It was early in the morning as we sat in a harbor on the Northwestern Side of Lombok. Horse drawn carts hurried down the small road in front of our café to the tune of the local mosque’s call to prayer. It felt like a different world. I ordered a coke and left my nook in the shade to venture out in the heat for a stroll down to the waterfront. Indonesian people traded baskets of fruit by the docks and men with motorbikes solicited me rides as I walked.
Back in the shade of our café I sat on a worn looking, uncomfortable couch repeating phrases in Indonesian into a walkie-talkie as the café staff giggled. I must have been saying something bad.
That’s when we were called to attention. Our boat had been delayed due to bad weather and would be 5 hours late. Our solution? To cut up the Northern side of the island by land and meet the boat at the halfway point.
We all loaded back into a cramped white van. Except that we had a gained a couple new passengers. To make room for them I volunteered as tribute to ride on the roof with our luggage. Joined by an English gentleman I just met, I watched the Indonesian countryside fly by as I hung on to the luggage rack for dear life. In the shadow of Mount Rinjani, Lombok's massive volcano, the rolling hills and luscious rice paddies flew by us with abandon as we rocketed down the narrow, winding road. Aside from a couple unexpected sharp turns and low hanging branches that forced us to jump forward and lay flat, it was actually a pretty smooth ride. From the road below, children screamed and waved to us, adults pointed and stared. Oh how I regretted not bringing my camera up there with me. It was a pretty spectacular experience.
Eventually we reached our dock. We poured out of the van like a clown-car to a rather underwhelming sight. Dude, this boat was freaking tiny. It didn’t even reach as high as the dock where it was anchored. It looked like a big toy. Every wave that hit left it bobbling back and forth precariously. One Swedish couple that was meant to be partaking in the journey with us took one look at its sorry state and just left. That turned out to be a great decision on their part.
The rest of us, strangers to one another at this point, looked at each other, and then with an uneasy shrug climbed down onto the deck. One thing was certain – this was going to be interesting. So let’s fast-forward a little bit, shall we?
The Clock Strikes 3:00am
Our boat had recently made the jump across the treacherous straight separating Lombok from the bigger and more unknown island of Sumbawa. That had taken us less than 2 hours, but I had been white knuckling anything bolted down the entire time. It was quite a ride in that little boat.
Since then, the water had calmed down and I had drifted off into uneasy sleep despite the constant shifting of my thin sleeping pad. Curiously, all of our sleeping pads were arranged in the highest possible place to lay across the boat instead of parallel with the stern. It’s almost common knowledge that it is more natural to 1) lay your body parallel with the boat and 2) lay at the lowest point. Both of these will reduce your movement and keep you from getting seasick.
Anyway, 3:00am (ish)—we hit a wave particularly hard and I was rudely awakened as my head crashed into the wall of the boat. Alarmed, I climbed down to the main area of the boat to see what was going on. And that’s when it happened.
My stomach lurched. I struggled to keep my balance as the boat teetered back an forth forcefully. I stumbled down the narrow hallway to the bathroom, being thrown against the walls as the boat fought the elements outside. I tore open the bathroom door to see a small, dirty, damp, poorly lit, stinking excuse for a lavatory. I don’t know what I was expecting but I had no choice. I dropped to my knees and dropped my face into the toilet bowl just in time for my body to give rise to a painful series of dry-heaves.
Propping myself up against 2 of the bathroom's walls to resist moving with the boat, I shakily pulled the door shut and locked it. I didn’t want anyone to see me like this. Another wave crashed against the boat and I heaved harder until finally the rice and noodles I had been served for dinner fought their way back up my esophagus and out of my mouth. Ugh. I did my best not to topple face first into the toilet bowl following my vomit as the nauseating rocking of the boat grew stronger.
This continued for a while. I was living for the moments of relief I felt in the immediate wake of each nauseating gastrointestinal upheaval. The boat's unpredictable movements had me bouncing off the walls of the small room as I struggled to focus on my target.
And then… oh good. There’s somebody knocking at the back door.
I did a quick spin move, expertly timed between waves, to answer the knocking but then, *oops*!
There’s the front door again.
Without even wiping I spun back around, hitting my head on the corner of one of the ceiling beams as the boat lurched. I barely got my face back into the toilet bowl in time to unload more rice and noodles. Never mind the fact that my face was now inches from the steaming pile of feces I had just released, these were battle conditions!
Drool dripped from my bottom lip as I savored that small moment of post-heave relief when suddenly the boat tipped forward over the crest of a particularly big wave and there were few moments of free fall. At the conclusion of these moments, our boat crashed back to sea level hard enough to send a spray of poop-vomit soup up and all over my face. I threw up again, but this time not because of seasickness.
I needed a system. I took my briefs and shorts completely off to hang them up on high ground and grabbed the small bucket used to dump water into the toilet for flushing. And there I sat, pathetically disposing of my dinner, such as it was, from every available hole. Take it from me folks, there are few things worse than the feeling of having a hot, messy, steaming bowel movement (that you thought had made it all the way out) being sucked back up into you due to the free-fall sensation created by your boat tumbling over the crest of a wave. Prairie-doggin' to the extreme! This couldn’t get worse.
Then there was a knock at the door. Oh wait, it can get worse. My strategy was to be silent in hopes that they would go away.
“I got the shits! Come on man, I’m desperate!!” came the voice on the other side of the door in a thick Irish accent.
Even though I couldn't even fathom moving from where I was, I knew I had to. I try not to be selfish. I pulled myself together, dumped a few buckets of water into the toilet bowl to clean up my filth, shakily put my pants back on and stumbled out of the door where I held myself together for 10 minutes while my fellow boat mate absolutely destroyed that bathroom.
The door swung back open and I was just mauled by the stench he had emitted.
“Oh God. I can’t.”
My stomach lurched again.
“Hookay maybe I can.”
I dropped back to my knees so quickly it felt as if there was a magnet pulling me. The odors that surrounded me were much more disgusting because they had originated in somebody else’s anus but at least it helped me throw up more quickly. There were a few more of these painful swaps made during the night until finally the sky began getting lighter. I fell asleep in the fetal position, shivering and shaking on the floor outside of the bathroom. I have a dim memory of the ship’s captain sliding a pillow under my head. The rest of the boat apparently had stepped over my corpse to do their morning business.
That next morning, the Irishman with whom I had been sharing the bathroom abandoned ship at the first harbor we came across on Sumbawa. I however decided that it would be sort of a ‘princess’ move for me to follow him. People have been getting sick on boats for thousands of years. It’s voyages like this that were the needles in the threads that pulled the modern world together. I would go so far as to say that what I just went through was one of the fundamental human experiences. It’s less common now of course, but historically I would say that it is extremely relevant. And I suddenly began feeling an awful lot of empathy for what it must have been like so many years ago, crossing entire oceans through worse conditions and on less stable vessels.
"Yeah, I can do this. I’m gonna stay," I thought to myself.
Looking back on this, all I can do is sigh. I should have jumped ship when I had the chance. Things were about to get a whole lot worse.