Deportation is a pretty scary word. For me it has always been connected with people selling illegal drugs, murderers, and Edward Snowden. Turns out there are way lesser infractions for which you can be personally escorted out of the country. In my case, it includes not following protocol that no one informed you about.
Back in good ole October of 2015, I got my “Temporary Stay Visa” aka VITAS to enter the country of Indonesia. I’d been allowed to stay for a full year. This visa comes with 6 month, 1 year, and 2 year approvals. I was wickedly excited as I jumped on the train in New Jersey where I was staying with my parents. I was going to pick up my passport from the Embassy of Indonesia on the Upper East side of Manhattan. I’d been prepping for the adventure and counting down the days until I left while playing video games, watching Harry Potter films together with Rio over the phone, and filing out the necessary paperwork. I remember walking into the office, and in an anti-climactic fashion, politely handed back my visa. I opened it up, the visa expired in one year from the day.
“Is there anything else I have to do once I arrive in Indonesia?”
“No. That is all.” The polite Indonesian woman behind the counter replied. I thanked her in some stammering Bahasa Indonesian, and made my way home. Temporary stay visa is for one year, the expiration is a year, I was complete! Or so I thought… for many many months.
When I arrived at the Surabaya airport to be reunited with my husband, I proceeded to Immigration, bypassing the long line of expats at the “Visa on Arrival” section. I already had a visa! I felt proud, and scared. What happened if they turned me away? I remembered all the stories of the Irish immigrating into New York. Make sure you don’t have lice, pinch your cheeks, and don’t cough. None of these things really applied to me since I didn’t need to fake looking healthy. I gave my passport over opened to the page of my visa. “Is your husband Rio Maulana?” the tired immigration officer asked me. It was nearly midnight. I nodded my head. He asked a few more questions but they were very basic. With a lazy motion he stamped my passport and I was free to pick up my luggage. I was in!
Now, fast forward a few months. I’m having coffee with a half Indonesian, half German woman who knows a bit about getting freelance work. She asks if my visa allows me to work. My husband and I look critically at one another. We have been planning to apply for a KITAS, an upgraded version of my VITAS but we’ve held back and we’re not sure if I can work with what I currently have. But we’ve been waiting for his home town to officially recognize our American wedding as valid before we apply. We don’t know if I can, and decide to go home and check. She warns me of government raids that sweep through and check to make sure foreign workers are valid workers.
I go home and do some research. It is now late January. My research implies that we might have skipped a very serious step. Turns out my 1 year valid visa was actually just an entry visa. I had a year to enter the country, and then 7 days to report to immigration to get upgraded to a KITAS. I had been in the country for two and a half months. I called up my husband in tears and anger thinking we’d done something wrong, but with all the conflicting information we’d received, and with waiting for our marriage documents to process we just put a lid on it.
Then I had an interview for an English teacher position and was again asked about my visa status. Was I eligible to work? Again I stammered, and I thought back to the woman I had coffee with who asked me the same thing. I just didn’t know. He asked a few probing questions about the process I went through, and said I seemed to have been missing a few steps. The person was an American who had jumped the same hoops I supposedly was attempting to slip through. I told him I would check with Immigration myself and give him an answer. The night before, Rio checked the immigration website which magically had updated its information between that moment and the time I had arrived. He turned around in his chair, “Yeah, we screwed up.”
That was how I ended up in a chair next to my husband bawling my eyes out as an officer explained in broken English that I would need to leave the country for 6 months. It turns out we should indeed have come to our nearest immigration office within 7 days of my arrival according to the tiny faded print on the stamp in my passport that no one in their right mind would be able to read. It turns out we had 30 days to do it in reality according to immigration, and just in case we hadn’t the office had a 60 day window if you were willing to pay a fine for late processing. Ladies and gentlemen, I had arrived at the immigration office seeking answers to my dilemma at a whopping 117 days into my stay in Indonesia. I had 7 days to pack my things, tie up my loose ends, and leave.
Rio and I left stunned to our bones. We held hands fiercely as we walked up the hot metal staircase, across the overpass, and down into the bus stop sitting between the two road lanes. I had run out of embarrassing tears. “Well, at least I’m going to have American style cheetos in my near future.”
I laughed because earlier my husband turned to me and had asked, “Okay at the immigration office today, what is the worst case scenario?” I quickly retorted “I’m not a criminal, and if we’ve done anything wrong it’s not intentional. Worst case scenario, I get deported within 30 days probably and after a few weeks I come back.” I was so confident in my answer. I was both wrong and right about what would happen.
I don’t know if it was the crying I did, or the serious grave look Rio had on his face while speaking with the immigration officer, but within an hour of us leaving the office, the immigration officer texted Rio and asked us to come back another time because he wanted to help us. He asked that we do not book my ticket yet. I was optimistic. Perhaps they would allow us to pay the fine after all? It was accrued daily, and by my estimation we were talking $1,600 USD in fines. Just about the same amount for a last minute round trip ticket from Jakarta to the United States. Out of curiosity I did look up some stupidly expensive flights so the $1,600 price tag didn’t look so bad.
We came back a few days later to sign some paperwork. They wouldn’t be able to let me stay- I definitely had to leave. Out immigration made sure to reiterate this. However, they were looking to suspend the 6 month absence. Rio and I waited anxiously for a few days wondering what the verdict would be when finally, luckily, the immigration office decided I could simply leave, apply for another visa, and return.
I’d already spent those last few days calculating where I should go and where to stay. If I had to leave for 6 months, maybe I could work in a nearby country for a few weeks and buy a less expensive ticket home. Perhaps I would crash at my friend Gianna’s home in Melbourne until things got sorted out? Singapore, Malaysia, or Thailand were my options for short term stays. When I heard that my 6 month charge was dropped, we booked tickets for Singapore due to it being so close, and my US passport means I get 90 days entry no fuss. The rest is history.
Oh yeah, well, I did get a babysitter during my stay in the airport. This guy had my passport and didn’t give it back until 20 minutes to boarding in case I made a run for it. But he also asked to take a selfie with me. It was super weird, and super fun. But also super unprofessional and a little concerning. That’s Indonesia for you I guess.
Yes, I made it back to Indonesia safe and sound 🙂