The Quest for the Perfect Smoke

This story is dedicated to Ole, who got me started; to my mom, who doesn't approve; and to my dad, who doesn't even know.

It is a well-held tenet of human psychology that life is lent meaning by the thirst for a goal to pursue. Some people spend their time in search of cures for nefarious diseases, others pass their days attempting to decipher ancient and sacred texts, while still more find purpose in raising children, or maintaining a colorful garden of geraniums and orchids. I, too, have pursuits which help me make of my life more a quest, and less an exercise of survival. I travel in search of a wide range of adventure and experience; I write as an exercise in expression, elaboration, and growth;I venture out to find new minds capable of stimulating my own. These are grand pursuits, worthy of a lifetime each, and I hope they will endure until my final days.

But on a more quotidian scale, finer into the grain of my existence, lie other, smaller forays. The search for food sometimes annoys me and often delights me, but I endure it more than daily. When I've arrived in a new place, a new city, a new country, I first and foremost seek accommodation of some variety. But also, one step beyond these mundane quests, there are a few things which I have grown into the routine of looking for when I first explore an unfamiliar environment. I spend afternoons hunting down cafes and public libraries in which to read and write. My eyes remain ever peeled for ways onto the internet, so I can communicate with my family and friends. And also -- and this is no small consideration -- each time I journey to a new place for any length of time, I am inevitably faced with the search for that rarest of rares, that holiest of holies, Gudang Garam cigarettes. Because, let's face it: I love to smoke, I love to smoke a lot, and -- this is the part I really grit my teeth over -- I love to smoke, to the absolute exclusion of anything else, an extremely rare brand. Regardless of where on the surface of the planet I may wander, be it the tropics or the poles, the summits or the depths, I require as a daily condiment to my lifestyle a product which must absolutely and without exception be fabricated in and exported from the charming town of Kediri, Indonesia, and not unexpectedly, I find no small task in this, this search for the perfect smoke.

But, as with so many such life quests, just as for the scientist who toils over his beakers and pipettes, or the gardener who after a season of labor will watch his gardenias wither and die, so much of my pleasure lies not only in the acquisition of the trophy, but in the hunt itself, in the many and fractal by-product experiences achieved through the search, experiences as unpredictable as they are varied, and it is these sideline achievements and findings which form the focus of this essay, because I truly believe that the good people of Kediri cannot possibly grasp the fullest extent of exactly what they're producing in that vast and meticulous factory overlooking the salt warehouses of East Java. That they have no knowledge of their product's full power in clearly evidenced in the health warning printed on the side of the package: MEROKOK DAPAT MERUGIKAN KESEHATAN, a caveat weakened through the typical Indonesian politesse and the powerful Indonesian tobacco lobby, and which roughly translated and filtered for these influences, gives the resultant warning to be found on cigarette boxes in England, Australia, Singapore, and hopefully soon the US: CIGARETTES KILL.

This is a fact we all know by now, a medical truth so drilled into our psyches as to be blasé, historical and uninteresting. Sure, they kill. And the power of mortality is sobering, to be sure, but how much more powerful could be the equally true statement, printed on box and billboard across the globe, CIGARETTES HELP YOU LIVE? And, I reiterate, this fact transcends the simple pleasure of the smoke, the carnal thrill of the nicotine rush; no, my nomadic cravings for Gudang Garam have led me into instances and situations which far surpass these mere physiological satisfactions, has contributed in many cases to the general and lasting quality of my life, to a degree that health warnings roll off my mind like rain off an umbrella. The standard warnings in light of all this therefore do no good, and I think should therefore be amended to reflect the more applicable and awesome powers of the contents of the packages on which they appear.

So consider as an example of a more accurate caveat the very proven phenomenon: CIGARETTES MAKE FRIENDS. One evening just before dawn, as I sat in a cozy Hong Kong bar contentedly drinking some very delicious ouzo shots and taking the not infrequent drag on my lovely cigarette, I felt a sudden and polite tapping on my shoulder. I turned to find a girl standing behind me. "Are those Gudang Garam?" she asked. I smiled, extended the open packet toward her, and gave her a light before speaking. "I understand," I said. She nodded appreciatively, enjoying the smoke. At last she withdrew the cigarette from her mouth to say in an Australian accent, "I lived in Indonesia for two years and..." "Betul?" I interrupted her, "dimana?" And then, to the incomprehension of the friends with whom I was seated, we prattled at each other in Indonesian from that point on. She had lived in a Sumatran village until recently, and had actually been drawn from the sidewalk into the bar where I sat by the sweet kretek aroma drifting out the saloon door. We talked on a bit, and before she eventually continued her homeward journey, I told her where she could buy the cigarettes herself in Hong Kong. Then we bid each other a warm Indonesian good-bye. The following evening, as I wandered aimlessly down a side street, I again felt the same polite tapping on my shoulder. Turning to it, I found myself offered a cigarette by her this time, which cigarette led to a bar, and some very nice drinks, before we once more and this time for good bid each other fare well. Cigarettes make friends indeed.

In this instance, it was the actual cigarette itself, aromatically incandescing snugly between my left index and middle fingers, which accomplished the introduction. However -- and this begins to reveal the true force of their influence -- the presence of the cigarettes themselves is not even necessary for their amicitating abilities to prevail. When I went to Mongolia, for example, I committed the gross error of bringing only 10 packs with me from Germany. I had been erroneously informed by a Mongolian in Berlin that I could find Gudang Garam in Ulaan Baatar... and when I too soon ran out, how I worked to prove him right! I accosted every tobacconist in town, hopefully brandishing an empty box. but refills were not forthcoming. I hunted in vain for a nonexistent Indonesian embassy or consulate. I sanguinely presented myself at university registrars' offices, hoping to locate an Indonesian transfer student, who might have perhaps recently received a thoughtful care package from home. But all in vain. I even went so far as to ask a worker in the foreign ministry to confirm that no company in Mongolia was licensed to import tobacco from Indonesia. And despairing of ever finding them in Mongolia, I related my travails to a friend I met there, an employee of the World Bank. I have an Indonesian friend here," he told me, "I'll introduce you."

Thus I met Endong, a cute fun Javanese woman whose Canadian husband works in Mongolia, who had no idea where I could score smokes, but who nonetheless was delighted to meet someone in that cold hard country who could speak the language of her warn soft homeland. We met on several different occasions, and it even turned out that, just as we were both in Mongolia at the time of a total solar eclipse, we had both been in northern Borneo for the previous one, in fact both in the same small field outside the same small town, and that even given the slight possibility that we didn't unknowingly glimpse each other on that occasion, we most certainly walked right by one another two days later, as I was scaling Mount Kinabalu, and she descending it by the same trail. Those cigarettes are funny things: not only did their simple absence help me find a friend in a remote place, they helped me find a friend with whom I had shared air in an even more remote place 16 months earlier. They brought me a tangential glimpse of the simultaneous hugeness and smallness of the world as a whole, a wonder at the vast interconnectedness of all things. CIGARETTES WIDEN VIEWPOINTS AND HORIZONS. If governments knew that, they'd surely ban the stuff outright.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. I haven't yet mentioned that I made a pilgrimage to the focal center of my entire tobacco-driven spirituality: the Gudang Garam Factory, in Kediri, West Java. That was a real treat. I went with two friends, Ole and Rick, and as we approached the gate, resplendent with wrought iron "GG"s, Ole and I exchanged excited glances: four months prior, over cigarettes by the water in Kuching, Malaysia, we'd talked fancifully about coming to this place, and out of so many travel plans which dissolve in the course of their own enaction, this one was about to be made real. CIGARETTES RESTORE FAITH IN THE FUTURE. We ceremoniously crossed the threshold. Once inside, we made the proper contacts, were assigned a guide/guard, and soon found ourselves in a room where 2,000 women sat rolling Gudang Garam reds in long rows of workstations. One of them invited us to give it a shot, and Ole and I took turns learning to use the lo-tech rolling machines, with the expert hands-on kind of instruction you'd expect from a woman who rolls 1.1 million cigarettes a year. We emerged from the room each proudly holding our very own self-rolled Gudang Garam cigarettes. Sweet. CIGARETTES ENGENDER NEW SKILLS.

good work if you can get it?

In the corridor a chalkboard announced that only 38,000 people had reported to work that day, and asking about the other facilities in an unctuously curious way, plus pushing a few key buttons (this is so exciting what a beautiful factory we came all the way to Kediri just for this) landed us squarely in the back of an official Gudang Garam jeep, driving from building to building through a vast maze of compounds, sampling their sights. And what sights! We saw rooms of 4, 6, and 10(!),000 women all busily rolling, snipping and wrapping, their hands flashing robotically under the dim fluorescent light to the pulsing rhythm of piped-in dangdut music. We saw machines doing the same jobs only faster. We saw the fleet of (three) Gudang Garam helicopters. But what we really saw most was the insincere smile of the PR minion who escorted us around and answered our questions with polished fiction. CIGARETTES ENCOURAGE ANALYTICAL SKEPTICISM. "We hire only women," he told us, "because our research shows them to be better suited to monotonous labor." "Cigarettes are very good for Indonesia," he confidently promised, and, of course, "Gudang Garam is very good to its employees." Right. these employees who toil in perspectivally long cattleyard rows for 3,000 rupiah a day; who, as our guide freely admitted, sometimes go insane from the labor; and who are forced to listen to methamphetaminic pop music on a continuous basis as they manufacture the poison of a nation. CIGARETTES REVEAL SOCIAL PROBLEMS. Filling out a job application I am not. (Besides, I'm a guy.)

We ultimately returned to Unit 1, were showered with cigarettes and shirts, and, thanking our guide profusely through our smirks of triumphant lootery, took to the streets of the city. Total score: data, pictures, shirts, and five boxes of cigarettes each for Ole and I, each box marked with the signature of success: "Tidak untuk dijual"... "not for sale".

I didn't, however, like my shirt so much. It felt more like a nondescript golf shirt than a Gudang Garam souvenir. It had a red and blue stripe motif on one shoulder, a minute GG logo on the pocket, and red and blue lines running around the collar. Lame. So out on the street, I started hunting. In this town, everybody - everybody - wore Gudangphernalia, some of it old, some fresh and new, in a range of styles and designs. It took little time and less effort to decide upon a shirt I liked better than my own, and from that point on it was a piece of cake: "Excuse me," I innocently said, "but I have this brand new Gudang Garam shirt, and I like your old one so much better..," letting my words trail off into his dumb perplexed look, allowing them to be followed, on my target's own initiative, by the bright-eyed formation of a brilliant idea: "Want to trade?" he offered. Me: "Yeahgimmegimmegimme." Quick strip'n'swap, and the street vendor looks mighty snappy in that clean white shirt while I'm walking off down the street clutching a souvenir worthy of the title, worthy of the words printed on its collar label in red and blue: "GG Collection." CIGARETTES PROMOTE FASHION SENSE. It's a real gem, candy-speckled with logos, and with the capital letters GUDANG GARAM spanning the sleeve from left shoulder to cuff. That's right: long sleeves. I guess the GG collection has a winter line as well.

(By the way, GG makes - gulp - 150,000,000 cigarettes - gulp - a day.) CIGARETTES DEMONSTRATE HUMAN POTENTIAL.

But even given the vastness of my Kediri experience, I still feel that these episodes go only a small way toward evidencing Gudang Garam's life-expanding properties. Certain that I'd be able to buy them in the Philippines, from Hong Kong I brought only a few packs with me to that tropical wonderland. Of course they'd have them there; I mean, geographically, Philippine waters border Indonesian seas, and the people in both countries are of Malay origin. Only Western colonial history separates the two nations, and cigarettes, like cultures, are not border-bound. So you can imagine my horror upon discovering that although every Filipino I questioned was familiar with Gudang Garam, nobody -- nobody -- knew where I could get them. Jeesh. Ultimately and at wits' end, I contrived to have my friend Sarah express me a carton from the UK. I installed myself in the very wonderful seaside town of Dumaguete, and waited for my smoky salvation to arrive.

Day three came and went... but no problem, the "overnight delivery" was only guaranteed in five days. Day seven? Day ten?! By that point I found myself daily emailing with Sarah trying to ascertain the status of my lovely tobacco sticks, until finally, and which ultimately endured as a permanent condition, DHL proclaimed the package officially and forever lost to the world. "So sorry."

And that was definitely a drag... BUT: once again, the mere fact of wanting the cigarettes, the very desire itself, was able to work its magic even absent the luscious smokes per se. Because as I waited for the courier to do his job, and to beguile the period of my futile attendance, I got to know Dumaguete a bit. I walked around, I made some local friends, I went to the town bar at night, until eventually and as a direct result of my patient duration in town, I met David, an American diving instructor living in Dumaguete with his Korean wife and trying to make a success of his newly opened dive shop. Taking advantage of my cigarettes delayed arrival, I availed myself of his expertise and fulfilled my long-held goal of learning to dive. CIGARETTES MAKE YOU MORE ATHLETIC. But it went so much farther than that: David and I liked each other. His wife and I liked each other. Their kids and I liked each other. And less than a week later, I'd moved into the spare room in their nice new beach front house. Five weeks I stayed, five weeks I played: with David in the day -- I logged 30 dives in as many days -- with the kids in the evenings, and with the cool and eclectic collection of Dumaguete's residents nightly in the local pub/club. Dumaguete in its way buzzes with life, home to expats and Filipinos who, through camaraderie and cohabitation, have forged a remarkably friendly and functional social scene out of its odd mix of international characters. Into this I fit snugly and lived like a full-time resident for longer than I had ever expected to remain in the entire country. It was a good life. I dived a lot, I had a family for a short time, and I not only made a large group of friends, but I felt like I very much fit in somewhere, a rare treat in a nomadic lifestyle, all thanks to the never forthcoming but always hopefully immanent arrival of my Gudang Garams. So once again I push the point: it wasn't the smokes themselves that did it, but their absence; their mere existence somewhere in the world was enough to catalyze the situation, to change a medium-sized town into a whole world of its own. CIGARETTES MAKE YOUR WORLD BIGGER.

And then, as if the value of the time I spend there weren't enough (it was), on my last night, as I partied farewell with my friends at the Music Box, I glanced up through my alcohol haze to see a Gudang Garam box advancing toward me through the crowded bar, as though it were glowing with an internal, only-visible-to-me-style light. At first I took it to be a mirage, a trick of the drink, but no: a young Korean student had been given them by an Indonesian person somewhere along the line, and with only one cigarette remaining in the box, he had offered it to Young, David's wife. "I don't want it," she told him, "but I bet I know who does..." and so, on my final night in Dumaguete, after so long without them -- after so long because I was without them -- I got to smoke one. Only one. CIGARETTES REVEAL NATURE'S SENSE OF HUMOR. The following day I flew back to Hong Kong.

In Hong Kong, of course, anything dreamable is likely available. And though I've had no dreams that I know of about Gudang Garam -- I'm no addict, only an enthusiast -- They're easy enough to find there if you know where to look. My main source presented itself to me as I wandered the streets of Central Hong Kong, in the form of an innocuous Indonesian restaurant. "Solo Indonesia" read the sign, "2nd floor." Easy enough. Up I went, and found, in addition to a sweetheart old woman from central Java, an outlet for clandestinely imported cigarettes, bearing the Indonesian tax stamp and everything. I bought some smokes and, not wanting to procrastinate in their enjoyment, sat down to light up with all haste. Mmmm. The proprietress joined me at the table and we talked, mostly about her hometown of Solo, where I'd spent a week in the company of a warm Indonesian family during the Muslim holiday of Idul Fitri in 1996. After a few minutes of conversation she excused herself, returning a moment later with two cups of coffee. "Special coffee," she whispered with an air of secretive complicity, "from Bali." What a treat. We sipped, we chatted, and when time came for me to leave, she not only insisted on undercharging me for the smokes, but wouldn't let me pay for the coffee either. CIGARETTES GET YOU FREE STUFF.

However nice she might have been, however, perhaps this friendly episode is but a feeble example of Gudang Garams' lotto-winning force. In that light, then, consider the events of the evening a few days later, still in Hong Kong, two or three nights before the changeover. Succumbing to the zeitgeist party vibe so entrenched in the city that last week of British control, I had adopted a routine of nightly dancing at an ever-expending series of clubs and discos. Of course, with dancing comes drinking, and with drinking, smoking. And thus reasoning, I prefaced my reveries on this particular occasion with a visit to Solo Indonesia Restaurant to replenish my supplies, and then, my knapsack brimming with cigarettes, set off to meet my friends at a predetermined night spot.

There, we danced as though the sky were falling, the world ending, the day of judgment nigh at hand -- an attitude not unfounded in the colony's immanent political realignment. Eventually needing a break, we retired to the bar for a drink and a smoke, and to let our dripping bodies evaporate a little. We had scarcely begun this resuscitation, however, when "Excuse me," came an American voice just over my shoulder, "are those Indonesian cigarettes?" I turned and offered him one. "Not for me," he smiled, taking a stick from the box, "for my girlfriend. Thank you." He handed it to the girl sitting next to him, who lit it, dragged, and licked her lips in appreciation of its sweet flavor. "What are you drinking?" he asked me, and then treated me to yet another in a long series of vodka shots. And this being a Hong Kong bar, where the price of a shot of Stoli surpasses that of an entire box of Gudang Garam, I thought it a more than generous courtesy on his part.

scoring in India

"Where can you get these here?" his girlfriend asked me between drags. I told her what I knew, and then reaching into my bag produced a whole box of cigarettes, which I then gave her. I felt very cigarette-rich at that moment, happily drunk, and besides, he had bought me an expensive drink of top-notch vodka. She accepted with a broad, warm smile. "You've made her very happy," the boyfriend told me. "From now on, all your drinks are on me." I objected, he overruled, and for the remainder of the night I spent not a cent on alcohol, downing shot after shot under his nodding supervision. CIGARETTES ENCOURAGE FRATERNITY AMONG MANKIND. (And they get you free stuff.)

But fraternity among men, noble though it may be, remains a very general kind of good, applicable to acts both loftily large and smilingly small. How much more specific, while being equally true, is the statement CIGARETTES FOSTER POSITIVE INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS? The precise episode to which I here refer took place in Beijing, at which city, having arrived directly from Mongolia with my Gudang Garam urge as yet still unfulfilled, I immediately set myself to the task of locating what I was certain would be easy to find in such an international, commercial and smoker-friendly capitol. the Beijing cigarette vendors, who litter the sidewalks in astounding numbers with their colorful racks of display boxes, typically sell a wider variety of different cigarette brands than I would previously have thought existed. There you can find literally hundreds of different tobaccos of varying qualities and strengths to suit almost any taste, sold in as many different packages, some of them the most beautiful cigarette boxes I've seen anywhere. But this amazing abundance of colors in the Chinese cigarette spectrum only further embittered my disappointment at not finding Gudang Garam among them. How dare they sell so many different smokes, but not the only ones I like? Who exactly do they think they are, anyway? Outraged, I abandoned the street vendors in favor of specialized tobacco shops, only again to feel the sting of their proprietors' shrugged shoulders and shaking heads. So that ultimately, after days of fruitless hunting, I decided to apply myself to the Indonesian consulate in search of assistance.

The only thing Beijing has more of than cigarette labels (and citizens, but they don't seem to count for anything), is consulates. To stroll through the embassy district is to revisit geography 101, a review lesson in flags, seals of state, and the names of countries you'd forgotten (or never knew) existed. It was to this area that I took a crowded Beijing bus that dusty sunny afternoon in search of the holy grail of fine tobacco products.

Arriving at the consulate and faced with the security desk, I introduced myself and stated the purpose of my visit. I could see the attendant's eyebrows arch in surprise, not so much to sneer "hah this clown wants cigarettes," but more to note "hey this white guy speaks Indonesian." She paused a moment in thought before lifting a telephone to her ear and making a quick, businesslike call in Jakarta dialect. Then she smiled to me: "Please wait in the next room." The door to my right buzzed open. I did not wait long for a Javanese diplomat to come and introduce himself. He was very friendly, we spoke briefly, and then he led me deeper into the building and introduced me to someone else. In the ensuing interval, I found myself passed around several more times, like a hot potato, from office to office, from diplomat to diplomat, each time being introduced in a dialect I could not understand, and each time chatting for a minute or two before being handed off again for someone else to deal with. Not wanting to appear pushy, I didn't mention the cigarettes during these brief conversations (which largely focused on where I learned to speak their national tongue), since I assumed that my reason for being there was each time included in my series of introductions. But also, as the offices I was being shunted to grew increasingly grand in size and decor, I began to understand that in each introduction I was, beyond my lingual comprehension, being represented as a person of increasingly grand importance. And before too very long, I was shown into the office of, and introduced to, the ambassador himself.

A big, smiling man, relaxed with his considerable power, he welcomed me warmly, and yet again I chatted for a bit about where I'd been in Indonesia and the adventures I had there. Of course, there was no one higher up he could pass me to, and by now I supposed I'd been represented to him as some sort of tobacco-hungry demigod or something, so that, after talking amiably for a spell, he glanced at his watch and said, "Well, my day's about through here. Why don't we continue our discussion over tea?" I accepted his offer, whereupon he led me back through all the corridors of the building to his waiting Mercedes, complete with diplomatic plates, flags and driver. Twenty minutes later we had comfortably installed ourselves in the quiet lushness of his sprawling ambassadorial mansion in the heart of the squalor of central Beijing. There servants brought us Javanese tea on silver trays draped with classical batik fabrics, and the ambassador and I talked for perhaps another 45 minutes.

But never about the cigarettes I was after. I hinted of course, mentioning my trip to the Gudang Garam factory in Kediri, and my admiration for Indonesia's smoke-anywhere-you-like policy, but always the conversation turned to other aspects of the country, or the culture, or to accounts of other diplomatic posts he'd held -- which was all very interesting -- but I wondered if he was playing games with me. However, diplomatically enough. at last he came right out and asked: "So what, exactly, is the purpose of your visit here? Did you stop by just to say hello?" It was then that I realized that, amid all my introductions from one office to the next, somehow the reason I had come had been obscured, and then lost. And the ambassador had therefore never been told. I suddenly felt a little guilty for wasting this important man's time, even while I thrilled at the very experience of it. I semi-sheepishly explained that I had come to learn where I could find kretek cigarettes in Beijing. The ambassador, upon hearing this, looked incredulous, then threw back his head and laughed with a heartiness that surprised me, as though he had never expected my request to be something so trivial, or so easy to deal with. "No, you can't buy them in China," he sputtered through his mirth, "they don't import them here." I felt simultaneously relieved by his easygoing attitude, and disappointed by the news he delivered. He must have seen this on my face. "But listen," he said, "everyone at the embassy misses them here too, so whenever someone comes from home, he brings a big box with him. One minute..." And after issuing a brisk instruction to a waiting attendant, I was quickly presented with a whole carton of the impossible-to-find: Gudang Garam Surya, direct from the motherland. I thanked him so effusively that he laughed again.

We talked for a while longer, now relaxed, and now with cigarettes in our hands, somehow brought to a parity by the leveling force of Gudang Garam, until at last I bid him a grateful farewell and took my leave. "Next time you're in Beijing," he told me as I left, "pay us a visit." "Thank you, I may need to," I replied, and I could hear him laughing behind me as I was shown past the security gate and back into the bustling world, thinking CIGARETTES ALLOW ACCESS, CIGARETTES REVEAL UNCONTEMPLATED POSSIBILITIES, and CIGARETTES ARE VERY VERY GOOD.

And, even though I've yet presented only a few of the many examples of how my enthusiasm for Gudang Garam has impacted my lifestyle, we've nonetheless returned again to my original thesis: CIGARETTES HELP YOU LIVE. Whether you have them or not, so long as you know they're out there, so long as you keep them in mind and hope for them daily, they'll help you out. They'll help you make friends, they'll widen your viewpoints and horizons, they'll make you more athletic and increase the size of your world, they'll help you laugh along with mother nature while you're getting free stuff, they'll improve so very many aspects of living and continue to give more and more, as much as you'll continue to let them. And of course, I enjoy them as often and as much as I can. In fact, I've begun to adopt a pattern of mailing cartons of cigarettes ahead to myself, from country to country, in order to insure a steadier flow of kretek smoke, but all the while I accept that for me, they're only a temporary condiment to my existence. I get so much from them, and they improve my time in so many ways, but ultimately I know I'll have to stop one day. After all, those things'll kill you, y'know.


(where there's smoke, there's fire?)

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