That I ever arrived in Yogjakarta, Indonesia, during the Korean Thanksgiving (Chusok,추석) break, has become more and more of a miracle every time I look back on my journey. Three flights, four airports, long layovers and a travel time of over 36 hours. Yep, it sounds great, and it definitely was an incredible adventure.
My first flight of the adventure was quite something. Being the only western guy on this plane, people looked at me as if they thought I got on the wrong aircraft. Regardless, the flight attendants were more than happy to have a ‘white’ guy on the plane, and served me as a king. As the plane accelerated on the run way in order to takeoff to Taipei, Taiwan, a container of a service trolley started shaking and drops of water started dripping onto the floor. By the time the plane was at full speed, the drops had turned into narrow streams. I can’t recall what happened next as I fell asleep halfway through takeoff, but once I woke up, the carpet on the aisle had a darker color and flight attendants were picking up cans of Sprite and Coke from the floor. Turns out this container just decided to open mid take off and cans of soda were scattered all over the plane. Clearly, safety regulations are a little different here in Asia. No one seemed to care, as I looked around and tried to hide my laugh. But flight attendants responded as if it was a ritual, going around and casually picking up cans of soda along the entire aisle of a Boeing 777. Within no time, the aisle was cleared and dried up. It seemed as if the cabin crew had practiced this over and over again. Nevertheless, the rest of the flight and the landing was smooth. It was time to collect a new stamp in my passport and spend an afternoon and evening in Taipei.
What a city! I met with a friend from university in Seoul at the airport in Taipei, he was going to spend the break in Taiwan with his girlfriend. Together, we hit the streets of Taipei for some street food, discovering the local culture and some sightseeing. Taipei is only 2 hours away from Seoul, yet a very different city, with distinctive people, food and culture. After a great afternoon and evening in the tropical climate of Taiwan’s capital, the breeze of the air conditioning at the lounges of the International Airport of Taipei felt good as I patiently waited for my flight to Jakarta, early next morning. After hours of walking around, falling asleep in various massage chairs, buying food and drinks at vending machines, and a few Netflix episodes, more and more Indonesians gathered at the gate as boarding time approached. People were giving me the looks, again, as if I was getting on the wrong plane and didn’t belong in this queue. From the corner of my eye I could see people taking pictures, looking at me and some would even just stare and smile. Come on, I’m not that good looking.
Hours passed on the flight, but people’s looks towards me hadn’t. Sitting by the window at the back of zone 2 in the plane, I felt like they purposely put the white kid in the corner, as a sign of “he doesn’t belong here”. But I enjoyed myself, looking out of the window, spotting islands, ships and the occasional plane flying by. The Indonesian lady next to me started talking to me, as she asked me where I was from and where I was going. Just to make sure I was essentially on the right plane. When I filled in my customs declaration form for Indonesia with my own pen, I could see the lady next to me searching her seat pocket for a pen, as she clearly thought I found my own pen in that pocket. She pulled out all the magazines, two sickness bags (because apparently one isn’t enough when flying in Asia), her headphones, make up bag and almost threw herself into this seat pocket to find a pen. She was frustrated that I had a pen and she didn’t. Out of all kindness I filled it in quickly and gave her my pen, before she could embarrass herself by complaining to one of the flight attendants that her seat pocket didn’t have a pen.
As soon as the plane had lowered by a substantial amount, all I could see was flooded areas, small, poorly built houses, rice fields and poor infrastructure in general. This just went on for a good 15 minutes, until suddenly a Dubai-like airport appeared. Did the pilot forget where he was going? Was it not the airport? Or was he going to pull an AirBerlin pilot stunt and just fly a circle above the airport for fun? (For those who missed it: AirBerlin Pilot Stunt). After circling the airport several times, the plane descended and hit the ground. It bounced, took off, bounced again, and then finally hit the ground with its front wheels before it eventually came to a stop. An interesting landing, but I had made it to Indonesia. Now came the interesting part: Indonesian passport control and hoping my luggage had made it all the way from Seoul.
Screens at the baggage claims told me I could expect my luggage at claim 11, whilst some Indonesian guy in an airport staff bib told me I had to wait at claim 9. I checked both, I couldn’t tell how trustworthy this guy was. Time passed as I counted numerous cardboard boxes appearing on the baggage claims. Those are Indonesian suitcases. Box after box after box, and then the occasional ‘proper’ suitcase would appear. Nope, it wasn’t mine. I went to the bathroom, put on a pair of shorts, washed my face and came back. Still no sign of that white kid’s luggage. I walked on to claim 11, and there, as final piece of luggage on the claim, I saw my suitcase. Passport control went surprisingly smooth and in no time I found myself standing outside Jakarta’s airport. Time to find the right terminal for my last flight.
Unstable and overcrowded airport terminal shuttle busses were driving around all the time. I asked around, and after three airport staff members had pointed me in the same direction, I decided it was safe enough to trust their word. A 10 minutes bus journey which got me to some dodgy terminal, where passengers go through security first and then check-in. I pulled out my water bottle and before I could throw it away, the airport security told me to just leave it in my bag. The scanner beeped as the guy in front of me walked through. He pulled out a fairly big pocket knife, but security didn’t mind. He could just put it back in his pocket and move on. Safety? All they seem to care about is drug trafficking.
With a boarding pass in the form of a supermarket receipt in my hand, I sat at an Indonesian Dunkin’ Donuts type of franchise. I had just withdrawn half a million Indonesian Rupiah’s (€30) and bought a donut and a drink for 21,000 (€1.30), as I waited for my last flight of the journey, to Yogjakarta. Gates don’t get announced and passengers aren’t told to start boarding here, so I got up and went on a journey to find my gate. I had to pass through another airport security, where the guys at the computer laughed at my passport and the girl checking my passport smiled and said “you look cute”. I guess I am good looking to Indonesians. It certainly explains all the stares I kept getting.
Once I found my gate and a place to sit, I put my earphones in, started writing and looked around from time to time. Every time I looked up people just all seemed to be staring at me, like, “whats that white kid doing here?”. Guys approached me for selfies they would then send to their entire WhatsApp contacts list as young children would look scared from a distance. The flight was delayed, but it wasn’t announced. I figured we were going to be late when we hadn’t left by departure time yet. Time passed, nothing was announced and people didn’t seem to give a rats ass. A good hour and a half later, something came through the poor speakers, in a language I had never heard before. People suddenly got up and started walking away from the gate. I asked someone next to me, and his best english he tried to tell me we had to switch gates. Right. In Indonesia the plane doesn’t come to your gate, you go to whatever gate the plane decides to show up at. Quickly everyone filled the plane as kids walked by, touched my knee, stared at me, pointed at mum or dad, and probably said something along the lines of “look, a real white person”. Similar to how a European kid would look at an animal species he had never seen before at the zoo. Quite discomforting, but also funny to experience. Within minutes of the announcement we were taxiing. The standard safety procedures were skipped by cabin crew and just before the aircraft hit the runway, one of the attendants called through the cabin speakers. “Ladies and gentlemen, let’s take a moment of silence to pray for a safe flight”. What on earth had I gotten myself into?
After an hour of turbulence and very sudden aircraft movements to the left and right, the plane bounced onto the runway of Yogjakarta and stood still within seconds. There was no airbridge for us. Instead, we walked down a set of stairs that looked like they could collapse any moment, right onto the airport. Two men guided us across the airport platform to the baggage claims. The pilot had just decided to stop the aircraft wherever was convenient and we had to walk the rest.
It wasn’t until the moment I ran into my girlfriend’s arms, when she told me the airline I flew with (Sriwijaya Airlines) from Jakarta to Yogjakarta, is blacklisted in Europe and the U.S. I suppose it explains the moment of praying for a good flight.
36 hours later I had finally made it to my final destination, with an incredible and unforgettable experience in the pocket. I was more than curious to see what the next 12 days in this city had to offer!