The direction was simple: make for the banana tree – it’s behind it. I looked at where she was pointing and, spotting the banana tree, made a beeline for it. But I found myself circling the sheet of corrugated steel erected on the ground behind the banana tree. She must have been mistaken. I ran back to the group to clarify the direction.
“It’s behind the banana tree, right?” I asked, consternation enveloping my face.
Laughter roared through the air.
“Come, I will accompany you,” said Ibu Liertji, a huge smile across her face, as she led the way to the banana tree.
She continued, obviously delighting in my anxiety: “The ground absorbs everything for business number 1.”
My jaw dropped and Ibu Liertji let rip another fit of laughter.
“Don’t think about it. Just close your eyes and go,” was her matter-of-fact advice (said with a wide grin) in answering the call of nature with the very traditional toilet that we found at the top of Pintu Kota.
The business of the bathroom can be daunting for city slickers used to tiled water closets as the journey takes one further away from Ambon in Moluccas, an hour and 40+ minute airplane ride from Jakarta. Ambon is citified enough with its shopping malls (e.g. Ambon City Centre and Maluku City Mall), minor traffic snarls, and ubiquitous BreadTalk and JCo franchises. Telecommunications isn’t far behind unless you’re an XL subscriber in which case your hand phone signal drops intermittently or, worse, you’re in a dead zone when you leave the city. Ambon is full-on Telkomsel territory. Coffee-lovers would have to forego their Starbucks fix because you have to literally leave the island to get your Asian Dolce Latte or frappuccino. On a high note, Excelso assuages the caffeine fix which has one outlet at the Pattimura airport. Fast food lovers would have to contend themselves with KFC of which there are only two outlets operating throughout the island.
Going around the city is possible with angkot that puts the ones at Bekasi to shame. Ambon’s fleet of angkot is far from the array of dilapidated vehicles that ply the streets of Kalimalang. They’re well-tinted, fitted with cushioned and levelled seats, clean (the inside is dust free), shiny (good paint job), and with Ambonese music blaring from the huge speakers at the back. Ambon, after all, is the city of music. An alternative to the angkot is chartering an SUV – driver included – for a fee. There’s no listing for this; you just need to ask around. Petrol kiosks are far and between so entrepreneurial citizens have taken to selling gasoline packed in one-litre+ water bottles by the roadside.
The cityscape is a déjà vu of cityscapes in my memory bank. One night, on the way back to Amaris Hotel after a city tour, the panorama that opened before me pulled me back to a past trip to Daly City with its lights as the car sped on. The other time while I flashbacked to a jaunt along San Francisco on a turn in a serpentine road.
Moving away from Ambon city leads travellers to a vista of beauty that slowly peels away the layers of jadedness wrapped around the city slicker. Beaches are ever-present although the journeys might take longer than usual which, as this citified traveller discovered, were well worth it, vertigo and all. Natsepa is one of the beaches within Ambon city with little wooden huts dotting the shoreline all selling savoury snacks. They also provide shelter when brief and sporadic rain showers pelt Ambon. A stroll along Natsepa is invigorating – you inhale fresh sea air, marvel at the cottony landscape above, feel the sea wind brushing against your cheek, and exhale all the bullshit in your life. It’s beach therapy at its best.
Beach therapy continues at Pintu Kota although walking the shoreline and letting your feet sink into the sand is impossible. This time you ride the rolling waves vicariously as they rush to the shoreline like lovers running towards their reason for living. You gaze at the white foam billowing and fading like a CD on loop and synchronise your breathing with its rise and fall. A sense of marvel permeates the air which you breathe in and out slowly, and dissolves the egocentrism saran-wrapped to your mortality.
Namalatu beach is the last stop for the beach therapy. With the sun, wind, sand, and gentle waves, it’s a soothing meditative end to banishing the mean-spirited thoughts. You brim your soul with sangfroid and, channelling Eduardo Briceno’s philosophy, a growth mindset.
Liang beach, on the other hand, offers a different kind of beach therapy. It has a more frenzied less ruminative vibe than the past beaches. This is the beach to let loose: get on a banana boat, paddle in a catamaran, drift in a floater, or simply jump into the water. On dry land, lovers cuddle, others take selfies, and picnickers laze on the ground eating Popmie noodles, corn, and sukun bought from the roving vendors or kiosks.
Ambonese are huge foodies and topping their food list is seafood. Grilled seafood restaurants are a dime a dozen in Ambon. Décor-wise, some are better than others but the freshness of the fish is undeniably a standard well maintained by every restaurant owner. There’s always a huge icebox (freezer for those more sophisticated rumah bakar or grill house) that diners have to look into to choose the fish and shrimp to be grilled before heading to the table. Just like the icebox, each rumah bakar also serves its own version of the Ambonese sambal (roughly translated as sauce) called colo-colo (pronounced cholo-cholo) which is a mixture of hot chilli, sliced tomato, shallot, lime leaves, kawangi (basil), and palm sugar sauce. Kecap manis (sweet soy sauce) is a good substitute for the palm sugar. Colo-colo adds that flavourful kick to the palate once it collides with the grilled fish and rice. Also de rigueur in the rumah bakar is eating with one’s hand, but they do provide cutlery if you ask.
Snacking takes on a slightly different form. “The Ambonese don’t like sweet stuff, Ms,” explained Theresia Kafroly Sabono, true-blue Ambonese and my excursion group leader. “They prefer savoury snacks.”
By savoury snacks she meant sukun that resembles a jackfruit and has the texture of bread. It’s an addictive snack that would have you grabbing slice after slice of the deep fried bread fruit until there’s nothing left on the plate. Other snacks are boiled sweet corn, pisang goreng (banana fritters) smeared with or dipped in chilli sauce, and rujak. Rujak is chopped mixed fruits viz. papaya, mango, and pineapple, mixed with ground peanuts, chilli, and palm sugar. Sans the chilli paste, rujak doesn’t lose its flavour either. It’s just, well, sweeter.
The momentary jarring of sensibilities of a city slicker who lands at Ambon for the first time with the unsettling bathroom issue casting the first assault is a fleeting moment. It’s like a slight pinch on the arm that’s quickly forgotten the moment one opens up and takes in everything about Ambon – the landscape, food, the language (very different from the Indonesian spoken in Jakarta), and, not to forget, the gorgeous men with their strong, well-defined features.
“Danke Usi su baronda di Ambon,” said Theresia.*
“Saya menikmati baronda Ambon. Danke Usi Theresia,” I quipped proudly having picked up a little bit of Ambonese lingo.
* Thank you, Auntie, for going around Ambon.
Additional photos by Lidia Wagiu and Theresia Kafroly Sabono