There was a headline in the NY Times this week that sent my short-term memory legs trotting down an almost-forgotten road. It read:
$1.5 Million Sent in Error to Money Manager (Both Are Missing)
Which is sort of what happened when we finally escaped from Bali six years ago. Okay, so it’s all relative and no, the money involved didn’t come close to having that many zeros, but it is interesting to think about what people will do when given the chance to keep someone else’s money. This guy, this Joseph B. Galbraith, an American expat residing in Monaco with his second wife, has probably laughed it off, snickering at the Swiss Bank which made the mistake, as he reaches for another gin-and-tonic while gazing ahead at the azure sea not 20 feet away from his sun-kissed feet. Will he return the money or just stay missing?
What would you do if the Bank of Boston, say, mistakenly deposited $50K into your checking account? Would you call them? Run off to Tahiti with your husband’s boss? Wait? What if it were only $1000? How much would it take till your moral compass went south?
For the UPS man in Bali, a year’s salary is what it took. This is what happened:
In 2008 we moved to Bali, where my husband Victor had gotten a teaching job at Green School, a new international school created by famed jeweler John Hardy. At a minimum we had planned to stay at least one year but hoped it’d be so paradisiacal that we’d never want to return to California.
It turned out that what John Hardy had shown Victor when he flew him to Bali in April of that year for an interview, was nothing more than a green façade. The school was a disorganized mess. The director was a tyrant with scholastic foresight that hardly extended beyond his nose. John Hardy put more effort into attracting as many $10,000 per year tuition-paying students, than in creating a school worthy of Victor’s teaching expertise. There was no real curriculum to speak of. And, ultimately, teaching first-world lessons in a third-world setting open to the elements exhausted him.
Our home—a hut with no windows or doors, was an aesthetic gem, but living in it proved to be tiresome, unhealthy, and, at times, dangerous. Bugs and bats were a constant, as was noise from the seemingly endless construction projects all around us. Almost the entire house and the furnishings therein were constructed of bamboo, all of which were covered with ever-growing layers of mold. There was no privacy, and worst of all: we lived across the street from a cemetery, where the smoke from the burning funeral pyres—a Hindu ritual—floated into our living room daily, choking our throats and stinging our eyes. The bedroom where our six-year-old daughter Loy slept was invaded nightly by millions of biting ants that climbed down the tree that grew up through the thatched roof.
Of course there was a lot to love about living in Bali, too. We loved our housekeeper, Seni, and I’d like to believe she loved us back. We loved the lot of fellow teachers who came from around the globe with the same excited expectations about making a difference in the lives of their students (and were equally dismayed by the school’s false promises and interminable failings). We loved the beaches, an hour’s drive away, where we could sip Pina Coladas and chat up the honeymooning tourists who lounged beside us. We loved Ubud, the groovy city thirty minutes’ south, where we would eat western food not seasoned with galangal or turmeric or lemongrass, or where we’d stroll the souvenir markets and jewelry shops, eyeing presents for our family and friends back home.
After four months of trying our hearts and minds out, we decided to leave. Victor gave notice and I fell to the floor in relief. I had grown tired of being coated in sweat and insect repellent. Tired of seeing the frustration weighing down Victor’s shoulders at the end of every day. Tired of fighting with him. Tired of fearing that something horrible might happen to Loy.
At one point, after Loy got bit by a Dengue Fever mosquito, our fight turned so venomous, that he actually suggested I leave Loy with him and go back to California.
It was awful.
Which was why, when he finally threw in the sweat-soaked towel, I skipped around the bamboo floor, celebrating our departure from paradise.
Now, all I had to do was pick through, cull, and pack up the many hundreds of pounds of stuff we owned, because this time Green School would not be paying for the move.
I called around. It’d be only a couple hundred bucks to load it onto a shipping container, but our belongings wouldn’t get to the states for three months.
Federal Express would cost $3000.
UPS: about half that.
When Muchlis the Javanese UPS representative showed up at the hut the Friday before we left Bali, he wore a worn suit and didn’t offer to take off his shoes, which is customary in Bali. He talked down to Seni as if she were nothing more than a servant. Something told me not to do business with him, but before I could listen to my gut, Nyoman, his Balinese assistant, appeared wearing the ever-trusting UPS-brown uniform. He had a smile on his face and a sort of computer-tracking thingy in his hand, which, it turned out, was just for show: we had to do all the paperwork by hand. Three hours later we tallied up the weight and cost: $1313 for 13 boxes. I thought the coincidence a bit remarkable, if not a little scary.
“I’m paying cash,” I told Muchlis. We didn’t want to risk having lots of cash on us when we hit customs so it made sense to give him thirteen $100 bills and the rest in rupiah. Seni and Nyoman watched me hand over to Muchlis what was roughly a year’s salary for middle management in Bali. The guilt I felt from it spilled over his palm and dampened my bare feet.
“Terima kasih,” he said smiling, the stack of bills now in his pocket.
“You’re welcome. Just make sure it all gets to New York, okay?”
A week after we arrived in New York I got an email:
Our records shows that despite repeated efforts to recover the outstanding debt due to us, payment has not been forthcoming. We therefore have no other course of action, but to suspended your credit facilities and commence recovery action. We regret having to take this course of action and hope your efforts allow us to resolve this situation promptly.
UPS Cardig International
I wrote them back:
Dear UPS people in Indonesia,
Who are you and what on earth are you talking about? We had 13 boxes shipped from our home in Bali to New York City, in my husband’s name: Victor Prussack. The person in charge of our shipping from Indonesia to NY was Muchlis M. Mas. ALL monies were paid in cash. I know that the total was $1313 because we all laughed that we had 13 boxes and the amount was the same. I gave Muchlis Mas $1,300 in dollars and the $13 in rupiah. The 13 boxes arrived 5 days later in NY. Other than the dishes being broken we were very happy with the service Muchlis and UPS gave us. Is Muchlis GONE? PLEASE keep me updated on this.
We have cross check and our Courier witnessed your transaction and he admitted that the payment was received by Muchlis. Apparently Muchlis did not submit your payment to cashier to be booked, that is why this shipment appear outstanding in our finance record. We have taken serious action against Muchlis and he is no longer working with UPS Indonesia as this dealt with integrity and it is high concern at UPS.
Once again we apologise for the inconvenience cause you.
For a short time I wondered where ol’ Muchlis Mas was and how he was spending that wad of cash I’d handed him. I bore him no ill will: after all he did ship our boxes. But seeing that story about the American who absconded with money not his own, I thought of him again and laughed. For all I know he was apprehended as he tried to board a Garuda flight to Thailand. Or perhaps he, too, is hanging with his second wife on a crowded beach somewhere far away from his former life, ordering a drink for the guy in the chair beside him.