09Apr2011

Happy Birthday! It's Briby Time!

it's briby time

As I set out to collect my spawn from the airport, on my birthday, I am feeling quietly smug about not having paid a single bribe, in three months in Bali.

My friends from Z’s school, the ones I met after they attempted to reverse their car over my bike, in the slow motion essential to all minor vehicular encounters, have been nabbed twice.

“It’s a lot more expensive than it was last time we were here,” my friend explains. “Offered them a hundred thousand and they were having none of it. Looks like the going rate is two hundred thousand now.”

Driving a car without a seatbelt then not having the proper papers had cost them over twenty bucks. The same again for riding a bike without a helmet.

Not good, really.


Traffic is heavy en route to the airport, so I attempt to hang a right off the bypass from the wrong “lane” at the lights.

It is, in all honesty, a quite egregiously horrible and pathologically inept piece of driving. Or, more accurately, “indicating then braking“.

Not least because there is a U-turn 100 metres up the road.

It’s classic “tourist takes motorbike out for the first time” f*ckwittery.

All I need to be the ultimate Kuta cliché is to be male, Australian, a decade or so younger, out of my skull on arrack and rocking a Viking helmet and board shorts.

I sit stranded between some rather pissed-off lorries for a while then clear the intersection in solitary splendour.

So when I hear the whistle, I know it’s briby time.


My first thought, as I pull over for the traffic cop, is, “Oh Jesus, this is going to cost me.”

My second is, “I really hope I am not so late to pick up Z that the airline phones his father in Australia and I have to explain this.”

The cop crosses over. He is round, jolly and, I am pleased to see, actually laughing. As are his mates at the checkpoint.

“You know you cannot do that,” he says, laughing.

“Wah! Sorry! Excuse me,” I say in rubbish Indonesian, trying to maintain an appropriate solemnity. “I know, ya? That was very bad driving, ya? Sorry, ya?”

“How long have you lived in Bali?” he says.

“I’ve been renting a house in Ubud for ten weeks now,” I say. “I’m on the way to collect my son from the airport, ya?”

“This you must not do,” he says. “Going like that. You need to be in the right lane for turning right, ya?”

“Yes,” I say. “I know. It was horrible. I need to pick up my son from the airport, ya?”

“Do you have your license and registration?”

“Let me look, ya?” I say.


“International license?” he asks.

Err, no, actually. It’s an English one, which expired a month ago.

I haven’t got around to renewing it. That’s firstly a logistical nightmare from overseas, and secondly pointless since what I actually need is an International Driving Permit.

Nor have I got around to buying an Indonesian license, which is, I would hope for the sake of the world’s roads, less easily convertible into an IDP.

Though, since we are headed for Papua, which is famously briby, I had been planning to purchase one on Monday.

“I have them,” I say. “But they are at home.”

His face looks like Christmas has come. His wife, his kids and the entire station will be hearing about this one.

This is really going to cost me.


“So,” he says, endeavouring to appear stern. “You have no papers, no license and you have turned illegally?”

“Er, ya,” I say. “Wah! I’m sorry, ya?”

Now, I’m not quite sure what the penalty would be for what I’ve just done back home.

I’m thinking it counts as “careless” driving rather than “dangerous” driving, but when you add not having the papers for the vehicle and not having a valid license it’s quite possibly arrestable.

“So now the penalty for this is that we take the bike, and you need to pay one million rupiah,” he says. “This is what we should do, you see.”

“Ya,” I say, preserving a straight face.

The only Indonesian verb I can think of for “can we work something out?” means “haggle”, and I am not sure that is appropriate to this sensitive situation.

“Is it possible to pay?” I ask.

He grins broadly. “How much?” I say.

“Is up to you, what you think?” he says in finest Kuta taxi driver Indlish.

“100,000?” I suggest.

“150,000,” he says. “Three guys, ya?”

“That’s fine,” I say. It’s a little north of five bucks a head.

Much more rewarding all round than a trip to court, an impounded vehicle, loads of paperwork plus a hundred dollar fine. Though not necessarily good for the economy of this country I love so much.


The cop flags down traffic so I can safely get the bike across the road to their hut.

“Where are you from?” he asks. “Australia?”

“No,” I say. “I am English. My son is in Australia, ya?”

“Ah,” he says. “With your husband?”

“Ya,” I say. “He’s spent the week there and comes back to Bali today. He’s at school in Mas, near Ubud, ya?”

I hand over three crisp 50,000 rupiah notes.

One of the guys makes some sort of note in a book.

I guess all bakhsheesh gets distributed among the hierarchy on a sort of tronc system like the one the hospitality industry uses for tips.


“You are trying to get to the airport?” he says.

“Ya,” I say.

“You need to go that way,” he says, pointing at the way I was headed before I decided to hang a right. “That turn takes you into Denpasar.”

“Thanks,” I say.

“Same-same,” he says.

And then, with a note of genuine concern and well-wishing, “And always, you need to always have your papers and your license, ya?”

“Ya,” I say.

“Drive safely,” he says. “Be happy.”

“Thank you,” I say. And they stop the traffic for me and wave me on my way.

We take a motorbike taxi to my birthday dinner. It’s a lovely evening, all in all, and I’d hate to spoil it by another vehicular farce.

24 Comments

  1. Sounds like a smooth transaction! Beauty!

    • Theodora says:

      Thanks, Adam. I think provided one is polite and nice and doesn’t come The Big I Am — a basic error I saw produce quite spectacularly unpleasant results with some armed police in Mali — these situations can be painlessly resolved. I am soooo buying a license on Monday, though.

  2. with2kidsintow says:

    you did well for being there for 3 months! we got caught out about 7 days into our 10 day rental, while on the final approach to Mt Batur. Just as we completed our overtake, there he was–mr policeman, standing in the middle of the road, just waiting for us out of nowhere, in the middle of nowhere (well, actually it was THE tourist approach in the area, wasn’t it!). Like you, our first thought was ‘how much will we be able to get away with?’ as we knew that we’d very likely be in this situation. and since he spoke VERY good english, we knew it was going to be a bit. Like you too, we didn’t have our IDL. We got away with 100,000 (there were 2 of them) and the officer even added that ‘as long as we are in this region, in his area, we won’t have any more problems, but once we are out of it, its out of his control!’ at least there seemed to be some appreciation for our briby!

    [www.with2kidsintow.blogspot.com]

    • Theodora says:

      I think they only pull you if you’re doing something blatantly risky or illegal, even by Balinese standards. So I may just have been lucky. Though, I have to say, no license and no vehicle papers is not a good look anywhere…. So maybe 50,000 per head is just the going rate? I’ll have to check with my friends as to how many coppers there were. It is remarkably civilised, as bribery goes, though. And infinitely preferable to the developed world alternative of court case and summons. Shocking how one goes local in one’s driving style, though.

  3. Nice. Last year in Yogyakarta (mid-Java) my freshly-licensed brother got a chance to practice his haggling skill when he got pulled over for making a uturn from the wrong lane. Cost him Rp. 50000. Parents said he could’ve gotten away with less, but hey he’s still got many years ahead to practise.

    Love the little tidbit of wisdom the cop gave you in the end :)

    • Theodora says:

      How many cops, though, how many cops? I imagine there’s a real fine art to this sort of haggle, in that if you get it wrong, they can always whack the price up.

  4. I always worried that I wouldn’t know if it was a briby situation or not and that I would get in more trouble. We were lucky though and never got stopped. Sounds like you handled it handily. Cheers!

    • Theodora says:

      I think most cop situations are briby situations in Indonesia — it ranks 110 on Transparency International’s corruption index. Though I’ve heard that if a teenager at one of the international schools here gets busted with even a small amount of pot, you’re looking at thousands — tens of thousands — of dollars to keep them out of prison. So I’d guess that one goes all the way up the system.

  5. Roy says:

    Wow, so they are pretty direct over there huh?

    • Theodora says:

      Yes. I think they’re also generally nice guys who appreciated that I did need to get to the airport, and were quite happy to cut to the chase. In general, I find it’s easiest to admit you’ve done wrong. Problems kick in when you do the Big I Am. I’ve heard of someone who ended up paying 300k just for no helmet on a motorbike, and I’d wager that that was because he tried to make like he was in the right…

  6. Oy! At least they didn’t soak you.

    • Theodora says:

      Yeah. It was the worst piece of non-driving *evah* though. I should add — and I’m sure you’ll appreciate — that I drive far more responsibly with Z on the back. Partly, at least, because he’s not one of those kids that always wants to go faster. If he were, god knows where we’d be. His dad and I agreed that 40kph was a sensible top limit with the nipper on the back, and that’s something I basically stick to. On my own, I’m like “let’s race this man away from the lights, vroom, vroom!”

  7. ira says:

    As I was born and raised in Indonesia, I can totally relate to this story. So true!! I am never proud when sharing this, but my first bribe was at the age of 16 when I was driving without license (in Indonesia you need to be 18 to get drivers’ license). But yeah… as much as the average Indonesians would love to have Indonesia be clean from corruptions, we (locals, expats and visitors included) are the ones supporting the system coz it is practical and fast. C’est la vie :)

    • Theodora says:

      Thanks for your comment, Ira — it always makes me happy when people who are from Indonesia relate to what I’m saying as an outsider. I’ve been following the Gayus scandal with utter fascination — and the lady who got the karaoke machine in her cell, too, you know the one I meam — and, even as an outsider, I feel bad about bribery being so normal. At the same time, as you say, it’s practical and fast and mean the government doesn’t have to pay cops a living wage, which, given I have no idea how any tax *at all* gets collected here apart from the tourist hotels with the lux tax on, probably keeps the system running.

  8. Rachel says:

    Ha ha, all good training for your next life in Spain ;P

    • Theodora says:

      Oh really? Excellent! I know corruption is wrong but sometimes it just makes everyone’s lives so much easier.

  9. Imagine the cops surprise when I pull out my international license… he waved me on disappointed haha. Bali – too good!

    • Theodora says:

      Yes, I’d imagine that one’s a rarity for them. Those things would be so easy to fake, though. Wish I’d known. *coughs*

  10. Tai says:

    I got touched for a 150k in Denpasar yesterday for riding without helmet and not having international DL. These were two middle aged cops. All smiling and not hurrying anywhere. They popped up at the traffic lights starting directing the traffic which didn’t need to be directed. I usually ride with no helmet in the neighbourhood and for 4 months never had a problem. Many locals do the same. But not this time.

    Had to spend a good half hour in their booth answering all kinds of personal quesitons while my Papuan GF was interrogated by the other cop. He actually showed me a little book with official fines. So it was 250k for no helmet and 250k for no international DL. He kinda pretended he was gonna write me an official fine which I was supposed to go pay at the station. I think they were gonna hold on to my papers untill I pay. They also asked me if I owned a villa, asked if we were married and told me it’s illegal to cohabitate prior to marriage.

    The whole questioning started to really piss me off and my GF naively started asking where to go pay 500k, so I had to cut the crap, offered him 100k, he said, no you made 2 mistakes- 150k. OK, just like you counted 3 crisp 50l notes, put on the table. Passers by stared at us all this time. Cops didn’t even try to hide the money switching hands.

    Me, being from Russia I had to deal with cops all my teenage years, and I just hate it with passion. I guess, for many foreigners in Bali, bribing cops seems like a sort of adventure so people pay with a smile, but the reality is every time they agree to pay 300k or more for a minor offense, they unwittingly contribute to inflation and make them greedier. the police here are completely useless. You can’t rely on them doing their job unless you pay them. Like in Russia and many other countries people become cops with ONE GOAL- fleece the citizens. And it’s despicable since it’s always the laziest and morally compromised people that go there.

    Like yesterday, they come to a crossroads when the day heat subsided, switched off the traffic lights and pretended to direct traffic. And they pull the locals as well and try to shake them down. And it’s only a small part of a big system, where your security and rights are up for negotiation all the time depending on the thickness of your wallet.

    • Theodora says:

      Hmmm: I guess the thing is, here, that we both made mistakes (helmets are, actually, in Balinese law), although, of course, we know that locals do worse than that ALL.THE.TIME. These sound like Javanese cops, not Balinese, though, if they were shaking down the Balinese as well, and especially if they were getting het up about sexual morality, which the Balinese are rarely bothered by: I’ve never seen locals getting shaken down in Bali. I suspect you got double unlucky for having your gf on the back.

      My experience has been that when I do a minor violation (that locals do all the time), eg going the wrong way up a one-way street, they’ll let it pass and just signal me back. I got shaken down on a false pretext once (plastic license plate, not metal, FFS!), and fought it, and they let me go. The problem is that in this instance it was much, much better for me to pay the cash bribe than to have the bike impounded and pay the large fee to get it back, because I had violated the law.

      Korupsi is, of course, a massive issue in Indonesia, at every level — cf the Gayus scandal — and I think it’s the larger scale corruption that’s more to be worried about than the smaller scale stuff (as, for that matter, in Russia).

      But I do see your point about the motivation to become a cop (or tax collector, or teacher, delete as appropriate). I’ve only reported one thing to the police, and that was tourist police, when a teen boy started masturbating at me on a beach in Lombok. I said (in bahasa) what had happened, and that he ought to go and talk to the parents and stop it happening again. He said: “Where is your husband?”…

      Not sure what the solution is. I think it starts with locals paying their taxes, goes through to the taxes actually making it to the treasury, rather than ending up in Swiss bank accounts, and then the taxes making it out of the treasury to pay the police a living wage. Bear in mind, also, that these older guys started in the Suharto era, when Indonesia was a police state — again, shades of Russia — and so deference is within the culture…

      • Tai says:

        Those were Denpasar cops. We asked them where they were from. They said born and raised in Denpasar. They didn’t speak much English, so the whole questioning was conducted in bahasa. It’s true they impound your bike till you pay. It crossed my mind later on to just get the ticket and ignore it, but yeah, not so easy. I guess I got pissed off mostly because of my GF and the prying personal questions they were asking her. I found many Balinese also quite conservative actually. Like we had to move out from one ‘rumah kos’ (sort of rented apartment) because the owner (nice elderly Balinese man) objected a ‘bule’ cohabitating with a Papuan girl. Pretty much they told me since you’re white, you should live in a hotel or a villa and living unmarried with your girlfriend is immoral and a bad example for other students. So we had to move out…

        • Theodora says:

          Interesting… Wow. Maybe there’s more tolerance of Balinese/Indonesian men with bule women than vice versa. Or is there an anti-Papuan thing going down as well? I don’t think I’ve seen many Papuan — or even Moluccan — looking people in Bali: most people I’ve seen there look Balinese/Javanese rather than East Indonesian, if you know what I mean…

          • Tai says:

            Well, in Denpasar, at least in Sesetan area where we lived, there are quite a few Papuans and people from Maluku, Ambon especially. I saw lots in the streets. Many migrants in Denpasar in general from all over Indonesia, many students. The Bali cops know this too. Just before APEC summit a month ago, they visited the Papuan student dormitory, checked everybody’s documents and tried to ‘persuade’ the students not to try anything. Still, a group of students entered the Australian embassy and staged a political protest there, but had to leave the place after being told by the personal that they’d turn them to the Indonesian police, which usually ends up with years in jail.

          • Theodora says:

            Well, that might well explain why you got pulled. We had a few encounters with the secret police in N. Maluku — lovely guy who ran them, absolutely charming, spent most of his time talking about his high school exchange — but that sort of apparatus doesn’t disappear overnight….

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