September 19, 2014

Island living, part I

Halfway through my first month in Indonesia, I head for a small town called Jepara, on the shores of the Java sea. We are in the last days of Ramadan and the streets are silent. I drop my bag in a tiny room and lie down on the bed, but sleep eludes me lately. I feel restless. Instead I go for a walk on the seaside, looking at the rare lights floating on the water. I was hoping to catch a ferry to get to an island about eighty miles from here, but as the Aïd approaches this is not going to happen, at least for a couple days. So I stay put. I pass the time by going out for lotek (a dish made of rice, steamed vegetables and spicy peanut sauce), feeding the cats and monkeys, and basically trying to survive the terrible heat wave.

On the day the ferry finally leaves, a cruel surprise awaits me : all the seats are booked in advance by local resellers, and there is no chance of me getting one, ever. This is made quite clear by the stern look on the bearded, frowny face of an official. I sit on my bag in the sunlight and wait for a miracle. Throughout the day, I meet with several others travelers and they are as desperate to get to the island as I am – so we work out a strategy and manage to convince local fishermen to take us ton their boat. The crossing lasts ten hours and is... challenging. The boat is not designed to carry fifty people in the middle of the sea at night, let's put it this way. Around midnight I look at the sky and I have never seen the Milky Way clearer. The stars are reflected in the dark water and it feels so peaceful, even if I am freezing and seasick. We set foot on the island in the middle of the night. Exhausted, we crash on a mattress in a strange home with our hair and clothes stiffened by salt. Then it's the morning again and our life on the island begins.

Life is peaceful here. Life is still. I sleep in a simple purple room with a mattress on the floor and it feels like a palace. Early in the morning we head for the pier, where all the colorful fishing boats are lined up and where a local family serves the most delicious, simple food in their warung. Our breakfast is usually made of spicy rice, sweet tempeh and vegetables, with hot sweet tea. The wild cats circle around us to get scraps. Then we get on motorcycles and drive around the island, discovering the amazing surroundings. In one direction, the road opens on new villages or farms made of bamboo and hemp rope – in the other, there is nothing but long strands of sand or small hills covered in palm trees, slowly swaying. When we run low on petrol, we stop to buy from the wooden stands the locals put along the road, emptying old glass bottles into the reservoir. When we are tired of exploring, we go to the beach for several hours, just laying in the sand and savouring the fresh breeze on our skins, watching the enormous sun sets on waves turned to crimson and mauve. I take long walks on the beach and I collect dead corals and seashells. Locals often stop me and ask for a picture, which is hilarious and a little weird.

In the evening, we gather at the night market. Fires are burning everywhere and opalescent smoke fills the air. Sweet music is being played and I can't ever find out where it comes from. Another day and you can find us swimming and admiring the incredible coral reefs, or setting foot on a island no one lives on. We walk on the foreign sand and say to each other : « this is the most beautiful place I've ever seen ». And then we laugh like children, kicking water in diamond drops all around. I make new friends everyday and we meet in the only restaurant on the island, drinking mango juices and talking long into the night.

At the end of the week, I leave the island with a group of friends that invited me back to their house on the mainland. We reach Semarang at nightfall and I settle into this place who has all the comforts of home : hot shower, a nice bed, a room to myself. It feels weird somehow, like I don't belong. I am so grateful for the kindness of my hosts, but I can't seem to stand still. I leave the house at night, barefoot, and I just wander the streets, singing in my head, trying to calm my thoughts. On my notebook, three days before I leave, are these words :

« This month has been wild to the very end. I feel guilty writing these words towards my family here, but I am eager to leave. People say that they'll miss me when I'm gone, and I want to say that I'll miss them too, but truth is I'm already gone. Please understand. None of this could hold me for long. None of the comfort, none of the kindness. I am already elsewhere. I am already in the air. »

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