“Come back tomorrow. 4am” the ticket officer repeated for the 7th time. I had travelled in Asia long enough to know there was no way they would open at 4 in the morning. Once again, I tried to explain that my boat left at 6am, and there was not another for a week.
“Yes” he replied with a nod and a grin, “Come back tomorrow.” I think those were the only English words he knew.
I decided to sleep at the port, where it turned out I was not the only one with that idea. I squeezed into a gap between the mounds of baggage, and the bodies sprawled across the floor. I was almost on the equator here, and the night air was sticky and humid, only worsened by my proximity to so many people. Sleep hardly arrived, and when it did, was interrupted by new arrivals, excited children screaming, and a woman selling bin sacks to sleep on.
The next morning I was impressed when the ticket office opened just one hour late. My ticket from Bintan to Jakarta, a 900km, 31 hour boat journey, cost 350,000 ruppiah (£18/$24). It was so cheap because I was in Class F... whatever that meant! Now only one problem remained; the telephone helpline told me bicycles were not allowed on board the ship. But I had travelled in Asia long enough to know that rules can be broken.
I have scanned the thesaurus to decide how best to describe the manner we got onto the boat. I think 'stampede' is probably most accurate. Encumbered by my bike, and my English inclination for patient queuing, I didn't stand a chance in this brutish Indonesian free-for-all, and found myself stuck with a lovely bed beside the toilets. I didn't mind being next to the toilets though; firstly, my bike had made it on the boat unchallenged, and secondly the toilets smelt only very marginally worse than the rest of the boat. The lingering smell of vomit made me feel queasy before the boat even pulled from port.
Hawkers patrolled throughout, carrying trays stacked with meals, and I was surprised to see people buying food from these. 'Idiots!' I thought to myself, 'didn't they realise food was included free in the ticket price?' Oh how naïve I was. Only when I collected my lunch did everything suddenly make sense. The rice was grey, served with a dollop of boiled cabbage which had that same purple shimmer of oil spilt on a wet road, and yet, the tail end of fish still somehow managed to stand out as particularly unappetising. This meal was served for the entire boat journey, breakfast, lunch and dinner, a diet to keep you from starving, but little else.
Worst of all was the inescapable cigarette fog that hung in the ventilation-less chambers. A devastating 67% of Indonesian males over 15 smoke, the highest rate around the world. And, with little else to do on board, everyone was smoking a lot. The men in the beds around me only woke from their slumber to rattle off a few cigarettes before passing out again. The 'no smoking' signs were a suggestion, not the rule. I went in search of fresh air, but even out on deck, none could be found.
In spite of these negatives, – temporary discomfort makes for positive memories and the best stories, by the way – it was a great experience, and I would still encourage others to consider the boat from Singapore to Jakarta. 'WHY?!' I'm sure you're screaming at the screen right now. I'll explain...
Walking around the deck, eyes cast to that point where sea melts into sky, and not being able to see land in any direction, is the surest way to appreciate the scale of these places. I feel the same in the mountains, the deserts, and when staring into starry skies; humbled by how tiny and insignificant I am. The two-hour plane journey could not give me that.
Few foreigners choose the boat, and for that reason the boat rewards those who do. In this age of mass tourism, the hassle and discomfort of getting off the beaten track is made worthwhile by the authenticity of the experiences, and the intimacy of the interactions found there. Local Indonesians seemed perplexed to find a 'wealthy' white tourist on board, even moreso in the cheapest class of travel. Some genuinely thought I must be lost. But everyone was welcoming, with a smile to share, and great curiosity to know where I was from and where I was going.
Even the crew seemed surprised to see me on board. As I crossed the equator to the southern hemisphere, (my first time!) I was up in the bridge, sipping coffee with the ship's officer and being taught how to drive the boat. Later, I climbed to the wind-swept top deck with a waiter. Even having worked on this boat 10 years, he still span around, lost in the panoramic 360 degrees of enchanting emptiness. One of the engineers led me down to the deafening engine room and presented me with a traditional Indonesian bracelet. That evening I sipped whisky in the bar with the crew, where I was pushed onto the dance floor with the female singer in what was unanimously declared the most terrible dancing anyone had ever seen. And thus concluded my VIP boat tour.
Amongst the scathing reviews of Indonesian ferry travel I found online, one traveller joked that you haven't really been to Indonesia until you've spent a full day on a Pelni ferry. As the ferry reached Jakarta (naturally, it was 5 hours late), I decided he was right. Travelling the uncomfortable local gave a glimpse of the cultures that awaited me here.