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The PELNI experience

Pelni, indonesia, ships, cruising

Cruising on Pelni.

Pelayaran Nasional Indonesia,known as PELNI, is the indonesian national shippingline. It is one of the very last shippinglines in the world still operating true long distance passengerservice, where the transportation of people, and not sightseeing, party or taxfree is the point of operation. The ships are a microversion of Indonesia itself, giving the odd tourist a unique opportunity to meet people from all over the country, all levels of the society and all walks of life as well as a taste of the good old days of oceanliners. But don´t expect anything close to Titanic style comfort-the ships are crowded and very spartanous.

PELNIS ships-most of them named after volcanic mountains witch the country is filled with, go "everywhere". However, most ships start and end their 14 days to one month long roundtrips in Jakarta, the indonesian capital. The ships have several classes-from the overcrowded, but very colourfull kelas ekonomi, the economyclass, to first class cabins that nobody would consider first class, concidering the price. It is cheaper to fly. But at least the food is somewhat better, and it is eaten on a table.Whilst on the economyclass your table is your leap. There is privacy in your cabin, and also somewhere safe to store your gear. That aspect is difficult on ekonomi. As a foreigner you stand out, and your luggage is quite interresting for people with long fingers. Caution is advised.

My first trip on a PELNI liner went from Surabaya, one of the main portcities on Java, over to the small riverport Kumai on Kalimantan. I entered the overcrowded and almost unventilated waitingroom on time-and to my surprise the boarding started only half an hour late. Two narrow doors opened, and induced riot like conditions as a thousand persons wanted to go trough at the same time. All of them loaded with stuff ranging from carpets and a bike to ricesacks and a couple of cages with chickens. A stressed police tried to line us up and dealt harshly with one guy trying to sneak in front. He was brutally taken al the way to the back of the never ending line-his gear remained alone in the front. One man somehow managed to get onboard without a ticket. Problem for him was that the ticketcontrols are very thorough. Doors are closed all over the ship to hinder people in sneaking away, and the ticketcontrol itself is impressive. On the occasion in question, it consisted of: three white uniformed ticketripping shipofficers, two marines from the ships own securityforce armed with revolvers, and finally four policemen armed with revolvers and machinepistols. The ticketless man was taken care of in a way very similar to a terroristarrest.I never saw him later.

I survived the boarding, and found my home for the next night-a 60 centimeter wide mattress with one other on each side-occupied by a loving couple in their twenties and a lady in her older days respectively. In total something like 100 persons stuffed together like sardins in a can. Our stuff was placed where ever we could find space. Or make space There are no lockers to be found anywhere onboard. No wonder many prefer taking their stuff up on deck or out in the corridors and stairways-witch actually are airconditioned-the only trace of luxury to be found anywhere on the economyclass.

Three blows in the whistle, and our ship Binaiya started to sail out trough the labyrinth of anchored ships from all over the world, and headed north and out in open sea. Soon it was only an empty horizon to look at, and a beautifull black-bluish watersurface, occasionally penetrated by flyingfishes, to look at. I started to talk with people-or they started to talk to me. As the only foreigner onboard I was a sought after target and had to go trough the classic interrogation countless times: Where from. Married or not. Any children? Personal belief? Here it is wise to mention a faith, regardless wether you believe or not. According to common indonesian logic a nonbeliever must be a communist, since communists disregard religion. And to be a communist is not a good thing in Indonesia. Also it is wise to be prepared for the next unavoidable question-your salary! In Indonesia I made it into a rule always to have a paper where my income was written on top-that always raised gasps. But then-almost as a self defence-listing up all the livingcosts I also had to live with. That usually made people very silent! I got to talk to all sort of people. Like a young armyconscript that recently lost his girlfriend. Or the girl that had been moved to Kalimantan from her native Java under the transmigrasiprogram-where people are moved from heavily populated areas to less or even unpopulated areas of the country. Everything is so different from home”, she sighed

The empty horizon with some spread clouds and mist provided a fantastic sunset. A red glowing ball, sending a shower of colours over the sky, and lining the blue-blackish horizonline with shining, floating gold. The moment the sun disappeared-a loud "Allah-U-Akhbar" shattered the air. Time for the believers to go down to the huge, airconditioned mosque to pray.

The food distribution on the economyclass is a chapter on its own. I had heard a lot about food on kelas ekonomi in advance, and nothing good, so had what I needed in my backpack. But I wanted to observe. And what I saw was a line of waiting people starting up on the deck, going down a stair, trough one corridor and around a corner into another corridor. Then down another stair, before finally ending in front of a hatch in the wall. There everyone get a metalboard with some rice and something called meat and vegetables that looks distinctively dead. Attacked by a sting of humoristic sense I joined in, got my board and ate the food, wondering where to put my board afterwards. A smiling man literally took the matter in his own hands by grabbing my board, smiling, and then dropping it on the floor. The established way of getting rid of it.

Arriving in many of the ports is an entertaining experience. Often these ships are the main entertainment and the weekly or biweekly big event for the locals. As a result, huge crowds are often drawn in when a PELNI liner is expected. Kumai was filled with a mix of miners, loggers, oilworkers, traders, townspeople. And when I a few months later arrived in Sorong on Irian Jaya onboard the Nggapulu, we were met by a convoy of small boats. In the harbour there was something reminiscent of a local festival-complete with living music and foodstalls. The air was filled with the smell of grilled meat. For a moment the situation became tense when soldiers traveling on Nggapulu came into conflict with police. A warningshot was fired into the air, people ran over to the other side of the quay and the ships gangway was lifted. But a moment later everything was back to normal again. The girl I sort of traveled together with, angrily commented that it´s always friction between police and soldiers on leave. She later turned out to be a relative of activists in the OMP-the Free Papua movement, being active in the Papua province of Indonesia. While she was terrified to speak about the issue-referring to “long ears being everywhere”, others were very eager to talk. The locals from the province all said exactly the same with different words-“we feel like second class citizens in our own country. We want to rule ourselves, and if necessary we will use armed force to get it. But we prefer the matter to be solved peacefully” While talking to this girl, I could not help thinking about another girl I met. Evi from Sumatra. Evi with Indonesias prettiest smile, and on her way to start on her police education. Quite an opposite stand in life.

Nggapulu left the harbour, followed by more or less the same convoy, and I participated in the general shouting and hand waiving taking place until the distance became too big. Under the wakening tropical star heaven I instead focused on the market onboard-vendors selling everything from watches-very cheap watches, to t-shirts and jewelry. There even were a traveling healer, that healed his victims, sorry, patients, by tapping them for blood that were thrown overboard by his two helpers. And in the best Indonesian style, it all took place directly under a sign announcing: “NO VENDORS!”
Published: 2008-03-21
Author: Tore Haaland

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