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11.8.10

Livin' the Old West in the New East

OK, so I go on and on about how much fun Indonesia is. Sure, it's pretty damn cool and there are lots of things, like personal freedom and the complete lack of surveillance cams, that make this a damn fine place to live. There's even the bit about how, short of murder and drug running, there's pretty much no crime that a little well-applied cash won't cure.

But...

One thing that really weirds me out is the Supreme Act of Buying Booze. To get a bottle of Absolut, we're not talking handle here...just a fifth, is like walking into Spec's and asking for a few g's of sinse and a couple of Buddha balls. Just ain't gonna happen.

Imagine, if you will, walking into the corner store and whispering to the clerk that you want a bottle of booze. They look around and reach under the counter and pull out a wad of newspaper that disguises the occult treasure. Thirty bucks for a fifth of Absolut! No tax stamp or anything, like it just fell off the duty-free delivery truck.

Oh sure, you can get the local rot-gut from Manado, Mansion House, for three bucks a pint. It has all the flavor and panache of colored water, though five or six pints will cop a buzz. The vodka is made from manggo juice, which pardon me for pointing this out, but vodka is made from starches, like potatoes.

If you're lucky, you have a rich buddy who runs to Bali on a regular basis and brings you oleh-oleh of arak, which tastes like Gran Marnier. I mean, have you ever tried to get drunk on Gran Mariner? You start to feel like Anita Bryant after three or four shots, singing, trashing gays and pitching Florida oranges all at the same time.

Bali and Manado are the two places in Indonesia where you can enjoy yourself openly without 30 people standing around tsk-tsking and taking notes for the local morality police.

You can get local brew, which amounts to two kinds of red wine aged about ten minutes. One is anggur merah (red wine) that is basically drinking Welch's grape juice with a hang-over. The other is anggur orang tua, or old man wine. It is a spiced wine with a licorice flavor that is mixed 50-50 with lager. Both are considered VERY low class and no Indonesian of stature would be caught drinking such things. Another one is cap tikus, which more or less means mouse piss. It is distilled coconut milk and has a proof of around 100 (hard to say for sure since it's moonshine). The real stuff is imbued with a fetal deer, something like the worm in a bottle of mescal. Let's just say that after a few rounds, you'll eat the deer and just about anything else in sight.

So anyway, what this was all about in the first place are the Nazis in Singapore. There I was in the Singpore airport for six hours and all I could think about for a month before was buying a decent bottle of Absolut (a handle, no less) to take back to Jakarta for my 49th birthday. Keep in mind it has been about two years since I had a decent bottle of world-class hooch to play with here. Wanting to make sure I didn't forget or run out of money before I got my prize, I bought the bottle on the way out of customs. I carefully loaded it in my day-pack and proceeded to enjoy the airport amenities.

After escaping the BOHICA, I went to the huge tote board at the front of Terminal 1, where I learned that my return flight to Jakarta was leaving on-time (har har har! an Indonesian flight going to Indonesia leaving on-time) from Terminal 3. I jumped the scooter train and landed at T3, where I checked in early, got my boarding pass and all was right with the world.

I wound my way to Harry's Pub, which is the free (non-first class/club member) watering hole and met Brian, a 20-something Aussie on his way to Greece for two weeks to enjoy a woman. Things must really be bad in Oz to go to all that trouble. We gabbed over a couple of delicious Tiger beers, alternating rounds.

At one point, I looked at my watch. 8:15. Still had an hour to get to the plane. Time for one more.

"Are you sure," Brian asked. "I have 9:15."

Oh SHIT! I had forgotten to set my watch for Sing time, which is an hour ahead of Jakarta. I now had 5 minutes to make a mad dash to somewhere, since I didn't really know where the gate was. I had planned on a leisurely walk there, not a panicked scramble across the sterile rabbit warren that is Sing airport. When I made it to the gate, sweating and out of breath, I noticed that passengers were still disembarking from the previous flight. Why had I run? It's an Indonesian airline flying to Indonesia. We'll be lucky to get wheels up 45 minutes late.

As I stood in line to go through the Nazi scanning device, I cooled down and started thinking in Indonesian again so that I would be prepared to return home. I clutched my precious bottle and smiled.

I passed through the radiation zone and was about to take my bag and wait well past the posted time to board the plane when an attractive, uniformed Indonesian woman said, "Is that a bottle of alcohol in your bag?"

"Oh, yes. It's just one, so I don't need a customs slip right?"

"May I see it?"

"Of course," I said, opening my bag and showing her the contents.

"Oh, I'm afraid I have to confiscate it."

"W-H-A-T??!!"

She pulled out the precious bottle, still SEALED, nestled in its nice little plasic souvenier shopping bag, with the receipt resting comfortably at the bottom.

"Sorry sir, I have to take it."

"W-H-A-T??!!"

"It's not in a sealed bag."

"The bottle is sealed. See?" I pointed to the factory wrap still staunchly in place around the cap.

"They're supposed to put this in a sealed bag when you buy it," she offered.

"This is how they gave it to me!"

"Then I'm sorry, I have to take it."

"W-H-A-T??!!"

Noticing a disturbance, a stern Chinese woman with a butch haircut came over to inspect the goings-on. I explained that I had purchased the bottle at duty-free and was taking back for my birthday celebration and that it had been since I had enjoyed such fine quality hooch and surely there must be some mistake here. She was unmoved.

I explained how I had bought it at duty-free on the way in so I didn't forget it and that it was the only oleh-oleh I had purchased. I mentioned how the price was the same coming and going and how the bottle had never been opened and look, the receipt shows I bought it only hours before.

"When you bought it, it was expected that you would consume it in Singapore," she replied in a perfect cartoon Asian accent.

"W-H-A-T??!!"

The stern Chinese woman returned to her post and I was left facing the Indonesian woman. I offered the obligatory bribes and gave her my cell number promising a wild night on the town when she got shore leave. I begged and pleaded and did my best Tiny Tim act. I could see that she was ready to relent and was looking around for some way to take me up on my offers, being Indonesian and all.

"Can I just drink it all right here?" I sobbed.

At this point, the Chinese woman reappeared and said that I could, but then she could not let me on the plane because I would be inebriated. Keep in mind that I had spilled a beer on myself at Harry's, so I already smelled like a brew pub at closing time. I didn't like the Chinese woman. To her credit, the Indonesian woman would have taken the bribe, I could see it in her eyes. But, in Sing, she would have lost her job. At home, she would have gotten a promotion.

Finally, they were calling my flight and I had to relent. Other than grab and run, nothing short a good distraction was going to help this situation, and no distraction was forthcoming.

Some damn agent with airport security got my bottle. The bastards. i hate that. They take it from you because you were going in the wrong direction when you bought it, and then they take it home and enjoy it while laughing at you for buying them a drink.

I've never liked all the asenine rules about customs and I certainly have no love lost with anything calling itself an agent. I do, however, appreciate the Indonesian acceptance of bribery. You see, if I pay a bribe and get what I want, it's so much better than having something confiscated under some obscure rule and then used by an agent. All that means is that I paid a bribe for nothing, so they can enjoy my booze, pen knives and lighters. In the end, bribery keeps things more on the level and there is no pretense. There's a reason 'force' is the root of 'enforcement.' At least with bribery, there's no force, everyone's happy and the general bullshit level stays pretty low.

I shoulda been born in the Old West, but at least I have Indonesia.

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