Nutmeg, emerald of the Equator..


AMBON, 21 JUNE 2014

In one of the main streets in Ambon, an affable fat Chinaman is sitting fiddling with two smartphones and drying a bunch of fresh cloves on the sidewalk in front of his little warehouse. He invites us in and tells us about his business and the history of the Spice Islands. Three young women, college students, are sitting upstairs sorting nutmegs. Meanwhile, an older gentleman is packing nutmegs and cloves whilst the boss is negotiating with a customer in Hong Kong over the phone. Chang exports nutmegs, cloves and cacao to Korea, Japan and China – and top quality only, he adds with emphasis.

Ambon and some of the neighbouring Moluccan islands were for a long time the only spots in the world where cloves and nutmeg grew naturally. Both spices are used in cooking, traditional medicine and cosmetics and have been coveted commodities since antiquity. The Moluccas were known to Julius Caesar as Supercilium Mundi; the Chinese, Arabs, Indians and Europeans prized these two spices as “Emeralds of the Equator.”

Chang tells us business is going well and in a week he’ll be flying to Switzerland with 40 other Chinese people. Where in Switzerland? I ask. Chang has no idea. He says it’s all been planned out ahead of time. Then he picks up the phone and speaks briefly to the tour guide: from Zürich to the Jungfraujoch, he says proudly, adding that the trip will last for one week. That’s a pretty short trip to Switzerland, I reply. But Chang stubs out his cigarette in the already overflowing ashtray and says: “Not too short: time is money!” Is he taking his wife and children along? No, he says with a contented smile: “They’re going to Hong Kong: to Disney Park!”