No Crimson Faces Over Bali’s Red Tape

By Vyt Karazija

The first few years in Bali drove me spare. The peculiar culture of slowness in offices, where efficiency and customer service was a foreign concept, used to frustrate me to the point of screaming. The quaint processes in community banks and payment centres where one settles utility bills would drive me to chewing my toenails in impotent rage.

Not any more. Three years in Bali have instilled the same laissez-faire ennui in me that you find in almost all bureaucrats everywhere on the island. Nothing about official processes bothers me much now. If I wait for an hour for my number to be called just so I can pay a bill, then watch all the tellers walk out for lunch, that’s fine. If it’s 12.30pm and I walk in to an office – signposted as being open until 2pm – to find one person busy locking up, so be it.

Even if that person, when asked why they closed early, says blandly, “There were no customers, so we close,” I stay calm now. And when the contrarian in me is compelled to say “But I’m a customer!” and I’m told: “But you are too late, because we are closed now,” I just accept my fate, illogical as it might be. It is far easier on the nervous system to accept the inevitable than to do the enraged bule act, because this is Indonesia, and making a fuss does no good anyway.

So here I am, a water bill to pay at one office, and electricity-meter credit to buy at another. My electricity meter is a modern version of those old coin-in-the-slot jobs. When it runs low, I buy credit, punch in the code I am given and bingo – I have power, at least on those days where PLN deigns to supply it. I’m down to 30,000 credit – about a day’s worth – so I must pay on that day or risk going dark.

The water bill payment goes as expected, meaning it’s the usual organised chaos. The deal is, you walk in, spear your bill details on a low-tech spike device sitting on the counter and wait until someone removes it for processing and eventually calls you. This particular office is somewhat understaffed today, so the two at the counter who are apparently dealing with bank-teller duties, investment enquiries and about 10 other types of payments are as busy as ants at a picnic. There are 15 customers waiting patiently. Six more staff lurk in the background, variously smoking, reading magazines or updating their Facebook profiles. The stack of papers on the spike grows steadily, but no one is even looking at them. Mine is about the third from the bottom, so I’m not overly concerned.

Then, in the midst of the rush, one of the two “working” staff wanders off for a smoke. Oh, no. But all is well; a replacement arrives within a mere five minutes and reaches for the spike. My adrenaline spikes in sympathetic anticipation. But then, obviously new at this job and not yet having taken an IQ test to determine his fitness for the position, he grabs the topmost spiked bill! Three more people spike theirs; mine stays near the bottom. Luckily, a senior operative, who is aware of the Reverse Sequencing Principle of Spikes, steps in to correct him and I eventually get to pay my bill, a mere 40 minutes after arriving. I am uncharacteristically serene.

Next stop is the electricity-payment office, which makes the chaos at the water office seem like a relaxing Bintang on the beach. There are about 50 customers waiting, and three staff in the office. One is sitting at his desk, sporadically pecking at his computer keyboard, but mostly reading a newspaper and smoking. He looks bored to the point of catatonia. One sits at a section of counter marked “Phone Payments.” Not one of the 50 customers wants to pay their phone bill, so this chap sits with an unfocussed stare and does not move once. I don’t even see him blink; for all I know, he might be dead.

The third chap is handling all of the work. The system here is similar to the water payment office, except credit customers drop their paperwork into a plastic tray on the front counter, then wait patiently for service. However, this time, my card goes on top of a pile of about 50 bills. My heart sinks. After half an hour the computer guy has bored himself into a stupor and leaves for an early lunch. The catatonic phone payments guy continues to sit there like a stone carving. Perhaps rigor mortis has already set in. The electricity payments specialist is so overloaded with “normal” bills that he doesn’t even glance at the growing pile of credit bills in the tray.

After an hour, there are another 30 bills in the tray, the computer guy seems to have disappeared for good and the phone man hasn’t yet moved or blinked. My new-found persona is calm and relaxed, but I finally decide to retrieve my card from the depths of the pile and leave. Once I would have been incandescent with rage; now the situation seems completely normal.

On the way home, I find a little hidden place that accepts electricity payments. My spirits lift temporarily, at least until I am told that, regretfully, they cannot process my payment. This is because the recipient of my payment, PLN, has chosen this specific area, and this specific time, to impose one of its rolling blackouts. The irony does not escape me, but I remain unruffled.

The next day, with Rp5,000 left on my meter, I go back to try to pay my bill. The office is open on a Saturday until 11am; I arrive at 10.30am and I am the only customer there. The single staff member on duty is ready to close down, “because there are no customers.” It takes two minutes to pay my bill. I recharge my meter with Rp1,000 remaining before it shuts down.

So all is well; everything was paid on time; everything worked out. As I now realise – after a mere three years – there is no point whatsoever in getting enraged over life’s little vicissitudes in Bali. Of course, 10 minutes after getting home, my villa lost power in one of Bali’s rolling blackouts, but hey, that’s normal.

 

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