The past week in Ambon was overshadowed by the big dark clouds of Indonesian bureaucracy: despite the hard efforts of many good people I have not been able to extend my visa ahead of time. However, as I said last week: we need to take things as them come and just go with the flow.
Therefore the week was filled with meeting and stress. As we needed to wait for my visa sponsor to return from Jakarta, we could not take the boat back to Banda. We sold our tickets for the boat to three Bandanese girls, whom we met at their family house on the other side of Ambon. After the customary set of selfies (this is a recurring phenomenon when we visit local people) we met with their nenek, grandmother. She is a lovely lady, who married when she was 14 (!) and gave birth to 12 children, 8 of which are still alive. She held my hand and kept blessing me, such a kind-hearted woman.
Now the trouble with missing this specific boat is that there would be no transportation back to Banda for two weeks. This is a small drama, as it means that we will miss the end of Ramadan, an occasion where everyone is living towards for the past month. However, Ayu and I concocted a plan B: to take the plane from Ambon to the Kei Islands, from where there will be a boat to Banda! It will depart on the first day of Idul Fitri, but the festivities in Banda take three days. Moreover, Ayu has family in Kei and this offers her an opportunity to be with them on this important religious holiday.
Now, before you think this means a break from research, we have not been idle at all. The thing is that I have always wanted to visit Kei, since I started my research about the Banda Islands. On the island Kei Besar there are 2 villages called Banda Eli and Banda Elat, villages that were founded by the Bandanese that fled the Banda Islands during the time that Jan Pieterszoon Coen used ruthless methods to gain control over the islands. One episode especially made them leave their homeland, which was the massacre of 1621 when the Bandanese noblemen were executed for “plotting against the Dutch”. The Bandanese that founded the two villages on Kei made their descendants promise never to return to Banda, and so they never did.
Before delving into the adventures in Kei, I want to mention a few meetings we had in Ambon. First of all, I was invited to join the students specializing in Religion and Culture for their excursion for the class Archaeology and Culture to the museum in Ambon. During this tour Marlon, fellow archaeologist at the office of Balai Arkeologi Ambon, and I had interesting conversation about the displays of traditional boats, which include the Bandanese “korakora” boats. He mentioned that in Kei there are still traditional boatmakers and provided me with a name to contact there. The students were very enthusiastic and it was an honor to join their program.
On Saturday, Marlon introduced us to Stanley, the founder of the non-profit organization Heka Leka which aims to increase the educational quality in the Moluccas. He has a plan to create an online platform that will work similarly like Wikipedia, but which would focus on gathering knowledge about the history and culture of the Moluccas. This would involve civilian journalism and in effect it would create a movement among the young generation to engage them to learn about their own heritage. Of course I fully agree with this plan, as I strongly believe in active local engagement and that the act of writing history by local agents can empower them. Stanley therefore invited me to tag along to the provincial office of Education and Culture, where we met the director to discuss this initiative.
After this meeting, we had a dinner together with the director of Balai Arkeologi, Pak Husni at a nice restaurant in Ambon city. He has been elementary in getting my visa, and extremely generous with his time and energy to support my research. The dinner was one of firsts, as it was my first time eating frog and bapeda, a sort nutritious glue made of sago.
When Stanley heard we would visit Kei, he put us in contact with a PhD student there, Stef, who organized a welcome gathering in Kei at the evening that Ayu and I arrived. During this evening we were happily surprised by the generosity of this group of young men, who introduced us to the prince of Banda Eli and drove us around town until we found a good place to stay.
The next day we visited Ayu’s mother and her sister, who helped me to prepare to meet the king that afternoon. My eyebrows, make-up and hijab were done according to Indonesian style, and off we went to the house of the Raja. The interview with the king, the head of the village and the adat leader, was very enlightening and they provided me with a written document of their ancestral knowledge. This meeting was sure worth the travel, and I am glad we got the chance to meet these knowledgeable men.
The next day (today) Stef and his friend James, took us all the way to the village of the boatmakers. Here we met Andreas, the kepala desa and member of the boatmaker family Welafabu. He told us that all boats are female, and therefore the boats are taken care of as they take good care of their women. He showed us the traditional tools, and mentioned that the practice of boat-making is restricted to 4 families. The traditions are continued from father to son, and the next generation is always eager to get involved: it runs through their veins. While walking around town we noticed these monuments with old canons on top, which are erected at the moment a new Raja (king) takes his position as it claims his right to the throne. It is considered a sign of power. Another interesting example of re-interpretation of an historical object into a contemporary narrative.