March 17, 2015


Some places, you don't get to just go. You have to reach them. You have to earn them.
If you ever want to visit the Togian Islands, be prepared for an ordeal. I got there after having crossed the Sulawesi in a week or so. Spoiler alert : don't do that to yourself. Hundreds of miles on bumpy roads, rusty smelly buses and a nasty boat ride, cockroaches included – throw in a persistent ear infection and a sprained ankle and you got me ready for some chill time. My german friends still at my side, we look like a little family – they pretend I am their daughter and it makes me laugh.

If you've been reading this space for a while, you know I have a thing for islands. If they're on the map, that's where I'll go. The more remote, the better. Sometimes island-hopping makes up for half my itinerary. You can easily understand the spell that Indonesia, with it's 17508 islands, cast on me. So, I love islands. The Togians were exactly what I needed : wild, hospitable, insanely gorgeous.

The local bajau boat drops us on a golden sand strip and I choose the cheapest homestay (as usual), settling in my very own bamboo cabin, right on the beach. It's very humble, and perfect. The breeze keeps everything cool, and the mosquito net is there more as an ornement than an actual utility. The days are spent very slowly – getting in and out of the shade, walking trails inland, reading. There are a few people here, but it's easy to be alone - my friend shows me the way to a secret beach, hidden by a limestone cliff ; I go there early in the morning, and I live naked, burning in the sun and running into the shallow water, making shells mandalas and playing Crusoé. It's december and it's weird to be laying under the enormous sun, so close to the equator.

The Togian are home to a number of Bajau settlements. Bajau people are sea gypsies – their life is spent on the water, swimming, fishing, harvesting seaweed and pearls. Our island has no fresh water so we take the boat to another village daily, to refill the tank. The children in the village are numerous and loud, they chase me down the streets and make silly faces in front of my camera. The little girls play with my hair, chanting my name, « Djana Djana Djana », and also « cantik cantik cantik » – and I raise my hand to touch their face, answering softly : « cantik anda, princess » – and they giggle with starry eyes. Then I start to walk away and they all try to hold my hand, one finger each, the ones who can't putting their little hands on my arms and waist. Sometimes, the cackling around me is deafening. The men are beautiful, muscular, their features like carved out of salt rock. Women scale fishes on wooden decks and the light tints everything in golden ink. Two villages are built on stilts, gripping to the islands like octopuses – a strait of sea water, maybe a hundred meters wide, between them. Children dive with clothes on into the water and swim between the two shores, carrying messages or retrieving small objects from another family. I dive with them and oh, do I wish my camera was waterproof so I could show you. These kids swim like they have gills. Propulsing themselves forward with a faint motion of the legs, diving three times deeper than I can without drawing breath, eyes wide open into the dark of the sea, their true mother. The bajau people welcome newborns by diving with them when they are three days old. We take the boat back and I lean against the wood, watch the moonlight dance on the water, listen to my friends singing and whooing as strong waves rock the boat, and my life feels so full, so strange.

At night, you'll find us sitting on the beach, sparks from the fire flying out, a few beer bottles scattered around. Nearby, waves crash on the sand, waves I can't see. The taste of sugar and pepper dances on my lips as I draw the first breath of my kretek. Cloves and peppermint go down my throat with a shiver. You'll find us whispering to each other, but a loud whisper, like children do it, a whisper that wants to be heard, that wants to be real. Lean against me, come closer. Listen. You know, maybe we'll never come back. Repeat my words and come alive : maybe, just maybe, we'll live like this forever.

On one of my last nights, we go to another village. Every house is my house and every table has food for me. I eat a few bites in each place, to be polite, my fingers bringing sticky rice to my lips. I drink arak with my friends, feet in the water. Bioluminescent plancton starts glowing all around us, like green embers. As if the bright stars above were falling into the sea, one by one. I wiggle my toes and the lights turn into swirls. Constellations and galaxies. On our way back, it is so dark we almost wreck the boat on a cliff. The tiny canoe sways, takes in water. With frightened laughs, we stir it away and home. I stick my hand into the waves, and the stars keep shooting from my fingertips.

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