Flipping through the history books in school, there was always an area in Indonesia that stuck out to me. It is a land quite far away with a mystical air surrounding its name, Banda Naira, a cluster of islands famous for being the origin of nutmegs. It’s located in Maluku, a province in the eastern part of Indonesia and is known to have a dark history because it was occupied by the Dutch for 350 years. Voyagers from Europe have been looking for the source of spices ever since Constantinople fell in the 15th century and they found it here, hence why it’s also known as the spice islands.
I have dreamed of going there ever since I was in high school, writing it on my “Places to Visit” list but never got around to ticking the box. The thing is, getting there requires a lot of effort, time, and resources. That’s why I can only fantasise about the land for years, until a sliver of hope came through from my workplace. I was tasked to do some research, write, and illustrate Banda Naira, its people, and culture for the upcoming journey planned throughout islands in the Spice Route. The anticipation grew and when my superiors announced I’ll be able to visit, I was ecstatic, my heart was pumping so loudly because the day I had been waiting for years was coming!
Looking back on the experience, I am still swamped with disbelief. No words can do it justice. I arrived on a warship with some members of the Indonesian Navy. We then took a smaller boat to the docks, greeted by cotton candy-coloured sky of the sunrise. We were greeted by children playing and running around, jumping into the Banda Sea, one of the deepest ocean bodies in Indonesia, with the volcano of Lonthoir Island in the background. It was magical, surreal, and unforgettable. I don’t think there’s enough adjectives to describe what I felt during the time I was there. It wasn’t because I was there for a big event that my workplace did, nor was it due to the beautiful Cakalele dance the youth performed for us in the docks or the festivities surrounding the event. What’s weird is that every walkway, nook, and cranny of the small island feels like a hug, it’s mind-bogglingly familiar. Is it because I’ve read about the place and looked at photographs of it so much the past few years? Or is it because the manifestation of coming there has been rooted in me and now it finally came true?
Others may have written about a place that they visited frequently, but my love for Banda Naira has grown since before I came to the place. The colourful hostels in the main street, little food stalls and the wet market full of fish caught from the sea, the alluring natural landscape, beautiful murals spread around the village walls, the clearest sea water with corals spread on the seafloor, the rich history carved into colonial fortresses; every single element of the island make up the perfect recipe of feeling like you are blessed to be alive and to be there.
But the beauty doesn’t just lie in the physical aspects of the place, there was one important factor that made the place so welcoming to me, the people. They opened their doors so freely even though we’ve never met before. They become like mothers, fathers and siblings to us, building a bond so profound in such a short amount of time. They cooked, laughed, and shared stories with us, introducing us to nutmeg fish soup, suami (a steamed cassava cake, replacing rice), and ulang-ulang (vegetable dish with kenari nut sauce). They showed us their culture, dancing and singing until sundown, inviting us to the village ritual Buka Kampung, which literally means opening the village to welcome people from outside.
The fact that Run Island, one island amongst the Banda Naira cluster, was traded by the English with Manhattan Island in New York, speaks volumes about the importance Banda Naira used to have. People from all over the world scrambled to get a whiff of the fragrance of paradise held by the nutmegs. A small bag of nutmegs from Banda used to be able to buy a flat in London. But now, the people can’t even savour the sweetness, they are more accustomed to the harsh waves of Banda Sea, obstructing good access to medical care and education for the people, seeing as the place being remotely located and so hard to reach. Traversing two dimensions of time and place, I can still feel Banda Naira’s presence while being in London, moved by the harsh truth to bring positive change for the area in the future.
My brief but meaningful encounter with Banda Naira has made me fall in love with it. When I left and saw the people of Banda waving and crying on the docks, my will to return one day has been engrained deeply in my heart. Banda Naira will always hold a special place there.
Salsabila Andriana, better known as Alsa, is a creative designer and multi-disciplinary storyteller. She has a bachelor’s degree in interior architecture from Universitas Indonesia and has experience as a graphic designer in a program initiated by the Ministry of Education and Culture of Indonesia. Her work spans from exhibition design, illustrations, Augmented Reality experiments, interior architecture, and graphics for printed and social media. She likes exploring new places and is interested in revealing narratives regarding cultures and everyday life. She is joining The Glass-House team this summer as part of a placement through her course at Central Saint Martins.