Friday, November 14, 2008

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.


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