I had just arrived on Nikoi Island, the eco-friendly private resort just east coast of Bintan, Indonesia , and south of Singapore, when a small group of children forged past me, yelling, “ Yogi!!! Yogiii!!!”
I turned around and saw a middle aged man with a pony tail standing by one of the huts, a huge grin on his face, waving at them. It was my first encounter with Yogi!
Nikoi Island is very close to paradise on earth. The “rooms” are small chalets on stilts; no paint, only the natural wood. Thatched roofs of palm leaves; mosquito netting over the beds; a restaurant floor of soft white sand; everything made into open spaces to let the breeze through.
There are no vehicles or pollution, just a small shuttle boat to bring supplies and guests. It’s an ideal place to snorkel, explore, swim, meditate, or have a photo marathon. At my favorite place, the bar facing the sea, guests could comfortably enjoy the sunset, sipping one of the many delicious cocktails.
I sat there, taking in the sights and atmosphere, and contemplated how this experience was enhanced by the friendliness and cheerfulness of the local staff. Everywhere I went, I was greeted with a genuine smile. I wondered about these people’s individual lives.
I was having a wonderful time, but how did they live it, away from their families, on call all day long?
It was on the first early morning, when I went in search for a coffee, that I got acquainted with Yogi at the bar. He was happy to answer my questions. As we sat chatting, he showed me how to make shell necklaces, and began to tell me his life story.
“I was born in Madura, an island off East Java, the 8th of 11 children. While growing up, we were very poor and always hungry. We would go into the jungle to find food.
That is when that I learned many of the things I teach the children here: I can make an axe, a spear, a blow pipe, or a whip. My dad taught me how to make toys from wood, how to find in nature what you need.
It was not an easy life, especially having enough food. Once, my older sister collected mushrooms for us to eat, but we all got sick. Some of the mushrooms were poisonous, so my mother gave us all fresh coconut milk to drink and we got better. Coconut milk is very good to fight poisons, better than medicine—and we didn’t have medicine anyway.
I was thirteen when I decided to go to Bali, because I was always hungry and wanted to find work. In Bali, I lived on the streets. I sold things to tourists, souvenirs, fake Reeboks—all kinds of things.
Living on the streets was not easy. You were never safe. I got into a gang and we would help each other. Then we started selling bootlegged alcohol. By then, I was older, and we would get brand name bottles, fill them up with regular alcohol and sell it to tourists or bars. This is when I got to know about alcohol and cocktails.
And I learned to fight and would get into a lot of fights. Sometimes I would work in hotels, but I was still doing many bad things. I learned English in the street, and other languages too: Japanese, Korean…and I also speak eight Indonesian dialects.
When I met my wife, I was 28 and she was only 19. She loved me and I don’t know why…I thought no one would love me because I was bad.” Yogi started to sob emotionally at this part of his story. We moved from the bar to a quieter corner.
“We have been married 14 years. My daughter is 12 years old and my wife is pregnant again. They live in Bintan, a nearby island. You know, when I met my wife, I was bad—drinking and drugs…but she loved me and asked me to change. And I did. She had faith in me, so I had to.
Since then, I have not broken my promise; I could not break her trust. I go back every week but it is hard. My wife cries when I have to go. And my daughter is sad. I would like her to get a good education. I am over 40 years old, and I never went to school, so I cannot get another job. But I like my job here, I make the children happy.”