“Whales on the stern,” Skipper announced a little after 7 in the morning.
I was coming off the 4-6 am shift and had just let out the fishing line to troll when they were sighted off our stern. We were being overtaken (which isn’t very hard when you’re only doing 2 knots) along all sides of the boat by what appeared to be large logs in the shape of Short-finned Pilot Whales, their spouts shooting a jet of water just over a meter in height.
Our own private cetacean escort into the island of Alor.
It was an uplifting sight following the previous rough night. We had sailed for the majority of the day parallel to West Timor where the plan was to call into two more ports, the first in Wini, where we arrived just after dark.
“There’s a mound where all the boats are anchored,” explained one boat over the VHF. “They’re in 30 feet of water. All around its pretty deep at a hundred feet.”
Skipper had never anchored in anything beyond 40 feet. This was going to be a challenge, especially in the dark. As we approached, we delayed dinner to attempt anchor.
“Fuck! Motherfucker!” we heard from the bow.
“I need a rag,” Baz called out.
I jumped up with a couple of clean white rags and saw that Skipper had managed to slice the bottom of his big toe. Blood was everywhere but it didn’t stop him dropping the anchor. As the rope rushed out we all watched and waited, hoping it would catch on the sandy bottom.
We began to drift, waiting to see if we were hooked. I looked towards the back and saw that we were about to hit another boat on our stern.
“Skipper!” I called out to him. He ran back to the cockpit and steered us out of the way.
Baz, Omar and I pulled up the heavy anchor while Skipper navigated the boat back into shallower waters. “Drop the anchor!” he called out at about 70 feet.
I let it go, the rope rushing in after it. We waited, tense with hope but alas, we were drifting again.
“We’ll have dinner, raise the anchor and have a pow-wow about our options,” suggested Skipper.
Dinner was a delicious stir-fried pasta a la’ Olivia and Orla. After we had finished, us boys headed up to the bow and heaved and hoed, raising the 50-pound hunk of metal from a hundred feet of water. I was spent, feeling as though I had just raised the Titanic from its murky depths.
“Right,” began Skipper, “since we can’t anchor here, I see no other option than to sail all night to Alor.”
We all agreed and ship-shaped the boat for departure. The wind was in our favour and we sailed at 7 knots into the sunrise of the following morning when the wind dropped and we were received by the Pilot whales.
At the entrance to the channel that lead to Kalabahi, the port town of Alor, dolphins disappeared as quickly as they had appeared. We sailed up the channel, greeted on either side by luscious jungle mountains, greener than moss, rising about 600-800 meters above the water.
Baz and I were jumping ship in Alor and making our own way across Indonesia to Singapore for a wedding being held in early September. With our luggage packed, we made anchorage next to two other sail boats in a small bay. This time, we hooked the anchor at just under 90 feet on the first drop.
I gathered my life’s possessions: a surfboard, Ol’ Red, a 75-litre backpack and a smaller day pack and piled it into Skipper’s tiny dinghy, almost sinking it from the weight of it all. We ferried the 300 meters to shore where I was greeted by the smiling faces of local children. Finding a dry mound, surrounded by rubbish, I placed my gear on it, whipped my guitar out and within seconds I was surrounded by 15 kids.
“Any requests?” I asked.
“Hip hop!” came the reply. “We like Eminem, Pitbull.”
Uh-huh. “You guys know Led Zeppelin?”
They shook their heads and gathered around for a photo, screaming and laughing while the rest of the crew made their way across in 3 trips. We said our ‘goodbyes’ to Skipper and headed up to the road. Baz carried my guitar while I drowned under the weight of my gear with the 75-litre pack on my back, my day pack on my front and the surfboard hanging from my neck.
I lost 3 liters of fluids by the time we arrived into Kalabahi, saying, “Tidak, Terima Kasih,” to all the taxis that tried to seduce us for a ride (why we said, ‘No, thank you’, we have no idea). We reached the mini stadium in the center of town where we contacted El, the host I had found on couchsurfers. While waiting, some locals had stopped on their bikes and watched us, several taking photos of us.
We were the new celebrities on the island.
Food stalls were being set up beside us as a young woman stopped to chat, practicing her English.
“Halo,” another man showed up. “I am El.” Baz and I hugged the self-proclaimed King of Alor. We escorted our friends to Hotel Pelangi, another 700-meter hike up the road.
El had disappeared for almost an hour and a half while we hung around the hotel. Baz and I thought that we had scared him off until Baz received a text from him.
‘I go home to clean up. Very messy.’
When he returned he stopped a taxi for us as we bid our friends ‘see ya later’. We paid a dollar each to get us and our gear to his house a few K’s up the road, arriving at a cement building.
Outside (and something that was a common sight in the front yards of homes in Indonesia) was a double grave that had the image of Jesus on it. The house itself was bare of any furniture. It had four walls and a concrete floor. There were dusty suburbs of Indiana Jones-styled cobwebs in the crossbeams of the corrugated iron ceiling, the residents nowhere to be seen.
“This is for you,” said El as he presented us with handmade scarves. In return, we gifted him with a Sail Komodo shirt, a Bintang hat for his mohawked brother, Perfect (who spoke very little English) and sailing flags from the rally. I had brought over an Aussie Outback hat that I had forgotten on Tropicbird and was hoping to retrieve in the next few days to give to El.
“You have MPS?” El asked.
“What’s MPS?” Bazza looked at me as I shrugged.
“MPS – Mosquito Protection System,” El grinned as we cracked up.
“Brilliant,” we agreed, hi-fiving. He showed us the outdoor toilet, a squat hole in the open air with the shower by a 10-meter deep well.
“Timmy,” I called down.
El drew up fresh water and, using a ladle we showered under the night sky.
El’s brother, Perfect, arrived with a scooter and we headed out to find a place to eat. I rode with El while Bazza almost shat himself riding with Perfect.
In the islands we had come across, I had noticed that road rules were as real as Santa Claus. Most riders and drivers turned into the streets without even looking for oncoming traffic. And most of them headed into traffic in the opposite lane until they could get across to the right lane.
It was a free for all and Baz experienced riding with a rider who didn’t hesitate to answer his mobile phone or text while riding, showing off by riding without hands on the handle bar, speeding up to El and riding tight, almost taking my leg off. I was grateful that El was tamer on the two wheels. After all, he did have aspirations to become Mayor of Alor in the next decade.
The streets were jammed with bikes, everyone getting somewhere, smiling and waving at us, calling out, “Mister! Mister!”
We stopped at a small shack opposite a mosque that was blasting out what sounded like an island of children praying over the loudspeakers. Sitting inside, we ordered Bakso Basa, a soup of beef meatballs with hard-boiled egg, egg and rice noodles and yam leaves. I copied El in pouring tomato sauce, soy sauce and a spicy mixture called ‘lombo’ that had my sinuses cleared for the evening. We each had 2 rounds of soup and bought two servings for El’s neighbour who had lent us his scooter.
Baz, spending the night with a frog on his face that kept the mozzis off us, woke up around 7 AM and I followed suit. Perfect came by and took us to his parent’s house up the road for coffee. We chatted with his sister, Anje, who’s English was at conversation level.
“We are Christian,” she said. “If you don’t have religion in Indonesia, you get arrested.”
Bazza and I stared at each other, being the non-believers that we were.
“What religion are you?” she asked.
After ‘umming’ and ‘ah-ing’ I said, “We believe in Karma, in positive energy. Do good things and good things will happen to you.”
“So you don’t believe in God?” She looked at us shell-shocked.
“No,” answered Baz as her eyes widened even further.
“That is sad,” she said as we tried to explain that we were fine with our decision, each too their own and so forth.
“Just don’t tell anyone,” said Bazza. “We don’t want to get arrested.”
She laughed and we changed the subject to learning some phrases in Indonesian. Perfect came back from wherever he had disappeared to and we headed off to town to catch up with El who was working on building his shop.
“We go,” he said, motioning to the scooter.
“What, all three of us?” I looked at Perfect and then at Baz who shrugged.
We had seen whole families riding on scooters. An infant baby would be perched on Dad’s lap. Behind him the second child and closing the rear would be Mum so what was three on a scooter, really?
Perfect, standing at 160 cm, sat as far forward as he could. Baz straddled his 193 cm right up behind him while I held on for dear life (and Baz) right at the back with all my 174 cm.
Looking like something out of an Abbott and Costello movie, we chugged into town, noticing that most of the shops were closed due to the Ramadan holiday. El had to work so Perfect took us on a 20-minute ride up the road to Mali Beach.
We were greeted with pristine, turquoise waters and white sandy beaches surrounded by coconut palms. Our stomachs latched onto the smell of coconuts and sweet corn that Cheryl, a local whose English was surprisingly good, had boiled in water.
We chatted with her for a bit, posing for photos. Perfect cracked my nut while Baz had a go with the machete on his. 20 minutes later he pierced the shell and extracted the sweetest coconut water either of us had ever tasted.
The corn was a little hard, almost unripe but along with the spicy chilli Cheryl had pulped (that burnt my gums) it was quite flavoursome.
After our breakfast we hit the warm waters. I dove in and swam until I needed air. The surrounding jungle trees along with the coconut palms that grew right on the water’s edge added to the tropical paradise scene that looked like something out of Tropical Getaways.
A group of kids huddled around us. We took photos with them on a huge tree root that lay on the sand, the impossibly turquoise waters lapping at its base. Further down the white beach we met some men who were about to grill a large tuna fish they had bought.
“How much?” asked Bazza.
“8,000 rupee,” replied one of the men.
80 cents for a Yellow-fin tuna big enough to feed a small tribe.
Friends of El had invited us for lunch at their house a little further up the road. As we rode along, it was nice to see that the beach side remained free from the clutches of demonic real estate corporations and satanic developers.
We arrived at the house and were greeted by the father, mother, a toothless grandmother, 2 daughters, two young grand-daughters, a rice-covered infant, chickens, chicks, roosters and a kitten that was begging for food scraps.
Lunch was two types of rice, bony reef fish, steamed yam leaves and another unidentified green vegetable. We tried our best to communicate with the generous family as no one spoke a word of English until Roland, El’s friend, turned up with a mouthful of words. He suggested we take a ride to the airport down the road where we could see,
“Sika Island. Tomorrow I take you there,” he offered.
After thanking our hosts and shaking everyone’s hand, we rode down with him to the airport beach where we stopped and he pointed out the island.
“How do we get there?” I asked.
“Canoe,” he replied. “I have two.”
“Awesome,” I grinned.
A local on a Suzuki motorbike rode up and offered to take one of us into town rather than riding three on the one scooter. Bazza jumped on his back and we hit the road. Reached Kalabahi, we caught up with El. Baz bought some petrol for Sam, his driver, a liter costing 70 cents.
“He asked me what my hobby was,” Baz was explaining to El what he went through on the ride. “I told him travelling. He told me his hobby was sex. Then he plays with his phone and passes it back to me. I’m cupping my hands over it because of the sun and I realise I’m watching some guy really giving it to a girl!”
After the laughter subsided, El managed to get a scooter for Baz and I to share. We decided to pay our friends a visit and see what they were up to. They weren’t at the hotel so we decided to explore a little bit out of town and took a road up to the mountains. Within minutes we were at 300 meters above sea level, our little scooter struggling to make the steep inclines.
Passing the hut-like shacks of the outskirts of Kalabahi, it was interesting to see that most houses had a satellite dish that looked as though it could communicate with life on Mars. These people barely had running water (or even clean water) yet they had 200 channels to watch on old school analogue television sets.
We stopped at a clearing with an unobstructed view of the harbour, surrounded by the lush, green mountains.
“Incredible,” said Baz, myself agreeing.
We rode back into town, our rear brake doing nothing to slow us on the downhill. Luckily, the front brake was exceptionally tight.
“Let’s go visit the skipper,” suggested Baz and off we chugged to the anchorage in a fishing village called Lomba (I think). Rubbish was all over the beach leading me to reach the conclusion that I’d have a better chance of finding the lost island of Atlantis before finding a bin in the streets of Indonesia.
The dinghy was tied up behind Tropicbird, the tell-tale sign that Skipper would be aboard.
“Let’s swim over,” I suggested.
It wasn’t far, perhaps 300 meters off shore in a hundred feet of water going against the current. We noticed that another sail boat had arrived among the local kids that were canoeing and swimming about. We parked the scooter behind some thick shoots of bamboo and hit the water. We started with the freestyle stroke and halfway through I was beginning to slow down.
Whose great idea was this? I thought struggling not to drown. I switched to the breast-stroke and, on our last breath and strength, we reached Tropicbird.
“Permission to come aboard, Skipper,” I gargled, reaching the swimming platform, barely able to pull myself up from exhaustion.
“Permission granted,” he replied, surprised to see us.
After catching our breath and retrieving the Aussie hat I had left behind, Baz convinced two kids in a canoe to try to take us back to shore as we were both knackered from the swim.
They pulled up to Tropicbird and Baz climbed in, dipping the rear of the canoe underwater. He shimmied to the front, bringing the rear out from under water, dipping the front.
“Shit. Baz,” I said, clambering in, “move forward. The front tip is under water.”
Baz is not only tall but carries a large mass of muscles which cooperated with his height to turn the canoe into a floating piece of driftwood. The kids were screaming with laughter as we jumped out and did our best to bail out the water. Eventually, the kids had it under control and Baz and I swam back to shore, collapsing on the rocky beach.
We rode back into town where we stopped at a supermarket where I was astonished to see Tim Tam biscuits for 90 cents a pack.
“They cost almost four bucks in Australia,” I remarked.
“Aren’t they Aussie biscuits?” asked Baz.
“Yeah, and they’re cheaper out here. Ridiculous.”
We finished our shopping just as our friends came in. We exchanged our adventures of the day and they told us how a lady at the market invited all of us to come to her sister’s birthday party at their house later that night.
“They said there’d be singing and dancing,” said Orla, turning to me. “We told them you play guitar so bring it over.”
We parted ways and caught up with El.
“Roland invited us to stay with him in Mali Beach for going to Sika Island tomorrow morning,” he said. “We go to the island at 6 AM. And tonight you have been invited to a young girl’s house to speak English with her.”
Baz relayed our other plans for the night and we reached a compromise of spending an hour at the girl’s house, an hour at the birthday party and then riding down to Mali.
El took Baz over to the girl’s house first and came back to pick me up.
“Nice to meet you,” I said as I took off my shoes and walked into a white room with a coffee table and a few chairs.
“I am Esther,” said the mother, shaking my hand and smiling.
“Like in the bible,” I grinned. “Ana apa akabar?” I asked how she was in her native tongue.
“Bayik-Bayik,” she laughed.
“I am Bayu-Jessica,” said the young girl of sixteen who’s English, it turned out, was perfect.
We were served salty biscuits that dipped in nicely with the sweetest honey-tea that came beside it. Baz, who drinks hot beverages as often as a dolphin, was impressed by the tea. Jessica fired away questions, asking about the newly-born royal baby on Baz’s side of the planet and asking me to explain ANZAC Day, Australian football and how kangaroos give birth to their young.
We asked whether different islands had different dialects and she asked us the same about English. We explained the differences between American English and proper English – in its correct form. I compared the spelling of certain words like ‘colour’ and ‘flavour’ and demonstrated a Scottish and Irish accent to show her that we had different dialects in English as well.
She wondered how our parents weren’t angry with us travelling around the world rather than settling down.
“As long as we’re happy, our parents are happy,” I said as we explained how Karma works.
“I want to be a doctor,” she said in reply to Baz’s question on her future plans.
When we told her her English was perfect she got very excited and we asked her to tell her English teacher that he’s done a good job.
Before we left, her mother disappeared and reappeared with a tray. On the tray were two scarves, similar to the ones El had presented us with. “I am very honoured to have you as guests in my house,” she said excitedly. “You are the first English and Australian in my home.”
We said our ‘goodbyes’ and headed over to the birthday party up the hill. We arrived to a house full of locals, scooters littering the front yard. We walked in to cries of joy by the locals as we spotted our friends.
“Salamat Ari ulong tau,” I ‘happy birthday-ed’ Mory’s drunk sister. Both Mory and her husband, Peter, were gifted singers and the hosts of the party.
“Can you actually play that?” Baz asked as I whipped out my harmonica (I couldn’t be bothered hanging on to my guitar on the back of a scooter).
“Nope,” I grinned as I attempted to play Bob Marley’s ‘Is This Love’, ‘No Woman, No Cry’, and The Doors ‘Let It Roll’ while Peter sang and the others danced to country music. Mory had been cooking with her mother-in-law all day to present us with a dinner of tuna, rice, sliced and peeled cucumbers, steamed green beans, lip-burning chili pickles and a heart-racing red chili sauce.
Baz’s face, red and burnt from the day’s sun, was coming out bright in the photos.
“El,” he turned to him, “look how red my face is.”
Olivia taught El a two-step shuffle whilst I started a Soul Train line, every couple on the end dancing down the middle.
Baz and I were growing tired and we still had to ride down to Mali Beach. We shook hands with all 70 guests (which took another hour) and headed back to El’s house to pack a bag.
As we arrived into the neighbourhood, we could hear loud music blasting away from somewhere up in the hills.
It had been a big day and Baz and I were ready for bed. I was just about to pack a bag when El said, “We stay here tonight and tomorrow we go to Mali Beach. Now we go to a party.”
“Another one?” asked Baz. “You up for another party?” he turned to me.
“I’m game,” I said. “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”
We walked up the road through the dark neighbourhood, arriving to a front yard with booming music, the place packed with people. Everyone screamed out joyously as we headed straight for the dance floor.
The locals attached themselves to us like magnets and wouldn’t let us rest. I was drenched in sweat within minutes. A local man came up and tried to force a glass of murky liquid in my hand to drink. Thinking it was water straight from the tap (something I was warned to avoid in Asia), I declined politely but he wouldn’t let up.
Another local saw my plight and took the glass away. I thanked him and then the hosts offered us drinking water in sealed containers (turns out the liquid was sopi, a local alcoholic beverage made from the Tuat tree which resembles a coconut tree).
Surveying our surroundings we noticed that the speakers, blaring out the cheesiest of cheesy pop and hip-hop music, were bigger than the house the locals were attaching disco lights to. There must have been a hundred people present, a mixture of young kids and old folks. It was surprising to see that almost all of the people on the dance floor were men rather than women.
“The women are very shy here,” explained El as we retreated back to El’s house under the cover of darkness, collapsing into our beds, exhausted from the day’s events; the music from the party echoing all over the island.
“I think they’ll be getting noise complaints from Darwin,” I said sleepily as I slowly passed out.