The Paper Shuffle

by Tabitha Kidwell

I don’t know if it is a holdover from Dutch colonization, but bureaucracy is a big deal in Indonesia. Stamps, letterhead, folders, forms – all very important. For example, here is the procedure to extend your visa:

Got all that?

And here is the main office of the university:

Those cabinets are full of pastel-colored folders holding who-knows-what important records. I wandered in here during the first week of class and the teetering towers of documents was terrifying.

So, when I got a letter from the Postal Customs Office in Semarang (the provincial capital, 1.5 hours north of Salatiga), I knew it was trouble. I had to go to Semarang with Bu Rini, my sponsor at STAIN, to do other bureaucratic things at the Immigration Office and Police Station, so we added one stop to the trip. We went to the post office, showed the letter, and were led through a labyrinth of bright orange bags of mail to reach a hot, cramped office in the back. It was staffed by 4 very bored looking civil servants and 3 vocational high school students. The students were diligently filling out some kind of form. One of the civil servants was smoking, another eating peanuts. The last two weren’t doing much more than sweating. But they managed to look very irritated when Bu Rini and I entered. One went off to get the offending package while the other three peered at me suspiciously and asked about what I was doing in Central Java. Their colleague returned with the package (which turned out to be from my mother) and revealed what had raised the red flag: a small zip-lock baggie of calcium pills. They asked us to explain what they were and what they were for. I thought they were probably concerned they were drugs – Indonesia is pretty strict with narcotics. So I was a little nervous as they had me count them.

60 pills total – enough for one person for 2 months.

“Ah, yes.” Said bored immigration lady #1, totally unconcerned with the possibility that these could be illegal drugs. “That is a large quantity. You could sell those for profit. You must pay a tax.”

Serioualy? 60 pills? That probably cost $5 at home? I asked if I could just take the rest of the contents, and flush the pills down the toilet.

“No.” said bored immigration lady #2. “It is one package. You must take the entire package.”

At this point, I had seen that the entire package contained sunscreen, Ohio summer honey, and Ghirardelli semi-sweet baking chips. I wanted the entire package. So the negotiation began.

Plan 1: You must go to the Office of Controlled Substances (which is in Semearang, 1.5 hours away from where I live) to get a permission slip to have the calcium pills. Then you must wait 2 weeks while the paperwork is completed. Then you must return to the Postal Customs Office (which is also in Semearang, 1.5 hours away from where I live) to retrieve the package and pay the tax.

Somehow Bu Rini managed to talk them out of this, since we live so far away and it is difficult to come to Semarang. Also, I may have cried a little bit.

Plan 2: You will pay the tax here, and you will promise never to send dangerous items like calcium pills through the mail. The tax is 300.000 rp ($35).

Seriously? The contents didn’t even come $35 to begin with, so this would be like paying for them all again. I bluffed – I said I didn’t even want the package, picked up my purse, and got ready to walk out the door. But Bu Rini stopped me and got them to make the tax lower.

Plan 3: You will pay the tax here, and you will promise (A) to never send dangerous items like calcium pills through the mail and (B) to never come to our office and bother our afternoon gossip session again. The tax is 90.000 rp ($10).

This plan was satisfactory to all involved. They typed up the forms (in triplicate!), I signed, paid the tax, and went on my merry way. Until my next roll-in with the forces of Indonesian bureaucracy, that is!

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2 Comments to “The Paper Shuffle”

  1. Wow. You’re so good at the bluff, Tabitha. I’m glad it worked to your advantage this time. A tale of caution for anyone attempting to smuggle tums…

  2. Paying close attention, as I’ll soon start sending packages to DD1 in South Korea. Would the calcium pills have been a non-issue if they were in the original, sealed bottle?

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