Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Frangipani And The Drift Of Kretek

Coming into Indonesia from Singapore was uneventful enough. Admittedly the guy at check-in at Changi Airport had pulled a face and told me that he wouldn’t actually be able to forward our luggage directly to our Garuda internal flight onwards from Jakarta. But it should all be okay. I’ll label them for special handling, he offered, whatever that meant.

Off the plane and into the crazy queues to buy entry visas. No signboarding anywhere to explain what was going on. Milling hoards of mixed Australians, Malay, some Britishers and, standing next to me, a hairy, misshapen Dutchman looking like a character from Robert Crumb. He didn’t like queuing, you could tell, so he pushed and shoved and got to the head by sheer obnoxiousness, banging his case into everyone’s shins as he went. The rest of us hovered and fidgeted for half an hour as the line inched every slowly forward.

It has always amazed me that the level of bureaucracy in a given country usually operates in inverse to its world status. Try flying into Zimbabwe and see how long you have to queue for entry and how much their customs fiddle with your bags. But then again try the US Border point at Newark. You can be there for a day.

Visas done we moved on to a whirling melee surrounding a single check-in, unconnected to any sort of baggage belt system, and with one tired and shirt-sleeved operator doing his best to deal with the surging crowds. In this new queue, if you can call it that, I was joined again by Robert Crumb’s Dutchman. He looked dazed. He banged his case onto my foot and then shouted loudly that he wanted a flight to Jakarta. But this is Jakarta someone told him. He stood there, puzzled, taking this unexpected information in. Then his eyes widened and I didn't see him again after that.

This vast Indonesia is a Muslim land, of course. Largest Muslim nation in the world. You’d expect the women not to smile at you but they all do. The huge airport sells no alcohol, has no designer shops and no air conditioning. In the tropical heat locals walk past wearing knitted jumpers with jackets on top. Passengers have their cases wrapped in paper, carry bundles on their heads. Everyone has a mobile, everyone smokes. The onward flight arrives. What chance is there that our cases, left miles back at the beltless baggage check-in, will follow us? Not much.

I’m two thirds of the way through Francis Spufford’s splendid re-telling in dramatized form of the ultimate failure of Russian communism, Red Plenty. It's a Faber paperback. Send for yours now. I’ve got to the bit where Khrushchev has been ousted from the Kremlin and sent back home in an ordinary car rather than his long-serving limousine, the deluxe Zil. For the first time in his political life he has to sit next to someone and actually rub shoulders. Never happened before. Humanity you engage with. Flying Garuda’s like that.

Half way there I get given a packed meal and a bottle of water. The pack contains a tiny melting chocolate bar, a meat roll that’s seen better days and a second, mini bottle of what turns out to be water from Wales. Seven thousand miles away and the stuff still follows me round.

Malang airport, under development and certainly not there yet, is bolted onto an Indonesian Airbase. There are guns and soldiers and air force personnel in strong evidence. Access to the terminal is a walk down the steps and a stroll across the tarmac. Inside baggage reclaim is a bear pit. Cases being unloaded from the plane’s hold by hand and slung through an open door, just-arrived passengers pushing and shoving and grabbing. Being a westerner means that I’m taller than most of them so I can at least see what’s happening. I spot our bags, amazingly reached here on the same plane that we used. I get them with a swing of my arm. Then we run.

Suddenly there’s a hand on my shoulder. Can I see your baggage claim, sir? A polite, uniformed English-speaking official with a clip board. He’s asking me this at the point where I’m loading the bags into the waiting car boot. I show him our receipts and he checks them off and thanks us. Despite everything the system works.

Packed inside among our clothes are the things you just can’t get in Indonesia: bacon, cured ham, Cheddar cheese, jars of Marmite. And you need that stuff.

Beyond are the smells of frangipani and the drift of Kretek cigarettes and the Indonesian Java sun up there beaming and rolling.

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