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Rub-a- Dub-Dub, Trials in a Tub

A 30-hour ferry trip looks doable to grin-and-bear-it trekkers until it's shared with 7,000 other frugal cruisers

October 29, 2000|CHRISTOPHER COTTRELL | Christopher Cottrell is a freelance writer in Honolulu

I've lost Sylvia.

I'm being shoved up the gangway like a pig headed for Farmer John's. I snap my head around, scanning thousands of Indonesian faces. Distinguishing marks are hidden in the shadows cast by ramshackle suitcases, one on the crown of each head, bobbing precariously over the seething herd. It's as though everyone is trying to leave Jakarta and the violence and instability that have rocked the country since the fall of the strongman Suharto the year before. Sylvia and I just want to get to the Riau archipelago, and from there to Singapore. We had planned some time ago to take the ferry, because what we'd save over plane fare would buy us two extra weeks of home stays in Bali. Third-class fare was only $17, and we were a bit surprised to find that the "ferry" was a huge, fairly new ship.

As a child, Sylvia had spent family trips traveling hard and fast through East Africa and India. We've both backpacked through South America, so the rigors of trekking on a shoestring budget are not new to us. Taking local modes of transportation is part of understanding the culture. Besides, it's Day 97 of a planned five-month journey across the better and worse parts of Asia, and already our money is running low.

I find Sylvia, entering the ramp, crushed between a phalanx of passengers bashing against one another with weather-beaten luggage, and a riot line of Jakarta's finest, slapping their palms with bamboo batons.

We'd seen those batons in action earlier, when the ferry gangway was lowered. Orange-vested porters rushed up the steel planks to assist arriving passengers. Would-be stowaways stormed up with the porters. But the police were waiting to grab, kick, knuckle and rap them back with batons. One lad was seized. The repeated crack of rod against skull reverberated through his unfazed countrymen.

Sylvia catches up with me on deck. It's a mosh pit. People surge toward the ticket counters for cabin or bunk assignments. First-class ticket holders have short lines; they bolt to their air-con cabins, then bolt the doors. Second-class passengers duke it out for cabins the size of a closet, to be shared by four to eight.

We're in third class, which we understand to be a dorm-style space lined with mattresses.

Third class is a grade above "Ekonomi"--raised wood slats. Even cheaper is sleeping on the floor, which thousands do. From corridors to stairwells to the decks outside, people stretch out like napping cats. They rest on batik sarongs, reed mats, plastic tarps and newspapers.

After 20 minutes of elbows in the ribs I make it to the ticket counter. This is a Muslim country, and third class is segregated, women on one side, men on the other. I insist on being placed next to Sylvia. We're unmarried, so he's hesitant.

Finding our bunks is frustrating. Seven decks, a maze of hallways. Blind corners. The ferry is large enough to shelter 2,000 people on the 30-hour ride across the Java Sea. At least 7,000 are on board when we sail, judging from the numbers sleeping on deck. Forget the cheerful glow of the orange lifeboats. The deck people will fill them before any souls inside are aware that the ship is sinking.

The cacophony is disorienting. We're the only Westerners on the ship (except for Karl, a Slovakian hippie), so fellow passengers shout "Hello, where you from?" at us every 10 seconds. Loudspeakers deliver deafening announcements in Bahasa Indonesia, along with the call to prayer five times daily.

Apart from stepping over bodies slumped in the halls, we have to catch ourselves from slipping. The floor offers shards of chicken bones and crimson marrow. Crushed soda cans. Lumps of rice stained with a syrupy, sweet soy sauce called Kecap Manis ABC. Chewed butts of Kansas cigarettes--"Welcome to Kansas" is emblazoned on the crinkled pack. (We're anywhere but Kansas, Toto.) Ink-smeared strips of newspapers. Tin trays of half-eaten fish and wooden satay skewers. Pools of slimy gray water. Tiny roaches explore it all.

We find the right corridor but must pass through a mess hall in the literal sense. It's occupied by squatters. People are nesting in ankle-deep debris. Sleeping bodies on steel tables are as lifeless as crash test dummies.

The odor of urine, bleach, smoke and fried fish permeates the ship and leaches into our sweat-soaked clothes. I become nauseated, and for the next 30 hours I will only sip water, read and sleep. We later learn that the trash is swept up every few hours. Deckhands stuff the refuse neatly into scores of plastic bags and then pitch them one by one into the turquoise sea.

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