Thursday, June 12, 2008

Don't Cry For Me Surabaya

14 On the way to Central Java I found myself sitting next to an American in his late twenties (from Idaho he said, in Futures he said). I asked him if he’d seen Hillary’s speech the day before. He looked at me and said “America’s not ready for a woman nor a damned black man”.

Looking around the Garuda cabin I wondered how many people on the average United 9Airlines flight would have been able to deal with 80% of the folks on this flight without running towards the nearest air marshal in abject terror.

I thought of those Sikhs who owned a gas station in New Jersey who were beaten up repeatedly after 9/11.

And then I thought that I’d better not think of it anymore nor ask my American friend any more questions and I put on my iPod.

Indeed, the iPod had become the first line of defence a couple of times in the journey. It drowned out the new Garuda song. The new Garuda song is everywhere. Go to their website…it plays automatically and you can’t turn it off. Wait in the  boarding lounge and it plays. Get on the aircraft and it plays in a continuous loop, until the tin tube is airborne…which, when you are in a holding place on the runway at Jakarta’s notoriously overloaded and slow Soekarno-Hatta Airport (also known by airport check-in and arrival screens as Cenkareng, although by nobody else on the planet, which can be very confusing) can be a while.4

What we did to deserve this is beyond me. I’m guessing that Garuda didn’t have the cash to pay for a proper Andrew Lloyd Webber song, sung by a proper singer, so they settled for one of his cast-offs sung by some aspiring Opera-lite buff who may or may not be related to someone at Garuda. There is no other reason this guy, blustering with faux patriotic bravado, or the slightly out of tune brass player, could ever get the gig.

Andrew’s also knocked off (this is all assuming that Garuda simply didn’t just blatantly steal the melody of Don’t Cry For me Argentina from Lord Lloyd-Webber) some of the most excruciatingly clichéd and embarrassing lyrics of all time, just for Garuda.

Whilst enjoying this tune I noted that Semerang Airport has banned smoking and the nice girl in the Djarum branded non-smoking café tells me that the airport will ban all ciggie adverts in 6 months.

We will see.


I did lots of things in central Jawa (which, after all, is its name…surely the island that is home to 130 million deserves better than it’s colonial tag). But mostly I just drove, or at least, I was driven by a genial bloke called Jusef.

The word driving takes on a different meaning in Jawa, indeed in much of the third world. Although, from experience, Jawa, once you leave the big cities, has its own completely unique definition of that thing I grew up which we called driving or an approximation thereof. It can be 1harrowing. No...lets correct will be harrowing, at least to anyone not native  to Indonesia or perhaps India. And as with much of the third world, a road is not a road or even a place to get from A to B, or to shop and eat. Or even a place to show off to girls. Rather, it’s an extension of your home, as much a part of your home as the patio with the Barbie is in Australia or NZ. It's a much more intimate relationship in Indonesia or other poorer nations.

People live on it, children play on it amongst the traffic, goats and other animals roam freely on it, and much of it has simply fallen apart but is still continually traversed at speeds exceeding average freeway speeds anywhere else, in vehicles that would be sent immediately to the wreckers in much of the world.

10 Like the hundreds of traffic warning signs (speed, keep left, give way etc) any vehicle certification is just completely ignored.

So I was driven. And Jusef asked if I’d mind if he drove fast. The thing is that what was once terrifying to me no longer has the same horror effect. Buses, trucks, six people on a motor cycle all careering towards me at great speed no longer horrifies me the way it used to. Horses, children and scooters coming out from side roads without a sideways glance into the morass don't raise an eyebrow this far into the adventure.

But I do think that each time you travel on such a road you somehow lessen your allotted lifespan just a little. You shorten the odds by that much. You walk that closer to the abyss.

But so be it, so I said to Jusef: Not at all.

6 Which of course meant that we too became a participant in the death defying cross lane, corner-overtaking, mayhem.

To be honest, I was less concerned with that...what will be will is what it is, like Indonesia itself, and more concerned with the visual delights of another trek through rural Jawa.

I said once before that Alan Whicker once commented that you need to write down everything that amazes you on the first day in a new place because it will seem commonplace on day two. And that’s true in a place like Thailand or even Bali. But it seems not to apply to Jawa (see I’m determined to stick with the word).

2 Here you constantly see things that defy belief, that defy any sense of logic or that look like two, or three, or even four cultures coming together in a huge head-on train crash.

Like the brightly painted school bus, with Escobar written down the side. I assumed it was the soccer bloke that was being celebrated, but no, the front bore a massive airbrushed picture of the late Pablo. And it was parked next to an Anti-Narkoba! Sign which in itself was next to a rural police station, whose sign was proudly sponsored by a cigarette company.

8 I wasn’t fast enough to get a picture of that bus as Jusef veered into oncoming traffic to get past that 40’ (high cube mind) container truck that was slowing us down.

Since we were coming to a blind corner, he wisely decided to continue past that pink tourist bus.

And I noted the stalls selling the traditional national youth costume of Indonesia…..the pirated Ramones T-shirt, seemed to be doing a roaring trade despite the clouds of dust that continually enveloped them, as the swamps of the rainy season have turned to powder mixed with the concrete mist from the continual road works. The warungs selling fruit seemed to enjoy this flavouring too. As did the families playing on the roadside.

12 But just when you despair at the dirt and the dust you come around a bend and gorgeous layered ricefields stretch off as far as the eye can see. That's Jawa.

And then Jusef roars off, or as much as a poorly tuned 1.8ltr 1998 Kijang can roar, and I grip on to the seat again as we dodge an over-laden school bus triple overtaking on our side of the road.

And eventually I found myself back on another Garuda flight with that music again. And the Indonesian guy next to me smiled and said “what a terrible song”

On went the iPod again.

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Cast your fate to the wind.....

Found by my friend Blake: