A tale of real modern vagabonding, continued.
My meagre rations purchased in Bau Bau: a watermelon, a now mostly consumed package of cookies, a nearly depleted assortment of candy and a liter of water suggests that my quarantine from civilization and gap year baboons will entail fasting. However, a bounty of coconuts invites an eager harvest.
‘Only two things are needed to sustain life’, the pithy wisdom of Ratso Rizzo from the 1968 movie Midnight Cowboy comes to mind: ‘Coconuts and …’ something else. Maybe tomatoes. I forget.
Half a life is better than none. A well aimed rock could knock down a low hanging green coconut. Twelve coconuts would be a sufficient stock for my respite. Although sixteen would provide a comfortable security. There were two fallibilities to my plan: well aimed and low hanging.
Coconut palms grow to heights of 15 to 25 metres. The ‘low hanging’ aspect of my plan looks doubtful; the ‘well aimed’ laughable; skinnying up the tree fatal. Mature and fallen coconuts are difficult to open and yield a miserly return.
An hour’s hunt finds a sole contender, maybe 6 metres above my reach. A well aimed pitch sails wide by an embarrassingly large margin. I trot into the knee-high grass to retrieve my rock.
‘What are you doing? That is very dangerous.’ My comic gathering is being witnessed.
‘I was trying to get that coconut.’
Geoffery winces. Another idiot abroad. Very likely soon to be another unclaimed corpse to burden his managerial day. ‘There are snakes in there.’
Geoffery winces. ‘What are you doing here?’
‘I’m hoping to stay here for about a week or so,’ I tell him.
‘Is that your hammock at the house? That is very dangerous. You have to watch where you step. The house is 50,000 Rupiah a night. Very cheap. You want food?’
‘Yes!’ My reply is overly eager and childlike. Coconut hunting be damned. A food source has been secured.
‘Check your feet for bites. Sometimes you don’t feel the snake. You just get sick and die.’
The food on offer at Geoffery’s is prisoner of war fare, an epicurean gulag of miserly squares of salted fish plopped atop saucers of congealed rice. This melancholy duet appeared for breakfast and lunch. Dinner, perhaps, might offer a piece of rat meat; a delightful change from salted fish.
I reclaim my rock and resume the quest for coconuts. Two, maybe three, kilometers along Hogas’ leeward beach I venture upon the Hoga Village Resort. They are serving a late lunch: steaming bowls of fragrant rice, hot chips, platters of freshly grilled fish and an unfamiliar assortment of vegetables laced with a savory sauce.
A heap of lime drizzled papaya slices glisten invitingly.
And Bintang beer! The big bottles!
The guests gorge themselves with glutinous abandon. I look upon this joyous banquet from a distance — a bedraggled refugee begging asylum from the wicked tyranny of Geoffery’s briny fish and clumped rice.
As a hyena would, I mop the saliva from my lips and scan this herd of Europeans for the frailest specimen; one that could be separated from their plate. Alas, they were all robust and possessed of hearty appetite. I slink back to my shack to a bleak future of salted fish and rat meat.
Setbacks demand new strategies. To survive the many thwarted anticipations of travel requires an elastic and cunning temperament, a ready ability to adapt and merit the constant challenges hurtled from every direction.
In my shack, slung in my hammock, I deliberate the sorry prospects for my stomach. Creativity is spoken of as a free for all association of disparate ideas that congeal into a new, perhaps improved, concept. I dwell upon my looming supper of rat meat.
A brilliant idea claps into my dim, starved brain. I will beg for food. I will march with long strides of steely resolve to the kitchen door of the Hoga Village Resort and prostrate myself before the cook.
‘PLEASE — O — PUL…LEEZE! I’m dying here!’ I cry to whomever might hear me. A woman pops her head out of a doorway and looks me over. I appear satisfactory.
‘OK. Dinner is at 6:30. You pay me. OK?’ Wria, a generous charitable beacon of all that is good in the world takes mercy upon my rent carcass. ‘You want chips now?’
I rise to my feet and dust the dirt from my knees: ‘Um, how much is that?’
‘There’s a new guest here.’
‘I hear he’s a beggar.’
‘Shh. He’s sitting next to you.’
‘So what. I’m paying for my meal. Is he?’
‘I hear he will be washing up,’ I say.
The Belgian ignores me. The glistening array of foods commands his scrutiny. ‘She never prepares enough.’
‘This is more than enough for most people.’ His wife, a pinch faced shrew at war with the world for all the disappointments of her plump life castigates the Belgian.
‘I’m not most people. Let’s eat. I’m starved.’ The Belgian plows into the communal platters and takes double his share. I reached for my fish trembling, fearful that this Leopold would forget his time and place in this warm tropical night and take my hand. Short sleeves or long?
Better company was seated at the far end of the table. A couple from Berlin and Ben, a solitary Dutch traveler maybe ten years my senior.
For this first meal I behave myself and wear an amiable face toward the Belgian. Garnering a complaint from him might threaten future meals here and return me to the demoral offerings at Wallacea.
The Belgians left for Bali two days later ensuring their remembrance by lodging a blanket of complaints. They liked me I am told. They considered me delightfully amusing.
The dinners now are confessional affairs. Gretchen, the manager and dive master, a runaway from the bleak northern suburbs of Amsterdam, joins me and Ben. Gretchen has been overseeing the resort for the past 17 years, returning home for the Christmas season to endure the accusations and crimes of family life. It is a routine for her.
Ben is a retired school teacher, primary school I think, I am unsure of that. He doesn’t like kids. Ben is a solitary traveler and, like me, ill at ease with constant solitude.
I confess to Gretchen my fear of the snakes on Hoga. She laughs. There are no venomous snakes here. Everyone has told me to be careful. It is dangerous here. Who told you that? Geoffery and Wria. Indonesians are terrified of snakes and ghosts. They see them everywhere. But what about Operation Wallacea’s safety protocol? They mention King Cobras here. They’re academics. They wouldn’t know the truth if it jumped up and bit them on the ass.
I remain unconvinced.
At these dinners there is an easy exchange of confidences. The more remote the locale the more liquid the conversations. Distance melts inhibitions. Our common bond is that we are unmoored and like the velocity of travel.
Each evening I would make the fretful journey back along the beach to my shack.
This is a tropical island. Of course there are snakes here.
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxThere is a specific point where the initial charms of paradise fade and become unbearable. The litter casually deposited everywhere, at first willingly, blindly, overlooked becomes forefront and postulates the landscape. I no longer see the clear water of the Banda Sea. I see only plastic water bottles and soiled nappies.
Plastic is an absolute disaster to Indonesia. It infects every nook and cranny of every metre of this vast archipelago.
I took the morning speedboat, a five hour journey, back to Bau Bau. Miles, my cloying attendant angel eagerly awaited my return. His morale soared as I stepped off of the gangplank. My morale plummeted. ‘You’re late,’ he cheerfully scolded, ‘I’ve been waiting coming here everyday for you. We go for a tour now?’
Miles appearance forbore bad news. I had just missed the ferry that would take me to Banda. There would not be another ferry for three weeks. Three weeks in Bau Bau was an untenable proposition that would leave me only ten days to get to Banda and back to Makassar before my visa expired. Alternate travel plans were called for.
Gutted with disappointment I succumbed to the wiley comfort of Kentucky Fried Chicken. A fall from traveler’s grace. A final bubbling slurp of Pepsi and a decision was made: I would venture into the land of the dead. Tana Toraja.
Read the entire series at Snakes and Satans, the Perils of Modern Vagabonding
Editor’s note: Michael Britton funds his travels through selling prints of his paintings. Help him out through buying the art that illustrates the stories that he publishes on Vagabond Journey here. Or buy him a meal . . . or a much needed beer here:
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