In a country falling squarely on many tourists’ radars for its all-inclusive resorts and organised bus tours, I instead remember the Togean Islands as a place where the most serious decisions I made included “SCUBA or snorkel?” and “Should we walk across the beach for a warm beer or the island for a cold?” It was a place where, unlike most of the island paradises of my memory, paradise lived up to my ideals.
Togean Island Style
Many of Indonesia’s islands offer sun, sand and sea. Not all of them – indeed very few – engender a feeling of community and family. One handful that does is the Togean Islands, which respond to the needs of an eclectic mix of nationalities and travelling styles. In particular, the islands’ Pondok Lestari homestay offered me the ideal combination of beautiful beaches and a feeling of belonging.
On the Togean island of Kadidiri, we gathered each evening to squabble over who ate the last of the sambal or whose turn it was to walk for more beer. On most nights, after a big communal dinner, we predictably settled into Swiss board games or Indonesian cards. Explaining rules and strategies across languages – English to German to French to Bahasa –was so inefficient that the most commonly heard phrase was “Cannot!”
The days offered more excitement than the chilled-out nights. On mornings that Aka (our homestay host) didn’t take out the Lestari boat for fishing/snorkelling trips, the resort just down the beach rented sea kayaks to paddle to nearby islands. When Aka was around, each afternoon was randomly adventurous. One day we visited protected mangroves, while the next we toured the shallow reefs our host/driver prefers for fishing. On yet another day, we finally explored the intra-island trails and over-water villages of the local Bajo community.
On really big days, or maybe just when the call of civilisation became overwhelming, Aka invited us back to the ferry port. If no new guests showed up on the morning ferry, Wakai’s wet markets and waterfall were ours to explore. They were part of the largest settlement within six or seven hours’ boat ride, which was overwhelming after days of quiet peace. Wakai even has motorbikes buzzing down its dirt roads. A day trip to the village definitely makes for a great diversion, but we always welcomed the sunset boat ride back home.
Local Communal Living
All this warm camaraderie is the very atmosphere that Pondok Lestari seems built to evoke. Basic rooms – just a bed and mosquito net – push guests out toward the beach each morning. With limited electricity and no wifi, the homestay’s common space becomes an arena for interaction hard to find in other guesthouses. Sitting on hut-front balconies or swinging on community hammocks, guest form plans for sea-kayaking and jungle hikes or lazy beachfront snorkels and an afternoon of reading.
While there are two other places to stay on the island of Kadidiri, both of them proper resort-type accommodation with dive shops and bars, at the end of our week, most of the island’s other guests were spending their evenings at the Lestari homestay as well.
Saying Goodbye… for Now
Like so many backpacker decisions, my choice to stay at Lestari was determined by economy rather than experience. Fortunately, all along the way in Indonesia – from tourists in Bunaken to bureaucrats in Manado – everyone promised that the Togean Islands are the ideal blend of off-grid living, underwater nature and pure local charm.
I often ignore hyperbole like this, but when the Lestari outrigger met our overnight ferry from the mainland and promised a free ride to US$11-per-night bed, food and snorkelling trips, I was forced to wonder what other options were really even worth considering.
Though a handful of tourists in the Togean Islands stay for one or two nights, most hunker down for considerably longer. After a week on Kadidiri, having expected to spend two or three nights before skipping to another island, my travel buddy and I discussed when we would be able to pull ourselves away.
Lily, a French nurse, was months into her stay and still in no hurry to leave. Having come on her first visit to Indonesia and made close ties to the family running Pondok Lestari, her decision always to return to the island seemed obvious in the bonfire light of my last night on the beach.
After one last sleepless night of empty bottles and heartfelt discussions, waving goodbye from the outrigger, even now I wonder if leaving was the right choice at all.