FROM BIAK TO MEDAN covers my travels from Indonesia's Irian Jaya to Sumatra in 1991. A time was before cellphones and ATM. My modes of transport were liners, jets, prop planes, horses, motorbikes, trains and buses. I was a 'mistah', but soon learned enough Bahasa Indonesian to know that 'angin' was dog and 'babi bear' or big pig meant man to cannibals. These are the first of a series of stories from the Ring of Fire, when I was still younger than yesterday.
Here's a sample OF FROM BIAK TO MEDAN
In 1991 I bought a round-the-world ticket for $1399 from Pan Express. The owner set up a magical itinerary.
"New York - LA - Hawaii - Biak - Bali - overland to Jakarta." John was reciting the trip from memory. He sold hundreds of these tickets every year.
"What do you mean 'overland to Jakarta'?" Their advertisement in the NY Times offered a flight between Bali and Jakarta. My foreign ventures had been limited to Europe and Central America up to this point.
"Oh, sir." His Hindi gentility was measured to assuage the traditional occidental temper and John produced an Indonesia brochure extolling the volcanic beauty of Mount Bromo, ruined temple of Borobudur, and ancient palaces of Yogakarta. "Many people prefer to travel overland to see the sights of Java of which there are many. I give you a flight from Jakarta to Padang."
"Yes, sir, in Sumatra." Another brochure praised the cultural heritage of the Batak, the awe of Lake Toba, and the jungle paradise of the orangutang reserve. "You fly out of Medan to Penang and Malaysia and overland to Bangkok."
"Let me guess." I was falling into step with the program. "Many people do this overland."
"Yes, sir, you see the picture better than most. What are you going to do on the trip?" Hindi are a curious people. John was no exception.
"I'm writing a novel." NORTH NORTH HOLLYWOOD was a story about a hustler forced into a contract murder of a porno producer by dirty NYPD cops and who avoids violating the 5th Commandment by escaping into the desert with two lesbians filming a movie about the last man on Earth. John didn't need to know the plot. Hindi men were in some ways very curious about sex.
"Oh, sir, I must warn you that many countries in Asia do not like writers. Especially journalists."
"I'm not a journalist." My typing was atrocious and my grammar was even worse.
"Whatever you do, do not tell anyone you are a writer." His head bobbed side to side like a broken bobbing dolls. "Big people and police do not like journalists in Asia."
"I'll keep that in mind."
John was 100% correct about overlanding across Java. I saw the dawn from the rim of a volcano, met the sultan of Yogakarta, drove up to the vertiginous heights of the Dieng Plateau, endured the scorching equatorial sun riding a motorcycle around Lake Toba and watched male orangutang masturbate without shame. The females shunned the jerk-offs. I arrived at the Medan airport with my trip and book at the halfway state.
I queued for the flight to Penang. The police spotted my typewriter. I
"Saya." I had learned a little Bahasa in three months.
"Yes, you." A short pineapple-skinned officer pointed my way. The three of them pulled me from the line. The other passengers smiled with relief. I was their sacrificial lamb. The police sat me in their very official office and asked, "Journalis?"
The trio wore grim faces. Torture was their specialty. A single overhead fan wobbled in its socket.
"Tidak journalis. Penulis buca." I claimed the higher status than journalist.
"You write books? About what?" The lead interrogator leaned forward with a metal sap in his hand.
"About the mafia. Porno. Hollywood." I was one smack away from squealing the truth about any crime from Adam upward.
"Hollywood?" The three cops intoned the word with sanctity normally reserved for Allah. Indonesia was 90% Muslim.
"Yes, Hollywood." I followed the lead and told them about how JFK was killed by the CIA. They spoke about the betrayal of Sukarno by the present dictator. A bottle of Johnny Walker Black hit the desk. Red is beneath them. We drank toasts to freedom.
"Beraka." I spoke every language with a Boston accent.
Whiskey in hot weather was a hard slog. It was getting late and I asked the chief officer, "So I missed my flight, how do I get to Penang?"
"You didn't miss your flight. We held the plane. One more drink and tua jalan."
"To whiskey." Without it the Irish would have ruled the world.
The police drove me to the waiting plane. The other passengers were gobsmacked by re-appearance from the belly of the beast and even more so by the power fist salute of the police.
It was a small world after all.
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