Many of you will be familiar with Indonesia’s approach to timekeeping, affectionately known as “rubber time”. Like rubber (and the patience of many Indonesians), it can be stretched almost infinitely. Unlike rubber, it tends only to stretch in one direction. Buses start filling up on a notional schedule but don’t leave until they are full; ferries board passengers from a given time, but probably won’t ship out until the tide is right. Meetings are set for time x, and start at time x plus however long it takes the most important person to arrive.
I’ve had the pleasure of waiting 18 hours for a Pelni passenger ferry (and Pelni is historically probably Indonesia’s most reliable transport company). So I wasn’t surprised last week when I arrived at the port at Belitung, in Western Indonesia, to see no boat. I scanned the horizon; it wasn’t even in view, which means it will be another three hours at least. I was a little more surprised not to see any other passengers, but then my Pelni experience had all been on the other side of the vast gulf that divides neglected Eastern Indonesia from the sophisticated West. There are four direct flights a day from Belitung to Jakarta — not an option in most of Eastern Indonesia. They are cheap, take only an hour, and some of them even leave on time. With that on offer, why would anyone choose to spend 12 hours rolling about on a boat, and untold hours waiting for it?
I want to take the boat precisely because I want to compare the Pelni experience in Eastern and Western Indonesia. The port staff are there; one is asleep, the other fanning himself with a newspaper. Oh dear, I might be here a while. And the dock is 30 kilometres from town, so I can’t even sit gossiping while I wait with the owner of my favourite Belitung coffee shop, who happens to moonlight as a parliamentarian. “So when might it grace us with its presence?” I ask the news fanner. “What, the boat to Jakarta? Aduh! It’s already left, bu!” And then, reassuringly: “But don’t worry, there’s another boat next week.” I can’t believe my ears. I’m sure they couldn’t believe theirs, either, when they heard my colourful response. The ferry left four and a half hours before the scheduled time published on the internet that morning, and three and a half hours before the time printed in the newspaper the day before. Twenty four years into my co-dependent relationship with Indonesia, I have learned that rubber time can indeed stretch in both directions.
I’ve just spent five days (and five nights) on the deck of a cargo ship travelling between Wini, in West Timor, and the Tanimbar Islands in southern Maluku. As in any five day period, there are good moments and bad. The bad would certainly include the hours when the lads sitting close to me, having been drinking palm wine for several hours, broke out a guitar held together with duct tape and took on the booming karaoke machine, a competitive cacophony of tuneless shrieking. The good would include the early evening hours, when the sun had cooled enough to sit dangling one’s legs over the prow (which is also as far as it is possible to get from the relentless karaoke machine), staring at the rippling sea and beginning, gradually, to get a sense of the enormity, perhaps the impossibility, of Indonesia. The very best moments come when those evening hours are punctuated by dolphins, who have come out to play with the passing ship. After a bit, the sky goes fiery, then dark. On truly exceptional days, a blood-red moon rises out of the depths, paling as it climbs, showering gold across the sea. Drunken singing seems like a small price to pay.
My future is golden, according to the entrails of the chicken sacrificed on my behalf to celebrate the merapu new year. If I spend very much longer trailing around islands heavy with ritual sacrifice, it may also be vegetarian. Though I’m coming to respect the natural instincts of the animals that share every corner of one’s space in Eastern Indonesia. They sit under one’s feet on the bus, snuffle around under one’s bed in the village, find their way into one’s luggage. Judging from the reluctance of these, my fellow travelers, they have a pretty good idea of what awaits them.
Not trusting to the vagaries of shonky inter-island passenger ferries, I scheduled my visit to Sumba so that I could move on to Sabu, an even drier and poorer island in NTT, on the fortnightly PELNI boat. Needless to say, just for this one fortnight, PELNI is having the barnacles scrubbed off it. The shonky ferries are “lagi kosong” — “currently lacking”, a phrase that strikes horror into the traveler’s heart in much the same way that “rail replacement bus services” does to users of Britain’s creaky and overpriced trains. There was a weekly flight on an eight-seater plane for a while. But the company that ran the service had a plane “disappear” a couple of months ago, That made the aviation authorities a bit suspicious, so they pulled the company’s license.
So I found myself on a shonky ferry after all, going to a quite different island. There are three classes of transport: VIP, 1A and economy. The principal difference between them seems to be the volume of karaoke/music played.Oh, and the expensive classes have seats, which makes it harder to lie down. I usually opt for economy, and have learned that arriving early and staking out territory is nine tenths of the law.
I opted for the space between two trucks. pissing on the proverbial patch with sarong, backpack, and Singapore Airlines frequent flier Gold Card. I wound up sharing the space with a Granny I had met a few days before while searching for a Granny I had buried 20 years before that, but mostly I held my own. As you can see, the space fills up rather quickly.
Still, it’s a good way to travel. The price is right — about eight dollars for a 12 hour trip (though more if you want the karaoke). You can chat to (most of) the other passengers, and learn a bit about this nation on the move. The Sumba-Kupang ferry was pretty well filled with men going to work on some “proyek” (which usually means road construction) in northeast Flores, and women going to work in Malaysia. “From West Sumba, the diligent ones,” explained one lady who was herself going to burn candles over her mother, who had died in Flores. “Here in the East, we’re too lazy.”