Friday, February 27, 2009

Secret American Empire - Ch.2

Pirating Lepers

It was a typical Jakarta evening, hot and sticky. Heavy clouds hung over the city, threatening rain. I had never left the hotel before, except in my private chauffeured jeep. As soon as I stepped off the curb of the hotel's sweeping driveway, I was nearly run down by a three-wheeled bicycle cab, known as a becak. I had passed hundreds while being driven to various meetings and had always found the rainbow-colored murals painted on the boxlike sides of the high seats picturesque, quaint reminders that Indonesia was a land of artists. Now I saw another aspect; these drivers were impoverished men in rags desperately competing for customers. They rushed at me ringing bells and shouting to get my attention. In an attempt to avoid being run over I nearly stepped into a gutter that was black as tar, littered with garbage, and reeking of urine.

The gutter drained down a steep incline to one of the many canals built by the Dutch during the colonial era. Now stagnant, its surface was covered with a green and putrid-looking scum; the stench that arose from it was nearly intolerable. It seemed preposterous that the inventive people who had turned the sea into farmland had attempted to recreate Amsterdam amid this tropical heat. The canal, like the gutter that fed it, overflowed with debris. I could even distinguish the two by their distinctive stenches. The gutter had an immediacy about its odor, rotting fruit and urine, while the canal carried a darker, longer-term pungency, the mixture of human excrement and decay.

I continued along, dodging the bicycle cabs that hugged the sides of the road. Beyond them, in the mainstream of the thorough-fare, was a frenzy of automobile and motorbike traffic; the sound of honking horns, backfiring engines, and muffler-deprived cars was overwhelming, as was the acrid stench of oil on hot pavement and gas fumes in the humid air. The weight of all this began to impact me physically.

I stopped for a moment, feeling assaulted and defeated. I was tempted to give up and return to the serenity of my hotel. Then I reminded myself that I had endured the Amazon jungle and had lived in mud shacks with peasants in the Andes who survived on a daily ration of a potato and a handful of legumes and, when asked to name their children, would include the dead as well as the living, the former often outnumbering the latter. I thought about the other members of my team and about all the traveling Americans who intentionally avoid seeing the countries they visit the way the majority of the people living there see them. I was suddenly struck by the realization that my experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer – the bonds I had forged with some of those people; the way they had opened their lives to me; shared their meager provisions so selflessly; welcomed, warmed, nurtured, and even loved me – had profoundly impacted me. Standing alone in the descending Jakarta night, I had to wonder whether I was really cut out to be a pirate. How could I rape and pillage the becak drivers, the young men and women who served me at the hotel and in the offices I frequented, the peasants toiling in their rice paddies, the fishermen, seamstresses, shopkeepers, and carpenters? It was one thing to be a Robin Hood stealing from the rich or a pirate attacking Spanish galleons laden with the king's gold, and quite another to loot the poor. Yet that was exactly what I was being called upon to do; I would rob from the poor and give to the rich – and in the process receive my commission. How could I do it? How could Charlie Illingworth and everyone else with related jobs live with themselves?

In that moment I had to accept my personal responsibility, had to acknowledge the possibility that my years in Ecuador had given me a perspective unlike that of the others who did my type of work or the citizens whose taxes supported us. I had been blessed – or cursed – with insights shared by few Americans. Everyone found ways to rationalize. Charlie fought the Communists. Others were simply profiteering. “A dog-eat-dog world,” they said. “My family comes first.” Some wrote off other races or classes as inherently inferior or lazy, deserving whatever misfortunes befell them. A few, I supposed, actually believed that investing fortunes into electrical grids would solve the world's problems. But me: What was my justification? I was a young man who suddenly felt very old.

I stared down at that canal. I wished I had a copy of tom Paine's Common Sense so I could hurl it into those rank waters.

My eyes were drawn to something I had not spotted before. A large and battered cardboard box slumped, like a collapsed beggar's hat, near the edge of the stagnant water. As I stared, it shuddered, reminding me of a fatally injured animal. Figuring I was delusional, that the heat, fumes, and noise had gotten the better of me, I decided to resume walking; but before I turned, I caught a glimpse of an arm protruding from around the side of the box – or rather, what appeared to have once been an arm, not reduced to a bloody stump.

The shaking intensified. The bloody stump moved along the edge of the box to a corner at the top. It shot straight up. A nest of black hair followed it, appearing like Medusa's snakes above the box, knotted and mangled with mud. The head shook itself and a body began to emerge, up until now hidden by the box, a body that sent waves of revulsion through me. Bent and emaciated, the body of what I took to be a woman crept along the ground to the edge of the canal. It struck me that I was seeing something I had heard about all my life but never encountered before. This woman, if that in fact was her gender, was a leper, a human being whose flesh was decaying right before my eyes.

At the canal's edge, the body sat down, or, more accurately, collapsed into a pile of rags. The arm I had not seen before reached out and dipped a tattered cloth into the fetid canal water, shook it slowly, and wrapped it around the bloody stump, which had several open wounds where fingers should have been.

I heard a groan, and realized that the sound came from me. My legs wobbled. I had an urge to race back to the hotel, but I forced myself to remain at that spot. I had to bear witness to this person's agony. I knew in my heart that any other action was futile. This woman's struggle was probably repeated several times a day by her alone. I wondered ho many other abandoned souls were performing such doomed rituals here in Jakarta, throughout Indonesia, in India and Africa.

A movement caught my eye, another twitching of the cardboard walls. The leper turned slowly to stare at the box. Her face was a blur of red pustules; it lacked lips. I followed the sunken eyes.

A baby's head came into view beside the box. I wanted not to watch but was fascinated, like a man witnessing a murder he is powerless to stop. The baby crawled toward the woman. It sat down beside the leper and began to cry. I could not hear the sound, either because the voice was too weak or the traffic too loud, but I could see the open mouth and the spasms of the little body.

The leper suddenly looked up and spied me watching her. Our eyes met. She spit onto the ground, rose to her feet, shook her bloody stump at me, caught the baby up in her arms and, scurrying faster than I imagined possible, disappeared back inside the box.

As I stared at the spot where the woman had been, something bumped my back. Instinctively, I whirled and reached for the wallet in my hip pocket. I was relieved to find it was still there and relieved also by the distraction. Two attractive young women sauntered by. They giggled and smiled at me. One wore tight jeans, the other a revealing miniskirt. Spiked heals and halter tops. They stopped. “No pickee pockets.” the one in the mini said. “We lohvas.” She crooked her finger. “Come. Lohve us.”

I shook my head.

“Oh, he like boys,” she said. They turned away.

Up ahead of them, a pedestrian bridge crossed over the frantic traffic. They strolled toward it, two tigresses on the prowl, flaunting the sexuality of their swaying hips. The one in the mini turned, grinned, and waved at me. Then they headed up the steps of the bridge.

I glanced at the cardboard box. It did not move. A little breeze came up, sending ripples across the canal. I was half tempted to clamber down and hand that woman all the cash in my wallet, but then I spotted her tattered cloth lying on the ground where she apparently had dropped it in her haste to get away from me. I thought it best to allow her the dignity of her privacy. I hurried toward the pedestrian bridge, having no idea where it might take me.

The sun sets quickly and brilliantly along the equator. But on this day the heavy clouds created a deception, letting the light linger until suddenly, by the time I reached the bridge, it was nearly dark. On the other side, a neon sign flashed RESTAURANT in English. I climbed the stairs.

A tall woman leaned against the railing. In the failing light, it was difficult to be certain, but she looked beautiful. When I cam abreast of her, she said in a shockingly husky voice, “I yur good time man. We fuki fuki.” She pointed at her Adam's apple, made it bob, then her ass, and gave me a smile. Now I saw the layers of makeup. I hurried on.

Several street lights suddenly flickered to life at intervals along the bridge. They sputtered irregularly and cast an eerie yellow glow that gave the place a hazy, almost swampy look. I stopped beside one of them, thinking that my job of forecasting electricity demand must involve researching such things. The cement pillar was cracked, flaking, and dappled with mold. I avoided touching it.

I walked on, staring down at my feet and the pock-marked floor of the bridge. Rusty bits of rebar protruded from the concrete, like angry maggots in the swampy yellow light. I tried to think about the bridge, its age, the men who had built it, and yet I was distracted. An image of that beautiful woman at the hotel pool had crept into my mind. In a way it was a welcome relief from the reality surrounding me; but it also haunted me. I could not erase her from my mind. The idea that I had fallen in love and been abandoned swept through me; I assured myself that this was absolute foolishness.

I glanced up in time to see that I had nearly reached the steps at the other end of the bridge. The RESTAURANT sign was immediately in front of me, attached to the roof of a low complex of buildings on a street set back from the main highway. Below, in smaller letters, it read: Fine Chinese Meals. A black sedan, similar to ones at the US embassy, slowly approached the restaurant. The lone vehicle seemed out of place amid the city hustle. 

-  pages 19-24, The Secret History of the American Empire

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