We’ve been traveling through the world of the Bajau Laut, Malay people who live their lives on the sea. I’m reading Outcasts of the Islands by Sebastian Hope and I want to share this window into the concept of time the author describes so beautifully.
Living so close to the equator and its perpetual equinox means that the length of days and nights does not vary much year round. The words ‘summer’ and ‘winter’ do not have a useful meaning. But the Bajau Laut live in a world of other time signals, just as regular, just as significant. There are two tides a day, a full moon every twenty-eighth night, and a change in the prevailing wind every six months. These events are so central to the pattern of their life that it seemed inconceivable to me they would not tally them.
But then why bother counting? When the tide falls you prop up the boat. When the moon is full you go fishing at night. When the wind changes you move your anchorage. You do not have to plan beyond the next tide and the next visit to the well; there is no need to lay in store for the winter, as there is no winter. There is no need to know how old you are. When you are big enough you learn to swim and paddle a canoe. When you are strong enough you help with the fishing and the housework. When you reach puberty you work and wear clothes. When the bride price has been raised you are married. While your strength lasts you are parent and provider. When your strength fails you do what you can to help. These are the only markers of time that make any sense, the events of a personal history, and there is no need to count them as they happen only once. I would ask Sarani when things happened and he would say, ‘I was already wearing shorts,’ or ‘Before my first wife died,’ or ‘Before Kapalai was washed away.’ These were the singular events against which his time was measured.
Day three of the standard three-day tour usually ends early with the guests transported back to the airport in time to catch a flight to Jakarta. We aren’t going anywhere but back to Escape Velocity so on the advice of a friend we negotiated a longer final day. That meant we could putt-putt downriver at a snail’s pace, savoring the early morning quiet and listening for birds and other creatures in the intermittent rainforest drizzle.
Tourists who lack a sense of romance can hire a speedboat to run them all the way to Camp Leakey and back in one day. That kind of noisy and lumpy conveyance doesn’t appeal to us, but to each his own. These were the only two speedboats we saw during our time in the river.
I mentioned that the boat people are a close-knit community and that includes those who live on the river. The owner of the only guest house got married that morning and the bride and groom issued a blanket invitation to the boat folks to stop by and say hello, and bring their klotok guests, too.
We rafted up to a couple of other boats and climbed boat to boat to get to shore where we were offered food and drink and ran a receiving line gauntlet to the resplendent bride and groom.
As I was backing up to take the following photo my flip flop caught on a loose bit of carpet and I did a spectacular half gainer with a double twist ending in a full layout right in the middle of the reception. I expertly missed hitting the drinks tray and bounced right back up but not before a collective gasp punctuated the solemn occcasion, followed by laughter as I raised my arms in the universal I-meant-to-do-that gesture.
I thought maybe we should prevent me from performing any more potentially destructive maneuvers in the middle of a wedding and asked Herman if we could stroll through town. He arranged to have our klotok meet us at the far end and we made our way down the dusty road, with the usual stops for teens wanting to practice English and take photos.
Earlier I praised Yana’s delicious mie goreng, the classic Indonesian fried noodle dish. “Best I ever had,” I told her, and with that she offered to make it again for us. We weren’t supposed to get another meal but Yana got right to work and let me watch and photograph the steps so I can make it at home. True to form, she whipped up several dishes and laid a final extravagant lunch for us as we slowly motored back to reality.
Two hours later we emerged from the quiet river and back to the noisy, dusty port of Kumai. Our Borneo orangutan adventure is over and I just want to turn around and do it again.
Our second tour day took us further upriver to another feeding station with a beautiful walk through the forest. Herman showed us various plants, insects and birds along the way, and at one point he talked about “hairballs” just like Jack’s doctor in Labuan Bajo.
“Hairballs, hairballs,” I’m thinking, “What the — ?” Suddenly it clicked. Herbals! It all makes sense now. Doh.
The river narrowed and we turned off the main channel into an even narrower stream to our final destination, Camp Leakey. On the way Herman and Ivan kept watch for more sightings while we tried to do justice to another of Yana’s delicious meals and Iyeb took care of a few infield repairs.
Sitting on the bow of this klotok, meandering deeper into a dense rain forest, watching and listening and smelling for wildlife was one of the best experiences I’ve had since we’ve been cruising. On our own boat we’re constantly concerned about the boat, our ground tackle, the weather, the tides, always alert to sounds or changes that might indicate a problem. What a joy it was to sit without a care at all, to just appreciate the place and time, the peace and the beauty. Heaven! I think there might be a river life in our future.
Once again the boats congregated at a feeding station. Camp Leakey is where Biruté Baldikas has been studying these orangutans since 1970. A sign at the entrance informed us that it’s the “longest continuous study by one principle investigator into any wild non-human animal in the history of science.” That’s saying something.
For nearly an hour at the feeding station no orangutans showed up, despite the frequent calls by the rangers. Many of the guests left but we’d been advised by travelers we spoke to earlier to be patient and wait for the entire time. Sure enough, just when those few of us who remained started to relax our vow of silence and talk quietly we saw an enormous head poke up from behind the platform, followed by huge shoulders. Then with a great heave the entire body of a giant alpha male launched over the edge and came to rest with authority as a shaggy mountain beside a bucket of milk.
This is Terry, born in 1991 and not to be messed with, I reckon. Even the females who came soon after stayed at the other end of the platform. I don’t blame them. A few minutes later a young female swung through the trees toward the platform but when she saw Terry blocking the way she wisely took the overhead route, expertly judging the flex of the tree against her own weight, landing neatly on the other side.
Once again we stayed for the entire time allowed, just watching the behaviors and interactions.
It started raining on our walk back to the boat, and by the time we were underway it was pouring in earnest. The rain meant we couldn’t do a night walk in the forest because the rain brings fire ants and chases the other animals into their hiding places. We were disappointed but we’d come for the orangutans and they delivered so we’re not complaining.
The crew tarped the sides of the boat and we enjoyed another wonderful meal and slept like babies with the rain drumming a lullaby on the roof.
The island of Borneo is shared by Indonesia and Malaysia, with the tiny nation of Brunei occupying two small bits in the north. Borneo is rich in oil, coal, tin, diamonds, timber and other resources with ecotourism one of its largest economies. It’s the third largest island in the world with diverse and abundant wildlife and plants, many species, like the proboscus monkeys, only found here. Most important for us is that it’s the only place on earth to find the endangered Bornean orangutans. Sadly, palm oil plantations are causing an alarming loss of the ancient rain forest habitat. Many people fear the orangutans’ days are numbered and that’s why we’re here. As Douglas Adams would say, it may be our Last Chance to See.
The people of this region, called Kalimantan, know what they have and a visit to the orangutans is a well-oiled machine. But happily it’s also charming, personal, warm and most of all, protective of the animals and their precious and beautiful habitat. We didn’t at all feel that the experience has been Disneyfied or rushed, and everyone we came in contact with in planning our trip and on the tour itself was genuinely happy that we are here and went out of their way to make our visit as good as can be.
We arrived in Kumai without reservations late Thursday afternoon and I contacted four tour operators that I’d previously reached out to for info, schedule and cost. Within hours we had a three day, two night houseboat tour booked for the next morning and we scrambled to get the boat buttoned up and our small duffles packed.
By 11am Friday we were underway in the Kumai River, getting to know our houseboat and crew. The boats vary in size and style but are fairly standard in accommodation. Guests occupy the upper deck, with front and back sightseeing decks, a mattress in the middle, and a table and chairs aft. The crew (guide, captain, mate and cook) have the lower deck, including the bridge, sleeping/living quarters, and galley. In the back of the boat are a private bathroom for guests with western toilet, shower and sink, and a crew bathroom. Compared to Escape Velocity this houseboat is luxuriously spacious.
As we chugged up the river to our first stop we enjoyed a yummy lunch of local Indonesian food, freshly cooked with ingredients bought at the market just hours before. We were so hungry that we ate every morsel, which in hindsight must have sent the wrong message to our cook Yana because she upped the quantity in subsequent meals until we were often unable to finish the piles of food she put in front of us.
Our guide Herman (lots of Indonesians have European names, a legacy of 300 years of Dutch rule, I guess) kept a lookout for wildlife while we ate. He signaled Ivan the captain who stopped the boat and often maneuvered toward a better viewing angle for whatever we saw, then waited until we were ready to get underway again. As time went on, Jack and I got better at spotting things too, but Herman, with his repertoire of bird and animal calls, and Ivan with his experience and intimate knowledge of the river, never let us miss an opportunity to see whatever was lurking along the shore or in the canopy above.
In a few hours we arrived, along with a dozen or so other boats, at the first feeding station. A short walk through the forest brought us to a wooden platform where rangers dumped a couple of basket loads of bananas to tempt the nearby orangutans out of the trees. The orangutans aren’t dependent on this feeding, we learned, and in fact if none show up it means they found a more preferred food source elsewhere. Often an alpha male comes to the platform just to find some females and isn’t so much interested in the food as he is in the company. Herman told us the Bornean orangutans are more solitary than their Sumatran cousins, who live closer together for safely because of the threat of tigers.
Before long a few moms and babies showed up, along with an not-too-big alpha male.
While the 25 or 30 guests and our guides watched and snapped away in respectful near silence from crude wooden benches, the captains, mates and cooks socialized boat to boat out in the river. It’s a tight knit community and there’s always a helping hand with docking or mechanical issues or close quarter maneuvering.
At the feeding station we happily watched the orangutans for the entire allowed two hours. Jack and Herman and I were the last to leave.
Back on board we were treated to a chilled wet towel and a frosty Coke, much appreciated in these steamy equatorial afternoons.
For the rest of the daylight we spotted proboscus monkeys and other wildlife until just before dark Ivan and mate Iyeb lassoed a couple of pandanus branches and snugged us close to shore for the night.
We weren’t exactly confident, as Jack neared the end of his course of antibiotics, that the infection would be completely gone in the next 24 hours. His knee is still warm and inflamed and his whole leg looks as swollen as before. So back to the hospital we went and we’re very glad we did.
Dr. #2 was much more engaged and (we think) knowledgeable. He agreed that even though Jack is improving the antibiotics he’s taking aren’t quite up to the task. We were resupplied with more powerful bug-killers and another round of pain meds, along with packets of electrolytes to get Jack’s system back on track. The doctor also looked at the X-ray and assured us that the infection isn’t in the bones so that worry is gone.
As the doctor was describing the meds he ordered and what they are for, one was designated “for hair balls.” Now this doctor has pretty good English and we both understood 95% of what he said, but this didn’t sound right.
“For hair balls?” I asked, hoping he’d correct me and we’d understand the purpose of the drug. I glanced at Jack, who was suppressing a laugh.
“Yes, hair balls,” he repeated, as clear as a bell.
I nodded. Jack shrugged.
“Ok.” Good to know.
Reminds me of this scene from the movie “Best Friends.”ł
Today was a long day for Jack, even with a car and driver to run us to the hospital, the immigration office, the supermarket and traditional market. We’ll take tomorrow off and I’ll park Jack in the cockpit again with a soft cushion under his leg and a good book. We hope to be able to move on by the end of the week, but only if we’re sure there’s no danger of a relapse.
First let me thank everyone who sent good wishes to Jack. It means so much to us, believe me.
Jack has improved a lot in the past two days. After our initial Night of Hell the antibiotics started to work their magic and we think the fever is gone for good. Along with that Jack is back to his old talkative self but is understandably still weak and below par in energy. A couple of good nights’ sleep has helped but we think it will take a bit longer before he’s back to 100%. His knee is still swollen so obviously the infection isn’t quite kicked and we’ll be keeping an eye on that.
We can’t believe our good fortune that this emergency happened after we arrived in a town. For the previous week we’d been slowly making our way along the north coast of Flores Island, mostly alone and mostly stopping at quiet anchorages with no village nearby. On top of that, our phone and internet hotspot ran out of credit and we had no way to top them up until we got to a town. That meant our communications were limited to VHF radio and our Iridium devices, certainly enough to summon help if we needed it, but definitely limiting our options for immediate nearby assistance. Being in a crowded anchorage with tons of nearby help within hailing distance made all the difference.
Here’s how you know you’re not in Kansas anymore: At the hospital, the nurse gave me the rundown on the meds Jack would be getting and told us they would be sent up from the pharmacy shortly. I went to the front desk to pay our bill while we waited but the clerk told me I had to wait until the meds were actually delivered before she could take payment. I asked if I could use a credit card and she said yes.
When the meds arrived I went back to the desk to pay and found a man with an IV in his arm and an IV trolley beside him sitting behind the counter at the sole computer. I handed the clerk my credit card and she passed it to the man at the computer, who proceeded to generate our final bill and process my payment. He explained the procedure to the clerk at each step, and when he was finished he stood up, wheeled his IV trolley back across the hall to the examining room next to Jack’s and lay down on the exam table. I watched this mouth agape, then turned to the clerk.
“Is he a patient?” I asked. She looked up sheepishly.
“Yes,” she said, and that was all she was going to say about that. She handed me the final printout and receipt and we were free to go.
Most of the boats have left Labuanbajo for Komodo National Park, about 20 miles away. We aren’t going anywhere for a few days, and anyway I don’t think Jack is well enough yet to take the two hour walking tour we had planned at Komodo. We’ve applied for our visa extension and need to go into town tomorrow to complete the process and we hope we can start to plan our departure soon after that. We’d also like to get some diesel fuel because the unreliable wind in these parts means more motoring than normal and we don’t want to be caught out with no backup fuel. Our next scheduled rally destination is 200 miles west.
Today I have Jack parked in the cockpit with his leg up. I’m doing laundry and trying to get the boat cleaned up and back to normal. We hope to catch up with some posts about our great experience at Pasarwajo on Buton Island and share some wonderful photos now that we’re topped up and back online in the normal way.
Thanks again for hanging in with us and for all the good healing thoughts. They worked!
We have plenty to write about from the last two weeks and some great photos to share. But in the moment I want to tell you about how real life still happens even when you live on a boat, and how much we rely on our community of other cruisers and the people whose villages and towns we visit along the way.
Yesterday we motored about 16 miles to complete the lovely but long and mostly windless journey along the north shore of Flores Island. Several of our overnight anchorages were scheduled stops in previous years of the rally but this year none are on the itinerary. Even our next destination isn’t really a rally stop, but rather Labuanbajo, the tourism gateway to Komodo National Park, giving us a fairly generous break in the schedule so we can each plan our own way to explore and enjoy the UNESCO World Heritage site. Jack and I were really looking forward to meeting up with the other boats, restocking in a real supermarket, maybe eating out a couple of nights before we ventured to the land of the Komodo dragons.
We arrived at the anchorage about 10:30am and Jack lay down for a quick nap. Two hours later he was still sleeping in the cockpit, unusual for him, an experienced catnapper. We’d both been eager to get into town so I woke him, then woke him again a half hour later. He couldn’t seem to come fully to consciousness and as I pressed him to get up, it became clear he was foggy and not comprehending what I was saying. Then he tried to go to the bathroom and couldn’t get his legs under him and stumbled down the steps. My normally alert and surefooted husband was confused and unable to control his body. I was terrified.
It took some doing but I got him back into the cockpit but as I pressed him to tell me what was going on he remained unresponsive, unable to put words together. I waved our friend Mark over when I saw him pass by in his dinghy. “We have a problem,” I said. Mark came aboard and immediately saw the condition Jack was in. He asked if we have a blood pressure monitor. Of course, why didn’t I think of that? But our monitor is on its last legs and while it seemed to be working properly, the readout was illegible, even with fresh batteries.
Mark left to get his own monitor and came back a few minutes later with Craig from another boat, who brought a monitor and an oxygen sensor. Jack’s O2 level was fine but we couldn’t get a BP readout on Jack. And both Craig and Mark agreed that Jack needed to get to a medical professional ASAP. While Mark set about working on logistics, he and Craig suggested it might be worthwhile consulting Dr. Sandra on another boat. A few minutes later Sandra came aboard and proceeded to do a routine neurological evaluation. She didn’t think Jack had had a stroke, but of course couldn’t rule it out, and thought perhaps his symptoms were the result of an apparent high fever from a two-week-old injury to his knee that looked to be infected. She also urged us to get him to a hospital right away to be sure and to get the appropriate meds to treat it.
Once that decision was made our circle of sailor friends shifted into high gear. While I gathered passports, insurance info and cash, the others arranged transport from a local hotel, rallied more help to get Jack safely ashore in a dinghy and me ashore in another. Susan was designated our point person and communications link and came with us in the taxi.
Within about 20 minutes we arrived at the hospital and a nurse listened to the onset of symptoms and took Jack’s bp and pulse (both normal) and his temperature (high.) We had a bit of a wait before a doctor came and he was immediately concerned with the look of Jack’s knee and ordered both blood work and an X-ray. While we waited for those the nurse started an IV of saline, electrolytes and paracetamol for the fever.
An hour later the IV and air conditioning had brought down the fever to almost normal and Jack was once again able to respond to questions, although it was a while longer before he could recall his own birthdate.
Susan was good company, keeping us both distracted and entertained, as well as keeping the boater community back at the anchorage informed by phone about Jack’s condition. Eventually the doctor came back, and as far as I could discern from his excellent but accented English Jack’s infection has affected his knee bones and we’d be going home with a fistful of various meds to treat the infection, reduce the fever, alleviate the pain and support his immune system. Total cost for everything was 2,640,000 Rupiah, or about $185 US, well below our insurance deductible.
It was difficult to find a taxi to take the three of us back to the waterfront until an HR employee at the end of his shift offered his own car and driver to transport us. When we got back to the hotel, the manager who had arranged the original taxi and helped Jack to the car made sure we knew he was at our service for whatever we may need. We are so grateful to the complete strangers who stepped up without hesitation to help.
We realized Jack hadn’t eaten since breakfast, adding low blood sugar to his woes, so we quickly ordered food at the hotel bar, but three bites into his burger Jack developed violent hiccups that he couldn’t shake and we wrapped up our food and rallied the transport teams to get Jack and me home to Escape Velocity.
Back onboard Jack continued to hiccup for hours as we tried every remedy in the book. Finally they stopped but then his fever spiked again, higher than before. I was afraid I’d have to get him back to the hospital at 3 am. I spent about an hour sponging him down to cool him off and that brought the fever down, but then the hiccups started again. This went on all night until, completely exhausted, Jack finally fell asleep and the hiccups stopped.
This morning I waited as long as I could before waking him to eat a few bites so he could take the next round of meds. And wouldn’t you know, the hiccups came back. Curses!
It’s now 10:30am. The hiccups are gone again, at least for now. The doctor from the other boat just stopped by to check on Jack. She’s a rehab physician from the Netherlands and we know another Dutch rehab doctor, Monique, whom we met along with her neurologist husband Pieter in Panama back in 2014. Monique and Pieter were at Isabela in the Galapagos when we limped back after our dismasting and were part of the Schulz Cocooning Team that soothed and comforted us in those first weeks of emotional trauma. As fate would have it, they know each other! So twice in our sailing adventures Dutch rehab doctors came to our rescue. What are the odds? They are both special people.
Jack is asleep now. We’re hoping a few days of the antibiotics will show improvement and Jack is taking the doctors’ advice to rest and recuperate. I feel like we dodged what could have been a very serious bullet. My job now is to figure out how to repay the generosity and kindness of so many people who pitched in when we needed it most and continue to offer help. The world is truly a beautiful place.