Banda Quest 5: Voyage of the Damned

27 July, 2011

I’m loving the Banda Islands but I’m really here for work – updating Lonely Planet’s legendary Southeast Asia on a Shoestring – and I can’t dawdle, much as I’d like to for a week or more. The next plane is not for several days (and then it’s on the cancel-o-matic NBA Airlines) so my options are two:

  1. Swim the 100 miles back to the regional capital and transport hub Ambon through (cliché alert!) shark-infested waters
  2. Enjoy the ferry voyage of a lifetime aboard an ocean liner operated by Indonesia’s Pelni line

I soon learn that the sharks might have the advantage.

Pelni operates close to 30 ships on labyrinth routes and schedules which link many of Indonesia’s 17,000 islands. Depending on the age of the ship and the crew, the vessels can be tolerable or not so nice. Regrettably, I’m scheduled aboard the KM Kelimutu, which the sharp-eyed website describes as “less reliable and rather filthier” compared to other Pelni ships. But none of those are calling in Banda anytime soon, so it’s the Kelimutu for me.

The ship is scheduled to arrive at 7am and sail shortly thereafter. But the night before my unflaggingly helpful host Abba learns it is due in at 2am with a 3am departure. “Not bad” I think. This will give me that much more time to research in the bright lights of Ambon. (Call that Dopey Assumption A.) A retiring Abba leaves me to my own Waterloo and I catch a few hours sleep.

Bananas await the KM Kelimutu

A couple hours later, bleary-eyed and sleep-deprived I wait at Bandaneira’s dock for the Kelimutu, which slowly floats down the channel. I figure I can catch up on snoozing once aboard (Dopey Assumption B). Scores of other passengers jostle around me, some hefting enormous bunches of bananas fresh from the tree, others carrying chickens. The ship is brightly lit and I am unhelpfully reminded of the images of the glowing Titanic sitting dead in the water. Fortunately the surrounding waters are unlikely to harbor icebergs; unfortunately I’ve also been reading about those Southeast Asian maritime disasters that are in the news all-too-often. In the past decade, Indonesia’s had three, including a bad one in 2009.

Dockside in Bandaneira

Gazing up the battered side of the docked Kelimutu I see hundreds of people gazing back down – all have boarded at previous ports of call on the ship’s peripatetic wanderings around eastern Indonesia. The gangplank hitting the dock sets off a mad scramble to board as hundreds of people, bananas, chickens and more jam together, making no collective progress whatsoever. I wait, since I have secured a “first class” ticket and have a cabin with my name on it. Optimistically, I have Dopey Assumption C: “What could be so bad about first class?”

Once aboard, it is the living embodiment of “overcrowded vessel,” that cliché found in almost every ship disaster story. There are people, goods, bags of every size and not just chickens but at least one goat crammed into every available space, including all the passages and even the stairwells. On first glance my cabin looks okay. But I soon notice that the TV is smashed, the electrical outlets are smashed, the fixtures in the ceiling are smashed and of the two beds, one has a sheet littered with an array of human and insect detritus that could inspire a graduate degree in forensic biology. Of the bathroom, one glance and I decide that I’ll drink as little water as possible so I’ll never need see it again.

My stowaway-filled stateroom

The second bed in the cabin has a sheet that at least looks clean and I sit down. Surveying my domain I notice plastic water bottles that have been cut in half and taped to the ceiling. Curious, I inspect one and discover that it is filled with roaches who have fallen in and can’t get out. It seems that nature has given roaches the ability to withstand a 50-megaton nuclear bomb but it hasn’t equipped them with legs that can scale the sheer sides of a polycarbonate container. I should be really grossed out but I’m diverted by an odd hissing noise. Suddenly I’m really, really grossed out as I realize that it’s the sound of hundreds of roach-feet trying to find purchase on the plastic. Yech!

Turning away, I see a thumb-sized cousin of the doomed masses who has easily found purchase on the wall right next to my bed. He waves his antenna at me. I turn on every light, which sends him darting off to some dark crevice and I lay down on the bed. I spray a halo of bug repellant on the sheet around me, put my hat over my eyes and pass out; it’s too late to send an SOS to Abba.

Porthole view: Eeyore keeps watch

A few hours later I awaken to thin grey light streaming in through my porthole. Gazing out through the salt encrusted glass I see a tattered sheet featuring the long-faced character Eeyore of Winnie the Pooh fame. Strung up by the people on the deck outside my cabin for protection from the sun and the rain, it recalls this classic – and all-too-appropriate – Eeyore quote:

“Everybody crowds round so in this Forest. There’s no Space. I never saw a more Spreading lot of animals in my life, and in all the wrong places.”

Despite the general din of the engines far below, a cacophony of rattles and squeaks and the dull roar of the ineffectual air-con, I start to imagine I can hear the roaches trying to escape their traps. It’s clearly time for me to escape the cabin. Opening the door, I discover an entire family has set up camp on the cabin threshold and have stacked three or maybe four generations in a space no larger than a small table (there may be the remains of additional generations in some of their battered bags stacked to the ceiling).

Deck views

Without a grumble, the family looks at me – this large sweaty apparition – and rearranges themselves to allow me by. The rest of the passage is equally jammed, but the 100 or so people slide around enough for me to hopscotch along, my size 13 sandal landing near an armpit here, a sleeping head there. I reach the thronged open deck and head up to the top deck for some air; whole families are residing on each step of the narrow staircase. [In the few parts of the Kelimutu I visit, I estimate I see at least 300 people. The official capacity is 920. Given the crowding, we must be well over that.]

Top deck is not top class

Yet as crowded as conditions are inside, it’s worse for the hundreds of people on the top deck as they’re unprotected from the frequent tropical squalls. Indeed the only protection up here is a barbed wire fence to keep a mutinous mob away from  the bridge. I find a tiny spot to stand and look around the ship which has been ridden hard and put down wet since it was new, shiny and fresh from a German shipyard in 1985.

I’m soon joined by a young guy who is somehow rather nattily dressed despite conditions which would seem to mandate the opposite. As so many such encounters go he starts by asking me in English where I’m from, where I’m going etc. His name is Lemah and he’s a school teacher on his way to Ambon for meetings with provincial officials. He gets right to it and asks me if I think the boat is bad. I try to demur but he’s got me and says “Of course it is. I don’t like it but it’s all the school can afford to send me to get more rupiahs [Indonesian currency] from the bosses.

“It looks bad up here,” he continues, looking at the people huddled around us. “But these people live hard lives. They’re going to Ambon to try to sell something, to try to survive by living with relatives or even to go to the university. But for some, the days spent on this boat mean they have a holiday from the work they do all day everyday.”

I accept this, although it still has few comparisons to my trip on a Caribbean cruise ship earlier this year – I never saw a single goat on that boat.

Back below, the tiny dining room for the “elite” in cabin class is truly off-limits to the rest of the mob. I hop around more stoic families and duck in. A smiling steward appears and unnecessarily points out that I am tall and might hit my head on the low ceiling. Another is listlessly stirring some greenish horror in a pot that is probably lunch and might be a mutineer. Karaoke blares and two women in hot pants perk up at my presence and offer me comely and crooked toothsome grins framed by vivid mace-red lips. I flee.

Once more the passengers in the first class cabin passageway shift about affably to allow me to pass. One woman even gives me a sweet smile as my stinky foot lands an inch from her head. Utterly chastened back in my cabin I vow to STFU. I have no right to complain about anything. What’s a few roaches? Maybe I can organize races… The economic truth is that I’ve paid $40 for my ticket, which gets me a cabin, a door to hide behind and even thousands of potential six-legged friends. Outside, the people have paid $11 each for accommodation on filthy decks – if they can find space.

No more jaunts justified by a quest for fresh air but which really allow me a chance to gawk at others. Instead I’ll sit in my cabin and read my book (The Broken Shore, a Melbourne mystery with lots of good cussing) as we should be in Ambon by noon… Wait, it’s actually 1pm and the only life on the horizon is Eeyore flapping in the breeze. I belatedly come to terms with Dopey Assumption D, that the boat leaving Banda early might not even require its scheduled nine hours to reach Ambon. Instead it takes close to 13. At 4pm we’re docked and the mass of humanity cascades down the gangplanks with chickens and goats, thousands of bags and bundles and impatient kids and mute old people. The roaches mostly stay behind.

Dockside in Ambon: end of the journey

Threading across the crowded docks, I’m looking for a room and a shower, in just that order.

Next: Visiting the Islands


6 Responses to “Banda Quest 5: Voyage of the Damned”

  1. Nitsos Says:

    Good reality check for my wanderlust.

  2. Karla Says:

    Sweet ride! Did you ever find out what the green stuff stirring in the pot was? Anxiously awaiting the next installment…

  3. Theodora Says:

    That sounds like quite a high quality Pelni ferry. ASDP can also be marvellous at times, almost to Filipino standards: look before entering the bathrooms, is all I’m saying.

    You’ll probably also enjoy the boats you take around Halmahera, if you’re headed that way.

  4. Erin Says:

    This was fantastic, I read it twice. It’s some of your best writing on this site: funny but also clearly showing your sharp eye to social and political undertones that you can see so often when you travel, if you have the mind and conscience to look.

  5. stru1 Says:

    I’ve just completed Banda quest 1-5! Will that open a bonus quest or grant me extra life?

    It definitely look wonderful. Hopefully I can bring up the number of visitors to 401 in 2012.

    Thank you for the inspiring posts.

    • ryanverberkmoes Says:

      Thanks Stefan for the comment. The Bandas are one of my favorite first-time visits of any place I’ve gone for a few years. The next level you earn by reading all my posts is that you realize you have no choice but to go. By all means be 401!

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