A jungle haze of heat, trike exhaust, neon Christmas, taxi girls in flip flops eyeing the nighttime behind hungover sunglasses, guys on the street trying to sell me Cialis and tasers that look like flashlights – I’m in the Philippines. And the only thing I have in the world is my ATM card.
You see, I just dropped off my passport at the immigration office to extend my tourist visa another 28 days. They needed my actual passport – not just a copy, its surrender like the loaning an appendage, enough to make any traveler nervous. I won’t get it back for 4 days. My hotel is holding my U.S. driver’s license in lieu of my passport so I won’t skip town on the bill, and who knows if or when I ever get that back. My social security card? I think I ripped that up many decades ago in a fit of misplaced rebellion. I have a flimsy medical insurance card from the states in my wallet, but good luck using that in case of emergency – in the developing world, hospitals are strictly pay to play, and they’ll turn you away to die in the street if you don’t have cash on the spot. I had a credit card but it got stolen a while ago. Ok, actually I forgot it in a ragged Saigon hotel room after a crazy 48 hours, but it sounds better to say it was stolen.
So all I have left in the world is this ATM card. What would happen if I lost it? It’s not like I could walk into my bank’s branch here. I guess someone could mail me a copy, but that would take week(s) and would have about a 3% chance of every showing up. And how would I even place a call? How would I pay for a place to stay? For food? Do you know how looping impossible it would be to get to the embassy and muster up the fees to apply for a new passport? It’s a weird feeling to know you’re one flat, shiny rectangle away from being persona non grata - that we can be just cancelled and asked politely to disappear.
Why is it that we human beings are defined by our accounts, our passwords, our cards, our ID’s? How archaic a system is it to carry around a little flimsy book that they physically stamp every time you enter a country, but you’d essentially be detained by a nation’s borders if you ever lost it? With all of our technology and innovation, this is the best we can do? Or has the paper dragon turned against us? You can’t even have your own money if you don’t hold onto a card proving who you are. Why can you go to jail if you don’t have something with the letters D-R-I-V-E-R-S-L-I-C-E-N-S-E and your photo on it? And all of these things need to be renewed because they expire and you have to jump through hoops to prove that you exist, all over again.
When did this start? How come we didn’t notice that they implanted barcodes in the back of our necks and swindled us into thinking they were doing us a favor? I look around me, but none of the “uncivilized” locals seem to be suffering from my same burden of digital registration. But how could we opt out of their paper insanity? And is it temporary, will our civilization one day evolve out of this ant-sized comic book representation of ourselves? In the movies, aliens never have wallets to carry ID and credit cards. Hell, the aliens don’t even wear pants in the movies.
I think I want to live there.
But for now, I question who set up this whole shit show in the first place, why I am one piece of paper away from not existing at all. I glance behind me into the shadows, touching my wallet again to make sure the taxi girl didn’t somehow lift it when she blew a kiss, and cross the street. Strange dream, man, this thing called life.