Back to nature. Divine the future, consult the past. Allure five senses with geographical isolation. Adapt to life in ancient, immortal lands oblivious to modern lifestyle, where an eastern Eden of culture taints any mirage of Western theory. Squint into the glare of an Indian Ocean sun, departing all mind, thought, homespun memory. And so on.
Early afternoon. A cooling sea of blues unwinds to vast, parched pastels of scrub, bush and palm as we dip and deplane into Waingapu. A rough overland bus journey follows, terminating at a desolate beach on the isle's southeast shore. At sunset, Captain Alwi extends his hand to mine in a cleansing dose of liberty in our ad hoc port of embarkment. Exit from the swell-flanked anchorage segues the halt of civilization into a compelling, introspective outpost sojourn.
Spice Islands. Irian Jaya. Timor. Roti. Bali. Nusa Lembongan. Lombok. Sumbawa. Sumba. Java. Panaitan. Sumatra. Asu. Bawa. Hinako. Nias. Mentawais. All names you've heard before. Yet the concept of combing clandestine Indonesian territory devoid of crowds and surf charter boats requires that you likely have not heard the names—hidden words printed in micro fonts on the map…or not at all.
Swell clairvoyance point our course, primarily at night. Settling into the stuffy bunk with soothing ironwood hull creaks, dreams ensue, disturbed only with anchorage beneath a sea of starlight leading to the cosmic dawn…good morning, starshine. Awakening to Indonesian idyll manifests essence of surf search.
Hence the voyage: Lesser Sundas and reefs between. Corals and sands. Rocks and cliffs. Harsh crossings and stark beaches. Reconnoitering favored yet unknown nooks aboard the Indo Jiwa is a savory affair—gunkholing along Nusa Tenggara's enchanted coasts scarcely viewed through blue eyes and rarely (if ever) surfed.
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Historically, Indonesia’s archipelagic complex required that its denizens knew their way around boats. Many texts suggest the European Age of Exploration as the pinnacle of mankind’s seaborne expansion, yet these tales must fade to those of southeast Asians, who colonized Indonesia 6,000 years ago. Likening our solitary passage to these ancient mariners’ ideologies of seeking the new, Indo Jiwa serves its purpose.
Stone megaliths…where spirits dwell. Ritual objects. Tropical desert. Primordial mountain ranges alternate with classic white sand rimmed with palms and bush and turquoise lagoon. Far drier than Indonesia’s more equatorial expanse, cool evening winds press heat from afternoon into the following mid-morning, mimicking the arid clime of northwest Australia.
The island is a rugged paradise—an exposed, remote slab of rock, where human life manages to blossom with greater success than on the more fertile islands nearby. Its earth is stony and barren, yet due to the lontar palm economy, the locals enjoy an organic scheme of health.
Buzzing shorebound from the mothership…an escape. Two fishermen with throw nets float near shore in a tattered wood canoe. Our Mercury-powered fiberglass skiff is dragged onto the scorching beach—utterly Arabian if not for gangled lontar palm fronds, Christian church, seaweed harvest, or Asian eye. In blinding midday sun, the beach is wide and perfect, littered with colored pebbles and bleached shards of coral.
Lore and romanticism saturate wooden boats. Retroglancing, Indo Jiwa looms strategically in the back bay between two reefs, imitating a pirate ship circa 1946; it is a traditional Buginese pinisi, zenith of the southern Sulawesi shipwrights—also infamous pirates. Built of ironwood, an increasingly limited resource found only in eastern Indonesia, she spans 110 feet bow to stern, allowing substantial elbow room and certain degrees of creature comforts found in several Indonesian surf charter boats.
A rough trail from the beach. We stroll into the village. Sweating profusely, foreheads lift when immersed in a palm forest—falling coconuts can harm. Further in, a pig ambushes our lethargic ensemble…coconuts drop inches away from point-blank cranium.
A clearing appears in the dense brush; a child cries, his sister grins. Sideways breeze folds her black hair while father scales a palm tree. Frail shacks surround a modest firepit/communal area soaked with betel nut spit. Sustenance, subsistence, survival…ah, this is a picture of an island maintaining a culture—a society on stilts, if you will, hovering beyond status quo and momentary awards, existing from and for the long-term. Primitive? Only to us.
The interpreter—Indo Jiwa's chief mechanic—filters our intent to the puzzled villagers. Anomaly exists in pale skin: They are brown, we are white. They come from cloudless land, we come from sunless outer space. Invading in slaps and trunks, this is the sect of foreign diplomacy familiar to Captain James Cook, who sailed here in 1770—a milestone for westerners—visiting villages and assessing the ikat and lontar economies; here, the drought-resistant lontar palm provides everything from house-building fibers to syrup.
For several hundred years prior, the island shunned colonial interest with great simplicity. A 1676 Portuguese war expedition seeking slaves was slaughtered deftly by the natives; the Portuguese and Dutch kept their distance thereafter. Lucky for us, Cook made a good impression.
The islanders saw us coming—pondered the mothership offshore, anchored since Tuesday. Our interpreter initiates and, immediately, cold faces crack with handouts of lontar syrup, smooth as silk, offered as a formal welcome. Raw and boldly sweet, we chase it with coconut flesh and thank the natives with smiles and sincere handshakes.
In the end, I wander off toward the chickens and pigs and piles of coconuts to feel the island sans humans…which remained cloaked from the outer world until 1860, when Christian missionaries arrived with smallpox, inadvertently killing nearly half of the population. The missionaries mustered meager success against a staunchly Islamic population; today, besides Christianity, many embrace animism: 1. Doctrine that the vital principle of organic development is immaterial spirit. 2. Attribution of conscious life to objects in and phenomena of nature or to inanimate objects. 3. Belief in the existence of spirits separable from bodies.
Tradition flourishes. We step into the hub of the island's animism—the kampung, or sacred house. Exposed to unwanted foreign magic, visitors were once exorcized by the kepala adat before being allowed inside.
Three sets of megaliths and a complex ritual structure, the place is bounded by taboos. A common vernal ritual has food and living animals shoved to sea bound in lontar palm boats, veiled in ikat as an offer to the gods. Puppies and premature goats are especially valued as they exemplify feeble victims who will suffer the penance of the gods in place of the villagers. When a priest dies, a fresh acolyte must quaff an elixir of the dead priest's blood blended with the venom of a poisonous fish. Those who survive are ordained; this last occurred in 1997.
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Off the beaten track. Extreme isolation; flat, hot, mute. Random sessions in mysto lineups equate to a complacency found only in this sea. Here.
Another island comes into view, Indonesia's driest—even the lontar palm wilts. Reputed hub of local human ancestry and its spiritual passage from Asia to India. Home to what some famous folk consider to be the nation’s best lefthander. On an island with no roads or airport, rarefied pleasures spawn with access: nearing sunset, we drop anchor and observe. Two paddle out. Four waves ridden, none conquered. Detonating top-to-bottom, bending below sea level—one false move and pay the price. A beast of a wave. "Ahhh, yeahhh, it's heavy out there, mate."
Isolation is equidistant from relaxation. Between? The wave: Indonesian exotica perfection, treacherously shallow. Unseen. Unsurfed.
This is where a realization of wild Indonesia raises its wings. Redoubt of cerebral peace exists on a trackless sea. Book a flight. Board a boat. But don’t ever say it doesn’t exist. Because it does.
(Written in 2003)