July 31, 2001 GMT
Indonesia and the 'Friendly Customs Men'

I myself was propelled across the Melacca straits by an ageing high speed ferry, and arrived in the early evening a good few hours before the bike would come chugging slowly across.

At this point, consulting the email notes that Ken had written for me, I would apparently encounter "Friendly customs men".

I had puzzled over this unlikely statement for some time. Obviously this was not what Ken had intended to say. Perhaps he was being ironic. Or feverish. Gone "tropo".

Customs Officials are the lowest forms of life on the planet: they are not born so much as extruded from some noxious sump in the innermost recesses of the Devil's armpit. They lurch sickeningly towards the bright lights of the living world, leaving a trail of slime (probably green), and live in a twilight world in harbours and airports, trapping unwary and innocent motorcyclists under heavy piles of tedious paperwork and sucking the last scraps of vitality from their wallets.

Everyone knows this.

So it was a shock of monumental proportions to indeed discover "Friendly customs men" in Dumai.

"Helpful". "Nice". "Obliging". All words which I would never previously include in close proximity to the word "customs".

Perhaps they come from some weird alternate reality? Could they have fallen through a wormhole, from a utopian world where policemen stop you for reasons other than demanding money, where minivan drivers are sane, and where the toilet flush is never broken?

Whatever the explanation, I was immediately seized upon by one of the officials, and whisked off to the main Customs Office, on the back of the standard issue Indonesian scooter. Bearing in mind that I was weighed down with all my luggage from the bike, (total weight somewhere around 40kg) in a big green bag, which stood taller than my trusty driver, this seemed an impossible feat. But in apparent defiance of the laws of physics, the two of us and my enormous luggage were crammed aboard, and the driver (Khairil by name, AKA "Boy" on account of his youthful appearance) threw the machine headlong down the potholed road to the customs office, apparently enjoying himself hugely.

"Yaaaaaaaaaaaaa!" he whooped happily as the thing bottomed out in one of the bigger trenches.

"Woo" I enthused grimly, trying to hold on to the bag and the bike in roughly equal proportions.

The customs chief, it appeared, had gone home for the night. "No problem," Boy assured me, and off we went, weaving through the streets and alleys of Dumai, to visit the Chief at home. I believe that somewhere it is written in the Cosmic Scheme of Things that Connor shall, at regular intervals, be required to sit on the back of a small motorcycle being driven by a maniac, through the streets of various distant locations. So it is written and here I bloody well am again, I thought.

"Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!" yelled Boy.

"Woo" I agreed.

The chief, when I finally met him, appeared not to resent in the slightest being rousted out of his house by some scruffy foreigner to talk about a damn motorcycle. In fact, he was a polite and urbane man who assigned Boy to help me retrieve the bike from the Cargo Jetty when it arrived, ETA midnight.

This we duly did, and the paperwork was completed the following day with the minimum of difficulty, in addition to a brief lecture on the merits of various Indonesian tourist attractions.

Finally the chief asked Boy to show me to the police station, to sort out a police permit for the bike. I extracted my revenge by suggesting that Boy accompany me on the back of my machine. Once he had quite literally climbed aboard, the height of the pillion representing a bit of an obstacle due to his diminutive stature, I took off up the road like a scalded cat, at a speed that his scooter could only attain if you threw it from the top of a tall building.

"Yaaaaaaaaaa!", I said with vicious delight.

I didn't catch his response....

I wasn't exactly sorry to leave Dumai, as it had that unkempt and slightly desperate feel that all port towns seem to have. On the other hand, I was pleased that my first Indonesian town seemed more reminiscent of Pakistan or India, than Malaysia or Thailand.

The shops and stalls were more basic and the roadside eateries looked like your average Chai-hut. I relaxed back into Asia, something I had felt kind of unable to do in westernized Thailand and Malaysia.

I ate that evening in a dining house attached to my roadside hotel. I had no idea what the form was for ordering, as there appeared to be dozens of different dishes to choose from, and I couldn't identify any of them. One of the cooks with a smattering of English lent a hand, and I wound up with some rice and three plates of stuff that I had selected on the basis of familiar ingredients. One was composed of vegetables; the other two were prawn based.

I hit early difficulties. I had failed to register that the prawns had not been peeled, just tossed in whole, in a spicy orangey sauce. So, what to do? I mean, was I supposed to just eat them like that? All the shells and legs and those feeler thingies? Really? I looked around at the other diners for clues, but no one was giving the game away. Should I try to peel them? I had a go - it wasn't too hard, but then I realised that I was using both hands, and quickly whipped the left one away under the table. I did a quick scan of the surrounding Muslim diners, but no one seemed to have observed my scandalous and unhygienic behaviour. I started again, using only my right hand to work the shell off the prawn. It was fiendishly difficult, and I began to sweat. I stopped for a breather while the greasy crustacean gripped in my fingers stared balefully back at me. At length I had extracted a pea-sized morsel of pink flesh from the prawn. I regarded the teeming millions of the things in the two full dishes in front of me with dismay, and wondered how many years of my life this was going to eat up. The second prawn was easier, though, and took only about 5 minutes but on the third I got overconfident and the thing zipped between my greasy fingers and shot off out of sight somewhere to the left. Where'd that go?

I glanced guiltily round to see if anyone was watching this performance. Apparently no one had noticed my aerobatic seafood, and I continued doggedly with my one handed crusade until I had assembled a small and pathetic pile of prawn shells, and gleaned three or four mouthfuls of nourishment. I decided to take a rain check on the prawns in future, until I could find someone to explain to me how you went about eating the damn things.

Posted by Connor Carson at July 31, 2001 12:00 AM GMT
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