A volcano, a puppet show and a few hurdles

23 November, 2020

In March, Anthony Bartl visited the Indonesian capital, Jakarta. Like all travel, the trip was full of joy, surprise and frustration - only more so. Anthony uses a powered wheelchair and breathes with the help of a ventilator. 

I love adventure and trying new things. I got the travel bug a few years ago when I spent time in South Africa.  This time around I wanted a taste of Jakarta, Indonesia, for a few reasons: I had an old school friend who lived there; it wasn’t too far from Australia; it would be cheaper than other destinations; learn new a culture; and the challenge of visiting a developing country.

I was meant to go a year earlier in 2019 and started my planning back then. However, my plans had to change after my wheelchair was badly damaged after running into a solid pole. Twelve months later, and with the help of a Recreational Specialist to help me plan, I made my way to Melbourne Airport with five carers and the equipment needed for my eight-day holiday. I made my way to the gate where I was met by staff and their trusty hoist to take me to my seat.

A rough entry

After crossing Marble Bar near Port Hedland, I am well into my 7-hour flight to Jakarta on Garuda Indonesia Airlines. It’s an isolating experience, even from my Business Class seat. The hostesses seemed like they didn’t want to engage with me and I felt awkward and angry at the same time.

They communicated through my carers instead. I sensed they had never interacted with disabled people and were daunted by the prospect.

Once we landed and were met by the tour company, Access Indonesia, we were told they had the only accessible van in the entire country. It is clear the archipelago is impoverished. Furthermore, on Jakarta’s streets (Indonesia’s capital) access for people with disabilities isn’t evident.  Searching for answers, it isn’t hard to see why. Jakarta isn’t made for pedestrians in wheelchairs. Footpaths are either non-existent or inaccessible, no curbs, starting but abruptly ending with stairs or broken to the point of not being a footpath. In most cases, roadside is my only option and I’m up against the throng of streaming motorbikes and constant horn blaring.

The hostesses seemed like they didn’t want to engage with me and I felt awkward and angry at the same time.

Sanctuary and generosity

Fortunately, I can retreat to my stay at the Borobudur, where opulence abounds. Chandeliers adorn ceilings and a grand staircase winds majestically up multi levels.

Here too are issues though. Although ramp access into its lobby is a start, some lifts can’t carry my wheelchair’s weight. Likewise, room electricity is intermittent. My mind races: To breathe I rely on a powered ventilator. I just hope there is constant electricity to keep my ventilator working. It’s an unsettling feeling for me.

But there’s more to Jakarta than its problematic infrastructure and welfare supports. It’s the people here that make up for the lack thereof.

For my time in Jakarta, I have diligent and selfless Wasito, my driver, who saves me from tackling the city’s made-for-car/motorbike roads. He treats me to Indonesia’s lively culture in the old town of Kota Tua. 

With a makeshift rickety ramp welcoming people in wheelchairs to Jakarta’s Wayang Museum, a random passer-by helps push me up the slope.

The puppet master

The Wayang Museum is dedicated to Javan Wayang puppetry, and marionettes of all kinds line the walls. The Javanese Wayang Kulit puppets have a leather make-up. Made by chiselling the parchment with fine tools and aided in movement with carefully shaped buffalo horn handles and control rods, they are decorated in beautiful hues.

Later... squeezing into a narrow doorway, to a poky and chock-full room of all things puppetry, I see Aldy. Meticulously and proudly he revels in parading every step of assembling a puppet. A highlight here, I am shown the royal treatment, a private impromptu shadow puppet performance, “Bayang Wayang”, of figures manipulated between lamp and screen... with me a character in a good versus evil story!

I am shown the royal treatment, a private impromptu shadow puppet performance... with me a character in a good versus evil story!

On the edge

Another highlight is in the highlands, a 3-hour drive from Jakarta. The bubbling boiling mud, wafting steam, intense radiating heat and burnt ash smell that is Tangkuban Perahu is an awe-inspiring experience. Emitting sulphur fumes and one of 127 active volcanoes in Indonesia, I am able to wheel right up to a low fence and peer down into its heart. In much cooler air, Tangkuban Perahu is the only volcano in Indonesia where you can drive up to its very rim. It has a peculiar shape, something that bears a resemblance to an upturned boat, its name referring to a creation myth ending in tragedy where love is swept away from a misunderstanding.

Apart from marvelling at two authentically Indonesian charms, the country’s misgivings are tossed aside by fully functioning modes of public transport and again other generous folks. At a newly built subway at Istora Station, conductors stand proudly ready to serve, laying down ramps with exuberance. The same goes for the city’s tourist buses, where an official at a rank horse-trades between three rides as to which one can take me - before an automatic ramp pops out footpath bound.

When not using disability friendly services, on safari, I fortunately have two able carers and Access Indonesia, who all chip in to sling me up a staired safari truck. This before my trusty driver Wasito, as always a constant, as we hit the road back. Although transport has been good to me, I lament not being able to self-explore more, being left to my own devices. Maybe next trip.


Lessons and some luck

My trip could have been enhanced had we planned better. Don’t assume "Recreational Specialists" and others know it all because they don’t. Planning is the key. Find out what you want to see and how you will get there. The Lonely Planet has great access information and lists "must do’s" (I found this out too late). One must-do was to see all of Jakarta from the famous Skye Bar. Unfortunately, the people I relied on to organise this hadn’t looked into the opening times. We drove all the way there to find it was closed.

Once back in Melbourne and disembarking from my flight, transferring back into my wheelchair, the entire Garuda Indonesia crew stood agog, not averting their awestruck gaze until I was finally comfortably strapped in and able to wheel away. Disability is new ground for them ... it’s not something they see in their homeland.

I just want to finish off by saying I was lucky to return to Melbourne just before returning travellers had to self-isolate in hotels. This would have been a daunting situation for me as I’m not sure if my carers would be allowed to stay with me to provide care. Am I looking forward to the next time I travel? Yes, definitely!

Anthony Bartl has been living with a C1 spinal cord injury since he was six years old. He's a writer, public speaker, and keen adventurer. This article was originally published in the August 2020 edition of NewsLink.


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