Dec 07, 2023 Last Updated 1:42 AM, Dec 7, 2023

Airport rats

Published: Sep 30, 2007

On a visit to her home country, a disconcerting experience at Jakarta Airport leads Agustini Putranto to ask: 'Is this what Indonesia has become?'

Agustini Putranto

This story may not be anything out of the ordinary to people whoroutinely do business with the customs officers at Soekarno- HattaAirport in Jakarta, especially with those officials responsiblefor clearing imported cargo and unaccompanied baggage. Howeverfor me, as someone who had never previously dealt with thesepeople, my experience when retrieving my unaccompanied baggagefrom the Garuda Airlines freight terminal was a nightmare that Iwill never forget.

I share this story in the hope that other people, especially lowly paid civil servants studying abroad as I was, might be wary of the freight terminal touts, who swarm like filthy rats over unsuspecting travellers.

Escaped criminal

I was a little shocked when at the door to the freight terminal,I was asked to hand over one thousand rupiah. After that, I wasswamped by a pack of touts, several of whom had really uglyfaces. Perhaps they were criminals who had escaped from theclutches of the cops, I thought.

Finally, I fell into the hands of a tout named Sulaeman. To therear of Sulaeman, two more touts had attached themselves. Theyfollowed me everywhere. One of these two introduced himself asJeffry, the other one, who looked liked like a real 'crim', didn't introduce himself. He always stuck close by and was apparently the boss of Sulaeman and Jeffry.

Finally Sulaeman, who claimed to be from North Sumatra -- perhapsso I would be more afraid of him -- offered to help me. He spokewith rather a Batak accent, but when I asked him about hisclan-name, he just scratched his head and avoided answering. Itried to make clear to them that I was not a well-off businessmanimporting goods who they could rip off. I was just a juniorpublic servant undertaking study abroad on a salary that wasbarely adequate.

Sulaeman was busy helping me. He deftly grabbed my documents frommy hand. I became aware of the carefully managed environment inthe freight terminal which allowed the touts to operate sofreely.

In the Garuda section of the building, I didn't encounter any great difficulty, and didn't have to get any 'encouragement' money from my wallet. However, I couldn't be certain whether the touts had slipped any money into my documents before they were handed over.

As I approached the customs section, Sulaeman began to request money. I gave him two thousand rupiah and he slipped the money into my documents. It was at this point that I began to hear the name of Pak Galo. The touts, smiling sweetly, were openly calling out to Pak Galo while holding up the money in their hands.

Unfortunately my luck was out. Just as I was handing over my money, the lunch hour was signalled. The counter, which resembled an old-fashioned ticket-box with a very small hole to pass the documents through, was closed before me. The rats in their hole needed time off to eat, and also, I thought, time to count their ill gotten gains. Even the touts withdrew, gathering on the side of the road.

Some touts who had already received their 'pocket money' had adjourned to the canteen to celebrate their good fortune. Some refreshment seemed like a good idea, so I also entered the canteen and invited Sulaeman to drink tea with me. I didn't want him to disappear with my money.

For me, earning money was not as easy as was apparently the casefor customs officials, or even for security guards such as PakSlamet Marwanto and his friends who asked me for one thousandrupiah when I finally managed to get my drinks. You could see thedisdain on their faces when they looked towards our table. Jeffryand Sulaeman were mocked because they had only hooked a smallfish. They would not even get a free lunch. I decided not toorder anything to eat because I wanted to show them that I indeeddidn't have enough money to stuff their mouths.

The cost of an orange juice, a sweet tea and an iced tea came toan outrageous five thousand rupiah. My family in Yogyakarta liveson that much money over an entire day. If I was to have lunch, Iwould probably be up for fifteen thousand rupiah.

While waiting in the canteen, I chatted to Sulaeman and Jeffry.Taking my cue from what some friends had said was a good idea, Iclaimed that I had an older brother in the special forces of thearmy and that a couple of my friends were sons of a general.However, this information did not seem to impress Sulaeman verymuch.

Wads of money

After one hour had passed, I asked Pak Galo about my things. Hesaid, with a slight smile, that they had not yet been processed.I told Pak Galo that I needed my things in a hurry because theywere necessary for my research. However, for Pak Galo and hisilk, there was no difference in importance between imported goodsweighing thousands of kilograms and personal effects weighingjust a few kilos. Everything had to undertake the same process,with the same documentation. I could see that some documents hadbig wads of money attached to them.

Finally, he ordered me to take my documents to Ibu Edy. With somedifficulty, I passed through the throng of security guards pretending to be busy. I had given Pak Galo two thousand rupiah for his 'kindness'.

While waiting for my documents to be signed by the official, Iclearly saw hundreds of thousands of rupiah pass into the tray ofIbu Edy. She occasionally pretended to be angry with a tout whocrowded her, but her hands deftly took any money that was thrustforward.

Ibu Edy made it clear that I did not need to hand her any money.Thanks very much for your understanding.

Because the officials who had to sign my papers were rather busy,I patiently waited in line and took the opportunity to examinewhat the touts were doing. I also observed the behaviour of thecustoms officials, most of whom were only pretending to be busy.

Privileged touts

I could see a man, who had an air of authority and discipline, busy organising his people to chase away certain touts who strayed too close to the customs officials. However, I could also see that certain other touts, who were obviously privileged, found it easy to operate in the middle of the customs officials.

I wandered into this area, but was chased away by a junior official trying to give the impression of maintaining order, even though he must have known that things were far from being as they should.

Sulaeman had said that my documents would be processed by Ibu Nur. When I saw an opportunity, I called her name and she immediately took up my papers, which had been laying to one side on her desk. Perhaps she realised that my property was just the personal effects of a junior public servant. For some time I had observed Ibu Nur working diligently to process the documents on her desk.

Meanwhile, I watched Ibu Sum pretending to be busy to one side ofIbu Nur. She was really just dithering aimlessly, and grumblingfrom time to time. She laughed derisively at me, perhaps becauseshe could not hear my answers to her questions.

Money slipped inside

I also watched Pak Hutajulu turn my document over and over. Hewas probably looking for any money slipped inside. He set asidemy document and proceeded to leaf through another document thathe thought might have money enclosed. When I asked him about mydocument, he said he wanted to go to the toilet and arrogantlyturned away from me. The cigarette he lit took less time tofinish than any of the documents in front of him.

While waiting for my document to be processed, I chatted with thetouts, who assumed an air of knowing everything that went on. Onetout, who was yet to find his victim for the day, tried tointimidate me by saying that the bank was about to close and so Iwould have to finish my business the next day. A few minutesafter this, my document was ready at last.

Sulaeman again deftly removed the document from my hand. I was forced to run quickly after him. Sulaeman was walking as if the devil was chasing him. He blithely entered the security zone, where the security guards evidently knew him. They could see he was carrying my document.

I was asked to show my identity papers. I held up my blue government employee passport while continuing on my way. I caught up to Sulaeman, who had already handed over my document. He was now searching for people who could find my baggage.

I had to wait some considerable time for my baggage to be found.After it was located, I had to accompany Sulaeman to where thebaggage was examined. Pak Iman, perhaps because he knew I wasjust a lowly public servant like himself, was quite friendly whenexamining my luggage. He even said that I need not pay any moneyto him or to anybody else. I noticed he had just put a considerable amount of money that a tout had given him into a draw.

My luggage was locked again and Sulaeman carried my document overto Pak Galo and his cronies. At this point Sulaeman disappearedto who knows where. Perhaps he knew that without money mydocument would not be processed quickly.

I again waited, this time in the company of an old acquaintancewho, as chance would have it, had just finished studying inGermany. Moreover, he was expressing his annoyance in nouncertain terms. However his abusive observations were nonchalantly answered by a tout, whose response went more or less like this: 'The culture here is like this. It doesn't matter if you are a public servant or a businessman. Everybody has to go through the same process .... slip money into the document.'

I understood what the tout was saying. For them, there was no difference between individuals just collecting their personal effects and people importing goods in bulk. All were to be worked over.

Extra money

Finally, after accepting that I would be better off paying to getmy bags processed than not paying and having to wait several daysfor my things to be released, I reluctantly handed over extramoney to bribe the officials at their desks. Because Sulaeman haddisappeared, Yanto took up the opportunity to be of service.

With a feeling of resignation, I handed forty thousand rupiah toYanto to cover the processing of my document and that of my friend. Apparently, Yanto wasn't a bonafide tout. He wasn't confident enough to enter into the security zone, even though other touts were coming and going, nonchalantly chatting with the officials inside. I had just about given up on getting anything for my money.

It took a long time for my document to be processed. When it wasready, a tout blithely grabbed it. This was too much to bear andI gave the tout a real serve. I was tense and upset. With anangry air, the tout surrendered the document to me. He then proceeded to pretend to be busily engaged in expediting my friend's document.

Finally, Yanto helped me to go through the last stage in the process. I felt a sense of resignation, but was relieved that it seemed almost over. Evidently, however, I still had to pass several more desks. I had to hand over a further five thousand rupiah before my luggage was at last actually in my hands.

By this stage, Yanto seemed to regret that he had given so muchmoney to Galo and friends, considering the small amount of luggage I had. However, this did not prevent him from fixing a tariff of twenty-five thousand rupiah for his services. Resignedly, I agreed to pay this amount, but in my heart I cursed him bitterly.

At the luggage pick-up desk, an official, using criminal parlance, said that my bags were 'bulat' (round). Perhaps this meant that my things were not very profitable to them, in that they were not much use in extorting bribes. I acted as if I was indifferent to whatever they said. But in my heart I said, 'These rotten bastards are just like filthy rats plundering whatever they can find'.

No problems?

I carried my luggage out of the building. The security guard, Slamet Marwanto, brazenly hit me for one thousand rupiah. I handed over a ten thousand rupiah note, and the guard immediately gave me change. One guard sympathetically asked me, 'You didn't have any problems did you, my friend?'. As I passed by, I replied, 'A lot of problems, actually, mate'.

Although my luggage was at last in my hands, I did not feel safe.I knew Sulaeman would be looking for me. I was right. He waswaiting for me. I was ready for him, but I was worried that Jeffry and his mate might promptly corner me as well. I managed to find a quiet place some distance away. There I negotiated a price with Sulaeman. Wanting to be generous, just as I had been with Pak Galo and the others, I gave Sulaeman fifteen thousand rupiah.

Apprehensively, while almost running, and turning around from time to time, I left the freight terminal building. Perhaps Jeffry and his ugly mate were following me yet. There would be nosafe place to shelter if those touts wanted to hassle me. I sawthree security guards sitting casually at the entrance gate. Oneman would have been sufficient to do the job. I was worried thatperhaps they would also hit me for money.

Not wanting to go from the frying pan into the fire, I changed direction and looked for a safer way out. I no longer had any trust in security guards, especially those who worked in customs and freight.

I was also worried that Yanto might be chasing me as well, because he had said earlier that he would wait for me outside.

Carrying my bag, which was rather heavy for me, I ran in ungainlyfashion along the gutter of the delivery road out of the freightterminal. I was relieved to see an 'ojek' (a motorcycle whosepillion seat is offered for hire) come up to me. I rode back tothe main airport terminal. However, I still didn't really feelsafe.

I decided to avoid any attempt by the touts to track me down byhiring an unofficial taxi. Thankfully, I arrived home safely. Athome, I was haunted by the faces of the touts, and by those ofthe officials from customs and Garuda Airlines.

The faces of Leman, Jeffry, Yanto, Bu Edy, Galo, Bu Sum, Hutajulu, Bu Nur, Pak Satpam and Pak Iman, and all the others, haunted me for a long time, and will not be forgotten easily. Perhaps they reflect the nature of the regime that currently rules over my country.

Agustini Putranto is the pseudonym of an Indonesian publicservant presently engaged in postgraduate studies in Australia.

Inside Indonesia 46: Mar 1996

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