The Wayang Kulit

The party at the table up front drank, yammered in Bahasan, and leered at the floor show.  I noticed a small, greasy guy in a white suit who fondled a carved cane and glanced our way occaisionally with fidgety, bug-eyed intensity.
 In came the gamelan orchestra to set up their fantastic array of gongs, bells and xylophones; chattering away and chain-smoking smoking their kreteks like it  was just another day on the job.  They were followed by the shadow puppeteer, a fat guy with a pin mustache who smirked past the gongs like some portly kingpin of the marionette mafia.
The place went dark.  A large, white screen was lit from behind by a single oil lamp.
The gamelan started with flute spiraling upward.  Then, a rising squall of chimes blew into a crescendo of jangling fury and drum – slapped rythyms, before falling again into opaque silence.
A hermit intoned mantric praise to a great, translucent river that fell from the luminous sky onto a shadowed plane of droning sound.  This marked the hallowed place, ancient locus where the pure image of Sita was wrought by artifice in the old kalpa, and now brightly projected upon the smokey nightclub screen for the amusement of arak-swilling hipsters bent on pleasure in all it’s many twisted and pharmaceutically enhanced forms.
Gandarvas sang where two rivers merged their sibilant flow–opposed currents of light and shadow twined in harmonious confluence of gong and bell; genius loci of the sacred earth where the gamelan’s strict measure streams into eternity.
Then, a malignant cloud of darkness loomed and long-taloned Rangda pounded the mountaintop in a gleeful, seismic dance.  Staccato footfalls crossed man’s path with evil, and summoned the grim spectacle of imperialist might. Rama’s sandals held virtual court at the feet of his forsaken throne while the pious were led away shackled, in weeping counterpoint to the slow melodic line.
That hypnotic tempo still rings over the rubber plantations of the archipelago; in a dissonant mode that yet fans the undying Indonesian spirit; as if Rama’s return to his kingly estate mirrored their own tortured story; and Hanuman’s revolutionary, healing energy–born of the very earth of mankind–must ever suffer cyclical defeat and triumph; an ebb and flow whose influences lie beyond the sublunary sphere.
It’s a sacred rite where eternal Vedic wisdom is sold on naked Jakarta streets; a yarn as old as history–as fresh and fleeting as the play of shadow on a backlit screen.
All went dark and the screen was emblazoned by the bold legend: Samsung.
The small, greasy guy in the white suit grabbed his cane and made his way to our table with mincing stride.
“Saturnius McWhirr I presume?”


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Old Han’s Indonesian Voyage–part 4. I meet the Great Marlow


Soon, having to pump the bilges, I made my way to the back of the Stygian nightclub where I saw a distinguished, bearded gent who sat before an old Underwood typewriter. His gaunt frame mummified in musty, moth-eaten tweeds while his ponderous brows were wreathed in a smokey corona of golden light. On closer inspection, I saw he was merely one of the automated fortune-tellers found in the Batavian Capitol. His face was vaguely familiar. On the table front was displayed a sign which read:  The Great Marlowe. Your fortune 25 cents.
I dropped a coin into the slot. There was a slight sound from under the table which again halted, began again and increased in speed and volume until the music of bellows and steam pipes sounded over a cacophony of grinding gears like the high registers of Saint Mark’s Cathedral organ. The tweedy automaton typed, sputtered to a wheezing halt and ejected a sheet of paper at my feet.
It read:  You will soon meet a distinguished monkey.
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Old Hand’s Indonesian Voyage–part 3

We piled in the skiff and I rowed toward a dilapidated pierhead while McWhirr continued his narration.
“My grandfather also told a darker tale. He said the streets of old Batavia were paved with sorrow, the walls built with the grief of mothers who toiled over an illusory harvest, it’s ramparts manned by desiccated souls who invested all their goods in the virtual fun-house of Mammon.“

We ascended the quay to the cobbled road.  McWhirr’s words had conjured a fantastic image of despair, though, in my green youth, I could scarce fathom the depths of his narration.
McWhirr hailed a bicak.  How this small guy was going to haul us and our seabags in the little tricycle was beyond me. His name was Rubio.  He was a grinning, eager pilot who pedaled like a fiend and navigated Jakarta like some Vasco de Gama of the alleyways.
Rubio brought us to the crumbling, neo-classical facade and we passed through the weathered teak door into the club.  While McWhirr ordered a couple pints I looked around.  A Strawberry Alarm clock tribute band blasted onstage.
Soon McWhirr came with the drinks and said: “Here’s to the Queen.”

I picked up a battered book lying on the table and read:
–And it came to pass that a great swarm of splog descended upon the land and the
soundcloud was darkened with idle slander and empty promises of sensual delights.  Worshippers of the true faith were subjected to the false blandishments of priests and the perfidious purveyors of illusory commerce.  And the once mighty creatives of the realm looked upon their followers and found naught of artistic merit and grew heavy in spirit, seeing therein ought but Jezebelian allurements by comely maids in unseemly attitudes of licentious repose–

“I’m glad I wore my sea-boots,” said McWhirr.
“Listen to this, Captain:”
–And lo, the verminous swarm of splog grew apace, and the goodly scions of the realm gnashed their teeth in anguish, for their earnest, artistic efforts were devoured by the black vultures of Satan. The fat herds of the righteous became but reeking carrion for the voracious appetites of the infidels–
“What fools would steal such windy bombast anyway?” asked McWhirr.
The joint appeared to serve a clientele of wharf-rats and scurvy rum-bots from dilapidated bum-boats.  One smelly clutch of waisters clicked madly at their laptops, their rummy faces aglow in the in the villainous blue light.
“Get this, a real Byron he thinks he is,” said a muscled hulk in a pink tutu.

“Ya really read that BS? “
Asked his mate in a voice  that sounded hollow and grating-like 50 fathoms of hause-fouled chain.
I’d heard of the splog pirates, but thought them mere paranoid tales by rummy tars around the fo’c’sle stove. And now here they were, as big as life, waylaying the earnest efforts of my myself and my literary colleagues like the nefarious ship wreckers luring unwary vessels with false
lights on the storm-wracked coast of Cornwall.

I continued reading:

-The once proud sites of the righteous became barren wastes of vacuous splogs and brazen images of bouncing titties–

“Maybe there is something to it after all,” says McWhirr.

“Aye, Captain. And look what we have now in this rank grog-shop of the internet-a foul lot of brazen cut-throats  who’d just as soon steal your traffic as say how-do-ye-do.”

One such galoot, a skanky brigand with a striped shirt and cutlass, approached the bar next to McWhirr with the slithery movement of a wolf eel saying:

“Eh mates, stand us a pint.”

I hastened to intervene.

“My good sir, may I introduce Saturnius Machirr?”

At this, the miscreant grew pale as an albino beluga and withdrew with an obsequeous bow.

“Most honored to meet you.”

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Old Hand’s Indonesian Voyage–part 2

The gamelan orchestra still echoed over the calm anchorage as we sat in Old Hand’s saloon scarfing a late dinner of kippers and ale.
I’d signed  aboard the stout cutter for a perilous voyage across the Indian Ocean in search of adventure.  But adventure appeals only to clueless greenhorns like myself, it being but  a foolish, romantic notion to seasoned salts like McWhirr, a pragmatic Quaker who has had his fill of adventure on the seas.
I’d heard he’d fallen among adherents of the Zoroastrian persuasion. Or was it some Sufi sect whose adherents await the 12th Imam’s return and wander the storm-wracked shores of this world seeking some vestige of a golden age–a relic safeguarded from the literalist creed by occult signs that can be decoded only in the secret halls of pure imagination?

McWhirr, his face lit amber in the oil lamp’s amber glow, leaned back and lit his battered pipe.
“I first heard of the India Rubber Theme Park when but a nipper on my grandfather’s knee. He told me of the Neo-Liberal Art Exhibition, the wonders of the Pharmaceutical Pavilion and how he once saw the CEO of Walmart. He told me yarns of how it’s foundations had first been laid in the 21st Century by drones captured during the great rubber wars.

That was a simpler time, when India Rubber ruled the whole archipelago.  Now it’s dog eat dog, with upstart pirates trying to challenge the Dutch rubber monopoly and their quasi-governmental powers by fair means or foul.

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Old Hand’s Indonesian Voyage–episode 1

The bewitching breezes that had vexed our northerly course along the bleak, rocky coast gaveway to an absolute calm as we steamed into Sunda Kelepa Harbour and brought up under the ornate, lofty spires of Jakarta.  It was as though the anchorage were under the spell of somevengeful deity that held the stagnant seaport in irons– a fitful sleep of waking dream.I gazed up at Jakarta’s towers and heard, high on the ramparts, Rama’s  gong-struck plea to deliver a flute-weeping Sita from Ranga’s jangling curse.  A sword held against a blood-red sky by masked Barong tragediennes brought down the threadbare, red curtain in the ritual re- enactment of the primal leave-taking and arrival; when carved gods glared from the bowsprit, holding vigilant watch against marauders while we were moored off the savage isle of dreams.  I too, have sat hungry around those ancestral fires, a villan, hero or common swab, subject to the changeable turns of karmic law..

.“Skip lively, Mister Spencer.”

The resonant voice was hoarse, as if weathered by eternal watches on the Greenland ice, or worn ragged from hurling oaths into the teeth of a gail.  I flaked out 5 fathoms of chain from the locker with hamfisted elegance.

“Nicely done, lad. Ye’ll be a sailor before long.”

McWhirr is a pain in the ass sometimes. He’s a relic of working sail and can be as dark as Ahab in rehab on a bad hair day.  He stood stark against the red sky like a weathered piling on a  rocky cape.  Light flickered through the dark shrouds, his shadow looming on the limp stays’l behind him, as if projected on a movie screen.  The  harrowing passage through the Sunda Strait had frayed my nerves and I groped clumsily the 3/8ths chain from the locker.

“All right, Mister Spencer.”

I let go the anchor. There sounded a low rumble as I paid out 3 fathoms of chain into the muddybottom of Sunda Kelapa Harbour.

“Have you paid out enough scope, lad?”

“I cast the anchor in 6 fath…” I said.

“Avast, Ya greenhorn! You don’t “cast” anchors. This isn’t fly-fishing! My gorge rises at suchlubberly misuse of sailing language.”

His wrath, like a line-squall, subsided as rapidly as it came.

“Did you know that to raise an anchor you must first let it go?”

“That’s true, sir.”

He always makes these pithy pronouncements like they were scripture.  And, for McWhirr the act of sailing is a religious rite. He hails from Zoroastrian, Quaker stock and, for him, a ship is a vessel to carry his weary spirit ascending through the 7 concentric spheres of corporeality to the final landfall of essential being. He has seen the beatific vision reflected on the sea’s mirror and it draws him ever northward in search of the true face of divinity behind the mask of appearance.

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Old Hand’s Indonesian Voyage 1–A reblog of an earlier post

Came the loud scratchy blare of loudspeakers over the still anchorage.
“Ilaha illa allah…”
I rose disgruntled and ascended the companionway to see McWhirr standing on deck, still in his black watch coat despite the fast-
rising heat.  His normally stark, grim profile appeared transformed by the dawn light with an aura of rapturous praise.
Not wanting to disturb his meditations, I returned below and put on a pot of joseph.

After a harrowing passage through
the Sunda Strait, we’d anchored in the Sunda Kelapa harbour the night before under the tall spires of north Jakarta.  I’d had a fitful sleep, and the portentous imagery of my dreams had been confounded by a blasted, bleeping racket that still echoed over the calm anchorage.  Turns out we’d brought up just off the Ancol Theme Park.
McWhirr came below.  I handed him a cup and ventured:
“Captain, why have we sailed into this steaming latitude?”
For indeed, it was cruel muggy and a pall of charcoal gray hung over the city.
McWhirr lit his pipe and said:
“I was but a green swab surfing the long fetch of the seven cyber-seas when I first heard of the East Indies.  That was a simpler time, when a single multinational corporation called the ruled the whole archipelago.  Now it’s dog eat dog, with upstart pirates trying to challenge the Dutch spice monopoly and their quasi-governmental powers by fair means or foul.”
“But take care son,” he said darkly, “one word from the Dutch, colonial CEO and we could be standing before a firing squad before you can say: Garcia Lorca.”

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Maritime Museum


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Introducing Bob


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