Old Hand’s Indonesian Voyage

Old Hand’s Indonesian voyage–part 6

 “To the Toer wharf,”  said McWhirr. 

 With indomitable energy, Rubio peddled his bicak and sang Unchained Melody for all he was worth.  For reason I’ve yet to fathom, Indonesians consider the Righteous Brothers to be the apex of musical accomplishment.  We soon arrived at the dock to see a steamship being loaded by scrawny Malays carrying heavy sacks of rice.  She was an absurdly stout vessel of Victorian pedigree, whose small wheelhouse perched on her coach roof like a petite hat on a frumpy, lady dowager.  On the ornate paddle boxes were emblazoned the words: The East India Company.  The thick cloud issuing from her smokestack showed she was building up a head of steam for immanent departure.

As we ascended the ladder to the wheelhouse, I saw that the balustrade of the gallery which extended from the house to the rails was ornamented by a carved frieze of twined figures writhing in chained attitudes of torment.  We were about to knock on the weathered, oak door when, through the blinds, came a low voice intoning:

“It is thou, O river, who judges man’s judgment… O river of sanctuaries. ..O river of light…”

 
McWhirr opened the door. a beefy guy in shorts, stockings and pith helmet bent over a chart table reading from a weathered scroll.  Without turning he said: “What say ye,? Does the ocean refuse the river’s tribute?”
  He fell silent and gazed out the wheelhouse windows.  The dawn light shone violet, as though the dirty chaos of the waterfront had been suddenly transfigured by the celestial Light of Glory.
This was our engineer, Thaddeus Budge, and a wackier coot I’ve never known.  But Hans had assured us that he would keep the old Polly steaming past mud banks and typhoons; the first we were to strike in short order, the latter, we were to find, swept through the middle reaches of the Ciliwung with all the frenzied vehemence of doomsday.
 
“Full ahead, Mister Budge,” McWhirr called into the speaking horn by the wheel.
 
With a creaking shudder, the paddle wheels began to churn the water into brown froth, and we bore away from the wharf into the gently flowing waters of the River.
  We chugged past endless shacks and mountains of rusty, flattened cars.  It was as though alluvial deposits had washed up all the planned obsolescence of millennia; and the foundering hulk of Pantijasila– those lofty 5 principles of the new Indonesia–had fetched up on a reeking bank of industrial wast and these half-naked laundresses whopping sarongs in the stagnant waters of the canal were singing an eerie monody for some dimly descried apocalypse.
 
The only charts we had were from the 20th century.  I searched for sailing directions to the upper reaches of the Ciliwung in vain and ransacked the tattered tomes that lined the mahogany shelves of the wheelhouse for any clue that might disclose the real purpose of the voyage we were fated to undertake.  
 
“That Bekert guy gives me the creeps.”  McWhirr’s said.  “I didn’t believe for a minute all that bull about his interest in antiquities.  He might just be sending us on a fool’s errand in this tin pot steamer.” 
  McWhirr unrolled a dog-eared chart that look like it was printed during Leopold’s reign, pointed to a particularly sepentine section of the river, and said:
“There’s death at every bend of this blasted river.  There are treacherous sandbanks and bandits that will cut your throat for a song. Here is the passage of Bulak Bindah.  Winds can funnel between those rocks like the fiends of hell.”
“Aye, on top of that, the very guards appointed by the museum trustees who sponsor these excavations deal in the illicit trade of artifacts. Their collusion with Javanese authorities can land innocent shippers like us in jail. 
“Crooked trade in antiquities is nearly as old as civilization itself. These sites had already been plundered in ancient times by looters who sold to dealers in Bangkok.  Now the plunder is conducted on an industrial scale by the East India Company. The stones of sacred Temples are looted to build the brutal towers of Tomorrowland and the stolen images of the Holy Immortals now entice consumers, like sheep, into endless malls of mediocrity.  This must stopped.”
 
Like some portly, winded spinstress, the Polly steamed past camps of water buffalo herders, laptop recyclers, and armed horsemen whose dark eyes followed her wake with unconcealed contempt.
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OLd Hand’s Indonesian Voyage part 4–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 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

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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–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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