Dateline Jakarta

23 Jun

Places bring back old memories some good some bad. Events that make you appreciate the things you have. I Walked into the Singapore Airlines lounge at Singapore last week and the couch in the corner took me back to a tumultous two days a decade ago. Before anyone gets any ideas… read on…
It was a long business trip way back in May 1998. My first stop was Singapore, followed by Hong Kong (heard the news there about the Pokhran blasts and the US embargo on India), and then Indonesia. In all this I was accompanied by a German Colleague Dr. CB. We were together in Singapore and HK and I left for Indonesia on an earlier flight. Those days CB was one of the few people who carried mobile phones with International roaming.. multiple ones at that. He was (and still is) a well known figure in the Mobile Industry and operators used to actually GIVE him phones.

So as I left he gives me a mobile and says to me “Keep this phone. It might be useful. I’ll take it back when I see you in Jakarta”. International roaming for my India mobile phone was still not active.

So anyhow, I get to Jakarta without any problem. Check into a very nice hotel (owned by one of Suharto’s sons).

Indonesia was in turmoil. Suharto was getting unpopular and there was a popular uprising against him. Daily processions were commonplace. The army was having a hard time controlling the crowds. Suharto was also out of the country at that time. The place was boiling and about to explode.

First day passes by without any problem. On day two, at around 11 AM, our local partner (and CEO of the company) SBK suddenly rushes into the meeting room. “Pack your bags. Theres trouble”. CB who was in another meeting is already in the car. The streets were eeriely quiet. I could see smoke on the horizon.

The protests against Suharto had turned to violence against the ethnic Chinese.They were being targeted and their houses burnt. Our partner SBK was of Chinese origin (7th Generation) and was in grave personal danger. Yet he took the trouble of taking responsibility for CB and me. SBK was an extremely successful and powerful businessman. It was people like him that were being lynched.

Going back to the hotel was impossible as there was trouble on the streets. SBK took us to his house. Inside his wife and children were all packed ready to leave their house at a moments notice. It was there that we spent several hours waiting for the violence to abate. All the while SBK’s house was being guarded by his men and he’d get reports from the police control room. We could also hear mobs in the distance. Smoke from burning buildings was getting closer.

Sometime around 9 PM SBK told us that his driver would take us back to the hotel. “Pack up and be ready to leave any time. I will get you to the airport. Thats the safest place. You people will HAVE to leave Indonesia. No sleep he told me. Be awake”. CB and I go back to the hotel and wait. On the way we see entire shopping malls charred. From our rooms, we could see buildings catching fire one by one. CB suggested that we “take” the Mini-bar with us so we emptied both rooms (would be a lifesaver later on) including the little booze bottles.

At around 3AM, SBK calls and says “Go down. The driver is waiting for you”. He disconnected the phone before I could ask him how he and his family were. The driver was waiting at the lobby. We checked out of the hotel… paid for the mini-bar as well. We then started going through the side streets of Jakarta trying to find a safe passage to the airport. By now burning buildings were a common sight as were armymen checking each and every vehicle. I dont know what strings SBK had pulled but our car was waved through every checkpoint and soon we were on the highway heading towards the airport. We had to  get there and then find a way out of the country.

When we got to the airport an hour later.. it was chaos… it was going to be a looooong day.

To be continued

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17 Responses to “Dateline Jakarta”

  1. raydixon June 23, 2008 at 10:59 am #

    Great first instalment Vijay. I’ll wait for the next part but I would like this story a lot better if you’d said you DIDN’T pay for the mini-bar. Nothing like free booze !

  2. | Balu | June 23, 2008 at 11:05 am #

    Hey did you ever work as a scriptwriter? You know so well when to stop and put a — to be continued.. eagerly awaiting the next part

  3. praneshachar June 23, 2008 at 11:37 am #

    you had all the tense moments and great write up it is amazing after a decade you are penning as it has happened yesterday. my only worry is about SBK & fly hope they had a safe passage we know you has the safest one. waiting for second instalment. sooner the better suspense ends take your time off to complete our wishes

  4. Veena June 23, 2008 at 11:54 am #

    Vijay, Thriller story idiyella.. Enjoyed the sequence, though I didn’t understand the context of the rioting and the suharto’s son etc.,

    I was expecting an end like this..
    CB will ask you about his mobile phone and you answer his like this..
    oh Gosh, I just forgot to pick it up in all these emergency! 😉

  5. Xylene June 23, 2008 at 12:06 pm #

    oh !!! “tobe continued”. Dont tell me I have to wait a week. 😦

  6. poli huduga June 23, 2008 at 2:18 pm #

    saar, before you become script writer… taavu swalpa clear aage bariri saar…. nodi nimm audience ge “context” artha agtha illa – what is the point of the riot antha kelthare? somehow make it clear saar that the entire point of the post is the riot !!!

  7. vishwesh June 23, 2008 at 5:01 pm #

    Poli – how can you say that his post is all about riot?? He can as well write the story without riot as follows:

    In May 1998, Vijay went to Jakarta in 1998 on a long business trip. He went his German colleague CB. CB gave him a mobile phone with international roaming. He checked into a nice hotel owned by Suharto’s son. Indonesia was completely peaceful. On the second day, SBK took CB and Vijay to his house for a traditional dinner. SBK’s wife and kids did not need to go anywhere, they had not packed anything. They were back in the hotel at 11pm. SBK called Vijay at 3am saying that he had digestive problem like vaanthi/bedhi etc. Luckily Vijay and CB did not fall sick. Then next day, they had one more meeting with SBK who was feeling better. Then at 3pm they drove to the airport. It took them twenty minutes from center of Jakarta. Vijay gave the phone back to CB and flew back to Bengaluru via Singapore.

    QED. Nodidra? Riot tu illa. Suharto nu illa. I agree with the earlier comment that riot is not necessary for this story.

  8. Vijay June 24, 2008 at 2:10 am #

    @ray: The thought did occur to me.. but my colleague CB was an upright kind of guy… anyway the entire thing cost $5 because of the fall of the Rupiah
    @balu: lol…you keep giving me new career options .. thanks
    @pranesh: More in Part 2
    @veena: If not for the riots none of this would have happened
    @xylene: Will not make you wait that long… 😀
    @poli: Thanks for clarifying
    @vishwesh: this post IS about the riot…The way your logic goes 9/11 need not have happened either… 🙂

  9. ramsblog June 24, 2008 at 5:21 am #

    Vijay, while I was trying to picture the situation there, while reading this post, given the riot situation there, I pictured as though you would just pack some food, and just run to the airport. Since you had time to go to the billing counter, looks like the issue had calm down by then. However, I have noticed (I lived in Singapore 97-98) a lot of people moving to Singapore and Malaysia at that time and I heard at once, the border was closed.

    Also heard a lot of Singaporeans bought Indonesian Currency since the Indonesian economy was so down at the time. (1USD = 16000Rupiah approx)

  10. ramsblog June 24, 2008 at 5:22 am #

    ah! emoticon came in between those numbers in my comment. [ 1997 – 1998 ]

  11. Vijay June 24, 2008 at 5:25 am #

    @ram: Well we had to pay the guys .. whether we had time or not 🙂 We had to wait for our guy to call us before we left for the airport (no taxis were plying)… so there was no question of heading out to the airport when we wanted to…

  12. Madhu Rao June 24, 2008 at 11:26 am #

    Vijay,
    In the middle of riots in another country ? That’s got to be scary . Hope part-2 is about how your friend made it as well , or will it be about the airport ? Will wait..

  13. Harsha June 24, 2008 at 4:49 pm #

    quite interesting.. waiting for next part. Is this happened really or what? BTW, when were you back from wordpress-blocked china?

  14. Kishore June 24, 2008 at 5:25 pm #

    I am eagerly waiting for the following part / parts. This kinda reminded me of Anthony Bourdain’s episode in Beirut> where war broke out when he and his crew were there for a shoot.

    Since you are here and blogging I can safely assume you made it out… I hope your friends got out too.

  15. Kishore June 24, 2008 at 5:32 pm #

    Dang! Looks like I did an html slip in my comment above… Sorry. Vijay do fix it.

  16. Ramesh June 24, 2008 at 5:51 pm #

    Harsha – I thought the same thing. I think perhaps the writer is putting some uppu-khaara on his experience. Seems too fantastic to have really happened. Just my $0.02.

  17. Vijay June 25, 2008 at 4:03 am #

    @Madhu: 🙂
    @Harsha: Yes it did… came back from China on Sunday.. wordpress,blogspot all blocked…
    @Kishore: Interesting link
    @Ramesh: Why? These things dont happen?

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