Whereas I could have just as easily used that line after successfully going through security at an airport in the United States, I knew that the events of February 1, 2008 made the utterance a bit harder earned.
I took for granted that drains would do as described in their name--drain. Sure, you would have big puddles on the streets of Manhattan after a big storm, but the five-letter d-word soon after did its job quite well. Not so much in Jakarta though. I could walk into an office building in one of the primary business districts, where I'd expect things might run a bit better, only to notice that five minutes later, the sidewalk had already turned into a lap pool. If I was trying out for the US Olympic team, October-April are typically the best months to do so, though various factors make it difficult to predict the precise duration of rainy season, not to mention in that tropical climate, downpours are possible at anytime.
Wanting to take advantage of Indonesia’s proximity to Timor-Leste, a former Portuguese colony at the time only accessible by commercial flight from Darwin, Australia or Denpasar (Bali), I booked an Air Asia ticket to Bali first, with a one night layover on the famed Hindu island. The forecast for the day of my flight called for rain, but having flown in inclement weather before, I didn’t expect the journey from my apartment in Karet to Jakarta’s airport to take much longer than the usual 45 minutes (at non-rush hour times).
All I needed to do was peer out the window to see what lay in store for me. Sheets and sheets of rain falling at a rapid pace, the entrance to my apartment building already overflowing with turbid water, motorbikes and bajaj (bah-jai; I guess you could call these orange and blue three-wheeled cockroaches Jakarta’s equivalent of tuk-tuks) quickly becoming casualties due to water mussing up the exhaust pipes—the outlook had never been worse. Nevertheless, I naively hopped into a bajaj, telling the driver to find a vacant taxi. Instead, he found a perfectly appropriate place along one of the main roads to break down.
Ah well, at least I had made it to a busy thoroughfare, right? Not really, because I could have walked to it faster and achieved the same result. But I did think to get on a motorbike taxi, called ojek, for two reasons. First, the drivers usually have poncho-like bags to place over passengers (and backpacks) in the event of rain (even if they are already soaked). Also, ojek are adept (read: fatalist) at navigating traffic, both on the road and on the sidewalk. This fellow took me to Gambir, one of the main train stations in town, from where I planned to catch an airport bus. Of course, there were no more buses leaving for the day due to the weather, so we then negotiated a fare to the airport.
He made it quite far, actually further than any other mode of transport I had for the day, even though it was still pouring something fierce. But, like a balloon at a birthday party for kindergarteners, something had to give, and his bike succumbed to now knee-high water levels close to Grogol. He guilt-tripped me into waiting for me to try and “fix” it, which is when I decided to finally snap a shot of the current scene.
He’s the character in the black cape and helmet in the foreground, pulling to the side. This also gave me ample opportunity to discuss prices with another ojek on the flip-side of the median. Traffic in Indonesia moves on the left, so I was talking with the next driver to head the wrong way in exchange for an inflated price. Not that it mattered anyway since traffic was nearly at a standstill. The two ojek started arguing for my fare, but I chose to move onto “the next round.”
Unsurprisingly, the new guy didn’t get us too far. Even though his bike broke down too, he became a bit incensed after I paid him and mentioned that I was going to fetch a bajaj. The bajaj practically went nowhere, so I headed right for a taxi. Even though the taxi driver practiced price gouging, he ended up helping me by stopping right in front of an airport bus at the Pluit tollbooth. I hurriedly made it onto the airport bus even though there were others waiting; additionally, authorities weren’t letting low-occupancy vehicles pass the toll gate either. Wherever the other passengers were expecting to go, it became apparent that none were going to get further than me.
After the toll, the bus only carried on for about ten minutes, at which point all cars stopped progressing. Those naive yet perseverant people who, including me, were more determined than ever to catch their flight, especially after making it this far, were now confronted with waist-high (at least for me) water which had mixed with sludge that came from the drainage ditch on the side of the road. I was literally walking in a canal of rubbish, complete with rusty nails stuck in easily-splintered wood, various leaves and bugs spilling over from a nearby rice paddy, and an indeterminate status of the contents of my backpack. It was then that the rain had stopped, but also when dusk fast approached.
After treading through that murk for nearly an hour, I and the few others who also trudged onward ended up at a point in the road where a few cars were caught in the middle of two elevated stretches of water. That’s limbo, in a nutshell. Someone in a Mercedes gave me his phone number to call him when I got to the airport, to inform him about the latest conditions. There’s no doubt in my mind I made it to the terminal before he did, even if the next part of this saga was about to take three hours.
I was the only one of the small now-dubbed “canal clan” to choose to walk the rest of the way, even though I had no idea how long it would all take. The fact that the multi-lane highway had been shut to traffic added an eerie feel to the whole scene. The electricity had gone out too, so I had to rely on my camera flash and phone light to guide much of the way. This is exactly the kind of scenario where keeping electronics/small change in plastic Ziploc bags is key. I can’t say that this was the most “exciting” part of the day, although I had quite the inner monologue at this rare interlude of silence in an ordinarily chaotic (not to mention heavily polluted) speck on the world map. Occasionally checking my phone to check the time I found that my flight, if the airport was still open, would have already taken off. Somehow that was the most irritating moment of my journey.
Sure enough, a bit over three hours later I made it to the Cengkareng (close to the airport) toll booth, perhaps the sole instant in my life where such a place would be so welcomed. I was rewarded with news that the airport had reopened, and that I had to take an ojek to get me the rest of the way. The air conditioning provided the first sigh of relief, though something more appreciated was light. I got to see that my clothes had turned brownish-orange, and that there was no queue for check-in. But how could I check-in if my flight time had already passed? For some reason, I thought to buy travel insurance with this ticket, and it was only because of this that I was able to get a free boarding pass for the next Air Asia flight to Bali.
The total amount of time it took me to get to Jakarta’s airport was roughly eight hours. Unfortunately, even after all of that day’s low points, the next day turned out to be far worse. As a foreign worker in Jakarta, whenever I wanted to leave the country I was supposed to get a re-entry stamp from the immigration office--in Jakarta. It was a miserable ten seconds of my life, walking up to the immigration official in Bali’s airport only to be told that I couldn’t board the flight to Dili (in Timor-Leste) because I was missing that stamp. Furthermore, because of the severe flooding in Jakarta the day before, and that it was a weekend, almost all flights back to the capital were booked. The next flight was seven hours later, with the now-defunct (but always precarious) Adam Air. Others might have been glad to get an extended vacation in the island paradise, but not me. Landing in Jakarta was just as embittering, as flooding caused cars to take one-lane detours back into the city. Three hours later, I was back at square one, where just 28-hours earlier I set out to confront just another day in the tropics.
"Jonathan DeLise is originally from the New York City area, but due to having lived in East Asia for more than three of the past seven years, feels more confident in sharing insight about Jakarta nightlife and Tokyo convenience stores than wondering how much each additional adjective is going to cost you at a brasserie in Tribeca. His blogs http://buildingmybento.wordpress.com/ and more recently www.collaterallettuce.com emphasize his interest in languages, food, architecture, and transportation, thus he is most enthused about pursuing a career involving eating, traveling and writing.”