A long, but successful, day in Singapore

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I had set my phone alarm for 5:45 this morning but I beat that by 45 minutes. It was a very muggy night anyway, not good for sleeping, and even the small air conditioner could not help. So why not get up. Have a couple cups of coffee. Go through my Internet routines. And it was time to walk to Harbour Bay. In the humidity. In long pants. With socks and shoes. Carrying my pack.

Shirt, of course, was soaked by the time I reached the Prima Ferries ticket counter. This whole process was starting to feel routine, even though I did go over every detail in my mind the night before. I worry too much.

I arrived at the ferry terminal with the planned 15 minutes to spare and had a quiet ride to Singapore. When you buy a round-trip ticket, you pay half at both ends. So I only paid half when I bought the ticket and would have to visit the Prima Ferries ticket counter in Singapore to get my return ticket, when I pay the second half of the fare (about Rp500,000, or $42).

The security check is perfunctory (I’m not even sure their metal detectors actually work.) but you can get snagged at the immigration desk. When you enter the country, you fill out a three-section, perforated card with your name and such. Immigration takes two of the segments and, apparently, you’re supposed to keep the third section for when you depart the country. I keep forgetting this part. I don’t have any idea why it is so important but I  was almost deported when I returned from the Caribbean because, silly me, I had not saved that third segment. Who’d a thunk, half a world away, I would need to save that stub?

Anyway, I’m apparently in a writing mood, having been away from my computer all day, so this may take awhile. First, I forgot to mention that my taking a shower at 5:15 am blew the breaker again, even though I shut down the frig and fans. Soap and cold water in the dark. Gotta love it. I found the breaker.

Before I forget (because he’s rubbing against my legs for attention), Hati is not a fan of being cooped up in this small apartment all day.  Thankfully, he didn’t tear the place apart, although he did a pretty good job on a roll of toilet paper just before I got up at 5. It’s the only time I’ve known him to use his claws, but he loves those toilet rolls. I digress.

Oh, let me digress once again. It’s kind of scary when you actually meet someone who reads your blog. Yes, a lot of my friends read it (or at least subscribe), but meeting a stranger who likes what you write is strange. Apparently, I write the way he feels, or something like that. That’s what he said when he walked over to the table where I was having a beer with a friend. He knew the friend. A Norwegian, and that is all I will tell about him. I promised.

Back to Singapore. The ferry left at 7:30 and would take about 45 minutes. Plus you have the delay at immigration in Singapore, where there is often a crowd in line. I’m going to bypass this delay in the future as I’m getting a “smart card” that will allow me to go through a different, barely used line (in both Batam and Singapore) where I insert the card and go. This will come in handy, as I need to go to Singapore (or any other country) every 60 days under my new business visa. The card is not cheap, though – Rp1.75 million, or about $150.

Today, there was only our ferry at Singapore immigration and I was in and out in a few minutes. Taxi to the Furama Hotel, City Centre, was Singapore $8 ($6.50), plus tip. The travel agency I was looking for (Maju Travel Services) was inside this building, along with several other travel agencies. Here, I need to backtrack.

First, travel agencies are intimately involved in this Indonesia passport and visa business. Certain agencies are given a license to represent people like me and expedite the visa process. They, essentially, get a place in the front of the line. And for this service, they are well rewarded. I don’t know how these agencies are granted this excellent business, but I’m guessing it’s political patronage, or family, or bribery. At the end of the day today, as I watched the batch of revised passports being dumped on the agency’s desk, I realized how lucrative this business is. There were at least 40 passports in the pile, 40 people or companies that had paid a fee (mine was SG$250 – US$200). If they all paid the same fee as me, that’s SG$40,000, or $32,00. Much of that goes to the government, but the remainder makes for some nice daily business. I’ll get back to this process later.

My second backtrack is to the night before. I finally received a call Monday about my visa but the paperwork had been sent to my Smiling Hill account. Once we straightened that out I had to call the travel agent in Singapore to let him know I was coming the next day. This was after 5 pm, 6 pm his time. At this point, I’m not sure if I have to pay the agent SG$250 AND the Indonesian Embassy SG$250, or if it was just SG$250, or somewhere in between. This was important because I needed to ATM money in Singapore and I have a fairly low limit on how much I can take out in one day. SG$500 would not be possible.

Back to my story. A young guy at the travel agency helped me right away, found my paperwork, took my passport and photo, and my SG$250 (question answered) and told me to come back at 4:30 pm; it was 9:30 am. Six hours to kill. What to do without spending too much money.

First, food was needed. Two cups of coffee only get me so far. I should note here that I’ve done this visa run before. When I first arrived, Doug and I took these same steps in getting my first work visa for Smiling Hill. It had been 2 1/2 years, but everything was familiar. I remembered that we went into a skyscraper basement close to the travel agency for food. Then, I had my first roast duck and noodles.

I found the same food court, in the same basement, in the same skyscraper, but being breakfast time I found a stall that had a picture of two sunny-side-up eggs. “Breakfast, sir,” was the word from the other side of the counter. “Two hard-boiled eggs, toast and coffee?” “Sounds good, ” I replied. The eggs were soft boiled, all runny in a small bowl, but I was hungry and they were good, altough difficult to eat with the baby spoon I was provided, the eggs slithering over the sides of the spoon. The toast had a wonderful sweet butter, honey or brown sugar in it. The coffee was instant (they definitely prefer that here) but dark and very good. SG$3.40. Interestingly, the mall in this building, as well as almost all the offices surrounding the food court, were for travel agencies. A big travel agency mall, so to speak.

I was on Victoria Street, maybe the most prominent road in the Singapore commercial district. The section I was on was 6 lanes with a wide island divider, distinguished by the bushes and trees it supported. Along this route are numerous skyscrapers, all with retail on the ground floors facing the street, some even with malls inside. Lots of food, too, including many of America’s most famous – McDs, Burger King, KFC, Pizza Hut, Popeyes, and even Chili’s. And don’t forget Starbucks. Jeez, SG$6 for an iced coffee. I passed.

With no plan in mind, I began walking in one direction, not knowing where I was going or what, if anything, would be there. It was hot and muggy, and as you can see by my photos, hazy. Having walked at least a mile in one direction, I came upon a bus station with a wall map. What I really was walking for, looking for, was Western herbs and spices. I haven’t been able to find even basil in the Batam stores, much less oregano or thyme, but I knew there was at least one store, in Tanglin Mall, where I might find them. Trouble is the last time I was there I took a taxi and I had no idea where it was. As I walked along, and discovered a mall within a building, I would seek out any grocery stores. All I found were Chinese herbs. Go figure. Singapore. Chinese herbs.

The map I found had Tanglin Road on it, but it looked a long way in the opposite direction. But it did run into Victoria Street. So I reversed course, passed the Furawa Hotel and kept going. At one point, I stopped at a McDonald’s for a Diet Coke and fries. Then more walking. I never did reach Tanglin Road. My bad knee finally said “Enough” and I headed back.

There was still nearly 3 hours to wait my passport to return, and it was lunch time, so I set my sights on the same food court where I had breakfast. I wanted roast duck and noodles again. Here’s where I explain why I don’t have my passport.

When you go through these visa processes, you have the option of going to the Indonesian Embassy yourself or using an agent to go there for you. If you go yourself, you are one of a crowd of people, each of whom takes a ticket to get in line. If you are lucky, your paperwork is filed that day, and you will only have to stay in Singapore for one or two days before you go back to retrieve your passport and visa. Hotels in Singapore are very expensive. New York City expensive. And since you don’t have your passport, you can’t leave Singapore.

An agent, on the other hand, takes your paperwork to the embassy for you. They get in the front of the line when they arrive. You pay your fee by 11 am and you get your visa and passport back the same day by 4:30 pm. You save money by giving them SG$250. Not to mention the hassle, and the two unproductive days in Singapore. This is the process, and cost, I will have to go through when I renew the visa after one year. Next time, however, I need to have a better plan for what to do with that 6 hours waiting.

I returned to the agent more than an hour early and just sat around. Finally, all the passports being handled that day were brought in, dumped on a desk, sorted and I was finally asked what nationality mine was. It was handed to me and I was off for a taxi, which, for some reason, was SG$2 less than getting there.

I had some time at the ferry terminal, so I sought out the supermarket there, still in hopes of finding my herbs. No luck, but they did have some reasonably priced bacon (hard to get in Batam), so I grabbed a couple pounds, only to find out at the register that the prices were much higher and that I had seen the prices for smaller packages. No bacon for me when it costs $16 a pound.

As I become an old hand at the ferry process, getting my return ticket was not a problem and the ride back was so routine (and I was so tired) that I took a nap almost the entire 45 minutes. And given how much I had already walked, I opted for a taxi back to my apartment. I had earned it anyway.

A new work permit (KITAS)

I wish I could tell you all the steps required to secure a work permit in Indonesia. I wish I could describe how hard it was for me to deal with the various bureaucracies without an understanding of the laws or the language. But sorry, can’t do it. My employer, through a third party local, took care of everything.

Early in January, I reminded my boss that I was approaching one year in-country and would need to renew my KITAS if I was to remain employed at Smiling Hill. Did he want me to continue? You never know. Turned out he was wondering if I was ready to move on.

When I arrived in Batam Jan. 18, 2012, I was required to purchase a 30-day visa on arrival at the Harbour Bay ferry terminal ($25). It allowed me to stay in-country until a one-year work permit could be acquired. This time around, I had until Feb. 16 to renew the visa. All the work, the running around from government office to government office, the paperwork, was handled without my input. All that our outsourced assistant, Rini, needed was my passport and current KITAS, which were quickly returned to me.

Interestingly, between Jan. 18 and Feb. 16, I was not allowed re-entry into Indonesia if I left the country.

Yesterday, Feb. 16, was my last legal day in Indonesia without a new visa and I still do not have one. On Friday, I was informed I needed to go to the immigration office in Batam Centre to have my picture taken for the new visa. So I put on my long pants and rode the 6-8 miles with Sarijan through the as-usual bad traffic on a Friday afternoon. As usual, we barely missed wiping out a few of the crazy motorbikers along the way.

Immigration is in a huge building on the water; the views from the government offices is awesome. I told Sarijan as we waited for my turn that in the U.S. such a location would most likely be owned by the private sector, and the offices rents would be high. Here, the government selects the best locations for itself and often has the most impressive buildings.

When we arrived at the third floor, Rini was waiting for us. I gave her my documents and she had me sign two forms. I have no idea what they were. I waited for maybe five minutes before being called into a small side room, where a burly local sat behind a desk complete with camera, computer and digital fingerprint reader. They took all 10 of my fingerprints but there is no ink involved – just press your digit into a spot lit in blue. My picture was taken and I was done.

The trip to and from the immigration office took 45 minutes; my time there was maybe 10 minutes. Rini said she would repatriate me with my passport and new work permit Monday (tomorrow). I can stay in Indonesia for another year and will be good to travel once again (which I’m doing the end of April with a long-needed visit to the U.S.).

I think the one-year work permit costs about $1,200. I don’t know what Rini charges for her services but I’m sure it’s worth not having to go through the process myself.