Banda Besar: planet earth’s spice factory

The towering almond and the double-tier forest
The towering almond and the double-tier forest

Under the arching limbs of centuries-aged almond trees, among their trunks wide as Chryslers and round as chop sticks, we stopped and stared. Far overhead, the leafy canopy rustled, peppering sun and shadows across the park-like earth, pillars of almond trees holding the roof aloft. Beneath, tufted sprouts of green trees popped merrily in and out of the shifting shade and sun—a vast orchard tucked beneath a towering old-growth canopy.

Into these miniscule dwellers beneath the giants, a boy of twelve reached a bamboo rod twice his height into the leaves, snaked the wicker basket affixed to the end under a peach-like fruit, and with a sudden, practiced snatch, jerked the fruit into the waiting cradle.

“That,” crooned the wiry man beside me, “is exactly how it’s been harvested for centuries.”

He took the fruit offered to him, rolled it gently between his thumb and index finger, and showed us the perfect split in its fleshy hide, revealing within a fire-red flower mottled with chocolate nut.

“And this,” his voice dropped to a dramatic whisper, “is what brought so much bloodshed and so much wealth here.”

Nutmeg plus mace -- that's what all the fuss was about.
Nutmeg plus mace — that’s what all the fuss was about.

The four of us stood a breathless moment in wonder, the only sound the rustle of tropic leaves in the double canopy swaying over us. “So, um…” I hesitated to ask, “can I eat it now?”

“Yeah,” Andy, who had already set the Canon to focus and started clicking through pictures, “I want a bite, too.”

This was Banda Besar, home to some of the wealthiest farms in world a few centuries back. It’s a tiny crescent of an isle, whose square meters total less than an average county back in Missouri. Fortunately for inhabitants, the wondrous soil available for work is doubled by a knife-edge ridge curving down its spine, is fertilized by the minerals churned from the neighboring volcano, is watered generously by the tropic clouds forever breezing in, and is perfectly suited to mass-produce this absurd little spice called nutmeg.

Banda Besar is home to the planet’s oldest and best nutmeg plantations, and for centuries this fruit, and this island, were the mysterious factory of the spice that thousands came screaming for back in Europe.

Almonds fall like rain through the forest.  Well, like rain you have to hunt for.
Almonds fall like rain through the forest. Well, like rain you have to hunt for.

It was said to ward off killer plagues.

It was rumored to keep meats fresher longer.

It gained notoriety as something of an aphrodisiac.

And all this in addition to the exotic flavors it draped over all foods.

No wonder its price climbed high than that of even gold.

Can't get enough of the huge almond trees.  Did I mention how tall they are?
Can’t get enough of the huge almond trees. Oh, and the smaller nutmeg to the side.

Status symbol of the wealthy and medicine of choice for the desperate, nutmeg ruled spice markets of the Orient and Europe since the days of Arabian traders plying thousands-miles treks across sand and mountain and hazard, since the times of fattened frigates sawing through the foamy seas, since people could muster up the gold and gunpowder to set sail in search of it.

Andy and I? We had just caught a public fairy that morning from neighboring Banda Neira: fifty cents, ten minutes, views postcard photographers would lock tripods over.

Yes, the spice tour is a delicacy in itself of the Bandas, one that most tourists, like us, can’t sail out of town without sampling.

The picking basket full of goodies.
The picking basket full of goodies.

The strange phenomenon around these parts, though, where the tourist drip in in trickles, is the group tour. Here’s how it works: usually there’s a charge for a boat and a charge for a guide. If you take two travelers or ten, the fuel spent is the same, the guide’s fee in constant. So, when chartering a little trip in these islands, it’s nice to lower your own expense by inviting some pals. Or some acquaintances. Or even some enemies, I guess, so long as they’re good for forking over their share of the split.

But who’s got room for enemies in these latitudes. The foreign soles who step these shores are no beer-swigging tourists on their spring-break carousal; no, here you get travelers. Here you get wizened vets on two-month treks through forgotten islands, six-week stints with nothing more planned than the distant date they must be back at work half a world away, nothing more packed than what can be carried on their back. They travel ultra cheap, split hairs over budgets, and stuff all their stuff in a moderate backpack.

They know more of this country than most of the locals.

They stay a few days, make some friends, split some group tickets, and each go their separate ways.

They laugh over bedbugs in too-cheap homestays, and swap tips on boat connections and street food and remedies for gurgling bellies in the grip of tropic wringing.

One of the views that keeps those travelers traveling.
One of the views that keeps those travelers traveling.

For the eight wanderers-turning-friends lodging in Abba’s guesthouse, we’d agreed to set sail for the cross-harbor spices a couple days ago. “Wanna do the spice tour?” the Dutch newlyweds asked over a steaming grilled fish and a heaping plateful of rice.

“Sure, why not,” said the Spaniards.

“We’re in,” from the Poles.

And from us: “Just as soon as we finish our hike up the mountain.”

“It’s a pretty big mountain,” Abba warned. “You’ll be sore. It’s not that—”

“Easy,” I sighed. “We’ll see you at the dock.”

Boats just begging for a lazy little joyride
Boats just begging for a lazy little joyride

We came. We hiked. We missed the boat. Forgive me, Abba, I ditched your group tour in favor of prancing atop a gorgeous volcano, and stumbling down its treacherous sides, and couldn’t get back in time.

It’s just as well, though, because now Andy and I were left to our own devices, our own time frame, and our own guide—albeit at our own price tag.

Abba, our enterprising landlord for our stay in the Bandas, courted a long-time colleague and local English teacher in the public schools for our purposes, sent us out the door one sunny morning, and hustled back inside to look after his dozen other boiling business concerns.

Getting to know the illustrious Mr. Maga
Getting to know the illustrious Mr. Maga

Maga was his name, and spice touring was his game. Well, that and teaching English—in a half dozen schools scattered across the islands. Plus he had a little nutmeg operation back at his homestead.  Plus he was a dad of two tiny daughters, whom he beamed over while scrolling through cell phone pics. And don’t forget the private guesthouse he was building out on Hatta—the distant, non-nutmeg stepchild of the Bandas.

“The prettiest island of them all,” Maga smiled wryly. “When the winds calm down, I’ll go back out there and try to finish two rooms in time for the next tour season.”

“When do you have time, you know, to do any of that?” I asked. “I mean, I teach, and that alone kind of drives me crazy sometimes.”

Maga smiled his thin smile and shrugged. “I guess you do something if you want to have a nice life for the family.”

Taking a break from the clove harvest.
Taking a break from the clove harvest.

His “something” is a healthy helping of everything—about like his knowledge of the Besar plantations. He strolled us through the tiny port village, regaled us with tales of a long-departed and much-loved Dutch matron who was kind to the locals, led us by the magic wells and let us have a sip, walked us through cemeteries of the nutmeg lords and vassals, and finally, landed us among the towering almonds and squat (in comparison) nutmeg and clove. It was a garden on the scale of the giants—tree tops swaying dizzying heights above, trunks round and straight into the upper reaches, and sprawling through the shade, the trees the world once voyaged and murdered and sold souls over.

All it took was a village kiddo with his bamboo doohickey and we held in our palms the ripening fruit of colonialism’s whopping kick-start.

Humbled and wondering what possesses us humans to such realms of madness, I stared at the fruit in my hands—the peachy flesh yielding to finger pressure, the fire-brand grip of the mace sweeping over the toughened shell of the prize.

This was it.

Nutmeg drying in the Banda sunshine
Nutmeg drying in the Banda sunshine

This was what sailors left wife and child for. A cargo hold of this could make a man for life. Months on the open seas in stomach-crunching waves and scarcely-charted channels all for the tongue’s delight—from these fields under my feet, for this fruit resting here in my hand.

“Uggh. It’s sour!” was the only thing I managed.

Maga laughed. “Yes, the fruit is tart indeed. You can use it for a jam, or even to make some wine. But no one eats it raw.”

Thanks, Maga.

But the samplings were half the fun—tasting almonds dropped by the pigeons, sniffing the cloves at every stage of their drying, and ceaselessly craning our necks to the leafy umbrellas above, hoping to spot the elusive pigeons, the Grade-A nutmeg spilt, the fluorescent buds of the cloves.

fresh cloves
These cloves couldn’t get any fresher.

Maga knew all the stories by heart—how the Dutch proliferated the almonds as soon as they knew that nutmeg thrived in shade, how the endemic pigeons unique to these isles chew the nuts and spit them back to earth for the village kids to forage for, how the land changed hands over the centuries, but only came to rest in the locals’ grip recently, how the picking seasons came and went, and how now the crops are bought out nearly all in advance by Chinese merchants who shell out a fine price for them.

“They like to sell in advance, here,” Maga observed, walking through the double-deck orchard with his bony hands clasped behind his back. “If they want to build a house, or have a wedding.”

The effects of that shelling out was seen through the villages—sturdy little houses with quality construction and crafted woodworking, brightly-painted homes blazing their hues in the August sun, neat little fences lining tidy little yards sprawling with tarp after tarp of cloves baking and drying in nature’s open oven.

Strolling among the Banda Besar villages, tarps full of cloves drying in the heat
Village life: drying clothes, drying cloves

“The farmers here earn well,” Maga repeated as we slipped through the narrow lanes smelling for all the world like a Christmas fruitcake. “Some, if they own enough trees, can even afford to make the Haj.”

“And there?” I pointed to wall decked in graffiti.

“Ah, yes, the flag of Palestine. You see that they support the Palestinian movement quite strongly here.”

The staunch Islamic swing of the Islands is yet another twist in the centuries’ saga of Bandas: following the Dutch-fueled massacres of the local populace, a Muslim workforce came transplanted from Java and Sulawesi, where the empire-builders stood on firmer footing with the islanders.

So they came, and became partly Christianized, and all lived in lovely, feudal status quo for centuries. But the inter-religion violence that erupted in the Moluccas following Suharto’s downfall in ’99 led to a massive exodus of the Christians up to Seram island, north of Ambon. The Muslims stayed and prospered.

It ain't all spice and smile: Don't forget the fish.
It ain’t all spice and smile: Don’t forget the fish.

“Sad, sad days,” lamented Maga. “Now they come back on Christmas or their holidays to see their old homes, I think.” He was staring out though the streets to the shimmering haze of azure sea beyond. “But you know, it’s all OK, now. They come, and we speak nicely, and we understand each other.”

We were sitting now, fittingly enough, alongside the crumbling stones of the ancient Dutch fortress on the hillside. A half dozen of these stalwart little bastions are sprinkled across the narrow channel leading to the Neira harbor. No one was getting in or getting out without a pounding from the canon ringed all around them. Our vantage point was a sleepy little shade tree on a bluff overlooking the village below and the channel beyond, and the volcano and vast open ocean further out. We basked in the perfect ring of landscape—perfect for blasting a smoking crater in the hull of any unauthorized vessel.

The drying process of the precious cloves
The drying process of the precious cloves

The fort’s rusted armaments, the sleepy town napping away in the cloves’ sweet scent, the breathless jungle morphed into a giant garden, and the looming volcano puffing an uneasy sleep over it all— Banda itself has become the flavor that made it famous: the sweet and the sour, the tingle and the power, the fierce red flower gripping the treasure at its core… and all wrapped up in a fruit smaller than my fist, all on a string of islands too small to feature on your local library’s globe.

Yes, Banda is the layer after layer of depth and texture to every face and every street, and every story. It is something ponderous to behold, with the fort and its canon at your back, with the paradise coast spread before your eyes.

The view from the fort
The view from the fort

A thought came to me there—that it’s easy to blame the Dutch without ever ‘fessing up to the greed and the self-obsession that lurks hidden within myself. Or within us all. Or—

“Excuse me,” Maga interrupted timidly, “Before we go, may I have a picture with you? Something to show my daughters?”

A couple clicks later, we found ourselves twisting down the tiny roads back into the stone walls and bright paint of the village. Only then did we realize how long we had been gone—a tour normally passing an hour or two had stretched the entire morning and left lunch shaking her head for our shame.

Fluffiness for sale
Fluffiness for sale

But there was no hurry. Maga stopped to barter for a pair of ultra-fluffy bunnies for his girls. We stopped to sample tea and nibble cookies in a guesthouse. The boat at the dock let us linger on the bow for as many glossy sea photos as we liked. A trio of girls giggled from behind a beached launch and watched.

Cruising back across the dreamy tide to Banda Neira, I gazed across the wide sweep of Banda Besar’s ridge. We had only scratched the surface, I knew. That entire island is swimming in the trees and the fruit and the shaded plantations where bloodshed and lust and defiance and adventure have filtered into the soil, have mingled their essence with the mineral earth, have stained and sustained the life that drew the world here to start with. There are miles and miles to hike through the ponderous woods of Besar, and endless scents of spice, and the haunting coo of the Banda pigeon above.

This is the Banda Besar, the world’s loveliest garden turned spice factory for the globe.

Plenty of sunshine for the ride back home
Plenty of sunshine for the ride back home
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