The common wisdom in Indonesia is that all planes leave late. Name the airline, good or one of the terrifyingly bad ones (of which there are many but more of that later) and invariably they leave up to five or six hours late. And any question at a desk as to why is usually met with a smiling “plane late arriving”, which sidesteps the question of why it was late leaving, or is the whole schedule simply late leaving perpetually and never catches up?
So it was some surprise to Brigid and I to be on an aircraft that left fifteen minutes early. One would hope that everyone had arrived for half full Mandala Air flight RI585 to Surabaya on Tuesday at 8 am before it pulled away from the gate at 7.45. Who knows? Do they care? Actually, maybe and they seem to have picked their act up quite a bit. Mandala was the airline that notoriously flew into a village a few years back and, once again, notoriously, offered the relatives of those incinerated on the ground, a few litres of kerosene (I guess as a warming reminder of how Ibu and Bapak had met their end) and a bag of rice as compensation for their loss.
And one would think that Mandala’s track record was a factor when the European Union banned all Indonesian airlines from their air last year (not a European jealousy of Indo airlines as claimed bizarrely by some government minister at the time, citing a planned devious takeover bid of the Indonesian market by the Europeans). All that came to mind when we booked our flight to Surabaya, to connect to another airline, which in turn would take us to Semarang, from whence we would trek north to Jepara for the main purpose of the trip.
However, clearly, Mandala has bucked up its ideas, probably something to do with said ban and their intended jump into Australia later this year. Suffice to say the aircraft, an A319, was brand spanking new and of a standard that would put any domestic airline in Europe or Australasia to shame – although one would hope that carries through to whatever is beneath the hood, so as to speak.
So 15 minutes before schedule, sitting in our new leather seats, we headed off to Surabaya
And began this week’s tiki tour through north Java…..
The stop at Surabaya was supposed to be an hour and a half. Because of Indo airlines schedules, this could have been tight but we made the assumption that our later flight would be late and we were on the money.
We wandered downstairs after arriving to check onto Sriwijaya Air SJ225, leaving allegedly at 9.50am to Semarang, and the very pleasant girl handed us our passes and, as an aside, as we walked away, said “mister, flight is delayed because of water on runway” … “oh? how long?”… she smiled and raised her hands and shook her head … “go to lounge and check, please”.
So having failed to find a coffee lounge where we could physically see through the kretek smoke (my favourite was the one where the guy was leaning on the no-smoking sign, fag in hand), we went to gate 6c to be told the flight was delayed until at least midday. We consoled ourselves with the thought that perhaps in the bad old days the flight would have left anyway, water ot no water.
We wandered around the terminal and found the perfect gift: a shop selling unwrapped, unchilled, whole smoked fish. These are sold in a loose brown box and are targetted at long haul flights (this is an international airport too, KLM and the like leave from here too). For the tourist who needs that last minute gift for the family in Amsterdam, or an in-flight snack.
Finally, after a few delays, SJ225 was called and we duly trooped on our rather ancient Boeing 737–200, which showed its great age rather badly, with peeling paint both in and outside. Brigid remarked rather hopefully that it looked like it had been washed. Sitting in row 1 we were in a prime position to see one of the ground staff come on before we left – and earnestly wish the flight crew luck. I just put on the iPod, watched the lady in the Continental Airlines branded lifejacket go through the safety routine and mused over the penning landing at water logged Semarang.
And waterlogged it was too – the whole town in fact. The plane landed, rather well it has to be said, no Garuda 400km bounces here, or those terrifying sideways drifts into Wellington’s odd excuse for a runway, but the land on both sides of the runway looked like wide, rather deep, rivers. We thanked the crew, who had been lovely throughout and headed out to meet our driver, Ali, for the trip north to Jepara, one of the furniture manufacturing centres of Indonesia, indeed of Asia. Normally a one and half hour drive, Ali said that incessant rains, the worst on record, had partially destroyed the road (part of the coastal route to Surabaya was 1.5 metres under water) and it was now a 2 1/2 hour trek.
Our first kilometre took the best part of 40 minutes. We needed to get through an under-bridge which was flooded to about half a metre and had stalled cars and a partially overturned mini-bus, abandoned by both driver and passengers in mid road. A policeman stood futilely in waist deep water beside a newspaper vendor (also up to his waist but touting loudly The Jawa Post and the odd vaguely titillating magazine), directing fuming buses, vans and trucks. Ali thought better of it, despite the fact, as we discovered later, that he too drove like a homicidal maniac, and turned up a side road to avoid the gorge.
When we got through we made steady progress but it was heartbreaking to drive up the potholed, collapsing, often single-lane, highway (avoiding the grossly overloaded, barrelling trucks and buses who made no speed adjustment for the missing road or conditions) seeing the terrible misery the waters were causing for tens of thousands of folks, who had almost nothing to start with but whose homes and businesses were now underwater leaving them with even less. Then to ponder when, in this new democracy of sorts, the government will finally work out that they are there to serve the people, not the other way around.
The rain didn’t stop but the conditions improved dramatically when we finally made Jepara a few hours later. It’s a town which has made a lot of money over the decades and the infrastructure is noticeably a step up from much of Java – wide, clean, tree-filled, pothole free roads. But our host there, asked on our meeting if I’d read Joseph Conrad? You have arrived, he said, at the end of the river. I didn’t ask where Colonel Kurtz was at tonight.
After sleeping in a villa complex, of some luxury (apart from the rock like pillows), on a very storm swept Java coast I was a little unsure of the breakfast offered:
I had a little rice and passed on the toast.
In the morning we worked then headed wildly south with the very pleasant maniac, Ali, again. He veered wildly across both sides of the road, making sure he saved the overtaking for the blind corners when he could. Happily the rain had abated so we were able to travel with windows down – well mine at least, Brigid’s got stuck – and look across the endless flat, rolling rice fields, quite unlike anything I’d ever seen in Java before, and I pondered, yet again, how this island of 140 million, little bigger than NZ’s North Island, can be so mostly rural. Yet it is and parts of it almost feel untouched.
At the airport, we crawled from the mini-bus into the safest (not as in physical safety, rather just the safety of knowing exactly what is on the plate) looking eating house. Never has a KFC looked so inviting (or for that matter, inviting at all) before.
Semarang is a big, very grubby, noisy typical Javanese city with a large middle class, and an even larger swathe of very poor folk, and is neither here nor there, although I was very pleased to find a non-smoking café in the middle of the departure lounge at the airport, with a range of Indonesian coffees.
After Sriwijaya Air I was willing to forgive Garuda their recent Jogja incident, and the trip to Jakarta was uneventful, although as usual, we passed on the indescribable offered in the blue food boxes inflight.
Having been to Jakarta on quite a few occasions, and quietly enjoying the town that everyone is supposed to dislike, I was happy to be there. Of note are the multitude of anti-drug posters and billboards around the city at the moment and it occurred to me that perhaps there was something a little hypocritical about these, given that the same city is also overwhelmed by cigarette advertising. Indonesia may be the only country left in the world where you can still advertise that ciggies are good for you – and kids are handed free packets at the door to concerts by the sponsor as an investment for the future.
24 hours later, having spent the best part of a half a day in Jakarta traffic (I never really mind sitting in a Bluebird taxi just watching, but am amused by the TV capable phones advertised everywhere as being perfect for the macet), stocked up at Mangga Dua, and wandered the 24 massive floors of the Pasar Tanah Abang (devoted to wholesale fabrics, clothing and haberdashery) as Brigid did deals in the basement, before heading to the airport to get on the fourth airline in three days, back to Bali.
The plane was late, just to provide some comfort to our expectations: “plane late arriving” the girl in Air Asia red said. We smiled, but it wasn’t too late and was largely uneventful aside.
It was raining in Bali, just past midnight on Friday.
That’s what I did this week.