Friday, November 14, 2008

It’s Freezing in This Future – Epilogue

I was accepted by both LSE and Dalhousie, and I put off making up my mind for as long as I could. In the end, it just wasn’t good timing for my Dalhousie professor: she’d be on sabbatical during my first year, and another school was trying to hire her away in the meantime. I said yes to LSE.

This closes the book on two long winters in Montreal. No more nightly walk home between close-set snowbanks, no more commuter cars that will need digging out in the morning, no more snow-trammelled sidewalks lodged with split recycling bins, or twin rows of streetlights bearing soft yellow globes. Above each of those, no more thin wooden staircases that twist up the fronts of brick buildings, where three stories of walk-up apartments twinkle at each other at midnight. And still above those, goodbye to the lattice of branches that suggests an arch over everything, and that catches the last drifts of airborne snow, which never loses its newness in the night-time lights—and up, up, to the blank Montreal sky.

For the first time in a long time, I feel like my envies are on hold. I’m in a good place with my studies, and hopefully the love and inspiration will follow. School will take me back to the sea.

This is my ecosystem, every winter I’m here: the salted street eats my boots; my boots eat my leg hair at mid-calf, chafing it away to two naked rings; and I eat the salted street. Although—no man ever claimed perfect harmony with the world around him. I’ve also eaten the friends who live on this street and on others nearby. And I eat you, too. I wouldn’t have survived all my damn-fool plans without you.

Much love,


Now You Konfrontasi Me, Now You Don’t (It’s Freezing in This Future – Ch. 4)

Singapore’s past is practically being zoned out of existence. Happy memories are disappearing everywhere you look: the traditional corner coffee shops, with their sugar-butter, soy sauce and half-boiled egg on toast, have been sterilized into franchises, and the birdsong competitions, which once filled Sunday squares with tame birds, have gotten replaced by a plaque. Lord knows what’s become of the young Chinese women you see in old photos, sipping Fantas in go-go boots and bobbed hair, but there’s no point in looking for them either. The flip side is that Singapore loses all trace of its bad memories, too. It doesn’t get much worse than what happened after the British surrendered in WWII: the Japanese seized 25,000 to 50,000 local Chinese, loaded them onto trucks and slaughtered them by the sea. Dhany and I saw one of the killing fields on Sentosa the day we were there. It had been landscaped into the 18-hole golf course on our way up to the fort.

Toward the end of my summer there, a man from a family of Singapore billionaires took me to see one of the places where he’d grown up. A highway plows right through it now, and barriers have been put up on either of side of the road to hide a tawdry, impossible secret: the shuttered buildings of an abandoned colonial estate, doing nothing, allowed to age forgotten in the heat. A bauble in the empire of a Chinese immigrant who’d married into rubber and pineapple wealth during the high-rolling 1920s. The gate pushed in with a metal sigh, revealing an empty drive. The rubber baron’s grandson glanced at me as we realized nothing was locked.

He showed me into a building that the family had converted into a hotel after the war. By 1985, what had once been part of a palace called Karikal Mahal was charging 50 Singapore dollars for a four-hour room. The floor plan unfolded along a series of two-story courtyards, each looking down on a garden of rocks and withered plants. They’d installed bathrooms with drab green toilets in the suites. Plywood sat piled up on the single mattresses. My host shrugged at the mess: “What would you do with this property if you could, Nathan?”

I’ve got no business sense. The only reason I knew this man was because Mel’s mother had grown up in a similar mansion—now long gone except for the fading patios in her photo albums—and she’d gone to grade school with him. During the whispered, late-night phone calls that Mel and I had shared when I was still in Canada, I’d promised to help her find a Singapore that wasn’t all climate-controlled glass towers. We’d discover the lost places together. In a city of 4 million people, there had to be one or two. And now that I was here, this man was asking what I’d do with the place? A scheme to bring this property into the amnesiac present was the last thing on my mind. Embarrassed, I stammered a stupid non-reply: “I—I have no idea.”

Beyond the last courtyard, the building opened out onto a shaded concrete balcony. The balustrade was patched with lichen, and dry leaves covered the dirt of the yard below. My guide rested his hands on the railing and took in the view. Mel impatiently called the man “Uncle Chin”: as one of the middle-aged heirs to his family’s fortune, he drove a Land Rover and wore polo shorts that showed off the muscles in his bandy, hairless legs. After his business column in the national paper got him in hot water with the Government, he’d founded a magazine of his own (look it up under Asia!, with the exclamation mark), where Mel had gotten me some writing gigs when I first arrived on the island. I’d asked Uncle Chin for this tour after handing in my first few articles.

“When I was little,” Uncle Chin said as he looked out, “this hotel used to be right on the beach. None of the land in front of us was here before, you know. It used to be nothing but ocean.” His parents brought him out here in the 60s, during the years of the country’s independence and the Indonesian attacks that followed. Jakarta trained covert operatives on Batam and set off bombs all over Singapore, as part of a larger confrontation with its formerly British neighbours that came to be called Konfrontasi. “The Indonesians put mines in the Strait of Singapore, and these things used to wash right up on the beach here. I wasn’t allowed to go down there—it was too dangerous. But I could see my uncle walking along the shore to look for them.”

At the end of a Hollywood movie, the ancient temple caves in on itself, or the Grail is sacrificed. It’s as if the really important things can’t survive in the sunlight, and all we’re left with are tall tales, pleas for belief, or (in the Singaporean version) ghost stories: the restless spirits of the paved-over past, perfectly unverifiable, but perfectly true. Uncle Chin’s mansion is already filling with ghost stories, just like the rest of Singapore. In 2006, all I could see from its balcony were ranks of new condos, rising up on lot after lot of reclaimed land. The sea was gone from that place too.

* * *

On August 8, 2007, soon after my mad expedition to Barbados, I went to see a psychiatrist about my future. It was time to figure out which grad schools I hoped to get into in 2008: of all the places in the world where I could study psychology, I wanted one that felt like more of a home than a Hell Cocoon. That day, I’d made an appointment at McGill’s Division for Social and Transcultural Psychiatry. It was right in town, and I’d wanted to meet a certain doctor there since the spring, when I’d seen her give a talk on Western bias in trauma counselling. I perched on an ottoman in her office while she read over my CV. She had a long, thin build and a long, thin face, offset by hippie trimmings: forest-green vest, shock of frizzy greying hair, sympathetic eyes. Guatemalan folk art on her walls. She put her glasses down and smiled at me.

“It looks like you have a serious choice to make,” she said. “You’ve done so many things this year: working with children, helping in labs, researching policy … and you were a translator and an artist before this, also? To do well in school, you’ll either have to choose one thing to specialize in, or else keep doing different things and accept that you’ll always be marginal in your career.”

Two minutes in, and she’d cut me to the quick. This was what I’d been afraid of: she was telling me I had to decide between school and having what I thought of as an inspiring life. One way or the other, I’d have to lobotomize a part of myself. As I retraced my steps back to the elevator, I felt amazed at how immediately she’d understood me, shaken that the world might be as black and white as she’d said, and sure only that the Division for Social and Transcultural Psychiatry wouldn’t be a home for me after all.

I knew there was such a thing as a respected iconoclast. I had the impression they came mostly from Harvard. When I was a 19-year-old with heat rash in Haiti, I’d billeted at the home of a trim-moustached medical anthropologist whose shelves had been full of Antillean poetry, West African singers and Creole prayers. His Harvard degree had opened doors with the local humanitarian regime: he spent his days climbing on the backs of motorcycles and trying to convince rural principals to stop whipping their kids, coming home after nightfall and collapsing into a thin, sunburnt heap on his bed. I wanted to see the Harvard that produced men like that. In fact, it was the first school I’d visited that year, back in February, when I went down to see Mel.

Melanie met me at the Boston bus station. She was bundled in a black scarf and white beret, the beauty mark unchanged on her rosy cheek. I’d gotten a haircut. We were looking forward to spending the weekend together, but we were still unclear on some of the fine points. I leaned in to her smiling face. She leaned aside.

“Oh man, I’m—I’m sorry. I kept thinking what to do when we saw each other. Were we supposed to shake hands?”

“I know! Should we hug instead? Aggh, messed up already!” We self-consciously arranged our arms around each other, then turned to catch the T to her home.

Bright and early the next morning she dropped me off by Harvard Square, near her work. With my hands stuffed in my pockets and my breath hanging in the air, I jogged across the intersection and entered the grounds of the most well-heeled centre of learning on earth. Block after block of tidy gingerbread architecture—red brick, snowy gates, curlicued eaves—and, suddenly, the psychology building towering above it all: a 15-story slab of white marble that sloped out, just so, toward the fairytale village around me. The spitting image of a transplanted tropical hotel.

None of the professors in there had returned my e-mails. Their website warned they did nothing but theory and labs, so I knew this wasn’t a home that would bring me closer to people’s lives. Still: a guy can dream he belongs. As long as I was in the neighbourhood, I figured I’d get a sense of the place, and hopefully track down a particular professor who was shaking up some received wisdom on racism.

The hallways inside were all but deserted. From each silent floor, I could look through plate glass windows onto the milling university town below. The professor’s door was locked, and gave no indication of when he might return. I was feeling the oppressive elation of being in a place I shouldn’t be—until I finally ran into a group of people arranging chairs on the topmost floor.

“It’s a NIMH conference. Power, culture and mental health. We need to bring in more seats—you’re welcome to sit in if you want.” NIMH. National Institute of Mental Health. Right, like the Rats of NIMH. Funny thing was, they were all physicians or anthropologists or sociologists. Not a psychologist in sight.

“Maybe I will stick around for a bit. Thanks.”

I helped haul chairs into the lobby and settled in to hear a French former vice-president of Médecins Sans Frontières. Young idealists, he said, used to react to foreign crises by going and fighting alongside the revolutionaries. Now they want to analyze and cure them instead. When Palestinian boys throw stones, mental health workers go in and try to help by revealing that the boys are so traumatized, they wet their beds. I liked this man. He knew people needed help, and he knew psychologists needed their heads checked too if they wanted to be the ones helping. I liked it less when a counsellor got up to discuss spousal abuse, and the crowd responded with knowing laughter at the lies that the abusive husbands told about themselves. High up in the sky, at the intellectual summit of the world, this was how the ivory tower looks upon its subjects: earnestly, cynically, condescendingly, in pain, take your pick.

Halfway through the talks, the audience rippled and abruptly went quiet. A huge eagle had landed on the sill outside the picture window. It paced, it reopened its wings, and it swung out of sight. Everyone started talking at once.

“What was that?”

“A peregrine falcon!”

“They roost under the roof here.”

Leaning back in his seat, the Médecins Sans Frontières man said to no one in particular: “No, I think it was a golden eagle.” He was right. The American PhDs didn’t know the eagles outside their own window.

On my last evening in Boston, Mel took me to a student hangout called Café Algiers. A dimly lit haven for people who like Moroccan tea services on tiny, knee-knocking tables, and washroom walls covered in egghead graffiti about Wittgenstein.

“It’s been so good having you here,” Mel told me. “I’m happy with what I’m doing here”—she was raising funds toward a new university for poor Asian women, and before long she’d be a shoo-in at high-profile NGOs around the world—“but I still haven’t found friends like the ones I made in Montreal.”

“Oh Mel, I know you’re doing this for your future—you’re doing something we both wanted so bad. It’s going to be better the next place you go. It has to be, after all this.” The mint tea scalded my tongue. “You know, I’ve been back in Montreal with all my old friends, but it’s my turn next. Who knows what’s waiting for me at grad school, either.”

Mel said something that surprised me, then: “I’m glad you’re doing it, Nathan. It means I don’t have to worry about you anymore.”

As a parting gift, she gave me a biography of Paul Farmer: another Harvard graduate, who lives in a godforsaken Haitian valley next to the revolutionary AIDS hospital he founded. The brilliant rebel hero of a discipline known as “public health.” I might have had a different impression of Harvard if I’d visited its School of Public Health instead of the psychology building. It’s a field that makes room for outward-looking doctors, social scientists and social workers, and one more young man with psychology training could probably fit under its umbrella. I hadn’t chosen the most obvious path for myself, insisting on asking why it’s so hard to help Brazilian crack alleys and Indonesian red-light districts from within the rigid confines of psychology proper.

After I dragged my spent body home from Barbados, I was truly happy exactly twice that year. The first time happened while surfing the web at the McGill library (at the broad, sunny worktables behind the Vomitorium reference stacks). My wire-thin, TNT-laughing teacher had recommended I check out the Institute of Social Psychology at the London School of Economics, and their site softened my face into the beginnings of a genuine smile. Oh my God: they offered a Master of Science on the role of community in international development. They had a professor from Brazil, who went to the slums of Rio de Janeiro to involve kids with an arts group called Afroreggae. They had a British prof whose homepage described how growing up in Africa and the Pacific had helped convince her that psychology can “challenge the social inequalities we are part of.” And it was a good school. A really good school. A possible home. On the way back to my apartment, I wondered at how completely I’d forgotten what it felt like to be in good spirits.

The second time I was happy was the afternoon of January 10, 2008, in an upstairs room in a wood-frame house at Dalhousie University, Halifax. This one was less of a morale booster, and more of a speechless sense of recognition. I’d come just a few days before Dalhousie’s applications had to be turned in, to cross my t’s about their Master of Arts in health promotion (a multidisciplinary public health degree). Halifax was a laid-back fishing town where I felt like myself, and I thought a solid education from a Canadian university like this would get my foot in the door wherever I ended up. What really blew me away, though, was a last-minute meeting with a human sexuality prof.

“Take a seat,” she said. “What can I do for you?” The students who came to her office sat on the couch with the afghan throw. A shelf along the far wall was full of teaching awards. I apologetically ran through all the things I’d done to try and decide what to do with myself since 2006, and ended by saying I just wanted to help figure out how academics could serve their communities better.

“Have you ever worked with First Nations communities?”

I tried to dredge up some experience worth mentioning. “No. I haven’t. But I’d do my best if—if I had the opportunity.” She looked Native, or half Native. The daughter in her office photos looked half black. She’d had an interesting life.

“I do quite a bit of field work with Mi’kmaq women in Nova Scotia. You seem like a good man. You’d do a good job. You could work with me if you wanted.”

It was the strangest thing. She’d sized me up, and she believed in me. Just like that. And lord did this woman have things to teach me. As I rose to shake her hand, I didn’t feel the need to break down in her lap—just a calmness in the spot where I’d built up two winters of shrilling self-doubt, and where I’d inexpertly tried to wall it away.

Two schools that inspired me: the London School of Economics, where an impossibly independent-minded group was tucked away at a world-class institution; and Dalhousie, less ambitious but more human, with a better chance at connection than I’d felt with any other professor in years. I’d apply to both, and wait and see.

* * *

When Charles and Jeremiah set out the second time, a two-decker warship had been assigned to escort them into the open sea. From there, the Seahorse sailed over the horizon once again alone.

Their first letter home was dated May 6, 1761, three months after their departure. Charles was pleased to report “exceeding good passage” south from the Spanish Canaries, and he had just completed tests of an observatory that he had hammered together at the Dutch Cape Town colony.

Years later, after Charles and Jeremiah had completed illustrious careers with the Crown, astronomers would confirm the quality of their early observations at the Cape. Their work contributed to the first estimate of the distance between Sun and Earth, now established at 149 million kilometres—give or take.

This was the closest that the two men ever came to the East Indies. In his tactful postscript, Charles explained why they’d stopped at the Cape of Good Hope: “Pondicherry is taken by the English, and Bencoolen by the French.”

WWII: The Japanese Storm Singapore by Bicycle (It’s Freezing in This Future – Ch. 3)

One of my Singaporean friends was a guy named Dhany, who’d been in the gifted program at Mel’s high school. He talked about it with a sly, sleepy smile, insisting he’d only gotten in as a test of the system, because they were all convinced he was actually slightly retarded. Now he was back from UCLA, producing some punk bands from around Southeast Asia. It was an easy-going schedule, which got interrupted by his annual National Service: apparently his Malay half made him a threat to national security, so he did his conscription with the police rather than the armed forces. For a few weeks, he amazed me with stories of things he’d seen on patrol. Human turds in flophouse stairwells! Not in squeaky-clean Singapore. Of course there was no way I could tag along—but then he saw something he couldn’t keep to himself.

Off the south coast of Singapore, facing out to Indonesia and the sea, is a resort island called Sentosa. Today it’s thick with five-star hotels, artificial lagoons and amusement rides, but the jungle there hides other things. Dhany’s unit had been up a hill where archaeologists had started excavating the ruins of a British fort. Rumour had it that there were escape tunnels leading all the way under to Singapore’s main island. One Saturday morning, three of us struck out upland from a Sentosa tourist beach: Dhany, a band mate from “Doomcock”—a side project of his—and myself.

The scenery changed the higher we went, from tiled pools with tame monkeys, to manicured golf greens, to a moonbase of satellite dishes, to a side road slipping up into the damp understory. We ducked past police tape at the first trailhead and scrambled to the spur of the hill, where massive concrete platforms marked former artillery emplacements, which once would have had a sightline clear across the ocean to Batam. These guns had been part of the Empire’s strongest fortifications, meant to make Fortress Singapore untouchable by sea. Japan had had other ideas in 1941, though, and they’d attacked from behind instead, choosing to strike far up the Asian mainland and fight their way south through a thousand kilometres of rubber plantations. Their soldiers charged forward on bicycles, wearing pith helmets and knee shorts. Britain never regrouped. It took 50 days for the Japanese to reach Singapore’s inland coast: so far and so fast that each man arrived about 20 pounds thinner. The big guns on Sentosa were cranked around to fire back on the invaders, but the ones we saw here likely got just a few shots off before they were bombed from the air.

We found the fort’s command post at the top of the hill. Vines around the doors, no light inside—and at the centre, where the hallways met, a steel floor hatch. We heaved it open. A slim shaft, just big enough for one man, dropped straight down beyond the reach of our flashlights. Our pebbles took forever to hit bottom. If there were escape tunnels here, this was it. Dhany was the one who finally started down the ladder.

His voice carried back to us: “Man, it just keeps going ... Okay, I can see the ground!” And then: “I made it!”

“What do you see?”

“There’s another tunnel going off sideways, but it’s too dark from here! Come on!”

Twenty metres inside the earth, we followed trailing electrical cables down a horizontal passage. The worst we’d seen so far had been two-inch house centipedes, which froze under our lights. Little sign of life. We came out in a half-collapsed chamber, where we had to navigate across boulders of concrete that had caved in from the ceiling. Here, our beams caught a flash of glass. We climbed up to it, at the crook of a pillar rising out of the rubble. It was a toy treasure chest, small enough to fit in one hand, its sides all transparent panes. Inside—a stack of modern-day business cards. Local treasure. Way to burst our bubble. The first card belonged to the Singapore GPS club … the others, presumably, to enthusiasts who’d tracked down this room before us.

A second passage led out the far end of the room, gradually growing tangled with roots at our feet. It hit a push-bar door, like you’d find in a gym—and suddenly we were out in the sun. Our tunnel had brought us barely down the side of the hill, nowhere near the shore between Sentosa and Singapore, which still glimmered far below us through the leaves. We trudged back down to the beach, stripped down to the shorts we’d had on under our gear, and went swimming with our girlfriends. If you look for the fort online today, you’ll find a few accounts of night-time expeditions by local paranormal clubs, who’ve gone up looking for the ghosts of Chinese comfort women from the years of the Occupation, when the Japanese used Sentosa as a camp for prisoners of war.

* * *

McGill University lies on the downtown slope of Mount Royal, the low peak of parkland at the heart of Montreal. At McGill, the higher up the mountainside you are, the more serious the studyies you do. When I did my language degree here at the end of the 90s, for example, my classes were clustered on Lower Campus, or sometimes in office buildings even farther downtown. Now that I was taking something with an -ology in the name, though, I was proud to have a tougher slog up the hill. The cinder-block halls of the psych and bio building are lined with specimen freezers and eye-flushing stations—monuments to the arcane, important work being done there. I threw myself into it: lab hours one day, research questionnaires at a suburban primary school the next, organizing talks by the odd activist professor, TAing for an online psych course at the underground Bahá’í university in Iran (Bahá’ís are banned from State schools over there), pulling all-nighters during exams to do the copywriting that paid—just about—for my tuition, gym three times a week for the first time in my life. I’d bike back to my apartment in the wee hours of the morning, bent under my books, carrying my exhaustion like a medal of honour.

In the fall I applied for a student fellowship at McGill’s new Institute for Health and Social Policy. The director was supposed to be a genius, an MD–PhD who had just been hired away from Harvard. She’d founded the Institute to build bridges between research and action, which was the point of this whole gruelling exercise, for me—to get back from this mountaintop to the rest of the world, better, more prepared—and there was even a chance they’d pay me to travel over the summer. I’d be useful, and on my way to becoming even more so. Maybe this was the mentor for me to believe in. In the event, it seems the position was poised at the precise outer limit of my capacity: I didn’t get rejected or accepted, just wait-listed, on the off chance that someone more qualified would end up dropping out. Which, after a few weeks, was what they did.

That January, the Institute welcomed me into a 100-year-old house about as high up the mountain as you can get at McGill: any higher, and you’d either have to be interned in one of the consuls’ mansions that overhang the city, or in a tower at the Ravenscrag psychiatry building. Along with the five other fellows—a master’s student in anthropology, a PhD candidate in epidemiology, two law students and a whiz kid doing her bachelor’s in psychology and international development (who all made me wonder if the Institute kept me on so they’d have at least one guy in the program)—I started what amounted to another part-time job on top of everything else, writing shaky policy reviews and attending the graduate course on global health that the director taught herself.

I heaved myself into the classroom each week, sweaty and hockey-haired from the hike, and there she’d be: a diminutive woman from a Boston medical family, wearing her hair down to the seat of her pants and her pants up to her waist. She struck terror in us. Too accomplished, and at the same time too damn kind. When I was working late, I’d run into her on her way to catch a flight for Mongolia or Capitol Hill, and she’d be having a heartfelt exchange with the janitor, in good Spanish. I promptly had a dream where I was chatting with her online:

NATHAN: I think we could be best friends some day

JODY: why some day :)

We all wanted to impress her. Adding to the tension was that only half of us would actually get to do research abroad that summer. At a meeting, one of the Institute staff wrote in a notepad she thought we couldn’t see: “Fellows to stay in Canada—Nathan? Emma?” In the director’s course that semester, I responded by churning out more PowerPoints than I had in my entire life. I interviewed contacts at the Indonesian sex-trafficking NGO for the class essay. By spring, a fellow named Adrienne was finding me hunched over my computer when she opened the lab in the morning.

“Nathan! Did you get any sleep at all?”

“I slept for, um, two hours. How’s it going.” At that point, I was officially looking rough enough to worry the people who saw me. I flashed Adrienne what was left of my smile, and that put an end to the conversation right there. I was driving myself around the bend, but it worked: PowerPoints, Batam and insomnia got me an A. The Institute decided to send me to Barbados.

Barbados. 13°10' N by 59°32' W, warm winds from the northeast. The same history of slavery as Haiti and Brazil, but turned on its head in an inconceivably hopeful way: for once, the goal of my trip wasn’t urgent do-gooding—it was simply to witness how they had overcome. On this tiny Caribbean island, flanked by white sand and blue sea, black political leaders maintain civil debates in widely read papers, and black professors get stopped by eager black students at their own breezy hilltop university. These descendents of slaves have built one of the most highly developed countries in the New World, third only to Canada and the States … and in June and July 2007, I was being paid to poke around in their labour laws, explore how they approached the right to decent work for the poor, so that other countries might be able to learn from their example.

During the day I put on dress shirts and interviewed government officials, law professors, at one point a former Prime Minister whom I was told I could address as Sir Lloyd. Lots of air conditioning, and a lot more work on my handshake than on my tan. In the evening I did my social tourism, looking for people to inspire the burnt-out spirits I’d brought down from Montreal. There was a pair of beautiful Bahá’í sisters who’d started a weekly supper for homeless men in the capital, and I lent a hand with that throughout my stay—the first night, they took me to their after-party in a slick clubbing district, and I gamely joked around with them, but maybe because my questions weren’t fun enough, or maybe because there was something blasted about my eyes, I wasn’t invited out to any of their social events again. In the downtown slum where I did some interviews with workers, there was a Guyanese grandmother who’d invite me into her little house to watch bootleg Pixar DVDs with her family, for no other reason than simple hospitality—but when she asked if I could pass on some of the fishcakes she sold, to try and find new clients, I realized I knew no one who I could approach in that way. Even when I tried the crowd at the nightly basketball game outside my room, I got no takers: “We don’t do things like that in Barbados. You don’t know where food like that is from.”

I was staying at a McGill field school: a clutch of scruffy seaside buildings breaking the otherwise solid wall of fine hotels that screen the beach, its grounds half-surrendered to a covey of cooing island doves. Most of the students there were marine biology majors, bronze, physically perfect, outwardly untroubled, going on daily dives among the reefs, spear-fishing for lobster on Sundays. A policy researcher would have had to work overtime to look any doughier next to these people. I ended up feeling my biggest jerk of kinship with a Messiah College kid who came through to look at virus loads in the doves. He trapped them and drained vials of blood from under their clenched, outstretched wings. I watched the extractions with sick fascination.

In retrospect, I should have spent more time at a particular community centre called the Pinelands Creative Workshop. I liked the intelligent director, in his glasses and embroidered African shirt, who’d grown up in the surrounding tenements. I liked the way neighbourhood moms and dads brought their kids, attracted by the buzz of activities: theatre, mask making, bike repair, small business development. I liked how, while I was waiting for a meeting there, I ended up bowling cricket balls to a little boy and girl on the front stoop. Instead of all that, though, I began retreating more and more to my close-aired room and its lazy fan.

Barbados was the last place I wanted my fatigue to catch up with me, but my mind and body were finally rebelling. I all but shut the door on the palm trees, the coral beaches and polite Barbadian “Good evenings,” losing myself whenever I could in a wireless cloud of distant people, places and Flash sites. I fretted over an early draft of this letter, which I sent Mel during one of our chats—and, oh look, she just e-mailed me a picture of herself in New England, grinning next to a 33-inch sea bass that she’d reeled in.

By my last few weeks, I stirred myself at least to end my trip with a diving course. It would be an easy story to tell the other fellows, hopefully make me look like less of an ass for wasting my time in the Caribbean: “It was great! I learned to scuba dive!” I spent one morning drifting under the water among grey-blue sponges and pipe worms—then was called back out by the Institute before I completed my lessons. As my final task, they wanted 50 interviews with low-income hotel workers, and I had a week and a half to get them done. I buckled down one last time. Interview No. 50 got finished the night of my departure home, as I followed a security guard on his graveyard-shift rounds. I got a single hug goodbye—from a Catholic woman who helped serve the homeless men in the capital—and I got back on the plane.

* * *

On January 17 and 21, 1761, the Royal Society posted replies to Charles’s letter. There was no question: he and Jeremiah should do everything to reach Sumatra as planned, whether or not their damaged ship had any hope of arriving in time for the Transit of Venus that June. Charles lay sick in his Plymouth lodgings. The illness dated from before his first sailing, and it was made worse by the knowledge that the Seahorse would be unfit for at least another week, and then only to return to deadly waters. He pored over his charts in search of alternate solutions.

On January 25, Charles and Jeremiah excitedly informed the Secretary of the Society that they could observe the Transit from the Ottoman port of Scanderoon: “We find no place on the Globe which we can reach to be of as great consequence as one made at Scanderoon; to which place if the Council of the Royal Society will please to send us, we shall with the greatest Pleasure obey their commands; but shall not proceed from this, to any other Place, where it is impossible for us to perform what the World in general reasonably expect from us, and therefore shall wait for a Line to inform us of their further pleasure.”

Having received no reply, two days later the young men pressed with a letter to another Society member: “we shall, be very sorry to proceed from this Place, to any other, where the Society (as time stands) can gain no Honour, or we any Reputation; and to go to India merely for the Premium is an Intention far from our first design.”

They finally provoked a response on the last day of the month: “Resolved unanimously, That the Council are extremely surprised at their declining to pursue their Voyage to Bencoolen and which they have solemnly undertaken; and have actually received several sums of money upon account of their expences, and in earnest of performing their contract.

“That their refusal to proceed upon this voyage after their having so publickly and notoriously ingaged in it, will be a Reproach to the Nation in General, to the Royal Society in particular, and more especially and fatally to themselves … their declining it at this critical juncture, when it is too late to supply their Places, cannot fail to bring an indelible scandal upon their character and probably end in their utter Ruin.

“That in case they shall persist in their refusal, or voluntarily frustrate the end and disappoint the Intention of their Voyage, or take any steps to thwart it, they may assure themselves of being treated by the Council with the most inflexible Resentment, and prosecuted with the utmost Severity of Law.”

Fatal … Ruin … utmost Severity of Law. Four years prior, a British admiral had been executed for pulling his ships from the Battle of Minorca rather than fighting to the end. This was the nature of the contract that Charles and Jeremiah had signed for King and Country. A postscript in another hand tried to soften the Royal Society’s threat: “The Councils do absolutely and expressly direct and require Mr. Mason and Mr. Dixon, to go on board and enter upon the voyage, be the event as it may fall out.” It didn’t matter where they ended up, so long as they were seen to have set out.

So chastened, on February 3, 1761, the two men returned the only possible reply: “We hope to sail this Evening.”

The Chinese Make Land at the Temple of Heavenly Happiness (It’s Freezing in This Future – Ch. 2)

Singapore is steeped in a different metaphysics than the one I’m used to, from the florid Taoist and Buddhist imagery that colours the city by day to the ghosts that haunt streets and housing blocks and banana trees by night. I used to cast furtive glances at the Chinese temples there, long enough to catch the dragons doing their snaky cartwheels above the gables, but not so long that anyone would catch me staring. At the end of the summer, Mel’s father, Bill Hui, came for a visit, and I begged him to guide me through the thicket of carving at their gates. As an adult he’d studied law at Harvard and worked on retainer for the Sultan of Brunei, then became a full-time pro bono Bahá’í in China—but before all that, as a teenager in Malaysia, he’d been a novice Hinayana monk. He agreed to meet me at Thian Hock Keng (“Temple of Heavenly Happiness”), one of the oldest holy sites in Singapore.

Although a flourishing half-Chinese Singapore had already existed in the Middle Ages, at the start of the 17th century the Portuguese swished in and burned that city to the ground. It was only after 1819, the year a renegade knight with Britain’s East India Company re-established a port there, that poor Chinese migrants once again started hauling up on the beachhead to seek their fortunes. At a thatch-roofed joss house that once stood where Thian Hock Keng is today, they thanked the Goddess of the Sea for protecting their crossing. Over time, they brought the pinewood, stone carvings and imperial inscription for a self-respecting shrine. The temple stood directly over the sails of their tethered junks, protected from high tides by a skirt of steep granite. In 1887, though, the bay was drained, and the goddess now greets her believers far inland.

When we arrived, the whole place was locked up, and we had to lean in from the old stone threshold to catch thin glimpses of the giltwork inside. In a deserted side court, Bill pointed out a red-faced statue of Kuan Ti, the God of War and Justice, who used to receive his prayers. We went into an adjoining shop that sold devotional objects. He reached for a cup of ornaments sitting on a countertop—the woman behind the till snapped: “Don’t touch.” Wherever the water was, it must have been miles away.

By July I was asking Mel if her contacts could help get me steered in another direction. They immediately obliged with two communications postings in East Timor: perfect for a Portuguese and Indonesian speaker, I hoped. I applied for both and didn’t get either. Mel was jealous of my nostalgia for Brazil … I envied how everything came to her so naturally. I lasted two months at the desk job that I finally landed at the university. Their teambuilding tests said I showed more leadership than my boss did, which I demonstrated by cramming a redesigned website onto their servers just in time to let them know I was leaving for good. The director called me in for a last-second heart-to-heart. He was a small, balding man with a harmless smile, sitting at the back of a broad corner office that was done up in teakwood and shaded by half-rolled-down scrims. Around the walls he’d hung sensitive pencil portraits: old, sleeveless Chinese men whom he’d drawn himself, melancholy ghosts of a very different path that his life could once have taken.

“I admit I don’t know your work well, Nathan, but I thought the fundraising letter you wrote for the Annual Campaign was very good. Now, you may not be aware of this, but I’ve wanted to hire Melanie for quite some time. If she agrees, this could be a place where you two could build a future together.” This was his best card: the open secret that Mel was the one he really wanted. What could I say? That it was a sad joke to think Mel would ever give up her life for a desk at a university fundraising office? That I’d failed at love, that I’d failed at inspiration, that my last refuge was to head back to school, and fast?

“Sir … I think that’s something you’ll have to discuss directly with Mel. A big part of my decision was that I’m being paid less now than I was at my last salaried job in Canada, even though I have a lot more experience than I did then.”

The director took out a calculator and started fingering numbers into it, then spun it around to me and said: “No, you see, you’re making exactly as much as you were before.” I took exception to everything: to his figures, to the insinuation that just holding even should be perfectly enough, most of all to his blindness about all the unspoken reasons that a man might need to leave the country after having come to make a life with a woman. There was no point in replying. At the end of summer 2006, Mel and I boarded a flight to America together: her to take up an assistant directorship at her NGO’s home office in Boston, me to take up undergraduate psychology in Montreal.

* * *

I spent two long winters back in my booksmart city. I weathered them both underground, riding the Montreal metro, where the nations of the earth pack on with their reading: noses in newspapers, college coursepacks, paperbacks with broken spines. In Salvador there was no thought of anyone reading the news at the corner lunch counters, and in Singapore the transit system distracts its passengers by blasting Diva on a Dime on closed-circuit TVs. In Montreal, though, the literacy is everywhere you look. The long, brown-brick factories that line the canal have been retooled into non-stop information-economy startups, and the café-culture readers have no shortage of inner meaning behind their flipping pages. I moved into the libraries at McGill University, where my landscape was a sprawling skunkworks of computer labs I called “Vomitorium,” “Regurgi-Cave,” “Hell Cocoon.”

The lecture halls were full of kids nine years younger than me, tapping away at Facebook on their laptops, rolling their eyes at Statistics. It had been a decade since my last math class, but I needed this chance to remind myself what it felt like to do something right. Between Fall 2006 and Fall 2007, this was the plan: Get good grades, get research experience and get published, and turn myself into a contender for any grad program on the planet. I started going down corridors and knocking on professors’ doors, partly to ask if I could help in their labs, and partly—more than I realized at the time—to try and find someone I connected with. I wanted to do good science without losing sight of doing good, and if I could find someone who did that in a way I believed in, and who believed in me in return, I don’t think it’s too much to say I would have broken down right there in their lap, just a bit. The defeated man given a chance at redemption.

The fact is, most McGill psychologists aren’t that into saving the world. This is the place where in the 1940s Wilder Penfield pioneered the art of sticking electrodes into people’s brains, and most research here is still of the lab-rat and language-acquisition varieties. Exceptions: an old college linebacker who hangs out with Inuits and gives slapstick lectures on the psychology of racism—but whose theories have never made much of a difference; maybe he’d have liked me better if I smoked, so I could join him out in the rain when he lit up—and a wire-thin woman with a TNT laugh, who has 31 flavours of theory saying how Bangladesh ought to be improving its health behaviours, but treats students and Bangladeshis with the same obvious impatience. Or there was the nine-months-pregnant social work prof I went to see in December, a former ballet dancer whose efforts at rehabilitating child soldiers had just won her a noiseless McGill office of her own. It was still bare from its floor to high ceiling, except for a) the newly unpacked bookshelves, heavy with the language of authority and knowledge, and b) a solitary framed souvenir from Sierra Leone, which showed a clumsy stick woman getting machine-gunned by a second figure, who’d been tagged by its young artist with a single scrawled “I.” That self-portrait spoke a stranger, older language altogether. I’d never seen anyone decorate like that, anywhere. The good professor giving herself a bleak, never-ending heads-up, that she mustn’t let this university cut her off from the sufferings she hoped to help cure. If she had an answer for me—how on earth do I reconcile my science, here, with my compassion, way out there—she replied like a good oracle, in the form of more questions. In a few days she’d be off on maternity leave, and she was going to have more than enough crying in her lap without me. I thanked her and rose to shake her hand.

* * *

In January 1761, Charles and Jeremiah set sail for Sumatra—modern-day Indonesia. The Admiralty had provided them passage on the frigate Seahorse, which hove out of Spithead with some 160 crew and 20 gun. A land war was raging in Europe, and the French and English navies were contesting every landhold they’d seized in either hemisphere. In London, Tories were decrying the all-capitals EFFEMINACY of the British youth. And in the midst of all this, long-wigged astronomers found themselves counting down to a Transit of Venus across the face of the Sun, the first in 121 years: if it could be measured from the Americas, the East Indies, Siberia, the parallax would reveal for the first time the true distance between Sun and Earth. In England, France and Austria, Age-of-Reason scientists acquired military escorts to some of the most inaccessible corners of the globe, each promising glory to their own warring nation.

The Seahorse was gone four days before it limped back to Plymouth harbour. Charles submitted the following report to the Secretary of the Royal Society: “…on Saturday last at Eleven in the Morning, 34 Leagues SW 2 W from the Start point we Engaged the L’Grand [more accurately, the L’Aigrette?] a thirty four Gun Frigate; when after an obstinate dispute of about one hour and a quarter, Monsieur thought proper to run as fast as possible; after chacing sometime in vain, the Captain steer’d for this port to refit. In the action we had eleven men kill’d, and thirty seven wounded, many of whom I believe mortal … All our masts are wounded, and to refit the ship will take up so much time that in my opinion it will be impossible for me to arrive in India in time to make the observation [by India he referred to the East India Company’s holding on Sumatra]; and therefore must desire you will please by a line as soon as possible to acquaint me in what manner the council would please to have us proceed.”

The Decline of the Sultans of Johor-Riau (It’s Freezing in This Future – Ch. 1)

Batam is a little nowhere blip of an island. Even though it sits on some of the busiest waters in the world, where over half the earth’s shipping passes by its front door, world maps often leave it out altogether. In the 16th century, Batam lay at the hub of the regional powerhouse, the Sultanate of Johor-Riau: Imagine green mangrove jungles and Malay fishing villages perched out on stilts, with palaces and mosques on Batam’s sister islands to the east. Today, the local dialect has become an official language for 400 million Southeast Asians. Batam itself, however, has been reduced to a 21st-century frontier land, where the rule of law is slackened to bring in jobs and business from Singapore: once a backwater province of the Sultans, now the ascendant republic across the waves. Almost everyone on Batam has come from other islands, rich and poor, and everywhere dozers have cleared the ground for unfinished housing developments, sudden colleges, palatial KFCs. Behind the construction sites, nearly half the population lives in squatter towns, hoping the wealth will trickle down.

At her condo in Singapore, Mel and I read how Batam’s sex industry is luring young girls with the promise of a better life. We had a few words of night-course Indonesian, which got us out of the ferry terminal and to the address of an NGO that was fighting child prostitution. Down a path between banks of naked yellow earth, into a new commercial block, past a door marked “Counseling—Private.” The director was a pixie-haired Javanese woman who greeted us in English and waved us into her office, which looked through Venetian blinds onto the scarred terrain outside. She listened to our offer of help and tentatively asked what we could do.

We’d rehearsed our answers. “I know a lot of aid organizations in Singapore,” said Mel. “We can try to get them involved. A lot of Singaporeans come for the prostitutes here, and we think Singapore should be part of the answer.” With her British-inflected English, her big dark eyes and the beauty spot on her apple cheeks, she presented a package that could usually wait to get what she wanted, without ever having to put anyone ill at ease.

I added what I could. “I’m a translator. If you have ads and reports that you need in English, I can do those too.”

Behind her desk, the director put forward an unswerving look of worried kindness: the face of someone haunted by the fate of the girls being kept above the local nightclubs, maybe, or maybe reluctant to offend by saying we couldn’t do any good. “In December we will have a campaign for Anti Child Trafficking Day,” she considered. “Do you want to help organize it?”

Finally, this was a project I could share with Mel. It was just a foot in the door on what was obviously an impossible task, but it also felt like a straight line back to the hot tears I used to cry in the backlands of Brazil, when it seemed that I—that all of us—could be a joy to the sorrowful, a sea for the thirsty, a haven for the distressed. And this time, I wouldn’t be alone: Mel was there with me. Lord knew I couldn’t join her on her day job. Her last time in Indonesia, she’d been reporting for the World Bank on rebuilding efforts after the tsunami. Her latest job was helping with a case study on Pakistani microfinancing, which would send her and a documentary film crew across the Indian Ocean for two weeks. She already had a busy life of her own, so if she wanted to share this one extra shot in the dark with me, it was that much more a miracle.

I tried to keep the home fires burning while Mel was gone again. There was an English class on Batam that we’d started for a few Bahá’í kids and their friends, and I ran into Bahá’ís in Singapore who were more than happy to join in. One weekend, as I was taking the ferry home with a German woman and Korean man who’d come along (and done a better job than Mel or I could really hope to do), I saw the Korean guy writing in his diary: “This is how I want to live my life.” My heart rose. I would have given anything to have had Mel there, to have seen her writing those words instead of this man I barely knew.

If anything, though, every passing week was pulling us farther apart. Day in, day out, I’d sit alone at the university in Singapore, looking up words in an Indonesian reader, so I’d be prepared when the NGO asked me to translate their reports. A few did come, eventually. The first one was murky on what it is the NGO did about child trafficking, exactly, other than name-check it in their external communications. The figures didn’t add up: it turned out they were spending most of their time with adult factory workers, distributing morning-after pills. When they took us to a bar to show us where the prostitutes were picked up, they made apologies that we’d arrived too late to see anything untoward—the crowd was just there enjoying the cover band, the lead singer dancing around in her knee socks. I was getting fed up with the whole operation.

* * *

I’d smuggled a psychology textbook into Singapore when I first came, thinking way ahead to a time when I might go back to school and learn how to help people properly. It could have been a textbook on anything, probably, but between South American crack alleys and red-light districts in Asia, psychology looked like a pretty tempting side route to being a joy, a sea, a haven—and it might shed some light on my own deep-seated drive to try and fix everything for everybody, too.

On June 5, 2006, I took a cross-town bus to volunteer at Singapore’s Institute of Mental Health. I didn’t have the Chinese to do much for the elderly residents, so my duties were confined pretty quickly: I could serve as a human pylon, so they placed me at the end of a row on one of their Chinese-opera excursions, and I’d alleged some painting skills, so they had me coordinate a mural in one of their wards. On the morning in question, I was buzzed into a sunny upstairs common room and introduced to a team of engineering students, who’d gamely assembled to work off some community service hours. We were given a trolley of house paints and a little picture of a tropical beach, which I had to reproduce life-size on the ward’s nice clean wall. The clock was ticking. No colour for the sand? No problem—paint the beach bright purple. My palm trees look diseased? Add highlights, they’ll look diseased in 3D! When I finally stepped back, my failure knocked me flat. It looked like the painter had either never seen a beach before, or else wanted to put his contempt for South Seas paradises right where the residents would have to choke on it, day after day, for the rest of their institutional lives. The volunteer directors came in at the end of the day and promptly turned grey: I was given a plastic cup of juice, and that was pretty much it for me there. If psychology could make a better world, mine was going to be an illustrious career.

* * *

Even though a few extra years of study were looking more and more like a step in the right direction—traveling as an effective man instead of a kid, not getting left at the docks by my girlfriend—I still had my issues with going back to school. It would mean joining ranks with the centuries of pale Europeans who’d gone out and filled their books with botanical curiosities, anthropological hierarchies, measurements of the Earth. Even in my short time out there, I’ve seen white scholars acting in ways I want nothing to do with. The first time I visited a Candomblé temple in Brazil, it was with an American anthropologist who was interviewing the Mother-of-the-Saints who ran the place. While he was stuck in her audience chamber, handing over gifts for the privilege of recording her public-consumption announcements, I got to hang out in the sun-dappled yard and chat with her husband about how his life had brought him there, and sketch him with their daughter on his knee. Later, the professor told me he’d seen my drawing tacked up on the audience chamber wall. If science meant trading that kind of human connection for a tape recorder and a list of publications, I didn’t want any part of it.

And yet, and yet: I still feel a jerk of kinship with even the most random scientists on the most random projects out there. Take the young men who scattered out from Europe to watch Venus cross the Sun in 1761. One of them was a guy named Charles Mason, 32: he’d been assisting at Greenwich Observatory going on four years, and the funeral for his wife Rebekah was still fresh in his head, when the Royal Society summoned him to set up a telescope at a pepper-trading fort called Bencoolen on the island of Sumatra, the remotest speck of the British Empire. There was Jeremiah Dixon, 27: when the Royal Military College called on him to test his surveyor’s skills, it had been a matter of months since his Quaker hall had disowned him for drinking to excess. You can see him anxiously checking the fall of his wig and long, plain red coat in the mirror. It was a war out there, from Quebec to the Philippines, and Bencoolen was a boggy malarial hell at the best of times, but if the Royal Society would have him, it would mean a princely £200 and a shot at a whole new life. Then there’s Nathan Wilkinson, 26: the world is smaller in 2006, but I’m no more prepared for the enormities out there. As Charles and Jeremiah head into the unknown, I’m already there, treading water, furiously trying to think what to do as the ocean rolls away.

Friday, September 19, 2008

It’s Freezing in This Future

“Of the seven deadly sins, only envy is no fun at all.”
― Joseph Epstein,
Thanks to the friend who gave me that quote—he’s back from an East Asian binge on sex and drugs and English classes for little kids, which coincided with my own East Asian binge on isolation and making people sad at the Singapore Institute of Mental Health (more on that coming up).

Here’s the tally: there are three types of people I envy. Number one, anyone better in school. Not necessarily anyone smarter than me, because I feel eerily unburdened by all the doctors and lawyers and bankers out there, but anyone who actually does better in a class I’m taking? Hate em. Hate the friends who graduated beside me and then went on to Oxford or Columbia or Yale. Number two, big surprise: anyone who’s happy in love. So many old friends and crushes who’ve gone on and, unfairly, gotten married—or even worse, married well. Number three, anyone more inspiring than me. The other night, this guy I know got behind a piano and brought tears to my eyes. I wanted to shake him.

This tells you where my head was at when I flew to Southeast Asia in 2006: I had my BB gun cocked and leveled, aiming to knock down the love and inspiration targets, at least. When I ended my last letter, I was cutting across the Strait of Singapore, true love at my side, about to rough up a band of human traffickers on the Indonesian island of Batam. The ocean receded a bit from my sights, though. It drained away.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Survivor: Singapore

Stupid Singapore. I'm sorry it's been so long since I disappeared.

Seven months ago I was in the mountains of B.C., sitting in the family pickup with the engine off, alone. It was a late-December night, the kind where you need the heater on to hold the steering wheel with bare hands. I'd just pulled onto a little rope ferry that services the far side of a lake up there, and all I could see outside was yellow and black safety striping, a wall of it, grotty from rust and highway snow, inches from my front bumper: the back end of a dump truck hired to spread sand on remote icy roads. I was late for a 49th-anniversary party at the village on the other side. I sat there and engraved the moment on my mind: the world reduced to my vehicle, the seeping cold outside the doors, the dark waters slipping by beneath me, the striped warning that filled my view. Beyond a doubt: I was heading somewhere new.

A few days later I was stepping over soggy winter leaves on the sidewalks in Vancouver, with a ticket to Asia in my backpack, laughing with friends that I must be getting nearer because the election signs were already half in Chinese. My girlfriend Mel was in Singapore, helping an NGO set up a new university for needy Asian women, but getting bummed out because her little South Seas island-state is a glittering, bazillion-dollar shipping and finance hub that tends to send any fellow dreamers running for the hills. The idea was: fly over, get a job, then keep up her confidence about saving the world.

I've painted myself as a hero on my other trips, the one going out and doing good, but this time the spotlight was squarely on Mel. She was hopping all over the continent, doing tête-à-têtes with refugee leaders, wining and dining nobility and CEOs. As soon as I stepped off the plane into a muggy January heat, I was meeting the biggest names in town too – but as a self-styled supporting player, and the cameras don't dwell on supporting players. Some highlights from my first few weeks:

January 12 – George Soros swung through to speak to the business community (a ripple went through the crowd when a college upstart asked him if Singapore was an open society – the next day's papers acted indignant at his negative reply). Melanie was pointing out all the people she knew, among them the MC, a family friend and former UN ambassador who'd advised her to join the Foreign Service like a sensible girl instead of tramping off with her NGO. She wanted to avoid him at all costs. He ran into us in the lobby and briskly shook my hand before Melanie could steer us to the next exit out.

January 17 – I went bungee jumping for the national paper (Singapore booted the British out in the 60s, but kept the English language so the remaining Chinese could still communicate with others on and off the island). Just a short promotional piece, but a pretty good start off the blocks. When I handed it in, I found out my editor had quit, and five months later they're still sitting on it. Plus, supporting characters don't seem to get paid.

January 24 – I interviewed for a job at the national university, as a copywriter to help them beg rich people for money. They kept insisting they wanted me, but then they'd never call back to seal the deal. This dragged on for a month, at which point Mel and I spotted the head of the office at a forum on political prisoners. As late as the 80s, Singapore was throwing its communist sympathizers in jail for as long as they liked, and this was the first time anyone had dared discuss it in public. It was a hero thing [1] to support an event that seemed designed to spark the government's ire: one of the speakers cancelled at the last minute, and everyone was looking over their shoulders trying to guess who the government spies might be. It turns out my prospective boss had been a political prisoner himself. For different reasons, we were equally uneasy to see each other.

Other uncomfortable encounters over the months: I got a callback at a multinational ad agency, and everything was going fine until I insulted Indonesia's official tourist slogan, which my interviewer turned out to have written himself. Mel and I dogsat for an aunt of hers one weekend, which was fun because she lives in a colonial mansion with two floors of private library, but which was less fun because it smelled like tropical dog pee from the moment we stepped in the door. There've been interesting kids on the fringes: Malay TV and music producers, or a South Indian intellectual who got sidelined into a career with the K9 squad after a lovesick year threw him off the academic track. Our plans have had a hard time sticking. You start to see a pattern. You start to get the impression that Singapore doesn't want to be seduced by you.

I want to seduce every place I see. I want every latitude and longitude to fall head over heels in love with me. Seduction craves what's illicit – foreign – yes, but there's a catch: the thing also has to be just enough the same as you. It can't be so different that it doesn't want to be seduced in return.

Salvador was a place that seduced you back, move for move: deeply different but deeply recognizable, deeply eager to fold you in its strange embrace. At the end of my last trip there, a year ago almost exactly, I dropped by the crack alley bar whose owner had given me shelter when it rained: I gave her a copy of the painting I'd done next door, asked how business was doing. When she said she didn't know how she'd pay next month's rent, I gave her a sprig of herb that wards against misfortune. An early-morning client looked up from his beer, and said, "You look like a tourist, but you aren't one, are you." I said of course I was, and he pressed two tangerines into my hands for breakfast.

The seduction there, in any sense that I could imagine, was eerily complete: intimate enough to shake the walls, if not break them down entirely. By comparison, Singapore doesn't seem remotely as interested in what's on offer from the blue-eyed and ash-blond. It's already gotten what suits it, and how – Singapore English with its grace notes of Chinese and Malay; local chicken-rice dishes eaten with traditional fork and (why?) spoon; packed cineplexes playing censored Hollywood blockbusters ("shit" is okay on TV, "bitch" isn't on film) – but the "expat packages" that used to entice Western businesspeople with inflated wages and cushy apartments don't get doled out much anymore. The old Chinese uncles selling roadside ice cream don't acknowledge you when you stop to ask for directions.

So for six long months Mel's mother put me up at her house, plying me with all-I could-eat fisheye soup and long-haired fruits (or laughingly serving roast lamb and mint jelly to please me, because she studied law in London and is as in on the East–West joke as anybody), while I poked around for a job that never materialized, designed a few T-shirts but painted nothing that mattered, idled my time learning to dive in the condominium pool, and that was all. I helped Mel do a PowerPoint that she sent off to Japan, but I don't know how inspiring I was. With no stories of seduction, I have nothing to report.

Mel and I read together a lot. Curled up on the couch or at bus stops, we fell in love with The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami. The story loomed like prophecy to me: the man who pored over encyclopedias as a little boy; the jobless professional set adrift in modern Asia; the cockeyed sexuality; the quiet, killing passages like this one here:
"I took a blouse and skirt of Kumiko's to the cleaner's by the station … wearing a pair of thin green cotton pants, my usual tennis shoes, and the yellow Van Halen promotional T-shirt … I saw lots of men my age, but not one of them wore a
Van Halen T-shirt. Each wore his company's lapel pin and clutched a copy of the
Nikkei News under his arm. The bell rang, and a number of them dashed up the
stairs. I hadn't seen men like this for a long time."

I clung to that language. If I listened closely enough to it, I felt, I might learn to see in my limbo not a string of failures, but a difficult beauty I'd never fathomed before: is this what you see through the eyes of a supporting player? When I first visited the tropics, every sight was strange to me – palm trees looked animal, their fallen bark like leather, fallen fronds like rib cages, leafstalks like disarticulated bones – but I wouldn't ever stand by what I saw, because I had no idea what the local stars saw in those same things. As for the narrator in The Wind-Up Bird – he could care less what anyone else thinks they know, so long as he has one other person to be an outsider with him. From his window, he hears "the mechanical cry of a bird that sounded as if it were winding a spring. We called it the wind-up bird. Kumiko gave it the name … Every day it would come to the stand of trees in our neighborhood and wind the spring of our quiet little world."

An unseen bird sang outside my window, too, but it drove me nuts – because nobody in this whole place could share its name with me. I'd imitate it for anyone I met: "Sort of a HOO-ah, HOO-ah, HOO-ah." One schoolteacher laughed and said her kids imitate it to bug her, but she didn't have any idea what it was, or what it looked like. The only guesses I got came from other foreigners: one Australian woman thought it might be a curlew (it wasn't); the family's Filipina housekeeper said it was a black bird, with bright red eyes.

Singapore proudly calls itself a "garden city," its expressways carving through a forest of spreading raintrees, its overpasses trellised with vines, but the garden must be tended by a secret gardening cabal, because no native Singaporean seems to associate with the nature around them. Most people who bring their kids to the sprawling Botanic Gardens are Europeans of one stripe or another, and maids from poorer nearby islands are the only ones who eat their lunch on the miraculous downtown greens, where spinning pairs of dragonflies flash red in the sunlight, and mimosa leaves fold up as your foot brushes by. In Canada, trees are an invitation: you expect to see trails snaking into them, a mountain to climb on the other side, hills to sled on. Here, you treat anything green as impenetrable: wide hedges prevent jaywalking; people stay away from a block of towering jungle behind the shopping district saying it used to be full of stray dogs. My double in the Wind-Up Bird was one step ahead of me. The name of that unseen bird is important, but don't look to a modern metropolis for what it's called. Any private name will be better.

In the novel, a psychic war vet tells the narrator not to fight the "flow": "When you're supposed to go down, find the deepest well and go down to the bottom. When there's no flow, stay still." Then, he warns him against water in general: "Sometime in the future, this young fellow could experience real suffering in connection with water. Water that's missing from where it's supposed to be. Water that's present where it's not supposed to be." Singapore's drains and gutters run aboveground, crisscrossing fields like a baby born with its blood vessels on the outside. If you follow the drainway from our condo, it joins with progressively larger longkang – canals – until in a few hours' walk it empties as the Singapore River into the old seaside port. There, the original Malay-speaking "sea gypsies" (classy) were squeezed out by Chinese coolies (opium-smoking men, square-hatted construction-worker women), who in turn gave way to (this is where you come in) sunburnt Danes with their arms around dark-haired, not-quite-Singaporean girls. Today, the eyes painted on the riverboat prows are there for tourists rather than water demons; Ma Cho Po, the Goddess of the Sea, is a museum curiosity; the fine old dockfront buildings are bars with $30 drinks and plush seats.

I go down there when we go out. On weekday afternoons when I need something nicer to look at, I hang around the top of the canal instead. Right behind our building is a different, pocket world: the bridge across the longkang is a few teetering planks, and from them you can watch schools of little fish swimming around in the runoff below you. The other day, Mel's sister found a four-foot monitor lizard sunning itself halfway across. Farther on the other side are the colossal housing projects that cover the heart of the island – home to four of every five Singaporeans. Just here, though, a project has been taken down, leaving an expanse of fallow grass, a few tall trees, and a half-built church. The government is still deciding what to do with this place. At the base of the trees are familiar offerings of dead chickens and incense: these are Taoist, left by the local psychic war vets. A few people walk dogs in the evening. Inside a gazebo a junior high school girl has scrawled a few hieroglyphs, along with the words: "Zillah love Zaimi and hate him."

To see a place like this, with strange messages and overgrown life, you might ordinarily have to cross the strait to Malaysia, where I suspect people know what that bird is called. The picture I've attached is by a Malaysian cartoonist, Lat, loved for his portrayals of rural Malaysia today – and Singapore's past. That is me and my longkang. When I'm out there, I feel like all of civilization is suspended on a drop of water, shivering, just holding on.

The longkang first appears from under our street, flowing out from a dark concrete tunnel that, on dry days, is big enough to walk into if you swing over the safety rail and stoop. Wind-Up Bird taught me what a jobless non-hero does, at least: he goes down a well and concentrates until he hallucinates his triumph. In mid March, Mel took off on a week-long trip to Bangladesh, and the darkness got to be too much for me. I grabbed a headlamp and went in. A few paces inside, the tunnel took a right, and then a left. Pitch black. Faint trickles of light from the roadside drains above. I edged forward, swiveling my light around me. Storm waters must scrub the culvert clean: this is the tropics, but there was no moss, there were no plate-sized spiders, just blank concrete walls, and sudden night. I had to crouch lower as I reached what must be the end of our road, and still lower after another left. Manhole covers clanged throughout the shaft when people passed by. Then, I reached the end: through a pinhole of light, I could see where the stream first dips underground. Another street. There was nothing to report.

When I got back to the surface, I found out I had a fever – because it broke all over me, at once.

Melanie came back from Bangladesh shaking her head at the tea barons she'd been meeting, and their tea baron ways. She'd seen village courts there too, sat with the crowds of women, and she'd decided grandiose university projects weren't enough on their own. She wanted to get involved in something on the ground, and I could do it with her. I went underground on April 19. By April 30, I was by her side on a new ferry, crossing over to Indonesia to track down a human trafficking NGO.

Here's what I've found out: In at least one case, when a Malaysian man looks at a fallen palm frond, what he actually sees is a toy that his friends used to pull each other around on when he was small, and he wishes he could pull his own son the same way, even though nobody remembers that game in modern Kuala Lumpur. That I know from Lat, because he put it at the end of one of his comics. The bird I heard is a koel – a cuckoo that looks like a crow with bright red eyes. That I know from the signs at a mangrove reserve on Singapore's north shore, which also had mudskippers and tree crabs and sand lobsters that make giant termite nests in the muck. I found out I had a job, finally. That I know from the stupid bureaucracy at the national university.

And I know that by pegging all my hopes on becoming a salary man, I was doing someone or something a hell of a disservice. You don't seduce anything by self-domesticating yourself, no matter what the place might be like. You make people fall in love with you, and damn the consequences. So: here I am, here I am, and I hope you're all well.

Indonesian men were smoking on deck as our ferry cut south across the Singapore Strait. Zillah love Zaimi, and hate him: beyond a doubt I was heading somewhere new.

Actually you can tell you're getting closer to Singapore because during election season you see hardly any election signs at all,

President Nathan

[1] In one of his poems, this Singapore writer named Alfian Sa'at tells how his friend "did a hero thing," or what passes for one here: on a multiple-choice test from the government, he courageously penciled in nothing but As.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Tropical Illness the Naturalist Way

Hey everyone. I’m homeward bound. I’ve been happy. Time for one last flight.

On a Salvador bus in 2003, I saw a poster that read: “Sex with retarded kids is cowardice: Report it!” And I sat there thinking: …With retarded kids? It’s that rampant? That the government has to step in and say cut it out, already?
Friends who know a thing or two have questioned anecdotes like these, along with everything else I say about Brazil. Always dwelling on the dark side, Nathan. After I came back from Salvador the first time, in 2002, the Montreal Bahá’ís asked me to get up and say a few words about my trip, and I called this a black city (with 80% of its population of African descent, I’ve heard only Lagos, Nigeria is bigger); I tried to express how beautiful the slummed-up hillsides are, how human the dimensions despite the desperation; and talked about the Kiriri Indians I knew in the interior, where sun-blasted cactus replace the coastal palms, where I’d found the peace to well up in “hot tears” on my way home. At this point a Brazilian girl in the room blew up in my face. She’d grown up in Salvador, nobody talked about her home that way—they live like Americans, in highrise apartments, her family’s white, there haven’t been any Indians in her state for years, was I making things up, or a moron? I mumbled something about not having spent much time uptown, and shot back to my seat with my ears on fire.
And you know? The uptown line was a lame excuse besides. On my miserable, no-good second trip here, I lost track of how many comfort meals I snuck at the 24-hour McDonald’s up the street. The number of times I’ve wanted a shoot-em-up at the nice shiny Cineplex Odeon, and gone without inviting any of my friends from the slummed-up hills. There’s a first-world Brazil here, which is doing just fine, thank-you, where people roll up the windows on their two-door Peugeots, assume there are no Kiriris because there are none to be seen, and crowd around and listen in just as much disbelief as any given Canadian when I talk about the street people I’ve met. Thing is, by and large, I wouldn’t crowd around and listen to stories about the upper crust in return. I like to think I get enough food courts back home (my actions repeatedly give me the lie, there, but we’ll move on). Even the more engaged bourgeoisie manage to bug me, the way a stand-up guy who distributes needles for a living milks his own stories ever so slightly, saying just a few too many times for my taste, and with a tad too much relish, that he works in a neighbourhood nicknamed “Iraq.” I invite him to meet my friends’ families, who live around the corner in the same part of town, but it doesn’t work out—and on we go.
So after living such a dense little knot of hypocrisy down in Brazil, in Montreal I always found myself craving my old university haunts, where I could gorge myself back to health on lectures by world-class thinkers, surrounded by a new generation of scientists, writers, drafters of bridges and spacecraft and policy. Gone the primetime soaps and reality TV, gone the stunted and secretive life of the mind. And it dawns on me that if I’m ever going to live for any length of time in places like Brazil, instead of just stealing in and out for my latest contraband stories, I’d have to suck it up and open myself to the intellectuals here too, accept the hard slog of finding students who actually make sense, find a five-time-champion in-crowd who acts with heart and on Sunday nights unwinds with knowing laughter at Total Massacration, the heavy-metal show hosted by This-Is-Spinal-Tap-alikes on the local MTV. Total Massacration would save me. I have not been myself without it.

On April 23 I was summoned to a party at the penthouse apartment where I’d spent my very first months in Brazil (the slave mentality and me have a thing about penthouses too, and we parted ways). One of the daughters there was turning 24, had invited everyone from the various majors she’d been skipping between over the past few years. By the rooftop pool, ER interns telling architects about their run-ins with police, who’d wanted gunshot victims left to bleed in the street … art graduates going through the record collection, a cluster of engineers getting the grill going, horizon-wide ocean out beyond the rooftops below. I took a deep breath and started kissing cheeks, shaking hands. Halfway through the night, an ex-girlfriend of mine, there with her new husband and baby girl, came up and said I was a “…Seducer. In the Freudian sense.” She’s at the end of a psych degree—but yeah, there were people there I wanted to see again. A handful of stragglers crashed overnight, and in the morning I found myself trading phone numbers with the birthday girl’s boyfriend, who organizes an annual public art exhibition and talks like he dances, with foot-dragging charm; and with the one black kid who’d been there, a law student who’d brightened up when she found out I could talk some Chekhov.
These friends have transformed my last stay in Salvador. Delana, the law student, has a little apartment filled with oddball reproductions on the walls, and on every possible surface scattered piles of seminal Brazilian sociology, which I’ve been on a mission to consume. It’s like an outsider had just spent six months in the United States, swamped by culture wars and Michael Jackson trials, blinked, and decided to bone up on his de Tocqueville. The narrative I’ve been spinning in my letters (call it Nathan’s bogus underworld adventure) isn’t wrong, exactly—it’s just way too narrow. A nation of 150 million people has so many stories to tell … each one of them trying to make their own sense of this country. Friends have rightly pointed out that I’ve insisted on finding a warzone in Brazil, even though I swore I’d put that smallness behind me (the UN just called Brazil deadlier than Iraq, but moving right along)—and the best I feel I can do is reply by saying what a warzone of ideas this country is too, in its search for a way through to a narrative that has to be the entire world’s.
Pedro, the exhibition organizer, is an honest-to-goodness artist here, and my mind works double-time during our conversations, trying to figure out if our occasional brilliance does anything to unite this far-flung world—ontologically, epistemologically, at all. Total Massacration is silent on the subject. Maybe Walter Benjamin can answer my questions when I get home. For now, Pedro jokingly calls me “Samba Nathan,” but admits he’s a “yellow boy” himself: which means he grew up sheltered, with housekeepers and Nintendo and irony, and is as delighted as I would be when he goes begging for old sails off the painted skiffs that fill the bay, and the fishermen lend a hand putting them up in his street piece. A few days after the party, I visited him at his airy upstairs office in the historical centre, where he and a few bright buddies do multimedia design and plan subversive art events as an entity called “GIA.” Each year, they bring together young artists from all over Brazil and elsewhere to bounce their projects off the people in the street: clouds of red balloons with anti-war messages, crosswalks covered in strips of sod-grass that pedestrians are asked to use barefoot, jaunts around town in head-to-toe ant-printed bodysuits. Reactions are recorded, thrilled at, debated … the goal is to “shake this art-starved city up,” which programmatically speaking means there’s bound to be a bit confrontation to their play. Words are handed out to the illiterate, sandwich boards for professional training are marched before the unemployed. Vixe, I swear in the Portuguese of Northeastern Brazil, if illiteracy and unemployment get under your skin, can’t you make art about illiteracy and unemployment, instead of about your distance from them? One of the guys was about to defend a master’s project he’d done on the homeless, but said he’d decided right off not to exploit their images in anything, a self-imposed distance that, I tremble to think, would keep your creation from being about what it claims to be about in the first place. Why always one step removed? Think about it, if homegrown Brazilians come with that much alienation built in, I don’t stand a chance of saying jack about anything here.
Except that then, on certain rainy afternoons, these same guys invite crowds of NGO-going teens to paste lightswitches up on telephone poles. On June 2, I bummed around town with them as the kids hunted for locations. We cut through a back alley where one of the boys placed a gift-wrapped present in a dumpster (art!), and a streetcleaner stopped him to ask what he was up to. When the boy rejoined the group, he was proudly carrying a prize of photo albums: the streetcleaner had said, “If you’re into garbage, you’d love what we find out here,” and gave him all these books that turned out to contain the life of old woman, her family trips to waterfalls and DisneyWorld. Rather than let them get thrown out at the end of the day, a girl in the group shyly said she’d like to take them home. And that’s weird and transcendental. That’s art about garbage. Me, I give drawing classes to the schoolkids in my neighbourhood once a week—six-year-old hellions who used to greet me by exposing themselves now run up and announce they figured out how to draw a bike.
All of which is to say, I cleared out of town the day before Pedro launched this year’s exhibition on June 15 … I hear they built treehouses around town, but I had to visit the outback before I left, see a few families I knew there, take a few last pictures for my comic, smell the damp earth after the rain. My best friend from the interior isn’t a college kid—he’s brilliant, in a white-light sort of way, took one look at university and ran. Aneri invited Gilmar over one night in May, hoping we’d hit it off: in walks a 26-year-old Brazilian wearing rose water, a buzzcut and an embroidered, snow-white salwar kameez. When I asked him about himself, the first thing out of his mouth was, “I’m happy”—and looking at the smile on this guy, some more innocent part of me wanted to take him at his word. He’s a gungho lay Catholic who’s helped found daycares in his adopted Salvador parish, but with a stubborn independence of thought that’s made him opt to study Sufism and travel through India rather than enter the priesthood. His old stomping grounds are the region I feel my best here. Life can be defeatingly difficult out there, one 13-year-old girl that I thought was heading for trouble two years ago is now pregnant and married at 15, her 20-something sister has finally found a father for the son who’s recovering from drinking two cups of bleach, and the man’s always drinking farther down the sandy street—but Gilmar had a sense, perhaps, of what I go there for when he wrote my an e-mail halfway through my week away: “I hope the outback is making you draw beautiful things, a mandacarú, for example.” Mandacarú is the Indian word they use for cactus there … I would circle the poxy, sun-scorched plants rising from the brush, try to understand what draws me to their upstretched spiny arms, the black vultures wheeling in the sky above, and the best I can come up with is that I eat them because they have given themselves to the unforgiving sun, and because they are my heart. When Gilmar and I walk around his parish in Salvador, everyone rushes up to kiss his hand and he kisses theirs in return, he helps up fallen kids and brushes off the mud, he asks after everyone’s illnesses … and then we cross paths with a group of Bahá’í kids, who squeal in delight to see me too. I like heading out shoulder to shoulder with Gilmar, the orange afternoon sun slanting across our faces.
During my last week here, I tracked down an artist who has covered walls all over town with strange mosaics of dinosaur skeletons and ant-men and Candomblé divinities. Bel Borba is a ubiquitous public presence, who’s shaped the story this city tells about itself, and me being a kid trying to write a novel about the place myself, I wanted to find out what sort of man would take on such a task, and hope beyond hope, get his blessing. It just so happened that a blonde, blue-eyed environmentalist girl from Toronto had hit him up for a meeting the day before, and the coincidence obliged him to invite me along to their luncheon. Our oracle was sporting a pert Dali-esque moustache and cuffed-up jeans, and I kept seeing Pedro in his attitudes: I’d thought the city must subsidize such a high-profile artist, but his murals are all out of his own pocket, guerrilla projects put up at night. His goal is to change the headspace of passersby too—he puts it as “opening our eyes to the supernatural that lies beyond the real.” As for how he carried the weight of defining a city for itself: he seems to have a non-stop drive to create—it must be glandular—with any rationalization coming after the fact. But the city isn’t art-starved to him, far from it. His imagery is rooted in what’s already very present in the street, in capoeira and black magic and samba, rather than in confrontation with it. As a goodbye, he gave me and the Toronto girl a handpainted tile each: mine shows the head of a barking dog, drawn in a hurricane of white strokes on black. The oracle has spoken.

Coming home, now, I have nobody’s story but my own. In many ways, I respond to Delana’s apartment like a happy memory of a few genius girls’ houses I once knew, whose shelves dazzled me back in highschool with Ancient Greek primers and Woody Allen scripts and McCarthy-era manuals on how to spot a Communist in your midst. Gilmar strides the outback like I picture my grandfather doing, like I’d imagined Sérgio Couto did. Even so, it’s not a bad story, to me, at this moment, bridging continents and hearts. Bel Borba offered to help me exhibit in Salvador, which seems like as good an excuse as any to come back to this city. He also invited me to put up a mosaic with him: I asked if I could bring Pedro, looking forward to seeing what might happen by putting the two artists together, but when I called Pedro almost an hour after our scheduled meeting time, he said he was still at home, and couldn’t make it—and on we go.

Alelúia só,


Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Chicken Soup for the Crack Addict’s Soul

Hey everyone. These are getting to the size where I have to apologize…

The more you get to know anything at all in this world, the lovelier it becomes – and simultaneously, the more horrifying. In March I spent a week painting that ruin at the base of the cobblestone ramp, each day getting to know the community there a bit better. One afternoon a passing prostitute asked if I'd heard the latest: the night before, the military police had killed a man named Alex up by the waterfall behind the ruin. A co-worker of hers came by, and she repeated the story. "Alex? The guy who owed me three bucks?" That was the man. I hadn't been back to the waterfall since my first day – in my mind it stayed beautiful, unsafe, curled up out of sight. But the next day a Brazilian friend wanted to see the place, and a local guy I'd drawn took us up for another look. The waterfall was there, as before, a silent retreat of wild jungle where by rights there should have been none: I was able to look directly into the pool this time, and right where I'd seen the man washing his clothes, it was swimming with countless rainbow-coloured fish, tiny and thumb-sized, filling it restlessly to the brim. Did people eat them, sell them? Apparently not – they just lived there in that water on the hill, generation after generation, untouched. And then you turn around, and behind you on stone steps leading farther up are bright brown smears of blood, still there, of a man named Alex, who you didn't know … and you ask yourself, what is this place.

To get home from my painting spot, I'd head back down the hill and cut through a side street to Cayrú Square, where a 19-story public elevator joins the upper and lower cities on the landward side, and against the sea is the block-wide colonial market building, whose basement is a half-lit memorial to the slaves who were storehoused there, in the damp, until 1851. Under the shade of the elevator today are seedy bars buzzing with secret street slang, which the milling tourists hurry past on their way to the batteries of stalls now at the market, to buy handicrafts and get their cameras stolen, and through the middle of it all runs a trunk road whose bus stop will take you anywhere in the city, and is busy at all times of day or night: university students, subsistence shrimpers, people high and low on either side of the tourist trade. As a hurrying tourist myself, I was used to making a bee line to the bus stop and home, only once ever having entered into any of those bars, on a late night in particularly dire need of a toilet, and never glancing at the homeless people lying on boxboard under the spreading trees.
After my second day in the neighbourhood, I heard my name from one of the homeless men, which stopped me short. I looked, consciously: it was the young guy who'd asked me to draw his son the day before, and he was grinning broadly from the ground. My eyes flicked across the busy late-afternoon street life as I realized, improbably, that I knew his name now too. "How you doing, Fábio." He was all hospitality, wanted me to hang back and talk about his family. Before I knew it, he'd taken my plastic painting stool for himself, and was beckoning me to sit in front of him on one of the concrete retainers around the base of the trees. A woman who'd been lying beside him muttered, "Mess with this kid and I'll kill you, Fábio." Fábio talked, eagerly, with little prompting from me. He was from an outlying clifftop neighbourhood I'd gotten to know and like in 2001, via a Swede who'd been working to help with the leprosy there. Fábio had been on the street for four months, was eating morning and night … it was better than the seven months he'd spent in jail, where he'd learned to shut his face up cold, like so. But as to why he was here today – his eyes flashed and his voice darkened when he described the "disgrace" he'd shot dead, who'd deserved it. I was looking hard at the furious man sitting on my stool. Fábio was just a few months shy of my own age, the whole right side of his face a sickle-shaped scar, and there were gunshot wounds to show me too. No, I said, I didn't have the pen and ink on me to do any portraits today – but I'd bring them the day after next, after Aneri and I went to go check out a rehab clinic for a crack addict we knew. He said: "Aw, you're not coming back." I shot over my shoulder as I left with my things: "Fábio, we don't trust each other yet. I'll be back on Monday." He said he'd buy the paper for his portrait.
Taking the bus back to the square on Monday, I mulled over what I was about to do. I had my pen and ink with me, but I wasn't sure about drawing this murderer. I'd be able to take in the scene from the crowd before committing. He turned out to be sitting around with his friends, men and women, under the same tree where I'd left him, and somehow it looked okay – and the smile on his face was genuine when he saw me. No, he hadn't bought the paper, of course, but he ran off promising to be back with it in five minutes. Meanwhile I teased a worn-down woman who said she was in no shape to be drawn that day, I said she was looking just fine, way better than any of the guys there. Fábio came back with a roll of posterboard, and sat down on a tree retainer with his friend Nei. Pencil first, get the eyes to look alive, the features more or less in order, then layer on smooth ribbons of wet black India ink: sideburns, pectorals, tattoos. The work of twenty minutes for the two of them, big – and Fábio's eyes danced when he saw himself, and Nei groggily came back to life. Everyone who lived there came up to watch, Júnior, Vanessa, Marcos, Anacélia, Jazevan, André, all of them shaking my hand or telling me I shouldn't waste my time on bums, I should set up in the upper city where the money is. I shook my head, promised to drop by the next day and do some more.
Fábio trailed up to talk to me again that afternoon, while I was painting the ruin and surrounded by local kids. School-age boys ask to have spiders and weightlifters drawn on their arms, and one, Jeorge, tended to stay longer than the rest, using impeccably educated language with me, but spitting at the kids who made fun of him for going to a social-project school, or at the drunk old men who called him a "son of a prostitute," an awful insult which turned out to be factually accurate – when his tiny mother walked by with him later on, I was happy to tell her how much I liked him. Fábio's mind had been whirring … he'd come to announce he wanted to go into business with me, round up clients for me to draw, we could split the profits. I demurred and said something about maybe teaching him to draw a thing or two himself, and it seemed as he looked high up through the vines at the building I was painting, opened-eyed and seeing it as interesting, that he'd agree to just about anything I had to offer. I frowned and went on with my work. Toward sundown, Jeorge came back to show me something he was sure I'd like to draw – he'd laboured to describe it earlier, it was round and high, and you could stand on it, and I packed away my stuff and let him lead me down to a nearby city square, where he proudly pointed out his prize. "That's called a 'statue,' Jeorge." And as I looked at it, it did look interesting too, and I thanked him, and asked if he could maybe draw it for me himself.
The bus ride home from there takes half an hour, enough time to heave my stool and paper folder through our front door in total darkness. I asked Aneri if she'd come by the square the next day to meet with Fábio – I'd built some friendships, maybe, but in doing so I'd reached the outer limits of my experience, and now that I might be poised to make a difference in any of their lives, Aneri was the only person I knew to turn to. What would she do?
Tuesday afternoon I introduced Aneri to Fábio as "good people," and then hung back and watched their conversation unfold. She sashayed along beside him in one of her long hippie dresses, she admonished, she needled, she leveled her whole charisma at gaining his filial respect. The work of twenty minutes. That afternoon Fábio took us further up the cobblestone ramp than I'd felt able to alone, to a house carved into the side of the mountain, where I drew Marina, the big-eyed, androgynous matriarch, and her coterie of young men lolling around on the streetfront. Aneri watched with pleasure as that door opened up too, and I was happy to have her judgement on hand as she accepted their invitation to come inside the house for a visit. It was two stories inside solid rock, who knows how many years old. When they'd moved in, they said, there'd been shackles strewn around the dusty floor. The steps leading upstairs would have been near-vertical concrete in a tight, lightless stairwell, but they'd decayed away to the point where we had grope our way up on the remaining stubs of rebar. Later, one of the neighbour boys would tell me these houses are also home to "crab spiders," tarantulas that can be caught and nursed to size of dinner plates, to be sold to unconscionably sinister scientific institutions. We came out into the upper living area – under its curved ceiling was a TV burbling an afternoon novela, birds chirping in cages, dressers, hot plates, marijuana fumes, a whole whirring life. I think Marina must like showing off her place.
Aneri arranged to come back the next night – Wednesday – to start a weekly meeting with the homeless people living down below, to say some prayers and talk things through, starting with self-esteem. With Fábio and Marina in particular, I was to start a study course that had been developed by the Colombian Bahá'í community in the 80s, to look at the moral basis for the decisions we make, and discuss the direction we want our lives to take. We scheduled our first session to fall during an upcoming Black Diaspora conference the Bahá'ís were holding off on the other end of town. To Aneri, this was an opportunity for them to change their surroundings, see people thinking and celebrating, walk in quiet orchards instead of down a downtown drag. This all made sense to me, I was grateful and looking forward to what might come of it all – but when Aneri told them we'd wouldn't pick them up, that they'd have to make their own change and take their own buses for an hour and a half, I bit my lip. With drug-addled lives like the ones they were leading? No way. They'd never come on their own steam. They were earnestly nodding their heads, saying they'd make it, Fábio writing down directions so he could take Marina, who couldn't read. Fábio bought us each a pinha fruit as a gift – Aneri ate most of mine, they look like artichokes filled with sweet mucus – but Aneri insisted they had to give us some concrete proof they wanted to leave that place.
We spent the conference weekend waiting. They didn't show. I crossed my arms, Aneri said how great it would have been if they had come on their own. We made our way back to the square the next Wednesday, ready to hear their excuses and regroup. As it happened, Fábio was in no condition to defend himself. The night before the conference, Nei and Júnior had found him on a back street in a coma, bleeding from a gunshot wound to the back, and piled him over to the general hospital. By now, the stories doing the rounds were that he was either transferred to detention for his crimes, or dead.
Aneri and I have been paying Fábio near-weekly visits ever since. He's alive: paralyzed from the waist down, peeing down a catheter, handcuffed to the frame of a bed in a crowded ward marked "Orthotrauma." Aneri has history with this hospital: the loved one she took there years ago, he died with his drug-related bullet woundsuntreated. She talks repentance with Fábio, who has his ups and downs with the thought that he has a detention cell in his future and will never walk again. We've met his too-young mother, who blankly refuses to believe her son's ever done anything wrong, and wants a lawyer she can't get, and his son, who's a feral little creature who runs away with cookies. His street friends ask after him, and we ferry messages back and forth. One man who won't be running around with guns anymore.

To demand proof of people's will to change, rather than try and lever it onto them cold: this was something Aneri learned from a man named Sérgio, whose name shows up throughout this religious community of ours, on buildings, development initiatives, everywhere. Anyone who grew up here in the 70s and went on to serve Brazil as Bahá'ís – as social workers, therapists, teachers, administrators, there seem to be no end of them – looks back at Sérgio as the copyright holder on who they are today. A direct line can be traced back from Aneri's drive to mother everyone she meets, through to that mustachioed man.
Sérgio was born in 1942, when Brazil was eight years into military rule, in fact if not yet in name. President Vargas was being puppeteered against a background of national unrest, becoming within 16 years a champion of civil liberties, a deposed dictator, a re-elected Great White Hope, and a suicide. The youngest in his family, Sérgio received a seminary education to match his brilliant mind, which it seems he applied largely to tormenting his older sisters during his childhood, and figuring out how to get his hands on alcohol in his teens.
At 12 he became one of the first Brazilians to hear of the Bahá'í Faith, and it stuck with him. I can only guess at what he must have seen in it at the time: a strange new brand of revolution, for a boy and a country that needed one? Because the following decades show him to be an iconoclast of the very first water: the praise his contemporaries still shower on him is the only thing that can reasonably counterballast the singular weirdness of his actions. There were no other young Brazilian men who shined shoes to attend to the 1963 international Bahá'í conference in London – where he met the Irish girl he would marry years later. There were no other Brazilians who devoted their adult lives to teaching a new generation of teens how to spread such an unthinkable message of unity. In the 80s he turned his experience with kids toward therapy for drug addicts, who would go on to occupy him until his death in 1996. Before accepting a patient, he'd demand to know their will to change, on a scale of 1 to 10 – and if they said 10, he'd dive in.
You flip through the things Sérgio wrote, and you're hit by endless dizzy aphorisms, and metaphysical algebra full of plus signs, ratio bars, coefficients like "time," "space," "order," "beauty." Among the tributes his friends wrote for him upon his death, I found the most satisfyingly contrarian to be one by a current youth therapist named Feizi, who helped run Aneri's daycare some years back. Addressing Sérgio, Feizi writes: "We'd meet each other from time to time, until (on one of the world's many turns), ten years later, I returned in need of therapy and healing. And you, your wife and daughter welcomed me into your home and hearts. For three months I stayed with you and followed you day and night, to every group and appointment. This was how I learned to be human, a step that, in our impatience to be divine, many of us leave by the wayside." (My fingertips are trembling as I translate … I just don't know that there's room for naked faith in this kind of public forum. My whole liberal education rears up against it. I sense his story is essential to mine, but I'm really unsure my charisma is up to the narrative, and it leaves me wanting to beg for your patience. This was the man who taught Aneri what she knows about dealing with drug addicts, then. Fast forward to the present day.)

One day in early March, the phone rang while I was at home alone. It was an unfamiliar woman, in a state of panic at a payphone: her daughter had tried to overdose on sleeping pills, and for the love of God could Aneri come over to their house right away. It turned out Aneri was going to run late, but in a few hours Jérôme – another boarder at our house, a cherubic 17-year-old Luxembourger in the throes of some self re-invention of his own – was going to come home, and he could show me the way, for the two of us to pay a visit in her absence.
The girl we found was 28, emaciated, coiled naked in a towel on her bed. Her husbandless mother was nervously plying her with food, and her fatherless daughter was playing with candies on the floor. Honestly, I have it in for crack addicts. Right after I moved into my first apartment here in 2001, when my Portuguese was just on the dangerous side of operative, I went to the Old City, full of scoundrels and backpackers, high on life and wanting to see where my freedom would take me. A thin young black woman started up with some patter, asking if I was in town for capoeira and doing some highkicks by means of demonstration. She followed me along as I kept walking, and I started asking random laughing questions about who she was. Vague answers, vague life? I showed her my sketchbook, tried to show her a bit about myself, she'd flash grins and pick at a head of garlic she had in her cargo pants, suggest I was up to no good. I was up to plenty of good – I'd show her not every swishy-haired gringo was after the same thing. The sun was slanting, I invited her to grab some supper. She said she knew a place – on the way down, we passed one of her thousand billion rasta friends, who reassured me she was "good people" when I asked. She led me down a sketchy street. I'd been through there on one of my very first nights, driving quickly with the windows rolled up tight, staring at the passing glare of unfurnished bars and darkened pairs of women at the corners, while my driver said the whole colonial centre had been like this until the 90s, when the government drove out block after block of destitute squatters to make room for UNESCO-worthy promenades. We took a folding table in one of the bars, she gave a big bill of mine to the hulking barkeep in exchange for two plates of rice and beans. He went to get change, she came back and chatted, then hopped up again to go find a powder room somewhere. As she ran out around the corner, I was left to stare back at the prostitutes and their spilling bellies alone. The food came, I looked down at it and then back over my shoulder, and realized there was a washroom right in the bar, of course. I went glowering back to the barkeep, who glibly demanded I pay up, as if a fifty hadn't already disappeared into his hands. I damn well wouldn't pay twice for two meals I hadn't even touched, and walked out shaking. There were no streetlights, and I moved as fast as I could to the nearest jack-booted cop. "That's Bruna – she's a master thief. Sorry kid, but she's blown it all on crack by now." And that was that. She had left on her seat a single clove of garlic, which I placed on my bookshelf back at my nice new apartment with the view of the sea. Over the coming months it dried hard and yellow, and I would sometimes roll it across my fingers, thinking that it somehow represented justice, if I could only understand – to me, to the miserable, to the world.
So here I was now, listening to Jérôme, former Low Countries pothead, speak words of wisdom to a new Brazilian crack addict on a bed with her back to the world – "You can change if you want to" – and I wondered how _I'd_ changed in the past four years. I tested the waters with a few quiet jokes, acknowledging that she hadn't asked us to come, and probably didn't want us there. She laughed and turned her head to see me, and I could see she was smart, and in a bit we were playing with her daughter, and she agreed to have me and Aneri back the next morning. Aneri got in the driver's seat, called the girl's absentee relatives around the world, raised money for rehab, pledged to spend every day by her side while she fought her compulsions. The next morning, before we dropped by, the girl did her nails for the first time in months – so what was my role in all this going to be? Aneri flatly forbade us from seeing each other, predicting some sort of disaster. The one night the girl came by to see me unchaperoned, I wasn't yet aware of the rule, and went out in the shade of the neighbourhood hospital to talk. She came up with a story about needing money to get some sort of ID card, and I didn't believe it, but felt I owed her one chance … I went with her to the building where she said her lawyer worked, she went in and didn't come back out. After I finally left the mocking patrons at the street-level bar, I learnt she'd collected over a hundred bucks from various people that day. She didn't stagger home till the following night. Aneri pushed and pulled at her for a month, dragging her to clinics full of junkies, minds blown, drooling and toothless, Aneri scheduled and rescheduled appointments that she kept wriggling out of, until facts demanded to be faced. Recoveries are rare. In life I could look at the girl and see her as happy, but now all I have are a few photos in my computer – and their sunken eyes, painful smile … they chill my blood.

What blows my mind is that there were people like this who Sérgio actually helped. That tribute I was quoting makes a lot of his humanity – he is "deeply," "contradictorily," "marvelously," "angelically" human, "with the limitations and incongruities that the nature of that station entails." I'd always pictured him as a towering sun-baked man, like my grandfather, striding big strides across the backlands, and I sighed when I saw his picture for the first time: bald, goofy, a man who belonged on a bus. The tribute goes on in apostrophe: "Weak-hearted, you smoked recklessly. Overweight, you left your diet unchecked. Sedentary, you didn't exercise. And willful, to top it all off! Any advice, requests or admonitions about this all only seemed to fuel your resistance." I understand Sérgio had an unwavering self-confidence, which allowed him to laugh at his fragile teenage wards, and make all their friends laugh at them, until they learned to laugh at themselves, and love him for it. He'd whistle at the shy blonde girls, he'd threaten to take his pants off in public to get his way, and the next second he'd be welling up in tears about martyrs or St. Francis of Assisi. At the age of 50 he had his potbelly tattooed to prove a point. A man to strike fear into the hearts of demons, then – and who'd get a kick out of it, too, like he was popping Jolly Ranchers.

So the weekly meetings with the homeless downtown are a going concern. Aneri and I, and sometimes another fearless girl from one of the rough ends of town, we get there at night, when the handicraft booths are locked up and the square is a dark gridded maze of empty awnings. Out from under each one come sleepy-eyed occupants, who sometimes fetch us chairs, sometimes sit in a circle on the ground. We say prayers, which they're eager for, talk about life, try to understand what to do. The vast majority of them can read, and although most of them are deep into drugs, more of them seem to be lying low from the law, for various half-stated reasons, rather than simply down and out. Some have come from as far as the Argentine border. Early on, Aneri gave bus fare to Jazevan for him to head home, and we gave David a lift to his hometown on our way north to help set up a daycare in a former escaped-slave community … Within weeks, both guys were back in the square. Aneri fumed, they sheepishly apologized. She latched onto one pregnant woman who'd spent seven years in jail for what she called self-defense, she made invitation after invitation, and was devastated to hear the woman had forced a miscarriage. I've been trying to turn to people who know the field, friends who distribute needles, women who've gone on to work with the Landless Movement in the interior, or the white-haired night guard who has the neighbourhood's respect. In return, I've been learning about the inside politics of local detox centres, hearing that the people in the square need to learn to fight less, and above all being told: be patient. Build relationships, and courses of action will become clear.
There's a mean streak in American writing, which I've heard described as "gangsterism" – as in, a nation founded on land grabs and self-made men is necessarily slow to condemn the guy with the gun. We lap up the underbelly of just about anything, from caper flicks and CSI: Miami to tell-alls about the marginal and dispossessed. But try to be a humanist for just one second, and you get this sinking feeling that there isn't much more morbid than making a popcorn thriller out of a young mother as she dies from daily crack inhalation a few blocks down the street. This religion of mine, which I hold so high in esteem, tells me always to cast people in the best possible light, because speaking ill of others blackens your soul for a hundred years. Cohesive Society 101. But with the suffering here around us all … we can't just meet that with an equally deafening silence. Until the ageof 40, Sérgio was a model of outspokenness, and as his chain-smoker's teeth wasted away he grew his moustache out and just kept exhorting with empty gums – about self-sacrifice, hypocrisy, you name it. In 1982, though, there's a change in his correspondence that coincides with a sudden retreat from the community, which would last until the end of his life. He starts to dwell on obedience – "You know, obedience is so sweet. So very sweet. It's a mix of musk and honey, and dusted in flower pollen" – and here too, it seems, is a story that cannot be shared. Whatever all-too-human underbelly contributed to his withdrawal must be left unautopsied, whatever final contradiction untold. We are left with a resolutely triumphant official hagiography, yet the silence that descends over Sérgio in these twilight years of his life leaves me with a lingering sadness that, if anything, must cast the miracles he worked into even sharper relief.
One April night after trying to get my paintings scanned downtown, I passed by the square and ran into Júnior, one of the guys who'd come to Fábio's help after he'd been shot. Júnior doesn't pray, but he shakes my hand like he means it, and he was looking bummed out. His woman, Vanessa, whom he'd asked me to draw, and who later on had offered me some kind of dripping stewed meat that they were sharing, she'd lost it on him, demanded half the money from the shopping cart they'd bought to collect trash together, and took off. He said he'd given her the money without a complaint, and he kept asking if I thought he'd done the right thing, as he went over and over their relationship. She'd collapsed in a bloodied heap one day by the church steps where he slept, and he'd fetched a wet cloth from a nearby bar to wipe her face. From then on, they'd been a good-looking item, through good times and bad – because she became a different person when she smoked crack, and now she was saying he'd thrown her to the ground in front of the city elevator, but it was a lie! And how was he going to spend the night alone. Vanessa walked past drunk, holding for some reason a big carved wooden bird, and I talked between them both for a while. Once she wandered off again Júnior started fessing up. He'd used their money for crack too, it's true he'd lost his temper. Lord, what do you say? Crack blots out people's character, I could expect as little from him in that state as he ought to have from her. I ended the conversation by hugging him, and it looked like he was taking things better.
In one of his poems, Rilke says we're all born losers … what matters isn't the size of our victories, but the size of the adversary we'll all inevitably succumb to (I don't remember the name of the piece, just that the English rendition was pitiful, something about seeking enemies "ever grandlier great" … I should find the German again and have a crack at it). Sérgio lost to something the size of the world, I am sure. Fábio, for his part, has retained his conquering gaze: the last time we went to visit him at the hospital, we ran into two pretty sisters who'd come in from out of town to fawn over their new paraplegic crush. If these stories are to mean anything beyond gangsterism, it has to be that they'll make us question the size of our own chosen battles, doesn't it? Doesn't it have to? I leave it in your capable hands … me, I just got $500 and my only bankcard conned off me by an operation using fake bank machine slots at one of the ritziest malls in town.

Every junkie's like a setting sun/A little part of it in everyone,