Kei Islands: the low down

Could it be the best ever?


Guidebooks say it’s got the best beaches in Indonesia. Bloggers say maybe the best in Southeast Asia. The map says it’s a few specks of islands tucked away under Papua and out in the deepest sea Indonesia’s got to offer.


They call it the Keis, and judging by the lack of online chatter, next to no one knows about it.


But we do.   And here’s the low down.


Places to Stay

So, the first thing you need to know about the Malukus is that it doesn’t bring your average tourist—guys coming here stay in the country a month-and-a-half or two, and they live out of backpacks and make plans fast and loose and on the fly. They scour over budgets and they book trips simply: a round trip ticket to a place, and a giant blank slate in between the dates. They meet and chat and flip through pictures and notes and guide books pages, and whenever they get an internet connection they find some tickets for the next leg of travel.

Because boats are always a good idea


Maybe we got infected with the show-up-and-see-what’s-around mentality. Maybe it’s because network and internet in Banda was petrified at best. Maybe it’s because we didn’t trust word alone and wanted a few TripAdvisor reviews before settling on something. But when we shoved our way down the crowded gangplank of the Pelni in Kei’s capitol of Tual, we had nowhere to stay.


Masses of sweaty people crowded around, shouting about taxis and food and probably wanting a HelloMister photo. Porters bustled and shoved, crowds crashed relentlessly around, and out of the darkness and milling faces, a skinny man with a crooked smile and plenty of missing teeth said he was here to pick us up.


When strangers approach you in the crashing masses of a port, when chaos reigns and people are pushy and you’re already covering your pockets like mad from the infamy of pickpockets, and when a stranger approaches and offers you a ride, do what we did. We looked at each other, shrugged, and said, “Why not?”


We didn’t have a place to stay, but at least we had a ride. What followed was a island-wide circus of midnight stops and wake-the-manager chats and checks inside available lodgings. We managed to drop off a couple of Pelni buddies, and we may have made the entire island hate us, but here’s a quick glance at the lodging options we found that crazy first night in Kei Kecil.


The allure of the Keis — miles and miles of stuff like this

Dragon— The name is plenty fierce, and so is the noise outside. Our Polish friend was lodging here, basing his choice on a Lonely Planet suggestion. We tried to say goodbye as we dropped him off outside, but the racing motorbikes drowned out all but our most ardent shouts. Ojek drivers crowded around and peeked in on our conversations and into our wallets when we tried to split the driver’s bill. “I hope the windows block some of that sound,” Andy whispered to me.


“What!” I yelled back.


“I said, ‘It’s too loud!’”


“Who’s proud?”


“Foot Pie!” our friend waved and shouted to us before walking into the mouth the Dragon.


The big beach at the far end of the island

Coaster—the hip place on the main tourist beach, and about the only thing in Kei Kecil with an internet presence worth mentioning. Despite the dearth of tourists present on the island, this string of beachside “bungalows” was booked solid. Rooms seemed simple but clean when we peeked into our friends’ accommodation, and the vibe at the dinner table was plenty hip and very international. One guy was working on a doctorate from Berkley and had just discovered a new species of bird. Another was an art dealer from Holland looking for local inspiration. A sleek-dressed couple nodded noiselessly and silently planned how much conditioner to use in their next shower.


Yes, this is a place for young and snazzy travelers to meet and boast of all their pinpoints over the globe. “We’re coming here when they have a room open,” Andy whispered over my shoulder. “OK,” I shrugged while everyone at the dinner table turned their noses up to the ceiling. They probably saw we weren’t carrying the latest model North Face.


Sunset starfish outside Coasters

De Lima—one online opinion says this owner was kind; the guidebook frowned and noted that it’s got a karaoke. What we found was a lone smoker in an empty bar who reluctantly dragged himself out of his chair to show us a pair of rooms with aged mattresses on the floor and a moldy mosquito net. The shared bathroom featured a western toilet mounted high on tiled pedestal.


Andy was perusing the ratty sheets on the bed. “We’re going to get bugs here for sure,” she whispered to me.


Our driver concurred: “This one no good. Girls from the town come here for the night after the bar. You know.”


Next please.


Taking a dive — this time in a cave

Mama Tita—the name alone seems worth snickering at, and we found it neither in guidebook nor online. You can find it, though, right next to Delima: it’s a pair of rooms with decent sheets and a bit of mosquito net, managed by a smiling ibu whose hands inspire confidence of mouthwatering homecooked meals.


“But the privacy?” Andy whispered, nodding at the thin wicker partition separating the two “rooms”—it didn’t reach the ceiling, and a boasted a fist-sized hole at the head of the beds. Maybe it works best for a family needing to keep close tabs on their kiddos next door/wall. Or maybe for creepy perverts escaping stringent privacy laws back in civilization.


“Let’s try the next one,” I said to our now-crestfallen driver. I think he might have had a hankering for Mama Tita. Maybe he had glanced at his watch and had seen how abysmally late it was getting.


Savannah—this is the Lonely Planet pick, and thus it was included in our mass-text to Kei Kecil lodgings asking for price and availability. It’s where our driver thought we were headed originally when he picked us up. “But no,” we told him, “we never got a price back from there. We don’t know if anything’s available.” On our way to the other places, the owner, a Mr. Gerson, called and shouted something through a garbled phone connection. “No, I shouted back. “I can’t hear you. We’re going somewhere else.”


Well, here we were, nearing midnight and quickly scratching available options off the list of possibilities. “Let’s try Savannah,” we said to the driver. “I guess we might need a place there after all.”


The beach from Lucy’s and Gerson’s properties

“I’m pissed off at you,” Mr. Gerson said after our half-hour wandering through the scraggling brush of Kei Kecil’s bays and backroads, after finally finding the place and creeping through the moonlit paths in its empty bungalows, after finding nothing but a “Gone for Vacation” paper stuck to the gate. “You text me you’re coming, I go and buy food, and get ready to cook. And now I call you and you say you’re not coming. I don’t want you here.”


I apologized and tried to explain that we had never agreed on anything, and that he had never given us a price or indicated availability, and that we weren’t thrilled with the other options.


“I don’t care,” Gerson flipped his cigarette wildly into the wind. “First a group for ten days cancels and goes somewhere else, now this. F— this. I’m going on vacation.”


And he turned to go back in the house.


It was dark, and very late. We were tired from twelve hours of ferry and a couple more of fighting crowds. The island had yielded little in the way of something inspiring confidence. Could we go back to Mama Tita after snubbing it? Would the Dragon have an open room? Could we possibly—


“But my wife’s place has an open room,” Gerson shouted back over his shoulder .


Lucy’s Place—Gerson’s wife smiled calmly, picked up a couple towels, and climbed into the passenger seat. To be honest, we thought it a bit presumptuous to grab the towels already. And we weren’t sure we wanted any business with the tempestuous Mr. Gerson and company. But we were burning bridges across the entire island, our driver was sleepy, and outside of driving back into the din of the city, this looked like (and actually was, we’d later find) the last option. We held out breath and each other’s hand.


Half a kilometer away, we parked at a humble pair of buildings surrounded on three sides by a forest of coconut palms; the fourth faced a glowing crescent of white sand stretching into the moonlight.


Lucy spoke softly and introduced the room—a tidy little concern with clean sheets, nice tile, and a bug-free bathroom. It was simple, it was basic, it was clean. Perfect.


This would be our place for the next week: Lucy’s sister bringing filling breakfasts and hearty dinners out on a motorbike, her brother-in-law tending to the property and motorbike rental, her nieces and nephews making spontaneous appearances to caper about beneath the clacking palms. Lucy’s place was the quietest on the island, and its front–porch views of glowing surf ringed by a curvaceous bay were impossible to beat.


Lucy’s Place — humble arrangements, perfect stay


The Godfather of Backpacking

He lived right next door—a middle-aged man with a salt-and-pepper beard, a resonant voice, and a respectable paunch to his belly. His eyes twinkled with alternating hints of wisdom and humor, and his pitch-perfect voice at once inspired confidence and reassurance and made you wonder why he wasn’t making his fame on radio broadcasts and movie-trailer voiceovers. His gravity of manner and disposition drew us into his orbit, and we soon found ourselves accepting his word as law, his advice as command, and his tales as a privilege to listen to.


As conversations in these parts invariably turn to places traveled, we found the godfather of backpacking to listen intently to each word spoken, and then, if asked, would reveal that he too had traveled to such-and-such a place, and probably several times, and had in fact worked on a report concerning just that subject for a certain council of the United Nations project to something something something.


He knew it all without showing off. He dwarfed us all in experience and dignity and disposition, yet he never hinted that he was aware of it. He laughed with Lucy and joked with the children and then turned to answer all our questions of the most remote islands in this hemisphere—or any other hemisphere for that matter: their geology, their history, their anthropology, and which boats leave from where to reach them, and how much they are likely to cost at each different season of the year.


We visited the Kupu-kupu on the godfather’s advice

If the godfather said to visit the beach at the south, we went—twice in fact. If the godfather said that tomorrow would be nice weather because only the low layer of clouds were left by today’s end, then we made extensive and elaborate plans for that day. And if rain would chance to fall, we felt betrayed by nature rather than consider that the godfather could perhaps, by some slight chance, have been mistaken.


He’s been scuba diving in Asia’s most remote and most exotic locales for over four decades, and his scalpel-shard memory ready to carve up a tale painted on all the minutest details of the currents and the wildlife to be found in each site.


Andy took to testing him: Mauritius? Check. Solomon islands? Yep. Palau? Several times. Phlippines? Well, which atoll are we talking about? Fiji? Of course. Easter Island? No… Wait, yes—sorry, I was thinking of Pitcairn islands (geographically the most obscure speck of land of the planet). “I haven’t seen Pitcairn yet.”


“Aha!” I yelled. “Gotcha!”


He raised a dignified eyebrow, and I slunk back to the beach in shame.

Beach kids and lollipops


For three days and three nights the godfather slept next door. Our breakfast toasts were braised by his knowing hand. Our moonlit dinners graced by his exquisite laugh and light touch of immense knowledge.


“Lucy’s Place,” he firmly declared, “is the best on this island.”


“The Petroglyphs across the bay,” he announced, “are actually paintings that resembled some I’veobserved while living in East Timor, and bear remarkable resemblance to those seen in Papua, which of course can be traced to Australasian roots.”  Fascinating.


“Pasir Panjang,” he opined in his opinion worth its weight in iron-clad chains, “is a waste of time, and the southern beach a thousand times better.” We believed him until we saw it for ourselves.



The Tourist Draw (AKA Pasir Panjang)

Sand as fine as flour, guidebooks boast, and lonely kilometers of it. Water bright as the sunshine’s smile, and coconut palms swaying gracefully over it all—you can have it all to yourself, they say, as long as you don’t show up on Sunday.


The godfather came on Sunday, and he despised it: too much “Hello Mister” and “Photo Mister” and preteen giggles from all ages upon encountering a white guy.  Plus the music–decibels of Indonesia Dangdut cranked from truck-born speakers that by all rights ought to be confined to Vegas nightclubs.


Sunset at Pasir Panjang — tough to beat at any season

But here’s the weekday tale: a solitary trip through a dusty beachside path, a motorbike’s echo through the palms, a slew of deserted pavilions resting in the shade, waves so calm the beach is silent, scarcely even a splash.


And yes, all the glory they tell you about the sand is true.


Orange Beach, Alabama and Panama City, Florida held the record before, but their palms are imported and their waters the murky shrimp fisheries of the Gulf. Come to Indonesia for beach this high on the perfection scale: sand no second the fabled grace of Orange and Panama, but with bountiful forests of palms swaying overhead and under the racing white clouds above. The water is clearer than your bath. The wildlife lurking in its coral more varied than your richest neighbor’s aquarium. The length and breadth and stretch of it test your eyes’ ability to squint into the sunlight around the lush curve of the giant bay. Shallow enough for babies, calm enough for grandmas, and secluded (on weekdays) enough to leave you brimming with rage the moment a solitary fisherman comes ambling along the shore—how dare he interpose in your wonderland of superlatives!


Can you see how soft the sand is? Fat starfish seem to enjoy it plenty.

Pasir Panjang is something special alright—something so special I even questioned the godfather’s assessment of it as a cesspool of annoyances scarcely capable of a man of his caliber and intellect and infallible assurance on everything. Perhaps I was hallucinating my experience, perhaps I dreamed in all—surely the godfather wasn’t mistaken.


Just a twenty-minute motorcycle jaunt from Lucy’s front door, and with miles of westward facing beach, Pasir Panjang quickly became our go-to spot for sunset watching.  Even better, the rainy season cloudscapes served up a panorama of cloud-jostling, color-snaking, drop-everything-and-grab-the-camera vistas of the sinking sun.


Inside the water, I found, surprisingly enough, coral regrowing from past generations of dynamite fishers and boating rock-anchors.  Yes, it coral was small, and the fish miniature, but it’s there and on the rebound.


A bit of coral in the shallow bay off Pasir Panjang

But like the godfather advised, don’t tread here on a Sunday.



The Dark Horse (AKA… ummm… does it even have a name?)

Ohioder Tahun, or something like that, is what we took to calling it eventually. This was the godfather’s favorite, and I’m here to testify that it lived up to his eminence’s billing. Take all the greatness of Pasir Pangag, add two gracious kilometers to it, and erase all the pavilions and all the motorbike tracks and all the people anywhere, save a handful of fishers at one end and a village of seaweed gatherers at the other.


Miles of untamed highways to reach the beach

Here the lusty palms droop over the sugary sands, and the playful waves swift in and out with a rhythm of a hammock set to nap-time. This is the site of coconuts galore—not as a tourist fix with rum, but as a local staple of surviving. Heavy clouds drape the scene in gray and drizzle, then split open riper than any summer’s favorite melon, spilling glorious sunshine over everything and everyone—and then the place comes alive: sparkling drops settled like glitzy dew on the greenest greens and bluest blues greet a sand blistering its brilliance back to heaven.


It’s the kind of place you see in postcards and sigh, knowing they must be photoshopped. Not here, buddy.


The only problem is about eleven kilometers of the most broken and rutted and fractured pavement to exist on this side of Dante’s Purgatory.

The godfather’s favorite beach — and he knows what he’s talking about


Our motorbike hobbled along, jacking and scraping and bumbling us across the potholes you need to pole-vault across and puddles large enough for crocodiles to nest in. We might as well have ridden a drunken camel down the Alps on April Fools’ – and then driven on to Moscow in a Hyundai with square tires.


And that’s not counting the one-lane bridge you cross and the steep alleys and blind intersections you negotiate in the towns.


The only consolation—aside from promised land of glory awaiting at the end—were the villages swarming in smiling kiddos who scampered round the bike for high fives and Hello Misters.


Everyone gets in on the seaweed gig

Having learned our lesson from Pulau Ny Laka, we resorted to lollipop diplomacy, scattering bagfuls of sweets in our wake like a one-cylinder ticker-tape parade. Once, I stepped out for a few kicks at the scruffy old soccer ball. I hated to interrupt their game, but when you’re a visiting dignitary—one of the few bules to cross this town in the last twelve months—you can indulge in certain privileges.


Villages by the beach proved largely the same—gasoline comes in old water jugs, smiles by the bushel.


After parking the well-rattled bike and hobbling out to the sand, Andy shook her head. “It’s just a good thing for Bali that no one knows about this place.”


“Can you imagine this place with high-rise hotels? With these guys,” I nodded to the fishers waist-deep in the waves, “parking cars and serving drinks?”


She shook her head.


But wait ten years and see.


Stopping by the schoolyard for a soccer showdown


The Photographers’ Testing Ground

If the crowds arrive, they better read a little better on the seasons than we. Unlike the Javan clime, Maluku lives by Papua’s edict: August brings clouds and wind and rain. Fortunately for us, the clouds are lively, the wind brisk, and the rain a wanderlusting wizard. The end result was a panorama of dazzling contrast—one frame a dreary gray, the next a bursting rainbow of brilliance. One moment we scurried to the palm thickets and huddled over the Canon; the next we sprinted back to the shimmering sand.


Constantly adjusting the light meter, the white balance, the focal point—and just as often wrapping the camera in plastic bags and tucking it away in its bag, then hustling to get it back out—wears on a guy. The locals, glancing at us over their bamboo wickets drying seaweed, probably thought we were nuts—two crazies staring at the clouds, running in and out of the trees, huddling in rain jackets, then smiling before the tripod and timer.


That’s not to mention the luggage we rode with. Other tourists might suffice with a towel, some sunscreen, and a few bucks cash. That’s other tourists. We rode loaded down: Canon, extra lens, GoPro, extra batteries, cleaning supplies, tripod, waterproof bag, waterproof jackets, water bottles, snacks, change of clothes (for formal shots), candy for the kiddos (to bribe for pics), beach towels, snorkel gear, and a few more snacks.


Reveling in the beach sunshine — before the storm

Add that mess all up, and you get tourists lashed down with bags and gear and constant packing and moving and setting down and picking up.


No, it wasn’t for the faint of heart or quick of temper.


And all the shots meant hours afterward, in the lamplight of Lucy’s porch, pouring over shots and contrasting minutest details and tweaking the tiniest of colors.


But in the end, when Andy uploaded facebook pics and friends gushed over island radiance, we alone knew the art and sacrifice behind the shot. It ain’t just showing up and snapping a selfie.


Yes, Kei proved a mad dash of a photographer’s obstacle course for us. But the constant hassle of the fickle clouds, on the other hand, made for a endless playdate with the GoPro and its waterproof case.


Afternoon fishers bringing home the haul

After a day, we had a routine: park the bike, set the GoPro time lapse, then on to the swim or the pics or the lazing or the chatting.


We let that stalwart little guy click away all day at the time lapses, and giggled over the videos later: clouds rocketing by the firework palms, waves lapping quicker than a puppy’s tongue, boats floating phantom by across it all. Sunsets, seascapes, cloud-shots—we burned through gigabytes like they carried the plague.


And we were never sorry.



Freshwater Snorkel and the Kupu-kupu Invasion

Take the backroads a bit inland and you can spelunk a pair of tiny caves with nothing more that your snorkel mask and a flashlight. The pools are blue as sapphires and so clear you can spot every piece of trash the locals have chunked in there over the years, and the pumps for cranking some drinking water up to their homes.


They didn’t mind us swimming in their potable water, though.


I had forgetten how much less buoyant I am when swimming in fresh water—it’s like I’ve gained a few dozen pounds and am all left hands.


But even so, it’s a bit refreshing, because every time you get a splash of the surrounding on your lips, it’s as pure and clean as a mountain stream. Well, with a few extra noodle wrappers and beer cans lying along the bottom.


Andy, though, opted out of the snorkel—she was magnetized by an invasion of kupu-kupu: Butterflies.


Some quality time with some quality freshwater

Fire orange and sunshine yellow, golf course green and electric blue, brown like ice tea in the sunshine, they flitted across the stone stairs dropping to the caves, and they flirted with all the branches and flowers along the way. Floating over the breeze in magnificent glory that they may well be unaware they possess, the butterflies soaked up the moment—one of the few they’ll posses in their three-week life spans.


Andy scampered back and forth along the trail, camera trained across the scene, stalking the reluctant beauties like a Beverly Hills paparazzi kingpin. Meanwhile, I flippered through the pristine pool and caves.


It’s worth the trip. You can find directions in Lonely Planet.


A butterfly of the giant variety–wingspan big as a tree trunk


Ring Around the Island

Past the paradise beach of the godfather’s edict, the road smooths and the pavement behaves and the white-striped kilometers unspool before the humming tires of the bike. Ferns and palms and statuesque old-growth hang and wave and preside over the forgotten corners of the isle.


We laughed with open mouths and leaned into the sun-bouncing curves. We hunkered through the rainy spells and gritted teeth through the spray of trudging trucks. Then the ruddy sun split back through the gray blankets and we rounded a bend sweeping an arc of deep blue sea across the horizon, and we nearly fell off the bike from craning our necks to watch.


Motorcycling through the rainy season

What I’m saying is that we rode that little bike around the entire island—over hills and through the bogs, rambling over ruts and cracks and crunching struts, and across the miles of kiss-smooth, untried pavement waiting to carry the trucks that will one day build the high-rises across the island’s crescent bays and beaches.


Villages sleep siestas all the tired days, and locals spin yarns and play cards in bamboo-and-thatch shelters. Onion-topped mosques sit across the streets from stained-glass churches, and ragtag soccer matches and badminton battles spark onto the waiting streets.


Ring the island round, number its villages, and sample the food if you’re lucky enough to find anything more than instant noodles and too-sweet tea.



Back at the Ranch

Meanwhile, at Lucy’s we woke late to swing in hammocks through the lazy mornings in the soft tropic sun, watching the afternoon’s clouds roll in, and the tide slide out to sea. The godfather regaled us with tales whenever prompted, and we savored the meals ferried our way by Lucy’s sister and brother-in-law, who looked after the place while Lucy was busy calming storm Gerson.


Taking it easy at Lucy’s beach

She laughed when we tried to send our apologies to him. “No no no. He’s not mad. He’s enjoying his vacation. He has too much stress, you know.” And she waved her slim hand beachward and shook her head. “He’s already forgotten it.”


“One of the sweetest ladies in Indonesia,” Andy proclaimed after a two-hour chat (all in Indonesian, I might add) with Lucy after dinner.


And such chats were nothing unusual: talk comes free and easy and unfettered there in the shaded porch and ambling minutes of Kei Kecil. Or sometimes I’d wander out into the shimmering brilliance of the shallow bay, where straying a kilometer into the water will soak you only to your waist.  Or sometimes we’d rock in hammocks and try to remember all the details of last night’s dreams.  Then we’d gather the gear, step over to the bike, and set out for the day’s adventure.


Basking in the sunset glow at Lucy’s beach

The evenings found us dousing ourselves with frigid water and scrubbing salt and sand away, then retiring back to the porch to await heaps of sticky rice and fried fish. Later, the symphony of the surf and the palms and the silent stars kept us company.



The Ambiance

Aside from the motorbike cruises and the rampant beach-mongering and long days of lazing in the sun’s rays—well, when they were available—what Kei offers is an essence, an atmosphere, an ambiance.


Here clocks drag through molasses and tick the sweet time away more slowly. Here, the plumbing comes in cold water only, and every bed needs a mosquito net. Here, the palm trees aren’t landscaped, the tourists the exception and never the rule, the locals still local, and ancient island customs like brass bracelets serving for wedding rings and bride prices paid in gifts of cannons (yes, literally cannons) still thrive.


The tropic ambiance

It’s an island that still breathes like an island. One that’s hard to track down on the map, that bristles up your adventure sense at hopping a couple extra steps off a tourist track and learning not just to cope with the headaches, but to somehow smile, take your wife’s tiny hand in your own, and sigh at the new slice of life served up before you.


Yet for all that, Kei is not hard to find (fly Jakarta to Ambon, Ambon to Tual, routes are at least twice daily, or a twenty-hour Pelni will do it). And we barely scratched the surface. Try the hike up the Easter Hill stations of the cross, and endure the stares and cell phones pics of the teenage entourage that envelopes you. Take a boat to uninhabited outlying islands, if you survive the boat ride. Explore the endless coasts of Kei Besar next door.


But in all this, know, and feel, and revel in the ambiance that island offers to those hardy enough to venture to its shore.


The mosaic of the butterflies


Isle of Dreams

Too often I tend to see the locals here as simple souls skipping through idyllic little lives—people who wake up every day to the beauty that half the world strives to behold for a mere matter of moments. I celebrate their smiles and gloss over the poverty, or the island fever, or the fact that they may indeed be dissatisfied with life on a tiny, beach-ringed island.


Here’s what I mean: when Andy and I climbed to the top of a scenic overlooked, a handful of teens from the nearby village followed us up. While she and I stopped amid statues of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection to photograph the surroundings, a troop of loitering teens stopped some distance off and began, as perfectly as if they were in an audition, to sing.


Saying hello to some local hopefuls

First came a rap—in Indonesian, of course—about Maluku. Then another opened up in a ballad. Then a third slid smoothly into a pop tune.


It struck me—there as we stood under the open arms of the Savior—that maybe these guys were trying to get “discovered.” What sort of dreams they had of Hollywood producers touring their islands, or of tourists returning to European capitals with stories of local geniuses singing out their young hearts amid the tropic hills and peaks of their island home, I’ll never know.


But it struck me that these guys dreamed of elsewhere.


They dream of fame and of life away from their tiny isle of turquoise water lapping over the shallow reefs. They seemed, in the gravity of their impromptu auditions before a tone-deaf couple with a clumsy camera at a tourist overlook, to beg for some attention: we’re not just simple island folk, their song came to my ears, we are people with modern dreams and worldwide ambition. Carry our story back with you. Tell the world of the dreams the youth of Kei Kecil harbor in their songs.


And they weren’t alone:


Spinning around the island in the motorbike, we invariably came across the soccer matches in the yards and fields and schoolgrounds—from makeshift goals to well-cured pitches, youth and young men hustled and sweated after that capricious ball.


Life ain’t all about the beaches, actually

But one guy, I remember, as we climbed another of the island’s many hills, came jogging back down: soccer jersey sweated wet, long hair tied back, no-nonsense gleam in his sharp glance. He was not just running through the paces of just another pickup game for just another afternoon’s entertainment. No, he was training.


And in the instant that we passed him on our motorbike, I understood his ambition: not just to win at the pick up games in the uneven courts of the island, not just to be the big fish on the small island of footballers, but to make it further. This was a guy not just playing the game, but dreaming of bigger stadiums and life-changing goals.


Give me a chance, his glance said in an instant, and I’m going to make it bigger than this island.


I know because that used to be me—except with basketball, and without the island.


I know because it’s still me—except with a scribbling out blogs instead of singing on hilltops.


Perhaps I read too much of me into these guys. Perhaps I’ve no right to take a glimpse of these lives and construct a character around a moment of seeing someone foreign. Perhaps.


Another dreamer on the Keis?

But this much I do know: that it’s not enough to lump an island’s population into a single ball of description—the tranquil and smiling people of an island paradise. That also is a dream: but one capricious, fanciful, and ultimately destructive to the individual identities present across this island, across all islands. Dreams do exist here. Individuals do exist.


What better way to see them than to try to understand their hearts’ ambitions?


The Low Down

Kei Kecil may be a tiny blip on Indonesia’s giant radar; it may be an even tinier blip on the international tourist’s to-see checklist.  But for us, it pounds down a firm spot among the must-visit islands in all of this archipelago.


It lacks refined spas and hot water and even reliable pavement.  Restaurants are few and far between (especially outside of Tual), and the beaches offer no nightlife aside from De Lima’s shady karaoke.  But for all that, the island life thrives, and the tourist–no, check that, the traveler–crazy enough to visit won’t go away disappointed.  That’s the low down, or at least our version of it, on the Keis.


Goodnight moon; goodnight Keis

10 thoughts on “Kei Islands: the low down

  1. Awesome read. I’m planing a trip to Maluku and it’s on the list. One question….How was the diving? I don’t want to make the trip all the way out if it’s been all dynamited out. Thanks!


    1. Hey Jeff, glad you enjoyed the article. Maluku is definitely worth your time. As far as the diving in Kei, I don’t really know–I just spent an hour snorkeling before we had to leave. I’d heard so many bad things about it, I was expecting the worst. There was a little coral, though, worth getting in the water for. Check with a group called Kakaban ( )–they have trips there pretty often, I think, and could give you a better idea. Even without the coral, I’d go back to Kei in heartbeat.

      Banda Islands have great, great underwater scenes — both for diving and snorkeling.


      1. Thanks for this info. I’m in between Kei and Banda. I know banda has better snorkeling but Kei you can fly to from Ambon so a bit easier. Love the blog!


      2. For, it’s Banda all the way. The scenery was amazing, there are great options for different islands, the underwater stuff is hard to top, and the history together add up for a unique experience.

        Kei is gorgeous, and it’s easier to reach, but I always remember Banda as one of my favorite trips in Indo.

        We took the Pelni from Ambon to Banda, and again from Banda to Tual. Then we flew Tual back to Ambon. That worked nicely for us, but Pelni schedules can be tougher to work around.

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  2. There is another things to be seen there actually. If you can contact some of the pearl farm there and visit as addition of your holiday schedule. It would be very pleasant.
    riding speedboat and see how the life on the sea it is a rare chance especially for westerner from big city.
    food and sleeping arent that great as you expect in hotel but you can feel how it is to live in a farm. Go swimming or fishing. Not a bad idea i think.

    You might want to visit Bair Island or Pulau Bair in Kei kecil, you can search it in google.



  3. This was such an awesome read! If you wouldn’t mind, can you pass me along the number for Lucy’s Place? (is her booking done through phone or SMS?) Also, I’m not experienced at all driving a motor bike. Is it do-able to hire a local to take you around the island?



  4. Incredible read! I as one crazy enough to go to these remote Isles are on route there now. This article is the best thing I’ve read about the Keis by a clear country mile. Kudos to you


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