Near death in Padang, Sumatra
Padang, Sumatra, 1996. When surf-travel was all about getting barrelled, and taking a few images on Kodak film. Memories were postcards bought, diary entries and those photographs that traveled around the world, preceding your arrival. A time when the mission wasn’t all about YouTube clips and a viral video, boosting your fans or your Twitter and Insta followers. Nor was it about killing goats and filming it for a naïve consumer market. A time that when you bought a coke the shop owner poured it into a plastic bag and stuck a straw in it, keeping the bottle. A time when we simply knew that fresh ginger and garlic tea kept the mosquitoes at bay, and keeping mosquitoes away could be the difference between life and death. We had just come back from camping in the village at HT’s. A local girl had died while we were staying there. She had contracted malaria,
There was a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Padang that sold rice with every meal. The chickens were smaller than usual KFC fare, but they weren’t bush meat, so it was ok. After a few weeks of living in a village on an island in the Mentawais, to stumble upon a KFC was like heaven. In crusty boardies and torn shirts we arrived and ate two meals, three meals at a sitting; gorging on fried chicken skin, gristle, and a bit of white meat. We washed it down with beer after ice-cold beer, thin and sunburned after too much time in the sun and too much time without correct nutrition. Red Bulls were sold in warm little glass bottles, with no fizz, and under a different name.
We were hanging out, near the main road, alongside a motorbike hire bazaar. A western band, Colour me Badd (remember ‘I Wanna Sex You Up?’) had played the night before in Padang, and there were plenty of young girls around, who had all hired scooters for the weekend. They were returning them that morning, and we were these foreign surfer dudes, sprawled on the grass alongside, in boardies and vests and brown skin and pink scars, smoking gudangs, drinking bintangs, with cheap Aviators covering our eyes.
Two girls arrived in a jeep, stopped and started talking to some of us. They were University students who wanted to practice their English; the Pommies amongst us took over and started chatting. We were flying out to Bali that afternoon, and all we needed was a lift to the airport. Our boards were already at the airport, languishing in a back room, and all we needed was a bit of space for the five of us, along with our backpacks.
Learning a foreign language is great fun when you start getting a few words right and getting to grips with sentence structure. There’s a kind of feverish excitement when you start talking in a foreign tongue. Much giggling and gudang smoke ensued as we headed off to the airport in the girls’ little jeep.
At some stage amidst the laughter and the frivolity, we noticed that we were no longer moving. The jeep had come to a standstill amidst our chatting. As the conversation died, and we started to look around, we could hear the faint tinkling of bells. I looked from the back through the gap between the two front headrests, and through the front window. I could see an elderly Indonesian parking attendant, and he seemed to be trying to climb out the front of his cubicle. He was looking at us and shouting and screaming and the bells were getting louder. More people started screaming at us and pointing and a few split seconds stretched for an eternity as the airport world stared at us with all their mouths open.
Sitting on the sideways bench seats in the back of the jeep, I turned my head around to trace the noise of the bells, and looked into the eye of the devil.
A colossal black train was bearing down on us, at full speed, as we sat, motionless, across the train lines surrounding the old Padang airport. I started screaming, someone else joined in, the girl turned the key desperately in the ignition and we heard the engine whirr into life, slowly.
‘Seven people dead in horror train smash’ is what the Jakarta Post would have headlined the next day if the engine had not started. As it kicked, she tramped on the pedal and lurched forward a few meters and the jeep rocked sideways and nearly fell over from the whoosh of the train, and the engine died again as we slowly freewheeled down into the parking area, traveling past the shocked parking attendant, who stared vacantly at us, as we drifted in at about three kilometers an hour. The pretty Indonesian girl, who wasn’t driving, started crying and screaming hysterically.
When we had finally settled in the airport to take stock, we soon realized that our boards were locked in some storage room and we probably weren’t going to get them out before the plane took off. Then we were told that the flight had been delayed by a good few hours as Colour Me Badd were on the same flight, headed for Bali. There would be press and media on the flight as well. The flight was going to be full, and chaotic.
All of these things would have irritated us no end in the sweltering heat of the old airport in Padang, but we weren’t thinking about that. At that stage we weren’t even talking.