Daniele and Thomas climbed to the top of the volcano. It was a 640 meter trek straight up the mountainside along an almost vertical rut that the locals had assured was the official trail. They came back sweat-soaked, muddied, scuffed and bruised, but grinning at their accomplishment. “It’s amazing.” They reported. “You look down and you see everything.”
We’re anchored at the foot of this volcano, which is active, and known as Gunung Banda Api. Api means fire. But the volcano is also an island called Banda Neira, a sparsely populated scintilla of jungle amongst the 17,000 islands that make up the world’s largest archipelago. Indonesia’s capital of Jakarta is a thousand miles to the west on the island of Java, but a thousand miles isn’t even the midway point of this Southeast Asian nation that spans a total of 3,700 miles, includes three hundred recognized cultures and speaks seven hundred languages. The eleven islands that comprise the Bandas occupy a mere twenty square miles of Indonesia’s enormity, but these little green dots are well worth the effort. On first impression, I think the Bandanese could convincingly petition the U.N. to designate their little enclave as a World Heritage site. This place comes off as a kind of tropical Shangri La, (not to be confused with the five-star hotel chain) more along the lines of James Hilton’s 1933 novel, Lost Horizon: “a mystical, harmonious valley, gently guided from a lamasery” (just scratch out lamasery and replace it with Mosque).
Other than the prevalence of mobile phones and motorbikes, all that would be needed to film the next installment of Pirates of The Caribbean in Banda would be to disguise the smattering of power lines—leave everything else just the way it is.
It’s eight o’clock in the morning and the sun could boil an egg. But you’d expect this being only four degrees south of the equator. One of those two-season climates that consists only of wet or dry, my morning coffee is on ice. We’re anchored within the broad bay that separates the larger Banda Besar from the Volcano island and third, named Banda Naira, which is home to the main city and the region’s only airstrip—most tourists arrive by sea.
Oh, and there’s a 400 year old fort in perfect condition that was built by the Portuguese to protect the spice trade—more on that in a bit.
As I write a local fisherman jigs his hand-line from just off our bow, fishing from a three-meter long plank-wood canoe so slender you could slip the man’s boat through the side window of a Fiat without touching the doorframe. All around me, and the fisherman with his hand-line, is a cacophony created by a passing fleet of long wooden boats that give off a rapid and distinctive: chuck chuck chuck chuck chuck chuck chuck... Which is the sound of each boat’s single-cylinder moped engine fighting to push these things forward. This is Banda’s version of the morning commute.
By midday the commute is over. The boatman all cluster around the main wharf and gab, their brightly painted wooden skiffs forming a tight cordon as they wait for afternoon rush hour. These boats are the main source of local transportation and manage to carry absolutely everything. There’s also a fishing fleet made up of more modern, fiberglass skiffs, but these are open and powered by outboards. Then there are the larger wooden trade ships known as Phinisi (pronounced Pinisi) that come and go regularly. Similar in appearance to ancient European trade vessels, these ships are the main source of interisland shipping, and a centuries old tradition that appears to be very much alive.
On another day I watch the villagers take advantage of an exceptionally low tide. Over the exposed coral near the edge of town, shirtless men and young boys patiently walk barefoot. Buckets in hand they harvest shellfish together, and I imagine the fathers thinking of their fathers, and their grandfathers doing the exact same thing. On the opposite shore are the women and their daughters. The fully covered women fish waist-high in the bright turquoise sea, flicking cat-whisker-thin poles with a dance like movement. They repeatedly catch small fish with targeted precision. Watching this kind of scene brings the thought of how easy it would be for someone to lose themselves’ here.
The reefs around the bay are a nature preserve, and ecologically speaking, these islands are well cared for as the jungle to human habitation ratio appears to be around 100 hectors to one. The snorkeling and diving have been stellar and we’ve experienced a number of exceptional dives—Danni and Elke each encountered their first black tip sharks.
Upon our arrival in Banda Naira, we organized a cultural tour through Pak Abba and Ibu Dila, the owners of a beautiful boutique hotel called Cilu Bentang Estate. The day was spent on a walking tour of the city with Ayu and Abba, our guides and gracious hosts. We took in the sights and learned about the special significance of these, the world’s original Spice Islands. The fort was built to defend the spice route. Banda was once the world’s only source of Nutmeg and Mace, and at one time these spices were worth their weight in gold—whole empires in Europe were financed by the spice trade. And even today, with an endless variety of human indulgences available, flavor remains king.
Surrounded by a massive spice plantation, we decided a cooking class was in order, and soon enough, we were in the hotel’s kitchen with Abba’s wife Ibu, cooking up the distinctive local cuisine. Every recipe seemed to require either several whole sticks of cinnamon, or whole nutmeg nuts cleaved in two, along with clove, heaps of fresh almonds, or kenari as they’re known here. Oh, and lots of hot chilies. Everything was fried in coconut oil or simmered in coconut milk or in a broth seasoned with cinnamon. Our favorites being the tuna ball soup made with ground almonds, fresh local tuna, along with lots of garlic, and a fried eggplant dish covered in Banda’s specialty: kenari sauce. The sauce is made with lots of ground almonds, garlic, shallots, celery greens, and several hot chilies that have been boiled soft and blended to turn the sauce a lovely bright red.
The kitchen opened onto a palatial garden courtyard dappled with welcoming shade. Just beyond lay a sunlit grove of nutmeg trees and a view of another fort, this one left to crumble. Above it all rose the volcano, like a grand pyramid wrapped in a prickly jungle blanket. We ate the lunch we’d cooked and afterwords, Abba arranged for our ride back through town to the wharf. Red and white banners from the country’s recent Independence Day celebrations still decorated streets filled with motorbikes. They weaved around our antique transport at speed, some with women riding sidesaddle on the back. Our peddle rickshaws rolling by colorful colonial influenced buildings, while in front of them, locals gathered in shady spots. The city’s wharf was active with men loading a wooden cargo vessel by hand. The late day light painting everything into a perfect memory.
Next stop, Komodo...
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