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

Out at Sea
Notes from different corners of the world.
Dec. 5 2008 6:54 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—Here in Indonesia, it's pretty normal to believe in magic. Especially if you're doing one of the most dangerous jobs in the world.

Agus, the pirate, always visits a magician before an "operation." He brings the magician sugar, milk, and coffee as payment.

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The magician's house is built on rickety, wooden stilts, the sole structure on a tiny island that's hours from any major town. It takes two cars and three boats to reach it.

Inside, there's a lot of yelling. The magician is hard of hearing and, his wife says, he has been sick. So sick he thought he was going to die.

Now he sits on the floor wearing a traditional Malay sarong and a fezlike cap. He waves a knobby hand at us to sit down. Closer in, I can see that he is blind.

Agus tells the magician he's planning to rob a big international cargo ship. He needs help staying hidden from the Indonesian navy. Agus has already been questioned by the navy once before. Now he wants to be extra careful.

The old man takes a bottle of water, shakes it, and puts it in his armpit. He mumbles to himself, then whispers into the bottle.

The whispers get louder and louder. At the end, he blows a big gust of air into the bottle and quickly caps it before his words can escape. The magician tells Agus that if he pours this water around the edges of his boat, it will make the boat invisible.

"OK," Agus says in English. "OK."

The magician repeats the same procedure with the second bottle of water. This one, he says, is for Agus' face.

It will make Agus invisible.

After this, the old man seems tired. We say goodbye and hurry back to our boat taxi. It's covered in centipedes. We push out of the thick mud with bamboo poles until the water's deep enough to start the filthy engine.

Back in town, Agus says he'll show me how he robs ships. We head to a row of small shops to buy supplies: a $10 machete, a face mask, a long bamboo pole, and a hooked knife.

On the edge of town, we climb down into another narrow, wooden boat with an outboard motor. This one's bigger than the centipede taxi. It's dark now, and we can see what must be thousands of lights out on the water. Some of them are tiny islands. Most of them are boats.

We steal out toward the Strait of Malacca. It is one of the most heavily trafficked waterways in the world. Seventy thousand ships pass through here each year. No wonder there's piracy.

Agus says it's too dangerous to take me with him on a real pirate operation. But he promises to record a future one for me on his mobile phone.

We pull up to a light tower that's about 20 feet tall. That's less than half as high as a cargo ship would be. The plan is for Agus to climb the tower as if he were robbing it.

He lashes the knife to the end of the bamboo stick. Then he swings the stick up to the top of the tower, hooks it on, and climbs up.

"I want to stop this work," he says, panting, when he comes back down. "It's dangerous out at sea. People have accidents, people die. I have a dream that one day I will make so much money I can quit this work and stop everything. But until then, what else can I do?"

Back on land, we walk to Agus' neighborhood, a slum set back a few hundred yards from the town square. Agus rents two tiny rooms in the house of a family from Sulawesi, a far-away Indonesian province. People flock here from such provinces looking for work and wealth. They rarely find either.

Agus' rooms are on the second story of the house, up a wooden ladder. The first room is completely bare, except for a blue plastic gas can. The second room has a mattress on the floor; a pink, oscillating fan next to the mattress; a broken-down dresser; and a pile of dirty clothes.

Agus sends one of the village kids to buy some water. He asks me for the two bucks to pay for it. We sit on the floor and talk.

Like so many Indonesians, Agus came here to get rich. He had a friend back in his village who'd made money here as a pirate. He told Agus to try his luck.

So Agus and his wife decided he would come here, make a nice chunk of money, then go home to buy some land or open a small shop.

That was eight years ago.

The problem, Agus explains, is that you just can't make enough money being a pirate. Sure, you might make thousands of dollars on one successful operation, but you might also lose money if you buy the fuel and supplies but then end up with nothing.

Needless to say, this has strained relations with the wife.

"Now my wife has managed to work for herself and make good money as a nurse," Agus tells me. "But I'm still doing this bad job and not making much money. For this reason, I feel ashamed. I cannot go back home with nothing. So I have to stay here."

Another reason Agus has a hard time saving money is "happy-happy." This roughly translates to booze and girls. But it's also an unwritten code among pirates: If you make money, you share the happy-happy with your buddies who might not have been as lucky as you.

The next night, Agus' friend is celebrating. He has just made a couple of hundred bucks stealing crude from an oil tanker and reselling it. He has invited us along.

Tonight, the happy-happy is a case of beer and a troupe of disco girls who travel from island to island and charge men to dance with them. The troupe assembles in the town square and blares techno music.

The girls wear jeans and white T-shirts and wait on folding chairs for partners. Agus points to the tallest one.

"See her? That's my girlfriend. Her name is Yuna."

Pretty soon Agus has spent his last $5 to be with Yuna. He doesn't touch her. He just closes his eyes, throws his head back, and dances and dances.

In the three days that I've known him, it's the first time I've seen Agus smile a real smile. I wave goodbye and take my final boat taxi away from the island.

Since that night Agus says he's been on two pirate operations. One was a success. He made nearly $1,000, a huge amount of money in Indonesia.

The other was not. There were too many navy boats out that night.

I called Agus a few times and asked about the recording he told me he'd make on his mobile phone. He kept promising to do it.

The last time I talked to him, though, he admitted he'd had to pawn the phone. Because, he said, he was broke. Again.

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.

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