Wednesday, September 26, 2012

You can take that to the bank.

Some days I just want to go home to America where half of what I eat isn’t trying to kill me. Today is one of those days. My insides are less than happy with me right now, so I’m staying home for the day to work in my nice air-conditioned room and rest and hope I don’t have to take the second of my four courses of antibiotics. At this rate I’ll run out by Halloween. F., another grad student staying here this week to renew her visa, pointed out that this kind of total exhaustion is exactly what happened to her just before she got dengue on her last trip out here, and that another linguists caught it here earlier this summer. My lack of a headache points to good old-fashioned food poisoning instead, but just in case I looked up the phone number for the embassy and double-checked my Medex medevac insurance card, so if they need to fly me out to Singapore I’m good to go. A little melodrama makes the day go by faster.

But this post isn’t about the joys of tropical illness, be they food- or mosquito-borne. It’s about why banks are awful, credit cards suck, and my apparently terrible luck with both. Oh, and Bank of America can kiss my ass, even if this whole thing is only partly their fault.

It all started about a week ago, when my gas company emailed me to say that my automatic payment was turned down by the bank for some sort of invalid code. I’ve got all my bills on autopay precisely so I won’t have to deal with them while I’m abroad, since we all know how sketchy the internet can be out here. So I went to the website, tried again, got the same error, and switched the payment to my debit card. So much for my 30 cents worth of rewards from that bill each month, but such is life. A few days later I turned on my US cell phone to check for messages, which I do every week or so, and got a voicemail from BOA saying there’d been some suspicious activity on my credit card and could I give them a call.

I should take a moment to explain why I was skeptical. The last time they noticed “suspicious activity”, it was when I tried to buy a bus ticket from Canberra to Sydney. But I called back in May to say I’d be abroad for the summer? Oh, that note’s not on the account? Then why did it take you a solid month to start flagging the international transactions as suspicious? The time before that the transactions in question were a theater ticket from the Roundabout in New York and a $30 grocery bill from Nica’s, where I shop at least weekly. Anyone with full access to my spending patterns (like, say, my credit card company? That also runs my bank accounts?) should be more worried if I don’t make those purchases. But there we are. The time before that they were worried about a plane ticket I was trying to buy from Siem Reap, Cambodia, to Luang Prabang, Laos, which might have been worth noticing if it hadn’t been the day after I’d called to notify them that I’d soon be traveling abroad to a number of countries in SE Asia, including Cambodia and Laos. But I guess they thought I was just gonna walk from one to the other. And these are the people we trust not to crash our whole financial sector. (Well, we all know how that one turned out…)

But I stayed up ungodly late to call and check (10pm! Shut up, the chickens and birds and dogs and babies are all making a racket by 6 in the morning), and in this case they were actually right; somebody tried to use my card at a Publix in Florida. (My money’s on Abby, trying to recoup all those Morikami entrance fees and dinners at Il Girasole.) So they cancelled the card, and promised to overnight a new one to my parents, who could then give me the number. No good for in-person use, but I could still use it online and for all my bills, and nobody out here takes credit cards anyway. All solved, right?

Haha. That was Wednesday. Thursday, Friday, Saturday, no new card. I know the new account exists, since the statement shows up on the BOA website, but that’ll only give me the last four digits, not enough to pay my bills with. Then I get an email saying that they’ve cancelled online billing for this card, but not to worry, I’ll still be getting paper statements and can still use Bank of America’s online bill pay service to pay them! Umm… yes, paper statements, I’ll just go ahead and pay them when I get home in January and see how that goes over. Or just forward them to Papua (along with my absentee ballot…); the timetable will be about the same, mmhmm, sure. I went to the BOA website to turn the damn online billing back on, and poof! the whole account had disappeared, along with any evidence that it had ever existed. So that night again I stayed up late to call and see what the hell had happened, and it turns out there was a simple explanation: as of yesterday, Upromise, the company behind the card, had transferred their whole operation from Bank of America to Barclay’s, another eminently well-scrupled institution. (Interest rate fixing scandal? What interest rate fixing scandal?) And yes, of course they’d notified me of the change! Well, no, not by email, particularly not in the email about canceling the online statements (who cares about the whys of these sorts of things anyway?), but even better, by letter! In July! While I was in New Zealand! Whoops. The next morning I got an email from Upromise inviting me to start using my new credit card from Barclay’s.

Well wouldn’t I love to. There’s still the minor question of knowing the account number, though, and seeing as Bank of America has seemingly decided against mailing my parents a new card (which wouldn’t work anyway, given the bank switch – all the cards got a new expiration date), and whatever they’d originally mailed me was a) currently somewhere within the vagaries of the USPS mail forwarding system and b) probably on the old, defrauded, cancelled account number anyway, I still had no idea what that was. Eventually I found the relevant phone number, called Barclay’s, explained the situation to the ‘relationship manager’ (really?) on the other end, explained to him what would need to happen if they’d like me to pay my credit card bills before next year, and promptly got transferred to a specialist who could deal with a situation so exquisitely screwed up. And she was lovely, and it’s certainly not her fault the whole thing was so entirely convoluted that it took half an hour to sort out, so I give them credit for that. Oh, and that $700 balance on the card? Even though you haven’t made any purchases since paying off your last balance in full? Let’s see here… That’s from purchases made at a Publix in Florida on the 18th of the month.

It all appears to be sorted out now: the fraudulent charges have been flagged by both banks (since clearly one wasn’t enough); yet another new card, hopefully the right one this time, has been overnighted to my parents, and hopefully will get there this time; and when that gets there they’ll send me the info and I can activate it and call Barclay’s back to tell them I’ll be using it abroad so hopefully they won’t flag my next purchases as fraudulent too, and maybe I’ll even start getting those 30 cents of rewards on my gas bill again. But to whit: My credit card just got stolen a matter of days before it (unbeknownst to me) got switched to a different bank, all while I’m abroad with crappy cell reception and mediocre internet, a perfect storm of shit going wrong. And there were a lot of ‘hopefully’s in that last sentence. I’m not counting on anything.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Coney Island this ain’t.

 It’s raining out, hard. Yesterday was hot and humid as hell – I went downtown mostly just for the wind on the motorbike ride there – and now it’s all falling from the sky. Ibu Marice read me the Noah’s ark story in Wamesa on Saturday (actually, she spent almost two hours reading to me from a bible badly translated into Wamesa, copyright Amsterdam 1915, but more on that another time), and on days where it rains like this it becomes awfully easy to envision that happening literally. So while I wait for it to stop so I can walk to school, I’m going to write about going to the beach.

Pantai Amban
We’ve already pretty well established, I think, that I’ve got rather a thing for sand and salt water and fish, particularly the big, colorful, and/or oddly-shaped ones – the amount of money I’ve spent going diving in the last few years is a little ridiculous. So is it a coincidence that I’m out here doing my fieldwork in basically the most biodiverse marine region on earth? Maybe. I certainly didn’t choose it consciously. There’s something about Papua that just invites speciation and diversification – and there’s no internet right now, since I’m not at school and even if I were the wifi usually goes down when it rains, so these numbers may be totally off, but if I remember right – it’s second only to the Amazon in terrestrial diversity; the Raja Ampat islands, where I’m going in November, have something like 75% of the world’s coral species and a crap-ton (scientific term) of fish and pelagics – promotional materials from the resort claim a record of 374 fish species sighted on one dive; and roughly 12% of the world’s languages on an island about the size of Texas, which is more per capita than anywhere else on earth. Trust me on that last one, I’m a linguist.

Which all goes to say that if you show up at a beach around here with a snorkel and stick your face in the water, assuming it’s clear enough to see anything, you’re gonna see some pretty cool stuff. Hopefully that stuff doesn’t include a saltwater crocodile, ’cause that can happen. But so far at least it hasn’t. To me, anyway.

So. Sonja, a linguist from Germany working on the Yali language, was until yesterday staying in the same house as me, which has been a huge plus for many reasons, not least because she’s been here often enough to know all the good deserted beaches and has a motorbike to get there. Manokwari proper has a popular beach called Pasir Putih (literally ‘white sand’, but it’s crowded and dirty enough that there’s nothing putih about it. We visited deserted beach #1, Pantai Amban, on Sunday, my first day here. It’s about a 10-minute drive out of town, then two minutes down a pair of dirt ruts and you’re on the beach. The pros are that it’s empty and flat-out gorgeous, the cons are the sandflies, so it’s better to stay in the water and leave quickly when you get out – no lolling in the sun here. Supposedly they sometimes harvest (mine? poach? remove.) sand here for use in projects elsewhere, but there was nobody working when we went, probably because it was Sunday. But the sand there is a dark grey, and the water is warm, and there’s a gentle swell, with palm trees on shore and a village a ways down where two guys were dragging a fishing net into the water. The whole scene is more or less stunningly beautiful. So we floated and chatted and swam and relaxed for about an hour, then drove back home to wash off the salt with a cold mandi before dinner. Unfortunately I didn’t have my camera.

Beach #2: Pantai Bakaro. (Pantai means ‘beach’, in case you haven’t gathered.) Thursday afternoon Sonja suggested we head off early from work and go for a swim. (Though at 4:30 it was only half an hour early; that’s how irresponsible we are.) This time I brought my snorkel, and we took the 20-minute motorbike ride out to the village of Bakaro. The drive itself was half the fun, passing through villages and swathes of jungle, with sago gardens and cows and pigs by the side of the road, and once a pair of baby goats in the road, possibly the first time out here I’ve seen goats standing on the ground rather than on a bench or a wall or something. (Little-known fact: Goats like to climb.) Pantai Bakaro is apparently a hotspot on weekends, and a bus was pulling out when we got there, but late on a Thursday afternoon we basically had the place to ourselves, along with one guy out in the water with a snorkel and another with a spear gun looking for dinner. The sand here was rough and white rather than fine and grey, made mostly out of ground shells and coral. When you see that gorgeous picture going around facebook of sand magnified x250 and it looks like a lot of beautiful pieces of shell and glass, it’s this kind of sand, not the Pantai Amban kind. And the reason it’s made of shells and coral is that’s what’s under the water, along with all the pretty fish that go with it. (Aaand the power just went out. Lovely.) There’s almost no waves at Bakaro, and no sandflies, but lots of sand crabs darting between their holes up on the beach and their lunches in the water.

There were nearly no waves, and the visibility was good, which was lucky because there were plenty of fish to see. I recognized a school of sergeant majors, parrotfish, some clownfish hiding in anemones, urchins, a sea cucumber, those little florescent blue fish you see everywhere, those black/white/yellow-striped angel fish you see everywhere too, and near the end a fair-sized red and white lionfish. There was a good lot more that I didn’t recognize as well. Unfortunately, no camera this time either.

On shore I collected shells called mata bulan, moon’s eye, a pretty little white circle with a spiral in the middle. So that’s what you’re all getting when I get home. At that point the sun was getting low and the water had turned opalescent, and the whole scene was just paradisiacal. Since I didn’t bring my camera, you’ll have to take my word for it. It was a long damp ride home, with a fiery orange sunset behind the Arfak mountains across the bay. And it turns out dusk is a good time to be on a motorbike, since you’re moving so fast the mosquitos can’t get you. So I count that as a win.

Pantai Amban
Beach #3: Pantai Amban II. Sonja flew home on Sunday, so Saturday afternoon we headed out one last time to Pantai Amban, this time farther down where we hoped the sandflies might be less. (They weren’t.) The waves were bigger here too, so even though I brought my snorkel there was so much sand in the water I couldn’t see a thing. More warm water, gorgeous vistas, swaying palms, et al, but this time I got photos. We got knocked around by some of the bigger waves and ended up with that fine sand everywhere, including in the crevices of my (happily waterproof) camera, so there was some quality time spent later cleaning that out. I still haven’t gotten it all off the bathroom floor.

Well the rain’s stopped, the sun’s shining, birds are chirping, and the dove has brought an olive branch, so it’s off to school for me. Maybe if I’m lucky the internet will be good enough this morning to get a picture or two up. Here’s hoping.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Bali, again

Denpasar – Surabaya – Makassar – Ambon – Manokwari. That, in 10 hours and $370, is how you get to Papua from Bali, at least on Lion Air. And since I was in Bali and needed to get to Papua, that’s how I spent my Saturday.

Lion Air’s nice, by the way, though the rows are close enough together that my knees hit the seat in front of me, and I’m not a particularly tall person. Well, in real life anyway – out here I’m usually the tallest person in a crowd by an inch or two. It must be an uncomfortable flight for all the male linguists who come out here – these planes are not designed for anyone over about 5’6”. And I had to pay overweight fees on my bag, which will probably lose a good 20lbs when I drop off the equipment, books, gifts, and chocolate I brought over. Especially the chocolate – that shit’s heavy. And I bought about $40 worth, since the first question anyone asked when I said I’d be coming back was ‘Are you bringing chocolate?’ A Ghirardelli importer would make a fortune out here.

So last I posted I’d just landed in Bali. I spent a lot of time out there sitting by the hotel pool working on a chunk of pre-dissertation that I should have turned in about a week ago. But prepping to go, packing up my apartment, and (*gasp!*) occasionally seeing my friends before I left was ridiculously time-consuming, so that didn’t happen. (I hung out with friends instead of working? Made dinner? Went to the Batman movie? Shocking! Don’t worry, it’ll never happen again.) It wasn’t quite the master work I might have hoped for, but given how much of that draft was done poolside in Bali I think I did fairly well. I think the hotel staff thought there was something wrong with my, spending all day sitting at my laptop instead of sightseeing or going to the beach. After I turned it in Friday night I went and got a celebratory pedicure, so I’m arriving in Papua with pretty purple toes.

The only other interesting thing I did there was a day of diving at Padang Bai. This is my third time in Bali (aside from my one night in Kuta en route to the airport last summer, which hardly counts – and besides, Kuta is awful), and the first time I managed to get some scuba in. (Wait – I dove instead of doing work? Hopefully the fact that this is Bali and there were sharks to see justifies a day’s negligence.) Yes, there were white-tipped reef sharks, and spotted rays, and a little bitty lionfish, and a big ol’ cuttlefish, and pipefish and batfish, and green sea stars and blue sea stars and a red-and-brown starfish, and sea urchins and something hiding in a hole that might have been a mantis shrimp, and nudibranch and scorpionfish and a good-sized tuna, alongside the usual plethora of bright shiny colorful tropical fish that seem to be the same from Lombok out to Key Largo. No turtles, though I hear they come through sometimes. This was one of the lushest dive sites I’ve seen, with all sorts of bright corals, just teeming with schools and schools of lord knows what. I took plenty of videos, which as usual look fuzzy and grey and empty. I swear, there’s color down there, there is! I did three dives, which was beyond exhausting – and it didn’t help that the first two got friggin’ freezing below about 10 meters. At one site is a sunken speedboat and some rock piles and metal grids, the beginnings of an artificial reef, trying to bring back the coral in a spot where it’d died off. It seems to be working. And my favorite part was the three Buddha statues just past the wreck. You haven’t lived til you’ve seen the Buddha with a sea urchin nestled in the crook of his arm.

And Saturday morning I got a 4:45am ride to the airport for my 6:30 flight out, and Saturday evening I landed in Manokwari. Papua, or Manokwari at least, has a distinct color scheme, rich green foliage everywhere, the brown/red of wood and soil, and purple/grey of the mountans across the bay. Lush as anything here, and currently raining. Hopefully it’ll stop in time for me to go downtown, register with the police, and buy some shampoo. I’ve gotta say it’s nice to be away from the tourist throngs, though it’s becoming obvious how long it’s been since I really spoke any Indonesian. Hopefully that’ll pick up soon and I can stop nodding and grinning like an idiot and start actually saying things.

Also, the neighbor is currently listening to a pop mashup of ‘Santa Clause is Coming to Town’ and ‘Shake It, Shake It, Baby’. In early September. Ah, Indonesia…

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

And we're back.

In Sanur again. I just couldn't stay away. I mean that literally - I would have loved to stick around New Haven for a while, but fieldwork calls, and I need a dissertation if I ever want to graduate. I caught a Cathay Pacific flight direct from JFK to Hong Kong, which is really the way to go; get most of the distance over with in one shot. From NYC we flew pretty much straight north, flying over a bit of the top corner of Greenland befor heading back down over Siberia - I got a photo of Irkutsk from above, all lit up - then Mongolia, straight over Ulan Bator, then China. Five hours' layover in HK, with some excellent food court spicy ramen for breakfast, then a short 4-hour hop over to Denpasar, Bali. Cathay Pacific's not a bad airline: terrible food,but a good seatback movie selection, decent legroom, and the seats lean unusually far back for sleeping. Emirates is still my favorite. And now I'm back in Bali, adjusting to yet another time zone and trying to get some work done, buy a ticket out to Manokwari, and maybe hit the beach a bit before I go. I'm staying at Prima Cottages, which bears adding to my list of worthwhile places to stay in Sanur - it's a few blocks off the main street, nice and quiet, and it has a pool and free breakfast, all for $25/night. And on that note I think I'm going to head to said pool; my poor jetlagged brain needs some natural light.