I want to kill you. Why? Because I'm angry. You're angry at me? No, I'm just angry. You're just angry. And I want to kill you. Why don't you? I don't know how. Do you want help? No. Why not? Because then I would hate myself. But you already do. Yes. So? So I want to kill you. Why me? Because I hate you. Did I do something wrong? No. Why do I deserve to be killed? You did nothing wrong. So? So I want to kill you. Why don't you kill yourself instead? Because I feel pain. I don't feel pain? I don't feel your pain. But you feel your own. Yes. And you don't want to end it? My life or my pain? Either. No. You only want to kill me. Yes. Will it help? No. It would hurt you to kill me. Very much. Will that help? Yes. But not really. No, not really. So why don't you kill me? I don't want to. You don't want to kill me? No. So? So I want to kill. Me? No. Yourself? No. Who then? I don't know. Kill me. Why? I want you to. You want me to? Yes. No. You need to. Why? To preserve your pain. Why should I preserve my pain? Because you want to kill me. You want to die? No. But you want me to kill you. Yes. Would it help you? Yes. How? It would end my pain. What pain? Your pain. My pain? Your anger. Killing you will end my anger? No. So? So kill me. No. Why not? I'm not angry anymore. Yes you are. So? So am I. Not as angry. Perhaps not. So? So kill me. No. Please? And if I don't? I will kill you. No, I won't, and you won't either. I hate you. I don't care. You might. When? When I kill you. Why don't you now? I don't know how. Do you want help? No. So? So? Nothing. I thought not.
I arrived in Balikpapan yesterday. I actually flew here, my first time in a plane since mid-October, and god, what a beautiful ride! Although I've been on this island for going on three months now, I had yet to fly over it. The journey from Pontianak to Balikpapan crosses Borneo a its widest point, and the land as seen from above is absolutely breathtaking. I felt simultaneously unhappy that I didn't have a camera, because there were some truly prizewinning shots from up there, and glad that I didn't have one, since the foggy and ancient double-pane plastic oval airplane window would only have frustrated my efforts anyway. But what a flight!
First came the clouds, of the puffy soft variety, the ones that look sculpted by light, which gently, slowly turn inside-out as they drift across the sky. At one point we were flying level, exactly through them, darting in and out of their tremendous billowing protuberances, when suddenly we emerged from a dense cumulous interior into not really open air, but into a pocket of clarity within the giant cloud itself. And in the directed light that came cascading, stage-of-god-like, through a hole far above us, I could at once see a whole system of tunnels and wormholes, air tubes leading into the fluffy distance, and passages to other clearings like this one, also full of filtered light broken into rays which reflected brightly the cloud's prominences while accenting its hollows in dark shadow, streaming in through a hidden window high above. I felt privileged, let into the cloud's deep secret, an entire interconnected cave system within its opaque white mass, constantly undulating and evolving... but only for a few instants, for as we flew on, the plane was again encased in fog and the cloud's quiet mystery was once more hidden from view.
Soon we progressed beyond the clouds, and there lay the spectacular landscape spread out below us like a comfortable bed in which I longed to curl up and go to sleep. Of course, the soft mattress had a few lumps in it: for the first time I could see the toll of the logging I had only been able to previously witness from ground level. The thick fur of forest had, in many spots, been shaved bald, as though for surgery, each patch of soft green slowly-regenerating peachfuzz encircled by dirt logging roads, white scars revealing in exact outlines where the scalpel had cut. But in the surgeons' defense I must say that although ugly, the scars were already beginning to heal. Earth is a survivor, and soon she will have mended these superficial wounds so that not even the birds will know the difference. And as we sailed on through the sky, the loggers' legacies quickly trailed off, leaving below us a vast and continuous splay of virgin wilderness, not only impressive because of its virginity, (though any virgin, particularly an ancient one, is impressive in the 90's) but also because of its scale. The flight took two hours, a considerable distance across the vastness of Kalimantan, and for the majority of that time I saw so very little of the ravages of man, and so very much of the ravages of nature. The loggers can do their best to decimate the jungle, but they've got a seriously long way to go, their work cut out for them, so to speak. They've barely dented its edge, and the rivers seem to have done a lot more cutting than they have. As it should be.
On and on we flew, and I found myself marveling at the sun itself, that its turbulent, fiery passion could have such a curious effect as life on earth. I watched as it glowed through the clear air, striking the intricate and delicate crenels of the mountain surface which basked beneath its calm and furious outpouring of energy and warmth, converting nuclear rage into chemical nutrition, grateful for the inferno's terrifying wrath. The ancient trees held up their wide leaves not only to gather the sun's energy, but also to push it away, to shelter the forest's more delicate species and processes, as if to say to their fearsome benefactor, "we love you, but we love you far away." Such is the awesome power of the sun, the heaviest part of our solar system made up of the lightest of all the elements, that only at a distance so great is its strength adequately moderated to be of use to us weak terrestrials, we who proudly bathe, rather than cower, in its energy, forgetting that the sun, giver of all life, is a raging inferno, which also means "hell"... but it is a hell which is the cause of this paradise and to it I am thankful, even if I do long for those rare moments when it is vanquished, eclipsed by the cold rock of the moon...
Our plane then, at last, approached the coastline. I hadn't seen the eastern edge of Borneo for two months, and I found it strangely refreshing, and also striking, sort of a reminiscent reminder of the number and quality of my experiences since I was in Sandakan so long ago. We shot out, past the sandy and muddy beaches, beyond the crinkley coastline, over a sea which was surprisingly, even uncannily smooth. It wasn't flat, of course, but its ripples were small and soft, allowing no peaked waves, no white crests, only a continuous unbroken surface, in which shifting floating rounded blobs of light collectively reflected the sky and the clouds above. Some oil rigs could be seen in the distance, but in the foreground only plodded a single boat, a mid-sized cutter, through the calm water toward shore. Because of its solitude and the sea's relative inactivity, the ship's wake, uncrossed and unfettered, drifted in a rippulous delta ever outward, with perfect precision as far as I could see, seeming to encompass the entire ocean and planet beyond the line of the horizon.
Then the plane turned landward, the Earth came up to meet us, and with a soft screeching double-thud, we touched down in Balikpapan.
"What!?" I hear you chide, a note of stern indignation in your voice, "You've made me read all this, and all you have to say for yourself is, 'I flew from one town to another'?!" And you're right to say so. It's a truly eventless tale full of nothing in particular, a hymn to the Anaxagoran elements, a peculiar story about running in place; my body moves across an island while my mind stays in my head... and I admit: nothing much happened yesterday, but it's the kind of nothing which makes traveling, and living, for that matter, so worthwhile.
I've killed for less, I've killed for more, you won't believe what I've killed for.
I've killed to prove that I was right, I've killed for pleasure and for spite,
I've killed to simply have some fun, I've killed to test out a new gun,
I've killed to augment my income, I've killed because my soul was numb
And burning with a raging fire. I've killed out of lustful desire
To damage flesh, to create pain, to make and eat mortal remains.
I've killed for nothing, nada, nil. There's just no telling why I kill,
Or whom my next victim might be... for all I know, it might be me.
I don't even know where to begin this one. It almost feels like it didn't happen. OK, I guess the best place to start is, gosh, was it only yesterday? Yesterday morning. I woke up in my little hotel room in Balikpapan feeling drab. There was nothing particularly wrong, but there was nothing particularly right, either... I just didn't feel like anything at all. I checked my watch (10:30) and rolled over back to sleep. At noon I opened my eyes. Gotta do something. Can't just lie here all day. The day before, I had planned on going to Banjarmasin... suppose I'd better get moving. Skip forward about an hour and you'll find me, packed and laden, at the ticket window of the bus terminal 2.5 kilometers outside of town.
The lady smiled and asked me what kind of bus I wanted. Examining the options I chose el cheapo. Who needs aircon? Who needs video? Who needs a toilet? Not me, I'll hang onto my extra two dollars, thank you very much. But what decision I was making I had no idea.
With four hours to wait until liftoff I found myself a cup of coffee and taking the Brothers Karamozov out of my bag, got busy reading, trying to immerse myself in a world whose mood was even darker than my own. It wasn't easy. People kept trying to start conversations with me, and I still felt crummy, simply not in the mood to work at my Indonesian, not in the mood for that same conversation again and again. One guy was particularly persistent. He spoke about ten words of English, four of which were "Bill Clinton" (which for some reason I could not ascertain he always said twice in a row), and he wanted, very badly it seemed, to practice them on me... repeatedly. I wasn't really rude to him, but I wasn't exactly warm, either. I felt yukky inside, and the fact that I didn't know why only made me feel yukkier; and when I feel yukky inside, I'll be damned if I can act happy outside. Every so often my antagonist/friend, whose name I quickly learned was Farid, and who, I must say, was a beautiful man with a strong young tan Indonesian face and an honest smile but who forcefully emanated a sweet fermenting-sweat aroma, would seem to take the hints I was showering upon him and lay off for a while, but, as surely sure things are sure, he'd soon be off again, rattling at me in hyperdrive Indonesian littered with sprinklings of "Bill Clinton Bill Clinton" and "You from Chichako." But I was patient. I smiled and nodded when his inflections warned me that it would be appropriate, and Farid was pleased as punch that he'd made an American friend. I felt glad that at least one of us was happy about it, and my mood had begun to soften a little bit, so that when Farid said, in a surprising burst of Anglophonia, "Chichako famoos Chichako Bools... Indonesia famoos what?" I suppressed the honest urge to say, "Cockfights, corruption, and clove cigarettes," and instead treated him to a list of temples and landmarks which only Indonesians and people in Indonesia are aware of, but of which the natives are very proud. He beamed, and although his personal variety of friendliness and openness was to some degree contagious, I couldn't escape the feeling that with every kind word I uttered I was sinking myself deeper and deeper into something I ultimately wouldn't want. Little did I know how far it would get.
At last 5 o'clock arrived and all three busses - luxury, standard, and "ekonomi" (that'd be me) - began to fill up. And luck of all luck, Farid was on my bus! And what's more, his seat assignment just happened to be right next to mine! And what's still more, I'd been allotted the back-row window seat! Bless my lucky stars and praise be to Allah, I get to spend the next twelve hours pinned into a corner, pressed up against the glass, by an overly-friendly excessively-talkative barely English-speaking Indonesian who smells bad! "This is gonna be a long ride," I thought, even as I nodded and smiled at Farid, chattering contentedly away at me.
At this point I think it appropriate to say a little bit about the bus itself. The exterior was nice enough. Shiny clean white paint and huge panes of glass running in a wide strip, a thick transparent shell housing the steel cage which provided the passenger compartment's structure. Lots of glass. Unfortunately, very little of it could be called a window in the fullest sense of the word, that is to say, a window that actually opens.
But, since ventilation inevitably becomes an issue when 70 or so people choose to congregate in a glass box on the equator for long periods of time, each big sheet of thick glass was augmented by a small sliding pane at knee-level which allowed an aperture to the outside air of about 10 inches square when fully dilated. It should be noted that control of this opening is left to the disgression of the person whose knees are closest to it, an innocent but important point... but more about that later. The owners of the bus line had, in an understandable effort to increase revenues at the expense of creature comforts not their own, packed the seats in so tightly that the space between each narrow cushion and the back of the seat in front of it barely admitted the thickness of my skinny legs. I certainly couldn't slouch on this bus, probably good for my back, but the inability to feel my toes after a little while seemed a bit of a high price to pay for good posture.
And as for luggage storage space, well, you're lookin' at it. Before I could even get into the cabin, every inch of space: overhead, under the seats, the aisles, everywhere, had been completely filled with bags and boxes. Someone had even put their luggage on my seat - five Sony laserdisk karaoke system boxes neatly stacked where I was meant to spend the next twelve hours - and by the time I managed to struggle my way to my appointed spot through the cacophony and clutter, I had absolutely no idea what to do with all those karaoke machines, much less my own pack and knapsack, much less myself.
Unfortunately the driver came to my rescue. I say 'rescue' because he moved the technolith out of the path of my sitting butt, getting a couple of strapping young bus-guys to strap it up top; and 'unfortunately' because although I argued strenuously about it, he made me put my pack on the bus roof as well. I never like to be out of sight of my stuff in a situation like that, but he did have a point: I could not have stood sitting with it on my lap the whole way. So at last I capitulated and the pack ascended roofward. I still had my knapsack on my knees for the entire ride, a heavy bag of books and paper, but that I will not part with. Let the bus leave without me, no one takes my knapsack away. And no one tried.
Soon everyone was seated, Farid happily gabbing away alongside me, and the bus chugged to life. We got our trip auspiciously underway by driving maybe a mile (maybe less) to the ferry dock, where we waited half an hour for passage across the bay. As soon as the bus came to a halt in the huge parking lot of waiting cars and trucks, the ubiquitous hawkerkids appeared and boarded, balancing on their heads the usual baskets-full of sodas, chips, boiled eggs, and assorted local specialties, and began climbing down the aisle, foisting their wares upon a captive market. A very normal scene. But this group was joined by a man selling something I'd never seen before in such a situation, and which I beheld with nothing short of horror: kids' noisemakers, several different kinds, all shrill, each in its own special way grounds for murder given the proper circumstances, which we were, in fact, given.
"There's an atrocious idea," I thought grumpily. "Dahmer killed what... 16? 17 kids? This guy sells these things to busloads of trapped, cramped people every day. I wonder who's more evil... " But again fortune smiled upon me: only one parent had the lack of disgression to buy his kid one of the toys, a boisterous squeeze-ball click-clack affair. The salesman demonstrated it as he handed it over to the father, and I cringed at its squeaky clackity rhythm. But when the vendor had taken his money and run, neither the child nor his parents, clearly not a bright bunch to begin with, could figure out how to operate the device, and no one else, either out of malice, intelligence, or perhaps fear of community reprisal, dared teach them.
When the bus started moving again it crept onto the ferry-boat's deck and again switched off. I mention this fact only because when it did so, it parked so close to the neighboring truck that the door was rendered unopenable. I remember wondering at the time (rather prophetically, I must say) if the driver really knew the width of his bus so well, or was he just lucky? But regardless, we were seemingly sealed inside. "How long will the ferry ride last?" I asked Farid. (You'll forgive me if I beautify my translations from Indonesian, both what I say and hear, in the name of the benefit of the doubt.) "We shall remain embarked upon this seaworthy vessel," he responded, "for perhaps an additional two hours." (OK maybe I'm overdoing it a bit... what he said translates directly as) "Two hour maybe." Wow. Two hours with no ventilation and 70 300-watt-bulb-equivalents sitting cramped in an oven in the sun. But in so thinking, I underestimated my bus-mates: the window of the door could slide down, couldn't it? And if so, what's to stop everyone from climbing through it, handing their infant children ahead of them, crossing the bed of the pick-up which had us blocked in, and escaping to the upper deck?
Apparently nothing. I watched amazed as, like ants flocking to a pile of sugar, or perhaps more like a swarm of rats streaming out of a burning building, the people drained from the bus. Very much amused by this spectacle, I prepared for my own escape, when the boat began to churn its heavy way across the bay. This movement suddenly provided a very noticeable and refreshing breeze, and I decided not to leave this bus-ghosttown, but to instead take advantage of my solitude and Faridlessness to do a bit of reading. I once more withdrew my book from my bag, read perhaps a page, and fell asleep.
Two hours later, with the sky's dusky blue accented by the illuminated scaffolding and machinery of the approaching dock, I woke up. People were returning to their seats, I could see the blazing plumes of natural gas plants in the distance, and I felt much better for my nap. Soon we were all assembled, the boat docked and opened its gates, and we shot out of that thing like Mano'war on Derby day.
We blazed. We whizzed. And not just out of the boat, no, we kept accelerating, seemingly continuously, throughout the entire night. It was as though the bus had no gas pedal, only a switch, marked, "on." I wondered if the gears had names instead of numbers, names like "fly", which was upshifted into "rocket" and then into "hurtle." When we'd passed through "whip" and "puree" and had at last progressed into "liquefy," the shadowed trees were blurring past, and I had to remind myself not to worry. When it began to rain and in the dark the long reflections of the oncoming headlights on the black slippery pavement strobed past almost as quickly as the lights themselves, I had to reassure myself once more. This guy drove fast. He sped on the straight-aways and swung on the corners. Uphills were for him simply a challenge to be belittled, and downhills a license to be seized. He breezed by yellow diamond roadsigns without giving them a thought, signs depicting simplified car silhouettes ascending or descending the hypotenuses of ridiculously steep triangles, signs graphically announcing that the upcoming roadway would be in the shape of a 4-dimensional Celtic knot, and signs, simply enough, offering nothing more than a large black exclamation point against the reflective yellow background. The bus itself, I should add, made that glottal whining sound, ever ascending in pitch, that I had previously only thought of as the noise planes make in movies after they've been shot down, but before they crash.
Still 'n' all, I knew that everything would be OK. Many times and in many countries I'd found myself in similar situations, on busses with Kamikaze drivers sometimes on roads worse than this one, and I've learned that these guys drive these busses on these roads every day. They may be insane, and perhaps they don't fully grasp the physics of inelastic collisions and momentum transfers, but they are, nonetheless, professionals who know what they're about, and I've always gotten to my destinations safely. You can tout your slow, cautious drivers all you like; my money's on the meteor man with the dilated pupils, hands down and pedal on the floor.
The interior lights had long been extinguished and the loud Hindi music which always seems to accompany these rides sounded dysphonically through the bus. Outside the darkness was complete, since the road had been cut like a narrow tunnel through the dense Borneo rain forest, and the canopy of trees had resealed overhead, the jungle's way of saying to the road, "I'll accept you, but I'm still in charge." Most of the passengers were trying to sleep including, at long last, Farid. He literally crashed literally in the middle of a sentence, and that's not a redundancy; when I say crashed, I mean it. His words trailed dreamily off, his posture slackened, and his head hit my shoulder with a thump that should have woken him, but didn't. I glanced over to discover that the next guy down was sleeping on Farid's shoulder, and the next guy down the same, a row of fallen dominoes I felt reluctant to disturb. Having napped, I didn't feel the least bit tired or even really annoyed, so I contented myself watching the invisible distances slide past in the darkness.
Every half hour or so Farid's head would nod forward and he would spring awake with a snort, and each time he took advantage of these wakeful moments to smoke a cigarette or three, one of the "benefits" of a non-aircon bus. Here's where those little sliding glass panes come into play. Farid certainly wasn't the only one smoking; the air was far too thick for that to be the case. But it was raining outside and as a result everyone had closed their tiny ventilation windows, leaving no fresh air in the bus at all. This I couldn't stand. No one else might care about it, but I, for one, enjoy breathing. So, at the expense of wet knees, I opened my window full throttle. I now felt fortunate that I had a window seat, for everyone else seemed to hold dry knees higher on their priority lists than respiration. But not me. I was the Patron Saint of Oxygen martyring myself in the Temple of Ambient Precipitation and I assure you that I felt very sacrificial indeed -- but in a nice way: I was pleasantly lucid, my blah feeling from earlier had eclipsed itself, and the entire present situation I found very amusing. I was in a good mood.
The hours passed as we drove on through the forest night, and eventually I decided that it would be to my advantage to sleep. Sure, I was wide-eyed-alert, cold, wet air was blasting at me through the open window, I had an Indonesian man passed out on my shoulder, the Hindi popmusic was so loud it was barely audible, and our chauffeur's driving technique was enough to make a sworn atheist find Jesus, but still: at 5 am I'd be arriving in a new city, for which I wanted to be cogent. I'd better sleep. But how? I wasn't comfortable and couldn't move. Oh well, just cope: I closed my eyes and tried to drift off... nothing doing. Pulling my eyes closed was like tugging down on a window shade: they just sprung back open. "So I'll be tired tomorrow," I thought, "there's nothing I can do about it and it's not like being tired is the end of the world, I mean, I've been tired in new cities before... " And somehow amid such thoughts and without even noticing it, I faded somnolescently away.
Well, sort of. I snoozed shallowly, passing in and out of semiconscious nighttime daydreams. Fully aware of my surroundings, I was entirely in my own world as well. But somewhere around 3 am I heard someone on the other side of the bus and about halfway forward shout, "whoa... Whoa... WHOA!," an interjection punctuated by the thud of impact and the sound of splintering glass. Immediately a collective wail went up from all the children, every adult lit a cigarette, and the lights came on.
Our driver's zeal, it seemed, had at last got the better of his intentions, for when he pealed around that last corner, he hadn't counted on the potential presence of an oxcart directly in his path. Of course, it shouldn't have been his path at all, since the cart was parked on the side of the road, but such trivialities are often overlooked in Indonesia, and when the cart's owner appeared, along with all the other residents of the village wrapped in their sarongs and bedclothes, the argument that ensued was a comedic spectacle, one of those simultaneous in-your-face shouting matches from the start obviously doomed to complete irresolution.
The cart was destroyed, the bus windshield shattered, the crowd kept getting louder and larger, everyone wanting to get involved. Clearly nothing would be settled to anyone's satisfaction, especially not with a peanut gallery the size of the Carter plantation trying to arbitrate, and eventually both parties involved threw up their hands in anger and frustration, we all boarded once again, and, now with more than adequate ventilation, we continued on into the night.
But alas, our bus's physical impact had no apparent intellectual impact on its driver. As soon as he was at the wheel again with the mayhem safely behind him, he engaged the hyperspace warp drive and we all leaned back in our seats, the g-force caused by our sudden and massive acceleration making our faces ripple and contort. He couldn't be expected to revise his entire worldview simply because someone had foolishly parked their oxcart on the side of the road, could he, and so now he had to make up for all the time he had lost, with or without a windshield.
Farid's furnace had been stoked by all this excitement and commotion, and I certainly thought it was pretty funny, so we began to get along well, talking about the event in a pidgin mixture of English and Indonesian. If you can't beat him, join him, right? And besides, I had about 10 Indonesian words I wanted to practice on him... repeatedly. He told me that the driver had indeed paid off the cart owner - a new cart costs only about $8 US, the same as one bus ticket - but he had done it quietly amid a vitriolic display in order to preserve his image, a ruse which it seemed only worked on me.
Anyway, we were once again tearing through the night, leaving a trail of shredded air in our wake, when the local police, who had been conspicuously absent throughout the entire impact-related drama, finally decided to appear. It was a paddy-wagon that pulled us over, which is to say a pickup truck with two park benches in the back, but not until the boss-cop arrived on his shiny Vespa moped was anything really definite. He stopped just long enough to say one sentence to our poor driver, turned around, and left. I imagine he said something along the lines of, "You vill vollow me plees," and for some reason I imagine it in a German accent, but regardless of his precise diction or pronunciation, his meaning was clear: we wove our way through the town (called Kandangan) to the police station (called kantor polisi) where our driver, once an exalted lunatic and a free man, now only fodder for the system, was courteously invited inside.
The bus had stopped, and since the rain had as well, everyone took advantage of the impromptu hiatus to have a stretch'n'walk, and, of course, a cigarette. It was 4 am, the air was cool and clean, and the local mosques had just begun to howl their Koranic beacon mating call. Perhaps I should explain. Every mosque here is outfitted with a public address system with which each attempts to out-shout all the others. It's really a beautiful symphony of dysphony, the collision of so many litanies, reverberating, overlapping, and blending 5 times a day. "Doooooon't listen to hiiiiiim over theeeere!" I muse they chant, "Heeeeeeee doesn't know squaaaaaaat about what Alaaaaaah reeeeeally waaaaaants! Miiiiine is the ooooooonly truuuuuue waaaaaay!" Not even holy Islam is immune to the ravages of advertising competition.
I walked around a bit and when I returned, the entire population of our bus was gathered and seated, amphitheatrically, on the ground outside the police station door. Inside we could see our unfortunate chauffeur being grilled, hot-light style, by the cops, an ugly display now turned spectator sport. "With no windshield and with entertainment like this," I thought, "who needs aircon? Who needs video?" But for a minor traffic accident in which neither party wanted to press charges? I didn't get it, so I asked Farid why all this was necessary.
"The police," he told me, as though their occupation were somehow an excuse for their behavior. And I suppose rightly said. The Indonesian constabulary is a bunch of notorious shit-disturbers. Rife with power-lust and corruption, they are truly among the only people in this friendly country whom I fear. For example, they seemed to have no business with our driver. "What do they want?" I asked Farid. "Money," he said. It turned out that destroying an $8 oxcart was going to cost our meteor man considerably more than $8... he would now also need to buy off the law, who with unchecked authority could do as they liked.
For an hour we watched and waited. And then another. What could possibly take them so long? I telepathed to the driver: "Either do the savvy thing and slip 'em a c-note, or do the macho heroic thing and wrestle all the cops into their own jail cell, but do it and let's hit the road, OK?" He ignored me, opting instead to just sit there like a kid on his first date, hoping the other side will make the first move.
At one point another bus following the same road stopped nearby, and many from our ranks defected to it. I would've gladly gotten on that other bus, a nice, half-empty comfortable looking vehicle with AC, video, toilet, complete windshield, and an unincarcerated driver, but I couldn't. My pack was strapped down under the tarp on top of our ill-fated bus, and the strapguys had cleverly tied it so that only by cutting the straps could they be loosened, i.e., that is to say, in other words, I was stuck with my bus, I'd just have to wait for the police to finish their work, and I waved dolefully as the rescue vessel disappeared into the dawn.
While waiting, I seized the opportunity to practice my Indonesian on several different people. One guy I spoke with couldn't seem to understand that speaking a little Indonesian specifically means that I don't speak a lot of Indonesian. He had two settings: prattle and silent. After a short talk during which I couldn't make out a thing he said, I switched him to silent and sought alternative conversation. A few minutes later I could hear that he had been switched back into prattle, but by that time I was talking to a guy who was very good at speaking slowly and in simple sentences. I found out afterwards that that's how he talks to Indonesians too, but for me it was perfect. This guy said he used to be in the army, and to prove it he lifted up his left pant-leg to reveal a very well-defined scar. I could clearly discern where the bullet had entered, exactly how it had torn and gnarled the muscle tissue in his calf, and where it had exited his body.
"East Timor," he said, "Communists."
I nodded. "Communists bad," I told him, "Indonesia good." What he wanted to hear. He smiled, now my friend for life, and held out his address book.
These address books are a funny phenomenon. Everyone has them, but no one writes letters. This is a well-documented reality. Even as I write my address down for the millionth time in one of those books, and ask for the millionth time, "Are you going to write me?" the answer for the millionth time is an evasive "maybe-not." It's simply a status book, a collection of friends used to demonstrate popularity. And an American address? Cadillac. As I finished inscribing myself permanently into this guy's self-image, I found myself surrounded by outstretched hands, all holding address books of their own. I really asked for this. To say no to someone is alienation, particularly after you've given your earthly coordinates away in their presence, and I had at my disposal no ready excuses, nowhere I had to be soon, no escape. "Besides," I thought as I wrote, "maybe out of all these addresses I'll get even a single pen-pal; maybe over a period of years that pen-pal and I will become best pen-friends; maybe that pen-pal will, 20 years down the line, come to visit me in the States, and be conveniently on hand to yank me out of the path of a speeding intercity bus. You never know: by distributing my address to all these non-English-speaking status-seekers, I could be saving my life." But by the time I was finished my hand hurt and I was sick of my own name.
"Someday," I told myself, "I'm gonna rebel. Someday I'm just gonna say, 'No. You do it. Make up a name, make up an address, and just write USA underneath it. It's the same thing.' Someday," I thought, "but not today."
It was light out when the police became satisfied with their show of authority and allowed us all to pile, yet again, onto our cracked, belated bus, and take leave of Kandangan. Slowly the bus pulled out of the parking lot. Slowly it wound its way to the main road. And slowly, ever-so-cautiously and carefully, we made our way the remaining three hours to Banjarmasin. For the balance of the ride we did not blaze, nor did we zip. The driver left the gearbox set on "plod," occasionally downshifting into "trudge" to mitigate natural downhill gravitational acceleration. It was truly sad, this emasculation of a once fierce highway warrior, and I could feel a sense of pity and defeat pervade the air that trickled slowly through the giant open windshield. Our feeble pace somehow seemed to make the other passengers feel personally defeated as well, a sense that grew each time another bus honked and passed, which happened with increasing frequency as we neared the city, so that as we labored closer and closer to our destination, the bus grew more and more quiet, and by the time Banjarmasin came into view, the onboard vibe was downright morbid.
At long last, at 8 am, We pulled into Banjarmasin's 6 km terminal. We retrieved our bags from the roof of the bus and, exhausted, demoralized, and without even looking into one another's eyes, all went our separate ways, disappearing into the tiny side streets and canals of this great floating city. I found a nice cheap room, lay down on the soft bed, and laughed myself to sleep.
Simon and James were both really starting to fade. How many weeks had they been stranded on the tiny island - more of a sandbar really - when the storm had taken hold of their fishing boat and... but the details of that terrifying afternoon were no longer of importance to the two hungry and haggard men. They both felt so tired: tired of their situation, always waiting and futilely hoping; tired of scrounging, of having to harvest the slimy kelp for meals of bare nutrition and poor flavor; and above all (although neither would likely admit it, for such an admission could only hurt), tired of each other, of each other's increasingly reminiscent stories, and each of the other's face, a horrible mirror in which death became daily more apparent. And, at the bottom of it, they had never much liked one another anyway; it was strictly business - "You wanna go fishin'?" "Yeah." "I gotta boat." "How much?" - conducted on the wharf, rods and tackle in hand. That they should like each other was too much to look for and unimportant besides... but now that the two had been confined to each other's company for so long... but again that's neither here nor there: they were stuck with each other, they were hungrier than either had ever been, and they were collectively and tacitly beginning to surrender to despair, and to the end. The two men baked in the sun with no trees to provide shade and only water all around, their eyes closed, waiting to die.
"Simon," James said, barely moving his lips and hardly enunciating his words, "do you smell something funny? I mean something... " He paused to take a breath and to find the right word, "... animal?" He could feel the life-force draining from him, when, instead of the mumbled reply he didn't even really expect from his companion, he was roused to alertness by the low, unmistakable grummeling of...
... no, it couldn't be...
... but it was!.. a pig, a young hog, but a hog at that, nearby on the sandy slope!
His energy surging, James pounced upon the squealing animal, and what a fight it presented! They wrestled strenuously, each writhing and screaming with all the fervor of threatened mortality. The man ought to have posed no match for the healthy-seeming beast, but after an initial flurry of violent struggle, it seemed to lose its spirit, and James savagely hugged it close to him as he bit into its neck, the blood spurting out in rapid but slowing bursts, until the pig's body fell limp and James lay, panting and weak, but strengthened by the meal he was envisioning, on the hot bloody sand.
Only after his pulse had slackened did James wonder how the creature had gotten onto the island, and also what had become of Simon, but hunger and fatigue still clouded his thoughts, and he had a meal to prepare, so, quickly pushing these questions aside, he got down to it: he produced his trusty knife, holding it shakily in his bony hand, and begin to sloppily butcher the dead hog. Its musculature held first priority, and James ravenously peeled the prime flesh away from the bone. Somehow the animal had looked meatier before... but James was starving, meat was meat, and he quickly filled his shrivelled stomach with the dripping and delicious tissue. Satisfied by this initial gorge, he carefully stripped the rest of the meat from the carcass, removing the organs as well and setting them aside for later. Still full of adrenaline and feeling some energy return to him as his body voraciously processed the food, James' mind was working overtime, and his thoughts and movements possessed a precise clarity that he hadn't felt for a long time. After meticulously stacking and cataloguing every luscious cut of meat, James ate once again, whereupon he stretched out into the most comfortable sleep he'd known in weeks.
When he awoke he came to some conclusions. Firstly he decided that God had been testing him. This entire episode, the shipwreck, the island, and Simon's company, seemed to be an exercise designed to evaluate some unknown faculty, perhaps stamina or faith - or stamina of faith - and apparently, at least up to this stage, James had received a passing grade. How else to explain the miraculous appearance of food just as he was giving in to death but still full of belief in God? The hog must have been a reward, along with Simon's sudden disappearance. "Simon's company was the first test," concluded James, "but I endured it, and so God beneficently removed him, giving me instead a prize. Besides, if he were here, I'd only have half as much food for myself, but now I have enough to last me maybe another week... or two!" He sat for a while deep in thought, contemplating another two weeks on the island by himself, contemplating what the next test might be... solitude perhaps?..and contemplating the power and the wisdom of God.
James slept. He dreamed of landscapes filled with sunlight and trees, of soft hills covered with inviting grass, of picnics and companionship. He was with a girl he had never seen before. He could not focus on her face but her presence filled him with an immense warming tenderness darkened by an undercurrent of loathing. He held her hand, and on an impulse squeezed it very tightly, caressingly, but with a tinge of aggression as well. When he looked up she was gone, and in his hand was instead a small leather bag. He relaxed his grip and it fell to the ground.
He awoke feeling lonely and disoriented. His now certain knowledge of God's game bothered and perplexed him. What was this test? How was he meant to respond? What could he do to improve his performance? These thoughts angered him and he tore some of the meat between his teeth viciously and with spite. He felt out of control and helpless, and frustrated by his need for charity. It was then that he noticed the smell, an acrid odor which made his heart stand still in panic: the unmistakable stench of rot. His stockpile of life-giving nourishment was fast decomposing in the hot sun. James quickly stuffed his mouth full of as much meat as it could hold, swallowing, chewing, and adding in more flesh all at once and as rapidly as possible, frantically racing against... time?..bacteria?..the sun?.. but racing, racing to consume all he could, until he was simply unable to eat another bite.
His stomach hurt, he felt sicker than he had when he was hungry, and his end suddenly and once again seemed very close. After a short time he started to throw up. It didn't take long for him to empty his entire system but still he retched, expending not only all his nourishment but also energy, until he once more lay on the sand, eyes closed, struggling to summon the strength to keep breathing, and waiting to die. "I guess I failed the test," he thought, and when death came to grip him with its cold hands, James had no energy left to resist.
The beach was quiet and still. The sun did its work quickly and the flesh of the two men (what flesh there was) had soon completely disintegrated. The tides came and went, taking with them the rest, the bones, the teeth, returning their elements to the sea. No one has gone to the island since; there is no reason to go there, and no way to find it, and besides, if you did, you'd find that it's really only a desolate strip of land with nothing to offer and nothing to see, except for the sun and the hot white sand.
The last time I saw Mike he was sitting on a park bench with his head between his knees, retching. He wasn't puking, they were all dry heaves; and he wasn't drunk, Mike doesn't drink. He retched because it felt good for him to retch, well, not good to retch, per se, but the feeling felt good, the power of it, regardless of its orientation, that's what Mike was after. That's the kind of guy he is, always looking for the strength, for the extremes, like anything weaker doesn't cut it, doesn't feel like anything at all. And when you get right down to it, Mike wants to feel, to find experiences, any experiences, which can penetrate the fog, which can have a real impact, something with flavor and maybe even spice, and he doesn't care how he gets it. Sitting on that bench he looked so pitiful, really degraded, heaving like that... it wasn't an act, mind you, he meant every grunt and intestinal contraction as sincerely as anyone means anything... and I did pity him there, but not because he was pathetic; I pitied him because he needed to be pathetic, because for him there is no other way; and because I know that maybe if he could steep himself in his own truest pathos, if he could somehow feel the strength and power of the numbness inside of him, just maybe the pit would fill itself, and he could stop trying to physically and spiritually empty himself even further, I wouldn't have to find him like that, sitting with his head between his knees on a bench in the park, I wouldn't be faced with his overwhelming and tragic wretchedness and his unslakable thirst for fulfilment, or with the depressing mirror that he inevitably is. I like Mike, but I've got my own retching to do in my own park somewhere. So when I saw him sitting there and he didn't see me, all I could do was shake my head sadly and walk away.
I woke up yesterday next to a Swedish girl with an absolutely perfect body: pretty blonde face with that classically square turned-up Scandinavian nose, sharply defined jaw making even more forceful the piercing quality of her clear blue eyes, ideally proportioned breasts requiring no support save that offered by her tight knit top which revealed her every sensuous contour in disturbing detail, firm legs tan and smooth, and just the right padding in just the right places. Of course, when I say I woke up next to her, that sounds a little bit better than it actually was: she was sleeping in the top bunk number 19 next to my top bunk number 17, our two narrow mattresses separated by a slim but deep chasm, a cleft which held for us the conceptual force of the Great Wall of China... but still, I awoke often last night and got to look at her for a few moments each time, before resignedly turning and going back to sleep.
Anyway, I woke up next to her yesterday morning and decided that it was that dreaded day (no not laundry day): immigration day, that I'd finally have to try my luck at getting the elusive and legendary golden ticket, the holy grail among travellers in Indonesia, the oft-discussed yet rarely seen visa extension. At the border, travellers are usually only granted 60-day permits, not nearly adequate for a country of such diversity and magnitude. But, since the president owns the national airlines, so rumor has it, they like everyone to have to fly out and back every two months, usually to Singapore, regardless of the fact that the cheapest way to do so is via Pakistani Airways. Still, visa extensions are, in theory at least, possible, so I gotta try right? Right.
I got up, thoroughly enjoyed my matutinal kopi, dressed presentably and loaded myself onto city bus P1 bound for the Kantor Imigresi. When I arrived at 9:30 the place was already overpopulated, underventilated, hot and noisy. I wondered at my timing. "Maybe I should come back some other time," I doubted, "it's first thing Monday morning in a government office during Ramadan, and I'm hoping someone will be nice to me? Perhaps I should wait a few weeks, until, you know, they're allowed to eat breakfast." But since I was already there, I decided to try my luck. The room was packed with sweating people who wanted either permission to go somewhere else, or permission to stay where they were, but who regardless needed permission, and who therefore needed to spend lots of time in this enormous and squalid bureau to get it. Setting my jaw, sharpening up my elbows and brandishing my passport, I dove into the throng.
The first window I managed to wiggle my way to gave me pretty immediately the answer I expected: "No." Good. I had hoped the "no" would come quickly, because I'd need "no" number one in order to proceed to step number two. Approaching the next-biggest-looking desk (no one even glanced at me as I boldly strode through the "employees only" gate), I quickly explained to the man sitting behind it, all decked out on the regalia of minor authority, that I wanted to extend my visa, but that I didn't have a sponsor letter, the required document, in order to do so. "Go to the window," he said without even looking up. "I did he said no," I shot back.
He looked up now, sizing me, inspecting me. Now I was in his league, I was talking his terms, I was speaking to his motivations, because what I really told him was, "You have more power." "Where are you from?" he asked. I told him, and the calculus in his head was clear on his face: "America. Rich country. Better pass you on up the ladder."
So that's how I ended up, after one more such encounter, sitting relaxedly sipping tea in an exceedingly comfortable chair in the lavishly plush office of the professionally unctuous Direktor of Imigresi. He was a man cool with his power, and enjoyed being so. The olive green, badge-speckled uniforms of his inferiors had in his case been upgraded and simplified to a tasteful collarless grey suit, which he wore with authority and ease. He knew he was boss, and that I knew it as well.
We chatted a bit, a one-sided conversation consisting, essentially, of me saying what he needed to hear. I explained my situation to him in that special tone, you know, the one that combines the servility of "can't you help me, o powerful one?" with the brazenness of "I'm your kind of people, and we do each other favors." Throughout our conversation he fiddled with a remote control device, occasionally pushing its colored buttons. And each time he pushed a different button, a different bell sounded in the next room, and a different underling would hastily appear. One by one he introduced them to me: "This is our director of work permits," he would say, and then to the other, "This is Mr. Guy. He's an American... " etc., etc. After an hour of discourse about my time in Indonesia and his visits to Las Vegas and Europe, an hour sprinkled throughout with such interruptions as I have just described, I had sort of "communicated" with him and met the heads of every department in the building. I felt like he was showing me off, and showing off to me. "Which is fine," I told myself, "if it saves me return airfare to Singapore... and besides, it's fun." Finally, once all the under-overlords had returned to their lairs to continue torturing hapless citizens, my friend got to the point. "You'd like to extend your visa, and I'd like to help you... but you see you don't have a sponsor letter... "
His voice trailed off and for this I was ready. "I realize," I said quietly, "that I have no letter, and so if that means it would entail a higher administrative cost to process my application... " The moment we had all been waiting for. He looked pleased, but didn't smile. No, this was far too serious to smile at, because this was his real job. As an honest civil servant, even a highly placed one, he could make no serious money, but this, these "higher administrative costs," this is his bread and butter. This is what keeps the tank full in his BMW, and this is what also buys the BMW. This is paydirt, this dirty pay.
We quickly came to an agreement. I would still need a letter, but now a sponsor letter was no longer necessary; any letter would do. And the more official the letter, the less my "administrative expense" would be.
"Couldn't you be my sponsor?" I asked him with a sly smile. He shook his head. "Sorry, but it wouldn't look good around here. But anyone else -- anyone -- can write it for you." And knowing I had no choice, I left the comfort of his aircon haven and set off down the dusty street to scrounge up a letter . "I'll be here," he said as I left, and we parted friends. I would not see him again.
My next stop was the American Consulate, because it was relatively nearby, and also because I was feeling in fine form with my administrator-handling skills. As I pushed my way through the turnstile at the security checkpoint, it became immediately evident that all the people at all the desks there were at lunch, because there were no people at all the desks there. Nor were there any people in the waiting room. I was alone, marooned as it were, on American soil. Fine. I sat, and waited.
An hour later I surreptitiously helped myself to a glass of water from the sparklets machine. Half an hour after that I went to the bathroom. Exciting stuff. In the meantime I read the schedule of fees for consular services (it said nothing about foreign-administrative bribe support), I gazed at Bill, Al and Warren, mounted and framed on the wall, and I twiddled and waited and sat. They seemed to be taking a long lunch: apparently the staff here was from here, and the Americans had conformed right along, learning and sinking into the Indonesian style of "rubber time," a sort of loose interpretation of temporal rigidity, and completely typical of the Indonesian way of living.
Finally, after a lunch-hour that'd qualify for Guinness, an American Consular Officer appeared. He seemed surprised to see me, and the first words out of his mouth annoyed me tremendously.
"Hi, fella," he said, "what can I do you for?" I explained something about what I had come after, and his face clouded.
"I'm afraid I can't write you a sponsor letter," he told me, "because it's not our business to sponsor people. You need an Indonesian for that."
I tried to be a little clearer. I was dealing with Ned Flanders here. "I don't need an official sponsor letter, per se," I told him, "just a letter, any letter, saying maybe that America doesn't mind if I stick around here for a while... "
He still didn't get it. He said, "Well, sure, we don't care if you stay, but they won't give you an extension without a sponsor."
Time to be blunt. "The director assured me," I replied, "that there will be no problem, so long as I can get some document to show him." Now he caught on, and he smiled. Apparently he had learned more about Indonesian ways than simply how to enjoy lunch. And half an hour later, I had my letter. Very noncommittal, very basic, it said, "Mr. Petzall has reported to us that he would like to extend his visit to Indonesia. Please give his request all due consideration." But what it said mattered nothing to the might of the Great Seal of the United States of America emblazoned across the top of the page in raised blue ink. Those olive leaves and arrows were my ticket not out of here. Mentally clicking my heels together high up in the air, I thanked him and headed back to Immigration.
My next move was, I admit, a relatively risky one, but emboldened by my continuing success, I was getting a little headstrong, I suppose, and wanted to see how far I could push the game. Besides, I could always cover for it later by claiming it as a courtesy, and so when I returned to the still-bustling kantor, I did not immediately seek out the überdirektor. Instead, I went to the office of the man he had introduced to me as the head of the visa extension department, and who seemed strangely unsurprised at my arrival there.
"Sorry to interrupt," I started, "but your boss is a very busy man, and since I got the letter he told me I needed, and since it's your department, I thought that maybe we could do this without bothering him with all the tedious paperwork and payments." He nodded. And I think he smiled, although it might have been a smirk... sometimes I can't tell... but regardless, we had a connection established.
From that point on the entire thing, usually a multi-day administrative nightmare when you have the right documents, took only one hour. He charged me exactly what I would have paid for the legitimate process (except that he kept the money for himself), and his assistants filled out all the paperwork for me. I watched with quiet pride the magic moment when -- kechunk -- the stamp hit the page and my passport was indelibly marked with the tattoo of his department, and a date far into the future. The mark of luck: my new visa, which starts with V, which stands for victory (and also for vivisection, but that's not important right now). "I'll leave it," he said as he handed me my passport, "so that in six weeks you can apply for another extension, OK?"