Bad Trip Category—Bronze Winner: Shake and Bake on the Equator

by Tim Leffel

I believe we crossed the equator around three in the morning, though I don’t really know. The waves pounding our boat were just as furious on both sides of the dividing line. Perhaps if every toilet were not splattered with puke, I could have checked to see which direction the water was flowing as it went down the drain.

Around that significant moment, however, I believe I was finally catching some sleep. At times my head banged against my bunk and I would awake for a few minutes. Other times the boat would pitch to the side and I would come close to rolling off onto the floor. Always my shirt was drenched with sweat and a salty sea air mist, but exhaustion won the battle anyway.

Acting like “in the know” backpackers, we had scoped out the situation. We thought we were prepared. We had arrived to board our Indonesian ferryboat to the Togian Islands of Sulawesi early. It wasn’t scheduled to leave until 10:30 p.m. but we got to the dock at Gorontalo at 7:30 to secure a spot to sleep for the night.

Little did we know that when locals said to “board early,” they meant around lunchtime. The ship was already packed wall to wall with people. As we stepped onto the deck, it was obvious that we were hours past the time required to score a place there. Below deck, it seemed more than a few feet were going to be hard to come by. “Screw this,” said the couple we were traveling with. With the air of travelers who are confident in their ability to change the rules with a few bills pressed in the right hands, they went to secure a cabin.

“Should we?” Donna asked.

“Nahhh,” I replied. “It’ll be fine down here. Lookthere are openings all around for the air to flow through. The cabins just have one little window.” Just an overnight ferry in the tropics. How bad could it be?

After being scooted away from a few spots, we found a place to bunk down and laid out our things. Apart from our companions, we were apparently the only foreigners on the boat. Any eyes that weren’t watching us when we first arrived gravitated our way when I strung up a hammock. It seemed a sensible thing to do; floor space was at a premium and there were plenty of poles to tie onto. Despite the logic of stringing up a simple hammock, people watched me and chattered like I was building a sculpture before their eyes.

Two hours later than scheduled, around midnight, we finally left the dock. The bay had been flat calm, but almost immediately upon reaching open water, we hit rough seas. In my hammock I started swinging back and forth like a baby in a swing. The hull of the ship was groaning like an angry whale.

After one particularly large wave crashed against the side of the boat, sea spray soaked the passengers near the side. A few men got coordinated and pulled down built-in tarps that went across the openings in the hull.

With the openings covered up, a hot ride got even hotter and diesel fumes started to fill the air. The humidity rose and everyone started fanning their face with whatever they could find. Suddenly the largest wave yet crashed into the side of the boat and lapped over the opening in the hull, sending gallons of warm seawater over anything close to the side, including Donna’s sleeping bag. “Goddamit! Go get us a cabin!” she shouted, looking like she was going to burst into tears at any moment.

With the ship heaving from side to side, I stumbled through the tightly packed crowd of bodies, deftly maneuvering around the spots where a few children had already lost their dinner. I ducked when nearing bare light bulbs hanging from the ceiling, their dim light making a grim scene even more foreboding. Near the front of the ship I found the stairs and pulled myself up to the deck.

“Holy shitthose are some big swells!” I thought as I gasped at what I saw beside the boat. Perhaps it was a good thing to be down below and in the dark. It looked scarier when you could actually see the sea. The antennae on top the ship moved back and forth like a metronome. As I moved toward the captain’s cabin, a wave crashed against the uppermost deck of the ship, soaking everyone in those prime spots we had eyed enviously when boarding.

When I peered in the captain’s cabin, however, it was like we were on a lazy afternoon sightseeing tour. Everyone but the person piloting the ship was asleep, sprawled out on the floor, like this was just a routine night on the sea. I didn’t relish the thought of stepping over three sleeping crewmen to ask for help, so I stumbled down the deck to try a few cabin doors. All of them were locked.

I made my way back down to where Donna was, intending to tell her I couldn’t find anyone to help us get a cabin. As I arrived, Donna felt a push from an old woman lying next to her, then another push. Just as she was prepared to tell the old grandma to keep her bony hands to herself, the old woman leaned her head down and puked between the slats in the floor. A few bodies away, a young child did the same thing. If the young and the elderly are the first to go, this wasn’t looking good for the remainder of the night.

“Let me try again,” I said, before even trying to explain that nobody was awake except the guy driving the boatand we all kind of needed his full attention on the wheel. Again I gingerly stepped over wet blankets, vomit spots, and passengers in the fetal position. This time I approached the doorway and shouted, “Cabin?”

Like magic, a man on the floor popped up, grabbed some keys, and motioned for me to follow. The cabin was about four feet wide and eight feet long, with two bunk beds, but at that moment it looked like the Four Seasons. I was giving a silent prayer of thanks to whoever had enabled me to be a man with money in his pocket at this particular moment. I asked in Bahasa Indonesian to ask if I needed to pay him now and he said to settle up tomorrow. I didn’t bother to ask the price. I certainly wasn’t in a position to haggle.

The horizontal bunks didn’t totally solve the queasiness problem; Donna still ended up having to stumble out and find a spot in the back of the boat where her retching wouldn’t fly back over a group of passengers. The hull of the ship continued to groan in protest and lying on a bunk felt only slightly calmer than an amusement park ride. But eventually, we were both fast asleep as we moved from northern hemisphere to southern.

Round about six o’clock, it was time to get up. Roosters were crowing. Even on a ship you can’t avoid them in Southeast Asia. The more pressing reason to rise was that the sun had come up. Our tiny enclosure with one window was taking on the characteristics of a sauna. We moved outside and found a nice breeze blowing, almost comfortable if we picked a strategic spot in the shade.

Once the sun got high overhead, there was no longer a strategic spot in the shade. The shade had packed its bags and gone to more temperate climates. The waves and wind had done the same. This boat that had tossed us around all night and emptied many people of their stomachs was now moving slowly along a flat sea, in no hurry to get to its final destination.

We landed in an island port and stayed tied to the dock for two hours, all of us still on the boat, baking in the sun. Apparently the workers on shore weren’t ready to start unloading until some magic predetermined time. As passengers, we were secondary. At least they let some food and water vendors come by for a visit. We drank gallons, but neither of us needed to pee. A good thing, since the toilets were surely extra frightening by now in this heat.

Now and then I would go back to the cabin and grab a few snatches of sleep. I learned to place a shoe on the floor to hold the door open. Passersby would stare at the gangly western man and his sexy underclothed wife, but neither of us cared. If we were moving, a river of sweat would slow to a trickle as a narrow breeze flowed through. When we were stopped, any place on the boat was a sweat stop.

Sixteen and one half hours after we had departed the night before, we docked in the town of Waikai, still one step away from our destination of Kaladiri. I paid the 40,000 rupiah we owed for the cabinabout four dollars. Less than the price of a fast-food lunch at home. Backpacker on a budget or not, what the hell was I thinking the night before?

There was only one boat available to take us and the other passengers who had made it to the end of the line. We were greeted by a downpour, and a resulting unwillingness on our part to bargain. Getting rained on and not really caring, we sped across a channel to our destination, grabbed some food, and went to bed.

In the early morning, Donna and I stepped out onto the beach and looked at a perfect sunrise that would be the envy of any postcard photographer. We walked out onto the long pier and looked down at hundreds of tropical fish with every color of the rainbow swimming just below our feet. We gazed out at near and distant atolls that would be beach stops and snorkeling spots in the days to come. Hammocks were strung up at strategic locations that afforded some of the best sea views on the planet. Our bamboo bungalow with a bed and a mosquito net wasn’t fancy, but you couldn’t beat the price: $4 a night for two, including all three meals.

“How long will you be staying?” the owner of our guesthouse asked.

“A week or two,” we said in unison. We weren’t going anywhere.

Tim Leffel is author of The World’s Cheapest Destinations and Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune. He is editor of

One Response to “Bad Trip Category—Bronze Winner: Shake and Bake on the Equator”

  1. Travel Style: Tim Leffel - Johnny Jet Says:

    […] Favorite island:  Togian Islands, Indonesia, just because it was such an ordeal to get there. […]

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