I’m standing at the gates of the east


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.

Ner­vous­ly …

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.

fishWe 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.

waterOn a good day per­haps.

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 coconutmiss­ing 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.

boysSemarang 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.

jakarta24 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.

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