Prologue

PROLOGUE

I, Nathan Bartholomew Payne, am an unsympathetic character. I’m also this book’s author. If you think that isn’t a problem, consider my previous eight novels; only one has been published—making it the fluke. A good friend of mine, who shall remain nameless—Artie Alexander (so I lied)—recommended that I stop “inventing” stories and start writing about things I’ve actually experienced. “Fuck you, Artie.” Nevertheless, I’m taking his advice. Not because I believe it’ll make an ant’s-ass worth of difference to New York’s rejecting editors—fuck them, too—I’m just ready for a new approach to Love and Death, my favorite leitmotifs.

The reason I’m an unsympathetic character is that my alter-ego—Jeremy Solo—and I are twin misanthropes; he, meaning I genuinely dislike people. We two make exceptions of course, or we’d be totally friendless. But our general regard for humanity wouldn’t register 1.0 on empathy’s Richter scale. Is it any wonder our fellow humans beings dislike, in turn, my (returning to first-person singular) work?

Up to this point freaks and misfits have been my protagonists. For freaks and misfits I can whip up quite a lot of enthusiasm, even some compassion. What follows will no doubt be more of the same with one significant difference; this time I won’t hide behind my characters. Nor will I “make up” anything; this will be a true story. I won’t even change the names (much) to protect the innocent; the only defamatory remarks I intend to make will be aimed at me anyway. Besides, those disclaimers that precede fiction and follow movies are bullshit. Writers always write about real people, no matter how farfetched their various guises seem.

Allow me one more resolution before I finish alienating prospective readers and start abusing you diehards; another nameless friend of mine—Jake Steiner—has been nagging me to ditch my literary pretensions and write “naturally.” “Butt out, Steiner.” I’m taking his advice, too. If any of this strikes you as labored or ‘authorly,’ I’ve screwed up—lapsed, as it were, into phony-sounding phrases like “as it were.” I’m not swearing off the pursuit of fluent prose; laced with enough caffeine I’m capable of occasional eloquence. It’s the goddamn rhythms I have to purge—of my so-called “voice,” the mini-dictator lodged inside my skull who raps out inviolable meter. If I can gag him and talk to you unaffectedly, maybe this novel, travelogue, memoirwhatever—will be readable in a refreshing sort of way.

Maybe not.

 

PenPals 

1

PEN PALS...

...I’ve decided to call this first chapter.

A longtime correspondent of mine, pissed off by Western women—and his estranged “I-think-I’ll-be-a-lesbian-for-a-while” ex-wife—began combing the beaches of Southeast Asia for a suitable replacement. Prolific letter-writer that he is, Perry petitioned assorted islanders for nearly two years, seizing upon one woman after another in his sweepstakes-search for a mail-order bride. He finally found her (bless his lecherous soul), a girl from Cebu City (over forty years his junior), with whom he’s living happily ever after (for the time being) in Los Angeles. Perry and I are no longer on speaking terms (for reasons I may or may not go into) but before our falling out he very graciously sent me one of his innumerable “rejects.” Yanti Adiputro was and is her name, a resident of Jakarta on the island of Java. Knowing that Indonesia was on my itinerary (I travel between novels to restock my literary ‘grist’ and to console myself for the publishing establishment’s usual indifference toward my resultant ‘mill’) Perry thought I might appreciate an introduction to a local. I did. I do; because it’s about Yanti and the first two months of a trip that covered much of Java, Bali, and Sumatra that I’ve chosen to write—suppressing accounts logged later of escapades in Sri Lanka, Madagascar, Kenya, Tanzania, Zanzibar, and the Isle of Skye. (Yeah, I got around.)

Perry turned over his “file,” as he described it, on Yanti: two letters written on Charlie Brown stationery (ugh!) plus four glossy snapshots.

19 Mei 1993

Dear Perry,

I am Moslem (in my country, not a 100%, but most of the population is Moslem’s). I never married. If God willing I hope married with Moslem, too. Age 26 (August 13, 1966) Black eyes, Black hair, 150 cm, 44 kg, like: Nature, Travel, Movies, Music. Not much like cooking. I just senior high school grad, I am part timer in market research, I still study cours computer but I don’t have computer, so I write letter for you with my hand.

The photos included a couple of wallet-size mug shots, one group-shot picnic scene, and the real charmer: a seaside shot of Yanti (fully clothed) ankle deep in a tide pool. Aesthetic snob that I am, however, the kitsch displayed in this dossier lowered my expectations. But what the hell, even a comic-strip-loving munchkin was better than no cultural liaison at all. I sent off a semi-formal introductory missive and resumed polishing my eighth testament to futility, a novel based ‘loosely’ on my traipsing half way around the world in pursuit of Angelica Wyler, dark lady of my sonnets, whose Peace Corps post in the Central African Republic should have put her comfortably out of reach from any normal, well-adjusted, ex-significant other; I proved an exception, my smitten incorrigibility rewarded with a dubious welcome to beautiful (sic) downtown Bangui, where I was gradually informed (during four psychotic days and nights of gratuitous fornication) that my services were no longer required (having been pre-empted by Angelica’s co-volunteer—on hold—in nearby Kaga-Bandoro). So, I flew away to Paris… just in time for Valentine’s Day… to spend many a maudlin moment calculating the splash I’d make were I to hurl myself into the Seine... And that’s the sordid little tale Artie wanted me to tell unexpurgated, meaning unfiltered through my author’s imagination. Well, I fooled him.

9 Augustus ‘93

Dear Mr. Payne,

Thanks for your letter, although for long time to translate because my English very bad and my vocabulary is poor. I wish to learn English so I tried corespond with American. I hope my English go better and I like friend’s beside for now I don’t have much money for study course English...

I noticed immediately that Yanti had corrected her previous misspelling of the word “course,” (but misspelled correspond) and read on:

...I am Muslim and Islam is principle of my life so we differ very much if you Atheis. I can’t imagine that somebody is an Atheis (does not believe God). Have you never been pray, how do you feel Mr. Payne? Oh my God. (Sorry I just strange!)

Normally, the matter-of-factness of Allah’s nonexistence only bothers me when authoring; life devoid of religious myths, from a fiction writer’s viewpoint, is a trifle uninspiring. But Yanti’s simpleminded shock at my self-professed faithlessness tweaked a nerve. “Have you never been pray...?” Yeah, I used to pray, every Sunday, that Father Ring would set a new record for brevity so I could get back to bed after 6am Mass before my blessed drowsiness wore off for good. I did not pray much for material things: e.g. a new bicycle or a transistor radio. But I do recall petitioning divine intervention whenever something really dumb happened, like the time a neighborhood hooligan, mistaking me for the usurper of his (none-too) steady girlfriend, broke my guiltless nose with an overhand right. “Please, God, please, God, please, God set it straight” I beseeched all the bloody way home—to no avail; my seventeen-year-old beak was forever realigned.

At any rate contact had been made. I dashed off another missive. Yanti replied.

23 Augustus ‘93

Mr. Payne, I understand your choices, you don’t want marry, you want to live alone and you have not children, are you loneliness?

For me, marry (keep house) is normality a life with responsibility I mean that somebody be responsible for a family and I imagine be happy if marry and have children so I want marry and have children.

There’s nothing quite as effectual for exposing a character’s flaws as to find oneself reflected in a foreign culture’s mirror—if shirking responsibility qualifies as a fault. Admittedly, it’s one of mine. And juxtaposed to Yanti’s more traditional orientation, another one of my nerves got tweaked. Had I offered Angelica, or any other previous long-term intimate, an arrangement less akin to “you go your way, I’ll go mine,” and more akin to “till death do us part,” would I still be this parsnip in a pumpkin patch, this man with one hand clapping for his self-styled isolation?

No, I’d be lawfully wedded and miserable in Phoenix, Arizona, with kids, teaching career, twenty-year mortgage, and a sweet-sixteen turned middle-aged roly-poly wife (for such was my trajectory when fresh out of grad school).

I don’t know I am pretty or ugly. I think for Indonesian lady from West Java maybe not bad although not tall.        

Not tall?!” Now there’s an understatement fit to warm the heart of anyone scaled down similarly. ‘Runt stock’ is where I place the blame for my own truncated stature; Mom and Dad were both approximate midgets. Ever try to find a Relationships Ad that doesn’t specify “tall,” as if altitude alone conferred some sort of be-all-and-end-all attribute? “Seeking sensitive, intelligent, real man, strong yet capable of being vulnerable, for monogamous, lifelong commitment. Must be tall.” Must have big boobs or a boa-constrictor cunt; it’s the same mentality. And it’s not just Amazons who want Charles Barkley-like partners; petite women no less covet getting kinks in their loft-adoring necks—I guess in hopes of breeding less socially undesirable dwarfs like your “not tall” narrator. At five feet six I rarely get the opportunity to “piss on you all,” in the words of André Gide, “from a considerable height.” Just as well, I suppose; adding elevation to my towering contempt would no doubt render me completely insufferable (and unreadable).

Anyway, for those of you too lazy to have done the calculation, Yanti stands a mere four feet nine-and-a-quarter inches above sea level—beside whom I’d be comparable to Jack’s ascendant beanstalk. And surely, in a land where her countrymen average five feet six, my normalcy would occasion Ms. Adiputro to look up at, and by feminine logic, up to her ‘soaring’ correspondent.

18 September ‘93

How about you, are you handsome? Look like David Carradine, maybe (David Carradine a film star in TV show “Kung Fu”) or look like Steven Seagal?

Then again... Why couldn’t she have been a Woody Allen fan? Not that I harbored any romantic fantasies about a potential rendezvous with this karate-phile Lilliputian. Instead, I’d classify my musings as cautiously pessimistic—not wanting to jinx our chances of hitting it off should a meeting, indeed, take place.

Nathan, you make me smile. I like you are angry! Don’t worry about over population (I imagine be happy if marry and have children!), don’t worry! I think it is not necessary that a mother has a true child deliver by herself! So… I can adopted (for a happy family).

I guess I must have mentioned having had a vasectomy. This, plus my up-front disclaimer that I was not in the market for a wife, may have been wasted ink—further evidenced by Yanti laying down the law should my intentions be less than honorable:

“Sex is a natural form of affection and should be encouraged” that’s right, but in Islam doing sex have a rules. After marriage can do that, like in your own culture in Islam too, that sex outside of marriage is sinful. I think all religious doctrines forbid such practices (sex outside marriage). May be for can distinguish human being and animal, that human being have rule. Sorry, I just know like that. I want to tell you about anything but my English is poor.

Transparency, thy name is Libido. Okay, so I floated an exploratory query or two about carnal matters. In some Muslim countries jail terms are imposed for deflowering virgins (out of wedlock), connoting new meaning to the motto “safe sex.” Ruling out a conjugal arrangement, I accepted Yanti’s virtue at face value...

Thank you very much for notice my birthday. I am very much impressed.

...though a 27 year old virgin, even in a Muslim culture, seemed a tad anachronistic.

I wasn’t going to worry about it; my travels looked to be a long way off; the rewrite process was going slowly—and the desert of sexual deprivation I’d suffered all summer long suddenly sported an oasis.

8 Oktober ‘93

‘Happy Birthday Dear Nathan.’ Sopasti in 44 years old you are have wide experience. Thank you very much for a novel...

Guess whose?

...I will read it after examination. You are not only a novelist you are also a very gifted graphic artist, in a number of mediums and mixed media. And Kumiko an art student doing graduate. So its klop! Congratulations! That your Kumiko comeback to you. I think she fond you very much.

Your’ Kumiko? The possessive pronoun, in this case, was highly questionable. Kumiko Muramoto was (and continues to be) very much her own woman: pragmatic, crafty, and extremely talented. Her “love the one you’re with” philosophy ran contrary to stateside preconceptions about Asian fidelity. We met during a ground-breaking ceremony for San Francisco’s new Museum of Modern Art, featuring one of Mark Pauline’s robotic demolition extravaganzas, replete with paint ball cannons, mechanized sculptures, and a real-deal flame thrower—this latter singeing the eyebrows off an under-cautious press corps. Whenever the common crowd realized Pauline’s control over his contraptions was nominal they’d flinch and retreat; whereas Kumiko tilted forward—buttressed by me, having invited her to cut in front for an unobstructed view. Not much bigger than Yanti, Ms. Muramoto, from behind, could be mistaken for a child. And though there were certainly childlike facets to her eccentric personality, adult facets (x-rated, in some respects) dominated. The prurient, the risqué, and the sexually deviant held particular fascination for this daughter of a Buddhist priest. And, insofar as Kumiko was a visitor to our country, I took it upon myself to acquaint her with California’s legendary diversity. This lasted for a year or so until a funeral obligation drew me to upstate New York, my ten day absence lengthy enough for Ms. Muramoto to have found the man of her dreams, an Indonesian-American, ironically, who was “very handsome, very kind, very intelligent, and”—you guessed it—“very tall.” Upon my return, noting a bracelet’s sudden custody of Kumiko’s habitually unadorned wrist, I pried from her the disappointing admission that its bestower was excellent husband material. In a gesture so magnanimous it shocked even me, I offered to step aside, encouraging her to explore this potential mate, sympathizing with a woman browbeaten by her Japanese culture into believing she’d be unmarriageable if she delayed much longer (Kumiko was 26 at the time). “Good idea,” was her spontaneous response and off she fluttered.

I wouldn’t have bored you with this detour had my association with Kumiko not become an issue...

I hope we meet soon. Are you visit Indonesia with your Kumiko?

...but it turned out that the “very handsome, very kind, very intelligent, and very tall” Indonesian Jim, as I dubbed him, was also “very boring”—not to mention ineffectual between the sheets (which I add as a cock-a-doodle-do to further soothe my wounded ego)—and no sooner had her intended departed for graduate school in Hawaii than Kumiko was back in the sack with me.

Me, jealous? I don’t know for what if I must jealous. Jealous just make me a new problem. Yes I think, I little secretive I not easy to tell you (a pen pal/foreigner) about my secret or something a private.

May be I am not a rude Indonesian… but... okay yes okay, I tell you about ‘my former boyfriend.’ When I am age 23 I have boyfriend he is Holland Indonesian (his Father Indonesian and his mother Holland/Dutch). One day, he say sorry to me, because he was make lover with his former girlfriend. I am not jealous but I finish/sever with my boyfriend because I need Loyalty! He didn’t loyal although he handsome very much.

Ah, loyalty... that once cherished mainstay of the nuclear family, the neo-nuked family these days. You’d think my experience with Kumiko would have disabused me of the East’s mythical constancy but somehow Yanti’s forthright demand for loyalty had an authentic ring—tweaking yet another nerve, strumming it, in effect, a potential lifelong-partner striking a chord in her play-the-field pen pal.

Nathan, you look like scientist in the past. Your forehead is wrinkled. You have sweet smile. I like the way you are smiling and... I don’t know more because your picture in the copy not clear. Thank you very much for copy picture of you!

This was a major concession on my part. Nobody has my picture. Nobody with my permission, that is. I detest being shot, captured on film, or otherwise taken. Those twelve or thirteen of you who may have perused my only published novel will have noted the absence of my phiz on the dust-jacket’s back flap—a pointed omission. Call it Native American superstition (though I’m hardly a Native American), call it over-protectiveness of the soul (though, if such an organ exists, mine has gone AWOL), call it shyness, modesty, or self-consciousness, call it anything you like, but the camera and Mr. Payne do not see eye-to-eye.

Yes. You not look like David Carradine or Steven Seagal or Kevin Costner, differ type.

She spared me further comparisons, other than “scientist in the past. Truth is, had Dudley Moore conceived a child with, say, “The Flying Nun” (sorry, Ms. Fields), the result (sans sense of humor) might have resembled me.

Are you sure you get me to around Indonesia? If you get me to around Indonesia, may be like in a film Charlie Chaplin or in a film Tarzan because my tongue is awkward to speak English.

And I like stranger in self country because I don’t know more about nice place of Indonesia. If I travel, I just visit my family. Are you sure, want me going with you? Okay, if you sure. I have free time for you!

Yup; I popped the question. Again, taking great pains to assure Yanti that I wanted an escort not a consort, I proposed that we become traveling companions. The judgmental among you might deem this duplicitous on my part with respect to Kumiko, who at this time was giving a creditable performance as my main squeeze (albeit on loan from her studious fiancé) while others might indict me for taking advantage of Yanti’s third-world naiveté. Damn me for perpetuity; what do I care? As I said in my opening remarks, I’m an unsympathetic character. If you’re the type of reader who needs to like everybody in a book, go skim someone else’s work and “have a nice day.”

13 November ‘93

Dear Mr. Payne,

You make me sad, really sad if you feel that I am dreams of fancy hotels, room service, country club luxury, etc. if I travel with you? It’s big wrong! Please understand me. I am not a dreamer something like that. I hope it’s not my bad dream!

Just in case Yanti, a la citizens of most underdeveloped countries, misperceived me as an affluent American, I tried to impress upon her that I “scarcely had a pot to piss in,” to quote my dearly-departed-Dad. Working for a market research firm (yeah, odd coincidence) thirty-two hours a week does not a millionaire make, not even when supplemented by my ‘bestseller’ royalties (i.e. the two thousand dollars I grossed from the smashing success of my one-and-only book in print—despite its favorable review in the New York Times’ “Short Notices”). I’m a backpacker; a traveler not a tourist. Aside from outlays for the unavoidable airfares, I get from points A to B as economically as possible. Yanti, you’ll notice, makes no mention of contributing funds to our upcoming down-scale adventure. I felt it my duty, therefore, to adjust her expectation$ accordingly.

Thank you for the nice post cards. San Francisco is beautiful. So I showed you letter to my Aunt and told her you are a novelist. You know what she said “it is a nice letter just understandable for Asian people and the content is good, it is clear and he is well plan.” I hope you are not angry about that.

Angry about such a glowing review? I’m grateful whenever anyone reads anything I’ve written and likes it. My understanding was that Yanti resided with this estimable relation. “Nona’s” favorable opinion, I suspected, might prove crucial should my niece-napping plan achieve its felonious mission.

If you would like me to look for you at “Bandara Soekarno-Hatta” (the airport) I can do for you! But tell me before: day, date, time (when you want go).

Doubting Thomas has always been my favorite apostle. He’s the fella who questioned Christ’s resurrection, declaring he’d believe it when he saw it, when he could actually plunge his skeptical fingers into the Lord’s reputed wounds. Jesus indulged Thomas in this (had He done as much for me, I, too, might have remained a Genuflector). Analogously, I’d believe that Yanti would meet my plane only after it touched down and we were shaking hands in the terminal. Until then Indonesia in general and Ms. Adiputro in particular would remain mythological. I had a rewrite to complete; that was my reality.

I also had a girlfriend caught in a sticky situation. With the fall semester winding down, Indonesian Jim was due back from Hawaii U for Christmas recess. My departure and Adonis’s homecoming were likely to overlap. How Kumiko was going to juggle a pair of lovers was bound to be amusing (my cavalier pose a sham; I wanted to be missed… missed inconsolably).

4 Desember 1993

Congratulations for finished your novel. I pray for your novels sell like hot cakes. If you still hope to live until an age 70 I think you will be finishing 10-15 novels.

The idioms that hop from one culture to another never cease to amaze me; “sell like hot cakes? Where did she come up with that one? Yes, the Great Work was done, ready to be desktop published—a new brainstorm of mine that I dearly wish had passed without finding me enrolled in computer-literacy kindergarten. Grudgingly, I gained access to an Apple Classic PC and ink jet printer from my long-time pal and proofreader Valerie Hyacinth. Having done no more than toy with a keyboard previously, I embarked on the most grueling data-entry nightmare of my non-technological career... said travail witnessed by my abandoner’s mentally retarded pooch ‘Baron,’ the plan being that I’d house-sit while Valerie visited family in Chicago. Unlimited use of her equipment in exchange for feeding the beast? Not a bad deal. Except I hate dogs even more than computers, and Baron (may his dimwitted soul rest in peace) stank to high heaven. He did, however, generate some welcome warmth so I tolerated his curling up at my frostbitten toes in Valerie’s barn of an Upper Noe Valley Victorian, while I did a hunt-and-peck transcribing page after toilsome page. Baron also was a pretty good sport about listening to my constant stream of expletives, albeit, as a technical advisor, he was useless as a dud; no matter how shrill my cries for help, his mongrel eyes maintained their nonplussed jejunity. Still, he seemed to appreciate my ill-tempered company; as the holidays wore on Baron continued to thump his metronomic tail—garnering now-and-then pats on his numbskull’s pate. Intellectually speaking—considering my Microsoft Word ineptitude—we might have passed for twins.

You worried about smoke? Yes I think smoke not good for... grandfather. Oh, I am sorry I mean smoke not good for health! Can smile? I hope you not angry about grandfather because if you smile you more sweet, I am sure your smile is sweet. Don’t worry I never drink wine and never smoked. Never will. But I can tolerate smokers than AIDS. AIDS is dangerous, I cannot tolerate AIDS!

Alarms were suddenly sounding now that the San Franciscan’s threat to descend upon Jakarta was truly in the offing. Every nation’s paranoia about every other nation’s contagiousness is rather tragicomic; enemies without appear more formidable than enemies within; finger-pointing is endemic throughout our communicable world. I once shared a dinner compartment on the Nairobi-Mombasa rail line with a Black Kenyan businessman scared erection-less about his ex-lover’s extended visit to New York City. Absolutely convinced that nobody could have escaped HIV infection over the course of six hazardous years in the West (the duration of his paramour’s absence), he refused to sleep with her upon return. Had he done the right thing?  He wanted me to reassure him. Little wonder that Yanti was having second thoughts about a visitor from the “Gay Mecca.”

I must confess, in one sense her anxiety was cause for some amorous speculation on my part; unless Ms. Adiputro was completely ignorant about how AIDS is contracted, did not her apprehension hint at less-than-chaste cogitations?

Sorry I late write letter to you. I was sick. Its danger for me although just cold because I can’t sleep in the night I mean I always late sleep/difficult since 1990.

Or maybe it was she who harbored some dread disease? Lest it seem I consider myself beyond the paranoiac pale, let me hasten to admit I bought a pack of prophylactics; worries about one’s health (and foreign hazards to it) recognize no boundaries.

I am not sure about speak English my tongue is awkward. I think I can’t speak English. Speak and write more different for me. If I write in English I can look dictionary. I am really not sure to speak English.

Insecurities were breaking out all over. Had I given much thought to the obstacles lying in wait for a mismatched pair of virtual strangers, I might have worked up a worrywart sweat myself. But with inoculations to get, personal belongings to box up and store, visas to secure, traveler’s cheques to buy, tickets to collect from my wheeler-dealer travel agent at Air Brokers International, plus the million and a half other details demanding attention prior to my estimated six-month-long expedition into the untold Great Beyond, fretting about a tongue-tied reception on some oh-so distant shore put the cart before the horse.

Do you always around the world after you finished new novel and write new novel after around the world? I know that you are get something important for your novels, your life (enjoy on), with around the world. What do you think about (the) life? Did you get gist of life?

The problem with relationships bridging a generation gap (a generation gulf, in this instance, of seventeen years) is that the younger looks to the elder for wisdom and guidance... when, truth be told, the young know it all, the middle-aged pretend to know more than they in fact do, and the old (if they’re honest) admit to knowing next to nothing. I, being in the second category (with inklings about the third) commence to stammer whenever I’m called upon to explain life’s “gist.” How the hell should I know?! I’m an under-published storyteller, duly bitter yet sufficiently vain about my literary cricket’s-chirp to keep rubbing together my legs with no higher purpose (if I bare my mortal breast) than getting some attention. And what if I were to succeed? Yikes; as things stand now, at least I can derive some comfort from knowing how few will ever know how little I have to say.

14 Desember 1993

Bests Nathan,

Selamat datang to Jakarta (welcome to Jakarta) tanggal 2 Januari 1994. I will be there for you, at lapangan udara/Bandara Soekarno-Hatta akan saya ingat you arrive pagi jam 8:45 on Penerbangan Garuda Indonesia # delapan ratus satu from Los Angeles. But tolong wait me until 9 o’clock because maybe traffic jam. Sambil kamu take a rest. I hope segalanya will be baik!

Now I was worried. To ensure accuracy I’d written my arrival information in both English and bastard Bahasa Indonesian (my bi-lingualism laughable, an unadulterated sham). Yanti’s peppering her enthusiastic reply with Greek-to-me terms struck terror in my need-to-be-understood heart. What if we really couldn’t communicate? What if her letters in English were like my lame attempts in Indonesian, each and every word looked-up painstakingly, retention almost nil? The only scenario I could imagine being worse than our exchanging inarticulate grins (ad nauseam) was Yanti grinning not at all, i.e. grinning in absentia having opted not to show—a prospect (perhaps even a likelihood) that groaned beneath my Birkenstocks like a gallows’ trapdoor.

Thankfully, the bird in hand (bless her two-timing Nipponese heart) had arranged to see me off (telling her intended the truth, for a change, and winning Indonesian Jim’s irresolute consent) thus diverting my attention from the bird in the bush (whose pending open-armed reception was a sore point with Ms. Muramoto; “Bitch Yanti” was Kumiko’s characterization of my pen pal sight-unseen).

Passport, immunization card, traveler’s cheques, one carry-on backpack, and airline tickets in hand, on December 31st I drove to San Francisco airport, was driven, rather, by Valerie, who said goodbye out front whereas Kumiko accompanied me to the terminal—weeping, no less; sucker that I am, I felt a pang, as well.

But once aboard the plane—safety belt fastened, pack stowed snugly underneath the forward seat—euphoria kicked in big time, lifting my spirits with the aircraft’s outstretched wings... Jakarta, Indonesia, and Yanti Adiputro bound!

 

PurpleShirt

2

I'LL BE WEARING A PURPLE SHIRT...

...and indeed I was; phosphorescent was its spot-me-from-a-mile-off silk, taking no chance whatsoever of being lost in a crowd. If Yanti was there, she’d recognize her ‘house guest’ (didn’t it follow that, after our initially awkward howdy-dos, I’d be invited home rather than relegated to some Lonely Planetbottom end” accommodation?). Buoyed by the rosiest of delusions, your jetlagged narrator touched down absolutely WIRED! Too excited to acknowledge my fatigue, I breezed through customs, cast a condescending eye at the poor schmucks queuing up to wrestle with their ball-and-chain luggage, changed money into parti-colored currency labeled “Rupiah,” then sauntered out past a throng of welcome placards (my name not among them) to Sukarno-Hatta’s air-conditioned lobby... unscathed... but, alas, neither greeted nor IDed…  Hmm.

I backtracked and took a more leisurely look at the folks gathered to claim friends and loved-ones. No Yanti.

I considered loitering around the baggage carrousel in case my self-described “unencumbered” traveling style had slipped Ms. Adiputro's mind, but opted instead for another promenade of the spic-and-span premises—trying to look as CONSPICUOUS as humanly possible. No Yanti.

Taking momentary solace in a phrase retrieved from memory—wait me until 9 o’clock because maybe traffic jam—I deposited my backpack in a row of empty chairs and plopped down beside it... only to be up and pacing again shortly thereafter, spurred by an excess of energy and blind-date anxiety.

When those wore off Plan B began to clamor for glum consideration. I didn’t want to think about Plan B, though. Plan B smacked too much of being cut loose and set adrift, doomed to navigate that sea of unfamiliarity raging just beyond the terminal’s insulating glass. Instead of excited I suddenly felt a little intimidated. What time was it?

What day was it, for that matter? Something weird had happened to January 1st. For all intents and purposes it had disappeared, been swallowed up by some inexplicable quirk. I left San Francisco on Friday, December 31st. I arrived in Jakarta on Sunday, January 2nd. Yet the trip took fewer than 24 hours to complete—even with landing in L.A., Honolulu, Biak, and Denpasar. Crossing the International Dateline was, of course, the explanation. But what the hell did that mean? Something mathematical, no doubt. How could 1993 have become 1994 without a rabble-rousing chorus of Auld Lang Syne? I hadn’t heard a note. I was suffering from the same brand of befuddlement that turning the clocks ahead or back an hour (for something called “daylight savings”) inflicted without fail. If people had Time figured out and calibrated correctly, would there be any need for these infernal bi-annual adjustments? Seems that all the jerry-rigging is a clue to our having botched it; like early maps of a flat Earth, the calendar strikes me as an antiquated model, an expedient way to organize things but essentially inaccurate, therefore useless as an indicator of Time’s true nature. Not that I pretend to have the vaguest notion about Time’s true nature.

“Nathan?”

Materializing (as in appearing out of nowhere) a diminutive, bespectacled, cute as a button sprite wrenched me back from the vagary of Time to the verity of There-and-Then. I felt like a dead poet summoned by the angel Gabriel (or Gabriella); saved, in other words, forgiven for my dearth of faith, and redeemed. Never have I been so delighted to make someone’s acquaintance! And how effortlessly Ms. Adiputro put me at my ease—though I sensed her crestfallen subtext as she struggled to reconcile an American movie star preconception with the sorry specimen I unavoidably represented. On our mutual scales of expectation mine were tipped favorably by Yanti’s appearance, whereas hers (judging by the angle of her scrutiny) suggested my looks were going to take some getting used to. For starters I’d shorn my lion’s mane (the better to avoid prejudicial border officials who tend to equate long-hair with dealing drugs). Additionally, I’d sent Yanti a Xerox of my furry-faced self which dramatized otherwise nondescript features by portraying them in graphic black and white. Mr. Payne, in living color, caused a gulp of reassessment.

My gift of Joseph Schmidt truffles didn’t do much to burnish my lackluster image, either. Yanti accepted the chocolates with good grace but “diamonds are a girl’s best friend” and I couldn’t help feeling I’d come up short (pun intended). Nevertheless, I was what fate had dealt her; my one-woman welcoming committee seemed resolved (or resigned; I couldn’t decide which) to make the best of it. As we stepped out into the flashcube brightness of a sweltering Jakarta morning I wondered how long my guide’s good auspices would last.

 YourPlaceOrMine

3

YOUR PLACE OR MINE

During our correspondence I had named a few hotels that my trusty “travel survival kit” recommended for those of modest means (like your 20K per year chronicler). Yanti had investigated these and declared them “not good” (meaning disreputable, especially if I entertained hopes of enjoying her honorable company). Having stayed in any number of Lonely-Planet-designated cheapies (on two previous round-the-world jaunts), I didn’t doubt Ms. Adiputro’s rating. Economy, nevertheless, was the issue, so I could only pray that the digs to which I was being led would fit my meager budget.

Where was I being led? The streets of Indonesia’s capital are a noxious, noisy, overcrowded crosshatch of seething consternation. I was lost the minute we piled onto our first ramshackle, fume-belching, riotous local bus; five transfers later, extruded like a sack of soggy laundry, I was certainly none-the-wiser… if happy-as-a-clam, delighted by the barrage of foreign imagery coming at me from all directions, enhanced by the intimate physical contact afforded by this succession of cramped, steamy pressure-cookers—Yanti not the least bit inhibited about plastering herself to my smoldering, sweat-soaked side. I’d read that Indonesia has a touchy-feely sort of culture but judging by the plethora of stares Yanti’s adhesiveness drew from her nonetheless affable-seeming countrymen, I couldn’t help but feel singled out by her snug familiarity. I even thought I detected a hint of defiance in my companion’s demeanor. She wasn’t so much oblivious to the commotion we were causing as smug about it, like she had won some international raffle and I was the flaunted prize.

By the time we reached my hotel (regardless of what was really going on inside my navigator’s noggin) we had gotten pretty chummy... until I balked at the price of my recommended room. Sixty thousand rupiah (about $27!) would leave me $3 for expenses (were I to stay within allotted means). My reaction presented Yanti with an unforeseen dilemma; namely, what on earth could she do with this unequivocal cheapskate?

Take me home, was the obvious solution. Or backtrack to the notorious Jalan Jaksa area (where inexpensive women were as readily available as bargain-basement lodgings). In hopes there might be humbler quarters en route to Nona’s house, we boarded another bus and zigzagged Auntie-ward—with me suspecting I had hoisted my Scotsman’s colors much too early, and with Yanti apparently nonplused by this startling change in plans. She smiled less often, no longer hung on my arm, and regarded the sea of faces around us (bronzed, exotic, congenial faces, to yours truly) with a hint of apprehension.

Then it dawned on me that my seeing her living arrangement might be the real source of Ms. Adiputro's anxiousness. I had no idea where we were, and though I tried to take mental notes recording this or that landmark—lots of beauty parlors, furniture makers, and Fuji Film billboards—I realized I hadn’t a prayer of ever finding (on my own) wherever we were going. I’d already seen clusters of shanty-type dwellings here and there, rattrap structures erected on garbage heaps in stark counterpoint to Jakarta’s downtown high-rises. At the moment, we seemed to have reached suburbia; single-story homes bordered the narrow thoroughfare in a cramped but reasonably well-kept stretch of commercial and residential property—greenery prolific.

At Yanti’s signal we disembarked (having passed not one hotel) and began another disorienting journey through a labyrinth of alleyways.

“Dirty. All is dirty. I hate. I hate.”

So she was self-conscious. As we wended our complex way, Yanti kept apologizing for what she perceived (or thought I perceived) as squalor (my purple-shirted presence again eliciting stares). I, on the contrary, found the neighborhood rather charming, certainly cleaner than many in San Francisco, and blessedly free of vagrants, junkies, and pimps. Cocks crowed like third-world clarions; ubiquitous chickens strutted across our path; and gardens were everywhere... as were tropical flowering trees, enormous swallowtails, and colorful songbirds. I was happy; day one in a totally foreign country, and I was to be treated to the tribute of all tributes, an invitation into a local person’s home (albeit an invitation of last resort).

We entered a small patio through an iron gate—lush shrubbery and a banana tree lending some shade—where I waited while Yanti went around the back to let herself in.

I was unexpected. This is not to say my reception was any less gracious; Yanti’s younger brother Meigie shook my hand warmly and invited me to sit on a low wicker couch. Tanta Nona was taking a little nap; it was suggested I should wait. Water then was served (flavored with a sprig of some indigenous spice-like plant).

[“Much of the water that comes out of the tap in Indonesia is little better than sewage water. Drink it and you’ll reap the whirlwind!” quoth my traveler’s bible, the Lonely Planet.] 

Recollection of this caution must have registered on my face; I was assured the household’s drinking water was assiduously boiled (though no one used the word “assiduously”). Having leaked untold gallons of perspiration that first day, I drank deeply and with gratitude, taking in (with the curious-tasting liquid) my immediate surroundings—hardly an affluent interior. The sound of dripping pipes echoed in the background, “plunk, plunk, plunk” giving voice to an atmosphere drab and heavy with humidity. There was a musty smell—like that of moldy books in a subterranean library—hovering over furnishings decidedly humble:

·            a hardwood bureau with framed portraits atop,

·            a desk cluttered with papers, receipts, and correspondence,

·            a low table likewise untidy in the manner of any household unprepared for visitors.

I refrained from taking more than a cursory inventory for fear of giving offense.

Nona then appeared, smoothing her pillow-mussed seventy-year-old steel-gray hair, ironing wrinkles from her plain housedress with vein-protuberant hands. Kind, intelligent eyes met my ironical baby-blues as we probed each other’s characters by the light of our professions, writer confronting psychiatrist (multi-lingual, world-traveled, semi-retired psychiatrist who had read the novel I’d sent to her “English very bad” niece).

Nona, it turned out, had visited the United States back in the 1960s. She had also lived in Holland. Never married (and apparently proud of it) she provided a roof over the heads of her nephew and niece. A mostly non-practicing Muslim (it was Ms. Adiputro, I learned, who taught relatives how to pray) Tanta was a role model for the two youths she quartered, a rebel, an unconventional thinker when measured against the likes of her traditional sister-in-law (Yanti’s scarf-swathed mom), a maverick refusing to be wrangled by the dictates of Islam. It was Nona’s liberal influence that may have predisposed Yanti to flout custom and risk her family’s censure by courting the attentions of a Roman Catholic turned Atheist, a New Yorker turned Californian, a visual artist turned author (my dubious credentials). I liked her. I thought the feeling was mutual. Time would tell.

It also turned out that Nona, unlike her ‘spendthrift-leaning’ niece, knew the value of a rupiah; she too was a penny pincher, having moved from more lavish circumstances in Bandung to this very modest abode on the outskirts of Jakarta. When my penurious behavior at the hotel was cited, Nona appeared to regard me almost approvingly, commiserating over the exorbitant prices in her country’s largest city. But crashing on this good woman’s rattan couch seemed not a viable option. Sensing this (and eager to quit the premises while I reckoned myself ahead) I stood, re-shouldered my backpack, and prepared to take my leave.

To where? Logistically, the most sensible place was the twenty-seven-dollar-a-day wisma. Faced with the choice of schlepping back into downtown Jakarta’s chaos (and thereby jeopardize my pen pal’s willingness to play hostess) or gritting my teeth financially and (Allah forbid!) expend some hard-earned cash, I decided the issue was no longer luxury versus economy; the issue was feminine company versus self-reliant solitude. Guess which won?

Dependency 

4

DEPENDENCY

Under ordinary circumstances I’m an able traveler, a solo traveler. True, my first encirclement of the globe was with Angelica Wyler (Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, India, Nepal, and the United Kingdom); my second was an ill-fated attempt to woo her back, covering quite a lot of territory in the (futile) process: Egypt, Kenya (before our Centrafricaine au revoir), France, Switzerland, Spain, and Morocco (to recover from sore rejection). My point is I’d been seasoned by international escapades. So... how had I gotten myself into a novice’s situation like the current one? Led like a hapless puppy from the very first hour my plane touched down I found myself in a costly (but no less dismal) prison cell of a room, its single window sealed shut with bird droppings, its kamar mandi (bathroom) foul smelling and dribbling unwholesome water from a decapitated showerhead, its low-wattage exposed light bulbs adding a jaundiced aura to walls already yellowed with moldy age, its wheezing air-conditioner accomplishing little more than humidifying the stagnant troposphere. What, I wondered, would I have gotten for half the price?

And what should I do next? As hunger played tug-of-war with fatigue I stripped, bathed, and then collapsed on the floor-space-monopolizing bed.

Time passed…

Dreams distorted an already bent-out-of-shape reality; was a lipstick kiss imprinted above the headboard illusory or real?

TAP-TAP-TAP

Someone was at my door?

Revived by the sheer novelty of receiving a visitor, I wrapped a towel around my naked self and prepared to meet… the manager? The maid? It was dark out; had I napped an hour or had I slept through an entire night and day?

“I think maybe you hungry.”

There stood Yanti, bearing this ingenious dinner service of interlocking compartments that resembled an aluminum wedding cake, filled with food she had prepared (despite Not much like cooking), the fare and its bestower like manna from the Gods.

“Please. Come in.”

The sprawling bed was my room’s sole stick of furniture, so Yanti placed our feast on a sheet I spread over the floor. Rice, chicken, vegetables, it was a full course meal, one I consumed with ravenous appreciation while my benefactress swallowed a few token bites.

Yanti’s thoughtful gesture touched me rather profoundly—maybe because I felt so disoriented upon awakening all alone in an unfamiliar setting. I’d go so far as to say it touched me existentially; I was being nourished, pampered like a shipwrecked sailor washed ashore and spoon-fed by an Asiatic islander. For the second time since my arrival I felt a rush of unaccustomed glee.

Then she was gone, vanished was my lingering impression. I wasn’t starving anymore. Other than that, not a chicken bone of evidence remained to prove she’d been there... nor an echo of guarantee that she’d return. I either went back to sleep or sank into a deeper state of stupor; separating fact from fancy was a woozy-headed chore.

Next morning I marshaled sufficient curiosity about my surroundings to venture out on an exploratory stroll. Odd location for a wisma; as far as I could tell mine was the only guest facility in the whole suburban-like neighborhood. Buses collecting commuters clamored by on the main road, but, between times, things reverted to a rural brand of calm. I could hear cicadas whining, birds chirping. I could hear pings from a ball-peen hammer being plied at a nearby construction site. It was hot out. Steamy! I’d worked up a sweat simply breathing; one short walk turned my shirt into a saturated blotter. Having forgotten to lavish sun screen on my alabaster nose I returned to the hotel lobby, inquired about my location from a nonconversant desk clerk (who puzzled over the map I produced but spoke no English), checked the time (or would have, had the wall clock worked), then climbed two flights of stairs to my solitary aerie.

Now what? Yanti, I thought, had indicated the night before that she’d drop by next morning... unless I’d misunderstood… or imagined it. When, though? How long should I wait? And what if she didn’t show? By placing myself at this young woman’s disposal how could I rest assured I wouldn’t be abandoned? She apparently had no telephone; I had no way to contact her. Lord knows I couldn’t have found Nona’s house to save my life. Once the blind allow the sighted to function as their lead, self-reliance goes bye-bye (or haplessly on strike). Then again, I’d managed to do all right by going with the flow, so I stretched atop the yet-to-be-made-up bed and took another ‘nap.’

TAP-TAP-TAP

It was Yanti (dressed in her standard street attire, cotton blouse and jeans) come to collect me for a Cook’s Tour of Jakarta.

“Nona waiting.”

With her Auntie?

Okay; I accepted our chaperoned tour in slaphappy stride. But, as it happened, Nona merely shared the ride downtown. Because her English was less halting than Yanti’s, I rather enjoyed the elder’s conversation. I likewise got a charge out of my pseudo-celebrity; as the only foreigner aboard our bus I was more than a little noticeable; niece and Tanta both seemed content about having me in tow.

Why the Westerner hadn’t caught a cab maybe gave pause to the locals, but if eccentric was to be my billing I’d gladly play the role, with my frog’s-head-handled umbrella (a gift from Kumiko) stuck under my belt, my passport, airplane tickets, and stash of traveler’s cheques bulging like a codpiece, and my pasty skin, fair hair, blue eyes, and gone-gray whiskers I stood out, a Caucasian curiosity that folks on their way to work, school (wherever) found excusable to ogle.

Leaving Nona on the crowded bus, Yanti and I shifted to a train and click-clacked slowly toward the Old Town of Batavia; “Kota” it’s now called. I was eager to see the Port of Sunda Kelapa and its sailing ships. Makassar schooners a.k.a. pinisi reportedly lined the bustling docks. Yanti kept paying our fare as we took public transportation, spurning the funds I offered while overruling my suggestion that we maybe could walk. She was a pro at getting around. Like any big-city girl, she chose routes almost by reflex; whether by Damri bus or becak (pedicab) we moved through traffic with ease—though I, of course, remained consummately lost... which was worrisome should we happen to get separated. Not that I was about to let that happen. As my divining rod and compass, Yanti was indispensable; I stuck to her like a gummy bear wedged between molars.

The pier was out of this world (or from a former era); a tableau of masts, sails, mooring ropes, and off-loaded cargo greeted us on arrival. We promenaded. Sailors winked, or waved, or whistled; we heard catcalls and “Hello Misters.” Gangplanks bowed under the weight of numerous laborers shouldering hefty loads of rice, dry goods, or lumber. Yanti positively beamed; I had opened my green umbrella and positioned it parasol-fashion above her head.

“‘You are handsome,’ they are saying. ‘Rich.’ I am lucky.”

She was lucky? I was courtier to a Princess; or King to an Indonesian Queen. We toured the wharf like a pair of Regents hailed by Our loyal subjects. Hailed and reviled.

There were insults, evidently, uttered here and there, crude remarks interjected between convivial salutations—all wasted on me; I received compliments and slurs alike with the same goofy grin (in an effort to appear friendly); Yanti, too, exhibited affability—though hers was sometimes tinged with muted indignation (as if she’d absorbed some toxin, its ill-effect delayed).

Surprisingly, as the day wore on, Yanti wore out. By mid-afternoon she behaved like a sleepwalker. We had grabbed a bite to eat in Gladok, Jakarta’s Chinatown (through which I insisted we perambulate; Yanti was forever inclined to hop on the nearest vehicle) after which we drifted… my just-off-the-boat eyes bugged at the unfamiliar commonplaces (such as delivery trucks bedecked with enough ornamentation to lead a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade), when all of a sudden my sidekick up and fainted. Swooned would be more accurate; she leaned on me so heavily we both nearly toppled.

“What’s wrong,” I asked with a guilty sense of urgency.

“Nothing,” Ms. Adiputro’s claimed, though she allowed herself to be parked on a tree-shaded curbstone. “I’m tired,” she bemoaned with an enervated sigh… at which point I remembered something:

 [I was sick. Its danger for me although just cold because I can’t sleep in the night I mean I always late sleep/difficult since 1990.]

Under my persistent interrogation, Yanti finally admitted to having contracted Hepatitis A. Hers had been a serious case, damaging her liver, her protracted recovery (now three years later) still incomplete. Hypochondriac that I sometimes am, my first and foremost thought was I hope she’s not contagious. But, after looking up the malady in my comprehensive guidebook, I concluded there was little danger to me—which allowed my heartfelt sympathy to resume its ‘selfless’ flow.

We decided to call it a day, boarded a bus, and (innumerable transfers later) arrived at my palatial suite.

“I’m tired,” Yanti reiterated, as she accompanied me to my room—in lieu of going home directly. Lest hotel staff misinterpret our relationship I left the door ajar, while my guest (apparently unconcerned) knelt beside the bed, resting her head and forearms on its well-worn counterpane.

Now, in America, if a woman ventures alone into a gentleman’s quarters and flops on his mattress (even half on, half off it) implications, at the very least, are suggestive. This was Indonesia, however. And though Yanti, in public, had displayed a gratifying amount of palsy-walsy affection, in private she’d maintained an ultra-chaste reserve. Unsure if she, in fact, was the never-been-kissed anomaly she purported to be (and I wanted her to be?) I was hard-pressed to decide what next to do.

Do ‘nothing’ was the wisest choice. Except ‘inaction’ felt unnatural to my concupiscent character. Gratitude, on the other hand, for Yanti’s ongoing company advised that I steer clear of coming on too strong; or of coming on period.

‘Purged’ of ulterior motives, I gently coaxed my visitor into lying full-length on the bed, and (at the risk impropriety) lay down beside her.

Ms. Adiputro dozed; I stayed wide awake… almost motionless… flattered by her trust… charmed by her spontaneity… and blessed by this bird-of-paradise having roosted within reach.

After a short while Yanti stirred.

“I go now,” she announced.

In parting we agreed to meet for dinner.

Could I find my way to her place?

Probably not; she had better come to fetch me.

With that I was left to ponder my ‘magnanimous’ behavior.

ComeWithMe

5

COME WITH ME TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH

Over the next couple of days Yanti and I took mini-excursions to this and that attraction in and around Jakarta: Taman Impian Jaya Ancol, or the people’s ‘Dreamland,’ a recreation park nearly deserted the afternoon we strolled among its sidewalk cafes and many galleries (my companion exhibiting an intuitive affinity for fine art); Taman Mini Indonesia Indah, an even larger ‘Theme Park’ showcasing architectural styles, crafts, and clothing et al. from provinces throughout the country (our cable car ride exposing Yanti’s morbid fear of heights as well as her willingness to overcome it); but these jaunts, necessitating interminable crawls through the capital’s asphyxiating traffic, choked off what little tolerance I possessed for exceptions to urban eyesores. Enamored as I was of the young lady’s company, enjoying it in Jakarta was wearing rather thin.

Would she travel with me further afield? It was this that I finally asked, hoping against all hope that Yanti would answer “yes.”

Odds were against it.

Firstly, the woman wasn’t kidding about this Muslim business. Up to January 1st (twenty-four hours before Satan arrived from America) Yanti prayed five times daily, like clockwork. The suspension of these devotions, she averred, had nothing to do with me, and would resume, was the implication, once some troublesome doubts had been resolved. But even for a temporarily lapsed believer, Ms. Adiputro wasn’t likely to cast her lot with an atheist (especially an outspoken one).

Secondly, no matter how genuine Milady’s naiveté (all indications thus far betrayed an incredible lack of carnal knowledge) her good name (not to mention her virginity) could be jeopardized by our future sleeping arrangements. And while the innocent niece might presume that Mr. Payne’s chivalry was patently reliable, her guardian Aunt, as a woman-of-the-world, would surely reckon otherwise.

Thirdly, I travel hard, meaning no frills. Despite Yanti’s seeming impoverishment, hers was a pampered personality. Her family had money. And though she staunchly refused any financial assistance, access to a more affluent lifestyle was always a concession once-removed, namely tapping in to Royalty on her (deceased) father’s side of the family. Willfulness, fierce independence, and pride prevented the wayward daughter from doing so, but, like many a rebellious rich kid, she was ‘destitute’ by choice.

As I waited in my room next morning, mulling over the Yeas and Nays, the Nays won hands down; traveling with the Princess was doubtlessly a long shot.

TAP-TAP-TAP

Upon answering a knock at my door, that long shot paid off.

“I come.”

She would? I scarcely believed it. So much for ‘reason’; so much for ‘logic’; Yanti stood grinning ear to ear like a woman with a brand new credit card ready to go shopping—which in fact we did.

Back on the buses we surrendered to the fumes, the noise, and the potholes—filled with run-off from a recent downpour. Have I mentioned the rain? I’ve been in cloudbursts on my trips but none as grand as those in Indonesia. When the sky decided to flush itself, the water came in torrents; absolute floods. And then—snap; like that—as if a spigot had been turned off, the deluge was over. What had been hell-hot, dry, and dusty one minute, was hell-hot, wet, and muddy the next, conditions through which we squish-squashed to our discount destination.

I was happy. I was positively giddy, if truth be told... albeit suspicious; something kept me on guard against possible subterfuge. My Doubting Thomas complex was at loggerheads with my Wishful Thinking complex. The ultimate fantasy was simultaneously happening and too good to be true: middle-aged bachelor meets exotic bachelorette whom he whisks from urban squalor to...

…Pangandaran was our choice, the site of honeymoons, sun-and-sea getaways (and interracial trysts) a peninsular refuge in Southeast West Java more for well-heeled nationals than for tightwad international types like me. Then, intruding upon my thoughts like an oaf at a tea party, the question of who would pay clamored for attention.

This thorny issue got settled when my pending cohort flashed her bankroll—traveler’s cheques, no less. How many, and of what denominations, I didn’t ask. She’d made her point; this was to be a joint venture; we would share the costs accrued. I breathed easier. To show my skinflint’s appreciation, I splurged and bought two 750 rupiah ice creams (about 40 cents each).

So there we were, a pair of fast-friends licking chocolate and strawberry flavors respectively, out on the steps of a sundries store at sunset, the passing storm clouds lighting expanses of sky like some garish parfait, Yanti and I forecasting our getaway... by overnight bus, we decided (thus saving me one day’s rent at my lap-of-luxury wisma), our plan as daring for her (and thrilling for me) as any brash elopement! Without permission?

Had Nona been consulted about her niece’s intentions? My partner-in-crime seemed a bit vague on this point, leaving me uncertain as to whether her Auntie’s blessing was a formality, a prerequisite, or a fait accompli. As for our departure, I’d believe that only when it happened.

To my utter amazement, Nona appeared amenable! We showed up, bags in hand, got a sack-lunch for the road, and a fond farewell—with only one proviso.

“Wear neither red nor green in Pangandaran. Remember Cinta’s sister.”

Had I anticipated words in parting, they never would have been these. Nona proceeded to tell the tragic tale of another niece, a newlywed, who had gone to Pangandaran on her honeymoon. Bride and groom—the former posing for a keepsake at ocean’s edge—were suddenly corpse and widower after “the Goddess” sent a wave to abduct Cinta’s sibling, “reclaiming” her (i.e. drowning her) because the girl had been dressed in one of two colors deemed irresistible to said offshore Nymph. And this was imparted in all seriousness by an educated woman! Mermaids and sea serpents? Water sprites and selkies? I mean, what would you have said? I bit my skeptic’s tongue and nodded resolutely; I would do my best to ward off apparitions—my mute assurance insufficient, evidently; whereupon your disingenuous narrator gave his word out loud.

“I will keep her safe, Nona; I do solemnly swear.”

Safe from phantasms? A cinch; no problem. Safe from sentient beings? I’d strive to do my best. Safe from rogues like me? Well, that might be debatable. More worrisome, though, was the specter of someone having drowned and the memories it revived.

“Should we choose another place?”

“No, just be careful.”

“Yes, we will.”

Then Nona added (almost pleadingly):

“Do not stay long.”

With that ominous enjoinder we were finally given leave… and took it, wending our way, under cover of darkness, to a corner transport terminal, sighting a local bus (already idling and ready to depart); on we scrambled, settling into our seats for an overnight haul (Nona’s caution wriggling like a worm in an otherwise pristine mango).

Paradise 

6

PARADISE

Our journey south was a trip through time and space to another realm. A place of whimsy was Pangandaran. We arrived at sunup. Glorious! From the tumult of Jakarta and its noisome pandemonium, to the peace of this peninsula with its rice fields set in tiers, its wild hibiscus, skirt of white-sand beach—palm-tree fringed and breeze-blown—fruit bats, monkeys, songbirds, buffalo, butterflies, barking deer... I thought we’d died and gone to Heaven. Truly. Hell had been the bus ride; this was Allah’s gift to those who persevered.

Having spent the night in our seats like a pair of interlocking pretzels, we stretched our legs with bliss; to stand erect was a dream—that my resolve to save becak fare turned into a nightmare. Lugging both our bags (in hundred degree heat) I damn near had a stroke.

Yanti, amused by my tightfistedness (in the guise of red-faced gallantry), watched me huff and puff for half an hour in search of ideal digs. The place we finally settled on was the place we’d considered first—after miles of spurned alternatives. “Up”; Yanti was fond of top-floor views, so “up” we chose; hooray!

We got the key to room eleven, climbed some stairs, traversed a balcony, and commenced cohabitation; life was fabulous! Life was sweet! We had our love nest tucked in the corner of a lushly gardened courtyard (facing west, the shore least frequented) just a stone’s throw from the sea, with private mandi (bath), propeller fan (less costly than AC), twin beds (to preserve propriety), and a week, a month, a pair of months to play like runaway imps (or play like grownups, if we chose); from here on out, it was just us two, free to go wherever, to do whatever, and to be whoever we pleased. A more enchanting turn of events appeared unimaginable.

Then: calamity.

Let me insert here a word on the status of our budding intimacy; that word would be nipped; we had not touched—unless you count rubbing shoulders over hill and dale on conveyances geared more for rheumatism than romance. Of course we’d cuddled from time to time while buffering chronic road bumps; we’d been pillows for each other throughout one long uncomfortable night; but that was it. And yet the timbre of our contact had a subtle sort of vibrancy. Yanti warmed to my protectiveness; I got nuzzled in return. The door to hanky-panky had opened oh-so slightly. Better to venture s l o w l y, I concluded, or not at all. If Yanti expressed an interest I’d be there. If not; so be it.

What on earth possessed me, then, to jump the fucking gun? Testosterone, I suppose; prehistoric instinct. Heterosexual men, as women world-round will confirm, are never to be trusted; we’re incorrigible. In the presence of any flower our sex drives buzz like bees—with all the savoir-faire, in my case, of an amatory drone.

Anyway, wearing a leaf green shirt (despite Nona’s superstitious caution), I talked Yanti into a jungle hike, foregoing the recommended guide. We left late-morning, heading south to the nature preserve at Pangandaran’s tip, a virtual Eden ruled by buffalo (sometimes dangerous) and by troupes of gray macaque (whose large incisors were not to be taken lightly). It was hot. It was always hot, but even steamier in the jungle. We were soaked before we’d gone a hundred meters. Under the trees’ dense canopy air tended to stagnate, and though shielded from a savage sun the trail was often steep; energy saved in the shade was spent on sheer exhaustion.

“Wait! I’m tired.”

Yanti was lagging—and complaining, which I’d come to take for granted. She was stronger than her constant cries of “I’m tired” would suggest. During days of Jakarta field trips she’d kept up, albeit whiningly. ‘She could damn well keep up now,’ was my none-too-kindly subtext. Nevertheless, we rested… while Yanti viewed my impatience with a mixture of resentment and intense determination to hold her own.

I held the lead, lured by siren calls from creatures extraordinary. Monkeys! Hornbills! Insects so bizarre I felt compelled to forge ahead, the sights-sounds-smells fantastic in their otherworldly ambiance: trees with roots like spindly tentacles; earth that sweat like us profusely; the air a hothouse breath that glued wet skin to clothes.

“Wait!” cried out the slowpoke, once more falling off my pace, on the verge of shedding tears while staring poisoned daggers.

‘Tough,’ I thought again cruelly, intolerant of her frailty, yet mindful of her history of compromised health; but was the Princess genuinely weak or wimpy by default?

Could we be lost, I suddenly wondered? How get lost on a peninsula? Either shoreline, logic argued, would suffice to set us straight—except high tide encroached and made both coasts impassable… as dramatized by the precipice dead ahead.

“My first!” cried Ms. Adiputro upon reaching land’s end finally (we’d been on the trail a good three hours and then some). What a view! The strain was worth it; Yanti’s maiden trek had climaxed at a waterfall. Down, down, down it plunged... alluring us to follow suit. Well, alluring me, for whom heights hold a certain fascination. I had plans, if ever I reached age seventy, to launch myself (or what was left of me) in a hang-glider, to soar, achieve a dizzying height, glance around, let go, and dive—descending into nothingness of my own volition. But not before I reached age seventy, so I plopped down on a crag that was manifestly anchored.

Yanti, turning somber of a sudden, hunkered down to join me... under the Kodok (literally Frog) her name for my umbrella, which I spread against the heat. We guzzled water, ate our pack-lunch, watched the ocean far below as its waves engulfed the fallen rocks, submerged them... surged… retreated... the surf deceptive in its rhythm, renowned for its caprice. Sudden swells and furtive undertows lent this stretch of sea a stigma; Yanti’s cousin was not alone; scores of people annually drowned in the waters off Pangandaran.

“Who knows future?” was the pensive question my solemn trail-mate posed.

I felt badly; was Yanti mourning? ‘Of all the possible destinations...’ I muttered to myself, contrite for having caused this retroactive heartache. We sat for a while in silence (side-by-side yet worlds apart) then agreed it might be best to head on back.

Yanti’s complaints tailed off appreciably as we wove among the tree trunks, sunlight dappling vegetation new to us both; vines and creepers climbed or crept while roots like fingers groped, the footpath no less saturated than we who followed it sweatily... strolling... lingering... almost loitering... the succulent scenery all the more seductive in the presence of luscious company.

In a rush of pure elation I stooped to steal a kiss: mouth to mouth, lips parted, our pulse rate jointly palpable… which must have frightened Yanti; she stood absolutely stiff… yet not so adamantly rigid as to signal disaffection—in the kisser’s estimation; what the kissed felt who could tell, though vanity (mine) judged Yanti was more flattered than offended.

Mistaken on both accounts, was I, who had also lost our bearings… our backtracked trek had gotten sidetracked, the trail had grown obscure. Plus the sun, already sinking, would very soon be sunk. Then what? Darkness could be total in a habitat such as this one. And the shore was well below us, thick foliage in between. Affecting nonchalance, I (inwardly) was worried.

“You stay put,” I prescribed before going ahead to scout.

How get lost on a peninsula? Succumb to overconfidence. One trail petered out; another led to a treacherous drop-off. Better double back, I decided, retracing my anxious steps… at least I thought I retraced them… but where, pray tell, was Yanti?

SHIT! I freaked.

“YANTI, YANTI, YANTI!” I called, walking, starting to sprint, Nona’s wacko warning, for a crazy instant, plausible; I was being punished for the gaffe of wearing green… or maybe for kissing a woman who had fled in mortal shame... to hurl herself off a cliff… or to stray within the reach of some temperamental “Goddess,” I wildly conjectured, subscribing to the bugbears of an animistic culture wherein time and space and what-was-what were frequently out-of-sync. At home in California time was linear, space was measurable and what-was-what conformed to the rules of common sense; here I felt forsaken—my hysterical state confirmed when I heard The Goddess laugh.

I held stock-still.

And there, come out from hiding, tickled pink at my expense, The Princess stood and scoffed at her gone-bananas Kakek (meaning grandfather).

“You are funny,” Yanti commented when her titters had subsided.

What I should have done was scold her; what I did instead was hug her, clutched her to my bosom for all that I was worth (not much, considering my dependency; it was I who needed her not the other way around). 

Between gasps to catch my breath I explained why I had panicked.

“Your cousin... I was scared... I thought that you... like her...”

“Oh. Sorry!”

Yanti, too, went dewy-eyed when at last she understood. My hug, for a heartfelt moment, was earnestly reciprocated.

Right then and there I resolved to treat my pal platonically... and Allah, at a distance, must have knowingly concurred; we heard a muezzin’s call to prayer (as twilight dimmed to nightfall) that rose from town and helped us chart our course to the main track back—your rakish disbelieving narrator opportunely humbled.

InEnglish 

7

I DON’T KNOW IN ENGLISH

With romance off the agenda, I stepped up my attempts at teaching English. Guru/Student was perhaps the best relationship; we’d exchange. Equipped with exercise pamphlets, Yanti had come prepared for this contingency. While a thunderstorm dumped its daily deluge, language class was held. My pronunciation sucked; hers was quite remarkable. My retention was worse than laughable; hers was outstanding. My prognosis was hopeless (which got me off the hook); hers (despite a talent for foreign tongues that put a polyglot’s to shame) proved equally inauspicious when Yanti fiercely balked at taking my instruction. We were academically ill-suited—yet wonderfully compatible when it came to playing hooky.

Our problematic lessons suffered chronic interruptions to indulge in bouts of wrestling, tickling weak spots, kindling ids. My resolution to behave myself became a sort of decoy. Ms. Adiputro, to this point neutral, brimmed with curiosity. As our mischief got a bit frisky her attentiveness seemed to shift. She had questions, rather blunt ones, itching to be asked; I had answers, no less candid, eager to oblige. Matters of the flesh, apropos, consistently intrigued her; matters of the heart were designated “silly.” Love and Ms. Adiputro, I deduced, had yet to intersect—this despite her ‘fling’ with an unnamed former boyfriend. Vienna Green-Eyes, I dubbed him, based on Yanti’s spare description (music studies in Austria, irises like emeralds). Their relations—when compared to mine with allegedly “hundreds women” (Yanti’s characterization of my wanton promiscuity)—sounded rather crush-like and shy of consequential. She, in fact, was dismissive; my incomparable expertise (which, on the one hand she relied upon; I had inside information, and, on the other hand she resented; I knew the facts of life too well) made his and her affair look relatively childish. (Or more respectable?) In any case, we chatted openly; sex was not in the least taboo—hence Yanti’s total ignorance of the topic was all the more perplexing. How anyone could skip her way through puberty unaffected by hormones and the heat of adolescence, then bypass coed Eros and young adulthood’s concupiscence to arrive at the ripe old age of spinsterhood-in-the-making (Yanti was 27), positively puzzled your porn-primed narrator. Perhaps some early trauma, I diagnosed? None, save one, seemed credible.

There was a very real possibility that Yanti had been circumcised. How drastically might explain her ‘postponed’ sex drive. Incredibly, she was in the dark; the woman had not checked! She assumed that she’d been cut, in accordance with tradition. At birth, was her best guess; or at an early tender age; she had no recollection. Nor had she any model against which to compare. Yanti swore she had never seen a female’s genitalia, hers or anyone else’s. Whether snipped or left intact, her privates remained hush-hush—her body’s best-kept secret, kept in effect from herself.

I bit my tongue. Damning another culture’s customs is all too expedient. Who was I to judge? My prepuce had been lopped off by some holy-roller sadist (rumor has it foreskins stretch from Rome to the Pearly Gates; for centuries Popes have strung them like beads of a bloody rosary). I, like Ms. Adiputro, had not been asked beforehand. I, it might turn out, had been more severely maimed. Admittedly I was eager to compare ‘mutilations’ (I’d show mine if she’d show hers) until reminded of my pledge. Besides, so modest was Yanti when it came to being clothed (even at bedtime she wore blouse, bra, pants, and panties) a game of show-and-tell was highly improbable.

The downpour passed.

A lazy day, we two were having, tuckered out from our expedition—my companion unaccustomed to exertions quite so “cruel.” She bore “blisters.” She was “crippled.” She blamed me, of course. Who else?

Carry me, Kakek.”

Fat chance.

I was warming to my moniker, owning up to our gap in age, whereas Yanti veritably bristled at my nickname for her; “Not like that!” she protested when I hinted she was spoiled, my calling her The Princess adamantly denounced. Privilege was a state she appeared to take for granted (in curious contradiction of assets no doubt humble).

‘She’d walk and she would like it,’ I internalized as we left, forsaking our cozy sanctum in a tandem search for sustenance—though I was battling diarrhea (not yet serious, but a bore) precluding my conscription as Her Highness’s beast of burden; though she really limped pathetically. What a spectacle; what a pair! Between the carbon pills I popped and Little Miss Invalid’s tortured tootsies we would not be fit to travel for a day or two at best. Yet what a wondrous place to hole-up and recuperate! There were marvels all around us:

·            scores of cycle rickshaws with kaleidoscopic paint-jobs and tassel-skirted awnings,

·            fruit bats, looking primordial, colonized the canopy,

·            sand and sea conspired to set the scene with beach-lined palms

·            nearby restaurants teemed with tasty local dishes: ikan bakar (barbecued fish), gado-gado (veggies in peanut sauce), and pisang goreng (fried banana),

and though dining was a doubtful cure for the runs I mildly suffered, dine we could and dine we did that first idyllic night, illumined by the light of the silvery moon

Next day, the traveler’s best friend—solid ‘poopoo’—saints-be-praised rallied; though the credit best belongs to my apothecary-designate (still somewhat gimpy) who recommended Norit as a surefire remedy; soaks up toxins like a blotter, turns your shit jet black in the process, which is neither here nor there if ‘solidity’ is restored. (Backpackers will identify; couch potatoes eat your hearts out; even curses like the trots beat travel done vicariously.) To perpetuate my good health, Yanti prescribed Jamu (folk medicine) which was often sold at street-side kiosks or by vendors on-the-hoof who carried recycled bottles filled with herbs in over-the-shoulder baskets. Dispensing said elixirs (home-made cocktails, hundred proof) included diagnoses, all for a pittance. The first of these I drank could have warded off leprosy. Foul? You bet; tasted like pureed dog food mixed with weeds turned into mulch; but it sure beat squatting hourly over an Indonesian toilet —an ignominy, thanks to Jamu, I was spared.

Still, we took it easy... walked around among the locals... chatted casually, fielded comments I could tell were sometimes coarse. The disparaging term malam ayam came up often (its literal meaning: night chicken). Quaint, until I realized folks were calling my pal a whore. Right to her face! And right to mine; I objected more than she.

“No matter,” Yanti shrugged.

I was ready to retaliate.

‘Does he give you much?’ was another frequent slur-in-passing. What’s with these assholes! Couldn’t West and East be friends without a mercenary motive? I resented being typecast as a sugar daddy. Fuck ’em! If the shoe fit, sure; I’d wear it, but I was innocent-as-charged… singled out and blamed… poor put-upon me.

The truth was our relationship had yet to be established. That others misperceived it was irksome but understandable. No one treated us with malice; most folks were polite—if a little too familiar in their attitude toward my ‘guide.’

Otherwise, life was rosy; life was absolutely fabulous!

We continued with our stroll... until we came upon an animated crowd gathered around a soothsayer who was seated on a weathered carpet, deck of cards in hand, telling a woman’s fortune, was my impression, the procedure carried out with assistance from a bird, a mynah bird, I observed. All eyes were rapt. The cards were shuffled and placed face up in a set configuration—not a cross, as with Tarot, but rather a parallel pair of lines. A string, attached to the bird’s cage door, then was pulled. Out hopped the mynah—who I half expected to say a few words. Instead, she ate a seed, hopped up to a grid of cubbyholes housing tiny scrolls on match sticks, cocked her head and selected one—which earned her another seed. The scroll was then unraveled—while the bird stood by impatiently, expecting a final treat, we presumed, before relinquishing center stage. Sure enough once the bird was fed, she repaired to her wicker confines while the soothsayer paused... mulled dramatically... refocused the crowd’s attention… prolonged a pregnant pause then delivered his pronouncement. Which was humorous, evidently; people laughed; then nodded in accord; whereupon faces, all at once, were turned toward me.

Feeling very much on the spot I shrugged ‘okay’ and paid the fee (cued by Ms. Adiputro, who’d clearly set me up). The whole routine was reenacted: cards, bird, scroll—the works—with enthusiastic tittering from an ever-growing audience curious about this foreigner and what his future held on tap. I got a pins-and-needle sensation (no doubt blushing in the spotlight) while my sidekick left me hanging when the tiny scroll was read. She concurred, was all I gathered from her tone of voice and gestures, but withheld, until we’d left, her nominal translation.

“You are easy fall in love,” was her summation—without further comment. Was she editing the details to convey the general drift? I was sure I’d gotten my money’s worth; several phrases had been spoken; yet Yanti’s expurgated version made me feel short-changed.

My remonstrance reaped her tried-and-true disclaimer:

“I don’t know in English.”

And with that Ms. Adiputro declared the subject closed.

RuntOfTheLitter

8

RUNT OF THE LITTER

Dear readers,

I’m changing to a letter format because I’ve lapsed into my authorly singsong patterns and they’re driving me crazy. I don’t know why it happens. I’ll be scribbling along with hardly any effort like the ink itself is oil and I’m its lucky derrick, when suddenly I’m going da-da-dee-da-dee-da-dee-da-dum or some such rhythm that makes no difference to anyone save the poor schmuck subjected to its tyranny. Maybe you didn’t notice. I’m not taking that chance; nor am I willing to get scuttled just when I was sailing along so swimmingly (which is a mixed metaphor but nautical enough to pass).

Regarding Yanti, I think it’s high time I flesh her out a bit for those of you who relish more detail. One of twelve children (and her folks weren’t even Catholic!) Ms. Adiputro, to hear her tell it, was the shortest, ugliest, and stupidest kid of the bunch. Having met only one younger brother, I had to take Yanti’s word for the height, beauty, and intelligence of the remaining nine siblings (an older brother had died in his teens from viral influenza).

Now, my inclination whenever I meet someone stuck on herself (or himself) conceit-wise is to take them down a peg. Conversely, whenever I meet anyone convinced of his or her undesirability, I can’t resist putting in a positive word. In Yanti’s case I didn’t have to be all that creative; she’s really quite attractive. I did, nonetheless, have to be comprehensive; there seemed to be nothing she liked about herself, especially her physical attributes. “Too short, too dark, bad lips, big calves, funny feet,” et cetera; her list of flaws was a long one. So I set myself the task of overturning her negative self-image.

This proved tough, however, because she questioned the compliments’ source—your ‘dashing’ narrator resembling David Carradine, David Seagal, and/or Kevin Costner not in the least. But I did have credibility as an artist, a visual artist (my formal training was in art education; delving into literature came later as a longer-winded outlet for an overblown ego). Anyway, I started a one-man campaign to shore up Yanti’s self-confidence; on the appearances level, anyway.

“Too short”...well, she already knew my sentiments on that score; I didn’t need to say much; my body language was overwhelmingly positive every time my arm rested comfortably across her diminutive shoulders, or whenever we’d hold hands and I could fully extend my elbow. “Too short” was a relative assessment, I alleged, while asserting, over and over, that Yanti was of more than acceptable height (for me, her Tom Thumb companion).

“Too dark”...this one really was perplexing. Ms. Adiputro’s flesh tone, to my Caucasian sensibilities, resembled a perfectly roasted marshmallow—and this after we’d browned up some from all our outdoor activities. Initially, while Kodok and I shaded the Princess through Jakarta’s hellish streets, her fairness disappointed me. (I’m partial to Black women; Angelica, for instance, is a gorgeous burnt umber.) I arrived in Java expecting women like those Gauguin painted. Yanti’s facial features were exotic enough, but her complexion was Renoir-esque. It is my opinion that we of the pasty-skinned race are so envious of the Earth’s prettier skin colors (who among us doesn’t look and feel healthier and more attractive with a tropical tan?), that we’ve done our best to brainwash non-Whites into coveting the very hues we risk skin cancer to ameliorate. Indonesians, evidently, suffer from this imposed inferiority complex; fairness is highly prized throughout the Archipelago. Yanti was characterized by her family as Ambun (an island of dark-skinned inhabitants). She took this as a criticism because it was.

“Bad lips”...meaning fleshy, pleasingly shaped, delicately tinted, and the sexiest pair of straw-suckers I’ve ever had the pleasure to kiss (once, up to this point; I had not broken my George-of-the-Jungle vow). Why Yanti regarded the most sensuous of her physical attributes as deficient mystified me. So provocative was her mouth during meals, for instance, that I occasionally suspected her of pornographic subtexts (a classic example of ‘projection’ if ever there was one). By no stretch of the imagination was Yanti’s pucker anything less than sumptuous!

The only true flaw of a body I’d yet to get a peek at disrobed (and with this, I’ll segue back to my narrative in hopes I’ve broken the Muse Maestro’s grip) was one Yanti never mentioned. In truth, had I not spotted it one afternoon (when my unexpected emergence from the mandi caught Ms. Adiputro stripped to her bra and panties), the very existence of said ‘imperfection’ might have gone unacknowledged.

“I saw the birthmark, Yanti, there’s no need to jump back into your clothes; it’s no big deal.”

My hunch was that she had covered up so frantically due to self-consciousness about the fist-sized, liver-colored birthmark that ‘besmirched’ her left-side scapula—not because of her maiden-form brassiere (equally exposed to my unwelcome scrutiny).

“No. Not like that!” Her denial was vehement, as if to say ‘I couldn’t have seen what I saw because it really wasn’t there.’

Having attributed Yanti’s insistence on being fully clothed—at all times—to modesty (a modesty I didn’t share, affording my roommate ample opportunity to ogle any portion of male anatomy she might deem noteworthy), this ‘blemish’ offered an alternate explanation.

Do I sense eyebrows being raised in response to my admission I waltzed around nude within sight of this vestal virgin? If the young lady was offended she was free to avert her eyes. I was not about to leap for cover in the privacy of my living quarters, shared as they might be. Arnold Schwarzenegger is yet another celebrity I do not resemble, so we’re not talking major provocation here. Mine is a ‘reasonably’ well-proportioned skin-and-bones physique that neither turns heads on California’s nude beaches nor gets sand kicked in my face by muscle-bound bullies. It was therefore unlikely that my au naturel exhibitionism would lead this paragon of virtue too far astray...

...more aggressive tactics would have to be employed; to which I would not stoop—although my terror at having ‘almost’ lost Ms. Adiputro to the color-conscious “Goddess” was starting to wear off. Furthermore, Yanti’s pooh-poohing romantic love somewhat fueled my motivation. During our discussions—particularly those touching upon Vienna Green-Eyes and Yanti’s self-avowed lack of jealousy about her young Dutchman’s running off with a more ‘accommodating’ female—I got the distinct impression my roommate was overcompensating. She’d been jilted and didn’t like it. And the principal reason, I gathered from her scanty account, was her disdain for premarital sex (underscored by her rival having entertained no such compunction). To have lost her beau to a woman who broke the rules was patently unfair. Yanti felt betrayed, I think, and just a wee bit bewildered by a prospective husband forsaking holy matrimony ‘merely’ to get laid. What was the big deal? What was the overpowering attraction? With her own sexuality stunted, put on hold, or inexplicably dormant (until I showed up?) Yanti scarcely identified with yielding to temptation.

“Don’t bother me!” was her standard rebuff the few times I ventured a caress; like a porcupine quill that phrase was a formidable deterrent.

Lately, though, she’d begun to tolerate more familiarity. I was welcome to lie beside her, for example, if I respected a dividing line she’d draw with her finger on the bed sheet—a boundary I sometimes dared to cross by tickling the nape of her neck... or by cupping her shoulder with my palm... or by letting my knee nudge hers, drawn by the heat her body always generated (through outerwear and underwear), probing her defenses whenever I felt bold or playful or mischievous, her virtually hairless armpits oh so susceptible to an amatory nuzzle...

“Don’t bother me.”

...her enjoinder uttered with less and less conviction the while I caressed, teasingly fondled, and coaxed her to capitulate—or better yet to reciprocate; but alas Ms. Adiputro was a mighty mini fortress.

However, by the fourth day of playing house together, Yanti’s chronic drowsiness and the sky’s late afternoon downpours conspired to shut us in for an intimate ‘siesta’—during which, I confess, we didn’t get much sleep. Without a whole lot of cajoling I managed to peel off my bedfellow’s outer garments and, much to my amazement, unfasten her functionally useless bra. We kissed. Were the lips I found so guilelessly seductive in point of fact unpracticed, or had Yanti held back details about ‘trysts’ with Vienna Green-Eyes? If the former were true, the woman was a very quick study.

No need to press my advantage any further; I was lying beside a half naked Indonesian Princess on the peninsula of Pangandaran, thunder rumbling beyond the confines of our tucked-away, top-floor roost, the novelty, the sheer exoticness of the circumstances enough to make my heart sing; I couldn’t have been happier; the moment was complete.

What my accomplice-in-sin was experiencing: fear, anxiety, guilt, forbidden-fruit allure, was impossible to assess. Well, not ‘impossible’; I could have asked her. But I was eager to initiate a Realm of the Senses interlude that need not be expressed by other than oos and ahs; our bodies would convey what words might spoil or trivialize.

[I realize this is a shameful kiss-and-tell; I’m publicizing what ought to have remained undisclosed, intimacies Yanti and I considered at the time strictly confidential. I can’t even wave a banner of the public’s right-to-know like some story-breaking journalist. Scoundrel, locker-room braggart, double-crossing rogue; guilty, guilty, guilty; the only derogation to which I won’t own up is liar. Granted, mine is a re-creation of events from an admittedly slanted viewpoint (distorted further by my vanity, egocentric biases, and ethnocentric bent) but my intent is to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me Allah (sans benefit of Godly assistance or liability of Divine condemnation).]

So I persisted. My purpose was to elicit Yanti’s pleasure not to gratify myself (though giving constitutes taking when fulfilled without permission; all of my maneuvers, alas, were uninvited).

Luka,” Yanti finally blurted when the ‘bliss’ I thought I was inducing registered as ‘pain.’

I stopped. I hadn’t felt anything tear beneath my fingers, but I hadn’t felt anything resembling an orgasm, either. What I should have done was looked before I groped, i.e. examined Yanti before I dallied with her affections (though I was trying to stimulate passion not perform a D&C). What I really should have done was keep my resolution. Yanti’s complicity (if indeed her lack of resistance could be construed as willing participation) remained timid, overly passive, hence shy of informed consent. I was taking advantage of a twenty-seven-year-old minor for all intents and purposes whose exit to the mandi (wherein she locked herself posthaste) indicted me as a callous and (worse yet) ineffective philanderer.

“Are you okay?” I asked, after a worrisome length of time had elapsed.

Finally Yanti emerged, dripping from a drawn-out shower, wrapped in a giant bath towel and trembling despite the heat. My offer to pat her dry met with a brusque:

“Don’t bother me.”

NoSugarNoHappy 

9

NO SUGAR, NO HAPPY

The Indonesian sweet tooth is legendary. Yanti’s could best be described as a sweet tusk. To watch her heap gula (sugar) into fruit drinks—already so syrupy they threatened to induce pancreatic overdrive—was to be reminded of just how different were our respective tastes. We had moved on, leaving Pangandaran somewhat pensively, relieved to have escaped without (fatal) incident (having ceased wearing green or red), yet vaguely discontent about our relationship’s ambiguity. Yogyakarta was our new setting. If Jakarta can be likened to Los Angeles (on a smoggy day), “Jogja,” as it’s called for short, mirrors San Francisco (Gunung Merapi, an active volcano outside town, every bit as picturesque as Mount Tamalpais). Wishing to avoid another near heart attack hauling our luggage in the merciless heat, I suggested we check in at the Hotel Asia-Africa, a mere hundred meters or so from “Tugu” train station, once again securing a room ‘up,’ this one even higher on the third and topmost floor. Feeling remarkably fresh despite another grueling bus then cattle-car-crammed rail trip, we had dumped our two bags and wandered off in search of a decent meal. Our unfortunate choice was Padang food (a style of eating as much as a genre of cuisine wherein a whole host of dishes get brought to one’s table—flies free of charge). Customers select the least unpalatable offerings from among dried meat and fish dishes mostly, whose shelf life (considered indefinite) called into question just how long they’d been on display before some unsuspecting tourist tried to choke them down. Even my native-born sidekick was chewing a telltale extra amount of time before swallowing (mouthfuls eased by a chaser of tea-turned-molasses), while I was envisioning another bout of charcoal-filtered shits.

Wincing, as Yanti took another slug of tepid glucose, I wondered for the umpteenth time why on earth she had agreed to tag along.

“I have my reasons,” was the only response I’d thus far pried out of her.

This combined with her other stock refrain: “You are not important” led me to suspect a private agenda.

Initially, I was so grateful to have Ms. Adiputro's companionship I didn’t question her motives. It was enough that we were together, that I had someone to share my trip. But her typical imperviousness to sundry slurs and slanders, her emotional detachment and home-turf self-reliance (in contrast to my stranger-in-a-strange-land dependency) made me alternately fretful and marginally annoyed. Part of the time I was afraid of being abandoned. Part of the time (when I wasn’t feeling euphoric) something rubbed me wrong; Yanti was downright smug in her insulated bubble. A snooty class consciousness separated her from assorted “coolies,” while all sorts of factors differentiated her from me: our disparate age, culture, race, religion (my lack thereof), and of course gender. Our family backgrounds, too, were drastically dissimilar. Divorce had not torn Yanti’s parents asunder (nor any of her married siblings), whereas my folks parted company before I turned fifteen. True, my brothers both ‘appeared’ to have established durable ‘monogamies,’ but I had never proposed, let alone tied the connubial knot, loathe to make a woman promises most mortal men won’t keep... or, more accurately, loathe to believe that promises made to me were apt to prove inviolable. People lie. Lovers betray one another. Trust, in order to be worthy, presupposes faith. And we, the faithless, would rather stay aloof than hazard gullibility.

Furthermore, God exists for rubes, I contend, all of whom will be sorely disappointed when they “cross the Great Divide” (from Being into Nothingness). Doubters, to the contrary, can only be surprised if death deals anything less than personal extinction. But let’s face facts; death is death; the end; finis. “Hereafter” is a figment of the collective imagination, our common fate provoking our common fear inspiring our common fantasy—allowing for variations within clans, sects, and cultures. I had this figured out upon arrival in Indonesia; and I had it figured right... Of course I was equating life with consciousness and death its demise. “Soul,” I’ve long maintained, is merely “sole” misspelled; it’s a fish, the bottom of a shoe, or the state of being solitary.

Believe it or not, I was able to discuss these matters with my ESL compadre.

“Just my idea,” Yanti prefaced her opinion, “but does the egg know it still egg after baked into the cake?”

Hmm... Here was my perfectly airtight argument being deflated by someone seventeen years my junior whose primary intellectual input, as far as I could tell, came from Kung Fu movies and comic strips! I looked across the table with newfound admiration. Could Yanti be that deep? Should I, who used to know it all and who now only pretended to know it all and who was destined to know next to nothing defer to my Muslim pal, my sidekick, my unconsummated helpmate?

The scene had changed but not the issue. I was boggled by this egg thing. As the clouds above Mount Merapi turned rays of sunset vertical, as our waiter brought the satay we would cook at table ourselves, as the street below our roof-top restaurant bustled with bicycles, becaks, and dokars (horse carts) interspersed with trucks, buses, cars, and locust-miming motorcycles, I thought of cake and crumbs, of importance and insignificance. Were we really ‘specks in the Universe,’ as Yanti’s muse implied... ingredients in the batter of Creation... eggs accorded ‘transubstantiation’ by the process of being baked… privy to the Cosmos by being both in and of it?

I, for once, did not pretend to know.

Borobudur

10

BOROBUDUR

As you’ve probably gathered by now I’m not much of a sightseer. Museums—other than, say, MOMA in New York—bore me to tears. I visit distant lands in order to experience whatever lifestyle is being lived the day I arrive, not to ogle antiquities or queue up at designated tourist traps. Given a choice between weaving through fruit stalls at a jam-packed neighborhood bazaar or joining some organized tour to this or that must-see photo-op attraction, I’ll mingle among the sirsaks, rambutans, and mangosteens every time.

I should also mention that I never take a camera on my adventures. Aside from its being rude to strut around ‘taking’ pictures without ‘giving’ anything in return, I think snapshot mentalities inhibit ones power to pay attention. Most folks line up something in their viewfinders, click their shutters, and immediately turn away. They ‘have’ it; whatever grabbed their interest has been ‘instamatically’ transformed from phenomena to possession, and, like all things ‘owned’ it is henceforth taken for granted, i.e. neglected and/or forgotten... until some future inattention spurs nostalgia and all those 3D environments savored for mere seconds can now be poured over in 2D reproductions—usually at the expense of those yawningly uninterested.

Granted, mine is a minority point of view (for which Fuji and Kodak are commercially grateful) and one not shared wholeheartedly by my photogenic ‘guide.’ Yanti acceded to my wishes because: A. I’m older, and elders take precedence in Indonesia; B. I was a foreigner, and a guest’s idiosyncrasies are indulged in Indonesia; and C. I’m a man, and masculinity rules the roost in Indonesia. Respect, politeness, and deference, in combination, are overwhelmingly seductive to someone from a culture where the aged are relegated to nursing homes, where aliens are expected to conform upon entry to pseudo-egalitarian mores, and where men are being emasculated by political correctness from workplace to bedroom.

If my saying so offends the feminists among you, so be it. I’m not claiming that Indonesian ways are better than American ways; I’m simply noting their differences. The problem between the sexes in Western countries, as I perceive it, is that “traditional family values” and “inalienable human rights” are basically incompatible. You can’t reform a system like slavery, for example; you have to abolish it. Inequity has been part-and-parcel of marital relations since Man first courted Woman—said courtship done historically by grabbing a hank of hair. Cultures closer to preserving that brand of machismo (unenlightened as they may be) have lower divorce rates, stronger family ties, and religious beliefs that foster deep-seated social solidarity. The issue is: at what cost to the fundamental dignity and equality of half the human race? If you believe that females once and for all ought to be fully enfranchised (thereby afforded equal opportunity to screw up the world as badly as have males) then an entirely novel model for partnering and parenting must be inaugurated. Intellectually, I think it’s worth a try. Psycho-sexually, I still respond favorably when a woman bends over backwards to let me have my way.

That said I dragged Yanti off to a tour bus for a pre-packaged all-day photo-shoot of far-famed Borobudur... Just kidding.

We did take a bus—the local. We did not expose any film—neither of us owned a camera. And we did visit “one of the greatest Buddhist relics of South-East Asia”—Yanti paying the (nominal) resident’s admission price, I paying the (double) foreigner’s extortion price, which brings up another pet peeve I’ll air before resuming our itinerary.

The message any country gives to its populace by charging visitors inflated fees is that the guest should be abused instead of extended what most nationalities would consider everyday hospitality. One of the worst dynamics between two disparate cultures happens at entry points, where greedy tourists connive to buy keepsakes and commodities for a song, and greedy natives conspire to sell same for the maximum they can extract. To legitimize this plunder/lucre feeding frenzy by making a national policy of overcharging visitors is to accelerate the worldwide demise of plain good manners. This is especially, though not exclusively, problematic for a Western Caucasian male (yours truly) who can’t show up anywhere in the third world these days without being identified as a meal ticket, a soft touch, or a mister deep pockets; name any situation where ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ meet and you’re sure to find exploitation as the basis for their exchange. It’s sad. As a conscientious ‘have’ it wears me out; “Does he give you much?” reflects a mercenary mindset that undermines the spirit of congenial relations. As a conscientious “have-not” (my status back at home) it irks me to get fleeced whenever I’m overseas.

Moving right along...

Like a lot of man-made wonders depicted in overblown travel brochures and coffee-table books, Borobudur “up close and personal” is downright puny. I felt this way about the Sphinx in Egypt when I finally laid eyes on its deteriorated visage; gargantuan in glossy print and postcard, far less imposing in the flesh. Climbing stone steps leading to “one of Indonesia’s most famous attractions” (again quoting the Lonely Planet), I realized that the folks who built this monument to “eternal nothingness” were similarly puny, meaning smaller than I (maybe even smaller than Yanti) and certainly they had no referents like Jakarta’s Istiqlal Mosque against which to measure their achievement. But I had; which is not to say the structure was unimpressive. Nevertheless, what I enjoyed most about being there was that nearly every other foreigner was part of some docent-led tour stutter-stepping his or her way in tight-grouped gaggles, being indoctrinated with tedious bios and stats, while my Javanese ‘interpreter’ and I took in whatever struck our playful fancies. Historians and cultural anthropologists will cringe, but Yanti and I had a great time searching among hundreds of bas-relief figures for the ones with prominent sex organs.

And we weren’t alone in our preoccupation with carnal iconography. The entire base of Borobudur’s main stupa is devoted to passion—juicy stuff, above which you’re supposed to rise, of course, aspiring to the serenity represented by some four hundred stone-faced Buddhas gazing over a verdant countryside from the temple’s upper reaches. My own feeling is that we all arrive at ‘nothingness’ in the end anyway, so there’s not much sense in showing up early. I’m relying on ‘planned obsolescence’ inherent in the aging process to give me a leg up—when my legs give out. Until then, it seems like a waste of vitality to rehearse one’s curtain call. I’ll bow out gracefully (‘soaringly,’ perhaps) when the time comes; and, without bitterness, if I’ve gotten a good run for my money.

Furthermore, nothingness during its contemplation is like white; all the colors combined. Nothingness post contemplation is like black; the absence of all color. And though it might be nifty to meditate onto a level where rainbows are perceptible (a tab of LSD should suffice in lieu of lifelong asceticism), maintaining such a state strikes me as intellectually, emotionally, and physically necrotic; neurotic, too. Why numb perfectly vital tissue prematurely by inducing some sort of trance that lets the mind surmount our less esoteric senses? Mind over matter is a symptom of imbalance not enlightenment. You can’t do what without what? Right; score without the ball; or achieve nirvana without the body. Even eggs baked inside of cakes don’t detach themselves metaphysically from their spoon-stirred context.

All of which goes to show that Borobudur wasn’t entirely wasted on us; Yanti and I rose from its ‘profane’ ramparts to regard its ‘sacred’ parapet... and to catch a breath of breeze. The shrine’s more prurient imagery also gave me a persuasive pretext for slamming Islam’s comparative prudery—with an eye to debunking its righteous prohibition against premarital sex (the only kind I’d ever known). Yanti refuted my arguments as best she could in a foreign language, visibly frustrated whenever her English fell short of an often concentrated effort to change my narrow mind. Not to instruct me; I’d read the Qur’an (in translation) during a visit to Istanbul, studied it, in fact, to write my seventh ‘tome’—its main character a female Shi’ite terrorist who discovers the error of her ways (and true love) on the streets of San Francisco (in cahoots with a narcissistic Black man who dwells in the Lower Haight).

[Don’t rush off to your neighborhood bookstore; The Scarecrow’s Daughter, like the bulk of my literary accomplishments, has yet to appear in print.]

I’d made significant headway, I might add, in advancing the proposition that sex is a delightful activity, no more or less ‘immoral’ than indulging any other of the body’s natural functions. Yanti’s interest, most assuredly, had inched below the waist; her inquisitiveness had generated a flock (or, your choice, a swarm) of birds-and-bees questions... all of which I answered with the sapience of a prophet.

It wasn’t that Yanti had failed to work out where babies come from; she had a general understanding of the stork-born basics, rather details about the ‘preliminaries’ had somehow escaped her grasp. Had the mountain come to Mohammed? I had an earful to impart.

GoHospital 

11

I WANT GO HOSPITAL

Our room at Hotel Asia-Africa was a pleasant one. Fresh bedding was supplied daily, the mandi was clean, the walls were decorated with batiks (behind one of which I stashed my codpiece of a passport/traveler’s cheques/tickets pouch) plus morning tea was served on the verandah free upon request. Yanti seemed pleased... secure... comfy cozy. She also seemed less inhibited about our casual contact. Was she awakening sexually… like some adolescent mammal coming into estrus… lifting her juvenile nose to sniff for pheromones in the advent of maturity? Such was my analysis of her inquisitive behavior. Could I have been mistaken? In two short words: you bet.

After returning from our daytrip to Borobudur we stumbled upon the best restaurant of our entire travels, recessed from the mud-rutted Jalan Sosrowijayan in a gardenlike cul-de-sac: mushroom lamps among the shrubbery, indigenous sculptures and masks for decor, overhead propeller fans, candles on tables snuggled into various split-level corners, with tasteful music (at a tasteful volume) accompanying the friendly service... all of which created an atypically romantic atmosphere. There was even a flower arrangement in the waysay (WC). I seated my impressed dinner date, perused the tantalizing menu, and, after Yanti and I made selections, we were served a scrumptious meal.

Bladok was this eatery’s name, the type of place you’d find in London, Paris, San Francisco or any major fine-dining city where stiff competition keeps prices reasonable and quality high. Except this was Yogyakarta. I was so delighted with our chance to dine instead of to feed (we’d found intimate restaurants in Pangandaran but none with the unique laid-back elegance of Bladok) that a splurge seemed appropriate. Espresso topped with two scoops of surprisingly tasty es krim (ice cream) was our shared dessert, this lapse into Western decadence preceded by Indonesian entrees a la sayur-sayuran (vegetable soup with coconut milk), opur ayam (chicken cooked in same), and kentang (potatoes) sautéed in butter and sprinkled with aromatic herbs. I think I’ve already mentioned the provocative nature of Yanti’s eating habits; watching this young lady spoon coffee-stained vanilla ice cream into her pulchritudinous mulut was without doubt erogenous. Surely Yanti understood the suggestiveness of her slow-motion licks and laps—especially once called to her attention by your salacious commentator. Did my doing so serve to curb this behavior? It did not—which I mistook for a signal of sensual receptivity.

While I awaited change, after paying our tab, Yanti toyed with our table’s flickering candle, poking wick drool back into its flame, allowing a thick trickle of wax to coat her insinuated finger. Again, what might very well have been innocent pyromania was given a torrid spin by your billy-goatish scribe.

Arm in arm we headed home. En route I excused myself to buy some lubricant (Johnson’s Baby Oil was all that I could find), while Yanti shopped next-door for a stock of bottled water.

Once back in the privacy of our hotel room, baby oil in hand, the induction of Ms. Adiputro methodically unfolded... with a kiss... a caress... a snatch and lift transporting her to the conveniently turned-down bed... an unhurried stroke applied here… a subtle unfastening there... one exposed breast massaged... exchanged for its dainty twin... Yanti ‘somewhat’ capitulating with encouraging oos and ahs... permitting me to unbutton her blue jeans’ waistband and pull down the zipper… to counter her mild resistance by distracting her above as I removed her dislodged bra and rumpled blouse with one deft maneuver… embracing her protectively... then shedding my own pants and shirt… returning to the task of peeling inside out her formfitting trousers... her far less obstinate panties... her last to surrender socks. Naked for the first time ever in my presence, Yanti, at this point, balked.

“I want telephone my sister!”

“Now? Right this minute? What on earth for?”

For advice, of course.

Sensing something irreversible was about to transpire, my pen-pal turned traveling companion turned imminent (or so I hoped) lover was positively petrified… because, as it so happened, my previous misbehavior (in Pangandaran) had caused not only discomfort it had drawn drops of blood. Loath to admit this at the time, Yanti was presently fearful that damages more severe might be in store. She must, she must, she must consult her older sister.

“What do you want to know?” I asked with patient sincerity.

“Why luka? What for I bleed?”

Fair enough. Taking pen and paper from my backpack I proceeded to draw a diagram of female genitalia. Yanti calmed down a bit now that our amorous activities had segued into the ABCs of coitus. Having had no occasion to examine my student’s individual apparatus I illustrated anatomical structures in general, surmising Yanti’s hymen had been partially torn by my former fumbling and explaining how this would be completed once resuming operations. Yes, there would be pain, but probably no more than I’d already inflicted (provided Yanti’s circumcision had not been as radical as mutilations performed, say, in Africa, where complications from overzealous and/or grossly incompetent practitioners could be brutally disastrous). Reassured by her instructor/would-be deflowerer, Yanti gradually relinquished the idea of calling for backup. Reinstating our amorous mood, though, was another matter. Couldn’t we just wait?

Sure; we could wait until Hell froze over—or its Emissary converted to Islam and pronounced “I do” before “coming in upon” his lawfully-wedded wife (which might take a little longer). At issue was whether Yanti, out of scruples, was dragging her feet or had gotten cold feet. I wasn’t going to force her, though the time did feel right: our scenic trip to Borobudur, our candlelit dinner, our congenial accommodations and escalated foreplay, all set the stage for what I hoped would be a memorable, cherishable, pleasurable first-time.

Having shed the rest of my own clothes prior to conducting this mood-shattering lesson, I renewed my sly assault on Yanti’s novel nudity... nibbling on her neck nape... whispering in her ear... nuzzling either armpit... sucking her puting susu... rekindling the affection, the desire I dearly hoped we shared, as wary nerves unwound and prepared to intertwine.

Reaching for the baby oil bottle I uncapped its plastic lid and poured a generous slick over both our naked crotches; Yanti’s thighs clapped closed; I urged her gently to “relax,” to release the knot of tension in her apprehensive tummy, to slow her veritable panting, and to pacify her pulse—almost audible—as I pried apart her knees and aligned our slippery privates. Then, framing her mouth with mine, our separate selves united; my entry meeting with Yanti’s semi-smothered gasp... transformed from shock to resignation… from fear to sweet relief… our smooch l o n g - d r a w n and infused with the sap of carnal knowledge.

Suddenly I felt welcome, no longer held at bay, ‘important’ for a change (if humbled by the honor) kneading Yanti’s buttocks, finally disengaging lips to begin the slow, then quickening, then convulsive consummation of our out-of-wedlock bond.

“I like, I like, I like!” was my reward for this ‘transgression’; Ms. Adiputro arched; I came; she beamed.

“My first!” was her pronouncement. No regrets, no flood of tears, no scowl of recrimination; I embraced a perky partner… before, that is, adrenaline ceased to block her vulva’s sting; the instant I withdrew, Yanti hurried to the mandi, wherein she shut herself (but did not bolt the door).

Another interminable shower prefaced our reunion.

Luka,” Yanti griped, her tone turned reproachful.

“Was there blood?”

“Uh huh, a little.”

But nothing serious I conjectured, resuming my portrayal of an artful gynecologist. The pain, I affirmed, was normal; it would pass; the worst was done; having sex, henceforth, would cause her less discomfort; in time—no time at all—she’d merely ‘suffer’ titillation.

I switched off the light. We snuggled like interlocking spoons—Yanti mine, I hers, in heart, mind, ‘sole,’ and body...

...until the following morning when her pangs were so severe the Princess couldn’t walk.

“I want go hospital.”

“You’re hobbled again?”

Luka! I have pain!”

And it was all my fault, her imperious tone implied—Ms. Spoiled Brat having resurfaced, her alter-ego stewing in accusatory bile.

I wasn’t buying it (outwardly, that is; inwardly I was worried I might have harmed her, bruised her cervix, possibly).

“Out front or deep inside?” I asked with glib authority.

She couldn’t tell; she hurt “everywhere.”

“I want go hospital!”

“Yes. We’ll go. They’ll want a full account, of course, for how you got disabled.”

This worked to quell Her Highness’s mini-tantrum—modified further by my hinting that the staff might have a chuckle at her expense.

“I want go hospital!” she persisted.

I concurred; we both got dressed.

“Those jeans won’t help; they’re much too tight; your crotch wants room to air its grievances.”

This assertion (along with its levity) went scowlingly ignored.

Once outside, my refusal to hail a cab further kindled Ms. Adiputro’s rage; she waddled several steps before I could overtake her—whereupon I renewed my efforts to dissuade her.

Imogiri

12

IMOGIRI

I talked her out of it; going to the hospital, that is. Yanti was whiny most of that day, in need of some heavy-duty pampering—to which she was entitled. She had sacrificed her maidenhead, after all, squandered it on a footloose foreigner, a committed bachelor, no less—which was hardly a clever move, matrimonially speaking. Whether Indonesian damsels are any more virtuous than their Western counterparts, the loss of one’s virginity—to Ms. Adiputro—was a very big deal. I tried to treat it as such while catering to her temperamental whims—which meant I walked her only half to death, concentrating subsequent explorations within an easy hike of our hotel. Yanti’s moods, as changeable as the sky, darkened and brightened depending on the severity of her ‘near-mortal’ wound and her attitude toward its ‘inflictor.’ I kept an eye on her, worried lest her ‘misery’ was as serious as she bemoaned, all the while feeling guilty about my own high spirits; unless I misjudged the resiliency of this young woman’s tender parts, love-making free from pain could resume within the week.

Meanwhile, we were in yet another stimulating environment: labyrinthine gangs (alleyways) crammed with shops, cafes, and galleries; traditional Javanese performances staged in venues throughout the kraton (old walled city); crafts from batik to silver work, from shadow puppets to gamelan instruments were everywhere, not to mention the splendiferous Sultan’s Palace (which we bypassed on principle; too many tourists). ‘Jogja’ definitely was a vital center for the arts, its creativity rich, complex, even cutting-edge; a lot of work was quite contemporary, Indonesian artists pushing boundaries, shaking up the status quo, taking tangents. You could sense the city’s magnetism like a home away from home, a tropical SOMA with a Southeast Asian flair that had me thoroughly psyched, like I’d OD’ed on coffee.

“Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore,” was a phrase from the Wizard of Oz that came to me repeatedly… as we wandered into an area called Pasar Ngasem (bird market). Mynahs, budgies, orioles, pigeons, roosters, doves... cacophony! Not since Singapore with its Sunday morning bird song competitions had I heard so much exotic (plaintive?) twittering (all in captivity).  You could buy a pet or purchase dinner; there were feathered friends for every occasion, plus a bustling trade in guano for shoppers green-of-thumb. SPCA proponents, of course, would’ve blanched at the conditions, as would any first-world official from the Board of Health. I, in traveler mode, surveyed with such-is-life neutrality.

I’d seen worse. Once I watched Chinese medicine hawkers (in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia) cutting out various organs from living, writhing snakes (strung-up like sausages) their excised parts popped into a blender, the pureed innards then poured into stainless steel demitasses (therapeutic properties extolled all the while) then auctioned off to the highest bidders, each of whom would chug-a-lug the remedy with all eyes ogling. I admired the straightforwardness; carnivores in the West pretend raw meat comes from Safeway, sanitarily packaged, and deep-dyed maroon. Most folks won’t concede that anything whatsoever has been butchered, blind to the fact that others have done the killing for them.

Anyway, Homo sapiens’ self-interest and me-first hubris being what it is, treatment of “lower” animals is barbarous world-around. Become a vegetarian or face the cruel hard facts. AND STOP HAVING BABIES! Whenever it boils down to ‘us’ versus ‘them’—and don’t kid yourselves it always boils down to that—‘we’re’ imperative; ‘they’re’ expendable. With that being how it is, the most compassionate thing people can do for other species is to breed fewer people, fewer vainglorious competitors, fewer “stewards” of God’s Creation, fewer human mouths to feed at the expense of appetites outside ours. My prescription for the planet isn’t to change human nature—which is virtually immutable—it’s to limit human numbers. Drastically! Of course anybody who’s anybody (and who amongst us isn’t somebody?) won’t bow out voluntarily, leaving birth control as the least offensive option; otherwise charming alternatives like homicide, suicide, and genocide conjure up enough bloodlust to ruin most folk’s day.

Personally, instead of circumcising little boys and girls, I’m for giving toddlers vasectomies and/or tubal ligations. Once grown up, let committed couples have reverse operations in order to procreate, i.e. incur a bit of trouble and expense before propagating the species; let fucking be for fucking’s sake rather than for the dubious (typically unwitting) purpose of begetting resource-gobbling, habitat-monopolizing, pollution-spewing consumers. In other words, parenthood should require substantially more planning and determination than does simply getting laid.

Maybe I’m ranting about overpopulation to divert attention from my having just inseminated an orthodox Muslim—without the least intention of coughing up her bride price. Inseminated yes; impregnated no. Because my vas deferens had been severed some fourteen years prior, Yanti was in no danger of “being in the family way.” Should I be patting myself on the back for practicing what I preach? Probably not.

So, Yanti dragged ass more than usual, supplementing her “I’m tired” refrain with the occasional “luka,” her Woman-Done-Wrong portrayal indicting me as a Snidely-Whiplash-Scoundrel.

Kakek, carry me.”

I did; right then and there on Jalan Pasar Kembang I let the Princess mount up and ride her off-white steed… until her widespread legs incurred more discomfort than did upright ambulation, whence I gently eased her back to ground.

Was it my imagination or was Yanti’s ‘post-op’ suffering drawing us ever closer? Her look-what-you’ve-done-to-me vengeance lapsed into see-what-I-bear-for-us martyrdom, her alleged ‘disability’ proving not so consequential she repulsed my next ‘procedure,’ enduring its modest ouch to enjoy ‘outlandish rapture’ (if anything I hyperbolized various transports of the flesh; if anything Yanti was game to test their veracity)… but I digress.

Of more platonic interest was our outing to Imogiri, a hilltop cemetery twenty kilometers south of Yogyakarta. We got there via colt (a breed of minibus) only to be told by a huge, buxom washerwoman, naked to the waist (a custom, alas, in disfavor since Indonesia’s conversion to Islam) that the grounds were closed. How do you close a boneyard (?), I wanted to know. Yanti was sorely disappointed. She had made one previous visit with her father (shortly before he died of cancer) and was eager to share with me the world-renowned shrine, its vista especially. Undaunted (and unconvinced) we walked from the bus stop (our mixed-couple presence more conspicuous than usual in a village not expecting guests) and found ourselves at the famed attraction’s base.

Three hundred and forty-five stair-steps later, we (my ‘crippled’ lover and I) confirmed the forewarning; entry to the graveyard indeed was prohibited. But nothing prevented us from skirting its circumference; once catching our second wind that’s just what we did… rewarded with a prospect irrefutably magnificent!

‘Green, green, green,’ Ms. Adiputro often kvetched, weary of her country’s commonplace viridity, but even Yanti couldn’t help acknowledging the beauty all around us, jagged igneous outcrops piercing gently rolling foothills, tiers of cultivation sculpting ultra verdant slopes, the whole scene crowned and enhanced by infamous Gunung Merapi casting its cinder-cone shadow at a none-too-safe remove.

Scenery that’s volcanic in origin has an ominous sort of splendor, threatening and benign in rival apposition, as if forces beneath the tranquil surface were poised to erupt any second, to incinerate every flower, leaf, and palm frond midst a molten shower of lava then to bury the devastation under an avalanche of ash. It happens. “Fire Mountain,” as Merapi was called, had coughed up more than its share of death and destruction; plumes of sulfurous smoke were an ever-present reminder that Hell forms the underbelly of Paradise; we stood on its spine.

I relished this uneasy truce between abundance and desolation. ‘Nothing lasts forever,’ the landscape seemed to sigh... as Yanti and I lounged in the shade of a tree with purple blossoms, the Princess reclining against me, my lap become her throne, my knees her regal armrests, my fingers free to dally as a breeze inflated Milady’s blouse abetting its unbuttoning.

Simpatico

13

SIMPATICO

From being stuck with one another to being stuck on one another was a shift that happened gradually, taking place due to this odd commitment Yanti and I had made to tolerating alien company; twenty-four hours a day. I’m no catch. My dead end ‘job-job’ suits me only insofar as it affords a modest living without sapping my creativity (plus my employers, Sol and Mandy Margarine, tolerate periodic and progressively extended absences). Mine, nonetheless, is an income suitable for one with no fringe benefits (other than the aforementioned) and no future. On the literary front my sights have been reset practicably, drawing a bead on ‘posthumous’ recognition, fame and fortune unlikely to reward my lifelong efforts until death hath curtailed them. Physically I’m no great shakes either: short, small-boned, bespectacled, thin-lipped, and graying at more than the temples. Socially my dislike for women is second only to my dislike for men. Emotionally I tend to be moody—behind a deadpan façade that most consider intimidating. My sidekick’s attributes, to hear her list them, were equally unflattering. I don’t mean to suggest we were a pair of grotesqueries drawn together because the world-at-large looked at us askance; nevertheless, branding Yanti and Nathan ‘misfits’ would not much stretch the truth. In our respective cultures neither of us fit. As our days together multiplied our differences shrank; we discovered ‘compatibility’ was not that farfetched. Oh, we disagreed about stuff, had arguments; but our basic natures, like secondary colors, very seldom clashed.

This was significantly the case with respect to art. Yanti possessed a keen eye; unschooled formally (and, thank God, lacking the vocabulary for spewing art criticism) she liked work I liked, and vice versa, rather consistently. Our cross-town excursion to visit the studio and home-turned-museum of “Indonesia’s internationally best known artist” namely “Affandi” (interred on the premises) further underscored tastes we held in common.

It was a wild place! Off Jalan Solo, one of Jogja’s main drags, overlooking the laundry-littered banks of an unsanitary river, a tree-house-looking structure stood out by blending in, its grounds of multi-tiered gardens interconnected by cobblestone paths. Fish ponds, weathered benches, rusted-metal sculptures among several carved from wood complimented premises so idyllic both Yanti and I thought, ‘Perfect; in a setting such as this one we too might someday prosper.’ Doing ‘what’ to earn a living might present an obstacle. But who cared? The dream we shared for that interlude (as we sensed Affandi’s spirit, walked where he had walked, lived, loved, and done his best work) was ours alone... unique... a joint hallucination… an optimistic glimpse at pending coexistence… a vision, if you will, we fantasized in unison.

Or so I romanticized until Yanti, walking ahead, relapsed into her “you are not important” routine. If she had been musing similarly, I was not in the picture; Ms. Adiputro had ‘independent’ aspirations. As we entered a large gallery devoted exclusively to Affandi’s retrospective (an auxiliary wing housed his daughter’s more modest accomplishments), I viewed a series so reminiscent of Rembrandt’s most touching self-portraits I almost wept. Affandi had captured that same world-weariness and despair of the wizened child peering out through wrinkles of disillusionment, wondering how youth had acquired such a woebegone countenance. Or was I projecting?

I bought a postcard of my favorite painting and sent it later to a former ‘significant other,’ an actress and theatre director who I knew would relate to the artist’s pathos—a grown-up juxtaposed to post-adolescent Yanti (whose principle act of maturity was eschewing her high school graduation).

Does it sound like my feelings were hurt? I guess they were. As ludicrous as it was to entertain ‘happily-ever-after’ with my neophyte lover, the prospect tiptoed in, making me feel all the more foolish when she restored her emotional armor and shed me like a gnat. Well, I’d show her! Yanti’s psychosexual imperviousness was an unconvincing ruse; her defenses had been breached; I was too important (denials irrespective).

Reactions to my postcard writing, for instance, underscored this duplicity. Had Yanti been truly indifferent why the silent censure? Tidings addressed to Kumiko in particular caused phantom fur to fly. And though notes to others incurred less ferocious cattiness, my staying in touch with friends and former intimates reaped ever-escalating ire.

“You are only two months here,” Yanti remonstrated!

“Yeah... So?”

We were back at Hotel Asia-Africa, another cloudburst giving me a chance to catch up on my so-called ‘correspondence’; I hadn’t ‘received’ any mail; the only address I’d given to folks back home was that of my boyhood buddy Gene Lawrence, with whom I planned to stay once reaching Dar-Es-Salaam... months in the future. One-way missives, therefore, were what I launched from various locations, semi-boastful travelogues designed to inform and incite a bit of envy (much like this book), yet bitterly begrudged, ironically, by my Indonesian pen pal—who was greedy for attention, meaning mine undivided.

When writing almost anything I’m not easily distracted; easily annoyed, yes; but it takes a big intrusion to break my concentration. Yanti’s petulant fidgeting, by itself, was insufficient. Yanti’s mute vexation, though unpleasant, failed to stanch my ink. Yanti’s sexual receptivity, on the other hand, could stop me mid-sentence; her slightest hint of arousal beguiled me in a blink. Furthermore, I was dying to solve the riddle of her presumed circumcision.

Nothing had felt awry. Then again, because my fingers had inflicted pain early-on, Yanti took a lasting dislike to ‘digital encroachment’… but appeared to have no objection whatsoever to ‘lingual intromission,’ affording me an ideal opportunity to examine any post-op scars. Working my way south, then, from susceptible buah dada (breasts)—thunder claps outside heightening our late afternoon shenanigans—I snail-trailed down past Ms. Adiputro’s ‘outie’ to the ‘innie’ of her mons.

You would think a woman for whom sex had been verboten throughout twenty-seven years of abstinence would discourage certain practices. Yet Yanti greeted each as a sensual delight, an experiential ‘first,’ displaying nary a blush of shamefaced reluctance; like a canvas primed and gessoed her desires were mine to paint (from a palette unrestricted by prosiness or prudery).

Anyway, there I was, finally close enough (with sufficient daylight filtering through the drawn curtains) to take inventory of parts extant versus parts gone-missing, whereupon I discovered no inner labia. Had they been surgically excised, or had they somehow never formed? So immaculate was their absence, so devoid of telltale cicatrix, that nothing seemed amiss or suggested abnormality. Plus the all-important clitoris (though retracted and quite petite) was nestled in its nook like a pearl inside an oyster.

Blaming tardy sexuality on atypical genitalia (be the former by the latter gravely stunted or postponed), at that particular juncture, struck me as irrelevant; of more immediate import was the degree to which things worked.

A good hour or so later—my (twice broken) jaw overtaxed and virtually hanging by its enervated hinges, my tongue worn out and lolling like a winded Saint Bernard’s—I conceded defeat. Tried and true techniques had proven ineffectual, their benefactress doubtlessly benumbed by my vanity’s tenacity (which exclaimed, to shield my shame, that a CORPSE would have come); Ms. Adiputro was perfectly content, though, to have me discontinue.

Had a quirk at birth or some vile religious rite disabled my beloved? Would she (and by association we) forever be deprived big fun?

Having to ‘explain’ an orgasm in lieu of inducing one was a sore concession on my part. I did so on the off-chance ignorance not debility had sabotaged my success (ego knows no bounds when it comes to saving face). Yanti listened with interest, her head cocked awry; but, if the question was, had she experienced said phenomenon, the answer was…

‘Curses,’ read my subtext, foiled by ambiguity. How could she be vague about something so dramatic? How could I have missed Ms. Adiputro’s G-spot?

Ah, well; there was still plenty of time. Maybe, eventually, when she learned to relax...

I returned to addressing postcards (while inventing rationalizations for my hangdog ineptness).

Solo

14

SOLO

We moved on. By train, this time—a short two-hour trip—to the old royal city of Solo. Opting again for accommodations close to the station, we found ourselves transported, checked-in, freshly showered, and ready to explore our new locale within three hours of leaving the former one—which we did wistfully; Yogyakarta had tattooed many memories.

Lunch at Warung Baru was on the agenda, an ultra-quaint traveler’s hang-out featuring homemade bread (along with other Western fare) as well as Indonesian specialties served amidst wall-to-wall masks on bamboo paneling, plastic drop-cloth-covered snapshot-studded tables, wicker lampshades, and rattan chairs. On the tape deck Whitney Houston was singing I Will Always Love You—pop culture respecting no international boundaries. Great song, though. And what a voice! Superior production qualities aside, the richness of tone issuing from Ms. Houston’s first-world vocal chords stood out wherever broadcast (which was everywhere), catching in my throat, I’m embarrassed to admit, every sentimental time.

We were a bit early for lunch. I ordered minuman sehat (healthy drink) comprised of chilled milk and honey; Yanti ordered a Coca-Cola—she who proudly flaunted gift certificates for Java’s island-wide Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise. What can I say? Importing Whitney Houston brought along fast-food joints galore, to say nothing of Chicago Bulls T-shirts and Charlie Brown letterhead.

Likewise imported was English. For better or for worse, planet Earth (since Africa’s primal tribe) has evolved a near-universal language, or will have if the present trend continues. Lucky us, as in United States of America, perhaps the dumbest developed nation once again proving to be the dumb-luckiest; even the most illiterate inarticulate grammar-slaughtering nudnik-of-a-Yank can travel almost anywhere these days and be understood, a fact of contemporary life so bitter to folks like the French, for instance, laws are being passed to preserve “lingual purity” (in France this is akin to “Aryan Superiority”). Of course any language that insists upon assigning gender to inanimate objects deserves to die a death reserved for outdated notions; ‘institutionalized’ chauvinism surely is passé. English, structurally at least, is refreshingly non-sexist. It’s also ever-expanding, an equal opportunity employer of blunt communication. Repeat any foreign word or phrase three times to an American and he or she expects to find it in Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary: déjà vu, coup de grace; c’est la vie; French? No; English! English is the whore of international lingoes; Liberty lifts her skirt to every catchy slogan. If the French insist on keeping their heads up their asses, let them; it may be the only place they won’t hear terms like French fries.

This is not to say I advocate English as a universal first language. I’m simply in favor of adopting it—wherever it isn’t number one already—as everyone’s number two. It’s hard enough for people who understand each other to get along peaceably. Throw in a slew of interpreters and misunderstandings proliferate. A One-World Mother Tongue has never been more urgent.

All that said monolingual morons like your English-only narrator miss out on a lot because of this impediment—as Ms. I-Don’t-Know-In-English daily testified.

Lunch was pretty good. We studied up on Solo’s attractions, deciding to check out a performance of wayang orang (traditional Javanese puppetry) that evening at Sriwedari Amusement Park, prior to which we braved the afternoon heat for a stroll around town. Our odd-couple status attracted the usual stares, most benign, some rude, the Princess showing signs of being a trifle thin-skinned about the latter. Maybe it was Solo’s small-town atmosphere (and commensurate small-town mindset) that bothered her. Or maybe acidic looks were beginning to erode her casehardened shield. Something had noticeably changed; her affection toward me, case in point, became far less demonstrative. In public, that is; in private our relations evolved apace. If this was to be Yanti’s trade-off I had no objection; she could act with prudish reserve whenever on the street... which was griddle-hot underfoot, urging our sandaled soles to head for the relative comfort of our fan-cooled hotel room. A nap sounded good to both of us. We’d sleep through the midday swelter, rise at dusk, and return to downtown Solo for dinner and a Ramayana show.

If it seems like I’ve been devoting a disproportionate amount of verbiage to matters interpersonal, I plead guilty. Had I been traveling alone I’m sure my attention would have focused more on immediate surroundings. However, my companion was as much of a novelty as the contexts through which we passed. The country, its customs and trappings, its Dutch colonial heritage, its Islamic and indigenous architecture, the teeming marketplaces, overcrowded streets, and unusual modes of transport—dokars, becaks, colts, bemos (small pick-up trucks)—amidst verdant scenery, active volcanoes, tiered rice paddies, and a panoply of livestock formed an exhilarating backdrop for relations front and center, featuring Yanti Adiputro and Nathan Bartholomew Payne, the Princess and her Kakek, your heroine and foil.

Indonesians don’t applaud. It’s the oddest experience for a Westerner to attend a performance where the audience gives no overt acknowledgment of appreciation. ‘The End’ is announced on occasion; one of the musicians or an MC will step forward and say a few words. But as often as not folks pretty much know when it’s time to get up and leave; which is all they do; they get up and leave. Or, in the case of Ramayana extravaganzas (some lasting for hours on end) people mull around, grab something to eat at a nearby warung, even go home between acts then later return to watch a favorite scene.

In a nutshell:

Prince Rama, the play’s hero, is god Vishnu’s reincarnation, an ideal man married to an ideal woman; his wife Sita sticks by her husband through thick and thin. Underhanded dealings at court cause the couple’s exile—along with Rama’s brother Laksamana—to the forest, where an ogre king, Rawana, abducts Sita. Rama and Laksamana join forces with the monkey god Hanuman and the monkey king Sugriwa. After a full-scale battle the devoted wife is rescued... with multiple variations on this basic theme.

I, of course, understood zilch as to what was going on; I missed all the jokes (laughing only when cued by guffaws around me), and I got precious little exposition from my putative interpreter. Nonetheless, the costumes were sufficiently elaborate, the actors amply animated, and the musicians adequately percussive for me to stay awake; at least for the first two hours (outlasting Yanti). By the second intermission, however, we agreed to cut it short…

…hailed a becak

…and were wheeled through streets still wet from an earlier inundation…

…which revived a memory more lasting than either the sophomoric production (a real butt-number, truth be told) or dinner at Warung Baru (where we had ended up as a substitute for a place gone out of business) our cycler having hoisted his umbrella while lowering the vehicle’s plastic tarp, enclosing its snuggly passengers who therein necked indecently, sheltered from the downpour as attempts were idly made to find the nonexistent restaurant…

…behaving less outrageously now, exposed to the open air, overhead stars bearing witness (with a smattering of pedestrians) to our three-wheeled passage, snug as two bugs in a rug (ours like a magic carpet).

SukuhTemple

15

SUKUH TEMPLE

I’m sorry if it appears I’m belaboring Ms. Adiputro's (feigned?) indifference, but “You are not important” again jabbed its barb. We had just made love before checking out of our depot-side hotel and were on our way (by bus) to explore “one of Java’s most mysterious and striking temples” when my darling Dr. Jekyll pulled another Mr. Hyde. Well, maybe that’s overstating it; Yanti’s flip-flops weren’t between good and evil so much as between involvement and detachment; she had an ingrained opposition to falling in love, stemming, I think, from a deep-seated doubt that she, indeed, was lovable. I, too, suffered somewhat from a defeatist insecurity (being also a middle child, if from a much smaller family). In one relationship after another I’d scuttled ‘everlasting’ happiness by assuming if I were loved at all the blessing would be fleeting. Yanti’s track record was worse. A poor self-image had kept her stuck in the starting blocks. For all intents and purposes she had no track record. Vienna Green-Eyes was the closest she’d ever come, and their ‘affair’ (if it could be called that) never advanced past hand-holding. Seeking to remedy this, I felt confident that by leading Ms. Adiputro through the motions of physical intimacy, emotions of psychical closeness would naturally transpire. But the Princess was stubborn. Her self-ascribed flaws and inadequacies were rigidly fixed; “I know who I’m,” she’d exclaim, repelling my shower of compliments like a duck’s back sheds water (or a duck’s bill, referring to Yanti’s characterization of her sexiest feature, dissatisfied as she was with lips any woman in the West would spend a fortune to reconstruct). I kept at it, wearing away Yanti’s disparagements, reversing years of her too-short-too-ugly-too-stupid-faultfinding; but she’d have none of it, countering my flatterer’s bullshit by criticizing me, pointing out my defects (with intensifying vehemence), going so far as to blast my “grandfather’s” beard.

“Why don’t you shave off? You look much younger,” she would needle.

Fact was we were getting on one another’s nerves.

Bus trips were always congenial, however, due to the snuggling occasioned by invariably-cramped quarters and to the comradely rush of well-being we experienced whenever surviving them. This thirty-six kilometer jaunt east of Solo proved no exception, as Yanti, attracted to my personal smell (by quirk of olfactory fate) expressed it unabashedly. She’d sniff my armpits, pronouncing “not yet” if my deodorant protection was shy of breaking down, or “I like” once my body had achieved the desirable state of raunchiness. Kinky, I admit, but also quite endearing; imagine someone appreciating the essence of your pores.

And Yanti’s scent appealed to me, in turn. Unless, that is, she’d doused herself with this odiferous kayu putih (eucalyptus oil) applied liberally as a cure for whatever ailed her. How rubbing some stinky Jamu on the ‘outside’ of her body could possibly heal the ‘inside’ frankly escaped me. Then again, having put the Princess in charge of safeguarding my own good health (and suffering, to date, nothing worse than one day’s diarrhea) I questioned not her prescriptions; even the most pungent.

One advantage of rainy-season travel is the sparseness of crowds; we arrived at Sukuh (or thereabouts) with locals-only, whereupon we were confronted by a pair of disadvantages:

1.           Non-tourist transport dropped folks off a couple of kilometers downhill;

2.          It was raining.

With Kodok erected overhead, we commenced climbing a steep, slippery switchback through amazingly lush scenery (“green, green, green”) from coffee bushes to clove trees in an undulating countryside, the air not only wet but downright nippy. Despite the rigorous exercise we found ourselves shivering. Then the sky exploded! Lightning flashed, thunderbolts detonated, and the clouds let loose their load! Our path became a mud-brown torrent that raced down the incline, drowning our sandaled feet while multiplying our goose bumps. We hustled under a makeshift roadside lean-to, its ragged plastic roof leaking like faucets at either end, where we tried to consolidate warmth by keeping in cuddly contact.

Gallant that I am (on select occasions) I stood as a barrier between the wicked wind and Yanti, enfolding her in my arms to warm her up. In a blue-lipped sort of way, it was rather exciting. And for me nostalgic; electrical storms in Upstate New York (where I grew up) could be similarly deafening; ‘Ol’ Henry Hudson playing nine pins up in Heaven’ was the tall tale kids were told—CRASH-BANG-BOOM!

A couple of mini-buses crammed with Japanese tourists (adorned with Nikon necklaces) splashed by… ignoring us. We were on our own, as usual, left to sink or swim (almost literally), once more coping with a dodgy situation we had foisted upon ourselves. This one was getting serious; more leaks had sprung in the tarp overhead; we decided to resume our ascent; we could hardly get much wetter; up we gamely climbed.

Then, a mere two rounded bends later, we found ourselves passing through the temple’s bizarre gateway—marked by a large stone lingam and yoni (cock and cunt in the vernacular), discovering less soggy shelter a few short steps beyond where we shared a breezy refuge with two soaked motorcyclists likewise caught unprepared and likewise drawn to Sukuh Temple (we assumed) for its odd erotic aura—via fifteenth-century sculptures paying homage to some arcane cult of fertility.

At last the clouds relented, affording us waterlogged lovers the opportunity to tiptoe through the ruins, which resembled, cinematically, a set from Felini’s “Satyricon”—Indonesian-style. There were stone phalluses (of enviable dimension) alongside massive vulvas, one with a narrow slit through which were carved stone stairs, affording anyone inclined a return to the womb. Enormous flat-backed turtles served as platforms for sacrificing who-knew-what. The whole place oozed with animism, arcane arts, and shameless sensuality.

Joined by a contingent of post-colonial Hollanders the Japanese dutifully clicked their shutters then herded back into climate-controlled mini-vans and sped away (bound for the next opportunity to ‘take’ a few pictures and ‘give’ sights short shrift)… followed by the Dutch… followed by the cycling couple… leaving Yanti and me to absorb the monument’s Eros with arm-in-arm privacy; this we did…

…until the sky re-marshaled its forces and again sent us scurrying for cover, this time into a tiny warung where the resident family prepared us hot mie kuah (noodle soup); a more welcome impromptu repast I couldn’t have prearranged. Yanti excused herself to use the outhouse while I did my dashboard-decoration imitation, nodding like an idiot (wishing I’d devoted more time to expanding my smattering of the native vocabulary). When Yanti returned we ordered seconds; the cook was visibly flattered, adding an egg for good measure at no extra charge.

I was happy! In fact these rushes of elation were visiting with such frequency I felt positively giddy. Ordinarily I’m borderline-morose in temperament. Born of an alcoholic father and a manic depressive mother, I can boast of scant light-heartedness in my immediate gene pool. Since touching down at Sukarno-Hatta Airport, however, my spirits had seldom foundered. To what did I attribute this elevated state? To being buoyed by a bachelor’s fantasies replete with exotic trimmings (loath to so much as sneeze for fear it all would crash).

Malang

16

MALANG

But, alas, sneeze I did... repeatedly... pitiably... a full-blown head cold pursuing, and finally overtaking me, as Ms. Adiputro and I rambled into the next port of call, last stop on our inexorable trek to the famed isle of Bali. Malang, a picture-postcard hill town in Southeast Java, was as good a place as any, I decided, to convalesce. We checked into a swanky hotel, spurning the upscale refurbished wing for the half-price ‘cells’ around back, wherein I learned the meaning of genuine fidelity.

Illness on the road is a spooky thing. I had no health insurance, never have had. If stricken with anything life-threatening, I was up Shit’s Creek. Add to this the ‘symptoms’ of anonymity, functional illiteracy, and linguistic ineptitude, plus general ignorance about any of our settings (now mutually unfamiliar) and you’ll appreciate the undertow of panic that grips a traveler when he/she isn’t well. I wasn’t well. Yanti was worried.

“You look dead soon.”

Expressing not the sort of candor one would consider therapeutic, Yanti’s characterization was no less spot on. I complimented her bedside manner then proceeded to wallow in a feverish sweat for the next twenty-four hours: labored breathing, throbbing sinuses (alleviated somewhat by Miss Nightingale violating my nostrils—unsolicited—with gobs of Vick’s Vapor Rub), scratchy throat, fitful naps, and schizophrenic dreams (my terror of being left for dead manufacturing nightmares) throughout which Yanti, without sleep or apparent lapse in vigilance, stayed by my delirious to semi-lucid side, mopping my brow, keeping me warm or cool depending on my erratic temperature, hugging me when I needed consoling and/or retreating to a nearby chair when I preferred to thrash in wretched isolation. Nurse, mother, lover, bosom-buddy, Ms. Adiputro became “My Everything” the title she had formerly assigned to me (seriously or facetiously, I never could tell).

“My teacher, my father, my lover, my best friend, you are My Everything,” she once told me (tongue in cheek?), the phrase made more ambiguous by her enigmatic smile.

Then, as suddenly as my malady laid siege, it retreated... leaving me one grateful fella; in my entire adult life I couldn’t recall a single instance of receiving such tender-loving-care. I felt fine. A little weak, maybe; my body had definitely been put through infirmity’s wringer. But Yanti had affected a cure it seemed, above and beyond seeing me through a bad spell. I was moved, impressed as hell, and devoutly in her debt.

Arm in arm, we ventured out into our unexplored environs. I really did feel recovered, a whole new man. And thanks to the effects of illness, water-weight loss through perspiring, and a drastic change in diet, I was down ten pounds to a lean-and-mean 128—precarious in heavy winds but light-footed otherwise—my spirits boosted higher by the town’s elevation which lent the air an invigorating crispness and for me an acute fresh start.

At Pasar Besar (big market), a huge structure with multiple floors like levels of an archeological dig, we wandered through time. The basement, crowded with stall upon stall of foodstuffs, heaps of dry goods, and a termite-like march of busy shoppers, looked unchanged over centuries... whereas a few stories higher Javanese adolescents force-fed coins into video machines in an arcade booming with twentieth-century dissonance. If there was a commodity not to be had in this commercial mecca, good luck naming it. If there was something you wanted to buy in particular, good luck finding it.

Even my intrepid ‘adjutant’ looked a bit overwhelmed—and a little peaked; were our doctor/patient roles about to be reversed? In and among the established concession sectors were ‘floaters’ (freelancing or trespassing; we couldn’t determine) peddling everything from Jamu to snow cones. We sought out the former and ordered two pneumonia-buster cocktails. Yanti guzzled hers with much less gusto than I did mine.

“A dose of your own medicine,” I teased. And though these were watered-down versions of elixirs we’d sampled in Jakarta (watering down anything increases its risk of dire contamination) they did us no harm (and Yanti, in the end, failed to follow my “you-look-dead-soon” example).

Next we went in search of a bank to change money. It’s a process I dislike, for some reason. Exchange rates tended to vary so comparison shopping was advisable. But cambios, in Malang, were far and few between. I’d altered stash-tactics by shifting my essentials from codpiece to left hip pants pocket, secured with a safety-pin—great for discouraging thieves but awkward to unfasten while standing in a customer service line. Yanti, by the way, redeemed her traveler’s cheques at local post offices—far more convenient insofar as we were in them frequently in accordance with my persistent card and letter sending.

One thin American Express traveler’s cheque bought a virtual wad of Indonesian currency, the protuberance at my posterior after banking all too conspicuous and decidedly uncomfortable.

Speaking about funds, have I confessed to being frugal? My thriftiness is second only to Ebenezer Scrooge’s; I was spending, on average, $25 per day for two, which was 5 bucks under my predetermined budget. Therefore I suggested to my presumably less well-heeled companion that she conserve her savings (her entire nest egg, for all I knew) and allow her (penurious) patron to contribute the lion’s share. Yanti acquiesced, though she continued to pay for her personal items and for snacks that she’d always buy whenever we went en route.

This arrangement, equitable from my Scots-American viewpoint, perplexed Ms. Adiputro; in her country the man pays. Considering my national origin, an American even going Dutch represented an oddity.

“The United States is high,” she proclaimed. This in response to my ‘revelation’ that San Francisco alone had a homeless population upwards of ten thousand strong: bums, crazies, SSI dependents, and sundry other shopping-cart-pushing, doorway-colonizing, sidewalk-littering, street-pissers.

“No,” was Yanti’s movie-spawned refutation.

I live there; I have to step over drunken vagrants, weave through legions of panhandlers, dodge hookers, pimps, and dope dealers every Market Street, gauntlet-running day!”

“No; America is high!”

Yeah; on crack cocaine. She refused to believe me. When I further revealed that my own DUI dad (who was left to raise the youngest two of three sons after his wife ran off with an FBI agent) couldn’t afford to pay my college tuition, that I had to borrow the money, she looked at me like I’d just swapped proboscises with Pinocchio. Her father, who held a prestigious government post in military intelligence before he died, put all of his surviving children through university (except for the prideful Princess, who insisted on paying her own tuition—room and board, as well). Did the third world need the first world as a pie-in-the-sky ideal, like the downtrodden need the Hereafter as solace for their suffering? The West was a panacea, Heaven on Earth, the proverbial Gold Mountain—fool’s gold, of course, to those of us who live there and who have come to realize ‘the good life’ can’t be measured in appliances, automobiles, and reliable indoor plumbing.

Good health, a worthwhile vocation, and an intimate (or two) on-call, are life’s true essentials, all of which can be had just about anywhere. Accouterments, like the glitzy glamorous types available in the States, interfere more often than not with the “pursuit of happiness”—especially when chasing it down requires such velocity.

Malang’s pace was slower. Malang also reputedly had “more beggars per capita than any other town in Java,” which is maybe what got me sounding off about poverty in general. The poor exist everywhere on this planet, in greater or lesser concentrations depending upon circumstances. Maybe it’s unfair of me to be hypercritical of co-called ‘first world’ have-nots, but having seen ‘third-world’ poverty in places from Bangui to Calcutta (where have-nots are destitute unequivocally), poor folks in America are somehow less pitiable.

As Yanti and I looked from an overpass at the Sungai (river) Brantas meandering below, its banks alive with laundresses, water-gatherers, and sundry bathers going about life’s business with a timelessness indicative of riverside communities worldwide, its flow of a sudden felt synchronized with my convalescent bloodstream, almost integral—like the moment when keeping dry during a deluge becomes useless and you surrender to getting drenched, no longer bucking the inevitable, becoming, instead, immersed, or like I’d drowned and been reborn as a native Indonesian, at home with its heat, its equatorial fertility, and its atmospheric sweat.

Hot again. Mid-afternoon, even in the hills of East Java, generated steam. Or was I burning off the bacterial vestiges of my short-lived affliction? Best take it easy. We crossed to the opposite bank and headed back, returning soon thereafter to our drab ‘economy room’ at Hotel Pelangi.

BaliHigh

17

BALI HIGH?

Gluttons for punishment, Yanti and I considered taking another overnight bus, the virtues of which were:

·            free lodging (a benefit canceled by the twisted, bleary-eyed shape you were in upon arrival),

·            not having to see overturned roadside casualties (drivers in Southeast Asia are among the world’s most reckless),

·            respite from chain-smokers (nicotine ruled, be it by any of several homegrown brands or by the imported toxin of choice; a man is not a real man unless he’s a Marlboro man—inoffensive only when sound asleep),

·            and waking up, if you’ve managed to doze, in a totally new environment (even if perennially “green, green, green”).

But we changed our minds, electing to travel by day, therefore fully conscious of the overland ‘joys’ ahead.

Instead of arriving in Denpasar at 3am (not the most propitious hour to find a cheap hotel) we rolled into town just after sunset, feeling as you’d expect after ten hours of a bus/ferry/bus journey in smoke choked, tape deck blitzed, truck stop poisoned, leg-room truncated, cockroach infested ‘comfort’—our road-weary states contributing to the capital city’s singularly negative impression.

We staggered from the terminal to a bemo station, fending off the usual onslaught by porters, accommodation touts, taxi cab hustlers, and  self-appointed ‘guides’ (Yanti no more conversant  than was I; we neither spoke Balinese), opting to split immediately for the purported ‘splendor’ of Kuta and Legian beach…

…which proved to be tandem eyesores! Disoriented by the neon-lit hullabaloo, we broke down and hired a cab—‘we’ meaning your narrating skinflint in league with Her Spendthrift Highness. A number of wrong turns and miscommunications later, we found ourselves on a street with all the charm of downtown Las Vegas: garish nightclubs, hordes of tourists, scores of kitschy shops, and overpriced restaurants. Miami or Venice beach, in miniature, also came to mind, but hardly Adam Troy’s “Adventures in Paradise.” Ducking down an alleyway off Jalan Legian (the main drag) we located (after two or three no-vacancy rebuffs) a reasonably priced losmen where our bi-racial partnership was greeted with a leer of condescension. I let on to the bigot-in-charge that Yanti and I were married—simply to wipe the smirk off his patronizing face. We secured our key, dumped our respective bags, and went hunting for a bite to eat. I felt terrible. I’d been talking about Bali in glowing terms for two-plus weeks, undervaluing Java in my haste to spend more time on this widely vaunted isle. Imagine my disillusionment as we walked a midway gauntlet comprised of discos, pubs, and fast-food chains (from UK’s Wimpy Burger to America’s KFC).

Adding to my dismay was the prevalence of similarly mixed couples, typically Western Caucasian men in the company of Indonesian women (the latter sporting gaudy make-up and risqué attire). Did Yanti and I resemble them? My conscience tried to rationalize what was no doubt indistinguishable in form if not in substance, but the bald truth was and is: women (of easy virtue) are available throughout underdeveloped countries, and men (of dubious scruples) readily buy their services with first-world wealth. Yanti’s token sharing of expenses, in combination with our illicit sex, cast a seamy-sided shadow that neither of us could shake. We entered a nondescript eatery, placed our order, and ate in silence, ‘strained’ on my part; Ms. Adiputro's subtext was anybody’s guess.

Next morning, after a much needed good-night’s-sleep, things looked less tacky. Wandering along crisscrossing gangs away from major thoroughfares, we bore witness to the fabled Bali, which helped us take heart. Small intricately carved shrines were everywhere, as were aling aling (short walls) surrounding traditional houses. Islam has yet to lower its heavy boom on Balinese religion and culture. Outside every house and business, every morning, offerings of food, flowers, and incense are placed. I looked closely at many of these mini-arrangements and each was put together with remarkable skill and care. It was fun to see Yanti’s curiosity. She’d never visited this part of her country, its uniqueness disarmingly evident in her wide-eyed appreciation. Instead of fielding my endless questions about what-was-this and what-was-that, she asked her own. We were both exploring uncharted territory, sharing in the wonder of all things unfamiliar… and ancient… and mysterious… and aesthetically pleasing. Never had I been in an environment so imbued with artistic sensibilities. Wherever we looked (excluding the tourist enclaves) there was such a high degree of craftsmanship and attention to detail that a landscape painter coupled with a visionary architect might well have gone before us.

Then we hit the beach... where Bali suddenly reverted to a picturesque cliché: swaying palm trees, white-sand shoreline, aquamarine waves curling with ride-’em-cowboy regularity, recreational watercraft competing with surfers, snorkelers, and bikini-clad bathers, rental cabañas and umbrellas sheltering sunscreen-oiled bodies oblivious to social conventions in their disrespectful nudity, while hounded by a constant tide of sycophants, masseuses, trophy-boys, and surf-side entrepreneurs, all currying favor from the idle rich sprawled in various decadent postures like a herd of sated sea lions.

I’m no prude, but when visiting less permissive countries I think it’s important to behave with at least a semblance of regard for the prevailing mores. Yanti, as I watched her take a solitary stroll at ocean’s edge, made so bold as to roll up her pant legs just below the knee. Absurd, perhaps, but hers was the appropriate decorum. In righteous solidarity, I kept my long-sleeve silk shirt buttoned all the way to its collar. Absurd for sure; the heat was blistering. Had I been alone, unobserved, I might have shucked down and gone skinny-dipping. But this was a public place, and, like it or not, travelers are emissaries, bridge builders; you don’t promote mutual understanding and tolerance by behaving abroad the way you do back home, not when those actions risk offending and alienating your hostesses and hosts. I don’t mean to sound highfalutin; Lord knows I’m as prone to insensitivity as the next guy. But I do shear my typically shoulder-length locks before venturing overseas, I study up on each destination’s customs, and I pay attention. Most folks make allowances for foreigners, forgiving us our trespasses—which is not to say we should abuse extended courtesies by acting like assholes.

With my introspective pal in tow (Yanti chose to walk behind), we angled into town, found a restaurant, and ate a meager lunch, during which we resolved to exit “Heaven on Earth” the very next day.

Butterfly

18

ARE YOU A BUTTERFLY?

We caught a bemo into Denpasar, then a mini-bus north to Ubud, a trip like passing through some magical portal, taking no time at all, less than an hour, yet transporting us into an entirely different dimension. Once beyond the southland’s blight of commercialism, the hills of central Bali beckon with an allure as paradisiacal as any on Earth. Again it’s the aesthetic sense that permeates everything: colors appear more radiant, riotous vegetation more orderly (litter almost nonexistent), and art is all-pervasive from the fanciful stone figures poised like sentries at every bridge to the manicured grounds and blossoming gardens of nearly every household (front and backyard both). Bali is Oz; I expected the Good Witch Glinda to descend any moment in her charismatic bubble.

Yanti had made friends. She was conversing cheerfully (in Bahasa Indonesian, the supposed national language) with a young man who just so happened to know of a cheap homestay run by one of his relatives. I, given an abridged rendition of their animated conversation, was worldly-wise skeptical. I didn’t doubt this fellow could lead us to accommodations; it seemed everybody and his brother could do so throughout the archipelago. That this place was as “lovely” as reported was the prompt that gave me pause. But Ms. Adiputro's enthusiasm won me over. We hopped off the bus onto what I judged Ubud’s outskirts and headed down an unpaved signpost-absent road.

“I tell him we married,” was Yanti’s sotto voce cue to me.

I nodded. By this stage we had experimented with a number of artifices (none satisfactory) in hopes of lessening censure—whether spoken or implied.

“He think kupu-kupu I’m.”

This was how their conversation back on the bus had started, our cheeky huckster asking Yanti, flat-out, if she was a prostitute. Kupu-kupu means butterfly; butterfly, when applied to a woman, means whore. Compared to malam ayam (night chicken) I suppose the Balinese term is less offensive than its Javanese cousin. But not really. Profuse apologies were made, evidently, upon the tout’s having swallowed my istri’s (wife’s) little white lie.

Whatever made her happy... I had compromised on several occasions during these first few weeks of getting acquainted, partly in deference to being in another culture, and partly to retain Ms. Adiputro's high-strung company. Ordinarily I won’t lie. In any given year the falsehoods I commit can be counted on one hand. This should not be construed as gentlemanly virtue, I hasten to interject. Most untruths people tell are of the polite variety; my relentless candor often does more harm than good. Nonetheless, it is reliably characteristic of Nathan Bartholomew Payne that when he’s asked a point-blank question he gives a straight-shooter answer.

Pretending to be someone’s suami (husband) pricked my conscience; but seeing the hurt on Yanti’s face whenever people called her a harlot, pricked it worse. So I played along—as we walked along—repressing my alpha-male impulse to kick this lad’s butt.

True to its billing, however, “Patrick’s Homestay” was a pleasant surprise: cheap, tucked away off a shrubbery-lined gang, intimate, immaculate, serene, absolutely quaint, and indisputably “lovely.” Extending my heartfelt congratulations, I shook Ms. Adiputro’s hand; heretofore it was I (guided by my Lonely Planet) who tracked down likely lodgings. This was the first occasion Yanti could be credited, i.e. my ‘newly wedded bride’ (the Princess had embroidered) and the pleasure she took in this fact further enhanced our losmen’s attractiveness. Feeling somewhat exonerated now that we’d found the ‘real Bali,’ I was fairly sure we’d be staying for a while.

After settling in, we went in search of Monkey Forest Road and Pura Dalem (Temple of the Dead). We held hands, sensing an air of permissiveness on this insular anomaly. The Balinese aren’t Muslims; they’re Hindus, though they practice their religion quite differently from counterparts in India. The same gods are worshipped—Brahma, Shiva, Vishnu—but there’s an overlord, a Supreme Being Sanghyang Widhi. There further exists a belief in good and evil spirits indicative of the animism once prevalent throughout Indonesia, Islamic strongholds included, but professed much more elaborately among the Balinese. Mountains are the home of good spirits. Demons lurk under the sea. Forests, like the one we soon entered, were haunted by spirits labeled ‘bad.’

Our arrival, noted by a well-groomed troupe of semi-tame macaques, felt eerily enchanted. Simian eyes frisked us for peanuts, discovered none, and then returned to other concerns—like giving chase through jungle-thick underbrush, making quite a racket. Otherwise the park was wonderfully quiet... hushed, in effect, its few visitors lowering their voices as if afraid of disturbing whatever bugaboos they believed were in residence; or for fear of waking the dead, whose resting place we found demarcated by Rangda figures (these devouring children) at the cemetery’s stone-carved entranceway. We ventured no further. Proper dress was required, meaning a temple sash tied around the waist. I had none. And the sign out front read like the equivalent of “Restricted Area.”

Instead, Yanti and I followed our ears to a waterfall tumbling through an overgrown moss-and-lichen-covered ravine. In knee-deep pools, straight ahead, there splashed a boisterous group of teenagers, some stark naked, girls and boys alike, refreshingly unashamed.

We about-faced, not wanting to intrude, and strolled beside the stream bank, eventually climbing some stairs (comprised of tree roots) to a footbridge where we paused for a covert kiss.

So sue me; it was romantic, goddamn it! With only an ounce of imagination, I could picture myself as a Caucasian Adam, Yanti an Asian Eve (God knows what race the originals were). Had our privacy been more secure we’d have made love then and there.

Modesty prevailed, however; we waited (with delectable impatience)…

…until sequestered (a short time later) in our room’s double bed.

Siesta time.

Ha! We took turns in the mandi (one end of which was a garden with open-air skylight) and then resumed our boy meets girl ‘deliberations.’

What I wouldn’t have given for an orgasm; hers not mine. I’d had more than my fair share, whereas Ms. Adiputro, as far as I could tell, hadn’t had a one. From an egalitarian standpoint this was unacceptable. How could I conduct my lover to the very Brink of Rapture then leave her unfulfilled while I played two pump chump? But try as I might to titillate, fibrillate, and instigate Yanti’s transports—be my efforts tender, aggressive, or naughtily refined—her ultra-pampered pussy was disinclined to purr.

Not that my caresses were wasted entirely; patience coupled with persistence earned ‘lubricative’ rewards... but always shy of the “little death,” the petite mal as it’s called in that language I defamed. Was incapacity or inhibition the pleasure-robbing culprit?

Resisting a stiff temptation to preempt my partner’s bliss and concentrate on mine, I suspended operations, resumed my role as mentor, and called my protégé’s attention to the organ now withdrawn. Haltingly... then with growing curiosity, Yanti studied my erection, like a child regarding an unfamiliar toy; strange and frightening both the shrinking organ throbbed. It occurred to me that ‘witnessing’ a climax might prove more illustrative than hearing one described, and that ‘causing’ same would be enjoyable for student and sage alike. I was pretty worked up after my assault on Yanti’s soft parts; it wasn’t long before her hands, under my instruction, accomplished their objective, semen spurting profusely while my startled helpmate stared... and (unsolicited) tasted the upshot of her effort.

“Ice cream,” she enthused between licks. “I like,” was her pronouncement, followed by “My first!”

Ingenuousness thy name is Yanti Adiputro! For whom I would have done anything, and said so, at that ingratiating moment… an offer she too eagerly exploited.

“You shave beard?”

Except that! Give a woman an inch... In twenty bewhiskered years I’d gone barefaced only once, on April Fool’s Day, 1990, in Thailand, scraping away my disguise on the shores of Koh Pangang. It was a mistake then; it would be a mistake now. Weak chins structurally (in my glass-jaw’s case) as well as cosmetically (mine is an arrowhead profile) run in the Payne family, the remedy for which is facial hair (in lieu of wearing a mask).

“But you look old, Kakek.”

Better old than parading a profile like Ichabod Crane’s.

Changing the subject (that is to say returning to the one in hand) I compared the phenomenon Yanti had just occasioned to the one I tried and failed to produce when fondling her. Excluding ejaculation, I explained (G-spots notwithstanding) a woman could experience something very similar.

“Oh?”

Hers was not a guileless tone. Nor was her cryptic grin altogether innocent.

“‘Oh,’ what?” I archly asked.

“I have,” she at last asserted.

“You have what?”

Her grin broadened, became downright mischievous.

“I have,” she repeated smugly.

“Have had an orgasm, you mean?”

“Many.”

I couldn’t believe it. I wanted to believe it, Lord knows; my impugned male ego was clamoring for cock-of-the-walk redemption. I’d heard of women ‘faking’ orgasms; ‘concealing’ them seemed perverse.

All my attempts to cajole an explanation proved unavailing; I gave up—though I did succeed in expressing the importance of providing me a clue.

“If I knew that you were coming,” I persuaded, “we could climax together.”

Whether Yanti considered this argument convincing (or self-serving) I honestly couldn’t tell. Taciturnity aside, she may have recognized an ideal opportunity to experience another “first.” Once again (in light of this joint ambition) I was as happy-as-a-clam.

Aesthetics

19

AESTHETICS

Ubud, being Bali’s cultural epicenter, is a place where the arts are showcased in every conceivable form. The Balinese flair for decorating everything that touches their daily lives has evolved from utilitarian craftsmanship into exquisite fine art—in its least pretentious manifestation. Everyone is an artist. The rank bestows no weighty mantel of awe-inspiring authority, no renegade status as a social outlaw gunning for the status quo; artists are simply folks. The woman who sells you a bunch of red bananas is likely to show up on stage that night in full regalia, entertaining an audience with stylized choreography of Kechak, Ranga, Barong, Ramayana, or any of several other traditional dances. The neighborhood tailor may play angklung (shake-drums) in a gong gede or gong kebyar (old-fashioned or more modern-day gamelan orchestra). Carpenters may double as mask carvers. Shopkeepers may collaborate on fabulous batiks. It seems like everybody has some kind of creative outlet. And we’re not talking ‘dabblers’ here; the art of Indonesia, Bali’s in particular, is highly sophisticated (if highly commercialized due to the West’s continual influence) and increasingly competitive. With world markets clamoring for products of superior quality at relatively low prices many Balinese have become self-supporting full-time artists. Galleries abound. Stone and wooden sculpture lots are as prevalent in and around Ubud as are car dealerships in Los Angeles. Though most of the pieces cramming roadside tourist-trade-aimed establishments are tacky and redundant, a deeper probe often will uncover extraordinary work.

Yanti and I visited one cooperative north of town, a series of interconnected thatch-roofed bungalows overlooking chartreuse rice patties in a setting so meditative yet vibrant we wanted to stay forever. ‘Bowled over’ describes our reaction; these artisans were superb, their technique so fully mastered it allowed them to create with that rare brand of freedom known only to the genuinely accomplished; talent veritably leaped from the woven-mat walls! If I’d had serious money (instead of my pauper-impressing pittance) and if I were of a more possessive nature I’d have ‘shopped till I dropped.’ On a purely aesthetic level, Ubud art inspired; I felt so energized by all we experienced I wanted to dance, paint, sculpt, make music, and write my next ‘bestseller’ right then and there, meaning immediately, meaning thoroughly immersed in the Land of Coconut Milk and Honey.

During the six days and nights we spent in these incredible environs—the surrounding countryside among the most beautiful of our entire journey—we visited several galleries, day-tripped to Goa Gajah (Elephant Cave) and Pura Kebo Edan (Crazy Buffalo Temple), took a splendid afternoon stroll to Petulu (where nesting  herons numbered in the thousands), dined at several romantic and scrumptious restaurants (an Italian pizzeria was Yanti’s favorite, finding the drop-dead gorgeous Neapolitan owner as appealing as his cuisine), and attended four elaborate dance concerts, one of which was so astonishing I have to describe it here.

Outdoors, chairs arranged in a U-shape (four rows deep), the audience (99% foreign, Yanti the sole Indonesian) sat within an apron bordering the stage. In our program (presented upon admission) I read blurbs (in English) about each of the half dozen dances about to be presented.

One of the most delightful featured a tiny dynamo who couldn’t have been older than ten, her concentration total, her crisp steps and energetic gestures meticulously choreographed, and her professionalism absolutely phenomenal.

Other numbers, if less memorable, were rendered with similar proficiency, so whether we were moved, amused, happily intrigued, or simply entertained, amateurism never hindered our enjoyment.

About two thirds through this program the stage suddenly filled with a hundred loincloth and bandanna-clad (but otherwise naked) male dancers! It was like the old circus routine where more clowns than seems humanly possible pile out of a VW Bug—in this case a minuscule backstage area. As the gamelan orchestra (arranged at an outer boundary) hastened to disperse, the dancers assumed cross-legged positions in a tight circle right at our feet. A chant of “chaka-chaka-chaka” commenced that I recognized (both for its percussive beat and corresponding hand-arm movements) from a movie I’d seen recently entitled “Baraka” (one of those cinematic big-screen spectaculars shot in 70 millimeter film with surround-sound audio track). To be witnessing firsthand what had mystified me a mere month earlier (seated at the vintage Castro Theater in San Francisco’s gay district) was positively electrifying. In numbers alone this piece was impressive, and underscored the community’s amazing talent pool. Ubud is a one-kuda town; how could this throng of participants have been rounded up so readily? Yet this, it turned out, was only a prologue to the evening’s stunning culmination, namely the Sanghyang Jaran or Fire Dance wherein a youth dreams he’s a stallion—a fittingly grand finale about to be performed.

Done typically by an adolescent boy, this mesmerizing spectacle began with a huge pile of coconut husks set ablaze, the ensuing bonfire tended by a man assigned to keep burning embers (with a long-handled rake) away from the surrounding spectators. Enter the stallion: barefooted, wearing a costume of wood and straw, the horse’s head resembling one from Picasso’s Guernica, its rustling mane and tail bone-dry, therefore in constant danger of igniting, because the dance demanded repetitive charges through coals set aflame, each pass stirring up sparks like swarms of red-orange fireflies. The dancer’s stage-presence was riveting, confident movements belying his purported tender years, youthful yet superlative and impressively energetic. Maybe I imagined the sizzling sound made when pounding ‘hooves’ crushed red-hot cinders, but the sight was palpable, the effect (in near-complete darkness) ethereal, haunting, almost maniacal as the reconvened musicians (offstage) kept thunderous time... at an escalating volume... at an accelerating pace... the beast returning again and again… prancing… rearing… galloping round and round… until ultimately it collapsed (in the smoldering arena) utterly exhausted….

Then it was over; too soon/not soon enough; the beauty of it excruciating, as a Priest stepped from the shadows to remove the horse’s head and to anoint the fallen dreamer—thereby releasing him from his equine phantasma. Lights came up. There was applause from those of us who couldn’t accept the customary lack of acknowledgment before leave-taking; I stayed glued to my seat.

The dancer was still on stage, breathing heavily, drained from his rigorous cavorting, smoke rising all around him like clouds of gauzy incense... through which I glimpsed his elderly, ancient-looking face. He was a man in his sixties; possibly well past! This dance, “done typically by an adolescent boy,” had been performed by an old, old man... sitting there cross-legged among the ashes as no doubt he had done on countless occasions prior… collecting himself… gathering his spent strength… waiting for his aged body to recover from its dignified fatigue.

I wept. Not sentimentally or pityingly. Mine was a reaction to the show’s poetic closure, the dynamic child/the invigorated old man like bookends, their portrayals up in smoke, no longer in existence... or like eggs, perhaps, now baked in the universal cake.

FuzzyWuzzy 

20

FUZZY WUZZY

Ah well, why the hell not?

Suffering a serious lapse in better judgment, I slipped out of bed and into the mandi next morning to shave off my beard and mustache. At worst, I’d endure only two weeks of self-consciousness while the whiskers grew back. At best, I’d discover I was less ugly than I remembered and Yanti’s triumph would engender newfound confidence in a clean-cut appearance. It took awhile. Scissors first, then two goings-over with a disposable Bic razor, and, at last, I was ready to confront my Sleeping Beauty ‘Bride.’

She cried.

I got a hug that was ‘almost’ compensation enough for my subsequent humiliation when Yanti, grateful tears finally stanched, assessed my denuded phiz with candid objectivity.

“Oh...,” she intoned with a plaintive note of commiseration, “... you right.” My exposed flaws had evidently tarnished whatever gold star I’d been awarded for the gesture itself.

Terrific! I resolved to capitulate never again when goaded by a female’s passing fancy; the prospect of having to parade my sun-tan-less, plucked-chicken countenance in open view inflicted an instant downer of shamefaced regret. Under Ms. Adiputro's (disillusioned albeit sympathetic) scrutiny, I blushed deeply—a reflex that had caused me immeasurable embarrassment throughout my formative years (and beyond) reminding me that facial hair achieved two vital ends:

1.           covering unattractive features,

2.          limiting flesh exposed and predisposed to flushing fire engine red.

Breakfast was served. Delilah, clinging to her mortified Samson, escorted me onto the porch where a table had been set for our complimentary morning meal. Pisang panekuk (banana pancake), kopi (coffee), and a mountain of fresh buah (fruit) promptly arrived—while I did my level best to ignore our goggling host. ‘Patrick’ expressed the usual pleasantries (in Bahasa Indonesian) then added (to Yanti’s gloating delight) that Mr. Payne looked “years younger” (he left out unsightlier) before taking his unctuous leave.

I ate in pseudo-solemnity (though the breakfast was excellent), playing the Prince-reverted-to-frog role for all it was worth; quite a lot, I soon learned.

With an almost doting subservience Ms. Adiputro insisted upon feeding me—between taking provocative mouthfuls and chewing each suggestively. I got the message, and before the last sliver of nangka (jackfruit) dribbled its aromatic juice down my razor-raw jaw, the Princess, with her frog in hot pursuit, hopped back into bed…

…where She-Of-The-Expurgated-Pubes and He-Of-The-Closely-Shaven-Mug unmistakably climaxed, our raptures simultaneous!

“My first,” Yanti testified dreamily… as we both were overtaken by postcoital tremors... lovers who, at last, appeared to have found accord... like two independent notes whose vibration crooned a third… resonating harmonically—and all the other cornball clichés that epitomize super sex.

Was it a fluke; a charade; an illusion? Could Ms. Adiputro have faked her (typically undemonstrative) orgasm in order to reward me for the mere shedding of my salt-and-pepper bristles?

The practical answer (in keeping with my policy adopted from day one) was ‘DO NOT QUESTION GOOD LUCK.’ I would awaken from this fantasy soon enough; mine was a two-month visa; I had a pocket full of airplane tickets to destinations elsewhere; one-way fares to loneliness was how I viewed them at the time; tickets away from a delightful intimacy, Yanti snuggled beside me in lovemaking’s afterglow, warm, innocent, impressionable, inquisitive, and eager to explore unorthodox experiences (my stock in trade).

But Yanti was also immature, spoiled, headstrong, secretive, and prone to fits of exasperating jealousy. For example, in a rare exchange between your countrymen-snubbing narrator and an African-American woman from Berkeley, California, no less, who happened to be seated beside us at one of Ubud’s dance concerts, Ms. I-Want-You-All-To-Myself (even though I was still “not important”; even though her ‘reasons’ for being with me had yet to be divulged) threw a green-eyed conniption.

“You talk her. You like? Go her, then!”—and other perfectly ‘rational’ recriminations.

In giving Yanti my undivided attention from the moment she’d met my plane I’d given her cause to expect it, to demand it. And demand it she did, with all the foot-stamping, temper-tantrum petulance of a selfish only child; my only child, heaven help me.

“You are only two months here!” was her repetitious outcry, voiced, for instance, whenever I so much as ‘thought’ about taking pen in hand.

Prohibiting a writer, even one with my limitations, from transcribing his impressions was like gagging a cock at sunrise; I needed to crow; whereas she needed all my attentiveness, every waking minute of it!

This is not to say I was wholly unwilling to comply. As Yanti pointed out, were I authoring instead of corresponding, she might have been more tolerant.

“What difference does it make,” I’d counter, “if I’m ‘not important’?” I was miffed by her flippant dismissal of our relationship, a relationship I knew to be potentially the most significant of her young-adult life with far deeper ramifications than she was willing (or ready) to admit.

Rather she’d retreat and commune with the sky, her metaphysical mentor—in lieu of Allah, I surmised, though Yanti’s moratorium on discussing her faith precluded my saying so... which was yet another source of mounting aggravation; religion was always off limits. By proclaiming my unequivocal atheism I had somehow disqualified myself from having anything valuable to say on the subject. Ex-Catholics being among the most outspoken critics of God (mustering the same brand of self-righteous vehemence as, say, an ex-smoker lambasting R.J. Reynolds) I felt unfairly muzzled. Whenever I tried to draw Yanti out about the opportune suspension of her devotions, I met with deterrence—usually expressed by “I don’t know in English.”

In other words we had problems, negligible ones considering our overall compatibility and the exhilarating rate at which we were logging unique adventures (the most definitive yet to come) but problems nonetheless.

Rather than dwell on them, I taught Ms. Adiputro a silly little nursery rhyme:

“Fuzzy Wuzzy was a bear

Fuzzy Wuzzy had no hair

Fuzzy Wuzzy wasn’t fuzzy, was he?”

...then rubbed her ticklish tummy with chinny-chin-chin.

GunungAgung 

21

GUNUNG AGUNG

WHAT GOES UP...

I wanted to climb a volcano. Yanti, who had seldom tackled anything more strenuous than a downtown department store’s escalator, said she was game—bolstered, I suspect, by her staunch determination to match strides with me. It was hard to leave Ubud, Patrick’s sumptuous breakfasts, my dinner date’s flirtatious Italian (at Ms. Adiputro's suggestion we’d gone back to the pizzeria twice), the surrounding countryside’s lushness, and our ravenous consumption of Balinese culture. But traveling is a fluid enterprise. We had eddied awhile; the main current now tugged and we let it carry us—by bemo—to Klungkung, where we transferred and caught another bemo, on to Besakih. It was pure pleasure mini-busing through Bali. I was almost always the only Westerner aboard; which I liked. Yanti was regarded with a trifle less scorn; which she liked. The island’s tolerant socio-religious climate suited us both. And everywhere we looked, beautiful scenery delighted our eyes. Also, the distance to most any destination was short, doable in a few hours, if that, so we arrived fresh.

My trusty guidebook listed only two possibilities for accommodations in Besakih: one 5 kilometers below the village, the other much closer to Pura Besakih, Bali’s “most important temple.” We chose the latter for its proximity, anticipating an early ascent and not wanting to rely on transportation other than our own four feet.

[“If you want to climb Gunung Agung from Besakih you must leave no later than 6:00 am. Start earlier if you want to reach the top before cloud obscures the view... It’s a pretty tough climb of about five hours. It’s easy to get lost on the lower trails so it’s worth hiring a guide...

Take plenty of food and water, an umbrella, waterproof clothing, a warm woolen sweater and a torch (flashlight) with extra batteries—just in case you don’t get back down by nightfall.”]

With the single-mindedness of dragon slayers, we showed up in Besakih to ‘conquer’ the Mother Mountain a.k.a. Navel of the World, so named because Gunung Agung originally formed the entire island, continues to form it, an eruption in 1963 spewing lava and hot volcanic sludge all the way to the ocean, and killing over a thousand Balinese in the ‘creative’ process. Undaunted by this active status (living in earthquake-prone San Francisco had given me a devil-may-care attitude toward natural ‘disruptions’) we plotted our strategy, casing the temple boundaries for evidence of an alleged trailhead. A festival of some sort was going on inside the walls, rendering most of seven terraces off limits to nonresidents, so skirting these centuries-old structures was as close as we could get. Nevertheless, we managed to find the trail! There were arrows, no less, of white paint pointing the way. Confident we could navigate without the (exorbitant) services of a guide, we backtracked to our humblest of humble digs. The losmen was filthy, worse than any we’d suffered to date, our dungeon-like room damp, moldy, stained with bug guts, and generally undesirable, a means to an end. It was well situated—its solitary virtue. During a brief break in the forbidding cloud cover, our challenge loomed above us with breathtaking magnetism.

Knowing nothing about the local flora and fauna, I was feeling anticipatory, but not the least bit afraid. Warnings of wild angin (dogs) were voiced by an entourage of urchins we’d attracted on our reconnaissance; and Indonesia has its fair share of venomous snakes; but I’m a veteran of many wilderness areas: California’s Yosemite and Death Valley, Wyoming’s Yellowstone, and the Superstition Mountains in Arizona. Though jungles were a relative novelty, I’d hiked them in Thailand, Malaysia, and most recently Java. Ms. Adiputro's apprehension was the operative glitch. Had I foreseen its panic-stricken depths, we surely wouldn’t have ventured on our soon-to-be ordeal.

But venture we did, at 1am, awakened prematurely by a tempestuous thunderstorm whose passage we mistook for a clearing sky. By the beam of a single flashlight, we made our way up rain-slick cobblestones, then flights of stone stairs, to where a path—now a channel of mud—zigzagged through Besakih’s rural outskirts. Once past the temple, it was pitch dark... and drizzling. Then it was raining. Before we’d lost our bearings for the first of innumerable times, it was pouring. We sought shelter under a thatch-roofed gazebo-like structure and waited, while a pack of obstreperous mongrels sounded an alarm. I chased them away with a stick—then handed it over to Yanti. She clutched it like a broadsword, as she shivered in the chilly air, looking very much like a “woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown.”

Not a good start.

“Should we go back?” I asked, tendering a hug of (trifling) reassurance.

“No.”

This “no” was for my benefit. It didn’t take a mind reader to recognize Yanti's terror. Were I a man possessing one shred of common sense I would have aborted our mission on the spot and hot-footed it back to bed. But I’m pigheaded under certain circumstances; once embarked upon some ‘great endeavor’ I’m loath to give it up—a boorish mentality that Yanti, at her peril, foolishly tolerated.

“We go,” she announced with forced bravado.

The rain had eased a tad. We sloshed through burgeoning puddles, looking for arrows on fence posts… on building foundations… eventually on tree trunks… discovering, to our chagrin, that the thriving guide industry had effaced these markings once beyond the jungle’s ever-thickening fringe. We found ourselves groping through dense underbrush, searching blindly for a trail that the annual wet season had all but obliterated. Plus, we were soaked. Not to mention freezing. How could a tropical rain forest be so fucking cold?

“Wait!” Yanti screamed.

“I’d gone ahead to scout. She’d panicked. Who could blame her? It was black as soot, not a star overhead, we were lost in an impenetrable creepy-crawly jungle (that was making some pretty weird noises, I should add, since the thunder claps had paused) and I was holding our only flashlight, leaving my sidekick in the gloom.

I raced back. Yanti was hyperventilating. She was also whining. I hate whining; it’s useless, a complete waste of energy. I did my best to calm her down, promised to stay within sight, within reach, if possible; the grip she had on my forearm was cutting off circulation—but the Princess decided not only to be petrified; she was pissed off, to boot.

“You walk too fast!” she protested.

‘Too fast’? A slug could have made better time. Granted, visibility was restricted to the scrawny beam of our flashlight—which, like the stick, I entrusted to Yanti. Still, our pace was anything but brisk; we inched along in stutter steps, my trail-mate acting as if solid ground, outside the artificial light, ceased to exist.

“Okay; we’ll turn back.”

“No!” Her exclamation was as irascible... “Don’t walk too fast!” ...as her directive was tyrannical (hardly an endearing combination).

So, on we crept... ‘falling over for lack of momentum,’ in my estimation; ‘forging ahead at break-neck speed,’ in hers. I guess we did a bit of both, considering the terrain. Easy-going stretches alternated with ultra-taxing washouts. We were navigating by tree trunk scars rather than painted arrows, though every now and then one of the latter would turn up, overlooked by the mercenary ‘obliterators.’

“I’m tired.”

All right, it was tough trekking. But Yanti’s “I’m tired” became a Chinese water torture, splashing irrepressible drops between my night-blinded eyes, one by one by one by one, until I wanted to strangle her. Plus, she was working twice as hard by freaking out every other second.

“Relax,” I counseled. “There’s nothing in this habitat that wants to hurt you. Humans, for the most part, are inedible.”

She looked unconvinced. Whenever treacherous footing separated us—and there was plenty of treacherous footing—Yanti would go into her whimpering routine, making a huge fuss over nothing.

“Don’t leave me!”

Leave? I wanted to murder her; but never in a million years would I have left her.

Given the horrible weather, ungodly hour, and miserable trail conditions, we hadn’t encountered a solitary soul since leaving our losmen. Babes-in-the-wood we were, with nobody to rely upon except one another should something ‘untoward’ happen….

What could have been more ‘untoward’ than slogging through jet black jungle in a goddamn monsoon (the downpour had recommenced) wearing inappropriate shoes on a path frequently unrecognizable, holding one piddling “torch” between us, with no map, no compass, no overhead constellation visible to serve as our guide, you might well ask?

In a word: injury.

With that threat tangible I adjusted our progress to Ms. Adiputro's plodding gait (and halting stamina) having the presence of mind to realize that an uncomfortable situation, with one snap of an ankle, could turn calamitous, even fatal.

The further we went, the graver my apprehensions grew.

“I’m tired.”

Of course she was tired; hours had passed! The only improvement in our predicament was a slightly lightening sky. Yanti looked pathetic. When storm clouds renewed their assault, I’d insisted on dressing the Princess in my plastic poncho, which was flimsy and too big for her, and now, in dawn’s faint lessening of the all-pervasive dimness, she resembled a half-drowned chipmunk packaged in Saran wrap. The hood had fallen like a visor, obscuring her fit-to-be-tied face, and had steamed up thereby limiting her already minimal range of vision. And the hem hung down so low it often made her trip—which she did again, this time tearing a hole in the now-useless garment.

I was tired, too, and made the mistake of taking her to task for “ruining” my rain gear... whereupon the Princess, in a highfalutin huff, shed both it and the down-filled jacket I’d also lent to her, seething (while involuntarily shivering) in the reinstated deluge.

Otherwise, we were having a swell time.

No amount of soft-soaping could cajole Ms. Adiputro into re-donning the soggy jacket so I stuffed it into our backpack (Yanti carried nothing except her foul temper), buried the wounded poncho, and then marched ahead.

“Wait!”

I was sure Her Highness harbored notions, at this stage, of escaping. Had she been able to wave some sort of magic wand (in lieu of the stick she had long-since discarded) Yanti would have transported herself, no question, back to Jakarta. As it was, however, our fates were dismally intertwined.

She closed the distance I’d put between us, and, for a while, her simmering pique kept her warm and moving forward.

Then, at yet another trail break (this one requiring a scramble up waterlogged turf) Yanti let out a shriek that could have roused her ancestors.

Poised on three of all fours, mouth agape, she was pointing at your trailblazing narrator’s ankle—which I then noticed ‘nonchalantly’ was streaming with blood! I’d felt nothing, a fact that flew in the face of evidence so gory. Reaching promptly for the first aid kit I extracted a sterile wipe to swab at the gruesome trickles in search of their origin. I found two perfectly parallel punctures. Could they be fang marks? Holy shit; if they were, I, and by association, we were in very serious trouble!

But surely I would have felt the bite of a snake.

The real culprit then occurred to me. Leeches! This pair must have latched on, sucked their body-bloated fill, and then dropped off, leaving my wounds to bleed—profusely—in the heavy humidity.

The only benefit derived from this bloodletting was that Ms. Adiputro converted her self-concern into concern about me. For the next quarter of an hour she uttered not a peep: no more whining, no more whimpering, no more temper tantrums; Yanti was a soldier; I was an injured comrade; she stayed faithfully flanked—and blessedly mum...

...until letting loose yet another stentorian cry!

I nearly did a header in my haste to double back, finding the Princess trembling, holding out her hand—to which a wormy parasite clung. I plucked the leech from her ring finger and flicked it aside. Yuk! Yuk! Yuk! Now we had a common enemy. As sunup made more and more of an impression on the overhanging gray, I pried bloodthirsty hitchhikers from our violated bare spots.

Hey, it passed the time.

Eventually, the jungle gave way. We suddenly found ourselves wending through evergreens. Well, ‘suddenly’ might be a trifle misleading; we’d been trudging ever upward for five solemn hours; maybe longer; neither of us wore a watch; ours had to be time estimates. The landscape had definitely changed, though. Footing was appreciably firmer. And lo and behold, in the misty distance, we caught our very first sight of Gunung Agung’s bleak cinder cone!

“I’m tired.”

“You said it; I am, too.”

We both were exhausted. Frankly, I didn’t know why my sidekick hadn’t called it quits. Apart from the emotional stress, our physical exertions had been grueling. And Yanti’s was not a hearty constitution to begin with. Yet there we were perched on the slopes of Bali’s tallest peak (indeed at 9,944 feet above sea level the Mother of all Mountains towers) chewing peanut clusters and dried dates as we paused to gulp down breakfast, rewarded by a gap in the clouds that afforded us a view nothing shy of majestic!

The island of Lombok lay southeast to our left, while the island we were ascending reached out like green-gloved fingers to a dazzling azure sea. Judging by the sun’s height, our meal was better labeled ‘brunch.’ We had better get a move on.

Invigorated by the vistas, heartened by more frequent glimpses of our eminent goal, and somewhat fortified by our humble provisions, your engine-weary narrator and his laboring caboose chugged their way up… up… and interminably up.

We had fewer doubts about being on the right trail and manifold doubts about how much further there was to climb. Thankfully, the going was less steep for a while. But that didn’t last. Instead of mud, we encountered gravel. Three steps forward meant two steps back; the strain on our jittery leg muscles all but redoubled.

“I’m tired.”

“Me, too.”

Yanti’s fortitude amazed me! What on earth kept her going? I was in tip-top shape. Prior to taking any major trip, I beef up my exercise regimen by running home from work each night (over three miles, the last one uphill). Ms. Adiputro had undergone no such preparation. Willpower seemed to be her only ally. Or loyalty to me, if that doesn’t sound vainglorious. I was on automatic pilot; on ‘last legs’ was she.

And still we trudged... the cinder cone taunting us with its seeming proximity... yet never getting any closer. “Five hours,” the guidebook had approximated; whereas we’d been hiking presumably twice that long. Where, oh, where was the end of this energy-sapping climb?

Finally, after another refrain of “I’m tired,” we came to an area strewn with enormous lahar (boulders) on which previous summit-seekers had inscribed their impending triumph.

I picked up the pace; mine, that is; Yanti was lagging badly (too pooped to complain). We were above the tree line, at this point, so keeping sight of one another was relatively easy. Keeping our knees from buckling was increasingly hard. Beyond the graffiti-covered boulders, rocks were smaller; in fact they appeared to be graded according to size. The closer we got to the rim, the finer became its apron.

About half way up what I dearly hoped and prayed was not another false summit, I halted (out of breath and nearly out of strength) while waiting for “The Little Engine That Could” to close the space between us.

Yanti was long in coming. By the time she staggered up the arduous, punishing incline, I’d gotten my second wind (or my twenty-second wind; we’d been at it so long I’d lost count of the occasions my vigor had waned and rallied). Yanti, now in a kind of dazed misery, slumped beside me and announced:

“I cannot.”

Her right leg had cramped.

Anyone who’s ever had a knotted muscle knows how excruciating it can be, and how paralyzing. We rested several minutes, but whenever Yanti tried getting to her feet the leg would give out. I rubbed it, and though I succeeded in alleviating the pain some, only a good long rest would restore its strength. We were so close. It killed me to think that after all our work, all our suffering, all our travail we were doomed to pull up short.

“You go,” Yanti encouraged. She had read my thoughts, knew I would forever regret not making it to the top; she was content to stay put; she would wait; I should continue; she’d be okay.

Pangandaran sprang to mind. I’d let her out of my sight then, and it had nearly been disastrous. True, she’d been in no real danger; my overactive imagination had created that crisis. Yanti, come to think of it, had laughed at my distress. But this was a graver situation. Clouds were on maneuvers again, gathering forces to the northwest and recommencing their troop in our direction. If I was going to strike out alone, I had better do it soon, or the sky would close, making it not worth the risk let alone the effort.

I studied Yanti’s face, probing for the least indication that what she really expected of me was to stand by her (rather than to abandon her, albeit temporarily). I’d seldom felt so torn.

But being the selfish son-of-a-bitch that I am, your bound-and-determined narrator made one last stubborn push for Mother Mountain’s ‘umbilicus.’

As luck would have it, I both underestimated the remaining distance and overestimated my ability to cover it. Another three quarters of an hour must have passed before I hauled my crippled bones onto the comparatively level rim.

It was worth it!

With fair skies still prevailing, I got a panoramic view of Gunung Agung’s tumultuous crater. I could even smell the sulfur, as plumes of it formed their own weather pattern within the rugged caldera—beneath which boiled and bubbled Earth’s primordial soup. Having no idea how toxic these fumes might be, and having already been too-long out of Ms. Adiputro's sight, I walked only a half kilometer or so before turning my exuberant footsteps back toward Yanti.

Too late! Forerunners of the approaching storm clouds were sweeping up the north face. I hurried. But the rim proved to be less level than it initially appeared, and the shock to my thighs, while descending, caused their muscles to seize. Hobbled, I slowed down. Yet gravity and worry kept yanking at me. I finally reached the place I ‘thought’ I’d scaled, but with nimbus steadily encroaching, I wasn’t all that certain.

And Yanti (Allah forgive me) was nowhere to be found!

I started calling, my voice doubling back like piss against a headwind. Panic taking hold, I tried to rush; I cramped; both legs.

Helpless, unable to do anything except massage the debilitating knots, I kept peering through the white-out in hopes of spotting Yanti. Nothing. Nobody. Only rocks in the guise of a huddled, diminutive female.  Using my arms instead of my legs to plop my rump from stone to stone, I headed downward. It was slow-going... painful going… all the while I kept calling:

“YANTI! YANTI! YANTI!”

No answer… other than the wind’s overruling “whoosh.”

Then, in a fleeting gap between cloud masses, I caught sight of her... inching her way up... crawling as painstakingly toward me as I was crawling down toward her.

At last we collapsed into each other’s arms... pitted against the elements... reunited in the face of unruly Nature... clinging to one another on an active volcano’s slopes... totally isolated... two insignificant specks in a chaotic Universe... lovers in adversity atop Bali’s smoldering ‘innie.’

GunungAgungNight 

22

GUNUNG AGUNG

...MUST COME DOWN

We laughed. We were pathetic and knew it. We had climbed ourselves into infirmity, into oblivion, neither of us able to stand at first, let alone hike for another ten hours, and not a soul was anywhere near enough to help or to care. Just us. We cared. Gingerly, we helped each other onto belabored feet, eventually shuffling off like a pair of convalescents. The rain came and went and came and went with time-lapse rapidity, brilliant peek-a-boo sunshine randomly interspersed, windows in the fickle berawan (overcast) granting us splendid vistas... while our prospects of survival looked much less sublime.

Once again I had to marvel at Yanti; if she felt half as tuckered as I she must have been dead on her feet. Whatever was fueling her leaden locomotion I couldn’t fathom.

Gravity helped. There were only a few dips that required upward steps (aching reminders of our climbing muscles’ depleted fortitude) but mostly ours was a jarring, stiff-legged slog, ever down, down, down, down, down. It was all we could do to face jungle-ward and hope our brakes held whenever momentum threatened to send us head over heels. Too spent for bewailing her plight, my trail-mate bore the descent in stoic taciturnity.

Before long (measuring intervals in geologic time) we reached the “green, green, green” of upper lower slopes, both of us in a numbing daze of fatigue—euphoric, occasionally. We had fallen into a rhythm, our measured strides in sync, pausing together, leaning on each other, and then allowing earth’s core to drag us into drudgery, into grudging ambulation, down, down, down, forever downward.

‘If we make it,’ I found myself musing, ‘I’ll love this courageous little woman forever and a day.’

“I’m tired.”

Then ‘they’ resumed; Her Highness’s pat lament and the rain’s remorseless drizzle. I glanced back over my shoulder; Yanti looked bedraggled. My heart sank. She wasn’t really walking so much as staggering. Her hair hung in sodden straggles. Her clothes (soaked through) adhered to her tiny body like a squishy second skin. And she was blue from the chill.

Night was falling! I couldn’t believe it. I’d been trying to convince myself that the failing light was due to our reentering the forest. Wrong. The fucking sun was setting; and we were nowhere near the bottom of this sorry excuse for a trail! Yanti’s renewed complaints were spurred by my unconscious acceleration to avoid being overtaken by another stint of darkness. At the rate dusk was dimming, there was no guarantee we’d find our way back, period.

“Wait!” she commanded.

Despite all we’d been through together, our struggles to enjoy/to endure the most arduous hike of our lucky/star-crossed lives, the rainbows/the leeches, the spectacles/the sludge, the elation/the exhaustion, our newfound camaraderie/our sporadic animosity, Ms Malcontent reemerged with a dour-faced vengeance.

“It’s getting dark,” I said, betraying a real talent for stating the obvious.

Yanti didn’t seem to care if it was day or night.

“I’m tired.”

Yes, that was a reasonable assessment of both our conditions. Demonstrating the compassion of an SS officer, I wheeled around and goose-stepped ever-onward along the indistinguishable trail, while Yanti, staring poisoned darts, stood her ground intractably. Without saying so, she had decided to take not one step further.

I sensed this, ignored it for fifty meters or so, then, swearing a blue-streak at having to waste precious energy by backtracking, around I turned and stiffly strode to Little Miss I’m-Not-Budging.

What an impasse! Yanti adamantly refused to get her ass in gear. Plus it was pouring. Again. I just stood there, ineffectually, like a drover disobeyed by his contumacious mule (with no doubt in anybody’s mind as to who was the bigger jackass). Had we not been in such wretched fettle, it would have been funny: a pair of obstinate featherweights squaring off in the wilds of Bali, neither with pluck enough to throw the first punch, both inclined to have his or her way come hell or high water.

“We go.”

It was her call; I had resigned myself to wait it out indefinitely. Yet, in spite of Yanti’s capitulation (what realistic alternative did she have?) I couldn’t help widening the gap between us—prodded by my urgency to lead us back before total darkness fell.

Next thing that I heard was a heartrending groan. Yanti had fallen. Hard. The specter of injury revisited with all the doom and gloom of a writhing inevitability. I ran back, cursing myself for letting her drop so far behind. What if she’d been out of earshot? How long would she have lain there in the muck, in the dark, alone and in pain? ‘Asshole! Bastard! Nitwit!’ I upbraided my talent for heartlessness.

She was grimacing… and, to my horror that stale cliché—a twisted ankle—was the straw that threatened to break the dromedary’s back; mine, that is, if I had to carry her.

She was frightened more than crippled, thank God, or Allah, or Brahman, or Zeus, and mad as hell at me, at me, as if I’d stuck my foot out and tripped her!

“You walk too fast!”

“It’s true. I’m sorry.”

I apologized; I was responsible. If I’d boasted half a brain, we might have avoided this whole damn trauma. But the facts remained:

·            we were almost down

·            her ankle wasn’t broken

·            we’d found our way by flashlight once before; we could do it again (if we hoped to spend the night in bed rather in this quagmire)

·            therefore, to prevail, we need only keep on walking!

So walk, indeed, we did… and walk, and walk, and walk, and walk, without an end in sight, with no sight familiar; we were down at least, but lost. We had somehow shifted trails. Or had we? With our flashlight growing weaker by the minute, neither of us could tell.

Then something very remarkable happened; Yanti took the flashlight… and henceforth took the lead.

“This way,” she pronounced with a convincing note of authority.

I was so done in, I numbly followed. Let her path-find, for a change; I was resigned to tagging along wherever.

On we went, led by the frightened child reverted to haughty Princess, she who whined and whimpered become she who analyzed and chose, a misled waif transformed into a woman with a mission; find the way she must, and by dint of instinct, find the way she did. There were houses, of a sudden. We were wending through a maze of plots, groves, and fenced-in fields, pausing now and then at some definitive crossroads. I’d look up and meekly shrug; Yanti would preside.

“This way,” she’d pronounce, adding an occasional, “Careful.”

It was she who pointed out hazards, just as I had done before, our roles reversed, hers the stronger, the surer. She scarcely even limped! The lumberer now was Kakek; I felt old beyond my years—and grateful to be accompanied by a grownup not a child, a woman not a schoolgirl, who proved, when the chips were down, that she could be reliable.

At long, LONG last we reached the temple. Our path, now paved with equidistant stones, was a stairway, harder to negotiate; every measured step was steep enough to wrench a wince from your hamstrung chronicler. Yanti, not much better off, recommenced her gimping. What a duo! We must have cut a curious couple, joined as we seemingly were at our misaligned hips, arms linked to lend each other support now that we could walk side-by-side.

There were people! Fellow human beings were out and about, the first we’d come across since the night before. We asked one of them for the time.

Jam delapan.”

8 o’clock? NINETEEN HOURS had elapsed since we’d set off! Nineteen hours of near-constant hiking (minus collapses). We got giddy. Neither she nor I had ever spent that long on our feet, let alone subjected them to the punishment they’d just undergone. My big toes were split and bloodied. Yanti had blisters on her blisters. We both had minor cuts and scratches. All things considered, though, our damages were incredibly minimal, our impairments no doubt temporary. We walked tall, despite our pronounced lameness. Yanti especially realized she’d accomplished something extraordinary. Though stopping just shy of the crater’s rim, she, no less than I, had scaled Gunung Agung, a rare achievement for an Indonesian, we later learned; and almost unheard of for an Indonesian woman.

I was proud of her (which I confess is neither here nor there; my unpreparedness might have gotten us killed). More importantly, Ms Adiputro was proud of herself. Pampered all her life (and more so after her bout with hepatitis) Yanti, by her own account “too short, dark skin, bad lips” (flaws to which she sometimes added “stupid, uneducated, and not strong”) had climbed the Mother Mountain, the Mountain Supreme, the Navel of the World! I stood as her witness. I would, ever after, sing her praises heartily. My shameless boasting on her behalf embarrassed her, on occasion, but whenever I told the tale, her eyes betrayed a smile.

Anyway, we made it. Piling our revolting clothes into plastic laundry tubs by the outdoor mandi, we scrubbed ourselves in separate stalls (passing the soap through a transom) and reveled in the bliss of overdue cleanliness—if lamenting the absence of hot water; none was available (I swear, if it had been otherwise I gladly would have paid).

We both washed twice before exiting, clad in towels and flip-flops, anatomies squeaky clean.

Food! We donned fresh clothing.

The nearest restaurant that might be open was five kilometers away, which left a warung opposite our losmen as the practical alternative. A group of “rude young men” on motorbikes used this eatery as a hangout, and had insulted Yanti (I was informed after the fact) in passing; thus it was that my sidekick suddenly had no appetite.

I was outraged! Not at my trail-mate, my soul-mate, my partner-in-travail; rather at these ASSHOLES on their namby-pamby scooters (which they perceived, no doubt, as Harley Davidson hogs). In no mood to brook so much as a smirk from this bunch, I prevailed upon Yanti to cross the street arm-in-arm.

To our joint surprise we were given a cordial reception, and, when I decided the chip on my shoulder was not in any danger of being jostled let alone knocked off, I broadcast we had conquered Gunung Agung.

Instantly, Yanti’s reputation shot up several notches. Everyone looked impressed. No one, including the brash young delinquents, could make the selfsame claim. I was offered a second manly swallow of some home brew or other (my Muslim teetotaler was shocked at my having agreed to sample the first) but I declined. We polished off two servings each of mie goreng (fried noodles) with some nondescript vegetables (while the post-pubescent gangsters putt-putted away) then, gingerly, we returned to our digs across the street for a very ‘sorely’ needed good night's sleep.

BePatient 

23

LEARN AND BE PATIENT

The following day we recuperated. I ached like I’d been bounced up and down a volcano. Yanti, toes bedecked with Band-Aids, had fewer complaints. This in itself was such a novelty I felt more attached to her than ever. We hung out our laundry (the sun making a token appearance) then tender-footed down Besakih’s only road to its only genuine restaurant, a ‘palatial’ establishment by local standards, commanding a lovely view, and virtually empty. Expecting bus load upon bus load of tourists to show up any minute, we ordered, were served, ate, had a casual chat, paid, took a slow turn around the gardened grounds, and departed, with nary a camera-toting interloper to ruffle our contentment.

Picking up the three-legged pace (one of mine was not fully functional) we rescued our clothes from another drenching, shifted them to lines protected by the losmen’s corrugated eaves, then settled in for a stint of letter and postcard writing.

In fairness to Ms. Adiputro there occurred spells during which my penchant for keeping friends abreast of sundry escapades was ‘permissible.’ She, too, would jot down tidings. But I’m renowned for cramming microscopic volumes into missives, consuming much more time than my cohort’s terse howdy-dos—a disparity meriting Yanti’s psychological finger-drumming. I love to write but not under pressure. With the Princess running a stopwatch on my prone-to-dawdle Muse, the joy of waxing poetic waned into aggravation. Furthermore, I resented that my correspondence was done by Her Royal Highness’s leave. No one, I don’t care who she is, tells Nathan Bartholomew Payne what, when, for how long, or to whom he can communicate in ink! Thus, as you can see, I’m easily needled. And Yanti, by luck of the draw, was a natural-born needler.

“But he is your brother!”

“I know he’s my brother. So? He hates my fucking guts.”

“He is still your brother!”

This was a classic example: we had been enjoying an afternoon drink, tasting tuak (rice wine), a favorite of Yanti’s dearly departed Dad, when I happened to notice the date was January 25th, my younger brother’s birthday. A sibling rival in the most persecuted sense (I damn near ruined this kid’s entire childhood with my ruthless two-years-older domination) brother Oliver grew up to bear me an unending grudge. Despite a short hiatus as young adults wherein we actually lived together, old wounds never quite healed; his animus stayed the course. Later, during a visit I paid to his home in Seattle, Washington (accompanied by an actress who took exception to my brother’s overt chauvinism) Oli announced that our presence reminded him of how much he’d always despised me; he invited us to leave. Since then, other than curt meetings at our parents’ subsequent funerals, we’d had nothing to do with one another for some fifteen years... until my Indonesian peacemaker butted in.

“You must write to him!”

“All right, already; I’ll send the little bastard a card!”

Which I dutifully did; a nice one, too, mustering all my skills as an author to avoid sounding like I was rubbing in my travels to an inveterate couch potato (said skills so adroit, I later learned, that they prompted the card’s recipient to incinerate it).

Shaving off my beard? Reducing my overseas mail? Penning a peace-pipe greeting to Implacable Oliver? What would this mini-minx exact from me next?

My answer waited in the seaside town of Lovina, to which we soon headed.

A bemo, bemo, bus, bemo journey from Besakih took us through more spectacular scenery in the central mountains, their cloud-enshrouded volcanoes and crater lakes eventually giving way to emerald tiers of cultivation cascading to palm-tree prevalent lowlands. Singaraja, at the coast, looked interesting, but we pressed on to Kalibukbuk, eager to set down roots, having time enough to explore only one more setting before leaving Bali for the mysteries of Sumatra.

It seemed asinine sometimes to be rushing from place to place, especially when there were lifetimes of pleasure to be had in any given locale. ‘Lingering’ on this gorgeous island was a continual temptation, Lovina (and our hideaway at Lila Cita) as seductive as any spot yet.

Situated on a black-sands hem of ocean devoid of petticoats (due to an offshore reef against which most waves broke) our beachfront hotel on Bali’s north coast was damn near ideal. The grounds had a comfortable homey look, cared for but not too compulsively.  Children playing in the shrubbery were neither scolded nor curbed. Live and let live, Balinese-style, determined the prevailing atmosphere, while lap, lap, lapping of the gentle surf-suppressed tide graced balmy nights and easygoing days.

Catering to Yanti’s preference for ‘up’ we rented a room on the top floor—“a room with a view”—that likewise caught what there were of heat-alleviating breezes. These would billow our curtains, of an idle afternoon, fanning us and the gravity-defying cicak (lizards), the latter doing pushups on ceilings and walls. If only these agile reptiles had eaten more mosquitoes our accommodations would have achieved perfection.

Yet Lila Cita was also the scene of our fiercest, most alienating argument, a regular shouting match ushered in by my stubborn disregard for “You are only two months here!” (Half of which remained.)

I had incurred the Regal Wrath by penning another morning’s-worth of postcards, among them one to Kumiko, another to Yanti’s Aunt, and despite my reciting the latter wherein I’d regaled Nona with her niece’s heroic ascent of Gunung Agung, my trail-mate wasn’t mollified; in fact her tacit simmer boiled over with the ultimate threat.

“I go home!”

“You what?!”

She started packing; I started panicking.

Never have a raised my hand to a woman; at five feet six there’s too much risk I’d get clobbered. There was, however, something about the curt obstinacy of Yanti’s intention that so exasperated me, so enraged me (and so dejected me) I was sorely tempted to whacker-’er-one; I did, in fact, grab hold of her by the wrists, and, with histrionic vehemence, pinned her to the bed. ‘You CAN’T leave!’ was my autocratic subtext—mine a ludicrous display of separation-phobia.

Dazed and confused by this madman’s precipitate aggression, Yanti tried to get up; I held her down, determined to do anything-and-everything in my power to ensure she stayed put... until I came to my senses and realized how futile were efforts to restrain her. If she really wanted to go, who was I to stop her?

“I can’t do this!” was my parting declamation as I finally turned her loose, left her where she lay. I could hardly stand guard; whenever the spirit moved her she could up and leave.

Yanti watched me go… and then seized her opportunity… or so I pictured in my fury, as I charged out onto the porch, down the stairs, and along the barren beach—without once looking back; if she decided to split; check that; when she finally split I’d be damned before I’d take the slightest notice, let alone try again to stop her! The brat was spoiled and I was sick of it! Let her run back home to Nona! Let her sacrifice me, her “everything”; I was better off alone!

And then it hit me; better off alone? I hadn’t been alone; not since Jakarta. I had swapped my independence for the ‘bliss’ of female company. And, more’s the pity I’d been saddled with this headstrong, immature termagant. Why? What possessed me to choose romance and a cloying co-dependency over going anywhere, doing anything, meeting anyone I pleased? I’d acquired a wife, for all intents and purposes, traded in my freedom for a goddamn ball-and-chain (whose weight, I swore, I’d shed… while storming down the shoreline... muttering... blathering... berating selves divided, my head and heart at odds).

I bought some lunch and tried to swallow it.

I imagined life ‘aloof.’

I could generate no enthusiasm for responding to “Hello Mister.”

The locals were obsequious (my flirtations no less fawning).

The company I most coveted was Yanti’s, hers alone; I was fixed on one wry smile, one unique set of features (in the whole of Indonesia) that I was blessed to recognize, and whose up-cast eyes, in turn, could recognize me.

Yup; I was one lonely fella… and we hadn’t been apart for one measly hour.

I made it two.

I took my time; she’d get a good head start.

Would I chase her?

I would not!

Pursuit was more depressing than a face-saved ‘good riddance.’ I’d adjust; relearn to relish my play-the-field autonomy. Or I’d brood in provocative modes of alluring isolation: Soulful Alien, Moody Wanderer, Enigmatic Gypsy; I coined quixotic titles to restore self-esteem...

...until the ocean intervened to carve an inlet into my flight path and Bali’s boundless beauty, I abruptly realized, was utterly wasted on me.

Then it rained.

Seeking refuge in self-pity, I started singing one of Bob Dylan’s little ditties:

When your rooster crows at the break of dawn

Look out your window and I’ll be gone

You’re the reason I’ll be travelin’ on

But don’t think twice, it’s all right...

This song had haunted me after my fiasco in Centrafricaine where my services, as in Bali, were earmarked ‘expendable.’ I sang it then; I was singing it now, caterwauling myself into another suicidal mind-frame, whereupon I turned around to retrace my woebegone steps—the beach still deserted—wallowing in the slough of my blue despond.

Forced up onto the main road by a surge of rising tide, I fixed my eyes on the bemo stop nearest where we were staying.

No Yanti.

‘Long gone,’ was my prediction, an outcome gaining certainty the closer my footsteps drew to our hotel… finally turning in along its rice-paddy-bordered lane…. where angin barked… babi rutted in a trough under some shaggy palm trees… and the satellite dish atop a neighboring accommodation (lacking the modest charm of our less upscale digs) looked as incongruous as ever… in passing… on approach to Lila Cita’s unassuming grounds… bound for the fateful staircase… that would lead to an empty room… whose echo I could hear before I even reached it…. wondering (nastily) which of my possessions Ms. Flown-The-Coop had pirated… bracing for the vacancy I (with all my might) dreaded.

Our laundry had been taken down from the verandah’s clothesline making the top floor room look as uninhabited as I knew it to be... the door of our unit was closed... but unlocked… I hardly dared to enter.

In virtually the same position on our combat-rumpled bed (a full three hours having passed since I made my huffy exit) Yanti sat impassively, patient to a fault.

For one significant moment I was the happiest man on earth (an emotion I concealed; no sense in adding sentimentality to my long list of shortcomings).

“I thought… that you were… leaving me,” I managed to stammer (with counterfeit indifference).

Yanti looked up searchingly, her eyes less practiced than mine at hiding desolation.

“Of course I did not leave you. I am Indonesian. I am loyal.”

That did it; I fell apart, ceded even the semblance of unattached composure, blubbering like a child… who is loved after all.

“I thought… I’d… lost you,” I choked out between sobs, having joined Yanti on the bed, hugging her for all I was worth (which wasn’t much, I admit, when compared to Ms. Adiputro's inestimable constancy).

Snicker if you must, but Yanti’s affirmation moved your unsympathetic narrator to his noncommittal core—‘Of course I did not leave you. I am Indonesian. I am loyal’—its imprint like a watermark ne’er to be expunged.

We made love then. The kind that isn’t really sexual. The kind that’s like burrowing solitude into another person’s loneliness, hiding from the world’s enforced isolation, a pair of separate selves their separateness renounced.

TheDolphins 

24

YOU WANT TO SEE THE DOLPHINS?

“Learn and be patient,” by the way, was a prescription for marital harmony drummed into Ms. Adiputro from an early age by parents whom death, not divorce, eventually parted but not before they impressed their tried and true formula on each of twelve children. The first few years of any marriage were expected to be a bit rocky. But patience and perseverance bred understanding; compatibility would follow.

Coming from a culture where wedding vows are as binding as cobwebs, I had serious doubts about ‘everlasting’ promises. Things Fall Apart, the prophetic title of a wonderful novel by Chinua Achebe, summed up my experience. Folks in America say “I do” when they really mean “for as long as it suits me”; about two years, statistically. My parents had endured togetherness a lot longer (arguably a disservice to all concerned) but split up they ultimately did, adding our family to the country’s lopsided failure column—twice as long as the success column, sad to say.

Recognizing that connubial glue was relatively durable throughout the Muslim world, I couldn’t help wonder how Ms. Adiputro had escaped its adhesiveness. There had been proposals. A physician—with flowers, chocolate, and jewelry in hand—drove up in his BMW, reportedly, pressed his suit according to all the rules of engagement (honorable intentions on parade); Yanti would have nothing to do with him. ‘Mom’ had engineered the whole affair (which guaranteed that her contrary daughter would send the good doctor packing). One or two other attempts at ‘arranged’ eternal bliss for the family’s ambun sheep met with similar resistance. Yanti was not the least bit interested in being married to a preapproved mate. Yanti was not the least bit interested, as far as I could determine, in being married period.

Or was she? The ambiguity surrounding this issue kept me guessing. In our letters of introduction I had discounted marriage as a personal objective, whereas my pen pal had taken the party line:

If God willing I hope married with Muslim, too.

And again:

For me, marry (keep house) is normality a life with responsibility I mean that somebody be responsible for a family and I imagine be happy if marry and have children so I want marry and have children.

Since my arrival, however, Ms. You-Are-Not-Important had sung a different tune, wanting neither offspring nor spouse; the pain associated with childbirth was discouragement aplenty for the Princess, while her track record rejecting prospective husbands spoke for itself. Overall, the impression Yanti gave about fulfilling an Indonesian woman’s traditional role was one of ‘rebellious indifference,’ an oxymoron, in effect. Was she holding out for Mr. Right, or simply holding on to her fierce independence?

“Learn and be patient” was indeed a worthy axiom; but Ms. I-Have-My-Reasons seldom practiced what she preached, the terms of our reconciliation a case in point. In order to secure my sidekick’s promise that she’d accompany me to Sumatra (a promise I’d taken for granted given our original understanding) I had to swear I’d suspend all correspondence for the remainder of my stay! It was useless calling Her Highness’s attention to the fact that depriving an author of his pen was a non-learning, impatient concession tantamount to extortion. Nor did my warning her she’d be sorry in the long run hold any sway. ‘Take it or leave it’ was the caliber of Yanti’s ultimatum. And such was my despicable overreliance, I took it; and thereby restored ‘tranquility’ (albeit fleeting) to our mutable relations.

It was time to have some fun.

Local entrepreneurs had discovered that tourists would pay good money to chase dolphins around through the offshore waters of Lovina. Every dawn, dubious seamen (the Balinese are notorious landlubbers) would cast off with boatloads of marine-mammal rubberneckers for porpoise-full pursuits. Yanti and I joined in, arranging concurrently a snorkeling expedition to the vaunted coral reef. Coaxing Ms. Adiputro into a tiny motorized prahu (outrigger)—she whose cousin, remember, was by the ocean drowned—was challenge number one. Had I alone tried to convince her she might have deliberated till nightfall. But our skipper was Yanti’s age, or thereabout; his wheedling form of peer-pressure turned the tide. With trepidation, Yanti waded through the shallows (fully clothed, of course) and scrambled into our boat like a Shanghaied sailor. So far, so good. Off we set, the newly risen sun gilding everything in sight: palm fronds along the picturesque shoreline, cumulus lording it over the horizon—not to mention my fellow Argonaut’s features (which finally lost their tension and flashed a pretty smile).

“You okay?”

Ostensibly relaxed, the Princess was having a grand time. How could she not? Everything was gorgeous! Volcanoes loomed in the distance like fire-breathing dragons (without the flames, but certainly combustible) while fishes darted below us, birds soared overhead, and waves were nonexistent. We skimmed like skaters over ice, warm ice, as clear as liquid glass and bottle-green between the gardens of multi-colored coral.

Then we heard the roaring; there was surf, of a sudden; breakers; plus a host of other craft all bobbing idly like some ragtag flotilla…

We arrived among them in the nick of time as the action started with thar-she-blows exuberance spawned by a pod of arching dorsals and surface-breaking fins as dolphins swam to starboard toward a school of tiny fishes—so intent on escaping they leaped right out of the water. With engines all-around racing the chase was on!

Wherever went air-breathing mammals, air-breathing mammals followed, with outboards sputtering, courses abruptly reset, and upraised lenses taking aim like innocuous harpoons. It was exciting, if ridiculous. We got fairly close, at times. But mostly our evasive quarry disappeared... causing petrol-conscious captains to switch off their motors... their boats like aimless hounds having lost the fox’s scent... until some seagull-eyed sun-screened pseudo-skipper hollered “THERE!” and off again we’d surge, in a game of hide-and-seek that lasted throughout the morning.

Finally, on a signal from us to our captain, we three peeled away and went in search of calmer waters.

Back inside the reef’s protection a comforting placidity ironed smooth the waves, the lilting surface ideal for Yanti’s first-ever plunge.

Challenge number two: convince the Princess to put on her mask, snorkel and flippers. You’d think in the safety of our boat she would at least have tried on the equipment. No. She could see, breathe, and move around just fine, thank you.

“You go,” Yanti encouraged.

Maybe the most effective tactic would be to teach by example. In a jiffy I was outfitted and over the side; hell it was my trip, too; I wasn’t about to let some fraidy cat scuttle my adventure—I who swim with the skill and buoyant grace of a splash-downed nosecone. Still, being able to flail and breathe simultaneously (via the snorkel) was a great confidence booster. And with toes transformed into frog feet my flutter kick rivaled that of Johnny Weissmuller. If only I could pry Maureen O’Hara from her perch on the prahu’s seat.

My predominant frustration was that—mere inches underneath us—there bloomed a world of indescribable beauty; right below my consternated shipmate’s jutting elbows.

“I can see,” she insisted, mistaking her blurry impression topside for the clarity of mine whenever I paddled off (facedown) to view the gorgeous plumes of iridescent coral… returning soon thereafter; it was just too beautiful not to share.

“Please!” I implored. “You can’t imagine what you’re missing.”

“No!”

I looked to her countryman for help; he wasn’t any. With a sinking intuition I suspected he, like she, couldn’t swim. In truth he identified more with Yanti than with your Sea-Hunt-Simulating narrator. So, hoisting my scrawny self out of a pleasantly lukewarm sea, I proceeded to coax, cajole, and harass the immovable Princess.

Finally—to shut me up, I suppose, more than to concede that a richer experience could be had in the water as opposed to above it—Her Highness deigned to don the intimidating mask.

Challenge number three: get this woman to stick her face in the water. Sound easy? It wasn’t. Endless adjustments were first required: to the strap length, the rubber seal, the snorkel and its ‘gagging’ mouthpiece… followed by breathing lessons. Yanti’s response to having a tube inside her mouth was to pant in lieu of breathing.

“Slowly... gently... relax... relax... RELAX!... in... now out... in... now out,” I coached with ersatz forbearance.

But something about this process was too disorienting, be it the sound of her labored gasps or my hot air inveigling her; thus human respiration, Yanti concluded, took place on land.

“Forget the fucking snorkel, Yanti. Just lean over and look, would you please?”

At last she capitulated.

“Oh! I like, I like!”

Victory! She came up for air, and then re-submerged, chomping on the mouthpiece of her snorkel—which filled with water instantly due to the angle of her head. She didn’t inhale too much saltwater, fortunately; just enough for panic to accompany her frantic sputtering. I pointed out the physics, presenting an ‘irrefutable’ argument for getting her over the side.

Challenge number four: do Princesses ever swim? Not this one. Although Yanti did finally ease herself overboard (fully clothed, naturally), one hand clinging to the boat for dear life, the other waving in a treading sort of motion ‘somewhat’ sufficient to keep her afloat, she remained unconvinced that fully inflated lungs ensured she would not sink.

Best leave well enough alone; she was in the ocean, bless her heart, where she could ogle its otherworldly wonders; she had overcome yet another debilitating fear; and thenceforth whenever reminded of her debut as “The Little Mermaid,” she’d inflate her little bosom with a modicum of pride.

TheSecretLetter 

25

THE SECRET LETTER

Why ever leave... when the approach of a thunderstorm brewed at sea could be watched from your front porch (affording ‘two insignificant specks’ a rumbling excuse to cuddle), when food was plentiful, exotic, and always savory (though Lila Cita’s breakfasts seldom rivaled Patrick’s), when sunsets put on fantastic displays of riotous color throughout monumental cloud formations (cumulonimbus piled vertically like ‘Stairways To Heaven’), when frogs (at twilight) croaked amphibian symphonies from nearby rice paddies, and cocks (at dawn) announced each break of day bucolically, when an international presence lent a degree of respectability to mixed couples (reducing disapproval often aimed at Yanti), when a roast duck dinner with all the traditional fixings could be ordered (“one day in advance, please”) at a restaurant down the road and consumed (with finger-lickin’ gusto) the following evening, when the only friction between lovers was bred of their genitalia spurring simultaneous orgasms (with improbable regularity), when time ceased being measurable by clock ticks (or numerals on a calendar) and conformed instead to rhythms of breath, heartbeat, and tide, when sun, moon, and stars followed by sun, moon, and stars reconfigured consciousness to make it feel at home (at one) with orbital ellipses, and when happiness waxed unnoticeably (in the absence of its antithesis)... why ever leave?

Because your rock-the-boat nincompoop narrator wanted to see Sumatra.

Thus the traveler’s ritual of gathering paltry possessions from wherever they had spread was reenacted: Yanti and I packing our respective bags with rote-like efficiency, zipping up zippers, battening down pockets, and securing sundry flaps. We both were reluctant to depart. Something significant had happened on Bali. Something between us had changed... as if two disparate identities had quickened into one; what sort of creature we would ultimately become remained to be elaborated. But all its genetic material had been put into place, conceived on Gunung Agung, its life’s breath subsequently breathed by the ocean breeze on Lovina’s black-sand shore.

With bemos, buses, and ferries to catch, we paid our bill and said goodbye to the affable staff, then lugged our luggage down the lane, my backpack always seeming heavier after a few days’ respite. Or was it Ms. Adiputro’s? I carried hers as well.

“Have you been collecting rocks, or what?”

“Poor Kakek; you look funny. You look dead soon.”

This was Yanti’s peculiar way of saying ‘much obliged’; she’d lollygag; I’d lumber. We were klop, to quote one of her Javanese expressions (she spoke that language also), meaning ‘fit,’ ‘well-suited.’ Prima Donna with Beast of Burden was no doubt more apt.

Shortly thereafter (and ever after it very soon would feel) we sentenced ourselves to confinement in a series of overpopulated hearses. Ah, the open road! At least ours were not physiques of typical-American proportions; “Cadillac bodies,” I called them. Like everything Western, especially mid-Western, people seem to have swelled to overgrown proportions. Every now and then some such specimen would clamber aboard, some bovine milk-fed Wisconsinite (with a barn-size backpack to boot) and attempt to cram his or her superfluous anatomy into a seat designed for a midget. Misanthrope that I am, these comic spectacles always amused me, my serves-’em-right vindictiveness vented with all the resplendent glee of a persecuted elf. Not that any of us passengers were really comfortable. Transport throughout Indonesia was (and is) a physical ordeal—with intermittent exceptions, the ride from Lovina to Gilimanuk noteworthy for being pleasant.

A dramatic ride, too. Skirting Bali’s north coast, the road often doubles as a sea wall. Waves, in areas unprotected by offshore reefs, crashed right outside our vehicle’s door. As usual, Yanti and I felt welded by the heat, yet nonetheless content with being in close quarters once again. “Queen of the Buses,” I sometimes called my travel-mate; in the realm of being cramped, hunched, jostled, and near-suffocated, Yanti reigned supreme.

No worse for wear we arrived at the embarkation point for Java in time to grab a quick lunch before boarding our ferry. Yanti selected some ill-advised meatballs of Allah-Knows-What denomination; pork is consumed on Bali; fastidious Muslims ask before they order; my shipmate did not. Nor did she deign to finish the greasy little emetics. I wolfed down a bowl of watery ayam kuah (chicken soup). Thus fortified, we headed toward the turnstiles of a boardwalk-wide gangway, or started to, Yanti excusing herself (rather furtively, was my impression) to slip an envelope into a port-side letterbox, addressed to whom she neglected (emphatically) to say.

Whether a cultural difference or an individual quirk, I was a veritable blabbermouth compared to my tightlipped companion. Total strangers can ask me the most intimate questions and I’ll answer honestly, this candor a combination of feeling flattered by someone else’s interest and wanting to demonstrate I have nothing whatsoever to hide. Having grown up guilty of my younger brother’s persecution (among other high crimes and misdemeanors) maybe the adult in me wants to demonstrate some new-leaf benevolence (and insists upon bragging). Who knows? Whatever the triggering mechanism, press me to incriminate myself and I sing like a canary. The upshots of which are: I accept responsibility (when in the right) for my personal actions; conversely (when in the wrong) I seldom have the grace to tender an apology; ah, well, given these ingredients it’s no wonder I come off sounding holier-than-thou; it’s an act, lest anyone discover my sanctity is sadly sanctimonious. That said interpreting as ‘suspicious’ Yanti’s refusal to spill even a token of her closely-kept beans indicts only the interpreter. Why should she reveal her inmost secrets, motives, and private agendas? Why should she give a simple, straightforward answer to a simple straightforward question? Why should she abstain from writing letters while imposing a moratorium on me writing mine? These questions, rattling like loose change in a clothes dryer, summed up my annoyance at Ms. Adiputro's refusal to name her correspondent... though, once aboard ship, I let it slide; bickering in the colorful Strait of Java seemed a silly waste of energy.

I stood at the rail for most of our crossing, reflecting on events as they had transpired, wondering if my sidekick would stay at my (anxious) side or when reaching the suburbs of Jakarta exit precipitously.

Meanwhile, Yanti struck up a conversation with an elderly fellow passenger—or, I should say, continued an exchange that the man had begun with me—until it registered that our multi-lingual conversationalist had been a subordinate of her estimable father. Suddenly the casual persistence with which this gent had drawn us out bespoke the practiced technique of a military intelligence officer (albeit a retiree). Yanti suddenly turned reticent, but at the same time it was necessary more than ever to practice politeness. We later laughed about this; exploits of the ‘Fugitive Princess’ would be broadcast coast to coast, and should her relations take umbrage with their errant member’s spree: her volcano-hopping, jungle-hoofing, porpoise-pestering wantonness with an American globe-trotter (I, for one, had given the ex G-man quite an ear full) a posse of her relations might lie in wait for us in Merak (gateway to Sumatra). This scenario, given the Adiputro family’s considerable influence, was not all that farfetched.

Which brings me to a noteworthy conundrum; America was “high,” as I mentioned, in Yanti’s estimation. Nothing I could say to the contrary disabused her of this elevated bias. I, being an American, must likewise be “high” (meaning ‘rich,’ among other derivations of that all-embracing adjective). My parsimoniousness (well-documented to date) must be ‘idiosyncratic,’ Yanti no doubt reasoned, because an American, especially one at liberty to travel wherever he pleased (for six months, I had allotted) was indisputably wealthy. Except I wasn’t; I’m not. My 1994 income was under ten thousand dollars, gross, due to having spent half that year abroad hence unemployed. Even doubling that sum, in a city as expensive as San Francisco, amounts to pauperism by U.S. standards. By Indonesian standards, if you compared, for instance, my earnings to the average day laborer’s, I was a millionaire; my Birkenstocks alone would set back a Sunda Kelapa shipyard worker three months wages. Why, then, did Her Highness give the impression that it was she who was slumming?

As I bore more and more of our travel costs Yanti’s snooty attitude about ‘inferior conditions’ started to get my goat; I repeat ‘started to’; my unremitting concern was to retain her blue-blooded company. Was she really accustomed to better or was her affluent air a disguise for destitution? Nona’s house was certainly humble. But references to the homes and lifestyles of other family members suggested an upper class, even privileged level of prosperity. Was Ms. Adiputro flush or secretly embarrassed about lacking a pot to piss in? I couldn’t decide.

In either case she was stuck with a stingy Scotsman whose overblown sense of frugality was about to deflate.

Paramex 

26

FIVE WHORES AND A HEADACHE

Passage from Gilimanuk, Bali, to Ketapang, Java, took fewer than thirty minutes. We caught a bemo from the ferry landing south to Banyuwangi where we boarded the newest, most luxurious bus of our impending cross-country trek. The Jawa Indah Express to Surabaya via Probolinggo was comfort personified! In front seats kitty-corner to the driver we enjoyed unprecedented leg room, clean un-tinted windows (most public transport windows are coated with sun-screening contact-plastic that turns even the most vivid scenery into a bluish blur), and a coastal route taking us through a succession of quaint un-touristy towns and villages rendering this segment of the trip an unmitigated joy. Yanti and I sat back and watched the landscape breeze by; one stretch of forest bordering Baluran National Park (home to water buffalo, monkey, civet cat, and leopard, among other extraordinary critters) was splendid beyond the wildest Jungle-Book dream.

Then we passed our first reminder of the stiff price paid by many for Indonesian drivers barreling down single lane rural roads as if oncoming traffic didn’t exist or would deferentially yield; a bus lay overturned down a steep embankment, its surviving passengers huddled in clusters near the scene, its casualties who-knew-where (though it’s safe to say they hadn’t been airlifted to some high-tech trauma center). In various languages tacit prayers were offered up as those aboard our vehicle scanned faces of those alongside the disabled one, looking for relatives, possibly, and/or friends. ‘Better them than me,’ was my narcissistic sentiment. Except for Yanti, I was on my own, a nobody in the most anonymous sense, whose remains, I grimly conjectured, might eventually find their way back home (not that it really mattered once one expired), then cringing involuntarily I imagined Yanti hurt, maimed, or, dead after our bus careened out of control and plunged into some godforsaken gully. Maybe her mind was running along a similar track; our grip on one another noticeably tightened. But irrespective how sobering this accident was for those of us being chauffeured, our driver barely eased his foot off the accelerator. ‘What’s passed is past,’ his speed seemed to suggest—Insha’Allah (if Allah wills it) his extrapolated creed.

Maybe he was right; fatalism is common sense when you think about it. Everyone alive will end up deceased. When traveling many miles removed from familiar contexts and their reassuring fixity it’s easier to imagine inexistence, oblivion, extinction. A moment’s inattention, one false step, a slip at the wheel... It doesn’t take that much to bring about nothingness. I shudder sometimes to think how tenuous this thing called life is from one breath to the next, particularly when I’m out in the world-at-large. Mother Earth is not a safe place. The further you get from the security of Home-Sweet-Home the closer you get to the touch-and-go of Reality. Some would call this a poor incentive for getting up from the sofa, but I thrive on it... or did, with Yanti nestled beside me on the Jawa Indah Express as it sped west, chasing the sinking sun, our pit stop for dinner (from my queasy, disinterested-in-Padang-food point of view) an unwelcome waste of the dwindling daylight.

Once underway again, the volcanoes we ogled looked active against their pink, turned ruddy, turned scarlet backdrop, dusk accentuating irregular formations of rock, solidified lava, and craters blown to smithereens, night markets aglow with fired up braziers and kerosene lanterns, mountains of jambu (guava), pisang (banana), and jeruk (citrus fruit) on festive display, shoppers milling among the stalls while promenaders out in force enjoyed an evening’s short-sleeved turn. We were in the soup, as it were (whoops; I vowed to avoid that phrase) ‘just passing through’ yet nonetheless ingredients in the overall recipe, welcomed and bade adieu at each terminal as folks on board reached their destinations and their vacated seats were refilled, darkness closing in on the wide open spaces, stars no competition for incandescent headlamps, their amber glare illumining particulars in flashes: cyclists, donkey carts, stray dogs, scattering chickens, gaggles of geese, tethered goats, oxen yoked in pairs... all the while we kept rolling... motoring... cruising over rain-slick asphalt, the sky unloading its January quota, windshield wipers like lazy metronomes falling off the downpour’s pace, emissions from a dozen red-eyed cigarette butts making trapped carriage air un-breathable until the storm passed (or we outran it) and windows could be reopened without drenching us smoke-cured passengers, the tires’ “hiss” gradually fading into a reassuring “whir”… soothing... sonorous... soporific... as Yanti and I took turns at being the other’s pillow, thankful for small-fry statures and glad to have either a shock-absorbing shoulder or cushion-lending lap, happy to have each other through the isolating night, miles disappearing in our wake as if devoured by an ink-blotter blackness... until we pulled in under the blinding fluorescent lights of Surabaya station (or wherever).

Disoriented and only half awake we debarked into the usual melee of touts grabbing at our packs, overeager to escort us hither and yon. We chose hither; Yanti did, rather. I abdicated responsibility.

“Get us on another bus heading roughly in the right direction so I can be jarred back to sleep,” was all I instructed before playing bodyguard, aggressively detaching mercenary mitts from our hardly-worth-portering bags.

Taken in tow by a particular tout (who proved more effective than I at fending off the competition), we walked about one hundred meters to a makeshift office. Knowing my Bulai (Caucasian) presence would double the going-rate, Yanti went in alone to negotiate our fare…

…shortly thereafter she came out all smiles. By divine providence (or some such wondrous coincidence) there just so happened to be a coach leaving for Sumatra in twenty minutes. ‘Eighty dollars, please’; ostensively a ‘discount.’ With my rip-off alarm sounding full blast, Mister Miser parted with two $50 traveler’s cheques, rationalizing that the savings in overnight accommodations would compensate for the highway robbery. Receipt in hand (not worth the paper it was printed on, was my presentiment) we were led to an idling vehicle, ushered aboard with a surfeit of sycophantic gestures (always a bad sign), whereupon, miraculously, we were on the move again... as if this interlude had been no more than a mini-nightmare disrupting our engine-lulled somnipathy.

“You did well,” I affirmed, stowing my skepticism, giving credit where credit was due; Yanti grinned with self-satisfaction then quickly fell asleep—my turn, evidently, to serve as bantal (pillow).

Soon after, I dozed off as well, only to be rudely awakened by our predawn arrival in Solo. Solo? What were we doing in Solo; shouldn’t it be Semarang? Solo was west, but considerably southwest.

“Short layover,” was the explanation offered.

Thus began our Purgatory on Hell’s extended stoop. Of all the squalid, verminous, stifling, unsanitary conditions we’d heretofore endured, the bowels of this ramshackle way station were the absolute worst.

“My first!” Yanti exclaimed with what I diagnosed ‘dementia’; how could she perceive our straits as somehow remarkable?

The benches in front were occupied by (slumbering) fellow ‘penitents’ so we sought a spot further back. Rats scuttled along the floorboards (I didn’t see any, but I heard them). Pipes dripped. Walls sweated. Revolting smells from a waysay (WC) wafted down the uninviting hallway. I commandeered a scrap of cardboard less foul than the slimy linoleum floor, draped it with my sleeping sleeve, rolled up my jacket, and tucked in the Princess, making sure her little body was as unexposed to the putrid surroundings as hygienically possible. Then I joined her, curling up alongside in a fetal position, hoping the caffeine-withdrawal headache I felt coming on would pass while I slept.

It did not; by daybreak (when our torture-chamber’s sole window admitted a laser beam of sunshine) I was in a fever, a temple-splitting malaise... and surrounded by… prostitutes, I deduced in my delirium, for such was my first impression of five women plying their wares to us sitting-duck customers… hawking sexual aids, no less… this bevy of opportunistic sleaze merchants had purses full of erection sustainers, potency potions, jellies, unguents, and balms, each extolled with an excess of spurious titters and make-believe modesty. At 8am! Or thereabouts; time, previously measurable in kilometers, had undergone a curious warp since we’d been delayed (‘briefly’ we again were told) this duty-free shopping opportunity compliments of our host.

Wobbly on my feet, I hustled to the squat toilet, hallucinating denizens of some wretched Underworld (below my buttocks) as cursed by their odious habitué as your sighing narrator was blessed by his evacuating rectum. Toilet paper in hand (without which one's left is the orthodox option) I wiped then ‘flushed’ (meaning I emptied a rusty can of water into the hole as my excrement’s chaser). Relief at one end, alas, brought none to the other; my skull throbbed worse than ever. I ventured out front to check whether our deliverance, perchance, had arrived.

Lo and behold, a Road-Warrior-like relic chugged into the private station.

Bis ke Sumatra?” I inquired like a death row inmate, hoping against all hope to be granted a reprieve.

No; wrong company. A lucky few gathered their bedrolls and belongings while I returned to our cell and those similarly condemned—with the money-grubbing hookers now impersonating harpies.

Novelty or no this was not a suitable environment for Ms. Adiputro. Innuendoes from the Gang-of-Five had gotten bolder and more offensive. I suggested we take a walk, but lugging around our packs, in my miserable condition, was unthinkable. We chose to leave them; Yanti’s assurances that her countrymen were trustworthy (excluding countrywomen, it turned out) overruling my cynical better judgment. As a precaution I made mental note of zipper-tab positions, then propped both bundles against the wall and loosely wrapped them with my sleeping sleeve (ridiculous, in retrospect; such ‘deterrence’ wasn’t).

Solo, once onto its noxious traffic-jammed streets, was unrecognizable, moreover un-therapeutic. The breath of fresh air I’d hoped to get was laced with carbon monoxide. Dust and the merciless sun turned my sweat into bilge. We must have come in on the butt end of town; nothing resembling Solo’s former charm was anywhere within staggering range. I was totally out of it, unmistakably ill. Having already popped four Paramex for sakit kepala (sick head, literally) the pounding in my skull persisted like a jackhammer.

“You look dead soon,” was Yanti’s tactful prognosis. “Need food” (a prescription that would have finished me off posthaste).

She was right, though. I hadn’t eaten much since Lovina. But the warungs in our vicinity turned my stomach at the mere sight of them; catching their scent was enough to turn my ashen features green.

I had to lie down. If that meant returning to Lucifer’s Antechamber so be it. Back we went, collecting a noncommittal shrug from the day-shift staff as to our connecting bus’s whereabouts; he’d let us know. We stepped around Reception into the dank passageway leading to our abandoned bags; they seemed to have been unmolested, which was more than could be said for our persevering dungeon-mates, still constrained to shop by the Crude Quintet. Assuming a corpse-like posture on our makeshift pallet (hands across my chest, backbone stiffly supine) I felt cold, of a sudden—a perfectly natural response to the backroom’s hothouse swelter, my temperature no less feverish, my shivering symptomatic. Yanti draped my body with the sleep-sleeve like a polyester shroud.

Maybe food would help. Having spotted a fruit stand on our misguided constitutional, I sent Ms. Adiputro to find, of all things, an apple; not a salak, sawo, sirsak, or rambutan; my last request was for a good ol’ homegrown McIntosh (or anything similar). No sooner had Yanti left than I regretted her departure… aware of being defenseless in my death-warmed-over state, carrion on a platter was my pathologic image... the nearby scavengers’ voices transforming into cackles, sarongs into plumage, torsos into mantles hunched in buzzard-like physiques. One of them actually hopped in my direction, stole a sniff with her lethal beak, and picked at my flimsy sheath with her manicured talons. I mustered the strength to flinch, scaring her off for the moment, but my vital signs were weakening, my necroses gaining strength, as a spate of what-if calamities afflicted me unmercifully: What if Yanti got lost… or hit by a truck… or abducted… or waylaid by ruffians? All manner of misadventure clamored for my attention. All farcical when I considered their common cause: my misbegotten yen for a goddamn apple!

I segued into persecution scenarios for a while, imagining plots being hatched by the characters flocked around me... whereupon Eve, alias Mother Teresa, aka Yanti Adiputro at long last came to my rescue, having scored not one but a peck of the Lord’s forbidden fruit—a tad mushy but the genuine article. I gobbled three of these panaceas to their slightly bitter cores... before wondering which banned first-world pesticide might had been used to repel infestations. “What goes around comes around”; the West will learn eventually not to shit upstream.

With our dubious mixed-couple status redefined as respectable doctor-patient, sympathy for my plight was expressed by those nearby… while I, relieved of translation, sought the solitude of infirmity... wallowing in my wretchedness… unable/unwilling to move… contrarily wishing our bus would not soon arrive... preferring a stationary to an ambulatory migraine... sweating then trembling with the hot and cold extremes of an acute CEREBRAL HEMORRHAGE!

Eons passed...

…time enough to wash down another pair of Paramex (with the dregs of our bottled water)

...time enough to appreciate Yanti’s unwavering presence and tender-loving care (my unworthiness notwithstanding)

…time enough to revive and take note groggily of our dismal surroundings (a la Lazarus executing a sit-up)

…time enough to blink away the mortal threat and once more number myself among the living (among the still-waiting, I might add)

...and time enough to experience the cessation, HALLELUJAH, of our so-called “short layover” (an endurance test of thirteen brain-blitzed hours!)

 

GroundZero 

27

GROUND ZERO

As we boarded this gasping shuddering clunker of a vehicle, the station manager made an effusive speech to Yanti, and then insisted on shaking my hand before waving us both an earnestly fond farewell.

“He says you patient American. Every Westerner always complain. He impress you do patient with good manners.”

Had I been able to muster sufficient energy to complain I’d have invoked the wrath of every deity known to Man, berating the miserable conditions, the deceptive ticket agents, and the gross unreliability of this beaming bureaucrat’s fly-by-night operation! Happy to be alive—AND FINALLY ON THE MOVE—euphoria must have mellowed my penchant for indignation. I waved back, accepting the unearned praise like a perfect gentleman—which I am not. But my pal and faithful helpmate likewise seemed impressed. Perhaps my sham forbearance could sustain this good effect; I resolved, from that day forth, to be the epitome of courteous composure.

What I became instead was an overbearing, clinging, unconscionable dependent. The nearer we drew to Jakarta (Yanti’s stomping grounds and threatened jumping-off point) the tighter I clutched Ms. Adiputro's hand. With most of the pleasure having been squashed, jolted, and choked from our cross-island trek by Day Two’s end (which died a long-drawn death somewhere outside of Cirebon) the morning of Day Three found us simply wanting to reach our destination; that is, I wanted us to reach Sumatra; Her Highness, either teasingly or sincerely, looked to be wavering. As Jakarta’s downtown skyscrapers glimmered into view, my grip on Yanti tightened; I was holding on to her physically as well as psychologically.

“I go home?”

“You’re not going anywhere,” I replied with cartoon-like machismo. If need be I would force her to keep her word (and seat).

Our bus, in the meantime, was giving every indication of gasping its last. Something had torn loose and gotten wrapped around the drive shaft, sending up an ominous knocking that soon erupted into a clangorous din. We pulled off onto the shoulder of what was now a superhighway, our driver and his assistant tracking the trouble’s source.

‘Of all the lousy luck,’ I thought ruefully. Were we to break down once-and-for-all so close to Yanti’s home (this ruckus was the latest in a string of vehicular death rattles) chances were our bond would forever be disserved. ‘Please, God, please, God, please!’ I mutely prayed with born-again hypocrisy.

Poking around with a screwdriver (in the right hands this tool can repair anything) the second-in-command accomplished something sufficiently remedial to warrant giving forward progress another try. We chugged up to half-speed (laboriously) before the quick-fix failed and “rat-a-tat-tats” beat ill-omens under the ailing motor’s bonnet.

Reinforcements were called in; a northbound bus from the same company was flagged down; another screwdriver-wielding mechanic proffered expertise. With all this activity going on Yanti’s escape plan, if indeed she’d plotted one, got sidetracked; the drama of our vehicle’s fate preempted all concerns. And insofar as a replacement was unlikely to be dispatched, everyone would sink or swim with our rust-bucket’s revival.

Viola! Our next ‘trial run’ carried us well beyond Jakarta to the port city of Merak and onto a waiting ferry (with nary a moment’s loosening of my desperado’s grip). Not until fumes from the toxically idling on-loaded cars, buses, and trucks forced us above decks, not until bowlines were cast off and ship’s engines churned the harbor’s oil-slick-coated waters, not until boisterous cries of wharf urchins diving for coins were drowned out by flocks of squawking seagulls, not until Java’s shoreline receded and Sumatra’s loomed ahead did my hand release its holdfast on the flight-risk Princess.

I can’t give a rational explanation for this behavior. Rooted deeply in my gnarled subconscious is a fear of separation, I suppose, as if I’d been from my mother’s womb “untimely ripped.” Except she’d waited until I was fifteen before cutting me and my brother Oliver loose (to say nothing of our dearly besotted Dad) so mine was not an angst bred of premature abandonment; nor was being the middle of three siblings grounds for my chagrin. Furthermore, I was forty-four years old, a fully fledged grownup, with flight feathers well developed and prone to soaring solo. For a borderline manic depressive, I thought myself remarkably well-adjusted. To have grown so thoroughly attached, therefore, in so remarkably short a time (to so short a woman) was clearly out-of-character.

And therein lay the key to understanding our curious dynamic; we, meaning Yanti and I, were indeed acting out-of-character; her suspended Faith, lost virginity, compromised social standing, and ever-deepening affection for a man almost old enough to be her father, coupled with my suspended faithlessness, lost objectivity, compromised bachelorhood, and ever-deepening affection for a woman almost young enough to be my daughter, were factors predetermined to drive us to distraction. Add to this the fairytale aspect of wandering through otherworldly habitats, experiencing first-time adventures, and sharing diverse cultures, it was little wonder truth proved stranger than fiction—as our next port-of-call would dramatically reaffirm.

Bukittinggi 

28

BUKITTINGGI

Hosting an amazing assortment of ethnic groups ranging from the Batak (former headhunters and cannibals) to the Minangkabau (a matrilineal Muslim sect) to the militant Acehnese (Islamic fundamentalists) Indonesia’s “new frontier” (as Sumatra is sometimes called) boggles the mind on impact. Yanti and I hadn’t even stepped ashore before visions of tigers, elephants, and orangutans (oh, my!) had us wide-eyed with anticipation. Rafflesia (the world’s largest flower measuring over three feet in diameter) bloomed in forests we could sense on our ferry’s back-paddling approach.

Booked through to Padang, we faced two more days (weather permitting) of bus travel. Ugh! I almost wished we’d flown or taken a cruise ship, anything to spare us another nerve-racking, rump-ruining ‘econo-ride,’ anything to spare us another infernal layover, but no sooner had that dismal prospect concurrently crossed our minds we found ourselves stranded, this time at the Sumatran customs office mere minutes after our boat put in at port. As a surly official eyed (with inordinate suspicion) my stamp-studded passport (extra pages had been added before I left the United States), our lame bus limped away; once more we were in Limbo… until another company deigned to honor our through-ticket north. Practicing my newfound equanimity, I thanked the inspector for confiscating my documents (to be returned if and when our transport connection was confirmed) and stretched out on the “Group W” bench resigned to another stint of ‘even-tempered’ waiting.

Yanti managed to take an impromptu shower in the waysay, emerging clean and refreshed from the filthy-dirty stall (redundancy intended), and then chatted with a fellow ‘detainee’ (who she recognized from Solo) a Sumatran returning home without a solitary cent; it seems the Hookers-from-Hell had lifted the poor man’s wallet. He was not their only victim. We checked our packs. Mine appeared to be intact. Yanti was missing the major portion of her traveler’s cheques! How much wealth this constituted she couldn’t or wouldn’t say, but it was sufficient to cast a cloud over her otherwise upbeat disposition. True, they were replaceable… but not readily. In my opinion, Yanti was careless with her hard-earned capital; rupiah was forever spilling from the pockets of her jeans. She stashed her money in caches like an absentminded squirrel, seldom sure (when frisking herself) where the currency might reside. This dispersal, to Yanti’s credit, did save her from losing all her assets; the light-fingered ladies had overlooked one packet of cheques (albeit the thinnest). Inconvenience aside, what hurt Ms. Adiputro most was the disappointment in her sister Indonesians. Thankfully not a brooder, my sidekick soon rebounded from her monetary setback, scampering off toward a shop to buy us some provisions, while I, your convalescent narrator, practiced perfect patience.

Cursing (sotto voce) the Surabaya swindler who sold us this joyless joyride, I was obliged to recant; a bus, the bus, pulled-in at a lot just up the street—ensuring a one-minute formality to “process” my passport (earmarked to take at least an hour by the lackadaisical customs official) was completed in record time. Mr. Tolerance and Ms. Public Transport, hustling aboard, were once again in motion.

If there exist drivers more reckless than the breed terrorizing thoroughfares spanning Java, Sumatra is their range. Within twenty kilometers of Bakauheni we passed two more accident scenes involving carriers as rickety and overloaded as was ours. If you count one crash I neglected to mention, roadside casualties now totaled four in as many days. When the rain started and I realized our vehicle’s windshield wipers were dysfunctional, dying from the effects of secondhand smoke became the least of my worries; never would I reach age forty-five! With this certainty racing beyond my control, the next twenty-four hours were a whirl of cliff-hanger near-calamities. Every hairpin turn was potentially our last; every speed-freakish straightaway spelled imminent disaster; brakes were barely pumped to slow our progress through scattering herds of livestock and scrambling crowds of pedestrians.

‘Green, green, green,’ the scenery so tedious to my bus mate managed still to intrigue and mesmerize me. Sumatra was a nonstop feast for even travel-weary eyes: muddy rivers overflowed their lush banks with wet-season fury; saw-toothed crags jutted through thick impassible jungle of creeper and vine; a feeling of impenetrability bordered the winding roads, their shoulders overgrown—as if encroachment by civilization were transitory and soon to be reclaimed by terrain both wildly beautiful and manifestly wild.

Our weariness, though, grew worse. Gumby himself would have found it challenging to bend his rubbery body into a posture allowing sleep. I, being far less pliant, assumed any number of tortured positions, my wadded-up jacket less than adequate as a buffer against bumps, lurches, and veers. Yanti fared slightly better. Not that she was any more comfortable; it’s just that her insomnia rendered forty winks atypical; she was a catnapper. Her afternoon snoozes compensated for nights of mere intermittent slumber. Often I’d awaken to find her watching me. At first I’d felt self-conscious; but she neither drummed her fingers with impatience nor leveled captious stares. Hers was a quiet vigilance... soothing in its effect... caring... dare I say loving? Could the Princess be weighing her “reasons” for keeping a “not important” man company, reevaluating the merits of her aloofness, flirting (as was I) with the benefits of camaraderie?

In my personal experience this unremitting intimacy was unprecedented. I’d lived with women before, traveled with them, but never had I felt so comprehensively entwined. My deliberate infiltration of Ms. Adiputro's defenses seemed to have backfired; mine were being breached, I was becoming more vulnerable, and this in turn had wooed my former pen pal into answering in kind. We’d gotten under each other’s skin (a pair of pretty thick hides, at that); our solitary natures were lobbying for an alliance; the proving ground was Sumatra... or would be, if ever we set foot on it.

In the confines of our bus—through days-on-end of vibrating immobility—our ankles had swollen dreadfully. The few opportunities afforded to stretch our legs—lunch, dinner, and prayer stops (twice we parked outside mosques for the faithful to add torment to their knees)—circulation scarcely revived before paralysis recommenced.

Then, grown used to our public environment doubling as a private one, your mischievous narrator got the urge for a little clandestine dalliance. Night had fallen. Fellow passengers arranged their belongings so as to sequester themselves as best they could. Meals, for the most part, had been consumed, nicotine cravings satisfied. Our driver permitted a rare silence (as counterpoint to his tape deck’s blaring repertoire)—this ‘lull’ lit incidentally by the bus’s twinkling dashboard. My head, already resting in Yanti’s lap and shielded by a jacket draped around her shoulders, burrowed beneath her blouse (of its own accord) and nuzzled its way upward—a maneuver meeting with Ms. Adiputro’s  mute cooperation, yielding either breast like an Indochine Madonna. Sweet as any sense memory before or since, this natal interlude lingered, tugged at nerve ends we connected that third evening become fourth morning, and stirred our loins with an elemental urge to reunite.

Architecture changed. The famed Minangkabau-styled roofs, shaped like buffalo horns, signaled our having crossed into West Sumatra. “Curiouser and curiouser,” this so-called “Land of the Gypsies” danced to a different tune; Minangkabau men deferred to their family’s eldest living female, and commanded no authority over their wives (other than safeguarding fidelity). Women likewise assumed no possessiveness with respect to their husbands. All ancestral property was passed down matrilineally, with progeny likewise regarded as belonging to the mother’s clan. How such customs prevailed within a context predominantly Muslim (hence patrilineal) suggests flexibility common among Indonesians in general—who adapted as much as adopted Islam throughout the archipelago (Bali the exception). Nevertheless, Ramadan, the month of fasting, was strictly observed, and was due to commence; Yanti and I were in agreement about conforming to its strictures.

Rain again—and a surprisingly nippy breeze, considering our nearness to the equator—forced windows closed; thus the cabin quickly filled with airborne carcinogens. Since Lovina, I’d already smoked a secondhand carton of coffin-nails per day, I whose virgin lungs had nary taken a first-hand puff. Now our smoky transport was like a canister of tear gas. By sundown, on this the fourth and final (praise Jehovah) day, my shut-in’s complexion assumed a death’s-door pallor… while my middle-aged knees began to ache with rheumatoid foreboding. An image of Ratso Rizzo (in “Midnight Cowboy”) came to mind, his ill-fated bus ride to Florida not unlike this one with its lethal implications; all of which served to advise us to: EXIT THE GODDAMN BUS!

“Bukittinggi,” our driver announced.

Wrong. Bukittinggi was north of Padang. How could we be in Bukittinggi having come from the south? Fumbling for my guidebook I deduced we must have turned north out of Solok instead of proceeding west to the coast. Backtracking (if our route indeed were destined for Padang) would entail another 2½ hours in this accursed torment; I couldn’t handle it!

“We’re getting off,” I declared, shouldering our packs while straddling the luggage-crammed aisle, my travel-mate bewildered.

“But, but,” butting in my wake, Yanti latched on, as we excused, pardoned, and extruded ourselves onto the drizzle-drenched roadside.

Terra firma at last! I didn’t care about the rain; I didn’t care about the darkness; I didn’t care about not knowing where we were exactly; all I cared about was finally being able to straighten my crippled legs and breathe untainted air.

We ducked into an over-lit restaurant, ordered some tea (which Miss Sweet-Tooth turned into syrup) and plotted strategy. Padang would have to wait. Yanti had a cousin living there; otherwise it held no burning interest for either one of us. What really interested us was a shower, a hot shower (if such a luxury could be had at an affordable price) and a bed. So novel seemed the prospect of sleeping in anything other than convoluted postures that Yanti and I were prepared to overcome all obstacles. We postponed dinner; first things first. It already was 8pm; finding suitable lodgings was priority number one.

Exiting the restaurant (after checking our whereabouts against the map in my trusty Lonely Planet) we caught a colt… piling out shortly thereafter on Jalan Ahmad Yani near the Jazz & Blues Coffee Shop. Almost immediately our newcomer status attracted a local tout, who attached himself like a tick that neither of us could shed. We let him steer us, nevertheless, to his kick-back establishment.

‘Adequate,’ we decided, but minus hot water.

Our fast-friend was ready, of course, to suggest an alternative, which we, in turn, refused, forgoing his parasitic services to fend for ourselves.

Mountain View Guesthouse became our next destination… on foot… I the designated pack mule, Yanti my driver… ‘ascending’ to said establishment... only to find it full. Revived somewhat by the cool high-country air, your overburdened narrator was feeling almost human—but not so frisky that climbing more of Bukittinggi’s vertical stairs, gangs, and byways struck me as desirable. Fortunately, the next place uphill (recommended by a kindhearted Oklahoman of indeterminate gender, an Oklaho-person?) had vacancies. We negotiated for a room on the top floor, noting its freshly laundered linen, testing the taps—both temperatures operative as billed—then, ceding first shower to Yanti, I went back down to the lobby and signed us in.

Cleanliness is next to godliness; which is to say, our showers felt divine—even though the Princess hogged most of the hot water. With lukewarm turning frigid, my rinse cycle was abbreviated (consoled by looking forward to a lengthier session the following dawn).

Restaurants would soon be closed. We toweled off, dressed, and braved the relatively brisk mountain air, settling for a mediocre meal at Three Tables Coffee House—seduced by its candlelit ‘ambiance.’

Getting lodged, bathed, and fed (the three essentials whose seeming unattainability, in foreign settings, often stymies wanna-be travelers) had once more been achieved. I, an experienced wayfarer, still evince surprise when the basics ‘happen’ almost of themselves—irrespective my worrying, the lesson learned: ‘Don’t fret.’

Lodged, bathed, and fed, then, Ms Adiputro and I turned in for a ‘horizontal’ night.

PMS 

29

PMS

Shortly after consummating our relationship Yanti’s first menstrual period of the trip came and went, commencing in Jogja, ending in Malang. How its prelude had affected her back then is anybody’s guess; at that stage we were relative mysteries to each other. How the prelude to her next menstrual period affected her, however, was played out in all its pouty, whiny, stubborn, irascible fickleness on what otherwise would have been a positively splendid stroll through the West Sumatran countryside. Encircled by three impressive mountains—Sago, Singgalang, and (another) Merapi—Bukittinggi was blessed with a refreshingly temperate climate, an invigorating place to take in the sights... until the Princess kicked off her one-woman campaign to sabotage our enjoying them.

“I’m tired,” was her opening salvo, voiced not three short steps from our hotel’s front door.

‘How could she be tired when I felt fit as a fiddle,’ ran my self-centered subtext? Dismissing her all too familiar refrain, I egged Yanti on, citing our triumph over Gunung Agung as evidence of her “amazing fortitude” and her “seldom-tapped reserves of awe-inspiring strength,” et cetera, laying on the flattery to no avail; she remained low-energy.

Bound for Koto Gadang (a small village noted for its fine silverwork) we headed through Sianok Canyon, passing, on our descent, several cave entrances, one with a bas-relief that depicted Japanese soldiers herding their hapless Indonesian captives into World War II era cold-storage. Not surprisingly relations between the two countries have remained chilly, the Japanese doing more damage to their image during three+ years of occupation than the Dutch accomplished in three hundred years of colonization. (In fact Hollanders today are number one among nationalities Indonesians consider desirable for interracial marriage.) This historical enmity toward Nippon found its hysterical counterpart in Ms. Adiputro's escalating hatred for Ms. Muramoto (to whom I had not written since Bali). Kumiko’s ersatz betrothal to Indonesian Jim notwithstanding, she had become the arch rival of my pen pal turned lover turned premenstrual shrew. Nothing I said to reassure Yanti that my ex was just an ex (meaning just a friend) proved mollifying. Insofar as I was still being classified “not important” I admit these reassurances lacked conviction. And, juxtaposed to the twenty-four hour a day intimacy/psychic infringement I was savoring/suffering abroad, the casual relationship Kumiko and I enjoyed back home ‘sometimes’ looked preferable—this hike through Sianok Canyon a classic case in point.

[Note: Unbeknownst to your promiscuous narrator a pair of “good riddance forever” missives from Ms. Muramoto awaited me in Dar-Es-Salaam, each as green-eyed monstrous as were any of Yanti’s displays of over-possessiveness—Kumiko’s spleen-venting triggered, evidently, by my postcards’ unabashed enthusiasm for Indonesia in general and for the Princess in particular, compounded by my “ex” being pro tempore between lovers, a brokenhearted state that persisted for all of two weeks near the end of January, after which Indonesian Jim was replaced by a punk-rock musician and all-around nice guy identified as “Ken.”]

If soft-pedaling my fondness for Kumiko while soft-soaping my immediate trail mate casts me in a less than favorable light, so be it. As I forewarned at this book’s outset, Nathan Bartholomew Payne is an unsympathetic character. Those generous souls who have been reserving judgment until now need only recount my litany of sins: deflowering an ultra-naive virgin, leading her secularly astray, holding her virtual hostage across interisland waterways, corrupting her never-been-kissed chastity like a grub in a vine-ripe fig, and using my relative maturity and worldly-wise machinations to persuade, entice, and manipulate her half-witting compliance as my interpreter, tour guide, and inamorata. In exchange for what, you might well ask.  How about two whole month’s worth of extraordinary experiences on said malefactor’s dime?

And no, I’m being neither self-deprecating nor self-justifying in some underhanded attempt to garner your good graces. Why should I? Approve or disapprove, I couldn’t care less. My concern then and now was and is Ms. Adiputro’s good opinion.

“You just want travel me for your sexual,” she charged out of the clear blue sky.

To remind Her Highness that companionship, no strings attached, had been my initial, well-documented goal did little to improve Milady’s armed-for-bear humor. I was the bane of her existence, the cause of all her wretched heartache. Because of me she would be shunned by her family (possibly forever), ridiculed by her friends (the devout ones especially), persecuted by her finger-pointing countrymen (generally overeager to cast the first stone), and worst of all condemned by Allah Almighty to dwell in the Abyss! Other than that it was a lovely spring day, posies blooming everywhere along our windy path en route to the river below, tiny homesteads staked out on tiered purchases taming the wild canyon walls, clucking chickens and grazing nanny goats making way for our sandal-footed passage, children dressed in motley tatters chirping “Hello Mister” to me and “Selamat pagi” (Good morning) to the Princess, while grinning at my kodok payung (frog umbrella) held parasol-fashion to protect Her Royal Highness from solar radiation—said public display of subservience compensation for private licentiousness …

…up to a point… which I reached after crossing a concrete footbridge (Hmm; the guidebook described one made of bamboo) whereupon I walked at my own pace, for a change, attempting to distance myself from Ms. Malcontented Menses.

There we were, zigzagging up this spectacular canyon’s thickly forested opposite wall, locals harvesting enormous nangka (jackfruit) in and among several other varieties of fruit-bearing trees, butterflies flitting pansy-patterned wings over the graded road’s shoulder and random clusters of wildflowers (orchids among them), mellifluous bird song competing with cacophonous cicadas as the mid-morning heat drew sweat that married clothes to skin, my bus-atrophied leg muscles straining with every step up an escalator grade yet rejoicing in the exercise, every bend ahead potentially granting novel sights be they animal, mineral, or vegetable, and all the while My Liege was pulling faces like an disaffected gargoyle.

Far enough ahead to escape Yanti’s “I’m tired” drone, I crested the last curve and feasted my eyes on a highland meadow (replete with grazing water buffalo) that could only have been created by the Maker Him/Her/Itself—or by a landscape painter with a flair for pastoral sublimity. I waited, feeling almost proprietary about the view, fully expecting its pristine appeal to erase the sour expression on Ms. Adiputro's countenance.

Nope. She approached, passed, and left me in her ill-tempered wake without so much as a glance at the glorious vista. I called after her.

“If you don’t stop this nonsense and come back here for a look you might as well walk all the way home to Jakarta. I’m sick to death of your petulant, aristocratic tantrums!” or words to that effect.

The Princess kept on walking.

I then exploded... or imploded, rather, doing my level best to contain an unruly rage that recommended I beat my headstrong sidekick to the call-it-quits punch. Instead of reversing course, however, I dug in.

“I’m not budging until you come back here,” I shouted ultimatum-fashion.

The Princess kept on walking.

Eventually I lost sight of her—which rendered the scenery no less radiant, I suppose; except it lost all beguilement. Do eyes of the beholder cease cherishing beauty when beauty goes unshared by the eyes of one’s beloved? Or, phrased less like a Hallmark card, how’s a guy to enjoy himself when his gal’s in a bad-ass funk? Feeling more and more foolish left alone by the picturesque wayside, your stoop-to-no-woman Petruchio gave chase to his Kate...

...who had in fact stopped (bless her heart) two bends ahead. I broke off my overanxious jog and assumed a more dignified pace. Yanti fell in behind me (with tacit recognition of my having capitulated) our truce thenceforth uneasy, our ‘rapprochement’ better termed ‘cease-fire.’

Koto Gadang (which we reached by going the long way around) was a colorful little village, its wooden houses a pastiche of styles and pastel façades. We checked out a shop featuring Minangkabau embroidery, a specialty of the region, and then wandered up a side street to visit one of the many silversmiths. Due to Yanti’s easy-going social skills (irrespective being pissed off at me) we were given a gracious welcome, a detailed demonstration, and an invitation to join the obliging craftsman (and his family) for an open-air lunch. Interaction with these hospitable folks (the artisan, his pregnant wife, and their two daughters) somewhat eased the tension between their venerated guests, in part because we were treated with the utmost deference— despite Ms. Adiputro’s candid admission that she and I weren’t married (in response to the jeweler noticing that neither of us wore rings).

I felt a bit self-conscious when we left, having purchased nothing; if this was seen as a gaffe our hosts did not betray it.

We chanced, then, onto ‘the shortcut’ back to Bukittinggi, a footpath much more demanding as it angled through tall rocks and dense underbrush… down… down… down to a suspension bridge semi-modern in construction (its bamboo predecessor having long-since been replaced). Halfway across, with spaced beams bowing under our weight, we paused to watch the white-water stream below.

I have a superstition about bridges, my own myth, so to speak; they connect two sides and therefore are symbolic of settling disagreements; ergo estranged couples should embrace whenever crossing a given span to mend whatever rift has opened up between them; so I grabbed hold of Yanti and gave her a heartfelt smooch... witnessed (oh-oh), ogled by a band of Muslim schoolgirls, their faces framed by kerchiefs as they watched our impropriety… waited for us to part before they dared approach… giggled as they braved the planks to pass in single file—nervously glancing back as (arm-in-arm) we followed.

Ole 

30

OLÉ

 

Bullfights, Sumatran-style, were held every Tuesday afternoon in a tiny village south of town call Air Angat. Like most attractions that Westerners got wind of this one had accrued an auxiliary cottage industry wherein ‘guides’ would round up likely curiosity-seekers at hotels, guest houses, or restaurants, and escort them (for a fee, naturally) to the heralded event. Thanks again to my invaluable Lonely Planet we were aware of the going admission charge and opelet (share taxi) rate there and back so it was fun to engage the avaricious touts in some comparative shopping. Oddly, however, whenever these self-appointed brokers were confronted by people (namely us) privy to their considerable mark-up they persisted in expressions of incredulity at our turning down their ‘deals.’ Whether this was salesmanship or conceit we never figured out. We did, nonetheless, find our way quite nicely by ourselves.

Because rain had fallen rather heavily that morning the arena (as we fought for standing room) was an acre of mud. Ankle-deep mud. Slippery, slimy, slapstick-variety mud. Residents, out in force, were in high spirits. Far less numerous tourists held cameras at the ready. This was ‘local’ entertainment, by and large, not yet geared to suit a Westerner’s sense of timeliness. The contest, should one ever get underway, would proceed at its own indigenous pace. This gave Yanti and me ample opportunity to study the goings-on.

A pair of massive water buffalo tethered to stakes driven into a sunken meadow (above and around which the audience clung to bluffs shaped roughly like a horseshoe) stood rooted in the muck like aspirating behemoths, snot drooling from their nostrils, turds issuing from their bungholes, horns as broad as truck bumpers daubed red by their self-important owners. The beasts’ grooming took on a ritualistic quality; attendants spat on their animal’s armored brow (for luck, we supposed) rubbing in the saliva like some holy-water blessing; similar preparations were performed by opposing camps; well-wishers and supporters chatted up their favorites. The crowd, meanwhile, placed bets using a subtle sign language of nods, winks, and finger signals that blended with the general hubbub so as to be barely noticeable. Gambling is a no-no in Muslim societies, which may explain why we never actually witnessed money changing hands. Considered a family outing these contests were benign; everyone got to watch—though boys took a keener interest, we observed, than did girls.

Yanti and I, being unescorted, stuck out less than the pods of guided guests who got ushered under a makeshift awning thus further segregated (if somewhat protected from the intermittent drizzle). Announcements over a crackling loud speaker added to the energetic chaos. With no instant replay anywhere in evidence, it paid to pay attention.

Then it started. Both buffalos were untied and prodded in one another’s direction—an ineffectual encouragement they saw fit to ignore. When they finally did notice each other it became obvious that territorial instincts fueled the ensuing clash. Horns locked, shoulder muscles bunched, haunches rippled, muzzles nearly buried themselves in the hoof-excavated mire, as one ton of bovine intransigence met another ton of bovine intransigence, the winner whichever could make the loser turn tail and run.

Yanti, who demurred when I proposed a modest wager, cheered no less enthusiastically when her pick prevailed, the victor’s slightly smaller size a handicap overcome by his overt orneriness. Lickety-split, the loser fled with the winner in hot pursuit, chasing it round the ring then right up through the crowd—which scattered, making way for bulls and owners alike. No one got trampled; lots might have—this aspect of personal jeopardy compounding the excitement.

‘Do it again’ was the dominating sentiment. And sure enough, two more impressive-looking brutes were soon entering the order-restored arena. A brisk business being done by sundry food sellers at a hodgepodge of concession stands helped spectators take advantage of another indefinite wait. I recognized a would-be package-tour promoter from town and thought I detected acknowledgment that Ms. Adiputro and I had succeeded in our autonomous end-around; his nod was deferential. With scams forever being perpetrated on us unsuspecting travelers, dodging one, for once, was a welcome change. Had my native-speaking sidekick been a trifle more experienced we might have come out ahead a lot more often. But Yanti tended to accept things at face value; a trusting soul, she was shocked whenever exposed to unfair play. By comparison, I felt like Svengali bending the ear of his innocent protégé—my knowledge of the world’s wicked ways owing to a more or less deliberate fall from grace.

“You are my everything,” Yanti vouchsafed, her earlier tone of facetiousness now tempered by sincerity (my primary contribution, truth be told, an overdose of cynicism).

Next fight was a bust. No sooner had the contestants been un-tethered than one turned instant coward, avoiding contact altogether by exiting stage right as fast as its squat legs could scramble. More amused than disappointed, the onlookers accepted this miscue magnanimously, hopeful that the organizers would produce a worthier opponent. Indeed, it appeared a recruitment party had been dispatched, but darkness was falling (rain likewise) thus Ms. Adiputro and I were not alone in calling it a day.

Wending our way toward a convoy of idling buses, colts, and opelets, we occupied one of the latter and were whisked back to town, a fine time had by all (in spite of the timorous bull we nicknamed “Ferdinand”).

Hungry 

31

GUESS WHO’S HUNGRY?

A few days R & R in Bukittinggi were enough to restore our traveling spirits, though we chose as our next destination Danau Maninjau only thirty kilometers distant.

[“The final descent to the lake involves covering 12 km with four-score hairpin bends, while enjoying great views of the lake and the surrounding area... quoth LP.]

Once shoe-horned into a vehicle designed to carry twenty passengers that hauled, in everyday usage, thirty to forty, negotiating “four-score hairpin bends” was anything but enjoyable. Pinching acupressure points in my thumbs (alleged to counter nausea) I, by curve nineteen, was pale as paste.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, no need to say it; ‘dead soon,’” I read the caption under Yanti’s mugged concern; my Queen of the Buses sidekick was scarcely perspiring, whereas I was soaked tip to toe in a pre-tossed-cookies sweat. Frisking my pack for a plastic sack into which I could puke when the time came, I halted; too much activity; better hold still; perfectly still; relax; try to exhale as the g-force of each tight turn threatened to evacuate my topsy-turvy guts. By curve twenty-six, wondering if my barfing out the window was: A: strategically possible, given my seat on the aisle; B: socially acceptable, given allowances made for foreigners; or C: likely to cause a chain reaction of en masse vomiting, I rallied my faltering will power and renewed concentration. Mind over matter... mind over matter... mind over half-digested clots of putrid stomach-churning nastiness, spewed and spat and retched and disgustingly dribbled down my weak re-whiskered chin; visualizations of breakfast regurgitated did little to suppress my urge to upchuck... my desperate urge by curve thirty-two... my compelling urge by curve thirty-seven; whereupon the little girl to my left disgorged her morning meal—kerplop—relieving everyone else as if by proxy.

Normally that would have done it, shoved me over the brink, grossed me out so thoroughly I’d be forced to follow suit. Instead (and this in defiance of the awful stench) I let loose a queasiness-alleviating sigh... as did many of my fellow sufferers, a vicarious wave of well-being ushered in by the humiliated child. Curve forty came and went without further incident, after which we cruised along the lake on a fairly even keel…

…proceeding clear through town (and well beyond it) before I noticed we had no doubt missed our stop, overshooting the strip of guest houses by more than two kilometers. Yanti (preoccupied with menstrual cramps, I realized, when my own distress abated) climbed out and promptly collapsed, utilizing her luggage as a makeshift prop.

Funny thing, misery; how it isolates us. At this particular point in time there was no one else on earth I cared more about than Yanti Adiputro, yet my discomfort preempted hers, sealing me off from any other crisis other than my own. Apart from acts of heroism wherein personal jeopardy yields to another person’s welfare, self-concern trumps empathy; egotism trumps altruism; and whatever is ailing me trumps whatever is ailing you. Or am I projecting?

To make amends for my self-centeredness (acknowledging Ms. Adiputro’s cramp-afflicted plight) I decided instead of walking (my preference) we’d better hitch a ride. I flagged down an opelet; we backtracked into town...

…an impressive place (now that I was feeling better) for its unassuming prettiness. Gardens were prevalent. Many homes had intricately carved wooden window shutters and latticework. Restaurants (two with open-air seating) had tablecloths and floral arrangements at every place-setting. We would return to one of these after finding accommodations.

The lake itself was so enchanting it seemed a shame to lodge inland. Yanti, exhibiting unusual stoicism, asserted she could cope. We left the main road, plodding along a path that angled through a rice paddy, discovering at its border a suitable homestay... full-up.

“I’m tired,” complained Ms. Mule Skinner to Mr. Horse’s Ass.

Skirting the steel-gray lake, we tried next door. After inspecting three available rooms Yanti approved the least undesirable, its primary plus being proximity to a waterfront porch. Our privacy would be compromised; the porch was communal; but a view and a breeze (should we choose to keep the transom open) helped cinch the deal. Plus breakfast was included.

Except breakfast would be sacrificed by the American and his ‘night chicken’ (disrespectfulness toward Yanti remained in vogue) because Ramadan would commence that very evening. No food, no drink, no sexual intercourse (What? They must be kidding!) could followers of Islam partake during daylight hours… for a period that would last beyond the remainder of my stay. Yikes! What had I let myself in for? Getting enough wholesome food to eat was difficult under ordinary circumstances; scrounging around from 3 to 4am (when fasting Muslims consume their ‘supplemental meal’) was a recipe for starvation. I’d fasted before in Morocco where I went hungry for a number of days until I caught on to the predawn glut taking place while I dreamed of pork chops. Once adjusted to the flip-flop, however—break-fast at about 6pm, dinner around 10pm, ‘snack’ at 4am—abstinence sunup to sundown was no big deal... unless it was hot out, which it always was, and you’d kill for a glass of water (or for a Marlboro, if you were a smoker, likewise off limits while the Orb of Day still shined). Anyone suffering from an illness could be excused provided missed days were made up later. Also excusable were women during their periods. In fact, menstruating females were prohibited from entering mosques—based on antediluvian attitudes about ‘cleanliness’ (though one good whiff of a maxi-pad in the tropics made a pretty potent case).

Why your atheistic narrator would even consider going through these orthodox motions may seem odd. It did to the Indonesians.

“Are you Muslim?” they would ask.

“No; I fast to show respect.” A ‘noble’ gesture lost, for the most part, on my laidback hosts and hostesses.

Nevertheless, it’s rude to order spareribs at midday while every adherent in and out of a given restaurant is lunching on spit (or, in the most austere observances, expectorating even that). Call it politeness (or philosophical hypocrisy; God knows I doubt God knows), but when in Indonesia I did as Indonesians. In public, that is, meaning I refrained from eating babi (pig) even when it was on the menu; I avoided displays of affection toward Yanti (with one or two lapses); I dressed modestly (and wore a temple sash the few times we toured holy places); I kept my temper, spoke softly, and used my thumb for pointing (one’s index finger connotes aggression); I took off my sandals before entering residences (a very civilized custom); I avoided patting children on the head (considered offensive); I exposed my soles to no one (likewise offensive) save in shoe stores; I kept a tight rein on the use of my left hand (one’s recourse sans toilet paper); I beckoned with my palm turned down (fingers curling inward); I rarely showed impatience with misbehavior (i.e. behavior I found irksome, crude, or outright  ridiculous); hell, I seldom rebuked (aloud) inconsiderate, air-polluting, nicotine-noxious chain smokers (though I damned them under my breath at every opportunity).

In private, it goes without saying, I remained a boorish, ethnocentric, over-opinionated, ugly American, not above hopping into the sack, of an idle afternoon, to dally with the Princess (once off-the-rag).

After settling in, we filed back through the rice paddy for one last midday gnosh. Good food graciously served in a tidy, if rustic, establishment, with outdoor tables, decorative bouquets, and a view of the surrounding hills, made us miss such meals before we gave them up. It was sunny outside, as well—a blessing that didn’t last.

CRASH, BANG BOOM! Before we ordered dessert, lightning and thunder ushered in the rain. We shifted seats just as gumball-size droplets started to fall, soon followed by a pummeling deluge, the landscape sucking it up with astounding absorbency and destined to give it all back in the form of greenhouse steam as storms would yield to the equatorial sun, ground and sky like lovers swapping spit in a hot-and-heavy lip lock… in other words, it rained really hard then cleared up pronto. Yanti and I shared a dish of es krim, Ms. Mushy-Mouth manipulating her spoon with wiles a la Linda Lovelace (this prurient association mine alone).

‘Whatever you do, don’t think about blue monkeys,’ is a command as effective in banishing that thought as Islam’s prohibiting the faithful from contemplating light-of-day copulation. For your congenitally contrary narrator the onset of Ramadan spurred a billy-goat-like rut. I remember my parents leaving home once with the following enjoinder:

“Play in the house anywhere you like except in our bedroom.”

No sooner had their car cleared the driveway than I was on my investigatory way upstairs. Unwrapped Christmas presents were a logical explanation, and indeed I found some. But my prepubescent curiosity urged a much more thorough search, uncovering on a top shelf (tucked way, way back in the corner) an exceedingly greater find; a book; a ‘dirty’ book, my skimming soon established; words like “cunt” and “fuck” stood out like Eve without a fig leaf, words that I devoured over the course of several visits, feasting on each lewd, unexpurgated passage… of Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence. A lucky lad was I that ‘literary’ smut corrupted my minor morals!

And speaking of monkeys, Ms. Adiputro and I encountered some on our afternoon stroll, beige rather than blue, but no less unforgettable as they frolicked in a stand of roadside trees near the outskirts south of town. Born and raised in upstate New York, I was prone to marveling at such unfamiliar creatures, no matter how often my travels exposed me to same. Simians, I trust you’ll agree, are more captivating than gray squirrels; orangutans, native to the forests further north, more fascinating still—and worth an upcoming bus ride (ugh!). In the meantime, these macaques were sufficiently entertaining against the weird weather backdrop of Danau Maninjau, storm fronts moving in and out with unpredictable rapidity, the crater lake’s rugged periphery like chipped edges of a massive cauldron wherein clouds materialized, swirled around and disappeared in witches'-brew fashion, their whys and wherefores mysterious, their patterns mercurial.

Remnants of an archway bracketed the road ahead... where monkeys were replaced by a ragtag band of urchins, their incongruity making them appear somewhat fantastic—the town being well behind us, the bordering jungle too dense for camouflaging homes. Wary of Yanti (and terrified of me) these children eyed us with mute, almost feral suspicion, their threadbare clothes and mud-smudged features contributing to an aura of semi-human wildness. I plucked a blade of grass and positioned it between my thumbs to make a reed whistle, blowing a series of guttural to ear-piercing toots. That broke the ice. A clinic ensued on the fine art of producing irritating sound-effects, my Pied Piper tones encouraging replication by the unkempt imps. None succeeded; they were only preschoolers, after all, therefore more conspicuous for being unattended. They did, however, manage (one by one) to slobber on the model I provided.

We soon moved along, a steady drizzle obscuring our vague destination, the next village coming into view abruptly (explaining the not-so-errant children) providing Yanti with a convenience store wherein she bought some sanitary napkins. At least I assumed that’s what she purchased, having been instructed to wait outside. I was often instructed to wait outside, the Princess covetous of a privacy seldom accorded me. Even on the toilet. She’d taken to popping in uninvited whenever I retreated for a solitary dump, my every habit fair game for her categorical scrutiny. Half the time I felt like a specimen under glass. The other half I was flattered by her undivided attention—which more and more resembled a primate to primate grooming, Yanti going so far as to pinch pimples on my back (in lieu, I guess, of eradicating ticks and evicting pesky fleas). “Oooooo,” she would vocalize as a white worm of pus wiggled from the pore her fingers bracketed, each blackhead shown, once extruded, with a terse proof-positive “See?”—as if the pain she’d just inflicted needed justification.

Her shopping finished, Yanti reemerged as the rain started falling heavily. We hailed an opelet (scarce, on this stretch of road) and returned to our lakeside digs (monkey business still occupying my what-shall-we-do-now mind).

“Don’t bother me,” growled Her Majesty like an ill-tempered nun.

If making love is prohibited, the next best thing is to write. But the Royal Moratorium was still in place. If you can’t make love, and you can’t write, and it’s too early for an evening meal, the next best thing, perversely, is to pick a fight; easy enough when dealing with a menstruating Monarch—who, lo and behold, rescinded the Regal Ban on her subject’s correspondence.

“Really? It’s okay? You don’t mind if I pen a few lines?”

Perhaps her cramps were worse than the Princess was letting on. Not wanting to look a gift horse in the mouth, I left her where she lay and exited to the porch for a stint of self-expression:

2/12/94

Dear Jake, my fairytale journey continues, Yanti faithfully by my side here at Danau Maninjau, a crater lake in the hill country of West Sumatra where we’ve come after a grueling (but scenic!) bus-ferry-bus-ferry-bus trek from Bali. It’s pouring at the moment and has been off and on all day yet I’m content, having logged five plus weeks of novel experiences ranging from scaling Gunung Agung, Bali’s nearly 10 thousand ft. high volcano (a 19 HOUR ordeal/accomplishment done in sandals without a guide) to watching bullfights West Sumatran-style wherein two enormous water buffalo lock horns and test their strength in the mud of an Air Angat pasture. Tomorrow Ramadan begins... which means Yanti and I will wend our way through the bordering rice paddy to one of the Muslim-catering restaurants for a 4am meal. From dawn to dusk, for the remainder of my stay in Indonesia, I’ll consume no food or drink (nor engage in sex) during daylight hours—small sacrifice to make considering the delight this wondrous trip has thus far afforded me.

 [WHOOPS! POWER FAILURE; meaning bugs have swarmed too thickly around this porch’s tiny oil lamp].

It’s the following day. The clouds still crowd the surrounding crater’s rim. Rain, intermittently hard, continues to fall. My fast has begun; Yanti, ironically, is excused until her menses cease. We’ve decided to move on, north to Medan—from which we’ll visit Bukit Lawang and its Orang-utan Rehabilitation Center (among other attractions). After a rocky period in Lovina on the North coast of Bali where Yanti threatened to return to Jakarta instead of continuing with me to Sumatra, our relationship seems to be deepening. How we’ll deal with our inevitable parting is unforeseeable at this point. I want very much to reciprocate, invite Yanti to the States, take some time off and give to her what she has given to me; a faithful companion in an unfamiliar land; a loving partner in a country of total strangers. You, Jake, were aware of my hopes where Yanti was concerned, and aware that I had no expectations as such, simply a host of exciting possibilities stoking my fancy. This trip and my friendship with Yanti surpasses them all: exotic settings, incredible coincidences (virgin Indonesian woman decides she’s ready to learn things heretofore inexperienced and agrees to spend 2 months—before starting a new job—with an author from San Francisco), savoring delicacies throughout a sequence of romantic situations unrivaled in my 44 years of love-hunting. Neither one of us has marriage in mind; our mutual independence was well-established before our love affair began. But I’ve felt tugs of longing for the type of devotion of which this young Muslim woman seems capable, so Sri Lanka (my next stop) looms as a place for soulful reflection... and loneliness.

Not yet, though.

Love, Nathan

[Believe it or not, I crammed all that onto the back of a standard 6½ by 4½ inch postcard—legible only with magnification to its farsighted recipient (tidings Jake retained, bless his heart, and allowed me to reproduce here).]

Picking up where this card left off, Yanti and I re-boarded the ‘Sidewinder Express’ and snaked back over the hairpins en route to Bukittinggi (where we would transfer onto a less emetic conveyance bound for Medan). With ‘green, green, green’ describing the landscape and both of our complexions, the answer to GUESS WHO’S HUNGRY was NEITHER ONE OF US!

Bonding 

32

BONDING

Since we’d crossed over to Sumatra the chemistry between Yanti and me subtly changed. No longer did I feel her leaving was a viable threat. Nor did she raise its specter. For better or for worse we two were bersama-sama (together), devoted and happily resigned to our common fate. In some respects I became less tolerant of my partner’s temper tantrums. She curbed them. My own behavior, in turn, may well have improved. We were running out of days; that was certain. A tourist visa was all I had, and though extending it could be accomplished by sidetracking to Singapore, this option wasn’t one I seriously entertained.

“You are only two months here,” was not only a lament, it was a statute of limitations. Whatever our relationship became, it would become in that allotted span. Harmony, therefore, was paramount if we hoped to get the most from what time remained.

“You are not important” and “I have my reasons”—formerly stiff-arms—now lost their oomph; Yanti continued to flex them but with dwindling conviction... while my commitment to bachelorhood showed signs of vacillation; which didn’t bode well for the long lonesome road ahead. Here-and-now took on an almost desperate connotation, buffering us from a future of life lived apart. Speaking for myself I truly dreaded our separation.

Speaking for Yanti... How can I? The gulf between us culturally, chronologically, and philosophically was enormous. As an author I have to lose myself inside my characters, write from their perspective. Having no such pretensions in this piece I’m left with the humble admission that I scarcely had an inkling about the goings-on inside Yanti’s troubled little bean. What registered on the surface was a well-fabricated defense system worn thin (threadbare in places) by the merciless friction of being regarded everywhere we went as a prostitute. When slurs had come her way previously Yanti would shrug them off. Lately she’d catch her breath, as if someone had punched her in the stomach. On one or two occasions she actually stopped dead in her tracks, the insult felt so keenly she nearly doubled over.

Me, jealous? I don’t know for what if I must jealous. Jealous just make me a new problem.

And even I, your slow-of-study narrator, had figured out that to Her Highness my correspondents had morphed into rivals, each and every one of them—with Kumiko Muramoto antagonist Number One; magnanimity shown on this front had been superficial; postcards sent from Danau Maninjau would represent my last, for, in spite of permission granted, I was charged with breaking our agreement; Yanti had come to Sumatra honoring her end of the bargain, but I had reneged on mine—the ‘logic’ of which my misogynistic mind found utterly infuriating!

Men and women think differently. Duh! Forgive my stating the obvious. It’s a stretch for either gender to perceive things from the other’s point-of-view. Theoretically, I’ve always maintained that a mere chromosome’s worth of difference rendered males and females flip-sides of the selfsame coin. Practically, though, I’ve seldom glimpsed the world from a feminine orientation; I’ve seldom wanted to; altering one’s vantage wreaks havoc with pet peeves and biases; and life is puzzling enough without muddying ones sexual identity. Or would we benefit from balancing our she with our he, our him with our her?

I’m of the opinion that human beings originated as a ‘single’ organism created by some lonesome Know-It-All in need of a little company (‘God,’ for lack of a better name) who then got bored with Her/His spitting image (or pissed off at having to share His/Her omnipotence) and out of anger or caprice cleaved said creation into coequal parts. Divided, we were conquered. Divided, we lost our edge—while providing the Maker great sport as we tried to pull ourselves together, sex being the comical means by which reunion could be (fleetingly) achieved... with by-products—bouncing baby boys and baby girls—the ‘rum touch’ whereby more of us composites got carnally Man-You-Fractured. What we sense, then, in a mate (homosexuals can concoct their own cock-and-bull story) is the half that makes our own half constitute a whole... if only we could get into that other half’s shoes (pants, panties; whichever), a task made all the more difficult by our accursed indivi-duality.’

‘Green, green, green,’ the landscape outside passed sans effort while lungs and butts within (our overnight bus to Medan) were sorely tested; clouds of cigarette smoke formed immediately after sundown as the ‘fasters’ puffed themselves cross-eyed until dawn’s early light; we shifted from one uncomfortable position to the next, slept in fits-and-starts, filed off and on, and off and on, always turning up our noses at truck-stop fare… sweating… shivering… sweating by turns, in afternoon heat… then dead-of-night chill… then mid-morning swelter upon reaching the depot where abstinence-crazy touts waged the worst onslaught we’d suffered to date.

Like a swarm of red ants they were all over us, snatching at our sleeves with step-this-way compulsion, overwhelming tiny Yanti whose task it was to sort through the furor. In retrospect I realize this exaggerated behavior was maybe due to various forms of withdrawal, few folks having yet adjusted to the deprivations of Ramadan. But we were no less hungry and thirsty, certainly more fatigued, while feeling bushwhacked, badgered, and bullied by these ‘rude young men.’ Doing my best impersonation of a Rambo-like snarl, I won us a bit of breathing room. Map in hand we took our bearings… then opted to escape on foot—under a heavy barrage of crude remarks (most aimed at my pathfinder).

We moved quicker on our own two feet than did the throng of four-wheeled vehicles. Once beyond the noxious, obnoxious terminal, we hailed an opelet. Accommodations, shower, nap, and sightseeing were our immediate priorities... which we met, in that precise order, without much more ado.

Valentine 

33

WILL YOU BE MY VALENTINE?

Medan made such an unfavorable impression it was just as well we used it mainly as a way station. Bukit Lawang was our principal destination, on the border of Gunung Leuser National Park, a huge reserve and natural habitat for “people of the forest,” orang-utans, the great burnt-sienna-colored apes native only to Sumatra and Borneo. A rehabilitation center had been established at jungle’s edge where folks disinclined to roughing it through impenetrable leaf, limb, and vine—on the slim chance of sighting their quarry in the wild—could do the next best thing; namely get a guaranteed look at creatures-on-the-mend (before said convalescents were released from protective custody).

We were a bit groggy from our meal at 4am (our appetites not yet reprogrammed to night-for-day dining) nevertheless we left our bags in a five-story walkup, our laundry on its roof (hung beneath the eaves on a commandeered clothesline), and set off to see these critters on an all-day outing... on a bus, of course… on a series of buses. Having long-since stopped worrying about schedules, we trusted to luck, public transport throughout the archipelago like frayed conveyor belts: forever on the verge of breaking down (incessantly uncomfortable) yet operating more or less continuously. The journey’s the thing, right? Folks in a hurry either went bananas or fled the country. ‘Learn and be patient,’ my sidekick’s favorite maxim, was indubitably well-advised. We went with the flow... slowly... filling lags between our progress with being-in-the-moment—provided headaches, nausea, and/or mencret (the trots) weren’t acting as our guides—‘centeredness’ turning the key that unlocked genuine contentment. This is not to suggest that the earsplitting tape-deck music accompanying our final leg failed to disturb your meditative narrator. Rather than complain, however, I stuffed my ears with toilet paper, a tactic that closed me in while sharpening my focus. The visual stood out arrestingly; acres of rubber trees passed my open window (a breeze blow-drying my sweat while I savored each splendid vista). The only Caucasian aboard (yet again) Mr. Payne was an object of interest, my partner regarded with mute incredulity (a step up from scorn).

And it was Valentine’s Day (in America). I was amazed at my good luck: on the road through North Sumatra with an Indonesian Princess bound for out-of-this-world adventure in a jungle ruled by apes?! A more unlikely, extravagant scenario I couldn’t have imagined—especially recalling my suicidal February 14th two years prior, haunting the streets of Paris post-Bangui. Eat your heart out, Ms. Wyler; the man you jilted hath rebounded; the man whose troth you spurned has rallied, revived, and lived to love again, to celebrate life, to exult in far-flung wanderlust, and to reaffirm how fortunes indeed can change!

It’s a wonder why depression always seems so permanent. Having once worked at a Suicide Prevention Center in Monterey, California, I’d been trained to counsel those on the verge of doing themselves in Maybe that’s what pulled me through after Centrafricaine; crises, like all things immediate, invariably pass. It takes overcoming a number of ‘hopeless’ situations, however, before the truth about their transitory nature sinks in—too late for those who act rashly; not soon enough for victims of chronic angst. The Catch 22 of aliveness, moment to moment, is that we tend to lose perspective. Whereas it’s desirable to be in the present whenever that present is hunky-dory, it’s not so appealing when here-and-now is a king-size cramp-in-the-ass… unless you recognize good and bad as basically interdependent. Under-evolved as I am, I’d rather have the combination; floating above it, Buddha-fashion, strikes me as a bore. If I wanted Nirvanic sensibilities I’d snort Lithium carbonate.

Anyway, I was in high spirits, with Yanti by my side and this bus ride (though longer than we anticipated) dramatically scenic.

 ∞

[“The orangutan feeding times are in the morning from 8 to 9am and in the afternoon from 3 to 4pm...”]

  ∞

If we hustled, meaning if there were no hitches at the registration office where we bought our two-day passes (there weren’t), and if we sprinted along the Bohorok River’s serpentine banks (we ran like hell), we might just make the second crossing (we didn’t).

Waving our arms and calling out above the raging rapids’ ROAR, we were ignored, the opposite-shore staff deaf or indifferent; I reckoned both. Our spirits sank. A crowd of stragglers formed, sharing our frustration. We had all come a long-ass way for absolutely nothing.

Well, not exactly nothing. As we retraced our steps toward park headquarters where I planned to demand a refund, our surroundings, now that we weren’t racing through them, offered ample consolation. The whimsical tree-house accommodations (once we reached them) in their deep-forest setting brought to mind childhood visions inspired by Never-Never Land. Peter and Wendy, Nathan and Yanti—without a toothbrush, bar of soap, or towel between us—nonetheless took a room, our second-floor balcony overlooking the untamed river (at a price so nominal I hardly rued the rent we were wasting in Medan). As a hedge against starvation we bought groceries, a book of matches to light our hideaway’s single candle, and then asked our hosts for an early-morning wake-up to catch the Rehab Center’s first ferry.

To have no luggage whatsoever was downright exhilarating! We felt light of heart (in the humidity-heavy air) as if we’d closed our eyes and thought pure thoughts and flown to “the second star, on the right, straight on till morning.”

Our route was a bit more circuitous, including the walk back through pitch blackness from a downstream restaurant, feeling our way in tandem, able to find the right ‘duplex’ only because its thoughtful proprietors had set out a light near the entry. They also tapped on our door at 4am, alerting us it was time for the predawn meal, ours consisting of an unripe pineapple I carved clumsily with my penknife, plus fruit juice in straw-punctured cartons to wash down half a loaf of insubstantial bread, plus Yanti’s stash of candy. Commending this dubious fare to our road-tested digestive tracts, we grabbed a few more winks (surrendering to the merciless mosquitoes our unprotected flesh).

We loved it! I know it must sound wretchedly primitive to most of you, or cloyingly over-romantic to all save a sappy few, but embracing my sweetheart to keep her warm and to ward off pesky insects, allayed by the gurgling lullaby of a river rushing just below, feeling anonymous and totally unencumbered in the absence of possessions, looking forward to a jungle hike next day where TIGERS were known to roam, was the stuff of dreams to a boy from Buffalo, New York; I could barely wait until daybreak…

…when I was up and doused and dried and combed and egging on the Princess lest her dilly-dally-dawdling cause us to miss the boat.

This time we made it, ours the second party to be ferried across a short but treacherous distance. Linked by guide wire to an overhead cable stretched from shore to shore, our craft was poled across, using the swift, tumultuous current for leverage. Once on the opposite bank we disembarked and waited while the boat returned for another load, this process lasting thirty minutes, after which latecomers were out of luck (as we’d learned the day before). Information, in several languages, was posted at the welcome station where permits were checked and rules about proper decorum were imparted. The usual statistics about endangered species made this rehabilitation effort look futile. Yet the government’s strict ban on poaching, on trading, and on keeping as pets this slow-breeding primate (mature females give birth once every six years, on average) was encouraging. Still, with only one infant surviving out of every ten nursing-mothers killed, extinction of these wonderful creatures seemed a foregone conclusion, all the more reason for our growing excitement about seeing some extant.

After leaving the Welcome Center (and being steered clear of enclosures housing animals under quarantine) we wound up a steep, muddy, root-honeycombed path through moss-covered ground under the rain forest’s light-diffusing canopy, single file, old and young alike, tourists, travelers, and locals bracketed by rangers and dedicated staff, the latter toting foodstuffs—stalks of bananas and a large pail of milk (mixed with high-protein powder), our procession generating a vapor trail reeking of deodorant, shampoo, cologne and/or aftershave (Yanti and I simply reeking) as temperatures within and without uncomfortably climbed. Our group at last reached a platform supported by stilts, jutting above what appeared to be a bottomless ravine.

After directing us to gain whatever purchase we could manage on a steep and slippery slope, two staffers ventured onto the deck with their twice-a-day handouts. We waited (quietly, per instructions) scanning the dense foliage for any subtle movement betraying an approach... scarcely believing our eyes as the orangutans appeared... silently... their hyper-extended arms lending majestic, slow-motion grace to progress seemingly effortless as two, now three goodly-sized males swung aboard the platform from overhanging vines and adjacent branches.

‘Brusquely,’ staffers distributed the rations. To treat these convalescents with familiarity or affection would defeat the purpose. Orangutans, though solitary by nature, can develop attachments to humans. With this in mind, they were managed in a way that discouraged chumminess. They were also fed intentionally the same unvaried diet. Day in, day out, bananas and protein-laced milk, bananas and protein-laced milk, bananas and protein-laced milk, comprised the ho-hum fare until those grown terminally bored wandered off in search of less bland sustenance.

Once the big males left (one chased away with a cup of milk tossed into his disgruntled face), the females ‘glided’ in, three with offspring, two of which were newborns clasping their mothers’ breast fur.

“Awwwwws” escaped the maudlin crowd, your stolid narrator refraining—though I will concede these tikes were rather adorable (another fatal factor in their ultimate demise). Likewise eschewing mawkishness, staffers maintained neutrality, never allowing the little ones to take food from anyone save their mothers—though I did detect a gentler attitude overall than when dealing with the males... one of whom stuck close by (either a protective papa or a loitering sneak-thief).

In all about thirteen “people of the forest” came, their red-orange coats pronounced against the ‘green, green, green’ of their surroundings (an additional liability when threatened with extinction).

Then, all too soon, we were signaled it was time for us to leave. Back down the path we shuffled like some multinational chain gang, our freedom feeling much more restricted than that of the apes we’d come to see. It was ‘on’ their domain we had trespassed; it was ‘from’ their domain we self-consciously withdrew, sensing whose world was corrupt, whose world was pristine, and why they seldom got along.

Religion

34

GIVE ME THAT OL’ TIME RELIGION

The trip back to Medan was long, hot, thirsty, bumpy, dusty, loud, and unpleasant—in a word, ‘typical’—with the one saving grace of us having a place to stay as soon as we arrived. Our clothes were dry, if somewhat tangled into wind-blown sun-bleached postures, our packs sat untouched where we had left them, our towels remained unfolded, our bed still unmade. We asked for fresh sheets; they were brought. We both took showers; cold—a blessing. Then we lay down side by side for a snooze (after some sacrilegious petting).

Maybe there’s a gene that predetermines belief in God, Allah, Jehovah, Zeus, Whomever. If so, I must be lacking it. Despite my Catholic indoctrination from childhood through adolescence, faith in Divinity (ditto Authority) somehow failed to take. I’m not proud of this deficiency. Nor am I so cocksure that ninety-nine percent of humanity is mistaken. But when push comes to shove I have to confess I simply don’t believe. Not even enough to hedge my bets. This was problematic when traveling with a self-professed Muslim (Yanti’s hiatus in devotions notwithstanding). My Godlessness was as mystifying to her as her devoutness was to me, thus proselytizing to each other was… irresistible.

I should note here that though I doubt the existence of a Supreme Being, ‘rational’ explanations of our predicament—life forms destined to be death forms—strike me as unimaginative. Myths and legends, superstitions and creeds, are far more entertaining. As a writer I’ll invoke just about anything if it makes for a better story. The journey’s the thing, right? And the stepping stones of life are questions, not steadfast answers. What a person asks is often more significant than what she/he ultimately accepts as true. Still, punishment for “wrongful behavior” became an issue that idle afternoon... the Princess was done with her period... fresh bedding, clean bodies, and a slight breeze goosing the curtains stirred an amatory mood… but intercourse before the break-fast cannon sounded was a definite violation. ‘Why,’ I found myself wondering—while at the same time finding my way to Yanti’s bantam bosom. In the privacy of our hotel room, who the hell was watching; which Credits & Debits Deity was keeping tabs; what sin was being committed by two people cuddling, raising goose flesh, percolating pheromones?

As my kisses strayed from flesh they were anointing to flesh that anointed them, and a hum of pleasure issued from Ms. Adiputro’s throat, a muezzin’s call to prayer intoned sublime accompaniment. If you’ve never heard this five-times-a-day summons, it can sound quite bizarre. I’d grown accustomed to it and Yanti had heard it all her life, so, not surprisingly, it was less of an intrusion, more of a serenade. In fact our love-making had been similarly set to music many times before but never so melodiously as there in Medan, our hotel within unobstructed earshot of Mesjid Raya (the Grand Mosque). Like cantors in the Jewish faith, muezzins are highly trained, most of them endowed with first-class ‘legitimate’ voices. The one we heard that day (from minaret-mounted loudspeakers) echoed over the rooftops with captivating resonance… and caused not a flinch of tension in Milady’s outstretched form. If Islam were condemning our shenanigans the evidence failed to show… my reception warm and wet as our bodies overlapped... as the faithful flock submitted... as Sumatran sunshine scorched… as sky beyond our windowpanes bleached blond the hazy afternoon and we drifted off to sleep—faculties disengaged, anatomies still conjoined, reluctant to break the link for which sex is merely a metaphor.

After dark we went foraging and happened upon Meridian Restaurant, a Chino-Indonesian establishment serving the best food we had eaten since Bladok, in Yogyakarta. Before leaving, we ordered a second meal ‘to go’ (in anticipation of the 4am hungries) then waited while a passing deluge drenched the route to our hotel; narrow, dark, and puddle-pocked the streets turned rather gloomy.

Return time to Jakarta now being a factor, it behooved us to discuss our possible itinerary. With only two weeks left before my pre-booked flight to Colombo, Yanti and I decided the Riau Archipelago was our best bet for finding safe haven and one last Shangri-La. The inevitability of parting, however, caused pressures to compact, my departure like a wall against which fate was crushing us. “You are not important” ceased to be invoked, while “I have my reasons” intimated a secret ripe for revelation.

Next morning, despite computers being down at the airline office, I managed to confirm my March 2nd flight. Yanti waited outside (brewing a typhoon). I also checked at Pelni (the National Shipping Line) to make sure one of their boats linked Riau with Tanjung Priok (Port of Jakarta). Mission accomplished, I dragged the Princess (bitterly reluctant) back to ‘the rude young men’ at Medan’s odious bus terminal, overruling an alternative she suggested along the way. Big mistake! The bus to Dumai we ‘could’ have taken left at twelve o’clock noon. The bus we ended up on didn’t leave until three, with Yanti subjected, during the interval, to wholesale abuse.

Ours being a bus/ferry package-deal meant the tug-of-war we’d incited upon arrival had been mercenarily fierce. Once our choice was made (and the hefty fare paid), competition for our business took its cutthroat tactics elsewhere—poor losers targeting Yanti with their nasty parting shots. Short of provoking a series of fist fights, there was little I could do to avenge these aspersions—when I recognized them as such; my ignorance of the language didn’t much help. During six weeks of sporadic aggravation surrounding this issue, Ms. Adiputro and I found no corrective. Ignore, confront, attack, poke fun; we tried everything; Yanti still felt humiliated; I still felt incensed. Our respective shame and anger went largely unvented… except at each other. Pressures, as I said, were on the rise.

Not aboard the bus, however. Never aboard any bus did the motion, roar, and endless horn honking fail to remind us—fondly—of our relationship’s mobile genesis. So, facing yet another overnighter, we took a few deep breaths, settled down, and settled in...

...arriving the following dawn at a nondescript harbor...

...from which we disembarked on a hydrofoil bound for Pulau Batam...

...where we shared a cross-island taxi to Kabil...

...where we caught (narrowly) the last boat for Tanjung Uban on Pulau Bintan...

...from which we bused to Tanjung Pinang, our chosen destination...

...which proved to be a major disappointment (given our expectations of paradise) its un-idyllic guise foreshadowing doom.

Rules

35

RULES ARE FOR BREAKING

The ‘flophouse’ homestay to which an obliging bemo driver led us did little to enhance our first impression of Pulau Bintan. Bare light bulbs exposing cramped filthy quarters described the best that we could do upon arrival. ‘We came all that way for THIS,’ was our disillusioned subtext; Shangri-La devolved into Devil’s Island. Ever-adaptable, Yanti said nothing to exacerbate the depressing situation. We showered (making sure my combination lock secured our dungeon-like door) but didn’t unpack; there had to be less dismal lodgings available (my ‘frugality’ notwithstanding). It was late. A cluster of unsavory warungs stood between us and starvation. We bit the bullet and ordered something (a bullet might have been tastier), washing down ‘whatever’ with a liter of bottled water. Full (which is not to say satisfied) we trudged back to our losmen, arranging with the owner to be roused for a 4am ‘collation.’ Shortly after, we retired, the Princess curling up like a mollusk with me her stalwart shell.

Morning brought a fresh perspective. We moved—‘up’—into a nearby hotel. Our room, on the second of three stories, had access to the roof, where I proposed to do a little sunbathing. Only my face, hands, and feet suggested I’d spent the last month and a half in the tropics; the rest of me was as ‘tanned’ as a belly-up koi. So, while Yanti washed her clothes in our room’s self-contained mandi, I stretched out up top, stripped to my briefs, under mata hari (eye of the day, literally), its sizzling scrutiny not to be endured for a lengthy exposure.

“Ooooo, you pinky,” was Ms. Adiputro's observation upon hanging her soggy laundry on the line next to mine. I arose (side A thoroughly cooked), noted her clothes’ continuous drip, proceeded to re-wring each garment (happy to show off my Caucasoid muscles) and then settled back on the griddle-like concrete (to sauté side B). Yanti joined me, which is to say she sat down fully clothed in an adjacent chair under a narrow strip of shade. We thereby set a lackadaisical pace for our stay on Pulau Bintan…

…which turned out to be less of a penal colony than we’d initially discerned—though its population reflected a certain outcast heterogeneity. Chinese, Malay, Batak, Minangkabau, and a smattering of Bugis were the principal ethnic groups—Islamic, for the most part, so Ramadan still held sway. But with the Chinese Buddhists owning and operating most businesses, including most of the restaurants, breakfast, lunch, and dinner could be had during normal daylight hours.

‘To fast, or not to fast’; that was the question. After getting ripped off (not to mention snubbed) at an upscale Muslim eatery the following predawn, it wasn’t long before Ms. Adiputro and I renounced our abstinence... Yanti going one step further, ‘whole hog,’ so to speak, by sharing with your irreligious bard a haraam (forbidden) pork bun, our fast not only broken but shattered irredeemably, strolling down the Path to Perdition cheek-by-jowl...

...or (more prosaically) taking an evening stroll along Jalan Hangtuan and its ocean-side Lovers Lane, affording the Princess and me a welcome opportunity to assert that heterosexual couples had as much right to flaunt their affection as did the pairs of ‘rude young men’ we encountered—whose overt fawning I (as an American and specifically as a San Franciscan) found reminiscent of behavior in the Castro. Whether these touchy-feely fellows were in fact gay or simply exercising the latitude Nations of Islam accord fraternizing males, only their proctologists knew for sure. But to suffer crude remarks from these closeted cohorts was more than I could bear. So, on the aforementioned promenade, I launched a rather boisterous retaliation.

“In my country,” I began as two guys joined at the hip were about to slander Yanti, “boys draped all over one another like these two,” they were now abreast of us and openly dumbfounded by this alien’s outspokenness, “would be considered homosexuals, as in fond of putting their weenies into one another’s ASSHOLES,” I declaimed over my shoulder, their disgruntled looks betraying that they may have caught my drift.

“And what have we here…” I continued as a clique of Vespa straddlers cast denigrating glances in our direction, “…more post-pubescent pederasts and wanna-be Hell’s Angels? Buy some ‘Harleys,’ why don’t you; or are ‘hogs’ not halal?”

I was on a roll; Ms. Adiputro was ‘possibly’ glad to be defended, ‘probably’ embarrassed by my remarks, and ‘definitely’ ill-at-ease about my raising such a ruckus.

“What a scandal,” I nearly shouted at the next pair likely to insult us, “that a man holds a woman’s hand, of a moonlit night…” Our setting was classically romantic with high tide calmly slurping the scalloped edge of this equatorial shoreline. “…instead of...” At which point Yanti shied away from her loudmouthed champion—who had the sense to realize enough was enough (and that tit-for-tat wasn’t much of a resolution either).

“But don’t you see how arbitrary are all the world’s dos and don’ts?” I later remonstrated. “Codes of Conduct are relative. Morality tends to shift.”

[In the opinion of her countrymen, Yanti was a slut. “What does he give you?” people would ask, or similarly “How much does he pay?”]

“You understand nothing; you leave soon; I live here,” was Yanti’s rebuttal.

She was right, of course. All my ‘open-minded’ posturing aside, I was just as stuck in my own cultural outlook as Yanti was in hers, the primary difference being degrees to which deviation were socially acceptable. In anything-goes America, individual liberty was an “unalienable right” because Church and State had been legally separated (their divorce never finalized) hence nonconformists thrived, whereas life in Indonesia was not so laissez faire. For starters, upstanding girls from respectable families did not go traipsing around the country with footloose foreigners. There were names for women who behaved in such a shameless fashion—kupu-kupu and malam ayam, to reiterate. Yanti was not of this ilk, so why, oh why, I asked for the umpteenth time, had she come along with me?

And I’ll be damned if she wasn’t on the verge of an overdue revelation.

“I cannot tell you. I make promise.”

Finally! At long last I got an answer, other than “I have my reasons.”

“WHOM did you promise?” I pried, working this new lever, suspecting another loyalty might preempt ours.

 For the next forty-eight hours (off and on) I browbeat Her Tightlipped Highness into spilling the beans. I must say Yanti’s discretion was (irksomely) admirable; staunch was her protection of this unnamed source. But her admission that someone else was involved bespoke collusion; and if a plot had indeed been hatched then I was its chosen dupe. Did Yanti owe allegiance to me or to the ever-anonymous… him, her? I couldn’t establish who. Nor could I imagine any ‘plausible’ scenario. The ‘fact’ of Yanti’s companionship, I told myself, superseded ‘explanations.’ What mattered was our togetherness. But with this cat half out of the bag, I lobbied for full disclosure.

Why, Yanti?”

“It is not important anymore. It is over.”

What is over; us?” I asked with a pang of wounded pride.

“No; my reasons. Different now. All is changed.”

“Then why on earth won’t you tell me? If the reasons for your accepting my original invitation no longer apply, what’s the point in keeping them a deep dark secret?”

“I make promise.”

“To WHOM!” We’d come full circle. I was running short of patience. “Never mind; I remember now; I am ‘not important’!”

“No; not like that! You are my everything!”

I was ‘pretending’ to pack; her panic authentic.

“You can stay here by yourself; I’m moving elsewhere!” was my threat, my hollow bluff (to turn the tables at this stage would have been cold comfort).

“Okay, okay.”

“Okay?”

“I tell you.”

She was panting, hyperventilating. I was matter-of-factly calm, steadfast in my contention that the truth if not forthcoming might serve to come between us, whereas truth should serve to fortify a loving couple’s bond.

“It was Christine.”

Christine? I’d heard the name... a friend... a ‘best friend’ possibly who was Black (Ugandan/Irian Jayan, I seemed to recall) and a writer, a budding journalist who’d been published (lucky girl) in some national magazine. She’d also just been jilted by a less than chivalrous Westerner who had whetted the ‘jiltee’s’ appetite for unabridged revenge. Privy to the news that Yanti had acquired an American pen pal (who was on his way, coincidentally, to pay a little visit), Christine petitioned her chum for a clandestine favor: “Learn everything you can about his habits, traits, and thinking, then make down on him when filing your report. Agreed?”

Agreed?! So, sight unseen I was earmarked as a lab rat to be studied upon arrival, analyzed in transit, and libeled post departure? I couldn’t believe it! Though capable of spinning tall tales, convoluted plots, and dubious dénouements, I judged this devilish scheme farfetched if not fantastic. What a ruse! Except the ladies hadn’t figured on me being so disarming (i.e. endearingly pathetic), nor had they foreseen Ms. Investigative Reporter falling in love (equally implausible if allegedly the case).

“Back on Bali, I write letter...” Yanti haltingly recounted.

I listened without comment.

“...to Christine.”

The Princess struggled for words—‘and had better choose them carefully,’ my stern veneer advised.

“‘I cannot,’ is what I write; ‘he is my lover.’”

So Christine’s vengeance backfired; retribution missed its mark; her designated assassin had failed to smear my character? I rejoiced at this confession; I mistrusted its veracity; I was cocksure Yanti loved me and humbly unconvinced.

Happily

36

HAPPILY EVER AFTER

 

Over the next few days, during which we explored various points of interest on and off the island, Yanti and I redefined our deepening relationship. No longer ‘the villainous seducer,’ or at least able to share my nefarious billing with ‘the duplicitous spy,’ I felt parity had been achieved (via ‘offsetting penalties’). ‘You only want travel with me for your sexual’ could now be weighed against ‘you only wanted to travel with me for your friend’s exposé.’ Neither charge was entirely true; both, nevertheless, made the two of us somewhat repentant. Atonement for Yanti was expressed through her offering to buy me some postcards, a touching reversal that doubtless did more harm than good—the concept that I don’t write with anybody’s permission still eluding the Princess. While my bright idea for making amends proved decidedly worse; Mister Scrooge suggested Her Highness ought to pay our hotel bill. Now let me explain the nifty piece of reasoning that generated this… disaster.

Extrapolating from Ms. Adiputro's disclosure, I concluded that she ‘initially’ fancied herself ‘on assignment.’ The slings and arrows of her countrymen, therefore, were easily deflected. She had her reasons; I was not important; all that mattered from the get-go was publishing her scoop. In keeping with this role-playing, Yanti adopted a certain psychological aloofness, while establishing financial independence by bringing along her own traveler’s cheques—funds she’d stopped expending by the time we’d reached Pulau Bintan. I’ve already noted the change in how public condemnation effected the Princess; it seemed the closer she got to me (and the further from her underlying purpose) the more vulnerable she became to ongoing insults. Groups of ‘rude young men’ aside, others (our hotel staff included) looked at ‘us’ askance, but looked with particular scorn at my (misperceived) ‘floozy.’ Wouldn’t it bolster her compromised self-esteem to resume paying her fair share of our expenses?

It was this line of armchair analysis that led to our culminating squall… begun placidly enough during a side trip we had taken to Pulau Penyenget, a delightful little island only 2½ square kilometers in area, accessible by water taxi, for the ‘extravagant’ fee of 500 rupiah (about 25 cents).

A sulfur-colored mosque on the eastern shore (looking for all the world like a castle on some miniature golf course) was the isle’s main attraction; that and some ruins of a palace, tomb, and graveyard owned by the late Raja Ali. Compared to Tanjung Pinang, with its port-of-call hustle and bustle, Pulau Penyenget or “Wasp Island” (its literal translation) was the picture of tropical tranquility. Had there been a homestay anywhere for rent we would have shifted operations in a twinkling. But there wasn’t; we had to content ourselves with a leisurely stroll, before our return at sunset.

Orchids! Indulging the luxury of leaving behind all save our umbrella, Yanti and I let our unencumbered footsteps lead us… wherever, wandering semi-paved paths, enjoying the absence of motor vehicles, the presence of unusual birds and butterflies, sunshine bathing withal (and steeping me in surplus perspiration) as we happened upon a garden (untended the while we explored it) at lazy trail’s end. Up one row, down another under a shade-dappling arbor, our idle trespass was rewarded by pink, white, and amber cymbidiums.

I love orchids. Not because they sprout from decay (though life dependent on death is a theme I find compelling); it’s their ultra-sexual petal parts that hold me in thrall. Orchidaceae appear to possess both male and female genitalia (though florists, I suppose, see only corsages). My appreciative gaze kept flitting back and forth between the orchids and Yanti, Yanti and the orchids, caressing their sensuality, in love with them both, in love with love itself; and therein lay the problem. Transplanted to any other context (California in particular) would my feelings toward Ms. Adiputro be anywhere near as intense? Would I even give this woman a second glance? On American soil our relationship may not have survived Her Highness’s first royal temper tantrum; ergo I should be relieved our affair was near its end.

As we left the garden behind, turning our steps inland, Kodok shading the Princess from mata hari’s glare, I banished these doubts from the present. ‘Now, now, now’ was my wayfarer’s mantra (like mynah birds chirping “pay attention” in Aldous Huxley’s Island). ‘Now, now, now’ kept experience in the realm of immediacy, where it belonged... where an offshore zephyr stirred several species of overhead palm... where unfamiliar insects evoked childhood fantasies consistent with this otherworldly context... where sweat and its evaporation made heat intensely palpable, the moist air more like breath from a panting leviathan... where held hands soon grew clammy yet unwilling to suspend their amorous osmosis...

Then we saw it, the “overgrown house” (or so it was labeled on our map of Penyenget) stone walls whimsically embraced by roots from a corolla of banyan trees whose convoluted trunks tapered into fingers for an orgy of groping inundations. We entered what once must have been a palatial courtyard, cobblestones now succumbed to crab grass and weeds, partitions broken down, a fresh-water well defiled with laundry soap and litter. Above us, as we stepped over the main structure’s threshold, branches merged with roof remnants; guano from roosting night herons speckled rubble underneath. By moonlight, with bats darting in and out through cavernous holes and paneless windows, this mansion might have inspired the likes of Poe or Stoker; by daylight, Frank Lloyd Wright might have marveled at nature reclaiming architecture.

Tacitly Yanti and I shared a singular impression, like a flashback to an erstwhile life (or perhaps a flash forward?) picturing the edifice restored... skylights replicating its open air aura... the Princess, dressed in white, watching from her top floor studio. She was a weaver in this daydream, working on a huge ‘green, green, green’ tapestry, Penelope, if you will, awaiting her Odysseus (schmaltzy, I admit, but that’s what we imagined). Soon thereafter, while seated on broken steps facing the property’s wrought iron gate, we saw a pair of children at play (a brother and sister most likely) their chatter gently blending with the intermittent bird song, their parents nowhere in evidence suggesting they might be orphans… orphans we’d adopt, was our sentimental vagary; or was it mine alone, regretting my vasectomy (if only for that moment)?

‘South Sea Island Fever,’ was my scornful diagnosis. Gauguin had suffered similarly, captivated by the bare-breasted maidens of Tahiti. Never had I questioned my choice to abstain from parenthood. Seldom had I questioned my commitment to bachelorhood. Yet there I was—thousands of nautical miles from my unencumbered haunts and indisputably further from the realm of commonsense—loitering in some stardust of hokey domesticity.

 

HellBreaksLoose

37

ALL HELL BREAKS LOOSE

The following is a ‘partial’ list of my idiotic blunders:

1. I ignored the fact that whatever describes a couple’s relationship—just-friends, temporary lovers, or lifelong mates—custom dictates, in Indonesia, that the man always pays. (It’s not that different in the States, come to think of it; even ‘liberated’ women expect ‘gentlemanly’ men to pick up tabs—or offer to—when out on dates).

2. I disregarded Yanti’s call to Jakarta reporting the theft of her traveler’s cheques (which continued to go un-replaced) while neglecting to establish the impact this might have had on her fiscal self-sufficiency.

3. I likened my pecuniary role to that of a sugar daddy (a gaffe I committed in the heat of doing battle over Yanti’s dropping her end of the expenses) aligning myself with the antagonistic louts forever mouthing slurs.

4. I underestimated the depth of Ms. Adiputro's media-nurtured assumption that I, as an American, must be fabulously wealthy (despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary).

5. I capitalized on Yanti’s feeling guilty for having ‘done her man wrong’ (Christine’s plot to “make down on” yours truly my manipulative lever) in order to extort a few lousy rupiah.

6. I interpreted Her Highness’s boast that “five hundred dollars” could be hers “with a phone call” as justifying my holding her feet to the (moneylender’s) fire.

7. I verified that two could travel almost as cheaply as one (then reneged on my proposal to foot our bills).

Seven deadly sins (and counting), mine apportioning blame, helped me win the argument; Ms. Adiputro agreed, upon check-out, to cough up the cash—no small sum, either; our second-floor room at the ‘Ritz’ (for nine days and nights) rang up eighty-one dollars.

“Yes. I think I have. Yes, I have; I can pay.”

How she managed to pay remained an unsolved mystery. Why I insisted she did remained a source of shame. What my playing Shylock wrought was an overdue conniption. Here are some highlights:

“All is bad, my country... Stupid country, Indonesia; backward, dirty... Better you travel Japan... Japanese and American klop... Go back your Kumiko; she big artist... Nothing I am; ugly, short, good only for your sexual... Your hundreds women more important... You just playing me... Yes, you playful... Everything bad; mistake you come here... Never will you love me!”

The energy I spent refuting these bitter outbursts was mostly wasted; I was a philanderer; Yanti had been fooled; I had other options; hers were inadequate; I would soon be leaving; she would soon be left. So why was I enamored of this willful, self-effacing hothead; why was she disposed, despite my faults, to keep me company? And how could fights so fierce not break our fragile bond?

“Hug me, Kakek,” was Yanti’s code for initiating sex; which I, in turn, obliged without hesitation.

We sued for peace.

Thus Tanjung Pinang became our embattled sanctuary, sustaining our togetherness by overcoming odds, perceiving increments of time as grains of hourglass sand… moments shared… moments prized… moments unforgotten.

We took a picnic lunch back to Pulau Penyenget, consuming it on the stoop of our ‘home away from home,’ the “overgrown house” astir with quaint associations as it once more cast a spell of snug domesticity. We idled… compared our former reveries… added details and embellishments… noted similarities… basked in our simpatico. We then heard voices, sounds of water sloshing. Bathers, at a nearby well, were washing laundry and themselves—which we observed in secret, almost in absentia, as if our world ran parallel yet had somehow overlapped and we were able to eavesdrop on the tranquil plunk-‘n’-splash of three half-clad women (like ‘Beauty,’ ‘Creativity,’ and the third Grace ‘Charm’).

There are modes and moods so delicate only verse can give them voice, can recreate experience that exists outside the norm. We had slipped beyond pragmatics; time had paused… stood still… or hovered for a ‘hummingbird moment’ of suspended animation wherein wing beats by the hundreds simulated calm...

…until a pair of Danes impinged on our whimsical hiatus.

My formula for equanimity whenever I travel is to keep as far away from Westerners as is humanly possible. I’m solitary by nature; abjuring the society of others is relatively effortless (intimates excepted). Avoiding Europeans, Australians, and most of all Americans is utterly imperative. Half the time I simply pretend I don’t speak English. Whether this works to confuse, annoy, or intimidate people doesn’t much concern me, as long as it works. My excuse (apart from chronic misanthropy) is that I want both a respite from my own culture and an undiluted dose of somebody else’s. Unlike many ‘tourists’ who act as if foreign countries are homogeneous theme parks, I believe the diversity of ‘elsewhere’ can offer novel alternatives to homespun mentalities. I’m convinced—perhaps naively—that local problems find multiple solutions when consulting the world-at-large. So I, when out-and-about, do my best to understand: by being in-the-moment; by paying close attention; and by leaving security blankets well behind. Health insurance, for instance (never mind ‘life’ insurance; for what, the Hereafter?) is thought to be a hedge against undue risk. Hell, I’m constantly at risk (that is to say vulnerable) without the reassurance (no matter how bogus) of being ‘covered’ (meaning costs might get defrayed but never jeopardy). And though it might be somewhat comforting to be at the mercy of ‘familiar’ as opposed to ‘alien’ practitioners, competent and incompetent doctors can be had just about anywhere. Insurance (and this will be my last word on the subject) gets people believing they’re not individually liable for their own misfortune; someone else is always to blame; someone or some institution from which one can recoup. This is a warped way of thinking, in my opinion, and I don’t mind saying so.

What any of this has to do with the chat Yanti and I had when two Danish backpackers intruded on ‘our estate’ is negligible, except to demonstrate my predisposition toward unfriendliness. Much to my surprise, though, I enjoyed the ensuing conversation. I especially enjoyed its effect on Ms. Adiputro. Said couple (a man and woman about Yanti’s age) was unmarried—a fact that came out casually but nonetheless sparked a rather spirited exchange. ‘Lina’ was outraged by the abuse we reported having suffered on account of Yanti’s judgmental countrymen. This tickled me no end because it marked the first time Her Highness had heard from an ally (other than your self-serving narrator) that single men and women could be intimates without the latter qualifying as whores. This mirror held up by a sister-in-liberation lent the Princess a whole new perspective; she saw herself as an independent thinker, untainted and free from shame. During the course of one afternoon’s discussion, Lina and her significant-other Max did more to mend my sidekick’s battered self-esteem than all my longwinded homilies. My opinions were biased (corrupted by vested interest), whereas theirs were open-minded (if unilateral) and therefore could be trusted. Hooray! Finally Yanti’s unconventional choices found safe harbor in sympathies well outside their home port-of-call.

Eventually the Danes left us to our requisitioned sanctum (as had the bathers earlier) our seclusion thus restored… contributing to an impression of dual proprietorship. We took a final inventory of the dilapidated grounds, decaying walls, lichen-covered stones, and root-pervaded mortar... then slowly, with great reluctance, took our leave.

Exodus

38

EXODUS

Pulau Bintan, though a disappointment physically, psychologically proved rewarding; Yanti and I had formed a trustworthy bond. The clutter of preconceptions, ulterior motives, and common insecurities got left behind when our ship caught the morning tide. An enormous vessel it was, too, in its egress from Kijang at the island’s southern-most tip where we boarded with a seething mass of humanity. Folks travel heavily in Indonesia. Lucky for us we beat the queue, meaning we managed to elbow our way into the shore-to-ship vanguard, which really looked like a throng of refugees rather than ticketholders (economy class; what else?) whose ‘orderly’ conduct resembled a slapdash stampede. The trick was not to get separated. Given such push-and-shove ‘decorum’ it was hard enough for ‘burly’ me to win a little headway, while Yanti (weighing in at 97 pounds or 43 kilos) was all but overwhelmed. As long as I had a good grip on her there was no need to panic; break that grip and she’d be a goner—one lost isolated maverick in the helter-skelter herd.

After stutter-steps up an aluminum gangway onto the boat itself, congestion broke loose, a mad rush made for ‘berths’ as yet unoccupied. I noticed a stockpile of foam pallets (fast-dwindling), grabbed one, and hustled into the below-decks bedlam to secure ourselves a space (having no faith whatsoever anything was reserved). It was like groping through some catacombs, each passage and hold densely colonized, those in residence (already aboard) having set up house and ‘shop.’ Everything from knickknacks to foodstuffs, clothing to utensils, toys to tons of toiletries clogged the aisles perused by a parade of likely customers (us included) afloat and soon at sea in a vast ‘bizarre’ bazaar.

I had a fever. I lay down on our mat (a jewel of a find, an indispensable godsend) shut my eyes and tuned my ears to the throbbing pandemonium… and actually liked it. We’d found a spot; we had our packs, some fruit, and two big bottles of water; barring shipwreck we would make it back to Jakarta with time to spare; the overcrowding and the vermin and the noisy, airless swelter—claustrophobic  though it was—comprised a slice of life so vital I couldn’t help but feel transported. Except I was ill. But with the Princess by my side, even that was made tolerable.

“Ooooo, you sweat,” observed Her Highness, who had done this trip before first class; to hobnob with the madding crowd was an arguable novelty.

And I, of course, was the solitary paleface booked aboard for-cheap—a dubious distinction, yet one I’d known and savored throughout sundry travels. I was smoldering in the ship’s bowels with just-plain-folks for the same reason they were; it cost less. The only difference was that I could afford a room up top. I could dine at the captain’s table, in point of fact, by ‘virtue’ of my nationality, ‘presumed’ bank balance, and ‘presentable’ appearance (the rank and rumpled condition of my silk shirt notwithstanding).

‘Odd man out’ has been a role I’ve always cultivated—the Princess no less a misfit in her highfalutin way. We were a genteel pair, a head-turning item in a throng of rubes and rustics, as out-of-place below decks as above (where couples—mixed—were rare) our niche an exclusive model of cross-cultural concord.

A change in the engines’ rumble signaled we were underway. With Ms. Adiputro on guard, I fell asleep:

I, Nathan Bartholomew Payne, am an unsympathetic character...I am Muslim and Islam is principle of my life...you go your way, I’ll go mine...I don’t know I am pretty or ugly...Not that I harbored any romantic fantasies...Nathan, you make me smile...I was not in the market for a wife...doing sex have a rules...my travels looked to be a long way off...Jealous just make me a new problem...the camera and Mr. Payne do not see eye-to-eye...I like stranger in self country...I wanted an escort not a consort...I am not a dreamer something like that...I get from points A to B as economically as possible...I hope you not angry about grandfather because if you smile you more sweet...fretting about a tongue-tied reception on some oh-so distant shore...Did you get gist of life...Jakarta, Indonesia, and Yanti Adiputro bound!

The ship’s subtle yaw rocked us like babies in a massive cradle. I slipped in and out of consciousness, past to present, scenes of Java interchanged with faces bathed in perspiration; scenes of Bali interspersed with jam-packed bodies, baggage, trash, every pallet chock-full, spilling over with a hodgepodge of possessions; scenes of Sumatra intermingled with a conglomerate of this-and-that: a child’s balloon, a sack of mangos, pots and pans and foil-wrapped break-fasts; scenes of Riau confused with mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, boys and girls—teens to toddlers—sweet young ladies and rude young men, each pair of eyes directed TV-ward, held entranced or fixed with fuzzy boredom at: a quiz show... then a sitcom... then a football match... then a movie… volume forever BLARING from the overhead set, its white noise turning red for him who silently complained ‘ENOUGH, already! Can’t we have some silence, or at least a fleeting respite from this brain-draining onslaught?’ I felt blitzed amidst the heat, the stench, the roaches, and the television’s constant BELLOW. What started out as ‘interesting’ was devolving into ‘torturous,’ whereupon I rose like a messiah, bristled with indignation, staggered toward the boob-tube, and turned the fucking thing off!

Well, you could have heard—had infants stopped squalling and the ship’s guts ceased grumbling and the living cargo’s hubbub belayed its unremitting drone—a cannon ball drop. “And on the third day, according to the scriptures, He arose from the dead...” God had spoken; that is to say, God’s representative on Earth, namely the White Man. I experienced a momentary surge of unmitigated power… followed by a twinge of self-consciousness… followed by a gulp of humility as some equally sanctimonious moron snapped the set back on. These were Muslims; what did they care about the Wrath of Almighty Payne? There was a concession made with respect to subsequent fortissimo, which I acknowledged. Then, shortly after that, Yanti and I went topside for a welcome breath of air.

I swear I was the only foreigner in economy class. The backpacker types we encountered had hauled their pallets aft, a few shucked down and basking blatantly like Coppertone ads. One uppermost area—roped off no less—was Caucasoid exclusively, an enclave of journal-scribbling bestseller-gobblers that the Princess and I ‘eschewed.’ Like anti-dilettantes we preferred ‘rabble’ to ‘privileged’ society. In other words we preferred our own brand of pretentiousness to anybody else’s.

Yet aren’t one’s private reflections invaluable to an insight-hungry public? This account, for instance, is worthless if my musings don’t ring true. I’m trying to be honest, at least. An editor once told me that protagonists “in a successful novel” had to demonstrate change. He’s probably right. But that’s what makes them fictitious. In real life folks do well to discover who they really are; efforts to become kinder, nobler, wiser, and/or more enlightened usually end in failure. “I am what I am and that’s all that I am,” is Popeye-pragmatic.

Figuring out, then, who you are in combination with others is where change occurs. Yanti and I (returning to the ‘plot’) had mutually transformed. Hers was a presence I hardly could imagine doing without, while mine, for her, seemed equally indispensable. This of course was an illusion. The sad/glad truth about men and women (since their hypothetical severance) is the incontrovertible state of Absolute Apartness. Your pain is yours; mine is mine; ditto our respective pleasure. Your life—no matter how much I might empathize with it, admire it, envy it, or even try to emulate it—belongs to you alone. And death, the proof of this existential pudding, snuffs us out regardless—one why-me whimper at a time. Depressing, isn’t it; which is why mere mortal minds rebel and fabricate fairy tales to contradict demise.

I was living one.

After a turn or two (with Yanti bearing the brunt of glances cast askance) we descended into Hell, its fire and brimstone literal once daytime had adjourned; from dusk till dawn inveterate chain-smokers (freed from fasting) belched pernicious vapors worthy of Satan’s Pit.

LastHurrah

39

ONE LAST HURRAH

The thought of returning to Jakarta was fraught with anxiety. In the first place I had no desire to be in that hideous city, period, especially if it meant separating from Yanti before absolutely necessary. If Ms. Adiputro decided to go home, abandoning me at some dismal hotel after two months of constant, intimate, tragicomic, extraordinarily habit-forming companionship, how would I adjust to fending for myself? And was that how the Princess wanted our odyssey to end? She was making noises to that effect.

“I won’t go airport with you.”

“Airport? Who’s worried about the fucking airport? At issue is what we’re going to do for our final three days. Please, baby, please, baby, please, baby, baby, baby, PLEASE let’s not say goodbye until we have to!”

My Spike Lee impersonation was, of course, wasted on this Carradine/Seagal/Costner fan. The desperation in my voice, however, may have struck a chord. We disembarked from the Good Ship Lollipop (its primary sweetness our sighs of relief upon stepping ashore) and were greeted by the usual commotion of cabbies, touts, and impromptu porters; we therefore trudged the two+ kilometers to Tanjung Priok’s bus station. Hot, humid, noxious, noisy, filthy (ah, Jakarta); we were back from whence we’d started and neither of us was happy. I, for one, was miserable. Feigning a burning interest in seeing the famous botanical gardens at Bogor, I voted we head there directly, as in “do not pass Go” (Nana’s house), “do not collect $200” (Yanti’s traveler’s cheques refund), just hop on any of several buses and within sixty to ninety minutes (depending upon traffic) we would arrive. I needed to reconfirm my flight but that could be done from any pay phone. (Ha! We tried three at the depot before getting through to reservations; I was, indeed, set for departure on the second of March.) Yanti placed a call to her Aunt but nobody answered.

“I won’t go airport!”

“All right, already; we’ll discuss the airport later. Please, Yanti, can’t we book straight through to Bogor?”

My Queen of the Buses sidekick sorted through the confusion of vehicles turning every which-way, and soon we were bound for the town nicknamed “City of Rain” (your co-dependent narrator thereby delaying the depressingly unavoidable).

Why so bleak? What was so funereal about ending this storybook romance (about ending it prematurely; I’d be ready when the time came)? The bracket, however, was Sukarno-Hatta Airport; we’d met there, we would part there; I refused to have it otherwise; I must do the leave-taking not the other way around. For once I would board a plane and know unequivocally that someone would miss me, someone who wanted me, cherished me, and loved me above all rivals, someone who would mourn my absence for months, possibly years, because my welfare truly mattered and the trust I’d placed in another human being was not bestowed in vain, that she was mine and I was hers forever and a day.

All right, denounce me. I’m a selfish, foolish, love-’em-an’-leave-’em son-of-a-bitch, a cad who ‘came and conquered,’ ‘plundered and ravished,’ who took advantage of an innocent then expected to be adored; apt enough. But even so I knew my life had changed.

We pulled into town with plenty of daylight left to appreciate how Kebun Raya (the Royal Botanical Gardens) formed Bogor’s centerpiece (an area with 15,000 species of trees and plants plus 3000 varieties of orchid) around which urban and suburban-looking neighborhoods spread like blight… yet a vast improvement over Jakarta. Higher in elevation (therefore cooler) with lush foliage inside and out of the enormous garden gates, the City of Rain brewed oxygen, hence breathable air (albeit humid) infusing the park-centric atmosphere to everyone’s delight—and at a mere 60 kilometers from the capital, the only plausible excuse for a traveler not making a beeline to this woodsy alternative was ignorance; those in-the-know preferred Bogor hands-down.

We escaped the hectic bus depot by a back route, wound our way through fruit and vegetable stands, and emerged on Jalan Otto Iskandardinata (try saying that three times fast) where we hailed a colt. Yanti had a sister in Bogor with whom she’d once resided so she knew her way around as well as any native. On the downside she was anxious lest a family member spot her. We were fugitives on the run it would appear from God, State, and Clan.

A gang of ubiquitous ‘rude young men’ (addressing me as Eric Clapton and Yanti less flatteringly) soured us on the losmen we inspected after exiting our transport. Too bad; had she been able to ignore them we would have avoided an even more insulting confrontation at the next place we checked.

“You two no married,” pronounced a proprietress upon giving her would-be lodgers a disdainful look. “We good Muslims, Bogor; nobody rent you,” she added before shutting her hallowed door in our Allah-forsaken faces.

I tried to make light of this unprecedented rebuff, likening the proprietress to “a menopausal Daughter of the American Revolution” but Yanti was crushed. We’d been unkindly regarded on previous occasions but never denied (overtly) a room at the inn. Suddenly gun-shy the Princess was reluctant to inquire at a place up the street. Fortunately, its Balinese owners proved less high-and-mighty. We were welcomed cordially (if not effusively) and shown to a dismal room.

We took it. Parched, grimy, exhausted from our ‘cruise,’ and grateful we had not been turned away again, the ritual of unpacking in an unfamiliar ‘hovel’ was (for the last time of our journey) reenacted by rote. After back-to-back bucket showers, we dried one another off and lay down on the nondescript bed for an overdue snooze.

Sleep, too slow in coming, gave our sex drives time to stir. We danced the dance and quickly climaxed with a give and take fulfillment I found overwhelming... yet deficient… falling short of union (though our lips and limbs and loins were no less interlocked); we could not shed our sense of mutual isolation, our private selves aware of innate I-Me-My-ness, our souls like separate eggs in an unbaked cake.

ParadiseLost

40

PARADISE LOST

An uneventful dinner followed by a decent night’s rest preceded our waking up next morning in melancholy moods. At breakfast (the normal secular variety) Yanti and I were joined by a venerable Dutchman. He was alone, a widower, a seasonal visitor to our unassuming homestay, who’d begun (after the death of his wife) perennial sojourns around the globe. On his bicycle. Commencing at age sixty!

“I loved her, you see, and travel was a means to keep despair at bay.”

This man, now seventy-four, had finally curtailed cross-country pedaling (at his physician’s insistence) after an illness had interrupted a recent trip.

“These days,” he said with a note of wistful resignation, “I have to ride the bus.”

The bus? Buses demanded the stamina of an ox! Whereas cycling across China, Thailand, Malaysia, and several other countries was strenuous beyond belief. Yet one look at this fellow’s well-toned muscles and stately posture made all his claims (none rendered boastfully) perfectly plausible. His was the physique of an athlete aging with grace, his demeanor proud yet tempered by a worldly-wise humility. I was happy to make his acquaintance; Yanti was enthralled. This was fortuitous seeing as how she had whined and whimpered all morning, hesitant to show her face outside our room (still stinging, I surmised, from the previous day’s affront). An inspiration to us both, our tablemate was a welcome distraction, who also imparted information about Kebun Raya (next on our itinerary).

“He knows gist of life,” was Yanti’s comment after the Dutchman had excused himself. “Wrinkles; I like, I like,” she further exclaimed. “Kind; his looks.”

This penchant for older men (which I’d been shameless in exploiting) was a fundamental aspect of Ms. Adiputro's character. Coming from a family of twelve children, the personal attention she received from her father (an august, philosophical man, according to the Princess) may have left, perhaps, something to be desired. His influence, nonetheless, had been profound. ‘Learn and be patient,’ he had taught her (a lesson impending farewells would soon bring to bear).

As we got up to go another mixed couple stepped under the dining area’s thatched awning: Western male/Indonesian female. I nodded in passing, grateful for their presence (because it made ours less objectionable?) and envious of the man; his partner was a knockout.

“You want with her?!” Yanti erupted when we were scarcely out of earshot.

I only have eyes for you, I crooned facetiously.

Her Highness, lower lip protuberant, was not amused.

[I am not jealous but I finish/sever with my boyfriend because I need Loyalty!]

I should have realized, way back when, that jealousy and the Princess were Siamese twins. For the next three quarters of an hour my task was mollification, and fortification of Yanti’s wobbly self-image, which needed round-the-clock maintenance, evidently. How much longer I’d feel up to it was anybody’s guess (though surely I could persevere another thirty-six hours).

We entered Kebun Raya through its southern-most gate, the cacophony without, the tranquility within, providing dramatic contrast—chaos to serenity—with massive trees like sentries repelling the raucous sounds, luxuriant vegetation further muffling and diffusing the city’s grating uproar. I asked Yanti to show me her favorite spots. As a student she often would study under the canopy’s dappled shade; as a pen pal she had written some of her letters to me while parked on this or that bench. She thought my request was odd but readily complied; we kept our voices low in solidarity with the Gardens’ precious hush.

Laid out during the early nineteenth century by Professor Caspar Georg Carl Reinwardt (from England’s Kew Gardens) and his assistants, Kebun Raya is ‘artificial’ in the sense of being manmade. Yet, in spite of its organization and labeling, sections of the grounds looked almost primordial—most particularly a cluster of trees overwhelmed by fruit bats; with wingspans reaching four feet tip to tip, these creatures, when airborne, conjure up pterodactyls; when resettled (upside down as they lined the overhead branches) their webbed wings formed encasements like Japanese lanterns. As commonplace to Yanti as squirrels are to me, these strange arboreal mammals riveted my attention… while the Princess let hers stray (disinterested or preoccupied was anybody’s guess).

We walked on, meandering in an aimless fashion, spinning our wheels psychologically, neither of us wanting to admit this sylvan interlude would be among our last, time reverting to its linear lockstep, marching unavoidably toward the moment of parting, reasserting its dictatorial dominance over lives for two months spared, our togetherness running short, like blood from a mortal wound we mistook for superficial, our vagrant path irrational without purpose or direction, our being-in-the-moment flimsy like a bubble too-soon pricked or like Eve and Adam awaiting their expulsion with the knowledge they had sinned. We even came across a snake, the most colorful venomous viper I’d ever encountered, slithering along an aqueduct (pursued by your daredevil narrator until it doubled back and coiled as if to strike).

I’ll spare you further allegorical allusions. I’m describing what happened—nothing more, nothing less—to the best of my recollection… though mine is severely one-sided, I’m certain you’re aware; which I find keenly frustrating, if it’s any consolation. What, I wondered as we wandered, was on Thumbelina’s mind?

Most of that day was spent perambulating through outlandish flora, a richer more beautiful collection I’d never seen. Like an aspirating leviathan the arboretum breathed—and by midday panted—aromas pungent and fecund escaping all around, from leaf litter underfoot to foliage overhead, the Garden one huge lung of palpable humidity.

“I’m tired,” complained the Princess.

“Me too,” I seconded. “So, you’re taking me to dinner?”

The deal was she’d pick the place; I’d pick up the tab. Yanti was home, for all intents and purposes; she was a native, while I remained a stranger. I described the ‘ambiance’ I wanted (to suit the occasion); she was put in charge of when and where we dined (a stipulation guaranteed to incite one last battle).

We left Kebun Raya, dropped by our losmen to freshen up, then headed for the bus terminal—Yanti’s choice apparently some distance away. En route, we stopped at a fast-food cafeteria for what I thought was going to be a tide-her-over snack. The Princess ordered an entire meal: salad, soup, entrée, and a bazillion-calorie sweet!

“Aren’t we on our way to dinner?” I asked with transparent irritation.

“I’m hungry,” Her Highness replied, content to blurt the blatant.

Adopting the most withering expression I could muster, I sat down, watched my dinner date slurp one or two forkfuls of greasy-looking mie, at which point I abruptly stood, pivoted, and stomped out to the street.

Yanti followed (not fast enough to appease my adolescent anger) her meal abandoned where she’d left it; the money beside it squandered.

“We go.”

Ushering us toward the bus stop, she ducked in at a fruit stand and bought a sack of kumquats.

I’m not sure why I got so mad. Both of us were touchy. Both of us, truth be told, were ready to explode. In this state, we boarded an overcrowded bemo (was there any other kind?) and proceeded to climb through outskirts lined with eating establishments; the higher we went, the fancier they became.

“This one good,” Her Highness specified as we sped past a garishly decorated prospect.

“Good satay, that one,” she announced as another was left in our wake.

“Here?” she asked, as if the choice had reverted to your decision-weary narrator.

I lost it. I’d been looking forward to Yanti taking me out to dinner, not the other way around, not having to select from a host of options about which I knew nothing. At the first opportunity I bailed. Round One was fought right then and there along the curbside, neither of us pulling any punches—meaning I yelled; I never yell; well, I rarely yell... except at this sawed-off runt, this bijou ball-and-chain, while Yanti hollered back with able-bodied gusto (if handicapped vocabulary), slugging it out toe-to-toe with your overmatched scribe.

“You funny, make face like that,” Ms. Adiputro jibed.

I tried to reconfigure my features into a conciliatory smile—which must have looked even more grotesque than my fire-breathing glower. We finally agreed to dine at a hotel up the road, caught another bemo, and continued our ascent.

Tea plantations took the place of posh residences. Clouds moved in, and, as usual, it started to rain. Then, as if we’d reached some sort of city limits, our driver pulled over, ordered us out, and executed a tight (inexplicable) U-turn.

Now what? It was chilly. The fog was thick as flannel, without bestowing warmth. Daylight in default, the unseen sun was setting.  We decided to hoof it—our last date fast-becoming a bona fide ordeal. Round Two broke out.

By the time we finished bickering and flagged down a lumbering tour bus, Yanti’s teeth were chattering and mine were tightly clenched. In these forlorn disguises, we reached our destination.

SweetSorrow

41

SWEET SORROW

Round Three commenced after we were informed that dinner would not be served until 8:00pm; it was 6:15. I was ravenous; the Princess had pigged out on kumquats. We took our hot tempers outside, where they cooled off pronto, a setting sun making one last stab to pierce the Frigidaire fog. Insofar as both of us acknowledged this would be our last night spent together, and both of us were determined to make it positively memorable, it was guaranteed (in accordance with Murphy’s Law) that I behaved like a Hatfield and Yanti like a McCoy; we just couldn’t help it.

“Don’t bother me,” snapped Her Highness when I tried to reestablish contact. She was icy cold but shrugged off the arm I draped across her trembling shoulders.

“I guess I’m not important after all,” I snapped right back.

“You forget me soon, I know. My virgin nothing; throw away like garbage.”

This hit hard... a low blow. Who, after all, had initially compromised whom? Wasn’t there a plot early on? Hadn’t I been ‘set up’ by Christine, the infamous ax-grinder, who had cautioned Yanti (or so I learned later) about preserving her virginity; the ‘ultimate sacrifice’ (to get their devious byline) need not be made? It was the Princess’s own curiosity (and Black-sheep disposition) that led her astray—readily shepherded, I admit, by your lamb-luring narrator. The prize of Yanti’s hymen, however, was wholly hers to award; she had done so willingly; I’d received it reverently. These after-the-fact regrets, though understandable, were thoroughly unwarranted—if based on charging me with being unappreciative. ‘Unworthy’ one certainly could argue; I never claimed to be deserving. ‘Unqualified’ likewise fit the bill; I was not the marrying kind. But if accused of patent ungratefulness I was innocent as a cherub; if anything I overvalued ‘the gift girls give but once.’ That I was Yanti’s first-and-only-lover was a privilege I held dear!

Thrust and parry, parry and riposte continued until both of us were weary—at which point we took ourselves to tea at the hotel’s dining-room annex. A selection of local leaves was brewed and properly served (the pot kept warm in a cozy).

“Good,” pronounced Ms. Connoisseur, but “not really best.”

I bit my tongue till it bled.

With Yanti matching my self-restraint, we ‘mimed’ our way through dinner—hostilities less inimical than jointly despondent. Obliged to refrain from expressing feelings openly we tacitly indulged them, the only sounds between us produced by our clinking cutlery.

Thankfully the cuisine was eminently tasty—not to mention pricey, I noticed initially (with a parsimonious glance at the fancy menu’s tariff). This establishment, bear in mind, was Yanti’s choice, making it all the more essential that it met with my approval. Quibbling about whether or not the skewered mutton might have been a touch past medium rare or the Australian Shiraz a distant runner-up to vintages from France, after subjecting my ‘discriminating’ palate to the likes of bus-stop Padang food, was tantamount to a vagrant passing judgment on fare at Chez Panisse (a five-star restaurant in Berkeley, California, where I also couldn’t afford to dine).

All things considered, ours was a savory meal… the irony being: instead of settling our bill and retiring to a cozy room upstairs (the restaurant doubled as an Inn), we had to hitchhike back down the hill and brave mosquitoes at our drab, dreary homestay—where rent cost less than a split of the aforementioned wine…

…of which I drank my full share plus all but the modest sip Miss Temperance took of hers…

…maintaining a tipsy fatalism throughout the madcap turns of our after-hours descent.

We made it back unscathed, but it was late. To catch my next-day flight we’d have to rise at the crack of dawn.

We got through shower-taking without incident.

We brushed and flossed our teeth without undue trauma.

But starting to pack our bags—our separate bags—was more than we could bear.

“I want with YOU!” the Princess blurted.

That did it; we both fell to pieces.

Yanti (wrapped in a bath towel, looking tiny, totally desolate, and helpless to contain her crocodile tears) buried her face in my chest and wept inconsolably. As if that weren’t maudlin enough, I blubbered, too; we cried like babies; we cried until it hurt.

I detest sentimentality; but what can I tell you? For those few sappy moments when we stood clinging to one another under a bare light bulb in a room that smelled of mildew, mold, and mounting desperation, assailed by slings and arrows from without and by mutual fears of loneliness and abandonment from within, Yanti and I resolved to somehow, somewhere, some way live our lives together.

“I want with you,” she said again. “I want with you,” she kept repeating. “I want with you”; her words engraved my heart indelibly.

Nonsense! Bullshit! Codswallop (there’s a word you won’t have heard)! If I’d been genuinely moved I would have scrapped my trip. I had plans, though, timelines, tickets I was not about to lose.  Goodbye Princess; hello World, my liberating oyster! Yanti had set a trap then sprung it on herself. Was I obliged to join her, let my precious freedom lapse, forsake the open road for an Indonesian detour? True, I’d charmed her moonstruck; I’d used every wooing wile. I’d even turned her subterfuge to my personal advantage. But just because I’d won her must I forfeit my autonomy, surrender my independence, and abort my Great Expectations?

I envisioned ‘I-Me-My-ness’ in a tug-of-war with ‘We,’ resistance all but dissolved by this requiem of sobs… sobs that wracked our bodies both, made both our mouths respond with kisses so intense they rendered us inseparable, identities shed like the towels that dropped around our ankles, limbs embracing limbs in hopes of meeting needs, loins become enraptured by converging yin and yang, personas interchanged, spirits overlapping, and predisposed to merge until death...

…or in this case daybreak intervened to part us.

Shortly after cock’s crow we (mutely) finished packing, numbness overwhelming us, the routine of meager comfort, the task simply… necessary. I went out to retrieve our laundry from a clothesline round the back where I expected to find it drenched from yesterday’s storm. Some kind soul had moved it under the eaves; things were damp, but not too soggy. An iron was available. Yanti insisted on pressing my shirt and pants dry—something to do, an activity to divert heart and mind from the void dead ahead.

Our plan was: bus to Jakarta, navigate through its chaos to Nona’s house (where Yanti would drop off her bag), go out for a spot of lunch, and then I would proceed to the airport (with or without Her Highness was left undecided).

Having done all our boohooing the night before we countenanced March the Second with minimal theatrics, vacated our losmen, caught a bemo to the bus depot, joined a queue of coat-and-tie suburbanites for their morning commute, boarded a jam-packed vehicle, and inched toward Jakarta. I had to stand for most of this last leg; Yanti scored a seat—our separation serving as a rehearsal for the life apart at hand:

·            I told myself I’d like it.

·            I told myself that solitude was ennobling and that Nathan Bartholomew Payne was better off unattached.

·            I told myself that round-the-clock camaraderie was a mushy dereliction from the virtue of selfishness.

·            I told myself I was poised to ‘have my cake and eat it too,’ that my incredible journey had just begun, its opening dose of intimacy precisely the booster I needed to ward off bouts of lonesomeness (to which I was all-too prone).

·            I told myself that while Yanti had been excellent company she’d also been a cramp in the ass, her alternating stints of jealousy, fatigue, and aloofness better left behind.

·            I told myself that though I’d grown ‘fond’ of the Princess I wasn’t in love with her (which ought to have topped my list of bald-faced lies; hadn’t I found a loyal partner, someone to have and to hold, perhaps for the duration?).

·            I told myself adventures were on tap I scarcely could imagine and that solo travel guaranteed experiences barred from those who cleaved to coupledom (about which I was equally right and wrong).

Yup, I had quite a running dialog with my bipolar self, playing good cop/bad cop all the way to Jakarta—where once more I was at the mercy of my Queen of the Buses guide.

Multiple transfers later we disembarked in front of the Fuji Film sign I’d used as a marker for Yanti’s neighborhood, a lot more time consumed than I (conservatively) had allotted. We walked through the narrow gangs leading to Nona’s house, residents noting our passage with a mixture of smiles, waves, and stares.

Brother Meigie was at home. Having fielded considerable flack from friends and neighbors about his errant sister’s ‘throwing herself at that American,’ he greeted us with ruffled-feather politeness before rushing off to work. Nona wasn’t in, nor was she due back anytime soon.

You’d think after all we’d been through the Princess would have invited me into her room. Not a chance. I was marooned in the parlor, my status as a not-to-be-trusted foreigner implicitly reinstated (which cut me to the quick). While Yanti did ‘whatever’ behind closed doors, I was assigned the task of penning a note to her absentee Aunt, lest:

“Nona be upset if you do not say goodbye.”

I was of two minds with respect to Nona. On the upside, I had returned her niece unharmed, as promised, enriched by travels hither and yon, Yanti’s former horizons considerably widened. On the downside, in that process, Nona’s late-brother’s-second-youngest-daughter had been deflowered. Whether or not a worldly woman would put much stock in this physiological ‘detail’ remained to be seen; I’d have to read it in her eyes; though surely it was an outcome that could have been predicted.

Choosing my words with care I wrote Nona a long ‘thank you’ for entrusting me (protractedly) with her kinswoman’s welfare—the issue of sex left blank (it was none of the elder’s business anyway, I concluded, in typically Western fashion).

Yanti reemerged from her inner sanctum (its portal shut behind) and listened with what I judged quasi-approval while I read my ‘epistle.’

“We go,” Her Highness then announced, as if impatient to get this leave-taking over and done with.

Lunch was out; there was barely enough time to c r a w l  across town and board the airport shuttle (my urgency keeping emotions, for the most part, at bay). I breathed easier once aboard the homestretch bus, Sukarno-Hatta only forty-five minutes down a relatively non-congested toll road.

“Well, I guess this is it,” I ventured in vapid summation.

“I hope your airplane crash,” Yanti replied.

“And a fond farewell to you, too,” I countered facetiously.

But Ms. Adiputro was serious. When I drew her out about this sentiment she exclaimed:

“If I can’t have you, nobody have you!”

Though somewhat taken aback, I nonetheless sympathized. ‘My virgin nothing; throw away like garbage,’ was the legacy I bequeathed; the Princess, feeling discarded, would rather I dropped dead.

Kiss 

42

A KISS IS JUST A KISS

I was scheduled to board twenty minutes after we arrived at the terminal. With no luggage to check, passport in order, seat assignment secured and pocketed alongside my ticket, all that remained was to grab a quick bite to eat and to bid adieu. I looked forward to neither.

International airports being the affluent islands they are, prices get fixed somewhere between exorbitant and outrageous. And the food more often than not is indistinguishable from its packaging. We bought two cardboard hamburgers and an imitation milkshake, sharing the latter via parallel straws like teens at an old-time soda fountain, a barely palatable repast that consumed the remainder of my rupiah. Having bestowed upon Yanti my Lonely Planet (thereby divesting myself of two superfluous pounds; they really should consider lighter stock), the bounce in my step was both physical and psychological as we made our way to Customs—beyond which barrier non-passengers weren’t allowed.

I felt shamelessly cavalier, offhand to the point of manifest indifference. This was camouflage, of course, stealing myself from breaking down in a surfeit of trite au revoirs. Ms. Adiputro kept her poker face on as well; I was “not important” her demeanor reconfirmed—if belied by her very presence; despite countless threats to the contrary, Yanti had not left my side; from start to bittersweet finish steadfast she had stayed.

I couldn’t afford to dwell on this, however; not and maintain my semblance of glib nonchalance. So the issue became one of whose false-front would lose composure first.

Un-shouldering my backpack (within sight of a sizable audience of officials and fellow travelers) I knew the moment of parting had finally come. Would ours be a hug or a handshake, a nod or a peck on the cheek, a toodle-oo wave or a shrug, a bon voyage or a bitter sayonara… or would this liberated woman cum member of a modest culture cum moot nonpracticing Muslim cum headstrong independent thinker betray the depth of our relationship by kissing her outbound lover for everyone to see?

[If this doesn’t seem like a big deal, you’ve been skimming—or perhaps my powers as an author are humbler than I think.]

Anyway, without belaboring what took mere seconds to enact, the Princess glued her mouth to mine with the courage of her convictions.

It was I, in truth, who abridged our farewell ‘osculation’; touched by Yanti’s indiscretion, I hastened to cut it short; she was honorable, virtuous, unfailingly loyal; nobody ought to think otherwise!

With that I hoisted my belongings, passed through security, strode down the gangway, and boarded an overbooked plane… Jakarta, Indonesia, and Yanti Adiputro left (wistfully) behind.

Epilogue 

EPILOGUE

Well, my plane didn’t crash, obviously. I traveled for another four months. The Wayfarer’s Angel, who watches over even the least worthy globetrotter, continued to shower me with blessings: escaping a sloth bear that blocked my path en route to World’s End in Sri Lanka; meeting Benjamin Jillo’s grandparents under Mount Kilimanjaro’s shadow in the wilds of southeast Kenya (the first White man ever to cross their mud hut threshold); being groomed by Pepé the lemur, who would sit on my shoulder while I penned postcards from Ifaty, Madagascar; walking on the Serengeti Plain in Tanzania, a hyena sizing me up from an uncomfortably short distance; baking pastry over a charcoal brazier with a chieftain’s number three wife on the east coast of Zanzibar; swapping tall tales with an eccentric film producer/ex-helicopter pilot on the misty Isle of Skye... in other words, I got around. I had adventures. I could fill a few more volumes. But the story I cherish most is the one I’ve related here, the one I’ve enjoyed retelling, I might add, more than those in previous novels; thanks, Artie; you too, Ed. I have no idea whether my unmasking will be viewed by readers as entertainment or egomania. At least I’ve given it a whirl.

As for Ms. Yanti Adiputro we’re still in touch; I wrote to her throughout. Then, once back in San Francisco, I packaged up my purple shirt (such as it was after half a dozen months of wear-‘n’-tear), and mailed it to the Princess. In return I got a letter, a letter with an affirmation unlike any I deserve, one that haunts me and enchants me, threatens my independence and underscores my aloneness, confuses and advises when I ponder...

Still I love you even though you sweaty and smelly, when you sick or you health, when you ugly or sweet, when you look handsome and look dead soon, still I love you, poor or rich is no matter, crazy or abnormal I don’t care... I love you perfect!

Yanti

...what to do next. Any suggestions?

Your unsympathetic narrator,

Nathan Bartholomew Payne

 

*     *     *

 

 

 

 

 

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Indonesia—a travel survival kit
3rd edition
Published by
Lonely Planet Publications
Head Office: PO Box 617, Hawthorn, Vic 3122, Australia
Branches: PO Box 2001 A, Berkeley, CA 94702, USA and London, UK
ISBN 0 86442 163 X.

 

Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right
by Bob Dylan
© 1963
M. Witmark & Sons

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