May! The lovely petal pushing month of May! When the urge to flee a barren cubicle imprisoned life concretizes. No one absconds in the winter. It is too cold. Too depressing. Not unless the calloused mitts of the law are closing in on your ass or the bank, in their never ending quest for more profit and caviar to gobble, forecloses on your home and tosses you out and into a snow bank wearing only an ill-fitting pair of pajamas that are missing the important buttons and allow your dangling bits to peep out and see what’s going on.
May is the time to flee. To tell America and all of its problems to go fuck itself. South Seas islands beckon. There you will find nirvana and live on a higher plane.
The South Seas Islands beckon me to come hither. So I hither.
I scamper off of a long boat onto Hoga, a small island amongst a scattering of atolls in Indonesia’s Banda Sea.
A self directed tour of this empty island sees a large and varied collection of clapped together shacks. Some are dissolving into the jungle; others awkwardly perch on spindly stilts upon crumbling pumice. I rent a suitable candidate for $5 a night from whom I assume is the caretaker of this motley village.
For two weeks I revel in my tropical solitude. My steadfast companions are rats, snakes, and a monitor lizard. Coconuts and fish sustain me. Brackish well water demoralize me.
I grow bored and feel the call for the camaraderie of civilization. Any civilization will suffice.
Rumor (the caretaker’s) has it that there is an internet cafe in Kaledupa. This same rumor expanded to include restaurants and coffee shops. A veritable glittering metropolis lay beckoning a short distance across the Banda Sea.
I need a break from these melting days on Hoga. A long tonic draught of reconnecting with the world at large and a leisurely lunch to savour hot chips delicately embroidered with hot sauce and frosty Bintang beer is just what Dr. Mike orders for patient Mike.
Eight hours should suffice for this day trip. Three hours to answer long overdue emails and to assess the current state of the world followed by a languorous lunch will allow for a comfortable few hours to stroll through the market and tour the various sundry sights.
Passage across the strait is arranged for 08:30 and the skiff will return at 17:00; a sunset cruise to cap what is expected to be a very fine day. Every hour is exquisitely parcelled.
The appointed morning sees me deposited onto Kaledupa’s wharf at precisely 09:00. The day begins with a flat sea and bouncy waddings of cloud above me. The perfect sort of morning for touristy affairs. ‘I’ll see you at five!’ I sing out to my dutiful boatswain and salute him adieu with a cheery, if somewhat imperial, wave of my hand.
I march to where I am instructed the internet cafe would be. Time is a wasting. Tick-tock, tick-tock. Lo and behold the internet cafe is exactly where it is expected.
Inside the cafe is hot and stuffy. Tiny flecks of sunlit dust float down from the stilled ceiling fan like fairies casually flung off a cliff. These, however, are minor details.
There are five spanking new computers with large flat monitors and all of them are available. They flirt with me, call me witty, even handsome … “choose mec choose me,” they all chime enthusiastically. I am the sole patron in a brothel of bytes and pixels.
I call out for a clerk. I am eager to begin. A grumpy, thick-waisted, middle-aged woman emerges from the twilight of a back room. ‘No internet,’ she mutters.
Surely she is mistaken about my intentions.
I reply: ‘Yes. I need internet for three hours.’
‘No electricity. Come back at six o’clock.’
‘Huh?’ I stand there stupefied. I glance over at the row of hard-drive harlots; their bytes are soured and their pixels dulled.
‘Six o’clock the generator comes on. Then there is internet. OK? You understand?’ Mamasan clearly wants to resume her beauty sleep. I am, for now, an unwelcome interloper.
Foolish me. I had forgotten that power is generated only in the evenings in these remote islands. The day’s itinerary will need to be fast forwarded. Perhaps breakfast is being served at one of the several rumored restaurants yonder. Perhaps … perhaps they might have wifi.
A dusty and rutted road points to where the cafe and restaurant district might be. After a kilometre of strolling and sightseeing I descry a cow tied to a pole in a littered field. I enquire of a local denizen as to where a fine dining establishment might be. She averts her eyes from mine and walks past me shaking her head. My inquiry goes rudely unanswered.
I continue onward. Uneasiness picks at me. I pass a few dark and unattended kiosks. Their scant offerings hold little possibility for hot chips and frosty beers. Surely these clapped together … no, don’t be silly. Soldier on: chips Ahoy!
This rutting road ends abruptly at a fetid canal. Black sewage oozes and bubbles in the hot mid-morning sun. A fish corpse suspended in the fecal sludge grins grimly and appears to intone ‘no chips here for you.’ Dead fish are ignorant of many things.
Across this despairing channel I can see stalls and bustling human activity. Oh! Oh! How do I get over there?
Tip-toeing across this black shallow channel would be a cha cha with cholera. A more suitable conveyance to the festivities yonder must surely be inland. A shabby broken path skirts this foul hepatitic rivulet of shit 100 meters to my left.
Hot chips and icy Bintang beer beckon. Oh boy! Oh boy! I skip lightly over ruts and broken bric-a-brac and innumerable hillocks of strewn garbage. ‘Hello Mister!’ bright eyed little children cry out. This is the universal greeting called out continuously, thousands of times every day, it seems, to the foreigner, the Bule. ‘What is your name?’
‘Brad Pitt,’ I respond cheerfully.
‘Where are you from?’
‘Why, Hollywood, of course, of course.’ A little Dr. Seuss never hurt anyone. Not sure about Brad though … I digress.
My merry skipping slows and stumbles. Something is amiss here. The hip hive of frivolity I thought I saw is a fish market. Four tarp covered tables display a sorry selection of sun-desiccated fish lorded over by four mean-looking women. ‘Fish! Fish! You buy fish!’ the apparent priestess of these humorless mongers demand of me.
‘I’m looking for chips and beer.’
She looks at me with pricking eyes before turning to a more promising customer.
Eight, maybe it is nine, short steps follow. My tour of the fish market is concluded. A mangrove swamp now lay before me. Perhaps … on the other side of this swamp … damn it man, soldier on … into the bayonets if you have to. Chips could await. Well, maybe. The initial stirrings of despair crudely stroke my hungry viscera.
‘Brad Pitt. I’m from Hollywood.’
‘Money. Give me money!’ A dirty little girl confronts me. Her black feral eyes clap onto my melancholic orbs.
‘No. No money.’ I scold her and brush past.
‘Give me money. Bule fucker!’
Well. I never. I turn to wag an indignant finger at this elfin menace. She beans me in the forehead with a rock. It hurts. She stoops to pick up another rock. A dilemma quickly unfolds: it would be unseemly and unwise to engage in throwing rocks at a little girl. Should I bean her well in return it would be difficult to explain to an angry mob of machete wielding villagers that she started it. Better to pack my dignity and walk away.
‘Give me money, bule fucker!’ She beans me in the back of the head. Her aim is uncanny. I quicken my pace. She throws the third rock harder. Her anger skews her accuracy and the rock strikes me in the ass. I break into a trot. Likewise, so does she. She stops briefly to re-arm.
I run and turn down a pathway strewn with sharp rocks. This barefoot amazon warriorette pursues me. The sharp rocks underfoot do not deter her from the hunt. My long cowardly strides gradually purchase a safe distance from this diminutive maniac. She gives up the chase at the edge of town and fires one last volley toward me. Despite the language barrier I am sure she warns me: ‘You better not come back here, Mister Brad Pitt!’
My watch reads 09:38. My fun filled itinerary has been torn to bits and pieces and picked up by the wind. There will be no internet. No hot chips. No frosty beer. And I have been banished from Kaledupa by an angry little sprite who, no doubt, eagerly awaits my return.
After allowing for a prudent measure of time to elapse I sneak back into Kaledupa peering down streets and lanes for my tormentor before skittering to the next sheltering corner.
There is a bamboo gazebo at the foot of Kaledupa’s wharf where I can wait out and endure the seven-and-one-half hour chasm that lay before me in a modicum of shaded comfort.
Life on these remote islands, casually seeded throughout the Banda Sea, is an interminable length measuring decades of numbing boredom. Children play and scamper amongst broken structures and garbage, sleep then eat then scamper again. Until the onset of puberty their tropical existence appears idyllic. At 12 years, sometimes 14, the girls are corralled and presented for marriage. Contracts and compromises are negotiated. Few young men can afford the dowries outright. Not every girl is claimed. Despite their easy social banter loneliness is a constant.
At 14 years a stone is rolled across a young boy’s dreams: he will not be a doctor, or a policeman, or a teacher, nor anything other than a laborer, scavenging for whatever shards of work might avail themselves. The young boy’s liquid smile hardens and concretizes into a scornful grimace. The bule’s eager expectation of welcome is an unsolicited slap in the face. The bule possesses both the freedom and opportunities that are denied to the vast majority of Indonesians. Were I an Indonesian, I, too, would throw rocks at the bule fuckers.
It is almost noon. For the past several hours I have watched cargo laden skiffs arrive and porters scramble for a small piece of work. Once the skiff is emptied and has sailed the wharf is quiet again. The porters melt away into shadows somewhere to wait for the next skiff. I shift my position in the gazebo to concord with the shifting shade. Away from the biting sun. This is my singular activity. The boredom is excruciating. A thinking person would twist their head off of its occipital anchor and toss it into the sea. Just for something to do.
If I can sleep from now until late afternoon then this unbearable day will be done. I am dreaming of a waterfall. But something feels wrong. I awaken and a boy is pissing next to my head. I sit up and glare at this impertinent delinquent, but he is undeterred. I am a foreigner and he knows that I can do nothing. Sleep now would be a foolish endeavor. Perhaps this delinquent might team up with the rock-throwing menace on the other side of town and drive me into the sea. What then? There are spiny urchins and venom laden rockfish underfoot there.
Instead I watch clouds drift by and half-hearted waves lick the wharf. For hours. For eternities.
Location of this article: Banda Sea Islands, Indonesia