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As the perilously overcrowded Bukit Siguntang ferry docks at the port of Maumere on the Indonesian island of Flores, all hell breaks loose. The 147- metre-long ship dwarves the 60-metre-long quay, which is abuzz with excitement. Shoeless children clamber up the steep mooring ropes and sharp-elbowed porters climb over each other as they race to clamber on board the nine-storey ship. Hundreds of soon-to-depart economy-class travellers get ready to do battle for the least uncomfortable perches on the boat.

Meanwhile, inside the ferry, 2,000 weary passengers jostle for position as they wait to disembark. Most carry implausibly large cargoes, their necks bent to one side as a shoulder bears the weight of a large flat-screen TV here, a double-bed mattress there, huge sacks of rice and fertiliser, boxes of oranges and onions. As the ship’s crane starts to tip cargo unceremoniously onto the dock from a large net, illegal hawkers restock bottles of water and snacks by lifting them from the shore by rope and hook. On the immaculately clean bridge, captain Adi Wibawa and his officers look on, unconcerned. It is chaos but of the organised variety.

This is just another day at sea for the Bukit Siguntang, one of 23 passenger ferries operated by Pelni, Indonesia’s state-owned shipping company. It is a lifeline for millions of Indonesians, connecting more than 90 ports across the world’s biggest archipelago nation with regular services.

“When we arrive in each port it’s hard to keep order,” says 52-year-old Wibawa, a towering, moustached island of calm amid the turmoil. “For the local people, the arrival of a Pelni ship is like a festival. That is because we play an important role in stimulating business, allowing people to visit their family and migrate to find work.”

In an era of cheap air travel Pelni is a relic of a bygone era. Its ships connect all of Indonesia’s main islands and many smaller isles with bi-weekly or monthly services. The longest route stretches 8,700km from Indonesia’s second biggest city of Surabaya on the main island of Java to Merauke in Papua, the nation’s easternmost point, and back again. Stopping at 12 ports on the way, it takes one month to make the round trip.

Cheap airlines such as Indonesia’s Lion Air and Malaysia’s AirAsia have hit Pelni’s passenger numbers hard. From a peak of around eight million a year before budget airlines took off in Asia in the early 2000s, Pelni only carried 4.5 million passengers in 2013. Bad management, slack discipline and poor maintenance of the ships have damaged profits further and Pelni could not survive without its government subsidy, which was around idr872bn (€70m) in 2014.

But new president Joko Widodo, who took office in October, has vowed to rejuvenate Indonesia’s ailing maritime economy as part of a broader pledge to cut high rates of poverty, particularly in the remote islands of east Indonesia such as Flores. One of the people tasked with bringing his vision to life is Pelni’s chief executive Sulistyo Wimbo Hardjito, who was appointed in May after helping turn around Indonesia’s troubled national rail company as commercial director.

“The ship is listing and I have to right it first before we can move ahead,” he says at the company’s decrepit headquarters, only 100 metres up the road from the office of nemesis Lion Air, Indonesia’s leading low-cost airline. “My first job is to reduce the losses and my second target is to improve the service.”

Wimbo, as he is universally known, is trying to increase ticket prices and discipline. “In the past, anyone could climb on board without a ticket but now we are doing regular checks,” says the effervescent 58-year-old. Much to the chagrin of the underpaid and overworked crew, he has banned them from renting out their rooms to passengers and taking kickbacks to guarantee the best spots on board and additional cargo allowances.

Pelni’s problems echo those of the nation. The world’s tenth biggest economy in terms of purchasing power, Indonesia is one of Asia’s most exciting emerging markets. But corruption, a lackadaisical civil service and woeful infrastructure have crimped the growth prospects of the world’s largest Muslim majority country. Over the past 20 years, the number of billionaires in the capital Jakarta has risen as rapidly as their vainglorious skyscrapers and mansions. At the same time, the gap between rich and poor has grown faster than any country in Asia outside of China. In a country of 250 million, around 100 million live on less than the equivalent of €1.60 a day according to the World Bank, with many on the remote islands of east Indonesia.

To understand the scale of the task Wimbo faces – and the crucial role that Pelni still plays – monocle boards the Bukit Siguntang in Makassar, a booming city of seafarers and traders on the four-pronged island of Sulawesi. From Makassar, we sail 1,000km to Kupang on the Indonesian half of the island of Timor. (The tiny independent nation of Timor-Leste, a former Portuguese colony that broke away from Indonesia in 1999, sits on the other half.)

On the way the ship stops at Maumere on Flores – a hot, dry island that is hard to farm but provides fertile ground for emigration – and Lembata, a tiny volcanic island best known for its traditional whale hunts by fishermen armed with hand-slung harpoons. Spending 35 hours aboard the Bukit Siguntang gives a unique window into the hopes, fears, endeavours and desperations of millions of Indonesians who are striving to survive and thrive against the odds.

Take Mulyati Henok, a cheery 42-year-old housewife from Kupang, who is undergoing a 70-hour round trip to Makassar on her own to buy a generator and water jet so she can set up a motorcycle washing business. “This equipment costs half the price in Makassar and there’s no way I could carry this much cargo on a plane, even if I could afford the ticket,” she says, sitting on one of the thin black mattresses that are the privilege of third-class passengers. “The facilities on board are the bare minimum, the toilets are horrible and so is the food. But I get to meet people from all over Indonesia and it’s fun to share this journey together.”

It was not always thus. In 1999, violent Christian-Muslim conflicts erupted in Ambon and other parts of Indonesia after the fall of long-ruling dictator Suharto. The ship was made Muslim-only after several Christian passengers were stabbed to death by Muslims and thrown overboard. Now intercommunal relations on the Bukit Siguntang are cordial, mirroring the tolerance that is the norm today in a country where 90 per cent are Muslims but many come from minority religions and ethnic groups.

Although many of the passengers on the Makassar-Maumere route are Christians, the Islamic call to prayer still blares out over the ship’s emergency-address system before dawn each day and no one seems to mind. Whether they share religion or not, many of the passengers are sun-darkened migrant workers returning from palm-oil plantations and factories on the island of Borneo, where the ferry has been before it reaches Sulawesi.

Not all who are forced to leave their homes in search of work find what they are looking for. The Bukit Siguntang is two hours late into Makassar because a despairing passenger has jumped overboard and taken their own life. Wibawa says it is the fifth such case in five months and he has only managed to rescue two of the jumpers. “Many of our passengers are very poor and if their plans to find work fail, some throw themselves into the sea when they are returning because they don’t want to face their family,” he says.

Like all of Pelni’s German-built ferries, which were constructed at the famous Meyer Werft shipyard in Papenburg from the 1980s to the 2000s, the Bukit Siguntang is named after a hill, mountain or volcano. “We don’t have princesses in this republic after which to name our ships,” says Wibawa with a laugh. Unlike royals, volcanoes are not in short supply in the world’s most seismically active nation.

The naming convention seems apt given the seething mass of humanity that erupts and flows in different directions whenever Pelni ferries dock, unmistakable in their two-tone yellow-and-white paint job. Officially, the capacity of the Bukit Siguntang is 2,003 passengers plus a crew of around 140. For the journey to Maumere, there are at least 3,500 on board. Every nook and cranny is full of people and their possessions.

Some are huddled together sleeping, others are watching videos on their phones. Children run around until they tire while their more diligent peers do their homework. Young men seek sanctuary in the computer-games room, the mosque or the cinema deep in the bowels of the ship. Stairs, corridors, the exposed deck and areas outside the ship’s safety railings are all occupied by people. It looks precarious, especially in the event of an accident. Captain Wibawa says the ferry can “safely” take 5,000 people. His crew say that at the peak times of Christmas and Lebaran, the holiday at the end of Ramadan, there can be 10,000 on board.

In many developed countries, the crew would refuse to sail in these conditions or management would never let it happen. In Indonesia, where a popular saying has it that “everything can be arranged”, the overstretched crew do their best (working three months on, one month off, deck hands only earn around idr2.7m [€180] per month and the top officers around idr15m [€970]). Pelni, they point out, has not had a major accident since 1981, while Indonesia’s unscrupulous private ferry operators suffer fatal calamities every few months.

Purser Iwan Hadi Sumaso says it is hard to keep the ship clean and the passengers satisfied. “We get many complaints about how dirty the ship is but so many people throw their rubbish on the floor that it is hard for us,” says the 24-year-old Pelni veteran of a task that is the maritime equivalent of the folkloric painting of the Forth Bridge: no sooner have they finished sweeping up then they have to start again.

Among the unhappy customers is first-class passenger Mathelda Liyanti. This 32-year-old mother of two is returning from celebrating her mother’s 70th birthday in Tana Toraja, an isolated community 10 hours’ drive from Makassar. With no direct flight from Makassar to central Flores, where her husband works as a loan officer for a motorbike finance company, she has to take the Pelni with her young son Vasco, named after the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, and daughter Caesaria, named after the manner in which she was delivered.

“The boarding process is crazy and extremely unsafe with so many people pushing and shoving to get a good spot on board,” she says. “Why are we paying for first class if we have to get on through the same entrance as everyone else?”

First class is a relative haven. The mostly clean cabins have two beds, an en-suite bathroom, a flatscreen TV and far fewer cockroaches than elsewhere on board. Unfortunately, the toilets do not flush and the hot-water shower can be scalding or icy. The plumbing, like the air-conditioning system, has given up the fight after years of poor maintenance and scrimping on imported spare parts.

Even the recently installed mobile telephone service, which was meant to make the Bukit Siguntang internet-ready, has been out of action for months. Captain Wibawa has no idea when it will be fixed. The lack of mobile connectivity out at sea forces people to do something they have forgotten how to do in a nation where there are more mobile-phone connections than people: talk to each other.

Migrant workers exchange tales of bosses good, bad and worse. Young couples hook up for the first time. Old timers exchange stories or sing karaoke in the popular café at the back of the top deck. Each time the Bukit Sigungtang approaches land, the hubbub suddenly dies down as people’s phones connect to the network, replaced by the bling-bling of text-message notifications.

Wimbo, who brought in online ticketing at the national rail company, hopes to tap into this tech revolution soon but first he has to build a proper server and find a way to connect the ships to headquarters. Once the captain has lost shore-side mobile-phone reception, he has no way to contact head office or vice versa except in an emergency. Wimbo wants to be able to make a morale-boosting address to his crews every day, like a naval captain steeling them for battle.

Wimbo knows that there is much to do and little time, with the tide of history going against his firm. “Eventually air travel will take over completely,” he says. “But it’s important that the government continues to support us as millions of Indonesians could not trade, travel or work without Pelni.”

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