The Thousand Red Question Marks: We’d heard the horror stories: trash so thick that the beach was rendered useless; reefs a wasteland choked by the city’s rampant pollution; facilities more abysmal than relaxing. But we still had to go—we just had to. Even before moving to Jakarta we had our eyes on Pulau Seribu—that pearly atoll lying off the Java coast, meandering its way northward in a string of tufts of sand and trees. Yes, we said to each other, we’re surely going to go there. Yes, there’s surely a way to catch a boat and escape to blissful ignorance, to relief from of the city’s smog and noise and crowds. Yes, we said, and we told to everyone around us, we’ll make a habit of the Thousand Islands. Yet here we were, nearly a year into our teaching in Jakarta, and we hadn’t gone. The horror stories, you see, had gotten to us: friends who went and came away shaking their heads at the seas black and thick and reeking of garbage, friends who swore they saw no living corral after hours of snorkeling; friends who slept on mattresses stacked on dirty floors, who had no clean toilet, who got food poisoning, and who squeezed into ferries stacked with passengers so thick it recalled so many Asian ferry disasters of recent years. So Andy and I looked at other, shrugged, said that pompous Google images only told part of the story, that a picture is worth a thousand lies, after all, and that perhaps our weekends and special occasions were best spent elsewhere. The Thousand Island got pegged as a giant question mark, and when precious time and a teacher’s modest budget left us room to travel, we decided not to risk it. Up until this weekend, that is, when we finally dove into the island experience. The Turning Point It happened on the flight to Thailand—climbing up to cruising altitude, we saw a string of islands more pearly than trashy, more wondrous than reeking, and more inviting, much more inviting, than the stories had led us to believe. But that’s from the plane window, of course—ten thousand feet of misinformation. The flight back, though, whispered Thousand Islands all over again—it was featured in an AirAsia in-flight magazine special, and while flipping through the article, we found out the guys sitting next to me hand already been. “It’s like the Maldives,” his wife gushed from across the aisle. “We had an oceanfront villa and all-inclusive meals, and we could literally walk through the crystal clear water to the next island.” My seatmate agreed: “One of the best beaches we’ve ever been to.” And this came from the couple on their way back from Phuket–so you know they’ve got good taste in beaches. Andy and I looked at each other: intrigue had set back in.
So six weeks later, our anniversary rolled around. We have a little tradition of taking a little trip for our anniversaries–it’s a simple way to commemorate an international marriage and a shared loved of new places. Time was short – only a weekend. Budget was tight – just off the Thailand high and an upcoming visit to Bali. We needed something close and something fast and something not so ominous in its final price tag. Thousand islands, we said—it was time to see which side of the story was right. The Execution It’s hard to book a Thousand Island stay—most websites are in Indonesian, and the English ones are riddled with the grammar errors and amateur formatting that make you suspect a scam. Contact info is all in local numbers, and credit card payments are next to impossible—better get yourself used to the labyrinth of Indonesian bank-transfer system, which, as far as I know, is only possible from within Indonesia. But with nearly a year of Indonesia under our belts, we felt we could tackle it—we set off on two weeks of webpage combing, scouring the seas for an island far enough north to avoid the Jakarta plague, and cheap enough not to leave us wishing we had jetted off to Bali or Flores instead. We managed the booking and packed the bags. Take a deep breath, Baby, it’s time we find out the real truth of the Thousand Islands.
7:00 – catch a ride to the Ancol marina 7:30 – check in for the speedboat 7:57 – board the speedboat 8:02 – rave about how smooth the speedboat is. 8:03 – apologize to the wife for jinxing the smooth ride. 8:04 – sleep in the gentle hammock the smooth waves 9:35 – awake to a wonderland of tiny isles gracing a mirror-smooth sea. 9:36 – make sure you’re not still dreaming. 9:37 – confirm that you are indeed surrounded by several dozen dreamy sprigs of tropical bliss. Smile. 9:40 – step ashore on the pier. The transport is easy, and of all the speedboat rides I’ve ever been on, none can compare the gentle caresses of the Java Sea. Lakes have been rougher, far rougher, than this crossing. And now ashore, bags safely stashed and exploration commenced, I was again floored by how perfectly smooth, how wondrously still, how calm and how clear these waters were.
On the pier less than 20 meters from our doorstep, Andy and I could stare straight into the coral and count the spines on a sea urchin. After a five-minute walk to the opposite side of the island, we could stroll over the dock and get a better glimpse of the snorkelers’ reef than many sites’ underwater visibility. We could even watch the scuba divers perusing the reefs at a depth of 6 meters—with no problem at all. After the black, sloggy waters we’d come to know in our Jakarta home, this, well, this was water you could cook with. This water was water clearer than a faucet and warm as a bath. This was water which left no room for complaints. And the beach—what can I say about the beach? That its sands were so soft they clung to wet skin, then brushed gently away when dry? That it’s white glow brightened the eyes and indulged the mind? That its gentle squish under foot left us with a yearning for nothing more than endless laps around that tiny circuit of land? This was a world-class island. This island could host a 4-digit-per-night resort.
Maybe that’s why the secret of the thousand islands isn’t out yet—savvy locals might be saving these little gems for themselves. Maybe it’s because they don’t have the star power of a giant resort here. Maybe they’re still flying under the radar of professional media exposure for the moment. But here’s what I do know: in that weekend, Andy and I snorkeled through coral as fine and bountiful as that we saw in big-name dive destinations, we glided over lake-still blues between a maze of tiny paradises with a sunset glowing orange on a horizon that looked near enough to snag with a fishing line, we lounged under the host of tropic stars as the electric lights shut down for the night and left us in the romanticized moment of the cosmos glimpsed through palm-fronds clacking in the breeze. And when the sunrise smiled over the lip of the sea, it found us waiting for it on a tiny strand of glory, somewhere in the peppering of islands strung across the beauty of the Java Sea. It sounds so perfect, doesn’t it?
The Counterpunch: Well, travel writing has a way of making things seem like that. Here’s the other half of the story. The night on the beach under the stars was shared with bats the size of chickenhawks flapping in and out of the limbs above us. The lodging was basic—meaning we were glad we brought a sheet from home to sleep on, and the bathroom required a giant roach to be mashed under a sandal’s wrath. We chased a few geckos out our door, and no water heater meant an evening wash in shivers. Food was solid but not spectacular, and for all the glass-calm seas and perfect visibility of Saturday, Sunday brought an AM rainstorm and sea-chopping breezes. Wander the interior of the island and you’ll quickly find the humble shacks that the staff are housed in: where they gather to smoke and do laundry and relax when not on duty, well segregated from the guest bungalows lining the sea. These guys stay a month, then get a ride back to Java for a week off. They make a life making paradise happen for tourists, and they’ve got a case of island fever something awful—especially since they don’t get to share the beach with any tourists (stay working or stay out of sight, if you get the drift).
Learn to eat with one hand forking food and the other waving a pestilent cloud of flies off your stir-fried calamari and turmeric chicken. Make do with the two tiny water bottles the hotel provides, or pay the huge mark-up on extra water the lonely gift shop will sell you. Here’s the long and short of it: Thousand Island escapes are far from perfect. The Reflection: As our speedboat bobbed over the Jakarta-bound swells, and the few dozen passengers napped and updated statuses, I had to wonder whether the Thousand Islands need better press. Would it do these guys good to have some thousand-dollar-a-night resorts with a sycophantic staff hidden away somewhere, only to be thrust into view in pristine linen and bowing to your regal whims? Does it need yachts worth more than entire neighborhoods gleaming across the sun-drenched stillness of the indolent afternoons?
The Maldives, you see, needs stuff like that. If you’re Maldivian, if you can’t reach into the tourists’ pockets for some income, what do you have? No industry to speak of. No chance of agriculture. No education or experience or mentality for anything but tourism. It thrives on tourism, but it is strangled by it, too. It’s the snake-swallowed-by-snake thingy. And it works it to perfection—even the humblest homestay on the local island seemed to know all the fine points of making a traveler relaxed. But a native of Thousand Islands can scoot on back to Jakarta in an instant: work the docks, work the fishery, get hired for a cargo ship—heck, go inland and try for factory work, drive a bajaj, set up a warung, sling Bakso. Jakarta is a giant hubbub of economics whirling right outside your paradise . Here, you have options. You don’t have to pander. I’ve got no doubt these islands are right for any resort as expensive as you’d like it. You could reel in the big fish here, after your investment, of course. You could make it happen. But is it better that way? Green Lessons: In the space of a few dozen kilometers, the Java sea transform from a cesspool of Jakarta’s waste—practically a saltwater landfill—to a, well, a glorious clarity and a marvel of the tropics. It’s something of a microcosm, I suspect, for our entire planet—the burgeoning population is spitting out waste at an alarming rate, and all the natural beauty still in the wilderness is still wondrous… but it can only take so much—that’s obvious from those once-pristine islands close to the coast—now swimming in filth.
There is an eco-resort here, one that uses rainwater for washing and solar panels for power and organic food production and construction practices. They’ve got a lovely set-up on twin gems of islands, and they charge a healthy price for it. Maybe it’s a harbinger of responsible tourism for the future. I don’t know how they write off the fuel for the speedboats that ferry visitors out and back. Bio-diesel? Sailboats? Carbon footprints pay-outs? Sweep it under the rug and hope no one asks? It’s a great idea, though, the eco-resort. It works well anywhere because green sells, and being eco-conscious is just the right thing to do. But here, especially here in the Thousand Islands, it’s the ultimate juxtaposition—the swampy muck of Jakarta’s bay contrasted with the natural beauty of the unspoiled islands. The northwest corner of the islands is set apart already—they’re part of the national parks systems right now. The fragile cycle of sea turtle breeding, rearing, releasing efforts have spread outside that zone and involve a number of outside resorts. Landowners—but on private islands and resorts—are keen on preserving the natural beauty: for their own sake and their own bottom line, of course.
But even so, troubling signs appear. On a hired skiff to surrounding isles, we found our vessel pulling up to a tiny blip of tropic dreamscape. You know the image by now: turquoise water glimmering in the sunset, thick green vegetation sprouting all over, a precious little beach coming into view as we rounded the corner to drop anchor. But there it was—a hell-black zit on the face of glory, a fast-food cart just like you’d find around any mall or park in Jakarta, boiling water and hocking noodles and bakso and fried rice, chips and bottled juices. The makeshift snack shack was drawing quite a little crowd, too. Aside from the swimsuited face-stuffers gathered around, the island floor was littered with greasy plastic and weathered bottles, and the surf we waded through to the snorkel grounds swished and swashed with the snackers’ debris. They strolled and swam in their own trash. Their sunset pictures featured garbage stren across a beach worthy of a million-dollar villa. Unfazed, they continued their banter and litter on the shore, even as the sun turned fiery orange and blazed the scene in candlelight radiance all around them. “Don’t they see?” Andy asked. “At least you’d think they’d notice it in the background of all the selfies they’re taking…” But this seems to be the Thousand Islands’ clientele for now, at least at many such getaways: it’s about weekend jaunts from the locals who can afford a little splurge, who like a fancy new profile pic to post, but who don’t really care about preservation, conservation, or even investing the tiny bit of effort required to gather their snack wrappers and carry them out. Hypocrite that I am, though, I turned to my own tour guides: now stomping the coral beneath their flip-flops as they dragged life-jacketed snorkelers to and fro. When the dark thickened, they gathered us up the voyage home: their ancient engine belching noxious clouds of burning oil back through the island in the fading gray of dusk.
Past and Future: Slipping through that maze of isles in the lake-still sea, I found my head still swimming—now back through the centuries to the days of spice and empire, to the times when those crazy Dutch traders and imperialists came calling. I could see it clearly: their giant treasure-chests on sails chopped slowly, slowly through these waves, slowly, slowly bobbing past the coconut palms and scrub pines, past the coral glowing in the sun’s rays, past the light shimmering down through the clear waters to the living spectrums flitting to and fro beneath, and all the while the songs in the mind sang that this, this indeed, must be something nextdoor to heaven. Imagine seeing that scene for the first time in your life—and you’ve spent your life in flat, rainy fields and crisp, damp climes, winters that close the door on daylight by four. You’ve never seen the tropics on TV; no NatGeo to peruse at dentists’ offices; no facebook posts of 25 places to visit before you die. And you step from the muck of your field and your farm to sail for months and months ringed by nothing but an endless blue horizon that you never near in the least. Then, one strange day, you find you suddenly swish into range of a sun-drenched, sandy little speck of bliss… and another… and another… and now they’re all around. Well, I don’t know how they ever turned back to Holland. The island were green, back then. They were natural and pristine and glorious. They had to be—Jakarta still wasn’t invented yet. But she’s there now—a veritable volcano of chip bags and cellophane and pop bottles, human waste and heated factory cast-off coolants, a mountain of humanity vomiting its filth out into to the precious sea. It pains me. It pains me more now that I’ve seen what glory is so possible so close. For the moment, though, the Thousand Islands—at least some of them—are something surely wonderful: They’ve still got charm, still shine their sandy bliss under sunny skies, still sift that diamond water round them in gaudy extravagance that is a pleasure to behold. They’re just a weekend away.
As we grudgingly shuffled off to the pier for the boat ride home, Andy and I glance back over the beach. Sigh. On the pier, we stopped to gaze at the rainbow dance of coral and fish beneath. Sigh. On the boat, we stared as the magnificent little isle sped from view, replaced by more and more flecks of tropic bonanza across the still-clear bay. Sigh. How much longer these islands can elicit such sighs is anyone’s guess. The weekend had answered more than few questions, and left us with still more to ponder. Will the luxury resorts move in, gobble up, and toss the small-timers to the wayside? Will Jakarta’s burgeoning population finally spill over the tipping point and spoil it all? Will the existing mini resorts green up or get out? Will I make it back before my next anniversary?