Friday, February 26, 2010

"Mom? They took everything."

The flash on my digital camera hadn’t been working very well, so after Christmas Mom sent me back with one of her old cameras. I loaned it to my Indonesian friend Yanti for a family visit she’d recently made, and I met up with her on Wednesday night to get it back. Luckily, she’d forgotten to bring it.

The night was pretty typical. Yanti picked me up at my house, we ate some surabi for dinner, and then we met up with some more friends at the mall. I told her my dad was calling me at 9pm, so I needed to be home by then. We started toward my house at 8pm, but then another friend called and wanted us to meet her at a restaurant on the way. We decided to stop by 15 minutes. Now I see this moment as the fatal mistake.

We left the restaurant at 8:30pm, not knowing I’d been spotted and two Indonesian men were following me. Police later went back and talked to some people at the restaurant, and they all confirmed they’d seen the men watch me and leave moments after I did. I said, “Why didn’t you tell me?! Why didn’t you say something?!” They said, “Everyone watches bules. Everyone follows you.” Ok, touché.

I was riding behind Yanti on her motorcycle. I’ve had dozens of people warn me about thefts in Palembang, so I did what I always do: I put my purse in between our bodies on the seat, I wrapped the strap around my wrists, and I held onto it with my hands.

Yanti and I like to sing when we ride her motorbike home at night. Now I think about those men watching us, singing and laughing. “Baby, are you down down down dooowwn…”

Apparently they were down to steal my stuff.

The other motorbike pulled up very, very close to us, but just behind Yanti’s field of vision. The man in front drove and the one in back grabbed onto my purse with both of his hands. I shrieked and tried pulling back. We both yanked on it for a few seconds, but they had more strength and the element of surprise on their side. Then they sped off. Their motorbike didn’t have a license plate on it.

Yanti saw what was happening when I started to scream. She is a strong, independent woman, and she just collapsed when she saw what was happening. I was screaming, “FOLLOW THEM! FOLLOW THEM! EVERYTHING I OWN IS INSIDE THAT BAG!” (I have a flair for the dramatic.) But Yanti couldn’t even control the bike. Thankfully, she was able to pull it to a stop before she started sobbing and screaming.

It was really strange the way everything happened. I had these split-second changing emotions. At first when I felt the man’s hands on mine, I thought “Oh, my friends must have followed me home and they’re playing on joke on us!” Then I realized what was happening, and I immediately thought, “Why would someone want to do something mean to me?” It was just a second, but this feeling just washed over me. Confusion. Why would someone want to do something mean to me? In the next second, a weird calm just took over. Chasing them now wouldn’t do any good. My stuff was gone.

Goodbye all my cash (about $55, could have been worse). Goodbye credit cards, ID cards, digital camera, flash drive, cell phone, and keys to my house. Goodbye cheese, soy sauce, and tomatoes I’d just bought. Goodbye, favorite lip gloss.

Now my lips will look dull and unflattering!

I’ve been reading this set of comedy/mystery novels lately. I couldn’t help but think about what he main character of the book would have done had she been in my place. I should have roundhouse kicked the guy in the face! I should have jumped off the moving bike and knocked their heads together!

I was yelling in English. “Those ******* took my ******* purse! ******* get them! Kill them!” I like to imagine I resembled Ricky Ricardo, shouting passionately in my native tongue. I probably just looked like an angry, scared little girl. The people sitting on the side of the road just watched, chewing slowly on their goat dinners.

We steered the bike to the nearest convenience store. The security guards there confirmed that they’d seen the bike speed by holding my red-and-white striped purse. We called our friends and they came to pick us up and drove me to the police station. That’s when Yanti said I became “No more Miss Nice Katie.”

You can just imagine how Indonesian police handled the situation. Yanti translated everything for me. I was in no mood to decipher Indospeak.

I said, “They stole everything I have. Everything that was in my purse is gone.” The first thing they said was, “We’ll need to see your ID.”

“I. don’t. have. an. ID. They. stole. everything.”

Honestly, they were very nice. They sent someone to my house with me to make sure the men didn’t know where I lived and hadn’t already broken in and literally stolen everything I own. They questioned the people at the restaurant where we’d stopped to chat. But their 2.5 hours of questions were ridiculous.

“Are you sure they men were on your left side? Or were they mayyyybe on your right side?”

“I’m sure they were on my left side.”

“You’re absolutely sure.”


“What were the exact noises you made when they tried to take your bag?”

“I yelled.”

“We’re going to need you to reenact the situation and make the exact noises again.”

Sigh. “I guess it was like, ‘Ahhhhhhhhheeeeeeee!”

“Did you yell the word ‘help?’”

“No, I didn’t. I just yelled.”

“Why didn’t you yell the word ‘help?’”

“I don’t know. We were moving at 30 mph. What does it matter?”

“How many times did you pull back on your bag?”

“I don’t know. Maybe three times?”

T-i-g-a, they typed in carefully.

In Indonesia, it’s illegal not to have a religion. To them, it’s a line on an information sheet just like your date of birth or address. Religion. But it got so frustrating. “What’s your religion, miss?”

“What does it matter?”

“We need to know your religion or we cannot finish this investigation.”

Sigh. I think this was the first time 'Jesus Christ' was almost the appropriate response. “Christian.”

My friends’ phones and the phones at the police station weren’t enabled to make international calls. Thankfully, I had Christine’s number memorized because it was one number different than my old one. She was able to give me the number for AMINEF, and she got the fun job of calling my mom and telling her what happened, which I can only imagine was a blast.

I tried picturing the guys who stole my stuff as having this poor, starving family somewhere on a dirt floor. "I'm sorry I couldn't get you medicine, Grandma, but I got you this cell phone and these credit cards. Maybe we can burn them for warmth." It just didn't gel. Plus Indonesia's always hot anyway.

All in all, I’m very lucky. I wasn’t hurt, and I know that “stuff” is replaceable. I didn’t have a ton of money with me. Yanti nearly crashed the bike, but she didn’t. It would have been hard to control with me yanking on my purse behind her, too.

Apparently, I am most lucky that the criminals didn’t stab me. Oh, goody. My surgeon friends say Palembang has more stabbing cases than any other city in Indonesia, usually averaging about six per night. The police, too, said I was very lucky they didn’t use a knife. I guess they usually have to send ambulances after motorbike-theft victims. The criminals will stab the side of the person or cut their arm so they drop their bag to hold the cut.

I am so thankful for the kindness of my Indonesian friends and neighbors. They gave me food, a place to stay, loaned me money until I could get into my house, and too off work to drive more than five hours to get the spare key from the owner of the house.

As I was finally leaving the station, one officer leaned in and said, “Can I have your phone number?” Never mind that I didn’t have a phone any more. Never mind that I was clearly stressed and not in the mood for a romantic connection. Never mind that it was nearly midnight. “No,” I said clearly. “You may not have my number.” It was the first time I’ve ever just flat-out refused someone, and it felt sort of good.

My school was a huge disappointment. I love teaching there, but I felt completely abandoned. AMINEF had my counterpart’s number, but she wasn’t in Palembang because her brother had been struck dead by lightning that morning. (?!) She gave me another teacher’s number.

They wouldn’t go check on my house. They didn’t offer me a place to stay. They asked my friend to “take care of me,” and even in the morning, they didn’t offer me any food. I had nothing. I had to pay for new locks on my door and sets of spare keys. I haven’t heard from them since the morning after the incident, and it’s now been three days. Friday was a holiday, so school was cancelled.

In fact, when I met with them the morning after the robbery, they were wholly unsupportive. “You knew that this was a hard day for your counterpart. Her brother died.”

I explained that I was very sorry about Laily’s brother, but I did not choose to have everything stolen from me the night before.

“A woman should not be out that late at night. You were too far from your home.”

It was 8:30pm. My home is near the school, but it’s in the middle of nowhere. I have to travel 45 minutes into town if I ever want to eat out.

With the exception of my school, though, everyone has been amazingly supportive. Christine and Rajiv were on-call the whole time, making phone calls and giving me numbers to contact people.

The most frustrating part of it all, I think, was the sheer disappointment I felt about being targeted. I know those men weren’t reflective of the people here, but damn it, I’m trying. I eat their food and I teach their children and I visit their landmarks and I tell everyone at home that these are good people. Please don’t target me. I am trying.

Stealing is a serious crime in Indonesia, but especially in Palembang. Chuzai, the former Fulbright who studied at Ball State, recently had her entire bag stolen while she ran into a copy store near the university. They punched a hole in her car window and stole her laptop, cell phone, all her cash and cards, her keys, and her IDs. My nearly-adoptive parents Mike and Debbie ran into a house to check on a sick friend for five minutes and when they came out, someone had punched a hole in their car window and stolen their new $800 digital camera and bag. Even little Sry, the pseudo-swearing teacher at my school, had her cell phone ripped from her hand while she was making a phone call at the mall.

Even I’ve been a near-victim twice before. Once Raj and I were at the mall walking, and I had my bookbag on my back. (This was months ago, before I learned you only walk with your bookbag on your front.) Raj was the one who noticed a man had unzipped all the compartments of my bag and was taking things out one-by-one as he walked behind us. Luckily, Raj chased him off and he dropped everything.

Another time I was at an outdoor market not even carrying a purse. I had one shopping bag in my hand with a blanket in it for my bed. A man walking the other way put his hand through the loop mine was in and tried to wrench it from my grip. That time I was able to hold on, and he quickly gave up and slipped into the crowd.

Poor Yanti. This has been really frightening for everyone. She keeps repeating, “This is my city! I am Palembangese, and I am scared in my own city!”

And I was holding her cigarettes in my purse. This caused her a great deal of misery. “THEY ARE SMOKING MY CIGARETTES, THOSE BASTARDS! THAT WAS PRACTICALLY A NEW PACK!”

There are many things to be thankful for:

I wasn’t stabbed, and Yanti didn’t crash the bike.

Yanti had forgotten to bring my camera with her, or I would have had that in my purse as well.

I was with Yanti and not my ojek, who speaks zero English.

I got home, thinking all of my IDs were stolen, and realized I was lazy and never transferred my US driver’s license back from my folder of important documents from my trip home in December.

Fulbright keeps my passport, so I didn’t have to worry about losing that.

My Indonesian address wasn’t listed on any of the documents in my purse.

I have friends and neighbors who care about me and took care of me when I had absolutely nothing. It is truly terrifying to realize you have no way to take care of yourself: no way to contact people, no money, hardly enough ability to communicate, and no home.

Christine was able to contact my mom and give her a number where she could reach me. Mom was able to cancel my cards in time. The robbers had my cell phone deactivated in under fifteen minutes.

So it could have been a lot worse. I had an emergency 100 US dollars saved in my house, and I have facebook to recover most of my lost numbers.

But Yanti summed it up pretty well. “Somewhere in this city,” she said, “those assholes are eating your cheese.” I hope they choke.


  1. oh, my god. i'm just really glad you're not injured. because even passports, my dear, can be replaced...especially when you have kind friends who will do anything to take care of you (including drive you all over).

  2. Ah! That's so scary. I'm glad that you're okay =)

  3. Katie -- You need to inform the country of Indonesia or at least the city of Palembang that it better not happen again, or I'm coming over there. And NO ONE would want me to come over there (except you, of course).

  4. Wow! What an experience! I'm glad you're ok and yeah, thank God they didn't try to stab you to get your purse. I really had a good laugh about your imagined answer to the religion question. Hahaha! I was also asked my religion when I went to buy a mattress. A mattress!

  5. Having an upset Momma' B in Indo would NOT be a good thing. I think we know what happened when the A-bomb hit Hiroshima - well, that left some things still intact. Momma' B would leave NOTHING standing!

    I'm so glad we were able to talk and you were able to put my worries at ease. However, I might have to mail you a big ole' machete to sling around your body so those would-be robbers know you're packin' and don't eff around.

  6. One of our South African counterparts got her bag nicked while walking to the gym a while back. Hey, it happens. I've seen the same trick more than once with the only difference being it was a local, not a bule, losing their bag.