Men dressed in black clogged the boarding gate. There was one woman among them. She was wearing a hijab and sunglasses indoors. They all had matching backpacks with a patch of the Indonesian flag.
I like boarding the plane first. I can put my bag in the cabin directly above my head. I keep reading glasses on my face and my boarding pass in the cleavage of my book. I sit and read, seatbelt unbuckled. Reading while other passengers are still boarding is different from reading after takeoff. Reading after takeoff is for entertainment. But this. This is a goddamn spectacle. Look at me. Losers waddle down the aisles in confusion. They smack my sprained shoulder with their over-packed bags. Ugh, I am so efficient, stoic. I reach a little closer to nirvana when I watch people struggle with their luggage. God, my minimalist lifestyle makes travel so easy.
“Excuse me.” He shoved his bags into the cabin. Duty-free shopping is an all-encompassing Korean experience. It was a man in black. I stood up to let him pass even though his body fat was probably less than 6%. He pulled out his book. It had the word “terrorism” in the title. Checkmate.
I prayed that he wouldn’t talk to me even though I decided that he was my boyfriend for the duration of the flight. The prayer didn’t work and I was glad. His eyeballs were like chocolate and I wanted to lick them. I asked why he dressed in black and he asked why I was traveling alone.
“You are a strong person. You go out into the world and you survive.”
I took this as a compliment. I always thought of international travel as a buffet, not as eliciting danger. Maybe I’ve just been lucky.
It was nice seeing my sister and Carol. They’re the type of people where it feels like time hasn’t passed even though a lot has. Carol and I had three new tattoos between the two of us since we saw each other last. We discussed dinner options after a quick round of reunited hugs. Feeling adventurous, we agreed on Italian. The food may not have been Indonesian, but the price was. Three gorgeous meals cost a mere $22. Plus I could smoke inside the restaurant.
The sidewalk had holes in it. Every couple of meters or so we would either walk across a plank of wood balanced over the manhole or jump into the street with oncoming traffic. Literal chickens crossed the road. Carol said it reminded her of El Salvador.
We were on a boat — a voluntary castaway.
The seams of this boat were ripping. The poles of the roof uprooted and bounced along with the sways of the boat. My sister pointed to the side, to call attention to a hole where choppy waves took out a clean chunk of wood. Its remnants became smeared confetti easily mistaken for poo. Laura and I laughed, defenselessly. The condition of the sea that you are imagining now is incorrect. It was not an episode of Deadliest Catch. The ocean was not God’s hands slapping down on fisherman, killing them in the processes. No. It was kind of windy. At best, a baby storm. I have dealt with worse conditions during a sailing class in college, to give you an idea. I watched, in envy, as speedboats came and went. Our boat was equipt with a crooked rudder and a car engine. Not a fast car. Something like a Toyota Celica, or maybe a Prius.
Three days on this water prison and now time was stretching as if we were traveling through a black hole. I prayed to Newton’s Second Law for a reduction of drag forces. I stared down at the stain on the cuff of my pants. It was poop — not mine. This is despair.
Though boat was crumbling around us, I knew we would not die. There was land all around us. But that didn’t mean that I will not have to swim. I put my passport into the zipper pocket of my rain jacket. I rehearsed in my mind what I will do when we capsize. I thought of my well-connected airplane boyfriend.
His name was Captain Jai.
“Like Pirates of the Caribbean,” he said. No. Not like Pirates of the Caribbean at all.
He invited us onto his boat. He took out a rusted machete to chop up a soon-to-be-rotten-pineapple and served it on a plate alongside a heaping serving of male fragility.
“I can take you on a tour. My father died almost two months ago. I will cook for you. You can see the Komodo dragons. I don’t have a wife yet, but I can’t wait to have kids. You can snorkel with the manta rays. I don’t like [insert categorization] women. Then we can go to the karaoke bar after. No problem, no problem.”
In retrospect, he was a complete piece of shit from the getgo. But I liked that he had no wife or kids. That meant his life whole life was the sea, his wife the boat. That made me kind of trust him. Plus it was so, so cheap.
Against all three of our individual intuitions, we agreed. The next day we boarded the boat for our trip. I paid no mind to Jai’s nameless crewman. I needed coffee. Jai called him “my friend.” He had a stunning, muscular fisherman body and spoke zero English.
It was beautiful and awesome. Indonesia is the perfect backdrop for some tinder profile pictures. We swam in very blue water. Jai encouraged us to play ABBA on his speaker and to dance on the boat while I was busy reading the Diary of Anne Frank on the bow. Jai was under the very incorrect impression we were there to party. But Jai proved to be a good cook. He showed us the fruit bats that wake up at dusk to forage.
We were exhausted by the end of the day from a combination of all the sunshine and goddamn emotional labor. A sense of relief came over us as we were made our way to the dock for the night.
“Can I have some beer?” asked Jai.
“Yeah, sure, of course. We have a bunch,” said my generous, beautiful sister.
“Yes, but I still think it’s important to always ask my guests. Once I start drinking I don’t want to stop. How about you turn on some music? I like to make the guests comfortable. I sit with the guest and talk with them.” Jai’s role as a captain began to blur. My Friend was doing all the work, enabling Jai to drink beer and ‘make his guests comfortable’ by holding one-way conversations.
I laid on the bow of the boat. You can’t really see the stars in Korea, let alone the Milky Way.
“Is it ok if I join you?” You can escape anything on a boat, except the people you are with. I told him about the starless sky. Jai didn’t give a shit. My three sentences surpassed his listening limit. He tensed and started flapping his arm, palpitating his flashlight. The wood supporting my back vibrated as the bottom of the boat scratched to a halt. Jai hollered in Indonesian. My Friend cut the engine. The three of us were kept in the dark, literally and figuratively. Jai jumped in the water to atone for the crash. We exchanged ghost stories as we waited.
When I opened my eyes the next morning I could see a monkey lurking on the beams of the dock. It hopped onto the boat next to us and stole some bananas before scampering away. I was charmed by this. I slept surprisingly well despite getting stuck in coral last night. Plus we made it to Rincon, one of two islands home to the Komodo dragon. This was why I came here. It was on my bucket list to see the dragons. Added bonus my sister was here. She winces at the sight of small reptiles. I could only anticipate her reaction to very, very large ones. It felt like Christmas morning.
The tour guide had nothing but jokes. I think he exchanged his teeth for them. He shared information about the animals on the island sprinkled with wisecracks at tourists. In addition to his gifted sense of humor, he was also a decent photographer. We took turns gathering Instagram content a safe distance away from the dragons. Laura still refused to get her picture taken because it was too close. But my favorite part of our tour guide was that he was not Captain Jai. “I need a vacation from my vacation.” We dragged our feet back to the dock. My Friend was waiting at the entrance for us. We boarded the
prison boat onto the next destination — Komodo Island.
We saw no Komodo dragons on Komodo Island but I met someone handsome. He told me how he had a girlfriend in California but they broke up. Well, they didn’t break up so much as he dropped his phone in the ocean five months ago and had no way to contact her. International relationships seem like such a whirlwind!
“I’m staying with Captain Jai.”
“I know. He came onto the island and bragged he had three American girls with him. He seemed drunk already. You can stay with me at the fishing village. It’s no problem.”
He told me he was 28 years old. He stopped drinking with Jai 10 years ago because he was “getting too old.” This island man was winning me over and confirming my suspicions that Jai was a pile of garbage and potentially dangerous.
We stayed on Komodo for as long as possible. Laura and Carol enjoyed a couple of citrus flavored beers. I enjoyed pooping on a western toilet that flushed without me having to pour water into it. I said goodbye to my Komodo lover.
“What’s that over there?”
“That is the fishing village.” Jai seemed irritated that we were talking.
“Can we go over there?”
We were still asleep when we took off. He woke us at dawn to watch the sunrise. It was the last day and all of us were counting down the minutes to clock out. We were on our way to swim with the manta rays. The atmosphere felt different. The winds have changed. Then that familiar scrape. I wasn’t surprised only because my emotions were depleted at this time. They dropped the anchor.
“You can swim here. You can see the turtles.” Laura promptly jumped in the water. She had the ‘fuck it, it’s vacation’ mentality that Carol and I ran out of a day ago. “Since you are in the water, can you go and see if the propeller is attached?” Mother fuck. A contorted rudder and now, a missing propeller?! Not only that, but he asked my sister, who just had a breakfast beer to check on the anatomy of his boat. I went snorkeling just so I could bite down on something. After twenty minutes, I was over it. The sea was rough. I was cold. We were stuck. Now, I am normally on team coral. But I was hoping for a massive bleaching event so we could get the hell out of there. We sat on the boat, silenced by oppressed anger.
My last day on the island. It was already a great day because I wasn’t on a boat. We kicked things up a notch. Had breakfast that involved fresh fruits and coffee that wasn’t instant. The dude at our hostel agreed to take us to a waterfall. His name was Andres. We met up after lunch and he invited his best friend, also named Andres. He had curly hair and rasta vibes. He was the epitome of an island lover. We told the Andres’ about the little cruise and reluctantly mentioned him.
“JAI?!” The Andres’ looked at each other and laughed. After wiping away their tears, one Andres turned around to ask if we were alright. He said he doesn’t work with Jai anymore. Not after the incident involving two American girls and Jai in jail. I got goosebumps. We laughed it off and watched the sunset. The golden light really working for Rasta Andres.