One foot either side of the Equator: and other stories of derring-do

Despite the quality of her outfit, this woman is making an unforced error. If she puts her right foot a little further to the right, just the other side of the grout, she’ll be doing the right thing. One foot in the northern hemisphere and one foot in the south. A thrill may travel up through her body although I’m not sure it will. I was left unmoved.

IMG_1872We’re just out of Pontianak (which also means ‘ghostly vampire’ in bahasa) on the banks of the mighty Kapuas, the biggest river in Indonesia, rising in the hinterland of Kalimantan. We’re near its mouth on the west coast where the Dutch decided to conduct a careful latitudinal survey in 1928 and at longitude 109020’E they placed a monument to precisely define the Equator. The Indonesians roofed said monument in the 1970s, and it is now Pontianak’s prime tourist attraction.

Pontianak is more than one-third ethnic Chinese and feels like it. To indicate its diversity, it has a huge Buddhist temple, an enormous Muslim mosque and a gigantic Catholic cathedral (below). IMG_1860

When I was there it rained. IMG_1852Only for half an hour but by that time the surrounds were flooded.

This must happen a lot. No one was fazed.

And while we’re on educational, what’s this?


Rubber drying.

But to move from the paltry to lay some more important matters out.

IMG_1867Apart from the quality of its food, for which it is renowned, the really important thing about Pontianak is that with very little trouble you can balance an egg on its end. I did this, me, moi, so no special gifts required. This is anywhere at the Equator. Look at this. They’re at it everywhere.

Now how come?

There is a tradition elsewhere of balancing eggs on the vernal (and presumably autumnal) equinox — days of equal night and day. And although the National Geographic includes in its games for kids: ‘Some people believe that the gravitational pull of the sun that occurs on the equinoxes can help keep an egg standing on its end’, there is a tradition of rubbishing the whole idea on the internet. And there’s, you know, the direction water drains down plug holes separated by a couple of feet either side and … how come you lose all strength standing on the Equator? And what if you slip and fall through the cosmic doorway to a brighter future. (Ah no, that’s definitely just been made up).

I tried to balance an egg on its end at home and although, notionally at least, you ought to be able to balance almost anything, I couldn’t. In fact they were keen to just flop over. A little man in each of them threw himself sideways immediately the eggs were placed upright. It is suggested that you shake them so that the yolk settles at the bottom. I couldn’t make that work either.

I’ll leave that with you as one of the ineffable thrills available to the traveller to Pontianak.

• • • • • • • • •

Just while I’m here, I want to place on record that I got from Citadines Apartotel in central Jakarta to Terminal dua F of the Soekarno-Hatta Airport in 27 minutes. About 38 kilometres. To properly understand the dimensions of this feat it is necessary to understand that it has taken me 2 hours and 50 minutes, and that you always try to allow at least two hours.

I don’t take photos on this route. You think you’re going to capture the experience but it’s impossible. Coming the other way, arrival in Jakarta is usually a depressing experience — for me. Some people thrill to their first smell of kretek and fish paste. Tired, you forget to pay your US35 at the door and, despite the presence of his fixer, some morbidly obese anglo-celt has an incomprehensibly complex negotiation to complete which causes the payment queue to stall. There are 10,000 cabs (with 10,000 people keen to assist you to find one) waiting outside but none with your name on it. That will take an hour to appear because it must be arranged through Golden Bird not Silver Bird, although you are assured they’re the same company.

But in the end you are tucked up in the back seat of a Toyota Avanza and, once you’re shot of the airport proper, progress is good. You’re on a jalan tol, a freeway of sorts. Modernisation you think. Splendid.

But about 15 k.s later — by the time you get to Slipi when you’re struggling to make out the lights of the tower blocks through the tangible, cuttable, air — the true horror of it all hits you. It’s hard to believe that you could ever find a way through this wall of traffic. You’re stationary behind a bus belching partially digested diesel through your aircon and between a truck carrying scaffolding on one side and one with a very rickety looking load of wood on the other. And when I say behind and between I mean, you know … 10 centimetres.

Arriving this time we hit a giant wedding at the Hotel Mulia and didn’t move except for slight creepings sideways for 20 minutes. We didn’t move because there was a food truck delivering food to the wedding parked perpendicularly across two and a half of the three lanes of traffic. Selamat pernikahan Shana and Dewis. Best wishes. (But with an Indonesian pronunciation.)

IMG_1793To the right, Jalan Rasuna Said at 6am.

It is 5.45 in the morning, not my best time I readily confess. My driver has been waiting at Citadines for 45 minutes, arriving an hour early. Reception has rung twice to say he’s there. Could that have provided a motive? I don’t know. But he escaped from Jalan Rasuna Said almost instantly and headed off through the kampong lanes. Always up for something new, this is good I thought. I had enough time to get my flight, if no more than enough, but anything to get off Rasuna at six in the morning.

It was just a little like Hollywood. You know. Boom go the chook cages. Squash go the paw paws. Through the chicken rice shop. As we cut to local peasants fleeing with motor scooters crashing into each other and flying into the air, it occurred to me that I was about to witness a formidable display of Indonesian manhood. Can be good; but as the excitement mounts might just tip over into something not quite so desirable, especially when you’re a participant.

I’ve watched these performances of weaving through the traffic, often big black Mercs with windows even more heavily tinted than usual. No, you think, he can’t. He’s not going to make it. But he does, even if three scooters have to commit to the shoulder which in Jakarta could mean anything. And he does it again. It’s a bus, it’s a bus, it’s … and then as the jalan turns into a high overpass, you can see in the distance he’s still going, still at it. But I’d never actually been in the vehicle before.

It was far too early in the morning to think of what ‘slow down’ was in Indonesian, and ‘Stop’ which would be understood but unexpected might have produced a calamity. Zoosh we went, just missed him. Zhang, into that impossible hole. Pass on the left, bus in front, he can’t, it’s not poss … Ah my Lord.

On the jalan tol I peered over his shoulder and he was doing 147 kph. Oooo pak, I murmured. Pak pak pak. Phlooot, straight through the middle of two trucks with millimetres to spare. He was good. Outstanding of his type.

The ‘Kurangi kecepetan’ (‘reduce speed’) sign on the outskirts of the airport building seemed to induce a new rush of testosterone. Zhinnnnngg we went, round the clover leaves like a roller coaster. Dua F. Ya pak, ya. Ini. Two F, we’re here pal. He even stopped quickly.

I had some money in my pocket for a tip and I got it out thinking no way no way no way, although with qualifications. I was alive. I was here. I was even early, never a bad thing at CGK. He had shown me his best. There was a blue 50,000, 5 bucks, in the roll. That was never going to be included in any tip. But he snatched, too strong a word, Indonesians don’t snatch — lifted, yes lifted, the 50, cackled like crazy and was gone. I looked at my watch. 27 minutes, door to door.

• • • • • • • • •

IMG_1770I had some time to spare on the first day so after I’d got something to eat at D’ Stupid Baker I thought I’d go for a walk. Midday, no hat, no map, no water, sandals not shoes — d’ stupid walker. But I thought I’d probably survive, and I did even though when I got back I was a startlingly sweaty spectacle. IMG_1791

There were some shady alley ways besides the building sites along with a fetid waterway that kept pushing me further away from my planned route.IMG_1776 If I’d tried to wade through it I think I would have gone fizz like a Fruit Tingle and dissolved. I also had a chance to walk through some proper food courts.IMG_1783

And then I came to this. IMG_1773Jakarta isn’t awash with remarkable modern architecture like Beijing, Singapore or the Emirates cities, but it does have the Bakrie Tower.

Which goes with this —600_MUD_1

Why, you may ask?

Indonesia is a country exceedingly rich in natural resources. On 26 May, 2006, PT Lapindo Brantas, an Indonesian company exploring for gas and oil, began drilling near the town of Sidoarjo in east Java.

In the first stage the drilling went through a thick seam of clay, then through sands, volcanic debris, shales, and finally into permeable limestone. Steel casing was installed in the borehole to help stabilize it. During the second stage the drill went deeper to about 3000m, this time without a protective casing. A series of small eruptions of water, steam and gas occurred near the site.

Then on the 27th a 6.3 magnitude earthquake occurred with its epicenter at Yogyakarta, 250 k.s southwest. Seven minutes after the earthquake a mud loss problem in the well was noted at the drilling site. After two major aftershocks, the well suffered a complete loss of circulation. This happens when ‘drilling mud’ — necessary for maintenance of the stability of the bore — pumped down a shaft does not return to the surface but is lost into some opening or a fault system. A day later the well suffered a ‘kick’, an influx of fluid into the well bore. This problem seems to have been rectified within three hours. Then, the next day, 29 May, steam, water and mud began erupting up to 200 meters above the well, a phenomenon that is now known as the Lusi mud volcano. (Lusi from Lumpur (mud) and Sidoarjo, the town, a very Indonesian piece of language construction.)

So it could have been the drilling, it could have been the earthquake, or it could even have been the sort of seismic fracturing that occurs on a day-to-day basis in many parts of Indonesia which is a very lively part of the ‘Fiery Circle’ which surrounds the Pacific tectonic plate.

But whatever it was, the mud (at a temperature of about 60C) erupted out of the ground initially at a rate of 180,000 cubic metres a day, now after 18 years slowed to a regular pulse. 1000 hectares, 13 villages and 28 factories have been inundated. Thirteen lives lost. Estimates vary but around 70,000 people have been forced to relocate.180px-Remenants_of_Sidoarjo_townUnknownThe mud stinks (of hydrogen sulphide among other things) and is described as toxic. Berms and levees have been built to contain and channel new mud flows into the nearby Porong river, which might not be everybody’s first choice. The levees have also collapsed quite frequently with the inexorable increase in the volume of the mud.

At the time this disaster was overshadowed by the impact of the Yogya earthquake: 6,234 deaths, 37,000 significantly injured and 1.3 million left homeless. However Lusi continues today, as do the demands for compensation which remain unresolved.

Who pays? Not us say Lapindo. Its Australian multinational partner Santos (18%) paid up ($US22.5m but not because they were responsible, just being good citizens) and fled. It was an act of god. The earthquake caused it. Etc. The government has in fact, after 18 years, provided about 20% of the agreed compensation.

This is an intriguing case of scientific uncertainty. Apart from its profound political sensitivity and financial implications, what happened was a matter of great geological interest. Thus a large number of studies were mounted of what actually had happened. Several teams of expert foreign investigators have concluded it was the drilling that did the damage. ‘The impact of the earthquake would have been no more than that of a heavy truck passing over the area.’ However round 2009 Lapindo’s PR firm started circulating new research that proved ‘beyond doubt’ that it was the earthquake, and in fact there is independently generated research claiming to do so. The cause of the disaster is not firmly resolved.

th-2For animists and environmentalists alike, however, there is something viscerally authentic about sticking something three k.s into the earth and the earth jacking up, blowing its top, spitting mud. Maybe nuts, but an attractive idea nonetheless. In 1928 that mighty metaphysician and superior spiritualist Arthur Conan Doyle published a story ‘When the World Screamed’ which pretty much follows that scenario.

The owners of Lapindo have gone to considerable lengths to distance themselves from the tragedy. They have tried twice to sell the company for nominal amounts (in turn US$2 and US$1m.), but were blocked from doing so by a governmental agency. Lapindo was initially asked to pay 2.5 trillion rupiah (about US$280 million) to the victims and about 1.3 trillion rupiah in additional costs to stop the flow. Thirteen of Lapindo’s executives and engineers were charged with violating Indonesian laws. This legal action subsequently stalled and SBY’s government took over the payment of the reparation funds (most of which have not yet been paid).

th-1Local and in fact international protests continue. The mud now contains sculptures depicting the suffering and despair of the residents. And this man here. Quite a good likeness. (The signs I can read say, left to right: ‘Our lives have suffered much destruction because of Lapindo’, ‘Justice must be served. No more waiting’ and ‘Machines are the destroyers of nature’.)afp-juni-kriswanto

thWho owned PT Lapindo Brantas? Indonesia’s richest man, Aburizal Bakrie, chair of the Golkar party for many years, a key figure in SBY’s government, the owner and developer of the Bakrie Tower and at the time, with spectacular irony, the national Welfare Minister.

From the Jakarta Post of 1 October this year:

The House of Representatives on Monday unanimously passed into law a bill that allows president-elect Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to force chairman of the Bakrie Group, Aburizal Bakrie, to fulfill his Rp 781 billion (US$65 million) financial obligation to the victims of the Lapindo mudflow disaster in Sidoarjo, East Java, next year.

Aburizal, who is also Golkar Party chairman, has lost the privileges he has enjoyed between 2007 and 2014 courtesy of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s administration.

The President had allocated more than Rp 6 trillion of government money in 2007 to compensate villagers living in the vicinity of the so-called ‘affected area map’.

Such generous financial protection for the Bakrie Group was among the reasons why Golkar helped the Yudhoyono government remain stable in the face of nationwide protests at the President’s generosity toward the conglomerate.

• • • • • • • • •

IMG_1920There are I think about 2500 people in this room, the waiting room at Yogya airport. I have counted a block of 100 heads and there are about 25 of these blocks. If there are 2500 people here then I think it may have been built to accommodate, under some pressure, 1800. There is, of course, no escape. You can’t just stroll back through the wall of officialdom to go for walk ‘land side’. You can’t. You’re in airport limbo land.

But, the real point, there are no planes leaving. When I say a waiting room that’s correct. Not a transit room. I know this because I have been here for more than three hours. From time to time another surge of occupants arrives, but the most visible aircraft sitting taunting us 40 metres from the glass wall which separates us from the runway has covers on its engines.

There may be some air conditioning, although I think not. If so, it is easily overpowered by the energy given off by this mass of human flesh.

At my nominal departure time a lone and lonely Garuda man says my plane has not arrived yet. When will it leave? He doesn’t know. Where will it leave from? Which gate? He doesn’t know. What time is it scheduled to arrive at Yogya? He consults his computer thoughtfully. Can’t help me with that. No information.

I’m asking because a power outage has blanked out all the information systems and while the lights are on again, the flight boards haven’t recovered. A nice young girl is forcing her way through the throng saying ‘567 Jakarta Li-ron Air. Li-ron. 567 Jakarta.’ This is a little like me going through the crowd calling out ‘2015 Footscray premiership. 2015 Footscray premiership’, although people are gathering in one corner and beginning to jostle one another with packages and huge items of cabin baggage. There is a hint of some cut durian filed away over there. But nothing happens.

Somewhere in the hubbub a voice is announcing something. It is completely non-competitive. I can’t even tell what language is being used. Could be anything. Could be the end of the world.

I must be clear. It is not the black hole of Calcutta. In fact I’ve noticed that the streamers attached to the air con grills are gesturing limply that they are being disturbed. But I’ve been here for four hours now and I am torn between choices. If I leave my seat for a visit to the kamar kecil (room small) which is becoming increasingly desirable, I won’t get another.

A middle-aged woman trips on the tiled floor (how?) and collapses into my lap. Sooory sooory pak. Her male companion looks at me angrily. I hold my hands up to activate the no fault clause, but if he had a gun he’d still shoot me. There is quite a lot of oblivious Indonesian good humour here, but it’s not the dominant mood. It’s not resigned good humour, just resignation. I can feel the slightest hint of panic appearing somewhere low in my belly. I’ve gotta get out of here.

Dozens of people are appearing with packages of ‘Yogya chicken’. They smell quite good and breakfast was a long time ago. I investigate. These packages are being given to all those whose flights have been cancelled. Hundreds of them.

Just as I wrote that magically one of the gate boards lights up its red letters: GA 252 Denpasar. Praise be! It’s a sign. What’s the time? 6.45. What time was I due to leave? 2.25. What the. Who cares? I could be an ebola victim. I could be trekking on the Annapurna circuit. I could be … travelling in Asia. But if it’s the wrong plane, I don’t care. I’m still getting on. I have a very urgent need to escape.

Which is not immediately satisfied. I join the surge towards the gate. I note that the Papuans who have been sitting opposite are going to Denpasar too, probably one hop on their way home. Interestingly, just as space appeared round the banks of seats they were sitting in, so an unbridgable gap, a force field, emerges around them in the queue. Altho I’m conspicuously old and white, and I’m wearing a white shirt with a collar AND I’ve got a briefcase, not even I can pull that off. There might be signs of bigger issues here, some cultural and racial distance waiting to be traversed.

The lights are on but nobody is answering the door. The minutes tick by. This is just a tease. The gate sign may simply be an indication that the plane has arrived, or that it might arrive, or that it had left its destination. Or that they want to test the gate sign.

Where I’m standing is at the main thoroughfare for any cross traffic, and there’s plenty of that. Back and forth back and forth. This way, that way. Like many Indonesian queues I’ve noted, this queue moves forward without anything changing at the front. Nothing is resolving; it just gets more packed up. 15 minutes. 20 minutes. What IS going on! The door opens. The door closes. People who look like they might be passengers go through, but only three. Or one. And then they come back. When the door opens, there is a comparatively pleasant gust of kerosene fumes and damp tepid air. The queue tightens up further.

There’s a commotion behind me. Twenty or so tourists with very loud voices which project remarkably well force their way down the middle of the queue following a German with a tour leader flag. I don’t know she’s German; she’s just speaking German. And possibly because of some money passing hands earlier they muscle their way to the very front of the queue while the flag bearer thrusts a mountain of paper at the gate staff.

After another five minutes, a purge. The boil is lanced. Other slightly disgusting body metaphors. The gates fly open and a torrent of travellers burst through. It’s 55 minutes since the GA252 sign came up. As I pass under the gate sign the information board clicks back into life distracting me from the fact that I am about to be hit by a blast of jet exhaust which has just knocked over the three people in front of me. I thought at first it might be some spectacular gust of wind. But it wasn’t. I laughed.

I wave my boarding pass at people I take to be staff but can’t arouse any interest. I flop into my seat. Hoo-rah. It was actually very nice out: a breeze, the prospect of rain. The hostess stands on my foot and I hear an unusual noise and look up at her horrified face. I turn to my left and across the aisle a chunky older man is in the throes of what could easily be a stroke. His face is contorted and his leg is very strangely bent up. Bloody hell.

So we disembark while he’s carried from the plane. I‘ve stopped looking at my watch. It doesn’t matter any more. The patient? Sure. Yeah yeah. I hope he’s ok. Yeah yeah.

And of course we will have wait our turn in the queue to take off anyway. The other night in Jakarta I counted 13 planes in our queue. We waited 50 minutes while other planes came and went. How does all this work? Think. Just how does it? Why doesn’t it all just implode? It might be like the traffic as it converses. The slightest tap of a horn, and it says ‘I’m here.’ or ‘Go.’ or ‘Move over.’ or ‘I’m passing on the left with two wheels in the snack shops.’ or ‘Make room. I’m coming regardless.’ There is no need to say thank you. That would be a waste of time and energy and it might be confusing. Everyone knows the conventions even if they are invisible to an outsider. But planes. They’re big, and when they crash …

Into my seat again. In my row of three there is an attractive young Indonesian woman. Next to me is her very unhappy infant.

What the rich pay for. Comfort of course, but also access, and also space. And also the right, uncodified to the best of my knowledge, not to have to wait.