The Great Bali Airport BottleneckAugust 8, 2010
My plane from Singapore touches down at Ngurah Rai International Airport and taxis up to the designated arrival gate. Good, I muse – it’s early afternoon and I can see that most of the aero-bridges are yawning forlornly at the tarmac. Ours seems to be the only plane that is about to discharge a horde of Bali-bound bodies, so I’m thinking that it should be an easy milk run getting through Immigration and Customs – particularly as I’ll be using the special section for locals and foreigners with a KITAS.
I mentally prepare myself for a quick sprint through the formalities and an early arrival at my villa. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have done that. At Bali’s only airport, believing that things will be easy makes coping with the subsequent chaos of arrival formalities that much harder.
Naturally, our plane has stopped at the one gate which is furthest (as measured in tired footsteps) from the arrivals hall, necessitating a walk around practically the entire perimeter of the terminal building. That’s a long way on foot, and I feel mildly sorry for those elderly and incapacitated passengers that I am forced to elbow out of my way on the mad dash to immigration.
As our plane-load of hopefuls decants into the arrivals area, I am shocked to see that a simmering cauldron of humanity is already there. Where did they come from? The hall is packed, the queues horrendous, the non-air-conditioned space steaming with angst, fatigue and resentment. Several tantrums are in progress, with lots of tears and pouty lips, but at least their children seem quite well-behaved. But of course, I get to by-pass all this, leaving the mess of confusing VOA pay counters, VOA receipt counters and the five out of seventeen open immigration desks behind me. I walk confidently past the right-hand side of the incipient riot and enter the Special Zone for the Blessed, set up for those who do not need a Visa on Arrival.
The good news is that most of the desks are open. The bad news is that all queues are already thirty deep. With an alacrity that belies my age, I leap to the end of the shortest line. I should know by now that this guarantees that someone ahead of me will have such amazing irregularities in their paperwork that the overworked immigration officer will disappear to confer endlessly with colleagues, supervisors and, for all I know, the President himself before returning. This of course, happens. Twice.
But during the time that our queue has no visible destination, more people arrive and flow down both sides of our previously single-file queue to its very head. A silent scrabble for power ensues, with the new arrivals viciously elbowing their way into non-existent gaps in the original line. Predominantly men, they refuse to respond, or even make eye-contact when challenged, maintaining unfocused stares into the distance while shoving both men and women aside. The queue etiquette there resembles forty hungry piglets on a twenty-teat sow, except the squealing is a little more muted.
Eventually a security officer arrives and insists that our queue transform itself into a single file. More elbow-flailing and shoulder-wedging achieves that directive, but our line triples in length and I effectively move thirty people backwards. My legendary sang-froid is finally deserting me as I prepare to smite a person behind me who is tapping me on the shoulder. But it is a young Indonesian woman, and she disarms me by saying: “You have incredible patience. Thank you. I would like to apologise for my countrymen. They have no respect and no manners”.
With excruciating slowness, I get to the head of the queue. It is now one hour and fifty five minutes since I de-planed. The immigration chap looks at me, flips through my passport, looks at his computer screen and says: “No good”. Not only my heart, but my liver, stomach and spleen sinks. “Problem”, he says. I think they train them at Immigration School to be laconic. He accompanies me to a hot little office with a big ‘No Smoking’ sign. The duty officer there stubs out his cigarette (oblivious to my longing look at the still-smoking butt) and examines my passport. I have visions of being deported. In excellent English, he informs me that he can see that my passport, KITAS renewal and Multiple Entry stamp are all in order. He continues: “But the trouble is, our computer system doesn’t know that. I think it never will. You will have this problem every time you leave or enter Indonesia”. My entrails sink lower. “But”, he says with a smile, “next time, don’t stand in the queue. Come straight to the office and we will clear immigration here for you”.
I can’t believe it. My documentation gets fouled up and I benefit? In Bali, that is like winning the lottery. After a two hour wait in the local queue, I am perhaps not as ecstatic as I should be. I have just been through Singapore and Frankfurt immigration controls, taking about 10 minutes each time – airports that have 7.5 times more passenger movements than Bali. But my improved mood does mean that I don’t bother snarling at the taxi booth man when he tries to overcharge me. I just hand him the correct fare and tap the banknotes twice with my finger. He gives me that Bali look, then acquiesces with a shrug.
Ah Bali – you’ve got to love it.