An old era continues...

(Following the cheery "new era" report here.)

When traveling in Indonesia in the early 1980s, I used to marvel at the way the high-level mega- corruption of the Suharto family had filtered down to every level of life. The airports were somehow the most impressive example, since you assume them to be connected to international standards. In those days, the Garuda Airlines agent at the Jakarta airport might sorrowfully announce that your reservation had been canceled - until a bunch of Rupiah notes, passed discreetly across the  counter, made the bookings re-appear. Bags suddenly became "overweight" and impossible to fit onto the airplane, only to slim back down to an acceptable poundage  through the same person-to-person magic.

On this promising first day of 2009, my wife and I walk into a vast modern-looking Indonesian airport. After we've been through all the check-in rigmarole, we are directed upstairs to the departure gates. At the top of the stairs we find - surprise! - a departure-tax toll booth, where each departee must pay 150,000 Indonesian Rupiahs (about $13.75) in cash.

Old-fashioned element #1 in this set up: forking over cash, rather than building it into the ticket price as in most of the world. In the old days, this was prevalent everywhere. Now it's rare. #2: no noticeable previous mention of this fee within the airport or from the airlines, so that unless you happen to have kept 300,000Rp on you for sentimental reasons, you're stuck, as every other foreign traveler we observed was.  #3: other currencies accepted, but at punitive rates (eg,  $17 US dollars - or 170 Chinese RMB, the only cash we had on us, which is equivalent to $25).   #4: no ATMs in this part of the airport, but plenty of little money changing booths offering similar punitive rates. The tax collectors helpfully steer each flummoxed foreigner toward these booths.

Oh well.

But the real continuity with days of yore was #5, the solution to the problem. I had seen an ATM outside the airport. I asked a uniformed security guard if I could go out to withdraw Rupiahs there, at a more reasonable rate than from the money changers. He pointed to the big sign that said, "No one may leave the airport after check in." Tidak boleh. No can do.

Then he leaned closer and said, "Boss, I help you, you help me!"  I said Boleh! - "can do!" - and slipped out the door he opened for me. I walked the few feet to the ATM, got my 300,000 Rupiahs for departure tax -- and a little more for whatever you would call lagniappe in Indonesian. Back in the door, a Happy New Year greeting to the guard with a discreet money-passing handshake, and on to the plane. It was as if we'd never been away.