“Don’t dangle those feet too long,” says the captain. I pull my knees to my chest and look down. I can’t see any crocodiles or trails of bubbles, but you’ll never see the crocodile that kills you. Well, that’s what the leather-skinned fisherman from Darwin told me.
When sailing southern Indonesia, it’s not just a matter of “that bay looks pretty, let’s go,” you have to check charts, tides, winds, reefs, floating garbage, island politics, and whether or not the saltwater crocodile population has been culled by locals on a vengeance-mission after a villager was killed.
But here in Kupang, it’s the politics to be wary of. Once the Customs offices have got their bottle-of-wine bribe and stamped our visas, we board the dingy and are met at the beach by Daisy, our tour guide, and Ben, her son. Locals line the rocky shore and point at the spectacle. As far as white people go, our group has it all-6’4 men, blue-eyed pasty skinned women, and red-headed kids. Then there is Jolly Jack, our captain, who looks like he is hiding a watermelon under his shirt, and me, my blond, boob-length hair and freckles standing out like a black bear on an ice sheet.
On the way to our cars, I’m led past a food cart of skewered meatballs fresh out of a pot of gritty oil. Cubby-hole shops selling sachets of the necessities line the footpath. Hiding behind the single-use coffee, hand sanitizer, conditioner, sugar crystals, mosquito repellant, and chicken stock sachets are smiling women.
The car’s air conditioning and boom box are already blasting when Ben asks the driver to take us to the textiles factory. We merge onto a roundabout, joining the swarm of mopeds and fluorescent vans with fifty-plus antennas stuck to the roof. I lean into the window. The city begs for a fresh coat of paint and a few extra nails. Tin houses lean into their neighbors, rust, and gravity competing for which will demolish the shanties first. Amongst the trash and dilapidation are the cheery, hardworking people. Here, western culture is only dusted, but locals still approach, phone in hand.
“Selfie?” they say, arm already around my shoulder. Indonesia, in only one day, has given me more life lessons than any help book, and I have barely left the boat. Third world living with a first-world perspectives makes you appreciate the plot you were born on.
I was a terror of a teen. I resented my parents for pushing me to college, the “backward” mindset of rural Australians, and the 200 dollars I paid for damages after falling over, slightly tipsy, and putting my head through a wall. Now, with typhoid on my hands, rotten fish wafting through the window and a hill of houses threatening to crumble in on themselves, I realize the inescapability of this place. How do kids create dreams when they need to survive first?
We stop outside a single story wooden house. A splintered sign, written in Indonesian, hangs above the front door.
“This is the factory,” says Ben.
Inside, hand-woven bags, shirts, sarongs, sashes, and shoes color the room. A small woman picks up a sash and puts it in my hand. “Ikat,” she says, strumming her fingers over the fine cotton.
“Chanti,” I say, pointing at the geometric patterns. The first three words I learn in any language is hello, thanks, and beautiful, in that order.
She takes me out the back to a large room lined, 3 x 6, with looms. Women sit on the ground in sling back chairs inside the loom’s frame. They move the shuttle-a wooden stick strung with a single thread of cotton-back and forth over a cascade of dyed threads. With straight backs and a smile, their eyes are locked to the pattern that slowly emerges from the base of the fabric. A single two-color mat takes two weeks to make. The more colors you add, the longer it takes. Ben translates the steps in Tarzan-English. Apparently, there are seven steps to making Ikat. First, you bundle cotton into dreadlock-like strips and cover sections with wax. Then, you dye, dry, check the threads for bleeding, attach them to the loom, and finally, start weaving.
I head back into the store in search of a price. There are Ikat mats folded inside a glass cabinet and a tag dangles from the top-red, yellow, green, orange-mat. 250,000 Rupiah or 16 US dollars for over 60 hours of work. Hell, I am getting paid while sailing around the world. Where is the justice? I buy a pair of high waisted, red, yellow and black dress pants for 300,000 and don’t mind if I’ve gotten ripped off.
We pile into the cars and head to the produce market, a narrow alley of shops selling not only garden goods, but toys, tin-cans of cheese, milk, and fish, corn ice cream, and bench-top electronics. Deciding heat stroke is a greater risk than my plastic bottle being tossed into the ocean, I buy water having already the liter in my backpack.
I head to the produce ally in search of ginger, lettuce, and tofu. I get all three at the first stall and then spend the rest of the 100 m loop watching women and young girls swarm around the kids, ruffling their red hair, taking photos and pinching noses. One lady sneaks behind the 8-year-old and picks him up, snaps a selfie, and squeezes him so tight he mutters, help.
Flies circle me, the fruit, and the trash that scatters the dirt. When we get to the dried fish, flies whizz out from bones and climb into the fish’s eye sockets. I hold my breath and don’t breathe again until I’m 10 stalls up and standing in front of a mountain of papaya. By the end of the Market, my arms are heavy with carrots, cabbage, tomatoes, lettuce, parsley, bananas, and sweat.
My first full day in an Indonesian city is not what I expected. I imagined white sandy beaches, seashells washed ashore, trees heavy with fruit, coconuts floating on currents, and rustic towns with smiling people selling produce and textiles from their doorsteps. Here, plastic bottles float on currents, stony beaches scattered with trash welcome you to to the city, and houses are surely rustic, but not as quaint as I had imagined. Indonesia, however, is a big place with more than 13,000 islands and 300 ethnic groups. Kupang is just the first stop on a three-month island hop across the Indonesian Archipelago. After that, it’s Malaysia then India and then unknown.
I hope you follow me along the way.