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Passengers filling up every inch of the Pelni ferryPassengers filling up every inch of the Pelni ferry

The idea of travelling by ferry in Indonesia can be frightening for first time visitors, given the high amount of accidents happening on Indonesian waters and news coverage. But the state owned company Pelni has revealed to be safe for the last 30 years or so, as we explained in our previous article about the safety of Indonesian ferries.
Embarking on a long trip by ferry in Indonesia, means to be able to experience real life as locals do, what they eat, how they behave and socialise and much more.
Still wondering if adventuring or not in this adventure? What a better way to decide than seeing our photographic report from our ferry trip with Pelni? In these shots are pictured the conditions that we experienced travelling from Labuan Bajo (Flores Island) to Java and what you could generally expect to find while travelling with Pelni during high holiday season.
The first approach to the ferry in Labuan Bajo was a little bit shocking: while we got closer to the boat we started seeing an undefined mass from far away and we thought it might have been a new design of the boat. After getting closer we actually realized that those, were hundreds of people already standing in line, even thought we arrived at the harbour two hours before the departure. People in Indonesia have an early start and while we were still sleeping and dreaming of golden beaches and fresh coconuts, they were already active and lining up for their vital space!

Hundreds of people queuing to board the ferryHundreds of people queuing to board the ferry

When we got closer to the ferry, as much as the mass in front of us would allow, and with the help of the zoom of our camera, we realized that also every inch of the Pelni ferry was covered in human bodies, and we started to tremble and question if buying an economy class ticket had been the right choice.With an unimaginable long line to board the boat, you might think that time would never pass and to easily get bored. But there is plenty of entertainment while waiting to board the ferry and there is no extra entrance fee to enjoy it. An involuntary acrobatic show using archaic lifting equipment is performed by the vessel crew, while setting up the movable staircase to allow people to go out and come in.

The boat crew doing acrobacies to lower the passenger ladderThe boat crew doing acrobacies to lower the passenger ladder

Once people start flowing from top to bottom, the crowd waiting below gets excited and it feels like being at the stadium cheering for your favourite team. At every slip of a foot, the audience start to roar and demand for more excitement. Old women are helped to descend, huge luggages are handed down and kids brought to the bottom by the crew as superlight dragonflies. Then it’s the turn of a pretty Indonesian girl having some troubles to descend the stairs because of her shoes. Demanding for help, a man soon reach her, and at the wows emitted at the unison by the crowd, she answers with a single elegant movement, throwing the object of her annoyance, her slippery shoes, on the enthusiastic audience one after the other.

A woman is helped to descend the stairsA woman is helped to descend the stairs

The flow of people is never-ending, and for each passenger there is an equal or bigger number of boxes finding their way down to destination. If you are still wondering why people are standing in line for so long, it’s because there are no assigned places, and available tickets are heavily oversold (if legally or not it’s still not clear to us). So even thought supposedly everybody in the economy class should be assigned a bed in large mixed dormitories, the reality is that available beds are much fewer. Compared to queues in India, Indonesians are much more relaxed and respectful, but you still have no chances to compete.

Passengers getting off at the harbourPassengers getting off at the harbour

Eventually we managed to enter, and we definitely lost hope to find not only a bed but even a minimum space to lay our camping mats. Every spot and every passage was just full of people or luggage. Or both. In all of this mess there are also passengers continuously coming and going as well as ferry clerks trying to give away one more ratio of their Nasi Goreng while shouting its price. 

Every available floor space is soon takenEvery available floor space is soon taken

A minusculus portion of food included for free with the ferry ticketA minusculus portion of food included for free with the ferry ticket

We eventually gave up on the idea of finding some space and decided to resort to our emergency solution and go where not even Indonesians dare to venture: the fervent hot and uncovered rooftop, that the tropical Indonesian sun had been hitting for many hours.
We eventually understood how a sunny side up egg feels while it is being fried, but at least we found our spot of “privacy”. And thanks to the minimal shelter provided by our tent, we felt like we were in a luxury accommodation and regarded with envy by our frying companions.

Our refuge on top of the boiling roofOur refuge on top of the boiling roof

It won’t take much time until local people will transform the ferry into a moving landfill. Luckily our tent was helping us somehow to keep at least the garbage away.

Oti resting under our tentOti resting under our tent

A pile of garbage next to an Indnesian family sleepingA pile of garbage next to an Indnesian family sleeping

During our sea trip with Pelni there was a serious lack of space and it felt almost suffocating. But on the other side Indonesian people are really friendly and the youngster cannot wait to socialise with the rare foreigners travelling in the cheapest class.

A group of friendly IndonesiansA group of friendly Indonesians

A tight passage in between lines of peopleA tight passage in between lines of people

A local man looking amused at my cameraA local man looking amused at my camera

Not only every single inch of space in the Pelni ferry is taken, but you have also to mind you head while walking! Feet are hanging down from every balcony and overhang, creating at times interesting compositions for a shoot.

Passengers sitting on different levelsPassengers sitting on different levels

Temporary exhibition of Indonesian shoesTemporary exhibition of Indonesian shoes

It was really funny to track Indonesian passengers and discover their creative (and dangerous) places to stay. Beyond the metal railing there was an extra couple of meters before the edge of the floor, that was systematically occupied by the people and transformed in temporary shelters. Where there were no people, there were plenty of boxes.

Temporary shelters after the railingTemporary shelters after the railing

Backpacks, suitcases and boxes piled on the edge of the boatBackpacks, suitcases and boxes piled on the edge of the boat

Even the safety boats were all occupied and apparently looked like some of the comfiest places to be. With little people venturing in such a risky place, the squatters could even have a proper meal, sitting like in a “Warung”.

A safety boats squatted and used as a cabinA safety boats squatted and used as a cabin

Indonesian people are really adaptable to any situation and rarely complain. But we were mostly impressed in several occasions by their ability to sleep in every condition, no matter the amount of noise, light and dirt. So while a youngster strum his guitar, thinking of western idols, a few millimeters away divided just by a thin metal wall, stand many bodies lying down motionless, comfortable in their discomfort.

People intent in various activities during the tripPeople intent in various activities during the trip

Men hanging out on the aisle of the boatMen hanging out on the aisle of the boat

The ferries of Pelni are travelling on long distance routes that takes weeks to complete. They do call at several harbours on the way, so if you won’t get off at the first stop, you’ll be able to see at least one of this intermediary stops. What we experienced at the beginning of our trip in Labuan Bajo, we could see now from another point of view. And so while the ferry approach the pier, you start seeing the same crowd of people below and people getting active.

The Pelni ferry is approaching the harbourThe Pelni ferry is approaching the harbour

There is a mob to get to the small ladder going down, and it’s a mystery how those hundreds of people carrying any kind of good on their heads, could safely flow through that small passage.

Passengers getting off the boat with huge loadsPassengers getting off the boat with huge loads

A sea of people and luggage moving towards their destinationA sea of people and luggage moving towards their destination

When Pelni is calling at each harbour it’s also the occasion for trade, so that temporary markets appears from people’s luggage and a simple cloth can transform the hot cement in an inviting shop window. The boxes that served until five minutes before as containers, were now used as emergency hats to protect the heads of the sellers.

Local woman with a funny hat, selling knivesLocal woman with a funny hat, selling knives

A temporary market below the ferry showing a picturesque societyA temporary market below the ferry showing a picturesque society

In between all of this bustle there was also space for emotions. Two women bursting in tears after meeting each other again, and we making up stories about their lives and relations. Their modest dresses and hijabs were not enough to hide their emotions, exposed to the audience of the ferry loaded with thousands of people looking at the show of Indonesian society unrolling below their eyes.

Portrait of two Indonesian women exposed in a private momentPortrait of two Indonesian women exposed in a private moment

Travelling by ferry in Indonesia is not for the faint hearted, but after all it’s a marvelous occasion to experience local life, and peep through the habits and culture of this mild and friendly people. Watching them interact in the ferry, trade at every stop, and relax in conditions inconceivable for any western human, it’s a show in itself, more entertaining enriching than looking through the window of an airplane. Pelni has revealed to be a safe way to travel in Indonesia, and a great occasion to learn something more and take memorable photos!

Davide VadalàDavide Vadalà
In 2009 I quit my job to chase my dream of exploring our planet in a sustainable way and I haven't stopped yet. I love nature, sustainability, travel photography, handicrafts and hiking, and I never stop dreaming. More about Davide Vadala'.

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 Oti e Davide Long Avatar We travel as cheap as possible, hitchhiking, and hosted by people. Our only expense is food: if you want you can help us with a free donation. Thank you, Davide & Oti  ♥ Contribute 


 Where are we now: Spain, Italy

 Going to:  New Horizons

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Davide and Oti

We are Davide and Otilia, two friends with itchy feet, living a non conventional life traveling around the world and learning everyday something new....
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