Dodola in a Dreamlike State
Anwar “Ongko” Bobale stopped fixing his nets. The sun had set behind a row of hills across the sea, leaving streaks of scarlet and gold. He walked behind a wooden stilt house and past piles of dried seaweed, coming to an outdoor kitchen for a drink.
Every time he began to speak, two women near him giggled. But he kept a serious face.
According to one of his relatives, Ongko doesn’t care what people think of him. In the local language, ongko-ongko means “crazy.” But my four-day stay on Dodola Island, north of Halmahera in the Maluku Islands, showed that Ongko was a great artist with a simple dream.
Later in the day, he joined me and my travel group around the fire. The warm gleam cast dancing shadows across his lanky frame, and he began to tell his story.
“I drifted on the ocean for 32 days on a boat that broke down,” he said. “I was with my friend. There came a point when we were so hungry that we had to eat timber and our sandals. He refused to eat the timber at first, but I said that if he didn’t eat it, he would die, and then I would eat him.”
The story was not borne out of Ongko’s ongko-ongko fantasy. His relatives confirmed that it was all true. The broken vessel took the two men more than 400 kilometers away, from the waters of Tobelo in North Halmahera to Sorong in what is now West Papua. They were saved by the survival diet and finally the sea patrol.
When he returned home, the villagers, who had performed a ritual to honor his “death,” could not hold in their tears as he told them about his misfortune.
He shared his tale through bobaso , a long-verse native to the region that is sung in a slow, undulating melody. Storytellers need a strong diaphragm to nail each line and a flair for drama to deliver them with conviction.
During my stay on the island, Ongko agreed to sing this particular poem to us. Accompanied by hissing waves and the swaying of beach pines, his voice boomed and sent chills down my spine.
“Dusk arrives, and I’m reminded of my beloved,” he sang. “A froth in the ocean, it looks like the splashes of her paddle. An upright cloud in the sky looks like the mast of her boat. And a seagull’s wings appear as its sail.”
When asked who first taught him to compose verses, he said his head was just doing its job.
Isra Kudo, a grandchild of the Dodola Island’s kapita , or guardian, told me I was lucky to hear the performance.
“Since Ongko bought a mobile phone, he hasn’t sung the bobaso,” Isra Kudo said. “He simply listens to the songs in his phone. Tonight is his first time in a long time.
“In Kolorai, Ongko is the only one who has mastered bobaso, togal [Ternate island’s quatrains] and pantun [Malay quatrains]. Villagers used to sit around him under a tree and let him lull them to sleep with his singing.”
About 10 minutes away by motored boat, Kolorai Island is the nearest inhabited island around Dodola, which has no permanent residents. Kudo’s grandfather, Mare Ali Umar, usually comes to Dodola from Kolorai with his friends and family on weekends or when visitors are staying overnight.
The islanders, descendants of pirates, often clean the beaches and cabins, mow the grass and, whenever requested, cook for guests. But many of them, including Kudo, spend most of their time tending to seaweed farms.
The 22-year-old Kudo first left his village in 1999 when a violent conflict spread across Maluku and finally reached North Halmahera. He was 9 then, and fearing the tension would move ashore to the smaller islands, his family sent him to a pesantren , or Islamic boarding school, in Bogor. Eventually, however, he ran away and returned home 10 years later.
“I had gotten used to the boarding school, but then I became a teenager and the school didn’t allow us to do all the fun things teenagers want to try,” he said. “So I came back here, thinking I’d rather become a seaweed farmer than an Islamic teacher.”
After seeing how Dodola had started to attract a significant number of visitors, Kudo wanted to learn English in Jakarta or Yogyakarta so he could become a guide for them.
Most people in Kolorai speak Galela, Tobelo, Ternate and Indonesian, and if Kudo managed to learn English, he would be the first in his village. He believed the English skills would help him show visitors more about Dodola, and that they have.
In my time with him, Kudo would collect huge oysters from the bottom of the sea for us to cook, staying in the water for hours. He handled his simple boat with confidence, taking us to Pelo Island’s mangrove zone to see baby sharks, directing us to a snorkeling spot near Galo-Galo Besar island, bringing us to the coolest fishing place and showing us where to have a siesta on Galo-Galo Kecil island — all in one day. And without anyone asking, he plucked some young coconuts right from the tree to help ease our thirst.
His island is beautiful, as Heidi Arbuckle, a Jakarta-based media officer who took part in the trip, can attest.
“These islands are more beautiful than the Greek Isles. And I’m half-Greek, so I’m allowed to say it,” she said.
But Kudo’s dream for this slice of heaven is in direct contest with the hands of time — and people.
Around Dodola-Besar Island, I found fallen trees on several shores. They made for a beguiling backdrop, but they also stand as a testament to the rising ocean surface that is slowly but surely eating away at Dodola’s coastlines. A part of the island’s western shores have lost potential growth of mangroves; more than 90 percent of the sprouts have been sliced up by strong nocturnal waves.
“It wasn’t so long ago that Dodola had a lot more trees,” said Isra Rajak, who lives on a neighboring island.
Nearly four years ago, Dodola and other islets of Morotai Island became a district of their own, separated from North Halmahera.
The fledgling district then decided to develop Dodola by building cottages and gazebos, which so far are free of charge. Fresh water is available from a well, but electricity has yet to arrive, and the only cabin with a kitchen is reserved for the kapita, Mare Ali Umar.
“The buildings didn’t stay in good shape for long,” Mare Ali Umar said. “People, fishermen, have ruined them. They stole windowpanes, timber and cooking utensils.”
Fishermen are not the only irresponsible visitors. Domestic tourists leave litter on the beaches, and Kudo said they also pluck herbal plants that his family cultivates, causing them to wilt and die. He says they don’t seem to care that the plants were difficult to grow in the sandy environment.
On my last night, Ongko and I went for a walk from Dodola-Besar to Dodola-Kecil. We crossed over a strip of fine white sand, about 300 meters long, that connected the two vegetated grounds, and he asked me about Jakarta, where he wants to go to find a wife.
Ongko could not tell his exact age, but he was convinced that he was 17 when the boat incident happened in 1981. A simple calculation would show he is a 48-year-old unmarried man.
“I heard that in Jakarta, the women are the ones who approach the men. Here, the men have to make the first move,” he said. “But I want to find someone who is not in love with material things. I have been disappointed by many of that kind. They wanted my money, but they ended up marrying someone else.”
It explains why many of his quatrains are about women, or more specifically about saying goodbye to women. He must have thought one of them suited our own parting, because that afternoon as he saw me and my travel group off to our boat, he chanted: “So tall a mountain the Kabaena, the ocean waves are of the same sway, so happy are those who go afar, what’s in the hearts of those who stay?”
Except this time the lyrics didn’t really suit the occasion, because we were not at all happy to leave so captivating a paradise and its people.