Wednesday, October 1, 2008


What is Certain in the World?

I am the enthusiastic owner of a VISA card. Everywhere I go (in Mexico, India or all the Baltic States), I have used it with such facility that for my trip to Malaysia, I didn’t take any cash with me at all. Suffice to say, I believed that technology in our globalized world has arrived at a state of perfection. Alas, on the first day of the conference, this state-of-the-art technology betrayed me. On the University campus in Serdang the ATM wouldn’t accept my attempts to withdraw any money. It was morning and a queue of working Malaysians, with their undoubtedly working credit cards in hand, stacked up behind me. My Malaysian colleague from the conference’s board advised me to give up for the moment because my lecture was due to start in ten minutes.
So the conference started. I was physically present but, by rights I shouldn't have been there. I was to give a lecture at an international forum before my distinguished colleagues, all of whom could sit there, satisfied in the knowledge that they had paid the registration fee for the conference. Only one person hadn't paid. Me! And all because of my faith in technology, I hadn’t taken my iron reserve of US dollars. I had blindly expected my money to be conjured up by a little piece of plastic!

After my lecture, the conference organizers provided me with another Malaysian colleague and a car. We went to all the other ATMs on the University campus and, again, nothing. He didn’t lose hope and offered to visit the nearest bank. The teller smiled, took my card, and begged my patience. The wait seemed infinite. But in fact quite soon head clerk of the bank politely but resolutely returned my card. He said they couldn’t help me in any way. I was traumatized.
I hope you never feel that one of the pillars of world globalization is crumbling. I was forced to ask the heretical question. What, in fact, man could rely on in this world? What is certain in this world of ours?

My Malaysian colleague looked sympathetic and offered me another try in nearby branch of Malaysia’s biggest bank. This it appeared was my last chance. Into the bank I walked in a state of total panic. I was desperate. 'Please God. Give my money. After all it is mine!' I couldn’t face the prospect of waiting in line, so I asked my Malaysian colleague to call for the manager. After a short time we were sitting in his office. He was big, fat, phlegmatic and sweaty, but polite. He listened to my story, took my VISA card, and carefully examined it from every possible angle. Then he typed some numbers into his personal computer and the information was whizzed off to somewhere. He wasn’t satisfied with the result. I started to perspire, which in Malaysia during monsoon time is not difficult even under normal circumstances.

The manager remained silent. Once again, he checked the data on my card and asked me for my passport. Then he wanted to know the name of the bank that had given me the card - of course he hadn't heard of my brave little Slovak bank. Finally he grabbed the phone and called the head office in Kuala Lumpur.

The whole time my Malaysian colleague sat beside me and tried to keep my spirits buoyed with optimistic glances and grunts of approval. From time to time he spoke softly with the Malaysian banker - either trying to help me or trying to expose an international con artist - how was I to know? I was alone in the middle of an unknown country and had only a plastic connection with home and my money. The phone connection with Kuala Lumpur broke down every moment. The Serdang branch office, meanwhile, was a haven of rest. Everyone appeared to be snoozing in the midday heat. Another half an hour and I could have swum in my own sweat. The connection broke down for a second time and then for the third time the manager repeated the information from my VISA card. At last he enthusiastically raised his eyebrows. My chance had come, but it rested on one crucial question.

He leaned toward me confidentially and asked: “What’s your mother’s name?”

“Who?” I said, fearing I had misheard him.

“Your mother’s maiden name.”

“But my mother never had any account before she was married,” I said.

“But you must have given it when you applied for this card.”

I hate questionnaires of all kind, but at that moment I was happy.

He had me write the name just to make sure. It was bizarre to hear my mother’s name in Malaysian pronunciation. But it worked. I got my money, breathed more easily and, with pleasure, shook hands with my Malaysian colleague and the bank representative. When I walked out to the unbearably hot pavement I finally understood. Who else, if not the world’s bankers, know that everything in this world cannot be entirely relied on.

Only Mum is always certain.

No comments: