July 15, 2010

Bowels of a Beast

I had a simple enough task to accomplish today. I was to go to the cargo area at the airport in Jakarta. Please understand that I have traveled enough to understand that anytime you are forced to deal with any kind of bureaucracy, whether in a developing country, or our more esteemed developed countries, you should brace for the worst. I have dealt with the immigration offices of Mozambique, the airport in Angola, and the New York City Board of Ed. I have bathed in inefficiency and come out filthy. Experience has taught me to bring a book, plenty of identification, and ample stores of patience and understanding. It goes without saying that the Buddha himself would no doubt leave a situation like the one I had today with a taste for blood, but what else can one do but grin and bear it. After all if one looks at every situation as a possible story to tell then nothing truly ever bad happens.

I have learned during my brief stay in Indonesia that everything costs money. Not in the traditional sense that you buy a good or pay for a service rendered, but in a way that the money trickles from your hand. Everyone wants to “help” you and then expects that you pay them an undisclosed amount upon completion of said services. Put simply, it is a guessing game with nefarious rules and what feel like hidden agendas.

Perhaps, I am being too harsh. The reality looks more like this: Everybody is trying to get a piece of the action. They are not necessarily trying cheat you out of money, not in the sense we are accustomed to, no it is more of gentle familiarity. Everyone is your new friend, and friends help friends, but since we just met a tip would be appreciated, and if you can’t or won’t tip then maybe we really aren’t friends, so maybe I won’t help you get what you need. It is as if the cast members are all saying, “look man, you are bringing in four suitcases worth of baby clothes and shampoos, my kid barely has two outfits, let me snack a bit on what you’re feasting on.” At the end of the day who can blame them?

The cargo area at the Jakarta airport is like an ant colony on crack. It bustles and jives with a pace that is incomprehensible. Stacks of goods and cargo move up and down, right and left like life size Tetris pieces. Maneuvered and controlled by an army of forklift operators, captains, swindlers, and brutes. It is a scene straight out of a Steinbeck novel.

From the second I made contact with this group of actors I was swept away and quickly lost control. A more experienced director may have known how to reign in the situation at the very beginning, but I was green and unfamiliar. The wind was pushing me about, but it would be naïve to say I was sailing. They saw me coming before I even left the car.

After asking the security guard if we were in the right place, I was told to wait. A short man wearing a mustache that bespoke of third world authority looked at me and nodded in the universal language of gestures to follow him. It is truly astounding how much of the world’s business can be accomplished with the sole use of body language. I am constantly impressed by our ability as primates to control our environments as well as we do, despite the fact that we seldom really understand each other.

We moved quickly and with purpose. Dodging troops of small tanned men carrying loads no Westerner has ever been asked to carry. Being a card carrying “first-worlder” has its perks. A quick tap on a window and we were joined by another man, who strangely looked like an Indonesian version of Mike Tyson, minus the face tattoo of course. Short, stocking and with eyes that were squinting and nervous, as well as calming and kind. Suddenly our entourage was three and just as quickly we were four! We had mysteriously picked up a third man. His eyes were silver with cataract, but his calm voice and reassuring demeanor and grasp of English later proved his value. The newly assembled team obviously answered to the first man who had met me at the gate. He strutted about the place like the cock-of-walk, patting people on the back, ordering large machinery out of the way, and graciously accepting one salute after another. I was certain he was in charge as he commandeered by airway bill and other documents to start the first step of what would eventually prove to be an exhaustive and never ending process of liberating my four suitcases from the clutches of the bureaucratic beast.

Smile here. Sign there. Stamp. Follow. Sit. Smile. Sign. Tell them your passport is at immigration. “But that is the truth. That is where my passport is.” No matter. Sit. Sign. Smile. Follow us. Stamp. Stamp. Stamp. This is going very smoothly I thought. I should be out of here in no time. A series of duplicated forms were erratically stapled in what can only be described as a dossier. We had given birth to a quickly growing stack of signed, stamped papers, which were all placed in a green folder and ready for stage two. Customs.

Suddenly our peacock captain hit his ceiling. The same man who had just moments ago held the strings of the puppet show firmly in his hands revealed that he too had scars on his shoulders from the next tier of ring leaders. He now nervously smoked one cigarette after another waiting to see how his higher ups would play their hand. Now that it is all said and done, I am sure he was wondering how much in “fees” this tier of the circus would take from me. For whatever I had to pay at customs would be less for him and his crew.

Let’s take a short break from our tale for a look at the inner workings of my mind at this stage. What is the difference between an accepted fee and a bribe? One could easily go to a “respected” business and be told that they have to pay a variety of fees. For example, you must $80 dollars for a new US passport, but if asked by a guy to pay a little for his troubles, we suddenly take offense and call it corruption. After all these guys were performing a service for me. I knew the whole time they would demand payment. I guess the issue is that with a fee you know up front what you are expected to pay, and so you feel somewhat in control. “$80 for a new passport that is outrageous,” you grumble but pay nonetheless, but when you do not know how much you will pay you feel helpless. This is the sting of corruption. It is not about money it is about power. And when person A wants something from person B and is not sure what it will take to get said object, person A feels weak and powerless. That is how I was beginning to feel, as I began to see the scope of how any people would need to be paid before this was all said and done.

At this moment, our fearless leader knew that the customs official could demand anything from me and I would have to pay, thus negating all the hard work he and his gang had put in so far. Ironically, the customs official did now ask me for anything. Yet.

Smile here. Sign there. Stamp. Follow. Sit. Smile. Sign. Tell them your passport is at immigration. “But that is the truth. That is where my passport is.” No matter. Sit. Sign. Smile. Follow us. Stamp. Stamp. Stamp. This is going very smoothly I thought. I should be out of here in no time. The dossier grew.

We were ready to enter the actual bowels of the beast. The four us snaked our way through the loading docks and into the cargo warehouse. Our leader had regained his confidence and smoked his cigarette with a reborn coolness and poise that would have been impressive had I not just moments ago saw him cowering in the corner like a beaten puppy. Before we entered the warehouse, I noticed the slow moving bulbous clouds and various shrubs and shades of green growing out of every inch of exposed soil I which thy were allowed.

I though of this land hundreds of years ago. This fertile island blanketed by a lush rainforest must have been something extraordinary. What had we done to it? Is this it? I thought. The legacy of our species is to have transformed a languid, luxuriant, lazy lifestyle into this? We have torn down acres of forest, destroying our only connection to our planet, shifted our priorities so we can move goods around the planet? Establishing incestuous hierarchies and pecking orders, just so we can move things from one place to another. Things we don’t even need. I thought about the amount of oil being used not only to create these things but also used to power the machines that raised and lowered them from the machines that would bring them to our lives. It all seemed so empty and futile. So ridiculous. I wanted to stop the entire process and tell the people to go back to their homes. Forget about this stuff, but I knew that it was now beyond anyone’s control. The market demanded a pound of flesh from each of us, and we would pay whether we liked it or not. But that was outside. We were inside the hive now. I am not sure how much time had elapsed since we started this adventure, but I had yet to even see my suitcases.

Smile here. Sign there. Stamp. Follow. Sit. Smile. Sign. Tell them your passport is at immigration. “But that is the truth. That is where my passport is.” No matter. Sit. Sign. Smile. Follow us. Stamp. Stamp. Stamp. Wait. This was going to take much longer than I could have ever imagined.

Then like a group of molested refuges I saw my suitcases making their way to the cage where they would be examined by another set of customs officials. They looked tired and abused. Both the men and the luggage had lost their original shapes and now looked like deflated balloons from some hysterical parade celebrating progress. They had made their way through the bowels of the international cargo racket, and now, lying on a wooden crate had ended up here in the toilet. I dreaded what it would look like inside, but like a scientist searching through scat we began the dissection.

Midnight Express, The Queen of Bali, scenes from every movie about drug trafficking that I had ever heard of raced through my mind; I envisioned myself no longer the pet of the mustachioed captain who had taken a shine to me, but rather his prisoner. What if he had people working on the inside and had somehow planted a few kilograms of narcotics in my bag? After denying possession of such contraband materials, I would be asked to pay a “fee” or spend the rest of my days rotting in a cell under his supervision, being constantly reminded of the betrayal to our friendship. The thought was so terrifying, that I quickly took up my book, The Great Gatsby and followed the trial and tribulations of James Gatz and his crew instead.

Back in the cage everything in the middle of the suitcases was damp. No wet. Soaking wet. The clothes that we had spent so much time, money, and energy shipping half way across the world looked as if they had been used to mop up some mess. “Everything is wet.” I said to no one in particular. And in appropriate fashion no one responded. Everyone just looked at me. There eyes were saying, “Really? These clothes? This is what you are spending so much time, energy, and money on?” I shrugged, but no one noticed. The bags were zipped up and I was told to wait. The man with the silver eyes snatched the newly stamped folder and darted down a narrow corridor. Wait. I found it ironic that these clothes had probably been made in some sweat shop around the corner, been flown to some store in the US where my mother-in-law had purchased them then sent to Qatar, and now they had made it back home. Full circle.

Mairin called and asked how it was going. “I should be out of here in about 20 minutes. So far so good.” Silver eyes returned and said we had to go back to the customs office. “But we are in the customs office.” This is the warehouse office I was told. Before we left however it was time to discuss the fee. Their fee. The fee and their fee. I was told that I would have to spend $80 on storage fees. I asked to see any documentation that said this storage fee was legit. I knew they were lying, but I didn’t know what to do. We had all invested so much in this relationship. We’d shared a soda, broken conversations, and the last two hours of our lives. If I refused to pay, what would happen? Where would I go? Who would help me if not these men? I could see the light at the end of the tunnel and I knew that this was the team that would get me there. I swallowed my pride and said, “Okay, what else?” Through a series of smiles, shrugs, and miscommunications, I was coaxed into believing that this was standard operating procedure. I was still listening. Then they conferred with themselves. Made calculations.

How much do you think we can get from him? He went for the storage bullshit pretty quick. He must be loaded. Did you see how many pairs of baby were in that suitcase? He must be made of money. I say we go for broke and ask for two million? (that is roughly $200) No way, he looks smarter than that. We will lose him. Pull him in slowly. I say 1.7. That is too high. Give him room to negotiate.

You will pay us 1.4 million, which includes the storage fee. And we will load everything in your car. Check, check, check and he gave me a high five. I had come with one million expecting to pay the equivalent $100. I told them this. They smiled. They looked at each other. They conferred. We shook hands. Everyone was happy.

I knew I wasn’t going to make it out of this machine on my own. I had anticipated paying someone something to make sure I would leave with my four suitcases. Back to the difference between fees and bribes. If I had been told when I arrived that I would have to pay a fee of $100, I would have grumbled, but would not have felt like I was being duped. But knowing that this gang had sized me up and decided an amount they could squeeze from me was disheartening. The $40 for their help filling out forms was absolutely acceptable, but the bullshit about the storage fees was just greedy. Perhaps in a few months, I will be more experienced and my Bahasa will have improved so I can argue my case more aggressively. I could have won that fight with a little experience behind me.

Believe it or, we were sent back to the customs officials office, for another round of smile, sign, wait, stamp. I was now like a prized show dog, being walked on an invisible leash. I was asked to pay another $50 for taxes, but after some shaking of hands and gestures of empty pockets, the taxes somehow disappeared. I was cleaned dry and everyone knew it. This latest office had come to the trough to late and were left empty handed. The leader of our team smile triumphantly as we exited the office. His dog had won and he had been paid.

I know this is must be a repetitive nightmare to read. Believe me, it is a chore to document as well, but living it was even worse. Yes, reader, I was asked to go back to the warehouse and wait on the loading dock for my cargo to finally be delivered to my waiting car. I had finished The Great Gatsby at this point, so I let my mind wander one last time.

This experience would make a great school field trip I thought. The entire day would be a great lesson. Many of the students I teach live in such a bubble, that a glimpse into the bowels of modern goods transportation would be an eye opening experience for them. At school, we celebrate group work in artificial settings, so why not have a group of students come to the cargo office at a major airport and try to retrieve some baggage? See how they deal with stress, patience, cultural understandings, morality, racism, and class. Let them see what goes on in order for them to get their cheap goods onto the shelves. You can show them The Story of Stuff, or you can bring them to the docks and let them watch the sweat fall of the brow of the army of men who haul these goods from plane to truck. You can tech them about political structures or you can simply let them watch the pecking order in real life. This is to say nothing of the poetry and films that can be created in environments like this.

I was given a pat on the back and we shared a final round of handshakes. I genuinely thanked these men, because although I may have been cheated, I felt that we all got what we deserved in the end. I was not yet experienced enough to navigate this maze on my own. I needed their help. I could appreciate the fact that they saw me coming and carefully masterminded their graft for the day.

After all this and another hour and half long ride in traffic home, the suitcases arrived and where met with frustration and anger. Mairin was not happy that everything was wet, but I was too exhausted to offer consolation. She threatened to write an angry email to the airline, but all I could do was smile inside. What happened to these bags was a far more complicated process than any email could solve. The men responsible for this mess had nothing to do with emails.

Now that this post is finished, I hope that I did not create a biased or harsh portrait of Indonesians. So many times, expatriates see locals in a certain light and forget that many of the traits we judge can be found in our own societies. I suggest viewing season two of The Wire for a look at cargo corruption on a much larger scale. I also want to add that most of the people I have met in the first two weeks I have been in Jakarta, have been more that kind and generous. So far, I find Jakarta to be a chaotic yet warm place. The people go out of their way to meet you and help. Yes, sometimes they me demand a “fee” but more often than not they are simply happy to meet you and want to show their kindness and hospitality.


  1. This is yet another awesome peice-- if it wouldn't be missed so much, I would advise you to close down your blog and publish your travel adventures in a book-- but I won't because it is hilarious to read.

    I can completely relate to your cargo/anthill on crack analogy. Everything in Bangkok seems that way-- especially the airport.

    Thanks for sharing!

    Ps. I finally got to meet Chamberlain! It was cool to speak face to face, he is a very expressive person-- you know you have said too much or disagreeable just by looking at his eyebrows. I wish it were possible to see expressions through text-- you would get a hoot out of him for sure.

  2. "After all if one looks at every situation as a possible story to tell then nothing truly ever bad happens."

    You must have a great many stories from Doha! lol