The Island of the Ex-Pirates

BATAM, Indonesia—It’s not like there’s a playbook on how to find a pirate. So what do you do? You start by heading to a region that’s famous for piracy: the Strait of Malacca, a narrow channel tucked between Malaysia and Indonesia.

This probably would be a forgotten corner of the world if it weren’t the sole waterway connecting the Indian Ocean to the South China Sea—and, eventually, the Pacific Ocean.

Every year some 70,000 ships pass through the Strait of Malacca. That’s about two-thirds of the world’s sea traffic, much of it crude-oil shipments heading from the Middle East to China and Japan.

Big foreign ships have been cruising through here for hundreds of years. So have pirates. That’s because the strait is surrounded by hundreds of tiny islands populated by some of the poorest people in the world.

It’s this contrast that has drawn me to the Strait of Malacca. I want to find a real pirate, not some Hollywood goofball wearing too much eye makeup. I want to know what it’s like to be poor and to think the only way you can survive is to rob a ship. How hard could it be for me to find such a person?

My first contact is a local newspaper journalist named Iqbal. He has agreed to take me to a place he calls “the island of the ex-pirates.” We’re joined by another reporter, Arman, who will help translate.

We head to one of the main boat-taxi ports in the region. We walk down a long gangway that’s propped up on stilts over murky, smelly water. We see row after row of pancung, the Malay word for long, thin wooden boats with outboard motors and brightly colored tarps to keep out the tropical rain.

This is what we’ll take to the island of the ex-pirates.

The ride takes 15 minutes and costs about $1 per person. There’s quite a bit of chop, but the boat sits low and its pointed bow easily cuts through the waves. Still, Arman gets spooked.

Out on the water, dozens of islands appear on the horizon, tiny footnotes to some ancient volcano. One sticks out from the rest: Singapore, the booming city-state. With its skyscrapers and Ferris wheels and malls and jet planes, it looks like a floating party from the future.

The rest of the islands are stuck in the past. Hilly and verdant, they have the look of so many islands in so many places along the equator: slow and sleepy and completely unaware of their own beauty.

We reach the island of the ex-pirates and disembark onto a gangway even more rickety than before. We head up to the main open-air market, much of which is also on stilts. Our contact, the ex-pirate, sends a message that he’s not yet ready to meet. We should wait for him at the market.

We pass rambutans and mangosteens and dozens of kinds of fish piled up on the ground for sale, and we squeeze into a crowded cafe that at one time was painted baby blue. We take a table near the water.

Arman orders tea and the local specialty, prata, a crispy egg-and-potato pancake served with rich curry sauce on the side. A generous piece of galangal wallows in the sauce.

Iqbal says he thinks we’ll have no trouble meeting pirates. They’ll be proud to talk to an American, he says, proud to show us their stuff.

If all goes well, he says, we could be done in a few days. The ex-pirates will introduce us to current pirates, then we will choose one we like, follow him around, and be on our way.

I take a deep breath and let the curried steam fill my lungs. I look out onto the water—out to all the lush little islands dotting the view. I love my life, I think. Especially when it comes this easily.

Our man, Anto, strides into the cafe. He’s strong and sturdy and talking on the phone. His shirt is unbuttoned down to the navel. He orders us up to his house with a wave of an arm. The house is just down the block. Word has it Anto owns half the market.

Situated on a couch in his sparse front room, Anto says modern-day Indonesian piracy started back in the ‘60s—and it all started on this island. The real name of the island is Belakang Padang; the words indicate the precise location in Indonesia. But never mind all that. Let’s call it B.P.

Back in the day, Anto says, people came to B.P. from all over Indonesia looking for work. It was the closest they could get to booming Singapore and still be in Indonesia. B.P. was the land of opportunity.

At the time, Anto and his friends were just a bunch of young thieves. They would sneak out of their parents’ houses at night to pull small jobs on the island. They eventually graduated to stealing motorbikes from Singapore and ferrying them back to B.P. at night.

At one point, they realized there was booty to be had on the water. Just next to B.P. is a waterway called Philip Channel, which is a section of the Malacca Strait. The channel is narrow and rocky andperilous, which means big ships have to slow down here.

Seeing this pattern, Anto and his friends started outfitting their own pancung with machetes and long bamboo poles with a hook fixed to one end. They would wait for a night with no moon, drive up behind a big ship, hook the ship with the bamboo poles, and climb up the side.

Once on deck, they would wave their knives at the captain and order him to give them the cashbox.

“We never hurt anybody,” Anto assures us. This, I later learn, is what all pirates say. “We just showed them our machetes with one hand, and told them to be quiet with the other. They always did what we told them.”

Afterward, the group—roughly seven or eight guys—would split the spoils and head to “happy-happy,” which basically means booze and girls. It didn’t take long to spend the takings. So a night or two later, it was back to sea again.

Anto says these days security is tighter than when he was a pirate. International attention to piracy in these waters has brought authorities from Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore together to fight the problem.

But, Anto says, the underpaid local police aren’t so diligent. They’d prefer to get a cut from the pirates’ takings than to put pirates in jail and take home meager salaries.

I ask Anto whether we can meet some active pirates. He says he knows a few, but they’re hard to contact. They come around only when there’s an “operation” planned. Otherwise, they’re hiding out on remote islands.

Anto promises he’ll put the word out on my behalf, that he’ll call a friend who knows a friend who knows a friend. And then he’ll call us.

I leave thinking he actually will call.