Visas – A Horror Story

Now, I’m normally quite cautious about visas. I apply in the right town of the right country for them to be delivered cost-effectively and easily; I avoid overstays; I get everything correctly stamped on every border.

But when it comes to extending Indonesian visas, after a solid (and very expensive) week of visa hell, it looks like I’ve got a bit slack. And that it really, really does pay to plan ahead…

After the least fun week’s travelling since we left in January 2010 – Sumbawa island, take a bow! – we drive off the boat in Labuanbajo, Flores, to a scene whose beauty is barely impacted by the jolty rocks under our wheels and the rich aroma of fish jerky.

Flores is going to be fun. We’re going to chill for two or three days, and catch up on work and learning.

Then we’ll arrange a liveaboard diving trip to the Komodo National Park where, I’ve heard, you can hang anchored to reef, and watch schooling pelagics plus sharks and even dolphins cruising the fast currents over your head, or riding their oceanic super highway to new hunting grounds.

We’ll toddle out to the Cunca Wulang cascades with their natural waterslides. Then we’ll wind our way through traditional villages with crazy rituals and ancient megaliths to the gorgeous, multi-coloured crater lakes of Kelimutu, then from Ende to the island of Timor.

The one thing I need to do is arrange to extend my Indonesian visa, which expires in a week.

We’re pretty chuffed with Labuanbajo, to be honest. It takes us a bit of time to find a guesthouse we like, but the views over a traditional harbour studded with volcanic islands more than live up to it.

In Made In Italy, we find the best Italian restaurant we’ve encountered since Europe. There is decent wifi. Landscape. Good food. Things to do. We like it here.

The only little thing I need to do? Sort out my visa.

“Is there an immigration office in Labuanbajo?” I ask the lady at our guesthouse.

“No,” she says, in the tones of someone who has answered this question before. “There is only one immigration office on Flores. It’s in Maumere.”

My stomach sinks. Maumere is 600k or more from here, on the other end of the island. And it’s not somewhere we’d planned on going.

“Are there any agents in town?” I ask.

Because of the diving, Labuanbajo has a couple of upscale hotels and sees quite a few travelers. It’s also a port. Ergo, I had assumed it would have either an immigration office, or agents – or, at the very worst, that Ende, where we are also going, would have an immigration office.

“No,” she says. “No agents. You need to go to Maumere. Or Kupang.”

Kupang is on Timor, 22 hours boat ride from the port of Ende, 400-odd-k from here.

To go to either would mean either abandoning our plans for here or travelling a brutal distance, fast, then back again.

And, after a week of more or less constant overland, I don’t feel I can inflict three or four long days on a bike, or 16-24 hours of bus ride plus up to a week waiting for a visa to get sorted, followed by a return to Labuanbajo, on Z.

There must be another route, I decide.

I consult the internet. It isn’t helpful.

I figure I’ll sleep on it.

I wake up to a flash of inspiration. There are a bunch of foreign-owned businesses in town. They can’t all be busing or driving for more than a full day to Maumere. There must be someone that they use.

I pootle around the town asking folk.

“There’s three places you can do it,” one says. “Kupang, Maumere and Denpasar. I need to do my paperwork in Maumere, so I fly to Ende, hire a car to Maumere, car back, fly back. It takes two or three days. But mine’s not a tourist visa.”

“No agents?”

“Not here. Bali, maybe.”

“How is Maumere?”

“Very difficult, I’ve heard. They won’t tell you the rules over the phone. Then when you get there you have to pay, pay, pay. They take as long as they want and charge as much as they like. It’s very corrupt.”

The thought of returning to Bali, from which we have traveled overland, racking up more than 1500k on our motorbike in the process, is just wrong on every level. The whole point of a big overland journey is that a) you don’t go backwards and b) you don’t fly. You progress overland from point A to point B. End of.

I ask around some more. “I’ve got a friend in Denpasar who can do it,” says one. “He charges a million, but it only takes a few minutes to get the stamp. Plus, if my friend has a customer going, they can take your passport too – you’ll need to pay them a hundred thousand or so.”

This sounds the perfect solution. It’s going to cost north of $100, as opposed to the standard $30, but all I need do is wait till someone is booked on a flight to Denpasar, bung them my passport and a million rupiah, then wait for them to return and bung them some more cash.

I figure there’s got to be someone local and reliable headed to Denpasar and back this week.

“I’d give her till Wednesday,” the person says. “If no one comes through by then, you’ll need to make your own arrangements.”

On Sunday, the lady has no customers. By Monday, I am starting to panic. You know. That waking-up-early-with-a-big-knot-of-anxiety-in-your–stomach panic.

Of course, we can’t do any of the diving we came here to do since I need to be in town with passport and rupiah at the ready when a prospective courier appears.

On Tuesday, I decide to research our other options. Someone says that if I fly out on Wings then back on Merpati, I can do the Denpasar visit in a morning, eliminating the need to take Z with me and pay two sets of air fares.

We drive up to the airport. Wings no longer fly the route, I’m told. It’s not possible to do Denpasar and back in a day.

I stop back at the Merpati office, a sort of cargo shed off the road to the airport, trying to ignore the fact that Merpati recently lost a plane in Papua, along with all aboard.

“Are there flights to Denpasar on Friday and back on Saturday?”

He taps at his screen for a while. “Friday is waiting list only,” he says.

Oh f*ck, I think. “How much are the flights on Thursday?”

I understand they are over a million rupiah return.

By Wednesday morning, I’m getting desperate. I don’t want to entrust my passport to someone who isn’t recommended – or otherwise I’d be running round the tour firms – because the risk of them returning with my passport and my money but without the stamp I need is just too high.

None of the lady’s customers are going. So I leave Z in the café and head up to Merpati to buy flights back to Bali for the next day.

I wait, for half an hour plus, of glacial screen tapping.

“No internet,” says the guy. “You come back later.”

I leave him my number, and return to the café in a state of mounting anxiety. Two hours later, he has not called. So I head up on spec.

“Still no internet,” he says.

I leave it another two hours. The next time I arrive there are eight people in the office, one using a computer, six watching him use the computer, and the man I’ve been dealing with, who now appears to be reduced to watching the office mobile phone.

“There are no flights back on Friday,” he says.

“OK,” I say. “We fly out tomorrow and back on Saturday. Do you have flights then?”

The ticket-buying process takes about an hour. Not least because the fare of one million and something rupiah turns out to be our one-way fare.

The tickets cost around $500. Or several days of liveaboard diving.

On arrival at the little airport, basically a field and a landing strip on the outskirts of town, I realise I’ve neglected to consider parking. It seems unwise to leave our bike unattended for what is now going to be two nights. I ask around for someone who can help me.

“If you trust me,” one guy says, “You can give me the keys and I’ll take it to my home.”

I pause. “You can see my identity card,” he says. “You can come with me to my home.

“How far is your house?” I ask.

His house is 2k away. It’s not, in fact, that I don’t trust him, but travelling 2k to his home and back leave us in danger of missing our flight.

The police hook me up with a member of the airport staff who will drive the bike to his home and look after it until we come back.

Bike safely tended, we embark on a plane back to the place from which we have so slowly progressed overland. It takes about an hour and a half, though the island of Sumbawa does look quite satisfyingly large.

“I miss Bali,” says Z.

“Me too,” I say.

“I didn’t realise how much I liked Bali until we left it,” he says.

We land. I open up my phone. There is a text message from the man at Merpati, Labuanbajo. “Please come into the office to change your tickets,” he says. Then a second message “You want to fly 14 or 21?”

I check my tickets. They have booked our flights out for the wrong bloody Saturday. If we spend an extra week in Bali, we’ll lose out on everything we were supposed to do in Flores.

I am starting to feel physically sick. As well as extremely stupid. “I am in Denpasar now,” I text. “I want 14. Can I change here?”

“No,” he says. “You change in Denpasar you pay fee.”

“OK,” I text. “Please change to 14.”

We wait in Starbucks for five hours to make our visa connection, a process which feels, to be honest, rather like a drug deal.

For a moment, it looks as though he can give us both new visas, which will eliminate the need for a border run into East Timor.

Then it turns out he can’t. But, at least I have my visa. So I’m legal to stay in the country for 30 days and can extend up to 60.

Z, however, is only legal for another three weeks, which means we will need to make a visa run into East Timor. Overstays cost $20 a day and can impact your ability to reenter the country.

If there’s one thing I’m learning about digital nomading, or combining work and travel, it’s that there really is a limit to how much you can deal with at one point.

Chasing around after the visa, stressing about the visa, spending hideous sums of money pursuing the visa, does not go well with productivity. Let alone unschooling.

And it is, to be honest, the last thing either of us need after a tough week’s travel across Sumbawa.

Now that I have my Indonesian visa extended, the knot of stress in my stomach the next morning is about our flight back to Labuanbajo and our East Timor visa application – not to mention the work I need to do, which isn’t going to do itself.

“Did you change the tickets?” I text the man at Merpati.

“No,” he texts back chirpily. “Still 21.”

I ring him. He’s not in the best of moods. He says it’s my fault for not checking the tickets – he has a point. I say, “But you realized the mistake.” He claims he has bad reception. I say I’ll call him back.

I set an alarm in my phone for 11am, which is the best I can do, and flag an ojek to take us to the place where I can extend my Indo driving license. (Seriously, do get an International Driving License. It’s so worth it.)

I ring the guy at Merpati. He texts me back. “No flights on 14.”

I suppress a wash of panic, and text him back, “Then book 15, if no flights 15, book 16.”

He comes good, in the end, complete with booking reference, and everything.

The East Timor visa application is the sort of thing that takes no time at all if you are at home, but quite a large chunk of your life if you’re nomading. It can, unusually, be done online.

They require a printed out form, complete with photos, scanned and submitted via email.

So I need to get new passport photos done. Then I need to find an internet café with both a printer and a working scanner. Less easy than it sounds.

That done, I can’t quite face the interminable process which is printing and scanning anything, however simple, in Indonesia, so we locate a restaurant with wifi where I can finish off a job and do some online learning with Z.

I try and check my Merpati booking online, but it’s not possible. Nor can I find a number for their Denpasar office. I figure it’s got to be alright.

The process of filling in, printing out, scanning and receiving all six individual pages of our two East Timor visa applications takes a little under two hours.

Then we make the best of our extra day by stocking up on books and clothes. I drag Z round Seminyak’s many, many boutique clothing stores, and finally buy some floaty trousers and a loose top, which, compared to the ripped jeans I’ve been sporting since they gave way shortly after we left Bali, looks positively elegant.

“You look like a typical Bali hippie,” says Z.

“Hippie?” I say. “Thanks.”

“Hipster, then,” he says. “A Bali hipster. You look quite nice, actually.”

Z finds the next in the Percy Jackson series, and Patrick Ness’ The Knife of Never Letting Go. I buy us both Julian Baggini’s The Pig Who Wants To Be Eaten, a series of philosophical discussions.

I figure it will give us something good to talk about of an evening. My conversation hasn’t been the finest after nigh-on a week of visa hell. I’ve largely, in fact, been staring anxiously into space.

Given the saga with the tickets, I figure we should get to the airport early. This is fortunate, since our flight leaves an hour and a half earlier than the other flights we had been taking, and is, in fact, supposed to be boarding when we arrive.

We’ve been following the unfolding saga of Merpati’s recent fatal crash more closely than usual. It appears that the Chinese-made plane is an MA-60, has failed FAA safety, and that problems were found in the first of the batch to be delivered.

In typical Indonesian style, Merpati then attempted to exit the contract, or, rather, negotiate a discount. Then, for reasons which carping critics suggest include government corruption, they ended up paying more than agreed – significantly more than the other fine and, overwhelmingly, African nations which have added the MA-60 to their fleet.

“I hope we’re not flying on an MA-60,” says Z. “The Jakarta Post thinks they should be grounded until they’ve found out what’s wrong.”

Our plane is, of course, an MA-60. Which makes the spiraling descent into the mountain-framed bay of Labuanbajo more than usually unnerving.

I pass the time by working out whether, having spent around $600 extending a visa by 30 days, we now have any budget left with which to go diving. A liveaboard is clearly out of the question.

When we land, I find our friend from the airport has not only come in on his day off but has washed the bike for us.

I do love Indonesia, in its way.

And I am positive that next week is going to be GREAT.

Onwards and upwards, as they say. Onwards and upwards.

33 Responses

  1. ahhhhh, borders and visas and crossings. Nothing more ready for fodder for a good story than those 😉

  2. Sounds like hell! I’m very surprised some enterprising soul hasn’t figured out how to extend visas on tourists behalf in Labuan Bajo. It’s actually one of my fears when I eventually get off the beaten track in Indo. Month by month extensions would be a nightmare. For now, I’ve got to hope there is no red tape at the consulate in Sydney.

    • Theodora says:

      I’m very surprised, too. I think the problem is the journey time to any of the entities involved. For the record, we got the last one done same day in Mataram — with assistance from one of those dodgy blokes that hang around outside offices — overnight in Tobelo, Halmahera. Denpasar is a nightmare unless you have an agent or a back door route, because they require three separate visits for a one month extension. A Kitas costs about $1200 US but would enable you to travel without this kind of hassle.

      • I find that astounding! Halmahera takes no time, yet a relatively big tourist destination like LB is no go. I’ve always used visa agents in Bali due to my dislike of red tape – I know there is plenty in Indonesia.

  3. Great story! Hope it all gets sorted.

  4. Kristy says:

    What a nightmare! Makes my missing the flight in Delhi (a story I haven’t wrote yet) seem like nothing. I am glad you got it all sorted out…finally!

  5. Kirsty says:

    That sounds awful, and extremely stressful! Where are visas so fricking confusing???

  6. Susie Moberly says:

    Just read your account of the Visa nightmare! Hope you’re all sorted by now? I’ve just gone through three weeks of tedium getting my long stay sorted here… no sweat compared to your story but days of worry for me trying to sort out money in Bank… everything closed for endless bank holidays in UK then the Royal wedding… and time slipping buy… the dreaded Immigration here and I wonder why I’m going for the long stay anyway? GOOD LUCK and enjoy… look forward to the next episode!

  7. Ainlay says:

    Wow, thanks for writing about the challenges of long term traveling as well as the highlights. There are enough blogs out there about “how wonderful my trip is”. We future travelers need some down and dirty nitty gritty! For the record, I do hope you are presently sitting on a gorgeous beach somewhere in Flores near a hotel with both internet and a hot shower….

    • Theodora says:

      Hmmm…. I’m taking the fifth on that. Though there is a bloody nice restaurant in town, two with internet.

  8. nikki says:

    Ugg, What a week! Wish we could have caught up… Spent Sat. getting Zeb his supplies for 4 day camp trip to West Bali Nat. Park. then spent the rest of the weekend in Balian.. Loved it. Did you get there?

  9. Rachel says:

    *adopts mom tone* ‘That’s what your emergency fund is for Theodora!’ Again, all of this is fabulous prep for Spain where walking through treacle whilst burning money is called ‘officialdom’ too!! Just read the dive blog – sounds like it was amazing – liveaboards are so dull when you’re not underwater anyway 😉

    • Theodora says:

      Ha. I suppose that’s one way of looking at it. You’re really not enjoying Spanish bureaucracy, are you?

  10. Kate Convissor says:

    Now I have a knot in my stomach. Emergency funds are for broken bones, blood, maybe serious mechanical difficulties, not for stupid bureaucratic shenanigans.

    At least your bike got washed. Simple pleasures.

    • Theodora says:

      Yes. I didn’t actually have an emergency fund, per se. Just “money I should not spend”, which I guess is what an emergency fund is. The money was, basically, our fun fund for the diving. Hey-ho. Thank you for your sympathy.

  11. Scott says:

    And these are the stories you’ll tell to your grandchildren…

    • Theodora says:

      Not much that has been grandchildren-friendly of late, I have to say. Beginning to wonder whether I’ve bitten off more than I can chew here. Though we’re getting to Papua — we’re only one country and one island away now.

  12. Jesus. And I was stressing about finding a decent haircut in Munich for under €30.

    Great account of a difficult situation.

    • Theodora says:

      Thank you. We’re not the luckiest campers in the world when it comes to visas. God knows what’s going to happen to us when it comes to China…

  13. omg that sucks sucks sucks! we were thinking of extending in country…but hmmm….maybe not

    • Theodora says:

      In most places, in-country extensions are relatively painless. It took us a single day in Mataram, Lombok, overnight in Tobelo, Halmahera, but three separate visits in Denpasar, Bali (which is why most people use agents to do it in Bali). Provided you pick the right place to do it – NOT FLORES – you should be fine.

  14. el viajero says:

    …until now this site has been quite helpful for me scheduling in advance the itineraries through Indonesia:

    good luck !

  15. Oh dear, despite of the sucks story, i hope you enjoyed flores as much as i did cs it’s really beautiful there.

    • Theodora says:

      I did love Flores. We had a couple of sucky things happen — bike ran out of oil and broke down, and then the visa shit — but it’s a beautiful island. Absolutely dazzling.

  16. Antuz says:

    Hi guys,
    Things have positively changed in LabuanBajo…or at list I hope…I have just been to a closed immigration office (opening time are Monday to Friday and today is Saturday…). My original plan was to take the ferry from Ende to Kupang, obtain my East Timor visa (probably ending with a couple of days overstay on my Indo visa which is expiring in 4.5 days…) and then re-apply for indo visa to continue my travels after some time in East Timor…I have however decided to stay in LabuanBajo for a while hence I will try my luck and see if the immigration office will open for me on Monday and process my extension! I will post again on Monday to let you all know.

    If you are traveling heading here in LabuanBajo and are in a similar visa situation, the office is located on the road that leads to the airport. Taking a motorcycle taxi will cost 5K for every transport you need in town. the bike will likely run along the main road, then turn left at the largest junction (continuing straight will take you all the way to Ende). The road goes up the steep hill passing the Blessing Hotel to the left, then turning right onto Jalan Gabriel Gampur. The immigration office is the third white building on the right hand side before the traffic light; walking there is also very easy, but you will sweat a lot :-).
    Happy travels folks!

    • Theodora says:

      That’s brilliant news, thank you, Antonio! Do please let me know how it plays out — not all immigration offices in Indonesia will process the different visa extensions for foreigners, but they really should have one enabled in Labuanbajo with all the foreigners headed for Komodo and Flores. So thanks for the update!

  17. Antuz says:

    Good news…
    the immigration office in labuanbajo is working indeed and my visa extension was processed effortlessly. Here is how you do it (you may read many different versions online, but this is how it worked for me)! you will need a red folder…hehe…it sounds silly, but that is one of the requirements. this red folder is simply one of those light cardboard document holder (costs Rp1K) and it doesn’t necessary be red, mine was pinkish/dark violet…but locals need to bring a yellow one, so, please make sure you have that document holder. you will not need pictures 🙂 I made them just in case, but you won’t be asked for it. you will need to photocopy your passport; need to photocopy the page where your picture is, a copy of the page where your visa sticker is and a copy (back and front) of your white departure card. you will also be asked for proof of onward travel arrangements that leave Indonesia…I didn’t have that hence I explained that I would be going to Singapore via ferry…something you can do because there are boats going all the way to Jakarta, then from Jakarta to Batam then Singapore…and in Singapore you don’t need visa to entry hence they could not ask for proof of visa request or anything like that which will get you stuck and lead to the officer requesting a proof of your country departure…if you are heading to east timor though I guess you can get a visa authorization well in advance and you can use that to proof that you will leave Indonesia. you will then need to fill two forms that are however very quick to prepare and hand over your passport to the officer. you will be given a receipt and asked to collect your passport three days later…on collection, present your receipt, pay Rp250k and get your passport with another 30 days extension. please note that for VOA you will only be able to renew your visa once (hence total possible stay in the country is 60 days).
    hope this helps those that are travelling towards flores and need this info!!! cheers

    • Antuz says:

      sorry, just wanted to clarify that the form you will need to fill will be provided to you at the immigration office (kantor imigrasi; kantor = office) and you will be able to fill them on the spot. just head there with the following list (so you don’t miss anything):
      1. a red (redish) folder/documents holder
      2. photocopy of your main passport page
      3. photocopy of your visa on arrival sticker
      4. photocopy of your white departure card
      5. proof of onward travel arrangements
      6. your physical passport

      happy travels!

    • Theodora says:

      Thank you so much, Antuz! Really valuable info. Did you extend a 60-day visa or a VOA there? The process is slightly different for a 60-day, in my experience, in that they want a sponsor…