Solo Ways in Sulawesi


Published in Roam Alone, Bradt

Just before I leave, I read that there are around half a million people in the sky at any one time. The flight out of soggy Heathrow is surreal. An emotional kaleidoscope hurtling through the troposphere, I’m one in half a million, wishing that ‘I’ were ‘we’, and we were two in half a million. At 6.30 a.m. English time we land in Singapore. I head straight outside to the Cactus Garden without passing Go, and sit in a sky-tantrum storm with probably the best pint of my life (and I’m not afraid to admit there have been a few). While I’m there I watch a fat line of fat tropical ants dodging fat raindrops and making their fat way across the floor. While staring at them, I realise that going away was definitely the right decision, even if I am flying solo.

During the onward night flight – now local time – to Jakarta I get bored and pull up the window shutter. The sea is a deep, royal purple and a silvery-bright strip of moonlight fractures it in two. Sometimes a little desert island pops up to say hello, waving its palm tree hands at the sky. This scene makes me remember that there are beautiful things happening all the time – we just need to look for them. Then the air hostess tells me to pull the shutter down and this makes me remember that rules are happening all the time, and we just need to try and ignore them.

After more stops, and starts, and stops again, I finally, eventually, land in sultry Makassar and am immediately cornered by the oppressive heat, and by a guy called Ahmed who asks me where my boyfriend is. I tell him my boyfriend is waiting for me at the hostel. My mythical man is, fortuitously, a more proficient traveller than I am, and will always be one step ahead. Lovely chap. Awfully quiet though.

People smile and shout, ‘Mister! Mister! English! Manchester!’ at me as I, laden with sweat and an element of confusion, explore the city. Manchester because of football, presumably. And Mister because that’s just what they seem to say to foreigners (I try not to take it personally), although I don’t see many other Mister Manchesters here. Maybe I’m staying in the wrong part of town. Without anyone else to confer with, I base my decisions on the sturdy foundations of guesswork and blind hope. I vex myself about relying on the fact that people will speak English to me (it’s arrogant, but I have no other choice), and try to learn some Indonesian. I get the basics – a few numbers, some polite phrases and questions – down, but beyond that I rely on wild gesticulations to get my points across. This is reminiscent of when I was on Tioman Island and the people who lived there told me I reminded them of Mr Bean. So that’s nice.

I head out of Makassar quick smart to Pantai Bira, a little village with a large amount of goats. At the weekend there are quite a few holidaying locals who all want to take photos of me and shake my hand. It feels a little bit like being a celebrity, except I haven’t done anything commendable. Oh. Hang on, so it’s exactly like being a celebrity. I take photos of the goats and the locals take photos of me. Sometimes I wish that one of the goats would pick up a camera and take pictures of the locals, and then we’d all be in a satisfyingly weird snapshot circle. This never happens. There’s no wireless in Bira and no internet kiosks. I feel naked, but then learn to enjoy it, realising I could well be a technological nudist at heart. I am on my own and I am free.

Dive. Breathe in. Breathe out. I see blacktip reef sharks, nudibranchs, bumphead parrotfish (Woi, fatties!) batfish, squirrelfish, moray eels, giant clams, gargantuan gorgonian fans, more brain coral than I can think about and lots of other weird and wonderfuls. Beautiful things really are everywhere, and I really go down into the blue to look for them. Bad things are also everywhere though, and some parts of Bira I really don’t like. The main beach is littered with litter and the dive school drops anchor on coral instead of using buoys. I get uppity and down, but I can’t tell anyone because my Mr Bean moves don’t extend that far.

A self-made concern that becomes increasingly prevalent is how dire my sense of direction is. Even with a map, I set off in the wrong direction. Every. Single. Time. How this is possible I don’t know. I always get there in the end; it just takes a while and is usually done by process of elimination rather than efficacy. I’m a classic traveller cliché – I’m (getting lost and then) finding myself.

Buses help. The drivers have more confidence about where they’re going, and I’m happy to sit back and watch the busy, unfamiliar faces and brightly coloured buildings flash by. I head north. Back to Makassar. Then to Tana Toraja. And onwards. Upwards. Towards the Togean Islands. Not long into a nineteen-hour bus journey I realise I’m in an absolute textbook bus-on-mountain-precipice-in-the-rainy-season scenario. We drive higher and the clouds block the view below until I’m lulled into a false sense of security that if the bus falls off I’ll land on a soft white cushion, possibly with a Care Bear or two to hold my hands. The longest part of the journey is waiting at ‘the crossing’, an area of the road that has eroded into a sandpit. We join a long, beeping queue of heavy vehicles and wait our turn to not go and play in the sand. When we finally cross it the bus skids and we come out the other side at a funny angle and teeter on the edge of the mountainside, passengers’ knuckles communally white, before heading off on our merry way again. I haven’t spoken a word the whole time.

A quick stop-off in Tentena, a swim in the glorious lake, and out on another bus, past stalls of fried bats and goldfish and the sound of explosions. It’s December, so Christmas celebrations have started. And that means boys spend the entire month throwing firecrackers called ‘atom bombs’ on to the ground when you walk past. Because, you know, nothing says ‘I love you, Jesus’ like perforating your neighbour’s eardrums.

I make best friends with an old lady on the bus who is about the size of one of my fingers. We can’t say anything to each other, but she keeps resting her hand on my arm and giving me illuminating smiles, each tooth a dangling white lantern. The second part of the journey is in a Toyota Kijang driven by central Sulawesi rude boys who listen to Indo Trance and won’t make eye contact with me. I feel a bit vulnerable (no-one knows where I am, I don’t have a phone and even if I did, who would I call anyway?), but I finally arrive in Ampana. The last dry land before the Togeans.

As is the way when you’re on your own, I meet all sorts while I’m waiting a few days for the boat. Sometimes ‘the meantime’ – the bits in between the actual things – ends up being the most interesting. There’s some sort of conference at the place I’m staying. All the attendees arrive in advance, and I spend a surreal evening chatting to official-looking men from Palu. One man features more prominently than most as he’s in the room next to me. He’s from Jakarta and wants to tell me all about his seaweed business. He’s obviously learnt enough English to explain his work, but beyond that his vocabulary is understandably limited. We talk about seaweed, and seaweed only.

I actually really make it to the Togeans the next day. They are definitely a thing. Quite possibly the thing to end all things. Perhaps I was just trying to make myself feel better with all that meantime nonsense.

After days of loud engines and silent thoughts escaping through dirt filters on bus windows, I step off the boat into a sweltering, sandy paradise. The sea is over thirty degrees and the air is so hot it feels like I’m standing in front of a hairdryer. It’s like being given a constant spa treatment, except I look awful. The view from my hut is so lovely I feel as though I’m on honeymoon with myself. Someone is definitely missing – I check under the double bed, but only find a dead hermit crab and confirmation of solitude. So I pull myself together, tell myself I look beautiful and hold hands with myself as I walk down the jetty to have a romantic sunset beer on my own.

Life is deliciously simple on this island of the Togeans. No shops, restaurants or anythings. No roads. The only sounds are cicadas, geckos and a very loud kingfisher. I meet some other travellers and we go snorkelling in a saltwater lake full of jellyfish which, despite the fact that I know they’re special ones that don’t sting, feels really creepy. I’m as wobbly as they are. Foam blobs float in front of my face, and lazy tentacles linger on my legs. I like to think they’re saying a slimy yet tender hello. They’re probably panicking about how hard my bones are. Then, having successfully swum in the Safe Jellyfish Lake (NB, not the local name), I get in the sea to go snorkelling and get stung by a jellyfish.

I never get tired of sitting on the end of the jetty by my hut. In the daytime I watch the fish. At dusk I watch the sunset, staring at the sky as nothing moves but everything changes. And at night I watch the phosphorescence, imagining silent plankton discos under the glittery waves. I never want to leave, but I have to. And before I know it I’m back on the mainland, steeling myself for the long journey home.

My solo ways in Sulawesi went too fast, and I blame Time. The Master of Deception. The King of Tickery. Heading back to the real world, it feels like I’ve only been away momentarily – on a day trip maybe. But I haven’t. It’s been two months.

My first weeks away were like waking up in the morning of the metaphorical day trip: confused, out of focus, not sure what’s happening. The middle month was like the actual day out: time was flying, I was having fun, and I didn’t notice I was doing things because I was too busy doing them. The last week has been like bedtime: me wishing the day would last a bit longer in a childish fight against sleep. Which makes my final flight back to London the actual slumber after my long, solo excursion. My eyes shut and I think of the beginning and the purple sea and the islands waving at me. And I remember they’re still out there.

There are beautiful things happening all the time. We just need to look for them.