It’s All in the Timing

Kupang, West Timor.

Kupang, West Timor.

A side-effect of being a waitress at a live entertainment venue is that you, like a dog, suddenly find yourself with heightened senses. You can see people sit down at their table out of the back of your head, you can pick up on a joke over the clatter of glasses and silverware, and one sniff will tell you whether or not a table has been passing off drinks to their underaged member. Yes, you know everything going on in your section, and, especially when you work in a place where everyone comes in at once and everyone leaves at once, you know exactly how long the show’s been going for and exactly how long a table has been waiting for service.

More than anything, when you work in an industry where literally every second counts, you become more than just aware of the time,.. you live by it. It’s that ability to make the most of every second you work that separates a great waitress from a good one, and is the reason why, when I’m outrageously busy, the absolute worst table is not the one that’s rude, but the one that urgently calls me over before proceeding to hem….

…. and to haw…

… and to basically RUIN MY LIFE while I watch the rest of my section fill from my periphery and feel the panic in my temples rising to critical mass.

When I’m at home, I’ve got this clock going all the time- and it is actually necessary. The manner by which obligations are fulfilled in the developed world is so marvellously efficient that we, instead of taking that extra time to relax, fill our days with even more shit to do. If you can get coffee in 5 minutes, pizza delivered to your house in less than 20, banking handled on a lunch break, and all of your friendships maintained with the click of a mouse, it seems that the natural human response is to find even more stuff to fill the time… and not things like dance courses or moments of quiet reflection… but pressing matters involving deadlines that deeply influence people around you. As citizens of countries where, reasonably speaking, we should have all the time in the world, it seems to me that none of it is ever ours. After school and work and volunteering and nannies and family gatherings and all these other engagements over which you have very little or no influence, the fabric of your day is left looking like a moth-bitten rag even too indecent for Miley Cyrus to wear without a blush.

The nice thing about travel is that your approach to time is switched on its head. You have all the time in the world- who is rushing you?- so when the bus takes off an hour late- only to drive around doing errands for another hour and come BACK to the same bus station, or when the only shop in town is closed for a 4-hour lunch break, or the typhoon is wreaking havoc outside and you can’t leave… it makes no difference. Whole days can be spent playing chess in the park, walking kilometers hunting for tampons, or sitting languidly under an overarching tree in the rain, watching a street dog rapturously devour a cow patty.

This is one of my favorite things about travel. There is very little that can compare with the feeling of knowing that you don’t NEED to do anything. When will things get done? Hell, whenever you damn well feel like it… that’s when.

Kupang night market, West Timor, Indonesia.

Kupang night market, West Timor, Indonesia.

Unfortunately, as I wind down my trip, and on my decade of travel in general, I’ve been flapping about, trying to stuff in the last tidbits of what I feel are “necessary” activities. This attempt to blend my “home” self (trying to get things done within a set period of time), and my travel self (accepting that most things are completely out of my control) has been slowly turning me inside out.

I´ve got just over a month left, and time has been tight. This means that I´ve had to alter my plans a bit. My original agenda was to finish up in Timor, fly into Jayapura on Irian Jaya, secure a visa at the consulate of Papua New Guinea, then cross over by land and spend the last 3 weeks of my trip slowly cruising south to Port Moresby. Sounds reasonable, no?

Not reasonable!

At some point, I stopped smoking crack and came to terms with the fact that this plan would be all but completely impossible. As West Papua (Irian Jaya) has been struggling for independence, the border that it shares with Papua New Guinea has been notoriously unpredictable. Sometimes, it will be open in the morning, shut in the afternoon, and closed only to foreigners at night. Sometimes it will be closed for weeks. Sometimes it is open. Like, REALLY open,… as there is no border patrol anywhere to be found. I suppose this sounds okay until you realize that the only way to enter is illegal, as there´s nobody to stamp you in. What´s more, you don´t find out what´s going on until you officially leave Indonesia (which you may not enter again without a visa— a visa that you can´t get without visiting the consulate. The consulate that’s in Papua New Guinea, that is) and try to cross yourself.

Additionally, if the border is open, and you know this to be true, you have the hurdle of GETTING a visa. This can take anywhere between 1 and 10 days.

That´s not a typo.

Between 1 and 10 days, irrespective of your nationality. There hasn´t been any kind of consistent turn-around time yet noted by the travel community. Sometimes they turn you down without any reason. Sometimes they lose your application entirely.

The worst part is that sometimes, you get your visa in one day, cross the border with no difficulty, and carry on traveling with no problems at all, which makes all the other stuff seem like like small potatoes… a risk that any hardy traveler should be willing to take.

Ordinarily, I´d try to tackle it, feeling that I´d walk out the other side with either a great time or a great story. But, with multiple, deadline-sensitive academic obligations breathing down my neck, and the days until the start of Fall semester flying off the calendar with abandon, I´d been feeling skittish.

Visas for Papua New Guinea are available on arrival at the airport, so by a series of unfortunate-cum-fortunate events, I’ve decided to come in on one of only 3 international flights that they have from Denpasar a MONTH. That leaves me only a bit more than a week to frolick around the country before heading to Vancouver. Bummer.

Anyway, Sebastian wanted to come to Flores,… so here I am, back in Flores with him, with good internet, and with zero stress about getting visas. Yeah, I don´t like to repeat successes, but hey– given the choice between that or the mess in Jayapura, I figured I owed it to myself to relax for a couple of days… have a good time with good people, and travel easily, safely, and comfortably.

So, with this wealth of time we suddenly had left, we decided to cross from West Timor to Flores by public boat. Let me tell you a little bit about it.

We met a cute little Italian couple a week or so back, and together, we decided to take the Kupang-Ende ferry and save ourselves some money on the plane ticket. After all, Pelni boats cover the whole of Indonesia and are the quintessence of traveling around this massive archipelago. Keen to tick another experience off of the list, we eagerly bought our tickets the morning of… gloating in our good luck of having made it to Kupang just one day before this bi-monthly trip took off and managing to score 4 of those coveted seats. It only cost $9 apiece, and we were stoked. What great luck!

We knew that boats like these were first-come, first-served with seating, so, not wanting to get stuck sleeping in chairs all night, we arrived at 6pm for our boat which was due to leave at 8— hoping to grab some of these bed type things that looked so comfortable from the pictures in the Pelni office.

Like I said, we arrived at 6, planning to wait in the terminal for about 2 hours before departure. However, this is how we spent the next 6 hours.

The dock was full, the terminal waiting room was full, and the cement platform before the waiting room was full, but we managed to grab some space on the gravel. Score!

The dock was full, the terminal waiting room was full, and the cement platform before the waiting room was full, but we managed to grab some space on the gravel. Score!

The boat finally arrived at around midnight, and, as anybody who has ever walked through Oakland Chinatown or ridden the 30-Stockton at rush hour knows well,  Asians aren’t exactly the types to queue politely and wait for their chance to board. Little old ladies swinging plastic bags crammed with fish. Teenagers muscling through the crowd with a TV perched artfully on the crowns of their heads. Ordinary, docile-looking citizens donning motorcycle helmets in anticipation of the struggle for entry. It was absolute pandemonium getting in. Thankfully, an adolescence spent frequenting the mosh pits of Reel Big Fish concerts primed me for the ruthless, oxygen-bereft push through the gates, the mad rush to get to the boat, and the epic, squishy nightmare of trying to board using only the two steep and insecure planks that they had thrown to shore.

Once aboard, we found that not only were all the beds were taken, but all the chairs as well as all the floor space of the first 2 levels. Lookie here:


The walkway of the least-crowded platform of the boat at night.

So many bodies!

I want to say that there was a Level 2 separating Level 1 (people puddle) and Level 3 (people puddle + exhaust fumes), but even though I remember walking there, I´m not sure that my feet ever made contact with the boat surface itself, as it was completely indiscernible under the layers of empty Pop Mie containers and punctured sauce packets. I can only recall vague memories of floating, upright, on a mound of garbage.

At the top level, we finally found a small area we could stake out for ourselves… right behind the exhaust pipe. For 15 hours.

At night it was okay. The profuse and exceedingly dense pollution kept us warm all night— like a big, suffocatingly foul blanket stuffing itself into our ears and noses.

But the daytime…

Oh, the daytime.

Imagine being in a tanning bed, lights on, with no fan. Then, ask someone to fill it with trash and human excrement.

Settle in.

People were pissing in the rescue boats, and the runoff poured onto the heads of all beneath them. The one bathroom stank so strongly of ammonia that the outer rim of my nose burned long after I left. Fede, on his way to try to get some water, accidentally stepped on someone’s mat- I mean, c’mon, LOOK at the walkways- and the old lady retaliated by grabbing hold his shoe and slapping his calf while shouting in Bahasa. Exhaust puffed furiously out of all feasible orifices, and our only escape was to tie together a sarong fort with plastic bags- hoping to distance ourselves from the chimney by consenting to huddle by the sun-baked piles of garbage that decorated the upper deck.

You might be thinking that Pelni accidentally oversold the tickets. You would be half right. They oversold tickets, but not on accident. Apparently, you can just crush your way onto the boat to start, then pay for the ticket later… after every passenger´s organs have been turned to jelly by continual mashing. Maximum capacity? What’s that?

We later found out that we had somehow caught the boat the weekend before Indonesian school holidays were due to end. Everyone between the ages of 3 and 25 in the country (+ their parents!) was trying to get home that day.

We finally arrived at sunset the following day, and fled to Moni to spend some time taking hot showers, chilling at the guesthouse, and watching TV. My plan to “smash out” Flores on my way to Papua was unceremoniously flattened on that boatride, alongside any desire to travel by public ferry ever again. In fact, the only reason I managed to hold myself together was because I had three compadres with which to commiserate. At the end of it all, we survived it and walked away with a great story, and the unshakeable bonds of eternal friendship were born. This island, even though I’ve done it before, refuses to be rushed, and this last week has been a pretty rough reminder of the way things work around here. There is no such thing as “cramming” things in… unless you are talking about human beings. Even without cramming, the most basic errands can take all day or not happen at all.

I think the reason why backpackers choose the stress of independent travel over the ease and comfort of guided tours or pre-planned holidays is because, somewhere, secretly, we really get off on being completely out of control. You lessen your grip on absolutes and exercise your freedom of choice in what you do when life throws you some serious, exhaust-coated lemons. Yeah, none of us would have ever chosen that trip if we’d known what we were in for, but experiences like that, not climbing volcanoes or visiting isolated hill tribes, is the quintessence of travel, and Indonesia has laid the smack down in reeducating me in it.


“Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent.” – Carl Sandburg

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s