PHOTOS: A Tranquil Ferry Between Indonesian Islands : Parallels The public ferry system is a key link for a diverse nation spanning some 17,000 islands. "We serve all the people," says the captain of a ferry linking majority-Hindu Bali with majority-Muslim Lombok.
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PHOTOS: A Tranquil Ferry Between Indonesian Islands

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PHOTOS: A Tranquil Ferry Between Indonesian Islands

PHOTOS: A Tranquil Ferry Between Indonesian Islands

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Indonesia is one of the most populous countries in the world. And it's also one of the most diverse. The country has perhaps more than 17,000 islands - not even the government knows the exact number - in an area as wide as the continental U.S. This week, we're looking at some of the threads that hold this country together. One thread is a system of ferryboats that act as a connective tissue, bringing together people from every background.

We're boarding a ferry that runs every hour 24 hours a day from the majority-Hindu island of Bali to the majority-Muslim island of Lombok. The people who ride it are a cross section of Indonesian life - doing business, visiting relatives or going on vacation.

People are carrying platters on their heads full of bananas and peanuts. Men in uniforms are waving us upstairs where the boat is already starting to fill up.

They are raising up the ramp that the trucks have used to drive onto the ferry. And we're getting ready to pull out.

This journey of almost 50 miles takes four hours. Tourists use a fast boat that takes less than half the time. So this one is almost all locals. And people are not the only passengers.


SHAPIRO: That's Rambo, one of two roosters pecking around on the top deck. One of Rambo's legs is tied to a post with a sort of leash. The man watching over them works for an Indonesian delivery agency, kind of like FedEx or UPS.

ARIF RAHMAN: My name is Arif Rahman.

SHAPIRO: What are you doing here with two roosters?

RAHMAN: I come from Bangkok, Thailand.

SHAPIRO: You came from Thailand with these roosters?


SHAPIRO: He explains that these are cockfighting roosters that went to Bangkok for breeding. Now they're on their way home. Rahman has worked all over the world. He spent 10 years in South Korea.

Do you often take this ferry?

RAHMAN: One year, eight times.

SHAPIRO: Eight times a year.


SHAPIRO: He says he loves how leisurely it is - the ocean view, the snack bar downstairs. There's even an area where people watch Bollywood movies subtitled in Indonesian.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character, singing in foreign language).

SHAPIRO: The national language is another thread that connects the country. People in Indonesia speak around 700 languages. Nearly everyone learns Indonesian, but only 7 percent of Indonesians speak it as their first language. It's like imagine if more than 90 percent of people in the U.S. grew up speaking languages that aren't English, and yet everyone used English at school and work. That's basically the way Indonesia's national language works.

Coming off the back of the boat is what looks like a fishing line going into the water. And it's coming out of a window that is right below us. So we're going to go down and see who belongs to.

While the snack bar sells chocolate and instant noodles, a member of the crew named Hendi Wahyu is trying to get a more gourmet lunch. He runs fishing lines off the back of the boat, while his real job is managing the trucks below decks.

What are you hoping to catch?

HENDI WAHYU: Fish - tuna, tuna.

SHAPIRO: What is on the end of the line?

WAHYU: (Through interpreter) Squid - it's squid. When we've got the fish, it will jump. That's when we know we have it on the line.

SHAPIRO: A woman in a bright orange T-shirt with a leather jacket and a purple bow in her hair is asking me to take a selfie. So we're going to take a selfie with her, and then we'll talk to her. Cheese.

Like many Indonesians, this 27-year-old goes by just one name, Juraidah.

JURAIDAH: (Through interpreter) I'm a migrant worker. And I'm just coming back from Taiwan. I'm so happy because I'm going to meet my parents. It's been three years. I am just so happy.

SHAPIRO: What will you do when you see them?

JURAIDAH: (Through interpreter) I want to give them money and buy them clothes.

SHAPIRO: I'm sure you also want to give them a big hug.

JURAIDAH: (Through interpreter) Yes, of course. But my father passed away. It's only my mother. And that's why I have to earn money for my big family.

SHAPIRO: So will this be the first time you've seen your mother since your father died?

JURAIDAH: (Through interpreter) Yes, it will be my first time.

SHAPIRO: We've gotten permission to go see the captain, so let's pay a visit.


SHAPIRO: Outside the bridge, songbirds hang in ornate cages. Captain Mulyono has been in charge of this ship for five years.

This boat seems to bring together people who are Hindu and Muslim, people who are poor, people who are wealthy. Tell me about the way you see this boat holding together the nation of Indonesia.

CAPTIAN MULYONO: (Through interpreter) We serve everyone. It doesn't matter if they come from another religion or another tribe. We serve everyone.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

SHAPIRO: We're just pulling into the port in the south of the island of Lombok. The man with the roosters has put them in two bags. The man who was fishing for tuna has pulled in his lines, empty. And the captain is steering us into port. Everyone else is getting ready to go their separate ways.


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