You know what I hate sometimes? Everything. I hate the world and all its places, I hate every person, bug and bird. I hate all the people who smile and the ones who shout angry or important words. I hate the series of circumstances that have led up to now being what it is, and I hate the present situations which will shape the future. I hate religion and what it does to people and I hate the emptiness offered as an alternative. I hate. I hate all goodness in its saccharine glory and all evil in its oversold infamy, both pockmarked with the sacrifices of countless worthless lives. I hate it all. And sometimes I hate myself. I'm no better than the rest of the filler material here. I hate myself for who I am and for who I will become. And for hating so much, as though guilt could improve the world's nastiness. I hate. Not all the time, but often enough to have realized that the only thing I never ever hate, is you.
I had a bit of a full experience recently. I had been spending some time in Belaga, a tiny little place with not many people but lots of charm way up on the upper reaches of the Rejang river, where the poisonous centipedes rule their domains and the wild pigs run free. I wanted to get from Belaga to Tubau, which is essentially a logging city and point of transit, with an eye toward securing a boat from Tubau to Bintulu, on the coast. I had not planned on spending nearly so much time on the interior as I already had, and was worried that if I didn't make the two day journey to the nearest bank soon, I'd quickly run out of the funding necessary to ever return to the civilized world, where golden arches light up the night sky and all the kitchen sinks spout coca-cola. I was simply the victim of my own poor planning, and as a result, forced to return to the island's edge sooner that I would have liked.
Asking around town about the best way to get to Tubau, I met a guy who seemed to know what I wanted. "Tubau?" I asked him.
"Tubau. KTS log camp. You landcruiser Tubau. Boat Bintulu," came his response. Perfect.
"KTS?" I asked. He nodded confirmation. "Expressboat," he said, made a peace sign with his right and index fingers, and pointed to his watch. Two o'clock. It was twelve thirty, giving me an hour and a half until the boat was due to leave. Packing took me all of ten minutes to accomplish, and then I hit the little alimentation for some basic supplies: water, chocolate, cookies. Just in case... and a bottle of whiskey, to make supersure. I gobbled down a plate of mee, which I think is an excellent word for noodles, and hit the dock about 1:45. The boat had already arrived from Kapit, and was swarming with local tribespeople headed to their longhouses upriver. If I wanted a seat, I'd have to move quickly, so stepping onto the deck and gingerly weaving my way around bags of rice and boxes of chickens, clucking and straining their necks and generally looking as stupid and uninformed and chickens generally tend to look, I made my way to the inside compartment.
These expressboats are funny things. Like busses on the water, they more or less consist of a long room filled with rows and rows of seats, which is then supercooled to below the freezing point of benzene, presumably on the assumption that if frozen, your bodyclock slows down, making your journey seem faster than is actually the case. But they don't want you to sleep through your stop suspended in cryogenic hibernation, and to that end each boat is equipped with twin TVCRs, one on either side of the aisle, spouting an endless torrent of Chuck Norris, Steven Seagall, or -- if you're lucky -- Jackie Chan, with the volume and distortion cranked up high enough to make sure that all the regional fish and wildlife know to steer clear of the boat; we wouldn't want to collide with a monitor lizard, now would we?
I threaded my way through the crowded cabin and found an aisle seat next to an Iban man naked except for his tattered shorts, dotted from head to foot with blurry blue tattoo spots, and with a lapful of laundry detergent packets. We smiled at each other as I sat down, and when I gesticulatively requested that he alert me to our impending arrival at KTS logging camp, he smilingly assured me that he would.
Soon the boat pulled away from the dock and, the thunderous roar of the lithic engine barely audible over the video combat which kept everyone rapt just as one transfixed by the swaying of a cobra, we began to churn our way even further upriver than we already were. Every ten or twenty minutes the boat would pull up to the shore and disgorge some passengers, sometimes at longhouses, entire villages under a single roof which often stretches 200 meters or more along the muddy riverbank; sometimes seemingly nowhere, where the erstwhile passengers, laden with heavy supply boxes and bewildered poultry would disappear into the dense screen of the Borneo jungle; and sometimes, more and more frequently, at the logging camps which dotted the riverbanks with their huge stacks of timber and heavy machinery.
It was on approach to one of these that my Iban friend nudged me and pointed. "KTS," he said. Smiling gratitude and shouldering my pack, I headed up onto the deck.
But to momentary failure. the gatekeeper, an honorary position at best as these boats have no gates, stopped me from disembarking. "Where you go?" he demanded. "Tubau." "No KTS Tubau. Bakun Tubau." Bakun is a place much further up the river, the sight of an enormous future hydroplant, now under massive construction, which when completed will simultaneously power Sarawak and flood 8,000 tribal people out of their homes and into a government relocation program. I must admit that, with all the construction, Bakun seemed a much better bet for a landcruiser ride to Tubau. "You sure?" I asked. But of course, this is Asia, where misinformation grows fast and wild. Particularly in the realms of government and transportation here, it seems that that you answer a question is far more important than how you answer it. "Yes you cannot get a visa to our country", "The bus arrives here at 5 and leaves here at 4", and, of course, "Yes at Bakun you can get a landcruiser to Tubau." Was he sure. Dumb question on my part. But Bakun was another two hours upriver, my seat in the cabin was now certainly taken, and although I was welcome to sit on top, it was beginning, just like every afternoon here at this time of year, to rain. So consigned to the engine room, I sat patiently for two hours, during which I probably forfeited a good ten years of quality hearing. And on top of the numbing roar of the colossal engine, its vibrations through the wooden seat made my butt itch very deeply and annoyingly. I'm not complaining, just relating; these are the prices of travel.
Finally we arrived at Bakun. I disembarked under the smiling approval of Herr Gatekeeper, when whom should I meet but the guy who told me "KTS" to begin with back in Belaga. I had not noticed him on the boat, but now he noticed me, and sternly. "No Bakun. KTS," he said underlinedly, "Landcruiser K-T-S Tubau." "But... but... but... " I sputtered and pointed at the boatman as if to say, "Why don't you two chat amongst yourselves?" And they did, jabbering discordantly in Malayu, until it seemed that the issue had been settled. My friend started back up the bank, and the Keymaster waved me back on board. Great. Two more hours back to KTS. But at least I had a seat again.
The time passed quickly with the help of John-Clawed VanDamn and soon I found myself deposited on a shaky, floating log leading up to the riverbank of the KTS camp. It was dusky, far too late to hope for a landcruiser today. Maybe if I'd gotten off the expressboat four hours ago... but since spilled milk is the mother of invention, I began to look for a place among the huge piles of felled trees to pitch my tent. This was not a town, just a company encampment, providing such hapless wayfarers as myself with no formal accommodation. But no sooner than I had located an attractive camping spot, however, it began again to rain. Opting to set up camp after, rather than in, the storm, I sought shelter on the large verandah of one of the bigger company longhouses, and took advantage of the delay to try and make some friends.
The men were all still working, operating cranes, driving barges, and moving logs using a fleet of caterpillar machines fitted with large yellow timber-grabbing mandibles, so I found myself alone with the wives and the kids of the camp, all playing games of one sort or another. Cool. For a while I watched, exchanging smiles and grins, until I was invited to join in. The game was basically catch, but played with a badminton bird and old tennis racquets. The players would start far away from one another, and each time they hit the bird they'd take a step forward. The closer they'd get to one another, the harder and faster they hit it, until, in a frenzied quantum eschatological acceleration designed to prevent the entire game including players, racquets, and of course the bird, from coalescing into a single point, somebody (the winner) slammed it straight into the ground, whereupon somebody else (the loser) picked it up, everyone spread out, and the cycle started anew. I joined in, we all laughed and had a good time, and then I brought out my own game: the string with the ball of knot at the end. I demonstrated, flicking the ball-end of the string into the air and back through its own loop to make a knot, and soon everyone wanted to try. I make it look easy, but they were time after time confounded, and as they continued to pass it around, each trying a few times before the next demanded a turn, the men returned from work.
They were delighted with my game, especially when I again demonstrated how it could be done. They hoarded it from their wives and tried to keep it from each other, each one wanting to master it. It's not an easy trick to pull off, but finally one of them got it. He shouted in triumph and held it out to show the world his prowess. Reaching into my bag, I rewarded him with a chocolate bar, and that clinched it: he made a few gesticulations, I nodded appreciatively, and I had myself a place to stay for the night.
Moving in was a relatively easy procedure. No boxes, no U-haul, no soul-searching deliberations about the value of my stuff, I simply moved my pack from its spot on the verandah to the corner of my host's room... or should I say my hosts' room, since the single chamber was the only space allotted to the entire family who were generously sharing with me their precious and tiny rectangle of floor. The wife disappeared leaving me with the husband, whose name I quickly learned was Pai, and two of their children who, inexplicably, had grown shy around me in their father's presence.
Now, we may have been out in the middle of nowhere, but you'd have to go a mite further than that to escape what happened next. I mean, sure, these people might be tribal, and maybe they do have pendulous and loopy earlobes hanging down to their shoulders. So what? that doesn't render them immune to the modern human condition. To this end, and ever the gracious host, Pai revealed to me the family television, lurking coolly under a piece of plaid cloth, and sitting proudly atop a VCR. He reached to a shelf and retrieving a videotape, pointed to it reverently and said, "Whistling video." "Whistling video?" I asked, twisting my face into as much of a question-mark as I could manage. Pai beamed, and popped the tape into the hungry mouth of the VCR. When the picture resolved, I understood what he had said. Not whistling video... wrestling video. He had World Wrestling Federation in full obnoxious color out there in the jungle. Pai looked at me expectantly and of course I smiled.
It's just a travelling thing. For the sake of getting along, of not offending, and of possibly expanding my views, I often find myself temporarily undergoing such a forced negation of imperative identity. "Yes, I like George Michael", "Sure, I'll try eating dogbowel", or, as in this case, miming, "that fellow in the pink spandex looks like a very strong man. I bet he's a great wrestler." It's not a permanent condition, and it's not as though I'd pull the arms off babies for a new experience. It's simply a flexibility to lubricate the friend-making process, and who knows... I might acquire a new taste.
So there I was, watching the Hitman take on the King of the Ring, in a title bout of epic proportions, the "Kiss My Feet" competition, wherein the loser must kiss the victor's feet. Of course, wrestling being the serious sport that it is, there was all the lead-in footage of the contenders training barefoot in horsestalls and close-ups of unwashed heels and toes in such breathtaking detail I'd've sworn HDTV had gotten to Malaysia first, and finally the moment of the fight arrived.
Unfortunately (or maybe not), so did the food. Wife brought it all out, dishes of rice and several different vegies, switched off the TV, and we sat in a circle to eat. It was, in my opinion, a very good meal. I think it qualified as what people call "simple" when they're too polite to say "without a great deal of flavor," but I was grateful for it and enjoyed sharing in their family routine. After we had eaten, I produced the cookies I had brought, and everyone enjoyed them as the package made its way around the circle. Ginger snaps.
The cookies greedily devoured by all, Wife collected the dishes, returned my smile of gratitude, and eclipsed herself, accompanied by the elder daughter, who soon returned with a plastic bag which she handed to Pai.
From it he took a wide green leaf and grinned deviously at me. "This could be very interesting," I thought to myself, and watched as he also removed a small plastic jar from the bag. Uncapping it, Pai scooped up a fingertipfull of the whitish-grey paste it turned out to contain, and began to very slowly and very thoroughly coat the entire surface of the shiny side of the leaf with the pale goo. It was a task meticulously performed and beautiful to watch, like a master artisan playing his trade, and when he had finished, the leaf's every crack and artery stood out like a fingerprint through the atomic-thin white coating. I continued to watch enthralled as Pai began to peel what looked like a small fruit, first removing the outer skin, then stripping away the fluffy interior from his ultimate prize: a small nut which lay nestled amid all the barriers of soft protection like a fetus adrift in its sac. "Ahhhh," I remarked when the nut was revealed. Pai smiled. It was a betel nut, the bizarre local narcotic that, over years of use accompanied by inadequate dental hygiene, will turn your teeth reddish-black, a sight so common that I long ago ceased craving to brush my teeth on others' behalf upon beholding a shiny black smile. Pai cut the nut into a few pieces, wrapped one of them in the prepared leaf, and offered it to me. I accepted, popped it into my mouth, and began to chew as I had seen people do in the towns, while Pai set about readying his own post-prandial nutty treat.
The first thing to hit me was the pain. My mouth suddenly felt afire from my lips all the way down my throat, like I'd only just realized that I'd been sucking on hot coals for years. I made a gesture of surprised agony, at which Pai laughed. He was busily chewing away, and had a very picturesque trickle of crimson saliva dripping down his chin, as though he'd been sucking not on coals, but razor blades. Touching my fingertips to my mouth and then inspecting them, I discovered that I, too, had been sucking blade, and I wondered: why did the cold steel taste like searing fire, and in either case, why was Pai laughing? It was amid such musings that I began to realize that perhaps I was intoxicated. A strange buzz, one in which, for me anyway, I couldn't distinguish between my perceptions of my body and its actual state: was I sweating or freezing? Am I grinning or scowling? I just couldn't tell. but soon the strongest effects wore off, and charading as always, I got to ask some questions. I won't really go into the intricate complexities of how Pai explained all this to me without words, but I learned that the white paste was -- get this -- dried river-snail skin, burned to ash, and mixed with water. This produces a substance caustic to the touch, hence the burning sensation; but which helps release the chemicals in the nut, hence the buzz. Deep.
Pai offered me another, I accepted, I revealed my whiskey bottle, he cheered, the TV went back on, this time to a black-and-white movie with no sound, and the remainder of the evening passed as we chewed, drank, laughed and played war with my Dutch train cards, a game even the kids joined in. At 11 everyone crashed, and ready for sleep after a long and satisfying day, I allowed the silken tendrils of Morpheus to gently entangle themselves around my body and smoothly drag me down into oblivion.
The next day started early. Up at 7, the family room quickly became a bustling scene as Pai got ready to operate a crane all day and the kids prepared to start playing. And as quickly, I began to feel in the way of their daily routine. So, appreciatively drinking the proffered cocoa, I thanked everyone again, took down their address so as to mail them a thank-you card and, once told where I should wait for my onward transport, made myself scarce.
I found a nice spot atop a pile of logs bathed in misty morning sunlight, and waited for the landcruiser to arrive. Soon the machines all rumbled to life and the working day began. I watched the activity, and struck by its own terrain-crushing brand of industrial beauty, wrote a short essay about it. But still, no Landcruiser. I retrieved my mangled book from the bottom of my knapsack and read for a while, but when 10 am rolled around and the 8 am landcruiser still hadn't shown, I began to wonder: did the gatekeeper maybe know what he was talking about? Occasionally people would pass by my spot in the course of their work, and I'd ask: "Tubau landcruiser?" and point at my wrist. I was told by different people that it would arrive at noon, 1, 5, and "maybe" tomorrow. And I really had to hand it to these people: they force you to relax. There's no option about it, stress won't make your ride come, and when you get right down to it, what's the difference between today and tomorrow? This is a great example of what the locals call "jam karet," meaning "rubbertime," an attitude which dissolves punctuality's connection to the clock.
Noon came and went. I watched jealously as the workers all retreated into their homes for food and shelter from the afternoon sun. I had neither and felt reluctant to further impose myself upon my benefactors of the previous evening. So I sat, soaking up rays, the sweat from my hands moistening the pages of my book, and at 2 when the workers returned to their posts, the sounds of the surrounding jungle were once more drowned out by the grinding machinery. I began now to seriously assess my situation. If no landcruiser showed in an hour I'd faced with three options. I could stay at KTS another night and hope for a landcruiser to Tubau the following day; I could go upriver to Bakun on the impending expressboat; or I could take the return express and go back to Belaga. The first of these I quickly ruled out, because to stay would mean either sleeping with Pai's family again or finding another family to take me in or camping, any of which would be noticeably awkward in this community of only 75 people. The second option was feasible but unattractive. I possessed only 40 ringgits and no more food and candy. Since the Tubau-Bintulu boat costs 25 ringgits, I'd be seriously fukt if I couldn't find a cheap ride from Bakun to Tubau. The trip from Belaga through Kapit to Sibu costs 35, almost all my money, but at least I was sure it would happen, and if I got stuck on the interior of Borneo with no money, well, let's just say I didn't want that to happen. So it looked like I was headed back to Belaga. I wouldn't have enough even for a room for the night, but I did possess adequate funding for coffee enough to hold me until the following morning's 6 am expressboat. Then I'd have the full day's ride to Sibu in which to sleep.
The express soon passed noisily on its way upriver, and four hours later I made my way down to the dock to await its backswing. And I waited. 7 o'clock and still no boat. 7:30 and I'm starting to grow uncomfortable. It's bound to rain soon, and where's the fucking boat? I began to eye the parked longboats, barely one person wide, with their coffinesque canopy shelters. "Could I sleep in that?" I asked myself speculatively, and "How did I end up in this situation?" I asked myself more to the point, when like the buzzing of a mosquito (except more welcome) I could hear the express approaching from far upriver. It came, I got on, and an hour later I sat, pack alongside, in a kedai kopi in Belaga, sipping at my steaming coffee-and-condensed-milk, with a plate of plain white rice in front of me.
In my situation I could spare no sparing of expense, and white rice is good by itself, right? I ate it hungrily and began to read.
The book enveloped me, so I was surprised when I glanced up to find that I had been joined by an older-looking Iban man, watching me drunkenly over a mug of Guinness, his red eyes drooping lazily. He looked somehow familiar and I wondered about this when he solved the mystery on his own initiative.
"KTS," he said, pointing at me, then himself, then in the general direction of upriver. Indeed, he was one of the camp workers and it turned out that he even spoke a modicum of broken English, in which he told me that since this was the end of the month, he had come into Belaga to collect his pay, along with all the other drunken people who seemed to have suddenly appeared all over the place. "Payday for Borneo lumberjacks," I told myself, "this should be something to see." He offered to buy me a beer and I hastily accepted. We drank and talked.
His name was Osman and he was by heredity the chief of a longhouse upriver, but spent most of his time living at KTS for work. He had learned his English in the days of the British occupation of Sarawak, the age of the White Rajah. He asked what I was doing sitting on a pile of logs all day, so I related my abortive efforts, at which he smiled, saying that he was heading to Tubau the following day, and I could join him if I liked. "You are good luck," he told me soberly, "I will take you to Tubau." I wondered why if I was such good luck, I had had such bad luck, but said sure, that'd be great, and we agreed to meet at 8 am at that same coffeeshop. We continued to talk and were joined by Osman's friends, all of whom turned out to be the chiefs of one longhouse or another, all of whom had just gotten paid, and all of whom wanted to get all of the others, including me, as drunk as quickly as possible. "Another round," they'd cry to the waitress, even as she would arrive with the current trayful of beers. Soon we were all wasted -- especially me, who hadn't eaten, except for one plate of rice, since yesterday. The party played a continuous game of musical chairs, everyone wanting to talk to everyone else, and I had a great time hanging with the chiefs.
I was sitting at one point next to a very wise and warm-feeling Kayan chief whose name I don't now remember, talking about the changes to traditional life brought on by logging, and the new dam, and television, when his wife approached. She was not a particularly beautiful woman, with one of those hard, flat faces and blotchy skin, but she looked strong. She had a wisdom about her that revealed itself through the intricate wrinklings around her blazing black eyes, and through her bearing and posture. But what struck me most was her forehead. A high one to begin with, it was made higher by the fact that she had cropped her hair far back on her head, shaved to its meridian, in the style of the Kayan tribespeople. Her cranium bulged in two large lobes, leaving an indented trench starting at the bridge of her nose and disappearing beneath her hairline. This, coupled with her time-furrowed brow and the engorged vasculature visible just below her skin, left me with the impression that I wasn't seeing her forehead at all but was instead looking directly at her brain. She appeared stern and not at all happy that her husband was spending so much money and time on alcohol. The whole party laughed along as they argued, the wife strict and taut, her husband drunk and playful. Ultimately he seemed to capitulate, and pulling a wad of new money from his pocket, peeled off some bills and offered them to her for safekeeping. Suddenly smiling and playful herself, she deftly grabbed both handsful of cash from her man, and we all laughed drunkenly while he chased her, the two of them giggling childishly as well, around the group of tables we had amoebically pulled together. Eventually he gave up and collapsed into his chair. She yelped a laugh of triumph as she darted out of the shop, and a few moments later he, grinning devilishly, pulled another 100 ringgit note from his pocket and ordered yet another round. We all laughed and drank to his success.
At midnight the coffeeshop closed. But did that deter my friends? Hell no: these guys are chiefs, leaders, rulers. They know what they want and how to get it. We all rose, and to their slurred cries of "Karaoke!" they and I drunkenly filed out into the street. Osman assumed the role of chief chief, taking the lead of the line and steering it down the road, around a corner, and up a very suspicious-looking stairway. We emerged into a different world. Gone were the ubiquitous fluorescent tubes, always manned by at least one pale-green gecko poised to lap up any unwary insect foolish enough to mistake its light for the moon. Nowhere could you see a verse from the Koran in florid and fluid Arabic script adorning a doorway or wall. This was a place of sin, a den of revelry, and these common appointments had been thoroughly supplanted. Mirror-ball light dots provided the dim atmosphere with just the right mixture of sleaze and charm, while the only legible signs on the wall read "Do not spit." This was an unholy place.
Tables were gathered, chairs arranged. Cigarettes drawn and lit, pitchers of beer demanded. And then they passed around the book, the dreaded tome and bible of millions of such bars around the world: the karaoke song list. American songs, Chinese, Malay, Iban and Bidayuh songs. Songs from the 70's you're embarrassed you know, and songs from the 80's you'll later wish you never heard. And, I must add, because herein lies the power of the Karaoke, there are always always at least a few songs you like... but more about that later. We drank more, as though we needed to, and Osman shamelessly took to the stage. He had chosen an Iban love anthem, a true masterpiece of slow strings and tender meaningfulnesses. The video was as stirring as the tune, full of endless pinings for a beautiful Iban girl who apparently spends all of her free time strolling barefoot on beaches at sunset by herself when she should be holding the hand of the handsome young chap semi-superimposed on the fading sky, mouthing words of love at her... words which subsequently been un-taped so that Osman here could devastate them. And boy did he do a number on that. In spite of all the reverb audio sweetening puretone vocal accuracy enhancement technology they could manage to slap on before what came out of his mouth could make its way out of the PA system, wow. It sounded bad. Even the girl on the video seemed to wince a few times at some of the further-off notes. But all good things must come to an end. And although this very true adage has no immediate bearing on the situation at hand, the love anthem eventually shuddered and died as well, fading languorously off down the beach, and then to black. We all erupted into applause as Osman returned to his seat.
The revelry continued unabated. There was always more beer, and always another victim willing to be sacrificed on the altar of public humiliation. A sick display indeed. And another thing I found more and more of as the night wore on was pressure. Pressure from every side but inside. Pressure to sing. Pressure to go up there, grab ahold of that mike, and kill a classic. I won't bore you with undue suspense: I did it. As I mentioned before, the true force behind karaoke is that when you're flipping through the book, you know, just to see what songs there are, not to pick one, you must understand, just to look, there occurs a tremendous blurring of a crucial distinction: that between a song you could sing, and one that you would sing. In the excitement of "Oh I like that song" gets lost the addendum "... but I would never sing it in public." Especially when you've had by volume many times more beer in 3 hours than food in 24. So that's how I ended up singing "White Rabbit" in a clandestine karaoke bar in a small town in central Borneo. And I like to think that I did a good job. Everybody else seemed to like it anyway, although we clapped for Osman, too, didn't we?.. uh, and the video was psychedelic as you'd expect, so I counted it as a success even as I counted my blessings that it was overwith. And that's enough about that.
Four o'clock rolled around, and then five. People were crashing right there in the bar, just dozing off in their seats. I realized that at 8 am, when I had promised to meet Osman to go back upriver, neither of us would much feel like going, and that another night in a row like these last two my body wouldn't so much appreciate. And more than just physically, the idea of spending the next whole day and night with Osman, trying to say complicated ideas with simple language and attempting to patiently decipher his English through a headachy hangover haze, made me even more tired than I already was. All I wanted to do was sleep, and there was only one place I could think of to do it. So concluding, I shouldered my pack, waved good-bye to all my dormant friends, and headed down to the pier.
Many good words start with "dis": dismayed, disgruntled, discouraged, I'm sure there are others. But you could multiply them all together and the resultant concept wouldn't begin to approach how I felt upon reaching the boat to the unwelcome discovery that already, at 5 am, one hour before liftoff, it was full. Every seat taken. Resigned never to expect anything to go my way ever again, I climbed up on top, sat down on my pack, and braced myself for the next few hours. The headspins had long since cranked into gear, and the gentle slosh and rock of the boat was no help... it seemed exactly out of sync with my brain's own whizzing internal angular momentum, and the resulting constructive interference between all the wave forces both within and -out was not enough to make me sick, only miserable.
But as soon as we started chugging downriver I became glad that I was on deck and not below; the stiff morning wind speckled with dawn mist was so much more pleasant than whatever carnage the folks down in the meat locker were being bombarded with, and when the sun came up over the rivercut rim, its warmth was welcome, accepted and appreciated. Anytime you're hungover, I recommend an outdoor boat ride in the jungle at dawn. Works wonders.
But when we finally hit Kapit several hours later, I was ready to retreat below deck and get a seat before they filled up again. The breeze up top was good, but I wanted to sleep. I found a seat, and clambered/collapsed into it. Just as I was drifting off, however, the video monitors jumped to life, and one glance at the screen told me that no, I would not be sleeping for a while yet. I just had to laugh, to laugh at my luck, and at my circumstance, and at the fact that I was strangely looking forward to seeing this particular video, I desperately wanted to see its ending, I had to know how it would come out. I absolutely had to find out which of the two gaudy theatricists turned noble contenders would end their day by bending down and kissing the other's dirty, stinking feet.
I watched through to the climactic and thrilling conclusion, which I won't reveal for those of you who might not yet have seen it, and as the next feature came on, a Chinese fight-film, I smiled to myself and immediately fell asleep.
The television glares, it stares, it wears upon the room.
It spills, it wills, it fills the space with flick'ring bluish gloom.
It spreads disease, it rots the mind, it kills the curious spirit,
Yet parents let their kids watch on and on from far too near it.
They start with good public TV to hook kids on the box,
Then every child's infected, worse than mumps or chicken pox,
Which normal childhood maladies subside and pass away.
But TV is forever: where it nests, it plans to stay.
It plays on the subconscious, never leaving time to blink.
It does its job much better once it's trained you not to think.
It absorbs you, you absorb it, it thus controls your mind,
It focuses your eyes on it and then it robs you blind.
My dear and cherished love:
I will not linger in the undue pleasantry of formal letter-opening, nor tarry with irrelevant and saccharine accounts of recent news, but shall instead endeavor to deliver to you my most urgent and unfortunate message without the hesitation and contrived avoidance which usually attends such devastating realities as it is my regrettable responsibility to present to you, for whom this will occasion the most unbearable grief of all.
Nor shall I attempt to mitigate the impact of these ill tidings by concealing my meanings and the fullest thrust of truth behind an impregnable wall of euphemism, which would only, to my view, serve to exacerbate the unpleasantness of your grasping full ahold of the situation at hand by prolonging the process of realization itself, producing in you not a merciful and instantaneous acquiescence to unalterable fact, but instead innumerable shades of revulsion and disbelief as the rawness of the circumstance would make its slow and meandering course to unfold before your total understanding the depth of its pernicious essence, for I am confident in your strength, my dearest, in the face of even the most seemingly insurmountable adversity, and so I feel comfortable in telling you, without a hint of rosy discoloration or factual circumnavigation, of the nefarious and improvidential events which have compelled me to write to you so immediately upon my own awakening to the grim turn which the wheel of fate has taken.
And might I append, my dear, my own deepest condolences to those of all your friends whom I have had the pleasure of encountering, in spite of the untoward cause of our congregation, as a result of this unwelcome but wholly unavoidable occurrence, and who have requested of me that in the course of my dolorous charge to make plain the happenstance which, still unknown to you, has befallen you nonetheless, I extend to you their most sincere sympathy for the unearned and improperly directed anguish into which you will certainly be thrust when you have come to grips with not only that which has transpired, but also the frustrating and infuriating injustice of which it serves as a clear example, and which one can only hope to avoid, but which is too common to live in ignorance of, and which, when it strikes, must simply be accepted as a throw of the dice in which one has lost all.
And so I close, my love, only halting briefly to assure you of the warmth of my regard for you, and my tenderest affection for even the thought of you, which causes me sorrow at the idea of the pain you are surely about to go through as a result of your terrible loss, and to reiterate my belief that your courage and strength will buoy you up, I am sure, during these most trying days which lie ahead for you both immediately and for the remainder of your life. Your memory will remain forever graven in my heart.
Farewell, my dearest.
PS -- We all hate you. Stay away.
My dearest Drusilla:
As I sit here at my desk, wondering what I will write to you, wondering how I can write to you, how I can even begin to ask you to listen to my side of the story when I know fully how it must look to you, my eye falls upon the cord of the floor lamp standing next to me. And I notice that the insulation looks as though it has been chewed on, gnawed at by some mouse, or perhaps a rat, who has pulled out a few tufts of the insular fluff from around the wire and which blossom outward like the fire they could possibly spark.
"That rat is me," I think to myself. I, too, approached danger in hopes of securing a more stable home. I gnawed at the cord and played chicken with a power I did not understand. I tore at a system meant to protect me, not realizing that failure would bring more than my own pain, more than my own death, but would first cast the entire house into darkness, and then drown it in unquenchable fire.
Somewhere, right now, perhaps living in the walls of this room, is a very lucky rat. His home, no doubt improved by the fluff he risked all to capture, is surely a warm, cozy place. I wish I shared his good fortune, for my home seems a void, a quiet emptiness. It misses you.
Perhaps that rat will eventually return to the cord. Perhaps he'll get greedy and seek even more to fortify his home, unsatisfied with its comfort. He is very unfortunate in that regard. He doesn't have you to show him how much his ignorant actions threaten him and his environment. And it's possible that if he did know, he would still chew through to the wire, selfish, indomitable. But not me. I understand how wrong I was. I know that I cannot continue. I am grateful to you for the revelation, and I can only offer you apology and assurance that it was with the best intention that I put that cord between my teeth, and with hopes for a better life for us both that I bit down. And though perhaps you have been right to stay away, I want you back, and I promise that this was an error I shall not commit again. Thank you for helping me see it.
I love you.
Mummy and Daddy -
Sorry it's taken me such a long time to write to you but I'm having such a unique and interesting time on holiday that I keep forgetting and putting it off. But finally it dawns on me that this duty is becoming ergent, and so here's your long-awaited letter from the States.
I em really enjoying my time here in America. Everything is so different from back home in cozy, slow old England, and the United States beeing one of our former colonies, there's just enough similarity to really make me homesick. But don't misunderstand me: I'm absolutely hald kaptive bye all the bustle and activity, so familiar and yet so foreign. Back home seems in my memory to be so clean and whyte compared with the dirty streets and loose ethics of New York. Everyone here is a slaive to money, it seems.
But that doesn't make it less fascinating; a big change and an adventure is what I was looking for, right? Well, I found it.
I'd include a number where you could ringg me, but the people I'm staying with are so nice, I wouldn't want to bother them, so I'm gonna sand this off and hope that it reaches you quickly. I know you haven't heard from me in a long time, and I know how you worry, Mummy, so I hope this letter will halp you feel better.
I'm OK and there's nothing to worry about.
All my love,
The other day I helped my friend Jimmy, an Indonesian university student and sometimes English teacher (although he seems to spend more time teaching than actually studying himself) to teach his most advanced class.
It was a conversation class, and I had a good time for an hour and a half, hanging out talking to his students about the US and Indonesia, about government and politics, about nuclear power, and, of course, about what winter is like in places that have it. It was a good conversation, and afterward I found myself, along with Jimmy and a few of the staff of the school, hanging out in the teachers' lounge -- or what I assume was the teachers' lounge... teachers were, more or less, lounging in it...
Anyway I was soon, as the celebrity from a place where everyone actually speaks that language to which the school is dedicated, along with my friends invited to the house of the school's owner, a largish Chinese man with an unpronounceable name, for dinner. "Cool," I thought, "free dinner."
But let me tell you, nothing is free, especially from this guy, the hardest kind of Chinese businessman. The Chinese literally control the economies of every country around here. To say that they dominate is an understatement; they overwhelm. This is not racism, only fact: the Chinese run all the corporations, all the industry, all the money. It certainly makes sense, in a way: a hard-working and industrious people, they present insurmountable competition for the citizens of countries like Indonesia, who have never needed to develop a really conscientious work ethic... for thousands of years in this fruitful sunlit place, more than a few hours' work a day has never been necessary to survive. Then the Chinese appear, and they're all business...
Anyway, soon after we arrived at his house, a large, tackily decorated place barren of the warmth of home but full of uncomfortable and expensive furniture, the pressure began: "What are you doing tomorrow at 3?" he asked innocently but with a fixed stare, "I think you'd enjoy meeting such-and-such a class." That was the word he used: "enjoy." I felt like his perfect English needed English subtitles: "I'm about to feed you, will you work for me for free?" I avoided answering by feigning confusion about my holiday plans (it was three days before Christmas, after all), and for the moment he let it slide.
When everyone had arrived (my friends Ole and Jimmy were coming by moped), we sat talking for a moment about how the class had gone, and then we all went to the dining room where there sat a table beautifully laid out with some truly delicious-looking food. "My wife," our host announced proudly, "is a good cook." We sat, beer was distributed, and then the dishes of food began to circulate. First came a large serving bowl full of yummy-looking glazed meat. "Pork," said our benefactor as I heaped some onto the bed of rice which underlies every meal here. Then came the other main course. It looked like seafood of some sort. Mmmmmm. I added it to my plate. Everything looked good, everyone smiled, and we began to eat.
As I probed the pork with my chopsticks, however, I could feel the smile draining from my face. I couldn't locate any meat, any real flesh, anywhere. It was all skin, or fat, or bone, or gristle, or else something else I'd rather not know about. Slowly it dawned upon me that I couldn't find any flesh because there was no muscle; it was all organs, an assortment of pork parts glazed to conceal their true identities and thoroughly, if not completely, inedible.
It was while I was tactfully trying to cover this material, these pig-parts, clear proof to me that some things are simply not meant to be eaten, with rice that my host decided to try and revive a dead corpse: "What are you doing tomorrow at 3?" He addressed this to both me and my friend Ole, who is Dutch. We looked at each other, Ole and I, clearly sharing a thought: we happily help our friends with their classes, but this guy is just a businessman trying to take advantage. Together we fumblingly concocted an excuse to the effect that we needed tomorrow to work out our holiday plans, but after Christmas, of course, we'd be happy to work for him for free. He said pointedly, "OK after Christmas then." Reprieved, I turned my attention to my seafood dish.
Hmmmmm. It was strange. It definitely had a fishy taste, but unlike any fish I'd previously sampled. The outside surface was a kind of rough black textured hide, spotted and dimpled, while the inside presented a sort of spongy fatty gel. It was in no way meat-like, and in no way delicious.
"What kind of fish is this?" I asked, forcing a polite smile as if to say "I really like it and want to know how to ask for it next time." My host beamed. He told me a name in Chinese I could not understand, and then took a moment to search his mind for the English equivalent. At last he found it, but still, he wasn't sure, and so he pronounced the word slowly, one syllable at a time. There were, in fact, only two syllables.
"Mah," he said, and then Pausing, added, "Got."
I couldn't believe what I was hearing, and didn't even want to contemplate its connection to what I was eating, but then he said it again, more confidently: "Maggot." I shuddered.
Now, I like to think of myself as a relatively open-minded person. I strive to not judge hastily and to give people and situations the benefit of the doubt. And then I meet a man who feeds me, or claims to feed me, maggot. Where I come from, and I hope in any civilized culture, this would be said only as a joke. But this is a man who, as I said, is all business. Completely. He has no sense of humor whatsoever, and is wearing a smile of pride, not amusement. And perhaps it's simply that I didn't want to believe him, but you'll forgive me asking for clarification.
"Maggot." I said. "Are you sure?"
"A big worm that lives in the ocean," he replied, "You like?"
"Uh... .yeah," I told him. It's incredible what you'll say sometimes to be polite. And so hearing, he heaped another helping of maggot onto my plate.
I smiled ever-so-gratefully and took a few bites. I did so for several reasons. First, of course, was to be polite. But I also wanted to taste it knowing full-well what I was eating, so that if I rejected it at least I could say that I gave it a fair crack and didn't simply dismiss it out of Western prejudice. However, I must admit that at some level, I was eating it simply because it was maggot, because to this man's palette it was delicious, and it was more than just maggot I was eating: it was home-cooked maggot prepared by a housewife well-versed since her youth in the subtle ways of home-cooking maggots. This was very likely the best plate of maggot I would be served in my lifetime, and I felt I should take advantage. But in the end it turned out, to my taste, to be genuinely disgusting food. So, having done my duty and claiming I was full, I quickly downed a cool glass of warm beer and waited for the plates to be cleared.
His wife soon appeared... for some reason she had not wanted or had not been allowed to eat with us... and replaced our dinner plates with dessert.
"Great," I thought hopefully and hungrily, "at last maybe something I can eat."
But looking at it I began to wonder. It was in a bowl, which contained some sort of semi-translucent sweet syrupy mucus. Through this hazy solution could be seen a number of pink, white and yellow lumps, thumbnail-sized. I asked, again politely, "What is this?"
"&%$#*," (insert Chinese word here) he said. My heart sank. What was this alien substance I was supposed to ingest? For all I knew, and in tradition with dinner, it could have been prepubescent human testes boiled in the menstrual blood of a virgin and served in amniotic fluid. He continued: "It's flour, sugar and color." Whew. Ingredients I can relate to. I grabbed my spoon and greedily ate a pink lump.
Now, to be fair, I feel that I'm relatively familiar with the concepts of flour and sugar, but apparently not as he had invoked them. Like a sweetened tumor, like a toxin ball, this glob of gloop tasted and felt just like it looked: pink and slimy. It had the consistency and texture -- and no doubt the flavor as well -- of those tiny gimmick toys which swell to 100 times their size in water. The saccharine bath in which these things were soaking had impregnated their starchy surface, giving them a clammy, amphibious quality. And their flavor was strictly chemical. But I was hungry, there weren't that many of them, and although gross they were certainly more palatable than that which had gone before, so I buckled down, did the polite thing, and finished them off. As I did so, my host reminded us of the tradition associated with this particular dessert: if you eat it you get one extra year of life. "It's almost worth it," I thought, and swallowing the final blob, pushed my bowl away from me with a smile.
"Mmmmmmm," I said.
The post-prandial coffee was normal and welcome, and for the remainder of the evening Ole and I were drilled full of questions about our homelands, but not about the interesting aspects of home... more financial and business-oriented things were on our host's mind: what are good businesses to go into in Chicago? How much is rent? How big is the Chinese community? How much do teachers make? And on and on... and on.
Finally at one point it came out that I had taught English in Paris.
"So you speak French?" our host asked.
"Yes, do you?"
Ole pounced upon this opportunity to speak up: "Tu veux partir?" he asked me.
"Oui," I replied.
We let the conversation go on a bit longer and then, making our excuses, prepared to leave. At the last, I thanked our host for an interesting evening.
"I'll see you after Christmas?" he prompted.
"Sure," I lied, "Good-bye."
And Ole and Jimmy and Alfred and I all went and had some dinner.