A reflective dinner in the shadow of an air crash

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

I had a rather different kind of New Year's Eve countdown four days ago - if you can even call it a countdown.

At 8pm on Dec 31 most years, I would be hosting a group of university mates as we chow down food at our annual potluck gathering before the New Year's countdown.

But this was the first thing I cancelled when I received a call last Monday to cover the missing AirAsia flight that - we would find out later - had crashed in the Java Sea while making its way from Surabaya to Singapore.

So New Year's Eve dinner this time would be spent away from friends and family, in the small central Kalimantan town of Pangkalan Bun in Indonesia. 

This was the closest town to the crash site - but even then we're talking about a four-hour journey by sea.

"Mee ayam," I told the elderly uncle who ran the food shop across the street from my small hotel.

A typical New Year's Eve party with my friends would feature a dozen food items at least, but this burly, moustachioed pak cik's menu consisted of just two dishes - chicken noodle soup (which I ordered) and nasi goreng.

"Drinks?" he asked me. He had only one beverage: tea.

"Teh panas," I replied, referring to hot tea. "Teh hangat," he corrected me. The little differences between Malay and Bahasa Indonesia.

Uncle started on his noodles, while I surveyed his shop, which he ran alone.

Here, in a zinc-roofed wooden shack no bigger than an MPV car, he somehow manages to accommodate about a dozen customers.

There are four plastic stools on the left side and a wooden bench on the right. The tablecloth is a brown PVC sheet. The napkin is a roll of toilet paper in a green cylindrical container.

Packets of keropok hang by the window grille.

My noodles arrive. I have had three biscuits in the last nine hours. I dive right in.

As I slurp up the noodles, the only sounds I hear are the whirring of the gas stove and the occasional motorcycle riding by. This is a quiet part of the port town Kumai, which is next to Pangkalan Bun.

Still, many hotels here were full, packed to the gills with journalists and government officials, who have descended on this town because of the missing plane. My room had only a cold water shower and an overflowing toilet - but at least I had a room. An hour before I secured it, I was discussing with other journalists about sleeping together in a hall.

I finish my noodles. Teh hangat arrives. It's not very hangat, but never mind. I like a mild sweet drink after a long day.

I keep watching Uncle work. Stirring the noodles, throwing in the vegetables, mixing the sauces.

Then I observe the two small families who are in the shop with me.

One has a boy toddler blowing a shiny plastic horn - the closest to New Year's revelry that I would see that day. Out of respect for the tragedy, Pangkalan Bun had cancelled its annual New Year's Eve countdown celebration.

The other family consists of a younger couple with a little girl, who is asleep in her mother's arms.

They are all waiting for their mee ayam.

That evening, I keep looking at the toddler, then at them. There is something very soothing about this scene.

It helps calm my mind, after all the running around in the previous two days to chase news leads about flight QZ8501, which had disappeared on Sunday.

We watched hope thin, then disappear, as the debris of the plane was found after three days of searching. 

I think back to the anguished faces of relatives in Surabaya after reality sinks in. I think back to the two tragedies earlier in the year, to the hundreds of people killed in the two doomed Malaysia Airlines flights - and the thousands more loved ones they left behind.

Earlier in the day, I was chatting with a student and Pangkalan Bun resident about the crash.

"I can't imagine losing five or six of my family at one go," she said. "I just can't."

Neither can I.

I finish my teh hangat, but I keep sitting in this shop. The two families have left. One other young family has taken their place. The father sports a leather jacket and dangles a cigarette off his lips as he plays with his daughter.

Uncle is frying nasi goreng for him. I almost forget it's New Year's Eve. And for some reason, I don't really want to leave.

"Mee ayam," I finally gesture to Uncle. "One more."

chengwee@sph.com.sg