Life is about taking chances. Romance on a freighter. Indonesian Freighter
My Aussie buddy, Damien, and I sat wilting in the shade of a cinder block warehouse wall. A steady stream of brown men, cooking under the sun, carried bales and crates from small freighters along the length of a Jakarta dock. I had figured our sea journey from Jakarta to Singapore would be heaven after enduring third-class rail passage across Java, with the bonus of saving on a bed for three nights.
Tied to the wharf in front of us, however, was a decrepit freighter, a ship ripe for the scrap yard. Damien confirmed that it was our ship. “Stone the bloody crows,” he said. “It is ours.”
The ship’s name painted on the bow was illegible through the excoriating rust. We christened it the HMS Scow.
Scattered around us were Europeans, Aussies, one American, and some Brits. They were identified by accents, small flags on their large backpacks, or in the case of the Euros, attitude. A mass of Indonesian men, women, and children with crudely tied bales, bundles, and crates slowly filled the wharf. Many had live chickens trussed to bundles.
When the ship’s gangplank lowered, the mass of bodies lurched forward, clambering to get on board, sweeping us along in the mad flow like a river. Somehow all of us westerners ended up at the stern, where backpacks were set down on the blistering hot steel deck.
“You’ve got to be bloody joking,” griped Damien, upon discovering this spot was both our cabin and bunk. We rolled out our sleeping bags on the cargo hatch and in short order our ship departed, threading across Jakarta’s bustling harbor. Two of the crew rigged a large tarp above us. Relief from the heat was immediate.
Damien and I wandered through the freighter wondering where the thousands of Indonesians had disappeared to. We followed a cacophony of voices and noise along passageways deep into the ship. A mass of humanity had crammed into the dim, cavernous hold—an entire village, complete with squawking chickens. Three other holds were no different. Once topside, we counted lifeboats—not enough.
“Perfect for the headlines back home,” quipped Damien. “Millions Drown As Overcrowded Ship Capsizes.”
“I guess we’ll have to sacrifice a chicken to the sea gods,” I said.
The few bathrooms were places to avoid as they quickly overflowed into passageways, stinking up the ship. Everything in Southeast Asia was an adventure: getting on the right bus, finding a bed for the night, trying not to offend local customs officers, changing money, finding a post office, and ordering food. Now it was standing in a long line holding our meal vouchers. We were rewarded with a scoop of rice on a banana leaf, topped with two staring fish heads. Everyone ate the rice. The fish heads were either traded with the locals for fruit, or tossed overboard to the ever-present sharks circling in the ship’s wake.
I sat along the port rail watching the setting sun turn the Java Sea into liquid copper. A woman sauntered up beside me in a red-flowered sarong, sweeping back her long brown hair. We shared the panorama in awed silence. I’d noticed her early on, along with the tiny red maple leaf on her green backpack. But I was attracted by her sparkling laugh that carried across the deck. She introduced herself as Gloria, her brown eyes smiling invitingly in the fading light.
“Enjoy your dinner?” I asked.
“Well … the rice was good,” she replied.
We discussed various ways to eat fish heads without utensils. Suck out the eyes? Chew around the gills?
Gloria was a farm girl from Saskatchewan; the wide open spaces and amber wheat fields were reflected in her easy manner. Like me, she was also traveling with a friend.
I was from southern Ontario, a world apart from hers in the same huge country. After spending over a year traveling, we were both homesick. Canada and home seemed almost an abstract place.
We swapped stories about spending time in Australia as darkness fell like a warm velvet blanket. She had made tea, as a volunteer, for the Queen at the Christchurch Commonwealth Games. It was a hilarious encounter, she said. I told her I was hell-bound after slamming a car door on an elderly nun’s fingers during my first Australian Christmas. We discovered that we may have even been on the same ferry in Sydney.
In the coming days, Gloria and I gravitated toward each other, meeting at the railing and even going so far as to hold hands or casually rub against each other as we walked along. No privacy existed, limiting affections to an occasional stolen kiss—much to the good-natured derision of our friends and fellow backpackers.
At night the flapping of the tarp made for a fitful sleep. I would awaken and gaze across the sleeping forms to where Gloria was lying. Her humour, conversation, and smile had brightened what would have been a smelly and boring trip. In spite of the conditions, I didn’t want it to end.
Our ship anchored offshore just north of the equator at Tanjungpinang. Fifty or so Singapore-bound passengers, including us, disembarked onto water taxis while the HMS Scow continued on to Sumatra.
Once ashore, we were directed to a small launch docked in a large lagoon, its surface reflecting the burning equatorial sun. Some of the westerners told us their water taxis had taken them out to sea and demanded money to take them to shore.
While waiting to depart, the fierce heat got to me. I dove into the piss-warm water. After three nights on the stinking freighter it was refreshing. Aboard the launch everyone was pointing at me; some laughed, others were disgusted. Ocean pickles floated in the lagoon. It was a sewage outlet.
Gloria was not impressed.
She stayed inside the cabin with her friend Diane for the half-day Singapore leg. I don’t think anybody wanted to be near me. Damien and I sat on the bow, occasionally sprayed by sea foam. We cruised past hundreds of tiny islands that barely rose above sea level, each with a few thatched huts built on stilts. These fishermen lived on a liquid planet, far from shore, their tenuous existence dependent on nature’s good graces.
We parted in Singapore. Gloria and her friend were on their way home the long way—via Bangkok, Hong Kong, Japan, and across Russia and Europe by train. Damien and I were blowing in the wind, with England as our distant goal. Traveling overland made us aware of just how big the world really is. The likelihood of meeting up with Gloria again was small. We swapped addresses, promising to keep in touch.
Friendships on the road are quickly struck and can often be intense, but rarely are they revisited.
Farther up the Malaysian Peninsula in Penang, however, we bumped into each other at a small seaside eatery. I invited Gloria and Diane to visit a losmen set back deep in the jungle, where Damien and I were staying. We showed them the captive mongoose that our innkeeper used to get snakes out of the roof rafters, and the giant fruit bats hanging from massive trees like pine cones. After our visit, it never even occurred to us to escort the women back to the road through the dark jungle.
Gloria and Diane were not impressed.
The next day I saw Gloria walking along a beach near Penang with an American fellow I’d also met on the freighter. They were holding hands. Oh yeah, I was jealous! I looked for something in her eyes, in her tone, to reflect our previous connection. There was nothing. So much for mutual affection and chemistry.
I was not impressed.
As luck would have it, we met again in Bangkok. Her hotel had a great pool; mine had bedbugs or some other kind of pestilence. The American was gone. I felt Gloria and I begin to reconnect. Damien and I escorted them around Bangkok to markets and temples. I treated Gloria to a movie and a stroll along the notorious Pat Pong Road in Bangkok’s red light district.
She wasn’t impressed that I knew the area so well.
My overtures to spend the night with her were quickly quashed. Western girls didn’t sleep with western guys in Asia, as men were well known for their promiscuous behavior.
Damien and I eventually made it to London. I had little money left by that time, and somehow I managed to lose him, quite literally, to a sexy English girl from the Midlands.
After my eighteen-month journey, I returned home to Welland, Ontario, aware of how much I had changed. The town hadn’t. My mind had been opened, filled with wonder about all the beauty, poverty, and despair in the world. I had become more self-reliant, more adaptable, and braver. My hometown belonged to the “Flat Earth Society.” My job at a rubber plant sank me into a despair of sorts. After a few months, I wrote Gloria on a whim. She wrote back. I was thrilled. It sealed my decision to leave town.
I decided to move to Edmonton for a job. She worked at the CBC in Saskatoon, and on my drive across the Prairies, I worked up the courage to drop in unannounced. She had mentioned something about moving to Calgary, but I had no idea when.
The elevator opened and Gloria stepped out. It felt awkward thrust face to face so quickly. We stood for a moment looking at each other, not really knowing what to say. She wasn’t the same woman I had stamped in my memory, the azure Java Sea in the background. She’d swapped her green backpack and sandals for a leather purse and heels. The sarong and T-shirt were now a summer blouse and a tight blue skirt. Her long hair had been trimmed and was somewhat shorter and more stylish. Her deep tropical tan had faded.
But the smile was still there. With a hug, our bodies meshed in familiarity, and the connection returned. Her laugh bridged a million miles of loneliness. Not only that, the timing of our reunion was a gift from the gods. She was moving to Calgary the next morning, where Diane was already established, and we might well have lost touch.
Back at her apartment, I was stunned to see that I was in one of the photos she’d taken of her friend shortly after boarding the ship—before we’d even met. There I sat in the background, writing in my travel journal. It was almost eerie.
The next morning, Gloria tossed her few possessions in my car and we were off toward Alberta. I could only stay with her for a few days. When I dropped her off in downtown Calgary my heart broke.
Nevertheless, we began a “Highway 2 romance,” which is what happens in Alberta when one half of a pair lives in Edmonton and the other half lives in Calgary. “Sweet City Woman” played on my car radio as I drove back and forth every weekend, strengthening our connection to the point of love. She made perogies and baked me pies. We took numerous day trips to Banff.
After two months of searching, Gloria still hadn’t found work in Calgary. [YJ2] Bad news for her turned out to be great news for me, however, when an Edmonton television station called requesting an interview. They liked what they saw and hired her, and I eagerly helped her move north.
Obviously, something had conspired to bring us together. I decided I had no choice but to ask her to marry me and leave nothing more to chance. If I hadn’t, I knew we’d just keep bumping into each other.