The best way to navigate Indonesia's wide waterways isn't always by plane.
The best way to navigate Indonesia’s wide waterways isn’t always by plane.

More than mere planes string together Indonesia’s thousands of islands: We’ve also got boats.

That’s right—sleek boats, fast boats, fishing boats, row boats, cargo ships and canoes and frigates and ferries. Long before the populace was skipping across the clear blue waves in low-cost flights, they were chugging through the tides in boats galore. In fact, the more you visit, the more you chat with the locals, the more you pour through online forums, the more you hear of the phenomenon of Pelni.

Pelni at the Ambon wharf, ready for boarding.
Pelni at the Ambon wharf, ready for boarding.

Their boats are mostly old and mostly ugly, but they fit thousands in their hold, and they get the job done.

We ran into Pelni while flipping through travel guides to the Banda Islands. Not many planes touch down there, charter boats run hundred of bucks, but a Pelni is possible. Hmmm… cue the detective soundtrack, bring in my Sherlock Holmes pipe and cap, and warm up the Googling fingers. It was time to find out the truth of the Pelni.

Here are the facts: (1) Pelni is a government subsidized boating transport across all Indonesia, (2) it’s often necessary to use Pelni when plying between the outlying islands, (3) Western travelers spin the horrible, wicked, depraved stories of their Pelni experiences across blogs on the web: roaches stout enough to fight off Rottweilers, pickpockets thicker than barnacles, crowds tougher than saltwater rust, and the blaring call to prayer of the onboard mosque at the most sleep-crushing moments.

At least no mention of pirates came up.

But seeing as flights to Banda were quite rare and could never be booked in advance, and since the Pelni fit our schedule well, and since we had a chance at a first class cabin, we bit. We did it. We were about to find out all about Pelni for ourselves.

A glimpse at a sailor's life.
A glimpse at a sailor’s life.

Here’s the low-down in nut shell. Pelni runs three classes: first, second, and economy. First gets you a two-bunk cabin and a private bathroom. Second a four-bedder. And economy, whatever space you can claw for yourself in the termite-hole-crowded hold, the cold-and-windy outside deck, the can’t-even-turn-around hallway, or the ever-trafficked stairwells. Here, families unfold cardboard slats and carve out their space for the next three, five, even seven day journeys. At least one member of the party stands guard over the belongings, and at least one is ever present to guard space from encroaching neighbors.

Prices for first class mirror those of short flights; of economy, a small fraction of that.

“Watch your pockets,” Andy growled as we approached the ramp. “They say that the thieves here…”

“I know. I’m the one who read that to you.”

“Well then, put the camera bag in front of you and not on your back.”

Thankfully, no one picked any pocket of ours. They might well have, would they have been able to move their arms.  As it was, the gangway up to the boat was swarmed and jammed with crazed humanity: foreign backpackers nervous and flitty, island men hard and sharp, women worried for children–all loaded down with luggage, all crammed into a space far too small for any fidgeting, shuffling, moving at all, or even any pocket picking.

cramped spaces for economy class
cramped spaces for economy class

Worst of all, though, were the rude and sweaty porters, pushy and greedy henchmen hired on the docks for two purposes: to lug the twined and taped boxes of goods onto the boat, and, just as importantly, to stake a claim to a prime piece of real estate for their clients. They shove your back and scrape babies’ faces with their mountains of goods. They stomp your toes and knock you overboard and not feel the slightest twinge of guilt. They trample the elderly and stampede the weak, huffing and grunting out of all bounds of behavior acceptable in organisms more sophisticated than fungi.

We returned fire.  We elbowed their ribs and arrowed stares in retaliation. No use. Things were getting ugly, and security guards stood idly by with whistles silent. We slowly wormed our way closer to the narrow access plank, and, when a swarthy villain barged us aside from handing over our tickets to the taker, Andy turned livid. “Stop it!” She yelled–in Bahasa–into his suddenly stunned face. “You wait! OK.” The world stopped dead still and stood tomb silent a nervous moment.  The ticket taker muttered approval, I glowed with pride, and Andy snapped our tickets back and climbed the winding, slippery plank in peace. Well, if not in peace, then at least less hassled.

Was it really that bad? Well, let’s just say that the next trip, down to the Kei islands, was worse.

Stairwell squatters
Stairwell squatters

Boarding a Pelni is a spectacle, alright, and an interesting study in survival-of-the-fittest mentality. It’s a cutthroat race featuring youths scaling the iron sides of ships like pirates in films. Luggage comes spilling over the side of the ship tied in ropes and strings and reaching to raised hands down below.

Once, weighing anchor and leaving Banda harbor, we witnessed a late-leaver chuck his box onto the wharf—amid the crowd, no less—and dive flailing into the waters of the harbor.

On board, we fared just as grim, we picked careful footsteps over sprawled and sleeping kids, staring adults, and texting teens. We plunged in and out of crowded bulwarks and poop decks and fo’c’sles and mainmasts and other maritime jargon, and still couldn’t escape the crowds or find our cabin.

More grim tales of the economy class
More grim tales of the economy class

When the madness died down, we finally, sweating and headaching, clumsily inserted the clunky key into the lock, shared a final fingers-crossed glanced, and slowly opened our cabin door.

We had read of the horrors that would await us here—the roaches, the molds, the terror of unwashed squatty-potties and the ragged distress of unclean sailor-types leaving rooms in disarray. We thought we were ready for the terrors that awaited us.

As the hinges slowly opened the stained white door, we found…

Much better than we were led to believe
Much tidier than we were led to believe

A nice little room. A tidy little place with well-tucked sheets and a serviceable restroom—complete with western toilet. Really? This wasn’t so bad.

Even so, we unpacked the mothballs—Indonesia’s handy ammunition against the roaches—and spread them liberally around every drain and crevice we saw or suspected to exist or have existed. Then, well, we locked the door, swatted thirty blood-gorged mosquitoes, and we took a few hours nap—opting for wearing jackets instead of climbing under the covers, and dousing ourselves in bug repellent.

In hindsight, we were over-reacting and biased by the bad reports we heard online. The reality, we found, was that the cabin was relaxing. It was warm enough, it was relatively quiet, it caught us up on sleep and charging batteries and backing up photos. I typed notes for this blog. I read. I slept some more. Calls to prayer we no more intrusive than in our Jakarta apartment.  And every few hours, we found a reasonably decent meal being served in a reasonably luxurious ballroom.

All that it required was tripping over a few-hundred grumpy Indonesians crowding the hallways, and denied entrance to the first-class-only dining room.

We felt like the uppity snobs in Titanic
We felt like the uppity snobs in Titanic

Actually, no one even asked to see our tickets. We’re bules, you see. We were white, and therefore, everyone assumed we were first class and toting large sums of cash. Difference in ticket class, you see, is more than just a ticket.

It shouldn’t be this way, I tell myself. Race shouldn’t come into play. But everyone here sees white skin and watches sharp. It shouldn’t matter, I tell myself. I’m just another passenger, the same as everyone else. But I guess that’s not true when centuries of expectations are attached to skin tone, when media feeds Hollywood glamor to the clueless world and the only foreigners most ever see are ones able to fund travel in first class cabins that are far, far more than they can afford. My skin shouldn’t matter, I told myself time and time again, but I felt the weight of their watching every time I stumbled over another child, another family, another cramped and sweaty glob of guys in the corner or surly blurb of smokers in the windy, cloud-scoured night.

It was cramped and smelled of Durian everywhere.  We tried to sneak a few quick pics, but felt too pierced by the stares to do much of anything.

They were all still staring.

Children abound—noise in the hallways, giggles and screams and crying, dirty diapers and rocking and cooing of infants. In America, we wonder how to entertain kids on a car ride of two hours. Imagine taking a handful of young’ns into the confines of a crowded ship for days on end. You get all the slapping and whining and crying you imagine in the ship holds and hallways full of crowded families.

Everything in economy smells of Durian—did I mention that already?  Community showers are present—beware all the dangers your common sense tells you to expect from the bacteria here.

Luxuries of first class -- private bathroom
Luxuries of first class — private bathroom

“Did you ever see the movie Titanic?” Andy whispered to me. “How the rich guys had the ballrooms and diamonds and stuff, and the poor guys were so…”

“Yeah, I know. It is kind of like that.  Except I don’t see any iceberg.”

“Yeah. And no folk dancing.”

“Let’s go find the life boats.”

First class cabins are comfortable in the physical sense: you get a decent bed and a private toilet and room enough to stash your gear and get some decent rest in the hammock-sway–sometimes a bit too much hammock sway–of the ship. But in other senses, it’s not so comfortable at all: you get a thousand “Hello Mister” stares, whenever they are not voiced. You get the looks of the people at your feet, watching and wondering what it must be like to have white skin, and therefore be rich. You get the eyes of everyone on you watching how you’ll navigate the pile of humanity bulging at the entrance and the exit.

Dining quarters for the other ninety-five percent of the passengers
Dining quarters for the other ninety-five percent of the passengers

At one point, Andy stepped on a crumpled newspaper that gave an alarmed shriek.  Well, actually the shriek came from the girl whose hand had been hidden beneath the newspaper.  Andy rushed to apologize, tried to console the poor little thing, but it was no use, she was already asleep again.

I guess she was used to it.

Episodes like that make it easy to somehow feel ashamed of your first-class ticket—some of those economy passengers will make a week-long trip sleeping on the ragged carpets and playing cards for hours on end. They can’t get up—they’ll lose their spot. There’s no room to walk anywhere, anyway. They just sit and endure it. And they stare at the ones who don’t have to.

Suddenly, I started to wonder just why in the wide heavens I was born with an option of a first-class ticket and they weren’t.  What on earth have I ever done to deserve leisure-cabin travel while the masses gut it out with no other option?

It was easy to retreat to the cabin. Maybe too easy.

After stepping on a few people and enduring a million suspicious stares as we explored the decks, we did just that.

A nice sunset and a pack of smokers enjoying the breeze
A nice sunset and a pack of smokers enjoying the breeze

A few more naps and a couple meals later, and we were within sight of the Bandas. Photographing the distant land, we got a few more dozen hello-mister picture requests. One was the middle-aged gentleman on his way from his home in Seram to his work in Papua.

“No family,” he shook his head and told me. “I was married before, but now…” he turned and grabbed a young lady watching nervously from behind and hugged her playfully. “Now this is my girl.”

“Excuse me, Mister,” she now nervously quivered and held up a phone. “Photo with you, Mister?”

Then came a small brigade of kiddos borrowing their parents’ phones. And then there was the real brigade, the army guys, traveling from Ambon to the Keis. “Look at him, look at him! He’s from Papua!” They came shoving one of their ranks to the front.

I took a picture with him and asked a little about his home. Another quickly surfaced. “Here, here, with me. I’m original Ambon!”

And then another one from Sulawesi, and then from Java, and a Balinese. I tried to ask about their training, but they didn’t seem to care too much. They peppered me instead “Have you already been to Bali? How long have you been married? How many kids do you have?”

And then their captain came and calmed them down.  He turned to me, apologized for his troops’ behavior, and respectfully asked for a picture himself.

The youth of Indonesia
The youth of Indonesia

And, then, it was time for the frenzy of unloading: another melee and another hopeless mess.

Pelni—it somehow worked for us, twice. It got us where we were going, and in safety and decent time. It got us rest and okay food.

Pelni also got us some adventure mixed in. Dodging pickpockets and navigating crowded passages and reflecting a few moments on race and privilege and social expectations.

Pelni is also the first time I’ve been on a boat surrounded by water to every horizon. It made me picture more clearly the writers of the past wandering through journeys over the seas—if only I could stretch this journey into several weeks’ haul instead of an overnight jaunt, if only I could thin the crowds a bit, if only I could replace the chugging diesel with the whip and twitter of canvas sails in a sunny breeze.

Time to grab the bags and prepare for the madness.  Crowds buzzed inside the iron hull and I breathed a sigh of relief on closing my cabin door on them; children’s voices started filtering in from outside. Kids were waking from naps and stretching and slapping their bare feet over threadbare carpets of the hallway. And then, a little girl started singing a soft song, one she learned from school, probably: something about all the people in the world, how we are all going places in a big world.

That song, in that voice, I thought, ought to the theme for all Pelni.

Next destination for humanity's grand Pelni?
Next destination for humanity’s grand Pelni?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s