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Raising Cash in Java


Just functioning in the public sector here in Java often as not turns into some strange amalgam of Monty Python and a Homeric epic (admittedly not as far apart as they appear at first glance).

Yesterday: The Quest for the ATM. Being short enough of money that we had to rely on public transport, my friend and deckhand, Lenny, and I stopped a queasy shuddering minibus that was laboring down the road toward Labuan, the closest town of consequence (loosely used term) around. It careened to a halt in front of us in a cloud of cheap, rancid, cigarette smoke with much unhealthy wheezing of brakes and other questionably working vehicle parts. We climbed aboard over two 50 lb. sacks of rice, a stack of used lumber, a basket filled with liter bottles of gasoline and assorted other sundries, squeezing into places between the ten or twelve other people already inside. We were the largest people, of course, by at least a foot and fifty pounds, so we took up probably an unfair amount of space in the vehicle, only the size of a large refrigerator to begin with.

Nevertheless, we climbed aboard, Lenny between an old woman and an older man with about three betel nut-stained teeth between them, and I sat next to a younger girl and her toddler son, a little boy whose lips were obscured by large, frightening scabs that held vague promises of nasty, exotic, communicable diseases. Usually, I goof around with small children – it makes them smile, which makes everyone else smile, and usually, if people are smiling, they like you. Unfortunately, I was somewhat unprepared for Scab Boy and his Demon Lips, and I don’t mean to be cruel, but I was completely dumbfounded when I first turned to him, and he stared unhappily back at me over the top of his lips. It was like Steve Martin’s nose in Roxanne. I felt terrible, but there they were, just out there flapping around in front of me, and to look at him was to stare.

Through a supreme effort of willpower and social grace, I eventually managed to redirect my attention to the front of the vehicle, which I did just in time to watch our driver apparently try very hard to run a couple on a motor scooter off the road. Lenny and I laughed with a nervous relief that we had missed them, and the drivers (there were two of them, and they would pull over to the side of the road every three or four minutes to switch) took it upon themselves to entertain us continually in this fashion, with the same poor couple as targets time after time. We’d stop, drop someone off, and pick someone up with their load of live chickens or cattle or whatever, and by the time we’d started again, the unfortunate couple on the Vespa would have passed us again. The current driver would pull up six inches off their tail, rev the engine, honk the horn, and whistle, while everyone else in the minibus joined in a chorus of derisive laughter and abusive comments that would continue as we passed them, six inches from the knees of the girl who was sitting sidesaddle on the back, passively staring back at us, unperturbed by it all. She wore a motorcycle helmet about ten sizes too large, so she had turned it around backwards on her head, apparently accomplishing a tighter fit that way, as well as protecting most of her upper back with the visor, but of course, her vision was, for the most part, well obscured, which perhaps helped account for her casual attitude. This went on all the way to Labuan.

We finally got to Labuan with no deaths, where of course the ATM didn’t work, but we decided to wander around the market anyway. While we were stopped admiring machetes, I was approached by a young gentleman tremendously interested in conversation, although not necessarily in communication. He had no English and I had only the most basic Bahasa Indonesian. Nevertheless, my new friend would take a machete, show it to me, and launch into a lengthy oration, I assume about the tensile strength of the steel, the quality of the water buffalo horn handle, and various other vagaries of machete manufacture. He then commenced a full Bruce Lee imitation karate act, an obvious joke, his karate being about as good as a three-legged donkey’s. Then he’d stop, talk at me some more, to which I, tremendously pleased with the whole situation, would reply enthusiastically, in the varying tones of voice and volume that I felt the situation might warrant, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

To this, the crowd that had begun to gather would laugh uproariously, smiling, cheering, and clapping each other on the back, and then the process would begin all over again. After about ten minutes or so of this, Lenny and I had both bought machetes, and were hustled onto the back of two moped taxis, which took us back to the boat without getting us killed, though not necessarily from lack of effort. I’m sure Lenny and I both made quite a sight, wearing newly purchased straw Indonesian farmer’s hats as helmets and carrying machetes in our belts, bouncing and weaving our way back through potholes and traffic, with a death grip on anything that would keep us connected to our rides and their hell-bent drivers.

So we get back to where we began, now critically empty-walleted. We hopped another minibus, this one so crowded that Lenny and I sit three across in the front with the driver in a space so small that, whenever our pilot depressed the clutch Lenny had to be the one to shift to avoid compromising his dignity. Our heads were pressed up hard against the low ceiling; for a while I took to just hanging out the window, an inadvisable practice, given the proximity of trees and other vehicles along the roadway. When the crowd eased up a little, there was enough room for me to hang out the more spacious side door of the vehicle, a hand on the rain gutter, and one knee on a sack of rice.

This minibus, half an hour into our journey, inexplicably and with little fanfare, sputtered once and died, just south of the middle of nowhere. The driver went to work on the engine with a coathanger, and the passengers with a quick farewell left the guy muttering peacefully at his machine on the side of the road, walking to the next town. Lenny and I followed like sheep.

In the end, to get as far as a bank with a cash machine, we hired a private taxi driver, Bya (an extremely phonetic spelling of his name, I’m sure) to take us to Cilegon, an hour away. Now hired as our charter driver, it had become Bya’s mission to get us where we were going, with speed and efficiency, or die (bloodily) trying. Although I quite seriously put the odds of making it back without a semi-serious incident at three for to one against, he came through, the closest call being a narrow avoidance of sideswiping a child on his tricycle. The kid was in our lane anyway. But, and this is the important thing, a narrow avoidance is still a successful avoidance.

We returned safely, with the mission accomplished, congratulated Bya on a morning that had successfully, on numerous occasions, taunted and cheated death, and retreated for the rest of the day to the safety of the boat to absorb and contemplate our morning’s quest.

That afternoon, the rupiah lost about a third of its value, and my $160 withdrawal from that morning became worth about $109.

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