"Arctracer" Letters

Goodbye to Banda, Sept 2005

We left Banda Island in the Moluccas (Spice Islands) Sunday evening and are presently crossing the Flores Sea after having crossed the Banda Sea. Our stay on Banda was very interesting, and here are some notes and observations.

We used email (on the boat - Banda has no email) to contact the rigger in Whangerei, New Zealand who helped us last year when we broke a shroud in Kiribati. He was able to make a new shroud quickly, and get it shipped to Ambon via DHL. It arrived in Ambon on Monday, September 5. Bahre, the owner of a Banda guesthouse, called his sister in Ambon and she picked up the box from DHL and put it on a boat going to Banda. We reimbursed Bahre for the Customs fee and the tip to the boat captain his sister had to pay. We received and installed the new wire on Thursday. It fits perfectly, so we are again a complete sailboat. Since both of these shrouds failed in exactly the same way, we think they were defective, and we do not expect to have the same problem again. However, we are thinking about having a different type of rigging installed which we could fix ourselves.

While waiting, we did projects in addition to our usual duties. Jerry checked both engines, greased the propeller shafts, fixed the port running light and the steaming light, fixed a bad ground to our SSB radio antenna tuner, and took advantage of crocodile-free water to clean the bottom of the boat. Nina organized many of our photos on computers, studied the Indonesian language, and read articles and guidebooks about Indonesia and Malaysia. To help learn the language, she bought five DVDs which show Bahasa Indonesian words on screen while they are pronounced and sung to Indonesian music. Jerry took a little tour of Banda Besar Island one hot afternoon to see another old fort, more villages, and more nutmeg and clove processing.

Indonesia raises new financial problems for us. First we have to deal with money in wildly different denominations. Each Australian dollar we changed in Darwin gave us 7,000 Rupiahs. The US dollar is worth about 9,000 Rupiahs. When we went to the market and asked the price of a bunch of bananas and got told (perhaps) 4,000 Rupiahs, we had to pause for a moment before realizing it is only about 50 cents. Fruit and vegetables are almost always a bargain like that, even though they probably charge us a bit more than the locals. A beautiful, big, just-caught red snapper might be offered by a fisherman in a dugout canoe at 50,000 Rupiahs. We have stocked up on the spices which grow here. Almonds and cloves were 40,000 Rupiahs per kilogram, cinnamon 35,000 Rp per kilo, and nutmegs were 80,000. We bought half a kilogram of each, practically a lifetime supply for us, for a total of about ten bucks. Once we had a nice lunch at a guesthouse for 50,000 Rupiahs, about $3 each.

Our idea of a reasonable hourly wage differs enormously from theirs. A teacher at the high school gets a salary of 250,000 Rupiahs per month or 3,000,000 million Rp per year, which translates to about $300 US a year. No wonder they see us as rich! His electricity bill is 90,000 Rupiahs, one-third of his salary. He has to supplement his income by doing a lot of tutoring outside of regular school hours. Paying tour guides was a problem for us, since they depend on occasional big fees from tourists, but their fees are negotiable. To tour a nutmeg plantation for about an hour we were asked at first to pay the plantation owner 75,000 Rupiahs, but we finally paid only 50,000. A guide who took us around town all one afternoon was happy with 40,000 Rupiahs, or about $1 US per hour. On the one hand we can afford to pay more and want to make sure our helpers are well-rewarded, but on the other hand we don't want the locals to start expecting huge amounts of money from cruisers. We try to avoid spoiling things for the next boats, and try to fit into the existing local economic situation. It's a tricky balancing act.

The Indonesian government and bureaucracy is notoriously "corrupt" by western standards. We got an inkling of the different system they use by dealing with the Harbormaster. He gets no pay directly from the government, but extracts commissions from all yachts, boats and ships which use the harbor. There is a huge (cruise ship type) ferry running to and from Ambon and other islands once or twice per week, and occasional other commercial ships bringing fuel or other things. The fee schedule seems VERY flexible. Indonesian boats get a very low charge, and big ships pay a lot, with yachts charged something in between. To calculate our dues he started with our boat's "gross tons" on our Documentation certificate, but decided it must have been calculated inappropriately and used a much smaller number instead. Then he went through some calculations which included the exchange rate between US$ and Rupiah. Then he seemed to ignore everything he had done and simply announced our fee! Part of the amount apparently goes to the local police, even though they did nothing for us, and part may go to the government, but much of it is the Harbormaster's pay. We were very friendly to the Harbormaster, and he helped us make some telephone calls to Ambon about our shroud and gave us our initial tour of the town and fort. We think we got a fair deal from him, but we could see how the system might be construed as "bad" and could be misused by some officials.

The Dutch had a monopoly on nutmegs for 200 years, until smugglers managed to get nutmeg trees established on other islands in the 1800s. They were brutal in the way they established and maintained their hold on Banda. They started by fighting off the British and Portugese, establishing good stone forts, and having almost all the Banda men killed by Japanese mercenaries. Then they brought in Dutch planters ("perkeniers") and slaves from other islands to do all the work. The perkeniers lived well, and the Dutch East India Company reaped enormous profits. Nutmegs now are grown in several places, and are a cheap commodity on the world market since supply is greater than demand. One of the forts has been restored as a tourist attraction. We toured the fort one afternoon when the guy who keeps the grounds orderly was not there. He found us later in the market to collect the 20,000 rupiah fee which was important income for him. Nina has a pair of nutmeg earrings, bought in Grenada. These were a sensation in Banda where they apparently never thought of making jewelry from spices. Women in the market were constantly asking to examine them, and we expect something similar will be on sale soon. Granada exports 20% of the world's nutmegs, while Indonesia exports 80%.

They want more tourists, but don't have an advertising budget. Jerry gave some ideas to local businessmen, including the concept of a little "Banda Box" of local products and information to be given to every tourist. This would be a good souvenir and might help promote the island when the stuff is shared back in the tourist's home. One ambitious young guesthouse and shop owner we met will probably try to implement something along those lines. It was at his shop that Nina bought some pearl jewelry - pretty but not high quality and not expensive by our standards - good souvenirs.

We toured a nutmeg plantation which had cocoa, tropical almonds, starfruit, jackfruit and lemon grass as well as nutmeg trees. The nutmeg trees need a bit of shade, which is provided by enormous old almond trees. The almonds are picked during three months and are another important source of food and income. The almond trees are also used for dugout canoes. A large pigeon eats both almonds and nutmegs, so must have an interesting digestive system. Nutmegs ripen throughout the year, and are picked individually on the day when the outer covering splits to reveal the scarlet mace inside. The picker is a little basket on the end of a stick, and it looks like the design hasn't changed in centuries. We tried nutmeg jam and nutmeg fruit (dried, from the outer covering of the nuts). They also grow cashews, but they are only picked for one month and weren't in season. We did see one field of peanuts, and they make peanut sauce. Nina made a lot of cinnamon tea. We tried several new-to-us fruits including jackfruit ("nangka"), a red fruit ("jambu") and a small brown fruit with white segments inside ("langsat"). When we left our teacher friend gave us a papaya and two huge bunches of bananas. We'll be making lots of banana bread when they get ripe all at once!

(view photos of Banda spices)

We were impressed with the houses. They are all made of bricks and mortar, then plastered smooth and painted white. They make their own bricks from beach sand and cement - a lot of hard work. We saw men going to another island to get the sand, then lugging it ashore from their outrigger canoes. From the shore we saw men lugging the burlap bags up a huge house to a village on the other side of the island, while women put sand in large pans and carried it up the hill on their heads. The roofs are usually corrugated iron, though some poorer people use thatch and some rich ones have tiles. The floors are smooth concrete, with nice tiles if affordable. The windows have nice brown wooden frames, often with fancy curves, and they have glass. We didn't see fly screens, but bugs are not considered a big problem. Some of the houses incorporate very old foundations and walls, probably remnants of Dutch structures. These houses are enormously different from the coconut palm trunk and thatch structures we saw on most Pacific tropical islands.

Five times per day we heard prayers broadcast from the mosques. Everyone is Muslim since the remaining Christians were chased away during the riots a few years ago. There are no dogs or pigs on the island, since these are considered "dirty." We followed the custom of removing our shoes before entering a house, and tried to avoid using our left hands to give or receive anything. Most people seemed pretty relaxed about religion, but our friend Man's father is very zealous and has made his pilgrimage to Mecca. Tourists are allowed to deviate from the norms, but we tried to avoid offending anyone.

We saw a performance of the "Crazy Bamboo" which seemed to link religion to some other old magic. This took place at a hotel on an evening when they had several tourists, and we were invited to attend too (for a fee.) Seven young men stood shoulder-to-shoulder with their arms wrapped tightly around a big piece of bamboo. The apparent idea was for them to try to keep the bamboo from moving. A drummer pounded out a rhythm, and there was chanting, while one guy ran around putting clouds of incense smoke on the bamboo. A religious leader dreamed the night before that something would happen. The young men started staggering around, and the strain on their faces and bodies was obvious. Soon they were lurching in all directions. It was easy to believe that some power must have entered the bamboo. It was bizarre, and was repeated a couple of times with different participants, including some tourists.

Every morning the fishermen brought their big purse seine net to the dock behind our boat and spread it on tarps. A crowd of women and children helped take every tiny fish out of the net. Bigger fish are sold in the market, and big tuna go for export on special boats, but the little fish are an important source of protein to the poorer folk. After school the little kids came to swim off the dock, and enjoyed getting up on the back of our boat to warm up and chat. They were great kids, energetic and often testing to see what they could do onboard, but overall very friendly and polite. They liked getting their photos taken. Nina gave them popcorn, and treated them to photos of themselves on our computer.

We became good friends with one of the High School English teachers and his family. Man and Baderia have one son, Rida (11) and live in a beautiful house on the eastern waterfront. While there was almost no wind in our anchorage, and it was consequently hot at midday despite our awnings, there was always a cool breeze on their shady patio. Baderia made sure we ate well, cooking food for us and bringing it to our boat several times when we didn't eat at their house. She and Nina became good friends, despite a significant language barrier. We gave them a framed photo of their family, and will mail them a CD with several other photos - a real luxury.

The typical Banda meal includes fish (usually overcooked), cassava or taro, and cooked greens. On special occasions the fish is tuna and the starch is rice. They often make "rice" from cassava to save money. Baderia introduced us to several other special dishes. We met some people who apparently didn't eat any green vegetables, but there are good string beans, tomatoes, onions, and other veggies in the market. There is no lettuce but several other greens, no pumpkins or cheese. They do have some honey, apparently gathered in the jungles of Ceram Island, but we discovered it was not only expensive but watered-down. We saw no meat for sale, but people do have chickens, and a few cows and goats. We had a friendly fisherman on board one day when Nina made pizza for lunch, but he refused to even taste a piece. The students said they would eat cooked carrots, but wouldn't try raw ones when we took some on a picnic with us. They tried a taste of chese, but didn't like it. They apparently like their own cuisine and are not very interested in experimenting. They did like Nina's homemade banana bread and almond cakes, and chocolate-mint cookies from Australia. Chili peppers, cloves and other spices add heat and flavors to many of their dishes, and all the spicy foods made Nina's stomach uneasy. It is a welcome change on the food- side to be at sea again, eating food with no chillies, cinnamon, or cloves.

Malaria does exist in Banda, but there are very few cases, and locals do not consider it a big problem. Baderia's brother apparently had an attack while we were there. He lives on Ai Island, about ten miles away, where malaria is a little more common. We were surprised to discover that Man did not know that malaria is transmitted by mosquitos. We let him borrow a thermometer to check Baderia's brother's temperature, and had to explain how it worked because he had never seen one. He is one of the local intellectuals, so basic health information is lacking. The local health facilities consist of a clinic with one nurse but almost no supplies or equipment. For anything serious, a boat trip to a hospital in Ambon is the first step, and they may not have too much to offer either. We donated a mosquito net, a warm blanket, and some Tylenol to help Baderia's brother. We should be grateful for the wonderful health care facilities we have in the USA and other developed countries.

The weekend is short, since schools are in session Monday through Saturday and most people have only Sunday off. We went one Sunday with a couple of high school girls on a walk across the island to Malolo Beach. We walked along an old Dutch road, and thought about all the nutmegs that were carried along that road by slaves in the Dutch days. The beach was nothing special, but we had a picnic lunch and got in the water for a refreshing swim. We might have stayed in longer, but we saw a Portugese Man-of-War jellyfish, and decided that with Jerry's allergy we had better get out. We had tea at one of the student's grandmother's house on the way back. The students visited our boat several times to practice English, and Nina learned quite a few Indonesian words and expressions from them. One of the students was rather short, and asked how she could get tall like us. She thought swimming might help. We explained that the height of her parents was most important in determining her height, and that was evidently a new concept to her.

Nina helped Man teach classes on several days. The students seemed as delighted as their teachers. They seldom get to hear English spoken by someone who has it as their first language. The schools are crowded, with some kids attending in the morning and others in the afternoon. The classes and teachers alternate mornings one week and afternoons the next. It is usual for 40 kids to be in one class. Nina also helped with mathematics, explaining the Pythagorean Theorem in terms they could understand. She taught the little kids to sing "The Happy Song" (if you're happy and you know it clap your hands...) and older kids "Blowing in the Wind." The English teachers apparently never tried songs in class before, and these were a big hit. Probably none of them really understand Dylan's lyrics, but maybe someday they will. Nina gave out many notebooks with pictures glued inside the covers, pencils, photos of Vermont in all four seasons, maps, 8 CDs and a cassette tape of Bob Dylan, and copies of song lyrics. Nationwide English Exams were delivered to the teachers, and they immediately brought them to us so we could supply correct answers. We discovered several questions which were very badly written, and the local teachers did not know how to answer quite a few of the questions. Despite this, Indonesia's expectations for education are much higher than the expectations in the Pacific Islands. Here they go to school until age 18, while in the Pacific Islands they usually go to school until age 12.

On Sunday, September 11, Baderia and Man brought their family to our boat and we all went to Ai Island for a picnic. We had a bad start because our anchor windlass refused to haul our heavy chain and anchor straight up from 150 feet. We never had to do that before. We finally used a rope tied to the chain and brought back to a sheet winch, but it took almost two hours to get going. We discovered that the anchorage at Ai is just a tiny sandy shelf next to a sharp dropoff, but we felt it was safe enough in the light wind conditions to go ashore. We walked across the island to a nice beach, where Baderia's family had been waiting for hours. They cooked fish right there on an open fire, and spread out a wonderful assortment of dishes. They obviously had gone to great efforts for this occasion. After walking back, we snorkeled off the boat over nice coral with many small fish. Then we sailed back to deliver our passengers home to Banda Neira. It was just getting dark when we dropped them off, and then we decided to start immediately for Rinca rather than have another anchoring problem. We saw many small boats with lights in the channel leading out of the harbor, and slowed down to make sure we avoided these fishermen. Suddenly we realized that they had strung a huge net all the way across the entrance! Yikes! We got one of our rudders caught in the net, but soon freed it and escaped without doing much damage to the net. We were embarrassed, and will be more careful near these little boats at night.

(view photos of Banda friends)

We are currently sailing slowly in light winds and calm seas towards Rinca and Komodo Islands to see the famed Komodo Dragons. They are the largest lizards in the world, a type of monitor that in a 50 year lifetime grow to nearly 10 feet long and 300 pounds! They are reportedly ferocious, carnivorous predators that hunt by ambushing goats, deer and water buffalo. We've read in cruising magazines that some cruisers go ashore alone to see them, but we'll take a guided tour with a ranger. They have occasionally eaten people and we want to be with someone who knows what they are doing. We've also read that many cruisers have seen them on shore while at anchor nearby and that they swim and eat fish too. Anyway, it is one of the things we want to do here in Indonesia.