Pulau Rhun: snorkel the microcosm

The mysterious, much-coveted isle of Rhun
The mysterious, much-coveted isle of Rhun

People do strange things to see fishes. Take, for example, our snorkel group. We dragged a reluctant captain from his slumber on the rainiest morning of our stay, loaded up his oversized canoe with fins and tubes and masks, threw in a little fried rice and smattering of fruit, and set out across the widest expanse of sea between us and the Banda’s furthest outlying island.

We almost died, but we wanted to snorkel Pulau Rhun.

Early stages of the expedition featured harbingers of doom—dark clouds and distant thunder, a half hour waiting for a captain who said the seas were too rough, a ride of such strong tossing that my wife and I, who were riding on the roof for some island views, were left clinging to the rails to keep from going over. As Neira faded from view and Gunung Api dropped into the distance, as we pointed our prow to the west and chugged toward the outlying twins of Ay and Rhun, we could see the height and breadth of the incoming walls, the hefty swells topped with the faintest white caps. We gulped and hung on.

What had we gotten ourselves into?

The captain, who seemed quick to forgive us for dragging him into our fish-obsessed and ill-advised outing, smoked stoically in the back as if nothing were wrong.

A shipmate used Andy’s life jacket as a pillow and napped right in front of us.

Using the sole life-jacket on the boat for a pillow?  Definitely island fever.
Using the sole life-jacket on the boat for a pillow? Definitely island fever.

Naturally, I thought that I, a landlocked Missouri native, might be overreacting. So what if there’s a little thunder? What’s the big deal if the captain didn’t feel like going? Maybe a little yawing and rocking of the boat is normal. Maybe I just needed to man up and accept the splashing and the pitching. Maybe this was all par for the course here in Banda.

Just hang on tight and enjoy the ride.

So we chugged on, the waves flopping us playfully to and fro. The shipmate wedged himself between the inch-tall guardrails, lifejacket—the sole lifejacket on the boat by the way—folded up as a pillow, and tried to nap. And I held to those guardrails and wished there was a way, in all the rocking, to climb over the relaxing friend and back into the sturdier benches beneath.

But the waves made it a bit too tricky to purchase any sure footing for scrambling around. I was forced to sit tight, and grip tight, until we reached smoother sailing. Almost two hours of such heaving and splashing left us at Rhun Island—and me with fingers aching from gripping the guardrails.

Life in the Bandas can be like that, though—you sail in with smoothest intentions of a frolic in the waves, and you end up with hanging on for your life while your life jacket gets commandeered by a drowsy guy along for the ride. You wish you had listened to the squat little captain who tried to talk you out of your recklessness from the start, but all you wind up with is a face full of wind and a clinging stubbornness to somehow, someway, taste that crazy little bit of bliss you came here for in the first place.

Dive right in to the Banda adventure.  Think it through later.
Dive right in to the Banda adventure. Think it through later.

I wondered if the Dutch imperialists ever felt like this: their winging little expedition for some nutmeg suddenly spiraling into opposition, then bloodshed, then massacres, then hanging on for dear life as the Banda Sea, kilometers deep beneath them, yawned and gaped and tossed everything crazily about. They got more than they bargained for.

Rhun, the destination of our little mis-planned adventure, is no less crazy a place than our journey to reach it. Long the center of British-Dutch rivalry in the spice islands, it’s a curious little sprout of an island featuring rugged sea cliffs, loudly smiling villagers, enough cloves to choke a herd of elephants, and the distinction of having once, back in 1620, been swapped for the island of Manhattan in NYC harbor.

It’s funny to think that the needling skyline of New York, that the world’s most muscular financial district, that the center of art of culture and media of the West, that the glimmering world’s metropolis housed on Manhattan was once valued at less than the quaint villages of Rhun, where the locals’ wrinkled hands mend fishing nets, spread cloves to the sunshine, and sit back and smoke in the shade while watching the unending sea splash its gentle rhythm at the docks.

Rhun for Manhattan—hard to believe. But the craziness somehow fits this place.

The skyline of Rhun... It's not quite the Big Apple.
The skyline of Rhun… It’s not quite the Big Apple.

Walking through the mucky algae flats to the shore, we tried to gaze upon the sleepy town reaching back into the cliffs, and watch for spiny sea urchins at our feet. The beauty and the danger in all the same moment—the story of life in the Bandas.

Ashore, we greeted a dozen shirtless men trimming timbers of a large new boat before stepping into the tiny streets. There awaited a little-planned chaos of welcome—a troop of hardy kids bouncing and giggling around our periphery, simultaneously offering to snap a picture with us and to guide us to the Dutch fort on the heights. The girls giggles and pointed, Andy set to work on some portraits of the wizened elders, and the rest of us tried to negotiate the jumble of stairs and gutters and tarps of drying cloves that somehow formed a superhighway for motorbikes roaring through.

It wasn’t exactly Fifth Avenue.

Life today in Rhun--all about those cloves
Life today in Rhun–all about those cloves

“My photo! Photo me here! You look!” A mama called from the yard, proffering a chunky baby into the air as if hawking a lettuce in the market. Her teeth were crooked, but her smile joyous. Of course Andy was happy to take a snapshot.

“Very beautiful you.” The proud grandma shouted down the street as we left. “You stay here Rhun.”

“It’s a beautiful island,” Andy called back over her shoulder. “You’re very lucky here.”

The woman scoffed and waved her hand, as if to say she knew she wasn’t lucky. As if to say she wished herself away, perhaps to Manhattan itself and the epicenter of the globalization of wealth and divorce from nature.

She scoffs while half the world away, travelers sweat and save and dream of booking dates here on her island.

More streets flitted by—more salad-colored houses squatting in front of cloves browning under a cloudy heaven, some boys trying to throw a cat down a flight of stairs (before Andy swooped in to the rescue), more cloves scenting the sea-salt air, and fishing nets drying along the beach.

Kiddos with a cat.  Mischief can't be far behind.
Kiddos with a cat. Mischief can’t be far behind.

What Rhun lacks in cosmopolitan flavoring nowadays, it makes up for in the quality of its reefs and wildlife. Speaking of which, it was high time to get back to the water.

Outside of the shallow harbor we found sunshine spilling through the morning’s cloud blanket. So we scampered back to the boat (wary of the urchins), donned fins and masks, and splashed into the menagerie awaiting: millions of slippery fish parading through forests of bodacious color in designs and patterns and sprinklings of shapes and sizes to keep a guy dizzy in the playful turquoise lappings.

Grumpy squid in their chameleon shifting, curious turtles in globular shells and puppy-dog eyes, wiring, crunchy lobsters, and plump, speckled sea cucumbers joined in the living aquarium spread beneath our collective gaze. More colors than the candy sections of a supermarket, hues louder than the nightlife in Rio’s Carnaval, shapes and functions and curves so diverse and so harmoniously devouring one another that you don’t know what to stop and watch.

Reefs spinning in colors too bright for any camera.
Reefs spinning in colors too bright for any camera.

We dove down to ear-pressing depths to see more. We twisted and played before the camera’s stoic lens. We funny mammals in plastic apparatus acted like we somehow belonged in the pageant flitting before us—the pageant of existence in the seas, the perpetual circus of wonder that cycles on and on, day after day, night after night in the reef—regardless of who is there to watch. This dazzling mosaic of twisting fins and gills and columns and waving branches hasn’t missed a day in a millennia. It has silently spilled through its motions regardless of spices and colonies, plagues and battles, clouds and storms and sunrises and sunsets and all the petty craziness that we humans indulge in on our (is)lands. At the reef, the show is always on.

And we wanted, demanded, a part of that action.

We slipped through the waves under sunshine and clouds, and the restless clock marched on and on. Hours passed in the reef’s kaleidoscope.

More of the snorkel glory
More of the snorkel glory

By now we’d forgotten the gales and the waves on the opposite side of Rhun—by now we wanted lunch, and in the shallow bay with its light blue lake, we spun the boat toward Nai Laka, a tiny little speck of a spice island with no people, but with more than its fair share of white sand and, now in the young afternoon, sun.

The plan called for a secluded lunch on the un-peopled beach, uninterrupted vistas of the waves and the Banda glory.

That was the plan.

Ny Laka -- as we had planned it
Ny Laka — as we had planned it

But this was Sunday, on a summer break from school, no less, and Nai Laka was crawling with school-free kids and pre-teens. Like most rural Indonesians, and like their counterparts on Rhun, they were eager to approach, stare, giggle, and waft an occasional “Hello Mister” our way. More giggles and squeals followed. Cell phones slipped from pockets for a few pictures.

There on the beach the scene emerged: a half-dozen foreigners snacking on Nasi Goreng with a few dozen ocean-wet kiddos in tow, seated disconcertingly close and watching every bite, magnetized by the foreigners’ visit.

I should have been flattered rather than annoyed, to command such an audience for doing nothing more spectacular than gobbling rice. “They ought to take their pictures and get back to the own lunch,” I grumbled to Andy. But by now their parents were also wandering over, flip-flops and cigarettes, and staring from a few yards further back.

So much for the secluded lunch on the remote paradise.

Ny Laka -- in reality
Ny Laka — in reality

“Please let us eat,” Andy told the growing crowd in their own language. “We would like to eat alone, please.”

They quieted down, backed away a couple meters, and came slinking back in a moment more. The sun was fever hot on our skin, the east wind blazing across the waves and past our ears, and we wanted to retreat back to the sea, back to the snorkels and the silent dance of the reef beneath. But the crowd came creeping back.

The “hello mister” effect is nothing new and nothing strange to these islands of Indonesia. The aura surrounding vacationers is hard to pierce with any reason or any truth. Part of it stems from the perception that all visitors are rich. Part of it from seeing firsthand the same shade of skin they only see on TV and movies. Part of it from a living in an open and curious culture. Part of it simply from the novelty of an outsider, from the spice of something new in the routine, from the moment’s break in the monotony of life in simple villages and humdrum days.

It’s natural, I suppose, and nothing more than friendly curiosity. And the further you stray from the ex-pat haunts of the metropolises, the more you diverge from the tourist trail of Bali, the more pronounced the “hello mister” effect becomes. It’s all in good fun.

Crowding the boat.
Crowding the boat.

But for the visitor, the unwanted attention can get a bit tiring at times. Andy and I grimaced and rushed through lunch. The Dutch newlyweds, on the other hand, smiled and high-fived the kids, hugged the little girls and lifted the boys to their shoulders. They posed for two dozen photos and shared their fruit salad with the youngsters.

In short, they modeled how all diplomacy to the islands ought to be handled, and they made the rest of us look bad.

A strange phenomenon sparked, kindled, and caught there on the white sands of Nai Laka: the energy from the kiddos bubbled and mounted and burst—it spilled over its brim and became infectious, and by the time we wandered back to the boat for our next snorkel session, we had half a village in tow, laughing at their inability to remember the English lessons in school, bouncing for a chance to snap a Twitter profile pic with the outsiders, and we savoring a shot of a local holiday. Forget the lunch eaten in the fishbowl: this was fun.

Mask and fins ready, I started toward the quite lagoon wrapped in the arms of the waves, and a few boys in outdated soccer jerseys splashed after me. They loved it. I didn’t mind the company. But they stopped a few meters out; they waved and watched me flipper-flap into the brilliant sea.

Is this lost on the locals?  Surely they know their own reefs, right?
Is this lost on the locals? Surely they know their own reefs, right?

A strange thought struck me in that moment: I started to wonder whether or not they’ve seen the wonder under the waves of their own island. Most of the crowd on boat has crossed half the globe for the express purpose of, among other minor attractions, beholding this spectacle. But these kids—do they have masks? Have they ever borrowed fins? Have they ever swum out past the rock and the sand and the seen the coral gardens designed, planted, nurtured by the finger of God? Have they beheld the spiral colors of the swarming fishes? Do they swim with eyes open to the saltwater and behold the glory that beckons the foreigners?

They tell me that in the dry season, that a couple months from now, the wind will still to a whisper and leave the waters flat and glass-smooth. They say in those days any child can sit on the jetty on in a canoe and stare 30 meters into the beauty beneath.

But have these kids ever learned to swim within it? Will they know the bliss of their own islands?

It’s a strange thought cut short by a cloud of beaked fish grazing in the sunlit bath. Easily a meter each, easily as tall as long, easily three dozen strong, they lilted and crunched the coral in the shallow reefs. Bright blue with bulbous foreheads and snouts like a bird, the giant school sifted slowly through the garden, nibbling the algae, I’ll later learn, and plants that grow at the coral base. All was silent, dancing in the sun-splash filtering through the surface ripples.

Low visibility, but big fish.  Lots of big fish.
Low visibility, but big fish. Lots of big fish.

For a moment, I was alone with them; for a moment, I held myself adrift in the skittish crowd, surrounded by their color and their number and their giant eyes glazing my direction.

It looked like nothing in the world so much as a herd of cattle morphed into a sub-sea grazing. These guys were giant and gentle and tended to shirk away and defecate if I approached. So I tried to leave them be, I tried to watch in quite their tranquil feeding. I tried not to disturb them.

A thought struck me, though: that I ought to share this sight with the others on the boat. They, yes surely they, would like to see this too.

“Big fish,” I yelled toward the boat and the shore, where they were slower to mask and fin themselves. “Really big fish!” And I stretched my arms wide to show them.

An aquatic stampede ensued.

Are the snorkel pictures getting old yet?
Are the snorkel pictures getting old yet?

Bules came jumping overboard and striking out in stylish strokes toward the herd. They came like face-down rockets, like tourist torpedoes, like greedy sightseeing gurus who know all too well how quickly the scene shifts in the reef.

The calm turquoise was churning in awkward fins and flippers and bubbles and shouts.

The herd was terrified: massive tails swished in nervous energy, sandy streaks of feces jettisoned from the skittish school, panicked glances shot from one set of bulbous puppy-eyes to the next. Caught between me and the human torpedoes, the school of double-headed parrot fish (I looked that up later), lunged first one way, then another, transformed by mob panic from the silent grazers to the wild sweep of chaos. They jetted back and forth, their blue scales glimmering a rapid-fire flash of color as the sun struck each in turn.

In less than a minute, they’d bolted into the murky blue deep.

We ruined their lunch. We were worse than the locals still staring at us from the beach. At least they had kept quiet and giggled to themselves. At least they didn’t sprint headlong into our Nasi Goreng and fruit salad and snap pictures and videos… well, maybe they kind of did. Maybe our tour group panicked and ran the same as the fish.

I don’t think the irony struck the others: back on the boat, they couldn’t stop dreaming about the moment with the big fish.

Irresistible Banda
Irresistible Banda

“Really cool, mate” gasped the Brit. “Great times.”

“I got to swim with them,” boasted the Dutchman. “Almost could touch them.”

“Did you get a picture,” asked the Spaniard.

“How long were they there,” Andy wanted to know, “before you told us?”

And the conversation among the kids on the beach was probably about the same.

One more stop remained on the tour—Ay. This little guy rests between Rhun and the rest of the Bandas. It’s tropical and it’s hilly and it’s splashed with color and spice just like you’d expect anything in the Bandas to be. It’s said to be home to great underwater cliffs crawling with coral and all the big name fish, the really big ones that draw divers from across the continents to watch. This, they say, is some of the best coral in the some of the best islands on the globe. Can it get much better? Anywhere on the planet, can it get much better?

We were giddy and anxious to arrive, because our bellies and eyes had been filled at lovely little Nai Laka, and now we were headed to even bigger hunting grounds. We laughed and we smiled in the sunlight. The tropic seas were clean and wide around us. Dripping saltwater mirth in the boat, our tiny band of passengers made their way to the sunny roof for the indolent little jaunt of an hour, a sunshine-spotted jump across the strait to Ay. We sprawled and relaxed, spread our towels to lounge, and—

Wave goodbye to the smooth sailing; we're heading to the deep waters and tall waves.
Wave goodbye to the smooth sailing; we’re heading to the deep waters and tall waves.

“No. No! All down!” The captain, a normally officious little guy without much guts to tell paying customers what was going to happen on their little pleasure tour, was adamant. He waved them off. He refused to go without their compliance. “Go below. All below.”

Cue the ominous music. We glanced at each other; a chill wind blew in; we noticed how dark the skies had become. Outside, we strained to see the sea beyond the leeward calm of Nai Laka that we rested in.

The distant horizon held the hilly Ay, and beyond, swathed in the turbulent blanket of cloud, the mass of Gunung Api. Between us and them lay a few dozen miles of pitching whitecaps.

Soon enough we saw firsthand how deceptive the sunshine can be in the Bandas. Soon enough we felt the difference in the dry and windy seasons. Soon enough we rounded the horn of Nai Laka and plowed into the strait toward Ay.

If the boat goes over, swim for Rhun.  Its cloves smell like Christmas.
If the boat goes over, swim for Rhun. Its cloves smell like Christmas.

Here, waves unfettered sweep across the deepest of Indonesia’s seas. Here, the currents are funneled between two islands and magnified accordingly. Here, the waves come crashing across the bow and dashing our starboard flank. Cold, salty spray flung itself through the windows and into our faces. The pointed prow pitched and drifted: up to the sunlit sky and down to the deep blue ocean. We canted and swiveled and rocked and swayed and the diesel motor chugged us onward, slowly onward, to the prettiest fishies in the sea.

The captain’s lips were tight—he could barely squeeze his cigarette into his frown, and he bravely fought the swells with his only weapon—the tiny rudder beneath the buffeted boat. It was a game of angles, keeping us pointed toward Ay but out of the face of the waves—a head-on collision would swamp the cabin, probably flood the engine as well , and throw us into a helpless, soon-to-be capsized drift. Likewise, taking a straight broadside from the swell would tip our narrow boat on its side, leaving us adrift and scrambling for something to float with. Something in between was needed, something to split the difference and keep us moving on, always moving on—because once you step into those waves, there’s no way you’re turning that boat around without going over. Stern and narrow-eyed, he played the angles game with our lives.

Meanwhile, in the cabin, we scrambled to stow electronics in the water-tight bags. We wiped the salt from our eyes with every new broadside, and the Brits, seated in the front, resorted to wearing their snorkel masks to keep the salty waves out of their eyes.

Hiding apprehension is much easier in a crowd, so we made jokes: “Ever seen Life of Pi?”

“More like Perfect Storm.”

Someone started humming bars from Celine Dion’s Titanic title track.

I filmed with our waterproof camera—a crowd of nervous fish-haunters shivering and trying to smile in the crazy waves of the Rhun-Ay run. Between the crashes and squeals of the pitches, Andy started recounting the horrors of the Gili-Bali fastboat. The Spaniards responded with a tale of capsized launch in the Philippines.

“How far are we?” Andy asked—she was facing the back in an attempt to keep both the water and the view from her eyes, and to catch the growing cloud-scape framing the coming sunset.

“Halfway,” I lied.

“No,” the Brit interjected. “More like a third. If we go over, better swim for Rhun.”

Sea cucumber anyone?  That is a sea cucumber, right?
Sea cucumber anyone? That is a sea cucumber, right?

Another sigh and another salty splash swamped through the windows. Our stout captain kept calm, kept smoking, kept us upright.

“If we make it through,” someone offered, “we need to buy this guy a whole carton of cigarettes.”

“Yeah,” Andy agreed, “to replace the one he’s smoking to get us though this trip.”

By the time we reached the safety of Ay’s leeward side and anchored, everyone had seen enough of the sea. Well, almost everyone—I still wanted to jump in.

And why not—it’s why we came on this crazy trip. And besides, calmly poking here and there in the tiny ripples, oblivious to the dangers of the straights, snorkelers from the shore were wading out to the reef. Yes, lazing out from the beach in their afternoon, floating out in their small little crafts, completely ignorant of the harrowing seas across their isle, came the snorkelers staying on Ay.

We sailed in, drenched and haggard and wild-eyed, dropped anchor among them, and stared. And we shivered violently.

“So,” I jumped up and started rummaging through the strewn remains of our packs, “are we going to snorkel or what?”

The sun was rather low on the western slope of sky. Some had dived here yesterday. Others were staying a few nights here and could afford to wait.

All of us were apprehensive about the trip back.

“Levi,” the Spaniards drew me aside from my snorkel prep, “ask the captain. If it’s not safe to cross tonight, you can stay here. No problem. We have enough clothes for everyone.”

But the captain was smoking again and grinning. “Tidak apa-apa,” he told me. “No problem. The waves will be smaller there. No problem. Tidak Masala.”

And then he looked at his watch and frowned. “But we stay only thirty minutes here.”

So I swam. The others stayed anchored on the gentle hammock of the leeward waves. I swam through the majesty of the fabled Pulau Ay.

And what of Ay’s famous cliff? It’s impressive in its depth, its sheer plunge to invisible nothing or everything beneath. Glimpses of massive creatures hover on the verge of reality there, floating into your sand-mottled vision only long enough to make you look twice. Windy season visibility—too much sediment floating around, too much champagne color to the pictures, too limited range of vision.

Luckily the foreground is full of its own flavor of glory—the swimming, flitting rainbows of the tropics darting within and without the fluorescent forest of corals. The dance of the waters waved before my eyes, the rhythm set to the silence of the head underwater, the absence of all sound except the pulse of your own breath heaving through the tube.

I spent my half-hour there, I got to meet the beauty queen of the Banda reefs. But it’s hard to enjoy a pristine moment when you know the trouble that waits for your boat ride home.

Half our troop stayed over on Ay—they’d already made arrangements and booked up the scanty rooms available. We envied them—their conspicuous absence on the remaining leg of the harrowing boat trip. We would have loved to stay and set sail in the morning’s calm, but what could we do—we had a Pelni to catch before dawn, and a week’s worth of adventure waiting in the next archipelago south.

We did what we had to do: we battened down all the hatches, shook hands with our stalwart little captain, and chugged out in the waiting arena. “Tell us when you get there!” shouted our friends from the shore. “Please send a message to tell us you made it!”

We were already heaving and swinging through the breakers.

“If our parents could see us now,” giggled the Brit from behind his snorkel goggles, “they’d take away our passports and never let us out of the parish.”

People do strange things to see fishies. I’m one of those. Here in the Bandas, it’s easy to get in too deep. What started as a snorkel trip ended in white-knuckle wave-rocking. What began as curiosity ended in ruined lunches. What promised to be a spice-gathering expedition ended in a bloody massacre and centuries of subjugation.

Shivering and terrorized, but we made it back
Shivering and terrorized, but we made it back

I blame the beauty and the fever of these flecks of volcanic rock sitting so solitary, so lush, so incredibly perfect in such a wide sea. Banda—this little window of heaven lets such fickle spices grow in mind-flooring profusion, nourishes such finicky ecosystems to flourish, ensnares you in its own particular reality where the norms of the outside world sit so dreamily distant that even a white-knuckle boat ride through the pitching waves is somehow divorced from reality. Banda whispers into the watery silence swarming your ears, assures you that you float in an absurd little wonderland where your fantasies, be it reef-gazing or spice-grabbing, are somehow sanctioned. It’s the age-old story of the call of the exotic, and a traveler’s capitulation to its voice.

The world came clamoring here for riches, once upon a time, and got stupid for its greed. You could say the same for our quest for fishes, for the next few hours held so much more of those plank-grasping moments and breath-stealing chill of the waves plunging over the side of the boat and across our frigid skin. No massacres or forced migrations came from our quarter, but we were still in over our heads—and for something so pretty and simple.

But the time we smoothed out the choppy sea and settled back in the calm harbors of the Banda Neira central cluster, we were exhausted. We needed hot food. We thanked the captain and left a generous tip. We thought ourselves the wiser for having survived the ride.

Yet even as we hobbled home, we forgot our blunders, and talk turned to the next set of islands over the horizon. Our gaze drifted to new lands, new seas, new adventures waiting in the wings. Already forgetting the dangers we’d lived through, we planned tomorrow’s escapades.

Wave goodbye to the Bandas.  Next Stop: Kei Islands
Wave goodbye to the Bandas. Next Stop: Kei Islands
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