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Unity in Diversity (Indonesia #2)

May 6, 2014 Comments (3) Asia, Experiences

Puffs and dragons (Indonesia #1)


Bad brakes and fluorescent skin

When the overloaded scooter beneath us began rolling backwards down the hill, I had a few simultaneous realisations:

Firstly, rear brakes are important when trying to ride a chic urban scooter up a steep rutted gravel track.

Secondly, that racking two surfboards on the side and a woman on the back really restricts your ability to balance.

And thirdly (as my footwear tore from my feet) that I was about to join the countless mass of fools in SE Asia who’ve either damaged their scooter, hurt themselves, or both. Heck, I thought, I may even do one better and destroy a couple surfboards too.

Fortunately for the boards and scooter, I stopped our rebellious mount a la Fred-Flintstone, with the soles of my suddenly bare feet. Unfortunately for me, this braking method isn’t part of my daily commute to the Slate Rock and Gravel Company. I smeared a lot of epidermis into that gravel.

Tiffany wasn’t hurt, but her lower-back sunburn from surfing that afternoon was starting to fluoresce. It was our first day together. Things were starting well.

Heavy Traffic.

Musical inspiration

Seven years ago I worked at a copper mine in northern Zambia. The white expatriates were so hopelessly dull that save for one, my only mates were a crew of 20 Indonesian tradesmen (even though only three could speak any English). A testament to the quality of the expats, and of Indonesians. The crew had brought their own chef, since they’d never eat the cornmeal-heavy diet of Zambians. I enjoyed eating at their canteen. We bonded over spicy food (even at breakfast!?) and I was regularly invited back to their camp to hang out after work.

Arriving there the first time, I was struck at their conditions: Six beds to a room, and a single television for all 20 to share. My tiny, single room trailer with a shared bathroom and deafening heater, just down the road, was the Burj Al Arab by comparison.

Looking red, feeling blue.

Excluding the dodgy TV, their primary entertainment during their year-long odyssey was the guitar they shared. They would belt out tunes together, either Indonesian or Western (with phonetically memorised lyrics). I really enjoyed them sharing their music with me.  One day they handed me the guitar. Play us a song from Canada, they said. A dozen pairs of hopeful eyes surrounded me, as I handed it back. I couldn’t play a single chord.

They didn’t mind, but that moment never sat well with me. Live music is a gift, and I was at the party empty-handed. A few years later I bought a guitar, and found the only teacher patient enough for me: YouTube.

Fast-forward back to the present, and I’m in Kuta-Lombok, sitting around a campfire, under the stars, on the beach, full of rice wine, and surrounded by three singing, guitaring Indonesians. After a heap of great tunes, they handed me the guitar. Play us a song from Canada, they said. And I did.

The guitar was interfering with valuable smoking time.

(I just hope they didn’t regret their request!)


A dark and stormy night

When I was a kid my favourite animal was the Komodo dragon. They seemed so badass, with their cavalier attitude to drool. But Komodos are only found on two tiny islands of Indonesia — despite whatever Tiffany tells you about spotting one on Gili Air.

Indonesia is a seafaring society, so we felt it fitting to travel via the scenic sea route to visit my drooling brethren. As our group of dirtbag travellers wandered down the dock together, we approached a boat almost identical to one I chartered in Vietnam. That one comfortably housed 5 of us. This group were 22. Everyone was thinking the same thing: The boat looked a lot larger in the picture. Probably because they never showed any people for scale. Very clever. But we all merrily climbed aboard, putting our backpacks below deck, to keep the cockroaches company.

The first mate looks skeptical.

Our vessel was a small houseboat, top speed 6 knots in a 2 knot tail-current. There were actually two others like ours, all with very different group dynamic, each one assured of its own group’s superiority. We rarely interacted, but I spoke with my friends on another boat after the trip about the differences.  We decided that by observing us for an hour in the cafe before departure, the guides were able to group similar people for the different boats, with great results. They did surprisingly well:

The #1 boat forced all snorkellers traversing their deck to first shake off and towel down, lest the deck get wet.  They couldn’t stand the notion of any water touching their boat. I’m sure someone pointed out the irony. This was, of course, The Uptight boat.

The #2 boat was ours. Average age early 30s, average country north central Europe (just four North Americans, not even a pome). One shipmate told us a story about another, Jonas, which exemplified how hilarious and chilled our group was: In Vietnam Jonas was having beers at the bar with a really nice, off-duty local policeman. He assumed Jonas smoked weed and asked if he could sell him some. Jonas agreed, and popped back to his hotel to pick up. There, his friend asked the obvious question about the wisdom of selling weed to a cop. “Oh man, I hadn’t thought of that! You think it’s a problem?”  Ours was the Chilled Out boat.

And #3 boat: An hour before departure, they told the guide it was imperative that they procure a case of rum and an assortment of pirate costumes. These were The Partiers. The guides had to turn off the lights on them every night, and physically drag them from bed each morning.

Not sure who was feeling more out of place, us or the Sumbawa cattle herder.

Our boat became a big family over the four days together, sharing joys of snorkelling, waterfalls, lightning storms, sunsets, Komodo dragons, and a nightly carpet of stars.  But it’s always the suffering that really brings people together.

We had a little termite explosion, and bed bugs (or were they fleas, nobody can ever tell). We were fed sparsely (two pieces of buttered bread for breakfast!?) with repetitive, albeit tasty food. And for the tiny minority of us nonsmokers aboard, we dealt with choking clouds from the Europeans, chain-smoking their $2 packs of Indonesian cigarettes. I think I became addicted to secondhand smoke.

The second last day together, we got our Komodo fix. The dragons aren’t picky eaters: one of their young narrowly escaped becoming a meal; then a couple decided we looked tasty, and charged. Thankfully our guides had sturdy wooden poles to defend us. Yet through all this, the final evening is when we really all bonded.

It was a dark and stormy night. Really. Buckets of horizontal rain thrashed the ship. Its tired little diesel engines fought strong currents. We spun in a whirlpool. Then another. And another.  The captain cleared us off the deck, and we all hungrily crouched on the crowded sleeping level, well past dinner hour. There we munched our remaining crackers, nervously, noting the rainwater dripping onto our mattresses. We watched helplessly as the crew tried to drop anchor to wait out the storm, but failed. And failed again.

Joey from North Carolina began singing sea shanties about shipwrecks, while I secretly tallied the life jackets, and tried to remember the lyrics to Gilligan’s Island. Three years ago, one of these tours sank, so I wasn’t ruling out the possibility. Our ship didn’t have any fancy navigation systems—heck, we didn’t even have an accurate clock. But finally, we anchored in a cove, the storm passed, and the sea became glassy. The full moon appeared, and we watched the storm rage on in the distance as we swam in the bioluminescence. It was like awakening from a nightmare, straight into a dream.

Drool cost extra.

Sampai jumpa,



Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale,
A tale of a fateful trip
That started from this tropic port
Aboard this tiny ship. 

The mate was a mighty sailing man, 
Five passengers set sail that day 
The tiny ship was tossed,
The skipper brave and sure.
For a three hour tour, a three hour tour.

The weather started getting rough,
If not for the courage of the fearless crew
The minnow would be lost, the minnow would be lost. 

The closest thing we had to a GPS.


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