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A veteran journalist's take on such diverse subjects as religion and religious violence, democracy, freedom of expression, sociology, journalism, criticism, travel, philosophy, Southeast Asia, politics,economics, and even parenthood, the supernatural, film criticism, and cooking. Please don't hesitate to participate by starting a comment thread if you have an interest in any of these subjects...or anything else, for that matter... p.write@gmail.com

The Romance of sea travel

I’m posting this because I’m trying to write an opinion piece on religion in Indonesian politics and it’s not ready for submission. I thought I’d upload something a little different…this time what you see is the first part of a longer travel piece that I wrote fairly recently. The entire piece was intended to form the core of a travel book on the region, but it got stalled before it was finished.

It got stalled because I came down with a nearly lethal combination of diseases endemic to equatorial Southeast Asia; I managed to catch Typhoid Fever on the ship and was hospitalised in Manado, where I was bitten by a mosquito who deposited the dengue virus into my now severely weakened system. Comatose for a day or two, bedridden for weeks, it took me more than a month before I could travel, and then close to six months before I was back to what passes for normal. Naturally I ran out of steam and haven’t managed to restart the damned thing.

I think it’s got potential and would love to hear from anybody who thinks I should shelve it, or better yet, that I ought to revive it. What’s posted is just the first section; I have about 5 more sections that I managed to complete before the Typhoid knocked me on my ass.

We’ll get back to more political and social stuff later, when I have the current article finished.

Five days at sea: Jakarta-Surabaya-Makassar-Bau Bau-Ambon-Namlea-Ternate-Manado

Patrick Guntensperger

Part 1: Descent into hell

From the moment I arrived at the harbour it was a nightmare. The Jakarta deep water harbour at Ancol is famous even in Indonesia for being a hostile, unpleasant, corruption-ridden hell-hole. To the traveler, it feels as though it is deliberately designed with an eye to discouraging its use by any but the truly desperate. Absolutely no signage, but with troll booths at every place there is room to erect one. Each one is occupied by a troll who takes money and directs you to somewhere random, with no reference whatever to where you want to go, or to what the driver has asked. Each troll of course lies about anything you ask and you do several circuits of the place before you eventually stumble across your destination. At that point you are beset by hordes of parasitical, evil smelling, vaguely threatening “porters” who, while grabbing at your possessions, negotiate for, or more precisely, demand at the tops of their lungs the right to steal your luggage.

As a bule[1] you are naturally held up for extortion; everyone knows that bules are nothing but flesh and blood ATMs. Foreigners usually only find out later that the price demanded is about ten times that requested of Indonesians. Pointedly ignoring the frenzied porters except to swat their hands away while still attempting to maintain a death grip on my few bags eventually persuades them to go circle other, more promising carcasses.

Four hours of abusive, obnoxious, screaming, fighting, shoving, and jockeying for position gets me from the waiting area to the docks, where I silently thank Gordie Howe and employ my childhood hero’s legendary hockey skills to elbow my way through the chaos. I see what I believe is my ship 100 metres or so down the pier, but it is difficult to make out its name through the rust. Trusting my instincts and the will of the crowd, I continue to shoot the rapids and steer in that direction. It is assumed, as everywhere in Indonesia, that you know exactly where you are going, because there is no organising principle, an utter dearth of signage, and no one who will answer a straight question.

As I am borne along by the crowd, I manage to catch a pause in the current, giving me an opportunity to glimpse off to the side of the throng, a ship’s officer with his name and that of the vessel I’m seeking stitched to the pocket of his gleaming white dress uniform, which comes complete with mirrored sunglasses and ceremonial dagger. I manage to ask him whether the vessel I’m being herded toward is in fact the one I’m seeking, and he looks at me with a contemptuous grin, draws ostentatiously on his kretek[2] and says, “T”ak tahu”[3], and then turns to another disreputable looking thug in an officer’s uniform and says something in a rapid-fire regional dialect in which the word “bule” features frequently, and they both laugh uproariously.

Despite the rusty and leaking ship being equipped with gangways to every deck, the crew has deployed only one. The entire contingent of passengers, their porters, families, well-wishers, and the crew of a ship designed to accommodate about 800 people, but with a passenger count in the thousands, is thus forced to embark by means of a single, narrow, rusty, precarious ramp into a single hatchway thronged with more porters, each with a cigarette hanging from his face, as he bellows and pushes passengers out of his way. All aspirants to embarkation must thread their way through the eye of this needle, a requirement imposed apparently out of simple caprice, or perhaps for the amusement of the senior officers who lounge above the throng and watch from the upper decks, laughing, picking their noses and smoking under their personal “No Smoking” signs.

If one survives the crush of a crowd of literally thousands acting with traditional Indonesian disregard for courtesies of any sort, all trying to squeeze through a hatchway less than two metres in width, one enters the lower decks of the ship into conditions at which hardened sailors about to haul human cargo from Africa to the slave markets of the Caribbean in 1680 would have recoiled in horror.

The lower decks are shrouded in a nearly impenetrable fog of smoke that is even thicker above the “No Smoking” signs posted at about chest height on every available wall space. The “economy” class accommodations are comprised of row upon row of knee-high plywood platforms that occupy the entire area below deck except for narrow spaces at the end of each row of about thirty, these apparently to allow for squeezing through. Without any ventilation, never mind air conditioning, and an outside temperature hovering around a noontime equatorial 34°C, the hull acts as a solar oven, creating an atmosphere of scorching heat and scalding humidity that beggars belief.

The sleeping platforms are occupied by sprawling, sweating, stinking, farting people of every age and both sexes, each of whom has stacked all his or her worldly possessions over the square metre or so the family has staked out. They already have bags of food and sarongs and underwear (presumably for decoration) hanging from overhead pipes and electrical cables that intermittently crackle and spark.

Blankets or cut up cardboard cartons delineate their personal territory and form the surface upon which they will live for the next week. Women nursing babies, screaming infants, men shouting and arguing over card games, cheap knock-offs of MP3 players and iPods tinnily blasting bad dangdut[4] in competition with porters bellowing at each other and fighting over the right to tote cartons the size of washing machines through the reeking throng; the place is a stinking, hellish, cesspool of humanity. Rubbish is everywhere; half gnawed chicken bones, used tissues, fish remnants, soiled Pampers, empty cigarette packets, and crushed polystyrene containers of rice, noodles, and boiled vegetables are kicked around and waded through. People cough, hawk and spit, or if more refined, apply a finger to one nostril and forcefully expel snot from the other in all directions.

As we’re carried along by the violent shoving, a vile new stink, even more revolting than the ambient one, makes itself known. A glance through the door of the combination toilet and bathing facility reveals excrement and sanitary napkins floating about in a stomach-churning soup, people are standing ankle deep in the sewage; some actually bathing with the suspect water that trickles from broken pipes clamped to the bulkhead. The stench is beyond disgusting and is only mitigated by the ubiquitous acrid reek of the kretek smoke.

The broad stairways to the upper decks are all occupied by even more groups of sprawled bodies, over whom one has to step while being shoved from behind by sweating, smoking porters, breathing their foul breath in your face if you turn. The people who have claimed the stairways as their personal territory don’t move a millimetre to accommodate the porters or anyone else.

After an eternity I arrive, 4 kilos of sweat lighter, at Deck 6 where I spot the information desk for First Class. It is at the other end of a mezzanine that is fully occupied by scores of people stretched out snoring on their cardboard floor coverings, surrounded by their stacked possessions, while their children’s screaming and fighting and their boom-boxes contribute to the cacophony. Stepping gingerly over and around the squatters, clutching my laptop bag, my travel bag, and my seriously inadequate booze supply, I make my way to the wicket under the sign that says “Informasi, Kelas Satu”.[5]

The wicket is like an old fashioned bank teller’s; a little semi-circular access at the bottom centre of a facade made up of steel bars, set at an imposing chest height. To this altar the supplicants must come to request their keys. In this room with the only elbow room I’ve thus far seen on the ship, sit three ship’s officers, feet on the desk, two barefoot with their soiled white uniform pants rolled up to their knees, the other wearing rubber shower sandals and a tee shirt instead of his uniform shirt, smoking, scratching their balls, and watching television. One of them is cleaning under his toenails with his bayonet.

After I get their attention, they discuss things for bit, and then eventually one of the officers, clearly the junior one, bestirs himself to come to the wicket and asks what I want. When I tell him I’m there for my key, without removing the cigarette dangling from his lips, he barks out, “Tiket, Mister!”

After scrutinising mine with the solemnity of someone clearly illiterate, he informs me that this window is for first class passengers only. When I point to the section of the blue (first class) ticket on which “Kelas Satu, Ruang 6009”[6] is clearly printed, he brings it for confirmation to his colleagues. They engage in a heated discussion. He eventually comes back saying “Bukan, Mister, Bukan!”[7] , waving his hand dismissively in my face for emphasis.

From where I stand I can see a sign over the entrance to a companionway upon which is inscribed, “Ruang Ruang 6000-6020”[8]. I point out that my cabin is just over there and he returns to confer with his colleagues. As he moves back to the television area, I am able to see a pegboard upon which room keys are hanging; one of them contains several keys with large pink plastic tags including one that reads, “6009” and “Uang Jaminan Kunci Rp. 20,000”[9]. After yet another executive meeting, he comes back to tell me once again that I’m at the wrong place. I point to the key and suggest that perhaps I could just take that one. One more discussion with his crewmates and he takes the key down with a broad smile as though he has just conferred an enormous courtesy upon me, and then asks for Rp. 50,000 before he will hand it to me.

I flatly refuse to pay the bribe this time (a tiny bit more than three US dollars) and firmly point out that the deposit is only 20,000. He explains that the extra 30,000 is a service charge, to which I respond “Omong kosong” [10] and repeat that I want my key. He snatches the 20,000 from my hand, stuffs it in his pocket, and, turning his back, tosses the key contemptuously through the bars. Meanwhile this entire episode has been unabashedly eavesdropped upon by the crowds encamped on the deck. Now a murmur goes around the crowd of which I can decipher enough of the various dialects to be aware that the general consensus is that I am an albino barbarian who has shown the officer intolerable disrespect by refusing to pay him the bribe to which his position entitles him.

A bag in each hand, my laptop bag over my shoulder, and my hard-won key in my teeth, I pick my way over and around the sprawling bodies who refuse to adjust their position in the slightest to accommodate my passage. Through the hatchway that says “Dilarang Masuk Kecuali Orang Orang Kelas Satu”[11] and over and around the squatters who have taken up residence in the narrow first-class companionway, I manage to make my way to 6009. While trying to use my key and balance my luggage at the same time, as there is no room on the floor to set it down, I glance toward the fire escape at the end of the corridor and see that it is chained and there are cardboard cartons stacked outside on the other side of the porthole as high as the ceiling.

I manage to unlock 6009 and as I open the door, the shirtless, eyebrow and tongue-studded teenager who was sitting with his back leaning against it tumbles in and his cigarette falls out of his mouth and rolls across the tiny carpet. Everyone laughs uproariously at him and they scowl and make threatening gestures at me for my rudeness.

[1] literally, ‘albino’ but commonly used as a derisive term for anyone who isn’t black or Asian ; it can be meant with anything from mild condescension to profound contempt, depending upon the tone and context

[2] Indonesian clove-laced cigarette of staggering nicotine content

[3] ‘Dunno’

[4] Indonesian popular music, somewhat equivalent to country and western, comprised of Arab, reggae, Indian, Malay, and Chinese influences.

[5] First Class Information

[6] First Class, Room 6009

[7] ‘It’s not, Mister, it’s not!’

[8] ‘Rooms 6000-6020’

[9] 20,000 Rupiah key deposit

[10] literally ‘empty words’ but meaning ‘bullshit’

[11] literally ‘Entry forbidden except to first class people’

…enditem…

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