I’m sitting in a hotel room in Mataram, Indonesia waiting to hear back from an immigration agent about fixing a visa extension for me. I planned on doing it myself – getting there early, jumping through hoops all day and hoping that with a sweet smile and polite request they would issue it in one day, rather than the standard 3 days. Then I did a little research and met an American expat who said not to bother – pay $10 more to an agent and ‘bang’ I would have it by the end of the day without even having to visit the Kantor Imigrasi. I’ve been doing some research online about other travellers’ experiences trying to get their extensions in Mataram and there is some conflict as to whether or not paying an agent (who ultimately pays a bribe to the immigration official) is supporting corruption within the country, or if that is just how things get done here and we need to leave our western judgements by the wayside.
To be honest, as a traveller I don’t mind a bit of corruption every now and then. There’s been many a time I have secured tickets and visas with a few notes attached and it has made life far easier. But, on the flip side, i’ve also seen it turn countries into seriously unbalanced and unfair worlds where unless you’ve got the extra to pay, you get left behind. Travelling in Madagascar last year I watched as mini bus drivers repeatedly handed over wads of cash to policemen and army officers to allow unroadworthy vehicles to continue traversing the country’s seriously debilitated roads – the costs of which were added on to passengers fares who were forced to travel in ever-deteriorating and dangerous vans. But ultimately they, and I, had no choice. My only power was to stare down the officials so they knew that I knew what they were participating in. But really, what is the solution? I think that strictly saying ‘no’ I am not going to participate and do everything by the books because that is what my ‘western’ education and morals tell me is a very short sighted and limiting choice. Corruption is often so rife, and often unseen, that you will never get anywhere as a traveller in many parts of the developing world if you choose to adopt the moral high ground. I think making accountable decisions on a case by case basis is a more open eyed approach. Consider who will be affected by your participation and whether or not it is going to be detrimental to the lives of others within the country.
Today, here in Mataram, a system has been created that expedites foreigners visa requests through the creation of a job for the ‘fixer’ and a little on the side for the immigration official – a system which is unofficial. In many other countries there is a set fee if you want a fast tracked visa which legitimises the process. Sometimes you just need to embrace the corruption and if you delve a little deeper it sometimes reveals so much about a culture that no travel guide or time on the road can ever hope to offer.