The bus trip from Moni to Maumere in eastern Flores went according to plan, and Rainer and I alighted that evening, along with another friendly German called Peter whom we met en route. We booked into a hotel and hit the local restaurant, where we bumped into Idit (whom I'd met in Bajawa) and a very pleasant Dutch couple who had just landed in Flores. That night managed to banish any pretensions of loneliness I was having, as we talked the night away over copious teas and banana ice drinks. The conversation concerned travel in general and India in particular; the more I hear about India, the more intriguing it sounds.
The reason for the rush to Maumere was to catch a Pelni to Sulawesi; Pelni is Indonesia's domestic passenger ship service, connecting all the islands for fares can't be sniffed at. The 22-hour trip from Maumere to Ujung Pandang cost me 44,000rp (just under £10), but the drawback was that the boat only goes every two weeks, so if I'd missed it, with my 60-day visa, it would have really scuppered my plans... hence the rush to get tickets and to ensure a place.
Our motley crew of three other westerners and I set out from Maumere at 4.45am to catch the Sulawesi-bound KM Awu. The number of locals hanging round the harbour was astounding; more people were there to welcome people travelling from Dili in Timor than were joining the boat, but it was still an elbows-in-and-scrum-down event as we crushed our way down to the economy class deck, right in the bowels of the ship.
Economy is the word: the beds were simply flat wooden strips, onto which millions of locals crushed themselves in a territorial thrust that even their Timor-invading government would have been proud of. For 1500rp you can rent a mattress for the voyage, so Peter and I grabbed two empty berths – despite the protestations of a nearby Indonesian who seemed to be saving every space available for his friends who had yet to arrive – and he managed to track down two mattresses, converting our sweaty corner of the crushed deck into a semblance of comfort, despite the lack of free-flowing air and the stifling heat and noise.
The Pelni experience is cheap and it shows. There's no real way to complain when the trip costs so little (to western pockets, anyway), but some things are pretty disgusting, whatever the price. For example, the meals on board, which come included in the price, are abysmal, and after one I fully understood why foreigners who travel Pelni either go first class, or bring their own food. A tiny pile of tepid rice, an inch-square slop of, er, red stuff, and a fish head... that was supper. Luckily there was a cafeteria where we could buy suitably expensive Coke and coffee, and the biscuits we'd bought as a last-minute gesture filled the gaps. Not surprisingly we ignored breakfast the next morning.
And as for the toilets... overflowing is one description, swamped is another, and blocked hardly starts to bring home the squalor of the Pelni ablutions. And nobody seems to mind, despite the fact that in a 22-hour boat trip, people need to go to the toilet. I daren't think where the more enterprising passengers ended up leaving their deposits.
And don't forget the crowds of devout Muslims who have to pray their allotted five times a day, including the 4am slot, when the whole boat gets woken up by loudspeaker to enjoy the wisdom of Allah, whether they care or not. They very effectively clogged up the aisles at prayer time, as anyone who walks through a Muslim prayer meeting is obviously in danger of causing considerable offence, even if the meeting is blocking the main thoroughfare.
In all, the Pelni experience is hard to beat, though perhaps not in the way you'd expect. Not that I'm complaining; it was fascinating, no doubt about it.