TRAVEL GUIDE FROM THE UNDERBELLY------1
Where to go, what to do?
It was the early 90’s.
The world looked grey and dusty,
all burned out.
Work, work, like a jerk.
Too muuuuuch work.
Theater, cinema, television, music video, commercials,,,
All back to back in a
tightly constricting spiral.
On and on it went
with no end in sight.
I danced in loops of repeating rythms.
Wake up, go to the studio,
measure, cut, fabricate,
and then go home for a brief sleep.
The loop repeats itself again and again,
over and over.
The entertainment industry is like any other;
consisting of financing, planning,
materials, logistics, marketing etc..
On a good day you might even find
some artistic genius there.
But these day's are rare.
I looked for a spark in the ashes.
My neighbor was going to Indonesia.
He asked me if I wanted to fly over with him.
Sounded good to me.
I figured that I'd be confronted
with people who's customs I knew not,
who's language I couldn't speak
and many other things that would spin
my already jittering mind.
Why,,I would’nt understand a thing from
dawn to dusk (highly recommended for a reset
on the burn-out button).
It sounded like it was
just what the doctor would have ordered.
My intention was to fly into Singapore
with my neighbor and then I'd split off
on my own after entering Indonesia
through one of it's northern transit islands.
We flew into Singapore in January.
we arrived in South East Asia,
in the midst of a sweltering summer.
It was wonderful.
We were met by laser blast of heat
as we disembarked the airplane,
sinking into a hot steamy tarmac .
I'd spent my childhood summers
along the gulf of Mexico.
I felt right at home.
Singapore is a wonderfull city.
The smell of tropical flowers
are a part of it’s fabric
and assaults ones senses
in a most delightful way.
Bright colors abound everywhere one looks.
The architecture is an eclectic blend
of the old and the new.
Although many old and precious buildings
have certainly been removed
to make way for new constructions,
an elegant harmony has
never-the-less been achieved .
Water abounds through an intricate web
of thrillingly complex fountains.
Exotic aromas entrance and seduce.
We spent a day or two soaking up
the bounties on offer,
while curing our jet-lag.
We caught a ferry over to one of the
transit islands for an entrance visa.
The boats to the transit islands
are fast machines and the trip was brief.
The island we arrived on was named “Bintan”
which I thought had a nice ring to it.
The island itself was another matter though.
A bit squalid and forlorn it was.
The standard of living in Tanjun Pinang (the islands capital city)
was a far cry from it’s neighbor to the north.
Singapore is a banking and business powerhouse
in the region, while Bintan is something else.
The point of impact in the divergence
of industrial countries and the third world
is a microcosm in which I've never
I always make it a point
to learn the local wages
so that I may know how wide
is the chasm I must cross .
I find that sensitivity in these matters
is a great help in making local friends.
My neighbor was a university student.
He majored in Indonesian studies and
had been through Bintan many times.
He brought me to a small backpacker hostel
he'd come to know well.
The owner was a young man
who ran the place for his Aunt.
A right little criminal he was.
Slit your throat he would
and wish you a good day at the same time.
Fun loving never-the-less with a wide warm smile and slender graceful hands (everyone I met could play guitar with their long slender fingers. They were also wonderful singers).
We hit it off right away.
One day we brought someone
to the Jakarta ferry.
These are large ships,
huge floating rust-buckets made
for a thousand or so willing victems
who did’nt know any better,
or did’nt have the money for a flight.
I was to witness a spectacle
which I will never forget.
What confronted me was something else.
Instead I found two to three thousand
franic Indonesians attemping to board the ferry.
Each one fought tooth and nail
for a place on that boat.
The time of Ramadan was nearing it’s end
and Indonesians were flocking back home in droves.
As unsettling as the thought of this
massive overcrowding was,
(for I could already smell the trip ahead;
a pungent whiff from hundreds
of overflowing gallons of urine and feces,
and who knows what else from ancient,
cracked and bleeding toilets,
all blending with the stench of belching
sea-sick guts spewing out
into corridors swelling with
cramped and crowded people,
all sleeping one atop the other
amidst the resounding din
from hundreds of screaming children
and overwrought mothers at their wits end),
no,,,, it was something else that caught my eye.
Unfolding before me was a story
born of this region.
This was the early 90’s
and the supreme leader “Mr. Suharto & Co.”
had not yet been deposed.
Mr. Suharto's son's thumb wieghed heavily
on the import taxes of garlic at the time,
as well as a corrupt hand
in the multitude of varied industries
which the Suharto family also controlled.
The son had recently raised taxes on garlic, which had the immediate effect
of sky rocketing prices
on that most important of staple foods.
If you know the Indonesian mama as I now do,
you will know that the quickest way
to a civil war in that country
is to take the garlic from mama’s hands
when she’s in the kitchen.
What I saw was a vast and complex web
of garlic smuggling right under the noses
of armed soldiers who would occasionally slap
the smugglers with the hard wooden butts
of their rifles.
They scurried by with fifty pound garlic sacks
on their backs and sweat flowed
from every pore of their wretched bodys.
Tons of garlic was going on board
to be sold on the black market who's till,
the Suharto family also plundered.
There was a well defined hierarchy of cadres
in this operation.
Peons in the parking lot were unloading
massively overflowing trucks.
Other men delivered the sacks to the dock.
Another team packed the sacks onto their shoulders and fought their way, by the hundreds,
through a door made for one,,, on up the gang plank and into the ship.
This was maddness, insnanity,
where would they store it all?
Would they drop it on overwrought mothers
and their bawling babys?
The ship was already listing to port.
I took a short breath and stood back
to take it all in, the utter chaos,
the intensity of thousands of frantic people trying to fit into the jig-saw puzzle
of this poor over-loaded ferry,
with luggage crammed between the steam pipes,
familys of twenty stuffed beneath the stairwells,
aa well as the extra multitudinal tonnage (beyond the safe weight limits calculated for this ferry) of garlic spilling out from bulging portholes
and flooding the gangway's with their pungent bulk.
They would have to disribute the weight
of the far too many tons of garlic, better than they seemed to be doing,
or they'll sink!
I thought that perhaps
this is what I was meant to see,
what I was looking for.
Here before me was a world,
freed from the bondage of the hyper technical, devoid of the maddness of quarterly invoices
and relieved of the smothering effects of overbearing time schedules
produced by directors of ill ilk.
I breathed a sigh of relief
as things slipped into tipsy-turvy balance
We left the dock,
and for the next several days
I looked for reports of ferry sinkings
and felt a wave of relief in the knowledge
that no corpse would be robbed
of it's most prescious of earthly possession,
the garlic clove, steeped in motherly love,
to guide them in their long watery sleep.
The garlic cloves of their childhood would
would rest in piece with them for all eternity
That dense smell of garlic haunts me still.