Saturday, 26th September 2020

Paul Spencer Sochaczewski

Searching for Enigmas

Posted on 07. Apr, 2010 by in Articles, Personal essays

Searching for Enigmas

It’s everywhere, it’s nowhere, it’s dancing in three-quarter time


Some people with stardust in their eyes and too much red wine in their veins spend their lives searching for Atlantis or Eldorado.  Other adventurers windsurf across the Pacific.  Yet other men and women seek an elusive metaphor, like Peter Mathiessen’s snow leopard.

I have a simpler quest.  I’m looking for “Waltzing Banana Island.”

“Waltzing Banana Island,” or to put it in its correct Indonesian-French nomenclature “Pulau Valse Pisang,” is a tiny speck of land in far eastern Indonesia. My search for the island is devoid of socially-redeeming value; I’m simply intrigued how it got its name.  A misspelling of the Dutch “valsche,” which would make it the “False Banana Island”? A secret hideaway for Carmen Miranda? An abundance of fruit trees, or a crescent-shape? Or, more romantically,  maybe it was named by French explorers aboard the Astrolabe who charted eastern Indonesian waters in the mid-19th-century.  Since the banana is a euphemism throughout Indonesia for the male sexual organ, perhaps the lonely French sailors found the local lovelies tres charmantes, musically-inclined and welcoming.

 * * *

 How did this quest begin?

Several years ago I was glancing at a map of eastern Indonesia and saw a rather large title for Pulau Valse Pisang.  The land mass it related to was just a pin-prick.  Why such big type for such a tiny land mass? And why such a peculiar name?

 * * *

There are certainly worse travel strategies than to visit places with evocative names that purr with history and incense:  There’s Sumatra, Java and Borneo; Malacca, Mandalay and Makassar; Pondicherry, Kathmandu and Ayudhya.  Not to mention the rivers: Ganges and Yangtze, Mahakam and Mekong.

And Pulau Valse Pisang.

But before I could see for myself, I had to find it.

First stop was London’s Royal Geographical Society, where I pored over old maps and atlases.  Some of the tattered Dutch charts listed the place with the French-inspired “valse.” But confusingly, some of the English maps used the Dutch word “valsche.”  About 50-50.

The most helpful source was the “Official Standard Names for Indonesia,” which was published by the CIA in February 1968.  This phonebook-thick tome lists several Valse Pisang islands.  The one I decided was my Dancing Banana island is at S 2° 08′ – E 130°   54’.

This happens to be at the southern edge of a region known as Raja Ampat, a vast sea off the western coast of the island of New Guinea, dotted with islands and home to the world’s richest coral reefs.

I enquired about live-aboard diving boats, but the boat operators said they didn’t go specifically to my island and that if I wanted to make a special stop I’d have to hire the entire boat for a ten-day cruise.

Then I heard about Misool Eco-Resort, a new dive-oriented hotel just an hour from the object of my quest.

With Marit Miners, one of the directors, I visited Fanfalap, a village of 200 that claims jurisdiction over the islands.  “Nope, our control doesn’t include your island,” Ahmad, the head of the village, patiently explained. “And no, we have no idea why it’s called by that odd name.”

But I had the coordinates and Marit organized a group dive to the island.

We got out the GPS and approached. But the CIA in its wisdom, only listed the location to the minute, not to the second.  Our boat arrived at the CIA coordinates. We were in the middle of the dark azure sea, about half-a-kilometer equidistant between two islands. The island to the north was the large and well-known Pulau Daram. The smaller, idyllic-appearing island to the south, about 200 meters long, I decided, was my oceanic grail.

To celebrate I dived into the water, and was startled, then pleased, to see a hawksbill turtle swim by.  It wasn’t too large, about the size of a pizza.  Turtles can be just turtles, but they can be omens and cosmic messengers, and in my semi-sun-burned state I chose to belief that this reptile was gliding around for a purpose.

As I was swimming, I thought that maybe the CIA-indicated location was correct, and the island was a covert CIA installation hidden deep below the surface, like a secret redoubt of a villain in a James Bond movie.  After all, it was the CIA that provided the coordinates.

We went ashore and my island (by now I had become more than a little protective of it) was a delight, with three white sand beaches and palms. A fisherman was on the beach, taking a break, and I asked him what the name of the island was. “Pulau Pinang” he said, referring to the name of a common palm tree.  And where was Pulau Valse Pisang?  “Oh, that’s far away.  Really far.”

Never mind.  I had taken an executive decision that this island was the one, and I was happy.  But just for a while.

Then I had another thought, triggered by the earlier turtle sighting.

Perhaps my Pulau Valse Pisang island is transient and therefore everywhere, sort of like an itinerant deity that enjoys creating geographical conundrums.

Indonesian culture and belief systems are what the anthropologists call syncretic.  In a huge over-simplification, ancient Indonesians started with various forms of animism and mysticism, then, like a hoarder they didn’t throw anything away.  The accumulative Indonesians added layers of Vedic traditions, then Hindu, then Buddhist, then Moslem, even notions of Christianity and the modern religions of nation-building and consumerism.  From my viewpoint, the Hindu tradition is one of the most interesting.  Hindu mythology recognizes that Kurma, the second avatar of Vishnu, was a celestial turtle who played an invaluable role in churning the sea of milk to produce the nectar of immortality (it’s complicated).   Perhaps my Dancing Banana Island continually swims the oceans on its sacred turtle, gracefully waving its flippers in three-quarters time.