Fear of Flying

Trip Start Jun 02, 2007
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Indonesia  ,
Saturday, November 24, 2007

Polonia Airport, 12:30 pm. I'm sitting in a café upstairs, having a Bintang to quell my nerves at flying. I have about an hour to wait for my plane to Bali, where I will spend a week's holiday relaxing and experiencing more of Indonesia's cultural diversity.
But no matter how often I fly, my nerves get fired up. Especially now since I have a fresh story of the plane that crashed a couple of kilometers away from my house a couple of years ago, courtesy of Fernando, a friend and fellow teacher at the Australia Centre. The plane crashed in Padang Bulan, a neighbourhood where I had noticed that the planes fly dangerously low over the rooftops coming to and from Polonia.

A couple of days ago Fernando recounted the story as we and another friend and teacher Dee Dee had our coffee break under the school's massive umbrella, canopied by the bright circus colours so characteristic of Medan.
"Ya, Wendy, it was very sad," Fernando said. "I heard a roaring in the sky and the ground shook. I thought it was a bomb. Body parts were everywhere. You know, the plane was overloaded with durian..."
"Was there durian rolling in the streets?" I asked. For some reason, this detail, proof of the plane's overburdening, seemed important. Many burnt spiky durians were rolling in my imagination. What a stench there must have been.
Fernando looked at me as if I were nuts.

"Ya, Wendy, of course!"

Fernando, like many Indonesians, has a tendency to be brutally honest, but sometimes he takes it even a step further.

"You know, I have a friend, and his little sister was waiting for the bus when the plane came down. I found her body on the street. It was very sad. I had to phone him and tell him, your sister is dead. And she was going to have a baby too."
Dee and I looked at each other, mortified. She lives in the same neighbourhood, and had heard the plane crash and felt the ground shake, but didn't go out to see the carnage. I felt the blood draining from my face, thinking of that poor girl and her unborn child, just waiting for the bus, living her life, when out of nowhere....what are the odds? It could be anyone.
Fernando laughed. "Don't worry! You're still safer on a plane than driving, especially on these streets."
That didn't make me feel much better. Yet Fernando's attitude reflects the way many Indonesians view death. Because death co-exists so closely with life here, it is viewed much more pragmatically than in the west. When your number's up, that's it. End of story.
When you consider that most people here, whether Christian, Muslim or Buddhist, have an unshakeable faith in the afterlife, this attitude makes sense. Why be sad when the person's soul has travelled to a better place? Unlike in the west, where we glorify death in movies and the media, but fall apart at the seams when it actually happens.

                                                              *   *    *

Masih hidup! Still alive, and waiting for my connecting flight to Bali at the Jakarta International Airport, which looks like Frank Lloyd Wright had a go at designing it-sleek, all-windowed walkways, simple geometric architecture, red brick floors and impressive post-and-beam work. Javanese style is different than the sweeping curves of Batak-style Sumatra; it contains a lot more triangles, reminiscent of Navajo native art.
I expected a large, seedy airport like LAX in Los Angeles or something befitting a metropolis of 30 million, but it has a clean, sleek atmosphere, the walkway windows looking out on perfectly manicured gardens. What a step up from the rubble and chaos of Medan! The late afternoon sun is casting all aglow, as it did the sea as we landed, setting a cluster of tiny islands near Java in a molten pool of aqua and gold, shot through with veins of light. It looked like a piece of heaven.
Next stop: Bali.
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