Four days out of the states, and I've been to the end of the earth.
I woke up early today, around 6. Of course, jetlag notwithstanding (a phenomenon which has never applied to me, since the whole concept presumes the existence of a schedule to be broken), that's pretty bizarre for me, and is even weirder given that it was the thunderstorm, usually a guaranteed passage to dreamland, that woke me up and kept me awake with its constant growling punctuated by cannon-claps too loud even for the most repressed conductor of the 1812 Overture.
"That's it." I lay in bed thinking. Bangkok is a disgusting city by any standard, but after three days of rain, well, time to go. I collected my voicemail yesterday only to discover that my friend Brady was just and suddenly offered an irrefusable job. "Sorry," he'd told the tape, "I won't be able to make it to the eclipse." The news had disappointed me, but lying awake listening to the 6 am rain, I felt grateful for the freedom to leave the city of the airport, the city of pollution, the city of the storms.
And at that moment,lying there in bed, I knew where I wanted to go. My ultimate destination for the eclipse is Malaysian Borneo, which meant heading south. But that was 19 long days away, and I had heard about a place north of Bangkok that I wanted to check out first. So "North it will be." North into the hills. North into the clouds. North to the border of Thailand and Burma, to a town called Thompaphum.
After a quick breakfast of rice and spice, I threw on my pack and caught a tuktuk to the bus station, and from there a bus 3 hours through glorious sun-drenched countryside to Kanchanabury, the capital of a province of the same name. Kanchanabury is a big World War II city where a lot of allied soldiers died. It's on the river Kwai, if you know what I mean. And Kanchanabury was more than just historical: it was also hot. Really hot. But after three days of rain and smog, I enjoyed being in the dusty countryside, mopping from my brow all the moisture I'd managed to soak up in Bangkok.
I got lunch in the town, chicken curry and a bottle of water, during which a pretty Thai girl approached me. She spoke first.
"You go Bangkok?"
"No I come Bangkok go Thompaphum."
"I go you three day 500 Baht." That's $20 US.
"No," I responded, "thank you. You're very nice but I'm not interested." I know she only understands the first word "no", but I say the rest just for tone. Still she looks bothered, and stands to leave. "Sorry," I say. When she had gone I realized that she probably could have befriended me, come along with me to Thompaphum, fucked me silly for three days, and most likely gotten $20 out of me without me ever knowing it was her job... but I digress.
After lunch I again caught a bus, this one squalid and packed, for the next three hours north. Standing room only (and that just barely) it was sort of uncomfortable, what with all the chickens and the heat, but that's life, and bit-by-bit, town-by-town, hut-by-hut, the vehicle began to empty. When at last a seat opened up, I found a spot next to a very nice looking woman in her 60's. We smiled at each other, and after that it was the most natural thing in the world. She offered me peanuts from a bag and I accepted. I offered her water from a bottle and she accepted. We both continued to offer each other smiles, and to accept them. So when we both got off the bus in Thompaphum and she motioned me to follow her, I very readily complied. She led me through the town's mud-dusty streets to...her hotel. No shit. She gave me a room with a fan and a bathroom and refused to take my money. Water it, seems, is thicker than cashflow, and Shazam: I had a friend and a place to stay without a single word exchanged except our names. Hers was Jin.
My watch said 3:30 pm, and my instinct told me it was getting late. I wanted to hang out with Jin and her family, and for a short time, I did, but still I had not yet reached my final destination, the place toward which all this travelling was aimed. So, having deposited my pack and promising to return, I set off once again.
In town, I asked a man on a moped for directions. Here's how I did this: I pointed left-then-right quizzically, and said the name of my final destination: "Hin dat?" He looked confused, so I asked again, "Hin dat?" The clouds parted. "Hin dat!" He knew it. Again I pointed around, looking for a vector to pursue. He looked at me, checked his watch, and patted the seat of his moped behind him. He needed not offer twice. I hopped on and we were off. Down the dirt strip, dusty and dry, and onto the highway that brought me here. Back the way I came maybe five km and then onto a side road. Soon we overtook a pickup truck with bench seats in back. He waved it over and pointed me to it while shouting "Hin dat!" to its driver. Thanking him, I transferred myself from one vehicle to the other, which jerked into motion before I could even get fully seated. Before too long I could tell that my goal was nearing, my level of excitement inversely proportional to its proximity. We drove on a spell, and when the truck stopped and the driver pointed to me I dismounted, paid my 10 baht, and was left in the road in a cloud of dust with no buildings in sight. To my left I could see a dirt path leading off into the vast wall of green, and with no other clues to go on, I followed it. It felt a bit weird just marching off into the wilderness like that, with no indications of any kind in sight, no ropes, no nets, but I'd gotten this far OK, and there was really nowhere else to go. Besides, I could always turn back.
But I did not need to. After hiking half a kilometer I could hear a creek in my future. When I came to it I found a bridge across, one of those small wooden contraptions whose apparent construction style belies its durability; and on the opposite side and downstream a touch I spotted my target. To describe it as a pile of rocks would be unfair, just as it would be inaccurate to call it crumbling walls, because in spite of its damaged condition, it still served its purpose, its magical duty for which I had been journeying since before dawn. It was a three-sided box of old stones, with the riverbank acting as both back and bottom, and it brimmed with steaming water, magic water. For although it continuously overflowed into the stream below, it had no apparent source of its own. Water from within the earth, perfectly heated to about 40°C.
I took off my clothes and sank into the clear fresh water. In this part of the world, hot showers are unheard of. To bathe is to dump buckets of cold water on your head, and to be grateful for the respite the cool liquid offers from the heat of the tropical day. But up here in the hills, the air was crisp and sharp, and I welcomed the warmth of the spring as it folded itself around my skin and worked its wonders on my mind, something about a hot bath in the woods by myself, something that no amount of benzodiazapines could ever hope to match. This was spritual vallium, and I lost myself in the canopy of green overhead and the wispy ghosts of steam rising from my private and bubbling pool.
I bathed for along time, languorously lingering in the surroundings, the sound of the creek, the slight odor of sulfur, intermittently dipping in the cool stream. Ultimately, however, I began to worry about getting back in the dark, and if you're worried, there's no point in relaxing in a hot spring. I dressed to go.
But before leaving this beautiful spot forever, I wanted to check out one more thing. From the tub I had spotted some stone steps leading up the hill a bit farther downstream, and I was curious. So following it upwards, I eventually came to a sort of crude treehouse with a shrine in the middle. And sitting there, peacefully clipping her toenails was a Buddhist nun, swaddled in brown robes, hair cropped. I removed my shoes and entered, sitting a respectful distance away. She smiled at me, I smiled back, and we sat together in silence.
10 minutes passed. Then she turned to me and asked a question in Thai. I said, "I'm sorry but..." and she burst out laughing. From that point on we employed hand gestures alone. I asked if she lived there, and she responded that she was only staying there, that (with finger drawings on the floor) she was walking to Bangkok, sleeping in a string of places like this along the way. She offered me the place to sleep also, but since I had no tent or mosquito net, and because I didn't want Jin to worry about me,I regretfully declined. In the end I bid her farewell, she nodded at me, and I headed back out to the road.
Now came what I feared would be the really tricky part. It's easy enough to find a ride from town to the middle of nowhere...but back? As I walked to the road, I imagined the trek back to Jin's place. It must be 10, 15 miles. But I'm here, I wanna be there, so.... Time to start walkin'. I hit the road and loped on for about 20 minutes, when from far behind me I heard the growl of a motor, putting and buzzing like the mosquitoes which had begun to emerge from the dusky woods. In the distance I saw a motorcycle approaching.
Thumb out. Cyclist closer. Thumb still out. Cyclist still closer. Thumb still still out. Cyclist passes. Thumb in. Cyclist stops.
A moment later I was climbing aboard a power Honda 1-by-1 of such dubious mechanical integrity that neither the speed- or tachometer registered anything, and the number wheels on the odometer were just plain gone. And there we were, whizzing along the curvy mountain road, with the mist in our hair, the wind forcing us to squint, and all I could think about was the grisly motorcycle accident I'd seen one month before in northern Ontario. I picture that leg... whoosh we curled around a bend and passed a truck... still booted and wrapped in leather... down a hill and up... with the frayed and fleshy end... we veered around a pothole... resting nonchalant on the hot Canada pavement... vroom we hit another corner and were there. Risk is risk, but it's also adventure.
I dismounted, thanked him in Thai, and he charged off again, zooming toward Burma. And me? Back to my room. Wow...this story's much longer than I intended...it continues to a karaoke bar with me the only customer where I was offered for free the 14 year old daughter of the owner, a place which left me with a confusing mixture of desire, disgust, and bad music stuck in my head... but it's been a long day and I need to get some sleep tonight. It's a long way to the northern tip of Borneo from here.
"Croooooiiiik!" the gate turned slowly on its hinges. I watched as the shadows from the street played over the elaborate Buddhist carvings on the surface of the enormous door, and then as a bald, wrinkled head peered around its edge. It eyed me with curiosity, then recognized my companion, and disappeared once more. The gate opened fully, and we entered.
Behind it, gripping the stout bronze handle, stooped an old monk, with shaved head and orange wrappings, a man of indeterminable age and wisdom. He nodded at us, and my friend greeted him with warm brevity before turning to me and saying "This way."
I followed him, weaving through the complex of the temple. We'd met only a few hours ago, and still don't know much about each other. I had encountered him on the street earlier this evening.
"Did you sell a lot today?" I had asked.
I sat down next to him on the curb where he was busily rolling and rubberbanding his stock of temple rubbings, packing up shop for the night. We were on a side street near Bangkok's tourist area, and night having long since fallen, most shops and street vendors were beginning to close. I watched as he carefully arranged his wares into neat scrolls, finally bundling them into a canvas bag slung over his shoulder. He looked up, smiled, and asked me my name.
The conversation continued with the basics: I'm American, I've come to Asia for the eclipse, I'm staying at a place nearby, no I don't want to buy any temple rubbings. And he responded with his own information, introducing himself as Dusit, a 26 year old who sells rubbings from the temple where he used to be a monk. He concluded his personal dossier monologue with a question: "You want drink?"
And sitting in a little bar I never would have found without him, sipping whiskey and water, our talk got a little deeper. He spoke of Buddha and life, and his life and his job, telling me that all Americans must be geniuses, since according to Buddha, the smart naturally become rich and all Americans are rich.
I argued with him, explaining that the Americans he generally sees are the select few who have the wherewithal to get to Thailand, and that there are many in the states who have next to nothing at all.
We discussed this for a short time, before he made his offer: "I was monk, and my friends still monk. I stay at temple. You want stay temple?"
And that's how I found myself wending my way through the darkened campus of ornate buildings following a tipsy ex-monk toward a place to stay for the night. Eventually we came to a stairway leading up to the second story of an older looking building. "This where students stay," said Dusit. "Take off shoes."
Barefoot, we climbed the stairs, and walked down a short corridor to a doorway. "We sleep here," Dusit explained, "friend room." He pushed open the door.
Now, I'd heard and seen a lot about Buddhism in Thailand. By far the largest religion in the country, monks of all ages are a common sight on the streets, wrapped in orange, yellow and brown togas with smooth heads and holy books in hands, looking very pious and official and always commanding respect. Most Thai males become monks for at least a year or two, since the temple system offers free education and a chance to get away from home, and, of course a certain percentage stay on to make a career of it. But regardless of the duration of their tenure, they all have an ascetic aspect, a look of discipline and devotion. So as we entered this particular monk's cell, I was not surprised that it was so small, barely ten feet square, nor that there was no bed, offering instead a hard linoleum floor on which to sleep...
...but I was very definitely surprised at the television set, the CD player, the stereo, and the Scorpion's and Cinderella posters on the walls...
...and I was even more surprised at the group of perhaps six monks, all younger than 20, sitting in a tight ring on the floor with beers and cigarettes in their hands as the heavy metal music rattled through the slat wood walls. We sat down with the others, and they offered me a beer. I accepted.
I looked around at the room, taking it in. "This is what it is to be a monk?"
Dusit looked pleased. "Monk life good. Much good time, much respect."
"But you guys are drinking and smoking pot, are you allowed to do that?"
"Buddha never say about it, so OK," one of the monks on the floor explained. "But we no can outside. Money come from people. No good see."
"Cool, I guess," I replied. And with that, I grew into sync with their party lifestyle for a couple of days. They were happy to have me there, to practice their English and to learn about the culture which produces so much of what the world consumes in terms of television, music and clothing; and I was happy to be there, learning rudimentary Thai, partying every night, and hanging with the monks.
Our schedule went something like this: each evening we'd congregate in the room (whose room it was I don't know, for Dusit and I were the only ones who slept there) and pool our assets to buy beer. I was never allowed to chip in, because as monks, all their money came free from the public, so it was really like spending nothing at all. Someone would be dispatched to go buy, and the rest of us busied ourselves with the music, marijuana, and conversation. They never seemed to run out of questions about life in the states, and generously offered information about their own lives as well. One thing that they seemed very reluctant to discuss, however and strangely, was Buddhism. It seemed from their attitudes that Buddhism was more than just a passé topic, that they really didn't know much about it at all, a strange condition for guys whose lives are supposed to be dedicated to its teachings, but I didn't push the point. We had plenty else to talk about.
We partied until dawn, when they all went to perform their morning ritual. This consisted of an hour of chanting and candle burning, before an audience of perhaps 75 people from the neighborhood who came, watched, and departed without a word, leaving daily a mountain of trays of home-cooked food in their wake. After the public services had concluded, they would perform their private rites for another hour, before calling me down to the feast. We gorged every morning on the richest and widest variety of Thai food I've ever encountered, all lovingly cooked by the surrounding community and donated to the good of the temple.
After the banquet, we'd typically crash for a few hours, before rising and heading out into the town for walks. When my friends did their studies was beyond me, as we spent the better part of each afternoon exploring the vast city.
Occasionally one of the monks would turn to me and say, "Do you want some fruit?" or "Do you want a drink?" They seemed very intent on taking care of me. And when I said yes, they replied, "Stay here," and went off to ask the fruit or drink lady for some of her product, for which she would of course accept no money. They were, after all, monks, weren't they? My friends returned with their booty and delivered it to me.
Then we'd make our way back to the temple, feast again on the leftovers of the morning's meal, and start the party anew with the passage of the hat for beer.
After two days of this, however, I felt the need to leave. It was a very interesting experience for me, without doubt, but it smacked of more than abuse of power, it had an air of sacrilege to it, of kids given the reins of the public trust. I came to realize that they wouldn't talk about Buddha with me because they found no time in their busy schedules to read him or to meditate beyond what their morning regimen required. And I also grew to understand that their motivation in becoming monks was far removed from a desire to become more pious or holy. They did it for its access to unearned respect, for the position it conferred upon them regardless of their actions or beliefs. I was riding on a bus with Dusit's brother that second afternoon, and I asked him how much the ride would cost us. "You pay 10 Baht," he told me, and then straightening his posture in an inflation of power and pride, added, "I do not pay. I am monk." I later asked him how long he would continue to be a monk. "Maybe one year more," he answered, "then I want be police." For him, the two jobs were perhaps not so different from one another. And I should stress that these guys do not fairly represent the greater body of Buddhist holymen, but that when the temple system plays the numbers on the scale that they do in order to secure a few good monks for the duration of their lives, there are bound to be abusers of the system.
As for me, I had seen enough. The eclipse was ever nearing, and the monks had told me about a hot spring in the town of Ranong, to the south and right on my way. So thanking them for their hospitality and wishing them well, I shouldered my pack, and set off for the train station. As I left, Dusit stopped me.
"Take this," he said, and handed me a rubbing from his collection. "For you remember Buddha."
To my dear brother Jim:
I know that it must be strange for you to receive a letter from a family that you no longer feel you belong to, from which you separated yourself so effectively and so long ago, but the special and urgent nature of our present situation has compelled me to find you, and to write, with the assurance that you will understand why I must communicate with you when you learn what I have to tell.
Our dear father, who brought us into the world, who provided for us in times of hardship (as he was so fond of reminding us), who taught us right from wrong even when that meant selflessly beating us to teach a lesson, and who never stopped talking of you even when you stopped talking to him, is dying.
I know that this must come as a shock to you as it did to us all. And I wish I could say that it has been sudden and painless, for that might ease the burden you must feel when you realize that never again might you have the opportunity to reconcile with him, but such is not the case.
I will try to explain what happened as simply as possible, for it is very difficult for me, too, to think about. But you, my brother and dear father's only other child, deserve to know how he has met his end.
It happened three days ago, on Saturday. Father had been out all day and, in fact, had not come home the night before. This had long ceased to be a source of worry for mother and I. Many times he would be gone for days, and then return offering no explanation. Eventually we learned to accept this as one of the many freedoms he enjoyed as head of the house. On Saturday he returned late. It was dark and he had, as was his prerogative, been drinking. Mother and I were playing cards, but when he staggered in and knocked over our card table, we were so glad to see him that we did not mind the interruption of our game. Nor were we bothered when he began pacing around the house swearing in slurred speech at every object that met his eye, except that something was bothering him, and as he was our provider and dear family member, we wanted only to help assuage his obvious vexation.
But nothing either mother or I could think to say helped to calm him; indeed our words only seemed to focus his anger upon us. You surely must recall how heavily the troubles of the world weighed upon him. He swore at us, blaming mother and I for many of our collective hardships. I'm sure he was right to blame us, and we faced his words with strength, but this stern venting of emotion did not help to pacify him. He stormed back out of the house, leaving mother and I more worried about him than ever, and afraid of the guilt we would suffer should any sinister fate befall him as a result of the rage which we had evidently caused. We did not wait long for our fears to be realized.
My dear brother, do you remember the animal traps father set in the yard to keep the insidious children of the neighborhood, for whom father's aggravations were a source of entertainment, from trespassing on our land? Well, his careful protection of our property ultimately proved to be his downfall. It's ironic how our strengths often hurt us. For in his justifiable rage and in the thick darkness of night, father lamentably stumbled into one of his own traps! And from his yelps of pain, it seemed that he had unluckily found one of the largest of the steel-jawed snares to boot. Poor father! Mother and I were stunned by this turn of events, with our beloved benefactor screaming in agony out in the yard, and neither of us knowing what to do.
Finally we had to make a decision, and we did. Mother and I came to the conclusion that there was nothing to be done. We did not know how to open the trap, as father had forbidden us to touch them, and besides, the wound from the sharp blades would most certainly become infected. His leg would need to be amputated, a humiliation father would be unable to bear, and there might still ensue further complications. To try to free him would be to risk condemning him to a protracted, painful, embarrassing and costly death, all because of our thoughtless stupidity. No. It would be better, we concluded, to let father die here, with dignity, on his own land, and with his family nearby.
It pains me to write this, dear Jim, for even as my pen moves across the page I can hear father shouting from the yard, above the din of the torrential rain that has been falling since yesterday morning. His strict curses and harsh truisms for which we love him so have given way to apology, atonement, and assertions of self-blame - words he would never utter in health - so I know that his end must be very near.
And now I come, beloved brother, to the question of inheritance. I have done a bit of asking around town, and it seems that father has amassed a not inconsiderable debt, primarily through drinking and gambling. He owes far more than the sale of the house can hope to cover, and with mother unable to work because of what father did to her with the car, I have begun the process of legally disinheriting myself, a step which you either lacked the foresight or did not see fit to take. And so now, dearest Jim, you will have the final opportunity - the obligation in fact - to make up to father, to repay him for all the grief you have brought him in your years in this house and especially since your departure. I hope this chance warms you, and that you seize it rather than waiting for it to be thrust upon you. I envy you this penance, I who will forever be burdened with the guilt of father's untimely passage.
Dearest brother, I am sorry that our first contact in so long had to be occasioned by such an unfortunate turn of events. And in keeping with your wishes I will make no further attempt to impose myself upon your life. But rest assured that I think of you often, I hope you are well, and that father, and I, will see you once again, in heaven.
With deepest fraternity,
It rains all day and night
The raindrops splash kerplish kerplop.
It has been raining always
No, the rain will never stop.
Wrathful God, Vengeful God
Boom bang bam bap! I want to slash I want to stomp I want to burn I want to rage on a rampage I want to chomp and char and churn I want to hear you beg and moan I want your skin to stretch and tear I want to break into your home and beat you senseless with a chair I want to feel the thrill of hate I want to laugh I want to smile and hurting children squashing bugs and boiling babies all the while I want to deep submersion drown you and then watch you get the bends I want to steal your address book and make prank calls to all your friends I want to order you around while you submit to my demands I want to offer you a manicure and chop off both your hands I want to tell you that I love you and then tell you it's a lie and then I want to watch you crying then I want to watch you die I want to smash a thousand bottles with a sturdy wooden cane I want to jam your nasal cartilage straight up into your brain Boom bang bam bap! The check's aggression and the sole payee is you don't ask me why just howl and cry it's simply what I have to do.
Since it might with disease be imbued,
Many tourists here won't touch the food.
And I'm tempted to shout,
"What is travelling about?"
But to do so I think would be rude.
Today I saw a woman who had painted her eyebrows in thick blue waxy clumpy eyebrow pencil, just the right color to look really revolting against her Malayan brown skin. Now, I can understand if, through some oversight in her upbringing, or ignorance brought on by a healthy supply of misinformation about the basic concepts of fashion and style, she at some point thought it would be a smart move to yank out all her eyebrow follicles; and I can also sympathize with her certain horror upon discovering that she is among whatever percentage of the population it is whose eyebrows, once plucked, never return; and I can even accept that there is a widespread misconception that eyebrows crayoned onto skin are better than no eyebrows at all; but blue? Seriously now. In that one simple act of choice, that deliberate and meditated selection of color, she unravelled the entire fabric of lies whose intricate weavings have led to the very existence of eyebrow pencils in the first place. She didn't mask her actions. She didn't cover up her obvious initial misjudgment regarding her eyebrows' self-regenerative abilities. Not in the least. All she accomplished through her cosmetic endeavor was to subvert cosmetics as a category by accenting what they mean to conceal, was to say... no... to shout, "Look! I yanked my eyebrows out! They didn't grow back! So I painted them blue! Blue, do you hear me, blue!" All this she howled in a thick clumpy blue waxy arc over each eye. The rest of her face betrayed nothing, as though these atrocities she had markered in were the most natural things in the world.
Said the drunkard to the preacherman, "Hey ho, let's have a game,
And to the winner we'll award eternal life.
But to the loser goes a future of eternal wrenching flame:
He'll have to kill himself with this, my trusty knife."
But the holy man said, "Sir you must be really quite morose
To think I'd risk what I already stand to gain.
Still, I admit I am intrigued by what you now propose,
So tell me, sir, what are the terms of your fool game?"
The drunkard smiled a wicked grin revealing rotten gums
And said, "Hee hee, the very first rule of the day,
Is that if you agree to hear the rules beyond rule number one,
Then you are also promising that you will play."
But the preacher shouted, "Fool! You think temptation is the key
By which you hope to my eternal soul ensnare!"
The other yawned and said, "Ho hum, it's all the same to me,
You need not play if you doubt that it will be fair."
The two sat silent for a spell, neither one uttering a sound,
The preacher watching his companion drink his gin.
And so time passed, until the holyman said, "Gad, how you confound!
I promise I will play, now let the game begin!"
"My pure undying soul into the ring I now have tossed,
So please now tell me all the rules I don't know yet."
At which the drunkard slowly smiled and said, "Ha ha you have just lost!
The game began the very moment that we met."
Let's see. I guess the best place to begin would be Sunday. That's the 22nd of October, and I got an early start. Up at 9, coffee and breakfast, the collation of the crowd (I hate trying to organize groups), and into town by 10:30. It was a hot day, and the Sunday morning sun drilled into us as we walked the 2 km road that leads from Jack's Travellers' B&B into the heart of Kota Kinabalu, to the throbbing Sunday market. Everything legal to sell was on offer there: clothes and watches, jewelry and fabric, bootleg videotapes and Koranic chant CD's... you name it... but especially the food. Oh, the luscious fruit red, orange, green in perfect pyramids, fish still flipping as cleavers prepared them for consumption, wise-looking men inspecting even wiser-looking cows while nearby precut beef slabs awaited purchase on ancient metal hooks aswarm with flies and surrounded by the raucous cackle of chickens. This is where the action was. But we didn't want action; we wanted a picnic. Huddle. Confer. Break. Buy. Relatively painless, really, considering the logistics of modern-day eating restrictions. We ended up with four foot-long tunas, each chopped in half, some garlic, butter, lemons, limes and bread. All told: ten US dollars. Then it was off to the jetty.
In KK you can't even approach the pier without six or seven guys swarming around you like ants on a corpse. "You go island? You go island?" But they had us now and we had to admit it. "Yes, we go island. We go Sapi Island. How much six people Sapi Island?" Haggle haggle, nod nod, and whoosh whoosh, we had landed ourselves in a motorboat whizzing over the lukewarm line green South China Sea. 20 minutes later we stood on the beach at Sapi watching our boatman recede into the distance. Paul and Nikki, the Brits, appointed themselved food officers. Too many cooks, etc, so I joined the Dutch couple for a snorkel while Jennifer, a wildlife photographer, took off with her Nikon to shoot monkeys.
The snorkeling was great. Coral, fish, warm water, hot sun, the respiratory soundtrack: full package. And when I saw Paul signallng from shore, I notified Ilsa and Rob and together we hit the shady palms for a delicious lunch of campfire garlicbutter tuna. The balance of the afternoon I spent constructing the most picturesque fairytale sandcastle. It had crenels and minarettes, bastions and bridges. It was the height of haute, with finger-numbing detail and a moat just begging to seethe with leeches and pirhanna. It was truly more castle-complex than castle and I was sad to part with it, but when the boatman comes you cannot argue... I suppose Borneo is a lot like the river Styx in that regard... and as we flew across the surface of the water toward the city with the sun setting over the sea behind us, I felt burnt, relaxed, and comfortable, ready for a quiet night, maybe reading. We'd need to get an early start tomorrow, heading north to see Tuesday morning's eclipse.
But what with the best-laid plans and all that, we found Jack, upon our return, standing in the common room of his B&B trying to motivate people to go drinking with him. And the thing about Jack is: he's good at motivating people. So after a quick shower and change, Jack, me, and four others, including Rob and Ilsa (whom I quite like by now), set off for town once more. Jack chose the bar, a nice enough place, but we didn't drink much because alcohol in exorbitant in Muslim countries. We did drink a little, though, and we talked, and we danced, and together we all walked home in a warm drenching rainstorm, but in good spirits after a good day. It was 2 am.
So when Jorin, a girl from Calgary who slept a couple of beds over from me woke me up at 7 am, it seemed like a cruel joke, but the worst kind of cruel joke, one which must be taken seriously. "Gotta see the eclipse," I grunted to groggily myself, "gotta see the eclipse," and after I brushed my teeth, downed a few cups of coffee, and loaded myself into the minibus Jack had thoughtfully arranged for just this occasion, I fell right back asleep. But not for long. The ride was long, the road rough, and the day hot, and we arrived a few hours later at our first destination more tired than when we had set out. This place was called Matunggong, a village famous for its traditional longhouses. It was also, more immediately, famous for being the best place in the world to see this particular eclipse. I had chosen this spot six months before. "North Borneo," I thought then, "nobody else will be anywhere near me." After all the moon's shadow cuts across so many populated places: India, Pakistan, Thailand, Cambodia... who would bother to go to Borneo? And now stumbling out of the minibus, dazed and blinking through the early afternoon sun at the crowds, I had my answer: lots of people. It had lucked into being the spot of maximum duration, where the line of conjunction, the line connecting the sun, moon and earth, hit a perpendicular with the planet's surface. Two minutes and fourteen seconds, longer than anywhere else... how else to explain all the scientists in their science mobiles, laptops awhirl, TV reporters and print journalists with cameras, mikes and notepads... all this in northern Borneo, which for just under two and a half minutes would be transformed from the middle of nowhere to the center of the world, pointed out, with the moon, by the sun.
Jack had ever-so-thoughtfully pre-arranged two small cabins and ten bottles of ricewine for our group. But it was still to early to drink, even by Jack's standards, so we dropped off our stuff and headded into the nearby town of Kudat. Kudat is a normally sleepy little fishing town which had temporarily exploded into a full-blown market extravaganza to try and corner its share of all the money that two minutes and fourteen seconds can generate. Well, they're not getting any of mine... in my role as wanderer I find little room in my worldview for material acquisitions. Everything I need, I carry; I don't need much, I don't carry much; and I don't add to my menagerie of possesions very often. Anything I buy I have to carry around with me for the rest of my life. So I spent the afternoon wandering around the vast and labyrinthine marketplace, looking at everything, buing nothing. I saw so much for sale, including, I must add, bogus eclipse viewers. That's the height of low, in my opinion, to turn a glorious and hallowed celestial event into an opportunity to make money while causing people to go blind. But anyway, a lovely though tiring afternoon of Kudat behind us, we loaded back into the mini to return to our stilt huts.
We relaxed a while and then, wow, dinner just sort of happenned. I'm not even sure exactly how. Jack just kept appearing with more and more food. Palmleaves full of rice. Peanut dahl. Chicken. Fish. Veggies. Things that I don't even know what they were. Just lots of good food. And after such a long day, we all ate a lot.
Now, this fact, that we ate a lot, turned out to be an incredibly important thing. Because then there he was, King Jack, smiling down on us from his standing position, arms full of old beer bottles, the big kind, which had saran rubberbanded around their necks to seal in whatever had been put in there to ferment. Jack distributed the bottles one apiece, and... well, the next few hours are a little foggy for me. I definitely remember that we tried to join in the tribal dancing, much to the amusement of the tribe and the amazement of the scientific community. It was a difficult dance to perform. I also vaguely recall being interviewed by a guy from Reuters. Apparently Jack, in an effort to score some press for his B&B had told him that I worked for NASA. I played along, claiming a classified and indescribable job essential to global security which required that I see eclipses. I don't know if I made the international press... I think he knew I had been drinking. In fact Jack, ever the gracious host, refilled my empty bottle twice during the interview. Other than that, golly... I remember lots of laughing and stumbling around by fire and flashlight. The stars were definitely out that night, since eclipses are a function of the new moon, and we were definitely out that night as well: out to lunch, out of control, out in the middle of nowhere in northern Borneo, poised on the brink of a total eclipse of the sun.
The party inevitably waned, and people started to fumble and grope their ways through the night to their appointed quarters. For me this meant the smaller of the two huts Jack had secured, a nice little wood and thatch box complete with stilts and ladder. This I was to share with the two Canadian girls, and Paul and Nikki.
The Canadians and I arrived first, climbed under the mosquito netting, and quietly waited for sleep, which by now I desperately needed. From off down the hill a few moments later we could hear Paul and Nikki approach, and from what Nikki was saying, it didn't sound like Paul was doing so well. Here's what she said:
"You can make it Paul. Come on, Paul, you can make it. Just a little bit further, you can make it... "
like that, encouragingly, over and over again. And she was right: he could make it. A few seconds later the extremely wasted Paul and the also-but-not-as drunk Nikki clambered loudly up the ladder, and with a floor-shaking thud, collapsed in the hut. And for a moment, for one blissful moment, there was peace.
Then Paul threw up.
Now at this point I should mention that even in the blackness of night, Paul's vomit provided the rest of us with ample sensory input to more than make up for the fact that we couldn't actually see what was happening. First of all we had the sound. Paul vomited vehemently, in full voice, with more force and bodily involvement than anyone I've ever encountered... or at least anyone I've even encountered while they're vomiting. The Canadians and I listened in disbelief to the intestinal riot in that tiny room; like a hurricane in his belly, a typhoon in his throat, Paul was summoning up the blackest spectres from his soul to hurl at the floor with the hydraulic force of a tsunami in a tube of toothpaste.
But he gave us so much more than just sound: there was also touch. Not of the vomit itself, thank god, but as I mentioned before, it was a simple hut with a simple mat floor, through which we could feel every shudder of Paul's spiritually contorting retches. We all-too-richly experienced the momentum of his splashing sputum, and although he was over in a corner mercifully containing his range of projection, we were fully there in absolute sensaround omneo.
And what could we do but laugh? So we did, Jorin, Kirstin and myself: we laughed and laughed. Because we were drunk. Because Paul was continuing to produce the most unhuman, inhuman noises. Because we could feel ourselves laughing through the floor, a superconductor of human vibration. And where was Nikki through all this? She was just outside the hut, and she was puking, too. Paul's barf-spree had triggered her own, and the combination of their sounds, their symphony of regurgitation, made us laugh even more.
But eventually it was the smell that acted as the mobilizing force. Because when it hit us, cackling there on the floor under our nets, it hit hard, noisome, redolent of dinner, and of bile, and of the one smell that we really couldn't handle at that moment, rice wine. So fearful that if we stuck around we'd end up members of whatever evil club it was that Paul and Nikki seemed to belong to, the three of us tiptoed our way around the ever-heaving creature in the corner (he had by now located a hole in the floor and was projecting through that), down the ladder, and out into the starry night.
For a while we stood, still drunk and letting our forced eviction sink in, just staring up at the sky, pointing out the stars and constellations we knew. "Look, there's Taurus." "That's Orion over there, see those three stars?" "Oh, there's the constellation of the vomiting Englishman... " But ultimately we had to come to grips with our situation. It was four o'clock in the morning, we were drunkenly standing in a grassy field undoubtedly crawling with snakes and poisonous centipedes, Paul continued to retch away in the hut with Nikki (I swear that woman is a sainte) cooing helpful support and running for water to clean the floor, we were very very tired, and we needed to do something. We checked out the other cabin. It already contained sleeping bodies from wall-to-wall, with Jack snoozing soundly on the small verandah, a mosquito coil burning alongside. The verandah was tiny, but what choice did we have? So the three of us piled on, squeezing Jack toward the wall, the floor creaking under our collective added weight. Jack opened one bloodshot eye to look at us, curled neatly into a row of sitting balls at his feet. "What are you doing?" he sleepily mumbled. "Our hut is full of vomit," Jorin replied.
Now, Jack is a good businessman, and sleep has an economy all its own. "Oh," he said, and the eye closed. So there we sat, for the next two and a half hours, trying, really trying, to sleep, but only able to laugh. Quietly.
At 6:30 Jack woke up. He looked over at us, and we at him. All of us had that post-alcoholic glaze of blear and muddy bloodstreams. Again we told him the story of the few hours previous. He shrugged. "We should get ready to go soon," he said. "We want a good spot to see the eclipse." With this logic I cannot argue. So casting wistful longing glances at Jack's vacated sleeping spot, we rose, helped to wake the others, and performed some basic hygiene before once more piling into the good old mini.
The ride wasn't far, maybe 25 minutes, and ended up in a huge area that the government had specifically deforested so that all the astronomers and photographers could set up their equipment. It looked like just another phallus competition to me. Jocks have sportscars. Millionaires have yachts. Millionaire jocks have sportsyachts. And what is left the man of science? How can the lowly astronomer hope to impress the ladies and build self-esteem in this world of muscle, money and power? The answer is simple: optics. Stereoptics. Scaryoptics. Huge 8-foot monocular skyballs mounted on air-cushion tripods, cameras with lenses like alpine clarions pointing their tinted black filters toward the heavens. It was really something to see. And the proud owners, the men, the teams, who had had the foresight and compulsion to somehow get these looming technoliths all the way here, they were happy like mosquitoes at a scab festival, buzzing about, sticking their noses and eyes into each others' oculars, talking shop and celestial physics, and endlessly endlessly endlessly making minute and repeated adjustments to thousands of knobs and dials. I wandered around watching for a while and half-hoping to run into some people I had met at last year's Bolivian eclipse, and then returned to the spot we had staked out: Jack territory. Jack had apparently convinced some guard that he worked for the Sabah Tourism Promotion Board, and had as a result secured some prime real estate. Then we waited. And waited. Sometimes members of our group splintered off to go for walks, or food, or to check out the crowd, but it was all still waiting. The clouds, as if to make our wait more interesting, played with us, an enormous game of peek-a-boo with the sun their hostage.
But finally at 11:03, the appointed time of first contact, the sky was clear and Luna started her attack, her slow and deliberate ascent to the throne, the deposition of the queen of daytime in a smoothly executed, silent and bloodless coup. It started as a tiny nick, barely perceptible, in the edge of the sun, a slight blemish clipping the otherwise perfect circle of light, and it was beautiful. And slowly, oh, ever-so-slowly, it increased. Now the waiting game was different. Now it was a painstaking build-up. Now there was something to look at. And I watched. I gawked. I stared, face upward with my sheet of #14 welding glass masking my eyes. I couldn't see progress in progress, but little by little I could see its result as Luna slowly and steadily bit further and further into Sol. The period between first and second contact passed excrusciatingly, with the slow power of an elephant, a lesson in patience taught by the moon, taught by example, as the sun was helplessly reduced to a crescent, and then a sliver, and then at last... ! ... second contact. Totality. I let my welder's glass fall and stared up wide-eyed into the artificial night. The stars. The black, glistening moon silhouetted by the thin white corona of the conquered fireball. People were shouting, honking, banging gongs, but I could not hear... I could only see.
"You clever goddess," I marveled, staring at the bright black orb hanging above me, "you sly bitch, you actually pulled it off." I'm sure I was grinning like an idiot staring open-faced into the sky, but for two minutes and fourteen seconds I didn't care. The moon's prowess held me transfixed, for it was my prize, the pot of black gold gained through elimination of the source of all rainbows, the moment we had all so avidly anticipated and for which I had travelled so far.
I'm not sure why eclipses have so fascinated me these past few years. The simplest reason is their beauty, I suppose, a shocking and humbling spectacle bordering on the supernatural, to be able to look at the sun and see it glowing, black and ominous. But this obsession is, I think, also driven by my nocturnal tendencies. Since before I can remember I've slept through the days and relished the night, the time of quiet, the time of dark peace, in circadian sync with the moon, my oldest and most dependable friend. So when I have the rare opportunity to see her taking the fullest advantage of her abilities as a free-orbiting satellite, to block out the sun and create night-mid-day, I seize it, and bask in her conquest of Sol, however transient it may be.
And as I sat there atop the van, she reinvigorated my trust in her understated power, and I could do nothing but stare and absorb her eerie dark energy. When suddenly, with a blinding flash of light that audibly rippled through the assembled crowd, the eclipse lasped into third contact, and totality was over. Daylight flooded down in full, and the moon began to slink away smugly, only to show her face again at night until March of 1997.
Immediately people started taking down their gear, packing up their equipment and piling into their mobiles. We knew better. After all, only one road led from Mattungong to anywhere. To use it now would be self-condemnation to an immobile prison of hot glass and exhaust. So we opted to wait a bit and watch the slow progress toward fourth and final contact, when the moon would be completely out of the sun's way.
It was during this time that Jack broke the good news to us. "The Rungus," he said, referring to our host tribe of the night before, "really liked us. Said they never had a group so fun before. And since they made so much money off the scientists, they didn't charge us for our huts." Jorin, Kirstin and I looked at each other. Last night, listening to Paul barfing, swatting at mosquitoes until dawn, and not sleeping at all, had been free of charge. "We only need to pay for the wine," Jack added.
The ride back to the city went on interminably. That was to be expected, of course, on the only sealed road from the point of maximum totality to the biggest city on the island, but I was in no mood for expectations... I was in a mood to go, to be, safe home at Jack's and tucked in for the night. On the bus everyone talked for a while, trading tongue-twisters in six different languages, determining that the only songs we all knew were TV theme songs and the Beatles and that no one wanted to sing them anyway, and marvelling at the magnificent event we'd just witnessed. Bus talk. Travel chat.
Eventually we stopped at some little roadside place for dinner. Only the basics. Rice and spice. Noodles and coffee. We ordered our meals and then Jack, king of the world at the head of the table, looked around at us and issued his verdict: "We all look shit." Four words. But really, I thought, gazing around at our group, assessing his assessment, four extremely well-chosen words. "That's how my trips are," he eventually continued, "everybody leave looking good, everybody go home looking bad, everybody has good time."
We all silently acknowledged the truth of his words, our energy-lacking response more a testament to their veracity than anything. Jack continued: "Now we all go home, we get home late, and we all sleep late tomorrow. No problem. I have Bibi make extra big breakfast... "
I interrupted him at this point. "Jack... " He looked up. "what time do I need to catch the bus to climb the mountain tomorrow?"
Jack sort of smirked and said, "You spend one night at base camp, or you actually climb the mountain tomorrow?"
"I climb." I could hear a dreading, hollow quality in my own voice as I said these two words. "I could get a permit on no other day. Chinese school holiday." This was a sad truth. Everything bookable was booked, leaving me tomorrow a single opportunity to scale Kinabalu, the highest mountain in Southeast Asia.
Jack looked at me levelly. "You leave my place 6:30 downtown bus 7 o'clock". Ouch.
The remainder of the trip passed quietly and without event. Nikki and Paul, both behind dark sunglasses, hadn't said much all day, and everyone else seemed lost in their own worlds. Some slept. I tried but for some reason, maybe all the coffee and condensed milk, maybe the excitement of the day, was unable to. And then, when we arrived back at Jack's, I didn't want to. Over the past four days or so, I'd made a bunch of friends; tomorrow we were all going different ways. So we hung out and shot the breeze for a while...
... and when my alarm woke me at 6 am, only three hours after I finally did get to bed, I didn't want to hear it. Of course Pierre, the French guy in the bunk above me, didn't want to hear it either, and he swatted me with his pillow until I made the beeping go away. I groggily rose, in an evil and multiplied déjà vu of two days prior. "Gotta climb the mountain," I now chanted to myself, "Gotta climb the mountain." I was too tired even to laugh at the absurdity of this. Bibi had already awoken, a true goddess, that woman, and Jack's hostel's greatest asset, and I quickly ate my breakfast before heading out into the bright-lit world.
In town, the proper bus was easy enough to find... what with the crowds of hawkers and touts, the bus finds you... and I was on my way. Two hours later, my pack stored at base camp and my knapsack full of supplies, I began my ascent.
The summit trail is popular... one hundred people a day make the climb, and at the base of the hill, I ran into a British guy named James whom I'd met at a disco in KK several nights before. "See you up there," I told him.
The first kilometer I handled easily. The trail is graded into steps, a virtual stairway up the mountain, using existing root systems, cut pieces of wood, and the rare but occasional metal bar, somehow always with the word "ITALY" stamped into its steely surface. The first resting place came and went, but I was cruisin'; I didn't even pause.
Now here's a useful piece of information that you should tuck into your head in case you ever decide to climb something really really big: these mountains, they don't stop. They just keep going up, and up, and up, seemingly indifferent to the condition of those trying to get to the top, as though they don't care a whit about legs, or muscles, or hangovers, or aching skin, or altitude headaches, or sleep. And you know what? They get steeper, too. On this particular trail, the last third of the distance covers the last half of the height. Really, kids, don't try this at home. As for me, well, having had hardly any sleep in days, and starting from sea level that same morning with a hangover and a sunburn and inadequate caffeination, somewhere between kilometers 2 and 3 some essential system within me broke down. No warning lights, no gradual crescendo, no build-up, just suddenly I found myself dragging, heaving, laboring, working, my body, one agonizing step at a time, up the beautiful mountainside through the bright sun and the increasingly rarefied air.
But stop I did not. It wasn't a pride thing, it wasn't a question of macho; it was simply a complete blindness to any alternative but the bed that awaited me at Laban Rata, 10000 feet up the mountain steps. You see, very few people hike all the way up the hill in one go. Not that it's not possible, but the park service built Laban Rata for a very good reason: if you rest at 10000 feet, and then tackle the remaining 3455 to the summit starting at 3 am, you get to see the rising sun over Sulawesi and the Philippines. But this glory was not foremost in my mind as I trudged upward, onward, stopping sometimes every five minutes, sometimes every five seconds. I could entertain only two words, spiraling around one another, ringing each through my mind with every alternate step: "up... bed... up... bed... " My legs ached, taxed by the ever-steepening trail. My brain ached from lack of sleep and coffee. My skin ached from the beating sun. My bloodstream ached in response to the alcohol and altitude. But on I went, at a pace so slow.
James and his friend Paul had long since passed me by, and I plodded on at my own speed, with plenty of time to marvel at the landscape and the orchids, the pitcher plants and the birds... except for the pain, which like the merciless slave driver we know it to be, pushed me on farther to the top without allowing me enjoyment of the natural wonders that presented themselves at every turn.
Every so often, insult was added to my increasing injury in the form of the small Malaysian women whose job it was to stock the lodge above. They pranced lightly by me, as though gravity meant nothing to them, bearing packs loaded with food, bottles of water, and,I winced to note, full large tanks of cooking gas strapped to their backs. I later learned that they were paid fifty cents a kilo for their services. And, to make my condition even more miserable, each woman who passed me on my way up sooner or later passed me again, still on my way up, but on her way down, now laden with trash bags and empty fuel tanks. They stepped around me as lightly as air. They were in great shape and probably didn't even know it. I felt like shit.
Occasionally my will, that lesser faculty of survival, would command Kinabalu: "Relent!" But always, with deaf consistency the mountain continued. "Up... bed... up... bed... " rang my thoughts, wrung my thoughts, and at last, at so long last, I dragged my weary corpse up and into the immobile comfort of Laban Rata.
I felt gross. I felt like stringy hair, like lumps of congealed and greenish lard, like a pair of rotten old shoes. My heart was thudding and my ears singing as I stumbled into the dining room and collapsed into the chair next to James and Paul, who sat playing cards.
"I waited," I panted, "for you guys at the summit, but after a couple of hours I realized that you wussed out and stopped here." They chuckled and dealt me into spades. We played in silence for a bit before I spoke again,
"You guys wouldn't, by any possible chance have a, well, have a helicopter with you would you? Even just a small one?"
"We actually do," replied James, "but sorry, it's strictly for British subjects - and for Commonwealth citizens." I put my hand on my percussive, stomping heart and started humming "God Save the Queen." They laughed. We continued to play cards. Then we ate.
Now, by that time my internal thermostat had settled a bit. And no longer sweating, I began to shiver, my teeth clattering together in the cold upper air. My fingertips were numb. I suppose, in the economy of oxygen, the brain holds priority over digital extremities, especially when, going from sea level to 10000 feet in a single day, a dramatic red-cell shortage is in progress. I changed into multiple layers of shorts and socks, long underwear and pants, gloves, shoes and jackets, all the clothing I had brought with me, and felt much better. Well, maybe "much better" is a little strong, but at least I wasn't as cold anymore.
My fatigue overpowered by my headache, I sat for while with my friends drinking nice hot tea. We watched the sun set, a glorious spray of reds and pinks broken into rays as it shined up at us through the gathering clouds, and diffracted into shimmering rainbows by the ambient mist. We also marveled at a very funny Japanese guy there, a magician by trade, who had made the day's climb in nothing more than shorts, a tank top, and flip-flops. We couldn't get over that. And now here he was, as we shivered in our warmest clothes, wearing only his sandals and shorts. He had apparently lost the t-shirt somewhere. "Are you human?" I asked him. He smiled uncomprehendingly. He did not by any means appear to be in great shape. He looked shabby and flabby, old and thin. But he seemed impervious to cold, so we let it go at that. He borrowed Paul's cards and did some really cool tricks for us. But compared to the magic of his comfort in flip flops and shorts at 10000 feet, I was unimpressed.
When he had finished wowing us with slights of hand, he produced from somewhere a handful of toothbrushes, and, carefully selecting one, went to work on his molars. No toothpaste, no water... and after a bit, he switched brushes and attacked his incisors for a while before switching back: back to the first brush, back to molars. We watched in amusement for a few minutes... but after a bit the novelty of it wore off, and I knew that if a Japanese man brushing different teeth with different brushes and wearing shorts in sub-arctic temperatures seemed normal, then it was time for me to get some rest.
Barely mobile in my rotund swaddle of clothes, I marched upstairs like a middle-aged Pillsbury Dough-boy, one made of too much flour, glutinous, heavy, and not as energetically cheerful. And when I hit that bed, the bed hit back, so thin was the mattress and so hard the slats beneath. But I didn't care. I was only interested in one thing. I closed my eyes and waited for s... l... .e... ..e... ... ... . when the other five with whom I was to share the room came in. They were pumped after the climb, and too full of enthusiasm for my taste. I woke (as though I had slept) to talk to them, and soon, mercifully soon, we turned the lights back out and everyone settled in for the night.
But events conspired to continue to rob me of the rest which I so righteously deserved. To begin with, and this is no small consideration, two of my roommates, all of whom were German, snored. They snored loudly, at different rhythms and pitches, and exactly synced to cover each second with maximum audio blanketing. Eno would have loved it. I did not. And to make matters worse, it was too damn hot. They had overheated the place to such an extravagant degree that I began to drip with sweat, feverishly. So bit by bit I loosened my tight straitjacket of layers, but they only seemed to get further entangled with one another as I tried to free myself, making me even more uncomfortable than before. Add to this the fact that there seemed to be a little man with a jackhammer desperately trying to tunnel his way out of my skull (not that I could blame him for wanting to escape), and you can imagine how I spent the remainder of the night, drowning in a first-class delirium, fitful, sweaty, feverish and raw. I didn't toss and turn; I was being tossed and turned, by forces beyond my ken, struggling to bridge that final gap between agony and slumber, cursing the bottle of ibuprofen I had foolishly left at the bottom of the hill, knowing that time was running short. I was definitely resting, but it was definitely not restful, and I was in no way rested when at 3 am the combined alarm clocks of an entire building full of people roused the world into immediate, bustling action.
Dazed and numb, I stumbled down the stairs trancelike, zomboid. I felt encased in a think exoskeleton of sweat and grime, which was probably for the better; I don't know how much of my internal machinery was still intact. Downstairs I saw James. He laughed. "You look like I feel," he said. I didn't respond. I just turned and traipsed out into the night.
I found the trail and started ("I can't believe I'm doing this") up. The cold air felt good. No one was snoring out on the mountain path. Now I wanted to sleep. Now I was comparatively comfortable. But on I walked.
After a bit the trail ended. From here on, we had no path available to us other than a rope, leading up the sheer exposed rock face, anchored into place every hundred meters or so. I put my flashlight in my mouth and started hoisting myself up, step by step. In the distance ahead, I could see others' lights in a string leading up... up... up...
At around 5 I decided: fuck sunrise. Time to rest. I found a flat spot away from the rope, put my head on my arms on my knees, and fell blissfully asleep.
Twenty minutes later I woke up in the pouring rain. And, clever me, earlier claustrophobed by the heat at Laban rata, I hadn't thought to add any more layers to my already very distressing get-up... including a raincoat. But at that point, I just didn't care anymore. I climbed the rest of the way, laboriously reached the final summit, looked around me at the fog and the rain, and wearily began my descent, soaked to the bone.
One hour later I stumbled again into Laban Rata. There I drank coffee, shed some heavily saturated layers of clothing, and waited for the rain to pass.
The remainder of the downhill trip took four hours and went without incident, except that while the uphill trek was a lesson in muscular stamina, the downward journey taught me about skeletal inadequacy. The human knee is poorly designed to descend 8 km of stairs. I thought how lucky Sisyphus was... is... not to be chained to the stone as it rolled down the hill. But in spite of my increasingly sore knees, and in spite of the hobble I accumulated, I finally made it down, down to the bottom, down to the sign. I didn't mention the sign, which I passed on my way up, because it meant so much more on my way down. It was a large blue sign, with yellow lettering. It told me in big clear block text that the record time up to the top of the mountain and back... was 2 hours 44 minutes. I winced, and went to park HQ to collect my pack.
An hour later I found myself back out on the main road, only now fully burdened with my stuff, thumb out, limping down the highway in a light drizzle, hoping someone would pick me up soon. The last bus of the day had come and gone, but I desperately wanted to get to Poring, a small town famed for its hot springs... god how I longed for a bath... which was 39 kilometers away.
Now, here's the thing about hitchhiking, the real trick you have to learn if you want to be any good at it at all: you need to be able to convince yourself that, if no one picks you up, you really wouldn't mind walking the whole way there. Of course, you would. In fact, nothing could possibly be more of a drag than having to walk a distance which is feasibly hitch-hikable, but you must make yourself believe that the journey would be a nice stroll in and of itself, and that a ride to the destination would be no more than a unnecessary convenience. And if you can go that extra yard and convince yourself that you wouldn't accept a ride even if one were offered, well, good for you... just remember to keep your thumb out. But the extension of the opposable digit notwithstanding, you need to make yourself like the walk.
This is critically important for two reasons. First, it's a pragmatic approach, accepting the reality that maybe no one will stop. If you're not willing to walk the whole way, don't start walking. And the second, more important reason, is psychological. Just as animals can smell fear, just as a hawk can spot a tiny mouse in a field of goldenrod, drivers can sense desperation, and even if they'd otherwise offer you a ride, they shy away from you like a preacher from a prostitute in public. It's simply too easy to keep on driving. You have to make them want to stop, to say to themselves, "Wow. I have a car that could make that brave and patient pedestrian's life so much easier." So with this in mind, I hobbled off down the highway, trying to convince myself that limping 25 miles in agony in the rain wouldn't be such a huge inconvenience after all. And, like most humans, I'm pretty good at blinding myself to reality when I have to, but this was a really difficult job. And when I had just reached the brink of having myself swayed to believe that I was actually looking forward to the walk ahead of me, a car pulled over.
It was an ancient Corolla hatchback, made in the days before rust protection. The window rolled down. "Poring?" I asked, trying to conceal the fact that all the convincing and self-duping I had just done had vanished. He nodded. I got in and off we went.
He turned out to be a really nice guy. His name was Hamadin, and he spoke irreparably broken English, but enough to tell me that He taught 5-year-olds in a primary school at one of the area villages. He had been trained as a teacher by the Indonesian army at a time when the two countries were fighting a propaganda war for popular sovereignty. Now he lived in a quiet village, educating the children. He was around 65 years old, and seemed warmingly happy with his life. I told him a little about me, and that I had just come from climbing the mountain. He patted the bare metal steering wheel of his elderly Toyota and smiled. "Car good," he said.
"Yes," I echoed, "car good."
Finally we reached Poring. Hamadin was kind enough to drive me right to the spring, "to door service" as it were, but before I got out of his car he taught me one word in Malay: kawan: friend.
"Terima kasih kawan," I thanked him, and headed into the park which surrounds the springs.
The formalities of accommodation quickly concluded, I changed into shorts for the trek to the hot water. My headache had eclipsed itself with my return to the lowlands, and my fatigue, as though it understood the value of a bath at that point, had gone into voluntary recession. My skin still burned, and my back and legs had begun to molt in wide swaths of translucent dead skin, and parts of my legs, where the tender new dermis had encountered relentless denim friction during the climb, were oozing and raw, but I was now so close to that hot water that pain was no issue any longer. I headed out, still hobbling, my knees spraying torment in all directions with every step.
The path through the woods was beautiful. It was paneled with all varieties of flora in bloom, fruit trees and singing birds, and when I found the spring it was in a breathtaking setting of orchids and rhododendron. I picked myself a few handsful of fruit, an excellent Southeast Asian treat called Rambutan, which name means "hairy", an appropriate enough label, since its outer husk is covered with filamented green and red tendrils radiating outward in all directions.
Thus armed, I sank blissfully into the hot water.
My muscles thanked me. My skeleton thanked me. My skin stung for a while, and then thanked me. And when I went to bed two hours later, I was relaxed, clean, comfortable, any more ready for sleep than ever before in my life. I took out a book, put it on my chest, and fell comfortably and durably asleep for the first time in days.
Here at BAND-AID, we care about the quality of our products. That's why last year, as part of a comprehensive study of BAND-AID's effectiveness, we inflicted two identical flesh wounds on each of fifty test children, one on the right arm, and one on the left. We covered the right-arm wounds with BAND-AID brand adhesive strips, and waited for ten days. When we checked back, the bandaged arms had almost completely healed. The children's left arms, however, still had open flesh in many instances, and frequently showed signs of infection. In two cases, the children's left arms had to be removed, and one unfortunate young girl actually died of complications resulting from a gangrenous tricep... her left tricep. This study conclusively reveals what we at BAND-AID have been saying all along: cover your wounds, sores and lacerations with BAND-AID brand adhesive strips, and you'll heal faster and better. It's not just a pretty bandage; it's good medicine. Because here at BAND-AID, we care.
I can feel the darkness around me now. It is thick, sticky, soft. I am falling through time toward an ever-distant splashdown, a permanence I cannot fathom but which I experience with every second that ticks by in the silent black, with every heartbeat pushing pumping pulsing blood through its circuit, its cyclical eternity web of pipes and alleyways, sometimes nearing the surface for a glimpse of filtered light, muted through the thick skin, but then always, always back, back down, down in, into the sheltered darkness of the core. And I fall, always in a different place, a different position, a different time, wondering if I've been there before, if anything has ever changed, always waiting for the splash that never comes, hoping it will come soon, dreading its arrival, knowing fully that when the cycle is broken, the darkness breached, the blood, too, will be cast out of its world, a blackening splash, thick, sticky, soft, for the next poor sucker to fall through.