In a tiny interior-design shop, Muhamad Ali introduced me to Wakatobi. My wife had just stopped in for a simple question, but Ali cornered me, led with the smart phone pictures, and finished me off with the hook: “You won’t know Indonesia,” he declared, “until you see Wakatobi.”
Whatever. I knew he wasn’t the real, Muhamad Ali. This guy was just a young-20’s architect with a penchant for adventure tourism and donating his time at underprivileged schools. Well, that and blasting half-cocked pictures of tropical islands in the face of strangers.
Ali didn’t have a single underwater shot. His featured a standard wharf over a standard bay on a cloudy day. Some palms. Some bungalows. C’mon, Ali. I’d seen all that.
The one that floored me, though, was this: “My friend from English,” Ali pointed his slender finger to the screen, “look at his back!” Sure enough, there it was, a chubby Brit looking helplessly over his shoulder at the camera — his back Hellfire red and sun-blistered enough to ensure he wouldn’t sleep on his back for a month. “You know the coral amazing,” Ali concluded, “when he do this to see it.”
That was back in October, 2013. I was new to Indonesia in those days, had barely completed the Bali-Lombok-Gili triangle. Couldn’t even pronounce Kalimantan. Wasn’t even sure I’d witnessed the distortions of Sulawesi’s map in my life. Didn’t know the difference between dynamited and boat-anchored coral.
But Ali’s mantra stuck with me: Wa – ka – to – bi.
Every time a vacation came up, the whisper returned in the nights. Wakatobi. Every time I opened Lonely Planet, I flipped back to the chapters on Wakatobi. Every time I started Googling pics of a new destination, and every time I dreamed of a far-away island, and every time I climbed out of a sea in a different spot on the Asian side of the globe, I wondered, deep in my heart, how all this would compare the promised splendor of Wakatobi.
Two years passed, and the mantra only grew. The call wouldn’t leave. I had the best blogs bookmarked in my browser. I had memorized the constituent islands: WAngi-wangi, KAledupa, TOmia, BInongko. I had memorized the labyrinth of flight-and-float routes to arrive. I knew that it offered a killer split of a choice – a resort I could never afford to approach, and a series of ramshackle homestays catering to the rest of humanity.
I became convinced. I bought into Ali’s proclamation: I would never know, truly know, Indonesia until I knew Wakatobi.
I thought I was ready. I thought I could finally face the mantra.
Wa – ka – to – bi.
Here we come.