Tuesday, January 21, 2003

30. ALFRED RUSSEL WALLACE

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On the arrival of the Idul Fitri holiday, which follows the fasting month of Ramadan, I decided to drive to the fishing village of Pelabuhan Ratu, situated on Java’s south coast. I wanted to enjoy sea breezes; and I wanted to visit Marni, the little girl suffering from thalassaemia.

On the way to the coast I noticed that the trees were fast disappearing from many hillsides, causing soil erosion, and creating lunar landscapes. Environmentalists have claimed that over half of the logging in Indonesia is illegal. Now, who is powerful enough to remove the vegetation from entire hillsides? Certain military personnel are said to be behind much of the illegal felling of forests.

The first part of the road southwards was crowded with traffic, spewing out black fumes. When it comes to damaging the environment we should note that Indonesia ranks about number twenty one in terms of fossil-fuel carbon dioxide emissions; the USA is number one, producing one quarter of the world’s total of such gases. What is worrying is that in Indonesia fossil fuel emissions have grown tenfold since 1950.

Pelabuhan Ratu’s main street was packed with Indonesian backpackers of the raucous and sometimes insolent variety that make me feel uneasy; and the sea and sky were grey. I booked into the Samudra Beach Hotel, well away from the centre of the village.

In a rice field near the bat cave, I found Marni’s mother hard at work. Marni, looking swollen and yellow, was being carried on her mother’s back. A piece of wide cloth held her firm. The skin on mum’s fleshy limbs looked as weathered as her stained dress.

"Did Marni get a blood transfusion?" I asked the mum, after an exchange of greetings.

"No," she said, giving me a weary smile.

"The last time I was here I gave the RT money to help you buy food," I explained. "He said he was related to you. Did you get the money?"

"No."

"You know the RT? The community chief? Did he speak to you after my last visit?"

"No."

"Did he give you any money?"

"No."

I felt it was possible she was telling the truth and that the RT, if that was indeed what he was, might be the sort who liked to rob poor widows and take the best positions in the mosque. It is also possible that Marni’s mum, being a speaker of Sundanese, did not understand a single word I was saying.

"OK. I’m giving you some more cash now, only for food and medicine."

She took the money and gave me a shy smile.


Having bid farewell to little Marni, I motored along the coast, westwards of Pelabuhan Ratu, and very soon came to the pretty kampung village of Cisolok. As I strolled along the quiet tree-lined streets, I photographed gardenia, peacock flowers and ornate little cottages with pillars and verandahs. The sun was coming out. Bright eyed children skipped along the paths beside the misty green fields of rice. Fishermen were painting their wooden boats.

Following a narrow, leafy path inland, and signs advertising a ‘volcanic area’, I reached a shallow river. I watched a section of river bubble and boil and, in one spot, shoot up a jet of water. Java is at the dangerous meeting point of two of the plates that make up the earth’s thin skin . I felt a little nervous. Two hungry-looking boys approached and offered to sell me some semi-precious stones. I bought a small sparkly pebble for a few coins.

Beside a bamboo bridge I met a tourist, a short haired, bespectacled, young Chinese-Indonesian student. His name was Rahayu, he was from Central Java and he was studying physics.

"Where are you going?" he asked.

"Just out for a stroll," I said.

"I’ll join you."

He looked harmless, spoke good English, and at times was silent as a monk. I learnt, during bursts of conversation, that his father taught science at university level.

Following a well-worn path we reached some woodland, at the edge of which, giant, curving, sensuous leaves shone bright amber and mauve and lemon, against a background of a hundred different dark-grey greens. Further along the track, the forest was crammed with wet mosses, fan shaped ferns, and thick dangly lianas. The Jack-in-the-Beanstock trees, so immensely tall, were hairy and furry like orang-utans. Hobgoblin roots and branches twisted and turned in ways I could never have imagined. Resting on a web was a multicoloured spider as wide as my hand.

"It’s beautiful around here, isn’t it," said Rahayu.

"Yes, apart from the spider," I said, and a period of silence followed as we continued our trek.

I gaped and wondered how all this had come about. When Mother Nature began her work, was the resulting jungle a mixture of the random and the non-random? In other words, was it all an accident, or did God play some limited part, or did God follow a blueprint designed in heaven and get everything perfect?

"Have you read about Wallace and Darwin and natural selection?" I asked Rahayu.

"I have. Wallace spent time in Indonesia. He helped produce the theory of natural selection."

"The idea that the butterfly with the best camouflage is the one most likely to survive," I said, vaguely remembering lessons on evolution. "Or that in Africa, giraffes developed because the longest necked creatures could reach the highest up leaves on the trees."

"Creatures are continually taking on new forms," said Rahayu.

"Is it random?" I asked. "Is it all an accident? Is the scary appearance of the spider the result of random change? Is the neat shape of the ferns just an accident?"

"Natural selection is non-random," said Rahayu, without elaborating.

There followed another period of silence. I began to consider the question of whether or not there was any divine intervention in the creation of the beautiful butterfly’s wing?

"Do you think God plays a part in all this?" I asked. "I mean, is it true, as they say, that God’s fingerprints are all over the universe?"

"God’s fingerprints?" Rahayu had apparently not heard the phrase before.

"Well, let’s imagine you are playing poker and keep on winning. That’s because you get good cards and because you apply your brains. But, is the fact that you keep on getting all the aces because the angels are on your side?"

"Scientists would say that if there are an infinite number of universes, then someone is bound, some day, to get all the aces."

Our path seemed to be curving and taking us back towards Cipanas.

"I was thinking of artists," I said. "Is the world like a painting? Let’s imagine the painter has an idea of what he wants. He starts applying his brush to the canvas. The paint goes all over the place. Now, is the finished painting partly something that was planned, and partly the result of chance?" My goodness, the heat of the jungle was doing funny things to my poor brain. Maybe I should go back to the hotel and have a nice cup of tea, and a lie down, and stop worrying about things that were beyond me.

"You mean the artist is like God," said Rahayu, "but can we be sure the artist exists?"

"You’re not sure?"

"I’m a Buddhist," said Rahayu. "The Dharma, the law of nature, is the only solid thing we can be sure of."

"I don’t understand. We can be sure that trees exist."

"The trees, and your body, are made up of subatomic particles and empty space. You probably know the subatomic particles are not really solid. They exist for only a trillionth of a second."

"I didn’t know."

"The particles continuously arise and then vanish. They come in and out of existence. The trees have no real being."

"They look solid to me." I stretched out my hand to touch a branch.

"That’s because you can’t see what’s really happening."

"What about spiders? What about all the suffering in nature?" I asked. I was thinking of Marni and thalassaemia.

"Suffering is not due to chance. There are causes. Our actions are the cause of suffering."

"Isn’t it possible," I said "that everything has come about by chance?"

"No. Mind precedes all phenomena. Everything is mind-made."

"When a baby dies, or an insect is swallowed up, could it just be bad luck?"

"Everything must have a cause," said Rahayu.

"But what about when a baby dies? How can you say its actions are the cause of its suffering?"

"Karma. The baby’s previous life. People who cause pain to other living things experience a lot of sickness. There’s a path leading to happiness and one that leads to suffering."

We turned a corner, and were suddenly returned to civilisation. Rahayu shook my hand and set off to the nearby boarding house where he said his girlfriend awaited him. I was not sure that I had been enlightened. I should have asked Rahayu more about this Dharma.


Back at the hotel bar I met a tall American with a furrowed face and a flowery T-shirt. He was working for some kind of aid organisation and living in Bandung with his Indonesian wife, and children by two marriages. We got onto the subject of Bandung and chatted about everything from the aircraft industry to architecture.

"Bandung is where they have the Indonesian Army Staff and Command School," he said. "The U.S. Military is rumoured to have had some influence there back in the 1960’s. They’re suspected of having helped set up the state-within-a-state."

"How do you mean?"

"The people who really run things here are the army people, whether at the village level or the district level or the regional level. The Americans are thought to have helped create this system."

"Why would they want to do that?"

"In the 1960’s they wanted to fight communism and help American business. So lots of money is said to have been handed over to certain generals, those whom the CIA approved of."

"So who organised the 1965 take-over?" I asked.

"Who organised the anti-Chinese riots in Bandung in 1963?" he responded, giving me a funny look.

"I’ve no idea."

"Who killed Kennedy?" he continued. "I suppose we’ll never know for sure. I was in the Philippines before this, in Baguio. We used to wonder if Marcos was a creature of the CIA. At first the American media made out he was a wonderful guy. Possibly stories were planted. The trouble was that Marcos and his cronies got so corrupt, the country was bankrupted and the communists grew stronger. What was Reagan to do?"

"What did he do?"

"He let Marcos retire. Maybe he had a quiet word with Ramos."

"Cory took over," I said, to demonstrate that I had heard of the Philippines.

"But the army continued to do its own thing. A-state-within-a-state. Military death squads continued to kill people. The rich stayed rich and the poor stayed poor. Most of the wealth remained in the hands of a few families."

"What do you think’s going to happen here?" I asked.

"Who knows. I’ve got a house back in Texas if things go wrong. I like the East though. I liked Vietnam. I fought there."

"What went wrong in Vietnam, for the Americans?" I was full of questions.

"I think the top brass thought they were doing the right thing, bombing people, trying to bring about the greatest happiness of the greatest number."

"Greatest happiness. That was the idea of Jeremy Bentham." I felt quite clever remembering the name.

"They forgot about justice. If you kill some innocent peasants to achieve the greatest happiness of the greatest number, you’re forgetting about justice."

"What about the boat people?"

"Oh, both sides were bad. Don’t get me wrong."


Back in Bogor I paid a visit to the mental hospital to see how John was getting on. He’d lost weight again and looked sad.

"Has John seen the doctor?" I asked Diana, the nurse on duty.

"Yes, John’s OK."

"Has he still got diarrhoea?"

"He’s OK."

"Can I take some of the kids for a walk?"

"Mr Kent, you have no children of your own?" She looked at me with a distinct sneer.

"No. Who can I take for a walk?"

"Saepul." This was the boy who from time to time punched his own face.

"Will one of the nurses come with me?"

"No." She laughed.

Saepul’s hands were untied and I set off towards the shop. When I reached my vehicle I bravely, or foolishly, decided I would let the boy into the back seat so he could have a short excursion to the nearest kampung.

Saepul had still not punched his face and we had been travelling for ten minutes. We got out of the vehicle and started walking along a path which led to a warung, a food stall. We bought some pastries which Saepul wolfed down. Next to the warung, there was a strange bird at the end of a string and we sat down to look at it. The bird’s owner, a schoolboy, came to stare at Saepul, in a worried but sympathetic way. Saepul’s fist thudded against his right cheek. Pause. Then another thud. I stood up, took Saepul’s hand, and hurried him back to the van and his hospital ward.

~

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