APSN Banner

Six days at sea aboard the Nggapulu, a ferry that's Indonesia in microcosm

South China Morning Post - October 21, 2019

Karim Raslan – The Nggapulu – named after a glacier-covered peak in Papua's Jayawijaya range – is a German-built ship that forms part of the fleet operated by Pelni, Indonesia's national ferry company.

For six days and five nights, the 146.5-metre-long craft, capable of carrying some 2,170 passengers, was also Team Ceritalah's home as they travelled from Surabaya in East Java to Makassar, Bau Bau, Ambon, Banda Neira and Tual in the Kei Islands.

It's a journey of almost 4,800 kilometres that crosses a stark geographical divide known as the Wallace Line, taking Team Ceritalah from one of the world's most densely populated islands with its distinctly Asian combination of monkeys, elephants and tigers to the ravishing and rarely traversed waters just off the southern coast of Papua – home to an array of Australasian fauna and flora such as cockatoos, birds-of-paradise and marsupials.

From the moment passengers start boarding the towering ferry in a supremely chaotic rush of porters, luggage, crates and personal belongings, the Nggapulu became a microcosm of Indonesia itself.

There were Javanese, Sumatrans, Bugis – the ubiquitous traders from the archipelagic nation's eastern half – Papuans and Ambonese. Family groups, newlyweds, traders and students rounded out the gamut of contemporary Indonesia.

In 2015, Pelni responded to increased competition from the booming airline sector by transforming itself into an all-economy class ferry service. Out went the private cabins and hierarchical fare structures, making mixing is all the more pronounced and unavoidable – with passengers accommodated on rows of cots, or beds, with bright green plastic mattresses in a series of vast open halls on each of the ferry's eight decks.

However, in true Indonesian style – and despite the cramped conditions and shockingly primitive bathrooms – everyone manages to retain their good humour and decency. Of course, the regular travellers are the best prepared. Knowing what to expect, they bring small tents and bed down in isolated parts of ship – some even in the stairwells.

Pelni was founded back in 1950. It currently has a fleet of 79 vessels of various sizes, operating on routes to the most isolated parts of Indonesia from Gunungsitoli on the Mentawai Islands in the far west to Miangas just off the Philippine island of Mindanao in the north.

Given the barebones facilities, the fares are understandably competitive. Team Ceritalah's Surabaya – Tual journey, part of a fortnightly route that begins in Jakarta and ends in Sorong, was just 547,000 rupiah (US$39). In comparison, air fares on the same route cost around 3 million rupiah.

In the late 2000s, Pelni was transporting around 8 million passengers per year, but by 2018 that number had plummeted to about 3.6 million.

Nonetheless, after decades of losses, the company – an intrinsic part of President Joko Widodo's ambitious infrastructure plans, specifically his "Tol Laut" (sea toll) initiative to boost Indonesia's maritime connectivity – is finally profitable.

In the old days, before the ferry service was streamlined, passengers were not guaranteed a seat or a bed and there would be scuffles as the crowds rushed to occupy the limited facilities. Now, with assigned berths, the crush is less stressful.

Still, as Darni, a 30-year old housewife from South Sulawesi, noted: "Pelni needs to prioritise the bathrooms because they are dirty and unhygienic. There are cockroaches everywhere."

The all-inclusive, three-meals-a-day food service isn't great either. Most passengers bring their own food or supplement their meals from the staff canteen. There are also traders selling snacks like instant noodles and fruit.

The initial sight of the wide, open sea is stunning, especially at dawn or dusk. But after gazing into the distance, you realise that it's often all there is to see. So while it's a powerful and humbling reminder of Indonesia's huge scale, the voyage is also exhausting and enervating.

In the boredom, the passengers – as people often do – turn to one another for entertainment, company and solace.

There is a makeshift cinema that plays Bollywood staples and live music: a pianist and singer, belting out Indonesian pop classics. Elsewhere, there are board games and always, always the sweetly scented allure of kretek (clove) cigarettes. At one point, there was even an impromptu line dance.

Inevitably, everyone succumbs to seasickness – the waters between Bau Bau and Ambon were particularly rough. Some resorted to traditional remedies such as bekam (cupping).

The Muslim prayer times also brought people together. Indeed, the sight of the open deck crammed for Friday prayers was quite uplifting.

Ibnu Rihamdani, a 19-year old Muhammadiyah Buton University student from Central Sulawesi, told Team Ceritalah: "What I like most about the voyage is that we can meet new people. The relationship is almost brotherly."

And yet these friendships can soon be forgotten as passengers disembark and return to their private lives. But there are always new travellers ready to board so the whole process can be repeated.

The Ngappulu, then, is a powerful yet elegant metaphor for Indonesia as Widodo, the country's seventh president – originally a furniture maker from Solo in Central Java – is sworn in for his second term in office.

Forever buffeted by squalls and tempests – whether political, economic or seismic – Indonesia's 267 million people find comfort in their respective faiths as well as the camaraderie around them, all of which takes place amid the incessant beat of dangdut music and the cloying intensity of kretek.

A near week-long odyssey from Java to the Spice Islands gives you a sense of the country's watery vastness, all the more so when you realise that the Aru Islands and Merauke in Papua lie even further to the east.

So, while things aren't always great, the extraordinary experiment that is Indonesia is much like the Ngappulu itself, with its 2,170 passengers united by their shared hardships and a desperate desire to get to their destination.

And always, it keeps chugging along.

Source: https://www.scmp.com/print/week-asia/opinion/article/3033889/six-days-sea-aboard-nggapulu-ferry-thats-indonesia-microcosm