Stumble Into Indonesia's Unseen Places
Submitted by mumunmumun on 6 April 2015 • Destination
Boat life takes a life on its own. I’m not referring to cruises or yachts; I’m referring to public ferries. From docking at one port, loading, sailing, all the way to the docking at the next port, ferries are ‘festive’, including those in Indonesia. Ferries are the main transport considering Indonesia is an archipelago. With islands distant from each other and take hours to roam in between, boats then become more than just a device to transport good and people. It’s a moving system with lots of interconnections, as that on our ferry from Talaud to Manado.
Growing up, I was sort of used to ferries. My grandparents and extended family lived in Makassar, so at times where I thought cheap plane tickets were talking unicorns, I had the pleasure to sail the seas from Surabaya to Makassar and back with public ferries. I tried all sorts of classes, including economy and the ‘sleeping underneath a staircase’ class. Although that might sound bad, there are many good to ferries. Life on a boat has a different set of tolerance and cooperation.
On our trip to North Sulawesi, Vira and I decided to take the ferry back from Talaud to Manado. We bought our tickets from the booth, done manually down to crossing out two beds reserved for passengers and hand writing the tickets. We had prepared our mentality for a gruesome trip of uncomfortable sleeping setting and bad toilets for at least 16 hours. Personally, I decided to be the observer on the boat. Despite loving to speak to whomever I meet on my journeys, I didn’t indulge it. I just wanted to passively enjoy the experience.
Unloading is a long process of boxes coming in and out of the doors. It’s like the circus, where countless clowns come out from a tiny Morris. Never ending in different shape and sizes. Ferries are an inexpensive mode of transporting goods, especially considering not every island has an airport. Items range from refrigerator, TV, motorcycles, fence, carrots, tomatoes, clothes, sheets, chickens, goats, and fuel. Loading is the same process. Thus, it takes hours and countless sweaty men with ridiculous strength for tiny bodies, just to load and unload passengers’ goods.
The KM. Karya Indah ferry had one main quarter where steel bunk beds were aligned neatly. Beds were about 1.8 m in length and based with a thin mattress covered with synthetic fabric, just like those emergency beds in the hospitals. It was like a refugee hall and there were no private corners to hide in. The ticket lady had placed us just in the middle of the hall, making us have a 360 view. Toilets were at the back of the boat, outside of the main quarters, surprisingly clean and flourished with water.
Being in the middle, we could see the women sell their food from buckets. Most were main course dishes, chili covered fish, banana leaf covered rice cakes, and cakes. You can’t be without dessert, even out at sea. Presentation isn’t a priority; a happy belly is. By the middle of the night, most of the buckets were tucked in, as the food was sold like burgers to teenagers. I did have a taste of the cake they sold, and honestly, they weren’t bad at all coming from a bucket. Most of the food were under USD 1. Decent.
People need food and to be fed within 16 hours. These women know how to spot a business opportunity, even run a business with competitors beside them. And by the looks of it, they’re friends underneath it all.
“We agreed on the system. We should work together and keep the area clean”, a lady shouted, while sweeping the trash in between the beds. She meant it for someone specific, another lady that had chosen to keep selling her goods rather than do her obligatory chores of sweeping.
Apparently, there’s a system amongst the ladies that sell food within the main cabin. They kept the boat relatively clean, as I didn’t see any of the crew doing their job. I guess it’s a trade-off being allowed to sell food on board. And it seems like the captain gets first dibs on the good stuff. A rack of rice-cooked-within-bamboos were numerously asked upon and always replied as the “captain’s stuff”. Seemed like the boat crew clean out the fully loaded garbage bins and clean the toilets. I couldn’t tell for sure as they didn’t wear a uniform.
The captain’s stuff.
“Where are you from?” A man asked me as he stood on one side of my bed, while I was lying down, mind you. With me sleeping on the top bunk, almost leveled to his face, it felt weirdly intimate. Kinda awkward having a stranger that close to your face while lying down, striking a conversation. It wouldn’t be as weird if we were sitting down in a bus.
“Jakarta,” I answered politely.
“Are you studying or working here?” he asked. I too had the same question asked to Vira when were on Talaud Island. We looked too much out of the common.
“No. Just curious to see Talaud.” He looked at me showing how odd the thought was, nodded, and got distracted by something. I kept lying there.
Sixteen hours is a long time to be on a ferry. But at sea, things could get longer. People eventually talk to each other to kill time, just like what that man did. There is little room for awkwardness. I fed my hunger of sleep, until I stayed awake because I got bored sleeping. And I could see, some of the passengers were like me. If they weren’t talking, they’d be playing with their gadgets or sleeping. Where are the people that read, you ask? As far as I saw, Vira. That’s just about it.
There was so much that I saw in that 16 hours, more than I can recall in this post. Apparently, after about 20 years, there have been some good changes, but not a lot. All I can say is, it’s not easy living on a remote island, but it becomes easier if you’re accustomed to it. In a glimpse you feel sorry for the circumstances of people with limited resources, but in the bigger picture, they’re stronger then most of us with abundant ‘stuff’.
I thought my days of long journeys on a communal boat would end after I resigned working on Wetar Island, but seems like it’s inevitable in Indonesia. I’m sure I’ll be on another ferry or boat soon and one step closer to understanding more island life. To another 16 hours, cheers!