Longform: Indonesian Dungeons (and Dragons) — Part 2

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This is the second dispatch in a three-part series. Start with Part 1 and find out what happens in Part 3.


DAY TWO IN THE JAKARTAN BEHEMOTH involved dizzying circular visits to Immigration, the Indonesian Institute for Sciences, and the dreaded Sosial-Politik (Sospol) ministry. The latter we nicknamed “Cesspool,” both for the comportment of its bureaucrats and the hopeless fate of necessary documents.

Clutching my phrasebook, dictionary, and hard candies (gifts, not bribes, for helpful office workers) and tiny photo-booth portraits of myself, I navigated a maze of corridors, staircases, and buildings. I found myself going right back down the same stairs I just climbed, or descending farther into dank basements, down unmarked hallways, and around blind corners: into the bowels of the Cesspool.

I was caught in the Indonesian version of Dungeons & Dragons, where I had to magically procure various passkeys to progress to the next level of demonic attacks. Missing one sheet of paper, one photo of a specific dimension, one official stamp, one signature, or – heaven forbid! – a flimsy cardboard folder of a particular hue (banal blue, grim green, yucky yellow), was enough to bring the entire process to a grinding halt.

I dreaded this specificity, not just because it represented a momentary setback — it was an abject failure. My hard-won successes meant nothing if I didn’t have exactly the right thingy-ma-bob clutched in my hand. At each impasse my shoulders slumped dejectedly, sinking into the stain-ridden, cigarette-butted floor, thingy-ma-bob-less and despondent, while the relevant official stared implacably into my face and repeated, “tidak bisa tanpa… I can’t do it without…” whatever the damn thing was. Resistance was futile.


The timeworn joke — How many Indonesian government staff does it take to change a light bulb? — flitted through my head.


After much trial-and-error I developed my own express-lane technique for surviving the bureaucratic gauntlet. First I dressed very, very nicely. No casual academic outfits; hostile territory required the appropriate disguise (armor?): a formal, buttoned-to-the-collar, newly pressed blouse; a modestly hemmed skirt; freshly polished dress-up shoes; carefully styled hair; impeccable manicure; and jewelry on all visible appendages.

donuts ed

Before heading over to my first stop, I picked up a box of Dunkin’ Donuts, and handed it over to the person stationed at the document request window. In cheerful and ultra-polite Indonesian, I purred: Selamat siang. Good day. I know you fine people are terribly busy, and have many important things to do. If I may have a teensy moment of your time, I would be so appreciative of whatever help you could provide. It just so happens I need Form Blah-Blah rather quickly – I’m sure you’re aware of the strict deadlines ­ ­– so I can get this other Form Such-and-Such processed over at Agency So-and-So before everyone goes home for the day. Might it be possible, pretty please, to pick it up later this afternoon, oh, honored Sir/Madam?


I became recognizable as She Who Brings Yummy Things, graduating, in many cases, to She For Whom We Will Quickly Do Nice Things.


Pausing to smile sweetly, I’d wait for the official to make their determination, thank them graciously, and run to the next location before that set of officials disappeared on break: for prayers, for courtyard Tai Chi, or – Allah forbid! – for parts unknown.

Operating in the pre-cell phone era, once the necessary person disappeared, that was it until the next day. Unless you knew their home address, and the disappearance occurred during Eid at the end of the Ramadan fasting, and you wanted to exchange formal apologies and forgiveness (mohon maaf) for all prior transgressions committed that year. Then, and only then, was it perfectly okay to drop by unannounced on their doorstep. But, because Idul Fitri is a major holiday – the Indonesian mash-up of Thanksgiving and Christmas – all government offices would be closed.

I tried to avoid such extreme measures. At the Indonesian Institute of Sciences I brought enough muffins for the entire floor. At Immigration I took poorly paid officials out to lunch. To Sospol Ministry – the office generating the thickest document bundle – I carried frosted cakes in a ribboned box from a popular bakery. I became recognizable as She Who Brings Yummy Things, graduating, in many cases, to She For Whom We Will Quickly Do Nice Things.

elevator button ed

A visit to Sospol involved squeezing through gates crowded with busloads of demonstrators (paid to show up and fuss about the latest civic issue), crossing the pitted parking lot without twisting an ankle, and taking an elevator displaying the following attractions as the doors creaked open at each stop:

Second floor: staff playing ping-pong.
Third floor: staff hanging out in the hallways, cracking jokes.
Fourth-fifth floors: my elevator mates flirting with each other, including a bit of surreptitious fondling.
Sixth floor (my destination): an office cluttered with twenty wooden desks, of which five were occupied by bodies, without a single body occupied with work.


The relevant official stared implacably into my face and repeated, “tidak bisa tanpa… I can’t do it without…” whatever the damn thing was.


After cheerfully announcing my mission to the room at large, I was escorted by the most curious non-busy-body to one corner, where I perched on the sofa and waited while everyone ostentatiously pulled desk drawers open and shut, scouring the office for someone who knew where the forms were located. This was followed by a search for the forms themselves, then a search for a typewriter, and finally a search for a willing typist.


The timeworn joke — How many Indonesian government staff does it take to change a light bulb? — flitted through my head.

Answer 1: Two. One to assure that everything possible is being done while the other screws the bulb into the water faucet.

Answer 2: Four. One to get the bulb, and two to get the phone number to dial another one of their subordinates to change it.

Answer 3: Nineteen-plus. One to spot the burned-out bulb, a supervisor to authorize a requisition, a typist, twelve clerks to file the copies, a mail clerk to deliver the requisition to the purchasing department, a purchasing agent to order the bulb, a clerk to forward the purchasing order, another clerk to mail-order a receiving specialist to receive the bulb…

Answer 4: None. We contract out for things like that.


Featured photos by Blek.

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