In his article “the Death of Awe in the Age of Awesome” Henry Wismayer contemplates why the overexposure of the modern world has left many of us feeling, frankly, a little underwhelmed by everything. “Travel, for many of us has become a means to resuscitate that sense of humbling incomprehension” that our forebears felt witnessing some natural phenomena they didn’t understand. Those writing in the field of tourism studies point to a theory similar to Wismayer’s: that one of the main incentives underlying modern travel is a search for that missing sense of awe, the one that got lost amidst the selfies and the endless repetition of predictable tourist attractions. Wismayer sees this modern search for meaning through travel as making us into “refugees from the mundane,” which, not coincidentally, is similar to early social scientific definitions of a pilgrim engaging in a spiritual journey.
Wismayer points to media saturation as part of this disillusionment with the world at large, asking us when was the last time we went somewhere special without seeing a photo of it first. The tourism industry depends on providing the consumer with pre-departure images and imaginings, selling us a way of “seeing” before we ever encounter what is to be seen. It’s difficult to escape this cycle of priming our expectations, as each vista we encounter is a simulacrum of the last, standardized by our expectation of how it will look cropped and filtered and circulated on social media. Even as we stand in the moment we are decontextualizing what we are seeing in our minds, transforming it into a signifier of where we’ve been, of who we are for being there, what others will think when they see us there - nostalgic for the moment before it has even passed. The immediacy of place has lost its sway over us because we are always, essentially, somewhere else.
Tourists encounter not just places that exist, but places that they imagine, and in a media-saturated world the reality of the encounter can seem a bit anemic when compared to the high-res version we hold in our minds like a kind of talisman ensuring how good things will be when we get there.
As little as we like to admit, anthropologists and tourists are of the same ilk. We both travel to places ostensibly to gain experience, and learn things about this undifferentiated mass of the world that is “somewhere else." Instead of imagining what we want to see, or consuming culture as a product for our entertainment, the anthropologist wants to see from the inside out, trying to move from an observer to a participant in a social sleight of hand that is often neither simple or entirely successful. We seek our refuge from the mundane in the lives of others.
It was this impulse that led me to take an invitation to camp out for a night on a tiny, uninhabited rocky island at the mouth of the bay in front of Banda Neira called Pulau Karaka, or Crab Island. In researching attitudes about tourism and the impact of a new phase of tourism-centered development on this small chain of islands in Maluku, I’d wandered into the territory of adat and ancestors, a very different landscape than the one visible to your average tourist. This Banda was a place inhabited by creatures we cannot always see, but who make themselves known under certain circumstances. Unlike American concepts of things of the spirit, where ghosts seem to appear as if from another place or time, spirits in Indonesia have a much more immediate relationship with their human counterparts. They too are part of the real world, and have places of their own built into the landscape.
The most notable of these in the Banda islands are the keramat, described as graves of important ancestors who can appear to living humans as orang halus. Some of the keramat are linked to specific ancestors, such as the wali who brought knowledge of Islam to the islands, but others seemed to have less specific associations. The keramat are still part of the ritual practice, consulted before any major cultural events, like the ritual known as “opening the village” (buka kampung). My friend Andi told me that many people still practiced Islam “in the old way,” explaining that they prayed at the keramat and not at the mosque. “Do the ancestors help with things?” I asked. “That’s what we used to do,” he said “but we know now that it’s wrong. We just go to the keramat to remember them, to pay our respects."
I was curious if I had learned enough to sink into the local landscape and to encounter some of these other inhabitants for myself. For many, the activities of the spirit realm seemed to be swirling about us all the time, flowing through human conduits in the form of ilmu that could be used for harm or good. Another friend had confided in me that his schoolmate’s father had recently woken from sleep with something sitting on his chest, choking him. He was unable to move. He was finally able to grab the figure’s arm, but when he made contact with the figure he experienced an excruciating burning sensation. The next thing he remembered he had been flung across the room, cracking his head open on the wall. “Sounds like sleep paralysis,” I said, launching into an explanation of the many names used for that feeling of some presence standing in your room while you sleep, or sitting on your chest, rendering you unable to move. My friend listened politely, and then explained that this attack was clearly something different. He understood the event as the physical manifestation of jealousy over this man’s newly successful business. The boat that he used for the business was moored on the neighboring island of Rhun, the very same piece of land that had once been traded for Manhattan when the Banda Islands were the center of the world’s spice trade. The people of Rhun are notorious for their ilmu, he said, and prone to using magic to gain the upper hand.
We left for Karaka in the late afternoon, just as the lengthening rays of the sun started to soften the harsh angles of the jutting, craggy rocks where Banda Neira island points to the open ocean towards Ambon. The waters between the volcanic Gunung Api and Banda Neira are calm, as the channel is protected by the land masses around it. Passing the end of Banda Neira, the waves picked up, and as our little boat sidled up the barnacle-covered rocks we gingerly hoisted each other up the slippery sides as the prow bobbed in the waves. With a few boxes of full of fishing and cooking gear and a simple tent, we passed what looked to be an old foundation for a small house facing Banda Neira, and then crested the hill in the middle of the island to set up camp facing the open sea. The center of Karaka was smoldering from a recent brushfire that had been put out by the local fisherman, so we cleared the brush from the rocky area between the hill the and beach where we intended to set up camp. Since the vegetation flanking the path in the center of the island was still smoldering, I climbed over the rocks along the shore, reaching the other end of the island in about ten minutes. There I found huge pillars of black volcanic rock shooting out from the sea in oddly geometric patterns, attesting to the violence of Gunung Api’s explosive power. The spill of lava from Gunung Api’s 1988 eruption was still devoid of any greenery, disappearing into the water across from where I hopped the gaps between the black columns of rock twenty feet above the churning waves. My friends, some teachers and students from a local high school, went out fishing for our dinner, leaving me to wander about and swim into a sunset dripping with colors I had no name for, until the reef grew too dark for me to see what was swimming up from below.
Later that evening, nearing half past eleven, Andi and I sat on the rocky shore, staring at the dying campfire where we had roasted our dinner. A few embers could still be seen glowing softly on the hillside behind us as the tide crept towards the edge of our camp. We had spent the evening eating fresh grilled fish and kangkung, laughing about the funny differences between people from Maluku and Sulawesi, and at my failure to recognize the difference between types of fishing boats. No one talked of the superstitions about the island, and no one had stumbled on any keramat during the afternoon’s activities. Our biggest worry was the few spots where smoke could still be seen on the hill behind us, as we occasionally heard the pop and crackle of small fires reigniting in the brush.
On the far side of the island facing away from the deep channel where ships have entered the bustling port of Banda Neira island for hundreds of years, we were witness only to the open sea and the lazy rotation the of a small lighthouse on another nearby collection of exposed rock. Blocked from any of the light emanating from the port, it was as if the sky and the land were reversed, milky blocks of galaxies creating depth against the closer stars, like a landscape one could step into. Our companions were asleep and all was quiet in that breathless way that comes at night on a calm sea. The fishing canoes that trawled the reef all afternoon had gone in for the night.
Content listening to the sound of the waves, we chatted occasionally and chucked stones at the sea. The tide was still rising so we moved closer to the fire, facing the hill. As if someone had switched on a spotlight, the area behind our camp abutting the hill was suddenly, strangely illuminated. For a moment I thought that someone must have been shining a light from the top of the hill, since the angle of the light came from above, widening to circle at the bottom. As my brain tried to make sense of what I was seeing, I realized that the spotlight had lights within it – several flat discs of blue light spaced evenly around the edges of the illuminated area. After a moment, the light began to move, slowing canvassing in a wider circle around the flat area above our camp, as though looking for something. I started to ask Andi something along the lines of “what the hell is that,” but the words didn’t quite come out. We were both frozen where we sat. He started chuckling nervously and whispered, “I told you!” At that point all I could manage to do was hiss at him to shut up. I was suddenly afraid of making too much noise, and aware that all the hair on my arms was standing on end. The light continued to slowly move, the blue discs roughly a few heads above us ten feet behind the campsite. Again, I tried to make sense of what could be generating the light, noting that despite being aimed at the ground, its range seemed to stop a few feet above it.
After ten seconds of slow rotation, long enough for me to start looking up and around for anything that could logically explain what was going on, the light was extinguished as abruptly as it had appeared. As if on cue, a tree behind the campsite burst into flame, and I finally scrambled to my feet. With the departure of the strange glow, the tension was released, and Andi and I started to giggle nervously as I finally was able to croak out “what the hell was that?”
Andi suggested we bank the fire so we could see what was going on. We gathered up some more dry palm and coconut husks until the campsite was illuminated again to the edge of the hill, where a small path wound around from the opposite shore. I was half convinced, at that point, that there must be someone else on the island. But there had been no sound of an approaching engine, or anything overhead, meaning that someone would have had to paddle in to catch us off guard.
I thought a heard someone cough, or something rustling, but the island was alive with the sounds of the hundreds of hermit crabs that determinedly scuttle through the dry palm fronds lining the shore. It seemed neither of us were ready to breach the subject of what that thing really was out loud, so I asked Andi to grab the flashlight so we could walk up the path cresting the hill to see If there were any boats on visible from the other side of the hill. There were no boats that we could see with the naked eye from shore. “There isn’t anyone here, Kel,” Andi said, giving me a look that said I should know better.
I was less frightened than I was taken aback at the physical reaction the encounter caused. My skin was still contracted and tingling from a rush of adrenaline. I had no imminent feeling of danger, no sense of foreboding. It was as though my body and brain couldn’t incorporate the strangeness of what we had seen into into a clear and bounded experience, and my blood was pulsing with bewilderment.
We settled back next to the fire, and as my breathing slowed I wondered again what we saw, and why it was so off-putting. As my fight or flight impulses ebbed, I started to feel a pleasant stupor, my eyes growing heavy as I stared into the fire. What we had seen lay unspoken between us, and I felt that I couldn’t, or shouldn’t, speak about it aloud.
I moved towards the sandy strip at the shore as the fire dimmed, surprised that I was still looking forward to sleeping in the open. The only acknowledgement of the strange events of the evening was that Andi had laid our machete in its scabbard carefully within reach. I smiled to myself as I drifted off, thinking that metal and wood was probably not going to be particularly useful for the kind of visitor I was imagining might be heralded by that strange light.
Sometime in the early hours before dawn, when the night and the horizon have begun their slow exchange of light, I found myself awake, stiff from lying on the ground. Trying to focus my eyes, I was startled to see what I thought was someone standing between the tent and the shore to the left of our camp. As I went to lift my head to call out in a whisper I paused, again sensing that something was not as it appeared at first glance. I had a strong urge to stay still, focusing on the snores of my friends in the tent. I cracked my eyes a little further, still half asleep but cataloging the not-quite rightness of whatever was there;. It was a human-like shape with limbs that seemed not fully formed, opaque pale skin that seemed to be strangely bright in the dark, the vague suggestion of a head with a smooth, featureless face. It did not move or make a sound. I thought maybe I was dreaming, but the rocks poking uncomfortably into my hip said otherwise. Or maybe my brain was projecting an afterimage, a reaction to the emotions brought up by the earlier disturbance. The figure seemed sad, or resigned, but I had no desire to investigate it more closely. I also didn’t care for it to investigate me either. I closed my eyes.
Dawn warmed me awake on the shore, and I sat in the purple light of morning watching the boats nose back out over the reef. My fellow campers went off to cast a few more lines in hopes of snagging another couple of fish to take home. I halfheartedly poked around near the tree that had burst into flame so spectacularly the night before, wondering if what we had seen was some refraction of firelight through glass or other detritus around the beach, even though that explanation made little sense. All I found was the blackened trunk, still warm to the touch.
We cleaned up camp quickly as one of the student’s parents came to pick us up. Andi and I said nothing to our friends about what we had seen. Skimming back over the glassy water towards Malole beach, we heard distant voices and the thrum of oars hitting the surface of the water in a staccato beat. The men of Tanah Rata Village were guiding their new belang swiftly towards the shore, returning from practice for the upcoming races. Their chant carried clear and strong over the calm water.
Back on Banda Neira later that afternoon, I stood on the cliff near the island’s small runway, overlooking where Karaka’s small, dark shape gives way to the open sea. The caretaker for the island’s only museum found me there on her afternoon walk, and I told her I had experienced something out of the ordinary on the island the night before. She said that as a child she used to picnic there with other families from her village, and that at one point in recent memory, a family had lived there, coming back to Banda Neira only occasionally for supplies. I told her I thought we had seen the ruins of their small house the night before while crossing to our campsite. People avoided the island now, she said, because of an oft-recounted incident involving a police officer who was drunk on the island and allegedly disturbed a keramat. Diving for the anchor of his boat the next morning, he didn’t come back up, although he was not stuck on anything under the water, according to those who dove down after him. “Something held him under,” she said. Efforts to revive the officer were unsuccessful, and the island has been considered spiritually potent ever since. I asked her if she thought it was a dangerous place, even for an outsider like me. “It’s all about your intentions,” she said after gazing at the island for a moment. “if you have niat baik, you’ll be fine. It’s people with bad intentions who get hurt.” The land sees us too, I thought.
Perhaps our capacity for awe is dimmed as we experience the world primarily as a collection of visuals, pictures of pictures, where the difference between what is presented and what is re-presented is increasingly meaningless. We forget that seeing is a social and cultural experience as much as a physical one, a sense refracted off the edges of our social worlds. Without relationships, our view will always be limited, reflecting only what we bring to it, something we’ve seen before no matter where we go. Or maybe we have narrowed our vision so far to fit within the bounds of our expectations that we’ve obliterated anything that falls outside the frame.
For weeks after returning home from Banda, I dreamed of the sea. Dreams so vivid that I woke gasping and disoriented. I wonder if whatever inhabits Karaka can see me from afar, just as I can see the island when I close my eyes.