Mare pottery

Mare (pronounced “Marr-ay”) is a small island, just 3 km long and 2km wide. It’s located to the south of the bigger island of Tidore, in the chain of active and inactive volcanoes that make up the province of North Maluku, Indonesia. 

Mare Island

Unlike other islands of the province, it has no cone-shaped volcano towering over it. The soil is poor, and not well suited to agriculture. 

There are only two small villages on the island: the fishing village of Marekofo at the south-western end, and Maregam at the northeast tip. The whole island only has a population of around 1000, all Muslim and ethnically Tidorese people.

Approaching Marekam Village from Tidore

It might be small, but it’s famous for its rustic pottery, produced by women in the village of Maregam, and traded by the men all around North Maluku and West Papua. They make dozens of different products. In particular, Mare sago bread ovens (forno or keta) and bura cooking pots are found in just about every kitchen in the province.

‘Welcome to Marekam Village’

We had the good fortune to visit Mare back in April, and to see the processes used in this ‘cottage industry’ to make pottery. It seems like just about every woman in the village is a potter.

Everyone we met in the village was very friendly, and very happy to explain their work to us – and to be photographed while doing it.

It all begins with the clay, which is collected by men from Maregam from four different locations on the island, the closest being on the small clifftop just behind the village. 

They carry it down to the village and leave it to dry for a few days, breaking it up into lumps. From this point on all the work is done by the women of Marekam. There’s even a belief that if men touch the softened clay after this stage, they’ll become infertile!

The clay is softened with water, any impurities (gravel or vegetable matter) are removed, and it is mixed with black sand collected from the beach.

A ball of the soft clay is formed and thrown onto a flat working surface to make a disk, then roughly moulded by hand into the approximate shape of the object being created. For round forms such as bowls and the cylindrical ‘leg’ (known as a toro) of a forno sago bread oven, the shape is formed using a basic potter’s wheel.

Toro handle being shaped on the base of an upturned forno

Apart from fingers, a small number of simple tools are used to assist in shaping the clay.

These (shown in pictures above and below) are:

  • a wooden paddle (jako), used to slap the ball of clay into the rough shape of the desired object
  • a round piece of coral, to shape the inside of bowls and other round objects
  • a metal ring cut from the end of an old flashlight
  • a short piece of pineapple leaf or split bamboo, used to form a smooth curved rim on the top of bowls etc
  • a seashell (Anadara sp.) which is used to shave excess clay from the outside of objects

The use of such simple tools is one reason for the rustic and very ‘handmade’ finish which is a characteristic of Mare pottery.

Pots are then ‘slipped’ with red soil collected from the nearby island of Halmahera, dried in the sun, and then roughly decorated by rubbing lines and spirals onto the outside with a piece of black volcanic rock.

Bura lids, each with a cylindrical toro handle

The firing of the pots isn’t done in an oven, but with a fire in the open air. The main fuel used is dried coconut husk. Firing is done fairly quickly, and at a relatively low temperature, which contributes to the somewhat fragile nature of Mare pots.

Forno (sago bread ovens). A forno with eight slots like these is called a ‘keta marebe tofkage’

A small proportion of the pottery produced in Mare is sold at the Soacio market on the adjacent island of Tidore. Women carry as many pots as they can manage on the ferry to Tidore, then travel up the east coast to Soacio market by minibus,

Finished forno, ready for sale

However most of the pottery is loaded onto larger vessels by men of the village, who then trade around villages on the islands of North Maluku and West Papua until all have been sold. These journeys can take them away from Mare for weeks or even months at a time.

Bura, ready for sale

Some products are custom made to match the preferences of specific markets, varying shapes and numbers of slots in the sago ovens to suit local taste.

Cooking fish in a clay pot with a small bura pot for a lid.
Wheat flour and egg pan cake, made in a frypan with a bura lid. The bura had been heated separately in the fire before being placed over the pot, thereby adding to the heat radiated onto the food.

Sincere thanks are due to the people of Marekam Village, Pulau Mare, Tidore Selatan, Maluku Utara, for their generous hosting of our visit, and to our wonderful guide Pak Bahar for getting us there and managing all the logistics.

Note: Most of the facts in this post – and all of the photos – were collected during the course of our visit. But I must also acknowledge a debt to the great article “Technological choices among maritime potter-traders: The Mare islanders of Northern Maluku” by Akira Goto. (In Coexistence and Cultural Transmission in East Asia. Routledge, New York, 2011)

Halmahera mudcakes

Did you ever ‘bake’ mudcakes as a child? I don’t know whether Australian kids still do it – perhaps they have too many other less messy things to do. However, in at least one a village on the island of Halmahera (Maluku Utara, Indonesia) the craft is definitely still alive and well.

The floral decorations were a very nice touch.

The girls were at first a little embarrassed by our interest in their ‘cooking’, but laughed when we asked if we could eat some of the biscuits, and soon were showing them off proudly, and posing for us with their mothers.

Wallace’s standardwing

There is nothing ‘standard’ about the bird known as “Wallace‘s standardwing” (Semioptera wallacii). Actually it gets its name because the wings of the male bird are anything but ‘standard’. It has two long white plumes extending from the top of each wing which, when raised during display, vaguely resemble military pennants (sometimes called ‘standards’).

The Standardwing is a species of bird-of-paradise, found only on the North Maluku islands of Moratai, Bacan and Halmahera – which is where we encountered it. It’s named ‘Wallace’s standardwing’ in recognition of the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, who in 1858 was the first European to describe it.

Back in April we witnessed this display in the Akatajewe Lolobata National Park on the island of Halmahera. We set out at 4:00am from the ranger’s house where we were boarding, trekking for two hours through primary forest along a partially overgrown path. At that time, and under the dense canopy, it was quite dark, and we certainly needed our headlamps to make our way through.

Sounds from the forest (tweets, squawks, whistles, rattles and hoots) hinted at an abundance of life waking up around us.

Along the way, we disturbed a Black-chinned whistler (Pachycephala mentalis) and a pair of Shining flycatchers (Myiagra alecto) who were asleep on branches beside the path.

Every dawn during mating season, a large number of male birds assemble in a treetop location and display their plumage, flitting from branch to branch in a frenzy, flapping wings, biting on the branches and squawking. This behaviour, which I now know to be called a ‘lek’, is either designed to impress the females (how could they resist?) or to establish a hierarchy of breeding rights amongst the males. Whatever the function – it’s quite a performance.

We watched and photographed the birds for an hour or so, enthralled by all of the action above. Then we paused for breakfast as the lek seemed to be winding down. But at that moment two male Standardwings began noisily fighting above us and, locked together in a tight wrestling embrace, they fell about 20 metres from the treetop and plummeted to the ground near us. One flew away, but the other was quite stunned by the fall, and we nursed it until it had recovered enough to fly away again.

But it wasn’t until we returned some hours later that we could appreciate the full grandeur the landscape through which we had travelled.

We finally arrived at a rocky knoll where the lek takes place, just as the dawn light was gradually brightening.

Our encounter with the Standardwings was a great and memorable experience, and well worth getting up for the pre-dawn hike. We were ably guided by Pak Bahar, Park Ranger extraordinaire Pak Roji and his son Anggie. Sarapan dibungkus (yellow rice, chicken, veggies and sambal) was kindly provided by Ibu Ena. Big thanks to them all for making it possible.

Coconut harvesting

Next time you open a can of coconut milk (or sip on coconut water or perhaps enjoy a lamington crusted with crumbs of desiccated coconut), spare a thought for the people who harvest the coconuts.

In some places, mature fruit is cut from the smaller palms (Cocos nucifera) using a long bamboo pole with a blade on the end.

In parts of Thailand, trained macaques are used to climb and remove the coconuts. In other locations (e.g. New Guinea) they often just wait for the fruit to fall naturally.

But in Indonesia, which is the largest producer worldwide, the usual method is for plantation workers to free climb to the top of the palms (which can be up to 25 metres tall) and cut the coconuts off with a long knife, dropping them to the ground below.

Safety harnesses are rarely used.

For copra production, it’s best to harvest the coconuts at about 12 months after flowering. So, to optimise production, each palm is climbed about once every six weeks.

The trunk of the palm has notches cut into it to facilitate the climb. But it’s hard and dangerous work, and serious injuries and deaths are all too common.

Sago

Sago starch is produced from several species of palm, but mainly from the ‘True sago palm’ (Metroxylon sagu), which originated on the islands of Maluku and New Guinea. Now it is found cultivated in equatorial regions around the world. It is still a major food source in some communities, especially in Papua, Maluku and Sulawesi, and was even more important in the times before rice cultivation arrived in Indonesia. Sago (called ‘sagu’ in Indonesia) is very high in carbohydrates (about 94%), but low in protein and mineral content.

The sago palm thrives in swampy locations, and tolerates soil conditions (poor nutrients, heavy clays, high concentrations of metallic elements) that would kill other plants. It grows to 15 metres high, and spreads by suckering. It doesn’t branch, and after about 12 years a mature sago palm stem will produce one large umbrella-like flower head, and the entire stem dies off after fruit has matured. The starch content of the sago palm is highest just before the flowers open – so this is when the stem is cut down and harvested.

Back in April we were fortunate to chance upon some men harvesting sago. They were more than happy to demonstrate the process of production – and to be photographed while doing so. 

Sago palms are widespread on the Moluccan island of Halmahera.

The tall sago trunk, 30-40cm in diameter, is chopped down, cut into lengths and laid flat on an open area of ground.

Two men rasp the truck to break down the pith into coarse crumbs, pushing backwards and forwards with a 2m plank through which a large number heavy nails have been hammered.

Sago trunk showing pithy interior

During this stage they may also find that red palm weevils (Rhynchophorus ferrugineus) have bored into the trunk. These are larvae of a variety of ‘snout beetle’, which is regarded as a major pest in plantations of coconut, oil palm and dates.

However in Halmahera these 2-4cm long grubs are prized as a delicacy, and they are carefully extracted from the holes they have drilled into the trunk, and put aside for later consumption.

The ground pith from the trunk is transferred in batches into a long tub, which has itself been formed out of a large palm frond.

Water is bucketed into the tub, and the mixture is vigorously kneaded and squeezed to extract a solution of starch from the fibrous material of the trunk.

The tub is raised at one end, and the starchy liquid runs out the other end, filtered through a coarse cloth which removes any remaining fibres.


This solution falls into a large settling tub (which was made out of an old canoe!), where it is left for a time for the heavier sago starch to sediment down to the bottom. The water is drained off the top, and paste of starch is removed and dried ready for use.


Sago may be ‘pearled’ to produce the familiar little sago beads. But on Halmahera it is mostly baked in a clay ‘forna’ to produce a long-lasting bread called ‘sagu lempeng’, or little hard cakes known as ‘bagea’. Also, in something of a regional speciality, sago flour is boiled to make a clear gelatinous porridge known as ‘papeda’. The papeda has little flavour of its own, and so is usually eaten in a soup along with fish, sambal and vegetables.

Fruits of Kalimantan

Just some of the special fruits of Kalimantan – three types of durian, mangosteen, rambutan, chempedak, langsat, and a rare variety of mango. Some of these are rarely seen outside the island of Borneo.

All are delicious, and grow at the Kebun Raya Balikpapan.

Durio dulcis
Lahung, durian hutan
Forest durian

Durio zibethinus
Durian

Durio kutajensis
Lae, Durian hutan
Forest durian

Artocarpus integer
Cempedak

Lansium parasiticum
Langsat

Nephelium lappaceum
Rambutan

Mangifera torquenda
Asam putaran

Garcinia mangostana
Manggis
Mangosteen

Ready to eat….

Durian season (again!) in Tewang Rangkang

 

Durian!

Yes, durian! Loved by many as the Raja Buah (the ‘King of Fruit’), and reviled by others as stinky and disgusting. I’m a durian lover, and can’t comprehend those who aren’t. Perhaps it’s a genetically determined hypersensitivity?

 

There are around 30 species of durian, at least nine of which are considered to be edible. The durian genus is native to the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, with many growing wild here, and referred to as durian hutan (‘forest durian’).

LOTS of edible durian are produced in Kalimantan. Some of the best ones grow along the middle reaches of the Katingan River in Central Kalimantan, upstream from the town of Kasongan. Our favourite Dayak Ngaju village of Tewang Rangkang sits right in the middle of that zone. We were delighted to return there last month for a short stay during harvest season.

In Tewang Rangkang (as in almost all Dayak villages), the houses line up in a row along the riverbank. Behind the houses are areas where chickens and pigs are kept, and areas (often quite extensive) of fruit trees – especially durian. Further away (and across the river) are areas used for ladang dry rice cultivation.

There are no fences around the individual durian orchards, but everyone knows exactly who owns which trees. Each orchard is marked by a the presence of a pondok (hut), further asserting ownership. During harvest season (December – January) the pondoks are occupied day and night, with family members taking turns to stand guard over the orchard.

Pak Dahuk and Ibu Wanie have built a new pondok since we were there in 2015. It’s a solid structure, with an even more solid roof, so that there is no risk of getting beaned by a falling durian.

Not all pondoks are quite so grand. Some appear decidedly impermanent.

And others, like Pak Etiu’s pondok, are somewhere in between.

The stated intention of the pondoks is to protect the durian harvest from pilferers, because the fruit are quite valuable.

But actually there is actually little or no theft, and we think that the villagers just enjoy a special time of year when a large proportion of the population ‘camps out’ in the forest, cooking and eating and sleeping under the trees, and visiting their friends and neighbours residing in neighbouring pondoks.

And collecting the durian fruit as they fall to ground from the tall trees.

A mature durian fruit can weigh three kilos, and the rind is covered with characteristic hard sharp spikes. The word duri actually means ‘thorn’. A fruit falling tens of metres onto one’s head could potentially be fatal. Even the ground gets scarred by the impact of falling fruit.

I had one land a couple of metres away from me, with no warning but a colossal thump – and so I quickly retreated back under the shelter of the pondok roof.

Apart from collecting fruit and socialising, there’s work to do out in the pondok. Led by Ibu Wanie, everyone helps to prepare large quantities of dodol durian – for consumption, gifts and sale.

The durian flesh is removed from dozens of fresh fruit, and cooked up in a very large pan over a slow fire along with coconut milk, glutinous riceflour and gula aren (palm sugar derived from the aren palm). After hours of simmering and near-continuous stirring, a thick dark red-brown fudge-like paste is produced. It is delicious.

After production of dodol durian, and quite a bit of feasting along the way, there is a large a growing pile of discarded durian husks.

But it’s not just durian trees. The vegetation around many Dayak villages may at first glance appear to be secondary forest regrowth. But closer inspection reveals that almost every herb, shrub and tree has some productive value. So there are all sorts of fruit trees: bananas, papaya, langsat, mango, guava. And of course many coconut palms.

And rambutans – all in fruit at the same time as the durian.

And mangosteen.

Pak Itiu shins up the mangosteen tree to collect fruit.

And meanwhile, back at the pondok, there’s time for a group portrait.

Desa Tewang Rangkang

Tewang Rangkang is a Dayak Ngaju village which stretches along a couple of bends of the Katingan River. It’s about an hour’s drive north of Kasongan in Central Kalimantan.

Since 2014 we have been frequent visitors. We’ve been privileged to stay there as guests of our wonderful Dayak Ngaju friends Mbak Lelie Liana, Pak Dahuk, Ibu Wanie Manur, Mbak Susi, Om Indra and Tante Hente – and their (very) extended families. Over those many visits we’ve witnessed manugal (communal rice planting) in 2014 and 2015, rice harvest, tiwah funeral ceremonies in 2014 and 2017, other family ceremonies – and durian harvest in 2015. 

Dipterocarpus

Dipterocarpus is a large genus of tall trees (around 70 species) found across South-East Asia. Locally, they are commonly referred to as ‘Keruing’.

Dipterocarpus confertus

These are big trees, growing to 40 or 50 metres at their full height, and they form a big part of the upper canopy of the forests here, or stick out above the other canopy trees as ‘emergents’. Interestingly, the seeds will only germinate in shade, and for the first several years the young trees don’t tolerate direct sunlight.

Dipterocarpus tempehes

They thrive on the lowland, yellow leached clay soils that are common across much of Borneo. So much so that in fact that the lowland tropical forest is often just called ‘Dipterocarpus forest’, due to the predominance of ‘Keruing’ trees. However they always form part of a mixed forest, with other tall trees (meranti, pulai, ulin, bangris etc) also abundant, and which compete for sunlight in the upper canopy.

Dipterocarpus cornutus

They flower here in October, the mature trees producing masses of large, attractive pink-and white blooms.

Flowers of Dipterocarpus confertus

The scientific (Latin) name ‘Dipterocarpus’ means ‘two-winged fruit’. The fruits develop during the early part of the wet season (November – December), with the seeds falling in January. Their ‘wings’ are 20cm or more long, and when the seeds fall from the tree, they can spiral down, helicopter-style, and may be carried by the wind to some distance from the parent tree.

Seeds of Dipterocarpus confertus

They are valuable hardwood timber trees, and the even-grained, somewhat resinous timber has many uses, although it is susceptible to termites. Resin from the live trees was and sometimes still is collected by local people to use for water-proofing and as a source of light.

Dipterocarpus confertus seeds, almost ready to drop

Due to massive loss of habitat (logging, conversion of forest for plantations of oil palms or other timber trees etc), most if not all of the Dipterocarpus species are now classed by the IUCN as being ‘Critically endangered).

Flowers of Dipterocarpus tempehes

At the Kebun Raya Balikpapan we have 58 trees from three species in the ‘official’ collection (D. confertus, D. cornutus, and D. tempehes), though three other species (D. elongatus, D. oblongifolius and D. retusus) have also been collected.

Flowers and leaf of Dipterocarpus confertus