Published 28 March 2012
Text by Nick Walton
Few travellers can say they have accomplished as much as Patti Seeri, both for themselves, and for the people of an adopted land. From diving into a new and strange culture, and leading teams of traditional craftsmen to create one of Indonesia’s most beautiful sailing vessels, to helping to preserve ancient textile customs among some of the world’s most isolated tribes, Seeri has helped change perceptions in one of the world’s most beautiful – and misunderstood – nations.
Despite a life defined by her Indonesian friends, family and experiences, Seeri’s passion for foreign cultures and for textiles, began years before arriving in the archipelago. As a fresh architecture graduate, Seeri found herself working with remote Aboriginal settlements in Queensland, before moving with her husband to Gujarat, in India, where she decided to continue her studies with a master’s degree in Southeast Asian textiles.
“For me, this was a fascinating entrée into Indian life,” Seeri reminisced to FRV Travel recently. But before long, she would move once again, this time to an expansive archipelago, which, despite its rich resources and culture, was still tackling the dangers and disillusionment of terrorism. “I first came to Indonesia to join my husband, Doug, who was providing technology to the national oil company of Indonesia,” says Seeri. “I knew the very first day, that I would be bound to Indonesia in a special way.”
Seeri was intrigued by the place where the Ciliwung River entered the sea and on her very first morning took a taxi, without a word of Indonesian, to the ancient harbour of the traditional home of the Indonesian phinisi trader vessels, surrounded by crumbling old warehouses. “As the sun began to rise, I visited several ships, and an ancient kampoeng (village), filled with kids, garbage and a lot of smiling faces and remember saying, ‘I’m going to really like this place!’ I also saw my first traditional schooner, with black sails billowing in the wind, and knew I was hooked.”
For those people who have met Patti Seeri, and have heard her many stories, this comes as no surprise. She may come across as genteel and soft spoken, but in the years since her arrival in Indonesia, she has tackled weather and warriors, spirituality and semantics, culture and contrast, while forging ahead with her two goals; first to help preserve the customs and textiles of Indonesia’s far flung ethnic tribes, and second to create Silolona, a luxurious and modern vessel with a traditional phinisi design.
In fact, it was one passion that led to another. “As soon as I arrived in Indonesia, I realized that it was a fantastic place for textiles, so I wanted to document textile usage in the outer islands. The only way to get out to these islands to see the rituals and textiles was by boat, so I went by local phinisi and inter-island boats. It was so much fun that I decided to take my family.” In fact, Seeri was on board a phinisi off the island of Krakatoa when she went into labour with her first son.
The only way to get out to these islands to see the rituals and textiles was by boat, so I went by local phinisi and inter-island boats.
Whilst travelling, Seeri would often stay with locals, gaining an unique insight into their customs and traditions and this lead to friendships with the likes of the king of Sumba and the chief of the Nasmat people. Seeri formed such a close relationship with the Dani, an emerging stone age tribe from the highlands of Papua, members of which had toured the US with Seeri as part of a cultural exchange, that she was initiated into the tribe and given the name “Herage” after one of the village’s two rivers. Chief Siba of the Dani was to become Seeri’s adopted “father” and would quiz her on the world beyond his village. “We had an immediate connection despite different languages and vastly different cultures,” says Seeri. “Chief Siba would ask me questions about the outside world, the changes he was seeing, and how best to guide his people.” In celebration of her new status, Chief Siba killed a pig as an offering. “It was a very powerful ceremony, where everyone breathed the breath of the ancestors and sent me their power and energy, while breathing rapidly with outstretched hands. I was sitting on the floor of the honai (traditional hut), legs crossed, dressed in a skimpy orchid fibre skirt and smeared with blackened pig fat.”
Seeri began taking small groups out to the far flung islands, fuelled in part by the popularity of the cultural exchanges in the US, but after becoming stuck on one remote island in 1999, when the charter boat didn’t return, she realised she had to take transport into her own hands. “I had two options; to sue the owner of the vessel, or proceed to fix the situation more permanently. I decided to build my own boat, thinking how hard could it be? Silolona exists today due to my complete ignorance about what it takes to build a boat, and my focused determination to build a vessel ideally suited for travelers, which incorporates all the best aspects of sailing on a wooden, hand-crafted vessel, but with safety and modern day navigation. I wanted to recreate my experiences, the magic of sailing through the Indonesian archipelago in comfort and safety but I only succeeded due to sheer determination and a willingness to listen to the traditional boat builders. Together we created, for the first time, a traditional hand-crafted vessel, built to plans, and incorporating modern technology, while respecting the boat builder’s skills and traditions.”
The boat builder’s team laid the keel on September 11, 2001, and Silolona was launched in July 2004. “Silolona offers its guests the magic of sailing on the vessel of the Spice Island trade, and the feeling of stepping back in time, a sense of discovery and exploration, surrounded by a warm sense of sincere Asian hospitality and service,” says Seeri.
A second vessel was launched last year, hand-crafted by the same boat builders that built Silolona in the depths of the Borneon mangroves, where the best timber is found. Silolona features three state rooms and two guest suites, all of which are air-conditioned. In addition to land tours, diving, kayaking, fishing and snorkeling are also available.
For more info go to www.silolona.com