I arrived in Indonesia at the Denpasar Airport in Bali around 12:30am on Valentine’s Day with a developing ear infection. It had started as a bad cold, but after a few connecting flights I was pretty sure where it was headed. I had popped my ears so many times that I couldn’t tell what was the ‘normal’ ear pressure anymore, let alone get myself to that place. So on a layover in Kuala Lumpur I saw the airport Pharmacist.
He gave me a prescription for anti-biotic eardrops on the spot and sent me on my way. They helped too. All the same, I arrived in Bali sick. We stayed in a town called Ubud, which was beautiful. But it was not for a day or two that I eventually went to an Indonesian Pharmacy where I was given a series of 4 pills that were to be taken in a single day in an aluminum package labeled ‘STOP COLD.’ I woke up the next day feeling almost perfect. Once again, Asian medicine for the win.
Renting A Bike In Bali
So the first few days were relatively unproductive. I was under the weather (and badly sunburned at this point) but I did persevere to explore Ubud in search of a good semi-automatic motorbike rental. Renting a bike for 1 day normally cost around 50,000 IDR (Indonesian Rupiah) but for a longer period like ours the price per day should drop to 3 or 4 USD per day.
A friend of a friend, the son of an American expatriate in Bali who had grown up on the island and was fluent in both Indonesian and Balinese, agreed to meet us and give us a few pointers. Most bike rentals in Ubud rented out only automatic transmission bikes. This was not what we were looking for. It took some doing to find semi-automatic bikes. When we finally found them a man was offering us his personal bike to rent for 30,000 IDR per day (a good price). This conversation was had in Indonesian through our new friend and the man told him that the bikes would be available the next day.
That would have been perfect but our new friend grew nervous, realizing that this man would almost certainly not be okay with us taking the bikes off of Bali, let alone all the way to Flores. If there were any consequences to his deception then it would surely be him facing the consequences rather than us.
It turned out that most bike rentals on Bali would not allow you to take the bikes off of the island for fear that you would ride off into the sunset never to be seen again. But then, how were they going to know? They wouldn’t. But the police apparently also check for that kind of thing when boarding the ferries. So, at the very least, this added the cost of a recurring, hefty police bribe onto the existing tariff for bringing motorbikes onto ferries. Still, it would likely have been fine but there was uncertainty building with our plan.
The next day we decided to strike out on our own to find a bike without the help of our new friend. I was determined to find a bike by the end of the day. Finding nothing in Ubud, we got a cab down to Australian Surfer-Dude Tourist-Hell, Kuta. Kuta is about a 300,000 IDR (30 USD) cab ride away from Ubud. Our first courters for a bike rental I rejected on account of them doing their business in front of a boarded up shack. Sketchy. So in the hot sun we pushed further. We were getting quite the run around with hotels, renting companies and differing prices until eventually a cab driver who was driving us claimed to know the best bike rentals in Kuta. This company had the bikes we needed but they were quick to warn me against leaving the island with their bikes. So I told them no.
Losing faith in my plan as I walked down the crowded boardwalk, I realized it might be time to consider a change in plans. I’ve been known to be a pretty stubborn guy so this was a difficult admission for me. We were already losing time thanks to me being sick. So I decided to just let it go and mope my way back to Ubud where I rented the first automatic transmission bike I saw available to get me around until we figured out what to do next.
Police Bribe #1
Traffic in Indonesia has nothing on Vietnam. But it doesn’t change the fact that it is an unfamiliar place. To make matters more confusing, taking after their British colonizers, they drive on the left side of the road. Indonesia also is an apparent sanctuary for one-way streets. I had been driving for about 2 blocks before I turned the wrong way onto a one-way street and was stopped by a police officer.
I had been briefed on what to do in this situation and it played out more or less how it had been described to me. The policeman asked for my registration and license. I obviously don’t have an international driver’s license so he’s got me there. He sat me down in their police station and scolded me as a shook a small booklet full of prices and descriptions of various fines in my face. My ‘fine’ was 250,000 IDR (about 25 USD).
To be clear, this booklet of ‘fines’ was 100% bullshit. It was written only in Indonesian so for all I knew, it was a cookbook. But real fines aren’t negotiable. Real police officers don’t stand at the busiest tourist intersections looking for travelers to prey on. The entire rest of our trip we didn’t see a single police officer anywhere if they weren’t hassling a white person about something.
Anyway, I had been given strict instructions from my friends to never pay more than 50,000 IDR for a bribe. So turning the top of my wallet away from him as I looked through the 1,000,000 IDR I had just taken out of the ATM, I explained to him that I had almost no money. I gave him ‘what I had on me’ which was the 50,000 IDR as instructed. He took it.
Then he told me to sign my name on a small slip of paper that he tore out of the booklet. I asked what it was for. He laughed and said “I don’t know.” I pressed him on it and his responses alternated ‘I don’t know’ and ‘okay.’ Annoyed I signed my name on a little scrap of paper and then I was on my way. He gave me the stink-eye as I collected me things and walked out of the station.
Whatever bro, I literally just bought you for 5 dollars.
Police Bribe #2
2 hours later. Now, it was really hot this day. So since I didn’t have to go far I left the helmet in the hotel. And I was pulled over in the same intersection for my lack of helmet. Apparently that’s a rule.
This officer was taller than me, which is pretty outside of the norms in Asia. Wearing cowboy boots and aviator sunglasses, he played with his mustache as he perused my registration. Then he looked up at me and in a hearty, friendly voice, he broke it down for me. He told me what I had done and laid out my two options. “Option one” he began, holding one finger in the air. He told me that he would keep the registration until tomorrow morning when I would appear in court. There he would return my registration to me and it would be decided if I did indeed need to pay the $25 or not. He paused for effect at the end of his explanation. I was tempted to take ‘option one’ just for fun.
The pause at the end of his sentence continued. It was good showmanship on his part I guess. But, impatient to move things along, I said ‘And option 2 I suppose is that I pay you right now and then you give me my registration back?’ The officer cracked up, throwing his head back with a jolly laugh. ‘Good man! Very good man!’ he said shaking my hand firmly. I couldn’t help but chuckle with him.
Unfortunately, as I opened my wallet, I realized that I had already made a tactical error. I had no small bills in my wallet. The smallest denomination of currency I had on me was a bill for 100,000 IDR (about $10 – twice what bribes were supposed to be). But one of the first rules of bribes is that you don’t ask the person you are bribing to make change for you.
“Well I don’t have 250,000 Rupiah in my wallet right now…” I began.
“150,000?” He countered immediately with one eyebrow raised. His voice inflected upwards at the end of his counter offer. Yeah, this was clearly a negotiation.
“I only have 100,000 right now.” I told him.
He took it with a smile and we shook hands. Another police officer teased me jokingly as I wheeled my bike around.
“Yeah, yeah” I said with an eye roll as I hopped back onto my bike and sped away.
So here you go…
The Rules For Bribing Indonesian Police
- Be friendly and apologetic
- You should pay between 30,000 IDR (2.16 USD) and 50,000 IDR (3.60 USD) for a bribe for 1 officer. More officers will mean more money.
- To ensure your ability to get this price, carry a lot of small bills in your wallet. Hide your larger denominations of money somewhere else on your person.
With all this out of the way it was time to start actually enjoying Indonesia. A couple days later we chartered a boat that would take us almost the same route that we had planned to Komodo Island, but by sea. Not a terrible compromise.