M A L U K U
These are the Spice Islands. Cloves from Ternate and Tidore, nutmegs from the Bandas, were the triggers that released so much violence and jealousy in the hearts and minds of overseas traders, especially Europeans. Curiously, there is not much evidence that the locals ever cared very much about their spices. Wherever you live in South-East Asia, there are plenty of pungent, aromatic flavourings to be had from local resources. It was quite usual, here as elsewhere, to fight your neighbours from the next island or the next valley, but not about spices. Why then were the foreigners so insistent that they must have nutmeg and cloves, when they could have got lemon grass, turmeric and galingale in profusion? (Not, of course, chillies, which were brought to us by the discoverers of Central and South America.) The usual explanation is that spices masked the taste of salted or rotten meat at the end of winter, but food historians now think that this was not so. People simply liked the taste. (I have a suspicion that one of the chemical constitutents of nutmeg may be mildly addictive.) They also used nutmeg and clove as medicines. More important perhaps, rare spices were a good way of forcing down your guests' throats how rich you were.
Maluku is the name of the Indonesian province which the English have long called the Moluccas, an area that includes Ambon (still called Amboina in some European history books), its much larger neighbours Seram (Ceram in old atlases) and Buru, then Halmahera and its tiny neighbours Ternate and Tidore, the minute Banda Islands, and so on and on - the Tanimbars, the Aru Islands, the Kei, Bacan, Morotai... nearly a thousand of them, some so tiny and remote that even imagination can scarcely reach so far. If you have weeks to spare, it must be an unforgettable experience to cruise these waters in a comfortable ship. PELNI, the Indonesian state-owned shipping line, runs services with modern German-built ships whose first-class cabins and food are said to be excellent. The sea here is deep and intensely blue; inshore water is translucent emerald, clear and unpolluted. But it is the sky and clouds and the light that put on the most memorable shows, especially around dawn and sunset, as if the sea was a stage for some extraordinary performance, to be played out by water and air and distance.
On Bandaneira there is a grass-grown jetty where, four hundred years ago, Dutch merchant ships loaded nutmeg as part of the Netherlands' bid to dominate the world economy. It is a very quiet place now. When I walked down to it, I found a handsome sailing ship tied up against its stones. On the foredeck, a woman was cooking over two or three charcoal stoves, and there was a little group of men at the stern. Two were repairing and replacing timbers, using a wooden plane and an adze; the others were waiting around and gossiping until their advice was needed.
Was it a fishing boat? I asked. No, it was a trading ship. Where did she sail to? Surabaya. What cargo did she carry? Sago, tiles, copra, iron tools, rice, whatever was going. When was she built? I had already seen a wooden plaque over the companionway with the figure 78 carved on it; the rest of the date was hidden by a heavy rope. One of the men pushed the rope aside. Imagination was running away with me. I quite expected to see that the ship was a hundred years old. But of course she wasn't; she was built in 1978, of local timber, to a design that goes back to the lovely ships in which the Bugis people of Sulawesi once terrorised the archipelago, and further still to those that brought the Portuguese explorers to the Spice Islands in the time of Henry the Navigator.
These islands are too far east to catch the full impact of the monsoon rain clouds, and many are too small either to make the clouds release their moisture or to catch whatever rain does fall. They are rocky, mountainous, dry, covered for the most part by jungle or scrub. They grow little or no rice, and the original staples were taro, sago and yams, with sweet potatoes and cassava arriving here in the early Portuguese ships. Coconuts of course grow everywhere (the eruption of Gunung Api in 1988 destroyed 120,000 coconut palms, but there seem to be lots left) and there are bananas, breadfruit and excellent durian. There are pockets of fertile soil in many places which are used for maize, beans, squashes and various leaf vegetables, but you are obviously not going to grow aubergines and fancy salads in these tropical conditions. For variety and excitement at table, the one food you should be able to depend on here is fish.
I admit that I found Maluku a disappointment gastronomically, though there are some good things which can be further improved. We went first to Ambon, where we stayed in a family hotel whose management and chef had all graduated from hotel school; it was therefore well run and the dining room was good enough to attract not only the hotel's guests but people from the town as well. Several of the recipes in this section were given me by the chef, Stefanie Wairisal, who also went to a lot of trouble to cook a complete Ambon banquet for us. It contained, as I expected, some excellent fish and seafood dishes and some very good local cooked salads. In general, however, the fish in these parts lack the variety I had hoped for. The fishermen here catch a great deal of tuna, and on Banda we got tired of the same overcooked pieces of tuna re-appearing on the table at meal after meal. Most of the more interesting fish, the anchovies and shrimps particularly, seem to be harvested by Japanese and Korean trawlers and exported, under complex agreements about aid and war reparations.
An Indonesian guest at our hotel on Banda went out for a day's sea fishing and came home with a splendid barracuda. When it had been weighed (17 kg) and photographed, he wanted to barbecue it and share it with the crew of his boat. But they whisked it from under his nose and took it to the market and sold it, saying it wasn't good to eat.
EASTER IN AMBON
There are many Catholics in Ambon, and we had arrived on the day before Good Friday. In the Outer Islands, just as much as in Jakarta, it is helpful to know the right people, and the right person to meet as you step off the plane at Ambon is a one-eyed man with one thumb and a severe limp. His business card says starkly: Jemmy Lilipaly, Informan. In a remarkably short time our baggage, Jemmy and we ourselves were rattling down the airport road in an ancient taxi, and while we were on his island he kept us fully informed about everything, ensuring that we put a reasonable amount of money into the local economy but were not swindled.
Next day, we all set off early in the same taxi to find the airline office, which was shut. In a church nearby, a packed congregation launched lustily into Cwm Rhondda. We drove along the coast and took a motor boat to Pulau Haruku, the nearest of the Lease Islands. After a bumpy fifteen-minute voyage our keel ploughed into the sand and we walked up the beach just as the villagers were singing the last Good Friday hymn. A curious and excited holiday crowd followed us along the village street and gathered outside the house into which Jemmy took us. A good deal of the front room was occupied by four enormous loudspeaker cabinets, and I was afraid these might suddenly spring to life, but I need not have worried. All that was required of us was to make polite conversation, drink savagely sweet orange syrup and eat sweet cakes, and be admired by astonished, silent children. Soon we were joined by people from church, walking in sober procession along the street, dressed in shimmering black silks with the ladies in jet-embroidered sashes. Everyone welcomed us warmly, but there was a formality in the air that I found a little chilling. Now that church was out, the kepala desa, the village head, would be at home to receive us.
Another pleasant, quiet little house in a side street; the kepala was a young man who seemed to live comfortably though not luxuriously. As we talked, I was aware of two pairs of bright female eyes watching us from the curtain behind him; we might have been back in the eighteenth century.
Then we set off to look at the ruins of the fort, which I suppose the Dutch built; but we never reached it, as our way led past the church, and we were greeted there by more men in shiny black suits who wanted us to take their picture. They showed us the plaque that recorded the building of the church by the first Predikant, Pastor Kam, in 1820. This is a sternly Protestant area. Inside was the circular North-German style pulpit, looking very like the mimbar in a mosque, where, no doubt, Pastor Kam had preached, his voice echoing from the wooden sounding-board above his head. When the elders of this kirk learnt that I was looking for local food, they insisted on dictating an unappetizing recipe for sticky cakes, and then asked persuasively for a cash donation towards their project of rebuilding their sea wall. As soon as they got it, their interest in us was fully satisfied and we were free to go.
I had sprained my knee a few days earlier, and found walking painful, so we spent part of the next day sitting in the shade on a quiet beach and talking to Jemmy about the island and its people. He told us he was born in Ambon, but as a young man went to live in East Java. He was a passenger in a bus that was involved in a bad road accident. He thought I was crazy even to consider letting doctors operate on my knee; for years after the smash, he said, they wanted to amputate various bits of him, in addition to what he had already lost, but he had refused to let them. He preferred to trust Javanese folk medicine, the tukang pijat who massage you and the dukun who make spells. At 62, he was obviously very healthy, full of energy and greatly enjoying life, so his faith in them seemed justified. I called up my own reserves and spent the afternoon in the hotel kitchen, helping Stefanie Wairisal, or rather talking to her while she created our Ambonese dinner. Almost all the dishes she cooked are among the recipes in this section or in the chapter on sweets, so I will not describe them here. When I asked her what her Indonesian customers ordered, she said, "Mostly steak."
Digestible as the dinner was, we had a disturbed night. In every part of Indonesia, the local mosques broadcast the call to subuh, the dawn prayer, well before dawn and any time after 4 a.m. The Christians have only one night a year when they can get their own back (or possibly two, if they do the same for Christmas). At 3 in the morning, loudspeaker vans drove around town haranguing the people to salute this happy day: a torrent of rhetoric ending with an amplified shout of Bangun! Bangun!, awake, awake! Then a shattering burst of rock music, and a little after that, not surprisingly, a chattering of hundreds of excited children. Half an hour later, the mosque; and shortly after the mosque was finished, a self-important cock began to crow.
Rather later on Easter morning we were able to make the closer acquaintance of the owners of the Hotel Mutiara, Andre Sitanala and his mother. When they came out of church, we ate steamed lobster and grilled squid together at a restaurant in town and they told us how the hotel had grown out of a large private house, starting with the spare bedrooms being let off for overnight guests. It was just the sort of small family hotel, professionally run, that I would like to see all over Indonesia, and it seemed to be fairly full even at a time of year when there were few tourists.
Andre took us for a ride around town. I cannot honestly say that Ambon is a beautiful city, much of it having been redeveloped at breakneck speed over the past twenty years. But no Indonesian town is beautiful in its buildings or its streets; it is the life that goes on in them that makes it unforgettable. The developers of Ambon have been much criticised for stripping all the coral from nearby reefs to use as aggregate, and the grey concrete of their buildings certainly makes me wish they had left the coral for the fish to play in. Still, the place has character, it buzzes with life even after lunch on Easter Day, and if visiting snorkellers have to go further afield to find their underwater gardens then this at least spreads a little foreign currency over other parts of the island.
We looked at the cathedral, with the slightly hysterical statue of St Francis Xavier outside, confronting a well-meaning crab which hands back to him the crucifix he had dropped overboard. At the far end of the main street is the sports field, with a much more astonishing statue of the Ambonese hero Pattimura, brandishing a spear and shield and looking frankly grotesque. On a hilltop above the town is a more impressive piece of work, a colossal bronze of Martha Christina Tiahahu. Pattimura and Tiahahu were leaders of local resistance to the Dutch around 1820; he was executed in Ambon, she was exiled to Java but starved herself to death. She gazes out across the harbour, grasping a broad-bladed spear, her massive head of bronze hair seemingly lifted by the wind. The three statues, and what they say about the opinions of the people who made and paid for them, might set up an interesting dialogue in the mind of any visitor. I also liked the two mosques that stand side by side at the end of one of the main streets. One was intended to replace the other, which should then have been pulled down; but there was a popular outcry against this, so the older one was allowed to remain. Such a campaign might not cause much comment in England, but in Indonesia it is a quite extraordinary event. Apart from what it says about the Ambonese feeling for the past, it gives the student of mosque architecture a textbook example for the comparison of old and new. "Old" of course means perhaps seventy years.
Andre took us to his mother's house a few kilometres out of town, in a sequestered spot near the shore, well shaded by trees in a delightful garden. We talked about the soil and what will grow in it, and I asked him why there seemed to be no ricefields on Ambon, though the ground was obviously fertile. He said the people have never learned the technique of growing rice, which is very laborious, and they see no need for it. A single sago palm, between eight and twelve years old, will produce enough sago to feed a family for four months, with much less work than rice demands. With the sago they eat kenari nuts, kangkung or water spinach, a few vegetables that they grow for themselves, and a great deal of seafood. If they want rice they buy it in the market; it is imported from Java, and from Seram, the island that you constantly see from the north coast of Ambon. Seram is far larger than Ambon, and looks rather sinister on the near horizon; its forest-clad hills are obviously difficult to penetrate, and it is almost unknown to outsiders, or at least to the tourist trade.
As the sun began to decline into a bank of pearly grey cloud, we dropped in at a couple of beaches which were evidently well-known to local people and geared up to receive holiday crowds. Both had about equal numbers of visitors at this late hour, but as one was very extensive and the other very cramped our impressions of each were quite different. At the full one we sat on a little wooden platform and drank tea. At the empty one there was a pleasantly elegiac fin de weekend atmosphere. We wandered under low trees and watched tiny waves break listlessly. Even the traders seemed to have packed up for the day, except for two little girls who were selling baby turtles. They had rigged up two or three broom handles or bamboos among the low branches, and from them hung pink plastic shopping bags bulging with what must have been very warm sea water. In each bag, half-a-dozen baby turtles paddled their flippers like clockwork toys and did their best to stay alive. I thought of buying the lot and returning them to the ocean, but would that not have consigned them to even more certain death? Turtles are supposed to be protected species, but nature takes very little care of them and human beings at best can only protect them from other humans.
I knew turtles were protected because, while were still in Jakarta, Tanya Alwi had told me about them. The remarkable Alwi family have been much written about, being colourful, wealthy and influential both at the centre of Indonesian life and on the margin, in the remote world of the Banda archipelago. Great-grandfather Baadilla was the richest member of the Arab community on Banda around 1900, making immense profits from a fleet of ninety pearl-fishing boats. A great many of those fancy buttons on the dresses worn by Victorian ladies, and on their daughters' dresses too, were made of mother-of-pearl supplied by him. Since the 1920s, the plastics industry has taken over the making of buttons, but the family has retained at least some of the money and much of the property. More important, it has retained its genetic inheritance of sharp intelligence, business acumen and active enjoyment of life. Tanya's father Des was born, I should guess, around 1930, but looks a remarkably youthful bon viveur. He had an adventurous youth. He and his older brothers were adopted by the Indonesian nationalist leaders Mohammed Hatta and Sutan Sjahrir during their exile on Banda before World War 2. Des came to Java as a young man and found himself in the thick of war, revolution and the struggle for independence from Dutch rule.
His career since then has been that of a diplomat and businessman, with the very best contacts in Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur and the status, on his home islands, of a feudal magnate. We had had the good fortune to make his and his daughter Tanya's acquaintance in Jakarta. On the day after Easter, the excellent Jemmy, who had of course been commended to us by Tanya and instructed by her to look after us, escorted us to Ambon airport and onto the flight for Banda. It takes less than an hour, in a noisy little box-with-wings just about able to get onto and off the tilted runway that cuts across the whole width of Bandaneira. As soon as the engines are switched off, you are aware of the extraordinary silence of small islands in the middle of the ocean. There are very few motor vehicles. The clock on the Dutch church has stopped - it is said, at the moment the Japanese landed in 1942. The mosques broadcast their calls to prayer on loudspeakers less strident than elsewhere. The schoolchildren whose families live next door, on Gunung Api, commute to school on Bandaneira not in a motor boat but in little canoes; only their cheerful shouted conversations are heard briefly across the glassy water. The shoals of two-wheeled Hondas and Suzukis that fill the streets of every Indonesian town dwindle here to a gentle put-puttering along roads not much wider than footpaths. There is a curious atmosphere of time standing still, yet of tropical vegetation running riot on any patch of ground where it is not quickly suppressed.
You see this in the perkenier houses that form the old centre of Bandaneira town. These grandiose bungalows, with their deeply-arcaded, massive-pillared streetfronts, were the homes of planters and merchants in colonial days. Some are still beautifully maintained, tiled floors polished, walls whitewashed; such places often make very comfortable homestays, where a room for the night in elegant surroundings (though perhaps without airconditioning) costs very little money. The house that Sutan Sjahrir lived in for six years of exile has been restored by Des Alwi as a museum; I spent a long time in there, looking at photographs of a fellow-Minangkabau who was one of my childhood heroes and who became one of the first Prime Ministers of Indonesia under Sukarno. He had evidently played a lot of tennis while he was on Bandaneira. Pak Oskar, the old man who looked after the place, implored us to go and visit his wife and try her nutmeg jam, and complained about irreverent small children who were always wrecking the garden at the side of the house. "And if you beat them, their parents don't like it." But most of the perkenier houses are well on their way to ruin, their high cool rooms roofless and choked with weeds.
We met parties of Dutch and German tourists who come here every year for two or three weeks of snorkelling and skin-diving. The loudest weekday noise on Banda is that of the air compressor filling their breathing-tanks. One morning a most gorgeous cruise boat, converted from a trading ship but painted and polished like an expensive toy, sailed up to the hotel landing-stage with its dozen or so happy passengers. It is a strange sensation to stand on the Bandaneira quayside, or better still on the towers of Fort Belgica above the town, and try to imagine the explorers, traders, merchant-men and warships that have thronged this little harbour over the past five or six centuries. Today, all is silent and deserted. A Japanese pearl farm on Banda Besar, a few nutmeg plantations still recognisable from afar by the canopies of their sheltering kenari trees, a single surviving Dutch perkenier selling his nutmeg and mace at fixed prices to government buyers: economic activity in the Banda islands has declined sadly since the great days.
Our hotel room had a balcony overlooking the narrow strait between Bandaneira and Gunung Api. From where we breakfasted, we had a sideways glimpse of the open sea to the north; southwards, the coast curved round to close the view and we had the feeling of being on a Scottish sea-loch. A man ushered himself onto the balcony and tried to sell us a large and extremely angry lobster which he was carrying in a plastic bag. A little later, as I was writing, another man came up and scattered old coins across the page; I saw bronze with the letters VOC stamped on it for the Dutch East India Company, but I told him I didn't collect anything except recipes.
It was hard to concentrate on them, though, with the slopes of Gunung Api opposite, brilliantly sunlit, filling my vision. The stony ridge at its summit smoked quietly. It looked different from its picture in the guidebook because the photographs had been taken before the whole thing blew up in May 1988. Fortunately, the new crater was slightly west of the old one, and the wind was blowing from the east, so most of the ash fell into the sea rather than on Bandaneira itself.
Gunung Api's own looks were considerably altered by the eruption, as we realised when we took a motor boat round to its other side. Though the coconut trees were re-establishing themselves well, there was far less greenery here, and the mountain did not slope gently into the sea but ended in jagged lava cliffs, thrown together from twisted columns of magma. Huge screes still covered the slopes, and one wide black gash descended in a slashing curve to the sea where the molten lava had poured from the vent. Two people were killed, a big cinnamon plantation was wiped out, and officially it is still forbidden for anyone to settle on Gunung Api. We tied up for lunch at a wooden jetty that had survived the eruption, and swam in clear, green, very salty water that was cold in some places, warm in others because of underwater hot springs.
Next day we accomplished the return journey to Jakarta in three hops. While we waited five hours at Ambon for our flight to Ujung Pandang, I got talking to the man who had caught the big barracuda. He was a retired banker, whose wife had given him permission to take a fishing holiday. The barracuda was the only big fish he had caught, but he seemed perfectly happy. "Of course, I had to buy these for my wife," he said, and showed me a beautiful pair of pearl earrings, which had no doubt come from the Japanese pearl farm on Lontar island. I was impressed, and I hope she was too. It is a universal custom in Indonesia, if you have been on a journey, to take presents back with you for your spouse, parents, children, relations, friends... but from Banda, there is not very much you can take, except nutmeg, and pearls.