Ambon, Kei, Getting To Maluku – One Night in Ambon
Leaving Rantepao behind, I took the long overnight bus back down to Makassar, as usual finding it not quite ideal for sleeping. Even though this bus had more legroom, the seats just aren’t designed for taller people, and I don’t know if the word ‘ergonomics’ exists yet in Indonesia, at least not in the transportation sector. Just moments into the ride, a horrible melody came over the speakers, and I looked up to see cheesy Indonesian karaoke on the tv screen in front of the bus. I couldn’t decide which was worse – the traditional folk and Indonesian pop songs or the American classics, redone by three Indonesian women, slightly too old to be trying their teenage dance moves and teeny bopper personas. The karaoke seemed to never end, and when it did, the driver would tempt me with a few moments of silence and a black screen before loading the next disc of torture. I eventually got a little bit of sleep, though the windy roads and fast driving made it a little hard to stay in the same position for long. But I made it to the airport with about four hours to spare, so I had an uncomfortable nap on the chairs (not benches, as that would encourage overnight sleepers), and even stopped by the local Dunkin’ Donuts, where the workers loved watching me eat the donuts, as they seem to think that you should eat it with a knife, but I showed them how we gracefully stuff our faces back in the US and eventually had a quick bowl of nasi goreng, the cheap national dish of fried rice, perhaps an egg and some chili sauce, before getting on my plane. As expected, the leg room was really tight in the plane, but it was only a few hours, so it wasn’t that bad.
I was heading for one of the Easternmost provinces of Indonesia, Maluku aka the Moluccas. Maluku had its moment in the sun back in the 1600s when this area was the original Spice Islands that countries all over Europe clamored to find. The Dutch colonized the area and held a trade monopoly on the area, the only place where the two important spices of nutmeg and cloves were found in the world. After making tons of money off the spices, the secret eventually got out, and the British cultivated a few spice islands of their own, thus ending the monopoly and the main reason for anyone knowing about that little blip on the map. More recently, the islands were in the news as a civil war tore through the region. It had been hailed as an example of a place where Christian and Muslim villages could live peacefully side by side, but that peace didn’t last. From 1999-2002, neighbors fought each other, killing many and burning paths of destruction. The war ended quickly, both sides a bit ashamed of what happened, blaming extremists from outside the country for part of the problem. Things have been fairly quiet since then, with tourists slowly coming back to Maluku, the name given to basically the whole region of random, isolated islands in Eastern Indonesia apart from New Guinea/Irian Jaya. For me, this was one of the most anticipated areas of my trip, luring me with tales of pristine, deserted beaches, friendly people and very, very few tourists in the entire group of islands.
To get to the Kei Islands, I had to stop off in Ambon, the capital and hub of the region. I could have tried to make a quick turnaround at the airport, but with Indonesian flight delays and cancellations, I figured it would be safer to spend one night in Ambon and then make my way to the Keis the next day. The only problem with the plan was that Ambon’s airport was about an hour away from the main town, meaning I’d have to take a relatively expensive taxi, and even in town, there weren’t many real budget accommodations, according to my guide book. So as I exited the plane, I decided I’d just try my luck and see what I could find. Before I could even leave baggage claim, I was greeted by a friendly Indonesian guy about my age, telling me about a place to stay very close by. The price was right, and the location sounded good, so I hopped on the back of his tiny scooter, and he took me just two minutes down the road. The ‘hotel’ was more of a homestay, just two extra rooms in his aunt’s house, about 100 feet away from the end of the runway. This was exactly the type of place I was looking for, though, so I was really happy, especially when I saw my room, as it was one of the cleanest and most comfortable beds that I had in the entire country. And at $7.50 a night, I got a nice home-cooked meal, a small breakfast and even lunch before my plane ride the next day. I watched a few of the locals play soccer in the lot next door, deciding that I’d rather have a nice nap than join them, though I was abruptly awakened when a plane took off, shaking the entire room. In the evening, I talked more with Michael, who spoke almost perfect English and told me about plans to open his own hotel on the beach someday. He also has some great connections with others in the tourist industry in the area, since he works at the airport information booth, so I actually think he might do well with it.
I was actually a little sad to leave the place and Michael behind the next day, as it was the perfect stop for me. There are supposed to be some good diving spots and a few beaches on the mountainous, green island of Ambon, but I was excited to be getting on my next flight, heading for the hard-to-reach Kei Islands. In addition to having great beaches, the Kei island group is also far enough South that it was in the middle of its dry season, as opposed to much of the Maluku region that was in the midst of the rainy season (opposite from most of the country).
(This is the deck outside of Michael’s aunt’s house where I spent the night, literally across the tiny road from the airport. Luckily there weren’t any night flights, as you are certainly aware when a plane is taking off or landing.)
(Included in the $7.50 a night for the cozy room was three home-cooked meals, so it turned out to be a great deal. This one was some fried chicken, instant noodles, rice and a few vegetables. That’s Michael, the guy I met at the airport who turned out to be a great guy.)