Maluku: Back on the Map

Published in the Jakarta Post Weekender magazine. 

Indonesia’s Maluku archipelago, famed for its historical attractions and natural beauty, was struck off tourist itineraries during the religious strife of the late 1990s. Belinda Lopez visited some of the islands to see the changes taking place.

Picking one of Maluku’s estimated 999 islands to visit can be a risky affair. Over near Banda Neira Island, an active 650-meter-high volcano on the appropriately named Gunung Api (Fire Mountain) Island only just blew her lid in 1988.

In Ternate, North Maluku, it’s best to stay away from civil servants, especially if you’re a state prosecutor. One poor prosecutor is reportedly recovering from a blow to the head after he tried to find evidence of graft in the North Maluku governor’s office and the staff allegedly jumped him.

And if you’re superstitious about bad spirits, mind the history of the whole archipelago — it’s drenched in bloody battles between the Dutch and the native people. Most recently, Ambon’s years of conflict between Muslims and Christians replaced tourists with a hungry media, who widely reported the murder and violence that occurred.

So, sitting on the shore of Hatta Island, a three-kilometer dot of land surrounded by sea southeast of Banda Neira, the heart of the former Dutch-occupied ‘Spice Islands’, one should naturally remain alert for possible danger.

So far, only local goats and falling nutmeg fruits arouse suspicion as we weave our way around a thin concrete path encircling the island. The little girls in multi-colored jilbab that run out of their sea-facing school hut to greet us seem friendly enough. But something surely must be awry when the entire stretch of undeveloped beach and the circus troop of fish below the surface are ours and ours only.

However, there are still problems lingering after the conflict, our guide, Djufri Rahim, tells us. Something of a Bandanese renaissance man, he says he is the son of a fisherman, who studied law, and now acts as part tour guide and part pearl seller, while being politically active in the local faction of a leading political party.

He shares his party’s moral objection to corruption in Maluku, and is also concerned about the resettlement of Christian families in Banda who had left because of the religious conflict on the islands.

By comparison to Ambon, Banda endured little violence — only six people died in 1999, and there’s been no real trouble since, Djufri says. But he worries the resettlement of Christian families will leave Muslim families who have since moved in homeless — and flare up tension again.

He says he has expressed to the government a need for more housing on the island.

“I said it’s good, we can mix again, we can stick together. If they’re real Bandanese, there’s no problem,” he says.

He’s been talking about Banda’s history for the two hours we’ve traveled from Banda Neira. Our ride, a raw-skinned wooden boat, has inflicted only sunburn and wet feet, waves lapping against legs slung over the bow.

If you’re after a real boating challenge, try traveling from Ambon to Banda Neira for 10 hours by ship. It leaves Monday morning. No, sorry, it leaves Monday afternoon. Actually, it won’t be running. Wait, it will, be there at 6 a.m.

There are conflicting reports from the local travel agents about how and when to get transportation out of Maluku’s capital, but that’s not entirely their fault. Since the fighting between religious groups on the two islands, transportation services from Ambon to Banda Neira have been somewhat reduced. Merpati once flew three times a week between the two airports, but since the conflict, has cut its service to once a week — a serious blow for tourism, the travel agents tell us. The week we are there, the flight is canceled altogether.

We take a becak from the hotel at sunrise to the port in Ambon, but it will be another five hours of chatting and squatting on hard concrete before the ship actually arrives and everyone scrambles aboard. No one seems concerned about the delay. For those just arriving as it enters the port, it was expected.

A first-class ticket will cost Rp 300,000. Rumor has it the resident cockroaches also have expensive taste. A pair of Dutch men tell me there was no escaping the creatures in their cabins.

There’s only a few down in economy near the bays of sleeping platforms. Rows of thin mattresses are laid out side by side, slapped down against the hard metal. Families who missed out on a spot crouch between sacks of vegetables or in a staircase, playing cards and making noise. It’s warm, but you can escape upstairs to the deck and find a perch along the white railing. With the call to prayer from the ship’s mushola in the background, you can sit and watch blue sea for hours. For less poetic types, an excellent assortment of karaoke numbers can be sampled in the makeshift game room.

By the time we’ve docked and settled into Mutiara Guesthouse in Banda Neira, it’s after midnight. There are few foreign tourists to be found — and the lack of transportation following the violence is to blame, the entrepreneurial owner of the guesthouse, Abba, tells us.

“But from Lonely Planet, people can see how to get here, and see that it is OK. Maluku is open for tourism again. That’s why some of my businesses here are going very well,” he says.

He wants to start up a program that was running in Banda before “it happened”, where tourists went to local schools to teach teenagers English for a day, who were then inspired to become guides and add a third language to their Indonesian and local dialect.

“Last year we had nearly 300 tourists. And now this year I think maybe double, maybe 600. But we had 1,005 tourists a year before 1999.”

While recollections of events feel divided in two sections, before 1999 and after 1999, Banda’s history is laid out like an island-wide garage sale. You can cycle round Banda Neira and see unkept Dutch settlers graves and architecture, or for Rp 20,000, stroll through its museum, a few rooms of Dutch and Bandanese antiques that can be picked up and examined. Anywhere else they would be locked away behind glass.

Abba and others in the tourist business are hopeful travelers’ holy books will guide people back here, particularly foreign flash-packers with cash — as long as bad news doesn’t surface in the media. Questions about present tensions are avoided, or reassuringly answered with the same eager smile and an “it’s all fine now”.

The final promotion of unity came to us in the form of country music in Ambon at 6 a.m., waking us up on the morning we were to leave Maluku. Below the balcony of our hotel, opposite the Maluku governor’s office, hundreds of its staff, uniformly dressed in red pants, white shirts and the occasional red jilbab, were completing their morning physical exercise to knee-slapping, foot-hopping, hillbilly tunes.

Blearily watching synchronized side-stepping and enthusiastic arm-pumping to wails and croons, everything here, at least on the surface, looks in sync.