Another Ambon: Part I

When my plane landed at Pattimura airport, the first objective was to find a ticket to Yogyakarta. Normally this would be easy—there were airline offices right outside the terminal. The only problem was that I was out of cash. Even for expensive things like plane tickets, it is still extremely rare for people to pay with a card, at least in the Malukus. So I wasn’t really surprised when none of the airlines had a credit card reader… at least not one that worked. I would have to get more cash in the city, and find a travel agent there. Then I’d have to wait at least a couple days for the next flight. I called Henky and took him up on his offer of a place to stay.

He arrived on a rather small motor, with an extra helmet. This would be interesting, I thought. I had a backpack that weighed about forty pounds, and I’d only ridden pillion on one of these things a few times. Henky knew what he was doing, though. We sped through the rain, lucky to be on one of the island’s widest and least crowded roads. The combined weight of my pack and myself must have made the motor hard to handle, but Henky zipped through the traffic as deftly as if alone. It wasn’t the most comfortable ride, though—I had to stay in a very specific, unnatural position, sitting ramrod-straight but fighting the backward pull of the pack without moving my feet or shifting my weight too abruptly. It takes about half an hour to get from the airport to the city, mostly through farmland and suburbs, and by the end of it I was half-crippled.

Henky lives on the outskirts of Ambon, at the foot of some forested hills, an area blessedly free of the city center’s noise and pollution. His wife, daughters, and several in-laws greeted us and prepared breakfast, and after the obligatory interview (Where are you from? What are you doing here? What is your religion? Are you married?) Henky prepared hot water for a traditional bucket shower (mandi). I think that was the only time I ever had a hot mandi (let alone shower) in Indonesia, and at that point it felt like the pinnacle of luxury.

After breakfast, we went into the city. It’s hard to express the sheer sensory overload of an Indonesian city in any medium—even a heavily amplified IMAX movie wouldn’t do the trick, unless you could pump steam, tobacco smoke, garbage fumes, and motor exhaust into the theater. I have already written something about Kota Ambon, which in retrospect gives (at most) a Thomas Friedman-esque, cab-driver-interviewing look at the city, but it deserves more than that. Now that I’m back in the States, and have the privilege (is it?) of unlimited time in front of a computer, it’s worth looking at Ambon in more detail.

Wallace visited Ambon (then called Amboina or Amboyna) several times, beginning in 1857. His description is shocking to anyone who has visited the city today:

Passing up the harbor, in appearance like a fine river, the clearness of the water afforded me one of the most astonishing and beautiful sights I have ever beheld. The bottom was absolutely hidden by a continuous series of corals, sponges, actinic, and other marine productions of magnificent dimensions, varied forms, and brilliant colours…. In and out among them moved numbers of blue and red and yellow fishes, spotted and banded and striped in the most striking manner, while great orange or rosy transparent medusa floated along near the surface. It was a sight to gaze at for hours, and no description can do justice to its surpassing beauty and interest. For once, the reality exceeded the most glowing accounts I had ever read of the wonders of a coral sea. There is perhaps no spot in the world richer in marine productions, corals, shells and fishes, than the harbor of Amboyna.

Since Wallace’s time, all this gorgeous ocean life has disappeared, at least from near the city, the superlative clarity long ago having yielded to muddy effluent from Kota Ambon’s garbage-filled canal. The Lonely Planet guidebook now lists “muck diving” as Ambon’s main underwater attraction. The stately buildings of what was once an old colonial city were blown to bits in the Second World War, and the replacements are not very good. The profusion of noisy, polluting two-cycle motors has delivered the coup de grâce to what was doubtless once a beautiful city. 

To get to the travel agency, we found our way through Pasar Mardika, Ambon’s main public market. The streets outside were filled with vendors, but Henky said the quickest way was through the claustrophobic tunnels of merchandise inside the buildings on either side. “Careful, Joss,” he said, “there are lots of pickpockets around here.” It was easy terrain for them. The indoor market is a maze of dark, very narrow hallways, at most a meter across. Two people could not pass each other without touching. Every possible space on the walls was covered with products: shoes, bras, headscarves, shorts, pants, motorcycle helmets, electronics, jewelry, cosmetics, hardware, music (still a lot of cassette tapes for sale in Ambon), and in short, anything that you can imagine being in a well-stocked American mall, but a little different. The selection of flashy soccer cleats was striking, as was the huge proportion of space devoted to cell phones—Ambonese may not use credit cards, but they are deeply attached to their “hand phones.” In a few places, the corridors opened up into something closer to an American department store, but in fact it was just a well-decorated collection of small vendors. We probably walked a bit less than a mile through these corridors before returning to the muddy streets, and Henky pointed out the travel agent, dark and chemical-smelling on the inside, but mercifully air-conditioned. Three well-dressed travel agents were talking to one customer.

When my turn came, I explained I needed to fly to Yogyakarta, and asked the most important question: would they take credit cards? Yes! This was wonderful. I asked (at least I think I did) for a flight next Thursday, the 12th. They quoted a price that seemed remarkably cheap. One of the agents (and this is not a figure of speech) dusted off an old card reader, and began figuring out how to work it. It was clearly going to take them some time. Meanwhile, they took my passport and spent a long time copying information from it. The separation from my passport always made me uneasy, especially when it was taken off to be photocopied. Henky was still waiting patiently, though he had to go to work. I told him it was okay, I could finish buying the ticket and meet up with him later.

After several phone calls to the bank, they announced that I was all set to go, my flight would leave at eight in the morning on Thursday, July 19th.

My heart sank to somewhere in my lower intestine.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “but I wanted to go on the 12th.”

“But this is for the 19th,” the travel agent said.

“Yes, I know, that’s the problem.”

The agents canceled the flight and found another one on the correct date. This time we used a calendar to confirm it. So far so good. There was still the problem of reversing the charges to my credit card. At least I got them to give me my passport back, but the travel agents continued to have problems with the credit card machine. I sat despondent in a chair that must have been designed to give people back problems. I withered in the air conditioning. I imagined myself destitute and trapped in Ambon because of inadvertent charges they’d made on my card and could not reverse. The single dim fluorescent light cast deathly shadows over everything. Everything was bad. For the first time since I arrived in Indonesia, I knew I was losing my cool.

One simply does not do this in Indonesia. Although blowing up at service staff is common (even fashionable) in America, as anyone who’s worked in a service job will agree, Indonesians value sangfroid far more. This is true even in Ambon, which has a reputation for hot-bloodedness. An American might think that losing his cool is a way to instill respect, but in Indonesia, it does the exact opposite. (Let that be a lesson to anyone with foreign policy aspirations!) This is complicated by the fact that Indonesians, valuing sangfroid so much, often perform little tests on foreigners to make sure they are sufficiently calm in character. Perhaps this nonsense with the credit card machine was such a test. I don’t know. But around the second or third hour of waiting, I began to lose patience. I was on the brink of some kind of unhingedness—maybe purple-faced screaming apoplexy, or perhaps collapsing on the floor in tears—when one of the agents informed me that everything was arranged. They had credited the previously charged amount to the correct ticket, but could not charge any more today. I would have to return in two days and pay the remaining money then, before I could collect the ticket.

This produced a strange mixture of emotions, which may be unique to interactions with Ambon travel agents. I could not resist thinking of another passage from Wallace, where he says “…the Amboynese are dreadfully lazy…” and yet another, totally false (not to mention racist) but poignant in my exasperation, “The native Amboynese who reside in this city are a strange half-civilized half-savage lazy people….” These are horrible slanders to the Ambonese en bloc, who were invariably charming and eager to help, but in the frustrating gloom of this little office, may I be forgiven a lapse into post-colonial arrogance? Things ended well, though; the agent wrote out a receipt, and offered to give me a motor ride to a bank where I could exchange US dollars for rupiah. This travel agent was really heroic, considering the appalling rush hour traffic he had to drive through.

This brings me to another piece of advice for the traveler in remote Indonesia: If you plan on bringing cash to exchange, know that most banks (in Ambon, anyway) are very particular about it. It must be in crisp, clean, undamaged, 2006 series or later $100 bills. This is particularly ironic considering that most Indonesian cash looks like it has passed through a luwak‘s digestive system at least twice. I went to four different banks, each apologizing that they could not exchange my cash, but suggesting another, usually one I’d already been to. Finally, I found one (CIMB-Niaga) that would accept my pre-2006, slightly worn hundreds, fifties and twenties, after a stately and august bureaucratic ritual involving a senior and junior teller, my passport, many signatures and initials, and the assertive thuds of three rubber stamps. To paraphrase Sigmund Freud, I can recommend CIMB-Niaga most highly to everyone.

My mission in Kota Ambon accomplished, I stopped at Sibu-Sibu, the city’s most stylish coffee house, and collected myself. Sibu-Sibu makes local specialties including a fiery ginger-laced coffee with kenari nuts floating on top. The walls are covered with photos of Maluku celebrities, and they play Polynesian-sounding local music. It’s popular with expats, but most of the clientèle are locals. Afterwards, I caught an angkot back to Henky’s house, and spent a couple days with him and his charming family while I waited for my flight. That will be the subject of the next post.


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