Island-Hopping, Nov. 24

Shortly after the sunset on my first night on Karimunjawa, a small boat pulled up to the Omah Alchy jetty and four young women disembarked. They are Dutch nurses doing a 3 month internship in Semarang. After chatting a moment, they tell me they are returning from a day-long excursion that started w/ snorkeling in the morning, then a big lunch on a remote island, then more swimming on a sand-spit, and finally a stop at “Ujung Gelam,” a famous beach at Karimunjawa’s westernmost tip. “You should do it!” they say strongly, and so I ask Aris if it might be possible. He finds a group for me to join, and the “program” is set for a Sunday morning departure.    

 

We leave from the jetty at 8 a.m. and travel first to a grungy little place across the big lagoon where small sharks are held captive. Visitors can climb down into the water and “enjoy” the thrill of these sharks circling around their bodies and legs. For the first couple minutes, it is amazing to see the sharks so close. But then I feel sad and even a bit pissed they are cooped up with all that wonderful ocean on the other side of a concrete wall, and do not join my group in the water to have photos taken.

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The next stop is the one I’ve been waiting for. Although it is a Sunday morning and several other boats already have their anchors down, with probably 30 people in the water, the coral is still beautiful and the array of fish impressive for their diversity of stunning colors and shapes. Each group has a guide who has brought either bread or rice for the fish, and where this feeding goes on there is a swarm of activity. I’m feeling a little crowded and so go into an area some distance away and in deeper waters. But I run into a bunch of small jellyfish I can’t even see that sting me around my shoulders and neck, and so, as the saying goes, I beat a hasty retreat.

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Karimunjawa advertises itself as a “marine park” where flora and fauna are recognized as valuable resources and therefore protected. While most of the coral in that first snorkeling spot was healthy, there were large areas that were grey and dead. Whether the reef is making a comeback or slowly deteriorating due to global warming is hard to tell. Visitors who stand on the coral is probably not helpful to its well-being, although the fish are no doubt happy for the abundance of food.

Our next stop is an island about 20 minutes away. As our little boat chugs along at a speed of probably 10 mph, the greenery of the island slowly rises above the horizon. After a few more minutes, I see that under the trees is a dazzling white layer of beach. As we approach, the image is of an island of trees served up on a white plate.

Like most of the islands, boats must anchor offshore. Here we are a good 100 meters out and have to wade in, carrying various lunch supplies as we swish our way through the clear and very warm water. The island itself is perhaps 400 meters long and only 50 meters wide, with a variety of palms, deciduous trees, mangroves, and even some kind of pine (or so I think, given that it has needles instead of leaves).

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It is best to keep looking up because on the ground away from the beaches is a staggering amount of trash. This is not old buoys, fishing net floats, ropes and other boat related debris. It is discarded water bottles, styrofoam, plastic bags, old flipflops, cigarette butts and other nastiness. It’s hard for me to fathom how one little island in a so-called “marine park” can have so much crap on it, and how its condition does not seem to raise a red flag for anyone depending on taking visitors there.

Rather than obsess about something I can do nothing to change at that moment, I adopt an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude and cross over to the west side of the island for a big view out to sea. Our excursion guide, Andreas “Bob Marley”, with his dreadlocks and winning smile, will grill “baby tuna” for our lunch and so we have time to enjoy the views and beaches.

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The next stop is only ten minutes away and is a thin strip of sand about 200 meters offshore of an uninhabited island. All my life I’ve seen images of places like this, and have even walked a few at Pt. Reyes’ Drakes beach during low tide (a national park an hour north of San Francisco). As we anchor, the main group of five Jakarta people all head straight for the sand bar where, as is their style, they whoop it up. I put on my snorkeling mask and head the other direction into deeper waters so that I can experience the sand bar on its own terms. When the group is back on the boat to nap and be out of the sun, it’s my turn. I feel privileged to have this pivotal moment that is free of extraneous noise, people, distractions, and even forms. There is no impediment between myself, the blindingly white sand, and the turquoise waters that completely surround this very little bit of (temporary) terra firma.

 

The two women from the group come ashore and, without me making a request, ask for my camera, get me into position, tell me to go down on one knee (all this in Indonesian) and take a fine photo. Without a body in the frame, it is hard to gauge perspective and depth, and so I’m most appreciative for their intervention.

 

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Our last stop of the day is Ujung Gelam beach, famous for its sloping coconut palms that visitors can climb. We have a snack at one of the string of warung stalls, then walk up the beach, or rest, whatever feels right. As I round a rocky point, I come upon a young caucasian couple embracing. I say sorry and keep moving, but they want to talk and let me know they are German and met on the islands a few days ago. Interestingly, they are from cities in Germany only 30 km apart. She has a trip of 7 weeks, he 7 months and is volunteering to teach English to elementary school kids. Her itinerary takes her to Bali next, and he will follow to see if their relationship has staying power. Their accommodation is a homestay that costs $7.50 a night (75,000 rupees). When I express surprise at the price, the woman says, yes it is cheap, “but we have no fan and our toilet is a bucket.” If this guy really wanted to keep the relationship going, he would whisk her away to a decent room and thereby win her affections for at least a few more weeks.

The afternoon has clouded up, and so the final jaunt back to Omah Alchy is subdued. I feel like I’ve pioneered new territory at this stage of my life, even though I know very well the trip was routine for locals because nothing dramatic happened. Nonetheless, I’m grateful to have come this far and have everything work out in a memorable and harmonious way. May the next few days bring me similar good fortune.

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