Stumble Into Indonesia's Unseen Places
Submitted by mumunmumun on 31 March 2016 • Destination
Initially, I had wanted to visit Banda Neira for their dragonets, the super colourful fishes. They’re so colourful, it’s ridiculous, kinda like Rihanna at the Met Gala with the yellow pizza dress; unnecessarily beautiful. But through time I realised it hadn’t been a deal maker as I have never actually made plans to go, until I was exposed to the history of Jakarta. Understanding more about the city’s past made me connect the dots and see that I had to visit Banda Neira for a stronger reason; to see the land of the black gold and, what I eventually concluded, the beginning chapters of Indonesia. I became more anxious after seeing picture of the nutmeg or black gold itself. By golly, was it beautiful! That was the deal maker. Soon enough I found myself on a spice tour on Banda Neira, Maluku.
This a device to pick nutmegs.
Banda was known as the only place in the world to produce nutmeg. It gave so many benefits that weren’t found anywhere else at the time. With medicinal traits, being ingredients for fragrances, not to mention hallucinogenic effects, it quickly became a popular spice, if not the hottest produce in the world in the 17th century. Interestingly, it came from this mini archipelago located in the middle of Banda Sea, one of the deepest and fiercest oceans in the world. Because of this, maps to Banda Neira were forged or kept secret just so people couldn’t find it. Even today, the islands are barely seen on the world map.
The major traveling point is Ambon. From here, we can take the plane or boat to Banda Neira. Traveling by plane could give you an idea of how small these islands are. They’re all visible through one window frame, even the distanced Hatta and Run Island. They feel even smaller once you’re on land. The main islands are an arms length from each other. But this limited amount of land was the source of spices that funded establishments of developing nations, especially the Netherlands.
On both of my visits in 2015, I participated in the spice tour, always putting myself close to the nutmegs. The spice tour that is commonly made revolves around Banda Besar Island, the largest of the main islands. Most of it is covered with nutmeg plantation. I immediately fell in love once I stepped on the edge on the nutmeg plantation. It’s a field of various sizes of trees with a grass floor. It felt like a garden, perfect for a picnic.
Interestingly, nutmeg trees are found shaded by tall humongous tropical walnut trees or kenari. My local guide, says that nutmegs grow better when they are shaded. Hence, the walnut trees were kept alive, also since they produce walnuts that were also the local commodity. Seeing the tall kenari trees really escalated the ambiance of being at a place that could be very old. These trees perhaps have been here about 40-50 years or even more.
The spice tour also included visiting the ruins where they used to dry the nutmeg. There was not much left there, just old walls and someone’s laundry held to dry. Must be the best place to dry things. Aside to that, it usually includes visiting the remains of Hollandia Fort with an awesome view of Gunung Api and a coffee, tea, or banana fritters with a hint of local spices.
I love the taste of these spices. Although Indonesia is abundant with spice, nutmeg isn’t something that is much incorporated in our cooking. It tastes exotic, foreign for me, with a hint of spicy. I also found the tropical walnut and cinnamon in various dishes and even in beverages (including coffee), which were delicious.
And to my knowledge, there has never been a shortage of spices since evaaa.
A nutmeg inside and outside.
Banda Neira is like Bali. It’s blessed. It’s a nation on its own and has all the goodness that the earth can give. I didn’t really realise this until I climbed the Gunung Api, the only volcano in Banda Neira. On top of the mountain, where the ground puffed sulphuric smoke from the pores of its soil, I realised that Banda Neira has its own fertiliser factory. The latest eruption was in 1988, and has been erupting once in awhile resulting in great quality soil. Hence, it could sustain the production of the spice with the absence of chemical fertilisers.
This was also supported by the unlimited flow of fresh water. No, showers do not use brackish water, but really fresh delicious water. The maintained produce is also supported by the harvesting behaviour of the people, taking only what they can and not enforcing the plants to grow more. People harvested tropical walnuts that have fallen on the ground. They take only the ripe nutmeg to be sold. The can only harvest the right aged cinnamon. Nothing is forced beyond its capacity, all seems very natural. At least that’s what I came to see on the spice tour.
Hand processing the tropical walnuts.
Amongst all that I encountered on the spice tour, my highlight would have to be peeling the actual nutmeg, seeing the mace inside and smelling the heavenly scent of raw cinnamon straight from the tree. I would definitely fight for them!
Nutmegs are now found widely around the world, which means no one needs to hassle to Banda Islands for them. I find the evolution of the nutmeg on these islands to be bitter sweet. The islands went from being a quiet little archipelago to being the center of the world, even involving blood baths and genocides, to then coming back to being quiet and almost forgotten. Run Island, which was the island traded for Manhattan, is far from its ‘sister’ and probably not too far off what it was in the 17th century; hardly any yellow taxis, let alone sky scrappers. Ironically, even some Indonesians don’t know where Banda Neira, although located within Indonesia, is or understand its significance. It’s understandable, considering this country has too much of a history to memorise, isn’t supported by the best education system, and a factor of history tampering in the past.
Coming to Banda Neira also gave me a new understanding of Indonesia. In the past, Indonesia consisted of many separate kingdoms and there was no one idea of a nation. But a nation came to place after we had a common enemy. This eventually lead to a mass rebellion and the formation of Indonesia.
OK, that’s a bit too brief for a history lesson about Indonesia, but life is short and I’m keeping this post shorter.
So, what has become of the spices and the islands today? Life on the island moves on, following the seasonal weather. Spices are still exported out of the islands and beyond. But now, I think, spices are also here to stay as there is an increase of demand to taste the spice on the spot. It’s incorporated in dishes in local restaurants, cafes and hotels. Should give it a go!
The spice tour was organised by Sea Hobbits Dive Center, at the time I visited. It’s definitely part of things to do in Banda Neira and a recommended one. I’m not sure how much it would cost separately as I got the tour within my diving package.