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In Unfamiliar Waters : Two Californians, Two Indonesians Received a Heroes' Welcome After 21 Days Adrift. Then the Cheering Stopped.

February 16, 1986|PAUL CIOTTI | Paul Ciotti is a Los Angeles Times Magazine staff writer.

Last Sept. 6, after 21 days adrift in the Indian Ocean with two Indonesian boatmen, Judy Schwartz and Rickey Berkowitz, both of Palos Verdes, washed ashore in a remote fishing village in southern Sumatra. Although weak and malnourished, the two 27-year-old women recovered so quickly that, before returning home, they held a press conference at the American Embassy in Jakarta. "We thought it was kind of fun," Schwartz would say later. "We had no idea what it would lead to."

It led to a "madhouse." When their plane landed at Los Angeles International, "we were just attacked by the cameras," Schwartz says. It was one media flash after another: "CBS Morning News," "Today," "Nightline" and 12 minutes with Johnny Carson.

But soon, Reuters was quoting Indonesian newspaper stories that cast a different light on what had been played as a heartwarming story of Yankee ingenuity and grit. Although Schwartz and Berkowitz had bounced back after a decent meal and a good night's sleep, the two Indonesian boatmen had been hospitalized for dehydration and shock. The reason, they said, was that the women had hoarded their food. Rather than die of starvation, one of the men confessed, "we snatched food from their bag."

Schwartz and Berkowitz were astonished at the charges. "We behaved with a good deal of dignity," Berkowitz complained. "They were jerks." Yet neither side disagreed on the facts of the story. The problem was the assumptions behind the facts. In everything from planning to praying, their deepest values were worlds apart.

Rickey Berkowitz has the compact physique and walnut-cracking smile of a Mary Lou Retton. Articulate and relentlessly enthusiastic, she grew up in Palos Verdes, where she was the only girl in the neighborhood to pack her own fielder's mitt. She has backpacked in the Canadian Rockies, gone bird watching in Mexico and lived for six months on an Israeli kibbutz, where she studied Hebrew and installed irrigation pipes. After her return from Indonesia, she entered graduate school at Cal State Dominguez Hills to earn a credential as a school psychologist.

Judy Schwartz still wears the same tennis shoes she wore during her weeks at sea. "They're cleaner now," she says. Bubbly, trusting and a self-described right-brain, intuitive type, she plays the guitar, designs her own Christmas cards and likes to ski and windsurf. Since her return, she's been living with her fiance in Mountain View, where she teaches physical education to emotionally disturbed children.

It was at a New Year's Eve party that Schwartz and Berkowitz, who have known each other since seventh-grade P.E. class, decided to spend the summer traveling through Fiji, New Zealand, Australia and Bali. Then, as they were about to leave, they saw a National Geographic article on Ujung Kulon, an exotic wildlife refuge on the western tip of Java, near the infamous Krakatau volcano.

It wasn't just the haunting pictures of rare Javanese rhinoceroses and river boats drifting through deep, virgin jungle that made the place seem so mysterious. In 1883, Krakatau erupted with such vehemence that it sent sheep stampeding 1,700 miles away in Australia and a 100-foot wall of water ripping across the coastal villages of western Java and southern Sumatra. Altogether some 36,000 people died, including the entire population of Ujung Kulon. Except for a few park rangers, the place has been uninhabited ever since--if you don't count monkeys, crocodiles, leopards and great clouds of fruit-eating bats. To Schwartz and Berkowitz, it seemed exactly the way to cap what would undoubtedly be their last summer-long vacation before settling down to careers and families.

Getting to the Ujung Kulon peninsula was not simply a matter of signing up for the tour bus in Jakarta. First they had to take a train to Bogor to get a park permit. Then they traveled by bus to the west coast of Java, where, because the peninsula is separated from the mainland by an impenetrable marsh, they had to hire a boat.

While buying supplies and trying to arrange transportation to Ujung Kulon, Schwartz and Berkowitz stayed at the Carita Krakatau Beach Hotel, an oceanfront array of thatched cottages hidden under lush palms. But for the beer coolers, the hotel is right out of a Joseph Conrad novel. Strings of coconuts serve as dividers in the open-air lobby, and water buffalo skulls decorate the pillars. The beach is sandy white, the water like a warm bath, and at night the breaking waves flash blue with phosphorescence.

The women spent one day visiting the smoking remains of Krakatau with a local boatman named Amat (most Javanese have only one name). "Amat was a nice, warm guy," Schwartz says, "and I really felt confident with him." After some firm but friendly negotiating, he agreed for $150 to take them and their new Australian friend, botanist Paul Van Der Moezel, to Ujung Kulon for four days.

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