Sleep deprivation can have some curious effects. Usually these fall into the category of numbness, rendering the tired person unable to fully fathom the scope of his experiences, casting a foggy somnolescent shield over all that he perceives. And this can be a problem, depending on what he wants to do, if he needs to be fully alert, sympathetically so, and in control of his attitudes. But there are also, not so commonly, cases where sleep deprivation can actually serve to enhance emotions and perceptions. This most commonly occurs, in my experience, when the nature of the situation is so bizarre and emotionally off-kilter that the veneer of surrealism which fatigue so readily provides in fact contributes to an already whacked-out scene, bringing it into the realm of normalcy and helping the participant to feel more comfortable with the phenomena to which he is subjected. This happened to me the other day.
I guess this story really starts the day before it starts. I was in Melaka, on my way south to meet Rick in Singapore the next day, it was noon, and I was, as is my right, sleeping. When suddenly, through the torpid haze of pacific dreamtime there came flashing at me a beacon, a signal, a warning, like a neon sign visible through a foggy highway night. "Wake up," it said. I ignored it. It began to flash, urgently. I continued to ignore it, even more urgently. These things can be tenacious, but so can I, and I love sleeping. But when it turned on its siren and its rolling red and blue mars lights, and motioned for me to pull over, I finally acquiesced.
"Can't anyone sleep in peace around here?" I mumbled, and opened my eyes just in time to see my friend Catherine, with whom I'd spent a few days in KL the week before, standing next to my dorm bed with her camera raised to her eye. I was genuinely happy to see her again. "Go away," I growled. The flash went off. "Gotcha," she cheered. "Disappear," I countered groggily, "I'm sleeping." She remained unflustered. "Get up, ya'bum," she shook me, "I'll buy you a cup of coffee." Sleep was soaking away from me now, like a wave draining into a beach on which it has spread itself thin. I knew that if I waited, another wave would come and carry me out to sea... but what the hell. Free coffee. I got up.
The coffee brought me around into conversational awareness. "How long you gonna stick around Melaka?" I asked her. She informed me of her ticket to Sumatra on the following afternoon. I, too, had to leave on Wednesday, to meet Rick in Singapore. But we both wanted to hang out a bit before we went our separate ways, so I told her I'd blow off Rick for a day if she'd blow off her ticket for a day. She reciprocated this arrangement, saying that she'd blow off her ticket for a day if I'd blow off Rick for a day.
And there it stood, a solid agreement built out of nothing, each of us waiting for the other to decide. And the decision, I should add, did eventually get made, but not by us.
You see, and this is something that I find to be a universal truth, the best stuff happens to you without instigation or effort, and all a full life requires is a sort of ability to navigate the small craft of your destiny in the gushing and bumptious turbulence of circumstance. You can't control where it brings you, but you can at least smooth the journey with a little deft oar-work. So it goes.
Therefore when Catherine and I were told that Thursday morning we'd be able to witness a Hindu ritual the description of which with which we were provided lacking so much in vividity that I won't bore you with it here, the decision over whether or not we should remain in Melaka eclipsed itself without a murmur. We were staying, and that was that.
The only problem with this event we wanted so badly to see, however, was that it had been inconsiderately scheduled to take place at 8 am on Thursday morning. Neither of us particularly qualify as morning people - at least not awake morning people - and so we decided that the only thing to do was to stay up all night, and then afterwards sleep the afternoon away on our respective transports, mine a bus to Singapore, hers a ferry to Sumatra. Fair enough.
Except that I'd had hardly any sleep on Monday night, and Tuesday night didn't offer much more, clouded as it was with a mixture of street wandering, karaoke, hanging out with a very interesting clown (I mean a REAL clown, who offered me a job in a circus) as well as other sundry activities. So when Wednesday night came, I was really in no shape to last it out, but last it out I did. We just stayed up all night talking and watching TV and working crossword puzzles and playing with the cutest little 5-yr-old Chinese girl, whose father was cool enough to let her go to sleep on her own schedule, which that night was 5 am... .and when 8 finally came, off we went to the Hindu temple, accompanied by a few friends who had woken up to go see the event as well.
We arrived to find a large group of Hindu men and boys in front of the temple gates, all swaddled in yellow loincloths, and all doing some sort of ritual chant. We watched this for a bit, and then took off our shoes to explore the temple itself, which was in a flurry of preparations for the day's display. Women stacked limes into neat pyramids while others filled silver ewers with milk, men helped each other properly gird themselves in yellow cloth, and old wise-looking Hindus just sat and meditated. All was aswirl with motion and color, a sensory melange overloaded by the drummers who tuned and warmed their instruments in the background. But eventually, everything seemed to be nearing readiness, and we returned to the street where a huge crowd had assembled. Then the music started.
It was outside, a group of Hindu men with varying types of drums, pounding out their rhythms without too much noticeable recognition of what rhythms their neighbors were pounding out, all resulting in a complexly polyrhythmic litany of beats and throbs, a buzz of hollow thwacking, rich of texture and full of depth. On top of my already phazey mindset, this kalaudioscope mesmerised me, blending me into the whole frenetic scene. And I was apparently not the only one to be moved by it, for as I turned around, I could see the yellow-skirted tan-skinned men, one by one going into trances with the beats, flailing, thrashing and epilepting convulsively as the spirit of the percussive drone drilled its way into their souls. There were groups of temple helpers around, who made themselves useful by holding down the entranced men. And, one at a time, as these devotees would arise from their convulsions with the physical support of their aides, they were skewered, literally pierced, in various ways and by various means, as they gazed blankly ahead, beyond pain and deep into something indescribable.
So I watched in rapt horror, while - and I'm not exaggerating at all - 2 meter long steel spears a full centimeter thick were poked through these guys' faces, into one cheek and out the other, and then the ends of the spear capped with limes. The Hindu-kabobs would then stumble out into the street, wander down it, and stand in a sort of line, waiting for everybody to be done, so that they could all collectively parade through the city.
But the facial skewering of the acolytes was by no means the only attraction. From the door of the temple poured a constant stream of sights to behold: women came down the steps balancing silver milk jugs on their heads, milk running in rivulets down their faces and into their eyes; old women and young boys appeared with small tridents stuck through their tongues, thus preventing said tongues from being withdrawn back into their mouths; and kids with dozens of fishhooks in their chests and backs from which were suspended weights, idols and limes emerged from the colorfully adorned entryway.
I noticed one woman in particular, who looked remarkably vivid and intense, with a very mystical, almost palpable energy. She had a slightly hydroencephalic skull structure with the wild and wandering eyes of a holy fool. She had died her tongue and both her hands scarlet, and with her tan skin, black hair and brilliant yellow wrappings, she presented quite an image, wandering aimlessly around, meandering through the crowds with her eyes looking in every direction at once, her tongue outstretched with a spike protruding through it at a rather uncomfortable looking angle, and a crimson trickle of saliva oozing down her chin.
While throughout, my mental cloud continued, the intractable drumming continued, Catherine's and my shared expressions of visual fascination continued, and the cold shafts of steel continued to poke their way through the faces of the believers, in most cases seemingly without pain.
I should add that although I was amazed at their stoic acceptance of the horrors which were befalling them, not all of the piercees managed so well. One boy in particular, probably of about 17 years, really didn't seem to like having a pole rammed through his face. We could hear his screams while it was being done, and when he stood, balancing his unwieldy appurtenance with difficulty, he wasn't crying openly, but tears ran down his face, and his chest heaved with the jerking motion of suppressed wailing. He moaned, but with the strained reluctance of shame, of self-disappointment, and of continuing attempts at control, all the while bearing deeply the agony of his violated flesh. But once it was through, it was through, and he stumbled, choking back sobs of anguish and humiliation, out into and down the crowded street. I really felt for him, for his shame and for his pain, so I decided to follow him and see how he turned out.
He came to a halt at the end of the now long line of people, the already-pierced, the girls with the milk, all who had gone before and who were accumulating in a file at the end of the road. I watched him panting and tearing, trying with all his faculty to regain his pride and composure. He hurt terribly. And then an amazing thing happened. From farther off down the street, I saw the hydroencephalic witch drifting through the masses of people who had come out to watch the skewering take place, not looking where she was going, sort of intuiting a random path, her hands and tongue still a vivid scarlet. The boy stood, his chest heaving with held-back sobs, his face streaming. And from the safety of the audience I watched as the mystical woman wended her way toward him, never even appearing to see him, only pulled toward his pain, his energy which she could feel. She approached him looking at the sky and paused before him only for a moment, not even that long, just enough to rest her hand on his chest, and then continue walking, leaving a sharp red hand-print on his tan skin. I thought that was extremely weird and cool, but then I saw that he had stopped heaving, had stopped crying, had stopped hurting. He suddenly straightened up proud and strong, three feet of shiny steel sticking painlessly out from behind the corners of his lips, no longer pursed in pain, but now drawn up in power and resolution. She had helped him, had absorbed his pain, or he her strength, or both, but whatever it was, some kind of energy transfer had definitely taken place, and it was something really moving for me to see, an overt confirmation of the spiritual power to which these firm believers were entrusting their bodies, a sober truth which impressed me through the haze of fatigue and the pumping atmosphere of too many drummers playing all at once in the bright and sunlit street.
When I sought Catherine amid the dense crowd to tell her what I'd seen, she was busily engrossed in yet more spectacular demonstrations. A teenager nearby had attached himself to a large cart full of milk which he then towed down the street by means of perhaps fifteen fishhooks in his back. He leaned forward against the weight of the heavy load, causing his back to ripple as the skin stretched into a mini-mountain range of tiny peaks where the steel hooks entered his flesh, as though he were a still pond, capturing and holding a single instant of a heavy rainstorm. And up near the drummers, still pounding and beating with the fervor of collective effervescence, we spotted a group of monks, these a little older and fatter, preparing their own curious contraptions of self-infliction.
And what contraptions a creative mind bent on proving himself impervious to pain can produce! The illustrious torturers of medieval England could do no better. These apparati began, structurally, as a hemisphere skeleton made of three meridians, each a curved strip of steel four centimeters wide, set at 60-degree angles to one another, and arcing downward from their polar intersection to the ground. Atop this frame had been affixed all manner of ornaments with absolute symmetry: peacock feathers, molded weights, painted plaster icons of Hindu lore, all designed to add flash and mass to the harness of horrors below. For within the decorated chassis, a complex lattice of steel spears projected downward from the structure, interwoven with one another, and producing a person-sized cavity in the core of the whole, a space delineated and bounded by points and spikes, which the monks then crawled underneath and into. Having carefully ensconced themselves, the men then stood up, whereupon the entire massive structure rose with them, balanced and supported by the byzantine and interlocking meshweb of slender spears, which rested piercewise in a geometric pattern within the flesh of the man inside, like a transparent steel gravity-driven iron-maiden, entered and assumed voluntarily, and very painful looking indeed. Then each entrant began to hop up and down, exacerbating the impact of the mass which he bore at so many needle-sharp pressure-points, the kernel of the nut attacked from all sides by its shell, and once all these harnesses were occupied, the lot of them started off, whirling, dancing and spinning to the rhythm of the drums, down the road and into line with the rest, their trinkets ajingle and peacock plumes aflutter. I turned to Catherine. "Rick who?" I said. She laughed.
Finally the temple emptied. The drummers moved to cap off the long line of javelined, fishhooked, spear-suited Hindus, and we knew something would have to happen soon. So we made our way toward the front of the line, past the kabobed initiates and milk-headed women. I considered shouting something, you know, "every head turned", and what with 3 feet of steel ex maxillo protrutandis, creating a sort of flesh-tearing domino theory three-stooges sort of affair, but decided against it. And as I passed the guy towing the milk-cart down the street with all the fishhooks in his back, I wondered if he could be convinced to likewise drag my pack to the bus station later that afternoon. "He'll probably be busy soaking in iodine or bactine or something," I sadly concluded, when the assembled procession began to move, the queue lengthening with decompression, down the road and around the corner. We hastened to the head of the line through the spectating crowd.
The entire parade was led by a pair of cows, the kind with those big humps where the neck joins the body. These animals looked extremely well cared-for, especially if their raiments were any indicator. They wore huge rich cow-shaped robes bright with embroidered patterns and insewn mirror shards, expertly crafted by some highly experienced bovine tailor to fit snugly over their humps and hang to the ground without sacrificing mobility, as befits such holy beef. They moved in stately grace through Melaka, gently guided by a man walking alongside. As they rounded the second corner, they came to a stop. And there stood hundreds of people, waiting in ambush, it seemed, all armed with coconuts. You heard me, coconuts... which they threw with force to the ground at the cows' feet, splashing the pavement with gallons of coconut milk and filling the air with the hollow clop-clop-clopping of their percussive bursting. The sound was incredible, as it mingled with the echo of the drumming from far back in the line.
Once all the coconuts were expended, the procession once again mobilized, winding its way through the smaller streets of the charming town, to ultimately arrive at another temple. We followed it a bit more, and then tired, amazed and sort of strangely numb, Catherine and I returned to our hotel to pick up our stuff and leave the city. Sumatra beckoned her, and I had to go meet Rick. But I'm glad I blew him off for a day, leaving myself flexible for the whims and confluences of adventure to offer me such a lesson in the varieties and vicissitudes of human capability.
I sit on the verandah of a beach bungalow, watching the soothing turbulence of the sea and content with life's rambunctious calm. In the distance, beyond the blue and green of coral waters and above the white tips of waves giving everything they have to lick at the clear salty sky, lies Lombok, a lip of white sand graced by a frondy green moustache which is as I write catching brilliantly the horizontal glow of the near-setting sun, the trees grapsing fervently at the smoothe light with the smiling warmth of fresh green, and accented by the shadows held closely, just below the outer layers of leaf, and above all of which rises the enshrouded purple slopes of the volcano Renjani, cresting upwards out of sight, lost in the thickness of the sky. It almost feels false, the serene and self-accepting quality of all this beauty, like a simulacrum projected at me from the stock vault of paradise brochures and marroned mariners' tales, but the taste of salt on my lips and skin, the suspirous sound of the water washing itself on the beach, and the touch of the bamboo chair against my back force an acquiescence to reality, and I am left with a tranquil gratitude for what majesties I am allowed in my life.
The other night I walked alone down the beach to a spot where the only light I could see came from the rows of fishing boats at the horizon, bobbing up and down... these lights and the stars, all of them; with practically no moon to brighten the sky, the stars had taken over, filling every available spot and with the huge and opalescent brainlike cloud of the galactic mass spanning the visible heaven. I took off my shirt and lay down, spreading myself as flat as I could, melding myself into the soft sand, joining the earth. I felt the weight of the planet beneath me, its firm mass pressing up into my arms, my legs, my back. The sloshing of the waves (which never ever stops) provided the only sound, and gazing up, the dazzlement above filled my eyes. I tried to feel small, minute, a nothing in comparison to the tremendous scope of the all.
But I couldn't. Because as a person I am something, something in a way so much bigger than all of that. I sat there thinking, "without ever leaving this planet, we can just look up, pick out one of those, any of those stars, and figure out excatly where it is, what it's made of, how far away and how hot it is, what direction it's moving and if it has any planets around it. We can analyze how old it is and where it's headed, and what that means about where it came from when it was young. We can know so much, all without ever leaving, all just by looking up.
"And I can also invent things," I told myself, "I can make up a universe of stories, or stories of the universe. I can create that which does not exist, in my head, and I can communicate that to other heads." I gazed at the stars, felt the solid ground, and thought, "I'm not tiny... I'm huge!"
It felt good.
After a while I stood, put my shirt back on, and walked down the beach to rejoin my friends at our nightly campfire.