Posts Tagged ‘Ambon’

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


Banda Quest 2: Flight to the Bandas?

20 July, 2011

The biggest challenge of reaching the Banda Islands – the original Spice Islands of Indonesia – is simply getting there. Irregular ferries (more on these rustbuckets in post #5) shuttle between various islands in Maluku and can take more than 9 days from Ambon, the closest major city. There’s an airline called NBA which has one or two flights a week, but they prefer sunny weather so when conditions aren’t ideal, you have to wait days for another shot.

No Problem!

“No problem” is the perpetual refrain of Michael Erenst, the ebullient force of nature at Ambon airport whose job is securing me a ticket on NBA (they don’t have a phone or a website). When I arrive – still burping the previous night’s meal – Michael sends me off to my Ambon hotel with a breezy “no problem” when asked about the odds of my Banda flight actually leaving the next morning.

The wet road ahead

Awakening in Ambon at the unthinkable hour of 5am, I look out the window expecting to see the same dry street I’d seen before passing out the previous night. Instead – horrors! – I see water, lots of water and it’s coming down in the proverbial buckets. And my view remains wet on the one-hour dark and stormy drive to the airport.

When Michael finds me in the rain outside the terminal I ask him if he thinks I’ll be going anywhere. After a glance skyward with a quizzical look, he declares “no problem! It will be sunny!” Inside, the NBA check-in process doesn’t begin until I give the pen-less agent my own. He scribbles out a boarding card for “Jenefer Rian” and off I go, retrieving my pen as the odds of bribing my way to an upgrade seem slim. (In fact one of Michael’s main tasks is seeing that his clients aren’t bumped off the NBA Banda flights by those with more clout.)

Security is a breeze as liquids, shoes, gels and presumably machetes and other tools of mayhem are all allowed. When the terminal’s lights go out, those waiting are simply waved through. Michael jumps the queue while the rain batters the windows in the dim light of a soggy dawn and introduces me to a fellow Banda passenger. Danny van den Broeke is a university student from the Rotterdam whose great-grandfather was born in the Bandas. Now on summer break, he’s using his money earned as a musician for a visit to his ancestral homeland.

“No Problem!”

Slightly manic with both excitement and exhaustion from three solid days of flying, Danny explains that his great-grandfather was taken to Japan to work in a factory during WWII and that no one from the family has been back since. Does he know of any relatives still on the Bandas? “No.” Does he have any contacts on the Bandas? “No.” Instead he’s come almost 8000 miles (13,000km) to find out where he’s from. “I have no idea what to expect,” he says, staring across the sodden tarmac.

Like a sparrow, Michael flits past (he’s wrangling several passengers onto flights this morning) and with a wave says, “You guys can board. It’s clearing up, see, no problem!” And there really is a new shine in the sky. However this does little to brighten the sole member of the NBA fleet. Our twin-engine prop job is an old Spanish military transport from the Franco era in the 1960s. Comforts inside are few; with parachutes we could launch an unsuccessful invasion.

More power to the shields

Still, the pilots have a certain spit and polish (they’re retired Indonesian navy guys) and the duct tape that seems to cover every seam looks recent. We trundle into the air and we’re off. Actually, “off” might imply an alacrity that’s foreign to our plane as we are scheduled to cover the 100-mile distance to the Bandas in just under 70 minutes. A strong headwind could make this an all-day affair.

Danny's first shot

There are no lights in the battered cabin and the few windows are minute and look suspiciously like gun portals. But the cottony clouds slowly passing below have a mesmerizing appeal that’s rather poetic and the time passing becomes a blur. Eventually we come out of the clouds and out of our trances to see the Bandas arrayed below. Danny gets his first photo of the islands that have lured him this great distance. Jutting from the deep midnight blue waters, the three main islands cluster together while the others are scattered in a line running east and west across the seemingly limitless Pacific.

Bandas found

I catch a glimpse of the islands and their lagoons and with a bump we’re down. As I soon discover, it would have been worth flying all day to get here.

Next: The most amazing islands ever

Banda Quest 1: Journey Begins

19 July, 2011

Lost beauty, rare spices, a history of pirates and crazy Dutch people, a pint-sized spurting volcano, and miles of untrod beaches; since 1993 I’ve wanted to see Indonesia’s Banda Islands. But I’ve always been stopped by the sheer logistics of getting there: infrequent, uncertain flights, dodgy ferries (in a country known for ferry disasters) and the islands’ very distance and isolation amidst the smattering of islands in remote eastern Indonesia.

Terminal Confusion

To finally get there, I’m allowing two weeks for travel cock-ups and other fiascos just so I can spend at least two days in this Pacific outpost. I start in Bali, where the always zoo-like domestic air terminal is especially chaotic (and under-cooled) because of school holidays.

Fruits or G-Spot?

The reading choices at the newsstand are under-whelming, with a choice of fruits in English or a G-spot guide in Indonesian (so much for local censorship worries).

Bad banana?

I’m even less tempted by food offerings, including banana-chocolate cookie boxes adorned with a woman who appears to have been slipped a bad banana.

My flight on budget carrier Lion Air finally leaves a couple hours late. I’m only going as far as Makassar today as my goal is Ambon in Muluka (the region with the Bandas) and I don’t want to risk a tight same-day connection as Ambon is where I get the irregular flight to the Bandas.

Don't miss the plane

If I miss this Thursday’s flight on the one-airplane airline with the Banda service monopoly, I get to hang out for another week in Ambon, mostly known of late for its regular Muslim vs Christian riots.

Makassar proves memorable for all the wrong reasons. My room at the (now-considered execrable) Kenari Tower is a disappointment. The window is blocked by a sign outside hawking new cheap rates, the Ikea-branded light (Torgë? Bütfc?) falls apart when I switch it on, stains of the most vivd colors and sizes abound, the internet is off and just as I lose my cool, I realize it might actually be the temperature. Yep, the air-con has failed. To the Kenari’s credit, a complaint gets action and my room fills with young men who raise their hands in front of the feeble trickle of muggish air and fruitlessly poke at the controls. After an hour of debate, it’s finally decided to take the surprising step of moving me to a room with working air-con.

Dinner of Doom

Off to dinner, I opt for the uniquely named Mie Titti, which is highly recommended in, yes, the Guidebook. I have the house special mie kering titti, which is a bowl of freshly fried crispy thin noodles under a sprightly lemon and garlic sauce studded with chicken bits. It’s actually quite tasty. Unfortunately it’s a taste that keeps giving as the first burp arrives during the short walk back to the Kenari and this proves to be merely the forward scout for an entire army of burps, belches and other rumblings.

Makassar's dazzling new airport

By 3am it’s clear I’ve made a gross error in mealtime judgement and I fantasize about the Ayurvedic practice of having your innards hosed out top to bottom. At 10 I return to the dazzling new airport where the check-in, wait and flight all seem interminable but actually are quite efficient and I arrive in Ambon right on time. My spoiled and soiled carcass is met by the effervescent Michael “no problem” Erenst, whose job is to get me on the one flight to the Bandas the next morning. The airline, the otherwise unknown NBA, has no website or phone number, rather, you let fixers like Michael sort things out and you hope that any of many reasons that NBA used for canceling their flight and stranding in you in Ambon don’t come to pass.

Afloat to Ambon

But such details are far from my concerns. I want only a bed and a place of mie kering titti-free refuge. The hour-long ride to the bright lights of Ambon include a ferry across the bay, but it’s all a blur and things look up when I check into the Hotel Mutiara. My room is cool, clean and blissfully silent. I sleep for 12 hours. If there are any riots, I miss them.

Next: Flight to the Bandas?