And neither the embassy or American Express could care less.
It was a dumbass thing to do. I know. But let me just say this in my lame defense: when I first traveled Asia back in the early 90’s, I never had a problem. Three and a half years of travel, and nobody even touched my stuff. Now, ten years later, I felt safe, secure, and stupid. It never occurred to me that I was taking a huge risk by keeping my valuables in bed with me… while I was sleeping… in a dorm room… with half a dozen strangers.
It occurred to me the next morning, when the fannypack which contained my passport, traveler’s checks, and all my money, was gone. It can’t be gone, I thought, it has to be here! I looked under the bed. I looked under the mattress. I stripped the sheets off. I dumped the pillow out of the pillowcase, turned it inside out, and shook it, thinking it might somehow magically fall out. It didn’t. I felt inside the mattress. You never know. If my Swiss Army knife hadn’t been in the fannypack, I would’ve sliced the mattress open.
I stepped back and stared at the overturned mattress and bunched-up sheets on the floor. It had to be right there in front of me, but I just couldn’t see it – denial, the first stage of grief. After quickbouts of anger, bargaining, and depression, I finally arrived at the fifth stage, acceptance. I ran downstairs and woke the old Indian at the front desk.
“Did anyone turn in a fannypack?”
“A what, sir?” he asked.
“A fannypack! A…a… pouch. With a strap. You put it around your waist. Did anyone turn one in?”
He looked around his station, “Nothing here, sir.”
“Well, did anyone leave this morning? In a rush?”
“Only the Holland man, sir,” he said, “And in quite a hurry.”
“Where was he going?”
“Sumatra. On the fast ferry.”
I was ready to chase the bastard down, but the clerk stopped me.
“Oh, the ferry has certainly left by now, sir. Perhaps already one hour ago.”
I ran to the Penang police station. Maybe they could stop the Dutchman when he landed, but the station wasn’t open. A man sleeping in a pedicab by the front steps told me to come back later, but he didn’t know when. Something to do with Ramadan.
I returned to the hotel and tried to explain to the clerk how I couldn’t pay my hotel bill, since I had no money. Then I had to explain to his boss. And to his boss’s brother. And then to his boss’s brother’s uncle. Each time, the same story, the same questions. What exactly happened? Why did I leave my valuables out in the open? Didn’t I know they had lockers? They decided that I wouldn’t have to pay, but I would have to leave. With nowhere else to go, I turned to Mr. Tan.
I briefly worked for Tan at his restaurant during my previous trip. He also owned a hotel, but I hadn’t stayed there in order, ironically, to save a few Ringgit. When I saw him and told him my story, he lent me some coins for the payphone to call the US Embassy and the American Express office in Kuala Lumpur. It took about an hour to get hold of anyone, only to find out that I couldn’t do anything for at least couple of days. Something to do with Ramadan. Tan agreed to house and feed me; I could pay him back when my travelers’ checks were reimbursed.
When the police station opened, I explained what happened for the sixth humiliating time. They had me fill out a report, but that was all. I wanted to bring in the desk clerk and have him sit down with a sketch artist, but they informed me that they did not operate like “the police on your American television shows.” Even if they had a sketch artist, it wouldn’t matter, it was too late to catch the Dutchman at the pier. He could be anywhere in Sumatra by now. And even if it wasn’t too late, they couldn’t have him stopped based only on my suspicion.
After two days of staring into space in Penang, I took the overnight bus to KL. Tan lent me enough money to get there, but not enough to return. The next morning, I went straight to the US Embassy and sat for hours in a large waiting room, watching applicant after applicant get their visa requests turned down. It was only a few months after the World Trade Center bombing and they weren’t cutting anybody any slack. This was going to be difficult; the only proof I had of American citizenship was my East Coast accent and a vast knowledge of pop-culture trivia. Once, it might have been enough, but not now. And my beard and somewhat Middle Eastern features were not going to help.
When the man behind the glass called my number, it turned out that he was from my home state, Rhode Island. He quizzed me about all things Rhode Island – what town I came from, what high school I went to, where to get the best clam cakes and hot wieners. He once even tried to trick me by getting me to call a water fountain a water fountain, instead of a “bubbler.” I passed the test, although we quibbled on the hot wieners. He agreed to issue me a passport, then charged me $55.00. He didn’t seem to care that I had no money. I took issue with this.
“Look, we don’t have to be doing you this favor,” he said.
“It’s not a ‘favor,‘” I said, “I’m a US citizen. The embassy is supposed to protect its citizens.”
I heard stories about travelers getting in trouble and their embassies helping them by loaning them money, sometimes even flying them home. But never the US Embassy. Maybe there were too many deadbeat US travelers trying to scam the embassy, or maybe it was the post 9/11 mentality. It didn’t matter to my friend behind the glass. He made it quite clear that if I wanted my passport, it would be in my best interest to shut up and get my money from American Express.
I arrived at American Express just in time to watch them close for a two hour break. (Ramadan?) I walked around, looking for cheap eats and some shade. I was starved, sweaty, and stressed, and my fungal infection was flaring up. Oh, I forgot to mention the fungal infection – in my crotch – an itching, bubbling, burning, red crotch-rot which I couldn’t scratch, rub, or touch. Not in public anyway. I had some anti-fungal ointment that a doctor prescribed, but I had kept it in my fannypack. Somewhere in Sumatra, a Dutchman was laughing.
When the office opened, the large, rather imposing man behind the counter told me, as I dimly suspected, that he couldn’t reimburse me unless I had proper identification. I had the police report and my travelers’ check receipts (I was at least smart enough to keep those separate from the checks), but they weren’t enough. I pleaded with the man; I got emotional, “Look, I’ve got nothing. I can’t get back to Penang. I can’t pay my hotel bill. I don’t have enough to eat. You say I can’t get my money without my passport, but I can’t get my passport without my money. It’s a no-win situation. And on top of everything else, my goddamn crotch is burning! I need your help! Please?!”
The man took pity and advanced me $200.00. I wanted to hug him, but, understandably, he backed away. I ran back to the embassy and I paid. They issued me a temporary passport, good only for a few months. Not a real one until I could prove I was who I said I was. Again, I took issue and, again, I was met with a we-don’t-have-to-be-doing-you-this-favor attitude.
I ran back to American Express, naively expecting a full refund, but the man would only give me partial. For the rest, he would have to check my references back in the States and get back to me. I should give him a forwarding address.
“You know, your commercials are always saying how safe and guaranteed your travelers’ checks are,” I said, “You’re supposed to reimburse them when they’re lost or stolen. That’s why I bought them.”
“Not for such a large sum of money,” he said, “This is all we can give you. Take it or leave it.”
Epilogue: After three months of pestering, American Express reimbursed the rest of my money. I paid Tan back and promised to always stay at his hotel and to keep my valuables locked in his safe. When I finally received my full passport, it cost me another $50.00. As for my fungal infection, I got some new ointment and am pleased to announce it has never returned.