Friday, July 17, 2009

Hotel Bombings in Jakarta

Blasts hit the Ritz-Carlton and J.W. Marriot hotels this morning in Jakarta, Indonesia, killing at least nine people and injuring at least 50 more.
When I was in Jakarta on business in 2007, I stayed at that same Ritz-Carlton a couple of times. The first night I ever went there was quite an experience.

I had been working across town at a client's office until about 10 PM. But my firm had a driver on staff in Jakarta, so when I was finished there he was already waiting for me in the parking lot to drive me to my hotel, the Ritz-Carlton. Since I had gone to my meeting straight from the airport, I had not even checked in there yet. Not speaking much English, he drove me silently through the late night Jakarta traffic. I was surprised when he abruptly stopped about 20 minutes later, wordlessly, at what looked like the back entrance to a nice (but not luxurious), indoor shopping mall.

Used to the grand facades of luxury hotels in Asia (and the gauntlet of bomb-sniffing dogs and guards with hand-held mirrors stationed in front of them that is so common in the poorer, less stable capitals of southeast Asia) I was not expecting to be dropped off in front of a set of unpresupposing glass double-doors at a shopping mall. So when the car stopped, I didn't immediately get out. We both sat in the parked car silently, he and I, air conditioning still running, for what seemed like a couple of minutes. Finally I leaned forward and asked my driver if this was the Ritz-Carlton. Yes, he said, walk right through those glass doors. "Could we go to the front entrance of the hotel instead," I asked. No, he said. "Security. Not safe," was his response.

So I grabbed my bag and in I went. I was a little leery and skeptical, thinking this was all a big language barrier mix up. But in I went. Two uniformed guards stood next to an airport-style metal detector just inside these glass doors. I went through that and found myself inside a three story shopping mall that was closed for the night. I looked at the mall directory and saw no listing for the Ritz-Carlton hotel, however. (Language barrier mix up indeed, I thought to myself, now peeved.) So I marched back to those security guards at the door and asked about the hotel. To my surprise, one volunteered to walk me there. Great! Off we went.

He then proceeded to lead me accross the mall, lights dim and people-less, then down two floors to the lowest level, beyond a food court in a basement and then through some un-marked swinging doors that appeared to be a service entrance. Those swinging doors led into a long, dimly lit corridor with a low ceiling, the floor of which was covered in dirty linoleum. Flourescent lights flickered as we continued to walk for another five minutes through this winding service hallway, until we hit yet another airport-style metal detector staffed by a lone, bored security guard.

He jumped to attention and I went through that screening as well, as the other security guard waved goodbye to me. I was pointed to continue on, which I did (unescorted), until I hit a service elevator. I went up a few floors in that elevator and, bang, found myself among hardwood floors and soft music in the ornate atrium of the Ritz-Carlton.
As I was checking in, I asked the receptionist why the hotel's front entrance was sealed off and why I was led to the hotel via this unconventional way instead. "Security," was all she said on that topic, not even looking up at me as she said that, not mentioning that there had been, I later learned, previous bombings at luxury hotels in Jakarta less than two years before. But she then did lead me up to the nicest hotel suite that I've ever stayed in, complete with 20 foot high ceilings and a marble bathroom that was bigger than my entire apartment at the time.

As I watched the coverage of these bombings on CNN, I saw Indonesian officials at a loss to explain how these bombings could have happened yesterday, given all of this security at these luxury hotels. And all I could think of was that lone, bored security guard stationed at the metal detector in that linoleum service corridor, underpaid and half asleep in an ill-fitting uniform....

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