Swimming with Monkeys: Sendang Biru Beach and Sempu Island

With the fourth longest coastline in the world, Indonesia has no shortage of picturesque beaches, and I would not have been a successful resident of this country if I did not go to at least one during my time here.  Only a few hours south of Malang is one of the better-known natural tourist attractions in East Java: Pantai Sendang Biru.  (“Pantaimeans “beach” in Bahasa Indonesia, and “sendang biru” something like “blue spring.”)

My site mate and I, along with an Indonesian friend, took advantage of a free weekend to go explore this beautiful area.  After a long and enjoyable ride through towns, villages, fields, and mountains, we finally found ourselves on the coast.  The salty ocean air greeted us long before we saw the vivid blue water, and I was taken back to childhood visits to family in the Chesapeake Bay area, where memories are always accompanied by sand and a slightly fishy smell.  Once we were in sight of Pantai Sendang Biru, it was the colors that struck me most, from the blue of the water to the green of the trees, and the rainbow of peeling paint on the boats that crowded the shoreline.

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Because of the nearby Pulau Sempu (Sempu Island), the waters of Pantai Sendang Biru are considerably calmer than in other parts of Southern Java, which are often battered by the currents of the Indian Ocean.  But even as the water in front of us was relatively tranquil, in the distance we could see the waves crashing against far-out cliffs.  Even as a farm girl, whose family’s livelihood is tied so closely to the weather, I sometimes forget just how powerful Mother Nature can be when I am at home, surrounded by peaceful woods and a patchwork quilt of fields; but here, on this island archipelago formed by more volcanoes than I care to count, her sovereign rule cannot be ignored.

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We were easily able to hire a fisherman to take us to the nearby Pulau Sempu (Sempu Island).  Because we were traveling on a holiday, there were many boats headed to Sempu Island, carrying groups of teenagers, foreign travelers, and families complete with children eager to help work with the boats.  Our boat was operated by a friendly enough chain-smoking bapak who delivered our guide and us safely to the island.

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Our guide led us through the jungles of the island on a beautiful trail.  I still have not been able to fully grasp that I live in a place where I can call the forests around me jungles, but there is no denying that my love for the unfamiliar foliage here comes from the same place as my love for the maple trees that are currently changing color back home.  I am incredibly thankful to have been placed as an ETA in one of the larger cities on Java, because it gives me access to a wonderful array of resources and allows me to explore Javanese culture, but there is not denying that my soul occasionally demands that I leave the busy streets of Malang behind, in search of something green and growing.

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After hiking for maybe three quarters of an hour, the jungle opened up and before us laid a stunning lagoon.  Sea water crashes through a hole in the rock that towers at the end of the island, filling the lagoon with cool, salty water, creating the perfect environment for coral and the tiny crabs and fish that made their homes there.

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We were told the beach of the lagoon was a bit crowded because of the holiday—the exact phrasing, I believe, was that the beach was like a pasar, or market—but there was plenty of room in the water for all.  We spent hours swimming in the clear, cool water.  I have never seen coral or sea anemones up-close before, and I felt like a child again, completely in awe of the mysteries of the natural world.  Fish darted away from our shadows, crabs scolded us for disturbing their scavenging, and the surrounding jungle echoes with the calls of birds and monkeys.

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The beach was surrounded by crab-eating macaque, a species of monkey which is actually considered invasive in many parts of South-East Asia, including Indonesia.  I tried to do my part to not encourage this upsetting of the natural balance by keeping my food safe from the wildlife, though many of the other visitors did not do the same.  Still, I was fascinated by the way they watched as we silly, hairless humans played in the water, and their enchantment with the empty plastic bottles they were able to steal from the beach.  Animals like these are another reminder of how far I am from home: there are no monkeys in the forests of Central New York.

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We returned through the forest and reached the waters’ edge just as the sun was beginning to set.  Sunsets are one of my favorite parts of living in Indonesia, not because they are particularly beautiful, although streaks of color painted across the evening sky here are no less exquisite than they are at home, but because I know the setting sun will soon reach the skies above my hometown, and create a new morning for those I love.  I can only hope that their time in the sun brings as much joy as my own.

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