This is a saga of corruption, bureaucracy, and annoyances on a scale that we have never experienced before.  Before we begin, we must admit that we should shoulder some of the responsibility for these proceedings.  But not that much.  We mostly blame the system.

When I (TP) applied for my visa to visit Indonesia, I applied for a six month visa.  My funding source gave me enough money to cover six months in Indonesia, and so naturally I tried to set that up.  Applying for a visa itself has about a million steps, but essentially I had to get permission from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI) to get approval for a visa, to be issued by the Indonesian Consulate in New York.  Somehow, LIPI screwed up.  I got permission for a five month visa.  Now, if you’ve ever tried to fight a bureaucracy that has made a mistake, you know how hard that is.  Try doing it in a foreign language, halfway across the world, with a 12-hour time difference.  Not happening.  We took the five months.

Then we find out that you don’t actually get a five month visa.  It’s either two, or six.  In effect, we got a two month visa with a three month extension, because we were only going to be here for five month.  If we had applied for six months, we would have gotten a six month visa.  Well, we did apply for six months, but that’s neither here nor there at this point.

When you arrive in Indonesia there is a process that you have to go through if you are not a tourist.  It involves reporting to LIPI, getting residence approval, reporting to immigration, reporting to the police, reporting to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, all sorts of bureaucratic goodness.  Luckily, we had help from AMINEF, the American-Indonesian Exchange Foundation, who provided us with a helper who knew the ropes and expedited the process.  We thought that the immigration stuff was taken care of, but apparently we were wrong.  We made a deal with the AMINEF folks to have them help us with the visa extension for mid-November (after our initial two months).  We even emailed them to remind them that our visa was running out.  But we heard nothing.  Knowing that we sometimes don’t know what’s going on, we didn’t do anything else.  This was our mistake.  The visas expired during the Idul Fitri holiday.

The AMINEF people called us on Monday to let us know that we might be invited to the US Embassy Thanksgiving party. (Didn’t happen.)  While on the phone, I mentioned that our visas expired.  The woman said, "Oh, go to LIPI and get it straightened out."  And so it began.  We took off the rest of the day to go to LIPI to get a letter requesting a visa extension.  After I left to go to a scheduled interview, they gave JM a hard time because she hadn’t applied for a six month visa.  She bit her tongue.  This process took an hour and a half for a single form letter that they produce all the time.  This does not count taxi times and the fact that we had to quit what we were doing for the day.

Tuesday, we took the letter to our local immigration office, and the real fun began.  This place was a nightmare.  People everywhere.  Passports everywhere.  Smells like a bar from the cigarette smoke and lack of air conditioning.  No signs.  Tons of officials sitting around in uniforms doing nothing.  We found a security guard who showed us where to buy our paperwork and get photocopies of our letter.  We filled them out, went upstairs, and handed them to the guy behind the window.  He proceeded to call me back into his cubicle and yell at me for overstaying our visas for six days.  "The office was closed for the entire week of Idul Fitri," I said.  "You should have come earlier," he said.  Well, OK. We had to pay a hefty fine, and we won’t make that mistake again.  Tellingly, the fine was denominated in US dollars.  How many rupiahs is that?  He didn’t know.  We had to go find the official lady with a newspaper and a calculator.  After 10 minutes and a bunch of tries with the calculator, she came up with a number.  We went and got the cash.  Then we went back to the first guy, who gave us our paperwork and bills.  Then we went back to the cashier to pay the regular fee, this time in rupiah.  Then we went back to the first guy again, who told us to come back the next day.  Then he changed his mind and told us to go downstairs with our paperwork, and present it to some lady.  She took it, did something to it, and told us to go back upstairs.  So we went back yet again to the first guy, who took our passports from us and told us to come back the next day.  This was somewhat frightening, but we had no choice.

So, Wednesday we went back to our friend behind the counter, who wasn’t there.  So we asked another lady and gave her our receipts.  She looked at them, looked through a drawer, didn’t see our passports, and then told us to come back the next day.  No way.  So we went back into the cubicle area and found a bunch of officials sitting around, and explained our situation.  They claimed that the person who was supposed to sign our paperwork had DIED overnight, and so our paperwork wasn’t ready.  Does this sound like a plausible excuse to you?  Neither did it to us.  So we finally called AMINEF and found the enforcer, an Indonesian woman who is tough as nails and likes to pretend that she is from the American Embassy when talking to officials on our behalf.  After not believing me–the story sounded too ridiculous–she insisted on talking to some officials there.  My phone got handed around as the yelled at several low-level bureaucrats.  Finally, she told me that yes, we would have to come back the next day.

We were about to leave when one of the officials yelled at us and said, "Wait!  Be patient!"  And twenty-five minutes later, our passports emerged.  Of course, this was not quite it.  We had to go around the corner and pay a lady to photocopy everything again, then bring our stuff back and sign out our passports.  But we had them.  Whew.  Of course, then we looked at the dates.  We thought we were getting a three month extension.  No, they don’t have those, but they do have three one-month extensions.  And instead of an actual 30 day extension, we got a 29 day extension, and have to show up before the 29th day to extend them, but of course that’s on a Saturday, so we have to show up the day before that.  It’s a 27 day extension.  And we have two more to go before we leave for Malaysia.  And if they keep pushing the length back one day at a time, we won’t be able to make it to the date of our carefully-calculated plane ticket.

But the joke’s on them, because we’re telling the story in a sarcastic manner on our blog.  Right.

(Lest you think that we are the only ones experiencing such problems, we are not.  Our friends’ experiences getting driver’s licenses reveal that Indonesians themselves have the same sorts of problems.)

Comments 8

  1. fazu November 27, 2004

    God, sounds terrible. I’ve always thought Malaysian bureacracy was bad, but it is nothing like this. Well, most of the time.
    I hope you’ll have a wonderful time in Malaysia. Where are you guys going?

  2. James November 29, 2004

    Hey Tom, that’s an amazing story. A billion times worse than the time I overstayed my visa in Red China during a state holiday. (Religions, being “opiates of the masses”, do not get their own holidays). Clearly, though, a truism emerges: “be patient!” Yes, the problem was you nintendo-generation, ATM-user me-first Gen-X white people who don’t understand Asian values like patience and submissiveness. Do you notice that every time shit happens and you’re not totally cool with getting screwed over, someone immediately tells you to “be patient” and wait longer? Or is that just me?

  3. Julie and Tom November 29, 2004

    Ugh. Fazu, please tell us that Malaysia does not have complicated entry-exit visa requirements. We get to KL in mid-February, and hopefully will be staying through July and August.
    James, you couldn’t have it more correct. “Be patient, white devil.” (Is the term in Chinese “kwei loh”?) We have this problem with being patient when we have no idea what’s going on. Call us callous Westerners. Does “be patient” mean wait five minutes or five hours? And if it’s going to take two days, why not just tell us? We think the secret is that they don’t know either.

  4. James November 29, 2004

    Yes, in Cantonese kwei loh is “white devil” or, really, “white ghost,” as though you’re not really there or don’t really count. Whatever. I’m sure they have something much more immediately threatening to tell Indonesians when they pull this bullshit with them. Like, “be patient or we’ll arrest you.”

  5. fazu November 30, 2004

    Re: immigration rules in Malaysia:
    As always, being Malaysian I wouldn’t really know these things since I never needed to know them (would you know how much you pay for a room in a five-star hotel in your hometown?). But I do know for sure that Malaysia has special visa arrangements with the US, Japan, ASEAN and most of the EU countries. Citizens of these countries are often given automatic permission on entry to stay for 3-6 months, no fuss.
    Am not sure about working visa though.

  6. Jeff December 1, 2004

    Then you would say that Indonesia is not a viable relocation option for frightened blue-staters fleeing moral persecution?

  7. Julie and Tom December 1, 2004

    Probably not, Jeff, although we haven’t explored the option of becoming actual citizens. We’re pretty sure it would be a looooooong and expensive process. There’s always Canada, eh?

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