Our Togean Island Escape – Part 1

I am sitting on the veranda of our tree house bungalow on Pulau Kapas Island in Malaysia looking out onto the sea and actually thinking about the view we had from our bungalow on Poyalisa island in the Togeans in Indonesia. What a paradise! It makes me think that now is the right time to put our thoughts and experiences in Indonesia down on paper, or let’s better say ‚tablet‘ :). Just then Mathias comes up and asks me to come down and sit on the beach with him, ‚there is a nice breeze‘ he says. So I move to the tree swing on the beach to continue writing, and I agree, this is much nicer. Good, I think, because there is a lot to tell and write down!

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Three weeks ago now, we left Singapore on a Sunday morning to fly to the Togean Islands in Sulawesi. The closest we could get by plane was to fly to Gorontalo, a harbor village that has grown into a big town with even a few Western developments recently, including an airport about six months ago. It still takes us a whole day to get there, as of course there is no direct flight. So we fly from Singapore to Jakarta, then on to Makassar and on to Gorontalo, arriving at around 9 o’clock at night at the smallest airport ever. When we enter the arrival hall, or let’s better say arrival room, we have to smile at the sight of the baggage carousel, which actually is only a stretch of belt about a meter long where the bags fall onto the ground at the end of it :). We were the only Westerners on the flight and we can already feel all eyes on us. While we sit and wait for our bags, all locals are impatiently cramped around the baggage belt, men are smoking (of course you can do it on this tiny airport), and some women are stretching their necks to see if they can see one of their relatives waiting outside in the crowd.

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 I look outside too and realize that a plane arriving here still seems to be a big deal. Then a man knocks on the window from outside, waving at me, shouting ‚taxi, taxi’! In the meantime, Mathias has arranged a taxi from the ticket seller inside. He looks at the baggage belt and sees our bags and goes to pick them up. We are ready to go and I ask Mathias how much the taxi is. He confirms again with the driver and realizes he had misunderstood him earlier. I say it is too much compared to what we had researched and that there are many more taxis outside just waiting for us. So we walk the few steps to the exit door and wonder why people are pushing and shouting, but are not going outside. And then we see to our surprise that in that whole chaos of people, there is actually one guy checking the baggage receipt against the claimed baggage. And of course, a lot of locals cannot find the receipt anymore. We are stunned, after the chaotic trip getting here, full of false information from the airline staff telling us our baggage is checked through when it wasn’t and we luckily double checked it every time, having a ticket for one flight from Jakarta to Gorontalo which ended up being a transit flight via Makassar and some staff telling us to get off while others didn’t and some didn’t even know it stopped in Makassar, this guy in this tiny airport checking that you are leaving with the right bag was just an unbelievable scene to us. Luckily we still have our receipts. The moment we are outside a storm of taxi drivers approaches us as expected. So here we go then, negotiating starts now, we have arrived in Asia. After about 15 minutes of back and forth with the drivers, Mathias finds someone who is willing to drive us for 2/3 of the first asking price, which is still a bit more what we had researched should be the price, but it is almost 10 o’clock at night by then and there is no other way to get away from there anymore. So we agree and get into the car. The moment our bags are in the back, the driver tells us with his 2 words of English and sign language that we have to wait while he tries to find a third passenger. Of course, there had to be something else. After 10 minutes or so he comes back though, alone of course as everyone else was picked up by their family, and we finally leave. We drive about 45 minutes past civilization made up of a mix of simple sheds, old wooden houses, half finished brick houses, lots of small family-run street shops and now and then also Western shops along a sometimes newly paved and sometimes not paved at all road. In the dark it gave us the impression that Gorontalo is quite a big town that has seen lots of growth recently. Only later did we realize that all the houses and shops are mainly build along one big road that leads to the center of Gorontalo and its harbor and connects with the other towns.

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We get to our hotel which only costs 7EUR per night per person, but still has air-conditioning in the room and is relatively clean for Indonesian standards. It is good value for money and we stay there for 2 nights until our ferry leaves to the Togean islands. As Mathias is starving we decide to go and eat something before we go to bed. Because it is already so late, we ask at the reception where to go and two staff members drive us on their mopeds to a nearby local street restaurant. As we walk in several people look at us, start laughing with delight and get up to greet us and introduce themselves. We realize they are passengers who arrived in the same plane as we did and who are obviously delighted to see us in their local restaurant. With their few little words of English and our list of few Indonesian words we had noted down earlier on the flight we have a short but nice conversation. The kids in the restaurant are clearly excited to see some Westerners and giggle and smile at us while saying: „Hello Misses, hello Mister.“ We are touched by this genuine friendliness and joy. In the following 2 days in Gorontalo this feeling only increases, as we spend time discovering the local shops and markets. For most travelers Gorontalo is only a quick stop to take the ferry over to the Togeans and in addition it is only the second choice harbor, as there is a quicker and shorter ferry transfer coming from the South of Sulawesi. So seeing Westerners is still a rare event for most, especially seeing them shop in their local shops, getting a haircut at their local barber and eating in their street food places. So much so that we were asked several times a day if they could take a picture with us and the shouts of „Hello Mister, hello Misses“ became a constant song that would follow us around town. To our surprise, Indonesians were also in big world cup fever and even though they did not have an own team in the tournament, they chose a country they supported. The town was decorated with all kinds of country flags, big and small, and to our delight the German supporters were a very big group. That also helped to connect with people :).

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So after 2 great days in Gorontalo it was time to get our ferry to the Togeans. It only runs twice a week and as we received very different information as to when it leaves and go told that the schedule is often changed short notice, we decide to get to the harbor 4 hours early. We manage to get two bentor drivers, the small moped taxis, to drive us to the harbor for 1 EUR each. 20 minutes later we get dropped off in the afternoon heat at the harbor. Of course the ticket office is still closed. While we sit down and wait a guy with decent English knowledge comes up and introduces himself as ferry staff even though it isn’t clear to us what exactly his job is. First he just chats to us normally and lets us know that the office opens at 3 and the ferry leaves at 5 pm. After a while he starts telling us how dirty and cramped the normal economy class is and that tourists often get robbed during the night (it is a 13 hour overnight ferry), and all kinds of other things to, as it turns out, convince us to take a cabin. He offers us a private cabin that can only be bought on the boat, not at the ticket office, and is 5 times the price of the normal ticket. Naturally we are skeptical and he offers Mathias to have a look at the cabins. Mathias goes with him and comes back with a grin saying that this guy is a crew member and is renting out the crew cabins to make some extra money :). However the rooms have beds, air-con and a door we can lock from the inside. After another hour of waiting and negotiating, one Canadian arrives, the only other Westerner, and we manage to get the price down and share the cost for a 4-bed cabin between us. James, as we will find out during the trip, is a long-term traveler in his forties who has been traveling for over 8 years in total with periods of 2-3 years of traveling, then working, then traveling, etc. He has lots of stories to tell and the time passes quickly. When we arrive in the morning in Wakai, we are extremely happy we chose the cabin. The economy room floor was a mixtures of food leftovers with dead or still half alive cockroaches everywhere and the air a mix of dense cigarette smoke and the smell of people sweating all night without fresh air getting in. This would have been a very dreadful journey in that room indeed.

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Even though the ferry had left almost 3 hours late, they had made up some time during the night and we touched Wakai ground at around 8 in the morning. That meant we had to wait another 8 hours for our next ferry. That is right, going to a castaway islands means it takes a long time to get there. Wakai is the biggest settlement on the Togean Islands and the main hub for the ferries, however there is not much to do as a traveler. So we walk from one end of the harbor along the main road to the other end where our next ferry will leave. We are shocked how dirty it is and how much rubbish lies around everywhere. This has nothing to do yet with a paradise island. We get to the other end and the place is deserted. Apart from 3 other locals who seemed to have come from Gorontalo with us and are also waiting for their next ferry, there are 2 goats playing around and chasing each other. So we sit and wait, first on a comfy sofa for 30 min at the port masters office. For some reason he then asks us to go to the waiting hall in the other building which is still humid and hot. So basically we sit and sweat for almost 8 hours. While my brain doesn’t seem capable of anything other than reading, Mathias passes the time and learns some new Indonesian phrases and teaches some English in return to his new 3 local friends. I am impressed, where does he take that energy from?

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When finally the time has come and our ferry arrives, I am glad to see that it is quite open, allowing a good air flow to go through. It has no seating area but rather 2 wooden bunk bed type layers where you just lie down next to each other. That’s what we do then for the next 3 hours. The ferry is the main transport to connect the bigger settlements on the different islands, so we stop about 4 times until we reach our destination Malenge. The manager of our cottage we booked is already waiting for us. Sifa brings us to a small boat where another couple is already waiting and then it is another 45 minute boat trip to Waleakodi island, where Sifa cottages are based. So after 3 flights, 3 different boats and lots of sweating and waiting, we final reach our castaway beach cottage on a lonely deserted island. Have a look at the route map to understand the full extent of this trip! It is already 9 o’clock at night and the generator, that produces electricity for 4 hours a day, only runs for another hour. So we move into our cottage, get served a quick dinner and then get into bed, close the mosquito net around us and sleep. Or so you would think after that trip ;). It is however still so hot and humid that sleep doesn’t come for a long time. Over the next few days our bodies will slowly get used to it and we learn to appreciate heavy rain at night that cools the air down nicely by several degrees.

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The next morning we get up and see our chosen paradise for the first time in daylight. Sifa cottages is situated on a nice stretch of white sand surrounded by palm trees to the front and mangrove and forest in the back. It consists of 6 wooden bungalows with own bathrooms and 1 dorm bungalow with shared bathroom outside. The stay there includes 3 meals and drinks as of course there is no place to buy anything. We sit down to have breakfast with the others, the couple from last night, a German and his girlfriend from Czech, and 2 Russian mothers with their small children. The other couple are also traveling for a year and had already spent 2 months in Indonesia and thereof several weeks at different cottages on the different islands on the Togeans. We are happy to hear that they think Sifa is one of the best with the nicest house reef, but they rave about one other place which they say has an even nicer atmosphere and feel to it. It is called Poyalisa and is 3 ferry/ boat rides away from Sifa. They recommend us to split our time and definitely also go there. We say we will think about it as we wanted to just stay in one place and relax for once and another 3 boat rides was not really what we wanted.

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So we start establishing our island routine of looking for a shady place with a nice breeze to finally have some time and just read our books. I usually find that place in one of the hammocks while Mathias prefers the restaurant terrace. We would only get up to get some more tea or a fresh coconut to drink or for lunch and dinner, which was always a highlight for us. The food was in a way basic compared to other Asian food, as it wasn’t spiced very much and it was always rice with grilled fish and some cooked vegetable. Some people started complaining after a while as it was always the same, but we loved it. It was always fresh, well cooked and we got freshly caught grilled fish twice a day. Come on, where else do you get a cottage at the end of the world on a white sandy beach all inclusive with fresh fish for 10 EUR per night?! Anyway, Mathias became great friends with the chef of course and Ulin only tried harder and harder every day to please us. Or should I say Mathias? We only found out later that Ulin seems to be gay and clearly took a liking to Mathias ;). Well, I can understand!

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I, on the other side, made a new friend in Jungle, the beautiful house dog. Jungle is a 1 year old female who was found in the jungle (therefore the name) by a German couple when she was a puppy. For some reason she adopted me quickly as her new mom and would follow me around to the extent that she would lay down underneath my hammock when I was reading. When it got too hot for her she would go into our bungalow and sleep underneath our bed, at night she would sleep in front of our door and at meal time she would first sit politely a bit away from me patiently looking and only start coming closer when I was almost finished and hadn’t given her anything yet. Once, when a local from another island came over with his boat and wanted to convince us to take a trip, she sat next to me the whole time and at one point even started barking at him. She clearly didn’t like this guy and he was gone in no time after that. When we did decide to leave the island after 6 days, I got the strange feeling that she somehow knew. She was even more clingy that day and at the same time seemed agitated. In the evening, when we got up from the table to say goodbye to the staff before taking the boat at 5 the next morning, she started to jump around and for the first time even up at me as if to say ‚take me with you‘. It broke my heart and I have to say I really miss that dog. If ever we will have a dog, I shall call her Jungle.

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So as the days go by we get more and more used to the climate, the sounds and animals around us and the persistent smell of deet on our skin. Living in a bungalow on a remote island next to a forest of course brings animals with it that otherwise we prefer to avoid. The sound of rats on your bungalow roof at night or the cats chasing them now and then becomes as normal as getting up in the morning, going to the bathroom and seeing the rats have eaten your soap again. Or seeing the mosquitos fly around you but mostly actually avoiding you because of the deet smell. All things I can get used to, but cockroaches are still a totally different matter to me. I think I got that from my Mom ;). So when on the second night I turn on the torch to drink some water and see a cockroach on the inside of our mosquito net on my side, I scream and jump onto Mathias and shout at him to put it away! Oh god, my sleep that night was ruined, I dreamed of cockroaches everywhere even though I made Mathias check the mosquito net was tightly tucked under the mattress again and again. I think I ruined his sleep as well…

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Apart from that we had a really relaxing lazy time at Sifa cottages. So much that we got a bad conscience about not doing anything and decided to go out on a snorkeling trip one morning to a reef 1 hour boat ride away. The boat ride was beautiful and we pass an island settlement where we see local kids playing around in the water. It is amazing to see how much joy these kids can have when at the same time you see how poor they live. When we get to the reef, we spend over 1 hour snorkeling. It was really nice and got close to what we had seen in the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. We left it at that snorkeling experience though, as the other guests who had been to several different reefs had told us that this again was one of the nicest and most healthy reefs around the Togeans. A lot of the others have been destroyed through local fishing practices using explosives. The so called reef No 6 is even completely dead by now. We will later on meet a local working for the government who explained us all the problems and challenges they face to educate locals and create an awareness for preserving nature, but that is a too long story to tell here.

The more relaxed we get, the bigger the curiosity to go and see a different place again gets as well though. Thus after 6 days we do decide to leave Sifa cottages and make our way to Poyalisa island…

To be continued.

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