Thursday, February 24, 2011

In transit

An image from the gate in Tokyo's Narita Airport.

And one about an hour after I touched down at ORD last week: A very mobbed Gene and Jude's Red Hots in River Grove, Ill.

Lastly from Madura

I realize scrolling down the blog that I pretty desperately need to get some pictures posted to break up the sea of text. Patience! In due time!

And until such time, some more words:

Indonesian Journal: Bulls, Beer and Mystery Sex Pt. 3
By Brett McNeil
Third of a three-part series.

This is Indonesia writ small: Externally conservative but also wide open and available, especially behind closed doors. It's corrupt and yet the corruption offers enough freedom of movement and wiggle room - rules meant to be broken, bribes that grease skids and line public servants' pockets - that it works, for now, for enough of the country's growing middle class and even the upper levels of the poor.

The rich already have their perks guarded and guaranteed by the government and police; it's down here in the middle register, where the strictures of Muslim conservatism meet the licentiousness of street life and somehow meld, that the social and financial pressures of an expanding export and unmistakably import-consumerist economy are quietly, privately bled off.

I'm not saying that middle class Indonesians are all visiting massage parlors for rubdowns and quickies, or that they're smuggling beer to dry towns and selling it for profit.

What I mean is that there's enough slippage here built into the system - and it's definitely a highly regimented, hierarchical, formalized system of government control of jobs and information and access to both, with millions of people either plugged into the system or trying desperately to get plugged in - that Indonesians are able to get what they want or need, more or less, regardless of what the rules say.

This isn't uncommon in repressive or restrictive societies, but here the rule-breaking is part of the national culture. It's sanctioned, in some ways built-in, and universally expected.

From middle school classrooms to the halls and cubicles of tens of dozens of government offices in every city and region, there's always a fudge, an exception, a shortcut if you want it. Like anywhere else, vice is just another shortcut here, but in Indonesia there's very little effort to control the vice, or the shortcuts. In China, bribe-taking officials are occasionally executed as real-life examples of the potential consequences for professional avarice and perfidy. Some politically minded Indonesian judges think capital punishment for corruption is a good idea, and it's not uncommon to see readers in the comments sections of the online English-language newspapers from Jakarta calling for similarly harsh sentences. This is mostly opportunistic drum-beating by the judges and outraged Western-moral-sensibility among the English-language readers, social anger that's weirdly and I think troublingly mixed with admiration for Chinese martial law. Does Indonesia need to execute law-breakers? I hope not, but the country could certainly use some good-faith law enforcement.

Every couple of days the papers run a story about some high-ranking official who's managed to avoid serious jail time for steering contracts to relatives, for shaking down office-seekers, for embezzling billions of rupiah from public works projects.

The national government operates an embattled Corruption Eradication Commission that is the target of fierce and possibly criminal attacks from within the country's justice system.

It's a complicated story but two high-ranking officials from the Corruption Eradication Commission have been targeted by federal prosecutors who allege the officials shook down a businessman they were investigating.

The defendants claim they are innocent and that police officials and prosecutors have manufactured the case against them in order to protect the well-connected businessman and to undercut the Corruption Eradication Commission's authority. The case was at one point thrown out but later reinstated by the Jakarta High Court, against the explicit wishes of the attorney general's office. A snapshot of Indo-Justice, such as it is.

Are the corruption fighters actually corrupt, adding another level of bathos to a glumly familiar national storyline? Or are they victims of a carefully engineered political defenestration? The case is pending.

Indonesians decry the rigged decks and gamed systems under which they live but rather than substantively reform them, they seem content on the whole to find a place for themselves within the machine.

A friend and local business owner expresses deep frustration with stifling regulation and taxes yet has tried several times to get hired on with the tax collection agency: Better and guaranteed pay, for life. The cushest of gigs.

But for many reasons, including the fact that she's ethnic Chinese, a group long and proudly discriminated against in Java as former colonial toadies of the Dutch and later stereotyped as money-grubbers and financial cabalists in a way that would be very familiar to Jews the world over, my friend will almost certainly never land that job.

She will instead cobble together an income from several little businesses - a motorcycle shop, a food cart, a small grove of softwood trees for use in making shipping pallets - and she will remain a bystander to the jostling among ethnic Javanese who run this country for sweet spots along the feed trough.

And as long as those sweet spots aren't threatened, what's to bother with controlling others? Sure, Internet porn is blocked here. But is it? Writing this essay, I can toggle over to my browser and easily access from my computer, using a public high school's wi-fi network,, the arty and tastefully outre San Francisco S&M house.

I think this is perfectly fine but there's a national Information Technology Minister whose job it is to block every single porn site on the Web from befouling Indonesian eyeballs and bedrooms. Does anyone outside the media, who regularly use this guy as a well-deserving punching bag, believe he cares about the details of his job? Come on.

So he takes the press conference stage in a blue nylon track suit and fields some questions, takes his lumps, and drives off in his Mercedes. And this is the point: If it's not political or radical or overtly terrorist, no one cares. (One notable exception is the prosecutorial hounding of the former editor of Indonesian Playboy. A one-time fugitive who finally turned himself in, the man is currently serving a two-year sentence for indecency. He was convicted in a secret trial - a secret trial - despite having never published any nude photos in his magazine.)

The Indonesian government fears and forcefully resists unrest - thousands of troops were recently summoned to guard the presidential palace on the anniversary of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's re-election; police were authorized to use live ammunition on protestors, and one cop did - but it does not fear and does not especially resist libertinism. Private lusts and wants aren't dangerous. Politics are dangerous. You don't necessarily have the right to public protest but you can probably get your cock sucked if you know where to ask.

* * *

I couldn't tell you if the devout Muslim men of Madura are paying for sex. Maybe I was twice propositioned in Pamekasan because I'm white - the Indonesians say bule, a word that means paleface or albino - and because being white means I probably have money.

There is also still considerable white privilege to be had here for no other reason than showing up. (Is that why none of the white foreigners and tourists I see during my travels ever say hello? Are we, seen in proximity to one another, not so special?)

Maybe Madura is a stop, like Surabaya, on the Southeast Asia sex tourism circuit but that seems unlikely. It's just too remote. Why drive hours outside Surabaya when the whorehouses and massage parlors of that city's Dolly red-light district are filled with Maduran women ready to practice their vaginal arts?

No, I doubt anyone's making a special trek to Pamekasan for sex. Instead, the Maduran flesh trade is like that across Java, maybe across all of Indonesia's thousands of islands. It's a social and physical perk for men who want it or need it - the original alleviating vice - and who expect its availability.

When I first arrived at my teaching post in Central Java, several hundred miles from Madura and its enticements, I was casually informed by some male colleagues that I could have a girl for the entire night for about $15. If you get lonely, they said. Maybe you like 17 years, or 16? Kids about my students' age.

I wasn't sure if they were being serious since they finished their offer with laughs. The Javanese laugh a lot, especially when they're nervous, and I figured maybe they were embarrassed for having asked. I smiled, they smiled, and with deniability plausibly established we talked about something else.

Then a couple weeks later, a different guy approached me in the teachers' lounge. How are you, Mr. Brett? I'm good. Do you have comfort? Yes, I'm comfortable. You like girl? Cheap. Just like that. He sensed my puzzlement - here, Pak? - and laughed off the question. Then he said, Maybe? I don't know if he's running girls himself or just freelance brokering. We didn't get that far.

* * *

I work in a vocational school where most of my best students are girls. They represent a small minority at an institution that mostly trains auto mechanics, carpenters, bricklayers, electricians, and computer network technicians - the girls are almost all enrolled in computer classes - but they are invariably the hardest working kids in English classes and their grades, like girls' grades everywhere, are better than those of their boy classmates.

They wear uniforms with skirts, some with headscarves, they walk behind the boys, they are quiet and deferential to adults, and they often hold their hands to their mouths when they laugh, which is pretty often. They seem at least three or four years younger, socially and even pop-culturally, than the high school students I've taught in Chicago. Just nice kids. And yet this is where nice ends for most of them.

They are vaguely co-equal at the school, although often shouted down and hectored by the boys, but for most of my blue-collar girl students that social standing ends at graduation. They will become Indonesia women, unapologetically second-class citizens.

Those from the more conservative Muslim families will feel it first, married into traditional roles of wife and mother while still in their teens. The others will be expected to assume those roles sooner or later. Their husbands will be free, at some point (beginning when, exactly?), to buy sex or peddle it to others. Maybe the women will hear or know of the jokes and boasts and offers, and maybe they won't. Maybe they'll smile through it. Whatever else they do, they'll bear it.

Madura. Java. Indonesia. All hardest on the vulnerable or the fair. This is a man's island, country, and world. I've gotten to know the director of my town's women's crisis center and she told me once that she cannot keep up with her voicemail some days, with the messages from women in distress, women beaten by their husbands and sons, women raped by their partners. She just does what she can while the phone keeps ringing.

Most of the women she helps come from Muslim families, but then most of our town is Muslim. I asked if Muslim men were harder on their wives and girlfriends than local Christian men. The crisis center director is a Christian, and her husband is a former high-ranking local official. She is a well-established figure in our little city, and the question made her uncomfortable. I don't want to say, she finally answered.

* * *

We went to the bull races in Madura because the guide books and some friends suggested we'd find an especially authentic Indonesian experience out there, way off the tourist trail. And sure enough it was.

But what's authentically Indonesian? Is it the ceremonial beauty and harsh running conditions of the races, the outwardly visible and highly photogenic spectacle - the smiling kids hawking souvenir bull whips, the gamelan bull bands, the red-and-white banners lazing in the windless air; the wizened old women stirring pots of bakso and mie inside the festival grounds?

Sure, but what about the unspoken, underground authentisms like Pak Budi and the young cop-pimp, the undercurrents of privilege and exclusion, of unabashed, systemic corruption?

None are discussed in the tourist literature. They're less picture-perfect, of course, and they're significantly harder to celebrate as a visitor with a suitcase to fill with curios.

Yet all are fundamental parts of the Indonesian experience - the rule-breakers, libertines, powerbrokers, flesh-peddlers, and good-times salesmen - and through them we can glimpse the other Indonesia, the unadvertised Indonesia: An Insider's Guide to Comforts and Available Opportunities.

We finished our day at the bull races in the shade of a large tent where we'd been invited to meet the mayor. He shook our hands, ordered several pictures taken, passed me an orange.

Where are you from?


Are you having a good time?

Yes, I admit. I'm having a good time.

Will you come back?

I smile and say mungkin, which means maybe.

Behind the smile I am thinking, Thanks, but I've seen enough already.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Madura dua

The second of two:

Indonesian Journal: Bulls, Beer and Mystery Sex Pt. 2
By Brett McNeil
The second of three parts.

The women of Madura are not only physically beautiful, with softer, rounder facial features than their high-boned cousins on Java, but they are said to practice a kind of superorgasmic, dick-milking squeeze during sex that reduces all men to quivering heaps of baby talk, marriage proposals, and, for the Christians, religious conversion.

This is common knowledge and fairly open conversational game among men across Java and maybe even all of Indonesia, where heterosexual sex and its availability is a constant topic of giggling guy talk.

(The availability of sex here is still a mystery to me; my adult male friends front like practiced Lotharios but I get the very strong sense that they're mostly all very schoolboyish and unpracticed in the dirtier sexual arts. Pornography, while available, especially on the very porous Internet, is officially banned here and during a recent college debate-club exercise I listened as the students and their instructor argued whether soft-core T&A horror movies of the Cinemax variety constitute actual porn. Many said yes. Any skin, any necking is porn. It's not polite.)

A friend was in a cab in Surabaya a couple weeks ago and talk turned to the bull races and to Madura. The cabbie lit up, launching into a grinning disquisition on Maduran women that my friend could not understand. No Indonesian? That's okay. The cabbie made his point clear by clamping his right index finger inside the tightly closed palm of his left hand. He jammed the finger into his palm, back and forth a couple times, and smiled widely. Penetration. Ya?

The cabbie also taught my friend another hand sign: Tuck the right thumb between the index and middle fingers on the same hand, allowing just the tip of the thumb to protrude, maybe as deep as the cuticle. This means either Fuck You or, in the words of an Indonesian friend, I Want to Get Fucked. Use it when cruising in Madura, the cabbie suggested. Uh, terima kasih. Thanks.

* * *

The night before the races, Pamekasan's alun-alun, the downtown square, was crowded with young couples on motorbikes, young families on foot, vendors hawking clove cigarettes and fried tofu, spectators streaming in to watch a traditional Maduran dance on a temporary stage. I went out to see the scene and, if I could, to find some beer.

I don't drink much here and traveling with four American friends - all here, like me, to teach high school English - made me thirsty. We were talking and laughing a lot. God, did it feel good to speak idiomatically!

So I headed out with J.T., a shyly handsome former Teach for America volunteer from Ohio, into the hot and humid, drizzly night to find some beers. At Indomaret the shelves were empty. We asked at the counter and were told we'd have to find Pak Budi. Where is Pak Budi? J.T.'s Indonesian isn't bad and he heard the answer as: Down the street, take a right, look for an orange light.

Off we went, in the Indonesian way, stopping for directions every couple minutes. Do you know Pak Budi? Yes. Is he nearby? Go straight. We asked some young cops, Where can we find some beer? They looked confused. You want beer? Yes, beer. They looked at each other. You need to see Pak Budi. Do you know where he is? Go straight, then left.

We finally found Pak Budi when someone waved us onto his front porch 20 minutes later. We'd walked by the place a couple times, thinking we were looking for a storefront. Nope, Pak Budi operates out of his living room. Come on in, boys. Have a seat.

Pak Budi is a large and vaguely androgynous man who's missing the thumb on his right hand. I didn't ask about it so I have no idea. He wore a gray sleeveless t-shirt and khaki shorts and sweated steadily. His breasts and soft gut filled his tank top in a sad, sagging way and he served us hot beer from 24-ounce bottles he retrieved from the kitchen.

At 30,000 rupiah each, they were heavily overpriced but, then, Budi's household speakeasy is the only game in town. We bought one and drank it from handled glass beer mugs while Budi and his friends watched English soccer on TV. Several elaborately carved and colorfully painted birdcages hung overhead, their too-orange and lime-green garishness overwhelming the plumage of the simple songbirds trapped inside each one.

We asked for beers to go and Budi returned from the kitchen with three more bottles, bought in Surabaya and trucked four hours to this very spot. Is beer legal in Pamekasan? Not exactly. It's illegal? Maybe. But the cops sent us here? I didn't ask that out loud. Budi opened the beers and poured them into empty water bottles, then bagged up the water bottles and pointed to my backpack. Put them in there. We were scoring beer. I haven't done that since high school. Illicit beer! We thanked Budi and rose to leave. But wait. If we like beer, maybe we'd like some women?

Budi's friend, the guy wearing a white Muslim skull cap and sitting on the floor, said he could find some women, if we were interested. He could bring them to our hotel room.

This seemed both right and completely outrageous. Right in that I've been in illicit situations before and usually illicit shit of a certain type, when you're a guy, leads to offers of sex for sale. If the doors are closed or if you're in the right bar or apartment or hotel room, someone's going to ask if you're looking for a chick. So even all the way over here, in this crucible of Indo-Muslim conservatism, vice is vice is vice. It seems almost quaint that beer is a vice that equals whoring but I get where the guy was coming from. Still, whores?

I was curious enough and had J.T. ask the guy how much. Not here, the guy said. We can talk about it down the block. He'd catch up with us soon. We walked through the night market near where the guy said to wait but we never saw him again.

On the way back to our hotel, a young cop waved us over from across the street. I was carrying 48 ounces of outlaw hootch but didn't think too much about it. The guy wasn't threatening us. He wanted to talk. He wore a khaki uniform and a badge and stood in tall, black military-style boots. His name tag identified him as Imam and he was about 22-years-old.

First Imam asked if we wanted some coffee from a nearby cafe; then he asked us to make change for a crumpled 20,000 rupiah note in his hand. Kind of weird but sure. We handed over our change and he very slowly handed over the 20,000 note, and as we were about to leave he said something like, Stop. I don't know if the rest of it was in English but that's how it's stuck in my head. You want . . .? He stuck his right hand out, thumb jammed between index and middle finger. Seck. You want seck?

Our young uniformed cop-pimp. He surprised us both with the question and I laughed out loud. J.T. spoke for us both. No thanks, Mas. I didn't ask the kid's rates because at that point who cared? The line between legal and illicit had been erased and the sales price, especially for a couple non-buyers, didn't matter. What matters is that you can get what you want in Madura - beer, mysterious sex - and the cops will help you find it.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Let's go back to Madura

The Beachwood Reporter running a Madura essay I wrote last fall. The first of three installments:

Or read it here ...

Indonesian Journal: Bulls, Beer and Mystery Sex Pt. 1
By Brett McNeil
First of a three-part series.

For about three seconds, as a pair of yoked and frothing bulls bore down with their teenage jockey skittering sideways behind them, I forgot all about the heat and the mud and the welts forming on my ankles from the previous night's hotel bed bugs and I just got the fuck out of the way. Fast.

Me and maybe 40 other camera-toters and rubberneckers crowded into the north end of a weather-beaten cement stadium in the sweltering, rain-soaked East Java island of Madura.

We just turned and ran, and as I made my break I thought specifically about avoiding the kind of inexcusably silly death or near-mortal injury that occasionally turns up in the international news briefs. American man trampled at foreign bull race; Had no business being there, now confined to breathing machine.

The bulls came charging past the finish line and into our ranks, veering hard right as a group of local men stepped up and collared the animals, then helped the jockey drag them to a relatively quick halt. A perfectly normal end to the race, it turns out, and the joke was on us. Irritatingly high-pitched laughs all around.

But, really, if you're going to watch bull races you need to watch from behind the finish line. All of the action's down here, including most of the gambling.

And if you want to watch bull races at all, you need to travel to the flea-bitten, sun-scorched, gritty little Maduran capital of Pamekasan during the last week or two of October. It's the only time and the only place on earth where this happens.

The Madurans love their bulls and they race them all over this poor and flat and deeply Muslim island year round, but that's minor league stuff. The President's Trophy is the big deal and features the finest bulls in Madura, racing in two-animal beast-teams that have advanced through local and regional tournaments to get here.

The race track is a bumpy and patchy 100-meter grass field ringed with Red Bull banners, squeezed between the air-conditioned Philip Morris VIP tent and the small and crowded cement grandstands filled with Maduran mothers and grandmothers and children - the men all down at the finish line or crowded along the makeshift bamboo rail with tote sheets in hand.

Despite the corporate support, the races retain a kind of makeshift amateurism that's fitting; this is basically a state fair for a threadbare and very rural, very hardscrabble outpost a couple hours from Surabaya, Indonesia's second-largest city.

* * *

The race announcer teases the crowd through a buzzy loudspeaker. As bull teams approach the starting line, groups of handlers muscle the animals into place and the announcer says, Awas! The word means be careful.

The bulls lumber into place, lunging forward and pressing against their handlers, while adolescent jockeys take their mounts behind the animals, standing on wooden drag-sleds they'll ride flat-out for 10 or 11 seconds of earth-pounding haul-ass.

A coffee can is fixed to the bottom of the skid; it's filled with nails and is supposed to rattle along behind the bulls as they gallop down the field, irritating them and goading them on to faster, angrier finishes.

Awas, the announcer croaks. And the bulls toe the starting line. Awasssss . . . And then someone waves it off. No go. A restart. This happens at least six times for each heat, usually more. The crowd tenses, and releases. Tenses, and releases.

And eventually they tense and the bulls come humping down the field, chased out of the gate by groups of rowdy young men who shake their own nail-filled coffee cans and yell after the bulls to go get it. Lari! they yell, urging the bulls to run. Lari, sapi!

The bulls are sleek and muscular, of course, but they are small and their features almost delicate. Their coat is a beautiful fawn and their faces and eyes are smaller versions of a Brown Swiss, their eyelids naturally mascaraed. The bulls' small horns are buffed to a high polish, their faces and bodies adorned with gilded headdresses and halters. The winners will command hefty stud fees all year; the losers will go home as prized possessions and village celebrities.

All of them are fussed over like thoroughbreds, although when's the last time a prize horse entered the track to the sound of his own marching band?

Prior to the races, and prior to the raucous and loosely choreographed Whip Dance that kicked off the races, each bull-team was paraded across the racing field with a retinue that included trainers, jockeys, toadies, little brothers, occasional visiting Westerners, and a busy troupe of men playing gamelan gongs, drums, and reedy bugles called sronen.

The sound is percussive and buzzing, waves of resonant gong and chime rippling beneath a swarm of mildly angry bees. The bulls aren't supposed to like it, just like they aren't supposed to like the hot glue that's shot into their eyes before they race for a little edgier run or the Maduran bull race crop that's beat against their hind haunches the length of their run.

The crop, really a stiff wood switch, has a nail or three pounded into one end and the jockey hammers away at the bulls with this thing. At the finish line, anyone looking can see the hot glue cried out and setting on the bulls' faces or the blood streaming down their rear legs from wounds opened near their tails. This is a party but it's not for especially squeamish animal lovers.

Like a lot of Indonesia, the Maduran bull races are earthy and a little rough. About an hour-and-a-half before race time, I found a man skinning a freshly slaughtered goat near the grandstand. He'd tied the animal to a tree by its rear feet and had cut off its head. The goat's chest was split open and its guts were in a pile by his feet, field-dressed. The man was butchering the animal for meat he planned to sell to spectators, and as he worked a couple other of his goats, tied to a nearby truck, grazed and watched him slice through flesh and fascia. Race-goers walked right by. Later, they ate the goat.

Back down at the finish line, the sun is impossible. A wet furnace. I am in shorts and a diaphanous shirt and am still sweating heavily, as though I'd just finished a long run. I am slick, the hair on my forearm stuck to my skin, and sweat from the small of my back is dripping into my underwear. I can feel rivulets of sweat sliding down my soaked shins and into my shoes. We are in an outdoor steam room. We are pressed together here, chest to shoulder, and the Maduran guy next to me is wearing a denim jacket and heavy jeans. He's got a bandana tied around his neck and a floppy olive drab hat pulled tight on his head. This is local sunblock - you almost never see an Indonesian outside in short sleeves or shorts, and not just because many Indonesians are conservative Muslims - but here in this dizzying heat, how can he be comfortable?

But then everyone's in a jacket, some in what could pass for spring or fall-weight back home, others in nylon and acrylic fabrics that are definitely trapping heat inside. There's no way they're not.

Kusmarwadi, a short middle-aged man in a nylon jacket, said he wouldn't miss the races for anything - and a little sun was nothing. "The bull race is one of the traditions of Madura, and nowhere else," he said.

If any of us were drinking beer we'd be hammered or heaving from dehydration, but there's no beer. Pamekasan is an almost completely dry town, and the bull races are fueled by nothing more potent than lemon-lime Fanta. We drink bottled water and sugary pop and sweat it out between races.

* * *

The night before, a friend and I went looking for beer. Indonesia may be the world's most populous Muslim country but generally speaking you can find overpriced cans of skunky, unrefrigerated beer pretty easily at the local Indomaret or AlfaMart convenience stores. In Madura, though, no such luck. You will not visit the races and retire to a patio bar for a tall cold one. There is no patio bar, and no bar of any kind in town.

We should have guessed. When we got to Pamekasan, our driver made about a dozen laps of the town square trying to find our hotel. This he did in the traditional Indonesian-Javanese way, by simply driving around and asking people for directions every five or ten minutes. (On another recent trip to a Muslim wake, after we'd stopped a fourth time to seek directions, I asked if anyone in my group of Indonesian friends ever consults a map for directions. Never, one female friend said. Besides, Indonesian people are friendly. They always help you. Okay, but what kind of help is it when we keep driving in circles? Don't worry! We'll get there eventually!) So on our sixth lap of the square, we noticed a very official-looking traffic sign in Indonesian. Translated it read, Don't Ruin Your Soul by Drinking Alcohol. Funny. Beer is definitely legal in Indonesia, and I've never seen another sign here making a case for salvation at the expense of lubrication. But Madura's a little different.

Dusty and scrubby, with little of the natural and human resources that have long made Java the epicenter of Indonesian culture, Madura has for centuries been a rural backwater. Located just off the northeast coast of Java in the Java Sea, the oblong, rocky island is now home to about 3.7 million people and is arguably the most religiously conservative outpost in all of East Java, a notoriously hardline Muslim region.

Until two years ago Madura could be reached from the Java mainland only by ferry boat. Today, a new and much-celebrated suspension bridge, the Suramadu Bridge, connects Madura to Java, and that freer island access may or may not eventually affect the way of life on Madura. Until then, subsistence farming and animal husbanding is still what people do - transporting six cows means stuffing them into the flatbed of a half-sized Daihatsu pick-up truck - and you can see men and boys walking leashed goats through the island's small towns like more-stubborn dogs.

Other domesticated animals are well and fully represented too - stringy chickens scratching roadside, tufted rabbits hutched and not, cats underfoot and on rooftops, and of course the bulls.

Madurans are so strongly strongly identified with their racing bulls that a Javanese friend of mine, a high school English teacher with a civil servant job that's protected for life, told me in all seriousness that the blood of Madurese people tastes like cow. (Javanese blood, she explained, tastes like goat. No, it's true.)

Whatever their taste, the people of Madura are among the poorest in this part of Indonesia and they are also considered among the proudest, the most stubborn, the most aggressive, and maybe even the most hot-headed. Madura: Mas Macho, like parts of Cowboy Texas, without the Coors. Bull wranglers. Throwers-of-hands and wielders of knives, maybe, if it came to that. Prideful religious men. Who like tight pussy. This is the other thing everyone talks about while not actually talking about it when they talk about Madura: Vaginal contraction.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Playing doctor

A piece for the Beachwood Reporter about medicine in Indo, and Cook County:

In case you didn't click through before, here's the piece:

A couple weeks ago I got word that my savings had been wiped out in a financial fraud engineered by an unscrupulous and not especially creative hedge fund manager turned thief. If you've read my recent Indonesian Journal missives, you know the details.

When the news of my destitution reached me, I was living in Central Java, Indonesia and working for $1,000 per month as a Fulbright English teacher. My stipend put me well below the U.S. poverty line but in Indonesia a cool grand per month is very decent money and I was living relatively large as an expat - regular cross-country travel by air, dining out a couple times a day, frittering away money on clothes and handicrafts and air-conditioned buses, zipping around on an almost-new Yamaha scooter.

I made a pittance but I was still pulling down more than three times what my Indonesian civil servant counterparts in the English Department earn during a six-day work week, one that features long days and sometimes three-hour high school classes. I didn't plan on saving much of my Fulbright money while abroad - in fact, I intended to spend most of it sightseeing - but I expected to come home to a nest egg that, according to the last fraudulent statement from my now-jailed fund manager, was edging toward six figures.

That financial cushion is what allowed me to pack up my stuff and rent out my house and set off for a year's adventures in Southeast Asia. When it went up in smoke, I had to confront a harsh reality: I was fucking broke. Whatever my level of exchange-rate comfort in Indonesia, I would be facing some tough bills when I got back home in early summer and, earning $1,000 per month, I wasn't going to have the money to meet them. Not unless I returned and started working for real money as soon as I could.

So I made a hard decision and headed back - in the language of overseas posts like the Fulbright or Peace Corps, I early terminated.

I sold my scooter, packed my things into two duffel bags, said some goodbyes, and headed for the airport. I was back at O'Hare about 36 hours later - Jakarta to Singapore, Singapore to Tokyo, Tokyo to Chicago. I deplaned tired, unemployed and uninsured. From Fulbright teacher, informal American cultural ambassador and local minor celebrity to just another jobless mope with student loans and no COBRA. My grad school insurance expired last summer and after that, nothing.

I've spent the first few days home sleeping - a 13-hour time difference makes for some seriously disorienting jet lag - or at Stroger Hospital. I may have deplaned uninsured but I also came back with some kind of exotic Indo bug that I can't shake and that several Indonesian doctors could not cure with their repeated, reflexive prescriptions of antibiotics.

So I've been queueing up before 7 a.m. with several hundred other people outside the Fantus Clinic or inside Stroger's financial screening offices, and I've officially plugged into the county's safety-net healthcare system. Until I find work, this is where I'll be coming for primary care and emergency room visits.

(A doctor friend with offices in Winnetka also has volunteered to help diagnose my illness. "It's a very interesting case," he told me by phone. "The symptoms are unusual. Light and sound sensitivity? That's not really symptomatic of anything. It's . . . interesting." I said I was sorry I couldn't pay him but was glad I could offer something case-study-wise. Maybe we'll write a journal paper about it. Long-term, though, I can't ask him for extended pro bono care.)

I've got the salmon-colored Cook County Health and Hospitals System patient ID, which reminds me to "ALWAYS BRING THIS CARD WITH YOU!," and a Limit of Liability letter that means I get free care for a year, and now all I have to do is stand in lines or have a seat in crowded but orderly waiting rooms and eventually someone will probably poke me or prod me and might even ask a couple questions about how I'm feeling or what might be wrong.

I'm a near-lifelong Cook County resident and always figured County Hospital was where I'd want to go with a gunshot or stab wound, but I never considered relying on it or its doctors for regular care. Earlier in my life, I might have considered that possibility a kind of tragedy or failure, a sign of helplessness. But after repeatedly seeking medical care in Indonesia and seeing that country's hospitals and doctors up close, I find myself feeling just fine about Cook County's.

In fact, I'm pretty sure somebody over on Harrison Street is going to figure out what's ailing me, and when they do I'll gobble some generic medicine, then recover, and move on with my health relatively intact. I never had any similar expectation during my time in Indonesia.

You have a sore throat? A kidney infection? Muscle pain? Fatigue?

Take an antibiotic.

An Indonesian doctor told me not to drink orange-flavored Gatorade because it contained orange juice that might upset my stomach.

What do you mean it contains orange juice? I asked.

Well, it's orange, she said.

Another doctor diagnosed a kidney infection by punching me in the back.

And a third had me sit on a bloody sheet while he interviewed me about my symptoms.

None ever took my temperature or made even a cursory physical examination before prescribing drugs.

What do you think is wrong? they asked. What kind of medicine do you want?

I went to Indonesia as a healthy 30-something guy who didn't think very long or very hard about being anything but a healthy 30-something guy during my time abroad. I got the recommended vaccinations and skimmed the paperwork outlining the insurance coverage we'd have through the Fulbright program and I moved on to other, more pressing topics. Like, should I pack hiking boots or save the weight and room for something else? And how many books could I haul all that way? I mean, we'd have a doctor through the program, right? That was enough.

What I didn't know was that the Fulbright doctor works in Jakarta - a couple hundred miles from my placement site - and her office does not accept the Fulbright insurance plan.

She was occasionally willing to answer questions by phone or by text message but mostly she told us to seek care near our hometowns. If we really needed to see her, we could fly to Jakarta on our own dime and pay her out of our own pockets.

I called this doctor once for a consultation and she text-messaged a long list of laboratory tests she thought I should get at the Jogjakarta International Hospital, about 90 minutes from my home. I took the list to the hospital, where they collected blood and stool and urine samples and did the lab work and handed me a bill for about $150 - a pretty sizable hit, half a month's salary for a native teacher.

And after all that, the test were inconclusive; they didn't find anything wrong with me: no dengue fever, no typhoid, no parasites, no blood worms, no fucking low blood sugar. Nothing. But they did send me off with antibiotics. Take these for five days. And then come back. I soon came to understand that my visits were strictly revenue-generating. Are you feeling better? Some more antibiotics? And you come back next week?

I visited four different hospitals and met with at least seven different doctors during my time in Indonesia and at no point did I feel like I was receiving actual medical care. I was involved in a kind of health care pantomime: Man or woman in lab coat stands across from me smiling; he or she performs no physical examination, makes no diagnosis. That person then walks me to the pharmacy and then to the cashier and I am handed a bill. We are playing charades. I am a patient. She is a doctor. I am an Indian chief. He is a street sweeper. I am sick and not getting better. She is walking toward the nurses' station. The nurses are dressed in nurse uniforms. There is no thermometer in the entire hospital.

Yesterday morning, after more than two hours in a cream and blue windowless waiting area, I finally was summoned to an exam room inside the Fantus Clinic. A stern South Asian doctor who did not introduce himself or ask my name used a stethoscope to listen to my lungs. He dug his thumbs into my lymph nodes, he examined my mouth. He interviewed me about my symptoms and took notes. He ordered blood work. Earlier, a nurse had taken my temperature and blood pressure. The lab tech who drew my blood was unfriendly, didn't look at me, and I couldn't have cared less.

Stroger Hospital is a factory. It's bare-bones, even harsh. But it works. And they're practicing medicine.

Inside Business Insider

The good people at Business Insider finally decided to pick up the Brandolino posts--and at least a couple readers seem incredulous. Yes, I gave Brandolino $5,000 last summer. No, that's not all the money I deposited with him over time. And, no, I am not a high-net-worth individual. Never was, and especially not now.


Friday, February 11, 2011

Beachwood additions

Steve Rhodes picked up the Whose Indo? post and added some excellent internal links that I didn't think to include: The video of the Ahmadiyah attacks is especially upsetting although in censored form doesn't capture the gruesomeness of the killings. A friend of mine who has seen the unaltered footage found it hard to describe but you get a sense of the beat-down's ferocity toward the middle of the first video link, with the attacker wielding a thick bamboo club, repeatedly bludgeoning a clearly limp victim. Anyone who saw the Fenger beating footage a year and a half ago will recognize the nausea induced by this video.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Whose Indonesia?

This has been a rough week in Indonesia, especially for religious minorities. While the rest of the world watches to see whether widespread grassroots protest can or will yield real political change in Egypt, Indonesians find themselves wondering how to address a recidivist and religiously motivated backslide that threatens the future of pluralism in this undeniably multicultural and putatively tolerant nation-state.

Last weekend, Islamist zealots attacked and killed three members of a religious group considered apostate by hardline Muslims. Then, on Tuesday, Islamic fundamentalists rampaged through a Central Java city and burned two Christian churches.

The torching of the churches and a Catholic school building in Temanggung, a city about 30 minutes from Magelang, came after a local judge sentenced a Christian man to five years in prison for blaspheming Islam. The sentence was the maximum allowed under the law but protestors were unsatisfied. They sought the death penalty—the defendant last year had distributed leaflets critical of Islam—and when it wasn't handed down, they set out from the courthouse to the churches and, in full view of local police, burned them to the ground. One of the targeted churches is where my principal and his family worships. That same now-destroyed church is also the spiritual home of another friend, a college student from Jogjakarta whose grandmother and youngest sister live in the town where the arsons took place. The police have reportedly made several arrests but it's unclear how those cases will proceed. The arsonists are believed to belong to the radical Islamic Defenders Front, or FPI, which has powerful political supporters throughout Indonesia. The country's president, who has been criticized in the past for being too soft on Muslim hardliners, has called for authorities to disband the FPI but public comments by other government officials make clear that not everyone in power supports that crackdown. The FPI and other fundamentalist organizations have significant electoral pull in some parts of the nation, especially on Java, and placating Islamists is part of the job description for any aspiring Indonesian politicians.

And no wonder politicians are slow to act. There's no organized voice for religious minorities here, certainly not one as loud or inflexible as those coming from the Muslim right. And Islamic hardliners, with their willingness to use violence against their enemies, silence dissent or real public discourse before it ever begins. Better not to make waves as a Christian or other religious minority. Better to be polite and acquiesce. A friend from the high school, an English teacher and Christian, told me the other day that while he was offended by the church burnings he understood where the radicals were coming from. The blasphemy trial defendant had insulted Islam and the actions of the mob in Temanggung were predictable and, in my friend's telling, almost reasonable. He equated distributing leaflets with burning churches. They are the same, really, he said. And anyway, Indonesian Muslims, he said, are not rational when it comes to religion. So an entire nation's notions of civil liberty or equal citizenship are held hostage by hotheads and thugs? My friend did not answer that last question. Instead, he did what many Javanese do when they're nervous: He laughed.

The victims of last Sunday's murders were members of the Ahmadiyah sect, an Islamic group that paradoxically believes Muhammad was not the final prophet. This unusual doctrinal stance makes the Ahmadiyah highly controversial and has made them the targets of repeated acts of violence and repression in Indonesia. The central government three years ago banned the group from openly practicing their religion or from spreading the teachings of their sect. Last fall, two members of the group, including a woman who was stabbed, were attacked on their way to a religious meeting. The media coverage of that earlier event decried the violence against the victims but in my conversations with Indonesians afterward I found an undercurrent of told-you-so unconcern. The Ahmadiyah had made a very uncomfortable bed for themselves—their beliefs are unusual, no?—and it's not surprising that they're singled out for attacks by bullies. My friends seemed unable to make a connection between religious persecution of one minority group and the potential persecution of another. But the church burnings this week seem to have changed that, at least for some. As my principal said in discussing the attack on his church: Not good, sir. Not good. In both attacks this week, the Islamists used fire. On Sunday, they burned a home where Ahmadiyah members were hiding in far West Java and then beat three of them to death when they emerged from the flaming, smoke-filled house. Two days later, a different group of Muslim fundamentalists torched the churches and school building in Central Java.

When he came to Jakarta last November, Barack Obama said Indonesia represented a kind of beacon of democratic hope in the Muslim world. This is the official line here: Founded out of anti-colonial struggle, Indonesia is a nation of many people and different beliefs, a polyglot, multiethnic, religiously free country strengthened by Bhinneka Tunngal Ika, or Unity in Diversity. But is it? The question for all minorities here, religious and ethnic alike, Christian and Papuan and all the rest, is this: Whose country is this?

Clearly that question must be answered by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a former general and second-term, once-upon-a-time reformer who greeted Obama with much pomp and a state dinner that featured fried rice and meatball soup. He's got the power but commentators and citizens alike wonder if he's got the will. As an op-ed piece in today's Jakarta Globe puts it (read the entire piece here:

The way forward would seem to lie, for now, with Yudhoyono, who will rule until 2014. The vision of a modern, prosperous and diverse Indonesia is within reach, but only if the president reaffirms a real commitment to the secular and tolerant state founded in 1945. To do that he must take steps to repeal the overtly Islamic blasphemy law and the thinly veiled Islamic Puritanism of the 2008 pornography statute. He must see that the police finally break their ties with radical Islamic militias and adequately punish groups who pursue vendettas against minorities on the basis of religion. In short, he must govern on behalf of all Indonesians not just the intolerant few.

One hopes he is up to the challenge.

I don't know if Yudhoyono is up to it but I am hopeful that Indonesians of all faiths—even the non-believers, who have no official standing in this country—are willing to press for a stronger secular state that is governed by law and not by corruption or by religious extremism. That both the Ahmadiyah and church arson attacks this week took place with police looking on suggests just how much work remains to be done here.

Are Indonesians up to the challenge?

Saturday, February 5, 2011

What's to say? Thanks.

Not much to say about the week that was except that I've heard from dozens of friends forwarding job postings, offers of assistance, offers of part-time work, offers of housing, offers of cash and no-interest loans. Thank you to everyone who's responded in any way--with kind words, asking after my mom, checking in on her in Forest Park, helping me think through my situation and how I might get it righted. I really appreciate your help and thoughts and I know my mom does, too.

Nothing new on the Brandolino front. The Beachwood Reporter picked up my second post about him ( and I was contacted late last week by a national business Web site that may or may not run them, too. If that happens, I'll include a link.

The job hunt from afar proceeds apace. Couple good leads but nothing solid--not yet anyway.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Safety first for My Fake Fund Manager

In an effort to share anything that might be of use to them in their investigation of My Fake Hedge Fund Manager, I sought a phone interview with the FBI and last night spoke at some length with a very professional and mildly avuncular special agent from the Chicago office. I told him what I knew about Brandolino and about my dealings with him over time, and I then got to ask a couple questions of my own.

I specifically wanted to know about a curious detail included in the press releases announcing Brandolino's arrest on fraud charges: Rather than seek bail, Brandolino asked to remain in federal custody. That means he's voluntarily locked up inside the Metropolitan Corrections Center downtown, that off-yellow, wedge-shaped modernist fortress near the Washington Library with the thin, vertical, rectangular battlement windows and the caged yard on top. The place is a step up from Cook County Jail but it's a dump, its interior worn and coated with generations of paint. I interviewed Betty Loren-Maltese there once with my friend David Jackson and I remember how cold and cinder-block the interior was, and how mauve—at least on the floor where we met with Cicero's former town president. The public areas where civilians and the jailed are allowed to mingle have only plastic furniture, and pretty lightweight plastic furniture at that. I have no idea if Brandolino is receiving guests and using the plastic furniture. Maybe he's sticking to his cell. Either way, the accommodations are decidedly not Club Fed.

But the fact that he didn't seek bail and a chance to remain free until he absolutely had to go behind bars got me and apparently several others wondering. A friend wrote to say the scuttlebutt at the Board of Trade is that Brandolino stole money from the mob and, well, you know what happens to people who steal from the mob. You've seen that movie. I have no idea if Brandolino took from mobsters and gave to himself. That seems like an awfully risky move but, then, I'm not exactly inside the scheming head of a swindler. Maybe he thought he could steal from others and pay the mob back and keep on keeping on. Or maybe the talk of mob money is just so much ethnic stereotyping: Italian guy takes money from Italians; there must be some Outfit dough in there, right? Again, I don't know. But I do know the veteran FBI agent I spoke with said he'd never before seen a defendant voluntarily seek to remain in custody. Not in about a decade and a half with the agency. So something's troubling Jimmy, and I can't say I'm too broken up about it. If he feels safe in jail, I hope he stays there for a long time. Be safe, Jim!

The other question I had for the FBI agent was, Why now? What prompted Brandolino to turn himself? I figured Brandolino had basically run out of money and that one of his investors had come asking for a withdrawal. He probably couldn't come up with the money and at that point had only a couple options. He likely first considered flight; Brandolino reportedly went missing for a couple weeks around the holidays and surfaced only to turn himself in to authorities. I don't know where he went but with little cash to underwrite his escape, he must have realized his life as an exile—was he building that condo in Greece for his self-imposed retirement?--was over before it started. The FBI agent didn't exactly know Why Now but said my theory seemed realistic.

In their original charges against Brandolino and in press releases announcing those charges, the government said Brandolino had almost no assets left, meaning we victims would have little hope of restitution. There was no mansion or yacht or Caribbean island to auction off and divvy up. And while authorities continue to search for any undisclosed assets, I'm skeptical they'll find any. We're out what we're out and will never see it again. The law stipulates that Brandolino, if convicted, will be legally responsible for making restitution to his victims for the rest of his life. Like student loans, that kind of legal sentence cannot be discharged in a bankruptcy: He'll carry that weight for good. But will he ever make a payment on it? With what income? And to whom? Who's first in line for the future, incremental, pittance payback? Given the unlikelihood of restitution, I'd rather see Brandolino pay for his crimes with years of his life.

It sounds like Brandolino is cooperating with authorities in hopes of a speedy resolution to his case. Maybe this will all be done by early summer and Jimmy can start serving his, what, six years? Maybe less? Probably less? Whatever the case trajectory, I'll either be appearing before the court during the victim impact phase of sentencing or I'll be writing a letter to the judge to ask that he make sure Brandolino stays safely behind bars for as long as possible. Maybe even long enough to finish his book.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Beachwood outreach

Steve Rhodes was kind enough to post the Poof! piece in slightly altered form--not exactly the kind of Indonesia Journal piece I was hoping to see in print--and to include a note asking readers for job leads: If nothing else, maybe there's room behind the bar at the Beachwood. Or the Beacon.

Thanks to everyone who's already contacted me with job postings, job ideas, possible job offers, possible loan offers, well wishes, condolences, outrage, and pep talks. Please keep them all coming and maybe something good shakes out of this particular predicament after all.

Saturday, January 29, 2011


One of the last things I did in August before heading to O'Hare for my flight to Jakarta was to cut a check for $5,000 to a hedge fund manager and friend of my mom's named Jim Brandolino. He'd been managing money for my mother and me for more than seven years, and his little investment pool, based on the quarterly statements he provided, was the only investment I had that was anywhere near successful. I figured I'd park some additional savings with Brandolino while I was away earning peanuts in Indonesia and tap the funds when I got back for a security deposit and rent on a new apartment. It seemed like a decent idea. I'd just seen Brandolino at my going-away party the month before and he was in fine fettle: The funds were plodding along, we were making better-than-modest money in a shit market, and Brandolino was working on a book to share his investment strategies with the wider world. He bought me a beer at the party and toasted my Southeast Asian adventure. To your success, he said.

To my success! A couple weeks ago, Brandolino walked in to the U.S. Attorney's office in Chicago and confessed that his investment empire was in fact a cheap and flimsy fraud. He mismanaged about half the money he'd been given--some of it from friends of his Italian immigrant parents in Joliet, some of it from people like my mom and me, some of it from west and southwest suburban business owners and working-class stiffs--and spent the rest of it on himself. The quarterly statements I'd been receiving for years showing regular if sometimes small gains were pure fiction. Make-believe. Criminal. By the time he walked into the federal building on LaSalle Street, Brandolino had frittered away almost everything he'd taken from investors and was left with little more than a used BMW 7-series, a gaudy Rolex, and an ownership stake in an unbuilt condominium in Greece.

You can read more about the government's allegations against Brandolino here, and here

Big spender, POS.

This of course means that Brandolino bought me that drink at Schuba's with my own money, and he used my money when he treated me and Angela and mom and my aunt to a last-minute, penthouse skybox ticket to see the Hawks play right before the playoffs last year. Looking back on the latter, I wish he'd at least sprung for the dessert cart. He used my money and my mom's money and the money of a couple dozen other dupes to underwrite his trips to southern Europe, to pay for an annual summer dinner cruise for investors that always featured an open bar, to pay the rent on his South Loop condo. He used our money to promote himself and his business as the chief sponsor of an annual Misericordia fundraiser on Madison Street in Forest Park. He spent it on a freelance writer who was supposed to help him complete his masterwork, Train to Trade: What Pros Do Differently. (The book title, as it appears on various Web sites today, has evolved. Last summer, Brandolino handed out promotional pamphlets for the still-unpublished book that had it subtitled What Pros Do Different. As folks got deeper into the open bar on the dinner cruise, they began carping about the poor grammar of the subtitle. Brandolino was polite about the criticism but clearly annoyed. This was his party, and his book, and he'd call it whatever he wanted. Or not. At some point he gave in and added the adverbial form.) He used my money and the money of his other victims to reward himself for a life he didn't earn or deserve, and I'll be recovering from his fucking greed and avarice for a long time.

I learned about Brandolino's crimes when I returned from Lombok Monday night and I've spent a lot of the last week burning up the phone and my gmail account communicating with my mother and others in Chicago. A very seriously looming question for me at this point is whether the Year of Living Volcanically is headed for an early end. I'm still trying to sort that out but thought I'd make this very difficult private loss public in case you, dear reader, have a line on a paying job I might want to consider. In all seriousness. I may or may not land a teaching position for next fall but that job market's pretty grim and I need to either make something happen soon or be ready to hit the ground running when I get back to the U.S. in May. I've got feelers out among some of my graduate school friends and among a few of my former colleagues--thanks to those of you who've already responded with leads or with other vitally necessary counsel--but I thought I'd cast a wider net. If you're reading this you probably know something of my professional background and skills. If that's the case and you know of a job opening for which I'd be suited, please don't keep it to yourself.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The full-contact classroom

Today in class we did some interactive English learning. Which is to say we spent most of the day crashing into one another, or rather that a couple all-boy classes did. It's a simple game that's a little like musical chairs but played in a circle, and one kid's always stuck in the middle. The scramble not to be that guy--who has do some a fair amount of talking in front of everybody--is what makes the game fun, and actually laugh-out-loud funny.

Especially when two students collided at full speed, shoulder to shoulder, both bouncing off one another and falling slowly, backward, straight to the floor. The game was less funny when some of the guys started boarding one another into the chairs, hard and pretty savage shoves from behind at near-full-speed. I eventually got that part worked out of the game, which was nice because nothing gets Indonesian boys talking, even in English, faster than some physical pinballing.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

As advertised

I'm writing from the airport in Jakarta, making my way back to Central Java after wrapping up my stay in Lombok. Added on a long weekend after our mid-year conference ended--and glad I had an extra day after I joined several other Fulbrighters in falling violently sick during our time at the Sheraton Senggigi. My bout came the night before we were supposed to check out and knocked me down hard. We checked out Friday afternoon and at one point about 8:30 a.m. I wasn't even sure I'd be able to leave my bed. But I did and joined another afflicted ETA at the hospital for the most frustrating non-diagnosis I've had yet here.

At least six of our group of 44 fell out with similar symptoms--I'll spare you--during our three-day stay and I think at least four of the six visited the same doctor for help. This doctor's principal strength was her English, which was definitely the best in her hospital, but she was beyond reluctant to diagnose our troubles. Instead, she asked a coupe questions about the timing and quantity of body fluids passed, had an orderly take our blood pressure and temperature (with an underarm thermometer), and then asked us what kind of medicine we wanted for treatment. Uh, what kind do you think we need? Well, maybe I needed an IV. Or maybe rehydration salts would do. And maybe we needed an anti-nausea medicine or maybe we didn't. But probably definitely we needed some antibiotics for an infection.

Doctor, is it your opinion that we have an infection?

It's hard to tell.

Then why prescribe an antibiotic?

Do you not want an antibiotic?

Most of the doctor's time, after she answered or didn't answer my questions and those of my friend, was spent working out the order for our drugs. She presented each of us with a completely different set of prescriptions, and one my friend figured was about twice as expensive as it should be. (She'd been sick in the same hospital before and the earlier bill had been significantly cheaper.) We asked about the cost--oh, yes, the doctor could prescribe less expensive medications--and why two people suffering the exact same symptoms would be prescribed none of the same medicine.

The composition is the same, the doctor said.

The medicines are the same? So why prescribe different ones? What do these different medicines do differently?

The composition is the same.

So we haggled down the price a bit and shuffled exhaustedly back to the car and spent a restful hour in our hotel beds before checking out. My friend and I sent the night Friday in the house of a fellow ETA and the next morning felt well enough to catch up with a good group on the beaches of Kuta, a mostly unspoiled beach and surfing destination on the south shore of Lombok. I wasn't feeling up to any surfing but I was able to walk the beach a bit and wade into the bathtub waters of our little bay.

Kuta Bay.

A view from the porch.

I rented a beachfront hut and a scooter for $20 and spent a night about 35 yards from the very spot where the high-tide waters of the Bali Sea crashed a little too noisily against the sands. I eventually got to sleep but, man, even a gentle sea is a massive force. Not exactly lapping. But I'm quibbling. The setting and the company and the mostly rainless weather and the monkeys down the beach and the fishermen laying evening nets in the bay and the jagged hills fencing us in and the shady recesses of our porches, where we could sit and read or talk or just sit, this was Indonesia As Advertised: The sunsplashed beach idyll. Pretty nice. I mean, not Door County nice but decent.

Evening fisherman.

Monkey on a beach.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Enter Lombok

The view last night from the hotel beach in Senggigi. Rainy today but the sand, wet or not, is still only about 100 yards from my hotel room.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Halfway and MLK

The entire 44-member Fulbright ETA contingent descends on East Java this weekend for the beginning of a two-city, halfway-there tour. We'll be in Surabaya from Sunday to Tuesday, participating in a teacher-training outreach effort that has us visiting a bunch of area high schools, and then we're off for three full days in one of the nicer beachfront hotels in island paradisiacal Lombok. I promise to get some pictures up from the latter. Maybe even the former.

In Surabaya, we're working in groups of four and are supposed to both introduce/promote MLK Day in 30 minutes then use some State Department-issue edu materials to demonstrate novel approaches to teaching English. I'll be using some folk-song CDs and intend to have the Indonesian English teachers singing Oh, Susanna in the round.

On the MLK front, I'd really like to play his Mountain Top speech and talk about my trip last winter with Angela to the Lorraine Motel and how what's really interesting about King, once you've heard the Dream speech a thousand times in a high school classroom, is where he and his movement ended up in 1968. Or how deeply moving it is to stand inside the civil rights museum housed inside the old hotel building, and to look out on the balcony corner where King was shot in the throat by James Earl Ray. Ray used a .30-06 and shot King from a window about 150 yards away. A fucking howitzer shot at easy range. You can walk up to the balcony from inside the museum and get within about four feet of the spot where King fell to the concrete floor. It's marked with a red brick and you look at it through a picture window. The space between the motel wall and the railing is only about a yard or so wide. King was standing on the balcony when Ray shot him and King crumpled, destroyed at 39, into this small and unremarkable piece of motor lodge real estate. Ray took aim from a bathroom window in a shabby rooming house, across a city lot filled with trash and sodden mattresses. Certainly King could see the garbage and the mattresses from the balcony. They were right out his door, right across the street.

The museum includes a mock-up of the room King was staying in at the Lorraine--in 1968 a black-owned motel that King chose deliberately as a base of operations after coming in for criticism when he stayed at posher digs during an earlier visit to Memphis--and it's a picture of threadbare modesty. All sites of memory and commemoration are in some way artificial and scripted--especially when they're housed in museums--but, honestly, I can't picture a better or clearer representation of how truly remarkable a person and moral, oratorical force King was than that worn little motel room with the peeling wallpaper and unrepaired broken baseboard along the back wall. Against great state and private capital power, including a despicably criminal FBI, King fought with his voice, his words, and ideas. That part we sort of know but, really, that's all the guy had. In the beginning, and in the end. You just cannot listen to the Mountain Top speech, with its spooky and heartbreaking premonitions, and miss King's fatigue. He talks about it explicitly. His fight, the nation's fight for racial and economic equality, went on and on and on. And remains incomplete.

So we celebrate the Dream speech and the early Civil Rights movement and remain unreconciled with the latter part of that project. Sure, blacks are people, too. Of course! We've got a black president! But should we all consider a different approach to social change? What did the Civil Rights Act really do? In 1968, it was a deeply disappointing and incomplete second emancipation. Even King was disillusioned. He spends probably too much time in his last-ever speech reminiscing about Birmingham and Bull Connnor; those were clear-cut vistories, in the end. But after? Where did the dream go? A very bright American friend of mine here recently asked me if it was true that King had become a Socialist and a even a kind of radical Socialist by the time of his death. I said, more like Black Collectivist. Maybe on the way to Communist! And why the fuck not? He died supporting a garbageman's strike. A very different setting than the March on Washington. Who talks about this?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A cool and colorful day

Maybe the nicest day yet in Magelang: Relatively cool throughout and on into sunset, which saw the prettiest clouds of the New Year if not possibly the old. Darkness fell about 15 minutes after I snapped these pictures, and the night's just been about a perfect simulacrum of early fall. Maybe 75 degrees, very little humidity. Crickets and lizards chirping. A good day to be in Central Java.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

An ongoing calamity

In the last couple days, I've made two trips up to the Merapi area to see the after-effects of November's eruptions and to do some legwork for a piece I'd like to write on the disaster tourism cottage industry that's grown up around the volcano. I spent most of Sunday on a paid tour out of Jogja that took me and a friend to a village that remains without water service after eruption-related flooding washed away their catch basin. The village, Babadan, is located on the western slopes of Merapi and was not directly affected by the kind of pyroclastic flows that destroyed similar settlements on the mountain's south slope. (Downtown Babadan can be seen in the Merapi picture in Monday's post.) For that kind of blasted moonscape, I had to travel yesterday with friends from school to the very toasted village of Kinahrajo.

I'll write more about what I saw and how those sights are being incorporated into an ad hoc tourist attraction—one that's manned by villagers whose homes and livelihoods have been burned and washed away—but it occurred to me as I set out to report back on a months-old eruption that my little area of Central Java is very much a place of ongoing natural disaster. Or if not disaster, of natural calamity.

Merapi dumped millions of tons of volcanic sediment into area rivers when it erupted in late September and early November, heavily silting up the river beds, and while officials and villagers and anyone with a front-loader has been working to dredge the waterways, the region is very flood-prone right now. Especially hard hit has been the main road connecting Magelang to Jogjakarta. When I first returned to Magelang on Dec. 3, I was unable to take the airport shuttle bus because the main road connecting Magelang to Jogja—conveniently known as the Magelang Road—was washed out. I shared a long and circuitous cab ride from the airport with four other people. We and our bags crowded into a minivan and puttered our way around the road closure for almost three hours.

I'd heard of subsequent weather-related closures on the Magelang Road and then ran smack into another one Monday while trying to return from Jogja. I use the airport shuttle because it is one of the few buses here that run on a reliable schedul, and when I showed up at the terminal Monday afternoon I was told the Magelang Road was washed out and that no buses would be making the trip for at least two days. I again had to cab it back to Magelang, this time with my roomie Song, and again taking narrow and often deeply divoted back roads that were at times impassably crowded with diverted traffic. On the shuttle bus, using the main road, that trip can take as little as 50 minutes without traffic. We spent two and a half hours in the cab Monday night.

Then yesterday, Song and I headed out to Merapi with our school's principal and a math teacher. The Magelang Road remained washed out--the Kalih Putih, or White River, was overflowing its banks and washing across the road--and we had to take long detours on both the outbound and return trips. If all roads were open and passable, the trip out and back might take a little over an hour. We were on the road for almost four. We stopped at the site of the washout, near a ton called Muntilan, and joined several hundred other curious rubberneckers who paid a 50-cent admission fee to stand on tall banks of volcanic silt deposited by the flooding White River and watch yellow-brown water from a rogue branch pour across the roadway.

The Magelang Road and the rogue White River

Central Javans are endlessly interested in bearing witness to these 100-year floods and eruptions. They are living in curious, historic times, and they know it. I've never seen this before, is a regional refrain. Bridges are washed out, relatively normal heavy rains bring unusual and especially punishing flooding. Many of the curious bystanders at the White River flooding site last night were standing on silt and sediment on the site of Muntilan's traditional market. The mud and sand has completely wiped the market out, knocking down some stalls while filling others with three and four feet of heavy volcanic muck. The vendors are displaced—none were catering to the tourist crowd last evening—and who knows how they absorb the loss of even a week's income, let alone a month's or more.

We left the White River site as the sun finally fell, heading out on a two-hour meander back to Magelang and a late dinner of goat satay washed down with hot, sugary lemon juice. A good and long day, most of it in the SMK's Kijang.

Then today, seemingly against all reasonable odds, the Magelang/Jogja road is reportedly back open--many of the teachers at my school commute from down near Jogja--and traffic, and possibly airport shuttles, are again headed in both directions. But it didn't rain last night and hasn't yet today and I imagine when another hard rain comes we'll be back to the back-road detours. I have an appointment Friday morning in Jogja and we're building in four hours of travel time. Just in case.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Visions of Merapi

Yesterday I took a trip with a Jogja friend back out to that Merapi observation post I visited last fall during a very dark rainstorm. It was again cloudy today but the recently very angry volcano was at least somewhat visible this time. Quiet, too.

I found the same watchman at his post. This time he was wearing a commemorative Merapi 2010 eruption t-shirt. Cue the VH.

And during a walk through Jogja Saturday night with friends, I found this barber shop where for about 60 cents you, too, could sport one of those 'dos.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Afternoon rain

If it's 4 p.m. in Magelang, it must be raining. And probably hard. Recorded yesterday from the guest house's front stoop:

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Paid and played

Here's the unedited version of the passport saga. Long, maybe too long. But it was a long couple days. Thanks, again, to Jenn for helping salvage what seemed at several points like a long-gone lost cause. Thanks to Steve at The Beachwood Reporter for running it and cleaning it up in parts.

It Didn't Happen

No English! No!

The cop waved me away, disgusted. Zero interest in my cell phone or the voice coming buzzily through its receiver.

“She speaks Vietnamese,” I said. “Take the call.”

The cop looked at his colleague, another middle aged and deeply creased functionary in a rumpled green uniform perched behind a banged-up gray metal desk, and the colleague shrugged. The cop took the call.

This was my third trip to a small and shabby and almost invisible local police office inside Hanoi's Old Quarter, about two blocks from the hotel where my passport had been stolen the day before. I'd come last night, after I discovered the passport missing, and the two young cops on duty at the time refused to take a report. One of them barely moved from the saturnine slouch he stubbornly held in a ratty, padded black armchair just inside the police station. He wore his uniform cap low over his eyes and was rigid in his casual defiance. The young cops said they needed their supervisor to sign any reports and the supervisor was sleeping; no way were they going to wake him. Come back tomorrow, they said. When I came back the next morning, the supervisor was still unavailable. He had stirred and left the office. Maybe he'd be back around 2 p.m., they said. Come back later. The young cops gave me a form they said I needed to complete and have translated into Vietnamese. I should bring it back with me.

So I came back later, after a cross-town visit to the American embassy to apply for an emergency passport, and the supervisor finally made an appearance. He emerged from a back room wearing a food-stained striped polo shirt. As he slowly approached the intake desk, making clear how fucking boring this whole fucking business was to him, he pulled a forest green uniform shirt over his polo and then, glacially, sloppily, tied and tightened a khaki tie below the polo shirt's limp collar. He sat down heavily in front of us, taking a position beside another senior officer who would hear my story, both of them stationed below a portrait of Ho Chi Minh. The walls were a dirty, scuffed, pitted pale yellow, the floor a worn rust-colored tile that had not been mopped in at least a month. I sat with my back to the street, the front of the police station open to the road like the roll-up storefronts that flanked it for blocks in either direction. With me was my friend and traveling companion Jenn, a former police officer who now works as a private investigator, and the college kid we'd found on the street and recruited as our interpreter. Also there was the young assistant manager of the hotel where my passport went missing. He sat closer to the cops and the police supervisor, after settling into his seat, made it immediately clear whose side he was on. Turning to my college kid translator, the old cop began shouting and waving index finger. He scolded and sputtered, staring the kid down, forcing him to look away. He motioned to the assistant hotel manager, then to the kid, then pointed at the form I'd been told to prepare and have translated into Vietnamese, and said he had no intention of reading it. At no point did he look at me or Jenn or otherwise acknowledge we were in the room. His face growing red, the old copper kept up a running harangue of the translator, five minutes, six, seven. I finally interrupted the guy.

“What's he saying?” I asked my college kid.

The question, my voice stopped the cop's badgering. He finally looked at me. I met his eyes—angry but also bored, professionally pissed—then turned to my translator for an answer.

He says you can't prove your passport was stolen from the hotel. You don't have any proof.

I'd been through this before with the assistant manager from the hotel and later with his boss. These conversations were mildly friendly at first—the hoteliers offered to help me call all of the places I'd visited the day my passport went missing to see if I'd left it behind at, say, the Hanoi Water Puppet show—but as I continued to insist that I'd left the passport on the desk inside my room and had seen it sitting there before I left for 12 hours of sightseeing, the more hardened the hotel bosses got about my claims. It was their word against mine. There was no way my passport had been taken from inside their building, they insisted. I lost it on the street. You lost it somewhere else, they said.

I didn't lose it somewhere else, I said. I lost it here.


I discovered the passport missing about 10 p.m. Sunday night and called the hotel clerk at the front desk. I asked him to come to my room. When he got there I told him my passport was gone and asked if he would contact the hotel manager. Was there a way to call the cleaning staff to see if any of them had it? Could the passport be somewhere else in the hotel? The clerk, a soft-spoken young simp who a short time later would forget how to speak English and refuse to contact the police for me, said he would make some phone calls and let me know what he could find out. Twenty minutes later he called my room to say his supervisor was asleep for the night and he couldn't reach any of the cleaning staff and we could just deal with this in the morning.

No, we need to deal with it now, I said. Wake your supervisor up. I need to talk to the police. I need to file a police report.

I made my way to the hotel lobby and was soon joined by Jenn, who sat watching the clerk and who grew increasingly frustrated as I tried to get him to contact the police.

What's the number for the police?

The number?

Yes. The phone number. How do I call the police?

You want to call police?

The police, Jenn said. Get them on the phone, or tell us how to do it.

She thumbed through tourist books looking for emergency contact information. She found the number and I dialed it. A middle-aged man answered in Vietnamese and I asked if anyone there could speak English. He answered in Vietnamese and I tried to hand the phone to the hotel clerk, who reluctantly took it.

Instead of talking with the cop, though, he picked up a land line and called his boss, the hotel's young assistant manager. The clerk spoke quietly into the handset and held my cell in his other hand, letting the police officer hold the line for several minutes. When I took the cell phone back, the line was dead. I told the clerk I was calling the embassy. The clerk had ended the call with his boss but dialed him again and handed me the phone.

The police won't come to the hotel, the manager told me through the earpiece. You will have to wait until tomorrow to talk to them.

I want to talk to them now, I said. I'm calling the embassy. Maybe they'll help.

You should wait until tomorrow. We can talk to the cleaning staff tomorrow.

You should talk to them tonight.

Not tonight, he said and then hung up on me.

I gave the phone back to the clerk, who had now officially stopped speaking English, and used my cell to call a Marine Corps sergeant pulling late-night duty at the embassy. The Marine said he'd page the on-call foreign service officer and that somebody would get back to me soon. He didn't know what to do about a police report.

The hotel clerk stood with two phones in his hand—the hotel phone and a cell—talking to no one. He was the picture of complete ineffectuality: doing and saying nothing. We waited for the FSO to call back and sat watching the clerk.

Why won't you call the police? Jenn asked.

The clerk said nothing.

I don't understand why you won't help us, she said. Why won't you help us?

A woman from the embassy finally called back. She took my information and said I should get to the American Citizen Services window and apply for an emergency replacement passport the next day. I would need a police report, she said, so I should get one of those as soon as possible. I asked if she could help with that.

What about the hotel? she suggested.

I said I'd be at the embassy as soon as I could the next morning. I hung up and turned to greet a young guy I'd seen around the hotel earlier in the week. He was about 26 and his English was very good. He said he was sorry to hear about the loss of my passport. He wanted to help. Thanks for that, I said. He introduced himself as the hotel manager. I said the hotel manager had just hung up on me about a 20 minutes ago.

I didn't hang up, he said. There was a problem with the call.

Right. This young guy, whom I later learned was really the assistant manager, told me the police would not come to the hotel; they could not be summoned from their office so late at night. He was willing to walk with us to the police station and I could file a report there.

How far is it? I asked.

I don't know, the assistant manager said. It is not close.

We walked out into the Old Quarter night, past food carts selling beer and tea and pho, and turned a corner about 100 yards from the hotel. We walked a minute, turned left and were standing in front of the police station. We hadn't walked five minutes. Two blocks.

I thought you said it wasn't close.

I'm new here, the assistant manager shrugged.

Inside the police station, we met the slouching young cop and his partner and were rebuffed in all efforts to make a report. The assistant hotel manager explained that he was powerless to make the cops do their jobs. I am a regular citizen, he said. I can do nothing. I believed him. We left the station, and the cops to their naps.

When we got back to the hotel lobby, the assistant manager dropped all pretense of friendliness.

You accuse everyone of stealing! he barked. You point at me, at everyone!

I did no such thing and you know it, I said. Somebody took my passport. I didn't say I know whom. And I didn't fucking point at anyone.

Jenn and I left the assistant manager and the feckless desk clerk standing in the hotel's small lobby. Walking upstairs to our rooms, she turned to me and asked, What was that about? Bluster, I said. The assistant manager had made a point earlier of explaining that he'd gotten out of bed and driven downtown from his home to deal with this. He was put out. He wanted some credit for the effort. Thanks, I said. But what have you done so far, exactly?

We headed to bed about 3 a.m. and were back up for a return trip to the police station at 8:30. Tired. And a long day ahead of us. We got the brush-off early enough from the cops to get to the embassy before lunch—they take an hour-and-a-half break—and I applied for an emergency passport. I hoped to continue on to Laos and, a couple days later, to return to Indonesia. I would need a passport and, crucially, I would need a new visa for Vietnam. Without one, I couldn't leave the country—and the clock was ticking. The embassy staff told me I needed to take my police report and new passport to Vietnamese immigration officials before 4 p.m. That seemed unlikely. And Jenn and I were holding tickets for a 9 a.m. flight the following day, Tuesday.

At the embassy, I explained how I'd lost my passport inside the hotel and eventually a tall, bald white guy in a baggy oxford and khakis emerged from inside the consular services cubicles to talk with me through bullet-proof glass. He said it was unusual for someone to steal a passport from inside a hotel in Vietnam. He asked me about my work as a Fulbright teacher, and then said he would call the hotel and see if he couldn't shake the tree and see if the passport fell out. He seemed eager to help, and of course I never talked to him again. I have no idea how his conversation with the hotel staff went. He didn't say, and his Vietnamese staff inside the embassy didn't either.

When we stepped out of the embassy and back into rainy and chilly mid-day Hanoi, we badly needed a police report. We didn't trust the assistant hotel manager to represent me or my claims in any way, and the performance of the cops near the hotel so far did not exactly inspire confidence. We stopped a young man toting a backpack as he crossed the street near the embassy. Do you speak English? Yes. We need help. Do you have a minute? Yes. Thus did Chinh enter our misadventure. My passport was stolen and I need to file a police report, I told him. Can you come with us? We'll pay you for your time. Chinh was on his way to an afternoon college-level English class but turned straight around and hailed a cab for us. We drove to a police station near the embassy and followed Chinh inside. He approached a severe 20-something police officer in the now-familiar forest green uniform and began explaining what we needed. The cop scowled. Then he shook his head. No. Chinh kept talking, smiling and trying to lighten the guy up—a natural deal-maker. The cop listened and shook his head some more and listened and finally took the form I'd been given at the police station near the hotel. On it I'd written the bare-bones details of the passport theft; Chinh had then handwritten Vietnamese translations for each section. The cop read over the document and then handed it back to Chinh. No. He told Chinh to tell us he couldn't provide me with a police report to take back to the embassy or to the Vietnamese immigration office because the crime, if there was a crime, happened in a different police district. I would have to go back to the station near the hotel. I looked at Chinh, Chinh looked at the cop, the cop looked away from all of us, out the door, into the afternoon.

Every year Berlin-based Transparency International publishes a Corruption Perceptions Index that ranks the level of perceived public-sector corruption in the world's 178 countries. This list is based on feedback provided by country experts and by reputable business institutions. Last year, Vietnam was ranked 116 out of 178 nations in the world, putting it just behind Indonesia, on par with Ethiopia and just slightly ahead of Syria. In other words, it might be a fast-emerging regional economy—the evidence of international capital investment, even during a world downturn, is evident from downtown Saigon's new super mall projects to the beachfront resorts of Danang, including one involving golfer Greg Norman, to the wide and speedy new freeway to Hanoi's airport that is filled with personal cars and minivans—but Vietnam remains a one-party state and the men who run that party, and the mid- and low-level bureaucrats who lard the public payroll, treat the state as their own private cash register, their positions of authority as means to personal economic ends. In Vietnam, power means power. Those who have it use it, and those who don't, like the assistant hotel manager who could do no more than ask politely for police assistance that did not come, pay the tolls exacted by the men in uniform. Big or small, the bribes are ubiquitous. They are a cultural truism.

So I was a little surprised that no one, to this point, had asked me for some money to make something happen with the police report. Not the young cops at the station near the hotel, not the older but equally uninterested cop seated before me around the corner from the American embassy. Chinh made a final appeal, pushing the translated statement toward the officer and asking him to take another look. He scanned the page, then turned it over and read the back. He stood and walked to a rear office. Progress!? Chinh smiled hopefully. But a minute later the cop was back, shoving the statement toward Chinh and shaking his head. I finally asked to Chinh to tell the cop I was willing to pay a “fee” to expedite the report. The cop again shook his head. No fee. We would have to go back to the police station by the hotel and get them to file the report. Walking to a cab that would carry us back across town, I asked Chinh why the cop wouldn't budge, even when I offered to pay him for the report. He's afraid of the embassy. They know you're talking to the embassy and don't want any trouble. So power fears power, or at least the hassle of knowingly shaking down an American. Everything would be by the book. At least with the cops.

We drove straight to the Old Quarter police station near the hotel, and here we're back to where this story began. It was me and Jenn and Chinh on one side of the room, the young assistant hotel manager to our right, and the two older police officials, including the supervisor, sitting opposite us behind the intake desk. We'd gotten off to the shouting start from the supervisor, and the hotel manager spoke nothing but Vietnamese for about 10 minutes. I was glad to have Chinh there but it was clear we were getting nowhere. The cops wouldn't even handle the translated statement, let alone read it, and time was running desperately out for us to make it to the immigration office in time to get an exit visa for the following morning—itself a longshot gambit, anyway. Officially it takes three days to get a replacement visa. Maybe I could make something happen if I could get to the office before they closed in less than two hours, but maybe not. If not, the trip to Laos was over and the vacation effectively ended. I'd be stuck in Hanoi for the rest of the week and then back on a plane to Jakarta. The U.S. embassy staff didn't sound too hopeful. I asked if they could call in a favor, if they could give me the name of someone to talk to, if they knew of any other way I could get on a plane the following day, visa or no, and they said, Not really. They could help with the passport but they didn't have contacts with Vietnamese immigration. I was on my own with that.

The cop supervisor finally stopped yelling and told me I would need to change my story if I hoped to get a police report from him. I would not claim to have lost the passport inside the hotel. Instead, I would say I lost it while sightseeing. No one at the hotel was responsible; I was. If I changed my story, I could have a police report today. If not, they'd have to launch an investigation that could take weeks or even months, during which time I would need to remain in Hanoi, and only at the end of the investigation would they be able to provide a report. I called the embassy to relay the cop's offer. The woman who answered sputtered that under no circumstances should I accept the deal. Then she asked to speak with the police supervisor. I tried to hand him the phone and he spat out, No English! No! But he took the call and gave the phone back and the embassy woman said she couldn't tell me what to do but that I might want to change my story. So I did. Chinh was visibly upset. It's not right, he later said.

We drafted another handwritten statement and then I was sent along with Chinh and the assistant hotel manager to find a Xerox machine somewhere and make a copy. The police didn't provide that kind of service. So we fast-walked through the narrow streets near the station and found a bank branch where the staffers made a copy for us and we raced back to the station, got an official seal and signature on the report, and hopped straight into a cab. It was 3:45 p.m. Vietnamese immigration closed at 4 p.m. From the cab I dialed the immigration office and got an English speaker on the line. He said the office was already closed. I said I was on my way, could they wait? He said no. He also said it would take three days to get an exit visa. I asked if there were a way to expedite the process; I had a plane ticket for the next morning. No chance, the guy said. Three days. I hung up and told Jenn what he'd said. It was about 4 p.m. by now and we'd reached the end. A low point. Vacation's end.

Jenn thought about it for a minute and said, You know, I have to go on to Laos.

I know, I said.

We dropped off Chinh and I paid him the equivalent of $50. He said thanks and walked off toward the house he shares with his mother. Jenn and I got to the embassy in time to pick up my replacement passport and for me to ask again if the staff had any ideas about how to obtain a replacement visa in time to fly the following day. If not on the morning flight, then on the afternoon one. They didn't have an answer. If the Vietnamese said three days, it would take three days. I took my passport and we walked downstairs to a small library inside the embassy, a reading room for Vietnamese students looking to brush up on their English. The place had an Internet terminal and a printer and we hoped to figure something out. Jenn started emailing investigator friends for help; maybe someone had a chit they could call in. I dialed up the website of the private company that had handled my original entry visa to Vietnam. They offered expedited service and claimed they could turn a visa around in four hours. I could have one by noon tomorrow—too late for the morning flight to Luang Prabang, Laos but plenty of time to get on a later one. I called the company's offices in Hanoi and was assured I could get one the next morning. It would cost about $75. I processed the request through their computer, paid with a credit card, and at least had an option on the table that might get me out of Vietnam. Just as the embassy was closing to the public for the night I made a return trip to the Citizen Services window to tell them about the expedited visa option I was going to try. They'd never heard of it, and they couldn't vouch for it. Fine, but the company had done well by me before and I thought they'd come through. But they wouldn't have anything for me before my flight was gone. What if I wanted to try getting on that plane? I asked.

Well, you could just go to the airport and pay a fine and probably get on the plane, a woman at the counter said.

I can just show up and pay a fine? Why didn't you tell me that before?

We don't normally advise that.

So I had two new possibilities. Things seemed less grim. The embassy staffers didn't know how much the fine might be but I was willing to chance it. And if the cost was too much, I'd have the expedited visa in hand by noon. Deep breath. Skies parting. We left the reading room hungry and tired but hopeful. It was 6 p.m. and we'd been chasing a passport, a police report, and a visa since the night before. Since 8:30 a.m. this morning. We hailed a cab and rode through the rain to our hotel. When we got there, I told the desk clerk that I wanted to talk to the bosses about checking out in the morning. I had no intention of paying full-freight for the stay and it was time to talk brass tacks. Jenn and I headed to our rooms, showered up, changed for dinner, and were back in the lobby about 25 minutes later. There we met three different managers—the assistant manager whom we'd dealt with at the police station, the actual hotel manager, and the boss of bosses, the general manager for the little hotel chain that operated Hanoi Elite Hotel and several other properties like it around the city. We sat opposite the manager and general manager at a dining room table, and the general manager, a tall and stout Vietnamese guy about 40 who wore his hair in a frizzy buzz-cut-gone-long, did most of the talking.

First, the passport was not stolen here, he said. It doesn't make sense. An American passport is not worth anything in Vietnam.

This was a claim made several times earlier by the assistant manager and manager. Both men had insisted, and now their boss was returning to the theme, that a stolen U.S. passport had virtually no resale value on the Hanoi black market so no one would bother stealing one. I told him what I'd told that others: That's nonsense, and you know it. The passport was the only thing missing from my room. I'd left it out on a desk for the thief or thieves to find, in part because an electronic safe in my room did not work properly and was locked shut and in part because I simply forgot to put it back in my bag after removing it for fear of rain the day before, and returned to my room to find it gone. I had some Indonesian currency stashed in a duffel bag but otherwise was carrying all my cash at the time of the robbery. The hotel general manager said no one would steal a passport and leave the money behind. What if it were only Indonesian rupiah? I asked.

The general manager talked and talked and explained that his company had never had a theft like this before and that they screen their cleaning staff carefully and no one would risk their jobs to steal a worthless American passport. He leaned across the table toward me and smiled.

It didn't happen, he said.

The passport had not been stolen. It did not happen.

Well, you got the police report you wanted, I said. What are you going to do for me?

The general manager said they would charge me half the cost of my room and would provide a free ride to the airport in the morning. They would not discount Jenn's room at all—nothing had happened to her. That was it. Their offer in toto.

I need help with my visa, I said. What can you do?

I explained that I needed to be on a plane at 9 a.m. and was at that moment without an exit visa. The two older men conferred for a minute and then said they might be able to help. They had a friend at the airport, a man in the immigration office. Did I have American dollars? I said I did. For $60, I could have an exit visa. That was $25 for the visa and $35 extra for their friend in immigration. I'd finally found my corruptible official. He was waiting for me at the airport, and his price was pretty fair. The hotel driver would take us to the airport in the morning and he would handle the transaction. He would be my fixer. I would give him my money and my passport and he would deliver these to the immigration official, who did not want to be seen with me, and I would be good to go by about 8 a.m.

And that's exactly what happened. We got up early on Tuesday morning, settled up with the hotel, and headed for the airport. I handed the cash to the driver while we were still in the hotel lobby and surrendered my passport inside the main terminal. He was gone about 30 minutes and when he returned I had a very official, very legit exit visa glued into my little replacement passport. I took this to the check-in counter, where a Vietnam Airlines agent looked it over and then handed it back. Then I took it to the immigration line where a young man about 24 wearing a green uniform with red epaulets studied it for a long time and eventually carried it to a supervisor. The two men puzzled over the last page of the travel papers that read, “THIS PASSPORT IS A REPLACEMENT FOR A STOLEN PASSPORT AND EXPIRES ON 12-JUL-2011. IT CANNOT BE EXTENDED.” The supervisor finally nodded and the young immigration officer returned to his desk. Without looking at me, he stamped the exit visa canceled and slipped the passport back to me. I walked through a magnetometer and was at the gate for my flight to Laos.

Jenn waited for me to clear immigration before getting through herself. We walked to the gate together and as we arrived, she turned to me and said, “I feel like we just robbed a bank and got away with it.”

Nah. We just played their game and got barely by. We played and paid and were now done with Vietnam. Which felt just goddamned fine.