The Happy Liver Express

In Indonesian culture, it’s the liver, that fabulous organ of detoxification, that is the seat of love and contentment. So, when Indonesians say “senang hati”, which translates literally to “my liver is happy”, they mean more or less what we mean if we talk of feeling happiness or joy in our hearts.

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On that bright clear morning in Pontianak, the concrete jungle capital of West Kalimantan whose claim to fame is that it sits on the equator, neither Gary nor I felt joy in our livers, nor in our hearts. We were boarding a giant speedboat for Ketapang, the nearest city to our field research site. There was no overland travel route through this part of southwestern Borneo, and, after a harrowing experience making the journey through a thunderstorm in a tiny propellor plane, we were sticking with the boat route, which meandered through the coastal waters of the South China Sea and in and out of large rivers. There was mayhem on the docks as passengers crowded to board the the Happy Liver Express, and we scrambled along with the rest of them, wanting to be sure to get our seats.

On an average day, those docks are in mayhem, but this was an above average day, the day in each year with the most mayhem physically possible throughout most of the 17,000 islands of the Indonesian archipelago. Maximum entropy, with a capital S. It was the last day of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, and EVERYONE was in the process of pulang kampung — returning to their home villages — for the big celebration to break the fast the following day.

The petite stewardess, in a fresh, crisp uniform, took our tickets and cheerfully pointed out our seats. Two seats, right next to each other, one for Gary, one for me…but with an extra person comfortably seated against the window. We politely asked the stewardess if he might be in the wrong seat. “Ya, pulang kampung, ya…” she responded with tones that seamlessly melded her good nature, our (surely!) shared sympathy for the man needing to get home, and more than a touch of scolding that we could be so uncouth as to complain about having to share our seats, on this most important day, with another traveller. Indonesians are masters of delivering a clear message while keeping a neutral face and not actually saying those words. She was clearly telling us to put on our big girl panties and suck it up.

Duly admonished, with a friendly nod to the man, we squeezed our two Western-sized butts into the seats designed for two Indonesian-sized butts and already populated by one of the latter. It was tight. The man and I politely arranged our elbows out of each other’s way. The eight-hour trip began.

The first few hours of the trip were uneventful. The boat made its way out of the Kapuas River and headed south along the coast. It was hot inside the closed cabin. Indonesians avoid wind if at all possible, as contact with it unquestionably leads to the development of a much feared ailment — masuk angin, or “to take in the wind.” To my knowledge, no Westerner has ever successfully defined, genuinely understood, or actually experienced this terrible malady, but all Indonesians treat it with great fear and respect. Motorcyclists typically wear gigantic poofy ski jackets as they zigzag through the baking Jakarta traffic, bus passengers firmly close their windows against the 95 degree breeze, and babies are swaddled in thick blankets in air-conditioned malls, which, at best, plummet to a hypothermia-inducing 78 degrees. In accordance with this important tradition, every window  of the speedboat was tightly shut and most of the 60 or so passengers sat in the sweltering heat in apparent comfort. Gary and I mopped sweat from our brows. And arms. And necks. It pooled in the seats of our pants, as further evidence that Westerners are truly gross.

Lunchtime rolled around, and the stewardess, still perky and neat, handed out meals in small paper boxes to the passengers who were not fasting — pregnant women, small children, faithless Americans. After lunch came one of our favorite trademark highlights of the boat journey. The stewardess walked the aisle to collect the paper boxes and plastic utensils, which she carefully bundled into the small black plastic bags ubiquitous throughout Southeast Asia. She made her way back up to bow of the boat and out through a door. Moments later the black plastic bundles whizzed past the windows, neatly disposed of in the infinite South China Sea. Buang saja, ya! Just toss it away.

Soon after lunch, the waves became bigger and the boat rocked a bit. It was the musim selatan — the season when the waves come from the South and tend to be rougher. The captain slowed the boat and steered it closer to the shore, presumably to find gentler waters. Instead he found a sandbar, upon which he ground the boat to a halt in a position perfectly parallel to the giant waves. With each wave, the boat rocked from side to side on its long axis.

The stewardess appeared once again. A lock of hair had escaped from her bun and she had assumed a faint green tinge. She passed out black plastic bags to passengers who indicated they wanted one — most of them. A chorus of unearthly groans and retching began. Thankfully our seat-mate was of solid constitution. The stewardess made another showing to collect the bags and hand out more. She was distinctly less perky than she had been. Her white shirt had come untucked from her green skirt and she had a run in her nylons. We never saw her again on the Senang Hati Express.

For seven hours the boat rocked back and forth on the sandbar. The boat’s cabin took on the properties of a terrarium. The windows fogged. Condensation accumulated on the ceiling and it began to drizzle (inside). Moss began to grow on the seats. The walls became the world all around…The man next to me and I began an aggressive elbow-wrestling match, each of us wanting to be the one to sit with that adjacent arm at his or her side, rather than propped out awkwardly in front of the body.

Despite most of them being dismally seasick, not one of the passengers complained, or freaked out, or pitched a fit. Even the children were quiet. Indonesians are unbelievably tolerant and good natured, possibly a holdover from a long and ugly history of colonization. How else could you get through Dutch rule and Dutch food?

It was after dark when the rescue team arrived. Helicopters, flashing lights, search beams…were not a part of the mission. No, the rescuers arrived in a sampan, a wooden canoe. The boat was evacuated at a very, veerrrryyyyy leisurely pace. Four at a time, the passengers were canoed inland and into the mouth of a small river, where they were loaded onto a bigger engine boat. It took hours. The boat then chugged upstream a short distance to a village that had road access. We climbed onto a waiting bus, and, at 2am, arrived in Ketapang at our hotel. Sans baggage, we rinsed in the brown water flowing from the faucets, presumably pumped straight in from the Pawan River, and slept in our skivvies.

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The following day, after the high tide had lifted the speedboat from the sandbar, we were reunited with our baggage at the boat office. There, we encountered the man from our seats, also present to collect his belongings, as well as the stewardess, who had on a new pair of nylons. Both were cheerful and friendly — no hard feelings about the elbow war on the part of the man, and nothing but good cheer from the the girl who all but abandoned ship the previous day. Nope, we were all perfectly senang hati.

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