A Sea of Possibilities

In search of adventure, the writer found humanity. This is not your typical destination story—but it reveals the lessons that travel can offer.

From the March 2010 issue of National Geographic Traveler

In search of adventure, the writer found humanity. This is not your typical destination story—but it reveals the lessons that travel can offer.

Indonesian Ferry Sinks. Peruvian Bus Plunges Off Cliff. Kenyan Train Attacked by Mobs. Whenever he picked up a newspaper, journalist Carl Hoffman noticed those news bulletins, and wondered what it was like to travel off the grid where most travelers rarely venture. Last year he spent five months circumnavigating the globe on statistically dangerous airlines, crowded ferries, the slowest buses, and risky trains. What he found is that the world is a lot kinder place than he imagined. This is an excerpt from a chapter of The Lunatic Express (Broadway Books, 2010), a journey of escape and a voyage of discovery right into the world's messy heart.

The heat felt thick enough to touch. Sweat dripped from my temples, and I couldn't keep the flies off. Smoke from hundreds of cigarettes hung in the air like faded, yellowed lace curtains. I was three decks down, in ekonomi—steerage—on the Bukit Siguntang, a 479-foot-long steel ferry operated by Pelni, the Indonesian government-owned shipping line. The Siguntang officially carried 2,003 souls, all but 739 in ekonomi, but it seemed like every man, woman, and child in Jakarta was swarming into her belly. There were no beds or bunks—just two open decks full of knee-high linoleum-covered platforms on which we were supposed to lie like hot dogs lined up on a grill. The bulkheads were brown, the ceiling brown, the deck white linoleum covered in ochre cigarette burns. It was an industrial holding pen with the occasional basketball-size porthole that didn't open.

"Nasi, nasi, nasi!" vendors yelled for those seeking rice. Babies cried. Water and chips, noisemakers and rice wrapped in brown paper cones, balloons–it might have been the circus.

"Air, air, air!"—"water" in Bahasa Indonesian.

We hadn't left the dock; I wanted to go on deck but feared leaving my bags. I was the only foreigner, hungry and nervous to be so totally submerged in otherness. Porters in yellow shirts humped boxes wrapped in twine, which increasingly piled higher and higher in the aisles, against the walls. This was no casual, quick hop to Chicago for the weekend. Whole families were on the move, armed with goods and prepared with bedding and enough plastic bins of rice to be marooned on a tropical island for weeks. Indonesia is a world of islands, some 13,000 stretching across 3,100 miles, and without ferries the nation would never hang together; they are its lifeblood, carrying not just people, but cars and refrigerators and anything and everything too big or too expensive to fly. The Siguntang's route was epic: nine days from Jakarta to Sorong, in Indonesian Papua, via Surabaya, Makassar, Baubau, Ambon, Bandanaira, and Fakfak. I was booked through to Ambon in the Molucca Islands, five solid days in steerage with no breaks, no bed, no door to keep acquisitive hands off my stuff, and, it was immediately clear, no way to get out quickly if we hit rough seas.

"Hello," a high-pitched voice said. I turned, and next to me knelt a teenage girl wearing skinny jeans and a Mickey Mouse T-shirt that said "Pirate Girl" in sequins. "I am Mrs. Nova," she said. "What is your religion?"

Two women wearing head scarves on the other plank eyed me. The woman to my left clutched a Koran. I was captive, surrounded. I hesitated. "Atheist" seemed too provocative. Thankfully Mrs. Nova, who was clearly not a Mrs., didn't wait for an answer. "Christian?"

I bobbled my head noncommittally.

"My hobbies are singing and billiards," she said in nearly perfect English, as if reading from a conversation book. "Mr. Carl," she continued in the third person, "Mrs. Nova likes Linkin Park and Britney Spears. Mrs. Nova is 17 and she lives in Makassar."

That broke the ice; suddenly the family across from me cut in. Florinda spoke a little English and wore a pink headscarf, and she was with her sister and one of their sons, Kahar. They'd traveled three days from Makassar to Jakarta for a family wedding, stayed a week, and were now making the three-day trip back. Thirteen days, six of them traveling. A ramen seller came by and I flagged him down. Mrs. Nova nearly attacked him, barking a string of Indonesian. She jumped up, fished around in her bag and pulled out a case of ramen. "For two!" she said. "For Mrs. Nova and Mr. Carl!"

A vendor hawking thin cotton mattress pads muscled past. I waved him over; five days on linoleum wasn't going to be easy. This time the woman with the Koran barked, looked at me, shook her head, waggled her finger no. Then she pantomimed picking tiny things off her ankles, and held her nose. The message was clear. The vendor scowled and stomped off.

There was another message, too: Once again, the more I gave myself to the world, the more I made myself vulnerable by putting myself completely at the disposal of people and situations in which I had no control, the more people took care of me, looked out for me. At first I had thought they were taking pity on me. But as my journey unfolded, I started to understand something else, something that had been sinking in gradually over the months. Being a white American conferred on me an automatic status. I represented power. Affluence. And if I could shed my American reserves, phobias, disgusts, they would embrace me. In the weeks ahead I would do whatever my fellow travelers and hosts did. If they drank the tap water of Mumbai and Kolkata and Bangladesh, so would I. If they bought tea from street corner vendors, so would I. If they ate with their fingers, even if I was given utensils, I ate with my fingers. Doing so prompted an outpouring of generosity and curiosity that never ceased to amaze me; it opened the door, made people take me in. That I shared their food, their discomfort, their danger, fascinated and validated them in a powerful way. And as Lena, the woman with the Koran, waved away the cushion man and Mrs. Nova insisted I share her food, I realized I was in good hands, surrounded by women with eagle eyes; I could relax; murder or robbery was the last thing I had to worry about.

Sometime, I don't know when, we pulled away from the dock and headed to sea, and I lay down and tried to sleep—Lena six inches to my left, Mrs. Nova six inches to my right. The fluorescent lights hummed brightly overhead. People coughed. Babies whined and screamed. A kid nearby twirled a noisemaker, the sound like stones grinding in a barrel. The air was still and humid and oppressive. Radios blared. And lying there, so awake, I noticed the roaches. Half an inch long, they scurried up the walls, across the ceiling straight over my head.

I pulled a T-shirt over my eyes, trying to get comfortable. It was midnight, and already my hips, knees, and ankles hurt from the hard surface. I don't know when I finally fell asleep, but at 4 a.m. the PA system blared to the chanting of the muezzin. Dawn; time to pray. I tried to wait it out, shut it out. But all around me people began to move. Lena slid a white dress over her clothing and enveloped her head in a lace headdress, knelt, and bowed up and down, murmuring.

I got up, stiff, and climbed two flights of stairs and out on deck, first light just beginning to illuminate the eastern horizon. Ten-foot-wide decks ran the Siguntang's length, and there was a snack bar in the stern under green corrugated fiberglass. The air felt balmy and fresh, nothing but dark blue calm sea and lightening sky. At 6 a.m., when the snack bar opened, I got a sweet coffee in a thin plastic cup. My ass hurt; there was no place soft to sit anywhere on the ship. I wandered; I stared at the sea; I returned to my platform. "Mr. Carl," said Mrs. Nova, "you must eat breakfast!" With my ticket, it turned out, I was entitled to three meals a day. I stood in a long line that wound past a window; each passenger was handed a plastic foam box and a bottle of water. I opened my box: white rice and a fish tail, and a packet of sambal—hot sauce. There were a lot of bones. Mrs. Nova sang softly to herself and then someone brought out a guitar. She took it, started singing. Lena joined her. It was melodious, beautiful, and I lay down in the heat and dozed off.

That afternoon, sitting on a rail overlooking one of the lifeboats, I met Daoud Genti. He was tiny, five inches shorter than me, dressed in blue jeans and a T-shirt that read Illinois State. He spoke English well, part of the army of cheap, semi-skilled laborers dispersed throughout the world keeping their parents and their ancestral villages afloat. He was returning home to Sulawesi after five years, the last six months as a seaman in Dubai. The Siguntang, I soon discovered, was packed with people just like him. "I need a break," he said. "I've been working 12 hours a day, seven days a week for six months straight, and I quit because they weren't paying us enough. We were supposed to have one day a week off, but we didn't." He was a Toraja, a once fierce race of rice growers who lived in stylized wooden houses with upturned roofs, carried out elaborate funeral rituals, and interred their dead in family caves. "All of my family is in a cave," he said, "but we're running out of room. I haven't seen my family in five years."

We reached Surabaya that afternoon, and Mrs. Nova announced that we were going to jalan, jalan—the Indonesian expression for strolling around. She brushed her hair, put on a cap and a pair of oversized sunglasses, and led the way, holding the hand of her five-year-old plank neighbor, as a young man who couldn't speak English brought up the rear. "My family is in Jakarta, and my family is in Makassar, and my family is HUGE!" she said as we wound through the heat, up the stairs and down the gangplank onto the trash-littered wharf. I had never encountered someone so bursting with enthusiasm, so trusting.

We turned down a narrow alley lined with identical wooden carts, each with a two-by-four bench and jars of what looked like bright green-and-white worms. We walked up the alley and down the alley, Mrs. Nova peering at each cart, shaking her head, spitting out questions to the chefs. "This one!" she said, and we straddled the bench. In seconds four bowls appeared full of noodles and meatballs and hot peppers. "Bakso! You like bakso?" she said. I plunged in. Whatever it was, it was good. On some unspoken signal, the silent man paid, even though I whipped out a pile of bills. That would happen over and over again–people far poorer than I insisting that they pay for everything.

When we got back to the ship it looked like it was being attacked by ants. Another thousand people were fighting their way on board. I watched men shimmying up the dock lines, human rats, a dangling, frenetic whirl of limbs that climbed five stories to disappear in the throngs. If the Siguntang seemed crowded before, now it was packed. Every passageway and stairway was staked out with blankets and towels and scraps of newsprint. The decks inside, the decks outside–humanity covered every square inch of space. Children. Old men and women lying on the hard floor. The people outside had it best as long as the weather held. To descend the stairs into ekonomi was to get hit with a wall of heat and humidity and cigarette smoke. You could touch it, feel it on your face and hands. It almost knocked me backward.

Once I was known, grown used to, an endless stream of strangers approached me, waved me over, bought me coffee and tea, called out to me. In my space on my plank I was an old family member. Florinda fed me slices of fishy tempeh. Mrs. Nova made sure I was hydrated. Lena, I suspect, prayed for my soul. One evening I trudged back from up on deck, stepping gingerly past people's sarongs on the floor and hands and heads, and came upon nine ebony-colored men with muscular arms gathered around each other a few planks down from mine. Three of them held crude, homemade ukuleles constructed of fiberboard and nylon, thinly painted in whitewash. Clouds of cigarette smoke rose around them. Perspiration flew from their heads—it was 100 degrees at least, with not a wisp of fresh air. And for two hours they sang in rough, deep, and mad harmony, songs of Papua and work and Indonesian folk songs, other men keeping beat with empty water bottles. They were coming off five months on a gas well in Brunei, heading home to Sorong, a journey from start to finish of almost 12 days. "Sit! Sit!" cried Jacobus. "We want whiskey! Where are you going?" "Ambon," I said, and they broke into song, with a refrain of "Ambon Man" in English. Their singing was spontaneous, organic. The raw energy of lions roaring on the plain, the best of human beauty in the midst of the worst possible place. After two hours they wore themselves out; Jacobus's fingers were bloody, he'd played so long and so hard. I lay down to sleep, the lights bright, my body a series of bruised points on the hard plank.

In the morning I found Daoud gazing out to sea. A pod of porpoises sliced through the royal blue waves, leaped over the ship's wake, sped toward the ship, and cut abruptly away. Flying fish erupted from the sea, sailing across the surface to plunk in 50 yards away. Later that day, in the quickly falling twilight of the tropics, we approached Makassar, a long line of green hills rising out of the blue sea. The PA system crackled and boomed, and I returned to my plank to find Mrs. Nova and Florinda and her family packing, and eight young men, tough guys, sitting on my bed. I climbed up, muscled my way in and they barely moved over, and I realized again how protected I'd been the past three days. That evening about 7 we docked, and the crowds shifted, rose, hoisted, and dispersed. Mrs. Nova grabbed my notepad and wrote her address and phone number under the header "Biodata," and urged me to come visit her family. Florinda and her family trooped off, replaced by the gang of tough guys who stared at me, elbowed each other, and laughed. The ship's crew attacked the refuse, piled and strewn like the aftermath of Woodstock. They mopped and swept and carted, and most of it went right over the side. Thankfully, Lena was still to my right and she grabbed the hand of the little girl who seemed to belong to everyone, beckoned me to follow, and soon we were on shore eating a rich brown-brothed soup made from intestines—a local Makassar specialty.

Late in the afternoon of the fifth day, as whales spouted off the bow and their big flukes slapped the sea, we sighted the green hills of Ambon. I was starting to crack; physically this had been my hardest journey yet. I had a hacking cough from the incessant smoke of unfiltered cigarettes. My throat felt like sandpaper rubbing together every time I swallowed. I was constantly hungry, the rice and fish tails and ramen unfulfilling. I was dying for the great riches of life: a long, hot shower and a cold beer and silence.

Two days later I boarded another ferryboat, this one small, half wood, half steel, and headed to Leksula, on Buru Island. I'd never heard of Buru, my guidebook didn't mention it, but I'd spotted the Amboina Star and that's where it was bound. A journey to an unknown island over a tropical sea—what could be more appealing? At 9 p.m. the horn blasted, the lines were thrown, and we slipped out onto the dark water. The ship was crammed—every space on the platforms taken. But big, open windows ran its length and an eight-foot-wide doorway lay open in the waist, just two feet over the sea, and a warm breeze swept through. I sat perched at the doorway for an hour or so watching the sea pass, then crawled up onto my platform, squeezed between two men, put my arm over my eyes, and fell asleep to the thrum of the engines and the roll of the sea.

Movement. Touching. Voices. A baby crying. Wind sweeping across me. It was 4 a.m., still dark, but I crawled off my shelf and drank a burning hot, syrupy-sweet coffee in a plastic cup so thin it was like paper. As dawn came over the ocean, I realized we were motoring just offshore of a hilly green jungle, coconut palms and mountains rising behind. The Star was threading its way to each village along the coast, and for the next four hours we stopped every 10 or 15 minutes, bobbing a few hundred yards off the beach, as goods and people came and went on the Star's beaten up outboard launch.

They were places far off the beaten track, almost out of this world. Just a tightly packed collection of corrugated shacks on a sandy beach, the shimmering dome of a mosque or the steeple of a church poking through the shacks. Blue ocean, cloudless sky stretching far to the horizon; uninterrupted green behind.

The day passed. Mile after mile of deserted green coast, thickly overgrown with palm trees and black sand beaches that became white in places, villages of 50 houses of rust and thatch. The crew cooked meals and fed me: rice and cabbage and bony dried sardines with a fresh, fiery paste of hot peppers ground out in a stone mortar. In the afternoon we hit Leksula, a miniscule village on the coast of Buru. Within minutes of docking Hendro showed up. He was 21, wearing shorts, a camouflage-colored sleeveless T-shirt, flip-flops; and, as the village's known English speaker, he had been quickly summoned. "Let me show you Leksula!" he said, beaming, excited. As we walked down the long concrete pier, crumbling in places, a beached and ancient wooden ferryboat on its side in the shallows, the skies opened, and warm rain came pouring down. Hendro didn't seem to notice as the pier gave way to mud and puddles. The main street paralleled the shore, and we walked between corrugated and concrete houses, people huddling under porches and staring at me under the downpour. Nothing about the place really registered to me, at first. Just a heavy silence and stillness. Hendro tapped my shoulder and pointed to a man in a doorway. "Someone trying to say hello to you," he said. I waved. The man waved back. "Why don't you sleep in the village?" Hendro said. "You can enjoy village life. It is much better, and you will not go up and down like you will on the boat."

"Is there a restaurant or somewhere I can get a cup of coffee?" I asked.

"Closed," he said, "but we can go to my aunt's house." We stopped at a one-story concrete house surrounded by mud and chickens with an open door, took off our flip-flops, and went in; the front room had a wooden and floral print sofa and two matching chairs, their backs covered with antimacassars, and a wooden coffee table. Portraits of stern-looking army officers gazed down from the walls. Hendro went into a back room, and a few minutes later a middle-aged woman came out bearing cookies and two cups of instant coffee. Slowly a gang of children gathered at the door, peering in. Laughing. Calling out, "Hello, mister!"

"When I finished elementary school," Hendro said, "I decided I wanted to go to music school. I like music very much. I want to go to Jakarta, but can't. I have no money. Now I just practice my music in the church; it is a symbol of God."

When we finished the coffee the rain had stopped. Out we went again, and this time people flooded into the streets. Staring at me, waving, calling out hello. They were all in groups. Men held hands with each other, walked with their arms around each other. They squatted on the ground together, sat on walls together. A soccer game broke out on a muddy field. Always, everywhere, people were together; that's why my being alone was always so hard to fathom by the people I met. By now, everyone in town knew I was there, and suddenly I felt like one of the Inuit brought back to New York by Admiral Robert Peary after his polar expedition. Hendro took me back to the ship, where at the dock children were bombing off the pier, throwing each other into the ocean in their shorts and T-shirts, tumbling on the sand on the beach, playing with joy and an abandon long absent from the organized soccer fields and playgrounds of American cities. A crowd had followed us. Young. Old. Children. Men. There must have been 20 or 30 of them. They climbed on board following me, literally stood around me, surrounding me, watching me. I waved. They waved.

I was a freak in a village so far removed from my everyday world it was almost inconceivable. No cell phones. No Internet. No roads to get here, no roads from here to anywhere else, just a big green mass jungle rising behind the village where, a man on the ship had told me, there lived "men without religion."

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The next day Hendro woke me at 6 a.m., knocking on my cabin window, one eye peering through a crack that the sarong covering the window and insulating me from the crowds had failed to cover. "My aunt wants to invite you for coffee, Mister Carl!"

I washed my hair and body in a bucket and headed into town, children in red skirts and white blouses walking to school. There was nothing but the sound of children's voices and laughter. At a big, well-kept house, Santoso—a man I'd met on the Star who spoke English with a careful, old Dutch colonial accent—was drinking coffee on a wide veranda. He rushed out. "You must come and meet my brother. He is the headmaster of the secondary school."

Hendro and I sat down at a table covered with a yellow plastic tablecloth, and sipped coffee with Santoso's brother and sister. With no self-consciousness, Santoso reached over and held my hand. It was a disconcerting sensation, this strange man holding my hand in his. My American instinct wanted to pull it away; it went against everything I knew. But it also felt nice. Warm. Welcoming. It came with no strings attached. It just was; the most elemental of human connection, laden with no expectations. An embrace, and no one else even noticed it. We said goodbye after coffee, and I followed Hendro through town. Birds chirped. The sound of voices on the breeze, since there was no traffic, no sounds of mechanization at all, and we came to a long one-story building with jalousied windows, gardens. This was the high school. Hendro took me into the headmaster's office; the school's English teacher came in; and we visited on a sofa, Hendro and the teacher translating.

"How glad I am you have come to Leksula," the headmaster said, placing a hand on my knee. "What has brought you to our village?"

"I am a journalist, and I want to see the world," I said. "Not just the parts where everybody goes, but the faraway parts."

They took me for a tour; we peeked in tidy, spare classrooms with students sitting at desks in rows and passed two boys standing by a flagpole in the courtyard, each balancing on only one foot. "They're bad," Hendro said. "Always late."

A horn sounded, the Star announcing its departure. I had to go. Again.

The teacher and headmaster shook my hand, thanked me profusely for visiting, and Hendro walked me back, through the tropical heat and stillness and chickens and dogs and little garden plots. I felt embarrassed by my celebrity. To me I was bringing so little to them, offering them nothing. Why show me the high school? Why take time to sit with me? Why hold my hand? Why be so kind to me? I bore no gifts. I could give them nothing. I was just an English-speaking man who had dropped in one afternoon out of nowhere on the Amboina Star.

"You must come back again, for longer," Hendro said, beaming, on deck as we stood surrounded by 20 passengers. "When you come back," he said, "we can find you a house in the village."

Soon we were out on the water again, nothing but sea and sky and crowded ship and village after village. This time a big swell was coursing in toward the beach, and the Star rolled heavily. A child vomited repeatedly, the puke running down the leg and foot of his father, a man with teeth stained the color of old wooden boards from betel-nut chewing, while my fellow passengers stared listlessly in their nausea. Overhead, frigatebirds circled, and flying fish glided over the wave tops. "Up in there," said Alex, the second engineer, pointing to the verdant mountains of Buru, "there are cannibals." He touched his arm knowingly. "They eat you."

Toward dusk, great gray clouds moved overhead, and we left Buru and headed out to sea and rolled and pitched in a darkness without stars, a wood and steel speck in a vast ocean.

Carl Hoffman is a contributing editor to Traveler as well as to Wired and Popular Mechanics. Kuala Lumpur-based photographer Palani Mohan’s last assignment for us was on Penang. His latest book is Vanishing Giants: Elephants of Asia.

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