The Other Side of the Island

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.

Across the table, a beautiful, tall Swedish girl adjusted her sarong around her neck as she looked lazily out at the ocean with a beach bum’s far-sighted gaze, the one that all the divers had adopted after spending weeks on Bunaken and the surrounding islands. They all visibly wore their travel—the women had figured out so many ways to arrange their sarongs, it was clear they’d been wearing them for months. The smart, arrogant diver from Switzerland had hair bleached nearly white by the sun; the Swedish girl’s hair was a nest of knots; the skin on all their shoulders and chest was a permanent burnt red.

“After snorkeling, we’ll visit Silas on the other side of the island,” my dad said, cleaning the last bits of rice off his plate.  I nodded again.

The other side of the island. It was a kind of no man’s land—Silas and his wife were the only people who lived there, way on the outskirts of Bunaken village. The village of Bunaken was, at most, a mile away from our hostel, but the dream of travel—the one we enter whenever we go into a hostel, an expat bar, the playgrounds where westerners run amok (an Indonesian word, incidentally)—made it feel so much further. In only a number of weeks, this group of travelers had managed to turn Bunaken Island into their stomping grounds, a paradise created expressly for them.

My father and I took out a fishing boat, and, three hours later, ended up on the shore of Silas’ home, watching him continually emerge from the water and go back down again. It was hypnotic, seeing him appear and disappear in the waves, his grey curls glinting in the afternoon sun.

Until this moment, some strange, guilty part of me felt like I should be hanging out with the travelers, like I should have stayed up late with the flirty Swedish girl, getting drunk and swooning over the tall, blond German as he played his horribly out of tune guitar. Isn’t this what backpackers did—voyage thousands of miles just to hang out with each other? It sounds absurd to me now, but at the time—just four years ago—meeting other westerners while on the road seemed like a traveler’s rite of passage, one I was clearly too shy and awkward to pass through. Somehow, those young travelers—ambling out into the morning, tan and careless in sarongs—felt more foreign to me than my father’s Indonesian wife.

Finally, Silas stood up on a sand bar, dripping in a black shirt.

“I got one!” he yelled in Indonesian, pulling his mask off of his face. A mess of tentacles dangled from the hook in his hand.

Silas had been out spear-fishing for octopus when my father stumbled on this beach a few years back, and every visit since, this was where my father found him—in the water, searching for these coveted creatures that went for a high price. This was how they lived—some weeks there was enough food; some weeks there was not.

The greatest cost my father incurred when he moved to Indonesia was the loss of conversation. Most women would say little more than a polite hello to him, and Indonesian men were often taciturn creatures. But Silas had a penchant for talking like few Indonesians I’d met. While his wife sat beside him, he told us how few octopuses were hiding in the coral these days. He talked of his Sunday walks through the rain forest to attend church in the nearby village, about his daughter who had left them to live there. Water, he said, came rushing in their house every time it rained.

My father asked if he ever considered moving into the village.

“I’ve spent my entire life here,” he said plainly, shaking his head. “My father built this house.” Chickens circled around his feet. Along the side of the house, tiny newborn piglets stumbled across the sand, their little feet getting caught in snarls of rain forest. The land in the back of the house sloped upward toward the volcano in the center of the island. I looked up, and could see no paths, no homes, no signs of travelers at all. How had this small fraction of island—a little universe unto itself— remained so completely untouched?

On our ride back to the hostel, we stopped in Bunaken Village, where children gathered around us, clinging to our legs, asking for photographs. We stood with a group of them, looking out at the sun setting over the ocean, an old fishing boat back-lit by it on the shore. It was, to this day, the most incredible sunset I have ever seen—electric in color, yet as soft and gentle as the gloaming, like a blanket draped over the day. I thought of the young travelers back at the hostel just a mile away, the girls laughing in the hammocks, the boys lining up empty beers. It felt like a dream I had passed through, like a place that had never existed at all.




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