The first real trip I took by myself was in August of 2001.  By real, I mean scary. I mean exciting. I mean scary and exciting. I was fleeing a not-to-be to soul mate, a not-to-be-career, and a life that needed to be renovated down to its foundation.

But not yet. A friend had fallen in love with Indonesia and recommended I go there. To an island shaped like a spider and fraught with civil war but bookended by gorgeous quiet peaceful beaches. It sounded like a perfect fit.

The day before I left New York, I gathered up my hair in a ponytail and had it shorn off in one swift slice of the scissors. No sexual adornment, no extra baggage. A bag of books, a few changes of clothing, a bikini. Dr. Bronners and Air Rifts. Malaria meds I left on the plane.

You know how it goes when you wander. I met a traveler who’d met an expat who knew a tourist who’d heard it from a backpacker….and I found my way to the southern port town of Ujung Pandang.

Each morning, I walked down the dusty bustle of streets to the dock, where dirty driftwood and old plastic bags washed up on the shore. Women and children gathered, friendly and curious. A deal was struck after a pantomime of scribbles, gestures and bills. One of the men would motion me into his rickety rusting powerboat and promise to pick me up at dusk. Forty-five minutes out to sea the island of Samalona, whose population consisted of the descendents of a Dutch seaman and his Indo wife.

I read. I tried to forget who I was. I tried not to feel. I tried not to burn. I swam. A lot. Around the island. Out into deeper ocean. In somersaults.  In handstands. Sprints. Bathtub ocean lounging. Lying submerged in the water with nothing but my nostrils sticking out, the sand cradling me, the sun a kaleidoscope beyond lazing lids, the sound of the sea filling me.

Midday, the tide pulled away and the people who lived on the island walked through the dry coral beds collecting food. After a few days, I began walking out too. And then the children followed. Innocent, giggling, unabashed. I smiled and they smiled back. They laughed and brought me gifts from the sea, which I accepted with delight. 

The mirrors of eyes and teeth and hands.  The mirror of the sea.  I couldn’t stop seeing myself reflected and refracted. A prism of blue. Except it was a different me. Traceless, placeless, and spaceless. But all soul. And I liked her. She was profound and generous and intimate. For the first time in forever, I felt genuine, present, happy. I felt free.

(Stay at Makassar Golden Hotel

August 2012