Saturday, November 6, 2010

Our Entrance to Indonesia

Location: Denpasar, Indonesia
The flight to San Francisco from Minneapolis was the first misstep: Delta is an unpleasant airline in the first place, but SFO is notorious for flights delayed due to weather. The liaison at the Delta counter breaking this news to their Minneapolitan constituency was a very snide, abrasive woman who caused customers to regret appealing to her for help answers. Myself, I will never understand why someone who clearly hates her job that much chooses to remain in that career for one day more than absolutely necessary.

Because we showed up late in San Francisco, we therefore missed our flight to Singapore. I ran down to rescue our luggage from the transfer between planes and Rebecca attempted to resolve our itinerary as well as secure a hotel for the night. Our new flight to Singapore was over half a day away so we hailed a shuttle van out to Red Roof Inn and finagled an adequate room at the last minute. Because their computer could not reconcile with reserving a room shortly before midnight and not registering it as a two-day stay, we were asked to kill some time until the computers would reset for the next billing period.

There was a nice diner attached to the hotel, Leann's 24-Hour Cafe, and chatted amiably with the young Cambodian man running the business apparently by himself. He was quite excited to learn we were traveling to Asia and had several locations to suggest. He also supplied us a complimentary bowl of fruit, perhaps due to the fast friendship we formed, perhaps because we looked that haggard and down on our luck.

The next day we cleaned up quickly, shuttled back to SFO, and embarked upon the second leg of our journey: a twelve-hour flight to Seoul for a brief layover and a six-hour flight to Singapore. Grueling as this might sound (imagine being asked to sit in a chair and stay awake with limited activity for 18 hours), this was my introduction to the beautiful machine that is Singapore Air. The cabin was spacious, the flight attendants were gracious and attentive, and the little amenities were the diametric opposite of our treatment at Delta's hands. Among these was a small beige zipper-bag containing a pair of socks, to warm your feet while sleeping, and a spare toothbrush. Baffled and not a little suspicious, I asked Rebecca how much this would cost but she assured me it was included in the price we paid for our tickets.

“Why does such a small gesture touch my heart?” I asked her.

“Maybe because you're finally being treated like a human being,” she said. While that business model might spell disaster for an American company, Singapore Air enjoyed a splendid reputation by it, and I add my voice to the choir singing their praises.

I saw some movies (notably a French comedy, Best Friends Forever), watched a lot of television (Peep Show and IT Crowd), updated my pen-and-paper travel journal, completed a couple crossword puzzles, enjoyed three delicious meals, and ultimately killed twelve hours of my life. The layover in Seoul was truly brief, only 30 hours wandering around in the terminal while they refreshed the jet, but it was enough to get me excited again. I hadn't been in Korea for 20 years but here I was again in the most limited context. I swore I would return—which is the plan, actually, to look for work there next year, so that's not a lot of hot air.

The six-hour flight to Singapore saw me attempt to sleep. Singapore Air's seats are much better-designed to allow slumber, unlike any American airline's cells, so I got a little rest and watched most of a cute Japanese movie, Trainman. We even got another meal and no degree of tiredness could keep me from it, though I was pretty full from being so physically inactive so I only scavenged the best parts.

The Singapore Changi International Airport is a marvel. The MSP airport is impressive in its size and breadth and it feels like a cozy, convenient mall. Changi, however, feels like a garden reserve or some kind of spa in places, with clusters of restaurants and department shops that don't bleed all over the place. While Changi does have a reputation for excellent sleeping quarters for world travelers, we did not avail ourselves of these—they're kinda pricey and we couldn't see blowing so much money for so few hours of sleep. We only had about eight hours of layover until our next flight and, at best, could have gotten six hours of naptime. Instead, Changi also offers two lounges of fixed recliners for free usage: Sanctuary Lounge and Oasis Lounge. We slept in the former and were reasonably refreshed for the next day.

Originally we planned on landing in Singapore in the daytime, and with a five-hour layover we hoped to bus out and see the city for three hours. That should have been reasonable but the SFO delay ruined that plan among so many others (we missed a full day of the hotel we reserved in Bali—and SFO ritually washes their hands of any culpability in these matters), so instead we could only find an exotic cafe from which to grab breakfast, and Rebecca was feeling pretty ill so she could only have coffee and Orangina. I, however, was in top form and tried nasi lemak right off the bat: wrapped in banana leaves, it is rice seasoned with coconut and dried fish, with a little mound of chili paste for excitement. “Heroes are bold with food,” so I've heard, and if I can claim that title by eating instead of fighting monsters, why not?

We boarded the final flight, a two-hour jaunt to the international airport in Denpasar, and were greeted at the end with a wall of heat and humidity. Rebecca could not stop grinning at this, already in love with the weather for its own sake as well as in contrast to what we were leaving behind—the next day Minneapolis would experience gusting winds and snow flurries. Only a few more barriers stood between us and collapsing upon our beds: the Customs official attempted to hit me up for a bribe but my loud and dramatic confusion caused him to backpedal and usher me through; a team of young men in white Polo shirts wore patches that said “PORTER,” but as it turned out they only wheel your bag from the carousel to one final baggage scanner (a distance of 25 feet) and demand $2.50 for their "service." (NOTE: When you fly into Denpasar's Ngurah Rai Airport, do not use a porter. Politely but firmly wave them away and disregard any scowls you might receive. Unless you're missing more than two limbs, you can easily do anything they demand a large tip for.)

Our mood started to darken, what with the thieving money exchangers lining the hallway out of the airport—each one claiming to be “authorized” despite varying misspellings of the word—which we had to use to tip our conniving porters, and the hasty introduction to corrupt government officials fresh out of the gate. When we arranged for a taxi to our hotel, we almost chased off the driver, thinking him yet another grifter making a mark.

The taxi ride was thankfully cheap and we rode past an array of interesting architecture and statuary, then on into the more third-worldly aspects of Denpasar. Dilapidated shacks selling items of questionable legality or edibility, filth in the streets, scrawny and desperate-looking people trawling broken sidewalks: this was our first blush of the town. It didn't help that our budget hotel stank of urine, from sewage coming in off the street, not the hotel's fault at all. But things did get better.

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