Indonesians travel by ships, boats, and ferries between the many islands of the Far East archipelago.
In 1991 I had been diving off Bunaken Island and after two weeks of drifting along the reefs I boarded midsize Pelni liner at Manado with a second-class ticket. I was headed around the top of Sulawesi to Palu with a brief stop on Borneo.
I phoned my mother collect from the hotel. The operator connected with Boston in less than thirty minutes. My mother was happy to know where I was. I had left her a map of Indonesia with my planned itinerary. She was concerned about my safety.
“No one is giving me a hard time about being an American.” The USA and its allies were fighting the mother of all tank battles with Iraq. Indonesia was 95% Muslim.It was better that I didn’t tell her about a mob harassing me in Ternate. “I’m taking a boat tomorrow.”
“You never wanted to leave home as a young boy. Now you travel the world. Be my eyes and ears.”
I boarded the Pelni liner an hour before departure. The pier was packed with deportees. I had an air-conditioned berth to myself and listened to the BBC on my bed. The war was progressing well for the Coalition of the Willing.
The ship cleared Manado harbor and skirted the coast past coconut plantations and Bugis villages. Few of their names were marked on the Nell’s maps. Palm trees were the taller than the houses. A small dirt road veered in and out of sight. The overland journey from Manado to Palu on the island’s west coast was a three-day ordeal.
“Jalan tidak jelek,” said every passenger with a shiver.
“Sepanjang japan di Sulawesi jelek,” warned a Javanese businessman.
Bad roads were bad roads no matter where.
I had driven icy rutted roads in Maine.
Death had waited around every curve in the French film THE WAGES OF FEAR.
I wondered how dangerous the roads could be in Sulawesi and enjoyed the smooth surface of the sea.
Everyone was glad to be on the ship. Its top speed was 12 knots. Our ETA in Palu was for tomorrow morning.
Dinner was a simple nasi goreng, fried rice with chicken and an egg. I washed the food down with a cold Bintang beer and went out on deck to watch the night sky. A lightning storm throbbed in a distant thunderhead and the stars numbered in the millions.
I lay in my bunk and read Joseph Conrad’s VICTORY.
His novel was set on these island back in the last century.
On shore it was still 1890.
The ship arrived in Balikpapan around midnight. Oil tanks lined the harbor. The stop lasted about two hours. I stayed on board. A large number of travelers hustled up and down the gangway. I was getting used to the chaos and had another beer.
The crew called ‘Semua papan’ or ‘all aboard’.
Hundreds of people waved good-bye from starboard. The ship leaned several degrees off center and the captain blew the departure horn. We were once more under way.
I listened to the BBC. The War in The Gulf was going in favor of the West. Saddam’s army was surrendering in droves. The sea was calm. The engines pounded out a steady beat. I fell asleep dreaming on the tropics.
The ship reached Palu a little past the dawn. It was a small port. There were no Europeans on the dock. A driver came up to me and asked, “Dari jalan?”
I explained that I was heading to Lake Poso and asked how was the road.
Bahasa Indonesian was an easy language. Good road was a good thing and I sat in the front of his Toyota Pathfinder for the hundred mile ride to Poso.
Poso lay on the Gulf of Tomini. It was a bigger town than Palu with a population around 40,000.
Most of them Muslims, but also a melange of ethnic groups; Butung, Kaili, Bugis, Tolaki, Muna, Gorontaloan, and numerous others.
No one was driving to Lake Poso until tomorrow. Poso City seemed pleasant enough and I booked a cheap hotel for $5.
Nothing about it was clean and that night I opted against dining in their dingy restaurant in favor of a Chinese karaoke restaurant. The cuisine was a nice change from cold Malay dishes and I watched several women sadly sing songs, while gazing with longing at the pictures of Singapore or Hong Kong.
I went to sleep feeling like I was on the other side of nowhere, but that destination was up in the mountains.
The next day I rode up into the highlands. The road was paved thanks to money from the Japanese. The Empire’s troops had occupied all of Indonesia during the War of the Pacific.
“Nippon bagus.” The driver liked Japanese tourists. They paid twice as much as other tourists.
“Nippon bags sekarang.” They were good now, but now was different from 1945.
Not the jungle on either side of the road.
This was true rain forest.
Teakwood trees soared overhead.
No one lived here, but the road was paved and I enjoyed the view, as the car struggled up the steep inclines.
Coffee bushes dotted the slopes. The beans dried in the sun. The smell was tantalizing.
We stopped at a small roadside warung to let the engine cool down. The coffee was instant powder and the sweetened milk came out of can. For hundreds of years the Dutch colonists had shipped the spices and coffee to Europe. Some things never changed, but Asians liked talking about good things and I said to the driver, “Jalan bagus.”
“Ya,” he explained that the road on the other side of Lake Poso was the worst in Indonesia.
The rest of the passengers murmured their agreement and the driver motioned for us to get in the LandCruiser.
Lake Poso was the third largest lake in Indonesia. A covered bridge crossed the outlet river. The driver dropped me at the ferry.
I asked about the road to the other end of the lake.
The driver laughed in my face and said that the road was waist deep mud.
“Tomorrow you see.”
The other passengers filed onto the ferry and laid in the shade. The boat wasn’t leaving till the night, because of engine trouble.
I walked to a high hill in the hot equatorial sun.
The lake was bigger than it looked on the Nell’s map.
Mountains rimmed the horizon. The people living on the slopes had been headhunters. I stayed close to the lake.
The ferry left near sunset. Another Westerner was on board. Ilke came from Germany. She was traveling alone.
“Have you heard about the road on the other side?”
“Everyone has been telling me that it’s bad, but people tend to exaggerate. When I was in Ambon, the people there told me that the people living on Seram were all witches and the people on Seram said the same thing about the people on Ambon.”
“So the road will be fine.”
We’ll see soon enough.”
The light faded fast from the sky.
The sunset was spectacular.
The darkness was complete.
The winds picked up and the ferry pulled into an inlet. We drank beers around a fire, as a young boy played Michael Jackson hits. The reach of Jocko was worldwide.
We arrived at the southern end of Lake Poso at dawn. Clouds of fog lingered on the mountains. The air was cool as to be expected this high above sea level. Passengers from the ferry packed onto a waiting bus. The cost of a ride down to the Makassar was $3. A Toyota Pathfinder driver offered a seat for $10. For Indonesians as well as us. It seemed expensive.
“What do you think?” asked Ilke.
“The bus is cheap, but I’m not taking a chance.” I was hoping to reach the mythical highlands of Tana Toraja by evening.
“I’m with you.”
The road was paved for a good ten miles.
We stopped at a warung, where a young girl served us sweet instant coffee and cold rice with a salty egg.
“Why we stop?” I asked the driver.
“Jalan apa-apa.” He pointed to a bus being dragged by a bulldozer. The high line of mud was well above the wheels. Two foreigners told us that they had been stuck in the mud for over a day.
“We tried walking, but almost drowned in it,” the girl cried into the shoulder of her friend.
“Jalan sekali jerek.”
I walked around the corner and saw how bad.
A mudslide had covered the road for about a hundred feet to a depth of ten feet. Workers were clearing the avalanche. I returned to the warung and said to Ilke, “We’ll be here for hours.”
The driver tapped his watch. “One hour.”
His English was good, but I doubted he was an engineer and drank some more coffee. The cute girl’s name was Indah.
After an hour I decided to walk to the other side of the slide.
The coffee was strong for instant.
Ilke joined me and we sank thigh deep into the mud.
“When I left the USA, I wanted to come someplace like this. Someplace lost from the rest of civilization.”
“You have gotten there and so have I.” Ilke was in a good mood.
Standing mud got boring fast and we trudged to the nearest warung.
Road crews were eating breakfast. We joined them. Our Nissan showed up thirty minutes later. We got back in the car and left behind the bad road for good.
By afternoon we reached Tana Toraja. The town had primitive feel to it, but we booked into a clean hotel for $5. Ilke got her own room.
That night I bought Ilke several beers and we had a good laugh about the mud.
“I wonder where the bus is.”
“Still in the mud.”
And that was the difference between $3 and $10 in 1991.