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Cruising in Indonesia
Ternate (Indonesia), April 17th 2009

The Indonesian Archipelago consists of thousands of island, some big, and many very small. Travelling by boat was in the past the most important way to reach many of these islands. But with the arrival of cheap airlines tickets, the future of the huge passenger ships in Indonesia is not so certain anymore. But nowadays, the boat is still a popular means of transport. Thousands of Indonesians travel daily by one of the Pelni Liners between many of the Indonesian islands. The twenty-six vessels of Pelni operate on an extensive network of courses and most of the bigger islands are connected to the network, sometimes only once in the two weeks. A journey on one of the Pelni ships is one of the highlights of any trip to Indonesia.

Today we start with our Pelni trip from the central Moluccan city of Ambon to Ternate in the northern part of the Moluccan Archipelago. The schedule tells us that the journey will take twenty hours. The Pelni ships have different classes. The by far cheapest class is the economy class. In this class you do not get an assigned berth. You have to ‘fight’ for your own place on one of the economy decks in the lower part of the ship. The decks are divided in big open rooms in where hundreds of berths are placed and it is your own responsibility to find one. It is an ant’s nest of people where privacy is non-existent. If you take only a short journey, of say maximum eight hours, this class is ok because you can also try to find a place to sit on the open deck or in the cafeteria. That is what we did on our seven hours Pelni trip from the Banda Islands to Ambon a couple of weeks ago. But for longer trips, the economy class is uncomfortable because there is absolutely no privacy, especially when you are a foreigner. Everybody wants to chat with you or want you to pose on their pictures. It is also impossible for most foreigners to sleep in the economy class because it is too noisy and because you have to keep an eye on your luggage to prevent that something will be stolen. For the matter of fact, most Indonesians travel by economy class, but that’s also because they are tougher and sturdier than we as westerners are. We have chosen for the most luxury class, the first class. In this class you get a cabin for two persons, with bathroom and even TV. There is also a second a third class. In the second class you have to share your cabin with three other people and in the third class with seven other people. All classes, except economy class, include three meals a day.

Porters run to be one of the first on the ship

The departure of our ship, the Lambelu, is scheduled for two o’clock in the afternoon. We arrive at the harbour two hours before, because we also want to see what activities are going on around the arrival and departure of these huge ships. Initially, they guide is to a huge waiting room in where all seats are already occupied, and even worse, the temperature exceeds the forty degree Celsius. The sweat gushes from our body and when we hear the rumour that the boat is delayed with four hours, we illegally sneak out of the waiting room to the platform where the boat will eventually arrive. It is also hot outside, but the light breeze makes it bearable. There is also another Pelni Liner in the harbour. The ship is called the Nggapulu, came from Papua and has as destination Makassar and finally Jakarta. It is unbelievable to know that people travel on these boats in the economy class for days, without having good food and privacy. And we also dare to say that the toilets in the economy class belong to the group of the dirtiest ones we have ever seen, anywhere in the world. We are not the only travellers who sneaked out of the waiting room in search of fresh air. More and more people found a place on the platform in anticipation of the Lambelu. Some people make a short chat with us, especially because they want to know where we are coming from.

Fifteen minutes later, a group of men in official uniforms enters the platform. They have the task to guide all travellers who are illegally on the platform, back to the waiting rooms. Slowly, the people take their belongings and shuffle back to the almost hottest place on earth. They also ask us to leave the platform. However, we tell them that it is very hot in there for us foreigners, and after some deliberation with colleagues, we get the permission to stay. And we even didn’t have to pay for it. The removal action did not work for long. Soon after the official uniforms have left the scene, the first people come back to the platform, including their loads of luggage.

A great and special visit to Ambon comes to an end
Just before the Lambelu arrives, dark clouds are gathering above Ambon. Men with large pieces of plastic enter the platform in the hope that people will rent them to keep their luggage dry. It is great to see how inventive people can be to earn some extra Rupiahs. Eventually, the Lambelu arrives in the Bay of Ambon. The porters are getting nervous. This is the time to earn money. The guys in the yellow shirts offer their carry services to passengers who are too lazy to carry their own luggage, or have too much luggage with them to carry it by themselves. And because most Indonesians travel with loads of luggage, there is a big market for porters. The stairs that will be used to let the passengers on and off the ship are already placed on the right position. The porters are fighting for the right spot at the stairs, to be sure to be one of the first porters to enter ship in search of customers. The ship docks and as soon as the doors are opened, the platform changes in an ant’s nest. Porters are running to and from the ship, carrying heavy loads. Almost a thousand passengers have to disembark while approximately a thousand ‘new’ passengers want to board the ship. Especially the passengers with an economy class ticket want to board the ship as fast as possible, to increase their chance of getting a berth. We decide to wait for half an hour, till the platform is less hectic.

As soon as the peace returned, we take our backpacks and embark the ship. We enter at the level of the economy class and we literally have to step over sitting and laying people to find our way to the stairways. “Hey mister” and “Hey miss” is shouted to us by local people with big smiles on their faces. We find our way to the stairways and people tell us to go to deck seven. Also the stairways are occupied with passengers that were not able to find a berth on one of the economy class decks. We check-in at a small counter on deck seven and after that we navigate through the small courses to our cabin. The cabin looks great and the bed linen smells fresh. Of course, we have to share our cabin with some cockroaches, but that is something that we expected. Just after we put our backpacks on the floor, the ship’s horn toots one time, to let the people know that we will depart in one hour from now. We walk to the restaurant for our dinner and after that, we go to open-air deck to have a great view on Ambon city. It is hard to say goodbye to this city where we had a great time and some very special moments. We will miss Ambon and definitely want to come back in the future.

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