It was our sixth day in Indonesia, our fourth week in Borneo, and we knew it was too hot and that we would be sweating in our long pants and collared blouses. The Indonesian side of the island, if possible, was even more conservative than the Malaysian, and we were on our way into the heart of it all: a jungle on the outskirts of Kumai. With me was E., the ultimate essentialist. She was all bones: very little luggage and even less in her bank account, but also lacking any obvious “I”, no centrifuge of self-consciousness awareness around which she attempted to spin the rest of the universe. She made me feel idiotic with a disturbing regularity, but I didn’t mind, and even liked her for it. Together, we crossed Indonesia by day and retreated into nameless, barely cold hotel rooms by night — writing, working, listening to radio, and drinking terrible vodka from old coffee cups.
Progress was treacherous. It took us four days, three taxis, two ferries, and one bus to cover the first fifty miles, a fact taken in stride and straight out of pocket. Later, when we finally arrived, we found that Kumai was a port city like all the rest of them, performing the standard semi-phonic fade-out from the water. It began at the dock with a huddle of banks, noisy ojeks, and second-hand clothing stores, then rapidly dispersed itself into widening circles of lesser activity. Along the main road, people stretched out on every open surface. They played cards on the bank steps, lounged on benches at cigarette stands, lined the low walls of the market in gender divided columns. All of them observed us carefully. We were here to see the orangutan preserve, but it was the low season and our inquiries after klotoks met with blank stares and strange, incomprehensible suggestions: the park was closed, there was no park, the boats only left on one Tuesday a month, there were no more apes. (The last, perhaps, just a case of wisened foresight.)
Even later, we would find ourselves terrifically stranded — a longer story there — cadging free room and board off an out-of-work river boat, sleeping in the shadows of the cargo ships and fishing boats, waking at 5 AM to the daily call to prayer and the powering on of the Bird Houses — huge concrete behemoths that shouted mimicked bird calls from dawn until dusk, in the hopes of attracting sparrows, the nests of which can be exported to China for thousands and thousands of dollars. The boat owner, face pitted with the casually-referred to use of crystal meth, slept in the hold until noon, shaking off the effects of home fermented liquor (“Rocket Fuel”). He spoke five or six languages, an economic sort of intelligence that availed him to the thousands of tourists who came through each year. “He’s a real character,” they’d confide later, I’m sure, to their friends. “Pretty sure he spent our entire deposit in the pub the night before. Showed up late, eyes shot to bloody hell.” and the like.
Anyway, that’s all for now. More later.