Pearl Cruises' Spice Islands

Extremely few travelers would dare set foot upon Nias. The Batak tribe of warriors which inhabits this island off the west coast of Sumatra were Stone Age hunters with a sweet tooth for human heads. Dutch traders, never bothered by the headwinds, sailed and sold in and around Nias during the 17th century. They did little to colonize any portion of the island, nor did the Dutch make impact at all upon the megalithic culture which still flourishes today.

The Ocean Pearl is one of a very few cruise ships capable of maneuvering close to the tiny North Sumatran port of Sibolga, and thereafter anchoring a nautical mile from Nias' own protrusion of hilly countryside jutting out of the Indian Ocean.

Five Thousand islanders, although converted to Christianity by Protestant missionaries in the late 19th century, greet our small adventurous band of two hundred passengers, dressed to kill.

"Johong," he says, extending a spear gripped in an arm muscular from the weight and tight fit of oxhorn bracelets. His bellybutton protrudes below a black wooden breastplate, and his face and head are concealed within a huge molded mask garnished with hair and teeth that are shocking white.

"He wants you to dance with him, honey," nudges my wife, pushing at the dimple on the right side of my tush, an indentation which occurs only when my back is extremely arched.

A crowd of islanders dressed festively in orange waistcoats and red culottes surround me as I touch the spear. Just then, drums, or my heart, or both begin to beat to the rhythm (but not the tune) of Rebbi Elymelech Iz Gvoren Zain Freilich. As for my wife Anne, she is now in imminent danger for her my hands, when she begins clapping and yelling, "Johong; Johong!"

I do not frighten easily which is why I cannot yet understand how I came to be shouting back, "SHE'S A VIRGIN, SACRIFICE HER!" My wife reacts by swooning and placing the back of her hand to her forehead as if there were a possibility of such a conclusion after thirty-five years of marriage to me.

"Friends to the end," she whispers in my ear, "and this is the end."

I admit now to myself that I may have overreacted, but despite my remorse, the crowd begins to part. Fifty yards dead ahead, behind the swarming people, is a huge rock column eight feet high on whose top is staked a spike of bamboo. It is not "Johong" they are chanting, I discover, it's "Juhump, Juhump, Jump, Jump, Jump."

In Nias, villagers perform war dances, the Tulo Tulo, a spectacular of crocodile-teeth necklaces, charging men and stomping (former) headhunters. About a decade ago here, you had to actually produce a head to merit a bride. The culmination of the extravaganza is the stone-jumping, where one man is selected to hurl himself over the aforementioned stone column avoiding disembowelment on the bamboo spike.

I come to the inevitable and horrible realization that I am that man.

The drums are pounding bone deep while two dozen men with pigs' jaw masks surround me. Before I can complain, my pants have been replaced with a leather loincloth and my face is covered by a black-haired headpiece from which hangs a mask with rhino horns on its cheeks. I take my shirt off myself. "I CAN DO THIS," says the Philadelphia lawyer in me. My wife has joined in a line of women in yolk yellow and crimson sarongs, gaudily emblazoned with gold bangles. They all dance demurely. She winks a "YOU CAN DO THIS."

Allow me to backtrack a second. Pearl Cruises' Spice Islands vacation starts in Singapore. A few days before the cruise begins, I have, within hours, located the finest Dim Sum, Fukienese, Hunanese, Szechuan and Cantonese restaurants. I also walk miles along Orchard and Tanglin Roads visiting shops and merchants in order to ferret out the locals' choices for fine dining. No weight gain here, and a fabulous strengthening of the leg muscles.

After embarkation, I have stuck to the chef's "Fitness Cuisine," the daily alternative dining of exotic fruits, broiled local fish, crab salads, fresh vegetables, skinless chicken saté and occasional lean meats. I arise at 6:30 A.M. for rich black coffee and a mile walk on deck, followed by twenty minutes of rowing machine exercises in the lower deck spa. My back and shoulder muscles are in ship shape.

On shore excursions, I have swum miles along beaches in Phuket and Bali. At stops for lunch in Penang and Padang I have been nourished by rice with shrimp and chillies, or chicken in warmed coconut sauce. Non-fat vegetable salads (gado-gado) are a staple with side sauces of ground peanuts, palm sugar and touches of fermented soya beans. If I have overindulged at all, it's with fruits: rambutans, mangosteens, salaks, marquisas, mangoes, dukus and infamous durians, all of which are sold for Indonesian pennies at stalls in Jakarta. Frankly, I have reached a carbohydrate peak and a limberness made exquisite by Indian Ocean and Java Seas' swimming.

Only three weeks before, my body had been a slave to crouching over advance sheets and legal periodicals. My fingers were sore from writer's cramp, pounding out Petitions and Motions. My mind had been cluttered by trial dates, deadlines, telephone bills, condensing depositions and returning calls to opposing counsel. After three weeks at sea, my physical and mental condition is presently that of a Batak warrior about to perform a once-in-a lifetime feat.

I pound my chest, which I notice has more hair upon it than exists on the chests of every other person in Nias combined. I also realize that I'm barefoot. The drums stop suddenly as I begin my approach. The bounce of my legs upon the stone runway is perfectly executed. With each step I gain speed in geometric progression. My head is high. I'm bounding now readying to project Superman-style my toned, tuned, taut piece of chiseled flesh over the columnar obstacle just inches away...

* * * * * * * * *

I am told that my right fist reached and surrounded the bamboo spike at rock-top while the rest of me adhered to the bowling-ball smooth stone by the suction created at impact. Sheer determination, they say, kept me crawling and groping upward in unconscious slow motion. My activity caused nothing more than the slippage of the loin cloth. Just before the latter's complete departure, my wife, who'd not walked a nautical yard on deck except to the pastry tables, who'd not rowed one oar in the spa, and who'd not set more than her toes in the ocean for a swim, grabbed my lower legs and bench-pressed me high and hard over to the other side.

The drums and crowd erupt. As dazed as I am, I hear her come to my side and once again whisper into my ear.

"Honey, don't lose your head, I've got the case on a one-third contingency."


Copyright 2004 Richard Max Bockol, Esq. Back