Tommy dropped us off on the island and Teteng showed us the available rooms. We chose one of the free standing bungalows. Included in the price was free tea and coffee and 3 meals a day. At 150,000 Rupiah per person (roughly $16 per person per night) this was a lot more than we had paid up until now and a lot more than we had anticipated. Unfortunately Lestari is the cheapest option on the island, as the other 2 resorts cost much more. Lestari is a family run resort, although it’s hard to apply the term resort to Lestari. The family lives there all year round, and they’re the ones who cook for you and help you with anything you need. It’s a loose version of a homestay. There’s Mama, Aka (the father), Puddin (the oldest son), Teteng (oldest daughter), 1 more son but never got his name but Andrew called him Rock and Roller because they both shared a passion for rock musick, and Anna (the youngest daughter). Tommy is Mama’s cousin but he works for them by driving the boat and with general labour. The resort is very basic with shared outdoor bathrooms. It wasn’t much, but this was the place we would finally get to relax.
It’s hard to write about the time we spent there in chronological order, as there were many days where we didn’t do much except eat, read, swim and sleep. We went diving a couple of times with the dive resort next door, with the highlight being the B-24 Bomber which was in perfect condition. Other than that we spent the time hanging out, chatting with the family or just relaxing. One day about 8 of us went on a snorkeling trip with Tommy to an island about an hour away. Karina beach is a stunning beach on an uninhabited island. Unfortunately since no one lives there, no one picks up the garbage that’s washed ashore either. One of the reasons we went there was because somewhere nearby you are supposed to see jellyfish. I wasn’t sure why anyone would be so keen on going there to see the jellyfish but to each his own I guess. The 4 British guys were very excited about this. You can’t see the jellyfish from Karina beach, you have to snorkel to a cove, climb over some mangroves and apparently you can spot them at the lagoon there. The British guys went to check out the jellyfish while Andrew and I snorkeled around the beach along with 4 or 5 of the other people. After an hour and a half we decided it was time to leave and the British guys came back. They were very excited and they said they saw them! Some of the others said they wanted to see them too so Tommy said he would take us to a different part. We all piled in the boat and he took us to the other side of the island where there is a large inlet surrounded by mangroves. We were all looking into the murky water but couldn’t see anything. The water here was very murky and almost green, and nowhere close to the crystal clear water we had been snorkeling in just a few minutes before. Some people asked Tommy if we could jump in, and in the typical Indonesian response he said “Up to you”. I didn’t see any reason to jump into the water, especially if it had jellyfish so I stayed on board with a few other people. Others, along with Andrew jumped in. Right away Andrew called out to me the water is so murky you can’t see your hand infront of you. A thought crept in to my head that if this was Florida or Australia, there would be gators or crocs for sure. The 5 or 6 snorkeling were really getting into it by swimming in an out of the mangroves. Tommy started the boat and swam a little upstream to the exit and threw down the anchor. The water a little clearer here as it was close to the open sea. After 20 minutes or so of this everyone climbed back in and we went back to Lestari. Andrew and I chatted on the way back, again about if this was anywhere else there would have been crocs there for sure. It looked like croc territory. A few nights later, while sitting with Tommy and drinking Arak (a “palm wine” which smells and tastes like paint thinner) I asked Tommy “You know when we went snorkeling at Karina beach and you took us to see the jelly fish?” He said he remembered. I asked “Were there crocs there?” His reply was directed at Andrew “Yes. When you jump in, I scared. If you problem I dead” Andrew’s eyes almost popped out of his head. His laugh was of a person who was in danger but didn’t know it at the time and the realization was hitting him now. It turns out, there were crocs there. And there are crocs around Wakai, the village where the ferry drops you off. Tommy lives there and he told us every year around 2 people get bitten. Usually fisherman cleaning their catch. He tried to make us feel better by telling us when they find the crocs they kill them so now not so many. Andrew kept, almost, yelling at him “Why did you let us jump in?” Tommy’s reply was the same as before “Up to you”. This is something you learn quickly. The locals will never say no to a tourist. If you’re asking if it’s possible to do something, they will always either say yes, or up to you. Tommy again tried to make Andrew feel better by telling him he had only ever seen 2 small crocs there. He showed us with his hands, around 2 meters. We breathed a sigh of relief. But then he added “And 7 meters long.” Again I thought Andrew’s eyes were going to pop out of his head. So the crocs were small. 2 meters wide and 7 meters long. Tommy told us that’s why he took the boat and started swimming upstream. He was looking for the crocs, but he didn’t see them so he thought it was okay. It’s funny for us to think and laugh about it now, but it could have been so easy for one of them to attack one of the snorkelers. Luckily no one was hurt, but it did teach us to ask a lot more questions in the future and follow our gut instinct. If it looks like there may be crocs there, there probably are.
Aka, the father and owner of Lestari, makes beautiful jewelry by hand. He makes a beautiful necklace by setting a small shell in ebony wood and polishing both until they’re perfectly smooth. He made one for me and Andrew and he refused payment. To thank him we bought him a couple of Bintangs. The next day he made me a bracelet from a shell. Again he refused payment. This was something that really touched us. Tommy later explain to us this they don’t want money because they are giving the gift to their friends, and we pay them, we are no longer their friends, we are their customers. And they want to keep us as friends. This is why we loved it at Lestari so much. Of course the family is running a business, but they treat you like part of the family or at least like friends. You don’t feel that you’re just one of the tourists. And every night they shared their Arak with us without any expectations of payment, except for our company. I was exhausted after our grilling journey to get to the Togean Islands and usually fell asleep early, but Andrew spent many nights sitting with Tommy and Aka just talking and drinking Arak.
I did feel, from an ethical standpoint, that accepting these gifts would mean I was contributing to the use of local shells for tourist souvenirs. I can only make myself feel better by acknowledging that yes, this is wrong, but Aka will continue to make these souvenirs even if I don’t take it. And he doesn’t do it for a mass market or to sell them, but to give to his friends. Also, I never purchase any souvenirs that use shells or other forms of animals or resources that may or may not be endangered, so I know I don’t contribute to their extinction. It is unfortunate that other people don’t see it that way. Aka is a local, and he uses these resources as he sees fit. And I can explain to him what I think and why it’s wrong, but all he would get from that conversation was that I don’t like his gift. What’s more troublesome is the tourists who come and collect handfuls of shells. And I don’t mean small shells that you find on the beach. I’m talking about divers who dive, and bring up very large shells, or clams and then dry them out and take them home. I think that it is much more destructive than the necklace I now wear that I received from my friend Aka as a gift.
While we were on the island the end of Ramadan was approaching, which meant big parties. Tommy was going back to Wakai for a few days to see his family but he invited us to come over one night for a party at his parent’s house. It was mentioned during a casual conversation and we agreed to come, but being stuck in our western way, we didn’t think too much of it. It seemed like just a casual invitation. I mentioned it to Andrew the next day but we were supposed to go diving the following morning but we wouldn’t be able to make the party and go diving the following morning sober. Unfortunately we got sick and couldn’t go diving, so we decided to take the ferry north to Gorontalo that day and make our way over to Bunaken Island. Everyone we had met that had been there said the island and the diving was much better than Togeans. So even though it wasn’t part of the original plan, we decided to go. Since Tommy had the day off, someone else drove us to the ferry terminal. We said goodbye to Aka and his family and thanked them for their hospitality. On the way to the ferry I reflected how quickly the time had passed. We had been there for 7 days but they flew by as if it had been 2 or 3. It turned out the ferry was delayed by 2 hours so we sat on the dock waiting. While waiting we saw Tommy walking and he came over to join us. He asked why we hadn’t come to the party. Right away I felt terrible. We explained about the diving and about us getting sick but our excuses felt weak, even to me. I could tell he was disappointed and the language barrier didn’t allow me to properly express our regret. Tommy sat chatting with us until the ferry arrived and then helped us to secure seats in the “business section” again. We told him, if we were travelling back South to Makassar by ferry (via the Togeans) and not bus, we would stop on the islands again. He said he would be waiting.
The boat left after another hour of loading and unloading people, and we left with a warm and fuzzy feeling in our stomachs mixed with a bit of regret. I now wish we would have gone to see Tommy at his parents’ house. I felt honored to have been invited, and I feel like we missed an opportunity to get to know him and his family better. But I was glad we were able to get to know him just a little bit. Too often when we’re travelling we meet a lot of people but we don’t really get to know them or we don’t take the time to get to know them. We were lucky, because for the first time we weren’t treated like tourists but as friends.