Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Travel Frustrations

I have now been in Kuching for over two weeks, the longest I've been in any one place on this trip (apart from Tehran). And it's not because it's a terribly exciting place; quite the opposite in fact. No, the reason for my extended stay is my stubborn desire to do this journey overland. I had already broken the no-flying pledge I had given myself by hopping from Taiwan to the Philippines, but I was damned if I was going to do it within the same country. Despite Malaysia being split neatly into two halves separated by some 500km of sea, the sole means of transport for ordinary civilians trying to get from one to the other is by plane. The last passenger ferry sailed its last over 20 years ago. That air travel is the default option is totally understandable: its faster, more comfortable and (thanks to the lack of tax on aviation fuel) is cheaper. But that it's the only option seems to me ridiculous. What of people who, for whatever reason, cannot fly; or if flying became impossible - not such a far-fetched idea for those who remember the chaos caused around Europe a couple of years ago when an Icelandic volcano started rumbling (and Java, with its collection of active volcanoes, isn't that far away)? I refused to to believe that there was no way to get by sea from East to West Malaysia so, when I arrived, I set about procuring myself passage to the mainland. Little did I anticipate how hard it would be.

Kuching is known as the "Cat City" - this is one of several such statues dotted around town.

I started by enquiring at the tourist information office. "No, sorry sir, there are no passenger boats going to the Peninsula and we don't know how you may go about booking passage with a cargo ship." As useful as  bidet in the desert. So I searched online for a list of shipping companies based in Kuching and came up with about 40 (as there is a good deal of cargo traffic passing through here). I picked one that was located just down the road from where I'm staying to have my first stab at asking. At first they were a little baffled by my request and said that they couldn't help me, and that instead I should go to the port authority who deal with such matters. There followed a bit of administrative ping-pong as I was sent from one office to another, until I eventually ended up at customs where the kind lady actually decided to help me. She made a few calls the conclusion of which being that, as far as customs and immigration are concerned they have no problems with me getting a ride on a cargo boat as long as my papers are in order and I pass through the standard inspections.

Armed with this information I returned to my tracking down of shipping agents. The next few looked at me with almost unveiled hostility. I felt that I wasn't getting anywhere and decided to try a new tack by heading out to the container port (Kuching, despite being a port city, is located a little distance inland on the Sarawak river, and although it has a bulk cargo port, the newer, larger, container port is further upriver to accommodate larger container ships) and seeing if I could find any captains to talk to directly. I failed in that endeavour, but did manage to get a few contact names at several shipping agents, which was a material step forward, as I often found it difficult to get past the front line of secretaries. It also helped me understand the situation better as the first senior agent I talked to was a friendly fellow who took the time to explain the procedures required for me to get a ride on a ship (perhaps he was so forthcoming because his ships were not going directly to West Malaysia and instead pass by Thailand, a detour I was not willing to contemplate). In theory it's very simple. All that needs to be done is for the shipping company to add me as a supernumerary (i.e. just an extra person, with no defined role or duties) to the ship's manifest ... and that's it.

This morsel of information helped reinvigorate me as I knew just how little barred my path to transport success, and would be able to argue more persuasively and knowledgeably with the various agents. To improve my chances further still and to counter the inevitable question of "why don't you fly?" I lied through my teeth and concocted a story of being unable to fly due to a middle ear condition making me pathologically sensitive to pressure changes. However I also knew that it still would not be straightforward. To be added to a ship's manifest would need the assent of someone with enough authority, either the ship's captain or, more likely, the ship's owner. For the latter the ships are their business, and some random, unknown traveller could potentially lead to delays which could cost them a lot of money. So I can understand their reticence. Unfortunately it's nigh on impossible to be able to speak with either owners or captains directly and so arguments get diminished by being passed on second hand. At one point I had not only persuaded the staff at a shipping agent's as to the validity of my case, but they had contacted the ship's captain who was also amenable to me coming aboard. All that was left was to get the blessing of the owner, who coldly pulled the rug out from under my plans by refusing point blank. I had to face reality and admit that getting a ride on a cargo ship just wasn't going to happen. Gone are the carefree days when you could turn up at a port, and within a few days hop on a cargo vessel sailing off into the big blue - shipping is now a big business, with intricate bureaucracy and tight schedules to meet the requirements of our globalised world. Even for transport within the same country.

All was not lost, however as concurrently to my cargo ship chasing I also went in search of private yachts that might be able to ferry me across the South China Sea. Although yacht traffic in these waters is far less than than that of cargo vessels, the advantage lies in the lack of bureaucracy and the ability to talk directly to the people who can decide whether to take you or not (and so there is a chance of being able to charm your way aboard). For some strange reason though, despite Kuching's tiny trickle of yachts, it is home to two yacht marinas, each quite far from town and in opposite directions. Coupled with Kuching's paltry public transport (more on that in a bit) it would take up most of a day just to visit both of them, sometimes only to find that there had been no new arrivals since I had last been there. Thankfully the experience of talking to the private sailors was far more pleasant and less confrontational than with the shipping agents. They were all polite and friendly and almost all sympathetic to my cause. The first day I arrived at the marina a boat had just left for Singapore, lulling me into feeling that hitching a ride would be straightforward. My main problem was that the flow of boats seemed to be going counter to my intended direction. As the days progressed I realised that I had missed a golden opportunity. But there is a saying (among the small boat-hitching community) that when you're trying to hitch a ride by boat you should either be flexible with your schedule or your destination, so I remained optimistic. One boat, manned by an older South African couple, was going my way, but the boat was too small to accommodate an extra passenger. They did give me a ray of hope though, when they mentioned that they had met  a couple with a larger yacht a couple of ports up the coast that was also heading for Singapore. Over a week had passed with no sign of them and I was getting anxious until a couple of days ago they finally showed up. They're a pleasant couple from Germany and have told me that they will seriously consider taking me with them, although they may not eventually go themselves as they have been having a few problems with their boat. I really hope they do because they are my last hope of maintaining my headstrong principles.

Inside Kuching's main marina building. Whoever commissioned it must have been a great optimist as the giant building a facilities receive barely a handful of visitors a day.

The events here obviously took place over a number of days and allowed me to get to know Kuching rather well. My abiding impression is that it suffers from an affliction common to many middle-income countries. Affluence is what everyone is striving for. And that means a house, a car, a fancy mobile phone and other, similar trappings of prosperity. The trend permeates through all of society, especially town planners it seems. Here in Kuching if you don't have a car, or at least a motorbike, then you are a a severe disadvantage. Buses run from about 7am until 6pm (if you're lucky) and on average there is only one departure an hour (bearing in mind that Kuching is slightly larger than Glasgow). Once you get off the bus you're not much better off either as pedestrians are looked upon as the lowest of the low. Pavements start suddenly before petering out into nothingness; pedestrian crossings are few and far between and their surfaces uneven. And it's not as if the resources are not there for walker-friendly design as the city boasts an admirable network of dual carriageways that criss-cross the urban sprawl. The only problem is that these are habitually snarled up with traffic as Kuchingers discover that along with personal mobility, afforded by cars, comes personal immobility courtesy of traffic jams. The exact same mistakes that have been made in the West (and the US in particular, which shares East Malaysia's abundance of space) with urban sprawl and next-to-no provision for public transport are being repeated here. Add to that a notoriously haphazard system of street naming, numbering and general address attribution and I have spent a good part of this last fortnight walking around in the stifling tropical heat from one office to another, sweating like a pig, only to be rejected at each and every one. Without a doubt it has been the most trying and depressing part of my trip so far as nothing has gone to plan and I have grown ever more frustrated. Surely getting from one part of a country to another shouldn't be this difficult - aarrgghh! Well, I will soon find out whether my patience has paid off as I await the last roll of my transport dice.

A panorama of Kuching's old town (Chinatown) on the south bank of the Sarawak river and the bizarre-looking new government building on the other side.


Anonymous said...


Erik said...

Oh yeah, I know about the Pontianak ferry. I would have got it if I wasn't space-constrained with my passport (I only have 1 free page left). And actually it is doable by yacht, although it's certainly dependent on a little bit of luck as well.