen. This one took some hunting: what we thought was a sponge turned out to be a variety of clam. Makes sense once you know it, but puzzled us at the time.

The variety of anemones was incredible… this is just one variant.

These feathery fans are graceful, but don’t touch, or you’ll be in for a shock! I grazed one by accident, and that was enough to make sure it didn’t happen again. We usually wear stinger suits (for sun protection as much as anything), but the water was so warm here that we were sometimes just in skins.

These beautiful organ pipes stretched up to the sun. This group was covered in worms. To give you a sense of the scale, I believe those worms are as big around as my index finger. Yes, that thing is really big!

A folded crinoid, captured with beautiful delicacy.

Eating our way through Ambon

We’re told that Ambon is looking for a moniker. We met a woman who had worked to promote Ambon as a tourist destination, who said there was some tension between the candidate slogans of “city of music” and “the waterfront city.” We’re not sure how well either of those apply, because for us Ambon will be remembered as “the city of delicious food”.

There was plenty of time to find local haunts, and we had incredible meals at the little rumah makan (restaurants) near the city market.

Arranging fish servings for the window display

I seem to have a lot of photos like this one, capturing the a great spread just before we attack it. These restaurants actually put all of their dishes on your table, then only charge you for those you eat. Dangerous.

Indonesian food is amazing. Oh my goodness, it is just delicious.

We had to try the Muluku staple called pepeda, a porridge goo made from sago (which is made from the pounded heart of tree trunks- hungry yet?). Our new shoreside family made dinner for us one evening so that we could try it along with a range of regional dishes. It’s a good thing we had the other dishes, because pepeda- as one of our shoreside fam referred to it- has all the eating qualities of glue. But the rest? Amazing. Fresh fish with a spicy soy sauce, a heavily spiced fish stew, and more.

Local treats from pepeda (sago mush) to ikan kuah kuning (fish in a turmeric/almond stew)

Here’s a charming image of the glue pepeda. Mmmm. Trees.

Some indulgences were decidedly less local. At the fancypants mall, the kids inhaled bowls of frozen yogurt. Mmmm…. And then we discovered that the Indonesian restaurant upstairs made chocolate milkshakes and French fries. Trouble!

I was lucky to have another very memorable cooking lesson on board Totem. A conversation with a new friend about how nutmeg is used for savory cooking turned into a lazy weekend afternoon extravaganza on Totem (with their extended family, natch) so they could provide hands-on instruction. Our recipe: Babi Kecap, pork in a rich sauce. It’s somewhat unusual in that pork is less commonly eaten in this predominantly Muslim country, but this region has a significant Christian population…although it took some work to track down the pork. I did the grocery shopping, they brought the knowledge (and their families), and we made a day of it. More, please!

My fantastic cooking teachers, Ina and Erlyna 

Babi Kecap

2 kg fatty pork (you do not buy “cuts” in the public market. You get a lump of meat)
~ 1/3 c kecap manis (sweet Indonesian soy sauce: sorry, no substitute)
1 Tbsp soy sauce
Salt, oil
~20 cloves garlic
1 med yellow onion
1 bunch green onions / scallions
1 to 2 whole nutmegs

Wash pork, drain well, and cut it into bit-sized pieces. Set aside in a bowl. Add about a tablespoon each of kecap manis and soy sauce, a generous pinch of salt, and about 10 cloves of minced garlic. Stir and let stand for 15-30 minutes.

Chop half of onion and mince 10 cloves of garlic. Fry in a bit of oil (we used coconut) until fragrant, then add pork. Grate in lots of nutmeg- we used about half of a large nut- than splash on a couple of tablespoons of kecap manis. Eventually this will color the sauce to a dark brown color.

Stir over medium heat. My cooking teachers periodically added a bit more kecap manis until they were satisfied with the color and quantity of the sauce. As the pork cooked and rendered fat, this became like a very dark runny caramel.

When pork is nearly done, grate in more nutmeg- we used almost a whole clove. When it is tender and nearly complete, add the other half of the onion (rough chopped into crescent slivers) and scallions (chopped). Cook until these are wilted and mixed in. Cool slightly, then serve with rice.

We ate the entire batch before I could get an “after” photo, and trust me, “before” photos of raw pork just aren’t that exciting. I’m told this is even more delicious the second day, but we haven’t made it last that long yet!

Ina, Erlyna and relatives heading home after our afternoon on Totem

Time for a break: parking in Ambon

Peaceful sunsets from Ambon’s inner harbor

We’ve been pressing to keep Totem moving for months. The pressure started before we left Australia: trying to sort out paperwork for departure, making sure we had everything we needed, and then the constant need to make progress so we wouldn’t be caught in the adverse conditions of the changing monsoon season. For the first time in many moon, we didn’t have to be somewhere, and didn’t have the pressure to put miles under the keel in any particular direction.

And so we parked, happily, and enjoyed Ambon for a while. They have two rainy seasons per year, and one ends in January, so we had nice timing to enjoy calm conditions and sunny days.

Ambon was a big cruising destination for years, but the number annual visiting yachts diminished after religious riots started in 1999, dragging on for several years of chaos and senseless deaths. It’s entirely peaceful now, and a handful of boats still do the annual race from Darwin, but the bulk of the international fleet follows the rally path- and their route through Indonesia now goes elsewhere. It’s too bad, because we found a lot to enjoy about Ambon.

We had a sweet anchorage in the inner harbor, off the village of Lateri. Unlike the anchorage off Amahusu used by the rally, in here it’s flat as a pancake, good holding, easy depth, and lovely sunset views.

Totem in the board-flat anchorage of Ambon’s inner harbor 

A family on shore let us use their waterfront for a dinghy landing, and became friends in the process. Returning from jaunts to their peaceful neighborhood became like homecoming. They have a “American style” dinner on Totem one evening, and we are treated to a smorgasbord of local dishes at their home on another.

Pak Hani and family on Totem

The market was an easy ride into town. OK, I didn’t take these becaks shown below, I took the standard-issue minivan public transportation known as the bemo. But wow, they were awfully photogenic.

I love the public markets, which are a riot of super fresh produce, sweet smells of overripe fruit, people and vehicles going in every direction at once. This stall is pretty typical, although the staff is usually a little older.

A new-ish mall was a short bemo ride in the other direction. It’s complete with air conditioning, a Starbucks knock-off, and overloud music blasted from clothing stores. A little jarring, and a little welcome. The children loved getting frozen yogurt at J.Co, I loved finding muesli at the supermarket. Something for everyone.

A counterpoint to the public market

We played tourist, and tootled around the island with a car and driver hired through our new shoreside family: visiting the restored ruins of a Dutch fort, a very old (ca 1400) mosque, and hiking to what we thought was a caldera… but turned out to be a natural dam project.

Snagged for photos again…with military wives at the historic mosque

It was a break. We didn’t keep a schedule. There were days we lazed around the boat reading instead of tackling things we could/should do. But the decompressing? check. Catching up on life? check. Happy family? check.

Misool Eco resort: a slice of heaven

The Misool Eco Resort is nestled in another string of islands below our nook in the karst maze. We’ve heard about this beautiful place from other cruisers who stopped by in the last few years, and were excited to spend a few days here and see it for ourselves.

The beautiful Misool Eco Resort

We hoped to arrive at slow time when there would be a mooring available (they have several used for their supply boats and dive tenders). Some email attempted to coordinate but it really came down to luck that our arrival timing coincided with a week of fewer guests, so we could visit and enjoy some of the facilities without feeling like a burden.

We could snorkel their fantastic house reef by just jumping over the side…

The resort has been instrumental in establishing conservation practices in the area and funding much of the work. It’s impressive to learn about their commitment to the healthy reef- if only more places could be like this! If the underwater grandeur of the area weren’t enough, the resort itself is aesthetically stunning and staffed by a sweet crew. We joined their guests for a “Manta Masterclass” presentation by the dive master, and learned so much about these spectacular creatures.

Dan treats us to dinner, so we get a beautiful meal (our veggies are thin after a week) and no dishes. The restaurant staff completely charms us, and the children are completely charmed by Darwin- a resident bird, who will happily steal your chips. I am already putty in the hands of the director’s babe, who in addition to being deliciously cute is the first wee one in a while that doesn’t cry at my scary white skin.

Darwin: cute but naughty

Relaxing before dinner at the resort

We only had three days to enjoy this magical place before timelines required us to press on for Ambon for Dan’s flight home, although I think Dan was at least a little tempted to look at changing up his travel plans to try and squeak out an extra bit of time here. Somehow, his 10 days with us have flown by. It was really tough to depart, and we left very seriously thinking we might make a U-turn from Ambon and sail the 2-3 days back to Misool.

Our prior anchorages in Raja Ampat were conservation areas, but not no-take zones. Here there is no fishing at all, and the difference is immediately apparent. The fish weren’t skittish of us, more often they were even curious. The average fish size was significantly larger than anything we have seen in a very, very long time. And oh, the turtles. So many turtles I lost count! Finally we had the routine appearance of sharks as well. They may make many people uncomfortable, but they are the essential hallmark of a healthy reef environment. Even if that one blacktip was a serious PITA and chased us out one day…

There were other pretties to enjoy. Like this gorgeous nudibranch. I love nudibranchs.

Also gorgeous, but evil: the crown of thorns

I swear I did not order this image. It just happened.

Idolize Moorish

You never get tired of turtles

More underwater awesomeness on the Totem Flickr stream.