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.

Why not some audio? (Redux)

All right. New host site. Let's try this again:

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Why not some audio?

So I thought I'd take a crack at recording a Podcast for the blog. Why not, right? My computer has a microphone. Nothing new here, just me reading the post about Olive:

I'm using a free hosting site that doesn't immediately post the files so I can't test the link but I'm hoping it works by the time you click on it.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Escape from Vietnam

The Beachwood Reporter today includes a full account of how I escaped Vietnam after my passport was stolen in Hanoi:

A homecoming

Last night was my first back in Magelang since before Christmas and only the third night I've spent here since the first week of November. I headed to bed after watching the first episode of The Wire's third season—part of a pirated DVD set I bought for $12 in Hanoi—and once there read a dozen pages of Stieg Larsson's The Girl Who Played with Fire before fading, eyes heavy, past comprehension. It was a comfortable night and it felt good to be back; Song was in the next room and when I turned out my light I could see his still on through the glass transom above my door. I fell fast and deeply asleep in minutes, the electric fan whirring peacefully and the house and campus near-silent.

When I woke several hours later it was in delirium--my body drained, my mind fogged, my heart in my throat, and my throat swollen with sadness. In my dream I'd been crying hard and as I woke I could feel the physical strain of serious, mournful sobbing in my muscles. I'd dreamed of Olive. In the dream, she had come back to life for one day. I don't know how or why, but I understood that I had one more day on Earth with her, to hold her and talk to her, to feel her warmth and her fur in my hands and against my face as I pushed her against me and held her tightly to me. At the end of this single day she would again be gone forever.

Missy was in the dream, or at least part of it. We took Olive for a short walk—Olive pulling at her leash, always walking ahead of us—and as we talked, I reached out, making a point, and touched Missy's shoulder. She paused and turned to me and explained that we were almost out of time with the dog. I said I knew.

How would I spend another day with Olive if I could have it? In the dream, I smothered her with my body and with affection. I pinned her to the ground and pressed her to my chest. I told her I loved her and would always love her. Which is true. I told her I would think of her and miss her, which I do. I said it over and over: Love you, miss you. Love you, miss you. Oh, Olive. So fucking impossibly great to visit you, Muttly, in black and white and skin and bones, and so fucking devastatingly sad to say goodbye again. All of those bottomless feelings again in free-fall.

I don't know where the dream came from. Olive's been on my mind but no more than usual, which I'd say is regular but not obsessive or depressive. I saw a lot of dogs in Vietnam and Laos and often compared them to her or was reminded of the way she twitched her ears. But I didn't dream about her until I got back here, weeks out of both countries. Maybe it was a New Year's sucker punch from the old. If so, it landed. And hurt.

Or maybe I am thinking about home and where that is.


I have a hundred pictures of Olive here on my computer. I have a dozen or more video files of her, too. I also have her old collar and tags with me, and of course I have a head full of memories of her and our time together. But the truth is I don't much look at the pictures and I never watch the videos. I tried doing that shortly after she died and it just supercharged my feelings of loss. Serious sadness-making. I once hung her collar, which still has a couple hairs from her undercoat in it, from a nail inside my bedroom but I took it down and put it away. I just couldn't look at it.

So I've carried Olive around in my heart for months but rarely looked at her. And maybe that's what's wrong. Maybe it's time to let her out again, so to speak. Maybe that terrible dream is telling me I want her back with me, in my life, however she comes.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Not a bad place to spend some jail time

Back in Magelang and catching up on some Jakarta Globe reading between scheduling meetings for the new semester. It looks like the story of my passport theft will appear this week in the Beachwood Reporter. I'm waiting on edits from Steve and will post a link when it's up. After that, a longer piece ruminating on Indonesian privilege and corruption might see the light soon.

With that theme in mind, I thought I'd pass on a link to a Globe story about a woman convicted of graft who paid another woman to serve her jail term. This piece is especially relevant because it follows a couple other recent high-profile stories of privileged law-breakers who enjoyed unusually pleasant detentions inside Indonesian prison facilities.

One of them, a low-level tax official who reportedly made millions by colluding with tax-evading corporations, even paid to be let out of jail every weekend for several months. He was caught when a Globe photographer took a picture of him in the stands at a tennis tournament last fall in Bali. The tax official, who's known in the media by his first name, Gayus, was wearing a wig and fake glasses as a disguise at the tennis tournament, sort of like Bobby Valentine a few years back. The pictures of him that ran in the paper made him look like a very frumpy middle-aged cross-dresser.

Gayus at first denied it was him in the picture but he eventually admitted it was and later said that he'd routinely been letting himself out of jail for weekends--with the help of prison guards and officials, of course. The case exploded across the Indonesian media and remains a front-page item. The question for most isn't how or why Gayus was able to pay for his weekend release program--no one seems to have any doubt about the hows or whys of that particular project--but rather whether Gayus will spill the beans about all the corporate honchos he helped fix tax cases. One such honcho is a would-be presidential candidate and rival to current President SBY. The story is big, silly Gayus a household name, and the issue of whether there's a jail cell in the country that can hold anyone with even a hint of privilege is one that will probably have to wait. Until when? Maybe later.

Oh, and that link I was talking about:

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The tahun baru

New Year's 2011 in Jogjakarta with a good group of Fulbrighters. Back to Magelang tomorrow and to teaching the day after. It's been a while. Since being evacuated in early November, my carbon footprint has mushroomed. Sure, flying half-way across the world to come here in August was bad. And the return trip will be just as awful. But I toted up my recent in- and out-of-country air travel and realized that while working as a volunteer English teacher in the pretty well developed Emerging World, I'm on a jet-setting jag unlike any I've ever enjoyed. Not during my mostly desk-bound time with the Trib, not as a big-case, keep-the-meter-running snoop at Kroll. Thirteen flights in about six weeks. Closing in on the Clooney character from Up in the Air. To wit:

1. Semarang to Jakarta.
2. Jakarta to Surabaya.
3. Surabaya to Jogjakarta.
4. Jogjakarta to Jakarta.
5. Jakarta to Kuala Lumpur.
6. Kuala Lumpur to Ho Chi Minh City.
7. HCMC to Danang.
8. Danang to Hanoi.
9. Hanoi to Luang Prbang, Laos.
10. Luang Prabang to Hanoi.
11. Hanoi to Kuala Lumpur.
12. KL to Jakarta.
13. Jakarta to Jogjakarta.

Of course, most that that travel has been on my dime and I'll be paying it off until I leave here in five months. Still, a good run. The only real moment of turbulent fear came on the final flight, the one into Jogja from Jakarta. we flew through heavy rain and a very tall storm system. Dark clouds the entire way, and when we had to dip into them, just rough riding. A couple gasp-inducing dips and drops, one of which prompted a woman seated just up the aisle for me to grab the seatback in front of her and brace herself for serious plunge that never came. She eventually let go and fixed her headscarf, which had come undone a little as she grabbed for the chair.

One last look at Luang Prabang.

I've got a couple long-form pieces that I'll post soon as proof that I haven't been completely neglecting my writing, or my readers. One's sitting on the Beachwood Reporter freelance submission desk and I'll see what Steve says before throwing it up on the blog. The other's about my now-long-ago trip to see the bull races in Madura. With the new year, I hereby resolve to keep the blog as updated as possible for the rest of my time here, which frankly isn't that much. Looks like about 15 weeks of classroom instruction is all. A student teaching stint, basically.

One last picture of me with an elephant.

Sounds like mom and my aunt are heading here in late February and rumor has it my friend Lydia might make a Javan appearance. Thinking those visits will mean trips to Bali--still haven't been but I'll be in Lombok on Fulbright's dime in a couple weeks (more flying!)--and up to see those orangutans in Borneo. Many, many thanks to Jenn Mack for suggesting our Indochina adventure, making it happen, and then helping bail my ass out when the passport debacle took full flower.

Happy New Year to everyone reading. Thanks for your continued interest and I hope to see each and every one of you during the Summer Reunion Tour, which looks to start on Nelson Lake in Eagle River, Wis. round about July 4. Save me a seat in the sauna.