A ship in the making

Boatbuilding in Bira, Sulawesi

4 June 2014

We arrive in Makassar punctually on 4 June, after sailing from Tarasu via Bira and Tanaberu. Pinisis are being built at both those places. They’re such imposing structures, I feel as though I were standing in front of several Noah’s Arks! In Bira they’re building five giant 60m pinisis ordered by a Malaysian Chinese entrepreneur. Not all the other boatbuilders in Bira and Tanaberu are thrilled about this. All the wood is being used to build these five and another four planned ships, the Chinaman is monopolizing everything, paying exorbitant prices for the wood, leaving nothing for the other boatbuilders to use for months. Spiteful tongues amongst them even hope a pinisi or two might get out of hand on its maiden voyage and end up like the Titanic.

I can’t judge the situation, but I am amazed at the sheer dimensions of these five vessels. I descend into the bowels of one, which is an undertaking not wholly devoid of danger: down inside the ship the men are sawing and hammering away, drilling and fitting, as well as brewing coffee and smoking kretek cigarettes. The whole scene strikes me as a self-enclosed little world unto itself.

Spirits are low in Tanaberu, too. At present, unlike my first visit, only a few ships are now under construction. There just isn’t much to do around here anymore. We blame it on what’s going on in Bira, take our seats on the bus and ride to Makassar – just in time for the Makassar International Writers Festival. Four hours after pulling into town, I’m standing on stage there presenting our Surabaya Johnny book project. It all came about straight out of the blue! Just a few hours before, I’d met with Lily Yulianti Farid, the director of the festival, briefly explained the project to her and told her I’d come to the festival on a pinisi and was looking for Indonesian writers to provide articles for the planned book.