Happy-Happy

How (Not) To Find a Pirate in the Strait of Malacca

Happy-Happy

How (Not) To Find a Pirate in the Strait of Malacca

Happy-Happy
Notes from different corners of the world.
Dec. 3 2008 7:02 AM

How (Not) To Find a Pirate in the Strait of Malacca

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Click here to launch a slide show on the island of the ex-pirates.

BATAM, Indonesia—Mr. Black, the ex-pirate, doesn't exactly speak English. And I don't exactly speak Indonesian. The words we know in each other's languages are pretty basic. Eat, sorry, please, like, call, night, walk.

I try to call my interpreter, Arman, but his phone is off or out of battery power or out of credit. Here  I've been waiting to meet Mr. Black for days, and when I finally do, I can't translate everything he says.

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Mr. Black and I are strolling up to the second level of a shopping mall, heading toward the food court. He waves to a gaggle of guys sitting and drinking coffee and avocado shakes at a place called Godiva.

It takes me a minute to realize that one of these guys is Anto, the first ex-pirate I met—the guy who's been blowing me off for more than a week.

"I'm sorry, Kelly!" Anto says when he recognizes me. He speaks quite a bit of English. "I told you I was busy. I was busy with this!"

No problem, I say.

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"But you should be happy now," he says. "You are sitting with all the pirates!"

Slowly it unfolds that the guys at the table are Yon, a notorious pirate just released from prison in Malaysia for hijacking a ship; Adi Bulldog, Anto's brother, who runs a crime syndicate; Jack, another pirate who recently did jail time in China; and some young guys who look like up-and-comers.

This could be exactly what I've worked toward all these days. Now where the hell is Arman?

Before I can ask too many questions, the guys invite me to go for "happy-happy." This is what pirates do with the money they make robbing cargo ships.

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We pile into Anto's flashy SUV, and Mr. Black acts like I'm his date. Only he can open my door or offer me a french fry.

We drive up to an enormous nightclub called Pacific that looks like a beached cruise ship. We're waved through security and park in the back.

Inside, the belly of the ship is an eerie, unfinished concrete shell. There are rooms and hallways that haven't seen humans in years. I imagine myself locked in one of these rooms without food. After all, pirates have been known to kidnap people for ransom. I try to call Arman, but still no answer.

We take the back elevator to the top, the VIP section. I steal away to call Iqbal, the local reporter who's been trying to help me meet pirates. I tell him where I am, just in case something happens, and I beg him to try to find Arman.

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Inside the VIP room we position ourselves on vinyl couches in front of a huge flat-screen TV and four smaller screens that list song choices. The songs on the list are old and out of date. "Feelings" and "My Way" are big favorites.

Anto starts queuing up songs with English lyrics. I know what this means.

First up is "Hotel California." Anto hands me the microphone. On the big screen are bizarre images meant to illustrate the song: shots from an old schoolhouse in Utah, fuzzy photographs of Jesus.

This is not the last time I will sing "Hotel California" tonight.

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The music switches to Indonesian love songs, but still no Arman. I convince myself that even though I can't conduct elaborate conversations with these guys, I have to stay on. This is an important element of a pirate's life. This is why they never get rich.

Mr. Black sits next to me, trying to convince me to drink wine or whiskey, but I say no. Everyone else is having water and Coke.

Then Anto stands up and looks my way.

"Breaking news, Kelly! I'm sorry, but now we would like to take drugs!"

OK, I say. No problem.

"We like ecstasy. Would you like to join?"

No thanks, I tell him. I know exactly what he means when he says "ecstasy." Big, chalky, blue-green things that are some weird mix of speed, heroin, and hallucinogens.

"You sure it's OK?" Anto asks.

Go right ahead.

The guys line up in front of Yon, who distributes the pills. They really want me to have one. One guy puts a pill on top of my notebook. Every time he catches my eye, he points to the pill.

He finally realizes I'm not going to take it. So he pops it into his mouth instead. The music changes from Bee Gees karaoke to anonymous techno, and the pirates dance and dance and dance.

After a while, the lights go down, and Anto and his "girlfriend" tastefully slow-dance. Everybody is polite, offering to buy me things. But they're wary when I try to ask about what they do for a living.

Mr. Black puts my phone, pen, and glasses on top of a Kleenex so they won't get dirty. I notice he's slightly different from the others. He hasn't been taking pills.

I wonder whether he normally hangs out with these guys or if he's just doing it for my benefit. After all, he quit the pirate business and went legit.

Mr. Black watches me, too. He always checks to make sure I'm OK, even when he gets up to dance or take a phone call.

I start to understand that tonight might be his way of testing me, to see if he can trust me. I figure I should focus all my energy on Mr. Black so he'll introduce me to his nephew, the real pirate. I imagine the nephew as younger, more businesslike, and more forthcoming than these 50-year-olds.

I resolve to stay on as long as Mr. Black wants. I start dancing and finally accept his offer of a whiskey. Or two.

Hours later, Arman finally calls. By now the ex-pirates are too far gone for any kind of talk. I tell him to forget it for tonight. Mr. Black offers me a ride home.

Mr. Black drives an old white Indonesian-made truck with the steering wheel on the right side and rollbars out back. On the dashboard is sickly sweet air freshener set on some kind of time release.

Later, Mr. Black lights up a joint and offers me some. I tell him I don't smoke, but he won't let up. I finally take the joint and pretend to inhale.

"Maybe you give me some memory?" he asks in English.

"Sure," I say tentatively. "A photo?"

"Photos are for schoolboys," he says. "But a kiss is for a real man."

I tell him this will not be possible. But then I wonder if I could use a kiss as leverage. Something like, "I'll let you kiss me if you let me meet your nephew." After all, I think, it would only be on the cheek.

I look over at Mr. Black's lips and am disgusted with myself for thinking I could let him kiss me.

What is my problem? I think. Will I do anything to meet a real pirate?

I tell Mr. Black to drive me home.

Kelly McEvers has written for the New York Times Magazine, the New Republic, and Esquire. She is a regular contributor toMarketplace and NPR and reviews books for the San Francisco Chronicle.