A ship’s siren sounds. We run over to the dock and hop aboard. Passing itinerant peddlers and the ship’s crew on the deck, where you can hardly tell passengers from sailors or vendors, we ask a short man where to find the captain. That’s me, he says tersely and assigns us to a cabin with two berths, a locked cabinet, a table and chair. A little while later we’re heading southwest on the Sabuk Nusantara 33.
Our voyage is worlds away from Ferdinand Magellan’s in just about every possible way. But not so very different from that of Alfred Russel Wallace, the British discoverer, linguist, evolutionary biologist, naturalist, botanist and zoologist who traversed the Malay Archipelago from 1854 to 1862 doing his extraordinary research there, collecting and bringing back to England over 100,000 cleanly prepared specimens of flora and fauna, some of which were hitherto unknown.
We, too, have set course for the smallest ports in the archipelago. Inconspicuous little locations forgotten by the world and far from any shipping routes: Bula, Kobi, Wahai on Seram Island; Fafanlap, Salafen and Katapu on Misool. At each of them, our ship is the connection to the outside world and a source of income for the locals. Peddlers selling food are everywhere as goods get loaded and unloaded at the port. The local policeman in Salafen, with a cockatoo sitting on his shoulder, offers his home-grown watermelons for sale. Back on board the captain invites us for drinks and tells sailor’s yarns. His innumerable girlfriends sing karaoke, very loudly over the board PA system. But when we return to Sorong and New Guinea, the crew, sailors, officers and captain are almost unrecognizable: all finely turned out in smartly creased white and blue-trimmed uniforms.
Still, there is one decisive difference between Alfred Russel Wallace’s voyage and ours: Wallace sailed. Not only that: the slave trade and piracy were everyday phenomena here back then, and so was cannibalism!