Waylaid Dialectic

September 4, 2021

TB and the newbie

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 1:07 pm

Kupang was a trip.

Indonesia was my first time overseas as an adult, first ever in Asia. Before Kupang though, everything had been remarkably cosy. In Bali, I got drunk in nightclubs, ate pizza, slept in, and surfed. My first surf without a wetsuit felt strangely gangly. Otherwise, I was more or less living my life back home.

The ferry ride south east on the Dompensolo was different, sure, but not difficult. I was with two other Wellington surfers. We hunkered down on the deck by our boards. I slept half the way in a hungover daze. The rest of the ride, I watched whitewater on distant reefs, gazed at the blues and greens of the sea, and marvelled at flying fish. Easy. By the time we got to Kupang, I’d already started to imagine myself an old hand.

But Kupang…right from the start. The throng at the port. The battle to heft hulking triple boadbags through crowds. The struggle to get a moment, just a moment, to think, surrounded by touts selling hotels and expensive taxi rides.

Eventually, we found a bemo heading in the direction of our guesthouse. The van was packed to the gunnels, so we piled our boardbags on the roof. My board racks wouldn’t fit, but the hurried driver had a solution. We were bundled into the van and the young guy who collected people’s money perched by the open door holding our boards on the roof with his hands.

It worked surprisingly well – traffic crept slowly through Kupang’s choked streets – until, whomp! the fare collector got clipped by a wingmirror, and went flying. We started shouting. “Boards! Hey! Our boards!” But the driver didn’t stop, not even for his fare collector. Time is money if you drive a bemo. We travelled another block with nothing but the wide roof of the van keeping our boards in place. By then the fare collector, who was clearly built tough, had picked himself up, and caught up, running through the traffic. He resumed his role. We made it to the guesthouse. Shock, I think, shut us up the rest of the ride.

Confidence boosted by boards stashed safely on bunks, we wandered down to the waterfront later, as the afternoon gave way to evening. It was that time of day when the air becomes thick with colour in the tropics. The footpaths bulged with people, vendors and food stalls all competing for space. Unlike Bali, nothing was designed for us, no one was even that interested in us. People pushed past going here and there. Buying and selling. Beside a small park a snake oil salesman hawked cures to a curious crowd. Shouting to attract attention, with flourishes and cries, he pretended to revive a prostrate kid.

Bemos chugged up and down the street, their stereos as loud they could go, with the treble turned right down, and the base right up. Thump, thump, thump. That was the sound of the Kupang night, we discovered, back in the guesthouse later, as we tried to sleep, the whole city sweating once the trade winds had abandoned it.

From Kupang, the ride to the surf was easy. The ferry took a few hours, and we met a French guy who knew where he was going. The bemo across the island was a rural model, which meant our boards were buried on the roof under bags of rice, and everything else, and more or less tied on. Settled in my uncomfortable seat next to a slight, slightly-stooped woman, I imagined I was an old hand again.

An hour or so into the ride, as the van surmounted potholes, I woke from a nap. The woman next to me was spitting blood out the window.


It took me a moment to wake up properly. Then, thoughts started to flow.

Blood! D-does she have tuberculosis? Isn’t that infectious?

She spat again.

I tried to get my Lonely Planet Guide to Traveller’s Health out of my day bag. It was right at the bottom though. I’d stuffed it there that morning.

Another stream of red spittle went out the window.

It would be hard to get the book. I was tired. The questions seemed difficult. Difficult wasn’t really my thing. Tired. So, I changed the cassette in my Walkman instead and started listening to Dinosaur Jr.

Later that night in the surf camp, as I regaled the others at the dinner table with my tale of contagion, a kindly old Kiwi surfer set me straight.

“Nah man, that’s Betelnut. She was chewing Betelnut. They chew it round here. Makes your spit red.”

My inner old-hand winced and made a mental note.

Now though, in these mask-clad days, the thing that surprises me most is that, except for a brief flustered moment, I happily travelled for hours next to someone I thought had tuberculosis.

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