School day

Almost every day when we went ashore I was met by a man who offered a pot of homemade nutmeg jam and “spices cake,” both made by his wife. We were always on our way somewhere but one day I made arrangements with him to meet us at the dock when I knew we’d be on our way back to the boat and the deal was done. (Delicious on both counts.)

In talking with him we learned he teaches an after school English class and he invited us to come talk to his students. A group of cruisers did this a few days ago when we were booked on a tour and I was sorry to miss it. I agreed to come and volunteered Jack, who reluctantly came along.

We were whisked to the other side of the island on motorbikes and saw the eye-opening living conditions away from the touristy areas.

We were parked on a shady patio to await the arrival of the students and served the ubiquitous cinnamon tea and two plates of baked goods. We were the object of curiosity, as always.

When the students arrived we were coached to introduce ourselves with our names, boat name and where we come from. Then the teacher asked us to tell something about ourselves then make up five questions as a quiz to test the students’ listening comprehension. We had heard about this from the other cruisers and discussed it beforehand, and we even brought visual aids.

I spoke first and showed on our soft globe where we come from and wrote “Pennsylvania” on the whiteboard. I told them we have four seasons, spring, summer, autumn, winter, and that summer is very hot, and winter is very cold. I tried to explain how cold but I think subzero temperatures are hard to convey to folks who live near the equator.

I erased my notes on the whiteboard and wrote my five questions, which they answered in their copy books.

Then it was Jack’s turn. He talked about the animals we have in Pennsylvania, as the teacher translated the names of some that Jack listed. When he talked about bears we showed our stuffed black bear — our onboard reminder of our previous home — to the delight of the students. Jack told them a real black bear is as big as a man.

Jack erased his notes and wrote out his own questions, including “How big is a bear?”

After the students answered all the questions we had to grade their quizzes and sign our names to the papers, and in a “formal” ceremony, hand the papers back and congratulate them on their achievement, shaking each hand in turn.

In the end we were serenaded with great gusto with the Kookaburra Song and three or four other easy songs, many with counting or repetition in them, good for learning English. The teacher asked us to teach them a song but for the life of me I couldn’t come up with anything appropriate on the spot.

Now that we’ve done this once and know what the kids responded to we’ll do a little better next time. It was definitely a rewarding experience and I think even Jack enjoyed it.

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Stepping out in Banda

I remember reading something about a bronze bust of Willem III ensconced in a shady courtyard of the Dutch colonial governor’s former residence now gone to seed with benign neglect. I have no idea where this mansion might be but it’s said that the courtyard is attached to a barracks and I just might know roughly where that might be.

Soon we were met with kids of all ages goose-stepping through the dusty streets of Banda. I have to say that goose stepping without helmets, gray uniforms, and shiny black boots looks a little silly, like a Monty Python skit. Once again I had to lower my voice and say, “Marce, somethings going on here.”

After finding the bronze bust we wandered through the mansion and found what has to be a framed canon ball hit. I don’t know about you, but is it art?

We paused outside to watch the rehearsal of an elaborate flag ceremony and that’s when Marce said, “Aha, they’re practicing for Independence Day.” From who, I wouldn’t know…anyone?

(Side note from Marce: I have an old Samsung phone and have assigned as the sound for incoming messages and notifications the distinctive crack of a bottle being opened and the cap falling to the table — svftt plink tinkle tinkle. I hear this sound a lot all day long. The flag ceremony rehearsal had accompanying music that must have been bluetoothed to the speakers from someone’s phone because every minute or so the music was punctuated by svfft plink tinkle tinkle. Again and again we heard the bottle opening sound and suppressed our giggles as we watched the students practicing their solemn faces. svftt plink tinkle tinkle. Many of them, like us, couldn’t keep a straight face.)

The kids on Banda are normally a happy cheerful lot, somehow managing to be happy and cheerful while goose stepping in school uniforms through town. I hope this year we can see something of the celebration because last year we arrived in Bali too late to see how they celebrate Independence Day.

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Around town

Pulau Bandaneira is a tiny little island, but jam-packed with surviving evidence of the nutmeg wars along with more recent historic buildings and newer accommodations to the tourist trade. We tried, in the stifling heat of the day, to explore as much as we could in the time we had left.

On one hot day we corralled the crew of Erie Spirit to join us for lunch at a nearby café where the food was cooked to order by Rose in her back alley kitchen. And it was delicious!

After lunch we followed a hand drawn map in search of a couple of notable buildings.

We started at the beautiful Cilu Bintang, a guesthouse and restaurant where we enjoyed a welcome dinner the night we arrived. It’s a Dutch colonial reproduction decorated to the max with artifacts from the nutmeg trade and lovely cool gardens and balconies. The owner is also the go-to person for tours and information.

Further out of town we met a local man who guided us to the Hatta House, the early 20th century home in exile of an Indonesian revolutionary who became Vice President after independence. It’s easy to see that this exile may not have been so terrible. The house is lovely, and now seems to be occupied variously by squatters and community groups.

The man who showed us around is pioneering a recycling campaign to help the Bandanese better manage their considerable waste stream, which ends up along the waterways and is the only sad blot on these gorgeous islands. We made a small donation of support for his efforts by buying a couple of the purses his group makes from plastic wrappers.

The heat finally chased us back to the waterfront and a cold drink in the shade. I think I could live here.

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History you can touch

Most of the history and clashes between the Dutch and the English in the spice trade occurred on the nearby islands of Ai and Run, within easy eyesight of each other. So why pile into a 30 foot long narrow twin outboard for a rollercoaster spray-filled hour and a half when you’re already well aware of what happened there? Turns out I never pass up a chance to touch history.

By the time we cleared the anchorage our skipper leaned over the 40 horsepower screaming outboard he was using to pull start the 40 hp outboard beside it, setting it to full scream. He locked the engine straight ahead while making course corrections with the original engine. Careening from wave to wave we did a close drive by of Ai on the way to Run. They really are very small but steep little islands, tiny specks out in the middle of nowhere. It’s a mystery to Yours Truly how they ended up with such unique flora and is it a blessing or a curse?

The approach into Run was reef strewn and incredibly shallow, causing our boat to crunch on the crushed coral and bounce occasionally. It’s true what the old salts say that you can smell Run before you even get there. We had to bail out over the transom, squeezing passed the two outboards and into the water. We walked maybe two kilometers along a sinuous path.

You really can see the difference the spice trade makes in their everyday lives. Their houses are nicer, their villages are nicer, even their cats are better fed. They complain that with so many competitors it’s hard to make any money in the spice trade but over time nutmeg, cloves, and cinnamon have been very good for them, that is when the Dutch weren’t trying to kill them.

The governor’s house was turned from ruin to rubble as was the fort in the 1988 earthquake so our guide said we weren’t going up there but I still had that tingling sensation, let’s call it a profound sense of history, when walking through the village.

Run, after all, had the nutmeg seed trees that most of the world’s nutmeg is descended from and knowing the Dutch mania for spice trade monopoly, the Brits got them to throw in Manhattan as a sweetener during negotiations at the treaty of Breda, including a twin of the Fort Belgica whose walls were eventually paved over in Manhattan, and are now called Wall St.

With every turn we were met with the sweet perfume of cloves or nutmeg drying spread out in the sun. Heady stuff.

On the way to Ai we stopped on an uninhabited little islet called Neilaka for a picnic lunch on the beach right off of Run.

The routine was different on Ai where they let us off at one end of the village but picked us up after our stroll up and down through town.

Ai’s fort was Dutch built but appropriated by the Brits who, with the natives’ help, held on against persistent Dutch attack for quite awhile.

On the way down we were shown our guide and boat driver’s beautiful guest estates. I may be in the wrong business.

We all clambered aboard between the twin outboards and quickly collided with the wind blown waves and spray.

Well worth it.

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Nutmeg trail

On a hot sunny day we joined a tour to the adjacent island of Pulau Besar to see the nutmeg trees that put these islands on the map.

A wet landing took us to the town of Lonthoir, an obviously prosperous settlement whose residents seem to try to outdo each other in Crayola color combinations.

These islands are steep, and the fitness program on my phone was delighted that I was finally exercising my passage-weakened legs.

The tropical sun is hard on the nutmeg trees, so the planters shade them with huge and beautiful almond trees that are so big I can’t get a whole tree in the frame.

At the plantation the owner demonstrated how they pick the nutmegs with what looks like a lacrosse stick, then he cut open several nutmegs and almonds so we could all smell and taste the fresh fruit and nuts.

Then we were on to cinnamon, another of the traditional crops of these spice islands. We all stood around like Ewell Gibbons chewing on tree bark and agreed that its fresh, pungent, bordering on hot spicy flavor reminded us of the candy Red Hots.

Walking back through town we saw nutmegs and cloves drying in front of many of the houses and realized the spices are produced not just by the plantations but by nearly everyone on the islands. The scent is nearly intoxicating.

We climbed a little further to the remnants of the Dutch fort for a spectacular view of the volcano and the anchorage below.

We ended the tour with cinnamon tea and nutmeg coffee and more of the friendly faces we’ve become accustomed to here in Banda.

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On golden fruit and forts


I guess when you’ve got the only trees in the world growing “golden fruit” the next thing you’ll need is a way to stop people from taking it. For centuries the Arabs, Chinese, Javanese, and Buris merchants queued up to do business with the Bandanese. Using these middlemen Venice amassed vast fortunes reselling nutmeg as a preventative for the plague, kind of a snake oil scam, along with cloves and cinnamon.

Trouble started when the Portuguese and Spanish arrived in 1512 and decided that wouldn’t it be nice to monopolize the trade? Then came the well-armed Dutch, with their own dreams of monopoly and forced 40 tribal elders to sign an exclusive contract, then paid a few Japanese samari assassins to behead them all. The Dutch sailed away thinking that was done and dusted.

Several years later they sailed back, furious to find the English doing a brisk business in Pulau Banda Besar and had, in an especially cheeky move, established forts in Pulau Run and Pulau Ai. The Dutch played cat and mouse with the English, but in 1621 the VOC, under their new governor Jan Pieterszoon Coen, ordered a virtual genocide of the Bandanese thinking to replace them with enslaved workers. Just a few hundred survivors escaped to the Kei Islands, nearly 200 miles east.

Fort Belgica is the largest historic fort in Indonesia. Construction began in 1611 high above Little Bandaneira because it became apparent that the lower bastion of Fort Nassau was well within range of Bandanese fire arrows from the heights above.

Evidence of the power struggle is all around you on these sleepy isles. Each of the dozen or so bow chasers scattered about Bandaneira represents a ship on the bottom.

The Dutch and English were at loggerheads for years, culminating in 1667 with the Treaty of Breda in which the Dutch gave New Amsterdam (Manhattan) to the English in exchange for Run, finally giving the Dutch their long sought monopoly.

The English eventually solved the problem of how to successfully transplant nutmeg to India and their West Indies colonies, most notably Grenada, where we first saw nutmeg growing and processing.

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The land of nutmeg

As soon as we set foot on shore we fell in love with Banda Neira, the administrative center of the Spice Islands. It’s got the same lively, bordering on chaotic vibe as Bali, but on a much smaller scale and without the Hindu influence. People here are Muslim and the competing muezzins ring out a modern jazz symphony of aural ouch four times a day. But the people are as friendly and fun loving as we’ve seen so far, and obviously used to foreign visitors, as evidenced by the many shop signs in English. We’re using our Google Translate app far less that we did in Debut.

Every shop displays nutmegs, cinnamon and nutmeg candy, made from the dried and spiced meat of the nutmeg, something we haven’t seen before.

Our local host for the rally boats has arranged various tours and dinners on an ad hoc basis, so while we decide what we want to do on an organized jaunt vs. on our own we’re just wandering the streets of Banda Neira, appreciating the Graham Greene atmosphere of slightly decaying colonial architecture.

The spice that made the islands famous and the bitter conflict between the Dutch and the English it caused are evident everywhere.

But this is not a reconstructed Disneyland of tourist fakery, but rather a lively community with, of course, a traditional market, always my favorite destination.

The locals seem to absorb the influx of visitors with good cheer while still going about the daily business of living.

We have a lot more to see and do on these tiny islands. Another day. We’ve got time.

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The view from the back porch

We have arrived at the legendary Spice Islands, a dream come true for Jack.

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Somebody pinch me

We measure time and distance differently on a sailboat. Getting to far flung Banda Island became a difficult calculus due to distance and the uncertainty of the velocity of the trade winds. Our goal was to reach Banda with just one overnight sail but the distance was on the edge of what we could safely cover in 36 hours. We scoured the charts for an interim stop to knock the mileage down and found two possibilities, one with a somewhat dodgy anchorage some thirty miles away and one at Pulau Tayandu which would take just twenty miles out of the 190 mile journey, but seemed to have a secure harbor. You really don’t want to be running around these reef strewn waters at night so we’ll see how far we get and pull in for an overnight rest stop.

Once again the steady trades were dead downwind so it was jib to the left and mainsail to the right, wing and wing, which EV does so well even in these strong trade winds. While most of the monohulls gybed back and forth, keeping the wind near 150 degrees, we just left it near 180 degrees right on the rhumbline, and had a cuppa Joe. Yours Truly is a rhumbline kind of guy, not as fast but so refined.

While rounding Pulau Tayandu we had a look in and Marce said, “good enough,” so we poked about trying to find bottom that we can reach with our anchor and finally just decided to do as the locals do and sidled up to whatever these are and anchored in thirty feet.

None of the locals speak English so it’s difficult to find out why they do this but a cruiser that was anchored here said they had a big wedding yesterday, but my money’s on camouflage to fool fish into thinking the boat is a just a pile of reeds to hide under.

At first light we weighed anchor with a long way to travel to reach the famous Banda Islands. There were quite a few boats anchored in another bay south of us so suddenly the chart plotter was alive with AIS targets. Should be interesting at night. Occasionally huge rollers would hiss across our downwind course and smack EV with a staggering blow on her flanks leaving the autopilot with a heavy load to right our course, but for the most part conditions were tolerable while making 5-6kts.

Our chart plotter gives us a running ETA and the next day as we raised Banda through the mist, old Ray the autopilot swore we would be in the Spice Islands by 4:00 pm. After a good long sniff around this very deep harbor we decided on 35ft. on the edge of a scary reef just next to the huge Welcome to Banda Naira sign which has the added benefit of watching the party lighting change colors close up.

I’ve been reading and dreaming about the Spice Islands since I was a little kid. It always seemed to me that so much global history and wealth beyond measure was played out on the most unlikely of stages on a tiny speck on the other side of the earth. I can’t believe I’m actually here. We’re now part of the view. Somebody pinch me.

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Ease on down the road

Our weeklong stay in Debut gave us an opportunity to ease into Indonesia, learn a few critical phrases, get accustomed to what’s available in the markets, and reacquaint ourselves with the high-finance feel of the currency, where 100,000 rupiah is approximately $10AUD. We find it easier to do the mental arithmetic to Aussie dollars — knock off four zeros — than the more headscratching conversion to USD, which we haven’t used in years anyway.

Our little town of Debut has very little in the way of shops and supplies so a local taxi or van is in order for a 20 to 30 minute drive into Langgur where an ATM coughs up a maximum of 2,500,000 rupiah, about $175US. The wad of bills challenges the Velcro on my wallet and I have to find alternative ways of carrying money.

The fresh market is typical, and in a few visits we’ve learned what’s readily available — bok choy, tomatoes, eggplant, ladyfinger bananas — and what’s not, most notably mangoes, which we learned are out of season, and much in the way of fresh herbs. Everyone is patient and helpful as we navigate the ways of the marketplace and the language.

The big surprise for me is how difficult it is to find vegetarian food in restaurants. During our sojourns into town, and also at our rally dinners, there isn’t much in the way of food for me to eat, and when I ask if vegetarian food is available I’m met with puzzled looks. This is not what I expected in Indonesia and I’m hoping it’s just the case in these particular islands, where fishing is the dominant industry.

We stayed behind the day much of the fleet departed for our next stop because I wanted to catch up on laundry and get the boat more organized after the passage from Australia. We also wanted to walk the road along the shore to see more of the village and stretch our legs a bit before heading back out to sea.

Everyone wants a ‘selfie,’ by which they mean either they want us to take their picture or they want to take our picture with them. We’ve posed for more photos than we can count.

And now it’s time to go, a little less than 200 miles west, to a destination that Jack has dreamed of for decades.

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