An encounter with a petty thief begs the question: what’s an acceptable risk?
It was nighttime. I had just come from one of the most glorious moments at the beach I had ever experienced. Perfect full moon, warm breeze blowing in, the empty shoreline dimly illuminated with the darkness of the sea stretching out endlessly, reflecting that one distant round white light.
I was troubled. In just over two weeks I’d be leaving Bali. Though I have been here for most of my time away from the United States, and had had a feeling of warmth, friendliness and belonging from day one, my sense was that I had just started to decode the culture – not just of Bali but of Indonesia – and find my way inside. I had begun friendships with potential to last and become meaningful.
Now I would be leaving, probably not to return for six months. It bothered me. I felt good about a lot of the plans I was making in other places, and the reasons I was making them, but this part of it…it didn’t feel quite right. But then, that’s so often true of any change that requires us to let go. Perhaps it meant nothing.
I was brooding on my walk home on Jalan Danau Tamblingan, the main street through Sanur, a route I’ve walked many dozens of times now. It was 10 p.m., well past dark, but unlike so many back streets in Bali Tamblingan is well-illuminated and many of its businesses were still open. I had just passed a tourist stall where a friend of mine works, when out from behind the parked van to my right came a small middle-aged woman aggressively offering her services as a prostitute.
This frankly is not unusual, though usually they are not this pushy, particularly in Sanur which is a more laid-back place then the hellish tourist trap of Kuta about 15 miles to the south…but it happens. When I tried to push past her insistent sales pitch she suddenly and forcefully grabbed my crotch (another unusual but by no means unheard-of tactic). I turned away to try and get by and to my surprise and relief she also turned away and went back to her motor cycle which was parked behind the van.
It’s part of my deal here that I habitually check my pockets every thirty seconds or so. Ten seconds after the encounter ended, I did just that. My wallet and bulky American iPhone were thankfully still there – but my iPhone 6 with the Indonesian SIM was conspicuously absent.
With an irritated cry of “are you kidding me?” I spun around to see the tail lights of the motorcycle speeding out of my field of view, 100 meters down the street. Fuck! I replayed the last 60 seconds in my mind and cursed my own stupidity.
My first reaction, besides irritation, was relief. If I had to lose something in a mugging, the Indonesian iPhone was the least crucial. It contained little personal information and was purchased used. I’d be hampered without easy access to the Indo 4G grid, particularly for things like getting a cab. But if I’d lost my American iPhone or my wallet, both of which I was carrying – much worse. And I hadn’t.
I was mulling things over on the way home when a taxi accosted me trying to hook me up with – guess what? A prostitute! (Remember I said this kind of thing was not uncommon). I vented to him at some length about exactly why that was the last fricking thing I wanted and he immediately demanded I get into the car and go to the police station.
I had wanted to hold off on reporting this event until I could get home and consult other expats online (I wasn’t sure going to the police would do a lick of good), and I knew enlisting the cab guy’s services as transportation and interpreter would get expensive (it did), but I noted how serious his attitude was and it dawned on me that in Sanur, this kind of thing is bad for business. The locals have their own scams to run that are far more benign and having pickpockets in the area screws things up for everybody. I realized the cab driver was a real ally, so I got into the cab and headed for the police station.
I was pleasantly surprised when the local cops took things quite seriously. My Indonesian was good enough to explain what happened but I had to rely on the cab driver to translate what the police were saying back to me (typical – I’m fluent as long as I’m the only one talking). It soon transpired that the police had a good idea who the culprit was – it turns out (s)he was a ladyboy, though I had had no inkling as mine were the only privates grabbed.
An officer then went to the scene with me to go over what happened. Once there he interviewed two other local prostitutes who happened by on a motorbike – each completely at ease with and aware of each others’ identity, it being a small town in many ways – and the ladies in question were horrified (as I said: bad for business) and likewise fingered the same transgendered person as the probable culprit. Later from Facebook I was able to gather even more information about this individual, to the point that I’ve assembled a pretty good biography and probably could try to track them down if I thought it was worth my while, which I don’t.
(I should probably address myself to readers who might suspect this encounter was different from what I am describing – that I was engaged in some sort of a streetside tryst. You can believe what you like, but as a general rule I do not employ prostitutes and if I did, I wouldn’t do it on the side of the street in a country where sex outside marriage is illegal in an area where everybody knows me. The no-prostitute policy doesn’t come from some high principled stance, in fact I could make a decent moral argument in favor of it in some cases in Indonesia, but simply because (a) it’s unnecessary for me; (b) I don’t enjoy sex with people I don’t have some sort of connection with; and (c) frankly, it’s a budget breaker and not a good value)
At any rate, when I got home I started assessing the situation and doing damage control. Although it looked to be a hassle and some unfortunate unnecessary expense, it wasn’t going to be a big calamity. I changed a few passwords, put the stolen phone in lost mode, and with the help of some generous people in the U.S. made preliminary arrangements to get a replacement phone brought to me when my best friend and bass player Teresa Cowles and her uber-mensch boyfriend Mike come here to visit next week. My attempts to block the SIM at the telephone company were thwarted by today being a holiday, and not being able to call ahead on my now-purloined Indo phone, I didn’t find this out until the cab had brought me to the (closed) office. It’s going to be an annoying week. But I’ll live.
Fear Is Not A Man’s Best Friend
When I started this blog I said I didn’t want to write about politics, I wanted to write about philosophy. The ideas are the same, but one gets people choosing sides and arguing while the other makes people think. This is the first blog I’m going to tag as “philosophy,” because what happened next put in mind some things that had been bugging me about my own culture, and why I decided trying this kind of life was worth the gamble, and still think so. The link might not be obvious at first so bear with me.
When I got home I immediately posted on a FB group that caters to local expats which is a useful clearing house of information. I knew that as soon as I posted there I would find out exactly what to do about the phone (detailed above), what my prospects were for recovering it (silm, but not none), whether or not this nut-grab is a common scam (it is), and maybe even information about the perpetrator (yup).
That page, however, is also a gathering place for various grumpy males who like to threadcrap and stir the pot. I only gathered two, one of whom was just making a joke to lighten the mood and who turned out to be a good guy once we butted heads. The other however immediately demanded why I hadn’t fought back – “I am always amazed by the reluctance of people to defend themselves.” (“I’m always amazed at people who make obnoxious assumptions” I snapped back)
As it happens, the desire to punch the thief was the first thing I thought of once I realized I’d been tricked, possibly the only time in my life I’d actually longed to hit a (supposed) woman – though as another person pointed out to him it was just as well that I didn’t, since that might have landed me in jail (disagreements here tend to be adjudicated in favor of the locals).
Be that as it may, when it was explained that self-defense was basically impossible, he backed down somewhat, but then piped up again with:
“with all do respect, acting like a victim only makes you a future target. That being said, im sure you enjoyed :)”
“my appologies. I didnt check your profile. I didnt realise your a senior citisen. In that case perhaps you should avoid a direct confrontation. But you should know better, considering your age, to know that a woman, even a prostitute, will not grab someone like you.”
Given that I was in no way acting like a victim in my posting or elsewhere, I’m not a senior citizen, and prostitutes (and non-prostitutes) approach me and other old white dudes even more aged and decrepit than me all the time – this lad clearly had a narrative in his head that he was determined to assert, mixed in with a little attempted alpha dog elbow throwing.
Now I didn’t quote this guy just to cry over someone being an idiot on Facebook. As anyone that has followed me there can imagine, I did not suffer him gladly. It’s the context of this foolishness I want to get into. Threaded throughout this exchange were statements like “i did fight before when some people got out of order and ill do it any time i have to” and “Im saying defend your self if attacked. With violence if necessary.”
The whole exchange, then, had nothing to do with me. It was all about his need to assert his own power and change the perimeters of the scenario to enable him to say that in his case, it would most likely go down differently.
This gets me to the point of the blog.
When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Sometimes Good People Get Better
The perks of living here are amazing. It’s hard to overstate them. But the risks ARE substantial. You are in developing countries that have infrastructure, safety and exposure to liability that are not comparable to ours. It’s very easy to get injured, ripped off, or both. There’s nothing that has befallen me since I came here that I didn’t come to terms with before I left and accept as part of the deal. You have to take the good with the bad.
Now, superior infrastructure aside, I think we’d all agree that the United States has become a very toxic and polarized place. But why did that happen? There are a lot of obvious culprits, but I think there’s one that’s maybe not so obvious.
We’ve lost our ability to assess, and accept, risk. We’re no longer the country of American ingenuity, of pioneers taming (stealing, if you like, but it doesn’t alter the point) the land, of engineers putting astronauts on the moon. As a culture, we’re paralyzed, and scared. We no longer think about positive action, how we can solve problems. This used to be fundamental to being American. Now it’s not.
It’s understandable. For many of us, in this increasingly interconnected, fast paced and global era, the world has become a big, scary place crashing in on us in ways that we can scarcely process. Rather than try to make sense of it all and figure out how to adapt – or identify the problem for what it really is and address it – many of us draw back into ever smaller, more cloistered, and more homogenous groups huddled together for safety.
The less we venture out of that bubble, the scarier it all seems. Unfamiliar persons, places, and possibilities stop being what they are, and start being what we imagine them to be – exaggerated characatures and phantoms.
This is not a partisan phenomenon. The flipside of the person who owns a stockade of assault weapons for “self defense” or talks about taking America back when “America” means “people like me”, is the perversion of a social movement that starts with the desire to ensure equality of opportunity, justice and fairness for people who have been disempowered – which I absolutely am in favor of – to an extreme of trying to ensure that nobody who is perceived to be disempowered ever has to feel uncomfortable, threatened, or insulted. Don’t see the difference? If not, that’s a problem.
Why? Because the latter formulation is solely about the injured party’s subjective perception, not any objective standard of how actually justified that perception might be, the context of the event, or the intent and understanding of other parties involved (e.g., just because you are perceived to be a disempowered person doesn’t mean you can’t ever behave or communicate badly, and that people around you don’t have the right to react negatively to it. I’m not talking here about clear-cut examples of bigotry or hate speech that are arising from a place of intimidation.)
Be that all as it may, both extremes are rooted in the same fear, the same insecurity, the same unwillingness to grapple with outside realities, the idea that the world has to come to you and exist on your terms. That’s really…well it’s really bad.
We can (and should, but don’t) argue about where the lines of acceptable level of risk and behavior are best drawn, but here’s the bottom line: a life without discomfort, if we could conjure one up, is simply not good for you. Mistakes and adversity are how we learn, gather strength, and adjust to a world that we cannot control. Let me repeat that: a world that we cannot control. We used to know this. Other less fortunate people still do.
No, of course I’m not saying we should abandon our progress towards racial and gender equity, workplace safety standards, drunk driving laws, child protection, mental health, etc. (the fact that I even have to say this goes to the point I’m trying to make) Some people have more capabilities and capacities than others; I respect that. Many things in life are beyond one’s control, a point I will stress later on. There’s a point, however, when our urge to protect the weakest among us starts to make some people, well, weak. Justice and fairness matters, but so does might. One of the lessons of the recent election for many of us should have been that power is not easily acquired nor surrendered. Just being right on the merits is not enough. Life is beautiful, but it’s also about struggle, and that can be beautiful too if the struggle is managed well.
This basic reality is something we as a society have grown incredibly uncomfortable with. We Americans are so catered to as individuals – in our mythology, in our advertising, in living in a relatively stable society for so long that most of us no longer thought it required any civic attention, in our basic ability to dominate the world stage for so long without having to own the consequences of our mistakes – that it’s difficult for us to accept that there’s just some shit that we can’t escape. This makes us build walls, buy guns, pass laws, and stifle debating ideas that challenge orthodoxies (unless we’re doing it to deflect from examining our own).
People, this is not good! Forget the partisanship, forget the polarization. A Teflon-coated, cloistered society never learns anything. It can’t grow.
Look how much knowledge I acquired in the past 24 hours. I learned a new scam that I will now know how to avoid. I learned where the local police station is, how to file a report, how law enforcement works here. I learned a lot about internet security, and having mostly dodged a bullet started thinking about where my true risks lie. I made good connections with other expats and people back home as a result of having to reach out for help.
This is all invaluable and empowers me in the future. There’s every chance I will be better off as a result of this unpleasant experience. This is how it’s always been. I’ve made more mistakes, stuck my neck out more times, looked like an ass more than just about anybody you’ll ever meet. It wasn’t pretty and I don’t like thinking about some of my past blunders, but they are exactly what enabled me to have the life I wound up with. All that trying stuff and screwing up made me wiser, stronger, and forced me to accumulate an enormous amount of information. And all knowledge, wielded with discernment, IS power.
Moreover, this kind of walled-in attitude I’m talking about does not make us more safe – because if we don’t make contact with things that make us uncomfortable, we never discover that a lot of scary things are fun, and a lot of the people you thought were enemies were your greatest potential allies. You also miss out on the chance of being forced to do something, overcoming it, and finding out you had abilities and strengths you never suspected nor would have found otherwise.
Which brings us back to the dude from the Expat board – who I assume was not American but I told him he’d fit right in (and the other cranky expat, who IS American, gleefully piled on at that point with a crack about the NRA). As I said, our conversation was never about my experience. This guy was compelled to post about how his fists are always out, and change the perimeters of the story, because he’s not ever going to let this happen to him.
How common is this kind of reaction to an existential threat that happens to someone else? To me, it was pretty dang familiar.
Some Things You Can’t Control
Here’s a basic tactical fact that somehow eludes every gun argument that’s ever happened in the U.S., and it’s true in other facets of life too: the element of surprise, coupled with advance planning, nearly always wins.
Take my little mugging. The only way I could have bested this encounter is if I’d had prior knowledge of this scam (and maybe not even then, according to some of the other people who went through it) and if I had chosen to walk on the street side of the van, which I will do when I face a similar walking choice from now on (there’s the learning thing).
No matter how many guns you have, or how many laws you pass, if someone gets the drop on you, you’re probably going down. I’m not saying it’s right or fair or that it’s not scary. I’m saying that’s just how it is.
The world is full of dangers. You cannot conceivably identify and prepare for every one, and even with preparation, most real life encounters with reality are far different from what we imagine in abstract. Simply put, you can’t avoid every bad thing that ever happens to you. To acquire the knowledge to deal with dangers, sometimes shit just has to occur and you deal with it, and you grow.
Now in my case, it’s absolutely true I do take risks that others won’t take. I walk all over the place, sometimes in poorly lit, impoverished, unfamiliar neighborhoods – and I’m going to continue to do so, because having that kind of fearless (but I must stress, also alert) attitude has enabled me to see so many things, form so many friendships, have so many experiences that tourists never have. And I must stress that these are calculated risks – what’s the actual likelihood of a problem, what’s it worth to me to have this experience, how bad’s it going to be if it doesn’t go my way. I always do that. When I perceive real dangers, I change the plan.
Now, if I never did these little walkabouts, would it have changed the outcome tonight?
No. I wasn’t anywhere like that. I was walking down the safest street in town, one I walk every day without a thought, only 10 meters from where friends of mine were working and who were unaware anything went down.
That’s precisely why it happened. Someone set up an ambush knowing some idiot (me) would eventually walk up the street and they could corner me and get away before I even grokked what was going on. No one’s going to be sitting lurking in the shadows of most of the “dangerous” places I go – which really aren’t dangerous 99% of the time, just new – because no tourist’s ever gonna go there, so there goes the element of surprise, and the tactical advantage to a thief looking for an easy target.
Now, let’s think of all the other precautions I’ve taken that other expats don’t take, and let’s see how they worked out for me:
I rarely ride a motorbike because they’re not safe…but I still broke my ankle standing on the side of a slippery road.
I rarely go in the water…but I still bumped into a poisonous sea snake (or more accurately it bumped into me) just sitting on the pier.
I don’t stumble down back alleys at 2 a.m. pissing down drunk…but I still got rolled by a fake prostitute on a well-lit, well-populated street when I was dead sober.
What’s the takeaway from all this? Well, that I’m pretty clumsy and blunder into shit, but I already admitted that. Also that southeast Asia is sometimes a dangerous place, ditto. As I said, I take the good with the bad – both being where I am and being Adam Marsland. But aside from that, all of these events had one thing in common – they occurred when I was in a seemingly safe place and had let my guard down.
Was that a mistake? Well, all three of these events were so unexpected and sudden that the only way I could have avoided them (if indeed I could have) was if I was walking around in a state of constant paranoia and never relaxed – or just never went out at all. It seems so much of our culture now has adopted this mindset.
My view is that the bigger and scarier the world that confronts you is, the more you need to try to understand it and your unimportance in relation to it, otherwise it will own you. We Americans like to flatter ourselves on our independence and self-reliance, but you and I are just single imperfect humans one bad decision or unlucky break away from getting squashed like a bug. The more you come out with your fists out, the more enemies you will make and the more allies you will alienate. The less you experience adversity, the less equipped you will be to deal with it gracefully and appropriately when it does come. Whether you hide yourself away, or come out swinging, you ultimately make yourself less empowered and thus less safe.
This doesn’t mean to go out and invite trouble – indeed, as our guy from the message board shows us, inviting trouble IS a fear-based reaction. You don’t know where the danger is coming from so you must always strike first, regardless of whether it’s the right target.
There are ways to go out into a risky world with more practical armour than a paranoid attitude and overwhelming fire power. Before I left on this trip, I had anticipated a lot of the things that might go wrong knowing I couldn’t avoid them all but that I could mitigate them, and tried to plan accordingly. By that standard, basically everything thus far has worked out fine. In fact as a result of those “bad” events, I gained tons of valuable experience and substantially increased my zone of comfort in a foreign environment in a short period of time.
Now again let me not be misunderstood – there are some tragedies that occur in our lives that we can’t recover from, some traumas that have little to no upsides. There are people for whom just getting out of bed is a major victory – and if that’s the case, then dammit, I salute you. It’s not the magnitude of the effort that counts. It’s doing what you can. Claim that victory and press on. Some fear is wholly appropriate and planning to make your life easier and safer is prudent. The whole point of making a mistake is it’s the best possible way to learn to not fucking do that again.
Where I think we’ve failed is in being increasingly unable to discern between those real threats and disabilities, and things that simply make us uncomfortable or that we don’t want to have to deal with or be bothered with…and there’s a point where that becomes destructive both to our own personal growth and our ability to help create and participate in a functioning society.
We can and should fight for more fairness and better lives for ourselves, but we should always be aware that that is, indeed, a fight, and the fight itself can benefit us. One thing that pushed me out of my own culture was that I found people who had experienced more adversity tended on the average to be more interesting, more grounded, more holistic and more humble than those who hadn’t. They had more to teach me than I could find among my own tribe.
From my perspective, if you really want to get as much out of life as you can, you need to learn not to avoid risk completely, but to figure out how much risk is acceptable, and live with it. Otherwise, you’ll just drive yourself crazy, and miss out on the growth and learning (and hopefully compassion) that comes from having something uncomfortable and unpleasant – but not fatal nor unrecoverable – happen to you, the unexpected paths it forces you to go down and the interesting ways it may change you.
Our culture used to great at this. Now we’re not. It’s bad.
“What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” Yup. That.