Monday, October 15, 2007

The Hall of the Mountain King, Pt.2: For whom the bell tolls.

Central Kalimantan, Indonesia

The story so far: See, The Hall of the Mountain King Pt.1: Robert
My friend Robert who teaches English to workers at the Kerengangi goldfields, got arrested by the police for ‘staying at his girlfriend’s house after 9 PM with the door closed.’ “Have seks!” said the arresting officer. “Not married!” Apparently this breaks the Dayak civil code. The person who made the complaint was the kepala desa, the local Dayak village head, who will now, along with the mawang, the district Dayak chief and the police, get a share of the fine, a rather exorbitant 4.5 million rupees, or about USD 500.

The Hall of the Mountain King, Part 2: For whom the bell tolls.

A few days after he was arrested, Robert called me up and asked me to go with him to the mewang’s house to pay the fine and sign the papers.

“What are the papers about?” I asked, on the phone.
“Well, that’s just it,” he said. “It’s all in bahasa so I could be signing away the house for all I know, but basically it’s to record the money transfer and all parties agree to agree on future rules, at least that’s what they tell me. This whole thing’s a charade of the first order.”
“Yeah, tell me,” I said. “I can probably read some of it, though, and ask some questions if you like.”
“It’d just be good to have someone in my corner, Felix, moral support and all that,” he explained. “I’m a sitting duck out here.”
“Yeah, no worries, mate,” I said.

Poor Rob: too visible, too alone and in the end, too much of a temptation. Once The Dog That Never Sleeps gets a whiff, it’s just a matter of time before has a go.

Our job now was to get in, deliver the money and get out before the evil brown fucker realised it didn’t have enough money to cover the cakes for Idyl Fitri, or the Christmas presents, for that matter, and took another leg.

It’s a brisk 75 kilometres from my place to Robert’s, straight up Tjilik Riwut Highway from Tangkiling to the Kerengapangi goldfields.

Most of the way the road cuts through forest regrowth, so there’s not a lot to see from a tourist point of view.

There’s a few scratchy villages, the odd roadside warung, some road works that never finish, but, as always in Kali, despite the lack of identifiable attractions, you get a strong sense of the physical, and occasionally something happens.

A large monitor lizard, like the Komodo Dragons in Lombok, only not quite as big, will run across the road, head up, legs pumping and tail wiggling. It stops, freezes, sniffs, ready for another lightening dart, and which way is this thing going to go? There’s no telling.

Snakes, big black brutes, two metres long, straddle the road like speed bumps, or polisi tidur, sleeping policeman, as they’re called here. They move like kings, sliding slowly through the hollow black on the inside of the world, and why bother even looking at the cyclist who’s standing a wary twenty metres back.

Reptiles can spook you, but then there’s always the sky for refuge, the Great Blue Dome. You can follow her all the way the horizon, just to get a look-see at what’s over the edge, at which point she’ll ask you to jump, which can be a surprise if you weren’t expecting it. When your feet leave the ground, if they do, you’re in her arms or you’re a dead man. Like the Wichita Lineman, at that point, you’ll need her more than want her, and it’s not a bad place to be.

It’s a scary world out there, but it sure is fuckin’ beautiful.

I’m over the Katingan River, through Kasongan, and dodging potholes on the last 25 kilometre leg into Kerengpangi.

A storm is on the way, which is common in the afternoon at this time of the year, and the wind whips down off the trees in sharp slaps that push the bike sideways, making your heart race and reminding you not to get ahead of yourself.

I cycle on…

There’s a low rumble of thunder running along the horizon up ahead and it’s as wide as a tsunami and as long as a Beatle song, although it sounds more like Tibetan throat singing than A Day in the Life. The earth trembles, the frame of the bike vibrates and if love can fall out of the bottom of your feet, then it’s happening.

I'm cycling into the Great Crunch and at some point I’m going to arrive, and it’s all going to end, which is almost inconceivable; in fact, it is. You can’t think about nothing, just like you can’t think about God, but that’s the mind for you.

I feel like a child.

8 kilometres to go and lightening detonates just above my head. An astonishing jigsaw of five white arcs hang in sky, one on top of the other, strung from one massive cloud mountain to the other, and I didn’t know they came in ‘fives’, Lord.

Bullets of rain explode on the hot tar all around me just as I roll it into Kerengapangi.

“Good to see you, mate, thanks for coming,” says Robert, standing at the door of his house in regulation white t-shirt and chequered sarong, just as the storm pours forth its flood. We scuttle inside and the rain on the tin roof is so loud we have to yell.

“Man, don’t you just love a storm!” Robert shouts across the room, and I agree, although I’m happy to have gotten in before I got completely soaked.

Robert’s house is a small four-roomed weatherboard box, painted a dainty blue and white, the Ken Done pallet not an uncommon choice in Kali, with a large front balcony and shaded on three sides by tall, leafy Acacia trees. It’s compact, airy and clean, and serves as a good little Whitey Oasis in a jungle of the Weird and Unplumbed.

I drop my panniers in the guest room, grab a coffee and go through the regulation ritual of stringing my hammock up on the veranda.

Robert’s primary object d’art is a half-size wooden statue of a traditional Dayak warrior, named Tjilik, after Pak Tjilik Riwut, the great, local Dayak hero, who also lent his name to the road I’ve just travelled up.

Bare-chested and strong, Tjilik, sports a short, wrap-around sarong and is holding the regulation spear and shield. He’s reminiscent of the once regulation plaster Aboriginal statues we used to put in our gardens in suburban Australia when I was a boy.

My family’s aboriginal stood proudly on one leg under the Oleander bush (a common spot), regulation spear and boomerang in hand, eyes fixed steadfastly on the Gilmore house across the street, and their mongrel dog, which thankfully lived in the backyard behind the carport fence.

In those days, unlike now, the only worry with this type of cultural object d’art was when you were playing footy out in the street, as you did most afternoons after school, and you stupidly kicked a grubber off the side of your boot which bounced all the way into the Gilmore house at kneecap level and knocked the head off of their aboriginal, or maybe the spear.

Up and down the street there was a strange decapitation process going on, and the nursery shops that sold these things must have been doing a brisk trade, viz.; ‘Free footy with every Aboriginal sold!’

“You paid 300 dollars for this? You’re fuckin’ kidding me!” I said to Robert some six months back, after he’d had told me the price. Considering it was my first visit to his house, it was perhaps a little insensitive, but still, a rip-off is a rip-off, and it’s hard not to take it personally.

“Jesus, man!” I went on, full of righteous indignation. “You could have got it for fifty, even then…”
“What price art, Felix?” replied Robert, taken aback at my outburst and wary. We’d only met the week before and for all he knew he may have let a psychopath into the house. You never know with expats.

He’d bought the statue down in Dayak Street, the one small touristy knick-knack lane in Palangkaraya, and they’d obviously picked up on the political correctness, and let the dog out.

Above: The evil Dr. Foo, the inventor of Political Correctness holed up in his secret Mind Lab, somewhere off the coast of Macau. “Hee, hee!” he laughs. “Onry wite peeper stoopid enuf for for dis! Hee, hee, hee!”

“They kicked off at 600 and I beat ‘em down to three,” he said, defensively. “That’s kinda standard.”

“Yeah, but that 50 percent rule-of-thumb crap is a myth started by Lonely Planet. I blame Tony Wheeler, Peace be upon Him,” I countered, not to be put down. “You could have at least got them to throw in a couple of naked dancers!”

Still, despite the outrage, I could see I was walking on sensitive ground; nobody likes to appear foolish, and public floggings aren’t that popular anymore.

“Actually, Rob, I lied,” I said. “Dayak dancers aren’t naked, they’re just topless, but still extremely attractive.”
“Felix,” he countered, “unlike you, I don’t need topless statues, and I’m quite happy with Tjilik, 300 bucks or not.”
“Well, have it your own way, man,” I said, throwing my arms in the air in mock disgust, “but I wouldn’t mind a few standing around the bed. It can get mighty-bloody lonely out here, let me tell you. Just think, you can tell them your secrets and they won’t gossip.”
“Gossip? Who cares about gossip?” said Robert, pouring himself another beer, a reasonable man once again in control of his world. “We’re foreigners, they’re going to talk about us.”

Above: “But Doctor Foo, these are my people!” pleads his assistant, Rhiannon, the former Miss Tasmania, 1964.
“Hee! Hee!” laughs Dr. Foo. “Wot yoo not see, Weearno, ee dat it dare riberawarism, lite dare democlasee, dat mek dem stoopid! Hee! Hee!”
“Please, Doctor! Liberalism and democracy are what our civilisation's all about!"
“Yoo stoopid, too. Now klo door, hav seks! Eye gi yoo big boner, Weearnoo! Hee! Hee! Hee!”

“Well, that’s easy to say, Rob,” I went on, “as long as you’re not standing in harm’s way. I tell you, it’s a freakin’ disease around here, a destructive force of nature, and it will fuck you if show a bare leg!”

I suspect Robert thought he was talking to somebody who’d spent just a little too long a time in-country, and he eyed me carefully. “No, Rob,” I said, by way of addendum, “stick to the statues, mate, they’re easier to control.”

He shook his head and laughed, “I’ll keep it in mind!” and took another sip of his beer.

Unfortunately, the only thing Robert kept in mind is that ‘it can get mighty-bloody lonely’, so over the next few months he fixed that problem, only to run into the rest.

What drums say, Phantom?

There’s a white man living with a local girl, he’s rich, she’s got a new hand-phone, free use of a motorbike, lots of clothes, additions to the new house, and in the close network of family, dependents and the bulging people layers of social favour and debt, everybody now wants their rightful due.

Everyday Robert is confronted with somebody putting his or her hand out. He gets it in the field, in restaurants and at home by the front door. “Fuck, it’s annoying!” said Robert, one day a few weeks back as we sat drinking coffee in the local warung. “I say to them, ‘What do you think I am, an ATM?’ but it makes no difference.”

He’s also noticing that people aren’t quite as happy in his company as they used to be, and he’s just not sure who his friends are anymore.

Robert’s world is going awry.

Ami’s co-workers complain to the boss at the gold shop that she’s a lazy, boastful and telling tales and she loses her job; at least that’s the reason given. “What I also find weird is that people actually seem to believe this crap, and yet they know it’s gossip,” he adds.

Robert’s got another wife in Thailand, and a wife back home in Oz. He’s going to buy Ami a 4 wheel drive kijang, and when her new house is finished they’re going to set up a supermarket in the main street of town. Rob’s also in the process of converting to Islam, so he can marry Ami, who’s Muslim, and there’s word he wants another wife to make up the allotted four.

Mixed religion marriages are outlawed in Indonesia, the irony in this case being that Ami herself converted from Christianity in order to marry her current (and missing) husband, who was a Muslim.

After all of that, they’ll soon be moving to Australia, and Ami’s pregnant.

“All news to me, but I get it everyday,” said Rob, sadly. “And whoever’s talking to me is always my best friend and it’s somebody else that’s stirring the pot. If I get upset and confront anybody it just makes it worse. Fuck, man, I’m just trying to help these people and survive, and I’m dealing with a pack of dogs!”

It was like watching somebody having his skin slowly torn off, and with it went the fleshy underside of well meaning good intentions. It did make you wonder when Rob’s own hairy dog was going to arise, and that certainly would be fun to watch, but at the moment Rob was managing to keep order.

The Dayak power structure works on a simple village set-up. The kepala desa is the local chief, charged with keeping order in the kampung. Next up is the mewang, the district chief who’s in charge of the local village cluster, and overarching all of the village clusters are the polisi, the arm of the provincial government.

And so the axe fell.

The kepala desa obviously figured enough was enough, and the next thing you know Robert’s in the station polisi talking about seks behind closed doors.

The rain falls and the night hugs us close.

“It’s been a long six months, Rob,” I said, rocking gently in the hammock, the cool breeze a welcome gift at the end of another long, hot day.
“Tell me!” he replied, still agitated, still chewing it through. “But you know the worst of it? I can’t quite shake the feeling that Ami knew about the police raid before hand and I tell ya, it’s an evil thought to be carrying around.”
“Yeah, I can imagine,” I said.
“The evening it happened I got a text message from an Indonesian friend, who lives just down the road, telling me to ‘leave house now’, but you know the communication system here. He’d sent it at 8 o’clock, but it didn’t arrive in my phone until the police had already arrived. I mean, you’d think he would have come up and told me about it face to face, but no, just a cryptic text that arrives too late anyway. But people obviously knew about it.”
“Well, Rob,” I said, treading as warily as I could, “I hate to say it, mate, but it’s a fair bet she did. You know what it’s like, everybody’s got their hand in somebody else’s pocket, and they’re all tugging, playing at the balances. And no one’s going to stick their head out to save you, mate, not even Ami. There all too shit scared of the dog.”
“You know, it’s amazing how shitty it can all turn,” he said, staring out into the night, as if he hadn’t heard me. “I know if I asked her she’d deny it, so there’s really no way of ever getting at the truth of it. Anyway, truth, what’s truth around here?”

Well, no man can sleep with a snake in the bed, and you didn’t have to be Ernest Hemingway to hear the bell tolling.

We slip into brooding silence, and watch the cicaks, the local geckos, eat mosquitoes and bite each other’s tales off. It’s a nightly ritual of cute fauna, unsuspecting prey and the bloodthirsty slaughter of limited resources.

“I’m living in a different world!” Robert exclaimed suddenly and began peering around into the formless night as if he’d never seen it before. He’d obviously been plummeting silently down the well and had hit the water, with a splash.

You’ve got to be careful what you say to the newly baptised, so I excused myself and went inside to get some top ups, and left him to it. When I came back a few minutes later he was sitting brightly up in his hammock, and I handed him his beer.

“Can you imagine what we must look like to them?” he said, and his voice had the ring of a six-year old, and I had to chuckle.
“What’s so funny?” he asked, smiling.
“Ah, nothing,” I said. “I just like it here.”

Tomorrow two white ducks, brothers in arms, are gonna go waddling into the Hall of the Mountain King a.k.a. the house of the mewang, and lay the Happy Meal at the feet of the king himself.

You just hope the dog’s tied up.

Monday, October 08, 2007

The Hall of the Mountain King Pt.1: Robert

Central Kalimantan, Indonesia

My friend Robert got arrested the other night for staying at his girlfriend’s house after 9 PM with the door closed.

“Staying at my girlfriend’s house?” asked Robert, not quite believing his ears, when the policeman came to arrest him. “With the door closed?”
“Yes, door close, have seks, not marry!” said the policeman, sitting grandly on the couch in the living room where he’d parked himself, unasked.

“Door close, have seks, not marry?” repeated Robert.
“Yes! Door close, have seks!” said the policeman, leaning back and looking easily around the room, safe in the impregnability of polisi logic.

Robert’s in his mid-forties, tall and fair, from Australia and teaches English to the field workers at the Kerengpangi goldfields, a 200 square kilometre area of human and environmental desolation about 100 km north of Palangkaraya, the capital of Central Kalimantan.

Robert’s job is part of a broader multi-national aid scheme aimed at improving the lot of the local mining community.

“It’s pretty low pay,” says Robert, “but I like the work.” In the early evenings, before he heads down the dusty, pitted road to his girlfriend’s place, he often takes extra classes for the miner’s children, and whoever else is keen, at no charge. “These kids have got nothin’,” he says.

His girlfriend, Ami, is Dayak, in her mid-twenties, a single mother and deserted wife, not an uncommon plight in Kalimantan. She lives in a three-roomed wooden house amidst a loose collection of buildings that constitute the village, although the original township has been stretched and pulled almost out of recognition by the demands of the goldfields.

It’s one of a few villages that dot the area.

“But Ami’s son is here,” said Robert, arguing with the policeman, “surely you don’t think we’d be having seks in front of the boy?”
“Door close, have seks!” repeated the policeman. “You go truck, go polis station, stay night!”
“Stay the night?” repeated Robert, hackles rising.
“Yes, for safety! Many people angry!” said the policeman. “Attack you!”
“Attack me?” repeated Robert.

A few minutes earlier Robert, Ami and the boy had been snuggled up on the couch watching Aishya, a popular Indonesian soapy about a poor-little-asthmatic-rich girl who cries a lot, and just as the clock struck 10 PM, there was a loud banging at the door.

Robert got up and answered it, somewhat alarmed. “Yes, can I help you?” he asked, startled, as the fat senior policeman pushed past and walked into the room.

“Outside,” he told me later, “there was a police truck, a half-dozen cops in SWAT gear running all over the front yard and I could hear another two or three banging around in the dark out the back. I thought it was a terrorist raid!”

“OK! Now we go! For safety! Many people angry!” said the policeman, motioning outside with his chin.
“People angry? For safety?” replied Robert again. “What are you talking about? I’ve got lots of friends here and nobody’s angry and I feel perfectly safe!”
“No make trouble, Robert!” cautioned Ami.
“No make trouble?” repeated Robert, turning to look at her. She was standing beside him, in fear and close to tears.
“Go, go in truck!” she urged.
“Go in the truck?”
“Yes, go!” she said, pushing him towards the door.
“Well, that’s easy for you to say, Ami!” he said, but offering only token resistance. When it's raining frogs, it's hard to know where to begin hitting back.

Five minutes later Robert is sitting upright in the back of the open truck, surrounded by policeman, waving goodbye to Ami and her young son, also in tears and clinging to his mother.

“I wondered whether I’d ever see them again!” he told me later.

“We bounce out of the kampung,” he went on, “then take off at break-neck speed down the highway, it’s pitch black and all along I’m just waiting for us to slow down at some point and take a left hand turn down some dirt track into the forest!”

“Yeah, fuck…” I said, at a loss for meaningful words, looking around the room, as you do when you suddenly see it expanding in size due to the fact that you’re shrinking.

“But it’s OK, I demanded a TV and got it!” he said and smiled. “Opra’s just the ticket when you’re in jail.”
“At the police station. After all the paperwork, they got me into the cell at about 2 AM, and I realised I couldn’t sleep, so I asked for a TV. Opra comes on early in the morning and as luck would have it she was interviewing Jon bon Jovi.”
“Yeah, so they got that, and then I asked for some food, so they had to go out and get snacks, and then I got them to get me a fan and supply me with a broom; the floor was a bit grubby.”

I sat in silence, waiting for him to go on.

“Yeah, I mean,” he continued, “you know you’re going down, and it’s just a matter of how much it’s gonna cost you, and for all they know the big dumb bule is gonna flip out if he doesn’t get Opra on the late night teev, so you might as well play it. ”
“Right…” I said.
“And they like it when you smile!” he said, grinning.
“Yeah, I bet they do,” I said.

“In the confusion they’d left the cell door unlocked,” he continued, “so in the morning when I woke up I wandered out, saw some guy sitting at the front desk with his finger up his nose, so I thought, ‘What the hell! If I hang around and wait for the release papers it’ll take hours.’ so I just walked out. He didn’t even see me.

As luck would have it, just as I got to the front gate one of my students was going past on a motorbike, so I flagged him down, and he took me all the way home.”

“Excellent, Rob,” I said.

Robert was charged with ‘offending the moral order’ and ordered to pay 4.5 million rupees, about USD 500 – 2 weeks wages for him, or almost 3 months wages for a local, quite a sizeable sum.
“I did suggest they fine Ami’s husband instead,” he said. “After all, he was the bugger who ran off and left her with the kid and absolutely no support. She hasn’t heard from him since the day he left.”

The fine was divided up amongst the morally offended parties in order of umbrage. The police, being the most offended, took the bulk and what was left was given to the mewang, the local Dayak district chief, ostensibly for distribution amongst the community. What was left of that was given to the kepala desa, the local village chief, the last in the chain and the person who made the original complaint.

The kepala desa later complained to the police that after going to all the trouble of making the complaint and getting the ball rolling he ended up with only 200,000 rupees, about 25 dollars, but was told to go away.

Having spent the night in jail and paid his fine, Robert can now legally visit his girlfriend up until 9 PM each night, but must keep the front door open at all times.
“I guess the knock-shop two doors down and the half-dozen karaoke bars up the road have got to keep their doors open, too,” he said, laughing.
“One would imagine,” I agreed.
“Make sure you keep yours open, Felix!” he said, patting me on the back as I was climbing on my bicycle to leave.
“I certainly will, mate,” I said, and I do.