Jarak – Distance

15 October, Dobo

Dobo is the last outpost of the globalized world here. Not to say that “globalisasi” hasn’t touched Ujir, or even Batulei, because it has done so dramatically in both cases (mostly in terms of resource exploitation). It’s also true that not all this globalization flows through Dobo, but the majority of it does (the rest furtively and illegally), and Dobo is famous for being a “center on the periphery.” To engage with the rest of the world in Aru is to come to Dobo. In her book The Memory of Trade, Patricia Spyer wrote that a trip to Dobo is a new rite of passage for people who’ve grown up in the remote parts of Aru. It is the big city, the overwhelming center of commerce and culture.

I get the sense that it has gentrified a bit since I was last here. There are some new, very clean looking shops that sell clothing and shoes. There are signs encouraging people to clean up the beaches, though that hasn’t happened yet. Dobo seems less rough than it did on my previous visit, but then maybe that’s because I’m more familiar with it. I’m also staying far enough out of town that I can escape from its constant activity.

It’s a sonorous neighborhood of two religions. In the distance, two mosques broadcast their plaintive azan on a regular schedule. This is peaceful. Closer by there is a church or a Christian house that retaliates with very atrocious gospel music at far too high a volume for their sound system—and the distorted racket is directed outwards. This is not so peaceful, especially when it happens at five in the morning, as it tends to. Nor does it strike me as a good way to win converts. My first thought when it woke me up was that I should consider worshiping the devil. Emilie said that last year they had turned up the volume so high that the house literally shook, but they have now turned it down to a level that is only deafening, not seismic.

The three of us have spent our days here preparing and arranging. Both teams in our expedition needed to find transport to our villages, and Emilie and I also needed to find a house to rent in Ujir. As of today, Ross’s boat to Batulei (or rather the village of Benjuring, which is in the area of Batulei), is arranged, though these things are always subject to cancelation. Before we look for a boat to Ujir, Emilie and I must make sure we have somewhere to stay. That hasn’t happened yet; it depends on asking around. Emilie’s “landlady” from last time has just returned to Dobo from Jakarta, so there’s a chance that we’ll be able to rent her place again. The alternative is to stay with village families, which is a deeper experience in many ways, but also exhausting. In any case, the priority today is to see Ross off.

Here’s an ethnological observation: to own a motor or a car in Aru is to have some prestige and a source of income; to own a boat in Aru is to have those things, plus freedom. I don’t mean some romantic “freedom of the sea;” that doesn’t really exist. I mean the freedom to dictate. Drivers appear more-or-less punctually and don’t often refuse fares. They’re at the whim of their passengers and the prices they ask are standardized by market consensus. Boatmen (and they are invariably men) can behave differently. Prices for a boat trip can vary considerably, and it’s always possible for the trip to be canceled at the last minute. When the trip does go ahead, it’s almost expected that the boatman will be late or early. The boatman’s word is final and decisive, and if he says it’s too dangerous to go, that verdict must be accepted. The only solution is to find someone else who will go.

There are obvious reasons for this difference. Boats are at the whim of two things that can make or break a trip: the weather and the availability of fuel. Fuel here is subsidized, but in such short supply that the government rations it, and one needs a special letter of permission to get more than a couple liters at a time. This doesn’t seem to be a problem for land vehicles, which use little fuel on a small island. For boats, especially diesel-powered boats, it becomes a problem. Every conversation about hiring a boat begins with the boatman complaining at great length about fuel. Weather and tides also complicate things. Right now it’s the dry season, and so the calm season, when travel by boat is relatively easy. We shouldn’t run into problems with the weather, but who knows. People here are very cautious on the sea, something I had not expected. I’d thought that growing up so close to the ocean would produce a breed of daring sailors, but they’re more respectful. Everyone has stories about deaths on the water.

Ross’s boat will leave tomorrow morning, and make its way around the coasts of Aru’s major islands (or through the sungai, it isn’t clear which) to arrive at Benjuring, on the east coast. It’s not clear what kind of boat it is. Ross is bringing supplies of fuel, water, and food, plus his recording equipment and hundreds of photos of fish. If Dobo seems remote, Benjuring will show Ross the word’s true meaning. Little fresh water is available there this time of year. Neither will there be vegetables—the island is so small that there isn’t sufficient soil to grow anything. The people there subsist on fish, which are plentiful, and imported rice, with some sagu as well.

The fish are a major attraction for Ross, who will study the ethnobiology of this part of Aru. He wrote his dissertation on the ethnobiology of an island in Fiji, and is looking to produce something similar for Batulei, while also recording the language there. He also promised to get me pottery samples, if he can find some that are recent enough to export legally. How much better it is to work with a team of scientists!

By the standards we’re used to, Batulei is not so far from Dobo. People make the trip often enough. Yet even Ujir, a couple hours away, seems barely attainable much of the time; how much more the place Ross is going, a tiny island with sides so steep that the only way onto it is by climbing a ladder (or so one of the Ujir elders here told us). We are really at the edge of the world. There’s a story about a Spanish man who went to visit Batulei several decades ago, and decided to just live in the forest on one of the larger islands, where he remains to this day. It’s the kind of place where that’s an almost credible story. Here’s hoping that Ross doesn’t join him.

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