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What Traveling Aboard an Indonesian Ferry is Really Like

Going between the islands of Flores and Sumba shows what life aboard an Indonesian Ferry is really like.

We would be travelling by ship between the Indonesian islands of Flores and Sumba. I and my wife, Lobo, were imagining ourselves to be Magellan. Ferries and ships are a lifeline for this archipelago nation. Many Indonesians make a living in islands far from where their families are, and especially for the poor, ferries are the only means to unite again. Several unfortunate accidents happen every year in these seas; this created a sense of danger and adventure.

At Ende, a port city in Flores, we bought the economy class tickets for KM Wilis. The ship was delayed by fourteen hours, scheduled for an unfriendly 4AM departure. But that could be excused. For Wilis travelled at a stretch for two weeks, starting from Makassar in Sulawesi Island to Bima in Sumbawa, then Labuan Bajo in Flores to Waingapu in Sumba, back to Flores to Ende, to Kupang in Timor, back to Ende, then to Waingapu again, then to Labuan Bajo, then Bima, Makassar to Marapokot and Maumere in Flores again, then Larantuka in Flores, then Kupang, back to Larantuka, then Maumere, Marapokot; finally resting at Makassar, before taking off again along this route the next day. Wilis was a rat that frenetically visited the same place again and again, not in any particular order, but got forced into slowness by the choppy seas.

Two boys at the school where we were teaching English promised to take us to the jetty at that time. But who can trust young men? They slept happily while we kept calling them again and again. Half-awake, and with no back-up plan; we stood by the road. The whole town had slept. Everything was still; black. There was nobody going anywhere. After an hour, we see a man on a motorcycle pass by. For some reason he stopped and came back to us. He looked at Lobo, “Where is she from, China, Japan?” Not a good sign. “I will take you first to the jetty and then come back for her.” In our alarm-woken heads, we agreed.

At the jetty, I asked the man to wait till I called Lobo but my phone couldn’t catch signal. The stranger shrugged and left. I was panicking; pondering about all the casualties that could happen. I was sweating profusely. But after ten minutes, the man came back with Lobo. I wanted to hug him. I wanted to scream, “Humanity is alive and well!”

Only then, I became conscious of the surroundings. The air was numb, three hundred people staring into blankness. Many had come from surrounding villages and had been waiting for more than a day. Suddenly, a flicker; the lights of Wilis. The waiting room headed for the ship like a bunch of mother turtles limping after a tiring night of egg-laying. A mass of helmets, all reflecting the moon, stood at the front; motorcycle drivers closing in for the hunt. Wilis docked and horned twice. Suddenly, there was an unfamiliar rush. A man struggled through the crowd, holding a young girl in his arms. She had fainted.

We got pulled in. The first sights: a bunch of topless men standing by the railings, women sleeping on the floor. Inside, the lights were yellow and greasy. The sleeping chambers had beds in two rows facing each other, a number on top of each. The mattresses had been stripped off from some of the beds. Later we found them with the women who were sleeping outside. This was their way to escape the cigarette smog.

Inside the ship

Inside the ship

We found the two beds waiting for us. There were ten other passengers in our section. Their eyeballs settled on us. We exchanged smiles and they went back into their slumber. A cockroach was moving over my bed. Our fellow passengers began playing loud music on their mobiles. I couldn’t relax in my new home. I lay on my side and faced the wall. American movie slangs and abuses were written all over.

I got a bad headache from the cigarette smoke. I was having visions, barnacles rising up from the bottom of Wilis and chewing my fingers. Startled, I got up and walked around. The whole ship looked like a bomb shelter from inside. Styrofoam takeaway packs were piling up like Roman columns. Countless cigarette butts formed fractals on the floor. Women stretched inside toilets marked for men.

Outside, it was morning and the sky was a cloudless blue. But there was no escaping the strong stench of urine. Many young couples braved this odor and stood lovingly, looking out at the blue, holding hands instead of their noses.

Suddenly, I spotted a flying fish. And then they came in hundreds, jumping in long leaps, teaching the birds how to swim.

An announcement, “We are delayed by four hours because of choppy seas.”

Officials in white made the rounds to check our tickets, “Don’t smoke! Why are the smoke detectors not working?” Our fellow passengers laughed hysterically when they left. They took out their cigarettes. They were going back home, to Sulawesi, from Kupang, where they worked. Soon, they began taking photos of one another, posing like cowboys and American rowdy rappers and Baywatch super-heroes. Then they ganged up on the leader of the group by forcing him to take off his shirt, put on huge dark glasses, and hold an empty plastic bottle, making him act like a baby with a milk bottle. They rolled all over the dirty floor trying to recover from uncontrollable laughter, “Take his picture, please. Show it in your country,” they pleaded with us to capture their compromised superhero.

We went to the common pantry. Inside the refrigerator with its glass door, I saw a giant clock. To my surprise, it showed the time accurately. It was the first working clock we had seen in Flores and it was aptly kept inside a refrigerator. The pantry gave food only at scheduled times and we had missed that slot. The two men at the counter advised us to go to the kitchen and plead the cooks there, “Ask them nicely.”

The kitchen was a huge storeroom of chimes, utensils hanging from all points in space, anxious to strike a cacophony. There was steel everywhere, giant steel vats, steel washing basins, steel trolleys and steel pipes criss-crossing the whole room. Two young cooks were still working. They were frying a thousand fish in a swimming pool of boiling oil. Behind them, was a small hill of deep fried chicken legs. The heads of the fish kept bobbing in the oil with lifeless eyes, just like kois do in a crowded pond in response to a few bread crumbs. The cooks were preparing for dinner. “Every day, we cook for over two thousand people three times,” said one of them. Their spirits were high. “The kitchen is officially closed. But we will do something special for you,” one of the men wrote down what he can offer in a small piece of paper, his small pencil stuck above his ears. “It would be fried drumsticks, some boiled spinach and white rice.” After he wrote it down like a French waiter, he pasted the paper on his sweaty forehead with a slap and asked us to wait at the captain’s cabin next door.

Captain's bird

Captain’s bird

The captain’s cabin had a bird, as any sea captain should have. The captain was in his forties and energetic despite being in the sea continuously for four months. The bird seemed to be in a bad mood. But after our food came, the aroma quietened the bird and put it to sleep. On the wall, there was a big map of the archipelago. After eating, we went to have a closer look. Our captain turned philosophical, “That is the power of maps. They always draw people to them, young and old. Now you are standing near it, soon you will mumble faintly the printed names, then you will put fingers on dots, then you will count where all you have been, and then you will plan where all you should go next. It’s always like this.”

We came back to the grimy dim lights of our economy class section. There was an air of permanence and infinity in the cabin. The heavy metal doors of the toilets kept banging against the walls, dividing time. All these doors had outgrown the space in the wall for them and were no longer lockable. From the small round window next to my bed, the sea ran by tirelessly.

Finally we reach Sumba on a beautiful day

Finally we reach Sumba on a beautiful day

After an eternity, the ship finally honked like a baritone elephant. We had arrived. The people sharing our cabin wished us an enjoyable stay. They had another three days of travel left.

At the exit, we were squeezed against giant bags. The hustle followed, people moved in small steps, getting closer and closer. One official stood by, just to pull out burning cigarettes from the passengers’ lips. “Dangerous,” he explained diligently to each.

Looking back, Wilis was majestic in white. It was warm and refreshing. It was Sumba.

This is an excerpt from the author’s book, Journeys With the Caterpillar, a humble and humorous attempt to capture the dramatic simplicity of Nusa Tenggara Timur(NTT) in Indonesia, covering the islands of Flores, Komodo, Rinca and Sumba. You can buy the complete book here on Amazon for $2.99.

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Filed under: Boat Travel, Indonesia, Travel Stories

About the Author:

Writer, traveller, and photographer; Shivaji Das is the author of ‘Journeys with the caterpillar: Travelling through the islands of Flores and Sumba, Indonesia’. Shivaji Das was born and brought up in the north-eastern province of Assam in India. Shivaji’s writings have been published in various magazines, such as TIME, Asian Geographic, Venture Mag, Jakarta Post, Hack Writers, GoNOMAD, etc. www.shivajidas.com. has written 8 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.