Before I left for Malaysia, a friend of mine lent me “Eat Pray Love,” a memoir about a woman who spent a year traveling across Italy, India and Bali in search of love and balance. The book really hit me. I won’t credit Elizabeth Gilbert with inspiring me to travel, but instead, I found an intensely familiar voice with whom I could relate. Though Elizabeth Gilbert was in her early 30s and overcoming a messy divorce, her outlook on the world, her passions and her struggles felt so close to mine, and I felt a real connection with her.
So when I decided to move to Southeast Asia, Bali quickly neared the top of my list of places to see before I returned home. Bali was what inspired Elizabeth Gilbert to take her journey in the first place, an island she described as an exotic, enchanting paradise where everyone is joyful and at peace. If Liz loves it, I’ll love it, right?
But during the six days I spent on the Indonesian island, “balanced” and “peaceful” were not the words I would have used to describe my time there. I’m still not sure why, but something about the island really threw me off. Though beautiful, Bali is EXTREMELY touristy, and often quite obnoxiously so. Hotspots Ubud and Kuta, where we spent most of our time, are completely commercialized and you can’t walk more than two feet without being harassed by someone offering you a massage or a taxi (most of the “taxis” aren’t authorized, just random locals looking to make money by driving tourists around). Every other day I was either completely hating or completely loving the place and constantly feeling like I never quite had a grip on things.
Perhaps the deportation of a fellow traveler and my own near deportation set the tone for the rest of the week.
Before making the trip, I had read in Wikitravel that you need at least two empty pages in your passport for the Indonesian visa on arrival. Though my passport is nearly full at this point, I still had the back flap and its opposing page blank, and since the Indonesian visa is relatively small, I figured I’d be ok. So as I stood at the immigration counter, bright-eyed, energetic, looking forward to “paradise,” imagine my surprise when the creepy immigration officers pulled me into the detention room to tell me they needed to send me back to Malaysia to apply for a new passport. WTF?!
They insisted that the remaining “Amendments and Endorsements” page in my American passport was not suitable for a visa (though an “Amendments and Endorsements” page had been good enough for a Vietnam visa…) and that I could simply go back to Malaysia, apply for a new passport and come back. No big deal, right? Since I had read that section of Wikipedia, I wasn’t sure if they were telling the truth or not. However, since I had also read “Eat Pray Love,” I knew they were corrupt. After all the planning and anticipation and standing on the brink of paradise, I was not about to go back. So I asked them if there was anything I could do to change their minds…
The immigration officer then asked me, “If I let you through, what will you do to show me your appreciation?”
SAY WHAT?! I couldn’t believe I was being asked for sexual favors to get into a country!
Though completely disgusted, I asked very calmly how much it would cost for me to stay in Bali, making it very clear the only “appreciation” I would be showing him was in monetary terms. After some negotiation, I agreed to pay him $150 to let me stay.
After that little transaction, I felt kind of dirty, though partially grateful I could buy my way into a country if my passport really wasn’t valid, and I just wanted to get of there. It wasn’t until I found out my Malaysian Chinese friend Dick had also been detained, that I got really pissed off.
As a Malaysian, Dick didn’t need a visa to get into Indonesia. However, since his passport had accidentally been through the washing machine, the immigration officials said it wasn’t valid (side note: the washed up passport had been good enough to get into Singapore on a previous occasion). His options were to go back home to get a new one or pay a bribe to stay. Though Dick wanted to return on principle, I urged him to just pay the $150 to stay since we had already made plans for the week. When he went to ask to pay, they told him it would cost $300! When he asked for a lower price in Bahasa (The Malay and Indonesian languages are very similar), the official promptly responded in English, “This is not a market, sir!”
So Dick went back to Malaysia, and our week started with one man down. :(. Welcome to Indonesia.