Monday, April 26, 2010

The end for now...

I'm archiving this blog as of January 2010, and starting another:
Cycling in the footsteps of Jesus to India!

Thanks to all of you who read this, and especially those that made comments.
I do intend to answer the comments on the new blog, rather than be spotty, as I was on this blog.
On we ride....
Felix in Amman, Jordan, on my way to India.

Friday, February 15, 2008

In the Hall of the Mountain King, Pt.6: Barney the Bear

Central Kalimantan, Indonesia

Ami steps up to the large wooden door and knocks, while Rob and I stand one step behind and below, mute.

What can you say?

It’s like lining up for a caning at school, back in the days when they cured naughty boys like Rob and myself of over-indulgence with a swift whack on the behind.

It’s odd, though, how naughty boys seem to be the ones that end up in places like Kalimantan either saving humanity or living a life of a dissolution, or both.

It’s just a question of what you find to believe in, but then as any good naughty boy will tell you, nobody can actually hand you belief, you’ve got to find it for yourself.

So you’ve just got to go on being naughty until you find something real enough, true enough, and God help us all, beautiful enough, that will bring you in from the cold, of its own accord.

(That is, if you keep honour with yourself, and don't succumb to the yapping of Poodles along the way, which is easier said than done. There are a lot of Poodles, and their logic is so poodle tight...)

As Jesus said to Thomas, in the Gospel of Thomas: I shall give you what no eye has seen and what no ear has heard and what no hand has touched and what has never occurred to the human mind.

... which does, if you think about it, put it beyond the reach of a lot of the known world.

("How freakin' far have I got to reach, Lord?" asked Thomas.)

Ami’s wearing her inscrutable ‘one size fits all’ Asian Happy Face, a great skill, and something that is impossible for Westerners to effect, no matter the effort.

Her face, even before the door opens, is radiating complete non-threatening, compliant tidak papa, ‘tidak papa’ being bahasa Indonesia for ‘no worries’, and ‘she’ll be right, mate’, as we say in Australia, and ‘it’s cool’, as they say in America (there being no equivalent in German.)

The Happy Face is not genetic, but simply a social skill that requires years of training, but you have to start early, like Tiger Woods or maybe Evel Knievel.

In fact, Ami’s in such top form for the big occasion that she looks like she’s stuck one of those small, round Happy Cushions on top of her shoulders, and it’s impressive. (You can buy them at the market in Palangkaraya for a dollar. They come in red, pink, blue and yellow.)

Yeah, the Happy Face...

The big white Mickey Mouse eyes and the ludicrous Gavin Jenkins’ smile* say ‘I want to play’ and ‘I have a very small brain’, which could be rather boring, except that in Ami’s case, being female, there’s an unmistakable subtext of lay down your sword Achilles, rest your troubled head on my welcoming breast and I will transport you...

*Gavin Jenkins was a fellow pupil in primary school, and he was perhaps the dumbest human being I have ever met in my sorry life. When in trouble, he smiled like a Happy Cushion, believing that this most guileless of facial gestures would win him through even the most critical of situations, ones that Jesus Himself would have had trouble with. The day Gavin took my beloved marbles, and I confronted him about it, was the last time he ever smiled like that in my presence, at least until they replaced his front tooth, at great expense and flowing of blood. As you can imagine, I got an awful caning for that little episode, from the very formidable Sister Marguerite, our school principal, viz;
“Felix,” said Sr. Marguerite, looming over my tender 10 year old self with the cane, “that was not a very Christian act!”
“Yes, Sister,” I replied, “but Gavin took my marbles and wouldn’t give them back! And then he smiled at me!”
"He smiled at you?"
"Ah, yes..." I said.
“Oh, for the love of God! What are we ever going to do with you?" she said. "Now, bend over!" which I did, knowing the game was lost.
“This is going to hurt me more than it’s going to hurt you,” she added, flexing the cane.
“Then don’t do it, Sister!” I replied quickly, and quite reasonably I thought, but which, I can tell you, was not the right response.

Yes, the Happy Face, what a formidable weapon it is.

Of course it's fine if it’s working for you, on your team, so to speak, attending your every need, molding itself effortlessly like Plasticine around every jagged edge you call an issue, massaging every Engram out of your colon with strong, soothing hands, sending you blissfully unawares into the Land of Forgetfulness.

But of course, everything in this dualistic universe in which we reside has a dark side, skills just being skills, massages just being massages, so it all depends on who is driving, and what they want.

And everybody, except Lord Buddha (Peace be upon Him) wants something…

We reach into the dark, past the phantoms and the feints, searching for a handhold, a foothold, a corner of earth, and further, down through the fissure in the rock, deep into the cave where the Genie lies, and then, and only then, can we see what animates the heart of that which we face.

At that point, we’re either home, or at war, and it doesn’t really matter which. The main point being that we know where we stand, and can act.

But as Ringo (Peace be upon him) tells us, it don’t come easy…

Rob’s gone ‘Turtle’, which may be the Western equivalent to the Happy Face Defence Strategy, but that is, I will admit, a little like comparing a World War II German Tiger Tank to a Stealth Bomber, or perhaps Celtic Bonfires to NORAD.

‘Turtle’, with its distinctive raising of the shoulders, withdrawal of the head and a field of vision narrowed to the circumference of a Vegemite jar, radiates more of a ‘I don’t want to play’ and ‘fuck you’, with a strong subtext of 'I can’t handle this.'

In a word, it radiates ‘fear’, which is definitely not the same thing as the tantalising promise of balmy evenings spent imbibing gamelan music while your small brained but highly pliable seven veiled companion attends to your every fantasy.

I know which one I prefer, but it’s a dangerous game.

In fact, Rob looks for all the world like he’s expecting the thudding of trolls and the resounding rumble of a Fee Fye Oleh Oleh! I smell the blood of a Rich Bul-e! and you’d have to mad to offer up your body to that, so hence the Turtle Pose, I guess.

(Oleh oleh: presents, souvenirs. Bule: albino, whiteman)

My own fear is sudden and outrageous possession by Barney the Angry Bear (in an Enclosed Environment.)

Yes, Barney, I know him well…

Still, let’s face it, it’s not my money, and even if it was it’s only 500 dollars and at the end of the day it might sting but it’s not going to bring the house down.

Not so Barney, though; he can bring the house down right on top of me.

But then again, when it’s all said and done, who gives a shit about the mewang and the polisi and all the bullshit rules from Lilliput?

But then the Lilliputians do seem to have us well tied up, and as much as I attempt, through objective logic, to deny the existence of all the little strings that bind, I have to admit that this whole thing has gotten to me, and I’m feeling emotive.

Barney may be, as we speak, prowling the plastic bag strewn streets of Lilliput in search those that heap injustice upon me, his beloved master.

Barny loves me, this I know,

‘Cos more than once I’ve let him go.

I’ve watched him rend, I’ve watched him tear

the head off a Care Bear.

An abridged scientific note on Mechanisms of Emotion from the Kiev World Book Multimedia Encyclopaedia (which comes free with your Mac):

Someone who encounters a bear in the woods would probably interpret the event as dangerous. This sense of danger would cause the individual to feel fear. Thus, a person who met a bear would probably run away, which would increase his chances of survival.

Which is fine, but what about if the freakin’ bear is inside of you, Mr Kiev?

You didn’t think about that, did you?

Now moving on, while Mr Dunderhead Kiev has a bit of a think, let’s take our Scientific Bear Story as a kick off and look at the situation from the bear’s point of view:

Barney the Happy Bear goes to the Zoo!

There was once a naughty, happy bear named Barney, who frolicked the day away in the cool, wide and salmon-rich spaces of unfettered Tundra Land.

One day he went to sleep, and woke up inside a cage in, in a zoo, in Lilliput. (It happens.)

Inside the cage was another former Tundra bear, Bobby, who was at that very moment having his peanut butter sandwiches confiscated by the zoo-keeper as punishment for rutting on Ami, a local she-bear (also in the cage), in full view of the zoo-going public, which, it seems, is against the rules.

(Notwithstanding the fact that the zoo-going public can often be seen at the zoo rutting on each other, this being Lilliput, and it’s hard to find a place to do your rutting in private.)

Now, the zoo-keeper, just to be safe 'cos you never know with Tundra bears, had brought along an armed security guard.

So here’s the set up: Two tundra bears and one local bear in a cage, one zoo-keeper reaching in to take the peanut butter sandwiches, and outside the cage, a security guard with a gun.

Keeping in mind that the zoo keeper and the security guard, not having ever watched Animal Planet, do not realise that bears have feelings too (and I’ll bet you three bowls of rice to a peanut they've never seen Free Willie I, or II.)

Barney does, indeed, have a decision to make, and he worries me more than the mewang, more than the polisi man and even more than standing in Starbucks with my fly undone.

Keep in mind, also, that although I’m Barney’s master, I may not have complete control over his actions.

I wish I did, but I'm beginning to wonder whether I have any control over Barney.

Yes, control, what an interesting thing it is; how we slave for it, work for it, hold on to it as though our lives depended on it.

Sit down Barney while I dope you up and stuff you in a cage.

Yes, you can bring Barney in, beaten and bruised, cowered and clipped, but as any good naughty boy on a bike will tell you, he either comes in of his own accord, in full splendor, or forget it.

Yes, Barney loves me, this I know,
'Cos more than once I've let him go...

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Into the Zero Zone!

Central Kalimantan, Indonesia

Late last year I made a short documentary for a local Dutch NGO about the Kalimantan MegaRice Project (aka Peat* Lands Restoration Project) here in Central Kalimantan. The film was part of a presentation at the Bali Climate Change Conference.

*Peat, a highly organic material found in marshy or damp regions, composed of partially decayed vegetable matter. It's one of those extremely delicate eco-systems, like wetlands, that is critical in the balance of all things nature.

The original 1996 MegaRice Project (sometimes called the Peat Lands Development Project), a Suharto government initiative, aimed at turning the very extensive peat lands of south Central Kalimantan into the Rice Bowl of Indonesia.

Unfortunately, the project was a grotesque failure on such a gargantuan scale that it beggars the mind; these words and pictures of mine fall miserably short of conveying the human and environmental misery.

Which did present a problem in the making of the film, I must say.

However, thankfully, the human heart is beautifully articulate organ both in joy and sorrow, and that is, of course, where you aim the camera, for better or worser. (It helps if you keep the lens clean.)

Briefly, re the very failed MegaRice Project (so as not to bore you with facts), after stripping the peat lands to the southeast of Palangkaraya - an area of land bigger than the Netherlands - of primary forest, constructing a network of canals, draining the peat swamps and shipping in some 15,000 immigrant families from all over Indonesia, the Suharto government finally had to acknowledge that peat lands don't make good paddy fields, but by then, of course, anything worth taking had been took, and who's gonna complain?

Greed and avarice blind us all, as any good Buddhist will tell you.

What we are left with today in south Central Kalimantan is fire, flood, drought, polluted waterways, bad soil, dead fish, dead animals, a disaffected local Dayak population forced to scratch a living from a once prosperous area, sama the transmigrant families who have managed to hang on (50% of the original transmigrant families returned home) and a flat expanse of arid land stretching the filmmaker's mind from horizon to horizon, whether he liked it or not.

The current Indonesian government is taking tentative steps to rectify the situation, but of course, what took a couple of years to de-construct will take a generation or three to put back together, if at all.

The Dream: 1996

Above: The (very recently) late President Suharto in jolly harvesting mood, and happy peasants all in a row - way to go! Pics from the original 1996 Indonesian government promotional film.

Above: Peat Land Development in Kalimantan, 1996.
The Mega Rice Project: The official Indonesian Government film.

Edited to 6 mins from the original 15 mins.
1. This is NOT my film, this is NOT my film, this is NOT my film.
2. Have a close listen to the Environmental Poodle Speak. It is truly a seamless work of art.
3. The voice-over guy is one Mr Paul W. Blair, obviously from North America, and nobody on planet earth pronounces KAR-LEE-MARN-TARN quite the way he does. I'm with you, Pak!

Below: 2008, the God-awful reality...
Ain't nothin' much growin' out there, Pak!

Monday, January 28, 2008

Whatever happened to Kip?

Bangkok, Thailand

Above, my friend Kip, who saw Mr Pumpy and myself off on our first ride into deepest, darkest Cambodia way back in 1999.

My friend Kip!

Kip lives in Bangkok, is in her last year of school and aims to go to university to study physics. She likes music, computers, singing and Mr Pumpy, and tolerates me. Suan, who also saw us off (see photos) but refused to have her photo taken last week when I was down visiting the family, is now married with two kids, lives near Chumpon in southern Thailand and runs a hardware shop.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Hall of the Mountain King, Pt.5: Terry, the Inquisitive

Central Kalimanatan, Indonesia

The mewang’s (district Dayak chief) house is the usual rambling Dayak affair - on stilts, made of ironwood and big enough for 3 or 4 nuclear family units, except that it’s surprisingly, alarmingly, neat and clean.

It's almost twee.

Where are the dogs?

Where’s the scungy student share-house style couch on the veranda with the depressed cushions, rogue springs and this being Kalimantan, unthinkably creepy things living inside, perhaps even a snake?

Where’s the plastic bags flapping about in the front yard and the nest of virulent black ants that attack you the second your foot comes off the pedal of the motorbike (or bicycle) and touches ground?

No, Robert, Ami and I are experiencing, from the looks of it, a scrupulously cared-for house fronted by a meticulously well kept white-pebble yard which itself is sporting little islands of well snipped greenery, ringed, no less, by lines of potted plants with… what are those flowers?

Silver bells, cockleshells, and pretty maids all in a row?

It certainly looks like it, but how would I know?

My bloom knowledge terminated abruptly in early childhood with contrary Mary.

Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?

I didn’t want to know.

Who or what, exactly, was a contrary Mary? Whatever/whoever she was, she was not, in my mind, the kind of lady, young or old, that little boys should go near, ever.

She smelt of death, or worse, dying.

Specifically, it was her fingers that scared me, viz.;

I am standing on Mary's front step. She is standing behind me, arms around my chest. There is no escape. I am trapped, abandoned, and together, they are two of the scariest words in the English language, no question.

Her contrary hands have slipped under my shirt and her contrary fingers are running all of over my tender, young body, feeling it, caressing it... she's mumbling something... I can't make out the words, but they can't be good.

I've always felt a slight unease in overly tended gardens, as you can imagine.

The mind is a strange thing.

Some weeks before I came up to Robert’s place and got bogged down in the Sex Behind Closed Doors Saga, my friend Kevin, a Kiwi expat, took a visiting friend, Terry, into the jungle.

Terry was on four weeks vacation from Auckland, and wanted to see the real Borneo before he returned to the grind, so Kevin, having some spare time himself, took Terry deep inside the belly of the beast, as far north as they could get without falling off the map.

“We were pretty deep in, deepest I’ve ever been,” said Kevin, chuckling. “Just south of the Malay border.”

They ended up staying in a Dayak longhouse for a week, there not being many guest houses up beyond where the roads stop.

At night they would sit on the veranda talking and drinking with the chief, amongst others, with Terry, the Inquisitive, working hard to get a grip on this strange and exotic new world he'd found himself in.

(Ah, the Western mind! It's so... exact.)

Kevin acted as translator.

“Your friend Teree asks many questions,” said the chief, to Kevin.
“Yes, he’s been to university, Pak!” replied Kevin. “He’s a computer genius!” (Pak is the common polite form of address to a male, equivalent to Sir, or Mr.)
“Oh!” said the chief, much impressed, turning to look at Terry.

Not many forest dwelling Dayak’s get the chance to go to university and become computer geniuses, so this was a moment to be acknowledged – a man of high learning in their midst.

(Terry, if truth be told, is apparently just a run of the mill programmer, but for all the coding going on in the jungles of Kalimantan, he could present himself as Steven Hawking and nobody would know the difference, sans wheelchair, even.)

“What’s he saying?” asked Terry, wondering why the chief was suddenly beaming at him.
“The chief likes you,” said Kevin.
“Oh,” said Terry, smiling back.
“Have another drink, Teree!” said the chief.

The chief, happy to share some local colour with the wise man from the Land Beyond Where the Kangaroos Dwell, proceeded to tell his visitors about the giant water-dwelling black snake that lives in the river north of the longhouse, and that if they went up there they must take a guide and be very careful.

“It will swallow you!” said the chief, matter-of-factly and knocking back another rice wine.
“How big’s this thing?” asked Terry, impressed, having seen Anaconda five times, apparently.
“About half the length of the longhouse,” answered the chief, gesturing along the veranda.

That would have made it about 25 metres long, Kevin told me, as long as a cricket pitch, and then some.

“Have you actually seen this thing?” Terry asked the chief, somewhat incredulous.
“Yes, I have,” answered the chief, lowering his voice and nodding soberly. “On a few occasions.” This was obviously not a subject to be played with.
“Yes, but is it real?” insisted Terry.
“Well, of course it’s real!” answered the chief, momentarily puzzled; for a wise man this bule (white man) was certainly asking some odd questions.

“Yes,” Terry went on, leaning forward and making an up and down movement with his right hand, “but is it real like you can lay it on the ground and chop it up?”

The chief looked at Terry in total disbelief. “Well, of course it’s not! What are you, an idiot?” and stood up and walked off.

Kevin told me that later on he asked the chief to forgive Terry because he was new to Kalimantan and in the Land Beyond Where the Kangaroos Dwell, they didn't know about such things. Terry might be stupid, Kevin told the chief, but he was sincere.

“The chief shook his head, said OK, but was pretty firm about ‘no more questions’!” laughed Kevin.

“Of course,” he went on, “you can imagine when next the chief’s favourite nephew asks permission to leave the jungle and go down to the big smoke in Palangkaraya to attend university.”

“I want to learn the ways of the bules, uncle, and come back and help our people,” says the hopeful young man.
“Over my dead body!” says the chief.

Belief is an interesting thing.

“You know,” said Kevin, after he’d finished the story, “living with these people long enough, you actually start to believe again, but in exactly what it’s hard to say.

“It’s like you take a breath of air and then all the colours come back into your life, and you feel like you’re inside a painting and kind of part of it... not outside looking in, judging it. You know what I mean?”
“Yeah, Kev, I've got some idea,” I said.
“The cynicism back home is just so much smoke pouring out of the machine, and it blankets everything, like kabut asap,” he mused. “Maybe it’s the by-product of burning off the bullshit?”

(Kaput asap - the ‘smoke fog’ that comes from the yearly burn-off in Kalimantan)

“Could be, Kev,” I said.

“It’s going to be hard going back,” he said, wistfully.

“Ain’t that the truth,” I said.

We sat on his veranda that evening and talked into the night, until the silences that sweep up out of the forest like waves finally drowned all our words, and there was nothing more to say.

To be continued...
(PS. Any ideas, Jeremy?)

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Hall of the Mountain King, Pt.4: Crispy Bacon!

Central Kalimantan, Indonesia

Hate is an interesting thing - it drives us as much as love, although in this beige world of ours it’s more Poodle to talk about aversion, viz.;

Person 1: I say, chap, I’m feeling a strong aversion to having my personal boundaries penetrated forcibly by your good self!
Person 2: Thanks for sharing.

The word aversion (Dosa in Pali, the language of the great Lord Buddha) has slipped into common Western usage, to the best of my knowledge, from the Buddhist end of town, come barreling straight down the Politically Correct Expressway and entrenched itself on the large white divans of the educated and knowledgeable, like a fluffy dog.

Not that the Dalai Lama’s necessarily to blame (although I'm beginning to have doubts...); Dosa is more accurately translated as hatred.

Al least that's what they told me when I was living the life of a monk; not that they needed to tell me; any word short of hate to describe what I was feeling deep in the secret chambers of my heart was not going to float.

Not that, either, the Dalai Lama is in any way the Pope of the Buddhist world, but it's not surprising that things get lost in translation, even whole religious systems, and you don't even need to exit your own cultural base for that.

I’m only surprised that, as far as the West is concerned, the DL hasn't just closed the whole thing down and opened up a fish and chip franchise – it’d be a lot less trouble, viz.;

Our fish are fried deeply in loving-kindness… it’s the metta that makes the difference!

is Pali for loving-kindness, but then loving-kindness is Poodle Speak for caritas, love of fellow man, from the Latin, which is perfectly fine in the first place, I would think, canis in praesepi [dog in the manger] that I appear to be becoming...)

I did an interesting exercise with my students in 2006.

I was meant to be teaching English (and Film) at the local secondary international school, but I do figure that if I’m getting bored with the set curriculum, the students are too, the teacher-student bond being a strong, coiling rope of sensitive two-way impulse filaments, as real as your hat.

The film classes were fine - who doesn't want to be in the movies? - but the English smacked of good old, well intentioned, easy to defend, order, no doubt written by the kind of teacher I would have loathed as a student, and the teacher-student bond being what it is, the feeling would have been well and truly reciprocated.

Four weeks into the year I threw away the book, took the students into the auditorium and blindfolded them.

("Are you going to shoot us now, Pak Felix?" asked Robby. I love young people!)

After a few warm up exercises, I got them to sit on the floor and instructed them to conjure up in their minds a picture of someone they love, deeply. That done, I asked them to think of someone they dislike, a lot.

(I didn’t use the word hate, not at first, anyway. They were, after all, sensitive teenagers, open flowers awaiting my strong but gently guiding hand and deep worldly insight, and you do need to know how much the Tonka Truck can carry before the wheels fall off.)

Specifically, I asked them to search into their bodies and to watch, very specifically, how it reacted to the thought-images.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, Karim, the principal, just happened to be walking by at the time. (Which is something you need to know about school principals - they have a sixth sense when it comes to potentially odd behaviour within the school precincts.)

Hearing a small female voice on the other side of the auditorium door saying, ‘I can feel my chest contracting, Pak Felix! It feels weird…!’ I guess Karim began wondering what was going on, as principals are wont to do.
“Good, that’s excellent, Noor,” I replied, solicitously, “can you go deeper into that for me? Be more specific...”
Poking his head around the door Karim asked, "What are you doing, Felix?" in that measured tone that principals have which conveys both caritas and iron will, at the same time.
“Ah, English, we’re doing English, Karim," I replied, off guard. “We’re exploring adjectives… I think."

“Ah, can I see you in my office after classes?” he said.
“Yeah, no sweat,” I said, cheerily, the way you do when the customs officers at Melbourne airport ask if they can look into your bag, and even though you may look like you’re carrying drugs, or perhaps pornography, you’re not, but it doesn’t stop the fear rising.

You have to give Karim his due; firstly, for employing me, and secondly, listening patiently while I sat in his office three hours later taking it upon myself to shred the English curriculum (hoping to hell Karim hadn't been then one to write it in the first place) and finishing off with ‘…it’s just crap, the kids are learning nothing! Whadyawant, parrots or free thinking young adults!’ as I waved my hands in the air.

I love that silent moment when you’ve either just talked yourself out of a job, or the world is about to turn around and meet you, on your terms; it’s so pointy.

But it can go either way, and I’ve had both in my time.

Karim shook his head and chuckled, told me to do what I thought was best and said he’d ‘check back in a month’, God bless him.

(Partly, it must be said, that it’s hard to get any Westerners to actually live in Central Kalimantan – think Cambodia without the recent wholesale development, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam just across the way and no parties – that bosses are somewhat compelled to cut their employees a sizeable amount of slack, which, it also must be said, is one the reasons I live in Kalimantan.)

It may not sound like much, but to the semi-naked minds of a bunch of 12 to 16 year olds, half of them Indonesian, the idea that the content of thoughts can have such a marked affect on the physical body was a revelation of sizeable proportion.

Over the weeks that followed we developed that train of action, in many and multifarious ways, all the while articulating our experiences in the beautiful tongue, all the while returning to base; love, via hate (we eventually embraced the word hate, in context and meaning, as we did many other non-Poodle words, phrases and concepts - I'm not big on Poodle Speak in my classes, as you can imagine), light and dark, thunder, lightening and the clear light of the God given sun rising above the melting mist of another beautiful Kalimantan morning, which makes all laugh, dance and sing, together.

Ah, yes, all hail the day!

Karim was happy, the students were happy, I was happy, so it worked out pretty well in the end.

I love success…

Still, success, failure, whatever, it all stuffs our face us into the heart of the matter (although you could say reveals our very own heart to us…), and a year later, Rob, Ami and myself are standing on the top step of the mewang’s house in Kerengpangi, tapping lightly on the door and sweating abundantly under the Indonesian smiles we are busily uploading for the occasion.

“Who’s there?” asks a surprisingly melodious female voice from behind the door (in Indonesian, of course.)
“It is us, three rabbits come to visit!” we reply. “Two white, one brown.”
“Oh, that’s nice,” says the voice, “we eat rabbits around here,” and the door opens…

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Hall of the Mountain King, Pt.3: The bleak Plane of No-Speak

Central Kalimantan, Indonesia

Above: Kabut asap (smoke fog) over Indonesia and beyond...

Early in the evening Robert suggests I borrow his motorbike rather than arrive at the mewang’s (district Dayak chief) house on a bicycle.

“It’s all about how things look, Felix,” he says, “so me and Ami will take her’s and you can follow on mine.”
“Good thinking, Rob,” I say.

Robert is stating the obvious, but well and good. Only the poor and the powerless arrive on bicycles, so let’s not exacerbate an already pathetic situation.

“Maybe you could tie your hair back, Felix?” he asks, demonstrating.

Shall I wear a suit, Rob?

Rob’s understandably nervous and trying to get everything shippy shape before we sail into enemy port and hand over the booty, and it is all about how things look, profoundly so.

So profound, in fact, is this surface culture, that for a Westerner, it’s easy to completely miss the brain behind the eyes that see you; and I must say, that brain worries me at times.

Not that it's all bad either, it's just another brain,. but like all brains, it depends on what's driving it.

In Indonesia long hair marks you out, at best, as a non-conformist, which is not a good thing in a society striving for containment.

At worst, you’re a ne’r-do-well drug taking rock ‘n’ roll fool, which is not something many mewang’s aspire to, nor for that matter, many minders, which is effectively my role in this depressing operation.

However, when it’s all said and done, I’m not sure it’s even worth worrying about how our motley little group appears to the enemy, motorbikes or not. We’re just a couple of clodding bule fools with their home-grown, pretty (and possible 5th columnist) kampung companion.

(Bule – Pron. boo-lay, lit. albino, slang for white man. Kampung – small country village.)

Signals get sent, signals get received, we search out the weak points, sort out the power balance, and if we can’t agree, we either to go to war, or somebody pays, or bends.

Of course, we’re doing the bending; their game, their rules, their turf and they hold all the red cards. It’s been agreed that Rob will get shafted in the locker room, and I’m just here to make sure he only takes the agreed upon strokes.

Not that I have any real power at all, other than the ability to count the thrusts and listen to the groans, and I’m not looking forward to it. Robert’s groans are my groans and I can hear them already.

Need a tissue, Rob?

In my favour, though, I do belong to Subud, a quasi-mystical spiritual sect that has it’s roots in Indonesia, and which is, by the way, the connection that brought me down to Kalimantan in the first place, some two years ago.

(Subud is an acronym of Susila Budhi Dharma. It's an international spiritual organisation that originated in Java in the 1920s. The Subud practice aims to train the feeling within the movement of the spirit.)

Considering the fact that there are no secrets in Indonesia, and Robert felt it prudent to let the local police know that I would be accompanying him to see the mewang (more bending), it’s reasonable to assume that the police have milked the local grapevine as to my identity and social position.

Not that there’s much to it, really, but belonging to Subud does give me some punch.

There’s a small but strong contingent of Subud members involved in various business and education ventures throughout the province, and we’re (we, us, my people!) well connected, notwithstanding the fact that some of the thinking on the ground is that we go in for black magic and free sex.

Some months back I was sitting in a local warung (food and drink stall) one hot afternoon, drinking coffee, listening to a couple locals talk about me, safe in the assumption I spoke little or no Indonesian.

Knowing I was with Subud (there’s no secrets), the squat, knowledgeable chap with the frilly moustache, was happily telling his mate that Subud is, in fact, all about that; black magic (black magic is big in Kalimantan) and the proverbial free sex (free sex is not big, but widely discussed and it is widely assumed, even by the educated, that all Westerners go in for it) and on it went.

I sat and listened, and what can you say?

It’s the brain that worries me…

Specifically, it’s that brain with power, position and weight of numbers.

How do you deal with an orang-utan when it pisses on you (very accurately, I might add) from the top most branch of a Jackfruit tree? How do you deal with a pack of dogs?

The gun is a very tempting object.

I finished my coffee, said nothing and left, disheartened.

Indonesia periodically brings you to that bleak Plane of No-Speak.

However, that being said, this phenomenon is also one of the main reasons I stay, viz.; where else on planet earth can you find a relatively safe environment that will shut down your cognitive processes and render you clueless on such a dependably daily basis?

You travel into the Void, you come back clueless; you travel into the Cloud of Unknowing, you come back clueless; you travel into the Bird's Nest at the Base of your Heart, you come back clueless... sama Indonesia!

This place is a jem!

Of course, the question remains, as far as bleak planes go: How do you work your way out of it?

Of course, also, this is where the real work lies, and you hear the tearing cry in your heart, or you've missed the boat, basically. And that boat is so easy to miss...

Yep, clueless is a much maligned and much misunderstood thing in this world of ours, and it does take courage to embrace it, but there, for my money, lies the real heart of our intelligence as human beings.

Love and hate, thunder and lightening and the clear light of day, it's all there.

Above: Palangkaraya, the Bundaran Besar (the Big Roundabout) and the Kahayan River, burn season 2006.

During the burn-off season of August/September/October 2006 it seemed the whole island was on fire and belching smoke.

It was a bad year, as if the dreaded nuclear winter had finally arrived.

Most afternoons visibility was reduced to a paltry 50 metres, 10 metres on a bad day, the sun literally disappeared for a few weeks and soot and smoke permeated every cubic square centimetre of your life.

Above: Living in the smoke, 2006, the non-hermetically sealed experience. Mid-afternoon, turn on the lights.

Some of my more enterprising bule friends attempted to set up an hermetically sealed smoke free environment.

Going to visit was like docking with the International Space Station. After knocking and politely requesting permission to enter, you passed into a little room where you closed the outside door after yourself, and then, and only then, you opened the door into the main living area, which was cut-off from the outside world, save for the air-conditioning and water conduits, as best could be achieved.

Ah, the pleasure of the smoke free environment!

Fires in the fields, fires in the backyards, fires along the roads. Farmers lighting fires, young boys lighting fires, old ladies lighting fires – it was madness.

Everyday the smoke rose leisurely up into the sky and headed west, conjoined by stratospheric winds, where it eventually blanketed Singapore, Malaysia and neighbouring Thailand in air-born muck. Crops wilted, tourists departed, babies and old people developed breathing disorders, and neighbouring governments became understandably upset.

2006 was a doozy of a year, indeed.

However, our neighbours, to a country, did seem to possess an odd sense of reality: ‘Can’t Indonesia get it together and stop this madness?’ they chimed.

Well, no, itulah Indonesia! It’s Indonesia, can’t you people understand that?

Some weeks into the holocaust, in response to a strongly worded formal complaint from Singapore on behalf of ASEAN, the Indonesian federal environmental minister rejoined that he thought it was perhaps rather bad form for Singapore to be complaining at this juncture considering the fact that ‘we send you clean air for 9 months of the year and you never take the time to thank us for that.’

It’s the brain that worries me…

Mind you, we had to chuckle at the Singaporeans for complaining that their air pollution index was something like 10 times above the WHO recommended safety level; in Kalimantan itself we were 3,000 times (yes, you read correctly) above cut-off. We could only dream of 10.

I would think a well-connected, sect-belonging, long-haired, black magic, libertine guy sitting in your corner does command a certain respect, and I do thrive on respect.

Mind you, this being Indonesia, the local police may neither know nor care a whit about me.

You never know.