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Wet Kisses on the Beach


“Belaga, Belaga, Belaga…” I felt like a pull-string doll stuck on a single utterance. For days I had hitched rides on logging trucks and dugout canoes, traveling alone, crossing language-zones, relying on my one known word, that of my destination: “Belaga.” Once there, at that outcrop of civilization a la Borneo, Belaga proved a predictably dirty, crowded frontier town. For a weary me that meant a night I would sleep under a roof and use a bathroom of sorts, at the best hovel-hotel I could find.

However, within minutes of my noon arrival, I was befriended by a group of Kayan teenagers from a longhouse about a mile upstream, which I had just passed. They considered me high excitement, a rarity. Why pay for a room, they asked, when I could stay for free at a genuine longhouse? Passing around a bottle of “whiskey” (actually, wine, but at least expressed in English), we severely overloaded two canoes, paddled across the river and upstream in the shallows. At this point, of course, I was a virtual captive. Whereas no serious hanky-panky was planned and my possessions were safe, it became obvious that, at least for these English-wielding toughs, I was here less for my celebrity status than for my relative wealth. I was soon informed that although my accommodation, a mat on the floor of a common room, was free, the cost of my meals would far exceed the price of a modest hotel room. Still, no great fortune. Soon an older brother arrived, a big fish in this small pond. He was about twenty, and slimmer and taller than his thick-limbed brethren. During the week he traveled between longhouses, teaching English. He had an easy charm and was well-liked, a local success story. With his quick intelligence, good-looks, and a zest for the superficial, he made a tolerable hustler. He took command of the situation, and of me. I was given a tour. Actually, he was displaying me like a trophy. It was a snake-charmer’s act: Look, I can control this dangerous creature, at least in these circumstances. And, apparently, I am dangerous. The people retreated before our advance. Much of the day’s work and social life takes place on the common-roofed porch. These activities were abruptly abandoned as the populace fled indoors, peering at us from inside. My guide explained this as “shyness”, but I knew I represented to them a vast power that can–and will–sweep aside their puny lives. Although I wanted to assure them that I, myself, would never do such a thing, in a very indirect way, that is not true. I consume a lot of most everything: if not this, then that; if not from here, then from somewhere else; and if not them, then someone else has suffered the dirty work, and soiled their nest, making my consumption palatable. Whereas their fearful reaction to me was not welcome, it did confer more respect than I was accustomed to, and was not, therefore, totally disquieting. Elsewhere I had enjoyed my special status, unearned and unconsidered, when expressed in smiles and nods.

We ended up in a warehouse-type room, where there were two surprises. The first was a communal TV, powered by a generator, where one channel could be accessed each evening, for two hours. Even more surprising, a third of the room was fenced off from floor to ceiling and guarded by an ancient woman with more keys than teeth. This was not consistent with my rosy picture of longhouse life, where everything was shared. What needed to be locked-up in a social paradise? What, but alcohol? I was offered a beer, which I declined. But the offer was pressed upon me, and I accepted, to be polite. With that, the bolt was slid open and soon everyone in my entourage–suddenly growing to about fifteen teenagers–had a beer in hand and was nodding their thanks to me. Still, not a great fortune, but it was uncomfortable to be fleeced, and something of a wound to my perceived celebrity status. I decided not to dwell on it, go with the flow. After this, I was pretty much left on my own for a few hours. I wandered about taking pictures of things–not people, other than my host. I was never without at least several pairs of eyes on me, especially children, who stepped back merely at my glance. I was careful to avoid approaching a working adult. None would suffer my intrusion and I was sensitive not to interrupt their business. I was fascinated with this juxtaposition of two millennia, twentieth century’s bright litter vying with the stolid past. Here, Christ shared a wall with totems, and monkey meat was served with Coke. I walked behind the weathered hulk of the longhouse. A hundred yards in length, this horizontal condominium on stilts accommodated an entire village. It was my age, 50, and at its life-expectancy. The need for a new one was apparent, but that effort demanded a community, one that believed in its future. From here, neglected fields disappeared into a strangled jungle. I passed near some girls giggling and moving exaggeratedly to music, and I heard, for the first time, that bouncy party-tune, the “Macarena.” I crossed the open fields and entered the jungle, in gradations. Overgrown stumps, then sparse second-growth, and finally, more or less, the real thing, an island of original reality. Warbles, trills, and shrieks emanated from the far-above canopy and sunlight fell onto the forest floor like a spice.

*

When I returned, my happy hustler host emerged from a back room, clad only in a towel. He threw another towel at me. “It’s time to bathe.” He evidently wanted to complete his side of this transaction and supply me with something of a genuine experience. Indeed, now, nearing dusk, much of the longhouse population of a couple hundred was walking down to the river to bathe. We were at one end of the longhouse and therefore at sufficient distance from his neighbors that they were uninhibited by my attendance. When we reached the end of the steep forty-foot slope, walking down one of many step-notched logs, he removed his towel and hung it on a bush. I was chagrined to notice that he had not removed his underpants (which I hadn’t suspected he owned). I, of course, had removed mine. But when I mentioned my dilemma to him, he just shrugged and smiled, “It’s okay.” The river here was at least two hundred yards wide and maintained a good steady flow. But in the shallows, which extended out a couple of dozen feet, the water just swirled in slow eddies. To reach the water’s edge, we had to abandon the log and traverse the last fifteen feet through the thickest, richest mud I had ever encountered. It oozed up between my toes all the way to my knees before supporting my weight. At first, I found this beach disconcerting, almost loathsome. What was down there, in all that mud? I imagined sharply broken branches, leeches, and microscopic parasites. But my companion was unconcerned. And down the length of the longhouse, adults–and children, children and more laughing children–were happily lifting their sarongs and joining the community bath. Soon I was exulting in the sheer sensuality of this mud-up-the-legs embrace. Each step was like entering nature in a novel and intimate way. We walked into the water up to our waists. I was feeling invigorated and wanted to go for a swim. However, nobody else was, and I didn’t wish to draw undue attention to myself. Despite their proximity to, and dependence on, the river, I don’t think they knew how to swim, except for a dog-paddle. While we lathered up, my host grew quite talkative. He boasted of his many girlfriends at the various longhouses his itinerant teaching took him to. When the subject turned to me, specifically that I would be back in California in four days, he visibly deflated. California! Not just America, but California. His envy made me feel guilty. It’s not that great I wanted to tell him. But then I looked around. Aspects of this life were appealing, at least temporarily, but those beneficent qualities were fading fast. Soon only a squalor would remain, with just enough media contact for the contrast to give rise to an embittered hopelessness. Take the mild discontent that programs such as “The Life Styles of the Rich & Famous” produce in the average American, and magnify it a hundred, a thousandfold…. Television’s beautiful window can be a disfiguring mirror. So, I said something stupid, something that would never be, not literally, not figuratively: “Maybe someday you’ll make it to California.”

He shook his head sadly, no, we both know I won’t. “But I won’t stay here, either,” he went on. “The longhouses are just becoming pathetic. And the river is dying.” He ran his hand through the gravy-colored water. “Five years ago, the Rejang ran clear. There were fish. Just five years ago, things were okay.” He looked away. Gone was the street-wise opportunist. Nostalgia, at age 20. For a few moments, we were silent. Wispy, translucent insects flitted in the dying light. Lazy waves puckered brown lips, smacking wet kisses on the beach. A phalanx of ducks whooshed by. Suddenly everything felt so immediate, so transient, so vulnerable. I lay back in the warm water and watched the people at their social bath, strung out for a hundred yards. Floating there, I thought of them as I saw them: half in the darkening water, half in the darkening sky. Halved. I spun myself slowly, taking it all in, memorizing. Too much. Too little. I wanted to hold on, hug something… persist where changes were cyclic, like the day, not final, like this rushing, this rushing by, of something precious, forever. Whole forests, whole communities, were flowing down these rivers. On the surface, there were the rafts of logs; and under the surface, the silt, and that glorious mud on the banks. Drain forest, I thought, insulating myself with puns, substituting something minimally creative for something massively destructive: the hole is greater than the loss of its parts. “It’s the logging.” His voice broke my reverie and I stood up. “The Chinese back in Kuala Lumpur don’t care–it’s just for the quick money.” I watched his face contort. Then he shrugged. The bath was over.

*

It was strange to hear a hustler decrying the quick buck. But I would hear it again in Kapit, in the town square, where I was approached by an Iban street-capitalist, out to see what his greatest asset, a little English, could get him. Just conversation, it turned out–I didn’t want a girl and didn’t have a cigarette. Nervously, he responded to my questions about life in this small river-port city. Things were booming now, he said, at least for some. Yet everyone knew that with the last log, everything would go bust. It was stupid, he summarized, corrupt. But he didn’t want to talk long, apologizing that it was a political issue that could land one in jail, especially complaining to a foreigner about it. And again in Kuching: while walking on the far outskirts late one Saturday evening, half-lost, I was called over by a group of Malay youths gathered around a fire. One was ostentatiously playing with a machete. Ignoring them wasn’t an option. They wanted to know if I was a logging executive. I was glad I wasn’t.

*

On the flight from Kuching to Singapore, the short on-screen entertainment was preceded with a commercial. “Guinness Beer is Good for You,” it sloganeered. I reflected on truth in advertising. Certainly one ad I had seen in Sibu had a ring of truth to it. It was for Husqvarna chain saws: “We make the world.” I looked out the airplane window and saw a wide, meandering river flowing into the South China Sea. The brown it was discharging fanned out to sea for miles. Borneo is bleeding.

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