Published: January 25th 2010July 12th 2009
A storm was coming in but I was so glad to be outdoors after five miserable days on my death bed I just didn't care
Back in July 2009, during the 2 months I spent in Maluku (the island chain between Sulawesi and Papua in eastern Indonesia), I found myself on yet another Pelni that took me just about as far away from anything or anywhere I have ever been, or so it seemed. Pulau Kei (Kei is pronounced like the letter "K") is best known to the adventurous ones that make it that far for an area called Pasir Panjang, a 3 kilometer stretch of incredible powdery white sand. I likened walking along this beach to playing in a sandbox full of cake flour; it was that soft and silky. It was an amazing part of the world and a welcome heaven from my exhausting travels thus far, and well worth the agony of getting there.
Unfortunately the "getting there" was not all perfect wonderfulness. Let's back up a moment to being on the boat getting to the island. I have written about the Pelni in past emails, so you all have an idea of the craziness of this way of Indonesian "local transport," carrying thousands of people from island to island jam-packed on and in like sardines in a tin can. On these
No matter how you look at it, this beach was heaven....
journeys I had taken to sleeping outside on a wooden bench or on one of the top floors of an outside deck but boarding this particular ship it was raining and it was so puddled up around the area I wanted to call home for the next 19 hours so I gathered up my bags and headed to even higher ground, and called a covered canteen area my home for the next few hours. It just so happened I met and struck up a lovely conversation with a young, college-aged kid who was staying in a 3rd class room a few decks below. I didn't hesitate when he and his bunkmates invited me to stay the night in the room intended for six. The room with three bunk beds was supposedly air-conditioned, came with good people, a hot meal and a real bed with a clean sheet (I would have been happy to sleep on the floor, but they all insisted I take one of the beds while they all rearranged themselves to bunk up together so I, the single foreigner, would be comfortable. They would have it no other way no matter how much I protested). Long story short,
So soft, so lovely, so perfect......
we all talked through the 3rd class dinner call and never ate. This was only the beginning of what became one of the longest nights, and subsequently longest week, of my life.
I ran out of drinking water early that evening. The air conditioning didn't work and naturally there were no windows in the room, which only became more and more stuffy and stifling as the night wore on. I suffered from dehydration and woke up numerous times in the night sweating and really hot to the touch. I repeatedly found myself getting up to head to the bathroom down the hall just to splash coolish water on my arms, face, neck and head before heading back to bed, slightly drippy. Thankfully the women's room was close, though each time I went I had to step over a number of sleeping bodies in the narrow hallway.
Throughout the long night we dipped and rocked our way through the rough waters of the Banda Sea; this also contributed to my sleeplessness. The morning didn't bring much relief; I started getting a heat headache and my stomach was flipping all over the place due to the heaving waters. Disembarking the
Pelni took way too long and with getting tossed left and right by the masses of locals who just had to all be the first off the ship and helping my new friend carry some of his bags and boxes (along with my rucksack and laptop bag) I was ready to just collapse when I finally got onto the concrete pier. My new friend Rudy invited me to stay with his family for a few days before heading to the beautiful beach, which was kind and generous, but it took a while before he was able to procure a ride to get us there. Finally we made it to his house where I was greeting by his lovely family. They greeted me warmly and instantly killed two chickens in my honor for our dinner, but almost immediately I started to feel fatigued. I was shown to my room just off the main part of the house (thankfully with en suite) where I was asleep instantaneously, even before my head hit the pillow.
I was roused a few hours later moments before dinner was served at the kitchen table. I woke with a splitting headache and couldn't eat anything except
Where is everybody???
a bite of greens and a small spoonful of rice. I felt bad but had to excuse myself and tell Rudy's mother and father I just needed to lie down for a little longer. I felt really bad for bailing on a lovely meal and new company. I slept throughout the night but woke up every hour or so, tossing and turning and not able to get comfortable. My body was really hot, my headache massive and my body became more and more weak; it took so much energy just to get up to pee. I must have looked at my watch every hour in the night.
That miserable night I went through so much: I was cold, hot, sweating, had a massive headache, my body was hot to the touch but I was shivering. I got under my sleep sheet and covered up with my lungi (sarong) and put on a long sleeve shirt, despite it being quite warm outside. I took everything off and put everything back on again numerous times throughout the night. All this effort just wore me out. I realized later I had a fever, but not having a recollection of ever having one
in my adult life (since before my college days, really....), this was really quite a foreign feeling for me.
I couldn't get up for brekkie the next morning and slept nearly the entire day. The family finally got me to eat in the early afternoon, but I could barely hold myself up and was forced to go back to bed after a tiny nibble of some bread at the kitchen table. I was completely zapped of all energy. At some point in the later afternoon a friend of the family came over, pulled the door open with a mighty force (never mind the foreign guest is sleeping away a sickness in a private room), stood in the doorway, stared at me, pointed, laughed (as many Indonesians do....) and exclaimed, "Malaria!" He seemed overjoyed with telling me this but I was in no mood to listen to this strange man or any of his assumptions, especially making light of something potentially serious.
Two doctors came to the house that day to take my blood pressure and came to their conclusions as to what was ailing me. The first one prescribed various pills and vitamins which she pulled out of
Facing the ocean, I stayed here for 5 nights and at a different guesthouse 5 other nights
her little black bag but the second one all but told me these were ineffective and not to take them, as they would do me no good at all. The first doctor made me eat a small, plain roll. It took me 10 minutes to get the entire thing chewed and swallowed. That's how bad off I was. She barely felt my burning forehead and never asked me any questions. She said I "haven't been resting while traveling" and this was my body telling me to take it easy. I thought it was more than that, but who am I to say?.
The second doctor also took my blood pressure (with both doctors my BP came out "normal"), prescribed Paracetamol, told me not to take the other prescribed meds and to get myself to the lab the next morning to check for malaria. Ok, this is now serious, I was thinking to myself, if a doctor is thinking of the possibilities of malaria. In the end, the lab results were fairly inconclusive. I was tested for a multitude of things but only one thing came up positive and that was for typhus, "whatever the hell that is," I was thinking to myself at the time. I had zero energy when I got back to the house an hour later, and it wasn't until the following day I managed with much difficulty to get my guide book out of my pack to look up this bloody disease. As it turns out, this is something that "travelers rarely get" and is spread by the bite of a mite or flea. Huh? When was I ever exposed to either of these little guys? Anyway, I didn't seem to even have all the symptoms of this typhus thing so I decided the results were inconclusive. I was put on antimalarials by the laboratory just to be safe. I fell right to sleep until the following day.
By day five I felt well enough to sit up and eat without the aid of others, and actually left this local family who was kind enough to house a virtual stranger for almost a week. I headed out to the beach by motorbike (I didn't drive) and just digging my feet in the white powdery sand of Pasir Panjang was enough to put a smile on my face, the first in nearly a week. All things said, it still took another week before I was fully back to normal, if my life can be considered normal.
I spent the next 10 days in two different guest houses on two different beaches, wandering up and down the sand, enjoying the solitude and walking up to 600 meters out in ankle deep water, or no water at all. The locals only came out on Sunday, when they packed the beaches and cranked up the tunes after a hard week of work. Monday through Saturday I saw virtually no one on the beaches at all, at any given time of day. The sunrises and sunsets were spectacular, the water eerily calm, the sand crabs a-plenty. Beautiful seashells washed up to shore, the crabs came out of their holes in the sand in the late afternoon to wrestle with each other and the local street dogs frolicked in the water. I spent many hours just staring into the horizon, lost in deep thought. The biggest concern of mine was whether to get up from my hammock on the right side or the left. I finished many books in this time frame.
I would head back to Pasir Panjang on Pulau Kei (Kei Island) in a heartbeat. It's remote and distant and oh so far away from anything but so worth it once you get there. The beauty of the water, the incredible softness of the powder white sand and the wonderful hospitality of the locals gives one a sense of really finally finding paradise. If I hadn't fallen ill I would have done more exploring. I'll leave the rest of the island for another time. Kei, I'll be back!