Going to Immigration – A Complete Disaster
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Friday, September 30, 2016
5:35 a.m. Tamariah Losmen, Siantar, Sumatra
My trip to the immigration office was a complete disaster. It could not have been a bigger failure. The details might be confusing or boring, but bear with me. It’s important to note that I wasn’t doing anything unusual or complicated. It’s a standard procedure to get a 60-day tourist visa before entering Indonesia and then extend it for 30 days at a time if needed (up to four times for a total of six months). This requires finding a local sponsor to provide a copy of their ID and sign a letter saying that they will be responsible for you. I had done this on my previous visit to Sumatra. In fact, I had gone to this exact same immigration office with a sponsorship letter from the exact same person, and it had been fine. But this time, they rejected my application. The reasons were not exactly clear.
At first, the immigration officer informed me that for my first visa extension, I had to apply at my port of entry. I had entered the country near Tanjungbalai, so I had to get my first visa extension at the immigration office in Tanjungbalai. I can guarantee you that there is no such rule on the books. This rule does not exist. It doesn’t even make sense. The vast majority of tourists upon arriving at Point A would then begin to travel around the country. When their 60-day visa came to an end, they would be at Point B or even Point L or Point Z. They would certainly be far away from Point A. It is unreasonable to require all tourists to return to their entry city to processs a visa extension.
I had this discussion with the immigration officer, but, as I expected, he did not care. A rule was a rule, and he said this was a rule. Beyond that, he said that my sponsor resided in the wrong jurisdiction. He said that the sponsor must live in the region where the immigration office was located. This is, in fact, a rule, and I was quite aware of it. However, I had used this sponsor at this very immigration office last time. And it was fine. But this time, they said no. The officer actually called my sponsor and spoke with her, and then he informed me that she was not a valid sponsor. If I used her as a sponsor, I would have to go to the Tanjungbalai immigration office. This is something I was trying very hard to avoid because the officers in Tanjungbalai were corrupt. Last time, they had run a scam with local goverment officials to get one million rupiah from me. On top of that, they sent local police to my hotel on numerous occasions to hassle me and try to get money from me. They’d also hassled my original sponsor there.
I did not burn any bridges or get angry or become passive aggressive. I continued to smile and have a friendly discussion with the immigration officer and I played the bicycle card. I said that my visa expired on Monday, and that did not leave me enough time to get back to Tanjungbalai. It was too far away. My real reason for resisting was the corrruption, but I didn’t think it was wise to tell this immmigration officer that his fellow immigration officers were evil and corrupt. I didn’t think that would help my case. I asked him if he could make an exception for me. He did not understand the word “exception,” so I said “special situation”, and he said no. I then asked him if he could talk to his boss or supervisor and see if his boss would allow for a special situation. To my surprise, he did so. At least he went to an office somewhere and then returned in a few minutes. He announced that the boss also rejected my application. There was nothing else I could do.
I had four options open to me. And each one presented a minefield of problems. Here are the options:
1. Go back to Tanjungbalai and apply for a visa extension there.
2. Find a new sponsor in Siantar.
3. Fly from Medan to Penang, Malaysia, and get a brand new 60-day visa.
4. Take the ferry back to Malaysia to get a new 60-day visa.
None of these options were easy. Going back to Tanjungbalai had the risk of encountering more corruption. They also had required me in Tanjungbalai the first time to get an additional document known as a domisili – basically a residence certificate. I would have only one shot at this application on Monday morning. If there was any problem with my application at all, I’d be screwed because my visa expires on Monday. This option would also involve two days of cycling to get back to Kisaran, plus some kind of transportation to Tanjungbalai. It was very complex, all in all, and fraught with danger.
Option 2, getting a new sponsor in Siantar, seemed like the obvious and best choice. The immigration officer certainly seemed to think this wouldn’t be a problem. But I am a complete stranger here. I’m a tourist. I don’t have a network of friends and family willing to vouch for me to the government. Beyond that, few people speak English, and this requires printing out documents, getting government stamps, making copies, and acquiring signatures. None of this is easy here, particularly when you don’t speak the language.
Option 3 – flying to Penang – is also very complicated. It requires booking a flight online and then somehow finding transportation to Medan and figuring out how to get to the airport at the proper time. Then I would have to navigate two international airports in large cities, go through immigration and hope they let me through, go to the consulate in Penang and then return to Siantar. In the meantime, I would have to store my bicycle, trailer, and other gear in a safe place in Siantar.
Option 4 – taking the ferry back to Malaysia – though a familiar process is equally complicated and has many stages. The most complicated stage would be getting from Kisaran to the ferry terminal without my bicycle. In a way, however, option 4 is the most appealing to me because Malaysia is very pleasurable and easy. I don’t mind going back there. Plus, taking the ferry and a series of trains to Kuala Lumpur and then up to Penang, though slow, is steady and stress-free. It would be like a mini-holiday. I would also be able to take my pannier bags with me and put them in storage at the guesthouse in Kuala Lumpur and otherwise make adjustments to my gear. I’ve done this trip before, and I know how to do everything. It would take a long time – a full day to get the ferry to Malaysia and then the train to Kuala Lumpur. Then it would take another full day to take the train up to Penang. Then two days to apply for the visa. Then another two days for the return journey. However, each day would have elements of pleasure. I don’t mind sitting in a nice train up to Penang at all. And the ferry is fun.
Another wrinkle is that both options 3 and 4, which involve returning to Malaysia, are much more expensive than options 1 and 2. I would end up (hopefully) with a brand new 60-day visa, but it would cost me one or two hundred dollars to make the trip plus the cost of the visa. Options 1 and 2 would net me only a 30-day visa, but entail only the visa extension cost. I would save the two hundred dollars the trip to Penang would cost.
Another very annoying wrinkle is that the immigration office in Siantar takes over a week to process a visa extension. At least it did last time. That means an entire week of just sitting in Siantar waiting. And when you get your visa extension, it is already one quarter used up. The immigration office in Tanjungbalai does it overnight, but going there, as I said, runs the risk of encountering corruption and the the requirement for a domisili. There is no reason that the two immigration offices have different rules or procedures. They should be the same, but this is Indonesia. That’s how things are.
Now we get to the difficult and extremely frustrating part of my story. I decided first to try to find a new sponsor in Siantar. I could think of two people that could possibly help me. The first was a young man named Bima that I’d met at a local bank when I was having trouble with my ATM card. He helped me, and then we had lunch together and met up a couple of times. He was very nice and friendly and he spoke English well. I decided to try him first, and I rode my bike to the bank to chat with him.
I should mention that the immigration office is 10 kilometers outside of Siantar, so every visit there involves a 20-kilometer round-trip bike ride in Sumatran heat. And it is all downhill to the office and uphill all the way back. It was on the slow uphill return climb that my phone was stolen long ago.
To my delight, Bima was at work at the bank, and it was an easy matter to chat with him. He was more than willing to be my sponsor. Unfortunately, though he lived and worked in Siantar, his ID had a Jakarta address. He was born in Jakarta, so his ID listed that as his home. That makes him inelegible according to the mysterious rules of the immigration office. I hoped that Bima would then make it his mission to find me a sponsor among his circle of friends and co-workers. However, he said he was not comfortable doing that. He knew me, but none of his friends did. He did not want to put them in the position of sponsoring someone they did not know. It was disappointing but understandable.
In the meantime, I was in contact with my two best friends back in Kisaran. These were Al and Theresa. Al said that he could help me. He knew someone in Siantar, and he would contact this man and he could be my sponsor. This seemed promising, but then I got a return message from Al saying that his friend was out of town. He was in Medan and wouldn’t return until Sunday at the earliest. Now all my hopes were pinned on Theresa. She also had a friend in Siantar, and this friend would help me. A flurry of messages went back and forth by the miracle of smartphones, ending with the sad news that her friend was also out of town. She was on vacation at Lake Toba with her husband and would not be returning for several days. This is generally the kind of luck that I have.
I had one last possibility, one that I dreaded. When I was in Siantar last time, I’d met a woman who lived beside my hotel. She ran a flower sign shop with her husband, and she chatted with me on a couple of occasions as I walked past. She had been an English teacher once upon a time, and she spoke reasonable English. I dreaded approaching her because she was a little bit nuts and extremely greedy. Every time I met her, she went over my possessions and asked me to give them to her. All of her conversation was about the things that I owned and which of them I could give her. I never understood this because she ran a business and had a big house. She had a nice car and a truck and motorcycles. She clearly had more money than I did. I was just a poor cyclist. But she had it in her head that I was rich, and she wanted my stuff.
Anyway, I went back to my hotel, and I happened to see this woman at her business. She greeted me and we chatted. She wanted to know what I had purchased in Malaysia and whether I had any souvenirs I could give her. She admired my new knapsack and said that I should give it to her for her children. She said that I should give her my bicycle when I go back to my country. She said that I should give her my new smartphone. She basically wanted to strip me naked.
I laughed most of this off, and then I brought up the issue of sponsoring me for a tourist visa extension. I did not want to, but at this point I had little choice. Then began the worst part of this whole process. To my surprise, she agreed to be my sponsor right away. I was nervous about that because I knew this would come with a price, but she was the only game in town at the moment. But then her Indonesian nature kicked in. Me being a Westerner, I just wanted to get the job done. To be my sponsor, I just needed to get a photocopy of her ID. Then I’d print out two letters with her name and address on them, put government stamps on them, and she’d sign them. We’d be done. Then I could return to immigration in the morning. It wouldn’t take long at all. But she wanted to delay. She was willing to be my sponsor, but could I come back at six o’clock? We could do it then. I had no choice but to agree.
So I waited until six o’clock. I rewrote the sponsorship letters and changed the dates and otherwise got them ready. I made sure my computer was fully charged. I had a flash drive so I could copy the letters over and then bring them to a neighborhood shop to print them out. Then, at six o’clock, I went over to her house. I was ignored for a long time. But she eventually came out and said that she was really busy helping her kids with their homework, and she asked me if I could come back in an hour. I was furious on the inside, but I had no choice but to agree.
Every hour that passed made things more difficult because shops were closing. By seven o’clock, the usual place where I made copies would be closed. So I went for a long walk and visited many businesses until I found one that would be able to print two letters for me. It wasn’t their usual business, but they had a printer and they would do it. I made sure they would be open until nine o’clock, and I also bought extra government stamps.
Then at seven o’clock, I returned to this woman’s business and house. I was ignored again for a long time. Then she came out and dropped a bombshell: She said that she couldn’t find her ID. She had some long story prepared about how she had talked about this with her husband and he suggested that maybe she had used her ID when she went to this or that office last week and had forgotten it there. In any event, she had no idea where her ID was. So she couldn’t help me.
I knew it was a lie. I could tell by how she was speaking and the story and the expression on her face. She had decided she didn’t want to be my sponsor, but she didn’t want to say that directly. So she invented this story about not being able to find her ID. I knew my role was to reassure her and say that it was okay and it was no problem and thank her for offering to help me. But I was so angry that I could do none of that. I knew better than to express my anger, of course. It would be pointless. All I could do was stare blankly at her while she told me the story. Then I just got up and left.
This happens to me all the time, and I think I will die years early because of the stress of it. Being a homeless wanderer overseas, I occasionally need the help of other people. I need favors. And people constantly let me down and fail to deliver. But then I can never have the satisfaction of becoming angry because they were doing me a favor to begin with.
The worst thing about this is that I had wasted nearly the entire day. I had met up with her around lunch time, and she agreed to be my sponsor at that point. So I stopped looking for other solutions. I thought I had my sponsor, and I could relax. So I didn’t start making any other arrangements. I didn’t book flights or look for other sponsors or do anything else. Had she said no at the beginning, I could have made other arrangements. But by waiting until 7:30 at night to say no, she’d screwed me over for the entire day. And I had very few days before my visa expired. That also seems to happen to me. Whatever visa I have, it always expires on a Monday or on a holiday. I don’t know how that can happen all the time, but it does. And so even though there are three days left on my visa, two of them are Saturday and Sunday when everything is closed. So that leaves me with today. Friday. And that’s it.
The story gets even more frustrating because I had run out of options and I needed help. I thought that Bima, with his intelligence and good English, could help me somehow. Perhaps he could help me in finding a new sponsor. I also thought that maybe I could convince immigration to accept him as a sponsor. His ID said Jakarta, but he lived and worked in Siantar. He worked in a big bank. He was a good citizen. Maybe it would be okay, but I didn’t know for sure. I would have to check with immigration, and the only way to do that is to ride my bike 10 kilometers out there and ask them. Before I did that, I wanted to talk with Bima. I had his phone number, but he would not reply to any of the text messages I sent him. Then, for reasons I don’t understand, my text messages would not go through. I don’t really understand how text messages work on smartphones, to be honest. I just got an error message and no information about the error or how to fix it.
I tried to call Bima, but apparently I only have Internet credit. I don’t have any actual telephone calling credit. I still don’t understand how that works in Indonesia. It’s very complicated. So I tried calling him with Google Hangouts and Viber and other things. The call went through, but he wouldn’t answer his phone. Either that, or I didn’t have the right number. I had no idea what was going on. I got no return calls and no return messages.
I also reached out to my friend Al in Kisaran. But he didn’t reply to any of my messages either. Theresa didn’t reply either. So I was helpless. What can I do? Walk up to random strangers on the street? “Hey, do you speak English? Would you sponsor me for my tourist visa, please?” This rule in Indonesia is very annoying. In the Philippines, you just apply and pay the fee. You’re done. And you get 60 days each time. But here, you have to get this stupid sponsor letter and jump through lots of hoops for only 30 days. It’s a giant pain.
Anyway, I was feeling so stressed out that I couldn’t get to sleep last night. I just lay in bed with all the options going round and round in my head. The problem was that I couldn’t just act on my own. That would be no problem. No, I needed help. I needed a sponsor. And I had no control over any of that. I have to rely on other people, and that is nothing but trouble.
I just remembered that I know two other people in Siantar. One is the police detective that interviewed me when my phone was stolen. The other is the man who helped interpret at the police station. Somehow, I doubt that the detective would help me. And the man could be a little bit crazy. I’m not sure. Anyway, I just sent the man a message on Facebook. I don’t think he monitors his Facebook account very much, but you never know.
Anyway, with the clock ticking, I am feeling under pressure and very stressed out. With time running out, any choice I make automatically cancels the other options. If I want to take the ferry back to Malaysia, I have to make arrangements now. I have no time to waste. If I want to fly to Penang, I have to book and pay for the flights now. On the other hand, if I decide to pursue getting a sponsor in Siantar, I am committed to that route. I have three days to find a sponsor and complete the paperwork so that I can visit the office on Monday morning. That seems like enough time, but if I fail, I’m screwed.
Too many variables and too many potential problems. It feels like life in general is not this hard for other people. Everything I do seems really, really difficult. I don’t know how it would be different but I think that other people in my shoes would not be in such trouble. Things would work out for them. Why is that? What is different about the way I operate? It’s a good question. There’s probably no answer, though.