A Hero on Board

One thing I remember clearly about the incident is the question I asked the man in Singapore who sold me the ticket for the ferry.stock-vector-sumatra-road-and-national-park-map-174876929

“Is it safe?”

“Oh yes,” he assured me with a smile.

At the time I wasn’t sure why I asked that question. Of course, it was safe. People had used the ferry from Singapore to Sumatra, a two-night journey, many times in the past. Why would I even ask?

Later I realized I had had a premonition. The ferry that I boarded in 1984 was anything but safe. But where there’s lack of safety, there’s usually a hero nearby.

The voyage started off predictably enough. My private indoor berth was laughable. From atop the main deck, where dozens of people sprawled with baskets, buckets, bags, boxes, and blankets, stairs descended into a long narrow room packed with three rows of interconnected platform “beds.” It was a dormitory of sorts, except there wasn’t one person to a bunk. On most beds, an entire family and their belongings sardined themselves.

I found my assigned platform, which already supported a young man huddled at one end. His eyes pleaded, “Please let me stay. I won’t bother you. I’ll just use a couple square feet.” He looked so forlorn.

I wasn’t sure why I didn’t kick Edward off my private bed. Maybe I was swayed by the photo he showed me. He said he was a math teacher, and his photo showed him sitting at a desk in front of a chalk board. The photo looked staged, as though he had concocted it specifically for convincing foreigners that he was legitimate. He looked far too young to be a math teacher.

I hoisted my backpack onto my bed, covered the thin mattress with a shawl, noted I was the only Western traveler onboard, and settled into the ride. Edward scrunched into a ball at my feet. The ferry pulled away from the Singapore dock and headed to Pekanbaru, Sumatra.

The engine was loud, the pace was steady. Because I had already spent two months in Indonesia, I could converse passably in the Indonesian language. After I chatted with Edward, I left him to “guard” my stuff, which was entirely unnecessary. We were all one big family in that below-deck cabin. I wandered to the upper deck–the discount ticket area–where I could barely move amidst the people and their parcels.

On the lower deck at one end were a couple of crumbling doors to closets with holes in the floor. The green waters glinted through the holes. I suppose that was preferable to capturing the human waste in a big vat, which would have been dumped in the water anyway.

The scenery was idyllic, the passengers seemed in good spirits. A father and his child were having great fun flying a plastic bag on a string from the railing as the boat chugged along.

Eventually the boat left the open waters off Singapore and entered Sumatra via a broad river with vegetation distant on both sides.

My ticket included meals. A couple of “chefs” squatted on the wood deck and chopped and stir-fried vegetables and cooked rice in woks. Their kitchen was a few square feet of one of the walkways. They whisked away their portable stoves after they prepared food for the 100 or so passengers.

After eating and using the closet with the hole in the floor, I settled on my berth, confident that Edward would keep my feet and only my feet warm for the night. Even through the loud engine noise I slept. But the enclosed cabin was quite warm, and I was a sticky mess of sweat by the next morning.

Luckily the ferry stopped at a small settlement along the river where I paid to bathe in a room with a dipper and cistern of water. Edward and another interloping young man who had moved onto the end of the adjoining berth warned me against using the bath. Both asserted someone would rip me off. But no one bothered me, and I felt much better after the bath. And they felt better after I bought them tea.

The ferry chugged off again. By now the river had narrowed. Thick vegetation flanked both sides. Here and there simple wood dwellings emerged through the greenery on shore. Fishermen in small boats shared the waterway.

By that evening, I was feeling the rhythm of the adventure. People seemed relaxed and congenial, shared food that they had brought, and passed the time chatting and napping. Edward kept guard at the foot of my platform as the skies darkened and our wooden ferry boat headed deeper upriver to the Sumatran interior.

I had fallen asleep to the chug-a-chug of the boat’s engine, then jerked awake. There was no more chug-a-chug, just a bunch of clatter, yelling, movement. Edward looked wildly about, then yelled in English, “Come on, come on!” Something was terribly wrong.

The cabin floor was no longer level, a sure sign the boat was taking on water. People were grabbing their kids and their belongings. I patted my waist bag secured around my middle containing my passport, money, and camera. Looking at my backpack I said to myself, “If I’m going to swim, I don’t want to be wearing that.” I left it on my bed–clothes, toiletries, souvenirs, and other supplies I had been carrying around for the last five months of travel.

Edward helped me up the steps in the dim light to the lower deck. People were everywhere, some of them dragging heavy bags. A thin moon glinted through the shore vegetation onto the water’s agitated surface.

From nowhere a small boat appeared—night fishermen, coming to rescue the passengers of the sinking ferry. I was one of the first to board the rescue boat, along with 10 or so other passengers. They motored us to a rickety dock several hundred yards away, then went back for more passengers.

I was so grateful—grateful that I didn’t have to swim in a murky river, grateful that I was safe on shore, grateful that I had my essential travel documents with me. But as Edward and I and others watched the fishermen shuttle the passengers, I started voicing my worry aloud.

“My backpack—everything was in it. It’s going down with the boat. I’m traveling for another five months and I won’t have it.” Edward heard me. Then left. He boarded the rescue boat and went back to the sinking ferry.

I was not aware of his intention. Maybe he went to help with the rescue efforts. He returned in dripping clothes, hauling my sodden backpack on to the dock. It must have gained 20 pounds from the water it had collected, but my hero was determined to bring the foreigner who shared her bed with him her luggage.

All the passengers were rescued and delivered to the dock with their salvaged belongings. Someone had saved their stationary bicycle, and there it sat on that wooden dock, waiting for anyone who needed their early morning aerobics. People were spreading wet garments out to dry and staying close to one another. Some of them were laughing to ease their tensions, others appeared worried about how to continue their journey to Pekanbaru.

As the gloom lightened, I waved down a small boat traveling upstream, and into the boat I pulled Edward and the interloper young man who had warned me not to take a dip bath. I was fortunate—I had the cash to pay the boatman to transport the three of us. We motored to a small town upstream and caught a bus for a wild ride to Pekanbaru, where Edward and his family warmly welcomed me into their home.

Before we left the river, we cruised  past the sunken boat, with only the uppermost captain’s cabin peeking above the water’s surface. Several men in their underwear were diving, attempting to reach luggage and goods trapped inside the boat below.

Speaking in my broken Indonesian, I learned what had happened. The captain had steered the boat onto a submerged tree, puncturing its haul.

But the most remarkable part of the story involved Edward. When he went back to the sinking boat to find my backpack, he first found two children in the cabin who would have surely drowned had he not pulled them to safety. Then he returned to my backpack, hauling the sodden bundle through the water-filled cabin to the rescue boat.

He was not only my hero. Edward was everyone’s hero for saving those children. I was very glad I had not kicked him off my private bed

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