False Stars - Andrew Tavarelli Art



False Stars - Andrew Tavarelli Art
Andrew Tavarelli
© Andrew Tavarelli, 2006
The blue nylon tarp was burning, but no one seemed to care. The monsoons had
lingered longer than expected, and the tarp had been hastily erected to protect the funeral
pyre from the rain. The day was smudged with a cinder-gray mist, but the rain hadn’t
arrived. It reminded me of the way the mist hung over the barren miles of the Texas
Panhandle, but the comparison ended there. The fallout of burnt bone and flesh rose in
great billows and then, after reaching the tops of the palms, fell to rejoin the earth. The
human dust settled on us all—the mourners, the musicians and a throng of spectators,
some of whom didn’t even know the boy who was being cremated. He had died two
years before, and the family had saved up thousands of rupiah to pay for the cremation.
To me it was sad that he was only eleven when he had some freak accident, the exact
nature of which I didn’t understand. Sadness didn’t seem to be part of the mindset of the
mourners. No one was crying, and the mood made it seem more a wedding than a
funeral. I guess going off to be with the gods is seen as a good thing. Life, even at its
longest, is a spit in the bucket. Burning releases the soul from the body, so it can start to
enjoy its freedom. If the living don’t properly get rid of the body, the soul will hang
around and re-enter it simply out of habit. This reminded me of the joke about why dogs
lick themselves—answer, because they can—and has a similar, matter-of-fact reasoning
behind it.
The body had been borne by dozens of men, who carried it on a float-like
platform. An elaborate straw and bamboo sculpture that looked like a cross between a
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pagoda and the Eiffel Tower stood over the body. Chinese paper money, flowers, fancy
cloth, glitter and a million jazzy things I couldn’t identify covered it. I’ve seen some
fantastic parades in Dallas but this float would have taken the prize. The procession was
wild and chaotic, a kaleidoscope of red and yellow and gold and white, of sarongs woven
in fantastic patterns. There were graceful umbrellas on tall stalks as slender as the bigeyed kids. Banners and prayer flags snapped in the wind.
There was no marching band orderliness; the gamelan music was frenetic, at least
to my ears, and propelled the people in fits and starts. They turned corners and changed
directions, even if they didn’t have to, and periodically the men would spin the platform
around. It made me dizzy, and later I learned that this madness was designed to do just
that—to confuse the soul of the deceased so that it couldn’t find its way back home to
haunt those of us left behind. The turning of corners aimed to lose any bad spirits who
might be following the procession, since evil spirits are incapable of sidestepping moves.
I knew this from the way they make the Hindu temples here—there is always a wall dead
in front of the entrance doorway that prevents you from entering directly. Humans, of
course, can walk around it, but it seems to be enough to keep evil out of the temple
The stream of mourners wound like a snake through the village to the cremation
grounds. There was a long, unbroken white cloth attached to the coffin and a line of
women held it above their heads as they walked along. I was invited by them to hold part
of it. The more the merrier, I guess—the more people, the louder the send-off, the more
important the family holding the cremation appears. As much as I hated the idea, the fact
that I was lily white had a certain cachet in their eyes. I loved being in the procession,
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and I forgot about myself and was happy to be part of something much bigger. You can
become part of the bouquet if you give yourself the chance.
It’s in my nature to want to be in the thick of things, and so it was only later that I
realized I was covered in ash. That evening I scrubbed myself raw, driven by the idea
that I had been coated in the remains of a once living and breathing person. Soap and
water couldn’t rid me of the smell of the ash, which lingered on a small area on my left
wrist. I’m afraid that, in those moments when things take a dark turn, I will know it’s
I had heard about the ceremony from the innkeeper where I was staying in
Candidasa; actually it was Hart, the guy I was traveling with, who I heard it from. The
owner of the inn was too proper a Balinese man to have spoken to me directly except to
exchange pleasantries. I went to the funeral alone because Hart was flat on his back at
the losmen, suffering from a wicked case of Bali belly and couldn’t be ten steps from the
toilet. I felt a little weird, leaving him like that, but I’ve done so much worse in my
twenty-three years on the planet, even to him, that I got over it quick. I’m not sorry I
went to the funeral without him. It was an incredible event. I mostly felt bad that he
missed it; Hart is the one that turned me on to these kinds of things and I know he would
have “creamed for it,” as he says.
He was real good about it. There’s something about older guys; they’ve been
through some stuff you know, they don’t freak out about every little thing. Like I was
saying he was real good about it and told me—“Y’all go on, have a good time, it’s a
mighty rare opportunity.” He kidded me about my accent, which I didn’t mind ‘cause I
knew he found it charming—even though no charm was intended. He said he worried
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some that I would be all right, what with the village being so distant, but I told him that
I’d been traveling before I met him and that I was sure to be all right. The fact is I would
have gone anyway, although I didn’t tell him that, but it was nice to have his
It’s a little embarrassing, the way I met Hart. I was traveling with this other guy,
you know the way those things go—free, white and twenty-one and all. He was a Turk
with some pretty messed up ideas about women—he could have used a course in feminist
theory or a good smack upside the head. As if that wasn’t bad enough he was younger
than me and acted like a complete baby. He couldn’t speak Indonesian at all, and his
English was pretty bad. He grew up in Holland, Amsterdam I think, and I imagine that
between learning Dutch and speaking Turkish his English caught short shrift. But he
couldn’t handle anything, and I ended up making most of the plans and arrangements. I
was getting ready to leave him when I met Hart.
We were staying in the same guesthouse in Thailand up in Cheng Mai. It had a
hokey name, “Peaceful Rest Guest House,” which it lived up to. It was pretty, with lots
of flowers. The Thai people love flowers—and it was very quiet. There were tables
outside under a big trellis where we all hung out and ate. That’s where I met Hart. But
that’s not the embarrassing part.
One night we were all sitting around drinking and talking; some people were
smoking dope and getting so stoned they could hardly keep up the conversation. There
was old Hart, talking a blue streak. He had fifteen or twenty years over most us at the
table, but he kept that to himself. You know how older people can get the “been there,
done that” attitude and lord it all over you that you’re still a pipsqueak and don’t know
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much? Well, he wasn’t like that. He had opinions on everything and liked to talk, is all.
He took a shine to me straight off and paid me a lot of attention. Before very long we
were playing footsie under the table and accidentally touching each other on the leg or
hand. Baby Turk was sitting across the table, real stoned and increasingly worried. I
didn’t do that thing women do of getting all uptight and fussing around their guy to
reassure him. It’s so demeaning, like you’re the mother and he’s the child. The heck
with that, I was fed up and planning to dump him anyway, so why bother? Plus, I was
having a good time with Hart.
The next night was where it got embarrassing: I went into Hart’s room. I hardly
needed encouragement; the Turk and I hadn’t had sex in a week or so, which is pretty
weird if you’re sleeping in the same bed, and I was horny and surely knew what to
expect. Men often make the mistake of thinking that women aren’t thinking the same
thing as them, especially about sex. It was hardly an invitation. All he said was, “Hey,
Red, busy?” He called me Red straight off, because of my hair. My friends call me MJ,
short for my real name, which is Marjorie Joan Johnson, which I hate with a passion. I
still introduce myself as MJ but Red stuck with us. I told him it sounded kinda masculine
to me and all he said was “Honey, I don’t think you need to worry about that.” And I
don’t. He said that to me before we got together, but he has said it a lot since then.
We’ve surely had a good time, and we did that first night too.
There’s no telling why things happen the way they do, and that night is a good
example. In retrospect it was all for the best. After all, here I am with Hart, but then it
was real embarrassing and, I must admit, real sexy too. We were going at it like a couple
of stray dogs on a bone when there was a knock on the door. It was Baby Turk, trying to
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find out where I was. Why he came to Hart’s room is beyond me. I guess he was
nervous, seeing the heavy flirting we were doing, although I thought we were pretty
discreet. He sounded pathetic and nervous and barely squeaked out his question, “You
haf seen MJ somewhere?” I rolled off the bed and squatted down below the window.
Hart went over to the window, which started chest high, and opened one of the shutters in
order to talk. I still can’t believe he was so cool. We hadn’t exactly stopped having sex.
In fact it seemed like he got more excited. I was busy seeing to that. Hart just spoke to
him in a regular voice and told the Turk I went for a walk and was going toward the city
gate when he last saw me. That’s probably what did it for me, a partners in crime sort of
thing. In truth it’s more complicated. I know he’s capable of some pretty bad things, in
fact I think he enjoys it, so whatever I do won’t seem that bad by comparison. There’s a
strange comfort there, although it might also insure that we’ll never get marrying close.
Hart and I left together for the Golden Triangle two days later. I waited until I
knew my boyfriend was going to be tied up in town, dealing with a visa issue. Official
tasks take a long time in-country. The bureaucracy, the language barrier and the general
level of corruption among petty officials see to that. I know it was a cheesy way to dump
him, especially as I had sex with him the night before I left. I’m ashamed to say I went
straight from a secret romp with Hart, still all sticky and hot, and gave the Turk a parting
tumble. I didn’t want to be forced to explain why I was going, that I was tired of his
attitude, he was a baby and such. And although I didn’t think he had it in him, I surely
didn’t want a scene with Hart. Hart seemed a little dangerous to me then, and this
Turkish boy was sweet on me, and I didn’t want him to get hurt even if I didn’t want to
be with him. I’ve since realized Hart isn’t dangerous at all, just mighty reckless. But I
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didn’t know it then. I just packed my bag and left him a note that said, “See ya, goin
back to Texas. Nice hookin up with ya, MJ.” I laughed when I thought of him struggling
with the vernacular.
It’s been a real adventure since then. Hart and I give each other the courage to try
just about anything that occurs to us—the idea only has to come to one of us and the
plans to accomplish it spin out like silk from a spider. Before we know it, an intricate
web of how and where and when is woven and we’re sitting expectantly at the center
with our hands on the strings. We never seem to address the why, preferring “why not?”
to get ourselves going.
This is not as aimless as it sounds. I’m different than many women of my
generation. I believe that experience is still the best teacher and that information from the
media, even books, which I love deeply and have learned tons from, well, they remain
media events and don’t touch me the way the nitty-gritty does. It just isn’t the same as
snootful learning.
My mother says I should have been a man, but I think she means that I don’t often
take her advice and always do exactly as I damn well please. I wouldn’t want to hurt her
by telling her I mostly ignore her advice, because of the mess she’s made. My God, five
marriages and an on-and-off drinking problem aren’t the best credentials for a role model.
All the same I do love her dearly, and she raised me well and gave me a lot of loving. As
I get a little older it seems I’m more often taking care of her, or at least worrying about
her welfare. There’s no telling how this figures into me signing up for the Peace Corps,
or my plans to study for a master’s degree in social work when I get out. I’m sure it
figures somewhere.
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Now, my Daddy is a different story. I never knew him. He went off to ‘Nam just
before I was born and was reported MIA two years later. I kept a black “Lost but Not
Forgotten” flag in my dorm, which freaked out a lot of my friends. Daddy would be just
about Hart’s age right now. From all reports he was smart and wild and fun loving and is
most likely the source of a lot of what is good in me. My mother has said that I have his
eyes and his turned-up Panhandle nose that makes me look more girlish than I’d like.
Maybe ten years from now I’ll think of it as an asset. Hart kids me about having trouble
breathing through nostrils as tiny as mine.
This area of the world enchants me; it’s so remarkably different from the states—
the look and feel of it, the people. In the countryside, whether it’s in Thailand or Burma
or Bali, the people don’t have much in the way of things, but to me it seems as if they
have a whole lot. They have this life that they’re born into and how they should be has
been figured out for hundreds of years. There doesn’t seem to be such an adolescent
angst about finding out who you are and why we’re here.
I don’t have delusions about this. I’m sure they have their problems too.
Whenever I’m in the cities or big towns and I meet people my own age they seem as
messed up as the rest of us. All they can talk about is wanting to get away, or in my
pants. This group speaks English, otherwise I would be clueless about what’s on their
mind besides sex, but it’s also part of their problem. If you’re spending your time at the
dance clubs and hanging with the first world it’s like—how you gonna get ‘em back on
the farm after they’ve seen Paree? I surely can’t go back and live in Texas, as dearly as I
love the place.
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Every now and again the thought hits me that my Daddy was shot down near this
part of the world and a weird feeling sneaks up on me. Like at the funeral. When I
watched the body go up in flames, I thought, this is how my father died, in a big blast of
fire. It must be terrifying to see it coming, like he must have in the plane. It was
different for the kid whose funeral I was watching. He was already dead; it wasn’t how
he died. For him it was a glorious send off. He was bathed and dressed in white and gold
and set on a palanquin and covered with silk and lovingly mourned. There were all those
people around him. It was different for my father. In the end, to be truthful? It just
about adds up to the same thing.
We never found the body. It was the government that didn’t find the body; they
said he was missing in action and probably went down somewhere near the border. It
makes for a peculiar sense of mourning. I think that’s what set my mom drinking—that
he could possibly come walking through the door at any moment. She didn’t know if she
was coming or going—she never buried the guy.
For me it’s awfully strange to mourn someone I never met in the flesh. All I
know of him are a few photographs and the fragments of stories I’ve been told. What
puzzles me is, if I don’t know what I missed, why should I miss him? I’ve come to
believe that I learned to miss him through the lessons taught by my mother and his own
father, my grandfather. Somehow I grew up calling him Papa.
At times I feel it might be only the idea of a father that I miss. Growing up, all
my girlfriends had fathers and although I had Papa to look over me, he didn’t exactly fit
into the picture with these younger men. I remember Cheryl Ann, one of my friends,
saying he was too old and I must miss not having a real father. I wanted to punch her in
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her fat blonde face; instead, I went home to cry to my mother. On that very day the idea
of missing the father I never had began. I don’t fully understand the complexities. It was
easier for me to think of missing my father as simply an idea. I felt more normal taking
that slant—I was treated so well by Papa I like to think it hardly made a difference, and in
reality I didn’t miss anything.
I was content with this way of thinking until I talked with Hart about how I felt.
We were discussing John Lennon and how, although neither of us ever met him, we
thought we knew him. The countless records, photographs, films and videos made
everyone think they had a connection. It didn’t matter that all most of us ever had were
his public persona made of light on a screen. Although I was only a girl when he was
killed, I mourned and missed him, as did everyone. Hart asked me if I thought it peculiar
that people missed him, never having known him. I replied that I missed my father, of
whom I knew far less and who was less involved in my life than the Beatles whose
records I listened to ad nauseam—so no, I didn’t think it peculiar. But when I thought
further I was forced to admit there was a difference and I didn’t miss them in the same
way. With John Lennon it seemed more of an idea that circulated in my head; with my
father the missing was stored deep inside, I’m not sure where, but it’s in a place which is
not so easily gotten at with words.
I don’t cry easily, but the conversation triggered a vein of grief in me that I
thought would break me down the middle. Hart tried to comfort me. I might have read it
incorrectly, but he seemed more caught up with the responsibility that he brought on my
tears than with my sadness. Hart claims his own father was such a prick, his words, that
it was hard for him to understand how I felt. “He didn’t do you any harm,” was the best
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he could muster. I think Hart is so accustomed to seeing the world through a camera that
the world is one big photo to him. He tidies up with his camera and, despite his talk
about being a champion of experience, I have my doubts about how directly he feels
My mother once told me that when she was with her second husband Billy, the
first of my four stepfathers, she thought she saw my father standing in the corner of the
bedroom watching her and Billy. It freaked her out so badly that it was the beginning of
the end for her and Billy Boy. My mother mercifully spared me the sordid details of
what she and Billy were doing. She’s treated me as a younger sister most of my life. She
can be inappropriate, and it would not have been out of the question for her to “fill me
in,” an expression she uses when the subject involves sex. She was seventeen when she
had me and about the same age as Hart, so maybe that’s why we get on so well. I have a
leg up on how he thinks because of my mother. I’m not sure he has much of a clue as to
where I’m at.
Hart would probably like my mom. When I told her about him she sounded a
little too interested to me, so I warned her I’d never forgive her if she flirted with him.
She got all huffy, as if that was the furthest thing from her mind, and instead of
reassuring me she launched into a lecture. I knew this was coming because she addressed
me as Marjorie Joan, a definite preamble to a load of bull. I stopped her short. I could
tell she was drinking, told her so, and hung up the phone. When I called her the
following week she didn’t remember our spat; she didn’t even remember the call. She
said she was worried sick that I hadn’t checked in with her the week before.
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Maybe her being such a mess is the reason I’ve become so damned independent
and why I speak my mind so plainly. Beating around the bush never made much sense to
me—it never worked with my mother. She’d pretend not to get it so you had to beat her
over the head to make sure she listened. When she’s sober she’s shrewd and listens more
carefully than you imagine and can twist your words so you hardly recognize them as
your own. But I love her anyway and she has her good side; she loves me to death, she’s
generous to a fault and she has a big heart. I just wish it wasn’t filled with so much
I know if she can be happy about some of the things that I do. I hate to admit that
I came out as a debutante—it’s a big thing where I come from—but I did. Between her
urging and my grandfather’s coaxing I didn’t stand much of a chance. I went to the
opening ball with Richard, my boyfriend at the time, a cadet and ROTC type. My mother
thought he was handsome and looked like my father; my grandfather looked fondly on
the distinguished military career he imagined he would have. He was a little too squeaky
clean for me, but I loved his good manners and thought he had a bit of a wild streak,
which I loved more. Mainly, my family approved of him and that was a relief from the
response I usually got when I brought someone home, like, “Marjorie Joan, what do you
ever see in that boy?”
So my mom and I went into Dallas and presented ourselves at Neiman Marcus to
buy the gown. All the sales people bowed and scraped and couldn’t do enough for us.
My grandfather was R. J. Johnson, which might not mean much to anyone outside of
Dallas, but he was a big shot oil lawyer, and they all knew who he was. I wanted this
chic, slinky, strapless number my mother thought was too sophisticated—in the heat of
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our argument “too sophisticated” was transformed into “it makes you look cheap.” I
think it was too difficult for my mother to see me so sexy, sexier than her in particular,
and we settled on a gown in which mother said I looked “radiant”. I hated it but thought I
could probably manage to get through the evening in it and told my mother that, just this
once, I would give in to her wishes. It wasn’t worth the hassle—I was doing this to
please her and my grandfather—and in my book the whole thing was superficial and
elitist to the point of boredom. The endless teas and goody-goody parties, where you got
to eat mini sandwiches trimmed of their crust, made me wretch. I needed about thirty of
the little squirts to make a meal, plus you had to eat them in a dainty manner that covered
up the fact that it would all turn to shit anyway. I usually left hungry.
I couldn’t describe the gown if my life depended on it, except it was an unpleasant
color somewhere between shrimp and bone. Until this day I imagine myself going
through the evening dressed in the sex-bomb dress I fancied. There was some sweet
revenge in that I didn’t wear any panties and went through the night deliciously aware of
my nakedness. My little flirtation with being risqué backfired. After the ball Richard
and I took a stroll onto the fairway behind the cotillion. We began making out. I was
already worked up, having spent the evening with my lascivious little secret and I could
feel him poking me through his pants and the stiffness of the gown. He was concerned
about getting grass stains on the gown, which he knew cost a small fortune and, to bring
his attention back to what counted, I let him know I wasn’t wearing any underwear. This
was more than little Richard could handle. He wilted so totally that the only stiffness left
was in the gown.
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Richard, of course, is in the Air Force now, engaged to a manageable, blonde ditz
who is most likely delirious with the thought of her life as a military wife and mom. And
I’m in Indonesia hanging with Hart, following a map that we draw up as we go along.
Go figure!
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Red is off on an adventure and I’m sick as a fucking dog. I don’t think I’ve ever
recovered from the dysentery I had in Nepal. I’m sure the amoebas are having a field
day, eating and multiplying in the mysteries of my large intestine. Red and I needed a
break from each other anyway—we’ve been within twenty feet of each other twentyfour-seven since we began traveling together—but I’m pissed that I’m probably missing
some great photos of the funeral. I made up for it.
I perked up in late morning when a girl came by to tend the small shrine outside
my door. She might have been a young woman, but age is difficult to discern because
their beauty is so blinding it masks years of wear and tear. I watched her as she made
offerings at the house shrines. She first placed banana leaves with bits of rice, salt and
some chili pepper on them in the corners of the walled courtyard, paused for a short
prayer at each and then walked toward the small shrine outside my door. She does this
daily, and it’s such a common sight throughout Bali that one hardly notices.
This country is intense, and the complex system of spiritual checks and balances
makes my head spin. It’s funny that I should come here to rest up in between my
tramping around in the jungle, as if it were a terme in Switzerland. Real funny that my
stomach is turning like a cement mixer and I can’t be more than five steps away from the
The girl took a longer time at the shrine outside my door. She was more
particular and the offerings, more elaborate. She put a small square of banana leaf with
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the requisite rice into the shrine and sprinkled a few drops of water from a bottle she
carried. After that came the incense, a bird woven from straw, and a jasmine blossom.
The scent of the flower wafted through my open window and lingered until she fired the
sandalwood incense. She added a fresh rambutan to the mix. The spiky reddish shell of
the fruit looks like the pod of a horse chestnut, but the sweet, silky pulp inside is another
story—that can put a smile on the face of the most bad-assed spirit. The fruit is a little bit
like Red.
It was like peeking in on a woman at her bath. She was quiet and absorbed in her
devotions. She proceeded with grace, her movements edited for the job. I thought her
older than I imagined earlier. She was certainly sexy, and I entertained a few quick
fantasies along those lines before I grabbed my camera. A generator exploded into action
behind the house and, using it for cover, I snapped half a roll of pictures. The racket
from the two-stroke machine ended as unexpectedly as it came on and, bingo, I was
busted. She heard the click of the camera, now loud as a gunshot, and snapped her head
around to look at me. I took one more shot—her startled expression was too much to
pass up—which I think totally flipped her out. She gathered herself and her basket of
gear and stepped down from the terrace to put on her flip-flops. I shot her again as she
gave me a little bow and got ready to scoot away.
I called her back and we exchanged greetings in Bahasa, which is how they refer
to Indonesian, which I speak well enough to actually have a conversation. I’ve never
attempted Balinese, which comes in high, middle and low varieties; the challenge of
learning the simpler trade language has been enough of a struggle. Much of the poetry of
Bahasa still escapes me—its apparent simplicity is only skin deep—but I get by. She
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knew I was sick, apparently everyone connected to the losmen knew, and told me that her
offerings that morning were made with my health in mind. For insurance she
recommended the usual bananas and rice cure-all. Once we got started she was quite
talkative and not shy at all. Her name was Nengha, which told that she was the second
born in the family and from one of the higher castes.
I asked her if she could explain more particularly what she had been up to with
her devotions, and would she mind if I photographed her while we were talking. She had
directed a particular prayer on my behalf to Shiva—the god most often involved in
sickness. Her voice became a backdrop for the pictures I was taking. I couldn’t rid
myself of the desire to see her naked, preferably spinning around on my lap. I
concentrated on the pictures to steer me away from that line of thought.
The beauty of the local girls swayed me but I hadn’t a clue, even after half a
dozen lengthy stays, how to approach them. An incident some years ago while I was in
Japan stops me cold any time I think of putting the moves on a local. I was spending
time with a woman who I had been introduced to by a mutual friend. Kiko was stunning
and looked as if she had stepped out of a Japanese woodcut. She was a classic beauty
with a long, aquiline nose, lotus white skin, jet-black hair—I was crazy about her. She
was great company, and we bopped around Kyoto together visiting shrines and gardens
that I had long dreamed of photographing. Our dealings had been friendly but had the
slight remove of Japanese formality, which seeps like water into any crack. It suited me
just fine. We would hang out for a week, then I would go off to shoot in another place
and return to Kyoto, where we would pick up our little dance.
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After a month or so I realized that we had visited only those places I had wished
to see—she had put herself in my service, like any good Japanese woman. I let it
happen—when in Japan, do as the Japanese. It didn’t occur to me that she might have
been compromised in some way. In fact, when I asked her where she wanted to go, she
was at first surprised, and then delighted. Kiko promised me a very special outing but
deferentially asked if I would do one thing for her—could I leave my camera at home? I
reluctantly said yes, and when I asked her why she said, “It is a very special place.”
Three days later she came by to pick me up in her car. By then I was a web of
fantasies and had no idea what to expect. We drove to the outskirts of Kyoto to a small
temple and garden. The temple complex was famous for its teahouse, considered to be
one of the finest examples of this type of architecture. The garden and temple were so-so
and I didn’t regret not bringing my camera. Kiko was exceptionally attentive to me and
seemed anxious that I was enjoying myself. She explained the finer points of the
teahouse, and we casually made the rounds of the small shrines that dotted the grounds.
We bowed together at a Shinto shrine and clapped our hands at the end of our prayers.
Kiko was a little flushed with excitement and took my hand as we walked back to the car.
I don’t believe we had ever touched before, and this little gesture was exciting to the
point of delirium. It never went any further.
Weeks later, back home in the States, I was speaking with my friend Tom, the
Japanese man who had introduced Kiko and me. He wanted to hear all about my trip and
particularly about Kiko, who was a childhood friend. I gave him the rundown of events.
I told him how crazy I was about Kiko. I was delicate about it. Although she was
forward thinking—she spoke English and hung out with me, for fuck’s sake—she was
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from a fancy, traditional, family. I explained to Tom how I had kept myself in check, not
wanting to be the dumb, rude gaijin, and how clueless I was about what Kiko might have
thought of me. Everyone was excruciatingly polite in Japan and Kiko probably would
have treated a serial killer with the same friendliness.
In relating our comings and goings I mentioned the special place she had taken
me to. I have since forgotten the name, but it was fresh in my mind then, and when Tom
heard it he burst out laughing. He was having a good time at my expense and I was sure I
had committed some cultural blunder that was to follow me the rest of my incarnations. I
wasn’t far wrong. Tom explained that this special place was where lovers and future
lovers went to declare their feelings for each other. Entering the teahouse together was as
good as saying you wanted to hop into bed. I wanted to shoot myself for not knowing—
and I couldn’t blame it on the camera.
Now, Red is an entirely different story. We speak the same language and she can
be as duplicitous as I can. There’s a lot to her and its hard to believe she’s only twentythree, except for her skin and her sweet little body. I hardly remember what it was like to
be that young; although I’m certain I was a lot more lost than she seems to be. She says
she plans to enter the Peace Corps next year. I don’t know if it’s in the works or just a
dream, but it would be a good place for her. Red is wrapped up in the idea of helping
people. I tease her that she could become a missionary, but she’d have to give up sex in
all but one position. She said that’s why she chose the Peace Corps—it wouldn’t be such
a big deal if she slept with the natives. At times her helping-hand routine gets air-headed
and too goody-goody for me. But one of the pleasures of being young is that you can be
naive without being considered ignorant. Another, if you’re young and female, is that
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you can be excused your lies because you don’t know when you’re lying. Red takes full
advantage of being young and female.
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Hart and MJ had met in Thailand, but it was Bali that gripped their imaginations.
After months of trekking in remote places, they would make their way back to Bali.
They knew some of the awesome geologic history that gave shape to the island.
Earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, and monsoons thundered through with
regularity. The dates and descriptions of old and recent disasters are fixed in cultural
memory as firmly as the political turmoil of Balinese history. But they found the verdant
beauty of Bali, and the grace of its people, so intoxicating, that these events became
shadows behind a screen.
MJ and Hart’s days turned to weeks, and the weeks a string of childhood
summers. They would go away and return, drawn to it like the tide to the shore. There is
a photograph of a smiling MJ giving her watch to a little girl with a hare lip, and another,
taken on the same day, of Hart’s watch submerged in a glass of water. The duo slipped
happily into the dreamtime of the Balinese calendar where time is marked, not in hours
and minutes, but by temple festivals and ceremonies that honor the pantheon of gods and
goddesses. We think of this as parallel time—as a metaphor that hints at unreality. But it
is real time—just as fishermen are governed by the tides and farmers follow the sun, so
many Balinese track the world of the spirits.
This island, a tiny bead in a necklace of thirteen thousand draped along the
equator, upends the common equation between size and power. Bali plays havoc with
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our usual sense of time, as if forces hidden in the smoldering volcanoes of the island are
able to compress the past, present, and future together. The Balinese honor their
ancestors and ancient gods to insure the future. They live beneath this silvered cloud of
great luck, blessed that they have found a connective tissue to eternity.
There is a Balinese expression, jam kerak, which translates roughly as “rubber
time.” Unlike the structured measure at work in the spiritual world, jam kerak is
governed by whim, fancy and personal need. It is understood to explain the lateness of
events, and, by Western standards, the general sloppiness of time keeping. It is not
unlike the idea of “jazz time” whose apparently longer hours are calculated by those who
dance to a different drummer. It’s the “soon come” of Jamaica, the mañana of Mexico,
the hipster’s “later.” It is a time that Hart and MJ found particularly suited to them, one
they could recalibrate with their desire.
I have an erratically kept journal and a large collection of photographs taken in
Bali and South East Asia. Hart Bronson, who shot the majority of the photos, also wrote
the journal. A clutch of snaps, fewer in number but no less interesting, are by MJ
Johnson. There are also some photographs taken of Bronson and Johnson together by
someone named King, plus postcards and other ephemera. The two adventurers
invariably have their arms about each other or have been caught in a silly Me Tarzan,You
Jane pose. These are among the most poignant. I find it difficult to be unmoved by
images of people so obviously in love.
Piecing together people’s lives from these modern day artifacts is an odd
enterprise. We are taught that seeing is believing, that photographs don’t lie and that a
picture is worth a thousand words. Purportedly all the evidence is there in front of us—
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the facts are spelled out in black and white or, better still, in Kodacolor. The special
moments are caught and time is stopped—the camera has changed life into something
contained and easier to remember. The dust balls in the corner of the room have been
edited out, and there is no spaghetti dripping over the edge of the plate. The images
replace our experience as the benchmark of what really occurred. When our memory of a
particular event becomes fuzzy, we can retrieve the photograph from the shoebox where
it was stored for ten or fifteen years and see the events in focus, as crisp as if it were
yesterday. We say, “I look so young I hardly recognize myself,” or startle at a car being
so red or wallpaper so garish. Foolishly, we correct our memory to reconcile the fact
with the photograph, believing that the picture is a truer indication of how things were, a
more accurate map of the road we traveled.
In one group of photographs a young Balinese woman is wearing a batik sarong
with dark brown and gold patterns. A nearly transparent, pastel green blouse is fitted at
her tiny waist and gathered beneath her orange-sized breasts. In one photo she is caught
in the act of turning, an open-mouthed look of surprise on her face. In the other pictures
she seems lost within herself, totally absorbed with her task of placing small offerings at
household shrines. She reaches to place a delicate palm basket on the shoulder of a
towering sculpture of a goddess. The long sleeve of her blouse has ridden up and
exposed her slender arm, and the voluptuous proportions of the stone image make the
young woman seem even more diminutive. The radiance of her skin is unabashedly
sensual, but seen against the cold blue-gray stone it takes on an otherworldly quality. It is
as if she is the art the photographer wished to capture and the elegantly carved goddess
merely a witness to this transformation from human to divine.
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The series of close ups of the shrine offerings are exquisite. The vibrant color in
the photos celebrates our earthly paradise in all its heavenly details. The prickly red skin
of a rambutan, the orange glow from a burning stick of incense, the silken skin of a hand
repositioning a jasmine blossom: all reveal the desire of the photographer to penetrate the
inherent mystery of things. The plaited banana leaves and woven, palm-straw baskets,
not much bigger than a man’s hand, contain a cargo befitting a royal barge.
In Bali, these rituals are geared to maintain celestial harmony. They cover the
spirit bases and all the items they contain have a symbolic connection to earth, air fire
and water. People who are more devout, or perhaps more wary because they have more
to lose, make these offerings twice a day—or pay someone to take care of the task if they
are too busy to attend to the ritual themselves.
If the bright flowers in these offerings represent the smiles of the gods, then the
small clumps of rice are the mother’s milk of the land. Rice is a primary ingredient of
these offerings, and the measure of health and wealth. Although their roots are in the
earth, the young plants grow in water, in the womb of the terraces where they are
watched over by water spirits. The kernels are born in the air, warmed to gold by the sun
and tended by the spirits of the sky. There is a fair amount of help from the men and
women who work the paddies. Their stooped forms, as they bend to plant the light green
stalks in the mud, are a constant in the paddies. They keep vigilant watch to ward off the
marauding birds. They shake rattles made of gourds or tin cans with stones inside and
wave long poles of bamboo with tattered flags of cloth—moveable scarecrows to hold the
birds at bay from their moveable feast. And the rice goes into their bellies and the bellies
of their children and a few kernels make it to the shrines and in this way to the spirits.
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The next day, in a matter of fact manner, the old rice is tossed to the dogs and replaced
with a fresh offering.
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I have an important trip to Nias coming up, to locate some art for a client of mine.
I’m not sure I can take Red with me. It looks to be a difficult rumble in the jungle. I’m
not worried about her being able to take it. She’s young and we’ve had some experience
together in rough country. She was dragging her skinny ass at the end of a month of
trekking in Nepal, but she made it, and I was the one who got sick. But this next little bit
involves a scam that she might have trouble swallowing, and that could be a problem.
Oh, I could paint it to be prettier. That would be easy, even if I don’t think
tracking down this tribal art is such a bad thing. I could act as if it was a bit shady, which
would make it enticing to her, although she hardly needs to be lured. I’m always saying,
“Whoa, Miss Texas, rein up!” I certainly couldn’t scare her by making it sound
dangerous. She would see that as a challenge, and I’d have to get out of the way or she’d
trample me on her way out the door. I’m just afraid that, in her eyes, it wouldn’t be a
simple art-buying mission. And then I would never hear the end of it. She’d break my
balls with her moral bullshit; and the whole deal, which I expect to be complicated
enough, would get more complicated. There are some heavy bucks riding on this caper
and a tremendous amount of research and planning, too much to jeopardize with some
half-baked sense of “fairness”.
I make my living doing this. To be more honest, I’m trying to make my living
doing this—finding things for people they don’t have the ability or balls to find for
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themselves. It’s like a drug for me. The weirder it gets, the better I like it. Sometimes it
scares me more that I don’t get scared, and being out on the edge is where I feel most
comfortable. If I had been in Viet Nam I probably would have gotten it out of my
system. I’m still not sure if it was good or bad luck that my draft notice came back
stamped “UNSUITABLE FOR MILITARY SERVICE.” I never got the details of what
that meant. My pals who went, and managed to come back, are a little nuts, but today
they confine themselves to sit on a safe couch, with their air-co turned way up, watching
the game on TV.
I’ve also been doing this photography thing for a while, but I haven’t had much
luck with the money end of it. I’ve sold a few things to travel magazines and to some
picture research houses, but on the whole I probably spend more on film and equipment.
Photography is a good way to meet women; they can’t resist having their picture taken.
And the fake press card I picked up in Bangkok gets me into a lot of places where I
probably shouldn’t be.
I’ve got a friend back home, an artist named Lou, who tells me that I’m good but
I’ve got to keep at it. He claims that if I shoot enough film I might develop my own
vision. He can’t explain exactly what that is, or how the fuck it’s going to help me sell
photographs. He’s a fucking madman. He spends hours in his studio and hours griping
about this or that asshole in the art world, and then he goes right back to painting and
doesn’t come out for a few days. “The only revenge is in the studio,” he says.
Then there’s this other business I put together back in Boston that keeps me in
money. That’s been my home base for the last bunch of years. It’s charming and a lot
quieter and cheaper than New York or San Francisco, the only other American cities
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worth living in. Everyone knows Boston is historic. As Red reminded me, there’s hardly
a school kid in Dallas who hasn’t heard of Paul Revere and the Old North Church. In
Boston there are entire neighborhoods of nineteenth-century town houses. The bow
fronts have elegant parlor floors, their high-ceiling rooms trimmed with candy cake
molding. The people who built them didn’t scrimp; they put in cast iron fences and brass
railings, marble cornices and stone cupids and gargoyles. Imaginations were wilder a
hundred years ago.
People with a certain amount of money own most of these old houses,
professionals for the most part. A big percentage of them are gay, but gay or straight
they treat their houses like they were babies—they want them to look nice and as cherry
as possible. They lay out bongo bucks to make this happen. Old things break or rot away
and if your cupid falls off its perch, another isn’t going to obligingly fly in to roost. This
is where I come to the rescue. I developed a way of making molds from latex and then
casting the cupids or missing parts of molding in resin or plaster. It’s not a brilliant idea,
making reproductions is only making reproductions. I got the idea from a kit I had as a
kid. In the kit was a pink goo which you painted over some simple object—when the goo
set up it formed a mold of the object in pink rubber. I made fifty cigar-store Indians and
painted each one differently. I loved doing it and ran home from school to work on those
Indians in my room.
My old man thought it was a waste of time: “What the fuck are you going to do
with fifty Indians that look like they fell in shit?” He came home loaded one day after
work and, stupidly, I didn’t read the signs. I thought it was too early for him to be loaded
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and made the mistake of asking him for money to buy more plaster. You see I had plans
to make a hundred, two tribes of fifty men each.
He launched into his usual money doesn’t grow on trees routine, and worked
himself into a rage. I remember watching his face turn red and his eyes bulge as if they
would pop from their sockets. I sat cowering on my bed as he picked up all my Indians
in his huge hands and carried them to the bathroom, where he smashed them into pieces,
one by one, on the tile floor. I remember hearing him screaming, “What a fucking waste
of time and money.” When I burst into tears he started beating me, all the while hollering
that I was a sissy like my faggot brother.
He never apologized and only said, a few weeks later, that he was happy to see I
wasn’t wasting my time “making shit people.” He said it with a smirk, like he was proud
of modifying my deviant behavior.
He wasn’t as lucky with my brother, who lived and died a sissy. And poor Randy
was not as lucky as I was. My old man worked his cruelties on him whether drunk or
sober, morning or night—regular as the orange juice and vitamins that were my mother’s
idea of mothering. I stopped trying to please him and hid my newfound interest, in
building castles and forts, under my bed. But Randy didn’t catch on. He kept trying to
impress our father with his smarts, or his musical ability, and each time he got trounced.
It got so bad that, when Randy was twelve and I about nine, we began talking about how
to get rid of him. We entertained all manner of fantasies, even as elaborate as cutting the
brakes on his car—something we saw in a movie—but we never got the chance. To
everyone’s relief, he dropped dead from a massive heart attack at the supermarket where
he worked as store manager.
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Things got better for us, for a while. Randy had always been my mother’s
favorite, and when the old man was around I didn’t begrudge him her affection. I thought
he needed it more than I did, and I learned to get along with a lot less. After the threat of
the beatings and humiliations was gone, my perspective changed. I thought my mother
could have spread her affection around more fairly. I had known since I was about
twelve that I was being gypped, so I should have known there wasn’t going to be any big
change—we always hope. The only attention I got was bad. “Why can’t you be more
like your brother?” was her refrain. It’s a good thing I didn’t try. He died of AIDS over
ten years ago, one of its early victims. He didn’t deserve that either.
After Randy died my mother was messed up in a major way. She spent six
months crying and wailing and wouldn’t leave the house. She hardly knew I existed. I
was just the guy who got the groceries. I had knocked up a girl friend of mine, and
during my mother’s six-month grieving period, my sweetheart gave birth to a stillborn
girl. My mother didn’t notice. Her sympathy stopped with, “That’s too bad. You should
have used birth control.” My mom died ten months after my brother. Sometimes I think
it was the only way she could stop grieving.
I don’t think hate is the opposite of love. I hated my father, but I never hated my
mother. I stayed in a kind of neutral zone with her—the indifference was mutual. She
was so far away it seemed useless to bother. She was off in dreamland with my brother,
and I, I guess I was somewhere else too. I felt as if I had been an orphan for years, so
when she died I hardly missed her.
I was born Howard Bronson but, except for my mother, everyone called me Hart.
I got the name when I was fourteen, from my first girl friend. It was the first time she
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saw my dick, or any dick for that matter. We had spent months in heavy make-out
sessions and developed a creative menu for getting each other off without taking off our
clothes. Kids aren’t that much more advanced today. We saw an opportunity, one hot
summer day, when her parents were away at the beach. She pleaded illness to stay home,
and before her old man’s Plymouth pulled away from the curb I was panting at her door.
After some perfunctory making out we got naked. We were admiring each other and
unashamedly satisfying our curiosity—at this stage it was more like an advanced form of
“Doctor,” than lovemaking. Lily had a grip on my hard-on, which she was vainly trying
to hold still while she took a better look. She smiled, “Now I know why they call it a
“heart-on,” she said innocently. “The head is red and shaped like a heart when you look
at it like this.” We laughed at the misnomer but she decided to call me “Heart” anyway
and it wasn’t long before the nickname spread and was used by my friends. I officially
changed the spelling to “Hart” when I was eighteen. I never did like “Howie.”
When I met up with Red she was traveling with some kid from Turkey. I could
tell she had hot pants and was bored with him. I might be at a loss with the locals, but
she was one hundred ten percent American, and a Texan to boot. I thought it would be a
wild one-nighter, then I’d be off to the Triangle; I didn’t need any complications.
I wasn’t prepared for the blaze we kicked up. She wasn’t a novice. She was
trying everything on for size. After the first night I realized she was as bent as I was. I
also knew I would be willing to put up with a certain amount of relationship bullshit to
make that other stuff last. She took off with me a week later.
The situation is, we have a situation. We’re a little too much like a couple. I lent
her my bike today. I had some misgivings; I didn’t want her to fuck herself up, or the
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bike. I taught her to ride, but she was only two steps away from knowing jack-shit and it
was the first time I lent it to anyone.
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I was excited to get back to Hart after the funeral and talk about my day. I know
it sounds feeble but I loved watching his face light up when I told him about some bit of
weirdness. It was getting late and darkness fell suddenly. Bali seemed devoid of
twilight. I was driving a motorcycle that I wasn’t entirely comfortable or experienced
with. Hart had bought it months ago, and it was bigger than most of the bikes you could
rent. He refused to ride a “rice burner”, which was what we called the small, two-stroke
Japanese bikes that seemed to provide transport for half the Third World. It wasn’t
unusual to see a family of four squeezed onto a little 100-cc putt-putt. One kid would sit
on the tank in front of the father, who was always the driver; another would be
sandwiched between pop and mom, who rode sidesaddle. A wrapped bundle was usually
tied to the handlebars and if the mom wasn’t holding an umbrella she was carrying a
basket in her one free hand. They rode in all sorts of weather, which basically meant wet
and blazing hot, or dry and blazing hot, wearing sarongs and flip-flops. Crash helmets
were virtually non-existent.
I was also anxious to get back during daylight because the roads in this part of
Bali are little more than paved-over paths, originally made for foot traffic and drawn
carts. The road repair crews are a testament to this piece of history. Men and women in
sarongs work with shovels and brooms and mark the craters left from their labors with
twigs placed in the general vicinity. I have never seen a warning sign. The roads serve
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as barnyards for live-stock and as playgrounds and community centers where entire
villages congregate in the evenings to chat and smoke.
The men squat on their haunches, their sarongs wrapped up between their legs,
absently stroking the fighting cocks they seem to pay more attention to than to their
Children are everywhere and play in the road with simple, makeshift toys that
have been missing from our playgrounds for generations. They spin wooden hoops with
sticks, or race along the road straddling hobbyhorses that are little more than a bamboo
pole with a coconut attached for a head.
The women gossip, or attentively groom lice from each other’s hair. It’s difficult
for me to become accustomed to the grooming ritual. It seems to be relaxing and the
women treat it as casually as we deal with pumping gas. But I can’t get over thinking of
it as dirty and as intimate an activity as squeezing zits or clipping toenails, neither of
which I would ever do publicly. Hart tells me I’ve got to get over it.
Last month I spent the day cuddling with a couple of the local kids and just
horsing around. They live next to the losmen that has become, more or less, our home
when we’re in Bali. The oldest boy in the family is maybe sixteen and he works at our
losmen. He and Hart and I spend some of our spare time swapping English for
Indonesian lessons and that’s how I got to know his brothers and sisters. Later that night
Hart and I were in bed, and he looked at me strangely and asked what I had done that
day. It was unlike him to be jealous, but this wasn’t the type of casual inquiry he usually
made. It was more like he expected an accounting, and I was ready to get ticked. It
turned out I had caught a head full of lice from the kids, and he saw them walking around
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in my hair. Hart picked and groomed at me for days and even took the long ride into
Denpassar for de-lousing medicine, which of course you couldn’t get anywhere nearby. I
was humiliated and felt sordid for days, like I was a mangy pariah dog. We laughed
about it afterward and said we were lucky that I didn’t get lice in my pubic hair. I’m so
afraid of being thought prissy or spoiled that I acted as if I had gotten over it, but it still
creeps me out.
When you’re traveling rough like I’ve been doing you lose your inhibitions fast—
all the more reason to take something as benign as nits in stride. Jeez, breakfast
conversation often starts with a talk about the quality of your poop, or how many times
you went. When Hart came down with dysentery, and I was worried about getting it, we
spent weeks examining each other’s poop; as if we would be able to see the microbes
walking around in the puddle of slop that came to pass for a bowel movement.
I left early enough after the funeral to get back safely. The big bike moves fast
and handles like a well-trained pony. It’s a pleasure to ride, once you get over the
nervousness, and you see more than you do from a car. Oh, I like car trips; the speed and
movement can be thrilling and as the miles accumulate, the zoned-out mindlessness that
overtakes me rocks me into a peacefulness that has echoes of childhood. But, it’s
illusory—you’re not where you’re looking, only inside a bubble on wheels—a world
parallel to the one you happen to be passing through.
Riding a bike is much more like walking. You’re exposed and in the middle of
things. In Bali, if you are out walking, you will inevitably be asked where you are
going—it’s a pleasantry, with no hint of nosiness. Saya makan angin, a response that
means, “I am eating the wind,” pretty much sums up motorcycle travel. The splats on
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your face are an inventory of the insect life of the region. You tan from the sun, prickle
in an evening chill, and the wind flutters the downy hair on your arms and makes your
eyes tear. After a summer rain, when the steam rises from the road and slicks your body,
on a hunch that it will feel good, you seek out the mirrored puddles to complete the
There is a tickle of danger that rides with you. Hart says, too crudely for my taste,
that his lodges near the little trap door of the asshole. He told me that if it disappears, it’s
time to get off the bike. I tend to believe him. It keeps you alert, not only to the hazards
around the next bend, but also to the sounds, sights and smells of the world around you—
especially the smells.
Fires are everywhere—cooking fires, burning brush, incense, and torches. The
smoke mixes with the fetid rot of the jungle and the spices of the open markets and singes
your nostrils. The smells of cooking emanate from tiny warungs, bamboo and thatch
versions of the roadside diner. It’s hard not to be lured in for a sample of satay or, grilled
fish and fresh mango served on a banana leaf. Whoever invented the microwave should
be shot—along with Old Macdonald, who never should have left his farm. One thing I’m
certain of is that they never rode a motorcycle through Southeast Asia.
When I got back to the losmen, Hart and I were happy to see each other. He
looked less ashen than when I left him that morning and filled with his usual energy. He
wanted to hear all about my day: Was it a big funeral? What were people wearing? How
were the musicians? Was there any dance? Did they have a straw sculpture that they
burned? What was the ceremony like? I confess that he’s one of the most interesting
men I’ve met, but he exhausts me sometimes. I was frazzled after the drive back, which
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he forgot to ask me about, and all I wanted to do was take a mandi to wash off the ash,
and have a cold beer if we could find one.
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Steeped in a rich brew of Hindu and Buddhist thought, the Balinese do not face
Mecca, but instead, turn to Gunung Agung. More perfect in form than Mt. Fuji, its
volcanic cone rises 3,000 meters and its slope reaches to the coast. And, if its presence
cannot be seen from everywhere, it can be sensed from any part of the island. It is the
temporal home of the gods and the navel of the universe. Besakih, the eleven-tiered
Mother Temple, is built on its slopes.
The Mother Temple has been fruitful. Hundreds of her offspring sprout
throughout the island. Each temple has its birthday and is celebrated by the local people
in dazzling ceremonies. It is said that one could find a temple festival every day of the
year replete with masked dancers, Gamelan orchestras, prayers, and skyscraper-tall
offerings of food. Countless shrines and mini-temples are tucked into nooks in family
compounds; pint-size deities sit among the stones along forest paths and cast a protective
eye over the traveler. Oftentimes, in the larger towns, the idea of the sacred is marked as
a mere spot on the sidewalk in front of a shop, where the proprietor dutifully places the
palm leaf offering.
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I always seemed to be banging around in some remote jungle when the Kunigan
Festival arrived. I usually missed it because I never knew when it was coming. The date
is calculated according to the Pawukon calendar that the Balinese tack to the wall next to
its Western brother. They use it to mark special events and religious holidays and its
intricacies are familiar to most every Balinese, but beyond the experience of most
foreigners. Kunigan is a kind of closing ceremony for a ten-day religious celebration.
What interested me about it was the particular focus on honoring ancestors and deified
souls. I had done my duty regarding the former, without any beneficial results as far as I
knew, and, there were no saints in my life—all the more reason to see what the Balinese
were up to.
It’s impossible to explore Bali in any serious way and not be aware of the
importance given to elders and the departed. Adat, the code that underlies all behavior in
these parts, is literally translated as the way of the ancestors—particularly the early ones.
Adat is the prescription for a right life—what to wear, how to speak, how to act with
someone older, or of a higher caste. It’s not a problem for the Balinese that adat is an
amalgam of Hindu, animist, tribal and pre-kingdom ideas. The Balinese go with the flow
of a very large river that sweeps up and finds a place for just about everything.
During Kunigan the ancestors are honored in lavish style—offerings, dances,
prayers, music—the works. It’s a Bali-wide extravaganza that involves preparations in
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many temples and communities. The souls of the departed return to their villages, from
where I don’t know, and the living, regardless of where they are living, return as well.
Red and I were tooling around the countryside on the bike, taking in whatever
came along. We drove through a string of small villages. The meandering roads through
the villages were under archways of palm fronds that had been tied to posts along the
roadside. The effect was like riding through a Gothic cathedral in the jungle. After
passing under the archway in the first village I could feel Red’s smile burn through the
back of my helmet, and she asked if we could drive through it again. The afternoon sun
was ablaze, but the light that passed through the canopy was soft-edged and harmless. It
was cool under the arcade. I turned the bike around.
We stopped for a snack at a warung midway through the village and asked the
young woman who was minding the store what the decorations were all about. She said
the palm arcade was a preparation for Kunigan and that her village was only one of many
who had done the same. The main events were three days off. She was enchanted with
Red and blabbed on excitedly to her about what a big deal it would be. Red’s Indo is
basic, but she seems to be able to get the local women to tell her all sorts of stuff—within
five minutes we knew she was twenty, married to a man of the same village and had two
children. She also said we should be sure to make the upcoming festivities on Sunday at
a large temple near the sea at Sanur.
On Sunday we packed our fancy sarongs, temple sashes, flip flops and a
ceremonial hat for me, and hopped on the bike wearing our jeans and boots. Red wore a
filmy, long-sleeved blouse that she had bought for the occasion at a local market. It was
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the tender green color of the young rice plants that dotted the paddies. The color of the
blouse made her hair blaze. It made me weak in the knees, and I almost dropped the bike
as I straddled it.
The ride was slow. Bemos jostled with motorcycles for a piece of the road.
These vans are the mainstay of local transport and are packed sweaty-tight even on a light
travel day. Now they looked like tins of colorful sardines. Even the bemo drivers,
usually a funky lot, were suited up in their best ceremonial regalia. Throngs of people
walked along the roadsides on route to their local temples. Children scooted ahead of
their parents and then darted back over the same ground like puppies. We could see
orderly lines of women with offerings stacked on their heads, weaving their way through
the rice fields. I pulled the bike over, grabbed my camera from our pack and scrambled
up a small embankment. The extra four feet of elevation was the ladder to another world.
I turned to call to Red, but she was already half way up the embankment. She must have
read my pulse in my eyes. “I can’t wait,” she said.
We stood silently and looked out over the paddies. The rice fields are usually
tucked into small valleys and hillsides, but these seemed as endless as the Great Plains.
The wind whistled lightly over young rice plants in terraces dug into the earth hundreds
of years ago. They were aligned along the course of swelling hills. Five centuries of
weather and the constant massage of naked feet and bare hands had erased the distinction
between what was, and what had been made.
The rounded rims of the terraces folded into each other so that what I saw looked
to be a single organism. I couldn’t open my eyes wide enough to take it all in. About a
hundred yards off, a line of women glided by, carrying offerings on their heads. The
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glitter of their clothing matched the sky reflected in the water of the paddies. As I took
my first shot a dark cloud appeared from nowhere. It must have had a hole in its middle.
It darkened the scene except for a nimbus of light that highlighted the women. The halo
of light disappeared before I could refocus for a second shot.
As we were leaving I took Red’s face in my hands. I kissed her, and turned her
away from a duck I saw lying dead in a ditch three feet from where we had been
standing. Ants were streaming out of the hole where its eyes had been. I hadn’t noticed
the carcass until a break in the wind brought me a whiff of rot.
Later, we parked the bike in a sandy lot about a quarter-mile from the temple
grounds. It was already jammed with cars, vans and motorcycles. A clump of bushes
nearby gave us enough privacy to change into our finery. I tied a red ribbon to a reed
stalk and fastened it to the bike with a bungee cord so we could find it in the school of
others. I picked one of the least ratty looking kids from a group of locals and gave him a
few rupiah to watch over the bike—not AAA-endorsed, but the rupes were a good, cutrate insurance.
We didn’t exactly look like locals, but we got a number of compliments and
smiles for our get-ups as we walked towards the temple grounds. I usually felt ridiculous
wearing the bandana-like temple hats, but the one I was lent by the owner of our losmen
caught the attention of at least two men who apparently thought it filled the bill, and told
me so. Everyone was in great spirits.
I was reminded of the Italian street fairs back in the States—those quasi-religious
celebrations that are more carnival than pilgrimage. There were thousands of people.
The long approach to the temple was lined with food stalls, and the smell of cooking
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mixed with the heavy scent of incense. Vendors hawked all manner of clothing, gadgets
and plastic stuff. You could buy a traditional sarong or a pink polyester sweater, a handwoven basket or a turquoise plastic bucket. Groups of men and women laughed and
gossiped. A light breeze carried the sound of a traditional gamelan playing in one of the
outer courtyards of the temple. The vendors’ voices edged over the general din. Earlier,
Red and I had thought we might stop in for magic mushroom omelets at one of the
restaurants in Kuta that served up this specialty, but we were glad we didn’t. The riotous
mix of synthetic color, the patterned sarongs, the crowds and the noise were psychedelic
enough. We clung to each other, overwhelmed and mesmerized, like the kids, who had
stopped their cavorting and were now glued to their parents. We hadn’t even reached the
temple grounds.
As we got closer, I noticed the sandy walkway underfoot had turned crunchy and
slippery. We were walking on a carpet of banten, the hand-sized, palm-basket offerings.
Thousands of them covered the ground. The bits of rice and flowers of the offerings had
been mashed into a slick paste. Red said it was “gross to walk on, but surely beautiful to
look at.” I annoyed her by snapping a few quick shots, even though I knew it was one of
those “You hadda be there” situations and would look dull as day-old shit when it came
out of the camera.
So much was happening inside the walls of the temple complex that my mind
cramped when I tried to sort it out. In Bali, temples aren’t buildings. They’re a group of
three courtyards, open to the sky—a practical design that makes it easier for spirits and
gods to come to roost. Shrines and pavilions, sculptures, walls and platforms are placed
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into these spaces; there are special areas for praying, for the gamelan orchestra, and for
the different dances. It’s holy ground.
People were streaming in and out, going to or from their prayers. It was a far cry
from the solemnity of church events. People were laughing and stopped to speak
whenever they met someone they knew. When the traffic dammed up, the stream would
find another course. You had to go with the flow, as they say.
A gamelan group had just finished playing as we entered the outer courtyard. A
group of kids who had shaken off their initial awe flocked onto the pavilion and began
banging away on the gongs and drums. The parents paid them no mind. Although Red
found the kids “adorable,” the parents didn’t stand around and coo about their talents or
cuteness. They simply went on with their conversations.
We hung around and let the pleasure of being there soak in. With so much going
on it’s not as easy as it sounds; you need to give it up and switch your trust into forces
beyond your understanding. My temptation to shoot the place up with my camera
dissolved into the blur of celebration around us. I guess Red and I were celebrating as
well—I was happy for my good luck to be there, to be there with her; a lingering look at
Red told me our thoughts were cooking in the same pot.
We drifted with a current of the crowd through a gate into an inner courtyard.
Red poked me in the side as we approached the gateway. “Looks like we’re walking into
the mouth of a nightmare,” she said. The sides and lintel of the gate were carved into a
monstrous head, with fangs and bulging eyes. For the second time that afternoon I was
grateful that we didn’t eat a psychedelic omelet. Even though I knew the gateway demon
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was there to scare off any evil spirits that might think of entering the inner temple, it
scared me shitless as well.
On the other side of the gate the chaotic din became a humming murmur. The
courtyard was packed with people getting ready for the next shift of prayers. They were
laughing and talking quietly, some milling about in small groups, others sitting crosslegged on the ground. A forest of umbrellas, banners and stacked offerings, surrounded
them. The offerings looked like candy-land skyscrapers, built for the most fantastic and
colorfully dressed beings that ever lived. I guess that was the point. I was simply
looking around, but must have been smiling inside. When Red asked about my enigmatic
look, I told her the truth. I was thinking of my brother Randy and how he would have
swooned to see so much beauty in one place. “See,” she said, “don’t tell me you don’t
have any ancestors. He’s probably here watching.”
I couldn’t resist a few quick shots. I wondered if the magic would make it into
the pictures. I had no doubt it would stay in my head.
A gong sounded, and a priest and his attendants organized the mass of people.
There hardly seemed room for everyone to sit. Red and I wriggled into place toward the
back of the press and melted into the close, animal warmth around us. Red’s comment to
me, that it felt safe but there was no way to know where you began and ended, just about
sums it up.
The lay priests moved easily through the seated throng. They gave each of us a
chance to dip our fingers into a coconut shell filled with holy water. We watched the
others to get the moves right and touched the water to our foreheads, temples and lips.
The attendants sprinkled some water over us for good measure. We were then handed a
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bit of sticky rice and a flower petal. We stuck a bit of rice on each temple and, hands
clasped in prayer position, held the petal between our thumbs. I had never been much of
a churchgoer, but even the Devil himself would have succumbed to the beauty of the
ceremony. As the prayers were intoned I stole a glance at Red. I wanted to tell her she
was the most angelic cowgirl I’d laid eyes on, but she was steeped in prayers for her
father and grandfather (as she told me later), and I knew it would be a cheap intrusion.
Besides, I envied her ability to pray.
Every once in a while we find a situation that is so far beyond our experience that
we have trouble believing it. The prayer ceremony was truly moving. Even the language
barrier seemed insignificant. Just because I couldn’t pray didn’t mean I couldn’t connect
with something bigger than myself, human or divine. I figured that everyone was there to
make that connection happen; collective will is a stampede of power, although that
expression misses the gentleness that I sensed in the people. So, even if I got no more
from it than a drunk at a twelve-step program, it was a miraculous experience.
After the prayer ceremony the meeting dissolved rather than ended. Everyone but
Red and I seemed to know when to call it quits. People exited casually, in no order that I
could see. Then they regrouped and began to move in a common direction, like a river
that had gathered force from a downhill run and was ready to overflow its banks. Red
hadn’t quite returned from her trip to the stars, but she had lost her angelic look. The
color had drained from her face, and I saw the start of panic in her eyes as the crowd
swept around us. I took her hand and pulled her near me and we surged out of the
courtyard on the waves of the crowd.
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I don’t remember whether we crossed beneath the same gateway we entered.
After passing through a series of corridors and smaller gates, we ended up in a confined
space that was denser with people than the one we had just left. There was a huge
commotion. I knew something amazing was about to come my way and readied my
camera. I told Red that I had to see what was going on. She was in a state that was equal
parts reverie and fear and wasn’t sure she could take it. I plunked her down near a shrine,
whose spire rose above the crowd and could be seen from a ways off. I spoke to her like
a kid, telling her not to move from the spot until I returned.
A group of women were wailing, shouting and generally making a god-awful
noise. They were bringing up the rear of a herky-jerky procession. I squeezed my way
through the edge of the crowd to reach the front of the procession. I asked a young guy
what was up and he told me that the pratimas, the temple gods, had just been washed at a
spring and were being returned to their homes. The women were raising a fuss to urge
the spirits of the ancestors to re-enter the statues. The situation seemed on the edge of
I caught a glimpse of the pratimas as they were carried aloft in shallow baskets
draped with batik. The wooden idols were roughly carved, quasi-human figures—
primitive, fiercely expressive and radically different than the refined work that typified
Balinese art. I popped the camera on automatic and held it overhead, hoping to get lucky.
There was no way to focus or adjust the lens. One shot, bang.
I didn’t make my knee-jerk calculation as to what the statues were worth. They
weren’t being offered to me in the coziness of my room. The gods were in full action
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mode, in all their power and glory. They were no longer objects, but the center of an
enormous force field.
The bearers, the women following, the priests leading the way, looked to the sky
beyond the roofless temple to coax the ancestors home to roost. Those directly involved
seemed well on the way to a trance state. Their eyes ricocheted randomly in their
sockets. They were way out there where the buses don’t go. The onlookers were keyed
up too, and the tension was infectious. I was in the grip of it and, suddenly overwhelmed
by the futility and stupidity of trying to photograph the event, let my camera drop to hang
dumbly from my neck.
The gods were removed from the baskets and set on a platform amidst flowers
and offerings and burning incense. The billows of smoke made it all theatrical and
surreal. In a moment of fantasy, I half-expected Prince to come prancing out in his best
fishnet pantyhose, his pencil-line mustache in flames. Instead, what I got was far more
bizarre. The music, which sounded frenetic and otherworldly, picked up in weirdness
and volume. A gong sounded and a group of priests, dressed in white and carrying
spears, began a dance. I have no idea how they appeared—you could have told me they
rained down from the sky and I would have believed it. Their lunging and turning moves
reminded me of the Indonesian martial art of selat.
The dance seemed to act out a fierce battle from bygone times. The men’s
repeated stabbing of coconuts drove this home. The men toyed with the coconuts, and
prodded them through the dirt as cats taunt mice; of a sudden they would focus their
energy and fiercely stab the coconuts until the outer shells split and their milk spurted
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out. This was grotesque and bloodthirsty and just short of terrifying when I thought of
the nuts as substitutes for the human heads that were most likely used in the past.
The dancers’ movements became more aggressive, and the circle of onlookers
widened to give the performers room. When I saw the crowd pull back I realized that
these priests were not performing. They were not acting. They were fierce warriors from
another time, in another galaxy. I had seen trance dances before—both the ersatz shows
for the tourists and the real thing—but this was something else. The transformation of
the men, like the transformation of the idols that I had witnessed earlier, was so alien and
of a universe so distant from my own, that I was frightened and at a complete loss to give
meaning to the event.
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After Hart and I left “Peaceful Rest” we headed north to Chiang Rai. We picked
up a guide—truthfully, Hart took care of all the arrangements. A few people were
walking up among the Hill Tribes and there was a new trekking agency with a listing of
local guys who served as guides. They had other occupations, and taking people trekking
was a way for them to make some extra money. It wasn’t much of a business, but you
could see that soon the tourists would be taking one-day elephant safaris. At that time we
were sort of guinea pigs.
Our guide’s name was “One” and he was a high school biology teacher. He spoke
perfect English and was just the sweetest man. He was beautiful and I was relieved that
he was married—lead me not into temptation and all. He showed me pictures of his two
beautiful kids, a boy and a girl. He didn’t have a picture of his wife but she must have
been gorgeous too. Anyway, I had my hands full with Hart. I was going along for the
ride. That was exactly how Hart asked me—“Hey Red! Wanna come along for the
We stored most of our gear at the guesthouse and took only what we would need
for the ten-day trip north. There was a long, beautiful bus ride to Chiang Rai where we
spent the afternoon and made our last-minute preparations before taking off early the next
morning for the villages in the hills. Hart and One were very thorough and completely in
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synch. I thought they were being over-prepared and was anxious to get away ASAP. I
guess I was being cranky—“bordering on unreasonable” was the way Hart put it, and he
asked if I was getting my period. In fact I was due in a day or two and said so, getting
more annoyed. I’m not sure if it was at Hart or my hormones. I felt unjustly driven by
both. He dispassionately asked if I had Tampax or whatever I used, and when I said I
didn’t he replied that “unless you don’t mind using an old sock you’d best check around
Chiang Rai to see what you can scare up.” I went off on my own and managed, after two
hours and some embarrassing pantomime, to come up with a package of Kotex the size of
diapers. Considering that the only Thai I knew was “thank you,” I was pleased at the
success of my mission. Hart laughed at the economy-sized sanitary napkins but assured
me that we could customize them for comfort.
We left before dawn in the back of a truck carrying twenty-five kilo bags of rice
and hopped off as the sun crested the ridge behind a small farming village set in a valley
at the end of a dusty road. It was the last road we would see for the next ten days. One
said that we could arrange for some elephants to carry us further into the hills. The
elephants weren’t necessary but I guess he thought we’d get a kick out of it and of course
Hart was all for it.
If you’ve never ridden on an elephant for the better part of a day, you’ve missed
one of life’s great pleasures and greatest discomforts. My bony ass was chafed raw by
the constant sway of the wooden saddle, and at one point I dismounted and went off
behind a bush to rig a couple of the giant sized Kotex into my panties for padding. It
helped enough so I could enjoy the ride and, after I lost the worry of falling off, felt
completely safe. It made walking seem perilous. From fifteen feet up there was no
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stepping on snakes, no threat of tigers creeping up on you, no cuts from the sea of cane
grass and thorn bush. The huge beasts simply plowed through—and me, I was above it
all and felt like a maharaja surveying my kingdom.
The thing I didn’t like, in fact hated, was the way my mahout treated his elephant.
The driver sat in front of me, astride the elephant’s neck, with his legs tucked in behind
her ears. (I had checked its sex before I got on and was happy it was a she.) The driver
was a young guy, darker skinned than most Thais I had seen but just as lithe and small
boned. He directed the elephant by swatting her on the forehead with a wooden stick that
had a mean-looking metal hook at the end. From time to time he would hook the end
under her ripples of skin and give it a tug.
After a few hours, when I relaxed enough to check things out more closely, I
noticed that my elephant’s forehead was raw and bleeding. It was truly disgusting and
seemed unnecessarily cruel on the driver’s part. I tried telling the driver to stop. He
turned around and gave me an enormous grin, obviously not understanding a word I said.
I got so riled that I was shouting at him to stop. That got One’s attention. Hart was so
busy with his damned camera I could have fallen off and been trampled without him
noticing. One had a quiet conversation with my driver and translated back that the
elephants were so thick skinned they hardly felt it, like a mosquito bite he said. As if to
explain the driver gave the hook a vicious tug and turned to me and said something in
Thai, which I guess meant, “See it doesn’t hurt at all.” I wanted to kick him in the back
and wished the elephant would grab him with her trunk and smash him into a mud hole.
At the end of the day I was more relieved for the elephant than my own sorry ass.
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We stayed that night in a village on the banks of the Mekong River. One and Hart
and I slept on reed mats in the house of the tribal headman. The house was made of
bamboo with a peaked thatch roof. It sat on poles about five feet above the ground and
had a front porch protected by the roof eaves. My heart sank when we first went inside.
The walls were covered in woven palm mats that were blackened by the soot from an
open fire, which glowered continually in a dirt bottom hearth. You could peek through
the spaces in the slatted bamboo floor and see the chickens and pigs beneath the house. It
was dark and smelled of smoke, and the one big room offered no privacy except for a few
pieces of cloth hanging from the rafters to mark off the sleeping area.
Hart and I were just getting to know each other and were in deep lust. I felt like I
was in constant heat and at that moment would have been happy to while away our time
on some beach, doing nothing but eating and swimming and having sex. We did get to
that after leaving the Golden Triangle, but on that first night things looked grim.
Hart told me to focus on the brighter side. He was excited to point out amenities
like the roofless privy with a view of the stars—but the glass looked half-empty to me
right then, and it took a big effort to keep from whimpering like a baby. I didn’t want
Hart to think he had made a mistake taking me along. I had bragged to him how I had
been out traveling for months and had done this and that, but I must admit I was scared in
that smoky village and realized there was a lot to learn about weirdness and “being out
there,” as Hart is fond of saying. When he said that things would get exponentially
weirder the further into the hills we got, I said to myself, “MJ, you’ve bitten off a big
chunk and you’d better chew it around before you try to swallow.”
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Hart acted as if he had been there all his life. He was totally unruffled and
wandered around poking into everything and talking to people, even though he didn’t
speak a word of the local language and, of course, snapping pictures like crazy. He left
me to myself, and if he noticed I was uncomfortable he didn’t say a word. I’ve come to
learn that this is his way, but at the time I didn’t know if it was because he really didn’t
care, or if it came from a faith that people are capable of figuring things out for
It wasn’t long before a group of kids gathered around me. They began jabbering
away and got as close to me as possible, touching my hair and stroking my arm. My
whiteness was shocking to me and fascinating to them. One little boy spoke some
English, which he had learned God knows where, and this elevated him to ringleader
among the kids, many of whom were older. I gave him an “I Love New York” button,
which he pinned to his raggedy tee shirt before strutting around like the mayor.
One came onto the porch and asked if I needed a shower. I thought he was
joking. The only water in sight was a hand pump in the middle of town and there was no
way I was washing there. I didn’t know these people but I figured some things to be true,
regardless of where you were, and you don’t shower or shit where you drink. One told
me to grab a sarong or a bathing suit and the kids would lead the way. He spoke a few
words in Thai to the kids who jumped up and down and smiled in unison, as happy as the
morning sun.
The Mayor took my hand and we followed one of the older girls who led the way.
We entered the jungle on a narrow, well-worn path. It was spooky until my eyes adjusted
to the dappled light. I was relieved to see a woman coming toward us looking fresh and
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dewy-wet. A young girl trailed her and buried her face in her mother’s skirt as they
passed. The mother gave us a bright smile and said “Sawat-dii kha!” When the Mayor
replied, “goot even-ing” the kids broke up, giggling, and jumping like chipmunks.
We walked single file along the path. When we arrived at a particularly wide
section, marked by a steeply rising embankment on one side, the kids hugged the outside
edge of the trail. I was walking along happily in a half daze when I noticed the children
pause to look at me with what I took to be concern. For no reason in particular, I hadn’t
followed their detour but kept close to the embankment. The Mayor and another little
boy shouted, and shoved me roughly away from the bank. When the Mayor made a
wavering gesture with his forearm and palm, and the other kids supplied a chorus of
hissing sounds, I realized they had saved my life. They tossed a couple of stones and
half-heartedly poked a stick into a hole between the boulders, but could not raise the
cobra from its nest. It was a sobering moment.
The shower was a towering waterfall whose twin flumes plunged into a nearly
circular pool. One could choose to bake-dry on the smooth, glossy black stones, or
escape the sun under the huge-leafed trees that ringed the pool. It was a calendar picture
of paradise, unmarred by plastic or paper trash, and the water was as refreshing as it
promised. One of the girls had a chip of soap she carried in a folded leaf that would
hardly lather even her tiny body. It happened that I had a bunch of hotel-sized bars in my
pack and I gave them each one. They carefully placed the soap on a rock, still wrapped,
before they entered the water, and each retrieved their bar immediately after getting out.
On the walk back to the village they clutched their soap in two hands and then
skedaddled to show the prize to their parents.
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After a dinner of rice with a hint of mystery meat and vegetable, Hart and I cozied
under our mosquito net and talked for a bit. He had taken some great shots of an old
woman in traditional dress, smoking opium. He was looking forward to the boat ride up
the Mekong River but was concerned that we hadn’t nailed down the arrangements: “It’s
all so loosey-goosey up here, you’d think I would have learned to go with the fucking
flow.” This was big news to me, as I thought he never worried about anything. That
encouraged me to tell him that I felt better now—things seemed more real to me after
going to the waterfall with the kids. He grunted that he didn’t know I was feeling bad,
mumbled something about Fantasy Island, and promptly fell asleep.
There was a big discussion the next morning about whether we should proceed by
boat up the Mekong. Hart had learned that someone had been shot and killed on the river
the day before we arrived. The gunmen were concealed in the brush on the Laos side of
the river and shot someone right out of the boat—a slim, long-tail boat exactly like the
one we were planning to take. The area was crawling with police and military, and
people were wary. Their concern wasn’t for being arrested. Opium poppies were grown
in open view, and the understanding between the authorities and the farmers was
similarly visible. The police and military always wanted something, but the one thing
they didn’t want was trouble of any kind. Unusual circumstances led to unusual
demands. This would cost the villagers somehow. As Hart put it, rather cynically, it was
all about commerce. My concern was whether the man who was killed had a family and
how were they going to make it without him.
I wasn’t sure I wanted to take the chance of going on the river. Another story was
circulating about a French guy who was killed up here a couple of weeks ago. He might
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have been a journalist, a tourist, or a French intelligence agent—the distinctions were lost
on the locals. It seems that his guide had warned him to stow his video camera when he
was up in the Triangle. The locals didn’t mind travelers passing through. The extra
dollars were always appreciated, so I guess Hart was right on that score, but they didn’t
want them nosing around into their business. Apparently, a caravan of donkeys carrying
bags of raw opium was winding through the hills and this fool Frenchman took out his
camera and began shooting. It was the last footage of his life. An Akha tribesman,
guarding the train, shot him where he stood. There was no warning, just a single rifle
shot and it was over. Word had it that the caravan didn’t even pause. The incident didn’t
make the news, and the guide who led the little tourist group had disappeared.
Hart prevailed, and he talked One and me into riding into the “heart of darkness,”
as he likes to say. His reasoning was that this would be the safest time to be on the river.
The place would be overrun with law enforcement and everyone would be on their best
behavior. He promised not to take any pictures of suspicious-looking pack trains and to
stay seated in the boat.
It was early when we got on board. A mist clung to the Mekong, and we seemed
to be floating on clouds. The mist damped the shrill cock-a-doodle-dos and erased the
murmur of human activity. Less than fifty feet from the rickety bamboo pier we were
alone, heading toward a destination I couldn’t fathom.
A soldier rode in the bow, a machine gun lying across his knees. He had hardly
begun shaving, yet the innocence of youth was wiped clean from his face. He had a few
angry-looking zits on his forehead and wore a perpetual sneer. Once he allowed himself
to smile and revealed a mouthful of rotten stumps, punctuated by black holes of those
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gone missing. Hart said that if the enemy appeared all he would have to do is smile and
breathe on them. I didn’t know if the soldier was riding upriver for our safety, or because
he had nothing else to do. When I asked One he explained that the soldier was a
Bangkok boy stationed in the area to patrol the river. The kid resented the locals, who he
though were primitive and not even true Thais. Luckily, they were stupid enough so that
he could extort a supplement to his meager army pay. Hart summed him up as a vicious
little creep and, despite my leaning for military men, I had to agree.
The shroud of mist hung over us all morning and we knew there were villages
along the banks only when we smelled the smoke from their cooking fires. I was settling
into the dreaminess of this soft gray world—a fleeting appearance of a fisherman poling
his boat was a major occurrence—when the soldier set off a burst of rounds that nearly
put me overboard. He flashed a threatening grin as if to say, “Look what I can do” and
then spoke a few words to One who in turn translated for us. He was demanding 200
baht for his protection for the duration of the trip.
Hart looked at him coldly, sizing him up for God only knows what. The soldier
didn’t understand a word, nor did he catch the menace in Hart’s voice. “How about an
ice pick in the brain, you piss-ant scum. Then I’ll feed you to the fucking fish,” he added,
smiling. He turned to One and said, “this fucking guy’s gotta go. Tell him we appreciate
his protection but the dangerous part of the ride is almost over. Tell him we’ll give him
fifty baht if he gets off in the next village to spend it...but only if he gets off in the next
village.” It was a plan and it worked. He got off ten minutes later and the mist lifted as
we pushed off the dock.
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The river was broad and flat, punctuated with fish weirs and mooring poles
sticking up from the shallow water like Chinese characters. There was an occasional
jetty made of bamboo slats with a few small boats tucked into the protection of a bend in
the river. People were not much in evidence, but we could see the smoke from villages
beyond the rice paddies. As the morning wore on even these disappeared, and the rickety
footbridges that spanned the narrowest stretches of the river seemed to lead nowhere. We
got off the boat on a muddy bank near one of the bridges and picked up a path into the
hills, with One leading the way.
Elephants and boats are fine but I was glad to be walking again and feel my body
in a familiar way. Hart helped me strap into my pack and gave my breasts and butt a
secret little caress. “Just checking that the pack isn’t rubbing you the wrong way,” he
said, stuffing a red bandana beneath each of the shoulder straps. “We wouldn’t want
that,” he said, with a smile. He had been alert and tough-looking most of the morning,
and it was reassuring to see the softness in him. That little gesture of care for me meant a
lot. On the boat I thought to myself, “Jeez, this guy probably could stick an ice pick into
the kid in the blink of an eye.”
I watched him swing his pack on—it went from the ground to his back in one
smooth movement. He humped it into place, snapped the fittings and pulled down hard
on the shoulder straps to set the pack close to his body. He was rugged and sturdy and
moved with an assurance that was misleading because it made him look relaxed, which, I
learned later, he hardly ever was. Once when I called him on some over-the-top
preparedness, he said, “I’m not up tight. I’m just super awake.” I still call it hypervigilant, and wished he could...I don’t know, relax, I guess.
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I didn’t have that depth of understanding of him then and simply felt good that I
was “out there” with this handsome dude who brimmed with confidence and knew his
way around. Although I felt he cared, in some funny way he treated me like he would a
guy—he didn’t fuss over me and, most important, he didn’t condescend. He expected me
to hold up my end of the bargain, which I did, and he didn’t tell me how great I was
because I did, which allowed me to feel good about myself. “You don’t get praise for
paying your electric bill on time, you just get to enjoy the light” was one of his favorite
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The Hill Tribes, and the landscape of Northern Thailand where they live, offer a
visual feast to anyone with at least one functioning eye. The formal beauty of Hart’s
photographs makes the extreme exoticism of these cultures understandable. Twentythree years after the pictures were taken, they have the immediacy of snapshots yet still
evoke the mystery of what he saw.
One image of a small village shot from above and about a half-mile in the
distance is a perfect example. It was apparently taken from a vantage point along a trail
that can be seen winding down the side of a mountain in the left mid-ground of the photo.
A cloud of mist and smoke hang tentatively above the bamboo and thatch houses that
stretch along a hog’s-back ridge. The houses are burnished gold by the slanting sun and
although they look as if they had sprouted from the raw, red earth they seem as fragile as
the mist and as easily swept away.
The trees that fringe the village bow toward the setting sun. The Akha built on
this exposed site to take advantage of the crisp breezes that dissipate the hellish heat and
the rank smell of human habitation. It is also a place where the spirits are strong and
benevolent. Buddhism hadn’t touched these remote villages, where trees and stones are
alive, where spirits and magic walk hand in hand. Should this not be enough to keep
things safe, it is not a bad idea to be able to sit on high and be able to see who was
coming for dinner.
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It was cooling off when we arrived at an Akha village in early evening. My
clothes were soaked through with sweat after the long hard climb, which made it feel
even chillier. We had crossed over a small mountain and seen the village below us,
glowing in the distance. Hart said the streets of the village looked like the infield at
Fenway Park on a sunny Sunday. The three of us stood silently, in utter amazement at
the rightness of this other world. From far away we couldn’t see the patched clothes and
dirty fingernails of the few people we saw moving about. I was annoyed that Hart could
hardly wait more than a moment before he hauled out his camera and began snapping
away. I insisted that we stay up there a while and enjoy the view. I had come along for
the ride, but it didn’t mean I didn’t have any rights.
The trail led down a steep slope directly to the entrance gate of the village. It was
an elaborate, ramshackle job made of bamboo, but the wooden figures on one side were
impressive. They were almost as tall as I was and primitively carved. The female’s
outsized breasts and the male’s huge penis made it pretty clear what they were. I reached
out to run my hand along the statues and got a very stern warning from One. Apparently
this was a no-no of major proportions, no pun intended.
I figured that the statues were a good sign: These people liked sex and probably
held family and children in high regard, all of which I approved. Over the course of the
next week I found out that these things were true and that it made the Akha an extremely
friendly and hospitable people who captured my heart from the get go. What a sense of
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relief from the pinched Protestants and uptight Catholics I grew up and went to school
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Based on the number of photographs, MJ and Hart spent a considerable amount of
time among the Hill Tribes. Many of the photos are of Ahka villages whose people are
among the least integrated into the mainstream of Thai life. Their dark faces and jewelry
betray their connection to Tibet, which is their homeland.
There are a number of charming pictures of MJ. She looks so young, sitting
among a group of Akha women on the porch of a typical house, a simple thatch and
bamboo structure built on stilts. The straw fringe on the roof eaves casts a scraggy
shadow over MJ, and her white face appears covered in lace. Her teeth are even whiter.
The local women, who appear to bathe in her radiance, surround her. She is wearing a
Dallas Cowboys hat that has been customized with fluffy red pompoms. Hart took the
photograph and, in so far as it is possible to convey love and admiration through the
camera’s glass eye, he managed to.
The women are making hats. Some are holding dome-shaped armatures made
from bamboo; others are working on hats that are further along, sewing on cloth and
spangles. No one is looking at the camera—all eyes are on MJ or the hats they are
holding. Just how important these hats are to the women is clear in a story of an elderly
woman who went to a lowland hospital to be treated for a disease the local medicine man
couldn’t cure. It was a major event and a long hike for this elderly woman. She spoke no
Thai and was shepherded by a grandson who acted as both guide and interpreter. Once at
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the hospital they asked her, as a matter of hygienic routine, to remove her headdress,
which she refused to do, and in turn the unsympathetic authorities would not admit her.
She returned to the village the same day, deciding she would rather die of illness than
The men play this game more cleverly. When they go into the lowlands and hire
themselves out as wage earners, they wear modern clothes to avoid hassles with petty
officials asking them for identity cards and the inevitable fine, whether their papers are in
order or not. The women stick closer to home.
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Alice had her looking glass; I have the Akha gates. When I stepped through the
gates it was as if someone had lifted a veil from in front of my eyes. It wasn’t exactly as
if I had done it myself. I wished I could say I had, which would make me seem more
intelligent and willful. But the truth is, it didn’t feel that way. As Hart said to me, when I
talked to him about it later on, “You’re the expert!”
On the other side of those gates, the air, the light, and the colors appeared as if
they’d been honed. It was peculiar. There was a blanket of smoke from cooking fires
and burning fields and kicked-up dust and, still, everything was razor sharp. There
wasn’t much on my mind I was just there is all, and something inside of me has been
different ever since.
Hart had the good sense not to start photographing the minute we were inside.
When we saw the first woman coming toward us, Hart could barely keep his hands off
his camera. She was dark-skinned and pretty in a flat-faced kind of way, but what was
really extraordinary was the headdress she wore. It looked like a cross between a chain
mail helmet and a beaded cloche. Her hat was covered in white beads and silver studs
that were sewed on in cornrows. Ping-Pong-sized balls made from silver swung from her
forehead as she strode along. Trails of silver-dollar-size coins dangled from what looked
like earflaps, and the headpiece was topped with a brightly embroidered kerchief. I never
saw anything like that at Neiman Marcus.
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The loops of red and white beads around her neck, and the white beads sewed
onto the forehead of her headdress, framed her face so that she looked like a cameo in
reverse—a brown face in an oval of white. Her bearing was so regal it made me feel
small. When we drew abreast I was shocked that she was shorter than me by a hand.
She smiled in greeting, and her aura of confidence fell into the wreckage of her
betal-nut stained mouth. Black teeth and reddened gums seem a high price to pay for the
buzz you get from chewing the dreadful stuff—except that, in her society, it was kind of
attractive and no price at all. Men and woman incessantly work a wad of it and spit the
red juice out onto the ground. It’s about as disgusting to me as tobacco chewing which,
in my mind, is connected to cowboys who don’t shave, or wash quite often enough.
It’s customary, when you enter villages like this, to seek out the shaman or priest,
usually the most important person in town. He wasn’t around and Hart said, offhandedly, that he was probably out casting a spell. In fact he was, as we later found out,
at the blessing of a newly built rice granary. So we settled for a visit to the headman and,
after a brief palaver and the ritual passing around of Marlboros, we settled into his hut.
Hart had bought thimbles, needles, thread, pins and buttons to give as gifts. He quietly
passed these to me and suggested I give them to the women and older girls, which I did.
This was a big hit; sewing and embroidery supplies were hard to come by, and the
women had to walk to the lowland markets to trade vegetables they’d grown to get what
they needed.
I was in like Flynn. The women were super friendly. They didn’t see many white
women—mostly white men who they daren’t talk to—so, Farang or not, I was a welcome
novelty. We got right to some fancy sewing, and the women seemed pleased that I knew
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what I was doing and could teach them a few tricks of my own. I might have been a
debutante, but my mom saw the worth in humble American know-how. I was a sewing
fool by the time I was nine. I wowed the local girls with a stitch I had invented which
was particularly useful in securing double seams.
All the women and older girls wore headdresses similar to that of the woman we
met as we entered the village. They wore them working in the fields or preparing food,
night and day. They were very proud of them and each gave hers a special flair, perhaps
a piece of monkey fur, or some brightly colored feathers, or a trade bead. A group of us
were sitting, or squatting, on the porch making hats. They start the hats with a bowlshaped frame made from finely woven bamboo. The beads, silver, fabric and anything
else get sewed on. I made a pair of red pom-poms from some yarn I had and gave them
to one of the younger girls who couldn’t keep her eyes off them. Her mother had been
watching me make them and showed her how to do it, occasionally checking with me to
make sure she was doing it right. By the end of the day her daughter had made a pair of
her own, which she gave me, and she giggled with pleasure when I sewed them onto my
Cowboys cap.
I had read somewhere that the Thai people do not like to be touched on the head.
I couldn’t assess its importance. Did that mean the person you touched would have to
ritually shave their head, or would the offending person have to dip their hand in boiling
oil, or was it no big deal? Interested in manners as I am, this little no-no stayed with me.
I was in Thailand, and although these people were definitely not Thai, I wasn’t making
that distinction, and it’s a good thing. I was desperate to try on one of the hats and
thought it strange, considering how friendly the women were, that no one offered. I was
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about to take one of the hats from a girl and try it on—jokingly, of course—when I
remembered the little no-touch rule, and stopped in my tracks. I tried to make myself
understood with gestures and hand signs but the women only shook their heads as if I
wasn’t getting through to them. One happened by and I asked him to translate for me.
His explanations really surprised me. The women understood exactly what I
wanted to do and the head shaking was not a sign of incomprehension, it meant no. It
seems the women never took the hats off, even at night. This was an issue when some of
the younger girls went off to Thai government schools. They had to wear those
ridiculous schoolgirl uniforms, which look the same the world over, but were forbidden
to wear their hats. This was done in the interest of having them be good Thais. Too
much ethnic identity is seen as a bad thing in this part of the world. It makes me furious
that governments, Thai, Burmese, Indonesian, stomp it out whenever they can.
The men generally seem less involved with old-timey fashion. Western-styled
slacks are as common as the traditional black baggy pants; I saw one pair of ratty jeans
on a guy who seemed to be the village hot shot. The fashion choice, for tops, is a tee
shirt, and if “Harley Davidson,” “Jamaica No Problem,” or another inane cliché is printed
on it, so much the better. Rubber flip-flops are ubiquitous, and occasionally you see a
pair of Adidas, two sizes too large.
When I bitched to Hart about how awful it was that Western clothes were fast
replacing traditional wear, he reminded me I was wearing a Balinese sarong and an
embroidered vest I was proud of having bargained for at a market stall in Bangkok. I
tried to explain myself by saying I felt guilty for weeks, at having gotten it for a
ridiculously low price, when he cut me short. “You realize that you’re doing exactly the
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same thing.” I started to argue that their stuff was so beautiful and ours was so crass and
how could they etc., etc., when he exploded at me. “You spoiled little brat! Who are you
to make that judgment? You think your judgment is better than theirs? In their eyes our
stuff is just as exotic as theirs is to us, so don’t give me any bullshit about how you’re so
much smarter.” I’m still not so sure I understand his reasoning. Something tells me that
he twisted things around to justify what he was doing over there—like basically stealing
their traditional stuff. I never saw him so angry with me, before or since, but I still resent
the way he browbeat me into shutting up. But I’m getting ahead of my story.
The first time I smoked opium was that night in the Akha village. We had
finished a dinner of rice and vegetables. The meal was flavored with lemon grass and
peanuts and, although it wasn’t nearly as delicious as the food available in the cities, it
was tasty and healthy. It was also, as I later learned through bitter experience, a damn
sight better than most of the food you get in remote areas. The man of the house, who
didn’t exactly exude an aura of village headman, which he supposedly was, opened a
small wooden chest and took out his paraphernalia. I fully expected him to take out a
bong and a Jimi Hendrix poster. He laid out a bamboo-stemmed pipe, a metal skewer, a
round-bottomed oil lamp, a cheapo aluminum plate divided into sections like a blue-plate
special, and a stash can of opium. Although I was paying attention, it was all incredibly
weird. Hart took a picture of me with my eyes as big as saucers and my mouth hanging
open, and this was before I smoked anything. I remember looking at the metal can and
thinking it looked exactly like an old snuff can that my Italian girl friend, Rosa Carmini,
got from her grandmother to cut dough rings to make tortellini.
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The boss did it first. He lay down in a sort of fetal position with his head resting
on a block of wood draped with a piece of folded cloth. The cloth was filthy, and the
original color was long gone under a coating of dirt and human grease. He lit the oil
lamp, skewered some opium and rolled it into a pea-sized ball, then heated the opium
over the lamp until it smoked. He dropped the opium into his pipe and sucked away. He
did all this while lying down. A haze of blue smoke, which looked too dense to float,
hung in the air over the lamp’s small flame. In the same way as pot, the sweet, straw-like
smell is unmistakable, heavy and rich like its smoke.
Hart went next. I could barely watch as he lay down on the floor, in mirror
image, across from the headman. The headman did all the work; he ignited the opium
and then stuck the pipe stem into Hart’s mouth. He sucked on it greedily and after a few
hits rolled off his wooden pillow in a kind of ecstatic daze. It was revoltingly sexual and
I wasn’t sure I could do it. But I’m not one to pass up an opportunity. I knew the sexual
thing was only in my head and what was the harm of that? Besides I didn’t want Hart to
think I was a wimp, and I didn’t want to feel like one.
Good, clean-living Texas girl that I am, the first thing I noticed was that this guy
was filthy. Each fingernail, every crease in his body was outlined with dirt. His face was
sweaty, his teeth rotten looking and his clothing soiled beyond redemption. I was
repulsed and for a moment was ready to bolt and scrap the whole experience. I forced
myself not to think about the fact that the pipe stem had been in and out of his mouth
countless times. I placated myself with a little magical idea that Hart had somehow
cleansed it with his saliva and made it all right. I hated myself for letting these concerns
even come up and so was more determined than ever to go ahead with it—which I did.
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I totally understand how people can get hooked. In the villages they use it as a
medicine to cure diarrhea and relieve aches and pain. It surely does both those things. At
the end of a day’s trekking your shoulders and back ache from carrying your pack. Your
legs feel like jelly and, even if you’re not at high altitude, the idea of squatting down to
tie a shoelace, or take a pee, are more than you can bear. If you’re the type to worry your
mind into knots and walk around with a belly full of anxiety, well...I can tell you, that
night, all my knots went up in a few puffs of smoke. It was heavenly. Until this day I
realize it was a good thing that Hart and I didn’t stay longer in the Triangle. We could
easily have become characters in the stories swapped around about travelers who went
into the high country and never came out.
Hart was still a stranger to me at that point. He was so often looking at me
through his camera lens that I knew I must be a stranger to him too. The first part of our
trek made matters worse. The hiking was grueling. It was hot and dusty and the pack
seemed to grow heavier by the day. People were burning off the fields to get them ready
for new plantings, and there were miles during the day where the smoke was thick
enough to choke on. Hart didn’t seem to be bothered at all; and he was ready, with the
slightest prompting, to take a five-mile detour to check out some waterfall he had heard
about. He said that after a week the pack would become part of my body and I wouldn’t
feel right without it. “We’ll have a few hits of O tonight and go to Disneyland.” I know
he meant to be encouraging, but at that moment I was thinking that he was the most
insensitive man I’d ever met.
The thing that made it extremely difficult was that we weren’t having sex. I
might have been tired, and the life around me still seemed strange, but I was horny
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beyond belief. I think the opium made it worse. Plus, I knew sex with Hart was hot. It
wasn’t a matter of choice. Sleeping arrangements were complicated—often I slept with
the women and girls and Hart slept in the men’s section. On the few occasions when
Hart and I did put our mats side by side, it was in an open, communal space that everyone
traipsed through, and One was usually only a few feet away. Neither of us was too
excited about going into the jungle, which was how the locals referred to it, and what the
young people did. I doubt I could have relaxed enough worrying about the snakes and
scorpions crawling up my butt.
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There are a half-dozen snaps taken by MJ, including a few of Hart working with
local men building a house. The house is set on a slope slightly lower down, on the
outskirts of the village. The thatch roof dwarfs the stubby, windowless walls. There is a
clue in the photo that the village has been on the same ridge for years. The village gates
can be seen in the mid-ground, the entrance obscured by rows of ancestor sculptures that
form a virtual tunnel. Every few years the young men of the village carve new gateposts
and erect them in front of those from previous years. The older carvings are left to rot
and in this photo they are in various stages of decay.
The house is mostly complete; the men are putting the finishing touches on the
porch and entrance. Hart is wearing a sleeveless white tee shirt that reveals his matching
rosette tattoos. He has a machete in his right hand and is pointing to the end of a piece of
bamboo as thick as his muscular forearm. An older man is pointing to the same spot.
Both men are laughing and seem unaware that they are being photographed.
A posed shot, perhaps by One or on a self-timer, shows Hart carrying MJ across
the threshold of the house. The anomaly of this Western tradition in a land of bamboo
and opium is hilarious. Hart and MJ wear big smiles, their faces are close and they have
either just kissed or are about to. We can see into the sparse interior, which is empty of
even the usual twin cooking hearths and the partition that would divide the space into
men’s and women’s domains. The simple, traditional ancestor shrine will be put in the
corner of the women’s half when the family moves in. There is a great concern in Akha
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society about family and children and the continuance of Akha ways and genealogy.
Keeping the spirits of their ancestors happy is at the top of the list for a good citizen.
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Fate is a funny thing. Sometimes one person’s bad luck opens up a world of
opportunity for someone else. I know that’s not an original idea, but I don’t think I truly
understood it until I saw it in action. It was toward the end of our first week. We had
walked to another Akha village and, after the required visit to the headman, wandered
through the village of about 60 houses. It looked prosperous and busy; the blacksmith
was making what we were told was a ceremonial sword for the village priest, women
were on their porches weaving, and a couple of the men were making woven stools
shaped like mushrooms. I tried to get Hart to put his camera away and just enjoy himself.
He looked at me as if I was mentally deficient and kept on clicking until we came upon a
group of men building a new house. He had little choice when they asked him if he
wanted to pitch in.
He took one of the machetes offered to him and watched intently as one of the
older men explained, with hand signals, what the plan was. One came up and clarified
things with a bit of translating. I watched him work and I swear, minus the clothes and
skin color, you would think he had been building bamboo houses his whole life. Even
the locals applauded his skills and paid him the biggest complement of all—they stopped
paying him attention and simply worked alongside of him. Seeing Hart immersed in the
building, sweat streaking his face and laughing with the men when something turned out
particularly good, or bad, I was reminded of the sewing I did with the women in the last
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village. Making things together is bigger than language by a country mile. I knew right
then that my plans for what I was going to do with my life had to have room for this kind
of conversation.
The house was almost finished. There were also a number of ceremonies to be
completed to insure the good luck of the occupants. I guess you could say it was a house
but not yet a home; I think this was the reason that Hart and I were allowed to sleep in it
over the next few days. The local people are generous, in spite of the fact that giving me
chicken for dinner might entail real hardship for them—they don’t have an awful lot. So
I minded my manners and didn’t make casual requests for a cold beer ‘cause some kid
might be sent hiking five miles to get it for me. You can understand why I was
concerned that we might be intruding, so I asked whose house it was.
I was anticipating a happy story, maybe some young couple was going to be
married, or a family had grown too large and they needed more room. Sometimes I learn
slowly. I had already forgotten an incident from a few days before. I naively asked why
there were so many dogs in the village. They were cute, shorthaired dogs that looked like
the same father had sired them. They were treated well and I thought, oh how nice that
these people have pets. When I was told that they were raised to be eaten as a delicacy, I
just about threw up. It made me suspect what was being passed off as chicken. But, the
answer I got regarding the house shocked me to the quick.
It seems that the house was being built for a couple who had been living outside
the village gates for the past year. Their time of exile had ended. These were the words
One used, and he was hesitant to give me details until I pushed him on it. I couldn’t
imagine what awful crime the family had committed to deserve banishment. Giving birth
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to twins or a deformed child is one of the worst tragedies that can befall a family. The
only crime this family had committed was giving birth to a little boy who was missing
two fingers. As if that wasn’t hard enough, the father was required to smother the infant
and then bury it far off in the jungle. The family then had to burn its belongings and
move out of their house and live in isolation for a year outside the village gates. Their
exile house was built on a lower slope than the village because the neighbors couldn’t
take the chance that their refuse or bad luck might wash down into their own homes. So
this was their new house, and in a few days the family would return.
It felt a little weird at first that we were in our “honeymoon cottage” while the
poor couple was probably desperate to start their life again. One reassured me a halfdozen times that it was OK and that we weren’t holding up the works, but after Hart and I
had such a fabulous time our first night I figured it would only bring them good luck. We
spent three more nights in that house, smoking opium and having dreamy sex that hooked
us on each other—it was a dangerous combination. We had to do it real quiet, which was
hard since we both liked to make a bit of noise, until we discovered that whispered sex
talk, and the restraint we had to call up, was perfect for the slowed-down time of the
drug. I stopped thinking of the people who were waiting to move in.
Having sex in the morning was out of the question. We woke up each day to find
a group of kids outside our door waiting for us to come out to play. It was funny and I
think Hart was relieved, him being so exhausted from the night before. “I’m an older
man for god’s sake. I could get hurt doing this,” he said to me, not meaning it in the
least. “And besides, what would the neighbors think?”
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We didn’t get another chance to fool around again until the day before our trek
ended. In the heat of the day we stopped to eat and rest at a waterfall. The pool was big
enough to swim around in and its setting, in a grotto of big-leafed trees, made it feel safe
and private. One must have read our minds and discreetly said he would walk on ahead
to the next village if we were comfortable with that. It was a straight shot and there was
little chance of us getting lost, so we decided to spend the rest of the afternoon at the
falls. The water was relaxing and the hot, table-size rocks were too good to pass up.
Along with our clothes both of us shed our inhibitions about “going in the jungle.”
After our first go-round we were lying on the rocks talking, and I could tell Hart
was ready to stir the pot again. He asked for the ball of opium I had been carrying—he
thought we’d eat a little and get back to our love making “on a different plane.” I
pretended to look through my pack for it and, when I couldn’t find it, acted disappointed
that it must have fallen out along the trail. At first I thought he would be mightily
pissed—not at the money, Hart was totally generous that way and it cost all of about ten
bucks—but that I had failed him. He checked with me at the onset about how I felt
carrying it, and I said it was cool by me and that was the last I heard of it. Everyone
knows it’s difficult to get angry when you’re naked, especially if your edges are rubbed
off by loving; and Hart was no exception. All he said was, “it was a bad idea to begin
with,” and dove into the water.
I got to feeling guilty. I hadn’t lost the gummy ball at all. Hart really loved
“chasing the dragon,” as they call it, and I was worried that he liked it a little too much.
He would begin to get anxious and excited in the late afternoons about getting high again.
He couldn’t wait to get to the next village to smoke. The only reason he didn’t start
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eating it is that it makes your legs feel like lead and lowers your ambition for anything
except sex. I might have been worried that I liked it a little too much as well and I was so
into making it with Hart while we were stoned, it made me wonder. I lied to him. It
didn’t mysteriously leap out of my pack; I threw it away in the jungle.
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It’s difficult not to remember something, especially if you’re trying to forget it.
The dope deal I did back in the States just before I left falls into that category. The guys
you deal with when you’re moving shit are all scumbags, and somebody usually gets
fucked, so it might as well be someone else. The deal got me here with a little more cash
than I expected and a lot more than Paco, or whatever the fuck his name was, thought I
deserved. I had to laugh at Paco’s warning, “we have a leetle problem in the
communications but it could get very beeg,” but I took it seriously and cut out.
It did get ugly at the end, but I managed to leave before Paco could get his act
together and insure that I never got the chance. I figured that with a little luck he would
be dead when I got back and I wouldn’t have to pretend to want to make it right. I could
have sent him a tennis ball filled with opium and a charming note that said, “I hope this
improves your game.” Of course, he had been well on the way to being another crackhead stat, and I would have wasted the postage on that good O. It probably would have
been returned with, “No longer at this address. Try HELL,” printed on the package.
Before crack and coke came on the scene, reefer was treated as some kind of
sacrament, the peace and love drug. The dealers who moved big weight could be nasty,
but weed was cheap enough so that you needed a ton of it to make it worth killing for.
The smack dealers hardly bothered with it. Now it seems there’s more overlap. Even if a
dealer specializes, he’s apt to have a variety of product and the mentality of dealing
heavy dope has trickled down to the reefer trade at the cost of its innocence. That’s why
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I’m a bit uptight about having cut out on Paco, even halfway around the world from the
site of my weed deal gone awry.
There are other things to contend with here. It’s not exactly that the tribal art
trade involves a better class of people—there are plenty of sleaze-bags buying and selling
art, but usually they won’t have you killed if something goes amiss. And things do go
amiss. I’m hoping to avoid what happened to me a couple of years ago in Sumatra. It’s
funny now, but I was plenty pissed then, and although it shook my confidence as
someone who knew his game, I didn’t lose any bucks. It’s another incident I would love
to forget.
In Sumatra I was staying in a sweet place on Lake Toba, the homeland of the
Batak people. It was a traditional house with a sweeping thatch roof that made it look
like a boat. The bed was hard and small, the rats were big, and Lake Toba was my
bathtub. I had been traveling alone after being ditched by a young English woman. Her
complaint was that I never asked what was on her mind and she wouldn’t stay unless I
changed. I said that I could change, but I wasn’t inclined to. She left that day for
Australia. As for me? I was happy to be in Batak land with no one to worry about but
I had put the word out that I was looking to buy some art. It had to be old and
original and not the tourist junk that inundates the markets and airports. The barest
trickle of visitors passed through the Toba area and it’s still hard to imagine where all this
firewood ends up. I spoke to some of the runners, the young men from the small villages
who make a living going into the interior to find artifacts. They’re an enterprising lot
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who, because they’re locals, are familiar with tribal life and, because they’ve left to seek
opportunity in the cities and towns, are comfortable with more modern ways and needs.
Personally, I think it’s a lopsided trade off—a pair of Adidas, jeans and even a
motorcycle doesn’t begin to compensate for what they give up. But hey, if you want to
throw off who you are and what you’re supposed to do for a few trinkets from the Burger
King culture, who am I to judge? A while ago I jumped all over Red for saying the same
thing. I regretted that but still can’t say what it was all about.
My first few days in Toba I had an onslaught of guys bringing me all sorts of
junk. They simply went to the shops and picked whatever they thought they could snow
me with. It was a kind of test; one that I’m sure worked often enough to give it another
try. I told them not to waste my time and come back only when they had something
serious. I let them know that under no circumstances should they arrive before breakfast,
that it was uncivilized to do business with a man before he has eaten. Despite my best
efforts to sound like a prick and a man who knew what he wanted, they rarely obeyed. I
had to find a way to keep them standing on the periphery of my compound until I
finished my coffee. I told them that I remain in the world of the spirits for a long time
after I’ve wakened and it would be very dangerous for them to approach me until I’ve reentered the world of the living. This seemed to work. The runners might be the jeanswearing hipsters of the tribe, but they know not to fuck with the spirit world.
I can postpone their arrival but they still bring me well-carved reproductions of
older stuff; it’s simply another rite of passage. They try to pass these off as originals
done when the older ways held sway. The brisk trade in fakes in this area of Sumatra
makes me crazy. These objects are made to deceive and are of a much higher quality
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than the tourist dreck that still has wet paint on it. The carvers take great pains to get the
details right and fake the patina so that the object looks as if it’s been around since the
I once was presented with an ancestor figure that was…exquisite. Certainly
enough to leave me speechless. It was too brilliant and, holding my greed between my
knees long enough to think clearly, I remembered the advice of King, my business guru,
who said, “if it’s too good to be true it probably isn’t.” I studied that piece for a half-hour
until I flashed that it was an exact copy of a Batak masterpiece in the collection of the
Met. When I confronted the guy who I was convinced made it, he sheepishly dug out an
exhibition catalogue and turned to the dog-eared page where the sculpture was
reproduced in full color. I bought the piece, for about twenty bucks, as a good will
During these deals, as I inspect each piece, the locals watch my face carefully and
break into a smile when I catch them in a scam. I ask if their baby brother carved it, or
insinuate that they must think I’m blind because I look old; I keep it good natured, and
they go away promising to return with something better the next day. It’s part of the
game. I think they are truly puzzled with our Western concern for things that are old and
authentic. So many can’t wait to get away from the old ways. They view the primitive
past with mixed feeling and a sketchy pride. But they understand the marketplace and are
steeped in the belief that newer is better. They like to make their money as quickly and
easily as possible and going in search of old pieces that are scarce is hard work. That
takes them away from city pleasures and puts them right back in the mud.
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Eventually something worth looking at comes up. You can tell when its coming;
the runner does some serious, methodical digging around in his pack and slowly
withdraws an object lovingly wrapped in a swath of antique cloth. The carving is
ceremoniously unwrapped and presented for admiration. My response is carefully coated
with disinterest—it runs something like, “Yeah, it’s nice, but I’ve seen many like this
before and I don’t know what you’re asking but I’m not sure I want it anyway.” No
matter how jaded your response, the runner has seen it all before and knows you are
interested. He knows his bottom line and, although you haven’t directly asked him for a
price, the negotiations have begun. This is where it gets sticky. If you’re really not
interested, good faith dictates you must stop here or risk offending the guy who’s trying
to unload his goods. If you pursue the haggling you’d better be prepared to buy if you
can agree on a fair price, or else the seller feels the fool. It’s not a matter of wasting time,
there’s plenty of that. It’s a matter of respect.
Now and again a piece appears from an entirely different culture. It’s anyone’s
guess how a person who has never left Sumatra comes upon a dance rattle from Borneo,
or a shaman’s straw horse from Java. The runner’s stories are often deliberately vague to
hide their sources and their own ignorance. Usually the runner will tell you that he got it
from his boss, an art dealer further up the food chain.
They don’t make the same distinctions we do; our values might overlap, but
people who view themselves as descendants of a priest who was magically imprisoned in
a thorn tree don’t look at the world with the eyes of a New Yorker. I’ve done some
serious looking, and I often know more than they do about the art. Market awareness is
fast replacing their connection to the traditions that fueled the art making. This is one of
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the questionable side effects of the eco-tourism rage. The locals wow the white men with
stories of headhunting; and while the tourist’s heads are spinning from a gruesome, and
probably manufactured, story of an old warrior eating the frontal lobe of his enemy’s
brain, they easily swap a ratty, old basket for a shiny Timex.
Anyway, there I was, sitting in front of my house receiving a steady stream of
young Batak guys trying to sell me their wares, and I recognized one of them from a few
days before. He had nothing to offer but said he knew of a stick for sale in a remote
village. He had seen it himself and it was beautiful. He was sure I would like it and said
it had a lineage that left no doubt as to its authenticity.
“Stick” is dealer’s shorthand for tunggal, which is usually described as a magic
wand. The old time priests, or datus, wielded these sticks. They used the sticks to
predict the future, cure ill health and spiritual problems, get sound advice in warfare and
generally scare the shit out of people who weren’t walking the straight and narrow. The
tunggals are beautifully carved and often the older warriors know who the previous
owners were and can recount heroic acts associated with the stick’s magic. I’ve seen
some that vibrated with the authority of a thermo-nuclear plant. So when Deyang told me
he knew the stick and that the owner was ready to sell, I agreed to go have a look.
We rented a couple of rice burners the next morning and took off for the Pak Pak
village where the old woman who owned the stick lived. It was a nasty day in a
phenomenal land. The crisp mountains looked as if they shot up yesterday. The slopes
were carved with rice terraces, and the water of the rice paddies caught the slate colored
sky. The cold rain turned the red clay of the road slick, and we had trouble staying
upright. We stopped at a market and bought some rice sacks, cut holes for our head and
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arms and put them on for warmth. We hung out under the roofed stalls, waiting for the
rain to let up. My teeth were chattering, and I shook like I had the DTs. There were
plenty of opportunities for great shots, but I was miserable and the camera stayed buried
in my pack.
When the rain let up I suggested we get a move on. Deyang puttered around with
the bikes, checking the chain and tires and fiddling with the clutch. This was completely
out of character in this part of the world. People here pay little attention to the mechanics
of machines and strip them down to as few parts as possible and still have them function.
When I asked what was up he gave me some lame excuse about the roads being terrible.
This was not news to me. My kidneys already felt like they had been reoriented above
my lungs, and sensing his reluctance I pushed him. He began with complaints about how
difficult getting there was and what a big deal it was to have made the arrangement to
visit the village we were heading for. He had me wet and weak and, when he began
improvising about his wife and children (their existence was news to me), I knew he was
angling for an increase in his commission. I told him I didn’t care if he got terminal
hemorrhoids from the trip; a deal was a deal. We were nowhere near the stick, so until I
was moved otherwise, from the goodness of my heart and the quality of the tunggal, he
would have to live with our arrangement. The incident was not a good sign and I
suspected the worst.
I was already saddle weary when the dirt track ran out and we happily abandoned
the bikes to walk the last few kilometers to the village. The foliage was dense and
filtered the tepid gray light to a snotty green. Despite the leafy umbrella the trail was
soggy underfoot. Steam and bugs rose in thickening clouds from the jungle floor, yet I
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was still shaking with the chills. It was a creepy tableau and I kept thinking that the stick
had better be worth enduring the aches and a spanking case of malaria.
The Pak Pak settlement was a dreary group of a dozen houses tenuously propped
onto packed earth. Batak houses usually look substantial—a happy marriage of weighted
mass and grace. The houses rest on sled-shaped beams animated by ferocious looking
beasts carved at their ends. Clustered in villages they often reminded me of an airfield of
B-52 bombers ready to take off. The towering saddle-backed roofs helped the case. This
made my first impression of this particular village all the more startling.
The forest closed around the compound. The laundry someone had draped over
an ancestor stone, whose sacredness had apparently given up the ghost, added to the
tenement ambience of the village. I followed Deyang to one of the houses, which was
distinguished by a beautifully carved door adorned with two pairs of breasts. I hated that
I made an instant calculation as to its worth in the art market.
I waited outside while Deyang climbed the ladder to the house and called into the
dark interior. A young man of about twenty came to the door and stood at the threshold
while he spoke to someone inside, presumably the old lady. The conversation was in
Batak, but Deyang’s pathetic demeanor, and the angry tone of the old woman’s shouting
told me what was up. I didn’t wait for him to translate, I had already decided that he was
bullshitting me from the start. There probably was no stick, the old witch probably didn’t
know the difference between a golf club and a tunggal and I had another five hours of
torture before I could lay my body down. I was stewing up a thick rage. I told him I
might take a photo of him, the last picture of him alive, which I promised to give to his
wife. He wasn’t sure if I was joking and manufactured a Colgate smile.
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He had to explain. It seemed the old woman had changed her mind and it was
impossible for us to see the wand because at that moment it was not in her possession. It
was with a nephew in a neighboring village for safekeeping. It was a “bad time for her to
meet with strangers” and that was why she remained inside the house. As best as I could
understand Deyang’s explanation, she meant bad time in a cosmic sense. She was
worried that evil, with a big E, would come and snatch her away from her life, the rest of
which she would spend with the pigs. That didn’t sound all that bad. After all, the pigs
living beneath the house looked fat and content.
It was not a good day for me in a cosmic sense either—and the day was only half
over. On our way back Deyang caught his foot in a root and twisted his ankle. I ended
up half-carrying him, slumped over my shoulder, the last couple of klicks. On the ride
home, half unconscious from breathing in Deyang’s bad breath and B.O., fatigued and
pissed, I let my concentration wander and drove the bike into a puddle that must have
been the opening of a tunnel to China. The bike dumped me over the handlebars and I
landed on my arm and fucked up my wrist pretty good. The shift pedal was bent into a
pretzel and I had to bang it with a rock—left-handed and in the dark—to make it
workable. We got home an hour into the Indonesian darkness and I felt like I didn’t want
to see Deyang, motorcycles or old women with magic wands ever again. Although I
groused to Deyang, I considered myself lucky to have gotten away with aching bones and
a few lost bucks from the bike rental. I hadn’t known then that this was only the first half
of the story.
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Hart had apparently gone to Sumatra before he met MJ. There are many photos
of the places he visited, but none include MJ or himself. The hallmarks of Hart’s vision
leave no doubt that the photos are his—they are riddled with an otherworldly light and
the sense that something is about to change. Many of them have titles on the reverse,
penciled in his erratic hand, script and print intermingled, the letters shifting between
rough and graceful, round and angular. The subject matter is unfailingly beyond the
experience of most of us, images of things unseen.
An old lady holds a carved staff. Her body is bent into an extreme arc so that her
head is on a level with the carved head of the staff. She and the staff are bathed in light,
and the many people seated around her are indistinct in the shadows. The old woman
points in the direction of the camera and appears to be speaking. She resembles an
eccentric anthropology professor, mid-stream in an impassioned lecture.
The staff is a tunggal panaluan, a magical wand that looks as old as the woman.
Many of these staffs have a long history, which the older members of a tribe can recount
in stupefying detail. The form of this wand is well established among the Batak. At the
top of the staff a carved datu, sits astride a singha, a beast that looks like a hybrid of lion,
horse and human. A datu is a Batak priest. The datu’s topknot, a frightening cluster of
feathers and hair, is held in place with string and red cloth. Six more carved figures,
representing datus of mythic status, are stacked totem-like along the length of the staff.
The detail in the photograph is impeccably clear and there are other shots that zoom in on
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the piece. The metal tip at the base of the staff is shiny and worn from use. A naga, the
snake that governs the underworld, slithers down the backside of the wand.
If there were a totem that was particularly appropriate for Hart, this would be it.
It is an object that lives a life suspended between here and the other world—one whose
job it is to traffic back and forth between the two worlds and to transform the conditions
of each.
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After my failed mission to Pak Pak I hung around for a few days to recover. Not
wanting the trip to be a complete bust I wandered into the port town on Lake Toba to visit
Sobot, one of the antique dealers. He showed me an old bamboo lime container inscribed
with spidery Batak writing and geometric designs. The top of the container had a dark
oily patina from the thousands of times the owner dipped into his stash of lime to mix
with his beetle nut. It was a pretty piece and he was asking small potatoes. I bought it
with a minimum of haggle, knowing what it would sell for back in the States.
In traditional times the Batak were known as great warriors and fierce
headhunters. This gives them an edge in business dealings, and they have held many
prominent positions in Indonesian politics. Sobot was a Batak who traced his descent
through one of the great clans; he was exemplary. The strategy in business here, as most
everywhere else, is to save the best for last. Sobot had oiled my interest, and I was
waiting for the crafty fucker’s next move. His grin revealed his twin, gold-capped
canines and lit up his dark brown face. “I have something very special for you—it is
fantastic, almost as fantastic as the one that got away”. Sobot was an inventory of
expressions from foreign places, a testament to the breadth of this ordinary-looking
man’s trading. He left the “one that got away” floating for me to nibble at but before I
could respond, he hooked me on a small object which he slowly unwrapped from its
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If you come from a military culture, where you spend a good deal of time plotting
against the enemy, you lavish attention on your weaponry. There are shields, knives,
swords, blow guns, daggers and armor in profusion. Their functional aspects are only a
part of the reason for their design. The bullet holder Sobot pulled from his bag of tricks
was no exception, other that it was exceptionally dazzling. An exquisitely carved singha
served as the grip. The forked, clothespin-like magazine still held half a dozen musket
balls. It was shiny black and looked more like the spirit of Darth Vader than any jungle
ooga-booga. I didn’t pretend disinterest. If one of my clients didn’t want it I would keep
it for myself.
We lounged around, smoking and talking in pidgin Indo and American. We knew
people in common, which was no big surprise. The tribal art world is a small place
scattered over large landmasses, if you catch my meaning. One of these guys was Tuan
Mempi Manis from Santa Fe, a good friend and my mentor in all things Indonesian. He
got his name, Mr. Sweet Dreams, because of how often he used the expression when he
concluded a deal. The Western dealers referred to him as Sweet, the Indonesians as
Mempi—the word for dreams. A legendary dealer and explorer who has been coming to
these territories for twenty-five years or so, Sweet sports Dayak warrior tattoos,
hammered into his shoulders and calves when he was nineteen. He is completely
knowledgeable, a veritable Godfather of the profession, and well liked by people from
Borneo to Timor to London and Manhattan.
Sobot recalled his first meeting with Sweet, “when he had hair and his tattoos
were very young.” I asked Sobot if he knew the story of Sweet’s tattoos. He knew he
had been tattooed by the Iban, a tribe living in the remote jungle near the Sarawak border,
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but didn’t know the details. I described to him how an old priest, who Sweet had said
was the ugliest man he had ever met, did the tattoos. The old guy was wearing half of a
black-and-white-checked soccer ball as a hat. When I finished my little tale of the tattoos
Sobot was laughing. The cigarette he had stuck in the corner of his mouth bobbed like a
bird on a perch, and he did a smoker’s grimace to avoid the smoke streaming into his
nose and eyes. He choked out his response between gasps of air. “You see, it is hard to
become a warrior!” He guffawed again and added, “Mempi has a great eye—and good at
business.” He made the non-sequitur sound reasonable.
It seems Sweet had been through the year before, looking for something special,
and went to see Sobot. “Only to catch up,” Sobot was quick to add. Sobot tried to
arrange a deal for a stick owned by an old woman, up in Pak Pak near Sidikalang, but he
couldn’t pry the piece out. That got my attention, and I asked him a few questions. He
was coy and pretended to know very little about the stick, except that it was beautiful and
supposedly came from her grandfather, a renowned datu. I let him know I would be
interested to see the stick and I’d be around for a few more days.
Two days later I was ready to pack it in when Deyang showed up, wearing the
same tacky gym clothes he had on when I last saw him. Big smile and greeting, no snags
of bad memory clouding his face, ready to rock ’n ’ roll. The old woman really was
ready to sell the tunggal now. There was some confusion before, but she had thought
things over. She remained adat in her behavior but her nieces and nephews had
abandoned the traditional ways. Her son was dead and her daughter lived far away in her
husband’s village so there was no one to appreciate the tunggal. She was planning to sell
the stick and celebrate with a big party in her own honor. Sounded like momma to me.
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There was no fucking way I was putting myself on a motorcycle for a return trip.
If Deyang was confident that the sale was a happening thing, he could get his hands on a
car and drive us. How he got the car, or paid for it, would be his problem. He protested
and tried to wangle an amended agreement whereby he would pay expenses if the stick
were not there, otherwise it was up to me. He tried, half-heartedly, to link the amount of
his finder’s fee to what I paid for the wand. Just what I needed, insurance that I would
pay the highest price possible for a piece of art I hadn’t seen—one that might only exist
in the imagination. I let him suffer a bit with the uncertainty of it and conceded to pay
him if the wand was there, whether I bought it or not, but set a ceiling on what I was
willing to pay for expenses.
We left the next morning under clear skies. The beat-up VW had little left in the
way of springs and the heater was stuck permanently on, but compared to the bike it was
heaven. I dozed most of the way and the trip went by fast. The VW had to give up on
the trail sooner than the motorcycles, but the few extra klicks we had to walk were
pleasant. The trail was dry, the bugs fewer than before and we kicked up flocks of small,
turquoise parrots along the way.
We went straight to the old woman’s house. The entire village was there to greet
us, and I was puzzled how they knew we were coming. Electricity hadn’t come to this
rural area, and the telephone remained an unimagined object of the exotic. The stick’s
owner was ancient and wrinkled. Although she was stooped into a “C” shape from her
years of labor in the paddies, her authority and dignity commanded my respect.
Ibu Sinar held onto the magic staff as she gave her harangue. She spoke in
halting Indonesian, presumably for my benefit, and lapsed into her native Batak when she
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needed the full flourish of oratory to recount the history of the staff from the beginning of
its life with her great-great-grandfather. She stood straighter as she went on and
increasingly focused her attention on me. There were a number of gruesome incidents
involving the stick, and she related them with the relish of a sports fan describing his
team’s bloody triumph. Ibu Sinar didn’t dwell on inconsistencies. I only understood
fragments of her story; but one episode, which involved capturing a young boy from a
rival tribe, stuck with me. It seems that they scooped the kid’s brains out while he was
still alive and rubbed them on the stick to bring it to life. She pointed to a cavity in the
wand that was stuffed with some fuzzy looking sap to make sure I got the message. I was
mesmerized by her performance and hardly looked at the stick.
Now Ibu had me where she wanted me, and when she handed me the staff I could
barely see straight. It felt alive, and I nearly dropped it. Everything was as it should have
been. A low-luster patina cloaked the fierce carvings with an otherworldly glow. It was
a nasty piece of work and as good as anything I had seen. We haggled over the price for
the better part of the afternoon, smoking the Marlboros I brought, which my hosts
disdainfully pointed out were produced in Singapore, not America, and drinking enough
arak to make me a little stupid. We arrived at a price that was shockingly higher than
anything I had ever paid in the field, but a fraction of what it would fetch back home.
Her poor old woman routine didn’t cut it with me. I was more susceptible to the witchery
of her talk, the power of the tunggal, and my own greed.
Unfortunately the episode didn’t end there. My client, Conrad, was thrilled and
displayed his new treasure in a prominent place in his dining room. I’m not sure I would
want the stick looking over my shoulder while I ate but, despite the impact it might have
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had on his guest’s appetites, he received loads of compliments. It was a major piece and
he was particularly pleased that some of his collector friends were jealous. Of course he
loved that it had come to him straight from the Sumatran jungle and went on about how,
being so closely connected to the source, he could feel the wand’s power. I knew what
he meant. I had been bowled over by it myself, but when he carried on about how it had
raised his spiritual life to a whole new level, he sounded ridiculous. The guy was a
corporate lawyer and I imagined his spiritual life to be around the level of most bottomfeeders. I figured if it’s comforting for him to think in that screwed up way, let ‘im, it’s
good for business.
My client mentioned that Sweet had come by on one of his visits to the East Coast
and had seen the stick. He didn’t say much, except to congratulate him on his purchase,
and my client took this as Sweet’s stamp of approval, which pleased him greatly. The
world of collectors is a strange world that is often bereft of self-confidence. There’s
enough enthusiasm to go around, but it’s not often matched with a profound
understanding of the cultures or the work they produce. I confess that I registered
Sweet’s unspoken approval myself. He has the most experienced eye I know, and he’s
the kind of guy you want in your corner.
The glow of having concluded a deal where everyone was happy lasted for a
month or two, until I received a photo in the mail from Sweet. It wasn’t a great photo, a
slightly out of focus snapshot, but painfully clear. It showed Sobot, holding a wand, the
same wand I had bought and then sold. There was a note along with the snap that said, “I
see that you bit. Call me.” I called immediately. Sweet recognized my voice and started
in on a neutral note.
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“Hey, buddy, get my photograph?”
“Yeah, what’s up? You see the stick?”
“Well, I saw it live after I saw it in the photo. Do you remember what I told you?
“You’ve told me a million things, some of them I remember. About what?”
“How we all make mistakes. I’ve got a closetful. Some day I’ll use them for
firewood. We can put your stick on the pile and bring in a datu to do the honors.”
“Oh no, man. What are you telling me, that I got fucked?”
“They’re good. And this bunch you dealt with? They’re smart. The sting they
set up was worthy of Newman and Redford. It was really that good.”
“Back up a minute. How do you know?”
“I got suspicious when I saw the stick at Conrad’s house. He had it in a place of
honor in his dining room and I got a chance to look at it. They were good, man, but the
patina was a dead give-away. And the carving was a little soft. The Pak Pak were a
mean bunch, and they would have left more of the knife in it.”
“C’mon, Sweet, the fucking stick scared the piss out of me. The old lady who had
it was the real thing.” The picture was coming into focus for me, as much as I didn’t
want to accept it.
“Believe me, Hart, the patina was enough. I knew it wasn’t right from across the
room. The old lady conned your ass like you were a baby. So did everyone else, right on
down to Sobot.”
“How was he in on it? I can’t believe it.”
“Well, for starters he never tried to set up a deal for me. That was pure bullshit.
He knows I’d never fall for something like that. Secondly, the photo I sent you? I got
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that from Sobot. When I stopped in to see him, the photo was on the wall. I asked him
about it, and he said he had made the stick himself. He was proud of it—it was some of
his best work. He obviously didn’t know you would be the one to buy it. But when I saw
it, it didn’t take much to put it together. So sorry, buddy, but it happens to all of us.
That’s the way you learn.”
“Fuck me, man! So what am I supposed to do now? Did you tell Conrad it was
“I’d never do that to you. And Conrad was so happy I didn’t want to piss on his
“So, should I tell him? I mean it’s a lot of fucking bread and it’s long gone.”
“It’s up to you, really. Ethically? You didn’t do it intentionally. Knowing it was
fake—that changes the obligation you have. He can’t get pissed at you for being
criminal, or deceitful.”
“But I A-well know it now.”
“That shifts the burden again, doesn’t it? He could very well find out. Everyone
is too jealous and hungry in this business to let it pass. It could get messy if he ever
approached you about it. Personally, I’d tell him about it and offer to buy it back. It’s a
long-haul thing. He’d probably respect you for it. And your credibility would take a leap
upward. Who knows, maybe he’d eat the loss. He’s rich, and it’s a good enough story,
especially for a lawyer. He might let it ride.”
“Yeah, he’s rich but he’s a cheap bastard like the rest of them...I doubt that’ll
happen. But he does have a twisted sense of humor. It might be a possibility. I still
can’t believe the whole thing was a fucking set-up. They’re probably still laughing.”
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“If it’s the only time you get stuck you’ll be the exception. Don’t take it too much
to heart, the carving is first rate. I would have gotten taken in the early days myself.”
The upshot was that I did tell Conrad. He laughed his ass off and told me to
forget about it. I could make it up to him next time around. He was disappointed, of
course, but he had already gotten mileage out of it—his friends were suitably
impressed—and we would keep it a secret between ourselves. Conrad seemed to have
forgotten about the major shift in his spiritual life. Me? Well, it’s one of those stories I
want to forget, but try hard not to. It’s always there when I do a deal, my insurance
policy against gullibility. Still, I’ve never looked at that stick the same way again. It’s
the identical piece of wood, but it doesn’t vibrate the way it used to.
I’ll make sure to remember this little humiliation on my upcoming trip to Nias.
There’s a lot riding on it. If I play my hand right I can score big; if I misread the cards, I
lose in more ways than one. I’ve done my research, and the odds look pretty good for
me, but there are still some blanks in the plan. The missing info started with the topo
map I got of the island. Although Nias only covers about 450 square miles, the map had
a two- by two-inch blank spot on it stating, “AREA UNKNOWN, INFORMATION
INCOMPLETE.” This was precisely the area I’d be traveling in. Great! I always
wanted to visit the Bermuda Triangle. I stared at the map for a while and got to thinking
about the mapmaker. I wondered why he didn’t finish the job; he might have lost interest
and bagged it. The infernal ups and downs of the terrain painted in perpetual green could
discourage the most saintly sense of mission. The cartographer might have contracted
malaria and lay down in the shade, hoping to ease the splitting pain in his head before he
died. Perhaps his drawings and notes ran illegible after a failed attempt to ford a swollen
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torrent; or his funding ran out; or there was a computer glitch; or, just as likely, no one
cared because no one was ever going to visit.
The Nias trip has been a month away for months now—ever since I met Red.
She’s got my number, for sure. I’m trying to keep my distance. I don’t need the
encumbrance, yet here I am in Bali waiting for her to return from an errand, like an old
dog waiting for his master. I’m more lost with her than I am with a map filled with holes.
I hate to admit that when I’m with her I feel as if I have another pair of eyes. We see
different things, but that’s the good part. The way she sees things makes me feel
incomplete, like I’m not looking in the right way.
I’ve heard all about how couples complete each other, but I’ve never seen it work.
It looks more like war to me—the way people talk past each other and finish each other’s
sentences, or make corrections as if they were schoolteachers. Vying for attention is the
standard three “me-s”: hear me, see me, gimmee all make me sick. I prefer dealing with
people one at a time rather than as a yoked team. I hope Red and I aren’t like that yet but
the possibility makes me nervous. And then I watch Red step out of the mandi, glistening
and wet, a splash of sun on her perfect teacup breasts, and I wonder if it would be all that
bad to spend the rest of my days lolling around with her here in Bali.
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We spent a long, hot day in Denpassar, chasing down an antique dealer who knew
something about Nias. We went because Hart needed some information for his upcoming
looting expedition. The only positive thing about Denpassar is that there are no tourists.
No one in his right mind would waste a vacation day negotiating this noisy city, sucking
up a year’s quota of exhaust fumes and fending off pickpockets. Hart and I shared that
opinion, although he admitted the city held some perverse appeal for him.
We killed two hours wandering the market, waiting for Hart’s man to return from
lunch, during which time I had my cloth shoulder bag secretly slashed and my purse, with
fifty dollars, quietly removed. I had learned a while back to keep my passport and credit
cards and such in a safe place, so it wasn’t as big a tragedy as it could have been. As
Hart put it, catching the thief would have been like “trying to find a flea on an elephant’s
The meeting was disappointing for Hart; the dealer was more concerned with
impressing us (Hart thought it had more to do with impressing me) than giving out useful
information. The one thing he did give Hart was a hastily drawn map, on a napkin, in
ballpoint pen. The map vaguely indicated a few trails and a small village where a relative
of his could be found, and included a few names of possible contacts.
I know I’ve waxed on about how cool motorcycle travel is, but on the drive back
to Candidasa a thunderstorm snuck up on us. A gust of wind blew a tree across the road
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in front of us, and Hart had to struggle to keep the bike up. It bounced in and,
miraculously, out of the ditch that edged the road. In the flopping around I burned my
leg on the exhaust. Hart had cautioned me to wear pants and real shoes when I was
riding; he only said it to me once, a ways back, which was his usual way; but the advice
came with a little story to underline it. He had seen some shorts-wearing tourist fall off a
bike, and claimed that the road-rash cut clear through to the bone. Anyway, as a
passenger, I didn’t heed his advice. When I burned myself he was solicitous and
sympathetic; but, when we got home, he snapped at me for whimpering about the burn,
which I wasn’t doing, and admonished me for not listening to him. I got riled up because
I though he was treating me like a baby. Our argument began in that vague territory
where right and wrong is mighty hard to ascribe.
“No one has ever called me chicken shit.” Hart was indignant.
“About some things you are!” I snorted.
“Give me a break! What do you know about me?”
“Not enough for sure. Sorry if that sounds familiar. Isn’t that what the little
English twerp said to you before she left?”
“No, her complaint was that I didn’t know her!”
“More like you didn’t ask her the time of day. She probably felt useless.”
“Oh, so you feel useless, do you? You are getting to be a burden.”
“You are such a jerk! I don’t feel useless at all. It has nothing to do with you. I
can take care of myself fine.”
I told him he was a know-it-all, a big Jungle Scout. Hart was fond of saying he
would go into the heart of darkness anytime anywhere, all he needed was a map. He
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always said this matter-of-factly. He isn’t the bragging kind, but I knew he prided
himself on this ability. I wanted to press my point. I was feeling as if I held the higher
ground in this one. “You should try the darkness of the heart for a change, where there
are no maps. What a joke!” I added.
Hart was incensed.
“Nothing funny to me at all. You’d still be sneaking around on the Turk in some
nice, safe place. Or would you rather be with the Israeli pilot on some fucking kibbutz?
That would suit you better, working together for the good of all! That’s a fucking joke!”
Hart was dragging up heavy artillery. It caught me off guard and, you might say,
red handed. I could see things were about to take an ugly turn, but blurted out, “What are
you talking about?”
“Do you think I’m stupid? Or blind? The one you fucked in Bangkok, while I
was off dealing with some visa issue! It’s a pattern of yours—screw around when they’re
busy with visa issues.”
“You’re cheap and disgusting...and more insecure than the Turk by a country
“I’m cheap and disgusting? You came back with your pussy dripping and snail
tracks in your panties—did you think I wouldn’t notice?”
Hart had never talked to me that way. No one had. The fact is I had wanted to
forget my little transgression as soon as it was over. I’m still not sure why I did it, except
that I could. My response was pretty lame.
“Well, you were being a total asshole to me. I was in your way as far as I could
see. At least he….”
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Hart cut me off.
“Oh, I get it, the age-old axiom: Men are bad, and women are bad because men
are bad. Great. Equal fucking rights, sure! You can pack your skinny ass out of here.
Go fuck the killer flyboy. He’s right up your alley.”
“No, you’re right up my alley, but your head is so far up your butt you can’t see
it. Or you do and it scares you to death!”
“That’s why you had to fuck the pilot? You’re so fucking transparent—all your
talk about relationships and being in the moment and going with the flow, as if you had
some special knowledge. Just fucking excuses from another spoiled debutante.”
I wince when I think of what I said and did to cover my confusion. I smiled, put
my thumb in my mouth, and feigned little girl shyness.
“I thought you approved of all that. Oh, Daddy, I’ve been so naughty. I think I
need a spanking.”
“Don’t change the subject, and cut the Little Miss Innocent routine.” Hart’s voice
became softer and less convincing.
“How about this then?” I said, and shed my shorts and blouse. I think it was my
closed sandals and white anklets that ended the argument.
Afterward I said I was sorry for having hurt him. The hurt part was a little hard
for him to take, but he accepted my apology with far more grace than I had a right to
expect. He said he wasn’t jealous, but trust counted for something, even if it was
unspoken. He had been waiting for me to fess up, and when I didn’t he just had to clear
the air.
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It is difficult to imagine a culture more in love with the way things look. The
simplest of roadside shrines, and the most elaborate presentation of the Ramayana, are
offerings for the eyes of gods and men alike. Objects and movements are blessed with a
grace designed to thrill; there is rarely a coarse move. One of Hart’s best photos at first
glance looks like a picture of a stage set. The backdrop is of mountains clad in misty
swirls of cloud. The sky is a dark and humid, gunmetal gray. The stage lights, hidden in
the wings, power beams of light across the mid- and foreground, and dissolve them into
crushed jewels, more phenomena than material. It takes a while to distinguish the
wavering line of women toward the bottom of the photo. On their heads they are
carrying tiered offerings of fruits, sweet-cakes and flowers. There are close-up shots that
give an inkling of how fantastic these constructions are—bizarre arrangements of
rambutans, pressed ducks, pink pastries that look like Sno-Balls. Some of these offerings
are nearly as tall as the women who bear them. The erect dignity of the women seems to
obey laws beyond physics. As they glide single file, dressed in vibrant silk blouses and
gold sashes that glitter against the green curtain of jungle, they too are more spirit than
The men are no less graced. They are small and slim and have a skin color that
mocks the paucity of a language that would describe it as brown. In the villages, knots of
men squat in a relaxed hunker, with their sarongs tucked up between their legs, diaper-
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style, their hands fluttering in conversation. When they go about their labors, their
alertness is masked by languid movement and a dreamy presence that has a constant eye
on the rules, which have been written and handed down from some higher place.
Hart’s photograph of men cutting a rough log into board lumber, an act one would
expect to be governed by utility, seems instead a delicate and precise choreography for
two dancers with a saw. Did he see that, I wonder? Was he only looking, but not seeing?
Was he searching for something he had already found but didn’t recognize because it
came in pieces or in the smallest things?
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Leave it to Hart to know about things like Gunung Kawi. He said it wasn’t
exactly a deep dark secret, but it was off the beaten track and hadn’t yet suffered the
indignity of the tour bus circuit. The attraction was a group of royal tombs, built in the
eleventh century and among the oldest structures in Bali. We left in the afternoon heat,
and I was dripping with perspiration before I got on the bike. We usually took off in the
early morning and, surprised that Hart broke with our usual practice, I asked him why.
He said that the road traffic would be lighter and where we were going was a place to see
at the end of the day. Besides, if there were any tourists about they would be leaving as
we arrived. When I wondered aloud about coming home in the dark, Hart, in his
unreassuring way, said, “We’re not coming back tonight. Pack your sarong and a reed
mat. We’ll pick up some food at a warung along the way.” I knew nothing about this
place except that they were tombs, and that Hart was sure I would “cream for it.” I had
learned to trust him on things like this. I knew that if he had a surprise planned it would
be a good one, and that it would be useless to try to pump information from him. I
couldn’t resist asking a few more questions. Hart couldn’t resist his usual answer,
“You’ll see.”
We couldn’t avoid the horrendous mess of Klungkung and Gianyar. The gaseous
stink of hundreds of cars, mopeds and trucks blanketed the road. It seems that every
place in the world has its own variation on Route 1, and this was it for Bali. There
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weren’t any twenty-foot-tall plastic steers advertising Big Tex Steakhouse, but they sure
did put out every last thing they had ever made to lure you inside to buy. The roadway
was lined with thousands of brightly colored carved fish and birds and monsters and
demons of every description. Hundreds of sarongs, draped over bamboo poles, and an
endless variety of stone fountains and garden ornaments were stuffed into the cramped
front yards of the roadside stores.
Damn, the Balinese are so peaceful and easy moving until you put them near a
motorized vehicle; then it’s chaos. They act as if they’re trying to make up for the time
they lost living outside the twentieth century. Its like they’re so fast you don’t even see
them move. They approach business and money with a like attitude. Hart shakes his
head in disbelief when he tells the story of returning to a sleepy little fishing village after
five months away and finding a thriving tourist town complete with losmens and
warungs. I know it’s not exactly the same thing, but the energy comes from the same
The last few miles, through terraced sawah on a small, hilly road, looked more
promising; but nothing prepared me for the spectacular sight of the canyon of the
Pakrisan River. It was more lush than anything I’d ever seen, in or out of Texas.
Back home, and I don’t mean just Texas, I taught myself quite a lot about trees
and plants. One summer I worked for a landscape business. A woman named Joan
owned it, and she knew just about everything there was to know about things that grew. I
admired her a great deal and imagine her enthusiasm rubbed off on me. I never did
become a very good gardener. You might say I wasn’t born with a horticulturist’s thumb,
and I knew it, but I did love to learn about things. It was my first summer out East and I
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was a bit lonely—studying trees and plants was a way to occupy me. It was only a step
from there to identifying each type of tree with a person I knew, and once they were
people they made me feel like I had some company. I though of the oak as my
grandfather, which I guess wasn’t very original, but there were plenty of them around.
Even though there weren’t any palms out East, I had a good memory of them and they
quickly became identified with my mother because they were elegant and sexy and
swayed in the wind. I think the most original idea I had about trees was thinking of my
ex-boyfriend Richard, the one who went into the military, as a birch tree. They are crisp
and white and tidy, but when it comes down to it, they lack backbone and bend easily.
I’m still looking for a tree for Hart. I asked him once about what kind of a tree he
thought he was. He looked at me like I was from another planet, but he smiled and said,
kindly, “A Durian tree, because what you get is different than what you expect.” Now,
the fruit of that tree is butt ugly and, to make matters worse, smells God-awful. Even the
most well-mannered person would say it smelled like an old toilet. I remember a sign in
one of the hotels where we stayed in Bangkok: NO PROSTITUTES, NO DRUGS, NO
DURIAN IN THE ROOMS. The catch is that inside the fruit is a brilliant yellow, the
color of forsythia and it’s delicious and sweet to eat. I’m not so sure how appropriate this
is in relation to Hart; after all, he looks pretty good to me on the outside and, because he
isn’t exactly verbose about his inside, I have to just guess about a lot of that.
This interest in trees came in handy as I looked down into the Pakrisan river
valley—after I got over the shock of how breathtaking it was. There were palm trees, of
course, and stands of bamboo looking ever so much like groups of spindly kids. Two
huge tamarind trees, one on either side of the river, spread their leafy shade like elders
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protecting a village. A gnarled banyan tree stood alongside a temple, its enormous
taproots spread like tentacles. The banyan was a world unto itself and made me think of
an ancient, bearded magician. There were acacias, just like those in Southern California,
and orange-colored African tulip trees that fought for attention with the screaming
vermilion of a solitary flame tree. A ghostly, bone-white cempaka stood like an
apparition on the sidelines. Hart smiled at me as I rattled off everything I saw. “You aint
seen nothing yet.”
At the end of the day, the vendors who lined the steps paid us no mind. They
seemed to be in a desultory state and concerned with packing up their shops. This was a
relief. Ordinarily it would have been like running a gauntlet, which would have put Hart,
and probably me as well, into a foul mood. “Meester, look this” and “Lady, what is your
name?” wear thin after about the hundredth time. We started down the steps, which I
began counting to myself, but at around hundred and three, Hart decided he wanted to run
down as fast as possible. We arrived at the bottom, breathless and wobbly kneed.
It did make me cream! The tombs had been carved directly into the rock of the
cliff face. They looked more like temples than anything else, but I couldn’t get it out of
my mind that, somehow, they were really seated figures and that maybe my eyes were
playing tricks on me. Hart walked up the few steps that ran along their front and the
closer he got to them the more massive they appeared. I was disappointed that he
whipped out his camera right away. I was hoping he would have stood by me and soaked
it up for a while—I didn’t care how many times he’d seen it.
I know that magical is a much overused word, but there is no other way to
describe what surrounded me. I knew that if I lived in a place like this I would very
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quickly believe in spirits and gods in abundance. The labor surely had been enormous.
The carved candi were regal, but the honeycomb of monks’ cells and temple caves, the
bathing places and water spouts, had a simple poetry that made me tremble with delight.
I felt full and empty all at once.
Hart finally stopped clicking and came to my side. We stood quietly for a bit and
he said softly, “Pretty spectacular huh, Red? The name of the place translates as
Mountain of the Poets. Someone must’ve had a vision, as my painter friend Lou would
say.” I told him that for my money his friend was right on target. I could tell Hart was
excited. He had a big ol’ smile that wouldn’t quit and he went on telling me all these
facts about the place.
We walked through the grounds and water gardens, and he continued to point
things out. In earlier days people thought that if you bathed in the waters of Gunung
Kawi, you could get pregnant in the blink of an eye—even if you’d been having trouble.
I ran my hands into the pool and splashed my face to cool off. Just kidding, I said to Hart
that maybe this would get me a baby. His response was typical Hart: “You’d better take
two birth control pills tonight.” I didn’t want to rile him, so I never told him that I had
run out of pills.
The pinkish stone of the site was colored with moss and lichen. The temples and
caves at the edge of the sight were a breath away from being devoured by the surrounding
jungle. It was difficult to figure where nature picked up or ended, it was all so of a piece.
The lowering sun sprayed red and gold over the stone and water and vines and I got that
same feeling I had when I entered the village in the Golden Triangle—I would never be
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the same again. I also knew that, for better or worse, that sensation would always be
connected to Hart.
We poked around the temples and meditation caves for a while. The sun drooped
lower, and the temple complex fell under a liquid shadow that made it feel as if we were
walking underwater. Things got a little spooky as the valley began to close in. Hart
might have sensed my uneasiness and put his arm around me and began to lead me to a
path in a far corner of the temple grounds. He had a look in his eye that usually preceded
serious love making, but when I said there was no way I was up for it he laughed and said
that it wasn’t even on his mind. He had another surprise in store. We picked up our pace
so that we could get there, wherever there was, before dark. We walked for five minutes
or so on a well-worn path through the forest. The growing gloom was getting to me and I
grew increasingly skittish. Every vine looked like a snake, and although I reminded
myself that the green viper is the only poisonous snake on Bali and is hardly ever seen, I
was beside myself by the time the path opened onto a hillside of the most beautiful rice
terraces I’d ever seen.
All Hart would say was that we were almost there and that it was worth waiting
for. I asked him how we planned to get back in the dark. “We’re not. That’s why we
took the reed mats and picked up supper at the warung.” When I began to protest that
there was no way I was sleeping in the middle of a rice padi, he put his arm around my
waist and said, “Don’t be a wimp. Trust me.” That’s as close as he gets to being
We met a young boy along the path. We had seen him wending his way through
the sawah, skipping along like a water bug on the slippery mud walls of the rice terraces.
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He was carrying a slender bamboo pole and, as he approached, he proudly stuck out his
other hand, which held what looked to me like a string with dirty, dainty ribbons tied
along it. “Hello, Meester. Hello, Lady,” he said before turning to Hart and speaking
Indonesian. They chatted on, and after a couple of minutes Hart had the kid smiling and
laughing. I understood that he was trying to sell us something.
Aside from the remains of the tattered shorts he wore, his stick and the grungy
ribbons were his only possessions. It was a mystery to me what we would want to buy.
Hart cleared that up straight off. “They’re a delicacy. If we had a way to fry them up I’d
buy them in a second.” Still puzzled, I looked more closely at the ribbons, which turned
out to be a couple of dozen dragonflies shish-ka-bobbed on a piece of grass. The bamboo
pole had a lump of sticky sap on the end, and that’s how he caught them. The idea kinda
grossed me out, but I said to the kid, not wanting to hurt his feelings, that I had just eaten;
I knew the expression for that in Bahasa, and it seemed to work. The kid went merrily on
his way home, and took off in a completely different direction. He had seen us walking
along and made a special detour to catch up with us. He was adorable, brown skinned,
with black eyes the size of silver dollars. I wanted to hug him until he squealed. All in
all the incident was reassuring. I was reminded again that things or places that seem
weird to us, are simply someone else’s day to day.
When we came upon the tenth tomb it was like finding a long-lost cousin. It sat
alone in the terraced hillside and was all the more impressive and unique in its solitude.
Off to the left the monk’s cells, carved into the hillside, looked like Hobbit holes. “You
pick our room for the night,” Hart said. It seemed the most natural thing to say, perhaps
because I sensed we would stay the second I laid eyes on it. I chose one of the larger
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caves, mostly because it had a raised threshold and seemed less likely to have critters
crawling in. In the middle of the night there’s nothing quite like finding something in
bed with you that doesn’t belong there. We put down our reed mats and laid out our
spare sarongs. Hart produced a couple of candles and mosquito coils from his pack and
set them in a niche that seemed carved for exactly that purpose. That done, we sat on the
step in front of our home to watch the night come on.
That evening was filled with ironies. High up the slope, among the terraces that
held traces of the dying sun, we watched a young boy herding his ducks back home. He
guided them along with a long bamboo pole with a ribbon of flag at the tip. It was a sight
that I had witnessed countless times. Although the ducks were far away, it was easy to
imagine them obediently falling into line and I could hear them quacking happily at the
prospect of getting home after a full day of eating worms and bugs. They’re treated as
household pets, right until they make it to the frying pan. And there we were, getting
ready to chow down on one of the hapless brothers who, one night, probably last week,
didn’t make it home to dream his little duck dreams.
America could learn a great deal from Balinese roadside cooking. We had picked
up our Balinese version of take-out at one of the warungs scattered along the roads. The
one we stopped at was little more than a countertop, with rudimentary cooking facilities
and a palm-thatch roof. Now we ate our take-out bebek betutu, a Balinese specialty of
roasted and steamed duck, from the banana leaf it was wrapped in. The rice cakes and
steamed vegetables, seasoned with spices, were delectable as well. Even though it was
not truly a desert, we finished off our meal with sweet potatoes, lathered in palm sugar
and coconut. The whole business cost us about the same as the two bottles of water; and
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the only trash, aside from the banana leaf wrappings, which we could conveniently leave
to rot on the forest floor, were the plastic bottles.
Bali had, of late, discovered the curse of Western packaging. Besaki Temple, one
of the holiest and most beautiful places in Bali, had a mountain of plastic and Coke cans
so high it cast a shadow on one of the temples. I guess I’m part of the problem, guzzling
down a few liters of water a day, safely bought in plastic bottles. There’s more than a bit
of irony in the fact that water is a sacred thing here, considered to be emblematic of
purity, and we Westerners buy it in plastic bottles or risk being sick as dogs.
When the sun set, the blackness was utter and quick. The stars and black velvet
sky dropped onto the world like a stage curtain. We sat there with our mouths hanging
open, unable to adapt our senses quickly enough. Neither Hart nor I were very good with
the stars; and here, eight degrees south of the Equator, everything looked upside down.
Even my pathetic childhood inventory, which included the Big and Little Dipper and not
much else, was a false bill of goods in these circumstances. We smoked a joint, stared
for a while and began constructing our own constellations. To be honest, the tigers, palm
trees and city bus that we saw when we connected the dots, made about as much sense as
the traditional star pictures did—plus, it was a whole lot more fun and easier to
The full moon rose late and as suddenly as the sun fell. The stars were obliterated
by the moon’s luminosity, which was so intense, it seemed as if we were watching the
second act of a theater piece. The moonlight washed a dusky violet over the land and
curdled the pools of water in the padi a creamy orange, which made them look as if there
were smoldering embers beneath. It was like a mysterious ballet, but with fire and water
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instead of the usual sets and ballerinas. Maybe it was the vibes from Poet’s Mountain.
Maybe it was only that I was a twenty-three-year-old falling in, I don’t know what, with
an older man, who remained as mysterious as the magical place we were in—as unknown
to me as the father I never had.
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Gunung Kawi is programmed for remembering. The tombs were built in the
eleventh century to honor King Anuk Wangsu. There are meditation caves, tucked into
the hillside surrounding the tombs. Countless pilgrims have ventured here. They are as
nameless to history as those who spent their lives chipping away at stone to change the
shape of the earth in honor of their king.
What did they do here if not remember? How did they bide their time, these men
who sat cross legged in the tiny caves? It is easy to imagine their simple preparations—
their walking suspended, they would have leaned their staffs against the cave wall,
removed the single wrap of cloth that sufficed as their wardrobe, folded it carefully and
then, after they had finished their last few grains of rice, turned the bowl upside down and
set it attentively on their folded cloak. Perhaps, frightened by the business at hand and
the overwhelming emptiness of having arrived, they would pace to rid themselves of the
eleventh-century equivalent of white-line fever, the curse of all those who travel too long
in the night; all that walking in order to begin all over again.
Their purpose, did they always remember their purpose? Was it really love of
their gods and kings that brought them there? Did they want to express their gratitude for
a life well lived, or given? Maybe they were homeless good-for-nothings, and a cave
roof was better than sleeping in the rain. A failed marriage or the death of a child might
have brought them to this retreat. It is unlikely that any responded to the call to get away
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from it all. Gunung Kawi is a serious place, suited for serious purpose. Whatever the
reasons, after they gazed into the night sky and traced the cool blue light of the moon
over the paddies, after they had found their spot like dogs, sniffing and sitting, rising,
turning in circles in search of the place where the earth was contoured to fit a weary
spirit, they would have to summon their courage to face nothing and remember in order
to forget.
Moss and a thousand years of weather have rounded the corners and angles. Each
cell has a single entrance, and in one photograph the blackness of the doorways give the
startling impression of gaping mouths ready to utter prophecies of great import: words of
collective wisdom that might finally clear up the mysteries of birth and where we should
go from there. The grounds are swept clean and the heavy shadows of the late sun shape
the site and make it seem snug and safe and serious all at the same time.
It is a breathtaking shot, taken from afar. The cells flank a single, carved statue
that towers over them and commands the terraced valley at its feet. The statue,
supposedly a temple-like tomb, seems more person than architecture. The late afternoon
sun rakes rays of light across the paddies and dissolves the earthen dams into shadow so
that the waters they contain float like thought bubbles in a cartoon. But it is the monk’s
caves that command the photograph and that ultimately draw me in, as if twenty-three
years ago they inexplicably knew something of my life.
Another snapshot, one of Hart and MJ, is significant. It was taken near dusk, the
light is low and fragments of the darkening sky can be seen at the edges of the photo, but
the couple appears to be aglow. They sit jammed together on a raised stone threshold of
a cave. The subtly discernable aura around them aligns the photo more closely with early
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Italian religious paintings, where this type of magic is commonplace, than to the
factualness that we have come to believe is the bread and butter of photography. One
cannot tell if the aura is a trick of the light or a manipulation in the developing process.
In those moments governed more by romanticism, a third explanation makes the most
sense: the incipient St. Elmo’s fire is actually there. Hart and MJ are so close that the
patterns on their respective sarongs merge. It is difficult to tell to whom the arms are
attached—there seem to be too many, certainly more than the requisite four, and the
impression is of a many-limbed Hindu goddess. They are looking at each other, not at
the camera. From the slightly awry angle at which the photo was taken I suspect that it
was self-timed and the camera propped on a rock. The intimacy is not one easily
betrayed in the presence of a cameraman; even in the photo the connection between the
two is apparent.
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Gunung Kawi was some kind of turning point for Red and me. I had been to
Poet’s Mountain a dozen times. It had been a touchstone place that I usually visited
within a few days of arriving in Bali. My friend Lou said there was a place in Florence
that did it for him, a former monastery where Fra Angelico decorated the monk’s cells
with wall-size paintings. He was a monk who supposedly had such a strong vision of
how things were that he often wept while he painted. His fervent faith in God and his art
earned him the nickname “Beato”—the blessed one. Lou said he went there to remind
himself of how powerful a vision could be. It restored his opinion of painting and gave
him faith that life truly could be beautiful and tragic at the same time. Maybe that’s why
I come here—some day I’ll understand this vision thing if I come often enough. I’m not
sure that I’ll ever get the life is beautiful and tragic idea. From where I sit, life just is,
and we make up stories about it, hoping to make sense to ourselves.
Gunung Kawi is a fantastic place—ten ancient tombs lined up like pieces on a
chessboard. The tombs resemble archaic Javanese temples, and it made sense to me to
think of them as castles. I was content with this until Red gave the tombs, and me, the
third degree. She can be very persuasive. She said they didn’t look like rooks at all.
“It’s as clear as day that they look like queens. They’re strong and graceful and regal—
you’re just thinking that castles and temples are the same.” She then went on to tell me
that if I followed my line of thinking, rather than her line of looking, I’d have to think of
them as kings, since they were built for a king. She could more readily accept that—the
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visible distinction between kings and queens, at least on the chessboard, was slight. She
declared them female on the basis of the “vibe” she got from them and the strength of her
superior intuitive powers. It sounded like la-la talk to me.
Truthfully, when I re-thought it, her argument about the chess pieces made sense,
and I told her so. That didn’t make her entirely happy. “Don’t rethink it, look at it again”
she said, sounding a little pissy. I let her barb slide but she had to drive another one in.
“Besides, you told me that some of the tombs were carved for the king’s concubines.
They got tossed onto the pyre, live, as I recall.” It was an intense night that was
otherwise so perfect that I didn’t trust it really happened. Maybe that’s what bothers me.
Somehow if I had believed more strongly and just gone with it, I wouldn’t feel as if I
blew something big.
We smoked some weed I had bought from a kid just in from Sumatra. This put a
big mellow on the evening. Red realized I had taken her somewhere special. She told
me so and was sweet and talkative and bent on being close— one of those expressions
that sends chills up my back. It’s right up there with “relationship” in its power to mess
me up. Neither seems to have a lot to do with sex, but there are exceptions to the rule,
and that night in Gunung Kawi was one of them. Red was happy, and so was I. We sat
on the raised threshold of our cave, which made a kind of stoop. We were wedged up
close in the tiny doorway and I could feel Red’s heat oozing through the thin blouse and
filmy sarong that she wore.
Despite trying not to drift somewhere else, my thoughts turned to Lily, my first
girlfriend, who sat with me countless nights on my parents’ back stoop. It was our oasis
in the middle of the gritty, crowded neighborhood; and it was the place where we wore
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out each other’s clothes from the sheer friction of the nightly, heavy petting. It was the
place that led to that day when we happily surrendered our cherries to each other.
I must have had a wisp of a smile on my face, and Red stopped talking to stare
directly at me with a sudden poker-face. Up until that point I wasn’t listening to her
words, only the melody of her voice, rising and falling like a gentle wind over a prairie.
“I can tell you haven’t been listening to a word I said. What’s that look on your face?
Caught with your hand in the cookie jar?” Despite her folksy expressions I wondered if
there was some truth to her claims of superior intuitive powers. I answered her honestly,
not thinking about what her reaction.
I began simply enough. I told her I had been reminiscing about Lily and the
delights and confusions of the back stoop. Her reaction was pure Red—she wasn’t
threatened but delighted by the story, far enough removed in time and place (she pointed
out that it was before she was born), that she could savor the telling. She declared out
loud: “Lily, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for putting this man in the
saddle at such an early age—he’s one helluva ride.” She dredged up her best Texas
accent for that one—she knew how it amused me—and, struggling to free her arms and
body in the tight confines of the doorway, gave me a hug and kiss that could have melted
the polar caps. “What did you two talk about?” she asked innocently.
I didn’t think I could remember. I hadn’t thought of Lily for years, and still the
story came pouring out.
We both had alcoholic fathers we hated. They were nasty and abusive and in our
not-so-dumb fifteen-year-old minds we saw how they were not only making us
miserable, but how, if we weren’t careful enough, or didn’t hate them enough, our lives
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would be shaped by them. I hated her father as much as I hated my own. We called him
The Nazi—he spoke with a German accent, which became more pronounced, during his
sloppy drunks. Lily was mortified that he took his drunkenness public. His leers and
slimy remarks about her girlfriends and his warnings to me to stay away from his
daughter made her cry, and we struggled hard not to let it dirty the one good thing that we
thought we had in our lives, each other.
We must have spent a lot of time commiserating about that and an equal amount
scheming how we could be together. There were powerful fantasies about what it would
be like if our parents were dead and we could do whatever we wanted. Of course our
imaginations didn’t extend to how we could possibly support ourselves. Lily was good at
sewing and making dresses, and we supposed she could quit school and make money
sewing for the rich ladies across town. I could always up my hours at the local market.
We would both have to wait until we were sixteen to do any of this legally. We both
prayed that our parents, or at least our fathers, would die in a fiery car crash. But we
were fairly certain that it was too good to be true before we reached the magic age. (I
was lucky on that score: my old man croaked less than a month before my sixteenth).
Our mothers were so cowed by their tyrannical husbands that we figured we could ignore
them or boss them around if the time came.
Red asked me what had become of Lily, and us. I couldn’t say why we drifted
apart except that it seemed that’s the way those things go—young love is only good as
long as you’re young, and both Lily and I grew old pretty fast. First loves are hard to
remember and after a while they cease to appear even in our dreams. Why would we
want to remember these innocent introductions to loss?
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About five years after we split, I heard they carted Lily’s mother off to the nut
house. Lily’s prayers were answered shortly after when her old man did himself in, in a
car. He was stinking drunk one Friday night and drove himself off a bridge and drowned.
It didn’t bring the freedom she and I had imagined so earnestly. When it happened Lily
already had a kid and another in the oven and was living in the projects with her pipefitter husband. I had heard from someone from the old neighborhood things weren’t so
good with them and although Lily kept her good looks, she most often wore sunglasses
and long-sleeved blouses to hide her bruises. A bit later on I was told that she was
divorced before she was twenty-three and moved to upstate New York.
Red had never been so quiet. Usually she interrupted every five lines, but that
night at Gunung Kawi she was content to simply listen. She occasionally sighed in
sympathy and pointed out the alcoholic parent connection between herself and Lily—and
how she envied her the two children she had before she was Red’s age. She watched my
face intently for the entire time. Maybe that’s what encouraged me to unload the story
about my brother.
When Red and I first met, I sketched the bare bones of my background. I’ve
always held that the past is gone and it’s more important to get on with tomorrow. But
when Red is determined to get something she doesn’t let go easily. I’ve always thought it
odd that she accuses me of doing whatever I want, regardless of what other people need,
when she herself is more strong willed than just about anyone I know. I told Red that,
even if he had lived, poor Randy would have had a hard time. He was at least as fucked
up by my mother’s smothering love as he was by my father’s hatred. She was unable to
criticize him even when he was in the middle of getting himself in some deep shit.
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I was telling Red all this, when she asked how he died. I got a little pissed, “I told
you he died of AIDS. You want the medical report?” No, it turned out that she knew I
had been there and wanted to know what his last moments were like. I had never spoken
of this to anyone before. I had tried so hard to forget it that I wasn’t at all sure I could tell
her the truth or that I ever knew it. I might have simply imagined I jacked up the needle
with a load of nearly pure heroin; or that it took five minutes searching his limp, ravaged
body for a vein that hadn’t been collapsed by the hundreds of needles used to pump in
medicines and nourishment. It might be fiction that his eye sockets were deep blue black,
with rings of fatigue and fear that reached half way down his cheeks; or that I looked into
his coal black eyes and I could see clear through to China; perhaps I really didn’t repeat,
in the sing-song cadence of a nursery rhyme, the words from Somerset Maugham, that
life is fearfully short and we are dead for such a long time. Perhaps it was a trick of the
light, the hate and love, the resentment and gratitude, the fear and bravery I thought I saw
in his face when he nodded for me to push the plunger that sent a stream of oblivion, a
shot of redemption coursing through his body. He whispered one last word, “I,” the
merest beginning of a sentence, before a look of utter surprise hit him like an electric jolt
and he closed his eyes on me forever. I like to imagine that he finished his sentence with,
“love you.” But the only thing I know to be true, it was a lonely “I,” only “I”, that glided
out on his last breath.
I tried to remember what I had never thought of beyond that moment: how, when
I pushed down on the plunger I felt a chunk of black coal enter through my hand, burst
into flames and course through my body. It seared everything in its path. I tried to
remember that my own sense of relief was as great as his; that I immediately panicked at
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the thought that his disease entered me at that moment—that I had murdered my brother,
and that part of me was glad that I did.
Oh, he had asked me to do it. We had had only one previous discussion—but he
was sure of it, it was what he wanted, he was convinced I could do it. We had been
sitting in his bedroom on his enormous canopied bed. He was propped up on white satin
pillows and bolsters covered with Kilim tapestries. The windows were covered with
heavy damask drapes and the twin Tiffany lamps sat on matching end tables and splashed
a kaleidoscope of color onto the gold wallpaper. He strove for a Moroccan brothel look,
and succeeded. I can remember all that clearly.
True to form, Randy had made his request as a witticism. He said that as much as
he enjoyed having me carry him up and down the stairs, like the princess he always
aspired to be, enough was enough. He had heard that junk-death was painless, and
“relatively aesthetic” and he knew it would be no trouble for me to get the shit. He said
this in the slightly disparaging manner he reserved for my “activities.”
Once I agreed, the conversation turned to the details of his funeral service. He
asked me to get his Versace tux from his closet and jokingly remembered that it had a
few stains from his wilder times and made me promise to take it to the dry cleaner. He
wanted the flowers to be red roses formed into a wreath that aped the silhouette of Notre
Dame, his favorite building. When I protested, he said, “O.K., I’d rather have the wreath
shaped like a huge dick. Take your pick.” I got him to assent to a cartload of roses, each
batch with a white lily at the center—but only after I promised to get a black gospel choir
for the service.
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I had been silent for a while. My attention was fixed on Hart. He was focused
somewhere beyond me, as if he were looking at something in the cave. He spoke from a
place that seemed far away. It wasn’t exactly a monotone, there were rises and falls in
the cadence of his words, but they seemed curiously detached from emotion. I was
alarmed. His lips didn’t seem to be moving and his voice came to me from behind, or
from off in the rice padi. The acoustics in the cave were disorienting.
Hart had been talking for fifteen minutes without a stop. Even for him that was a
long time. I was kinda struck dumb and said, “Whew! That’s some story.”
“I didn’t realize. Sorry to go on like that,” he said. “It’s just that…I’ve never told
it before.”
“You mean to anyone? How could you not.…” I cut myself short and put my
hand over my mouth. His story was so intense I couldn’t imagine holding it inside all
these years.
“No one ever asked. Who cares about that stuff? Anyway, I buried that shit with
my brother. But thanks for listening,” Hart said. He rose and turned his palms up and
then dropped them in a gesture of helplessness.
I was truly moved by what he had to say and I felt very special to be the only
other person who knew the story. I was trying to understand what he must have gone
through and what mixed feelings he must have had. I really think it was a brave thing for
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him to do. I don’t think I would have had the courage. I told him so, and then asked him
how he felt now that he had gotten the story out of the closet.
“How am I supposed to know? He said. “I only shut my trap a minute ago. And
it wasn’t in the closet like you say. I told you. I buried that shit. I haven’t thought about
it ‘til now.”
Hart began to pace in a tight circle, which seemed to increase the agitation in his
voice. He brought his pacing up short and began a series of stretches, pushing his hands
into the unyielding wall of the cave. When he began talking again he was looking at the
“You know, Red, I know what you’d like me to say. I’m not totally
“Like what do you think I’d like to hear?”
“Oh, you know, something like, I’ve carried this story around for so long that I
feel like a dumb beast of burden. And now? Now that I’ve dropped this big load I feel
like a colt frisking in the field. Shit like that. But I can’t say it.”
“For fuck’s sake, because it’s not true! I don’t even know what’s true, so I can’t
lie to you. I guess that’s the upside.”
“Don’t get so riled up. I’m simply trying to tell you that I feel for you and....”
I slumped against the wall and my voice lost its air. I thought it was a big thing,
and I guess I hoped that he would feel better, and maybe I did have something to do with
him feeling better. I managed a raspy whisper. “Is that so bad?”
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Hart didn’t answer me directly. He stopped his stretching, and stood directly in
front of me.
“You look crest-fallen,” he said. “I know you think I don’t pay attention to your
feelings, but I do. But then what am I supposed to do with them? And why is it that if
you tell someone something, and it moves them, then you have to pay attention to them?
Like it becomes their thing, even though you’re the one who’s bleeding.”
It was so ungenerous it kinda scared me. “It’s called empathy, Hart, the ability to
put yourself in someone’s place. To feel what they’re feeling. It’s a human thing. What
are you so damned afraid of?”
Hart sat down again. If he had been walking you would have said he dropped in
his tracks. He sat next to me with a stunned expression on his face.
“You know, Red, I’d just as soon lie as tell the truth. But somehow with you it’s
different; and besides, like I said before, I don’t know what the truth is about my little
Cain and Able story, so I couldn’t lie to you if I wanted.”
I laughed. I wasn’t sure I should feel flattered. It sounded like the workings of
his universe rather than any sterling qualities I might have.
I don’t mean to minimize his feelings, but Hart continued as if he was a four-yearold, in a dramatic monologue with his shadow.
“All my life I’ve felt like I was in a play, acting out some role someone else had
prepared for me. It’s like the audience is already sitting down and know what they’re
going to see because they’ve been tipped off way in advance of me. And that’s how I felt
after I told you the story, the same way I felt when I pushed the plunger and sent my
brother into oblivion.”
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We sat and listened to the night: the tree frogs chirping away, the wind through
the stiff fronds of the palms, the lonesome quack of a duck, the trickle of water in the rice
terraces. Hart got up to light a couple of mosquito coils, and we watched the smoke peel
off the cinnamon colored rings. I could hear the low-level drone of the mosquitoes, just
beyond the protective curls of smoke. Hart fiddled with the round, blue-and-white
cardboard box the coils were packaged in. The box had a picture of two deer on it; a
buck, with an enormous rack of antlers, stood guard over a reclining doe. Hart chuckled
and read aloud from the label, Obat Nyamuk. Mosquito medicine. Preventive, I guess.
You know it might be primitive thinking, but at heart it’s probably more progressive than
the A. M. A.”
Hart stepped out of the cave and surveyed the wet blackness of the rice fields. He
looked up the slope behind the cave, and stared intently down the darkened path we had
come in on. His actions were precise and bristled with alertness. When he turned to
speak to me his voice was dreamy and at odds with his body language.
“You know, Red, I could never please her.”
“My mother. I could never please that prick of an old man; I gave up on that shit
early on. But I guess I could never get it through my skull that no matter what I did I
wouldn’t please her either.”
I suggested that maybe she thought she was being strict for his own good. You
know how that goes, “You’ll thank me later for this.” I asked if it was that kind of thing.
“Nah. It was different. She just didn’t notice. Or else she’d quietly notice
something that wasn’t quite right.”
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“It was different with your brother though, wasn’t it? I ventured.
“Big time. I mean he could spit up on a napkin and she’d tell him how beautiful it
was. Of course not when the poor bastard was spitting blood. That just made her cry. I
cleaned that up.”
I couldn’t fathom a mother being so mean. I never had any competition—no
brothers or sisters—so what did I know? For sure, when I have kids, I’ll never treat them
like that.
“My old man beat on her so bad...I don’t know, she was just...”
“Whittled down?”
“That’s probably my problem,” Hart said, disdainfully.
“Hart, you have more energy than any two people half your age. And, you please
Hart looked at me intently, opened his mouth to speak but left his jaw hanging
low and didn’t say a word.
“Cat got yer tongue, big boy? You’re an amazing guy. You can be sweet as pie
when you let yourself. You can charm the spots off a leopard—you’ve charmed me to
the point of disorder. What is it?”
“I wish I felt all that. I believe you think that, but I just don’t feel it.”
“Hart, this is now! Your mother and father and brother are never coming back.” I
admired him. He had done a million things and wandered all over the globe—most
people would give their right arm to be in his shoes. I told him so.
“I doubt they’d give anything to be in my head, though.” He said this with a
laugh that was at odds with his hangdog slump.
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“You’re so good at hiding it.” I said. “No one would ever know what you have
inside there. Besides, I have a notion that most people think the next guy is better off
than they are anyway.”
“Do you?” he asked me.
“Do I what?”
“Think the next guy is better off than you.”
“No way! I wouldn’t trade who I am or what I have for anything.”
“You’re one of the lucky ones, then.” Hart clapped his hands together and stood
sharply. “As for me? I’d just like to remember what I have that’s worth saving. I don’t
think I’m interested in trading up for another used car—I’d just get a new set of
“You don’t have to remember. Just look around at what’s here.”
“Practice what I preach?”
The next morning, we were still spooned beneath a tangle of sarongs when I heard
a hesitant, “Selamat pagi, Tuan. Selamat pagi, Missus.” The young boy stood discreetly
aside the cave entrance and waited until we wrapped our sarongs and rose to greet him.
I hadn’t a clue as to what was going on and was only half-awake. I was further
confused by the self-satisfied smile on Hart’s face. When the picture came into focus I
saw the boy from the night before. He was carrying a basket of food, and he hunkered
down to carefully unwrap the fruit and hard-boiled eggs.
“The plumbing sucks, but the room service is pretty good,” said Hart, with a
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“How did...? Did you?”
“Sure. Last night, when we were talking, I asked him if he could rig it. Wayan
and I are old friends.”
The boy brightened when he heard his name and he and Hart exchanged a few
words in Bahasa. Hart was apparently teasing him good-naturedly, and Wayan was
smiling and giggling.
“He says he would have given us a few dragonflies, but he didn’t think the Missus
would like them.”
“Did you tell him I was a wimp?” I asked, pretending outrage.
“No, he’s just a perceptive kid,” said Hart. He put his arm about my waist and
gave me a squeeze.
Hart gave the boy a few folded bills. You could almost see the smoke and sparks
coming from Wayan’s hand. He was making a valiant effort to mind his manners and not
look until they finished their conversation. He thanked Hart and bid his goodbye to me,
but his composure was rocked when he stole a glance at the money. He beamed and
then, looked stricken, as if there had been some misunderstanding.
“Terimakhasi banyak, Tuan. Besok pula?” he asked with a plaintive note in his
“No, not tomorrow too. Just for today.” Hart said. “And it’s we who must thank
you for your kindness. And the good job you did.”
Realizing Wayan didn’t understand, he repeated it in Bahasa. That seemed to
satisfy him and he went away happily. His parting words were, “Hasta la vista, baby,”
which sent us into stitches.
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“Where did he ever learn that?” I asked.
“Where do you think? You don’t imagine he’s seen too many of Arnie’s movies,
do you?”
“How much money did you give him? He was nearly beside himself.”
“Well, when you figure that the average padi worker gets a buck a day, and the
road crews a staggering buck-an-a-quarter, the four bucks or so he got will set him up
pretty good.”
“That’s a lot of dragonflies,” I said. “I surely wish I could have tried one. Just to
see what all the fuss is about.”
“You’ll get another chance. We can have it for an appetizer if we eat dog—they
say it’s a good combination.”
“No way, José. I draw the line at household pets—except for chickens, which are
hardly loveable. And maybe ducks.”
The sweetness of the morning made the night even more miraculous. I would
even have eaten dragonflies; it was that wonderful. Hart is more complicated than I ever
imagined and I’ve come to think that his toughness is only for show. I mean, little
Wayan obviously adores him and would have brought breakfast, lunch and dinner at no
charge if Hart had asked him to. When I said so, to Hart, I expected his usual gruff
answer: something along the lines of “a deal is a deal” or “the kid would sell his mother
for a lot less.” Instead, all he said was, “He’s a good kid, I’d adopt him in a minute.”
Shocking! So much so that I didn’t pursue it, not wanting to ruin the little spell it cast
over me. Jeez, I couldn’t help fantasizing, and I probably would have married him on the
spot if he’d asked.
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What an awful story about his brother. It’s sadder still that poor Hart is so
tortured by it. He claims to have put it all behind him, but I don’t believe it for a minute.
As soon as he told me the story it seemed that he regretted it, as if it made him smaller in
some way. All it did was make me feel closer to him. And maybe that was the real
problem. For all his talk he doesn’t say a whole lot about himself. In fact, he’s oddly
absent in most of the things that he talks about—even the things he seems to love, a word
he rarely uses about animal, vegetable, or mineral.
For my part, the night was totally romantic—I’ve never felt closer to him. We
kissed a bit, real affectionate, made love long and slow and slept wrapped around each
When I first saw our little honeymoon cave I thought it was spooky. The light
was failing, and except for leftover radiance caught in the paddies, purple shadows
blanketed everything. It was a world away from the fear that settles on you when you’re
in a cabin on some lonely mesa, listening to the wind howl and thinking about Texas
chainsaw massacres. At Gunung Kawi the eeriness was more about ghosts and spirits
than it was about the living. In my travels I had seen plenty of dragons and creatures that
were as much monkey, or elephant, as they were human, and their memory was fresh in
my mind. Hindu gods and goddesses might live on some spiritual plane, “up there,” but
they visit the hustle-bustle world with regularity. They constantly mess with the living.
This was normal for Bali where people lived in close communion with their gods and
their ancestors, living or dead. It hardly seemed to matter. They were all real as real
could be to the Balinese. And to me too, I might add. When you’re in a place for a long
time you soak up the local reality, like it or not.
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After we got high and began goofing on the constellations, the mood changed.
Hart and I were jammed hip to hip in the doorway of the cave and I could feel his heat
through the thin, cotton sarongs we wore. Hart’s skin temperature seemed about five
degrees hotter than other men I had known. It was alarming to me in our earlier time
together and I thought he might have malaria or some other weird fever. It took some
getting used to, but now I’m afraid that other men will seem like cold fish. Even my
dalliance with the Israeli pilot, as handsome as he was, didn’t fill the bill. So, between
the heat and the pot and Hart’s familiar smell tinged with Old Spice deodorant, the
spookiness turned in a lustful kinda way. It was easy to imagine us screwing on the cave
floor, swept up in a primitive, animal heat. I was well down that trail of thought when
Hart began talking about his brother. He had never spoken to me in such an unguarded,
intimate way, and, when the closeness took over, there went the hot monkey love straight
out the cave door. Later, wrapped in each other’s arms, exhausted from the telling and
the listening we made love with a quiet knowing that did more than sate our hunger. I
knew that loving would be with me always.
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When you’re in a place filled with ghosts, your own familiars will visit as if they
had a standing invitation. I rarely think of myself as a man who has ghosts. I barely
think of myself as a man with a past. My years seem to have amounted to so little, and
the memories worth remembering might just as well belong to someone else. But my
mother and brother did appear that night. There was no knock on the door, they wafted
in silently , roosted like bats hung upside down inside the cave and waited until the time
was right to show themselves. I have tried to elude them in this place, halfway around
the world from where I buried them, where they should have been at rest. As usual, I
have only myself to blame.
I came here to Poet’s Mountain to cough up something worth remembering. The
problem is, once you set the wheels of the spirit world in motion, you abdicate control.
That world has its own finicky logic and could give a shit if it rocks your boat to the point
of sinking.
I did my best to carry out my mother and brother’s wishes as much to lay my own
mind to rest as to please them. I was amused by the thought that my mother wouldn’t be
around to criticize what I had done for her funeral. In the case of my brother’s service,
her blinding grief, and my insistence that I arranged things as he had asked, kept her from
complaining. She had to swallow hard to accept the three fat, black ladies singing gospel.
From when I was old enough to notice that people were different colors, I remembered
her saying she had “no use for those people anyway.” I must admit that it was more than
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satisfying to see my brother’s perversity at work. If the Balinese notion, that proper care
for the deceased keeps them out of your hair, I shouldn’t have been bothered. I didn’t
shirk my responsibilities. Besides, I always thought that dead was dead—all the more
surprising to find them in my world.
What I didn’t tell Red was that during the entire time I was spinning my sad tale, I
saw my mother and Randy in the cave. Their images flickered on the cave wall, pale and
wan in the surrounding darkness. When the scene stuttered into focus I saw my mother
in a pleated gown that looked like the togas people wear on old Greek vases. It was
creamy white and crossed her bosom, leaving one of her fat shoulders bare. Folds of
fabric were gathered by a crimson pin on her other shoulder. I distinctly recall that the
pin was spider-shaped and was the only true color in the otherwise sepia atmosphere. My
brother sat in a claw-footed chair, elegantly dressed in a white linen suit. He was Mister
Sophisticate: dark, swept-back hair, legs crossed at the ankle, a slim cigarette holder
dangling from his right hand. My mother towered over the chair, her hand on my
brother’s shoulder. She was looking at him adoringly, but with an unmistakably
lascivious undertone. It was a studio-wedding photograph gone awry—my brother was
child-sized, about like the little guy on Fantasy Island.
I hadn’t a clue as to what the hallucination meant, I was having a hard enough
time trying to decide whether I was seeing or imagining. I wonder about that still. Red’s
back was toward the cave wall. I was about to ask her to turn around, to tell me if I was
losing it or not, but I couldn’t form the words. Instead, out came the story of my
brother’s death, from a place beyond my will, as if something had put the words in my
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mouth. Red and I had smoked some dope—but I knew how that affected me, and this
was different.
After I had told the story I was exhausted and pissed—at what I didn’t know—but
leave it to Red to have changed my mood.
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On the back of the photograph, Hart had written: “MJ, Hart, King, Santi, Brem at
the palace.” They all wear sarongs. As an ode to the ridiculous the two men have
somehow fastened orange halves to their chests, which they thrust forward in competition
with their bare-breasted companions. They are standing near an amoeba-shaped pool
against a backdrop of plants and flowers. As if in homage to Gauguin each holds a bowl
piled with fresh fruit. It is a family portrait—Hart is as dark-skinned as the two
Indonesian women, while MJ and King are shockingly white. Brem stands between MJ
and King. She is half as wide as the rotund King and her head barely reaches to MJ’s
shoulder. She is the only one not looking at the camera. Her gaze is turned upon MJ,
who seems unaware of her attention and its accompanying smile. Hart is caught in the
act of laughing while King beams out a bemused Buddha smile. Santi looks quite serious
and stands ramrod straight. She is about the same height as MJ, who seems to be
involved in her own thoughts. The flicker of a smile lies ready at the corners of her
The group photo is one of many shots taken at King’s compound. It is a beautiful
place by Western or Balinese standards. The lawns surrounding the pool are terraced and
resemble the forms of the rice paddies. And, as with the paddies, the edges of each level
are rounded and the eye descends lazily from one to the next. The topmost level of the
lawn is backed by lush gardens of blooming shrubs. In turn, a wall of soft, red stone,
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patterned by the lichens and vines that call it home, encloses the gardens. A huge
breadfruit tree and an equally commanding mango grow just inside the wall and shelter
the compound in lacey light.
There are a number of studies of the waterfalls and pools in this little Eden, but
none are as striking as that of a small fishpond, hunkered in the shadow of the
guesthouse. Set among flowers, the pond is fed by a small cascade of water that washes
over the smooth stones ringing the bank. Hart waited till the sun shot sparks of red and
yellow from the heliconias and birds of paradise reflected across the surface. If one looks
closely koi can be seen beneath the surface working like butter churns, their phantom life
glimpsed in murky orange swirls.
The compound honors the Balinese reverence for water and the spirits and sprites
that inhabit it. The water systems in the paddies are hundreds of years old, as are the
rituals and ceremonies necessary to insure its flow and purity. Life-giving, sensual,
willing to be shaped and directed, it seems an essential ingredient in King’s cosmology as
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Candidassa was wearing thin—it was no longer as isolated as it once was, and the
tourists didn’t add anything substantial. They came with regularity and stayed for a
couple of days while they hit the high spots in the surrounding area. Red and I saw it
change before our eyes. It seemed that a new losmen or restaurant was going up every
day. We had been together for a while and, although I had to admit I enjoyed her
company, probably more than anyone I had met in a long while, it was about time to
expand our circle beyond us two. The choices were to head to Ubud and the mountains,
or hit the other coast out beyond Seminyak. There were ex-pat communities in both
areas; the crunchy granola types tended to Ubud while Seminyak gathered an older,
tougher and more fun-loving crowd. My old friend King was in Basankasa, just beyond
Seminyak, and had a compound out in the countryside. It was a quick jaunt to the
Eurotrash excitement of Legian and a few steps from pristine beaches where you could
walk all the way to Tanah Lot temple. I needed to talk up with King to squeeze him for
tidbits on Nias, so when he extended an invitation to come and stay as long as we wanted
it was hard to resist.
I met Big King through the primitive art trade. People called him Big King to
distinguish him from another King who was considerably smaller in girth and reputation.
Kecile King, as this other guy was called, was a wiry Javanese guy, a corrupt customs
inspector who was a necessary evil to all of us who traded in tribal goods. Kecile means
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little in Indo and it was an apt description for this mercenary mosquito-dick. His name
wasn’t really King but he acquired it because he bragged incessantly about being
descended from a long line of Javanese Rajahs.
Big King too fitted his name in every way. Magnanimous, with a large appetite
for food, women and things of every variety, his charm and generosity made him hard to
resist. He was an ex-pat American who had lived in Bali on and off for twenty years. It
was a bit of a mystery as to how he had made his money—rumors and speculation
abounded. He had inherited his father’s business in the rag trade. Under the guise of
buying and selling artifacts he was really a drug kingpin. Others would tell you King’s
real money came from the sale of ancient Chinese herbs and medicines to hippie-dipwhole-earth consortiums. My own favorite was the story that had him doing a brisk trade
in endangered species. This was probably due to the fact that he had a fondness for
things like elephant foot ashtrays and tiger rugs. He kept an aviary of some size and had
a few very weird pets including a coatamundi, more at home in Central America, and a
mongoose which he kept in a cage inches away from a cobra in a fish tank.
The only problem with these explanations about the source of his cash was that he
knew next to nothing about animals, couldn’t quite remember the species of the birds he
had and was in poor health despite the use of every Western drug on the market. When
people cited his ignorance in these matters to support the drug-dealer theory—he must
have used so much of his own product that he fried his memory bank—I just laughed.
After all, I had more than a passing acquaintance with the drug trade, and I was sure he
didn’t know fuck-all about that either. His name never came up in any circle I traveled in
where people might have known, and he was forever asking me if I could score for him.
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Besides that, a little weed and an occasional toot were the only mind-altering drugs I ever
saw him use.
I asked King once where he made his bread; he just snorted and said, “Business.
It’s too boring to go into. It’s how you spend it that counts.” I tend to think that this is
probably true and his vagueness was deliberate, designed to keep the more exotic myths
In any event, not long after our visit to Gunung Kawi, Red and I went to see King.
Red wasn’t thrilled. She had met him once before with me, and he made the mistake of
teasing her, calling her “picky.” I can’t remember the particular incident, something
about food, I think; but it was just enough to get under Red’s skin. It offended her Texas
dignity. She disdained spoiled women and thought of herself as tall in the saddle and
rarin’ to go. When I first told Red that I wanted to visit King again, she cited the “picky”
comment as her reason to stay away.
I pushed her, saying that he was crucial to my Nias plans and it seemed like a
pretty piss-ant incident to let stand in the way. Red dug her heels in and finally gave me
the real reason. She had bumped into him, without me, and he had put the moves on her.
I said it was just his way, he didn’t mean anything by it, and he was only flirting with her.
She blew up. She was doubly insulted. First off, in her eyes, his behavior was clearly
misogynist and didn’t recognize her true merits as a woman because it treated her like
“any old hole.” But, most of all, she thought it was low of me to defend him. I told her
to get over it and give him a chance, that he was my friend and a good man at heart. I
even suggested that now that he knew we were together there was no way he would mess
with her. This sort of slipped out, but it did the trick.
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We had been traveling rough for so long that it was hard to remember that at least
some of the world lived in a kind of subdued splendor, like hot showers. King had taken
a twenty-year lease on some land that belonged to the head of the banjar—which roughly
translates as community. Americans couldn’t own land but were able to acquire long
leases and build what they wished, subject of course to the rules of the banjar and the
interpretation of the rules by the community leader. King somehow managed to build the
palace that he had always imagined. “Somehow” really meant that he employed the wife
of the banjar head to make the daily offerings at the shrines on his property, hired the
daughter to clean house, paid the nephew to care for the grounds, and installed a shiftless
brother-in-law as his security guard.
The main building and guest houses were designed by a Balinese architect who
was able to read King and give him a house that satisfied subliminal desires he didn’t
even know he had. The project must have employed half the craftsman in the
neighborhood for a year. When the house was finished it was blessed and the ground rid
of evil spirits by the local priest. King was installed like a rajah.
When I queried him as to whether he was uneasy owning a building that sat on
land that wasn’t his, he simply said that he wasn’t planning on living more than twenty
years and his dick would stop working long before that anyway. I made the mistake of
asking my question in front of Red, who had to dive into the pool to keep from slugging
him. She swam underwater for the length of the pool and thankfully missed King’s
discourse on how he was through with American women because they were too much
work and how, after he had done some major adjusting of his “aesthetic,” he had
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discovered the joys of Balinese women. I admit it all sounded pretty reasonable to me—
an opinion I was careful not to share with Red.
I had been to Hadrian’s Villa in Italy and it was mighty impressive even in its
decayed state. I had bought a little guidebook at the site that had photographs of the ruins
and a series of plastic overlays that were an artist’s renderings of what the villa had once
looked like. It was funny to compare the images of now and then, but what was
unmistakable, even if you didn’t read the accompanying text, was Hadrian’s intent to
build a fuck palace. It was an incredible celebration of sex and sensuality through
architecture. Apparently, Hadrian was into anything with a hole that he could squeeze
into—he even designed a coin with his lover Antonius on it, which made his wife
apoplectic. There were bathing pools, steam rooms, pleasure rooms, and if you searched
long enough I’m sure you could find a few of those boards fitted with butt-plugs designed
to keep the recipients ready for Big Daddy when he had the urge.
King’s villa followed in this spirit, minus the butt plugs. Boys didn’t figure in
King’s sexcapades. The buildings and grounds were contemporary improvisations on
traditional Balinese style. King being King, everything came economy-sized and with an
updated appreciation for comfort. Thatch, bamboo, stone, tiles, teak and mahogany were
the materials of his dreamland—and, of course, water.
The gurgle and slurp of water was everywhere. The sounds mingled with the
rattling of bamboo and the palm frond’s soft abrasion of the air to produce nature’s Xrated lullaby. It didn’t take long before Red and I were lulled into a torpor that poured
like syrup over any complaint she might have about King’s behavior.
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We stayed in one of the two guesthouses in the compound. It overlooked its own
fishpond, fed by a small waterfall. At night we would lie in bed and try to chart the
rhythm of its fall, never able to ascertain if it was constant, or continually shifting. Red
would kneel down and poke her head out through the cocoon of mosquito net for a better
listen. It became our standard joke. While it didn’t answer the question, it succeeded in
giving me a look at her splendid ass.
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We spent weeks hanging out at King’s miniature Shangri-La. Miniature probably
gives the wrong impression. Nothing about King or his life was small scale. He was
rounder than a jolly Buddha, the furniture was king-sized, no pun intended, as were his
appetites. Why do with one of anything if you could buy two, especially at a bargain
price? He even referred to certain of his girlfriends as “twofers,” because they came in
pairs. He continuously made lascivious jokes that let me know that he wasn’t just talking
about their price. King had a seemingly endless string of local beauties wearing a groove
into the tile path to his bedroom. And, as often as he could arrange it, they came two at a
I overheard him talking to Hart one day and that’s how I learned that, although
they “weren’t exactly hookers,” their services were paid for. I was feigning sleep in a
nearby hammock and had to restrain myself. I chuckled inside, thinking how appropriate
one of Hart’s favorite expressions was, “I was gonna rip off his head and piss down his
neck.” I wanted to hear as much of his story as I could. I lay still and ignored the cord of
the hammock digging into my back. I knew I wouldn’t get very far if I asked Hart what
the situation was with King and these women. He was tight lipped about his friend’s
privacy and, like any guy, he didn’t want to condemn someone of his own sub-species for
fear of dragging himself down too. As I listened to them talk I was relieved that Hart at
least remained neutral, meaning I couldn’t tell if he approved of King’s behavior. He
didn’t judge it either, but Hart is loath to do that anyway.
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I’m embarrassed about what was really going on in my mind, at least after I got a
handle on my temper. King went on talking about how much he enjoyed watching two
women do each other. His descriptions were real graphic—about how they looked at
each other when one was kneeling between the other’s legs, or how their wetness
sounded with all the licking and sucking. I was getting pretty wet myself and I quietly
slid my hand inside the waistband of my shorts. I wasn’t wearing panties, maybe a
hangover from my nasty girl act at the cotillion, but that had become my habit around the
compound. I mean, Hart and I were screwing like bunnies any chance we got. I steamed
myself up pretty good and had to cover my little moan with a cough, which brought their
conversation to a halt. They immediately switched to a discussion of gamelan music and,
when I rolled over and “woke up,” they pretended as if they had been talking about music
all along. King noted my presence with a half-dirty, half-mischievous grin, and asked me
a dumb question about some arcane piece of music I’d never heard.
Playing with myself ten feet away from two grown men talking dirty was more
exciting than I can describe. Of course I had done the same in front of Hart. The big
difference was that Hart was completely aware of it. In fact, we often encouraged each
other; this time was just me and my fantasy. It was high up on the clitometer, right
alongside the time when I was looking up at Hart from between his legs, while he talked
to my Turkish boyfriend who was outside the window.
That secretive afternoon surely planted some seeds. I had seen my girl friends
naked, and done some early adolescent hugging on sleepovers, but it never amounted to
much in the way of sex. Girlhood affection is pretty elastic. Lord knows, I was happy
about sex with Hart—but I’m a curious girl and willing to try almost anything once.
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We always went out to supper. It was a social occasion, and we took turns eating
at one of the local warungs or one of the slightly upscale Western-style restaurants. We
could count on some of the local ex-pats showing up. There were a few women regulars
in the crowd but it was a double-X chromosome atmosphere for sure. Most of these guys
were past forty and, frankly, most were wash outs. So, there was tons of bragging—not
just about their women, who were rarely with them—but the been-there, done-that bull.
For the most part I hardly existed for the men. Being with Hart surely helped, and they
treated me with the same respectful distance that they showed to him. They slung their
crap at each other, but it whizzed right by me. Their talk wasn’t as graphic as what I
overheard between King and Hart, but it was kinda raunchy and a real eye opener. It
took about a week for me to understand that when they talked about trolling or fishing
holes, it wasn’t our finned ancestors they had in mind.
When Hart confirmed my big insight into this coded talk with a nod and a
chuckle, I was revolted—and still am. Not at him, I knew it wasn’t his style, but at the
way these guys treated women. It got so that I couldn’t look at this group of men without
seeing a pack of monkeys in a cage. I could never sleep with any of them, not for a
million bucks.
The whole phenomenon of Western men and local women had been going on
since colonial times. When some fat Dutch burgher or colonial administrator “went
native,” it meant basically that he had taken a local woman as mistress. But now the
boom clouds of tourism had gathered on the horizon, and sleepy fishing towns like Kuta
were transformed overnight into Aussie villages. There were restaurants that served
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Western food, bars complete with bar girls and happy hours and big screen videos where
you could watch the latest swaggering Sylvester Stallone epic.
I’d gotten dozens of traditional massages on the beach—you stretched out on a
reed mat and for a couple of dollars you got a gentle and altogether wholesome massage.
No hanky-panky, or jiggy-jiggy so to speak. The Chinese-run massage parlors were late
bloomers in this garden of earthly delights—there were a few but, for the most part, they
were more plentiful in Thailand and the imagination. Although I never went to a
massage parlor, Hart assured me that they were basically the same all over the Third
World. For a few extra dollars you can get, well, a little extra treatment. The whole
thing totally grossed me out. I couldn’t imagine putting my hands all over some smelly,
overweight German, let alone give him a hand-job at the end. I’d rather starve.
I learned that it was different if you looked at it through the eyes of the Balinese and
Javanese women that King and Hart talked about. First off, they probably knew what it
was like to be hungry—and although they could barely imagine the possibilities outside
their town gate, they were certainly aware of the limited horizon at home. Secondly, a
white man is a white man, and in the place of noses and eyes and mouths the local
women see dollar signs—for themselves, their ailing mothers or worthless, unemployed
older brothers. There is very little that is personal in their perceptions of foreigners,
meaning they don’t get the finer distinctions. Even Santi, who managed King’s property,
with her sophistication and intelligence and disdain for the disco girls, admitted to me
that in the beginning she had a hard time telling white men apart. They were all big and
white and came in varying degrees of loudness and lack of manners. They ate too much,
wore shorts in public and forgot to take their shoes off when they went inside.
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My heart went out to the innocent kampung girls. They came down from their
villages in the mountains to try their luck along the Westernized coast, only to meet up
with a species of men who had turned their own disappointment and fragility into a
power art. But, in my opinion, the girls learned pretty darn fast how to make the best of
these arrangements. They knew, because of the sisterly chitchat that went on incessantly,
that they had a kind of power. It was a collective power, and I’m not sure how it
translated to each of them individually. But some of it must have. The foreign men were
cut loose from the traditional moorings of home and hearth and were thinking with the
stupid, little head between their legs. The local women didn’t get what was all the fuss
was about. Despite all the talk, it was rarely more than a ten-minute thing and then,
mempi manis. After the sweet dreams it was a quick stop at the bank or a trip back to the
kampung with a lavish gift for Mom.
As the nights rolled by I got to know some of the women who visited King. He
had a few regulars; and one of them, Brem, caught my attention. She spoke a little
English, less than my grasp of Indonesian, but between the both of us and my IndonesianEnglish dictionary we did all right. I felt like I got to know a little of the basics of her
life—how she had come from a kampung kecile in West Java and now worked in a
karaoke bar to pay her rent in a one-room apartment in Denpasssar. It had only a wash
basin, and although she would have loved to have a bath the lack of amenities kept the
rent low and allowed her to send money to her ailing mother and retired father back
The nature of her job at a karaoke bar escaped me. Many of her customers were
Japanese businessmen. Her duties supposedly didn’t involve sex—flirting yes, but her
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singing was the main attraction. It sounded a lot like a modern day geisha, the shamisam
and tea ceremony replaced by the hand mike and highballs. Hart promised to take me
one night to hear her sing but I couldn’t get up much enthusiasm. I guess I preferred my
own expurgated version of what it was like and I didn’t want to see that vision dashed by
the reality of Brem performing like a trained seal before an audience of drunken Japanese
Brem was dead serious about her singing and explained to me that it came from
her heart. I was pretty hip (one of Hart’s expressions I’ve adopted as my own) to the
music of my time, but I recognized only a few of the names of the women whose songs
she sang—Pat Benetar among them. She also sang a lot of Stevie Wonder. She
charmingly referred to him as Stevies Wonder Kecile, apparently unaware that he had
dropped the Little from his name a good while back, and that the extra “s” was her own
invention. She said she liked his songs because, “he is blind you know, so, he listens
mostly to his heart and that is how he sees.” That was impressive to me, but the next
thing she said totally gave me an insight into her personality. “He a man, me a woman.
So I have much choices to do what I want.” I know she was talking about his music but I
took it to have a broader connection to men in general. Bravo, sister!
The future was misty for Brem. Her life was all so new. Despite the tentacles of
responsibility that connected her to her little kampung she was largely free of the more
stifling mores of kampung life, which she said grew more alien to her every day. She
was a modern woman in her own eyes—she dressed like a Dallas mall girl—and right
now that was enough. She grudgingly donned a sarong when she was at Shangri-La, and
did it mostly to please King. Hart said, without cynicism, that hers was just a working-
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class time sense—you grabbed what you could because tomorrow might never come. I
took his word for it. He was talking about where he came from.
As interesting as learning a bit about her was, I have to admit that it was how she
looked that started me going. I stand about five-foot-six in stocking feet—not big by
Texas standards—but Brem came barely to the height of my boobs. Petite is too big a
word, and sparrow-like misses both her fiery temperament and the elegance of her
bearing. My inventory of trees fell short of describing her. A miniature royal palm, if
one existed, might do the trick. She was older than I by three years, but her smooth,
coffee-with-cream skin made me feel pale and old
It wasn’t too long before I began to linger at the main house on those nights when
she was expected. Brem always lit up when she saw me and gave me a warm hug and
kiss even before she greeted King. The Balinese and Javanese are not prone to public
displays of affection so, although I took it in stride, it was a pretty big deal. King must
have noticed and one night he said to me with a smirk, “You two should get to know each
other better.” Then he added, “I’d like to watch, of course only if it was all right with
Hart.” I don’t know what I must have looked like, but I felt a flash of heat rise in me that
surely must have been visible. The fact that King’s comment suggested I was Hart’s
property passed me right by. I mean, Hart was the furthest thing from my mind at that
juncture—all that existed were Brem’s jet eyes, her jasmine perfume and my own heat.
It was like getting caught smoking when you were sixteen—it was exposing but at
the same time, in some funny way, it gave you license to do openly what before was a
dark little secret between you and your heart. King let the whole thing ride and turned to
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Putu, the other shoe of the pair, and left Brem and I to talk. Hart was off in the bedroom,
rolling a few joints for the evening’s events, and had happily missed the entire exchange.
When he emerged with a fat joint hanging from his lip Brem and I were ensconced,
chattering away on one of the lounges that littered the living room.
We all sat around talking and smoking and drinking beer. I tried valiantly to
contain myself and not look too much like a star-struck bitch in heat. I actually had to
force myself to get up and sit by Hart a little while just so it didn’t seem too damned
obvious. Ordinarily I was eager to hear what Hart had to say, since the guy had an
unusual take on everything. That night I worked hard to feign interest, which didn’t work
so well, and I stupidly laughed at a couple of things he said that apparently weren’t funny
at all. Hart passed it off to me being stoned, but then looked at me oddly and asked,
“What’s up?” I was totally confused and afraid of betraying my true feeling, which I
hardly had a grip on. A small miracle happened and one of Hart’s favorite wise-ass
retorts came to mind. “My dick,” I said. That cracked everyone up—King must have
provided Putu and Brem with a training-bra sex vocabulary, and they caught the irony as
Hart and I went to our house and turned in. Hart went out like a light. I was too
excited to fall asleep. My conversation and closeness with Brem had translated into an
all-over tingle that just wouldn’t quit. I lay there with my eyes opened as big as mixing
bowls. The joints we smoked didn’t help the situation either; as usual it made me alert
rather than sleepy. I got up, tied on a sarong and quietly left the room. I sat on our
veranda, the air was slack but I could feel the cool of the night on my bare breasts. There
was a cluster of night-blooming jasmine nearby and the heavy perfume invaded the air,
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the same scent Brem wore. It was a baby step in my imagination to bring her naked next
to me, and barely a shuffle before she bent over to kiss and lick my breasts. My nipples
got hard and perked to attention and I was dreamily entering this fantasy when I heard
sounds and voices coming from the direction of the pool.
King had built a bale at one end of the pool. It was a simple, open thatch structure
that would pass for a gazebo back home, a gazebo with a twist, a decidedly sexual twist.
It was draped with lace netting, fitted with a wall-to-wall mattress and had harem pillows
as the only furniture. The exotic red lighting was dim and suited to a plein air brothel.
The bale and pool were hidden from my view by the luscious gardens. Flowering bushes
of every kind, mango trees, jackfruit, pandanus, fan palms, royal palms and banana trees
filtered the voices and giggles before they reached me. The inky blue of the Balinese
night softened the sounds to a murmur of candy-coated pleasure. It didn’t take a linguist
to translate. I couldn’t help myself and so I sneaked down the stone path and hid behind
some bushes where I could get a good view of the bale without being seen.
They had let down the mosquito netting and the red light of the bale was the only
light save the stars. King, Putu and Brem stood out as crisp as shadow puppets and just
as mysterious. I was truly beside myself with lust. King’s back was to me and at that
point he seemed to be more of a voyeur than a participant. Maybe it was my own
prejudice in regard to King but my mind stopped short of imagining Brem and King
together. But there were Brem and Putu wrapped around each other, stroking and kissing
and licking whatever they could reach.
I watched for what seemed to be a half-hour with my knees shaking and a space in
my stomach that felt like homesickness, but I knew was something else. Putu let out a
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groan as she came, and Brem rolled off her. I was expecting that she would take her turn,
but she just laid there with her legs open and her right hand gently covering and stroking
herself. I don’t understand how the arrangements were made but, as if on cue, King and
Putu went off to the main house, while Brem remained behind in the bale. She lounged
dreamily against the cushions and after a few minutes stood up to adjust the mosquito net.
It wasn’t calculating on my part. There was no “MJ, this is your chance.” I simply
walked down the path and stood within the puddle of red light near the bale. Brem
smiled as if she had been expecting me, lent her hand to help me negotiate the rounded
stone that served as a step into the bale, closed the lace nets and lay down beside me.
I don’t remember much after I took off my sarong on that first night. It know it
felt wonderful and filled with pleasure in a way that was familiar to me—but there was a
sense of understanding and equality that made it different from being with Hart. There is
one thing that stands out in my mind; you could call it a consequence of inept language
skills or an example of how poetry gets lost in translation. I was getting Brem off with
my tongue and fingers when all of a sudden she began saying luar, luar, luar. She
repeated it, each time louder and more intense than the time before. She was squirming
around in what I thought was pleasure and here she was telling me out, out, out. I
stopped doing what I was doing but she grabbed my hand and pushed it back inside her
and promptly came. It was only later that I asked her about this and, after she finished
laughing, she explained that instead of saying, “I’m coming” the expression, “I’m out” or
I’m going out” was the way they said it outside of Texas.
The week following my initiation rites into the Villa of Mysteries was a mess.
The compound was in turmoil and all the normal activities, including Brem’s visits, were
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put on hold. It was a sad time, but it revealed a side of King that gave flesh and heart to
the cartoon version of him I’d come to accept as the only one. He turned out to be
considerably more than a quick contour filled in with whatever color was at hand. It also
gave me a glimpse of Hart’s vulnerability—and that made me love him more.
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King and I met Api twelve years ago in Singapore, where she owned a successful
gallery of tribal art. She was part Malay, part Chinese and on the short side of thirty. She
was one of the most striking women either of us had ever seen. A lithe Malay grace
blessed her simplest movements. When we first entered her gallery she was hanging a
mask on the wall. Her night-black hair was gathered into a single braid as thick as her
wrist. The braid fell to the small of her back like a plumb bob, its rippled contour
mimicking the vertebrae beneath her skin. The hanging hook was high on the wall, at the
limit of her reach, and she stretched her body like a violin string to place the mask. She
was wearing a short skirt, like most stylish women at that time, and we had an enchanting
view of her shapely legs. Her blouse had ridden up revealing a hyphen of ochre skin
bisected by the braid. We stood inside the doorway, shocked to the spot. Neither of us
offered her a hand. For my part, I was content to watch this minor revelation of the
clockwork of beauty in the universe. When she turned her head to greet us, her arms still
outstretched against the wall, the radiance of her face turned the rest of the world dross.
With her high cheekbones and slightly angular nose Api wouldn’t have looked out
of place sitting in a teepee—a few beads and a fringed buckskin dress would be all she
needed. Her Chinese background revealed itself more in her personality. Her business
acumen was applauded in the press and she had recently been voted into Asian Women’s
Who’s Who. Her alert intelligence was shaped by a modern Western wit, but her
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fortitude and wisdom seemed peculiarly Chinese. King saw her as a formidable ally. He
had an implicit respect for her business sense and her knowledge of tribal art. He bought
two major pieces from her that day, including the Dayak mask she was hanging on the
Modern Singapore is an antiseptic mall. Wood chips stand in for real dirt and
glass doors are so clean that every year hundreds of people walk into them and end up in
the emergency ward. In addition to a sizeable police force, the city is kept in line by BigBrother regulations that include automatic cameras at stoplights, and piss alarms in
elevators! Apparently, urinating in public is on the rise. The punishment for minor dope
dealing is not so funny, unless death by hanging is your idea of a joke.
King booked us rooms at Raffles, one of the oldest and most renowned hotels in
Asia. Initially I was a bit uncomfortable, but then came to my senses and admitted that
King had the right idea. If we were staying in the land of the squeaky-clean, why not
treat ourselves to the slightly ruffled elegance of old, albeit colonial, Singapore? The
hand-drawn becaks parked outside the hotel were ready for a leisurely tour of the city at
the slightest nod of the head. And nothing that modern society had yet invented could
match the strange satisfaction of drinking early morning coffee in the palm-filled
courtyard while servants bought out the hotel’s caged birds for their daily airing. There
was an added attraction. Raffles was the home of the Singapore Sling. Neither King or I
were drinkers, but we admitted to each other that on our respective first trips to Venice,
we had gotten a kick out of going to Harry’s bar and sampling the world famous Bellini
that had originated there.
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When we concluded our business at Api’s gallery, King asked her to join us for
dinner and suggested the dining room at Raffles. I know he was hoping to impress her
with a classy invite, and he shrunk a couple of sizes when she laughed and said,
“Absolutely not. It’s too uptight. I’ll take you to the best chili-crab house in Asia. It’s
on the water. We can take our after-dinner beers onto the beach.”
Api picked us up at our hotel. She had changed into a pair of jeans and a man’s
white shirt that was fetchingly large on her. I smiled to see we were identically dressed,
right down to the rolled up sleeves of our shirts. We put our bare forearms side by side as
if we were comparing tans. We took each other’s hands and held each other at arm’s
length. It’s hard to say who had the bigger smile—my own felt stretched to breaking.
Although it was one of those moments where I could see the beginning and end of things,
I knew the in-between was worth a shot. A mind-dissolving certainty, that we would
alter each other’s lives forever, sent a shiver through both of us. King, who was
displaced slightly behind me, asked if Api was dressed warmly enough for an evening
near the sea.
Api made a quick recovery, kissed King on both cheeks, introduced her gallery
assistant Lynne, who she seemed to have momentarily forgotten, and reached into her
cloth shoulder bag. She took out two packages wrapped in bright scarlet paper. She
appeared to do all these things simultaneously—not in a blur, each action retained clarity,
a contour that both located and separated it from the flow of time. It was her way. She
gave King and me each a package, saying; “It’s the scarlet of a Chinese wedding. It
seemed appropriate—it took me as long to write the book as planning my wedding did.
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Open it!” She was clearly excited, her eyes moved quickly from me to King looking for
our responses.
It was a handsome book. Her name, as co-author, was printed in red letters on the
cover. None of us knew that the book was to become one of the bibles on the tribal art of
Borneo. King was thrilled that the mask he had just bought was reproduced in full color
on the dust jacket. I was simply thrilled. I had never met a woman like Api and was
happy to give over to the experience. I admit, I was charmed into submission.
The conversation was easy and mixed personal details with erudite discussions on
tribal art and business. Lynne, Api’s gallery assistant, was a blonde, Malaysian-born
French woman in her late twenties. In her saucy, pursed-lips manner she was as
attractive as Api, and it didn’t take long for her to get King’s attention. She had an
unusual accent to her English, which she got from her Cajun nanny during the six years
that her father was posted to D. C. As the night wore on I could see that King wore an
increasingly stupid and satisfied look, brought on, he explained to me later, by listening
to the sound of Lynne’s voice. “I was also looking at her lips,’“ he added, “wondering
what they could do to a man. Me in particular.” That was fine by me!
At that point in time, King hadn’t yet revamped his “aesthetic” to include Asian
women. And, although he suspected it was so, he hadn’t developed the conviction that
Western women were too much trouble. This opened up the terrain considerably for
me—if I had any choice in the matter, and I wasn’t sure I did, I would never have
pursued a woman who King was interested in. I had, and still have, a few old-fashioned
scruples. As it turned out it wasn’t a very long pursuit.
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After our dinner of chili-crab we took our beers out onto the beach. We walked
as a foursome continuing a conversation we had started at dinner. King and I had an
upcoming trek to the Apo-Kayan people, who lived deep in the forest of Central Borneo.
We were discussing the best way to get into the isolated, tribal homelands. Api spoke to
the difficulty of finding a guide to traverse a particular stretch of uninhabited forest.
“None of them want to sleep in the jungle for two nights. They fear it the way
most of us fear taxes.”
“Just throw lots of money at it,” King said. “Everyone has a price.”
King always pissed me off when he flaunted his considerable economic weight.
“Bullshit!” I retorted. “It’s not like taxes in that way. Taxes aren’t wired to the spirit
world. In Borneo it’s boogey-man, not tax-man stuff.”
Api smoothed things over and said something about the area not being accessible
by river, and that’s what made the trip complicated. “Maybe you’ll get lucky,” she said.
“They think about canoes a little like the people in L.A. think about their cars. It’s
difficult getting a local to walk even three days in the jungle.”
“One that speaks Indo to boot,” I added. “Mempi is the only one I know who
speaks Dayak well enough to deal that hand.”
When I mentioned Mempi we all laughed. As a group we decided that Mempi
had probably been to the villages already. He would tell us that they were cleaned out
and describe, in elaborate detail, how he had to buy a dozen water buffalo for a
ceremonial sacrifice before the village would let go of the last great piece that ever came
out of there. Mempi never just simply bought a piece—he was a firm believer that
anything worthwhile came with a struggle. The more exotic and complex the struggle,
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the more the piece was worth—if not in his eyes certainly in the eyes of his clients. Each
mile he walked, every buffalo he had to sacrifice, all the sago-palm grubs he had to
swallow to gain a confidence added dollars to the price.
We all marveled at Mempi’s ability to sell pieces as well as find them. Mempi
never sold a “stick” to anyone. It had to be a tunggal penaluan he found in Simanindo
village in a remote corner of Samosir Island that had been owned by the third rajah
directly descended from Mula Jati, the creator of all things. Our kidding had some salt in
it, but it was underscored with respect and appreciation for Mempi’s accomplishments
and know-how. There were lessons to be learned from him and, as everyone in the trade
begrudgingly admitted, we would be happy with a fraction of his credibility.
When “Tales of Mempi” ceased we broke into two couples. Api and I strolled
ahead along the darkened strand of beach. Our conversation switched to the mite-sized
intimacies that we save for the start of things. Is it eggs over easy? Do you sleep late on
Sunday? Like to read in bed? Would you rather have a foot massage or an ice cream
sundae? This last was a philosophical dilemma. We concluded it was impossible to
choose. It would have to be both.
Lynne had the responsibility of opening the gallery the next morning, and we
dropped her off first. King was already dozing in the back seat when we arrived at
Raffles, begged off a last drink and went straight to his room. Api and I sat at the bar and
ordered drinks, happy to be left alone. When the drinks came we paused and moved
them out of harms way. We laughed at each other’s cautionary behavior. Earlier in the
evening I had knocked over a beer bottle while waving my arms wildly to make a point.
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Moments later, Api had swept a glass of water into her lap, and remarked, with a laugh,
“That’ll cool me down.” When we resumed our talk, it took a serious turn.
“You’re married, aren’t you?”
“I have a husband who adores me and a four-year-old daughter who doesn’t.”
“Is that a problem?” I asked.
“Which one?”
“Either, I guess—I’ve never been married. I don’t know how those things go.”
“I don’t either,” she said, with a painful smile. “My husband and I live...the
sophisticated phrase would be ‘independent lives.’ As for my daughter, I don’t know
how that happens. I hope to figure it out. It really is a mystery. I’m young and.…
Maybe the mothering instinct will come to me in a whirlwind.”
“Like a William Blake painting of Christ?”
“I’m not sure there’s another man in Singapore who would have said that. You
can’t imagine how that pleases me.” A glow of genuine pleasure suffused her face.
“I could make a career of pleasing you,” I said. I looked at her carefully during
the few seconds of silence that followed. Api hesitated and turned her face downward to
hide her smile. When she met my eyes her smile lingered like the remnant of a dream,
but her eyes were clear. I can still hear her words. It wasn’t a warning. It was more of
an acknowledgement.
“Hart, you know this is impossible, this, this whatever we’re about to do?”
“It’s not impossible to do; it may be impossible to live with.”
Our affair lasted ten days. We told no one about it, not even King. When King
asked me if we could extend our stay (he was quite busy with Lynne and buying tribal
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art), I sensed he was suspicious of my easy assent, but said nothing. He offered to pay
the added expenses at the hotel and I pretended that this was the only way I would be
willing to stay in that loathsome city.
Api and I spent as much of each day together as we could. We met every night
for dinner, either alone or with King and Lynne, and then went back to the hotel to fuck
our brains out until one in the morning. Afterwards, Api, with her usual punctuality,
would get up, shower and go home. We saw each other six hours later for breakfast—she
would come to my room, let herself in with an extra key I had given her, and climb into
bed. She would press her nakedness against me, fresh from her morning shower. Her
skin was cool against my heat. She would inhale the perfume of sex trapped in the
bedclothes from the night before and let out a satisfied, “uumm.” Wordlessly we would
pick up where we had left off, and spent, tumble into a delicious slumber while King
scoured the galleries and met with a few unsavory independents.
I never knew what excuses she told her husband and didn’t care. On our last
night together her husband was away on a business trip and she was able to stay through
the night. All Api said was that the nanny “knows where her bread is buttered and isn’t
paid to worry about where I butter mine. Besides, she only speaks Mandarin—of which
my Dutch husband understands two words: How much?”
It is a miracle of physics how ten days can take up so much space in the human
heart. Our affair was over but, like the dead, lived on in our memories. We got the
chance, three years after the affair, to tell each other how that was. Neither of us was
surprised. We expected it to be impossible from the beginning; we reminded each other
of that. We had each filed the ten days in a drawer marked, “Sensitive
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Information/Impossible Love.” We had hastily affixed stick-um notes with penciled
instructions, “remember to forget/forget to remember.” We confessed that we remained
as confused as our instructions—the drawer was jammed closed and neither of us knew if
it was empty or full.
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There is a picture of a man holding a mask in front of his face. A penciled note
on the reverse says “King with Pima mask.” King looks less a person than a
phenomenon from some parallel world. The man’s body reminds me of a healthy, round
Buddha. He sits cross-legged on the floor amidst a sea of leaves, crinkled newspapers
and scribbles of pink packing cord. He holds a mask before his face. His other hand
touches the floor as if he were aping a meditation pose calling the earth to witness. It
looks to have been taken at night, apparently with a flash that is reflected as two licks of
flame on the cheeks of the mask. It is surreal—the transformation from human to spirit is
On first glance a chilly eeriness emanates from the photograph, although it is
unclear exactly what we see. It doesn’t seem as if whoever is wearing it is fooling
around. The mask and its wearer are one. It seems a creature from Star Trek, or the
dream of a madman. Research on the funeral mask could locate it in the realm of objects.
Thoughtful investigation could identify its ceremonial use and integrate it into the
ceremonial life and material culture of a particular tribe in a particular place. But no
amount of study can dispel the impression that Hart, like Orpheus, had stepped into that
other world; but Hart brought back the photo to prove it.
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Years later, when the news came that Api was dead, I refused to believe it. She
had been due back from Sulawesi a few days earlier. King called her house, surprised
that she hadn’t called him as soon as she had touched down. Their friendship began that
first day in Singapore, and they grew closer over the years. “She’s like a male friend,”
King was fond of saying, “interesting, intelligent...but with a little kick, not exactly
sexual, we never slept together, but I guess the possibility was always there.” Api was
one of the reasons King had moved to Bali—she was the veteran in Bali by seven years.
She walked King through the building of his house, helped him understand and negotiate
the complex local politics imbedded in ceremony and custom, and happily shared with
him most of what she knew about the art they were both so passionate about.
King had the better “eye,” that mysterious possession of the connoisseur that I
still half-believe, despite years of post-modern criticism. Api’s forté was an extensive
knowledge of the tribal peoples—their customs and beliefs. The names of their obscure
gods and more obscure villages were second nature to her. But it was first-hand
encounters that gained her this understanding. It was what made her exciting to me—I
admired her knowledge and was hoping to become more like that myself—and credible
to King, who also prided himself on having been to places that most people couldn’t
imagine existed, even if he couldn’t remember their names or how to pronounce them.
She and King and I had been to many of the same places. We exchanged roles of
leader under a banner of friendly competition—but Api had never traveled with either of
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us. There was the occasional postcard or phone call, and I had only seen her a few times
over the years. And Christ knows we were never able to sort our feelings out. But,
because they owned houses five minutes away from each other, she and King saw each
other often and had greater opportunity to plan expeditions together. I asked King about
this during the days before her funeral.
“You know I always thought it weird you two never traveled together.”
“Not because I didn’t fucking try. You know me. I don’t give up easily. I asked
her if she wanted to go...to Borneo or Timor or somewhere...I remember asking her about
Timor. She said no. You know that shorthand way she has...just no. That’s how you and
I came to go to Timor together.”
“She said no and I was second on your list,” I said. I had to laugh at the irony.
“You know I would have preferred her too. She’s a lot better...looking.” I didn’t say
better in bed. I kept hammering at him. “Seriously, King, why do you think she never
wanted to go with you?”
“She’s a fucking dealer! Or was a dealer,” he said, a sadness in his voice. “You
know, its like Mempi—the same thing. Like journalists protecting their sources.”
“You think she really thought that way?” I asked. I knew it sounded naïve, but I
thought of her in an entirely different way than King did.
“Wake up and smell the coffee,” King said, visibly annoyed. “She was a business
woman. She was Chinese—she made me look like one of the goyem. You think they got
their rep as the Jews of Asia by eating matzo?”
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“I didn’t mean that she thought you were such an asshole that she wouldn’t spend
a month in the bush with you. You guys were close; I was just wondering why you
King’s tone became gentle.
“She was so independent. Your pal MJ is a little like her. That probably had
something to do with it. Api and I were so used to calling our own shots.”
“You might have driven each other nuts—especially as you were closer in age
than me and Red. You couldn’t play the ‘I’ve got more experience’ card.”
“Who knows? Who knows why we didn’t get together? Everything seemed so
right between us,” said King wistfully. He got up from the couch and wandered over to
his stereo. He pawed through a pile of tapes, still listening to me.
I said he was probably scared of getting in too deep with her. I also reminded him
that he had been pretty taken with her assistant—that little Frenchy with the pouty mouth.
When King turned to me, his face registered his incomprehension. “It probably
scared me,” he said, softly, more as a question than an affirmation. “I’m quite scared
He popped in a tape, and an aria from Tosca filled the room. We were sitting on
the edge of the veranda watching two kites soaring above the treetops. They were
Siamese-styled fighting kites, intensely colored, blunt-shaped, with short tails for quick
maneuvers. The kites were skillfully controlled. They bobbed and darted like boxers.
The blood-red kite feigned attack, dropped away, and then returned from above. It dove
abruptly and slashed the yellow paper skin of its adversary.
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We could hear the wind blow through the rent, as if the kite had been suckerpunched in the stomach, and we both let out an audible groan of sympathy. The yellow
kite faltered and began its plummet to the ground when something unexpected happened.
In its fall the kite severed the line of its red opponent, which broke free, momentarily
surged heavenward, crumpled and then fell like a bird shot in flight. The yellow kite
righted itself before being reeled in by its master.
King broke the silence. “Did you see that?”
“Its not the fall but the recovery that counts. You taught me that,” I said.
“My Uncle Max taught me that. One of the great Jewish boxers.”
“One of the very few Jewish fighters that I can I recall. The famed Kosher
“You are forgetting maybe Abe Atell and “Slapsie” Maxi Rosenblum? As a
people we do better in business, but Uncle Max made me smile. He broke the mold.
He’s probably with Api now” he said, his smile fading.
“Not yet. Her soul is probably wandering up there where those kites were. She
still has to go through the funeral rites before she’s ready to join Uncle Max.”
“That’s going to be a project, arranging it all. Priest, cremation, food….”
“You’re good at making stuff happen. Besides, it’ll take your mind off things.”
“Like what really happened? That Api is dead?”
“Well, at least momentarily. You’re happier when you’re managing shit
“That’s true. But what kind of life will I have here without her? She was one of
the big reasons I’m here.”
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“Yeah, I know. You need some project...besides pussy.”
King laughed. “You mean there’s life beyond pussy?”
“You might have to commune with your Uncle Max for the answer to that one.”
It was a project. Api had died of cerebral malaria, deep in the mountainous
jungles of Central Sulawesi. There was some irony at work. Api was a serious person
and also a serious party girl. She was dedicated to trying every recreational drug that
passed her way; she was also dedicated to homeopathy, and, at the first symptoms of
malaria, declined to take the massive dose of Fansidar that would have cured her. Her
traveling companion was living proof that it worked. Unburdened by scruples that
dismissed antibiotics as a few rungs down from hemlock, he took the Fansidar and lived
to tell the tale. It was not a very long tale. He went into a coma. When he awoke two
days later, Api had died.
There were differing stories regarding her death, how the body reached Poso, and
who managed this. A brief news clip in the Jakarta Post was filled with gibberish about
red spots on her body and a suggestion that black magic was involved. The spell was
supposedly brought on by Api’s visit to a burial cave sacred to the local people. We
scoffed at this concoction of a reporter who probably never left Jakarta. No source was
given, and he certainly didn’t get the story from the guy in the coma. King and I had
been to the burial caves and would never have found them without the locals. Besides,
those burial customs had ceased decades before and lived only in the memory of few
Pamona elders.
The next day’s edition dropped the black magic but insinuated robbery as a
motive and mentioned a police investigation. The joke was, if one could find humor
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here, that there had never been a police force that deep in the interior. The rather clinical
obituary that followed, written to a more Western sensibility, listed Api’s
accomplishments. The obit made much of her listing in Who’s Who but missed totally
the richness of spirit that made her who she was.
The innkeeper, who owned the place that Api and her friend used as a home base,
was a standup guy. He packed up her belongings, counted and accounted for her money,
and took only enough to cover her room and board and the transport of the body to Poso
for its flight out to Singapore. Her body arrived in Bali with her belongings and the
itemized list the innkeeper had drawn up. He also included a short note on expenses and
words of condolence. That eliminated the robbery motive.
It also squelched the rumors about what happened to her stuff. Initially, the expats were all too willing to believe that her stuff had gone missing and wrote it off as
another incident of local greed and dishonesty. Even I was surprised that all her
belongings showed up, although I hadn’t been ready to blame anyone in particular. It
was just in the nature of these things. Shit happens. King was amazed that her stuff got
back. He thought it was too much to ask of anyone to keep Api’s possessions intact—
especially if it wasn’t part of an original transaction.
King and I were more surprised by one very special object that was found among
Api’s belongings. Her housekeeper, Ibu Wisma, had arrived at King’s house, breathless
from walking the six miles from Api’s. Her usually cherubic face was drawn in distress.
She huffed and puffed excitedly in Balinese. King calmed her down long enough to
explain that he only understood Bahasa, and she switched effortlessly to their common
language at the same frenetic pace of her original delivery. Both of us found it hard to
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follow, especially with the emotional charge that fired her talk—a rarity among Balinese,
who usually indicated their displeasure or distress with a slightly grim, dispassionate
silence, particularly in their dealings with a tuan.
We knew Api’s belongings had arrived at her house and assumed that Ibu
Wisma’s distress had come to a head at this sad reminder. The two were very close. We
knew Ibu had worked for her for twelve years and that Api treated her better than her
own daughter did. Ibu’s words poured from her like water over a dam. We missed many
of the specifics, but we did catch the word mati—death stood out, it always made the
headlines. We tried to console her regarding everyone’s great loss. We said, in our most
careful Bahasa, that we knew how she felt. But Ibu continued and became more agitated
as she realized the two tuan didn’t grasp what she was saying. I called to King’s
housekeeper and asked her if she would kindly interpret for us.
There was a package in Api’s suitcase. She didn’t know what it was. She hadn’t
opened it, but it smelled of death. She wouldn’t go back to the house until someone took
it away. There was so much to do for the upcoming ceremony and she couldn’t tend to
those many things unless the mysterious package was gone. She was a simple Balinese
woman who had never left her island, but she knew death when she smelled it. We tried
to soothe her and suggested that she was probably upset that Api had died, that her
mistress had collected many strange things that hung on the walls of her house. We
reassured her that these things had never caused her any harm. King said he understood
that there were many things to do and assured her that he would help. Her dramatics
continued. The magnitude of Ibu Wisma’s distress was underscored by her adamant
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demand that translated to: “The two tuan must stop telling me that everything is all right
and come and take that thing away.”
Ibu declined a ride back on the motorcycle. She was happy to walk. A trifle
calmer, she said that she preferred to wait until we removed the package. She would take
a roundabout way home through the paddies and small paths so we wouldn’t meet on the
road on our return trip. She reminded us that we’d be carrying the package, and she
wanted to avoid that.
It was weird that, even under the dun of grief, we were excited about the
prospects of the mysterious package. We were halfway down the narrow gang behind
King’s house before Ibu was out the door. Driven more by lust than curiosity, we left
caution and reason in the dust. We didn’t pause where the gangway emptied onto the
main road but gunned our bikes across the traffic into the stream of motorcycles and
small trucks. King, a bit less sure in his maneuvers, was nearly whacked by two equally
reckless teenagers screaming by. His motorcycle skidded in a sandy patch and his
helmet, which he rarely fastened, flew off. He caught up with me a block later and said,
with his lower lip still unsteady, “Fuck it, it was the cheap one. Let’s get there.”
The eerily empty house had a sobering effect. We looked at each other and
smiled sheepishly. I became painfully aware of my manners and took off my shoes.
King took the hint and unbuckled his sandals. We stood for a moment on the steps and
surveyed the open living room. The package was on the floor near Api’s open suitcase.
The lollypop shaped object was wrapped in yellowed newspaper and tied with the
ubiquitous pink and green plastic twine that was the binder of choice throughout the
Third World.
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I reached the package first and hefted it. Whatever was inside was too light to be
stone and too heavy for straw. It had the heft of wood. I gave it to King to unwrap. He
peeled off the onion-layers of newspaper and leaves used as padding.
“We could make a bundle importing Styrofoam peanut chips,” he said. “Sure,” I
answered, “we can add to the pollution. It would take about five minutes before they
were using it to feed to the tuan, not to mention the decorative possibilities for the
“Hey, you saw that patio set I have? It’s made from old motorcycle tires.
Inventive people and….” King stopped mid-sentence when he saw what was in the
I spoke first. “Man, I don’t believe it. I’ve only seen one of these fucking things.
In the museum in Delft.”
“I was with you. Remember?” King sounded a bit bent.
The mask was roughly carved, with an elongated, distinctly human face. The ears
and nose were carved, but other details, like the eyebrows and mouth, were painted on.
Two almond-shaped holes were the eyes to the world. It was the size of a man’s head
and had a handle about a foot long that bore the smooth, dark patina of the countless
hands that had held it. A bundle of human bones was tied to the handle. A carved
topknot crowned the head and had been painted a sooty black. It was pierced with a
vertical slot, shaped to receive a bronze spiral that ended in a snake’s head. The spiral
had been removed for shipping and was carefully wrapped in a wad of leaves beneath the
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We knelt on the floor in silence. I smoothed the discarded wrappings and stared
intently at the mask. It was King who took the bronze head ornament and set it into the
I clicked off a shot of King as he held the mask by its handle and put it in front of
his face. He was cavalier in a way I wasn’t, at least in regard to death. Although King’s
health occasionally brought him a good stare into the abyss, he had never had a brother
die in his arms.
“That look right?” King asked.
“Makes sense. It fits right,” I said. I spoke softly, as if someone who was in a
light sleep was nearby. My wariness dropped a couple of notches and I put my hand out
to King.
“Let me see it. It’s a Pima mask, isn’t it?”
“As far as I can tell. It’s hard to believe—but I don’t question it.”
I remained longer in the grip of objects. I was more subject to their power, and it
took me a few moments before I responded. “It’s the real deal, all right. This thing is as
right as rain.” I laughed to myself. “Christ, Red would say it like that. I don’t question it
I took the mask from King and was about to hold it in front of my face. I wanted
to look through its eyes; maybe I could get a glimpse of what death looked like without
getting too near the flames. But the mask felt too hot to handle and I quickly put it down.
I found myself shaking my hand. “No interest in dislodging whatever’s in there,” I said.
The comment went right by King.
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“How the hell did she get this?” King asked. He beamed with a mixture of
admiration and jealousy. “You and I were both all over that area. She is...was,
incredible.” King was momentarily deflated, then gave way to his excitement. “And it’s
completely intact. Bag of bones, head ornament—even the original paint!”
“It’s pre-Dutch Boy enamel. That’s for sure,” I quipped.
“Ibu had it right. This was a funeral mask, wasn’t it?” said King. His voice had a
tentative quaver. He cleared his throat.
“Yeah, an effigy figure. They must have danced with it. I guess Ibu didn’t want
to dance with the devil. Looks like Api took her chances though.” I narrowed my eyes
and looked at King. “You OK, man? You look a little weird.” I didn’t wait for his
answer; I picked up my camera and began snapping.
I realized later, but must have known then, that the situation could become an
object of contention. We fight so many of our battles over things despite Buddha’s
warnings that the source of suffering is in our attachment to the stuff of the material
world. At that moment it never occurred to me that the mask was a part of Api’s estate.
“Estate” wasn’t part of my vocabulary; and Api’s estranged daughter and ex-husband, the
possible inheritors of her worldly goods, didn’t exist for me. Puerile greed wasn’t exactly
what drove me, but I can’t say either why I thought the mask was a thing to hang my
heart on.
As for King? His attachment to the hundreds of objects he owned was colored
with greed and lust, but this was tempered by his clear love of things and his intrigue with
their magic and beauty. I don’t believe thievery was in his heart that day, either. I’m
sure he thought of the mask as a connection to Api and a way of keeping her close by.
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King saw himself as first in Api’s line of friends. I deferred to him, without a squawk,
and let him take the mask. I’d like to say that it was out of enlightenment on my part, but
that was hardly the reason. I was simply unwilling to reveal my secret.
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A waxed paper envelope, labeled “Things I Missed,” holds photographs of objects
that have little meaning to a Western eye. The objects are more weird than beautiful.
They are not highly crafted and appear to be made casually, from coconut shells, string
and palm-leaf ribs. Hart wrote, “Taken after Api’s funeral,” on the back of each photo,
along with the Balinese name for each object. Each object floats unmoored in an indigo
space. I have no evidence of who Api is. There are no pictures of her in my collection of
his photos. The name appears only on the backs of these few photographs that reference
a funeral. One photo in particular seems most relevant, although I can’t explain why.
Usually the angenan is placed at the head end of the casket of a person to be
cremated; in Hart’s photo the context is soupy-dark. The angenan represents the memory
of a deceased person. It is a half coconut shell, with a wood structure resembling a
skeletal umbrella sticking up from the center. Diamond shapes, cut from reflective metal,
dangle from colored strings tied to the spokes. A fragile straw basket also hangs from the
structure; it holds an eggshell filled with oil. Its delicate wick gives off only a faint light,
but the long exposure through the camera lens explodes the flicker into a solar system
and makes the persistence of memory visible.
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A few days later Red, King and I arrived at Api’s house for the ceremony.
Dozens of motorcycles and minivans choked the parking area outside the gates of the
compound. Some of the bikes had keeled over and lay on their sides like metallic seals at
rest. An unexpected rain had softened the earth and the kickstands had sunk in and
dumped the bikes. I stuck a flattened-out beer can under my stand and hoped for the best.
Funerals are ceremonies of the Western Sky and the gathering at the house was
planned with an eye on the setting sun. It was already a mob scene. I recognized some
of the locals and ex-pats—King knew most of them. There were Hindus, Moslems,
Buddhists, dear friends and former lovers, business connections, hangers on, the curious,
her ex-husband and her daughter. There was a mountain of food and wine that King had
arranged for. Someone else had seen to the flowers.
A table had been set up as a small shrine. It held vases of flowers, Chinese dishes
with thumb-sized volcanoes of incense and offerings of rice and brightly colored petals
cradled in tiny palm baskets. I must have choked when I saw the lithe porcelain urn that
held Api’s ashes. Red asked me if something was wrong. I shook my head no, but my
voice cracked when I said, “The shape is perfect for her.” Behind the curls of smoke
from the incense were two framed photographs of Api: one as a young mother, with her
husband and swaddled daughter, and another as a fresh-faced business woman in a
severely cut blue suit with a mandarin collar. There was also an article from a Singapore
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newspaper extolling her virtues as a businesswoman and announcing her election into the
Asian Who’s Who. The framed article reproduced the same photo of her in the business
There were no other images of her on the tabletop. I knew that other people in the
throng of mourners had a photo of Api printed on the flip side of their retina same as I
did. Many of them could back up this memory with an actual photograph. Yet, there
were only these two. I overheard comments and asides from different people and it
surprised me that they found these pictures of Api from another life disturbing and no
reflection of their own image of Api. I wondered if they saw those early pictures as a
rebuke of what their own lives had become. Too many ex-pats spit on what seemed like
accomplishment to the straight and square, largely to cover up their own failures. And
there was Api, dressed in her blue business suit, a model of success and a hipster to boot!
Red was talking quietly with Santi. They stood outside the veranda, near the
gamelan orchestra. King and I approached the shrine together.
“Her husband must have picked the photos,” King said.
“We met her around that time, didn’t we?” I said, musing over the snapshot.
“A little later, I think. But she was still into her mother-business-woman role.”
“Not exactly,” I mumbled. King gave me a look that made me wonder what I had
revealed. “I mean she had already started traveling—she was a little wild then, don’t you
“Sure, she smoked a little dope and went to dinner with us a couple of times...but
that was business, Hart.”
“Well, I guess you know about business. Anyway, it was a long time ago.”
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We let the matter rest and I wandered off to the drinks. King bee-lined it to the
food, determined to taste-test the banquet he had ordered. I poured myself a stiff vodka,
tossed in a couple of ice cubes and drank it down before the vodka had a chance to drop
below room temperature. I sipped the second a bit less recklessly. The food was meant
for later, and I was amused to see that King had piled his plate to the height of a temple
offering. He attacked it as if he was hoping to get his money’s worth before time ran out,
but the poor bastard was upset and nervous, and that more likely explained his gaffe.
People gathered in small knots and chattered respectfully as they waited for the
signal to leave for the funeral ceremony. A gong gilak, an abbreviated gamelan
orchestra, had been temporarily set up in a corner of the garden. They played a soothing,
easy-listening version of the usually frenetic gong music. Occasionally a few of the
musicians took a break from playing and drifted to the outskirts of the gathering to
smoke. They looked uneasy in their traditional dress, ready to jump back into jeans as
soon as the service was over. Their white cigarettes and black shirts were out of sync
with their bright, patterned sarongs.
After a while the orchestra stopped playing and piled themselves and their
instruments onto the back of a white Toyota pickup. The musicians set up their drums
and gongs in the truck bed and began playing again. After a few minutes of tinkering
under the hood, the engine turned over and the orchestra cranked up the volume and
immediately raised the tempo. This was the sign for the guests to get their act together
and follow the truck in a caravan to the beach. The parade was ready to go. As with
many things in Bali, a great deal of waiting is often followed by a frantic rush. People
scrambled to get on their motorcycles and into cars; they slipped and skidded in the red
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mud. The group fractured and chaos reigned. Red and I jumped onto my bike and joined
the bunch of mourners strung out in a disorderly procession behind the pickup truck. A
priest, dressed in white and gold, led the way on his Honda.
It was different than the solemnity of funerals in the West: no string of black
Cadillacs purring the way to the graveside, no tidy contingent of cars with their lights on,
no tiny flags waving from their antennas. There were no police guiding the procession
safely past side streets, making sure no one broke the ranks of mourners. Instead, the
Holy Honda screamed by on its two wheels under the protection of the divine. The white
pickup also hurtled along the route with a recklessness so threatening that traffic simply
stayed away. Whether on the red-dirt back lanes, or blacktop main roads, the procession
held its breakneck speed as if it were a single, frazzled organism. The cargo of musicians
blasted their holy songs across the paddies. Workers paused in their labors and stood
silently in the sea of green rice as they watched our caravan go by. Chickens and
children scattered to the edges of the narrow road. The lead pickup crested a hill and
nearly flattened an old man leading his buffalo on a nose ring along the road. The old
man yanked hard on the nose lead and thumped frantically on the beast’s rump to move
him out of harm’s way. When the procession finally reached the beach no one had been
hurt, and all were accounted for. People were smiling, and in this way it was more of a
Balinese funeral than it appeared.
The final stage of the ceremony took place on the beach, its radiant heat a comfort
against the growing chill of the ocean breeze. We all sat in irregular rows on the sand
and waited. No one knew exactly what to do. There was a Buddhist priest who had been
flown in from Singapore and a Balinese priest from the local banjar. Api had been
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cremated outside Denpassar, but without a priest in attendance. The body had begun to
putrefy on its long trip out of the jungle. There was no possibility for traditional funeral
rights—no time to wash, wrap and otherwise prepare the body for its rest in the “sick
room” of a house before the final rites. Traditionally, the funeral might be years after the
death, when the family had ample time to save their money and prepare a proper
ceremony. The preparation for Api’s ceremony had been carried out in four or five days
and had been a bit like quilting in the dark. All things considered it went off well,
although it wasn’t the lavish spectacle that tradition and Api’s status demanded.
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The waves were tremendous and seemed to set the tempo for the beats of the
metal gong that four men had struggled to carry onto the beach. A few surfers
pockmarked the crests, oblivious to our presence on the shore. I was comforted by the bit
of sun holding onto the day. Hart and I sat on the sand and watched the sun fail. It
looked the same size as the gong, and I felt that I could reach out and touch it, hanging so
close above the waves that their spray was fired into a spectrum of confetti. When it
slipped from my view behind the big gong, the sun cast a vermilion aura at the edges. I
felt myself well up inside and, when I stole a glance at Hart, was shocked to see the
makings of tears in his eyes. He averted his face and then turned to me with the saddest
little smile I had ever seen. I wondered if he felt that it was not the ending of all things,
and that that was the truly sad part.
The ceremony on the beach was solemn, a Texas mile from the craziness of the
events leading up to it. The music was gentled by the low moan of the wind and the sea.
To my ears it had the same deep mournfulness of the Pueblo chants that made me cry as a
young girl. My mother would comfort me and say, “That’s all right, Sugar, it used to
make your Daddy cry too. We couldn’t go to a powwow without him getting all choked
Smack in the middle of the funeral I began thinking about those visits to the
reservations. Sometimes we drove hours west into New Mexico to see a particular Corn
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Dance or Eagle Dance at one of the pueblos. It was always special for me; just me and
my mom. Knowing that she had made these very same trips with my Daddy was icing on
the cake. Although the music made me sad, the festive dances and the finery people wore
charmed me away from my sadness. Sitting there with Hart, at Api’s funeral, I wanted to
blab to him about the powwows. I would have loved to show them to him.
When I watched what was happening in front of my eyes, it was glorious. The
feathers and fringe of my reverie traded places with sparkling gold, emerald and crimson
sashes, and sarongs in checkerboard and floral patterns, like some mad artist had
orchestrated it using every color he had ever seen. About half of the two hundred or so
people in attendance were in traditional dress.
The priests and their assistants gave their orations facing the sea, and if my life
depended on it I couldn’t tell you what they said or in what languages they spoke. In that
way it wasn’t so different from the Indian ceremonies I saw as a kid, or the Catholic
masses I visited with my friend Marla when I was a teenager. It all sounded like mumbo
jumbo, but everything in your body told you it was a special mumbo jumbo.
At one point in the ceremony we were all given flowers. I didn’t recognize the
ones given to me, which looked like the slimmest of pink gladiolas, but smelled like
jasmine. I’m afraid that I detected the scent of jasmine everywhere since my liaison with
Brem, and, whenever it arose, so did thoughts of her—that moment on the beach was no
exception. I was ashamed of myself, being so distracted in the middle of something as
touching and serious as a funeral ceremony—but I guess, like Hart says, when you get hit
you get hit.
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Hart had been down since the news of Api’s death. He seemed to be at odds with
himself, his usual fire turned to low. All he said to me was that they were dear friends
and that it was a long time ago. He claims not to have thought about her for years and
had only seen her sporadically. He pretended to be vague about the details of her current
life. I knew there was more to it than that. Sitting next to him, with his arm wrapped
tightly about my waist, I could sense a river of sadness within him. It flowed to his eyes
but his enormous will built a dam to hold back its rush. I wished so hard for his release
that I cried for us both in the hope that it would bring the ends of the circle together for
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It was good to see so many people at the funeral from Api’s life, but it was a
surprise to me. I knew she was popular, but I thought of her only in relation to me. Even
her friendship with King was something I had to work hard to accept. I must have been
frozen back in the time when it was just her and me. I kept track of her over the years,
and I wasn’t blind to the fact that she had a large life, but in my heart there was never
room for anyone else she might have cared about. Now that she was dead the
competition hardly mattered.
Part of me knew my own fantasies mattered about as much, but as luck would
have it they didn’t die along with her. It wasn’t as if I thought we had any chance of
getting back together; it was more like we had never parted. I lived on in that dream
world as if it were the true measure of things. I actually believed that we could speak to
each other across the miles and years of separation that had been our norm. And here she
was, dead as dead could be, her brain fried to a crisp by malaria on the way out, surely
erasing all memory of me. I should have been able to take comfort in the fact that the
spell had finally been broken; another man might have been able to turn it into a sweet
memory and soar with the freedom it brought. I couldn’t.
On the beach Red had cried her heart out. She rarely cried—I imagine it was
because her flame burned so hot that any tears were turned to steam before they had a
chance to flow. She sat alongside of me, and I could feel her body shake—it made me
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hot and I would have bedded her in the nearest set of bushes if the circumstances had
been different. You don’t need to be in a Woody Allen movie to know about the erotic
charge that grief can burn through you.
A Balinese man, whom I recognized as a local lay priest, walked to the edge of
the sea and placed a small offering on the sand, just beyond the lap of the waves. A cone
of incense smoldered in its nest of rice and flowers, its orange ember fierce in the dusky
light. The tide was rising and the little palm offering would be borne away on the water
before it ran its course to ash.
He was elegantly dressed in a white, turban-styled hat and an ankle length, black
and white checkered sarong. Another sarong of gold cloth, sparked with tendrils of the
deepest orange, hung to his waist. He waded knee deep into the water and set afloat a
boat-shaped offering, which was quickly caught by a small rip tide and swept to sea. On
my beach walks I had often seen these miniature palm boats washed onto the shore.
Grounded, propped uncomfortably on their tiny outriggers and stripped of their flowered
ornaments, they looked derelict. It made me wonder if Api’s boat would make it to
another shore or be swept back to its homeport during the night.
The village elder’s sarong swirled about him in graceful eddies. He stood erect,
unconcerned, his body a point of stillness in the flux. He returned to the group of
mourners and then led Api’s ex-husband and her daughter to the water’s edge. They each
carried Api’s ashes in a small bowl. Her ex trundled into the waves and scattered her
ashes onto the waters—he was crying. The daughter carried herself with a curious mix of
frivolity and contempt and was reluctant to play a part in the whole affair. She leapt back
from each incoming ripple, squealing in protest at the thought of getting her American-
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styled jeans and sneakers wet. We all knew she had not had the time to right her
relationship with her mother, but I pitied her for the toll she would pay further down the
road. Even if you tried to do things right, you paid—I knew that from my own family
Earlier in the ceremony we had each been given flowers and now were invited to
cast them to the sea. Red and I walked to the water, our free hands entwined in a tight
knot of fingers. Red turned her back to the sea and tossed her flowers with the awkward
charm and hopefulness of a young bride. I was the last to pitch them into the other world.
I did it after Red poked me hard in my ribs, saying, “Hart, you have a death grip on those
poor flowers. You’ve got to let ‘em go.” I threw them like a center fielder aiming for the
plate. They caught the wind and sailed well beyond the rip in a splayed arc, brokenstemmed and beautiful.
Nearly the entire troop went back up to Api’s house after the ceremony. The
proper time for feasting was after the events at the beach. When I kidded King about his
poor taste, eating early, he looked about as embarrassed as he could muster, which wasn’t
much, and said—“Fuck it. I paid for it. I’ll eat it when I want.” Red overheard the
exchange and said, “That pretty much sums up his world view.”
I wasn’t about to get into an argument about protocol with a Dallas debutante and,
although I agreed with Red in principle, I didn’t think it mattered much. Api was in no
condition to care, and when she had been alive she would have expected King to be King.
That was enough for me as well.
He and I had planned to stay until the bitter end to lend a hand cleaning up and
putting stuff away. Ibu Wisma had asked if King and I would sleep over until
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arrangements could be made for someone to watch over the house. The old gal was too
disoriented by events to stay herself and promised that she could find someone to house
sit as early as the following day. That clinched our long vigil.
Red left at the tail end of the event. “If it’s all right with you guys, I’m going
back to the house,” she said. “You all need a little time to yourselves anyway.”
King said, straight away, that would be fine and maybe she could entertain Brem,
who he half-remembered might be there. To tell the truth Red hadn’t been much on my
radar after the ceremony on the beach, so I didn’t mind either. I had spent my time
catching up with old friends and commiserating about our loss. The hardest thing was
dealing with the flakes who wanted to impress me with how close they had been to Api,
especially when they punctuated their tale of sorrow with, “but you didn’t know her that
well, did you?” I was torn between shaking them senseless, or shouting the truth in their
faces. I did neither.
The last one to leave the house after the funeral was some asshole French kid who
neither of us knew. He had never known Api. He had heard about the funeral from a
friend and came to “check out a real Balinese ceremony.” He was a half-drink away
from being knockdown loaded. I was outraged. I wondered whether I would have to
deal with the French or Indonesian government after I strangled him. King started
laughing. His very large belly was heaving like a rogue wave. “Hart, how many times
have you done the same, fucking thing?” Hundreds, I realized. Hundreds of times. And
it was funny.
I asked the kid what he thought of the ceremony.
“Magnifique! And the food was superb!”
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We took the kid back inside and made him some coffee. We straightened him out
as best we could, put him on his bike and sent him on his way. We didn’t give him any
directions. He might have been sober enough to understand them, but they would’ve
been lost words before he got to the first bend in the road.
When King and I were alone we fired up a big wad of hash to get in the proper
mode for some real mourning. King sucked down a lungful and, between coughs, choked
out, “Don’t you think its weird?”
“What’s weird? That Api is dead?”
“No, I mean the photographs. Why the fuck did they drag out those ancient
pictures of her to put in the shrine?”
“The Dutchman must have picked them. He was her husband, after all,” I said.
“There’s a whole basket of photos, near her bed—that straw chest she used as a
night table.”
“I guess he didn’t know about them. I didn’t. Wisma probably knew about them
but it wasn’t her call.”
“Let’s go look,” said King, excitedly.
“I guess she won’t mind.” I hesitated. I wasn’t sure how I felt about poking
around in her belongings.
The straw chest was painted with geometric patterns that resembled the rays of
the sun. A lamp sat atop the chest and we set it carefully on the floor. When King lifted
the lid I was shocked to see that it was piled nearly to the brim. There were eight by ten
prints, color Polaroids, contact sheets, black-and-white snapshots, boxes of slides, formal
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studio portraits, post cards, letters and pictures from newspapers. It was a dumping
ground rather than an archive.
“So this is where she let her disorder reign,” I said.
“Or she didn’t give much of a fuck and just threw it all here.”
“We could do a little detective work. You know, like we just found some
mysterious trove and we have to decipher it.”
“Lead the way,” said King. “What’s the first thing?”
“It looks like the sedimentary method of filing; oldest shit on the bottom, latest on
top. This is familiar to me—it looks like the drawer I keep tax stuff in.”
“Well, this blows your theory—here’s this picture of her getting her award for her
Selat accomplishment. That must have been ten years ago—it’s right next to this picture
of her and me that was taken last spring at Ku De Tat.”
In the photo she and King were smiling, their faces squeezed together, less to
accommodate the photographer’s request to fit the frame than an excuse to touch and be
near. I envied the easy affection they had shared.
“Here’s one of her standing near a waterfall, can’t tell where, but it looks like her
about five years ago. I remember that red tee shirt with the stupid saying on it.”
King laughed. “What the hell is that supposed to mean, ‘Now Is To Next’?”
“Something lost in translation. It must have meant something to the guy who
dreamed it up.”
“She did like peculiar things, didn’t she?” King beamed at his rhetorical question.
“She liked us. I guess that proves the point.”
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We rummaged through the layers. We dropped the idea of a geological time line
and pulled out images at random. We figured we would piece together a mosaic of her
life. Each of us had some idea of where the individual pieces fit. When we came across
a snapshot of Api with someone we didn’t recognize, we passed it by and went on to
others that were more familiar. I knew that each of these were special moments. Unless
Api took the shot it was hard to gauge whether they were chosen moments for her. It was
possible the pictures only meant something to the other people in the photos, or to the
person behind the camera. I knew how that was.
We came across another photo of Api standing before the same waterfall we saw
early on. She was wearing a different tee shirt. I noticed that she seemed tired, a little
sad and without her usual poise. “I wonder who took that one?” I asked. When King
responded with a critique of the photo, which he found inept, I reiterated my question and
added, “She didn’t take the fucking thing herself, who was he?” King, in an unusual
moment of sensitivity, caught the mix of jealousy and irritation that colored my question.
“Have some more dope,” he said, genially.
The loving snaps of Ibu Wisma were undoubtedly Api’s handiwork, as were the
countless photographs of the places she had visited. It is unlikely that anyone other than
us could have made sense of the geography of her life. We had been to many of the same
places. We laughed when we recognized a grouping of ancestor stones Api had
photographed in an obscure village in Sumba. On separate trips, King and I had taken
similar photos—so much for originality. We were more amused when we identified a
particular longhouse on a remote river in Borneo. We had unrolled our mats and hung
our mosquito nets on its veranda a couple of years before Api had made it there.
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Her interior geography was another story. Although King and I each had marked
trails through that terrain, it was big country. The basket of photos gave us an outline of
its extent.
King dug out a handful of eight by ten prints and fanned them like a poker hand
for his eyes only. His face lost its color and his meek smile couldn’t cover his stricken
expression. The transformation was sudden. For a moment I thought King had
miraculously put on a Balinese character mask. I was properly stoned at that point, and I
was in Bali, after all. Something told me to hold my tongue. And, in that moment
between thought and speech, I knew what King held in his hand.
King turned the photos for me to see. “Now, I want to know who took these. I’ve
never seen sexier pictures of her.”
I felt the blood rush to my face. It wasn’t embarrassment. I remembered the heat
of that afternoon as keenly as I had felt if twelve years before. Api and I had spent most
of the afternoon making love in my room and went back to her house afterward. Her kid
was at a friend’s, she had dismissed the maid, and her husband wasn’t due home until
later that night. The weather was sultry and we were lounging in our sarongs in her
garden. Api was bare-breasted and flushed with the excitement of the afternoon. I
remember that immediately after I took her picture we had another go at it, on a stone
garden bench that was visible in a corner of the photograph.
“I took them,” I said.
“Sure you did, asshole. You wish.”
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“I did, King. I really did. I took them in her garden in Singapore.” I could have
said that I had taken them twelve years, six months and nine days ago. I could have said
that with certainty.
“You never told me.” As King said this he bit into his bottom lip to stop its
tremble and crossed his arms over his chest. He sounded more like a wronged five-yearold than the tough businessman I was used to.
“You were too busy with what’s her name—the little French pastry that led you
around by the dick. I did tell you. You didn’t hear.” I was scrambling, not exactly
telling the truth, buying time to decide how much truth to tell.
King could barely handle the idea that I had got even this much of the prize. I
knew he feared I had gotten more. He tried to sound casual and neutral but I noticed his
lower lip quivered uncontrollably. “So what happened? Did you?”
“Did I what?” I had an inkling of why I enjoyed torturing him. There was a
complicated equation at work; I saw the torture as a payback for sparing King the truth
and denying myself the pleasure of the telling.
“You know, did you sleep with her?”
“C’mon, King. You would have been the first person to hear.” That was near the
truth in my mind.
King looked a little relieved. “But how did you get her to take her clothes off?”
“It was pretty innocent in a way. I dropped in unannounced one day, we smoked
some weed and one thing led to another. I teased her about looking like a Gauguin
painting. I asked if I could take a few pix.”
“Just like that? She said yes?”
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“She just wanted to be a little wild. You know how that shit goes—the motherwife bit must have gotten tiresome.”
“And that was all?”
“Hey man, this feels like the third degree. I mean she wasn’t your wife or your
sister. Lighten up! What if I had? Then what?”
“Then what. Then you would have been luckier than me.”
“I’m not so sure about that King. It looks like you got a pretty good deal. And
right now? It doesn’t matter fuck-all.”
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I have a clutch of photographs from Borneo. Before my fascination with Bali
there was Borneo. As a kid I collected stamps. My favorite aunt worked as a secretary,
with a company that did a lot of business with Borneo, and snagged the envelopes for me.
The colors of the stamps were enough to set me dreaming—tropical oranges, steamy
greens and, sexiest of them all, a violet that seemed to purr. Of course, it helped that a
bare-breasted woman stood full frontal on the violet-colored stamp, but others were no
less beguiling: there were pictures of longhouses, of men playing musical instruments or
working at a primitive forge, there were dragons, hornbills and monkeys. I studied the
stamps with my magnifying glass. The etchings were no larger than a man’s thumb but
they contained a wealth of detail. My curiosity was intense and I loved these miniature
worlds. By the age of ten I knew more about the place than my teachers and that I would
see it with my own eyes one day.
The photographs I now have in my collection could be the models for the stamps.
There is one of an older Dayak woman and, as in the engraving on the stamp of my
childhood, she is bare breasted. She does not have the perky breasts of the woman on the
stamp—her teats are milked flat. She is heavily tattooed and her ear lobes, stretched for
beauty’s sake by heavy pendants, are more ponderous than her breasts. She is wearing a
sarong that mimics the sinuous design of her tattoos and stands before a dense curtain of
plants and vines that are the obvious source for the pictures on her body and clothing. A
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fire, outside the frame of the film, has puffed billows of smoke into the photograph. The
old woman is in the midst of disappearing into the tangle of smoke and vines—a faint
smile flickers at the corners of her mouth as if she were amused at being caught in the
flux between the last world and the next.
Hart was certainly not devoid of humor. It tended to the surreal and, like that art,
was fascinated with the incongruous and unlikely. My favorite is his picture of a barefoot Dayak man ascending a notched-log ladder. He wears an abbreviated sarong and
you can clearly see the rosette warrior’s tattoos on his calves. He carries a spear and
blowgun in his left hand and, in his right, a little girl’s bright pink, plastic pocketbook.
There is also some humor in a photo inscribed, across the image, To (very) Big
Ace from Hart. In the photograph the two of them are standing together. They look like
a very handsome version of Mutt and Jeff, minus the old-time suits. They are barechested and dressed in sarongs. They stand on a riverbank with their arms around each
other and grins that light up the jungle.
A few years before Hart met MJ, he traveled up river in Borneo with his buddy,
Big Ace. At six-foot-six Ace had a terrible time finding anything in South East Asia that
fit him. The beds and sleeping mats were too short, the seats too cramped, and he had to
stoop to avoid a concussion whenever he stepped onto a bus or train. Hart loved to travel
with him because he had a wonderful spirit, was funny, smart and extremely capable.
Big Ace had a problematic relationship to things and was only partially able to see the
humor in it. He suffered bumps, bruises and discomfort, even in his own country.
He was a superb woodworker, and Hart lured him to Asia by promising he would
see carving that might teach him a few things. They worked their way up the Mahakam
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River in central Borneo to visit the isolated villages of the Apo-Kayan people. The
people were known for their exquisite carving, especially the harvest masks called hudoq.
These were scary things with fanged, demonic faces. Hart wanted to take photos and
collect the art.
After a week or so they arrived in the village of Long Apari. They were greeted
first by children and some of the older women and given glasses of water still hot from
recent boiling. This is a way of assuring visitors that the water is microbe free, no small
fact if the river is your source of drinking water as well as the toilet. (There is a very
funny photo of Ace squatting in a palm-leaf privy on the down stream end of a dock
while someone is filling a water jug fifteen feet upstream.) The men were led to the
longhouse to meet the chief. The houses, built on posts, are in fact long, although that’s
not the source for their name. Long is a word that identifies a place where two rivers
Some of the photographs of Borneo, unlike the stamps, are black and white. They
are all the more remarkable for the absence of color—Hart turned the limitation into an
asset. They bring the sparkle and gleam of things to our attention and lead us to the light
of the otherworldly and the ridiculous. Written on the reverse of one photo is: Big Ace
and Kayan Chief, Long Apari, Mahakam River. It is a very old, traditional community,
relatively undisturbed by the missionary settlement thirty miles down river.
It is a surreal scene. In the photo the interior walls of the longhouse are darkened
with smoke. In the foreground we can see the cooking fire in its raised hearth. Slivers of
light come through the split bamboo floor and walls, and the window opening allows a
stifled glow to wash into the room. These details are nearly obliterated by a brightness of
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a thousand candlepower at the center of the photo. There, flanked by an extremely tall
white man with extremely white teeth and an extremely short, brown man with no teeth,
stands a sparkling white refrigerator. It is an ark of an appliance and, seemingly, its own
source of light. It is a nuclear reactor in the depths of the jungle. Hart made note that
there was no electricity for fifty miles. He wondered how it got there and at what
expense in sweat and whatever they used as currency. In the same note he commented
that the chief was proud of his possession, and that made him feel less guilty about
having the guy’s shield on his wall back home. Another note, jotted on the back of a
similar print, is worth repeating here: “Ah, the wonder of THINGS.”
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I had never paid much attention to Santi. Mostly I was obsessed with Brem, and
Santi maintained a kind of professional distance. We had talked a little, about practical
stuff; is the room clean, did they put fresh towels out and such, so I was ill prepared for
the barrage she let loose that night.
I knew she had come a long way from her little kampung in West Java and had
worked hard to be her own woman. Kampung girls from West Java make up a
disproportionate number of the prostitutes in Bali, and she told me what a struggle it had
been to dispel this tawdry reputation. Initially she had been hesitant to take the job
managing King’s compound for fear she would be tainted as one of those questionable
girls who lived on the largesse of rich foreigners.
Santi, lovely Santi of the continually broken heart, was an incurable romantic. It
turns out that she envied me for Hart as well as his bike. She told me that all she wanted
was a real boyfriend, a romantic boyfriend, one capable of handholding, hugs, giggles; a
man not afraid to be seen as her guy. She had been seeing this American boy for some
time now, a real creep in my book. He had about as much backbone as a tarantula and
was far less romantic. Whenever he showed up at King’s, looking for something for free,
the air went stale for me. Santi said that he didn’t bathe hardly enough and that reassured
me that the change in the air hadn’t been some mental disorder on my part. Her
boyfriend was named Egbert, a name so ridiculous that I thought it existed only in
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cartoons. He was a real Egbert, though: big tortoise shell glasses, blond, close-cropped
hair with an eternal cowlick, and pimply skin that likely would have cleared up with
regular bathing. I couldn’t understand the attraction for Santi, except that he was white.
One afternoon we were all at lunch. It was unusual for King, Santi, Hart and I to
be at the house in midday. The meal was very civilized. We had ordered food from a
new warung that had opened down the gang from us. A Chinese guy and his Balinese
wife ran it, and the food was local and tasty beyond belief. King and Hart devoured a
dish of chili crab that they both said was the best they had ever had outside Singapore.
They exchanged a smile or two about that, and I suspected there were some women
involved in the equation, but they never said. In any event we were having a fine old
time. Everyone was talking and laughing, when in walked Egbert.
Santi’s mood changed abruptly. Hart, who couldn’t bear Egbert, snarled under
his breath, “This fucking guy, just what we need,” but loud enough so it was hard to
pretend he didn’t say it. King was more cordial and asked him to join us. Most likely he
wanted to ask before Egbert automatically sat himself down without an invitation. Later
on King explained that they had a history. It would take blackmail rather than history
before I would have brought that bad a taste to an otherwise lovely meal.
I will never forget what happened after the meal, and I’m sure neither will Egbert.
Santi had gone to her room on some pretext or other. I knew that she and Egbert had
been quarreling, and I think she went hoping he would follow her to make amends. The
three men and I sat around the table. Hart was on a roll. He was talking animatedly
about the Kunigan festival we had seen. “They take the temple gods out of their homes
and wash them before they parade them around. These things are spooky, man!” Egbert
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made the mistake of interrupting with a comment about how the people weren’t spooky
but just stupid. I could see the little vein in Hart’s forehead begin to throb. “How the
fuck would you know?” asked Hart, an unmistakably menacing tone in his voice. “You
don’t even speak the language.” Egbert made his second mistake: “I’ve been fucking one
for six months. I know she’s stupid. When I first met her she thought she could get
pregnant from giving a blow job.”
I was aghast that he could say that, particularly about someone who was so
obviously sweet on him. I could see Hart struggling to let the comment go by. Then
Egbert crossed the line and told Hart, “I tell her to get another boyfriend. Take her off
my hands, will you, Hart? She gives a great blow job.” Hart stood and told Egbert to do
the same. “I want you standing up when I put you out of your misery, asshole.” Egbert
was confused. He couldn’t understand Hart’s rage and tried to wise-ass his way out. He
nodded his head toward me saying, “I guess you’ve got that base covered. Maybe King
should take her.” I said fuck you, or something equally inelegant and he looked at Hart
and asked, “What’s her problem?”
Egbert had been leaning back in his chair, and before I could kick the chair from
under him, the fool stood up. Maybe he thought Hart was bluffing. Maybe he was just
too stupid to see the blood in Hart’s eyes. Maybe he thought that, because Hart was a
good five inches shorter and fifteen years older, he posed little threat. But the fool did
stand up. The fear was writ on Egbert’s face, and Hart immediately knocked him down.
The punch spun Egbert’s head around like one of those children’s toys with a spring for a
neck. Hart was telling him to get up and take his medicine; well, it was more like “Get
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the fuck up, you scumbag, so I can send you home in a box.” It was only Santi’s
reappearance that saved Egbert from being turned into dog food.
Hart was scary. I hadn’t seen him in that state before. That it was a controlled
rage, with pragmatic intimidation, made it scarier. There went my theory that Hart, at his
core, was simply reckless. But I saw something else there as well, a kind of
righteousness, a violence born of outrage and pain rather than greed. That tipped the
scales in his favor, at least in my eyes.
Later that night Hart felt bad. He was usually taciturn. He could talk about the
outside till the cows came home, but to get him to say how he felt about something was a
major event, particularly if there was a judgment involved. Typically, he asked me how I
felt about the Egbert events. I told him it was scary but that I thought he did the right
thing. I wanted to smash him myself. He seemed a bit puzzled, but he felt bad that it
scared me. “I can’t believe he said that shit in front of you,” he said. “I can’t believe he
said that shit at all.” After gnashing things around, it was clear that Hart wasn’t sorry he
had unhinged Egbert’s jaw. Rather, he was sorry Santi had come out when she did,
because he would have enjoyed “finishing the job” as he so coolly put it. He was
dreadfully sorry that I had to witness what he thought was the worst part of him. He
wasn’t uncomfortable with his dark side. As he put it, he had plenty of time to get used
to it, but he knew I hadn’t had the practice.
I could see right through Egbert, and apparently so did Hart. He said he couldn’t
punch him in the stomach, because he his hand might go straight through to the other
side. It was brutal, but his perception of Egbert’s emptiness was essentially the same as
mine. Unfortunately Santi thought he was charming, but I’ve seen his kind of false
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charm before. It festers in people who sense they have little to offer, and the charm is
less to please than to cover up. How could Santi have fallen under its spell? Both Hart
and I knew a little of her story and found her intelligent and adventurous. Just how much
I was to find out after the funeral.
That night I rode home with Santi on her little bike. She was embarrassed that the
motorcycle was so puny. She said how she envied me that Hart let me ride his big bike,
but quickly added that she was also proud ‘cause I was a woman and could handle it as
well as a man. I thought she was kidding and was about to make some wisecrack about
size when she asked, in the most plaintive way, whether I could arrange for her to borrow
Hart’s bike. I didn’t think I could. He was not an easy case, and besides, I knew how
loath he was to lend his machine. I told her I would try, and left it at that.
We arrived to find Medewi at his post by the gate. He told us that no one had
come by. He added an aside to Santi, which made her laugh. “Medewi says it is too
early for King’s women.” And expressing her own thoughts, she added, “They only have
power in the night.” I couldn’t have agreed with her more, at least in regard to King.
Brem was another matter. She lived as a scent that seeped into the tiniest spaces in me.
Through most of the day and most of the funeral as well, the smell of jasmine seemed
part of the air I breathed. When I unconsciously sniffed at that small spot on my wrist,
Brem’s oily sweetness mingled with the lingering smell of ash. I had hoped to find her
waiting for me at King’s compound.
I waited within the pale halo cast by the gate light while Santi fumbled with the
key. In actual time barely six weeks separated me from the ashen rain, when I mourned a
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young boy I had never known. It seemed in a time as remote from me as my Texas
Santi grabbed a couple of beers, and we sat down on one of the oversized
platform lounges. The barest ripple of breeze marked a path across the swimming pool.
A sliver of moon teetered on its tip, and the only illumination came from the underwater
pool lights. Their aqua glow rose like steam from beneath the surface and settled as a
haze over the lawn. The light petered out before it reached the foliage of the bordering
garden, which was swallowed into the blackness of the night. After a long silence Santi
spoke up.
“She was a nice woman. I will miss her.”
“Did you know her well?”
“She was Chinese,” Santi said. She gave me a look as if I was only partially
“But, did you know her well?” I persisted.
“She was King’s friend,” offered Santi, making sure I understood that this would
put the matter to rest. I let go of that line of inquiry and settled into the cozy dark. We
were seated at either end of the lounge and could barely see each other’s features. This
was a definite plus for conversation, creating an anonymous intimacy that wasn’t so
different than being on a plane and rattling on with your seatmate. I’m aware that it is
kind of an oxymoron to think of intimacy as anonymous, but there is no better way to
describe the experience.
Santi had a jumpstart on her English in school, where she shone enough to get the
attention of the right people. She was invited to take part in a program that allowed her
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to finish her last year of studies in the States. Part of the deal was that she was expected
to work as a nanny in exchange for room, board and a small stipend. This was a nearmiraculous opportunity for a village girl, and she jumped on it. Her stint with the family
she lived with in D.C. had decidedly altered her life. It shook the hell out of the adat
ways she was brought up to follow. She didn’t like everything she saw. She thought
Americans were spoiled, ate too much and were inordinately invested in things. She was
on the mark as far as I was concerned, but I don’t know many ordinary Indonesian
women who would be so fast to criticize the things that they aspire to own.
My first step inside a local’s house made it pretty clear that we can live with
fewer things, and a lot less fat in the butt and gut. It truly pared down my idea of what I
needed to be happy. I’ve led a privileged life, much more insulated than I like to admit. I
had worked with the homeless and poor during a work-study program at college, which is
what got me all fired up about the Peace Corps. I’m sure I have a romantic notion about
what helping people in the developing world is like. The truth is, I don’t have a clue
about how I am going to be useful to someone whose greatest treasure is their garish
plastic bucket. But someone has to teach and build wells, and I’ll work hard to learn
what’s needed as I go along. It’s no great mystery why people appreciate the utility of
these modern things a damn sight better than hollowed gourds and woven straw, but the
companion notion that being the first kid on the block to have what’s really cool…well, it
kinda depresses me. I guess that things mean all kinds of, well, things.
Although Santi didn’t approve of such Western obsessions, she had a sharp eye
for the latest fashion. Tight jeans, white Capri pants, pleated shorts, little tops that
pretended to be Nieman Marcus but were made in Malaysia and, of course, sneakers and
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fancy sandals. Even lounging around the house she rarely wore a sarong—only for visits
to her mother, an obligation she contentedly fulfilled about once a month.
She didn’t trust the mails. This was hardly paranoia. The custom of postal
workers removing and reselling stamps had only lately slowed to less than an epidemic.
Even now it made sense to wait while the clerk cancelled them with the postmark. That’s
why she took her gifts, money for her mother and an overnight bag on her little
motorbike clear across to West Bali to catch a ferry to Java. Santi was living proof that
you could be good looking, stylish and tough. When I suggested that this was how I
thought of her, she was surprised at this last attribute. She didn’t see herself as tough
simply because she made the long journey on her bike. She reminded me that thousands
of Indonesian women can do that, and millions more would relish the opportunity to feel
so independent.
Her arrival in her village usually caused a stir. The young girls would run to greet
her; eager to hear any exotic news and check out her latest sneakers or warm-up pants.
They treated her like a princess from a far-away land. Santi said she loved the attention
but used the occasion to impart some advice that might help the girls become modern
women. When I asked what she told them, she responded that she mostly encouraged
them to get some schooling. She made it a point to know each girl’s particular interest,
and who their teachers were. She thought that the girls should learn the adat ways, not
only because they held value, but also that this would keep them out of trouble with their
parents. She then added that, “unless they understand the old ways they won’t know why
they’re giving them up.”
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When Santi returned from the States she lived briefly in her village in Bandung.
It was both comforting and stifling for her. She found it hopelessly mired in the past—
the weight of traditional expectations was too much for her to bear. Where she could and
couldn’t go, how she should behave and, worst of all, the building pressure of finding a
husband, made her want to run screaming. There was a subtle undercurrent at work as
well—the sense that she had betrayed her parents by going away and failed them, by not
effectively bettering their lives when she returned.
She had sent back some of the money she made, paltry by American standards,
but significant in a village where many of the houses were without running water or
electricity. But the money she sent had evaporated in a failed tailor shop her father had
dreamed up. His idea was to make clothes in Java and export them to the States at a
profit. Of course, he hadn’t a clue how this might happen. He expected Santi to figure it
out and couldn’t grasp that she had her hands full. At the age of seventeen in a brandnew country, she was responsible for three children pretty much all the time she wasn’t at
school. This was a source of not-so-subtle resentment.
She said to me that, although she thought of herself as a good daughter, she
wasn’t a masochist. After about a year she moved to Solo. Solo is a happening town.
There is a student population, radical in their thinking if not their actions, and a lively
cultural scene. I’ve spent time there myself and could easily have stayed longer, even
after I lapsed out of my fantasy to study Javanese dance. I was totally inept at it and had
little patience for its intricacies, which made a big deal about fingers and eyes. The fact
that I’m tall relative to Javanese girls didn’t help my case. I stood out, even when I was
on the beat.
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But Santi thrived in Solo. Its city atmosphere suited her desire to be independent,
particularly from her parents. The moderate brand of Islam practiced in the area left a
certain amount of room for a young woman to try her luck. She got a decent job working
in the office of a lumber company. They had vast land holdings, and the Solo office was
more like an outpost for paperwork.
Santi was fairly fluent in English and spoke both Javanese and Indonesian. She
was noticed for her business smarts and her intelligence. The fact that she had lived in
the States, regardless of how menial her work, gave her a cachet equivalent to making the
Hadj to Mecca. She was twenty-two and feeling her oats—something misunderstood to
be the exclusive province of men. She said Solo was wonderful but seemed too Javanese.
So, when the opportunity to direct operations for a plywood factory in Irian Jaya came
up, she jumped on it. The big boss spoke nothing but the Aussie approximation of
English, and one of her duties was to act as his translator. The money, by Indonesian
standards, was phenomenal—ten times what she made in Java—and being a boss lady,
outside the confines of the home in a Muslim country, was nearly unheard of. She felt
like her dream was about to come true.
All she knew about Irian was that the locals were black and had kinky hair. She
said she knew something about that because D.C. was filled with black people (her
reasoning) and that she had kinda liked them although they scared her a little. I laughed
and suggested that they weren’t the same breed. I could see that the same-skin-samefolks idea lingered in her mind. She looked at me cross-eyed and said, “I know that now.
I was only twenty-two at the time.” That made me gulp, since it wasn’t very far off my
own age.
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But off Santi went to Irian, hardly expecting the hardships that awaited her. The
factory was in the jungle, and the jungles of Irian Jaya define the outer limits of that
word. It was a full day’s ride to the nearest town in good weather. During the rains the
dirt road scratched into the hilly terrain became a quagmire, and took about four days to
reach town. Jayapura, the swampy, slithering capital—the only source of cinema, rock
concerts or anything vaguely appealing to a young Javanese woman with a coltish
outlook—was even further away. When I asked her how she could bear it, Santi said it
was no problem. She worked 12-hour days, 30 days a month. There was nothing else to
The factory camp was protected by the military and guarded and disciplined by
them as well. Santi said it was like a military prison. The settlement was surrounded by
razor wire, and armed guards patrolled the perimeters around the clock. The settlement
was a scant twenty kilometers from the Papua border, and the surrounding jungle was
infested with rebels of the Free PNG movement who were bent on wresting Irian from its
servitude to Java. Along with Port Moresby, it was one of the most dangerous places in
the world. If one took the bus there was a good chance it would be robbed by the rebels
or any other folk who were at the end of their tether. Since the bus often broke down, or
got stuck in the mud, or crashed into a ravine, everyone aboard had to take plenty of food
and water. There was nothing in the jungle. There were no warungs or towns, only green
and snakes and bugs.
Santi took the bus three times in her three years. On her first trip no one
cautioned her about the need for food, and she had to stretch a pint of water and a couple
of hardboiled eggs over two entire days and nights. A kindly older woman gave her a
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few saltines to perk up her menu. Santi claims to have lost fifteen pounds, and I thought
of my girl friends back home who would have jumped at the chance to ride that bus.
I had wondered when the idea of Romance, with a capital R, had first entered
Santi’s thinking—I mean we’re not born with an innate need to roast ourselves on that
spit. Our parents and, more to the point, television and movies and girl friends give us a
taste for it. I think of it a bit like Scotch—it tastes like iodine first off, but after scorching
our insides and scrunching up our noses enough, we acquire a liking for it. I know it’s
true because I watched my mom link the three Ds—desire-drink-divorce—into a ball and
It didn’t surprise me that Santi came to the idea of romance later than I. D.C. had
been overwhelming and, although she had a few pals who were mall rats, she was barely
a cog in teen culture. She imitated the moves of her American friends to appear not
completely out of it, but she was still attempting to sort out what it meant. Shortly after
she arrived at the camp in Irian she felt her first heart throb.
The camp was hardly set up for romance. Men and women slept in different
barracks at opposite ends of the compound. When I said that it sounded like my college
dorm she quickly pointed out that dormitory was too gentle a word. A military guard in a
filthy uniform shirt, ragged shorts and flip-flops patrolled the invisible boundary with a
gun. The residents needed a permit, issued by the bosses, to cross over to the other side.
Without the social code a traditional village would have provided, the “big men” did
what they could to keep a sense of social order. Most of the workers were young, single
and had few amusements other than each other’s companionship. The company didn’t
want pregnancies to disrupt their work force. Condoms were beyond the means of most,
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had they been available, and the strict regulations became a sort of social condom. Issues
of paternity could be settled in a jiffy, simply by checking the roster of who visited
The penalties for being caught without a permit, or the really bad luck of being
caught in the act, went far beyond humiliation. For the permit transgression the offender
was docked a day’s pay and made to run around the compound until they dropped or died
of shame, whichever came first. The penalty for getting nabbed in jiggy-jiggy was a
disgusting invasion of privacy. The offenders were made to stand naked in full view of
their neighbors for the better part of the day, not exactly an aphrodisiac if exhibitionism
isn’t your thing.
Love, like a pimple, grows in unexpected places; and it was in this world within
the Third World that Santi’s romance was born. She knew the officers who issued
permits, and they knew her as the boss lady with the power to make their life difficult if
they crossed her. She could come and go into the men’s compound with a minimum of
hassle. She made frequent crossings to see a Javanese boy she fancied. He was one of
the few white-collar employees and came from Bandung, from a village not far from
hers. This coincidence figured big in Santi’s thinking. She was stuck in a work camp in
a God-forsaken jungle, surrounded by people from jerkwater villages on islands that
nearly didn’t make it onto the map. It was like Babel. Many of the workers spoke only
their island language. The locals who worked at the plywood factory often spoke
languages that were intelligible solely to others who came from the same valley. The
camp was a melting pot, sitting on forced heat with no chef to stir the stew. When Santi
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found someone who spoke her own language and shared her memories of home, she
couldn’t believe her luck.
Santi had to maintain a certain image because, as a boss, she did double duty as a
role model. She didn’t go hog wild with lust, as I soon found out. Although she noticed
him early on, it took her eleven months to screw up the courage to sit down at dinner with
him. Her shyness postponed any significant talk for another few months, at which point
she was “crazy to him.” We got a few good laughs when I suggested that “for him” was
the proper idiom. The next couple of months were consumed with cooing and I guess
what we would call heavy petting.
Santi was scarce on the details of when they first “did it” except to say that it was
blissful and she wondered why she had waited so long. The real tragedy was that they
had been together only five times before her guy came down with dengue fever. He was
near death when they shipped him out on the bus, supposedly to be treated. She never
heard from him again and, despite entreaties to her higher ups, could get no information
about him. She spent the remaining fourteen months so numb that she could recount
almost nothing of that time. When I asked how she managed to stay that long she shook
her head sadly and said, “I don’t know. The money was very good…nothing seemed to
matter. My hopes went away on that bus, and I stayed until I could make new ones.”
A year or so after she left the factory camp she made some inquiries about her
boyfriend. An old woman who claimed to have known the family said he had arrived
broken and sick and was taken by his mother to his grandmother’s village. She heard that
the local priest had cured him and shortly afterward he had married a local girl. The old
woman could not remember the name of the village. Another rumor had it that the
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plywood company took their sweet time arranging for a flight back to Java, where he
might have gotten some treatment, and a corpse arrived instead. Knowing a little about
health care in this neck of the woods, I’m not sure it would have done him much good to
get back earlier. All Santi knew was that he lived on in her heart. She did confess that,
in retrospect, she might not have dated him back home. “He was very traditional” was as
much as I could get from her.
Santi was not without her prejudices. There were a number of local boys; she
called them boys, who did the lowest of the low work at the factory. They didn’t bathe,
and trying to wash their kinky hair was like mixing oil and water. (I wanted to interject a
few words regarding Egbert’s hygiene, but didn’t.) She claimed to have been driven to
the point of nausea if she had to stay too long in close quarters with them. It sounded
racist to me, although coming from a Javanese, who are almost as nuts about cleanliness
as the Balinese (which of course the Balinese would never admit to) I had to give her
opinion some weight.
Aside from this comment, I never saw her treat any of the help at King’s
compound with less than a respectful firmness. Of course, they were all Balinese who
worked there, and Santi was well aware that they generally thought of people from Java
as lower on the ladder. Ask most Balinese about a crime or a girl of dubious reputation,
and they quickly say that the offender was probably Javanese—and what could you
expect? The Balinese are a little like the Italians in that respect. As God’s chosen people
they extend a slightly judgmental compassion to the rest of the world who aren’t.
That night we became good friends. I thought that anyone who could move
forward, without the certain knowledge of what happened to the love of her life, was OK
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by me. My Mom took to booze to drown that memory and still doesn’t understand that
she’s been suckling it instead—but that’s OK by me too. Wrong-headed attempts to deal
with the terrible things that happen to us are so pathetically human.
The night had turned hot and sticky. The waffle of breeze and the events of the
funeral were mere memories of the early evening. Santi and I talked our way through
three beers apiece. I slipped off my sarong and tee to take a dip. There was something
about the way Santi’s gaze lingered on me, as I stood naked at the edge of the pool. I was
stirred such that I made a little joke of it and struck a bathing beauty pose for her. She
giggled, and before I could tease her to join me she had her clothes off and was in the
pool. I knew that she was in the habit of taking an early morning or late night skinny-dip,
so when she joyously proclaimed that this was a first I was confused, until she explained
that she had never swam naked with another person.
We draped ourselves on the edge of the pool and rested our heads on our arms.
We let our legs flutter as we continued our conversation and I could feel the water stir
between us. We lapsed into girly talk, to which I’m not prone, and I suffered through it
so as not to break the spell. When she shifted to Egbert and what she thought of as his
sterling qualities, I simply couldn’t bear it and let myself slip under the water. On the
way down I let my hands glide down her legs, quite deliberately I’m ashamed to say, and
felt her goose bumps rise beneath my hands. When I came to the surface I could see she
was smiling. Despite the darkness of the night her teeth seemed to have collected the few
shreds of moonlight. I climbed out, stood at the pool’s edge and looked down at her in
the pool, the water instantly dried on my skin—whether from the heat of the night or my
own core I’m not so sure. I stood like a man, my legs slightly apart, and looked straight
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into her eyes. I was aware that I was teasing her, and myself as well. She didn’t turn
away but let her eyes drift down between my legs. She was about to say something when
we thought we heard a knock at the door. The dog, which had been in a sound sleep,
went ballistic. The intimate world I had constructed beneath the protective blanket of
darkness and water was about to disassemble. I felt exposed and scrambled for my
sarong, as if covering my nakedness would stem the headlong rush of my thoughts.
Brem met me on my way to the door. I was fumbling to tie my sarong above my
breasts—an awkward hitch to make—and, relieved to see it was Brem, lowered the wrap
to my waist. I confess that it was scintillating to stand half-naked in front of her,
particularly as, seconds earlier I had brazenly done a more extreme version with Santi.
It took Brem all of a second to notice Santi at the pool. She stood naked in the
aqua glow of the pool lights casually swatting at a mosquito on her butt. Brem gave me a
look that was easily translated and turned as if to go. I grabbed her arm and said in
English, which she barely understood, that she hadn’t interrupted anything. I wondered if
my guilt was written on my face and realized I spoke for my own benefit. I managed to
add in Bahasa that I wanted her to stay and tugged on her arm to make sure she
understood. A hurt little smile came to her face and she acquiesced. I could see this was
going to be complicated.
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A week or so after the funeral I decided I had had it. We had fallen into a routine
at the compound, and things that at first seemed fresh were fast losing their enchantment.
The luxury of our life there turned decadent and indulgent. I kept thinking that all that
separated me from the idle rich was money, but getting it was not my strong suit.
I had shot a couple of rolls of film but the courier I hired to scoot them to the one
decent lab in Kuta lost all but one on the way. The poor bastard had put them into the
pocket of his ragged ski jacket only to have the film fall through. King regularly hired
him, and I had seen him often enough to know he wore the jacket everyday. Over the
patina of grime covering its original beige color, puddles of oil stain were distributed in a
pattern that made it look like camouflage. He looked totally dejected as he described
how he had retraced his route three times, driving slowly along the edge of the road,
looking for the lost film. King suggested making the courier do a bunch of errands to
work off his tab and couldn’t forgive me for not taking his advice. I made matters worse
by refusing to take back the courier’s fee, even when the guy pressed it on me. I told
King I might have acted differently if it was a Fed-Ex fuck up, but this guy’s delivery
service amounted to one motorcycle cobbled together from spare parts.
The lost film contributed to my funk that I hadn’t accomplished much, but it
didn’t have a whole lot to do with my itch to leave. Red and I had been getting along
well, and I had slipped into a state that seemed more reverie than real life. I couldn’t
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blame Red. I was a willing participant in the dream, which was increasingly defined by
sex, meals and sleep. She had struck up a friendship with Santi, and often they went out
together on errands. I was pleased that she had someone besides me to hang with; it gave
me some breathing room. She said she felt a bit more like her old self.
Around the compound Red seemed preoccupied and distracted. She spent an
inordinate amount of time reading or daydreaming with her book facedown in her lap,
staring at the tops of the palms. Twice I asked what was up, and twice she told me that
she was reminiscing about her mama, which I didn’t swallow. Whatever was going on
gave our lovemaking a new kick. Red was horny and ready to jump on it whenever I
expressed the slightest interest. She grew wilder and more experimental. I teased her
that she was a quick study, as one would expect under the guidance of such an
understanding teacher.
A parade of memories of Api marched before my eyes. They appeared randomly
at times I wouldn’t readily associate with her, like brushing my teeth or doing a minor
repair on my bike. The memories arrived as snapshots, her pose and the light particular
to each, but devoid of any thought or feeling beyond the vivid picture. It was time for me
to move.
Red and I needed to renew our visas. Indonesia allows a stay of two months no
questions asked, but to stay longer it was necessary to leave the country and reenter to get
one’s visa re-stamped. The usual maneuver was to go to Thailand or Singapore, stay a
few days and then return through Jakarta or Denpassar. As always in Indo there was a
way around this that was passably legal, if you didn’t get caught. The enterprise existed
thanks to the number of ex-pats who hung on by a shoestring and had to scrape for the
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fare out and back. For a fraction of the cost you could hire someone with a connection,
who would renew your visa. It was on the QT of course. The details remained
mysterious, kind of like a drug deal—you paid your money and shut up and bingo, after a
couple of days, your visa was returned and you were good for another two months. There
was a certain anxiety involved in giving up your passport, and we always used sources
that had proved reliable.
Hadji was our man, a devout Muslim with strong criminal credentials. Although
he was a Bugis, from Sulawesi, rumor had it that he was involved with the secessionist
movement in Aceh that was gathering enthusiasm among Sumatrans. This mattered little
to any of us—if you didn’t fuck with Hadji he didn’t fuck with you.
Red and I had been to Thailand a couple of months earlier and had no desire to go
to Singapore. Neither of us was sick and the only reason to visit that antiseptic city, visa
issues aside, was to go to a hospital for decent care. Tracking Hadji down took a few
days and necessitated me going to his new “office” in a downtrodden neighborhood in the
bowels of Denpassar. Phones were less rare than they had been a few years earlier, but
Hadji preferred dealing face to face. His was hardly a land office business, and he
supplemented his earnings by taking passport and wedding photographs and issuing
bogus press passes for people like me.
His office was a booth crammed into a corner of a large public market. He had
pinned examples of his mostly-in-focus photos to a sarong that he hung over the chickenwire back wall next to a fish seller. Consequently Hadji, and any document or photo he
handled, smelled of fish—an irony I thought was right on the money. I had dealt with
him a number of times and he made a point of telling me that his price to me was a
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professional courtesy. It was total bullshit. I had checked with friends who I had sent to
him and they paid exactly the same. Of course, he told them they got their “special
price” because they were friends of mine.
Whenever we met he would ply me with questions about Sulawesi. He knew I
traveled all through the archipelago and was hungry for any news of his homeland. He
rarely returned home. Whatever moving about he did was between Bali and Sumatra,
where his sister and brother had emigrated years before.
He knew Api, who he thought was “a good and honest woman, for a Chinese.” I
took it as the compliment he intended and let it ride. I told him about Api’s passing, of
which he had already heard, but I supplied some details which he hadn’t. He asked about
the art business and inquired after King. Hadji was a curious man who collected
information with the intensity of an archivist, either as potentially profitable or for the
entertainment value. It was only natural that our talk drifted to life in the compound, and
I entertained him by recounting an incident about King’s parrot.
Api had made King the gift of a parrot, which he named Bobo. His namesake was
a boxer dog King had owned as a boy who had terrorized the neighborhood kids. The
dog was a biter, and the bird shared this uncharming trait. Aside from Ibu, who had
terrorist tendencies herself, King was the only one Bobo allowed near him. He would eat
from King’s hand, sit on his shoulder to be stroked and allow King to untangle him from
his perch chain. This last was a common occurrence—the sash chain attached to his leg
was long enough to allow him room to explore, and the bird would hang himself up in his
attempts to bust out. On those days when I arose earlier than the rest of the household I
would often find Bobo wrapped tightly to his perch. I feel closer to a power drill than I
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do to pet birds but I can’t stand to see a hapless creature suffer. My compassion was cut
short when, in my attempt to free the fucking bird, he bit my finger hard enough to draw
blood. On that occasion I left him hanging upside down, ensnared in a tumbleweed of
chain and feathers. Hadji laughed uproariously when I told him the story and was
particularly impressed that I hucked a looey in the bird’s face as a parting gesture.
Unfortunately, Bobo met an ignominious end a week or so after the funeral. King
had bought him a new toy, a tasseled drapery pull. It was a sizeable object nearly as large
as the parrot and had a creature-like appearance. Bobo had an instantaneous love/hate for
the object (white like him) and pecked and pulled and shredded it to set the pecking order
straight. It must have made Bobo feel birdly.
King, Red, Santi and I were hanging around late one night. We had made some
tea and were sipping contentedly as we listened to La traviata at full volume. Bobo was
on his perch near the kitchen, squawking raucously, intermittently attacking his
adversarial toy and flying like a maniac around his perch. We joked that he was in rare
form, obviously intent on drowning out Placido, and forgot it as a minor nuisance.
Placido had just finished his grand aria when Red smelled something burning. We
looked to the kitchen and saw a column of nasty looking smoke, flecked with crackles of
sparks. Red grabbed a fire extinguisher from the kitchen counter and let loose at the
stove. When the smoke cleared she let out a shriek that her people in Texas could have
heard. “Oh, God! Oh, God! Oh, God!” was all she could manage. Bobo was barely
recognizable in the clump of chain, charred feathers and tassel.
King had left the burner on when he removed the kettle. Bobo, in one last burst
for freedom, had gotten his talons tangled in his toy and yanked the chain free from the
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perch, only to tumble directly into the flames. “He was a gift from Api,” King said, “but
I don’t think he’s in bird heaven.”
Hadji listened intently as I told him the story. He was amused up until Bobo met
his fate, at which point he became extremely serious. We were sitting on stools inside his
booth and he leaned forward, as if to share an intimacy. He asked if there had been any
other unusual incidents around the house. There had been, although at least one came
with the territory if you were a dope smoker. King had been lying on his back like a bull
walrus contentedly smoking a loosely rolled joint of hash and kratak. A glowing chunk
of hash fell on his chest and before he could rise from his stupor it burned a hole halfway
to his asshole. I suggested he get one of his ladies to piss on it—the same treatment as
for a jellyfish sting. Red felt sorry for him and was annoyed at my insensitivity. She
cleaned the burn and patched him up. I gave Hadji a stripped down version of the
incident, which troubled him anew. “This is not good,” said Hadji. “Can you think of
anything else?” I didn’t understand his interest, or his solemnity.
I told him that, three days after the bird fricasseed himself, the dog caused a bit of
havoc. Someone had put a plate with chicken scraps on a side table near one of the
couches. The temptation of luscious satay blanked out any shred of good behavior the
dog had acquired. In his attempt to nab the chicken, the dog knocked a cone of burning
incense onto a couch pillow. At the time King was screwing his brains out in the
bedroom, oblivious to the world beyond his dick. The dog’s barking roused Santi, who
came out of her room to investigate and saw the pillow in flames. She singed herself
tossing the pillow into the pool. It wasn’t until I recounted these stories to Hadji that I
saw them as a string of events. I neglected to tell him about Ibu, who had scalded her
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foot in a kitchen accident and continued to limp around. He was already too filled with
Hadji’s next question floored me. “Did Api bring anything back from Sulawesi?”
I told him of the Pima funeral mask that she brought back and, in the telling, remembered
how it had felt hot to my touch when I first handled it. “You must tell King to get rid of
the mask,” he said, his eyes dancing so wildly that I thought he was having a seizure.
When I asked why, he paused to light a kratak. He hissed out his words along with the
smoke. “It does not belong here in Bali.”
I had heard of similar incidents before: an African mask that caused foot problems
for anyone who touched it; a Batak magician’s basket that caused all three dealers who
owned it to go bald within a month of the date they bought it. I laughed at this last story,
until I realized that I knew two of the dealers. They were both in their thirties, with great
shocks of hair when I had seen them earlier in the year. When I saw them some months
later they both could have enlisted as cue ball stand-ins. I knew too much and too little to
scoff at Hadji’s advice.
I’m a skeptic who wants to believe—it’s my own private war, and I don’t put up a
white flag easily. You can relegate these occurrences to the realm of fable or myth, call
them tall tales, plain bullshit or coincidences. Maybe they’re just bizarre results of a roll
of the cosmic dice. But if, because of our own limitations, we can’t find a suitable reason
for them, it hardly dispels the fact that they occurred. There are fried parrots and bald
heads and broken toes to explain away.
People make these masks and statues to converse with a world we sense is “out
there” because weird shit happens. The makers are serious people in a serious jam. Their
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hands are the pipelines that carry this intensity into the things they make. Maybe it’s a
vain hope that we can tip the balance in our favor by sending messages into the beyond.
Maybe the great wheel of existence is pre-rigged and our best hope is to wait for another
spin. But what do we do in the meantime? If it’s raining and you have no umbrella you
might as well do a little dance to try and stop the rain—or stand silently and get wet.
Either way we can’t help from wondering who’ll stop the rain. And so, I told Hadji I
would try to convince King to get rid of the mask.
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There are three photos of Hart and MJ, taken minutes apart, which, seen together,
seem to tell a story of a lifetime. There is no date on their backs, only a scribbled note on
one of them that says “on Hart’s departure.” Even without the casual title it is clear that
something profound and immensely sad surrounds the two people. Hart, who is in the
photos, did not take them, yet they speak to that peculiar moment of transformation that
is the focus of his photographic work, enough so that for a second I wondered if he
directed the person behind the camera, most likely King. Although I was born in
California I’m not prone to accept weird explanations for events, but I don’t laugh too
loudly when words such as “aura,” “energy field” and even the archaic “vibes” are used
in my presence. But these photos of Hart and MJ are so him that they raise the possibility
that King had no choice but to shoot the scene as he did.
Hart is wearing his signature white shirt with the sleeves rolled up and a pair of
loose-fitting, black pants. The shirt blossoms over his army belt, cinched tightly around
his slim waist. He wears hiking shoes, and his flip-flops are clipped with a carabineer to
his backpack set on the ground. The backpack seems animated, and part of it has already
tumbled outside the frame. Hart’s arms are wrapped so tightly around MJ that her bare
toes barely touch the ground. It is as if she has been caught during take off and will be
tethered for only a moment longer. Her tee shirt has ridden up, and there are finger
shaped welts on her back from the fierceness of their embrace. Her head is tucked into a
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space between Hart’s shoulder and neck that looks to be custom-made for that purpose.
Her face is set into a grimace that strangely enhances her beauty, and a slick trail of tears
is already half way down her cheek. MJ’s eyes are scrunched closed, Hart’s are open and
he stares off into the distance.
In the second snapshot MJ’s bare feet are squarely on the ground. With their
elbows crooked she and Hart grasp each other’s upper arms. Their bodies are separated
and they have just kissed or are about to kiss. In the space between them, hidden in the
first photograph, is the face of a Hindu goddess. If their eyes were not so intensely
riveted on each other it might appear that they were about to kiss her—instead, she bears
smiling witness to this confused departure. If the photographer had used infrared film he
would have captured the rays of heat.
In the last of the three photos MJ is caught mid-step, her body torques away from
Hart, the swirl of her sarong a phantom blur of the spirit. She holds one arm protectively
over her breasts; the other is raised in either a pathetic half-goodbye, or a weak gesture of
holding off. Hart has one hand on his pack and the other tentatively extended, palm up,
in supplication, or resignation. His tears are evident; his mouth is set downward in
despair. Grim, so grim that I wonder in studying the photo whether it will ever right
itself. But the goddess still smiles her carved smile and, like her rounded breasts, it will
not droop with age. She has seen it all before, so what can she do but smile? The
goddess stands in the widening gap between the lovers, wearings a checkered cloth tied
about her lower body. It reminds her that it takes the night to make the day.
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Red, usually impulsive and decisive in equal measure, couldn’t make up her mind
about going with me to Nias. I gave her an honest version of my intentions for the trip,
thinking it better to deal with her objections on the spot, rather than in a tenuous situation
in an unknown place. The truth didn’t faze her at all. I did my crazed travel agent
routine to convince her of the glories of eating dirt and worms for a couple of weeks, but
she couldn’t decide: she wasn’t feeling well, she’d only be in the way, she and Brem
were swapping English and Bahasa lessons. I was annoyed with myself for breaking a
cardinal rule about leaving well enough alone. I was ignoring my own best advice, that
we needed a break from each other anyway.
I left under a cloud of worry, with Red unexpectedly in tears. King thought that
the whole scene was ridiculous. He took pictures of Red and me on the cusp of my
departure. He snapped away and said, jokingly, that these would be the last known
pictures of the great explorer Tuan Hart. This caused Red to bawl louder and turn a
fierce stare in King’s direction. “Lighten up,” he said with a smile, “it’s only a couple of
weeks. It’s not exactly Odysseus leaving Penelope for half his lifetime.” This did get us
both to laugh and Red, between her tears and laughter added, “Watch out for those sirens.
And beware the false stars.”
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The port town is sandwiched between a weighty cloudbank and the chop of the
sea. Early morning mist blurs the outlines of the buildings. In contrast, a few bladesharp mountains stab through the clouds.
Now, in the opening decade of the twenty-first century, we can hardly conceive
that places like Nias exist. In splendid isolation, a hundred kilometers from the west
coast of Sumatra, it is a mote in the eye of the world. If one walks the length of the
island it is painfully evident that Nias is the tip of a mountain range whose base lies deep
beneath the waters of the Indian Ocean. Although there is a reassuring symmetry in the
numbers that define its location, 100 kilometers north of the equator and a hundred
kilometers in length, this offers no relief from the hot and steamy climate. Headhunting
and mosquitoes flourished in the uncompromising terrain, the former holding on as a way
of life, and death, well into the nineteen-thirties. The mosquitoes are still going strong,
evidenced in the brisk business in tee shirts that advertise anti-malarial medicines.
Aside from a handful of surfers, who know little about the island except for the
right-hand breaks off the town of Jamborai, there are few visitors. Travel is difficult and
the few roads are often “broken,” as are the scattering of motorized vehicles. Nias ideas
about machinery are typical of those found in many isolated places and are governed by a
philosophy that seeks to reduce motorcycles and trucks to the fewest parts necessary to
maintain forward motion. It is not exactly disrespect, nor is it a lack of understanding as
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to how things work—the average Nias boy of twelve can change a sparkplug—it is a
practical matter of survival. The nearest Honda dealership lies twelve puke-filled hours
across a choppy sea.
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I treated myself to a flight to Medan, the hot, muggy capital of North Sumatra.
The filth and smog of the city made Denpassar feel like an oasis by comparison. It
remained a mystery to me how the shirt-sticking air of a city built in the center of a
swamp can seem dusty and dry. Although it’s prosperous by business standards, the
unpaved streets are awash with the litter and detritus of the four million people who call it
home. I had no desire to stay more than the one night I needed to get my bearings, but as
luck would have it I came down with a fever and a wicked bout of dysentery. The attack
blotted out the world for twenty-four hours and left me speechless and rubbery after its
abrupt departure. Two days later I made my own wilting departure in a hired car with a
driver. There was no way I would subject my body to the punishment promised by the
lengthy bus ride to Sibolga to catch the boat to Nias.
Coming down from the highlands, the road parachutes into a dramatic valley and
then continues between near vertical walls before it spits out into the scumbag port. My
driver took me to a hotel, where he apparently got a kickback for his guidance, and
without so much as stopping to pee, fired up the engine and returned to Medan.
The next day, unwilling to wait for a boat to the South end of Nias I took an
evening boat to Gunungsitoli. It would land at the opposite end of the island from where
I wanted to end up and although I knew a big effort was in store to reach Telukdalam it
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seemed preferable to spending another day in the shit-hole that was Sibolga. Besides,
who knew what weirdness might turn up along the way?
It was not such a great choice. The small boat took fourteen hours to cross the
unexpectedly choppy waters. Fortunately, I had shelled out a few extra rupiahs to secure
a berth below decks. I spent most of the voyage in my cabin, a chicken-wire enclosure,
and powered through my stash of rice, bananas and bottled water. Sleep was a figment of
desire—I lay prostrate on a hard plank bed with one eye asleep, the other on the wire
door I had locked from the inside with a miniature pack lock. The toilets were clogged
within the first few hours at sea and the decks were slick with piss and vomit. Except for
two women, who remained on deck the entire time, the passengers were men. They
smoked incessantly, which added the sweet smell of clove to the sour air. They clutched
their cardboard boxes as if they were life preservers. The look in their eyes could only be
described as one of sheer terror.
The ferry arrived late, so I missed the daily bus to Telukdalam. I was too
exhausted to care and booked into the first hotel I saw. As I lay down on my not-so-clean
bed I thought that Mempi had it right. If there was any justification for the high prices
charged for tribal art in the States, this ordeal had to be it. I had one more thought before
I fell contentedly into a dead man’s sleep: Adventure is misery in hindsight.
I left the bed only once, to gobble down a forgettable dinner at a local warung
before hastening back to my room for more sleep. I rose early and, after my shit-showershave, felt healthy enough for the day’s minor miseries. Departure times are approximate
in these parts. I boarded the bus headed south at eight, one of three passengers signed on
for the ordeal. This was not a good omen. Contrary to expectations we might have in the
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New World, namely that an empty bus signals a leisurely, comfortable ride, this meant
that we would drive around the town to pick up passengers until the bus was full.
Capacity included the roof, where people shared space with baggage, trussed livestock,
and an impressive inventory of nearly bald tires. A dozen rough stools were jammed into
the aisle to insure that no space was wasted. The bus departed the terminal, (which it had
returned to no fewer than six times) at twenty past nine. I was relieved to be underway,
even while I hung my face out of the window like a dog. The road dust was preferable to
the mixture of exhaust, stale sweat and cigarette smoke inside the bus.
Roughly an hour into the trip, the bus stopped and everyone got off to allow the
driver and his assistants to change the rear tires. They removed the tires, which had
traces of tread and installed what looked like racing slicks. This ritual was reenacted
twice more during our trip. It gave me a renewed appreciation for tire rotation and the
tireless patience of the locals. At each pit stop people would wander off into the bush
carrying their boxes and baskets. It was a good idea to watch one’s stuff, but this seemed
like paranoia. When the majority of the people didn’t return, it clicked that they were not
relieving themselves behind the trees, but were returning to their homes in the hills.
I talked with a few of the locals during these breaks, the usual banter—”Where
are you from? Where are you going?” When I told them I was going to Telukdalam each
looked at me quizzically before telling me the road was “broken.” How near to
Telukdalam it was broken was a matter of speculation. I didn’t worry about it. These
things right themselves, or you change your plans, no big deal unless you make it one.
The road was tortuous and the bus chugged along, barely above idle speed. There
was a tremendous amount of shifting and double-clutching and gnashing of gears, none
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of which seemed to add forward motion. Gravity was Janus-faced—the bus would inch
up the hills and then hurtle recklessly down, accompanied by a punk-rock score of
screaming metal. Every so often a native of the forest would appear at the roadside and
stand solemnly to watch the bus growl its way uphill. Occasionally one of them would
swing onto a ladder at the rear of the bus and ride with us for a while. These men were
usually alone and, despite their abbreviated sarongs or beat-up gym shorts, gave the
impression of nakedness. They often carried spears or parangs. Baskets and strings of
small animals and birds hung from their shoulders. With their copper skin and bowl
haircuts they looked as if they might have stepped out of the Amazon Basin. They were
reabsorbed into the forest as quietly and mysteriously as they had come.
A river had cut a small canyon across the road—definitely broken. The bus driver
assured me we were twenty or so klicks outside of Telukdalam. I did a quick calculation
and figured I could walk it in roughly four hours. It was doable, but I didn’t relish
walking the last hour in the dark and didn’t have much faith in the driver’s distance
estimates. I remembered a walk I took in Java. The temple I wanted to see was a long
way into a lightly populated forest. I had been told at the onset that it would take about
three hours and felt assured I could make it there and back in a long day of walking.
After three hours I began asking the few people I saw on the trail how far away the
temple was and for the next three hours I was invariably told, “only twenty minutes
more.” I slept the night in the temple grounds on a stone bench, in the lee of an
enormous erotic sculpture.
There were few passengers left on the bus when we stopped at the newly minted
Grand Canyon. A handful crossed the ravine with me and waited at the ditch for the
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connecting bus. The rest wandered off onto small trails leading into the bush. I humped
my pack and set out at a good clip, weak but happy to be walking after the hours of
enforced confinement. An hour down the trail a bus passed going in the direction I had
come from. I flagged it down and the driver said he would be returning my way after he
picked up the passengers who waited at the break in the road. It was difficult to
understand the driver who had a poorly repaired hare lip, but as near as I could tell he
urged me to get on so that I would have a seat for the return to Telukdalam. I told him I
would take my chances and sit on the roof if need be. But to insure that he didn’t worry
(they all worried about the welfare of strangers traveling alone) I slipped him a few
rupiah and asked him to reserve a seat for me. That satisfied him, but he cautioned me
not to leave the road for fear that he would miss me on the way back.
The hike was hot and buggy. I walked in a shadowed world of blunt green.
Occasional rays of sunlight made their way through the dense growth and splashed
puddles of blood red onto the raw dirt of the road. The forest was spooky but fraught
with expectation—it seemed that apparitions were everywhere. Every so often there was
a break in the trees that gave visual relief from the claustrophobia of the jungle. The
view of cultivated fields of rice and taro reassured me that the sense of isolation I felt
belonged to my own mind.
I had been walking for barely two hours, but my legs had turned to jelly and I was
covered in sweat. My fever and the heat had exacted their toll. After wetting down my
bandana I drank the last of my water, put the bandana over my face to hold the fucking
mosquitoes at bay and sat by the roadside where I promptly nodded out. I had no idea
how long I had been asleep. I was startled awake by the groan of the bus as it labored on
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an uphill stretch. I nearly peed my pants when I whipped the bandana off my face. Six
feet away was a guy hunkered down, staring at me intently. My first take was that I had
been transported to New York and was facing down a fireplug, an impression helped
along by the dome of black hair that capped his head. His arms were draped across his
knees and he held a parang lazily in his right hand. After years of traveling to places
where these humble tools are more common than cars, they still have the power to evoke
momentary alarm in my heart. He offered a smile of betal-nut-blackened teeth, extended
his left hand in the universal begging gesture and said “Kratak? Gula?” I fumbled in my
pack for my cigarettes and candy. When I stood to give him one of each he shied away
like a dog who had been beaten. He pulled himself together and warily extended his
hand, took the small prizes and disappeared into the trees.
I felt ashamed and uncomfortable to be transformed from an object of curiosity
into a threat. I had the distinct feeling that he didn’t want the things at all, he surely
didn’t need them, and they were just a way of getting the conversation going. I could
imagine him bringing the cigarettes and candy back to his family as evidence that he had
made contact with a strange white man from another world.
I climbed aboard the bus and took the seat that the driver had held for me, which
unfortunately was directly over the passenger-side front wheel. There were plenty of
available seats, but I didn’t want to disappoint the driver who was smilingly proud of his
good deed and plopped my sorry ass down. I thought of Red and my heart grimaced at
the idea that I had chosen this over the comfort of her company. I was spared by the
mercy of sleep, which wrapped me in its arms until we arrived in Telukdalam.
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Telukdalam was even less than I expected. At the depot I happily gave over to
some young guy in an “Antimalaria” tee shirt. He said he had a place in Lagundi, out on
the beach at two-fifty a night, including supper. It sounded like a good deal. Ibrahim
spoke English and seemed to know his way around. He was small and his joints and
sinews knobbed out from beneath a thin layer of flesh, and I figured if he gave me any
shit I could deal with him even in my wiped out state. I climbed on the back of his bike,
and we shot off into the darkness for a harrowing fifteen minutes of red line action with
the bike screaming in its little rice-burner voice. The last five minutes felt as if he was
blazing a new trail through the jungle. We burst from the forest cover and skidded to a
stop in the sand a few yards from the gentle rolling of Lagundi Bay. The moon had risen
early and covered Nias with a scrim of fuzzy light. The sea and sand and palms were
variations mixed from a gentle palette of the palest blues. The world before me was
devoid of malaria, and there was no evidence of the island’s bloody history of
headhunting and slavery. It was simply nature at its most curative. The only thing
missing was Red.
My room, a thatch-and-bamboo job, was a separate house built on stilts. There
were three or four similar cottages connected to mine by a series of porches and
walkways. All the rooms looked out over a communal eating area toward the sea—it felt
secure and above it all, and I thought again of Red and how much she would have liked
the whole set-up. All except the latrine, that is. It sat off a few yards into the forest. The
barest idea of privacy was sketched out with three disintegrating thatch walls, held
together by gravity and an ample binding of pink plastic cord, around a dug pit straddled
with two arm-thick pieces of bamboo to rest your butt on. The makeshift seat also
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housed a colony of ants. Ibrahim assured me that the ants never marched at night so I
didn’t need to worry about brushing them off, or sitting on them when I couldn’t see. I
said it was no problem; I didn’t plan on walking even a few yards into the jungle at night.
I thought I might replace the bamboo seat if I stayed for a while.
Ibrahim whipped up a succulent dinner of rice and fish, steamed in a banana leaf.
It was expertly spiced with a hint of chili that played against the sweetness of papaya and
pineapple. Ibrahim’s wife served me my meal. She was pretty, dark-eyed, and looked all
of seventeen although she was already the mother of two. The kids were nowhere in
sight, but she was quick to show me a photograph of a boy and girl who looked to be
about four and six. She wore a headscarf in a nod to Muslim custom, but she was
friendly and talkative until Ibrahim chastised her in a nasty tone of voice from inside the
cooking hut. She apologized and scurried away, but even in the dark I could see the fear
and resentment in her eyes. Not my business, until it becomes my business, I thought.
And I let it ride.
Exhausted but happily fed, I couldn’t resist a dip in the bathtub waters of Lagundi
Bay before I hit the rack. When I climbed the ladder to my room, I lay down wet and a
bit chilled and listened to the waves. If Red had been there we would have tried to fix
their pattern. I made a tired attempt at it by myself, but it seemed pointless and caused a
dull ache in my heart.
I stirred with the early morning sun and, without waking, closed the shutters over
the view. A few hours later the crackled boom from a frayed speaker jolted me awake.
Ibrahim shouted sharply to someone, and the radio was quickly turned to barely audible.
I heard what seemed to be an angry conversation and cracked open the shutters to see
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what was up. Ibrahim had his wife by the wrist. She was twisting away from him with
one hand held in front of her face to ward off an expected slap. I threw the shutters open,
and the loud thwack they made against the bamboo siding froze Ibrahim’s left hand in
mid-swing. He seemed less shamed than disgruntled at having been interrupted. He let
go of his wife’s wrist and looked up at me. “Salamat pagi,” I said, thinking that a curt
good morning was more than he deserved. “I am soory, tuan. This stoopid woman let
the boy turn on the radio.” He looked at her with a loathing that most of us reserve for
child molesters. He let fly a gob of spit in her direction to clarify any misunderstanding I
might have had about his position. “Tidak apa apa. I was awake already. Your wife was
probably busy making my breakfast.” Yeah, the radio was no problem but I could see
that Ibrahim could pose a big fucking problem. I thought how lucky he was that Red
wasn’t around—she would have wailed on his ass big time. He would have done
something stupid, and I would’ve ended up breaking both his arms.
I had forestalled one nasty incident but I knew it was futile. This was the way
things were and had been since they were married. He would continue to beat on her
until he went too far and killed her, or ran off with some hippie chick who promised him
great blow jobs and free dental work back in the States. I thought it would most likely
happen on a morning like today with the sun ready to take full possession of the day and
an idle breeze that carried a smidgen of promise of better things on the horizon. Either
way, I would be long gone.
I realized I wasn’t fit to go anywhere until I rested up a bit. I was exhausted
physically, and I noticed my emotional life was deep in the hole too. I had run up a tab,
and Api and Red had collected on their IOUs. I missed them both and, although there
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was nothing I could do about Api except try to forget, I could certainly make a start on
Red by trying to remember. I discovered that I needn’t fix the pattern of the waves; it
was enough that each night they would bring her into my bed. She would part the
mosquito-net, plop down alongside me and sleep in my dreams until sunrise.
But business is business, and I wasn’t there to dream my life away—at least not
alone. I had to get in shape for the real deal. I spent the first few days walking on the
beach. The arc of sand started at the bottom of my rickety steps and ran farther than I
could walk in a day. I met a few locals along the way who seemed shy and oddly
disinterested in meeting a great white explorer. They probably took it as a sign that their
neighborhood was on the skids and knew that the next step was Big Macs and a Gap.
I ran into a cadre of Aussie surfer dudes who were crashing a couple of bays south
in the village of Jamborai. We met later the same day for an uninspired dinner at a small
warung at the Christian end of Lagundi Bay. I was staying on Muslim turf, where the
food compensated for an atmosphere that was heavier of heart. The conversation was
totally surfer talk. I mean, “Totally, man!” They didn’t have a clue that thousands of
people lived in the interior with a culture so markedly different than anything they had
seen. And they didn’t care. They knew the waves and weather and the price of bottled
water on a thousand beaches. Good dope counted, and it was nice to hook up with a
chick from time to time—and that was enough. One dinner with them was enough for
me. My company didn’t matter much to the young dudes, either. They treated me as if I
were a throwback from a parallel world they could vaguely recall, but only when the
dope was mellow enough. They thought what I was up to was “totally cool,” even
though their tanned, empty faces told me they couldn’t fathom fuck-all about it.
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Nonetheless, I had to respect these guys—they knew what they cared about and how to
find it and they made no bones about it. In their own way they lived as far outside the
current of Western time as I did. They clocked their days to the waves and sun. They
had given up their watches the same day they renounced punching the time clock.
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The many photos taken by Hart in Nias are characterized by their unrelieved
green. In the remote villages the fortifications seem designed as much to hold back the
surge of the forest as to withstand the attacks of the enemy. Many of the images picture
people who Hart must have met on the cobbled paths that wend their way through the
lumpy terrain. The necklace of stones had been laid hundreds of years ago and appears to
have been maintained in a slip-shod way; it is difficult to know for certain, the jungle is
fiercely competitive for space and it was there long before men carved their needs into it.
A dense growth of vines, razor grass and elephant ferns grow close to the paths and turn
them into tentative corridors. Even in the photographs it seems you can see the jungle
Hart’s interest in the local life and the exemplary shots he took put most
ethnographic photography to shame. I am fascinated by one in which an enormous sow
is being carried by two men. The pig is lashed to a pole with homemade fiber cord and
an extraordinary wrapping of pink synthetic string. The string crisscrosses the pig and
inadvertently charts out its fat body so that it resembles the diagrammatic posters in
butcher shops that illustrate where the different cuts of meat come from. The pink string
looks raucous in the jungle setting. Clearly, even twenty-three years ago, the western
world had begun staking its claim.
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The two young boys who can be seen entering the photo at the furthermost left
edge are pictured more clearly in another close up. The boys sport the indigenous bowlcut hairstyle and are nearly naked save the memory of shorts that they are wearing.
Although they are smiling they seem forlorn and fragile against the towering forest wall.
The smaller boy has his head turned slightly and is looking at something on his lower
back. The rampage of a skin disease has disfigured the right side of his face. Perhaps
this detail stirred Hart’s compassion.
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I was itching to get into the interior. I made a couple of day-long forays before
striking out on what I thought would be a circular, three-day walk to some small villages
nearby. The hike was over cobbled paths buffed slick by the thousands of callused feet
that trod there before me. The jungle seemed perennially moist, and the stones were
covered in slime that made walking in the early morning difficult. I’ve always been a
tenderfoot and knew that the added traction I might gain walking barefoot was out of the
question for me.
The paths linked a half-dozen villages together and were still heavily used by the
locals. Some evenings, tired after walking longer than I anticipated and with no sense of
how far it was to the next village, I felt the darkness of the jungle closing in—a rabid
thing, entrapping me in a prison from which I might never escape. The fear was new to
me. It lay like a double-exposure on my heart—a thin, blurry layer over a clearer picture
of Red, which seemed to have taken up permanent residence. Bob Dylan’s words,
“When you aint got nothin’, you’ve got nothin’ to lose,” were on re-verb inside my head.
During the day I met people along the path—men carrying sacks of rice, women
going to work in the paddies or returning from market laden with baskets. On my second
day of walking two men passed me with an enormous sow trussed to a pole. They were
going downhill at a pace just short of a trot. Their combined weight looked to be less
than their squealing burden. A couple of snot-nosed kids tagged along behind. Like their
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elders they were barefoot. The kids were dressed in the tattered remnants of shorts—this
was fairly consistent with the way kids dressed in most of the rural areas of this part of
the world—but one detail shifted this everyday occurrence into the Twilight Zone.
The shorts on the taller of the two boys existed only as a waistband and two side
flaps of shiny red polyester, each flap with a single dark stripe. The shorts were rent
front and back, and the kid’s little pecker flapped into view as he walked. It took a
moment for me to clock that he was wearing what had once been a pair of Thai kickboxer shorts. That these shorts had made their way from Thailand seemed more
outrageous than the longer trip the Yankees baseball shirt I once saw on a kid in Bali.
But that wasn’t the truly weird part. I knew they were kick-boxer shorts because I had
owned a pair. They were red, with dark stripes along the side of each leg, had a six-inchwide waistband and were made from the same sleazy material. My shorts came to me in
a roundabout way.
I was in Nepal with Big Ace. It was our first foray into that neck of the woods,
and we were excited at what lay before us. We hung around in the squalor of Katmandu
for a week or so and did enough dope for a lifetime. We knew it wouldn’t be too long
before one of us did some lasting damage, and we were both ready for something a bit
more challenging. Ace wanted to kayak the Trusuli River, and I wanted to trek in the
Himalayas. We decided to split up and meet the next month in Bangkok. It had become
a home base for us, and the Viengthai Hotel let us store our bags for weeks at a time,
even welcomed us like family when we returned from one of our jaunts.
Ace and I left Katmandu on the same bus. I was dropped off in a tiny town in the
foothills where the trail began. I had four hours of walking to the first village where I
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planned to stay the night. Whatever I left the bus with I would live with for the next
month. Ace continued, with a two-day stopover in a town with a proper guesthouse
where he could leave some gear before his kayak trip. At the last minute I decided that
the photographer’s vest I had bought for the trip was too heavy and bulky to be of use. It
made humping my backpack difficult, so I left it with Ace who, although unhappy with
the responsibility, promised to stash it and return it to me in Bangkok.
At six-six Ace isn’t called Big Ace for nothing. He spent most of his trip in a
permanent stoop, and at the end of three months looked as if he had worked in the
paddies all his life. Children often ran from him, and even those local women who were
disposed to bed down for a price were afraid that his equipment was commensurate with
his size and steered clear of him. The buses are made for small people. The roads are
treacherous. The drivers are madmen. I have a photograph of Ace wielding his jack
knife. Blood is streaming down his face and he is holding the object of his rage in a
clenched fist. He suffered a nasty scalp wound after whacking his head on a speaker that
hung from the ceiling. As he tells it, he was simply doing the American thing by
carefully removing it from its mount. He was not having a good time on the bus when I
left, and he had two more hours to go. When his stop came, three and a half hours later,
he was nearly insane and fled the bus before it came to a complete stop. The vest stayed
on board.
When we met up in Bangkok the next month the first thing he blurted out was the
fate of my vest. He felt terrible and, like the stand-up guy that he is, he gave me the Thai
kick-boxer’s shorts as compensation. He had gotten the biggest size he could, and
although I had dropped twenty of my hundred-forty-five pounds during my trek, I barely
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got them on. When I wore them longer than an hour the elastic waistband bit huge welts
and creases into my stomach. A young woman friend sewed a yin-yang emblem below
the waistband. She was convinced this would redirect energy to my meridians and solve
the problem—she thought of it as no-needle acupuncture. As I got healthier and put on
some weight, the shorts got more uncomfortable, despite the spiritual mending.
A month or so later the girl was gone, but I still had the shorts. Ace and I had left
Bangkok and were in Bali. I ran into a forlorn, scrawny hipster who could have been the
poster boy for Traveler’s Aid. He wore the signature style of his tribe—tie-dye tee shirt,
baggy white pants, Birkenstocks and ropes of beads around his neck. He looked so down
and out that I bought him a beer. We shot the shit about places we had been to, where
one could find the best deals, the usual traveler’s repertory. During our conversation I
noticed that on his necklace was a particularly beautiful charm from Borneo. I had just
got my start in the tribal art world and was looking at everything I could. I asked to see
The small figure was expertly carved and the honey-colored wood glowed from
beneath the loving patina it had acquired. It was a Dayak protective charm. The figure
represented a shaman, bent in a contorted posture to drive off the evil spirits. I asked the
hipster if he wanted to sell it to me. He wasn’t sure where it had originally come from
but thought he remembered that the person who gave it to him said it was from Africa. It
was too special to sell. The guy who gave it to him had gotten sick and he had carried
him to the hospital. The little charm was given in thanks. Then I had to listen to the
predictable, drowsy unfolding of his views on money and how establishing their
monetary value took the soul out of objects.
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I took that as an opportunity and suggested that he was right about the money
thing. The only spiritually correct way to proceed, should he be willing to part with it,
would be to exchange it for something that had equal meaning in the big scheme of
things. I was shamelessly hustling the kid who, by the end of the conversation, was
convinced that I was an old soul and a true guru.
I told him the tale of the kick-boxing shorts. I was careful to accentuate the
spiritual quality of the ridiculous episode. I omitted the bleeding speaker incident and
suggested that Big Ace was only days away from entering a monastery to pursue his
interest in Buddhism. I said I might be able to exchange the shorts for his charm but I
would need to speak with Ace and get his approval. In fact, Ace was on a spiritual quest.
Her name was Belinda. He had been locked up in his losmen with her for the past week
and I rarely saw him except at meal times. I filled Ace in and asked him if it was OK to
swap the shorts. He was lust-dazed and would have agreed to anything to make me go
away. He loved the hustle, particularly the line that had him entering a monastery, and
suggested I tell my trading partner that suffering is in things—and he should take a long,
hard look at the Diamond Sutra. This last advice worked wonders, and the hipster and I
exchanged boxing shorts for a Dayak charm.
And then, years later in the Nias jungle, I saw the shorts on the kid. When I took
a closer look I realized that they were the same shorts—the place where the yin-yang
emblem had been was long gone but when the kid turned around, there was the patch,
safety pinned to the waistband.
I asked the kid where he got them. He stopped walking and stood silently. The
other kid stood behind him and peered out from the protection of the bigger boy. I asked
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again where he had picked up the shorts. The boys stood silently, open-mouthed, their
stares fixed on me. Both thrust their hands toward me and asked, “Gula?” I took a few
hard candies from my pack and put them in the their hands. I spoke to them in Bahasa
but pantomimed taking a picture with my camera to be sure they understood. They
smiled and posed as they were. I had to take a picture of them before I asked the boy to
turn around so I could get my close-up shot of the tattered shorts. I figured I’d give the
one of the kids to Red. I’d send the other to Big Ace.
My three-day walk turned into six days; the names of the villages—Orahili,
Bawamataluo, Siwalawa, Onahundo—are a sonorous tip-off to how remarkable these
places were. And if the names sound alien to our Western ears, the warmth and
hospitality of the people were not. I stayed two days in Siwalawa with the village kapala
and his family. They agreed to take the sugar and coffee I offered as a house gift only
after I convinced them that my pack was too heavy with the added weight and they would
be doing me a favor.
The eldest son Lato, a boy of fourteen, was assigned as my guide and stuck to me
like fly paper during my few days. He knew the surrounding jungle and intricate weave
of trails and cattle paths with the kind of knowing a city boy has of the square blocks that
make up his turf. Whether he was barefoot or shod in rubber flip-flops, he ran ahead over
the cobbled paths like an Olympian. I struggled to keep up and, the truth be known, was
always relieved to find him waiting for me, with good-natured patience, at the next
confusing junction. When I was too long catching up with him, he would run back over
the distance he had just covered to make sure I was OK. He would arrive with a worried
look on his face, fearing that he had lost me or would find me sprawled out in the middle
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of the trail, my body already half-consumed by a ravaging army of ants. On finding me
alive the tautness in his face would melt into a beatific smile worthy of Kundun. As best
as I could I told him the story of Livingstone and Stanley—he wanted to know much
more than I was able to explain—and by the end of our first morning he was greeting me
with, “Doctor Living-stone I presume?” replete with a high-tone British accent.
I saw this as an amble to get the feel of the land, but I managed to buy a number
of things that panned out well for me. Lato was my enabler. I would have been lost
without him, and I mean that literally. Lato’s father had sent us to visit a family a few
houses down, saying that they were an important family and might have some things that
would be interesting for me to see, including an old war shield. It was during the
transaction for this shield that I learned how Lato got his name.
I was speaking with the shield’s owner, Bapak somebody or other, when his
grandson, age about four, came into the house. He was crying and frantically rubbing his
legs, which were covered in nasty looking red welts. The father repeated, “lato, lato” as
he attempted to comfort the boy. They were speaking Niha. We were far afield, and
Bapak was too old to have had the opportunity for a good dose of Bahasa at school. I
thought that he was asking Lato to stand up to the plate and cool the kid out, and he did
just that. When I asked him what the fuss had been about he explained that lato was the
name for stinging nettles, and that the boy had walked through a patch and that was why
his legs were burning. Lato added that when he was a boy he was perpetually excited and
ran about without paying attention. He had dozens of brushes with the nettles and that
was how he earned the nickname, “Lato.”
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While his crying grandson distracted Bapak, I managed to close the deal for the
shield with a minimum of hassle. He let me have it for a song. Lato did the
interpretation at breakneck speed, seemingly unaware that my language skills were a step
above a bright third-grader. Bapak explained that it had belonged to his uncle who had
been a courageous warrior in the old days. The shield had been sitting in the rafters of
the house for safekeeping, and he had forgotten about it until I told him of my interest in
old things. He pointed though the door and said that one of the ancestor stones I could
see out front of the house had been put there for his uncle—he had died long ago in a
time when adat was strong.
He was emphatic that, as a respected elder, he lived an adat life, but hinted that
the people were not so observant. He nodded toward Lato and pointed to his dilapidated
chinos to make the point. His little speech sounded serious but was peppered with
warmth and humor—of course, my reading depended big time on my fourteen-year-old
interpreter’s reaction to what Bapak was saying.
I was wondering how he could reconcile living by the old adat ways with selling
the shield. I mean, for his uncle this had been no ordinary object—it had probably saved
his life and the old guy knew it had special juice. As for Bapak? He had to know that it
wasn’t a simple chunk of wood—it was his uncle and half of his ancestors that were
stashed in the rafters, gathering soot. I couldn’t ask the question; it would have been way
out of line to pass it through the mouth of a teenage boy even if I could have framed it.
The next thing Bapak said made me want to laugh and cry at the same time. It went
something like this, “Times change, and money is money.”
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I asked Lato if I had understood correctly—he assured me I had. He added a
couple of refinements that suggested that the old man thought he had lived a moral life,
had properly honored all his ancestors, including his uncle, and didn’t have too much
longer to live. Basically he felt that he deserved the few pleasures that the money from
the shield would buy.
Bless the utility of the spirit, I thought—and then, what would Red have to say
about all this? I stared down that road and before I put a foot out, my heart and head
were in a gnarl. I reasoned that if I didn’t buy it, somebody else would. I conveniently
soft-pedaled Red’s voice telling me, in her no-argument, matter-of-fact way, that if I
hadn’t come along the shield would still be stashed in the rafters. The two zeros I could
add to the purchase price on resale had more weight than the extra time in hell, where I
was surely going. Hell is supposed to be eternal, either way. I bought it.
Now the balance was tipped toward larceny. I had drawn the fourth ace, and all I
could do was bump the bet. So, when Bapak suggested we visit his neighbor, who was
also of distinguished lineage and might have a few prizes in the rafters, I agreed
immediately. Bapak led the way, and I was surprised at his agility as he scrambled down
the ladder of his house.
It was mid-morning and the village was abuzz with activity. Beneath a lazy haze
of smoke, women were wetting down and sweeping the cobbles in front of their houses;
laundry was being set out to dry; a huge pig had been slaughtered and a group of men
were singing off its hair with torches. The rhythmic thunk-thunk of rice being pounded
hung in the air like the heartbeat of an enormous being.
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Bapak, Lato and I strolled down a three-foot-wide walkway that cleaved the
village in two, the standard plan for this end of the island. Two rows of houses, oriented
north and south, flanked the open space. The short ends were plugged with the
headman’s house and an entrance gate framed by two guardhouses. The scene reminded
me of the model forts and castles I built as a kid and evoked the same secretive pleasures
and fears. I was fast falling under a complex spell. I had no thought of this then, nor any
idea who, or what, did the casting. All I can remember of that moment was that I
snapped one picture and was ready to snap another when my finger refused to click the
Bapak and Lato stopped to chat with the villagers along the way. I was routinely
introduced to all those we met and felt a little like an exotic dog that had just been fetched
from the pound. I had been through this before. The same questions: Are you married?
How many children do you have? Where are you from? And then, presumably satisfied,
the questioners returned to their tasks. I laughed to myself on remembering an incident in
Borneo from a couple of years back. I woke up after having just fallen asleep and was
startled to find my host and his entire family hovering over me. They were watching me
sleep with the same bland expression on their faces one might have staring into a frontloading washing machine.
It seemed to take forever to get to the neighbor’s house. Each house was reached
from a smaller walkway that jutted off the main thoroughfare. The entire village was
paved with stone, the walkways were distinguished by flatter, whiter pieces. A ditch
about two feet wide ran around the perimeter of the village. The ditch gathered rainwater
and acted as an open sewer for minor detritus, and one had to cross over it on a stone slab
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bridge to enter the private space before each house. We stood at the common ground side
of the bridge and waited for formal permission to cross. The houses were built side by
side and I guess that with the lack of physical privacy, rules of social and psychological
privacy were rigorously followed. It would be pretty difficult to fuck up without the
whole world knowing, and I wondered what star-crossed adulterers did under the
The old man’s teats hung from his chest like flapjacks. He was toothless and, in
so far as its possible to look disheveled while wearing only a sarong, he looked
disheveled. He stood in his doorway, gumming a wad of betal nut. The red juice
squirted from his mouth as he talked. He spoke Nias, which was directed to Bapak and
Lato, but all the while his gaze washed over me, from my head to my feet and back again.
I was uncomfortable and felt as if I were being sized up for supper.
Lato must have gone straight to the point. The old man broke off his conversation
and went inside his house mumbling to himself all the while. Lato explained that Bapak
had reminded the old man that he had something I would be interested in. This old man
had forgotten he had it, had forgotten that it was stored in the rafters. When he hobbled
out holding the necklace, I was thinking that there had to be some mistake—no one could
have forgotten that he owned a gold necklace that probably weighed in at half a pound
and was beautiful to boot. I was positive that this was no airport trinket. Although the
old man’s dotty behavior appeared genuine I had been burned before in an elaborate dog
and pony show a scant three hundred miles from here in a village that seemed even more
remote. My cautionary antennae were up. I hadn’t suffered quite enough in getting here
to deserve it. (I had erased the bout of dysentery from memory.) I was in search of gold
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jewelry and carved stones, but my expectation was that they were to be found near the
village of Gomo in another part of the island.
In my estimation the old man handled the necklace much too casually. Gold
objects are connected to the spirit world in a very direct way: gold is “hot,” formed and
smelted with fire. Fire is unpredictable, destructive and steeped in magic of the
alchemical sort. Finally, gold inherits the properties of its maker. In the old days
goldsmiths had to go through elaborate rituals to protect themselves from the harm they
might suffer from messing with the spirits of the upper-world. And here was this old
man spitting on the necklace and rubbing it with his sarong, spinning it in his palms and
proffering it to me as if it was a foil-covered egg left over from Easter.
I looked closely at the pleated, crescent-shaped necklace and hefted its weight. Its
simple beauty knocked me out—it was rough and graceful at the same time. The
hammered gold was rose colored, which meant it wasn’t as highly valued as gold that
was more yellow, but I didn’t care and laid my wariness to rest. The Nias people were
traditionally a status-conscious bunch who had a clear idea of who and what belonged
where. Gold figured big in the hierarchy and still did, as far as I knew. They didn’t trade
slaves for it any longer but it surely did separate the commoners from the nobles, and
even today wearing a piece of jewelry that was beyond your station drew frowns from the
neighbors. That’s why the old man’s indifference to the necklace made me a little
It became clear that the old man wasn’t acting; he wasn’t quite right by any
standards, and I felt a smidgen of guilt wheeling and dealing the necklace from him. I
thought I detected disapproval from Bakpak, who, along with Lato, helped broker the
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deal, but it was hard to read the signs across the gulf of language and culture. Bapak was
big on living an adat life, so he’d said, but he had earlier sold me his uncle’s shield with
the reminder that times change and “money is money.” Maybe he was simply miffed that
his neighbor got a better deal.
I had never given a seller more than he asked for, but I made an exception. We
dispensed with the weighing of the piece, the common practice for determining its value,
and agreed on a price. I threw in a wristwatch that I had bought on the sly after Red and I
disavowed our watches. The old man had admired it in the course of our conversation
and was more delighted with the watch than the money, though it was unlikely that he
could tell time or needed to. When I spoke with Lato later in the day he assured me the
old man was pleased with the deal. I fished around for his opinion on whether the old
guy was senile and Lato’s answer gave me something to think about. “He was a great
warrior but now he is very, very old. He doesn’t come to the big feasts anymore. He
never wears the necklace.”
I left the village and Lato the next day. He was a sweet kid and I preferred his
company to about ninety percent of the people I knew. I also knew that Red would have
adored him and encouraged me to do something nice for him. I had intended to give him
the watch that I had included in the deal for the necklace and noticed a flicker of what I
thought was disappointment on his face when the old man graciously accepted it. I gave
him a handful of rupiah, but it was too crude an equation for how I felt about this kid—
and unworthy of the care he lavished on me. He was out having an adventure and
making a new friend, and I was telling him that time was just money—a link up he hadn’t
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made yet. He received the rupes with his head drooped and eyes that looked askance at
both the money and me.
Yeah, I spent my time collecting things and selling them off to the highest bidder,
but there were very few things that I was deeply attached to. What things were worth had
little to do with their cash value. The glue was more mysterious. My attachment grew
from how things came to me—not the best principle on which to build a business. The
Dayak charm that I hustled from the hippie kid and wear around my neck is one of them.
There are my hiking boots, but that’s a matter of utility and comfort; besides I bought
four pairs to make sure I didn’t run out of them for ten years or so. And then there is the
knife that Big Ace had customized for me years ago and gave me as a gift.
All things connected to Ace have a story, and the knife was no exception. The
business end of the knife was standard Swiss Army—two blades, screwdriver, can
opener, awl and corkscrew. Ace had removed the original red plastic handle and fitted
his own version. The handle was made of laminated poplar and ebony and fashioned
such that it was striped like a zebra. It came to me as roundabout as the Thai boxing
Ace showed up at my place one day and showed me a knife he had made. I knew
that he had made perhaps a half-dozen of these and had seen a couple of them before he
sold them or gave them away. He proffered the knife to me in his open palm as one
might offer a gift. It was a beautiful piece of work, and I took it in my hand, truly moved
by his gesture. “Man, it’s one of the best! I can’t thank you enough.” I said. Big Ace’s
face grimaced, his eyes squinted and his limbs went rigid and then flapped into a tangle
of discomfort. “What the fuck is wrong with you?. Is it something I said?” I delivered
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this with a laugh, feeling a tad uncomfortable myself. “It’s the first one I made for
myself,” he said, dejectedly. I handed it back to him amused, but with regret. And then,
two weeks later, true to form, he appeared with another. “This one’s for you, asshole,”
he said warmly. And so I passed the knife on to Lato along with the story about how it
had come to me, and a request that he remember the story, and tell it often. It was the
right thing to do. As I was leaving the village I stopped at the gates and turned back to
wave goodbye. Lato was whittling away on a piece of wood.
When I left the village of Siwalawa I headed north and further inland for a day or
so. Walking was like oil on the joints of my spirit, and I became more buoyant with each
step. My heart was another matter. Leaving Lato was like pushing the button on a
switchblade—out popped the stabbing memory of Red. I wondered what she was
thinking and what she was up to. Edna St. Vincent Millay got it right when she wrote of
the presence of that absence; it was something rather than nothing. Red’s absence grew
heavy as a stone lodged in my chest. I walked fast and told myself that it was not a going
away but a going toward. I could carry the stone for a while but I was looking forward to
putting it down and, for the first time in my life, telling someone how that was.
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There is a photograph from Nias that is truly puzzling. Although it is mysterious
and seems concerned with the notion of the mutability of things, I do not think Hart shot
it. It is out of focus and badly composed—as if both the subject and camera were
moving—but is nonetheless fascinating. There is a blur of black and white near the
center, which might be a figure; a few feet to its right, a silver and red swoosh gives the
impression of a large object either rising or falling. These images appear against a
backdrop of dark green trees with a shard of sky that juts in at an incomprehensible angle.
There is no information written on the back.
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Ibrahim and his wife welcomed me back like part of the family. It was a dubious
honor, since their kids were bawling and the little lady had a fresh bruise on the right side
of her face. I guess he thought he had to make up for lost time while I was gone. I spent
the following couple of days preparing for my trip to Gomo. I was reluctant to use
Ibrahim as my guide but he claimed to know the route and said he had a relative in a
small village in the area. He also spoke Nias, which was crucial. What clinched the deal
was that he owned a motorcycle and could lay his hands on another for me—something
that would have taken me a few days of searching around and made me nuts.
We left for Gomo on a morning when Nias must have forgotten it was on the
Equator. The temperature had dropped to a tolerable simmer and the humidity
mysteriously vaporized itself. To avoid another boat ride up the coast, we decided on the
more arduous route inland on the bikes, which I figured to be more interesting. It would
lengthen our overall trek but take us through a number of remote villages and ultimately
might shorten our walking. My bike was missing a foot peg—shifting and taking the
bumps with only one leg for purchase enhanced my appreciation of bilateral symmetry.
Twenty minutes into the trip I wondered if it was a wise choice. Riding on the stonecobbled trails was worse than any scramble track I’d ridden. It gave new meaning to the
expression “bone-jarring” and left me with a case of hemorrhoids like the Sierra Nevadas.
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The scattered villages we passed through were like the suburbs, minus the
shopping mall, of larger fortified towns. For the people who lived in them the seat of the
action was usually across the river and up the next hill. There were few adat houses and
on most all of them the roof thatch had been replaced with corrugated tin. They were
placed willy-nilly on the hillsides without the benefit of a village center. I was so beaten
down by the ride that I could barely be social with these shy people, let alone locate and
negotiate for anything if it existed. The people spoke no Bahasa, and for the first time I
was glad there was a language barrier.
Ibrahim was a wild man on the bike and brazen to the point of foolishness. I felt
like a cautious geezer by comparison. That passed when Ibrahim’s Achilles heel showed
itself at the first river crossing. Our plan was to take the bikes as far as we could and then
walk. When the trail looked like it ended, at a gorge about fifty feet deep, I thought my
misery was over and we could finally abandon the bikes. And then I saw the bridge.
Ibrahim looked pale and I missed hearing his usual war cry—”Antimalaria.” It
was a slogan from a tee shirt, advertising a drug company and it amused me to hear him
yell this nonsensical expression whenever a tough situation arose. It didn’t come with
any strategy on his part; he just barreled through on his balls and a streak of meanness.
So I was surprised to hear him say, “I can’t do it, Boss.” I didn’t get it until his eyes
darted in the direction of the bridge. The thirty-foot-wide river gorge was spanned with
two logs: one about eighteen inches in diameter, the smaller about six. The logs were
placed a foot or so apart and I guessed that the idea was to ride over the fat one and use
the smaller to touch down on if you got shaky. The problem was that if you got shaky
you were fucked anyway. I wasn’t sure I could do it either.
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I was a shade perverse and asked Ibrahim to repeat what he said, pretending that I
hadn’t understood him. I wanted a reward for pulling off this Evel Knievel stunt, not
once, but twice. And then I had the sickening thought that I’d have to do the return trip
as well. I was ready to ditch the bikes and start the walk from there, but Ibrahim
wouldn’t hear of it. He told me the trail continued on the other side of the river and we
could ride at least another twenty klicks—walking would add another day. When I said
that didn’t bother me, he protested by saying we wouldn’t reach the next village to stay in
by nightfall and we couldn’t sleep in the jungle. I pointed out that it was early afternoon.
He side-stepped that and launched into a lame harangue about how it was a matter of
pride and he couldn’t live with himself if we didn’t go on. His logic sucked, but his fear
was real and it was clear that I had to deal with that.
I’m not afraid of heights but the idea of death at an early age is right up there on
my Don’t try this at home list. I gave Ibrahim a quick lesson in how to operate my
camera so at least there would be photographic evidence of my demise. His nervousness
was spooking me and I hoped the photo shoot would cool him out. I walked across the
bridge to get a sense of just how stupid I was about to be. It was a little like running a
river, where you get out of your boat and check the rapids to see what you’re in for—and
hopefully plot a strategy. I judged that I needed a little speed to keep me going straight,
but not so fast that I’d skid off the log. I stared into the abyss of the gorge. Fifty feet
doesn’t sound like much until you look down from that height and imagine how small
your body would look crumpled at the bottom. It scared me shitless, and I hoped I could
use my fear to focus on getting across without killing myself. I also thought it would be a
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good idea to let some air out of the tires so that there’d be a bit more rubber to hug the
crown of the log.
I took Ibrahim’s bike across first. It was more reliable and at least had two foot
pegs. I fired it up and, for reasons unknown to me, sung a few lines of, “You don’t miss
your water till your well runs dry.” Despite the short approach the bike was perky
enough for me to pop it into second gear before I hit the logs; the short first gear would
have made the ride jerkier. The bike shot across straight as a die. Ibrahim applauded
when I arrived safely on the other side. He motioned me back with hand movements the
way one might entice a child who was reluctant to do what you were hoping him to. He
was apparently thinking about his own upcoming ordeal.
I was conflicted about whether I should help get him across before driving the
second bike over. I was pumped from the rush of my first run and didn’t want to
squander the focus it gave me. Ibrahim had the bug-eyed look of a dog which had
unexpectedly fallen into the water and was desperately raking the side of the boat to
climb to safety. I don’t know what possessed me to punish him further. I pressed him on
why he didn’t remember this little piece of information about the river until he confessed
that he hadn’t been on this particular route before. It was self-interest that made me
decide to take him across then, rather than any simpatico for his plight. I surely didn’t
need him to have a nervous breakdown in the middle of the jungle.
I walked cautiously back across the bridge—it was scarier than riding over. It
was a lot slower than the bike and the extra time to think was enough to put myself in a
sweat. “OK, Ibrahim, your number’s up. Time to cross the Great Divide.” I said it in
what I thought was a humorous way, but the poor bastard cringed into a compacted mass
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of knobs and sinew. He looked like a kid in a schoolroom trying to make himself small
so that the teacher wouldn’t call on him for his homework. I offered to lead him across
and suggested that it might be a good idea if he blindfolded himself so he couldn’t see the
drop. He sprang rigid out of his crunched stance at the horror of that idea. I described to
him how I once saw two Balinese women lead a third across a narrow footbridge. She
kept her eyes shut for the length of the ordeal. I waited quietly as they passed and then
asked them about it. They were very matter of fact and said their friend was afraid and
they did this every time they went to market. Ibrahim was unmoved.
We were at a high spot in the terrain and could see that there were no feasible
crossings for quite a distance. The map had scant information. The directions that the
guy we visited in Denpassar scrawled on a napkin were even more useless. Slogging
through the dense growth until a likely ford showed up looked counter-productive. We
agreed to bag that as an option. Ibrahim brightened momentarily and said, “I will crawl
across. I will crawl across, like a baby.”
Ibrahim did a pretty good job of it, right down to the baby sobs he uttered for the
length of the log. I photographed his triumph and promised to pin the pictures up in the
town hall if he pissed me off in any way. I was sorely tempted to give one to his wife
when we returned. The poor woman had suffered so many indignities at his hands that it
might give her a little satisfaction.
With Ibrahim safely across I mounted the one-peg death bike. I rued my choice to
leave my own machine back in Bali. I revved it up, leaned hard into the front end to keep
it down and popped the clutch. My attempt was fucked at takeoff. I couldn’t get enough
speed to shift until I hit the log. My shift foot slipped and I missed the gear change. My
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second try on the shift pedal put the bike reluctantly into third. I wobbled uncontrollably
and leaned the weight of the bike toward the small log. When the rear tire slipped from
the log, the front end reared up like a bronco and sent me flying backwards. The
motorcycle and I fell between the logs, but my outstretched arms pinioned me so that my
ass and feet hung over the torrent below. The engine was screaming its little rice burner
heart out. The accelerator grip had been wedged on full blast and drowned out the roar of
the cataract. The handlebars kept it from falling into oblivion and despite the confusion
of the moment I had to laugh at the bike’s resemblance to my own plight.
The fear on Ibrahim’s face was replaced in rapid succession by disbelief, concern
and, once he saw I was hanging on in relative safety, relief. “I took the picture,” he said,
in a high-pitched squeak that bordered on hysteria.
I hauled myself up, straddled the big log and reached down to the bike to turn off
the ignition. The roar of the rushing river burst in my stomach before I heard it and my
panic rose and abruptly left in an undignified stream of puke. I had a deep cut where my
sunglasses had been mashed into my cheek. The bleeding made it look worse than it felt,
but a quick survey of the rest of my body told me nothing was broken.
The force of the fall had wedged the business part of the bike clear through the
opening so that the entire weight dangled from the handlebars. It wasn’t going anywhere
soon. I didn’t relish the task of getting the bike free. I couldn’t exactly call Triple-A and
have them send over a tow truck, but I knew we could figure it out. Enough sweat and
money and rope would make it happen. Ibrahim had the incentive to set the wheels in
motion with the locals, seeing as he was ultimately responsible to his friend who owned
the bike. We decided to move on and try to put together some plan to retrieve the bike on
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our return. I reassured Ibrahim that I would pick up the tab for any damages and
whatever we had to shell out to the locals.
Now I had to piggyback with Ibrahim for the rest of our ride. The little bike
groaned under my extra weight and I took to walking up the steepest hills, for my own
health as well as pragmatics. We still took a couple of spills that knocked us black and
blue and branded us with road rash. I couldn’t describe the country if I’d wanted to; my
entire being was focused on getting there and back with my remaining body parts in
There was another river to cross, and I felt like a character in the Jimmy Cliff
song. This crossing didn’t involve heights, but the turbulent waters made a drivethrough impossible. We sat on the bank smoking krataks when four young men from a
nearby village appeared. They all wore funky gym shorts and flip-flops and carried stout
bamboo poles about four feet long. The jungle surveillance cameras must have been in
operation—it was hardly coincidence that they appeared at just the right time. The
youngest spoke Bahasa and did the negotiations for the group. They would carry the bike
across on the poles for a few rupes. They had it down! They speared the poles through
the wheels, shouldered the load and, with lots of slipping and stumbling, portaged the
machine to the other side. Then, using their poles to fend the current, they escorted
Ibrahim and I across.
The trail worsened, and Ibrahim twisted his ankle in a vain attempt to stave off
another fall. I had had enough of the fiasco and decided to walk the last kilometers to the
tiny village of Orahili where I would meet up with Ibrahim, who was visibly relieved to
drive it alone. I lashed my pack to the bike and followed the smell of burnt engine oil up
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and down the hills. It was an unpleasant hike, more so when the mosquitoes showed up
for their evening meal, but a hell of a lot better than the mugging I endured sitting behind
Ibrahim. I got to Orahili at the edge of darkness to find him sitting at a stream, dangling
his swollen foot in the cold water.
We spent the night with a distant relative of Ibrahim’s in a house outside the
village. The house was totally different from the traditional architecture of the region and
could have passed as affordable housing anywhere in the Third World. It was one room
built of cinder block, had a corrugated zinc roof, and squatted on a concrete slab square
on the ground. How they managed to get the building materials there was a mystery to
me. When I asked the old man how it was done he simply gave me a look reserved for
morons and uncomprehending children.
Sleep was painful. The reed sleeping mat was no match for the hard floor, and
my bruised body felt beyond redemption. I woke wondering if I would spend the rest of
my days as a semi-invalid, covered in what looked like ill-designed tattoos etched in
blurry blue-black. Ibrahim was relatively chipper, although he hobbled around painfully
on his twisted foot. He had decided to bail out of our adventure—the reason for his
uplifted mood—and return to Lagundi. There was no mention of shame or loss of selfrespect for abandoning the mission, just a long string of excuses regarding the difficulties
he was to have retrieving his friend’s motorcycle.
He had already enlisted the help of some of the young men of the village, at what
I thought was an extravagant price, but if there was a situation that better suited the
expression “he had me over a barrel,” it didn’t come to mind. I grumbled and paid off the
men, secretly happy to be rid of Ibrahim and on my own again. I didn’t know if I would
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come back over the same route and didn’t ask how he intended to get the bike back to
Lagundi. Besides, there was no fucking way I was ever riding that one-pegged derelict
To his credit, Ibrahim told the old man of the house what I was doing so far away
from home and made him responsible for my welfare. The blood connection, plus a little
cash, was enough that he seemed to accept his new responsibility without a peep. The
old guy was a bit creaky and spoke halting Indonesian, but he had a teenage son who had
gone to school and spoke fluently. The son was one of the men hired to go with Ibrahim
to liberate the bike. He would be back by nightfall and we could set out the next day for
Gomo. He seemed bright and eager, but there was something a bit shiftless in the way he
looked away from me when he spoke. I put it off to my mounting uneasiness about the
whole situation, but I couldn’t see any viable alternative.
After a meager breakfast of rice and cold vegetables I soaked myself in the cold
stream near the house. For the second time in as many weeks I was thankful for a day of
rest, but while I sat there a young boy came to tell me about some ancient stone
sculptures in the forest that I might want to see. We first had to go into the village proper
and alert the kapala desa of our intentions. So much for nursing my wounds….
Orahili was a much smaller village than that of the same name which I visited at
the other side of the island. There were perhaps a dozen buildings, arranged in rows on
either side of the north south axis. The cobble paving gave up at the gates, and the
village center was a dusty expanse of packed dirt. The chief’s house sat alone at the
short-sided, northern end. An impressive array of ancestor menhirs and stone tables
accompanied two magnificent stone thrones that stood sentinel in front of the house.
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There was no doubt they were seats of power and made to last. These were similar to the
sculptures I had hoped to find and cart out, who knew how, to my clients back home—I
had only seen these objects in photographs and had no idea they were as large as a black
bear and weighed four times as much.
I already knew the seat of Nias culture was considered to be here in the Gomo
area, and soon after being introduced I offered this up as a conversation starter with the
chief. It was hardly necessary. He launched into a discourse on the history of the culture
that left me weak from the effort of concentration. I managed to understand that the
ancestors, the original people called Niha, descended directly from heaven to the very
spot where we stood. He and his people were Ono Niha, children of the people, and as
far as he and I were concerned, that was pretty damned special!
I had met other kapalas, and he was taller and younger than I expected, with a full
set of teeth that had not been eroded by chewing betal nut. He was gracious, but his
bearing was formal and aristocratic. He spoke Bahasa slowly and clearly, and he
tolerated my limitations with the language even as he complimented me on my ability.
He wore a sarong and a collared white shirt, not unlike ones I usually wore. Despite the
heat his shirt was buttoned to the neck. The two young boys who took me to him kept a
respectable distance as they waited for us to finish our conversation.
The kapala insisted that I spend the night at his house, even seemed miffed that I
had spent the previous night with the family outside the village. Maybe he knew about
the concrete floor. I sensed this was protocol and, with the hard floor ingrained in my
muscle memory, I readily agreed. The logistics about a guide to Gomo were sure to be
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an issue, but I knew enough to go with the flow of power and accept whatever he
Having done my civic duty I was then free to follow the boys into the forest to see
the megaliths they had promised. My young guides accepted the kapala’s curt parting
words with their heads bowed in deference and then scooted ahead of me to the village
gate. The twenty-minute stroll to the site rests in my mind as the greenest walk I had
ever taken. The path wound through dense growth over a small, but steep hill. When we
arrived at the clearing where the stones were, the sky, hidden from view during our walk,
glowed a burnished red. I had to blink a few times to right my vision from the afterimage brought on by the unrelieved green of the forest.
The clearing was in a bowl formed by the surrounding hillocks. I could see ten or
so heads, bobbing in the shoulder-high growth of bushes and cane grass. The women
from the village had gone ahead to begin clearing the site with their parangs. One by one
the stone discs became visible. The low morning sun glinted off their polished surfaces.
The light was like that of a movie I once saw being filmed. The crew had brought in
lighting to intensify the broad daylight of the blazing sun.
During the morning I counted thirty-eight stones. They varied from three to
nearly six feet in diameter, and most of them rested on their original, fluted pedestals.
Except for periodic clearing of the undergrowth, the stones had lain undisturbed for
hundreds of years. As near as I could understand from the piecemeal explanations given
in halting Bahasa, the “dancing stones” were not much in use nowadays. They were
relics of the old ways and subject to the remembering and forgetting on the part of the
living that seemed achingly familiar to me.
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To say that they resembled flying saucers, mushrooms, café tables, altars, garden
benches or pizza stones, adds nothing to our ability to grasp these out-sized ceremonial
objects. It hinders access to the source of their power by locating them in the prosaic.
Big, flat, circular stones in the jungle—how could they have moved me so far beyond the
confines of my body?
Some of the younger women stood on the stones and stamped their bare feet,
aping how they had once been used at weddings and celebrations. A few of the boys beat
on the rims with sticks, and each stone had a different sound depending on its thickness
and diameter. Red would have loved the idea that the stones were made by young men
and dedicated to their brides for the wedding ceremony. I imagined Red doing one of her
hippie-inspired dances to set our marriage in stone—I wondered if that would ever come
to pass.
I spent the rest of the morning with the stones and remained long after the locals
wandered off to other chores. The enclave in the forest was set apart, not only from the
common workings of the world, but from the natural world as well. It was surely a
bridge to the place where the spirits dwelt.
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Even as an experienced traveler I sometimes find it difficult to believe that places
exist outside of pictures. These days, it is even harder to accept the idea that every image
has a source in the real world. Advances in computer and photographic technology have
tampered with our ability to believe. We see a picture of something truly beautiful or
miraculous, and we automatically wonder if it exists only in the imagination of its maker.
Hart’s photographs of the chief’s house in Orahili Gomo fall into that zone of
doubt. How could people with only the most rudimentary technology construct such a
marvel of engineering and aesthetics? Hart took one of the shots from the entrance gates
to the village. The house is situated at the far end of the settlement—it occupies the
entire short end of the village and dwarfs the rows of more ordinary houses that make up
the long sides of the village plan. Together they enclose a common space where the
citizens carry on their day-to-day activities. Although the larger towns in this area are
often cobbled and have walkways demarked by different paving stones, the common
space in this photo looks like a beach. The village seems pacific and secure, with the
perfection of a stage set, or a scale model, a bit unbelievable.
The curved roof of the chief’s house soars majestically toward the heavens, the
manicured thatch punctuated by a single window. I cannot fathom how tall the trees that
made the carrying beams must have been. The house posts are smooth, thicker than a
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man’s body and rest on boulder-sized footings. The bulk of the supports sets off the
lightness of the structure and sends it airborne.
Houses had great importance beyond the practical in traditional Nias culture.
Much as our own houses, they offered shelter and a way for the owner to declare his
status and flaunt his wealth. Traditionally they took it a bit further than we do and
allowed only high-born people to use certain images and sculptures. The houses were
also thought of, symbolically, as cosmological maps—the upper space beneath the roof
signified the heavens, the living space represented our world and the penned up area
below the house, where the animals were kept, corresponded to the underworld.
Different parts of the house had names that were related to the human body, some of
which were decidedly sexual and gender related. The house, far from being a dumb,
inanimate object, was seen as a living organism. Hart’s many photographs from the area
reinforce this idea.
The pictures of the Gomo chief’s house bring us incrementally closer—we can
sense the photographer moving toward it, snapping away as he walked. When he shoots
from directly in front of the house, the stone monuments and a pair of odd-looking
thrones can be seen in clear detail. These are commemorative sculptures to the ancestors
who, in turn, extend their protection and blessings to the inhabitants of the village and the
house. The seats of the thrones are cradled between the heads and tails of mythic beasts,
composite beings that can’t be found in any zoo. The legs of the throne end in taloned
feet and add to the convincing impression that the throne is alive. To Western eyes the
three heads on each seat are demonic and look as if they’d scare off anything or anybody
who stared into their gaping maws.
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The photographs taken inside are quite dark but give a sense of the bigness of the
space. The wood surfaces are polished to a sheen through use—the benches and floors
have a human luster—and so the interior, despite its grandness of scale, has a decided
hominess. The rafters are hung with pig jawbones from the many feasts the kapala had
hosted. They glisten like freshly brushed teeth against the warm, mahogany interior. The
support posts and woodwork are embellished with rosettes, plantlike motifs, and
renderings of monkeys, lizards and birds. One suspects that the Nias people, who see
themselves as apart from nature and have invested so much in keeping it at bay, allow it
to enter their lives only as art.
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Still spinning from bike-fatigue and my morning with the stones, I was
unprepared for the evening bash at the chief’s house. While not as grand as some of the
more renowned chiefs’ houses, the trade-off of tourist attraction for mystique and
intimacy, is one that I’ll accept every time. A wooden ancestor image, a sitting man with
a headdress fashioned to look like the tree of life, nearly took my breath away. It pulsed,
rather than sat, in its altar-like niche. The most unusual wall hooks I’d ever seen—my
brother would have loved them—were a cluster of penises that ringed the central support
post. I thought back to Lily and how she had given me my name and laughed loudly
enough so that the kapala looked at me curiously and smiled. “Too complicated to
explain,” I said in my best Bahasa. “Tidak apa apa,” he responded, nodding his head
sagely. No problem!
I knew that I was in for a treat when the lady of the house took down the special
plates they broke out for feasts and special occasions. There was a wonderful dinner of
pork and vegetables. It’s no wonder that Christianity rather than Islam had better luck
converting these traditional societies.
The kapala delighted in his role as cultural emissary and gave me an earful of the
small and large of life in Niha culture. His name was Fosi. He explained that this was
the name of the sacred tree that was planted by the Creator himself. Fosi was into
refinements of explanation that went far beyond my language ability. He added that his
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name was also like the name of a famed storyteller, Fozi, and tried to get me to hear the
distinctions in how the words sounded. I pretended understanding to cut short the
frustration I saw building in him. I thought that it was worth giving a shot at explaining
my own name. I knew the Indo word for heart, but that was the start and finish of my
explanation, which suited Fosi just fine—he declared it nama asli, an original name.
Even if I had the words I’m not sure the entire story would have translated to this
dignified man.
It was exhausting trying to keep up with Fosi. He was the incarnation of Jack
Kerouac and spoke in poetic oratory rather than conversation. I wished Mempi had been
there with me to fill in the chasms of my understanding. Still, it was real and riveted me
to the here and now so that I felt exhilarated and happy to be alive.
It was easier when the conversation focused on things that were readily at hand,
or that I had knowledge of from my scattered research. After a conversation about them I
had the feeling that even Fosi thought the penis hooks and the breasts carved on the
center pole were pretty cool décor. I thought of Red’s amused reaction to the decidedly
sexual figures on the Akha gates and what a kick it would have been if she was with me.
There was a steady stream of visitors throughout the evening and long into the
night. What I perceived as the formality of the dinner quickly dissolved in copious
amounts of arak. The seeming language barrier dissolved along with it. Fosi kept his
dignity throughout, even though he was a major player in the drinking department. I’m
not much of a boozer and quickly got quite stupid, stupid enough to tell a story about the
Statue of Liberty. I carried a postcard of it as a conversation starter. I made an attempt to
give it a mythical slant, likened it to an ancestor sculpture and tried to describe its great
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size and what it meant. I started the telling in Indonesian but soon resorted to English
and extravagant gestures. Fosi had long given up trying to translate everyone’s Niha for
me and, amid tears of laughter, abandoned any attempt to make sense of my drunken
Bahasa for the assembled company, who enjoyed themselves hugely anyway. I went to
sleep on one of the benches in the common room with the party in full swing all around
I was hardly ready to leave for Gomo when I woke up the following morning, but
a hangover was no excuse. The arrangements I made earlier had apparently been
scrapped, and I would not be going with the shifty kid I had originally struck a deal with.
Fosi had made other plans for me—he was the chief after all, and I suspected that he
didn’t think too highly of the family I had stayed with two nights earlier. Although they
had given up using slaves a bit later than we had in the good ole USA, Nias society was
still hierarchical and status conscious. Who was I to question the wisdom of the kapala?
My guide was Fosi’s eldest son Sigese. He was a lanky nineteen-year-old with
alert eyes, a chiseled face and a constant smile. Sigese spoke flawless Bahasa and had a
smattering of English, which he learned at the mission school. It boded well and held the
promise that we would both improve our language skills. He looked directly at me when
he spoke and had a firm handshake, an anomaly in this region where the dead-fish grip
reigned. He brimmed with assurance and punctuated his talk with the expression, in
English, “No problem.” I immediately liked his style and that he was excited and
enthusiastic to be striking off on an adventure.
We would be gone for at least a week. It was a two- or three-day walk to Gomo,
and I had no illusions about being able to skate in and waltz out with the prize. Getting
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there was the easy part. Unlike a corporate business deal in the states, time was not a big
issue. The palaver to get the pieces I wanted was sure to be long and complicated. I had
been around enough to know to deal with things as they came up, but I couldn’t resist
looking at the big picture. When I did go that route, a knot formed in my stomach. No
pep talk I gave myself could unravel it. As a balm to my spooks I tried thinking of Red,
but strands of her hair must have been woven into the knot, and it only wound tighter.
Why was I doing this? Why was I questioning doing this at all? Surely I could bring the
deal off—I had been involved with situations like this before—it wasn’t my abilities I
was questioning. The people had been kind to me. They had fed and housed me,
celebrated me for fuck’s sake and then armed me so that I was better able to take things
away that they once held dear. I could thank Red for putting me on this road. I laughed
bitterly at the idea that I initially wanted to discourage her from coming with me for just
that reason.
Singese watched as I laced up my boots. I tied and undid them at least twice. He
smiled and pointed to his flip-flops. I humped my pack and withered when I saw the
purse-sized, straw, shoulder bag that held his belongings. His only other gear was his
parang. He gave me a thumbs-up, smiled again and said, “Okay.” I thanked Fosi for his
hospitality and his help and promised to look after his son. He smiled and said that it was
Singese’s job to look after me. I was in his hands. He turned to his son and gave him a
few instructional words in Niha and then, for my benefit, switched to Bahasa and said
something to him that could roughly be translated as: “You go with him as if I was going
with him.”
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As we passed through the village gates I was the one who looked back. It was
rough going from there on. The round paving stones were coated in early morning slick
and I walked like a spastic with advanced syphilis. I watched, disheartened, as Sigese
floated down the path in a frictionless glide. As the sun rose higher and touched the
stones they released their blanket of moisture in puffs of steam. It was as if the hillsides
were pocked with thermal springs.
After a couple of hours I found my rhythm. I knew it wasn’t simply a matter of
the drier trail underfoot. It had more to do with the grace of this young man whose easy
spirit lifted my own and planted me in the here and now. He offered to carry my pack,
which my pride wouldn’t allow me to let go of and, before the morning mist evaporated, I
didn’t feel the weight any more.
We stopped to eat a lunch of rice and pork rolled in banana leaves, compliments
of Sigese’s mother. We followed our meal with a dessert of bananas from a trailside tree.
During lunch I asked if he would dispense with the formal tuan address. Sigese said that
he would be happy to call me pak or bapak, which translates as father but is used when
speaking to any older man. Half-kidding, I said that it made me feel old and asked if he
would call me saudara, or brother, the common form among equals. Though it would tax
his manners and all he believed to be right, he could manage with that between us, but he
had to refer to me as pak Hart in the presence of others. We both laughed at our
compromise and I thought how different this was from dealing with Ibrahim, who
constantly called me “Boss.”
Early into the afternoon a sudden torrential rain brought us up short of our
intended destination of Lahusa, still another four hours away. We cut two fronds the size
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of elephant ears from a banana tree to use as umbrellas, but it was an exercise in futility
and we were drenched within minutes. One of the steepest sections of the trail became a
formidable cascade. It was too much for even Sigese to manage, and I didn’t squawk
when he suggested that we stop and spend the night with a family he knew in a small
village a klick or so further along.
The next day we made Lahusa in a leisurely walk and spent the night with the
local kapala and his family. The house was far more modest than Fosi’s, as was the meal
we were served, the tastiest part of which was the packets of Raman noodles I had packed
along and donated for the occasion. The family accepted these graciously and when we
sat down to eat ignored their own simple rice dish and happily plowed through the
The kapala, however, knew the score. As the big fish in a tiny, undistinguished
pond, he was mostly interested in making a few bucks. There were no odes to his
cultural history, and he never uttered the word adat. He knew someone in the Gomo area
who owned a spectacular piece of gold jewelry. The same man could get his hands on
the stone thrones that I had come looking for. The kapala said this guy knew where the
old art was stashed and that all deals had to go through him. He had influence with the
police, and the notoriously corrupt customs officials were in his pocket.
I thanked the kapala for his information and, for the same unknown and probably
perverse reasons that I tortured Ibrahim about his fear of heights, I played dumb in regard
to the payoff that the kapala expected. I thought he was a less-than-standup guy and
wanted him to convict himself on that count—which he did. It didn’t give me much
pleasure—Ibrahim was a prick of the first order; this guy was simply hungry and tended
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toward the greedy. I gave him a little money and promised that I would kick in a bit
more if the trip was a success. I had to pass through Lahusa on my way back anyway and
most likely stay with him again. Business is business and dealers are dealers no matter if
the contraband is art, dope or a rusted-out Chevy. What was disturbing was that I was
just beginning to see my own position as sunk to the hips in the same, fetid quagmire. I
had always thought I could maintain a healthy balance between beauty and commerce—I
was no longer so sure.
We had to make a stop at the police station about a kilometer outside of Gomo. It
was little more than a reed shack with a corrugated roof, where I had to show my passport
and sign the guest book. I got a kick out of seeing that there had been exactly seven
visitors to the area in the past year and I didn’t know a single one. The policeman was a
sinewy guy with a drooping eye and a mean scar from his ear to below his jaw line. I
didn’t speculate how he got it. His uniform consisted of a sleeveless tee, tattered khakis
and a leather-billed, military-style hat. The badge on his hat had nothing to do with his
official standing—it was a dime-store toy with words embossed in English that I couldn’t
make out. Illiterate, he held the passport upside down until he got to the photograph
page. He regarded me with the formal distance that often disguised venom. It was a
border-crossing scene in a cheesy war movie. I took him seriously and treated him with
respect. This guy was the law in these parts and could bust my balls in royal fashion if
the opportunity presented itself. It was easier to slip him a tip of a few rupes and a big
smile for his trouble. When asked the purpose of our visit, Sigese told him we were
visiting a friend. When he mentioned his name the policeman gave a chortle of
recognition. He volunteered directions, and I knew that my small tip had paid off.
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At the village, we first made the obligatory visit to the chief to pay our respects.
The chief was ancient—wizened, stooped and missing most of his teeth. I couldn’t
understand a word he said, but his deep crow’s feet betrayed a sense of humor and he
laughed easily. He knew Fosi and, although he hadn’t seen Sigese since he had been a
boy, teased him affectionately and had him laughing as well. We were invited to spend
the night in his house. It was a beautiful traditional structure, one of a handful of adat
houses that had escaped a major conflagration some years back. It was rife with animal
carvings—two lizards adorned the front of the house, an insurance policy for good luck
and fertility, and a monkey’s head the size of a soccer ball appeared to grow from one of
the rafters.
In front of the house were stone benches and menhirs. Each of the six-legged
thrones placed near the entrance had three monstrous heads, which rose on stout necks
from the seat. The plumed tails that sprouted from the ass end, and the scaly ridge of
head combs gave them a decidedly bird-dragon look but their pointed ears gave them a
doggy aspect as well. They stood open-mouthed, all teeth and tongues. I knew the beasts
were thought to be protective but whether they were laughing, singing or, sending out
menacing howls was anyone’s guess. They had a humorous quality that made me smile
inwardly, but when I thought of my plan to ship these things back home, I felt like a first
class heel…but not enough to stop the wheels from turning.
My contact showed up the next day. His name was Hamo, a bit ironic since that
was the word used among the Niha for gold. Whether this was a nickname he got
because of his dealings in gold jewelry, or was given to him by his deluded parents, I
wasn’t sure—that it was a misnomer of the first degree there could be no doubt. Small,
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dirty, with dark, pitted skin, he seemed more of a dwarf star that sucked in light and
turned it to dross—a reverse Midas touch. He reminded me of some of the more
unsavory dope dealers I had met. He sized me up in the same way Señor Paco Dope
would have—his hooded eyes made their quick assessment but gave out nothing. When
he first spoke I thought it was an act of a master ventriloquist. His Bahasa was
mellifluous, and oozed out of him like scented oil.
He led us to his house outside the village. It was a fairly new, undistinguished
Malay cottage. It was dark inside, but orderly and so clean that I wondered about the
contrast with his personal hygiene. As my eyes adjusted I saw rows of stone sculptures
arranged along the side walls. I was startled to see an old man, hunkered in the shadows.
He was smoking a leaf-rolled stogie and preparing his betal nut for chewing. His bamboo
lime container, nutcracker and mixing bowl were arrayed on a square of paisley oilcloth.
He gave us a cursory glance and continued with his small pleasure. We weren’t
introduced and he said nothing during the entire time. If I hadn’t photographed him I
would have a hard time convincing myself that it wasn’t a phantom guardian of the
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The Nias people have their own ideas regarding alchemy. As in medieval
Europe, the craftsmen who shape gold are seen as connected to a powerful upper world
beyond the earthly realm. The goldsmiths of Nias perform complicated rituals to protect
themselves from the magical power of gold. In earlier times, aristocrats who owned gold
jewelry were considered both wealthy and divine. The jewelry remains an important item
in feasts and ceremonies of all kinds and is handed down through generations.
With a legacy this powerful, it is no wonder that Hart went in search of it.
Remarkably, he managed to find the magnificent gold crown seen in one of his
photographs. The gold headband is alive with embossed vine and floral motifs. The
band holds two sidepieces that can be nothing other than flaming wings and is topped by
an image of the tree of life. There are seven tiers of branches that rise more than a foot.
A mustache piece, formed by two outstretched arms, dangles from the headband and in
turn makes a perch for a dog-like beast, also of hammered gold. There are a few of these
old pieces around and many drawings and photographs of them, but none of them
compare to this. The dark, shabby interior in which the photo was taken makes the crown
even more resplendent, and one can only imagine Hart’s excitement of having seen it.
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We no sooner sat on the floor than an old woman came in with cups of a strange
tasting herbal tea. The usual cigarettes were passed around—Sigese declined his and
gave it to the old man who remained hunkered in the shadows. I let my eyes roam
casually around the room while Hamo continued to talk soothingly. I didn’t try to
understand him; I was content to take it in like elevator music. Even when my eyes were
snagged by one of the sculptures surrounding us I sensed that he was watching me, taking
my measure. “You want see gold” he said, in English? I hadn’t stated my interest or
explained why I had come to see him. I guess it was a no-brainer for him—he knew
people didn’t schlep halfway around the world to seek his wisdom. Before I could
answer he said, again in English, “You wait here. I have special and asli for you.”
When he returned, the headdress he was carrying lit up the room. It collected
every pinhole of light that slipped through the thatch walls and splattered it around like a
spinning disco ball. I broke out in rivers of sweat—from excitement or the candlepower
of the golden crown, I didn’t know—and no amount of disinterested, wise-ass talk could
hide that. Objects with that kind of power always feel hot to my touch, and when Hamo
proffered the headpiece to me I was reluctant to take it in my hands. I didn’t need the
stigmata burned into my palms. I hoped to reach that beatified state with a minimum of
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Fantastic is the only way to describe the crown. Its beauty silenced me and its
power seemed more connected to the heavens than the base earth. I was embarrassed in
my soul at how quickly my thoughts turned in grittier, more profane directions. How did
Mempi miss this one? How will I get this back? How much would I have to pay? What
could I sell it for back home?
Hamo was silent. He was crafty enough to let the piece do the talking. After a
minute or two he asked, “Bagus?” “No,” I said, “Not good. This is the shit.” Hamo
looked uncertain, unfamiliar with my slang. Sensing an edge in the bargaining I let it ride
and didn’t explain. “Do you have anything else?” I asked, noncommittally. This was a
bit like asking for a hotdog with kraut after being offered a four-course dinner. There
was a chance this would seriously raise a question about me being an asshole who didn’t
know what he was looking at, but it seemed the right move.
Hamo went into the dark recesses of the room and came back with an object
wrapped in an old sarong. He set it down, hunkered alongside me and slid another
Marlboro from the pack I had left on the floor. I was burning with curiosity and had to
restrain myself from pawing the wrapping off the bundle. Hamo smoked his cigarette
and spoke languidly about what I was going to see. “It is old. It is from the time of my
father’s father. It is asli from the time of the ancestors.” I was wishing he’d get the fuck
on with it and let me decide how original it was, but I had to give it to him, he was a pro
who oiled the skids better than any Wall Street broker.
When he removed the carved figure from the cloth wrapping I wasn’t sure what it
was. My eyes were still adjusting to the dim light, and the after-image of the crown.
Years of handling had burnished the wood of the statue to a restful, comforting luster. It
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was an ancestor image that once sat in a niche, or on a carved post in the center of
someone’s house. Sigese, whom I had all but forgotten, cut short a gasp of approval, and
when I turned to him, surprised at his breach of neutrality, his eyes and mouth were
opened so wide that I expected his brains to fall out.
The statue was a work of genius. It didn’t have the pop and dazzle of the
headdress, which, for all its serious intent, you could have worn to a stylish dinner party
on the upper West Side. Not so with this venerated oldster. If you set this baby down on
the dinner table the conversation would take a nose dive. Forks would drop, wine would
be spilled, and inside of a few seconds there would be generalized, non-denominational,
bowing and scraping.
When I let Hamo know that I was interested in both, he nodded and gave me an
oily smile. We both knew the negotiations had been well under way and my admission
of interest was simply a formality. But initially I had come in search of the stone thrones
and carvings that filled the shadows of Hamos’ house. These things hadn’t made it to the
Western art market, and I relished the chance to be the first one to spring them loose. It
was a matter of accomplishment and pride as much as money. Although Hamo was
dressed in a sarong and lived in the middle of the jungle, he was a businessman through
and through. He jumped at the chance to show me, one by one, the pieces in his stash.
We looked over dozens of sculptures: some were intact, others brutally sawed off
their bases. I felt sick to my stomach. It was like looking at the aftermath of an
execution—the cut-off heads lay on their sides, open mouths gasping for air and howling
in pain. They weren’t goofy or comic any more; their disfigurement saw to that. To me
they were more alive now that they were dead.
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Hamo gave a running commentary on the history and virtues of each of them. He
said little about their aesthetic qualities and confined his comments to their power, the
status of those who had commissioned them, and which ancestors they honored. I was a
slave to my Western eyes, blinded by commerce and that ineluctable thing we call taste.
I chose a complete stone seat and two carved lasara heads that had been lopped off.
Compared to the headdress and ancestor statue, which were well into the realm of the
sublime, the stone carvings didn’t excite me. That the cut-off statues were creepy to the
point of nausea didn’t help the situation. There was also the transport issue: the fucking
things weighed nearly as much as I did. and I hadn’t a clue how I would walk them out
strapped to my back. I was sturdy and willing to push the limits of endurance, but the
effectiveness of will is governed by physics.
I made a bid for the lot—the package deal knows no cultural boundaries—and
after an hour or so of crafty haggling we arrived at a price that was twice what I offered
and half of what Hamo initially asked. It was also a fraction of what I could ask on the
Western market. Hamos sweetened the deal by assuring me that he would get some of
his boys to get the stones to the dock in Telukdalam for a few rupiah more. The extra
money would grease any rub with the local authorities and even take care of the customs
official at the port. We shook on it, and I dug out his cash.
I spent the night in a house on the edge of the forest, outside the village walls. It
had belonged to an elderly woman who had gone off to live with a niece in a neighboring
town. I didn’t see any ghosts or bad vibes around the house—the old lady had been well
liked—and it was in fairly good shape. Sigese stayed with one of his relatives in the
village and he made a big fuss about me being welcomed as an honored guest. I loaned
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him my camera so that he could take some pictures of his family, but declined. I had
already given him a few pointers on the camera, but we put it into automatic mode
anyway. He was excited with the chance to play photographer, and this eased his
disappointment of me not joining him.
I was wiped out by the day’s events and needed some time alone. I had bought
the headdress, the statue and the stone carvings I had come for. I was a happy man. The
mission had been successful beyond any expectations and any residual guilt was erased
by the sheer fatigue of the day.
I lay on my straw mat and listened to the geckos and rats scurry through the thatch
roof. Pictures of Red flitted in the darkened room: she was untying her sarong, bending
to kiss me. I saw her smiling, wild-eyed on a motorcycle, and then standing naked under
a waterfall, her body slick and tanned. Unexpectedly, a drawn-out sequence of Red as a
girl began to play. She was sitting with her mother at an Indian powwow. She was
crying. Her mother, whom I had never met, was soothing her, stroking her hair and
cooing words I couldn’t hear. They were surrounded by a group of dancers in full
regalia, their feathers and fringes flapping wildly in odd time with the chanting and tom
toms. I thought of how much she had become part of my reveries, and how painfully I
missed her.
It seemed forever before I was able to sleep. Even after I conked out the rustling
and creaking played on. I woke a couple of times during the night, disturbed by bumps
and dragging sounds that didn’t seem part of the natural chorus—I wrote it off as the
spillover from my dreams and dropped off into slumber.
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I don’t know how I managed to sleep through the beginnings of the fire. When I
awakened to the smell of smoke and the crackle of the flames, two walls and half the roof
were ablaze. I grabbed my dop kit and dove through the open doorway, which was
already framed in flames. I had set my boots on the small porch outside the entrance and
instinctively swept them off on my way out.
I stood barefoot on the cold ground, watching in disbelief as the house was
devoured by the inferno. I had slept in my tee shirt and shorts and they were soaked
through with sweat—the front of my body, facing the flames, was steaming, my back
chilled in the night air. When I remembered that my pack was inside it was too late. The
flames roared through the house as if it were kindling. I remember wondering if the gold
headdress would melt, if the statue would magically escape the flames and not turn to
When the people ran up from the village it was too late. There wasn’t a single
vertical house part among the skeletal remnants. Aside from the surviving floor beams,
the remains could have fit in a good-sized funeral urn.
Once he was assured I wasn’t burnt to a crisp Sigese asked, “Your belongs,
Bapak? Are your belongs safe?” I must have looked like a day-old fart. It was truly how
I felt—all that flame and then, only the snaky hiss of gas and a bit of ash. Sigese didn’t
wait for my response and his next sentence snapped me to. “Saudara, they were beautiful
things. But they were only things. You have your memories.” I pointed to my camera,
which he was wearing around his neck, and said, “I’ve got some pictures.” How
pathetic! Part of me wished I had never seen those beautiful things—part of me thought I
was lucky to have held them in my hands. In the end I tried to talk myself into believing
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that it was a good thing that I hadn’t had time to get overly attached to them. Ah,
Buddha! Ah, things! Ah, nothing!
My sense of loss was greater than the missing objects and erased the question of
how the fire was started. Sigese asked, but I must have looked at him dumbly and he
repeated the question in Bahasa. He spoke very slowly. My head was stuffed with
sensory overload and felt as if it weighed fifty pounds. I barely managed to wag it side to
side. I hadn’t lit a fire in the hearth, I hadn’t smoked in the house and there were no paint
soaked rags around—that ruled out spontaneous combustion. Arson? An act of the
gods? Both weighed in equally—but what would have been the point? What was the
point of any of it!
I went back to the village for the remaining few hours of the night and plopped on
the floor next to Sigese. I marveled at his ability to fall immediately asleep. I lay there
wide-awake unable to make sense of the riotous images cascading in the dark. I got
up at the first glimmer of light and sat outside to watch the village come awake.
Sigese and I walked up to the site. The flames had died during my sleep and the
ashes cooled enough for us to poke around. We did a desultory search of the rubble in
the hope of finding my pack. There wasn’t a shred of green canvas, no puddle of melted
gold and not a trace of the ancestor statue I had so carefully wrapped in my sarong and
tee shirts. There was nothing, except the indelible image in my mind’s eye and an
undeveloped roll of film in my camera, to suggest any of it had existed. I couldn’t decide
if the ashes of memory would torture or comfort me down the road. I thought of people I
had known who had lost everything to fire. They never stopped burning. They went on,
but they were never the same. It was as if a chunk of their hearts had been charred. And
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the bitch of it was that they couldn’t repair the damage. They went on like squatters and
made their deal with the derelict wallpaper and the smell of smoke and damp.
Sigese’s relatives made no mention of the fire, although they all seemed to watch
me intently as they fanned the coals of their hearth into action. I must have winced, but
Sigese said comfortingly, “Pak, you will feel better after some kappi susu.” I smiled,
because I had given Sigese a few cans of condensed milk to give to his hosts as a house
gift. Coffee was a good way to start even a bad day and I always loved the idea that susu,
the word for milk, was also the word for breast. Everyone was silent as we drank and ate
some bananas and warm rice with coconut milk. We said our goodbyes and went over to
Hamos’ to oversee the packing of my stones.
Hamos’ crew was up and stirring when we arrived—a miracle in itself. Hamos
greeted us gravely. He was operating at a quarter of his usual speed and his morose
slump and downcast eyes conveyed a gravitas worthy of Greek tragedy. At first he didn’t
speak. He probably knew that his sweet voice, geared to the optimism of the deal,
wouldn’t fit the situation. Forgetting for the moment that it was typical of this region, his
fishy handshake set off my alarm bells. Was he feeling guilty? Did he have something
to do with the fire? Or, was I simply reeling with paranoia and ill will? Although it
seemed that the entire village had turned out for the fire, I hadn’t seen him. The sun had
barely risen but bad news travels fast. It was plausible that he had just heard.
“Tuan, I am very soory. It is a bad thing,” said Hamos. Then he turned and spoke
to Sigese in Niha. Sigese’s face was impassive—only a few nods and a long look in my
direction. The conversation didn’t take long. I didn’t understand a word but it sounded
anxious. I was on the mark. Sigese spoke to me in English: “Hamos says that he is
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worry that you want your money back for the things you buy. He asked to tell you he had
not to do with it, with the fire.” And then, like a thunderclap, I realized he did have
something to do with it and there wasn’t jack-shit I could do about it, much less prove
him a fucking arsonist and attempted murderer.
“Tidak apa apa,” I said, cheerily. “A deal is a deal.” I wanted him to finish
wrapping up the stones so I could get going with my tail between my legs.
Hamos made three packages. Each carving was padded with banana leaves,
wrapped in a piece of blue nylon tarp, tied with pink plastic twine, and put inside an
empty rice sack. I took a few photos of Hamos and a young boy packing up the stones.
The smoky light of the early morning made the practical operation a mysterious rite.
Without my pack the hike out was a breeze. I was super-charged. I wanted it to
be over as quickly as possible and I power-walked the entire first day. I stopped to rest
only when Sigese insisted we take a break. In my mood it was probably a good thing that
I didn’t have a motorcycle—it eliminated the possibility of driving it like a maniac into a
river gorge, never to be heard from again. Better to get home late than never see Red’s
smiling face again.
By the time we returned to Orahili I was cranked up beyond redemption. I felt as
if I had been on a drug cocktail of coke and speed and I worried that I would never be
able to sleep again. I also stunk. I had been hiking in the same clothes for three days.
Despite having saved the razor and toothbrush in my dop kit, I hadn’t shaved either.
Shaving had always been a way to make myself feel good—a fresh start, a new face.
Maybe I had a total of a week of no-shave-days since I began scraping my face and for at
least two of those days I was unconscious after a motorcycle mishap. If the state of a
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man’s grooming was a barometer of his emotional state, my reading was at an all-time
Sigese was a trouper the entire time we were on the trail. When we got back to
his immediate family he didn’t abandon me, but on the contrary upped the level of his
concern. My frenzied idea, of walking straight through to the coast without stopping in
his village, alarmed him.
I spent the next day in the safety of Sigese’s family. Sigese gave me a sarong and
a ratty, but clean, tee shirt with a smiley face on it so that I could wash out my clothes
and clean up. I was dreading the conversation with Fosi. He was Sigese’s dad, but he
was also the dignified headman who had a profound and noble link to the adat ways. I
felt ashamed to be in his presence—how could he see me as anything but another sleazy
crook who had come to haul off the booty of his proud culture? I was sure he thought
that I had gotten exactly what I deserved.
A gentleman to the end, he gave me no reason to believe my worst judgment of
myself. Sigese had apparently explained how my misadventure had unfolded, so I was
spared the telling. There was no admonition, only a matter of fact statement along the
lines of, “it was not meant to be.” He said that he knew Hamos only by reputation and
that what he knew was not good. He added that he was willing to make inquiries to find
out if he had a hand in the fire and the missing goods. I said that I appreciated his offer
but this was clearly my punishment from the gods. He nodded sagely and let the matter
drop. I was relieved. The last thing I wanted was to have him embroiled in an intervillage dispute on my behalf.
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Without the bike it was senseless for me to return the way I came in. It was a
long haul on foot and I was definitely not in the mood for sightseeing. I had to backtrack
a day toward Gomo to pick up the trail to the coast. It was another day’s walk from the
crossroads to Helezalulu and then to the coast where I could pick up a boat back to
Telukdalam. Then if I got lucky I’d get a ride on the back of a bike for the last stretch to
Ibrahim’s home-stay.
I made it back without a hitch, except that I arrived in Helazalulu the day before
market day, when the boat was slated to sail. I slept a night on the floor of the local
police station—a perfectly OK thing to do when there aren’t any rooms available. I
cruised the market in the morning and boarded the coastal boat after lunch at a market
I was pleasantly surprised to spot Ibrahim prowling the port in Telukdalam. He
had been in town, trying to hustle up someone who needed transport or a place to stay.
He was all smiles and seemed fully recovered from his embarrassment at abandoning our
mission. He immediately launched into a high-speed description of the ordeal to retrieve
the bike. I hardly paid attention. The short of it was that I owed about forty bucks to the
bike owner for repairs and trouble. “Tidak apa apa,” I said. “I’m glad that you got it
back.” He was reassured. There was no questioning about how I had made out, only a
terse, “It was bagus, Boss? “Yeah, it was good,” was all I offered. I swung onto the back
of his bike, and we blasted off for Lagundi, Ibrahim was feeling magnanimous and made
a point of telling me that there was “no charge” for the ride to his home-stay.
It took me a day or two to get organized. Fortunately I had packed light for Gomo
and stashed the bulk of my gear with Ibrahim. I was still in mourning for my lost
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treasures but when I came upon the necklace and shield I had bought earlier in the trip it
was a bit like having a friendly woman chat you up at a party when the beauty who had
just dumped you was still on your mind. Oddly enough, Red also cropped up
immediately. Inexplicably, I began to cry. Tears don’t come too easily for me. I’m a
little like Red on that score, and it felt like a bad omen. I didn’t care fuck all about the
stones and whether they would ever arrive, I simply wanted to get back to Bali and press
myself against Red’s skin.
I almost hoped the stones wouldn’t arrive. Unencumbered by the fifty kilos of
dead weight I might be able to fly back to Bali and skip the boat ride to Sibolga, the
schlep back to Medan and the plane ride from there to home. Home? Jesus! What was
happening to me?
Good to Hamos’ word, the stones were at the dock in Telukdalam. I was slightly
bolstered by the idea that I had, after all, accomplished something, but was disheartened
by the whole fiasco. The rest of the trip was decidedly, been there, done that.
Red wasn’t at the compound. King said that she had rented a place nearby, but he
hadn’t heard from her in a week or so. I was ready to run off to find her but took the time
to debrief with King. I’d been away for a month and a few hours more without Red
wouldn’t kill me. At least those were King’s words. He marveled at the necklace I had
found, was indifferent to the shield and couldn’t wait to see the stones.
We laid the three packages out on the veranda. I let them sit as I told the story of
how I had gotten them and what I had lost to the fire. I had one eye on the blue tarp
bundles as I recounted the events and, midway in the tale, I realized something was
decidedly wrong. The bundles were lumpy and shapeless and told nothing of the forms
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inside. I stopped mid-sentence and began unwrapping one of them. We stared in
disbelief at the chunks of stone and broken cinder block. We tore open the remaining
bundles to find more of the same. Rubble, fifty kilos of rubble, to speak for my trouble
and my naïve expectation that a man’s word was his soul, that a deal was a deal, that hard
work paid off, that things, real things were worth going through all kinds of shit for. “I
guess you got fucked,” said King. “Royally fucked,” I agreed.
Things. They were beautiful things, but in the end they were just things
connected to ideas, to longing, to a false suffering that I could live a happier life without.
I went off to find Red. I might have been slow on the uptake but at that moment I knew
with certainty that she was all that mattered. And that’s when the real suffering began,
when the pain of memory, the pain of lost roads, of endless meandering began.
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There is a photograph reminiscent of one of the final scenes in Shindler’s List—it
is white, black and gray with splashes of color. The prismatic slashes of red look like
mosaic renderings of rhododendrons. I’m not sure because I’ve only known these
flowers on bushes and here they are on towering trees. The red is chiseled and has a
jewel-like clarity in a sea of blurry movement. Although the print is a full eight by ten
inches it is chock-a-block with activity and it takes a while to discern that they are
flowers. The flowers are floating in an extra-terrestrial haze of white-hot comets with
swirling, silver tails. I stared at the photo for an entire day before seeing the monkey
within each comet. I wondered if the artist had figured a way to photograph his
hallucination, or if he had managed some trick photography in the days before
Photoshop. I have no idea where it wasn taken, but it looks like Hart’s handiwork
through and through. It has the same interest in the miraculous and the same fascination
with things that existed in a space between this and that; it is a photograph of worldly
phenomena caught in the act of their own transformation. It is a photograph that only a
man with one eye off the planet could have taken. It was the last photograph at the
bottom of the box.
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The Nias deal went so far south that I had to come this far North. Other than that
I’m not sure why I’m here. There’s an inch of snow on the ground and a chill wind is
whipping down from the upper regions of Anapurna. Everything seems peculiar. When I
left Dumre, it was sultry. The town was stuck between the earth and a bank of massive,
rain-laden clouds that were barely airborne.
The truck I hitched out of town was carrying fifty-gallon drums of gas. The
springs were shot, and the road was buckled into furrows. I bounced around in the truck
bed with a half-dozen locals returning to their villages. The metal floor was slick with
splashed gas and it was impossible to stand up, even with a death grip on the framing.
One of the fools was smoking. My request to put the butt out elicited a smile, but no
more, so I reached over and took the cigarette from his mouth and threw it away. It was
academic whether I died in a burst of flames, or on the point of some mountain thug’s
knife. I pointed to the drums of gas and did a quick pantomime of an explosion, which
fortunately caused everyone to laugh, the arsonist included.
I bailed out of the truck midway through the afternoon, with my clothes sweaty
and covered in a paste of red dust and gasoline. I felt like a human time bomb. I was
amazed that the local families that I stayed with took me in, except that everyone smelled
pretty bad in this showerless part of the world. I walked for five days with the smell
caked in my nostrils before I reached the hot springs of Tata Pani where I could clean up.
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It took another ten days to reach this rocky crest that juts out over a village whose
name I don’t know. I never found Red in Bali. I was frantic and looked for her until my
eyes burned. I left a letter for her with King. Somewhere along the line she and I had
made sketchy plans to meet in Katmandu. I waited around Katmandu for ten days and
called King every other day, but she never showed up. I picked up the new insoles for
my boots that a blind cobbler made for me, and reluctantly hit the trail. Without Red my
focus is blurry and, to tell the truth, my spirit is in tatters and I’m afraid I might unravel.
I’d been hoping that the challenge of these mountains might do me some good—if I
could rise to the occasion.
The chill of the flat rock I had been sitting on seeped through my clothes and
spread a tingling numbness through my body; I was too tired to move and accepted the
bargain of cold for respite. Perhaps it was simply the fatigue of walking at altitude, or a
trick of the constant wind, but something peculiar happened to me. It was as real as a
photograph. A human heart appeared, floating in the air. It was not a stylized, valentine
shaped heart, but the real McCoy; the bulbous aorta was there, the truncated stub of the
pulmonary artery poked out of the mass of muscle. The upper part of the heart was
skeletal, with the auricles, arteries and veins described by diagrammatic lines. Although
it was true to its human form, the lower chambers were fleshed out with flowers. It
looked so like a flower sculpture from a Mexican religious procession that I had to
remind myself I was in Nepal. A compact bunch of red chrysanthemums gave bulk to the
left ventricle. A messy gathering of poppies sketchily formed the right section. The
poppies covered the interior of the chamber like porous wallpaper, but spilled outside the
bounds of the heart—the leaves, stems, and petals made an unruly contour. I could see
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between the skeletal lines of the upper chambers. I could hear the wind blow through the
flowers. The petals fluttered and trembled. The part of my brain that refused to sleep
was busy naming—the chrysanthemums were Vampire Mums, the poppies wild opium
poppies. I was wide-awake, I wasn’t dreaming and I wanted this part of my brain to
leave me. I wanted it to stop naming and allow me to be there. The heart of flowers
evaporated as silently as it had arrived. All that was left was a smudge of colored
illumination. Momentarily, that too dissipated into the cold air. I looked around me. I
looked very closely. I looked at everything. Everything was clear. I sat on the same
cold rock but my body was no longer cold. The heart was gone but the air had rushed in
to fill the void where it once hung and all appeared the same as it did before the celestial
slide show.
Now there is an inch of snow on the ground, and I am sitting at the edge of a
glade of rhododendrons that rise seventy feet in the air. The trees look as if they are on
fire—hundreds of torch-red blossoms have smoked the shiny green leaves to sooty black.
I remember Red asking me once what kind of tree I thought I was—at the time I
dismissed it as silly and gave her a wise-ass answer. This is the kind of tree I would like
to be, but my heart tells me the rhododendrons are more Red than me. Crossing the high
pass of the Thorang-La was difficult and my dark hair is now shot through with streaks of
gray. I feel old and the trees seem brand new.
The rhododendrons are in full bloom in the snow. The wind keeps a mournful
continuo, and a chattering I hear from the glade grows closer and shriller. There is a
great rustling noise, and the trees suddenly sway as if they’ve been punched. The red
blossoms dart and fracture, like sparks kicked from a burning log. Hoards of silver-
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haired monkeys appear as suddenly as the swaying had begun. They are beagle-sized and
occupy every available limb. The cold sunlight sparkles off their fur and they seem
phantoms, more a matter of memory than real. I wonder if I’m hallucinating and quickly
snap a few photos to reassure myself. The familiar experience of framing and clicking
the world into focus gives me no mooring. I find myself reciting “here and now, here and
now,” as if it were a mantra. No matter, the photograph will prove I was here. I’m
annoyed that I am already thinking in the past tense—once the scene is captured and
filed, it is gone. It was. The reassurance will come later, when I look at the prints
through the safety glass of time, when the flinty edges of now are a memory, when I can
remember to forget.
I don’t know what’s next. In two weeks I’ll walk down from this chilly world
into the racket and steam of Pochara and then…. I collected stamps as a kid and
distinctly remember a favorite stamp from the Andaman Islands. It was triangular in
shape and pictured a landscape etched in soft violet and tropical green. To my eyes it
was beautiful and in my memory it looks as good as anyplace to go. And who knows?
Red just might turn up there.
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I was a wreck after Hart left. I sat around the compound in weepy solitude for
days. I felt like some pathetic heroine in an English novel whose entire life had been
reduced to the boundaries of her lonely, bed-sitting room. King asked once why I was in
such a funk and tried to humor me my saying that he would call me Weepy if I carried
on. I don’t remember what I said but I’m afraid my delivery had the grace of a snapping
turtle. King looked at me quizzically, his smile fixed stiffly, and said, “I changed my
mind, maybe I’ll call you Bitchy.” He avoided me for the most part after that. Even
Brem and Santi were little consolation. I had wished that Brem spoke English well
enough for me to pour out my heart while I was curled alongside her, but she didn’t—and
although Santi did, I wasn’t so interested in curling up with her. Honestly? I wasn’t so
interested in curling up with Brem either.
My stomach was a little queasy, and I lost my appetite but I didn’t know if it was
missing Hart or something I ate. I’d gotten fairly relaxed eating at the local warungs but
all it takes is one teensy bug to bring you down. I was miserable with my morning blues
and missed Hart more than I ever imagined. I’d wake up and he would be right there in
my mind. It so reminded me of the self-portrait by Frida Kahlo, where she painted a
picture of her husband Diego smack in the middle of her forehead, that I came to saying
“Good morning, Diego” when I woke with the familiar pang in my stomach.
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I felt better in the afternoons, and after a few days of self-pity I picked up my
Bahasa/English lessons with Brem. I realized I was going through the motions with her
but really wasn’t there. My interest in sex dwindled, and I was shocked at how quickly
she and I lapsed into a routine of perfunctory lovemaking. I sometimes went to her room
in Denpassar, but I’m loath to admit, its fly-by-night tawdriness depressed me. I stayed
with Hart in far worse places but I guess the romance made it, well, romantic.
I spent the next two weeks moping and waiting for Hart. Round about the day he
was supposed to turn up a telegram came for me. It seemed so old fashioned—a piece of
yellow paper with a note that used the word stop instead of a period—like something
from a 1940s movie. My heart sank when I read:
I couldn’t stay at King’s compound any longer. Even though he pretty much
ignored me, I wanted to be on my own. It took me all of a morning to pack my bags and
find a cute apartment in an up-scale compound that rented mostly to foreigners. The
owner was a tribal art dealer who was off to Europe to peddle his booty. Hart and I had
visited the guy the month before, and I remembered liking the apartment better than I did
I told King where I was going and to be sure to pass it on to Hart when he
returned. I was surer of him doing that than I was of Hart ever coming back.
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I lingered in the apartment for a while and became so listless that I had my meals
sent over from a small warung down the street. I took an occasional walk down the
beach, but I hate to say that without Hart at my side, it was just a whole lot of sand.
My stomach was in a general uproar and I couldn’t shake the bug. I ate enough
white rice and bananas to last a lifetime, but all that did was add constipation to my list of
ailments. I felt weaker by the day.
On the plane back to Dallas I was still trying to figure out why I bolted. It’s true
that I wasn’t feeling well and most people in my condition would have fled to Singapore,
or home, for proper medical treatment, no excuses needed. But I knew it was only a
sideshow to the three-ring circus of my heart. At the moment that was as difficult for me
to figure out as the real circuses I went to as a kid. There was simply too much going on
for me to grasp any of it. I felt as if I wasn’t the ringmaster of my own show.
When I got back to Dallas my mom greeted me at the airport. She was all smiles,
and I was so happy to see her that I started bawling like a little girl. As I said before I’m
not much on the tears; but my mom, who usually did enough crying for both of us,
gathered me in her arms and gentled me. “Sugar, it’s so good to see you,” she said. This
was followed by, “What’s wrong? You look like you’ve lost your man to the rodeo.”
“I just may have, Mamma, but I don’t think I’ll forget him anytime soon.”
It was good to be around the familiar, at least for a spit, and I luxuriated in hot
baths and clean sheets and my mom’s affection. I still felt rotten, and although I craved
Texas-sized steaks, I couldn’t keep them down without barfing. Around the end of the
first week, my mom walked in on me while I was on my knees over the toilet. “Sugar,
something’s up. How long has it been since you had your period?” If I wasn’t down
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already you could have knocked me over with a blade of grass. My cycle had been so
messed up that I never considered the obvious. After I dipped my hands in the miracle
water near the caves at Gunung Kawi, I should have heeded Hart’s advice and taken two
pills. As it was, I didn’t take any.
I had made an appointment with the doctor a couple of days after I got home and
went to see him at the end of the week. The good news was, I didn’t have a terminal
tropical disease—the other news was, I was pregnant.
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I did my fieldwork in a small village in the Parkisan River valley not far from
Gunung Kawi. When my thesis advisors asked me why I chose that particular spot to
conduct my research I made up a story that I thought had the right academic ring to it; I
was studying how new technology, such as tape decks, impacted on ancient water rites.
My pitch worked like a charm and they accepted and funded the project. I was loath to
admit the real reason; as a boy I had seen a photograph of Gunung Kawi, and the mystery
of those ancient tombs knocked my socks off. I never would have used that expression in
making my presentation to the learned old farts on my thesis board and, because that was
as close as I could get to an explanation for the powerful, near irrational connection I felt
with that place, I kept it simple. I think it’s ridiculous how, in these post-modern times,
anthropologists still allow themselves the conceit that they can keep their personal
feelings out of the mix. It makes me wonder if I have a future in the discipline.
The crate had arrived on a raw, overcast day. It was the Ides of March and my
tenth birthday. The crate was made of cinnamon-colored wood and smelled of warmth
and spice, like my skin did on a lazy summer afternoon at the beach. But there was
another smell, a mix of leaves and soil that smelled of far away, of a place where I had
not been except in my childhood imagination. I remember that the address label was
nearly obscured by the postmarks and stamps that littered the lid like confetti. I read the
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address upside down because I was fearful of getting too close to it. I hadn’t a clue who
the Red Johnson on the label was.
I remember that my mother’s face looked as if she had swallowed a hundred light
bulbs. It was the brightest smile I had ever seen. Now, thirteen years later the warmth of
that smile, and the warmth radiating from the newly arrived crate are wedded in my
memory. She stood beaming for the longest time, looking at the crate. She made no
moves to open it, simply stood there and looked from the crate to me and back again, all
the while looking as if she had just been blessed in the most miraculous way. And then
she began to cry. Her sobs were more than she could bear and she crumpled to the floor
where she sat with one hand on the crate and one hand around me. I was excited by the
arrival of the box but too scared and confused by her behavior to push for its opening. It
sat intact in the foyer for the next three days, exactly where the deliveryman had left it.
I watched her during those three days with a ten-year-old’s care. I had inherited
my Mom’s curiosity, and it was beyond my understanding how she resisted opening it. I
don’t believe that there were any “whys” she could have supplied that would have
explained her leaving the crate nailed shut. I know now that she had her reasons, but at
the time she didn’t give any out. As she explained to me, long afterwards, it took those
three days just to catch her breath, after which she dragged the crate upstairs to her
bedroom, where it sat for another two days until she unlocked it. It was unusual for her
not to keep me apace of what was going on. It was unusual for me not to pester her about
something that aroused my curiosity. She rarely said, “Bug off,” or, “I don’t know” or,
“Your questions are driving me crazy.” She stood the old fable on its head. She would
say, “Curiosity made the cat hip,” and add, “I learned that from your father.” Although I
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didn’t quite understand I did take it as encouragement for my interminable questions. For
the longest time I imagined a cat turning into a body part and wondered what was so
great about that. When the word “cool” entered my language and I understood it was
synonymous with hip, the world righted itself.
During the early days of the crate I would run home from school and immediately
check out whether she had finally opened it. The suspense mounted until it was on a par
with the five days before Christmas. I was studying Greek mythology at school at that
time and the story of Pandora’s box was fresh in my mind. I thought my mother beautiful
and gifted, which Pandora supposedly was; and, like the ambiguity concerning the
interpretation of the myth, I wasn’t sure whether our box contained the world’s ills, or the
gods’ blessing. Either way I understood that things became massively messed up after
Pandora gave in to her curiosity and opened the lid—a moral tale I was not too crazy
about then and still think sends the wrong message to an inquiring mind. My Mom’s
feelings about that moral are colored by her “dip” into feminist theory when she was in
college. She saw the tale as simply another way that men tried to keep women down and
squelch their sense of adventure. So, it was even more surprising that my Mom took her
own sweet time.
One evening after supper she called me into her room. I guess I knew implicitly
that it was time for the unveiling because I grabbed a hammer and screwdriver from the
junk drawer in the kitchen. When I entered the room she gave me one of her love-you-todeath hugs and said. “You must’ve read my mind. Let’s open this big ol’ box.” She cut
off a bunch of pink plastic packing cord and let me struggle with the claw end of the
hammer until I pried the lid free. A wind of dank sweetness rushed to greet us—it was
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strong enough that I wondered if it was, like the myth, the gods’ blessings escaping into
I remember thinking when we opened it that it resembled a Chinese puzzle box
that held increasingly diminutive boxes fitted inside each other. Our crate, as my mother
and I came to refer to it, wasn’t so obsessively packed, but you get the picture. A
swaddling of batik cloth enhanced the shock of seeing the archival boxes inside. The
patterns of leaves, vines and exotic creatures glowed from the box’s interior. “Our
sarongs,” my mother said. I was clueless, and then more so when she buried her face in
the sarongs and began to weep and laugh in the same way she had when the crate arrived.
I didn’t dare poke around further. I was young but I wasn’t numb to my Mother’s
state of mind and, as all kids, was susceptible to the power of objects. She got herself
together and said cheerily, “Okey-dokey, let’s see what’s next.” We took the cover off
the light gray box, which cradled four identical metal cornered boxes like a brood of
chicks. On top of the boxes sat a gold colored wood charm strung on a worn leather
thong. My Mother smiled, held it to the light, and then put it around my neck. “This is
yours. Keep it forever,” she said.
I knew then that the charm and the photos we found inside the boxes were to
change my life completely. Now, as a fledgling anthropologist, I am truly grateful for
this first lesson in how difficult it is to construct a life from things and pictures.
There was also a letter:
Dear Red,
Hart wanted you to have these. He left these few things
and stash of photos with me for safe keeping with the instructions
to send them off to you if I didn’t hear from him within three years.
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He visited me after a long stint in the Andaman Islands before he
headed off to Cambodia. The last thing he said to me was that you
might turn up there. Although I fully expect to hear from him
sometime, it’s been four years now and my own health is not too
I don’t know if you remember the mask that Hart and I
found in Api’s luggage. My bad luck started around then, and I
finally took Hart’s advice and donated it to a museum in Jakarta in
her daughter’s name.
Santi sends her best. She is married to a French guy, has
three kids and still manages things for me. She framed the
postcard you sent her ten years ago and hung it on the wall above
her desk. The post card is a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Your return address was on the back.
The top photo, in the top box, the very first one of the hundreds I was about to
see, pictured a handsome, rugged-looking man with dark wavy hair. He wore loose
fitting black pants and a tattered white shirt with the sleeves rolled up his forearm. He
had a backpack casually slung over one shoulder. A small charm hung from a piece of
rawhide around his neck—it looked like a bug against the white of his shirt. He was
laughing as if he couldn’t believe his luck. His head tilted back a bit, and his mouth was
stretched in a grin over the whitest teeth I had ever laid eyes on. I could tell his eyes
were big and dark and would command his face when they were not scrunched in
laughter. I didn’t have the words for it, but there was something familiar about him.
I hunkered down to inspect the photo. I had the remains of a chocolate bar on my
hands and I remembered to restrain my impulse to pick up the picture. There were a few
bamboo and thatch houses in the mid-ground, and the flat plane of a river jutted into the
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jungle just beyond. My mother said, “That’s the first photo I ever took of your father. I
remember it like it was yesterday.” It was the first time I had seen a picture of him, and it
was my turn to cry. I remember it now as if it were yesterday. All I need to do to recall
it, to recall that first impression of my father, is to touch the small charm I have always
worn on a piece of rawhide around my neck.
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