Jakarta seemed a vast city even from the air, with hundreds of freighters in her harbor, and an endless expanse of streetlights and fires below us as we landed. The terminal was spotless and brand-new, but our departure terminal, a short bus-ride away, was unremarkable 1970s tropical airport standard, the only notable touch being at attempt to make it look like a very large and oddly shaped traditional Javanese house.
The ticket-checker in the security line looked at my ticket for a long time, and then at me, and said, slowly, “Am-bon…” as if to say, “I hope you know what you’re doing.” Maybe this was because Ambon’s recent history is a bit troubled. From the late 1990s to the early 2000s, religious violence between Muslins and Christians swept through the whole of Maluku Province, of which Ambon is the capital, sparked by the proposal to split Maluku into two provinces. A delicate balance between religions and ethnicities has existed in Ambon for centuries, even before the Portuguese and Dutch established colonies there to exploit the island’s cloves, which then grew nowhere else, and were esteemed as a food preservative in addition to their value as a spice. Wallace reported Portuguese words surviving in Ambonese vernacular in the 1850s, still more prevalent in the local language than Dutch words. Muslim traders from western Asia have also traded with Ambon for centuries. It remains the biggest port in the Malukus, although most of the historical architecture was destroyed in the Second World War by Japanese or Allied bombardment.
After a night wedged into Indonesian-sized seats, at 7:00 AM we landed at Pattimura airport. This is some distance from Kota Ambon, the city, so we got to see some of the countryside on the cab ride in It reminded me of many a South Pacific island, with dark clouds hanging overhead, cows grazing in lush fields, low-lying concrete buildings, and long, narrow fishing boats out in the bay. As we neared the city, buildings and traffic became more dense, until we were in a cacophonous, smoky, bustling city with imposing (some would say depressing) 1970s concrete structures, some of their paint peeling off. As in Bali, houses and shops are crowded together along the roads, people, motorcycles, and bicycles rip through the traffic deftly but without any sense of order. There are more mosquitoes here than in Bali, and the air is far more humid. The clouds and frequent, intense rainstorms remind me of Pago Pago (of infamous memory). No palm fires–diesel and kerosene fumes substitute for them. No tourists, either. Ambon is a working town. Houses are built on the steep hillsides flanking the bay; they share this space with the dense clouds. The city flattens out closer to the shore, a jumble of half-built and half-fallen-apart buildings, in which, it bears mentioning, everyone seems more-or-less happy.
It reminds me of a large Fijian town, especially in climate and vegetation, but the Melanesian influence here, not too far from Papua, makes some of the locals even look a bit Fijian. The locals are not used to seeing foreigners, so any walk down the street is accompanied by shouts of “Hallo Mistér!” and giggling groups of school kids in spotless uniforms. Everyone wants to meet me. It is a good opportunity to practice my Indonesian, and I always enjoy their surprise when I start speaking with them, but it does take a lot of energy. I don’t know how foreign students do it in America.
David and I shacked up in the Hotel Jamilah, a small family-run place on the southeast corner of town, within a couple blocks of two large churches and two large mosques. The innkeeper is a slight, quiet man who speaks no English, and Indonesian only very quietly. The room was complete with air conditioning and a traditional Indonesian bathroom–a large open tank of water in the corner, intended for all washing needs. A bucket of water dumped from the same tank flushes the toilet. The water is always cold, but using hot water for anything in this climate seems perverse. Upon showing us the room, he asked David and I what religion we practiced, and after we told him, he said in a quiet but very assured voice, that they all worship the same god. This was the first of several theological conversations he initiated with us, something that always stretched my language abilities. We had a long conversation about the resurrection of Christ; I think he wanted to make sure that we knew about it. Later he told us that one of his relatives had just died when his fishing boat sank: “eaten by sharks; nobody survived,” he said with some resignation.
After a midday siang (siesta), I walked out onto the balcony to hear the neighborhood’s mosques broadcasting the call to prayer from their loudspeakers. It echoed off the buildings in a exquisite, haunting way, the azan of each mosque slightly out of sync with that of the others, all blended together into an unearthly, longing sound. Perhaps some of the tension between religions is still here, but if so it is beneath the surface. The churches and mosques stand almost side by side, steeples and minarets visible everywhere above concrete and corrugated steel in the skyline.
As in Bali, European flags are everywhere, though I’ve seen perhaps one European in the whole city so far. The reason: European football, of course! Indonesians are fanatical about soccer, and not long after the first call to prayer emanated from the mosque at four the next morning, another great sound filled the city as everyone tuned in to watch the Euro cup, cheering loudly at each close-run action. Local favorite Holland (the Malukus sided with the Dutch during the revolution) has been eliminated already, so the Ambonese must switch their allegiance to Spain, Germany, or someone else. A number of people on the street have asked hopefully if I was Spanish.
Tomorrow I leave for Aru, one of the most remote island groups in Indonesia, and one of the least familiar to westerners, or even to Indonesians. An Aru islander I spoke to one the phone (living in Jakarta, oddly enough), says that the government has “forgotten about Aru.” Internet access is probably too much to hope for, so I may have to post about Aru after I return to Ambon or Yogyakarta.