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Journey to Yesterday


© St. Petersburg Times

Editor's note: As large as our world is, there are few places that we cannot reach, given enough time, stamina, money and -- most of all -- curiosity. This morning, the Times begins a regular feature: Welcome to The Explorers Club.

I am losing Sudirman. At 7 a.m., the port of Surabaya is a bright mosaic of sailors, vendors, prostitutes and police, and Sudirman, a kick-boxer turned cargo-ship pilot, races through the obstacle course faster than I can follow.

Minutes earlier in a tea shop I had overheard him saying he was headed for Ambon, the hub of the Spice Islands.

"We've got five minutes!" he now shouts, side-stepping a man with a 100-pound bag of concrete on his head. Surabaya is Indonesia's unofficial cargo-ship capital, and the docks are swarming, ant-like, with laborers loading and unloading a flotilla of freighters. "If we're late, Cap will be angry and he won't let you on."

When I spot the boat Sudirman is running toward, I think that might not be such a bad idea. The K.M. Okatawa is so overloaded with sacks of sugar and crates of beer that it's 5 feet lower than the ships around it. The only reminder of the ship's youth is a few pale freckles of paint clinging to its rusted hull. Sudirman senses my ambivalence and, snatching my arm, he pulls me toward the ancient vessel.

"You'll be our first foreign sailor," he says. "Wait here. I get captain."

As Sudirman scurries across the gangplank, I steal over to nearby boats to see if I have any other options. Nothing. All the other cargo boats are headed to exotic ports like Kalimantan, Irian Jaya, and Bali, but none to the Spice Isles.

Sudirman returns, marching a few steps behind a pudgy man wearing a Chicago Bulls T-shirt and a pair of binoculars around his neck. It's Cap. With a toothy smile, I explain how, uh, honored I would be to sail on his magnificent vessel. He stares at me skeptically and then back at the ailing Okatawa, now listing to the right.

"I have one question for you," he announces. "Do you eat rice?"

Getting to the Spice Islands has always been tricky. Known as the Moluccas, it's a group of about 1,000 islands scattered across a million square miles or so of sapphire sea in eastern Indonesia.

The Spice Islands were once the most sought-after palm specks in the world, the mysterious source of nutmeg and cloves, their location unknown to all but a secretive group of Arab and Chinese traders.

Today the islands that launched the Age of Discovery have returned to tropical obscurity. But for travelers they are still treasures, with pristine beaches, dramatic volcanoes and local culture not yet dressed up for tourism. I discovered this four years ago when I stumbled across a few of the Spice Islands on my way back from an jungle trek in Irian Jaya.

I wound up spending a month teaching English in the Kai Islands, a string of lagoons, jungles and beaches inhabited by some of the friendliest, wisest fishermen in the world. I vowed to return and promised myself enough time to visit Kai's spectacular neighbors, including the historic Banda Islands.

Powered by an engine smaller than a Ford Mustang's, the 20-ton Okatawa needs every bit of five days to chug the 500 miles from Surabaya on Java to the island of Sulawesi near the Spice Islands. Though cheap (and legal), few tourists travel through Indonesia by freighter. Arranging passage is completely hit or miss and the concept of secluding yourself for a week with a dozen underpaid, underfed sailors may be slightly daunting. Also, cargo ships move about as fast as mountains.

But the pace of life on a cargo ship, I learned, is actually an endearing attribute -- at least for a short stint. Loading and unloading freight at each port may require the skills and sweat of every crew member, but once at sea, the sailor's life is one of leisure, a timeless cycle of cigarettes, dominoes, rice and fish, and more cigarettes.

Within hours of stepping aboard, I unleash the little Indonesian that I learned in college and soon I muster one of the keys to breaking through another culture: a few lame jokes in the native tongue. While I help the cooks prepare our breakfast of spiced tuna and rice, I tease them about their futile attempts to grow mustaches and challenge them to arm wrestling.

At night, the muggy heat drives us to the deck, where Cap and I swap travel stories under the glow of kerosene lamps. He acts out the Indonesian words I don't understand like an expert charade player, as I scurry through my language dictionary.

As much as I enjoyed every moment on the Okatawa, I'm relieved that morning when I spot the first sliver of land we've seen in five days, the western shores of Sulawesi. From here, I will catch a tiny plane to Ambon, the hub of the Spice Islands. Before I go, I offer Cap money for my passage. He refuses and shoos me toward the gangway.

The port where I've landed, Ujungpandang, was a key trading post in the 17th century for the Gentlemen Adventurers, a group of London merchants who used local sailors to smuggle nutmeg and cloves out of the Dutch-controlled Spice Islands. Today, Ujungpandang is a chaotic, sweltering city of 800,000 -- the largest on the island of Sulawesi. Two hours after climbing off the Okatawa, I am peeking out the scratched plastic window of a prop-jet bound for Ambon.

The island of Ambon has not always been the obscure destination that it is today. Located smack in the middle of the spice-producing islands, with clove-growers to the north and the nutmeg-rich Bandas to the south, Ambon served as a crossroads of global commerce since 300 A.D. Until refrigeration was invented in the late 19th century, nutmeg and cloves were valued for their special ability to preserve meat: A pinch of spice was the only way to retard oxidation and could keep warm meat edible for up to two weeks.

Because these miracle spices were cheap to produce but extremely rare, their trade became lucrative. By the Middle Ages, Chinese and Arab merchants were shipping crates of spice to the West at enormous markups. But in the 16th century, Europeans navigators sailed across the globe and cut out the Eastern middlemen.

In 1511, Portuguese forces stormed what is now Malaysia and shanghaied local pilots into guiding them to the Bandas, the only known place in the world where nutmeg trees grew. But the Dutch were close on their heels. In 1599, Dutch sailors forced the Portuguese out of Banda. Over the next few decades, Dutch troops washed ashore the quiet beaches of Ternate, Tidore and dozens of other tiny, spice-producing islands. By the middle of the 17th century, Ambon was the distribution center for the Dutch East India Co., a spice monopoly that would last 150 years.

Today the colonial era lingers in Ambon only in the white-washed, red-roofed architecture and scores of churches, a rarity in Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim nation. Rooms are scarce, but I strike a deal with an octogenarian Dutch nun to teach some English classes at night in exchange for a room in the Catholic Mission.

I wait in Ambon for a flight to the nearby Kai Islands. Four years ago, I discovered on the Kai Islands what must be the world's most beautiful beach: a virginal stretch of sand fine as flour, as wide as a football field and framed by sapphire waters and 60-foot palms straight out of the paradise manual.

Or at least that's how I remembered it. Back then, the nearest hotel was 15 miles away, so I stayed with an old woman who didn't speak a word of English but whipped up a mouthwatering battered fish with mango. During my month in the village of Pasir Panjang ("Long sand" in local dialect), every villager I met seemed determined to make my time unforgettable. They succeeded. The moment I left, I knew I'd be back.

On the two-hour flight from Ambon to Kai, I prepare myself for a possible letdown. When I last visited the Kai islands, among the most under-developed areas in this part of the world, most islanders were fisherman, or the sons, daughters or wives of fishermen. There were few badges of western commercialism -- no electricity and no tourists. But as my plane wobbled across the last miles of glassy water before Kai, I began to worry: Would there be beach resorts and Jet Skis? Would everyone be watching Baywatch?

Would anyone remember me?

As I leave the airstrip and begin to walk to the sandy bus terminal, a man in his 30s jogs up me to me.

"Are you Jeffrey?" he asks.

It is Eddie, the village teacher, and he has recognized me from the last trip, when I snapped some photos of him with his students.

"The children have been waiting a long, long time," he grins, pumping my hand and bursting into a deep, warm laughter.

The bus arrives, and the driver immediately recognizes me and squeezes my breath out in a tight hug. And as the bus rolls into Pasir Panjang, he cranes his neck out the window and yells to the whole village, "Jeffrey has arrived again."

Before I can get emotional about a scene I have been envisioning for years, dozens of kids playing on the beach swarm me and press their tiny palms into mine. As I run down the sand after them, the sensations become achingly familiar: the sound of the little feet slapping the sand, the salty breeze swaying through the palms above us, the rich sapphire color of the water.

Soon I'm back in the gracious rhythm of Kai. And I learn not much has changed.

Still no electricity. Still no tourists. Besides the addition of one new well, the biggest news on the island is that a German anthropologist married a local woman in the village church two years ago.

I spend a week fishing the lagoons, filling up every night on battered fish with mango and photographing children on the beach. Kai is one of those irresistibly photogenic spots where even the most mediocre pictures draw sighs from friends at home.

On my last day in the village, I convince one of the few local fisherman with an outboard motor to take me to Benson's island. Benson is a leathery old fisherman who has been living alone on a nearby island for the past 15 years, Thoreaulike, farming coconuts and fishing the reefs. I met him four years when he gave me a free lift on what he calls his "sea helicopter," his outrigger canoe.

Benson now seems excited to entertain guests and shortly after we step ashore, he cracks open a coconut and scoops out the meat. We chat on the beach, sipping coconuts and watching birds with legs as thin as chopsticks strut across the sand.

Before I leave, Benson insists on giving me a tour of his island, about 1,000 yards square. As we walk, he shares with me the health of each coconut palm we pass. He boasts he can still shimmy to the top of every one of them. I ask him when he plans to return to his home on the big island.

"Look," he says, pointing to the prefect crescent of sand that trims his emerald lagoon. Palm trees rise up from the white sand, and when the wind stirs the fronds, it makes a sound like rain.

"Why would I want to leave here?" he asks.

And as I lean back in the seat of an airplane rumbling toward my final destination of the trip, the Banda Islands, it is a question I find myself asking.

The approach to the Bandas is spectacular. The plane sweeps across the crystal waters and then banks steeply around the cone of a still-active volcano before squealing to a stop on Bandaneira's truncated runway. When I climb out of the 12-seater and onto the tarmac, my nostrils fill with a tangy scent -- nutmeg spiced with smells of the tropical foliage that covers these islands.

In Banda, there are ruins of the colonial forts that guarded the Dutch spice monopoly and working nutmeg plantations. As with the other Moluccas destinations, there are few tourists to bump into as you explore. The markets are lively and colorful, and the reefs that ring the islands are among the most spectacular diving spots in the world. Some of the best snorkeling is near Pulau Rum, a nutmeg-producing island so coveted by the Dutch in the 17th century that they traded Manhattan to the British for it.

On my second afternoon in Banda, I hire a lean teenager named Achmad to guide me to the summit of the 2,180-foot volcano. Halfway up the near-vertical trail, the dense jungle fades into a volcanic scree that is about as easy to climb as a wall of golf balls. After two sweaty hours, Achmad and I arrive, panting, at the summit. Slithering on our bellies over the hot, rocky earth, we reach the lip of the crater and peer down.

"No man has been down there before," Achmad gulps as we stare into the huge hole hundreds of feet deep.

The smell of sulfur wafts up from the chasm. Far below from Bandaneira's mosque, I can hear the call to prayer drifting up to our treacherous perch. For a moment, the clouds scatter and we gaze across the Banda Islands, basking in a sea of azure. I imagine galleons with Europe's deftest navigators cutting across the waters, and the Sudirmans of centuries past heaving roped chests full of spices onto overloaded cargo ships.

But then the clouds swirl back, and Achmad and I are left looking at each other. After we cling to the crunchy rim of the volcano for a few more moments, we head back down the mountain, slipping and sliding through the rich soil that makes spice come to life in still-distant seas. Jeffrey Gettleman, now a Times staff writer based in Brooksville, traveled to Indonesia in May 1996 as part of his graduate studies at Oxford University. If you go Getting there: From the United States, several airlines fly to Bali and Jakarta, the capital. Garuda Indonesia offers the best deals -- about $1,100 for roundtrip tickets from Los Angeles to Bali, with a stop-over in Hawaii. Garuda's phone number is (800) 342-7832. To get to the Spice Islands, there are alternatives to my route via cargo ship. Garuda offers inexpensive air passes to Bali, the Spice Islands and beyond. Be prepared for tiny planes and irregular schedules. Also, the government-owned Pelni ships make regular loops through the archipelago. If your timing is right, you can travel cheaply and comfortably by ship. Within the islands, plan to travel by mini-bus, taxi and rickshaw. Staying there: All the major Western hotel chains -- Sheraton, Hilton, Hyatt, etc.-- have found their way to Indonesia's larger cities, and Bali is teaming with spectacular resorts. Off the beaten track, in places such as Ambon, you can find well-run, uninspiring hotels for $30 or less. Then there are losmen, the ubiquitous, family-run joints where $5 gets you a tidy room and breakfast. In Banda, the Maulana Hotel is an expensive indulgence, but if you plan to scuba dive, it's the only place that rents tanks. Visas: For U.S. citizens, a free visa good for 60 days is granted on arrival. Before you leave: Malaria pills are a must for the Spice Islands, and shots for yellow fever, typhoid and a few other tropical diseases are recommended. Recommended reading includes The Lonely Planet Guidebook to Indonesia, which has all the practical information, including hotels, plane schedules and accurate maps. It's also well-written and loaded with history. For detailed information on the Spice Islands, read The Malay Archipelago, by Sir Alfred Wallace (published in 1872), or Slice of Spice, by Marika-Hanbury-Tenison.

Originally published February 9, 1997

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