WARNING: DEATH PENALTY FOR DRUG TRAFFICKERS UNDER INDONESIAN LAW
This is it! Basically stating loud and clear, We don’t fuck around here. Come have fun, buy some cheap sunglasses and a Bintang T-shirt, maybe have a little too much fun if you want. Thou if we catch your tourist ass with weed or hashish or a hint of ground up coco plants under your nose, we are going to plant 50kg of that shit in your carry on and make a sequel to Brokedown Palace, and you get to be the star.
Plane lands, I’ve now decided that it’s too late to do a sweep of my pack, it’s going to be obvious if there’s one bag going round and round on the baggage carrier & my boarding pass clearly states I have luggage. Jesus, these officers are just looking for a pay raise and plan to use my questionable looking self as an example of how to get one. Guilty until proven innocent, I’ve been there before & I’m not interested in learning Indo law.
My nephew some thirteen years younger then I is set to arrive in the morning and over the next month I’ve made it my personal mission to expose his world to all things travel in a developing nation to see how he fairs with those whom do not share his same mother tongue.
The last email I send Courtland prior to departure reads “If I’m not there within and hour of your intended arrival, find a place to sleep, email me the details and I’ll find you once I find myself.”
His plane arrives forty-five minutes early & his tall, western, surfer looking tourist self gets hassled like fresh prison meat. I think I’m early so I get an ice cream and wander around, only to run into him by accident some five minutes prior to the allotted hour I suggested, he’s elated to see me to say the least!
We hit the ground, hop a plane and land on the island of Flores, the hub to Komodo Island. Home to the prehistoric beasts of folk lore, the deadly Komodo Dragon. A dirty strip about one km long of makeshift budget bungalows and eateries hugged by local guide companies and foreign run dive shops make up about the only tourist services anywhere on the island of some several hundred kilometers.
We make friends with two Norwegians, Erling & Marie, they are to be our travel companies for the week of random adventure. Plans for Komodo are made over Bintang beers & local moonshine dubbed “Arrack” all in the company of a nun with some fellows sporting Mac laptops also Bintanging it. A sort of Catholic, Steve Jobs, meets Euro-Canada over hooch sorta feel. Something you’d see in a Quentin Tarantino flick.
January is wet season and wet it was, due to extreme weather we learn the harbour master has closed the harbour and thus the only exit to Komodo. They mentioned something about a number of ships actually sinking, thou I wasn’t paying much attention.
What to do, what to do…
Despite not having an international drivers licence, any knowledge of the country, language or insurances of any kind (travel, medical, or automotive) we note the most road worthy car on the island is owned by our taxi driver, Egidius. We need adventure and Egidius owns an automotive shortcut right to it. Problem being he has no interest in handing it over to us. Erling and myself are both seasoned bargainers, this was however my first time barging on something that was not actually being offered. Two hours, twice parting of ways, a phone call and two hundred dollars (moneys like universal lube) and four of us hit the thirty-one hour or four hundred km trail to Ende in our suv we nickname “The Black Dragon”. Gateway to the volcanic lakes of heaven and hell. We had to pass through both along the way.
In control of the captions chair, Erling is driving on paved roads, sort of. Each mile riddled in kids playing, cars parked, fruit drying, people walking, automotive repairs, live pigs, dead pigs. Holy shit, we should have been driving ten, everyone else was driving eighty and we were driving sixty. Basically gasping for air between bouts of holding my breath and clawing at the holy fuck handles I eventually calmed to a mild panic, only to be magnified at the moments we whizzed past children kicking balls around. Children whom were unmoved while playing on the highway. Thinking I might calm a touch if I’m in control I man the wheel of this black SUV, spotting on my way to the drivers seat that each of our four tyres are bald, like Homer Simpson bald. The panicked brace of all passengers and a squeal of loose gravel across payment is quickly muffled by the a screaming jake break and air horn from the dump truck coming at us while I seek to gain control to avoid skidding for a cliff.
Holy god damn! In just under forty five seconds behind the wheel, I almost get us killed two ways. Two rocks and a bumper away from getting embedded by a dump truck then pushed over a cliff. Stop, reassess and calmly explain to everyone inside that it’s like driving on ice and a Canadian can handle it. Were in the clear, for now.
Ohh fruitful adventure you don’t wander far…
Foreign food and a new lands lead Marie to a morning with the porcelain gods and she opts out of fun for the day leaving the boys to there mindless exploration. I know there are rules in the country sounding the road, I’m yet to see anyone follow those rules, thou I know they exist. In the a city of about five thousand I’m again manning the wheel and note a series of scooters headed the wrong way down a one way to the same destination I want to be in, so I follow. All fine and well till we hit the single busiest intersection in the city. A set of lights (extremely uncommon) and about ninety scooters mixed in tightly with some ten cars etc.
Going the wrong way wasn’t nearly as big a deal until I then tried to counteract it by turning, yip turning into oncoming traffic, again going the wrong way. This too wasn’t exactly the end of the world, however the entire scene then magnified to colossal proportions when each of the ninety scooter drivers and each of the ten or so car drivers noticed an SUV full of westerners in a city where I can assure you there had not been another westerner for some time, and defiantly not one manning there own newer model SUV. Lets picture say two people having sex in church, just ahead of the reverends pew. This now amplified when Courtland notices several police officers doing insurance checks right across the street.
Now the entire scene is a series of people trying beyond extreme measure to overcompensate by flagging us and everyone else out of the way in an overdramatic moment of news headlines titled “the only excitement in small town Indonesia.”.
Court points out the cops, I tell him to look ahead not making eye contact. We then make a very obvious break for it, this is short lived.
Surrounded by a mob of scooter riding Indonesian police officers, a series of angry hand singles suggest we follow them back to the station. Ohh shit, my Asian travel lessons have hit a new low. The three of us are now being heavily lectured in Indonesian about the series of things we (well actually me) had just done wrong. In extremely polite English we apologise excessively and ask to go on our way. Neither party new what the other was saying thou we understood we wouldn’t be leaving that easy. They stopped everyone passing by to see if anyone spoke English, nope not a sole. The people would just take our celebrity photo with their phone and scooter along. Eventually we put together that we were in deep shit and they needed my drivers licence. Well on this particular day I had left my wallet at the hotel and had exactly no identification.
Basically I’m driving around in a car I don’t own, breaking a series of laws, without a licence & can’t explain myself to the six officers looking to arrest my ass.
We give them Erlings Norwegian licence, appeased for a minute it wasn’t international and it wasn’t mine. We call Eguidious and explain we have been arrested in his car for breaking some laws, he’s not ecstatic to hear from us. Egidiuos talks to the police then translates the situation to us.
Law states that driving in Indonesia without a licence is a week in jail and going the wrong way down a one way street is a one hundred and twenty five thousand Rupiahs fine. Egudious is the man and smoothes things over for us so we are instead given two fines for the same amount. Also in that wallet of mine was any money I might need for such a situation. I just hadn’t prepared for every possible outcome prior to departure that morning, who knew?
Lucky Erling had a stash of cash and bailed our asses out. The police request I come with them to a room behind the prison gates. I know this trick and I’m not going alone, so I get Erling to come along, Courtland to watch the car and I’ll deal with the fines. A few questions to answer on paper, a brief chat about my religious background, I know the two main religions of the region and I know I won’t pass as Muslim and decide I’m Catholic, it works. So is the Chief, now were buds. With the exchange of one signature and two hundred and fifty thousand Rupiahs were free! We exit to see Courtland sharing cigarettes and teaching the police to count to ten, he’s fairly proud of himself. I snap a couple of undercover photos from our police escort outta town and we a laugh with nervous relief.
Eventually we make it to the lakes of heaven and hell, get lost in countryside villages, waddle through rice fields and back then haggle our way onto the small sea vessel that will take us to the Island of Komodo.
For anyone who hasn’t had the pleasure of snuggling with a Komodo here’s the run down. Komodo dragons are carnivorous reptiles with bacterial saliva so deadly it can kill a water buffalo. They can grow over ten feet, more then three hundred pounds and run close to twenty KMP in a burst. Short of breathing fire or hosting there own Canadian television show, these beasts are the real Dragons Den deal. I so badly want a komodo close enough I can feel that I’m gambling with fate. I gambled, almost pee my pants and run away filming one, mission a success!
Gateway to genuine Bornese Orang-utans
Some eight hundred kilometres or so away our plane touches down on the island of Borneo in the middle of a monsoon, immediately flooding the streets. We make our way through the dark wet streets of Banjarmasin in search of a late night snack. As luck would have it, as it always seems to, we get lost then eventually found by local guide Mukani. Mukani explains some options for things to do in Banjarmasin and we agree to meet him at five am the next morning to experience a floating market. Pre dawn, our hour long rumbley boat ride up river lands us at the exchange point for fresh fruits, vegetables and other culinary delights brought from the hills of local villages. The women, chosen because they are smarter and better bargainers then the men, transport the goods downriver to be sold to middle-women whom then sell the goods to housewives on the rivers edge. I try buying an orange, they are only sold by the stack of roughly fifty, instead we settle on several bunches of the most delicious lychee fruits ever released from their fuzzy pink housing. Then I notice one lady actually cooking something, I’m intrigued. I get Mukani to ask what she’s cooking over the flame in a cast-iron pan of speckled dough. Mukani relays some information with a hefty warning… “The price has doubled since last week”. It turns out she was cooking a sort of sweet pancake batter with chocolate and toasted coconut. He explains that typically they don’t have coconut in them, this week however she had acquired some coconut and toasted it, then added it to the batter. The new price, two thousand rupiahs. Meaning last week the price was one thousand rupiahs roughly from ten cents now inflated to twenty cents! I ask Mukani to order us eight and I happily share with everyone. We look delighted and drastically out of place.
On the way back Mukani explains the history of his guide experience and asks if we would book our forthcoming Orangutan jungle tour through him and he will take us on a river tour for free. He gets us a good deal for the jungle thou I’m not over enthused about a tour of a dirty river, free or not. I leave my camera behind.
Mukani picks us up about four pm, explains we are going through the back streets (a river) of the local city for a glimpse into the locals lives. He explains not be alarmed when people come towards our boat as they are just being friendly. I’m sure by fate we had both choose to leave our cameras behind that day, leaving us with only vivid memories.
Let me paint a picture of the setting; The river is roughly thirty feet from bank to bank, each side is packed with ramshackle houses pieced together from bits of tin and chunks of wood looking half way between falling apart and being built. Now picture everything you do in a day that involves water. You shower in the morning, brush your teeth, eliminate waste from your body and your house, drink a nice refreshing glass of it, maybe you swim for recreation, perhaps you fish or boat, wash your laundry, a million uses, well so do they. Typically a dock sits out back with a wooden shack or porta-potty on it, for washing ones self and eliminating bodily fluids, this all goes in the river. I see an elderly women taking her trash and eliminating it into the river, my heart drops. I see people fishing in what is a deep brown water of various floating trash, ladies doing laundry, people in boats. Mukani had timed this so we would be on the river about the time when kids were out of school, people were doing chores and families were getting home from work. I ask Mukani where they get drinking water, the river obviously. They take the water out and let it sit overnight so the major sediment sinks to the bottom, then they take the top half and boil it hoping to kill off any bacteria. It sits again until the next day, then they drink it. I feel embarrassed as I slip my bottled water in my pocket. By now there are dozens and dozens of kids swimming in the same waste water, all laughing and doing flips for us. Each of them saying “hello mister”, some kids swimming up to the boat to give us wet high fives. Each person would come out of the house or stop what they were doing to wave and smile at us. I feel a tear running down behind my sunglasses. We meander through the liquid streets for over an hour exchanging hellos with literally everyone, all smiles all waving, not more then a few words are exchanged amongst our crew.
At the end Mukani asks to take us for coffee at a local stand, we agree and sit reflecting on the days insights. Just an hour and a half of what these people do each and everyday. At this point my eighteen year old nephew takes a long drag off his cigarette thinks briefly and says to me "there standard of living is terrible & there appreciation of life is amazing... The opposite of where we live."
My soul is relived, he gets it. The kid gets it, this is why we travel. To understand each culture as a global whole and to appreciate beyond imagination how lucky we are to be from parts of the planet that taking a drink of water isn’t a two day procedure that might risk your health. He gets it, from here on out I’m not concerned of where his feet land on earth.
Carefully calculating each boat ridge as our packs are changing our center of balance by about thirty pounds, we make each step from boat to boat count to avoid spending the next three days drying clothes rather then hunting Orangutans deep in the jungle. Within minutes we are headed across the sea and up river into the Borneo jungle, four or five local dishes are set in front of us accompanied by tea and water. Over the next couple hours I learn that our vessel is made up of the two of us on the upper level, the lower level is a mix of one guide, one driver, one person to tie and untie the boat, two cooks and two other people sort of helping with this and that. For a total of seven crew looking after the two of us, we looked a bit posh as we passed small fishing canoes on the river with ten or twelve locals crammed in them. Again we were not blending in smoothly.
For about $500 USD you can hire the crew, chug upstream to camp Leaky, stop a various Orangutan rehabilitation camps and look for these adorable ginger looking humans that share some ninety-five or so percent of our DNA. In low season if you bargain hard this same tour can be done for about $400 USD, this is what we paid our neighbours not so good a bargaining. Each night monkeys would flock to the rivers edge by the hundreds. Falling down branches, eating bananas, swinging after each other with there tails, you know, monkeying around. We had candlelight dinners on river, slept under a mosquito net on the deck, treked through the jungle and wait with cameras in hand to find a fuzzy red friends swinging in for a snack. It was without question worth every plane ride, scooter trip, malaria pill, and overnight bus to get to and from there.
If you think that deforestation, illegal poaching and pollution are problems that don’t affect your life as they are so far away. I encourage you to go and see what happens to the homes of animals, the quality of water and the health of local people when you cut down a forest for mining. What happens when boiling coconut oil get thrown on an Orangutans burning flesh when it come to see its home cut down. What a river looks like when it’s the dumping point for excavation right next to a protected river that is crystal clear and beaming with life. If the worlds water is used up in one part the world will come looking for fresh water in another. If we cut down all the trees in one forest it will inevitably affect the air of the surrounding nation, if we kill off the wildlife in one food chain that will have a knock on effect for the next and eventually the top of the food chain. Everyone has heard this all before and it’s easy to change the channel from the news, go and see it. It’s a bit harder to change the thoughts in ones head when you sleep at night. Watching an Orangutan looking back at you eating durian fruit like a distant cousin at a dinner party, it will melt a person.
WARNING: DEATH PENALTY FOR DRUG TRAFFICKERS UNDER INDONESIAN LAW
Mushrooms, cocaine, MDMA, weed, what you need? I see a palm delicately open revealing two pills, a bag slid from a pocket with a dried herb inside. I blatantly ignore the delighted requests to fulfill my needs to have a good time and we go for a beer at Rudy’s pub. The German we’d been with buys some weed, borrows a paper and rolls up a joint. At this time the echoing of the death penalty rings loudly in my head and I’m hoping it also does for my companion. We promptly finish our drinks and move spots. I learn several things while on Gili Trawangan, a.k.a. Party Island. For starters Rudy’s pub was under some hefty investigation for the poising of tourists over the Christmas season as they had all been drinking Arrack, the local moonshine. And it was alleged that the Arrack had been cut with methanol, a way to cut costs. Next up I learn that mushrooms, a naturally occurring fungus with the hallucinogenic drug psilocybin in it, illegal in North America, is actually legal their and being offered everywhere. Next up the reason that the abundance of drugs offered on this island was three pronged; One: being that we were on an island that was relativity isolated from the rest of the country and wouldn’t leak it’s issues onto the rest of the country. Two: as it is such a small population of people living there, in fact there was no real police force. Some security and a town figurehead, that was about it. Three: well that’s the universal law of drugs anywhere in the world, cash money. It fuelled an abundance of tourism that had a knock on effect for everything. Tourists come to party and rent rooms, eat out, go on tours, and so on. We all came to spend money, thus a government sort of turning a blind eye to the death penalty drug laws.
This in turn lead to some world class beach parties. One being kick started for us by some locals turning us onto banana wine & my god you’d need to be loco to drink it!
There are literally hundreds of people under a thatched roof, bar on each end, dj pumping house music in the middle, it is a hurricane out and we are steps from the ocean. As the wind ragged and the water poured, the music just got louder, eventually the party bursts and people spill into what looks like Victoria falls from above and a foot of water in the streets. This only amplified the dancing, it reflected a ritualistic trance by the blue man crew. Hands in the air, asses shaking, feet smashing water up out of the puddles, finally at four am we parted from a still full dance floor and splashed our way home.
Do it just it. If ever you’ve wanted a bamboo tattoo on a mattress in an empty hotel in the jungle, or looked to snorkel with manta rays that completely dwarf you, or wanted to hike one hundred carved stairs to an ancient city of rock, or got lost then found at the holiest of temples being blessed with water beckoned from the center of the earth. Eatin fried rice and chicken heart next to dried lung and kidney, or wanted to ponder your existence at the fork of a turquoise heaven then black lake of hell at the top of a volcano, then do it just do it.
You’ll never be the same, work will always be their when you get back and as a reflection of prehistoric history, the probability of dragons wandering the earth for ever is slipping away as each ice caps melts into extinction.
*You can contact Mukani our Banjarmasin guide one of two ways. 1: Book a flight to Borneo, catch a cab to Banjarmasin, wander the streets in the dark looking for dinner and stumble into him by chance, which worked for us. Or 2: Mukani at + 62 (0) 813 51 500 500 or firstname.lastname@example.org
*Floating market photos taken by HK Studio Jakarta.
Headed to Indo.? You'll need these.