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Shirtless Days: On Living and Writing in the Jungles of Papua


ISSUE:  Fall 2005
Once upon a time I, Chuang-chou, dreamed that I was a butterfly, a butterfly flying about, enjoying itself. I did not know that I was Chuang-chou. Suddenly I awoke, and veritably was Chuang-chou again. But I do not know whether I was I dreaming that I was a butterfly, or whether I am a butterfly dreaming that I am Chuang-chou.
—Chuang-tzu, 4th century BCE

A Little Muslim Girl

In Papua, Indonesia, fifty miles south of the largest gold mine in the world, a little Muslim girl is staring at me. She’s been at it for two minutes and twenty seconds now; I know this because I’ve been timing her. There she is, not blinking, thoroughly rapt with the unspectacular; she is amazed that I exist.

My strangeness has been scrutinized and often photographed, brazenly and surreptitiously, with and by complete strangers in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Indonesia. Despite decades of tourism and foreign investment, I am a sight, a spectacle, reduced to some sort of symbol I cannot understand. I would guess that there are approximately twenty or so photos of me in Southeast Asian homes, looking pasty, stupid, and not handsome. Looking confused. My wife (who has been photographed at least sixty times) and I discussed this phenomenon one evening and speculated as to how many Southeast Asians pull out their photo albums at gatherings and point to the picture of themselves with the silly-looking white person. Do they laugh? Do they construct a plausible-sounding mythology around this Caucasoid anomaly for their friends? I once asked an Indonesian friend of mine for a hypothesis. She said: “Perhaps they think it’s funny.” Then, after a moment of cogitation, she added: “It is funny, isn’t it?”

The little Muslim girl is not taking photos. She’s just staring at me, wearing one of those full-body jilbobs (Muslim head scarves), the kind that always remind me of pajamas, hugging her round face with elastic, accenting her deep, brown eyes. She takes a few timid steps toward me as I wait for the Papuan woman at the warung (food stall) to total up my order of basil and spring onions. The little girl, as though counting white people coup, bolts over to me, grazes my arm, and giggles her way to her mother’s legs. As she runs away I note that her jilbob is bedighted with a “Hello Kitty” print. I wonder what Mohammed would think.

I start thinking about James Baldwin’s essay “Stranger in the Village.” Although Papua, Indonesia, is a far cry from an Austrian village, and I am a further cry from a brilliant, black, homosexual, Harlem-raised man of letters, I am thoroughly otherized; I too am a stranger lacking the correct pigmentation and mythology, a fact underscored by the little girl’s giggles, her pointing, and her mother’s watchful eyes.

She is looking at me still. Watching me and smiling. I make a face at her that never fails to make my nephew laugh. The little Muslim girl begins to cry, loudly, as if someone were beating the youth out of her. I walk away with my vegetables not knowing anything again, only that I am strange, unknowable; an inexplicable living wonder that can, if pressed, make little Muslim girls cry. I walk away, a lurching, grunting beast, lacking discourse of reason.

An Accidental Taoist’s Salutation

“Tao is just a name for whatever happens. . . .
The Tao principle is what happens of itself.”

—Alan Watts

Were I the motto type, mine might be: “Never let them see you trying.”

And I think I know why.

After a near-death brush with childhood pneumonia, I became a “fragile asthmatic,” with emphasis on “fragile,” and because I was repeatedly told to sit quietly and do nothing, I did. To cement my nonaction, my mother was wont to enumerate the ways in which I would die were I to not obey her, as effectively blunt as the Old Testament God. Everything, I discovered, could kill me. Mold could kill me, as could running, coughing, and laughing. Peanut butter could kill me, as could chocolate (as a little boy I thought that kids eating Reese’s peanut butter cups were incredibly brave, risking all that hemlock like it was nothing, like it was so much candy). The very air outside could kill me, rife with airborne particulates of nefarious intent.

I had to learn, in effect, to make every verb a noun.

To avoid so much death I spent an inordinate amount of time indoors looking out, not playing with friends, reading comic books, playing with my Star Wars figures, and trying not to cough or find anything worthy of laughter. I recall spending hours lying on the carpet (even though carpet too could kill me), gazing at the ceiling and pretending it was the floor (the light fixtures metamorphosing into glowing, dysfunctional, rounded, Frank Lloyd Wright–like tables or, more frequently, glowing, beckoning breasts), and thinking that that would be odd were it so. I realize that most everyone did the same as children, but I did it for hours at a time, like some lunatic expert of antithetical interior design.

In short, I became something of a de facto monk: an accidental Taoist. A young boy who could think and wait as long as Bodhidharma, sitting quietly, doing nearly nothing, always paying attention to my breath, patiently and penitently contemplating the outside world insofar as I was able, but never truly considering its palpability. The real world was a Narnia, an Oz, surfeited with variations on the theme of my death. Nothing more.

Eventually I got stronger, healthy enough to go away for college (where, among other things, I decided that I wanted to be a writer and spent years writing wretched poems). After college I got married and became an English teacher (because that seemed what writers do), but I don’t remember how I did it. One minute I was reading Green Arrow and wheezing, the next I was in a tuxedo kissing a pretty woman, and the next I was in Washington, D.C., teaching Keats in my only decent blazer. The above is not to imply that I am an apathetic person. It’s just an attempt to explain why I periodically “come to” and find myself precisely where I am, but not understanding how or why. I never intended to wander through the world once I discovered (or decided) it was real; it happened of itself.

Thank God the Chinese have a word for my condition that in the West is anathema at best: “wu-wei.” Wu-wei, or nonaction, doesn’t mean not doing anything: it means not forcing anything to happen. It is because of wu-wei, because of not forcing anything, because of being the proverbial willow in the storm in lieu of the oak, that I am sitting now in the jungles of Papua, shirtless, writing in a blue notebook and drinking instant coffee in my own dreamy exile while my wife is at the office.

I’ve lost my third-person ontology. And that’s just fine.

I used to be a teacher. I used to be the alpha male, bringing home the fresh meat and the health insurance. Now I edit policies, procedures, memos, and manuals part-time for a world-famous gold and copper mine; the rest of the time, which is most of the time, I try to write good poems.

Being an accidental Taoist is easy, even easier than being a Unitarian; I recommend it highly. It can make you come to and find yourself living and working in a mining town on a remote island. It can make the strange familiar. And vice versa.

The Tao of Timika; the Names of the Dead

The centipede was happy, quite,
Until a toad in fun
Said, “Pray, which leg goes after which?”
This worked his mind to such a pitch,
He lay distracted in a ditch,
Considering how to run.

—Ancient Zen poem

To bolster my shaky ethos I should impart that I have had machine guns pointed inches from my face in Sri Lanka, have been hopelessly lost in the jungles of Laos, have witnessed a raid in Chiang Mai, Thailand, wherein the military police confiscated several missiles (intended for the Burmese army) from my neighbor’s apartment, and thought little of it.

But driving in Timika terrifies me.

The town of Timika, like the Tao, “happened of itself” one day in 1972, shortly after the Company built the first airport in the province. As is customary in Southeast Asian towns, Timika hasn’t the faintest intimation of city planning. Streets begin, end, and converge at random. Buildings seem half-built and partially intended. Like a town of hapless Bedouins, there are people everywhere: some ambling down the middle of the street, some sitting in the middle of the street, some lounging on the sidewalk, watching the world drive by with disinterested eyes, puffing on ubiquitous clove cigarettes. The streets are pockmarked with potholes the size of sewer lids. It is a minefield of humanity; it is an obstacle course of the damned, and my wife is driving through it. [1]

I am in awe of her as she deftly dodges her (honest-to-God) third three-legged dog and, with Ninja-like dexterity, miraculously misses a head-on collision with a motorbike. I decide never to get my Indonesian driver’s license and to tell my wife I love her with more frequency.

There’s a keen understanding of physics in Timika traffic that one must simply learn to feel, and the prevailing law is inertia. The whole paradigm can be reduced to a simple maxim: if I am moving and you are moving, we’d best let each other move.

Timika is the Tao, like anything else.


She says: “We’d better take the levee road. Looks like a demonstrasi (demonstration).”

I come to and see approximately fifty Papuans, mostly in traditional “war dress,” standing on either side of the gravel road. They are an intimidating-looking group: largely barefoot, wearing kotekas (penis gourds worn parallel to the torso) in lieu of trousers, boar’s tooth necklaces, bodies veneered with white and black designs. [2] Those few in blue jeans and T-shirts look ironically anachronistic. They are shouting and chanting, one side answering the other. Some wear elaborate headdresses festooned with cassowary feathers denoting their status. Most are holding bows and spears aloft; some are holding stone axes; all of them look, for lack of a better word, ponderous. I say a brief prayer to no particular god, thankful that I’m not driving.

My wife equanimously begins to turn the truck around in the narrow road. The vehicle becomes perpendicular with the lines of men, and the engine, like a symptom of an unforgiving universe, stalls. Two men run up to the driver’s side, one wearing a Vidal Sassoon T-shirt, jeans, and a cap that reads: “Sex Pistols.” The other is in tribal dress; his nearly naked body is glistening with sweat, his koteka rhythmically slapping against his bare chest as he trots over, his face menacingly blackened with a mixture of pig fat and soot. My wife rolls down the window, and the man in the T-shirt smiles a broad, betel nut–red smile. The man wearing the koteka stands behind him and watches silently, redoubtably. My wife (who is fluent in Bahasa Indonesian) and “Vidal” exchange words and perform a traditional tribal salutation (a knuckle-snapping pseudohandshake). “Christ bless you, Ibu,” he says, [3] and we turn and head back down the road.

“That was Laurens,” she says. “He works with me. Wanted to know if I received his budget proposal. He does great work.”

As we drive she tells me that we stumbled across a buang nama (a casting aside of names ceremony); not a war, but a traditional cease-fire ceremony in which opposing sides meet to put down their weapons, exchange hostages, and call out the names of the dead. The men were gathered to put a formal end to the tribal schism caused by the proposed partitioning of Papua, which resulted in general mayhem and confusion, several deaths, many wounded, and the local tribal community cleaving into warring “pro” and “contra” groups. Then-President Megawati Soekarnoputri had recently “indefinitely postponed” the partition, and thus the factions were seeking a civilized closure. Later, my wife tells me, they will exchange and roast pigs at an arma kuriwan (atonement feast); they will eat, dance, and sing the conflict away.

In Papua there are hundreds of villages still existing in the Stone Age. Most of the elder Papuans in this area saw helicopters carrying missionaries and geologists before ever seeing a wristwatch or a book of matches; they were allowed no industrial revolution but had to confront Blake’s “dark, satanic mills,” and the (largely) Dutch who brought them, overnight. Although still struggling with modernity, what the traditional Papuans lack in technical prowess they make up for with tradition and resilience. Equip any given Papuan (even those in the capital of Jayapura with desk jobs) with a stone axe and he or she is able to survive in the jungle; in no time there will be huts, ceremonies, taro fields, the occasional pig roasting, and sago bread baking.

If I’m sounding too naïve and Rousseauian here, you should know that I don’t give a damn. I’ve seen things.

The Papuan people, these time-traveling “savages,” have suffered much at the hands of many. In our “progressive” era of faceless enemies, undeclared wars, and modern, “civilized,” Nintendo warfare, there is a certain comfort in knowing that there are Melanesian tribesmen on a remote island who believe that war has rules, [4] that the dead have names, and, most importantly, that wars exist in order to end.

I come to and hear my wife say, “You should write about that. What are you thinking about?”

I don’t tell her I’m thinking about America.

“Cultural Experience”

If Paul Valéry is right and seeing is what happens when one forgets the name of what one sees, then experiencing is arguably what happens when one chronically doesn’t know what the hell is going on. This is precisely the reason why so many Westerners in Southeast Asia attempt to protect themselves under a euphemistic canopy that allows them to function, resulting in the hackneyed phrase “a cultural experience,” which so often denotes nothing more than a confusing, fantastical, and oftentimes psychologically and physically debilitating experience. Phrases such as “a cultural experience” render the user an automatic outsider trying to rationalize experience with what philosopher John Searle calls a “world-to-word direction of fit,” fecklessly grasping for touchstones and things familiar in another forlorn attempt to make language the driver, not the vehicle, of reality.

Living anywhere in Asia as a nonnative is often “a cultural experience.” I maintain it is best to approach the East as though it were a mental precipice. You can leap into the Asiatic void, or slink back with your paradigm intact but conspicuously between your legs. If you decide to jump, you must abandon much: linearity (time is a circle, not a straight line), the law of causality (verbs exist without agents, when they exist at all, and things just “happen” or don’t), culpability (not your own, but everyone else’s), virtually all of the straitjackets of Western, Socratic logic. In time, fifteen employees behind the post office or bank counter (five sound asleep, four playing cards, three reading the same comic book over each other’s shoulders, one staring catatonically into space, and two actually helping customers) will make something resembling sense. Soon enough, American traffic laws will seem ridiculous and you will wonder why you are prohibited from driving your motorbike on a city sidewalk and why there are traffic lights at all; you will begin to think that anything less than a two-hour lunch is inhumane; you will think that OSHA is largely unnecessary; you will come to think that Minute Rice is worse than Spam; you will wonder why westerners walk so quickly and are so quick to anger. Ironically enough (even though irony is what we do these days), in Southeast Asia you have to learn to understand why Socrates was the wisest man in Greece: because he understood that he understood the ancient Greek equivalent of squat.

Southeast Asia, for Americans in particular, is an exercise in radical identity therapy. When living in Chiang Mai, Thailand, in 1999 (teaching English and having “cultural experiences”), I overheard an American tourist asking a novice Buddhist monk if he had “found himself” yet. He answered: “Yes. I’m right here.” Then he added, smiling, “For now.” The young monk couldn’t have been more than 14 years old.

I tell my friends that they can save themselves years of psychopharmacology—just move to the East. Live in “fiction” for a while. Give all your answers new questions.

There is a reason Jesus said, “Follow me,” whereas Buddha said, “Come and see.”

“They’ll Eat You Over There.”

Shortly after deciding to move to Papua, I stood in front of my 12th-grade Honors English class with a globe in my hand, feeling like a confused Atlas from Greek mythology. I told them that simply looking at the globe can tell us much; that the globe, like the alphabet, is its own narrative. Consider, I asked them, North India and China, the high-culture centers of the ancient Oriental world, developing uniquely and in relative isolation, surrounded by mountains, deserts, and oceans. Consider, I asked them, the Near East (namely Egypt) and Europe—what became the Occidental world with all its technology, religious plurality, and so-called “progress” can be in part attributed to topography itself—that these areas had more connectedness, more diasporic commerce with the outside, other world. I then showed them where Papua was on the globe, with one finger on D.C. and the other on Papua. One of my more articulate students said: “You’ll be the antipodal man, Mr. Campbell. They’ll eat you over there. You know that, right?” [5] After which she added: “And my dad says you’ll be working for the devil.”

Mind you, this happened in Maryland.

When I was an English teacher, I experienced few moral dilemmas as I was performing a public service for low pay that bordered far too frequently on volunteer work (sacrifice + poverty = moral soundness), and I could always read John Dewey or watch Mr. Holland’s Opus, Boston Public, or Stand and Deliver for unconditional positive regard whenever I felt low and purposeless. When I had time to sleep, I slept soundly.

But that was before I worked for a company whose business is pulverizing mountains to dust, or, as a mordant colleague once put it, “really speeding up fucking erosion.”

The moral implications of working for a mining operation are not lost on me; it reminds me of something I used to postulate to students after reading Walden: “How would Thoreau, the epitome of conscientious consumerism, the paragon of scruples, go about shopping in 21st-century America?” Doubtless he would have to look up every clothing manufacturer before buying a shirt; in buying a car he would need to spend months of tedious research, determining where the engine was assembled and whence the parts were imported. He would inevitably end up carless and shirtless (and consequently prohibited from using public transportation). The modern world is a moral minefield for the conscientious. Buying a box of tissues is its own ethical Faustian Bargain.

I often revert to a truncated version of Kant’s “Categorical Imperative” for moral solace, something more effectively creedal than Taoism. Fact: My wife works in social outreach and local development and helps allocate millions of company dollars via an annual fund for education, health, and social services to the original indigenous Papuan tribes that live in and around the mining operation. Fact: I sit at home, try to write, and gaze out the window. Conclusion: Were the aforementioned conditions universal laws, I could find sleep.

I come to very often feeling that I have as much business living in a mining community as Oscar Wilde would in a fraternity house in Alabama (just picture it).

The author will now go to his bookshelf and nervously thumb through some Lao-Tzu.

Dead Cats and the Trouble with Poets

“I had the longest day of my life today. Everything I touched turned to shit. You had all day to make life seem beautiful. Did you succeed?”
—My wife

“A poet’s life is rarely one that you would wish upon your children.”
—Charles Baxter

I tell a fellow employee at lunch that, after months of revisions and decisions, the Iowa Review accepted one of my poems, a poem about my father. I feel like a god and tell him that it’s my biggest publication yet, and in a journal I love. He asks me how much I’m getting paid. I tell him I’m getting $25 for it, but that many good journals don’t pay at all. It’s really about the recognition, the fact that people other than my wife will read it.

“You should ask for more money. Negotiate,” he says. “After all, they’re the customer, right?” He proceeds to wax ecstatic about some new, state-of-the-art gold concentrator that his crew installed at the mill. He may as well be speaking in tongues. I come to slowly and remember that this man is here because he is an expert machinist, and that I am here because I got married. Once again my life is like Zeno’s room; [6] I am on one side of the room, and understanding is on the other. I take one futile half step and take one half of that half step back, thoroughly bemused.

It is probably no startling revelation that most people working in the mining world aren’t overly interested in poetry or literature; this is precisely as it should be, as one probably shouldn’t be pondering Yeats while working with explosives or running a concentrator. The pursuit of poetic abstractions in a mining community surfeited with brute particulars and commodities market aficionados is odd at best—but the poet is always an oddity. Despite their various university-espoused indoctrinations, most writers of poetry know that they are silly, [7] even whilst ensconced in an MFA program lecture hall genuflecting to Robert Pinsky. The “unrecognized legislators of the world” trope and scheme their way from their respective womblike lecture halls (bits of sweetness and light still clinging to their clothes), shocked to realize that they need groceries and that the rent is due. They are annoyed that they can’t pay for life with poems when Dostoyevsky assured them that beauty would save the world. Then they go home and write a poem about it all using the first person.

It is difficult to want to be a writer, particularly a writer of poetry. One of the most debilitating impediments is that, for the most part, the moniker of “poet” is a tough one to wear. A poet only truly feels like one when recognized as such by another; self-proclaimed poets, like self-proclaimed philosophers, are embarrassing and/or mistaken. This is the reason why poets form cliques, from the Pre-Raphaelites to the Beat Generation. They require mirrors that flatter on every proverbial wall, without which their poetic identities are dangerously evanescent and they risk becoming slackers, dreamers, or worse.

Perhaps poets need miners around them, and miners need poets.

Try this: introduce yourself as a poet at the next party you attend and watch the people ripple away from you like so many metaphors. Those people still near you are only waiting for a punch line. Don’t be fooled. And don’t blame them.

While he was busily saying everything in poignant, resonating epigrams, Oscar Wilde opined that “All art is quite worthless”; that any art is attempted at all, even poorly attempted, is something of a miracle of ironic, and sometimes beautiful, valuation. Likewise, Seymour Glass, in J. D. Salinger’s wonderful short story/novella Seymour: An Introduction, shocks his in-laws by stating that if the war ever ends, he’d like to be a dead cat. When asked why, he explains that, were he a dead cat, no one could put a price on him. Since I am an accidental Taoist, I understood this sentiment when I first read it at age sixteen. There is a certain beauty in the worthless.

And most things that didn’t have to exist are beautiful.

The Green

If it isn’t green, it’s black.

In this mining town in Papua the electricity has a habit of giving up at night, forcing us into contemplative darkness, an accidental Shabbat of antitechnological introspection. I’ve come to suffuse these technological hiatuses with meaning; they are really a miracle of modern stasis, a necessary reprieving, and a way of reminding us of what is expendable, of how few of us ever truly experience the dark. We are amazed, my wife and I, at the heavy darkness of the no-moon jungle, insect sounds lacerating all illusions of silent places. There is simply no light. Invisible, heavy clouds consume the stars. “It’s so absolute,” my wife says, and I like to think she means more than the darkness: the naked places of ourselves we dress in sunlight, lamps, and recorded music, like antitheses of Blanche DuBois fearing a different sort of scrutiny.

“We could pretend it’s 1940,” I say, “put a Jack Benny tape on the shortwave and drink coffee, light candles on the balcony.” She trumps my romanticism and suggests a walk outside instead, where there are dozens of others already out on paths bounded by jungle, stepping small and laughing loudly through various uncertainties; flashlights as eyes, ears like animals’. Soon we are trying only to remember not to disappear altogether; everything is so absolutely, so darkly possible. We are trying (as always, it seems) to navigate the dark.

There is no hint of green.


   It lay supine in a sea of sibilant jet, a festering emerald in the universe-ocean. It did not support life. Rather, on its surface life exploded, erupted, multiplied and thrived beyond imagining. From a soil base so rich it all but lived itself, a verdant magma spilled forth to inundate the land.


And it was green. Oh, it was a green so bright it had its own special niche in the spectrum of the impossible, a green pervasive, an everywhere-all-at-once omnipotent green.

World of a chlorophyllous god.

The above passage is taken from Alan Dean Foster’s sadly out-of-print novel Midworld, a novel for young readers full of excellent imagery that no one in America seems to have read except for my older brother and me. Foster is describing another planet, but he’s still describing Papua.

I’m used to arriving in Southeast Asia at night. The darkness, the heat, the inescapable fatigue, it all manifests the moment you leave the plane, leaving you dreamlike and strange. One day you wake up in America and board a plane, and that day never legitimately ends—it simply fades out like a radio song. Southeast Asia fades in, takes root. The jungle envelops you, inexorably taking with it your sense of time, then space, then …

But we arrived in Papua in the half-light of dawn; from 5,000 feet we saw nothing but green, a blanket of green bounded by mangroves, sectioned by brown, meandering rivers. There were no roads, no buildings. Only trees.

I once associated Southeast Asia as a whole, Proust-like, with the smell of incense, diesel, sweat, burning leaves, the taste of curry, and the sound of bells—but not Papua.

Papua will always be the ubiquitous green, a monochromatic, impossible world. To try to label it, to attempt definition any further, would be to lose it. I used to tell my students back in D.C., “Once it’s written, it’s fiction.”

All of this is fiction.

The Gray

Instead of a verminous insect like Gregor Samsa, our hero came to in the third person.

The accidental Taoist, the poet by inclination, the accidental man from the land of allusion, is atop a 14,000-foot mountain standing next to Larry. He is in the Highlands [8] to visit the Concentrating Division in order to edit and revise the Concentrating Division Manual. Larry’s job is to explain the operation so that our hero can write about it intelligently.

Larry, a hefty Canadian expatriate who looks and sounds like Burl Ives, is leading our reluctant hero about the facility. Larry is at home in his hardhat, fluorescent orange safety vest, and shatterproof eyewear; our hero looks like an unfortunate fop feigning masculinity. His helmet is too small and rests on his head like an ill-conceived yarmulke; his boots are too large and clownlike. He needs to wear his glasses underneath his safety goggles, and both pairs of glasses slip and slide about his (he shamelessly maintains) Greco-Roman nose.

Larry says, “So, you’re a consultant from Jakarta?”

“No, I’m a former English teacher. I live in the Lowlands. I’m here because I got married.”

Larry looks at our hero quizzically. “I get it. It’s a joke.”

“You bet it is.”

“Good. Those consultants—they think they walk on water, but they only skim the surface. This place is far too complex to fly in, fix in a week, and fly out. You know what I’m saying?”

“The consultants think they’re Jesus?”

Larry hands our hero some earplugs. “Somethin’ like that, yeah.”

Larry and our hero don their earplugs and proceed to walk about the mill site through gray sheets of rain. Our hero finds himself surrounded by enormous trucks the size of small houses and webs of conveyor belts transporting ore to the grinders and crushers. The mill site, our hero thinks, is as gray as communist Russia and resembles Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Everywhere is movement; everything is industrially colorless. His once orange vest is silted gray with pulverized rock.

“The men call this place Jurassic Park,” Larry says. Our hero nods, not quite hearing. For all he knows, Larry is singing “Silver and Gold.”

Larry leads him into the mill, a complex the size of several gymnasiums full of ominously rotating grinders and miles of piping of various gauges. As Larry points and attempts to explicate the operation, our hero realizes that, with the earplugs and the white, industrial noise, he can’t hear. He stumbles twice in his too-large boots. He is deaf and nearly blind. And since, to our hero, very little in life is what it is but is chronically like something else, he looks at the mill but sees Chaplin’s Modern Times and pictures himself in the machinery’s bowels, pushed and rolled about by gears and hydraulics.

Larry says, “This is the . . . flow . . . autogenous concentrator . . . can you?”

He responds, “I can’t hear you. I don’t know what you’re saying.”

Larry continues to explain, gesticulating at this or that moving part: “ . . . explain . . . ore flow?”

He says, as loudly as he can, “LARRY, I CAN’T HEAR YOU. NOTHIN’,” and then adds, just for kicks, “I LIKE TO WRITE POEMS.”

Larry leans close in to our hero’s face and looks pensive. “NO,” he says, “NOT POISONOUS . . . NGOS . . . FULL OF SHIT.”

Now our hero is having fun. “LARRY,” he says, pointing at a Papuan man running a dozer for no reason whatsoever, “DID YOU KNOW THAT THE AVERAGE PERSON SPENDS 50,000 HOURS OF THEIR LIFE DREAMING?”

Larry shakes his head and again leans in to our hero, this time smiling triumphantly and strangely. “MORE LIKE 250,000 TONS A DAY!” he says.

“I DON’T KNOW WHAT THE HELL YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT,” our hero says, and then, thoroughly pushing the ridiculous envelope, proclaims, “LARRY, GUESS WHAT? I AM OZYMANDIAS! KING OF KINGS! LOOK UPON MY WORKS, YE MIGHTY, AND DESPAIR!”

“EXCELLENT!” says Larry.

Excellent, our hero thinks.


 

“When you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares into you.”
—Nietzsche

Larry takes our hero to the open pit. He tells our hero that he won’t believe it, that it’s something you have to see. The men, appropriately enough, call it “The Pit.”

The Pit is enormous, a terraced funnel of rock over a kilometer in diameter and 900 meters deep; it is a steep, impossible amphitheater built for a Titan. Our hero looks down into the pit and sees trucks and shovels that, from his vantage point, look like Tonka toys. Larry explains that once the ore body is exhausted, the pit will be two kilometers across.

In forty years’ time the ore body will be exhausted. There will be no mine, only a hole in the earth; gray that the green will fill.

To our hero’s right is one of the last five equatorial glaciers in the world, shining brilliantly in the early afternoon light. Our hero is awed, to be sure, but he’s also thinking about Hemingway. Close to the western summit there is the dried and frozen carcass of a leopard. No one has explained what the leopard was seeking at that altitude.

Were our hero not so weak and light-headed, were he just a mite more articulate and mindful, this egregious juxtaposition, this perfect thesis and antithesis might strike him. It might occur to him that he is irony’s fulcrum.

But nothing occurs to him, save for the thought that he is like the leopard. No one, not even he, can explain what he is seeking at such an altitude.

Ultimately it takes our hero a month and a half to edit and revise the Concentrating Division Manual, during which time four good journals accepted three of his poems and an essay concerning the semiotics of Heavy Metal. Also around this time his wife taped the cover of a Newsweek from May 12, 2003, above his typewriter, showing a woman wearing a Hillary Clinton power suit in the foreground, coupled with a man in the background wearing a red T-shirt, his defeated hands shoved in his jeans pockets. Superimposed across their chests are the words: She Works, He Doesn’t. He countered by not answering his wife for a week unless she used the appellation “Mr. Published Essayist and Poet.”

Theirs is that sort of relationship.

An Archetype and Me

What mattered was that they should bear
Some lineament of character,
Some affluence, if only half-perceived,
In the poverty of their words. . . .

—Wallace Stevens

SCARS.” she says. “Scars, Pak.”

After fifteen months on the island, my wife and I decided it was time to visit D.C., our former home. Since our arriving in Papua, America had invaded Iraq and Bali had exploded. Now Agnes is telling me that all of my flights home are canceled. The rain, like fate, is appropriately pounding outside.

“SARS, Bu, you mean SARS.”

“Correct, Pak. SNARLS,” she says. “Can’t fly through Taiwan. Company policy.”

“What about my Plan B through Singapore?”

“SNARLS lagi (again/more). Tidak (no), Pak.”

“But Bu, I didn’t do anything—I mean, nonaction, wu-wei . . . it always works . . . the middle way . . . the path of least—”

“SNARLS,” she says. “Pak.”

But Agnes, I need pizza, to understand every street sign; I want sidewalks, suburbs, traffic laws; hell, I want LAWS. I want to go to the National Gallery and look at a Da Vinci. I want architecture, potable water, and neoclassic city planning. I want to know what the hell “Joe Millionaire” is. I want cold milk and refrigerated eggs. I want to see a play! I want bookstores. I want to go where the climate suits my clothes. I want to understand everything said around me and to be anonymous in crowds. I haven’t seen The Lord of the Rings! I want to not be stared at. Did I mention that I want bookstores? Well, I also want filtered coffee. I want a HORIZON, dammit, and only intermittent rain. I want good beer, David Letterman, and NPR!

I say none of the above and sit there mute and defeated. Agnes says: “Maybe Continental Airlines? Jakarta to Guam, Guam to Honolulu, Honolulu to L.A., L.A. to D.C. No SCARS. Maybe I call?”

“Continental! Sweet blue body of Krishna!” (I actually do say this.) “Oh, glorious Continental, most beneficent of airlines, I seek to know thee! Silakan (please?/?go ahead), Bu! Go for it!”

It seems to happen on cue. The travel agency door chimes, and I see him standing in the doorway: a naked brown body in full tribal (un)dress, glistening with rain, carrying a long bow (which I first confuse for a walking stick) adorned with cassowary feathers and several arrows. Like so many Papuan men, he is incredibly well built with enviable Hollywood abs. A cuscus pelt rests atop his head, and his koteka, like a beacon indicating the direction of the sky, is parallel to his torso, stopping mere inches from his chin. He wipes his bare feet on the threshold mat and makes his way to Agnes’s partner. He places his exposed buttocks on the seat, rests his koteka over his shoulder, and leans his bow and arrows against the counter between us. I steal several glances at this archetypal tribesman while he situates himself and asks something of Agnes’s partner. The man is old—the oldest tribesman I’ve yet seen; his face is a deeply lined mosaic of flesh, creased and folded into cuneiform-like designs. I wonder if I’m dreaming him, or if he is dreaming me; I wonder what things he’s seen, if he recognizes his world any longer.

He doesn’t even glance at me.

As Agnes talks on the phone, he addresses his agent in what sounds like fluent Dutch and then switches to a halting, low-toned Bahasa Indonesian. I hear him say pergi (go) and Wamena, a town I presume is his home, located some fifty miles away, accessible only by river or air. His agent looks skeptical and shows him a chart of some sort, punctuating her explanation with tidaks.

“Tidak?” he asks.

Mungkin (maybe),” she says, picking up the phone to clarify something. He shifts in his seat uncomfortably; I do the same. We are sharing “a cultural experience.” Both of us a certain sort of anachronism. I don’t need Harold Bloom to elucidate this symmetry.

We sit in our strangeness and wait for some luck, and I can’t help but sneak glances at him. I watch. Our respective agents chatter on the phone. I look. I am amazed that he exists. He is impassive, stoically staring at the map of Indonesia on the wall. I find myself staring at him, shamelessly, wondering if I can render him and this scene in 12-pitch type. Not the truth exactly, but the rhyming moments. Emotional veracity. Something in the third person, perhaps.

That evening I try to make a poem out of it and fail.


Weeks later, still SARS-stranded and buying basil and spring onions, I recognize my foolishness. Things are symbols of themselves; there are no epiphanic moments, no meaningful shapes: only retellings, resuscitations, and reconstitutions. We all wander through the world, which the lunatics amongst us try to make rhyme, sometimes surprised by its frozen correctness. That’s all, and it’s enough. I think.

I wonder if the woman at the warung wonders why I’m not at work. I wonder if, in fact, I am at work. I’m thinking about my students; I’m trying to remember the last time I wore a tie. I’m trying to recall the last thing I remember after everything else I’ve forgotten.

I come to, and the Papuan woman hands me my vegetables. A little Muslim girl is staring at me. She’s been at it for some time now, but I don’t time her. Instead I think of how things happen of themselves and then we happen upon things, hoping to redeem our felt experience with what words we can muster. Of how we go on.

Terima kasih,” I say. “Sampa jumpa lagi (see you later).”

Sama-sama (same to you),” she says.

I wave and turn to leave, a lunatic laughing, holding my vegetables loosely. The little Muslim girl, I’m certain, is staring at me still, creating me as I amble away.

And it is funny, isn’t it?

 
Notes:

[1] I realize that all expatriates who have ever driven in the Third World have had similar experiences, but I assure you that driving in Timika is like driving in Vientiane, Colombo, and Bangkok combined—on LSD.

[2] Except in villages high in the mountains or deep in the lowland jungles, Papuans living near the mine wear trousers and the like, save for in times of war and ceremony. Less than fifty miles in any direction from the mine, however, Papuans from various tribes wear kotekas and other indigenous dress.

[3] Although Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country in the world, virtually all Papuans are Christians as a result of the arrival of Catholic missionaries. In Bahasa Indonesian, Ibu or Bu means “mother/married woman” and is a term of respect; the male equivalent of Ibu is Pak or Pa.

[4] Someone asks, “What about the Geneva Convention(s)?” I ask, “Are you serious?

[5] See Michael Rockefeller and the Harvard-Peabody expedition of 1961. M. R. disappeared in Papua’s Baliem Valley and may have ended up an Asmat tribesman’s lunch.

[6] Zeno argued that to cross a room we first have to cross half the room, but to do so means to cross half of that half, right on into infinity. Hence, no movement is possible. Zeno was silly that way.

[7] The first time I went to my now wife’s home for dinner, her father, a man with a somber, silent disposition, asked me, “What does poetry do?” Were he to ask me that same question today, I would say, “It keeps me from being a Wall Street trader.” At the time I said, “I don’t know.”

[8] The Highlands is where the actual mine is located. My wife and I live in the Lowlands, which is the mine’s administrative and support center.

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