Hunting pirates
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Saturday, July 19, 2008

It's not like there's a playbook for this. So what do you do? The first people you find are the local journalists. You ask them how they do it.

Trouble is, Indonesian journalists don't write about pirates. Piracy is so common here, they tell me, there's really nothing new to say. The best they can do is introduce me to ex-pirates. This, I think, is better than nothing.

So I fly to the island of Batam, in the Riau archipelago, very close to Singapore. This is still part of Indonesia, but it's a wild mix of ethnic Malay, Chinese, and Javanese people.

The island is situated at a choke-point, just below Singapore, where the Strait of Malacca ends and the South China Sea begins. Every year some 70,000 vessels pass through here. That's about one-fifth of the world's seaborne trade and one-third of the world's crude oil shipments -- mainly from the Middle East to China and Japan.

In other words, this little channel is like the Panama Canal or the Strait of Hormuz: It's a crucial shortcut that can reduce what would otherwise be a really long sea journey by about half.

Yet herein lies the problem. Take a very narrow waterway, surrounded by hundreds of tiny islands populated by historically poor fishing villages, and tempt these people with the prosperity of far-away places. What do you get? Piracy.

Ever since there have been ships sailing through here, there have been pirates. And, if the locals are to be believed, piracy is something that, no matter how much the authorities of the region band together to fight the problem, will never go away.


My first contact in Batam is a journalist named Iqbal Muhammad. He works for the leading local newspaper, the Batam Pos.

Batam is a big island, home to about a million people who work in shipyards, factories, malls, hotels, discos, underground gambling dens, and brothels.

Iqbal had told me by email he would meet me in Batam and take me to a smaller island, the "island of the ex-pirates." So, that's what we do the morning after I arrive. He takes me to Sekupang, the oldest port in Batam. We're joined by a young Batam Pos reporter named Arman, who's come to help translate.

Out of the car and walking down a cement gangway lined with stalls hawking snacks and drinks, we see row after row of pancung, the Malay word for long, thin, wooden boats with outboard motors and brightly colored tarps to keep out the tropical rain.

This is what we'll take to the island of the ex-pirates.

The trip takes about 15 minutes and costs a little over a dollar per person. There's quite a bit of chop, but the boat is designed to cut through waves. It sits low and has a pointed bow. Still, Arman gets spooked. He's not from here.

We pass by newer and more developed ports, where ferries bring passengers to and from Singapore. We pass an island that belongs to Indonesia's national oil company. Crude is stored here then transported to big customers up north.

As we approach the island of the ex-pirates, we see that it's a tiny footnote of some millennia-old volcano. Hilly and verdant and festooned in bright colors, it exudes the personality of so many islands in so many places along the equator: slow and sleepy and completely unaware of its own beauty.

We disembark and make our way onto a more rickety gangway than before, this one built on wooden stilts, and up to the main, open-air market, much of which is also on stilts. Our contact sends a message that he's not ready yet. We should wait for him at the market.

We squeeze our way into a dingy cafe that at one time was painted baby blue and take a table on the water. Iqbal and Arman order es te manis. Iced tea sweet. I get te susu: hot, amber tea with sweetened condensed milk. I remember it from time I spent in this region, back in 2003. It's warm and too syrupy sweet but I like how it conjures the crappy Singapore guest house, the nights interviewing the Bali bomber's wife.

I finish my tea and we wait and wait. Arman orders the local specialty, prata, a thin, crispy egg-and-potato pancake served with a rich curry sauce on the side. A generous piece of galangal imparts goodness to the sauce.

Iqbal says he thinks we'll have no trouble meeting pirates. They'll be proud to talk to an American journalist, proud to show off their stuff.

If all goes well, he says, we could be done in a few days: The ex-pirates will introduce us to current pirates, then we will choose one we like, follow him around for a couple of days, and be on our way.

I take a deep breath and let the curry smell fill my lungs. I look out onto the water -- out to all the lush little islands dotting the view. I love my job, I think. Especially when it comes easy.

If only.


Our man, Anto, strides into the cafe. He's strong and sturdy and on the phone. He orders us up to his house with a wave of an arm. Just a few stalls away, the house sits on the second story, just above the market. Word has it Anto owns half this lucrative enterprise.

Shoes off, situated on couches in his sparse front room, Anto says it all started back in the 60s -- and it all started on this island. The name of the island is Belakang Padang. That means "behind Padang," which is part of Sumatra. Never mind about all that, though. I'll call it BP for short.

Back in the day, Anto says, people came here from all over Indonesia, looking for work. For them it was the closest you could get to booming Singapore and still be in Indonesia. Word around the country was BP was the land of opportunity.

At the time, Anto and his friends were just a bunch of young thieves. They would sneak out of their parents' houses at night to pull small jobs on the island. They eventually graduated to stealing motorbikes from Singapore.

At one point, they realized there was booty to be had on the water. That's because big ships have to slow down when they pass by here. This waterway is called Philip Channel, and it's narrow and rocky and perilous.

Seeing this pattern, Anto and his friends started outfitting their own pancungs with machetes and long, bamboo poles fixed with a hook at one end. Then they would wait for "a night with no moon." They would drive up behind a big ship, hook the ship with the bamboo pole, and climb up the side.

On deck they would show their knives to the captain, and order him to give them the cashbox.

"We never hurt anybody," Anto assures us. This, I later learn, is what all pirates say. "We just showed them our machetes with one hand, and told them to be quiet with the other. They always did what we told them."

Afterwards the group -- roughly 7 or 8 guys -- would split the spoils and head to "happy happy." Drinking, hotel rooms, girls. It didn't take long to spend all the money. So a night or two later, it was back to the sea again.

Anto says these days, security is tighter than when he was an active pirate. International attention to piracy in these waters has meant authorities from Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore are banding together to fight the problem.

But, Anto, says, the underpaid, local police aren't so diligent. They'd prefer to get a cut from the pirates' take than bust a pirate for no extra incentive.

I ask Anto if we can meet some active pirates. He says he knows a few, but they're hard to contact. They only come around, he says, when there's an "operation" planned. Otherwise they're hiding out on other islands.

Anto promises he'll put the word out on my behalf, that he'll call a friend who knows a friend who knows a friend. And then he'll call us.

I leave thinking he actually will do it.

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Sunday, July 20, 2008

The next day we head back to the island. Same time, same trip on the pancung. Same cafe. Same tea. Anto has promised more ex-pirates.

He calls and says he can't meet until noon. We decide that instead of sitting in the cafe all morning, we'll take a little tour around the island.

We order up two becak, or a bicycle rickshaws. These are pretty common in Asia, but I've only ridden them a half a dozen times. In Cambodia it seemed a little too colonial. Here, it's just how you get around. And it's an awesome ride.

The bike swerves along the island's narrow roads -- not wide enough for cars, but adequate for becak, foot traffic, and motorbikes. The houses are low, wooden, and painted in bright colors. They remind me of New Orleans. And this makes me ache.

We're heading to the other side of the island. We pass the garbage dump, a new Islamic youth center, and swath after swath of mangroves. Arman can't remember the Indonesian word for these low, tropical tree-bushes. "But I know they are good for the protection of our land!" he says.

We disembark at a faded, rotting gangway -- the worse we've seen so far. Again, it's made of wood and up on stilts, but the slats of wood are falling away, and the gaps between each suggest a sad frugality.

We tiptoe across what's probably hundreds of slats, out to another pancung. Iqbal says we're going to Amat Bilanda, or Island of Holland. Back in colonial times the Dutch lived here. Now it's an island for "happy happy," a flotilla of nothing but bars and brothels.

Because of this, the island's been nicknamed Pig Island, a pretty derogatory thing to say in a Muslim country. Back when Anto and his group were living large, this is where they would come after a big take on the sea.

We climb up a homemade ladder to the flotilla. A man sitting and smoking in a shack up top tells us he's some kind of official. He says we can't take photos or conduct interviews. We nod and walk a few steps away from the shack. Iqbal apologizes and asks me if we should leave. I tell him I don't need photos or interviews. I thought he wanted photos and interviews.

Iqbal just smiles at my confusion but doesn't explain. This is Indonesia. Getting annoyed or speaking directly gets you nowhere. But I'm already too far gone. "What do you want to do?" I ask him. "I thought we were coming here for you? It's not important to me. I just need to find a pirate. There are no pirates here."

Again, Iqbal just laughs. I stomp away, down Pig Island's gangway. This one's so bad it gives me vertigo -- just to look at my feet in dumb shoes stepping over huge gaps where one wrong step could send me into to murky, garbage-strewn water.

We come upon a woman, and I stop to interview her. I don't take out a notebook or microphone, but I force Arman to translate. She says her name is Alia, and she's a massage therapist in her 40s.

"Nobody comes here anymore," she tells us. "They all go to Batam now. It's easier to go to hotels and discos than to come here. Now we have no rice to eat."

Behind her I see shack after shack, each one decorated with pink or red satin cushions and cheap music machines. These are makeshift karaoke joints, where a guy can sing, drink, and carouse with the lady of his choosing for about 10 or 20 bucks. Now they're all empty. We thank Alia and move on.

"There," I say to Iqbal. "Just because someone says you can't interview people, you do it anyway. You have conversations with people. This is our job."

We walk back to the boat in silence and get in.


We take a different route back to the market. This time we pass the poorest fishing villages, where broken boats rot on shore and a toilet is just a hole over the water.

This is why people become pirates.

I realize this is what Iqbal wanted me to see. I also realize I'm probably alienating him, and that that is a really dumb idea. He's my only contact here.

Later, back at the cafe, Iqbal and I decide we've had a misunderstanding: He thought I wanted to go to Pig Island. I thought he wanted to go to Pig Island.

I start to figure out that information here happens in spirals and swirls -- not in a linear, American fashion. I must already know this, right? After all, I used to live in this country. Maybe I didn't fully understand it then. I'm sure I still don't understand it now.

Slowly, over more tea, Iqbal lets his own information unravel. He tells me he's been to Pig Island a handful of times before. He's even written stories about the place. Batam's first-ever AIDS case was reported there, back in 1991.

Officials didn't release the infected woman's identity. But reporters rushed to write the story. The girl died within the year.

The girls who work on Pig Island mainly come from West Java, Iqbal says. "They are famous for their beauty."

They're also famous for the fact that their mothers will sell them, he says. Iqbal stops when he sees the look on my face.

"It's different for them," he tries to explain. "To you, it sounds horrible. To them, it's only a way to survive."

"So, if you're born beautiful, you're actually unlucky?" I say.

Yes, Iqbal laughs.

Pretty soon, Anto calls and says he'll have to cancel our meeting. The ex-pirate he wanted us to meet is unavailable. "But we're in the cafe, right near your house," Iqbal tells Anto.

Sorry, we'll have to do it another day.

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Monday, July 21, 2008

Iqbal had told me we would meet at 10 this morning, but then he calls and says he's busy. Besides, he says, there's not much for us to do. Anto has stopped answering the phone.

I realize it's time for Plan B. With its pirate legends and vivid scenery, Belakang Padang is the right place to be. My gut tells me this is true. But Iqbal and Anto might not be the right contacts.

I send a message to another journalist-friend in Jakarta. Surely she knows other people up here? She tells me to call a guy named Kristiyanto, who runs three radio stations. He also leads training sessions for my friends at 68H, the NPR of Indonesia.

"Pak Kris," or Papa Kris, calls right back after I message him and says he'll come meet me in a few hours. In the lobby of my hotel, he asks me to explain my project, and I do it in about five sentences. Pak Kris gets a blank look on his face and says we should go to his office.

In his van, I wonder if maybe I don't understand how sensitive this story is. When I was talking to him in the lobby, was Pak Kris looking over his shoulder to see if someone was listening?

He takes me to lunch but doesn't mention my project. We talk about his work, our mutual friend in Jakarta. We talk about our families.

The upside is that we're eating in what Pak Kris calls a "famous" seafood restaurant. It's a tiled, florescent-lit, cafeteria type of place that makes a killer kepala assam pedas, or big red snapper head in hot-and-sour tomato gravy, with pineapple, okra, and salted cabbage.

I try not to eat too fast.

Afterward, Pak Kris takes me to one of this offices, a training center for broadcast journalists. He asks if I'd be interested in leading a lecture for his students. I of course agree. Finally, around four o'clock, we start talking about my project again.

I realize the reason Pak Kris' face went blank in the hotel lobby was simple confusion: He does not know the word "pirate." Turns out there are several ways to say it in the local languages. And the one I was using didn't work on Pak Kris.

Once we figure this out, he gets on the phone. Pak Kris' very first radio station is on BP island. His neighbors there know some ex-pirates. He says he'll put in some calls. By now the day is over.

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The next morning, I realize I have no meetings scheduled, no solid plan for finding a pirate.

I message Iqbal again, and he says, "Anto has disappeared." He promises he'll try to find another ex-pirate. But this, he says, will take time. It dawns on me that Iqbal could just be saying this to be polite. That I may never see him again.

I call Pak Kris and he says we can meet at 12:30. Three and a half hours from now.

I pace around my room, watch some TV, go and sit by the pool. I decide not to attend the breakfast buffet, which is included in the price of the room. The food has been either burnt or soggy the last two days.

I spend a few hours on the social-networking site for my 20-year high school reunion. I mean, who knew that Brad Seitzer played pro baseball for eleven years?

At 1:30, I call Pak Kris. But he says he has some "visitors" at his office. Could I please wait a little longer?

I start to sweat. Have I alienated him, too? Is everybody blowing me off? I can feel my entire project falling apart.

I try to tell myself that each of these events is separate from the other. The world is not conspiring against me.

But it's hard for the brain to suss this out, especially when things are going so badly. I mean, I've interviewed Chicago gangsters, walked through minefields to knock on the doors of genocidaires, befriended the wife of the Bali bomber, and looked Osama bin Laden's mentor in the face.

How could this story be so hard?

Pak Kris finally calls at 4:00. "So sorry!" he says. "I'm coming to your hotel now."

I stand up to leave and stumble back down again. I realize I haven't eaten in 21 hours.

"No problem," I squeak. What else can I say?


Our routine is the same as the day before. We eat, this time Indonesian fried rice, then go to one of Pak Kris' offices, this time at a radio station. We listen to a DJ do a broadcast. We talk about everything but my project.

A few hours later, Pak Kris finally says he has some information.

His friends on BP say that besides Anto, there's another notorious pirate named Yon. Pak Kris says he knows where Yon's house is, what his wife's name is. He says Yon recently got back from Malaysia, where he was jailed for hijacking an entire ship and trying to take it to China.

I suggest we go to the island and knock on Yon's door. Pak Kris says this is a bad idea. BP might look like a pleasant little island, he says, but it's not. People do drugs there, he says. The kids are jobless. They'll do anything to survive. We shouldn't go anywhere unannounced.

You see, Pak Kris is a devout Christian, an Adventist whose ancestors converted from Islam during colonial times. The situation is so bad on BP, Kris says, that he hasn't been back there in years.

All that said, he's willing to get in touch with an old friend, the tokoh of BP. Tokoh means unofficial village chief. A man who knows everyone. A "man of influence."

This tokoh used to run a nightclub on Pig Island, back when it was hopping with pirates. If anyone can get to Yon, it will be the tokoh, Pak Kris says.

"Can we go see the tokoh now?" I ask.

"Up to you," Pak Kris says.

"Well, actually, it's up to you," I say. Doing the politeness dance.

"I think now is a bad time," he says quietly. "But if you want to go, I will go."

It's clear Pak Kris doesn't want to go. But if we don't go, it means this will be my second day in a row without making any real progress.

Pak Kris can tell I'm upset. Maybe it's because I'm crying.


An employee brings us some water, and Pak Kris gets back on the phone. The tokoh says he'll meet us tomorrow. Pak Kris' friends suggest that in the meantime we go and look for Anto.

The friends say not only is Anto an ex-pirate, he's also the head of the preman on Batam. This is an unofficial security force that takes protection money from bars and nightclubs. In other words, it's small-time organized crime.

This, I figure, is why Anto is blowing me off. He's still connected to the criminal world, and he doesn't want me to know about it.

Thinking back to our interview on Saturday, I remember that I pushed Anto about the thrill of being a pirate. Maybe I pushed him too hard. "Don't you miss it, even just a little?" I asked him.

He kept telling me no, no -- he's done with all that now. The life of a pirate is too risky, he said. At the time, it was easy to tell he was lying. Trouble is, he knew that I knew he was lying.

Still, I want to see him again. And the place to find him, say Pak Kris' friends, is the Pacific Hotel disco, a flashy joint on the water that looks like a beached cruise ship.

Pak Kris says he'll pick me up at 9 p.m. and take me to Pacific. I ask him if he wants to be seen in such a place. He admits that he doesn't. I call Arman and ask him to come along.

We pull into an empty parking lot. It's too early for a crowd. Pak Kris stays in the van. Arman and I go inside and ask for Anto and his brother, another notorious criminal and ex-pirate named Adi Bulldog.

The security guys say they've never heard of such people. They invite us in for a drink. I know they're lying, and that's okay. I only want to make it known that I'm looking for Anto. This will either scare him away or convince him I mean business. Either way, I've got nothing to lose.

Back in the van, Pak Kris says we should tour the places where pirates like to hang out. If only we knew where those places are, I say. He drives us to Stress Beach, once notorious for crime and murder but now just a faded slum lined with trash and closed coffee shops.

I tell Pak Kris I read about some pirate hang-outs in National Geographic. They ran a
cover story about Batam pirates last year.

We go to a coffee shop in the neighborhood the magazine mentions. It's populated by single mothers and prostitutes without escorts. The few lucky ones walk to cars with drunk Australian men. The girls say they've never met any pirates.

After cups of hot chocolate, we get back in the van and head home. Arman asks me how I feel. "I think your project is too difficult," he says. "I don't think anyone wants to talk to you."

As if I didn't have enough doubt already.

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

I wake up groggy from falling asleep with the TV on. I swear off TV.

I get a message from Iqbal, who says his friend has found another ex-pirate. But, he says, the pirate is still reluctant. I tell him to send word that our conversation can be off the record. The pirate agrees to meet at 8 p.m.

Pak Kris calls and says we can meet the tokoh at 4 p.m. I spend the morning by the pool, listening to an Indonesian Jerry Springer on TV. I'm afraid to read books, afraid to enjoy myself. I worry that if I do, I might forget something I'm supposed to do.

Pak Kris comes, and we wait in the parking lot for Arman, who's late. Then it's back to the Sekupang port, back to the pancung, back to the island of ex-pirates.

We take a becak to the tokoh's house. We pass by the island's main square, where boys play soccer in the mud. Hundreds of parents fill colorful bleachers to watch.

To me, BP still looks like an idyllic island. Pak Kris clicks his tongue and says no. Slowly, he unfurls his story.

Back when he first opened the radio station here, Pak Kris says people were opposed to it. They didn't want the island's secrets to get out.

One day a dead body was tossed onto the station's doorstep. Pak Kris starting sleeping at the office every night with his staff. He says people on the island accused him of the murder. A few months later he was exonerated when the victim's blood was found in the home of the district chief.

After that, Pak Kris left BP. Today is his first day back in years. People recognize him, though. As we ride around they smile at him and say hi. I wonder what they're really thinking.

The tokoh's house is part of Kompong Jawa, which just means Javanese Village. Thousands of Javanese people migrated here over the last century. Now they dominate this island, like they dominate much of Indonesia.

Tall and thin and missing most of his teeth, the 63-year-old tokoh is affable and willing to talk. He promises to help us meet Yon, but he says it will take some time.

He tells us he was never a pirate, but his nightclub on Pig Island was the pirates' favorite. In those days, he says he heard all the pirate stories first hand.

He also did some side work for the pirates. He says he acted as their dukun, or shaman, casting magic spells on them to ward off danger.

"Really?" I ask him. "You really did magic spells?"

"Oh yes," the tokoh says.

"Can you show us one?"

"They are not for women."

"Maybe you could put a spell on Arman?" I say. My translator's eyes get big.

"No, no," the tokoh waves his hand. "Then he will get the side effects."

"What side effects?"

"These are very serious," he explains. First, they make a man unusually angry. Second, they stop him from saving his money.

"So that's why pirates here are angry and poor?" I say.

"Yes, that's why."

It's common for Javanese people in the tokoh's generation to believe in magic. The younger generation thinks it's silly.

Pirates of all ages, however, take magic very very seriously.

"Every night before they launched an operation, we cast the spells," the tokoh continues. "We had to be sure they will come home safe."

"And did they come home safe?"

"God willing, they came home safe."

They came "home" all right. Back to the tokoh's brothel, where they seemed to have trouble hanging onto their money.


Mr. Black didn't need to use magic, he tells us. His group relied on logic.

He's telling us this over packs of cigarettes and cups of sweet tea, at the recording studio of Iqbal's friend. Mr. Black is another ex-pirate from BP.

He says it's all about Singapore. Seeing those skyscrapers is too tempting for a young, poor Indonesian boy. Watching TV shows starring fair, clean girls. Seeing rich Singaporeans spend their money in Batam's shopping malls.

Most poor people don't know what they're missing, Mr. Black says. Here, they do -- it's right across the water. So to fill that gap they become pirates.

Mr. Black could tell pirate stories all night. The Italian sailor who cried like a baby when Mr. Black stole onto his ship. The night his partner fell from the bamboo ladder and was lost at sea for an hour. The Korean ship captains who always put up a fight.

He says his group of pirates could nab 3-4 ships in a night. They aimed for ships flying the Panamanian flag, a common "flag of convenience" for ships who want to skirt the laws of bigger, industrialized countries.

On those nights, the money came in US currency, and the boys could make tens of thousands of dollars. They stole away to Singapore to change it for local currency. And then on to happy happy.

"We had so much money, we would wash our feet with beer!"

After that they would take a month off.

"But," Mr. Black wags a cautionary finger. "No pirate ever becomes rich."


"We enjoy too much!"

Mr. Black says after a big job, his group would skip Pig Island and go instead to Indonesia's capitol, Jakarta. There they would book rooms at five-star hotels, hire five girls for every guy. When all the money was gone, they'd come back to Batam.

"We always left the hotel separately," he says. "We never let anyone see us as a group."

It all came to an end when Mr. Black was arrested and did three months in jail for robbing an Indonesian ship. After that he decided to go legit. He changed his name and started from scratch. He hawked food near a tourist site and eventually started his own printing business.

Listening to him, I can't help but thinking, If only this guy had a son or a nephew who's still a pirate.

I try go tread more slowly with Mr. Black than I did with Anto. Instead of asking him outright if he knows any active pirates, I say:

"When you meet young guys who are still working as pirates, what advice do you give them?"

"I tell them to stop," Mr. Black says. "I tell them there are only two ways a pirate's life can end: Jail or death."

I try to keep him talking about these "young guys." At one point I hear him say the word "nephew." Arman doesn't translate it, but I know enough Bahasa Indonesia to understand.

"They just won't listen to me," Mr. Black is saying. "These young guys. They won't give it up, no matter how much I tell them to quit."

I know he's talking about his nephew. I wait another half hour or so before I bring it up again. I politely ask him if I can meet his nephew. At first Mr. Black says it'll be impossible. But eventually he starts to give in.

He asks me what kind of story I want to do. Is it a book?

It's kindof like a novel, I say. Only this novel is true -- with him and his nephew as the main characters. He says he'll think it over. I ask him for his phone number, and he gives it to me.

Back in the car I can't help it. I give Arman a high five. Arman and Iqbal say they think I have a good chance with Mr. Black.

I go back to the hotel thinking this life is bipolar. I'm so high right now, I can just picture the story unfolding: The conflict between the pirate and his uncle. The scene at the seedy disco planning the next attack. The moonless night out at sea.

Visualizing the story this way will make it even more painful when it doesn't work out.

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Thursday, July 24, 2008

I wake up thinking I'm finally on a roll. I send a message to Mr. Black, and he immediately messages back. This guy is clearly a sucker for the ladies.

"Are you happy?" he writes.

"I am only happy if I meet you again."

"I am free try to call," he writes.

I call and ask him if he's hungry. But he says he's busy. He says he'll call me tonight, if he has some time later. Or, maybe tomorrow.

He never calls. I'm not exactly sure how I spend the rest of my day.

At 6 p.m. I go to an aerobics class in the hotel fitness center. Girls in camouflage hot pants outclass me to music that sounds familiar but twice as fast as it should be.

To me, it seems like the class is more about rote learning and quirky dance steps than it is about exercise.

But still. It's something.

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Friday, July 25, 2008

I wake up again with nothing planned. Breakfast is actually edible today. Vegetables in curry sauce. Tofu and fruit.

The omelette guy stares at me. He's probably no older than 19, and looks awkward in his white uniform and too-tall chef's hat.

He's been trying to talk to me for days. He finally musters the courage and walks over to my table.

"Excuse me madame, do you know Phirrruh-a-duh-fuh-ai-ah?"




It takes a while, but I realize he's asking if I know Philadelphia. I tell him yes, I know Philadelphia.

Then comes the usual barrage of nosy Southeast Asian questions. Where do you come from? How long do you stay here? Are you here on business or on holiday? And my all-time favorite:

Are you alone?


Around noon, Iqbal sends me Anto's number and says I should try to call him myself. Pak Kris writes and says he's gone to Singapore and won't be back until tomorrow.

I receive a "How are you?" from Mr. Black and message him back but get no response. I call him an hour later and he says he'll come to my hotel tonight and meet me for a drink.

As the day passes, I want to call him again, just to make sure we will in fact meet. But I know I should wait. I reckon it's kindof like dating. Except it's with a pirate.

I finish these notes and post them. A huge tropical storm blows in, and I open the window of my hotel room to the cool, damp air. It rains and rains and I wait and wait.

I've been here one week.

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Saturday, July 26, 2008

I figure it's time to take some action. I call Anto. He seems shocked to hear from me -- surprised that I would have the balls to call such a notorious criminal. He says maybe we can meet tomorrow. He promises to introduce me to Yon, the other infamous ex-pirate. He just got released from jail in Malaysia for hijacking an entire ship.

I'm starting to think I could write a book about ex-pirates. But will I ever find an active one? Will I ever get what I need for a radio story?

Today is Day Three with no real progress. Either I'm being lulled into complacency, or I actually am beginning to understand that my patience will pay off.

I speak to Arman (pictured at right), who's making calls to a Navy guy we met on the boat to BP island. My backup backup plan is to profile officials who bust pirates. But the way people tell it here, there's no such thing.

That's because local authorities make more money helping the pirates and taking a cut than they do just bringing home their paltry salaries.

I message and call Pak Kris but he doesn't answer. I've decided he's sick of me.

I start checking moon cycles online. I'm learning way more about this than I need to. Why does the Wall Street Journal's website feature detailed advice about investing when the moon moves through certain Zodiac signs?

I learn that the moon is waning now. In a week it will be gone from the sky. This means the time for a pirate operation is approaching. I want to get excited about this. But I'm too wary of the letdown if I fail to meet a pirate.

Mr. Black has promised -- "100 percent!" -- that we will meet tonight. I shouldn't believe him but I do. It's like the beginning of a bad relationship.

Either way, Mr. Black says Saturday nights are the nights that pirates like to party. Arman and I have decided to go look for them, whether Mr. Black comes or not. We'll try Pacific, the hotel that looks like a big ugly cruise ship.

My plan is to talk to the prostitutes and see if they know anything. We'll also go to a cafe called -- of all things -- Moonlight. Mr. Black said to try there, too.

I'd prefer to go to these places with Mr. Black than with Arman. My translator is sweet and thoughtful but small and naive. If Mr. Black doesn't show, I'm thinking of recruiting another whitey -- they call us bules here -- to go with me. I just don't think I'll have as much luck working the prostitutes alone.

But, then, it's never stopped me before.


Around 9 p.m. I go to the hotel bar. It's called Wine Bar and is styled to look like a rural, wooden Indonesian shack, tucked away in a corner of the hotel's brass-and-glass lobby.

Wine by the glass is overpriced Carlo Rossi. This is the trouble in a moderate, Muslim country like Indonesia: You can drink, but it's not going to taste good, and it's going to cost way too much.

I ask if I can just buy a bottle of B & G -- which is slightly less bad than the Rossi -- and leave it behind the counter. That way I can drink from the bottle whenever I come to the bar. The bartender agrees. It's the first drink I've had in more than a week, so even though it's bitter, it'll do.

I overhear a group of Australian guys talking about their favorite TV shows from the '80s, like "Alf." Pretty soon they start chatting me up. They tell me they build air-conditioning units for a Japanese company that constructs oil rigs.

I tell them what I'm up to. Steve, the guy sitting closest to me, says, "Oh, well, there's lots of pirates around here, aren't there?" What does he know?

Not that much. I ask him where he hangs out, and he admits he frequents the "girly bars." I tell him I could use a wingman one of these nights. He tells me to call his room.

Steve says all the girls back in his hometown, Perth, are bitches. His friends leave, but he motions to them with his head that he'll stay behind to talk to me.

My phone rings, and it's Arman. I return the wine bottle to the bartender and hurry out the door. So much for the wing man.


We set out on Arman's motorbike to look for the Moonlight cafe. It starts to rain a little, but I don't care. I'm just ecstatic to be in the world after all these days of waiting in the hotel.

I find myself talking on and on to Arman. I tell him about my upcoming high school reunion. He's polite so he just nods and smiles.

We drive around a neighborhood not far from my hotel, in the commercial center of Batam city. We ask people where the Moonlight cafe is. Each person we ask has a completely different answer, a completely different set of directions.

We drive around in circles for a while. We finally find the cafe. It has a slightly different name than we thought. We were saying the words for "bright moon" instead of "moonlight."

We park the bike, walk up to the -- what do you call it? a patio? -- and two drunk guys see me and wave me over. Maybe they're pirates. I've started thinking this way about everyone I meet.

Turns out they're just two drunk guys from Papua New Guinea. And it turns out the cafe is closed.

Strike one.

We drive on to Pacific, the big garish nightclub-hotel-complex. The parking lot is much busier this time. We park the bike, pay the cover, and head onto the main dance floor.

The place is huge, cavernous, and dark -- at least five stories tall with its interior painted black. It smells like old fish, or old fishy water.

Hundreds and hundreds of young, Indonesian guys sit at tables and smoke. A single beer is included with the cover charge. Otherwise, people smuggle in their own booze.

The music is horrible. The same thing over and over. Eventually I recognize a melody from my aerobics class. But it's too loud and fast to make you want to dance. Does this mean I'm an old person now?

It's so loud and so dark that there's no way Arman and I will be able to chat anyone up. We see maybe two girls in the entire place. The hookers must be somewhere else.

After a half-hour of nothing, Arman decides he'll try to talk to the security guards. In the meantime two drunk guys start falling down near my table and insisting that I dance with them.

Arman comes back and says yes, Anto works here. But he usually hangs out on the third floor. The VIP section.

We head up the grand and curved but cheap-looking brass staircase at one end of the big dance hall. Up on the third floor we look down to the dance floor, where no one is dancing. A lone DJ stands on the main stage, behind what looks like a neon podium, alone and still. He's not so psyched about the music, either.

A door behind us opens to a smaller, low-lit lounge with couches, tables, some TVs, a waitstaff ... and girls. Lots of girls. In the hallways just beyond must be the VIP rooms, where rich men like to enjoy their pleasures in private. The girls wait here in the lounge for the next taker.

We order a couple of coffees, and Arman gets to work. He scoots his chair over to one of the girls and chats her up. He talks to her for at least 20 minutes, so I think he's getting somewhere.

"She's new," he finally says. "She doesn't know anything about pirates."

The next girl has been around longer. But she says clients don't like to talk about their work. The next girl says the same.

Strike two.

I try not to sigh and decide this night is another loss. We tip the waitress too much and head out. On the back of Arman's motorbike I look up at a plane overhead. A plane flying far away from here.

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Sunday, July 27, 2008

I wake up with a sore throat. On top of all this failure, I'm starting to get some tropical virus. I notice the skin is peeling off of my fingers. I'm pale and clammy and I haven't showered in a few days.

Mr. Black calls, and I can't believe I'm seeing his name on the phone. He says he's downstairs in the hotel lobby. Do I have time to meet?

I slap on some makeup and deodorant and try to comb my hair. I put on heels and a clean shirt and walk down the stairs instead of taking the elevator. I know he'll be sitting at the bottom of the stairs. I bring my recording equipment.

Mr. Black doesn't exactly speak English. And I don't exactly speak Bahasa Indonesia. The words we know in each other's languages are pretty basic. Eat, sorry, please, like, call, night, walk.

But still, we situate ourselves at an outdoor table near the pool and pretend like we're about to get down to business. I try to call Arman but his phone is off or disconnected or out of battery or out of credit. I try him about a dozen times while Mr. Black and I sit and stare at each other and laugh.

Here I've been waiting for this guy for days, and I can't reach my interpreter.

Mr. Black finally waves his hand around and says, "Boring!" I try to register agreement. Pretty soon he calls for the bill and stands to leave.

We walk back through the lobby to the concierge. Mr. Black hails a taxi and orders it to a shopping mall that's three blocks away. This apparently is the place to be on a Sunday afternoon.

Mr. Black walks slowly, struts even. He's probably a foot shorter than me when I'm wearing heels. He has a belly, a crew cut, and a lot of straight, white teeth in his smile. His skin is so dark, he says, from his time out at sea.

I force myself to slow down, to about half my normal speed. This is Indonesia. We stroll up the mall's main ramp to the second level. Mr. Black is taking me to the food court.

He sees some old friends, a gaggle of guys about his age sitting and drinking coffee at a place called Godiva. They holler and wave and invite us to sit down.

They insist I take a chair that's clearly being occupied by someone who's just gone to the toilet. I point to a half-drunk avocado shake, but they say, "Never mind!"

Mr. Black introduces me simply as Kelly. Nothing about the whole journalism thing.

The man who was occupying the seat finally emerges from the bathroom, and I stand to offer him his seat back. Only then do I realize it's Anto. We're both caught completely off guard. I laugh too long and too loud.

"I'm sorry Kelly!" Anto says. His English is the best of the bunch. "I told you I was busy. I was busy with this!"

No problem, I say. No problem at all.

"Are you happy now?" Anto says. "You are sitting with all the ex-pirates!"

Slowly, in fragments and hints from Anto and Mr. Black, it unfolds that sitting at the table are none other than Yon, the pirate just released from jail in Malaysia; Adi Bulldog, Anto's crime-boss brother; Jack, another pirate recently released from jail in China; and some young guys who look like up-and-comers.

This is exactly what I've been working toward. Where the hell is Arman?


The ex-pirates ask me if I would like to join them for "enjoy." This is another way to say "happy happy."

Sure, I say. I have a million questions, but there's no way to ask without Arman. I decide to go along and see what happens.

We pile into Anto's flashy SUV. Mr. Black acts like I'm his date. Only he can open the door for me or order my French fries.

We drive through central Batam. Colorful flags with the names of political parties line the main roads. The election season has just begun, and this island is home to nearly a million voters. We see a sign for a dance club called "Smooth Criminal." Then the road starts to look familiar, and I realize we're heading toward Pacific.

I can't believe I have to come here again.

This time, though, it's 4 p.m. The parking lot is empty, and the beached-whale of a ship looks beaten and rundown in daylight.

We're waved through security and park the SUV at the back of the ship. Outside, I pantomime a pirate's maneuver, as if I'm about to climb the ship with a bamboo pole. The guys think it's funny. Anto says I'm a good student.

Inside, the belly of the ship is an eery, unfinished concrete shell. There are rooms and hallways that haven't seen humans in years. We take the back elevator to the top of the ship and are met by scared-looking hotel staffers. They're going down, while we're going up. Oh God, I think. It's the Poseidon Adventure.

Out of the elevator we walk down a dank hallway. I imagine myself locked up in one of these rooms. After all, pirates have been known to kidnap people for ransom. I try to call Arman, but still no answer.

I realize that someone should know my whereabouts, so I steal away to call Iqbal. The pirates wait for me in the VIP lounge, the one were Arman and I had coffee just the night before. I tell Iqbal where I am and beg him to try and find Arman.

In the lounge, Bulldog seems wary of me. He orders up the two best VIP rooms -- one for him, and one for the rest of us. Ours has its own bathroom and a private balcony that overlooks the huge dance club from last night.

Only this time, there isn't a single soul in the club.


We position ourselves on vinyl couches in front of one big flat-screen TV and four smaller screens that feature elaborate karaoke menus. Songs with English titles are categorized by the number of words in the title: One, two, three, four, or five.

Like most Asian karaoke joints I've seen, the English songs are old and out of date. "Feelings" and "My Way" are big favorites. So are songs I've never heard of, like "The Green Green Grass of Home," a sappy country number that must be from the 50s or 60s.

Anto starts selecting songs in English. I know what this means.

The first up is "Hotel California," and Anto hands me the mic. On the big screen are the usual, bizarre images meant to correspond with the song. This time it's shots from an old schoolhouse ... in Utah. Interspersed with images of Jesus.

This is not the last time I will sing "Hotel California" today.

The music switches to a pirate's review of Indonesian love songs, but still no Arman. I roll tape, convinced that I'll at least get something out of this. None of the guys seems to mind.

Mr. Black sits next to me, takes special care to make sure I have everything I need. He tries to convince me to drink wine or whiskey, but I say no. Everyone else is having water and Coke.

At one point Anto stands up and looks my way.

"Breaking news, Kelly! I have an announcement! From now, you will not be alone. I have invited my girlfriend!"

Good! I say. Good.

She's short and curvy and wears a stylish dress and has a friendly face. She's half Anto's age.

She arrives with a friend, which is even better. Now they will be responsible for singing. That, I suppose, is what we're here for: Singing, looking nice, laughing at jokes. Modern-day geishas trapped inside a big old smelly empty ship.

More love songs, more Jesus. The guys take turns leaving, answering phone calls, going to Bulldog's room. At any given moment there are a dozen of them in here. But sometimes it's only us girls.

After an hour or so, Anto stands with another announcement.

"I'm sorry, Kelly!" he shouts. Too loud. "But now, we would like to take drugs!"

Okay, I say. No problem.

"We like ecstasy. Would you like to join?"

No thanks, I tell him. I know exactly what he means when he says "ecstasy." People used to take those pills back in Cambodia. Big, chalky, blue-green things that're are some weird mix of speed, heroin, and hallucinogens.

"You sure it's okay?" Anto says.

Go right on ahead.


The guys line up in front of Yon, who distributes the pills. They really want me to have one. One guy puts a pill on top of my reporter's notebook. Every time he catches my eye, he points to the pill.

He finally realizes I'm not going to take it. So he pops it in his mouth instead. Two for the price of one.

I remember that it takes a while for these things to kick in. But already the guys start flailing around like they're wasted.

Here they are, in their 50s, acting like kids. But who's to blame them, right? Their potbellies are silhouetted in cigarette smoke. The music changes from Bee-Gee's karaoke to anonymous techno, and they dance and dance and dance.

I walk out to the balcony. The club is starting to fill with hordes of cigarette-smoking dudes again. How long have I been here? I fish my phone from where it's tucked under my waistband. Five hours. For what?

Standing up there I try to resist the feeling that I'm somehow special, now that I'm with the VIPs and not stuck down below.

Does this night mean anything? I wonder. Are we now bound together by some code? Does this mean they trust me?

Or, will they think this night is enough for me? That they have given me what I wanted, and I should just go home and forget about them?

Back in the room, the lights have gone down but the sinister politeness prevails. Anto and his gal tastefully slow-dance. Everybody tries to buy me things. Mr. Black places my phone, pen, and glasses on top of Kleenex so they won't be soiled by the marble table. He also deflects unwanted attention from twitching, dancing men in the room.

I start to notice that he's slightly different from the rest. He hasn't been drinking or taking pills. I wonder if he normally hangs out with these guys or if he's just doing it for my benefit. He watches me, too. He makes sure I'm okay, even when he gets up to dance or take a phone call.

I reckon I don't really need much from the other guys. Mr. Black is the only one who matters -- by that I mean Mr. Black and his nephew. I resolve to stay on as long as he wants. I start dancing and finally accept his offer of a whiskey or two.


Arman finally calls at 11 p.m. By now the ex-pirates are much too far gone for any kind of talk. I tell him to forget it for tonight. I'll get some phone numbers and we'll go from there.

I ask Mr. Black if he by any chance is tired. He says no, but he means yes. I tell him I'm ready to go home. He says he's sorry he doesn't have a "good car." I say I don't have a good car either. He offers to give me a ride.

The car is actually a truck. An old white Indonesian-made bomber with the steering wheel on the right side and rollbars out back. The dashboard is full of candies and sickly sweet air-freshener set on some kind of time release.

Mr. Black drops me at the hotel, courteous and respectful. This, I think, is the start of a beautiful friendship.

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Monday, July 28, 2008

Mr. Black calls but says he's too busy to meet. I reckon he's tired from last night. He says Anto and the boys partied until dawn. I'm having a rough day, myself. Turns out whiskey isn't the best way to face a roomful of pirates without a translator.

My editor and I have decided that if I can't get to Mr. Black's nephew, I might be able to profile Mr. Black himself. It's a backup plan, but his story could be interesting, too: Ex-pirate trying to go legit as a "businessman."

In the meantime, Pak Kris has arranged for me to meet the Navy lieutenant on BP island. Pak Kris says the guy is "young and not complicated."

Arman and I head to Sekupang port and take a pancung to BP. This is my fourth trip to the island of the ex-pirates. I realize that this time, I don't necessarily want everyone to know I'm coming -- because I'm meeting an official. I don't want people to tell Anto and the boys that I'm colluding with authorities.

But there's only one way onto the island: Up the ramp and past all the coffee shops and their customers. As soon as we pass them, Arman's phone rings. It's a guy we'd met briefly on Pig Island.

"How is your friend?" the guy asks Arman. "Tell her to come meet me, and I can show her around!" This is what I'm talking about. It's impossible to keep my presence here a secret.

We walk beyond the Navy headquarters -- a white, modern structure built in the 1960s -- then double back to enter from the far side. Inside, the building has the feeling of a colonial house. High ceilings, tall and narrow windows, wooden ceiling fans.

A shirtless guy sits us in the lieutenant's office and heads off on his motorbike to buy soft drinks and cakes. I survey the nautical maps hanging on the walls. I locate the tiny island where Mr. Black says his nephew is hiding.

The lieutenant arrives, looking crisp and official and buff in his epaulettes and pressed pants. He's 35 but could be 22.

A few months ago, he says, he started a 3-year rotation here. Before that he was posted near Jakarta. LIke so many people in the elite, he was born in Java.

I notice that he keeps three phones and ask him about it. One is for work, he says, one is for his wife and child back in Jakarta, and one is for his girlfriend.

I ask him what kind of work he does. He gives me an inventory of all the boats under his command. I try to circle around the pirate question. Then I ask him outright.

"There are no pirates here!" the lieutenant says. "I should know. I am the Navy."

I thought only ex-pirates said this. The Navy says it, too?

"Of course, we have robbers, thieves. But this is different. Piracy is not a problem here. Every three months we have joint patrols with Malaysia and Singapore, and everything is okay."

He's right about the patrols. They started a few years back, under pressure from the U.S. and Japan, whose leaders worried about the precious cargo that passed through here -- and also about the fact that terrorists could employ pirates to raise money or, worse, help perpetrate violence.

But he's not right that this has stopped the problem. For one, the joint patrols were stalled for years because of fierce opposition by the three countries to what they perceived as an encroachment on their sovereignty.

Second, piracy has been around for a long time. Centuries. If this guy thinks a few showy joint exercises are going to do the job, he's mistaken. Of course, it turns out he doesn't really think that. Slowly, he spirals out a story.

"These robbers ... I can tell you we had one case a few months ago. They boarded a Singaporean boat, and the crew fought back. So the robbers cut off the hands of the crew. Then they disappeared into the night. They used black magic, so we could not catch them."

He shows me on the map where it happened. It's alarmingly close to Mr. Black's nephew's island.

"You really believe they escaped using black magic?" I ask him.

"Oh yes," he says, his eyes wide and certain. "That is their way."

"Can I go with you to chase such men?"

"Oh, it will be very difficult. You will have to ask my commander."

The lieutenant drives us back to Batam on a Navy speedboat. His car is parked at the Sekupang port. He offers us a ride back to town. But first he changes out of the uniform and into civilian clothes. Motorbike divers nearby laugh -- like they know something that I don't.

In the car he asks me if I like discos. I tell him I used to. He switches the stereo to jazz. In town he drops us at the hotel and speeds away. Twenty minutes later he calls and asks me out. I go to aerobics instead.

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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

We call the commander of the region, a guy who trained in the U.S. with the Navy Seals. He immediately agrees to meet and directs us to one of Batam's swankiest hotels.

I mean no offense by this, but I can tell that this guy has spent some time abroad. He's efficient. His information doesn't spiral. He speaks firmly and confidently and doesn't waste time with the usual, empty courtesies. This, however, does not guarantee he's not a totally corrupt scumbag. Here, it's impossible to tell.

I ask him my favorite question. I can guess how he will answer.

"We don't have pirates here!" he says straightaway.

Only 'robbers on the sea,' right?

He tells me a handful of stories about kidnappings, hijackings, heists, murders, and scams -- all of them at sea. None of this, by the way, is piracy.

He recounts one case where the crew stole the ship, repainted and renamed it, then hid out on a remote island for a year before collecting their share of the take. I can't help but wonder why this was never reported in Indonesia. Why aren't Iqbal and Arman writing about these cases in the local newspaper?

It reminds me of America after 9/11, when no one wanted to criticize the government, no one wanted to admit fault or defeat. That must be the deal here: A proud and blinding nationalism that prevents citizens from speaking openly about piracy.

My friend, a well-known Indonesian journalist named Andreas Harsono, has written about this. He says nationalism is what helped Indonesia transform itself from a disconnected string of 13,000 islands united only by Dutch colonial rule to the world's third-largest democracy.

After gaining independence from the Dutch, he says, this idea of a unified "Indonesia" was shoved down people's throats for more than six decades. And the legacy of that cruelty lives on:

"[T]he Indonesian government, media, and military manipulate nationalism and concerns about sovereignty in order to secure their respective, narrow interests," Andreas writes.

Another problem, Andreas adds, is that these days, nationalism means the ruling Javanese elite is more concerned with keeping a tight grip on the country's outlaying territories (like here, in the Riau islands) than it is with building a viable nation.

What's left is a messy state, he says, one given to crime and corruption.

Still, people are afraid to criticize their nation. Even Andreas doesn't write or say any of this inside Indonesia.

Instead, all his piracy stories were published in Thailand.

In any case, I've asked the Navy commander if he might let me join him while he chases the "robbers on the sea." This, of course, is yet another backup plan -- if Mr. Black's nephew and Mr. Black himself fall through.

If I can't get a pirate, and I can't get an ex-pirate, I'll try for a pirate-buster.

Trick is, I would need to be there when the commander actually catches a pirate -- or at least when he's in hot pursuit. How can I do that if he won't even admit pirates exist?

The commander says it would take at least two weeks for me to get approval to join an official Navy patrol. But then, he says, there might be another way.

He rattles off names and numbers to Arman, telling him how to proceed. He stands to leave, already late for another meeting. He promises we'll work something out. Smiling, smiling, smiling.


Mr. Black calls from Sekupang, the port, and says tonight's the night for us to meet. He says he has a surprise for me. I call Arman and tell him the news. We both can't help but hope the surprise is the nephew.

I check the moon and see there's just a sliver before it goes totally dark tomorrow. This means there's still time.

Mr. Black meets me at the hotel like before. We drive to another hotel just down the road and slip into the low-lit lounge, where audience members take turns singing outdated love songs. The band leader accompanies them on synthesizer. Arman is late.

We order carrot juice and I have to ask what the surprise is.

Mr. Black just smiles, makes me ask it again.

"Ganja," he finally says.


"For you. I think maybe you like. I give it to you later."

What about the nephew?

Arman arrives and we move to the corner to talk. Mr. Black asks the same questions as he did when we first met: Who is she, what does she want, what kind of story will she write?

Fair enough.

We painstakingly explain my project. It takes more than an hour. I tell Mr. Black I'm not looking for "information" about past or present crimes. I just want a story. I want to show the real life of a pirate.

Mr. Black says convincing his nephew to meet me will be "very very difficult."

"What if we do the story about you?" I ask.

"You want to write about a man who once was a pirate and who now is changing his life?"

Yes! we tell him. That's exactly what we want to say!

He whips out a brochure for his latest enterprise -- a kayak outfitter that takes tourists around the region's scenic, uninhabited islands.

"RealIy? I ask him. "Why didn't you tell us this before?" I realize that's a dumb question but am still excited about the development.

"You are using your pirate skills for your business!"

Exactly. In the past, Mr. Black robbed boats from Singapore. Now, Singaporean tourists are paying him to lead them into those same, treacherous waters. He's still taking their money. But these days, he asks first.

It's getting better by the minute.

Mr. Black says the story might even be good for business. Sure, I tell him. But I'll have to come to the kayak post and do some taping. He says he says he can arrange everything. Maybe even the nephew.

"Maybe it would be nice to hear me giving my nephew advice?" Mr. Black says.

Yes, that would be nice.

"Maybe I take you out in the night and show you how a pirate works?"

Oh, that would be nice, too.

I start laughing and gesturing and bouncing in my chair. After all these days, Mr. Black is finally, formally, agreeing to work with me.

Arman leaves, and Mr. Black offers to show me around the island. It's late, but I'm eager to spend time with him, to get the story started. I roll tape and we hop in the truck.

Mr. Black lights up a joint and offers me some. I ask him if there's tobacco in the joint. I know there is. I can smell the cloves. Indonesians rarely smoke any other kind.

I tell him I quit smoking tobacco, and I really don't want to start again. He won't let up. I finally take the joint and pretend to inhale. That keeps him quiet.

"Maybe you give me some memory?" he asks after a while.

"Sure," I say tentatively. "A photo?"

"Photos are for school boys," Mr. Black says. "But a kiss is for a real man."

I tell him this will not be possible. But then I wonder if I should tell him I will give him a kiss if he gives me the nephew. After all, I think, it would only be on the cheek.

I snap out of this thought and am totally disgusted with myself for thinking it. No story is worth that. I reckon I'm really starting to lose it.

I tell Mr. Black to drive me home.

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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The next day I forget about the kiss business and fire off breathless emails to my editor. Mr. Black, I write, is on board.

I wait most of the day for him to call but he doesn't. I send text messages but get no answer. I watch a bad movie on HBO and again swear off TV. I go to aerobics but am still having trouble remembering all the elaborate routines.

I start to make friends with the women in my class. Some of them wear headscarves and long pants. Others wear skimpy, matching workout ensembles -- a different one every day.

I wear the same thing to every class: My bathing suit and a pair of running shorts. The outfit is starting to smell from overuse and handwashing in shampoo, but I'm too cheap to send it to the laundrey.

One woman tells me I'm smaller than I was before. She touches my waist when she says it, and I try not to be annoyed when she calls out to everyone to look at my waist.

I sit by the pool with my new friends. Most of them have decent jobs in Batam and are members at the hotel health club.

Back in my room, I start making a list of all the scenes I want to tape with Mr. Black. He sends a message saying good night.

"I'm very happy to help you now. I will help with everything."

I fall asleep thinking, what's one lost day, when you know you have the story?

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Friday, Aug 1, 2008

That one day turned into three.

At this point, I'm not even sure how I passed those three days. I think I started going to two aerobics classes per day. I know I started talking to all the hotel staff. Bartender, omelette guy, business-center clerk.

This morning, I invite the guy who cleans my room to sit down and have tea. I've thrown open the curtains to air out the green and moldy place. I tell the cleaning guy I love the yellow and pink bougainvillea outside my window. But he just nods and smiles.

I start chatting with people I barely know on Skype. I tell them I've probably waited too long for Mr. Black, but I still actually believe this will work out.

When the sun goes down I see that the moon is completely gone. The moon is gone now. I still have hope that Mr. Black will do "everything" for my story. That is what he has promised.

This night he finally shows up. Again at my hotel, again in his truck. We're going back to the recording studio, the place where we first met. The owner is a good friend of Iqbal and Mr. Black. He also works as an auditor in the government.

Arman is finishing work, so Mr. Black and I take a tour of the recording studio while we wait for him. We watch Indonesian teenagers crooning over guitars and drums. Outside, we sit on the patio and eat gorengan, which is a mix of battered and fried snacks: marinated tofu, shredded vegetables with lemongrass, or fresh and crispy tempeh.

The owner opens a bottle of not-so-good red wine. I roll tape. I capture Mr. Black and the owner talking about the government's plan to promote tourism in Batam. Mr. Black says the officials he works with know he is an ex-pirate. That's why they like having him running a boat-tour business. This, I think, will make a nice scene for the story.

Arman arrives, and we start to ask Mr. Black about his past. Nothing too specific, just when and how he started, and why he was attracted to piracy.

I ask him about his first job. He says he was scared. I ask him how much money he made, and whether he thought it was worth it. Mr. Black clams up.

"I forgot," he finally says. "I don't know."

I change gears and ask him about how he stopped being a pirate, how he started his present business. But I get the same result.

"I forgot. I don't know."

"Okay," I say. "Do you want me to stop?"

He won't answer, but I know he wants me to stop.

I turn off the recorder and put away the mic. I ask him when he would like to start again.

He tells Arman he doesn't like to do interviews. This is after we've spent a week talking about how and where and when he will do interviews!

"Well, then there's nothing here for me to do," I say. "I have been patient. I have done everything you asked. I have waited entire days when you promise to call, but then you say you are too busy. Now my time is running out. Please respect our agreement. I'm not trying to do you any harm. I only want to share your story with others."

Arman translates.

Mr. Black says, "Maybe I'm just in a bad mood tonight, and I don't want to talk. Please, sit down and drink some wine. Maybe we can do it later."

"Maybe?" I say. "No, thank you. I'll find a taxi and go back to the hotel."

"You're not serious?" Arman says.

"Oh yeah, I'm serious."

"She's not serious," Mr. Black says.

I stand up and put on my shoes.

Mr. Black says he will drive me, but I decline. Arman tries to negotiate with him, to explain what I'm thinking. I wait politely for him to finish. Mr. Black nods but says nothing. I get up to leave.

The owner comes out and offers me a ride to the hotel. He says he's on his way home, anyway. I say I'll just take a taxi. But he insists, so I leave with him.

In the car, Arman calls and says I should call Mr. Black and apologize.

"He should apologize to me!" I say. "He promised to do this, and now he is going back on his word. He is not respecting our agreement. This is totally unfair and totally wrong."

"Well," says Arman. "Maybe for a Western person this is wrong. But for an Indonesian, it's okay."

"It's okay to go against your word?" I say. "It's okay to say one thing and mean another? It's okay to lie?"

"Maybe," Arman says. "But that doesn't matter. We NEED Mr. Black."

"We don't need someone who gives us no respect."

I hang up the phone, furious that truth, all of a sudden, is not a universal trait. But then I realize that Arman is right. I do need Mr. Black. What else do I have?


Back at the hotel I send Mr. Black a message and apologize. He tells Arman he'll see me again, after he's calmed down. I go to bed wondering if I have ruined my own story. I don't sleep much.

Lying awake, I count the days. I don't want to say it out loud. So I whisper it instead.

I've been here two weeks.

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Monday, Aug 4, 2008

The weekend passes before I fully and completely admit to myself that I'll never see Mr. Black again. He sends messages with the Indonesian word for "patience." But by now I know it's over.

I complain to anyone who will listen. I lay down on my bed and cry. I tell my editor I'm prepared to pack my bags and leave Batam -- without the story.

My last hope is the Navy commander. He returns tomorrow from a general's retirement party on the next island over. He says he has a plan for me, but I'm not optimistic.

I go to breakfast. At this point, all I can eat is the fruit. I'm so miserable that even plain, white rice tastes bad.

Back in the room I check email for the 20th time. There's a message from a French journalist named Eric who did some reporting on pirates here. I'd contacted him through Facebook weeks ago.

Only now has he returned from a trip to the Alps, he says. Do I still want some contacts?

Why yes, I tell him. Why not? I can't imagine starting over at this point. But I figure I've got nothing to lose.

He writes back with a list of ex-pirates from, of all places, BP island. This is exactly where I started all that time ago -- with Anto and Iqbal. It's very unlikely that I'll do it again.

That said, the names Eric gives me are not familiar. So I figure I might as well give them a try.

Eric sends the name of a sailor named Johnny who helped Eric and other European journalists meet these ex-pirates.

Ex-pirates who've already met Western journalists? That's better than Anto or Mr. Black. But still. This is a shot in the dark.

I call Johnny, and he says he's 500 miles away. His wife has just had a baby.

"I'm sorry!" he says. "I wish I could help you."

We hang up, and I start to pack my clothes.

Then Johnny calls again.

"My brother is there in Batam. He speaks English, and he's a sailor, too. Maybe he can help you meet the guys?"

"Okay," I say. I don't have anything else to do.

Ten minutes later the phone rings again.

"Hi Kelly. I am Edi. John's brother. I am downstairs in your hotel."

We meet. I explain my project. I give him the names and numbers of the ex-pirates: Norman and Yatim. Edi calls them and asks if they can meet. They agree to come to Batam tomorrow.

Edi says it will be "difficult," even for these guys, to find an active pirate.

Tell me about it, I think.

"But we must try," he says.

He takes me to a dingy little cafe just two blocks away from my hotel. When pirate operations are conceived in Batam, it happens here, Edi says.

Oh really? And so close to my hotel, all this time.

"I wish we could have met sooner," Edi says.

Me too.

Edi tells me he usually works on ships and oil rigs. But the work is intermittent. Now he's on "standby," waiting around for a job to come along. This is how former sailors get involved in piracy, he says. Sitting in cafes, running out of money.

I look around and realize this is the same cafe I came to with Pak Kris and Arman all those days ago. I had hot chocolate and we asked the owner if she knew any pirates. At the time she'd said, simply, "No."

At first I feel like an idiot that I'd asked such a straightforward question. I should've taken a more nuanced approach.

Then I remember that there are no rules to this game. You can beat yourself up all you want. But in the end it's all about luck.

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Tuesday, Aug 5, 2008

We meet Norman and Yatim at a hotel just a few blocks from mine.

I know these guys are different from the first moment I see them. They're scruffy and very dark-skinned, and they chain smoke and speak in gravelly voices. I nearly squeal with delight when one of them burps.

They say they are pancung drivers. I've heard this is usually a cover for pirates.

We order coffee and juice and talk about my project. There's no artifice to these guys, no guile. They are nothing like Anto or Mr. Black.

But, they say the only way to get the story is to pay for it. Apparently Eric and the other journalists paid a pretty penny. What's more, they paid Norman and Yatim to put on masks and pretend like they were pirates on a mission -- all for a film documentary.

I tell them that's not going to work for me. Instead, I need a real pirate.

"We don't do it anymore," says Yatim. For some reason I sense he's telling the truth.

"Can you find me someone who does?"

"This will be very difficult."

I know, I know.

"Besides, he will tell the same story as us."

"I understand," I say. "But we need to show the real life. We need to show that it's not like Hollywood. "

Yatim says even if they do find me a pirate, he would want money.

I tell him I can't pay someone for a story. I try to explain the notion of ethics. I use the word "corruption" instead. That one's familiar enough in Indonesia.

I tell Yatim I can pay for the pirate's meals and pay his travel expenses. And, I can pay Yatim and Norman a fee for "fixing." I ask them how much they would make in a day, driving the pancung. I offer to pay the same wages for two days of their time.

Yatim and Norman laugh and click their tongues.

"It's not enough," Edi says. "Everything here takes money."

I tell them it's all I have to offer. I say this is an important story.

"Why?" Yatim wants to know. "Being a pirate is normal here."

"Americans have the wrong view of pirates," I say. "They either think you are Johnny Depp, or you are terrorists. It's my job to tell them the truth about you, about the way you live, about the reasons you turn to piracy to survive."

Edi translates. Yatim looks pensive.

"Wow, you are very clever," Edi says to me while we wait for a response.

"I'm not trying to be clever," I say, my voice too loud and preachy. "I'm telling the truth."

Yatim and Norman agree to go look for a pirate. They say they have one in mind, but he's on an island far away from BP.

They say they need money for gas. I give them about $50 -- with full knowledge I may never see them again.


There's still time for the meeting with the Navy commander. We meet at a new and shiny Singapore-style seafood restaurant, right down on the water. We can see two dozen ships out there, just ready to be pillaged.

The commander is late but orders a plate of fresh fruit. He says he can arrange to take me out on his own private boat, hunting for pirates.

"That is how we catch them," he says. "We have to go undercover."

He says I should send him an email explaining what I want to do. After that we can arrange our "patrol." I thank him and tell him I'll be in touch.

In the taxi back to the hotel, I'm pretty unconvinced that anything will come of this -- or from Norman and Yatim. There's just no way that after more than two weeks, this will all work out in a day or two.

"Do you really think this will happen?" I ask Edi later, back at the sailor cafe. "Will Norman and Yatim find me a pirate?"

"We will have to see."

We wait for them to call but don't hear anything.

I look up at the sky. After days of total darkness, there's just a sliver of moon.

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Wednesday, Aug 6, 2008

Despite my doubt, I figure I might as well charge some batteries. Pretend like I'm getting this story.

Edi and the boys were supposed to call at 10 a.m. By noon I figure Norman and Yatim just couldn't find the pirate. Or, they couldn't convince him to talk.

At 12:30, Edi calls from downstairs.

"We are here!"

"Who is here?"

"Me, with the guys."

This is the way Edi speaks.

"What guys?"

"Norman and Yatim. And the active one."

"He is here?" I say.

"Yes. He's here."

"And he's a real one?" I say. "A real pirate?"

"Yes, Kelly, he is the real one."

I spend the day with the pirate. And the next day and the next day.

It takes three days. But I finally get the story.

My last night at aerobics, I'm almost good.

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Hear other profiles for "Working," the Homelands series about jobs in the global economy: War Fixer in Beirut, Cadaver Handler in Jeddah, Smuggler in Dubai. Hear the stories on "Marketplace."

Women in Saudi Arabia: Dating, Driving, and Working. Hear the stories on "Marketplace."

Weekend Pass: Fleet Week in NYC and Liberty in Dubai. Hear the stories on "Weekend America."

Summer in America: Man Versus Fish, Walking to New Orleans, and Come and See. Hear the stories on "Weekend America."

Bob's prairie. Hear it on "Stories from the Heart of the Land."

Terrorist TV? Is Al Manar a terrorist organization or a legitimate source of news? Hear the story on NPR's "On the Media."

Ten days in Dagestan. Hear it on "The World."

Guantánamo, a radio play about suspects in Cuba. Hear it on

Inside the Beslan school siege: Part 1. Part 2. Hear it on NPR.

Riding Vespas in Jakarta. Hear this audio postcard on NPR.

Final exit. What happens when your state doesn't allow physician-assisted death? Hear Bob's story on KUOW.

Bali, after the bomb. Hear this essay on "The Savvy Traveler."

The story of Zora, a self-made superhero. Hear it on "This American Life."


A martyr's tale. How one man's son died in the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war. Read the story that aired on BBC's "Outlook."

Enemy at the gates. My detention by the KGB. Read about it in The New Republic.

The World Trade Center's self-appointed tour guide. Read his story in Esquire.

Paridah binti Abas, a woman at the center of the Southeast Asian jihad. Read it in Slate magazine.

Book reviews in the San Francisco Chronicle: Richard Lloyd Parry's In the Time of Madness, Stephen Kinzer's Overthrow, Edward Luce's In Spite of the Gods, Barry Rubin's The Truth About Syria, and Steve Levine's The Oil and the Glory.

Women of The World: When the gang is family and the street is home. Read their stories in the Chicago Tribune Sunday magazine, and hear about the story on "This American Life."


Two days before the 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S., fabled Afghan warlord Ahmad Shah Massoud was assassinated, and in death, he assumed a new life. View the story on

Twenty-five years after the war, can the Vietnamese government provide for its people? View a story for The New York Times on the Web.


Hear an audio recording of "Documenting the Foreign," a presentation of my work in the Islamic world since 9/11, at the Union Docs collective in New York, June 2007. Coming soon.

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