or Mr. Paul Meets Hitam Manis
These notes are excerpted from my travel journal. My observations about Thailand are completely naive. I know a little more about Malaysia, since this was my fourth trip there. I don’t guarantee either the accuracy of my reports nor their value to anyone besides myself.
If you come to Plum Village for one day, you have an idea of Plum Village, but that idea really isn’t Plum Village. You might say, “I’ve been to Plum Village,” but in fact you’ve only been to your idea of Plum Village. Your idea might be slightly better than that of someone who has never been there, but it’s still only an idea. It is not the true Plum Village. Your concept or perception of reality is not reality. When you are caught in your perceptions and ideas, you lose reality.
—Thich Nhat Hahn
“TAK KENAL, TAK CINTA. You can’t love what you don’t know.”
The purpose of this trip was to meet co-author Diana Cohn in Malaysia to finalize research for our collaborative kids book, The Bee Tree. This picture book is about Pak Teh and his grandsons, leaders of a group of rural honey hunters working near Pedu Lake Rainforest Preserve. We planned to meet these honey hunters and witness one more honey hunt. I have been working on this book project since my first trip to Malaysia with Steve Buchmann in 19981
I recently illustrated Diana’s children’s book, Mr. Goethe’s Garden and we decided to work together again to bring The Bee Tree back to life. Diana came on board this fall as co-author with Steve. She rewrote and cut Steve’s manuscript and a new proposal was going out to publishers from her agent. I convinced her that she needed to go in person to see the honey hunt before adding the final touches to the manuscript. As Woody Allen said, “95% of success is showing up.” So we did.
I have several sketchbooks full of drawings and notes, a shelf of reference books and binders jammed with photographs, even sound recordings and videos from my three previous trips there. I had made many false starts, but still had no final paintings completed, and although we had seen a lot of interest in the book, we still had no publisher’s contract. In our defense, it is no small task to write and illustrate a book about a place halfway around the globe in a country that I couldn’t have found on a map before my first trip there. This trip and a new book proposal meant to change all that.
To be honest, I didn’t need much of a reason to go besides seeing the bee tree again and basking in the vibes of the forest. It is like maintaining a long-distance love affair. In addition, I had other companions. Long-time artist friend, Gretchen Halpert and scientist/photographer Ron Feris from Providence, Rhode Island, joined me on this trip.
Thailand joins the coalition
A couple of weeks before leaving for Kuala Lumpur, I was invited to meet with a group of nature artists from all over Thailand: the Sci-art Network of Thailand. This was an opportunity to get to know people that I had communicated with over the years only by email, see a country I’ve never been to, and brain storm mutual ideas for a future east/west artists workshop in the rain forest. The group planned to meet in Chiang Mai and we would hold a workshop together. Gretchen and Ron’s skills fit nicely into this plan and they were invited as my companions. We quickly worked out our itinerary on the AirAsia website.
When you have friends in a far away place and a job to do, you are more than a tourist: you are a guest and a companion. You see a little deeper below the surface of a place. That is an experience you can’t put a price on. Throughout this trip I was deeply affected by the kindness and generosity of the Thai and Malaysian people who were our hosts and who became new friends, or closer friends. At the same time, in the background, there was the American invasion of Iraq last year and it’s continuing trauma. I am an American, so I heard what people think about current American foreign policy. These issues mostly played out in the impersonal realm of newspaper articles and barstool discussions. Although I agree with almost none of the actions of my government, I was sad to find that these events can affect personal relationships with friends I have known for years.
Valentines Day. I left Los Angeles at 11pm on February 12 and arrived in Kuala Lumpur (KL) at 2pm on February 14, two days, or 20 hours, later depending on how you look at it. (If you do the math, please explain it to me.) It was Valentines day. I had seen the movie, “School of Rock” on the plane. So when I saw the east coast of the Malay Peninsula move into view beneath us and gazed down into the forest below, I wanted to stand up and shout, “Yea, look at that! It’s like a face-melting guitar solo!”
I checked into the Concorde Inn near KLIA airport with time to nap before meeting Gretchen and Ron’s night flight. They came around the globe from the other direction from Boston through Dubai to meet me in KL.
After a night’s sleep, the three of us left the next afternoon, Sunday, for Bankok, Thailand. In the Bangkok airport, we were to meet Sasivimon Swangpol, the fearless leader of the Sci-Art Network of Thiland, and travel with her to Chiang Mai. (Let’s call her Pu-pe, her nickname. It means doll). We had forgotten when we booked our flights on the AirAsia web site that we were entering a new country. We missed our flight connection to Chiang Mai because we had miscalculated the time needed to go through immigration on entering Thailand. We had no plan B. We needed some kind of sign. On the way out of immigration, I saw a woman holding a sign with my name on it. That’s how I first met Pu-pe. She had let our flight go without her so that she could stay and meet us. She bought us all new tickets for the evening flight without skipping a beat. They were paying our way.
We had time to kill so Pu-pe decided to drop us off at the central Bangkok mall by ourselves while she attended to some personal business. She said she would pick us up in three hours, in time for our flight to Chiang Mai. The mall was popular, everyone seemed to be there. It was just like an American mall, with even all the same stores and brands, but different. Like a waking nightmare, and just as fascinating. It was like America, the place we had just left in order to go out and see the unknown world, but it was not America. It was us, cranked up a few notches in speed and population and translated into a foreign alphabet. We were like babes in the woods. What I usually do when I don’t know where to begin is to start walking in whatever direction I happen to be facing, and that’s what we did.
In the airport lounge, I had that sensation again. Looks familiar, but is not the same. Credence Clearwater Revival was on the background speakers, singing about being down on the bayou. I never hear Thai music in public places in America. Still I have to remind myself of the mixtures of German, French, Canadian, English, and African cultures that blended to create Cajun music. And Credence was just another rock and roll band from LA. Would there now be some new creative fusion between all these influences in Thailand? I’ll wait to see.
When we got to Chaing Mai, a whole group of smiling Sci-Art Network of Thailand illustrators were lined up to meet our flight. They drove us to the guest quarters near the Queen Sirikit Botanic Garden just outside of town. It was dark and lovely.
We Got to Get Ourselves Back to the Garden…
We spent the Monday together with ten or so members of the Sci-Art Network of Thailand: Doll, Bird, Mr. Big, The Gambler, Egg, Ant, Elephant Man, Pornlert, and Manoth. They showed us a typed program outlining the workshops we were going to give in field sketching, portable digital painting, and nature photography. That went into some kind of record, I hope, but the written program turned out to be mostly fiction. Everyone seemed to accept that whatever course things took on their own, that was what we had all decided to do together. There is a natural magnetism between like-minded people, especially nature artists and we were enjoying that, so it worked perfectly. We walked through the gardens and they identified plant families for us. Botanical artists, they are my favorite kind of people. We ate a lunch of Thai take-out food that just appeared as if out of nowhere. This happened whenever we were hungry. We all took hundreds of photos, robably more pictures of each other than of the plants.
I almost got down in worship in the presence of a real, 3-dimensional, live Nepenthes pitcher plant, the first I had ever seen in the flesh. Of course I didn’t do that because I know that’s idolatry, but if the Buddha himself had appeared, I would not have been more impressed. So I drew and painted it. I had illustrated a kids book on carnivorous plants years ago, but none of my readers ever knew I painted it all from photographs in books! Those things don’t grow in the Sonoran Desert and I had not had time to travel on that project.
We finished the day field sketching together in the garden. We all chose plants to draw and sat in mostly silent regard of our subjects. We had almost reached Nirvana. Or at least we had touched on the Buddha’s Third Noble Truth: Cessation of Suffering and we were on the road to Well-Being. One of the Thai artists said that they had really learned a lot from us. I wondered what he meant by that, but I didn’t ask. I answered that, on the contrary, I thought we had learned more from them. Ok we’ll call it a draw.
In the evening we went out to a restaurant that featured Thai dancing and music. They were giving us the top-notch tour. It was delicious and the dancers and servers were all handsome, elegant, and beautiful.
The Bird People
Tuesday February 17. We went on a day trip to Doi Inthanon, a national park adjacent to the Botanic Garden and the highest point in Thailand, adding some “bird people” to our group. Someone pointed out a roadside shrine to the bird spirits near to a dangerous curve. It was a little house on a stand. These people knew birds. And could draw them too. Besides being a bird-watchers mecca, Doi Inthanon was a spectacular place. Dense cloud forest gave way suddenly, like a line was drawn, to heath and grassland on the summit and a spectacular view of receding misty mountains made romantic by the fact that it was the season for burning off the rice padis. In front of the view were red rhododendrons and white Dendrobius orchids, and the climax of the day: a dazzling “green-tailed sunbird”, endemic only to Doi Inthanon. Someone pointed out a view that had won a photo contest. There was a worn place in the grass where many people had apparently stood before. I stood n the same exact spot and took the picture.
That night we went out again for Thai food! They taught us a few words in Thai. It’s musical, like singing. There are five tones, and I still didn’t know which direction the alphabet reads.
We had passed the elephant ranch to and from the Botanical Garden every day. Thoughts about riding an elephant became a necessity. We were glad we did, although I found out that I could not sketch from the back of a walking elephant. Later the elephants put on a show, they played harmonicas and danced the hip hop. I would like to take dance lessons from their teacher. They played football. They painted pictures. Yes, elephants can paint. And due to their good marketing skills, they can sell them for more than I might get for one of my own paintings. And it is easy to see why. I see the ranch as kind of an artist’s residency and retreat for elephants.
It was a like a typical Arizona dude ranch, except that elephants replaced the horses. Gretchen wondered if this was demeaning to the elephants. Well, they ride horses don’t they? The fact is that most of their wild habitat is gone or going away and more and more elephants are in places like this, dependent on human care. That is sad, because wildness has priceless value in itself. Yet, I had the feeling that the animals and their trainers had built up a relationship and that the show was a result of that mutual respect. It is even possible that the elephants had fun, if only because they are very social and they were with their herd. All girls. The males are moody and don’t work well with others. There was a shrine to Lord Ganesha near the entrance, god of overcoming obstacles and also of art. We lit some incense there.
An Artist’s Rain Forest Workshop
We went back to pack because we were moving to a hotel in Chiang Mai for the coming night, the Lai Thai Guest House. But before leaving the garden, we toured the attached hotel and laboratories, where we met with Suyanee Vessabutr, Nok’s (Bird) boss. Suyanee is head of research and programs, and a very pleasant person. She seemed genuinely interested in my ideas for an international rain forest art workshop. They are organizing a series of art workshops taught by some of our Sci-Art Network friends. We talked about ideas and I explained some of the difficulties I had trying to start something like that in Malaysia. Here, they already had the infrastructure, an institution set up to do that, an artist’s group, and they had already thought of a similar idea themselves. We agreed to keep discussing it by email and Suyanee would bring it up with her board.
Rooster’s Discourse on Buddhism
It was Wednesday afternoon, our last day in Thailand. We hired a driver with a van for about $50 to be at our disposal til midnight. Kai (Egg), in our group, had a friend named Gai (Rooster),(both names pronounced exactly the same, I swear) who had worked as a tour guide, speaking English. Rooster became our teacher. First we went to tour a paper making plant. The paper was made from mulberry bark. It was rough for drawing, but they made beautiful bound books and stationery from it and we bought a pile of items.
From there we went to see some old Buddhist temples in Chiang Mai. Although I had read books by the Dalai Lama, I new almost nothing about Buddhism as it was actually practiced in Asia. On the way, Rooster explained that The form of Buddhism predominant in SE Asia was Theravada Buddhism, as distinct from the Mahayana buddism practiced in Tibet and central and eastern Asia. Theraveda Buddhism, he explained, was more conservative, emphasizing the actual words of the Sutras, discourses by the Buddha spoken to his friends. Rooster’s summary was that Theravada preached that one should first become enlightened, then help others, whereas Mahayana suggested you help others first, the saints enter heaven last.
The temples were incredible, both architecturally, and for what they represent spiritually. At Wat Pra Sing I missed a lot of Rooster’s lecture because I was off scrutinizing the incredibly detailed murals covering two walls, all telling stories. The visual effect of the other walls with painted gold designs on a red background, and the three huge golden Buddhahs in front of them, is absolutely stunning, now burned into my memory. It’s not a color scheme I’ve ever thought of, fine metallic gold details on a deep red background, but I’ll try it out sometime. Typically, in front of the buddhas there were offerings. Rooster pointed out that in the bundles there were: three incense sticks, representing purity, wisdom, and love; two candles representing duality, right and wrong, light and dark; and chrysanthemums as gifts for all the spirits. An interesting correlation with the use of Chrysanthemums also in the Mexican Day of the Dead Ceremonies.
At Wat Jae Dee Luang, I remember one scene in particular. It was twilight and street dogs were converging on the temple grounds, most with very humble looks on their faces and trying hard to be well-behaved. However, when two dogs would start to scuffle and screech, someone would sternly scold them and make them quiet down. Monks and other people were setting out bowls of food. Rooster explained that they fed the dogs as a practice for the virtue of kindness. It was a tradition. When there is hunger, there is fighting and strife. Everyone must be respectful on the temple grounds. So they fed them and kept the peace. There is a part of us that is like these dogs, I thought. It is considered a ritual of self-compassion to feed them.
In one shrine there was a huge “sleeping Buddha” statue. The Buddha, it is said, slept only one hour per night–the rest of his time was spent helping others. In front of this shrine, I saw more piles of dog food and dogs eating. There was plenty of food left over. Still there was the occasional fight.
If a statue has no halo, it is only a monk, Rooster explained near a statue of a fat man sitting in mediation. As Buddhism spread into SE Asia, Thai artists found the Indian Style “halos” to be structurally unsound in their sculptures. They replaced the halo with of a spire of flame over the head. This spire is also reflected in the temple architecture. Reminds me of Jesus’ disciples on Pentecost. It is said that the apostles had tongues of flame over their heads. I noticed two orange-robed monks walking clockwise around the temple, like we were. One of them was a foreigner, speaking in very non-musical Thai to the other. Rooster explained that anyone can come and be a monk, no matter who they are, and for whatever period of time they desire. It was a time for study and learning in a number of sacred arts. One would learn Pali, the extinct language used for the Sutras. “Could I become a monk here?”, I asked. “Yes, even you”, he said,
The visual and emotional effect of the temple in the half-light could not be conveyed in a photograph, so I took none. It reminded me of a Mayan pyramid in design, but there were rows of stone elephants holding up the second tier of the building. Rooster explained that all the stone had once been covered with glittering tin and bronze so it must have been almost blinding before Krakatoa erupted in 1883. Wat Jae Dee Luang was one of many buildings in SE Asia that were seriously damaged by the earthquake and never completely repaired.
(That is only a cardboard cut-out at the airport)
Thanks for the Memories
Thursday morning we left at 7AM for Kuala Lumpur. I felt so sorry to leave that I took Gretchen’s lead and hugged Nok good bye! I guess I had missed the instructions not to touch, not to even shake hands with a woman if you are a male. And I am. So I don’t know what she thought, but she smiled radiantly. I guess that is part of the greatness of the diversity of world human cultures. I am used to dancing with women who I barely know, in close embrace style Argentine tango. But we were not in Argentina anymore. In fact, I have never been to Argentina.
Friday morning, February 20, 6:30 AM. The date and time is on my KLIA airport police report. Gretchen and Ron decided to continue traveling on with me to Pedu Lake. Despite the look of a menage a trois, we traveled well together. My laptop was stolen while we were in line to check our bags to Alor Star. Despite the thick, Arab-style Malaysian coffee I was a little confused and tired. I was later to learn that other laptops carried by obvious tourists had disappeared too.
There was nothing I could do. I think I had looked away for 20 seconds during some confusion when we were told we were in the wrong line. After the police interview, I had to run down the concourse to make my next flight. The worst part of that was losing all my photos from Thailand, which I had downloaded to the computer and deleted from my nikon digital camera. I remembered my thoughts when we were at the temples the day before: I had been trying to decide then whether to just pay attention and experience the places in the moment, or to be distracted by concentrating on photography. I did a little of both.
It turned out that the memories of places and moments stayed with me and the photos left me. Nok will, I hope, copy me some of the photos of people which I had burned for her on CD before I left, so it could have been worse. Losing a thing like a computer was hard, the photographs were harder to let go of. But it could have been worse: no one was hurt. And the loss is insignificant compared to a broken heart. Why, if they had asked me nicely, I might have given it to them, minus my photos…but to just take it without asking? Is that polite international relations?
FROM THE AIRPORT IN ALOR STAR, we were picked up by a hotel van for the wild hour and a half ride to the Desa Utara Resort in the Pedu Lake forest preserve. Upon arriving, I was greeted by a smiling Roslan, the resort manager. We had become friends over the years and our conversations were to continue in my “office’, the outdoor veranda coffeeshop, Kopitiam. That’s where I often sat to draw where I had diffused light and could feel the breeze from the lake. It had been two years since by last visit. The first thing I noticed was that the water level was very low. Roslan said it had not rained since December. The honeyhunt had been weeks earlier than usual due to the unprecedented drought, but we had already bought our tickets and could not change our schedules to come earlier. I could see the effect of the drought on the flowers–most had bloomed already and it seemed that the bees had moved on, following the bloom.
Roslan, hung up his cell phone and reported that Pak Teh was coming over with some other honey hunters, so late that same afternoon we all would go to the bee tree. Pak Teh would check out the bee tree, see if they could do a honey hunt demonstration for Diana when she arrived. And on Tuesday we were all invited to lunch at Pak Teh’s 100 year old traditional Timber house.
The Bee Tree
“Assalamu’alaikum!”, I said, garbling the pronunciation, when I saw the group of honey hunters sitting in the Kopitiam. I shook hands with each person in turn, Malay style, while we each touched out hearts in greeting. I was getting used to this ritual again of showing your relation from the heart with everyone you meet.
The trail to the bee tree, called the Tualang tree in Malay, is about one kilometer and climbing. This species (a legume) is the tallest tree in Malaysia. The trail there is like a good free verse poem. It’s different each time you encounter it. It winds around, goes up and down, has a beginning and an end, and no matter how many times you’ve go through it, there is always some new detail to discover. It’s a long, winding sentence with many pauses and clauses, and an exclamation point at the end. I’m always waiting for that rise where you get the first glimpse of the giant tree. Maybe love is like that too: each time there is always something more to learn. I often think about that tree on the other side of the world when I’m home in Arizona. The bee tree is always there at the edge of the mind. On this trip I noticed for the first time that the buttresses of the bee tree were wrapped around a huge boulder that the tree was literally sitting on.
I don’t know how many times I’ve walked this trail with Pak Teh, but it has become a kind of ritual. Most of the action in our book happens on this trail. Pak Teh is a willing participant. The walk is largely silent between us because he does not speak any English, except “Amerikan!”. He often looks at us as if he’s about to say something, then remembers we won’t understand. He’ll speak to the others and they will all laugh. I know the words for Bee (lebah) and honey (madu) and of course had learned to say “makan” (eat) from our lunches at Pak Teh’s house. That is enough to get by. We all love him and we watch his every move. He said he feels like he’s in hollywood, we’ve taken so many pictures of him. I resolved after this trip to make a photo album for him. I noticed that he stopped to rest several times as we got to the steeper parts of the trail, letting us pass. He always used to be far ahead of us. Now in his 80s, Pak Teh did not climb the tree anymore–Shukor, his grandson, was to do the climb this time. Pak Teh counted two colonies still with bees, and said the mock honey hunt would happen monday night.
Strangers in Paradise
The resort felt immediately like home to me, I had spent so much time there in the past. It was all new to Gretchen and Ron and they took a little time to settle in. I had no idea if they would like the place. It is another country, things don’t always work smoothly, toilets do not always flush, and we were exhausted from traveling. It’s hard to know exactly what another person’s expectations are. I wanted them to see the place as their “Tropical Paradise”. It was that for me. I wanted them to find theirs. So we all just settled back and did nothing. I made a note to myself, for future travel, to schedule in a day, or better, two days to sleep and do nothing whenever I arrive overseas to just re-calibrate and get used to a place.
Maybe the attitude of the traveler is always the best outlook no matter where you are. Just show up, be there in the moment, and pay attention. Something is bound to happen. Or nothing happens. We are the wandering strangers here. It is someone else’s country. I suspend judgments, slacken the reigns a bit and see where the horse (or elephant) would like to go.
I let myself sleep like a rock. I slowed down almost to a torpor. Still, the next day, while having my nasi lemak breakfast at noon on the veranda, I sketched out the entire story-board for the book in cartoon form. From this rough scribbly version, I could know what reference material I had to gather for each scene while I was on location. When you are in the zone, and have taken your rest, you can get a full day’s work done in two hours.
Still, I was slowing down to a new pace, the speed of the trees and the Malay rural people who work at the hotel. When Diana and her friend Nikos, both New Yorkers, arrived, fresh from the United States, I would try to open my mouth to answer questions, but she was gone before I could form a statement. It was a couple of days before we could match our frequencies to really have a meaningful conversation. That was fine, as we were each gathering our own impressions to compare later. I was to spend the next two weeks here. I eventually even extended my stay, on Roslan’s invitation. He could see that I didn’t want to leave.
I spent all the time I could walking in the forest. I took photo references, but when I forced myself to confront the absurd complexity of the forest with only pencil and paper, I was intimidated. One of the tasks I set for myself here was to come up with stylized formulae for elememts of the forest, leaves, trunks, vines, and flowers. Elements I could use later to create patterns out of my head in a stylized way. I was inspired by the painting of the late Ida Bagus Made of Bali. Also, I wanted to use the “all-over” Islamic patterns of Malay wood carving and batik as an influence. With the Malay wood carving (seen in Pak Teh’s house) there are two guiding rules: 1. Plant motifs are used as design elements and woven into patterns that are evenly distributed throughout the composition. 2. The negative or empty spaces were equal to the painted or carved spaces. Maybe I could do something with that idea.
Inside Pak Teh’s house
Miss Hitam Manis
Right away Roslan, with a glint in his eye, asked me if I wanted to draw any people. I knew where he was heading with that. There is a story in our book, that the honey hunters tell, about a beautiful young woman, named Hitam Manis (literally, “Sweet and Dark”), who works in the Sultan’s palace. She falls in love with the prince but can not marry him because she is a commoner. They are discovered and Hitam Manis is killed by the sultan’s soldiers. As a spear pieces her heart, she turns into a cloud of wild bees and flies into the forest. The original story is in the Hindu Vedas. I am illustrating several scenes of Pak Teh telling this story at night by lamp light.
On my first trip, I had asked Roslan who was the most beautiful girl on his staff so I could use her as a model for Hitam Manis, and also become familiar with Malay facial features. He immediately knew just the woman and that started a tradition of drawing Malay people, men as well as women who worked at the hotel. I made many friends that way and started giving people their portraits. I did this even for Roslan and Pak Teh. Roslan enjoyed this search for the ideal Hitam Manis immensely and on each trip he would find me a new woman to draw. It became like a standing joke–like I was the judge of a Miss Hitam Manis peagent. Sometimes it went too far, which I won’t go into here. Eventually the joke expanded into a ficticious search for a Malay wife, with whom I could settle down and stay in Malaysia. And I asked him if each woman had a boy friend. I even asked Roslan if I’d have to convert to Islam to marry a Malaysian. “Yes!”, he said.
Paul’s Traditional Malay Wedding (not)
So that evening he brought me his two secretaries, Julaila and Lindah, all made up and dressed in formal clothes. It turned out to be a fun group with Gretchen and Ron drawing too. Everyone was soon drawing each other and laughing hysterically at the results. Not a beauty nor an art contest. Juliala drew a pretty good portrait of Gretchen. On it she wrote, ” I love you my friend. I want to have your email address so I can write you.” That melted our faces. Their friend, Nashitoh, came to watch and I drew her too.
But after this drawing session, word got around about us and we were accepted as fun, interesting, and strange people to know. Restaurant staff would ask to see my sketchbook and exclaim in wonder at things and people they recognized or explain what something was. It was as though I was able to produce a rabbit out of a hat. Through drawing, I became a curiosity and began to create a rapport with the local people.
I Started to Sing, Which Started the Whole World Crying…
Roslan also instigated an activity with us that I had sworn I would never participate in: karaoke. The first night, after the drawing session he invited we three Americans and Julaila, to the lounge. He poured us beers and we ended up hanging around with a handful of people, including the owner of the resort (and his two bodyguards), until 4AM. Yes, we sang. And we taught Julaila to dance swing and rock and roll. On subsequent nights, I quit drinking beer, since none of the Malays drink alcohol. Anyways, it seemed that Ron and I had drunk them dry–we heard other guests ask for beer and they were told that they were out. I had decided anyways to drink mango juice, or whatever they were drinking when I was with them, and there was not much else to do but sing. Since it happened on the other side of the world, and no one will ever see me, I’ll confess that I sang the Bee Gees, and then, one of my least favorties, “My Way”. I had no choice. They made me do it.
One day, Roslan had Julaila write up a rough translation of a Malay pop rock song, “Tiga Malam”. I had only noticed it because it was the only title in the list where I recognized all the words. Three nights. It was a duet between a man and a womam. We practised it beforehand and sang it on stage to Malay appluase. I still didn’t understand any more of the words than the title and just sang it by pronouncing the words as they cam across the screen. Roslan was practically on the floor laughing. He had never before seen anything like that.
Joe’s Big Stick
Monday, February 23. Diana had not arrived Sunday night as planned and we still had no word from her. The honey hunt would be tonight. Roslan assigned a young man in his twenties, Hasdiman, or “Man” (pronounced “Mun”) to us as a guide for forest walks. Gretchen and I went for a nature walk with him. He knew the Malay names and uses of many plants as well as birds and mammals, and paid special attention to medicinal uses. I never knew more than a handful of plant names in this forest, so this was enlightening, even though I mostly learned only the Malay names. Every other plant seemed to be some kind of “malaysian viagra” plant. I was careful not to taste any, since I was with Gretchen. 😉
One of these plants turned out to be Eurycoma longifolia, or Tongkat Ali, Malaysia’s best-known medicinal plant. A “Tongkat” is a walking stick. “Ali” is a comon name in Malaysia, like we would say, “Joe”. So the name “Tongkat Ali” means means something like “Joe’s Big Woodie”. One of it’s properties, my friends explained, was to increase blood flow, with the natural result that a guy should get a large, prolonged erection. Once I learned the word, I was to recognize it on billboards in KL for soft drinks made from this plant. It appeared to be used like ginseng, an energy boost. Furthermore, there is a companion plant for women, called in Malay, “Kacip Fatima”. Again, “Fatima” is a common female name in Malaysia, like Sue. And “Kacip” means “to grasp” or “pliers”. Since Kacip Fatima is supposed to create some sort of muscle contractions, the name could possibly be translated as “Suzie’s tight little grabber”. So now you know.
For some reason, the topic of love lead to the subject of hunting. “Man” told a story about a pair of hornbills that used to hang around a resort he once worked at on Lankawi Island. A hunter had shot the female for some reason and the male stayed nearby, calling out for two weeks after that waiting for her to come back. He said he had hoped that Hornbill died soon after that to relieve it’s suffering.
Later, “Man” told me more about his apprenticeship with a snake charmer when he was at Lankawi. It was a fascinating kind of mind and body training. If a human can survive his first cobra bite by using native plant antidotes (it may take three months) he can develop an immunity. A young snake is more dangerous than an older one. A mature snake will judge your threat and just bump you as a warning it you come too close. The second time it may bite without injecting venom, as a second warning. If you keep coming, it will kill you. He said that after a period, the handler starts to smell like another snake, and they crawl over him without biting as long as he doesn’t make a threatening movement. In the world of animals, any sudden or fast movement signifies an attack.
The Honey Hunt
When we got back from this walk around 4PM, Diana had arrived with Nikos, her film-maker friend, and two men from Universiti Putra Malaysia in KL, sent by our friend Professor Mardan from the University: a driver and a fellow scientist to act as an interpreter. They did not take any time to rest, as we went right to the bee tree trail at 6pm to meet Pak Teh and the honey hunters. This was to be a demonstration honey hunt for Diana’s benefit, but it turned out that they did get some honey from the two colonies they harvested.
The honey hunt is beautiful, in part because of the sense of time it creates. For the viewer, there is a lot of sitting in the dark, waiting. First we waited for the sun to go down. We listened to the sunset cicada chorus and the droning high above of the bees making their last group mass defecation, called “yellow Rain”. The sunset sounds happen in time sequence. Sometimes I have thought of it as a symphony. But you can’t hear the whole orchestra from one spot; the individual musicians are scattered over miles of forest. I like to think that a skilled sound engineer could take recordings from microphones placed throughout the forest and mix them together into one huge, complex chord. The sounds range from low to high, and surely exceed the gamut of the human ear, if you consider the bats. There are several rhythms going on and the general pattern constantly changes as they go in and out of phase with each other.
Different cicadas sound like an orchestra of trumpeters who do not know how to play, hundreds of car alarms going off at the same time, a room full of phones ringing, an engine that’s out of oil, or squeaking bicycle brakes. Below that are the hornbills stuttering and the new-age one-note drone of the bees, like an airplane in the distance. All looking for love. P> Then we waited for the crescent moon and it’s companion planet to set. Normally, the hunt is scheduled for a new moon, so the bees will be sure to follow the falling sparks from the torches. In the dark we listened to the sounds of the forest. Trees were black silhouettes against the blue tropical sky, only a shade lighter, and full of stars. You could not see your hand in front of your face. There were brief bursts from flashlights as the men prepared. I photographed people as they sat by candle light as reference for my painting of the night camp telling of the Hitam Manis story.
Pak Teh sat in front of me, near the base of the tree. He had a new flashlight, a gift from Diana: a big American-made Mag light. He loved it and couldn’t resist aiming it up into the tree for brief moments to see how far it would shine. The light attracted bees. I heard him laugh softly to himself and I knew he had been stung. It is his ritual for keeping good relations with the bees: he calls their stings “tickles”. Ron was stung too, I guess, because he suddenly burst out in a torrent of swearing. I started to laugh. I told him later about the ritual of using only polite language towards Hitam Manis, the maiden who was the spirit of the bees.
We walked back down the trail in the dark by flashlight around 1:30 AM. Ron said that witnessing something like that was like being in some kind of National Geographic special, a once in a lifetime experience. Indeed, the honey hunt is so complex that I learn something basic about it each time I see it. It’s an event to be seen, and some ecotourism happens around it, but it’s also something that happens without visitors to see it, and you wouldn’t want to interfere too much with it.
I imagined the two climbers that were 120 feet up in the pitch dark and the support crew below calling up to them periodically. It reminded me of NASA ground control and astronauts in orbit or a space walk. There was a continual verbal communication between above and below. The honey basket went up and down. Calls went back and forth. Requests, then confirmation.
“Send up the bucket!”
“Baik!” Ten-four, OK, right, Roger and out!
The equipment was checked as it came up and down. There was a continuous connection of support and encouragement to the climbers from below. Then the climax when they rub the torches on the colonies and the bees follow the sparks. It is beautiful to watch the hot orange embers drift slowly down like they are alive.
“Turun Hitam Manis, ituk cahaya bintang!” sings Pak Man, Shukor’s uncle, from the ground below.
“Come down, Hitam Manis, follow the falling stars!”
There is a certain kind of loneliness one often feels when traveling alone, anonymous, in a strange place. I tend to seek out that feeling, almost like a drug. It’s like walking out of your skin. Leaving your bubble. Reality becomes more variable, a matter of local consensus. There is a heightened intensity to the moment and attention to a place that fades away slowly with familiarity. At first a great emptiness opens up. It’s both scary and sweet, and potentially transforming. Anything can happen. Maybe nothing will happen. What comes to mind then? Who do you think about? I take notes.
Traveling is like a space walk sometimes. I love being out there where there is none of the same oxygen I’m used to. It’s an adventure. But there is a point I know well where I suddenly feel that the line is stretched too thin and I want some comfort and connection to home. What could I do but email my two daughters the next time I had access to a computer? Or Patricia, my friend, who was taking care of my empty house while I was gone. I couldn’t pet the cats. Is there some biological programing that connects us to the burrow or the cave like by a rubber band? Yes, we are a hunter/gatherer species. There is an instinctive desire for an anchor of some kind. It starts out as wanting a person or place or thing to be that anchor. If one allows these external anchors to just float away, there is an interesting emptiness, like outer space, that opens up. What then? Interesting.
We Should Talk Less and Draw More
Three days after the honey hunt, Thursday, I went with Diana on a walk to the bee tree. Roslan sent a couple of guys from the hotel to go with us, I guess as guides, although I didn’t need one. I felt kind of sorry for the young guy who had to hang around watching me draw. I don’t know, maybe he was fascinated, but it was his job to watch us. Diana walked on ahead to the bee tree, but I never got there. I walked only a few meters into the forest and started drawing leaves and vines.
In the beginning of the book there is a painting I will do of Pak Teh entering the forest at this spot, saying “assalamu’alaikum” and touching his heart. This is the standard formalized Malay greeting one would say upon entering someone’s house as a guest. Pak Teh says he is speaking to the “unseen owner” of the forest as a gesture of respect, acknowledgment that he is a guest there. So I drew the actual place at the trail head where he walks out of the bright sunlight, into the twilight of the forest. The trunks, leaves and vines were so complex and overwhelming that I had never really tried to draw them.
This time I stopped, opened my sketchbook and started to roughly sketch out what I saw. After standing there for 45 minutes, I found that an order seeped into my mind just from the act of attention. The scribbles were not much in themselves, but a sense of understanding began to unfold in my mind. The details and the space they occupied arranged them selves in a kind of pattern and I felt that I could go home and draw a forest that looked like the Pedu Lake Preserve.
I am reminded of the approach Mr. Goethe used to look at nature. He also used drawing as a means for seeing accurately and understanding the subject in a deeper way than we ordinarily do. I tried to use his method of “quiet regard”. It is a way of blending with what you are seeing, actually becoming part of it. The categories we habitually use in thinking dissolve and the mind becomes fluid and receptive. Free of words and ideas, we come into contact with reality. Goethe said that The most isolated event always presents itself as an image and metaphor for the universal. He once told a visitor that was watching him draw in his garden:
“We should talk less and draw more. For my part, I should like to lose the habit of speaking entirely, and continue to communicate merely with drawings, as nature teaches us. That fig tree, this little snake, the cocoon that lies there in front of the window, peacefully awaiting its future. They are all symbols with weighty content. Yes, if only someone were able to decipher their meaning. He would be in a position to do without all that is written or spoken.”
Rarely has the pleasure of field sketching been more aptly expressed. Is this what the Buddha meant by Right View, or Right Seeing? You know, it’s part of the Eightfold Path that stems from the Four Noble Truths, and is one of the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Really. I see Right View as simply forming a relationship with things around you, just as you do with other people or pet animals. To develop a healthy relationship with a human being, you go in without preconceived ideas. You show up, spend time, and pay attention. It’s the same with plants. Sometimes, I will simply make a list of botanical names of plants I see on a walk. I Learn to recognize them and try to remember all their names next time we would meet.
Diana paraphrases Goethe explaining his philosophy of plants to his young fictional friend, Anna, in our book, Mr Goethe’s Garden with these words.
“First,” he said, “I listen with my eyes. I give each plant my full attention, as I do you. Like friends, plants tell you their secrets only when they know you care.”
I was wrapped up in these thoughts, as my guardian looked on, maybe bored, maybe not, when Diana came back down the trail towards me. She had already been to the tree and back and I had just barely made it a few steps into the forest. One of us went for the tree and the other looked for the forest. Each got what they came for.
Diana and I couldn’t stop talking then, about all we had seen. We sat together at the Kopitiam for breakfast and worked out a new version of my cartoon story-board for The Bee Tree. We were both satisfied with it so that was that. She decided to leave early, and at 5:30 that evening, she and her friend Nikos left for Alor Setar and KL to have extra time to shop and meet with some of our other Malay contacts there.
Ecotourism and the WWF, World Wrestling Federation
Gretchen and Ron had left a couple of days earlier. Diana and I had talked nonstop all morning. Now I was the only foreigner at Pedu Lake. I suddenly felt, “gosh, I am alone here with no one to talk to.” I walked by the lake to see the sunset as I did every evening, and then stopped by the office to ask Nashito, the receptionist, if she could call Mr. Veloo to log onto email for me. I guess I wanted to have some connection to home, friends, my daughters, my stupid cats. It turned out that I never did any email. I already knew Nashito because I had done several portraits of her. Now, I started doing finishing touches on one of them that I was going to give her as we talked about drawing, english and Malay words for things, and her fiance, “Man”. So we conversed in between the phone calls that she had to answer, and all the while there was a TV going on the other side of the room with American programing and Bahasa subtitles. On screen, everyone was multi-tasking, one scene was clipped into the next one so fast that there was no time to ponder each image. No time to think, only react from instinct to the things things blowing up, speeding by, crashing, burning, being shot at, or being seduced.
Later Roslan came in and we went for dinner at the Kopitiam. We talked about about recent efforts to develop ecotourism in Kedah, the difficulties of organizing artist international workshops, and Malay-American relations.
Ecotourism was seen by local Kedah government as a way to promote economic development without cutting trees or otherwise spoiling the forest. Roslan explained that there was a new national park nearby called Ulu Muda. The state Tourism Office wanted to encourage tourism without making the “mistakes” they perceived had been made in Taman Negara, Malaysia’s best known national park. I had been there, so I knew what he meant: to accommodate lots of tourists, they had built a large hotel. There were so many visitors there that it was getting harder and harder to see animals or experience the pristine forest. Ulu Muda had no roads as yet, and they meant to keep it that way, limiting access to guided river tours and using Desa Utara as a base. They wanted to encourage people to go there without overdeveloping the place. The focus was to be on foreign tourists because, for the most part, local people stayed in the resort grounds and occupied themselves with water sports or the nearby team-building obstacle course. The forest was always around and was not exotic to them. Roslan explained that sometimes a local official would be sent to Costa Rica or Brazil for a workshop in developing ecotourism, but little seemed to come of it. It appeared as though the person used the conference as an excuse for a paid vacation.
There had been an expedition into Ulu Muda by a group of Malay biologists to inventory species, and this might be continued as an annual event. Roslan asked me if maybe a group of artists could be organized to go in with the scientists and document what they found. It would have to be all outdoor camping, with time spent in between at the luxurious resort. Would tourists come? What sort of people would they be? Could artists fit into this scheme? What about ecotourists? I told him Americans would come if there were good bathrooms, showers and great food. There should be some interpretive programs. No matter how beautiful the forest was, they still needed to find some heroic species to focus attention on, one that could not be seen in other places. Or something bigger than anywhere else. They are looking.
As I walked back to my cabin, I passed the outdoor restaurant where most of the staff ate and hung out with each other, drinking their Milo, Nestles chocolate milk. The central TV was playing WWF wrestling. Two huge Americans in underwear strutted and displayed themselves, hurling insults and challenges at each other. I never watch TV so I was spellbound for a few moments. Malay friends have asked me, “Is that WWF wrestling real, or is it not really real?” I, uh, didn’t think so, but I had wondered about it myself. “No. it’s not real,” I ‘d answer. “Oh, I thought so,” they would say.
Another Big Tree
Friday morning, February 27. “Man” took me on a walk to the Pulai Tree, only about 15 minutes by a trail that begins near the main entrance to the resort. Recently, forestry scientists had made measurements and officially designated the Pulai Tree the second largest trunk in Malaysia. This was seen as a new natural attraction, a “feather in the cap”, for the resort. It was a beautiful sight, mostly a huge, buttressed trunk going up to disappear in the neck-straining world of the canopy. I suggested to Roslan that they secretly send someone to cut down the largest tree, which was at Taman Negara. Then there’s would be the largest tree in Malaysia.
This was the day before I was scheduled to leave Pedu Lake. That evening, Roslan asked me if I would stay if they could get my ticket changed. He offered to sponsor my room and board in exchange for a drawing of the Pulai tree for their newspaper ad, and an illustrated map of the resort and surrounding area. I said I was sure my ticket was non-refundable.
Saturday, February 28. I was booked to leave in the afternoon, so I got a ride to the Bee Tree trail and walked alone to the tree to say a fond good-bye. I lingered as long as I could, fondled the trunk, abosrbed in each moment, savoring each step back, and looked at every tree one more time. When I walked into the Kopitiam for breakfast, Roslan was there, saying, “I have good news for you.” He had managed to pull some strings with Malaysia Airlines and get my ticket extended.
Way down upon the Pedu River…
Amir, one of the restaurant managers, invited me to spend the night at his house in the nearby Kampung, or village. So a quick plan was drawn up. I was to meet Roslan the following day in Kuala Nerang nearby where his family lived and we would go together to Alor Star. I welcomed this invitation to become more absorbed into the local fabric of life.
Yes, I was being seduced by the country life. Kampung culture was slow and down home. It’s values of tranquility, family, community, agricultural work, and religion are valued in Malay culture. Due to Government subsidies, a family could actually make a living there. Amir proudly showed me his little padi field that he worked himself.
A story by Malay writer Kassim Ahmad, about a young man returning to his kampung after the university in Singapore, starts out like this.
Back again among his rustic folk, he began to recover from it–that disease or malaise, that was too sickening to be trivial, yet too subtle and elusive for words.
I had three requests from restaurant staff to draw them a little “Kampung” scene before I left. It took some time for them to explain all the elements what wanted portrayed: A rumah–traditional timber house, with a rice padi in front, banana trees, a rubber orchard, an ox, a coconut tree, and a big bee tree towering over it all. I guess I could go into business with this formula, mass-producing paintings with a staff of apprentices. They romanticize this kampung life and see drawing as something like a magic trick. maybe I do too.
From his house, 15 minutes from the resort, Amir gave me a motorcycle tour of the typical rural lifestyle of the Kampung people. He was proud of belonging to this culture. It was probably the equivalent of places I had been to in Rural Mexico, or down home in Kentucky. I expected to hear country-western music coming out of the houses and Spanish coming out of people’s mouthes. Not! But there was singing from the mosque at prayer time. We looked at rice padis, stopped at old traditional houses and touched the sap in the taps on rubber trees. He showed me the outdoor “shower” where you drew cool water up from a well and poured it over your body. It happened to be the mayor’s yard so we were invited in for sweet, creamy tea. Everything seemed to happen in slow motion. I waited in the vestibule of the tiny mosque while Amir went in to pray.
Amir’s discourse on Islam
Back at Amir’s house, I called Diana in KL and told her I was staying on for another week. I wouldn’t be meeting her for our flight home together. I said I was gathering more data, and it would be true, but I wanted most to simply sink into the place until I matched it’s frequency, whatever that turned out to be.
I showered with the traditional plastic bucket. It is so tropical there that one does not miss hot water. We put on men’s plaid sarongs to relax before dinner and sat down to talk. Amir talked to me about Malay traditions. I listened and asked questions. He said the Koran was given to humans by God to act as a guide for life. He said it was not that things are forbidden or discouraged in the culture. On the contrary one can do what one desires to do, as long as it is within certain limits and follows the rules. I could see that religion certainly permeated all parts of life in Malaysia. But what about the personal freedoms we worship in America? To my questions about “dating” he said that young men and women were not allowed to go out alone together. Instead, they met in groups of friends and got to know each other in that context. I wondered what really happened when no one was watching, but I didn’t ask. Marriage was seen as more of a family and community institution than a personal and romantic association. Love was seen as something that grows between people as they got to know each other.
Amir further explained that everything in the world was part of a complex, interconnected pattern of cause and effect. Society was that way and so was nature. The universe is designed this way by God and we are discovering it bit by bit. All the connections are at the heart of reality. They also connect us with all things heart to heart. Nature is the first revelation of God, and as such is sacred.
For instance, he explained, the honey hunters and the bees are each part of the same ecosystem. Pak Teh has developed an immunity to bee stings, his own anti-venom, because he has eaten so much honey. They have a heart to heart relationship that is in keeping with the way things are, therefore honey hunting has become a stable tradition. The honey hunters are in tune with the universe.
Amir also used “Tongkat Ali” as another example of interconnectedness. The root of the plant, it is said, is a male aphrodisiac and also a female contraceptive. The bark will clear out your kidneys if you have become overzealous and taken an overdose. Nearby in the forest you will find also the “Kacip Fatima”, the female’s aphrodisiac. That is good thinking, whomever designed that dynamic duo of the plant kingdom! Each dose is traditionally mixed with honey.
There was a room in Amir’s house that impressed me more than any other. It was huge, the largest room in the house, and had nothing in it except mats arranged on the floor. It had many pillars arranged throughout, reminding me of the outer rooms in the mosque. It turned out that the room was designed to hold the entire population of the village.
He said they had recently held a “kenduri” there at the house. It is a social event that is more than a party. Almost all the village was invited, I think at least 150 people were there. The local Imam said prayers and everyone sat on the mats in the big room and ate. Amir’s family paid for it all on the occasion of the pregnancy of his sister in law, who lived in the same house. The purpose is to express appreciation and to share with the local community. I resolved to have a kenduri in my house when I got home and share Pak Teh’s honey I brought back. I even bought some mats for this purpose at the local market to bring back home.
I asked Amir if we could stage a mock “kenduri” of sorts for the purpose of taking some photo references for the honey feast I would draw for our book. After dinner, his kitchen was full of extended family, men, women, and children of all ages. They wanted to converse with me, but it was difficult because only amir spoke english. So we had a good time doing a photo shoot. I directed them through Amir and they were great, I got a great sequence of spontaneous photo portraits by available light. I also learned the word for “hold still”.
Yes, I thought, Islam is based on dogma, and like other established religions, it defines a spiritual path in terms of a rigidly defined and socially enforced, structure. Still, it is beautiful and based on a truth. I wanted to achieve that sense of interconnectedness in my drawing, like Islamic geometric patterns, filling space to infinity, impossibly complicated to the eye, yet binding all into one mathematical unity. It can describe both geometrical and biological forms. To a Westerner, Islamic art often looks purely decorative because there is little or no representational form. It’s a sacred art, not intent on showing what things look like, that is idolatry. But rather, the designs describe a cosmology in which each object in the the universe related to every other, each a facet in a jewel of infinite size and complexity. The conception feels as broad as quantum theory in scope, and in my humble opinion, jives with Schrödinger’s Equation as well as Maxwell’s electromagnetic field theory. Really.
The Ultimate Hitam Manis: Found
On Sunday morning, after yet another breakfast of nasi lemak, Amir took me to meet Roslan who was visiting his cute newborn baby in Kuala Nerang, a neighboring village. Roslan and I were to spend the day together in Alor Star, capital of Kedah, an hour or so toward the west coast. I had mentioned that I would like to find a stationery or art supply store, but I imagined that I was tagging along while Roslan did some errands in the big city. But I never saw him do any business.
First we went to a travel agent to confirm that I had really rescheduled my flight and could really go back to the USA at the end of the week. Yes, I could, but it cost me $100. Roslan said he would take this off my hotel bill.
Roslan was in the driver’s seat on his cell phone. He turned to me and smiled big, “I have another Hitam Manis for you!” Soon he stopped and a beautiful, young Malaysian woman got into the car. “Do you like her?” he asked me. “Her name is Inah.” “Yes, I answered.” Inah actually worked in the Sultan’s palace.
The three of us went to one of the kinds of places I crave to visit when I’m in Malaysia–a big stationery store. And I found the pen I came all that way for: the Pilot G-TEC-C4 ink pen. I once accidentally stole one from a Dr. Mardan’s desk and used it back home till it ran out of ink. When I searched the web for another one, I found it was only licensed for sale in Singapore. How I suffered from my craving for another pen like that! Now I buy several and a fistful of refills whenever I go there. It is the best pen I’ve ever used for both drawing and writing. I would gladly do television appearances fro Pilot plugging these pens. They can pay me in merchandise.
But that was not our final destination. We stopped at a beauty parlor. Inah came out wearing an elaborate Malay traditional wedding dress. She even had her face worked on by the beautician, her cousin. Roslan had some kind of diabolical plan, I could feel it. We drove to a park where there were some replicas of traditional Malay timber houses for an authentic sense of place, and I did a photo shoot of Inah, my debut as a fashion photographer. When I got to the pose where Hitam Manis is turning into the swarm of bees, she did great in almost every way, except I could not get her to look scared. She only knew how to look beautiful. Or to burst out laughing if she looked at Roslan, who was trying to look serious so she could look like she was being pieced by a spear.
A couple of days later, Inah came up to the resort on Roslan’s invitation to hang out together. At breakfast after a night of karaoke singing, she met “Man”, the snake charmer, who was showing me pictures of common local snakes in his field guide. I had my nikon coolpix next to me. On inspiration, I showed one of the snake pictures to Inah and I got the perfect expression a beautiful woman would have if she were transforming into a swarm of bees!
It’s a long winding road back up to Pedu Lake. I don’t know if it was the wild driving, or the betel nut Amir had me chew the night before. But I had been feeling a slowly brooding migraine and its accompanying nausea since the previous night. I tried to be as tough as I could, but with only a kilometer to go, I had to ask Roslan to pull over so I could get sick by the road side in the dark. Only a true friend will share your most humiliating moments.
The Pulai Tree
Wednesday March 3. I walked back to the Pulai Tree in the afternoon and sat there finishing a pen and ink drawing of the huge trunk for Roslan with my G-TEC-C4 pen. I had been sitting for two hours in more or less the same place. I was covered with mosquito bites, sitting among spiny rattan stems on my towel on the ground. Nevertheless, as I settled down quietly with the tree I noticed that forest life was going on around me as if I wasn’t there. Birds conversed. Big red squirrels with pointed faces chased each other to within a few feet before noticing me and scurrying away. Monkeys that I never saw moved past in the canopy above me. I heard thunder and it became louder. I had learned from experience not to go out without a plastic bag for my sketchbook. But I had not brought my zip lock bag this time. There was just enough time to walk back and stop under the first ramada near the entrance while sheets of water poured down around me.
The Legal Limit
The night before leaving I was the only guest in the hotel. Roslan was on a trip to Lankawi. A lot of the staff were on holiday. It was quiet. I was looking for a table to sit at in the Kopitiam and was invited to sit down and eat with a woman I recognized as one of the managers. She knew me, but I couldn’t remember her name. She was with her 18 year old daughter. Both wore their turdungs, the traditional head scarf. We exchanged a few “ice breaker” questions, and she, in typical Malay fashion, she asked me if I had family and if I was married. Everyone in Malaysia is married, it seems. They were always asking me that question. I always answered in vague terms. But not in this case. We quickly established a sense of understanding and common experience, but for reasons I would not have imagined.
I explained that I missed my daughter almost all the time because I didn’t live full time with her. They lit up and wanted to talk. The woman explained that she had had five children with her husband. She was his first wife, but later, he had married three other women after her. He is now 42 and his most most recent wife is 19.
Polygamy is legal in Malaysia, I learned, but there is a limit of four wives to a man. Her husband had done it without even asking his first wife’s permission, which is normally required. I think I understood that if you went to Thailand to get married, you could get away with a lot more. Each wife lives in a different place. She had never met them, but had talked to them on the phone. She wanted to be free, but to become divorced, he would have to release her. He had refused to let her go. This is the ongoing pain of her life. “So when he visits every few months, she is my husband. Yes, I want my freedom. But I just have to live with that,” she summarized. And her daughter suffered though living in a boarding school, as all their five children do, starting with the youngest, ten years old. The daughter explained that she would prefer to live together with her siblings and two parents. There are basic desires that everyone, all over the world, have in common, it seems. And there are life-long problems that can not be solved in any simple way. It’s just that in different cultures, the situations may change, but not the basic desires, like personal freedom, living with one’s family, and sex with a 19 year old.
They asked why I was not married. I explained to my dinner companions that maybe the reason I had not found a wife was that I loved my freedom and independence. I liked to travel, I spent hours in solitude painting, and I had so many interests. That sounded like as good a reason as any I could think up on the spot. Yet I also expressed my wish to have someone back at my house besides my three cats to come home to. The wife of the polygamist looked me in the eyes and spoke one sentence from her heart.
“Mr Paul,” she said, “You can just find a woman who understands you, who knows your need for both freedom and home.”
I wrote that down in my journal.
Friday, March 5. I stayed again in the Concorde Inn my last day in Malaysia. I met a Malay man, Faisal, in the lobby and I asked him where I could find a map of KL. I had heard about their world-famous speedy monorail train from KLIA to downtown, a distance of 30 miles or so. The former Prime Minister of Malaysia, Dr. Mahathir, had wished the airport to be out of town so that the first view visitors would have of Malaysia would be the beautiful green mixed kampung and forest countryside. He said that he drove people into town and gave personal tours. In fact a few days before he took a man and a woman from New York to the craft center and the market, the State Botanical Garden, and to Taman Negara, the national park. I didn’t understand how they could have gone all those places in such a short time. This couple was studying bees and writing some kind of book. I told him that I would like to write to these people if he had their address because I was also working on a book involving bees. Then I realized that these people were Diana and Nikos! I agreed to meet Faisal the following morning at 8:30 and he would drive me into the city. I wanted to see Malay art and handicraft. We would only have four hours because my plane was leaving saturday afternoon at 3PM.
The Last Supper
The night before leaving, I had dinner with a good friend, the mentor and heartbeat of our book, Pak Dan. A professor at the Universiti Putra Malaysia, he is another of the principle collaborators on “The Bee Tree” book and we had a lot to catch up on. Diana had missed him and Steve was unable to go on this trip, so it was important for us to meet. First he showed me two portfolios of drawings, done by his teenage son, Tarfik, who came with him, and also drawings by his younger daughter. I had given Pak Dan’s kids gifts of drawing books on previous visits and these portfolios were the wonderful results. They were really good. I had almost forgotten about the gift books, but it felt good to see that our long-distance relationship had produced such fruit.
The topic turned then to America and the mood became serious. For the next hour or so we could not get out of the train of thought: American foreign policy and the Iraq war. He told me that America was a great country. So how we could have become such a murderous nation in pursuing war such as the invasion of Iraq. He felt sad for both the American soldiers killed as well as the Iraqis. I listened and said little.
I respect Pak Dan as a friend and as a person of great integrity. He used to say, “How can I do anything dishonest when I talk to God five times a day?” After the September 11, 2001 bombings, I had emailed him, asking about the supposed role of Islam in the attacks on America. He wrote me back, saying he was thunderstruck that someone would do such an act of violence, and gave us his deepest sympathy. People in Malaysia, he said, had been equally shocked at these events. When I asked how people could justify that in the name of Islam, he explained that the word Islam means “peace”. So how could Islam be invoked as a support for terrorist actions? Even after the bombing in Bali, he maintained that this was the work of outside extremists. Malaysia was a peaceful country with only peaceful intentions, even though they had their differences with the United States.
However, in the last few years he has cancelled several trips to visit us in America siting stories in Malay papers about Malaysian Muslim men being humiliated by American airport security and held for days without reason. Indeed, he himself had problems when he did come here. He said they assumed he was guilty before verifying the data from their sensor. They pulled him out of line when their equipment detect some kind of dangerous molecules on his cell phone. HIt was a mistake, but he still suffered from the suspicion directed towards him because of his brown skin. I felt very sorry about this and tried to explain that everyone is subject to that now, even gringos like me. It is unfortunate, but damage has been done. He felt disrespected.
Now, since the Iraq invasion, relations have gone downhill between our two countries. I am more saddened by the feeling that a certain amount of trust had been lost between my friend and we Americans, due purely to our citizenship. Even though I did not vote republican, I was still part of this grand block of humanity, America, that exerted such an effect on the world for good or bad. Currently it’s not all that good.
“You didn’t even inform me of your travel plans, he said.” I protested that it was not “unilateral action” on my part. I was just as frustrated because I had sent several emails and had gotten no response. He must have some some reason not received them. You do the best you can and try to understand the other person.
At 7:30 PM, loudspeakers from the nearby mosque drowned out all talk. They left to pray. So I was left alone to ponder our previous conversation. I thought of other people I had talked to, the newspaper articles and uninhibited editorials I had read. The war in Iraq has made a big impression. People are stunned by the idea of a big powerful country like America attacking a small third-world country with overwelming force, without provocation or evidence of potential threat. And all this unilaterally, without first gaining a censensus among it’s own allies. What if all countries in the world behaved in this way? What kind of example it this?
This frustration seemed especially compelling from an Islamic country, who, in their eyes, could just as well be the next target. The rest of the world pays close attention to news from America, and often they know more about us that we know about them. One man in the karaoke bar said he saw an interview with Hillary Clinton and he thought she was really smart. I had never heard her views, which he quoted. People abroad are closely watching the coming elections in the US. The numbers will be taken as a telling sign of our collective agreement or disagreement with current policy.
This feeling of frustration with American foreign policy does not necessarily express itself in animosity or hatred. That is possible with a few extremists. But most civilized, well-meaning people in other countries may just keep silent when dealing with an American, wait and see if they are to be trusted before committing to any collaborative work. Or they just may not even seek contact. This is an invisible barrier, but one that will be increasingly difficult to overcome if things go as they are, making international relationships slightly harder to establish.
Yankee Goes Home
From outside your borders, if you pay attention, you see yourself and your fellow citizens differently. Pak Dan’s questions still nag at me. I wondered if there was a relationship between American foreign policy and the everyday decisions and common actions we take as part of our world view. What do we eat and what do we drive? What are the priorities on our “to do” lists? Even if only a slim majority of people vote a particular way, are all still responsible in a sense for the results? Is government policy the extreme extension of a collective viewpoint that everybody shares, even if only by a little bit?
Just before this trip, I had finished a project for the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. One of the information graphics I designed showed that there would be no starvation in the world if there was equitable food distribution, sustainable farming practices, and a diet lower in animal products. This was contrasted with the American style diet that led to insufficient food for some parts of the world and an obesity epidemic in others. I used hamburgers to symbolize this diet on the chart. I did not eat at the Burger King in the KL airport.
Is there something about America that comes on fast, loud, and strong, like a Humvee turned Sport Utility Vehicle? We stand out when we are in a strange place. That is not a fault in itself. But do we talk and then listen? Or do we have a preconceived notion about the way things should go and the intention to impose it? No, a traveler in a foreign land must me cautious and reserved, not gruff or overbearing. That way one finds the proper places to go and meets with the right people. So advises the I Ching.
I bought a book of Malay short stories written in English for the flight home. In one dialogue, a local village man was trying to help a newcomer to the forest to hunt a tiger.
“So you brought a purpose with you?” Zukifli says.
“And a way of thinking.
How can you get into the tiger’s stripes and spirit?”
(Written over the South China Sea.)
Where honey Comes From
The place where we made love
no longer wants to live
as a human being.
The bees fly over oceans and forests
beyond dictionaries and clarity.
No one knows where they came from
or where they are going.
They return to the tallest tree:
On the flight from Kuala Lumpur, my brain was filled with colors and complex decorative patterns dies in in batik and carved into wood. I could close my eyes and see them. The shapes fit together and repeated into infinity. Each design evoked a whole galaxy in the imagination. I was traveling between two dreams. As I flew to Taiwan, and walked to the transit area to take the next flight to LAX, there were gradually fewer Malaysians around me. I heard more English spoken. I began to understand what people were saying. I also started to miss being surrounded by the chattering sound of the Bahasa language and the quiet warmth of the people. I was heading back into the gravity of America. Perhaps it would absorb me once again into it’s amnesia and I would soon forget what I had felt and thought about while outside its force field. I resolved to write it all down. And I missed my cats.
After touching down in LAX, as the huge jet slowed and began its taxi to the gate, the Muzak came on the sound system. It was an instrumental version of, yes, the melody was “MY WAY”.
I felt nervous coming in through customs and security. America is scared. I didn’t tell them that I was bringing in three bottles of wild rain forest honey. No officer stopped me, or humiliated me until I got to the domestic terminal for my flight to Tucson. There, an AT&T phone card machine robbed me of 20 dollars. It outsmarted me and it was perfectly legal. I wanted to call Patricia and tell her when my flight was coming in because I didn’t want to take a taxi home. And I didn’t.
One last report for you Frank Zappa aficionados. The loading zone announcements in LAX airport have changed slightly since 9/11. The intructions are a little more specific and carry a note of warning. The voice now says, ” The white zone is for immediate loading and unloading of passengers only. No parking. No waiting. Unattended vehicles will be cited and towed.”
Be careful. Be safe.
1 In March of 1999, National Public Radio’s “Radio Expeditions” crew visited Pedu Lake with Steve and Paul. The resulting nine minute show, “The Honey Hunters of Malaysia”, was broadcast the following month, on April 19, on “Morning Edition”. To hear this show go to their archives at: The Honey Hunters of Malaysia
2 Web link for Mr. Goethe’s Garden by Diana Cohn, illustrated by Paul Mirocha Steiner Books