South China Sea
the slowest ship you can from Singapore to Pulau Patang. Find a room on
second floor with a view of the beach. Drink tuak. Walk the beach twice
You will be contacted.
we got near, it became clear Patang was
hell on stilts. The island remained wildest jungle—no one had tried to
The town was a forest of tiny houses jutting out into the water on
jetties, thrown together from loose timber and sheets of tin, connected
narrow plank walkways with no railings, the whole works as rickety as a
Louisiana toolshed. The place
thrown together in three months and built to last as long.
children of three or four dangled
out of windows over a two-story drop to the sea. The plankboard
jammed with bicycles and families with their every possession stuffed
shopping carts. It was a Dickens-slum-on-the-sea, at least it would
but for the cellphones at every ear and the full-zoot satellite dishes
sprouting like mushrooms from the rooftops.
lineup of tankers waited at anchor for
the privilege of tying up to the dock. On the far side, a tall complex
chemical tanks and suspended pipelines rose into the inland jungle.
fluttered off an octagonal pad,
derelict boats puttered out to the big ships at anchor, returning with
booze (contraband in nearby Muslim countries) and other, even more
commodities. Packages openly circulated that, in size and handling,
contents smokable, snortable or injectable. In broad daylight, guns and
explosives were shipped and received in ones, twos and stacks. Friendly
in accidental wardrobes climbed onto the ships and returned to dock
if you literally had to get lost—and
surely that was the plan—this was the place for it. If you wanted to
could, but if you preferred to hang out for months at a time with no
means of support, nobody was asking questions. You didn’t
have to worry about flouting the law—there didn’t appear to be any law