From a distance, these islands 90 km. from the north coast of Java seem remote, pristine and off the beaten path. The Lonely Planet Indonesia guide book calls them, “a dazzling offshore archipelago” with “sublime beaches, wonderful swimming” and a relaxed way of life “as a destination with coconut palms and turquoise waters should be.” Who wouldn’t want to visit after reading a string of superlatives like that?
Up close and from my little deck above the azure waters of a lagoon, I would qualify all the terms but still use them. “Pristine,” a word that evokes the a state of being that is untouched (by humans?) and unsullied, probably no longer applies to a planet with 6.5 billion people. We might like to think there are still places that lie outside human influence, but as long as there are jets and satellites flying overhead, cell phone signals, mercury in the oceans and its fish, and administrative organizations that “manage” areas of great natural beauty and ecological complexity, we should not kid ourselves that remote regions of the planet are untouched by the flotsam and jetsam of so-called modern civilization.
I don’t want to complicate things unnecessarily, because they are pretty simple here: both a breeze off the lagoon and a healthy breakfast (ordered without a common language between kitchen staff and myself) deserves praise. I’m able to sit on the deck of my cottage because a storm is blowing in at 8:00 a.m., kicking up small waves and a cleansing wind that has been largely absent since my arrival on Saturday. Without a breeze, the lagoon becomes a vast hot tub with all kinds of floating debris that I’d rather not list at this point.
Today is my second of four mornings here at Omah Alchy (“omah” means “home” in Indonesian, and “alchy” is a short form of “alcheringa,” an Australian aboriginal concept that implies the “dreamtime”), a place envisioned and built by two brothers around ten years ago. Most visitors are European (German, French, Italian, etc.) but not many Americans, Japanese, or even Australians. The dark wood of the cottage is recycled from elsewhere and the design is ocean-facing, with swinging doors and a nice lanai that leads two steps down to the deck. For $50 a night with breakfast, it’s nothing fancy and not particularly comfortable, but wow, the view from the front deck is scenic and memorable.
I was met at the ferry port by a young man holding a sign with the name of the lodging on it. It took a few minutes to figure out how to get my three pieces of baggage onto a motorscooter (the driver wore one backwards, I used the straps of my wheelie bag and converted it to a backpack, and put my small pack facing forward.) The ride through the village was full of glimpses and intrigues (a mosque under construction, as if the two already here aren’t enough for a village of perhaps 500 people?) The turnoff from the single lane blacktop quickly became two strips of cobblestones which ended abruptly at the base of the hillside where a poor family lived in a squalid house beside a mountain of trash. Fifty meters more through a swampy lowland and presto, a destination achieved!
Once I’m settled in my little cottage, the question is what to do. The water is too shallow and warm for swimming, so I opt for a nap on a sofa that has tiny little ants that nip at my exposed skin. Ugh. Sitting on the deck is out of the question since it’s too damn hot and there’s not much wind. I feel like I’m wimping out but the conditions are too harsh in the outer part of the cottage and not comfortable within. Welcome to life by a lagoon flanked by a mangrove swamp!
The solution is to rent a scooter and get the hell out of there despite having so recently arrived. The owner, Aris, lets me have his bike for an hour and so I’m off to the village. My booking for Omah Alchy is for four nights only, so I need to consider a second lodging. Thus, my first stop is the tourist information desk at the boat pier, which is unmanned but has a flyer for a place with a funny-sounding name, Breve Azure. I follow the rough map out of town to the east, go past a large, government-run hillside “resort” with hardly any view of the ocean, and past the Escape Hotel and Nirvana Laut resort, the latter of which charges over $100 per night and has some very questionable reviews on TripAdvisor. Breve Azure also has a questionable review that complains of it being a construction site. But the review is from early September and so I’m optimistic that conditions will have improved.
What I find is delightful. Five cottages on top of the hill with wonderful views to the east, where a low range of forested hills is perhaps 5 km. off shore. To the north is a very green mountain without a single dwelling or building visible. New Zealanders Lindsay and his wife Chris are the caretakers and supervisors of a large staff, and after a bit of chatting in the grand main building (the first structure built in the complex), I’m offered a 30% discount rate of around $70 a night plus breakfast. Sign me up!
Then it’s back to Omah Alchy, where a breeze has changed the scene. The sunset is beautiful, and my relief is palatable at seeing that red fireball sink into the water horizon. A good meal is served from the Omah Alchy kitchen, where co-owner Aris (a big guy in dreadlocks who converted to Christianity from a family full of Muslims) and his wife (whom he met at a Japanese restaurant in Bali!) turn out some fine cuisine over the next four nights.