Our brothers of the sea: the Indonesian Navy

Navy phone pic
This is a story about a remarkable man, and an unforgettable experience we had as part of our clearance process from Indonesia. It is a reminder that human kindness is alive and well, and often waiting to surprise you from the most unexpected corners of your life. It is the point, and the counterpoint, to our last post about navigating clearance bureaucracy. It is the story our departure from Indonesia, wrapped in the embrace of kinship and friendship.

Totem arrived in Singkawang, West Kalimantan, to clear out of Indonesia. A short trip to the immigration office educated us that it was not actually a clearance port as advertised, and that we would need to sail about 16 miles north to Pemangkat. This was on a Friday morning, and our visas expired on Sunday, so we needed to begin the process before closing time that day to avoid incurring fines for overstaying our visa.

So it was back down a muddy creek in the dinghy, back to the bay, back to Totem, anchor up, and north to Pemangkat. The friendly Singkawang immigration staff sent us with an oversimplified hand-drawn map to find the port authority (it could be summed up as “go north to the next point of land!”). The best information we could find about the Harbormaster’s office indicated it was up the river, past Pemangkat harbor- about five miles, on a winding muddy route that was lined with fishing nets and weirs, charted depths matching Totem’s draft, and likely silted to less. Then again, we had derived the office location from the lat/long of a Foursquare check-in. Could it be right- was it really that far up the river? We couldn’t take Totem, and it was a long way to be exploring in the dink with a dwindling gas supply.

As we prepared to drop the dinghy, a small speedboat with men in uniform sped by, heading for the village across the bay. We flagged them down and made introductions with what turned out to be personnel from the local Navy post. The boat was under the command of Budi Wiratno, who understood in short order what we needed to do. Despite the fact that our clearance process did not involve his office, he immediately offered to bring us the distance up river in his boat (it was, in fact, exactly where Foursquare indicated- viva la internet!).

What I didn’t realize until we arrived is that the offices were all closed, and the staff had gone home for an early closure in recognition of a local holiday- the ascension of Mohammed, I think. Not a problem. With a few calls, Budi helped to organize all the officials needed for us to begin the clearance process. Staff arrived and the process proceeded smoothly from there, but was ultimately incomplete because a power outtage prevented photocopying our passports and a few forms. Then, there was that one stain on the bureaucracy that we have occasionally encountered in Indonesia- one of the officials insisted that we pay him an extra 500,000 Rupiah (about $50). The reason provided- because it was after hours, and everyone had been brought in just to help us. It’s true that they didn’t have to come in, but this fee doesn’t exist on any official schedule. He just wanted to line his pockets a little.

I was brought into a side room for the not-so-subtle discussion where this fee was requested. The official brought Budi in with me; I think he believed it would help his case. He couldn’t have been more wrong. Clearly uncomfortable, Budi declined to support him, and said to me- paraphrasing- “the Navy doesn’t have office hours.” The request was dropped.

Our clearance wasn’t quite complete; we were told officials would return to Totem to wrap up the process the next day. With that, I was escorted back down the river by the courteous Navy crew. Only a few hours later, just as we had finished dinner, the Navy boat again pulled up alongside with the full complement of senior officials from the port authority’s immigration and customs staff- they were ready now! No problem- we invited them below, and sat around the table to finish formalities. I asked if we could stay an extra day, so we could go to the market for some fresh produce (generally, boats area asked to depart immediately after clearance is complete)- sure, not a problem! A few more questions, a lot of smiles, a tour of the boat and we were finished. All, that is, except for the harbormaster’s clearance, which would come the next day.

Grateful for the help of Budi and his team, we invited them to visit the following morning and had freshly baked cinnamon bread waiting to thank them for all their help. When they arrived, a series of stuffed sacks were hefted up to Totem by the crew. Puzzled, we asked, “apa ini” (what’s this)? After seeing our canisters of dried beans and rice, Budi thought that we couldn’t possibly have enough food on board, so he went shopping on our behalf. In total, they delivered to us over 50 lbs of beautiful, fresh fruit, vegetables- then went to a passing fishing boat, and returned with four beautiful big fish– provisions worth easily a week’s wages. Although we pressed, they would not let us pay for anything. Here’s Siobhan, with a portion of the load.

some of the bounty

Later that morning, Budi and his crew ferried out that pesky official. We completed formalities quickly enough, and gave him a requested tour of the boat. Happy to share, of course. It was over soon, and time for him to go. He sat in the cockpit and squirmed, clearly uncomfortable about broaching the subject in front of an audience but wanting desperately to ask for a bribe again. This discussion was all in Indonesian, through me as the interpreter to our family. I practically hid behind my Navy friends, I confess: but Budi pressed the point. “Aren’t we done here? It’s time to go.” He physically and verbally distanced himself, and was as eager to shuffle the corrupt official off Totem as I was. We were was soon successful.

With Indo Navy team in cockpit

There were many other small kindnesses and laughs we shared with the Navy crew. They were painfully polite, refraining from smoking on board, always concerned about how they tied up to make sure their boat wasn’t bumping on Totem in the fast current. They bought fresh fried bananas, a bag of oranges, and bottled water with them to offer me on our short ride up the river. We talked about everything from families (our own family’s Navy tradition, and our physical family distances: Budi is stationed far, far away from his wife and children on Java, and only has infrequent visits home), to politics (we are all fans of the current Indonesian president, SBY, and the good work he has done in recent years- but had some very frank discussions about the problems of today and the issues of the past as well). They went beyond the call of any duty, and showed true camaraderie and friendship to our voyaging family.

Whatever did we do to deserve this? We thanked them as best we could. It took a flip through  my dictionary to translate, but Budi patiently waited to make sure we understood what he wanted to us-  we are brothers of the sea. It is his sincere wish that we let people know that Indonesia is a warm and welcoming place to visit- as it is, truly. For all the occasional challenges with bureaucracy in this country, they are mostly the growing pains of a large vast and disconnected archipelago, and the vast majority of our interactions with people are so positive. We experienced no ill will, only the occasional ping of opportunism.

I cannot begin to thank these men, but I know – as they are our brothers of the sea – that they will live in our memories, and hopefully someday we can reciprocate the hospitality that Budi, and the crew under his leadership, have shown to our little floating family.

24 Responses

  1. What a wonderful experience. It is a great story to relate to the kids so they can maybe someday help out someone else in need. These gentlemen went way beyond the call of duty and are exlemptory ambassadors for their country.

  2. I love following your journey. My family and I happen to be living in Indonesia (Sumatra) and I have to agree that the people are wonderful. There is still alot of corruption in the govt and police but they have been working on that very hard. I went camping up in the mountains of West Sumatra with some indonesian friends and they were very embarrassed when the local police came to collect bribes for us to pitch our tents where we did (we had already gotten a pass from the provincial govt). They also added a “Boleh” tax and a woman tax. My friends were red in the face when the officials left. I have great hopes for Indonesia if they can break out of the current rut.
    Good Journeys! My family and I have sailed some of the region as well and are taking your adventure as good testament that we can cut loose at some point and marry the sea.

  3. These are the wonderful moments in life that fill your heart with joy! I live in a rural area of the big island of Hawaii and “random acts of kindness” is called Aloha. I love the surprise of a fresh bag of oranges, avocados or bananas on my doorstep from “someone”. And I love the times when I can give fresh eggs etc.. to my neighbors. There is just nothing like it.

  4. Great story! We lived in a remote part of Indonesia some years back when the children where toddlers. The people were always so generous and warm and we hope to get back some day. I loved the picture of the bananas. We loved those bananas, they were the perfect size for little kids. Every bunch we ever bought always had a little spider living near the stem. So the kids would look for the “nana spider” whenever we got a new bunch. I had arachnaphobia in the states, but you had to get over that quick living in Indonesia! At least you could be certain they were organic (and very delicious).
    Safe travels!

    1. Those pisang susu are so delicious, aren’t they?! I did not find the spider- I wonder if it’s snacking on bugs around Totem now? At least it wasn’t a scorpion… we found that in our PNG banana stalks!

  5. What a lovely group of human beings you had the great fortune to run into. The Indonesian Navy should be proud to have such wonderfully kind and caring members in their ranks.

  6. This is so beautiful. Thank you for sharing. I tend to be a skeptical person by nature – my instinct is to mistrust and wonder what people want from me until they prove themselves otherwise. Since moving onto our own boat 10 months ago, I am trying my darndest to be open to all the people we encounter on our travels so that I don’t miss out on good relationships and experiences. Your family inspires me – the wisdom with which you interact with everyone you come across, your sensitivity to culture and practice, your friendliness and generosity (without a trace of first-world-caucasian charity). It’s hard for me to adequately express what I think and feel when I read your stories, but please know how grateful I am to have you all as cruising role models!

    1. Thanks, Leigh! I believe that flipping that around- starting from a presumption of trust and goodwill- makes a huge difference in everyday interactions with new people. The world is overwhelmingly full of so many amazing people! And- distrust can be sensed; I believe it is human nature to reflect what is given to us, so starting with positivity is more likely to return you a positive response. My homegrown, early morning pre-coffee wisdom, worth what you paid for it. 😉

  7. That’s the Indonesia of our (land travel) experience. You HAVE thanked those fellows – – even if they don’t see you post, their kindness is now known.

    Hope we sail there someday.

    1. Pelagia crew- keep Indonesia on that “someday” itinerary. It was a wonderful place to cruise… six months wasn’t enough! We hope to go back, maybe as soon as next year. It was poetic that our beautiful sendoff from Budi and his crew encapsulated so much of the kindness of spirit we encountered in this amazing country. Fair winds to you as you head off on your adventures!

  8. Another favorite post from you! Thank you for posting this. Seriously, thank you. As an Indonesian, it just brings so much pride and warmth to my heart to know how people like Budi and his crew still exist in the country. And for them to be naval officers just make it even more special. It just gives me hope. So, again, thank you. I hope you don’t mind if I share the link to this post on my Facebook page.

Comments are closed.