Like many things in life, corruption can be a double-edged sword. Of course it’s bad... it has crippled economies and is responsible for keeping millions of people impoverished... but in Indonesia, where it’s web touches almost every aspect of life, when you realise that, at the lowest level, it’s a necessary supplement to a very, very poor wage, if managed with mutual respect it can be - well - rather sweet.
A few years ago when I was driving one of my friend’s kids home after a play date with my daughter (the girls were about 4 years old at the time) I ran a red light. Now, for anyone not familiar with driving in Bali, this is very common and almost compulsory when you have a big bus tooting and practically pushing you up the rear. 99% of the time when I do it, I get away with it, but on this occasion I was unlucky, and, forced to stop in the middle of the road having had my exit cut off by turning traffic, it was obvious to any onlooker I’d done something wrong. Then, after several excruciating minutes ignoring the horns and trying to look invisible, when a policeman strolled out of his hut a few meters up the road, I knew I was in trouble.
What made me put my foot down when the light changed I’m not sure. Perhaps it was because the girls were tired and hungry after a long day playing in the pool and I didn’t want to keep them a moment longer than necessary from the supper I knew my friend had waiting for them. Or perhaps it was the glass of chilled Sav Blanc I knew she had waiting for me. All I do know is that, a couple of kilometers down the road, when I came to another red light I should have slipped through the petrol station on the corner, done a quick right at the green light and continued on my way. But I didn’t.
While I was still waiting for this light to change the policeman roared up on his motorbike, knocked on my window and told me to do a U-turn and go back to where I’d committed the offense. After parking by the police box I got the girls out of the back of the car and, holding their hands, squeezed inside after him.
There, in the intense mosquito-ridden heat, he very patiently explained what I’d done wrong and even found the relevant page in the Indonesian Highway Code (they have one?) on traffic lights and what to do when the light turns red. I apologised profusely for not stopping at the red light or his raised arm and politely asked if I could pay a “fine on the spot”. The policeman wasn’t as bashful as I was and replied that, yes, a small amount of coffee money would be acceptable. How small is small? I asked. Oh, he replied, Rupiah 50,000 (about US$5 at the time) would be enough.
On checking my purse I only had Rupiah 100,000 notes. So I left the girls as collateral while I walked to the nearest shop to get change. By the time I returned the policeman and both children were performing, complete with the arm actions, “Topi Saya Bundar” (My Hat is Round), a favourite Indonesian kiddy’s song. I was touched. I waited for them to finish, clapped with enthusiasm, handed over the Rupiah 50,000 note, shook hands with policeman and, taking the girls by the hand, left the hut. Before getting in the car we turned and waved goodbye to our new friend.
Can’t imagine that happening in England!
J M Leitch is author of The Zul Enigma, a factual futuristic thriller looking back at a cataclysmic event occurring on 21 December 2012, end of the Mayan calendar. 'Like' her author and book pages on Facebook and follow her on Twitter @JMLeitch.