“It’s like I’m trapped,” I felt my voice rising. “We’ve gotta get outta here.”
“Just take it easy,” Andy reassured me, “We’ll get the motorbike, and we’ll go for a ride. You’ll still get to snorkel.” She patted my hand. “Just chillax.”
But it’s hard, sometimes, to chillax. When the sunshine’s flowing and the waves are dripping lazy curves, and the palm leaves flit dry triangles through a pristine sky, you just get antsy to go.
Or at least I do.
And the resort we’d booked on Wangi-wangi – precisely because it was pretty much the only decent-looking place with an online presence—wasn’t helping out.
The landscaping was immaculate, the languid bungalows oozing honey, and the chilled vibe was simply suffocating. I mean, sure, it’s all cool for the first twenty-four hours, during which time you snap selfies and feel like a smug sort of boss for living the luxury life at half the rate of a simple hotel room back the States.
But then reality starts to sink in, the enchantment becomes a little overpowering, and you start to feel a little like Odysseus flogging his lotus-munching comrades, or the Eagles in their infamous Hotel California. Except with fewer narcotics and stabbing of beasts.
So that was me: trapped on what by all accounts is a pristine island wonderland, and after twenty-four hours, I hadn’t managed to make it outside the resort grounds. I was trapped at the threshold of glorious Wakatobi.
I was going crazy.
But with good reason, I suppose. Our trip from Jakarta, just a few hundred miles to the west, had required no less than three flights. One left a half hour early; the next, an hour late, the final one, well, who cared at that point—we were just hoping the propellers kept spinning. Andy and I had enjoyed a solid two hours of sleep the night before, and a breakfast of on-the-go pastries and bottled water and airport chaos had left me with a headache large enough to floor a mammoth, and rendered me a quasi-zombie stumbling through security screening.
By the time we landed, boarded the free airport pickup, and rolled our way to the “secluded” resort—in this case, meaning, “we bought the cheapest land available which is miles from anything interesting so you’d better just stick around and spend all your money here” – I was begging for a nap or for a quick dip in the pristine waters of the fabled seas of Sulawesi.
Trade that picture for a mile-long line at check-in, a miss-assigned room, and the obligatory celebration pictures for finally arriving at a place most of humanity has never heard of, but pretty much all would be amazed to see.
Wakatobi, you see, just so happens to be one of Indonesia’s newest, and most darling, little national parks. The thing spreads its coordinates over a vast stretch of sea, and covers a handful of tiny islands. By all accounts, it’s one of the most amazing underwater ecosystems on the planet. Or on any planet, for that matter.
But unlike the hype-monsters of the snorkeling universe, Wakatobi gets next to no press. The islands are small and mostly local. The boats who pass here are few and far between. The accommodations, as mentioned above, are like this: one hyper-expensive resort which steals away 95% of Google traffic looking at Wakatobi, one mid-range resort which we had chosen, and a dozen no-name mom-and-pop set-ups that perhaps cater to backpackers whose budget matters more than comfort or bedbugs or roaches.
The flights that Andy and I had booked only have existed, apparently, for something like three months – when the new airport was finished. That airport actually consists of a building now, and has at least one incoming and one outgoing flight daily.
So we arrived, we sorted out the room, we lounged and we slept. And we lounged some more. It was somewhat glorious, I guess, and languid and slow. Lounging. It was what I needed.
Except for the seas.
The seas, you see, are exactly why you come to Wakatobi. The place isn’t a national park for nothing, and it didn’t get that status for what’s above water. The entire expanse of the protected zone stretches long past the shore, mile past mile into the Banda Sea, leaving less than ten percent of the park’s surface area consisting of dry land.
It’s the reefs. Dazzling blazes of coral spinning wildly out of control. They bubble and pop in colors that make hippies look a little lame and children’s cereal feel a bit bland. As fun as it might be to sip coconuts in the shade of the palms, to gaze past the lazy breakers, to soak in the sunny rest, I was itching to get past the threshold and into the real wonderland.
Our chosen lodging, for all its perks, made getting into that wonderland something of a challenge – rocky outcrops and vast stretches of tidal pools made “just jumping out into the water” a rather unpleasant choice. Book an overpriced boat ride and get yourself to the reefs—that’s the common solution.
But we travel on something of a budget, and overpriced boats to the reefs might mean trading in a day or two of staying.
I couldn’t book the boat.
But I hadn’t booked flights here just to stand on the beach and imagine what might lurk out there, under those blazing blue panoramas of the seas.
A day and a half of landlocked waiting on the threshold, and I was feeling jittery, stranded at a well-meaning resort with no viable option for getting in the waves. The following morning, with the water warm and waiting, and all the tropic’s sun and sand lying opulent around me, I was haggling over prices to rent a motorbike with the girls at reception.
Eventually, we settled on a compromise—our hotel charged over twice the going rate on the rest of the island for a motorbike rental—and Andy and I hit the ground running. Er, um, rolling, I guess. I mean, we jumped on the bike and took off in search of a more accommodating beach.
As usual, Indonesia on a motorcycle is a thing worth risking your life for.
The hills purred by, and the villagers waved, and the barefoot kids scampered out of the streets and smiled us past. The road paralleled the shiny blue sea, and the palms lazed overhead in complacent bliss.
It was almost a shame we arrived at the destination.
First beach up—we parked, navigated the curious bystanders, dropped our gear on a secluded corner. Andy opted for a sunshiny stint on the warm sand while I shuffled out to the reefs, the awkward, backward shuffling of fins on the feet and waters too shallow to swim. It’s the strange little dance of the snorkeler waiting to reach knee-deep tides and turn and float the remaining hundred meters out to the coral.
Finally, finally, the reef was within grasp.
Was it as good as hyped?
Hands down. What followed was a watery slice of amazement. I would have gawked and guffawed if I hadn’t been underwater.
Herein lies ones of the challenges on trying to chronicle Indonesian travels: How many times can I tell about so many curves and colors, so many psychedelic fishes gliding slowly through the gardens, so many scenes brighter and funkier than a lava lamp on LSD? How many times do I find myself at a loss to explain the variety and the abundance of the sea? How many times do I try to names the fluorescent fishes and the strange fins and the disks and antlers and bulbs of the coral? I can never do it justice.
The reefs have me. I don’t know if I’ll ever find anything quite as inspiring. And I don’t know how much longer I can keep trying to describe it.
I slipped through the waves, marveled at what lay beneath, and shivered in the cold waters washing over me.
But enough of that. More beaches sprawled in the sunshine waiting to be explored. Hop back on the bike, babe, and we’re cruising on.
Next one up, a long, lean stretch of sand sprinkled with fishing boats, directly facing the coming sunset. I was giddy and bouncing and already stumbling through the beach scrub to get to the water. I was tossing down the gear and grabbing for the fins when—
Andy saw them.
“Oh no. Ohhhh… no.”
I looked up.
They’d seen us.
Two girls, no more than twelve, had spotted us. Two bules on their beach. Two foreigners. We may as well have been Hello Kitty incarnate. They were already sprinting toward us.
They were calling out to their friends.
Out from the palm thickets, from among the boats, from throughout the distant village they came.
“Go,” Andy pushed me toward the water. “Leave me here.”
“No,” I stammered. “No. We can do this together.” I frantically pulled her toward the sea. I was tripping over my fins.
The village children were closing in. There was no time. We could already hear the first, faint, “Hello Mister!” wafting over the surf.
“Don’t be a fool!” she screamed. “Save yourself!”
I stumbled headlong into the tide, clamoring in fins and sand in a headlong dash to the quiet refuge of the coral. Andy calming turned and faced her fate in the hand of the curious little guys.
The following hour saw me just two hundred meters distant, reveling in the glory of the most abundant reefs in the wonderland of Wakatobi—sun on my back, corals in my face, the crystal waters buoying me back and forth. I surfaced every now and then to see, in the glowing yellow beach, the crowd around Andy growing larger and larger.
By the time the tide had receded enough to make the return swim an onerous task of near-belly-scrapes on the coral, three dozen of Wangi-wangi’s youngsters were hanging onto my wife’s every word.
“Good,” see was telling one. “I like the sails you drew. But add some fish in the water.” And the miniature Rembrandt set to work scraping some hasty fish into his sandy portrait. Then she and her entourage strolled to the next masterpiece, perused, and the children grew silent awaiting her verdict.
“Hmmm. This one is good. You even drew a starfish on your boat. Now try a dolphin, too, in the waves.” She took a picture of the art.
When she saw me, dripping wet and fins in hand, she shrugged: “Well, no sunbathing for me, I guess. But we’re having a good time anyway.”
That much was apparent.
Aside from the dozen apprentices vying for attention for their artwork, a handful more were monkeying in the palms, screaming for a moment’s acknowledgment. A trio of girls, a little taller than the others, took to calmly strolling alongside Andy, trying to formulate questions in English. Hurriedly whispering through the responses and devoting them to memory. “Andy from Romania,” the girl in the red blouse kept repeating to herself. “Andy from Romania. Levi from America.”
A couple others thought the best way to receive a kind work was to splash oneself with sea water, then toss oneself in the sand, then stand and inspect oneself to see just how much surface area was now blanketed in the white powder.
Usually pretty much all of it.
Usually followed by giggles.
Sometimes this spectacle was followed with the inexplicable filling of the pants with sand, and laughter like a demented clown in a dentist’s chair.
Whatever it was, it was certain that Wangi-wangi’s children were some of the most welcoming and smiling little kiddos to ever run across a pair of wandering bules on their beach. They ran and shouted and laughed only until Andy needed them to stay quiet so she could hear from a shy one. They jostled and clamored to help us find sea shells—and when they heard me admire a particularly large one, they galloped down to the surf to locate, dig up, and wash off specimens of giant clam shells larger than an earl’s serving salver.
These giant clam shells now serve as soap dishes and flower vases in our bathrooms, by the way.
Their parents wandered along behind the kids to show us the boats, or the spear-fished catch of the day, or just to take a moment, like their kids, to stroll along and pose a few questions and smile a giant smiles.
Not many strangers make their way to this beaches, apparently. Too bad: the locals are more than hospitable.
The honeyed sun was melting softly into a sea so smooth it may as well have been a golden jello. “Before you got here,” Andy told me as the kiddos scampered around us, “the troublemakers kept drawing giant phalluses. I asked them to draw boats instead.”
And with those two sentences, I started to see the Wangi-wangi beaches in a light other than the sunset glow. Pre-teens obsessed with vulgar graffiti, children starving for acknowledgement, parents smoking away their incomes, all looking to a pair of strangers strolling down the beach as if the county fair had rolled into town and brought a platoon of rodeo clowns along for fun.
What were their daily lives like? Always screaming in the palms and capering off to the sunsets? Unlikely.
What did a pair of outsiders with a camera and some snorkel gear represent? What hope did we bring them?
And if I would appear back there on the beach right now, right at this moment, would the girl in the red blouse remember “Andy from Romania”?
On our way back to the bike, we snapped a photo with a boy with a stringer full of rainbow fishes he’d just speared. He shivered. The sun was down, and the chilled sea breezes were wafting in from the glassy sea. It was getting cold.
We saddled up and spun off toward the town.
In the port city of Wanci, you’ll find plenty more places to stay than you ever will by searching online. Most don’t advertise. They’re simple rooms and simple owners. They’ll take you in, give you a no-frills room, and feed you cheap.
How is one to know about and book such places? Backpackers bolder than us do it all the time; they just show up.
They show up, step off the boat, look around, and ask a driver if he knows a place. They arrive and take a peek at the room and ask for a price. If they don’t like it, they move on. If it seems OK, they stay. The driver takes his cut of the cash.
It seems a bold gambit to a guy raised on plans and itineraries and a penchant for knowing what’s waiting around the corner. It seems impossible if you’ve got a wife well-versed in the finer points of the hospitality industry.
But for some, winging it works quite nicely.
In Wangi-wangi, an island where we could only find two locations online, we found a dozen or more dirty-but-decent doors willing to accept a guest or two. Each certainly would have saved me the island fever entrapment I experienced at the resort and its inflated prices.
In any case, it’s a nice idea to spend a little time in Wanci. A better idea, though, is to spend some time at night: stroll through the motorbikes and tiny pick-ups, through the potholes and exhaust fumes, past the smoky warungs and calling ojeks, to the night market.
Next to port, a block from the waterfront, in the epicenter of fishy smells and piercing lights and cash-heavy mojo, looms the night market of Wangi-wangi.
The whole concern consists of fifty meters of street-food stalls guarding the entrance to a pavilion the size a large barn. Vendors spread their wares across slabs of rough timber: smiling ladies with wizened wrinkles and heaps of glistening snapper and chunks of muscled tuna, squid by the bucket and shellfish still crawling toward the sea. Javanese rice was steaming and yellow; local cassava pulps and smashes waited to be drizzled in spicy chili sauces and scarfed down.
One lady sat hawking a suspicious brew of bitter herbs the color of dishwater and the smell of compost. “Kuat, kuat!” she shouted through her broken teeth. “Strong! This makes you strong!” And then she cackled and shoved a stinking, steaming glass our way.
“This is horrible,” Andy admitted. “But you have to taste it. See what the local flavor is like.”
I glanced around at the witchy vendor and the nighttime flares of lights. I looked again around the wriggling fish and salted sea life in puddles of ocean on the planks. I glanced toward the exit, where already a group of children was pouring in, anxious to see how I would react to the coming atrocity.
I looked back at my smiling little wife, now sidled up to the cackling lady of the mystery potion. Andy grinned one more time and readied the camera. I knew I had to taste it now.
Forgiveness is an essential part of any marriage.
And in that moment, as the bitter reality of that strange concoction met my taste buds and my gag reflexes wrestled with my cultural sensitivity, as the vendors howled in laughter and the children climbed over one another to see if I could stomach it, I decided that forgiveness, indeed, would be essential here.
I grimaced. “Strong flavor.” I managed to Andy.
She shrugged. “Yeah, it’s horrible. You finish it. And don’t forget to pay her.”
“Pahit, Pahit!” the lady was shouting again. “It is bitter.”
We settled in a few stalls down for enormous chunks of smoked tuna and grilled fish. Side dishes of cassava mash and generous doses of island sambal left our fingers sticky and our bellies smiling. The whole shebang set us back something like two dollars. We would definitely return for this.
Aside from the usual distraction of the night market, Wangi-wangi offers a place to charter boats for the dive sites around the island, and a touristy village of sea-gypsies.
Sea gypsies, also known as the Bajo, are a people group spread wide across the seas and rivers of the globe. Much like the Roma, or regular gypsies, the Bajo tend to be obsessively community-oriented, exist as much as possible outside the boundaries of society, and are linked by common cultural and linguistic ties, despite thousands of miles of geographic separation. The islands of Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, and much of the coast of Asia, are specked with the eclectic floating homes and stilt-raised shacks of the Bajo. It’s a fascinating sort of existence to stroll through for an afternoon—natural life cycles, health care solely based on lore and herbs, livelihoods of simple fishing, material poverty in a landscape carved out of Earth’s finest beauty.
Bajo are here by the, uh, boatload, in Wakatobi, and the Wangi-wangi enclave runs a touristy little show that helps some integrate into modern society. You can stroll through life rhythms equal to that of centuries gone by, and then hop back on your motorcycle, speed back to the hotel, and sip coconuts on the beach while surfing your wi-fi.
Riding home through the night, we gazed above at the spiral of the Milky Way, unabashedly shimmering in the absence of light pollution. Stargazing through the nights, as much as snorkeling through the days, was fast becoming a Wakatobi hobby.
And so the days and nights passed. After my initial bout of cabin fever, I settled in to a Wangi routine of motorbike cruising and off-the-beach snorkel jaunts. Another day found us tagging along a scuba boat, paying a nominal fee to put in with snorkel gear at a series of drop-off not quite as simple to reach from the shore.
All this taken together – the beachy beauty, the reefy wonderland, the night markets and the cultural shows, and the miles and miles of stretching coastlines waiting to be explored, means that Wangi-wangi gets kind of comfy.
Evenings were chilled at the resort, where a breeze became a constant companion to the dinner. Or, of course, a raucous little street food tour through that night market kept both our bellies and our camera filled.
But herein lies the sister danger of Wangi-wangi: the trap of the threshold springs a second time.
The island is comfortable, pleasant, intriguing. Between its many beaches teeming in life (both wild and local), between the comfort of its resorts and the markets of the town, between the colorful lives in the Bajo and the boatsmen of the wharfs, it’s easy to get a little too comfortable.
“I never left Wangi-wangi,” a colleague who had recently traveled there confided in me. “We wanted to go to the other islands, but then, well, we just couldn’t make ourselves leave.”
The same unfortunate snare wrapped up a Dutch couple we shared those first few days with – they stayed something like ten days in the same exact place. Ten days soaking in the same sunshine and same palms and same beach overlooks; ten days of the same restaurants and the same routine and the same sorts of sights.
A contingent of German ex-pats visiting from Jakarta suffered the same fate.
Maybe it’s the lack of trust in the chugging, sputtering public boats that ply between the islands – islands too far apart to see from one to the next. Maybe it’s the unknown of what awaits out there. After all, Wangi-wangi is the most cosmopolitan of the islands, the most developed and modern, and it only featured two, exactly two, online options of lodging. Who knew what you might possibly find out there on these mysterious other islands.
Wangi-wangi’s comfort and knowability on the one hand, the great mystery of the beyond on the other.
Andy and I even talked of staying only here—of setting up camp in the threshold of the wild and wonderful archipelago—and not venturing beyond.
I wouldn’t have it, though; I pushed for packing the bags, of trusting ourselves to a phone number for a guesthouse on the next island over, and setting off for the wharf very early one morning to try to catch a ride beyond Wakatobi’s’s lovely threshold. We didn’t know where we would stay, or the conditions of the boats, or how this would compare to Wangi-wangi’s ways.
But we had to do it. We just couldn’t live on the threshold. We couldn’t live not knowing what was just a little further past our eyesight. We boarded the boat, took a last glance at the known shore, and set sail.