The Long Way Down

My stinging eyes open wearily as the distant prayer call dispels any hopes of just one more hour’s sleep before sunrise. The first muezzin is joined by a closer second as my world begins to focus, the 11 year old girl’s room rendered yellow by the street light outside the dusty windows, and through the gap between the tin roof and the roughly finished walls. The windows are barred from the inside, a simple iron barrier that’s neither ornate nor threatening, and as I ponder the chest-high smudge marks on the glass a third loudspeaker starts up, just across the street, calling the faithful to their morning prayer. Jet-lagged, tired, yet irrevocably awake, the basic concept of sleep seems somehow abstract now as I sit on the edge of the bed and take stock. I don’t know the name of the man who brought me here, nor that of the daughter who’s now sleeping somewhere else so that I can have her bed. I do know that I’m on a small island north of Java, that I’m expected to turn up for work 650 miles away in a few hours, and that I missed the last flight to Jakarta (and, narrowly, jail) because I foolishly attempted to clear immigration with a passport that wasn’t 100% kosher.

Grainy nocturnal shot of somebody sitting at edge of bed, staring out of the window into approaching dawn
Wide Awake on Batam Island

Saturday, 31 October, London

“I’m sorry sir, we can’t let you travel today, your passport is invalid” is pretty much the last thing you want to hear when checking in at the start of a business trip. Turns out that Singapore and Indonesia, much like the US, require visitors’ passports to be valid for at least six months from date of arrival but, unlike the US, they don’t tell you this when you book. Mine was 10 days short. After a some pleading I changed my flight to end in Singapore rather than using it as a stopover. Because they’re the national carrier, Singapore Airlines were able to provide me with a form indemnifying them from any consequence of my illicit travel, but they wouldn’t be party to taking me onward to Indonesia. I could try my luck with Garuda, Indonesia’s biggest airline once I was in Singapore. Or I could stay at Heathrow, bin the ambitious project, the new client, and possibly my job. Aisle seat, please.

Sunday, 1 November, Singapore

“I’m sorry sir, you can’t travel to Indonesia, your passport is invalid” pipes the young salesperson behind the Garuda ticket desk in Singapore airport. Great. 14 hours in an uncomfortable metal tube with 400 other people, and they’re playing the same tune at the other end. Singapore immigration had gone without a hitch; the official either hadn’t noticed my passport’s expiry date or his counterparts in the UK had paved the way with their forms and their phone calls, but I don’t care which because I’m in possession of another colourful stamp. Only now it looks as though this is as far as I’ll get, because Indonesia’s national carrier doesn’t do indemnity forms and Garuda’s representatives aren’t interested in my feeble begging.

Down but not out, we head back to arrivals and find a hotel from one of the touty-looking stalls next to noodle stands and taxi outlets, choosing a cheap and cheerful downtown address that’s close to the embassies, just in case. We? When my girlfriend heard of the business trip she invited herself along, figuring that the food would be cheap and the hotel already paid for, and because November in Jakarta sounds better than November in Berkshire.

It’s too early to check in so we wander along the river, looking for inspiration and trying to acclimatise to the drastic but pleasant change in temperature. Distant rays of sun cut through the haze between us and the Marina Bay Sands hotel; three identical skyscrapers supporting a park, swimming pools and open spaces atop a broad oval platform, 12,400 m2 of suspended luxury high above the city. Closer to our end of the scale are two bottles of water from a 7-11 and the revelation that you can buy peeled, pre-boiled shrink wrapped eggs to bling up your instant noodles. It’s hard not to think of the word ‘gonad’ as we find some shade on the steps of Clarke quay.

A lone gentleman sits on concrete steps next to a canal, somewhere in Singapore, early in the morning.
Clarke Quay, Singapore

Whatever happened here last night must have been good – there are empty bottles and take-away wrappers all over the place. Isn’t littering one of the many punishable social crimes here? I’ve often hear that Singapore is a ‘fine’ city. Fines for this, fines for that … We go for great Eggs Benedict and awful instant coffee at a cosmopolitan sports bar along the river, one of the few places open at this time and doing a roaring trade catering mainly to Western ex-pats and visiting workers as they take a break from their morning runs or cycle rides.

Modern city-centre canal amusement complex
Clarke Quay, Singapore

By now we’re able to check into our room, so we head back to the hotel where she gets some shut-eye and I break out the laptop to let the boss know we’ve made it safely into Singapore. A few email exchanges later and it’s been suggested that in lieu of not being able to fly to Indonesia, I should instead try to get a boat. It’s a short hop over to Batam Island, then a domestic flight on to Jakarta. Although it’s an international ferry it isn’t used much by foreigners, so immigration may be easier. Either way it’s got to be better than jeopardising the project, so I decide to give it a go but leave my missus in Singapore since she doesn’t deserve the hassle if the plan goes pear-shaped.

The passenger ferry isn’t much more than a glorified speedboat, and check-in in a mixture of air travel and catching a bus. Ever the pessimist, I opt for an open-ended ticket which is probably about £2 more than a single, and surrender my check-in luggage on the shiny metal conveyor only to see it disappear on somebody’s shoulder the other side of the desk. The customs official reminds me that my passport is about to expire, and uses his rubber stamp to invalidate the entry permit I had worried so much about for the past 24 hours. Little Miss Smug has come to see me off before her evening of sightseeing in Singapore, and as we say goodbye I try not to think of the two British journalists who were sentenced to 15 months earlier that week for immigration offences. Or of the six months they spent in jail on Batam before even seeing a judge.

Docked ferry / speedboat
Ferry from Singapore to Batam Island, Indonesia

Sunday, 1 November, Batam

Our ferry picks its way through a maze of anchored cargo ships in the Singapore Straight and docks 90 minutes later on Batam, a tiny, crowded Indonesian island with a domestic airport, a town, and just over 1 million inhabitants trying to make a living out of both. It’s only 15 miles from Singapore, but the contrast is stark; travellers’ luggage is more functional (one passenger carries a drum of live fish) and personal space is not a priority. There are no helpful signs to aid immigration, and I nervously find myself in the wrong queue twice, once because I haven’t got the right form for a business trip, a second time because the form I didn’t have the first time wasn’t stamped before I applied for it. What? Don’t think about it too hard, or the fact that a $35 permit just cost you Rp 560,000 – just keep smiling for the third time at the same immigration officer while he says …

“Sir, your passport is invalid. Come with me.”

Busted. As I’m led through an unmarked door into a staff office I’m aware that I haven’t seen another white face since I got on the ferry, and that the official still has my passport. He motions me to a tired black leather sofa flanked on one side by an empty water cooler and on the other by a coffee table holding a small portable television showing a football match. I try to play it cool and work out who the teams are, but nothing seems to be happening. Then I figure out it’s a video game that’s been paused, probably due to my ferry coming in. In front of me are two doors leading to tiny offices, two sturdy doors with mirrored glass. Each contains a table and two chairs, and some paperwork. The official enters one office, places my passport on the table, and resumes his post. Minutes pass like hours before a second immigration officer enters the office and beckons me in, my passport untouched on the table between us. He just looks at it, tapping the table idly with two fingers, and I’m trying to work out if he’s waiting for a bribe or waiting for his colleagues to return so they can drag me to a cell. Instead he asks me the same questions over and over; where are you from, purpose of visit, where are you staying? On the last iteration he asks me who my client is, and the answer seems to carry some weight. Our customer is a major household name around here and, the mood totally changed, my interrogator reels off a few other companies in the same sector. They’re also clients of ours, and I’m not sure how much emotion I can safely show in response to his next question:

“This is the last time you do this, yes?”

Relieved beyond words, my documents stamped, I’m 20 minutes away from the airport where the last flight leaves in 30 minutes, and even the craziest taxi driver to ever own a David Bowie CD isn’t fast enough to get me to the church on time. The tiny terminal is all but deserted, Garuda’s last two ground staff about to turn off the lights above their check-in counter. No, of course you can’t get on the last plane, it’s taking off right now. Did you have a ticket? It so happens I didn’t, but I just catch the nice lady across the hall as she too prepares to lock up her office. A window seat on the first flight to Jakarta tomorrow morning costs just under £40, and I’m simultaneously too weary and too elated to care that I’ll be sleeping on a bench in the airport – looks quiet if nothing else.

As I follow the signs for departures (might as well be ready in the morning) looking for a comfy spot I notice a group of security guards coming towards me, looking bewildered. You can’t sleep in here. Why not? We’re locking up the airport. Oh. This wasn’t something I had considered. The last of the taxis was long gone, and something told me that whatever hotel I’d find on Batam wasn’t going to be worth the hassle of getting there for the sake of a few hours sweaty sleep, so I’m seriously eyeing up the bench outside the terminal when

“It’s OK, you will stay at my house”

One of the senior security guards introduces himself as Alfredo and offers me a ride to his place, indicating the pickup truck parked outside the terminal. Alfredo introduces me to his two kids, a 9 year old boy and an 11 year old girl, who are here to collect daddy and help him finish the day by switching off the airport’s vending machines. As I sit in the security staffroom it occurs to me that I’ve never agreed to spend the night with somebody I’ve know for about 14 seconds. Isn’t hospitality supposed to be one of the cornerstones of Islam? Could this day get any more intense? Time to find out.