Emerging from the low-key Singapore train station, I headed to what I was told was the nearest source of tourist information. In my mid-trip wisdom I had decided not to purchase the Singapore section of the digital Lonely Planet guide (you buy them in sections). That decision cost me hours and dollars straight away, and much more later. Anyway, I enjoyed the clean and silent bus ride, towards a massive, cold, shopping mall that doubles as the ferry terminal to Batam.
I spent a few hours at the mall, working, wandering and planning until my Singaporean host, Callan, had finished work. Frustratingly everyone at the mall could sell me a ticket to Batam, Indonesia but had no idea how to find out about onward boats from Batam. All I knew is that they go regularly to Dumai, then Pekanburu (central Sumatra) but only once every four days to Jakarta. The Indonesian ferry company I knew of, Pelni, has a bad website (as in, it looks good, and gives you hope, but ultimately has no useful information) and they didn’t answer their phones.
So, I paid $6 (jeepers!) for a mocha chocollito at a smarmy coffee shop, and used their WiFi for a few hours. I then started to feel ill. I attribute it to the mocha thing, because I was irked at having to pay so much for something after months of cheap food and drinks. But, actually, I could also attribute my illness to the awful cheese sandwich on the train from KL, the milky drink in a can I bought at the Singapore train station, or my lunch from the cafeteria in the mall. Or perhaps it was a general allergic reaction to consumerism, on my part and in my surrounds.
The illness put me off food at all for a few days, but I enjoyed hanging out with Callan and his flatmates (all with great musical talent), and experiencing the diversity of Singapore that exceeds that of Georgetown. And, having some good conversations about climate change, sustainability and its relevance to banks and logistics companies.
The rest of Singapore I did not like. It was urban (cities have not been my favourite places this trip), expensive, chock-a-block full of shopping malls supporting a consumerist culture, and I spent far too long trying to get online. I think also, I had realised that getting through Indonesia overland was going to take a long time, that I needed to go fast, and that I was really starting to get excited about going for a surf.
I was, despite Callan’s warm welcome and the chance to relax a bit, thinking of getting on a boat the day after I arrived. Not knowing when the ferry to Jakarta went, I suspected it would be the day before whenever I got to Batam.
I didn’t leave end up leaving Singapore early, but was right about the ferry leaving that day! The following morning I got what I thought was the first ferry across to Batam, but it turns out it was still too late to connect with the boats to Sumatra [another bad decision caused by not buying the Lonely Planet for Singapore].
If anyone is reading this wanting to follow my footsteps, the Pelni boats currently pass though on their way to Jakarta on Wednesdays, from Sekupang on Batam. Or, if you just want to go to Dumai, ask around the different ferry operators from Singapore, and make sure you get the very earliest boat, which should get you to Batam in time to connect to the 7:30am Sumatran ferries. Again, noting that Batam is one hour behind Singapore. Boats, apparently, also go straight to Pekanburu, rather than via Dumai (which is a bus/boat combo). But, I am really not sure. No-one had maps, I was in a bad mood, and seemed to have arrived in a place (Indonesia) where I suspect almost everyone was trying to rip me off. Taxi drivers, as always, but also a kid who tried to charge me to use the free wireless he was stealing from his neighbour.
If you miss those connections, you wil suffer the same fate as me: an expensive taxi ride to town to stay in mid-priced but seedy hotels (which, it seems, all double as brothels). The Lonely Planet is pretty harsh on this place, suggesting it is full of “multinational industrial plant sweatshops, bizarro retirement homes, low-end golf courses and sweaty, doughy business executives getting loose in girlie bars“. All that, and only ten years ago it was a tropical island with no cars and population of 7000. Welcome to the glorious benefits of globalisation, free trade, tax-free zones. This truly is development and progress, Not.
I ended up wandering around looking for a bookshop, after foolishly ignoring the expensive books in Singapore. I had a lot of traveling ahead, and it was not going to be in a mode of transport with powerpoints, airconditioning and a table. No luck with the books, but I did buy some muesli in the supermarket for breakfasts and snackng on the move. But I did eventually find fast internet. I spent the next long while holed up in a darkened room with dozens of school-age kids killing monsters (them, not me) while drinking cans of Red Bull (still cheap!). I woke the next morning, opened the museli to find it full of weavils. Not a good start for Indo…
Ok, enough whingeing, click here to learn about the rest of the likely unrepresentative sample of what I experience in Indonesia.