Day 651: Lion City

13.10.10:

Singapore! World’s End!  You can get here all the way across the mega-continent of Eurasia from John O’Groats to Raffles via the Channel Tunnel, the Urals and the causeway without ever stepping foot on a plane or a boat.  But this is the end of the line I’m afraid.  From now on it’s going to be ship-this ship-that and ship’s-your-uncle.  Ticking a magnificent 179 countries off my list: a daunting and unsettling task lay ahead: the final 21 countries are all islands, parts of islands or full-on archipelagos and (as if I haven’t been at pains to point this out already) I’M NOT ALLOWED TO FLY.

Nature’s borders prove much more troublesome to me than man’s invisible lines.

I am more than happy to pay lip-service to Singapore, with it’s miles and miles of docks and smug (and lucrative) placement right in the middle of things: you know, where Liverpool was 100 years ago.  I’ve always found it a bit too clean, a bit too sterile, a bit too Demolition Man (an under-rated film if ever there was one).  Considering it’s the death penalty for drug smuggling and Blueberry Hubba Bubba Bubblegum is against the law, it’s the kind of place Britain could be if everyone who writes into the letters page of the Daily Mail were in charge.

And wouldn’t THAT be fun!

Although, I must point out that there is a lovely underground (possibly run by a Chinese Dennis Leary) vibe going on in Singapore, IF you know where to look, but unfortunately I don’t.   Bah!

But Singapore’s purpose (not porpoise) today is to serve as LAUNCHPAD OCEANIA: and I’m including all of the final 21 nations in that ‘Oceania’ tag (even though some are in the Indian Ocean) cos I have to take a boat to get there.  The first boat of the day leaves for the island of Pulau Batam at 7.50am.  Pulau Batam is just a few miles off the coast of Singapore, but it’s one of the forty THOUSAND (count ’em!) islands that make up Nation 180, INDONESIA.

I got to the Harbour Front straight off the bus, at around 5am.  It was still dark, but the shopping complex (that including the ferry terminal) was open – well, bits of it were – the ferry terminal didn’t open till seven.  According to the Yellow Bible, the first ferry to Pulau Batam leaves Singapore at 6am, but as you will find if you ever come to South East Asia, the Yellow Bible (like the real Bible) is paved with good intentions but there are many glaring inaccuracies, omissions, half-truths and downright lies told; and the older the copy the more inaccurate things become.  Mine was from 2008 so it was filled with more bloopers than an Ed Wood movie.  Then again, look at the real Bible – it’s from, what, the bronze age?  Good luck with that!

The first boat left at 7.50am.  This more than scuppered my plans for the day, it kinda torpedoed them.  It meant that the ferry got in at 7.40am Indonesian Time (I’m nothing if not a Timelord) and – get this – the THREE FERRIES to the big Indonesian island of Sumatra ALL LEAVE at 7.30am Indonesian Time.  Yes, it would take a lobotomised aphid with learning difficulties to come up with a more IDIOTIC system, but there you go, it looked a lot like I’d be spending the night in this, lets be fair, shithole called Pulau Batam.

But IN YOUR FACE KENOBI, in my experience there IS such thing as luck: the daddy ship direct to Jakarta that leaves once a week was leaving today(!) at 3pm.  No poncing about fighting the Sumatran road system down to the island of Java: I was going straight to the Big Smoke.

Oh… something I should point out at this point while you’re flapping your map of the world about and screaming that Jakarta is 100% in the wrong direction if I want to head to Brunei and The Philippines next, I KNOW.  But for some unfathomable reason there is no domestic ferry link between Peninsular Malaysia (that bit what attaches to Thailand and Singapore) and Malaysian Borneo (that bit what attaches to Indonesian Borneo and, more importantly, has Brunei sitting in the middle of it).  So my only option is to take a ship to Jakarta, then another to Pontianak in Indonesian Borneo and then fight my way overland from there.

Which is what I plan to do.

So, completely fortuitously, by 2.45pm I was in a taxi heading for the domestic ferry port – oh yeah, when they said the ship was leaving at 3pm, they MEANT IT.  Crikey – I raced through an empty terminal, threw my bags through the X-ray scanner, headed out onto the quayside and hurled myself up the gangplank (as it was rising).  Sweating and out of breath, I was welcomed on board by a young Indonesian guy called Rangga.

“You’re that guy off National Geographic aren’t you? Are you STILL going?!”

Sweating and panting like Michael Moore running the London Marathon, I dropped my bags on the deck, nod and shook the guy’s hand.  By 3.09pm we were under sail.  Result!

On board the ship I met up with Chiefy – a top Aussie guy who I had met earlier that day on Pulau Batam who was trying to travel the world without flying, but not for any kind of time record – he was happy to spend the next ten years doing it.  In a wonderful bit of synergy I also met a bunch of Brits who were making their way down to Australia on a kinda-Oz bus affair and so we got to share our overland adventure stories.  Most – like John and Matt – were a little older than me, but some, including a scouser from Aigburth called Claire, were around the same age (we scousers either have scouse-dar or we’re just the friendliest people in the whole of the UK… I have a suspicion it’s the latter, AND BILL BRYSON AGREES WITH ME).

It would appear that I’m not the only one who regards flying as cheating.  The weird thing was that while we were enjoying the fresh air and camaraderie out on deck, their comrades on this monumental trek across Eurasia hid in the bowels of the ship, content to miss the cracking sunset and the late night Karaoke (and secret whisky stash on an otherwise dry voyage – thanks Rangga!) which – of course – us scousers found and took advantage of.  Anti-social buggers.  But then, after hearing some of the stuff that had been going on since they started their adventures five months ago, I was glad to be travelling alone: would YOU want to be travelling with your ex-girlfriend who had now got with somebody else from the same expedition?  Thought not…!

It was a BIG ship – over 1000 passengers.  But by midnight Claire and I had the run of the place, everyone else being a bunch of sissies going to bed early.  I was looking out for the Southern Cross – I haven’t seen it since Rwanda last December, but cloud cover dashed that hope.  The sleeping situation was a set of large cabins, each containing over 100 beds in rows separated by wooden dividers.  I slept between a nursing mother and a girl in her early twenties.

Indonesia: Muslim it may be, Saudi Arabia it is not.

Day 652: You Don’t Know Jakarta

14.10.10:

Thursday took a while to get going.  While my fellow travellers (in another cabin and arguably less full of Johnnie Walker) were rudely awoken at the crack of dawn by the call to prayer (which – don’t tell Osama – the vast majority ignored) I happily slept right through it – I also slept through the screaming babies, the over-amped cellphone jingles and the locals chatting at a volume that can only be described as ‘11’.

Hooray for whisky.

Incidentally, if I made an independently intelligent robot butler out of paperclips and Bovril I would not require him to worship me at 4am for two reasons.  One is that it would wake me up.  The other is that I’M NOT A TOTAL WEIRDO.

Just saying…

Anyway, a day mostly spent at sea.  There were some games of le tete merde and maybe I did some card tricks (but alas, no beer was available to win) and some good old fashioned banter and self-righteous putting the world to rights.  It was a bit of a surprise that given our very timely departure that by late afternoon we still weren’t in port in Jakarta.  It came as more of a surprise at 8pm when Rangga texted me from his vantage point somewhere on board and told me that the port was full(!) and the anchor had gone down.

Luckily, we didn’t have to stay a second night on the ferry and before too long Chiefy and I were heading through Jakarta in a taxi on our way to Jaksa Road – the backpacker hub.  Chiefy was happy to stay in the usual cheapo hostel, and usually I would have been too, but I decided after this delightfully successful week of Odysseying I deserved a hot shower and a colour TV, so I checked into the more expensive place next door.  I think it cost about a tenner – really pushing the boat out, eh?

I did find out some exciting news, though: in the Lonely Planet it tells of a Pelni ship heading over to Borneo one a week (or even a fortnight).  Bad timing could have me stuck in Jakarta until the end of the month.  But wonderfully enough there was now a ferry run by another company that went to Pontianak in Borneo FIVE TIMES a week, and the odds were good that there would be one leaving tomorrow.

Smoke me a kipper, I’ll be back for breakfast…

Day 653: As The Miller Told His Tale

15.10.10:

First things first, I called the ferry company and found out when the next ship to Borneo was departing – not today but tomorrow, but that’s better than a slap in the face with a wet kipper.

After ‘moving out’ of my hotel to the fleapit next door (come on – it had an en suite shower – it was totally out of my league!) I set out with John from the UK-Oz overland expedition to do two things: 1. buy a ferry ticket to Pontianak – which would get me to the island of Borneo and 2. find out what date the next Pelni ship left Bali for West Timor (East Timor will be country number 183).

After we walked for a good half an hour we eventually found where the office for the ferry company used to be, back in 2008 when my Lonely Planet was written.

Jakarta is a truly unfortunate city: dirty, grimy, polluted, dull, filled with monumentally ugly buildings, gridlocked, over-populated – it’s a very difficult place to love.  It took John and I a good hour just to get to the new ferry ticket office near the port.  I got my ticket for tomorrow’s ferry then we headed over to the port proper to find out about the ship from Bali to Timor (same horse, different jockey), but to our despair the port seemed to be closed.  Grumbling, we took a taxi to the other side of the city (a good hour and a half) to the main Pelni offices.  Which had closed at 3pm.  By now it was 4pm.  All we wanted were the damn sailing dates.

We had tried to get them from the numerous Pelni agents scattered around the city, but they would only tell us the date of the next ship from Jakarta to Timor.  It was a bit like going into a travel agent in London and trying to book a flight out of Manchester and have them say ‘sorry, we can only book flights that depart from London’.  And the Pelni website?  Not updated since 2006.  Gr-r-r-r-reat!

(I’ve since found the ‘real’ Pelni website – the next ship leaves Bali on November 5th – thanks Alex Z.)

So after that hot, sweaty, dispiriting trek around glumtown we were none the wiser and I was ready to kill, kill and kill again.  Luckily for the surrounding population and innocent bystanders, I tempered my murderous desire with mankind’s second greatest invention, beer.

Chiefy was out on the razz and in high spirits and before long I fell into conversation with a wonderfully mad girl from Sweden called Lisa and a top British bloke from Leicester called Shane.  As closing time wheeled around (as it invariably does), Lisa, Shane and I decided to break onto the roof of a nearby hotel to use the swimming pool, which (sadly) didn’t exist.  Then it all becomes a bit of a blur.  You know I mentioned the other day that if I’m going to be recognised by my backpacking peers I should possibly not drink so much?  Well yeah, what can I say?

Recognised.

Intoxicated.

Karaoke.

Whiter Shade of Pale.

Bad David Bowie impression.

Oh. Dear.

As the day broke, Lisa and I (we had mislaid Shane somewhere) were still drinking, talking nonsense with a big scary guy from Cameroon, a crazy woman from Malaysia and making fun of the local guy fast asleep on the chair next to us.

Day 654: Time and Tide

16.10.10:

The most irritating thing in the world – aside from Russell Brand – is when your infernal debit card gets declined at a foreign ATM because the bank assumes it’s been stolen.  Still waiting for my HSBC card to arrive c/o the delectable Anna (whom we shall be meeting in Bali), I had no choice but to call Barclays and ask them why the hell do they pull this kind of nonsense when a simple phone call to my dad (the joint account holder) could have informed them that yes I was on holiday in Jakarta and yes money would be nice THANK YOU VERY MUCH.

After leaving me on hold for TEN MINUTES (yeah, calling from abroad is yer?  Well, just hang on at one pound a minute) it took a further twenty to jump through all the mental hooperage designed to weed out the fraudsters intent on stealing my wonga.  Anything else I can help you with sir? Yes – DON’T DO IT AGAIN.  And I hang up.

Surveying the current situation, things did not look good.  For some unfathomable reason I hadn’t crawled out of bed until well after 1pm and after walking for OVER AN HOUR to find a goddamn money changer to convert my emergency US dollarage into Indonesian Rupiah, and after wasting half an hour Skyping the sausage knotters at Barclays Fraud Department, it was now 3.30pm.

The ship was due to sail at 5pm.  It didn’t give me a lot of time, but it gave me enough.  I clambered into a taxi and barked instructions for the driver to take me port-wards.  Then I took out my ticket and double checked the time.

And the ship was due to leave at 4pm.  I looked at my watch.  3.35pm.

Bug.

Ger.

Usually, this would not be a bother, ships rarely (if ever) run to schedule, but after the boat from Pulau Batam left just a few minutes after it was meant to, I was beginning to worry.  With no air-con in the cab and sweat literally dripping from under my hat, my driver plodded along like it was a Sunday promenade in the park.

Why is it that when I’m in a hurry I get some idiotic slowpoke driving me and when I’m not in any particular rush I get Ayrton Senna?

Anyway, this guy seemed to take some kind of sick delight in watching me squirm.  It was bad enough that he joined the longest queue whenever there was a choice, it was bad enough that he kept stopping on yellow lights, but when he drove IN A CIRCLE FOR TWENTY MINUTES I completely lost my rag, which, as anybody who has been to South-East Asia will tell you, is 100% counter-productive.

We reached the port at 4.55pm.  It would have been quicker to walk.

Then he couldn’t even find the goddamn terminal building.  He – I swear I’m not making this up – asked FOUR DIFFERENT PORT WORKERS where to go and STILL couldn’t find it.  In the end I demanded he stop the car, flung the fare in his general direction and stormed out of the cab so highly agitated I felt an overwhelming urge to throw my hat on the floor and jump up and down on it a la Yosemite Sam.

I quickly located the terminal building (by asking someone) and ran as fast as I could in the sweltering heat with a backpack and a couple of bags dangling from my shoulders on a 500m dash from hell.  Maybe the boarding was delayed, maybe…  By now the sweat streaming from my forehead was stinging my eyes and making it hard to see.  Flustered, out of breath and cursing the world, I waved my ticket at the first uniformed person I saw.

Pontianak!

Pontianak?

PONTIANAK!

In the end, the damn thing didn’t leave until 9pm.

Day 667: Captain Bob

29.10.10:

So last night I arrived onboard the ferry from Pontianak on Borneo to Jakarta on Java.  As I entered the passenger area, what could adequately be described as a floating refugee camp, I started to worry – I really didn’t want to sleep on the dirty metal floor – I mean, I didn’t even have a flattened cardboard box to lie on.

Er… can I get out of here?

I was kindly shepherded into the crew’s quarters by one of the guys and offered a bunk in a grotty (but eminently serviceable) cabin for about $25. All or nothin’, I haggled it down to $12 and we shook on it.  But when push came to shove, I ended up spending the first night not in that bunk but in the crew’s recreation room sleeping on the incredibly uncomfortable couch.  This morning I was asked if I wanted to move into a cabin of my own, since the crew didn’t want to use the room with a whopping great ranga sprawled out all over the couch.  Hell yeah!

I dumped my things in ‘my’ room and crossed over the corridor onto the bridge.

Mind if I have a look around?

No probs, welcome onboard said the captain.  Captain Natalie.  Yup, for the first time in 22 months and over ninety boat trips*, the captain was a chick; and so was her first officer, Christina.  You know, we think we’re so lightyears ahead when it comes to sexual equality of opportunity in Europe, male-dominated professions like commercial sailing (and taxi driving for that matter) remind me just how far we still have to go.

Sadly, Natalie wasn’t up for doing a filmed interview, but I did get to chat with her about her life on the ocean wave – she was never in the navy and didn’t even come from a sea-faring background – it was just something she wanted to do.  Before taking this job on the ferry from Borneo to Java, she was working on a survey ship for many years up in the waters around Taiwan and Japan.

I spent the day pottering about on and off the bridge, we wouldn’t be arriving in Jakarta until tomorrow.  Really nothing out of the ordinary to report, other than I had a nosebleed.  Mandy’s going to be shocked at that one – in the whole eight years we’ve been together, I’ve never once had a nosebleed.  In fact, I can’t remember when I last had one, but it can’t have been in the last twenty years.

When I mentioned yesterday that most unpleasant journeys end when I get off the bus, I was eluding to the fact the fridge freezer adventure from Brunei to Pontianak may be over, but its effects were most certainly not.  My throat is still killing me (feels like somebody went at it with a cheese grater), my nose is running like a dripping tap – and now to top it all I had a nosebleed, all from that bloody aircon being set to zero degrees Kelvin.  Urgh – hopefully I’ll feel better tomorrow.

*my 93rd (if you’re keeping count!)

Day 668: Back in Jak Jak

30.10.10:

So I was expecting the ferry to arrive in Jakarta this morning.

HA!

Considering the boat was eight hours late getting out of port, I adjusted my expectations accordingly.  But no, we wouldn’t be disembarking til way after 10pm.

Day 669: One Hell of a Halloween

31.10.10:

I left the Mariott with a spring in my step.  I had my book back and I had plenty of time to get to the train station, even considering the gridlock nightmare that is driving in Jakarta.  But there was a problem.  Two weeks ago when I was last here in Jakarta, Barclay’s bank, in their infinite wisdom cancelled my debit card (it would seem I’ve been abroad too long).  After much kerfuffle, I managed to get it unblocked and told them in my best Monty Python voice to never do it again.

So I need to take out money for the train fare this morning, and what happens?  Seven different ATM machines turn me down.  Oh you’ve GOT to be kidding me.  I get to the station and try to pay on Visa, but (of course) they don’t take Visa because THE ONLY PLACES THAT TAKE VISA OUTSIDE THE WEST ARE GOLF COURSES.

So I want to get on wi-fi to call Barclay’s via Skype, but the owners of the station café make me buy a can of Coke before they let me have the password.  They look bemused when I leave the can on the counter as I frantically call up telephone banking.

Here’s the conversation:

Just a couple of security questions, sir… what’s your date of birth?

I gave it.

And what’s your mother’s maiden name?

I gave that too.

I’m sorry, sir, but that information is incorrect.

I roll my eyes – here we go.

No it’s not.  I share the account with my dad – you must be looking at his details.  Seriously – do I sound seventy years old??

I’m sorry sir, but you did not answer the questions correctly.

Yes I did.  You asked for MY date of birth and MY mother’s maiden name.

I then gave them my dad’s DOB and my grandmother’s maiden name for good measure.

I’m sorry sir I can’t help you.

I’m just about to have a nervous breakdown… the train leaves in less than five minutes and this bitch is seriously wrecking my Sunday morning head.  I grow angry and tell her, in no uncertain terms, that it is a joint account and I have every right to conduct telephone banking especially when I’m on the other side of the bleedin’ planet and I need the frickin’ ATM to frickin’ well work.  It’s not my fault if she’s looking at the wrong information screen.

What’s your card number again?

I give it. Again.

Oh.  Sorry, yeah, you’re right.

I hold my tongue, fighting an overwhelming desire to make a childish noise in the manner of the professors from History Today.

What seems to be the problem?

The ATMs here in Jakarta won’t give me any money.

Oh, that’s because all international ATMs are down for servicing. They’ll be back up in an hour.

The train leaves in three minutes.

FOR. F**KS. SAKE.

I run about the station asking if anyone will change my emergency dollars.  A guy in a little phone shop agrees and gives me a lousy rate, but sod it, the seconds are ticking down, I’ve got a date in Bali and I don’t want to keep her waiting another day.  I thrust my newly-acquired Rupiahs at the counter lady and I jump on the train as it is moving out of the station.

Phew!

Big shake on the box-car moving…

The wonderful train journey across the northern coast of Java took me from Jakarta to the eastern port town of Surabaya, but it simply wasn’t eastern enough for my liking – I needed to get to the wonderfully named port town of Banyuwangi for the ferry to Bali.  But by the time I reached Surabaya it was already getting dark.  I clambered aboard a clapped-out old coach and paid my dues: could I get there today?  No chance… how does 4am suit you?  Ah, sod it, I knew the ferries ran all night, so I was happy to give it a red hot go.  It would have been a slightly more pleasant trip if I didn’t have to change coaches in some random down in the middle of the night (I was half asleep).  At 5pm the bus, an hour late, pulled into the Banyuwangi ferry terminal.

Hee hee.

Banyuwangi.

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