Mr. Black

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

Mr. Black

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

Mr. Black
Notes from different corners of the world.
Dec. 2 2008 12:01 PM

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—I spend the next three days meeting people who have no idea how to find pirates. On the fourth day, I wake up and realize I have nothing scheduled for the day, no solid plan.

I send a text message to Iqbal, the newspaper reporter who has been helping me. "Anto has disappeared," he writes. Anto is the shady ex-pirate we met a few days before. Iqbal promises to find me another ex-pirate, but he says it will take some time.

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It takes a whole day before Iqbal calls to say he's found another ex-pirate. I practically run down to the hotel parking lot and jump into his car.

The ex-pirate has agreed to meet us in the back room of a recording studio owned by one of Iqbal's friends. He wears a black leather jacket and gold chains. He smokes pack after pack of Indonesian clove cigarettes and drinks sweet black tea.

He asks me to call him Mr. Black. He says the nickname is a description of his face, which is dark from too much time in the sun out at sea. He doesn't want me to know his real name.

Mr. Black says local boys become pirates for one reason: Singapore. Seeing those skyscrapers—that prosperity—just a few miles away is too tempting for a young Indonesian living on a poor island.

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"In other parts of the world, poor people don't know what they're missing," Mr. Black says through my interpreter, Arman. "Here, it's right across the water. And it's why they become pirates."

Mr. Black could spend all night telling pirate stories from back in the day. I listen, even though what I really want is a pirate from right now. Still, I learn a lot about the business from Mr. Black. Like the Italian sailor who cried like a baby when Mr. Black snuck onto his vessel. The night his partner fell from the bamboo ladder as he was inching up the side of a cargo ship and was lost at sea for an hour. The Korean captains who always put up a fight.

Mr. Black says his group of pirates worked only on nights with no moon. That way they could stay hidden from the navy. He says they could rob three or four ships in a night, sometimes making tens of thousands of dollars. Then they would blow their money on "happy-happy."

"We had so much money, we would wash our feet with beer!" Mr. Black says. "But," he adds, wagging a finger, "what we didn't understand is that pirates never get rich."

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"Why?"

"We enjoy too much!"

Mr. Black says that after a really big haul, his group would go to Indonesia's capital, Jakarta, book rooms at five-star hotels, hire half a dozen girls for each guy. When all the money was gone, they'd come back to the islands and start all over again.

It all came to an end when Mr. Black was arrested and did three months in jail for robbing an Indonesian ship. After that, he decided to go legit. He changed his name and got a job hawking food at a popular tourist site. He eventually started his own printing business.

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Listening to him, I can't help wishing he had a son or a nephew who's still a pirate.

I try to tread more slowly with Mr. Black than I did with Anto, our first ex-pirate. Instead of asking him outright if he knows any active pirates, I say, "When you meet young guys who are still working as pirates, what advice do you give them?"

"I tell them to stop," Mr. Black replies. "I tell them there are only two ways a pirate's life can end: jail or death."

I try to keep him talking about these "young guys." At one point, I hear Mr. Black say the word nephew in Indonesian.

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"They just won't listen to me," he says. "They won't give it up, no matter how much I tell them to quit."

By now, I know he's talking about his nephew. We talk for another half-hour before I politely ask whether I can meet this nephew. At first Mr. Black says that would be impossible. But then he says he'll think it over.

I thank him and ask for his phone number. Iqbal and Arman squirm, worried that I've offended Mr. Black. But this guy is clearly a sucker for the ladies. He gives me his number and says he'll do what he can to help.

Back in the car, I can't help it. I give Arman a high-five.

At the hotel I think about how bipolar this has been. One minute I'm dying of boredom; the next I'm totally high. Right now, I can just picture it all unfolding. The conflict between the pirate and his uncle. The scene at the seedy disco, planning the next attack while prostitutes serve us beer. The moonless night out at sea.

I wake up the next morning thinking I'm finally on a roll. I send a text message to Mr. Black, and he immediately messages back.

"Are you happy?" he writes.

"I am only happy if I meet you again," I write back. I'm still in bed, in my nightgown.

"I am free," he writes. "Try to call."

I do, but he says he's busy. He says he'll call me later. Maybe tonight. Maybe tomorrow.

The next day I get a "How are you?" from Mr. Black. I text him back, but I get no response. I call an hour later, and he says he might come to my hotel tonight and meet me for a drink.

As the day passes, I want to call him again, just to confirm that we will meet. But I figure I should probably wait. I reckon it's like dating. Except with a pirate.

A tropical storm blows in, and I open the window of my hotel room to the cool, damp air. It rains and rains, and I wait and wait and wait.

I've been here more than one week.

The next day, I go through what has become a routine to pass the time. Clean the room, make tea, go to aerobics, watch movies, try to read.

I wonder if I'm being lulled into complacency or if my patience with Mr. Black will eventually pay off. I have no way of knowing which instinct is right. One thing I do know: I've spent way too much time in this hotel.

I start checking moon cycles online. I learn that the moon is waning, and in a week it will be gone from the sky. This means the time for a pirate operation is approaching. I want to get excited about this. But I'm wary of the letdown if I fail to meet Mr. Black's nephew.

Mr. Black calls and promises—"100 percent!"—that we will meet tonight. I shouldn't believe him, but I do. It's the beginning of a bad relationship.

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.