Indonesia Expat

Water, Water Everywhere

A weekend getaway to the Thousand Islands brings these seafaring friends more than they bargained for.

No other start to the day can compare with waking up at dawn on a wooden cabin cruiser tied to a sun-scorched jetty in the Thousand Islands, a chain of small islands extending from Jakarta’s coast out into the crystal-clear waters of the Java Sea. The hours stretch out lazily ahead of you, and may be filled with sunbathing, snorkelling, fishing, exploring the island, or simply drinking coconut juice under a palm tree with a good book until you slumber and the book slips from your hand.

But the day hadn’t started out well for Judd, the boat’s American skipper. He had been floating contentedly in the water at the stern of the boat, when someone—his Indonesian wife was the prime suspect—had flushed the toilet. He was now thrashing about trying to evade the lumpy brown slick that had gushed out of the toilet pipe to engulf him. Several passengers had used the toilet that morning, but had followed the rules of etiquette and not flushed it while the boat was moored. This meant there had been a large build-up of bowel movements in the lavatory system. Judd was shouting and spitting.

After thoroughly rinsing himself by swimming out into clear water, he clambered onto the wooden-slatted jetty and stomped up and down among the disembarked passengers, who were either fishing with long rods or sunbathing. He wiped his face with a towel, leering at everyone, daring them to stop suppressing their laughter or to so much as snort.

Then he turned to his wife, who was by no means contrite. The blaming of each other—“You shouldn’t have flushed the toilet” and “You shouldn’t have been swimming so close to the outlet”—turned into a big argument. Judd and his wife were evenly matched verbally and, there being no one around to disturb—the only ‘neighbour’ was the next island along—they felt free to shout as loudly as they pleased, to abandon all inhibitions, to enjoy a colossal row of operatic proportions under the palm trees.

By midday the boat’s stock of beer was running low—it was never the food, never the drinking water, never the fuel, never the cigarettes—always the beer that ran low. This was a chance to separate the quarrelling couple by getting Judd to skipper the boat out to the nearest inhabited island for a spot of shopping. A few of us went along on the trip, leaving the majority behind, happily playing beach ball.

The magic of these Thousand Islands trips was that Judd’s boat, being non-commercial and not bound by a timetable, was free to explore. Essentially we’d turned up at some privately owned island whose owner inevitably was absent, and ask the security guard if we could tie-up and use the beach. If he said yes, we’d slip him some money, if he said no, we’d just chug to the next island and ask again. Eventually we would find somewhere where we were welcome. Though on this occasion we had tied up at a deserted island with derelict buildings owned by a government ministry.

The boat never went very fast. In fact Judd was proud of how slow it was. He likened his boat to a pleasantly plodding horse. He used to scorn the glinting fibreglass speedboats that would thunder past his wooden vessel like sea-stallions, reaching any destination on the map in a fraction of the time. He claimed they ruined the pace and quality of life. Once when coming across a speedboat that had mysteriously sunk, Judd was rapturous, as though he’d torpedoed the craft himself.

As soon as the beer had been replenished, we headed back to our island. The sun was high in the sky, the glare surreal, making us listless. The first time I came on one of Judd’s trips I mistakenly believed that sitting in the shade sufficiently protected me from the sun. Oh how wrong I was, as I was subtly cooked for two whole days by the sun’s reflection on the surrounding water. Back in Jakarta I woke up the next morning with my face swollen like baked bread and with a high fever. For the next fortnight I was picking shards of skin off my peeling face. I now get through a family-size tub of high-factor sunblock each trip.

Approaching the jetty we had departed from three hours earlier, we were puzzled by the reception we got. Those we had left behind seemed overly keen to wade out to greet us. In fact they had an air of desperation, even hostility, about them. I was reminded a bit of the enraged natives that battered Captain Cook to death in Hawaii.

We heard thuds about the boat. Saw splinters appear at the edges of the wooden cabin as projectiles struck it. A stone bounced along the deck. Then another. The people onshore were venting their displeasure about something by throwing stones at the boat. Judd had no doubts about what had happened. “It’s her. The missus. She’s turned them against me while we’ve been gone. This is a mutiny!”

The idea of dealing with a mutiny clearly exhilarated Judd. He possibly had been waiting for this event all his brief seafaring life. And now his time had come. One imagined that somewhere on the boat was a padlocked chest containing cutlass, grappling hook and keel-haul harness – a chest he had always dreamed of breaking open.

But the anger onshore had not been instigated by Judd’s wife. It was due to the boat having gone off in search of beer without leaving any drinking water behind – the Aqua drums were all on deck. Furthermore none of those left behind had realised the drums were missing until they had finished playing their strenuous game of beach ball under the blazing sun, and were hot, panting, and streaming with sweat – just the sort of condition where a long drink of water is not only desirable but imperative.

A few of them could hardly be blamed for throwing stones at the returning boat; they were delirious from ravaging thirst, or suffering from heatstroke. Judd quickly offloaded a drum of water, rolling it directly into the sea. It was pounced upon and fought over. Judd made an apologetic speech from the boat’s prow rather in the manner of a misunderstood tyrant, unabashedly blaming his wife, claiming that being covered in excrement had put him out of sorts and muddied his thinking. His wife didn’t hear the accusation. She was busy guzzling her share of the water.

The rest of the weekend passed without incident. The argument between Judd and his wife subsided. The water remained plentiful and the beer didn’t run out again. People lay back and enjoyed the sunshine and serenity of the island. Playing beach ball, of course, was out of the question – far too traumatic. And whenever anybody had a swim they made sure to stay well clear of the boat’s stern.

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