Why my last year’s picture and fingerprints aren’t good enough, I don’t know. My U.S. passport photo serves me for fifteen years. But the Indonesian retirement visa, no way. And with the number of expats that live here, couldn’t there be a branch in Ubud capable of the required official documenting of our existence?
I swing onto the back of Ketut’s motorbike, my happy place. “Ayo! Ayo! It’s off to imigrasi we go!” I sing out as we meld into the stop-go traffic on Monkey Forest Road. Ketut ambles along, never in a hurry but always getting where we’re going in time. There’s a window, 2 – 2:30, to meet up with the agent, Mr. Heru, at immigration headquarters. The rice fields flash by in their various states of readiness, sometimes wet, murky pools, sometimes shafts of harvest gold. When the burn starts in my throat I know we’ve hit the polluted border of Denpasar and the sudden snarls of motorbikes affirms that suspicion.
The outskirts, a hodge-podge of billboards, Communist era gray buildings, and lean-to warungs, disappear as we enter the civilized Renon district and pull into the parking lot. Mr. Heru is there and we’re ushered inside.
I’m not sure what hits first, the heat or the stink, but the combination stops me in my tracks and I disguise the gag reflex in an extravagant episode of coughing. Holy B.O. Batman! Let’s hope this is quick.
Mr. Heru tells us to find chairs. Two in the back corner sit empty and I slouch into the one nearest the wall with a direct view of the television that’s showing a comedy act on silent. I’m handed a slip of paper with a number, C070, and notice that the one showing on the monitor overhead is C036. Okay, so there will be a little wait. My breakfast feels unsteady as I breathe shallow puffs, trying not to inhale any more of that over-ripe air than possible. Memories of morning sickness remind me of how great it is to be old and far beyond childbearing potential.
I tune in to the comedy. Raunchy Indonesian humor has me hysterical in moments. The two men, one with a red mohawk and one with a yellow, in shiny business suits with pants that end about three inches above the ankle, are non-stop hilarity, and Ketut and I laugh lounder than anybody. Their thirty-minute routine ends. I glance again at the monitor. C036 hasn’t budged. Mr. Heru appears, apologetic. “So sorry. Equipment is not working. Can you come back tomorrow? Or maybe you wait, in one hour maybe fixed.”
I barely suppress a groan. “I can’t come back tomorrow,” I say. “I have a meeting.”
“Ya, you wait then,” he says.
“Ya, okay.” What else am I going to say? The idea of turning around, riding the hour and a half back to Ubud, then repeating the sequence again anytime soon is revolting. I’ve almost acclimated to the stench.
Another show that smacks of the old U.S. favorite, You’re on Candid Camera! is underway. The thing that Indonesian television has over anything in the U.S. is its blatant political incorrectness. Here women are objectified, subjectified, and sexualized with careless abandon. Gays are depicted with affection as providing unlimited potential for ridicule and harassment, and the male sexual organ is referenced or displayed at every possible opportunity.
Time passes unnoticed, glued to the tube. But when the display on the digital monitor moves from C036 to C037, a murmured undercurrent scuttles through the room. People shift in their chairs, unfold the crumpled bits of paper that hold their number, and check their watches. The building closes at 4 p.m. It’s now 3:15.
In my TV stupor I’d failed to notice that the room had emptied down to a handful of a dozen bodies or so. Suddenly there’s a parade back in and a scramble for the remaining chairs. One of those New York Wall Street types, with a child strapped to his back and his ex-model wife herding three more children blocks the view of the programming while expounding at shocking volume on the recent activity of the Chinese stock market. I note glances exchanged among the quiet locals. A hip white lady, circa 1940’s, with bleached hair and shorts so short they reveal the saggy creases of once perky buttocks jiggling just below their lacey edge, strolls in with her teen-aged Balinese boyfriend. The monitor flips over another number: C038.
It’s a slow race with time. The numbers advance, sometimes two or three in a row, but often the minutes stretch out with eons between them. It’s 3:55. C068 has parked and taken up residence. Has the equipment malfunctioned again? Am I to get this close and be sent home? I turn toward Ketut, my eyebrows ask the question. Stoic, positive, with the kind of patience that I can never hope to achieve, even in retirement, he appears unruffled and noncommittal. Then, as if tripping over one another in their excitement, C069 is immediately followed by C070.
I leap from the chair. Ketut skitters out of the way as I head for the door marked Photos for Foreigners and push through it. Two desks, manned by uniformed immigration officials, are stuffed into the closet-sized room. I climb over the granny with the shorts to get to the second desk where I’m being summoned by the bespectacled man behind it.
“Sit back,” he commands as I perch on the edge of the chair. “Move your bangs off your eyebrows.” I do as I’m told, grinning like a happy chimpanzee. “You can smile but don’t show your teeth.” That one throws me and I snap my mouth shut and frown just as the camera clicks. If Frankenstein had a twin sister, the photo would have captured the likeness. Before I have time to ask for a retake he’s shoved documents in front of me. “Your signature here, the same as this one, and again here.” At the final flourish of the pen he grabs my hand. “All the fingers, this one first,” and he moves my thumb to the red window on the machine that records its image. Then it’s over. Two and a half hours and three minutes, the three minutes were inside that closet, from 3:56 to 4:00, taking care of the business I came to accomplish. Mine is the last number called.
Rolling through countryside on the return trip I experience yet again the sense of elation, the thrill of living here in Bali, the island of the gods, the land of volcanoes and magic. A few hours sweating it out in Immigration once a year for the privilege, is a small price to pay. We sail along in the late afternoon warmth, exotic views unrolling alongside us, the tails of my scarf flapping in the breeze. “Pulang?” says Ketut. I smile, once again grateful for this sweet soul who is the very essence and heart of my paradise.
“Yes, please, Ketut. Let’s go home.”