The Hancock-Henderson Quill, Inc.

Nutmeg and Spice Island Pt.1

Columnist Sherryanne De La Boise
(her great grandparents were life-long residents of Stronghurst)

Beyond The Picket Fence

"Tis the season of pumpkin spice. Funny that the ancient Chinese and the pyramid-building Egyptians had nutmeg, mace and cloves yet Portuguese sailors "discovered" the Spice Islands in 1512 . Magellan's sole returning ship carried 26 tons of these spices, more than paying for his voyage and four sunken ships! In 1663, after a nasty battle, the Dutch enslaved the natives, growing rich from the sale of spices. Even today, the people talk bitterly about being slaves. The British grabbed control in 1810, but we have a Frenchman to thank for our inexpensive pumpkin spice: He smuggled out a plant, because after seven days, the seeds are not viable.

As we enter the Banda Island bay, I see a tall, green sculpture sporting a golden crown on an islet. Am I seeing a Statue of Liberty? From when the people got rid of both the Dutch and British in 1949 to became a part of Indonesia? Ah, distance glasses are in my future, for the "Statue of Liberty" is merely a green illuminated lighthouse.

Two 70' vessels greet us. Greeting with shows of military might is a tradition of island nations. Odd how I find terrifying tiny canoes with menacing spear-bearing warriors. These boats have a Thai influence, with multi story fore and aft decks. Painted with shiny enamel red, white and green. Each has three large flags amidships and many pendants. Very sharp looking. Ever the tourist, I wonder if I can get a model to bring home:

My personal guide is to take me to the governor's office. He wants me to climb the, ahem, active volcano before I meet an economic advisor. Always like a 30,000' view of any place or project. The trek starts in a coconut plantation. Mistakenly, I thought this was an easy tourist thing. Did not realize that invitees, upon completion of the climb, are granted "citizenship." About an hour in, I wheeze that a woman of traditional build, from flat midwestern farm land, who drives everywhere, would prefer to walk down from the summit and surrender.

Never fear, the guide has a motorbike. I hop on back. The first place we drive is a storefront where the family lives above. A lady in brightly colored ankle dress and India-style scarf comes out with two water bottles. Not to drink, but to fill the tank. This is how everyone purchases 2 liters of gas. There is only one filling station, on the other side of the island, by the airport. Peering into the store to survey what foreign offerings have made it to her shelves, I see the famed local clove cigarettes.

Now, I equate clove cigarettes with affected women in berets, who sigh alot while conversing with righteous indignation about topics about which I know nothing. But, these are fresh, the best cloves on the planet. This non-smoker will have several cartons hanging out of her purse, to take back, only to have them stolen by TSA in LAX (another article).

We motor by the cemetery (an interest of mine). His house is nearby, so he takes me to meet his wife and little daughter. The girl is about 4, with fine brown hair, a Malaysian face, and a Mexican-style dress with tiny pink flip flops. Every family has an oversized wicker couch parked on the sidewalk where they hang out on hot evenings. He lives in two rooms, plus a screened room. They sleep on mats on the floor, under a corrugated roof. He is still building his house from bricks of lava, gathered from the volcano, carved into blocks. When he has enough blocks, another part of the house is built. He plans to have eight rooms. The fragments from shaping the blocks are sold as gravel.

I'm in luck: This is the season of nutmeg harvest. A bamboo cage on a pole yanks the fruit off the tree. The cage has forked prongs, which yank the fruit, that slips through a hole, into the cage. The lush fruit looks like a yellow peach. It will be used in jam or dried as candy. My purse now has three jars of jam and a good sized bag of the candy, added to the cigarettes, but no model boat, yet.

Beneath the fruit, the nutmeg nuts are covered in a red plastic coating that turns out to be the spice, mace. Tarps of mace and nutmeg are drying in the sun. The smell is positively Halloween.

I have a pull-back car that I show a 4 yr old boy how to draw it backwards, to engage the engine. He mis-understands. He thinks I'm not letting him have it and speeds off, crying. Horrified, the guide and I pursue him. He is being consoled in the arms of a man. Again, I show the car and how it works, twice. Then, I indicate that the car is indeed intended for the boy. He flies out of his father's arms, grabs the car and swiftly retreats back, smiling defiantly through tears and strong arms. I feel terrible about causing a little one such drama.

Back on the motorbike, down a narrow, narrow street, then a sharp corner. Whew! I forgot that the passenger has to sit exactly as the driver. We go a-wobble, just missing the deep storm ditch. Not interested in seeing the churches, but would like to visit his 4th grade daughter at school. The girls are in maroon pleated, above-the-knee shorts with white blouses and maroon neckties. The boys wear long pants and ties. They sit two to a desk. The map on the wall is centered on Indonesia. "Amerika" is off to the far, far left (Did they anticipate Bernie?). The teachers are from Jakarta, here for three years in payment for their education. As I meet each student, I give them a different postcard from Chicago and ask their name.

We motor to the Dutch fort. After the volcano blew in 1988, the Indonesian government paid the locals to renovate the fort. Managed by a governor who realized, by not using modern machinery, work might be stretched. And, thus 30 years later, the project is good employment (Indonesia does not make social welfare payments). Ancient women are paid to plant flowers. One of the lower floor rooms has a sizeable hole in the center of the floor. This was the prison. Similar to the Bukhara bug pit or Paul's Roman prison, the prisoner was lowered into a windowless cell.

Tourists are seated in the square, bored watching teenagers doing the traditional dance in traditional garb (ill-fitting, of course) with music played badly on traditional instruments. This time it's 2 guitars and a set of 9 brass bells that look like 9 red fez on a tv tray. The bells are struck. I am interested in their preferred harmonies. Unlike their vocabulary, no Dutch influence here. They are serving cinnamon tea and coconut cakes. I sit in the front row and applaud like a seal at the circus. A la Princess Michael, I thank each for teaching me about their culture. My government-issued guide is very impressed.

BacBack on the bike, my guide is taking me to meet the governor. We zip past the National Geographic photographers walking with the terribly bored celebrities. They don't have their cameras on, so we turn around and pass them again with a brilliant wave. This image will end up in the official report. Ah, the adventures of Sherryanne!