It’s Official – I Have Acclimatised To Bali’s Officialdom

February 19, 2012

The first few years in Bali  drove me spare. The peculiar culture of slowness in offices, where efficiency and customer service was a foreign concept, used to frustrate me to the point of screaming.  The quaint processes in community banks and payment centres where one settles utility bills would drive me to chewing my toenails in impotent rage.

Not any more. Three years in Bali have instilled the same laissez-faire ennui in me that you find in almost all bureaucrats everywhere on the island. Nothing about official processes bothers me much now. If I wait for an hour for my number to be called just so I can pay a bill, then watch all the tellers walk out for lunch, that’s fine. If it’s 12.30pm and I walk in to an office – signposted as being open until 2pm – to find one person busy locking up, so be it.

Even if that person, when asked why they closed early, says blandly, “There were no customers, so we close”, I stay calm now. And when the contrarian in me is compelled to say “But I’m a customer!”, and I’m told: “But you are too late, because we are closed now”, I just accept my fate, illogical as it might be. It is far easier on the nervous system to accept the inevitable than to do the enraged bule act, because this is Indonesia, and making a fuss does no good anyway.

So here I am,  a water bill to pay at one office, and electricity meter pulsa to buy at another. My electricity meter is a modern version of those old ‘coin-in-the-slot’ jobs. When it runs low, I buy credits, punch in the code I am given, and bingo – I have power, at least on those days where PLN deigns to supply it. I’m down to 30,000 credit – about a day’s worth – so I must pay on that day, or risk going dark.

The water bill payment goes as expected, meaning that it’s the usual organised chaos. The deal is, you walk in, spear your bill details on a low-tech spike device sitting on the counter, wait until someone removes it for processing, and eventually calls you. This particular office is somewhat under-staffed today, so the two staff at the counter who are apparently dealing with bank teller duties, investment enquiries and about ten other types of payments are as busy as ants at a picnic. There are fifteen customers waiting patiently. Six more staff lurk in the background, variously smoking, reading magazines, or updating their Facebook profiles. The stack of papers on the spike grows steadily, but no-one is even looking at them. Mine is about the third from the bottom, so I’m not overly concerned.

Then, in the midst of the rush, one of the two ‘working’ staff wanders off for a smoke. Oh, no. But all is well, a replacement arrives within a mere five minutes and reaches for the spike. My adrenaline spikes in sympathetic anticipation. But then, obviously new at this job and not yet having taken an IQ test to determine his fitness for the position, he grabs the topmost spiked bill! Three more people spike theirs; mine stays near the bottom. Luckily, a senior operative, who is aware of the Reverse Sequencing Principle of Spikes, steps in to correct him and I eventually get to pay my bill, a mere forty minutes after arriving. I am uncharacteristically serene.

Next stop is the electricity payment office, which makes the chaos at the water office seem like a relaxing Bintang on the beach. There are about fifty customers waiting, and three staff in the office. One is sitting at his desk, sporadically pecking at his computer keyboard, but mostly reading a newspaper and smoking. He looks bored to the point of catatonia. One sits at a section of counter marked “Phone Payments”. Not one of the fifty customers want to pay their phone bill, so this chap sits with an unfocussed stare and does not move once. I don’t even see him blink; for all I know, he might be dead.

The third chap is handling all of the work. The system here is similar to the water payment office, except pulsa customers drop their paperwork into a plastic tray on the front counter, then wait patiently for service. However, this time, my card goes on top of a pile of about fifty bills. My heart sinks. After half an hour, the computer guy has bored himself into a stupor and leaves for an early lunch. The catatonic phone payments guy continues to sit there like a stone carving. Perhaps rigor mortis has already set in. The electricity payments specialist is so overloaded with ‘normal’ bills that he doesn’t even glance at the growing pile of of ‘pulsa’ bills in the tray.

After an hour, there are another thirty bills in the tray, the computer guy seems to have disappeared for good, and the phone man hasn’t yet moved or blinked. My new-found persona is calm and relaxed, but I finally decide to retrieve my card from the depths of the pile and leave. Once I would have been incandescent with rage; now the situation seems completely normal.

On the way home, I find a little hidden place that accepts PLN electricity payments. My spirits lift temporarily, at least until I am told that, regretfully, they cannot process my payment. This is because the recipient of my payment, PLN has chosen this specific area, and this specific time, to impose one of its rolling blackouts. The irony does not escape me, but I remain unruffled.

The next day, with 5,000 rupiah left on my meter, I go back to try to pay my bill. The office is open on a Saturday until 11am; I arrive at 10.30am and I am the only customer there. The single staff member on duty is ready to close down, “because there are no customers.” It takes two minutes to pay my bill. I recharge my meter with 1,000 rupiah remaining before it shuts down.

So all is well; everything was paid on time; everything worked out. As I now realise – after a mere three years – there is no point whatsoever in getting enraged over life’s little vicissitudes in Bali.  Of course, ten minutes after getting home, my villa lost power in one of Bali’s rolling black-outs, but hey, that’s normal. I can handle delays, disappointments, inefficiencies and minimal customer service with equanimity. After all, I have experienced Jetstar, dealt with KITAS renewals, ordered things in Bali shops and generally coped with the traumas of officialdom in many countries.

Sing ken ken. No worries mate.



  1. Congratulations,
    I have spent the last few years trying to reach that level of acceptance, at times relishing a traffic jam or some other inefficiency, having gratitude for the opportunity to increase my levels of tolerance. Now do we view the potholes and ditches in nakula with the same acceptance?or do we as efficient Bules try to introduce schemes for progress and efficiency. I wonder if we want to change the way the Balinese do things when that easy laid back attitude is one of the attractions of this place. The jury in my head us still out on that but I am leaning towards acceptance probably because I am innately a lazy human being.

    • I think ‘acceptance’ of difficulties is a useful response to all the many things that can bug us in Bali. Ideally, the potholes could be fixed, officialdom could become more efficient and all the other hassles would disappear. Then perhaps we won’t have to waste energy on a Zen state of acceptance 😉

      • I will accept that.

  2. Enjoyed the post. I think of your life as a dream with a villa and pools and gorgeous weather. It’s funny to learn about the laid back culture with the inconveniences that go along with living in paradise.

    We rush around with so many self-imposed deadlines — it’s insane.

    You’ve got the right idea. 🙂

  3. Haha, Correct. Should you wish another ‘unique’ experience, try paying a monthly bill in INDOVISION in Denpasar, because the ATM system doesn’t connect with their ‘unique’ way of accounting. At least 50 people in a queue Monday 20th Feb – manned by two persons, both useless. Varying degrees of swearing, frustrations – explosions of remotes and black decoders, by all CUSTOMERS

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