Hindsight reveals how moments of truth are actually not moments at all but a process that culminates in an action taken, a decision made, or a revelation achieved. Our quick decisions, hasty strategies, and most of all, focused actions all intertwine, for an instant, in a marvelous feeling of seamlessness.
Is this overthinking a scooter ride? Perhaps, and yet like the various images on the peripheries of my vision–which must stay focused on the tattered asphalt road lest I hit a huge pothole and wreck the scooter–so much is happening at any given time that rendering an account of my long day on the road and in the water snorkeling becomes a cartography of consciousness.
The scooter I’m given is the same one that picked me up at the ferry terminal. There’s some poetry in that coincidence: the newly arrived tourist now sits, wiser and seasoned after three days, on the same vehicle that started it all. I do not have a map or a smartphone for orientation, only a general sense of the island, a couple names for the beaches I hope to visit, and a vague sense of how many kilometers I must travel to get there via the only road there is. .
It’s the beach further out that I target first, Batu Putih, recommended by Omah Alchy’s owner, Aris, as one of the best on the whole island. A laminated photo in a binder of Karimunjawa’s scenic wonders shows some smoothed boulders on a clean sand beach. Snorkeling is said to be great.
What is not mentioned anywhere is the deplorable condition of the island’s main road from Karimun town to all points north and west. I don’t think there was 50 meters along a 25 km. one way trip when I didn’t have to dodge this pothole or that rut, sometimes leaving the road entirely to follow the scooter path on the beige soil of the shoulder. All the giant banners for politicians (most of them wearing the Muslim beany) makes me wonder just what they do for local people once elected. Certainly roads are not a priority, (nor indoor plumbing, sanitation or waste disposal, water supplies, stable electricity…)
But what a rush to be intently focused, zigging and zagging at 30 kmh, a few sprinkles on my glasses becoming diamonds and prisms to refract the cloudy light. Zoom past a huge mosque, then a government school with kids in uniforms that look like they were designed by the Boy Scouts, then a religious school (madrasa) for kids wearing Muslim attire (white shirts and the cap for the boys, long skirt and hijab for girls). They don’t smile and yell “hello” to me like the other kids do. With the number of foreigners visiting their island, it’s possible they have been instructed that they are not to greet “unbelievers.” Or maybe the whole class was just chewed out by a mean teacher…
I figure I’ve gone about 20 out of the 25 km. by the time the road flattens out and passes through a vast mangrove swamp. I am moving along slowly at about 25 kmh, bugs bouncing off my glasses and arms, so as to see the tangle of roots that support these trees so crucial to the ecological balance of a marshland. Fortunately, Karimunjawa has recognized this importance and designated these groves (but not the ones around Karimun town) as protected. There is even a trekking course on elevated paths. I’d have to have a bug net on my hat and decent repellent before I’d even consider taking that plunge.
The first sign that says “beach” pulls me off the road and onto a path that ends under some tall palm trees, but the copious amounts of trash turn me around quickly. After another kilometer or so, I see a reconstruction of an “ethnic house” off the road, with a government building beside it, and vaguely recall this combination as part of the directions I was given to the boulder beach. I ask a government worker (embarrassed because I chose him for a question rather than his two cohorts) about the beach and he communicates via gesture that it’s down a path behind the ethnic house (which reminds me very much of the houses I saw on my trip in 1979 in northern Thailand).
From the house to the beach is only about 300 meters, but it runs through very heavy vegetation teaming with bugs and birds. I’m walking fast but still get eaten up by mosquitos. The amygdala part of my cerebrum, which is designed for survival and generates fear to enhance that possibility, informs me that I am easy prey for anyone with a weapon and dishonorable intentions to part me from my cash reserves (which are considerable, given the need to pay for my stay on these islands in currency and not card, plus the dollars I planned to use for Myanmar before I canceled that part of the trip.) The “have a nice day” part of my brain says, eh, you’re paranoid and in ten minutes you’ll be snorkeling, so get with the program! All the same, I am hyper-alert and jumpy.
The trail runs down a rocky spine, over huge slippery tree roots clinging to the rock, and across about 10 meters of garbage and trash, but then the beach is spanking clean. I take the liberty of imagining it’s always like this. I’m the only one here, which is both a relief to not have to listen to groups of people having a blast as well as vaguely disconcerting. Vigilance and attentiveness are my mantras as I head to the rocks, put my daypack on a boulder some 20 meters offshore, and position mask, breathing tube, and diving shoes before taking the plunge.
Even without sun streaming through the waters, the forms and colors of the coral and fish are simply stunning. Later I will look up the proper names but my categories are these:
• the spiky, deer-antler coral that occasionally has iridescent baby blue tips; when they are clustered together, they present a formidable wall for any swimming creature larger than a couple inches
• the bulbous “brain” coral, some yellow and some pale pink, that seems to have some of the same kind of folds and patterns I do inside my skull
• the delicate, lacy white coral that looks as if it would snap off if the surf got high
• the tiers of beige-colored coral that resemble a fungus growing on the side of a tree, one on top of the other, some with a diameter or a couple meters and wonderfully flat
• and perhaps my favorite, the “petal coral” that bears some resemblance to a rose in the way it infolds and curves in a loosely circular manner; the outer surface facing the current has a slimy but not sticky coating that may help the coral trap minuscule nutrients; within the coral, the surface is typically calcite and rough. When healthy, they have a cappucino color, but dead, they are dull brown and crumble at the slightest touch
Add to this scenario the principal dramatis pisces:
• big seething swarms of little fish no bigger than a fingernail, pulsing and shifting as if they are all connected to the same electric current
• orange perch with three broad white bands that will not tolerate me encroaching upon their space and have no hesitation about striking my arms and legs (thankfully they do not bite)
• the shimmering rainbow fish with its goofy expression but dazzling turquoise, blue, neon green and speckled grey body
• an “angel fish” on the bottom, its body motionless while its nearly transparent “wings” extend perhaps 10-15 inches in all directions
• sea urchins tucked into little coral nooks, their spiky extensions longer than any I’ve seen at around 15 inches; looking at them straight on from a distance of a couple meters, they appear to have five blue eyes arranged in a star shape–but I know this must be a trick of light and water;
• black and white striped “zebra” fish
• stunning yellow and black “sunfish”
and on and on, a veritable United Nations of fish. Before I know it, I’ve been in the water for a good hour and must take a break. That’s when I am hit by a wave of exhaustion. I have been going non-stop for around four hours. Tired, hungry, and thirsty, impatient suddenly to get out of the water and back on the scooter, I extricate myself from the beach very slowly and methodically, making sure I do not gouge my thigh or shin into a chunk or coral, nor get stung by the large bees that have converged on the tree where I hung my shirt, nor forget anything important. The conditions are ripe for suffering the consequences of misplaced attention. But I manage.
The second beach on my agenda is Ugung Gelam, visited on the island-hopping-tour two days prior. There is a woman in hijab collecting a 2,000 rps. ($0.20) entry fee, which I gladly pay because the road to the beach consists of two separate tracks of fairly new concrete. After about 1.5 kms. it ends abruptly at a vast trash pile just in front of the beach. I see the road then turns to dirt, heads up a steep rise, and so that’s where I go, parking the scooter beside a few others and rounding the corner (and trash heap) to finally reach my destination. I have a quick coffee at the same place my group did, then snorkel the same areas, and with the light diminishing am soon am ready to leave.
On the way out, I manage to hold the camera in my left hand and steer with the right, videoing about a minute of the journey. Past some houses, a twist in the road, a couple on a bike, a woman drawing water from a well, my wrist and hand holding the bike steady, and then–yikes!–goats in my path. I have to switch lanes so as to avoid them scampering to join the larger flock, tended by an old woman in a long Muslim dress to whom I call out a greeting in passing. The video ends at a modest wooden house, clothes hung out to dry on one side and a big satellite dish on the other. Ah, the modern world. (If I can ever get a decent connection, I will upload this video both here and on my FB page. It’s quite entertaining…)
My ride back is uneventful, and I enjoy a meal on my deck because the wind is up and big clouds promise rain in an hour or so. I never know if it happens or not because I am fast asleep by 8:30 pm..