Ambon: A beautiful corner of Maluku

Ambon: A beautiful corner of Maluku
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With a few bumps along the road, especially in the past year when things became a little rocky again, Ambon has nonetheless come a long way from the war zone that it turned into a decade ago. My first trip through Ambon city was in the aftermath of the sectarian violence that had engulfed the island from 1999 to 2002. In those days, it was not a place in which to loiter for long: the scars of violence were still all too apparent on the 25 km drive from the airport to the city on the opposite side of the bay, with numerous places of worship reduced to burnt-out hulks and the provincial university a blackened ruin. Back then, I had just been passing through, on my way to the Spice Islands of Banda. But this time I was back to visit Ambon Island itself, comprising as it does of two “halves” – Leihitu to the north and Leitimur to the south. While Ambon may not have become a tourist Mecca, it’s a beautiful corner of Maluku, with a lazy, laid-back tropical feel to it. Ambon’s history is both long and turbulent, closely linked for several centuries to the spice trade. Prior to the 16th century, Ambon was largely controlled by the powerful sultans of Ternate from further north. The European powers first arrived in the early 16th century in the form of the proselytizing Portuguese. While the Portuguese managed to break the control of the sultans, they found the locals on the north of the island unreceptive to Christianity and decided to establish their main base further south, the site of today’s Ambon. In turn, the Portuguese were displaced by the Dutch, intent on capturing the lucrative spice trade. The Dutch also took over the Portuguese fortress in Ambon, renaming it Fort Victoria in 1599 and making it their main regional base. The Dutch were to dominate the Ambon Island for the next three and a half centuries until the World War II, when it became the headquarters of the invading Japanese forces in the region. Consequently, the city attracted heavy bombing from the Americans during the final stages of the war, sadly destroying much of Ambon’s attractive colonial architecture. The only previous interruption to Dutch control was a small rebellion in 1817, when an uprising led by one Thomas Matulessy overran Fort Duurstede on Saparua, one of the Lease islands to the east. After killing all the fort’s Dutch defenders, sparing only a six-year old Dutch boy, the uprising was violently suppressed and all its participants executed. However, Matulessy’s act of saving the life of the boy led him to being named “Pattimura” by the locals, which means “kind-hearted” in the local language. He subsequently went on to become a revered symbol of anti-colonial resistance. Despite ridding itself of the Dutch and the Japanese in the 1940s, Ambon then became the focus of a rebellion against the newly independent Indonesia under Sukarno in the 1950s, eventually put down by the Indonesian army. Sectarian violence flared again in the late 1990s as a spillover from the collapse of the Soeharto regime in 1998, and the political instability, together with the rivalry between the army and the police, that the New Order’s downfall created. Notwithstanding a recent but thankfully short-lived reappearance of sectarian violence earlier this year, Ambon has made a remarkable recovery since civil conflict abated in 2002. This turnaround was celebrated with the unveiling of a World Peace Gong by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in 2009 in the city center of Ambon. Only a few years earlier, the very same site had been less then 200 meters from the frontlines dividing the city’s warring sectarian factions. Ambon itself lies in a beautiful setting, between the narrow bay called Ambon Bay and the hills leading up to Mount Sirimu. Ambon has a lush and lazy tropical feel, with undulating hills and idyllic views across the bay. The city’s main landmark is Fort Victoria, which today is occupied by the Indonesian army and closed to the public. However, if you approach the fort from the seaward side, you will see some of the original walls and the old Dutch main gate. Across the road on the southern side of a sports field overlooked by the modern governor’s office is a gesticulating statue of Pattimura, waving his sword in the vague direction of the governor’s office. One of the best spots in Ambon to enjoy a cold beer, some snacks and the view across the city and the bay beyond is the Panorama Café, located high on a hill in the northeast suburbs. If you’re lucky with the weather, you can also see stunning sunsets from its vantage point. Of course, the Ambonese love their food, and so I made an effort to try some of the local delicacies. In my pursuit of the local specialty called papeda – strange sago-based goo that looks just like wallpaper glue – I discovered an excellent restaurant called Sari Gurih in Jl. Dana Kopra, just around the corner from the Mutiara Hotel where I was staying. At Sari Gurih, the staff treated me a traditional Ambonese papeda meal with fish cooked in yellow sauce (ikan kuah kuning), and most importantly, showed me how to serve the papeda with special two-pronged chopsticks. There is quite an art to serve papeda, as it quickly slides off the chopsticks unless you move fast and know what you’re doing (and which plate you’re aiming for). Despite its glue-like appearance, papeda is a very tasty dish when mixed with the fish – just don’t make the mistake of eating just the goo on its own. One peaceful spot in which to escape the bustle of the city is the pristinely maintained Commonwealth War Cemetery on the road to Passo. Although the cemetery contains the graves of servicemen of British, Indian and other allied extractions, the majority of the more than 2,000 graves are of Australian servicemen who perished in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps. The bonds created between the Australians and the Ambonese during this difficult time live on today in the annual Sail Banda yacht race from Darwin to Ambon. Another place of interest is the village of Soya Atas halfway up Mount Sirimau. Soya Atas Church was totally destroyed in 2002, but has now been restored. Just across the road is a dilapidated monument to St. Francis Xavier, who came to Ambon as the first with Jesuit missionary in 1546. The rest of the smaller southern half of Ambon Island, Leitimur, is best visited on a motorbike. Some of Ambon’s most attractive coastline is to be found on the southern side of Leitimur. For instance, Namalatu has a nice beach, while lying further east through coconut groves is a cliff-side outlook called Pintu Kota that offers impressive views of the coast and the deep blue sea below. In order to explore Leihitu, the northern half of Ambon Island, you’ll need to rent a car for the day. Northern Leihitu has quite a different flavor from the south, being far less prosperous and relying as it does on small-scale fishing. The road passes through the old stronghold of the Ternate sultans in Hitu Lama, now the port for the morning speedboats to Seram. Heading west along increasingly rough roads and poorer fishing villages, you arrive at the village of Hila, famous for its Dutch fortress, Benteng Amsterdam. Built in 1649, the fort has now been renovated, complete with a distinctly non-17th century red roof. A little further on from the fort is Immanuel Church, an old church destroyed in the sectarian violence which has since been rebuilt, albeit with no congregation. Another five-minutes’ walk brings you to the curious thatched mosque of Wapaue. Originally built in 1414 on the slopes of nearby Mount Wawane, the mosque was moved to its new location in 1664, supposedly with a little supernatural help. Leihitu’s eastern coast is where car ferries serve the Lease islands and Seram. The main road heads out along the second of Ambon Island’s major bays, Baguala, through the resort of Natsepa. After the port of Tulehu is the village of Waai – not to be missed if you are someone fascinated by eels (belut). The eels live in a freshwater carp pool, which the locals also use for washing clothes, and are supposedly sign of good luck if you see one. (Taken from The Jakarta Post)

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