Ambon: double edge

'Sweet Ambon' the city calls itself.  We wanted to taste and see for ourselves.
‘Sweet Ambon’ the city calls itself. We wanted to taste and see for ourselves.

Murderous waves ripped across the white sand beach, hordes of screaming kids scampered to and fro across the rocks and sand, and the sun blistered its slanting rays through the palm leaves.

I checked my watch again: almost four. Just two precious hours to cross forty kilometers of island glory, to grab the backpacks from the hotel, and to sprint to the harbor to catch our boat.

But our ride out of here was nowhere to be seen.

Some of that sweet Ambon scenery.
Some of that sweet Ambon scenery.

I tried to call again—oh yeah, the battery was dead.

I fidgeted and glanced at Andy. “If they don’t get here soon…”

“I know, OK.” And she turned back to the crowded beach full of hyperactive kids. She checked her phone, too. Still dead.

Transportation had been a problem on Ambon from the start. However famous and dreamy and celebrated its beaches and its diving and its hillsides sprinkled with sleepy villages loafing along under the tropic palms might be, it was tough to get a ride.

No, check that—it was tough to get a ride at a fair price.

Ambon makes you jump for joy.  Sometimes.
Ambon makes you jump for joy. Sometimes.

The island is shaped like an enormous, bulbous, oblong X, and meandering around the deep and fabled bays requires more than a quick ride—it means distances stretch longer that you’d have imagined, and the drivers, born and bred in a no-hurry, no-worry lifestyle, and with an innate ability to overcharge any foreigner they come across, means, well, it means that getting around was tough.

Herein lies another important difference between Ambon and the rest of Indonesia—in most places, people want to make some money. So naturally, they bargain with you, you arrive at a fair price, one that works for both parties, and it’s all good. But in Ambon, it was take it or leave it, no bargains, no haggling, if you don’t like it, just walk on. That guy would rather take a nap in the sun anyway.

Before arriving, we’d planned on Indonesia’s answer to everything: a motorbike. But that idea was quickly shot down.

“One hundred and fifty thousand,” the young man with the cigarette and dirty jacket stated, “for two hours.” We laughed out loud. Normal rates in these islands are something like forty thousand for an entire day. Try again, buddy.

“Entire day, three hundred.” He grinned a grimy-tooth grin.

Of course we walked on.

We made it this beach... finally.... somehow....
We made it this beach… finally…. somehow….

But in three days in Ambon, he had been the only one willing to offer a bike at all. It was Ramadan, and the circling excuse was that everyone was heading out to the villages with their families, and that they had taken their motorbikes with them.

Maybe that was true. Or maybe Ambon is just price-gouging her foreign guests. But Andy and I bristled, hardened our heads, and resorted to bargaining ruthlessly with the Ankot mini-bus drivers, who likewise bristled back, hated their passengers and all too often dropped us off far short of our intended destination.

It was tough to enjoy the island when confined to one spot, or when forced to haggle endlessly for a simple ride. And now, after spending an entire day haggling, hiking, arguing, grumbling, and pleading our way to this isolated beach on the far corner of the island, we didn’t know how on earth we were going to get back in just two hours.

Smiling kiddos make for a nice welcome anywhere
Smiling kiddos make for a nice welcome anywhere

The pair of ojek—that’s the term for the motor-bike taxis—driving teens we had chartered were nowhere to be seen, and Andy and I were left pacing the gravel parking lot carved sloppily out of the forest, and wringing our hands. If we missed that boat, it was all over—it meant another five days, at least, stuck in Ambon, arguing endlessly to get anywhere and see anything. It meant missing out on the critical timing of visiting the other islands and catching other boats further off. If those drivers didn’t show up quick, our vacation would be reeling, on the ropes, and just about ruined.

“If those guys don’t get here soon,” I started again.

“I know, I know.”

The shame of it is that otherwise Ambon is as close to a paradise as many could dream up. The landscape rolls in impossible spike and ridges, ringed with beaches numerous and dreamy. Thick rivers plunge down from the hills, verdant jungles coddle the villages, and the possibility of losing yourself on day-long treks back among the enchanting settlements of tiny homes with fruit trees outside and tiny churches with Vacation Bible School posters is precisely why many visit in the first place.

Ambon City, part picturesque, part problematic
Ambon City, part picturesque, part problematic

Aside from modern tourists draws, the long slit of the primary harbor makes a perfect parking spot for huge, deep-ocean boats, and its central location to all the outlying Moluccas cemented Ambon as the administrative capitol of the colonizing Dutch. Vine-laden forts dot the hillsides and harbors, and despite the bad-news history books portrayal of the oppressive hand of the Europeans, the populace seems enthralled by them.

Dutch flags adorn jackets and caps and buses; people rooted fanatically for the team during the recent World Cup, and plenty of Holland-Ambon couples and mixed-ethnic families strolled through the town for the holidays, and absolutely everywhere we went, kids and adults alike were eager to shout a “Hello Mister!” and wave frenetically.

The height of the Hello Mister frenzy came a couple days before, on a jaunt up the beaches of the southern leg of the island. A wild group of tweens scampered gleefully around our camera, cavorting in the powdery sand, splashing themselves and one another in cold, turquoise water, and squealing nonstop. It was the start of their Ramadan school holiday, and they were crazy with the holiday splendor and the too-seldom tourist from afar.

The Hello Mister frenzy.
The Hello Mister frenzy.

“Be careful, though, the lady selling dinner from her garage later warned us. It’s not always like that. Some here still hate the Dutch.” She glanced around the street outside her makeshift café, dark and punctuated with faded streetlights. She added a bit more spicy chicken to my plate. “A few years ago, a pair of travelers were killed downtown just because someone thought they heard a Dutch accent.”

I was skeptical of the news, but even so, violence is not that far removed from Ambon’s tropic shores. Hatred ran rampant here just a generation ago, and if you Google the island today, you’re likely to still find stories of the Christian-Muslim violence that filled the streets with bloodshed and barricades and international intervention just over ten years ago.

From ’99 on, more than a few spot in Indonesia suffered from the power vacuum left by Suharto’s downfall. Ambon, it seems, took it to extremes, and tension between the two halves of the city quickly spilled out of all control. Thousands fled, a primary street quickly became the warring border, and rampant acts of retaliation stained not just the city streets, but many of the fertile slopes in the outlying villages as well.

Today, no trace remains, just a gaudy “World Peace Gong” erected in a tiny plaza in the heart of Ambon City. We shaded our eyes from the sun and snapped some pictures, we found our nations’ flags and read the placards, but otherwise, the gentle flow of traffic swirled around, heedless of the gong of peace. A five minute visit was more than enough. The ticket-seller in her tiny booth was bored and texting.

The World Peace Gong seems to be doing its job.
The World Peace Gong seems to be doing its job.

Such a sleepy life plastered all over everything everywhere made the history of violence somehow hard to believe: was the guy grilling your fish one day, not too long ago, slashing at his neighbor with a machete? The lady on her front lawn coddling a grandbaby—perhaps just a few years ago screaming herself hoarse for revenge? Was the ojek driver staring at you across the plaza today long ago scarred and traumatized by nighttime torture at the hands of former friends?

All memories of those times seemed confined to the minds of foreigners. For the locals, the sleep-laden wash of the winds and tides had drowned that into the realm of nightmares and distant, foggy shame. The island swims in sleep and forgetting.

That made our furious wait on the distant beach even more unbearable: the worst thing for a hurry is to have everyone around chilled to the level of a summer melon. We panted and pranced and strained to catch a glimpse of the bikes—only the gentle sway of forgetful ferns and coconut-heavy palms. We started at the sound of every motor that passed—nothing for us. We sat on a log and stared at our watches.

A nice way to contemplate the neighboring islands
A nice way to contemplate the neighboring islands

Then, it happened.

Just as we were ready to give up hope and renounce the trip and hate Ambon forever, they arrived: Two heroes on 100 cc scooters.

They started to apologize, but we were already leaping on the backs of the bikes and spurring the drivers onward. Up and over the ridges and through the canyons sporting miniature waterfalls and flower-packed gorges, through the endless speed-bumps of fragrant villages drying tarps of yellow cloves in the streets, whipping around palm-laden curves parallel to beaches, I blinked the wind-engendered tears from my eyes and marveled at the natural beauty of Ambon.

Just another joyride through the island roads
Just another joyride through the island roads

Towns smell of cloves and spice, thin beaches ring the island in crescents of beauty, verdant spikes of trees taller than Jakarta apartments spear toward the heavens, and over it all, a vast panorama of clouds constantly rolls out a fresh pageant for its idle spectators. Yes, the clouds are thick and robust and float calmly over everything. They mesmerize a moment, leave a lovely splotchy, shadowy patchwork over the miles of volcanoes and crystal seas, and somehow morph the landscape into something new every four minutes. One moment, a sun-drenched landscape glows before your eyes; the next, distant peaks are swathed in puffy, imposing blankets. Constantly rolling, constantly shifting, constantly wavering between sunburn blast and a chilly rainshower, Ambon’s clouds kept us guessing.

And that was true for most of the island: a lovely meal of grilled fish turned suddenly sour when the check came back at much higher prices than the menu, or a much-renowned beach proved far too rocky and waving to make much use of, but provided one of the absolute best dishes of rujak we’ve yet tasted in all of Indonesia. Another slip of coastline beauty sat splashed in mounds of trash—both washed ashore from Ambon City and dumped there by uncaring locals—and left us shaking our heads for the shame. The supposed snorkel beach proved grainy in visibility and sparse in coral. And one afternoon on the island’s northeast shore, reclining in inner tubes and sipping coconuts, we gazed out over the neighbor islands glistening in the sun and lapping under the clouds, and wondered whether they are likewise as adept at gouging prices and polluting their beaches and surprising with unexpected treats.

A great meal, until charged the hidden prices not published in the menu.
A great meal, until charged the hidden prices not published in the menu.

Ambon is the city swarming in sports players running amuck in its parks, full of youth and health and vibrance under the playful sun—something definitely missing from smoggy Jakarta, where parks get edged out by shopping malls and sunshine is best seen on TV. Ambon is also where, in that same park, Andy and I tried to nurse a dying kitten back to health with bakso and tissues and tenderness. Now, writing this, I wonder what happened to that cat.

Our little project in the nearby park.  I hope that little guy is doing alright today.
Our pet project in the nearby park. I hope that little guy is doing alright today.

Ambon always kept us guessing.

That uncertainty, even when mounted on our long-awaited ojeks and speeding through the island’s scenery, kept us from feeling relieved. We were still a long way from our target, the sun was getting low, and our boat was already steaming up the long harbor. At our designated drop-off point, we quickly negotiated a ride further up the shore—to the ferry boat crossing over to the city—and we sped on.

At the ferry, further frustration—a dozen locals rudely shoved in front of us, filled the last places on the boat, and left Andy railing in disbelief at the inconsiderate passengers who stared numbly ahead as is nothing had happened.

We were stuck another ten minutes in the heat of our hurry waiting on the next ferry.

A much more active city than Jakarta
A much more active city than Jakarta

Not everyone in Ambon proved to be price-gougers and swindlers, though. Mike at the airport—featured in Lonely Planet—is a one-man task force promoting tourism on the island. He runs a tiny guest house, has motorbikes (they say) available for rent (on non-holiday weekends), and is a friendly fount of smiling information, seated in a corner of the humid airport baggage claim room. He patiently, eagerly answered all our questions, and pointed us away from the over-charging taxis and to the local public bus running from the airport to the city.

And of course there’s Ibu Loce, who, when Andy and I were left trudging ridiculously through a village, after having been dropped a few kilometers short of the fabled white-sand beach of Alang that the entire island had been raving to us about, welcomed us to her tiny shop, explained how much further the beach actually was, called her son and his friend to take us, at a fair price, on their ojeks, and arranged a pick-up time as well.

Some more of Ambon's landscape - I don't know if you can find much better.
Some more of Ambon’s landscape – I don’t know if you can find much better.

She was so sweet, so kind, so wise in her retired-math-teacher and recently-widowed gaze over the top of her spectacles, that we couldn’t help but trust here immediately. It was trust well-placed, for the ojek boys of hers, despite showing up a bit late, rocketed us away along the miles and miles of coastline, up to the ferry boat post—slowly only a moment for a quick wave of thank you to the godsend Ibu Loce.

The ferry, when we finally boarded and crossed the harbor, left us on the long, long dock of Ambon City, which nightly drags out all the tent-like warungs and tiny restaurants hawking fried rice and fried chicken and fried soy, and (they say) fried dog and perhaps fried cat, if you know where to ask. Previous nights had found Andy and I at this same spot, sipping mango smoothies and laughing as the sun dropped over the distant ridge. Previous nights, we had strolled back through streets once filled with blood and hate, but now were bustling with children setting off fireworks as large as dynamite and screaming joyous Ramadan pleas for gifts and money from strangers. Previous nights we had hunted for Lonely Planet recommended choices among the alleys, and found them all closed for the holiday. We settled for dining in that garage-turned-restaurant, which turned out to be one of the best meals we enjoyed in Ambon.

A shot of the famous harbor from up above -- no wonder the colonizers were so in love with it.
A shot of the famous harbor from up above — no wonder the colonizers were so in love with it.

This evening, though, as the sun’s yellow softened to oranges and blues, there was no time for mangos or smoothies, as Andy and I sprinted back to the hotel, grabbed the backpacks, and still in our beachwear, lugged the backpacks off to the wharf, where our enormous boat was just arriving.

We made it aboard. Hungry, panting, sweating, we threw ourselves on the floor and thanked the Lord. We made it just in time for the boat to leave… four hours later.

That’s right: we sat in the harbor another four hours before setting sail.

No beach sunset. No calm dinner. No peaceful final ride through Ambon’s highlights. Just one last twist of Ambon’s beautiful knife.

That's our boat, taking its sweet time.
That’s our boat, taking its sweet time.

Ambon, like most of Indonesia, paints in no small strokes, and in no gray colors. The beauty that rests before your eyes brims with fantastic color: the seas throb deep blue and bright turquoise, the trees’ green put golf courses to shame, the mountains’ spikes leave all your imagination of what it possible in the coward of fiction humbled before the awful giant of Truth. But it’s also home to some of the most abominable cockroaches, rats, and parasites I’ve ever seen or heard of. The flavors in the food will tickle your tongue and send it whirling through loops and spires of wonder—but perhaps crush your stomach in throes of diarrheic fits an hour later. Its music charms and haunts the waking mind, tripping by in gongs and notes and chants ethereal, but the shrill din of its traffic scrape straight across your brain.

No, Indonesia is a land of no small strokes, and no gray hues. Everything is amped; everything exaggerated, and everything wondrously cranked to the limits of possibility. Ambon is Indonesia as perhaps nowhere else can quite capture, at the centerpiece of an overlooked history whose traces linger on through centuries, but which is largely forgotten by its people. Ambon needs to be seen, though it’s not exactly easy. Ambon is the loveliest island that takes the annoyingest toll to adventure through.

Ambon, in one moment, calls me back for another dance and another step through its crazy paces; it tells that if I come apart from Ramadan and in the sunny season my report of it will glow. And in the next, all the sketchy prices and haggling frustration and trash-slopped beaches come streaming back, and I know I’ll find a flight elsewhere.

A return trip to Ambon?  So much to reconsider...
A return trip to Ambon? So much to reconsider…

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