Thirty hours in hades

Part one of a haphazard two-parter …

Don’t get me wrong, I love Semarang. Small towns (population 4m or so) are supposed to be like this: vibrant, friendly to a fault, a step behind the big smoke (in Indonesia’s case, the urban behemoth that is the 30m+ non-moving swamp called greater Jakarta) and largely unrushed and unpressured. It was supposed to be a speedy trip into Semarang – some 24 hours in Indonesia and then on to Singapore. What could go wrong?

Garuda. That one word sounds innocuous and the airline has a stellar global rating from Skytrax which is a mystery. Unlike the small and unknown West Australian entity that Air New Zealand acquired its very suspect “world’s best airline” claim from, Skytrax is the industry standard. You’d think they would know their stuff, right? 1

The flight flew to Jakarta, where we had an hour or so, and then we transited to a domestic flight on the same airline, as we’d done many times before. Garuda also send your bags all the way through to the final destination and it’s usually easy – at least until you get to the bunfight at Semarang airport’s luggage claim, where they put your bags on a belt that simply leaves them in midair at the end; and where you have to battle folk battered by gruelling Islamic pilgrimages (why do these people tolerate being treated so poorly in the name of religious duty?) and whole villages travelling with their livestock and all their worldly possessions. This is not an exaggeration.

It started badly. In Bangkok. As always, we checked in online and assumed that we could do the swift bag-drop, as you always do. That is, after all, the whole point of online check-in, and it works everywhere. Well, almost – I’d forgotten that it makes no difference in Bali – they ignore internet check-in as a rule, or at least used to. Staff are confused by the concept despite a large sign that suggests you use it next time. They pretend they have never heard of it and herd you into their arduous standard queue (it’s worse in Bandung where fist fights are not unknown at check-in, but that’s another ugly set of stories). And Garuda is an Indonesian airline.

No. We arrived to a massive non-moving queue and just the one check-in counter. Bugger it – we moved into the gold card line and hoped. An officious woman, who arguably (in that she would argue it, we would argue otherwise) was just doing her job, demanded angrily that we vacate the VIP queue and toddle over to the 100 long non-web-check-in line.

The printed boarding pass we held instructed us to avoid such a queue and just go to the drop-off. A discussion failed, so we walked away and sat down. I went over to customer service where another far more pleasant woman apologised both for her compadre and for the lack of a queue. There had, she said, previously been one, but Garuda were now just too cheap and had recently canned it. Wait, she said: new boarding passes, including important ones for our connecting flight to Semarang from Jakarta, were issued with a smile by her, and our bags were checked right through. She even offered a food voucher, with further apologies and a frustrated explanation that Garuda was cutting corners everywhere.  We were impressed with her, although airlines – especially Indonesian ones – rarely benefit from cost cutting and you just know that Garuda is somehow going to kill that Skytrax rating somehow – just as Air New Zealand did with theirs, leaving them to be reliant on obscure sites in West Australia where they are not offended by stewards punching you on the shoulder as you board and saying, “Gidday mate, the names Keith …” (that happened to me on an ANZ flight from HK to NZ a couple of years back: Keith, I paid $XXXX to fly on your unusually expensive airline in a premium class, I am NOT your mate.)

We were impressed with her, although airlines – especially Indonesian ones – rarely benefit from cost cutting and you just know that Garuda is somehow going to kill that Skytrax rating somehow – just as Air New Zealand did with theirs, leaving them reliant on obscure sites in West Australia where they are not offended by stewards punching you on the shoulder as you board and saying, “Gidday mate, the names Keith …” 2

Happier, we went through immigration and went to the little faux-Italian coffee place we like, vouchers in hand.

Boarding was at 1.45 – it said so on the big wall screens and she had told us this. At 1.30 I looked at the boarding pass. It said boarding was at 3.45. Some kind of mistake, we agreed. The board still said 1.45 so we headed to gate D5. A queue had formed for the flight – but it was for some plane to Kuala Lumpur and nobody had heard of our flight – aside from the other Garuda passengers all equally confused.

We walked the 500m or so to the Garuda desk. There was nobody attending the Garuda desk. A person at the generic airport information counter made a quick call and told us it had been delayed. We had worked that out ourselves, and there was still no Garuda staff to be seen anywhere. We demanded that they call them. Finally, we spoke to someone – yes it was delayed: “mechanical issues”. So why did you check us through to Semarang? “You might still make it”. The new arrival time was half an hour after the Semarang flight was scheduled to leave!

After much flustering, it was agreed that Garuda BKK would arrange a hotel near Jakarta airport – a four or five star rated one – AND book us on the 8 am flight to Semarang. It was, they said, confirmed by their Jakarta head office. Not great but it was all we had. We would arrive in Semarang around 9 am, spend a few hours there, and then hurry back the airport to get a connecting flight to Jakarta on Garuda (on domestic we had booked business to ensure fast transit) where we would check-in on Air France to Singapore. We had almost two hours to do so – once again, what could go wrong?

We had a beer, noting that another Garuda voucher was on the floor. A Mr. Wong. He’d decided to go hungry. And then we took the two-hour delayed – three by the time they dawdled on the taxiway – plane to Jakarta’s fairly rugged 60s era Terminal 2.

They, of course, apologised profusely. Actually, that’s crap – nobody said a word to us and the food was horrific, so much so we both left it after a quick peek. Skytrax be damned – Garuda’s food is still inedible – nobody at 30000 over Terra Firma does food as dreadfully as an Indonesian economy class. They played the Garuda company song. I know it off by heart: “Garrruda, Indonesia … [que soaring strings].”

We arrived in Jakarta, having explained our problem to the onboard staff. They knew about it and they, so we were told, had helpfully radioed ahead – we were also told that we were being met and the Semarang plane had been held! Really? It’s Indonesia so anything can and often does happen.

We were hurried off the flight first and we raaannnn. A smiling young man in a well-pressed Garuda blazer confirmed that the plane had be held – and our bags were being rushed through too. Yikes. His “friend” would meet us after immigration and take us to the awaiting craft. We ran again. Through the swift (no paperwork required in Indonesia) entry process and ran. No “friend”. Anywhere. At the transit desk, they ignored us at first and then – when pushed – told us that the plane was long closed and indeed gone. Which is what they wanted us to be: gone. We had been rushed through the immigration process to make us someone else’s problem. In Indonesia, you are only someone’s problem until they can get rid of you.

“Go to customer service”, we were instructed. We did. No, you need to go to third-floor customer service … “up, round, down, left, right …”, “Take us”. No. “TAKE US!!!”. He did. We were his problem and he urgently needed to find another Garuda person to pass it on to.

There it was: please wait in the queue, mister – no thanks. We sat in front of the wide service desk. Had the flight the next morning been booked? The hotel? As per the email? What email? “We have no information on this,” said a smiling but somewhat overweight man in an undersized Garuda uniform (I’m not judging on the weight – I can’t talk – but rather the poor fit). He smelled strongly of kretek cigarettes – not an unpleasant smell unless you’ve lived in Indonesia where almost every male over 15 smells that way. We lived in Indonesia for almost five years so I gagged a little.

Garuda Bangkok just wanted the problem gone too. There was no email. It was never sent. Somebody else’s problem.

Kretek aside he was a very cheery fella and he began to discuss us with his buddies – in Bahasa. I told them I understood the language. They stopped saying rude things about us – their current problem.

They conferred for what seemed like an age, and then offered us a 2-star dump attached to an all-night karaoke dump somewhere in airport-satellite-town-hell. No, we had been promised a 4 or 5 star. No. We reached an agreement – 3 star it was. And a meal voucher. The hotel van was on its way – 10 minutes.

We waited over an hour before we were transited by a non-smiling kretek odour-ish driver in a Garuda mini-van to a newish 3-star dump (we drove past a flash hotel of the same name on the way – so not that one), where we checked in, albeit not easily. In the foyer of a dour but overlit hotel-by-numbers-by-Swiss 3 with gaps where walls should meet floors, we presented a young – clearly efficient in the same way newish water pumps are usually efficient – lady at the desk with our meal vouchers. “Not valid”, she said. She explained with a reluctant smile that the voucher was incorrectly stamped by the first kretek man; not precisely in the Garuda-stamp place on the voucher. Yes, they dealt with Garuda all the time, but this did not have the stamp in the right place on the voucher. Yes, the hotel was where Garuda staff were put up – but the stamp … How did she know the hotel would get its $5 back from the national flag carrier?

Brigid explained to her that we would probably explode there and then if she didn’t okay the vouchers with room service. With a great deal of reluctance, she did – after 20 minutes on the phone to Garuda trying to find kretek man #1 – albeit still clearly dreading the wrath of the morning shift manager when he (in Indonesia the manager is always he) saw that she had given us meals pursuant to a badly stamped voucher.

We ordered a beer each from room service – a Bintang as that’s all they had, like most of Indonesia. The beer is like liquid rust, thinned with kerosene, but was all they had. The burger would need it.

In the morning we went to check out for the 8 am flight and there was a new person at the desk. “What about the beers?” she asked, “who will pay for them?” “Garuda,” we said. “Not included,” she responded with some (growing) apprehension. “They are now,” Brigid said. As we got into our cab, she was urgently calling us back and frantically ringing anyone at Garuda. I suspect the beers are still going back and forth – it was the hotel’s problem now as we had left.

Semarang was brief, tiring but fine – and then we headed back to the local airport. Sometimes it floods without warning, given that it’s below the level of the surrounding prawn farms, but today the dykes seem to have held. As long as you avoid the appalling biz class lounge at Semarang airport it’s ok – almost decent coffee and now non-smoking. You ignore the people with roosters about to board that very-budget flight to a place that you’ve never heard of with a population bigger than Auckland.

The plane was delayed. That’s ok, we had two hours. The plane was very delayed and we were stressing as the minutes passed. In a typically Garuda way, nobody knew what is happening until the plane was about to board, and then it was the standard survival of the fittest fracas – and we were in business. The plane left 1 hour and about 20 minutes late, thus we had some 40 minutes to go from domestic to international, however, the Garuda flights are in the same terminal as international, and – given we had biz class priority tags – our bags would be quick. Right? Right.

The plane arrived on time (the delayed time, not the original) but air traffic control decided to park it as far away from the terminal as physically possible. Jakarta is a very, very, big airport and the other side of the airport means you are probably closer to Bandung than to Terminal 2. We waited for a bus and it eventually arrived. The upside of business class is a private bus that leaves the aircraft first. (There were 5 of us including a nice man who made doors.) The downside is a VIP baggage area, complete with sugary welcome drinks and smiling but vacuous ‘hosts’, where your bags are personally delivered to you. We didn’t want personal, we just wanted bags – fast. Brigid rushed upstairs to Air France to hopefully explain and plead. She rang and said they were holding the plane. I like Air France. We had 10 minutes. The pretty lady at Garuda offered me another drink. Drink? NO, I WANT BAGS. The fucking bags – please. She made a call and said there was nothing she could do. I decided all was lost and sank into the overly comfortable sofa drink in hand – when a special VVIP bag trolley arrived with the two bags as

The upside of business class is a private bus that leaves the aircraft first. (There were 5 of us including a nice man who made doors.) The downside is a VIP baggage area, complete with sugary welcome drinks and smiling but vacuous ‘hosts’, where your bags are personally delivered to you. We didn’t want personal, we just wanted bags – rather fast. Brigid rushed upstairs to Air France to hopefully explain and plead. She rang and said they were holding the plane. I like Air France. We had 10 minutes. The pretty lady at Garuda offered me another drink. Drink? NO, I WANT BAGS. The fucking bags – please. She made a call and said there was nothing she could do. I decided all was lost and sank into the overly comfortable sofa, fruity sugar drink in hand – when a special VVIP bag trolley arrived with the two bags. Just ours, mind. Brigid called again – we have 4 minutes. I grabbed the bags, ran outside and grabbed a uniformed guard – Air France – where? He pointed up to the next floor and then towards a lift. I ran – Brigid rang – 2 minutes. I got to the lift and a very nice Indonesian family of four tried to get in before me. NO!! I screamed, and dragged them physically out, at the same moment bashing the 2nd-floor button, as they watched on with a mix of bemused and absolutely terrified. My New Zealand compatriots often ask if Asia is safe. Yes, but if I’m honest, a great many Asian very reasonable folk are absolutely terrified of we oversized, brutal hulks with bad skin and too much facial hair. Is it safe? Not whilst we are roaming as we do.

The 2nd floor arrived and I yelled at another man in a uniform – Air France, di mana? He pointed to a distant desk where I could just see Brigid pleading for an extra thirty seconds.

It was enough and we were thrust two boarding passes and told to sprint, yet again.

The wonderful woman in an Air France uniform handed Brigid a glass of champagne as soon as the seatbelt light went off and I decided that a Bintang was ok sometimes.

I like Air France.

This was nothing.

Show 3 footnotes

  1. To be fair, they have improved since the days of quiet plane crashes at Jogja caused by arguments over who slept with the pilot’s wife. It happened.
  2. that happened to me on an ANZ flight from HK to NZ a couple of years back: Keith, I paid $XXXX to fly on your unusually expensive airline in a premium class, I am NOT your mate, I’m SIR.
  3. Owned by New Zealanders we are told.

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