Saturday 29 July 2023

Bugis Nights by, Chris Stowers

 Devika Misra and Chris Stowers discuss his debut travel narrative, Bugis Nights

It’s taken Taiwan based writer and photo journalist Chris Stowers nearly 35 years to publish his debut travel narrative Bugis Nights. This light but exciting read is part memoir and part fantasy. Stowers chronicles his journey on both land and sea as a young backpacker across Asia in the late nineteen eighties. Basing much of his story on diaries and photographs, Stowers harks back to a time when travel, he says, was “simpler, easier slower”…essentially more fun!. But Stowers’ story is about far more than the trials and triumphs of a young naive explorer. It is an endearing and perceptive observation of human behaviour in tough circumstances. With quiet humour, Stowers illustrates the courage, optimism and openness of the itinerant backpacker.

I recently spoke to him about the challenges of recounting events from decades ago. For this, he credits his mother!

CS “I've always kept a diary every day. So, in fact, the voyage was all from one diary. ….I actually have to thank my mother for telling me to write a diary just in case you know, anything interesting happened on the way because without that…that backup, I really don't think I could have started to recount this journey.”

Many “interesting things” did in fact, happen. His narrative alternates between an arduous trek across Tibet and a treacherous oceanic voyage across the Java seas which he is able to detail in nautical precision.

CS “It's quite shocking to go back to them (the diaries) because you realise, one, how naive you were, but also, how much you thought was very sure and set in your mind. You know, somebody said this to me…I did this on this day and it was wrong. It's completely wrong. It's proven wrong because right in front of me is the written account of what was actually happening. So I had quite a lot of this finding out that the mind plays tricks on you.”

The young adventurer’s sea voyage took place on a traditional wooden sailing vessel…the type made and used by the famous, much feared and rather isolated Bugis sea pirates of Indonesia. Stowers’ however felt no fear dealing with them.

CS “I think trusted them implicitly….I felt like while we were on that island that they had this unwritten sort of law to look after us. So I felt not in danger at all on the island. I felt much more in on the boat afterwards, with only nature to attack us.”

Nature, did in fact attack, but somehow the beautiful teak sailing vessel Stowers’ had so blindly put his faith in, was eventually able to withstand the winds and waves that almost tore it asunder.

Did he have any idea how treacherous the voyage would be?

CS “No, not at all…not at all. No, the  boat looked beautiful. It was huge. I've since looked back at some video that we actually shot at that time. And I was really surprised how big the ship was, like, 70 ft long. It's twice the size of the normal yacht and really wide as well. I was just trying to get to Singapore for cheap because I had very little money. And, it seemed like an adventure….I would have felt very disappointed to have not joined the voyage, I'd have felt like I'd been left behind. I'd have missed out on something. Of course, inside there's an element of what are we doing here? But when you were young and, uh… we had Pascal as a captain, and he was 28. I mean, now I look back at that, I think, My goodness,I'm done with that age. Now, what did he know? But he seemed like an adult….I was willing to trust anything he said, you know?...Of course, we're gonna make it there. Don't worry.….so you look up to the older father figure as a younger kid. I was 20…21 actually at the time….everybody else was older than me and Frank.”

He did make it  to Singapore…but only just. The Lion City will forever hold a special place for him. He describes the moments leading  up to shore and safety.

CS ”We were sort of just drifting by that point. I've looked at the video we have of that period and there was hardly any wind in our sails and it was the sunrise. And we… we've been up all night on (and were) stressed….stressed out and very, very tired by this time. But of course, there's this element of Well, here we are. We've actually made it and look at us. We're a bunch of pirates. Isn't this cool?....but we were drifting up past Chinese Sailing club. I guess eventually we would have just run around in Malaysia somewhere, which would have been not very good.…luckily, there's a floating shell station opposite from the Changi Sailing Club where they have diesel for boats. And there was a tug refuelling there. So we whistled and waved and it came over to investigate, and it towed us back by that against the flow of the current to the Chinese sailing club.”

This mad cap journey led to the writer finding his calling. He went on to have a successful career as an Asia based photojournalist…but that is a story for another time.

CS “There are actually two books and there will be a third one and that was actually quite important because I didn't want to just have this book as a one off without anyone seeing the fact. Actually, there's a lot more written already, and there's a lot more potential because it's all based on diaries.”

Details: Bugis Nights is published in paperback and eBook by Earnshaw Books (Hong Kong) priced in local currencies.