Tuesday, May 7, 2013

All Aboard the Pelni Pandemonium

I've just watched the Pelni employee dump a full trashcan of garbage over the side of the ship, into the ocean, for the third time. As it stands, we're not even halfway through our seven hour boat ride. This behemoth of the sea has around four or five floors of decks with railings all around, and plenty of more people generating plenty more trash. I think you get the point. 
Easily the biggest boat I've ever been on. Pelni's are custom built in Germany specifically for Indonesia. Frickin' huge.
These aren't the little wastebaskets in the bathrooms at doctor's offices or posh restaurants. These cans are roomy, the ones some of you probably filled up with leaves as a child, and then with ice and a keg of beer during your formative years. Alli and I watch the rubbish fly, my stomach tightens, and we can't help but think: what a damn shame. Hours later, we witnessed one of the most stunning sunsets we've ever seen leak out of the sky, like a cup of technicolor tea that just tipped off its saucer. Up and down, watching highs and lows, there we went, along the Pelni paradox I thought. 

We sat on the right side of the ship because the sunset out there in the open was glorious.   
The boat we were on is part of Indonesia's largest ferry line (Pelni) with connections all over this geographically sprawling country. These cruise-ship-size vessels usually travel fortnightly or monthly to a myriad of destinations. Currently the easiest way to get to the Banda Islands (our destination) occurs only every two weeks. The Tidar leaves from Kota Ambon, the biggest city in Maluku, easily Indonesia's most forgotten region. That's how the Lady and I found ourselves on one of these ships, in economy class sitting on the third flood deck, sandwiched between humongous bags of laundry detergent and stacked-up cardboard boxes. Next to my head sat a pizza-box-size array of chilis, getting some fresh air as they cruised through the Banda sea.

Our space for the journey. On the far left are bulky bags of laundry detergent and closer to my head was a spread of chilis on top of a plastic bag.  Alli and I rotated on and off our dirty laundry bag to sit on.   
Pelni is no American-esque cruise ship experience. There's no prime rib, swimming pool or ventriloquists. The boats exist to move thousands of Indonesians from here to there on a regular basis because when your country is comprised of 18,000+ islands, the water route oftentimes is the only route. And it's usually cheaper than flying. 

The lovely smelling chilis next to our set-up.
People are everywhere on the Tidar and have set up shop on any available space. I think the legal maximum capacity was in the middle hundreds, but after doing a few tours around looking for a place to plop down, this number was laughable. Even if that many people were actually enforced, the combined weight of goods on the boat easily exceeded human kilograms. While the economy floors have cushioned seating inside, it was very claustrophobic in there, with folks (from infants to the elderly), boxes, suitcases and goods laid about all over. Territory was claimed by the time we got on, as no space was left inside. That's alright we thought, the absence of any natural light and heavy presence of cigarette smoke wasn't selling it anyway. People sit on floors, in the aisles and staircases, and outside, where we ended up. This was the largest and zaniest boat I've ever been on. 

People are everywhere on the Pelni's decks: sitting on the floor, atop cardboard boxes and luggage, and, of course, gazing overboard.           
The on-board economy is a bustling one, as the staggering diversity of items sold included: food (rice dishes with chicken or fish, fried noodles), NBA basketball jerseys (I'd say the Chicago Bulls have a dominant edge in the Pelni market), hot coffee and tea, baby clothes, bottled water, juice and soda, tarps to sleep on, sticky glutinous rice (I bought some of this yummy stuff), dried fruits, pineapple-on-a-stick, cigarettes, Pop Mie (Indonesia's version of the Cup O' Noodles), top up for your cellphone and probably a few I've forgotten. 
Looking east up Ambon Bay, with part of Kota Ambon on the right, from the Pelni port.
While I'm not sure the word impressive is the best adjective to describe the litter seen flailing overboard it surely was a striking sight to see. Carry out plastic food boxes, orange juice and water bottles, styrofoam, candy wrappers, plastic bags, cigarette butts, single-serving instant coffee packets (including the ones from our vendor who immediately tossed them over the railing after she dumped the powder in), chip bags, fruit and popsicle sticks, and soda cans all ended up in the ocean. Plus whatever was in the previously mentioned trashcans. 

Alli waiting for the boat to leave. Across the bay is the green coastline of Pulau Ambon, home to the capital city of the Maluku region of Indonesia.
Sitting on the third deck's floor got me thinking though. First, some of these people are on tough slogs. In economy class what you see is what you get. The photo of me sitting on the tie-dyed sarong is also a photo of our space. Some people take these boats from Java to Papua, a journey that can easily last a week or more, in basically the same set-up I'm sitting in. There is no privacy to speak of. If it rains and the wind isn't friendly, tough luck. I'm not squeamish at all when it comes to squalid bathrooms, but the ones on hand were not pleasant. There are first, second and third class rooms, complete with beds and your own attached bathroom, but the majority of people are in economy. I'm a tourist and, yes, it might be uncomfortable for me to make this journey, but I'm on holiday. Most of these folks aren't. They're just trying to move from point A to B, and take care of business. 

Our neighbors took a snooze quite early.
What's to complain about really? Everyone was friendly, as they usually are in Indonesia. Alli and I had broken conservations here and there since our Bahasa Indonesia is still comical. People definitely got a kick out of seeing us playing cards in economy. It was nice to chit chat to others though. I'm not sure most Americans are aware but President Obama lived in Jakarta (Indonesia's capitol) for four years starting in 1967. Contrary to many other internet blogs, he didn't spend his time there in a radical Islamic school, plotting to take over of all branches of our federal government almost 40 years later. 

Regardless of your opinion of Obama, most Indonesians smile proudly when you say you're from America (“the U.S.” response sometimes gets perplexed looks). They love the fact that someone who lived in their country and had an Indonesian stepfather eventually became president of the U.S.A. “Obama bagus” they say, meaning he's good. Now, Obama has joined the famous roster of other Americans Indonesians like to talk about when we say we're from there: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean Claude Van-Damme (who I think is Belgian?), Sylvester Stallone, Steven Seagal and Bruce Willis. The Action and Adventure section of Blockbuster circa 1994 is alive and well is the world's largest archipelago.
What sitting on the Pelni floor meant most of the trip: being neighbors with butts, old rambutan skins and discarded food containers.
My second thought was, watching all the rubbish rain down is an obvious downer. Alli and I have spent so much time in Indonesia because of its dazzling natural beauty and boisterous biodiversity. Just like in so many other parts of the world Indonesian's waters are in trouble too: coral is bleaching, reefs have died due to cyanide poisoning and dynamite explosions, sharks are finned, it goes on and on. Sure there are some healthy and bumpin' parts (we've seen a few), but many areas are hurting. Heap loads of trash thrown on top of it all doesn't help.

But I admire the honesty in throwing rubbish overboard for all to see. Trash is pretty prevalent in Indonesia as no central waste management services exist. When people are done with something they toss it. Alli and I, and I assume most Americans, as well as folks from other “developed” countries, aren't used to this. We have regular trash pick-ups, recycle bins, re-usable shopping bags, car engines converted to run on french fry grease, compostable chip bags, etc. However, we pollute thick as thieves too, it's just invisible right? Alli and I have flown all over Malaysia and Indonesia, with a leap to Nepal as well, plus our initial flight over a year ago from Phoenix to Singapore. 

Sunsets on the Banda Sea did not disappoint.
So far to date our carbon footprint (from flying alone) is a little bit over 15,100 pounds (6.85 metric tons) of carbon dioxide (CO2). On a per capita basis Americans emit 17.22 metric tons of CO2 compared to Indonesia's 1.90. We spew crap out into the atmosphere and it just trickles down to the ocean slowly, out of sight. I can't help but love the contradiction: I'd never think to toss my chicken rice container overboard, but I've taken seven flights in Indonesia alone. I get pissed when I see plastic disposed of in our oceans, but I've driven thousands of miles in cars over the years, many more than any Banda islander can. And if the sea level rises just a smidge those folks are in the crosshairs, not I. It's a tough nut to crack without splintering it a bit. Watching the trash fly overboard and feeling pissed is a reminder that nothing as complicated as climate change, environmental stewardship, responsible tourism and the dumping ground that is our world's oceans, is ever simple. Or a black and white issue, right and wrong. It's a funky grey area that I'm partly responsible for.
Heading down out of Ambon Bay toward the Banda Sea.
The whole ordeal lasted around 11 hours: three waiting in port before departure, seven on the seas and a little under one getting off; it was a cramped-to-all-hell exit, reminiscent of a tightly-packed OutKast concert I attended oh-so-many years ago, when “Ms. Jackson” lived on the radio. Thinking about the Pelni outing beforehand made it sound fun, a way to scope the open ocean, peep a few islands and have one of those “experiences” travelers are always yapping about. 

Lots and lots of people filing on for the 6am departure.
Overall I enjoyed the Pelni pandemonium, but truth be told after so many hours I got sick of sitting on the floor next to extinguished cigarettes and rambutan skins. My butt hurt, but I was all smiles as we pulled into Bandaneria around 11:15pm, with the volcanic outline of next door neighbor Gunung Api illuminated in the night sky. Twenty days later when we left the Bandas to return to Ambon I was still all smiles, but this time we opted for first class. It was nothing fancy, but passing out on the bed, surrounded by quiet, was a real treat. I didn't have to hear Maroon 5's “Payphone” played endlessly by our deck neighbor this time. And I didn't see any pollution drifting out to sea. None of it was visible through our cabin porthole, whether on the Pelni or during our multiple flights back to Malaysia. 
Our first class cabin on the way back. No economy class again.
When a Pelni ship comes to town the area around the port pulsates. Motorbikes, people and vendors galore. An awesome time to have an appetite. During the rest of our time on Bandaneira when no ship was there this street was practically deserted, with a shop or two open.
Tidar docked up before we took it back from the Banda Islands to Ambon.

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