Christians, Booze, the Ferry and the Fight
There are two things you quickly notice as you move across Flores and into the Solor Archipelago beyond: an increase in Christianity and an increase in alcohol consumption. There is some unspoken link between the Bible and booze in eastern Indonesia, and when combined with the region’s tribal culture, the toxic combination can produce some uncomfortable situations.
Settling onto our scuzzy, rented floor mats preparing ourselves for the epic 16-hour voyage to Alor, Thomas, Katrin, one very scraggly chicken, and I found ourselves nesting in a densely packed crowd of traders and locals sprawled across every square inch of deck on the rusting car ferry. When you hit this part of Indonesia, there are no luxury options; all travelers are created uncomfortably equal. Exhausted by her last 24 hours, Katrin actually managed to fall asleep on the floor.
Packed into gaps between truck tires and stacks of cargo, a sampler of Indonesia’s wildly diverse ethnic groups chatted in a dozen languages. It was frenetic and fun, but I’ll admit that I was already fantasizing about a soft bed at the other end. Still moored at the dock, everyone was anxious to leave until, at the last moment, a dumptruck full of drunk construction workers pulled onto the ferry. A boatload of terrified eyes and a hushed silence revealed what everyone was thinking, please god, get these people off our boat!
No such luck.
Even before we left the dock, the tipsy team stumbled their way out of the truck (one falling on his face in the process) into the sea of anxious passengers. They stamped and stumbled their way across the deck plowing a path over people’s blankets and sleeping mats. The construction workers seized up in laughter at the hilarity of their own threatening behavior. They giggled and guffawed as they kicked through passenger’s belongings. Veiled coastal women cowered in fear. Their husbands’ whispers of Muslim disapproval rippled through the boat.
The ferry chose that exact moment to pull away from the dock and headed straight out into the blackness of the open ocean.
Inexplicably, the motley crew of drunken idiots started to get mad. Angry yelling suddenly became physical as one drunkard started to pound another. Fists and fury led to a confusing scene as stumbling construction workers drifted in and out of various groups that had contracted into islands of self-defense. One inebriated monster of a man plowed his way right into the family next to us, his enormous foot missing a sleeping baby by mere inches (and comatose Katrin by a few feet). The baby’s veiled mother pulled her child into her arms, jumped to her feet and let out a banshee wail of uncontrollable rage which can only be produced by a fearful mother’s gut instinct to defend her child. The ghostly image of the mother’s sheer hijab fluttering by as she surged across the deck and her sorrowful shriek of fear and rage left the drunk workers stunned and struggling to maintain balance as they attempted to process what had happened.
Silence fell over the boat as the men moved to the back of the ferry. For a moment, I almost thought I could hear the religious cracks in the stability of eastern Indonesia widening. Katrin suddenly sat up and, for the first time, appeared to realize that something was going on. (I have to admit I almost started laughing at that point.)
Several of the drunk men finally seemed to notice that three foreigners (that would be us) were sitting in the middle of the boat. It was hard to determine what was going on in their heads. Were they embarrassed by our presence? Amused? Angered? They contemplated back and forth in a language which we could not even identify let alone understand. The attention started to scare me.
But that attention was quickly interrupted when the men spontaneously started beating up on each other once again. They plowed back and forth actually stepping on one of their own who was sprawled out on the floor at the back of the boat, either passed out or dead. (Better him than the baby.)
And all this in the first hour of our 16-hour trip. Were we really expected to endure this mess all the way to Alor?
On occasion, I have been accused, mostly by people who have had few such experiences, of being overly aggressive. In reality, that aggression was born out of years of travel in remote areas in which threatening encounters such as this require strong responses. Ask yourself how you would react in such a situation. What would you do to resolve the mess? Threaten the workers? Hide behind cargo for the duration of the trip? Simply hope the drunkards’ attention wouldn’t return to you and endure their fighting for 16 hours?
Fed up with a boat infested with drunk construction workers, I marched up to the bridge and demanded the captain turn the ferry around and head back to the port. Much to my enormous surprise, he actually did.
So we did a wide oceanic U-turn and headed back to the dock. I’m not exactly sure why the captain agreed to return. The people of Lembata are enormously hospitable. It’s possible that he was embarrassed by the fight and wanted to do what he could to make up for that. It’s also possible that the captain realized the workers’ attention might actually turn back to us… or others. Or perhaps, he just wanted the workers off the boat.
But the drama wasn’t over yet. When we arrived back at the port, several policemen waving rifles boarded the ferry – the passengers scattered anticipating conflict. There was a great deal of yelling and bravado and pumped up chests and Indo-machismo. With rifles being pointed here and there, we danced around trying to stay out of the potential lines of fire. On some level, the police boarding the boat was as unsettling as the drunk construction workers.
There was a great deal of kicking, punching and comical slapping as the police experimented with various ways of subduing the workers. From the back of the ferry, a policeman emerged dragging a worker by his hair. The worker struggled and screamed and eventually gave in. Inspired by the unique methodology, other policemen grabbed ahold of their target workers’ hair and suddenly, like some bizarre round of caveman speed dating, policemen were dragging drunk workers all over the boat. One by one, they actually pulled the men, by their hair, up onto the dock. It was shocking, bizarre, brutal, humorous, disturbing, and satisfying all at the same time.
In other words, it was another day on the road.