SEA LEGS by Peter Nolan Smith


Spice dominated the trade between Asia and Europe for centuries and the oriental lore of processing roots, seeds, and bark into food enhancers inspired western travelers to seek various paths to detour the Arab middlemen profiting from the lucrative east-west trade route. Successful voyagers stood to reap fortunes from their discoveries. Failures were many.

Christo Colon reached America in 1492, bringing back tobacco and slaves, but no spices to the disappointment of the Spanish monarchs.

Seven years later Vasco de Gama rounded the Horn of Good Hope and the Arab monopoly on the Spice Trade was broken for good.

in 1521 Ferdinand Magellan sailed west from Spain destined for the Spice Islands of the Moluccas. The voyage across the Pacific proved deadly to the sailors attached to his fleet. Scurvy, starvation, and murder ravaged their ranks and their commander was killed in a battle on the Philippines.

Of the 237 who set out of this epic voyage on five ships, only 15 returned to Spanish soil, yet this circumnavigation of the globe resulted in great wealth for the survivors and investors, because the remaining two ships stopped at the famed spice isle, Tidore, as well as Ambon in the Moluccas.

Spice was worth more than gold and over the next centuries the Dutch, French, English, Portuguese, and Spanish fought numerous wars on several continents for control of these islands.

Manhattan was traded to the Netherlands for a small island in the archipelago and considering that the Dutch had acquired that foothold on North America for 60 guilders or the price of several thousand tankards of beer, it seemed like a good deal for the two parties at the time.

In 1991 I sold a big diamond to a well-heeled couple from the Upper East Side. My commission bought my second round-the-world ticket from PanExpress on 39th Street for a journey of JFK-LAX-HONOLULU-BIAK-AMBON-BALI-JAKARTA-SINGAPORE-BANGKOK-PARIS-LONDON-JFK.

My friends and family were worried about this voyage, since America in the process of fighting an Islamic country in the Middle East.

“Aunt Bert sailed through those islands when she was six.” Her father had been a whaling captain in the 1870s.

“There wasn’t a war on the horizon.” My mother wanted nothing bad to happened to her son.

“That war which isn’t a war yet has nothing to do with Indonesia.”

“It’s a Muslim country. They’re all connected same as the Irish.” My mother was a devout Catholic and even more convinced Hibernian. We understood fights.

During the Iran-Iraq War Kuwait had been slant-drilling into Rumaila oil field. Saddam wanted to be paid for this theft and massed 300,000 troops on the border to force his neighbor. The US ambassador had said, “We have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts.”

Saddam considered this comment to be a green light for invasion and his army overwhelmed Kuwait within days.

The Saudis felt insecure with such a large force threatening its rule over Mecca and Israel also fell under the shadow of uncertainty.

America’s sense of geography had been ruined by the IT’S A SMALL WORLD ride in Disneyworld and thee nations of Asia had been further blurred by the various cuisines. Iraq, Iran, Israel, India, and Indonesia were all I-nations None of my friends or family could finger Indonesia on a map.

“Don’t worry, I’ll be fine.” Kuwait was 8000 kilometers from Jakarta and it was even farther from Biak, my first stop.

“I was out there in World War 2 and fought off Biak in the Battle of the Sump.” My Uncle Dave said at my goodbye dinner in Boston. “There ain’t nothing there. You be careful. Those people don’t value life the same way we do.”

Uncle Dave had never been to IT’S A SMALL WORLD and the chronic smoker was seeing doctors for a chronic cough. His choice of cigarettes were Pall Mall. We were standing outside on the lawn. No one else in my family could hear our conversation.

“I’m a lover not a fighter.” I had been a peacenik throughout the 60s. 70s, 80s, and 90s.

“I know different.” Uncle Dave had bailed me out of a Quincy jail after a fight with a gang from Southie. Boston in the late 60s belonged to the tribes.

“I’m different now. All peace and love.” I couldn’t remember that the last time I fought someone. “Plus I’ve been out there before. Those people are nice.”

“You’re living in a dream world, but have a good time.” Uncle dave cuffed me $20. “Have a good drunk on me.”
The next day I returned to New York and packed my bags for my trip. I arrived at JFK three hours before the take-off. The 747 took off on time.

In LA and Hawaii my friends expressed their concern about traveling to the world’s most Islamic country. I told them, “Tidak apa-apa.”
It meant no problems in Bahasa Indonesia. They were impressed with my knowledge of the local language even if I spoke it with a Boston accent.

The next leg was from Honolulu to Biak.

No other tourists offloaded the Garuda flights from LA. I got a room in the Dutch hotel across from the airport. I was the only guest. US troops and their coalition allies were massing on the border of Kuwait to oust the Iraqi invaders. The outcome of the conflict was in doubt. My Sony World radio had good reception. I listened to the news on the BBC World Service. I was betting on the West. We had better tanks.

Biak was a backwater. The war was on another planet. I had committed desertion in the face of the enemy. I didn’t have a dog in that fight.

Scarred Japanese veterans of the Pacific War wandered through the graveyards of their fallen dead. They avoided everyone but their memories. They stayed one day. None of them spoke English. I nodded to them with respect. 5000 of their comrades had died in a cave. Only five survived that carnage.

My days were lazy. The big bottles of Bintang beer were cold and kretek cigarettes were laced with cloves. The aroma lingered on my fingers. The cough hung out a little longer. I had my own diving mask and flippers. The coral cliffs began twenty feet beyond the shore. Sea turtles and parrot fed off the current. I stayed in Biak two weeks.

Ambon was my next stop. The spice island was the capitol of the Moluccas. A diplomat attached to the Indonesian consulate in New York had suggested a lay-over with his uncle. I gave the older man a bottle of Johnny Walker Black. No one in Asia drank Johnny Walker Red, unless there was no Black.

“You have wife?” James asked with a unsparing directness.

“No.” I was used to this line of questioning.

“You have baby?” Asians thought bachelorhood a curse. My mother agreed with their opinion.

“No.” I wished my answer could have been yes.

“Maybe one day.”

James was a government official on a Christian Island.

Indonesia was 95% Muslim. Ambon ran against the grain, but everyone was a mixture of Malay and Papuan on the tropical island, except for the Javanese deported from their overpopulated island. They worked as pedicab drivers. A few jeered at me. I was the only white person within a thousand miles.

“Saddam # 1. Bush no good.”

I agreed with their second sentiment and I considered myself in exile from the land of the GOP.

James lent me his car and driver for a tour of the island. We visited an old Dutch fort, giant eels eating eggs in a river, and a beach on the north side of Ambon. The sea was murky and fish were scarce. Fishing boats bombed the corals with dynamite. The driver pointed to mountains across a broad channel.

“Seram. Have big magic. Men fly in sky. Bad magic.”

The people there followed animism. Magic was their sole export. No tourist went to that island.

“Tidak pagi. I not go.” Bahasan Indonesian was an easy language. No articles. No tenses. Bagus was good. Bagus-bagus was very good. “Pagi ke Tidore.”

“Tidore. No mistah go Tidore. Banyak Muslim. Go to Bali.” The driver was dumbfounded by my choice. The young wanted off this island. Jakarta was their dream. Not an island more forgotten by time.

“Saya ke Tidore.” I dropped the verb to go. It was a common trait in Bahasa.

“Tidak apa-apa.” No problem.

We returned to the city to drink the Johnny Walker with James. He mixed it with honey. No ice. It was their way.

Afterward James took me to the chicken farm. Young girls served older men beer. This scene was played out everywhere in Asia. Europe and the USA. We drank to Rambo. No one toasted Saddam or Bush. Religion and politics were off-limits in brothels. I showed the girls pictures of Manhattan. None of them believed the pictures were real.

I returned to my harbor hotel around midnight. The Bugis sailors were preparing for a morning departure. Ropes creaked on the masts. The design of their prahu dated back centuries. Indonesia had thousands of islands. The prahu were the connection. For some reason I was overcome with deja vu. I blamed the honey and then the whiskey. My Irish grandmother had come to America on a ship. The sea was in our blood.

I entered the quiet lobby. The hotel staff was watching the TV. US and Coalition soldiers were loading bombs onto jets. Saddam had been our ally. Iraq had fought Iran in the war of the I-nations. The dictator was hoping for a reprieve. He should have been packing his bags for exile in Switzerland. I tried to call my parents in Boston from the Ambon PO.

The telephone operators were Christian. They gave me the sign for victory. Pro-USA.

No one answered the phone.

I gave the operators the thumbs-up. This was wasn’t my fight, but Saddam had massacred thousands. He deserved a bad ending.

I took the morning flight to Ternate. James and the driver waved good-bye at the terminal.

“Kembali.” Return.

“Rambo.”

I was the only ‘mistah’ on the plane. The flight stopped briefly at Bata, the old prison island, before flying over the Molucca Sea. Small boats dotted the surface cutting wakes of white. The stewardesses served sandwiches and beer too. I had two. I showed photos of my family.

One attractive stewardess asked if I had a wife.

I was embarrassed to say no.

The pilot announced our approach. There were no delays in landing. This was the day’s only arrival.

At the Ternate terminal I picked up my bag from the carousel and walked outside. Volcanoes dominated the horizon. The air was fragrant with spice. The taxi drivers were surprised to see me. Their faces were Javanese.

More deportees.

I saw hostility. This island was 100% Muslim.

Several words were muttered under their breath.

“Angin.”

It meant ‘dog’.

I pulled out a $10, which bought a smile from one driver.

He took me to the best hotel on the island.

“Here safe. No problem for mistah.”

“Tidak apa-apa.”

He was happy to hear a ‘orang asing’ speak his national language. None spoke the tongue of the Moluccas.

I was the only westerner in the hotel. The room was clean. The manager’s name was Mohammad. He said, “You can stay, but please do not leave the room.”

“Why not?” I had a good idea why.

“Ternate people like Saddam. He is Muslim. No one like Dutch people.” Mohammad had been to Mecca. He had seen the world. His belief was for the good of man, but his neighbors remembered the rule of the Netherlands. The Dutch had impossiblized independence for the Moluccas. Europe loved divide and conquer. Most of the nations of the Middle East had straight line borders, which were a recipe for conflict.

My room was on the 2nd floor. I stood on the balcony. Minarets silhouetted the early evening sky. Moonlight bathed the volcanic cones. Magellan’s successor, Juan Sebastián Elcano, had admired the same vista in 1521.

Joseph Conrad had written about these islands in VICTORY.

Jack London haunted his books with blackbirds, pearlers, and beachcombers.

My uncle Dave might have smoked a cigarette on the deck of a battleship off these two islands. The BBC was broadcasting a quiz show. I was hungry.

The manager was surprised to see me in the lobby.

“Mistah no go.”

“Makan-makan.” Eat was an easy word to remember in Bahasa.

“Okay, but go eat. Come back.”

Mohammad arranged a motorcycle ride to the harbor. The driver was fat. He knew a good place to eat.

Warungs lined the beachfront. Men walked with men. Women walked with women. Music blared from tinny speakers. Pop mixed with traditional Indonesian music. I sat at a food stall. Dozens of plates were spread across a table. I picked my dinner according to appearance.

One offering tasted better than others. The meat was a little tough, but delicious. I ordered seconds.

A murmuring swelled at my back. People were gathering behind me.

I ate the second plate with dispatch and ordered the bill. “Rekening.”

“Saddam # 1.” The chant was loud on the first try and even louder on the second.

I figured the crowd numbered about 40. Their eyes were red. Amok came from the Malay language. One man with one arm was mad at me. Someone called him Ali.

Another twenty men joined the anti-western mantra. The waiter delivered my bill and moved aside with speed. I stood slowly, as if nothing was wrong. Magellan had been killed by such a mob in the Philippines. I turned around to face the odds.

100 to one.

Ali was screaming in my face. He had been waiting to hate a white man for decades and I was the target for his spittle. It was time to go.

My hand went to my wallet and I picked up the rekening.

One word stuck out on the bill.

Angin. Two plates

I had seen the word before.

Hati-hati angin.

‘Beware of the dog.” I held up the bill to the old man.

“Saya makan angin?”

“Angin.” His eyes focused on the bill. “Dua angin?”

“No, I did not eat ‘angin’.” Although I would have ordered 3rd if the crowd had not interrupted my dinner.

“Mistah makan angin.” Ali announced to his followers. They laughed with mirth. No mistahs ate dog. “Kamu makan angin.”

The mob was on edge. Their blood was running hot. The temperature was in the high 80s. Only magic could save me and I cast a spell with my next word.

“Lezat.”

The crowd of men had not expected a compliment for the cuisine of the island. A mistah liking dog. They laughed and I exited from the harbor through a gauntlet of hands clapping my back. They followed me back to the hotel singing the chorus, “Saddam # 1.”

I said nothing about Rambo and the hotel manager asked the mob to disperse.

They shouted ‘angin, angin’ into the night.

Mohammad was happy nothing bad happned to me.

It had been a close call.

That night the US hit Iraq position. Allied Air superiority was countered by missile attacks on Israel and Saudi Arabia. I took my breakfast at the hotel in the morning.

Mohammad advised against a sightseeing tour and I wrote a few more chapters of NORTH NORTH HOLLYWOOD in my room. My female protagonist was sculpted from old memories of my ex-girlfriend. I couldn’t remember her phone number, but the hotel managed to secure a connection to the USA. My mother and father were relieved to hear my voice. Uncle Dave was in the hospital. His lungs were shot. I asked if I should come home.

“No, but Uncle Dave will be happy that you asked for him.” My mother and he had been friends for over 40 years.

“Tell him I’m staying out of trouble.”

Over the next few days my forays from the hotel were few. I ventured around the island and once across the straits to Tidore, whose hills were blanketed by clove trees. The people on that island seemed to be ignorant of the war. Only a few houses sported TV antennae. I swam at a beach at the end of the road. The current was too strong to snorkel. The Moluccas stretched north into terra incognita. Across the sea lay Manudo. Rough Guide said that the diving off the nearby atolls was exceptional. A ferry was crossing the strait in two days. I booked passage. It was the end of January.

The war was going badly for Saddam. The Battle of Khafji pushed his troops back into Iraq. F-16s pounded his positions. The men in Ternate no longer chanted his name. No one likes a loser. Only the old man carried the flag for Saddam. I called him the anti-Rambo. We ate dog together. He drank beer with ice. His real name was Baab. He was the first mate of the ferry across the Molucca Straits.

“Pagi ke Manado.” Baab reserved a sleeping berth of the ferry. It was in his cabin. The price of this luxury was $3. I bought beer for everyone. A half-dollar for a big bottle of Bintang.

“You not same mistah.” Baab didn’t like the Dutch, but he hated the Javanese. Jakarta was far away like Amsterdam. Distances still mattered on Ternate. His two wives lived on opposite sides of the island.

“You eat dog. Dog make strong. Same bull.”

“I like dog.”

“You have wife?”

I was tired of saying no and pulled out a photo of an old girlfriend. She had been the love of my life in 1989. Baab held her photo to the light with his one hand.

“Makali Indah.”

She had been too beautiful for words. Baab thought that I was human. We drank until midnight and I walked back to the hotel guided by fireflies. Magic was in the air accompanied by the drift of cloves. Sleep was a maze of dreams centered on me and my children. I woke thinking of diapers. The manager knocked on the door.

“I have phone to America.”

I ran to the desk. It was my mother. She had bad news.

“Uncle Dave is dead.”

“Dead.” The cigarettes had killed him.

Dave would have loved to hear about this trip. This sea had been part of his youth. Now a youth gone forever.

I expressed my condolences and told my mother that I was fine. I said nothing about tomorrow’s ferry. The newspapers in the USA frequently published reports of their sinking.

“130 dead in the Java Sea.”

Better she think I was flying to Bali. Planes made more sense to her western mind. Her mother had crossed the Atlantic in a cattle ship. Boats were bad luck to Nana. Her daughter thought the same.

I spent the day writing. 2/3s through my novel about pornography in North Hollywood. My ex-girlfriend’s character was a virgin. I never fantasized her a whore. I listened to the BBC. The outcome of the war was written by the West. The Iraqis were in retreat.

I gave gifts to the hotel staff. Baseball cap to the manager. Postcards to the waitress staff. A tee-shirt to the fat motorcycle driver. He drove me to the harbor. The ferry was warming up its engine. Baab was hovering over the motor. He was the engineer. Our cabin was next to the wheelhouse. The room smelled of oil and unwashed sheets. It was better than the sleeping quarters below deck.

His friends shouted from the pier.

“Rambo, Rambo.”

Saddam had ceased to be their # 1.

“Tidak suka Rambo.” Baab grasped the railing with one hand, as the ferry pulled away from the port. The sea was calm and the sky was clear. The volcanoes of Ternate and Tidore dominated the ocean. The 3rd-class passengers sought a comfortable position on the deck.

“I like Rocky.” Baab excused himself. He had duties to attend to.

I walked forward to the prow. The ferry was cutting a swift vee through the waves. The wind was from the east. I pulled off my baseball cap. Uncle Dave had steamed through these waters. His ship had been a battleship. Mine was a dilapitated ferry. Joseph Conrad was writing prose in my head.

The captain studied the clouds in the sky. He shouted orders to the crew. They battened down the cargo. The volcanoes were shrunk behind us and the waves grew much larger. Several passengers were getting sick. The sun dropped in the furrows of the western sea. The sky turned black red. Baab stood by my side.

“Bad sea tonight,” he said these words in English and explained, “I work ships everywhere. Europe. America. Asia. All my life. I lose my arm in a storm. Most men stop the sea after accident. But I love the sea. She is my wife. My real wife. You must think much about your wife.”

“All the time.” My ex- had no idea where I was. We hadn’t spoken in two years. What I told Baab was no lie.

“Good.” He looked over his shoulder at the other passengers. “Seasick. It like plague. Spread fast. Only two cures for seasick.”

“What?” I was feeling queasy. My grandmother must have felt the same. Uncle dave and Aunt bert too.

“Land and death.”

The ferry buried its bow in a keel-shaking wave. Behind us was a horizon of storm. Ahead lay its twin.

“I hope land come first.”

“Land come first.” Baab patted my shoulder. A week ago he had hated me. We were now friends. ROCKY was his favorite movie. His first wife’s name was Bellah. # 2 was Amina.

“Good.” I fought off seasickness. Baab was pleased that I wasn’t like the other passengers. He was a man of sea. We were people of the world. A war thousands of miles away was unimportant. The sea was all that mattered and more important than the sea was land.

Sulawesi couldn’t come soon enough.

Death was for someone else like my Uncle Dave and he was not looking for me to join him for a long time.

Until then I was at peace.

Tidak apa apa.

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