TRAVEL GUIDE FROM THE UNDERBELLY------2
Bintan was a busy place
with backpackers coming and going.
One day a man with a rucksack
entered the hostel.
He was tan and tall.
He was no backpacker though.
He was welcomed like an old friend.
He was a New Zealander
and he had come by sailboat
from an island at the southern end
of the Riau Archipelago(a long chain of islands skirting Sumatra, extending down from Singapore to Jakarta).
He along with a married couple from Canada
had been living there for years
and were a legend through out the archipelago.
They were the only white people to living there.
They also spoke the native language.
For seven years, now he sailed up to Singapore
every three months where bye upon re-entry
to Indonesia he could renew his visa.
He also stocked up with several hundred liters
of local the firewater brewed from
rice or sugarcane (I can’t remember which),
and which were entombed below the floor boards.
He was sailing back in a few days
and he asked me if I wanted to come along.
I thought of the scene at the ferry station
and I agreed to go with him.
I began what became a five week odyssey
on that not so large sailboat.
We moved our gear onto the boat in the harbour,
which was tied up alongside a small transport ship
delivering goods within the archipelago.
It was not large but it never the less
dwarfed our boat.
The ship was captained by an acquaintance
of my host and served to protect our sailboat from the wake (makes for better sleeping)
of passing ships and fishing boats
and prevented us from being ploughed through
in the dark.
We were tied up in the middle
of a very busy harbour
just a heart beat away from many
bulky moving hulks.
Our first night together was accented
with the slow rolling chug-chug-chug,
from teh many Chinese diesel motors
which dominated the region (I slept with earplugs: no problem).
Our accommodations consisted of a space
large enough for two sleepers.
The entire sailboat was perhaps 17 ft,
with the floorboards chock full
of moonshine and cooking utensils
as well as food and drinking water
thrown in for good measure).
I tied off my hammock above deck,
and slept beneath a brilliant equatorial sky.
The following day began with a typical
It burned off the night fever,
jolting us with a high speed wake up call.
We stowed our gear and cranked up the motor.
Throbbing diesel vibrations
soon massaged my teeth.
Our small motor propelled us
out to the channel which would send us
on our way south .
Ship traffic was picking up
so we had to traverse our way with care
to avoid capsizing in their wake.
Things were looking good.
We were nearing the mouth of the harbour
when suddenly, from our exhaust belched
a black and sticky plume of smoke.
We suddenly lost power and hastily navigated
to a safe point out of the main channel.
We threw anchor and got some tools out.
Aft of the wheel was the motor cover.
We pulled it open and began to take things apart.
It was soon clear that we were’nt leaving the harbour today.
We had to go ashore to find a mechanic.
To do this one must only wait a short while before a “harbour taxi” came along.
A “harbour taxi” consisted of
a man with a sampan (small south Asian boats ),
and a motor slapped on the back.
Scores of them traversed the harbour
You just give them a wave,
and for a few rupiahs (local currency)
you were off and running.
We found a small mechanics shop
run by a couple of Chinese.
They were barefoot and dressed
in old ragged shorts.
They were covered from head to toe
in grease and motor oil.
They truly looked the part.
The workshop was built on long poles
driven into the water.
They did’nt reclaim land for expansion,
they just built over the water.
For some reason they did’nt treat the poles
with water sealant, so the houses fell
into the harbour after ten years,
whereby the would promptly build a new one.
The repair shop was every junkyard dogs dream.
Cables, blending into old gears
which morphed into Gaskets, oil soaked rags
and leather ream belts, all snaking through
an eclectic mix of motors and machines
made from bits and pieces.
Remnants of colonialism put to better use.
Homemade lathes, drill presses, welding machines,
all with their guts and spirit
exposed to the world of bamboo, fish heads
and salt water.
My host arranged for us to bring our motor
the next day.
We caught a “Harbour taxi” back to our boat.
The next morning we pulled the motor
from it’s mounting and set it on deck.
We then waved our hands and caught a Water taxi.
We huffed and puffed and managed
to transfer the motor into the small sampan without capsizing.
With a small one cylinder diesel
put-putting behind us we rode over
to the Chinamen.
We were met with a great surprise
as we pulled up to the Chinamens dock.
The tide had gone out over night
and we were a good meter and a half lower
than the day before.
Now our work was really cut out for us.
We secured the sampan to the dock pillars
and did the best we could.
The motor was a good 60 kilos,
which is not so much weight
when on solid ground, but,
to lift it over our heads
without capsizing the sampan (sending
the motor plunging to the bottom of the harbour),
was a challenge.
We strained and stressed and spit and farted,
and somehow we managed to lift the damn thing
into the straining arms of the Chinamen;
all of this without landing in the drink.
We returned to our boat.
I thought I would go into Bintan and visit
a Chinese friend I had made.
He was a restaurant owner.
He was a good conversationalist.
I had learned of the risks involved
in a friendship with Chinese people
while at the hostel.
After a few visits I had mentioned him
to my new Indonesian friends one day,
gathered around a table under the banana trees.
the boy's would pass a guitar around the circle
each one would takeing it in turn,
struming a tune while singing,
before passing it on to the next boy.
Each boy was better than the last one,
and the last one was fantastic.
These guy's were amazing!
When I mentioned the Chinaman though,
I could smell the sudden tension like
acid on a feather.
In the “communist purges” of the sixties.
Thousands of Chinese were killed.
Men, women and children.
They were the focus of attack again
a few years later with the fall of Suharto.
The Europeans had their Jews
and the Indonesians had their Chinese.
Both groups were disallowed government positions, police, army etc…
About the only thing they were allowed to do
was to make business (which they seemed
to do well at the cost to their popularity).
I made it a point to be more discrete about the Chinaman when around the boys.
Indonesia has the largest
Muslim population in the world.
For centuries it's also been a blending pot
of Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity as a result of Indian traders, Chinese business men and European colonial powers.
Long before that they’d had their own
indigenous forms of spirit recognition though.
This makes for certain paradox's within their Muslim faith.
They are different from their middle eastern brothers and sisters.
I witnessed one of these paradox's one night
at a goodbye party
with the local boys in the hood.
It was in honor of our departure.
We were to be honored with a chicken dinner; Bintan style.
first they blanketed the ground
with banana leaves.
These served to catch the blood
as they said a prayer for each chicken,
while they slit their throats.
They would then throw each one over a fence
where the headless chickens would run around
while pumping out a good portion
of the remainder of their blood.
They would then lay out fresh banana leaves
for the plucking and further preparations.
The waste products were wrapped up
and thrown out with the banana soiled leaves.
After spicing the meat they laid it out
on the grill, covering it again with
banana leaves to steam cook it.
then they sett each place with banana leave “plates”.
We ate some of the best chicken I’ve ever had.
Later on things picked up with music
and Bintang beer.
All the hoodlums girlfriends were there.
One of the boys had brought some marijuana
and everyone was quite high.
They are Muslims, but,
they are also young people who live not far
from Singapore and the wider world.
One of the girls began to convulse,
and dropped to the ground.
Everyone gathered round her.
Our party host told me
that she was possessed by the devil,
and that he would perform an exorcism.
He danced around her chanting a mix of
ancientincantations and prophesy's from the Koran.
Was this proof of trans generational inheritance?
I was witnessing something from
their primordial past.
Something inherited eons before the great Mohammad roamed the earth.
I was asked one question more than any other
while in Indonesia.
“Are you afraid of ghosts?”
You might think it a funny question to obsess a Muslim country (I was never asked that in Jordan for example), until you begin to understand
the eclectic relatioinship with Islam
in today's Indonesia.
After several days our motor was ready to go,
and reinstalled in the boat.
Our trip was beginning.