Saturday, December 6, 2008

Into Indonesia!

Samarinda, East Kalimantan, Indonesia

Zzzzzzzzip across Sabah and into Indonesia!

A few nights in Kota Kinabalu eating nice food and visiting with a few of Linda’s innumerable but individually immensely memorable siblings and then jump onto a night bus for Tawau, Sabah.

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The bus is as comfortable as can be expected, but the road is windy. Each of us has friends. Erin has a book that puts her to sleep. Nate has a few pills of Gravol. Linda has a plastic bag she refuses to fill up with vomit, despite the demands of her gastrointestinal system and her addled inner ear. Ben has a dram of Irish whisky, poured into a plastic water bottle and consumed openly, as though it were cold tea.

I loved that bus! Everyone else was either sleeping or miserable, but I was drinking decent whisky for the first time in weeks, I had a good book and when I looked up, there was a hilariously miss-subtitled Thai/Chinese kung-fu movie to laugh at. When I asked the bus driver to wait for me to pee in the ditch while we were stopped at a police checkpoint, even the gravel on the road looked magical to me, standing out in long black streaks in the headlights of the bus. And when I looked up just in time to clearly see a dog disappear under our front wheels with a satisfying thump, I giggled. That bus ride was meant for me!

The morning was much less good. The bus driver was too fast for dogs and for passengers wanting to sleep past 4:30, when we arrived in Tawau in the middle of the heaviest rainfall I’d seen in at least three days. Sleepily, we stood around for the bus shelter waiting for the rain to let up, and then we ran through the rain to a dirty all-night restaurant that served coffee and food that can only be served in the middle of the night by the only place open for miles.

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We waited until 6:30 (we thought the boat left at 8:00) and carried our bags across town to the ferry port, where we were told the boat didn’t leave until 11:30. We bought tickets and found a slightly dirtier restaurant nearby, where Linda and Erin tried to read through bleary eyes and where Nate and I slept with our heads on the table, periodically waking to order another cup of coffee or bowl of soup. Finally at 10:00 we cleared customs and got on the boat at 10:30. The boat didn’t actually leave until 1:00 — an hour and a half late — but I was far too asleep to feel impatient.

At Tarakan we did some backpack-laden gymnastics, climbing from boat to boat to pier among our smiling and helpful Indonesian fellow passengers. Up on the pier, Erin immediately declared, “I like this place. That was fun. Those people were so friendly.” We had been in Tarakan for less than 10 minutes at the time. I kissed her for being so prejudicially positive, or I should have, anyway.

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Even before we clear customs, the one English-speaking cab driver in town finds us. We don’t need an English-speaking cab driver; Linda speaks Bahasa Malaysia, which is ten words and an accent away from Bahasa Indonesia and besides, the rest of us have fifty words of Bahasa and a phrasebook to get us whatever we want. But once he has us, we can’t shake him, and we climb into his shitty little van and he makes inquiries on our behalf.

He calls the travel agent Linda spoke to yesterday and mysteriously they haven’t kept the plane tickets they promised they would hold for us. All of the other travel agents are closed, he says. The hotel we want to check into turns us away. There are too many bad things happening all at once. Anything this man touches turns to shit, I say. Still, we let him drive us to another travel agent. He takes us to a residential back alley. The agency is closed, the driver says, so the travel agent is at home. Suddenly, mysteriously, the “agent” is quoting us a price for a plane ticket that is nearly double what we thought we would pay.

It’s all much too bad for coincidence. The only thing to be done is to get rid of the cab driver. We make him drive us to our second-choice hotel, the Hotel Paradise. He suggests a different one, but we insist on Paradise. We drove past it before, so we know where it is. So he takes us there and we get rid of him, and everything starts to get better again.

We get rooms. The Hotel Paradise was never splendid, but even its lack of splendour has faded. The rooms are shabby and overpriced, but they have beds and showers. Linda is exhausted from being our go-between with all of the conmen we’ve met, so Erin and I let her and Nate shower, while we go downstairs and try to sort out our flight situation. The hotel’s travel agency is closed, but the nice man at reception makes a couple of phone calls and tells us that there is room on the 7:00 AM flight we intended to take on Batavia Air, and if we show up at the airport at 5:30 AM, we’ll probably be able to get on the plane.

This is an improvement. None of us wants to have to spend a whole day in Tarakan.

The motto of Batavia Air is “Trust us to Fly”. I always thought that it is implicit in the act of buying a plane ticket that you trust them not only to fly, but also to land the fucking plane. I don’t find the motto encouraging.

We shower for the first time in well over 24 hours. Undressing is an olfactory assault. The last thing I want to do is pull my t-shirt up over my nose, but it’s the only way to get the thing off my body without cutting it off. I consider cutting it off. I have so few t-shirts, though; instead, I take a deep breath.

Refreshed and feeling human again, we go out and find food. Tarakan is a bit of a hole, but we find a lively street market and some passable street food. Then I look for beer and find it nowhere. Muslims. We’re about to give up when we walk past a much more expensive hotel than our own. Expensive hotels always have bars, and this one is no exception. Bottles of ice-cold Bintang beer are about C$1.75, and the staff is very friendly. Things are getting much better.

We have a couple of beers and return to our hotel and find the hotel’s travel agency suddenly open. The nice man at reception evidently called the travel agent in on our behalf. The travel agent tells us that contrary to our previous fear, there are several flights a day from Tarakan to Balikpapan. He sells us tickets on Sriwajaya Air for a very reasonable price and tells us that he’ll drive us to the airport for free the next day at 10:00 for our 11:30 flight. Things are bordering on being fantastic.

Sriwajaya Air’s motto is “Your Flying Partner.” I personally don’t feel at all qualified to be their flying partner. I’d never thought of my arrangement with any airline as being a reciprocal partnership on the subject of flying. I’d always thought of it as being a strictly one-way relationship, in which they did absolutely all of the flying without consulting me on any of the technical aspects. I hoped that I wouldn’t be called to the cockpit to fulfill my part of the partnership — landing the plane, for example.

The breakfast at Hotel Paradise is worse than the rooms, but the travel agent is good as his word and he meets us out front with an SUV. We had only seen him sitting down before; he turns out to be unbelievably short. He drives us to the airport, takes our money and gives us fully-functioning plane tickets. We are very happy with the short man.

Sriwajaya did 100% of the flying to Balikpapan. Their in-flight service consisted of handing each passenger a boxed meal as we boarded the bus that took us across the tarmac to the plane. The box held a container of water, a chocolate-filled bun, and a small cube of sticky rice with chicken, wrapped in a banana leaf. Erin didn’t want hers, so I ate it for her. We discovered that the reason they gave us the flight meal in advance was that the flight attendants were far too busy during the flight trying to sell all manner of tatty dollar-store goods to the passengers to serve meals, but they did land the plane without my help.

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In Balikpapan we got a cab to the bus station and a bus to Samarinda. Samarinda is a bustling, dirty boomtown that has recently switched from logging to coal, but it’s not completely without its charms. We found one restaurant that is very nice except for being lightly infested with beggars, and we found a hotel that I like very much. Every time I go to the toilet or have a shower, I have a cultural experience. The toilet in our room is a squat toilet, (which I have been told and which I believe to be much healthier for your bowels than a sit-down toilet) and showering is accomplished by scooping water onto your head from a container called a mandi. I enjoy it.

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Some people ask me why I enjoy traveling in uncomfortable places so much. I like it because it’s like a roller coaster: up, up, up, DOWN, (wheee!) up, up, up, DOWN, &c. The bad moments are trying enough that the small victories are immensely rewarding. Finding a cold beer can be a triumph and a $15 hotel room can feel like a palace.

We have found a guide and made plans to depart tomorrow for our exciting trip up the mighty Mahakam River. I don’t think I can tell you what we’re doing up there. Erin is writing another story. It’s probably a secret. I’ll ask her, though.


  1. Poor dog. ...and to think that you call ME the sociopath.

  2. Dearest Benji,

    Recently, on a train from Philadelphia to Toronto that was undoubtably exponentially more comfortable but considerably less cool than any of your current modes of transportation, I began reading your book, and have henceforth been plaugued (and I mean plauged in the most pleasant way possible) with visions of Ben dancing in my head ever since. And though slightly concerned you will one day pour ice water over my head and want to have loud, giggling, ass slapping sex with me, I am very much enjoying The Victory Lap. I also had a fairly intoxicated conversation with someone- mark cluett, perhaps?- last night about you and foosball, who was then assulted by my beligerant complaints about you making me run around the foosball table with no pants on. Needless to say, I miss you cats!
    I hope you're all having the raddest time ever, and are taking good care of each other.
    Sending you all my neighborly love,