BootsnAll Travel Network

The Pelni Experience (1)

(ca. 1500 words)

I had my adventure back.

The smell of fried plantain mingled wit diesel fumes as I pushed my way through the throng of taxi-touts. There were buses going to Manado, but I had decided to base myself in Poso and from there explore the Tama Toraja in the Southern heart of Sulawesi and travel to the Togean islands and from there up north.

The intended highlight of my trip, Pulao Bunaken Marine Park near Manado with its staggering diversity of coral, had apparently been turned into a rubbish tip—according to one of the junior officers on the ship and a fellow diver whom I had no reason to doubt. He’d also told me that the best diving was in Kalimantan. Too late.

Eventually, I was grabbed and rescued from the throng by one of the minivan drivers who turned out to be a friend of another man I’d met while talking to the ship’s officers. He smiled serenely and sparked up a Kretek as I threw my backpack into the van.
Pantoloan Harbour, Sulawesi
¤ndonesia very beautiful! —Tchch…”

He was right. As we rattled out of Pantoloan harbour and into Sulawesi in a smoking, hooting convoy of minivans and scooters, I saw blue mountains reaching into the clouds, palm trees grabbing at the sky with feathery tendrils and gaudily painted buildings in verdant fields. I felt exhilarated, as if the volume of all my senses had been turned up a notch. In these moments, immersed in sounds, colours and smells, travelling is like a drug.

Indonesia is beautiful, but getting there had not been so easy.

It is Lonely Planet policy that, if you don’t have something nice to say about a country, don’t say anything at all. I think this harms travellers. Were it not for ‘Blahblahblah’s recent comment on this blog, nothing would have prepared me for what I was about to face. Then again, reading the link he provided made me perhaps a little paranoid. Whatever the case, Pelni ‘Ekonomi’ (Deck) Class is not an option for the single female traveller (in all fairness, LP never stated that it was).

I knew Indonesia was going to be a transition, but nothing prepared me for the speed with which it happened. Indonesia hit me like a slap in the face. As the Tarakan express boat turned into the harbour, I could see from afar a long column of people and carts winding their way down the pier, looking for all the world like an exodus of refugees. Before we had even docked, porters elbowed their way on board with looks of frenzied desperation on their faces. It took some elbowing and shoving on my part to get through to the exit, but the crew had looked after my backpack. Somewhat dazed, I turned to the jetty and saw the massive bulk of the ‘Tadir’ in port—the reason for the exodus. Damn if I wouldn’t miss the Pelni ship, but no matter. I wanted to check out Tarakan anyway, see if any excursions into the Kalimantanb rainforest were on offer. The departure of the ship would be my excuse to take it easy for a few days.

Nobody spoke any English and I got exactly nowhere with my twenty words of Bahasa. I could not even ask “Where is…”, “How much…”, let alone “When does the [ship] leave? I had never practised speaking and my Indonesian phrasebook was at the bottom of my backpack. It was all going to fast.

The hotel, one of only two listed in LP, was “fuuul”. That wouldn’t normally worry me, but there are no backpacker hostels in Tarakan. Already, I was surrounded by touts, but this was not Malaysia—this was a pushy crowd. The prices they quoted didn’t sound exessive, but Kuala Perlis sprang o mind. I have a penchant for getting stuck in grotty harbour towns.

Suddenly, I very much wanted to leave this place, or at least book a ticket for the next ship out. There was a Pelni agency across the road.

I opened my diary, indicating the days of the week. “When do the ships sail?”

The agent shook his head, pointing in the direction of the harbour. “Tadir,” he said: “sail tonight. To Makassar.”

I didn’t want to go to Makassar so I took out my map, pointing at Palu and Pare Pare further north, but he continued to shake his head. “Surabaya,”he said firmly, pointing from Java back up: “Makassar.”

Surabaya? That meant I was practically travelling in a circle, going all the way to Java and back again. It did not look as if I had a choice.

ÍK, Makassar. Ticket?”

He shook his head once more:”Office closed.” Curious. But he did show me a price list and indicated that I should go straight to the harbour.

I knew what the minivans (‘bemos’) charged, thanks to a friendly driver who spoke a little English and had picked me up as I was dragging my baggage around the harbour entrance, sweating profusely and struggling for the right words to voice a simple question. The ‘Tadir’ loomed large at the end of the pier. I had to go there to get a ticket, passing by the bemused immigration officers a second time within 2 hours. Leaving behind the market and the shops.

There was a tiny ticket desk in front of the ship’s immense bulk. Back at the agency, I had gleaned the prices. Economy was 220,000 rupiah, first class 627,000 with second and third class in between. I struggled to come to a decision—I should really go economy, cockroaches and all.

The confusion continued when I asked the woman at the desk: “Ticket?”—which, incidentally is ‘tiket’ in Bahsa—she shook her head and pointed at the ship. Inside it was like an anthill. I had to grab one of the stewards who pointed me straight back at the desk. I didn’t stand a chance in this country.

The woman eventually relented, after I pointed at a ticket she had just issued to another customer.

“Ekonomi only,” she said.

That solved that little dilemma.

By happy chance, my Melayu English language book—from which I had been trying to learn—contained a short paragraph in which the character asks when the time of departure was. I showed that to the woman and the man who had just bought his ticket looked over her shoulder. “Half an hour,”he said. There was no time to pick up supplies.

I pointed to the next paragraph where the character asks the time of arrival. The response was not encouraging.

“Friday,” the man said.

Pelni ships are dry.
Do not picture a Pelni cruise in economy class as a romantic adventure. Not when you’re a solo female traveller.

Dazed, lose to tears, I staggered around the deck. There had been no time to think. The ticket was in my pocket. I walked like in a dream, stale sweat gluing my T-shirt to my back.

Inside the ship, the atmosphere was even more like a refugee camp. There was hardly any space left on the wooden platforms where people—whole extended families—cowered on black plastic matresses, staring dully into the gloomy light. Cockroaches scuttled up the grim, ochre walls, but at least they were small ones, like on the bus to Miri.

Some helpful people showed me where I could rent a matress for a small fee once the ship sailed. We sat down in ront of a small pantry and I started to cry quietly. I wasn’t ready for this. I mixed some of my last Kava pills with a sugary soft drink which helped, but the drink was expensive and I had precious few of these pills left.

The good news was that, apparently, we would sail directly to Sulawesi after allmdash;reaching Pantoloan at nine in the morning. I had not seen any charts on display anywhere, so I had no idea whether that was true, but it gave me a little hope. Not wanting to stay in the claustrophobic atmosphere on the lower deck, I went to the upper deck and sat down to watch the sun set behind billowing clouds. I had to hide in my notebook. The men here are disgustingmdash;the old bloke on the bench next to me was grabbing his crotch before hiking up his sarong. I studiously ignored him. The moment I left the lower eck, the men had thrown themselves at me. The bachelor crowd had commandeered the airy spaces around the upper deck and were leering at me as one.

The loudspeaker crackled and then started to bellow out religious music as a prelude to evening prayers, which at least shut them up.

I couldn’t let my guard down for an instant. I couldn’t let the luggage out of my sight until I found a group that I could trust. I was the only Westerner on board.

I didn’t dare take my last Valium.

Welcome to hell.

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