20 - Immigration Enigma (Bali, Indonesia)
I was ready for blast off. No, I wasn’t. Yes, I was. Game on. Game off. Lonely and confused but not naked and afraid…yet. Immigration roulette. Always bet on black. Or red. Neither? Both? WTF?
by The Nostomaniac
BALI’S GRIP ON ME WAS BEGINNING TO LOOSEN. I was getting antsy, and more importantly, gaining confidence on the Phantom. I was nearly ready to shuck that oyster and claim my pearl. Or was I? Amid an afternoon chilling session with my peeps at Balimode, I received information that, on its face, would torpedo my cross-island fandango. I flew to Singapore for the express reason of obtaining a flexible social-cultural visa, a visa you can only acquire at an embassy or consulate outside the country. With visa in hand, I returned to Bali, bought a motorcycle, stocked up on supplies, shored up my nerve, and stuffed a rabbit’s foot in my ass. Check, check, annnnd check.
The social-cultural visa is valid for two months but eligible for four one-month extensions. Not ideal. Why? Well, imagine having to be in a city with an immigration office every month. The entire trip would have to be planned around renewals. Um, can you say deal-breaker? But wait…
There was a grey-area workaround popular with the foreign kids. You leave your passport in the safe at your visa agency (Balimode for instance) and keep copies of passport plus visa with you at all times. In addition, you carry a letter from your agency explaining the procedure and where anyone interested can find an updated visa. (Copies do expire at some point, however.) When the time for renewal is at hand, your rep takes the visa to immigration and, viola, visa renewed. Visa agencies in Ubud had safes packed full of foreign passports. That’s why they charged a premium. A real service industry. The cost for self-renewal was much less, but one then had to face the bureaucracy, a language barrier, and suffer the inconvenience of personal appearances. Where’s the fun in that…or the bribes?
There was one exception: the second extension. For that one only, you must show up in person for a photograph and a fingerprint…or so I thought. Everyone in the office knew my plan. Leave Bali until May when I would return for my second renewal. After that, I’d head west for a few months to explore Java and Sumatra.
And let me be clear. I am not a moron…mostly. I saw the potential snafu in this scheme. Island hop in Indonesia without my passport while placing tremendous faith in my friends at Balimode. Tremendous. How tremendous? Well, they had to keep track of all rolling expirations and allow enough time to process each renewal. They had to remove passports from the safe and hand deliver them to the immigration office in Denpasar and then return them to Ubud. I had to trust this would all run like clockwork. No snags. I’d be frolicking hundreds if not thousands of miles away powerless to intervene on my own behalf. What could possibly go wrong?
Yes, it was nuts. Yes, the State Department would not approve. Maybe, with the benefit of hindsight, I was a moron. This system was in place for years, and I had done a fair amount of research online to confirm what I’d been told. And, yes, there were loud voices on the interweb cautioning against this tack in the most self-righteous way possible. My eyes were wide open. Things could go terribly wrong. If I found myself in a sticky situation (legal or otherwise), gallivanting across the archipelago sans passport would definitely not aid my plight. Still, I was reasonably confident, given the tourist-friendly stance of Indo as a whole, I could work shit out in a pinch. And let’s not forget bribery as a last resort.
My first extension was in April which I thought meant a return to Ubud by May for the second in-person renewal. I was advised, quite casually I must say, I should carry my passport if I decided to visit Sumatra, Kalimantan, or Sulawesi. Um, what? And then came the real kicker. Extensions two, three, and four could take two weeks to process AND would REQUIRE my presence. Um, double what? Consider that. An extension, good for a month, is a two-week process. That means I would’ve had about two weeks (if I was lucky) of free time in between renewals. Perfect if I wanted to circle the immigration office on my Phantom for six months. I did not.
I tried to remain calm. This wasn’t just business (not for me anyway). These folks were my friends. On the outside, I was mostly cucumber cool, but on the inside I was screaming “MUTHA FUCKA! MUTHA FUCKA! MUTHA FUCKA! MUTHA FUCKAAAAAAAAAAH!” I remember thinking the immigration office should double as a spa/hotel so I’d never have to leave my room, or at least have a drive-thru window I could zip through on my biweekly rotation around the island.
It ain’t easy being anomalous. I’d come to realize most of the tourists leaving their passports in an agency's safe lived in the immediate area (Ubud, Kuta, Jakarta, etc.), rarely venturing outward for any length of time. And if they did, they retrieved their passports before doing so. Few, if any, followed my game plan. I wasn’t blameless in this. I let exuberance cloud my perception. I thought we were on the same page, but we weren’t even reading the same book.
Flummoxed. Dejected. Mr. Pissy Pants. That was me. I was at a loss. I felt like handing the keys to the Phantom to the first passer-by with instructions to have a blast. I was frustrated with no one to blame. I ascribed no maliciousness to the Balimode crew. They either failed to appreciate the logical ramifications of my travel plans or misread my intentions from the start. This brand of miscommunication would plague me throughout the trip. Case in point: While staying in Bali, every morning I’d patronize a quaint restaurant nestled in the rice fields above Ubud. I’m a big fan of poached eggs. Big fan. A single order came with two, but I wanted four. I needed four, being a hungry hippo. I was breakfasting solo, so when I ordered four eggs I could see the confusion wash across the young female server’s face. Why would I want two orders? Was I not alone? Clearly, she thought I couldn’t want two orders. I tried to articulate “double order” as best I could, pointing to my stomach and repeating the words “very hungry”. What did I receive? Two complete orders of poached eggs on separate plates with garnish and all. With both plates elevated and nary a hint of sarcasm or condescension, I slid the eggs from one plate to the other. The lightbulb clicked on. The waitress giggled uproariously, as did I.
Anger would’ve been counterproductive and misplaced with poached eggs or immigration woes. I was very cognizant of the “Asshole American” image and had no wish to proliferate the stereotype. If you’re a “I’ll have the club sandwich without the bacon, lite mayo on the side, avocado instead of tomatoes, hold the pickles and a banana lassie with skim milk and no sugar” type person, then you might as well fling yourself off a bridge before dining out in the developing world. Stick to the resort village, prick. Me, I’d eat anything (Soto Ceker for example) even when it’s not what I ordered. Travel, and by extension life, is much less complicated when not giving a flying rat shit about such things. For the next two years, I was stoked if my order hit sixty percent accuracy.
The immigration dilemma was a version of the poached eggs incident. What to do? I sought outside counsel at another agency (a competitor no less) to confirm the dire news. The polite and professional gentleman owner (a Dutch national I believe) went on to contradict everything I’d been told at Balimode. Super. He reiterated what research revealed earlier, and what I thought my friends had confirmed: Passport copies and a letter from a visa agency should be enough to dissuade authorities from taking remedial action. This wasn’t exactly reassuring, but enough to assuage my fear. I was back to the “ill-advised but plausible” scenario from whence I began. Game on. Sadly, it appeared I would have to take my business elsewhere. I did not relish that conversation.
I let it sit for the day, not returning to Balimode until the morning. It was a new day. They annulled the previous day’s exchange and, after consulting their boss, assured me it would all be “Tidak apa-apa.” No problem. Ain’t no thang. I think I was relieved, but I know I was confused. Things in Denmark weren’t rotten but they were probably past their expiration date. It was leap of faith time. So, onward and eastward. I was past the point of no return. Departure was imminent. It was almost time to buckle up.