Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Trains and Boats and Planes

So, Indonesia has welcomed in the New Year in time-honored fashion, namely with a few disasters. This year it was a plane crash and a ferry sinking. The Lord does indeed move in mysterious ways. As I write this I'm about 30,000 feet over Java which is ultimately a pretty untenable position for a human being. This fact was brought home to all of us this week when a domestic flight went AWOL over Sulawesi. At the time of writing the plane has still not been found. Presumably it has splashed down in the big drink somewhere and sunk without trace. I first heard the story via a text message from a friend who sent me something like, "Adam Air flight just crashed, what airline are you coming back from Bali on?" to which I replied, "Er... Adam Air actually."

So here I am, a slightly anxious flier at the best of times, 8 km up in the sky trying to sublimate my nervy aircraft neurosis by writing this and confronting the issue head on. Is this to be the final curtain? Crash diving into the sea with only an in-flight piece of green cake to keep me company in the afterlife? To be fair to Adam though, I don't think I'd feel any less tense if I was currently aboard a Lion or Merpati flight.

They say that flying is, statistically speaking, the safest form of transport however I rather wonder how the numbers for this country stack up against the global air accident figures. There have been a fair few crashes of Indonesian planes in recent years whilst only this week a Lion Air plane skidded off the runway at Ambon airport and a friend of mine's Adam Air flight to Batam was cancelled because the plane needed repairs.

Bad weather and poor maintenance are usually blamed for crashes here and there is probably a bit of truth in both of these assessments. Weatherwise, those monsoon rains really do whip into the country hard causing major drink-down-the-shirt, fork-stabbed-in-the-eye air turbulence during flights. It was absolutely teeming down and blowing up a serious gale in Bali this week (although I still managed to get enough sun to turn a not particularly attractive shade of lobster red -I'll be seducing crabs by the bucketful this month if I make it back alive).

As for plane maintenance, well who knows? Certainly the new breed of low-cost Indonesian domestic fliers tends to buy older, second-hand planes from the big airlines which could be a factor. As for the actual maintenance itself, there are international safety rules and regulations of course although I can't seem to prevent my brain from conjuring up images of an oil stained, motorcycle repair type Bengkel shack at the side of the runway and a smiling mechanic running out with a spanner in one hand and a tube of superglue in the other shouting, "Rp.200,000 I fix jet ya?"

It all seems so straightforward when you board a flight doesn't it? A perma-chirpy stewardess will inform you that in the event of the plane landing in the sea, jolly little inflatable slides will pop out and you can slide down and have a nice splash around in the water until help arrives. It never seems to work out like that in real crashes does it? If we do start to go down though, I'll be making a grab for the old oxygen mask before you can say, "Please fasten your seatbelts". Hopefully the gas will induce a euphoric high in my brain and I'll accept my fate with stoic calm and a goofy smile on my face as we tailspin into the sea at 500 km/h.

One has more chance of surviving a ferry sinking of course and indeed a few brave souls who were passengers on the ferry that sank off the coast of Java just after Christmas did manage to stick it out for a few days before being rescued. There are safety and maintenance issues with Indonesia's Pelni ferry fleet too though. Many of the ships are pretty old and rusty and there is a propensity to overload them and exceed their maximum capacity. However, unlike passengers on the Titanic or on that boat that went down in Estonia's freezing waters a few years ago, at least you can survive in Indonesia's stormy but warm seas for a few hours or even days without succumbing to hypothermia.... if you can swim that is. And therein lies a major catch for many Indonesians I fear. If a ship full of non-swimmers goes down you're going to see the worst side of human nature and this is apparently what happened during the recent sinking. Grown men kicking old grannies aside and fighting for the life vests. It sure ain't pretty.

So where does that leave us? Well, there are always the trains. The romance of rail is perhaps being left behind in our mad rush for cheap flights and our desire to arrive before we depart. There's only a proper rail network on Java but there are some fantastic views to be seen, particularly in the mountainous East and West of the island. You can relax supine in air-conditioned comfort with a plate of fried rice and a can of Bintang beer from the dining car and watch the world go by at a relatively sedate pace. Nevertheless, Indonesian trains do occasionally crash to so again we return to the issue of safety. On the minus side, some of those railway viaducts consist only of 150 m high stilts supporting bare railroad track. To look out of the window as you pass over one of these faux-bridges can be an unnerving and vertiginous experience, especially when your carriage starts to tilt at a 20° angle. On the plus side though, when Indonesian trains do occasionally plough into stalled public minivans on level crossings, it's usually the minivans that come off the worse for wear.

Intercity buses? These can also be perilous as drivers wired on Krating Daeng and over-the-counter, ephedrine laced asthma pills get that king of the road, overconfident vibe going and plunge off the edge of mountain passes at 80km/h.

Back to Adam Air reality though. I have just landed safely (obviously or you wouldn't be reading this would you?) Now to get an airport taxi into town. This could be my most dangerous mission yet.

Simon Pitchforth