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in search of a real pirate

Kelly McEvers traveled to the Strait of Malacca for the public radio show Marketplace. Her assignment: Find a pirate. She recounted her experience for Slate.com.

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 know what it's like to be poor and to think the only way to survive is to rob a ship. How hard could it be to find such a person?

But after weeks of failure in the northwestern islands of Indonesia, and having encountered only weird ex-pirates, I had made no real progress toward meeting a pirate. The morning this hits me, I start to pack my bags. I'm ready to go home.

I check my e-mail one last time and see a message from a French academic I'd written to many weeks before.

This guy has done extensive field research on pirates in the Strait of Malacca, and I'd been hoping to hear from him while I was here in the islands. Today, the day I believe is my last day, he decides to write. I open the message.

"I've been on holiday for two weeks," he writes. "Sorry for getting back to you so late. Do you still need pirate contacts?"

Sure, I say. He sends me the names and numbers of two ex-pirates with strong connections to the current pirate syndicate. The new guys still work as boat-taxi drivers around the islands. This is a common job for real pirates.

The French guy also puts me in touch with a sailor named Edi who's done legitimate work at sea and speaks some English. He'll help translate.

I call Edi, and 15 minutes later, he meets me in the hotel lobby. We call the two ex-pirates and arrange a meeting for later that afternoon.

I'll call them Andi and Joni. We meet them in a hotel just a few blocks from mine. They're scruffy, very dark-skinned, and they chain smoke. There's no artifice in the way they speak, no guile. I nearly squeal with delight when one of them burps.

I tell Andi I can't pay someone for talking to me. What I can do is pay for meals and travel expenses. Andi and Joni laugh and click their tongues.

"It's not enough," Edi translates. "Everything here takes money. This is Indonesia."

I tell them it's all I have to offer. I say it's really important. "Why?" Andi asks. "Being a pirate is normal here."

"Americans have the wrong view of pirates," I say. "They think you are Johnny Depp or that you are helping terrorists."

The latter is a common claim made by American and Japanese officials — especially when they want to send their own navy patrols here to the Strait of Malacca. The Indonesian government has fiercely resisted outside involvement. Instead, they prefer to work with the Singaporean and Malaysian navies.

"I want to know the truth about pirates," I say. "About the way they live, about the reasons they turn to piracy to survive." Edi translates. After a few hours of negotiating, Andi and Joni agree to go and look for a pirate. They say they have one in mind, but he's on a remote island. They say they need money for gas. I give them about $50 — with full knowledge that I may never see them again.

At 12:30 the next day, Edi calls from the lobby.

"We are here!"

"Who is here?" I ask.

"Me," he says. "With the guys."

"What guys?"

"Andi and Joni. And the one."

"He is here?" I say.

"Yes. He's here."

"And he's a real one?" I ask. "A real pirate?"

"Yes, Kelly, he is the real one."

It slowly dawns on me. After nearly a month of asking and waiting, he's here. "What's his name?"

His name is Agus. There is nothing romantic about Agus. He slouches a little when he walks up to shake my hand, crams his hands into his pockets as he steps into the hotel elevator. In my room, he sits politely near the window and refuses when I offer him a cold drink. His voice is soft and low.

He grew up in an Indonesian farming village more than 1,000 miles away from these islands. There, he made about $7 a day raising cocoa, but it wasn't enough to feed his wife, three kids, parents, and siblings.

"Then I met a man in my village who was successful," Agus tells me. "He owned a shop and his wife wore a lot of gold. I tried to stay close to him and ask him how he made so much money. After some time, he told me that he had been a pirate."

The shopkeeper told Agus to come to the islands and try his luck. He told Agus to start by working as a boat-taxi driver and slowly try to get introduced to pirates. Agus followed his advice. He joined a pirate group about four years ago.

He says he goes out on about six "operations" a year. The ideal night is one with no moon. Agus and his gang wear masks and black clothes. They fashion a long pole out of bamboo and fix a hook to the end of it. They ride out in pancung, wooden canoes with outboard motors, or in speedboats, depending how far they have to go. Their destination is the Philip Channel, a small portion of the Strait of Malacca. It's a shallow and rocky waterway where international cargo ships have to slow down to pass.

Agus and the boys go out looking for prime targets. They call it "shopping."

"We do it in a team of seven," Agus says. They swing the bamboo pole up the side of the ship and hook it on. "Then we climb up the pole to the ship. Two of us go to the bridge to catch the captain. The others stay and guard the crew. Sometimes the captain fights back. So we have to hit him and tie him up with rope. Then we tell him to give us all the money in the safe."

Has he ever hurt anyone? He shrugs. "We only hit captains," he says. "That scares them enough to give us all their money." If Agus and his partners manage to steal the money from the safe, each one can clear about $600 or $700.

Agus says it's too dangerous to take me with him on a real pirate operation. But he promises to record a future one for me on his mobile phone.

Some time later, Agus tells me he's been on two pirate operations since we met. One was a success. He made nearly $1,000. The other was not. There were too many navy boats out that night.

I called Agus a few times and asked about the recording he told me he'd make on his mobile phone. The last time I talked to him, though, he admitted he'd had to pawn the phone. Because, he said, he was broke. Again.

in search of a real pirate 12/06/08 [Last modified: Monday, December 8, 2008 11:49am]
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