Spicy times in Banda.
It was a week-long stop here for us at Banda, the Spice Islands.
Islands steeped in some of the most brutal seafaring history and yet populated by happy, smiling and ever helpful people.
We spent the week basking in the heat of the place and enjoying what this tiny, yet historically crucial, island group had to offer.
Our passage from Triton Bay was uneventful (my kind of passage!)
A bumpy start for the first couple of hours that turned into glass calm seas with no wind. It was more motoring than sailing and for the last 10 hours we had to slow to a crawl of 3 knots to arrive in daylight as we had currents against us for a day which resulted in a loss of 1 to 2 knots of speed, putting our departure/arrival planning times right out.
This area is littered with FADS (fish attracting devices, basically giant anchored wooden pontoons randomly placed in the ocean) and unlit fishing boats, drift nets and reef.
Not the kind of thing you want to attempt in the dark.
As the sun was starting to shine her light on the mountain looming in front of us, we motored into the natural Harbour, a very protected spot with crystal clear water.
Looking down through it to find the best place to drop the anchor was unsettling in a way as it was like we were in only a m or 2 of water!
Anchor dropped in 5 m and the first job for the day was a swim to wash off the 2 days of travel.
The kids were enthralled by the masses of surgeon fish and little stingrays under the boat and we all marveled at the giant peak of Gunung Api, towering above us.
Banda is a complicated little group of islands with a tumultuous history.
Fought over by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the English, it has endured its share of violence and bloodshed over the last 400 or so years.
The volcano we were anchored below famously erupted in a show of chaos at the same time the first Dutch arrived at the islands, the locals believing it was a bad omen, which turned out to be a foresight into the time of unsettled life that was to come.
Early adventurers and merchants were sent to these islands, in fleets of ships, to reap what was grown only here, the majority of the crews dying on the journey from disease and violence once arrived at their destination. It is a wonder more and more people kept signing up for these trips back then, but I guess promised money and profit from imported goods is a constant lure over the ages and the pull was so great that it trumped the thought of death.
The spices that were grown here were so lucrative in the 15 and 1600’s that people would do anything to fill their ships with the nutmeg (and its mace), cinnamon, cloves and pepper that grew here. A 600% mark up was often the norm, per kilo it was the dearest item in the world at the time.
Thought to cure all ills, including the Black Death of the time, along with a host of other bodily wrongs, practitioners would sell their snake oil cures, promising all kinds of results for the hefty sums of cash they would charge.
It wasn’t until the English duped the Dutch, after their fleets were sunk and the English sailors brutally tortured and murdered, and the native people massacred, the English took seeds and plants to their other colonies in the world, (that were more accessible than the treacherous journey from the North to the East Indies, specifically Grenada) that this little corner of the world started to be able to recover from the violent occupation.
The local people suffered greatly from the foreigners that made the perilous journey to the island group.
Yet still the town is filled with gentle, kind, friendly and welcoming people.
We were greeted with smiles and halting English words wherever we walked in the sweltering heat of the tiny city. The constant ‘Mister, Mister’ and ‘How are you?’ chimed from doorways, giving the impression that English was spoken, yet they are merely the basic phrases that are learnt and that is the extent of the learning.
Luckily our Bahasa Indonesian is progressing and we can get by with basic communications…!
We explored the famous forts on Banda Neira. Fort Belgica and Fort Nassau. Climbing their turrets and staring out over the cannons that the Dutch had trained on the harbour to stop the marauding masses that came to pillage the islands.
We toured spice plantations on nearby Banda Besar, walking through forests of their almond trees (not like an almond we know, but more like a macadamia/almond cross) called Kenari. Some 400 years old and 50 to 60m high.
Towering above us like giants, their twisting and intertwined roots snaking out into the ground in all directions.
They give shade and protection to the precious nutmeg trees that grown under them, sheltering them from the elements and providing rich and fertile soil from their dropping leaves. Companion planting and living at its finest.
Both trees sustaining a host of creatures and eco systems, along with providing an income for the locals.
Nutmeg surprised us how it grows. A thick fleshy outer skin, which is used for dried fruit snacks or jams and juices, then a rubbery red layer, called mace, inside the fleshy coating, used most famously in Coca Cola, looking like something out of a horror film growing over its host body, and finally the nut itself. Rock hard and fragrant.
Nothing is wasted here and all 3 parts of the fruit are used, with nutmeg from Indonesia still being regarded as the best quality available. The dizzying prices are now more reasonable though.
We wandered the remains of Fort Hollandia on Banda Besar, crumbling into the surroundings, the mosses eating away the stones of its vicious past, the ruins submitting to the rapid growth of the humid jungle.
Walking the streets of Banda Besar, greeted with smiles and chatter, shy faced children peeking from the doorways and climbing a giant colourful staircase, we enjoyed the relaxed feeling of the town.
We ate a lunch with Dutch descendants of one of the plantations who happened to be visiting here at the same time, under huge trees in their family compound.
The food spicy and delicious, surrounded by the songs of Banda, sung by the dual purpose Harbour Master and his melodious band of friends, playing us the songs of their past while lunch filled our bellies!
Underwater this is also a special and interesting place.
Gunung Api, the volcano, erupted violently in 1988. The lava flow completely destroyed a large part of the coral reef off the island but amazingly it has regenerated with more than 70 years’ worth of growth in just 31 years.
Scientists cannot yet explain why, but it is fabulous that at least in one part of the world the coral is growing at such a fantastic rate.
We snorkeled the lava flow area twice. Along with another similar area toward the seaward side of the volcano and enjoyed the masses of fish and gently sloping coral gardens, filled with marine life.
The water exceptionally clear, with visibility up to 30 m! It caught me by surprise as I duck dived down to check out some Nemo’s (who doesn’t love finding Nemo!) and when I went to go back to the surface, it was a lot farther than I thought…. I was gasping for air when I broke through!
Chae did several dives, reporting that the water clarity was as exceptional down deeper as it was at snorkeling level. 40 to 50m of visibility at 20 to 25m is just mind blowing.
He saw the biggest school of barracuda, with 40 or so in the group. Their flashy scales slivering past and their giant teeth making you want to steer well clear of them!
We went on a dusk snorkel to find the famed Mandarin Fish, found only in a few places in the world. A tiny little colour explosion of a fish, shy and reluctant to come out of their hidy holes until dusk, even then darting in and out of rubble to hide from predators.
They are unfortunately prized as an aquarium specimen and often die in captivity.
We had heard they were hard to find and friends had not succeeded a week prior, despite several dives and snorkels in the same spot. We went hoping, but not expecting a find…
How lucky we were then, to drop into the water and have Chae spot the first one within minutes!
Libby and I then found more, so we spent a good hour watching these 5 or 6 fish, darting in and out of the rubble on the side of the harbour wall, peeking out and seeing the giant shapes of the humans eyeing them up!
We felt particularly lucky having spotted them so quickly and spent so long watching their cute antics!
We spent one of our mornings rubbish fishing with a local teacher here, who is trying his hardest to keep this special place clean.
In the face of such a relentless stream of trash flowing in to the protected and gorgeous natural harbors, he is fighting a hard fight.
The Indonesian mentality on trash is funny one. It seems to be that once you have finished with it, you throw it in the ocean, which takes it away, therefore problem gone.
The general public have not yet grasped the concept of rubbish bins, along with a proper process for the end disposal of all the trash and so in all of the places we have been to, there has been varying levels of pollution.
Magi, the teacher here, has installed rubbish and recycling bins in the town and also a rubbish collection, along with his mammoth efforts each day, zigzagging the harbour and waterfronts, collecting all the trash that has been thrown in and also washed in here.
Kilos of it.
The kids and I spent an hour helping him as part of our school day and we filled our dinghy with trash in no time.
It is heartbreaking to see.
As we were collecting it, builders working on a new guesthouse were throwing used, old paint rollers and other discarded materials and packaging directly into the water next to us. Magi yelled out at them, but the message doesn’t seem to sink in.
How do you change a lifetime of habits, and quickly, to help save our oceans? Especially for people who are not even aware of the issue, on their isolated island…
We were awed at the work he has done. One man trying his hardest to make a change. It all has to start with one person and Banda should be thanking him that he has the foresight to try and keep this place clean.
Eventually the trash that floats past becomes just depressing, you can pick it up in every snorkel, dive and walk, you can do all you can as one family, but then seeing the opposite happen right in front of you is heartbreaking.
We spent an afternoon at the school with Magi and the younger children. A German girl was helping there for 6 months, teaching them English and we joined the class, again swapping language with the children, which ended in riotous laughter.
As usual, the group of boys were laughing about things like underwear and pants in an English/Bahasa book and being silly (typical 8-year-old boys!) while the girls sat beautifully and got all the questions right!
Noah also enlightened them with a picture of a poo and the English word when my back was turned talking to the teacher. Much laughter came from this, and even Magi and I had to grin at the boys!
With visa renewal time approaching again, the ever-present annoyance of cruising here in Indonesia, we prepared to leave this pretty little group of islands.
Market shopping was done. I got to spend a most enjoyable hour sitting with the ladies in the tiny market, chatting and learning both languages, while they found me avocados that were hidden in some guesthouse away from the market (that they gladly went and got for me) and watching the daily catch come in and be weighed.
Nona, my new friend, was hilarious and most interested in our chosen life with the kids, she having 2 of her own.
We traded stories of children and life, seeing that it is generally the same wherever you are, and laughing at the lost in translation aspects of our languages!
Food prep for passage meals while underway was done, a huge put of Chili along with soups and easy to heat meals, (I hate cooking while on passage!) along with the tidying and stacking away of all toys and bits and pieces that have been brought out while we have been stopped.
Next stop Wakatobi.
A 3-day passage, depending on the weather. We may get there faster if there is some wind, but the forecasts are looking like it won’t get above 10 or so knots. Although this is less than idea for a sail boat, I am secretly happy as it makes for an easy, stress free and comfortable passage!
Just don’t tell the wind and sailing loving Captain…