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Stop The World

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Ten years ago I received a phone call on a Tuesday morning. It was a contact of mine who, rather abruptly (time was of essence indeed in this matter), wanted to know if I could be in Malaysia by Thursday. I asked if by any chance he had Google Earth on his computer as I was in South America and by simple time differences it was already Wednesday in Kuala Lumpur, but following instructions I rushed to my friendly travel agent to find out. I could make it to KL by Friday, but only if I left that same afternoon (a complicated logistical nightmare) and if the company was willing to pay $13,000 on first class tickets (the only available) but, after hearing the exorbitant amount, it was decided that Saturday would do. So it did.
Only that it didn’t. The boat that I was supposed to board, sailing from Bintulu, Borneo, left the dock on that same morning I arrived in KL and therefore I missed it. So I was paid to travel across the world for nothing. Further arrangements concluded in me returning back home on Tuesday, so I did an around the globe trip for basically nothing in five days. But the industry was (and is) so poorly organized that the same scenario repeated just the next Friday and finally, two Mondays after the initial hectic call, I landed in Bintulu, for a long stretch of work in the Malaysian province of Sarawak.
Ignorance permeates my life like water does the finest sand so at the time I did not know I was reaching heaven. For a span of 9 months I was stationed in a tiny hamlet called Balingian. From Bintulu I travelled to Miri for further training and scuttled back between Mukah and Balingian from then on, but although very appreciative of Borneo I did not fully accept this cosmic gift. A while later, after I had arranged some logistics and had started the run off for the project, two close friends arrived to further help with the work, so we would routinely escape the confines of the base camp and check the gorgeous island. I bought a bicycle and pedaled back and forth between the base and the dock, down a glorious dirt road cutting through some pristine forest. On one occasion I stopped on the road as a family of orangutans was staring at me, as if I was the exotic creature. They were high in the trees and it took me a moment to realize that indeed, I was not from there; they were. Ancestrally. On the same road, on another day, I had to stop as a little wooden pole I was approaching suddenly moved only to reveal it was in reality a cobra, hunting. I stopped, took the photograph, crossed the road to be as far away from that king of the bushes, and as I went by I did not take my eyes off it. No cobra was going to catch me on a bike, but assumptions like that one have been the last of many a foolish man.
In my bike, I traveled to many little places around Balingian and Mukah. I would lose myself in the fishermen’s village, built on stilts on the mouth of the river. I would pedal around the coast, looking at the Sea of China. The Monsoon season reached us and our camp was flooded, forcing us to escape. I made friends with the owner and daughter of a small restaurant where the food was as exquisite and marvelous as it was inexpensive. Malaysians don’t tip but I, as a westerner, always do. On one occasion, after having dined the same thing on Thursday as I did on Tuesday, but noticing that the price was not the same, I asked Amy (her Americanized name) why the difference. “Oh, I never really add the items. You always leave so much money!” This for what I remembered was just about $5.

Such was my life, ten years ago. All that is now gone. When I was a young kid I remember there was an expression that said “Stop the World! I want to get off!” The point was that the world was becoming such a crazy place that people wanted to get off the whirlwind. Put a pause on the lunacy. Stop, breathe in the air and catch your breath. But of course, the world never stops. The whirlwind becomes a tornado and it will gladly get you off. Not by gently stopping and allowing you to get off the merry go round. It will spin you out and good luck where you land. It might be rough.
What I miss the most of my previous life are not only the foreign places, the sights, the distances. What I miss are the feelings. The feeling of truly not belonging, of being foreign to the core. I miss being a wanderer, of landing somewhere and not knowing north from south and having to figure it out. I miss sitting somewhere to watch a temple, looking at the people practicing their rituals while I was there and at the same time, was not. I miss, terribly, having to express myself through signs and pantomime, having to order a meal not knowing in any way what would be brought. I miss the uncertainty of where I would go next. I went to Malaysia after I had finished Syria, and from Malaysia I went to the heart of Colombia, from which I went to Patagonia and then Kurdistan (I think. I would need to check my passport to see the proper sequence, but something like that it was). And I miss that the days stopped having names and meanings. All days were the same in that it was work and a little adventure, it was another Monday simply because the end of the week was so far away. And now I am faced with the reality that my life, the kind I am used to, has gone. Disappeared. I am looking at a next life, if at all, doing some menial thing from 8 to 6, a life inside walls and air conditioning when I have gotten used to the fact that my professional life is carried in the open. In the Sahara desert, in the Empty Quarter, in a boat floating in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, in the jungles of Borneo or the mountains of Southern Uzbekistan. Of working at midnight under a full moon in a desert, of waking up at dawn to climb on a boat and brave an ocean. A life in which the clouds are real masses of water vapor, not some stupid cyber concept of unreliable information storage.
I will, eventually, become Ray Liotta’s character in Goodfellas, a former gangster that gets government protection and has his life of crime and riches ended, to disappear and vanish as anonymously as it can be done. In his words, the last spoken in the film, he ends up “a schmuck”.
And I will have to do that because I and my colleagues have fallen from Earth. The whirlwind spun us out and made us expendables. The financial asphyxiation will force us to become schmucks, clerks at a store, taxi drivers, men caged in a cubicle from 8-6, riding a bus to and from work. We are as far away from Sarawak as possible, as far away from our “not-homes” as we can be. And we will sing “Stop the World!” Yes, please, stop it. But it is because we want to get on.

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Updated 09-11-2017 at 09:06 AM by ponchi101



  1. Ti-Amie's Avatar
    But Ponchi you have been to Sarawak! How many of us have been office drones all of our lives in order to pay bills and keep a roof over our heads and never experience what you have? I know you will reject the words but you have been blessed to live a life of wonder few have and when the walls of the cubicle begin to close in remember "Amy" and smile.