Clearing out of Indonesia: An unforgettable experience

This is a story about a remarkable man, and an unforgettable experience we had as part of our clearance process from Indonesia. It is a reminder that human kindness is alive and well, and often waiting to surprise you from the most unexpected corners of your life. It is the story of our departure from Indonesia, wrapped in the embrace of kinship and friendship.

Published 11 years ago, updated 5 years ago

The Totem crew with the Indonesian Navy team in the cockpit: © SV Totem

Totem arrived in Singkawang, West Kalimantan, to clear out of Indonesia. A short trip to the immigration office educated us that it was not actually a clearance port as advertised and that we would need to sail about 16 miles north to Pemangkat. This was on a Friday morning, and our visas expired on Sunday, so we needed to begin the process before closing time that day to avoid incurring fines for overstaying our visa.

So it was back down a muddy creek in the dinghy, back to the bay, back to Totem, anchor up, and north to Pemangkat. The friendly Singkawang immigration staff sent us with an oversimplified hand-drawn map to find the port authority (it could be summed up as “go north to the next point of land!”). The best information we could find about the Harbormaster’s office indicated it was up to the river, past Pemangkat harbour- about five miles, on a winding muddy route that was lined with fishing nets and weirs, charted depths matching Totem’s draft, and likely silted to less. Then again, we had derived the office location from the lat/long of a Foursquare check-in. Could it be right- was it really that far up the river? We couldn’t take Totem, and it was a long way to be exploring in the dink with a dwindling gas supply.

As we prepared to drop the dinghy, a small speedboat with men in uniform sped by, heading for the village across the bay. We flagged them down and made introductions with what turned out to be personnel from the local Navy post. The boat was under the command of Budi Wiratno, who understood in short order what we needed to do. Despite the fact that our clearance process did not involve his office, he immediately offered to bring us the distance upriver in his boat (it was, in fact, exactly where Foursquare indicated- viva la internet!).

What I didn’t realize until we arrived is that the offices were all closed, and the staff had gone home for an early closure in recognition of a local holiday- the ascension of Mohammed, I think. Not a problem. With a few calls, Budi helped to organize all the officials needed for us to begin the clearance process. Staff arrived and the process proceeded smoothly from there but was ultimately incomplete because a power outage prevented photocopying our passports and a few forms. Then, there was that one stain on the bureaucracy that we have occasionally encountered in Indonesia- one of the officials insisted that we pay him an extra 500,000 Rupiah (about $50). The reason provided- because it was after hours, and everyone had been brought in just to help us. It’s true that they didn’t have to come in, but this fee doesn’t exist on any official schedule. He just wanted to line his pockets a little.

I was brought into a side room for the not-so-subtle discussion where this fee was requested. The official brought Budi in with me; I think he believed it would help his case. He couldn’t have been more wrong. Clearly uncomfortable, Budi declined to support him, and said to me- paraphrasing- “the Navy doesn’t have office hours.” The request was dropped.

Our clearance wasn’t quite complete; we were told officials would return to Totem to wrap up the process the next day. With that, I was escorted back down the river by the courteous Navy crew. Only a few hours later, just as we had finished dinner, the Navy boat again pulled up alongside with the full complement of senior officials from the port authority’s immigration and customs staff- they were ready now! No problem- we invited them below and sat around the table to finish formalities. I asked if we could stay an extra day, so we could go to the market for some fresh produce (generally, boats are asked to depart immediately after clearance is complete)- sure, not a problem! A few more questions, a lot of smiles, a tour of the boat and we were finished. All, that is, except for the harbormaster’s clearance, which would come the next day.

Grateful for the help of Budi and his team, we invited them to visit the following morning and had freshly baked cinnamon bread waiting to thank them for all their help. When they arrived, a series of stuffed sacks were hefted up to Totem by the crew. Puzzled, we asked, “apa ini” (what’s this)? After seeing our canisters of dried beans and rice, Budi thought that we couldn’t possibly have enough food on board, so he went shopping on our behalf. In total, they delivered to us over 50 lbs of beautiful, fresh fruit, vegetables- then went to a passing fishing boat, and returned with four beautiful big fish– provisions worth easily a week’s wages. Although we pressed, they would not let us pay for anything.

Later that morning, Budi and his crew ferried out that pesky official. We completed formalities quickly enough and gave him a requested tour of the boat. Happy to share, of course. It was over soon, and time for him to go. He sat in the cockpit and squirmed, clearly uncomfortable about broaching the subject in front of an audience but wanting desperately to ask for a bribe again. This discussion was all in Indonesian, through me as the interpreter to our family. I practically hid behind my Navy friends, I confess: but Budi pressed the point. “Aren’t we done here? It’s time to go.” He physically and verbally distanced himself and was as eager to shuffle the corrupt official off Totem as I was. We were was soon successful.

There were many other small kindnesses and laughs we shared with the Navy crew. They were painfully polite, refraining from smoking on board, always concerned about how they tied up to make sure their boat wasn’t bumping on Totem in the fast current. They bought freshly fried bananas, a bag of oranges, and bottled water with them to offer me on our short ride up the river. We talked about everything from families (our own family’s Navy tradition, and our physical family distances: Budi is stationed far, far away from his wife and children on Java, and only has infrequent visits home), to politics (we are all fans of the current Indonesian president, SBY, and the good work he has done in recent years- but had some very frank discussions about the problems of today and the issues of the past as well). They went beyond the call of any duty and showed true camaraderie and friendship to our voyaging family.

Whatever did we do to deserve this? We thanked them as best we could. It took a flip through my dictionary to translate, but Budi patiently waited to make sure we understood what he wanted to us- we are brothers of the sea. It is his sincere wish that we let people know that Indonesia is a warm and welcoming place to visit- as it is, truly. For all the occasional challenges with bureaucracy in this country, they are mostly the growing pains of a large vast and disconnected archipelago, and the vast majority of our interactions with people are so positive. We experienced no ill will, only the occasional ping of opportunism.

I cannot begin to thank these men, but I know – as they are our brothers of the sea – that they will live in our memories, and hopefully someday we can reciprocate the hospitality that Budi, and the crew under his leadership, have shown to our little floating family.


SY Totem

See SY Totem’s blog with photos at the following link:

Comment Posted 21 July 2013

This story mirrors our Indonesian experience when crossing from Tawau in Sabbah to Bitung in Sulawesi, Indonesia. We arrived without visas due to the consulate in Tawau being closed for holidays and with a self-arranged CAIT cruising permit expecting problems due to all the stories that circulate amongst cruising boats. But we were blown away by the friendliness of the Customs and Immigration guys in Bitung. Visas were no problem, issued on arrival as well as arranging for fuel, provisioning and to collect my daughter from the airport who was flying in to join us the next day. And when her luggage failed to arrive they sorted that too and delivered it to the boat a couple of days later. These were ordinary Customs and immigration officials who genuinely wanted to help as much as possible. They sorted the harbour master, quarantine and CAIT registration by riding us around on the rear of their scooters. Indonesia is a fantastic cruising ground and we experienced no problems with officials wherever we went. We departed through Ambon for Darwin and received the same level of friendliness in Ambon too. Highly recommended and rallies are not needed to transit Indonesia. The CAIT was easy to arrange via email and we only needed to produce it on an entry in Bitung.

Fantastic cruising through the islands and a very positive experience.

Dave Ungless

SV Sänna


Related content


Read and Post Related Comments

Related to following destinations:

You must Login or Register to submit comments.

Click to access the login or register cheese