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Nutmeg, emerald of the Equator..

AMBON AND NUTMEG

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!”

Beat Presser talks about his voyage

MUSLIMS and CHRISTIANS

AMBON, 18 JUNE 2014

Just after disembarking from the Sinabung I meet John. He sees me, alights from his motorcycle and asks: “Anything I can do for you?” I ask him the way to Latu Halat and I leave him my number. The next day my phone rings at 7 in the morning. Would I like to teach English at his school? He’ll zip over right away to fetch me. I put him off to 10. He arrives punctually, hands me a much too small helmet that looks like a plastic bath tub for infants – and wants to take off straightaway. First, however, he shows my companion Antonius his firearms licence and his pistol. He is a Christian, he explains, and teaches at a school for Muslims. In 1999 violent clashes broke out between Christians and Muslims, leaving over 10,000 dead. The conflict has been going on for a long time and he has to be prepared….

We climb aboard the motorcycle and ride to Ambon. A hilly city with lots of dales and fertile green areas. We ride past big flags – German, French, Brazilian, Dutch. “Is there an international conference going on in town?” I ask. To which John replies, “Holland’s going to win the World Cup!” “Wrong,” I retort, “Switzerland’s going to win.” John laughs so hard he almost runs over a chicken and nearly falls off his bike.

The school is small. A little under 40 pupils are taught here, all orphans or half-orphans. They seem quite absorbed and fascinated as they follow my lessons, though they’re probably thinking: “Here’s this guy standing up there talking about a voyage across the sea, about Swiss mountains and geography. He holds a plastic globe in his hand, juggles it in the air and explains the world to us so fast that we end up confusing Switzerland and South America. In the end, when he takes a class picture he’s standing there in the classroom with a red clown nose on!”

*Before the storm is after the storm.* [was heißt das eigentlich?]

Smoke and Storm

ON THE SEA, 17 JUNE 2014

Indonesian men like to smoke. Unashamedly, a lot, everywhere and all the time. All the berths and day rooms on the ship are smoky. Although it is repeatedly announced over the board loudspeakers that there should be no smoking on board and consideration should be shown towards women and children, the injunction goes unheard. Until fairly recently the smoke smelled of cloves from kretek cigarettes. But ever since Philip Morris bought up a few Indonesian kretek cigarette brands a few years ago, the new smell made in America has been driving out the traditional local fragrance of cloves.

It is cool and breezy on deck. Although the floor is hard and uncomfortable, it’s a good deal more pleasant here than in the smoky overcrowded bowels of the boat. Towards midnight on our second night at sea, the sky grows ominously overcast accompanied by a heavy swell. A tropical rainstorm sweeps across the Sinabung. The passengers who had found a place to sleep next to us and the women peddlers flee the deck to seek a small dry place to sleep in the already teeming quarters down below.

I pull on my rain jacket, meanwhile shielding my camera from the rain, and walk around on deck. What looked like a fairground just a few hours ago has now been swept clean. Not a soul on deck. All I hear is rain and the whistling wind. And all at once, the Sinabung seems a ghost ship.

My kingdom for a place to sleep

From Bau Bau to Ambon

ON THE SEA, 16 JUNE 2014

The Sinabung. The ship, beautifully illuminated, docks in the port. Hundreds of people, loaded up with their stuff, surrounded by even more heavily laden porters, evacuate the belly of the ship. And yet, when we finally board along with the passengers who’ve been waiting beside us, there’s no space left: the sleeping quarters, the passageways, the stairs are all jam-packed with passengers. People everywhere you look, going from one island to another to visit family and relatives or to ply their various trades. But on deck we manage to find a little room between the women sitting there peddling their wares. From coffee and biscuits to electronic equipment, you can find just about everything conceivable there. We put to sea just as the imam summons the congregation to morning prayer.

By the time day breaks, all we can see of Sulawesi is its silhouette in the mist. Meanwhile the heavy swell is taking its toll on some of the passengers. 4–5-metre waves, wind force 5–6 and a bow wave rearing up to 10 metres over the ship’s side cause even a big vessel like the Sinabung to pitch and toss.

The ticket inspection is announced over the loudspeakers. All the doors are locked. Those inside the ship stay there, all the rest remain outside. The whole ship is locked down, then a fastidious inspection begins. Even the lifeboats are searched. They’re probably looking for the six stowaways who climbed the rope onto the side of the ship the night before. After the fruitless inspection and search, the board loudspeaker sounds again. An invitation to the on-board cinema for a very special treat: an action film with Arnold Schwarzenegger….

Pelni shipping company’s logo

A ship will come

BAU-BAU, 15 JUNE 2014

We buy ourselves two economy class tickets from Bau-Bau to Ambon. We’re supposed to show up at the pier at noon to put to sea at 1pm. But there’s still no ship in sight at noon. On the big square by the dock, however, there are plenty of itinerant traders hawking water, food and wares of all sorts, and hundreds of passengers waiting for whatever is to come. They kill time playing cards and chess, sleeping, eating, laughing, strolling, gaping. Everything goes peacefully: no agitation, no grumbling, no complaints. Everyone’s waiting patiently for the big Pelni ship to come in. Waiting is part of life in these parts, all things come in due course.

The main lines in Indonesia are operated by Pelni, the national shipping company. With a fleet of over 80 vessels, most of which were built in Papenburg, Germany, they provide regular service to large parts of this vast island kingdom. The ships are fitted out with a restaurant, karaoke bar, dancefloor, mosque, and four different passenger classes, depending on your needs, with correspondingly graduated fare schedules.

I take advantage of the opportunity to stroll over to the Coast Guard office, where I introduce myself and obtain authorization to take pictures of some of the officers of the watch. Everything goes smoothly and with plenty of good humour. Then we go out to eat, stretch our legs a bit, drink another mango juice and kill some more time reading. Later we return to the port. On the way there, I hum Lale Andersen’s song Ein Schiff wird kommen (“A Ship Will Come”). Just as I’m singing the verse: Und warte auf die fremden Schiffe aus Hong-Kong, aus Java, aus Chile und Shanghai (“And wait for the foreign ships from Hong Kong, from Java, from Chile and Shanghai”), I hear the ship’s siren sounding. It’s 1 o’clock in the morning by now. 1. A cover version of “Never on Sunday”, the title song from the movie of the same name, originally sung in Greek by Melina Mercouri.

[1] A cover version of “Never on Sunday“, the title song from the movie of the same name, originally sung in Greek by Melina Mercouri

Fully-loaded pinisi shortly before departure

Bau Bau

16 June 2014

Bau-Bau is a small seaside city on Buton island in East Sulawesi. A city like hundreds of others in the Indonesian archipelago. Everything that doesn’t come from farming such as rice, corn, sago, copra, tobacco, coffee or sugarcane, or from the forest or the sea, has to be shipped to Bau-Bau and to the over 6,000 other inhabited islands. Everything from nails to electronics, from locally unavailable fresh produce to motorcycles, from smartphones to dried milk.

Satisfying the ever-growing demand for products involves tremendous efforts and complicated logistics. The Bau-Bau port of Murhum is a bustling transhipment point for goods and passengers. Vessels of all shapes and sizes sail in and out of the harbour. Perahus . Speedboats with cafeteria and karaoke room. Liners for over a thousand passengers plying a regular service to Makassar, Surabaya, Kijang, Namlea, Ambon, Ternate, Balikpapan and Bitung. Passenger ships to smaller ports in Sulawesi. Commuter canoes. Fishing boats. Container ships. Supertankers bound for Surabaya and Semerang. Ferries for passengers and cars running every two hours to neighbouring islands like Waara, Dongkala, Kassipute, Raha or Kendari.

There is a teeny-tiny port between Murhum and the ferry terminal. Only five or six pinisis (traditional two-masted sailing ships), hardly 7 or 8 metres long, lay at anchor here. We want to catch a ride! We take a canoe over to one of the ships to inquire, but for once we’re out of luck: a pinisi jam-packed with sailors and canned food left last night bound for Ternate in the Moluccas, 550 nautical miles away. And the next one won’t be leaving for another ten days. We don’t want to wait that long, though, so we fall back on the liner.

[1]A swift sailboat with a triangular sail and single outrigger.

Trash washed ashore in Bau-Bau

Trash in the sea

One evening on the crossing to Tarasu we talked about all the refuse in the sea and elsewhere. It’s common practice here in Indonesia to jettison trash without a second thought – as well as any other items one no longer needs. In their cars, on busses, trains, ships – whatever’s no longer needed does not get deposited in the nearest wastebin, but for convenience simply gets thrown out the window. The sea, it seems, is another perfect dumping ground. Such thoughtless acts are inconceivable and barbaric in the eyes of denizens of Switzerland and Singapore, for example. However, a different wind blows on Yukri’s pinisi, which is equipped with four trash cans, and the sailors are forbidden from throwing any plastic, any glass bottles, paper, packaging, cigarette butts or whatever into the sea.

Two of the crew, Jon and Simon, were fishermen till signing on to the pinisi six months ago. They recount their hardships trying to eke out a living and feed their families on what they made from fishing. What is most striking about their story is that plastic bags and PET bottles adrift on the surface of the water are mistaken by whole schools of small fish for big fish. In fear of what they believe is a looming threat, the little fish migrate out to open sea, where they get scooped up by the big fishing fleets that are fishing the seas dry on an industrial scale. It’s too dangerous for fishermen to venture too far out into sea in their small perahus. So they had to give up their trade and are now trying their luck as sailors.

It’s appalling, says the pensive Captain Yukri, what a chain reaction can be triggered by plastic thrown senselessly into the water. Not to mention the tiny plastic particles drifting across the sea and making their insidious way via fish into the food chain!

A ship in the making

Boatbuilding in Bira, Sulawesi

4 June 2014

We arrive in Makassar punctually on 4 June, after sailing from Tarasu via Bira and Tanaberu. Pinisis are being built at both those places. They’re such imposing structures, I feel as though I were standing in front of several Noah’s Arks! In Bira they’re building five giant 60m pinisis ordered by a Malaysian Chinese entrepreneur. Not all the other boatbuilders in Bira and Tanaberu are thrilled about this. All the wood is being used to build these five and another four planned ships, the Chinaman is monopolizing everything, paying exorbitant prices for the wood, leaving nothing for the other boatbuilders to use for months. Spiteful tongues amongst them even hope a pinisi or two might get out of hand on its maiden voyage and end up like the Titanic.

I can’t judge the situation, but I am amazed at the sheer dimensions of these five vessels. I descend into the bowels of one, which is an undertaking not wholly devoid of danger: down inside the ship the men are sawing and hammering away, drilling and fitting, as well as brewing coffee and smoking kretek cigarettes. The whole scene strikes me as a self-enclosed little world unto itself.

Spirits are low in Tanaberu, too. At present, unlike my first visit, only a few ships are now under construction. There just isn’t much to do around here anymore. We blame it on what’s going on in Bira, take our seats on the bus and ride to Makassar – just in time for the Makassar International Writers Festival. Four hours after pulling into town, I’m standing on stage there presenting our Surabaya Johnny book project. It all came about straight out of the blue! Just a few hours before, I’d met with Lily Yulianti Farid, the director of the festival, briefly explained the project to her and told her I’d come to the festival on a pinisi and was looking for Indonesian writers to provide articles for the planned book.

The "Sinar Harapan" sailing at full speed

With Captain Yukri en route from Larantuka to Tarasu

22 May 2014. Beat Presser reporting:

We’re to be at the Sinar Harapan at 9am sharp on Wednesday, said Captain Yukri, as he glanced up from the chessboard and beamed at me: he had just checkmated me. Yukri is the youngest captain I’ve met so far. Only 28 years old and already for four years captain of the Sinar Harapan, built in 1980 in Tanaberu, on which he regularly carries merchandise from Flores to Sulawesi on behalf of an owner in Makassar. The ship’s hold is empty today, we’re going to head north without any goods on board. Due to strong currents and unpredictable winds, however, our departure is put off to late afternoon.

A good opportunity to stroll down the pier, where I meet Captain Nidun, with whom I sailed a year and a half ago from Bonerate to Larantuka. It’s a merry reunion, which we celebrate with a bottle of Guinness. I show him the photos I took of him and his crew on his pinisi: he’s thrilled and wants to look at the pictures again and again on the iPad and is sad that we’re not sailing to Makassar with him, having made arrangements with Yukri instead.

But Yukri isn’t bound for Makassar after all. Hardly has he raised anchor – shortly before dawn – and set the sails when he apprises us we’re not heading to Makassar, but to Tarasu. Tarasu? We consult the detailed map. Tarasu, aka “Seven-Seven”, 140 km away from our original destination. Doesn’t matter, I tell him. The port lies inland, which means we’ll have to sail upriver. That’s bound to make for some beautiful and unusual pictures! Shortly before Tarasu, however, we run aground.…

Antonius Bataona on his "perahu"

Antonius Bataona

22 May 2014. Beat Presser reporting:

We’re to be at the Sinar Harapan at 9am sharp on Wednesday, said Captain Yukri, as he glanced up from the chessboard and beamed at me: he had just checkmated me. Yukri is the youngest captain I’ve met so far. Only 28 years old and already for four years captain of the Sinar Harapan, built in 1980 in Tanaberu, on which he regularly carries merchandise from Flores to Sulawesi on behalf of an owner in Makassar. The ship’s hold is empty today, we’re going to head north without any goods on board. Due to strong currents and unpredictable winds, however, our departure is put off to late afternoon.

A good opportunity to stroll down the pier, where I meet Captain Nidun, with whom I sailed a year and a half ago from Bonerate to Larantuka. It’s a merry reunion, which we celebrate with a bottle of Guinness. I show him the photos I took of him and his crew on his pinisi: he’s thrilled and wants to look at the pictures again and again on the iPad and is sad that we’re not sailing to Makassar with him, having made arrangements with Yukri instead.

But Yukri isn’t bound for Makassar after all. Hardly has he raised anchor – shortly before dawn – and set the sails when he apprises us we’re not heading to Makassar, but to Tarasu. Tarasu? We consult the detailed map. Tarasu, aka “Seven-Seven”, 140 km away from our original destination. Doesn’t matter, I tell him. The port lies inland, which means we’ll have to sail upriver. That’s bound to make for some beautiful and unusual pictures! Shortly before Tarasu, however, we run aground.…

I Wayan Gusti writing his blog post

Guest author I Wayan Gusti writes:

14. Mai 2014

Beat Presser has asked me to continue for a little while the blog he’s already started up: he’s too busy making preparatory arrangements for the voyage, testing underwater cameras and so on, and also wants to learn Indonesian – a pointless undertaking, if you ask me! I’ve been following Beat’s photographic work for some time and I think very highly of it, so I was delighted to take him up on the offer. The first thing I wanted to find out was how a fellow who grew up hemmed in by mountains in landlocked Switzerland ended up going to sea.

When he was a boy, his father built a motorboat in the garage, on which the family would cruise up and down the Rhine on weekends and spend their summer holidays on one of the many Swiss lakes. At 14 he got his skipper’s licence and at 19 took a ride on a Sudanese packet ship from Assuan to Khartoum. Two months later he crossed the Indian Ocean for the first time in his life, from Mombasa, Kenya, to Bombay (now Mumbai), on a refugee ship carrying 3,000 Pakistanis and Indians who had to flee Uganda under the tyranny of Idi Amin. Whilst still training in photography, he took a few months off in 1975 and signed on to the crew of various sailing vessels on the Atlantic. After that trip, if not before, it was clear to him: whenever possible, put to sea!

And in 2009/2010 Beat Presser got another chance to go to sea, covering a story about shipping on traditional Dhaus along the East African coast. In a few days he’ll be packing up his few possessions and shipping out once again. Then he can resume writing his own posts for the logbook.

As for myself, I’m from Indonesia, and believe it or not I can’t swim, nor do I venture out to sea at all. I leave that to the brave!

A "perahu" on the beach

The Boatbuilders

9 May 2014 Finally, after 18 months of preparation, the photographic part of my trip can now finally get under way. This is the second part of a months-long excursion that actually began in 2012. The goal is to cover shipping in the Indonesian archipelago in words and images and to put them together in a book entitled Surabaya Beat in time for the Frankfurt book fair in 2015. To this day, oddly enough, there is very little extant material on this subject.

On a small island east of Java, perahus are still built out of wood in the traditional manner. A perahu, aka prahu or prau, is made of a single tree trunk. It is slender and deep-hulled, with an extra hull on one side to keep it steady on the water, which is why it’s also described as an outrigger. The boats are small, for the most part, and used for fishing and carrying goods. Outrigger boats can be found from the South Pacific and the Indonesian archipelago to Sri Lanka and along the east coast of Africa all the way to Madagascar. They’re always constructed a little differently depending on the kind of wood used, their functional requirements and the craft of the builders.

Perahus are built without any preconceived plan. We meet three older shipbuilders, who work to order, building their perahus from memory and based on their own know-how. Within a month they build small maritime masterpieces, fishing vessels, in this case, sporting a flag and the face of a fish on the prow. But they don’t sail anymore, all perahus are now fitted out with motors. And there aren’t very many boatbuilders at work on the island anymore either. Wood is scarce and ships made of synthetic materials are supplanting a shipbuilding tradition that goes back thousands of years. The shipbuilders know their days are numbered….