Thirty Cents

Something they don’t tell you is that peace of mind costs money. It’s true. It costs about thirty cents depending on the exchange rate that day. Another thing they don’t tell you is that you can get there by motorbike.

See, if you drive fast enough, your thoughts can’t catch up with you, and soon there are only banana trees, roads, and the dirty faces of other travelers. They’re piled in old yellow trucks or riding sidesaddle on motorcycles, and they seem drab and unhappy, but that’s a trick, because whenever you catch their eyes they zip you one of those zero-to-sixty smiles. Indonesians are master smile zippers. One moment the guy next to you will look like the sorriest sucker in the world, and the next moment, zip!, you’re looking at joy incarnate (minus a few teeth). I like to let their eyes lead me down all the million paths my life could take. I wonder where they’re all going, with their fish and their children and their gasoline, and I wonder who that really pretty girl is.

Trees give way to concrete and warung, and over the next bend minarets and government buildings begin to poke modestly at tufts of gold purple sky. The woman in front of me wears a Winnie the Pooh motorcycle helmet that reads, I have ever love anyone. Traffic flows steadily and earnestly, but there is a tension missing, as if no one feels any pressure to actually get somewhere. Everyone moves in a great river of metal and lights, like water over bedrock. I breathe in burning trash and fried chicken and salty air, then turn left after the motor repair shop. I pass a bustling market and giant crates from Jakarta, and then there are only ships and sea.

I sit on the dock reading this book or that, and stop every so often to look around. I must not have learned very much about the Southeast in school, because in almost every direction I look I am reminded of the Vietnam war. Palm trees and boats. Words likeauthenticity and neocolonialism lurk in the shadows, and I teeter on the edge of intellectual thought. Luckily, intellectual thought is in spitting distance of cynicism, and cynicism is no match for clouds and ocean. Fuck ‘em. Instead I think, it’s going to rain soon.

The boats rub against one another like hobos shifting in their sleep, lazily awaiting the arrival of passengers who wish to cross the inlet. Old tires line their outsides and old men line their insides, sleeping on empty bags of rice or lighting their cigarettes using someone else’s. Chipped paint and cracked wood might be enough to make some boats self-conscious, but these are still full of a nostalgic pride, as if their hulls were made with wood from a boy’s treehouse. When enough people and packages and bicycles are aboard, the captain hand-cranks the motor into action and squats down between two long sticks, which manage the rudder and the speed of the motor. Sometimes I pay the fare and climb in for no reason, but today I want to watch it leave. As the boat sputters away, it puffs black smoke from the exhaust pipe in its roof like an old whale that smoked too many Marlboros.

The romance is interrupted by plastic floating through the inlet. Hi, it says. But even in watery trash there lives a thousand metaphors, and despite being too lazy to snatch at them, the knowledge of their existence is enough.

I start to get a good longing going, the kind that reminds you that your heart can feel an awful lot without forcing you to feel it all right then and there. I think about friends and beer and ruckuses, and wonder whose ears are taking in what drunken ramble in which nook of the earth right now.

I don’t know where I will be next year, but not knowing is much more thrilling in front of a harbor than it is in front of a computer, where dreams of steamships and prairies are squashed by applications and something called a CV. So I dream on, right through rice patties and newspapers, pineapple husks and Christmas. Nothing insightful or hard-hitting comes to mind.

When I’m done with all that nothing, I take three crumpled rupiah notes from my shorts and finish off the ritual.  I enter the shack that sits on the edge of the dock and ask for a cup of instant coffee. The men in the shack, forever playing dominoes, invite me to sit and play a round or two. As we sit around I listen to them have a confusing discussion about fishing nets and John F. Kennedy, but I don’t strain hard enough to try and understand. They throw down each domino forcefully, exclaiming, yaaa INI MISTERRR! and laugh hysterically when I try and do the same. Their laughter helps me forget; I start tossing away every reason why I thought it necessary to take myself seriously, why I ever thought being laughed at was something I should try to avoid. It turns out it is hilarious that I’m here. What the heck am I doing here? What the heck is anyone doing anywhere? And why do we pretend to know? What a hilarious mad world. I laugh my head off and they laugh back at me, and there we are all laughing like crazy people for completely different reasons, or maybe for all the same ones. I teach them the word hilar, a dumb shortening of hilarious my friends and I would use, and now they begin throwing their dominoes and shouting, hilar iiiini mister!

I pay for my coffee and wave goodbye. Thirty cents. They holler farewells without looking up from their game because they know I’ll be back tomorrow.

About the author

Tommy McAree likes to travel. He's lived in Indonesia, Central America, South Africa, and Ithaca, New York, and on the moon. If you don't…

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Issue 23 · November 2015

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