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My Old Man & The Sea: Cruising Through Indonesia

Aboard a sailboat cruise through Indonesia, a father and son forge a deeper bond

Photographs by Muhammad Fadli (see more images here).

I would characterize my relationship with my 71-year-old father, a retired history professor, as very good. But some targets are still too easy, and as I strode shirtless across our room at Singapore’s Fullerton Hotel, my dad couldn’t help himself. “You’re getting chubby, Joshua,” he said, using my name in its proper form as a final dash of sarcastic punctuation. “Your brother’s lean and mean. He’s working out every morning.”

The two of us had flown halfway around the world to spend 10 days together cruising from uninhabited island to uninhabited island in Indonesia on a boat full of strangers. This trip would be the most time we’d spent together since I was in high school, when I was a selfish teenager with a loose tongue and he was a kind man whose patience was not limitless. Despite seeing each other far too infrequently (he now lives in western Maryland; I’ve been a New Yorker since college), my dad and I have actually grown much closer since then. More than visiting the remote tropics, what he really looked forward to on this trip, he told me, was the time we’d get to spend together. I felt the same way.

The next morning, we set off for the provincial town of Tanjung Pinang on Bintan Island, located less than an hour from Singapore by high-speed ferry. In the early-morning light, we waited for the boat that would take us to meet the Katharina, the refashioned 125-foot Indonesian fishing vessel that would be our home for the next 10 nights. The Katharina is one of two ships owned by SeaTrek Sailing Adventures, a Bali-based boutique cruise outfit that plies the waters of eastern Indonesia, focusing on deserted islands. Still in a zombie fog of jet lag, I was barely lingual. My dad, somehow more coherent, looked at me. “Are you wearing a hat?”

I was not. I didn’t bring one. “I hate hats,” I said.

“Well, I do too. But we’ll be on a boat,” he replied. “Your father has two.” Meaning, he’d brought an extra for me.

“Are you wearing sunblock?” he asked next. The question was sweet, almost reflexive—I would turn 40 in a month—and when I shook my head at him, he grinned sheepishly and reached into his bag.

Unlike an ocean liner, the Katharina offers intimate views of water and land. Also unlike an ocean liner: the body of the ship was built by hand, in the style of traditional Indonesian fishing vessels.

Unlike an ocean liner, the Katharina offers intimate views of water and land. Also unlike an ocean liner: the body of the ship was built by hand, in the style of traditional Indonesian fishing vessels.

The Katharina is beautiful in profile, especially with her sails aloft, as they were when we first glimpsed the schooner, anchored off an Indonesian harbor ringed with shanties on stilts. The arcing hull was built by hand in the ancient style of the seafaring coastal people of Indonesia’s Sulawesi Island.

We were two of 12 guests, joining a crew of 15 and our guest expert, Simon Worrall, an author and journalist who was to provide historical context for SeaTrek’s new 10-day Maritime Silk Route Cruise. The trip was unusual, even for SeaTrek. This would be the company’s first “expert-guided” itinerary; it was loosely based on a story Worrall wrote for National Geographic about an Arab ship that foundered in these waters in the ninth century CE, when the ancient Srivijayan empire, based in Sumatra, was a world power. SeaTrek’s first trip on the route had begun in Java and sailed north for nine days to reach Singapore, where the first set of passengers disembarked. We were the route’s second batch of pioneers.

Worrall had made it clear that our itinerary was very much a work in progress. I had taken only one cruise before, aboard a behemoth of a ship through Alaska, and this was my dad’s first. He has an adventurous spirit, though, so he had jumped at the opportunity to see a part of the world he never would have otherwise. To my dad and me, the whole thing was an adventure—and we had zero expectations.

Indonesia, the world’s fifth most populous country, is beautiful and fascinating, but it’s a difficult place to visit, as it comprises approximately 18,000 islands stretched across a swath of ocean wider than Australia. To fly from its far east to its far west takes five hours, and the only way you can do justice to even a fraction of this is to experience it by boat. On the first day of our trip, I couldn’t even begin to count all the idyllic deserted isles that speckled the perfect blue waters of the Java Sea: they ticked past, on either side, like mileposts along a freeway.

They reminded me—in quantity, especially, but also in the incredibly rich greenness that blanketed them—of the islands along Alaska’s Inside Passage. Watching scenery from a more traditional cruise ship is a little like watching it in high definition on a movie screen. It’s stunning but also distant; you’re an observer, not a participant. On the Katharina, though, the water is only a few feet below and you can hear every ripple. Looking down from a cruise ship deck, the water seems perilous; on the Katharina, you can practically dangle your feet in it.

These cows roam Ndao Island, one of more than 18,000 isles that make up the Indonesian archipelago.

These cows roam Ndao Island, one of more than 18,000 isles that make up the Indonesian archipelago.

My father has generally aged gracefully. He looks fantastic and fit, but he sleeps less, frets more, and has slowed down to the degree that he has scaled back his daily jogs from eight miles to five. And on the boat, he was understandably preoccupied with the near future; he and my stepmom had decided to leave Maryland but weren’t sure where they were going.

“What’s your latest best guess?” I asked one morning after breakfast, as we motored toward the day’s first stop off the coast of Sumatra. They had been kicking around the idea of fixing up a place in Maine, but Florida was also in the discussion.

“I wish I knew,” he said. “I’m too old to be renovating a house.”

It was a major life decision, sure, but I couldn’t help laughing when he kept calling it his “final chapter.”

“I figure this is one of the last big trips I’ll take,” he said, and I nearly spat out my coffee. “Next year we’ll finally go back to South Africa,” a place where they had lived for five of the past 25 years, “and then maybe we’ll bike around Europe again. But that’s probably it before we’re too old to travel.”

“That’s just silly,” I said. “You probably never thought you’d be in Indonesia, and
here you are. Who’s to say you won’t end up in Thailand? Or Alaska? You should definitely go to South America.” “I’m an old man, Josh,” he said, as the boat’s motor slowed, and our destination—a tiny half-circle of white sand with a clump of palms at the center—approached off the bow. Then, again: “Are you wearing sunscreen?” This time we both laughed.

Most SeaTrek cruises are built around leisurely stops at unpopulated islands ringed by reefs, but today’s stop was to be our only chance on this trip, with its cultural itinerary, to do that. The agenda was to walk across spookily quiet beaches and swim in tepid waters that have rarely (if ever) met humans.

Massive two- and three-story-tall granite boulders loomed over the beach. As our chef prepared lunch over a fire pit dug in the sand, my dad and I walked the island’s mile-long perimeter and pocketed shells. Far overhead, a pair of white-bellied sea eagles—massive birds with seven-foot wingspans—soared in the thermals.

In the distance, the Katharina rocked gently, and behind her was still another deserted island.

“It’s just like Robinson Crusoe,” my dad said.

A traditional dance performance on Sawu Island

A traditional dance performance on Sawu Island

Just after the halfway point of the trip, we had barely left Belitung, an island famous for its tin mines, when the seas began to churn. When conditions sour, any boat, even one as lovely as the Katharina, gets small quickly. And the forecast going forward looked even worse: we faced the prospect of more than a day on the open sea, with no stops.

The swell started small, and for some time it was possible (if difficult) to read, but eventually I quit trying and took up pacing instead. My dad had long since put his book down and was staring off over the bow as if locked in a trance. His complexion had gone from pink to green. “I was told to stare at the horizon,” he said.

At dinner, he ate only rice and a roll. “You know how you know I’m not well?” he asked. “I haven’t had a beer. This is probably one of two days all year I won’t have anything to drink.”

Thankfully, the next morning brought relief, and our arrival at Cirebon, a city of around 300,000 on the isle of Java known for shrimp. We landlubbers immediately appreciated the city for the mere fact that it was on solid ground. “This pier isn’t rocking, is it?” my dad asked as we walked toward a bustling street market in search of my current obsession: a taste of the infamously smelly durian fruit. In Singapore, signs at subway stations show the spiny orbs with a red line across them. Despite the fact that most of

the Katharina crew loves the taste of the fruit, durian is never allowed on board. Our tour leader, Arifin Pagaka, happily agreed, however, to help me find one to try.

We started the morning at the palace of Cirebon’s sultan, a plump 40-year-old who holds the throne that once ruled the city-state but is now strictly ceremonial. We were, he said, only the second Western tourists ever to come to his home. The first had come last week, aboard the Katharina. After an incredible hour that had all the ceremony of a state visit—an elaborate traditional dance ceremony, a parade of dignitaries, and a palace tour, plus tea and snacks—he sent us off with three requests:

“Visit Cirebon. Visit Cirebon. Visit Cirebon.” Our apparent novelty was a recurring theme of the ground stops; locals, especially kids, would rush over to talk and take our photos, acting as if we’d just alighted from a spaceship. These coastal areas of Sumatra and Java are still rarely visited by tours.

Vegetables on display in Kalabahi traditional market, Alor, Lesser Sunda.It was no different at the market, as we stopped for photos with a woman chopping chili peppers, the guys selling songbirds in cages, the other guys selling mealworms and grubs to feed to the songbirds, and finally, after we had ventured deep into the market’s teeming belly, a small, toothless man standing under a tin roof before a table piled high with spiky, softball-like spheres. Durian!

“Come, Josh. We must fulfill your mission,” Ari said, quickening his pace as he spied our elusive target. “I can smell it now. Ooh la la!” He snatched a durian from the pile and held it up to my nose. I recoiled. He laughed. “They say it smells like hell but tastes like heaven,” Ari said. “Let’s try it.”

My dad will eat almost anything, but he’d never heard of durian, and, after listening to descriptions like that, he was making no promises. “We’ll see,” he kept saying, and I took that to mean I’d probably have to force some in his mouth to get him to try it.

The vendor cut into the firm, almost wood-textured skin of the fruit and handed slimy, fleshy hunks to Ari and me. Somehow, this would be Ari’s first time, too. He had managed to live more than 40 years in Indonesia without sampling a durian, and he had seemed fine with that until I’d announced that my trip wouldn’t be complete without tasting the fruit so foul it was banned from most modes of public transport. If I would try it, so would he. My dad, meanwhile, had backed away and was instead snapping pictures of my face as its expression moved from excitement to bemusement to utter shock.

“I said I will never eat this in my entire life, and you have now made me eat it,” Ari said, finishing his portion with the smile of a mischievous child. I gnawed at my chunk suspiciously and held my nose as the piece slid down the back of my throat. It really was awful, and continued to be awful for hours, as its aftertaste reemerged with every burp, but mission accomplished.

Back on board, the trip was nearing its end, and my dad and I needed to wrap up a day early so I could make it home for my son’s third birthday. The finale was Borobudur, the ancient Buddhist temple that is to Indonesia what Angkor Wat is to Cambodia. Once we arrived on the lush grounds of the Plataran—a tiny, beautiful resort of Javanese villas carved out of the jungle on a hill across the valley from Borobudur—my dad said, “I have never been so happy to sleep on land.”

The temple delivered. The rest of the group would have the entire next day to see it, but we were flying back to Singapore first thing the next morning, so my dad and I rose early, and we went separately from the group, with a guide. I wasn’t aware how refreshing the breathing room would be until I felt it. It was just us, making our way among the site’s dozens of stupas and Buddha statues in the pleasantly heavy air of a jungle morning. On an individual basis, I had actually liked everyone in the group, but this moment was special. I realized that my dad and I had made it to the end of the trip with virtually no bickering, despite sharing a room about the size of an economy car’s interior. Volcanoes loomed on the horizon. We were walking ground we had never expected to visit and would never step on again.

I squinted into the sun and adjusted my hat.

This appeared in the March/April 2015 issue.