Sunday, August 19, 2012

Ferry Long Way Round

In Ternate I found myself out on a limb as it were. I needed to get back to Surabaya where I had left the bulk of my belongings with Erika and I had to return there before continuing east again through the Indonesian archipelago. As I've mentioned before I hate retracing my steps and so refused to consider going back through Sulawesi and instead decided to head south through the rest of the Moluccas before swinging west and back to Java. It's a route that is heavily dependent on boat schedules, the information for which is patchy at best, but I decided to take a leap of faith and see how far I could get.

In blue my route out to Ternate from Surabaya and in red my route back. It took nine days, of which over 100 hours were spent on boats (and a further 15 waiting for them).

The national ferry company, Pelni, runs a surprisingly thorough network of routes, with reliable schedules, servicing all major islands with large, European-built ships with room for a couple of thousand people in simple economy berths. That's the official capacity, however far more economy tickets are sold than there are designated spaces for and so all the corridors and outer decks are full of people grabbing any available space to claim for themselves, usually with only a flattened, heavy-duty bag (the type used for packaging 50kg of cement, etc.) for padding. So instead of two thousand people aboard it's more like four or five thousand, although I doubt anyone really knows. Travelling by Pelni allows you to experience some of the best and worst aspects of Indonesia and its people and some of their contradictions. There is a great sense of solidarity on board and on several occasions I was taken under the wing of a group of local passengers who helped find me a spot and kept an eye on my belongings when I slept or needed to go to the toilet. As well as being gregarious, Indonesians are fastidiously clean and will mandi at least twice a day, even at sea. (Mandi is the Indonesian word for the ubiquitous bucket showers. Western-style showers are only found among the super-rich or in higher-end hotels.) I found the ferry mandis too unsavoury and always waited until I reached my destination. They also keep their own space spotless sweeping their houses daily. As soon as they step past their four walls though cleanliness becomes somebody else's problem. Sitting on a sheltered outer deck viewing a wide expanse of sea I would wince with every plastic bag, bottle and polystyrene box that was launched overboard. I relieved a woman in mid-hurl of her foam box of lunch leftovers and offered to take it to the nearby rubbish bin. She looked rather sheepish and admitted that it was wrong and that she was being malas - lazy. But then, only an hour later, I saw her throw a plastic water over to add to the trail of detritus streaming in the wake of the ship.It's not that people are unaware of doing wrong or that they are inherently dirty people, they just know that they will not suffer any adverse consequences and don't care enough to do the right thing. Similarly the internal tannoy system regularly announces that it is forbidden to smoke inside and yet no-one pays a blind bit of notice.

A particularly full ferry. There literally was no room left on the floor and there were even more people sleeping under the beds than on them.

Unfortunately Pelni didn't service the route I wanted to take (or at least not at the time I wanted, as most ships pass on a fortnightly basis) and so I had to rely on smaller, local companies, with dodgier boats and questionable schedules. The smaller ships are more susceptible to the pitch and roll of waves and so most passengers confine themselves to their bunks. Not that that stops them from getting seasick though. Over a period of four days I made my way down to Ambon, hopping from one sleepy island to another where the locals seemed thoroughly bemused as to what I was doing there (as was I). Ambon used to be the centre of Dutch power in the Moluccas and was heavily influenced by them - the Ambonese dialect is heavily laced with Dutch, they say "danke" rather than "terima kasih" for thank you. Unfortunately its recent history has been marred by sectarian clashes, the worst occurring 10 years ago when fighting between the Christian and Muslim communities tore the island apart. Although it subsided and a truce was called, it has been an uneasy peace with tensions just below the surface. Not that a passing visitor will notice whilst walking the streets or pottering around the market. But both of my local contacts, one Christian and the other Muslim, said that both communities were nervous and walking around on tip-toes for fear of further flare-ups. And they can happen. Last year a colleague of my Christian friend was shot and killed in an ephemeral flash of communal violence, and he will not willingly go to any Muslim neighbourhoods any more. Luckily, in a country with so many different ethnic groups and religions living side by side, such communal tension is relatively rare.

Travelling during Ramadan has its advantages and disadvantages. The most obvious drawbacks are that, in mainly Muslim areas, there are few restaurants or warung (street stall) open during the day, so the simple task of feeding oneself takes on a level of difficulty. That said Indonesians are generally very tolerant in their practice of Islam and it's usually possible to find some place that is serving food with only a small, discretely curtained door open so as not to offend those who are fasting. Although I doubt even that they would be that offended as on several occasions I had been invited into Muslim homes, where everyone was observing the Ramadan fast, and yet treated to a slap-up lunch. Initially I felt embarrassed but then I realised that people generally see fasting as their own personal choice that should not be forced on others. Whilst staying with some families I did make a point of joining them for their 4am, pre-dawn breakfast, but wouldn't want to make a habit of it. But the best thing about Ramadan in Indonesia is that fasting is traditionally broken with an assortment of sweets (before people go to the mosque for evening prayers and then return for dinner). The sweets come in a myriad shapes and forms, showing an inventiveness equal to any European p√Ętissier, and are only ever sold during Ramadan. If I hadn't been here for the fasting month then I might have missed out completely on perhaps the most delicious facet of Indonesian cuisine.

Pastry stalls line the streets, especially outside mosques, during Ramadan. There are so many varieties, usually based around four main ingredients: rice, banana, coconut and palm sugar, that I would usually buy one of each and then try and remember which ones I liked best.

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