Archive for the ‘CUSTOMER SERVICE FAILURES’ Category

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Crooked Money-Changers In The Island Of Temples

February 22, 2012

I have just read a fascinating report from the State News Agency Antara, which warns that up to 40% of Bali’s 146 money-changers are operating illegally. This is shocking news – not because of the number of dishonest foreign exchange places, but because Antara seems to believe that there are only 146 money-changers in Bali.

Legian alone probably has 146, and most likely a lot more. Seminyak has hundreds. Kuta, that bastion of ethical trade and commerce, may well have thousands. Every street, every lane, every seething market zone with more than twenty kiosks is festooned with those ubiquitous boards: “Authorised Money Changer. No Commission.” The rates look attractive, but only if you actually get them. And the “authorisation” has most likely been issued by the operator’s cousin, not by any known bank.

The reality is that there are not 146 money-changers in Bali; there are thousands. And the registered, legitimate ones – 88 of them, according to Antara, are far outnumbered by the thieving rat-bags who live off gullible tourists, robbing them senseless and giving Bali a bad name. This would make the real percentage of illegal places closer to 95%.

Just about every first-timer gets stung. You suddenly realise you’ve spent most of your rupiah on T-shirts, bling, cheap massage and cooling beverages, and start looking around for someone to change 50 or 100 dollars so you can continue the spending spree. You see the sign – it says “Authorised”, so it must be legal. In fact, they don’t even charge commission. What nice people! Even the tout drumming up business outside, sincerity oozing from every pore, solemnly declares, “No rip-off!” in earnest tones. And the rate – why, it’s much better than that fancy place your friends recommended!

So in you go, escorted at close quarters by the tout, only to end up jammed up against a tall counter, the top of which comes up to your neck. Behind it is an unctuous smile attached to a person of dubious integrity, who immediately begins the process of cunningly getting as much from you as he can, while giving you as little as possible in return.

He asks how much you want to exchange, you tell him, he pecks on a calculator and displays a figure. For those unfamiliar with the vast number of zeros in Indonesian currency, this can be terminally confusing. He keeps up a high-speed patter designed to distract you from the discrepancy between what you see on his calculator and the rate posted outside on his board. If there is also a rate chart inside, it will often show a different rate to confuse you. If you happen to have a modicum of mathematical ability, you soon realise that the amount shown on his calculator is just plain wrong.

That’s because his calculator commences the calculation with a pre-set bias – and believe me, it’s not in your favour. Should you do the unthinkable and produce your own calculator, he will look at your result with utter shock and horror, apologise profusely, and proceed to thump and shake his “faulty” calculator, blaming its ‘incorrect’ result on the manufacturer, bad batteries and its advanced age. But the calculator trick is only Phase One of the con in these places.

Phase Two is a complex ritual which commences after the actual amount is finally agreed upon. The man takes your money and starts an intricate game of banknote-shuffling  behind the high counter, during which he calls out a running total in hundreds, meaning hundreds of thousands. This is designed to both confuse you and lull you into a false sense of security. Meanwhile, his accomplice, the tout, stands uncomfortably close behind you, so you have to turn around to answer, and engages you in an endless stream of questions.

These continue unabated as the money-changer suddenly slaps down a huge heap of mixed denomination bills on the counter and starts counting them out into piles, calling out the amounts. It’s during this part that tens might miraculously transform into hundreds, at least verbally. If you show the slightest sign of actually following the transaction, the accomplice will distract you with a very personal question accompanied by a friendly dig in the ribs. If this action causes you to take your eyes off the money for a spilt second, some of it disappears behind the counter. No, actually, a lot of it disappears behind the counter, typically between 200,000 and 400,000 in an exchange totalling perhaps 960,000.

By this stage, if you are the average first-timer, you are so confused by the unfamiliar money, the endless chatter, the unwelcome jostling and the oppressive heat that you tend to take the money and run. After all, you saw the entire amount being counted out in front of you, right? Wrong.

If your face betrays any sign of suspicion, the purveyor of dodgy rupiah immediately tries to disarm you by asking, no, insisting that you count out the money yourself. Which of course, you try to do on the only space available – the counter-top. Another barrage of questions and assorted distractions follows, particularly when you discover a discrepancy. Standard operating procedure at this point is for the con-man to say, “This can’t be right. Let me count it again.”

He then quickly picks up the money and arranges it into one pile again, at which point he expertly  ‘fumbles’ and drops some of the stack behind the counter. Amidst profuse apologies, he retrieves both the dropped money and the previously stolen stash, counts it all out again – correctly this time – and gives it back to you to count again.

After you laboriously count out all the small bills and are finally convinced you have it right, he will grab the money  in a lightning-fast move “to stack it for you” as the tout behind you distracts you once more. Needless to say, a goodly portion of your money disappears behind the counter again in a sleight-of-hand manoeuvre that is very difficult to see. Result – you are badly out of pocket.

So why do visitors even use these dubious places? Convenience is one reason – why walk to a legitimate money changer in Bali’s heat, when hey – there’s one right here! The other reason is simply greed, together with an inability to perform the simplest arithmetical computation. A rate of 9,600 looks good compared to the 9,450 offered at a ‘real’ place. But if you’re changing $100, this translates to a ‘saving’ of 15,000 rupiah, worth about $1.60 AUD.

At legitimate places – such as those registered by the Association of the Foreign Exchange Dealers (APVA), you get low counters, money counted out in front of you in high denomination bills, plenty of time to count it again yourself without harassment, a receipt, and friendly, professional staff.

And the rip-off places? Well, as you can see, they’re very different. After a few years of living here, I went back to one of these dodgy places just to see whether I could outsmart the guy and make a whole extra 15,000 rupiah. I changed $100, watched him like a hawk, called him on every trick, and finally counted out the money into the hands of my own accomplice without letting the shonk anywhere near it.

The previously friendly money-changer stared at me aggressively, thrust back my $100, snatched the stack of grubby rupiah from my friend’s hand, and snarled, “You fuck off. Not come back.”

Don’t worry mate, I won’t.

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The Downside Of Flying No-Frills – No Plane! (Part 2)

December 30, 2011

How did this all start? Read Part 1.

Well, there wasn’t going to be a Part 2. I mean, the Pythonesque debacle that was Jetstar’s JQ36 Bali to Melbourne flight scheduled for Thursday 22 December surely could not happen again? Unfortunately, yes – it could, and did.

My return flight to Bali on JQ35 was scheduled for 6.45pm on 29 December. I should have realised that I was again about to be trapped in the Low Cost Carrier vortex when I tried to increase my checked luggage allowance. I had already paid $40 to raise the ludicrously low limit to 25 kg, but knowing I had overdone things in the purchasing department during the break, I wanted to go to 30kg. That will be $40, thanks, says the website. Ye Gods! Charging $8 per extra kilo is obviously not a disincentive for overloading the plane, because an extra 10 kilos costs the same.

So there I am at the airport, waiting for the check-in counters to open at 3.45pm – and the place is looking deserted. I go to the airline information desk. “When does check-in open for JQ35?” I ask, already sensing the answer will not be to my liking. “Never!” says the delightfully good-natured lady. Airline humour. “You know the flight has been delayed?” she goes on without missing a beat. My heart sinks. “It’s now scheduled for 10pm,” she says. My heart plummets into my shoes. “We did notify everyone,” she continues sternly.

“Well, I didn’t get an email,” I say just as sternly. She laughs. Not the effect I was looking for. “Of course not. We never send emails! We send everyone an SMS.” I groan. “I didn’t get an SMS either.” She is unperturbed. “Of course not. You have a foreign mobile number. We only send SMSs to Australian numbers for flights from Australia.” Being an argumentative type, I point out that when my previous week’s flight from Bali was cancelled, then delayed by six and a half hours the following day, I received no SMSs either. I also point out that I actually did get an email just before my cancelled flight, which supposedly confirmed my booking. “Oh that!” she said. “That’s a completely different system.” Right, that explains it. Who handles your IT systems, Jetstar? It may be time for a change.

“Anyway,” she went on, “we’re still going to open the check-in counters at 3.45pm so at least you don’t have to lug your bags around. I am obsequiously grateful, in the hope that I will get an upgrade, preferably to the cockpit. She then goes on to say that as compensation for the inconvenience, we would all be given a voucher for food and drinks to help pass the additional three hours and fifteen minutes. “The staff at Departure Gate 3 will arrange all that.” I increase my level of obsequious gratitude, and mooch off to wait for 3.45pm.

At 4pm, staff start drifting in to man the check-in desks. There is no hurry obviously – the damn plane isn’t leaving for another six hours. Check-in is smooth, except the scales fluctuate erratically between 29.1 and 31.9 kg as my bag is weighed. The check-in woman is perplexed, and I foolishly try to reassure her. “Oh, that’s just my dog in there. He’s restless because of the delay.” I come perilously close to being bumped from the flight, and decide that airline humour is best left to airline staff.

The specified Gate 3 is handling passengers for New Zealand. However, Gate 5 displays the information that JQ 35 is scheduled for departure at 6.45pm. I stick around just in case the departure board is right and the staff are wrong. At 6.35pm, the board at the unmanned Gate 5 starts urgently flashing “Final Call”. A number of us start looking around for an invisible plane. It’s Jetstar, anything is possible. Ten minutes later, the board goes completely blank. There is not a staff member to be seen, and not a single announcement about the status of our flight. Needless to say, there is no sign of the promised food and drink vouchers either.

By 9.45pm, there is still no plane at the gate, and the assembled passengers are getting restless. Then, several of them suddenly gather their belongings and disappear. Then a few more scurry off, until there is just me and one other puzzled unfortunate left. Apparently those lucky enough to have an Australian mobile number are getting text messages telling them to go to a different gate. The under-classes are kept in the dark. Once we have assembled at Gate 14A, we continue to hurry up and wait. There is no announcement, but the departures board sneakily changes over to a new time of 11pm. We finally push back from the gate at 11.30pm. Those of us without a Jetstar-approved phone number have now been waiting at the airport for seven hours and forty five minutes. Did I mention there were no food and drink vouchers?

Except for a nasty little thunderstorm, the flight is uneventful. Bali Airport is basically deserted and the formalities take no time at all, at least for those of us with a KITAS. The customs guys are even more torpid than usual, barely managing to lift a hand to wave us through without inspecting anything. I could have brought in three bottles of Scotch. Grrr. The one on the X-ray machine is far more interested in his iPhone than anything on his work screen. Who can blame him?

Outside, the taxi booth is closed, but there are plenty of airport taxi drivers quoting outrageous prices to weary and baffled new arrivals. I listen to some of the ridiculous quotes. “Batu Belig? You go to Batu Belig? Ooh, very far. 500,000 Rp.” And “I take you to Tuban. Only 250,000 Rp.  One quotes me 150,000 Rp to take me to my villa – a 60,000 fare. I snort in disdain and try to haggle, but he stands firm: “Very late. Cost more.” Yeah, I can see that. I wander off, thinking that I’ll walk to the exit gate and catch a Bluebird. Then I realise that the crazy changes to the airport mean that the gate is now about two kilometres away, it’s 2.30am, my bags are very heavy and I’m bone tired.

But before I can turn back, the cabbie senses that he is about to lose a fare altogether and chases me with an offer of 100,000 Rp. I know I’m getting skinned alive, but I agree anyway. He must feel guilty because he grabs my suitcase, not realising how heavy it is, and wheels it off towards the car park. I have a momentary flash of unashamed joy as he loses control of my 32 kg bag as he tries to get it down a steep ramp, and short-steps desperately across a road before ending up in the bushes. But he thinks that this is uproariously funny, thereby cheating me out of any petty satisfaction.

As we drive home, I reflect on the perils of travelling Jetstar, and Low Cost Carriers in general. I wonder why airlines believe that no-frills means no communication. I wonder why customers are treated not as people, but as numbers – mere entries on someone’s balance sheet. Sitting in this extortionately-priced taxi, I wonder why my life has dished out two horrific Jetstar flights in a row. I like to think that this is a normal response after enduring a seven hour delay and a six hour flight.

Then I suddenly see the driver’s ID and number on the dashboard, and it is a veritable epiphany. His number is 42 – Douglas Adams’ famous answer to the question: “What is the meaning of Life?” And it all becomes clear. Delays, cancellations, disappointments, rage, uncommunicative corporations – and the way we handle all this shit – that is the meaning of life. It may be just because I am delirious with fatigue, but it seems significant.

I thank you Jetstar for this opportunity to achieve a measure of Zen enlightenment. But I will never fly with you again.

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The Downside Of Flying No-Frills – No Plane! (Part 1)

December 23, 2011

I’m not supposed to be here at my computer.  It’s 11.05 pm on Thursday 22 December, and I’m supposed to be on Jetstar flight JQ36, lifting off from Denpasar airport at this very moment, enjoying my comfortable StarClass window seat and settling in for the haul to Melbourne to see my family for a brief Christmas break away from Bali.

But I’m not on the plane; after five hours of wasted time, I’m back home in my villa, all dressed up and nowhere to go. Plans and schedules are in disarray. Appointments will be missed, time with family and friends will be curtailed, and my rental car may not even be available. Worst of all, I will have to repack the damned suitcase – and I hate that.

So it’s earlier in the evening and I’m set to go. I’ve somehow managed to get everything organised and sit there patiently while my driver fights through the Bali traffic. Then I sit patiently while he fights his way through the incomprehensible temporary airport entrance schemozzle and deposits me at the new passenger drop off point, which is about 10 kilometres from the terminal. Humping the bags through the security checkpoint (twice – “no, nothing wrong sir, I just forgot to look at your bag the first time”) I finally get my shoes and belt back on and search myopically for my glasses on the conveyor. I thank the gods that I don’t have a prosthetic leg and artificial hip joint – it would take me hours to re-assemble myself and I would miss the plane.

There is no danger of that this time. The Jetstar check-in counter is a milling mass of confused and angry people. All order has broken down because the illuminated signs all say “FLIGHT CANCELLED”, and customers are paralysed with indecision. There is no queue as such and when I reach a counter, the representative sighs and gives me a printed sheet explaining that due to “Operational Requirements” my flight has indeed been cancelled. Further questioning elicits no explanation from the the check-in person. “It’s cancelled” is the only response. “But why”? I ask. “It’s cancelled”, he repeats.  He will not be swayed by entreaties; he will not give me any additional information. “When was it cancelled?” I persist, and I am told it was during that afternoon.

So why no email, Jetstar? Why no SMS? Why wait until people arrive at the airport before you tell them there is no flight? And why use the term ‘cancelled due to operational requirements’, which basically means ‘because we wanted to’? If the cancellation is due to mechanical failure, tell us. If it’s because of regional cyclonic activity, tell us. We mightn’t like it, but we will understand. If it’s one of those commercial ‘screw the passengers’ decisions because your plane was not full enough, tell us that too, but we don’t promise to even begin to understand that one. Just. Don’t. Keep. Us. In. The. Frigging. Dark! We hate it.

I ask when the flight will actually leave. “Tomorrow, 11pm”, says the man. He must see something in my eyes, or maybe a fear of Karma niggles at him, because he adds “Probably.” I am less than reassured. Then he explains that visitors who are returning from Bali are to wait outside for a bus to a hotel in Tuban. “What about me?” I say – “I live here”. “Oh” he says, and looks nonplussed. “Maybe ask the bus driver to take you home?” Yeah, right. I can just see the forty-passenger behemoth threading its way through the lanes around my place. “Or just catch a taxi”, he goes on helpfully. “Is Jetstar paying for the taxi?” I ask. “Ahh, no …”

Of course, my struggles with the corporate mindset don’t end when I finally make it home. I won’t be in Melbourne to pick up my rental car at the designated time, so I have to try and call the company to let them know. It’s 2 am in Melbourne, but my call goes through to a call centre in some place where people don’t sleep. I can actually understand the very polite fellow who takes my call and I am pleased. I explain the cancelled flight, and request that my reservation be delayed by 24 hours.

“Ooh”, says the man. “If  you don’t pick the car up within one hour of your booked time, they will cancel.” “OK,” I say, “just re-book me for the next day.” “Sorry, the computer says no cars are available the next day”. So I try to introduce some logic. “What about the car I booked for the week – is that available?” I ask. “No, sorry”, he replies. I’m perplexed. “Why not?” A slight hint of impatience at my obvious stupidity creeps into his voice. “Because it’s already booked by you.” I feel like I’m in an episode of Fawlty Towers.

I wonder briefly if the car rental man would consider getting a job with Jetstar, but he’s probably over-qualified. I just blew a whole day out of a very short trip to visit family and friends – I wonder what is in store for me with this airline tomorrow? And I was supposed to be travelling ‘Star Class’, no less. I certainly don’t feel like a star. I actually feel like going supernova.

Thanks for stuffing up my break, Jetstar. Season’s Greetings to you too.

UPDATE: So I’m back at the airport the following night to check in for the previously cancelled JQ36. “Umm, sorry, your 11pm flight is, er, delayed a little.” I give the clerk a disbelieving stare. “How long is the delay?” “Umm, it now leaves at 5.30am.” I am speechless yet again.

We all get herded on to a bus and taken to a hotel. No food or drink vouchers – just a photocopied screed citing “operational reasons” for the current delay. At 1.30am we are bussed back to an empty airport. No-one can even enter the departures area, because there are no staff to operate the security scanners. We all bed down on the hard tiled floor, because there is no seating. An hour later, security staff straggle in and we check in. I am offered a seat at the back of the plane. I politely demand my Starclass seat 3A which has been booked, paid for, and anticipated for six months. I finally get it, but the clerk gives me the impression that she thinks I have pulled a fast one.

We leave exactly on time at 5.30am. I’m charged a higher rate for my rental car because I’m a day and a half late in picking it up. I finally get to see my kids, one of whom has travelled from Perth, the other from Brisbane, for our much-anticipated 48-hour family get-together. I get to see them for a total of 8 hours.

Like I said – thanks, Jetstar.


The story doesn’t end there. I was unfortunate enough to have to fly back to Bali with Jetstar. Read the sorry saga of what happened on the way back in:
The Downside Of Flying No-Frills – No Plane! (Part 2)


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Think Differently, Everyone Else Does Here

August 9, 2011

If ever I needed any reminders that Bali is a quirky place, these last few days have served to disabuse me of any notion that people here are reading from any conventional script, except maybe one of high farce. Every single day on the island provides vignettes of absurdity of course, but when these come in unexpectedly concentrated clumps, I feel even more like an actor in a Mr. Bean movie.

I finish breakfast, and am nicely full. But not quite having woken up properly, I am still a tad taciturn. It is, after all, not yet mid-day. I proffer a 50,000 rupiah note for a 35,000 rupiah bill. The cashier is aghast.
“You have no small money?”
“This is small money”, I reply.
“No, this is big money”, she says, her eyes big as if to emphasise the point.

I am tired of always being expected to have exact change for everyone from taxi drivers on down, so I tersely ask “Don’t you have a cash float?”
“No, I can’t swim”, she responds without batting an eyelid. Having zeroed in on the word ‘float’, she has instantly segued to a response to my perceived non-sequitur as if this was perfectly normal. I am impressed with her thought processes.

Temporarily baffled, I struggle to explain that a ‘cash float’ is what you start the day with in the till, so you can give change. I can see from her expression that is visualising a ‘cash float’ as some weird bule practice, presumably one involving a litre or two of water in the cash drawer with some banknotes floating on top.  She explains, as if to a child, that they don’t do this, because they can get enough small change from their first few customers. Ah, why didn’t I think of that?

Mesmerised by this exchange, I wander off to the local cushion-making specialist to order a mattress pad for my somewhat hard sun-lounge. We spend twenty minutes going through the specifications and measurements, and agree on a reasonable price. He wants to copy my specifications down on his order form, but I tell him to use the diagram I have prepared previously.

“But I have to draw this on the order form”, he wails.
I prefer him to use my sheet, because it clearly states that I want a complete mattress pad of specific dimensions. He is clearly distressed.
“Staple it to the page in your order form”, I suggest. I’m trying to avoid the frequent Bali transcription errors that have messed up more than one custom order. I also ask him whether, when ready, the completed mattress will fit on my motorbike.
“Oh yes, of course, easy!” he says, seemingly relieved to be handling a simple question. However, having seen what the locals happily cart around on their bikes, I have my reservations.

Two days later, I go back to pick up my order. A beautifully crafted mattress cover awaits me, made exactly to specifications, except that it’s empty. There is no foam pad inside. “Oh no!” is the horrified response to my obvious question. “You only ordered cover! Foam is extra!”

So I ask to see my order in his book to prove that I ordered a complete item, not just the cover. Guess what? My spec sheet is not there any more. He shrugs and insists that he quoted only on the cover – and proves it by showing me his copy, which contains the word ‘cover’. I check my carbon copy and it also says cover. Damn. Now I have to find somewhere in Bali that cuts foam to size; so much for one-stop shopping. At least he was right about it being easy to carry on my bike …

A fruitless two hours spent both on-line and browsing local directories reveals that apparently most businesses don’t bother advertising. Especially purveyors of fine foam. I mean, why spend the money? Everyone knows where they are, right?

That evening provides more snapshots of life in Bali. I watch a local youth weaving dangerously down the road on his bike while texting. He is wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the legend: “Total Stability”.  I see a tourist riding pillion, covered with recently-healed scars on his forehead, ears, jaw, shoulder, knees, ankles and feet. My view of all these unmistakeable hallmarks of a bike incident is unimpeded, because he is wearing only shorts. No shirt, no helmet and no shoes. He looks relaxed as he drinks from a bottle of Bintang. Faith is a wonderful thing.

I consider dropping into a pub for a quiet one, but don’t stay. Everyone is yelling, apparently because they can’t converse at a normal levels, because everyone is yelling. Why don’t they just … never mind.

I ponder the logical circularity of this situation, as well as the absurdities of the last few days, as I ride home. As I get to my gate, I get an SMS. It says: “Your mattress cover is ready.”

Strangely enough, I don’t even blink. I mean, this is Bali, and it’s been a perfectly normal day.

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Australia Is So Like Bali Now

July 30, 2011

There was a time, not so long ago, where one looked forward to a short break away from Bali. Re-visiting Australia was once an opportunity to get away from the endemic chaos here, to experience first-world efficiencies, punctuality, reliability and good service. After a harrowing ten day trip to Melbourne, I’m here to tell you that those days are rapidly disappearing.

Apart from the freezing Winter weather, unbelievable prices and astonishing displays of road rage, Australia is becoming more like Bali every day. Well, not quite – in Australia, there is a surfeit of do-gooder-inspired over-regulation that assumes everyone is a complete imbecile in need of protection. That’s not a feature of Bali life. Yet.

The street signage is well up to the usual in absentia Bali standards. However, the authorities make up for it by providing thousands of speed limit signs, including those for ‘school zones’, which display a confusing mess of times and vague dates when the limit actually applies. Nobody but an airline pilot has the multi-tasking ability to decipher the damn things while driving, or the reflexes to avoid running over some errant kid while doing so.

Bureaucracies, both corporate and government, have become bloated and unresponsive, rarely getting things right the first time. Businesses, formerly bastions of efficiency, are happily following suit. Maybe that’s because everyone is too busy complying with Occupational Health and Safety directives to actually do any core business. Answering the phone too often might cause work-induced hearing loss. Or maybe no-one cares about pursuit of excellence any more. Either way, just like in Bali, it’s unusual now for things to run smoothly.

So, after failing to get a direct flight to Melbourne, I start my trip by boarding a midnight plane in Bali, which naturally leaves late. It’s not a cheap flight, costing nearly twice as much as the usual discount deals – yet there is not so much as a bottle of water on offer from the cabin crew. No breakfast either. It’s OK, I’ve heard that dehydration and hunger are good for the soul. I transit through Brisbane, where I have to lug my bags through customs, then make my bone-weary way to the domestic terminal. They do give me a train ticket to get there though. I’d hate to travel by low-cost carrier … oh wait, I did.

Once in Melbourne, the fun of helping my 89 year old mum through the rigours of a major house relocation begins. A mere 20 minutes on hold to the phone company gets me a nice chap who arranges the old phone to be cut off in six days time and reconnected at the new place. He assures me that everything is set. Two hours later, the phone gets disconnected, making it impossible to arrange all the other pressing details. It takes until mid-morning the next day before we get an active line again. I am reminded of Bali business practices.

The mail redirection goes just as smoothly. “Ooh, sorry, you need to give at least three business days notice …” We fix that problem through a convoluted ‘stop mail’ arrangement that apparently doesn’t need three business days notice.

We order a skip for the inevitable rubbish that has accumulated over fifty-five years of continuous home occupancy. “Ooh, sorry, you can’t put mattresses in there – they’re a health risk.” A health risk? No-one will be sleeping on them at the tip, for crying out loud! I call the local tip. “Yes, we take mattresses.” Great! “But there will be a $67 surcharge for each mattress. They’re a health risk”. I ask: “So how does paying this charge reduce the health risk?” Silence on the phone. I guess it must be like a carbon tax or something. That does nothing useful either. I think of Bali with nostalgia. Here, we just throw old mattresses in the river, and nobody gives a hoot.

To my dismay, I discover that Bali has exported the much-loved philosophy of jam karet (rubber time) to Australia. Companies promise to do something “between 8am and 2pm – barring unforeseen circumstances of course.” The rubbish skip, which would otherwise block access to the removalists’ truck, is meant to be taken away two full days before the move. It is finally collected, after numerous phone calls, 20 minutes before our enormous truck arrives. That’s cutting it fine.

Then there is customer ‘service’. The man from Bigpond is supposed to come “between 12 and 5” to hook up the new broadband service, which of course means he arrives at 5pm. He seems a bit surly when he finds out that under-floor cable installation will not work out. He finds the task of going via the ceiling and down a cavity wall too onerous. He decides to drill through a wall in an adjacent room and curtly says: “Here’s enough cable to reach the computer. Will he at least tack it to the skirting board? “No, I don’t do that. But here are some nails.” Can he check the computer to ensure we are on-line? “It’ll work”, he says as he hurriedly leaves. It doesn’t. Even Bali provides better service.

Bali-style opportunism is not unknown in the Antipodes either. We buy a new digital TV. The nice salesman tells my mum that his friend can deliver it for $50 and “do all that complex set-up required” for a mere $150 extra. I tell him that’s too expensive, and maybe we’ll buy the TV from another store. He hurriedly offers to do the ‘complex set-up’ for only $50. I decline. After delivery, we unpack the set and switch it on. It automatically sets itself up and is ready to go. I begin to suspect that Aussie companies do their in-service training in Indonesia.

And it’s not over even when I’m ready to go back home to Bali. A service station sells me a blister pack of Duracell batteries for my calibrated, accurate luggage scales. When I open the pack later, they are corroded beyond recognition. Caveat emptor. I get new batteries elsewhere and weigh my suitcase. It is exactly 22.1 kilograms, and under my limit. The airport check-in counter scales insist my bag weighs 24 kilos and I am told I have to pay $15 excess baggage. I ask when the airline’s scales were last calibrated, and receive the non-sequitur answer that it will cost $15. After some affable banter, I am permitted to remove items from the bag. I extract my obviously faulty scales, which weigh 225 grams. The check-in scales now show 23 kilos. How much money do airlines make from these capricious instruments? They always seem to read high – does anyone ever check them?

Finally on the flight itself, I ask for a bottle of fruit juice and offer a $5 note. “Ooh, sorry, credit card payments only.” My card is in my checked luggage. I opt to dehydrate. The flight attendant shows unexpected compassion and gives me a bottle of water for free. Everyone else has to pay. It’s obviously my lucky day.

So now I’m back in Bali, and the arriving culture shock is nowhere near as great as it used to be. The laissez-faire attitudes to time are identical in Australia now, as is the lax approach to service and the rampant opportunism. And the two container-loads of furniture I helped shift can be seen on a single motorbike in Legian any day of the week.

But the weather sure is better.

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You’ve Got Mail – Well, Two-thirds Of It Anyway

January 15, 2011

So the postman comes round to the villa and hands me a slip of paper, which tells me that I have to go somewhere to collect a parcel – a gift from my daughter in Australia. It says that I must pay when I collect it, apparently because it could not be delivered to my villa. I look at the postman, whose bike panniers are loaded with parcels.

“Why didn’t you just bring the parcel, instead of a note saying that I have received a parcel?” I ask reasonably. He shuffles a bit, and says, “You not here when I come before.” He can’t seem to meet my eyes. “When did you come before?” I enquire innocently. A long pause ensues; he recognises the trap. “Ah … I not come before” comes the reluctant admission. Naturally, I enquire as to why not. “I think maybe you not be home?” he offers diffidently.

He is clearly uncomfortable, so taking pity on him, I suggest that maybe the parcel was too heavy.  “No, no – parcel not heavy now”. The “now” should have alerted me that he knew more than he was letting on, but in fairness, it was before mid-day, so I wasn’t the sharpest bule in the gang. I tell him to bring it next time. He is shocked to the core. “No, no, no! Already make paper!” he says, agitatedly pointing to the delivery slip.

I sigh, but recognise defeat. When parked at the confluence of Bali bureaucracy and the passive aggression of its employees, there is no escape. I ask him which post office I should go to. He helpully waves his hand through 270 degrees and tells me “over there’. I suspect that if his back wasn’t so stiff from lugging everyone’s parcels around except mine, the arc of his gesture would have encompassed 360 degrees, if not more.

So the next day, I’m standing at the counter of my local post office branch. The man behind the counter is swamped with piles of letters, parcels, envelopes and several forests worth of tacky postcards. When he claps eyes on my proferred slip of paper, his face breaks out in a huge smile. I am impressed with his customer service attitude until he says, with evident relief, “No, no! Not here! Go to Tuban!” Oh great, I think – here comes a 40 minute trip to the airport area. Fortunately, being of a devilishly cunning bent as well as lazy, I talk my friend’s driver into picking it up for me when he is the area. He comes back empty-handed. Apparently I neglected to sign the back of the slip, an act which evidently would have authorised the bearer to pick up things on my behalf.

I duly sign, and the next day the driver again goes to the post office. He comes back empty-handed again. “Need to show passport”, he informs me.I do what I should have done to start with – jump on the bike and go looking for the post office. I quickly find out my driver buddy has been more than a little cavalier with his directions. The post office is not next to Supernova; it’s not even in the same block.

Twenty minutes later, I find a sign: “Post Office 50m” pointing up a narrow lane. I comb the entire lane and find nothing that even resembles a letter box, much less a  post office. I ask a local, who says “Go back, next to bank”. I find nothing that resembles a bank either. “Where’s the bank?” I ask another local. “Go back – next to Post Office” he says. Right. I forgot about The Great Bali Circular Directions Trap.

A parking guy finally sets me straight, pointing to a semi-demolished structure (or maybe half-built – it’s hard to tell in Bali) displaying no signs of human habitation or activity. He obviously senses my disbelief, saying “No problem – go to back”. I pick my way through builders’ detritus and trash, hurdle deep trenches and climb over plant and equipment to get to a small, crowded room which is a scene of utter chaos. Waving my slip at anyone who looks interested (which turns out to be nobody), I finally buttonhole a chap who wanders off for ten minutes and returns with my parcel.

“Passport”, he demands. I tell him that my passport is at the Immigration Office, and give him my KITAS. “No good.” he says, “Must have passport.” I think fast – unusual for me, but vital today. “Your boss in there says KITAS OK”, I say with false authority. He hesitates. I press on with the bluff: “Go ask him if you like – but he seems, er, a little angry today …”

I’ve said the magic words. He accepts my KITAS, gives me my parcel and I get out of there as fast as I can. Back at the villa, I look at the Customs Declaration that came with the parcel. It says: Cans x 2; Book x 1. But when I open the parcel, it contains one can and one book. Damn. That was good Nestle’s condensed milk in there and now I’m going to have to ration it.

Thanks Bali Post Office, and a pox upon your sweet-toothed, light-fingered employees. But as Meatloaf used to say, I guess two out of three ain’t bad …

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Pacific Blues: Virgin on the Ridiculous in Bali

January 24, 2010

There is a travellers’ glitch that happens so often in Bali that it is almost an industry cliche. Departing flights to Australia often leave just after midnight, so passengers need to be at the airport the day before the day and date shown on their itinerary. Inevitably, after falling victim to the dreaded Bali Relaxation Syndrome after a week or two, some flyers pay scant attention to their outgoing travel documents. Towards the end of a holiday here, one’s need to know what day it is becomes completely irrelevant. Yet for most, the shred of planning ability that still remains impels them to quickly skim their itinerary a few days before leaving. And often they will see something like: Departing Saturday 23 January, 12:05 am. Naturally, in their terminally bewildered state, some arrive at the airport at 10pm on Saturday 23rd, only to discover that their plane left 22 hours ago. Without them.

So it transpires that my friend (let’s call her “M”, because everyone else does) is packing to leave Bali on a Saturday morning. That’s when she finds out, to her great chagrin, that her Pacific Blue flight had departed at midnight the previous night. And of course, she wasn’t on it. She tries to contact the airline – but by some strange oversight, no contact details seem to have been provided on her now defunct itinerary.

Luckily there is a helpful concierge at her hotel, who calls the Bali branch of Pacific Blue, where a sympathetic girl says: “Oh! You poor thing! Come in to our office now and we will fix this”. M doesn’t know it yet, but that was actually the peak moment in the customer service experience. She catches a taxi to the distant airline office at a cost of 40,000 Rupiah, but on arrival, is met with studied indifference by a different ‘customer service’ representative. He acts as if it is a huge imposition for him to be expected to work on a Saturday and dismisses her request for assistance.

CSR: “Sorry, can not help you.”
M: “But you just told me on the phone to come in and you would fix this!”
CSR: “The girl who told you that has gone home.”
M: “Well, can you help me then?”
CSR: “No. This is not our problem.You missed your flight.”
M: “I know that, but what can I do now?
CSR: (Shrugging) “Go back to your hotel. Book a flight on the internet.”
M: “Oh. I don’t have a laptop. Can I book a flight here?”
CSR: “No. Go home. Book on the internet.”

During the 40,000 Rupiah trip back, close to tears, M ponders the logical inconsistencies of staffing a local airline office with customer service representatives who can not fix a problem, provide no useful advice and seem incapable of carrying out a simple ticketing exercise. But mostly she thinks about why they don’t even seem to care.

In the meantime, I locate the airline’s Australian-based customer service number and pass it on. M rings them. No, there is nothing they can do. They politely point out that it is through no fault of theirs that the flight was missed. Fair enough, that’s true. They suggest calling the travel insurance people, who not unreasonably argue that this was a self-inflicted wound and therefore not covered. The helpful helpline suggests rebooking on the internet.

While this is happening, I find a flight for $595 AUD on the internet and phone the details to M, who proceeds to an internet cafe to make her booking. With uncanny timing, internet access immediately goes down across most of South Bali. Wonderful. So for M, it’s back to the Australian helpline to explain the situation. Yes of course they can book her on the flight. That will be $610 USD thanks. An unsavoury aroma of opportunism wafts from the phone, but what can she do? And no doubt there is a perfectly good managerial explanation as to why an Australian company would make an Australian travelling to Australia pay in US dollars, but the reasoning eludes her. She is less than happy.

OK, missing a flight because one misreads the date and time is a little careless, and no-one really expects a free flight. One takes responsibility and gets on with life. An ’empty’, fully paid seat has unfortunately been flown from Bali to Australia, and another one now needs to be bought. But it’s the manner in which the new seat was provided – or rather, not provided – that grates. Customer service, even on a low-cost carrier should not be an optional extra like an in-flight meal. There is an expectation that mistakes, even those made by customers, will be addressed courteously and sympathetically. In this case, there was no attempt to solve the customer’s problem; in fact the problem was actually exacerbated by the ‘couldn’t care less’ attitude of ground staff. A subliminal condemnation process seemed to be in operation – a punishment of sorts meted out to ‘no-shows’, as if they had deliberately set out to offend the airline.

I remember the old days when this airline was noted for its easy good humour and great customer relations. What happened?

POSTSCRIPT:
The afternoon flight home added insult to injury. M, a vegetarian, asked for an egg and lettuce sandwich, only to be told: “Sorry, they are a bit stale”. She then asked for vegetarian pasta, to be told, “Sorry, none left”. She ended up with cheese and crackers and red wine. Whoopee do. A less than memorable experience.

HAPPY POSTSCRIPT [14 FEB 2010]
I just heard from M. She sent an email to the Customer Service Department, which I suspect was more for personal catharsis than a belief in the possibility of a remedy. But a small miracle has happened. The airline not only responded with, according to her, “a really nice reply”, but gave her a credit for the full cost of her flight home. Nice one, Pacific Blue – that is an excellent outcome for the customer, and a Gold Star for your Customer Relations people.