So the Wooky was confined to the hut for the first week in Saparua recovering from dengue only emerging briefly each evening to try to eat something to keep his strength up. In between checking on the patient, my time was spent swinging in one of the beach hammocks, reading or simply gazing out to sea. It was a gruelling schedule and at mealtimes I relaxed with a beer, chatted to our fellow guests and met some interesting people.
During our 2 week stay at Putih Lessi Indah a number of people came and went with, some with interesting tales to tell. We heard from people who were on personal quests, someone who found himself making Indonesia his home for 26 years (it seemed by accident rather than design) and a Dutch man who had spent a total of 12 months in the last 2 years in Saparua devoted to helping work towards a solution to deal with the waste problem on and around the island.
Going back to their roots
The day after we arrived I met a Dutch couple in their 60s. She had made the trip to Saparua on behalf of her 88 year old father who originated from the island. In about 1949, when her father was 21 years old Indonesia was fighting the Dutch for independence. Her father accepted an offer by the Dutch to migrate to Holland rather than fight his fellow countryman in the conflict.
As a young man he moved to a European country half way around the globe, a world away from his life in Saparua. He made that journey and never returned to his homeland. In 1950 the Maluku Islands became a republic and later became part of Indonesia.
After his move to Holland, her father went on to immerse himself in the language and culture of his adopted country, married a Dutch woman, and until recently had not really given much thought to his ancestral roots. His daughter was making a pilgrimage on his behalf to return to the village where he was born and grew up and meet up with those members of her family who descended from those that had remained.
Before she embarked on the trip she knew her father’s two brothers had died but she was able to locate and contact their sons, her cousins. On the day she told me her story she had just returned from her father’s village where an emotional meeting had taken place. She had brought some old photographs on her journey – some of the few reminders her father had of his early life. These photographs showed him and his brothers in his home village. She telephoned her elderly father back in Holland to explain where she was and who she was with and she was standing in the exact same spot the photographs had been taken when she spoke to her father, a world away from Europe on a tiny island in the middle of the Banda Sea. The whole experience had clearly affected her deeply and she was on the verge of tears as she told her family’s story.
There were also two young Dutch guys (in their early 20s) who were very earnest and very idealistic. They were also in search of distant family members and on a mission to find out more about their cultural history. Both were of Malukan (they were very insistent that they were Malukan and not Indonesian) and Curacaon descent. They were were born and brought up in Holland (as were their parents) but now lived on Curacao in the Caribbean. On this trip they were seeking more information about their Malukan ancestry which stretched back to their grandparents.
They were passionate (in the way that only young men can be) about their heritage, eager to learn about life, customs and beliefs in Maluku, and clearly cynical about Holland, the country adopted by their grandparents, citing inequality, segregation and prejudice. Once you cracked the intense outward shell they were utterly charming and really quite sweet but when we first met them they bowled a few testing comments our way about immigrants and their treatment in European countries. I think they wanted to hear our reaction to what could have been construed as quite radical comments (they weren’t really) but we must have passed the test and they relaxed and turned out to be a couple of lovely guys – just kids really.
One of them had been brought up by a friend of his grandmother’s. Both his grandmother and her friend originated from Maluku but he was not entirely sure where and had little information so although he was trying to find his grandmother’s village this was proving difficult. They had visited a couple of villages but had not yet struck lucky.
The other’s father was of Malukan descent but from the Kei Islands in the south and they were heading there next. He had more information and was hoping to have more success.
It was interesting that they were supporters of the Malukan independence movement which is popular back in Holland but doesn’t really garner much support of the people who actually live in the islands themselves. They seem either happy with the status quo or have other things to worry about. It’s fair to say that Maluku could do with more investment from the Indonesian government to improve power and water supply, sanitation, waste management, health and education (as could the whole of Indonesia) but they have (for some obscure reason) priortised internet access and much of Maluku has access to fast broadband. Transport has also improved with government sponsored fast ferry and air routes springing up across the Maluku Islands. Both initiatives seem to be targeting an increase in tourism but it would be nice if they could improve other elements of infrastructure which would have a real benefit for the local people. A whole other discussion for another day.
And Astrid our German friend promised her Dutch/Indonesian friend she would try to visit her ancestral village of Boi on Saparua which we did with Asis. She was happy to be able to take some photographs for her friend who had yet to make his own pilgrimage.
The European immigrant
And then there was the Swedish bloke in his 60s who arrived on a motorbike. Anders left Sweden nearly 30 years ago to travel around Asia. After a few months he found himself in Aceh, somehow became involved in a turtle conservation project on some nearby islands and ever since, he has called Indonesia home. He had some intelligent, poignant and sometimes hilarious observations to make about his adopted home.
Anders lived in Banda Aceh for about 15 years until his situation there changed and he made plans to move to Bali. He had returned to Sweden for a short visit and was there when the catastrophic 2004 tsunami which devastated the area struck. As he spoke about that time it was painfully clear Anders continued to suffer from survivor’s guilt. It took him a couple of years to summon up the courage to return to Aceh and learn the fate of people he knew there. He spoke with a kind of shame when talking about his reaction to the tragedy but the sheer scale of the annihilation was difficult for the whole world to understand, never mind someone who lost countless friends, and intimately knew whole communities that were wiped out by the catastrophe.
The tsunami was indiscriminate and Anders explained how he learned that one village which was nestled in a small sheltered bay was completely destroyed because the high cliffs around them that villagers relied on for protection from the elements blocked their view out to the ocean. The geography that had provided them with protection for years was the reason for their destruction; they never saw the wave coming.
Another village had a clear view far out to sea and the villagers were able to see the wave long before it hit and everyone escaped to higher ground with no loss of life.
Despite this tragic time (and maybe in part due to it) Anders kept returning to Indonesia and clearly considers this place his home. He does however recognise the frustrations and contradictions often associated with the country, and he had a generally humorous approach to Indonesian with a touch of resignation that is required if you are going to spend any length of time here. He had never planned to leave Sweden and move permanently to Indonesia and he appeared somewhat bemused at times that circumstances had conspired over the years to allow him to remain here almost 3 decades after first arriving.
He joked that good wine (a rare commodity anywhere in Indonesia) became freely available in Banda Aceh once the Indonesian government signed a peace deal with the Free Aceh Movement. Up until that time the FAM had led a long 29 year guerilla campaign for independence from Indonesia. Aceh was hit hard by the disaster; it is estimated that 170,000 lives were lost and 500,000 were left homeless. The mood in the aftermath of the disaster helped create an environment which persuaded both sides to come to the table and agree terms to end the conflict.
The peace deal granted Aceh broader autonomy which most infamously resulted in increased implementation of Sharia law and as you can imagine there’s been lots of scaremongering about that in the western media. While there are well publicised instances of over enthusiastic Sharia police, it is pretty much business as usual in except maybe the increased availability of alcohol (see above – prohibition never does the trick). It is worthwhile pointing out that everyone we have met who have visited Aceh (and we’ve met quite a few) have, without exception, loved it. It purportedly has some of the most stunning inland and coastal scenery in Indonesia (and that’s saying something) and the people are notably friendly and welcoming in this most friendly of countries.
Another anecdote Anders told, partly in order to depict the hospitable nature of the Indonesian people generally, and particularly in light of the negative stories of various outbreaks of fighting in the country, was a when he found himself caught up in the middle of a period of unrest in Sumatra.
He was walking through a large bustling square in Medan minding his own business when he suddenly realised he was alone and everyone around him had fled in all directions for cover. He stopped, looked up and saw a large group of locals running towards him at full pelt yielding machetes and howling battle cries. He froze in terror as the men fast approached him but as they spotted him, without missing a beat, their faces broke into smiles and they passed him with cries of “hello mister”, “how are you?”, “are you married?”, “how many children?” (the usual greetings from Indonesians to foreigners) and then they were gone and quiet descended on the square. While we haven’t found ourselves
Then a few seconds later he saw another group heading towards him, again yelling and yielding machetes obviously chasing the first lot, and again, once they saw him rooted to the spot they all greeted him in a similar fashion shouting “hello mister” etc, and again friendly smiles bursting across their face, before continuing their pursuit of the first lot.
Finally, Anders saw a group of policeman bringing up the rear, this time armed with some serious guns, chasing the fighting groups and probably attempting to bring some semblance of order to the situation. Again, when they saw Anders, their Indonesian hospitality got the better of them and as they raced past him they shouted out the usual greetings before continuing their pursuit. When silence finally descended Anders found himself standing alone in an empty town square wondering whether he had just dreamed the whole thing. While we haven’t found ourselves in the middle of any riots that experience is so familiar – stern looking policemen wielding machine guns ruin the look by grinning inanely when they see us yelling “hello mister, how are you?” (even to me although I hope I am clearly not a mister).
Helping to change habits to help the environment
Waste obviously is a huge worldwide problem and in Indonesia, an island nation, they chuck everything in the sea. It is a huge problem.
We me a Dutchman who was on a mission to do something, however small, about the garbage problem in Saparua. He was married to an Indonesian/Dutch woman whose family originated from the island and he was coming to the end of his second 6 month stay here. His quest was to educate and communicate with the various community leaders, central and local government, active NGOs and business, to try to help bring about a change of attitude and understanding of enormity of the problem and explain what could be done to help.
His ultimate aim was to help coordinate an autonomous waste management system for the island whereby they dealt with their own waste in various ways including recycling, shipping as little as possible to nearby Ambon.
Education was at the root of his plan and much time had been spent explaining why things needed to be done differently, the impact already on the ocean and sea life, and the potential for disaster in the future. Although he had spent a year in total talking with countless people, attending meetings (and more importantly arranging meetings between others), as well as discussing the merits of various options, there was no clear sign of a long-term solution. However he was realistic that change would take time and was ecstatic that the first major clean-up was to take place simultaneously on Saparua Island and in Ambon Harbour and that this was down to the local people and community leaders understanding the issues getting together to work together. He hoped that this demonstrated attitudes were changing and that people understood the need for joint efforts but he was realistic that any major impact would be a long time coming, long after he had stepped out of the picture.
Even if his goal was ultimately successful this is such a tiny corner of Indonesia and a drop in the ocean to the overall problem but you have to start somewhere. You had to admire him for his efforts and commitment.
A fair few common or garden tourists like ourselves passed through as well. We met a lovely Dutch/French couple(Stefan and Sophie) who met in Alor 5 years ago and who return to Indonesia every year for business and to explore a bit more. When the Wooky recovered we went on a day trip with them to Molano Island (along with Astrid, the German) in the tiny fibreglass boat. The sea was a bit choppy on the way back to Purih Lessi Indah and we were practically surfing. It was a bit unnerving.
Molano Island is uninhabited apart from a small resort which was closed when we visited. It is a tiny island but has a lovely deserted beach and beautiful coral near the shore for snorkeling and I tried out my new GoPro.
Our last night was a social one spent with the two young Dutch/Malukan lads and Asis and the staff. Much sopi was drunk, many beers were imbibed, and lots of laughs were had. Paul chatted in Indonesian with the Indonesians (he was fluent after 5 Bintangs). As their English was limited he was amazed at how much they opened up to him when he spoke their language and how much he could understand after 2 months in Indonesia.
It was a great night but we all slightly regretted it the next morning as we had to leave at 6.00am to get the ferry to Tuleho in time to catch the fast boat to Banda.
Everyone was up to say goodbye and it was hugs all round.
Next stop the Spice Islands.