Sunday, February 10, 2008

Leaving On A Jet Plane (Don’t Know When I’ll be Back Again)

Well Friday of last week proved to be another fun day of over-hydration in the capital. Jakarta's floods seem to be moving from a five-year cycle towards a one-year cycle, the combined result of global warming, environmental degradation and years of poor city governance.

I'm sure you all have your own fun stories to relate. Myself, I attempted a trip into the office whilst the rain was still hammering down and, despite only walking for five minutes with an umbrella, got completely soaked from head to foot, and then found that my appointment had been cancelled due to the deluge. All good fun.

I cheered up no end though when I learnt that the President was in a similar flood induced predicament, stranded in his motorcade on the toll road, no doubt composing tracks for that difficult second album (It's Raining in My Heart, Your Love Is like Breached Flood Barrier, Toll Road of Desire, etc etc).

Other Indonesian politicians seemed to fare a little better however, mainly due to being the proud owners of the latest top of the range, high ground clearance SUVs. The Jakarta Post revealed all last Saturday:
"The rest of the cabinet's ministers arrived on time at the palace for the meeting. Among them were Transportation Minister Jusman Syafii Djamal in a Land Rover, Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Adm.(ret) Widodo AS in a Lexus Cygnus, Coordinating Minister for People's Welfare Aburizal Bakrie in a Toyota Alphard, State Minister for the Environment Rachmat Witoelar in a BMW X5 and Forestry Minister MS Ka'ban in a Toyota Prado."

I stopped reading at that point as the story seemed to be lurching perilously close to something you'd find in Top Gear magazine. I wonder if these legislative auto enthusiasts get any commission for road testing these vehicles in Jakarta's 660 km square paddling pool. Certainly other motorists were less fortunate and familiar images of half submerged, abandoned cars once again filled the local media. Recently I've been considering getting a second-hand motor car but the thought of being conned into buying one of these terminally flood damaged clunkers fills me with dread.

Jakarta's airport seemed to be the biggest victim of last week's rain however. My housemate’s own personal attempts to return from a Singapore visa run should provide ample illustration. His plane was first diverted to Palembang where he was trapped inside with the other passengers on the runway with the air-conditioning off for ages whilst the backlog of diverted flights was dealt with.

Upon eventually arriving at Soekarno-Hatta he found that heading into town was impossible and checked into an airport hotel on one of their six hour room stay deals. He crashed out, exhausted, only to be woken up at 3 a.m. by an insistent knocking on the door. "Six hours finished Mr, time to check out." my bleary eyed friend's attempt to prolong his stay with his credit card proved unsuccessful and he was forced to take a motorcycle taxi ride to the nearest ATM in order to secure further funds for more time in the land of nod. The next day it eventually took the poor lamb 3 1/2 hours to get home via the back streets of Tanggerang.

These kinds of shenanigans don't really bode well for 2008: Visit Indonesia Year. I mean you're pretty much stuck on the starting blocks if you can't even get out of the airport. If I was some fastidious potential business investor or wealthy tourist arriving at Soekarno-Hatta after a long, luxury business class flight quaffing champagne on Cathay Pacific whilst being manicured and peeled grapes by curvaceous stewardesses, I think I'd find the whole Jakarta airport scenario a bit of a rude awakening.

Although Jakarta's airport seems to be getting cut off from the rest of the world with increasing regularity, in truth this flooding problem has been on the cards for years. In the dry season, the drive to the airport is actually a very pleasant canter through lush verdant vegetation and green paddy fields but on both sides the toll road is always surrounded by ominous swathes of water, ready to submerge it at a moment's notice. The whole area is basically a swamp. The city administration seems to have done nothing about it for years though.

That famous, and alas now deceased, galactic hitchhiker Douglas Adams once said that, "Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so," an epithet tailor-made for Jakarta's governors if you ask me.

Matters would certainly be helped if the city administration would finally get round to finishing the JORR (Jakarta Outer Ring Road) which would at least provide another exit route out of the airport. Work on the ring road was halted during the 1998 financial crisis and doesn't seem to have been started again since.

I learned in the paper this week that plans are afoot to elevate the airport tollway. As I understand it though, the toll road, as it is now, is designed around an underlying 'chicken's claw' system which distributes the road's weight evenly over a larger area of the bog underneath, stopping it from sinking. Would it really be possible to build an elevated tollway on such an unstable base given that the current road is basically floating as it is? Perhaps any civil engineers out there could enlighten me on this point as I'm getting way out of my depth here.

Until then it's adieu from me for another week and if you find yourself wading through floodwaters over the next month, remember to wash your legs thoroughly afterwards.