Sweet and Sour, Along the Old Spice Road

I can’t forget the day the International Finance professor, at my graduate business school in the US, used me and a Dutch classmate to illustrate how a particular decision in 17th century carried an everlasting effect to modern Indonesians and Americans.

I knew that Maluku (Moluccas) islands were the sexiest game of 16th-17th century spice trade. What I didn’t know was the pivotal details.

Arriving at 1603 in nutmeg-rich Run and Ay on the outskirt of Banda islands, British traders instantly recognized the potentials. Perhaps weary of Portuguese’s first contact advantage and the hovering Dutch, England made the islands its first colonies by 1616. At some point James I even added Poolarun and Pooloway to his already very long title. Yet, after decades of wars against Netherlands worldwide, England eventually agreed to forego the exotic Run, Ay and Suriname for Nieuw Amsterdam on a cold island in the New World (Breda Treaty, 1667). For over a century the Dutch enjoyed monopolizing Myristica fragrans, Banda’s indigenous nutmeg, until the British managed to ruin its distribution line in early 1800s.

Run and Ay later joined Indonesia under Maluku province in 1945. While still producing nutmeg and occasionally visited by history buffs or watersport enthusiasts, they generally remain sleepy islands in the middle of a sea today.

As for the ex Dutch colony, Nieuw Amsterdam? Soon after the swap the British renamed it… New York. And the cold island is now known as Manhattan, home of Wall St. and Sex and the City.

Don’t despair about not having known our New York connection—I had to learn it all the way overseas from a foreign professor. Soekarno and Soeharto really did a fantastic job in erasing history off textbooks that beyond Sultan Tidore’s fight against colonialists, pro-independence Jong Ambon, Hatta-Sjahrir exiles and RMS plot, we learned practically nothing about Maluku.

Staying overnight in Ambon before sailing to Banda with friends, I felt all bittersweet. Dad worked in Ambon in early 1990s, and the island city I often visited then was pristine (hefty fines for littering), in order (color-coded becak schedules), and in peace (Muslims and Christians cooking for each other on respective holidays). The bloody 1999 riots notoriously tore into the city’s societies and burned down houses, including where my parents used to live.

While grateful that peace has since been restored, I was disappointed last week to see a more polluted Ambon, and how most Muslims and Christians now live in segregated pockets instead of alongside each other like before. I’m quite curious of Zen R Sugito’s novel Jalan Lain ke Tulehu and Angga Sasongko’s movie Cahaya Dari Timur, released in tandem these weeks, which supposedly feature shattered lives rediscovering path and peace post Ambon 1999 riots.

Banda islands, on the other hand, were heavenly. Begrudge for the ship’s long delay melted as I stood on its deck at dawn and caught the first glimpse of Banda Naira. The vast indigo sky, dollops of cottony clouds and dark green water were quite indescribable and unjustifiably captured by camera, so I closed my eyes to internalize the image.

Serving as Kecamatan and major port between Ambon and Tual, Banda Naira also houses most, though not many, infrastructures– town market, ATM, money changer, a new gas station and a temporarily closed airport– while retaining clean waterfront and old world charm.

Partly thanks to relentless efforts of renowned historian and Naira native Des Alwi during his lifetime, there are some decently-preserved sites like 403-years-old Fort Belgica, 331-years-old Governor General compound, an Art Deco mosque and other colonial buildings of Dutch and British. The Arabic and Portuguese merchants might’ve never tried to colonialize Banda, but their colorful flair left visible traces on the houses’ paints and the natives’ faces that sometimes I felt like in the Mediterranean. For those paying homage to the Sjahrir-Hatta exile houses, it pays to note that Sjahrir and Hatta were lodged very comfortably.

If you love watersports Banda islands offer great spots, including the active undersea volcano aptly-named Gunung Api that’s often mistaken for a normal island (people actually do live there). For white sandy beach sail away from the volcano to Sjahrir island or the aforementioned Run. Enjoy hiking? The volcano has a trail, while Banda Besar features hundreds of steps connecting spice plantation, ruins of a 390-years-old fort and secluded beaches. But if you have sea or volcano phobias forget Banda altogether, for Gunung Api is visibly prominent and water taxis are the only commuter lines. In fact, there was a day we couldn’t venture out of the ‘inner bay’ because Banda Sea was too choppy.

Back to my International Finance class, the professor made us projecting net present value and potential losses the 1667 colony swap would’ve cost the Dutch, had Indonesia and the US never proclaimed independence. It was insurmountable indeed.

But that’s irreversible history. What’s more tragic is the fact that 68 years after independence Banda islands are still lacking good infrastructure, gainful employments or affordable energy. Spices may not be the sexiest global game nowadays, but there’s much maritime and inland potential in Banda or Maluku that remain overlooked by the government. While older Moluccans were known to be refined, many of the youngsters now can only work as nightclub’s bouncers once leaving the province. Whoever becomes our new president better seriously turn around Maluku and the entire eastern Indonesia.

Indonesia Tanah Air Beta, the famous song goes. As I mumbled it while watching breathtaking sunsets over Banda islands, I wondered if the Moluccans somehow felt the same. Foregone by the Brits once, God forbid they should be forgotten by us twice.

As published: http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2014/06/07/urban-chat-sweet-and-sour-along-old-spice-road.html

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