October 4, 2022

Travels on Pelni's Nggapulu

4 min read

THE Nggapulu (named after a glacier-covered peak in Papua’s Jayawijaya range) is a German-built ship and part of the fleet of Indonesia’s national ferry company, Pelni.

For six days and five nights, the 146.5m 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 3,000 miles 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 with its Australasian fauna and flora – its cockatoos, birds-of-paradise and marsupials.

From the moment the passengers started boarding the towering, eight deck-high ferry – in a supremely chaotic rush of porters, luggage, crates and personal belongings – the Nggapulu became a microcosm of the republic 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 (responding to increased competition from the booming airline sector) transformed itself into an all-economy class ferry service. Out went the private cabins and hierarchies which has meant that the 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 eight decks.

However, in true Indonesian style and despite the cramped conditions as well as the 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. Currently with a fleet of 79 vessels of various sizes, it operates routes to the most isolated parts of the republic from Gunungsitoli on the Mentawai Islands in the far west to Miangas just off the Philippine island of Mindanao in the north.

Given the bare-knuckle facilities, the fares are understandably competitive. Team Ceritalah’s Surabaya –Tual journey (the fortnightly route begins in Jakarta and ends in Sorong), was just IDR547,000 (about RM161.94). In comparison, airplane tickets would cost around IDR3,000,000 (RM888.17).

Back in the late 2000s, Pelni transported around eight million passengers. Last year, in 2018. volumes 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 and specifically his “Tol Laut” initiative (or “sea toll”, i.e. to boost Indonesia’s maritime connectivity) is finally profitable.

In the old days, before the ferry service was streamlined, passengers weren’t guaranteed a seat or a bed and there would 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 wasn’t great either. Most of the passengers brought their own food or supplemented their meals from the staff canteen. There were 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 whilst it’s a powerful and humbling reminder of the republic’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 movie theatre that played Bollywood staples and live music: a pianist and singer, belting out Indonesian pop classics. Otherwise, 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 sea-sickness—the waters between Bau Bau and Ambon were particularly rough. Some resorted to traditional remedies such as “bekam” (or 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 are soon forgotten as passengers disembarked and returned to their private lives. Still, new travellers then boarded and the process is repeated.

The Ngappulu, then, is a powerful and yet elegant metaphor for Indonesia as Joko Widodo, the Republic’s seventh President – 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), the republic’s 267 million people find comfort in their respective faiths as well as the camaraderie around them, all of which takes place amidst the incessant beat of dangdut and the cloying intensity of kretek.

A near week-long odyssey from Java to the Spice Islands gives you a sense of the republic’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 like the Ngappulu itself, with its 2,170 passengers united by their shared hardships and a desperate desire to get to their destination: a great leveller.

And always, it keeps chugging along.

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