The sun was at its highest when we reached the isolated beach at the northern end of Bunaken Island. A few feet from shore, a small woman sat alone on a piece of driftwood, looking as though she had been sitting there her entire life, perfecting the mid-day Indonesian art of doing absolutely nothing.
“Selamat sore, Abigail,” my father said, dragging the hull of our tiny fishing boat up onto the sand. The woman gave an imperceptible nod. She was so still, her skin so weathered and hard, she looked like she had been carved from wood. Behind her was a less finely drawn creation—the most primitive house I had ever seen. Its roof made of thatched palm leaves, its sides of sagging palm bark, the old shack looked as though a castaway had desperately thrown it together, plopping it down amid a tangle of rainforest.
“Is Silas in the ocean?” my dad asked.
The woman nodded again, her eyes smiling this time. I guessed she must be the wife of Silas, a fisherman my father had met when he was first traveling through Indonesia, hopping from one island to the next. That was before he married an Indonesian woman and settled down in Manado, a city on the coast of North Sulawesi. Bunaken, a tiny island in a vast archipelago, is world famous for its diving and just a half hour boat ride from the city.
That morning, my father, my boyfriend and I had woken early to go snorkeling, rolling out of our hostel beds and stepping into the soft-lit day. We had sat with the other travelers in the open-air eating area, picking at our rice and fried eggs, my father giving us a quick lesson on the different islands in the area. Tiny Siladen, covered in bone-white sand, had once been uninhabited but was now dominated by a sprawling five star resort. Bunaken, without electricity or running water, remained more rustic, attracting the backpacker crowd and hardcore divers who didn’t mind that the shore was virtually beachless, leading instead to a labyrinth of swampy mangrove.
This thankfully left me to be quiet. I was afraid that if I opened my mouth, I’d let on to the backpackers next to us what a fraud of a traveler I was. This was my first time in a developing country, and after a month of rough travel through Java, Andrew and I had spent the last couple of weeks bumming around Manado, gorging ourselves on bread from western-style bakeries and soft-serve ice cream from the fast food restaurants in the mega malls that are, for Indonesians, Manado’s central attractions. We spent our mornings on my father’s little veranda overlooking the city, smoking cigarettes and drinking cup after cup of deep, black coffee. Manado is a dirty city harbor that is rapidly westernizing, its government trying desperately—and failing—to figure out how to transform it into a tourist attraction. Most people at the hostel dismissed Manado as ugly, overly modern, one hellhole of a pit stop. In general, travelers treat it as a passage to Bunaken, a necessary but unfortunate way station between travel destinations. But it was my father’s home, the base I would return to throughout my four months there. And in these last weeks, it had already become the place that would fix my father in my memory more firmly when I returned back to the states, that backdrop that illuminated his life, bringing it to the foreground of my mind.