Friday, March 07, 2008

Jakarta, Rains and Singapore Airlines

Little dots of green and brown in the middle of surfing waves was the first glimpse of Indonesia’s many islands as my plane pierced through the clouds. I always take a window seat whenever it’s a day journey or if it's my first visit to the country. So was this time. I was visiting Indonesia first time. As I approached Jakarta, I could also see many rectangular shaped string of wooden sticks stuck in the water. Were these fishing nets? My curiosity of deciphering them without success may have made my nose tip flat by pressing hard against the aircraft window but it didn’t deter me to shift my focus to check of any human settlement on these little islands. Most of them did not show except an occasional house perched amidst banana and coconut trees. I wondered the economic feasibility of providing electricity, food to these 17,000 islands. No wonder only 6,000 are inhabited. Can Indonesia not consider making money by selling these islands to rich people of the west? My wild thought was interrupted as we landed in Jakarta.

Regular visitors to Indonesia know what’s the best thing to do when aircraft doors open. They run towards visa window!! We too did the same and managed to reach ahead of others. In one cubicle that processed the visa, a young man was there all by himself on his computer, entering the data, collecting the money and issuing the visa. Importance of early arrival at the Visa window made sense. With Chinese New-year holiday, there were many Chinese to spend vacation in Jakarta. As I watched their incessant chatting, I could see our young man slipping out of his cubicle holding our passports, running towards immigration. It seems his computer was not accepting his commands. We started chasing him as he went past one person to another. How those visitors patiently waiting for their turn in the queue would have reacted to an empty window. But as I thought about possible fracas, a surge of people packed the immigration hall. Another plane may have arrived. We were reconciled to spending hours in immigration seeing friendly immigration staff chatting with passengers. But soon, things were sorted out and we were driven past the red Indonesian soil, banana tress, row of packed concrete housing separated by drainage canal to disorderly small hutments, traffic signals with beggars- Jakarta looked every inch India. Ex President Suharto’s had passed away just a week before, his legacy was being discussed in media over last few but in this new regime and new generation, there was no sign of him. How cruelly a nation’s posterity treats their dictators. As I entered the city, I was observing the biggest Islamic country with great enthusiasm.

My first surprise was when I checked in at Shangri La – a spanking, glitzy hotel costing just US$80 per night, second surprise was to see branded shops in string of malls but devoid of any crowd. I was looking at the symptoms of Indonesian economic collapse and its struggle to post the recovery. Robust and tall buildings in the downtown were the reflection of the heady days of Indonesia. Evening in Jakarta became memorable as we drove around the city to reach for dinner at the Crystal Jade. I have not seen many opulent restaurants as that of Crystal Jade in Jakarta. I think this is a chain of restaurants from Hong-kong and also see them in Singapore. Barely few hours ago, in my flight magazine, I was reading about top five Chinese restaurants in the world, but after being at Crystal Jade, I wonder why this restaurant with massive high-ceiling crystal chandelier, decorative Chinese wooden furniture, fine bone china dishes saddled on stainless steel mesh design plates, elegant hostess serving sumptuous ethnic Chinese food did not make it in that league.

This one-day trip to Jakarta was also eventful as I almost spent as much time at the airport as I did in the city. Day before my arrival in Jakarta, it was hot and sunny but by night it had started pouring and by the time I reached airport next day , city was flooded and the airstrip was submerged with continuous rains.

A test of any organization comes when the crisis happens and how soon they respond. Ground staff of Singapore Airlines at Jakarta showed why this airline is well respected and admired. When deluge closed the Jakarta airport, there were three SQ flights ready to leave on that day. Staff immediately housed all passengers in business lounge and fed them. I think that was smart move. You cannot sell anything to hungry stomach. As people relaxed, staff kept updating passengers on PA system. When first aircraft was due to land, they combined the passengers giving priority to those who had connecting flight. A little box of sweets may have made some passengers happy but I was elated when I got US$100 duty voucher for downgrading my class and another amount for difference in fare with a sincere apology note. In India Jet and Kingfisher airlines have done great job in domestic aviation but I do feel TATA –SQ partnership proposal would have raised efficiency bar further.

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Anonymous anu rao said...

Your travellogues are alwyas fun to read and one can almost imagine the scenario!

3:08 PM  

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