Wednesday, September 8, 2010

High-altitude scalpers - Medan, Indonesia

Crossing the morning sky, by Docbudie (CC)
We're done with Sumatra, we tick the item in the list and we proceed with our next destination: Java. We get back to Medan and we start to look for a flight. At the first travel agency a bored employee tells us that the flights to Jakarta - and to any other Indonesian city - are all full, for a few days.
"How...all of them?"
"All of them!"
This guy doesn't want to work, we all think at once while we start to look for another agency. Maybe the workers of the local tourism sector are lazy and bored, but this has nothing to do with flights availability. Due to some holiday the Indonesians, the students in particular, are traveling, migrating, flying. To go home, on vacation, to visit some friends, nobody knows where exactly, what we know is that they have completely jammed the national air traffic.
But we belong to an ancient breed of tough travelers and we won't give up that easily. We reach the airport with a rickety taxi. The national departures area is a bedlam of people who are camping everywhere, hoping for a waiting list to be cleared soon. We try the ticket offices of some airlines but this time we are not surprised by their answers: all full! A female scalper who got wind of the opportunity to cheat three pale-faced fools draws near us and offers us three boarding passes for a huge sum.
A random sequence of questions is slicing our brains. Boarding passes? Who are the owners? And where are they? How do we write our names on them? With a pencil? Anxiety and chaos persuade us to consider the offer. After weighing the pros and cons though, we decide that it really is a rip-off and we turn it down.
Let's move to plan B: we decide to leave Indonesia, bound to Cambodia, Burma, the Philippines, anywhere would do, just not to remain stuck in Medan. Backpacks on our shoulders, chins up and chests out, we proudly march on the international terminal. The lady with the boarding passes is still chasing us but the change of scenery has sprinkled us with new energy. We ask an employee directions to the ticket offices.
"Where do you want to go?"
"We were planning to go to Jakarta, but considering the current situation anywhere would do."
"Jakarta? My husband works at the domestic terminal and for a reasonable sum he can find three seats on a flight to the capital for you."
"Are you sure? The scalpers that we've just met are asking preposterous amounts of money!"
"Don't worry, my husband is not like that."
We go back to the domestic departures area, we meet the man who, indeed, is not like that and we negotiate a price. He directs us to a ticket counter. Although it's just a short distance and we walk it without wasting any time when we get there he has already tele-transported himself behind the glass. He asks our names and adds them to a waiting list as long as a runway. The ticket seller doesn't say a word.
Now we're facing a problem: we should pay him, receive our tickets and enter the check-in area, but without him, because he is not holding a valid ticket and is not authorized to get in. Everybody freeze! We take stock of the situation: Indonesians are nice people and this guy looks alright, but since we arrived we've noticed that tourists are often likely to be ripped off. We don't trust them: maybe they palm off some lucky draw tickets on us, they pocket the loot, we make a fool of ourselves at the check-in desk and we end up cheated and relieved of kilograms of greasy bills. We start to carry out an anti-con plan: Lorenzo and I go first, my brother - provided with a stack of filthy rupiahs - will stick with the scalper. Depending on the signal that he will receive from us he will either have to fork out the money and join us or hide it and raise hell.
Our entrance is theatrical: totally out of the blue a policeman turns up to escort us as if we were dignitaries on an official visit and with great pomp he meanly makes us jump the queue. Dazed by the surprise we follow him to the desks. Hesitant inside but radiant outside we hand our travel documents to a young guy who makes a strange expression. The look on his face clearly says: "What do these people want? Is this some kind of joke?"
He is about to call his supervisor and ask for advice, but his face becomes even more puzzled and hilarious when a guy appears behind him, anticipates him, grabs the boarding list, scribbles something on it, probably draws a line on three random names, replaces them with ours and authoritatively sign his name at the foot of the page. The scent of money has set off a chain reaction that is involving new people as if they were pieces of a Big Domino Rally. Airport employees and officials, police officers, their family members...not that it is totally unconceivable, but in the heat of the moment we were not expecting it.
They finally check us in. With the boarding passes in our hands we gesture to my brother that everything is fine. He hands the bundle of rupiahs to the guy who oiled the wheels of this hellish machine and enters the departures hall.
In a couple of hours we'll be in Jakarta. We're secretly afraid that out of spite some Divine secret service will plot an accident, turning our loved ones' sorrow into unrestrained joy for the poor devils who couldn't catch the plane. But at the end of the day reality is never like this: the ones who pay get away with it and the victims of bad luck are not avenged. And they are left to rot in the tropical terrarium of Medan's airport terminal.
According to rough calculations carried out while the ever-smiling flight attendants are taking care of us it seems that we indirectly managed to corrupt four or five people. Not to mention the three unfortunate passengers who paid the consequences of it.
Munching a peanut and washing it down with a sip of orange juice, for a moment we cherish the illusion to skate over our shame. It didn't quite work...but, hey, this orange juice is not bad at all!

Medan, Indonesia, August 2003

P.S. I have to thank Lorenzo M.B. for reminding me of this anecdote that I - possibly due to my sense of guilt - had almost forgot. As he's the guy described in this other post then, it's quite surprising how he could manage to remember this story so clearly.


DocBudie said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
DocBudie said...

Thanks Fabio.. I really appreciate it..., please inform me if you want to come to Medan ( north Sumatra )

Fabio said...

Thanks, I'll keep that in mind.
Hey, you have a lot of great pictures in flickr.