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Lose Yourself in Indonesia's Seas
Island hopping and scuba diving outside Sulawesi 


Detour: Diving Selayar Island's underwater wall
Hot Spot: See Sulawesi's reefs before they disappear

Monday, Jul. 08, 2002
"Now this is something you might not understand right away. It took me a long time to figure it out myself." So mused Robin Engel, who left New York City for Indonesia nearly a decade ago to head what he calls the Sailing Fleet of Indonesia, a loose association of traditional sailing-craft aficionados who ply the archipelago's waters for both pleasure and business. Engel, staring out at the moonlight reflecting off the calm waters of the Banda Sea, paused and took a pull from his cigarette before continuing to speak. "You could get yourself a boat and go to one of these little islands with your family and just set up shop. No one would ever find you."

The words struck a chord, nearly a year after the attacks on New York's World Trade Center left me seeking solace in wide open spaces where life could be simple again. My craving for escape found me on the deck of Engel's Marco Polo, a single-masted wooden schooner, for a four-day cruise. It was the middle of the night, and the Marco Polo cruised along at a steady seven knots, the low hum of its engine blending with the soft slap of waves against the hull. Engel watched the dim, forested hills of Sulawesi slip behind us and into the night. "Untouched," he said. "Nobody knows about these places."

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Long distinguished for its unique cultures and endemic wildlife, Sulawesi is also the home of old-fashioned Bugis sailing vessels like the Marco Polo. These are still built by hand in the style favored by Sulawesi's traditional seafaring folk in the southern port town of Bira. The Bugis have always been traders, filling the cavernous holds of their schooners with timber from Borneo to exchange for spices in the Moluccas. The Marco Polo, however, is designed to carry passengers, with seven simple bunks, a shower and a shaded gazebo on the upper deck.

We were heading for the sparsely inhabited island of Selayar, 75 kilometers south of the southernmost tip of Sulawesi. The trip takes about eight hours, and by midnight, most of the dozen passengers were already asleep in their bunks, rocked by the gentle motion of the waves. Haji, the 68-year-old, one-eyed captain, was up in the darkened bridge, sitting cross-legged on a stool to the right of the wheel, making constant and almost imperceptible adjustments to the course of the ship. Navigational instruments—radar, sonar and GPS—glowed faintly on the control panel, but Haji paid them no heed. He has been sailing these waters since his youth; subtle changes in the shape of the coast and the position of the stars are all he needs to know exactly where he is. Just before dawn the Marco Polo reached the eastern coast of Selayar and dropped anchor.

The next morning, our first day of sailing, dawned brilliant and warm. As the sun rose higher, a stiff breeze rolled over the hills of Selayar, and the crew prepared to cast off. The passengers watched rapt as the five-man crew pulled lines taut and the two green and white striped sails caught the wind and filled with a snap. Some guests pitched in to help, others baited hooks and fished off the stern. A few hours later we arrived at a pristine beach surrounded by coral heads at the southern tip of the island. Divers readied their gear and plunged directly overboard while snorkelers and shell gatherers headed to the beach in a dinghy. Later that afternoon, a small fishing boat pulled alongside the Marco Polo to reveal a hold full of the day's catch. After a few minutes of haggling, the fisherman agreed to $5 and hoisted three meter-long tuna aboard.

The guests slowly trickled back to the schooner from their afternoon activities, indolent and relaxed from a day spent in the sun and sea. Soon we set sail again, accompanied by the intoxicating aroma of cooking tuna and roasting potatoes. Dinner was hearty and simple, which was just fine as during those days of utter relaxation I wanted nothing to do with gourmet meals and complicated sauces. After dinner we retreated to the comfortable chairs, pillows and mattresses piled on the foredeck to lose ourselves in the stars and watch the moon set over Selayar's hills.

By the final night of our trip we had reached the northern tip of the island, and the moon was full. To celebrate we supped onshore, grilling freshly speared fish over a bonfire. After dinner and lazy conversation, my fellow escapees wandered the beach or plunged back into the warm waters for a farewell swim. My four-day getaway was over, and as the Marco Polo turned back to Bira, Engel's early observation continued to haunt me. I could always get a boat and set up shop on my own little island. Nobody would ever find me. That knowledge would be my most treasured souvenir.

From the Jul. 15, 2002 issue of TIME Asia Magazine

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