A pretty normal kind of Sunday morning, hugging 3 of the 5 girls I had spent the night with, and then checking out to go to the airport. Saturday had been a bit unplanned – I’d ended up at a nightclub tantalisingly called ‘Swingers’ with the lovelies Emily and Ros, despite trying to avoid alcohol to give my antibiotic course a chance to do its thing. The decision to go out was hastily made, though the chance to once again make decisions was not something I took lightly – I’d just spent 10 weeks with very little responsibility on Balak, perhaps having to decide whether to make sweet and sour noodles as opposed to salt and sour noodles.
Because I’d been in a kind of protective Balak bubble, my wits had been sufficiently off with the fairies a week previously, when I had left my passport 9 hours away by bus in Tawau. So after saying a final goodbye to the Greenforce girls (2003 calendar out soon), I had caught a soporific plane journey from KK to Tawau, on which I grabbed half an hour’s sleep, thanks to ‘Drowsy Actifed’ decongestant, and the four and a half hours sleep that I’d had between Ros throwing, and me waking up. Collecting my passport, I was once again a whole independent traveller on his way to Indonesia to meet some dear chums.
I was back in the swing of things, pressing on from one kidney shattering speedboat leg to another on the way to Indonesia. Forget the fact that Malaysian immigration was allegedly shut on this Sunday, I ploughed through the water regardless, after getting the go-ahead from a Polis man on his boat. This guy was more intent on clubbing to death an eel he had just caught, than looking at my passport, so off I sped to Tarakan in Indonesia, after a brief and drowsy exchange with a bunch of crazies who hang around such borders. “I really don’t give a toss how many children you’ve got. I’m tired. I’m drowsy. I feel kind of vulnerable as I can’t be arsed taking all of the padlocking and hidden money-belting precautions that I used to. I’m in a bad mood. No, I don’t particularly want to fight you. No I don’t care how much pussy there is in Bali. FUCK OFF.” That kind of thing.
The final leg of the journey involved a narrow, cramped speed boat, with the sort of horse power I would expect to see on the end of a drug running powerboat in Miami. Well, 600 HP did seem over the top, and the journey took far less than my untrustworthy guide book implied a ferry crossing would. And there weren’t many people on the ferry, but just enough for the boat to be on the verge of taking in gallons of water if we had the ‘windows’ in the meagre ‘cabin’ open. Suffice it to say that 2 hours of hot,sweaty, kidney-bruising, contorted cramp ensued until we arrived, somewhat against the odds, in Tarakan, Indonesia.
On getting back onto dry land, I was led off by an ugly official, whose uniform identified him as an immigrations chap – this consisting of brown nylon trousers, a pock-marked face, and the kind of haircut reserved for seedy second hand car salesmen and pompous border officials. After a few car journeys, and my insistence that I followed him and my passport around despite him telling me to stay still, we figured out that I had to go back to Tawau and since there were no more ferries on Sunday, I would have to spend the night in quarantine. At the time, I didn’t imagine sick puppies in cages, just a night on a wooden pontoon by the ferry port.
Doing Time in a Maximum Security Twilight Zone
My fears of a night on the docks where soon quelled when I was driven to a prison. I thought this a bit harsh, and was still convinced that this was a scare tactic to extract money from me for the ‘ugly, no-necked, immigration official retirement fund’, and in my Actifed-induced stupour, I imagined me folding notes into his pocket, saying “I see, we need to ahem, ‘sort out’, my visa problem.” I was gently recalling the fact that someone in KK had explained only a few days before that you should never give anyone in Indonesia your passport, but hand over a bundle of notes and peg it.
I was led into a house opposite the prison, and saw a modest lounge with a television. I thought that I could handle this kind of confinement, until I noticed a barred grille in the corner, replete with semi-naked gimp. Bollocks, I was being banged up proper. Until this point, I was still confident that I was going to wave a few notes about and be on my way. My previous experience in Africa had been that it was quite possible to drive around a border post, and just check in with a bent official and a few quid in the next town. Seeing the cell and the gimp, my first thoughts were, “He’s well built but I reckon I’ve got a longer reach than him. Shit I’m really bad at figuring out people’s builds. They really are locking me up aren’t they.” Upon being incarcerated, and being informed in pigeon, or perhaps chicken English, that I’d be out at 8am on Monday to get a ferry back to Tawau in Malaysia, my thoughts were no less random: “I hope there’s a toilet in here. There’s no mosquito nets, and the barred windows don’t shut. There’s no fan. What about drinking water – my guts are sensitive. Oh there’s a mandi (toilet and shower combined). What’s that fish doing living in the water container? I have no drinking water.”
Sixteen hours ago, a few of the Greenforce mob had been sitting around, trying to sum up people from the volunteer phase:
- Emily : fun
- John : laid-back
- Mike : sex-crazed
- Ros : lateral-thinking
- Alex : enthusiastic
, that kind of thing. It was kind of ironic that the word that was used to sum me up was ‘free’, as I was now learning what it meant to be locked away in some tiny town in the middle of nowhere, with nobody really knowing where I was, and a jailor who didn’t understand too much English.
My roommate was a celebrity, and for a while, my bad mood lasted, and I tried to entertain his command of English and his questions. I learnt he was from the ‘Pillypeens’, had ten children, and had been inside for two weeks. While he didn’t know when he would be released, he expected his term to last at least three months. Yeesh. In a kind of bolting stable door after the horse has been taken away and made into Pedigree Chum way, I started hiding money, stashing valuables, and padlocking things. They had left me with my bag at least, and I eventually figured out that my cell phone would work.
I helped my cell mate as much as I could, looking up travel routes back to his home in the Pillypeens, to the village in which President Marcos had been born. But then my temper turned from bad to foul, and after our jailor came into the cell in an effort to pump my lungs with more fag smoke than the chain smoking pirate could, I went to sleep at 6pm in an effort to shut the crazy voices out. It worked to some extent, until my pirate friend woke me up to inquire about exchange rates, and to show me his picture in the paper, under headlines that described his capture. I managed to sleep fitfully after this, no thanks to the brain-damaged cockerels outside the mosquito highway which passed for a window. Cockerels that felt sure it was dawn every 10 minutes from midnight, and announced the assumption loudly.
I got up at the real dawn, when the psycho pirate hollered at me, and tried to engage me in some early morning noodle scoffing. I declined, and managed to persuade a random member of the jailor’s family to get me some bottled water. This meant I could take my antibiotics once more, and hydrate after a sweaty night as an eat-all-you-can insect buffet. I washed in the mandi, and waited for 8am, and my escort to the Tawau ferry. Of course, the ugly official with my passport didn’t arrive. I kept hoping to see his scarred visage all the way up to 9am, when I knew the ferry departed. After that, my spirits crashed, and anger intermingled with escape plans, and the realisation that I could also be here for 2 weeks, like my pirate chum.
Escape and Hot Pursuit
Despite it being an entry on the list of things that I should do before I’m 30, I had never been behind bars before. I think I’d ripped the list up in fact. So my plans on what to do in these situations plumbed the depths of movie experience. I saw how the bars were fastened to the window frames. I saw some discarded magazines, and a pile of planks outside the window. I had a lighter in my bag. I was pretty sure that my jailor didn’t have a gun, and I could probably outrun him if my life and freedom depended on it. I had a pair of fins and a snorkel in my bag, if only I could make it to the sea. I could get a speedboat to take me to Malaysia, and land at a beach somewhere, and then claim to have had my passport stolen. I was pissed off.
I tried to figure out Noriega’s motives for lying to me about my release. This is what I had named the ugly customs official, who I felt was taking out on me his fury at being bullied as a child. Surely this no-show was mental cruelty designed to up my release price. By this time, I would have paid a fair amount to be free any time soon. I didn’t fancy rotting away in this cell with little light, a half crazed roommate and not much prospect of exercise. The food was okay though.
At 11:30, General Noriega arrived. He announced I was going to the ferry. Those three and a half hours late had seen a lot of thinking in this frantic mind, freed from the clutches of Actifed by 12 hours of fitful sleep. My Pillypeeno cohort whispered a few things conspiratorially to me about how if I had missed the ferry, all I’d have to do is pay them to let me go, and then I was out. The next hours before I was on the ferry passed with me not daring to hope that I’d get back to Malaysia, as Noriega took the opportunity to play with my fears by ignoring me, and wandering off without returning my passport. I was eventually taken to the ferry, about two minutes before it departed, and was escorted by a random bloke in a Hawaiian shirt all the way to Tawau, where my passport was politely returned to me. Again, during the journey, my mind turned to the movies,and how to escape your captor, should the need arise.
Free as a Chicken
After a brief interview with a Malaysian official, I was allowed back into Malaysian Tawau. What to do when you are unfettered and you can walk in the daylight again? I assumed as evil a face as I could master, and strode out of immigration into the street. My eyes must have done me proud – no teksi driver approached, and a stray dog that did turned away and whimpered when I pointed at it. What does freedom mean to me now? Freedom means that I can blow my budget on a hotel room, the first bath, and the first steak since April 22nd 2002. Before all of this, I did actually walk around the town for a while. Because I could. And despite my antibiotics, I felt the need to try a few ice cold Carlsbergs, just to make sure.