Friday, 5 April 2013

Indonesia - Jakarta and a Fellow Traveller's Nightmare

A pretty bird in Jakarta airport
Our flight to Jakarta was cramped but uneventful.  We landed at the new Terminal 3 and it was really very busy.  As we had visas already firmly placed in our passports we did not need to queue up at the “Visa on Arrival” counter before heading through passport control.  We joined the massive queue and waited patiently with the throng of people who had all arrived at the same time.

I was summoned up to one of the 6 passport check desks before Paul and it did strike me at the time that the clerk was taking rather a long time to satisfy himself that everything was in order.  Paul was called up and had gone through before I was processed.  My clerk (who was a particularly officious looking middle aged man) kept glancing over in Paul’s direction.  After a good 3 minutes or so I was handed my passport back and allowed through.  Paul, and indeed everyone else who passed through before me, had gone through in less than a minute.

This doesn’t sound like much but we found it a little odd at the time and later on, we had reason to believe that we had had a lucky escape.

We landed late afternoon, and stayed overnight at a hotel close to the airport as we were heading straight off the next day on an early flight to Pangkalan Bun in Borneo.  It wasn’t ideal but we couldn’t get a direct flight from Bangkok and we couldn’t get an onward flight the same day.
The beginning of the sunset

We had no desire to explore Jakarta and so this was literally a stopover.

The hotel was great for the purpose.  It was brand new, the staff were lovely and spoke English, and the rooms clean, bright and modern.  However, it was at this point that we realised that being a primarily Muslim country, not only did I have to dress modestly almost all the time (not that I’m known for dressing as a tart, I don’t think anyway!) but the purchasing of beer was neither easy nor cheap. 

Alcohol is not illegal in Indonesia and certainly not on Java but it is not easily available.  We knew it would be nearly impossible to buy beer in Borneo although you can take your own but we had decided that our livers could do with a rest so were bracing ourselves for a dry section of our trip when we arrived in Borneo. 
However, we hadn’t realised it would be so much of a palaver on Java.  How wrong we were.

The hotel’s catering facilities were limited to providing a free breakfast which we did not have the opportunity to sample because our taxi was picking us up at 5am, a good 2 hours before breakfast would be available.  However, there was a café (or if you really want to be as anal as the Lonely Planet, a warung) attached to the hotel which looked like a bar which also served food.  It did indeed serve food but only soft drinks and no beer.

The same sunset a bit later
Sitting outside the café we spotted someone with a beer in front of him and so politely enquired where he had managed to procure this.  Apparently some random bloke (we have no idea who he was) would take your money and his scooter into the village, pick up the required number of beers for you, and transport them from the illusive place of purchase.  And beer was expensive at about $3 a bottle but we thought, hang the expense, we’re going without beer for about 3 weeks, we’ll have a few before we set off for deepest darkest Borneo.

We got chatting to the guy with the beer and it turned out he was British but had been living in Thailand for 10 years teaching English.  He was on holiday with his Thai girlfriend and they had planned to spend about 10 days on Java, among other things, visiting an American guy on death row.

However, that was not to be because as a result of a rather “unfortunate” incident at the airport, he had no money left.

And the same sunset even late
I should say at this stage that while Paul had researched the three areas in Indonesia we wanted to visit, such as how to get there, and all practical information, we hadn’t really looked into whether there were any unsavoury aspects to be on our guard for.  Indeed, Indonesia is known as the land of the smile but they smile regardless of whether they like you or not because it is considered impolite not to.  They are the polar opposite of Russians who don’t smile even if they like you a lot;  it’s just not in their nature.

Before we left the UK and were planning our trip, we researched Russia and China extensively as they were our first ports of call, and we had also started on Vietnam.  It would have been too much to research much further and we have much of our research as we go via the internet or by speaking to other travellers.  Indonesia, being our final destination before hitting Australia, was largely neglected.  Indeed, the decision on where to choose to go was such a huge one (the country is enormous and daunting beyond belief) meant that other matters such as local customs, history, politics, dangers and annoyances which we normally take a keen interest in, were all but overlooked.

We certainly hadn’t realised corruption was such a huge problem in Indonesia as we were about to find out from our new friend Glen, and which made us reflect on our experience at the airport.

Glen and his girlfriend Phu, arrived at Terminal 3 from Bangkok the previous day.  They queued up for visas on arrival and the first sign of corruption occurred when the Russian group ahead of them were charged $100 for the visa on arrival when there is a flat fee of only $25 for all visitors.  This put Glen on his guard but he completed the visa application process, they were charged the correct fee of £25 each and he and his girlfriend found themselves at the end of the queue at passport control.

Phu passed through routinely and without incident.  However, when Glen was summoned to a desk matters did not pass quite so smoothly.

Firstly, he was asked for his return ticket, which he duly produced.  He was then asked for his itinerary which he explained was on his iPad, where he had hotel bookings etc.  He produced his iPad from his bag and showed it to the clerk but the clerk said that this was not acceptable and unless he could provide a printed copy of his itinerary he would have to pay a fine was $300.  If he didn’t pay it he would be sent back to the UK which would obviously cause huge problems as his home is now Thailand.

Remember, he already had a visa and permission to enter the country and proof of his exit flight.  He was granted a visa to enter and as far as his girlfriend (and every other visa on arrival passenger) was concerned, all relevant information had been provided, and passport control was simply a matter of checking that all was in order. 

But this particular clerk clearly saw Glen as an opportunity to make a quick buck and by this time there was no-one left around to witness any scene which may be made.  $300 in Indonesia is not a small amount of money.  However, neither was it a small amount to Glen.  He protested a little but the threats to extradite him to the UK were too much for him to risk.  Wary of ruffling too many feathers and worried about the possible consequences if he made too much of a fuss he simply paid up.  This meant he had no option but to return home to Thailand after only a couple of days and when we met him at the hotel he was leaving the following day. 

The hefty fine had wiped out his holiday budget and as an English teacher in Thailand he doesn’t get paid that much by western standards (enough to have a good life in Thailand but not enough to kiss goodbye to $300).

There was nothing he could do.  Clearly the clerk was corrupt but Glen had little choice but to pay the fine.  The alternatives in a place like Indonesia didn’t bear thinking about.  One possibility was the danger of being taken to a quiet room, his luggage tampered with, and lo and behold he’s joining his friend on death row..  What we sometimes forget in the west is that this type of corruption is endemic in certain parts of the world, something we by and large take for granted doesn’t happen on such a scale in the west, and if discovered and report it generally doesn’t go unpunished, but corruption was something we hadn’t especially considered in Indonesia. 

Obviously we can’t be sure but we do believe that the passport clerk who processed me was seriously considering trying some kind of similar trick with either me or Paul.  He really was behaving rather oddly but we were right in the middle of a huge queue of people, including a large tour group of Indonesians we had been speaking to on the plane (I say speaking, but I used my three words of Indonesian “I am English”).  I think the clerk thought better of it and believed it would have been a bit risky to try something like that where a scene may be caused in front of a lot of people.  It certainly put us on our guard for the future.

We spent the evening chatting to Glen (Phu became bored rather quickly as we were talking a lot about England and English related stuff including cheese, obviously), shared a few beers (the last for a while) before heading off to bed, and a very early start to catch our flight to Pangkalan Bun.

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