The stretch of sea between Java and Sulawesi is quite big, and in the rainy season, wild enough. The scheduled departure day for my ferry from Surabaya to Makassar came and went, and still the boat didn’t show up. The seas, apparently, had been rough.
Day after day, my friend Kerry would telephone the ferry company and ask when the boat might come, and when we should call back in order to be sure not to miss it. Sometimes they said to check back that afternoon; other times, tomorrow. I was so glad of a friend who could have these uncertain conversations in Indonesian on my behalf, for otherwise I would surely have been camped on the docks for days.
Instead, I had the grand tour of Surabaya. Kerry and Novi were the kind of hosts you can only dream of: they find out what you like (in my, case food and just hanging out) and then give you a guided tour of the city’s best. We went from delicacy to delicacy: from pork wrapped in sticky rice in front of the Buddhist temple all the way through to creamy durian icecream concoctions.
I tagged along when they met up with their friends at at cafes and food fairs, and I could barely contain my glee at getting my hands on a cold Saturday night beer while the kids played riotously in the cafe behind us.
Good people, good times; and there is nothing nicer than being instantly accepted into a group of friends when you’ve been a stranger on the road for so long.
Meanwhile, I was instantly and surprisingly enamoured with Kerry and Novi’s two girls. There have never really been small children in my life, and those I’ve known have mostly terrified me. But Charlene and San-san are cut from a different mold. Charlene is a perfectly rational young person, with an enquiring mind and a sharp intellect. She asks interesting questions – and listens to the answers, which puts her ahead of a lot of adults I know. I think she’s awesome. San-san is the baby sister, and she is quieter, and she’s so sweet. Such a sweetheart. Sometimes she would come up to my room to just see what I was doing. I would sit and write, and a little face would appear at the door behind me, and sidle quietly and curiously into the room.
Every time they called me Aunty Grace my heart melted just a little bit. It’s a strange feeling, you know; I’ve been homeless and hopeless and unaccountable to anyone for a long time, so the very notion that someone might look up to you is surprising and warming and disconcerting all at once. I felt so privileged to share just a little corner of this wonderful family’s life.
But eventually, the ferry did come. So Novi and Kerry made sure that I was loaded with snacks and essential supplies – freshly boiled eggs with a twist of salt; crisps and nuts; and Indonesian’s favourite herbal medicine to ward off any sicknesses on the trip. Completely spoilt: the luckiest mototraveler the archipelago. And then it was time to say goodbye.
Kerry grabbed the z800, and we headed for the docks on another hot Surabaya afternoon.
Traffic was light and we stopped for es kelapa muda on the way – just young coconut water and coconut flesh sweetened with condensed milk, served with icecubes from a push cart beside the road.
As I sat in the gutter with a cold drink, a good friend, two motorbikes and the old man from the es kelapa cart, I thought to myself: yes, this is it. This is as good as it gets. Simple happiness. Smiles. Motorbikes. The unknown ahead.
This is it.
* * *
When we got to the docks, the ferry was still unloading. We went and waited in the shade by the gates. There was already one motorbike and one person waiting there to board. He told us that he’d been there for a couple of days – when the boat was late, he hadn’t known when to come back. So he’d just waited. And waited.
He had a good nature, a cheery smile; it was all good. He also had a 150cc motorbike that he’d modified, Indonesia-style, to look as much like a superbike as possible. Axel too skinny for wide tyres? No problem!
Even the fuel tank was covered by a larger, cosmetic covering designed to make it look bigger and fiercer. They call this a ‘kondom tangki’, i.e. a tank condom.
I loved the ingenuity and the joy in it. Don’t yet have the bike of your dreams? No worries!
What a legend.
Kerry and I whiled away the hours on the dock while the ship unloaded. There was a policeman there who said he’d worked in West Papua for twenty years, and had only just returned home to Java to take things more slowly again. He asked abouy my travels; made the usual disbelieving noises. He and Kerry chatted about West Papua. The policeman said there were many bad people and pirates there; he looked at me and laughed and said, “oh yes, they would definitely rape you”. Lovely.
Eventually we were allowed into the boarding zone, and there was more waiting. Another port security officer sidled up the Kerry and made enquiries about my documents, which Kerry assured him were all in order. He sidled away again. It was possibly the lamest attempt at a bribe that I have ever encountered. I mean, hey, if you want to extort me, you have to at least look me in the eye.
Eventually, after the trucks and cars and goods were loaded, I saddled up Beastie and rode her into the hold. I strapped her down and made my stuff as inconvenient as possible to extract from my panniers. I can’t lock my gear, and I wasn’t going to spend two nights and a day in the vehicle hold, so sometimes you’ve just got to trust that it’ll all be fine.
I ran down the gang plank and said goodbye to Kerry; then ran back up the gangplank and onto the ship. I was on my own again, and bound for Sulawesi.