BootsnAll Travel Network

The Pelni Experience (2)

The guy at the information counter, when it finally opened, confirmed that the ship was due to arrive in Pantoloan, a port 22km north of Palu which wasn’t on my map, at 10 o’clock the following morning. I could not change my ticket and that upset me a little, until I figured out the value of the rupiah—it cost just over 80 RM. It was alright.

The steward gave me a locker for my camera and PDA. I went pack on deck and sat in the balmy breeze. On the horizon, ligtning painted the sky with orange strobes; each capturing a snapshot of a false sunset. There was no rain and no sound except for the distant humming of the engines and the gentle rush of water against the hull. The ship’s teeming underbelly semed miles away, and even the men who had been yelling “Hey Missis!” at me left me alone.

Indonesia is no place to have a nervous breakdown. I stopped snivelling. I’ve had worse trips—unless the ship should start to sink.

A double flash lit up the sky in rapid succession, like a frantic celestial paparazzi clicking away. It was quickly followed by more lighting sweeping horizontally under the clouds. It was far away, but I could feel the electricity in the air.

Of course, the peace didn’t last long.

A steward walked along the deck, checking tickets, closely followed by a throng of men who watched intendly while I fumbled for that wretched ticket. I handed it over shakily.

╦conomy?”The steward raised an eyebrow: “You should get a cabin to sleep—I’ll look.”

“There are no more cabins.”

He cast around at the guys before handing back the ticket: “But they’ll kill you!”

Always nice to hear a reassuring word.

The steward went away, but the men stayed behind. After a while of this, I almost wished the ship would sink. I resigned myself to providing the main entertainment for thenight, even when things started to get a bit boisterous. It occured to me that it is a good thing that Pelni ships are dry.

Staying awake and alert all nigt was not an option. I ran the gauntlet back to the lower deck and found a corner at the top of a staircase, pretending to read from my book and not noticing anything around me every time a man walked past. It worked for a while. One persistent guy, immune to my shout of: “Go!“, vanished at my command of: “Pergi!“, which means ‘go’ in Bahasa—but in no uncertain terms. I wasn’t making any friends.

I dozed off and when I woke up, it had gone exactly midnight. I found my way to the unmentionable toilets, with the jeers of: “Missis! Missis!”ringing in my ears, but I got lost on my way back and had to circle the dim aisles several times before finding my spot again. I could hear the cackling follow me around.

“Fuck off!”

But it was no use getting angry.

The second shout of “Pergi!” happened just around then. I had messed up by not befriending some of the women, but I had to smoke on deck periodically and I did not particularly want to talk to them anyway. However, this wasn’t safe. I gathered my things, clambered down the stairs to be a little more out of sight, and took my last Valium, which I had carried in my wallet for almost two years. None left now for when I get kidnapped.

It was only then that I noticed that the big cockroaches had come out to play. But by then the Valium started to kick in and it didn’t matter any more in the haze that had built up behind my sore eyes. The rest of the night went by relatively peacefully.

I have to second Paganfarmer‘s opinion—these men appeared threatening and potentially dangerous. For the first time since travelling in the Central African Republic, I felt in actual physical danger. There is no concept of personal space, not because of innocent friendliness but because of a lack of regard. I’ve travelled in plenty of other Islamic countries where there is no shortage of men wo would feel me up—even follow me into the shower—but they are usually hesitant and know where to draw the line. In Indonesia, the men hunt in packs. Thee was a clear sense of menace. I had been reasonably safe of deck because I latched on to a guy who was friendly and spoke some English, using him as an unwitting bodyguard while managing to keep him at elbow’s length. But that night is not an experience I care to repeat—although it seems that booking cabin space on a Pelni ship for just part of the passage is impossible and local ships are out of the question. Were it not for the occasional presence of stewards I would probably have been assaulted. I’ll just have to grow the thickest of skins.

Valium isn’t a sleeping pill, but it helped me sleep until 4:45, when the call for prayer bellowed out of the speakers. I was alone, except for a large cockroach that was hiding behind a pipe. I dozed on for a while and eventually resolved to have a shower. Despite the difficulties that represented—the first ‘female’ bathroom was full of blokes—I find it psychologically important to clean up and change my clothes whenever possible. It makes a much better impression as well.

I was glad that I had when I met the man who had taken me under his wings the evening before. He turned out to be one of the junior officers. He had spoken to the captain and they phoned the agency in Tarakan—apparently it wasn’t the first time they have given people misleading advise or even booked them onto the wrong ship. By way of apology, they were prepared to upgrade me to first class.

¤ thought there are no more places?”

─h no, first class is empty.”

Shame I didn’t want to go to Makassar.

[note: and now I’m about to go through the whole circus again. Allegedly, first class on the AWU, going from Makassar to Maumera, is ‘fuuul’. Wanna bet that it isn’t? I don’t think speaking fluent Bahasa would help one dot in sorting out these difficulties!]

The officer, Ahmed, spent most of the morning with me even though he was still off-duty. He showed me the cafeteria which I had not found as the stairs were hidden behind the mosque. The economy pantry had been closed despite the loudspeakers bellowing something about ‘Makanan’ (food) and ‘Nasi Goreng’ at six in the morning. I had resorted to buying a packet of crisps, but Ahmed shook his head and bought me a bowl of noodles. What a nice guy.

But the unease did not go away so easily. I was sitting in front of the office with my locker, waiting for the counter to open, when I felt shaky again even though the blokes shouting: “Miiisssiss—I looove you,”in chorus were three decks above. I realised that I was badly culture-shocked and the ongoing travel worried me. Perhaps I should go to Makassar after all. But I did not want to stay on the ship and Pantoloan harbour is in a good location for both Central and North Sulawesi. Exactly where I wanted to be. All the same, I would need a few days of relative peace to adjust.

The office was still closed, but the ship was running late—making me worry about having to go to the toilet again. Aside from the fact that it would mean running the gauntlet of wolf whistles yet another time, the state of the things made me shudder, and I’m not squeamish. During three days on this ship, I would cut out all food and regulate my water intake in rder to minimise the experience.

Eventually the harbour came into view and the ship glided over a barely ruffled sea with almost no sound—the rushing of the water against the hull was louder than the engines. The calm surface was occasionally broken by a flying fish skimming across it in long, straight lines.

Like a bad dream, the memories of the previous night faded away.

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