Back on the road, Jack

Trip Start Dec 14, 2007
Trip End Jun 01, 2010

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orıent hostel

Flag of Turkey  ,
Tuesday, October 6, 2009


From Istanbul to Istanbul, in a year.

Seems like only yesterday I was arriving in Turkey, from Russia, before doing a quick turnaround and heading off to Indonesia for a guest stint on a broadsheet startup.

It was, only that was 2008 and this is 2009.

A six month contract to help kickstart a rare new newspaper, the Jakarta Globe, through its birth pangs and mould a team of local designers, somehow stumbled into a 10-month stint plus two month-long tropical beach treats on and around Sumatra.

Jakarta: a heaving, smog-gulping city of inefficiency. Absolutely and totally. Chaotic traffic. Some little grey suit in a grubby basement posited there are 80,000 odd kilometres of roads in the city of 20 million at the weekends and around 26 million during the week. Then his little hand-held calculator concluded that the number of cars in the city, at an average length of something like 4.5m each, meant end to end there are 100,000km of vehicles. All on Jakarta's roads at the same time would mean gridlock of apocalyptic proportion.

It nearly reaches this at times. The rain pours buckets. The Dutch built canals, not drainage. The roads are the drains. The roads flood. Cars stop, thousands of motorbikes jam themselves under any bridge they can find. Traffic stops. Jams. Horns and anger.

One-way roads for miles can easily mean driving 5km to access the building across the highway.

The highway to the airport is built at sea level though a swamp. The contractors skimmed the concrete, it is said, and didn't build it high enough. No names please, very big brother is watching. Rain, floods, access to the airport ceases. Legend has it big Billy Gates popped in a few years back and flew into the black cloud. He had to be choppered into the city.

I need a driver's licence. Pop into the licensing department, tell them I have one, have a picture taken, a fingerprint taken, and shazaam, man can drive. I don't have motor cycle licence. Can I have one of those please? No problem, sir.

I have to go for a little op. The anaesthetist tells me to sit buck naked on the operating table while she administers an epidural. I feel the needle roaming around in my spinal column. Then out, then in again. ''I can't find the spot,'' I hear her say.Nausea overtakes and I yell out, pull it out. I lie down and demand a general.

Now when the hell does a patient get to tell the experts what to do?

I buy a van to drive up across Sumatra to a surf camp I have an interest in. Simeulue island, ground zero of THE tsunami. Gofer does all the dogwork, all the papers. All up and funky. I set off with my mate Gazza Jones. He decides to quit a 25-year smoking habit en-route. In the passenger seat! And to quit alcohol.

Two days of growing psychosis is enough. I shovel a quart of beer into his hand and say smoking kills, but beer saves or something like that. The dark grimace peels back into a smile. A Dorian Gray front runner. Not long before he's back on the fags as well. Timing, old chap, timing. Not in somebody's living room, which is what the front two seats of the van were for 10 days.

Deliver the van, she drives like a beaut. We dodge the 'leaping squirrels', the local term for thuggees who hang from overhanging trees way up in the forests where the road forces one to drive at 5km/h. They jump on to the roof, point a poisoned arrow at the driver while an accomplice jumps on, or in, and ransacks the joint.

Nearly 2,500km of twisting, winding, gearbox wrenching mountainsides. The hand floats between 2nd and 3rd gear. Dodge the potholes, all 13 million of them, some big enough to swallow a car, some perfectly placed to pull a wheel off.

Cross the equator. Stand one foot in the north and one foot in the south. Which way does the water flow out of that bath tub?

Spend some time on the island, boating, beaching, whiskying in the land of saryah law (islamic law, where alcohol is verbotten),

Return to Jakarta for a brief extension of the contract, and discover that all is not well with the transfer of the vehicle into my name. My handyman had forgotten to tell me about 'the ' crucial element.

There are no contractual papers to transfer ownership, ie the seller does not sign it away etc. There is a 'blue book' that carries the details of the car. He who owns this book, de facto, owns the vehicle. Then you take the book to the relevant authorities and they sign you up.

Barring just one piece of classicly efficient inefficiency.

All transfer of ownerships require a pencil rubbing, on a certified piece of paper, of the chassis number and the engine block number. 2B only, please!

What a hoot. I bite the bullet and fly back to Simeulue for the weekend to administer the rubbings.

The newspaper passes a few acid tests, handles the elections with aplomb.

Vote buying of course is not allowed.

Hence the thousands that flock to each stadium party rally to receive their free T-shirts and meal. The same rent-a-mob is photographed at the same venue the following week, dancing the same tune to a different party. Who will you vote for? Oh, probably somebody else, but thanks for the kit and tucker.

My dozen designers are delightful, only three having worked for a newspaper before. But bob's yer uncle, and before long they have knuckled down to the grind. ''Too boring, too much of the same everyday,'' say the youthful mob. Welcome to the working world, lads.

Time and contract run out, and I begin to get cabin fever in my 5-star suite. Three bedrooms, one bed, 2 bathrooms and kitchen etc. Muchas gracias to the kindness of my employers, but when I start watching reruns on the 5 movie channels, for the third time, I know that something has to change.

Close up the Indo chapter with another few weeks on Simeulue. Do the bookkeeping, run the rule over the workings, fly in a high-powered battery operated chef from South Africa to fill in while the camp's staff downs tools for Idul Fitri, the 3 celebratory days at the end of Ramadan.

My personal machine tells me my body clock is ticking. I run into a kidney stone. Akin, literature has it, to labour pain. Drink 6l of water each day for a week, says the specialist. Didn't they do that in Cleopatra's day?

No show, so I put my body on the Sumatra slab for some more local precedure. It worked, even if it did cost a few sleepless nights dealing with an icepick in the side.

The doctor decides to do an instant procedure. Do I tell him I drank a quarter of a bottle of Johnny for lunch? I gamble no. He doesn't ask. Hairy scary, somewhat.

The next day Medan to Jakarta to Singapore to Doha to Istanbul.

A week in Istanbul, now dashing, dashing, gotta bus to catch, now that I've caught up.

Let's hit the road, Jack.



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katherine-anne on

u sure know how to keep a girl waiting..........:)
lancy! u got me grinning from ear to ear.
funny and vivid recap of yr time in indonesia - must have been inspiring, cos you havent lost yr touch.
great to see u back here and there better be an internetcafe in syria, cos i can't wait, honestly

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