First impressions last

You learn a lot about Indonesia in the first few minutes after landing at Jakarta's Soekarno-Hatta airport. Those hanging out for the petty bureaucracy, small scale corruption and smog-filled traffic jams that makes Jakarta the city it is need not wait long.

Soon after landing late last Thursday afternoon (on a day that started before dawn in Sydney), I joined with many of the 150 others who had just disembarked on a flight from Singapore in the queue for those who bought a visa on arrival. Buying the $US25 visa off the friendly teller was no trouble - it was the queue to get it processed that inspired frustration.

Fanning ourselves with passports, airline tickets or well-thumbed copies of The Economist, we sweltered for more than an hour as we awaited service. In front of us, just two of the eight booths established to process visas were open, and attending those two were a pair of bored looking Indonesian officials who had probably encountered their fair share of aggrevated foreigners.

With agonising slowness, the duo processed the paperwork of the tourists, lonely hearts and (no doubt) drug runners who occupied the queue. Once each person reached the front, they were given the once-over by the officials keen to protect their patch of turf - why are you here? how long are you staying for? do you have a ticket to depart?

Just when we thought the queue could move no slower, the two officials found themselves dealing with a particularly tricky group of arrivals. Perhaps they'd been too honest with their answers. Perhaps they had no onward ticket. Or perhaps the official was fearful that the queue was moving too fast and needed to be arbitrarily halted.

With the two officials occupied, the line moved not an inch in ten minutes. The heat and stress put tempers among new arrivals on a low boil, but with us eagerly awaiting permission to enter, righteous anger was unlikely to help the cause.

Every so often, new arrivals would move swiftly past the back of the counter. A curious site, I later discovered that such express treatment was attainable for some uang rokok ("smoking money"), apparently Rp 50,000 (about $US5.80).

More than an hour after joining the queue, my paperwork was processed and I was through to the next stage. The customs check was mercifully swift, although it was hard not to notice the half dozen bored customs officials who without too much effort could have been assigned to the visa on arrival queue.

But such is the way in Indonesia (and in many other parts of the world) - the bureaucracy is designed to benefit the bureaucrats, with service a secondary concern.

Leaving the confines the airport, the forecourt was awash with taxi touts eager to please. "Where you going, mister?" they shouted with wearied voices. "Singapore," I replied more wearily, inspiring flummoxed "crazy bule" looks from the drivers.

Eventually we found our driver and hit the road.

The highway into downtown presents an impressive sight. Staring across the city you see a phalanx of tall structures - some completed, some in progress, and some abandoned - interspersed with kampung housing and stretches of green space.

The city appears to be largely unplanned, with housing, offices and factories all located close to one another, sometimes unnervingly so.

Once beyond the highway, we reached the suburban streets of south Jakarta, and with it the traffic for which the city is legend. Five lanes, all heading in the same direction and all at a standstill. Taxis, buses, ojek (motorcycles) and bajaj (goggomobiles) all belching plumes of smokes out of their exhaust, giving the streets a smoggy haze.

As a new arrival, every intersection and every traffic jam brought with it something new to capture the imagination, so it was not so bad to be crawling at the pace of a particularly lethargic snail. A few more weeks in the city, though, and taking the traffic with good humour might be a tad trickier.

Eventually we made it to our accommodation, tired and a little stressed, but glad to finally be here.

Jakarta has a lot of fine features, that in the week since arriving I'm slowly discovering. But sadly that fineness is well hidden to new arrivals, who are far sooner encountering the aggrevations of the city. Still, what a city it is!


Anonymous said…
Will Lord Cheese return (by popular demand)?

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