“Bugis Nights” by Chris Stowers

Source: https://chrisstowers.com Source: https://chrisstowers.com

Chris Stowers considers the 1980s to have been the golden age of travel and Bugis Nights describes two trips of his during that decade. One involves traveling in Tibet with his love interest, a German woman named Claudia. Stowers is a green 21-old to Claudia’s seasoned 30. The other, more important thread details a journey from Jampea Island in East Indonesia to Singapore on a sailing boat crewed by Bugis and French adventurers. The Bugis are an ethnic group from South Sulawesi famed for shipbuilding and piracy. Stowers’s adventure with the Bugis bears something in common with the Blair brothers who also sailed on a Bugis ship in the first episode of the 1989 PBS documentary Ring of Fire.


Bugis Nights, Chris Stowers  (Earnshaw, July 2023)
Bugis Nights, Chris Stowers (Earnshaw, July 2023)

In Tibet, after several adventures including getting bitten by a dog, Stowers parts from his love interest and hitchhikes to Chengdu on the back of a truck. We get some nice images of what it’s like to be on the “Roof of the World” as Tibet is known.


Back then, seated high in the back of a Jiefang truck, I’d skimmed across a landscape as dry and empty as the moon, the wind in my face, a leaf carried on a steely breeze: I’d never been so free, so far removed from responsibility.”


The decision to leave Claudia, however, is not without regrets (and will continue to haunt Stowers during his Indonesian journey). Whether the 80s was indeed the golden age of travel, at least at the truck’s destination of Chengdu, is debatable. With hindsight Chengdu in the 80s might be considered drab. It became much more vibrant in the late 90s.


In Indonesia, Stowers is nearer to the sea than in Chengdu by over a thousand kilometers, but on more solid ground when claiming the 1980s as a great time to travel. He moves through West Timor and Flores, islands well off the tourist map back then. With Charlie, a travel companion from Tibet and China, he has a chance meeting with a group of Frenchman that changes his fate.


Just then three westerners entered, thrusting aside the plastic drape that hung in place of a door. They had about them the appearance of determination. No mere wanderers, these. This far from home, encounters with fellow Europeans were few and often significant, so we asked them to join us.


Stowers gets roped into a journey from Jampea, a small island between Flores and Sulawesi, all the way to Singapore. While romanticized, the anecdotes, reported in the form of a ship’s log, about the practicalities of handling the boat they’ve bought, the Kurnia Ilahi, and the internal politics on the boat will appeal to fans of sailing travelogues. When a storm hits, Stowers laments he hasn’t told his parents where he is, they won’t know what happened if the ship sinks. This makes you think of how different travel was for young backpackers back then. They had no easy channels of communication with home.


The text is accompanied by an adequate map. The black and white photos of the crew, Kurnia Ilahi, and houses rising out of the sea on stilts add to the book significantly, no surprise given that Stowers is a professional photographer.

Many of us look back with longing to journeys made in our twenties, but few can remember all the details like Stowers has. Bugis Nights “Being the First Volume of ‘The Diaries of the Western Nomad’ Largely Concerned with an Ocean Odyssey from Jampea Island to Singapore,” is likely to be followed by works recounting the author’s subsequent adventures.

Frank Beyer's writing has appeared in the LA Review of Books, Anak Sastra and Headland Journal.