When we woke up in the morning following our journey from Banda to Kei, after a good night’s sleep, we were able to enjoy our view for the first time. Once again we were struck by the fact that you can visit as many beachside locations as you like but choosing any one as a definitive paradise is almost impossible. But if you like beaches, the Kei Islands is a definite contender.
Coaster Cottages, run by Bob and Ketty (more on Bob later), is situated at the northern end of Kei Kecil Island’s famous beach Pasir Panjang. Dazzling white sand, fringing coconut palms, aquamarine sea and often not another soul as far as the eye can see in either direction. It is stunning. Kei is famous for its beaches and you can understand why. And Pasir Panjang, while the most famous is not the only beach; the Kei Islands are full of them.
But is also the people that make this such an enchanting destination. A mix of Muslim and Christian, the locals are so friendly but not in an intrusive or overwhelming way. Similar to the local people in Banda, they are quite shy and reserved, perhaps even more so. Except, that is, the younger children who can generally hardly contain their excitement when they spot you. But they are very curious and we have yet to meet anyone here (or anywhere we have been in the Maluku Islands for that matter) whose face doesn’t automatically break into a huge grin when you greet them. It’s as if they can’t help themselves, that they are just genetically disposed to be friendly. Greet them in their own language and the shyness seems to fall away and replaced by friendly and excitable hospitality.
Oloililir was just the place for me to recover from a lurgy which struck just before we travelled over on the Pelni and which I couldn’t shake for a week. To be fair, it was my turn to be sick and while it was nowhere near as bad as the Wooky’s bout of dengue it was debilitating just the same. I spent the first few days feeling quite sorry for myself and when I wasn’t doing that I was sleeping.
It was the tail end of the rainy season in Kei when we visited in at the end of March. The weather was breezy and relatively cool and a welcome break from the constant heat and humidity we had experienced up until then. There was a mix of a few lovely sunny days, littered with loud thunderstorms, strong wind and torrential rain. It was a perfect mix for us and we were able to get a few good nights sleep. We were glad of the respite.
The bad weather wasn’t much fun for those on a shorter break, as most of the people we met were. Many people we met cut their stay short due to the weather moving on to their next destination earlier than planned but for us it was a welcome reprieve.
The people we met
Coaster Cottages was run by Bob who was an invaluable source of information relating to all things Kei. Bob was helpful, accommodating, provided information about tours and trips we could make and had quite a few stories to share. He was able to give us the background to Coaster Cottages and cheerfully told us stories about what he used to get up at beach parties with his friends in his youth.
In the Lonely Planet guidebook there is mention that this end of the beach is haunted and one day we quizzed Bob about it. He sat down and explained where he thought that all came from.
First he said that it may just have been a rumour put about by a rival business in an attempt to put people off staying on this part of the beach. But he then went on to tell us about a party he and some friends had 15-20 years ago where they may have overindulged somewhat – he didn’t specify and we didn’t ask!
Apparently the music was blaring and they were dancing like crazy into the early hours. He says that at some point during the night he saw a girl he didn’t know. He danced with her without exchanging a single word and after a while she walked away and disappeared in the direction of the well. Bob said he didn’t know whether there is a ghost but he believed that this girl he saw was a Princess of the Well. These guardian spirits are a different concept and form part of the belief system of the people of the Kei islands. He said he didn’t know whether his girl was a Princess of the Well, but he thinks she might have been. He seemed to scoff at the idea of a ghost!
One thing we have learned about the Indonesians we have met is that while they all have their faith (whether they be Muslim or Christian, Hindu or Buddhist) entwined within that part of their identity is an unshakable belief in the “old ways” much of it based on ancestor worship, good and evil spirits, with elements of animism thrown in for good measure. While most Indonesians seem to have embraced an organized religion (whether it is Muslim or Christian) they have held fast to their ethnic beliefs.
It was Easter while we were there and everyone dressed up in their best traditional dress to attend church Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Everyone attends church on Sunday throughout the year and most of the men, young and old, wear a cross around their neck. However, they remain very superstitious, believing in the old spirits and ways, and manage to blend their old and adopted beliefs even if on the surface they appear contradictory.
While Bob was the manager at Coaster, Ketty was in charge of the day to day running of the kitchen and the bar. She was very attentive although trying to get her attention between the hours of 5.00pm and 9.00pm was more difficult as she spent this time glued to her clapped out old TV watching Bollywood soap operas. She was addicted to them as she explained to the Wooky one evening as he managed to tear her away from the screen during the adverts one evening.
The bar worked on an honesty system (common in places we have stayed) where you simply helped yourself and wrote it down in the book. I’d rather not say what our final beer count was at the end of our two week stay, but I will way that the cans of beer were very small and we did have a few late nights which is pretty unusual for us.
While Bob speaks pretty good English, Ketty and the rests of the staff don’t speak very much at all but I managed to communicate with my little bit of Bahasa but the Wooky, once again, could have whole conversations with her.
We met a lot of Dutch at Coaster Cottages although most of them didn’t stay longer than a couple of days due to the weather, but one young couple, Arno and Charlotte, stayed for about a week and we spent a few evenings exchanging travel stories although theirs were a bit more exciting than ours.
Arno and Charlotte were on an 18 month to 2 year trip which started in Amsterdam. Their trip began in Amsterdam from where they travelled by road in a 4WD through Europe, the Stans, Pakistan, China and India. They left the car in Mumbai (to be picked up by parents who would drive it back to Amsterdam) and have since to continue using more conventional methods like planes, buses, boats and trains.
Charlotte and Arno were intrepid and inspiring travelers, as well as being talented photographers and we blame them for keeping us up long into the night chatting with them and Marcel, a German and a fellow guest. We all talked about places we had been, and listened to some crazy border stories Arno and Charlotte had to tell. You can check out some of their amazing photos here www.lotandarnotraveltheworld.com.
When we have meet fellow Europeans we feel an affinity despite the language barrier and cultural differences from country to country. It doesn’t matter whether they are German, French, Dutch, Swiss, Swedish or Finnish – we still feel part of the same club which is Europe. The EU referendum was discussed with people from inside and outside the EU and it was fascinating to hear the reaction from people from those countries. It made for some interesting and lively discussions.
During our stay, Penny turned up for a holiday. Penny is a British woman currently living in Koh Samui, Thailand and has a long lease on what is colloquially known as “The Doctor’s House” although it’s never actually been the doctor’s house (it was her sister’s) and clearly it’s now Penny’s House, it’s still called the Doctor’s House. When Penny is not using it Bob manages it as part of Coaster Cottages so that the house can be let out. It is a simple wooden hut with a lovely large veranda, and a view straight onto the beach. On one side are a couple of half built wooden huts and the word is that the Dutch bloke has run out of money to finish the huts. On the other side of Penny’s hut is an area of wild jungle stretching for about 100m on which Penny has also taken a 20 year lease to prevent development. This place is Penny’s little paradise and she wants to protect is from over-development for as long as she can.
Penny has been travelling for 30 years. I’m not sure how she does it and being British ourselves we thought it would be rude to ask but I think it was a case of renting out her flat back home and finding out she could live quite easily and cheaply in Thailand, using it as a base to travel to other destinations. In a similar way to our friend, Anders the Swede (who we met in Saparua), I think Penny just found that she enjoyed living in Thailand where she has spent most of her time in Chiang Mai and Koh Samui, that it was convenient to travel from there to the rest of Asia and beyond, and before she knew it 30 years had passed and she was still living there. It wasn’t planned, it just happened.
Penny was a lively companion and we had a mutual love of books and reading but we were not able to spend too much time with her as she was struck down by a nasty chest infection which was to last to the end of her 3 week stay, long after we had gone. It was a shame we could not spend more time socially with her. She was unwell when she first arrived but deteriorated and we accompanied her to the doctor and then to the hospital. She was ordered to rest and under the watchful eye of Ketty and the rest of the staff was fully recovered by the time she left to head home to Thailand.
Places we went
We were restricted a little because I was confined to barracks for the best part of a week and then when we tried to hire a bike, we found that we couldn’t both fit on a scooter. We had succeeded in Bira but this was the second failed attempt. We sensibly discussed the risks involved and decided we didn’t want to end up in hospital so after trying the scooter for size we politely declined and hired a bemo driver for a day to drive us around the island.
Our trip took us to the caves with a freshwater pool where I spectacularly tripped and skidded on gravel and cut open my knee. I now have a nasty scar because it took so long to heal in the humid conditions. Anyway I limped bravely down the steps and the cave was lovely and cool, the water refreshing and somewhere nice to shelter on what was one of the hotter days during our stay.
We then headed over to the swimming pool which built in a damned section of a river. When we were there a group of army cadets were using it for training and swimming lengths. Once again, we were greeted shyly with friendly smiles.
Our route took us through lots of villages with colourfully painted houses accompanied by the constant call of “hello mister”, or when kids spotted us they jumped up and down, pointing and shouting “bule bule” (white man/woman).
The beach at the southern tip of the island of Kei Kecil was our final destination where we had lunch (rice and fish – at this point I was seriously going off this diet), and watched a boat race in the sea. It was a race by women only, in tiny canoes and they paddled out to a determined point in the sea and then turned around to race back, paddling furiously.
The small but raucous audience beckoned us to join them and take photos and to wade into the water to get close up to the action. We declined at this point but had a swim later after we had eaten lunch
After the excitement of the small boat race, the beach was practically deserted and we found a shady spot to sit and relax until it was time to drive home.
The Wooky went snorkeling almost every day but he had to head out about 500-800m in order to see anything. He did see some amazing blue coral and a few fish he’d never seen before, a few sharks, but no turtles. We imagine there is some amazing snorkeling and diving around the Kei Islands but there are currently no diving facilities and the weather was too choppy for us to venture out in a small boat to any of the further flung snorkeling spots.
Kei is really about the beaches. They are stunningy beautiful with blindingly white sand, beautiful clear aquamarine water and very safe for swimming (so great for kids). Not great for surfing (not when we were there anyway) but just idyllic. And when the weather cleared up, the sunsets were incredible – some of the most magnificent we have seen in Indonesia (and that’s saying something). The sky was literally on fire some evenings. We’ve been fortunate enough to see some amazing sunsets but the skies in Kei on some nights were a bit special.
Kei was some somewhere we discovered while we were researching Indonesia; until then we did not know it existed. On our way we heard of other places far off the beaten track, which have been added to the ever growing wish list. That’s the problem with Indonesia – there is always so much more to discover and one lifetime would never be long enough.
We highly recommend the Kei Islands for its stunning beaches and its lovely friendly people, and escaping hordes of other tourists. There is not a lot to do except relax on the beaches, swim in the crystal clear waters, explore around Kei Kecil and, when the weather permits, visit neighbouring islands.
Next we were heading to Raja Ampat, a Mecca for divers in Indonesia’s far eastern province of West Papua, eager to get back into the water with tanks on our backs and see lots of lovely fish again.