A muffled shriek came from the motel room next door. The woman’s voice was faint, but familiar.
I bolted upright in my bed and quickly scanned my room. It was dark, but I had left the window curtains open. A full moon bathed the far end of the room facing the beach outside.
More voices less distinguishable than the first pierced my slowly awakening mind. The steady, rhythmic sound of fists slamming against splitting wood came next.
Dreaming, dreaming. I must be still dreaming.
The pounding continued, followed by another shriek, this time more discernible.
“Go away! What do you want?”
I took a moment to quickly glance at my phone on my nightstand. Just past midnight. I had only been asleep for 20 minutes.
My mind was racing. Where am I? Indonesia. Bangka island. A weekend getaway with some friends. Motel. On the beachfront.
I heard more commotion coming through the wall. The knocking stopped, replaced by murmuring voices, all owned by men. My three friends, all women, were sharing that room. This is what they get for leaving me alone to care for my $20-a-night single while they split a much cheaper bill, I thought ruefully. I immediately regretted my tasteless mental joke.
I jumped out of bed and inched toward my window, straining to hear what was going on outside. My room suddenly seemed grotesquely spacious. Was it this large – and empty – before I fell asleep?
Now that the knocking had stopped, I could hear music coming from the motel lobby a hundred yards away.
Karaoke. At this hour? Maybe I can run to them for safety.
The male voices grew louder and I heard footsteps outside my window. They were clearly headed in the direction of my door. One voice yelled “bule!” and another responded with “mengajar!”
White person. He teaches.
And then it came. Fierce knocking at my door. I stood frozen between my bed and window as the ceaseless rapping continued.
“Apa?” I yelled. What? My voice was caught in my dry throat. I neared the door and tried again.“ Apa? Apa? Siapa?” What? Who’s there?
The knocking halted for a moment and a man’s hollow voice cut through the air: “Polisi!”
I watched as shadows danced around the edges of the wooden door standing between me and my late-night visitors. I couldn’t tell how many there were. At least four. Five? There could be more.
I considered my options: open the door and greet what’s on the other side or jump out the window and start running. The latter seemed plausible, but I quickly recoiled as I imagined landing outside among a bed of broken glass. If only this were a movie.
I took a deep breath and slid the lock open. As I put my hand on the door handle I suddenly realized I was covered in a cold sweat. I self-consciously wiped my forehead dry with my sleeve. The knocking continued, as did my sweating.
I pulled open the door to match the width of my frame and peered outside. My earlier estimate had been low — no less than 10 men, most holding freshly lit cigarettes, crowded around the space outside my door. Was that the motel’s owner standing with them? I couldn’t be sure, but the police seemed very unsurprised to see a white American “bule” open the door.
“Good evening,” a grinning officer said in clear English. He repeated in his country’s language. “Selamat malam.” I gave a curt reply – “Malam” – and the soft-faced officer exhaled a puff of smoke and a hearty laugh.
His friends joined him in amusement at my expression of one Indonesian word. He took another slow drag of his cigarette, blowing smoke in my direction. I stood motionless, regretting that I forgot to grab either my phone or passport – or a weapon – before opening the door.
The movies always use smoking as an obvious visual cue to make bad guys seem more menacing, but in that moment all I wanted to do was ask for a rokok, a cigarette, and join my visitors in their favorite hobby. We could smoke, and chat about America, or Indonesian food, or anything they wanted. They’d guffaw at my basic Indonesian skills – especially when I tried to roll my “R”s – and everything would be fine. Indonesians are the most hospitable people I have ever met, and there’s no problem a good cigarette can’t solve.
But the officers didn’t look like they were about to offer me a smoke, and I don’t think they would have cared to hear about how much I love bakso or nasi goreng.
“Are you alone?” the man finally asked in Indonesian. I quickly opened the door a little wider to expose an empty hotel room. “Yes,” I replied. The officer peered in but made no effort to come inside. The light from the full moon illuminated the large room enough to satisfy his childlike curiosity.
“Dari mana, mister?” Where are you from? “America,” I said evenly. I anticipated his next question and continued unprompted. I’d had this conversation with just about every ojek driver and warung server since I landed in Indonesia two months ago.
“Saya mengajar bahasa Inggris di Palembang.” I teach English in Palembang. The officer flashed a broad smile. Maybe he was impressed with my Indonesian, or maybe he always does that during midnight drop-ins.
Chatter erupted among my visitors and another man, perhaps the first officer’s superior, emerged from the pack and came forward. He climbed the step up to my door, smiled and a waved skinny blue folder under my nose.
“Apa itu?” I asked. What is that?
The officer opened the folder and pulled out a two-page document, which he turned to show me. He pointed eagerly to a couple of typed paragraphs and said things I didn’t understand. I noticed the date and the motel’s name at the top of the page and some kind of signature near the bottom. It vaguely resembled a warrant. I protested in confusion until the officer flipped to the second page. He pointed to bold letters in several locations that read “narkoba” or “polisi narkoba” and asked if I understood.
Narcotics police. Am I sure I’m not in a movie? Drug trafficking is a capital punishment in this country. Why did I open the door?
I looked up at the officer and threw my hands up in confusion. I did my best to look scared and innocent. Before I came to Indonesia, my friends from college joked about how something terrible was going to happen to me and that they half-expected to never hear from me again. They even pretended to take bets on whether I’d make it home in one piece, concocting different scenarios in which I’d say or do something stupid and pay dearly for it. Drug trafficking was not on their list.
The officer continued to speak in Indonesian while pointing at his paper. I nodded, pretending to understand. Suddenly, the officer turned to his group and motioned for them to leave. He turned back to me, smiled, and bid me goodnight. I smiled weakly in return before quickly shutting the door.
And just like that, they were gone.
I leaned heavily against the door and sighed. The engines of a couple vans and a few motorbikes sliced through the night and my unexpected visitors roared down the one road back into town. As quickly as they appeared they had vanished, leaving only cigarette smoke lingering in my large motel room.
About the author: Dustin Volz is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant based in Palembang, South Sumatra. He is editor in chief of Indonesiaful and a publisher of Downtown Devil, a hyper-local news publication covering the downtown Phoenix community. Volz graduated from Arizona State University in 2012 with bachelor’s degrees in journalism and history and a master’s degree in mass communication. Contact him at email@example.com.