“Flight attendance, landing position!” I heard the pilot say through the loudspeaker. Flight 190 from Jakarta to Palangkaraya was in total silence. Passengers were holding their breath, keeping their worries to themselves and nervously looked out of the window. Nothing could be seen. We have just lowered our altitude, leaving the blue sky and the bright sun above us. The plane has entered a thick grey layer of smoke over Palangkaraya. I looked out of the window, and up to where the sun was. The thick smoke blocked my view.
A day before, I was told by our secretary in Palangkaraya that they had not seen the sun for a few days. It has been dry season and it has not rained for 2 months now. At some point somewhere in the rainforest of Borneo, a spot in the peat land caught fire and has spread throughout the region. The smoke from the fire has covered most area in Borneo a.k.a. Kalimantan (meaning “rivers of diamonds”).
The inhabitants of the rainforest don’t seem to learn their lesson every year. Peat land easily catches fire and many of the local people living there recklessly burn their garbage outside their homes, not realizing (or maybe not even caring) that the peat soil may catch fire, which spreads deep in the ground and quietly throughout the island. Even international palm oil and other companies who are trying to clear the land are taking the easy and cheaper way out by burning down the forest. Every year around this time it seems that the government are busy enforcing the law. But as soon as the dry season is over, little (if not nothing at all) is done to prevent it from happening again the next year.
Mike Dammann and I sat quietly in the plane. Nobody was talking, there was absolute silence. We looked out the window as the plane approached the runway. We were able to see a few fire sources in the distance. I used to live here in this little city of Central Kalimantan. The last “smokey” season was back in 2006 which was probably just as bad as this one. At the time, people were inhaling dangerous smoke for 3 months. At the time, the dry, fiery season resulted in the deaths of a few local children.
As my plane was landing, I wondered how many more years do people have to go through the fire season and burn Borneo down. Nobody seems to remember doing something enough to prevent this from happening again every year.
Mike Dammann was sitting next to me and nervously mumbling, worried that the plane is going to crash. Even without hearing the other passengers saying anything, I knew that the rest of the people on the plane was thinking about the same thing. Everywhere we looked, all we saw was thick gray smoke. How could any pilot in the world land in blindness like that. But I tried to tell myself that if it was impossible for the plane to land, the airline would have delayed the flight once again.
The plane had been delayed for 6 hours that day. We were supposed to leave on Saturday, Sep 5, 2009. But the plane had been canceled due to smoke and all flights had been delayed to the next day. On Sunday, the smoke had not gone any better and they once again had had to delay it to Monday. When we finally had arrived at the airport and ready to board at 8.40am, we were informed that the airport in Palangkaraya was closed down. It was impossible for planes to land.
A woman with 2 kids had been at the airport for 2 days now. She was crying and literally begging the airline to compensate for the 2-day delayed flight back home to Palangkaraya. She had been without any money for 2 days and had been staying in the boarding room for 2 days without food. The two little kids looked tired and the younger boy was heard crying every now and again. When it was approaching 2pm, we were finally told to board.
When the plane landed and the exit door of the plane was opened, the strong smell of smoke irritated my nose and I started to sneeze a few times. Mike Dammann and I stayed at a Swiss friend whose house was turned into a guest house with a few bedrooms for $10 a night. After the first night there, Mike had trouble breathing because of the smoke and I had an alergy attack, sneezing, runny nose and itchy, watery eyes. For the next 3 days, we stayed in the office area where there was air conditioner.
For Mike and me, it was only a few days stay on business. We have the choice to leave anytime we want when we can not stand it anymore. But there are so many people in Palangkaraya who do not have that luxury. An air pollution meter that the local government has set up in the center of the city showed the indicator at the highest, most dangerous point. The hot topic among the locals was the polution indicator. But then again, almost every year, the indicator was all the way up to the most dangerous point like this… and every year, they would talk about it and forget it when the indicators were down to normal.
I wonder, how many more years will this be going on?
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