The flight between Ambon and Banda is never a certainty. The ‘schedule’ is sporadic. And just because you book, it doesn’t mean that it will go. If it rains, the flight is cancelled. If the pilot sleeps in, the plane leaves late. Maybe. If there aren’t enough passengers, it is cancelled. Not rescheduled – cancelled. In our two weeks in the Banda islands, the success rate of a plane arriving appears to be 50%. We know this because the arrival of the plane (and the Pelni boats) is news on the island.
It was our original intention to take the Pelni passenger ship to the Kei Islands, further south. But after more than two weeks here in the Bandas, it was time to head north.
On 26 August, we asked about flights from Banda back to Ambon from where we’d catch an onward flight. The two flights later in the week were full and they didn’t yet have the schedule for September. Really? September is only 5 days away!
The schedule was released the next day: there are flights on 2, 6 and 16 September. If the flight is cancelled, too bad! You wait for the next flight (which may now be full… or cancelled), catch the next Pelni passenger boat which could be a week or more away, or take a cargo boat. As you can appreciate, getting around to/from Banda is challenging, and not for the impatient. And certainly not for someone on a quick one week holiday with connecting flights!
We walked to the local ‘’Merpati” airline office which is in the living area in the house of the Merpati agent. She keeps a scrappy notebook in her purse as the passenger list, and a little bag for the money. No fancy-pants computerised system required. We bought our ticket for the next available flight on 2 September. This would give us another week toe explore some of the islands surrounding Banda.
Excellent – it’s all sorted. Or so we thought. Here’s how the day went down.
6.00am: Wake up.
6.30am: Eat breakfast.
7.20am: Jump in a car (one of 3 on the island!) and head for the airport. It’s a 2km drive.
7.30am: Check-in for the flight. The flight was to leave at 9.00am. That’s an hour and half check-in for an airport that we understood to have one flight, with a maximum of 16 passengers.
8.00am: the plane arrives. Two people get off and others start to board. We are told that we do not board this plane and must wait. What? It turns out that first the plane will go to Amahai (Seram Island) and then come back to pick us up and take us to Ambon as planned. We calculate this to now be a 4 hour wait before our flight. Sigh… why were we not told this earlier? This is life in the remote islands of Indonesia and where you never really understand what is happening and are never told the whole story unless you ask the correct question. The problem is knowing that there is another question that you need to ask to find out the piece of information that you didn’t know was missing.
8.20am: We watch the plane leave without us. We sit and wait. Fortunately we have company, a Hungarian couple that we’ve spent the last few days with .
8.40am: We go for a walk on the runway to take photos since the runway has now opened up as a road to motorbikes and there is no risk of a plane for another few hours.
Yes, it is a very short runway!
8.48am: We are done taking photos. So we sit. And wait.
9.00am: We have to resort to silly games to to kill the time. Like how many times can Alan tell me that there is a mosquito and I slap my face? This amuses our Hungarian friends at least.
9.30am: There is now quiet resignation amongst the 4 of us that we have a long wait. We play with phones, read books, and just sit and stare at the empty runway.
10.30am: I hear the call of “Miss Lisa” as the Merpati agent comes over to us. It’s not good news. Apparently the plane has developed engine trouble and has gone on to Ambon without us. We will not be flying out of Banda today. This actually doesn’t really surprise any of us – we just accept it, and return to our guesthouse to start thinking about a Plan B.
We believe that the reality was that there were only 6 passengers on this flight: Alan and I, the Hungarian couple and two Indonesians. It’s not economical to fly for only 6 people so they cancelled it. I just wish they would be up front about it if that’s the case.
11am: Back in the comfort of our guesthouse, Alan and I decide that we will catch the Pelni boat due in later this evening to take us to the Kei Islands. Fortunately it is 12 hours late arriving into Banda which means there is time to catch it. It was our original plan anyhow, so it’s not a problem. Our Hungarian friends, Peter and Andrea decide to do the same. We are becoming very good friends by this stage!
11.30am: Our guesthouse owner, Abba, phones the Pelni office to see if there are still first class cabins available. If there are none, we will not leave, and instead probably wait for the next plane, whenever that may be. Sailing economy class on the Pelni ship is not an option: the quantity of cockroaches alone is enough to put me off almost as much as the thought of having to share a handful of toilets with 1000 or so passengers. The alternative is to pee in a bottle and toss it over, or leave it lying around which is what most of the locals do . That’s fine (?) if you’re a bloke.
11.50am: The Pelni guy brings us tickets to the guesthouse. Yay – first class cabins are secured for us, and our Hungarian friends. At least we have our own bathroom in our cabin – and hopefully fewer cockroaches.
12.30pm: Lunchtime. I had a very delicious lunch of Nasi Campur (rice with a chicken leg and side servings of several different vegetable dishes. This will be our last meal until we get off the ship 12 hours after boarding. They do offer meals on board, but I don’t think I’ll indulge. I’d like to keep my record of being free of stomach problems.
The boat is now due to arrive at 6pm tonight. At least it’s a night-time sailing, so we should be able to sleep through most of it. But who knows what time it will actually go – and whether we will sleep?
4.30pm: We are still waiting at the guesthouse. The owners bring us coffee every so often – the service here is commendable! Not long until we board. Maybe.
Fortunately, our sense of humour is still intact and we accept it all without drama. There isn’t anything that we can do to change the situation so you just go with it.
6.15pm: We get word that the ship arrived. We don’t want to go down too soon as we want to wait for the crowds to dissapate a little. But of course, we don’t want to miss the boat.
6.30pm: We leave the guesthouse and walk down to the port with our packs on our back. It’s a 10 minute walk. There are stories of pickpockets at all the ports and a French guy met lost about Rp300,000 from a money belt around his waist. Our pockets are emptied and everything is securely packed away in the packs. The zips are lockd with padlocks and we put the rain cover over the the packs to keep away prying fingers.
6.40pm: The four of us arrive at the port and we try to keep close together, so that we can keep an eye on each other, and the packs. It is impossible. There is a narrow gate opening into the boarding area, and people are squeezing out while new arrivals are pushing to squeeze in. But it’s not only people: porters are pushing wooden carts through the narrow gap. Directly in front of me there is a cart trying to get in while a cart immediately in front of him trying to get out. It’s a stalemate and no one is going anywhere.
A local tells me that there is another gate further down, so we push through the crowds to get to the lower gate. At this point, I have lost the others and just make my way to the boat while I wait for the others.
We re-group, then start the climb up the ramp to the boat. This is incredibly scary and unsafe. I’m not sure to what international standards the ramp is built (none!), and if it collapses under the weight of so many people, we are doomed – most likely squashed between the ship and the side of the wharf. The stairs are curved pieces of metal with no back to the steps – which makes is difficult to get secure footing. If we slip, we are in trouble. The handrail is not connected and swings out a bit which makes it difficult to keep your balance. At least we are wearing good shoes which gives us good grip on the stairs.
As we enter the boat, I am astounded by what I see, even though I already know what to expect. Every spare square inch of floor space is taken up by families who have laid out blankets to claim their area. On the blanket are families and their suitcases, bags and boxes stacked up around them. They are in the foyer area, down the corridors to the cabins, and even on the stairs. These are the economy class passengers who do not have cabins.
We clamber over people to get up the stairs and to the information office to collect our key to the cabin. We clamber over people and their belongings as we walk down the corridor to our cabin – fortunately they have left a walkway about 1/3 the width of the corridor for people to walk along. The walking space is narrow, and because of the bulk of our backpacks, we need to prop ourselves up with our hand on the opposite wall of the corridor to keep from toppling over!
7.00pm: We get to our room to find that it is still being cleaned. So we wait in the corridor – and now we are blocking the path of others trying to get to their room. What a nightmare!
Eventually we are let into the room and dump our bags. On the table. There is no way by pack is going on the floor! We are told that first class cabins have:
- twin beds
- air conditioning
- a TV with one English speaking channel
- a desk and reading lamps
- bathroom with toilet, sink and shower
- coffee making facilities
- a window with a view
What we find is this:
- twin beds with a blanket that is so scummy that I put mine into the cupboard
- an open hole in the ceiling that is blowing something resembling fresh air.
- a broken TV (I didn’t want to watch it anyway)
- desk lamps without bulbs
- a toilet with a missing toilet seat. (Hey, but at least we didn’t have to share it with a boatload of people!)
- a thermos of water and two cups. (These went straight into the cupboard with the blanket)
- a window with a view that was completely blocked by stacked bags of nutmeg or rice. (That’s OK, our Hungarian friends had windows, but also had passengers camped outside staring in at them – so they had to close the curtains)
- 3 cockroaches. (This was better than I expected but was we were armed with a can of bug spray just in case.)
We have heard some funny cockroach stories from other travellers and fortunately don’t really have any of our own to share. One guy who rode in economy (which is where everyone camps out on the lower decks in big open areas) told us that the ceilings down there were literally covered in cockroaches. He likened it to a “Where’s Wally?” picture. He watched as one couple who were so disgusted that sprayed the ceiling. Next thing – their sleeping area is littered in dead and dying roaches as they rained down on them, all the while raising the ire of their fellow Indonesian passengers.
Another girl we spoke to travelled on a cargo boat. The boat crew sometimes hire out their sleeping quarters and she hired a bed for the night. She sprayed around the edge of the bed in the hopes to keep out the roaches – only to lift the mattress and discover that the roaches were hiding under it. And by spraying around the bed, they were now all trapped inside the ring of spray with her!
7.30pm: The boat appears to be leaving. We can’t see through the window to confirm this but can tell from the movement of the boat. So now only 12 hour or so to go.
9.00pm: There is no incentive to leave the cabin: clambering over so many people in the corridors is difficult and we are openly stared at the entire time as though we have 3 heads. Besides, where would we go? There is nothing to do but hunker down for the night – reading for a bit, then sleeping. We leave the lights on in the hopes that this will deter an invasion of cockroaches and wear eye masks to block the light.
7.00am: The boat arrives in Tual, on Pulau Kei Kecil (Kei Island). I actually managed to get a good sleep, in spite of the frequent announcements over the speaker system throughout the night, and the 4,30am onboard Muslim mosque call to prayer. We are kicked out of our room before we dock by the cleaners, so must stand in the now crowded landing area with our packs for 10-15 minutes while the cleaners do their thing. There are only two small exits for the boat and everyone is pushing to be first in the queue to get off. We have to walk around people who are staying on the boat for the next destination and step over their boxes and bags that are blocking the path to the exit.
I am close enough to the exit and tall enough to see what is going on. The doors open but people aren’t leaving. Instead, there are new people boarding the ship! Some are porters but some also appear to be passengers. So as we are pushing and shoving to get off the boat, there are new ones pushing and shoving to get on. All on one narrow, wobbly stairway ramp and through one narrow door. It’s insane.
7.30am: I am first off the boat and wait for Alan, Andrea and Peter. Soon we are all accounted for and make our way through the crowds to find a taxi.
We have survived first Pelni passenger ship experience! We didn’t end up where we wanted to go, but that’s how thing roll in Indonesia. Tidak apa-apa. (Never mind.)