Jun 14, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Riding PELNI

Paul Dixon

The vast archipelago of Indonesia spreads out over a staggering area of 1,900,000 square kilometres from the tip of Sumatra to the Papua New Guinean border and comprises about 13,000 inhabited islands. If one were to visit a new island every day it would take over 36 years to see the entire archipelago. It is further from Jakarta to Jayapura than it is from London to Baghdad. These facts indicate the logistical problems the country faces in maintaining its almost sacred sense of unity. The PELNI shipping line offers nationwide transportation for Indonesia’s 230 million population and acts as a vital link in the chains that bind the country.

Indonesian National Shipping (PELNI) was established in 1952 and now has a fleet of 43 ships criss-crossing the seas of Indonesia. It is possible to travel from Dumai in Sumatra to Kaimana in Papua on the vessel Bukit Siguntang, the journey taking well over a week. PELNI vessels call in at some of the most remote parts of the country, bringing in supplies and people. For many places in eastern Indonesia, the PELNI ship is the main link to the ‘outside world’.

A PELNI website promises that ‘staying in cabin class is as comfortable as staying at a luxurious hotel’. However, few Indonesians get to experience this luxury, as fares are astronomical in local terms. The majority of Indonesians travel in deck class, the most economical and of course the most densely packed. I chose to travel deck class (currently Rp 184,000, or A$ 25), to get a feel for the PELNI experience. The boat that I travelled on was the Kelud, one of PELNI’s most modern ships. It has a capacity of 14,800 tons, and can carry 3000 passengers on its route from Tanjung Priok, Jakarta, to Medan via Batam.

The journey begins

The calm on the lower decks was quite a contrast to the hectic quayside, full of relatives waving and loudly calling out their goodbyes to the passengers on the ship. I was immediately lost in the immense size of the boat, fending off the stares of what seemed like a thousand people.

Stepping inside a large deck-class room, I saw it was full of beds lined up in rows, each with a huge wooden drawer beneath. All the beds in each row were connected and there looked to be about one hundred in the room. It was truly a testament to the Indonesian communal spirit; babies cried, men propped themselves up on their bags and read their papers, teenage girls got out their make-up while their mothers unpacked bags and began marathon gossip sessions with new acquaintances.

The boat jerked and a loud horn blast indicated our journey had begun. As I wandered through the decks it became clear that there were many more Indonesians than berths. One traveller told me that touts working on behalf of PELNI often sold extra tickets, for a few thousand more rupiah, to travellers who were prepared to go without an assigned berth. People had set up camp in stairwells and narrow corridors. I delved deep into the boat, hopping over families. There were seven storeys to the vessel, the bottom four of which were taken up by deck class. The remaining three were a blend of higher class cabins, mosques, canteens and a church. It was a floating miniature Indonesia that seemed to contain every essence and nuance of the country.

New friends

I decided I would sleep out on deck and so needed to claim my mattress from my berth. My ticket pointed me towards a berth on a lower deck. The huge dorm was hectic and cramped. I was supposed to be sleeping next to a very malarial looking westerner who was already unconscious, while my other neighbour was an entire family curled up on a single mattress. Carrying my six-foot long mattress through the boat was an adventure. I had to ascend six floors. The busy stairwells were filled with the pungent clove aroma of kretek cigarettes, and sailors returning to their boats in the Singapore Strait slammed down dominoes while betting large amounts of cash on the game.

With my little base set up on deck I was expecting waves of people to start talking to me, as is usual in Indonesia, but it was two hours before a group of men armed with bottles of beer came and introduced themselves. The loudest introduced himself as a sailor who had travelled the globe. He had a small wiry frame, leathery skin and a perfect pencil-thin moustache. His front teeth were rotten and grey and it only took ten minutes of conversing to find that he had a huge tattoo across his back proudly displaying ‘Jesus’. He swilled his beer and joked, much to the amusement of his companions.

Throughout the day this man and his two much quieter friends would come and sit with me. They all had one thing in common: they hated the corruption and poverty of Indonesia. They considered themselves fortunate to be sailors and to receive a hard-currency wage. Their monthly salaries represented a vast sum in Indonesian terms and gave the men and their families considerable advantages at home in Flores and Sumatra. As minority Christians, the men were deeply concerned about the recent surge in extremist Islam in Indonesia. But they told me not to be afraid of the many Muslims on the boat.

Five minutes after this conversation a group of bearded clerics appeared on deck, approaching people with a stern nod and a request that passengers should head to the on-board mosque for prayer. My new-found Christian friends were given disapproving looks as they guzzled beer.

The boat truly was a microcosm of the vast and puzzling nation that is Indonesia.

As night fell, our boat slipped closer to the equator and the tropical night air grew heavier. After a gourmet meal of instant noodles, enjoyed in the glow of a terrific sunset, my three friends invited me to join them for some whisky. We went to a café on the uppermost deck. The café was packed with people seeking relief from the cramped lower decks, and the atmosphere was jovial with a huge karaoke machine blaring out dangdut records. It seemed that the drinking of spirits was a secretive activity as, eyes alert, my companions sneakily poured measures under the table.

Refugees, weapons, and transmigrants

During the Maluku riots which began in 1999, PELNI ships became a means of escape for those trapped in the strife-torn province. Various boats acquired reputations of being safe for Christians or safe for Muslims. The Dobonsolo was considered a Christian ship because it called in at ‘non-Muslim ports’, whereas the Bukit Siguntang and the Lambelu were Muslim ships. No Christian would set foot on the Bukit Siguntang after several Christians were stabbed to death and their bodies thrown overboard. While PELNI brought salvation to many desperate refugees, arms were found being smuggled into Maluku aboard the Dobonsolo. The police confiscated grenade launchers, 200 grenades and 7000 bullets.

For the last thirty years PELNI has been transporting people to new homes around Indonesia as part of the government’s transmigration project, the world’s largest resettlement scheme. Millions have been resettled from the densely populated islands of Java, Madura and Bali to the outer islands, with promises of fertile land and a better life. In February 2001, simmering tensions led to violent clashes between Madurese settlers in Sampit, South Kalimantan and the indigenous Dayak people, resulting in over 200 deaths. About 20,000 Madurese waited to be evacuated from the area only to be met by a navy boat with a capacity of less than 2000. It must have been with joy that the Madurese greeted the PELNI vessel Tilongkabila, as it evacuated about 4400 of the settlers and calmed a situation spiraling out of control.

Threat from the air

PELNI is currently facing serious financial difficulties, reporting losses of four billion rupiah (A$ 560,000) per month due to the deregulation of the local airline industry and a hike in fuel prices. The current growth in private airlines has led to a ýrice war which has brought the price of air travel down to unprecedented levels. PELNI used to be the only means for low-income travellers to travel large distances in Indonesia, but flying has now become an option for literally millions of people who could not afford it before. This year alone, PELNI has reduced its destinations from 85 to 65, leaving many people cut off from their link to the ‘outside world’. If PELNI does not receive heavy subsidisation from the government to maintain its routes, it might well sink under the roar of the Boeing 737.

I watched our huge vessel pull slowly into Batam — where my journey ended — under dismal grey skies. The quayside was packed with people — porters, relatives and passengers waiting to board for the onward journey to Medan. These new passengers would bring fresh stories and gossip, and add to the rich diversity of people already on board. The boat truly was a microcosm of the vast and puzzling nation that is Indonesia.

Paul Dixon (padixon@fastmail.fm) is an English language teacher currently living in Singapore. He spent two years working in Indonesia and often returns to indulge his passion for nasi padang and inter-island travel.

Inside Indonesia 82: Apr-Jun 2005

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