I chalk it up to heat-induced temporary insanity. It could happen to any Canadian crossing the equator.
I had a strong desire to make my way to Germany, dye my hair orange and drum for a punk band which specialized in industrial music.
The desire passed as the bus followed the road through the lush jungle vegetation past rice paddies and wilted looking livestock.
When I thought about summoning enough energy to listen, I was convinced I could hear the plants grow in the humidity. The whole island was a hothouse.
The single minded bus driver seemed to be the only one expending energy as he missed pedestrians, livestock and other vehicles, leaned on the horn.
We were used to the danger by now. A sort of fatalistic resignation takes over on breakneck bus rides through the countryside of Sumatra. It was too hot to care.
We had left the craziness and heroin of Penang behind. The sweat dripped off of our noses. Everyone on the bus, even the natives, had a worn out, washed out look.
We were travelling from Medan, where the ferry from Penang had taken us, down the spine of Sumatra to Lake Toba, thence to Padang, about halfway down the island, on the coast.
In Padang we spent hours at the consulate waiting to get our visas renewed because it was cheaper there than in Bali.
Of a dozen uniformed clerks, two were reading, the rest inspected the Western girls or stared into space, a paper clip twisting in their fingers. When they did stir to attend the sweating crowd of travellers they wanted to first see proof that you had a return ticket. It’s the only legal way to enter Indonesia. It didn’t matter that we’d entered days before at Medan.
The passports and applications lay in a pile on a desk.
They didn’t have to worry about an overwhelming influx of immigrants heading south since the island of Java is the most thickly populated place on earth, but it was one way for the government to get money from travellers.
A Japanese girl told Joyce that she had tonsilitis and that they didn’t have toilet paper even in hospitals in Padang.
Seventy-five cents for dormitory beds at the local hostel. Officially marrying before getting to Asia saves a lot of problems. Single women are targets.
At Lake Toba, we recovered from the bus ride during which it was too hot to sleep. The soaking heat deprived us of every traveller’s last resort, the final escape from the tedium and discomfort … sleep, oblivion.
There, time stood still, then went backward.
We had landed in a timeless, primitive existence. Surrounded by the jungle and jungle sounds. Old men wailed their night songs in the dark. It sounded like a Tarzan movie.
Wild boar lived in the jungle, endangered humans occasionally, provided meat and tusks more often. Snakes and mongooses and their spirits were part of the diet and the mythology.
Ancient Sumatran devils caused poor sleep, restless dreams. All the dwellings had horned roofs which intruded, then dominated.
A reminder that no matter what it was like in the outside world, this was here and now. This primitive existence was the present. Reality. No luxuries, no concrete, no advanced plumbing or electricity.
Rats made nests in the roof so when you woke up into the flickering darkness from a dream of ancient enemy skins hanging by the fire, you could hear them running along the rafters over your head. You could see their shadows on the thatched roof when the candle light caught them.
Sleep again became a refuge along with a short prayer for the balance of rats.
We finally boarded a freighter, in Padang, the cheapest way to travel from Sumatra to Java.
The beginning of our sea voyage was normal. We watched the port, then the island of Sumatra fade into the distance behind us and with it, the confusion and brain fever.
Deck space, a place to sleep beneath the canvas strung across the deck for protection from the sun and rain, was what we paid for.
Two big, deeply tanned Aussies who were obviously used to the sea and travelling by sea, probably lived by the sea, told us they had accompanied fishermen from an island near Bali on an early morning trip.
They witnessed, then tried, the eating of the raw hearts of the fish they caught. They found it to be a life giving experience with aphrodisiac powers.
Meals were cooked in the tiny galley below deck; a green vegetable which had obviously been boiled, over a bed of rice, on a tin plate. Tasteless but necessary to settle the queasy stomachs everyone felt
The sea looked calm enough. But a rhythmic sway began to get to everyone. Coconut oil smoke made it worse.
Even the regular crew and the Aussies were hit by sea sickness. They laughed and made wise cracks between spews. The rest of us weren’t so lighthearted about it.
Soon there were travellers and crew members staggering to the rail to vomit over the side.
The unwary ones stood downwind from others puking over the side near the front, got splashed.
One grain of rice, well soaked in the stomach’s digestive juices, inadvertently snorted while vomiting, causes untold misery in the nasal passage and a long lasting, unpleasant reminder of how sick you really were.
Finally, that particular movement of the ship passed and so did the seasickness.
The travellers and crew wobbled about unsteadily for a while, then settled down.
No one offered the travellers rice after that. Our diet became the fruit we had brought on board with us.
We settled down on the deck, tried to sleep through the hot days and windy nights.
Serge from France, tanned dark brown, curly hair down past his shoulders, wispy goatee, regained his happy smile as he recovered from the seasickness. He wore a sarong like a native, always carried a flute attached to his backpack.
Everyone commiserated with him when we found out he was on his way back to France to fulfill his military obligations. He had been drafted.
These were his last few days of freedom. He had made his choice.
He was tempted to keep travelling, but he knew that eventually he’d want to return to France. The army was one step above jail.
He couldn’t go back on the run. He was a proud Frenchman, but that had nothing to do with the government’s army. His ideas and life were far from conformity, uniformity, the military.
One night, in a Tull like performance, he started playing.
Under the canvas, starry night above, the sea breeze blowing his hair in time with the tempo of his song, Serge captivated everyone.
All the travellers stopped talking or sat up to look and listen, even some crew members, smoking by the dark rail, paid attention.
He started in the familiar pose which we had all adopted… leaning, laying back against our packs and bedrolls, then he seemed to find something as he played the first few, hesitant notes.
He stood up, still playing. His flute came alive. His song gained and lost volume and speed as he breathed life into it.
It wasn’t recorded, probably forgotten even by Serge, a few days later.
There was the soft soughing of the ship as it made its way through the water, the sea breeze in the wires, occasionally something would flap in the southern night wind.
The notes of Serge’s flute seemed to linger and then be snatched away by the other sounds.
His eyes closed, Serge stood and played to the night, to his humble companions, listened to the sounds around him and echoed them.
He didn’t stand on one leg, but he carried us all away as he talked to the wind in its own language.
Selamat Jalan…Good Journey. A fitting Indonesian goodbye to Sumatra.
Then someone told us that we were passing Krakatau which erupted in 1883 killing thousands of people. It was just a lump on the horizon from the deck of the ship. A famous volcano which the world knew about because of the tragedy.
Later that day, we landed in Djakarta.