Almost Paradise

- A travelogue -

Beate Boeker

Wobbling around in an ancient boat just a bit larger than a nutshell was not my idea of the safest mode of travel, but I hunkered down as low as I could get and wished I had one of those bright orange life jackets they pass out on cruise ships. I stared into the muddy water sloshing by and wondered why I had agreed when Julia asked me if I wanted to join her on a trip to Pulau Seribu. She said it would be Paradise.

Pulau Seribu means Thousand Islands in Indonesian. Because someone was fond of exaggeration, it’s the official name of an archipelago that comprises some 105 islands north of Jakarta. I cast a look at Julia. With her knees drawn up against her chest, she grinned towards the receding pier, without a worry in the world. How typical. All legs and laughter, Julia harbors a no-risk-no-fun attitude. No wonder she was completely relaxed, while I, supporting the don’t-forget-the-safety-net school of thought, wished myself a hundred miles away. We had met a few weeks earlier, shortly after I had arrived in Jakarta as a trainee at the German-Indonesian Chamber of Commerce.

I’ll never forget the moment she bounced up to me like a grasshopper, took my hand and said, “Your sister is called Sabine. You have a mother who loves red.”
I believe my mouth dropped open.

It turned out she wasn’t a medium, but had met me fifteen years before. We went to the same school in a small German town, and she recognized me instantly. How could I have forgotten someone so vibrant?

Just a few weeks later, we were on our way to Paradise—at least, that’s what Julia said. I wasn’t so sure. I knew I was not going to enjoy the boat ride as soon as our skipper swaggered on board and started the motor as if he were Captain Jack Sparrow.

Maybe I could still swim to shore? The water looked like iridescent mud, its oily surface garnished with an empty water bottle. Something green slithered by and touched the boat with a sucking noise. Eons ago, it might have been a t-shirt. A rotting smell hung over everything. The slum was not far away, nor were the dumping sites of sprawled out Jakarta. No, swimming wasn’t an option.
We gathered speed. With every snapping crash against the waves, I wondered if the boat was going to crack in two. I held onto the railing and prayed.

After an hour or two—my spine had shortened an inch due to the constant battering—we reached an island that looked just like the advertisements you find on cereal boxes: White sand, azure water, emerald palm trees.
I blinked my eyes to make sure I wasn’t asleep.

A wooden pier welcomed us. I hopped onto it with a deep sigh of relief and couldn’t stop staring into the transparent water below. It shimmered clear like air. Ripples of sunlight and shadow alternated with gentle movements across the sandy ground. Was Jakarta really only a short boat-trip away? What had happened to the mud and dirt?

Suddenly, I discovered something on the ground that made me bend forward and stare into the turquoise water. An adventurous spirit had collected sea urchins and formed them into the words ‘Welcome to Kotok Island’. I couldn’t discover anything that fixed them into position. How strange. Maybe someone came back every morning and re-arranged the wayward ones that had dared to wander off? Their long black spikes moved in the water, reminding me of the day when I stepped on one of them and the agony I felt as we tried to pry the hooked spike out of my foot. But nevertheless, I was enchanted by their dangerous beauty.

At the end of the pier, a wooden gate, formed like a triangle, welcomed us. We strolled through, and all at once, I was no longer a trainee, with no experience or background. Instead, I felt like a rich tourist, coming all the way from Europe on a trip to paradise.

To our right, a hut covered with palm fronds represented an open reception area. A girl with caramel-colored skin and a broad smile gave us the key to our hut. Lugging our bags over our shoulders, we started off in the direction she had indicated. White sand covered our way. Its softness made me want to sling off my shoes. Gigantic palm trees whispered in the moist air. Between their slim trunks, I could see the sea, sparking and blue.

“Paradise,” I murmured.

Julia wasn’t listening. She stared ahead, then grabbed my arm. “Beate! Do you see what I see?”

I looked up. At first, I couldn’t discover anything. Ahead of us, the path forked. One branch led along the shore, the other further into the Island.
“Pretty, isn’t it?” I said.

“Look to the right.” Her voice came out in shaky little bursts.

I frowned. Really, Julia’s sense for dramatic production was sometimes extreme.

Then I saw it.