I wake just as we begin our descent into Semarang. I have an aisle seat but can see the Central Java coast appearing outside the plane’s window. It is green and brown in equal amounts. Green rice paddies are a stark contrast to the brown sea water. Suddenly I realise just how much there will be to see and experience here in Indonesia. There are some wooden or bamboo platforms and poles standing in the sea and I just know I will have to take a closer look at both them and the rice paddies, some of which are totally flooded.
Landing in Semarang International Airport is an experience in itself. There are no air bridges and the airport itself is a small colonial style building. Before I even get off the plane I know I am in Indonesia. The airline don’t even waste their breath telling people to stay seated until the plane has come to a complete stop because every passenger is standing and grabbing bags as we make the final approach to the gate. On the tarmac people congregate waiting for friends who sat further back or forward on the plane and the airport vehicles dodge pedestrians. I love it already. Inside the terminal there is no walking anywhere towards customs: immigration is right there at the gate. While there is no line there is no pushing either. Everyone just congregates and makes their way in a disorderly but friendly fashion to the front. I am one of only three people holding foreign passports who need to buy a visa on entry. Everyone else is local and talking to each other like long lost friends. In fact, the whole flight was full of chatting people many of whom obviously had never met before. There’s no luggage carousel here – just a pile of boxes and bags that have been taken off the plane. I only have carry on anyway so I pick my way through the small pile of luggage and drop my backpack and helmet onto the xray machine.
I step out into the crowded arrivals hall. A familiar smell fills the air. I was in Indonesia about 20 years ago but still I remember that delicious smell of spices. My phone rings and as I go to answer it my cousins and I see each other. It’s been 20 years since we first met and our only contact in the intervening years has been sporadic through Facebook. Within minutes I find myself pulling on my helmet and jumping on the pillion seat of my cousin Depi’s motorbike. After a bicycle arrival in Seoul almost two months ago, a motorcycle arrival in Semarang seems quite fitting and equally fantastic.
We join the traffic, weaving in and out of cars. The movement is constant and almost chaotic but the speed is slow to compensate. Horns toot. Bikes zip past us. We zip past cars. At traffic lights we join the bunch of riders up the front, just like I have seen in photos and videos. It’s an awesome feeling.
Depi takes me to the warehouse where my uncle and cousins have a tent business. They set up big tents for weddings and other special events, like a festival at the Borubodur. I had heard they did weddings but had no concept of just how huge their operation is. I looked at photos of the many tents they have erected. This is marquee building on steroids. For example, there were photos of a 3,000 square metre (3/4 acre) fabric tent with beautifully coloured highlights and fancy styling that they put up in a rice paddy on a special platform they had built. I meet the rest of my cousins and their children. I am amazed at how one of my cousins has a daughter who reminds me of my youngest sister and my niece. While my cousin’s daughter looks totally Indonesian and my sister and niece don’t, the facial features and expressions are uncannily similar. It feels good to finally meet my Indonesian family because I can barely remember the last time: it was part of a whirlwind trip of Indonesia that happened at a complicated time in my life (isn’t 17 a complicated time in everyone’s life?).
We eat lunch at a local restaurant. My cousins tell me that Semarang is famous for food among Indonesian people. We eat nasi goreng, seafood and vegetables. The flavours of my childhood burst in my mouth. I love Indonesian food for its robust flavours. The kecap manis flavour is particularly notable and delicious.
After lunch my cousin drops me off at my hotel where I check in. It’s a cheap ($10 a night) single bed room with share bathroom. I am exhausted so I take a short nap before my cousin returns to take me to dinner because it is two of the children’s birthday today. I meet my uncle and more family members. The food is amazing and seafood based. We are on the north coast of Central Java after all. But it’s not just the food. It’s also the company. I enjoy getting to know my cousins a bit more during the night and hope to become more familiar with them as my visit to Indonesia continues.
But now I am absolutely smashed so I am going to close my eyes and get some sleep in the comfort of my airconditioned room. I will need the sleep so that tomorrow I can do some sightseeing, eat more food and continue getting to know my cousins.