Awake, thanks to the insomnia brought on by the 12-hour time difference from New York, I lay beneath mosquito netting in semidarkness, chafing at the slow arrival of sunrise. Eventually, deciding that sleep was impossible, I pulled apart my bedroom’s heavy sliding doors and wandered out onto the balcony into the warm tropical air. The predawn light cast a platinum sheen over both the landscape and the ocean. My villa on the remote Indonesian island of Sumba was set on a hillside, maybe 250 feet above the sea, and from this perch I could gaze along a mile and a half of wave-swept sand, backed by dark, forested hills. Long, relentless lines of surf rolled in from the Indian Ocean, pushing white fingers of foam up the unblemished beach. There were no people around at that hour, and my view contained no evidence of human activity. As a result, the bay seemed to have a Robinson Crusoe-like quality. The turmoil of the modern world and its 7 billion inhabitants seemed infinitely remote.
Just then, maybe half a mile away, about a dozen horses emerged from the forest. Taking early-morning exercise with their grooms, some rolled on their backs in the sand, while others charged into the sea, reveling in the surf. Horses were brought to Sumba in the mid-18th century by Arab traders, where they were bred with the local ponies of ancient Mongolian and Chinese stock. Today they are considered a semi-sacred animal, a vehicle to the afterlife and an integral part of Sumbanese culture. Watching the horses cantering through the waves, it seemed that I’d been given a privileged connection to the spirit of the place.