Entry 19: spanked monkeys, dead lizards,
rat fights


son of a whore

'My mother was a prostitute, my father was her pimp and my brother is in jail.' Oh dear. We were back in Northern Sulawesi having been killed by neither Bouraq Air nor the legendary fundamentalists of Mindanao. I was doing a little work in an Internet cafe while Jane chatted with an Anglo-Maltese bloke called Franz, the author of this rather arresting statement.

There was something slightly strange about Franz: he was about our age but held the sort of uncompromising single-issue views you really should ditch in your mid 20s when you start to realise that the world is a complex and compromised place. Before he dropped this particular bombshell on Jane, we had been wondering if the Franz we were meeting and the real Franz were two very different people. The picture he sketched us of himself, while a little far-fetched, wasn't totally incredible: it just lacked the sort of careless, casual detail that makes ordinary people believable.

That said, he was a nice enough guy and he said 'for sure' the way some people say 'definitely.' Occasionally he even said 'for sure not' (used like definitely not), a construction I rather liked. Still, after the white slaving revelation we were pretty sure we were meeting one of any number of Franzs. The only thing that gave his story any sort of credibility in my eyes was his Maltese heritage. Somehow that much seemed right, though whether or not having parents from this particular corner of the Mediterranean really ups your chances of being born in a brothel I have no idea.

We had a couple of days to kill before boarding our boat to Papua so we headed out to Sulawesi's north-eastern tip, a land of jungle, beaches and volcanoes. Once again this journey was via the worst road I have ever travelled. But this particular - and oft repeated - comment on local infrastructure is, by now I suppose, largely redundant. It's probably better to simply assume, that unless I say otherwise, every road I've just been on is the worst road I've ever been on. Anyway, at the end of this hell-track we found Mama Roos's homestay. Running guesthouses and cheap hotels the world over there are women like Mama Roo. Their sole aim in life is to get to an age and wisdom whereby they just have to sit in the corner, looking frightening and matriarchal, occasionally dispensing sagacious advice while all those around them work.

beaten lizards and spanked monkeys

A hundred metres down the raod from Mama Roos was the village of Batu Pituh and beyond that was what should have been a picture perfect beach. Fringed with palm trees, washed by a crystal sea and overlooked by a glowering volcano… its sand was a sepulchral shade of black. Of course, there's nothing really wrong with this - volcanic sand is usually black - it just seems a little weird if you've been weaned on Thomas Cook travel brochures. Still, although they get a little hot, once you're used to them, black beaches look sort of cool; I suppose they're the kind of beaches that Goths would like, if they ever went out in the sun. A side-note here - it is an interesting beach fact that almost all of the Canary Islands have black sand, but the resorts ship in white sand at great expense. The lager swilling Canarian tourists, you see, think black sand dirty and would never stand for it.

Usually deserted and with its funereal sand, our beach was about as far from Tenerife as you can get, but there was a jolly, colourful little fishing fleet moored in the bay and the sea was agreeably cool and calm. Every day we'd go down there and play around in the water with the local kids. Jane proved a bigger draw than I and wound up with a devoted following of naked eight year olds. One day her little fan club bought her a sizeable lizard as a present. She said she didn't like lizards, so bless them, they beat it to death with a stick.

The day after the lizard's demise we decided to go jungle trekking with a guide from the local bird appreciation club; unlike most of the locals he liked his nature running around, not stewed for hours in a rich chilli sauce. Naturally this involved a 5am start - why the hell can't nature do nice things in the middle of the day? In contrast to many of our previous guides, Untu was a knowledgeable and voluble chap and he keenly pointed out all kinds of magnificent birds, all of which would have been considerably more magnificent had they not been hidden 50 meters up in trees. But then, after one particularly spectacular near sighting, he wrinkled his nose: 'Monkeys, I smell them.'

Of course, we were incredulous, but the smell of monkey is clearly a powerful thing. For sure enough, we were soon in the midst of a troupe of 60 black tipped macaques, primates which, but for their peculiar fleshy butts, are very cute indeed. For a good 20 minutes baby macaques gamboled around us while their mothers tried to keep them in check and the alpha male looked sternly on. They certainly put on an impressive show: as all the guidebooks will tell you, monkeys love to play. But this is only half the story. What monkeys love even more than playing is playing with themselves - at any given time half the males were fondling themselves in a disturbingly human fashion. Indeed - in a pleasing natural play on words - it is true to say that a monkey is never happier then when spanking his own monkey.

a ship life

As there are no convenient flights from Manado to Papua, we'd decided to opt for an 'experience' and take a boat. So the following day, with only fearsomely aggressive groin mites as a souvenir from the jungle, we boarded a ship with Pelni, the Indonesian passenger line. We'd been told this would take two days and three nights. In fact it turned out to be four days and three nights, but no matter. The Indonesian concept of time is so elastic that the bloke who sold us the ticket genuinely might not have appreciated the difference. Due to the Byzantine class system (four or five different types of 1st Klasse and then Ekonomi) on the boat and the popularity of tickets Jane wound up with a Klasse 1B ticket, while I had to go Eknomi. She commented that the result might a Titanic style romance with me as Jack in steerage and her as Rose. I suspected that the only similarity to 'Titanic' would be that someone, somewhere would be playing Celine Dion very loudly. Still, when we boarded Ekonomi didn't look too bad - a series of oversized dorms, while Jane's decidedly chi-chi cabin looked like something you'd be pleased to get in Europe. It was Jane's accommodation, however that would soon force us to upgrade to 1A.

I had hunkered down in Eknomi and steeled myself to discuss my name/ profession/ occupation /views on Michael Owen, David Beckham, etc. 9,000 times. Meanwhile Jane's cabin mates had arrived - three other women, with two babies, one of which screamed constantly and one of which was too hideously deformed to scream. But disfigured or noisy children weren't the problem. The problem was the traffic. In true Indonesian style, at any given time, her four-person cabin had eight or nine people in it. Which, as the cabin was hardly spacious, made it, if anything, less pleasant than Ekonomi. So, wearing noticeably short shorts, she went to see the chief purser and, after looking at her legs for a while, he let us upgrade to a deluxe cabin a deux. I was fairly ambivalent about this at the time, but, as I would shortly discover, it was to be a godsend.

on bored

Although boats may have a whiff of bygone romance about them, unless a ship has the word 'cruise' in front of it, there's not much to do at sea. Sometimes I'd go for a walk and look at the Spice Islands, which are impossibly beautiful, many of them perfectly conical volcanoes rising straight out of the sea. However, as the local Muslims and Christians were slaughtering each other here too, they were off limits to foreigners. During these constitutional strolls, I would on average say 'hello' to 50 or so people and guest in several family snaps. The whole thing reminded me a little of what your parents used to say to you when you were young and abroad: 'Remember you're an ambassador for your country.' Well, I didn't feel particularly ambassadorial back then, but when you have to shake hands with hundreds of people and smile constantly, you certainly experience a sort of diplomatic ennui.

As we got further east the cast of our fellow passengers changed noticeably. For the last two months, almost everyone we'd met had some permutation of what I think of as the Indonesian look - all coppery skin and oriental features. But, halfway through the Spice Islands, the boat was suddenly full of black people. When I saw the first few, I thought they were American tourists, but east Indonesia was colonised by the Portuguese who bought slaves with them and these were their descendants. Still further east and the passenger list changed again, this time to ethnic Papuans - Melanesians - who are extraordinarily dark and look a bit like a mixture of African and Aboriginal; some had strikingly long faces, vaguely reminiscent of Easter Island statues. It's very strange to meet - en masse - a whole racial group of people you've never ever encountered before. Representing the West amidst all this ethnic novelty, there were the two of us and one other white guy. He was in his 60s and had a rather serious look about him. I tried to engage on several occasions to engage him in conversation but he wasn't interested and deflected my openers with an astringent stare. He got off somewhere on the Bird's Head peninsula so I guessed he was either a missionary or a birdwatcher hoping to watch some birds of paradise.

By this time we were real objects of curiosity: our topside strolls became increasingly awkward as absolutely everyone stared at us as if they'd never seen a white person before. Judging from the ethnic balance of the passengers - 3,000 eastern Indonesians, 2 honkies - in some cases this may just have been literally true.

The boat continued to fill up and, by the third day, was carrying more than twice its intended capacity. Although we still ventured out - to stave off cabin fever and eat piss-poor food in the chilly and expensively sterile first class restaurant, we spent more and more time in our cabin, which became a sort of refuge from the chronic overcrowding without. Unless, of course, we were being called to prayer on the impossible-to-switch-off in cabin speaker which started its warbling at 5am. We made it on shore a couple of times, mainly to buy fruit, although, the island of Biak, I experienced one of the oddest local delicacies yet - octopus jerky. Something already rubbery cooked and smoked so as to toughen it further. Only in Indonesia, where the local chefs seem to specialise in taking the world's finest ingredients and rendering them nearly inedible.

rat man

On the fourth morning, we woke up in Jayapura, the capital of Indonesian Papua. A town which, in England, might conceivably still be calling itself a village rules over a largely empty island twice the size of the UK. It is usually overcast and has the humidity of a Turkish bath - the kind of place for which the adjectives dank and 'malarial' were invented. A quick reckkie revealed no good hotels - only hotels that were cheap and crap or expensive and crap. After trawling the town, I lucked out, finding a hotel that was mid-range and crap. Though nothing special, it passed the towel test: that is, I refuse to stay in anywhere that smells worse than my travelling towel. Then we went to pay some petty bribes, arrange our travel permits and try and get some flights to the interior - necessary as there are no roads. Hours of tedious, repetitive organisation in a place where nothing functions as it should. Enlivened only by a travel agent asking me how much I paid for Jane and opining that she might be worth up to 20 pigs. He was quite shocked when I told him that - initially at least - she was free.

Back at the hotel and things picked up considerably. Jane's third world tolerance failed when it turned out our hotel had not just a few rats but a ceiling and wall infestation worthy of a James Herbert novel. She complained to the manageress, who offered her the room next door, which as it shared walls and ceiling with our rat trap was hardly better. A guy from Papua New Guinea (free Papua) across the hall asked Jane - surprisingly politely - if she'd be interested in having sex with him. Then the manageress, a mercenary bitch, Javanese, I think, offered Jane a worse room at twice the price. So Jane said we'd leave.

At this point I arrived at the argument, along with Thomas, another of the Papuans. He was the brother in law of the man who'd propositioned Jane and, in sharp contrast to his libidinous relative was huge, softly spoken and one of the nicest people we'd met. He said he knew of a better hotel. The woman said fine, leave, but you have to pay the full price for your room. We replied that we weren't paying the full rate for a rats. She dropped the price to two thirds. I offered her a little over a third. She told us we'd signed the register and that she'd call the police.

So I told her to go ahead and we'd tell them about the rats and it all degenerated into a shouting match, with her making all sorts of ridiculous threats and me shouting: 'Satu tiggus - OK. Banyak tigguss tidak OK! Tiggus! Tiggus! Tiggus!' One rat OK. Many rats not OK! Rats! Rats! Rats!.' Eventually I think she realised that I was broadcasting her (not inconsiderable) rat problem to the world and acquiesced. Of course, I would have loved to throw the money down and flounce out, but we didn't have the necessary change for this dramatic gesture. So we lost a bit of face. But one of the kids at the hotel insisted on counting out our change out in that slow and methodical way kids have. I'm not quite sure why but this definitely worked in our favour and we regained some face. Then, with the help of Thomas - who, quite understandably wanted to get away from his revolting in-laws - we sped away on motorbike taxis in the rain and dark to, as he'd promised, a far nicer - and rat-free - hotel. An exhausting day but, ultimately, a rewarding one: Jane had a new hero in the form of a burly Papuan and I'd had my first argument in Indonesian and come out ahead on points.

July 2, 2002