1. Teacher’s log 20.05.07, Airlie Beach, Whitsundays, Australia.
I’ve just arrived at the marina and stowed my pack aboard the ketch Wanderer. My job is to help sail this fifty-three foot spaceship from Australia to Singapore with her owners, a retired Belgian couple. Everything is mechanised – I can’t see my sail-hoisting muscles surviving long. Considering I’ll be in his employ for the next four months, it’s a good thing the owner and skipper, Pete, seems quite friendly. The boat does look a bit sterile though – after six years at sea it still has a showroom smell.
Pete wants to know why I’ve decided to travel around the world on other people’s yachts. “I’m an ESL teacher”, I said. “Cut and run is what we do.” This is disingenuous – and untrue – of course, as evidenced by the number of ESL teachers who’ve settled down in near-permanent overseas postings. It’s also avoiding the real question: why leave a great job, great friends and loving family to live out of a backpack?
Anyway, here, for the purposes of the public record, is The Plan: sail through Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Indonesia to Singapore aboard Wanderer, then travel overland through the jungle up to Thailand. If I need money I’ll teach for a couple of months, then continue on to Europe when the cruising yachts leave for the Red Sea in January.
2. Wanderer ship’s log 25.05.07, Cairns, Australia.
A luxury sailing spaceship takes time to get accustomed to, and so do its owners. That said, my first three-day passage from Airlie Beach went smoothly, and we’re now safely anchored in Cairns. Northern Queensland is a spectacular surf and turf meal of coral reef and rainforest, so the views are amazing – even if your ideal conception of beauty is not sunburnt, European, and carrying a backpack. Unlike Captain Cook, we managed to avoid hitting any reefs on the way north, but still had to weather some squalls and dodge container ships.
In the race to Singapore PNG may be a late scratching, due to inclement weather and inclement customs officials who are eyeing the departure date on Pete’s visa. If he has to renew it then PNG is out. In other news, Pete’s girlfriend is leaving the boat for a “holiday”, and his Belgian ex-pilot friend John is joining us. Maybe like me she’s afraid of being becalmed with two old rich pampered male egos. According to Pete, John’s very fussy. This makes me think John must be very bloody fussy indeed.
3. Wanderer email 1.06.07, Cairns, Australia.
The good ship Wanderer is off again; sometime in the next 24 hours Customs, Quarantine and Immigration will be staging a farewell party. We’re leaving Cairns marina at first light and setting Wanderer’s bow on a heading of 050 degrees for five days, all the way to PNG’s Louisiades Archipelago.
Unfortunately tempers are already showing signs of fraying, with the galley emerging as a good place to vent steam. John is an authority on haute cuisine who neither eats vegetables nor drinks water: “I only drink fizzy water, not normal water. If zere is no fizzy water on ze boat I will have nuzzing to drink”. Pete, in contrast, does not eat meat and has just purchased a new water maker. He is underwhelmed by the idea of a month’s sailing with scurvy and Perrier.
P.S.: How do you conjugate ‘hove to’?
4. Wanderer ship’s log 28.06.07, Thursday Is. Australia.
The first day of the passage from Cairns began with a fair wind and full sails. A small tuna found its way onto my fishing lure, blessing us with a week’s worth of sashimi. On the second day I woke feeling sea sick, but sneakily caught my vomit in a Doritos packet without anyone noticing. The wind started shifting to the northeast. On the third day the evil northeasterlies continued, as did my nausea, prompting my first message to God: “where r u? ;)”. Death came in the afternoon for a big barracuda, and Pete banned fishing for the remainder of the passage. Blood and pristine white yachts don’t mix. At dawn on the fourth day I sent my second, and final, message to God. Given the impossible winds, Wanderer could not reach a crucial reef pass, the Duchateau Entrance, so we spent another relaxing night tacking.
On the fifth day we arrived in a giant fish bowl. Every few minutes the scalier part of the Pacific would leap out of the water with half a dozen tuna, marlin, and sharks in pursuit. At different times we dived with manta rays, turtles, eels, rays, dolphins and World War Two fighter planes. While birds were our hosts on most of the pristine forested islands, five minutes after anchoring near a village the local chief would be alongside us in his canoe, knocking gently on the hull. In the Louisiades money is useless as there are no shops. Villagers wanted rice, fishhooks, clothes, and school books. In exchange we got fresh vegetables, fish, and lobsters. Six tonnes of lobsters. If we weren’t eating lobster tails, we were eating lobster soup (soup being Belgium’s gift to the world).
On one island they led us for an hour into the jungle to show us the caves where they used to hide from neighbouring islanders, as well as an impressive skull cave. We met a French couple with their twelve-year-old daughter. They had been travelling for twelve years.
Unfortunately, trading for vegetables was banned four days after our arrival because of the potential for germs aboard Wanderer. Showers were banned soon after because of water use. Diving was then curtailed due to our use of water for cleaning and its potential for causing excitement. When the French family invited me spear fishing and wanted to trade vegetables for the use of our water maker they were sadly disappointed. Our relationship with them cooled further when I could no longer stand the view of their freshly potted herbs from our scurvy-ridden ketch.
As we sailed west along the south coast of Papua New Guinea, we found a perfect anchorage at Cape Glasgow. The boat was swamped by about 100 villagers in canoes, all wanting to trade and look at Dim dims (white people). Pete and John were very enthusiastic in giving out trinkets. We later found about 40 villagers had written their names on the boat with their new biros. Pete henceforth banned the giving of trinkets. I spent the evening in our dinghy scrubbing the names off with toothpaste.
We arrived in the capital, Port Moresby, two days later, allowing me to shower and buy some oranges. On Monday nearby construction coated the boat with fine black residue, so I spent three hours cleaning the deck. Construction resumed in the afternoon, and Pete had a nervous breakdown. John recommended cleaning Wanderer with butter. I hit John. A decidedly greasy boat set sail the next morning, sliding through the Torres Strait washing machine and on to Thursday Island. Of course when we arrived, Australian Customs and Immigration was waiting to give us some more tough love. John has since run out of fizzy water and decided to leave. He is catching the next flight to Cairns.
Thursday Island email: S.E.S. – Save Ed’s Soul!
In days of yore, we might have had a mutiny on our hands. Unfortunately, in the current culture of litigation desertion is the only option. Pete is without doubt the world’s most miserable, unpleasant and BORING bastard. His friend John has already got sick of him and is jumping ship at Thursday Island. I have neither the money nor the patience to spend three months touring Asian yacht clubs. What should I do? Am I compromising the trip’s carbon neutrality by flying? Am I being stupid adding an extra month of tedium to my trip just to sail to Indonesia?
5. Wanderer ship’s log 20.07.07, Darwin, Australia.
We’ve just tied up inside the lock at Cullen Bay Marina. Pete cheered up as soon as John left, and the six-day passage from Thursday Island was actually enjoyable. Maybe it’s a Belgian thing. If you’ve ever been hitchhiking, you’ll know about weird personalities, and when you’ve scored a ride that lasted for 10 weeks and 7500 km, you’ll know about personality clashes.
I have checked my email and discovered a million responses to the S.E.S. email. Most tell me to leave the boat immediately. However, as a result of Pete apparently changing his tune, I have reconsidered my evacuation plan. Having told Pete an enormous lie, he now thinks I have a job in Hanoi starting in September. This means I will not have time to sail all the way to Singapore. However, he only needs me to crew until Bali, when his girlfriend returns, so I can sail as far as Bali before jumping ship. This way we both get what we want.
We have to get visas for the boat, and ourselves, before we can leave Australia – hopefully before my birthday next Saturday. I have taken some shore leave to respond to emails – an excellent opportunity to don my George W. hat and denounce all those who wanted me to cut and run from the boat as the “Axis of Leavers”.
6. Davey Jones’ Diary 14.08.07, Poppies Gang 2, Kuta, Bali, Indonesia.
Nautical miles since Darwin: 1258
Islands visited: Timor, Lembata, Flores, Rinca, Komodo, Sumbawa, Lombok, Bali.
English teaching job offers: 16
Predatory mothers who want me to marry their daughter: 60
Flying fish units: billions
Sailors, like Oscar Wilde, can resist anything but temptation. When Captain Cook and Billy Bligh weren’t running around getting speared or being mutinied against, they were trying to prevent their ships stopping in Indonesia to re-supply because half the crew would disappear. Apparently rum, sodomy and the lash were less appealing than cheap sarongs, arak attack nights and foam parties. Little has changed, and skippers foolish enough to ignore the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them. Anyway that’s what I would have liked to shout at Pete as I ran out of Benoa Marina in Bali yesterday afternoon. I didn’t though, and we parted on good terms. My boat scrubbing abilities have attracted some attention from other yachts, and I already have a few offers to cross the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean next year.
Kuta is a little bit crazy, but fun. The rest of Indonesia is certifiably insane. There are technicolour volcanic crater lakes, giant lizards, and they still hunt whales with rowboats and spears. Air is water, solar-powered cars run on diesel, and Sunday is called dayweek.
In every town I was assailed by locals offering teaching positions at local schools and universities. Eastern Indonesia is very poor, and to many English equals opportunity. Pete and I didn’t have much to offer in this department unfortunately – our English seems to have become more confused by the day. I keep saying “clotheses” and pouting out angry French “pfft!” noises in conversation. Under my expert tutelage, Pete’s English has become a prepositional minefield. He managed to find the least likely person in every town – usually some poor kakalima vendor selling bakso soup – to demand answers to complex nautical questions: “Are we in a squash zone?” “ARE – WE – ON – A – SQUASH – ZONE?”.
My next stop is Java, Indonesia’s engine room. For the first time on this trip I’m travelling on land, and alone.
7. Teacher’s log 23.08.07, Jogjakarta, Indonesia.
Two more volcanoes, three ferry rides, and three thousand hello misters later, I’ve arrived in Jogjakarta, Java. A man from the bus who owns an English school has adopted me. Every day he takes me to a different sight around Jogja on the back of his tiny motorbike. I’ve already visited the famous Hindu and Buddhist temples Prambanan and Borobodur, and he’s determined I taste every kind of offal dish Indonesia has to offer. After three days worth of prayer I have also seen the outside of a lot of mosques. Tomorrow I’m taking a local train to Jakarta, from where I hope to find a boat to Peninsular Malaysia.
8. Teacher’s log 1.09.07, Little India, Singapore.
I’ve just staggered off the shipwreck express, or Indonesian government ferry, and crawled into a hostel. I spent a very enjoyable few days with family friends in Jakarta, although the traffic is absolutely appalling.
My one-day ferry journey to Singapore blew out to more than thirty hours. The M.V. Kelud spent ten hours at the docks in Jakarta, while 1000 passengers tried to practise their three words of English on me. I was the only foreigner on board, so forgive me for losing patience after six hours and pretending to be asleep. On arrival in Batam, Indonesia’s number one destination for Singaporean sex tourists, I had to sprint to catch the last ferry to the island. I just made it to Little India before the hostels closed for the night, thankfully avoiding an all-night electronics window-shop.
I have upped the pace on my Asia tour considerably. Cruising yachts follow a fairly predictable route around the world, and I know I have to be in Thailand in January to get a job through the Suez Canal to Europe. With that in mind, I need to get to Vietnam and start teaching as quickly as possible.
9. Teacher’s log 11.09.07, Taman Negara, Malaysia.
After a blitzkrieg shopping and eating tour of Singapore (Tong Shian Claypot Frog Porridge!), I hightailed it to the port of Melaka in Malaysia to visit some pirates. Now, six days later, I’m camped out in the jungle without much to do at night apart from listen to weird animal noises, update my journal and work on my insect bite collection.
It has been pleasing to find how similar Bahasa Malay is to Bahasa Indonesia – I’m getting extra smiles from the locals for speaking some of their language. Like the nation itself, the food is a bizarre mix of Malay, Chinese and Indian. Nasi goreng comes with Tandoori Chicken, and the banana leaf curry I ordered in Kuala Lumpur had a baked fish swimming in sweet sauce and star anise. Perhaps it’s because of the recent Merdeka independence celebrations, but there are flags absolutely everywhere. Every square inch of the country is made out of stars, moons and red stripes.
10. Teacher’s log 21.09.07, Pham Ngu Lao, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Travelling north from the Malaysian jungle took several days of the slowest, most crowded and inconvenient buses imaginable. I loved it. Unfortunately I don’t have time to linger on my new schedule. From Butterworth I bought an express, airconditioned, hyperspace-enabled bus to Bangkok. The ticket also came with a free bout of the world’s worst food poisoning. Thailand this time has sadly meant for me a lot of sweating and vomiting in my Bangkok guesthouse, waiting for my Vietnam visa.
From Bangkok it was a simple matter of getting ripped off on a ticket to the Cambodian border, getting ripped off for a Cambodian visa, walking across the border, and then getting ripped off on a share taxi ride to Phnom Penh. A seven-hour bus journey later and here I am in Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City as it’s now known.
I’ve been in Vietnam for about three hours – enough time to eat lunch and find the cheapest, dingiest shared room in the country. The man downstairs keeps giving me crazy looks. He has one long fingernail he uses to fish around in his nasal cavity. It looks like an embalming tool. I’m not sure how long I can survive in this guest house, but I’m hoping my list of contacts can help me with a job and a bed. Wish me luck.