This morning my friend Jennifer and I woke up early. We were staying at a small but very popular dive 25 km outside of Sandakan called Uncle Tan's. Of course, I don't invoke the term "dive" without consideration. Many of the places I've ended up sleeping in in Asia have certainly been undeserving of the title "hotel", and have often not even qualified in the "room" category, so thin were the walls and so shoddy the construction. With inuring frequency, budget accommodation around here is often no more than a paper-thin mattress in a dirty cubicle with -- if you're lucky -- a squat toilet in the same building, and -- if you're really lucky -- a mosquito net. And really, nothing else is necessary. Luxury isn't the goal, and such places are not without their own aesthetic. But Uncle Tan had evolved that particular art, taking it to new depths of economy and rudiment. My room, next to Jennifer's, not only offered us a de facto interroom intercom system in the form of walls which stopped half a meter short of the ceiling, but also allowed us a unique contact with local wildlife, as we could hear the rats and monkeys scurrying along the thatch roof above.
I was particularly privileged in that the rats had chosen my space over which to install a skylight window, through which I could watch their pointed noses and sharp teeth eagerly nibbling away at the thatch directly above my head, thus simultaneously expanding my view of the clouds while raising the potential all-night specter of rats plummeting downward into my attentive face: the thrill of fear. Winston and Julia had it no better.
And as for hygiene, Hy who? The floor was grimy. The bed was grimy. The whole place stank of must, of rot, and of disrepair. The toilet, literally a hole cut in the floor of a hut across a small yard from our building, had achieved an almost postmodern level of grime, wherein the ambient odors, bacteria, and sludge conspired, combined and convolved to create an ever worsening atmosphere of filth, an environment where my eyes watered and my nostrils burned, a place which made me feel dirty just to enter, dirty body, dirty mind, dirty soul. NATO worries about chemical arsenals... but I doubt that they've ever come across anything quite like this. Uncle Tan has himself quite a place there.
However, our quarters' metabolic indecency was not the cause of our early rising. We woke up at such an ungodly hour because nearby, in the denseness of the northern Bornean jungle, lay Sepilok, one of only four orangutan sanctuaries in the world.
At eight we caught the bus toward Sandakan, which let us off twenty minutes later at the mouth of a small road leading into the dense growth. We followed it, and before too long reached our initial goal: the headquarters of the noble institution whose purpose it is to train previously captured orangutans of all ages to fend for themselves in the wilderness, skills they'd either lost in captivity or had never acquired, to repatriate them to their native habitat. To accomplish this goal, they had built a thorough complex of veterinary clinics, jungle gyms, rope swings, netted-in forestland, and feeding platforms, with which they gradually encourage the domesticated primates to get in touch with their more natural instincts.
We checked in at the desk, watched a short film about Sepilok's activities, funding and volunteer network, and then headed off into the jungle toward the feeding platform for the 9:30 feeding.
The trail to the platform had been blazed as a sturdy plankwalk of native ironwood, and led through the heart of primally dense virgin rainforest. Walking down it in the morning heat was like living Conrad, where "the big trees were king and the vegetation rioted on the earth." The enormous trunks towered above us on all sides, resisting classification in terms of height, since their lofty tops disappeared upward into a blinding mix of vegetation and light. The vines and branches swayed and played motionlessly, like ghosts, their elusive and eerie stillness filtering and spotting the light into dazing undulations of green and brown, all mixed with the scent of raw earth, of oxygen, nitrogen, and peat. In many cases the root systems of the trees projected from higher up on their trunks than I could reach, shooting toward the nourishing planet in flat triangular plates of wood and bark which gave the impression of a buttressing structure, while all over, the branches were draped with vines, which were in turn covered with vines, which were also covered with vines, the mass of which cascaded downward as a screen of leaves, so that often I could not tell if I was looking at a wall, or a hillside, or a forest, or empty space, so densely did these sheets of green mask the distance, the jungle hiding its secrets. We walked in silence, taking it in, being taken in, to the heart of the forest, listening to the birds and the animal noises which always seemed to come at us from just beyond our view.
Perhaps ten minutes later the path turned in its course toward the feeding platform, and Jennifer and I found ourselves face to face with three baby orangs. They had ambushed us, sitting in a row and blocking our path. We were stunned, and afraid to touch them after having learned how difficult dedomestication can be for them, she and I simply looked at them with intense curiosity. I'd never experienced such proximity to another species so close to my own before. These three, no bigger than human toddlers, looked just like old men, with the slumping posture and wrinkled faces of years, but also a burning light of curiosity and playfulness in their eyes. I was reminded that the Malay words "orang utan" directly translate as "forest man", a perfect moniker for these very cerebral-looking animals. Their hands, devoid of hair, seemed particularly human, although the palms had been evolutionarily stretched quite out of proportion with our own to enable them to grip the trees and vines of their habitat. And instead of feet, they had more hands, with opposable toes and the same elongated-palm design. They were breathtaking to behold, and they surveyed us with similar curiosity. Then one of them grabbed ahold of Jennifer's leg, and wouldn't let go.
Now, when I was a kid, I thought that candy was sticky. Then I grew up a little, and discovered that relationships were sticky. But never in my life have I encountered anything so insurmountably adhesive as these baby orang utans. Because when I tried to peel the tiny monkey from Jennifer's leg, it latched onto my arm with one of its feet, and a helluva grip it had too, one it refused to relinquish, as it hung there between us, suspended by its own stubborn will. Each time we tried to remove him, he just grabbed onto us somewhere else, with the playful abandon of an animal not afraid to leap from tree to tree. We wrangled with it for a while, but eventually gave up trying to gain release, partly because it showed no interest in freeing us of its attachment, partly because the other two orangs had also now joined in the fun and were climbing on us like we were simply there for their amusement, but mostly because we suddenly realized what they wanted.
They wanted a ride.
That had been the whole point of their ambush in the first place: this path led to one destination only, their feeding platform, and they knew they had us cornered. So acquiescing, we walked the rest of the way to the end of the path, laughing at our own submission, whereupon the baby apes hopped off, leapt into the trees, and monkey-barred their way to the platform where the camp volunteer had already begun to uncover their meal.
We spectated as our three friends, along with a bunch of other, older, orangs, gobbled up their meal of bananas and milk. Sepilok always feeds them the same diet, day after day, to encourage them to hunt for their own food when they grow tired of the monotonous mess hall experience. And when the food was gone, they all took to the woods, disappearing along vines and branches, seeping into the forest, wandering off in search of lives which had been captured from them the moment they were each captured by men.
Jennifer and I walked through the forest, exploring some other trails, inspecting a few very prehistoric-looking insects, and breathing in the calming, ruthless vibe of the woods, before returning to the road and hitching a ride back to Uncle Tan's.
The tide was stirring up the sea which lapped against the sand.
The sand made up a sunny beach which lapped against the land.
The land rose up to mountain peaks which lapped against the sky.
The sky contained the moon, whose laps elliptic cause the tides.
I whispered to my girlfriend on the mountain by the sea,
"Hey can you keep a secret? The man in the moon is me.
I like to shine upon you as I cycle round your world,
For I can tell from far away you're such a far-out girl.
I drive the sea and wind which move the rivers and the sand
To sculpt a ring of canyons which I place upon your hand.
I orbit round you, baby, you're my world, my number one.
Whom could you cherish more?" My sweetheart answered me: "The sun."
I bellowed: "That philanderer! You think the sun's so great?
You think that you're his only girl? He has another EIGHT!
Oh, baby, I'm so faithful, please consent to be my wife,
For what can he provide that I cannot?" She answered: "Life.
"He offers food and light to the plants with which I abound.
He gives me thermal power, heating up my fertile ground,
Enabling my children to proliferate and spread.
I love you, you big lunatic, but without him, I'm dead."
This answer left me speechless, mad with envy and chagrin.
I spend my life orbiting her, and she's in love with him!
I said, "I'll win you over. Yes. I must. Without a doubt.
I'll show you who has power. I will block your boyfriend out!"
Her voice was full of fear, "Oh, no! Don't make him go away!
My children need him to survive! They need the light of day!
Oh, please don't do what you propose!" I heard her stricken cry,
"I need the sun, for as I said, without him I will die!"
I felt a pang of pity, but it quickly turned to glee.
"If I can pull this off," I thought, "she'll be impressed with me.
Then she will know who holds the reins of power up above,
And then with me, it's plain to see, she'll madly fall in love."
I sat right down to work upon my plan to rule the sky.
I worked out the equations of the paths that we three fly.
I figured out a way to shift the track of my ellipse,
Then put my scheme in action, and created an eclipse.
I marvelled at the beauty of the shadow on the land.
I revelled in my glory, that I'd done what I had planned.
And turning to my sweetheart, sure that now she'd think me great,
I saw her staring at me full of awe... but also hate.
I realized at once that terror could not be the way
To win her love, and so I moved, restoring full the day.
She smiled, and it warmed me, as the sun was warming her,
And I knew that I was wrong to try to keep light from the earth.
This happened centuries ago, and every year since then
For just a couple minutes I have blocked the sun again.
A short reminder for the earth, for whom my love still burns,
To show her I accept that it's around the sun she turns.
The tide, it still stirs up the sea, which laps against the sand.
The sand still makes a sunny beach which laps against the land.
The land still rises to the peaks which lap against the sky,
And lapping 'tween the sun and earth eternally am I.
"If you're not part of the cure," she announced righteously, "you're part of the problem." This in a nagging, nasally voice which would try the patience of a mountain.
He looked at her flatly for a moment, stubbed out his cigarette on his plate, and said, "Let me tell you a story. The other night I went drinking. I was at some little no-name corner bar, the kind you never know if it's safe to go in until you've gone in, and not even then. I drank a lot there, and when you drink a lot at one of these places, you're drinking a lot of cheap, pale, light American beer. It takes a lot of liquid to get drunk, but I got drunk, and then I needed to expel some of all the liquid that was required to get me there. I went into the back, found the only likely door, and shouldered it open.
"The bathroom looked really gross, and smelled absolutely disgusting. I was glad I hadn't worn my best shoes that night, but wished I had had the foresight to take along a respirator. The stench of old urine and vomit was overwhelming, and seemed to discolor the air. I found no urinal, but on the other hand, there was no seat on the toilet either. The toilet bowl was so discolored from age and use that I couldn't tell if the water in it was clear or full of diarrhea. It was a pit of opaque darkness, yawning up at me, its throat obscured in its murky depths. Nietzsche said that poets muddy their waters to make them appear deep; but they've got nothing on this toilet. While I was peeing, a mosquito landed on the wrist of my right hand, the hand I use to aim myself. Swatting at the mosquito with my left hand jostled my right, and for a second, pee sprayed everywhere. But in this bathroom, it didn't matter. In this bathroom, you couldn't tell.
"This bathroom had seen worse. Besides, I was drunk. I finished, put myself away, and left without flushing.
"And you tell me that I'm part of the problem? I tell you that for some things, there is no cure. No cure."
He paused, and seeing the expression of blank, indignant disgust on her face, added, "And now that I've said all this, I'm beginning to understand that maybe you're one of them. I guess it shows that sometimes, at least, I try."
He stood, the backs of his knees skreeching his chair away from the table, turned, and left the restaurant.
I have not found here in Borneo what I'd come to expect;
They have lost their tribal culture, all by Islam has been wrecked.
I expected to see wildmen here, but I guess times have changed;
The people are all Muslim now, and Islam makes them tame.
I expected to see men with hair like Einstein, long and wild,
But they all wear Muslim caps, and act so civil, calm and mild.
I expected vicious headhunters, or tribal dress at least,
But again the threat of Allah's wrath has tamed the savage beast.
I expected to see cannibals who eat their very kind,
But since even pork's a sin here, human meat you just won't find.
I expected to hear drumming from the distant village dance,
But public music is illegal, so of that there's little chance.
I expected thatch and straw for every building, hut and home,
But since each village has to have a Mosque, each village has a dome.
I expected to meet many girls in wild exotic places,
But they aren't allowed to talk to men, and cover up their faces.
I suppose my expectations were a little uninformed,
For the conquerors Islamic have this ancient island stormed.
I expected, too, the moon to blot the sun out of the sky...
And it did, so I guess that's one place where Allah doesn't pry.
You give me somthing rancid when I ask for something great,
I ask for food and get a pile of dogshit on a plate.
I think that I shall go elsewhere next time I want to eat.
Maybe I'll check out Mabel's place across and down the street.
I'll continue to avoid this place as along as I am able,
Since I'm so unsatisfied with what you spread out on your table.
It's for your benefit that I am bringing you this news.
I think you need to realize how much you stand to lose,
If you keep raising your prices with your service going down.
I'll have you know you're not the only restaurant in town.
Standing behind him in line to use one of the only public phones in Brunei, I had plenty of time to observe what bad taste in suits he had.
While he chatted on and on, occasionally smiling at me as if to say, "I'll only be a second," and repeatedly replacing the phone cards as they'd run out every few minutes, I had time to marvel at his attire, and his nerve. Often in underdeveloped nations I've noticed what I call the hand-me-down effect, wherein since so many of the available clothes are fifth- and sixth-hand castaways from the first world, no one seems much to care what their t-shirts say, how their outfits match, or that their bellbottom spandex sweatpants didn't go out of style because they were never in it; what matters now is the integrity of the cloth and the comfort of the cut. I've certainly seen a lot of this phenomenon in Asia, but Brunei is a very oddball country, an historical anachronism that through strategy and circumstance has emerged as a successful and rich nation, a member of the first world. The people here dress. So while this man, this phone hog, would fade into the background in Thailand or Bolivia or New York, here he could not be ignored.
He wore white shoes of patent leather that looked like it hadn't been shiny in years, crinkled with use and age and drawing to a sharp point at the toe. His pants actually did match his shoes surprisingly well, which bothered me. But to be fair, I would have been bothered anyway; I've always had a problem with green and brown plaid on khaki. The pants looked new, maybe even tailor-made, as they fit so well the curve of his belly, the tartan accenting in nauseous contour the precise topography of his past culinary excesses. He wore a pink shirt, and special it was, too, with plastic pearls for buttons and stainless steel tips on the collar-points, pressed into shape and stamped with a hand-tooled leather motif at some factory in a less fortunate country than Brunei. His tie, a wide diamond of pink and yellow flowers on a field of grassy green, did nothing to help matters, and the brown corduroy jacket sealed the deal, leaving no doubt that this particular outfit had been painstakingly collected and assembled, with deliberation and care.
The man himself, still smiling sympathy and encouragement at me as he continued to waste my time, seemed apt to his duds, he and his suit being the best match of all. In his late 40's-early 50's, his combed-over bald spot gleaming obviously through the thick ropes of sweat-clotted hair meant to mask it, and with large fake-looking (but probably real) goldnugget rings on the majority of his fingers, he looked the part of an A#1 sleaze.
At last, his call ended. He withdrew from the phone and, turning, attempted to engage me in conversation. "Where are you from?" "USA," I answered curtly, not wanting to encourage him, and not wanting him between me and the phone. I'm usually not an impatient person, but in this particular case, I had to make an exptremely important call, and was therefore less gracious than is my usual form.
"Ah, America," he smiled. I didn't like his smile. "I have been many times to America."
"Oh, yeah?" I answered, uninterested, "where?"
"Oh, many places, LA, New York. I was once advisor to President Marcos in the Philippines."
"Really," I replied. I was at least now slightly interested in this bizarre creature, regardless of whether or not he was telling the truth, but I still eyed the telephone just over his shoulder longingly. Still, I didn't want to be as rude to him as I felt he was being to me, don't ask me why, so I remained in front of him, and asked, "What did you do for him?"
"I was his advisor," came the cryptic response.
I thought, "Look where it got him," and said, "What do you do now in Brunei?"
I was tired of this now. "Well," I went on, "nice meeting you." He smiled his creepy smile and held out a sweaty hand to me. "What the hell, I'm about to hold that telephone receiver anyway," went through my head, and as I gripped his moist limp hand, someone else stole up and started to use the phone. Sick of waiting, and wanting no further discourse with my fascist Philippine fashion friend, I turned and walked down the street.
Eventually I did locate another phone, a piece of equipment which was essential to one of my quests while in Brunei. Months prior, after deciding upon Borneo as my target to see the eclipse, I had written a letter to the Brunei's Sultan, asking of him a minor favor.
"Dear Mr. Sultan," I wrote, "after seeing next October's eclipse, I am planning a visit to your very famous and very beautiful country. I will probably not stay for long, perhaps a few days, but I will be traveling on a budget. Now, you are well-known for being the world's richest man, for having 400 cars, 300 horses, dozens of gushing oil-wells, and, by no means least on the list, a comfortable home containing 1800 rooms. So if it's not too much trouble, your excellency, could I sleep on one of your many floors for a few nights?
"Now, before you answer, let me assure you that I am a very good and gracious guest. I will cause you no trouble whatsoever, no staff need be dedicated to my comfort, and I will be as inconspicuous and out of the way as I am able. I just need a place to stay. Unless you want to, you'll never know I'm there.
"And in return, sir, please allow me to offer you the opportunity to, whenever you next visit my hometown, sleep on my floor for as long as you like. My door remains open to you... ." and so on.
But the Sultan had never responded to my letter.
So upon entry into Brunei,I paid a visit to my consulate to seek advice.
"You want to sleep at the palace?" the American officer asked incredulously.
"Well, sure, but that's not necessary, since I already have a place to stay. I would, however, like at least to take him out to dinner, though. I think we'd have a lot to talk about."
"Well," she shook her head, "I can't arrange that for you. But I'll tell you what: here's the phone number of his office... "she slid a piece of paper at me below the bulletproof window. "Do what you can on your own. Good luck."
Good luck. Already my first attempt at calling had been thwarted by this Philippino dandy. Ever persevering, however, I finally reached a phone and made the call. But I didn't get far. The first person I talked to thought I was either joking or crazy, and quickly rejected my request.
Drag. But now I have a partially used Brunei phone card, right? There's no other place on earth I can use it, right? So I might as well keep trying, right?
And I did. Every day I called back. Every day I reached the Sultan's business office, and every day I did so, they took me a little more seriously, and passed me a little higher up the ladder. Finally, on my fifth attempt, I found myself speaking with the Sultan's personal secretary. Score. I explained to her my intentions.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Petzall," she said in a smooth and gracious tone, "but the Sultan is out of the country at the moment, visiting the United Nations in New York. He couldn't possibly make an appontment to meet with you."
"He's in the States," I said brightly, "so that means there's one more empty room in his house, does it not?"
"Oh, yes, I'm sorry if I misled you, Mr. Petzall," now her diplomatic training was really coming through, "but you couldn't possibly sleep at the palace without the Sultan's permission. If you're still in Brunei six weeks from now, though, be sure and call back, and I'll see if I can arrange an audience for you."
I promised her I would, thanked her for her time and help, and hung up with the confident knowledge that I'd done the best I could. And who knows? Maybe I'll return to Brunei someday. It's nice to know that I'll have a place to sleep.
Stalk me scare me hunt me chase me
Ambush me, surround, disgrace me
When at last you've caught me, mace me
Don't dare burn me, that would waste me
Whip me flog me hurt me beat me
Cut me kill me cook me eat me
Savor how it tastes so sweet me
When you've worked to earn your meat me
There was once an anonymous man. He lived in the big city between the tall mountain and the deep sea. Although he lived among many people, no one knew or noticed him, and this bothered him greatly. One day he could stand it no longer. "If I level the tall mountain and use it to fill up the deep sea," he said to no one in particular, "everyone will notice, and everyone will know who I am."
He set off at once for the tall mountain armed with a large sack and a strong hammer, determined to carry out his plan. When he reached the tall mountain, he attacked it with his hammer, chipping off boulders, until he had a sack full of rocks. With a heave he lifted it to his back, and, picking up his hammer, set off toward the sea.
He was very tired from the weight of the heavy sack when he at last arrived at the jagged cliffs which overlooked the water. He placed the hammer on the ground at his feet and picked up the sack with both hands. Gripping it by the drawstring which held it closed, he slowly swung it back and forth a few times to build momentum, to feel its weight and the weight of his ambition.
"This is only the beginning," he thought, and on the next swing he released it toward the water below. Unfortunately for him, however, the drawstring caught on his wrist, and he too went plunging off of the jagged cliff and into the deep sea, to the bottom. For a while the froth created by the splash of the man and the sack of rocks remained, but before too long it disappeared, and there was almost no trace of the man left. Almost.
Two days later another person, a young man from the city whom everyone liked, was walking along the jagged cliffs which overlooked the water, when he discovered the hammer sitting by itself on the ground. "How lucky," he said to himself, "I need a new hammer." He picked it up and paused for a moment, gazing out at the beauty of the water. Then, slowly turning, he started home, swinging the hammer in his hand as he walked.
He is helpless to act. He has no control. He sits and watches his life unfold before him like a movie. From his seat he watches his body, his movements, the expressions on his face, his actions. He plays the inert spectator as he reacts, sometimes predictably (but not always), to people and places, to situation and circumstance. He witnesses, but cannot participate. And so, it seems, he is a stranger even to himself. Like the others he sees himself and struggles to understand his rules, his systems.
It's true that he has privileged information: he has access to his own overt thoughts, his conscious mind, but this additional insight only serves to cloud his perception of himself, making of him for him an even trickier conundrum. For how can he hope to understand that which he can see, but not affect? And how is he to control that of which he has so little understanding? -- That is to say, thorough understanding -- more than simply cobbled-together theories stringing perceptions together with probabilities; he craves real comprehension of the hidden mechanisms of his self, his entelechy. But just as communication between alien species, truly alien even to the mode of thought, is obstructed by a fundamental difference of kind, a basic incongruity which renders equal intelligences as communicatively incompatible as dogs and pigs, his conscious mind - his super-conscious mind, indeed - simply cannot relate to its own deeper strata, its causal cousin. It is a knowledge he cannot achieve and without which he will never understand fully his own actions and thoughts, or, for that matter, those of others. Thus condemned, he sits and watches and waits, only hoping not to be too shocked by what he sees.
They couldn't kill each other, for if so the game would end,
So they had to be contented killing off each other's friends.
One by one they put to death each others' kith and kin,
Each murder strengthening each one's resolve to fight to win.
And when at last the game was done and only they were left,
They hugged each other weeping, beaten, broken and bereft.
And thus they learned the lesson which they should have known before:
It's far worse to be the victor, than the casualty, of war.
Very little is without its own aesthetic. If murder and torture could not be practiced artistically, bullfighting would not enjoy such vast popularity, a reminder of Roman times and before, when it was not bulls, but men, who held the spotlight in the ring, struggling against and in spite of the inevitable, to the roaring of the crowds. It comes down to sensibility and taste. Perhaps that is why I find this place, this tiny logging camp on the banks of the Balui river, so beautiful, for even the rape of a planet can have its scenic aspects beyond their final and terrifying consequences. For here, two days travel from the nearest real city, I sit atop one of scores of stacks of hundreds of gigantic logs, looking like twigs only because the tremendous majesty of each, recently towering citizens of the ancient virgin rainforest, is belittled by the enormity of their numbers and the wide expanse of the area deforested to hold them. The riverbank, dotted here and there by the slender scaffolding of cranes, is abustle and abuzz with their song, the song of machines, gleefully crooning their triumph over the wildest jungle on earth. The tractors grab the trees, now logs, from their stacks and, their yellow jaws gripping the bundled timber, carry them to the water and the waiting barges, unceasingly, all day, every day, while throughout, down the lonely dirt road winding up into the hills, trundle more trucks, laden with more trees, to be cut into more wood and shipped out across the sea. It is a lovely process, the camp's own cycle of life, expelling and replenishing, shipping and receiving, enacting the ultimate law: that of the jungle, this jungle, and continuing to draw upon the power of the forest. For economics, too, obeys a similar law, and will continue to require the pillage of the land, because in the thinning of the woods lies survival, the evolutionary end and justification of all. While above it, clearer than the grinding of engines and the thunderous tumbling of logs, the birds and the animals whose jungle this was for so long continue to sing their own song, of sorrow, of loss, and hope, like the gladiators, against and in spite of the inevitable, only this time with no spotlight to draw the attention of the crowds.