I awake at four in the morning after eight hours of blissful sleep, the longest period of uninterrupted slumber I have had for a week. Sailing Vessel Zefr has just completed the passage from Thursday Island, Australia to Debut in the Kei Islands of Indonesia.
I lay there enjoying the stillness of the boat in its protected anchorage. Skipper Gary snores contentedly beside me. I start drifting off to sleep again when a very loud chant jerks me awake, Toto, we ain’t in Queensland no more.
We are on the Wonderful Sail2Indonesia rally and there are almost seventy boats along for the ride. It was wonderful sailing, the sou’east trade winds pushed us along for the five day, 560 nautical mile journey from Thursday Island to Debut.
The first melodic call to prayer has rolled out across the anchorage. Five minutes later a second call to prayer from the competition starts up, the combination of the two is a choral cacophony, as the two calls jarringly compete down the streets and across the water.
At 5am they both cease for a moment, then start up again with a modern Muslim soft rock tune. By now the roosters have joined in and I am wondering why the dogs are not barking. Now a string of fishing boats putt-putt back
in to port, through the fleet of visiting yachts.
One mosque must have won because now there is only one tune, an Indonesian equivalent of an Elvis crooner, a smooth lullaby which almost sends me back to sleep. Then ‘How am I supposed to live without you?’ wafts across the anchorage. Oh, okay the Muslim devotees demand some currency perhaps.
However, when Lady Gaga’s hit ‘Bad romance’ pumps out across the bay, I am really impressed by this modern face of Islam. I imagine Lady Gaga in a halal-certified meat dress, playing to a packed crowd of devotees against the backdrop of a silver domed, lime green mosque. 21st century pop-religious syncretism with Gaga as the prophetess in 30 centimetre fur stilettos and a bubble wrap hijab with a leg of ham hat on her head.
Then, meerkat style, I poke my head out of the hatch to look around and find that the mosques have fallen silent and Gaga is blaring out from a nearby ferry waiting to load its cargo of people. There is no going back to sleep now.
We have been here for 24 hours and have not been ashore yet. We are awaiting quarantine and Customs to clear in to the country.
But there is nothing clear about it, we all just have to sit and wait. And wait. Boats are not dealt with in any order, say for example, order of arrival. When our friends Debi and Jono go ashore to pick up their passports for the second time (unsuccessfully) they mention to the quarantine official, dressed in a smart khaki uniform and red thongs, with baseball cap on back to front, that they are worried we may be overlooked as we have anchored a little away from the fleet. Be-capped quarantine dude immediately grabs his interpreter and jumps in a dinghy which heads out to us.
Meanwhile, I am out on the stand-up paddleboard paddling valiantly against wind and tide, when I see the officials arrive at our boat, I increase my pace to warp factor 0.0000001. Am I in trouble? Quarantine has arrived and I am paddling back from a social visit to other boats who also are in limbo!
I wonder if Skipper Gary can find our ship’s papers, I hope they do not leave before I get there. It is gonna take me at least ten minutes and my arms are already heavy from paddling several miles into a ripping tide.
Did you know the tides can run at up to eight knots in some channels? I paddle at one or two knots, you do the math.
What if they quarantine me to my SUP board? I have had the sniffles lately and some people can take a runny nose pretty seriously.
I am interrupted by the arrival of a friendly dinghy that tows me back to our boat to find: chaos. Down below Gary has spread out a dozen pages of irrelevant information on a table that was already four stratas deep with computers, cruising and travel guides, bags of nuts and dental floss.
We had kept the boat clean for our first day of ‘Waiting for the Q dude’ but, by day two, we were slipping back into creating a future archaeological dig site capturing the life of the early 21st century cruising yachtie.
Said ‘Q dude’ is flicking through papers looking increasingly worried about the multi-layered pile of electronic equipment, books and official travel documents on the table. Nothing makes a paper shuffler sweat more than a big pile of messy papers that they cannot file.
Meanwhile Gary has poured everyone black carbonated drinks. The interpreter, also a German language teacher, is translating; letting us know that, while we have already filled out forms, we must fill them out again in the presence of Q Dude: the health declaration form, a crew list, a list of medicines and an arrival form.
They ask for copies of these documents to take with them. We do not have copies, so it is agreed they will take them back to the tourism office to photocopy them.
Medicines are mentioned, “oh you want to see our medicines? You are sitting on them.” Anxious look from our guests: we remove cushions and reveal our stash of 1000 Doxycycline anti-malarial drugs. Moment of confusion. “Oh okay, you want the list of medicines, of course here it is.”
I ask if we can take photos and everyone brightens up a bit. Nothing like a couple of selfies to smooth the immigration process. Finally, we are handed our Certificate of Pratique, with its watermark, scannable code, stamps and signatures, golden phoenix bird (mascot of the ministry of health) and golden picture frame border. It is a rather archaic but suitably impressive looking document.
Our interpreter/German language teacher reveals herself to also be a tour organiser, she encourages us to join a tour of the island tomorrow. We mention two small problems, we still need to clear Customs and we have no rupiah. No problem she says, I can drive you to an ATM.
I am sure she can!
This tendency for an individual to to be multi-skilled and engaged in several jobs at once is something we will grow to expect, particularly of Indonesian women. One lady I chatted with in Bali was a photographer, reflexologist, tour guide, nail artist and pet groomer. She doubled me back to her place, where I had an effective foot reflexology treatment and claw trim, while being entertained by her assortment of blonde and well-coiffured fur babies.
After pummelling some lumps in the arch of my foot she tells me my diet is too acidic: damn you, chardonnay! I need to drink coconut water twice a day. Her handsome odd jobs man: “was husband, but better now he works for me”, went to the markets and bought me ten young coconuts for water.
But I leap ahead, to return to Debut: from the boat I can see that the town seems loosely divided into Muslim and Christian sections, with several mosques dominating the waterfront. St Joseph’s Catholic church sits at the top of the town, like a mother hen with wings embracing her chicks, sheltering them from the monsoonal drizzle.
Lower down the slope, to the right, just under the mother hen’s wing tip, is a sneaky little mosque painted in muted tones but with its minaret clearly visible against the background of coconut palms and rusty tin.
We are ready to receive the Customs officials, the boat is clean, we have all our documents prepared including a neatly printed list of all alcohol on board, we have decided to be totally honest and declare our entire three month’s supply of drinks.
We are in limbo, but not the fun kind involving a few margaritas, music and dancing under a pole. Ours is a little more nightmarish, having cleared quarantine, but not Customs; with our passports ashore somewhere with Q Dude.
Waiting day one: in the morning we are filled with a sweet anticipation. We can hear the calls to prayer and the pop music, we can smell the wood smoke, outboard fuel and sweet smell of flowers and, occasionally, a local butterfly or wasp or fly visits the boat. But we cannot go ashore and explore.
By the afternoon, this tantalising feeling morphs into a niggling frustration at the slowness of Customs’ bureaucracy. As night falls over the town we cannot yet touch, we console ourselves with a G&T or three and we are able to cross one bottle off the list of ship’s stores!
Waiting day two: I am filled with a raw anger at having survived five days at sea, drift nets and possible pirates, only to be left floating in the harbour as more and more fellow cruisers whizz towards shore in their dinghies, grinning and waving their stamped documents.
But the anger cannot be sustained and I reason with myself: this is not Australia where you would be cleared-in within an hour or so, this is a rally and they have probably never had to deal with this number of boats at once.
Okay there is a whole new world, just out of reach, waiting to be explored; but it’s okay, we will stay on the boat and do boat jobs! It will be good to fix that blocked pipe/frayed line/loose connection and, yes, let’s take the morning to polish the stainless/swab the decks/clean the head!
This cleaning frenzy lasts for half a day and by the time the sun sinks behind the minarets we are able to cross off a bottle of red from the list of ship’s stores.
Waiting day three: I sink into a kind of apathy, resigned to the fact that customs may never come. All the rally ceremonies will go ahead, the welcome attended by ministers of tourism, local regents and all-singing/dancing school children, the information session, gala dinner and beach barbecue. At some point one yachtie will say to another: “whatever happened to that strange Aussie couple we met on Thursday Island? What were their names? What about their boat, wasn’t it something beginning with Z? Zulu? No, that would be silly. Zebra? No. Zefr was that it?”
The yachties will look at each other and shake their heads, “maybe they got caught in a net?”
By this stage we will be down to the last of our weevily ships biscuits, dried beans and cheap Aussie cask wine, sitting like two semi-mummified corpses staring at each other glumly across the once-happy saloon of our once-happy boat.
This is all the more painful for us, because this was one of our reasons for leaving Australia. We thought Australia had a lot of rules and regulations and can be a bit of a nanny nation; we now realise that everything is relative, particularly in this case and, by comparison to the Indonesian officials, Australia is like: “oh, g’day, it’s you! Where the bloody hell have you been? Come on in. Hey love, chuck another steak on the barbie.” At least, if you are a citizen already!
By lunchtime on day three I just want to be rescued. I am so tempted to pick up the VHF radio and send out a bleak ‘pan pan’.
No, goddammit, why muck around: ‘mayday, mayday, mayday: this is the sailing vessel Zefr we are at anchor in Debut Harbour in the Kei Islands of Indonesia, we have been here for three days, four hours, 36 minutes and 27 seconds, if Customs does not arrive within one hour we will be forced to abandon ship or leave the country! We will sail 2000 miles through the middle of Indonesia and clear into Malaysia, where it will take less than an hour or two!”
Then Customs finally arrive at our stern in a large dug-out canoe and they are so youthful, polite and handsome that our anger disappears. So, after a five-day passage followed by a three-day wait for the local Customs Boy Band to sign some papers, we finally step ashore into a new and very different country. ≈