Couchfish Week 14: Would you like my daughter? I’ll be back in a week.

Couchfish Week 14: Would you like my daughter? I’ll be back in a week.


Side note: There was no Couchfish this morning and this post is late. Sorry—I motorbiked through a swarm of wasps yesterday. They got stuck under my shirt and stung the hell out of me. As a result I’ve been feeling a little out of sorts. No, this is not the Indonesia version of the dog ate my homework. My apologies. All the photos in this post are from Kep—it is far prettier there than a back room at immigration at CGK.

When keen travellers have their first child, travelling changes somewhat. I’m a firm believer that having kids on this roller coaster of life delivers higher highs and lower lows. The same goes for travel.

Final destination: Kep. Photo: Mark Ord.

My first child, Lyla, was born in Bangkok, though we were living in Jakarta at the time. So her first trip, the trip home, was when she was a month old. Her first real trip though, was to Cambodia, when she was two. Invited to the wedding of friends, we planned to fly up via KL to Phnom Penh, then drive down to Kep for the ceremony.

Simple plan. Well, it seemed simple anyway.

At the time Sam was working for an agency in Jakarta and the firm had an agent who looked after all our visa needs. If you’re lucky enough not to be familiar with some of Indonesia’s visa regulations, let me explain. Imagine if you wanted to design a visa system to justify the need for visa agents, look to Indonesia.

Great digs. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

At the time, in a scheme to encourage local tourism, Indonesia had a 1,000,000 rupiah departure tax called FISKAL. Anyone with a stay permit (including Indonesians) had to pay it, in cash, each time you left the country. I wasn’t on a work permit at the time, so I didn’t, but Sam did.

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If you were a foreigner on a work permit, you also needed a re–entry permit. Getting this was a separate process to getting the visa, but was often processed at the same time for a extra fee

The agent looked after all this, so aside from handing over the cash, the process was pretty seamless.

Not too shabby. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

So, we hit Jakarta’s Soekarno–Hatta International Airport (CGK), excited for the wedding. We‘re also a bit freaked out about our first trip abroad with an infant. At the time CGK was an accidentally but wonderfully retro airport.

We check in, pay the FISKAL, and go through to immigration with what felt like our 68 kilos of baby–carry–on.

The officer leafs through my passport, then stamps me out.

The officer leafs through Sam’s passport, then stamps her out.

The officer leafs through Lyla’s shiny new Australian passport, and leafs, and leafs...

And leafs some more.

Float in the ocean and forget about re–entry stamps. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

She’s two years old, and has done one flight in her life. What could he be looking at ... or for?

“Where’s her re–entry stamp?,” he asks.

“Her what?”

“There is no re–entry stamp in her passport,” he says, handing it back to me.

I leaf through it. There is no re–entry stamp.

I look at my phone to check the time, as he waves us off to Room 101. As we walk over, we both leaf through the blue book. There is no re–entry stamp.

I tell ya, you want something done, do it yourself.

Bloody awful. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

We reach the room—it’s a typically Indonesian airport immigration office (I have seen a few!). Fake leather black couch, glass counter top desk with a half full ashtray. Glass framed leaders on the wall. Air–con on low.

An officer joins us, super polite. He leafs through the passport, page by page. They’re all blank, but still he goes through every page. The clock ticks. He asks to see our boarding passes, we hand them over. Then:

“Your daughter has no re–entry permit.”

“Yes I know,” I say. I explain the agent must have screwed something up, I apologise, and I ask, how can I fix this?

At this point I’m not actually offering a bribe, rather I want to know what to do.

Does a two year old care about the view? Clearly not. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

“Oh it is simple, no problem. You need to go to the immigration office and they can do it there,” he says.

Me, thinking it is somewhere in the airport terminal (newbie!), ask where is the office? We’re in a hurry as the flight is leaving soon.

“Jakarta,” he says.


“It is in Jakarta. You can go there, get the permit and then your daughter can leave.”

“But we’ll miss our flight if we do that,” I blurt out, as it all sinks in.

“Yes, I don’t think you’ll make it,” he replies. He’s so dead–pan it kills me.

So I ask, is there not an immigration office at the airport? Could they or he help us?

Recovery mode. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

More slow page leafing, then he says

“Yes, I’m sure we can do it for you here.”

We sit, waiting for him to pull out a stamp and stuff, and do it on the spot.

“The charge will be US$200.”

Somewhere a plane takes off.

He’s done the calculus, he knows we’re flying AirAsia—so forget about refunds—and he knows the clock is ticking. At the time a re–entry permit was worth around $50.

Sam explodes.

Thanks to run ins over the years, I’m wary of arguing with immigration officers. Particularly in cases when you’re in the wrong—as we are.

That guy clearly has a re–entry permit. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

We argue. Back and forward, back and forward it goes.

Wearying of it, he says:

“You and your husband can go to Cambodia and come back. Your daughter can go, but she can not come back on this visa,” his finger stamping on her KITAS stamp (a type of stay permit).

“If you take her, you must get her a new visa in Cambodia.”

We keep arguing. Sam and I are both well annoyed, but we don’t have a leg to stand on. It is our mistake, well, the agent’s.

With all the raised voices, Lyla wakes and Sam holds her while berating the immigration guy. She tells him to go out to the back room, and give us the stamp. We’re happy to pay a “handling fee” to expedite it, but $200 is outrageous, we say.

We keep arguing.

Imagine floating in that, rolling over, and seeing an elephant walk past. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Then Sam stands, livid, plonks Lyla on the guy’s desk and says:

“Ok would you like my daughter? I’ll be back in a week.”

I’ll never forget sitting there at the desk at that moment. Looking at the guy’s face as he eyes off Sam, then Lyla, then me, his eye’s asking “is she serious?”

These freaking crazy bule.

He demurs, “Maybe you can call your agent and I can speak to them,” he says.

Aka: call a sane Indonesian I can deal with.

He’s on the phone with the agent for five minutes, then passes the phone back to Sam. He stands, ambles to a back room, and stamps in the re–entry permit. The agent has negotiated it down to $100. We pay—the agent paid us back later.

There’s always the crab market nearby. Photo: Mark Ord.

Two days later I’m soaking, post celebration, in the garden pool at Knai Bang Chatt in Kep. It is late light and I’ve been floating in the pool, looking at clouds. I turn to watch the sunset, and an elephant walks past me right in front of the pool.

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The dusty, smoky, immigration back room at CGK is not in the forefront of my mind.

Always check your visa stamps.

The Couchfish podcast. Following a day by day itinerary through Southeast Asia—for all those people stranded on their couch.