In Riung, Itchan gave me an amazing gift.

He’d been urging me to go out on one of his boats and snorkel amongst the islands, but I always resisted: it would cost too much, I thought. An unjustifiable expenditure. I would swim at the beach and look at the islands from the jetty.

But Itchan insisted; eventually, he said that one of the captains would take me out in one of Itchan’s boats, and that I needn’t pay for the boat – just a tip for the captain, for his time. It was really too kind, and I wondered why Itchan thought it was so important. I’d never been snorkeling or diving before; I literally didn’t know what I was missing. Itchan did.

So one afternoon, we waited for the tide to come in and refloat the little wooden boats that lay crooked on the mudflats at each low tide.

Then we waded out, climbed aboard and let the chugging diesel engine push us slowly between the islands.


It was just me, the captain, and his young deckhand – a boy, really, perhaps fourteen years of age. Bare feet, smooth brown skin; he crouched easily on the bow of the boat, watching the tiny islands come closer and surround us.


Onshore, I could see sheets of rain descending on Riung from the mountains. Out here, the sun still glittered on the water.

The captain shut off the engine and handed me a snorkel and mask; I put it on, found my flippers, dropped over the side into the crystal clear water. How was this supposed to work, again?

Snorkel in mouth, yes I can breathe; and I blinked and dropped my face below the surface of the water.

I’d dropped into another world.

The light had changed, the colours had changed, physics had changed. Gravity had left me and I hung suspended in a surreal world of sparkling depths and improbably colourful fish. Everything swayed softly; everything was warm and muted and sparkling.

Thirty years old, and I had never seen what was under the surface of the sea.

How had I not know? There is a parallel universe out there, where you can just float weightlessly with the fishes and everything is beautiful and no human problems can be spoken or heard.

I dived down to the corals and turned onto my back, so that I was looking up at the fish swimming above me. Just swimming, just swimming; yellow fish and sunlight and the shadow of the hull of the wooden boat.

A couple of times I nearly drowned myself by failing to clear the snorkel in one breath; but I soon got the hang of it. I was entranced, and supremely relaxed: with my face in the water I hung there, buoyant, not even needing to swim. I could just hang like a dead person and let my senses drift away.

Eventually the captain indicated that they were going to head for the next island, about half a kilometre away. He pointed out the curve of the reef that I could follow in an arc, from where I was – on the coralled skirts of Nusa Tiga – to their mooring spot just off the beach of Rutong. And then they left me there, alone, in my own private paradise.

At first I watched the little boat dwindling in the distance; then I dipped back below the surface and let all the tension leave my body.

I took my time meandering around the sweep of the reef; the seascape changed from corals to fantastic underwater cabbage patches that made me feel like I was Alice in Wonderland and had drunk some sort of special potion. The fish bewildered me with their abundance and colours; I had never imagined that such a small patch of water could teem with so much fearless natural bounty. I wanted to reach out to them, and perhaps take a nice reef trout home for tea.

By the time I snorkeled up the white sands of Rutong’s beach, I’d been in the water two or three hours. My skin was pruned and I suspected that I might have gotten sunburnt through the light fabric of my top, but I was filled with sleepy ecstasy. I felt like I’d discovered the key to a parallel universe.

The captain pointed to the cliff above us, and asked if I wanted to climb it. Why not? So I followed him up the beach and through the long grass that clothed the back of the island, where the slope was gentler and easier to tame. It was the end of the dry season, and the dirt was hot and dry under my bare feet, like a childhood’s summer day.


From the top of the peak, we looked back towards to Riung; the rain clouds were still cascading down the mountains onto the town in lashings of white and purplish blue, but still, the rain did not fall on the islands.


Down below, the beach was dry with the little boat looking small as a toy from our sudden height.


I stood on the clifftop in my bare feet and tried to feel the reality of it: I was on the peak of an island off the coast of Flores with sea-blue paradise at my feet. In a spot most people will never be able to find on a map. I felt light, anonymous; like I’d almost washed away my former self, and I knew at that moment that it was all worth it.

I’d quit my job and my home, my friends and security and comfort and the familiar pull of the Australian landscape and come to a place where I was a stranger, a foreigner, and a lonely anomaly. And this was why. To stand here with my toes hanging over the edge of paradise. I felt like I might evaporate any moment. It was all worth it.



0 thoughts on “A parallel world

  1. ozemarketeer says:

    Beautiful, descriptive turn of phrase. Thank you for sharing . . .

  2. geoffkeys says:

    Fantastic Grace. I’m really pleased for you. Great writing too. If you could ever find the funds to learn to SCUBA dive, that’s even better.

  3. Darin says:

    Your writing in sharing the impact this had on you was amazing! Thank you!

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