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.
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.
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."