Survivor: Indonesia — Are we camping or stranded?

The sun escapes behind distant clouds, shadowing an unnamed Indonesian island in darkness. Many of Indonesia’s more than 17,000 islands remain nameless and uninhabited. (Ned Klein/Indonesiaful)

It took two hours of motorcycle trekking to get to Gentuma. Upon arrival in the fishing town, we began negotiating with the local fishermen. My friend Greg and I sought passage to and from a nearby island where we would camp. I knew that the fare usually cost $3 per person but that we should expect to pay  $5 each. The first fisherman announced the price at $15 dollars total, round trip. I countered with an offer of $8 but he kept refusing. I eventually raised my offer to $10 but he wouldn’t budge.

Bargaining is expected in Indonesia. Upon arrival, I had been told that it’s rude (and typically American) to just state your “final offer” and refuse any further negotiations. Instead, you should offer a lower price than your “final offer” and play the game until the negotiated price is something you’re willing to pay. Oddly, this fisherman wasn’t participating in the game and wouldn’t give any counter offers. When I asked if he could lower his price, he repeated the same excuses:

“If I take you to the island, then I won’t be able to fish this afternoon and make money doing that.” (But we’re offering more than you would make fishing!)

“Gas is expensive.” (I’ll pay for gas!)

“It costs $25 for five people and $15 for three people. That is the price.” (That’s $5 per person and that’s the price you’re refusing us!)

I approached the other fisherman and spoke to them about traveling to the island. Despite the presence of dozens of fishing canoes, they assured me that the man I had previously spoken to was the only one with a boat. I decided to go for a different angle and started getting to know them. I tried to speak the local language and answered their questions about America. They couldn’t believe that Americans don’t eat rice every day and were delighted when I confirmed that Yankees often have more than one girlfriend or boyfriend throughout the course of a lifetime. When they asked me about my salary in Indonesia, I sensed an opportunity. I lied and gave them the starting salary for a new teacher at my school.

“Ooh! So little!” they responded in chorus.

“I know! That’s why I can’t pay $15 to get on this island. So expensive! I can pay $10 though.”

One of the bapaks made a quick phone call and told us to wait. Moments later, a fishermen emerged from his home with an outboard motor and beckoned us towards his boat. Without any negotiation, Anki agreed on a $10 round-trip fare and we set off.

The uninhabited island is about the size of a city block. Ringed half by beach and half by rocky coast, the center of the island is a steep hill covered with tall grass and trees.

Lacking a flashlight or shelter, Fulbright ETA Ned Klein built a small campfire made of driftwood during his stay on an unnamed island close to Gentuma. (Ned Klein/Indonesiaful)

We set up camp on a sheltered stretch of beach and enjoyed a sunset snorkel.  As we laid out our supplies, Greg realized that we had failed to bring a flashlight, which meant we had to build a fire before dark. Using a flint and a wad of tissues, we managed to get a driftwood campfire going. It’s tough to cook pasta over a bonfire and it seemed fitting that we gorge ourselves using only our salty hands (we forgot silverware, too).

The night was much colder than we had anticipated. I packed a silk sleeping sack and Greg brought only a single blanket. Instead of waking up cold and pulling up the covers, I found myself sleepily adding wood to the fire and stoking it to get it going. Instead of stumbling to the bathroom for a midnight cup of water, I rose to collect armfuls of driftwood with which I could nourish the dying fire. The blast of heat from a rejuvenated fire is far more satisfying than the trickling warmth of a recently added blanket. I fell asleep smiling.

We were startled to see distant figures with flashlights arrive on a small boat. They turned out to be friendly poachers, scouring the island for an allegedly tasty, albeit protected, bird species. The two men shared the warmth of our fire, offered us cigarettes, and tromped around with their headlamps and air rifles before departing after midnight.

I awoke parched, and inhaled the breakfast we had packed: peanut butter and Nutella sandwiches with a side of peanuts and water. I took a quick swim and was delighted to see Anki, who had arrived half an hour early. We clamored into his canoe and started the trek back to Limboto, proud that we survived for 18 hours on a desert island.

About the author: Ned Klein is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant based in Gorontalo, Sulawesi. He graduated from Georgetown University with a degree in American Government in 2010. Before joining the Fulbright program, he taught elementary school as a Teach For America corps member in Phoenix, Ariz.

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