Desperate Search for a Sponsor
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Saturday, October 1, 2016
5:15 a.m. Tamariah Losmen, Siantar, Sumatra
The call to prayer has just ended, and the insane roar of the traffic has not yet begun. It’s a rare moment of quiet in Indonesia. The kettle is on the boil as well, and I will soon be enjoying a cup of instant coffee.
For a few minutes yesterday afternoon, I stood on this hotel’s balcony and watched the beehive of manic activity at the intersection nearby. I reflected that all of this behavior represents a type of economic activity. In a very real way, that flow of giant trucks, buses, motorcycles, vans, and bicycles can be viewed as money flowing along the streets. Every single person out there is in the middle of an economic activity. That’s why they are driving that truck or van. They get paid to do it and they are transporting goods that have been manufactured so they can be sold to other people. I guess this struck me because I grew up with the idea that Asian countries were poor. And I associate poverty with a lack of activity. You have no job, so you have little to do. You have no money, so you aren’t moving and you aren’t shopping. But when you look out on the streets of Indonesia, all you see is money. It is a thriving place.
Personally, I was quite busy yesterday as well, but I was doing nothing real. I was jumping through the unnatural hoops of bureacracy. I thought of it that way. Real work has a physical component and a physical challenge. When you’ve accomplished a task, you have something physical that you can be proud of. Perhaps you’ve worked hard and built a house. Perhaps you climbed a mountain, and you can see the views as the reward for your effort. I worked extremely hard yesterday overcoming obstacles. Yet, I accomplished nothing real. I was simply fighting with the rules we humans have invented to give us permission to occupy this or that physical space on the planet. By an accident of birth, I have the right to occupy any of the physical space contained within the borders of Canada. To occupy any other space anywhere on the planet, I have to have the permission of the people there. And the permission is represented in the rules created by the government officials they elected to make the rules. Essentially, I need the permission of all the people around me to be in this space. And the right to occupy this particular space is doled out 30 days at a time. This right also costs around $40 Canadian. I must also have one local person take responsibility for me during those 30 days, and this person has to prepare a set of documents and go through official interviews to ascertain if they are up to the task of supervising my activities while in this physical space. This permission can also take from a week to two weeks to acquire. Thefore, you might end up investing 15 of those days in the process of getting permission to be in this physical space for an additional 15 days. And then when those 15 days are up, you have to do it all over again.
To bring things back to the real world, all of this meant that I woke up yesterday morning with only one thought on my mind: I had to find a sponsor in the next few hours. If I failed to do so, I would have to make some very fast arrangements to exit this physical space and go to another physical space where permission is easier to get – a place called Malaysia. I was not particularly excited at the thought, but I had to begin by contacting my friend at the bank, Bima. I had sent him countless text messages and called him a dozen times the day before, but I had heard nothing back. I simply wanted to tell him that I was going to go to immigration and see if they would accept him as my local sponsor even though his official government ID had a Jakarta addresss listed. This was far from a sure thing, but it was the only option open to me that I could think of.
I got on my bike and rode downtown to the bank where Bima worked. This was the first step. There was a very good chance that Bima would not even be there or that he would be unavailable, and I was already stressed out. To my relief, I spotted him behind the counter. The bank seemed very busy, and Bima had some kind of roving position where he walked behind the bank tellers and assisted with various tasks. He is very young and has just started working at the bank, but he appeared to be on track to being a manager or supervisor of some sort.
I was glad to see Bima, but my encounter with him was not very satisfactory. On my side, I was in practically a state of emergency. The things I needed to do and for which I needed his help were urgent. Very urgent and very important. But for him, it was merely a distraction. No matter how I tried to convey how important all this was for me, he didn’t seem to get it or take it seriously. Nor could he grasp how helpless I was. As I reflected over and over yesterday, I’m like a giant baby here. I’m a grown man in my fifties, but without language, I’m little more than an infant. I can’t do anything here or fix anything. For example, even if immigration considered accepting Bima as my sponsor, I would still need to contact him again. I would need to get a photocopy of his ID and write the documents for his signature. But so far, I haven’t been able to contact him by phone at all. Out of all the dozens of forms of communication we have available today, I had been unable to find one that worked. He said he received none of my text messages. He did say that he noticed a couple of phone calls, but he ignored them because he didn’t recognize the number. And then he just stared at me. I kept pushing to get him to help in this quest to find at least one way we could communicate. For some reason, my phone was not able to communicate with his phone, and I didn’t know why. There was a problem, and it seemed to be on his end. I could communicate with everyone but him. He simply agreed with me that we weren’t able to commnicate and left it at that. He never adopted the mindset of trying to fix the problem. Surely, one platform would work be it BBM or WhatsApp or Line or SMS or Facebook Messenger. We only needed one. But Bima simply stared at me. I suggested Messenger because it would not require phone-to-phone communication. It would be stable and it would work no matter what. Bima said that he uses Facebook Messenger, but he rarely checks it, so it wasn’t a good idea. I wanted to slap him at that point. Again, he wasn’t grasping how much trouble I was in. Why couldn’t he just monitor Facebook Messenger for the next 24 hours? How hard is that? Sure, he doesn’t normally use Messenger or answer calls from unknown numbers. But couldn’t he do it just for now? Just for me? Just for the next couple of hours as I went to immigration? But apparently not. He was not offering any help.
I gave up on the phone communication because I had no choice. I moved on to the idea of me going to immigration and asking if Bima could be my sponsor. I knew that for this to have even the slightest chance of working, I would have to bring a lot to the table. So I wanted to get a copy of Bima’s ID. But, not surprisingly, Bima didn’t have it with him. He knew full well that I would need it, but he still never bothered to have it with him. He’d had it the day before, but today he just didn’t bother to bring it with him. I then asked him if he had at least a business card – something from the bank that identified him as living and working in Siantar. Of course he had nothing like that. In the end, the best he could do for me was to write down his name and his phone number on a tiny slip of scrap paper. Considering the war that I was in with immigration, this scrap of paper was paltry ammunition indeed, but it apparently was all that Bima was willing to supply. Even then, with his habit of not answering unknown numbers, who knew if he would pick up when immigration called him?
With that scrap of paper in my wallet, I left and got on my bike for the 12-kilometer ride to the immigration office. Why the immigration offices have to be located far outside every town, I don’t know. As an aside, I should say that this ride to and from immigration in Siantar is probably the most dangerous thing I’ve ever done. Forget about activities like skydiving and scuba diving and cliff jumping. I’ll bet that statistically, riding a bike down that road is a hundred or a thousand times more dangerous than even BASE jumping. The number of close calls I had were beyond counting. And who knows how many I wasn’t even aware of? To put it mildly, the drivers here are insane and the road conditions extremely poor. And by the end of yesterday alone, I had ridden my bike the full length of that road four times totalling over 40 kilometers. By the time I get my visa extension (if I manage to get it), I will have ridden my bike 100 kilometers – just going to immigration and back.
The immigration officer was NOT impressed by me, my scrap of paper, or my arguments. My argument was that Bima fit the spirit of the law. I was required to have a local sponsor. Bima was local. He lived in Siantar. He had a home in Siantar. He had a job in Siantar. It was only an accident of circumstance that his ID card had a Jakarta address. Could he not serve as my sponsor just as ably as someone with a Siantar address on their ID card? At the very least, he could photocopy his ID with the Jakarta address and then write down his Siantar address and sign the paper. Surely that would satisfy the spirit of the law? It might, but the immigration officer was not interested in the spirit of anything. I don’t think a spiritual thought would ever have entered that bureaucratic mind. In fact, I don’t think he really paid any attention to anything I said. He simply repeated that my sponsor’s ID card had to have a Siantar address on it. And that was it. He literally turned around and just walked away when he said that. He just left me standing at the counter and went to his desk and sat down. Totally ignored me. Not a smile. Not one moment of human understanding in all of his dealings with me. For a long moment, I hated that man.
Defeated but not demoralized, I got back on my bike and began the long and sweaty ride up the steep hill back to Siantar. I had a lot of time to think about the human condition. I was surrounded by thousands upon thousands of people with ID cards bearing a Siantar address. Out of these thousands, dozens of them were shouting “Bule!” (Foreigner!) or “What you name?” at me as I rode past. They were all being friendly and waving at me. I desperately needed their help, but despite being surrounded by thousands of people who could help me, I had no way to make a connection. I was in a multitude but completely alone.
The only other card I had to play was the detective at the police station. I had had her in the back of my mind as a possibility, but I hadn’t really taken the thought seriously. You’d think that her position as a detective would make her an ideal candidate for a sponsor. But I imagined that being a detective would prove a hindrance, not a help. I thought that her personal identity would get mixed up with her official one. As a person, she might be willing to act as my sponsor. But she wouldn’t want this to be confused with her acting in an official capacity. However, she was my last hope, and when I rode back to Siantar, I continued all the way downtown and went to the police station one more time.
I wasn’t sure how to approach her. My initial contact makes sense in a weird way. I had been the victim of a crime and had reported it to this detective at this police station. So I was simply returning to inquire if, by any chance, my phone had been recovered or the thief apprehended. Obviously, I knew neither thing had happened, but it was somewhat reasonable for me to inquire. But then how do I shift the conversation over to asking her to be my sponsor for a visa extension? In fact, how do I even get into the police station to find her?
Obviously, you can’t just waltz into a police station. There are men with guns guarding the entrance, and they want to know what you are doing there. And in an odd twist, being on a bicycle always causes problems. I’ve found this to be the case around the world. Security guards and police officers are freaked out by the unusual. People normally arrive on foot, in cars, or on motorcycles. There are procedures for each of these and official places for those vehicles to park. A bicycle is out of the ordinary, and this just sets off their alarm bells. They really don’t like bicycles. I generally get shouted at, and this never helps with my mood. The shouting this time was not that extreme, and I was able to place my bicycle in amongst a group of motorcycles without too much trouble.
Once the bicycle was disposed of, things calmed down and the two armed men were quite happy to hang out with me. We posed for some selfies, and once I showed them pictures of Stephani, the detective, and explained why I was there, things started to happen. I was extremely relieved to learn that Stephani was at the station. The chances were high that she just wouldn’t be in that day or wouldn’t be available. But within a few minutes, she came walking to the front of the police station. I told her that I had 2 things I wanted to talk to her about. The first, of course, was the excuse I was just using to get my foot in the door – I was inquiring about the state of my “case.” Had they caught the thief who stole my smartphone? How many years in jail did he get?
Then Stephani asked me what the second thing was. This gave me a somewhat natural opening, and I launched into my plea. It was a difficult plea to make. I didn’t want to make it sound really difficult and really official to be my sponsor. I wanted to downplay it to make it more likely that she would agree. I needed to present it as a formality. I just needed a friend who lived in Siantar so that I can extend my tourist visa. I probably made things way more complicated than necessary. In an attempt to justify my request, I explained that I already had a real sponsor – Al and his wife. They were my friends. However, because of this silly bureaucratic rule about ID cards and addresses, immigration would not accept them. So I was in trouble and I really needed her help. I was nervous about it, but I even showed her the sample documents that she would need to sign. It was the only way I could get her to understand what was involved. Showing her these documents went a long way toward explaining my situation, but I was worried that those very official-looking documents might freak her out. After all, they say things like my sponsor will be responsible for me and my actions while I am in Indonesia. Who wants to sign something like that for some random Canadian tourist?
To my relief and extreme surprise, Stephani had not a moment of hesitation. She simply said yes and said that we should just go to her office and we’ll do it all right now. I was so happy. I babbled. Luckily, I had a flash drive with me that contained copies of these documents. Stephani could just open them on her computer, insert her name, address, and ID number, and print them out right there. I also had had the foresight to stock up on the government stamps I would need. I knew all about these stamps by now, and I bought them and kept them in my wallet. They cost 6,000 rupiah each (about sixty cents), and I needed two of them. But I had more than that in case of accidents.
It took a few tries to get all the information on the documents correct. Stephani would forget to change the date or would miss this or that bit of information. But, finally, we had two perfect documents and I applied the stamps and Stephani signed them both. She then gave me a copy of her ID. I felt so guilty about all of this. Perhaps it is a fault of mine, but I don’t like asking people to help me. I really don’t. I like to do things myself, and it bothers me on a fundamental level to ask people to go out of their way to help me. It shouldn’t bother me so much, but it does. For example, after she did all this, I realized that I probably should also have her phone number. But I was reluctant to ask her for that. But I eventually did and said that if she didn’t mind, could she write down her phone number on the paper containing her ID? To be honest, I also wanted her to sign and date that paper. When you are dealing with governments, you really can’t be too official. It’s best to just blitz the paperwork and sign and date everything and write down every piece of information you can. I almost didn’t ask for her phone number because I didn’t want to trouble her, but it turned out that it was very important. I was very glad that I did.
Once I had all the proper papers, I got back on my bike for the long and dangerous ride back to immigration. The entire way, I was mentally running through all the problems that I would probably encounter. I stopped first at a photocopy place and made two color copies of every document just in case. I always do this and it has saved my neck on many occasions. It’s part of my DNA now. I copy everything and always take business cards and write down addresses and take pictures of addresses. This information always ends up being essential at some point. My guess was that I would arrive at immigration only to be told that they did not accept applications beyond 11 a.m. or something like that. Many offices have this rule. You can submit things in the morning, but not in the afternoon. Either that or the office would be closed when I got there. Or it would be a holiday. Or the immigration staff was having a meeting at the exact time when I show up and I would be told to return on another day. These are the things that always happen to me. In this case, my worst fears did not materialize. However, I did show up at the exact minute when the place closed for lunch. And when government offices here close, they CLOSE. It’s not like they maintain a skeleton staff to keep things moving or have shifts of employees so that customers are not inconvenienced. No, they don’t care about customers. They care about lunch. I got there at 12:30, and I was told that the place was closed and it would reopen at 2 p.m. Luckily, the building and grounds are actually quite nice. They have a kind of open garden space in the back and there is a public bathroom there. I could use the facilities and wash some of the sweat and grit that had accumulated on my arms and face in the dribble of water coming out of the tap (which, incidentally, just fell out of the bottom of the sink and onto the floor and my feet – no drain was installed).
While I sat there and waited, I reflected on some small annoyances. I’m very interested in systems and logic, and I notice things. I like to organize. For example, had I known that the immigration office was closed every day from 12:30 till 2:00, I would have made other plans. I would have gone back to my hotel and rested and had lunch and taken a shower before my return trip. I would not have shown up at exactly 12:30. But the immigration office had no posted hours anywhere. In fact, the day before, I had specifically asked them when they opened and closed. I was worried because a national holiday falls on this Sunday, and I was worried that they would be closed on Monday or Friday. And they told me that they were usually open Monday to Friday starting at 8 a.m., and there were no upcoming holidays or days off for them. That was great, but no one told me about the 1.5-hour lunch shutdown. And this information is not posted anywhere.
Other problems cropped up once 2 p.m. rolled around and I approached the counter with my precious documents and a copy of Stephani’s ID. Up to this point, I had been told many times that everything was simple. Just make sure the ID has a Siantar address, and boom, you’re good to go. I now had this. But suddenly, things changed. My unfriendly immigration officer wanted to call Stephani and talk to her. I mentally patted myself on the back for making sure that I had her phone number written down on the forms. At first, Stephani didn’t answer. But then she did, and this immigration officer grilled her hard. It was in Indonesian, and I couldn’t understand what they were saying, but it was clear that he was asking her multiple questions. He really pushed. It sounded like a Gestapo interview, and it went on for about fifteen minutes. I was a bit annoyed at this. I mean, what do these guys want? It’s just a tourist visa. I’d already supplied two very official documents with government stamps, signatures, and photocopies of ID. I had a ticket out of the country. I had photocopies of my passport. I had photographs. I would have to pay them something like $40 for the fee. It would take a week to process with 100 kilometers of cycling and multiple trips. And on top of that, they are going to brutally interrogate my sponsor? This wasn’t a criminal trial. This was just a procedure. By comparison, you can get a 60-day visa extension in the Philippines just by showing up, filling out the form, paying the fee, and coming back the next day.
The phone call finally came to an end, and I was hoping for a smile, a gesture, a human response of any kind from the immigration officer, but I got nothing. Nothing at all. He then said that I had to come back at ten a.m. on Monday for an interview. He’d told Stephani that she had to come in on Monday for a personal interview, and I needed to be there as well. I honestly wanted to scream. What is the problem with these people? That phone conversation and all the documents wasn’t enough? What was the point of a personal interview? What questions was he going to ask that he hadn’t already asked? And it’s not like my sponsor was some random homeless dude I’d found sleeping in an alley. This was a detective at the police station. My immigration officer asked me if coming in on Monday was a problem. I was so upset at this point that I lost a bit of control. Just a tiny bit. I got a little passive aggressive, and I said that of course it was a problem. Why wouldn’t it be a problem? But he was the boss and I have no choice in the matter. I have to do what he says.
I think I was upset because at this point, it wasn’t even clear that my application process would even start. I had not been given any forms to fill out. It seemed that everything would be just in limbo and I had to sit around and wait for another three days until Monday before anything happened. But to my relief, they did produce the forms for me to fill out. Even so, the forms themselves did little to calm me down. Why do we still even have forms? Here’s the problem: I had given them two official documents. And on those documents was all the information in the universe: my name, my passport number, my nationality, my address, my phone number, etc. And they included Stephani’s name, her ID number, her address, her phone number, her date of birth, etc. Everything was there. Every little detail and more. But now, I had to write down by hand all of this information on this form in little spaces that were far too small. Why? The information was already in the documents. Worse, I was given two forms. And the second form asked for all of the same information that was on the first form. It was identical. I am an extremely slow writer. My hands just don’t work. And it takes me a long time to fill out a form. Of course, much of it was in Indonesian as well, and I had to figure out what information they were asking for. And I had to do all of it twice. It was approaching a nightmare.
I kept wondering what it looked like from the point of view of the immigration office staff. I don’t think they have any comprehension of the real life human consequences of the things they require. My personal tormenter was tossing off things like “Come back on Monday for an interview” like it was nothing. But that chews up three or four days of my life. Does he realize that? I don’t think he does. And bureacracy itself is like a virus. It just grows on its own and multiplies. I think the way offices function, it is a natural process to add procedures and requirements. But there is no system built in to remove procedures and requirements as they become outdated or unnecessary. If no individual human makes it their mission to fix things or improve things, the system itself just rolls along getting bigger and more cumbersone and less logical. I write about stuff like this all the time, but I can’t help it. I notice things. For example, if I worked at the immigration office, I would put up the office hours on the very first day. It’s important for customers to know when the office is open. Put your hours on the door. It’s logic 101.
And if I saw the forms, I would want to destroy them first. But that’s probably impossible. And I would want to get rid of the useless duplication of information. Failing that, at least make the boxes big enough. If you ask a person to write down their entire address, give them a space that’s big enough to actually write it down. The intriguing thing is that Indonesians don’t seem to care. I mean as customers. They put up with all of this crap and never seem to complain. They just assume that when you go to a government office, you will be sitting around for hours and hours justing waiting. They just accept that fact.
In an amusing twist, a large group of immigration staff (all young women) gathered around me as I was getting ready to leave. The focus seemed to be one very attractive and very tall young woman that wanted to talk to me and practice her English. Her friends were encouraging her and they all giggled and laughed and asked me the usual questions. In these conversations, the subject of my nose often comes up. Indonesians are very self-conscious about their noses. In a strange twist, my nose is often admired here. People like it and wish they had a nose like mine. In Taiwan and the Philippines, my nose was an object of ridicule. I think many Asian countries have insulting nicknames for foreigners that reference how huge our noses are. The problem with local noses is mainly to do with width. Some people have a wider, somewhat flat nose, and they don’t like that. They want a narrow nose that sticks out further. My nose certainly sticks out pretty far, so at least I have that going for me.
What struck me about this conversation was the contrast between this friendliness and the effect of their rules. As official immigration officers, they were making my life an utter misery and causing me endless problems and trouble and expense. But now they were joking and laughing and being friendly. I don’t think they grasp how much trouble they really cause people.
I was glad that I had filled out the forms. It gave me the illusion that some progress had been made. But in reality, nothing had even happened yet. I had not paid the fee. Nor had I signed any of the documents. So officially, I have not even applied for my extension yet. That won’t happen until Monday, assuming the interviews go well. The insanity is beyond belief. But I knew this when I returned to Sumatra, so I can’t really complain. Yet, I do.
I got back on my bike and rode back into town. That was my fourth trip in one day, and my odometer clicked over the 40-kilometer mark since I woke up that morning. Besides the very real danger of being hit by a truck or motorcycle, riding my bike has other weird elements. I get a lot of attention, of course. People call out to me from the side of the streets. Passengers and drivers call out to me and wave and the drivers honk their horns. I have to assume that most of this attention is friendly, but it can often feel hostile. It’s certainly aggressive. And it occasionally becomes overtly aggressive. One time, a van full of male students drove past. A lot of the boys called out to me and said hello and other things. Then one boy threw a big bag of garbage at me. He picked up this bag from the floor of the van, waited until the van drew up beside me, and then heaved it in my direction. Everybody laughed and thought it was hilarious. The garbage missed me, but it still didn’t feel that great.