Sailing up Colvos passage
“To the Batavian Arms,” said McWhirr to the becak driver. How this small guy was going to haul us and our seabags in the little tricycle was beyond me. His name was Rubio. He was a grinning, eager pilot who pedaled like a fiend and navigated Jakarta like some Vasco de Gama of the alleyways.
Rubio brought up before the crumbling, neo-classical facade and we passed through the weathered teak door into the club. While McWhirr ordered a couple pints I looked around.
A Strawberry Alarm clock tribute band blasted onstage.
Soon McWhirr came with the drinks and said: “The barkeep says Remy comes in every night around 2200 hours. Might as well enjoy the show. Here’s to the Queen.”
In came a gamelan orchestra followed by the shadow puppeteer who, smoking a kreteck, smirked left and right to all patrons–especially the fat ones up front who swilled arak and spoke in conspiratorial tones to the kriss-bearing lugs behind them.
The place went dark. An oil lamp cast fantastic shadows over a large, translucent screen that flickered and danced with frenzied life. I was enthralled by the spectacle of phantom armies leveled by the cannonade of imperialist might as men with weeping, bamboo flutes were led away shackled. The gamelan’s slow rhythm seemed to fall over the whole archipelago in a haunting drone of pain that echoed the undying breath of ancient, Indonesian spirit; as if Rama’s return to his kingly estate mirrored their own tortured story; and Hanuman’s revolutionary, healing energy, born with the very earth of mankind, must ever suffer cyclical defeat and triumph–an ebb and flow whose influences lie beyond the sublunary sphere. It’s a story old as history–and fresh as the play of light on a silk screen.
The screen went dark and then emblazoned by the bold legend: Samsung
Came the loud, static blare of loudspeakers over the still anchorage.
“Ilaha illa allah…”
Disgruntled at the interruption of my much needed sleep, I rose from my bunk and ascended the companionway to see, still in his black watch coat despite the fast-rising heat, Saturnius McWhirr already on deck. His stark, grim profile seemed transfigured by the dawn light with an aura of rapturous praise. I had always thought he was of the Zoroastrian persuasion.
Not wanting to disturb his meditations, I returned below and put on a pot of joseph.
After a harrowing passage through
the Sunda Strait, we’d anchored in the Sunda Kelapa harbour the night before, under the tall spires of north Jakarta. I’d had a fitful sleep, and the portentous imagery of my dreams had been confounded by a blasted, bleeping racket that still echoed over the calm anchorage. Turns out we’d brought up just off the Ancol Theme Park.
McWhirr came below. I handed him a cup and asked:
“Captain, why have we sailed into this steaming latitude?”
For indeed, it was cruel muggy and a pall of charcoal gray hung over the city.
McWhirr lit his pipe and said:
“I was but a green swab surfing the long fetch of the seven cyber-seas when I first heard of the East Indies. That was a simpler time, when a single multinational corporation called the IndiaRubber.com ruled the whole archipelago. Now it’s dog eat dog, with upstart pirates challenging the Dutch spice monopoly and their quasi-governmental powers.
“But take care son,” he said darkly, “one word from the Dutch, colonial CEO and we could be standing before a firing squad before you can say: Garcia Lorca.”