Learn a Language – Change the World Part 2 – No Money No Funny

Who Wants to Be A Refugee?

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This was the most challenging trip on the hunt for families of victims of People Smuggling syndicates across Indonesia. The journey left from Bangkok, Thailand, to Bali, then onto Sumba island just near Timor and Komodo Island, then onto Galesong near Makassar or Ujung Pandang on Sulawesi, then across to SE Sulawesi to Kendari, sailed down to Raha on Muna Island with a final destination of the remote 1km x 300m Maginti Island.

In Part One ‘Unchartered Waters’, I gave an overview of how language had taken me to many weird and wonderful places.  There are many programmes and groups out there fighting to help and defend the rights of refugees. My views have changed a lot since working on these people smuggling issues as to what actually constitutes a refugee? Is a Burmese person who has lived in Malaysia for 25 years and now has an Indonesian wife, children, house and has worked well enough to have USD$20,000 to make the journey a real refugee? I’m not sure.

The latest project that I have been working on is trying to help some of the families of the victims of People Smuggling gangs operating in SE Asia and particular Indonesia.  These People Smuggling gangs target the poorest of the poor in Indonesia by waving a few hundred dollars in their face to entice them to get on a fishing boat that is waiting for them and work as a chef or mechanic.  They think they will be taking foreigners around to other islands in Indonesia and will be home in around five to seven days.  Not bad work if you can get it (in their eyes), considering that the usual wages for these people would be around USD$1 per day if they’re lucky enough to get work.   Little do they know that the business model of the smugglers is to have them caught by the Australian Navy or Australian Customs so that the Australian Government are forced to accept their ‘cargo’ i.e. Iranian, Afghani, Rohingyan or Iraqi ‘refugees’ that had paid the gangs anywhere between USD$10,000 -$20,000 for their passage from Pakistan, Afghanistan or Malaysia through to Christmas Island.   The ‘refugees’ more than often gain assylum, get PR, housing and other benefits from the Australian Government and the Indonesian crew find themselves in maximum security prisons across Australia, facing the mandatory 5-year sentence for the ‘Bringing a group of five or more people to Australia, and in doing so reckless as to whether or not they had a legal right to enter Australia’ (that is my summary of the charge from memory). 

What do the Ends of the Earth actually look like?

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Traveled to the ends of the earth to help these kids' daddy get home to them again. Traveling across the open ocean in a tiny fishing boat in the middle of the night, after 5 hours the rendezvouz point was finally reached.

My previous People Smuggling mission in Indonesia was a walk in the park compared to this one. On the first trip, we based ourselves out of Jakarta, stayed at nice hotels and did day trips in an air-conditioned MPV to Indramayu, Serang, then flew to Surabaya and traveled a few hours to Mount Bromo. The 4am volcano climb was quite challenging, but it was still very controled and civilised.

In this trip, we needed to travel to Sumba which is pretty much directly above Australia – a few islands away from Timor, then up to Makassar (Unjung Pandang) in Sulawesi, then across to a tiny remote island in the middle of the ocean off the island of Muna in South East Sulawesi.

Shonky Travel Agent Scams – Speaking the Language Could Save You From Getting Burnt

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Based out of Bali, the first destination was Sumba. To get to the village, you need to fly into Tambolaka and then take a 2 hr drive down to Waikabubak. You'll probably have to end up staying at a hotel there as the return flights are infrequent. Many of the 'good' hotels suggested by locals are appaling - spiders, cockroaches, geckos, no running water and no air-conditioning. Luckily, I found the Manandang hotel. Compared to the other hotels, it was paradise. No hot water, but good food (for a price) and air-conditioning.

The first dilemma I faced started before I even arrived in Indonesia. After researching on the internet as much as I could about places like Sumba and Maginti Island, I realised that it was not possible to directly book any of these flights / boat tickets online directly. I had to go through a local agent. Living in Thailand, I always hear of the shonky travel agent scams but never thought that I would fall victim to such a scam. The basic scam is where a person puts up a good looking website or even hires an office and makes it look like a legitimate travel agency. Foreigners book tickets with them and pay them cash for the tickets. The agent issues them with bogus confirmation details and booking reference number, which the unwitting tourist only finds out once they arrive at the airport and discover that there wasn’t ever any booking to start with.

I had no choice. My schedule in Indonesia was very tight and I needed to plan the flights and transfers like clockwork if I was going to successfully complete the mission. I searched online and looked for the travel agency that looked as though they had the best reputation for ticketing and tours to those regions. I finally found one and contacted him by telephone from Bangkok.

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Sitting with the village head on the porch of a Sumba village house, waiting for the wife of a detainee to come back from the rice-fields 6km away on foot. These villages live purely on subsistence farming. No monetary profit comes from their labour.

Speaking entirely in Indonesian, I booked the initial flights to Sumba with him. The catch was that I needed to pay him cash before the close of business to secure the seat. He said that there were limited flights to Sumba and if a flight isn’t confirmed and paid for 3 days before the flight, if there arent enough passengers, the service is more than often cancelled. Sounded dodgy, but what could I do? The next catch was that he didn’t have a secure website that i could use my credit card. He insisted that I use Paypal. I ended up making the payment via paypal. After a few minutes, he messaged me back telling me that he can’t work with the paypal method as the bank told him that it would take up to 10 days to clear! He did a paypal refund, but because this was done from my debit card, it locked away over $700 from being able to be used. I had one hour left before the close of business. He insisted that I do a Western Union money transfer. I did and he received the money and sent me the flight confirmation. I spent the next day in Bangkok feeling relieved that I had the Sumba flights settled. Come the next day, I started to question myself as to whether this was a false sense of security. I phoned the airline’s Bali office directly and the agent told me that there was no such booking reference! She even went as far as giving me a full list of the passengers for that flight. I dont know where she stands legally in doing that, but the action was appreciated. I was nowhere to be seen on the list.

I then immediately called the agent. He kept rejecting my calls. Finally he responded to a text I sent him and said he was in church as it was Christmas Day and he would call me back shortly. He finally called and I asked him what was going on? He said he too was ‘confused’ and would get on it right away. He came back after a few hours with a new booking reference. Not wanting to chance it again, I called the airline again. The airline said there was now a ONE WAY booking to Sumba, but it hadn’t been paid for and would be cancelled if not paid in full by 16:00 that day. After several calls back and forth, I finally pushed him to pay for it and get the booking confirmed … Or so I thought. He still hadn’t booked the return flight at all. I had to push and push all the way until it was done.

Language Saved me Once Again
The moral of this story is, if I was your typical tourist that could’t speak Indonesian, the situation would have ended very differently.

My Worst Travel Nightmare Realised – Selamat Datang di Bali: Welcome to Bali Hades!

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Bintang Bali tank top... seems like the new Australian flag worn with pride in Baaaaaaaali


I have been traveling to Bali for many years now.  Each time I go back, my remorse for the place grows stronger and stronger.  This time, I had a few extra things happen to me to leave a bad taste in my mouth.

I had checked out of my hotel in Bangkok at around 3am.  I handed them my credit card (which was actually a debit card – try to avoid credit cards like the plague now) to fix the costs up.  They gave me the receipt, I left to the airport.  I was using an Australian bank’s debit card and planned to withdraw the funds in Indonesian Rupiah (IDR) when I arrived at Denpasar airport so that I didn’t have to pay double exchange fees from withdrawing Thai Baht, then changing it again to Indonesian Rupiah.

I arrived at Denpasar Airport and after an initial extortion attempt by Indonesian Customs Officials, I was able to sway them convincing them I was brought up in Indonesia and we parted laughing (on the outside). I went out to the ATM section as I needed to withdraw the equivalent of a couple of thousand dollars to cover airfares to Makassar, Kendari, hotel costs in Sumba, drivers, food and other expenses along the way.

I realised my worst fear when I opened my wallet only to see a gaping space where my Visa Debit Card should have been. Initial reaction – controlled panic. I retraced my steps in my mind and realised that the last place that I had the card was at the hotel. They had given me a receipt back but not the card. I immediately inserted my Indonesian SIM into my iPhone and hoped that I had enough credit left on it to call Thailand. I did and it was confirmed by an apologetic reception staff member. The staff member had left my card in the machine and it was only found several hours later.

What options did I have?

I had a hotel booked for one night in Bali and a one way flight booked to Sumba early the next morning. I had about $50 in cash in Thai and other currencies on me, my mobile phone battery was about to run out and had no way of getting funds.

I jumped into a taxi and headed for the hotel. As it was Boxing Day, the traffic was atrocious due to the disproportionate number of Bintang Beer singlet cladded Australians that were making their pilgramage to what seemed now like a new State of Australia … BAAAAAAAAAALI.

My first idea was to contact the Bali ANZ Bank branch to see if I could get a replacement card. I sat in bumper to bumper traffic headed for my hotel calling and calling and calling every ANZ belranch in Indonesia that I could find the number for. Each time I would sit through pages of voice menus only to finally be cut off after about 5 minutes of traversing the menu options each time. I finally got through to a human being after about an hour and a half. They told me its a Bank Holiday because of Christmas and they wouldn’t be open for another few days. BAH….HUMBUG!

How Many People Can You Trust on This Planet With Your ATM PIN?

I had one remote option left. I scavenged around in my backpack and found an old ATM card from a Thai bank account that I hadn’t used in a long time. My plan was to get someone to pick up my card from the hotel, withdraw money from my Australian account and deposit it into my Thai account where I could withdraw the money in Indonesia. The transaction fees would be very expensive, but it was my last option. The problem was, who do I know back home in Bangkok that I trust enough to give them my ATM card AND my PIN? There was only one friend I could think of that fit the bill. Just then, my phone’s credit ran out. I had the driver take me to a money exchange agent (most were closed) and I changed the few Thai Baht I had to buy some water and put credit (Indonesians call it ‘pulsa’) on my phone. I finally managed to get through to my friend and as he has done so many times previously in my life, he came to the rescue once again.

I was able to withdraw enough money to pay for the remaining airfares and get me to Sumba…. A place that changed my life … but I’ll leave that for the next installment.

The thing to take home from all of this is that through language, I am able to live life to the fullest and should the situation arise, language can really save your life. Speaking another language opens your eyes (ears) up to the world that is REALLY going on around you.

In the next sections on Sumba, Makassar and Maginti, I’ll show you how language can save other people’s lives!

Btw – thank you for all your emails from the past post on this issue. I will try to respond to all of them. There has been an overwhelming response from people from all backgrounds – NGO’s, governments, UN agencies and TV producers. I hope we can work together to help these people. You can follow me on twitter at @stu_jay

Stuart Jay Raj is a polyglot who specializes in the languages and dialects spoken in South East Asia and China. His talents have allowed him to earn a professional living as a simultaneous interpreter in Thai, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Indonesian, among others, providing language and cultural training for multinational companies in the region and hosting his own TV programme on Thailand's Channel 5. He holds a degree in Cognitive and Applied Linguistics from Griffith University and has become an expert in the field of language acquisition with a strong track record of success. Stuart's background knowledge of Sanskrit, Khmer, Lao and various Chinese dialects and minority languages enables him to present a fascinating and unique perspective on the Thai language which makes everything fall logically into place.