Part 1 of a harrowing tale of vagabonding the islands of Indonesia.
What is it about the British? A white washed breed given to obnoxious behavior while abroad from their soggy isles of bankrupt pubs. I am not speaking of the oafish antics of their elders, they are usually unconscious — far too much gin for breakfast — and broiling under a hot Mediterranean sun. It is only a matter of time before an ambulance is summoned. Or the coroner.
Instead I refer to the younger Brits, the ones I charitably refer to as Gap Year Monkeys, who pour into Southeast Asia seeking an unique adventure. Adventures that are, for the most part, limited to cheap beer and genitals.
Antagonisms exist between travellers and the Monkeys. Suffice it to say that I am anti-Monkey. And it is partly my ill sentiments toward these swilling miscreants that drive me far off the beaten path.
The fecal charms of India beckon, but it is only mid-July and that eternally broken land is awash in monsoon rains. So with two months to kill I decide to mosey on down to the Moluccas, the fabled Spice Islands of Indonesia, islands of nutmeg and clove, and the occasional massacre between Moslems and Christians.
Makassar, the commercial center of the four fingered island of Sulawesi, Indonesia is my starting point. It is a city bereft of grace. Beauty can sometimes be found in ugliness. Not here. Makassar is not a destination; it is a transit hub that is best transited quickly. In Makassar there is no there here.
The first stop on the Pelni ferry, the Tilong Kabila, a slapped together piece of rusted metal that an empty can of peaches would disdain, is the island of Bau Bau. Bau Bau’s claim to fame is asphalt. Yep, asphalt. I can hardly wait.
In Bau Bau I settle on the Penginapan Wolio for my lodgings. Penginapan means guesthouse or homestay. Wolio has six rooms all facing a common courtyard and two rooms built up on the roof. The rooms are basic, mine has twin beds; one for me, the other to lay my gear on.
The solitary light bulb casts a weak light, perhaps one or two lumens, and does little more than lift a corner of the darkness’ veil. Which is just as well. I do not think I could bear the fully lit brunt of these stained turquoise walls.
My $5 room has a companion whom I name Felix. Felix is a cockroach, perhaps larger than a mouse, maybe larger than a small cat, who adamantly resists my shooing him out the door. Felix can fly. Not gracefully. His is a manic whirring of flapping appendages that lifts him just beyond my murderous reach.
I set forth an armistice. My claim is the bed ensconced within my mosquito net. Felix can enjoy the remainder of the room. At least for the night. Come morning I intend to betray this armistice with the heavy heel of my hiking boot.
The journey from Makassar to Bau Bau was scheduled to be a 14 hours sailing. It took 24 hours. Tired from this long delay I lay down inside the walls of my mosquito net and, again, taunt myself with the fears of an uncertain future.
Felix, sensing my despair and perhaps, too, my ill will toward him provokes an outrage. With what could only be naked perfidy Felix climbs the escarpment of my bed, slips past the borders of my netting and launches his attack. I thought we had an agreement! This gregarious violation proves our terms untenable. A strategic retreat to ponder a retaliation is in order.
I glumly seek a retrenchment to the courtyard. I collect myself. This is only a small defeat. Surely I can outwit an insect. A peripheral movement stills this thought. An obese rat leisurely strides across the lower courtyard possessed of the authority of a maleficent thug. The rat’s dull yellow eyes apprises my courage and enquires: ‘What you lookin’ at?’
I avert my gaze.
A cat, a welcome predator, enters the courtyard. ‘That’s it for you buddy.’ I relish the prospect of gladiatorial combat and the bloody riddance of this plague-bearing reprobate.
The cat gives the rat a wide berth keeping a peevish eye for any sudden aggressive movement.
Two high steps separate the ground of the lower courtyard and the higher, mine, courtyard. Rats cannot climb, I think, and surely these high steps would prove too much for this rotund interloper. No sooner do I relax my vigil, satisfied that I am out of reach, than the rat with a fearsome celerity scales the lower courtyard’s tree to a height of two meters.
He claps his eyes on me asserting his full dominion. I grimly consider the gap between my door and the floor. None too confidently I wonder if rats have the same collapsible skeletal structure as mice and are able to squeeze through any opening. I could do without another companion in my bed.
Bau Bau’s harbor, bleached and desiccated by day, plumps out at night. An informal market place is laid out on the tiled plaza. Trinkets, toys, and small hard goods are displayed on tarps. The moat circumferencing the plaza’s centerpiece dragon statue has become a go-track for small battery powered cars. There are no stacked tires to buffer mishaps. The errant just keep going and going.
Colorful plyboard food carts line the harbor’s promenade. Despite their numbers the fare invariably conforms to rice, chicken, and fish. I am tempted to try the cuttle fish. They are whole, encased in a violet sack but I am unsure how to tackle them. I struggle with my epicurean timidity.
Many of the warongs are bereft of patrons. They have an unpromising look to them. One warung, however, is busy. Two tables are filled by families; this fulfills my restaurant selection criteria: it is patronized by locals.
The owner is a young, maybe 30 years old, Moslem woman who greets me shyly and assists with my menu selection. Chicken and rice and a bottle of water. I claim a table at the harbor wall which has a panoramic vista of lit fishing boats gliding through calm waters. This view quiets my restive worries. I crave fresh fruit and vegetables. My diet for weeks now has been rice and a piece of chicken, occasionally supplemented with fish and a noodle broth. There is a fruit market in Bau Bau but they charge me quadruple the fair price. I refuse to acquiesce to their piracy. Still, my resolve is weakening. Scurvy may be setting in.
One bright, lovely morning, Miles, a 32 year old local fellow, approaches me in the Wolio courtyard where I am drinking my morning tea and scrutinizing my slender options. I resent his trespassing into my disconsolate thoughts. Miles tells me that he only wishes to practice his English which he has somehow learned from a slim volume of phrases. I oblige him.
He asks the usual battery of questions: where am I from, what do I do, do I have a wife, children. To me these are not simple questions with simple answers: I am at an age, like all ages really, where I do not know where I am from. I am adrift and feeling out for something to hold onto to and keep me afloat. I answer Miles: Wonderland, traveler, yes, no.
Miles’ ambition is to be a tour guide. I brace myself for the pitch. He tells me that he wants to learn how to interact with the Bules, the foreigners. He offers me a free tour: ‘Go to the beach. See the fort. No charge. I am in training.’ Perhaps this is an honest, straightforward offer but I am wary. I do not want to be ingratiated to this man and tell him that my budget is limited: ‘I must do work here. I am a painter and I want to paint today and tomorrow.’ Miles is confused. Tourists do not work, they are here to see the sights: a nondescript beach and another ubiquitous Dutch fort. These fortresses squat on every island here.
‘Is there anything I can do for you?’ Miles asks.
‘No. I am OK. I need to work today.’ Suspecting that I am being swept into a corner I end this conversation. Miles holds his ground.
Siba, Wolio’s manager, sees my discomfort and says something to Miles. They chat for a few minutes. Bule is interspersed throughout the conversation. ‘I see you again. Perhaps tomorrow.’ Tomorrow is more a statement of fact than a query.
For the next two days Miles continually chances upon me; an obsequious attendant angel offering me small favors. ‘It is Indonesian custom,’ he explains, ‘I am your friend, yes?’ A friend here will invariably cost money.
Being the only foreigner in Bau Bau leaves me vulnerable. I do not know what repercussions might lay in store should I spurn his importuning outright. He seems to be friends with everyone here. I figure it is time to get out of Dodge.
I decide upon Hoga Island, a speck of volcanic rock in the Banda Sea just west of Sulawesi. Just for the hell of it.
Knowing of my plans to go to Hoga, Miles secures me a berth on the Wande-Wande. The Lambela, the Pelni ferry arrives from Makassar tonight and the boat to Wanci will be full. ‘You want to pay me for the ticket now or on the boat?’ I am unsure whether to be grateful or wary. ‘I’ll pay on the boat,’ I reply.
To even the tab I sport Miles dinner. It helps alleviate my anguished ambiguity: I am unsure of Miles’ intentions. The Wande-Wande is scheduled to depart in two hours. I will board at 20:00 and be rid of him.
‘Hoga is cold at night,’ Miles tells me. ‘I will bring an extra jacket for you.’
…! This is extremely bad news. ‘I don’t have enough money to pay for you.’
‘I will speak to the captain. He is a friend of mine.’
Miles tells me that his home is in Wanci and that he hasn’t been back for several years. This would be a good opportunity for him. I relinquish my objection. But there is no way in hell I am paying his fare.
On board Miles asks for the money to pay for my ticket. He will pay the captain directly. ‘He is my friend,’ Miles reminds me. If this is the con then the payoff would be meagre. I hand over 103,000 Rupiah fare, a little over $10, to Miles. This will be a litmus test.
Miles weaves through the crowded passage. I am hoping that Miles will take the bait and run with it. This unwanted companion is irksome luggage. Unfortunately he dutifully returns with my ticket. ‘Don’t lose it,’ he tells me.
As the Wande-Wande slips from its mooring Miles waxes on the many fine qualities of Wanci. ‘We must get some nasi bambu. It is a local delicacy. Rolled coconut rice.’
He invites me to his Wanci home and offers me a free tour of the island. I demur.
There are no ATMs on Hoga and Miles must have calculated that I am holding at least two million Rupiah. Maybe more. A $200 or $300 score would be an equitable return on his investment. The further away I am from Bau Bau the more vulnerable I will be to his generosities. This ends in Wanci.
On board the merry ship, Wande-Wande, every passenger is assigned a sleeping mat on a two-tiered platform that occupies the entire deck save for a narrow passageway and a small bench aft.
The sleeping platform reminds me of World War II prisoner-of-war movies. Everyone sleeps cosied up to each other like a Saturday night orgy with sardines. There is no segregation between men and women. My sleeping companion is a little girl with the annoying habit of flailing her arms and slapping me in the face. I am afraid to look at my other companion who prefers to snuggle and spoon all and sundry within reach. I sleep on my stomach to safeguard both my virtue and my wallet.
I am grateful to be assigned to the upper tier. The lower tier is level with the floor and the ceiling is uncomfortably low. It is too much like being packed in a cardboard box with careless smokers as comrades.
The port landing in Wanci is the usual thicket of hopeful porters, tour guides and transport options clamoring for business. The foreigner is the prize.
Miles leads me to a taxi. ‘The boat to Hoga is not here. We must take a car.’
I am completely and unwillingly at his mercy. The taxi cheats me horribly — thrice the reasonable fare. I ask Miles why he did not settle on the fare beforehand. ‘I didn’t know how far it would be,’ he tells me. An admission! Wanci is supposedly his hometown. This uneasy equilibrium is tipping. Just get onto this next boat even if it is just a plank of wood to cling onto. I don’t care if a howling gale should suddenly blow in. Anything to be rid of him.
Claiming a space on the low ceilinged passenger platform which one enters by duck-walking, Miles joins me. He is quiet. I look at him. His studiously arranged visage has slipped; an oily felon’s smirk, an arrogant and involuntary expression, reveals his intentions. He is polishing the finer details of whatever malfeasance lay ahead. Robbery, most likely. Murdered in my sleep, a possibility.
I have had enough of being nice. My diplomacy is exhausted. ‘I am going to Hoga. Alone.’
Miles is taken aback. A surprising move. His quarry has grown a backbone. He consider this unwelcome development for several minutes. It is a draw: ‘I see you in Bau Bau’ he tells me. He takes his leave. His alleged enterprise is thwarted. For now.
From Wanci it is a two hour journey to Kaledupa. The borders of my claim on the passenger platform are continuously encroached until my once comfortable territory is reduced to a small cramped corner. Discomfort soon turns to anguish which no amount of shifting alleviates. I try meditating. Focusing on the breath passing over my philtrum helps a little. Every shifting movement I make is countered. Move my foot and that space is immediately claimed by a neighbor’s foot. The passenger platform is a blur of countermanding checks and strategies.
The relief of having exorcised Miles tempers my discomfort. The water is flat. Small uninhabited islands flit by. Some of them have radio towers, tenuous connections to the other world.
My scant research on Hoga informs me that there is a maritime research school called Operation Wallacea. Perhaps I can secure cheap lodgings there. I am unsure where Operation Wallacea on Hoga is. I dimly recall reading something or other about a short distance across the water. An inlet? A bay? Worst case scenario: Find a homestay in Kaledupa, the village we are powering toward and get my bearings from there. An alternative is to stay on the boat and flee back into Mile’s larcenous embrace.
Kaledupa’s wharf is a narrow hesitantly drawn line onto which we tramp across an unsure gangplank into the ubiquitous melee of hopefuls. ‘Hoga Island?’ My shoulder is touched. I acknowledge the signal like a wary spy exchanging a secret code. ‘Yes. Come in this boat.’ My covert mission begins.
This boat is a large dug-out canoe with a faded and tattered canopy. It does promise an outboard motor. The choke is a small bit of wood fixed to a string.
Boarding a canoe is always a worrisome business. Encumbered with a heavy backpack, an easel, and a watermelon I bought in Bau Bau for anticipated emergencies, getting into this canoe will be an exceptionally cautious embarkation.
My comrades on board are school children. Seven, maybe eight years old, all eagerly awaiting a splendid entertainment should the foreigner, the bule, falter and tumble into the clear turquoise sea. Instead I provide a drier comedy.
Tossing aside every shard of dignity I timidly scoot from the wharf to the bow to mid-canoe settling under the remnants of the canopy on my hind-quarters. A dog seen scooting like this would immediately be sent to the vet for a deworming.
On Hoga there are only coconuts. No mangoes, no bananas, nothing grows here except the pine trees whose long fallen needles poison and suffocate the fragile soil. There is no fresh water in the dry season.
The horror of the wet season hatches in early December. A spirit crushing plague of mosquitoes bearing tidings of dengue and malaria cup this small island in a batten of high pitched whining fog. Every breath sucks in a dozen of these baleful messengers of despair. Slapping your arm yields a full harvest. Heavy protective clothing is bare comfort in this hot humid clime. Deet is a highly prized delicacy. For the mosquitoes.
Kraits are endemic to Indonesia. Its venom is a hemotoxin. This messenger of death is well camouflaged and extremely fast. This snake worries me — a brownish blur, a quick bite, and a slow death as my blood dissolves into a hot thin gruel.
Antivenom is rumored to be stocked in Bau Bau’s hospital. I remember this hospital having a discouraging look to it. A worn green facade and shuttered windows suggested that it is more akin to a battlefield triage center that has been overrun and ransacked. Bau Bau is, if all the connections are exquisitely timed, at best, 6 to 9 hours distance. The reality would be 18 hours.
Indonesia’s remote snake bite clinics intake corpses, not patients. It is rare to survive that kind of journey. A common practice here is to cut open the wound and suck out the venom. I suspect Hollywood Western movies are the culprit here: a well groomed cowboy sporting clean underwear, cuts, sucks and spats with nary a suture before tending to his campfire and grilling up a mess of tasty rattler fillets. Venom inhibits coagulation and the bitten exsanguinates in an economy class berth deep inside the hull of a Pelni ferry.
Poisonous sea snakes emerge from the sea at night to lay their eggs. I am told that their mouths are too small to inflict a bite. A small comfort I would rather not put to the test.
Indonesians fear snakes more than I do. In this sprawling archipelago hundreds, if not thousands, die of snake bite each year. There is no national database to tally the unfortunate.
Fear and superstition is a tenet of Indonesian village life. Ill humored ghosts, called satans, command the dark hours. The entry of every home remains lit from dusk to morn. Satans shun the light. A back room is always left vacant. Should a satan slip into the home it can, in theory, be lured and shuttered into that depository of malice. Perhaps an offering of milk and cookies is the bait. I do not know. To speak of satans is to invite an unwelcome visit.
Falling coconuts claim the remainder of the hapless. A 5 or 7 Kg coconut released from a 20 metre height will crush your skull like a ping pong ball flattened by a hammer. Hoga is resplendent with coconuts. A walk in the woods is a lethal gauntlet — kraits bite at your feet and coconuts hurtle death from above. It is best not to linger.
I walk on the beach. There are spiny urchins and rockfish to be wary of. They, too, are venomous.
Part two of this tale coming soon!
The author of this piece made a harrowing call out of whatever dark trench of peril and misadventure he now finds himself in. It sounded something like, “Please! Help a poor bastard out!” Michael Britton is broke, without money, ragged and worn, chewing on his last remaining shreds of dignity. I like him this way — it produces good stories. But in a rare respite from my sadism I am opening the hatch and allowing Michael’s whimpers to be heard: “Feed me! Feed me!” Please, if you can, feed this hapless vagabond before it’s too late and he ends up a shriveled trinket being mulled over by some fat tourists in the back corner of an Indian bazaar. You can save this man through buying prints of the paintings that illustrate his travels. Or you can just send him a meal or two directly:
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