As we voyaged through the Banda Sea of East Indonesia, local officialdom has treated us with the laissez-faire attitude yachts are used to. When we reached Seram, however, we were 100 miles from Ambon, where 5,000 people were recently killed in clashes between Muslims and Christians. At the lovely little island group of Banda the Muslims were waiting for the Ambonese refugees to go home so their Christian citizens could reclaim their homes. Still, it was such a friendly town, obviously also waiting for its tourists to come back, that we allowed ourselves to be lulled into forgetfulness. Seram greeted us tumultuously – first yachts at Tehoru, etc. We sailed along the south coast of the large, magnificently treed island, whose orang asli (indigenous people) believe they can fly.
Bypassing the big industrial town of Amahai for a small bay where the sailing directions assured us we’d find depths shallow enough to anchor. Our expectations have narrowed; anything less than 30 meters is appreciated in these waters; and after cruising along Telluk Meruru a quarter mile off without soundings, we finally perched on a slope of sand and coral rubble.
I had a swim and we were taking popcorn and drinks up into the cockpit when two men climbed over our stern rail. We hadn’t seen their canoes approach. Appropriate Indonesian rarely comes on cue, and as the lead man in army pants oozed toward the cockpit we yelled, “Who are you?” He didn’t really answer, except to say his name was Dominic, or Domingo. We’re used to being mobbed by the curious, and even to people climbing aboard. If he was a legitimate headman, we needed to treat him decently but we didn’t trust him. He slid closer, trying to look into our cabin. “No! Tidak.” Suddenly he jumped up. “You have gun?” he asked. No, no gun. He sat back down.
Our Australian friends had arrived so the boat bristled with egos. We tried giving Domingo our cruising permit; other than being impressed by a General’s signature, he wasn’t interested. He said we needed an invitation to stay here, and asked for money. Safe money. He wanted us to name the “small amount” we would give him, but we learned to avoid that pitfall back in the Caribbean. When he did name a price, Trish said, “That’s more than we paid the Indonesian government,” and I brought up a bill that was 1/5 as much. He laughed, said “dua,” two of them.
But by this time a third passing fisherman had climbed aboard, and whether Dominic simply wanted money or had authority or was a passing thug, none of us figured we’d be safe here. All right, that’s it. We’re leaving. I took my note back from Domingo, turned on the engine switches and saying “Maaf, permisi,” squeezed past the visitors to the wheel. They hadn’t thought we were serious but I had no pity. My last vision of Dominic was tumbling from our dinghy into his friend’s canoe and they were gone. Later we found their painter, a length of light fishing line tied to our rail.
There was just enough daylight to motor slowly away from this unfriendly coast. It was a crowded sea, with floating bamboo platforms, dugouts fishing with nets by lantern, fast ferries to Ambon, and eleven dark hours to go 16 miles. We set a waypoint in open water and once there, turned engines off and drifted. Thunderstorms boomed and squalls puffed up when we passed under the night wind front, otherwise the calm was eerie. At daylight we turned engines on for Nusa Laut, and when a motorized canoe sped up to Auspray, we turned gunshy (hah!) but the boatman was just warning us away from a net.
It was a relief to sail into Nilahia, a calm bowl surrounded by deep forest with a village topped by a new church with a red roof perched alpine-like on the steep slope. We had a visit from a sergeant and corporal of the Indonesian territorial army. They assured us they were Protestants, which after Domingo didn’t sound like such a recommendation, asked if we had been boarded and searched, and then if we carried guns. That g-word again. But we picked them up from the beach, and their smiles &mdash well, we saw them as trustworthy. And the first thing they did was show their IDs. The markers to “safety” are not always the obvious.