The Pirate Den: Malacca Straits, Kopi Indah, Harmoni Hotel & Batam

Now that I've freed up this blog & website from simply chronicling a single voyage, I can now get onto doing other things, such as 'guest posts' - Essentially this means I will ask people around me who have time and interest, to write about something they're an expert in... This first post is by the elusive Pikey Belicose, who recently went on a mission in Asia to work in the academic arena of modern piracy. Yes, a PHD in pirates. Thanks Pikey! Modern maritime piracy thrives in the confluence of bottlenecks, poverty and borders. Geographical bottlenecks like the Malacca Straits force international commerce to pass through specific, extremely narrow passages, as alternative routes are economically and/or environmentally unfeasible. The Malacca Straits funnel extraordinary amounts of traffic: Estimates place 70,000 to 94,000 ships a year (averaging 300 ships a day) through one of the world's narrowest, and most vital shipping channels; in parts just 1.7 nautical miles wide. Acute economic disparity between Indonesia and Singapore provides the incentive to exploit the transport of wealth as a resource.

Batam, one of the nearest major islands to Singapore, and certainly the most developed, was intended to rival its neighbor to the north as part of what became known as the 'growth triangle'. Initially claimed by General Suharto as his vision during the Konfrontasi, Batam's industrialization was realized under the control of B. J. Habibie (Suharto's successor). However, while Singapore grew into a powerful economic force, Batam floundered in political corruption; lofty dreams of financial freedom turned into ecstasy dulled depression, and criminal indulgence. Thousands of Indonesians from throughout the archipelago flocked to Batam's lucrative promises, leaving behind rural families to support through opportunity in the boomtown.

The Jodoh district is regarded as the seediest district in the tourist town of Nagoya on Batam Island. Locals are frequently warned not to spend too much time there. This is the center for sex tourism, karaoke, dance clubs, massage parlors, and is known for the frequency of murder after dark. The relatively clean well lit main street, Jalan Imam Bonjol, cuts through the center of town. People walk along the largest and nicest hotels, among the super malls and shopping centers. The secondary streets just off the Jalan, however, are far less lit, and the pedestrian population lingers in the shadows. Throughout the day, small groups of men sit atop whatever is available, chatting in the shadows against the buildings, on the street corners, and in the kedai kopi. In the afternoon shadow of the Harmoni Hotel, cast along a back street which houses numerous pubs and parlors, the regions mariner population gathers to drink coffee or tea, gossip, and network for possible employment on the next ship. The name of the kedai kopi I was given was no where to be found. An article written by Peter Gwin for The National Geographic mentioned the coffee shop behind the Harmoni Hotel. Mentioning this to my local host who works for the shipping industry, she told me the name of this coffee shop was Kopi Indah, and that it was a well known sailor coffee shop, as well as a hotbed of activity. Arriving behind the Harmoni Hotel I discovered that the (in)famous Kopi Indah was no more... I walked into a camera shop and asked the people inside where Kopi Indah was located. 'Here... But it is finished. Closed up.' Later I was told with a degree of distain that the Chinese bought up the land from the landlord, and turned it into the camera shop which I had wandered into. Asking one of the ojek drivers on the corner where I can find the pelaut (sailors) of the area, he responded, 'Here? Everyone.' He then continued to ask what I was looking for: girls, a pub, alcohol? 'Tidak', I responded, 'Saya mau minum teh saja.' No... I just want to drink some tea. Eager to help, another ojek driver jumped up, grabbed me by the arm, and directed me to a kedai kopi around the corner across the street from the camera shop that used to be Kopi Indah. This is as close as I can get.

The kedai kopi was partially obscured by the only partially open heavy metal garage doors. It is common practice during the month of Ramadan to obscure the interior of any facility that provides food or drink during the fasting hours of the day. Slinking through the narrow opening, I entered into a small coffee shop. There were a handful of men sitting at different tables on opposite sides of the room with four tables empty in between. On the left were a couple of men from the island of Sulawesi. On the right hand side of the room the men were from Java. Each group was engaging in their own respective conversations. Pungent sweet smoke from clove cigarettes filled the air, leaving a thick, oily residue on the baby blue walls. I sat down at one of the vacant middle tables. A television perched over a small dividing wall between the kitchen and the dining room. The television set was tuned to an afternoon news station which announced a new mosque to be built in the neighboring town. I paid close attention to the news. When the owner of the kedai kopi came from around the corner, I asked him if I could have a teh susu. The novelty of a foreigner speaking Bahasa Indonesia interrupted both conversations...

One man lingering outside, upon hearing I was a sailor and a credentialed captain, pulled up a chair next to me and started offering jobs. He pulled out his cell phone, showing me the contacts he had: Chinese, Indian, American, British, Malaysian, Indonesian & Singaporean. He said if I wanted, he could get me a job, and suggested after a while that I follow him back to his place. There is an unnerving frequency with which one finds instant friends in the Riau Islands. Circumspect and cautious, yet after a little pressure I agree to follow him back to his 'place' to discuss 'business.' I've been chatting up the kedai kopi for a couple rounds of teh susu and, I am curious to see where this lead may take me. Between the two of us, and away from crowds, the conversation moves beyond the introductory elements and into more serious talk of the regional politics, of borders, of money, and opportunity...

Piracy in the Straits is a very calculated numbers game. The violence, the theft, the reporting of attempted attacks and boardings to law enforcement agencies; the insurance premiums before and after attacks levied on shipping companies, the amount of ships that pass through the Straits; all of these numbers are calculated at every point, and by every agent. In the Riaus, it's all business. There are no separatist movements here, religion has nothing to do with it; there is a strong element of smuggling, but not for the purpose of stoking civil unrest. It is simply business.

My friend continues to press me about getting a job through him. He tells me that I can make a couple hundred Singaporean dollars a day as a captain with my credentials. He calls up an associate in Singapore and puts me on the phone with him. I explain that I will not be able to accept work any time soon; that I will be leaving Batam within the week. He tells me that a buleh like me can get these jobs because I am credentialed. The Indonesian seafarers are unable to get jobs which they are otherwise suitable and well trained for, because they lack the official credentials. Credentialing requires an extraordinary amount of money and time which prevents the Indonesians from acquiring them... Thus, the international regulations on security and certifications have progressively set up a new kind of border, one intended to create order and delineate jurisdiction, but one which, like its geopolitical cousin, seemingly encourages, (if not helps) to create motivations, therefore fostering piracy in the Straits...


If you'd like to discuss this more (perhaps Pikey will answer some questions...) ;)

Check out the forum on this post here.

If you've got something interesting to write about, let me know!