The Banda Islands are a place that has sunk, enve; oped by a deep sea. Now they have become part of a ‘languishing Indonesia’, isolated and neglected. But this is the very place that was a bone of contetntion between the ruling states of the West in times gone by. The reason was that on this tiny area of land, spices grew and bloomed.
“Spice,” that glorious word, once had extraordinary significance. The earth was mapped by cartographers in order to seek and discover the places where it grew. Today, when spice is not as attractive as it once was, the island that was for centuries exploited by those civilized nations has now vanished from the world map. How could this be?
The Banda Islands were the centre of the production of nutmeg –one of the main spice variants. For hundreds of years, nutmeg was mentioned in myths and magical stories as a heavenly plant thrown down to earth. This fruit is recorded as bringing profits of 60.000 times its market value in Banda, and the price really did exceed that of gold. But in early 2014, when first visiting the land where the nutmeg tree grew, the nutmeg was processed only to make dodol and a jam that was sold at the same price as candy.
Even though theprice of nutmeg has plummeted, thousand of people in Banda still depend on this Myristica fragrans. They breathe in the aroma and live on the money they make, together with the traces of an intricate history which is also linked to nutmeg: old fortress full of moss, rusted guns, silent histories, eras running in strange dimensions, and the bloody scent of slaughter caused by this fragrant fruit, albeit only in story form.
Every year, the monsoon season dominates Banda for many months. Rhun and Ay, islands not far from Naira, are isolated. The people on Naira (the main island of the Banda Islands) forbade me to leave for the island of the first British colony. They said that during the stormy season, many angels of death are roaming in Banda. I had come in the wrong season, and inevitably I had to submit.
In the following year, photographer Muhammad Fadli made the same mistake. He came to Banda when the storm season was raging. At such times, only desperate fisherman are willing to cross the Banda Sea. And unfortunately, Banda collects many people of this type. Unlike me, inclined as I am to heed fatal warnings, Fadli crossed over to Pulau Ay with one of these ‘bravehearts’. And he learned his first lesson: he encountered the ferocity of the Banda Sea in tangible form. The seven-metre-long boat in which he travelled became the target of a bevy of violent waves. The waves began to enter the boat and all the passengers called on the Lord, praying, yelling, quoting scripture with pale faces. He thought of his daughter in Jakarta, only three months old. And he vowed never to return to Banda.
However, the vow remained just that. In mid- 2015, Fadli and I decided to collaborate, creating a piece of work that we named The Banda Journal. I wrote, Fadli photographed. And we came again to Banda, several times, many times, sometimes at the same time, sometimes in our own, sometimes for a long time, sometimes just for a few weeks. We have tried all the seasons; the harvest season, the dry season, the season when the sea is like glass, the season of high waves. Sometimes we have gone by airplane; sometimes with Pelni’s giant old ship; with slow but reckless oil vessels; sometimes with fast boats owned by local brokers.
In Banda, I saw Fadli living a life as regular as a musical score. Discipline with a scheduled routine: get up early, take pictures, have breakfast, take pictures, eat and take a nap, take more pictures. Like one obsessed, he went into sacred places and foreign gardens (he sometimes also went astray), all the while carrying his medium format film camera. At times I was surprised that, in the digital age, he still used this obsolate technology with its complicated processes. He said it was to be more connected with the subject, I did not understand. Apart from that, he also liked the surprise of it, that the results of his shots were not immediately visible. Over six journeys back and forth to Banda, he used 150 film rolls. In an age of instantaneity, he enjoys the technology of the past more, with all its problems.
Meanwhile I, unlike Fadli, was more relaxed. Once I taught literature at the high school, guiding students to write about their lives on this remote island. I also joined in wedding parties (even those of people that I did not know), went swimming in the sea, wandered every night from kedai to kedai, listening to local legends, gossiping and talking to people about ‘unimportant’ things, from unending hopes, past traumas, bloody conflict, disastrous fires, to instant noodle prices.
During one harvest season when the sea was at peace, I finally managed to visit Rhun on a smoke-filled boat from Neira. This island was once exchanged, by treaty, with Niew Amsterdam (now called Manhattan). At that time Manhattan was still a swampy land with no promise, while Rhun was a ‘fragrant’ island rich in nutmeg. How could it be, that even before the map of the world was complete this island had been drawn on it.
On Run today, there is the Manhattan Guest House, the only lodging available to accommodate tourists. Its ‘General Manager’ is an old man, Abdullah. As I slept in this ‘starred’ hotel, I wondered: is there a lodging in Manhattan named Rhun?
I do not know. All I know is that the Manhattan Guest House stands on a craggy island with no fresh water source. When the long hot season strikes and the water reservoir bunkers have dried up, Rhun must import water from another island. Sad indeed.
Rhun used to produce a high – priced commodity, but now the island is a region that has been left behind, unable to guarantee the basic needs of its citizens. I thought of Manhattan, the city divided by the Hudson River — a river named for Henry Hudson, the explorer who had been hunting for the spice islands, while Manhattan has become the world’s most important city, lined with skyscrapers, boutiques, colleges, and restaurants and bars that never sleep, Rhun is still surrounded by nutmeg, with narrow halfdirt roads, eight motorbikes, and two junior high schools. While Manhattan became a land of hope for millions og immigrants. Rhun is nothing more than a tiny island far away in the Third World, today occupied by about 1.300 men, women, and children.
Nearly a century after Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb, Rhun still experiences dark nights. Rhun and all of the Banda Islands have lost so much prestige. If this tiny archipelago were to sink silently into the deep, I’m sure no media would report the news. Today, is there any country that would be willing to barter their land for Rhun?
In Banda, whatever great (and absurd) acts have been performed by men for centuries have all been in vain.