Friday, February 6, 2009

Banda Sejara

It would seem there are few harder places to get to in the world than the Banda Islands. Throughout history it has been this way. Henry Hudson was left to freeze in the arctic ice on his last expedition to discover an easier passage to the Spice Islands. Christopher Columbus was obstructed by America in his effort to find a direct root to these jewels in the Banda Sea. A Portuguese fleet in 1498 held a Malay pilot at knife point in order to discover the location of Banda, and for a hundred years they guarded the maps that directed their ships to Banda as state secrets to prevent others from finding the precious source of nutmeg that grew there. It was the only source for the spice in the world. And in that world of pre-refrigeration, and primitive medicine, nutmeg served many purposes under the sun. It was a natural curative, preventing meet from spoiling. It was known to cure dropsy. And if taken in abundance could produce hallucinations. The islands and the spice they produce were so rare that a sailor who'd survived the journey to Banda could retire on the value of a pocketful of nutmeg were he fool hardy enough to try stealing some away. And were he caught, he'd have his head put in the guillotine.

Though the value of the spice has been lost over the centuries, the difficulty in getting to Banda hasn't seemed to go away. On this, my fourth trip to this far corner of the world, I've found it harder than ever to reach Banda's shore. The arduous journey has made fast friends of Laura and me. We left Seattle on the 26th of January. Almost two weeks later we set out on the last leg of our journey aboard the Pelni ship Rinjani which will carry us for the next 8 hours to Banda. Though it's not the same six month journey the Dutch, Portuguese, and English sailors endured in the 16th century, it is still by modern travel standards quite a trek. It takes less time to get to the moon.

I first went to Banda in 1997 with Peter, who was conducting the first archaeological dig on the islands while pursuing his doctorate in archaeology through Brown University. He'd told me about the rich colonial history of the islands, and the parallels between the 16th century spice trade and the oil business of today attracted me as a film maker. So I loaded myself down with 4 cameras: 16mm, Mini-DV, Stereoscopic, and a 35mm Nikon, tons of film and tape, and a DAT recorder to make "Banda: Life of Ruins" a documentary on Peter's work, as well as the history and culture of the islands. Now 12 years later, after collecting nearly 100 hours of archival footage, and more than 16,000 photos, I join him and his colleagues again. My role this year is to continue documenting the work, and to teach the students in the field school the techniques of documentary film making. As we've discovered over the years, it's an invaluable tool for recording the destructive process of archaeology. In five weeks time we expect to have a 15 minute documentary completed for Mollucca TV, and if time permits a 30 minute piece on the making of a traditional dug out canoe, a Kole-kole we built in '97 and called Mimpi Gila, meaning crazy dream. It's rather ambitious, but that has been part of the mantra of this crazy dream we've pursued in Banda.

See you in Banda!


  1. I didn't know that Nutmeg was worth so much. I am from Connecticut, the Nutmeg state, and I know little of nutmeg.

  2. Oi, I thought I had sent a comment but cyber world has one over on me again. Might have something to do with the absence of my live in tech help. As I write I believe he is on a ferry to Banda. I hope this is the case. Such a long hurry up and wait.
    The morning sun in Spudville is peeking through the inversion, Squeak scratches and hopes for a fetch.
    Love to Peter and Ayub and you most of all.