To bribe, or not to bribe

As if our troubles on the way to Malaysia this month weren’t enough, our next leg of our Asia tour was even more fun.

We arrived in Jakarta Saturday night the 24th and had to pass through the same two hoops as a week earlier on our way through to Malaysia: buying a visa, and passport control. Since the lines had been so slow the last time, I sent Diana and the kids on ahead to the passport line while I got the visas. But there was a small problem with Kerith’s passport – it had no more free pages in it that were usable for visas. The agent directed me to follow him to another agent, who led me into a holding room. I was too far away from Diana to explain what was going on, but I just told her, and I believed, that it was a minor matter that they just had to figure out how to resolve. I motioned for her to just stay in line, and let one person at a time go ahead of her so she would always be in front.

The officer (by the name of Rizky) came and sat with me and asked if I understood the situation. His next question set us on a bad start: was it OK if they just left Kerith outside Indonesia? Hardly, I explained; we’re talking about a little boy, and we’re talking about a 2 week visit.

The problem was that when Russian immigration officials had given him his residency permit (which is written by hand), they messed his up, and so they just wrote through it MISTAKE, and started over on another page. So he had fewer pages than the other kids. I carefully explained that he could just cover that page, or he was welcome to use another pages dedicated to endorsements (whatever that is) which we never use. Well, neither of those options suited him, as he could (apparently) get in big trouble for using the wrong page. Who would get him in trouble seemed to change. At first, it was Russia. I laughed at the thought and carefully explained that they would never look for a page that didn’t need to exist. Then he said that the US could come back and complain (I knocked that one down too), but he settled on Indonesia as his final answer. He could get in trouble with them (who, his supervisors?) if they saw that he used the wrong page. And the fine for such a thing would be over $2500 (25,000,000RP).

I saw where this was going, so I started playing dumb and slowing things down as much as possible. Ironically, although Russia is considered among the most corrupt countries in the world, I have never experienced the option of solving my problems through bribery there, so I was flying by the seat of my pants.

Rizky: I am taking a big chance here, but I can help you if you help me.
Me: I sure don’t want you to get in trouble. What can I do to help protect you?
Rizky: I can talk to my supervisor if you can give me some money.
Me: Money? I have no money.
R: We have an ATM.
Me: Maybe we can write a letter together?
R: Need money. Don’t you understand?
Me: No, I don’t. (I go into all the options for stamping the passport again.)
R: (slowly going through the passport again. I can tell he is wavering. This is becoming too much work, and I’m a pretty sad case. I pray feverishly for God to open that door wider) It’s too risky.
Me: (wondering what happens to the risk in the presence of money) How much are we talking? You need $2500?
R: No, just enough to make agreement with my supervisor.
Me: How much?
R: You agree, and I go talk numbers with him.
Me: (starting to falter) Is $100 enough?
R: That’s not even close.
Me: (looking pained, troubled, and confused)
R: You don’t understand?
Me: No.
R: I don’t understand either (implied: I don’t understand why you are such an idiot that you don’t get what I’m trying to do here.)
[Supervisor steps in.]
S: Is it our problem that you didn’t check your passport before coming here?
Me: You changed your laws, and none of my contacts knew about it, so we had to get another visa last week for a 5 hour stay.
S: That’s not my problem. Look, none of us will have any problems if we just let you all leave the country.
Me: Let me talk with my wife (I’ve kept her in line all this time, not wanting to have to stress her out over this, but I don’t see an out yet.)
R: You need your wife’s approval to spend money?
Me: We do everything by agreement.
R: You can’t do this without her?
Me: No can do. Let me bring her in.
R: OK.

Diana decides to bring all the kids in and leave the line. She tells him about the person here to pick us up. He perks up at the knowledge that she is Indonesian, so he gives us his phone. We get Memey, our main contact person, on the phone, who starts to negotiate with Rizky. A ray of hope. They agree to have Lita, the one there to pick us up, come talk with him. Honestly, I don’t think I could have done this without Diana’s strength. She was amazingly placid and determined to see this through.

For some reason, this takes another 20 minutes. Meanwhile, Rizky has nothing better to do, and he starts playing Connect 4 with Simon. The Supervisor comes in and brings us all water and offers to buy us food. He comes back later with hot dogs and fries for all the kids. Bizarre. I step into the adjacent room to pray. Whereas the holding room we were in was small with chair railing covered in burns from cigarettes, this room is much larger, dim, and empty, except for a desk and portraits of the President and Vice-Presidents of Indonesia. My prayer was essentially this:

“All authority belongs to you, Lord, so these guys ultimately answer to you. I want to preserve integrity in this situation, rather than playing into their scheme, but I have no idea how, so I’ll just rely on Your authority to resolve this.”

The Presidents didn’t seem to mind me there, but Lydia was afraid because I was praying loudly, and she didn’t want any bugs to pick it up, so I agreed to take my prayers undercover.

Finally, Lita arrives. For some reason, she knows nothing of Memey’s negotiations, so we are back to square one, and she doesn’t get very far. Diana has the idea of calling the US Embassy, and not only does she have the number on her, but she actually gets a real person. It’s Saturday at 9:30pm.

I explained to John, the on-duty guy, the situation, and he asked to speak to Rizky. The pohone changed hands several times, and along the way I found out that John actually had never heard of this happening and had no idea what to do. All he could say was, ‘If this guy is trying to shake you down, then we have an issue here. I’ll be sure to look him up on Monday.” I eventually suggested that John give him the authority, from the US government, to put the visa on the endorsement page (which I have since learned doesn’t have to be a big deal). John’s response was, “hey, whatever I can do to be of help.” I passed the phone one last time, and they struck a deal. Both took down each other’s contact information to hold them accountable.

They took Diana and I into their war room and photographed and fingerprinted each of us. Rizky then gave us a warning about taking care of this problem and not doing this to them again. I responded graciously, adding, “That would be risky for Rizky, wouldn’t it?” He smiled.

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3 thoughts on “To bribe, or not to bribe

  1. I could hardly believe that this trip could have been "even more fun" than your last one! Tickets and baggage is one thing, corruption is another. Good thing you didn't have another plane to catch!

  2. What a great post. I'm so sorry you had to deal with this, but it sounds like such a classic situation. I'm glad you can keep your sense of humor. We look forward to seeing you here in Russia. Greetings to all —

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