Category Archives: SURABAYA BEAT



First Journey. July – September 2012
1   Borobodur – Surabaya – Semarang
2   Denpasar – Padangbai
3   Makassar – Tanaberu – Bira – Selayar – Bonerate – Larantuka
4   Laranruka – Makassar
5   Makassar – Balikpapan
Second Journey. April – September 2014
1   Sumatra. Medan. Travel to the Orang Utans in the Leuser National Parc, Sumatra  
2   Jakarta
3   Larantuka – Tarasu – Bira – Tanaberu – Makassar
4   Makassar – Bau Bau
5   Bau Bau – Namlea – Ambon
6   Ambon – Fak Fak
7   Fak Fak – Bula – Kobi – Wahai (auf Seram) – Fafanlap – Salafen – Katapu (auf Misool) – Sorong
8   Sorong – Ternate – Tidore
9   Ternate – Manado – Bunaken – Bitung

Beat Presser


Beat Presser photographed by Ingrid Liliana Torres

I’d like to thank everyone who made this blog possible and made my voyage across the Indonesian archipelago a success. Above all Christel Mahnke at the Goethe-Institut Jakarta.

When I paid my first visit to Christel Mahnke at the Goethe-Institut Jakarta, there was a lot to discuss: Who’s going to publish the book slated for the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2015? Can my photos be shown in an exhibition in Jakarta? If so, do we put out a catalogue for the show? Can we go ahead with the photo workshop planned in Jakarta as well? How are we going to fund all that? Who’s going to write the texts for the planned publications? In which languages? Who’ll translate?

Then Christel Mahnke picks up the phone, calls the Galeri Foto Jurnalistik Antara in Jakarta, who are to put on my big show six months later and put together the catalogueto Sea of the Ancestors, and publisher Lans Brahmantyo, who’s going to publish the book Surabaya Johnny for the Frankfurt Book Fair 2015. But then a whole different question comes up: would I like to write a blog about the voyage? Well, I’ve never read a blog before, I don’t know how you design or navigate through a blog, what it might look like and how much time it would take. All the same, my answer is yes!

So I contact my two web designers in Basel. They get set up in no time, I design the interface in Bali and write up the first articles, and the Goethe-Institut in Jakarta takes care of the navigation. And now, five months later, there are 30 stories to read online about my adventurous travels across the Indonesian archipelago. Plus various interviews, a CV and itinerary. In German and English.

I’d also like to thank all the Indonesians who so hospitably hosted us over the course of our expedition. Never before in my travels, which have taken me to 74 different countries so far, have I met such a great many obliging and warmhearted people.

Furthermore I’d like to express my gratitude to the following people and organizations: Organization/logistics / initiator: Christel Mahnke, assisted by Devi Veriana. Visa paperwork: Raliby Teuku. Blog: Lukas Dettwiler, Mauritz de Wijs, Wilton Djaya, Christian S. German proofreading: Vera Pechel. English proofreading Interview: Dr. Herb Golder. English translation of blog posts: Eric Rosencrantz. My two travel companions through the archipelago: Ingrid Liliana Torres (1st trip) and Antonius Bataona (2nd). My host in Jakarta: Patrick Walser. Support for the Surabaya Johnny book project: John McGlynn and Lily Yulianti And: Ikranagara, Dr. Syahriar Tato, Aco Riwan. My very special thanks go to: Goethe-Institut Jakarta, Daniel Derzic and the Swiss Embassy in Jakarta, Gunawan Widijaja and Oscar Motuloh, Galeri Foto Jurnalistik Antara, Jakarta, and my publisher Lans Brahmantyo, AfterhoursBooks, Jakarta. 

Fotografie: Hafen von Poetere, Makassar. Die Schiffahrt steht still, kein Schiff darf den Hafen verlassen.


After several months, our eventful voyage unexpectedly comes to an abrupt end. Stopped by – of all people – those who’ve previously been so helpful to us. Back from Minado, we find the situation hasn’t got any better. Shipping has been shut down, not a single ship is allowed to leave port. The reason is the two typhoons that hit Japan and more recently the Philippines and have been churning up the sea along the shores of Sulawesi. The waves are said to be up to 6 metres (20 feet) high, and the vessel that would take us to Samarinda in Kalimantan is stuck in the harbour. As are we. Now as before, rain, cloudy skies and a dismal weather forecast.

We end our wait on the north side of Sulawesi island and decide to try our luck again in Makassar. In Makassar I am greeted by Professor Tato, head of the art college there. Back in 2012 he helped me find a ship to Balikpapan. He is all excited about the prospect of a political sea change in Indonesia: “Jakowi is our new president! Jakowi! Jakowi! He’s going to put a stop to the corruption in this country.” After a meal of fish, rice and vegetables, we drive off to Poetere to look for a ship to Surabaya, where I’m planning to conclude my voyage. But that’s not how things turn out.

In Makassar it’s the same scenario: storm, wind, shipping is suspended. Still, we do find a ship quickly. A beautiful little pinisi with a very likable captain, who’s glad to have two guests aboard for a change, he says that’s good for crew morale. But we still haven’t got our sailing papers from the Coast Guard. The next day we make our way to Poetere again to obtain the necessary authorization. Just to play it safe, I take my policeman friend Zarkoni along. But we hit unexpected snags from the start: we’re to take the Pelni boat, insists the coast guard on duty, deaf to our entreaties.

But the Coast Guard office in town might be worth a try. Zarkoni drives us there. The head coast guard, a woman, is gruff, dismissive and couldn’t care less about our reportage on shipping in the Indonesian archipelago. “Where’s your passport?” she barks. At the Goethe-Institut or the passport office, I reply, but I do have my ID card here and my Surat Tanda Melapor (registration letter). Nothing doing. No passport – no authorization.

Disappointed, we drive back to Poetere and tell the captain what happened. He is furious and rants and raves about the matter. He’d take us along without authorization but that’s risky: they routinely get stopped by the Coast Guard here in Makassar and have to pay bribes for nothing at all. And at that very moment a fishing boat is trying to leave the harbour to fish along the coast. Out of the blue a little boat appears alongside it, and we can see something change hands between the vessels. “Coast Guard!” growls the exasperated captain.

Perhaps the Coast Guard boss in Makassar ought to crack down on her own ranks rather than keeping creative artists from their work….



Bitung. 10 days later; still no diesel. We’re not making any headway in leaving port and the ships aren’t either. The storm’s still raging off the coast of Sulawesi. Since we’re landlocked anyway, we make the most of our shore time and take a bus to Manado, the city Alfred Russell Wallace calls one of the most beautiful in The Malay Archipelago. In his book, he describes beautiful gardens and villas, clean streets, orchards, plantations and the picturesque volcano. Well, the volcano is still there, but not much is left of the city’s former splendour – or I must have overlooked it….

One page further on, Wallace describes the people in the area surrounding Manado, who until recently – we’re talking 1859 here – must have still been savages. Each tribe had its chief, each village its own language and each settlement lived in constant strife and war with the next village or the one next to that one. They were headhunters and cannibals, and when a chieftain died, they’d hunt down two enemies and adorn his grave with their heads. If no enemies were available, they’d decapitate slaves to honour the tradition in full.

There are presumably no headhunters or cannibals left on Sulawesi now. But the hunting instinct remains.

Sunday afternoon and I’m strolling down Manado’s main drag. One shopping mall after another. Single-storey, multi-storey, five-storey. . . malls as far as the eye can see. Thousands of shoppers lugging heavy plastic bags filled with everything under the sun. No wonder heads of government from the West travel with businessmen and economic experts to China and other emerging countries in Asia to sell their worthwhile and not so worthwhile products. This is where the real markets are! And people round here don’t generally inquire how and in what conditions the merchandise was produced or what effects it might have on man and the environment. The main thing is: lots of people buying lots of stuff.

At the entrance to one of the malls I get to talking with a woman holding two giant plastic bags of paper nappies in her hands. They’re for her granddaughter, she explains. She lives on a neighbouring island and is glad to be able to bring her sister these disposable nappies now. I can already see the used nappies floating away in the sea….


Orang Backpack

“Orang Backpack” are easy to spot, whether in Manado, Makassar or anywhere else. They wear a big rucksack on their backs, a little one on their chests. Underneath, a tatty sweat-soaked T-shirt. With swimming trunks or scruffy shorts. For footwear, flip-flops or heavy trekking shoes. In their left hand, a water bottle; in their right, Lonely Planet. Lonely Planet – if possible, they never let it out of their hands – tells Orang Backpacks everything they want to know: where to eat, sleep, meet like-minded travellers, where and when to catch the bus or train, how much the fares are, a smattering of history and plenty more useful information. Orang Backpack does not seem to perceive anything that isn’t covered in Lonely Planet.

Most Orang Backpacks travel in twos to double the feeling of well-being and to ward off the natives. So they seldom have any contact with the outside world, except for kitchen staff, chambermaids, hotel managers and tourist guides who know their way around. But that doesn’t matter, foreign backpackers prefer to converse with people like themselves anyway. They talk about prices, how cheap it was at this place and that, and how cheap the next ones will be. For hours, days, nights on end, probably the whole trip long. In addition to the travel guide, which I assume is already outdated by the time it gets printed, they pull extra information off of Facebook, and they prefer to get together where all the other Orang Backpacks have already got together and will continue to get together in future.

Group trips are another story, these travellers are cast in a whole different mould. They seem to be content and having a good time as they are steered through their vacation from start to finish. And whether something is cheap or dear makes no difference to them since they paid for the whole thing in advance anyway.

 A hotel manager who speaks good English gives me the following advice: If you want to dodge Orang Backpack, buy yourself a copy of Lonely Planet and don’t go anywhere that’s mentioned in the book! 

Minichip als Datenträger

Analog or Digital?

In 45 years, this is my first photo expedition without a single roll of film in my bag. A wise move? At any rate, the rationale behind it definitely makes sense. My book Surabaya Johnny is going to be showcased in 12 months at the book fair, so time is of the essence.

The biggest advantage of working with film is certainly that images on celluloid last a long time and you’ve got something physical in your hand. What’s more, on the road and after a strenuous day in the field, the rolls can be labelled and numbered, then stowed away, not to be developed till months later in the lab. This time lag and the reawakening of past moments in the developing bath make for a special quality and plenty of calm quiet reflection. Since you can’t view any immediate results in analog photography, an extremely precise working method and a great deal of technical know-how are key to the success of each shot. But these requirements for the most part fall by the wayside when you’re working with a digital camera. The possibility of immediately adjusting and correcting digital shots has given everyone access to the photographer’s craft, which was once the preserve of specialists.

 But digital photography does have drawbacks when you’re on the road. You have to lug a lot of electronic gear around – electronic cameras, computer, external hard disc, wires etc. – sensitive equipment that’s vulnerable to shocks, humidity, heat, cold etc. The big advantage for the photographer, on the other hand, is that he can organize and sort his images right away, edit and send them off whilst still on the road, and even submit a ready-to-print prototype of a book or catalogue before heading back home. But your easygoing evenings spent hanging out with the locals become fewer and farther between, you don’t sit down on the bridge next to the captain anymore or with pirates in the dockside pub: you sit at the computer and edit the day’s work.

I, too, have now become – at least temporarily – a digital victim of my own self!

Poetere: the "pinisi" port in Makassar


Photography: Poetere: the Pinisi port in Makassar

I’ve been crisscrossing the Indonesian archipelago now for a little over six months and 4,500 nautical miles. Time for a brief recap.

My voyage began in the second half of 2012 in Makassar, where Joseph Conrad’s anti-hero Heemskirk deliberately wrecks his rival Jasper Allen’s brig on a reef. All for a woman, the beautiful Freya of the Seven Isles. Allen goes mad, Freya dies of heartbreak and pneumonia. Only Heemskirk’s fate remains uncertain. As uncertain as my own ongoing adventure.

My visit to Fort Rotterdam does not prove very rewarding. But just as I’m about to leave the nattily renovated fort, a rickshaw driver pedals right up to me and says, “You must go to Poetere!” No idea what he’s talking about, but I get into his rickshaw without asking a whole lot of questions and away we go. Past big docks, containers, cranes, no-go grounds on our left, karaoke bars on our right. 20 minutes later, we’re in Poetere, the old traditional port of Makassar. How did the rickshaw driver, with his hearty laugh and continual “Look, Mister, here!” and “Look, Mister, there!”, know this was precisely what I was looking for? And how come I didn’t even know Poetere existed in the first place?

First I need a cup of coffee. I’m waved into a little shack where a fragrant beverage is brewed for me. Around me a bunch of muscular, cheerful sun-tanned dockworkers and sailors are eating breakfast and smoking Gudang Garam cigarettes whilst marvelling at my presence – and poking fun at me. Outside this little hut, no-one would guess there is such a convivial crowd inside eating, drinking and smoking away – which is actually against the rules, for the customs are quite strict in these parts: it’s Ramadan.

Our ship, carrying 80 passengers and crew from Selayar to Bonerate


Photography: Our ship, carrying 80 passengers and crew from Selayar to Bonerate

In the port of Poetere there are a great many Pinisis laden with all manner of goods bound for and from all over the archipelago. One ship is carrying an enormous load of Ovaltine. Samsjul, the ship owner’s son, comes ambling down the pier with his girlfriend. He tells me his family have been maritime traders for generations: they run a mini-fleet, shipping merchandise from Makassar to Bonerate, a small island south of Sulawesi in the Sunda Sea, as well as to Labuanbajo in Westflores and back. When I tell him Ovaltine originally comes from Switzerland, Samsjul spontaneously suggests paying him a visit him on Bonerate, he’ll be there in 10 days. I’d take the ferry from Bira to Selayar, then any smaller vessel available to Bonerate. The idea isn’t too far-fetched. As John Cage once put it so well: if you want to set about doing something, just start somewhere!

*So that’s precisely what I did.* On the ferry to Selayar I make the acquaintance of Faizal, who teaches agronomy at a college in Beneng, the capital of the small elongated island. The crossing turns out to be a short but rough ride that makes most of the passengers seasick. A few hours later, after sunset, I’m sitting on a sofa with his family relishing some excellent Indonesian cuisine. Late in the evening, Faizal’s father drives us to the port. In no time we find a small passenger ship that will be putting to sea the very next day after Friday prayers.

The boat, 14m long and 3m wide, is already full to bursting a few hours before departure, carrying 80 passengers and 14 motorcycles crammed onto the lower and upper decks. The small space assigned to me becomes increasingly poky by the time we weigh anchor in the stifling heat. At night, on the other hand, it’s bitter cold, but a fantastically starry sky makes up for all the discomforts – including the absence of toilets on board and the omnipresent exhaust from the diesel engine. 18 hours later we’ve reached Bonerate. My back is killing me, my skull is throbbing, my bags drenched with sea spray, splashing water and the damp of night. But I’m in Bonerate, an island whose very existence I had no inkling of ten days ago!

Cockfight on Bonerate


Photography: Cockfight on Bonerate

Not a trace of Samsjul, the ship owner’s son! Not a word, not even a phone call. Meanwhile, the affable owner of the only room to rent in town, with an obscured view of the sea, says blithely, “Try again tomorrow, Mister!” I eat two bananas and take a stroll down to the pier. Two young fellows zoom up on their motorcycles and ask me, “Are you Mr. Beat, the Ovaltine guy? Samsjul told us to look for you, he lives on the other side of the island.”

We spend the next two days crisscrossing the island, swimming in the lagoons and freshwater grottos and watching cockfights, where sorcerers tie lethal knives to the feet of the cocks and charm them with secret incantations. We admire a proud red- and blue-painted fishing boat that is to be launched next week with great pomp and ceremony. On the beach not far from my lodgings, a good dozen Pinisis are being built. People wave to me wherever I go, shouting: “Mister, Mister!” No wonder: it’s been a long time since any white men came this way.

After a week on shore, we line up a ride on a Pinisi called Medina. We’re to be at the port by 7 am, says Captain Nidun during our visit on the eve of our scheduled departure. At 9 am we heave his motorcycle onto a little dinghy and then onto the ship. At 10 am comes the announcement: “Besok Baru Barakat!” I glance over to the engineer uncomprehendingly, but my little dictionary comes in handy here: the voyage has been put off to tomorrow. The crew disembark, the captain didn’t even show up at all. The engineer and I remain aboard the Medina. What is there for me to do on land? I feel better here – there’s even a motorcycle on board, only this one doesn’t make any noise! The next day it transpires that the helmsman had had one too many and was indisposed, hence the postponement.

Manoeuvre a little before sunrise


The Medina, built in 2008, 27 m long, 6 m wide and weighing in at 200 t, is jam-packed with cargo: 100 t of furniture, mattresses, refrigerators, flat screens, rice cookers, generators, stereo systems, karaoke equipment, a twin tub washing machine, two tumble dryers, red-and-white footballs and tonnes of flour. At 4 o’clock in the morning, we weigh anchor and head out into the dark. I take some pictures at dawn with a roll of 800 ASA film, the photographs are razor sharp.

8 10 hours. Captain Nidun corrects the course a tick to SSE 115° at 5.5 knots. That’s what it says on the GPS the captain has just plugged into his motorcycle battery. 11 10 hours. 4.1 knots against a strong headwind and current from the southeast. There’s a light swell, the sky is partly overcast with menacing black clouds. The young ship’s mate who has taken over at the helm is having a hard time keeping the vessel on course. A snack of rice bananas and black tea – followed de rigueur by Gudang Garam cigarettes. The ship is rolling and pitching alarmingly as the tenuously fastened cargo rocks to and fro. One of the two rookie sailors is lying seasick on the quarterdeck as the captain gives the order to set the sails. Only one man each is needed to hoist the foresail and mainsail. These blue-and-white-chequered nylon sails are light and low-maintenance, and they dry fast.

16 00 hours. 4.6 knots. Bonerate has vanished from the horizon. Despite the added sails, our speed remains constant: a heavy ship bearing a heavy load holding course towards its destination. Water and sea wherever you look – except for six little Pinisis I can just barely make out on the horizon, all of which have blue sails. I clamber astern from the forecastle and then back, taking pictures. This is no easy undertaking, what with the heavy swell, high winds and wet, slippery deck.

19 00 hours. Holding course at 6 knots. Rice and salt for supper, with no added ingredients. Nobody felt inclined to cast their line today and give it a shot: no point fishing without a net, so they say. The crew are laid low anyway, overcome with fatigue, woozy and befogged by the toxic exhaust from the diesel engine and lulled to sleep by its loud monotonous rattle.

A "pinisi" before the days of motorization. Painting by Mike Turusy, Makassar 2002


A pinisi before the days of motorization. Painting by Mike Turusy, Makassar 2002

Was it a smart decision made by the government at the time to motorize by decree all those stately and unique sailing vessels that had been plying the Malaysian archipelago for half a millennium? Had they weighed the pros and cons of such a move and really considered the consequences? Pollution, oil-dependency, hearing damage, intoxication, public health hazards, the loss of one of Indonesia’s most precious cultural assets, to name just a few of the serious drawbacks. Everything goes a little faster now than back in the days when ships were driven by the wind alone, but the goods have become more expensive and the leisurely ways of the past have gone by the board as a result. All things considered, if everything had remained a little slower, it wouldn’t have made any difference?

The decision made in the 1970s to retrofit all the sailing ships – and this made it all the more regrettable – gave the coup de grâce to one of Indonesia’s oldest cultural possessions, the venerable art of sailing. But as Professor Abdul Sheriff, my consultant and co-author of my book Dhau – Beatus Piratus auf Sindbads Spuren (“Dhow – Beatus Piratus on Sindbad’s Tracks”), once said to me: “History is a one-way street!” Only a few of the old salts I’ve met wistfully recall the proud old days when Indonesia boasted the biggest sailing fleet in the world. As recently as 40 years ago, some 4,000 to 5,000 of those ships were still sailing from island to island in the archipelago. But today’s young seamen no longer revere the age-old art of using the wind to reach one’s destination.

During my several months’ journey across the archipelago, I didn’t see any other sailing ships at all. Though word has it there are still a few out there – built and fitted out by foreigners to carry tourists…for $1,000 per person per day.

The police chief: “Authorization for passage on a pinisi? Unheard of!”


Photography: The police chief: “Authorization for passage on a pinisi? Unheard of!”

Two years later: marooned again! First Ramadan brought the Pinisi fleet to a standstill, now it’s the road traffic. After driving or taking the bus home to their families for the festivities, captains and crew are now stuck in traffic jams on their way back to the port. To make matters worse, a storm is raging off the coast of Sulawesi with waves 5 to 6 metres high. And a local oil mogul has withheld diesel shipments to create an artificial shortage and drive up the price. So 50 to 60 Pinisis are now stuck in Bitung harbour in northern Sulawesi for want of fuel.

At least we have the required papers for a Pinisi voyage now and know how to obtain authorization. Back in September of 2012, my journey got bogged down in red tape in Makassar. The agency on whose ship I later caught a ride to Balipapan in Kalimantan were being sticklers about the rules and regulations anyway. That’s how I first got the institutional run-around, being sent from office to office, stamp to stamp, queue to queue, all over Makassar. The chief of police asks me dumbfounded: “Authorization for passage on a pinisi? Unheard of!” Scratches his head and waves us over to the office next door. Aco Ridwan has agreed to escort me on my odyssey. When Robert Wilson staged I La Galigo in Makassar at the beginning of the year 2000, Aco took part in the production as a dancer. Sureq Galigo, one of the oldest and most extensive epics in world literature, is the creation myth of the Bugis and humanity. Aco and I talk about Einstein on the Beach and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat whilst chasing down a form we need called a Surat Tanda Melapor.

Three days later we’ve got it, our stamped Surat Tanda Melapor. Now it only needs to be signed by the agent and the captain and certified by the Coast Guard. Why this whole rigmarole? According to the chief of police, more and more goods and people are being smuggled by criminal gangs into Australia. If I happened to be on such a contraband-carrying ship, without even knowing it, and got picked up by the Coast Guard without my official Surat Tanda Melapor, I’d end up in jail along with everyone else!

The Medina, shot from the water whilst swimming round the ship


The rest of the voyage with Captain Nidun was unspectacular. There was little to report except for a frightening thunder and lightning storm and the fact that, to everyone’s delight, I caught a fish on the third day out. I didn’t understand a word of what my sailor friends were trying to say to me, but the incomprehension was mutual: they didn’t understand what I was trying to say either. And yet must one always ask questions to understand something?

After four days we reach the east coast of Flores Island and, moving down from the north, set our course for Larantuka, our destination. The current and headwind are so strong, however, that it proves impossible to reach the port on our heavily-laden ship. The wind should die down around 4 o’clock, Captain Nidun says and then proceeds to cast anchor. Wonderful, I say to myself, then tie a long rope round my belly, get my underwater camera out ready and, much to the crew’s dismay, jump overboard. No wonder: none of them knows how to swim! Although the current is stronger than I expected, I do manage to swim round the ship with my flippers and take a number of pictures. By around 4, the wind has turned and the current let up. That very evening I meet Antonius Bataona.

And two years later I make the acquaintance of another person in Larantuka, a man standing at the top of a hill on the beach with a tripod and a long lens. He’s a photographer from Maumere who is working with a German team of researchers and with the local government. The object is to use the strong current to drive a tidal power plant. But that’s easier said than done! Every turbine set up so far has been swept away by the current, he recounts pensively, and goes back to his picture-taking.

The newly-rebuilt Orang Laut settlement in Sorong


The Orang Laut are the local gypsies or people of the sea. I recently got hold of the notes of explorer and filmmaker Baron Victor von Plessen. He travelled Indonesia back in the 1920s and 1930s and described the Orang Laut in his unpublished Malaysian journal as follows:

“The Orang Laut live with their women and children on ships and almost never go ashore. For them, the Almighty could have stopped on the second day of Creation when he created the sea. Somewhere on a remote coast are a few huts built on stilts far out to sea. Those are their villages, almost always vacant. The Orang Laut have in their blood a deep-seated mistrust of dry land and its denizens. Only when driven by necessity do they go to the coast to replenish their stores of water and to trade fish for rice and tools. They are excellent sailors who know the sea and all its snares.”

This unique maritime people of a bygone age have since largely disappeared in the wake of dubious government programmes and other latter-day developments. Uprooted, the once-proud Orang Laut now live in poverty and squalor, in huts built on stilts in the sea on the outskirts of towns. Some of their settlements are to be found in Sorong. One of them was gutted by fire three years ago and is now under reconstruction. All the inhabitants have received a handout to buy the wood they need: they’re in charge of rebuilding their village themselves. This is a very sensible project, and now they’re sawing, hammering and building away for all they’re worth. Only one thing has been overlooked in this model village: a sewage system. So now as ever, all the muck still plops right down into the water under their homes.

During our visit, something else plops into the sea between the newly-built houses. A three-year-old girl. Three Orang Laut immediately jump in after her to fish the poor soul out of the water. A little while later we see the little one sitting there terrified and crying, puffing and spitting. Looks like she made it by the skin of her teeth. And all the sewage she must have swallowed in that cesspool will surely boost her immune system….

Carving a canoe in the middle of the jungle in New Guinea


On our way to Kokas Kota with Coast Guard Henkie, we came across a Papua carving a canoe out of a big tree trunk at 800 m above sea level.

A few days later, voyaging from Fafanlap to Salafen, I had a strange dream: somehow I’d accidentally landed in a cooking pot. Wild frizzy-haired men and women were dancing round and round me with horrible shrieks: they were Papuas with painted faces and with mirrors, glass beads, rings and bones in their ears, hair and noses. Plenty of other gleaming and sparkling objects adorned their steely bodies. I was being literally boiled to hell amid savage shrieking and the thudding beat of relentless drums. But then I woke up to find myself bathed in sweat, lying on my hard bunk, happy to have escaped from the cannibals’ clutches. The worst thing about the dream, though, was that the canoe-builder I’d seen was their chief!

According to countless studies and contemporary reports, cannibalism was until recently part and parcel of indigenous culture in New Guinea. When German missionaries reported on this rather unusual habit from German New Guinea around 1900, a public outcry went through Europe. Europe, of all places, which since 1500 had been traversing the world, from Tierra del Fuego to Tasmania, from Mexico to the South Pacific, on campaigns of conquest, annihilating whole civilizations and slaughtering indigenous peoples by the millions, was outraged. Simply because out on the edge of the world some tribes would wage war and then treat themselves to a savoury victory feast after battle. The missionaries wagged a moralizing finger and brought the cannibals the Bible. The German Imperial Colonial Office reacted with an iron fist and punitive expeditions, most of which proved abortive. After all, who is eager to venture into the jungles of New Guinea in search of cannibals?

As I mull all of this on my bunk, the boatbuilder crosses my mind again. Good thing I was riding to Kokas Kota on a motorcycle and not travelling by foot that evening….

Captain of "Sabuk Nusantara 33"


A ship’s siren sounds. We run over to the dock and hop aboard. Passing itinerant peddlers and the ship’s crew on the deck, where you can hardly tell passengers from sailors or vendors, we ask a short man where to find the captain. That’s me, he says tersely and assigns us to a cabin with two berths, a locked cabinet, a table and chair. A little while later we’re heading southwest on the Sabuk Nusantara 33.

Our voyage is worlds away from Ferdinand Magellan’s in just about every possible way. But not so very different from that of Alfred Russel Wallace, the British discoverer, linguist, evolutionary biologist, naturalist, botanist and zoologist who traversed the Malay Archipelago from 1854 to 1862 doing his extraordinary research there, collecting and bringing back to England over 100,000 cleanly prepared specimens of flora and fauna, some of which were hitherto unknown.

We, too, have set course for the smallest ports in the archipelago. Inconspicuous little locations forgotten by the world and far from any shipping routes: Bula, Kobi, Wahai on Seram Island; Fafanlap, Salafen and Katapu on Misool. At each of them, our ship is the connection to the outside world and a source of income for the locals. Peddlers selling food are everywhere as goods get loaded and unloaded at the port. The local policeman in Salafen, with a cockatoo sitting on his shoulder, offers his home-grown watermelons for sale. Back on board the captain invites us for drinks and tells sailor’s yarns. His innumerable girlfriends sing karaoke, very loudly over the board PA system. But when we return to Sorong and New Guinea, the crew, sailors, officers and captain are almost unrecognizable: all finely turned out in smartly creased white and blue-trimmed uniforms.

Still, there is one decisive difference between Alfred Russel Wallace’s voyage and ours: Wallace sailed. Not only that: the slave trade and piracy were everyday phenomena here back then, and so was cannibalism!

Four-year old Juna with her smartphone


I’m sitting in the street in front of a kiosk drinking coffee susu. Juna, the landlady’s four-year-old daughter, is playing with her smartphone and getting me into her sights. Using conventional phones and smartphones for online chatting, text-messaging, games, taking pictures and so on seems one of the main pastimes among young people in this country.

A new president is to be elected these days. 190 million citizens are asked to go to the polls. The ballots from over 7,000 islands and from overseas have to be collected, inspected and counted. A logistical tour de force! After a century of European domination marked by violence, wars and internecine strife, followed by subjugation to home-grown dictators, Indonesia now has a shot at establishing a more just, democratic system. For months the two presidential candidates have been omnipresent on the television screens in every hotel lobby and restaurant, in every house and shack, and on every bus. Not a single ship or shop without a TV set blaring away constantly in the background.

The two candidates are poles apart! One represents the past, the other the future. The stick-in-the-mud is a military man turned businessman, married to an ex-dictator’s daughter. Accused of gross human rights violations and barred from entry into the United States, he sounds off stridently about ruling with a “firm hand” and is backed by many of those who have amassed money, standing and power by nefarious means. His opponent is completely different. A fighter against widespread corruption, he has garnered a great deal of sympathy and approval among large swathes of the population with his wealth of ideas, and comes off well in discussions, election rallies and televised debating duels thanks to his humble demeanour and intelligent arguments.

Just a few hours after the polls close, the first computer predictions and election returns from all over the country are already flashing on the TV at Juna’s mother’s kiosk. I wonder whether this new generation, given its familiarity with electronic communication and its natural communication savvy, isn’t better prepared for the future. Having drunk up my coffee susu, I ask Juna what she’s up to there. She turns her mobile round and shows me the video she just shot of me….

Ferdinand Magellan, contemporary portrait


In one of the books I’ve brought along on my voyage, Stefan Zweig attempts a painstakingly precise reconstruction of the first known circumnavigation of the globe – by Admiral Ferdinand Magellan. It is enriched with excerpts from the journal of Antonio Pigafetta from Vicenza, Magellan’s chronicler.

What an accomplishment, what a tragedy that voyage was at the time. The Portuguese explorer Magellan was bent on finding a route from the West to the spice islands of the Moluccas at the close of the Middle Ages, when many still believed, and the Church insisted, that the earth was a flat disc. In 1519 Magellan set sail from Seville, flying a Spanish flag, with an armada of five ships and 237 sailors. Based on vague calculations and maps, he believed there was another route to present-day Indonesia besides the one around the Cape of Good Hope. Despite the mistaken assumption at the time that South America was connected to a southern continent, he discovered what came to be named the Strait of Magellan and was the first European to cross the Pacific, which it was merely suspected had to exist.

But at what cost this great voyage! Of the original crew of 237, a mere 18 sailors survived. All the rest either died of scurvy or other diseases, or starved, deserted, drowned, were murdered, hanged, decapitated or marooned. Magellan fared no better in the end: he was fatally wounded in a fight with the natives on the Filipino island of Cebu. How much easier it is now to traverse the archipelago, it occurs to me as we shove off from Fak Fak on the Sabuk Nusantara 33 in late June, bound for Sorong!

Coast Guard Henkie Imanuel Parinussa


Diving with Coast Guard Henkie

How do you actually organize a trip like ours? some readers might wonder. And I asked myself the same question! Moving to a different place every five or six days. How do I get from one port to another, from one island to the next? What route to take? Where do I eat and sleep? What and whom should I focus my attention on? What to do and what to avoid? Whom do I trust, and whom should I not? In the meantime, after three months under way, the answer to that last question has become crystal clear: the coast guard!

It’s an odd story: last autumn I was invited to exhibit and lecture at the university in Bogota, Colombia. On the flight back I’ve a stopover in Paris. In the transit area, I come upon a bunch of people speaking a language not entirely unfamiliar to me: Indonesian! 22 coast guards from all over Indonesia on their way to Bremen for some advanced training. We exchange addresses, and six months later we’re walking into the coast guard’s office in Ambon, the capital of the Maluku (Moluccas) province in Indonesia. The surprise is great, the ensuing exchange quite brief: “You want to go to New Guinea? Either in two hours or two weeks!” We make tracks and two hours later we’re off to sea. The voyage has resumed.

In Fak Fak we proceed likewise, our first visit is to the coast guard. Again a cordial hello. One of the coast guards, Henkie Imanuel Parinussa, lets us use his motorcycle. The next day, two of them invite me for a dive. We spend the evenings dining together – on fried fish, rice and vegetables, like every day for the past two months. At the weekend we ride two motorcycles through the overwhelming jungle over 950 m-high mountains to Kokas Kota on the other side of West Papua.

But the coast guards can’t tell us – at the time of writing this blog post – how we shove off from Fak Fak. The gods only know.

Schiff auf Ölsuche vor Fak Fak


Ship prospecting for oil off the coast of Fak Fak

Fak Fak is unusually bustling and changing these days. Landfill has been added at the port to extend the docks, and one new shop after another has been popping up along the harbour promenade. Nearly all the shops are Chinese-owned and run, and they carry a great variety of wares. All the important and official posts in the city are held by Non-Papuan who’ve been seconded to Fak Fak or have settled down here of their own accord.

In the afternoon we’re strolling down the pier when a big, well-appointed ship pulls in. It’s the first time in six weeks I’ve seen a white face – and five of them at that! Five tired, unfriendly, grim-looking men in their mid-50s getting off the boat and into a bus. I ask one of them – who reminds me of John Wayne – what they’re doing in these parts. “Looking for oil and gas,” the tan unshaven Australian curtly replies. “Found any yet?” I inquire politely. “No, not yet!” he grumbles grimly before rushing off to the airport on the bus with his four disgruntled mates.

In the evening we’re sitting at the Angelo, a restaurant run by a Chinese woman. At the next table over sits a Papua and we ask him what he thinks of the oil rush. The drilling, he explains, is carried out not far from Fak Fak using devices that send soundwaves deep down into the sea bed, which wipes out the fish. The Papuas, he added, won’t benefit much from the upcoming boom either. Others will reap the profits. The Australians and Europeans, the newcomers and powers that be in Jakarta. All he’ll be left with is dead fish!

Nutmeg, emerald of the Equator..


AMBON, 21 JUNE 2014

In one of the main streets in Ambon, an affable fat Chinaman is sitting fiddling with two smartphones and drying a bunch of fresh cloves on the sidewalk in front of his little warehouse. He invites us in and tells us about his business and the history of the Spice Islands. Three young women, college students, are sitting upstairs sorting nutmegs. Meanwhile, an older gentleman is packing nutmegs and cloves whilst the boss is negotiating with a customer in Hong Kong over the phone. Chang exports nutmegs, cloves and cacao to Korea, Japan and China – and top quality only, he adds with emphasis.

Ambon and some of the neighbouring Moluccan islands were for a long time the only spots in the world where cloves and nutmeg grew naturally. Both spices are used in cooking, traditional medicine and cosmetics and have been coveted commodities since antiquity. The Moluccas were known to Julius Caesar as Supercilium Mundi; the Chinese, Arabs, Indians and Europeans prized these two spices as “Emeralds of the Equator.”

Chang tells us business is going well and in a week he’ll be flying to Switzerland with 40 other Chinese people. Where in Switzerland? I ask. Chang has no idea. He says it’s all been planned out ahead of time. Then he picks up the phone and speaks briefly to the tour guide: from Zürich to the Jungfraujoch, he says proudly, adding that the trip will last for one week. That’s a pretty short trip to Switzerland, I reply. But Chang stubs out his cigarette in the already overflowing ashtray and says: “Not too short: time is money!” Is he taking his wife and children along? No, he says with a contented smile: “They’re going to Hong Kong: to Disney Park!”

Beat Presser talks about his voyage


AMBON, 18 JUNE 2014

Just after disembarking from the Sinabung I meet John. He sees me, alights from his motorcycle and asks: “Anything I can do for you?” I ask him the way to Latu Halat and I leave him my number. The next day my phone rings at 7 in the morning. Would I like to teach English at his school? He’ll zip over right away to fetch me. I put him off to 10. He arrives punctually, hands me a much too small helmet that looks like a plastic bath tub for infants – and wants to take off straightaway. First, however, he shows my companion Antonius his firearms licence and his pistol. He is a Christian, he explains, and teaches at a school for Muslims. In 1999 violent clashes broke out between Christians and Muslims, leaving over 10,000 dead. The conflict has been going on for a long time and he has to be prepared….

We climb aboard the motorcycle and ride to Ambon. A hilly city with lots of dales and fertile green areas. We ride past big flags – German, French, Brazilian, Dutch. “Is there an international conference going on in town?” I ask. To which John replies, “Holland’s going to win the World Cup!” “Wrong,” I retort, “Switzerland’s going to win.” John laughs so hard he almost runs over a chicken and nearly falls off his bike.

The school is small. A little under 40 pupils are taught here, all orphans or half-orphans. They seem quite absorbed and fascinated as they follow my lessons, though they’re probably thinking: “Here’s this guy standing up there talking about a voyage across the sea, about Swiss mountains and geography. He holds a plastic globe in his hand, juggles it in the air and explains the world to us so fast that we end up confusing Switzerland and South America. In the end, when he takes a class picture he’s standing there in the classroom with a red clown nose on!”

*Before the storm is after the storm.* [was heißt das eigentlich?]

Smoke and Storm

ON THE SEA, 17 JUNE 2014

Indonesian men like to smoke. Unashamedly, a lot, everywhere and all the time. All the berths and day rooms on the ship are smoky. Although it is repeatedly announced over the board loudspeakers that there should be no smoking on board and consideration should be shown towards women and children, the injunction goes unheard. Until fairly recently the smoke smelled of cloves from kretek cigarettes. But ever since Philip Morris bought up a few Indonesian kretek cigarette brands a few years ago, the new smell made in America has been driving out the traditional local fragrance of cloves.

It is cool and breezy on deck. Although the floor is hard and uncomfortable, it’s a good deal more pleasant here than in the smoky overcrowded bowels of the boat. Towards midnight on our second night at sea, the sky grows ominously overcast accompanied by a heavy swell. A tropical rainstorm sweeps across the Sinabung. The passengers who had found a place to sleep next to us and the women peddlers flee the deck to seek a small dry place to sleep in the already teeming quarters down below.

I pull on my rain jacket, meanwhile shielding my camera from the rain, and walk around on deck. What looked like a fairground just a few hours ago has now been swept clean. Not a soul on deck. All I hear is rain and the whistling wind. And all at once, the Sinabung seems a ghost ship.

My kingdom for a place to sleep

From Bau Bau to Ambon

ON THE SEA, 16 JUNE 2014

The Sinabung. The ship, beautifully illuminated, docks in the port. Hundreds of people, loaded up with their stuff, surrounded by even more heavily laden porters, evacuate the belly of the ship. And yet, when we finally board along with the passengers who’ve been waiting beside us, there’s no space left: the sleeping quarters, the passageways, the stairs are all jam-packed with passengers. People everywhere you look, going from one island to another to visit family and relatives or to ply their various trades. But on deck we manage to find a little room between the women sitting there peddling their wares. From coffee and biscuits to electronic equipment, you can find just about everything conceivable there. We put to sea just as the imam summons the congregation to morning prayer.

By the time day breaks, all we can see of Sulawesi is its silhouette in the mist. Meanwhile the heavy swell is taking its toll on some of the passengers. 4–5-metre waves, wind force 5–6 and a bow wave rearing up to 10 metres over the ship’s side cause even a big vessel like the Sinabung to pitch and toss.

The ticket inspection is announced over the loudspeakers. All the doors are locked. Those inside the ship stay there, all the rest remain outside. The whole ship is locked down, then a fastidious inspection begins. Even the lifeboats are searched. They’re probably looking for the six stowaways who climbed the rope onto the side of the ship the night before. After the fruitless inspection and search, the board loudspeaker sounds again. An invitation to the on-board cinema for a very special treat: an action film with Arnold Schwarzenegger….

Pelni shipping company’s logo

A ship will come

BAU-BAU, 15 JUNE 2014

We buy ourselves two economy class tickets from Bau-Bau to Ambon. We’re supposed to show up at the pier at noon to put to sea at 1pm. But there’s still no ship in sight at noon. On the big square by the dock, however, there are plenty of itinerant traders hawking water, food and wares of all sorts, and hundreds of passengers waiting for whatever is to come. They kill time playing cards and chess, sleeping, eating, laughing, strolling, gaping. Everything goes peacefully: no agitation, no grumbling, no complaints. Everyone’s waiting patiently for the big Pelni ship to come in. Waiting is part of life in these parts, all things come in due course.

The main lines in Indonesia are operated by Pelni, the national shipping company. With a fleet of over 80 vessels, most of which were built in Papenburg, Germany, they provide regular service to large parts of this vast island kingdom. The ships are fitted out with a restaurant, karaoke bar, dancefloor, mosque, and four different passenger classes, depending on your needs, with correspondingly graduated fare schedules.

I take advantage of the opportunity to stroll over to the Coast Guard office, where I introduce myself and obtain authorization to take pictures of some of the officers of the watch. Everything goes smoothly and with plenty of good humour. Then we go out to eat, stretch our legs a bit, drink another mango juice and kill some more time reading. Later we return to the port. On the way there, I hum Lale Andersen’s song Ein Schiff wird kommen (“A Ship Will Come”). Just as I’m singing the verse: Und warte auf die fremden Schiffe aus Hong-Kong, aus Java, aus Chile und Shanghai (“And wait for the foreign ships from Hong Kong, from Java, from Chile and Shanghai”), I hear the ship’s siren sounding. It’s 1 o’clock in the morning by now. 1. A cover version of “Never on Sunday”, the title song from the movie of the same name, originally sung in Greek by Melina Mercouri.

[1] A cover version of “Never on Sunday“, the title song from the movie of the same name, originally sung in Greek by Melina Mercouri

Fully-loaded pinisi shortly before departure

Bau Bau

16 June 2014

Bau-Bau is a small seaside city on Buton island in East Sulawesi. A city like hundreds of others in the Indonesian archipelago. Everything that doesn’t come from farming such as rice, corn, sago, copra, tobacco, coffee or sugarcane, or from the forest or the sea, has to be shipped to Bau-Bau and to the over 6,000 other inhabited islands. Everything from nails to electronics, from locally unavailable fresh produce to motorcycles, from smartphones to dried milk.

Satisfying the ever-growing demand for products involves tremendous efforts and complicated logistics. The Bau-Bau port of Murhum is a bustling transhipment point for goods and passengers. Vessels of all shapes and sizes sail in and out of the harbour. Perahus . Speedboats with cafeteria and karaoke room. Liners for over a thousand passengers plying a regular service to Makassar, Surabaya, Kijang, Namlea, Ambon, Ternate, Balikpapan and Bitung. Passenger ships to smaller ports in Sulawesi. Commuter canoes. Fishing boats. Container ships. Supertankers bound for Surabaya and Semerang. Ferries for passengers and cars running every two hours to neighbouring islands like Waara, Dongkala, Kassipute, Raha or Kendari.

There is a teeny-tiny port between Murhum and the ferry terminal. Only five or six pinisis (traditional two-masted sailing ships), hardly 7 or 8 metres long, lay at anchor here. We want to catch a ride! We take a canoe over to one of the ships to inquire, but for once we’re out of luck: a pinisi jam-packed with sailors and canned food left last night bound for Ternate in the Moluccas, 550 nautical miles away. And the next one won’t be leaving for another ten days. We don’t want to wait that long, though, so we fall back on the liner.

[1]A swift sailboat with a triangular sail and single outrigger.

Trash washed ashore in Bau-Bau

Trash in the sea

One evening on the crossing to Tarasu we talked about all the refuse in the sea and elsewhere. It’s common practice here in Indonesia to jettison trash without a second thought – as well as any other items one no longer needs. In their cars, on busses, trains, ships – whatever’s no longer needed does not get deposited in the nearest wastebin, but for convenience simply gets thrown out the window. The sea, it seems, is another perfect dumping ground. Such thoughtless acts are inconceivable and barbaric in the eyes of denizens of Switzerland and Singapore, for example. However, a different wind blows on Yukri’s pinisi, which is equipped with four trash cans, and the sailors are forbidden from throwing any plastic, any glass bottles, paper, packaging, cigarette butts or whatever into the sea.

Two of the crew, Jon and Simon, were fishermen till signing on to the pinisi six months ago. They recount their hardships trying to eke out a living and feed their families on what they made from fishing. What is most striking about their story is that plastic bags and PET bottles adrift on the surface of the water are mistaken by whole schools of small fish for big fish. In fear of what they believe is a looming threat, the little fish migrate out to open sea, where they get scooped up by the big fishing fleets that are fishing the seas dry on an industrial scale. It’s too dangerous for fishermen to venture too far out into sea in their small perahus. So they had to give up their trade and are now trying their luck as sailors.

It’s appalling, says the pensive Captain Yukri, what a chain reaction can be triggered by plastic thrown senselessly into the water. Not to mention the tiny plastic particles drifting across the sea and making their insidious way via fish into the food chain!

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.

The "Sinar Harapan" sailing at full speed

With Captain Yukri en route from Larantuka to Tarasu

22 May 2014. Beat Presser reporting:

We’re to be at the Sinar Harapan at 9am sharp on Wednesday, said Captain Yukri, as he glanced up from the chessboard and beamed at me: he had just checkmated me. Yukri is the youngest captain I’ve met so far. Only 28 years old and already for four years captain of the Sinar Harapan, built in 1980 in Tanaberu, on which he regularly carries merchandise from Flores to Sulawesi on behalf of an owner in Makassar. The ship’s hold is empty today, we’re going to head north without any goods on board. Due to strong currents and unpredictable winds, however, our departure is put off to late afternoon.

A good opportunity to stroll down the pier, where I meet Captain Nidun, with whom I sailed a year and a half ago from Bonerate to Larantuka. It’s a merry reunion, which we celebrate with a bottle of Guinness. I show him the photos I took of him and his crew on his pinisi: he’s thrilled and wants to look at the pictures again and again on the iPad and is sad that we’re not sailing to Makassar with him, having made arrangements with Yukri instead.

But Yukri isn’t bound for Makassar after all. Hardly has he raised anchor – shortly before dawn – and set the sails when he apprises us we’re not heading to Makassar, but to Tarasu. Tarasu? We consult the detailed map. Tarasu, aka “Seven-Seven”, 140 km away from our original destination. Doesn’t matter, I tell him. The port lies inland, which means we’ll have to sail upriver. That’s bound to make for some beautiful and unusual pictures! Shortly before Tarasu, however, we run aground.…

Antonius Bataona on his "perahu"

Antonius Bataona

22 May 2014. Beat Presser reporting:

We’re to be at the Sinar Harapan at 9am sharp on Wednesday, said Captain Yukri, as he glanced up from the chessboard and beamed at me: he had just checkmated me. Yukri is the youngest captain I’ve met so far. Only 28 years old and already for four years captain of the Sinar Harapan, built in 1980 in Tanaberu, on which he regularly carries merchandise from Flores to Sulawesi on behalf of an owner in Makassar. The ship’s hold is empty today, we’re going to head north without any goods on board. Due to strong currents and unpredictable winds, however, our departure is put off to late afternoon.

A good opportunity to stroll down the pier, where I meet Captain Nidun, with whom I sailed a year and a half ago from Bonerate to Larantuka. It’s a merry reunion, which we celebrate with a bottle of Guinness. I show him the photos I took of him and his crew on his pinisi: he’s thrilled and wants to look at the pictures again and again on the iPad and is sad that we’re not sailing to Makassar with him, having made arrangements with Yukri instead.

But Yukri isn’t bound for Makassar after all. Hardly has he raised anchor – shortly before dawn – and set the sails when he apprises us we’re not heading to Makassar, but to Tarasu. Tarasu? We consult the detailed map. Tarasu, aka “Seven-Seven”, 140 km away from our original destination. Doesn’t matter, I tell him. The port lies inland, which means we’ll have to sail upriver. That’s bound to make for some beautiful and unusual pictures! Shortly before Tarasu, however, we run aground.…

I Wayan Gusti writing his blog post

Guest author I Wayan Gusti writes:

14. Mai 2014

Beat Presser has asked me to continue for a little while the blog he’s already started up: he’s too busy making preparatory arrangements for the voyage, testing underwater cameras and so on, and also wants to learn Indonesian – a pointless undertaking, if you ask me! I’ve been following Beat’s photographic work for some time and I think very highly of it, so I was delighted to take him up on the offer. The first thing I wanted to find out was how a fellow who grew up hemmed in by mountains in landlocked Switzerland ended up going to sea.

When he was a boy, his father built a motorboat in the garage, on which the family would cruise up and down the Rhine on weekends and spend their summer holidays on one of the many Swiss lakes. At 14 he got his skipper’s licence and at 19 took a ride on a Sudanese packet ship from Assuan to Khartoum. Two months later he crossed the Indian Ocean for the first time in his life, from Mombasa, Kenya, to Bombay (now Mumbai), on a refugee ship carrying 3,000 Pakistanis and Indians who had to flee Uganda under the tyranny of Idi Amin. Whilst still training in photography, he took a few months off in 1975 and signed on to the crew of various sailing vessels on the Atlantic. After that trip, if not before, it was clear to him: whenever possible, put to sea!

And in 2009/2010 Beat Presser got another chance to go to sea, covering a story about shipping on traditional Dhaus along the East African coast. In a few days he’ll be packing up his few possessions and shipping out once again. Then he can resume writing his own posts for the logbook.

As for myself, I’m from Indonesia, and believe it or not I can’t swim, nor do I venture out to sea at all. I leave that to the brave!

A "perahu" on the beach

The Boatbuilders

9 May 2014 Finally, after 18 months of preparation, the photographic part of my trip can now finally get under way. This is the second part of a months-long excursion that actually began in 2012. The goal is to cover shipping in the Indonesian archipelago in words and images and to put them together in a book entitled Surabaya Beat in time for the Frankfurt book fair in 2015. To this day, oddly enough, there is very little extant material on this subject.

On a small island east of Java, perahus are still built out of wood in the traditional manner. A perahu, aka prahu or prau, is made of a single tree trunk. It is slender and deep-hulled, with an extra hull on one side to keep it steady on the water, which is why it’s also described as an outrigger. The boats are small, for the most part, and used for fishing and carrying goods. Outrigger boats can be found from the South Pacific and the Indonesian archipelago to Sri Lanka and along the east coast of Africa all the way to Madagascar. They’re always constructed a little differently depending on the kind of wood used, their functional requirements and the craft of the builders.

Perahus are built without any preconceived plan. We meet three older shipbuilders, who work to order, building their perahus from memory and based on their own know-how. Within a month they build small maritime masterpieces, fishing vessels, in this case, sporting a flag and the face of a fish on the prow. But they don’t sail anymore, all perahus are now fitted out with motors. And there aren’t very many boatbuilders at work on the island anymore either. Wood is scarce and ships made of synthetic materials are supplanting a shipbuilding tradition that goes back thousands of years. The shipbuilders know their days are numbered….