Scotsabroad's Weblog

July 20, 2014

Mixed Spice

Filed under: Holidays,Indonesia,politics — scotsabroad @ 9:15 pm

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We have just returned from visiting a bit of the original Spice Islands. We discovered in Maluku the complex mix of history, religion, loyalties, politics and culture. We didn’t know what to expect travelling during the holy month of Ramadhan, during a presidential election and also during the monsoon season. There was a lot to get your head around but we have returned in awe of the region.

We knew a bit about the historical significance of the Moluccas having read Giles Milton’s wonderful book, Nathaniel’s Nutmeg. It was his book that had inspired me to try and plan a trip to the Banda Islands. The book does not hold back on describing the brutality of the Dutch as they tried to control a spice monopoly in the region. On our trip we explored many of their forts, built to guard against other European interference and enforce their will – and that of the Dutch East India Company (VOC). Uncooperative islanders on the nutmeg and clove islands were simply massacred and replaced with compliant slaves from other regions.

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All the Dutch brought in return was Christianity.

The Dutch held power over the region until after WW2, resisting Indonesian independence until 1949 – when they handed the Moluccas over to the predominantly Muslim Indonesian Republic.

On this holiday we didn’t expect (much to Cairo’s disgust) to see any of the football during the last two weeks of the World Cup. It turned out we managed to see all the games on a small television set at a guesthouse in Banda Neira. We couldn’t believe many people’s genuine affection for the Dutch and their World Cup squad. Surely their desire to see the Dutch beaten was like the Scot’s delight at seeing England humbled? 

When we landed in the Maluku capital of Ambon we knew instantly that flags were big in town. We saw numerous Dutch flags. Neighbours seemed to be trying to out-size neighbour and have it flying higher than anyone else. Lots of people proudly sported orange tops. Some houses and many Bemo stops were painted red, white and blue… and The Orange. The islanders were besotted by the World Cup and it was all everyone talked about.

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We wondered about this allegiance to the Dutch. We eventually got an understanding of the past and the present. The predominantly Christian Southern Maluku panicked when the Dutch gave up their resistance to independence. They decided to try to resist Muslim control and attempted to form their own independent republic in the early 1950s. It didn’t work. Many thousands of Maluku troops had served in the Royal Netherland Indies Army (KNIL) during the war and had stayed loyal to the Dutch during the independence struggle. They now feared reprisals. Thousands were resettled in Holland where a large Indonesian community still lives. Some descendants of these repatriated returned to the region, others still send money to family members on the islands and encourage them to study and work in the Netherlands. Some professional footballers in the Netherlands are from Indonesian descent including some in the national squad. And I suppose, there are not many descendants of the original islanders left to bear a grudge.

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I had very little recollection of Ambon’s more recent conflict between Muslim and Christian factions in the late 90s. Indeed, we were surprised to read on the commonwealth graves website that you are still meant to contact them to see if it is safe to visit the city. We saw a few bullet ridden buildings, reminding everyone of the Beruit-like situation that ended just over a decade ago. We came across the cheesy peace gong downtown and reference to the Ambon Declaration of Peace.

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The island of Ambon seems to have a fine balance of Muslim and Christian inhabitants. In our part of town, the port district, it seemed to be overwhelmingly Christian. Elsewhere it is either Mosque or Church in the kampungs.  People had crosses made out of painted water bottles hanging from their porches and kampung gateways wished you a perpetual Merry Christmas. We sailed into the port of Kota Saparua and faced an enormous white cross on the shoreline. I was asked about my soul after death by a missionary in the foyer of the Swiss Belhotel in Ambon. OMG. We later on established that parts of towns and individual islands are either predominantly Muslim or Christian. It might be the weather, but there is a sense of melancholy – and a feeling of  just below the surface prejudice and displays of provocation. The support for the Palestinian cause you can understand from the Muslim population. But then you have the Star of David displayed on a youth’s scooter tank and on the walls of a house close to a mosque in Ambon. God knows what is going on inside the head of one resident who has a swastika in the middle of a German flag painted on his garage door. You feel the violence could all kick off again quite easily in Ambon.

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On safer historical ground you have two major Indonesian heroes, significant to the region, that everyone seemed to embrace. Hatta was exiled to Banda Neira by the Dutch authorities for encouraging Indonesians towards independence – albeit peacefully. The house where he stayed is now a museum. We managed to get inside to see his bedroom, one of his suits and a pair of his distinctive glasses. Among the pictures, a lovely old black and white photograph of him returning to the island. He also ran a school for local children while he was in isolation. Hatta became vice-president of the first Indonesian Republic. 

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Another more gung-ho anti-colonial hero was Pattimura. In 1817, he briefly took over the fort of Benteng Duurstede at Saparua and kicked some Dutch butt. But his uprising was eventually crushed and he was executed by the Dutch. His image adorns Indonesia’s 1000 Rp banknotes. We got inside the fort (once the key-holder had finished his lunch) and inside the museum commemorating Pattimura’s exploits. But we couldn’t see  all the dioramas because the lights didn’t work. I bought a t-shirt at the airport with his image on it.

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Modern day entrepreneurs are tapping into this history. History now serves a purpose. That of making money. Abba runs the Mutiara guesthouse in Banda Neira. He is a lovely, charming fella. He has decided to embrace the whole colonial (VOC) era and use it to promote his new tourist trap on the island. We fall for his current hospitality hook-line and sinker. His new place, due to open soon, is built like an old Dutch colonial mansion and even has nutmeg motifs carved into the furniture. He has commissioned imposing metal gates displaying the VOC logo and adorned with nutmegs. His guests will soon be able to relive the lavish lifestyle (hot water showers) of the VOC employees. At a price. He is still looking for a suitable name for his property with a nutmeg theme. I told him about Elvis Presley’s place called Graceland, suggesting he could call his palace, Maceland. I honestly think he took me seriously. I do think Banda Neira is in danger of becoming a historical theme park in the future as transport links become easier, quicker and more comfortable. Old Dutch mansions are just waiting for restoration and transformation into boutique hotels.

Then there is Indonesia’s future. The presidential elections were held on July 9th. The polling stations on Banda Neira seemed very busy. An ex-army general wanting to lead the corrupt status-quo against the untarnished, dynamic, young  governor of Jakarta, Jokowi. No competition there you would think. On polling day we stopped for some coffee at a house at the bottom of the steps in Lonthoir and found ourselves in the family living room watching the results. Surprisingly, voting percentages were just about even and both sides were declaring they had the support of the population. We will know on Tuesday.

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We met some lovely fellow tourists on our travels and some horrible ones. There were two charming American brothers backpacking around South East Asia and having the experience of their lives. And one loud German expat living and working in Indonesia. This did not prevent him from ridiculing the superstitious nature of the Indonesians and their belief in ghosts. We couldn’t but overhear his conversation to do with his company’s new site and the workers who believe the toilets are haunted – so they will not go alone. They visit the toilet in pairs. He scoffed that this is not an efficient use of manpower and the best use of time. But he’d got the place sorted. A colonial mind still to be found in this arrogant and bigoted wanker.  He’ll take the cheap accommodation and the beautiful beaches though. Travel does not always broaden the mind.  Give me Indonesians any day.

Perhaps we shouldn’t try to think too much about it all. This diverse country is just incredible and so are its people. Maybe we should just be thankful for being allowed to travel around and experience it all.

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