Racing against the flying fish


We would be travelling by ship between the Indonesian islands of Flores and Sumba. I and my wife, Lobo, were imagining ourselves to be Magellan. Several unfortunate accidents happen every year in these seas; this created a sense of danger and adventure.
We bought the economy class tickets for KM Wilis. The ship was delayed by fourteen hours, scheduled for an unfriendly 4AM. Two boys, at the school where we were teaching English, promised to take us to the jetty at that time. But who can trust young men? They slept happily while we kept calling them again and again.
Half-awake, no plans; we stood by the road. The whole town had slept. Everything was still; black. There was no way going anywhere. After an hour, we see a man in a motorcycle pass by. For some reason, he stopped and came back to us. He looked at Lobo, “Where is she from, China, Japan?” Not a good sign. He proposed to take me first to the jetty and then come back for Lobo. In our alarm-woken heads, we agreed.
At the jetty, I asked the man to wait till I called Lobo but my phone couldn’t catch signal. The stranger shrugged and left. I was panicking; pondering about all the casualties that could happen. I was sweating profusely. But after ten minutes, the man came back with Lobo. I wanted to hug him. I wanted to scream, “Humanity is alive and well!”
Only then, I became conscious of the surroundings. The air was numb; three hundred people staring into blankness. Many had come from surrounding villages and had been waiting for more than a day. Suddenly a flicker; the lights of Wilis. The waiting room headed for the ship like a bunch of mother turtles limping after a tiring night of egg-laying. A mass of s helmets, all reflecting the moon, stood at the front; motorcycle drivers closing in for the hunt. Wilis docked and horned twice. Suddenly there was an unfamiliar rush. A man struggled through the crowd, holding a young girl in his arms. She had fainted. It was nineteen hours past Wilis’s scheduled time of departure.
We got pulled in. The first sights: a bunch of topless men standing by the railings, women sleeping on the floor. Inside, the lights were yellow and greasy. The sleeping chambers had beds in two rows facing each other, a number on top of each. The mattresses had been stripped off from some of the beds.
We found the two beds waiting for us. There were ten other passengers in our section. Their eyeballs settled on us. We exchanged smiles and they went back into their slumber. A cockroach was moving over my bed. Our fellow passengers began playing loud music on their mobiles. I couldn’t relax in my new home. I lay on my side and faced the wall. American movie slangs and abuses were written all over.
I got a bad headache from the cigarette smoke. I was having visions, barnacles rising up from the bottom of Wilis and chewing my fingers. Startled, I got up and walked around. The whole ship looked like a bomb shelter from inside. Styrofoam takeaway packs were piling up like Roman columns. Countless cigarette butts formed fractals on the floor. Women stretched inside toilets marked for men.
Outside, it was morning and the sky was a cloudless blue. But there was no escaping this strong stench of urine. Many young couples braved this odor and stood lovingly, looking out at the blue, holding hands instead of their noses.
Suddenly, I spotted a flying fish. And then they came in hundreds, jumping in long leaps, teaching the birds how to swim.
An announcement, “We are delayed by four hours because of choppy seas.”
Officials in white made the rounds to check our tickets, “Don’t smoke! Why are the smoke detectors not working?
After an eternity, the ship finally honked like a baritone elephant. We had arrived. The people sharing our cabin wished us an enjoyable stay. They had another three days of travel left.
At the exit, we were squeezed against giant bags. The hustle followed, people moved in small steps, getting closer and closer. One official stood by to pull out burning cigarettes from the passengers’ lips. “Dangerous,” he explained diligently to each.
Looking back, Wilis was majestic in white. It was warm and refreshing. It was Sumba.



S Das

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