Crashing into a strange planet

19 October, Ujir
I’ve been in Ujir for three days now; already it seems like a week or a month. The village hasn’t changed much since I was last here, but staying here makes it a very different experience. I finally got something of the sense of isolation that so many people had told me about feeling in Aru. To my advisor Peter this happened when the plane that had dropped him in Dobo took off from the airport, and he was left standing alone by the airstrip. For me it was arriving at the house where Emilie and I would be staying.

It’s the same house that Emilie and Antoinette had rented last year, one of the village’s most luxurious, and for a month we paid about $85. It belongs to the mother of Koko, a merchant who lives in Dobo. She, like Koko, isn’t around much, so the house had been vacant for about a year. It needed attention. There was sinister black dust spread over the floor, along with a few rat droppings. The rat had also attacked some of the bedding (but I’m not complaining—local tradition says that you should never speak ill of a rat, lest it take offense and do more damage to your house). The well had filled with dirty water. When we got there, two young men were trying to clear it. A constant stream of biting ants bisected the path from the back door to the well. The kamar mandi was full of cobwebs and fungus. There were strange wasps’ nests built in the corners of the room where I’d be sleeping, and even one actual wasp, that looked like two American wasps tied together in tandem, flying around. Finally, since the house had been vacant for so long, the village children had been using its verandah as a playground. Our arrival fascinated them to no end, and they stared through the windows at us as we moved our gear in from the boat, and continued to stare at us for the rest of the day as we cleaned the house.

This was the middle of an already long day. We woke up early in Dobo and hauled our gear into an angkot (a cross between a bus and a van), rushing to meet the boat that was supposed to be leaving at any minute. We had four five-gallon jugs of fuel, two huge waterproof duffels, two waterproof cases with recording equipment (each case had an empty jug tied to it as a flotation device), a waterproof bag with more electronics, two backpacks, and eight cardboard boxes filled with food, books, photos, and Emilie’s research materials.

When we got to the harbor, our situation was approaching amburadul, a Bahasa Betawi word that means “really, really chaotic.” Emilie was still trying to find the key to Koko’s mother’s house, and would have to look for it elsewhere in Dobo. The boat would meet her at the market dock. We unloaded the angkot and some teenagers began carrying things to the boat. The surest opportunities for total panic on a trip like this are when your luggage is stretched out beyond your field of vision in a train of porters whom you just met. “Oh Jesus, where is my backpack—the one with my passport and cash in it? Should I follow them or guard the rest of the stuff here?” Once I got to the boat, though, everything seemed to be there, and Emilie left on her hunt for the key. After a short while we pushed out past Dobo’s waterfront, and the boat’s diesel engine struck up a jazzy rhythm, shaking the whole thing. The horizon would vibrate slightly for the whole passage. We picked up Emilie at the market dock, near a lumber shed filled with boards from Ujir and elsewhere, and waited for one last passenger. We were finally on our way; the last leg of the voyage. It had taken ten days to get to this point. As we chugged out of Dobo’s harbor, I was in high spirits. “This is what it’s all about,” I thought. “This makes it worth all the paperwork and drudgery.”

Our vessel was very typical for Aru: a wooden motor kapal about thirty feet long. These are sleek, slender, low-slung craft. The pilothouse (the main purpose of which is to protect the engine) is set aft of center, an open cargo hold forward of that, and a forward deck that begins where the bows curve inward. In the stern there’s also an open area that provides access to the pilothouse. They are very proud-looking little boats, with a graceful sheer line that is functional and aesthetic, as it follows the grain of the planks as they’re bent to form the hull; a shapely hull is also a strong one. They have an absolute minimum of machinery; most still have tillers for steering rather than wheels. With their prominent open holds, they’re built for cargo first; on its return from Ujir, this boat usually carries lumber. This passage was very calm, so I couldn’t observe the perahu’s sea-keeping abilities. Being so narrow of beam, and shallow of draft, I imagine they wouldn’t handle heavy seas well, but then, thinking back to my last passage to Ujir, a smaller speedboat with about the same proportions performed admirably (perhaps because it had an expert at the tiller).

Regardless of how tough these kapals are, though, I have fallen in love with them. I’ve added another project to my list of things to do if I have a midlife crisis—commission a perahu from the best Aruese shipwright and have it (no, her!) brought back on a ship to Port Townsend, where I can install an engine that’s cleaner and more efficient than usual for Aru. A few amenities will complete the modification: a small galley, a berth, and the safety equipment to make her legal for cruising the Inside Passage. The cargo hold can carry a small inflatable dinghy and a luxurious setup for camping on shore. The little workhorse from the opposite corner of the Pacific would stand out in pleasant contrast to the white fiberglass “Clorox bottles” filling up every harbor in the San Juans. I will call her the Amburadul.

These were my thoughts as we crossed the strait between Pulau Wokam and Pulau Ujir, sitting on the forward deck. Emilie sat behind the chain locker, which was open, and gave her a place to stretch her legs. Sometimes one of the crew would also come forward to direct the helmsman though patches of shallow coral. There was an old man, who I heard was sick, crouching in the aft part of the open hold and sheltering under an empty rice bag. On the roof of the pilothouse sat the wife of the kepala desa of Ujir and two of her friends. There were more people packed into the pilothouse, and on the small after deck.

The wind picked up as we crossed the strait, but soon we were in the lee of Pulau Ujir. I could see the dome of the new mosque poking above the coconut palms. Before long we were at the dock, unloading the boat. Here Emilie discovered that four of her eight booxes couldn’t be accounted for. This was a serious problem, because one of the boxes had contained hundreds of photos she was planning to use in her interviews. Some of the photos were also gifts. Much of her interview paperwork was also in the missing boxes. It was a small disaster, but we had a lot more to do before we could worry about what had happened to the boxes.

We lugged the first batch of gear to our new home, and I got my first idea of how much work it would take to make the place livable. From the dock to the house was not far, but it was a parade down Ujir’s main street, and right in front of the mosque, so everyone got a chance to stare at us and shout “hello mistér!” The five-gallon fuel jugs were the hardest to carry; they didn’t have good handles, and in fact there was no way to carry them comfortably… but the less that I write about that the better. Likewise with the scrubbing and dishwashing and sweeping that followed. The stream of ants violently attacked my feet as I was trying to sweep them away. Emilie poured kerosene on them, which the locals said was the best way to get rid of them. Consequently the whole house reeked of kerosene for the rest of the day. Everything about this seemed bad.

As all this was happening, we had a constant audience of local youngsters gazing through the windows, yet no one really helped with anything. That is not the custom here. I felt hostage to a thousand impractical decisions other people had made.
I hadn’t eaten anything yet, and so I retreated into my room (a room with shutters on the windows, Alhamdulillah!) and scarfed down a bunch of chocolate biscuits. Emilie was washing dishes outside, and as she knew the village better, she seemed to have less trouble adjusting to it. Gradually we had gained the upper hand over the filth that had permeated the house. Then I would need to cook dinner (potatoes from Dobo, which are a luxury, and some foul local eggs that I cooked against my better judgment). Cats yowled nearby, and babies screamed. Our neighbors were close enough that I could hear every conversation.

The box problem was starting to sink in for Emilie, and for my part I had left all my reading material and my iPod charger in Dobo. I had mentally prepared myself for the lack of communications with the outside world, the absence of beer, and even for the difficulty of getting food and clean water, but at that moment I realized that I had no escape whatsoever from the monotony of village life. We seemed marooned on this island, lacking in most of the things that people in the developed world take for granted, and also constantly stared at through the windows by a crowd of children (privacy, after all, is also taken for granted in America, or at least it was until recently). From the high point of the trip so far, I had hit the deck in spectacular fashion. My brain had turned into a disgusting liquid, much like the eggs earlier, and all I could do was sigh sharply again and again, but then Nature came to my rescue, and I slept.

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