The landscapes of Kei are like those seemingly perfect images painted by the brush strokes of Mooi Indie painters. The verdant green trees, the long stretches of white sandy beaches, the cool blue of the ocean and the waves; water so clear colourful fish can easily be spotted darting within.
While the grand works produced by the imagination of these painters are often rooted in the landscapes of Indonesia’s western regions, Kei is located all the way in the east, in Southeast Maluku, Maluku province, flanked by currents of the Banda Sea and the Arafura Sea. And today, where distance is hardly an issue with even the most remote areas being reachable by flight, Kei serves as an answer to the things Mooi Indie painters of the colonial era may have left out.
From Ambon, capital of the Maluku province, my flight takes me to Karel Satsuit Tubun Airport. From up above, I see a city dotted with a multitude of houses, an island surrounded by layers of colour from the pure white sand, through the azure shallows and out into the deep inky blues as it moves further away from shore. Along with the Kei Besar and Kei Kecil islands, nearby are Duroa and Dullah islands, and I spot the Usdek bridge, which connects Tual City, located on Dullah Island, with Kei Kecil.
It’s a few nights before New Year’s Eve, and Kuta Tual is getting crowded. At a restaurant by the Usdek bridge I enjoy sips of saraba with my tour guide, a young man called Abdul Rifai. Rifai indulges me with stories of Kei Kecil Island’s beauty, its white sand and the Hawang Cave, located at the Letvuan Village in Southeast Maluku. Surrounded by a forest, the cave is home to a crystal-clear pool believed to be connected to the Evu spring by way of an underground river, which divers use to access the cave. It’s no wonder the guide goes on to say that, “despite the long journey, no tourist has ever been disappointed upon visiting this place”.
After exploring Kei Kecil, I move on to Kei Besar. To do so, I take a boat headed to Elat from Kota Tual then hop on a motorcycle taxi to Yamtel — a quaint village in the western area of Kei Besar. Fom Yamtel, I cross over to the villages facing east. A speedboat takes me across the water, where waves are getting increasingly high. As we careen past magnificent cliffs and hear and watch the waves crash on the reefs, we spy houses located by the edges of the island. It’s quite a journey.
I soon arrive in Banda Eli, a village that is also known as a centre for handicrafts such as pottery and silver- and ironwork. Banda Eli is also popular as a producer of pelagic fish, which locals distribute to nearby villages along the eastern region of Kei Besar, and as a producer of what is known as kei gold, a type of precious metal often used as jewellery by residents of Kei.
Before long, it is time for me to head back to Jakarta. It’s hard to leave behind a place that offers so much beauty, but I believe one day I’ll be back, for the clear blue sea and the warmth of the people.