Wakatobi: The Mantra

Waka Map
I didn’t even know there was an island there

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.”


Beach Goodness
What better company could you keep on the beach?

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.


Coral Sneak Peek
Just a glimpse of the coral to come.

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.

Star Love Islands
Stars love Wakatobi — something about an island with no electricity.

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