The Rift

12 November, Dobo

I’m starting this in the waiting room of the Dobo airport, as I begin the second leg of my long journey back to the States. The Dobo airport easily makes my list of top 5 airports in the world, because there is an absolute minimum of fuss and security theater. Actually, there’s a minimum of almost everything. It’s a small shack with a big air conditioner, and x-ray machines and metal detectors that probably haven’t been turned on in over a decade. They wheel the baggage out to the planes on wooden handcarts with bicycle wheels.

Now I’ll try to tell the stories that accumulated since my last blog post. Maybe I should work my way backward in time, and start with the voyage from Ujir to Dobo. It turned out that I had to leave Ujir suddenly. As Emilie and I began asking around about transport to Dobo on the 8th, we learned that most of the boat traffic between Ujir and Dobo would be interrupted for a couple days due to a sunatan ceremony that was to take place on Monday the 10th. We couldn’t find a boat that was definitely leaving before then, and after would leave little margin in case something went wrong. Finally, late on the evening of the 9th, I learned that if I wanted to leave Ujir with a comfortable amount of time before my flight, I had only one option. A newly built boat, which I’d helped launch a few days earlier, was leaving for Dobo with a cargo of lumber that night around 11:00. They were leaving late to meet the high tide in Dobo, so they could reach the dock fully loaded.

This was not ideal. I had no time to say goodbye to most of the friends I’d made in Ujir, nor to collect their contact information and make gifts to them. Emilie rushed to edit some interview footage, which I would take to Gamar, our translator and transcriber in Dobo. A few friends who had heard I was leaving stopped by, and I had long conversations with them as I tried to pack my things. Kind gestures here have a way of happening at inconvenient times in Ujir, and I felt bad that I couldn’t give my friends more attention. I left gifts for Emilie to pass on to some of my friends, and then we walked to the beach, at about 9:30. After a quick goodbye to Emilie, my friend Guntur, the captain of the other regular boat to travel between Ujir and Dobo, rowed me out to the new boat in a sampan.

Although I must save the story of how this new boat was built and launched for later, I should say a few things about her. Her name is Korakora Wallay,* “the war canoe of the Wallay clan.” Other boats have had this name, perhaps since before European contact, but this was the first boat in a while to carry it. The imam of Ujir commissioned her, and somebody involved in the process had the idea to make her a kapal pesawat: an “airplane-boat.” This meant that her cabin, rather than being boxy as they usually are, was streamlined like the nose of a jumbo jet. The pilothouse also rose from the cabin in a sweeping, dramatic way. Apart from these novel features, she follows the pattern of Aru trade boats that I mentioned earlier. She’s made of local wood, about thirty feet long and ten feet wide, and has a 300-horsepower diesel engine under the cabin’s floorboards. Her bottom had been painted prior to launching, but the upper portions were waiting for a special kind of white paint from Dobo, so these parts looked very much like one would expect for an airplane built out of wood. She was a jungle spaceship; a fantastic vessel, and very suitable to take me on the first leg of my long trip home.

As we pulled up to the korakora, I found my friends Nasir and Agung and a few others relaxing on the quarter deck, singing songs and playing a guitar. I heaved my bags aboard, bid Guntur farewell, and peeked inside the cabin. They had outfitted it with a kerosene stove, a bucket of water, and a kerosene lamp. It didn’t have much ventilation, but otherwise the interior was comfortable. The dome of the cabin’s roof was the inside of an island space capsule. I had barely enough room to sit up in the cabin, and anyway, everyone else was outside, so I returned there. There was a crew of about six, including one of the shipwrights.

For an hour or so we sang songs; the only one it appeared we all knew was Bob Marley’s Rivers of Babylon—and none of us knew all the words to that one. Nasir was quick with the guitar, and he worked out popular dangdut songs on the fly from memory. They asked me to sing American songs, but I could only think of old spirituals and folk songs that defeated Nasir’s improvisation skills. It was actually shocking; I couldn’t think of a popular American song that I knew entirely. Nasir could reproduce some English lyrics accurately, but I didn’t recognize any of the songs. One American pop-country song has become very popular in Indonesia, especially as an accelerated and high-pitched psychedelic remix that reminds me of classic Ween; Nasir played a version with half-mumbled words. I knew from hearing the song in Dobo that the English lyrics were very Indonesian in sentiment—it was a song about a country boy living in the city and wanting to return to the village. We passed the time until the tide was high enough to leave, and then the crew poled the boat out and weighed anchor. I sat on the starboard quarter-deck, on top of a pile of lumber.

This was where the fantasy about the jungle space ship got weird. As the crew started it, the engine sent thick clouds of hot grey smoke and sparks into the cabin. To me this seemed like a serious problem, but the crew was relaxed. The korakora shuddered with the engine’s force, and the smoke continued. The crew opened some floorboards inside the cabin and poked at the engine, but didn’t act very concerned. I stood on the gunwale with my head above the roof of the pilothouse to get some fresh air, and noticed something else troubling. The korakora carried a heavy load, and athwartships she seemed awfully low in the water—even down by the bows. Which would cause disaster first: the engine exploding, or the boat foundering?

Every time I make this passage I think about whether I could swim ashore. In most places this would be difficult but possible. This particular night, the coastline seemed awfully distant. I’d be sad to lose all the notes and data I’d collected in Ujir. Would I be able to save my passport and money? I should have separated them from my luggage, I thought to myself. I waited for something dramatic to happen, but the korakora kept driving forward into a perfectly calm sea. The crew tinkered with the engine; they didn’t seem to mind staying in the cabin, which was still thick with smoke. One of them threw some oily bilge water overboard, but they showed no alarm.

Eventually I figured that the exhaust pipe just hadn’t been installed yet. The smoke filling the cabin was the usual oily stuff that a diesel engine throws off when it starts, and it became less thick over time, though I could still barely stand near the door, and kept my head above the pilothouse. Two or three of the crew lay down in the cabin; I expected them to die of carbon monoxide poisoning before we got to Dobo. The Nazis experimented with diesel exhaust as a tool for mass murder, after all. Nobody else seemed concerned; if you’re going to build an airplane-war canoe-spaceship out of wood, with only what’s at hand on a remote tropical island, you have to expect that it’ll be a bit rough around the edges at first.

I focused on the water in front of us, which was glassy smooth. The moon was three quarters full, and though some mist made the coastlines of Ujir and Wokam seem almost not there, the sky above was clear. To the south, directly ahead, I could see two distant lights, which marked the entrance to Dobo harbor. Off the starboard quarter, very faint lights showed the positions of Bugis fishing boats looking for prawns. I still had old spirituals and folk songs in my head, and sang Lonesome Valley and Georgie to myself under the noise of the engine. Later it occurred to me that a Ween song fit this situation too nicely.

I’m the commander of time in my vessel of God
I go through the rift to the Palace of Vice…

Dobo is truly the Palace of Vice, at least for Aru. As we closed with it the swells grew, but the korakora handled them well. The lights on the horizon multiplied, and after a couple hours Dobo appeared a shimmering line. For the Aruese who grow up in the more distant villages, seeing Dobo spread out before them for the first time must be a strange, almost terrifying experience. There were hundreds of lighted boats in the harbor. Brightly colored LED lights have become popular here recently, so the harbor was lit up like a video arcade. As we neared the dock, the engine turned itself off without being asked. We would disembark the lumber next to a bright white fishing boat, a longliner by the looks of it, that was brilliantly illuminated with CFL bulbs. The crew who had napped in the cabin miraculously were all still alive, a testament to their remarkable tolerance for toxic fumes, of which, it is true, there are all sorts in Indonesia. People can adapt to anything. By this time it was past three in the morning. Dobo was as quiet as I’ve ever seen it. I wondered how I was going to get to my house, in the outskirts of town. I was also desperately tired.

But first, the lumber had to be offloaded, something the crew did piece by piece, then poling the boat around to offload the wood at the stern. Once this was over I was about to get off, when Nasir started the engine again and we putted out into the harbor. “We’ll sleep on the water—all the inns are closed now anyway,” someone said. It was true that even if I got off, I would have a hard time finding a ride to the house.

I had a terrifying, paranoid moment when I wondered if we were just going to head back to Ujir, but sure enough we anchored out in the harbor. I set my bag up as a pillow under the roof of the pilothouse, and bent myself into an almost comfortable position there. My sleep was fitful—even out in the harbor there were mosquitoes, and one of the crew was playing a movie that sounded like it involved someone being tortured on his smartphone. It occurred to me then as I drifted in and out of sleep that I hadn’t experienced one moment of quiet since I left my hotel in Jakarta. There is always some kind of sound in this part of Indonesia, whether it’s people or waves or bugs or music. I half-slept for a couple hours and then found that Agung was boiling coffee on the stove. Coffee here is three parts sugar to one part coffee, so it was more like coffee syrup, boiled cowboy-style in a big pot. He offered me a cup, and a cake of dried sago starch to dip in it. These sago cakes are literally inedible unless you dip them in something; the coffee did the trick.

We had been towing a little speedboat behind us, and on this Nasir gave me a ride to shore. It seemed like an abrupt ending. All of a sudden, village life was gone, and I was back to being something like an ordinary tourist. So, now you have the beginning and the end of my stay in Ujir. The middle will come next, now that I have time to write again.

*That is the boat’s Indonesian name, but I didn’t learn her name in Bahasa Ujir. It’s probably different, but with the same meaning.

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