The Karimunjawa Ferry

Dispatch from a changing Indonesia


in Features • Illustrated by Marguerita Cruz-Urbanc


The ferry from Jepara port to the small, otherwise isolated island of Karimunajawa, is a tricky journey even in the best of circumstances, which are rarely on offer. On a slow boat, the kind that most locals take, the trip takes about four hours if one is lucky and can extend to five or six if one is not. On cloudy days, the choice is between taking chances with the rain on the mostly uncovered top deck or settling onto hard plastic benches in the drippy, drab and sloshy interior. If it’s sunny, it’s more a question of how much water or how big an umbrella you brought, or how much of a tan you’d like to get. Of course, if the journey is busy enough that day, the choice is already made for you by the other 300 or so people who weaved their way through the snack sellers and makeshift taxi cabs on the port runway before you. In those cases, you find one of the small patches of open space and settle in, hoping you’ve taken something to quiet the stomach if yours is averse to waves. Towards the end of that sort of journey, at the point where dry land starts to reappear on the horizon, the notion of simply diving off the bow and swimming the rest of the distance begins to appear uncannily attractive. 

Karimunjawa is in a part of Indonesia that external tourists generally don’t make it to, sitting by itself in the middle of the ocean, nearest to the central Javanese heartland of the country and quite apart, both physically and in spirit, from the party beaches of Bali. At the same time, it is removed from the often-choking bustle of Java’s urban centers, blessed with clear skies and strong breezes. For this reason, as well as rapid recent investments in road paving and electrification, it’s slowly becoming a destination of choice for the country’s emerging middle class. People who can get together enough money each year for some ferry passes but would only be able to take a plane a few times in their lives are the kind who, mostly, come to Karimunjawa. You’ll find them sitting on the makeshift benches by the beachside snack bars, stirring instant noodles in Styrofoam cups or enjoying a grilled fish beside low-sitting plastic tables in the central park market. Compared to the congested cities in which these strivers, educated but most often deeply underpaid on a global scale for their work, live out the daily grind, the island is less restrictive, with less prying eyes around each corner and a more syncretic, villagized version of Islam holding religious sway (as compared to seemingly paradoxical increasing religions conservatism in much of urban Indonesia). These modest, middle-income travelers have also grown a substantial set of businesses for residents of the island, with a tightly interconnected set of hotels and homestay accommodations dotted throughout mainly the southern part of the island, close to the ferry port. Compared to the smallholder agriculture and fishing that predominated before the recent moves towards infrastructure development, and which many continue to practice as part of a set of informal income-generating activities, the tourists are much more reliable. The ferry runs on a regular schedule after all, and sometimes there is even a faster, smaller boat for those who would rather skip the heat, the crowd and the pallets of eggs and bags of rice being unloaded along with the human cargo. There are still questions of the internal class divide between the travelers and their hosts, Java itself being the politically and economically dominant power within Indonesia and its residents having much higher average incomes than any other region. On Karimunjawa, though, those questions are politically much less fraught than elsewhere, given the largely shared ethnic and religious backgrounds of those involved. Compared to say, recent events in the province of West Papua, conflicts here play out in haggling over rupiah, not petrol and tear gas.  

The Next Part of Growing 

At the same time, there is a slow, parallel emergence of another sort of tourist economy on Karimunjawa. Almost as soon as electricity was more than intermittent here and roads could be traversed with relative ease, keen investors, usually with connections to the well-established tourism industries in Bali and, to a lesser extent, Lombok, started snatching up beachfront property from locals who were often unaware of their legal rights or what a fair sale price might be. The first shooting up of semi-luxury establishments along the coasts looms large over the rest of the island, where the tallest building otherwise is a mosque tower and most homes are still squat, brick-and-cinder places, often without proper glass for windows. The argument would, of course, be made by the owners and proponents of such places that they provide much-needed formal jobs to the community and that the transformation into tourism-driven economy was helpful for places like Bali to navigate out of prior agriculture-based arrangements (more on if that’s uncritically true later). Still, given the high price points of such as establishments and the fact that most of their advertising materials are in English, it is fair to say that such places are functionally off-limits to most Indonesians, even the kind who might have been coming to Karimunjawa for a modest getaway previously. 

Though far from being Bali at this point, the clear goal behind developments of this type is to turn Karimunjawa into an international, as opposed to a purely intra-national tourist destination, with all that entails. Already, there are slow signs of adaptation to the relatively light trickle of outside visitors on the part of the local populace. Signs on the rock paths back from the beach give instructions to cover up before hitting a village road, some of the restaurants in the village center have started to deck themselves in mild hippie-kitsch murals, and so on. It is those first rumblings of change, of the new and outside coming in, that often become the retrospective forerunner of the wide, gaping-wound-like divides between locals and visitors seen in areas, from the Caribbean to the Maldives, that have become heavily tourism-dependent. This is without even considering the ecological and cultural consequences of the conversion from what has been termed “cultural” tourism to the “mass” variety. Entire river systems have been drained dry in Bali, to choose just one particularly vivid example, since the 1990s, as a consequence of increased, and increasingly resource-intensive, tourism there. The more philosophical question such changes pose is less easy to observe and quantify, but no less important: does it particularly matter if one is catering to the whims of one’s fellow citizens or to largely whiter, certainly wealthier, foreigners? Where exactly is the line demarcating a source of steady income from a total warping and inversion of native culture for the voyeuristic benefit of outsiders? Of course, residents of Karimunjawa have generally welcomed the greater arrivals, and the developments in travel and power they have brought with them, but whether this second wave of transformation-by-tourism will be as without conflict as the first is very much undetermined. 

If things keep going the way of higher-end tourist facilities, the future of Karimunjawa may be less in the bustling ferry port than in the currently very small airport on the opposite side of the island. The visitors will come from further away, both physically and culturally, and Karimunjawa may start to resemble those far away places more and more, losing the smallness and the particularity that made it attractive in the first instance. 

Ever Forward, but to What?  

There are serious risks to traveling by ferry in Indonesia. Almost every month, in the Indonesian press, there is a story about a ferry journey that caught fire, sank due to a faulty motor or otherwise ended badly for its passengers. Though in theory the industry is supposed to be tightly regulated due to its importance throughout the archipelago for transportation of goods and people, the reality is that it is mired in graft, payoffs and general looking the other way on the part of responsible officials, meaning that companies with spotty records are rarely punished unless and until something particularly egregious hits the newspapers and circuits of social media. The current government of Joko Widodo (universally known by his nickname, Jokowi) is keen to be seen as active on issues of public safety, particularly when they relate to its ambitious plans to develop infrastructure and interconnectivity across the country. Stories like those above do little to improve public confidence in the president’s ability to make what he has described as the “Indonesian dream” of upward mobility into a reality for most of the population, despite his own humble beginnings, not linked to post-independence sources  of military and political power. 

At the same time, Jokowi recently handily won re-election on a platform which promised a continuation of the policies of heavy infrastructure investment, administrative decentralization and a moderating approach to roiling social issues. Even with this modernizing image, however, seemingly intractable problems such as the insurgency in West Papua and extensive plastic pollution in the nation’s water systems have continued to beguile Jokowi’s administration and he has been reluctant to speak out against moves such as the dismissal and imprisonment of Chinese-Christian governor of Jakarta Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (usually known as Ahok) after protests characterized as religiously intolerant and racist. Jokowi’s desire to assert a place in the global order for Indonesia commiserate with its large population (the fourth highest globally) and abundant natural resources is often in conflict with forces beyond on his control, or at the very least which he is reluctant to confront. The vision of the “Indonesian dream” is not to make the country into one big Bali, a playground for ex-pats where the locals form a sort of well-enough-off servant class, but rather to develop internal capacities such that Indonesia can be recognized as a power in its own right, and its population can benefit from increased prosperity at home. There are some home-grown companies, such as the widely used Uber-like service GoJek, which have managed to go global (or at least regional) and are widely celebrated in the Indonesian press for this. At the same time, these examples are few and far between and there are just as many worries within Indonesia about Jokowi’s big spend on infrastructure leading to debt trapping by the Chinese government given how it has been financed. The long-term implications of the money that turned on the lights and paved the roads in the many remote places across the country are, as of yet, unclear and maybe for years, if not decades, to come. Perhaps this was the big push that was needed to get things off the ground and moving outside of Bali and Java, but it may be that the projects end up as mere white elephants, a testament to ambitious goals left unmet. 

On Karimunjawa, as in the rest of Indonesia, the ultimate question is how these moves towards growth and development will be shaped over the coming years, and who will do the shaping. If the hotel companies, both Indonesian and foreign, which made Bali what it is today, are the ones in control, Karimunjawa may get richer on paper and will certainly be more well known to the world beyond Java. It would then also have to grapple with substantial ecological challenges and, perhaps, a more existential crisis of collective personality. If it is more locally driven, things may just remain smaller, with the balance of tourists still coming from Indonesia itself and less in the way of lush hotel greenery. As Indonesia, with its disproportionately young, increasingly educated population, looks outwards to the world and wants to be recognized back, these are the decisions many of its outlying places will grapple with. The right answers are not obvious, nor are would they be easy to achieve even if they were, but it is almost certain that, even if the Indonesia of the near future does not match up to the vision of Jokowi and his fellow leaders, it will almost certainly play a larger global role than it does currently. For now, the ferries to Karimunjawa, and everywhere else, keep running, rickety as they often are, but with the promise, they bring for both traveler and community over the horizon.•


Carter Vance is a writer and poet originally from Cobourg, Ontario, Canada currently resident in Ottawa, Ontario. His work has appeared in such publications as The VehicleContemporary Verse 2, and A Midwestern Review, amongst others. He is a 2018 Harrison Middleton University Ideas Fellow. His debut collection of poems, Songs About Girls, was published by Urban Farmhouse Press in 2017.