In conversation with ‘el Capitan’ (el parto uno)
I am on board the good ship ‘Cintra Harapan’ with five lads from Sulawesi: Captain Baroh, who prefers to be called “Captain laba-laba” after the 90s smash hit “Mr Bombastic” by reggae-rapper ‘Shaggy’, is a portly, chain-smoking 26-year old who looks like he’s well into his forties, twice married, three kids and armed with a wicked sense of sarcasm and the sort of smile that, if I was being particularly cruel, I might suggest makes him look like a bit of a sex pest. Agung was his first mate. A wonderfully calm and gentle man, clearly the most intelligent person on board, always well presented in a smart check shirt, he was the man really in charge. Then there was Imrhan, a lad with an insatiable curiosity for all things British, in particular a laminated picture he discovered of my female cousins and sister. He was just 18, with a fro of curly hair and a sharp skinny-jean dress sense that sort of made him look like he should be playing bass in an Indonesian ‘Strokes’ tribute band. Ali was Agung’s right hand man, a quiet, slightly nervy chain-smoker with a horrendous scar all over his body from when he had rolled into the fire as a toddler. He was kind, intelligent and exceptionally hardworking. Then finally there was Agus, a baby-faced 16-year old with a smart cap and single plastic-diamond stud in his ear, he was responsible for a constant conveyor belt of culinary delights – spiced fish, fresh fried chicken, donuts, rice. The lad was a superb cook, possessing, as they say in Papua, “tasty fingers”.
“Welcome to kapal makan!” shouted Agung as I wandered on board in the dead of night, “welcome to the eating boat”. They weren’t wrong. I don’t remember a time over the following days that I didn’t have coffee, or crackers, or noodles or fish, in front of me. Rarely have I felt so welcome, never have I felt so full.
The boat was large and shaped like a tug. It had a spacious hull, a small sleeping deck with a DVD player, a few bunks, a tiny kitchen with a gas ring out the back and a diesel engine in the bowels. Life was suddenly very easy.
The crew and I gather on the sleeping deck and a game of cards ensued of the sort of complexity that only people that spend a disproportionate amount of time together could possibly understand. “Do you like your tea” asks Agus, he had given me the biggest mug he could find, “Yes, it is perfect,” I reply, lifting it up in the traditional tea-salute. Agus beams with pride then blushes. “Oi Will, what do you know about women from Manado!?” shouts Baroh. “Errr, I don’t really know where you are going with this but I…”, “Well!” Baroh cuts me off abruptly, “let school begin!” He shoves a DVD into the player and turns the bass amplifier up to full volume. A trio of women dressed in white, barely there, bikinis and short skirts burst onto the screen and start lip-syncing along to a Euro-pop trance hit. Baroh clicks his fingers and rolls his shoulders in time to the music, “these ladies are the product of the naughty Dutch colonialists having sexy time with our women!” enthuses Baroh, “by far the most sought after women in the whole of Indonesia!” He fists pumps the air and then lays his next card. I notice a calendar on the wall commemorating a local Islamic leader’s recent Hajj. Stern conservative Muslims stare out from the images on the front cover which is covered in scripture from the Quran. “Indonesian’s love pornography” screams Baroh over the thumping beat, “but ours are rubbish compared to yours! Our dicks are tiny!”
Just after 5am the boys haul in the rope and we cast off downstream. Instantly we plunge into thick forest, the Captain and his large wooden steering wheel silhouetted against the mist and a formidable jungle backdrop. Kingfishers, rails, swift-like birds and fish eagles abound on the banksides and, as the sun gets fuller in the sky, I begin to notice Asmat villages: stilt houses and longhouses with reed roofs and people out fishing in dug outs.
“We have to kill the speed whenever we see a canoe” says the Captain, pulling down the throttle to a putter as we pass a Papuan man, stood up in his dugout, bow drawn and taught, eyes focused on the water. “If we roll a canoe on our bow wave it’ll cost us 15 million rupiah (£980)…they’ll chase us down in their motor boat and if we don’t pay we have to fight”, he rubs a long scar on his arm, “you don’t want to get in a fight here.” It all felt a bit over dramatic, but then when your profit margins and wages are so low an avoidable mistake like that could cost you your whole trip.
The local villages have been long established here and signs of local industry are everywhere – informal logging camps, fishing and the buzzing of dugouts with motor engines up and down the river channel we are all sharing. It doesn’t take much of a leap of faith to imagine that this has been a vital watercourse for trading for centuries.
For the first time since I set off in January I feel like this really is the connection I have been looking for. I sip from my massive mug and recline on a bench as Baroh noses us down the vast coffee coloured river.
 A source of constant amusement amongst a certain Indonesian demographic is the similarity between the way shaggy pronounces “they call be mister lover lover” and “laba laba”, the Indonesian word for “spider”. I know. Hilarious isn’t it.