Saturday, September 6, 2014

Beyond First Impressions: Ambon, Indonesia -- December 2013

Had we let our first impressions guide us, we'd never have stayed nearly three weeks in Ambon City. Nestled a good ten nautical miles up the inlet that runs into the center of Ambon Island, Ambon City is the capital of the Maluku province of Indonesia and historically served as the regional center of the Dutch colonial administration. It's a relatively large city in eastern Indonesia, with a gubernatorial office, bustling streets, varied and imposing architecture, a university, military parade grounds and a large shopping mall (where we discovered, among other things, Indonesian donuts that rival Krispy Kremes).

The first thing we knew about Ambon, however -- even before we arrived -- was that it was the center of Christian-Muslim violence as recently as just over a decade ago. We learned of this first-hand from a Muslim English teacher in Banda (our last port of call before Ambon), Mr. Cinta, who told us he'd fled to Banda when the violence got really intense. Mr. Cinta met us on a Banda street one day, stopping his moped and smiling a hello. We struck up a conversation and the next thing we knew, he was inviting us to 'tour' Banda Neira with his school group. His students, he told us, would enjoy the English practice -- and they'd show us around the historical sites. They took us from the central museum to the canoe sheds, where carvers were hard at work preparing their crafts for the upcoming annual island races, to the wide waterfront streets where Dutch plantation owners built large homes with sprawling verandas, now overgrown and unoccupied (their plantations occupying the nearby, and larger, Lontar island).

Mr. Cinta and his students, with Lola and Jana
We learned many things that day in Banda, but Mr. Cinta's brief account of his abrupt departure from his home town of Ambon impacted us as much as anything else. He summed up the circumstances of his departure from Ambon succinctly: "If I stayed, I would be killed. So I left." Cause for caution, we thought, though Ambon has enjoyed relative peace in recent years.

The second impression came when left the Banda Sea, turning into  Ambon Bay between the two main peninsulas that comprise Ambon Island and seeking the protected port of Ambon City.

Trash along the shore of Ambon City -- with plenty floating
in the river, too, posing navigational hazards
Instantly we were surrounded by trash, forcing us to carefully navigate in and out of garbage; never before had we seen so many bits of wood crates, plastic, netting, styrofoam, ramen wrappers, yoghurt containers, soda bottles. Some pieces of trash floated as isolated bits, while others were caught by eddies and currents and strung together over time: swirling masses of putrid waste. We crept up the inlet ever closer to Ambon City, wondering: What have we got ourselves into?

Ambon River 
But we dropped our anchor in the midst of this filthy harbor and made ready for shore -- where we were confronted with more garbage: along the inner harbor, by waterfront homes, up riverbanks. We soon discovered that discarding our own trash ashore simply meant finding a pile (any old pile) and heaving our plastic onto it. Not something we ever became comfortable with -- but, with no other option, something we did. We sought out large rubbish containers, only to discover later that they were dumped on the side of the road (right next to the bins) by city-dwellers searching for useful items -- only to be refilled again. What use the receptacles were, we never did figure out.

Rubbish is an inescapable rudeness and affront in Indonesia -- and Ambon was, well, ugly.


Thus, stories of religious strife and the vast amount of trash we encountered first-hand shaped our early impressions of this city.

But we stayed long enough to look closer and soon discovered many things to enjoy in this crowded city of nearly 400,000 souls. The food was spectacular. The wireless worked. And the people were remarkably friendly -- despite our youngest having to endure far too many women pinching her soft white cheeks.

We dinghied ashore the first day and walked through a gritty, dark and downright stinky alleyway to arrive on a streetcorner bustling with more noise and traffic and smells than any place we'd been in a long, long while. Mango carts, bicycle guides (becaks), motorbikes, mopoed taxis (ojek), automobiles, pedestrians, taxis, bicyclists... all crowding together, many of them bucking the trend of the local (and sometimes, to us, indiscernible) traffic patterns.

Even now, after nearly a year since we arrived in SE Asia, I'm mesmerized by mopeds and other vehicles crowding the streets in this part of the world. Tual and Ambon introduced me to the frenzied driving (by the time we arrived in Bali, we were brave enough to enter the fray ourselves) -- and I still  stop on the sidewalk just to watch the traffic, a striking shift in scenery, compared to sailing in a ten-knot breeze.


Ambon streetside care
Our first mission upon arrival in Ambon was sorting our Internet connection. We were sent to the Telkom offices but arrived around 4pm to discover them closed. Sullen and hot, we started down the street, only to hear a man chasing after us: Internet? Come! I show you Internet. Bernie was skeptical and did not want to follow him, sure that we were being led to an Internet cafe -- which was not what we needed. But we really had no choice except to follow this enthusiastic individual, so we did.

He led us only a little way down the street to a red van. Two women emerged with their Telkom-mobile shop. I marvelled at the efficiency of this small troupe, watching as the Seussian thingamabob unfolded before our eyes: front doors and side doors opened, then out popped a display counter, and next came the folding table and chairs: - voila! --  Thing One and Thing Two had set up an Internet street-side access provider, just for us. Within twenty minutes we were up and running. And smiling.

Coast Guard vessels, right, in the evening light
When we went ashore the second day, we passed a Coast Guard ship with men waving vigorously -- and motioning for us to come. We hesitated, wanting to avoid an official scolding for any potential offense or violation of an unnamed rule that we had no way of knowing in this part of the world. We even tried to ignore them. But they kept hollering and waving -- and so we reluctantly motored closer and slowed near their boat. With very little English, they indicated we should come aboard. We hesitated again. But after a few more words in our very limited Bahasa and their very limited English -- and a lot of gesticulating -- it was established that we should come aboard and tie up our dinghy there, alongside their boat -- because it's safer. That part was easy to understand: they wanted to be sure we felt secure, and insisted we use their boat as our floating dock while in Ambon. We felt quite safe in this city so far, and we had no fears of leaving our dinghy at the nearby fishing dock, but we followed their friendly suggestion nonetheless.

On our first day aboard the Akelamo, Captain Djufri and his crew also insisted they help bring our washing to the laundromat, and soon they had lined up four mopeds streetside, inviting us to hop on. In the end, Jana declined the offer to board the back of a motorcycle and race through an unfamiliar city with a man she'd only just met (despite her parents' urging: go on, it'll be fun! -- sometimes it's good to have one sane person among the four of us), and instead she and I got a becak, the local cycle rickshaw, while Bernie and Lola happily sped off on motorbikes en route to the landromat.

View to Ambon houses from the Commonwealth War Cemetery
From that day forward, we went ashore many times, and we always tied up to the Coast Guard -- there were actually two vessels tied side-by-side, the Akelamo alongside a larger ship which we traversed each time. And we were always greeted by crew members who helped us carry our laundry, rubbish and groceries across their decks, and who courteously raised and lowered a long boarding ladder each time they saw us coming. We grew comfortable with the smiles and limited dialogue with Kiki, Dudi, Enjiel and Huong (who had the greatest smile of all).

During our stay, the Coasties also insisted on filling our water tanks, even urging us repeatedly to tie Momo alongside Akelamo for convenience, but we declined the generous offer because the angular curve of their considerable steel hull would damage our rigging (something we finally communicated via a pencil-on-napkin drawing).

Captain Djufri and his crew helped us with fuel as well -- taking us to a waterfront alleyway in Ambon lined with vendors whose shops are stocked with large barrels of diesel and petrol, and filling our jerry cans at Kiki's shop in an unusual hands-on funnel fashion. The shops were filled with containers -- full ones lined up on the ground, empty ones hanging from the ceilings --  plus small counters of candies on the side and family members emerging from various doors and hallways to say hello and check us out.

We have now come to realize that we're as much a curiosity to the locals as they are to us -- and we've grown accustomed to having our photo taken quite often by locals capturing the family in the dinghy, or the family walking down the street, or the family visiting the Islamic Theme Park (more on that forthcoming -- in the Malaysia tales).

But back in November 2013, having only arrived in Indonesia, we were still taking it all in and found ourselves marvelling at thecoordinated family operation for delivering fuel into our jerry cans, which involved a woman we assumed was Kiki's wife sharing the workload, squatting in her sarong and controlling the transfer of fuel from their large vats into our small cans. Meanwhile, there was a child relaxing on the counter, a parrot overseeing the whole process, other family members popping in and out to check on the curious strangers and smile at our children, various other small transactions happening in the corners of the shops, chickens wandering the alleyway, goats in nearby pens. And, of all things, a codger smoking cigarettes.

We had several exchanges over tea and biscuits, too -- some more successful than others. And near the end of our stay in Ambon, our new benefactors came to Momo for a visit, too, marveling, we think, at our cramped quarters and what my children decided was our underappreciated tea. Both Lola and Jana observed how our guests gingerly sipped small quantities and feigned that their thirst had been quenched, while Captain Djufri kept encouraging the one reluctant drinker to finish his cuppa -- which he promptly did, though all of them adamantly refused seconds.


Happy fruit vendor
We ate well in Ambon. We went back to the same two restaurants several times. We ate at Dedes because it's where we arrived on our first night out. When we asked our becak drivers (two passengers per vehicle) for a good restaurant, emphasizing we'd like to eat local ayam goreng (fried chicken), they drove us through a long stretch of the city outskirts and finally stopped at the palatial three-storied Kentucky Fried Chicken -- and, realizing our mistake, exclaimed, "No, no, we would like local food! Indonesian! Tidak American!" We were grateful when our drivers finally dropped us on the doorstep of Dedes, where we discovered delightful fish curry, squid barbecue and, yes, local fried chicken. The second restaurant became a favorite because they had the best nasi ayam goreng (essentially chicken fried rice) that we'd ever had. Lola always ordered two portions there, and when we told them it was our last visit after two weeks of frequenting their shop, they gave her a free watch from the counter at the entrance. Everywhere we went, we were greeted with smiles and generosity. And people who wanted to have their photos taken.


Jana pets an eel
Other highlights in Ambon included the day drive up the coast with the family on S/V Morning Glory, who also anchored in the harbor with us for a few days. On that excursion, we stopped at the Tulehu hot springs (we didn't swim) and the sacred eel pools at Waai (Jana got up close and personal with them, along with the kids from Morning Glory -- but she jumped back quite a bit when one became a little too friendly). We also stretched our legs at the very tidy Commonwealth War Cemetery, its manicured lawns and pruned gardens immaculately clean and in stark contrast to the rest of Ambon City.

Also, we'll not soon forget the jam-packed and bistering hot waterfront market, fireworks every night off our stern and the pre-dawn call to prayer, which, in the spirit of the Christmas season, was always answered, loud and garbled, by a nearby church. I've grown accustomed to the call to prayer. But I never expected to travel this far from home and be accosted by canned Christmas music.

4:30 AM in Ambon.


Other photos from our visit to Ambon below.
Ambon waterfront market

Locals gather at dusk at the city waterfront

Fuel shop in Ambon alley -- and the fuel was even clean! (photo by Lola Elvy)

Part diesel depot, part kiddie daycare -- fueling up in Ambon (photo by Lola Elvy)

Fuel alley, Ambon (photo by Lola Elvy)

Family fuel operations /vendors (photo by Lola Elvy)

Parrot overseeing the fuel op (photo by Lola Elvy)
All smiles in Ambon alley (photo by Lola Elvy)