Continued from here
Trying our luck, in this case meant speaking entirely in Indonesian, asking around for someone who might have a surplus, and then negotiating the purchase or trade without the benefit of local currency (which we had divested ourselves of in Belitung, as we were intending to leave the country).
While we were attempting to nap, a precocious pre-teenager named Chandra paddled up in his dugout, asking for books, water, and/or footballs. We offered a few gifts, and then I asked (sensing his “can do” personality) if he could help me find solar (diesel). With the help of Google Translate, I learned that he could help, but only if I came with him right then. I hadn’t slept a consecutive 3 hours in the last 72 and the prospect of undertaking such an adventure was daunting, to say the least.
It had to be done though. By conservative estimates we could not make it to Johor Bahru on the fuel we had, and I did not rate my chances of finding fuel on my own. Chandra hopped aboard and helped us to empty our two remaining jerry cans. Then he followed me into Fatty, beckoned his reticent buddy aboard and took control of the outboard. My affection for this kid was cemented.
Chandra guided us expertly to his stilt village, waving proudly and announcing to anyone within earshot that he was taking this guy to get solar. In my under-informed imagination, this was a pivotal act in this boy’s passage to adulthood, but it might as possibly been a mundane and tedious act. I’m going with the former though, because at this point I was beginning the transition to that magical state (that I have only experienced a few times before) of complete immersion in the unknown. It’s a place and time where literally anything is possible. I was equally prepared to find fuel which I could buy with goodwill and bananas, as I was to have a conversation with a talking fish who would willingly tow us to Malaysia and, in this state, it’s best to shepherd ones thoughts towards the sanguine and fantastical.
So I followed the beaming Chandra through his village. His younger minions unburdened me of my jerry cans and swarmed around me, pointing, tittering and sneaking glances at my tattooed arm. Chandra took me to his home (also on stilts, but above dry ground) and introduced me to his (?) grandmother. He called his dad and explained the situation. There was some amused conversation and then Chandra grabbed one of the family’s quiver of motorcycles and showed me the plan in mixed pantomime and Bahasa Indonesia.
I mounted up on the motorcycle, holding two cans sitting on the back seat. Chandra shook his hand and motioned me to the driver seat. “Oh great” I thought. This motorcycle was unlike anything I had ever seen. It had no hand brake, no clutch and a weird assortment of extra buttons, but I was to drive. That was painfully clear.
The kids gathered around and laughed uproariously at every unsuccessful attempt to kickstart the bike. I must have tried 10 times, but by the second time I was into full theatrical mode, performing the fool for the delighted crowd. Finally, I got the thing started and we were off, in first gear… because I hadn’t yet convinced myself that it was safe to just slam it into gear without a clutch. Chandra was talking a mile a minute, no doubt giving me instructions. He was unabashedly rattling on in Indonesian, expecting that at any moment I would catch on (as I did with the whole motorcycle starting process).
So, we were off, in first gear, on a single-track that would have been ambitious on a mountain bike. At the end of the track we turned onto a “road” which might have passed for one of your poorer sidewalks in La Paz, Mexico. Riddled with holes and missing cobbles, generously appointed with drainage pipe mounds, and shared with all manner of pedestrian and cyclist traffic, we were cruising the island’s highway. Chandra and I established a limited operational communication channel consisting of “Okay” (meaning you are doing good, or go faster, or go straight) and “Hati hati” (meaning slow, danger, or this is a village and they will be very upset with me if we barrel through). There was another phrase which I recognized, but can’t recall, which meant, we are here.
I got that last message just in the nick of time and stopped at the site of a boat building project. We hopped off, and I half expected this to be the midpoint of my adventure. I would have been grateful too, it was quite something already, and enough to keep my entropy tank full for years.
I shook hands with a guy who was likely my age, and he grabbed one of my jugs. He tipped it on it’s side and touched the top, “Is this going to leak?” he seemed to ask. I smiled, shook my head, and said “tidak,” and made the gesture of tipping it upside down. I think I may have been unclear, possibly indicating that it shouldn’t go upside down, so we had to go through several more iterations. Finally, with marked doubt in his eye, he accepted my claim and we approached the bikes. Once again, I offered to let Chandra drive, once again I was instructed to take the driver’s seat.
We wound our way through hill and valley, jungle and shoreline, and up over a hill towards the opposite side of the island. At the crest of the hill Chandra suddenly realized that he hadn’t shown me where the brakes were. The road terminated, at the bottom of the hill, into a perpendicular road. Continuing on would cast us directly into the ocean. His already rapid talk was now laced with excited fear.
Having developed a little bit of a playful report along the ride, I pretended to not understand, and sped up, cresting the hill at a rather terrifying speed. Chandra dug his fingers into my side and I “found” the brake just in time for the descent. “Ohhh kaaayyy,” I heard from behind, and I turned around long enough to shoot him a smile “OKAY!” I replied.
The view was stunning. Islands spread out before me, swimming in cloudy turquoise ocean, to my left, small villages peppered the shoreline, their stilt houses extending into the bay. My smile threatened to split my face.
Arrival at our destination was announced with the unremembered phrase. We dismounted and gathered our cans. Dad (I’m assuming it was Chandra’s father who joined us) pointed in the air between the cans and the bikes and said “Benzin?” (the Indonesian word for gas/petrol). “No. solar,” I said, pointing at the can. He nodded, pointed more at the bike and repeated his question. Light dawned. “AH! benzin for your bikes, of course, yes.” I smiled delighted that I had some small way to repay their kindness, or at least offset the cost of it.
We proceeded to the “gas dock” which was a series of stilt houses with a giant veranda (also on stilts) over the mud flats. Here I found about 18 fishermen, the fuel broker, and two dozen barrels of diesel.
“Do you have money?” Asked Dad. “Yes, I said and produced my US$60. The broker looked angry, “No rupiah?” he asked. “No rupiah,” I replied. This conversation repeated at some length. Dad started to work the crowd. I assume telling the story of how incompetent I was on the motorcycle and how funny it was to help this clueless American do something so basic as procure fuel. I felt the mood shifting. There is an energy that I have been blessed to feel throughout my life that comes when people become invested and engaged in the spirit of an adventure or undertaking. It’s a swelling feeling that blooms as it touches and incorporates it’s participants. It was happening on the dock. The broker’s apparent anger changed to amusement, and then empowerment. He had the solution!
Moments later a cell phone was thrust into my hand. “Hello,” said the voice on the other end.
“Hello, do you speak english?”
“Yes, of course”
“Oh thank you. I am trying to buy diesel but only have American currency. Can you help?”
“Yes, just tell me how much it is in rupiah, and I will convert it for my father.”
I handed the phone back to her father. They chatted and he handed it back to me.
“It will be US$47.”
“Perfect. Thank you so much!”
I handed the phone back and when the broker hung up, I handed him my $60, indicating (I thought) that he could keep the change. He looked startled, then perplexed. Then he called his daughter (who I heard was in Singapore) again. Moments later, light dawned and he led me to his office, made change in rupiah, and looked quite satisfied.
My friends got their benzin while my cans were filled, and I just sat down next to a handsome, toothless salt and reveled in the shear weirdness of the moment. The sailors around me were animated, clearly making good natured jokes at my expense, and smiling. I took some photos and then we left.
Back at the bikes Dad looked at me incredulously while tilting the fuel can at about 45º. “Ya! Bagus (good),” I said. I took my full can and inverted it, shaking it for effect. I heard minds exploding. This spawned another round of talking as I’m quite sure that nobody on this island, or maybe in all of this archipelago, has seen a leak free fuel can.
Satisfied with the can’s ability to hold it’s payload, Dad strapped the jug sideways on his seat, and threw the other one between his legs. Chandra climbed on behind me with the remaining jug between us, and we lit off (in first gear) through the village.
When we reached the hill where I scared Chandra, I put it into first gear. “VarroooOOOM” the engine powered up. Second gear “VAROoooooom” it powered down… to a stop. On the side of a very steep hill. Without any hand brake. SHIT!
I gripped the handlebars and braced. Chandra slipped off the back and braced with me. A local guy darted up the hill and grabbed the other handlebar. The two pushed the bike to the top of the hill, and I carried the fuel. At the top, I laughed at myself and said “Satu!” holding up one finger. (First gear only). They laughed “Ya! Satu.”
When we arrived back at the village the little ones swarmed. We took a few more selfies, and Chandra, Dad and perhaps little brother helped carry the jugs out to Fatty. Dad wished a warm goodbye, and Chandra cheeky, precocious boy that he is, said “Money?” I barked a laugh, and said (in English) “Really Chandra, money? How much money would you like?” He demurred and said “no.” I was grateful, not because I had any use for the remaining rupiah in my pocket, but because an exchange of money would have irrevocably changed the experience, stealing from it the magic and power of humanity at it’s best weirdest, and replacing it with yet another transactional relationship. In his retraction he granted me the greatest gift of the day. I took out my phone and asked it to translate one last phrase for me.
“This has been the best thing that has happened to me in Indonesia.”