Sand, Starfishes, and the Sea – Pulau Pari: Part 1

Kepulauan Seribu (or Thousand Islands in English) is a part of Jakarta often overlooked by people who live in Jakarta. Heck, there are more citizens of Jakarta who have been to Bali than to any of the islands in Kepulauan Seribu – which is a bit humorous to think about. Kepulauan Seribu is a part of Jakarta, but life there is starkly different compared to the days spent on mainland Jakarta – at least on Pulau Pari.

A little background before we start this story is that I’ve visited another island in Kepulauan Seribu previously, Pulau Ayer. You can read all about it here. Pulau Ayer was an entire island owned by a private resort, thus there weren’t any island natives or local houses to begin with. So when I looked up Pulau Pari on Google and finding not too much information about it except for a bunch of tour packages, I expected it to be the same as Pulau Ayer.

I departed from Dock 17 of Marina Harbor, Ancol at 8.30 AM with that expectation in mind. Along with my family, my mom’s friend, my dad’s friend and his family (most of whom were strangers to me prior to this trip), we waited for two hours as our boat got delayed and then finally boarded a Zevolution 3 that would take us to Pulau Pari. The boat was a speed boat with an air-conditioned compound with comfy seats. The waves weren’t too bad that day even though it was cloudy so I thought the trip wouldn’t be too bad. Mind you, I’m not a huge fan of boat rides.

But then somewhere in the middle of the sea, we lost power and we were literally stuck in the middle of the sea, the waves rocking our boat helplessly. One of the crew members said that we ran out of fuel and I thought “how on earth are we going to get fuel in the middle of nowhere?” The boat mechanics managed to rev up the engine again though so they might be carrying some spare fuel. Nevertheless, it wasn’t a fun experience.

When we finally arrived there, the port wasn’t anything like what I expected it to be.

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This platform open on all sides of it is the harbor. You may notice the staircases on the sides. They were made of cement and rocks and some parts were uneven so we had to be careful climbing up.

Any expectations I had that this was some sort of fancy resort was broken down there.

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We met up with Pak Abeng, our local island guide for the trip on the port and mind you, the port was nothing like any port I’ve ever been to. Street food sellers line up behind the harbor building you saw earlier. Bikes were parked up nearby. As I walked further away from the port, the more I realized that this was an island with a village on it and locals live on it – and I was ecstatic to be staying there.

Pak Abeng took us though narrow roads – enough for a motorcycle with a wagon attached to its back to pass – until we arrived at a grey one-story house with two bedrooms and a bathroom and he welcomed us to “the place you’ll be staying at”. Inside, there were two armchairs, a coffee table, a tiny tube TV, a bunch of mattresses, a vanity and a mirror, and that’s it. The dining table was on the porch and if we decided that we wanted to eat inside the house, we would have to eat on the floor.

When I stepped out on the porch and took in my surroundings, I realized that we lived around locals or other houses rented for visitors. Across our house was a warung, next to our house was a very narrow shortcut to the port and our neighbor was someone who apparently just hosted a birthday party as they had a “happy birthday” banner hanging across the porch.

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I spent most of my childhood at my grandma’s old house in a village looking so similar to this one so everything – the sights, the sounds, the smells – feel so familiar and so much like home to me. I was already comfortable with the place.

Pak Abeng left for a while and came back carrying a tray with a bunch of plastic cups in them. He told us it was coconut water with some jellies and fruits (mangoes and pineapples apparently) and let me tell you that it was quite a wonderful drink after that boat ride.

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A note here is that Pulau Pari doesn’t allow its visitors to bring or consume any alcohol while staying here, thus you won’t find any liquor stores anywhere on the island.

Pak Abeng left again momentarily and came back with food – our lunch. We had our lunch of rice, fried tofu and tempeh, grilled fish, sayur asem, crackers, and watermelon. My dad and I don’t eat fish without it being processed so we went to the port to buy some otak-otak from the sellers there.

The seller was a kid – probably around 12-13 years old – and he was quiet. We asked him a bit about life on the island and from what I knew from him, there aren’t exactly any locals my age on the island as the nearest senior high school was a boat ride away on Pulau Tidung.

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It was a mind-opening thing to hear, that there are kids my age who could opt not to go to school, excusing the distance and tough way to get there as a reason. Yet the kids on the island chose to get some education for the dream of getting out of the island and seeking better life. That blew my mind.

Anyway, while we were waiting for the otak-otak, we saw a ferry come in and were appalled by the sheer madness of the people on it.

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There’s actually another way to get to Pulau Pari aside from the boat on Marina Harbor. You can hitch a ride on a ferry from Muara Angke for only Rp40.000 per person… but you might have to stand on the ferry’s rooftop. If safety is not your main concern or you have an appetite for danger, then this ferry will suit you well.

Anyway, we returned to our house and had lunch.

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Pak Abeng promised to take us to the beach after lunch and I was looking forward to that because I’d heard that Pulau Pari has some very clean and very pretty beaches.

The coolest thing about spending the weekend on the island is that the only modes of transportation to get around the island are as follows: on foot, by bicycle, by motorbike, or hitch a ride on a wagon tied behind a motorbike. Part of the trip package actually includes bicycles for us to use as many times as we wanted so naturally, we opted for a bike ride to get to the beach.

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Our first stop was Virgin Beach. The beach was located at the eastern side of the island. When I heard its name, I thought that it would be a beach with some waves crashing upon the shore and soft white sand and brilliant blue sea water.

The only thing I got right about it was the soft white sand part.

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You see, Virgin Beach is not exactly a beach. It’s not located at the coast or anything and there are absolutely no waves that wash upon the sand. It was more like a cove or a lagoon. The water is literally as calm as a lake, very clear and shallow (the deepest point is just about my knee-depth – and I’m about 165 cm in height). The sand was soft in beach standards with only a couple of dead reefs here and there.

To be honest, I was a bit disappointed when I saw the beach because I honestly expected a real beach with waves and all. Nevertheless, this “beach” offers a lot of beauty to capture in itself.

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There are a couple of platforms constructed near a reef bank that you can reach by walking in the water and behind those platforms are mangrove trees.

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There’s a volleyball arena near the water and there are quite a number of restaurants serving up seafood or some comfort food there too.

I spotted some kayaks and duck-shaped water bikes on the sand and thought I should try riding them. Yes, I’ve never been on one of those duck-shaped water bikes nor a kayak. Quite pathetic, I know.

So anyway, I took my sister and my dad’s friend’s children on the water bike and pedaled away.

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Upon pedaling and exploring the cove, I discovered that there were seaweeds on the sea floor. This photo was taken from the water bike. Yes, the water is that clear. Sadly, the seaweeds appeared to be dead.

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As we kept on pedaling, we saw something that captured our attention. There was a tiny island in the middle of the cove with some ruins on it. I was intrigued and found it creepy at the same time. So we pedaled and approached the tiny island. There were some ruins of what appeared to be houses there and it was eerily quiet there. My sister wanted to stop on the island, get off and explore it, but I didn’t think it was a good idea. I don’t know, I just got the creeps about the island.

I asked Pak Abeng later on about it and found out that some of Pulau Pari’s current residents used to live there before they were transported to the main island, which explains the ruins.

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If you think that pedaling a water bike is easy and fun and romantic for couples, you are so wrong.

My sister and I were sweating and our legs were tiring out. Our arms kind of hurt from pushing the steer of the bike – which looks like a metal joystick – as it was quite loose and not exactly reliable. We ended up docking near one of the platforms I mentioned earlier, pushed the swan boat thing and sat on the platforms.

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We spotted our mom and dad joining in on the cove exploration by kayaking!

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We finally got back on the boat and pedaled some more. Once we got near enough to the shore, we didn’t want to pedal anymore and our legs were hurting so much that I made my sister get off the boat and push the thing while I steer.

Oh, the fine perks of being the older sibling.

Our mom and dad have reached the coast too and have parked their kayak. My sister still wanted to explore the cove and she’s ridden a kayak before, she knew that it would be better than the swan water bike thing. So I went along with her and it was a lot more fun than the swan boat. We went past bits of water between mangrove trees too narrow for the swan boat and got closer to the abandoned island.

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We didn’t spend a lot of time on Virgin Beach after kayaking. We sipped some coconut water, got our bikes out of the bike parking lot (yes, there’s a bike parking lot), and began our ride to Pantai Bintang (Star Beach in English)

This beach is located on the west side of Pulau Pari so we literally crossed the entire island to get there. We rode past a lot of locals’ houses, trees, and the local school to get there.

The beach is similar to Virgin Beach in a way that it is something like a cove with some mangrove trees here and there and the water is very, very clear. However, that’s where the similarity stops.

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The beach has a lot of trees on it, making it an awesome camping spot on the island. There’s an old man who points out where you’re allowed to set up a tent on the beach and you only need to pay an extra Rp10.000 to set up a tent. The beach does not provide tents for you so you have to bring your own equipment here.

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As for the beach, it is quite different in some ways from Virgin Beach. For one, there’s a lot of reefs washed up on the shore so it really, really hurts to walk along the coast without any footwear. However, once you get to the water, it’s all sand there. The sand banks underwater are really soft and fragile – the kind that you step on and it would create a blob the size of your foot fragile.

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There’s a reason why this place is called Pantai Bintang or Star Beach. Aside from tiny fishes, crabs, hermit crabs, and little shells, there’s a huge population of starfishes on the area. I’m not talking about a couple of starfishes here and there. They are literally everywhere on the sand banks. They’re walking, sucking food, mating, crawling up and down sand banks. Walking on the sand banks and spotting them feels just like walking into a starfish reality show or something.

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These starfishes are very much alive and I ask you not to take any of them home with you as they can die in less than 24 hours without sufficient amount of sea water.

Aside from picking up starfishes and watching them up close and personal, you can also do a bit of relaxing here on one of the hammocks and tire swings tied up to the tree trunks and branches.

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Lying on the hammock was truly pleasant. The wind’s nice and there are sounds of splashes and rippling water as people walk around the sea. I would have fallen asleep on the hammock if it weren’t for a huge rooster clucking near my foot.

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As for food, fear not of hunger. There’s a warung behind the bike parking lot which serves Indomie, rice, soto ayam, coffee and chips. The lady there was friendly and will cater to your requests for the food (additional eggs, etc) well.

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Some time later, we went back to the house and decided to catch a little nap before chasing the sunset.

Upon asking some questions that day to Pak Abeng, I learned that this island’s tourism success is largely owed to its locals – not the government nor people from Jakarta city. The government didn’t help them in any way except for the local island government officials. They started up the island’s tourism business all by themselves and I was truly amazed by that. It’s not perfect yet as international tourists aren’t exactly aware of this island’s tourism potential yet, but it’s getting there.

They also raised awareness about the environment and keeping beaches clean. Pulau Pari’s local residents gather up plastics and bottles and put them in a trash bank in exchange for money or recycle them. They devised this system up by themselves.

What saddens me is a lot of people from Jakarta come to this island and make the effort to keep the island clean so hard for them. People from Jakarta like littering everywhere and spending a couple of hours on this island has made me pissed off enough at all these litterbugs that I like to say “oh how I hate litterbugs” or “this island is actually dirty because people from Jakarta like littering” loudly when I’m near any of those litterbugs until they give me a pointed look. I’ll save this litterbug thing for another post or it would turn into a full-scale rant here.

Anyway, my first couple of hours in Pulau Pari left me completely impressed and inspired by the independence of its residents and their capability to develop an entire business on their own with limited resources in the middle of the sea. Even a lot of people from big cities with complete facilities and all can’t do that, but they did.

My story from Pulau Pari is not over yet. But as this post has reached more than 2500 words and I fear that it would be agonizing for you to read about 5000 words at once, then I will divide it into two parts. Part one of the post is over now, but part two will be up really soon since next week is my last week of school (more on that later) and I’ll have more time to write.

To end the post, here’s a little breakdown of all the money I spent on day one

  • Entire trip package (including everything I’m talking about here, i.e: bikes, house, boat ride, meals) : approx. Rp700.000/person. The price ranges from Rp600.000-1.300.000 depending on the amount of people traveling as a group and gas prices.
  • Entrance to Virgin Beach : Rp3.500
  • Entrance to Pantai Bintang : Rp1.000
  • Swan boat: Rp70.000/hour
  • Kayak rental: Rp60.000/hour
  • Otak-otak: Rp2.500/piece
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