I slept out one night, that was enough. A nightmare of ravenous monkeys gnawing on my arms and legs while I lay helplessly paralyzed woke me around daybreak. I stopped at the next village. The natives took pity on me, offering food and a pack to carry it in as well as a worn but serviceable sleeping bag. They needn't had been so compassionate. Except for the heavier canopy areas, the jungle was virtually impenetrable, so I hadn't strayed far from the relative safety of the trail.
When I cut into a piece of fruit, the chief noticed my knife. He invited me into his hut, rather insistently, saying he wanted to show me something; I couldn't very well refuse. He'd found a 45-automatic out in the jungle lying beside a skeleton, its clothes a tattered mess. The dead body's pack, the one I was given, had contained extra clips and ammunition. He proposed a trade: my Swiss-army knife for the whole shebang. He told me he had no use for the gun, never needed one; poisoned-tipped darts were good enough for his father and grandfather and the rest of his tribe, so they were good enough for him. But ever since he was a kid and saw a picture of a Swiss-army knife in a magazine at a humanitarian aid clinic, he dreamed of owning one. As a bonus, he threw in an old machete which he was nice enough to have someone sharpen.
They warned me of the inhabitants I might run into: the 600-pound tapir, vampire bats, anaconda, poisonous snakes, and don't forget the jaguar. Scoring the gun proved serendipitous, a sign I must be on the right track. And the leafcutter ants wouldn't be a problem unless I was unlucky enough to sleep on top of one of their warrens. I hoped to avoid that fate.
I stayed the night. Most everyone walked about or sat around the campfire. It was very casual. They ignored me in general, which made me feel like one of the family. With some of the men about my age, I shared a long bamboo pipe. When I asked what was in it, they laughed. After a few puffs, the vividness and texture of my surroundings intensified remarkably. Dogs played around the fire-light. And all the children, of which there were many. They fed me. I have no idea what it was -- sweet-smelling meat and some kind of yellowish tubor -- but it tasted wonderful, each and every bite, the flavors mingling, blending into a single meta-flavor creating a grandiose synergy, then gently separating, disintegrating into distinctive components, acutely, with meaning, only to merge again, intimately, invading my senses, all my senses. The delicious food and sensuous convivial surroundings absorbed my identity, absorbing my very essence into the matrix of all that is. Later, lying on my new sleeping bag near the fire, gazing at the stars, listening to the soft rumbling of drums, I curled up and fell asleep.
The following morning I left with good wishes from the early risers. I re-found the trail and headed west, taking my time. Somewhere along, an overwhelming impulse compelled me and I plunged into the forest, hacking my way through. The canopy afforded a comfortable shade and I settled into a sensible pace, careful of my footing, side-stepping downed branches and circling imposing clumps of ferns and thorn bushes, crossing streams on stepping-stones, splashing through brooks. I had no idea how far I'd traveled when, without notice, I suddenly entered a small clearing covered with decaying leaves and twigs; mushrooms of countless shapes and colors grew from dead mossy logs and on the bark of living trees. The dank moist smell was almost overpowering, and a cool updraft chilled my bones, but not unpleasantly. Despite its outward appearance, it felt like a sacred place where souls gathered to rise to heaven. An ideal spot to rest, I lay down on a pile of leaves to stare up in utter amazement at the height of the enclosing trees, well over 200 feet tall. In the morning sun I could see vapor from the leaves forming clouds over the canopy. Clouds that would rain down on those very same leaves to begin the cycle anew. The canopy cover darkened the enclosure, but not so much as to deny me this grand spectacle of life and death in the Amazon.
Abruptly fearful that my soul might join the others, I rose to continue my journey, keeping an eye open for the inhabitants. Occasionaly I'd hear brush rustling off to a side and pull out my 45. But mostly my mind was set on the plant life and the incredible number of different trees. I remembered reading that in 2.5 acres, you can find over 700 different species of trees and twice that number of plants. Plants, some of which looked like pineapples, displayed all shades of blue, red, orange and purple. Colors danced everywhere, blending texture with the rich glossy green backdrop. A flower with a leaf resembling a lobster claw, of every color combination allowable on each separate leaf, stood out from the crowd. And the smells -- orchids, mimosa, rich dark earth mixed with the musk of tropical greenery, and animals. Yes, I couldn't forget the residents, the kind that have a taste for meat. Monster trees supporting whole ecologies on each differentiated level, like parallel universes; birds of every conceivable color-pattern, plumages and neck ruffs ready for display, interested, assertive, busy with life; and insects, large, serious, voracious.
According to the map and my trusty compass, I was nearing the Jurua River. It feeds directly from the Amazon, south, and crosses the Peruvian border. Once there, I'd have the Andes to deal with: at 4500 miles, the longest mountain range in the world and one of the highest. Although only 20% of the original intricate Inca road system has survived the onslaught of invading Spaniards and the buffeting of nature, it is still impressively expansive. But even so, even with touristy improvements, I had no desire to travel the Inca Trail to Machhu Picchu; I was intent on getting to the coast.
At some unknown point, I plunged out of the jungle onto a one-lane dirt road, and followed it. On the verge of nap time, I heard the unmistakable rumbling of a gas engine behind me. It was an old pick-up, vintage unknown. The driver was nice enough to offer a ride which I gratefully accepted. He spoke no english but I showed him my map and he pointed to our whereabouts, farther along than I'd thought. He dropped me off at the next town, whose name I don't remember, where I took up residence at an outdoor bar to study the map, looking for a route through the lowest possible elevation of the Andes, one coinciding with the minimum difficulty. It was the dry season, fortunately, but soon it would change. I needed to travel through the mountains before that happened. Short of available tables, a young couple approached and asked if they could join me. They carried a pitcher of beer, so I told them they were welcome. Turned out they were from Minnesota and were trying to get to Lima to rendezvous with family. We decided to throw in together. The next morning, we headed out.
To state that the mountain scenery was breathtaking and spectacular doesn't really cut it. How are they so? Other mountain ranges I've seen and explored -- Rockies, Chugach, Olympics -- are all wondrous and awesome, it's the nature of mountains. But the Andes struck a chord I hadn't known before, they radiated a wildness and an aliveness, a sense of movement. Aloof and disdainful, stoic and stalwart, they granted nothing, demanded everything. The only way to know them emotionally is to open up and go out to them. And to do that is like going back in time 20,000 years.
Three snow-peaked ranges spread out like massive white-capped waves of granite and limestone rolling in from the sea. And beyond that, we had the bleak rocky Peruvian desert to look forward to, mountainous dunes and wide lonely expanses of barren sand. We decided to take the warmer northern route; besides lower, it's also closer to the equator. I've never been into mountain climbing for its own sake, to prove something. Never saw the point. The basin of lush green grasslands on the eastern slope provided relatively easy going, but it didn't last long. Eventually we got into the dense tropical forest of the Amazonian Plain. Hundreds of rivers and streams weave through the jungle along which native villages prosper. As well, fish-rich lakes dot the landscape. Transport is by boat or canoe, streams and rivers of varying speeds and other dimensions branch into networks of pathways through the forest. The mountain passes would be another experience altogether.
We stopped at the next town for breakfast; they were buying; I didn't protest. Questioning our next step, we checked the map again. Tired of walking, at least for now, we bartered with a local who was taking fruit to Pucallpa on the Ucayali River in the highlands, and took our chances. He had a short flatbed; they sat up front while I squeezed myself and gear between baskets of potatoes, squashes and avocados.
The western desert region, the Sechura and Atacama to the south, are the driest on Earth and sterile of even microbial life. It's where NASA tests equipment designed to detect such life on other planets, like Mars. In most areas of the Atacama it hasn't rained for 400 years, and the annual rainfall in the Sechura is 1 milimeter. It seemed clear that the 60 mile stretch across the Sechura to the coast was the better choice. When we arrived in Pucallpa we spent the day together, partying the night away, swapping stories and revealing details of our lives. It was obvious; we were about to go our separate ways. We agreed it was not only time but also the perfect place geographically; we were at a fork in the road. They were anxious to get to Lima to visit loved ones, and I decided to travel west to a small fishing town north of Chimbote on the coast.
It's always poignant when you meet people on the road; spend quality time together sharing experiences, especially dangerous ones; become friends in the process; and then say good-bye, knowing full well you'll never see one another again. Strange and weird. But a drifter gets used to it, has to.
But before the Sechura, I had to get over the mountains. I hiked along the road out of town until I came to a village on the edge of a narrow river. Boat traffic was plentiful. I caught a ride upriver in a rubber avon with a thirty-horse outboard -- the local mail boat -- to another town at the foothills, a dirt road ran near it. From there I hitched a ride in a pick-up heading over the mountains. I found the Chugach Mountains of Prince William Sound, Alaska, awe-inspiring, but the Andes are on another scale as far as sheer breadth and ruggedness. The Chugach fiords in the Sound are flanked by glaciers right down to the water, similarly, glaciers face the steep slopes of the Andes even at relatively low elevations; however, keep in mind, this zone is tropical.
We forked left off the main highway -- if you can call it that -- and headed up a secondary road into the highlands, stopped briefly for gas and beer in Uchiza, and away we went. The road was almost impassable at places. We crossed an unknown number of bridges, some not so secure-looking; in fact, they were in a seriously deteriorated condition, wooden planks for the most part, yet miraculously, they held. Earthquakes and the mammoth task of road maintenance have left travelers to deal with the unexpected and the hair-raising. It's all part of the tour. Once into hill country I had trouble breathing, which concerned me, although not enough to cause any major anxiety. The natives have adapted, of course, having more red cells and larger lungs. But I managed. A long day of incredible sights brought us into Caraz, population about 10,000, late at night. Here's where I said good-bye to my driver, who spoke very little english, with much thanks. Ahead lay the desert.
I camped out in an actual campground and spent the following morning drinking coffee in a local cafe. Good coffee, rich and aromatic. Chimbote is a large city of over 300,000, so I wasn't interested in visiting. A small town north of there was my destination. The desert is only 25 miles or so wide at this point -- from Caraz to the coast -- gurding my loins, as they say, I proceeded to cross it. The silence was mind-bending, draining. I don't just mean the lack of natural sounds; it was the silence of lifelessness. At the beginning I walked through scrub growth dotting the landscape, but after awhile it changed to pure sand. I could feel how totally lifeless and dry the terrain was. A human body is 80% water, or there abouts, and I could feel every drop of mine being siphoned off into the surroundings. The slightest breeze kicked up a whirligig. Although I carried two canteens, I realized that wasn't going to be enough to cover my losses. I wasn't actually sweating, it was more like desiccation, from within. I could feel my bones move under my skin and muscles, and a tingling sensation pervaded my nervous system -- heatstroke?.
Tired and hungry, I rested alongside the road and ate some cheese and bread. As I was doing so, a friendly young couple in an old VW bus I'd been watching forever pulled up and asked me if I'd prefer riding across the desert, good-natured sarcasm oozing out. They obviously thought what I was attempting to be pretty ridiculous and maybe even suicidal. They had wine and pot; I jumped in. The interior of the bus was well-appointed, a cushioned chair and mattress, plus a dresser tied to a rail. As it turned out, I was glad I let them talk me into coming along. The road went on and on, longer than the 25 miles I'd calculated. Mars and then some. They were happy people, full of the moment, enjoying themselves and their life; it lifted my spirits just to be with them. Of course, the wine and pot helped. They had sandwiches which they readily shared, and I offered my cheese to go with the wine. Chimbote was their destination, so at a fork in the road -- so many forks in the road -- we parted company. Before too long I caught a ride into a little town on the coast above Chimbote, a fishing town whose name I've mysteriously forgotten and can't find on a map. Did it exist, or was I just hallucinating from the desert? I don't know at this writing.
A month after I dove out of that plane, I'd made it to the Pacific. A week later, I boarded a 36-foot single-masted dhow and headed across the ocean. How did that come about, you ask? Well, you see, I met this woman one night at a local cantina. She sat next to me at the bar while I was in the midst of drinking and thinking, a bad habit of mine, doing both at the same time. I glanced at her and temporarily ceased breathing, maybe my heart stopped too, I don't remember exactly. She looked my way and smiled. Exquisite. A chord was struck, a mutual kindred spirit kind of chord. Not a chord like the strum of a guitar, mind you, it was more like every bone and sinew in my body rang at an identical tone, a single tectonic resonance snapping all of me to instant attention.
She was an angel in a turquoise tank-top and cut-off jeans, barefoot. Something about the bareness of her feet, flawlessly and delicately shaped right down to her little toe, that really nailed me. I wanted to be her friend, her true-blue buddy. Although, I have to admit, that's not the first thing that popped into my head.
Her name was Rebecca. She was seeking adventure and was looking for a first mate. I applied for the job; she was impossible to resist. We talked about cruising the southern Pacific, visiting the many romantic islands both of us had only heard of. And beyond that -- Australia. She was in her early twenties and was working as a pearl diver when I met her: long silky black hair, large greenish eyes with a hint of grey, glowing brown skin, and a smile that made me weak in the knees, all underscoring and accentuating a perfectly healthy body. She was a bright patch of blue poking through a dreary overcast sky; she was a sculpted work of art set in relief against a flat monotonous background; she was a stunning landmark in an otherwise desolate wasteland. Her soft quiet voice completely disarmed me. Guileless, open, vulnerable, easygoing, down to earth. I could go on, but, you get the picture.
It took us a while to cross.
I'd never been to Australia and always wanted to spend time on a walkabout in the bush, and here was my chance. We packed a considerable amount of smoked fish, fruit and water. Rice and coffee, she preferred tea, we boiled on a tiny Coleman stove. When it rained, we caught water with a tarp, draining it into plastic jugs through a strategically placed hole; it was an automated system of which we were quite proud. Otherwise, the crossing was rather uneventful. We endured three storms that I remember, none of which were near hurricane-force winds, although my companion and I did have to dismantle the mast and lash ourselves to a cross-bracing on more than one occasion, holding on to one another for safety's sake. The indifferent nature of the ocean, its endless undulating expanse, its myriad moods to match every shade of blue-green, served to concentrate our attention on the immediacy of the moment. And if immersion in the environment of sky and sea isn't enough, all one needs is to be slapped in the face with cold salt water to correct a wandering mind.
We saw no other boats until we neared the Tuamotu Archipelago of French Polynesia. Avoiding sizable population areas, we leap-frogged from cove to cove, living on the beaches like castaways, outside the bounds of civilization, completely on our own, unaware of what may have transpired in the world at large. Crossing the Tropic of Capricorn -- Fiji and Tonga to the north -- passed the Austral Island Group, we arched around New Zealand and entered the Tasman Sea.
We avoided customs by pulling into a secluded cove on Flinders Island northeast of Tasmania in Bass Strait initially -- establishing a beachhead -- moving onto a smaller island west of there after a few days. From our perspective, we could see the main island. We spent a couple of leisurely weeks swimmimg and spear-diving for fish, cooking on the beach, and staying up late to sit by the fire and gaze at the southern constellations.
One day, my companion got the urge to travel, to circumnavigate the big island, Tasmania proper, while autumn still held sway. But it didn't appeal to me; I needed a break from the sea. I decided to head inland. We sailed to the mainland where she dropped me off in some bay west of Melbourne. It was painful, our last sail together; the morning was bright and crisp, contending with my mood. We parted, not easy, promising to rendezvous some day, knowing with tears that we never would, that we'd be forever lost in the wide world. I'll never forget the smell of her hair, the salt, the sea, and the soft southern air.
I made my way to Barossa Valley, wine country, north of Adelaide, just as harvest time was in full swing. I needed money and signed on to a vineyard growing Shiraz grapes, my favorite. Although most pickers had work visas, the owner didn't insist; we wouldn't be working that long. It was strictly cash at the end of each day. After sunset, the lot of us would sit around drinking the owner's special stash for awhile, conversing and getting to know one another, telling stories. We picked from dawn to dusk, and at the end of each day I was always way too tired to burn the midnight oil as some of the younger folks did. When it was over, I'd made enough for provisions and got on the road, heading north.
I hitched a ride in the back of a pick-up carrying produce for a settlement on the outskirts of the Flinders Ranges, a chain of mountains about 120 miles northwest of Adelaide. National parks abound, the Flinders Ranges National Park being the centerpiece. I saw cypress and black oak trees, deep gorges of streams and creeks bordered by gum trees; parrots, geckos, and, of course, kangaroos. On the way southwest I passed Wilpena Pound. From the air it resembles a huge crater, but at ground level it really doesn't live up to its hype; it could be somewhere in South Dakota. Perhaps the Grand Canyon ruined me for such things.
At a roadhouse just beyond the settlement I got into talking to a local who was driving a semi across Nullarbor Plain on route 1, the Eyre Highway. In general, the Nullarbor is a mixture of scrub and saltbrush [nullarbor gets its name from latin meaning 'no trees'], but its westward flank -- far away from where I was at this time -- transforms into rough grasslands with sheep grazing, lots of sheep.
It was a long drive, long and dusty. We drank beer and he talked, about hunting mostly. For about 100 miles we drove along the coast within sight of the Southern Ocean, in particular, the Great Australian Bight. Here lies the southern edge of the Nullarbar, an unbroken wall of ragged cliffs which the seas have undercut, bringing down heaps of rocks at their base. We stopped at the settlement called Eucla, and it looked like that was going to be the way of it, leap-frogging from rest area to settlement to rest area. The driver talked incessantly and was driving me crazy with his stories, he was very impressed with himself. I had to get away, he was bumming me out, so I decided to go it alone, on foot. I rented a room at the Eucla motel and, after suitable preparations -- a local thrift store had just what I was looking for -- I set out early the next morning.
Near the Bight, the Nullarbor Plain is basically one large chunk of limestone; however, the escarpment outside Eucla is spotted with thick green hedges as you approach the hills. The summit afforded an excellent view of the ancient seabed to the south, glistening like iridescent chalk in the morning sun. I caught a couple of rides but, in spite of their kind help, I found myself becoming more irritated than appreciative, owing, no doubt, to my recent experience with the talkative semi driver. So I asked a woman wearing a cowboy hat, driving a pick-up, to drop me off at a beach-side motel. She acted surprised, but I was used to that.
I had a view of the Bight and instantly thought of Rebecca farther down to the southeast. What was she doing now? Did she ever think of me? I sat there drinking bourbon and looking through my second-story window until dusk engulfed the sea. The next morning I had a decision to make. I told her I wanted to explore inland. The only way to justify leaving her would be to do just that.
A few hundred yards passed the motel, a dirt road forked into the Interior. I left the Eyre Highway and civilization and headed northwest, into the Outback.
The Big-Sky country of Montana has nothing on the expansiveness and grandeur of the Outback, as the Aussies refer to the gravel-strewn, snake-infested, sagebrush-dotted, kangaroo-inhabited desert out west. Strangely alarming and exhilarating -- disorienting -- it reminded me of Siberia, only without the snow and freezing temperatures. Details were lost or blurred by its sheer immensity. If I was ever going to experience agoraphobia, this would be the place.
I'd left my sleeping bag with Rebecca, it was pretty shot, so I just crashed-out on the ground at night on a thin tarp, and during the day, if it got too hot, I'd clear the scorpions out from under a rocky overhang and nap there. Lizards were as commonplace as pigeons in a city. I pulled a wagon, similar to one I had when I was a kid, containing a cooler filled with beer, jugs of water, and a few sandwiches -- ham and cheese, mostly. At an aborigine village -- nice people -- I traded a flashlight for a map -- a sketch, actually -- of local watering holes. The first was partially full and the berries on the few trees of the tiny oasis were tart but, nonetheless, tasty. On the other oases I ran into, the berries had dried up, probably due to a combination of birds and the relentless drought they'd been having.
Somewhere out there -- I'd lost my exact location but held a westerly direction -- I came across an old abandoned one-room shack. No other buildings were in the area as far as I could see. I had enough food and water for three days, so I decided to squat to get the feel of it and to take a break from the out of the Outback. Inside was a bunk built into a wall, a table and two chairs, one broken, the other still able to hold my weight. A two-shelf cabinet nailed to the wall on the south side, next to the only window, the glass now gone for the most part, held a few rusted cans of indeterminable contents and a bag of rice, mouse eaten and probably ripe with salmonella. A blanket covered the bunk on which I laid my tarp. Exhausted and relieved to have shelter, I lay down for a nap and quickly fell asleep. I dreamed I was trapped in a jungle so thick with flora I could barely make my way through, pushing and shoving, searching for any way to get out. I could hear gunshots coming closer and closer. Suddenly, a helicopter roared overhead and a voice called out to surrender.
Startled by some creature sound, sweating despite the coolness of the evening, I awoke and went outside. The night sky blazed with countless stars, the air, soothing. I brought the good chair out front and sat, trying to duplicate the former occupant's experience, the all-pervasive silence almost suffocating. The solitude was painful, unlike when I camped out alone, as though my soul was being scraped clean. Imagining this place to be my home may have triggered it, I don't know. Why would someone want to be so far away from the rest of humanity? Had he been a writer or artist seeking aloneness for its own sake, for his art? Had there been a couple living here, a more romantic notion? Then, possibly, one died or left and the other moved on or back to whence he or she came?
The next morning I searched for clues. What little clothing remained, although in tatters, was definitely a man's. There were no tools; obviously whoever built this place had to have tools. And where did the wood come from? Must've been trucked in. I searched for tracks in the arid plain, but time and the wind had obliterated all signs of traffic. I stayed inside most of the day, trying to feel from the walls themselves what had transpired here. Stillness of heart and an empty sadness coupled with a profound loneliness, a sense of desolation, radiated from the walls, without any help from the deserty surroundings. But there was also something else, a fainter resonance, emotions delicate and tender yet nonetheless uncompromising. An underlayment. Life affirming. In a word -- love. Curiously, at the moment I became aware of this, I thought of Rebecca, so far away now, my lady of the dhow. A joy and deep caring saturated the wood itself as though a prime coat drenched in, then, unfortunately, covered over; or, more to the point, a robust and beautifully textured wild flower that'd died from lack of nourishment, unsustained, perhaps uprooted.
That night I sat outside, engrossed in the all-encompassing star field -- the Milky Way cutting a pearly swath north to south -- watching the Earth slowly turn. I remember many nights at sea, we'd lay together, Rebecca and I, holding one another, listening to the boat coursing through the water, gazing at the hub of our galaxy against the black emptiness of space, feeling a sense of belonging, and imagining another couple on another planet, how they would see the same thing. Sitting on that lonely, dilapidated chair in the middle of nowhere -- a sea and a desert -- I could actually feel the Earth move, sense its physical aloneness hanging in space, a protective bubble of life floating in a vast sea of antagonistic forces. And I, a passenger on this gigantic spherical ship. Once before, under a lunar eclipse, I had that same experience of movement underfoot, as the Earth's shadow slowly crossed the face of the moon.
But here in the center of the Outback, it must've been the lack of any distractions that created the same impression. Immersed in my surroundings, open to the smell of dry gravelly earth, the smooth touch of soft warm air, the surreal silence, I was aware of the creatures, unused to man, that dwelt here and called it home. Strange, had the original tenant chosen to live here for these very reasons? To feel such overwhelming insignificance by the immensity of the land, and at the same time, such grounded belonging, such oneness with it? I don't know.
But it seems that something happened. Something. A serious crisis precipitating a fundamental shift in view. From belonging to longing, to loneliness, to feeling separate from it all. From looking at the star-band and reveling in that sense of universal home, to feeling lost, disconnected, abandoned, incomplete.
The next morning, I moved out, back on the road. At the top of a slope I stopped and turned. The thick heavy silence enveloped me like a presence all its own, the brisk air snappy from dew rising. Taking in the rustic house, its grey weathered planks, slanted roof and simple door holding their own in this harsh surrounding, earnestly trying to please, to express an inner dignity and resolve, a stubborness, a purpose; refusing to surrender the vitality and happiness that gave it being, I whispered good-bye and thank you, perhaps like its builder had once done. It was difficult to walk away, a rush of emotion filled my chest. Maybe someone else would visit soon, I thought. Maybe someone else would be drawn this way as I was.
Grasslands turned into wooded areas inhabited by koalas, a strange small porcupine and, of course, kangaroos. I spotted camels on the horizon, probably farther away than I could estimate, my sense of distance undermined, to be sure, and not to be trusted, and a few wild buffalo here and there. I followed one for a ways thinking he might lead me to a watering hole; I was getting low. But no luck; he was searching as well, I guess. A couple of times when I crossed a dirt road I got rides; it wasn't hard. Although what I was doing seemed reasonable to me, it must've appeared a little crazy, so people took pity on me. And I appreciated it. Dishevelment and dirty clothes went with the territory; I wasn't modelling adventure-wear.
I saw vultures and puffin-like birds -- mottled in jet-black and orange -- and others that were colored like parrots -- very ostentatious, not trying in the least to hide -- lizards, geckos, and, of course, kangaroos. Tiny yellow and red flowers sprung up in the oddest places, bravely contending with the dry air and relentless sun. I abandoned the wagon I'd found and the empty styrofoam cooler, and got a ride as far as the junction above Leonora, next to Lake Raeside, in an old Suburban, a steel-grated kangaroo catcher welded to the front. No wombats to be seen, or even kangaroo; it was empty and desolate, sad in a way, longing for life. From there I got another ride heading west through the land of lakes. Proceeding by fits and starts, camping out in the vast quiet -- so quiet I could hear footfalls of the smallest creatures far away -- I eventually reached the Indian Ocean in mid-May.
The wildflowers along the coast were spectactular, every color in the rainbow. Halfway between the small communities of Sandy Gully and Drummond Cove, just above the city of Geraldton, I found a cave gouged into the limestone cliff about fifty feet above the white-sand beach, and moved in. Nice view.
I made a surfboard out of the bark of a coconut tree and spent my days on the beach. Very few locals ever showed, something about sharks I was to find out later. After a couple of weeks of idleness, hanging out in the bars on the coast, eating fish and crab, drinking margaritas, and making the acquaintance of several women, I got on a boat heading for Myanmar, formerly Burma. It was a large fishing boat, about 90-feet long, and its cargo had been purposely mislabeled. One day while I was napping on the dock, a crate accidentally fell from the hoist and smashed apart on the deck. AK-47s spilled out, but were quickly gathered and hidden by the Korean crew. I knew the boxes were too heavy to be holding umbrellas.
We left at night under a moonless sky, pulling out of the harbor through the south entrance. I was very excited, colored with apprehension; I had only dreamed of visiting the Burmese jungle, and now the opportunity had serendipitously presented itself. What luck!
They gave me my very own cabin and someone stood outside at all times in case I might need something. The weather was decent, a high-pressure system held sway, and after two weeks, or perhaps a month, I forget now -- I was stoned most of the time on some rare weed they freely handed out -- we passed a large group of islands and entered a wide bay, then plied up a river. After a few miles, we set anchor near the east shore. Half-a-dozen small open boats tied-up and the crew off-loaded the cargo of umbrellas, many cases, in fact, along with crates likely containing extra banana clips and ammo. These folks had something in the works bigger than a weekend hunting trip. With the last load I jumped onboard and was taken upstream to a tiny village, a bonfire burning near the beach. The people were friendly, especially after I fibbed that I worked for the CIA. It seemed to excite them into action; why, I wasn't sure. I told the chief, who spoke english quite well, an Oxford man, that I wished to explore the jungle. Maybe that was a coded euphemism I'd accidentally stumbled on; I don't know.
They gave me provisions and offered an AK-47, which I gratefully accepted, although with personal reservations. It would be difficult to profess touristy innocence with an AK-47 in your hands, but, considering the jungle creatures I could run into, I thought it might come in handy. For their part, I think they believed I was there on official CIA business and wanted to help. Why else accompany a weapons' shipment? Looking back, pandemonium reigned that night -- bonfire roaring, people roaming about, testosterone pumping -- so I understand how they might've assumed I was entitled to one of the AK's. The man who handed it to me sketched a rough map in the dirt, marking the local whereabouts of Myanmar army posts, ostensibly so as to avoid them. Regardless of the real reason, avoidance was my intention. Early one fine morning, I left.
The first tiger I encountered completely ignored me, even though I was only 20 or so feet away. I took it as a good omen. The chattering and bellowing of monkeys and high-pitched squacking of parrots, the croaking of tree frogs and screeching of insects, a whole cacophany of every imaginable sound all through the day and night, was almost too much to bear, but I learned to tolerate it; I had no choice. I slept fitfully, only a couple of hours at a time, jerked to waking with any noise, my 45 at the ready. My dreams were disturbing. In one I was set upon by millions of fierce ants, cutting and slicing away my skin, carrying my fingers and other body parts back to their nest, while I lay helpless, alive to the bitter end.
On the third day of hacking through thick underbrush, I came upon a clearing with several tents arranged in a circle, campfire at center. Three men and a woman stood there. They must've heard the commotion I'd been making as they stared at me expectantly when I entered their camp-space. I have to admit, what with backpack and rifle slung over my shoulder, wielding a machette, I must've looked a sight. In spite of my exhaustion, I forced a smile. They continued to stare, standing quite still. Not knowing if they spoke english, I dropped the machete and rifle on the ground in front of me, raised my hands, palms up, and asked for water. Instantly they smiled and walked towards me. They were Americans and judged me to be one. The others came out of their tents; there was ten in all, eight men. They offered sustenance from a grill, what looked like hamburgers. We sat around the campfire while I ate and drank, I was starved; they smoked weed and stared, trying to figure me out.
I couldn't ascertain who the leader was, if there was one. My first impression, that they were a bunch of American hippies hanging out in an extremely remote area of the world, adventure tourists perhaps, was offset by the Kalishnikovs standing together. After a time, a few drifted off to their tents -- to escape the heat, I figured -- and for some reason, possibly the AK I was carrying, they unabashedly told me why they were there. Apparently these hippies were actually special forces whose mission was to attack a nearby army garrison, one I'd been told about by my dirt-map guy. I chose not to lie about being in the CIA, it didn't seem wise. They asked me, nonetheless, if I wanted to go along on the raid, like they were going on a picnic and welcomed new friends. I looked like I could handle myself, they agreed. I felt pressured, so I searched hurriedly for an excuse. As they passed a joint around, it came to me. I told them I was on a spiritual quest, and that the rifle was only for emergencies, tigers and rhinos and such. As one, they nodded their heads, knowingly -- Californians, I guessed. And I smiled back, knowingly. After that they ceased talking about the impending raid, but they were getting things together, organizing, so it was going to happen soon. It was time for me to go.
I washed up, filled my canteen, and napped out for a couple of hours. I awoke refreshed for a change. Surrounded by a team of trained killers created a blanket of security I hadn't experienced for awhile. As I sipped coffee, they laid food beside me, piling it up. It seemed like a lot. Jokingly I said I didn't want to take all their food, but they were expecting another supply drop that evening, so not to worry. They clearly didn't hold up to the conventional sterotypical picture one has of a group of special operations people about to conduct a covert, and no doubt, classified attack. And for what reason? It wasn't my business, so, I didn't inquire. I thanked them, hugged the women, then headed into the bush, hacking northeast, deeper into the morass, glad to get away.
As I approached the foothills of the Arakan Mountains, the humidity was becoming intolerable; the insects, thick and voracious. The sky was the color of lapis lazuli; normally monsoon season, it hadn't rained for weeks. Although mudslides would make my journey even more treacherous, I hoped for rain to cool down. I had yet to run into a cobra or any of the other 52 poisonous snakes for which Burma is famous. That was fine; I had enough to worry about what with tigers, leopards, wild boar, black bear, elephants, rhinos, and the occasional python. Long-tail macaque, gibbons and every other kind of primate played about, noisy creatures when they weren't actually eating, but their talented acrobatics when traveling through the canopy was a thrill to see. At one point I came across plenty of forest buffalo herding in a definite direction, reason unknown. Needless to say, I gave them a wide berth as they weaved through the woods, snorting and kicking up dirt, completely ignoring my presence, if even aware of it. I watched the parade from behind a huge tree, curious as to whether they were heading for somewhere, like a watering hole, or if they were moving away from something, something threatening I should keep an eye out for. They weren't exactly running, but they weren't lollygagging either. After they passed, however, I didn't linger to find out, but moved on up the hill.
Along with bamboo, teak trees dominated the landscape, interspersed with ironwood, coconut, and many others I didn't know. Almost 25,000 different species of flowering trees live in Burma's jungle, largely contributing to the sweet smell in the air. As with other tropical forests, more varied species of trees can be found in a single acre than anyplace else in the world. Fruit trees were scattered in groves from which I filled my pack. A rich diversity of orchids rooted to tree trunks, as well as other multi-colored flowers, proudly stood out from the universal green of the surroundings. On a break, I sat down beneath a pine, an indicator of serious elevation, to have a bite. According to the map I'd found in my fishing-boat cabin, my first major obstacle would be the Chindwin River, an arterial tributary of the Irrawaddy.
Climbing the escarpment, I left behind the lowland enclosure of thick brush and overhanging moss-covered branches. At this height the world opened up in all directions. Rolling hills of rainforest undulated into the distance. Butterflies of indescribable color combinations and anatomical designs flitted about, unmindful of my presence and indifferent to my intrusion into their sanctum. Eagles and hawks glided majestically above the valleys; diminutive birds of all stripes darted recklessly through the trees -- busy, intent, preoccupied. I felt as though time had jumped over a chasm into a future land of solitude and safety. The heavy plush silence cleansed my soul and enfolded me into itself, a babe in the woods. Within my mind I relaxed and relished the thought that nobody on the face of the Earth knew where I was. Ordinarily I enjoyed this space. No one knew where I was, I had no responsibilities, I was obligated and accountable to no one. But this time the feeling was bittersweet. I sensed the calmness that came with it to be an illusion. That outside my protective bubble great peril and chaos lurked, that disorder and confusion lay in wait like a cat at a mouse hole. And it wasn't because of the creatures of the jungle, they left me alone; I had but to pay attention, to keep my eyes and ears open. No, it was something unknown. It was like being in the eye of a hurricane. I wished not to leave, but eventually I knew I would, that it had to happen. Foreboding sullied my peaceful mood like dark clouds on the horizon.
As I began to doze in the midday heat, I heard the sound of something large coming my way, thrashing through the thick valley below. My rifle laid across my legs; I held my breath. From my position I could see down the slope; I didn't dare climb a tree for a better view because of the possibility of snakes. Fortunately, whatever it was veered off; I continued listening until the noise went away. It was time to move.
Within a few hours I reached a small plateau giving me an incredible panoramic view of the mountains to the north and the lush beauty of the monsoon rainforest below. A large incongruously placed boulder stood nearby. It was easy to climb and from it I could make out the Chindwin River coursing through the lowlands to the northeast, and below that, the Irrawaddy Basin. I spotted a single village lying between me and the river and decided to take a chance. I'd been having good luck with villages, tribal people, but society was unsettled here, so anything could happen. I regretted having the rifle. What would they think? But with all the dangerous fauna running around, I had no intention of abandoning it. Maybe they'd understand. Looking back, I have to laugh at my naivete at the time.
Heading in that direction, I hacked my way down the further slope, being careful not to twist an ankle or stumble in the stony grooved earth beneath the ground cover. Although I could no longer see the village, I relied on my compass to guide me; it wasn't easy. The terrain of streamlets and sporadic brush outcrops forced me to move in a less than straight line, which means, of course, that I could accidentally pass nearby and never notice.
Due largely to the terrain and the illusory perception of distance as being less than it really was, wrought by the shimmer of heat waves, I believe, it took three days to reach the valley. Finally on level ground, I rather abruptly broke out into a clearing of sorts. A small stockade of bamboo held three pigs, sleeping in the afternoon sun. Behind it was a coconut-fronded hut complete with a roofed-porch on which sat two rattan chairs. As I stood there sweating and dumbfounded, machete in hand, a man came out carrying a drink and froze, wide-eyed. In spite of my condition, I smiled warmly and greeted him with the only thing I knew, something I'd read on a travel brochure years ago. But with all the languages and dialects in the country, not even considering my likely mispronunciation, it was impossible to know if he understood. The space between us not getting any friendlier, silence deepened in the valley. Sweat dribbled into my eyes, blurring an already hazy situation. He took a loud sip, then said in perfect english, "It's about time."
He placed his glass on the tiny bamboo table set between the chairs and gestured for me to sit. He then went inside. Grateful for the comfort, I put my stuff on the porch behind the chair furthest from the door and sat, worn, weary, and now, confused and slightly anxious. Who was I supposed to be? And what am I supposed to be doing here? My host returned shortly with a pitcher and a glass half full of ice which he handed me. Ice? He poured while I attempted to think. Out of thirst and to delay conversation, I took a quick sip of what turned out to be an excellent margarita.
"You were supposed to be here three days ago. Get lost? Miss the drop coordinates? Decided to take a tour of the jungle? You know, we haven't much time. Everything must be done on schedule. However, I expected something like this, you British continue to act as though you ruled the world, so I deliberately lied. We still have a few days."
Now I was really lost, and nervous. Should I adopt my best British accent, or default to the truth of mistaken identity? The truth is what I say it is. I remembered that from a movie. However, I also remember the guy got killed shortly after saying it. Nonetheless, play along, my inner self said, that inner self who was determined to live. Except to comment about the weather and the quality of his margaritas, I didn't say anything, I needed more information. He looked at me suspiciously and then went on talking. He told me he was getting tired of his assignment. And he also hinted at my purpose for being there. His wireless computer had contracted a serious virus and until it was fixed, he wouldn't be able to inform MI6 headquarters about the impending raid. It seems there were three groups of special ops people scattered in separate camps to the southwest. I didn't bother to mention that I had accidentally bumped into one. The army camp held British and American special ops prisoners who they intended to liberate. His job was as liason. He had a network of informants spread out across other villages from here to there, and it was imperative he inform headquarters of the results of the raid and any collateral consequences thereof. A country-wide insurgency campaign was about to ensue, and the Brits and Yanks were interested in helping it along. He then offered to show me his set-up inside.
The interior of his hut went on for forty feet or so; huge by local standards, he said. His computer sat on a table tucked into a far corner. It was connected by cable to a high-tech dish locked onto a geosynchrous satellite, compliments of MI6. I wonderd out loud about government troops coming through and finding it. He said that only happened once since he'd been there and he had plenty of warning through his network. The whole system could be broken down in fifteen minutes; he showed me a hiding place behind a wall. Out back, in its own metal-roofed enclosed shed, was a 5KW generator, and alongside were two fifty-five gallon drums of gasoline disguised as water barrels with lids. He brought those by buffalo-wagon from a nearby tributary of the Chindwin; how, in fact, the villagers replenished their supplies. He also had a TV which he could lock into the dish at a slightly variant frequency to pick up sports events, in particular, soccer, or football as he called it. This weekend his place would be full of villagers watching the game between Burma and Brazil taking place in Sao Paulo; he was very excited about it. Abruptly, however, it drained from him like a plug pulled. His tone changed.
I was to get on with the job at hand. He was savvy about communications equipment and the generator, but found computers an enigma. He knew how to use them, that was all. Apparently, I was supposed to be an MI6 computer specialist, and the importance of his communications warranted helicoptering someone in who could get him back online. That would be me. After cleaning up, I lay down for a much needed nap on a bamboo rack covered by a thin blanket. As I was lying there I couldn't help but wonder what had happened to the real computer repairman. If he were to suddenly arrive, would my host kill me? Had that thrashing I heard in the jungle, of what I believed to be an animal, actually been him, lost and bewildered? Why didn't they send someone with him who was better qualified to navigate through the jungle? Surely computer specialists can't be all that good at such tasks. If he was supposed to have been here three days ago, where is he? In spite of the significance of these wonderings, the tequila, heat and exhaustion finally overtook me; I drifted off to sleep. A couple of hours later, my host, whose name I still didn't know, nor he, mine, woke me. It was time to demonstrate my expertise. But first, I needed coffee. As I sat and drank, slowly waking up, I couldn't resist asking a few questions. I, too, was a little suspicious.
"I'm curious," I began, tentatively, not wishing to be excessively bold, my perilous circumstances subject to change for the worse without notice, "how did MI6 know your computer was down if you couldn't use it to tell them? And why not just request another computer; I'm sure they can afford it?" I watched his reaction, and drank.
Once again, I got the hairy-eyeball stare, but this time he seemed to have something to hide. "I have an emergency means to communicate, a single-side band radio. I don't like using it because it can be picked up and traced back to me. And as far as another computer is concerned, I have a hell of a lot of personal stuff, pictures, letters, and so forth on the hard drive I couldn't bear to lose. Pictures of my wife who passed away last year. Friends. And other pictures and documents of a sensitve nature." He drank. "They offered -- they did -- but I told them I'd have to install the software for the satellite protocol system here, as I adjust the dish." He looked at me pointedly. "You probably know that. I figured they did." He paced towards the back of the hut, then quickly turned, hands outstretched, "Transferring the contents of my hard drive to a new computer,...., it would just be a monumental pain in the ass. I eventually put my foot down and said, if they wanted me to continue working for them, they'd have to send somebody to fix it. And,... , here you are." He smiled.
"Okay," I accepted his explanation, although his reasoning sounded less than solid. "How'd this thing get infected in the first place? Isn't your connection through a secure encrypted line?" I was guessing, but from all the movies I've watched, felt I was in the ballpark.
His eyes hardened and his jawline noticeably twitched. I intended it as a casual question, but, an MI6 computer specialist might have an ulterior motive, one of which I was definitely not aware. Was he a double agent? But, if that were the case, he wouldn't let anyone, especially an MI6 agent, examine his computer. Or would he?
I could tell he wasn't sure if he should trust me or not, but the internal struggle ended with a shrug and a long pull on his now watery margarita. "With a tweek of the dish, I can access the Internet. News and information from outside, it's the only way to find out what's going on here. Plus," he paused, "I like to surf, sometimes downloading sites that very well may be loading spyware or trojans or worms or whatever. MI6 was wondering the same thing, but for different reasons. They suspect a mole in their main office deliberately infecting computers of field agents. For what reason, who knows? A cyber-terrorist? It is, to them, the only explanation. But I reminded them that the signal bounces around the world, routing through several IP servers. Both incoming and outgoing. They're tightening up security as we speak." He finished his drink and went to the refrigerator for more ice.
"Now," he said, "enough chit-chat. Time's a wasting. Get going." He furrowed his brow and nodded at the computer.
I wanted to know where he'd learned english, it sounded like a mix of american and british, but given the present circumstances, probing into his background just didn't seem appropriate. We weren't going to know one another long enough to become friends.
Accordingly, I got under way, familiarizing myself with his layout and organization. He stood over me and watched. I never could stand that, even when I was sure of what I was doing. And I told him so. He muttered something about petulant Brits and retired to the porch. I have a degree in mathematics and it wasn't long ago I tried troubleshooting computers and systems to make ends meet. It'd been awhile but I performed the usual checks first, like shutting it down and starting it up again, so I could watch the problem unfold. It loaded fine but then the browser came up, unbidden, and started loading pop-ups of web pages, one after the other. I checked his security program; it wasn't one I'd recommend. You would think an MI6 computer would have state-of-the-art, but, given the current level of virus sophistication, this thing was seriously outdated. I commandeered a window and went to a security software page I knew well, and managed, in spite of the pop-up distraction, to download my choice and install it, after removing the existing security program, which wasn't worth squat, obviously. I then did a restart, called up the program and began a scan. It might take a long time, maybe as much as two to four hours, maybe more, depending on how much stuff -- pictures, vids, deadly e-mails, etcetera -- were on this thing. So, I got up for a refill and a couple of chunks of ice. What the hell.
I rejoined my host -- the spy -- on the porch and informed him that, after thorough analysis and testing of other possible causes, this is what I did, using as many technical terms as I could think of to make it sound more difficult than it was, and that we had to wait. He raised his eyebrows and nodded approvingly, but with a barely perceived undertone of indifference. My apparent professionalism impressed him, it even impressed me, for I really had no reason to believe I had solved the problem. Nonetheless, his obvious preoccupation made me suspicious. Adding that to the knowledge that at any moment the real guy could suddenly stride out of the jungle as I did, my fraudulent persona discovered, probably causing my death, I think I was doing a damn good job of keeping it together. The margaritas helped.
Time went by, silence filling the gap between us, the jungle noises quieting down somewhat, nap time. The sun was leaning into the west; the shady roof and iced-drinks were a pleasant respite. However, his mood continued its somber vein, a cloud of foreboding hanging over his head. Maybe it was the margaritas or the precariousness of my situation, but, as innocently as possible, genuinely concerned for my own reasons, I couldn't help but ask what the matter was. He laughed uproariously, then turned towards me and said, "All hell is about to break loose, and we're smack in the middle of it. And my role is to report on it, one way or another. That includes sending pictures, which I can't do with the radio."
We sat and drank and shooed flies and mosquitoes. Fortunately, he wasn't the least bit curious about my background; I don't think I could've thought fast enough to come up with a plausible coherent story. Except for the occasional squawk of a parrot, the jungle was taking a time-out, everybody hunkering down in the afternoon sun, I surmised. The margaritas, the heat and the deep quiet conspired to lessen the tension between us. It was my guess there was something he wished to keep hidden, something he didn't want an MI6 employee to know. Was there a document or picture or video on the computer he didn't want me to see? Something compromising? If that were the case, trading the hard drive for a new computer would not be a smart idea. Certainly MI6 would want to examine the information on it; they wouldn't let him just throw it away or destroy it. That would be suspicious. And I could see he was trying to avoid all those problems; at least, at that time I believed his self-absorption centered around the computer. I had no reason to suspect otherwise.
I had to put his mind at rest if I was to get out of here without any complications. So I said, "You know, my only job is to get your computer up and running; afterwards, I'm outahere. I'm not interested in examining the contents of your hard drive. Besides, I probably wouldn't know what I was looking at if I did. I'm just a computer fixer."
He seemed to relax at that. He stood and slapped me on the shoulder. "Not to worry, my friend," he said. "Another pitcher?" Without waiting for a respnse, he retired to the kitchen. I took the opportunity to check on the computer; it was still scanning but had listed several infections so far. Maybe this boy will do it, I hoped. He returned with a full pitcher and a plate of cheese, bread and assorted fruit slices, which he placed on the small table between us. I was famished and deeply grateful, and I told him so. What the various fruits were exactly I had no idea, but they tasted delicious. The porch had become the center of the cosmos. He poured and then talked casually about the village, the people, how they lived, the surrounding jungle, how he felt about it, the two years he'd spent here, his family, what happened to them at the hands of the regime, and so on and so forth, showing more painful emotion and hints of anger as he probed deeper into personal territory with each sip of his drink. I got the impression he was lonely for conversation with an outsider, trying to relate in a way he must've been used to at some past time. Of all the things he revealed about himself, however, he avoided that part of his history.
As we sat in what could have been described as a jungle tourist retreat, a disturbance on the other side of the hut brought our conversation up short. My host froze momentarily, then leapt to his feet, grabbed a rifle from behind the door, and ran to the front. I stayed put, not knowing what to do in any case. All the computer equipment, dish and so forth, were plainly visible. I thought to grab my gear and head for the hills, but something told me it was too late for such a radical impulse. Besides, where would I go?
I heard heavy trudging through the main room; out onto the porch came my host with three men wearing army fatigues, carrying Ak-47's and an assortment of other weapons -- knives, grenades, handguns. They were all smiling; I can't convey the relief that gave me. They conversed agitatedly but warmly in some Burmese tongue in quick short bursts. They laid their rifles down and sat about on the porch floor. I had no idea what they were discussing, of course, but the tone shifted gradually to one of a more serious, even grave nature. The three of them kept glancing over at me, curious, but seeming to accept that if I was with their friend, I must be all right. Nonetheless, I sensed reticence in their conversation, so I retired to the computer with my drink. The scan had completed and suggested a restart, which I did, hoping all was well. I had intended to leave afterwards, if only to escape the possibility of the real computer specialist turning up, that would be more than embarrassing, especially now with his well-armed guests blocking my retreat, to continue in the northwest direction I had picked almost at random, but something told me I'd first better find out just what in the hell was going on around here.
The computer came back up and seemed to be running fine. I checked a few programs to be sure. In the process I accidentally ran across a large map of the area; we were in the northen part of the country. The Irrawaddy ran down the middle, splitting the country in half. I could see a dam at Myitsone north of Myitkyina, a city with a red X next to it. Two dams on the Taping River had X's over them. I could read the words Sang Gang, Kachin State, and Bum Sen Post next to which was the number 3. Manmaw and Myothit were marked on a road. Superimposed black lines threaded through the jungle, meeting at certain spots. The word cache appeared at these convergent zones. Mayjayang and Laiza showed predominately. I had no idea what it all meant, but my intuition told me it had something to do with our visitors and perhaps what my host was concerned about.
At the sound of footfalls, I closed the program and spun around. My host stopped short with a questioning look. Smiling, difficult as that was, I informed him that everything seemed to be working fine. I hadn't checked the connection to the outside world, but I said I thought he'd better do that.
"Yes," he said, "that would be best." His words were a little slurred, to be expected given the amount of tequilla he'd consumed and the unbearable heat. "I guess you'll be interested in leaving now." It wasn't a question. "Tomorrow I'll arrange for a helicopter to pick you up, at a different location. It would be a good idea to get the hell out of here, before,..." He trailed off, then went to the kitchen.
Trying to act natural and at ease, I returned to my chair on the porch. The three soldiers ignored me, talking quietly amongst themselves. I studied them as closely as I dared, not wishing to seem too inquisitive. On their uniforms, at both shoulders, was a red square patch with a gold insigna of some kind at its center. Otherwise, it was plain green, the color of the jungle. However, one man had gold bars on his lapel, an officer, I presumed. Who are these people, I wondered, and what are they about? And how could they affect my well-being? And, significantly, what business did they have with my host? He was a Burmese spy for the British, MI6 to be exact, and what he had on his computer, what I'd seen at least, didn't appear to be a tourist map.
At dusk, the three soldiers left, after studying the computer screen for close to half an hour. I couldn't guess what they were looking at. More than just what I had seen, no doubt. What I know about the world of espionage is based on movies and the novels I've read; nonetheless, I had the strange feeling that my host was something more than just a reporter of current events. I remembered that he had said 'we still have a few days.' Until what?
After they left, he and I sat at the kitchen table for a real dinner. I was pretty drunk at this point and so welcomed the meal of rice, chicken and some kind of vegetable. At mid-meal, he left me to retire to the computer, working feverishly. The food, the drink, the heat, and the stress all hit me at once. I crashed heavily on my appointed bed and slept the sleep of the dead.
I dreamed I was running and slipping through mud, a jaguar on my tail, snarling and growling. I came upon a house, ran up to the door, it was locked. I banged and banged but nobody came. The cat snarled behind me; I turned as he leapt. The porch fell away and I dropped into darkness. Falling, falling through total blackness until hitting the ground, hard but not fatal. I could see nothing, hear nothing. A yellowish light suddenly showed far away, down a passage the walls of which were gnarled and jagged. I crawled on my elbows through oily dirt. A sound, a sound like a banshee screaming almost shattered my ears. A cry loud and angry coming from behind the light.
I awoke, my host standing over me, yelling something, a gun in his hand. My head was foggy; what he said unclear, but the gun was unmistakable. "Who are you?" he yelled, sticking the gun in my face. The jig was up, apparently.
Slowly, cautiously, I sat up, throwing my legs over the side of the bunk. Rubbing the cobwebs out of my head, I waited for him to explain himself. He pulled a chair over and sat, resting the gun on his lap. "Okay, you son of a bitch, who the hell are you and what are you doing here? Talk or I'll blow your shit away."
Fleetingly, I thought to continue the charade, profess my identity as the expected MI6 computer specialist. Hadn't I fixed the computer? But before I could stammer my lies, he said, more calmly, "I received news that the man who was supposed to be here three days ago, the computer guy, was captured by the Burmese army, tortured and shot. Now, I don't know what he told them, but this whole mission is now in serious jeopardy. Geeks are not trained to withstand torture. He no doubt spilled his guts, telling them who he was and why he was here and where he was going. Shit, he probably told them my name and who I am; they could figure that out easy enough. Do you know what this means? Do you, moron?" Leaning forward, he waved the gun in my face. "Talk! Who the fuck are you?"
Several thoughts raced through my head, none of which sounded good enough to get me off the hook. Telling the absolute truth simply wasn't my way, besdies, the truth would not set me free, more likely, it would get me killed. From the very beginning, I lied to him. There was no excuse. I could've told the truth then, but I chose not to. Why? What's wrong with me? I was about to come clean, throw my cards on the table and let the chips fall. But before I could say a word, he yelled, "If you had just told me the truth, ..., I could've found out about my repairman and we'd have time to do something about it. You dumb son of a bitch. You probably got us both killed playin' this stupid game of yours. What are you, a thrill seeker, a nutjob, traveling through the fucking Burmese jungle in the middle of an insurgent war? Where the hell do you think you are -- Yellowstone?"
Exasperation contorting his face, he jerked to his feet and shot into the jungle through the open porch doorway. Before he could turn it on me, I pleaded, "I didn't know about any war. I thought the real man was lost somewhere. It can happen easy enough. I was biding my time, intending to leave as soon as possible. It was you, your fault," my blood rose in defense of itself, "you assumed I was the real deal and started telling me all this secret shit right off the bat. I was afraid if I stopped you in the middle of it, you'd just shoot me and be done with it."
My host stormed around the hut, knocking things over, pulling his hair. "You've ruined two years of covert operations in a single day. I've been organizing the Kachin forces in this area, sighting targets and army movements, setting up ambushes, blowing up shit. Now, it's all over. All over." He stared off into a space halfway between the edge of the universe and here. A palpable anger rolled from him like a tsunami; I chose to sit rigid in its wake. Asking who this Kachin was didn't seem appropriate at the moment.
He turned towards me and said, in a strained confidential tone, "We have to get out of here. Maybe the computer guy didn't talk, but we can't take that chance. They won't just torture and kill me, but you as well. You think they're gonna believe you're just some idiot hiking through the jungle on vacation?"
He dropped the gun on a chair and began breaking down the computer equipment and dish set-up. "C'mon," he yelled, "help me." Sensing a reprieve, my head throbbing, I immediately leapt into action. Within minutes we had everything disassembled and hidden away. "Probably won't do any good," he said. "They'll tear this place apart down to the ground if they come. Get your shit and pack food and water." He ran around gathering what he could: clothes, papers, journals, weapons, cursing at the futility of it. "We're moving north," he said. "A Kachin helicopter is on its way, pack this stuff outside, out back. We need all of it, can't leave anything here for the Burmese troops. Lives are at stake, not just ours." While he ran around, going through drawers and closets and opening boxes, he ranted, "Jesus Christ, why did I request a computer guy to come here? It shoud've been so simple. Drop off a few miles away, hike through the woods, fix the damn thing, bam, done. But NOoooo. That's not how things go. I'm fucked. My fault. My fault. I jeopardized everything because of my laziness. Well, that's not completely true. The harddrive. I couldn't afford to have it fall into the wrong hands. Now, it doesn't matter anymore."
At that, he stood bolt upright, then retrieved the box containing the computer and wiring along with the dish and told me to take them out back. "I don't know what I was thinking, they'll find this, there's names and secret locations. Besides, we'll need it," he said, discipline getting a grip on his initial alarm. He moved about examining every nook and cranny, swiftly, like a humming bird, then stopped, frozen in place. "If he was captured three days ago,...," he said to the air, "why haven't they come yet? They're watching. They probably saw my friends show up. Oh no. They're watching and waiting; I'm under surveillance. They may not know that I do. They're waiting for,..., what? Some bigwig to show up? They think they already have me, so, why not wait to catch somebody more important." He faced me. "We have to do this without drawing suspicion. Casually. Like we think everything's all right. Get this stuff outside but keep it out of sight. We can't take any chances. Fifty yards away is a clearing, where the helicopter will land. If they do indeed have an eye on us -- and we have to assume that -- they'll come when they see the chopper. We need to sneak away." While he was engaged in his soliloquy, I swilled water, lots of water. Of all the things I could die of here, I didn't want it to be a hangover.
Dawn was just beginning to show, but it was still dark enough to scurry to the jungle undetected, it was only several yards away. But with all the stuff he wanted to take -- some of obviously sentimental value only -- we'd have to make more than one trip. All the bottles of tequila were thrown into a cardboard box along with a silver canister, a long wooden pipe, and a couple of bottles of pills. He made a point of generously feeding his pigs; I could hear him murmur softly to them. It seems to be a truism that people who would just as soon blow your head off as look at you, often are extremely caring of animals.
It took fifteen minutes to make the first trip to the chopper site, then back for two more trips. When we got to the clearing the last time, the chopper was visible, coming from the north. It landed, two men jumped out to help load up, then away we went, the blades never slowing down. No weapons fired at us. The props were so loud I could barely hear myself think, and without aspirin, I thought my head would explode, forget about being shot or blown up. On the brighter side, I couldn't have bought or imagined a better view of the canopy. Most of the creatures -- tiniest insects to monkeys -- in a tropical forest live there, in the upper reaches. These trees, most well over 200 feet, harbor an entirely unique ecology at their tops, quite different both day and night than at any other level. Below we quickly passed over the Chindwin river, heading east, directly into the painfully radiant rising sun. My host screamed into the ear of one of the men who nodded vigorously. Mercifully, in the midst of this chaos, I somehow fell asleep. I remember Michael Biehn's character did that in Aliens when they were flying down to the planet. I also remember what he ran into.
I was dreaming of swimming in a cool, quiet, secluded cove with my lady of the dhow, Rebecca, now gone to Tasmania, when a rap on my arm woke me. Startled and annoyed, my mouth as dry as the Atacaman Desert, I took a long pull on my canteen. My host gestured to look down. Dumbly I peered directly below through a greasy window at a river meandering sinuously through the underbrush. He then pointed to it on the map -- it was one of many tributaries of the Chindwin -- and traced a line from there to an unmarked spot midway between the river and Myitkyina, within the Hukawng Valley.
Drinking water and hoping not to throw up in front of these men, I continued to stare blankly at the passing jungle, dense and indifferent. Off in the distance I saw what looked like a small village of neatly arranged buildings covering a wide clearing smack in the middle of a cluster of short trees and brush, the usual kind, a narrow stream running off to its east. We came in low to a landing area at the north end. The deafening noise abruptly abated to near silence, thank God. I half-fell out looking for a place to vomit, but magically it passed as soon as I breathed deeply the invigorating fresh air of what was obviously a plateau high above the valley, rugged mountains not far off in every direction. My host and I unloaded our stuff, or rather his stuff. I have to confess I was beginning to feel part of whatever was going on. We were escorted to a small outbuilding on the east edge, overlooking the river, of what, in truth, was an army camp, the Kachin Independence Army.
While I busied myself transporting boxes, weapons and whatever from the landing site, my host wasted no time setting-up the computer system. He secured the dish to a horizontal plank supported by two tall posts out back, then plugged the computer into an actual outlet. Operating the satellite location software like one long accustomed to it, he soon regained online status, pinging his contact at MI6 to let them know things were go once more. However, he hesitated to bring them up to speed on current events, if only because, without trustworthy evidence to the contrary, he couldn't be certain if his suspicion that there might be a mole at MI6 headquarters was correct. He also couldn't think of an adequate explanation for me. Who am I? I mean, super field agents don't let just any stranger examine classified and sensitive material, material that would be a serious embarrassment to the British government if discovered and leaked to the world media as well as the Burmese government. Never mind that I didn't actually do that, and even what I did see made no sense to me, not having any context within which to put it. Appearances are almost as significant as the truth.
When finished, I collapsed into a cushioned chair and wondered if a margarita might be the best medicine. My brain felt like it'd been clawed by a monkey. As I was rationalizing with the homily hair of the dog what, in truth, I wanted to do in any case, my host turned to me, smiled cryptically, and said in a low voice, "You don't exist. No one's looking for you."
I didn't quite know how to take that. Existence is a touchy subject we don't ordinarily want somebody else messing with. Did he mean my life was expendable? Or that I might be of assistance to him in some covert way I couldn't imagine? I saw no third option. I was in over my head and knew it. The flow, I said to myself, go with the flow.
"I just received a message that the computer specialist got lost and made his way to the coast where he was able to contact rescue. I was fed false information by my own network. Either I've been betrayed by my own people, or one of them received false information. But,..., how did any of them know about the computer guy? They couldn't, I never told anybody." He thought long and hard; the room stopped breathing. Finally, he said, "There has to be a leak at MI6, or the government can tap into my correspondence. The Chinese," he said flatly, contempt in his tone. "They have the communications expertise, not the government. And I can't imagine a leak at the office. What would be the point? Either they lied about him being captured or they're lying about him making it to the coast. But how would MI6 headquarters know he was caught? Especially if he wasn't? My people couldn't know the government caught him if they didn't know he existed in the first place, so,...," He rubbed the top of his head, like he was petting himself, a gesture I was getting used to. "In any case," he said, tired and unhappy, "we've been compromised."
There was that we again. My head was spinning dangerously, threatening to fly off into space. My concern that he might shoot me for being a fraud was superceded by my concern that the stress and strain of doing his job for the past two years had finally taken its toll, and he might shoot me just for the hell of it; imagining I was a spy sent to trap him, or whatever, probably wasn't necessary. He was obviously confused and paranoid. His mind, which I believed to otherwise be sharp and insightful -- going with the territory -- was under duress due to the latest events and was crumbling right before my eyes. The stereotype of the cool, controlled, undauntable spy from the James Bond movies dissipated sadly in the presence of the real deal. Perhaps rest would suffice to clear his head and help him focus. I wanted to assist in some way, to pull it all apart, every detail, parse it out, then stitch it back together again into one smooth picture, coherent and logical. But, in my present condition, I might do more harm than good, serving only to add to the chaos. Distracted by screeching in the trees, I glanced out as a painfully crisp morning sunbeam glinted sharply off a silver box sitting atop the pile of stuff on the porch. Inspiration. That's it, I thought, I'll make a batch of margaritas; we need to gain the proper elevation.
I dug out the blender, tequila and mix and amazingly, to me, found ice-cubes in the tiny refrigerator. I got the feeling that ice was a status symbol. I placed his drink, rimmed with salt, next to the keyboard. He continued to read messages he'd been sent while the computer was down, ignoring me completely. Somber and taciturn, he reached for the drink and took a sip, then another, replacing it carefully on the coaster. Smacking his lips, his mood visibly lightened. It'd been a long day and was far from over, the sun still shining through the window-space under the overhanging roof of thatched palm. Food didn't seem to concern him, but it did me. I found eggs and some kind of meat in the fridge and took over the kitchen. Propane fed the stove, I cooked up scrambled eggs and fried whatever, put them on two plates with utensils and placed them on the bamboo coffee table in front of me. A few seconds later, he took a whiff and smiled, then sat on the floor and ate quietly, lost in thought, the only sound the soft rush-rush of the overhead fan.
In light of present circumstances, I disentangled myself from the larger picture, easily done considering I realy had no idea what that was. I wanted to forget both his role in this drama and mine, the great impostor. While we ate breakfast, I allowed myself to see him as someone with a problem needing resolution, a friend, or near-friend, who needed to unravel a conundrum that was deeply affecting his life, never mind mine. That last part took effort. I began with the fundamentals.
"When you were a boy, who were you closer to, your mother or your father?"
He stopped chewing. The fan grew louder. Ice cubes shifted in their dance with gravity and heat. The chattering of birds and monkeys ceased. I wouldn't have been surprised to discover that the Earth itself had come to a standstill. Fearful I had touched a raw nerve, I tacked away towards less rocky shores. "How's the computer working?" I asked, with what must've been a lame smile on my face. "We computer nerds like to get some feedback from time to time." I chuckled. "How's the margarita? To your liking?" I rose to get the blender and freshened his drink. While on my feet, the urge to run surged through me. Instinctive, I knew, but, there it was.
He swallowed, then took a drink. Smiling brightly he said, "I got it. He was captured, then escaped. He told them who he was, but not why he was here; at least, not the real why. How could that be?"
Amazing, I thought, he'd completely ignored me. Relieved, in spite of a slightly wounded ego -- better it than me -- I saw the opportunity to actually do what I intended. Funny how that works out sometimes. "Maybe," I offered, "he wasn't just your basic computer nerd. I mean, do you think they'd drop off a nerd, alone, in the jungles of Burma, if he couldn't take care of himself? Maybe he was made of tougher stuff than you're assuming."
"Yeah, okay, but once he'd told them who he was, why didn't they kill 'im?"
"So they capture him, find out who he is, then decide to trade him for someone or thing, instead of killing him. Leverage. Information."
He sat gazing at the tiny garden out back, the thick trees not much farther, and beyond that the mountains, a distinct line separating them from the azure sky. "We were fine," he whispered, shaking his head, mildly dismayed. "They didn't know about me; otherwise, they'd o' been knocking down my door. It's not their style to wait and watch, waiting for someone on their list to show up. When does that ever happen? And so they weren't watching. Nobody was. Somehow, he got out." He sat up straight. "Wait! That group of special ops people. Could they have sprung him? Was that their mission?"
I ran into that one group of hippies about the same time the real computer guy is supposed to have landed. So they couldn't have been for his benefit. But, if he was at the same Burmese camp, then he might've been rescued by accident. It was a big if. I couldn't tell him, I still wasn't sure how he was reading me and didn't want to give any reason for distrust. But he knew about the three camps of black ops people, so, maybe the possibility, coincidental as it is, would come to him.
In one movement he stood, grabbed his drink and returned to the computer. "I have to find out what happened, otherwise, I can't go home. Was he captured then rescued, or was he never captured, just got lost and so abandoned the mission, and if that's the case, there must be a leak somewhere, elsewise how could the government know about him? But if that's true, what were they trying to accomplish by saying he was in their custody? Flush me out like a quail?" It was madness. He proceeded to write a message of inquiry, I suspected. He was contacting somebody, someone he could trust.
After sending it he seemed to implode, like a baloon suddenly emptied of air. "I need sleep," he said. Then went into the bedroom and collapsed on the bed. I went out on the porch and sat on the step. The sun coursed its way across a deep blue sky, creature sounds emanated from the jungle, seeming to take turns, and I slowly worked my way through the pitcher of margaritas, gently erasing my hangover, or blanketing it. I couldn't help but think about myself at this point. What am I going to do? I'm in the middle of some anti-government military encampment, far in the north of the country, far away from the sea and boats. Is this the end? Dying here in a fight that's not mine, has nothing to do with me, not even knowing why, the tragic event unknown by the few friends I have? Shit. If I take off on my own, will I eventually be captured by these government goons, tortured and killed? I wouldn't be able to tell them anything because I don't know anything, but would they believe me? Of course not. I'm a tourist, for Christ's sake. A tourist carrying an AK-47, a 45-automatic and a machete. Go with the flow, that voice said again. But is that the wisest path? What choice did I have? And who is this voice? I don't exist, my host said to me. Was that a hint?
When I awoke on the couch, it was near dusk. My host was standing out back on the deck, arms raised in a stretch. He was wearing jeans, an I love N. Y. T-shirt and a red baseball cap, his long hair curling over his shoulders. I felt like crap, fuzz on my tongue and aches throughout my entire body from sleeping so awkwardly. Forcing myself up, I groped along to the kitchen for water, to drink and to splash on my face. Feeling somewhat revived, I joined my spy on deck, plopping into a wicker chair. It was almost cool, cool and quiet; the sun was behind the house. Being on the edge of camp, you wouldn't know hundreds of soldiers and armored vehicles were nearby.
"I reinvented you," he said, while continuing to stare ahead. "You are now a CIA operative sent here to assist me. The KIA would like more american involvement; they feel,... receptive towards Americans. The wars of colonialism, up to the 1930's, still affect their world view, they have bad feelings towards the British. It's almost instinctive, a lack of trust. Our presence is acceptable and welcome, but collective memory ,....." He trailed off. "In many respects," he said, "British rule, with forced labor and the killing of demonstrators and rebels, doesn't feel a whole lot different than now. It is, of course. The Burmese junta gunned down over 10,000 democracy protestors in the late 80's, in Rangoon and other cities, with machine guns. The international community said and did nothing. And torture is common practice, especially for political prisoners. So it's more ruthless and brutal. But, authoritarian rule is still galling, whatever the source.
"C'mon in, I want to show you something." We sat on the floor around a low table in the soft shade of the living room. On it was a map. He pointed to towns: Sinbo, Namsan Yang, Chipwi. "There've been battles here not too long ago, skirmishes." Then he pointed to where we were, just above Sinbo, on the north side of the Irrawaddy. "Here we are safe, for now." We drank coffee, strong Indian coffee. After a time, he suggested we take a walk; he wanted me to meet some people.
I splashed water in my face, brushed my hair back and changed into one of his shirts. I still felt like a wreck, maybe the walk would do me good. I was being irresistibly drawn into a world I knew nothing about, an exotic, strange and very dangerous world. I didn't know how much longer I could go with the flow.
Not too far down a path, we came to the main road through the camp. People dressed in army fatigues roamed the street, but also there were quite a few men dressed in the traditional sarong. I saw no women, if indeed, any were present at all. The center of town, if such it could be called, had wooden sidewalks for a few blocks, as I understand block. It felt like an old-west town. Carts pulled by oxen carried crates and bundles of what may've been food. There were benches facing the street against the walls of shops. It was more than an army camp; however, I saw nothing that resembled a school or Buddhist temple, and no children. Perhaps if there were any, they played elsewhere.
At the end of the road we turned up another path, this one covered with tiny stones, pea gravel. Twenty yards along we came upon a sprawling one-story house. Two guards noticed us, and after a few seconds, smiled and waved. On the porch sat a six-foot statue of Buddha resting on a stand of teak, candles half-circled in front of it, fresh flowers in vases stood off to the sides. We entered the foyer where another, better-dressed guard stood, unsmiling, very serious. My host and he exchanged rapid repartee, then he nodded and we followed him down the hall.
We entered a spacious room set mostly in cool shadow, The back wall was opened window-height and double french doors led to the porch and garden. In the center a teak-wood table, maybe 15 feet in length and 4 feet wide, stood lengthwise. On it were maps, mostly, and a pitcher of water with three glasses. Behind it, in a high-backed cushioned chair, sat a man dressed very simply, a turban resting on his head. He smiled when he saw my host and gestured for the guard to go. As we approached the table, he stood, a brief flash of anxiety showed on his face, immediately replaced by one of confidence. He offered water, which both of us gratefully accepted, and I was introduced in my current role. With some degree of urgency, he wasted no time launching into a discussion, pointing at locations on different maps as he did so. Their conversation was in some tribal dialect of Kachin, so I cooled my heels examining the many art objects, eclectc furniture displaying engravings of animals and religious symbols, lamps, paintings set in elaborate gold-embossed frames, and vivid print throw-rugs on a hardwood floor resembling fir in color. Burma has so many species of trees, I had no idea what kind it truly was. This was not the home of your ordinary rural Burmese.
My host motioned for me to come over. He spoke in english which apparently the man of the house, a general or political leader -- I couldn't see the difference then -- understood. They conferred with me as though I knew all the background of the ongoing conflict, the whys and wherefores and who was where and what was going on and what planned. I stared questioningly at my host who never let on that he was aware I had no idea what they were talking about. At a point, they both became quiet and looked at me expectantly, even my host who I half thought would burst out laughing, waiting for input or commentary or information or some such thing. Diving in where angels fear to tread, I scrutinized the one map between them, the one that garnered most attention, and could not for the life of me think of anything relevant to say, not even the proper terms popped into my head. I drew a complete blank. But suddenly I recognized that symbol I saw on the shoulder patches of the men who'd visited. They ran in a series along the northern curve of a tributary of the Irrawaddy. Instinctively, I put my finger on what seemed the least defensible position, topographically and by distance from the others, looked up at the general, and nodded.
With one sharp nod in reply, he said, "That's what I think. The next attack will be there. I'm going to move to cover this flank tomorrow; I'll leave a small garrison. If we could join with the Karen, the Shan and Chin, we could take this fight to them." Smiling, looking at both of us, he said, "I'd like you to come along; we could use your expertise. You could act as my liasons with the other tribes."
My host said something, we all shook hands, then we left. As soon as we'd passed beyond hearing distance, I erupted, "Are you out of your freakin' mind? What do you mean putting me through that?" He laughed; he actually laughed. "Suppose I was found out? What of you? They would've thought you were up to something. Put us both against a wall and shot us. Liasons? I have no idea what's going on here."
"Well you sure didn't look like it. What made you point to that spot? I thought you'd just shrug, he didn't expect you to know about immediate circumstances, yet you acted like you did."
"I don't know. I've been doing that kind of stuff all my life. Given a choice among many doors, I invariably pick the right one."
"Hmmm. A gift like that could be very advantageous."
"Yeah? Well what about tomorrow? Tell me. What door should we choose?"
"Not to worry, my friend. You want to see country? Well, we will. The deal is, we go along but we'll be surrounded by others, military types; they'll be doin' the liasing. We're just for show, window dressing, representatives of our respective governments."
"It's a con."
"I can't represent the United States. How the hell do I know what their true feelings are? The Burmese -- your friends -- might think, because of my presence, that my government is behind them and therefore charge full-tilt ahead. Like how the first Bush did to the Kurds and Shiahs in Iraq, persuaded them to rise up against Sadaam, led them to believe we were behind them, then pulled out and left them hanging to be massacred. I don't want that on my conscience."
He laughed again, laughed and shook his head as we made our way back to the relative sanctuary of our temporary home. "What hubris. You're an ego-maniac. You really think your presence will have that much influence? You really think these people are that stupid? That they give a damn? They've been at war with one overbearing government or another for the past couple of hundred years. World war two taught them well, a learning experience the Iraqis didn't go through. A good portion of Arabia -- the desert people especially -- didn't even know world war two happened, for Christ's sake."
For Christ's sake? Aren't you Buddhist?"
"No, I'm not anything. The Kachin are Christian by and large, anyway, and when in Rome. What would you like me to say -- for Buddha's sake? Would that meet your expectations, fit your stereotypes?" He stopped on the path to face me and grabbed my shoulders. "Look, everything's going to be okay. I'm trying to get you out of here. Understand? You inadvertently walked into the middle of some serious shit. It's been going on for years, but I have the feeling the end game is about to take place. Full-blown civil war. Showdown time. Fed-up time. I'm more or less committed; I have my own people who depend on me. But you, you're the wandering lunatic tourist. You have choices. Choose the right door. Hopefully it won't be the one with the tiger behind it."
The next morning we pulled out with a small convoy heading south on the Ledo. Dry and hot, the road was rutted and pot-holed in places, the jarring grated my already tattered nerves. We soon crossed a bridge over a tributary of the Irrawaddy, below the capital of Kachin State, Myitkyina. Farther along, as we drove south, we passed over other bridges, not in as good as shape, damaged and unmaintained. Possibly the result of fighting, explosions, I didn't know.
During the night I had a recurring dream where I'm walking fast along a high narrow ledge outside a tall skyscraper, just behind me the concrete crumbles as I go. I have to keep moving, faster and faster. I've had this dream ever since I was a kid and have never figured it out. Why now? We cruised through a village, the people waved and smiled, a few men gestured thumbs up. It gave me a morale boost, like I actually was part of this anti-government insurrection. Maybe it was how the Founding Fathers felt overthrowing England. Perhaps. However, I had to remind myself that it was not my country, not my fight. I could get killed by accident, and no one would know.
There were seven vehicles altogether, the ones at the lead and rear were open jeeps with machine guns mounted in back. The others were humvees, rifle's sticking out of windows. The general and other dignataries and representatives were in the middle car. A meeting with the Karen and Shan was the intention of this trip, the main force would be following to cover the eastern flank, the one we were presently traveling through. Due to the stresses and strains of the last few days and the after-effects of copious amounts of alcohol, I did manage to eventually nod-off. I have no idea how long we drove. A jab in the ribs woke me. "Christ almighty, you can sleep anywhere," my host said. "We're almost there. We'll be splitting off from the rest with the two cars in front of us, so don't be alarmed, and try to stay awake."
We entered an encampment -- not exactly a village but more than a settlement -- hastily and recently built, temporary appearing. Curiously, there were no people to be seen, military or otherwise. Perhaps the heat of the day had driven them inside, I thought. Beyond it the dirt road snaked through the dense jungle. The dust and curve of the road obscuring my view, I could see only the two humvees in front; we were number five in our caravan. Suddenly, machine gunfire from the lead jeep rended the still air. Immediately our driver pulled off to the right, up what looked like a goat trail, thick brush spotting its sides. No one followed.
We came to its end, a small shack lying off to the side, almost obscured by trees. gunfire could still be heard, lots of gunfire. We all got out, there were six of us, I had my AK with me as well as my 45. My host and I scampered to the shack, the others set off down the hill. I was scared shitless, I have to admit. Now what have I gotten myself into, I wondered? gunfire continued as another humvee raced up the hill. It was the general and company. They unloaded and joined us in the tiny enclosure; the general got on the hand-cracked radio. I asked my host what he was saying. He was calling for help, his men couldn't be far behind.
For the next half-hour, shooting erupted, coming closer, it seemed to me. Then all hell broke loose. People yelling down the hill, shots whizzing past the shack where we were hunkered down, pinging off the trees. It lasted for an eternity of a few minutes, then the sounds of heavy vehicles racing along the road below could be heard above the din of machine-gunfire. Another few minutes passed and the sound of gunfire gradually receded to an occasional sporadic ratcheting. A humvee raced up the goat trail and six men jumped out. They informed the general that the enemy had been cleared out, it was time to go. We all piled into our respective vehicles and rejoined what was now a column of hundreds of men heading in the direction we'd been.
My host smiled at me and asked, "Feel like taking a nap now, ole buddy?" I lamely smiled back and pointed my rifle out the window. At that time, I didn't believe I could ever kill anyone, but I'd be damned if I was going to sit idly by and let someone kill me. For the next several miles we raced through the dense jungle, dust from the road billowing all around us. Our driver had desert eyes; he would've made a great New York City cabdriver. Eventually, we took a right fork onto a side road for a half-mile or so and then into a dirt parking lot behind a large building, a two-story structure with an ornate bell tower. Looked like it used to be a church, only without the stain glass. The general and company were surrounded by a dozen or more guards wielding AK's. Three entered the building first, while the others took up positions around it. After a moment or two, one man poked his head out from the tower and waved the all-clear sign. We entered, the building was empty. The other delegates -- The Karen and Shan -- had not yet arrived, apparently.
The general commandeered the main room on the second floor and set up shop. A long table was cleared of books and cups and such so that maps and printouts could be displayed. He was still wearing his casual clothes and turban. It meant something tribal, I was sure, just what, I didn't know at the time. I remained outside, taking it all in: the surrounding jungle; the dirt lot now strewn with humvees and one jeep with machine-gun facing the way we came in; the building, now quite obviously once a church, the high, embossed front doors givng that away, finally. I mimicked the way the Kachin soldiers held their AK's. My 45 was in its holster on my hip, loaded with a fifteen-round clip. I was ready, for what, I had no idea.
My host and three men came out. He approached me and said, "Ready for a ride in the country?"
"What?" I asked, need I say incredulously?
"Yes, well, we liasons have to go do some liasing. A few miles down the road, at a Kachin garrison, is where the Karen and Shan people are. We need to go get them, escort them. I know both leaders, we'll be in and out."
"Why can't they just come here themselves, like we did?" My lack of enthusisam was blatantly obvious; I knew it, I didn't care. "They probably have plenty of bodyguards. Why do we need to go?"
"It's a tribal thing. The general is the head military honcho in the Kachin State, he has to take the role of chief organizer. So he sends ambassadors to greet and escort the other members of the proposed alliance. When we come back, they'll be with their personal bodyguards, so we shouldn't have any problems on the road." He looked at me for a long time, that strained stare I was getting used to, then said, "You're the lunatic tourist, how do ya' like your vacation so far?" And turned to walk away, laughing.
That was a famous line from the movie Thelma and Louise. Would that make me Thelma? I thought. It was easy to slide sideways and occupy my mind with trivial, simple thoughts. The larger ones threatened to separate my mind from my body.
The five of us piled into a humvee and without further adieu, drove around the jeep, down the driveway, across the Ledo and up a grassy slope to a narrow one-car road, and headed southwest. It wasn't the dusty rutted road my bones had gotten used to, but it paralleled it in every way. It cut back and up through the jungle, not much used, the center grass was a good three-feet high. Wary of impromptu contingencies to begin with, I couldn't help but note the road's condition. My host assured me it was a private trail, not much known -- safer. It didn't feel safer to me. My big-city street sense was standing out like quills on a porcupine. This was the wrong door. At every curve I expected to see an elephant or buffalo or rhino or army tank standing in the way. Anything could happen now, that's where my head was.
Rounding a bend, the driver slowed, something wasn't right, I could tell. The two up front spoke quickly between them. As I was about to ask what they were talking about, an explosion deafened me and tossed the humvee up and over onto its roof, then back onto its wheels with a ka-thud, the axles breaking with a muffled snap. It was surreal, in slow motion; I slipped into a bubble of soundless mayhem and momentary weightlessness, only to come heavily down with a loud crash, the windshield shattering, blown outward.
My seatbelt and shoulder strap held, my host next to me was bleeding but alive, the man next to him, his neck twisted at an obscene angle, was clearly dead, as were the two up front. Automatic-weapons fire riddled the other side, blocked from passage by several inches of reinforced steel. On the left in the back, I was crumpled like an accordion. The wreck was now partly in the jungle; I kicked the door open facing it, grabbed a handful of my friend's shirt, and dragged him out, my AK over my shoulder. Shouting and sporadic fire ricocheted off the humvee and surrounding trees as I pulled him along, heading deeper into the woods and away from the bullets. Shouting increased in volume behind us, but stopped at the edge of the jungle; it sounded like they were arguing about whether or not to pursue. My host regained his legs and started running on his own. We cleared a good five hundred yards, thrashing and crashing through the dense foliage, before stopping to assess the situation.
We were in the thick of the jungle. Sitting on a moss-covered downed tree, catching our breath, I could hear water running nearby. I found the narrow brook and tore off a piece of shirt and soaked it. I cleaned the blood off what turned out to be a superficial gash on my host's head; otherwise I guessed he had a concussion and would be a bit woozy for awhile. I don't know what got into me, but I grabbed my AK, checked the clip, put it in load mode, took the safety off, and went to check the perimeter; a circle of twenty yards, I figured, would be good. Give my associate a chance to clear his head. When I got back, he'd found the brook and was drinking, kneeling next to it, cupping his hands.
"All's clear, spy-guy." I sat on a mossy log and leaned my rifle against it. "Okay, you're the expert. What now?"
Sitting back on his haunches, he took a deep breath, let it out slowly as though tasting it, then said, "We get the fuck out of here. Fill that canteen of yours, and let's think. I wasn't watching very well what direction we were going, the canopy's too thick, but, guessing by the way the trees are bent, we head off that way." He gestured to his right. "North by northeast. If we get too far west, we'll run into Myanmar patrols, I suspect." He cupped more water, then said in a low thoughtful voice, "Somethin's not right."
"Oh, really? Is that your expert assessment of the situation? Somethin's not right? Really." I had to stand up to pace around, had to. "Somethin's not right. What gave you your first clue, mister Bond? Learn that at spy school, didya'? Seems quite ordinary to me. Just last month I had a truck blow up under me. No big deal."
Ignoring me, as usual, he stood and put his hands on his hips. "Preemptive. The Burmese government found out about the meeting. It's a desperate act. Attack. Incursions. Patrols invading Kachin Land. At points along the border between Kachin and Shan territories. We need to get this information back to the general. The bamboo telegraph may be down. The men back in that settlement we drove through, it was empty. They must have been drawn out, baited, a tactic to clear the area in order to attack the caravan, assassinate the general and the others, the tribal elders." I could tell he was getting angry, in that weird cold way I've seen before, like when he discovered I was not who I said I was.
"While we're on the subject of something not right, what were those two men up front talking about just before the explosion? I got the impression they noticed something out of the ordinary?"
"Yeah, they did. The road was freshly scraped, smoothed over, the grass on the sides trampled and broken. It was pretty obvious someone'd been there. Such a private road. No one lives up there so you don't expect to see sign of traffic. No shit."
"No shit on the road, no goats or anything. So unlikely there'd be people, and even if there had been, they'd have no reason to be scraping the dirt. It didn't look right; they knew that, only not soon enough. We can't afford to lose any men. Losing those three, crack forces, not good.
"Let's think, my lunatic friend. The Shan Hills start to slope up through here, getting steeper as you go south. I'm guessing we're about 20 kilomters uphill." He rolled his pant-legs up, retied his boots, and off he went. I grabbed my rifle and followed closely. It was quite dense, so we gravitated towards game trails when we could. Crossing brooks and streams, slipping on rocks, scratching arms and hands. Finally, the sun was beginning to set, giving us direction through the canopy. But it also signaled impending nightfall if those 20 kilometers turn out to be more; it was already dark enough as it was. In the past, I've managed to get completely turned around, navigating through dense trees and inpenetrable brush, over brooks and around mini-hills. I remember long ago in another rainforest on another continent taking a landmark of a lightning-singed large fir as I hiked through, only to run into it again fifteen minutes later. It's easy to get lost in the woods. And we had no compass; didn't expect to need one.
We broke out onto an ox-cart and goat trail. It was a backwoods thoroughfare and we got on it. My host believed it was a spur off the private exploding road, but he couldn't be sure. It was angling easterly, so we'd have to make a course correction a few miles down, but it was a heck of a lot faster altogether than travel through the jungle. It's a misconception generally held that tropical jungles are completely impenetrable. In fact, because of the seamless covering of the canopy in the central monsoon rainforest, joined by moss and lichen, the floor is relatively clear. However, wherever you have groupings of downed trees and areas on the fringes open to sunlight, it can be pretty thick and bushy -- impenetrable, impossibly tangled thickets of thorn-stemmed berry bushes only Bre'r Rabbit could get through. In fact, on the hillsides devoid of trees, mainly farther south, there's nothing but thorns -- thorn forests -- terrain that gives real meaning to the word impenetrable. When we head back into the jungle, straight down the slope should get us to the church on time. That was the plan.
However, about a quarter mile along, sidestepping goat shit all the way, we heard voices and the crunching of dirt. We ran into the jungle in our preferred direction, and hid behind a clump of downed mossy teak. Six men, three on each side of the narrow goat trail, walked by, Mynamar flag patches on their shoulders and berets. We waited until all we could hear were birds and monkeys.
"Let's forget the road," my host stated as foregone fact. Grimly we proceeded to break trail, heading downslope perpendicularly, as much as we could in this tangled terrain. The tropical zones are the breeding grounds of life. When moving through the thick of it, you have to assimilate completely or be crushed by its suffocating weight.
At a break, my host pointed out, "If we'd been angling too far west, we'd of run across the main road by now, the Ledo. But if we're too east, we could go right by the church and not even know it. There's a river that runs near it, on the far side of the road. I'm betting these streams we keep stepping through are from it. We should follow one, a big one. When we get to the road, the Ledo, at least we'll know we're heading in the right direction. But going through the jungle, we could be almost anywhere on it, above or below the church. But the river's a different story. I'll know where we are relative to the church when we get to it. I've been up and down all of them a million times running opium.
"The Golden Triangle. A network of streams and rivers snaking all through the highlands, eventually draining into the Chao Phraya system, and on to Bangkok. Smugglers know which avenues are watched by the Thai army; the police aren't much of a problem. The Thai police were a client of the CIA back then, in the late fifties and sixties; I don't know about now, but I suspect it's business as usual. It's too lucrative a trade, taking off in the fifties, thanks, mostly, to the CIA, but other intelligence agencies had a hand in it as well; the Brits and French played a major role. Due to their encouragement, this area's now and has been the opium capital of all Asia. That's the history, in a nut."
After a quiet moment, he said wistfully, "My dad was a farmer. The Nationalist Troops, who's job it was to guard the Chinese border, came to our farm one day and threatend him into growing opium." He walked a few feet, then said, "That's how I got to know the river network."
As soon as he finished talking we heard a cracking sound. Then voices, quite a few, not trying to whisper. We buried ourselves under a clump of ferns. We could hear but not see men go by, heading off in the direction we'd planned. Shit, is all I could think of. But it wasn't just shit, I missed an appointment. This was the kind of shit when your life-force temporarily leaves you, and you're busted.
My comrade wanted to go after them, sneak up from behind and kill them. We had no idea how many there were, but they seemed to be purposefully heading towards the church where the general and others waited. All we had for weapons were my AK and 45; when I dragged him out of the humvee, grabbing his rifle too was an afterthought, well after. Our other choice was to head east, towards the Salween river. So many hours had gone by that it seemed likely by now that news of the incursions and targeted attacks had become known, and appropriate responses initiated. The general and friends probably were well covered, if not on their way back to main headquarters. But my associate seethed; he wanted to kill. And to tell the truth, I was beginning to feel that way myself.
Certain he was the better shot, I gave him my AK and together we tracked them. With all the noise they were making, it wasn't hard. I was taking his lead, of course, having no idea what to do and unsure if I could. This was not my fight and I had nothing to gain, but much to lose. Nevertheless, I felt as though I'd thrown in with these people, especially my host, and in any event -- I didn't exist -- so why not? The current state-of-affairs was precarious at best, and I was in the middle of it. I had to do whatever was called for. I couldn't very well just throw my hands up and say, Okay everybody, that's it, it's been fun and all but I'm through playing, time to go home.
Shots rang out ahead; we dove behind downed tree cover. Then laughter and loud talk. My host translated that one of them had killed a wild pig by accident, thinking it was an ambush. Strangely, I found that information reassuring. These people are careless and arrogant, in a word -- stupid. But, wouldn't the government send its best troops to assassinate the general? It didn't make sense. A thought: what if they're lost, heading towards where they think the main road is and have no idea what they're about to walk into? The point seemed moot to my host.
By the sound of it, they'd stopped to rest. We crept forward. Based on all the war movies I've watched, I did my best to be stealthy and quiet. Within 30 feet of them, crouched down behind a clump of ferns, we could see six in a small clearing. The six from the goat trail? I didn't know; it didn't matter. Four lay back in the brush, one stood -- ostensibly guarding -- and another sat cross-legged, his AK resting on his lap. They talked and smoked, a couple ate. My host gave me hand signals. He was going to charge straight ahead, I was to peel off to his right. My heart raced as my adrenaline rose, a swarm of bees buzzed inside my chest. He put the AK in lock and load, gave me one hard fierce look, then with more agility than I would've given him credit for, ran towards the group of Myanmar soldiers. Before they noticed him, he opened fire, first killing the one standing, then the four lying down. The last, who'd been holding his rifle across his lap, appeared to be in shock, but he recovered quickly and lifted his rifle to point at my associate. Without hesitating, I fired twice from a distance of no more than 15 feet, hitting him square in the chest.
I froze in place, adrenaline and fear charging my body. I killed someone, another human being. Blood rushed through my brain and down, turning my legs to jelly. My host had no such problem. Handing me my AK, he searched the men. He found a map -- a sketch actually -- leading down to the church -- X marked the spot. Taking one of their packs, he filled it with spare magazines and what food they had, grabbed a canteen and one of their AK's, and motioned for me to follow as he took off through the woods. Faltering at first, somehow I willed my legs to move. What have I done? There was no time to dwell on it. If any others were in the area, they would surely have heard the gunfire. We needed to get away and down the hill. He couldn't tell from the map how far away we were, but first, we'd have to cross the road.
We raced through the jungle like fish through an ocean, barely pausing to decide direction. Suddenly we broke out into a large clearing, a meadow, jungle-style, no trees but plenty of brush. Half-way across we heard the unmistakable sound of propeller blades off in the distance. In no time it was on us. Its loud speaker roared something in Burmese. I yelled to my host, asking what they were saying. He didn't bother to look back as he yelled, "Surrender."
We kept running for the nearest trees. Shots ripped the ground around us, pinging and tearing through the heavy leaves, clumps of dirt flying in all directions. My host zigged to the right, I copied, matching stride for stride. Shots continued to rat-tat-tat, he cursed and stopped, turned and fired at the chopper, I did the same. We kept firing as it flew over, hitting its underbelly and forcing the men shooting from its open doors inside. Directly underneath, they couldn't get a clean shot. It curved sharply for a return strafe. We booked for the trees and made it before they got within range, although that didn't stop them from shooting at us. Even though blinded by the thick canopy, they continued firing, shredding bark and exploding branches. We dove under a stash of downed logs and stayed put, waiting to see what they would do -- land or repel men down. Whatever the reason -- either we weren't worth the trouble, or they feared an ambush -- they flew straight ahead, firing sporadically. We abandoned our cover and moved away from the chopper at a sharp angle to its path, southeasterly.
We ran until we could no longer hear it, then collapsed on a mossy log to catch our breath. Sweat rolled off, stinging my eyes; mosquitoes swarmed over the bloody scratches on my arms and hands. After a time, my host pulled out some food rations. I had no idea what it was, but famished, I gorged it down using my fingers. The jungle was eerily quiet, even the birds and monkeys had taken cover. We drank in the silence, hiding in shadows.
Resisting the awareness that I'd killed someone didn't last long. The scene back there engulfed my mind. My skin crawled. I remember that man about to shoot my firend, as I now thought of him. It was an instinctive reaction. I may have saved his life, I don't know, but it's what I told myself which gave me some reprieve and justification. We sat for what seemed a long time before speaking.
"We've gone too far east," he said. "I can hear the Salween river, off down the hill." He took a sip of water, looked at me and asked, "Are you okay, my computer guy?"
I found my voice and replied, "I think so. Tired is all." I didn't want to talk about killing someone. After all, he'd shot five of them. Instead I concentrated on the job at hand, our current position. We listened for awhile, then, without a word, got up and worked our way down the slope, towards the river. He had incredible hearing, what to him was just down the hill turned out be about three miles.
We came out of the worst of the jungle to see a small village on the banks of the Salween. Hunkering down behind some cover, we checked out the scene, looking for Myanmar soldiers. It was another world, prosaic and peaceful. My host recognized a man rowing up to the bank in an open boat, long and narrow. He slapped me on the shoulder and we moved out, down the steep embankment, passed a few huts, striding directly towards the man. When he looked up from yarding his boat several feet onto the sandy beach, he blanched, startled and wide-eyed, then smiled broadly and approached. They shook hands and hugged, exchanging words unknown to me, but the tone was unmistakable. They were friends, old friends. In a more serious tone, my host recounted everything that'd happened from the time we first left the general's camp. I got the drift. His demeanor grim, the villager gestured towards a large hut down the bank and up into the treeline. He and my host walked together, still talking; I dragged behind, grateful for the relative safety and to be out of the jungle.
In front of his porch was a table on which sat a large porcelain bowl of water. We rinsed our faces, arms and hands, pouring some over our heads. He handed us a towel, laughing at our condition and attempt to clean up. It was like being baptized into a new identity.
We left our weapons on the porch. His home was simply yet elegantly furnished, carvings in rosewood stood on a table against the far wall -- an inner wall made of woven rattan -- paintings of local animals and birds adorned the other walls, and a thin but colorful print rug covered most of the main floor. He offered tea; we sat on cushions on the floor around a low table in the center of the main room, a view of the river could be seen through the open doorway. His generous hospitality warmed my heart and soothed my aching, overworked body and frazzled nerves.
They discussed the situation in english, the language of trade and commerce, for my benefit, I believed. His friend informed him that Myanmar troops were scattered over the entire area in small groups. Earlier in the day, they'd had a visit from a patrol boat, soldiers searching and threatening. Intimidation is their main tool against the locals, their own people, although you wouldn't know it.
I remember snippets from the conversation: "...it's all coming apart..." and "...we should've anticipated this..." and "...the alliance is in jeopardy..."
He served fish and rice with some greens from a pot on the tiny stove; he didn't bother to heat it up. At room temperature it was still infinitely tastier than the rations we'd eaten earlier. Over food, they talked in some Burmese dialect, more fluid and nuanced for them, in order to avoid uncertainties at this crucial juncture, I supposed. These were serious men, men used to being in the middle of extreme adversity and danger. I ate and drank tea and tried not to think; I only wanted to relax and immerse myself in the surroundings, absorb the sights and smells of the river, boats criss-crossing, rafting-up to talk, men placidly going about their day. After dinner, our host cleared the table and brought out a bottle of bourbon and three glasses, suggesting we could probably use a drink. He was very perceptive. As it was getting on towards dusk, he showed us where we could sleep, took our AKs to hide somewhere -- I held onto my 45 -- and left to take care of some business. I knew not what but I suspected my compatriot did. He and I retired to the porch, sitting in wicker chairs and drinking bourbon, watching the light from the sun behind the hill slowly dim. It had been one hell of a strange, tumultuous day, to say the least. Coming close to being killed, and killing someone were not experiences I wanted to get used to.
For awhile we just sat, taking in the air, the bourbon working its magic through my sinews. I tried to think of something to say, idle conversation for its own sake, a distraction, but nothing would come. The gravity of immediate reality held prominence. Is it always this way with those whose lives are beset by constant insecurity and the threat of imminent turmoil and violence? Fleeting slices of peace and goodwill so much more appreciated and savored?
I finally asked, "So the rush to the church to warn the general, that's off now?"
"Oh yeah, too much time's gone by," my comrade replied. "If they don't know by now, they never will. The church's basement is below ground, concrete reinforced. They'll be safe there and the grounds are probably swarming with Kachin soldiers. They might've even returned to base. We tried, but, as you may recall, distractions got in the way."
The drink loosening my tongue, I wanted to talk to him about the man I killed. I needed permanent absolution, a bona fide rationale for what I'd done; the temporary reprieve had almost timed-out, the weight of my offense bearing down. But, as though he'd read my mind, he said, "By the way, thanks for saving my life, twice." He raised his glass and smiled, "Here's to ya', mate"
We drank, I felt instantly forgiven, the load off my chest. I dragged him from that jeep, so his life was my responsibility. In the loss of my innocence, I grew; not as in ego-size or sense of stature, but as though the wizard had been seen behind the curtain, and it was too late to pull it back. A soberness, in spite of the bourbon and my weariness. No joy came with it; it was emotionless. I felt a visceral sense of presence, immediate and unfettered; a release from a confinement I didn't know existed. This is what I'm doing and who I am and that's that. I'd stepped through a film of awareness, details revealed themselves, crisper, unblocked. Morality? Right/wrong? Nothing to do with it.
I knew myself fairly well at ths point in my life. I mean, before diving out of that plane. Growing up without a father, knowing he was alive somewhere and could get in touch with me if he wanted, but chose not to, ever, for any occasion, eventually brought on great rage. My mother, frantically trying to care for not only me and my sister, but also her parents as well, all living in the same tiny house. The whole experience worked its way into my bones, and taught me to avoid doing anything that might lead to my abandonment, to be alone, on my own, so suppression became the order of the day, suppression of self coupled with the desire to please, to do the right thing. It was ingrained to the point where I couldn't tell it from me. I knew that much and had worked it out, to some satisfaction.
So killing that man to save my friend, an instinctive impulse. I didn't kill him because he was a soldier from an oppressive and cruel government that was trying to control my life through coercion and fear. No. He was about to kill my friend.
He called me mate.
"I have to get back," he said dryly. "Back home. First to the base to find out what's going on and collect my stuff. I have to get back and set-up, reconnect with the network, the bamboo telelgraph, my people, and get the news to MI6. They've been waiting for something like this. They have people in position all over the country. If nothing else, they can bring to bear information about troop movements through satellites and contacts. Configure and organize the larger picture from the many pieces. So I need to get back there. I'll find out first if it's safe, of course. I could set-up at base camp, but I'd be out of location. I have many visitors. After talking with the general and the other elders, I'll be able to better,..., assess the situation."
"But what about the leak? You never found out which story about the real computer analyst was true? Or if both of them were, they just weren't connected. Maybe he was captured and tortured, but didn't crack, didn't tell them about you and what you're doing here and where you live?"
"You don't know how they can torture," he said grimly. "He could've been eaten by a tiger, for that matter, and everybody's full of shit."
"Or he was captured but rescued before he got further than saying who he was? Then dropped on the beach, waiting for MI6 to come get him?"
"Sometimes you only know what happened by what doesn't happen afterwards." He took a drink, leaned forward, stared out as though spotting something unusual in the river, then said flatly, "But you're going another way. Crashing out."
My blood froze in its path; the wetness on my glass grew colder. The prospect of being on my own, in these circumstances, unthinkable. Walking across a desert or over mountains was one thing, nobody was trying to kill me, no other humans, anyway. "What do you mean, crashing out?" I tried to ask calmly.
"Our host went to make the necessary arrangements. Don't worry. In my opium smuggling days, he and I worked together, extensively. They're about to take a shipment down to Bangkok. Through the river network. Evading the Thai and Mynamar armies at the border. Rivers, canals, passages snake through. You'll go with them, concealed. Downriver, it'll take about two, maybe three days to get to Chiang Mai on the river Ping, then, a train to Bangkok, only takes about half a day. When you hit the streets of Bangkok, you can blend in with the Western tourists easy enough, plenty of those walking about. Get a hotel room." He threw me a roll of Burmese cash. "Here. You can exchange that at any bank, no questions asked. Stay out of trouble, your passport won't be stamped so you don't want the authorities checking you out. I'll give you a couple of names of cargo-boat skippers; they don't check passports." He looked at me carefully, that penetrating stare I'd gotten used to, then said, "It'll be all right, my friend. You'll be out of this mess in no time." He then poured us both more bourbon, we clinked glasses, and together we drank.
"You'll be going through beautiful country," he said, wistfully, the reliving of those times showing in his eyes. "In northern Thailand you'll go through deep river gorges, tree-covered mountains rising up at the steepest of angles on both sides, then sloping off, undulating away. And the rarest of birds and insects, found nowhere else. Homesteads on top of plateaus. People living independent from the central government. It's free, laid back, prosperous." Looking down at the dusky boat traffic, he smiled.
Abruptly, he spat at the sand and sat back, "Yeah, you'll love it," he finished, as he reached over to clink glasses again. It was that close, I thought. The lifestyles, cultures, surrounding social and political reality, the terrains and climates, can differ so radically over very short distances. One does not have to travel far to enter another world.
He talked of the highlands and the fields of rice, of the beauty of the cities, the temples, the ornatemental architecture. Such beauty everywhere. He advised me not to dawdle too long in Bangkok. And stay out of the parks at night. I committed to memory the skippers' names and their boats -- no paper -- his name was my ticket. After all this time, we finally introduced ourselves. He joked that if I were to be captured and tortured, I was to say nothing, to forget his name. At least, I imagined he joked.
That night I didn't have nightmares; I thought I might. No blood and guts and people bleeding to death, necks broken, jeep slowly, slowly, floating through the air, twisting, turning, ka-thudding over again onto its broken axels, bullets ringing off its metal hulk. No being shot at, repeatedly, from overhead, chasing, following every direction I turn, rat-tat-tat, loud speaker squealing, Surrender! None of that suff. Instead, I dreamed of Rebecca, and our secluded cove on that island off Tasmania, and the smell of her skin and her hair and the soft southern air. An unfamiliar sound woke me, a shell-mobile hanging from a rafter of the porch-roof had caught an updraft. From the floor on a mat I stared out the window at the full moon above the blackened peaks on the horizon, a silhouette pasted against the sky. Is that the same moon I saw in the Amazon, I wondered? On the Ocean, hiking across Australia, sitting in front of that cabin in the middle of nowhere? Is it? It seemed alien: larger, closer, more intimate, grainier.
I dozed off and some time later found myself waking up again with the faint light of pre-dawn coming through the window. And no hangover. Miraculously, I felt rested. The river air, I thought, the river air and the jungle mingled together. I rolled to my side to say good morning to my friend, but he had already gone. I knew he wasn't around some place else, on the beach or elsewhere. He was gone. For a moment, I just stared, disbelieving. But then, it struck me like a ton of bricks -- I'll never see him again. Embarrassed by the strength of my feeling, I sat up. But hasn't that been true of everyone I've met on my journey?
Bonds of friendship entangle the soul as well as the mind, what makes the difference? What is the essential ingredient? Trust? A deeper understanding? Risking your lives together?
The friend of my friend, the smuggler, whose name I don't remember if he ever told me, stepped across the threshold, smiled and said, "Let's have some tea." While he heated water, I dressed and went down to the beach and the bowl of water to wash my face. Toweling off, I turned to the river at the bottom of a gentle slope. It wasn't as clear as I'd first thought; could be the light, the sun not yet over the foothills. In spite of the mist rising off the river, on the other side I could see boats already at work, fishing and moving about. The village was split in two, both sides equally active and populated. Catching a chill, I hung the towel on the nail in the porch post and went back up. At the doorway I passed the smuggler on the way out, unaware of me, staring straight ahead, preoccupied. Hot tea sat on the table.
Sitting on the floor, I poured a cup, absently studying the steam rising, swirling and curling like tendrils of grey vines or Medusa's hair. I felt as though I could just sit there, still and alone, feeling the warming air on my sore body, the gentle smell of teak and sandlewood and strong acrid tea soothing every muscle, for a hundred years. I didn't want to go anywhere, but go I must.
The smuggler returned and went into the kitchen to make breakfast. I felt nervous. That kind of anxiety I used to feel when a kid and we were about to go out but all I wanted to do was sit around being comfortable, reading a book. I was withdrawing, in other words, knowing full well, however, that now was not the time. Maybe when I got situated on whatever boat I was to be concealed in, I could daydream. Maybe.
My new host and potential saviour served fish, rice and a few vegies with bread and more strong tea. Tea got them going, I guessed, like coffee back in America. Over breakfast he went over the itinerary.
"The Salween is a very fast-moving river. Now, not as fast as it can be. Only small boats are able to navigate it. We'll begin at the north end of the Shan Hills. Those mountains you see off in the distance." He gestured towards the open doorway. "A series of steep hilly ranges, average height about, oh, a thousand meters, alternating with wide expanses of grasslands, high plateaus and deep gorges, narrow river valleys. Many lakes on it. farther west and south we'll see Doi Inthanon, 2500 meters, the tallest mountain in Thailand, part of the Loi Lar Mountain Range which connects with the Tenasserim Hills farther southwest. The valleys are isolated, separated from one another by mountainous hills. Not many people living through there. We take a fork in the road, cut through the Tanen range onto the Ping. Not many know that the Salween and Ping connect, or where. You won't find it on a map. It cuts through deep, swift-moving river passages, surrounded by steep, convoluted, tree-covered hills, the hills of the Shan. They fiercely protect their homeland, but we are on the same side, so they shouldn't give us any trouble.
"Once on the Ping, we'll be in Thailand. Chiang Mai will come up on the right. Valleys, hills and forests. A rocky terrain, many tributaries and streams. I know them all. Right through the heart of the Golden Triangle."
I couldn't help but feel I was in a travel agency getting the lowdown on an adventure tour. Only without a safety net. I decided to look at it that way, at least until something horrible happened. All I have to do is not get killed.
He cleared the table and stacked the dishes in the kitchen. We drank tea in silence; I had the feeling he was going over last minute details. Considering the not entirely anticipated nature of the present set of circumstances, vis-a-vis -- the war -- his original plans might need to be altered. Even without having a clue as to the territory we were about to travel through, a journey such as he described, general as it was, had to have places along it that were significantly more dangerous than others, which now might be almost deadly.
He got up and went into the other room, momentarily he returned and tossed me a change of clothes. Mine were muddy and torn in places. Gratefully, I accepted, and thankfully, I didn't have to wear a sarong. I'd be wearing these when I got to Bangkok, so I didn't want any eye-brows raised. Plus, being a westerner, it would make me feel a little uncomfortable. I could buy new clothes in Chiang Mai, but you can't count on things like that working out. While I changed, he left. On the porch, I grabbed my rifle and the pack I confiscated from the Mynamar soldiers we left back in the forest, and turned at the doorway to fondly study the main room -- copper tea pot resting on table, carvings, paintings, luxurious rug -- and said my thank yous and good-byes.
I imagined a flotilla of small boats, two men on each, leg-rowing their way down the mighty Salween. But when I arrived at the makeshift dock at the river's edge, I was surprised to find two large identical boats, over thirty feet in length. A tiny pilot house sat on their bows. Curved roofs of thick canvas covered the decks amidships, beginning a few feet behind the cabin wall and ending a few from the stern. I counted nine men busy loading provisions and tying jugs of water firmly to side-rails screwed into the boat's gunwale just below the caprails. In the center of each sat the cargo, covered with a tarp securely tied down. Along the sides under the roofs were benches about 15 feet long.
The smuggler pointed to his boat, and I threw my stuff down on the starboard side bench. A man came over and, with a slight bow of his head, took my AK and stashed it into a storage compartment that ran the length of the cargo. When he opened the lid I saw several others and what looked like a container of ammunition. Food, blankets and what-have-you were then placed over them.
The smuggler proudly showed me the four-cylinder engine under the hatch-cover at the stern. I'd never seen a cleaner engine, and the bilge was dry. Diesel tanks -- saddle tanks -- were under the decking. They didn't hold much, but we'd be traveling without the engine for most of the trip downriver, silent running while the cargo was onboard. The engine's job was mainly to get the boat upriver on the return flight, or if speed was of the essence.
Just as the sun peaked over the far hills, we untied and the journey began. Two men at the opening behind the cabin and two at the stern leg-rowed us out into the current. The smuggler held the rudder, a large teardrop shaped hunk of wood. The whole thing, handle and stem, were of one piece. The canvas roof only came down to two feet above the caprails. I sat on the bench watching it all go by, the rocky shores, sandy beaches, drift logs bounding the river like guard rails on a freeway, villages on stilts at river's edge, then jungle, dense jungle; brooks and streams running down through stony beaches.
Soon after, we took a southerly fork in the road, venturing into the thick of the Shan Hills, a concertina of steep ridges and deep river gorges, forested protuberances and bumps spotting the land, thrust up long before the Himalayas. The tangle of jungle on the slopes blocked sight of the earth below. Interspersed, sheer rock faces, fractured and scarred, hundreds of feet high, stood out like giant slabs of granite placed on end by ancient gods. At the bottom of these escarpments, misshapened boulders and piles of sharp stones strewed the beaches. Gaining the plateau, the river narrowed considerably, slowing as it did so. The Shan Hills stretch into Thailand for hundreds of kilometers eastward. We cruised through its uncountable grooves, carved into a once unbroken surface over a period of millions of years.
Getting on to dark, I was offered fish and rice in a bowl which I ate with my fingers. The sunset was glorious, bright orange mingled with shades of yellow and vermillion. The night sky was clear and the moon shown almost as full as the previous night; it looked the same to me. Shadow figures moved about. They rowed with the certainty of a bat racing through the woods at night. They knew where they were and may have been using the stars. But, I was told, as we crossed the border into Thailand, we could expect rain, lots of rain the farther south we went.
It all seemed to pass in a blur. There was very little talking, and never any sign that anything was untoward, whatever that might be. I curled up on the bench and daydreamed about Rebecca. The swooshing sound of the river, its smell, and the movement of the boat, gently rocking side-to-side, lulled me to sleep. I dreamed I was in reindeer country, far away in East Siberia. I was sitting inside a reindeer-hide enclosure, a tiny stove at the doorway cranking away. Suddenly, the hide over the portal swung away and a large man wearing skins, his head covered in black fur, mukluks of reindeer and moose, strode in and sat down next to me. He took a piece of smoked reindeer out of his pocket and offered me some. I ate it, savoring the flavor.
While the wind and snow gradually intensified, we sat in the relative warmth and quietly drank tea. When I looked up from the black interior of my cup, a fire enclosed by stones burned in the center of what was now a teepee, the smoke exiting by way of an opening at the top. The skin-clothed man had transformed into a small-statured, wiry, brown-skinned indian wearing traditional shaman attire, at least that's how I interpreted it -- feathers, leggings embroidered with animals and geometric designs, tattoos, and hanging from his clothing -- pieces of silver and skeletons of birds and other small creatures. Vertical strands of rainbow-colored beads extending from collar to waist on the front of his rawhide shirt flickered through the spectrum in the unsteady firelight. It was so peaceful and serene, I couldn't tell where I left off and he began. He smiled at me and softly asked, "How do you like the tea?"
I must've been more tired than I thought since, when I awoke, a broad swath of pale morning light separated the peaks from the grey unfriendly sky over the river. I sat up, and as I drank tea from my canteen, the pelter of rain drops on the canvas roof and the deeper-pitched teeming sound from the river enveloped me. It began almost tentatively, but grew more sure of itself with each passing moment, the menacing clouds darkening by degrees towards the Thai border. The rowers stayed at their posts, however, ignoring the cloudburst. One man was asleep on the other bench, the smuggler now at his position. Apparently their strategy was to tie the rudder off along the center line in order to take breaks one or two at a time, depending on conditions. I wished I could relieve someone, but I knew nothing of leg-rowing and would probably fall overboard or lose an oar. At any rate, no one asked.
We were in the middle of the river, the current pushing strongly. Narrow though it be, the downpour reduced visibility considerably to the point where I couldn't see the beaches or the boat behind us, which had been maintaining a distance of not more than a hundred feet or so. We sped on, occasionally ripping passed a fishing boat close enough to be seen, lanterns on its bow and stern. Rain ricocheted off the river under the roof onto my back. I cocooned myself in a blanket from the storage locker and snuggled down for a long, hungry run. Off to the east I could see clouds breaking up, a few streaks of pale blue poking through. As quickly as it had come, the rain's intensity diminished to a gentle drizzle.
I was fantasizing about a bacon cheese burger covered in jalepino peppers when it was interrupted by a commotion near the bow. The diesel fired up, coughed a little smoke at first, then came on with spirit. The smuggler took the helm, talking into the radio; the others popped the lid on the storage and pulled their AK-47s out, clipped and ready to go. Without a word I was handed mine, obviously I was expected to use it. Confused but feeling adrenaline rise, I looked where they did. Staring through the rain off to the right of the bow I saw a bright light from a speed boat angling towards us. It was white-hulled with the now familiar flag of Myanmar flying atop its skinny mast.
Two men sat sideways at either side of me. The other two knelt on deck at either end of the bench. No gun muzzles extended over the caprail; we were waiting. I imagined similar preparations happening on our sister boat behind, which had narrowed the gap between us to only a few feet. The Mynamar soldiers would be confronting a sixty-foot long wall of automatic weapons fire any moment. A garbled insistent message bounced off the surface of the river and through the rain from the patrol boat's loud speaker. Everyone with me held tight. When the patrol boat got to within 100 feet, the smuggler said something into the mike and all hell broke loose. Automatic-weapons fire raked the speed boat, shattering the windshield and ripping the tiny pilot station to smitherines, killing the driver. Another soldier was hit and fell backwards over the nether rail into the river. The remaining two hunkered down behind the gunwale, but the boat was out of control and heading directly for us, giving them scant protection. We continued firing without pause as the soldiers' boat raced towards us, in fact, aiming right at me.
Never have I heard anything louder or more angry. One of the soldiers crawled the short distance to the steering station, but was shot to pieces as he attempted to stand. Falling away, he made a desperate grab for the wheel, the boat jerked, the bow rose high, then slapped down, now angled towards the beach upriver. As we raced downriver, putting distance between us, we continued our attack until it was out of range. Its entire right side was in tatters. Military helicopters, with which I was quite familiar at this point -- a person only needs to have one try to kill him to be experienced, as far as I was concerned -- would most likely be the end of the world as we know it. Perhaps the low cloud cover would deter such action; I didn't know. The other hope was that shredding the plastic boat had left no one alive, or at least, killed the radio.
Sometimes we only find out what happened by what doesn't happen afterwards. But the other half of that is: assume the worst, and act. The skipper, no fatalist, was busy on the radio, ostensibly talking to the other boat. My intuition told me an audible was in the works. I imagined that plans included the possibility of something like this, and accordingly a back-up contingency was being put into motion. If nothing else, I had faith in their resourcefulness and experience.
The diesel droned on. The men laid their weapons on the cargo, accessible and dry, then sat on the benches and ate, chattering lightly as though what had happened was all in a day's work. The rain had practically stopped, sunlight poked out over the hills bright and piercing. The clouds were dispersing, spreading apart like louvers of grey slats slowly opening, tearing apart into ragged-edged islands of discontent. Adrenaline having run its course, the misty air off the river chilled my bones. Shivering, I wrapped the blanket around my shoulders and was handed a bowl of something called mohingar, a mixture of rice-noodles and gravy made from fish and assorted ingredients. I could taste onion, garlic and ginger, the rest I wasn't completely sure, although there had to be lemon, always lemon. Baskets of mangoes and tangerines sat on deck, a handy energy boost for anyone to grab.
My mind drifted back to the furious gun battle, brief though it was. There were only four soldiers on that 20- to 25-foot plastic speed boat, and yet they had the arrogance and sense of invulnerability to charge two bigger boats obviously running together, occupants unknown, reason for being, unknown. I remember that same kind of carefree recklessness about the men we killed in the jungle -- walking, talking and laughing as though going to a party. Tyrants and bullies always make the same mistakes in the end. Rule by intimidation and force, coercion and cruel contempt eventually falls victim to its own hollowness and loses out to life and freedom, no matter how long it takes.
After a brief interlude, rain came back stronger, pelting the canvas roof like tiny stones, yet not with its initial intensity. It was as though it'd wanted to show us what it could do and, satisfied with the demonstration, split the difference and settled in. The wind quieted as well. Staring into any direction was like looking through curtains of falling beads, one close on the heels of the other, splashing into the uneven river. I was getting a crash course in the many species of rainfall. If only the Atacama desert of Peru and the expanse of the Outback could share some of this. But then, I thought, they wouldn't be what the are. The silhouette of Doi Inthanon, truncated half-way up by thick black rain clouds, could be seen far off to the southwest, well inside Thailand. We were about two-thirds of the way, getting towards the end of the second day out. The Tenasserim Hills lay ahead.
The river narrowed as we entered a series of low, spiky ridges. The western slope was clearly thicker with trees and brush than the eastern. I couldn't see how anyone could live along here. The beaches were rocky and the jungle began immediately beyond the river's edge, the slope angling sharply upward. But as we came around a bend, a few huts on stilts seemed to pop out of the jungle, fishing boats tied to rocks near the edge. Residents stared as we passed, some waved, not fifty yards away. We slowed to forestall the inevitable wake, but still and all, a stiff wave washed up onto the beaches, undulating several boats tied to rocks. As I watched the wake hit the beach, cascading over the boulders, I noticed that no one else onboard bothered to look back, intent as they were on facing forward.
Rounding the next bend we found nothing but rough and rugged wilderness, the kind that looks unspoiled by human traffic, the kind you don't want to get lost in. As the day wore on, we turned down one fork after another; I couldn't keep track of how many or which way we chose. No markers appeared, no signs pointing with convenient names -- this many kilometers to so and so -- they knew the river system like the branches of a familiar tree, making navigational decisions unhesitatingly on the fly.
Abruptly the river spread out, the valley widening expansively, maybe four or five times the last. It was a straight shot for several miles. However, surprisingly, no one lived here either. It seemed like a good spot to me: the river slowed, streams emptied into it, waterfalls ricocheted off jagged rocks down limestone crevices. But it felt creepy. Something was amiss. Then I saw. On the right side, flattened huts, bracings stacked like pick-up sticks behind moss-covered rocks and driftwood. Signs of burning singed most of it. The destroyed village went on for a mile. No boats or any sign of life.
None of the crew said anything. They looked, but, except for whispered sentiments, made no comments. The drone of the diesel echoed through the valley, that was all. Maybe last time they were through here it was a thriving fishing community: men, women, children, dogs, cats, goats, chickens. I didn't know, of course, and it didn't seem appropriate to ask. I was saddened and outraged by what I imagined happened here; I knew I couldn't be far off from the facts.
At the end of the run, the river forked again. We went left and the other boat peeled right. I felt strongly that a major mistake had just been made. One of us went the wrong way. Reading my shocked look, the skipper smiled and said, "Better to split up. If they are seeking us from above, they'll be looking for two boats. This is the place to do it. We will meet again farther downstream, when we pass through the Tanen Mountains and enter the land of the Thai." He then continued on to the wheel to relieve that man.
I watched him walk forward. Just above his head, Doi Inthanon momentarily appeared out of the darkness, an apparition, closer and even more foreboding. After rounding a bend heading westerly, the rain tapered off to a drizzle. Unpredictable micro-climates swayed the course of events, all through this rumpled-up series of ridges and deep watery valleys. As the wind passed over one, it caused turbulence in another. Then around the next, aiming due south, it downpoured, dark and ominous. And the diesel played on. Because of running with the engine before they wanted to, we had to be making much better time. They'd have to fuel up before returning, but they wouldn't have any cargo to worry about. Just two work boats heading home.
Because of the thick cloud cover, twilight was indistinguishable from dusk and finally evening. The adrenaline rush had run its course, no amount of food or fruit was going to dispel my exhaustion. I was spent. A headlamp I hadn't seen before came on, lighting up the entire valley from bank to bank. I curled up on the bench and, despite the muggy warmth, pulled the blanket up over me. I needed to escape, sleep was my way out. Listening to the tearing sound the boat made plying through the river, I nodded off.
I dreamed a familiar dream. I was in a large house, my house. People were everywhere. A stairway to the second floor was cluttered with people sitting and chatting, drinks in their hands. It had no banister. I weaved my way through the crowd to my bedroom. No one was there. I lay down and pulled the blanket up to my chin and looked down at my body. The blanket was completely smooth, no wrinkles. Anxiety flooded my nervous system, followed closely by genuine fear. Voices of the multitude filtered in. The doorknob turned. A man walked in wearing a holloween costume of Abraham Lincoln. Smiling, he offered me a drink from a bottle he was carrying. I said nothing but I wanted him to go away and he sensed that, I could tell. He sat in a chair near the door. He started to speak but I couldn't understand a word he said. Suddenly there was shouting from beyond. The house was on fire, I could hear people running. He continued to sit, smiling and drinking as though everything was fine. I was afraid to move, to save myself. Then, all went black, black and soundless.
When I awoke, sunlight filtered through the clouds, thin as they were. The rain had ceased. There was no sound or movement. Alarmed, I threw the blanket off me and sat up. We were tied to a dock, the other boat behind us. Two men sat on the cargo eating from bowls with their fingers. They were facing away towards the opposite bank, talking quietly. No one else was onboard. All weapons, including mine, were out of sight; in the locker, I presumed. Bullet casings and all evidence of a gunfight had been removed. I stepped onto the dock. High mountains surrounded us. The air smelled pure and dampish sweet. People were everywhere. I spotted the skipper and approached. He was busy talking to two other men, but turned to me as I neared.
Smiling he said, "I've arranged transport for you. It's not far to Chiang Mai from here, maybe an hour at best, the roads are not good, mud. You must've been very tired, we let you sleep. You should eat first."
Taken aback and not quite awake, I tried to think of what to ask. "I need to exchange money." I showed him my roll of Burmese cash.
He nodded and said, "When you get to the train station, very large, modern, built for tourists. There will be a bank and restaurants. Signs are in French and English. You should have no problem, my friend. Just pretend to be a tourist."
I didn't have the heart to tell him that that was exactly what I was. It all seemed so surreal after what I'd gone through. Like stepping out of one dream into another. Groggy, I returned to the boat to eat and drink cold tea from my canteen. Another crewman stepped onboard and sat next to me. He spoke broken english, rough but understandable. Laughing at my capacity for sleep, he informed me we were on the Ping in a town about thirty miles above Chiang Mai province. The other two men turned my way and smiled. They said something in Burmese that sounded like a commendation. The one who spoke english told me they were thanking me for fighting with them. That we were now brothers. I was deeply moved. The english speaker stood, patted me on the shoulder and wished me a safe journey, then stepped back onto the dock.
Brothers. I looked about at the gritty scene: the well-worn deck planks; the rough canvas roof, protector from the deluge; and the tiller standing at an angle, proud and tough. And in the middle under the tarp, enough opium to keep hundreds of addicts happy for months.
The sun poked through, teasing, wisps of fog drifted aimlessly off the river. The smuggler/skipper stepped on and asked if I was ready. I almost choked on my tea. Butterflies fluttered in my chest; my heart raced. No, was all I could sputter. But I could tell he was anxious to get back on the road. I finished my bowl of mohingar and replenished my canteen with hot tea from the tiny propane stove at the stern. I gave him my AK as thanks. He chuckled and said that was a good idea, I might stand out when I got to Chiang. My 45 and holster I crammed into my pack along with half a dozen tangerines. The blanket, I folded carefully and laid on the bench, fondly thanking it. It didn't take much, I was as ready as I would ever be. The other crewmen said their good-byes and wished me a safe journey; I reciprocated. We shook hands and I stepped onto the dock, following the smuggler. After a few feet, I stopped and swiveled to study the boat, examining its every detail, especially the bullet holes along the hull and those in the canvas roof, wishing I had a camera. We risked our lives together; not something a person takes lightly. Whispering a heartfelt good-bye, I rejoined the skipper standing next to a pick-up at the end of the dock.
He introduced me to the driver who, although rough-looking with a deep scar on his left cheek, seemed likable enough. Underneath his friendly exterior, I could tell he was no one to mess with. Ordinarily, that would set me on edge, but considering his friendship with the smuggler and where we were, I instead found it reassuring. I thanked the skipper and told him if he ever met my host again, to say hello. He gave me a warm hug, then jokingly pushed me away and told me I needed a shower. We both laughed as he walked towards the boat, waving a hand without looking back as he did. I stared at him until he was out of sight under the canvas roof. My driver slapped me on the arm and said, "Let's go, we're burning daylight."
The thought of John Wayne way out here sent a rush of pleasure through my body. That's who these people need.
We rumbled down the muddy road, sidestepping potholes and occasional rocks. Sunbreaks dotted the otherwise thinly-covered sky. The scenery of trees and majestic mountains was rejuvenating. Doi Inthanon was now squarely to the west. Absently, I waved to it, a landmark of demanding and memorable character. My driver chain-smoked and sang to himself. Otherwise, he said little in spite of apparently knowing english. People in these parts were rather circumspect when it came to handing out information, even harmless information. I could tell he was Burmese; perhaps his experiences had left him wary of strangers, or anyone, for that matter, who might get caught-up in a sweep and tortured into revealing anything that might get them into trouble. It was best to not inquire too deeply. So I tried talking about the area, the geography. He was well-informed. He loved the area, he said, but missed home. He told me his village had been forcibly relocated by the Myanmar army. In the process his wife had been killed for no apparent reason. He then grew very quiet, no longer singing. I chastised myself for unintentionally reminding him of such a tragedy. But before long, he was humming again, the same tune over and over; it sounded like a lullaby.
Still hungry, I peeled a tangerine. As I finished it off, the road suddenly joined one of asphalt with a staggered yellow stripe down its center. He told me we were almost there and gave me the overview. As it abuts the border, we'd been in Chiang Mai Province the whole time, but secondary roads were usually unpaved; now we were on a legitimate highway heading straight for city-center, the second largest city in Thailand. There were almost a million people living in the area. Chiang Mai is spread out, built around the jungle in the outlying areas, surrounded by north-south mountain ranges. I sipped warm tea and thought of the boat and crew and what we'd shared. A rafting trip down the Colorado would seem like child's play now.
Rocky and hilly, trees edging the winding road; that's my major impression as we came down from the heights to Chiang Mai proper. His instructions were to take me directly to the train station. I had thought to do some touristing around this grand city, but it was raining with purpose and I was already weary of it, so I decided to just get the hell out of dodge. I thanked him, he said nothing back. Just lit another cigarette, smiled and drove off, leaving me in the parking lot holding my pack. The station was not what I'd anticipated. It was small by American big-city standards, which I actually preferred, not wishing to wander around in an O'Hare-sized building. I found the bank easy enough and had no problem exchanging money, thank God. I don't know what I would've done if I'd been refused. Trains run to Bangkok several times a day. I purchased a ticket, went to the platform and sat down to wait, patiently peeling another tangerine.
It was all so weird, so beyond the pale. I didn't even want to think about what'd happened in the past two weeks. Had it only been that long? It was the end of June or the beginning of July, I wasn't sure and didn't care, really. As I chewed on the last of the tangerine, savoring its delicious simplicity, the train pulled up. I showed my ticket to the conductor at the car-door, found a seat and plopped down next to a window, my pack on the seat beside me. I was tired and filled with a mix of sadness and compassion. I'd never be back there again. What would happen to those people? My friend, the host and spy. What of him?
The train jerked out, noisily gaining speed. Supposedly I'd be in Bangkok in 15 hours. I studied the landscape for awhile, the central plains of farms and distant mountains, homesteads and tiny villages, crossing rivers, racing down hills. The intermittent rain ceased about midway, the sun breaking out like a prisoner given parole. Listening to the rhythmic clicketty-clack, I curled up on the seat using my pack for a pillow and dozed. In and out of sleep, I jerked awake when I heard the engine drop a frequency or two. Were we there already? Looking out my window west I could see the sun was low. As my eyes adjusted to the light, culture shock set in. Between the Thai citizens and the unregistered immigrants, six million people live here, and when you count the enormous tourist traffic, it was a little overwhelming. The city spread out in all directions, up as well as sideways; it was indeed another world entirely.
The train station was enormous compared to Chiang Mai; my overall impression at first was Ney York City, Asia version. Outside, I jumped into a three-wheeled taxi, of which there were millions, and took a chance speaking english. My driver understood, probably a necessity, and took me to a hotel closer to downtown. Not knowing what money meant, I don't know if it was expensive or not. I didn't care, I had enough, that's all that mattered. Before going to my room, I walked around looking for a clothing store. Wasn't hard to find. I bought a pair of jeans, socks and two button-down shirts. My room was gorgeous and over the top. I stood in the shower way past cleanliness, my back to the nozzle letting the hot water hit my neck and run down my back, folding my arms and standing quite still as though dazed. I needed to completely reorient myself. Did I want to spend time touring Bangkok, I'm sure it has a great deal to offer? Should I first go to the harbormaster's office and find where the two boats I was to contact lay? Or should I order a bottle of bourbon from room service and watch TV? The hot, soothing spray coursed every muscle of my back. And there it was, right in front of my eyes -- Rebecca. Find Rebecca. How?
Room service was prompt. I had no idea what food I ordered, but it was certainly tasty, heavy on the Indian spices. Curry and garlic stood out, the rest I don't know. It was getting dark and I was tired from traveling, not having slept very well on the train. I popped the bourbon, but didn't watch TV. Instead, I stared out my third-floor window at the city, what I could see of it. Downtown skyscrapers, tourist streets already packed, motorbikes and three-wheeled cabs, traffic jams, people jams -- teeming. I kicked back and drank, recollecting all I could, from the time I disembarked from the Korean umbrella boat, till now. It was a bourbon-ish trip down memory lane. The room was quiet. No one shooting at me; no swift, turbulent river currents; no tigers or snakes lying in wait. It was perversely depressing, so I drank myself to sleep.
I dreamed of waking up on a sandy beach, the air, warm and salty; the sand under me, soft, yielding. I sat up to watch Rebecca walking towards me through the waves after her morning swim, smoothing back her long black hair. She notices me gazing at her and smiles back. Laughing, she stands over me and shakes her hair; the sea is warm today. She then lays down next to me, the air off the sea caressing, lightly playing with her hair; her dark-tanned cheeks bright, her still-wet skin glistens as it dries. A loud buzzing noise comes from above, getting louder. The scene shatters into a million shards of time and space. I slammed the button down on the alarm clock and lay, fretting, the sun peaking through the gap in the drapes.
I took another shower, a quick one, donned my new duds, and found out from the desk clerk where the port was. He gave me the general direction and miles, then, seeing me as a tourist, called a cab. The streets were jammed, even at this early hour. Yea, New York city. I payed the cabby off and entered the expansive harbormaster's office. Bangkok is Southeast Asia's leader in imports and exports, a center for container ships and all sizes of cargo vessels. Without help, it would not only be like trying to find a needle in a haystack, it would be downright impossible. I approached the desk hoping to find an english speaker, particulary a cooperative one. He spoke english better than I did. Yes, he knew both boats but only one was in port at the moment. My heart dropped a bit, but it could've been worse. He gave me the dock name -- there were too many to use letters -- and the number of his slip and a map. You are here, and you want to go there. He drew a line. It was a long but not unpleasant walk. Giant forklifts carried forty-foot trailer containers like they were so much pillow stuffing. It was indeed busy. Due to security issues in this golden age of terrorism, I had to circumvent the actual dock area and stay on the sidewalk that bounded the harbor.
I've always been really good with maps, so I had no trouble following directions. The ships were enormous at first, but farther down towards the end of the dock sat shorter cargo vessels. The one I was looking for turned out to be about 200-feet, a twin-screwed power scow, wheelhouse on the stern. I climbed onboard and was immediately confronted by a hand. He wasn't unfriendly, just serious and territorial. Also, suspicious and wary. I got right to it; I told him who I was looking for, the skipper. He pointed up to the bridge, then walked towards the bow. The skipper was busy poring over charts and didn't bother to look up when I entered. I cooled my heels by the door. Still studying the chart, he said, "What is it?"
I told him my Burmese host's name and why I was there. My heart sank. This isn't going to work. I'm in the wrong element. He put the chart down on the slanted table and laughed. "That son-of-a-bitch. How is the old coot?" He couldn't have been any younger, so this was probably some inside joke, I figured. Laughter was a good sign, though. He motioned for me to sit in the mate's chair while he got on what appeared to be a satellite phone. Walking to the other side of this twenty-foot wide house, I could hear him talking in serious yet warm tones. I recognized the language as the same Kachin dialect I heard my host and general speak. He turned to me and asked my name and what my favorite drink was. I told him, guessing the drink to be margarittas, what else?
He'd made it. I wanted to talk to him, to say something, anything, to hear the story of how he made it back, what trouble had he run into, if any, to hear his voice. But after a flourish of salutations and heartfelt hopes for success -- I got that much without a translation -- the captain hung up before I could ask.
He came over, I stood up, we shook hands. "Here's the deal," he said. "We're short of hands so there's a few cabins available. Two meals a day, breakfast and dinner in the galley, the rest of the time you have to forage like the rest of us."
I had mixed feelings but didn't know why. It sounded good to me. Only thing was, "Where are we going?" It felt strange asking it; I never much cared before.
He led me over to the chart table and out of the pile pulled a chart of Indonesia. He drew a line with his finger from Bangkok harbor, around island groups, then through Sundy Strait, separating Sumatra and Java, and out onto the Indian Ocean. As I studied it, he said, "Hobart. Hobart, Tasmania. Non-stop." He laughed and shrugged. "We carry valuable cargo, they need it right away and are willing to pay the price."
I was in shock, for sure, this time. Non-stop to Tasmania. I was about to ask how fast his ship could go, when he said, "When we get out on the freighter lanes, on the ocean, we'll be doing twenty knots, more if we catch the right current and the weatherman can be trusted. Winter's begun in the south, but we have a window, so we travel as fast as we can. It's a long way downunder. Might take a week, a week and a half, depending."
He studied me with that same kind of scrutiny my host used to, then said calmly, "We leave tomorrow as soon as we get clearance. So be onboard by, no later than eight in the morning. Okay, sorry, I got things to do. See ya' later. When you come back, I'll get my mate to show you your room and the galley, take you on a tour. All right?" he finished and turned to his charts; I was dismissed.
I barely stumbled down the outside steps to the deck. Standing on the dock I examined the boat, committing it to ultimate memory. Where it sat -- I counted the boats in front of it to the street. This is the right door, I thought. Wasting no time and not actually wishing to pay for another night --what would I do, just sit nervously awake waiting for the morning -- I gathered up my stuff and checked out. It was dusk by the time I got back, traffic was horrendous and the hike to the ship was no picnic either. I stood on deck, my pack over one shoulder, wondering unsurely if I should bother the skipper again when a man came down from the bridge and introduced himself as the first mate. He'd been expecting me and offered dinner, which I gratefuly accepted. But first, my room. Small, simple, but cozy and perfectly fine, complete with a large portal to view the passing sea and sunsets.
I was treated like a VIP, first class, not merely as extra baggage to be maintained and deposited at journey's end. My MI6 host and the skipper must go back aways, maybe back to their young scuffling days: spies together, field operatives, opium smugglers, living outside the lines, favors freely given, for all time.
I sat with him on his quiet back porch in the shade, facing the jungle, drinking margaritas with ice.
When I awoke the next morning, we were plying through the Gulf of Thailand heading past Malaysia and Singapore off to our right. I went to the galley and ate, then, feeling engulfed by the workings of the huge ship, returned to my cabin. Rebecca, I said out loud. I needed a plan, a strategy. The whole of Tasmania is only 180 miles across from north to south. It'll be winter when we get there. Rebecca doesn't care for winter, I know she doesn't. She might be gone. I don't know, it doesn't matter. This is my life. I'll look till I find her.
Six Months Later
Flat stones skipped across the shallow waves. They were competing and lying about the number of times and laughing at themselves. Warm air tenderly caressed their skin. Vermilion, shading to orange to pale blue to violet mottled the sky like smeared fingerpaints as the sun sank beneath the sea. They watched. Two lovers. Holding hands. On the beach.