Brainstrummings from a Bug-Eyed Bookworm

Tiff is a PhD student in English literature at UC-Berkeley. She takes no prisoners, bars no holds, holds no bars.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Part 6: Those Wild and Crazy Airlines!

Although Indonesian airlines are admittedly not the safest way to fly, they definitely have pretty good comparison with United States airlines. In fact, the low quality of domestic air travel in the United States has pretty much made it the butt of bitter jokes in the international jet-setting community. PM and I, like the US-residing bumpkins we were, couldn’t help but be amazed at the fact that we were served food even on the humblest airlines on the most rickety planes. In fact, we practically cried tears of gratitude and joy when we opened the little cardboard boxes whenever the stewardesses passed out to us which usually contained a juice/tea box, a little sweet cake, and a little savoury snack....kind of like orphans allowed for the first time to suckle from the teats dispensing the milk of human kindness.

But enough with convoluted and somewhat graphic metaphors involving teats...back to the..erh...offbeatness of Indonesian airlines!

Our first encounter with this offbeatness was on the Lion Air flight from Jakarta to Papua: Lion Air is basically the Indonesian equivalent of US no-frills airlines...which I guess, means all US airlines which don’t officially advertise themselves as no-frills airlines and where you have to pay for food and snacks. Tucked inside the seat pockets were little laminated brochures listing various food, drinks, and Lion Air paraphernalia available for purchase onboard. Also tucked inside the seat pocket, along with the safety “what to do in case of an emergency” card was a prayer card. read me right...a prayer card: a little laminated booklet with prayers that followers of six different religions(Christianity, Islam, Catholicism (which they consider as different from Christianity), Buddhism, Hinduism, and Judaism) could utter in order to ensure the safety of the flight. They were pretty standard: Lord, please ensure the safety of the passengers, the crew, the pilots, etc....but the fact that they were so brazenly relying on divine intervention, for some odd reason, didn’t exactly inspire confidence in the abilities of the flight crew or the newness of the aircraft. In terms of inspiring confidence, Garuda Airlines (Indonesia’s main and most recognised carrier) had gone the extra mile, as we’d found out on the flight from Jayapura to Biak in Papua. As the plane was preparing for take-off, a special song composed for Garuda Airlines played over the loudspeaker, featuring a grand, operatic score and a baritone singing the praises of the airline in both Indonesian and English. As the song soared to its climax and the requisite climactic key change, the baritone gave it his all: “GA-RU-DA INDONEEEESSSIAAAAA! Hand in hand we feel the pride we cherish DEEP in our HEAAAAARTS! GA-RU-DA INDONEEEEESSIAAAAAA!! I will stand by you for country and for HOOOOMMMEEE!!!!!”

Equally amusing (and perhaps almost as terrifying at Lion Air’s prayer cards) were the slogans of the various airlines, which for some inexplicable reason, were often in English. Lion Air’s slogan, “We Make People Fly” has a draconian feel to it. And then there was Batavia Air’s somewhat ominous slogan: “Trust Us to Fly”. But the slogan to beat all slogans was the one from Wings Air (the subsidiary of Lion Air), whose posters proudly proclaimed in white lettering against a crimson backdrop: “Wings Air. Fly is Cheap.”

Having finished with the Papua part of the journey, PM and I were to bid farewell to one older-generation travelling companion (my father) and say hello to another: Lian--my family’s housekeeper, head-cook, the nanny who had raised me from birth. At this point in the journey, my father caught a flight back to Jakarta, and we flew on to Makassar (on the island of Sulawesi) where we met up with Lian, and then took a flight the next day to Ambon, and from THERE, we were headed to our second leg proper of our Indonesian adventure: the isolated and pristine Banda Islands—part of the famed Spice Islands of 15th-18th century European lore!

Stayed tuned for the next instalment: “Getting to Banda...No Piece of Cake.”

Part 5: The Second Two-Storey Air-Conditioned Folly of Mankind

On our second day in Biak we spent a total of eight hours driving to and from to the neighbouring island of Supiori, which is separated from Biak only by a narrow channel, over which there now exists a bridge. If one thought that Biak was relatively undeveloped, Supiori was seriously undeveloped. The population of Supiori consisted primarily of village folk who made their living fishing and offering their services as labourers to surrounding areas. But this was all about to change...

Supiori had just achieved lofty status as its own kabupaten (in English, a regency...smaller than a province, larger than a city), and with its newfound funds, the officials of Supiori had big plans for it...BIG plans. Wise beyond their years, the officials had decided to use the funds from the federal government to construct a shopping mall to boost the local economy and provide the community of Supiori with a nice, new recreational activity...probably to give them a break from what their usual catching of the fishes and labouring under the sun. The construction of a mall wouldn’t actually be such a ludicrous way of spending the funds...except for the fact that there was no real clientele to whom this mall could cater. Fishing and labouring aren’t high-profit activities, and the local populace was pretty darn poor. Most villages we passed consisted of tiny tin and wooden shacks and were stealing electricity from the main electrical lines which ran alongside the road. The only establishments resembling stores on the island were small stands selling betel nuts and fish. It was unclear how much money the inhabitants of Supiori would have to blow on buying anything that the mall would sell, and it was also unclear what savvy business-types would want to open a store in a mall in the middle of the jungle with people too poor to purchase their products.

We decided to stop by the mall and gawk at it on our way to the farther end of Supiori (to which we were headed for no particular reason). And there it was—a bright pink, two-storey building smack dab in the middle of the jungle, and surrounded by an empty parking lot built in anticipation of the customers who would no doubt come flocking to the mall once it opened. It wasn’t open yet, and huge banners adorning the exterior of the mall proclaimed the wonderful stores which would eventually populate its interior: “Shoe Store!”; “Sports Store!”; “Clothes Store!”.

A lanky security guard, whose job it was to guard the empty building, emerged from his booth and peered at us in a curious fashion. “Good afternoon,” he greeted us.

“Good afternoon,” we chorused back. “We’re just touring around. Showing these two (gesturing to Justin and me) Indonesia. They’re from America. Do you think we can look inside?”


And yes, it was that easy. He unlocked the front door and we wandered inside. It was small, no doubt, but so magnificent in its own way: marble tiles, escalators, outfitted with air-conditioning and electric lighting, and most impressive of all, as one entered the foyer of the mall and looked upwards, one could see stained-glass windows adorning the uppermost portions of the wall and a domed ceiling painted to look like the sky, ala Sistine Chapel.

After we exited the building and stepped back into the car, my father shook his head and grinned. “Another Hotel Marauw, I guess.”

The entire remainder of the day was spent in the car driving down a very run-down and bumpty road to the end of the island and back. We busted a tire on the way back, and while Lembak was fixing it, I managed to convince PM and Pak Daniel to take a short walk down the road until they fixed the car and caught up with us. (8 hours cooped up in a vehicle with no chance to stretch the legs can be a bit tedious.) For the first time in my life, I saw fireflies in their full glory, indecently flashing their little bodies for all to see. Fireflies are actually not flies but a type of beetle belonging to the family Lampyridae, and although many of my friends from the American South and Midwest had told me much about the “lightning bugs” of their youth, I was happy to finally be able to see them in person...albeit in the backwoods of Indonesia.

Stay tuned for the next installment: “Those Wild and Crazy Indonesian Airlines!”