Just another Gilligan reflecting (underwater) on the island of Gili Air .. on sea turtle salvation, The Price of Civilization & 'belum' America .. halfway home into 2013
It is the last day of 2012 & we are on the the small island of Gili Air, near the larger island of Lombok, in Indonesia. I am writing this from a palm-frond gazebo looking out over the sea towards Lombok, drinking a Bintang with j. It just stormed so the sand around us is flat & without footprints .... like a rain-raked zen rock garden. The sea is flat & the tide is high. There are a few snorkelers poking through the surface, exploring the underwater (which we just did). This is a good day & place to think back on the year .. & to ponder the year to come.
In 5cense terms, i read 76 books, traveled to 17 countries & slept in 50+ 'strange rooms' in 2012. The cumulative field notes page has been updated to reflect these stats. We started the year living in Rome & now we don't live anywhere really .. but in a few days we will be back to living in New York City .... 'home,' i guess you could say .. for what it's worth.
In Calamari Press terms, i published 3 books this year ... Sister Stop Breathing by Chiara Barzini & the first two 'self-authored' books by Cal A. Mari ... Ark Codex & the authorless & titleless divination book where birds are words. Oh & there was also WORDATLAS/PAROATLANTE, so that makes 4. I am not sure what 2013 will bring .. except that i will likely start the year with some sort of special 10-year anniversary issue of Sleepingfish. And Cal A. Mari will be at AWP in Boston (though they made me put my real name on my name badge). That is about as much as i can say right now. It is good to have the slate wiped clean .. like this sand .. fresh after rain.
From Lovina, where we spent xmas, we traveled to the eastern shore of Bali where we caught a ferry to these Gili islands. The inside of the boat was musty & dingy so we sat on roof, clinging to the rail .. with views of the occasional pods of dolphins & flying fish. It started to rain & the water got choppier, splashing salt water all over us .. until the rain water blended with the salt water to a brackish sort of sweat that you could taste running down your face. Can you taste it?
The boat stopped first on Gili Terawangan (the 'party til you puke' island), then Gili Meno (the quiet 'honeymooners' island) & then to Gili Air .. which is somewhere in between .. like the porridge or bed in the three bears story .... 'just right'. By the time we got to Gili Air, we were immersed in a full-on downpour. We jumped into a horse-drawn cidomo (motorized vehicles are not allowed here) & went to our last home away from home of 2012 .. a place (Biba Cottages) run by Italians, so seemed an appropriate way to cap our last year living in Italy.
Besides eating good Italian food for dinner & good Indonesian food for lunch, mostly we've just been swimming in the water & vegetating on land with the dozens of cats that also live at this hotel. We wake up at dawn & run around the island .. which i'm guessing is around 4 clicks around .. some laps barefoot, some laps on the beach. The reef right off our place is best for snorkeling, or 'free diving' as i prefer to call it .. as this better captures what i like about snorkeling versus SCUBA diving (see also my out-of-body panic attack post while SCUBA diving in Tanzania)... the unconstrained feeling of freedom.
The first few days we'd seen most everything there is to see in these parts in regards to fish & coral, except the magnificent sea turtle had eluded us (which i remember seeing a lot of when i visited the Gilis some 20 years ago .... before these islands were ruined by backpackers looking for an exotic place to take mushrooms). So yesterday we went out early at sunrise, at low tide, to see if we could find us a turtle. And find one we did .. but our marveling excitement at finding one was immediately quenched by a piece of string we saw coming from her mouth (not sure how to sex a turtle, but my gut tells me it was a female).
I was able to catch the turtle & tried to see if i could get the string (wire actually) out of her mouth .... but after prying her beak open, we could see that the hook was lodged deep in her throat. We tried & tried but couldn't get the hook out. At one point, the turtle escaped my grips & got away, but i was able to catch her again. We didn't know what to do .. judging by the hook in her throat, it seemed it would be really hard, if not impossible, for her to eat anything.
I swam with the turtle to guide her into shallow water. Getting in & out of the water at low tide was already a real pain in the ass (without carrying a ~20 kg turtle), that involved walking with flippers backwards over the sharp, urchin-dotted coral for like 50 meters. So i sat with the turtle in the shallow water while j went to get help. It was weird sitting there with this strange shelled animal, so intimately cradling her on my lap. Every few minutes she would let a huge gasp of air like turtles do & then inhale deeply .. & when she did this i could feel her body size almost double as she filled with air.
The turtle would look back at me or j sometimes with this funny look & call me anthropomorphic, but i think she knew we were trying to help her. She somewhat willingly let me pry open her jaw (when her jaw muscles are so strong she could've easily snapped off one or two of my fingers). Occasionally when she'd feel me loosen my grip, she would struggle all at once, flapping her fins & it took all my strength to hold on to her. J eventually found a fisherman with a pair of pliers, but he asked if i could bring the turtle in. So i carried the turtle (with my flippers on, backwards, over the coral) to the beach. Besides the fisherman, a few other locals & some hippies (whose sunrise meditation we had disrupted) had gathered. Once on the beach, surrounded by these people, the turtle became less cooperative & put up more of a struggle. She wouldn't let me open her mouth for more than a second without clamping down hard .. so we got a piece of coral & lodged it into her beak so the fisherman could see better & get in there with the pliers.
I'm glad the fisherman was there because i don't have the stomach for such things. I've taken plenty of hooks out of fishes' mouths (& even a pelican once), but this was far more complicated & disturbing than that. The hook was lodged way back in her throat. I couldn't even watch as the fisherman worked on it. Eventually he got it forwards some, until we could actually see the hook the wire was attached to. And then i got a glimpse of the turtles tongue & the blood & the embedded hook & was almost sick to my stomach, but managed to hold on to the turtle & hold her mouth open until the fisherman finally got the hook out.
The turtle was bleeding from the mouth & i wasn't sure whether to release her .. but after i put her in the shallows, the bleeding seemed to be subsiding & the turtle was really struggling to get back to deep water .. so i let her go & went with her & watched until she got into the depths. We can only hope that the wound healed & she is happily swimming out there in the sea eating jellyfish & crabs.
Both j & i were pretty disturbed by the whole ordeal .. disturbed to be human, to create a demand for fish that leads to such practices, that inevitably leads to such residual effects. More than just the one turtle (of many .. this is not the first time i've seen a turtle with a hook in it's mouth) that we hopefully saved, i can only hope that our efforts set an example for others that might not give it a second thought otherwise. From the fisherman's reaction & what he said, i think he seemed moved that we cared enough & the next time he's in this situation, he might take the time to take the hook out, or better yet, to encourage his comrades to keep such things from happening in the first place.
In usual party-pooping fashion, we went to bed before midnight on New Years Eve. Was sort of woken up by fireworks at midnight, i think, but i can't be sure. People have been lighting off fireworks here for days & people party on the Gili islands every night. A few other nights i was woken up by the call to prayer at 4:15 a.m. .. juxtaposed with the distant sound of techno dance beats & white people hooting & hollering like a scene straight out of The Beach.
When we woke up at the crack of dawn, the music was still pumping. People were stumbling home, throwing up, or passed out on the beach or on gazebo couch cushions. We walked to the harbor, past the night clubs, people still hollering & dancing (if you could call it that) on the beach. A lot of them locals .. good muslims (some of the Lombok boys told us they only take magic mushrooms & smoke pot 'sometimes' .... yeah, right .. they party just as much as the 'bule' (the bahasa Indonesian word for gringo, mzungu, etc. which although someone told us literally means 'fat & ugly person,' when i looked it up online it seems bule also means 'albino').
There's a series of contingent milestones in our long journey home ... & this was the first & perhaps most anxiety causing one. For the ferries are far from reliable & if we missed it or it didn't run because of weather, etc, we'd be fucked .... each leg depends on the one before .. ending with us signing our new lease & being there for the moving people on January 4. These are the 6 main contingent milestones:
So the first major hurdle of 6 we've gotten through. After high-fiving, we were treated to the most spectacular dolphin show yet from the ferry .. dozen of spinner dolphins jumping every which way in a feeding frenzy .. some of the dolphins jumping vertically straight out of the water. It was stormy again & the water choppy. When the rain picked up, all the other bule-bule (to pluralize in bahasa, you say it twice) retreated down into the stuffy cabin, but j & i remained perched on the roof in the rain. And why not? It's just water. The fresh water felt good after swimming & showering only in salt water for the last 4-5 days (no fresh water on Gili Air). The crew (the same people we had on the way there, including the guy pictured above in the wife-beater & Elvis haircut) would occasionally join us & offer us clove cigarettes.
Twenty years ago, i almost got addicted to cloves because it was considered rude to not accept a cigarette in Indonesia, as more than anything it is considered a social gesture .. so saying no is like saying you don't want to talk to them. And saying no ('tidak' in bahasa) is also considered rude .. you should always say 'not yet' ('belum'). Makes sense to me.
Made land at the port & got a shuttle bus to Sanur, which is on the southeast coast of Bali, sort of near the airport. Sanur is nothing to write home about, especially after the Gili Islands or other parts of Bali. We just regrouped & took our first fresh water shower in five days & drank arak (a strong Balinese rice wine that oddly tastes like mezcal).
The next morning we went to the airport early to try to get a refund for our return ticket from Bali to Timor-Leste (which thankfully we decided not to return to). I had cancelled it over the phone with Merpati & was assured i would get a refund (minus a nominal fee) if i went to the airport to collect it in person. But of course when we got to the airport they told me i needed to go to some other office in Denpasar, which we didn't have time to do since we were catching our plane home. But i did have time to haggle with them for an hour .. an interesting lesson in Indonesian bureaucracy & stubborn incompetence. All the guy (the manager, after i had escalated the issue up the chain 2 levels) told me over & over was that it was 'impossible' & 'not yet'. All i wanted was for him to call their customer service number (since he said they told me wrong), but he refused to even dial the number .. but i refused to leave the mosquito-infested office .... & after an hour he finally did (not that we got our refund yet, but that's not what matters).
Our AirAsia flight from Bali to Singapore was the second most nerve-wracking milestone, since it was booked separate from the rest of our Singapore to NYC ticket on British Airways, so if we missed the flight or it was more than 2 hours late, we would again be fucked. But it took off in time & j & i high-fived again.
Back on Gili Air, i started to read The Price of Civilization by Jeffrey Sachs .. an interesting book to read in the (the rather primitive) context of Gili Air, with our minds hellbent on returning home to 'civilization' after over two & a half years of traveling & living in Rome (which is far from civilized). And also interesting in light of our recent time spent in Timor-Leste, which also ranks pretty low on the 'civilized' scale. And while j won't be working directly for Sachs when we return to NYC, she'll be back at Columbia .. & quitting Sachs is like the Hotel California .... you can check out, but you can never leave. For all i know, his wife (his secret weapon & greatest fan) still reads this blog (hi Sonia!), so i'll try to be nice .. though like Sachs, being nice & making friends, is not what i'm good at (the price of being truthful).
Let me start by saying (sorry Sonia) i never really read his other two books, End of Poverty & Commonwealth ... whenever i started to read them it seemed like stuff i'd already heard second-hand from from dinnertime conversations with j or her colleagues or Jeff himself .. & i'm not too interested in reading about poverty & development (i hear plenty from what j brings home). And i usually don't read much non-fiction unless it's philosophy or science or about animals .... i'm not so interested in the realities of civilized humans. But i guess i was somewhat interested to read The Price of Civilization because it's about America & what ails it as of late (it was also the only worthwhile book i could find in bookstores in Bali).
The other reason i haven't been able to read Sachs' other books before is because i get turned off by all the first-person pronouns. Sachs is an egomaniac for sure (not that he hasn't earned bragging rights, just like Bono perhaps has earned the right to act like an idiot rockstar) & even in The Price of Civilization he can't help but to always tout his credentials & experience (somewhat defensively) & he has a knack for always spinning things as they relate to him (we all do, including me here). But he does know what he is talking about & if you can see past his bristly ego, there is a wealth of information here .. especially if you're like me & don't know squat about economics.
The Price of Civilization could be summed up in a page & it doesn't really present anything revolutionary .. the gist of it being that America is currently fucked & the only thing that can save us is to pay higher taxes .... & to take more social responsibility .. & give our money to the poor .. & watch less TV .. & consume less .... i.e. anyone younger than Sachs reading his book might feel like they are being scolded by an authoritative father. Perhaps it's all true, but no one want to hear the truth .. fiction is far more interesting.
But being the know-it-all, whistle-blowing bearer of bad news is his calling. After giving his imperious spiel about what has gone wrong with America post-Kennedy, Sachs lays out his (his way or the highway-to-hell) laundry list of somewhat idealistic & vague goals that i don't think anyone is going to disagree with .. decrease unemployment, balance the budget, reduce poverty, equal opportunity for all, etc. But this is all better said than done. He drills down to more bullet points within these numbered goals (reminiscent of the MDGs, which he had a hand in), with equally lofty & vague sub-goals, like:
Etc., etc., etc. ... all fine & dandy, but again .. easier said than done. Then again, these are the terms most politicians speak in & we elect them over & over («End the revolving door.» is another of Sachs' bullet points.
He doesn't offer much in the way of specific solutions, except to say we should be paying more tax, especially the rich. I'm all for paying more tax, but what kills me is the thought of what our taxes are going for. And he addresses this (again, not rocket science .. pull out of Afghanistan & decrease military spending), but it's like a chicken & egg thing .. how can you convince people to pay more tax if our money is going to a bunch of monkeys we don't trust who are slaves to lobbyists & special interest groups?
A few years ago when we watched All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace (which call me gullible, but i fell for hook, line & sinker) we asked Sonia & Jeff if they had seen it & from what i remember Sonia saying was yeah, they'd seen it & that Jeff was writing a book on the very subject (this book). And when asked about Ayn Rand, this unleashed a string of bitter words .. something about how Rand only promoted dog-eat-dog self interest. Which perhaps is true, but the thing about Rand & Machines of Loving Grace (which basically tells the same financial bubble-bursting story as The Price of Civilization, except AWOBMOLG focuses more on the cyber angle) is that AWOBMOLG is more interesting (all a self-interested person like me cares about at the end of the day).
I'd be the first to defect to some Scandinavian country .. if only the weather were better. And i'd give all my money to the poor, if i believed that money would make a difference. But in my limited experience, money is only paper, that fuels the fire of addicts (the greedy & over-consumers Sachs talks about). If on my death bed i found out that everything i gave away to the poor & to taxes only made things worse in the end, i would want to kill myself twice over & roll over & do it again. Not that i wouldn't feel good for at least trying (as with trying to save the above turtle), but what Sachs underestimates is the power of self-interest (the few cases of genuine reciprocal altruism aside, it's essentially what drives the evolution that got us in this mess) .. self is not something you can readily take away from (or give to) people .. & such entrepreneurial freedom is what fuels America.
No one wants to be just a cog in the machine, just to prove someone's theory about the sustainability & 'happiness' of a civilization (just like i imagine (anthropomorphically) that the Africans in his Millennium Villages might feel like lab rats .. even if their lives are technically 'better' .. & i think most people would rather live sad in a fucked world than just happily serve to raise or lower a statistic in an economist's experiment). And on a macro-level (Sachs is a macroeconomist after all), never underestimate the power of self-organization & how individual self-interest feeds into all this. If & when this pipe dream comes true (& i hope it does), it will likely be for completely random reasons, when you least expect it .. or after we give up trying & just let shit sort itself out on its own.
The other thing that makes Jeff Sachs hard to swallow is that he rips on everyone .. & when you tear everyone a new hole, you come away the last asshole standing, saying 'ha ha, i told you so.' He attacks both democrats & republicans:
Not that i couldn't agree more. But let's just say Sachs probably doesn't make a lot of friends with such righteous rhetoric. He rips on celebrities & the rich, which not only is hypocritical, but it's like shooting himself in the foot since these are the very people he often relies on to support his mission. He attacks the media, but then turns to them to spread his gospel. He criticizes the public at large for being a herd of manipulated & gullible consumers that are socially irresponsible & out of control (which again, i couldn't agree more, but i'm in a position where i can hate people, Sachs is not).
And even as a publisher, a writer & an avid reader, all i have to say is good luck in trying to get people to «read for fun» in 2013. The statistics are interesting though, if not depressing:
There are moments where he softens up & he says 'positive' cheerleady things .. but these often feel forced, like his publicist told him he needs to be more positive. In a nutshell, he somehow manages to alienate the entire world .. though the book could serve to be useful (after the fact) to any survivors or aliens trying to learn how we managed to self-implode into annihiliation.
Besides just being righteous & toxic, the other thing that makes such rhetoric less than appealing to self-interested people like me is the lack of contradiction, the coldness (though in real life, when he lets down his guard, he is actually quite warm), the unwillingness to (publicly) laugh at his flaws. Flaws & interesting contradictions make people genuine, human. The one angle in the book, a new facet to Sachs' personality, that i found interesting is that he goes & gets all buddhist on us (in regards to virtues of compassion & moderation). In recent years he has evidently gone to Bhutan a few times & it has obviously left an impression on him .... specifically the Bhutanese placement of value on 'happiness'. I remember j told me, after one such trip, that he wanted to make 'happiness' a Millennium Development Goal. For a cynical, happily sad guy like me, this sounded silly & ludicrous. Not that i don't think it makes sense & i don't align myself with buddhist beliefs more than any other belief system, in regards to shaping a country (see also my Cambodia post).
More often than not, i despise America & most everything it stands for. But every time i leave it (to appease those love-it-or-leave it nutcases), i find myself defending it. When i traveled to Indonesia 20 years ago, it was the first time i'd really left North America. I was hopping to find some way to never return .. en route i worked on some farms in New Zealand, etc. At first i always agreed with people when they bashed America. This was in the era of Bush senior & i was traveling through a predominantly Muslim countries (Indonesia & then Malaysia). When they all wanted to know what i thought of Saddam & Bush, etc. i would say yeah, Bush Sucks & so does Hussein. Everybody sucks. But after a while of saying this & telling people that no (tidak!), they couldn't have my Levis or my Ray Bans, i found myself saying, yeah, America sucks, but at least i have the freedom to say it sucks & i have the freedom to leave it & i can make of America what i want .. what can your country do for you?
As usual, i don't know where i'm going with all this or what it has to do with all the fish we saw playing Gilligan in the Gili islands (which is now far behind us). I'm only disagreeing with Sachs because it's more interesting to me (& perhaps to you) to disagree than to agree. I couldn't agree more with everything Sachs says (he's preaching to the choir) but something about the way he says it rubs me the wrong way. Part of it is the freedom thing i talk about in the above paragraph—freedom to make up your own mind. You can't tell people what to think. You need to somehow show something, set an example & let people make up their own minds about it. Lead people to the water & somehow make them believe they are the horses that found it, against all 'herd instincts' (a term Sachs uses often). Part of that, as a writer, is to give up the notion of taking credit .. of being the one that led the herd to water. And i'm not sure this notion of 'taking credit' is something Sachs can relinquish. Me, i'd just assume not drink the kool-aid tainted water, but just don mask & fins & hide beneath the surface in denial ...