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.