Mt Raung causes chaos at Bali airport… but only at the international terminal

Gunung Raung, Bali's biggest volcano.

Gunung Agung, Bali’s biggest volcano.

On a one-day Singapore visa run earlier this year I queued at Bali airport from five in the morning for over two hours. A fellow AVID had warned the early Air Asia flight is always delayed, but I was still confronted by the kilometre-long queue furrowing through the terminal when I arrived. Sipping a mango juice I’d purchased the night before for queuing purposes, I got chatting to a charming young Balinese woman who was flying to Singapore to see her husband and three kids for three days. She was two years younger than me and worked in Sanur for a kitesurfing company. Yes, she missed her family, but she was earning better money than she could in Singapore, and loved water sports. Nattering away makes time slip – we were this it together.

Others in the queue, the vast majority of whom were foreigners, were not so chipper – a trio of young Australian men in particular. Singleted and sunburnt it was clear they hadn’t slept, their eyes as scarlet as their blistering shoulders. One, wringing his baseball cap and chomping his bottom lip, bellowed “I just can’t handle this man!” His mates hid their seared faces in their hands. Well, what can you handle? I wondered. Along with many in the queue I was horrified when one of them, fiercely frustrated by the malfunctioning self-check in machine, kicked it with full force and a resounding “FUCK!”, causing its contents to spew onto the floor.

On the morning of the second day of Gunung Raung’s ash cloud hazing heavy over Denpasar I was due to fly to Yogya for dear friends Tennille and Didik’s wedding at 10.25am. I arrived at the airport much earlier, however, with an old college friend Katie, whose flight to Flores had been cancelled the day before. We thought she should try her luck on another flight, but in the taxi on the way to the airport Twitter told us it was shut until midday. It also informed us “thousands of tourists are stranded on the island”, “Gunung Raung wreaks havoc on holidaymakers”, “quarrels broke out as people tried to cut in line” and “absolute chaos consumes Bali airport.”

But this only applied to the international terminal.

Upon arrival at the domestic terminal there were thousands of Indonesians standing out the front, but that’s all they were doing: standing, or sitting, or sleeping. No stamping of foot or raising of voice. A few irritated expressions, yes, but more snoring than scowling.

I was reminded of a public ferry ride from Lombok to Bali in March this year. After the four-hour journey when Padang Bai was visible but still about half a k away, the roaring engine stopped, the ferry shuddered to a halt. The tinny PA announced there would be a three hour wait as “pelabuhan rusak”. The port is broken. No one batted an eyelid. They just bought more peanuts and sweet coffee or settled back in to sleep. If we were in Australia, I thought, people would riot, or they’d dive overboard and swim to shore. I was chatting to my brother on Facebook at the time and told him, pelabuhan rusak. “Did they turn it off and turn it back on again?” Hughie jibed.

I was extremely fortunate; my flight to Yogya was one of the first out when the airport reopened after one and a half days of closure. But faced with it, I can appreciate the deep disappointment cancelled flights can cause; missed connecting flights, or a wedding, a 50th birthday, the birth of a child. But when traveling in a country with 127 active volcanoes, one must accept that airport closures are not uncommon. I hope not too many airport staff were scalded by the steam of thousands of holidaymakers stranded in paradise.

It was the extraordinary patience of Indonesians that inspired me to live here in the first place. On New Year’s Day 2010, Nicholas Combe, a merry band of his mates and I were on a bus back to Yogyakarta from Kukup Beach on Java’s south coast. But it seemed all of Yogya was on its way to Kukup Beach. We were one lumbering old bare bones bus faced with thousands of motorbikes on a narrow muddy track. What took one hour the day before stretched into six as the bus inched a hulking path through the black river of motorbikes, becoming bogged in the muck every few minutes. But horns blaring? Tempers flaring? Hardly. What I witnessed that day was truly touching: everyone just wanted to help. Digging us out, directing traffic, cracking a stellar grin back at the bus full of smiling bule. I promised myself: I’m going to live here one day.

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