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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