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Field Notes
Peter Gwin
Photograph by Peter Gwin
Peter Gwin

So how much should you trust what a pirate tells you?

During the fieldwork for this story, I got used to hearing all sorts of tall tales and far-fetched claims. One pirate told me he used black magic to become bulletproof and invisible to a ship’s crew. Another boasted that he had heisted a cargo worth 50 million dollars only to have it stolen by another pirate. Someone else regaled me with the story of a shadowy businessman named Mr. Wong, who was double-crossed by a pirate in a deal involving cash and drugs and later disappeared from his jail cell. (A local journalist told me almost every pirate story involves a “shadowy Mr. Wong.”) At the end of my reporting, my notebooks spilled over with supernatural encounters, hidden treasures, secret plots, and lots of Mr. Wongs.

So how do you separate fact from fiction—or at least discern the guy with the real pirate connection from the guy in a bar playing you for a free drink? The short answer is: You don’t—at least not right away, since people who hijack ships (or at least claim to do so) obviously aren’t the most reliable sources. To identify the bits that are true, you interview and re-interview lots of people. For this story, the list included convicted pirates and their lawyers, sailors, police, government officials, maritime and security experts, among others. You ask lots of questions, and repeat the exercise over and over. Hopefully, this process, though never infallible, yields a triangulated version of events, and the black magic and Mr. Wongs give way to a body of information that closely adheres to the truth.

What was the best experience you had while on this assignment?

For me some of the best moments during an assignment arrive in the form of little surprises—not the ones that begin with “Sir, we lost your bag somewhere over the Indian Ocean” or “How current is your tetanus shot?” The surprises I’m talking about act like small gusts of wind that fill your sails just enough to propel you toward the next interview, the next lead, the next musty hotel room. One such moment occurred in Malaysia while my translator and I were driving through a rural area, attempting to track down a guy who knew a guy who maybe knew some pirates. Amid dense palm and rubber plantations that stretched for miles, we suddenly passed a small orchid farm. There was no sign, just a gravel road that disappeared into a field of delicate purple, yellow, and orange blossoms waving under a light breeze. We backed up and followed the gravel road to a small caretaker shack. The translator struck up a conversation with a few laborers, and I wandered down the rows of extravagant flowers. The late afternoon sun filtered through gathering black clouds, and the sculptured petals glowed in the soft light. The rain began, and I headed back to the car. As we pulled away, the translator motioned toward one of the laborers. “That guy,” he said, “knows a guy who knows a guy who used to be a pirate.”

What was the worst aspect of covering this story?

Just before dawn one morning, I found myself aboard a small boat pitching and rolling over large swells, chugging toward a jermal—a wooden fishing platform, roughly the size of a tennis court, built atop stilts. We arrived at the wind-worn, ramshackle structure, located about five miles (eight kilometers) off the coast of northeastern Sumatra, and were greeted by four boys and an old man who lived in a large clapboard shack on top of the platform. Day after day they hauled up large nets full of tiny “rice” fish, which are dried and sold as a snack food. At one point in the mid-1990s more than a hundred jermals dotted this stretch of the northeastern Sumatran coast, but now, according to the old man, there are fewer than ten. He said that an increase in fishing trawlers had depleted the catch. (He did not mention that many jermals were dismantled after their owners were accused of forcing young boys to work on the isolated platforms for months at a time.) He said all his boys were in their mid-20s, though none looked older than 16. As we walked around the platform, I noticed dozens of names carved into the planks—Heri, Mohammad, Dian. During a break in the work, I sat down next to one of the boys, our legs dangling over the edge of the platform. In between drags on a clove cigarette, he told me that he left his village to find work. Eventually, he was stranded without money and signed on to the jermal for about $20 a month. When he arrived here about nine months ago, he was surprised by the jermal’s condition, constantly creaking and shifting with the current. “You get used to it,” he said. “Storms are the worst. The platform shakes as if it will fall into the sea.” This jermal won’t last another year, he predicted. His face remained impassive, his softly uttered words seemed to escape without disturbing his lips, yet his eyes constantly flickered toward the old man. He dragged on the cigarette as the platform swayed beneath us. “In October or November, maybe I’ll have enough money to go home.”

What was your strangest or quirkiest experience during this assignment?

At one small Sumatran village a man invited me to visit the local library. A nongovernmental organization had helped him rent a small building and stock its ground floor with a few dozen children’s books. When I arrived, about 20 kids were browsing the books, excitedly passing them back and forth, flipping the pages. A pair of young women who serve as the librarians gathered them in a circle and led them in various songs. They are singing about workers rights, the man told me in broken English. He then asked if I would say a few words to the children. About what? I asked. “Yes,” he answered, and proceeded to introduce me. The children clapped and then waited expectantly. Completely flummoxed, I stuttered through the Indonesian words for thank you and then said in English, “You have a beautiful country and I am very happy to visit.” The man began to translate, but after several sentences, I realized he had felt the need to embellish my remarks. He continued on for a few minutes, gesturing and becoming more animated as he spoke. Occasionally I picked up a few phrases, including “United States” and “George Bush.” After he finished, the children applauded and jostled to shake my hand. As I was leaving, one little boy smiled warmly as he took my hand, “thank you George Bush, thank you.”