The Real Pirate

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

The Real Pirate

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

The Real Pirate
Notes from different corners of the world.
Dec. 4 2008 7:22 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—My relationship with Mr. Black, the ex-pirate with a nephew who's a real pirate, ends in breakup. He's too cagey, I'm too pushy. By the end, we're not only furious with each other; we're no longer speaking.

At this point, I've been stuck here in the northwest islands of Indonesia for nearly three weeks, and I've made no real progress toward meeting a pirate. The morning this hits me, I start to pack my bags. I'm ready to go home.

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I check my e-mail one last time and see a message from a French academic I'd written to many weeks before.

This guy has done extensive field research on pirates in the Strait of Malacca, and I'd been hoping to hear from him while I was here in the islands. Today, the day I believe is my last day, he decides to write. I open the message.

"I've been on holiday for two weeks," he writes. "Sorry for getting back to you so late. Do you still need pirate contacts?"

Sure, I say. He sends me the names and numbers of two ex-pirates with strong connections to the current pirate syndicate.

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More ex-pirates? I groan. But I figure I might as well try.

Something tells me the French guy's ex-pirates are different than the old-timers I met. The new guys still work as boat-taxi drivers around the islands. This is a common job for real pirates.

The French guy also puts me in touch with a sailor named Edi who's done legitimate work at sea and speaks some English. He'll help translate.

I call Edi, and 15 minutes later, he meets me in the hotel lobby. We call the two ex-pirates and arrange a meeting for later that afternoon.

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The two men don't want me to publish their names, so let's call them Andi and Joni. We meet them in a hotel just a few blocks from mine.

From the moment I see them, I'm certain these guys are different from the other ex-pirates. They're scruffy, very dark-skinned, and they chain smoke. There's no artifice in the way they speak, no guile. I nearly squeal with delight when one of them burps.

We order coffee and juice, and I tell them I'm looking for a real pirate. They say the only way to meet one is to pay for it. Apparently the French academic and a group of European journalists paid Andi and Joni to put on masks and pretend they were pirates for a film documentary.

I tell them that's not going to work for me. I want a real pirate.

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"I'm sorry," Andi says. "This will be very difficult." I've heard this sentence many times before.

I tell him I can't pay someone for talking to me. What I can do is pay for meals and travel expenses. Andi and Joni laugh and click their tongues.

"It's not enough," Edi translates. "Everything here takes money. This is Indonesia."

I tell them it's all I have to offer. I say it's really important.

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"Why?" Andi asks. "Being a pirate is normal here."

"Americans have the wrong view of pirates," I say. "They think you are Johnny Depp or that you are helping terrorists."

The latter is a common claim made by American and Japanese officials—especially when they want to send their own navy patrols here to the Strait of Malacca. The Indonesian government has fiercely resisted outside involvement. Instead, they prefer to work with the Singaporean and Malaysian navies.

"I want to know the truth about pirates," I say. "About the way they live, about the reasons they turn to piracy to survive."

Edi translates. After a few hours of negotiating, Andi and Joni agree to go and look for a pirate. They say they have one in mind, but he's on a remote island. They say they need money for gas.

I give them about $50—with full knowledge that I may never see them again.

The next day, Edi and the boys are supposed to call by 10 a.m. By noon, I figure Andi and Joni have either run off with the money, failed to find a pirate, or, worse, found one but couldn't convince him to talk.

At 12:30, Edi calls from the lobby.

"We are here!"

"Who is here?" I ask.

"Me," he says. "With the guys."

"What guys?"

"Andi and Joni. And the one."

"He is here?" I say.

"Yes. He's here."

"And he's a real one?" I ask. "A real pirate?"

"Yes, Kelly, he is the real one."

It slowly dawns on me. After nearly a month of asking and waiting, he's here.

"What's his name?"

His name is Agus.

There is nothing romantic about Agus. He slouches a little when he walks up to shake my hand, crams his hands into his pockets as he steps into the hotel elevator. In my room, he sits politely near the window and refuses when I offer him a cold drink. His voice is soft and low.

He grew up in an Indonesian farming village more than 1,000 miles away from these islands. There, he made about $7 a day raising cocoa, but it wasn't enough to feed his wife, three kids, parents, and siblings.

"Then I met a man in my village who was successful," Agus tells me. "He owned a shop and his wife wore a lot of gold. I tried to stay close to him and ask him how he made so much money. After some time, he told me that he had been a pirate."

The shopkeeper told Agus to come to the islands and try his luck. He told Agus to start by working as a boat-taxi driver and slowly try to get introduced to pirates. Agus followed his advice. He joined a pirate group about four years ago.

He says he goes out on about six "operations" a year. The ideal night is one with no moon. Agus and his gang wear masks and black clothes. They fashion a long pole out of bamboo and fix a hook to the end of it.

They ride out in pancung, long wooden canoes with outboard motors, or in speedboats, depending how far they have to go.

Their destination is the Philip Channel, a small portion of the Strait of Malacca. It's a shallow and rocky waterway where international cargo ships have to slow down to pass.

Agus and the boys go out looking for prime targets. They call it "shopping."

"We do it in a team of seven," Agus says. They swing the bamboo pole up the side of the ship and hook it on.

"Then we climb up the pole to the ship. Two of us go to the bridge to catch the captain. The others stay and guard the crew. Sometimes the captain fights back. So we have to hit him and tie him up with rope. Then we tell him to give us all the money in the safe."

I ask Agus whether he's ever hurt anyone. One navy captain told me some pirates cut off captains' hands if they don't cooperate. Agus looks at me and shrugs.

"We only hit captains," he says. "That scares them enough to give us all their money."

If Agus and his partners manage to steal the money from the safe, each one can clear about $600 or $700.

"Sometimes we fail and come home with no money. But we still have to pay for the fuel. So we end up in debt."

I ask Agus to take me out in a boat and show me how it's done. I figure, like everyone else I've met here, he'll say no, it's "too difficult."

But not Agus. He thinks about it for a minute. Then he says OK.

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.