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.