Banda Islands: Portal into another world

There is a lot to see in the Banda Islands, a place that can bring any visitor back into the past.

The sky is a grey wash. Dark clouds hang low and ragged over a silver sea. Wind whips up white caps ahead of a storm, and sheets of rain are drawn like curtains across the water, smudging the line between sea and sky.

Beneath the water, coral gardens cover the steep slopes and walls. Pink fan corals wave in the currents, blue-tipped staghorn, pale pink barrel sponge, blue coral, plate coral, patches of branching fire, brain coral, feather stars; blues, greens, yellows, reds, browns.

Huge schools of iridescent blue and yellow fish flock past, a group of enormous bump-head parrot fish wanders overhead, lumbering through the water like bison on a prairie. Giant clams open their purple mouths in the deep.

The occasional turtle lifts a scaly head and nods at the passing divers. A striped sea snake slithers below. Bright little clown fish skit about, playing hide-and-seek among the waving green fronds of a sea anemone. And at one point an eagle ray flaps above like a lazy raptor in a clear sky.

The Banda Islands lie around 140 kilometers south of Ambon, the capital of Maluku province, and around 2,000 kilometers east of Java Island.

A tiny clutch of volcanic islands, all but lost in the middle of the sea, Banda is home to the mainly Muslim descendants of immigrants, slaves and plantation workers from the last centuries –– Javanese, Ambonese, Arab, Chinese, European and native islanders, the last of Indonesia’s spice traders.

The islands are surrounded by warm, sparkling seas festooned with coral and teeming with marine life, they are a seasonal stop for migrating whales, a haven for seabirds –– and home of the nutmeg, the source of the richest spices and scene of the bloodiest battles and dirtiest deeds in the spice wars, that took place from 1601 to 1663.

Our hotel in Banda Naira, the Maulana, sprawls along the waterfront to the north of the little harbor. The hotel is being renovated. Like an aged countess, her beauty and grace are still evident beneath peeling paint and cracked plaster, her faded glory in the colonial-style arches and balustrades.

The streets of Banda Neira feature centuries old buildings and narrow lanes. (JP/Mark Heyward)

Previous guests include British royals and celebrities –– Princess Diana and Mick Jagger both visited.

A lazy black dog lies at the entrance. A toddler potters about on a triangle of paving and lawn that leads to the seawall a few meters beyond. A huge ketapang tree, draped with ferns, provides shade to the whole area. We are met by the toddler’s mother, Mita Alwi, a cheerful woman with a fondness for coffee and jazz –– the proprietor.

“The tree was already here when my grandfather built the hotel. Beautiful isn’t it? He designed the hotel around that tree,” Mita told us.

Mita’s grandfather, the late Des Alwi, is a local legend and was known to all as the King of Banda, a freedom fighter, diplomat, historian and adopted son of Indonesia’s first prime minister, Sutan Sjahrir.

Des was exiled by the Dutch to Banda, along with fellow nationalist Mohammad Hatta, who would become Indonesia’s first vice president. Hatta was also the one who paid Des to go to school in Jakarta.

From the hotel balcony, which has a comfortable worn rattan chair, I looked across a narrow strait to the forested cone of Mount Api, which rises 650 meters straight from the sea. The volcano last erupted in 1988, sending a river of black lava into the sea, and in doing so creating a wonderful dive site –– the volcanic stone is fertile ground for coral, which grew at a record pace after the eruption.

In the morning, a crew of 30 bare-chested young men with yellow headscarves paddle a long kora-kora (war canoe) up and down the strait to the beat of gong and drum; off to meet a visiting cruiser.

Behind our hotel, the village of Banda Naira straggles along between the coastline and the impressive 17th century Dutch Fort Belgica, which dominates the little island, crowning its hill. To the south, the stone ramparts of the 16th century Portuguese Fort Nassau reach nearly to the sea.

Fort Belgica in Banda Neira. (JP/Mark Heyward)

Narrow lanes are crowded cheek-by-jowl with a happy mix of kampung houses, cafes and remnants of the town’s colonial past; big columned homes with wide balconies, painted wooden shutters and white-washed stucco, an old technical college, spice stores, a dilapidated dance hall, a Protestant church floored with the gravestones of Dutch notables, the grand old governor’s palace with its cannons, a mosque and, by the harbor, a crumbling Chinese temple.

Banda Neira harbor. (JP/Mark Heyward)

At night and when the big ferry is in the harbor, hole-in-the-wall shops open for business, old women smile, young folk promenade, and the laneways fill with street sellers hawking smoked mackerel, candied nutmeg, fresh mace, almonds, cloves and cinnamon.

A visit to Banda is a visit to another century, another world, with its sheltered harbor and striking natural environment, its warm people and its history. (hdt)


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