(CNN) — Even after traveling extensively throughout Indonesia for over two decades, I sometimes struggle to understand the true size and diversity of the largest island nation in the world.
This is the world’s fourth most populous nation (home to an estimated 10% of the world’s languages) and yet many people would struggle to find Indonesia on a map.
Kopi dulu means “coffee first” in Bahasa Indonesia – which serves as a second, unifying language for the majority of Indonesians. To me, the phrase summed up the attitude of unhurried hospitality that is ubiquitous in the unimaginable diversity of cultures that line this part of the Ring of Fire of volcanic lands on the edge of the Pacific.
Whether Muslim, Hindu, Christian or animist, it sometimes seems that little happens without an introductory ‘cup of Java’. This was fine with me, as I learned very early in my Indonesian travels not to rush; jam karet (rubber time) is another national slogan that is an ideal antidote to the routine of our hyper-planned western way of life.
Where myth is indistinguishable from reality
I first visited Indonesia in 1995, led an expedition through central Borneo, and have since traveled on assignments to all the major islands. I must have explored 100 or more of the nearly undocumented islands and quite a few of the estimated 12,000 that are officially listed as uninhabited even today.
Skeptics will tell you there are no virgin regions, but Indonesia offers a level of adventure few countries can match. My travels around the country, of course, passed most of the iconic tourist hotspots (including Borobudur Temple, the Batak Highlands, and Komodo) and quite a few spots that have become almost household names despite seeing relatively few international travelers (Krakatoa, Maluku’s “Spice Islands,” Borneo).
At Palasari, the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church rises in an unexpectedly regal facade against the steamy jungle backdrop.
I’ve surfed the legendary reefs of G-Land, Nias and Occy’s Left, and pioneered a previously unsurfed wave in the remote Alor archipelago.
I searched for orangutans and tracked tigers in Sumatra and spoke to people in communities across the islands about the great abundance of mythical creatures, ghosts and hantu (ghosts) that seem to occupy every corner of this fascinating archipelago.
Indonesia’s phinisi cruisers
Of course, island hopping through this sprawling chain of 13,466 islands required frequent boat trips.
Sulawesi’s southeast coast remains the traditional homeland of the Bugis, an ethnic group once famous for its fearsome pirates who, according to legend, brought the word “ogre” into a million childhood nightmares.
Today, the Bugis (and closely related Konjo people) build the majestic Sulawesi schooners known as phinisi.
These ships are often the only viable way for travelers to visit Indonesia’s most remote islands and are able to bring the benefits of tourism to isolated and underrepresented communities without leaving a lasting impact.
Plus, there’s an irresistible romance to it as you explore a chain of paradise islands under full sail with your bare feet on a warm teak deck.
The Teluk Palu Festival in Sulawesi is an intoxicating explosion of sound and color.
I explored parts of the Ring of Fire in a 65-meter luxury phinisi called Lamima (the largest traditional Sulawesi schooner ever built), but I also often sailed in infinitely less salubrious conditions.
One of these was a traditional fishing boat, which I rented to explore the Komodo Islands and lashed my hammock in the hold of a cargo boat for a six-day trip on the Kapuas River (the longest in Indonesia at 1,143 kilometers).
I’ve taken that riverboat trip to the true heart of Borneo three times in the last twenty years and have come to see the Kapuas as the Indonesian Amazon.
Far from the road tired
Despite extensive logging and destruction from oil palms, the rainforests outside the jungle town of Putussibau represent one of the world’s greatest jungle adventures. With guides from the local Da’an Dayak tribe — known as mystics and wizards by their neighbors — I paddled canoes in uncharted valleys near central Borneo in search of Kalimantan’s last rhinoceroses.
Indonesia is listed as the second most biodiverse country in the world (after Brazil) and has more mammal species than any other country in the world.
From the game markets of North Sulawesi, to the tiger reserves of Sumatra to the marine reserves of Wakatobi, I was constantly reminded that nearly a quarter of Indonesia’s 667 mammals are listed as “endangered.”
By the time I reached the easternmost extremes of the Far East — in this case at the end of a trek to the Papua New Guinea border — I had the equivalent of a road trip from Seattle to Tierra del Fuego or from Paris to Bangkok.
However, thanks to the warm welcome that greeted me in each community, I was far from tired on the road.
In fact, I wish I could have taken the “rubber time” and twisted it on its own…then I would gladly have taken the journey again.