Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Cerulean Riau

“Where you go?”

I shook my head, smiling politely.

The sun bore down on my bare shoulders and I cursed myself for forgetting to put on sunscreen as we rushed to catch our ferry to Indonesia.

“Where you go?”

A posse of five Indonesian men followed me as I walked down the dilapidated pier. I was tired, hot, hungry, and completely out of patience.

“Look, I don’t need a ride anywhere.”

I breathed deeply searching for a calm I did not feel as my words failed to register with them. I stalked further down the rickety dock. One man followed me past the police stationed at the waterfront. I eyed them, trying to find reprieve from this unwanted attention but was not surprised when they simply looked the other direction.

The man, his face badly scared, put his wrinkled hand on my shoulder to forcibly stop me from walking away. His dirty fingers left marks on my pale white blouse but that didn’t matter because something inside of me snapped and my rage boiled over.


The word escaped my mouth with such ferocity I scarcely believed it emanated from me; after one month traveling overland through South East Asia, I was no stranger to persistent locals. Frankly, I usually dealt better with the annoyance. I understood these people depended on me to make their living. Did they over charge me? You had better believe it. Were they a hassle? Undeniably so. I had a hard time faulting them, however, when two dollars made such little difference to me and such a great difference in their world.

The man quickly took back his hand looking embarrassed.

I felt embarrassed as I looked over Tanjung Pinang.

The one dirt road that ran along side the waterfront was lined with tin shacks that were homes and businesses all in one. Children played naked in the streets with garbage and emaciated oxen roamed the area in futile pursuit of edibles; women cooked noodles and chicken in large woks under the unforgiving sun, their faces flushed with sweat and heat. Men, unemployed with no where to go and nothing to do, lazed in the shade of trees smoking and playing cards.

Before arriving in Tanjung, I learned that most of South East Asia's lanun, otherwise known as pirates, come from Tanjung and its sister island. Indonesia is comprised of 10,000 islands. It borders Malaysia and Brunei. Ships are forced to breach the passages between these numerous islands to deliver and export goods. Piracy was lucrative. For the men of Tanjung Pinang, piracy stood in between starvation and life.

I looked into this man’s dark brown eyes, and I understood what he could not convey with his limited English: these relentless men needed desperately to give me a ride somewhere so they could feed their children.

At least he was not commandeering a vessel.

And how I hated myself for not being able to help him compared little to how I loathed the world for being so wildly unbalanced. The situation on this Indonesian island was hopeless and there was nothing I could do to fix it; even if I did give him money, soon enough he would be back at the dock waiting for someone who had more fortune and luck than he.

I held out my hand, and he extended his.



He brought his hands together near his face and bowed smiling. He possessed few teeth, and the ones he had we yellow and rotting.

He turned and walked away finally accepting the fact that I really, truly, honestly did not need a ride. I sat on my backpack and waited for Sean to emerge from the bathroom. I felt drained. Emotionally and physically. South East Asia was literally changing my perceptions of the world and it was a painful transformation.

“You ready?”

I jumped.

I hadn’t noticed Sean approach.

I squinted up in the sun as I studied his outreached hand. I felt grateful to have someone stand beside me and witness this hard truth about the world with me.

We walked toward the parked van across the street. Louie, the driver from our bungalow, was waiting for us while listening to Eddie Vedder.

“America!” Louie cried gleefully as we stepped into the van, slapping the steering wheel. America, I thought, the country I usually complained about. Never again, though. Looking out at this Riau Island, I finally understood I never had a real reason to complain. I was able to earn an education, attain employment, procure housing, purchase nutritious food, and find purpose and meaning.

I wished the same things for the people of Tanjung.

The drive was long and hot. By the time we stepped out of the van, my hair was plastered to my face and I wanted nothing more than to jump into the tempting cerulean water. Our bungalow hovered above the ocean on stilts. The air was quiet, a rarity for South East Asia.

I knew we had come to the right place; a place I could collect my thoughts and unwind from the wind and grind of nomadic life.

If only life was so simple for the people who lived and worked only forty minutes away.

If only…


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