Saturday, June 30, 2007

An Island of Your Own

An Island of Your Own


Saturday, March 25, 2007, 11:42 AM Local Time

Flores The bay to the front of my simple cottage is a magical place.

With my feet up on the cottage’s railing, a daybreak coffee in my hand, a dark blue, perhaps an azure, belt spills across the bay marking the boundary to the deep waters.

The sun climbing above the shadowy humps of the Pulau Seraya Besar Island in the sea before me, reddens the sky with its morning arrogance.

On my side of the azure border, the calm waters are a blue so pale that it could be considered to be tan or even white. On the belt’s further side, the waters seemingly continue on forever, their blueness incrementally increasing in power. Each shade represents a different wet world.

With the tide in, my first morning on the island, I slip on my flippers, don my mask and snorkel and sit in the water. I tilt forward, lay flat on my belly and begin to pull my way, one handful of sand at a time, through the knee-deep water. The water is very clear and the soft bottom is less than an arm’s length away. A few sandy, nearly translucent, fish dart out of my path as I float on my way above them.

Five meters seaward, I come to a sea grass bed. Here I begin to see more marine life. Crabs crab their way through the thick dancing fronds. Their poppy black eyes dart and blink with panic as my pink bulk form floats overhead. These are small crabs, less than the diameter of a Malang apple and are in no danger of making it onto my dinner plate.

Red starfish, large, stiff, five pointed things with black nodules running down the crest of each arm, likewise make their home in this grass bed. They too, I swim over the top of. They remain stoic, fortified with the nonchalant character for which they are famous.

The starfish and crab are not alone. An expanse of sea urchins lay just towards the end of the sea grass. There must be hundreds of them in each grouping of the spiny animals. Their black spines are a marvelous defense. Each creature possesses more than a hundred of the ten-centimeter long barbs. In the angles where the spines meet on their rounded bodies are red spheres that may be light sensors, primitive eyes of some sort.

I carefully paddled my way past these thorny challenges and into the world of where the true wonders begin, the coral garden. To use the tired cliché that a snorkeling above a coral reef is like looking at an aquarium is a bit like saying that meeting an alien is the same as watching ET.

A coral reef does not have one true bottom. It is made up of layers and shelves and outcroppings, all homes and shelters and hunting grounds to creatures doing what creatures do in any biological niche. Fighting, breeding, hiding, stalking, and feeding are all on display below.

Colorful anemones expand and contract and sway to and fro like heavy flowers in a breeze pulling microscopic nutrients from the atmosphere. From between the anemones’ poisoned tentacles dash about, seeming to play, are families of clownfish. Here in the bay, the first family I spy is a trio of skunk clownfish, named for the white strip painted down their tops from head to tail. The largest of the three shoots from the safety of their home nipping at my fingers as I wave goodbye.

The nearby underwater grasslands fading to become a distant memory, I begin to spot giant clams of all sizes dotting the landscape. They come striped in black and a variety of bright colors, blue, violet, purple, red, orange, green. When I bend at the waist and kick my flippers to swim down to them, they exhale huge gusts of water through their breathing tubes and clam up tight, their meaty tender inners safely hidden from me.

On the far side of the reef I spot a series of parrotfish. These brightly colored fish are easy to spot. They are flat-bodied and round. The line I see are grazing, heads down, at the rocky reef underneath me and defecating clouds of sandy powdery remains.

Just to the right of the clownfish I swim over two triggerfish. A couple. These aggressive fish are the bullies of the reef. Growing to nearly a meter in length, they are very territorial and do not hesitate to attack intruders. This is bad news since they have sharp teeth. Similar sized to the parrot fish, they are more diamond shaped. Carefully I make sure that I do not pass directly over there two.

I swim parallel to the shore, patrolling the border that demarcates the deep from the shallow. Other guests of the islands have mentioned sea snakes and sharks. I have not seen either. But I do see many large barrel sponges, their openings large enough to take a rest within. I dive down to one particularly large barrel sponge, its supporting ribs as thick and corded as a weight lifter’s wrist, to find, to my surprise, a lion fish in full bloom.

This turns out not to be the only lion fish I come across this day. On the swim back to shore I come upon another lion fish hovering, motionless, over a bump of coral. Its fins spread wide, supported by a rack of poisonous ribs. Its heavy slung jaw was lowered and ready for any unsuspecting fish to swim by. It was the perfect ambush predator.

I swim a circular route, giving the lion fish’s poisonous fins a wide berth and made it back over the grass bed and onto the beach and walk up to my cottage.

I traveled to Pulau Seraya Kecil from the Flores’ westernmost port of Labuan Bajo. To the East of the Wallace Line it is markedly drier, browner, and more dead in appearance than Bali, Java, and Sumatra are.

Labuan Bajo is just an hour’s flight from Bali and Pulau Seraya Kecil is but an hour’s boat journey from there. It is also possible to travel to Flores overland. I made it in four days by bus and ferry from Jakarta.

There is only the one ten-cottaged resort on the island for guests to stay at. A night with a free breakfast is Rp 100,000 and the boat ride to the island is free. The downside is that electricity is generator-powered and available only a few hours nightly. That is long enough to recharge cell phones and cameras and pump fresh water into bathroom basins, but not long enough to have a climate-controlled sleep. Nonetheless, the island is popular with those travelers who have made it to Flores.

Chris, a tourist from Switzerland and frequent caller to Bali, is a first time visitor to Pulau Seraya Kecil. He says, “I didn’t know what to expect. But I have extended my stay from two days now to seven so far.”

“The location is great, with a super beach, no noise, very relaxed, no disturbances. I’ve got all I need here.”

The resort is operated by the Gardena Hotel of Labuan Bajo. There is one restaurant on the island which is also the snorkeling gear center, front desk, and library. It opens during set times and is ran by a small staff.

Paulus, the manager, has worked here for four years. He is also the boat captain that carries guests to the island from Gardena. His wife is the cook.

“I like the solitude,” the 32-year-old manager says. “The guests are great. From them, I’ve learned some Italian, German, and English.”

In addition to the guests, Paulus is fond of turtles. He visits fish markets on the mainland and purchases any turtle eggs he finds for Rp 1,000 per egg. “I love turtles,” he says. “I don’t want the fishermen to sell the eggs for eating.”

He says that after bringing the eggs to the island they require up to sixty days to hatch. He then keeps the hatchlings in washing containers in the back of the restaurant, feeding to them bits of fish and changing their seawater daily until they are large enough to safely release into the ocean.

He says that he has recently freed 60 baby turtles and only has a few to show me. He brings out two who are immediate hits with the small gathering of guests in the restaurants. Cameras pop out and the hard-shelled infants are immortalized in photos that will surely be shown in photos across Europe. Then they are put back in a bucket in order to fatten up further.

Pulau Seraya Kecil is a small island, much smaller that its sister island Pulau Seraya Besar. It consists of ten hills with none being taller than 200 meters. To the South, behind the resort, over a hill and across a saddle sits a fishing village of 50 families.

Being arid and lacking fresh water, there is no farming and as one walks the hills one will be met with grazing goats, the odd deer, leafless trees and many blocks of crumbling red rock overlooking grand seascapes. Though hot, dry, and barren it is a fine chuck of land to explore and possesses fantastic spots from which to shoot remarkable photos.

The island is also a fantastic place from which to explore Komodo or Rinca, the two main dragon visiting islands. Boats are easy to chartered through the restaurant and more inexpensive than those rented from Labuan Bajo.

For those looking for a real weekend getaway or for those already traveling to see to dragons or those traipsing further east along the drips and drops of our archipelago Pulau Seraya Kecil is worth a visit.

This article was published in The Jakarta Post’s Weekender Magazine, June 2007.

Faiz's photo

On Words: The Boy Poet Abdurahman Faiz

On Words

The Boy Poet Abdurahman Faiz


Friday, 15 June, 2007, 12:52 PM Local Time

JAKARTA –Poet Abdurahman Faiz will be busy this summer. His sixth book, Nadya, Kisah Dari Negeri Yang Menggigil (Nadya, Stories from a Shivering Nation), comes out in July.

Once the book is released, he will travel about Jakarta the rest of the month, meeting his fans and signing their purchases. Faiz has got just a few weeks to promote this latest work, for in August he begins the sixth grade.

To read a Faiz collection is to walk Jakarta’s streets. It is to ponder headlines, to question, to belong. Family, beggars, God, war, faith, disaster, and hope are just a sampling of the topics living within his pages. His sixth book deals with Indonesian society and politics and is, according to the author, infused with optimism.

Faiz says he is drawn to poetry because poems are short, meaningful and can often be spontaneously finished at one go. Some he completes within minutes, while his more stubborn pieces can demand a month or two. His Javanese father, Tomi, explains in English, “He doesn’t have a finishing target, so he just writes when he has ideas.”

The poet says he does not worry about writer’s block. When the affliction hits him, Faiz simply goes and plays, confident that the ideas will return. They always do.

He says that he finds ideas everywhere, from all that he sees and all that he hears. He is primarily driven to the keyboard by social problems that he witnesses or reads or hears about. When an idea comes, he records it in his cell phone for later retrieval.

Faiz writes with a clear vision. He knows what needs to be said and will not be satisfied until his message is lucid and strong. He recalls that he has had to fight his editors in order to maintain the integrity and precision of his work. If even a single word is altered, he feels the work is no longer his and does not accept it. His Acehnese mother, Helvi, a university lecturer, says Faiz remembers every word he writes and is tenacious when it comes to protecting each and everyone of them.

On the surface, Faiz is a rather ordinary soon-to-be 12-year-old child. Though smiling and friendly, he is noticeably less-than-comfortable as we talk in his family’s modest living room. He frequently pauses and looks towards the ceiling in search of words. His fingers twist and knot together between his rocking knees. He explains, in Indonesian, that he writes better than he speaks.

When not writing, he is just a boy. He enjoys playing basketball, riding his bike around his Depok neighborhood, reading automobile magazines and books such as Harry Potter and playing computer games.

He spends a lot of time at the computer. Never having liked writing by hand, he took to the keyboard at the age of five. Now he writes poems and updates his blog just about daily. Tomi, a television-news producer, says in English that Faiz is a “completely modern boy.”

Readers of his work come from all walks of life, politicians, fellow-writers, academics and the public at large. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono considers Faiz’s work to be “very touching.” Political and religious leader Amien Rais calls Faiz “a deeply thoughtful writer,” while former president Megawati Soekarnoputri hopes his work will “inspire and give spirit to future generations.”

Poet Agus R Sarjono says that Faiz’s “worry about social situations is his fresh style.” Professor Riris T. Sarumpaet finds Faiz’s “concern to be pure, simple, transparent, and deeply sensitive.”

One of his poems so clearly demonstrates the need for governmental transparency that it is used by Masyarakat Transparasi Indonesia (the Society for Transparency of Indonesia), in its anti-corruption campaign.

Faiz’s first book, Untuk Bunda dan Dunia (For Mother and Earth), has been reprinted ten times since it came out in 2004. All of his books together have sold around 80,000 copies.

Later in the interview, Faiz relaxes and shows me around the family’s upstairs office. The wall next to the computer is nearly completely covered with writing and poetry awards the he has won and framed clippings from newspapers and magazines that have featured the boy poet.

Faiz says that he wishes there were more young authors in Indonesia. He suggests that children who would like to write keep diaries, play scrabble, read a lot, observe their surroundings and always ask questions. He believes it is vital that writers are sensitive to the surrounding world.

Faiz possesses that sensitivity. He suffers from it. Helvi says that her son is so painfully aware that he used to cry whenever he witnessed or learned of sorrow. Now, he crafts that raw openness into his art and uses it to affect change. He donates half of each royalty check to his two foster brothers in North Jakarta and Aceh’s tsunami victims.

As he shows me his blog, I think to myself that he is fortunate the room still has three bare walls. I get the feeling he is going to need them.

Abdurahman Faiz’s blog is at

(Sidebar, one of two)

Doaku Hari Ini

My Prayer for Today

My Lord

Give me your time

To grow in the road of love

A seedling

In all along the road of my parents

In all along the road of my Indonesia

In all along the road to you


July 2003

(translated by Rafi Hayati and Andrew Greene)

(Sidebar, two of two)

Pengungsi di Negeri Sendiri

Refugee in Their Own Country

No one dances any longer

Between the filthy tents

Over here

Only suffering

Caught in our eye

And our ear

Not even one song

We ever sing anymore

Only teardrops sing

Between hunger, thirst

Changing seasons

Have you noticed this, my brother?

October, 2003

(translated by Rafi Hayati and Andrew Greene)

Monday, June 18, 2007

On Words: A Reading Life Begins in the Home

On Words

A Reading Life Begins in the Home


JAKARTA Reading is life. The written word separates us from the animals. Its thread ties us to our ancestors’ stories and, in turn, strings forward our lives into the consciousnesses of those yet to come. Want for knowledge, independence, self-confidence all grow from a love of reading.

Understandably, tempted by gaming consoles, cable television, pirated DVD’s and gadgets galore, the children of today’s Jakarta are often reluctant to foment that passion. However, we, as parents, can, by leading by doing, turn even the most text-shy kid into a life-long reader.

Walk the walk

The power of parent modeling is immense. Scatter books, magazines, newspapers about your house. Place a magazine rack in your bathroom. You need to lower the television remote control and raise a fist of words. Make the sacrifice. In all honesty, will knowing the latest about Rosa and Yoyo’s marriage or what Lost is in fact an allegory for really complete your existence? If your children see you reading, they will know it is valued.

Do not talk about reading

Reading can intimidate children. Oftentimes, they view it as a chore that must be accomplished under the stern eye of a schoolmarm. By introducing variety into reading, books can be pulled from the equation. You should try to teach children how to chose and enjoy what they wish to read. Cereal boxes, comics, age-appropriate magazines, and learning about particular hobbies and interests are all great ways for you to take the schooling and intimidation out of your children’s reading.

Read with your children

Scheduling a few evenings each week for your family to read together is a wonderful idea. By sharing this time with your children, you will show them that reading is an important and pleasurable hobby, not a penance. You can take turns reading paragraphs, pages, or chapters aloud to one another and then discuss favorite characters, happenings and anything else of interest that comes up. Not only is this habit a great way for you to foster a love for reading, it will also help you lay the lines of communication that are important to all families.

Create a reading station

Place some large pillows or cushiony chairs in a comfortable well-lighted corner of your home. This can become your family’s dedicated reading spot. If possible, it would be nice if you could border the area with low, eye-level shelves, enabling your kids to display their books and magazines in this area of importance.

Schedule a weekly, fortnightly, or monthly book day

You can elect a different family member to be the leader of each book day. The leader has the responsibility of choosing which bookstore to visit and perhaps even of picking the topic that all the club members need to try to find reading materials about. You, of course, can help your children make these choices by suggesting subjects that relate to what is presently happening in their lives. If your family has an upcoming holiday planned for the hills, a recommendation to learn about volcanoes or tea farms would be in fine standing.

Some local bookstores have scheduled readings or author visits. These could easily be plugged into your family’s book day schedule.

Once back home, in the embrace of your family’s reading station, the leader can read aloud to the group her new purchase. Then you all may discuss the reading along with the rest of the club members’ purchases.

Make reading journals

Using large notebooks, your children can craft reading journals covered with their own decorated designs. They may write about what they like and dislike in their readings and record any news words, phrases or ideas they uncover. You will then be able to respond in writing to your children’s thoughts. It is important to remember that your family reading station is a place where your children are discovering how to enjoy exploring and playing with language, so you should avoid correcting your children’s journal entrees.

Most of All

Have fun. The above ideas are merely suggestions. We all need to keep in mind that life-long habits grow from activities that produce positive returns. You, the parent, know best what rocks your children’s socks and by your being tuned into these desires, your children will soon be as excited about an upcoming book day as they are about the next broadcasting of High School Musical.

Good reading,


(Sidebar, one of one)

How to Choose Children’s Books

· Stay with the known. Look for readings that match your children’s interests, characteristics and life. Kids enjoy reading about people and situations they relate to.

· Explore the unknown. Children love learning about something new.

· Mix it up. Help your children build a wide-ranging library stocked with fiction, non-fiction, the classics, and fantasy.

· Open the book and read a few pages. You know your children best, do you think the material will grab your children’s attention?

· Check the children’s book best-seller lists at, and

· Read book reviews, is loaded with both editorial and reader reviews. You and your children are also able to post your own reviews. Writing online reviews is a great way to stoke your children’s interest in both reading and writing.

· Ask for advice from other parents, bookstore clerks and, if you have access to libraries, librarians.

This article was published in The Jakarta Post’s On Words Column Sunday, 17 June 2007.