An Unscheduled Stopover

Sunday, 1 November, Batam

Alfredo has a 9 year old son called Asif and an 11 year old daughter called Aisha, the latter of whom has been temporarily displaced so that I can have her room for the night. I’m sitting on the edge of her bed going over the events leading up to my first day in Indonesia. I’d met the kind gentleman who put me up for the night as a result of missing the last flight from Batam to Jakarta due to immigration difficulties. Together with his two kids we’d driven to his house, a basic and probably expensive two storey building at the edge of a new development close to the airport. A wide open porch covers the household’s shoes and a caged mynah bird, which has been trained to recite verses from the Quran. Alfredo’s wife wasn’t back from work yet, but he readily shares the dinner she has prepared for him that morning: wickedly hot curried beef with peanuts and rice. The kids keep topping up my iced water from a posh machine whenever I’m not looking. There’s little plastic hats on our beakers, presumably to keep the wildlife out.

Image of two-storey suburban dwelling
Alfredo’s House – Home of my Saviour

I’m shown around the house and invited to take a shower – asian style, with bucket and bowl – in the tiny tiled bathroom. The rest of the evening is spent relaxing in front of a large TV showing some kind of real-life US game fishing programme, before I bid my host goodnight and retire upstairs. Tired beyond words, it takes me ages to work out how to use the mosquito net which covers the sheet-less bed, and even then I’m kept awake by buzzing insects. The room is adorned with many European touches; a Liverpool FC poster on the back of the door, Eiffel Tower stencils on the walls. School homework is arranged in neat piles here and there, neither tidied away nor untidy.

Monday, 2 November, Batam

Alfredo’s household is up and about early, even though wasn’t his turn to perform the adhan which roused me some time earlier. By 06:00 we’re on our way back to the airport; my host and I riding up front in his pickup truck, kids in the rear. He parks right outside the terminal and asks me for my ticket, which he takes into the terminal building while I wait by the car. Only a few minutes have passed before he returns, having checked me in and made sure I have an exit row with extra space. Once more I’m left humbled and speechless, all I can do is buy him a coffee at one of the unbranded domestic airport cafes. As we munch our banana croissants Alfredo chats with the three bubbly girls working the coffee counter. He seems to know everyone and be liked by everyone, probably telling them about this bumbling idiot he’s put up for the night. My ears latch onto the occasional English word and when the girls notice me listening they hide their giggles and blush. Alfredo is less bashful but equally polite as he bids me farewell in order to take the kids to school; I get a Salam, a handshake, and he calls me his English brother. I realise that despite the shaky start to this trip I’m already falling in love with Indonesia.

The interior of Hang Nadim airport is busy, and people are eyeing me with polite if undisguised interest. There are no other white faces, no Starbucks or McDonalds, just hundreds and hundreds of southeast Asians going about their daily business. Must be a Batam thing, I can’t imagine Jakarta being like this. Nobody seems to mind that I’m taking up more than my fair share of cabin space (kind Alfredo checked me in with carry-on baggage only, yet I have substantially more) and as I find my exit row seat – same spacing as all the other rows but with one of the armrests literally hacksawed off – I start to feel optimistic again. This might yet work out.

The flight to West Java is short and pleasant, our middle-aged B737-800 well and truly run in and smooth as silk. Why have I never heard of Garuda Indonesia before this trip? The airline has 80 of these little Boeings, plus just about everything else from 2 jumbos to 15 diminutive CRJ 1000s. Air travel took off in Indonesia in a big way, linking many of the 922 permanently inhabited islands, though unfortunately engineering and safety has evolved more slowly and at time of writing Garuda remains the only one of 63 local airlines to be allowed into EU airspace. Dig deeper into the supporting statistics and it’s not long before you encounter terms like ‘hull loss’. 

Disembarkation was bliss compared to the previous days, just walk off the plane and into domestic arrivals, no passport checks, no tense moments at immigration. Ten minutes later I was in the back of an air-conditioned Silver Bird Toyota with wipe-clean plastic interior and happy smiling driver, outside the tinted windows reigned the kind of benign chaos which reminded me of Delhi or those first business trips to Bangkok many years ago. There was a traffic system in evidence, but it seemed to be one of defensive selfishness rather than cooperation, with every gap and foothold exploited regardless of consequence. Small bikes seemed to be the order of the day, nothing over 125cc, squeezing into spaces that weren’t there a second ago and onto sidewalks past specifically erected bollards. Most of them are taxi-jeks, each captained by a happy-go-lucky fatalist wearing a numbered tabard, carrying a spare helmet and touting for business. I later learn that the difference between first class and standard class is that in first you get a disposable shower cap to wear under your helmet, in standard class you get whatever the last passenger had. Our journey takes just under an hour to leave the airport expressway and plunge us deep into rubbish-strewn urban Jakarta. The journey passes without incident, and I’m checked into an executive suite on the Pullman’s 12th floor before grabbing a shower and a change of clothes. Less than an hour later I’m met by the clients’ driver for another fight with the traffic, and by 13:00 I’m on site, only 4 hours late in spite of the unscheduled stopover and almost being arrested.