Banda Neira 8.3.95
This is an island to forget dates on and difficult to leave. That’s not only because of its charms but because of the non-consistent transportation to and from the island. None of this is a real problem if you’re attuned to jam karet. However, it is if, like one guy we met, you’ve booked your onward flight to New Zealand from Bali on your round-the-world schedule and your visa runs out – tomorrow!
When the Rinjani arrives around every other Friday from Ambon, and later departs for points further east, it seems as if the whole town is waiting to greet us. That makes it a struggle with backpacks and whatever to get out of the harbour area.
In daylight you can see that the Rinjani is a major event because the quay is quite small and the harbour, with Gunung Api opposite close enough for even me to swim across to. Other boats, rust buckets, wooden vessels, a PELNI ‘cargo’ ship, the Nuroki, which carried people and goats, all cattle class, arrive and depart dependent on the weather and whether they’re full.
We left the seeming chaos with Mawar, a very nice guy who showed us his homestay. Unfortunately, it wasn’t on the beach and the town’s electricity generator was throbbing close by, but at that time of night we needed to get our heads down.
So after one night, we wandered along and while in pursuit of a very pretty butterfly we discovered Abdurrah Man, his wife and baby daughter named Ridha, adopted as the name of Man’s newly-built homestay beside the beach near the airstrip which bisects the island. Man is the local economics and English teacher: my limited Indonesian is on a par with his English, so we had limited conversations. The meals were limited too, with fish being part of our daily diet, but we didn’t grumble.
This was partly because Peggy and Gene, with a pacemaker, were already there in the other guest room. They were very friendly, both being from Oregon, and we were to spend many happy hours snorkeling with them.
Fish was a major reason for coming here. The snorkeling, particularly on the far side of Bandar Besar is the best, given calm conditions, we’ve had anywhere with both black tip and reef sharks, octopi, napoleon wrasse, lion and parrot fish, turtles, sea snakes, barracuda, and a full spectrum of coral. We went snorkeling over the lava flow from the 1988 eruption of Gunung Api and were surprised to find many corals springing up.
On our farewell snorkeling session, off Man’s beach, we observed a dozen or so sharks swimming below us in formation, two by two.
Although, we have met few other tourists apart from Peggy and Gene, there is evidence of tourist income. The only ‘proper’ hotel, the Hotel Maulana, owned by Des Alwi, the uncrowned ‘King of Banda’, is expensive at $100 per night, but it caters for the diving community, many of whom arrive on fancy yachts which they anchor in the lee of the hotel facing the volcano.
Of more interest for us is that at least three places advertise pancakes and ice cream; the latter is dependent on supplies delivered by PELNI and keeping the town’s generator topped up with diesel. The town also has international direct dialling and the government’s TV station, TVRI, is beamed in, with other channels available if you’ve got a satellite dish.
We also delighted in nutmeg jam, and cinnamon flavoured tea. Surprising tastes maybe, but an added reminder that we are in the Spice Islands. Banda is easy to walk around and it is impossible to miss physical evidence of the Dutch presence. We saw cannons protruding from the earth, possibly too heavy to remove and presumably remnants of Benteng Nassau.
Situated on low ground, this was replaced by the now restored fort, Benteng Belgica, which commands views towards neighbouring islands.
The Dutch planned a well-laid out settlement; many streets are lined with trees and street lights. Behind the grass verges are ruined walls, thick enough for defensive purposes. These are the remains of Dutch ‘plantiere’ houses which, we were told, could be bought and renovated.
Several grand houses remain with their roofs intact. These include the former exile homes of Mohammad Hatta, who became Indonesia’s first vice president, and Sutan Sjahrir, first Prime Minister of Indonesia. Hatta adopted a local boy as his son, Des Alwi (see above).