New 3QD Column

Here is my most recent column as published at 3QuarksDaily a few days ago with the title Happy New Year. What Could Go Wrong?

2022 is alive, a babe come hale and hollering to join its sisters 2020 and 2021, siblings bound by pandemic. Everybody stood to see off 2022’s older sister 2021, like we all did 2020 before her. Out with the old. Quickly, please.

2022 debuts with a striking resemblance to her sisters, just more evolved. So that by now some Americans signal their freedom by avoiding vaccination while others seek freedom by staying indoors. Meanwhile Europeans ban each other, for a moment there the whole world tried to put southern Africans out of mind entirely, and every country tortures its airlines. Hi ho the derry-o a quarantining we will go.

The Die Welt UK correspondent lamented that should she visit her homeland this holiday, she couldn’t even test her way free. Test your way free.

Consider the world in which 2022 will make her mark. Look east from Kyiv and please find Russia issuing un-agree-to-able demands and backing them with the rattling of 100,000 human sabres. It would be utterly incredible if Putin were to start a land war in Europe. But those who claim knowledge of his inner thoughts cite a deep, consistent grievance. Indeed they find it in the public record, in his 5000 word ‘Ukraine is not a real country’ article back last summer.

As far back as 2008, at a NATO-Russia Council meeting in Bucharest, Putin declared to W. Bush, “George, do you realize that Ukraine is not even a state? What is Ukraine? Part of its territory is Eastern Europe but the greater part is a gift from us!”

That spring of 2008 Putin indicated that if Ukraine were to join NATO Russia “would then tear off Crimea and eastern Ukraine from the rest of the country. Six years later it appeared Russia was doing precisely this” without waiting for that detail about NATO membership.

The Russian president has run all that firepower up to the border to declare it is Russia under the gun. A week and a half ago Putin declared “They should understand that we have nowhere further to retreat to. Do they think we’ll just watch idly?” He has run the temperature up to ‘blast furnace’ in eastern Ukraine, a neat trick in the snows of Luhansk and Donetsk.

The neatest scenario has a fiendish audacity: the Russian army advances from the Donbass to the Dnieper River, splitting Ukraine in half, and occupies it’s left bank south to the Black Sea, bypassing and isolating towns along the way that might offer resistance. Consolidating those gains would give the Russians a new, defensible border, the ports of Mariupol and Kherson, contiguity with Crimea, and secure the Sea of Azov.

Could something so audacious be in the cards? Russia occupied Crimea at the conclusion of the 2014 Olympic Games. The 2022 Olympics begin in one month’s time. Welcome to 2022.

Chile dodged a Pinochet-shaped bullet two weeks ago. Defying a last minute show of ill grace by the outgoing president, who shut down big city buses on election day, Chileans definitively declined to elect a baby Bolsanaro in José Antonio Kast.

Kast, son of a lieutenant in the German Nazi army, wasn’t sure if human activity had anything to do with climate change, reckoned he would only comply with international law if he felt like it, and promised to expel immigrants in Chile without judicial review. Toward that end he supported a ditch along the Bolivian border. He (and presumably his wife and nine children) opposed abortion.

He was defeated by 35 year old Gabriel Boric, a former student leader from a Croatian clan in Chile’s far southern Magallanes province whose forebears left Croatia in the late 1800s, at a time when both Chile and Argentina appealed for settlers in sparsely populated Patagonia.

Challenges lie ahead. As unsavory as is Kast, Boric’s coalition’s inclusion of Communists invites bitter criticism from those rump Pinochetties who are still alive and well. But there is opportunity. The election represents a culmination by non-violent political means of a left-inspired 2019 uprising. And to his credit (low bar these days), Kast accepted defeat.

The territorial integrity of Ethiopia, the lynchpin of East Africa, Africa’s second most populous country, has hung in the balance for a year now amid utter distrust, atrocities, cinematic battlefield reversals and the recent involvement of an entirely new cadre of foreign actors, the Turks and Emiratis, come to call with drones that pulverized the supply lines of the Tigray Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF), the main opposition group.

At the new year wounds are being licked all around and councils of war convened, as for the moment Ethiopia’s factions appear to be near exhausted battlefield equipoise. But a peace overture from the central government, yearned for by the international community, looks far-fetched.

Addis’s Amhara allies, who have taken the toughest losses, may be unwilling. The central government may itself be unwilling, as things appear to be personal for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Meanwhile factions with competing interests lie in every direction. A military faction within the largest ethnic group, the Oromo Liberation Front, has acquitted itself pooly in an ineffectual alliance with the breakaway TPLF. Add the all around malevolence of Elyas Afewerki’s Eritrea on Ethiopia’s northern border, and the whole situation calls out for a Nobel Prize-winning peacemaker. Oh, wait.

Hong Kongers voted two weeks ago, as China’s flouting of its 1997 treaty with the United Kingdom continued without a peep from London, or much of anyone else. Government critics could not stand on account of an edict called “Patriots administering Hong Kong.” No one is even bothering to ask who lost Hong Kong.

The U.S. Secretary of State said his country “can’t accept a situation in which Iran accelerates its nuclear program and slow-walks its nuclear diplomacy.” That, of course, is exactly what Iran has been doing.

Governments used pandemic restrictions to silence critics and suppress protests in 2021. China shut down Hong Kong protests; Russia cracked heads at opposition rallies. In Serbia, refugees and asylum-seekers have been “put under strict 24-hour quarantine, controlled by the military.” Slovenia was added to “a watchlist of countries experiencing a rapid decline in civil liberties.” And Poland continued to copy illiberal tactics” following ‘the Hungary Model.’ Freedom House counts democratic backsliding in 73 countries.

But wait, we’re here to ring in the new. What have we to look forward to?

Australia, Colombia, France, Hungary, the Philippines and South Korea hold elections this spring, Brazil and Kenya in the autumn, and there are the US midterms in November. Five U.S. states will hold Senate primaries in May. What could go wrong there?

Northern Ireland, where DUP loyalists are already near full post-Brexit froth, will elect its assembly that same month, deftly overlaid on marching season, the annual extravaganza of goodwill put on by cheerful organizations with paramilitary pasts. What could go wrong there?

It may be there will always be an England. But a United Kingdom?

And then there is the pandemic. It may also be there will always be a Covid. I’ve had a look back at things we wrote when Covid first wedged its grasping little crampons into the lungs of the world. We were certain big change was coming.

And yet as we enter year three, look at us: here we are making like just around the corner we’ll have that whole supply chain toothpaste tube tidied up, real quick we’ll get things back like they were, good as new. Don’t believe your lying eyes, inflation isn’t inflation, it’s transitory. Soon it’ll be just like the good old days.

thought in March 2020, before the Zoom boom, that when it became apparent how many more functions could be carried out remotely, companies would wonder why they needed all those buildings. Half right. The virtues of remote work may be apparent to everybody else, but companies are still invested (123) in all that real estate and dying trying to bring workers back.

Here too a rear guard aims to put things back the way they were. But the masters of the universe may have more to grapple with than merely keeping the entire commercial real estate market afloat. They’ll also need a workforce.

A 2018 survey found almost 40 percent of 25-54 year olds not living with a romantic partner. As they put it here, “That does not bode well for life events like marriage, buying a first home, or having a child, which correlate closely with progress up the career ladder.”

Our pre-pandemic memories, much as we’d like to restore them, are nothing more than that – memories. The world has kept turning, things have changed and the pandemic is the agent of that change. Surely distant historians will tie the 2020 George Floyd violence in America to the pandemic, and it will be contributory, but only contributory. For there is a larger attitudinal shift afoot.

Two weeks ago 6700 conventioneers in Arizona raptured to greet, amid WWF-style pyrotechnics, an eighteen year old man found not guilty after killing people. The same day a Donald Trump supporting TV personality urged attendees to accost Dr. Anthony Fauci in (rhetorical) “ambush,” with “kill shot” questions about Wuhan. “Boom. He is dead. He is dead.” His network shrugged it off as rhetoric.

The convention organizers are a group called “Turning Point USA.” A group of people in the United States is in the mood for violence. It’s as if the arsenals in their Winchester gun safes are hankering for some aggressive self defense.

•••••

As the pandemic began Branko Milanovic thought “The longer the crisis lasts, and the longer obstacles to the free flow of people, goods, and capital are in place, the more that state of affairs will come to seem normal. Special interests will form to sustain it….”

He may not have been addressing the travel industry specifically, but it’s a place where that state of affairs prevails, as a failure to coordinate policy across governments makes chaos normal for leisure travelers. And so finally, a word on travel.

History rhymes. Twenty years ago Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, changed airport security at a stroke, as suddenly we all were ordered to tug on and off our shoes for “security.”

Twenty years on, the rhyme: on December 20, 2021 the Washington Post ran the headline

Hey, I know, in the spirit of casting out the old and ringing in the new, in 2022 let’s revisit the security theatre debate.

You can gawk at the travel wasteland wherever you look. Try for one, Southeast Asia. The UN reckons regional GDP may have declined by 8.4% in 2020 as a result of reduced tourism.

So Thailand has developed a concept they call the “sandbox,” in which vaccinated tourists may visit certain resorts where residents are well vaccinated. The Thai concept is contagious, as Indonesia means to try its own version in Bali and Vietnam on Phu Quoc island. Now that they mention it, that’s what the beach vacation is, isn’t it, sending adults to play in their own grown-up sandboxes.

On Christmas weekend US airlines cancelled 6,000 flights and German airline Lufthansa has cancelled 33,000 further winter flights for lack of demand. For two years now the international airline lobby IATA has stood incoherent and mostly mute as the entire formerly bottomless air travel maw chokes into insolvency.

For every selfie stick I’ve ever yearned to seize and crack over my knee, for every cruise ship that ever debased Venice’s lagoon, for every Ibiza hen party embarrassment, for all the perils of mass tourism, for all the evils of the dilettante horde, as Henry Wismayer describes them, surely the pandemic is a more insidious danger.

Covid’s most pervasive, longest lasting effect may be this comprehensive, ongoing, panic-induced constriction of cultural exchange. Our lingering inability to mix across cultures, to enjoy what’s unique about distant ethnicities, to discover and rediscover that people everywhere are just people after all, can only stiffen prejudice and steepen the slope to intolerance.

So it takes some effort to be optimistic about the year ahead. I’m almost sure it requires averting one’s gaze from politics. But there are always things to look forward to. Here are three, all of them as far from politics as can be:

Separating meat production from animal harvesting. A recent paper explains it this way: “Lab meat, not to be confused with plant-based meat substitutes, is grown in huge steel bioreactors using a small number of stem cells taken from a real living animal—a cow, fish, chicken, pig, etc. The result is honest-to-goodness meat, … albeit grown without the animal itself involved….” By one estimate, 65 percent of all terrestrial vertebrate biomass is made up of animals grown to feed humans. That leaves 35 percent to cover humans and all the rest of the world’s vertebrate wildlife. That is incredible to me. Lab meat ought to help.

The Christmas launch of the James Webb telescope. When I looked yesterday the Webb telescope was 507,000 miles from earth, cruising another mile every two point six seconds on an entirely uplifting, humanity affirming mission. Recall your quiet pride when the Mars rover Perseverance bounced onto Mars. With a worthy successor to Hubble parked beyond the far side of the moon, who knows what wonders await? Picture are due in the summer. And no matter what, the day with the least sunlight for a year is thirteen days behind us. The northern hemisphere climbs day by day out of darkness as days get longer for the next six months. And they can’t take that away from us. Before you know it you’ll be yearning for your sandbox.

And no matter what, the day with the least sunlight for a year is thirteen days behind us. The northern hemisphere climbs day by day out of darkness as days get longer for the next six months. And they can’t take that away from us. Before you know it you’ll be yearning for your sandbox.

Happy New Year.

New Travel Column at 3QD

My monthly travel column, about southwest Africa is live now at 3QuarksDaily. Read it at 3QD now, and I’ll put it up here on CSW in a few days. It’s a consideration of dodgy and disastrous colonialism in Southwest Africa, with a little flying adventure on the side.

Oops

I never posted last month’s 3QD column here at CSW. Here it is:

On The Road: Sri Lanka Part Two by Bill Murray

Politics as the family business works out better for some than for others. Last year Turkish President Erdogan had to fire his son-in-law Finance Minister. And the Trumps, well … you know. But things are working out pretty well for the Rajapaksas of Sri Lanka.

The President is Gotabaya Rajapaksa, nickname “the terminator.” The Prime Minister is Mahinda Rajapaksa, his older brother. Basil Rajapaksa, “Mr. Ten Percent,” their younger brother, is a former MP. Their other brother Chamal, a former speaker of Parliament, is a cabinet minister, and Namal Rajapaksa, Mahindra’s son, is an MP and Minister of Sports, representing the next Rajapaksa generation.

When we left our story (Read part 1 here) it was six o’clock in the morning, election day 1999 in Nuwara Eliya, a highland tea-picking town south of Kandy, Sri Lanka. Two loudspeakers played the call to prayer, mounted atop a glass-enclosed Buddha statue just by the traffic circle. The sun hadn’t cleared the hills but it was set to be a glorious morning, birds and dew run riot.

At this hour, Nuwara Eliya served mostly as a regional bus station. People queued for rides and a few stores pushed open their doors. At a milk bar (that’s a name for convenience stores, here to New Zealand) I bought toothpaste and remarked how it would be a nice day. Dazzling smile: “It is election day, sir!”

People walked, made a day of walking, walking into town, walking to polling stations. They got time off from work to vote. Tyrone said all the drivers expected a curfew (they all stayed at a compound next to the hotel, like on African package safaris). When the announcement came, they’d go together to the police station in Nuwara Eliya town center and get travel permits for carrying foreigners. 

When the sun beat down and the hills gleamed and blinded you clear out to the horizon, there was a cure for that. The St. Andrews Inn offered all the to-the-bone dankness of late winter on the River Tay. Just what you wanted in a tourist hotel.

Its snooker tables, they said, were a century old. The St Andrews Inn grew its own carrots, beets, beans, broccoli, cabbage, horse mint, peppermint, coriander and parsley. They were proud of their garden, where guests could pick their own salad. Except there was no sign of guests.

While we were inside clouds closed above a full blanket of mist that hung down and draped across Nuwara Eliya. Before you knew it the dripping sweat of Columbo, only 120 miles back up the road, was a distant memory.

We bought a mango and tiny peanuts. My wife Mirja liked them better than the big ones back home, the way Roma tomatoes are tastier than fat round factory-grown ones. The guy fashioned a bag from a folded sheet of newspaper and scooped it full for thirty rupees. Which is, roughly, free.

A beaming boy (photo up top), sleeves rolled onto his forearms, stood before a videotape and chocolate store chopping garlic and spring onions on an ancient stovetop. It smelled delicious.

This was a real vacation day, way out on a trip, not coming or going, no travel, no agenda, no problem. Chased inside by the dampness, we banged on the heater in our room in mid-afternoon until it showed life and I turned on the shortwave, as just now was NATO’s thirteenth night of bombing Serbia. In 1999, the internet hadn’t quite yet supplanted the shortwave, at least in Sri Lanka.

•••••

Chair won. The ruling alliance represented by a chair gained ground, losing seats only in Colombo and the suburbs. Tyrone told us the results but I already knew because a little animated chair did a little jig on morning TV. Later, the BBC World Service called it a muddle, no clear victor, no mandate for either side.

The vote: People’s Alliance 2,105,546, United National Party 1,979,546, making up 70 per cent of registered voters. “No deaths have been reported…. The majority of the complaints were of a minor nature, bordering on threats, abuse and cases of simple hurt….” as the paper put it.

There was some violence in Matale, north of Kandy, but the curfew the drivers had expected would last only from eleven at night to five a.m. Still, at a police checkpoint at the edge of Nuwara Eliya town, the cop wanted us to go way around the other way. Tyrone lied that he didn’t know that way.

Tyrone didn’t do bags. He’d call a bell boy. He’d let Mirja and me haul them. Whatever, he wouldn’t touch ‘em. He’d spend fifteen minutes guarding them in the lobby instead of loading them up.

But what a gorgeous day! Tyrone in his British driving cap, the air crisp and fresh, we set off at 7:30 sharp, down from the highlands, and drove five and a half hours to cover 160 kilometers. Five and a half hours, a hundred miles.

Mist filtered the sunlight way up in the hills around Lake Gregory as we drove alongside orchids grown for export, alongside the old British horse racing track on the east side of town, and then down toward Bandarawela.

Mirja had a cold, started a week before. What better way to chase it than an herbal massage at the reknowned Suwa Madhu Indigenous, Eight-fold Ayurvedic Treatment and Manufacturers of Herbal Medicine and Beauty Cream Institute of Sri Lanka, just on the far side of Bandarawela town?

While the institute did its magic I wandered down the street to a communal spring and watched babies washed by laughing kids, scarcely older, everybody splashing and playing in the pool. The oldest girl invited me home for tea. They placed a tiny cup in my lap and the whole family of eight watched me drink from it. I showed them postcards of home and they showed me their pride and joy, the oldest boy, away at the police academy, as photographed in his class picture.

Green double doors with a tassel of string instead of a door knob led to an anteroom that may have begun as the color of peach. The plaster had long ago cracked and smudged. Three framed photos, all askance, decorated the otherwise bare walls. Mama, in sandals and a print skirt, graying at the temples, sat in a high, straight-backed chair, her hands clasped in her lap, smiling, surrounded by her brood.

The youngest, a precious brown-eyed beauty, took shy refuge behind a hand-carved chair, only her head and hands visible. I may have been a stranger, but she offered a ready, open smile.

Meanwhile the Suwa Madhu Institute seemed to do the trick. Mirja came out hair up, oily and grinning.

Now rolling across the flats bound for the coast, lushness from every vantage point, endless gardens of paradise. Buildings, painted over with ads, hawked Sunlight, Astra, Vim, Signal, Rinso and Lifebuoy household products, and “Curd & Hunny.”

In monastery towns monks climbed on and off the buses. There were branches of Peoples Bank – “The Bank with a Heart” – and here was Triple Star Services – “A New Meaning to Cleaning.” Once we found ourselves trapped for a while by the Chirpy Chip truck – “From the House of Uswatte.”

We passed a truck labeled on each side, simply, “Retort.”

Bikes hauling bananas plied the roadway, now alongside cactus and sawgrass. Marsh and wetland, salt pans, lagoons and windmills covered the Sri Lankan south.

We just beat a tour bus into the otherwise empty Oasis Hotel at a place called Hambantota. Walking into the lobby, Tyrone gleamed, “How do you like it?” We turned to look around and he said, “My father was project manager for this entire complex. But he died before grand opening.” We told him we liked it real well.

They played bad disco at lunch, and the waiters tried proper, formal serving techniques, barefoot. They smiled sweet as the day is long pouring Carlsbergs that foamed up, over and out of the glass.

Two fellows named Nandiga and Chaminda showed up in what once may have passed for a jeep. Here was our afternoon safari team, and away we went to look for elephants.

Nandiga wore a funny shirt with stripes and curlycues, and smoked cigarettes like French people do in movies, forefinger and thumb, as he hurtled us, one hand on the wheel, back down roads we’d crossed more carefully earlier in the day. At the park entrance, Chaminda moved from the front seat to stand upon the back benches, and took the canvas top off.

We bumped along near the shore, sometimes coming right alongside it, and saw more elephants than you’d think, six or seven, but they all looked cornered by the inevitable convergence of rapacious jeeps like ours. We came upon a pair and gave them distance as they watered themselves, nuzzled and played, but it still felt as though we were imposing.

Paul Bowles wrote about the same thing in the 1950s: “You feel as though you were in a tremendous zoo whose inmates had been placed there for your amusement. Perhaps it is because a few miles outside the sanctuary you see what look like the same buffaloes working placidly in the paddy-fields, and very similar elephants moving slowly along the roads, tinkling their bells….”

Elephants, iguanas, monkeys, but this safari was mainly about birds – over 20,000 in the park at any given time, Chaminda said. Migratory wild ducks from Siberia, sandpipers, jungle fowl, peacocks, peahens, gulls, plovers, terns, a few green parrots, egrets, pelicans, herons and storks. And one crocodile (Chaminda knew where to look).

Nandiga too. At 22, he’d already been working here nine years, a helper before he got his drivers license, then as a safari master. He drove like 20 year olds do the world over, but we made it home. The Yala Preserve wasn’t Africa but it was fun, and this safari only cost $26.50. 

•••••

A hint of the absurd hung over all our Sri Lankan affairs. Barefoot servers decanted Carlsbergs like fine wine, holding the bottles at the bottom, towels draped across their forearms.

“When does the monsoon come?” I asked Tyrone. “End of April, sir.”

“Is it ever late?”

“It is always late, sir.”

Paul Bowles told a story: he was “stripped naked by customs inspectors while their assistants fingered the seams of my garments. In the first instance they told me I was suspected of being an international spy. ‘But spying for whom?’ I insisted. ‘Spying for international.’”

•••••

A sunny dawn, but by mid-morning a silver cast covered the sky and storm clouds scudded up in the west. Surf crashed against the shore so determinedly that it chased off the stilt fishermen at Talpe, whose stilts swayed bare in the waves.

It’s terribly photogenic, stilt fishing. As far as I know it’s utterly unduplicated elsewhere. It’s unique like those leg-rowing, net fishing sailors on Myanmar’s Inle Lake. 

Stilt fishing looks like something the ancients have been doing since the days of mastodons, but it turns out to be less than a hundred years old. It’s a simple idea. Two or three fishermen drive a pole into the reef. They keep the distance between stilts enough that the lines of adjacent fishermen don’t get entangled and that’s it; hold the stilt with one hand, sit on a cross bar called a “petta,” go fish.

•••••

Matara, twenty miles shy of Galle, bottom left of the island, two miles past the lighthouse at Dondra Head. An imposing market of more or less identical stalls. Spices, powders, potions in jars, root vegetables in piles, bags of rice on hooks (some looking potentially fatal if they fell). One shirtless stallholder showed artistic flair, making a lattice display of galangal. Others built pyramid cities of onions, ginger hills and cane sugar towers.

The railway station bled into a massive tuk tuk lot and bus terminal, where people jumped on and off buses that merely slowed down. I saw this about thirty years ago in Mubarak’s Egypt when Tahrir Square was still a bus station. Local buses would slow but never stop.

Matara was busy but it didn’t share in Cairo’s seethe. In spite of one or two modern glass buildings, livestock retained some pride of place. At the southern tip of Sri Lanka bullock carts ruled.

•••••

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to intrude on Ceylon and stay. Buoyed by their brutal pillage of India’s west coast at the beginning of the 16th century (brutal as in: after the battle of Diu in 1509, the Portuguese collected heads and hands of their victims and sailed south, catapulting body parts into waterfront villages as calling cards), the Portuguese rounded the southern tip of India, and built a fort at Galle.

The Europeans terrorized the coast but never captured the inland Kingdom of Kandy. In time, the Sinhalese King invited the Dutch to help fight the Portuguese. The Portuguese finally left Ceylon to the Dutch, who finished and fortified the Portuguese built fort. Inside the ramparts of the old fort even now, a few streets still hung on to their Dutch names.

Every little village along the coast was like the last, hardscrabble, vendors selling only the things you need to live. No luxury. People, bicycles, buses, tuk-tuks, bullock carts and us – all sharing the lane and a half of blacktop.

Famous mask factories made special masks for exorcisms at the town of Ambalangoda. An engaging merchant there explained ancient legends and fairy tales, and displayed masks of each of the eighteen Sanni Demons.

“These demons are very powerful and dangerous. They can make people sick by looking at them.”

There they all were, one by one, causing “diseases of the bile, stomach pain, measles, mumps, diarrhea, poison like cobra poison in the body, and blister.”

Up the road Spice Garden Number 100 (“private but approved by the tourist board”) complimented the work of the mask makers in fending off maladies. It provided a complete regime of 22 remedies, with documentation, including for example #3 cinnamon oil against tooth pain: “Put a drop into the cavity of the tooth, when saliva acumulates spite it out again put one drop into the cavity repeat four times.” Or #13 kamayogi bon-bon: “Indicated in pre-ejaculation, the 1/2 teaspoon ful paste of kamayogi bon-bon eat before sexual affinity to control the pre-ejaculation and other debilities. Better before twenty minutes the sex and have some milk more.”

•••••

A train blocked the road in Bentota town. There a man’s all-day job was to stand alongside the track and open and close the gates for the five trains a day.

An elephant walking to work at a wedding ceremony blocked our way for a time, but by mid-afternoon we inhabited a bungalow at Kasgoda beach. The surf crashed hard forty meters away. I rented a fridge for $3 a day and cooled an armful of Heinekens.

A day at the beach. Chipmunks, cows and coconut palms shared the shore. Southbound geese (next landfall due south, Antarctica, 5000 miles). I’d gotten into a little Glenfiddich the night before and woke slow, had a curative Thai chilli-laced omelet and retired to the porch to read The Teaching of Buddha, supplied in the room along with the New Testament in French, English and German.

The sea sounded a dull roar and palm fronds caused a wind-whipped tempest. Still, blue sky peeked through here and there offshore. Now and then manic low clouds came through, raking the manicured lawn with water-fire. We put on a Sri Lanka music channel and Mirja did a long walk, on which she found a turtle hatchery down the beach.

A chipmunk climbed down the palm tree beside the porch and stared at me from three feet away. The wind blew things around inside our room. I felt sympathy for those who had come all this way for a beach vacation in the sun, but I loved it. The earth was vividly, furiously alive. Wind, thunder, fury.

New 3QD Article Today

My monthly column at 3 Quarks Daily is up this morning. It’s about Passport Control in Sikkim, Côte d’Ivoire and the USA. Read it here now, and I’ll post it here on CS&W later this week.

Gangtok, Sikkim
Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire
Havana, Cuba

On The Road: Inside Papua New Guinea

Here is my monthly column as it appeared Monday on 3QuarksDaily.

by Bill Murray

John Allen Chau, the missionary killed in the Andaman Islands in November, reopened the ‘uncontacted people’ debate. An advocacy group called Survival believes “Uncontacted peoples make a judgment that they are better off remaining uncontacted and independent, fending for themselves.” Most everybody else wants in, missionaries on their missions, doctors preventing disease, linguists to study imperiled languages.

Outside the Amazon basin most of the world’s uncontacted people live in New Guinea. The world’s second largest island is divided between Indonesia in the west where – as far as we know – all remaining uncontacted people live, and Papua New Guinea in the east.

My wife and I took a peek into the interior of Papua New Guinea twenty years ago. To be clear, we sailed up the Sepik River, in the north of the country, a region that has had contact with Europeans since their ships scouted the coast in the late 18th century. European settlers pressed indigenous labor into plantation work on the north coast from the late 19th and then, in the 1930s Australian gold prospectors trekked into the interior highlands and climbed out with eyes big as saucers, having made contact with nearly a million previously unknown highlanders. (Here is a remarkable video.)

Apprehensive but with faith in the civilizing force of the five or six intervening decades, our upper lips stiffened by the hotel minibar, we flew into the highland town of Mt. Hagen, gateway to the interior. Mt. Hagen comprised a single downtown street, a rugby field, airstrip, unkempt housing and not much more.

No tour groups clustered around leaders with flags; no backpackers struck poses of studied indifference. The police lived in barracks, prefab units half the length of a single-wide, where wives and children spilled onto verandas. I expect they’d have preferred thatch.

We shared a ride with a trader from Osaka to the Hotel Highlander, hidden behind a six-foot barricade. Men in yellow hard hats rolled back the high gate, color of a battleship. A fence surrounded the compound and more men in hard hats walked snarling black dogs around the inside perimeter.

The kitchen served dinner and stubbies, which is Aussie for short bottles of beer. Bony chicken is bony chicken, but they curled the tops of spring onions as garnish. A stab at flair.

•••••

A small plane carried us to the Sepik River. The pilot, already sweaty early in the morning in a tight short-sleeved shirt with epaulets, wielded a bathroom scale, weighed up his passengers (just my wife and me) and our gear, pulled a pencil from behind his ear and made the figures work on his clipboard.

He flew us to the river at Timbunke, worthy of a jot on the map but as far as I could tell, nothing more than a grass landing strip and six buildings. With road access north to Wewak on the Bismarck Sea, Timbunke was the last town with a road out the rest of the way upriver.

The entire Sepik River cruiser, the Sepik Spirit, was ours. Nobody but us, a crew of nine and captain Graeme, for three days. We climbed onto the third observation deck to view the daily thunderstorm over a savannah menaced by gathering nimbus and churned by sheets of shower.

The Sepik Spirit jammed up onto a sandy spit off Tambanum village and we clambered onto its stand-in shallow-draft landing craft, the proper one having gone clear to Karawari for repair. Every day they had fits trying to start its outboard motor.

The old beast juddered to a stop beside canoes carved from single trees, dragged onshore and parked perpendicular to the waterline. The son of Namba, the village elder, invited us into his father’s home.

Typical Sepik River Village

All these houses of trees and vines stood higher than a person off the ground against animals, flooding and nat nats, or mosquitoes. The littlest baby, just three weeks old, slept under a mosquito net, one of not many concessions to the modern age. Seven poles lashed to two longer ones comprised the ladder to the door. Clay fire-pots allowed cooking inside. Drums, pots and baskets dangled from the rafters.

Tambanum was Catholic, having been converted by a missionary from down toward the mouth of the Sepik. A painting of Jesus hung at the top of Namba’s stairs. Below it was a traditional Sepik carving, in the shape of virgin and Son.

The elder Namba didn’t know how old he was. He had lived on the same patch of ground all his life. He said his father was bombed in this same place – just right there – by Japan. Namba’s son translated. His house, identical, stood directly behind Namba’s.

With a ceremonial fuss Namba brought out the family’s most prized possession, a bridal veil made of thousands of tiny nassa shells. I tried it on, too flippantly. We handed it around. Lawrence, our guide, went full reverential.

“It is byoo-tee-ful!” he murmured.

I suggested it took weeks to weave.

“Months.”

Namba walked us down to his front step and bid us farewell leaning heavily on his cane, wearing a tattered orange Brisbane Broncos T-shirt, ear lobes elongated by tribal tradition, smiling a broad smile ravaged by scarlet betel nut stains.

Ancient pipe-smoking women sat cross-legged along the path from Namba’s house, weaving baskets. A knot of men advised two others with Swiss-made metal tools and hand-carved mallets how to carve a table into the shape of a crocodile.

Two dugout canoes glided down the russet-colored Sepik as if on fire. When river folk caught a fish they smoked it in a clay pot right on the boat. The smoke kept away the nat nats.

Family in a dugout canoe on the Sepik River

•••••

Elsewhere by ritual you must come in, sit down, drink Pepsi, make small talk before negotiating can begin. Impecunious Tambanum got right down to business. When a boat tied up they produced a practiced mise en scène of artifacts. And came too quickly with their fallback position.

“How much?”

“Fifteen kina.”

“Second price twelve kina.”

They had no jobs for there were no jobs, 3000 people with no power, ice or medical care. They built their own houses and taught the arts of weaving and carving to their kids. Their food lived in the river and the trees.

We gave them their first price. That would be the village’s currency income for the day, maybe the week. It took a lot of hand-carved tourist masks for a village to save up for something useful like an outboard motor.

•••••

At twilight we’d sit on mats up front with Benny the pilot, watching cooking fires kick up lambent shorelight. Creatures of the night emerged from the forests; the sky darkened with no light from shore to chase it back. Inky sapphire settled over creation, and the deck would be thick as black snowfall with bugs in the morning. They’d sweep it clean.

At sunup, river glassy smooth, we crawled onto the landing craft, destination Angriman village. As soon as they were freed from the ship, the deck hands broke out the betel nut and turned full-animated.

The people of Angriman were the best crocodile hunters on the river. They raised them for their skin. When maybe four years old, a medium sized croc fourteen inches around might bring 200 kina from the Japanese agent who sailed in every three or four months. The biggest would bring 300. Fifteen or 20 three-footers lay about in a wooden stockade.

The croc stockade at Angriman

Each Sepik village selected a councilman. The Sepik Council met every other month or so, sometimes at Karawari, sometimes at Timbunke, and elected a representative to send to parliament.

Peter Mai, the Angriman councilman, greeted us. We gave him a postcard from where we lived, a place with skyscrapers. Four teenaged girls sang The Wonder of It All from a Seven Day Adventist hymnal, and then we stood in a receiving line as the congregants each shook our hands.

The Seventh Day Adventists got here first. Just sailed right up the Sepik winning converts. Now they were losing ground to the Catholics because they’d tried to banish traditional beliefs. They wouldn’t allow traditional dress.

Angriman produced watermelon, Malay apple trees, yams, mulberry bushes and a surplus of smoked fish. With more fruit and vegetables than it needed, crocodiles for sale for currency and fish in exportable quantity, Angriman prospered. But Angriman wasn’t served by a road and unfortunately, it was no longer on the river.

The Sepik changed course some years back leaving Angriman a literal backwater, off the main channel. Still, the crocodile trade yielded wealth: Evinrude outboard motors attached to longboats.

•••••

Upstream that night, anchored offshore, we peered into meager adumbrations of an unknown village. Some of the villagers owned kerosene lamps, but kerosene wasn’t to be used lightly. In the new day that village, Mindimbit, came to life as positively mercenary.

Mindimbit Village

One man had brought an immature cassowary, a blue-necked flightless, four-foot bird named Betty from Karawari. He charged a kina a camera for pictures. With the Sepik Spirit a sometimes visitor, Mindimbit was relatively grizzled at the artifact trade. Prices were higher.

Beside three Evinrudes and a Yamaha outboard in a shed of thatch, a frame of two-by-fours and four-by-fours stood unfinished. “They run out of money,” Lawrence explained. Planed wood is just not as practical as traditional houses lashed together with palms. With factory wood there was more to buy. Like nails.

A man named Wesley invited us into his house.

Up the stairs (watch your head!), three women cooked lunch and minded the kids, everybody on the floor. With a shower dancing on the roof, Miss Julie smoked a spatchcocked fish on a little round metal stove. Grandma minded a little boy, several cooking pots and plates of greens, and Wesley’s wife made sago pancakes.

To make the staple food you cut down a sago palm, drag it to the village, skin its bark, chop it into hunks, then smaller hunks, then pummel and pulverize it to pulp, and finally sluice it through banana leaves into a paste and dry to a powder.

Grinning a toothy grin, Wesley’s wife scooped the powder into a clay pot. A fire crackled underneath. With her cup she pressed it into pancakes. She’d press each into a foot-long oval and fold it in half. When it cooled we all tore edges off and popped them in our mouths. Captain Graeme said his wife added powdered coconut for a little flavor.

•••••

The sun would set in an hour and the river had smoothed for sunset. Benny smoked his hand-rolled faggots down to burn his fingers while steering through swamp and short grass. The forest rolled back to reveal mountains under cumulus. 

We eased up along the north bank of the Sepik. Thatch imbricated a basic provisioning center where we sought curry, matches, tobacco and a Sydney Morning Herald dated March 28th. It was September. But this newspaper wasn’t for reading. It was rolling paper for the tobacco. Three broadsheets sold for fifteen toea.

Outside, imposing, voluble men loitered, but offered only friendly chews of betel nut, gesturing amused instructions. We split ‘em open and popped the nuts into our mouths. You chew, generating saliva, and spit the juice through your teeth, retaining the meat.

The juice is white. You dip a bit of mustard stalk into “lime,” pounded from mussel shell, and chomp it. It turns the juice bright red. Chew, spit, chew. It’s a little bitter and it gets your heart moving a bit, a little blood rushes to your head, everything’s a notch more intense, and then it fades. Think kava, Indonesian kratom or your first deep drag of nicotine.

Going for a swim from the old landing craft

After darkness spread full and complete, Mirja, Lawrence and I sat on rattan and cushions in the center of the Sepik Spirit. Insects threw up a wall of sound while canoes glided alongside silently. Adolescent boys peered in, cupping their faces to the windows.

Lawrence had a story to tell.

“Now I will tell you how our elders taught us the secrets of the spirits.

“I was fourteen. I was working since I was twelve, with westerners. I ate western food. I did not believe there were spirits.”

Still, at fourteen, there was room for doubt.

“It was frightening. We would start at six p.m. and they kept us awake until six in the morning. For days.

“They built a wall in front of the spirit house with a door too small to walk through. They lit the palm fronds over the door into a fire and told us to run as fast as we could and squeeze through that little door, and not to get burned by the falling ashes.

“My grandfather was the village leader so I had to go first. Five boys were behind me. I was scared but I ran fast as I could and I squeezed through that door and up the steps into the spirit house.”

The squeeze symbolized the return to the mother’s womb, because you must reunite with your mother’s spirit as a rite of passage before your father can teach you the spiritual secrets.

“Inside the spirit house, bad news! The men from the village were there and they were whipping us with canes to show us the power of each spirit.  Ohhh, and it hurt!”

Lawrence grimaced and held his forehead. His eyes widened so that white showed clear around his pupils. He chewed a knuckle.

“And now it was late, about five in the morning. They gave each boy a betel nut. My grandfather told me the one he gave me was a special one. They told us to chew them, it would be good for us. We spit out the juice and kept the meat inside our mouths.

“They gave us pieces of ginger and told us to chew them. They played drums and these flutes at the same time. I felt like maybe I had a gin and tonic!

“I was dizzy and then I started seeing skeletons dancing and then I had these incredible dreams. And I believe in Jesus and Mary but since that night I have also known that spirits are real, too.

“We believe the father gives us the knowledge but the blood comes from the mother and so it must return to her. So my mother’s brother came from another village.

“The night of the skin cutting we stayed up all night. When it was very late the men made us go into the water and stay for one hour so our skin would get soft. Ohhh, it was so cold!”

Lawrence was sweaty as a bayou preacher. He massaged his temples and pulled his legs up on the sofa.

“When it was time I laid down on top of my mother’s brother. So the blood would fall on him. And they cut me.”

With a flourish he raised his right sleeve to show the results.

“Sometimes they cut your back but I asked they only cut my arms because I had to go back to work.”

He had to have time to heal.

But he didn’t heal. He was infected.

“I asked for medicine but my grandfather refused. He asked me, ‘What have you done wrong?’ I said nothing, nothing over and over but he kept asking me until finally I admitted I had stayed with my girlfriend the night before.

“Before they would use sharp bamboo leaves but now they use razors. I asked my grandfather if the razor was old but he said no it was bought new for this purpose. My infection was punishment for this bad act.”

His grandfather, who Lawrence called, “A famous headhunter,” told him at the end of his weeks of spiritual training that he would have unbelievable opportunities in the future. One of the people he had led on a cruise like this recently offered him a trip to the U.S., and to Lawrence, that was proof positive it was so.

More photos from Papua New Guinea at EarthPhotos.com.

New Monday Magazine Column

This month’s column in the Monday Magazine at 3QuarksDaily is Inside Papua New Guinea. I’ll publish it here later this week.