AS WE ROUNDED THE CORNER on our scooter, we were confronted by a swarm of police officers. They were waving us off the road, unsurprisingly. Liz’s windswept, un-helmeted hair flapped like a banner which read “Fine Me”.
“Where is your helmet?”, he asked Liz.
To be fair, the locals in this town had warned Liz to put on a helmet, but we only had one. Being a gentlemen of course I offered it to her, but she didn’t like them and had already scootered for 7 months around this archipelago without wearing one, or paying a fine.
While Liz slowed the scooter I quickly checked my dictionary for a single word to tell the officer:
“Dicuri,” she told him. Stolen.
He stood there and blinked at us. We blinked back with exemplary poker faces. I wasn’t sure if he was going to laugh at us, or make us pay the fine (directly into his pocket). He seemed frozen by incredulity: Either we were the boldest-faced liars, or unfortunate victims of a bizarre theft.
“We will buy one in the next town,” we told him, coaxing his decision. After a tense minute and some words with his coworkers, he waved us past.
“Be careful,” he said as we rolled away. “There are many police in that town.”
WHEN I LEFT YOU, my travel line had just re-intwined with Liz in the remote Togean Islands, 7 days and 700km from our first fateful meeting when she lost her room key in Toraja (see Indonesia #5). Let’s continue from there, in the Togean Islands, where just 40km from the equator, shadows vanish at noon.
You already met our homestay owner Aka (remember the molar smile?) but not his well-travelled son Pudin, who told me some stories about his Bajau culture (known across south-east Asia as ‘sea gypsies’), and about this….
Small Island with Big Legal Dramas
The legal dramas began many years ago when Aka let the neighbouring hotel build on his land. For years things were fine, but one day Pudin went climbing some trees on there. The neighbours weren’t happy about him there; we was just collecting coconuts.
They turned out more like grenades. That fruit-dispute ignited a powder keg. A chain of events involving counterfeit property deeds, bribed policemen, broken hearts, and a final court verdict from Indonesia’s Supreme Court. The whole story deserves it’s own made-for-TV-movie.
The same evening Pudin told me this story, he mentioned his “other father”. With a furrowing of my eyebrows, he explained a snippet of Bajau culture:
When he was a baby Pudin was always falling ill, so in Bajau tradition his father sold him to another family. What’s a sick baby worth? Exactly 5 kg of rice, 5 kg of sugar, 2 coconut trees, and a white sarong. Pudin lived there in better health for over two years before returning to his original family. Sounds like a bad deal for the other family, no? Well the kicker is that as an adult he’ll give at least a year of help to his other family, and likely more.
When I was a child I wasn’t sick very often, but I had some ‘behavioural issues’. My mother brought me to the audiologist convinced that I was deaf. I’m pretty sure if the option to sell me was available in our culture, I would have been. And for much less.
I WAS GRATEFUL TO LEARN anything I could about this Bajau culture. I know that many are missing limbs from their ‘traditional’ fishing techniques (dynamite-fishing), and others have adapted their eyes to see underwater without goggles (the rest use hand-carved wooden goggles, which are totally hipster). But there isn’t a lot known about their history or customs besides what’s held in the living memory of elders. As nomadic seafarers who traditionally spent their entire lives at sea on what were essentially oversized canoes, writing history books wasn’t exactly high on the priority list.
Today, few of the fully nomadic Bajau remain; most base themselves in Waterworld-esque villages of stilt houses, sometimes linked to small islands, sometimes built on offshore reefs. The Bajau still embark on multi-day fishing trips, overnighting to even simpler huts. We knew of a village on the next island, so my new French friend J.S. and I took some kayaks out on a day-trip. I wanted to hang out in a Bajau village.
Hours later as we approached the village, JS asked where exactly we should go. Perhaps I make uninvited appearances in random villages of foreign lands more often than other people, because I knew exactly what to do. “Wander around until someone friendly waves at us. Then go and hang out,” I told him.
A minute later a friendly-looking old man waved at us. Bingo. He agreed to let us park our kayaks in his front yard (a knee-deep reef) and invited us up the ladder into his house (a two-room hut).
He wasn’t the chattiest of hosts, and after we shared some biscuits I asked him how many people live in this tiny island village. “Banyak,” he replied. I had a feeling he’d say that.
Whether a Bajau fishing village of 200 people, or a capital city of 2 million — the answer is always the same. “Banyak”, they’ll say. Many.
JS, MY FRENCH KAYAKING BUDDY, wasn’t just another blow-in to my stories. Over late-night campfires and local whisky, he told me personal stories of his difficult upbringing. He’s become a fiercely determined person, illustrated by this, his India experience. It also shows how far someone can stretch their money, in a short story I call…
JS wanted to visit India. A small problem, however: After flights, he’d have just €300. Everyone knows India is cheap, but c’mon, that’s maybe good for a few weeks? Well, he went anyways.
He stayed in small villages, ate with families, and limited his travelling to a couple nearby states. Eventually he was down to his final euros.
He’d stretched it for two months.
JS wasn’t ready to leave. A local friend, knowing he was a talented footballer, had a crazy idea: join the inter-village league. The pay wasn’t much, but he’d been living on €5/day. He didn’t need much.
Over the next month JS rose through the league as his performance was recognised, travelling through the countryside with various teams. Living conditions were awful: They stayed in the cheapest hotels cramming five players to a room; travelling for hours a day between towns on terrible buses.
Players weren’t interested in making friends — most wouldn’t even speak to him, except for the only other foreigners in the league, Nigerians, who’d left home to support their families in what was the highest paying job they could find. JS essentially had the lowest paying job he could find. The Nigerians wondered what the hell he was doing there.
As bad as conditions were off the field, they were worse on the field. This wasn’t exactly Premier League: The players were rough, the refs lenient, the audience bloodthirsty. They would cheer at injuries. Eventually JS got hurt. Fortunately his celebrity status as the only white player got him free treatment at an amazing Ayervedic Hospital for sports injuries. After a week there, meeting some of the India’s top athletes, he returned for only a couple more games. He’d lost his form, and decided to end his month-long professional Indian football career.
He had earned enough to travel for another two months. And one of the wildest travel experiences I’ve ever heard.
Let Them Eat Cake
“WOULD YOU LIKE to meet my aunt?” the woman asked Liz and I. We were on an island off the northern tentacle of Sulawesi. We’d stopped in a village because a bunch of people were sitting around ovens, baking. And if I love anything as much as talking to strangers, it’s baking.
We nodded to the woman, and walked into the house still munching cake to find auntie. She was resting. In an open coffin. “To celebrate her life we bake cakes, and give them out in the village.”
You already know the Torajans have a unique relationship with death — with their hand-chiselled stone graves, redressing mummified ancestors, ancient cave-hanging burials, and the dead baby tree (see Indonesia #4). But in a less extreme way, so too do all Indonesians, who confront death very differently than us in the west.
As I stood there beside Liz and Auntie, my head spinning with this different perspective, I was only certain of one thing:
This funeral cake was delicious.
THIS FUNERAL CAKE VILLAGE was an overnight ferry and 12 hours’ drive from the Togean Island beach where I re-encountered Liz. How did Liz and I get there? Well, that opening story about the police is a hint. All is revealed here, in….
The Scooter Diaries
Liz had her own array of wild stories. Younger than me but with the life experience of someone twice her age, she’s been through a lot of challenges. I came to learn about them from the back of her scooter, which we shared across North Sulawesi. We snaked for 12 hours along the palm-studded sandy coastline, each pit-stop a circus of stares, baby kissing, ‘selfies with strangers’ , and general astonishment. Many locals had never seen a white person before — let alone two crammed onto a tiny scooter with their giant backpacks. But enough of our story, here’s a snippet of hers…
Liz had been kicked out of home at 16. Her first flatmates were a 40-year old junkie prostitute with fake breasts and rotting teeth; a dog named Lucky who wore a yodling outfit; and a guy who was declared insane after stabbing a man with a screwdriver. Her boyfriend caused her surgery when he nearly severed her thumb in a knife attack. One morning she awoke to him holding an axe to her throat.
Her next serious boyfriend was an improvement: During their engagement he paid for a decadent holiday in Malaysia. She soon discovered he’d paid for it partially out of the thousands of dollars he’d stolen from her bank account. Needless to say, the marriage was off.
Liz’s stories could fill a whole book (which I encourage her to write). But here are just a few more:
- When waitressing at a candlelit restaurant, her hair caught fire. She put it out in the water jug at the nearest table. The patrons were musicians who invited her to their concert, where she was given backstage passes, only then realising who they were: Groove Armada.
- Before she spent a year in the army, she’d been obsessed with clothes and makeup. That changed.
- She achieved fame amongst travellers in Indonesia when she spent 3 weeks camping on a beach collecting rubbish, tying together 1000 plastic bottles into a raft. She launched it to a crowd of cheering villagers, paddling to another island and back. All to raise awareness about the trash issue. And for a laugh.
This isn’t even a quarter of what I learned about Liz’s life or her travels. But this is where our travel lines leap through time, and intertwine once again. Because I am in Sumatra on the rubbish-raft island. Liz just contacted me: Turns out the very same dive shop, and very same restaurant, where Liz had the fondest memories (amongst dozens) were my favourites too.
I spoke to our mutual friend, the dive shop owner, about Liz. He was delighted to be reminded of her. Then he pointed to her beach, and told me something:
It’s still kept clean.