I woke up early the next morning in Kupang. I had things to do, and I wanted to be at the ferry port early. My host at the hostel had advised me that the boat went at 1pm, but I had a funny feeling about it. I also knew that if I missed this boat, I’d need to wait a couple of days.
My morning errands were partially successful. Buy Indonesian sim card and ridiculously cheap data package – check. The guy at the convenience store helped me set up and register the sim, and was generally a pleasant human being, even though it was 7am. What more could you ask of humanity?
My next errand was wildly less successful. None of the cash machines in the immediate area would take my card. I tried four different brands, all of them purporting to take Mastercard, but none of them did. Outside of central Dili, I’d found no cash machine in Timor that would take Mastercard, but I’d had high expectations of the great city of Kupang. Nevermind. I still had enough cash to buy food and get on a boat.
Yes, that’s next on my list, buy more food. Despite consuming two chicken dinners the previous evening, I was still starving. I bought three meals – one for second breakfast, and two take on the boat. It was a 15 hour boat ride and although I’d never set foot on an Indonesian ferry before, I was willing to bet that taking my own picnic was going to be a smart move. Here I learnt the Indonesian word for ‘take-away’ – bungkus, don’t forget it – and happily watched the woman ladeling delicious vegetables and sauces into folded palm leaves and waxed paper.
I tied the little bag of lunchtime happiness to the strap of my pannier and headed for the port.
Well, not quite. First, the owner of the hostel wanted to take a photo of me, of my bike, for his website. No worries, I said. It was crazy hot already and I was sweating hard while strapped down my gear on my bike. My hair was tied back off my sweaty face. I momentarily stopped what I was doing and smiled for the camera.
‘Put your hair down, it looks better,’ he ordered.
I beg your pardon?
‘No,’ I said. ‘I’m not here to look pretty for you.’ I don’t want my hair in my face while I’d trying to strap down my gear, and now that you mention it, I have better things to do than take orders about how I should make myself prettier for a sleazy, rude old man.
So he took a photo of me, of my bike. My hair was tied back. Fine.
Later, I momentarily pulled my hair out of the ponytail to put on my helmet. He was watching me. He rushed up with his camera and snapped a couple of photos before I could put the helmet on my head.
‘Aha!’ He crowed. ‘That’s much better!’ He seemed to think he was very clever.
I was livid. Fuck OFF. Sure, I might like to look pretty in photos sometimes, but I like to do that on my own terms; not when I’m being actively insulted and objectified and I’ve got a damn ferry to catch. I made him delete the photos.
* * *
I got to the ferry port at about half past nine, which was a good thing: the boat was leaving just after eleven. So much for 1pm; I was glad I’d been early.
I was initially lost and bewildered in the unsignposted queues of the port area, but I’d barely pulled to a stop when some friendly locals approached to ask if they could help. I was immensely grateful, and Nicholas became my guide to getting to the fine art of the Indonesian roro ferry. From Flores, Nicolas has a full head of dreadlocks and is rocking the rasta vibe that I was to find alive and well across the island.
He’d just come down to the port to see off a few friends who were taking the ferry, but security were as friendly as could be; they happily let him board the ship so that he could show me around and make sure that I was comfortably settled. His friends undertook to watch out for me and my stuff during the voyage; they didn’t speak any English so we couldn’t say very much to each other, but I appreciated their passive guardianship.
This is Naris, our super friendly port police who hung out with us while we waited to board. Top bloke.
(I just love the extravagant gold bling on Indonesian uniforms. Sure, your job might be boring, but why not look like Ghaddafi while you do it.)
Soon enough Beastie and I were sailing for Larantuka.
The skies were clear, the seas calm. Absolutely nothing in the hold was strapped down, but I went downstairs anyway and used my old BMW tie down straps to anchor Beastie to the iron loops in the deck. Then I went back up to the top deck; if I hung over the edge, I could check on Beastie at any time, and that made me happy. There was a nice breeze up here too.
For some mystifying reason, most of the passengers had flocked to a dark, smoke-filled mid-deck lounge and an equally dark, smoke filled mid-deck bunk room, for the use of which I believe you were supposed to pay extra. Every seat was taken, every bit of floor had a plastic mat and a picnicking family on it, slowly suffocating in passive smoke. My eyes watered when I ventured inside to find out what the attraction was, but I couldn’t see that there was any.
I went back to the top deck. There weren’t many people up here. Plenty of space if you wanted to sit at one of the tables. Plenty of deck space if you wanted to spread out.
Kupang disappeared from view and we sailed past the Alor Islands. Someone had told me that the Alors were beautiful, but then they also told me about disembarking the local ferry in waist deep water, carrying their postie bikes on their heads. I didn’t think that would go so well for Beastie and I.
I was the only foreigner on the boat and the people on deck were curious about me. I talked to a couple of lovely families, and for the first time really started to work on my Indonesian. My school language studies were literally decades ago and long forgotten, but now I had to start slowly reconstructing my language skills in earnest – otherwise I wouldn’t be able to talk to anyone. My traveling companions were endlessly patient as I tried to describe to what I was doing, where I’d been, where I was going. From context and hand signals and a smattering of English, they managed to divine the words I was looking for, and I began to mentally store those words away for later usage.
One of my new friends was a hijabi lady with a beautiful smile. She was pregnant, and said that she liked my white skin and that she hoped that her baby would look like me. I was surprised and embarrassed. I didn’t know enough Indonesian to tell her that, by white person standards, I’m really not that good looking; but I did tell her that I thought she was beautiful.
It was a strange bookend to a day that had started with the white hostel owner suggesting that I was inadequately attractive with my hair tied back; and now here I was swapping views about beauty and skin colour with a gorgeous hijabi Indonesian woman who thinks that I am pretty just because I am white. Both things make me uncomfortable. In my own mind, I am just a sweaty human being who likes to ride her motorbike; on the days when I look particularly awful by late afternoon, it’s usually because I’ve been riding dusty road or crazy traffic, and I kind of like it. Then again, maybe that’s just me trying to pick the battles I think I can win. This world we live in does care about the colour of my skin, and whether I’m pretty, even if I tell myself that I don’t; and it will judge and treat me accordingly.
And, it will cut both ways.
* * *
The sun sank below the horizon in a flood of red. I lay down in a clean corner of the deck with my head on my jacket, and slept. I could feel the gentle throb of the diesel engines through the decking plate, and it lulled me back to sleep when I woke once, to silence and a bright moon.