10 October, Ambon.
Yesterday was all eating and talking—so much talking that I may have worn out my ability to put words together. Writing it all down as a straight narrative would be boring for everyone, so what should I do? I could quantify it thus:
Hours spent talking with people: 8
People I talked with at length: 9
Long conversations in Indonesian: 1
Long conversations in English: 3
Long conversations in a mixture of both: 3
Nationalities of people involved in the above: 5
Total languages heard during the day: 6
Hours spent eating: 5
Public eating establishments visited: 2
Private houses visited: 1
Ethnic food styles consumed: 4
Species consumed: >40
These are all conservative estimates. It was a lot of everything. Ambon is the first of two staging areas for our project, Dobo being the other. In Ambon I met Marlon Ririmasse from the Balai Arkeologi, a great archaeologist and a better host. Marlon and my advisor Peter have worked together for years, and Marlon has saved the life and sanity of many an American archaeologist who landed clueless in Ambon. He immediately took me out to dinner at his new favorite spot, serving traditional Maluku cuisine: grilled seafood with an assortment of sambals and rice. I offloaded the hundred pounds of artifacts on him, and we met my teammates at the Hotel Amaris, in downtown Kota Ambon, nestled against the hills but not in them.
Emlie Wellfelt and Ross Gordon work at Linnaeus University in Sweden and the Kwantlen Polytechnic University in Canada, respectively. I was happy to find them still awake and chatting in the Amaris Hotel’s lobby. I introduced them to Marlon and we talked for a while. Although Ross had originally planned to stay in Ujir, he found an opportunity to stay in the much more remote village of Batulei, on Aru’s east coast, with my old friend Sonny Djonler, so we would only have a short time together. Ross was diving headfirst into a much more adventurous situation than Emily and I—as it was also his first time in Indonesia, he reminded me of David from my last trip. He would have a lot of help—Sonny speaks excellent English, and Ross had also found a Czech missionary named Kuba who had spent some time in Batulei. We would have dinner with him the next day. Emilie and I made tentative plans for our stay in Ujir, but it shouldn’t be surprising that we expected things to come up that would compel us to change the plans in some way, so there was no point in committing ourselves to too many details.
It’s strange that we only met each other in person at this point, already deep into Indonesia by most people’s standards. I still curse at the overconnectedness of the world, but it’s useful when you want to connect across so many borders, as we had done already. It’s a problem when email starts invading every aspect of your life, but for arranging international research projects, it’s excellent.
The next day we visited the Balai Arkeologi and the local museum with Marlon, and the conversations began. Marlon’s teman sekantor (coworker) Wuri, who specializes in Islamic archaeology, has visited Ujir before, and found more ruins scattered around the island. We spoke in Indonesian peppered with English for over an hour. Ross has just started learning Indonesian, so I’m afraid we left him in the dark most of the time, but it was a fruitful conversation. Wuri and I had come to very similar conclusions about the nature of Ujir’s ruins independently of each other, and that was a good sign. It seems possible to collaborate in the future, with Wuri enquiring about the process by which Islam spread to Aru, and me focusing on trade networks more broadly. The two topics will often cover the same ground, as there is little doubt that Islam followed established trade routes much of the time.
After the Balai we went to the museum, and arrived there at the same time as two groups of students, one from elementary school and one from college. We were instant celebrities, and all the students insisted on having their picture taken with us, in many combinations. I thought it was especially interesting that even some of the youngest students had camera phones. It really is true that cell phones have taken over the world. Shortly thereafter the college students, who all spoke decent English, insisted on giving me a tour of the museum. There was much insisting going on. I think they roped me into visiting their classroom when I return to Ambon. By the time I get back to the States, I’ll have dozens more Ambonese Facebook friends.
From the museum we went to a little restaurant in the hills, which gave us a spectacular view of Ambon spread out between us and the sea. Marlon ordered a vast array of Indonesian dishes, including a spicy fish soup called “yellow fish,” which for me at least was the star of the lunch, two tofu dishes, barbecued chicken, and water spinach, plus sirsak juice. It was over the top.
From there we went to a mall to get supplies. Ambon has at least three malls: one in the center of town, one on the edge of town, and one in the suburbs. We went to the latter. It was a very modern and clean mall, except that many segments of the otherwise spotless and polished stone floor were missing, with only broken mortar underneath. It looked like a bombed-out airstrip. Later I was to find something similar in the upper floors of the downtown mall. Both malls also had remarkably luxurious arcades, though the one in the downtown mall was darkened (but open, which is to say not locked). It’s odd, much of Ambon looks very third-world, but amongst it all there are patches of obvious great wealth, and signs of investment. Some of these are neglected (the escalators in the downtown mall no longer work, for example) but others (private homes, medium-sized businesses, and most conspicuously government offices), are outsized and grandiose, and even well maintained.
Dinner at Kuba’s was another fascinating conversation—Kuba speaks English and several different Indonesian languages, as well as Czech of course. He and his wife are raising two small children trilingual—Czech, English, and Bahasa Indonesia. He is one of a unique and fascinating breed, a missionary who studies native languages in order to facilitate the spread of the Gospel. These missionaries may account for most of the Westerners who have visited the remote parts of Aru, in particular those connected with a group called SIL—it seems they’ve built much deeper and broader ties with Aru than more conventional anthropologists, perhaps because they’ve been able to maintain institutional continuity over time. SIL works all over the world, and in many cases they have been more effective at documenting language than people from universities.
I have to confess, I’m a bit repulsed by the idea that missionary work is still going on in places like Aru, even with the encouragement of the Indonesian government. However, it seems that the village where Kuba worked was already nominally Christian, just as there were nominally Muslim villages a short distance away. In many cases the “conversion” of Aru only took place in the 1960s, when there was a big push to register every Indonesian into a “world religion.” This had something to do with a reaction against communism, but it’s hard not to see an additional element of colonialism from the mostly monotheistic Indonesian “center,” directed at those parts of the country—often with considerable populations of animists—which were still not entirely enthusiastic about being part of Indonesia. Kuba told a story, which tracks with other anecdotes I’ve heard, about a man arriving in Batulei at that time, who said that the villagers would have to choose a global religion by a certain date, or else he would send people to beat them up.
So, Kuba was not as bible-thumping as one would expect; he seemed to understand the situation in Batulei fairly well. The first book in the Batulei language, which he developed, was in fact a field guide to local fish. Kuba explained the reasoning behind this with elegant logic. The book was a test of the researchers’ transliteration of Bahasa Batulei into the Roman alphabet—they wanted to make sure that the transliteration made sense to the locals. Rather than printing a book of stories or a religious book, which would involve complex narratives and abstractions, and perhaps foreign concepts and words, Kuba and his team went for something very local and practical in nature. Listing the names of fish species was a good way to test transliteration because it brought out the most Batulei-specific sounds with the least amount of ambiguity, and was completely tied to local knowledge rather than fiction or abstractions. It was an inspired way to work on a language. Ross had done something similar in Fiji, and would improve on Kuba’s work in Batulei.
It was a long, long conversation, fueled by, coffee and desserts. Kuba prepared Ross for the isolation and lack of things to do in the village, and the difficulties of interviewing people about their traditional languages—Ross would actually be at an advantage because he didn’t speak Indonesian, since that would keep the locals from lapsing into it during the interviews.
Explaining why we’ve traveled so far just to observe people’s lives and listen to their language seems one of the trickiest things to do. According to Kuba, the locals always suspect that anthropologists and linguists are making money off of the research somehow, or that we have another ulterior motive—perhaps even looking for victims for human sacrifice, something not so far from living memory in many remote parts of Indonesia. With archaeology the problem can be even more difficult, as archaeologists work with people’s material heritage, often in ways that appear similar to looting at a glance. Further, archaeologists often want to investigate places that, because of their long use history, have special meaning in a society: caves, monuments, burials, and the like. The fact that archaeology is usually destructive in one way or another does not help things. Even when archaeologists aren’t digging, they are establishing the locations of significant things and places, and it would be easy to assume that this is preparation for something exploitative. I have a long way to go to gain the Ujir people’s trust, even if they seem happy that I’m coming to do research.
Our first day in Ambon had given us almost an overload of information, between Marlon, Wuri, and Kuba. Apart from the view from the restaurant, we hadn’t seen any of the city itself. The next day would be more relaxed: we all had some shopping to do, and I wanted to revisit the places I’d been on my last visit.