When you are getting battered from all sides long enough, a small voice tells you at some point its time to stop swimming upstream, step out of the river and get your head together. As Chinese New Year approached, a four-day weekend for our school, I was mulling around a few travel options. Sarah had already decided to stay home with the kids but was graciously encouraging me to go somewhere, perhaps tag along with some friends and sort myself out. I just couldn’t quite put my finger on what I needed. The morning before vacation began, I woke up with a nagging urge to just drop off the planet. I opened my computer, dove to the Lion Air website (a cheap Indonesian airline that covers much of the archipelago), clicked on their routes map, and looked for their most remote destination. Straight across the country from Jakarta, just south of the Papuan Bird’s Head Peninsula and on the northern edge of the mystical sounding Arafura Sea, was the word “Tual”. The spick of land was so small, the labeling dot spread completely over it. Damn it, that’s where I would go. After getting clearance from Sarah, who was already rubbing her hands together at the potential for reciprocity through Internet shopping, I bought my surprisingly cheap tickets after work to fly out the next night.
But first back on the computer to find out where I was to spend the next four days. Apparently, Tual is the town center for the Kei Islands (pronounced as the letter K), a southern group of the Maluku archipelago and a place I had never heard of before. There is little development in this region, making it one of the final frontiers of Indonesia. The Kei Islands have very little visitor accommodation, just a few cheap, rustic bungalows to rent, so I emailed/texted the possibilities to see if anything was available. One place “thought they might have something”. Good enough- I’ll sort it out when I get there or sleep on the beach, I thought defiantly. The next day after dinner at our usual end-of-the-week spot La Piazza, I put my exhausted wife and children safely to bed. I quietly stuffed a small pack and left for the local pool hall to join some friends, then hailed a taxi to the airport for the 1:30am flight to Ambon, the hub of the Malukus. Except for a couple other foreigners, the derelict plane was full of brusque eastern Indonesians made from the bigger Papuan/Aboriginal mold than the more slender, elfin western folk. In fact, Jakartans who need to send a hostile message or rough someone up usually hire an Ambonese to do the job.
I napped on the floor with my backpack as a pillow and recharged my phone at the quaint Ambon airport, a layover with not enough time to explore the town but enough time to be driven crazy by the out-of-place and endlessly repeating slide guitar music in the background. There I met a younger Kei islander who entertained me with half successful sleight of hand tricks and cooperative English/Indonesian lessons. Our plane was a puddle jumper to Tual’s miniature landing strip with an even smaller airport. My new illusionist friend was suspiciously waylaid by the local police upon arrival, who asked to see the contents of his luggage. I quickly removed myself from the situation, waving good luck and hiring an ojek (motorcycle taxi) to get me across the island of Kei Kecil (meaning little Kei) and to the western shore.
I almost didn’t publish this post because of the potential consequences from revealing this secret. There are only a few special places left on the planet still unspoiled by the tourist tsunami and the garbage that washes up with it. As soon as we traversed the island’s jungle, void of any civilization except the occasional tin-roofed hut, and arrived in the tongue-twisting village of Ohoililir, I knew I had made the right decision to take refuge here. Well-traveled travellers will tell you that the most beautiful beaches in the world are found in the Maluku islands, and the most beautiful beach in Maluku is Pasir Panjang. They are absolutely right. It is 12 kilometers of stunning white shoreline, a perfect canvas for the most azure waters you have ever seen. The sand is as fine as the finest ground sugar, softly giving a bit with every footstep. Palm trees stand gracefully over the gently curving bay, looking out to the uninhabited tropical islands beyond. And best of all, the entire beach is yours.
Coaster Cottages was the ideal accommodation for my retreat, humble and right on Pasir Panjang. Managed by Kei island natives Pak Bob and Ibu Ketty, my single room had a bed, enough surface space to stack my belongings and my own bathroom with a large basin to fill for toilet flushing and a bucket shower. With a mosquito net around the bed, a fan and three meals a day at 320,000 rupiah ($30), it was a steal. Sure, the electricity was spotty and you have to tap the ants out of your peanut butter jar’s lid, but the only thing I could hear from my room was the sound of the ocean and this was the view from my front porch:
The brief research before I left recommended a few island sights I thought to explore, but after emptying my bag onto the small table, removing my shoes, and trading my clothes for a bathing suit, I admitted to myself I wasn’t going anywhere farther than I could walk. I glanced at my phone- no service. The number of other guests at Coaster was just enough to fill a dining room table and there wasn’t another place to stay for miles. I spent the rest of the day decompressing, getting my bearings and admiring the isolation before an offshore storm blew in. After all, it was still the rainy season.
That night, after introductions over dinner with the other Coaster guests, I quietly turned in and fell into a cathartic sleep. Any attempt at waking early was gently dismantled by the rhythmic sound of waves outside. It was hunger and a thought of coffee that finally got me stirring. Each room had a small table on the porch, prepared with a thermos of hot water, bread, condiments and fruit for breakfast. Guests sat quietly at their table sipping coffee and watching the ocean, respectfully not engaging in morning conversation. It could have been mistaken for a retirement home. But I needed to move, so down to the beach for a morning run. During the kilometers there and back I passed only one person, a Kei islander woman picking up plastic water bottles from the shore. The beach was crowded, however, with fiddler crabs, which quickly skittered out of the way and into their burrows as I jogged down the beach, my footprints making the only marks in the sand. In fact, the island was crawling with an array of crab species. I was fascinated by them, and spent a couple hours after my run and a soak in the ocean watching their frenetic, busied antics.
After lunch, I took a long walk for an afternoon of serious beachcombing. I was once again pleasantly alone until I heard the sand crunching softly behind me. Wielding a machete and a flexible stick, an older Kei Islander was scanning the sand, then quickly digging a hole with the knife followed by stabbing into the hole with his stick.
“Selamat siang, Pak,” I said. Good day, sir.
“Selamat siang,” he replied.
“Kamu mau menemukan apa, Pak?” I asked. What are you looking for, sir?
“Saya mau cacing pasir, “ he said, smiling at my cave man Indonesian. He was looking for something he called sand worms.
“Kenapa, Pak? Kamu makan itu?” Why, sir? Do you eat them?
“Ngak,” he laughed, “Saya penggunaan itu untuk memancing ikan”. No, I use them to fish.
For the life of me I couldn’t figure out what he was looking at on the surface of the sand to show where the sand worms had buried themselves. I would point at different small holes repeating, “this one?” but always it was no. After a few more attempts, he pulled up his stick and there through it was a foot long living tube, which he quickly decapitated and pocketed. I was officially out-beachcombed. That’s ok, the hermit crabs take all the good shells first anyway.
Lunch and dinner, served family-style, consist of rice and local dishes, including vegetables, barbequed fish and chicken. Passing around food and sitting together to eat encourages getting to know your bungalow neighbors, and I was very curious to hear how this rag-tag assembly had found their way to Kei Kecil. My nomination for best leading role was Jack, a Dutch retired former Bali resident, who is staying at Coaster while supervising the construction of his personal bungalow next door. He became disgruntled over the tourist-induced decline Bali has gone through over the last years, and came looking for a remote place to resettle. He is bitter, outspoken, skeletal, and never without a cigarette- I could listen to him all day. Robbie is your quintessential backpacker, slowly making his way through Indonesia. He is quiet and friendly, doesn’t know how long he’ll stay before moving to his next location and hasn’t changed out of his thin hemp clothing since I got here. German Ulrich has lived in Jakarta for 38 years. Married to an Indonesian woman and originally a cargo ship captain, he now volunteers to collect moths for classification in Indonesian museums, which brings him to Kei. There’s a couple from Estonia and a Japanese guy who came here because they were looking for something remote on Google Earth. It was a dynamic cast of characters, and every meal was rich with conversation.
The next morning I was getting anxious that I hadn’t contacted Sarah to say I had gotten here safely and it was about time I bought soap. Ulrich and I decided to head to the radio tower on a hill a few kilometers away. I had heard if you stood with your back to the tower and slowly swung your arm back and forth you might get a signal strong enough to send a text. On the way, Ulrich was regaling me with his golden years stories as captain, until suddenly close to the tower I hit a sweet spot and my phone vibrated and beeped with receiving messages. I was able to send out a couple of “I’m ok” texts to Sarah over the next 45 minutes of attempts, but that was the extent of our communication with the outside world. Secretly, that was alright by me. I bought soap on the way home and cleaned up with a thorough bucket bath before heading north on the beach. The entire island of Kei Kecil is made from coral upwelling, and I wanted to scour the coral formations revealed during low tide.
Rain came again after lunch and the tide rose high enough to submerge the alabaster shore, so during a break in the rain I went behind the bungalows and explored the jungle. Alfred Wallace, a naturalist and contemporary of Charles Darwin, studied Indonesia and charted many of its species, noticing that those in the west derive from Southeast Asia while eastern species resemble their Papuan and Australian ancestors. Wallacea is the collection of islands between these two ranges, sharing species from both, yet void of many larger mammals or other organisms that were unable to cross the deeper ocean trenches found at the borders. The Kei Islands are part of Wallacea and particularly share many species similarities with neighboring Papua. The miniature rules these islands. While I scanned the foliage for its small inhabitants, I heard a rushing coming from the jungle, getting louder and heading quickly my way. I looked up into the forest just as it hit me- a wall of rain, and I tripped back to the bungalows, clutching my phone hoping that I could save it from the water streaming down my body. Fortunately, it survived intact, and this was what I was able to capture before being swept back.
The sound of rain on the corrugated roof stretched through the night with the storm-driven waves pounding in the background. By morning, the rain thinned, allowing me a morning run on the beach and a last glimpse of Pasir Panjang as the sun burned away the rest of the clouds. It was time to leave. I found my shoes somewhere under the bed and traded back my bathing suit for shorts and a t-shirt. I wished my bungalow neighbors best of luck and profusely thanked Ibu Ketty, who had cared for me well. My ojek was at the bottom of the stone steps, engine on and driver waiting patiently. How quickly I had settled into this place and how abruptly it ended. There was no gift shopping in the small village of Ohoililir; no Kei snow globes, no island-sloganed t-shirts, no coconut woodcarvings. I left with three more irreplaceable objects: a Pasir Panjang sand dollar, unforgettable memories of Kei Kecil and recharged batteries with the resolve to dive into the river and fight my way back upstream.