Everyone’s a blagger

Sometimes it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that everyone’s a blagger. Even if not all people are blagging it all the time, everyone is blagging it some of the time. And this is the story of how I flew to Bali with my wife and child.

I don’t think we realised until shortly before we arrived at the airport that La Serpiente Aquatica Negra’s passport expired in July. This should have been obvious to me, after I rushed to get it issued to avoid being sent to prison after she was born. But somewhere along the line I’d forgotten how many years it was valid for.

A few years ago, one of my former bosses had flown to Bali with his wife, his three kids, and a passport with less than six months validity on it. He’d cheerily recounted the story of how he’d arrived at Denpasar airport from Hong Kong, and gradually bargained his bribe/fine down from a thousand dollars to $250. So I had a sense that sometimes, for the right person at the right time in history, the rules of immigration might be a little elastic. At the same time, I had great qualms about this: it shows a lack of respect, not just of the law of the nation but of the people employed to enforce it, if you act as though any matter is solved by the quick application of hard cash.

At the KLM desk when we checked in, they looked at our passports and spotted the expiry date of our daughter’s passport. Then they pointed to the clear statement on the back of the visa on arrival application where it states you must have at least six months remaining on your passport. Then we looked a bit dumb, and the woman on the check in desk went off to find her manager.

Meanwhile, a woman at the next desk was arguing with the counter staff. Standing next to her was a bored looking bloke and an enormous cardboard box, which I couldn’t help overhearing weighed seventy kilos. I didn’t get all of what she was saying,but she felt it was a rank injustice that the airline was charging her excess baggage fees for this enormous cube of – what, exactly? Masonry? Motorcycle gearboxes? Seventy litres of mineral water? Apparently it was her friend’s, so she didn’t see why she should be paying for it. A tougher member of staff would have pointed out to her that you’re not meant to carry anything somebody has given you, but maybe the person at the counter was blagging things too and didn’t know that regulation.

Eventually the manager of our official came back and told us we wouldn’t be allowed into Indonesia, and my wife said that she knew people who had, and this impasse would solved by the airline staff telling us it was our responsibility to get back if we weren’t allowed into Indonesia.

Which, I think, was her blagging it too. One of the reasons airlines try to not have people fly who aren’t allowed into the country they’re flying to is because the airline is liable for getting them out again, or at least that’s how I remember it. But it wasn’t as if they got us to sign anything saying we accepted responsibility for our actions, so maybe she was blagging it too, moving the responsibility down the line to somebody else who’d have to deal with things on another shift.

We hustled over to passport control. The immigration officer, a depressed looking, softly spoken man told us that we would have trouble getting into Indonesia because of the impending expiry of the passport. Again, we told him we’d deal with that. We rushed to the gate. Again, as out baby grew more and more antsy, we were taken aside to be told there was an issue with our passport, before once again we were ushered through into the departure area, and I continued to worry at what would happen.

The thing is, I have to fly to Tokyo on Monday on a very tight connection from Bali, so I knew if we did have to come straight back, at least I’d have a less stressful start to next week.

The flight to Bali is under three hours. The plane seemed full of small children, many of whom had been entertained by two Dutch people doing yoga while waiting to board the plane. La Serpiente Aquatica Negra ran back and forth, richocheting off an eighteen month old called Chloe for the whole flight, while I worried and worried.

We arrived at Denpasar on time. It’s been almost six years since I was last here, and the arrivals hall is much bigger and more modern than before. It took me fifteen minutes to fill out all the forms, by which time the queues had evaporated. We paid $105 for our visas on arrival, then went to the immigration desk.

We chose the friendliest looking man. He took our passports, while my daughter struggled. He looked at them. I kind of entertained the hope that he wouldn’t pay attention to them, because …. well because it’s always good to go to a country where they don’t check documentation properly, right? (I remember one glorious trip to Kuala Lumpur where the immigration official was apparently listening to some amazing mp3 on her BlackBerry and didn’t bother to look up at me throughout, as that would have interrupted her continually hitting the Enter key on her computer. Because the best sort of security is the kind that doesn’t pay attention to documentation, right?

Our guy looked at our documents. He looked at us. He pointed out the bit on the back of the visa on arrival forms where it stipulates that you have at least six months validity on your passport. My wife said nothing. It was up to me to step up to the mark. I played dumb. I’m quite good at that. Some people have suggested I’m part of the Method school of acting.

“Yes, six months,” I said. “February, March, April, May, June, July.” (That’s basically the same logic one of my great-uncles used to try to persuade us kids that he had eleven fingers.)

He looked at me. I wasn’t sure if it was with a flicker of curiosity, exhaustion or boredom with the same old blagging by another unimaginative idiot. He told us to follow him to his office.

His office was a brightly lit chamber with two sofas in it and a square of red carpet. On the sofas lay a tired man in a purple shirt and black trousers, and his identically attired son. There was a phone charger plugged into the wall, and two photos of the immigration staff at Denpasar. One was of them lined up in the arrivals hall, with “The A Team” scratched into the edge of the picture. The other was a large poster made of lots of individual photos in the shape of a capital B. In this poster, the staff didn’t all seem so serious. One was smoking a cigarette, another eating what appeared to be a large pie, and a third was pulling the edges of his eyes up in the same way that racist schoolchildren in the 1980s tried to indicate somebody looked Chinese. Basically, it didn’t seem the sign of the most professional organisation I’d ever encountered.

The man went into an doorway off the main room. After a while, he left. Another man appeared with a cup of tea on a tray. He went into the same doorway, and then left, still bearing the cup of tea. The first man reappeared, and I followed him into the office. He explained that my daughter’s passport didn’t have enough months on it. I tried my counting the months idiocy again. No luck. He asked me how long we were staying for. I said two days. We seemed to be at some sort of impasse. I asked him if there was anything I could do.

He said he’d have to see his boss. We left the room again, and he went away.

Another man came back with our passports and we went into another room. He asked me if my daughter had a Singaporean passport. I said no. He asked to see our tickets out again. Then he asked for the address of the hotel we were staying at. I had to explain that a friend had booked the villa and there wasn’t a proper confirmation.

He said that wasn’t good, and he’d have to see his boss.

I waited again, wondering if I’d missed my opportunity to bribe my way into the country.. Even thinking this is horribly screwed up and wrong in its own way, and I knew this, and yet when the first official came back to let us know we could come in, this once, it was with glee that I thought my bovine idiocy had convinced him it would be more hassle to either deport me or ask for a bribe than it was worth. I’m a seasoned traveller, a veteran of the travel industry, somebody who’s meant to be organised, and I blagged this?

Then again, there’s a misspelling of “truthfully” on the form itself. Guess there was another blagger at work there too.

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