Posts Tagged ‘travel’

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Attracting The Elderly Tourist

July 12, 2012

Bali’s grand plan for tourism seems to be a bit of a dog’s breakfast. It doesn’t really seem to be a plan as such – it’s more a series of somewhat reactive slogans that sound plausible until they need to actually be implemented.

For years, the driving principle seemed to be ‘let’s encourage more and more to come – but we won’t even think about improving the infrastructure to support the increase. Then, when it became apparent that tourists were staying for shorter periods and spending less, it became ‘there are too many stingy tourists – let’s go for quality instead’. Still no mention of improving infrastructure to attract those elusive ‘quality’ tourists though.

Now, it seems that a new target market that fulfils the desired ‘quality’ demographic is in the cross-hairs. Ida Bagus Kade Subikshu, head of Bali’s tourism agency, wants to encourage older visitors. He is quoted as enthusiastically saying, “The prospect for elderly tourism is huge.” He speaks of promoting activities, destinations and cultural experiences for the mature set, which is laudable, but says little about – you guessed it – viable infrastructure that would make it possible.

So I contemplate his suggestion while gazing around me. I see the uneven, dangerous footpaths, open pits and loose, pivoting manhole covers – and think of fragile, low-density bones just waiting to snap, crackle and pop as well as any breakfast cereal. I see the unpredictable traffic that demands astonishing agility by pedestrians just to survive a simple road crossing.

I see hotels with a multitude of levels, few lifts, and bathrooms with showers over slippery, high-walled baths. I see the potential for a tropical environment exacerbating age-related illness, and the impossibility of getting fast-response trauma care through the grid-locked streets. I see the heat, humidity, dust and exhaust fumes sapping the strength of young, healthy tourists and wonder just how the elderly would cope.

And just as I am ready to dismiss Kade’s idea as yet another pie-in-the-sky dream, I read – with no small degree of  shock – that he defines his ‘elderly’ target group as those over 55 years old. I’m already more than 10 years past his cut-off point! I’m not elderly dammit! I’m … well, mature, but I still manage to live happily in Bali without breaking a hip, or needing someone to hand me my Zimmer frame when I get off my motorbike.

So I decide that ‘elderly’ is a relative term. My 90 year-old mother is elderly, not me. Mind you, I thought she was elderly when I was 30, and I’m sure my own kids, being in the prime of their lives, regard me as a broken-down old crock.

With that epiphany, I look around again with fresh eyes. And suddenly my focus is on the teeming throngs of people, not on the obstacle course that they are negotiating. A good proportion of them are over 55 – and they are all managing splendidly. They happily go on tours all over the island, they walk the broken streets with confidence, explore rickety stairs, ride motorbikes,  and generally seem to thrive on the anarchic bedlam that is Bali.

And that could well be the secret. My own contemporaries love Bali, because it provides an escape from the cloying strictures of Australia’s over-regulated nanny-state. They enjoy a place  where a righteous army of do-gooders doesn’t choke their spirit. They thrive in a place that, despite having many risks to life and limb,  allows them to take personal responsibility for their own safety and well-being, instead of being treated like extraordinarily dense sheep.

So go for it Kade. Encourage the oldies. For a start, the SKIers (Spending the Kids’ Inheritance) crowd are not as impecunious as the youngsters and they are far less likely to get blind drunk and abusive. You also solve at least part of your problem with the late-night club scene, because they’re all in bed by the time the clubs open.

By all means fix the garbage problem and the dirty beaches – that’s for the benefit of the whole society here. But don’t try to lure oldies with the promise of vastly improved infrastructure. Not only can Bali not afford the broad boulevards, wide footpaths, parks and proliferating malls of places like Singapore, those free-spirited older tourists who come to Bali probably don’t really want them anyway. Some might even be making up for missing the hippy trail experience in their youth, and are making up for it now.

Bali is still a frontier in a way – a place where you can survive on your wits, enjoy the local culture, learn the rudiments of a different language, interact with a wide variety of interesting characters, dodge traffic and just go with the chaotic flow of life here.

And if any of the older tourists that you attract with your campaign are unhappy with the unordered, unpredictable rhythm of Bali life, the answer is simple. Send them to Singapore.

I’ll bet they come back.

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The ‘Express’ KITAS Renewal Process

May 20, 2012

Knowing that I could not travel for a few months, I grudgingly surrendered my passport and soon-to-be-expired KITAS to the Immigration office. Of course the usual raft of paperwork had to accompany this, including solemn written promises that I will employ Indonesian staff, that I will live in an approved tourist zone, and that I will not, under any circumstances, engage in gainful employment. Truth be told, I actually welcome this latter injunction, as it validates my choice to live a life of slothful drifting from one day to the next. In fact, I have no idea how I ever managed to fit work into my daily life before coming here.

As in previous years, I was a little worried about not having my travel documents while the tedious process of KITAS renewal dragged on for several months. One can’t travel at all without documents – not even within Indonesia, where ID is mandatory. The supposed 12-month KITAS which I pay for is not really usable for the whole year anyway. Not that that matters, because the essential Multiple Entry and Exit passport stamp is now only valid for eleven months, because the authorities have decided that they don’t like you travelling during the final month of your KITAS term …

Two years ago, it took two and a half months for the renewal process, because my documents were ‘lost’ – and then the official who had to sign off on them was ‘on leave’. Last year the process was incredibly protracted because the Immigration Office was being investigated by the anti-corruption people, during which time most of their normal work – glacially slow at the best of times – ground to a halt. Ironically, it was suggested to me that a ‘facilitation fee’ might speed up the process, but given the reasons for the low work output, I thought it best to decline.

This year, I planned, perhaps optimistically, for a eight-week turnaround. Naturally, only five days after feeding my entire legal identity into the maw of the Immigration Office, I found out at 9am on a Monday morning that I needed to travel urgently to Australia to help out a friend who had been incapacitated in an accident.

Luckily, I have an excellent agent, who immediately put in an urgent request for ‘express processing’. By 11am, I was in the Immigration Office being fingerprinted yet again, presumably because my fingerprints had changed in the intervening twelve months. I was told that processing would take about a day, so I couldn’t travel on Tuesday, but was assured that I could pick up my completed travel documents by noon on Wednesday. The nice official told me that it would be quite OK for me to book  a flight for Wednesday afternoon. The only flight I could get at short notice was via Jakarta, which meant that I had to be at the airport by 5pm on Wednesday. With Bali’s notorious traffic, I had to leave home by no later than 4pm.

But by noon on Wednesday, there is no sign of my passport or KITAS. I feign stoicism until 1pm, when I call my agent. She says my passport “is on its way and will be there this afternoon”. I begin to worry; “this afternoon” is a rubbery concept in Bali.

At 3pm, my rising stress levels making my voice rise an octave, I speak to my agent again. With insufferable calm, she says: “They’re still waiting for a signature at Imigrasi”. Ye gods. At 3:05pm, she tells me my documents will be arriving in 40 minutes. She also chooses  that moment to inform me that I need to bring 1.5 million with me for the express processing fee. Oh, wonderful. Three hours ago I discovered that my debit card has stopped working at all of the ATMs I tried, and I have just enough cash for the taxi, a humble snack and the obligatory departure tax.

At 3:45pm, not game enough to call the agent again because my voice is approaching ultrasonic frequencies, I hurtle over there on my bike. Praise be to The Great Squirrel! My passport and KITAS has just arrived! The agent apologises for the delay, explaining that, only that morning, a team of workmen had unexpectedly descended on the Immigration offices to perform ‘unscheduled maintenance’, which stopped all work. I am so speechless that I brush off her request for money and rush back home to call a taxi, finally departing for the airport, my stomach full of hydrochloric acid, a mere half an hour behind schedule. But I have my passport back!

On the way to the airport, I puzzle over my itinerary, which doesn’t tell me whether I leave from the domestic or the international terminal. The cab driver laughs. “If you transit in Jakarta, you go from domestic terminal”, he says assuredly. I am sceptical; after all, isn’t it a normal international flight with a stop-over? “No”, says the cabbie. “This is Indonesia. You go from the domestic terminal, because that way you have to pay 40,000 departure tax, and another 150,000 when you leave Jakarta.” He grins wickedly. “The government likes that.” Oh, of course. Why didn’t I think of that?

So, finally on the plane, I have time to think about how it is possible, for extra money, to get a two-day KITAS renewal instead of waiting for two months. And I realise why it normally takes that long for us normal schmucks to get one – because the full resources of the immigration department are engaged in making money from the express delivery set.

Some might think that it’s almost like a sort of, er, bribe. But when you need something done right now, and people have to make a special effort to make sure you get it – well, I reckon paying a fast-tracking facilitation fee is worth it. Despite the last-minute panic, it certainly was for me.

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A Bali Urchin’s Early Start To Unreal Expectations

May 6, 2012

The Tourist wheels into the coffee shop at a pace faster than is customary in Bali. His face, though kindly,  is flushed with a tinge of annoyance and a hint of  desperation as he takes his seat. Two steps behind him is a street urchin, stridently yelling,  face contorted and streaked with tears of pure rage and frustration. He stands with his hand outstretched, not in the usual beggar’s posture of supplication, but jabbing it repeatedly in the bemused tourist’s face while demanding, “You give me coin! You give me COIN!”

I have seen countless little Artful Dodgers here, but none so enraged or persistent as this one. He stamps his little foot repeatedly and keeps screaming, “You give me coin NOW!” Always ready to soak up the street drama in Bali, I turn in my chair to watch the theatrics. The Tourist, clearly in the wilds of Legian for the first time, is distressed, but reasonably calm. He keeps saying, “Sorry, I have no more coins”, but the agitated little fellow is convinced that he is being lied to.

The Urchin thumps the table and kicks the leg of the chair. Coffee shop staff start drifting over, ready to put a stop to the escalating crisis. Some of the local thugs that hang around the shop all day move in to see if there might be something in this dispute for them too. The Tourist doesn’t help by attempting to argue reasonably with the child, not understanding that he just needs to completely ignore stuff like this until the problem goes away of its own accord. To engage in any rational argument with anyone who unreasonably demands your time or money here is pointless. To try it with an eight-year-old is insanity.

By now The Tourist is looking decidedly uncomfortable, so I decide to help him out. Mustering all of my considerable gravitas, I interpose myself between The Urchin and The Tourist and with all the authority conferred on me by my age and size, firmly say to the kid, “Be quiet and WAIT!” The Urchin makes the barest flicker of eye-contact, during which he dismisses me as completely irrelevant, and instantly re-inserts himself in his previous position. It is a move more suited to a Fifth Dan black belt Aikido master than a snotty-nosed kid, and I am momentarily taken aback.

So to the accompaniment of the incessant shrill yells of The Urchin, I find out the cause of this uproar. It appears that two kilometres up the road, our hapless visitor was accosted by two bedraggled beggars of about the same age, both of them demanding “gold coins”. Australian $1 and $2 coins seem to hold a peculiar fascination for the under-classes here, probably because they can be melted down to make bracelets for sale at vastly inflated prices. The unfortunate visitor, only having a single $2 coin,  gave it to one of the pair (perhaps unwisely), with the injunction they they both should share it.

Naturally, the recipient of his largesse immediately grabbed the coin and fled at high speed, leaving his erstwhile ‘partner’ with nothing. Here’s where the unfathomable local psyche kicked in – instead of chasing his companion to recover his rightful share of the loot, The Urchin blamed the bule for his misfortune, loudly berating him for the entire two kilometres as he made his getaway.

By now The Urchin is incensed enough to parrot the words of the Chairman of Bali’s Tourism Board, albeit with some colourful embellishments. “Give me COIN! You stingy! You fucking STINGY!”

It starts early, doesn’t it? Sadly, the ‘you have it, I want it’ mindset is already entrenched in the very young. A staff member finally comes over and gently takes the boy by the shoulders, but he violently shrugs off the contact and elbows him in the ribs. He continues to demand ‘his’ coin – a coin that The Tourist simply does not have.

One of the watching thugs, having witnessed the whole circus, comes up to the railing next to the table. “You give him coin!” he demands. This is getting out of hand. I tell him to mind his own business and get the hell out of there. This time, my self-assumed authority seems to work, and he backs off, grumbling. The Tourist makes another unwise choice, again attempting to reason with The Urchin. “Look, here’s 10,000. It’s worth the same as a $1 gold coin. Take it and go.”

No way. The Urchin is on a roll. He slaps the money from his benefactor’s hand so it falls to the floor and screams even louder.”Coin! I want COIN!” Finally, The Tourist’s patience snaps. “OK, you don’t want the money, fine. Go. You get nothing”, and he bends down to retrieve the note.

The Urchin experiences an epiphany. A spit-second decision ensues – shall I take the 10,000, or shall I get nothing? Quick as a striking cobra, he grabs the note from the floor and bolts. Not a word of thanks , not a hint of an apology. Just a brief pause in the street for a final over-the-shoulder furious snarl, “You FUCKING STINGY!”

I turn back to the target of this juvenile vitriol to … what?  Apologise for Bali? To explain that it’s not always like this? Maybe to help educate him about Bali’s begging industry and how it marginalises women and children, and creates a cargo cult mentality that becomes enshrined in the local culture? Suggest that he be more hard-hearted when it comes to the endless requests for hand-outs?

But it’s too late. He’s paying the bill for his unfinished coffee. “I’m out of here”, he says. “Back to your hotel?”, I enquire. “No”, he says grimly. “Back home. I’ve had enough – it’s been like this for the last five days. The government calls us stingy, the kids call us stingy … bah. You can have your Bali.”

I guess he won’t be back. Sure, he could toughen up. All of us who live here have, because the constant pestering for money is part of the social landscape here in the deep South. His problem was not that he was stingy, he was too generous. And ill-equipped as he was for the realities of Bali’s street life, it still makes me sad to see a newbie depart for good.

Maybe the lesson for Bali’s authorities is that if you want quality tourists, you actually need to provide a quality destination.

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Stingy Tourists? Or Stingy Government?

April 29, 2012

The Chairman of Bali’s Tourism Board,  Ida Bagus Ngurah Wijaya, opened his mouth wide last Wednesday, and firmly inserted his foot. Annoyed that, despite the rise in total tourist numbers to Bali, visitors are now staying for only an average of three or four days instead of the seven days which was the norm ten years ago, and spend only $100 per day instead of $300, he blamed the tourists.

“Stingy tourists” are overcrowding Bali, he whinged. “When they come we have serious problems of traffic and waste. The island becomes dirty”, he said – falling headlong into the time-honoured local practice of blaming everyone else except yourself. It’s a little shocking to see officials – whose job it is to attract tourists – turn on their target market and accuse them of not being good little visitors by staying longer and spending more. It’s more than a little disconcerting to see a high-profile public official actually exhibit the same cargo-cult mentality that pervades many less sophisticated villagers here. In effect, he is saying: “You have it. We want it. Give it to us. If you don’t, you are a stingy bule.”

Well, Ngurah, you might think that, but as the voice of Bali tourism, you are not supposed to say it, because the backlash from tourists as a result of your rudeness will only result in a wider public discussion as to the real reasons that people are deserting Bali. I too was a tourist for twelve years before coming here to live. Now, as a resident for over three years, I have constant contact with ‘stingy’ tourists, and as a result of their feedback,  I am happy to summarise for you just why this trend is developing.

Look around you, Ngurah – not with the rose-coloured glasses of a local, but through the eyes of someone arriving in Bali after a long, tiring flight. What do you see?

You will see tourists paying $25 USD each for a 30-day visa-on-arrival to enter the country, and then another $16 USD each to leave. Family of four coming for only 5 days? That’s $164 USD out of the spending budget already, and no way to save money on a one-week visa, because officialdom has withdrawn the short-stay visa facility. Visiting Bali on a cruise lay-over for 6 hours? That’s $25 USD per person thanks.

You will see chaos, delays and inefficiency in a hot, overcrowded arrivals hall, with insufficient staff to handle the passenger load and a confusing queuing system.

You will see tired visitors being pounced on by “porters” at the baggage carousel and cajoled into letting them wheel their bags twenty metres to the customs desk, then stridently demanding $10 for each bag before running off to scam their next victim, as airport ‘security’ personnel stand by and grin.

You will see the monopolistic taxi counter ‘mistakenly’ ask for a rate higher than the official published rates displayed, then see their drivers try to con their passengers out of another 40,000 on arrival at their hotels and villas with a pathetic sob story, or an insistence that “this is the rule!” You will see arriving visitors quail as they face the long, long, crowded walk to their car during the chaotic and visitor-unfriendly airport reconstruction.

You will see tourists arrive at what are now grossly-overpriced and over-starred hotels, which no longer offer the ‘book 7, get 10″ incentive packages of past years, only to be told, “Sorry, your room is not ready.” Even Singapore hotels are now cheaper than those in Bali, which is no longer competitive.

You will see a proliferation of Mini-Marts in garish colours selling monstrously-overpriced items to the hapless tourist. Buy a local magazine there, published in Bahasa Indonesia, with a printed price of 25,000 rupiah on the cover, and you will be charged 55,000 when it is scanned. Shrug from the cashier. “Boss’s rules”.

You will see tourists being accosted by rude touts, women being physically man-handled by sellers who refuse to accept a polite refusal to buy their wares, stall-holders muttering thinly-veiled abuse at tourists who won’t pay four times the going rate in Bali (and twice the price in their home country) for their shoddy goods. You will see criminal money-changers short-changing gullible tourists every day, and the arrogant taxi mafia (the non-Bluebird companies) over-charging customers and threatening real taxi drivers with violence.

You will see tourists stuck in traffic for hours on Bali’s poorly-maintained roads, because no-one even considers the grid-locking consequences of allowing local drivers to park wherever they feel like. You will see suicidal motorbike riders come close to killing pedestrians with their brainless antics and causing accidents with cars, after which they shrilly demand compensation for their own stupidity.

You will see visitors to Bali try to negotiate the open drains with lids which masquerade as  ‘footpaths’ here, and injure themselves when brittle manholes collapse beneath them. You will see tourists with infants in strollers being forced to risk death by having to share the narrow roads with texting drivers and motorcyclists.

You will see tourists now being expected to pay the same prices as at home for mediocre western-style meals, and absolutely exorbitant rates for imported wine, spirits and food. Spirits in bars are frequently counterfeit local replacements and deliberate half-shots in mixed drinks are common. Despite smokers being banned in all restaurants, bars and clubs from the first of June this year, tourists can expect no relief from the constant burning of toxic plastic waste all over Bali, the carcinogenic mosquito fogging smoke and noise, or from the stinking emissions of the ubiquitous buses, trucks and illegal 2-stroke motorbikes.

You will see tourists give up on visiting the ‘cultural epicentre’ of Ubud because of traffic jams and the hundreds of huge buses clogging the town. You will see them give up on visiting far-flung temples and seeing the ‘real’ Bali, because it’s all too hard, and now too expensive. Eventually, you will see them avoiding the immense, noisy, polluted construction zone that is South Bali altogether.

You will see tourists recoil from the stinking piles of garbage on the beaches, on the streets and in the ‘rivers’. Where garbage is collected, it ends up in make-shift tips anywhere the collectors choose to dump it. Just have a look at the huge rat and snake-infested mountain of refuse dumped opposite villa developments in Legian, just off Jalan Nakula; have a look at the environmentally-disastrous heap of rubbish at the entrance to the Mangrove Park.

You will see tourists cautious of potentially rabies-infected dogs, scared of contracting Dengue fever from the incessant mosquitoes, wary of getting Legionnaires disease from poorly-maintained air-conditioners, and amazed that nothing is being done about electricity outages and Bali’s looming water shortage. They are worried about increasing crime and a police force that does nothing without money up-front.

And what does the Tourism Board do to make Bali a more attractive destination for visitors? Nothing. It blames the “stingy tourists”. Wow. What diplomacy, what amazing sensitivity. What a truly stupid, irresponsible thing to say.

Well, Ida Bagus Ngurah Wijaya, I have news for you. Tourists have been coming to Bali for decades because it has a special sort of magic. The magic is still there, but it is now being countered by a not-so-special sort of opportunism and greed, over-development, collapsing infrastructure, and an arrogant belief that tourists will keep coming, no matter what.

They won’t. They have already stopped coming; and those who do still come, are spending less. Tourists are changing the Bali paradigm, not because they are “stingy”, but because they are driven by the concept of value for money. And frankly, Bali simply does not provide value for money any more.

The question for you, sir, is what will you and your cohorts in government do to change this?

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When Security Sanctions Sabotage Smooth Sending

April 14, 2012

My guests have left;  the last minute rush to collect belongings before they head off to the airport is over, and peace once more descends upon the villa. All nooks and crannies where overlooked items might lurk have been reluctantly scrutinised by the temporarily-resident Teenager (as requested by his mother) and declared, “like, totally empty” by the exasperated youth, who appears to find the whole notion of double-checking to be completely redundant

“Are you sure you’ve checked that you have everything?” his mum asks, which is the trigger for the obligatory teenage eye-roll and an expressive and prolonged “Maaah-a-um!!!”, a wail which first descends, then rises in pitch. This is apparently teenage verbal shorthand for “I just can’t believe that I am fourteen years old and you still don’t trust me to do the right thing and you’re implying that I’m a moron who can’t do anything right and I can’t BELIEVE you’re picking on me like this!”

So it’s half an hour before my guests are due to fly out, and I’m quietly relaxing in the villa when the phone rings. Not my phone, mind you – The Teenager’s phone. It’s sitting on the table, vibrating and emitting all kinds of bright colours and complex sounds, as expensive smartphones are wont to do. “Yeah, I know, I left my phone. My bad. Anyway, it’s not my fault; it’s the same colour as your table.” Having established that the responsibility for his misplaced phone is purely mine because of my inconsiderate choice of furniture, he calmly requests that I nip over to the airport and return it.

My bemused explanation that he has already passed through passport control, and is actually in the departure lounge, and that his plane leaves in twenty minutes, and that it will take me thirty minutes to even get to the airport is met with disbelieving silence. He is massively disgruntled. I am philosophical – to me it’s just a phone; to him, it’s a digital lifeline to his friends. “And it has all my contacts!” he moans.

Next morning, I discover that his idea of ‘scrutinising’ his room at the villa does not extend to checking power-points, where the power supply for his mum’s computer is still plugged in. He apparently ‘borrowed’  it for a late-night Facebook session and ‘forgot’ to put it back. Sigh.

I stay philosophical. I would have been happy to eventually send the phone to him (after a suitable delay in the interests of a good dose of Adlerian consequential punishment), but I can’t leave his mother with a rapidly-depleting battery for her work laptop. I call DHL, the international courier service, who tell me to package the items securely and bring the parcel to their office. Fortunately, their branch office is only minutes away.

An hour later, after modifying a cardboard box, wrapping the bits and pieces in bubble-wrap, securing the box with gaffer tape, wrapping the whole shebang in brown paper and vast quantities of sticky tape, I present myself at the Legian DHL office.

“You have wrapped the parcel”, says the chap on the counter, frowning. I agree, I have wrapped the parcel. “You must open it now so we can see what is inside.” I stare at him. “But you told me to package it securely!” I protest. “Yes. Easier for you to carry”, is his response.

Fortunately, I don’t open it before telling him it contains a phone and power supply, which turn out to be items apparently equivalent to the devil’s spawn, and which can not be accepted by them under any circumstances. He explains that it has to be taken to their head office, for an exorcism, or “security checks”, or some-such nonsense. Head office happens to be located at the airport, in the cargo road side street off the main terminal road. I am rapidly losing my calm, philosophical demeanour.

Forty minutes later, having fought my way through traffic, I arrive at the aforementioned cargo road. But it is no longer open, being blocked off by a large set of  corrugated iron gates and various ominous-looking notices. Feeling a tad snarly, I ride into the forbidden area anyway, to be immediately surrounded by a phalanx of security guards who eye my little brown paper parcel with deep suspicion. I explain my mission, but they insist that I can not enter this area, even though my ultimate destination is only one hundred metres up the street, which is ‘closed’ despite being visibly open.

The guards wave me back the way I came. I request explicit directions to the DHL office, and their response is more arm-waving and an elliptical “follow the road”. Thanks guys, I’d figured that part out for myself. I am nothing if not resourceful.

So I follow the road and end up at the entrance to the airport itself, where an amused security chap tells me that I have missed a small gang off the main airport drive, which leads to the cargo road I am seeking. I tell him that I didn’t see any signs. “No, no – there are no signs!” he laughs. I feel like assuming a foetal position on my bike, rocking gently and sucking my thumb, but I resist the urge to be immature about this.

“How do people find businesses on the cargo road if there are no signs? I want DHL, but that’s where the main Immigration Office, all the cargo shippers and the police station are as well”, I whinge plaintively. He laughs again. “They don’t!” he says with a cackle. “They all end up here!” He then informs me that to get back to the invisible lane, I have to go back through Tuban and circle around for another attempt. I calculate that will take about twenty minutes, or forty if I miss the damn thing again. I go home instead.

On the way, I fulminate about the madness of an airport reconstruction project that is so chaotic and badly-planned that not only do people have to spend extra time navigating an incomprehensible, unsignposted traffic layout just to make their flights, but that makes surrounding businesses become almost inaccessible. I grizzle to myself about visitors who leave things behind in a place where simple problems morph into bigger problems while one is trying to fix them.

I conclude, bad-tempered, nasty person that I am, that I don’t really care that someone needs their phone or computer urgently, and resolve to send the forgotten bits in my own time, and only when I am good and ready. Besides, people are way too reliant on their computers anyway – let them suffer; why should I put myself out anyway?

So after a total of two hours in hot traffic, I finally get home – only to find that my laptop battery has inexplicably died, and my power supply is overheating. Oh no! My laptop! My life!

Karma can be a real bitch sometimes.

 

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Oleh-Oleh – Obligation Or Obsession?

August 7, 2011

Within minutes of arriving back in Bali after a short trip overseas, I am greeted with an astonishing display of affection from Indonesian friends. Complete strangers too. This is nice, I think – until I realise that they are not saying “Hello!”, or “Welcome back”, or “I have missed you so much”, or any of the standard clichés. Faces aglow with expectation, they are all chanting the same mantra “Oleh-oleh? Oleh-oleh?”

This translates roughly into “Where’s my present?” The first time it happened, I was a little nonplussed. After all, with our Western sensibilities, it is only children who cut to the chase so directly. But in Indonesia, it is part of the culture that returning travellers bring home oleh-oleh –  small gifts for those returning from work or holidays in far-off places. It is almost an insult to come back empty-handed. The practice is not unique to Indonesia either, being well-established in some European cultures as well. The equivalent term in Lithuania is lauktuves, a word that translates loosely as ‘a gift bestowed on family and friends as a reward for waiting patiently for a traveller to return’.

But in Bali, this cultural obligation seems to have morphed over time. Once, the expectation was that oleh-oleh would be produce, such as fresh fruit, specialty cakes and biscuits which were not normally available locally. Sometimes exotic trinkets or souvenirs from abroad would achieve the same purpose. Now, the practice seems to turning into a mini cargo cult of biblical proportions.

One problem is the unshakeable conviction amongst locals that we bules have unlimited amounts of disposable income with which to buy gifts. Another is the belief that we have unrestricted time to shop while overseas. Yet another is that we have the power to influence customs and quarantine officials to waive regulations on transportation of food. The most recent article of faith is that we can blithely bring an extra suitcase, stuffed with all manner of oleh-oleh goodies, without incurring the wrath of the stern guardians of the luggage check-in counters at airports.

Even before I leave Bali, I am deluged with requests – and that’s just from my household help.
“You bring me oleh-oleh, ya?”
“Ya”, I reply non-committally. Apparently that’s not good enough. I am encouraged to be more specific as to both type of gift, its provenance, brand and quantity.
“You bring me nail polish?”
“OK”, I say. Oops. That opens the door to Pandora’s Request Box.
“Cutex. Red and blue. And polish-take-off thing.” I assume she means nail polish remover, not an aircraft from Warsaw.
“Ya, OK, but …”
“… and chocolate, and hair clips, and swimming things.” I ascertain she means those upper arm floatie things to prevent non-swimming children from drowning.

I manage to stop the tirade of ‘requests’ before they escalate to laptops, Blackberries and iPads, and explain that I will have limited opportunities for shopping and that I have about twelve other people who must also be looked after. I wriggle out of making a firm promise as to what I will bring back with me, reducing it to a ‘maybe yes, maybe no’. The reaction is  much like that of the USA when Standard & Poor’s downgrades them to an AA rating – disappointed and a little bit pouty.

So when I do get back, somehow having managed to pick up a few little gifts for acquaintances in between a hectic work schedule, I discover that the response from the many recipients of my largesse is a little underwhelming. One accepts a proffered gift casually and says, “Is that all?” Another, when told to select one item from a bag of similar gifts intended for others, paws through the lot and says, “I want five. I have three sisters and one brother.” I am tempted to point out that her parents’ fecundity is not really my concern, but I wisely refrain. Yet another complains about the block of chocolate on offer, plaintively asking, “Don’t you have Toblerone?”

The core of the problem seems to be that expectations have risen to unrealistic levels. No longer are a few biscuits and sweets the preferred currency of oleh-oleh. Now, at least amongst those of the female persuasion here, I am reliably informed that expected gifts include jewellery, duty-free perfume and items of intimate apparel. I wouldn’t even buy that stuff for a wife or intimate personal companion (which sheds some light on why I don’t have either, I guess), much less casual acquaintances and employed staff. And the men, once happy with a simple key fob, now look forlorn if they don’t get Swiss Army knives and power tools.

Even friends of friends flock around after one of my trips – people I don’t even know – and stare expectantly at me, waiting for manna to fall from heaven. It’s my fault of course; I let it slip that I will be travelling, and of course, that sets the scene for the hordes to gather on my return like Doctor fish around flaky ankles.

Next time, I will tell no-one I am going, especially not the cheerfully expectant staff at my local eateries, watering holes and beach warungs. I will tell my own staff that I am decompressing in Amed, or somewhere else local – anywhere without shops. When I return, if people ask where I’ve been, I will lie shamelessly and assert that I have been in hospital with Typhus, or Dengue Fever, or a particularly virulent strain of Bule ennui.

Maybe they’ll feel sorry for me and buy me a present.

h1

The Great Bali Airport Bottleneck

August 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.