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Indonesia: The Pelni experience


September 2014

Pelayaran Nasional Indonesia is the name of the big national shipping company which operates about 30 vessels to connect the many island through various routes. The ships are often at sea for weeks, departure times varies and nobody seems to have an overview of all the routes. At least I could find out that there is a ship from Ende in Flores to Kupang in Timor every two weeks. Tickets are sold just a few days before departure and I buy one for the Economy Class.



The KM Awu, the ship which will take me to Timor, is huge. Quiet and majestic it lays in the harbor of Ende, lit by countless lamps. Anything but quiet it is at the pier in front of the ship. A never-ending stream of people move in both directions along the narrow gangway. Large bags and suitcases are carried above the heads and it is really crowded. How can I get through there with my fully loaded bicycle?


Sometimes I miss the discipline of Europeans. They would now form a queue and wait patiently. But here it is slightly different. So I just wait for so long, until the chaos on the gangway seems to be slowing, and urge forward. By ringing my bell and shouting I make clear that now it’s my turn, that now I intend to clog the narrow bridge until I disappear with my bike in the belly of the ship. Undeterred, the people jostling on, I push along and somehow manage to get on board.


It doesn´t look much better than in front of the ship. People and luggage everywhere. But a friendly sailor takes care of me and directs me to one of the large cabins where I find a place for my bike. The beds are all taken long ago and in here the air becomes very stuffy. I take only the necessary things off my bike: My sleeping mat, a blanket and a bag with the things which would be annoying if they go missing: Passport, credit card, camera, computer and my hard drive with all the photos and videos. Sometimes it´s annoying that these things are still so important to me.


I look for a place to sleep on the deck outside, which sounds easier than it is. Everywhere blankets are spread out with people laing on it. Some of them are already a few days on the ship, which often travels for weeks on its fixed route.

Finally I find a free spot and get quickly in contact with my neighbors. They are mainly students from Flores who go to university in Kupang and have visited their families at home.

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It is now midnight, the KM Awu, built in 1991 in a german dockyard, has departed and is on it´s way to the next island, Sumba. I stretch out on my sleeping mat, listen to the sound of waves and look into the starry night sky. It’s still warm and humid even if the wind gives a little coolness.


When I wake up it’s already light. The ship is about to enter a port. Despite the early hour, it is just 6 o´ clock, taxi drivers and food vendors at the jetty are waiting for customers. People gather at the railing, even if there is really nothing to watch. Here on Sumba only few people get on or off and after a short stay the journey continues.

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The ships of the Pelni line are actually build as cruise ships, but rebuilt for mass transport. There is space for about 1000 passengers, in fact it should be some more. There is a TV room, a luxurious bar and various small kiosks where snacks and hot drinks are sold.

But in the fare even meals are included: At nine o´ clock a gong and an announcement is heard, it’s time for breakfast. Deep inside the ship is the canteen and this time people here wait in line patiently. On the ticket is noted who has gotten a meal already and then everyone gets handed a styrofoam box with food.


It is a meager meal: Some rice, a small piece of fish and a dollop of curry sauce. It looks like people on the ship are already familiar with these portions and took precautions: It seems that half of their baggage consists of food. Constantly I see people eating snacks and often something is offered to me, so no need to worry about food.


To pass the time I walk around the ship and get embroiled in discussions, get asked to take a few pictures or get photographed by people with a mobile phone.

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In the evening, after 24 hours of travel, the boat is approaching the port of Kupang. Hours before the arrival some people become impatient and clutch their luggage. Everyone waits in front of the exit doors. Then it’s time, the KM Awu has reached it´s destination and people jostle aboard. I wait patiently and refuse every offer from porters to carry my bike. A few kids help me anyway, not for money but rather out of pride to help the white traveler. For me this journey ends here, the KM Awu will continue after a four hours stay on it´s route through the Indonesian seas.

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