The heat in southern Indonesia is unyielding, even in April. It hangs on you, becomes a permanent state. The nights, however, are soft and sweet, and it’s on such an evening that I’m standing on a pristine beach at Pulau Muang, in Komodo National Park, watching what feels like the world’s most remote soccer match. It’s a casual pickup game between two teams of blue-shirted crew members from Dunia Barn, the wooden yacht I’ve spent the last week on, sailing through West Nusa Tenggara. The game features quick, scrambling legs, stray driftwood fashioned into goalposts, and frequent yelps of laughter. Someone scores, but I hear it more than see it, as I’m caught trying to fully digest the happy scene: Key lime-colored peaks in the distance, low-hanging clouds, the cinnamon glow of the players’ arms in the fading sun, the cool sand.
Later that night, after a beach bonfire and a barbecue fit for a visiting dignitary-buttery Kobe steaks expertly grilled on a hibachi—Dunia Barn’s owner, Mark Robba, is jonesing for fireworks. Fifty feet or so down the beach, the same crew I’d watched curl corner kicks are bent over on the sand, lighting rockets that hiss into the sky and explode in bursts of red, yellow, and white, sizzling down toward the sea and illuminating the boat—strong lined and bold masted—anchored in a cove like some kind of pirate ship. After the fireworks come the Chinese wishing lanterns, dozens of them, ignited by blowtorch and sent soaring out over this tiny island like dreams, until they vanish, snuffed out among the milky stars.
My arrival in Indonesia had felt no less otherworldly. After nearly a decade of grief and reconciliation, I’d begun, several weeks before, digging into the circumstances surrounding my father’s 2005 death—he jumped from a bridge and drowned in the sea. I’d made plans to return to Maine, where I’d grown up: I’d sent emails and made phone calls to my father’s lawyer, ex-wives, family friends, and old drinking buddies, gathering information about his life. I’d recovered a lockbox with his watch and his wedding ring, and a former roommate of mine had shown up in New York with childhood mementos I’d left in his attic after college. Everything was coming up Dad. In a final stroke of mystical interference, I accepted an assignment to sail seven days with Robba, his family, and a few friends, roughly 300 miles to Komodo National Park from Bali, the tropical island paradise where my now-expat stepbrother, Alex, had moved four years earlier. Our parents’ divorce and my father’s death had splintered communication between us, but he offered to let me stay at his villa. We would talk.
“The locals avoid this pi ace after dark,” Dunia Baru’s Swiss cruise director, Sebastien, tells me as we hoist my luggage from a taxi at the beach in Serangan. It is my first night in Southeast Asia, and the mist hangs like a shroud. He explains that many Indonesians believe in ghosts, spirits of the dead that can take possession of living people, driving them mad. After a week spent poring over photo albums, letters, and other Dad-related ephemera, I can understand the concern. We load my things onto a tender and zip out to the yacht, which is massive and lit up with blue LEDs. In the blackness it looks like a floating nightclub. Onboard, Robba has waited up, nursing brown liquid in a mason jar.
A New England salt, he spent his childhood summers on Cape Cod and began sailing in his teens. He skippered a yawl during college and moved to Indonesia in 1998, where he bought a glove factory and made his fortune. He began construction on Dunia Barn in 2006, and after seven and a half years of commuting from Jakarta by plane, river speedboat, and over ragged roads to the boatbuilding site on Borneo to check on the progress, he had a 167-foot wooden phini-si—a modern superyacht in an old-world shell. He also had a retirement plan. “That was the idea,” he says. “The boat being a way to force me away from the business, to pass it down to my son, to get out here and enjoy the ocean with my family.”
My bed in the master suite is big and soft, but the sea is unforgiving that first night; motoring east from Bali to Lombok, waves beat against the hull. My sleep is agitated. “Top five roughest nights on the boat I’ve seen,” Robba’s 31-year-old daughter, Courtney, chuckles the next morning at breakfast, unfazed. We’re sipping tea on the plush aft deck, surrounded by the calmest, most glasslike water—as if the recently thrashing ocean had been playing a practical joke. Over Robba’s shoulder, his five-year-old son, Colby, constructs a makeshift fort out of throw pillows, diving gleefully beneath them when Dad looks his way. In the pink predawn, a towering volcano, Mount Rinjani, spits fat, benign clouds into the blue sky. The silence brilliant, broken only occasionally by cries of the fishermen who orbit us, the outriggers of their pump boats like mantis legs spread out over the sea.
Over the week, we will sail through some of Southeast Asia’s most stunning landscapes. Sitting on the bow of the boat, it’s possible to imagine slack-jawed early-i6th-century Portuguese sailors setting eyes on the place for the first time: limitless stretches of cerulean water; pristine reefs with whales, manta rays, and tropical fish; jungle forests and pink sand beaches framed by craggy mountain switchbacks; and lakes cut by tectonic plates, tsunamis, and glaciers. It’s a place so rich with natural wonder that sighting “breakfast dolphins’’ becomes something I expect alongside poached eggs and avocado.
Excursions begin the same way each day on Dunia Barn, with Sebastien nervously checking his watch. “We’d better be going,” he’ll say, with just a trace of a singsongy French accent. The anemic farming outpost we’re touring on morning three is a shake-your-head contrast to the five-star flavor of the boat. But its beauty is a more organic kind of astounding: Within 50 yards of the beach we notice that what had appeared to be only a smattering of sand dunes is actually dozens of grazing, chomping cows. In an open hut, a few aging herdsmen in flip-flops sit nursing their cigarettes in the shade, and a cluster of women in hijabs smile self-consciously through broken teeth. The smoke from small trash fires hangs in a hazy layer over the beach, and rickety wooden dwellings, connected by crisscrossing laundry lines, hunch in the high grass. We walk the beach silently, in awe or reverence—something about the austerity of the place borrows your breath.
On Rinca, villagers contend regularly with carnivorous lizards known as Komodo dragons. A trip to relieve myself in the bush requires a chaperone wielding a pitchfork-like stick, and when we spot a 10-foot turtle-like reptile lurking in a nearby graveyard, I am grateful for the escort. Catching my surprise, Sebastien quickly Googles “Komodo dragon attack” and laughs from his belly as I watch on his smartphone, horrified, while the creature disembowels a goat.
Then on Komodo, we encounter a decidedly different scene: beaming schoolchildren in green-and-gold uniforms lined up on the dock to ferry newly delivered desks and chairs to their island classroom. The mood couldn’t be higher. Eager to practice their English, they chirp at us: “Miss!” they shout “Hey, mister!” They wave in unison from the dock, lit up by sunshine, as we retreat back to our big wooden ship.