Banda Neira: tops my list

Both the town and the island bear the name Banda Neira
Both the town and the island bear the name Banda Neira

I know it’s not fair—I fell in love with the place before we set out to see it. So of course when our Pelni pulled within sight of the Bandas’ first shores—those glowing green hotspots of heaven hazy in the distant clouds—I was crazy with expectation to arrive.

Centerpiece of our trip, bull’s eye of our Maluku experience, mysterious isles long sought and long hidden from the prying eyes of the flavor-obsessed West—these were the original spice islands, the tiny jags of volcanic earth squirreled away in some of the deepest and crankiest seas worth sailing.

When the Dutch finally wrestled and bribed and threatened and corrupted their way here, sailors claimed the feisty volcano in the center of the archipelago was fuming angry clouds, and that hundreds of long war-boats bristling with burly natives in battle gear swooped out to escort the foreigners in.

Sunset--from the most scenic airport in the world
Sunset–from the most scenic airport in the world

Our own arrival was less dramatic.

As the Pelni plowed on through the sullen waves, the clouds lifted a little and the sunshine washed down the slopes of that same Gunung Api which welcomed the Dutch with brimstone. It’s not big, as far as volcanoes go: just two thousand feet over the sea. But it does dominate the tiny realm of isles, and its peak provides a trek-worthy view of the islands that once set the world ablaze.

Vibrant greens of the Bandas
Vibrant greens of the Bandas

All the outlying specks of the Bandas, they say, are the remnants of past explosions—the Teutonic blasts that hurled chunks of lava and earth and cosmic shovel-fulls of ash around like a toddler who didn’t get his favorite toy. What stands today is the central cone (still smoking and smoldering and occasionally spewing ash), a ridge of forgotten previous peak, and a half-moon of what was once an enormous caldera rim. Oh, and a splattering of smaller isles left over from those.

But today, instead of smoke and brimstone and flesh-melting lava, we witnessed the soft soil alive and rich in nutrients, and the fertile offspring of such—hillsides steeper than Alps and Rockies bursting in coconut palms and papayas, towering monoliths of trees draped in vines, thick and lush and proudly burnishing their own shade of green.

When the sun busted through the next bank of clouds, it set the whole scene electric in a brilliant glow of green.

These were the Bandas.

Arrival in the Banda Islands
Arrival in the Banda Islands

These once raised empires and set states squirming for their spices. These were what Columbus sailed in search of. These, the target that dictated sciences of astronomy and cartography and shipbuilding for centuries. This was the dream that kept kings counting treasure-holds at night and gambling on expeditions all their lives.

And here I was, poor school teacher that I am, sailing right into the teeth of it all.

These soils and this climate just happen to be the planet’s best for cultivating the capricious mace and nutmeg—flavors the world would spend and connive and lie and murder to get its hands on. And that’s pretty much what happened for a couple centuries after the Dutch arrived—ship after ship came sailing through the ancient ridges, bristling cannons and greed. Their object: a simple fruit that grew in exuberance.

Well, more lie boatloads of that fruit. And I guess it wasn’t quite so simple.

The colonizers quickly blocked out sturdy little forts, cut off the populace from their old trade partners, and embarked on a massive expansion of plantations. The heart of their operation was the tiny green shelf of Banda Neira, chief among the islands. Palaces, offices, fortresses, cannons—all fell into place all too quickly.

A local warhorse--er, boat
A local warhorse–er, boat

Foreign power waxed and throbbed; locals fought back, to be sure, but the invaders somehow thrived. Yes, of course resistance reared its incensed mane and… well, it got stamped out—brutally stamped out. So brutally, in fact, that nearly no natives of Banda have survived until today. What few remain live in exile on the Kei islands, a few hundred miles to the southeast.

The missing labor force was quickly replaced by slaves imported from other isles. In a few years, the Bandas had morphed from a tiny green paradise to cash-crop sweatshop, its people a conglomeration of transplanted communities from Java and Sulawesi, its history a quickly-mottling mix of blood and money and spice.

Eventually, seeds were smuggled out by some enterprising Brits, and other nations’ plantations spread in productivity. The Bandas were milked for profit as long as the spices had a stranglehold, as long as the Dutch could turn a profit, and then abandoned.

Appreciating the views from the fort
Appreciating the views from the fort

The Bandas, the world-renowned and ever-exotic spice islands, the dreamed-of hero in the mystery of the south seas, were forgotten. Blame the wake of the world wars. Blame the wars for independence. Blame the world’s clamoring after Hollywood stars to Bali. Blame the geography that left Banda withered on a far vine of Indonesia’s archipelago as the fledgling nation struggled.

Decades later, they are scarcely returning to tourism.

“Bali receives over 2.5 million visitors a year,” Abba, the owner of our guest house explained as he led us through the tiny streets of cafés and mini-markets and sunshine. “Here in the Bandas, we get six hundred.”

“Six hundred… thousand?” I asked.

“No, just six hundred. Ah, here we are.”

And there we were—standing already in front of the lovely little garden in front of Abba’s lovely little guesthouse. Erudite, educated, and tireless, Abba not only runs the lodging with the biggest internet presence on the island, a successful nutmeg export, a tour guide service, and the island’s best buffet, but he rents snorkel gear, runs a tiny internet set-up, and sells home-made nutmeg jams.

Cat naps everywhere -- the Banda Neira pace of life
Cat naps everywhere — the Banda Neira pace of life

After a snack and a brief introduction to the premises, he mentioned a festival up the mountain, and a nice beach for snorkeling further on. “It only happens once a year,” he added.  “Just for Ramadan.  You’re in luck, actually, that your boat pulled in today.  Not many get to see it.”

Normally, he could rent out a scooter, but it was busy that day.

And we were off and trekking—past the seldom-used strip of undulating pavement that passes for an airport, up the forested fang of a mountain, through narrow lanes of rock and basic pavement, led always onward by the haunting music drifting through the green vines above and the crackling leaves to beneath. Oh, and we also followed the motorbikes. Every bike from everywhere seemed to be headed in the same direction.

Gossip circles chewing the fat in front of tiny houses waved as we passed.  Tiny yards were full of chicken and children.  These became more and more frequent. The bikes become more and more frequent. Slowly, a village emerged from the thick forests. Now, the clash of gamelan cymbals and gongs was unmistakable. Youths and adults in their best Batik and well-pampered hair scootered by and waved. Perfume and cologne mixed with the sweaty and fecund tropic air.

Under a large rectangle tent, we, as visiting foreign dignitaries, were given preferential seats behind the chief, and soon the ceremony commenced—long speeches, lively music, and dances extracted from native Sulawesi took up their ancient places again, and the populace celebrated the breaking of the Muslim Ramadan fast in all the style and splendor of an exotic tropic island.

The mysterious old gentleman
The mysterious old gentleman

“Watch out for that guy,” I whispered to Andy, pointing out a skinny gentleman who had to be eighty. “He’s been smoking like crazy and is just itching to dance.”

“I know, I know,” she whispered and readied the camera. “I saw him too.”

After another welcome from the polite and educated chief, a youngish man with a foreign education and, like Abba, a penchant for promoting the Bandas, the gongs rang out in hypnotic song, the center of the tent was cleared, and in trooped the first dance group.

Not far into their number, we got our wish: the ancient man twisted and jived and jimmied among the youths, smiling his wrinkled smile and kicking lively feet through the dust. The crowd roared in approval. Andy leaped to the side of the stage for better angles.

Despite the trickling, quick pace of the gongs, the young women danced a stoic, heavy dance—eyes fixed ahead, movements slow and focused, one hand featuring a fan, the other an open handkerchief. After a few minutes, the boys pranced in at a lively gait, strutting among the outstretch fans and palms, feet flying through lively paces of the dust-clouded little jigs through the rows of planted girls. Sometimes circling one, sometimes weaving among many, always in pompous clicks and shakes like so many exotic birds flaunting exotic feathers.

Eventually, each of the guys deposited tokens and gifts into the handkerchiefs of his chosen girl.

Taking a break after the big dance
Taking a break after the big dance

The girls danced stoically on, hearts pounding in anticipation for who would drop the lovely little favors of affection in their handkerchief. Eyes straight ahead, waiting on the males to favor them, wondering who would choose whom, they fanned and looked pretty and waited to be chosen and wondered who he would be. They stuck to their roles and slid gracefully through their measured paces while the gongs tripped quickly through more island songs. The guys scampered through the ranks of dancing women, visiting the colorful flowers like so many flitting, buzzing bees.

I wondered how closely the dance imitated life in the villages. And I imagined, backstage, the girls rifling through the contents of their handkerchiefs, gasping stories of who they had seen dropping what in whose handkerchief as they fixed their eyes strictly ahead.

Other dances followed, including a fight-dance number with bamboo faux-knives and impressive displays of island martial arts posing and improvising. Our ancient chain-smoking friend stepped back into the ring on this one as well, to the huge applause of the waiting crowd.

Time to dance-fight old-school
Time to dance-fight old-school

By now our backs were crowded with the ever-tightening ring of onlookers craning necks and jostling and pushing ever closer to snatch brief glimpses of the action. We bowed humble thanks and slipped away to the beach.

Yes, it was high time for the beach.

This was what I’d been waiting for—a chance to glance not merely at the kaleidoscope of history and culture of the Bandas, but to check out the craziness under the waves. They say that Banda has some of the most verdant and diverse and interesting snorkeling to be seen in all of Indonesia. Sure, maybe the stars of Indonesia’s diving show get more press, but the underwater life in Banda, they say, is some of the finest to be explored.

Crowds were starting to get thick
Crowds were starting to get thick

The only drawback? Well, the beaches are kind of mundane.

Sand is yellow-gold and reasonably soft, views gaze out over semi-precious scenes, nice palms stretch out here and there, and all in all, it’s what a nice spot in the tropics ought to be. Something was missing, though, something… amazing. It was all just good, all just a step, a vague and hard-to-explain step, away from great.

Be that as it may, I could hardly keep myself from scampering down the mountain like a sugar-rushing kid on Christmas morning. “C’mon, C’mon,” I couldn’t stop myself, “faster.”

“Just take it easy,” Andy was busy with the camera along the route. “The beach isn’t going anywhere.”

Fastforward a few more moments, and you’d see us strapping on fins and masks and flippering out past the sandy shelf to the drop off. Robust coral came bursting in firework colors and massive schools of reef-fishes. Waving anemone swaying in the clear waves, rainbow fish swifting among them, bulbous hunky purple-yellow sea squirts affixed to the rocks, and the gaping maws of enormous eels greeted us.

Plenty of eels pop out to say hello
Plenty of eels pop out to say hello

It was almost amazing.

The drawback, you ask?

Well, it was windy season, and the waves came buffeting in like a drunken bear, slapping water into our tubes, jerking us around in tough currents, washing downright chilly baths against our skin, and churning up sand that hampered visibility.

The snorkeling was bliss as long as the sun was out. But thirty seconds later, a tropical thunderhead came sailing in, turned the landscape gray, and brought out all the shivers to go with it. And then the sun and flush times reigned again for a minute.

We hadn’t meant to arrive in windy season—it was a mistake of assuming all Indonesia operates on the same seasons as Java. Why not, since Java seems to dictate everything else in the rest of Indonesia?

Not so, we found out the week before we left—Java’s impositions do have some limits. Climate is one of them.

“Well,” we asked each other, “can we feasibly change the destination so late in the game?”

Not really. The windy waves and chilly splashes would be a fact of life for the next week or two. But on the bright side, well, the bright side was right before our goggles, wriggling the astound wriggle of life in the seas—so vast, so abundant, so beyond my understanding. Shivers are a small price to pay for scenery such as this. I plunged back down to catch a few more pictures.

The beaches' real draw lies beneath the waves
The beaches’ real draw lies beneath the waves.  Oh, and another huge eel.

Over the next week, Banda Neira would leave me shivering on its shores more than a few occasions. Andy was right, too, that its beaches couldn’t compare with the other diva islands of Indonesia. Yet even so, the chance to walk a few blocks and plunge into the watery wonderland was something I’d been craving—the dizzy spectacle of fishes and squids and forests of coral just a few feet away, just below the surface of that choppy water. Time and again, as our daily adventures in the Bandas would come to a close, I’d grab the GoPro and goggles and dive back into the deep for the final hour, the last thirty minutes, the finishing bits of sunlight.

Of particular interest to me, as all other visitors, it seems, was the elusive Mandarin fish. Colored brighter than Vegas on New Year’s, it’s a tiny little elf among the sea life, but notoriously difficult to track down in the wild. Except in Banda Neira, that is, where the Mandarin fish dwells ridiculously close to the city.

“Just hop into the harbor,” they told me, “you’ll find them next to the old resort.” I tried, but no luck. “Go again with a flashlight,” they repeated. I was going to, but forgot the light. “Try again tonight,” Andy appealed. All I got was more of the harbor’s gunk—in surprisingly clear visibility—and the stunted coral and pitied fish carving out a life among the trash. None of the Mandarin, though.

“Next time,” I consoled myself. “I’ll catch a glimpse of one next time.”

Friendly teens invited us to their band's gig
Friendly teens invited us to their band’s gig

Aside from dances and snorkeling, scenic views and quaint village cooking, Banda Neira pumps a visitor full of as much history as he can stomach. Tour the forts—both rotting and restored—learn the Dutch admirals’, both admirable and villainous—names, and see firsthand the houses of banishment for politic prisoners and the headquarters of companies that once churned out incomparable riches for crowns abroad. Weathered placards mark genocides and bloodshed, note capitols and battles, speak to human injustice raging on a sleepy little strand of island.

“These mischievous Dutch,” I told Andy as we watched the sun splash the fortress around us in glowing oranges and baths of gold, “sure picked a pretty spot to anchor their empire.”

“Yeah,” she agreed, and snuggled closer, “you can’t get much better than this.” The sun dripped behind the volcano’s flank, the rolling film of the time lapse photo ran on, and we were reminded how nice it is at times to set the camera down a moment and enjoy what your eyes can record. And what the time lapse can catch.

The entrance to yet another Dutch fort
The entrance to yet another Dutch fort

Aside from the fort, the airport is another nice spot to hang out. You get the same view of the sunset, but now from a tropical highland overlooking the tiny town and the narrow channel of crystal water sliding between the islands. Plus, if you ever feel like borrowing a motorbike and racing down the landing strip, there’s no one to stop you. Actually, there are a ton of people to help you—half the teens from the villages are there, and racing up and down the asphalt is about the best way to wile away the remnants of the light and usher in the chirping evening songs.

What you see is what you get with this airport
What you see is what you get with this airport

For food, five bucks can buy you a great meal. Actually, we enjoyed smoked fish and a hefty pile of yucca for one-fifty. Throw in a mango smoothie, and you’re still under budget.

For eight, you can gorge yourself on Abba’s guesthouse’s all-you-can-eat island goodness: rice flavored in the local spice, fresh fish right of the grill, sambal and veggies and eggplants with almonds done up in local style. Lodging—in quite nice digs, nonetheless—runs less than twenty a night. Upper end rooms run thirty or so. Locals smile and love you. They know all the tourists within an hour (there were a grand total of seven of us during our stay), and will greet you grinning every day you wander through their streets. It’s no secret that more tourists are good for every local’s pocket, so they all jump aboard the welcome wagon.

A well-guarded secret
A well-guarded secret

Throw all these facts together, and you get a place that, well, that I have no idea how it stays so secret. If the world knew what waited in Banda, they’d be kicking down doors for the bi-weekly flight and petitioning Indonesia’s government to subsidize more. The Pelnis from Ambon would be swamped with backpackers headed here, and all the guesthouses would be overbooked and expanding.

They’d even-out that Bali-Banda tourist gap quick.

But no one seems to know.

And of all the varied spots I’ve stepped across these islands, Banda is still the top of my list. Maybe, though, that’s because it’s so little known and so well hidden. It stays cheap and it feels disconnected with normal life. It feels fresh and ancient at once—like prying open the rusted padlock of history’s garage, but finding a sleek convertible waiting under the tarps and cobwebs.

Banda is not something to forget any time soon. It’s a place to get back to in a hurry.

Letting Banda work its magic
Letting Banda Neira work its magic

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