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If Bali is on your bucket list, scratch it off. I’ll save you the long plane ride and the money to get there by telling you that the romantic, idyllic paradise you have in your mind about Bali has been buried under tourists, traffic and trash. Our introduction to Bali might have jaded us. I know it jaded my wife. The line at immigration was not long, but the clerks were very slow. Directly in front of us were two grungy euro looking trekkers with dreads. I fully expected them to get seriously scrutinized and delay our entry even longer, but they sailed through like dignitaries.
Then it was my wife's turn. Well dressed, polite, and the most honest looking face anywhere, I expected her to just pass through like a wind across the plains. However, the immigration man started seriously looking at her passport, page after page after page. We have residency permits from the UAE and Panama in our passports, along with stamps and visas from more countries than I can count. The immigration clerk took her passport and handed it to a supervisor. He took his time scrutinizing it. Then he called over a guard, and they whisked my wife off behind a grey metal windowless and closed door.
This is the reception you get at immigration in Bali. Well, at least it seemed like it to us.
I figured I was heading for the same fate, I just had no idea why. Bali is part of Indonesia. Indonesia is a Muslim country, so I doubted the UAE residency permit was the problem. Neither of us has been to Israel, so what could it be? The first thing I did of course was politely demand to know where they had taken my wife. “To office” was all the clerk said. “Why” was my logical response.
“No full page” he answered.
“May I go back there and see her?” I asked, fully expecting a negative response.
He finished putting my visa in my passport and just waved me away. So I walked over to the door they had taken her through not knowing if it was going to be full of hungry tigers, hot oils, dragons or what. I found her sitting on an industrial couch which was indented with the impressions of too many posteriors that had sat there for too long. I asked her what they told her. She shrugged her shoulders as if to say “hell if I know”. I told her what the clerk had told me “no full page”.
The look of recognition crossed her face like a sunrise on the beach. “I told you I should have gone to the consulate and gotten the extra pages put in. But I have two blank pages. What is wrong?”
Then they called her into the inner sanctum, just her. 15 minutes passed while I watched a 15 year old tourism highlight video. I began to think this was all I was ever going to see of Bali. It wasn’t even in English.
She came out alone with a look of bewilderment and the attitude you see before surrender. She explained to me that the last two pages of the passport are for “Amendments and Endorsements” and that they could not put the Visa sticker on one of these pages, and all the other pages were full. Well, this is one of those problems that you feel lucky to have, but stupid to have to suffer through. A full passport is a beautiful thing, unless you are using it. I asked her what we could do, and she said we could “get on a flight to somewhere else Anywhere else.” She was saying just loud enough that the officials in the back bowels of the immigration bureaucracy enclave could hear it. These guys were all dressed like traffic cops, cheap white uniforms with tin badges. I expected to see a whistle.
One of them came out to ask her to go to yet another cage full of dragons. He did not close the door behind them this time. I could hear my wife saying “OK, OK, we’ll just leave.” I had no idea where we would go. Thailand was underwater, we’ve done Hong Kong. Australia is too damn far. Besides all that, if there is no space in her passport, we’d probably end up in another colorless office with even less colorful mignons.
Then she walked out of the office and told me to follow her. She said something I never thought I would hear my Jesuit schooled wife say. “We are going to have to bribe the guy.”
So I went into this little office. The calendar on the wall was from the wrong month, and two years old. That calendar was probably the most modern thing in the office. If I remember correctly the phone on the desk actually had a dial on it. I was welcomed in like a sheep to slaughter. Little did he know that I was not exactly new to this. I lived in Latin America for too many years and dealt with too many petty men in uniforms of too many corrupt governments to let him bother me. This had never happened to me in Asia, but I knew it was just human nature.
He started off by asking what I did for a living. I could have told him I was a writer for Conde’ Nast and that this story was going to go a long way to stopping the almighty tourist dollar. My mind which has read a thousand spy/adventure novels was telling me to say “Yeah, buddy, I’m a major in the USAF and if you don’t quit messing with my wife I’ll call in an airstrike on your grandfather’s fishing boat.”
But I realized that he was in the right. He was being an asshole about it, BUT, my wife DID have a full passport.
So it came to the transaction. “What is your policy?” I asked. He was at least honest enough to say, “This is only my policy, not the government’s.”
OK, OK, the negotiation was on. This was his way of increasing his take home pay. In these situations, the objective is for neither party to lose face. I waited for him to make the first offer. When he did, I turned to Mary Ann and said simply, “Shall we go to Chiang Mai?”
He showed a bit of vulnerability. I could tell he was counting on this American cash cow to make his day. I could have gotten rougher with him than I did, but he DID have us over a barrel.
I then offered him ½ what he asked for. This was no different than buying a knock-off watch from a street vendor. He came back with half between that and his asking price. Knowing that all I had in my pocket was half that again, I agreed. He was a very happy little crook, until I emptied my pockets and said “oops, that is all I have.” The top bill was a US$100 bill, which works like gold nuggets in the modern third world.
Then this slimeball opened up Mary Ann’s passport and found a very suitable little place for the visa, quite easily. The bastard.
So now we were off to our pre-booked and pre-paid 5 star beach resort. (By the way, we would have lost that payment if we had not paid off the immigration man and he knew it.) We had to wait in a log line with dozens of other tourists to get an authorized taxi. I had to ignore, ignore, and ignore again a gypsy cab driver. We finally got to the front of the line after being pushed back in line by a group of Russians and bought our trip. Bali, being just one of the thousand islands that make up Indonesia, uses the Indonesian Rupea, which is one of those mostly worthless currencies. At the time of our trip it was about 8600 to $1. So the cab ride was like a 1,000,000, or something with a lot of zeroes. After 36 hours in Singapore, the first thing I noticed was the litter. As we drove out of the airport the next thing I noticed was the traffic. We were back in the land of motor scooters, but even that concession to the congestion did nothing to ease the pain. Nothing moved. It took us an hour to go the short distance to our resort.
This is just an example of the traffic in Bali. Traffic jams are everywhere, day and night. It takes hours to go miles. The narrow streets were not ready for the current population or tourism, and they are still building resorts.
Apparently there is nowhere to take the refuse other than the swamps along the road. This is Bali? This is the Bali of my paradise fantasies? It was my wife’s vacation so I stayed quiet. But I could see her, still affected by the rude official introduction to the country, having the same reaction I was. THIS is Bali? When we finally arrived at this 5 star joint we looked around for the normal reception party we have come to expect…a cool cloth to wipe off the tropical sweat and a cool drink to make you forget that you just spent 5 times as long in a cab as you should have, We barely got a hello, and our room was not ready. (It was already 2 p.m.)