How smoking saved this man’s life

By Taylor Saia and Amelia Murphy

Deep in the jungles of Borneo, a man wearing a Volcom hat and an orangutan-emblazoned t-shirt leans back in his chair and says, “Describe Indonesia in two words.”

Cigarette in hand, Erwin strums his guitar during a klotok tour through Tanjung Puting National Park, Kalimantan. (Emily Denny/Indonesiaful)

Cigarette in hand, Erwin strums his guitar during a klotok tour through Tanjung Puting National Park, Kalimantan. (Emily Denny/Indonesiaful)

His name is Erwin. As Lonely Planet Indonesia describes him, he’s “intelligent, well-read, and good company” – but he also holds an incredible life story. For years, he has been leading klotok (river boat) tours through Kalimantan’s Tanjung Puting National Park to show scruffy tourists the park’s star residents: red-haired orangutans.

“I love my job. I’m always on vacation!” he says. In the past, he has led tours throughout Bali, Lombok, Java, and Kalimantan. If anyone can describe Indonesia in two words, it’s Erwin.

“What is your answer?” we ask.

“Dangerously beautiful,” he says as he takes a drag of his cigarette.

Erwin is no ordinary man. In fact, he claims to be a 17-year-old hailing from Mars. Furthermore, he maintains he is an orangutan stuck in a human body. In actuality, he is 36 and fully human to the best of our knowledge. Yet, it is not Erwin’s Martian roots or inner ape that make him famous in Pangkalanbun, the nearest town outside the park.

As we trekked through the humid Borneo jungle, Erwin recounted a series of star-crossed events in his life.

Seven Decembers ago, in 2006, Erwin was riding on Senopati Nusantara, a ferry traveling from Kumai to Semarang. Leaving at 8 pm on December 28th, the ferry was scheduled to reach Semarang Harbour in 24 hours, where Erwin intended to join his brother’s wedding. During the trip, however, the ferry started heading through a disastrous storm with violent winds, strong sea currents, and waves reaching 7 meters (23 feet) high. Feeling seasick in his cramped compartment in the lower deck, Erwin moved to the top deck’s coffee shop to smoke a cigarette.

Suddenly, a very loud noise erupted from below — an excavator on the ship detached, struck one of the ferry’s walls, and punctured a large hole. All at once, the ferry rolled over into the Java Sea and began to sink. Erwin scurried to grab one of the lifejackets from a man who had taken three. Though Erwin lives on a boat giving tours, he does not know how to swim. Panicked and trapped inside the boat, Erwin began kicking at the closed windows. The glass was too thick, and he wasn’t able to break it.

Luckily for Erwin, the pressure of the water against the window shattered the glass, breaking his arm and leg in the process and giving him a space to escape.

Many people below deck were not as fortunate. The ferry was carrying 628 passengers, including a crew of 57. According to reports, at least 400-500 passengers are believed to have drowned.

For five days after the fateful accident, Erwin floated on a broken life raft with 29 other people, including a 10-year-old boy. Lost at sea, the shipwrecked passengers floated with their bodies in the water, day and night.

“There was no food or water. It was like the movie The Day After Tomorrow,” he said.

Erwin and the other survivors in the life raft were found five days later when a cargo ship bringing timber from Sulawesi found them in the Masalembo Sea, in the middle of nowhere. They had floated 190 miles (300 km) from the wreck.

In the end, only 25 of the 30 passengers on the life raft survived: 3 died and 2 jumped overboard hoping to swim to shore. “But we didn’t see any shore,” Erwin recounted. “Then, they took us to the hospital.” It took still another 24 hours to get to the closest hospital in Surabaya, East Java.

As he marched us through the jungle barefoot, we asked him what he made of this.

“It was only because of that cigarette that I survived.”

About the authors:

Taylor Saia is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Pekanbaru, Sumatra. He graduated from American University in Washington, D.C. in 2013, where he studied business, marketing research, and French. In addition to his insatiable thirst for adventure and international travel, Taylor can be found strumming a ukulele, admiring office supplies, or sipping on a jus alpukat.

Amelia Murphy is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Semarang, Central Java. She graduated from Smith College in 2013 with a degree in Psychology and Italian Studies. She can be found singing karaoke, playing tennis, or eating as much tropical fruit as possible.


2 thoughts on “How smoking saved this man’s life

  1. Pingback: Boating in Borneo: A Ride on the Wild Side – Where in the world is Kelly?

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