Rubber time in Banda Neira
“Don’t be angry, sir!”
Bu Rosani says this with a hopeful smile, as we sink into the plastic chairs inside her family-run restaurant Rumah Makan Nusantara. At the next table a band of sailors roar with laughter and knock back a few bottles of Bintang, pausing only to puff on their cigarettes. Bu Rosani tells us their ship is leaving soon, and they must be served first.
Nusantara is the poetic term for Indonesia, ‘the islands in between’, and it is an apt name for this cosy, down-to-earth resto just steps away from the port of Banda Neira. For the remote Banda Islands once drew traders from all across the region – the Malays, Chinese and Arabs included – as it was only place on Earth where nutmeg grew wild. By the 17th century, the European hunger for spices had led to the arrival of the Portuguese, then a genocidal conquest by the Dutch.
The Bandas and the island of Ambon, 200 kilometres to the northwest, were among their first possessions in the East Indies, as was the newly-founded city of Batavia. Over the next three centuries, the Dutch reaped immense profits from spices, sugar and other valuable commodities. They subjugated the indigenous peoples and united a vast chain of disparate islands under one central authority – a precursor to the modern state of Indonesia.
Bama and I had arrived much like those sailors at the next table, aboard a slow, overcrowded ferry from Ambon. We knew the journey would involve an eight-hour overnight voyage, but what we did not anticipate was leaving Ambon five and a half hours behind schedule. Indonesia operates on “rubber time”, which explains the national penchant for tardiness and the flexible approach to schedules and appointments. What is mañana in Spain is besok in Indonesia. Besok can either mean “tomorrow” or “never”, but we count ourselves fortunate because the ferry actually showed up that same evening.
Unless you manage to snag a spot on the 12-seater planes that stop by two or three times a week, getting to these islands demands a great deal of patience. But that is part of Banda’s allure – it excites us even more because it is so hard to get to, and the islands’ remoteness favours those with time, flexibility and the drive to make things happen.
A city slicker more attuned to the rhythms of Hong Kong, New York or London might be driven mad by the Bandanese sense of timekeeping, but it suits us just fine. The museum is never open, unless the owner of your guesthouse calls the custodian in advance. Or, upon finding it locked, you might just meet someone who knows the man with the key; he lives in a house just down the street. The restored hulk of Fort Belgica, stark grey on a hill covered in luxuriant foliage, operates on a similar system. The food at any given restaurant takes at least half an hour to arrive at the table, which is not an issue because we are in no hurry to get anywhere.
This all takes place against a backdrop of crumbling colonial bungalows, each one distinguished by their colonnaded verandahs and roofs in corrugated iron. Children play barefoot in the triangular patch of grass in front of the old Protestant church; its bell tolls on Sundays when the young minister pulls on a rope tied to a nearby tree. Cars are a rare sight in Banda Neira; we can count the ones we see on one hand. But motorcycles are far more common, and teenagers sometimes barrel down the empty airport runway to see how fast they can go. Banda Neira has no shopping malls, no souvenir shops selling useless tchotchkes, and no nightclubs. It is an antidote to the very existence I’d come to loathe while living in Hong Kong – as though I was perpetually stuck in the fast lane.
So Bu Rosani’s apology comes as a surprise. Given her top-notch fruit shakes and the consistent quality of her meals, how could we be angry with the pace of service? For we now know of a commodity far more precious than spices. On these remote islands rich in nutmeg, Bama and I have all the time in the world. ◊