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!]