Obrol (chit-chat)

My room in the Penginapan Suasana Baru was right next to the hotel’s conference room, which had a very excessive sound system. It hosted business meetings and religious services, and some events that seemed to be a combination of the two. Across the hall was a sort of restaurant, which never seemed to be open but served as a hang-out for the hotel’s guests. Sometimes it was possible to order coffee or Anker beer or instant noodles from a waitress who usually pretended I was not there. Otherwise, I attracted a lot of attention, and got into conversations with the others in the restaurant. When a tourism development conference was in town, I talked with two fellows charged by the government with promoting tourism in Aru; they were local, but now lived in Ambon, as it seems most people who make contact with the outside world do. I met them before I had made it to Ujir, and so was anxious to find a guide through them, but like the linguists, their proposed route involved doubtless time-consuming bureaucracy. It’s a bit odd that they think Aru is ready to be developed as a tourist destination. The potential is undeniable—the coasts have flawless white sand beaches, and the possibilities for diving and ecotourism are obvious. The sheer remoteness is also a sort of benefit, but it has obvious practical implications.

The Aruese are without question proud of their island group, not least of its natural beauty, but the state of Dobo and its surroundings would appall most Western tourists. The beaches nearest to the town are almost completely covered with garbage. The general procedure for the disposal of garbage is to throw it into the bay, from which it is drawn out by the tide and later deposited on a beach a short distance away. Even my otherwise smartly-run hotel did this. I suspect that the nonchalance toward the profusion of garbage everywhere must be something like the attitudes in 19th century Chicago about horse dung and coal smoke everywhere—it’s a sign of progress. The old (young) Dobo was a true frontier town, wooden sidewalks and all, but now it has reached a comfortable, dowdy middle age, thinking of little but its own prosperity. Unfortunately, it seemed while I was there that Dobo was between next big things, and that might be one reason for the town’s desire to promote tourism.

Later on in the hotel restaurant I met another tourism booster, political candidate, and as far as I know, Dobo’s sole fluent English speaker, Sonny Djonler. Shortish, with close-cropped hair salt-and-pepper hair, perceptive eyes, and constantly smiling and laughing, he was an excellent politician, unusual among his profession for being visibly smart. He had learned English in New Zealand, where he worked and studied, but returned to Aru to teach and perhaps run for office. His political goals reflect a change taking place—slowly—all over Indonesia.

A bit of history might be useful here. Indonesia broke off from the Dutch colonial system in the late ‘40s, guided by a nationalist movement and Indonesia’s first president Sukarno. The new country struggled to define itself, and the nationalists’ desire to create a unified but diverse state was sometimes at odds with the wishes of minorities, who felt they wouldn’t be treated fairly by the Javanese-dominated nationalists in power. The nationalist government successfully (sometimes brutally) suppressed various separatist movements in the provinces, including one that broke out in Maluku in the early ‘50s. Despite these dissents, Sukarno succeeded in promoting a nationalist vision of Indonesia as a champion of the developing world, with a system of “guided democracy” that gave the military considerable power. Sukarno coined the term “third world;” originally this referred to countries aligned neither with the capitalist US nor the communist USSR: neutrals in the cold war.

To this strategy Sukarno added a good dose of personality cult, familiar in tone, which helped ally ordinary Indonesians with him, and play political factions against each other. The heady early days of independence, combined with Sukarno’s flair for self-promotion, still causes most Indonesians to remember “bung karno”—“buddy karno” fondly.

This relatively innocent age of Indonesian independence ended abruptly in the mysterious coup of 1965, when a group of military officers assassinated six senior army generals. The reasons behind this coup are still not clear, but at the time it was attributed to communist elements within the government. The officers themselves suggested that they had prevented another coup against relatively left-wing Sukarno by the right-wing generals. Up to that point the communists had been a legitimate and powerful political party, but many saw them as a threat to the established order. The coup gave their opponents an excuse for a purge of communists from government, combined with a nationwide massacre of communists and suspected communists.

Sukarno gave a general named Suharto control of the army, with a mandate to restore order. This eventually led to Suharto’s assumption of the presidency, which he held for over 20 years. During this period, Suharto distributed Indonesia’s levers of power, and much of its wealth, into the hands of his relatives and friends. It was only after the economic collapse of 1998 that he was forced to resign, amid riots and massacres of Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese population (the position of Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese is worthy of several posts on its own, which will come later).

A lot has happened in Indonesia since 1998, some of which I’ve alluded to in earlier posts, but for our purposes right now, the important thing to remember is that many of Suharto’s cronies remained in power in the government and military—Indonesia has a “deep state” that remains despite elections, just like most other countries. Despite the admirable efforts at reform undertaken after 1998, Suharto’s two decades in power left behind a magnificent tangle of corruption at the higher levels of government, something that is also replicated at the provincial and local level.

Every Indonesian with whom I talked about politics mentioned the debilitating effect corruption has on their country. The Suharto generation still maintains control of much of the country, and in general they haven’t been shy about diverting its resources for their own gain. They have maintained a sufficiently functional government in most places, but not much beyond that. It’s worth noting that Aru has become far more accessible since its government became an autonomous kebupaten (regency). This attracts government money for infrastructure, plus new attention from airlines and shipping lines. The Bandas, still subsidiary to an outside kebupaten, are largely neglected. The new governmental status was the main reason the Aruese gave for their relatively developed capital.

The younger generation of Indonesians recognizes the problems that come with corruption, and aren’t shy about complaining about it to foreigners. Nonetheless, they usually say that they are relatively powerless at this point, and they are frustrated with the pace at which reforms take place in the government. One Aruese said that although he agrees with the current president’s attempts to slowly reform the government, they were too slow. “He’s too much of a pussy!” the man said (this is a loose translation).

Sonny Djonler and I had a long conversation along similar lines. He is planning to run for local office in the hope that he can reform the local government, make it more efficient, and perhaps even improve the state of Aru’s environment. He talked about the need for Aru to have a powerful voice at higher levels; a difficult prospect when so few Aruese ever leave their island group to get access to the relative metropolis of Ambon, to say nothing of Jakarta. Sonny also wants to develop a full-on resort here, somewhere that wealthy Indonesians and foreigners can go to relax, dive, and admire Aru’s natural beauty. As usual, the main obstacles are bureaucratic in nature.

Corrupt people in power have fortified their positions to such an extent that some Indonesians despair of things ever improving. However, a few, like Sonny, are trying to start reforms. The universal consensus, among the people I talked to, was that Indonesia could become a world power if it tackled corruption—but that was very unlikely to happen.

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Warungs of Dobo

The boat ride back to Dobo, in the dark afternoon of the musim hujan (rainy season), was almost as wet as the outbound trip. The trip to the village had exhausted me, and I said little as we motored back to the town, only looking at boats on the horizon. We were all so soaked and anxious to get home that when we arrived at about 4:30, Saimin just dropped me off at the hotel’s dock, and said I could pay him later. I dumped cold water over myself in the traditional mandi attached to my room, and tried to wash the salt out of my clothes. I didn’t have high hopes for my shoes, which had been completely immersed in saltwater. My only water came from the tank in the mandi—the hotel’s plumbing had stopped working almost completely. I left the faucet open to refill the tank when I could, and occasionally a trickle came out. The hotel’s electricity also had a tendency of failing at inconvenient times, but at least the place was clean.

At some point I realized that I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast, and would have to find something. Dobo, like any Indonesian town, has a multitude of nocturnal warung, streetside stands, with varying degrees of infrastructure. The nicer ones have tables and chairs and electric lighting, but for this night I ended up at a smaller one that specialized in sate ayam, chicken satay. Although I’m usually a vegetarian, that’s almost impossible in Indonesia even if you speak the language flawlessly. Refusing a host’s offer of meat would also have been very rude, so I had reconciled myself to eating animals while I was there. The husband and wife who ran the warung grilled the chicken skewers, smothered in peanut-chili sauce which they made from scratch in a stone mortar and pestle, over a coconut husk fire. A huge meal (excessive, really) of ten generous and delicious chicken skewers, plus cassava as the starch, cost about $1.50.

People who read a lot of travel writing must get tired of hearing that some of the best food in the world can be got cheaply from roadside stands in developing countries, but it is certainly true. The ambience may take some getting used to, with the unmufffled motor-scooters passing by every ten seconds, and the precarious bench and table, lit spottily by a hissing Coleman lantern. An American health code inspector would recoil in horror at the conditions of preparation, though these warungs are kept clean where it matters. The important part is that I never had a bad meal from a warung, and often had an excellent one. The options are necessarily limited; as at a great restaurant, it’s best to trust the chef’s judgment: there’s a reason that the cook has assembled the ingredients for a particular dish. Dispensing with vegetarianism made it easier to trust the koki, especially in the Malukus, where everything has fish or chicken in it. The street food is always worth checking out—most often, it’s better than food in the restaurants, if the town has restaurants at all. Dobo didn’t, of course, apart from a few establishments that qualified only by being enclosed by walls and a roof. Apart from that, they didn’t differ at all from your usual warung.

My best culinary experience in Dobo was probably the mie goreng (fried noodles) in a warung a couple hundred yards from the hotel. The combination of noodles, finely shredded chicken and vegetables, and fried eggs, with a perfectly balanced spicy sauce (the chilis not overpowering the flavor of anything else), was immensely satisfying. All this for the princely sum of $1.65! I also developed a reputation for liking the ayam kampung (village chicken) of a warung nearer to the hotel, a roast half chicken served with rice, greens, and sambal, the chili sauce of which there are a thousand variations, most of them quite good, as long as they’re made from scratch. That was really a bit exorbitant, at $ 2.50. Despite being left-handed, I managed alright with the custom of eating everything with the right hand. I even made some progress toward the skill of rolling the rice up in little balls: the proper way to eat it, apparently. Ripping out pieces of chicken and fish was easy enough, but the rice took some practice.

The most basic food sources were women who sold food on the sidewalks, setting up at dusk with a cloths spread on the bricks, piled with fried fish, fried chicken, and bungkus (banana leaf bundles) of fried rice or papeda, a polenta-like substance made from sago palm starch. This food was all amazingly cheap, and almost as good as warung food, though fried fish does get a bit tiring after a while.

Refrigeration is still a luxury in Indonesia, and the local (eminently practical) custom of serving many dishes at room temperature is unnerving at first, but Indonesians are perfectly aware of all the microbes besieging them; they boil their drinking water religiously, and when that’s not an option, they have taken to buying bottled water, or filling their jugs up from commercial filter stations. The people who saw my little portable water filter admired it suspiciously.

Back in the states, I’d often tried to proselytize to my friends about the joys of life abroad, and it’s interesting to note that the threat of exotic diseases seemed the insurmountable obstacle for many of them. They were terrified of coming down with something like malaria or elephantiasis, and my observation that millions of people managed to live comfortably in these mephitic regions without contracting horrible diseases didn’t have much of an effect; they chalked their survival up to a natural immunity, which a full-grown American could not hope to attain. There may be a small amount of truth to this, but in fact the locals in most places, especially the cities, take the same precautions as the average tourist, and “immunity” as such seems mostly to come from behavior rather than predisposition. With that in mind, I’m always amazed at Americans who arrive in a distant country and insist on maintaining their own customs and diet, then becoming surprised when they fall ill. The same thing happened with European colonists, who seem to have suffered far less once they learned to adopt local customs, wherever they were.

The next morning, I booked a plane ticket out of Dobo; the earliest flight was in four days. There was no way for me to get cash in Dobo, and I was running short, so more boat trips were out of the question. I would have a few days of enforced laziness to read, write, and explore the town.

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Photos are up!

Brilliant web guru/ninja Sandra has added a photo page, and a gallery of photos from Ujir are up for you to look at. Expect more galleries soon, covering the previous posts. Click on the picture below to go to the photo page.

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Ujir: Part III

Near the bomb craters we saw our first surface scatters of porcelain and glass: mostly Qing dynasty Chinese porcelain, with some European imitations, and the typical light green or olive green bottle fragments, though the ones I saw at Ujir looked more recent than those from Kota Lama. I noticed a couple unmistakably odd fragments: one a late 19th-early 20th century French trademark on ceramic, and the other a light brown bottle base with a Scandinavian “Ø” making up part of an incomplete name. The Australian team in the late ‘90s mentioned seeing Danish bottle fragments, so this may be the same material. We think globalization is a recent development, but a surprising amount of global trade was also happening much earlier on. It was a more specialized trade than today’s distribution of every commodity across the globe; it happened at the source of unusually valuable commodities, and wasn’t universal, but the distances are still astonishing, especially considering the wooden ship that must have brought some of the earlier bottle fragments from Europe to this tiny and remote island, most likely in search of bird of paradise (cenderawasih) feathers.

From the craters we took the boat around a sandbar to the mesjid tua, “old mosque,” Ujir’s most puzzling feature. Saimin came in hot, almost holing the boat on a submerged branch. We landed next to an old, heavily calcified cannon, perhaps salvaged along with the anchor. Any inscriptions or decorations have been lost to weathering, so it would be impossible to date it precisely from looks, but it’s probably late 17th-late 18th century. The mesjid tua itself is a high stone platform with sloping walls, built out into the sungai. There are open or partially open arches in the sides, suggesting that it was once more than a solid foundation. Mandja said that before the old village was bombed, its mosque had been built atop this foundation, with more perishable materials. From the landward side, a stairway ascends to the top of the platform. There were still some sheets of corrugated metal lying among the plants that grew among the coral blocks. In places, there were hollows that also suggested empty space beneath the platform. It is not a large structure; maybe the size of a small cottage. The odd thing is where it was placed, projecting out into the sungai from the bank. It must have taken a lot of work to build a stone structure there, and for what purpose? Maybe defense:  it has a commanding view of the sungai, and the nearby cannon is another clue, perhaps reused to defend the village after salvage. On the other hand, it could have been a mosque originally, though an oddly placed one. It’s worth noting that next to Ujir’s present mosque, which is in the middle of a huge renovation, the villagers have placed another, smaller old cannon, this one painted (appallingly) green and yellow. In some parts of the Muslim world it’s traditional during Ramadan to fire a cannon at the end of each day’s fast. However, the foundation of the mesjid tua likely pre-dates the cannon nearby, so that only offers clues about later use, if any.

Mesjid Tua

Saimin's boat in the sungai, with an old cannon bottom right.

Near the structure we found a bowl or mortar ground from coral limestone—something also mentioned in the Terra Australis paper—and more glass sherds, including the base of a shot glass. It’s far easier to draw some kind of meaning from these small fragments, which, even if they have been broken, retain enough of their original form to give some idea of what they were used for in the beginning. Of course, objects get re-purposed or used in unexpected ways quite often, especially across cultures: there is some evidence that porcelain plates were set into the walls of some of Ujir’s buildings as decoration. At least, however, we know that they were shipped over as plates. With something like the mesjid tua, its origins are more enigmatic, and the possibility remains that it has been modified enough over time to obscure the original function. A thorough excavation might provide an answer, but maybe not. From the surface, not wanting to disturb the building and not having much time, I would have to content myself with guessing. This all drove home the fact that Ujir’s wealth of archaeological evidence would take vast amounts of time to make sense of—a survey could take up a whole season. The material itself is very accessible once you get there, but the logistics of arranging a survey in Ujir, let alone an excavation, are fairly hellish. In a perfect world, a research vessel with a couple fast, long-range dinghies would be ideal, but I doubt that anyone is willing to provide yachts to archaeologists in the current economy.

The villagers said that tsunamis strike Ujir occasionally, and often wash up more pieces of porcelain. Apart from the distant shipwreck that provided the anchor and cannon, which must have been quite large based on the size of the anchor, there is another old shipwreck closer to the village. I was already in a daze from the wealth of information just lying around on the surface, and now another shipwreck! The research vessel of my dreams would need a compressor.

On our way back to the village, we stopped at an old graveyard. All the graves had conical mounds of sand on top of them, fenced in with stone or concrete, and a small headstone, often with no visible inscription. Mandja had brought a bag of flowers and leaves, which he scattered on two of the graves, those of his mother and grandmother. In a far corner there was a grave with a fence of plastic netting around it, which Mandja said was the grave of an old imam. He scattered some flowers there, and gave the rest to me. “Where should I scatter them?” I asked. Richardo suggested the grave of the imam, so I stepped over the fence and placed some flowers on top of the mound. “Thank you for sharing this with me,” I said to Mandja, and he shook my hand very firmly and said he was happy I had come and paid my respects.

From there we returned by boat to the house, stopping at the partially built new mosque, which is close to the beach. The villagers were especially anxious that I publish pictures of this mosque, of which they were very proud. For such a small village it was a huge structure, three stories high, which made it two higher than any other building in Ujir. A couple men were working on it, climbing up bamboo scaffolding and mixing cement with the fine local sand. They would stop work on the mosque for Ramadan, which was coming up soon, and then resume construction once the month of fasting was over.

Ujir was unique among the places I’d visited in Aru for appearing exclusively Muslim—I didn’t notice a church there, and it is worth noting that Mandja’s peci, a traditionally Muslim hat, was one of a handful I saw in the island group. Most native Aruese are either Protestant or Catholic, though many just nominally so, the result of a 1970s effort by the Indonesian government to convert the whole country to one of a few recognized agama, “religions,” from their traditional animist beliefs, which didn’t count in the government’s eyes. Muslim missionaries were part of this effort, but Christian denominations won out, perhaps because of an already established presence in Aru, or a better fit with previous beliefs. There are some native Muslim pockets such as Ujir, and half of Kota Lama, but many of Aru’s Muslims, especially in Dobo, immigrated during one of the islands’ periodical natural resource booms.

We returned to the house, where we exchanged addresses, and I promised to send copies of the photos I’d taken. I asked if I would be permitted to return and excavate in Ujir, and the villagers responded that I should come and work there for a month next year, preferably during the dry season. I said I would start organizing the project, and keep them informed as it developed, but cautioned them that it would take time to assemble the funding and the team. It was a very kind welcome; I felt bad that I couldn’t express my gratitude as emphatically as I wanted in Indonesian, a recurring problem. I signed my name in the village’s guest book, made a small donation toward the construction of the new mosque, and said farewell to Mandja and the villagers. It was getting late in the afternoon, and we still had a three-hour trip through the same choppy seas and rain squalls ahead of us.


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Ujir: Part II

We huddled in the little concrete hut with the rain pouring around us. Richardo brought out a small plastic water bottle, filled with pale yellowish liquid. “Sopi. To warm us up,” he said. We passed the bottle around. There was also much kretek smoking. This was the first time I’d tried the local moonshine, fermented and distilled from palm sugar. It starts off with a cidery tartness, followed by brown sugar and clove vapors that quickly rise to the brain. The Indonesian word most often used to describe it is keras, “hard,” but compared to American moonshine it’s mellow and pleasant. I was fairly appalled to learn that the hip way to drink sopi in Dobo is to mix it with beer, which improves the flavor of neither ingredient, but does eliminate the sopi’s bite. Foreign liquor is obscenely expensive in most parts of Indonesia, and not much is produced commercially there, so homemade booze remains the default option. There is a constant problem with unscrupulous dealers cutting their sopi (or arak, as it’s known elsewhere) with industrial chemicals like insecticide, methanol, and even gasoline to make it go further. Most Indonesians know someone who’s been killed or permanently impaired from bad liquor. The problem is worst in the cities; sopi in villages is supposed to be safer. In any case, most Indonesians drink very little.

Once the rain slowed, we walked in to the village to find the kepala desa. It turned out that he was away, but the village secretary would see us. A villager showed us to a house where a short, middle-aged, mustached man greeted us with some reserve. I explained that I had traveled thousands of kilometers to visit their village, and in particular to look at the ruins nearby. The man thought for a minute and said he would get his grandfather, who knew more about Ujir’s history. He left, but soon returned with a tall, bespectacled village elder, Afiudin Mandja, who wore an immaculate black velvet peci, and a splendid purple velvet tracksuit that wouldn’t have been out of place in Compton. He, too, seemed reserved at first, but when I agreed with him that the ruins in Ujir were the oldest in Aru, and that Ujir had been the first Aruese settlement to convert to Islam, a playful smile appeared on his face, and rarely left for the rest of the day. A woman brought everyone mugs of tea in true Indonesian style—certainly more sugar in the tea than there was tea—and the elder left to change into clothing more suitable for walking around in the rain.

Mandja returned in a costume not much less fantastic than earlier: gray pants, a black leather jacket, and an orange hardhat. We finished the tea and set out toward the site, which began a short distance from the present-day village, along a concrete road. Although, from a distance, the collapsed buildings looked similar to those of Kota Lama, gray squares of old coral plastered together, up close there was a big difference: these buildings were decorated! Swirling lines and vaguely floral abstractions were sculpted into several structures’ facings, completely alien to the utilitarian style of the Dutch or Portuguese. As in Kota Lama, many of these structures may have been cannibalized for materials, but they seemed more distinct, less jumbled. The whole complex spread out into the jungle, and again I’m sure that for every structure I noticed, another one or two lay obscured by the vegetation, which in many cases grew from the coral walls. Trees and vines may actually serve to hold some of these structures together; in any case, removing them without care would do a lot of damage.

The structures the villagers identified as Portuguese bentengs were nothing like the huge benteng at Kota Lama, but all quite small. I pointed out the unusual decoration, and said it was likely earlier than Portuguese contact—maybe early Islamic?  One of the villagers suggested it may have been Hindu, but compared to the populous Hindu carvings of Bali and Java, this decoration was notable for its abstraction, something in line with the Islamic prohibition against depicting people or animals in art. Other signs of early Islam in Ujir were two ancient graves near the decorated structures, marked with Islamic-style headstones and enclosures.

Saimin had gone back to his boat; he would meet us at the sungai (river) near the old settlement and ferry us across to more sites on the other side. We all piled into the boat, and putted up the muddy stream a couple hundred yards. The boat nosed into the young mangroves on the other side. Mandja and his grandson debated whether this was the right place. It turned out not to be. We went further upstream, and this turned out to be the resting place of “Fatsida Wailili,” the villagers’ name for a huge iron anchor, at least twelve feet long from top to bottom, that Mandja said was recovered from a shipwreck some distance away, and brought to Ujir in the hope that it could be sold. This happened shortly after the ship wrecked, which was probably sometime in the 18th or early 19th century based on the style. It must weigh over a ton, even in its current corroded state. It must have been quite a production to move—the sandbar at the mouth of the sungai would prevent a large ship from approaching the anchor’s current position. It must have been moved with smaller boats for at least part of the trip.

We moved back across the sungai to the village side. We landed near a large freshwater pool, shaped like a solid figure 8, where Mandja told the story of the old village’s destruction in the Second World War. The old village was further north, up the sungai, on the other side of the ruins. During the war, the Japanese may have occupied Ujir—I wasn’t able to figure out from the story whether they were ever there. The Japanese were definitely not there when the Americans, en route to New Guinea, bombed Ujir, thinking it still occupied. If the Japanese had ever occupied the village, by the time of the bombing they had already retreated to New Guinea. Mandja suspects that the bombers mistook Aru for New Guinea, though that seems a bit far-fetched. In any case, this mistake completely destroyed the old village. The pond by which we stood was actually the joined crater left by two bombs. Mandja said that I was the first researcher to whom he had shown these craters, perhaps because I was an American. “Gawat,” “tragic,” was all I could say.

[The final post on Ujir, and photos, are next. Check back soon!]

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Ujir: Part I

At first, the trip to the island of Ujir didn’t happen. I was out in front of the hotel at 5:00 AM, waiting for the boat, which never showed. I did meet someone who claimed to be a journalist—he said he’d come to the hotel to interview someone about illegal fishing. When the boat and the guides hadn’t shown up by 6:00, I went back to bed. Later that afternoon, Richardo and Tino stopped by my room. The boat driver had felt some wind, and got spooked. He would not make the six-hour round trip to Ujir, tomorrow or ever. He was too scared. This was the stormy season, and he didn’t think his little speed was up to the task. I would have to find another boat. I was horrified at the prospect of having traveled all the way to Dobo, only to be stopped a few miles away from my objective, Ujir.

Once again, Frengky’s disembodied voice from outer space came to the rescue: his relative Saimin would stop by the hotel, and I could negotiate a price. Frengky suggested a million rupiah—a little over $100—up front. That was ridiculous: the other boatman had asked for 650,000, and even that was above the normal rate. Saimin would have to get gas ahead of time, Frengky said, and a large, seaworthy boat would take more fuel.  However, if the weather was still bad, I’d lose the money and be no closer to Ujir.

Saimin was about fifty years old, almost totally deaf in one ear, with the corresponding eye a bit off, but he seemed competent. Richardo helped me negotiate a price of 600,000, half up front and half later. I spent the rest of the day reading O’Connor et al.’s The Archaeology of the Aru Islands, Eastern Indonesia (Terra Australis 22, 2006), in particular the article on Ujir. The earliest reference to Ujir specifically comes from 1623, when

…the Governor of Ambon dispatched two ships under Jan Carstenz to sign a treaty of friendship with the orang kaya or merchant-aristocrats of prominent villages on the west coast of Aru…. The most important were Ujir, Wamar, Wokam, and Maikoor. From then on, these villages played a prominent role acting as mediators in local disputes in the archipelago, and as representatives of the Dutch rulers during periods of indirect rule when there was no official colonial presence in Aru. By the early 19th century, the archipelago had been divided into four districts under the rule of these villages.

Bird of Paradise feathers appear to have been the first major trade commodity from Aru to the outside world, a trade which went through cycles of boom and bust according to the birds’ populations, and fashions in Asia and Europe over the next few centuries: before becoming a prized ladies’ fashion accessory in Europe during the 19th century, the feathers were de rigueur for Asian aristocrats as far inland as Tibet. Trepang (sea cucumber) was another luxury commodity shipped in great quantities to China: one of the few for which the Chinese were willing to trade their porcelain and tea (sandalwood and otter or seal pelts were the others, followed later by opium).

The first reports of Ujir’s ruins come from the 1820s, when Kolff noted “some former strongholds, the remains of which proved that they must have been extensive,” and, “the traces of a long street, enclosed with walls, running east and west through the village together with the ruins of many stone houses.” In 1908, Merton found “something strange” in Ujir. On a bank of the sungai that borders the village, “on a jutting out rock stood a rectangular building constructed from stone; its palm leaf roof was finished step-like. That was the mosque of Ujir.” Veth et al.’s article on Ujir, which surveyed the historical evidence and presented their reconnaissance of the area, can be summed up as follows: there’s something very interesting going on at this site. It needs attention.

The next morning, Saimin showed up with the boat, only an hour late; punctual in the “rubber time” of the tropics. His boat was no larger, and possibly a bit smaller, than the one we’d taken to Kota Lama. There was no deck, only a small storage compartment athwartships to keep things dry. Richardo, Bruce, and Tino seemed a bit uneasy about it. “You brought this boat?” Tino said. “It’s very small.” Saimin replied that it would get the job done. He proudly displayed two blaze orange life vests, still wrapped in plastic, obviously just bought as a concession to safety. We putted out of the harbor in the blue dawn, as Dobo awoke. The bay’s protected water was calm, and I wondered what on earth the other boatman had been afraid of. We passed close to the jetty of Kota Lama, moving slowly through the shallows there. Saimin stopped frequently to remove the seaweed fouling the propeller. Even a couple kilometers off the coast, we could still see coral and seaweed below us.

Things changed after we rounded the west end of Pulau Wokam: a two-foot sea started breaking against the bows; the wind blew spray onto us. Soon my right side was completely soaked; my long-sleeved shirt and khakis, a gesture of respect to the usually conservative kepala desa, seemed like a bad choice for these conditions. Fortunately, they were soon wet all over, and thus looked less ridiculous. I had packed all my fragile gear in waterproof stuff-sacks, easily the best investment you can make for travel in this part of Indonesia during the rainy season. The guides all wore cotton hoodies, which seemed like a recipe for disaster once they were soaked through. Bruce used one of the new life vests, still in the wrapping, to shield himself from the spray. Saimin alone was pragmatic, with shorts and a t-shirt, which at least would dry out later. About the same time, we went through the first of several rain squalls, which washed some of the salt off. The water was all rather warm, so that the only real harm it did was to put out the cigarettes of my traveling companions. Tino broke one open and chewed the contents instead.

Saimin did a fine job driving the frail little boat through this nastiness, when a wave taken at the wrong angle could have sent it to the bottom. As it was, we took on some water, which Tino bailed out with half of an old plastic jug. These local speed cut through the water efficiently, but can’t get up into a plane and glide over the waves like an inflatable dinghy. They cruise at around 10 or 15 knots, and handle waves just fine head-on. However, a wave on the beam, or even on the quarter, produces a troubling roll. Saimin used the motor to keep us more-or-less perpendicular to the waves, but if the motor broke down, we’d be in trouble. The first boatman’s nervousness made sense now, but on the other hand, Saimin was calm, and I was grateful that he persevered through the rough passage. My main worry was that he would turn around, and all this wetness and discomfort would be for nothing. Actually, though, it was a lot of fun. The guides probably thought I’d lost it when I started laughing.

After a couple hours crashing through the waves, our thoroughly soggy crew pulled up to Ujir’s white-sand beach. It was still raining heavily. Except for one fisherman bringing his boat in, the town looked deserted. We ran to an old concrete hut near the pier, and waited for the rain to slow down.

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Kota Lama Wokam

Kota Lama lies on the northwest coast of Pulau Wokam, one of the major Aru islands. In the 18th century, it was the main Aruese trading town, according to a Dutch traveler of the time. Since then Kota Lama has declined to a small village of not more than a couple hundred people, yet it is divided into Christian and Muslim neighborhoods, with a church and a mosque to serve them. We landed there after about 40 minutes crossing the bay, and found Thomas, the kepala desa, in his concrete house near the dock. He quickly agreed to show us around the ruins, which would fit seamlessly into the present village if they weren’t so collapsed and overgrown.

The closest of these is an old Dutch church, said to have been build in 1659, just north of the village. It was still in use in 1867, when another European visited. Since then the roof has vanished, but the limestone walls are still quite high. The interior is filled with rubble, but it is still possible to enter through the door, and the arched windows are intact. It is not a crude building: the window and door frames received special attention, and an account from the 1840s mentions carved wooden chairs in the style of a century and a half before. About the size of a mobile home, it is not a large church, but clearly constructed with a tremendous amount of labor, at a time when Aru was even more remote than it is today. When newly built, it would not have been out of place on a small European island. Maybe that was the appeal, and the reason the few Europeans here set out to build it (doubtless with native help): a reminder of home. Now plants grow from cracks in the walls, and among the rubble inside. I took photos and positions, and we moved on to the benteng.

This also dates from the seventeenth century, but is far less coherent than the church. Apart from a large blockhouse closest to the present-day village, it’s hard to tell where one building ends and another begins. It had already been abandoned in 1826 when the Dutch explorer Kolff visited:

This fort, which is now in a state of great dilapidation–patches of wall, which was once three feet thick and twenty feet high, alone remaining–formed a square with bastions at the corners; but of the latter nothing is visible, some posts having been erected in their place, on which several lelahs [guns] were mounted. The house of the Orang Kaya, which stands in the centre, is the only part in good repair.*

Evidently, much of the coral limestone making up the walls of the old fort has been reused for the smaller structures that now blend into each other on the site. Small houses, fences, and some large enclosures sit on the edge of the jungle, to the north of the blockhouse. Inside one of the larger enclosures, about the size of a tennis court, villagers had planted some kind of crop on small, regularly spaced mounds. A woman was tending them, her teeth stained red from chewing sirih and betel nut. (This traditional stimulant has mostly gone out of fashion–I only saw one other person with red teeth, also in Kota Lama–but it used to be almost universal in some parts of Indonesia.) I took positions whenever I could find walls in one piece, in the hope of reconstructing some of the layout on a map, but it was hardly scientific. Tino followed me and kept track of all the equipment I otherwise would have lost in the undergrowth.

The jungle had also taken over many of the buildings, so I’m sure I missed many out of reluctance to fight through the vines and bushes. I followed one long, low stone fence for several hundred yards, brushing away vines and very large, black and yellow spiders to keep contact with it. These spiders are about the size of a hand, and spin webs with yellow sections, several of which I plowed through while following the fence. A couple local children followed me along the wall. After this, Thomas pointed out some old graves and monuments, a couple of which looked Islamic.

When we had covered all the accessible building, we sat in the middle of one of the larger enclosures, and looked at a collection of ceramic and glass sherds that the villagers had collected from the surface. The earliest I recognized were Qing Dynasty Chinese blue and white porcelain, hand-painted with a flexible brush, which made up the majority of the potsherds. Later Dutch blue and white Delftware–similar in appearance to the Chinese, but obviously mass-produced–made up a smaller proportion, and then a few pieces that were more recent. The glass sherds were all from heavy, dark olive-green, square bottles, handblown into molds: certainly liquor bottles, probably from the 17th or 18th century. Bruce found a fine glass seal, which probably once decorated the shoulder of one of these bottles, with the image of a swan and the word Dordrecht impressed on it.

I photographed each fragment nd placed it back on the ground, at the same time explaining (as best I could in Indonesian) that people should leave fragments like these where they find them, as otherwise we lose context. If my speech were translated back into English literally, it would probably go along these lines: “Don’t take these things from the place where you find them. Leave them there! If you take them, we won’t be able to learn anything from them. If you leave them there, we will be able to learn much more.” I saw how effective this sermon was on the boat ride home, when I noticed Bruce admiring the Dordrecht swan emblem he had pocketed on the way out. So much for my lesson in archaeological ethics.

Once the surface finds were all photographed, we returned to Thomas’s house, and I introduced myself to his family. Thomas and I sat in plastic lawn chairs, the guides sitting against the wall, and Thomas’s family standing in a semi-circle in front of the kitchen door, looking at us intently.  Thomas gradually entered in to a fiery monologue, only parts of which I understood. Although researchers, and the odd tourist, come to Kota Lama, the village doesn’t benefit much from it. People don’t even know that Kota Lama is different from another village down the coast. The government pays no attention to Kota Lama, despite the fact that it attracts researchers. This was the general idea I got from Thomas’s words, a sentiment I would hear again several times over the course of my stay in Aru.

I sensed a bit of resentment in what Thomas was saying, not just of the government but of researchers like myself who drop in, look around, take measurements, take up the locals’ time, and then vanish without benefiting the village in any tangible way. Indeed, there is something patently neo-colonial about it, which had made uneasy as I trampled through the vegetation with my GPS and my camera, the locals respectfully showing me around. The financial gap between an Aruese and an American is impossible to ignore, especially from the Aruese perspective. Most of the people I talked to in Aru had never left the island group; even traveling to Ambon was rare. Global culture drifts in to them as television and commodities (I saw more than one “New York” t-shirt in Dobo), but these symbols of western prosperity are tantalizing at best. So, a bule who has the luxury of traveling all the way to Kota Lama just to look around cannot avoid overtones which have changed only slightly since the time Wallace visited Aru.

All the same, when I asked Thomas’s permission to return later on, perhaps to conduct more thorough research, he said I had his permission. I promised to send him copies of my photographs, including several of him, his family, and the huge crowd of children who followed us to the boat as we left. Richardo asked if I wanted something to drink, and when I said yes, he stepped out and returned with a young coconut, the top hacked open with a parang, which he had brought down from the top of a tree outside. Once the juice was finished, he took the parang to the coconut again, and I scooped out the thin layer of flesh on the inside with a spoon. Unfortunately, the boat returned mid-coconut, so we had to depart.

Once back at Dobo, I arranged for the same boat and driver to take us to Ujir the next day: a trip of three hours each way, over open water. Although Kota Lama had already made my trip to Aru worthwhile, Ujir was the goal.

*This quote, and most of the other information on Kota Lama, comes from Spriggs et al.’s paper “Three Seasons of Archaeological Survey in the Aru Islands, 1995-97,” published in Terra Australis 22 by the Australian National University, 2006.

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Pemandu Saya di Telepon

Pak Frengky is a voice on the phone.*

The first day I got to Ambon, I walked down some of the streets around the Hotel Jamilah and got my first chorus of the “Mistér! Mistér!” which would soon become a defining aspect of my time in Indonesia. I had longer conversations with a couple people. When I told a young man called Collin that I was heading to Aru, he became very excited and said that he was Aruese, and he must have my phone number. His father, who was in Jakarta at the moment, knew Aru very well, and could help me get around. With a bit of trepidation, I gave him the number, and a couple hours later received a call from his father, Frengky.

Frengky sounded like he was calling from very far away, over a bad connection. I imagined him floating inside an early Soviet space capsule, a couple of fried fish and a bungkus of fried rice floating with him, as he said how good it was that I would visit Aru, and that the Indonesian government had forgotten about it. Although he was in Jakarta, several relatives of his lived in Dobo; they would help me find my way around. At first, I thought this wouldn’t be necessary: the Maluku Province archaeology bureau had a regular guide in the Arus, to whom they offered to introduce me. However, this guide was also out of town, so after I flew in to Dobo I was only a bit uneasy when Frengky called to say his son Bruce would be at my hotel soon.

As it turned out, this worked out well. I hopped onto Bruce’s motor, and we sped off toward an office where I heard some American and Canadian linguists were working. I was hoping they could introduce me to the kepala desa (head of the village) of Kota Lama, and especially Ujir, my two primary interests. However, they, also, were in Jakarta, or Ambon, or somewhere that was not Dobo. The locals in the office suggested that the best way for me to gain access to the villages was by going to the police station and filling out the reams of officially required paperwork. Somehow, this did not seem like the most efficient way to go about things, and Bruce seemed to agree, because we ended up heading back toward the port, where we hired a speed: a long, narrow, outboard-powered fiberglass boat about 20 feet long and 5 feet wide, to take us to Kota Lama. This village was just across the bay from Dobo, on the much larger island of Wokam. It is the nearest major archaeological site, with an old church and a benteng, or fort.

Bruce’s cousins Richardo and Tino also came along. Richardo actually ended up being the main guide and the ambassador: he did most of the talking to village elders, translating my English and imperfect Bahasa Indonesia into the local dialect. Bruce was the “fixer:” in Dobo, he knew who to talk to about transportation. Tino was mostly along for the ride, although later on he helped with some of the reconnaissance. Their “Western” names are actually typical for Christian (especially Protestant) Maluku and Aru natives: as in many Pacific countries, missionaries have done a pretty thorough job of converting the locals not just to their religion, but to their naming scheme, so that along with the biblical names one would expect, more generally Western-sounding ones, like Stef, Gladys, Jen, Sonny, and Eric.

The speed putted out of the harbor, past larger, covered fishing boats, and smaller dugout canoes that haven’t changed much since before European contact. From the bay we could see the neighborhoods of Dobo, built on pilings over the water rather than on land. The weather was perfect–just enough clouds in the sky to soften the sun, a very light breeze, and no waves. In my pack I had a little GPS and a waterproof notebook, a waterproof camera, and a compass. I wasn’t sure how much I could accomplish, but would feel good to finally accomplish something other than waiting for planes and boats.

This story will continue in the next post.

*Apologies to Ann Cummins.

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The flight from Ambon to Dobo was delayed for one day (this happens frequently in Ambon), but finally I walked through the tropical dark (it is a special kind of dark) from the not-too-disgusting transit hotel to the airport. The flight to Dobo left at 6 AM: a small twin turboprop plane, with wonderfully spacious exit row seats. En route we stopped at another small island with a small airport, but I think Dobo’s airport is even smaller. It is definitely a developing-world airport, about the size of a McDonalds, with the moldering hulk of a decommissioned flying boat parked next to the airstrip as a sort of decoration.

The Aru group is just south of Papua, Indonesia’s easternmost province. If you look at a satellite view of it, it’s clearly different from the nearest other islands: rather than craggy volcanoes, Aru is a low-lying set of limestone fragments, remnants of the landbridge between New Guinea and Australia. In the satellite view you can also see huge sections of the southern islands that have been clearcut, for the most part illegally, and plumes of runoff eroding from this newly exposed earth.

Dobo, the capital town of the Aru islands district, is in the north, far from all the logging. It has gotten a reputation as a wild place. Several people said I could buy anything here, with the implication being things in different shades of illegal. Beer, as it is perfectly legal, is not so easy to find here, but if I really wanted to, I bet I could track down a few endangered species for sale. Different resource booms (pearl oysters, shark fins, trepang, bird of paradise feathers, seaweed) have come and gone in Aru. For those interested enough to track down an anthropology book, Patricia Spyer did a wonderful job of documenting the culture surrounding Aru’s declining pearl fishery in her book The Memory of Trade.

Actually, Dobo seems to have become less lawless in recent years than its reputation suggests. I suspect that this has something to do with Aru being between booms at the moment. Still, the town is bustling, always full of people and their unmuffled two-cycle mopeds ($#@&*~&%+=^!!!!!!!), angkots, trucks, and long, slender outboard-powered boats.

Maybe I’m not looking deep enough into the local underworld, but in general things seem normal here, by the standards of large towns in remote islands. There’s no question it is remote.  Although there are daily flights from Ambon to Dobo, just getting to Ambon from one of the larger islands takes some willpower. As far as I know, I’m the only American (or Caucasian, for that matter) here. I’m also the only person who knows more than a few words of English, though in all fairness, I bet most Americans don’t know a single Indonesian word except “satay” or maybe… no, “satay” is probably it. The local dialect of Bahasa Indonesia leaves me guessing a lot of the time, but I can get by.

I’ll have more to write about Dobo and the surrounding archaeological sites in a couple days.

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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.

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