‘Well, boys,’ said Sunny, ‘it’s been a pleasure. Happy hunting.’
Zak gave Sunny a quick hug. I moved in to kiss her cheek, but as I got closer turned slightly inwards, feeling the corner of her mouth on mine as we touched. It felt good, like spilling a secret.
My face exploded. I recoiled as if bitten by a snake.
I looked deep into Sunny’s flashing eyes.
The hand she had snapped into my face was still raised and her stance had widened. She looked alarmingly alert. ‘That was a block, next time I won’t be so measured.’
‘Sorry,’ I said, genuinely taken aback, then had to laugh. ‘Wow.’
I gave Zak a wide-eyed look.
‘See you tomorrow, Sunny,’ he said, and we were off.
We crossed to road. My cheek stung.
It stung even more when I smiled.
* * *
'What’s your favourite song?’
She looked pensive. ‘There are so many, but -’ her face lit up and she bit the inside of her lip to suppress a grin ‘- one of my favorites to dance to is Rockin’ Robin.’
‘Hah! I love it too.’ I found Bobby Day’s version on my phone and this time she didn't hold back. We hit it with overflowing energy, doing our best rendition of a cheeky boogaloo.
The song ended and we fell onto the sofa, our bodies intertwining and tangling, desperate kisses feeding off and into our first meeting, the jungle ordeal, her well-aimed blows, our hopes and fears.
She shifted and reached under herself, pulling out my dog-eared copy of The Sixties that I’d left on the sofa earlier in the day. I expected her to put it aside as we shifted into a new gear, but instead she opened it and inspected the contents page.
‘What’s this?’ she said. ‘Women: Revolution in the Revolution?’
‘It’s a chapter on women’s rights,’ I said, bemused by her shift of focus. I tried to take the book from her but she resisted, moved her body from under mine and flicked through the pages to find the chapter. She went quiet. She was skim-reading the pages. I was stunned.
I was about to see whether kissing her neck would change the dynamic, when she said, ‘You see! Right on. It says here: “It is the job of revolutionary feminists to build an ever stronger independent Women’s Liberation Movement, so that sisters in counterfeit captivity will have somewhere to turn, to use their power and rage and beauty and coolness in their own behalf for once, on their own terms, on their own issues, in their own style - whatever that may be.” Check that out, naked ape. Robin Morgan knows where it’s at.’
She snapped the book shut and with both hands drew my face towards hers, kissing me with a deep, still intensity.
She moved forwards and lingered two meters from me. I lowered the camera, subconsciously softening my own expression to reflect her Buddha-like serenity. It felt tender. Intimate. I marveled at being in the presence of such a profoundly tranquil soul and experienced a bewildering new emotional response. I looked away and wondered what it was. Perhaps it was something our ever-faster lives so often deny: reverence.
I blinked and she hoisted herself back into the trees, hanging effortlessly between two vines. Her right leg provided a perfect perch for the infant who sat there looking on with a regal indifference. I took a couple of shots before I realized what I was witnessing. Here was one of our closest relatives, suspended in space and time, exhibiting the beauty, equilibrium and resilience of a species that has evolved to live in harmony with its surroundings. The feeling was of immediacy and timelessness.
I decided to call that moment - and the defining shot of the afternoon - Suspended Disbelief. It was as if those few seconds represented a doorway through which I could transcend my preconceived notions and perceived inevitabilities about the world to experience an alternative reality lying well beyond the projected horizon. Today was not the day to say with infinite wisdom, ‘It will never happen, it can’t be done.’
‘My family is from here.’
‘From Bagawai?’ I said in reference to the port from which we’d first embarked.
He looked down into the waters. ‘My parents were born here, before the park. But in 1969, the village moved. Government orders. No people allowed in the park.’
‘Good move?’ I asked.
‘Bad move. My family are not farmers. They lived in the forest - good for hunting. In the new area - no good. Then the government say we cannot stay there. We move again. They give our land to an oil palm company. My brothers work in the plantations. No good - no money, no schools, no clinic. Some people do mining near the river, and now the river is poison.’
‘Is that why the main river is so brown? Mining for what?’
‘Gold. Illegal operations. They use cyanide.’
‘But I saw people fishing on the way upriver.’
Feizal looked dejected. ‘Some do, no good.’
‘Wow,’ I said, reeling from the turn in the conversation. I ran my hands through my hair, wondering how desperate you have to be to eat fish from a cyanide-polluted river.
‘The logging and oil palm have taken the land. Now we need a national park. It's good,' he said, wide-eyed, 'we must save the orang utan. But my community is not bad. But they make our lives bad.’
What an irony. The real story here was that Feizal’s family was caught between the forest’s destruction and its conservation, forcing their relocation. But instead of writing about that, I was producing something that would be called ‘Orangutan Paradise’. Kill me now. My editor wanted the gloss and veneer regardless of the reality it obscured or carefully photoshopped out of the final product.
‘Sorry, is that an impoverished villager I see? Hello! No, no, no. I want wilderness, vast expanses of pristine, untouched nature … white linen … and candles! I don't care where they live, get rid of it - get rid of it!’
I shook my head.
The world has become so complex, so difficult to understand, that even when you try to do the right thing you end up trashing something beautiful.
I let my arms go limp. I felt heavy, tired, suddenly deeply sleepy. I allowed myself a moment of transcendence as my mind drifted far above the suffocating canopy and away from the falling rain. I was not in a forest anymore; I was in crystal waters, sitting on a surfboard, basking in late afternoon light, clean sets moving in perfect formation towards me. I exhaled. Everything was going to be fine.
What the hell is that?
Something in the physical world brought me back to the present with the slamming realization that I was not there. I was here. It moved on the back of my neck. I jolted, tore at the itch with my fingers, found something and pulled it off. Holding my hand up to the darkening sky, I saw the sharp silhouette of a leech wriggling between my thumb and forefinger. My face twisted in disgust. Remembering Rudi’s comment in the morning about the rain bringing them out to feed, I reeled at the significance of the finding. I sat still, daring not to investigate. To do so was to know, and to know was to acknowledge the severity of the situation. I shook my head in denial and disbelief, but as I did so, I felt an overpowering crawling sensation on my legs, chest and back. It was impossible to ignore. Leeches were moving all over me and opening my skin to feed. With a sense of revulsion and impending doom, I lifted my shirt and felt my ribs and under my arms. I moaned in horror.
I was no longer alone. The forest had found me.
Zak listened some more. ‘Ah, this is interesting. The village leaders are asking the logging company personnel who come up the valley, “How can this be your land if you don't know the names or stories of the places?”’
With solemn eyes, he said, ‘Here we see a great difference between Indigenous and Western approaches to land and territories. In the villagers’ understanding, you need a connection to the land to have a claim on it. Land is inextricably linked to cultural identity. A people and their territory are one and the same thing. But in capitalist systems, you can buy and sell land like any other commodity. What might be an ancestral territory to a people or a community is merely an asset on a balance sheet to a multinational company. It’s just a thing to be bought, profited from, then sold.’
‘As an aside,’ he continued, ‘some Westerners ask how traditional communities can have this view. They say it’s bizarre. Okay - but can you buy and sell your grandmother? “I don’t like mine, so I’ll trade her for another one.” Of course not. We’re related to our grandparents. They are not commodities. So Indigenous peoples are related to their lands. Land is not for sale - land is life.’
* * *
Zak looked at me with pensive eyes. His voice had changed; sounding somber. ‘When you read Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, don't think of these guys as Cowboy and Indian cut-outs, but as real people living in the American West exactly 150 years ago, fighting over the very same things we see today.’
I sat up a little straighter.
‘Take this book, change the names of the people and the locations, and you are experiencing the same events: members of capitalistic classes using governmental, judicial, military and religious apparatus to expropriate less powerful peoples’ land and resources. To achieve their aims, they happily engage in forced relocation of communities from their traditional territories, individual and collective exploitation, environmental degradation, and the wilful destruction of culture, languages and spirituality. And all this in the name of the one true god: profit, with a capital P.’
I nodded grimly.
‘And guess how they locked in their advantage once Native Americans were on a losing streak?’
‘Indeed. Treaties: utterly cynical approaches to international relations.’ He paused, his face showing the strain of a man about to tell a long-kept and shameful secret.
Airports are homogenized enclaves of bland internationalism. I looked around. I could be in Sao Paolo, Seoul or Seattle. The place was scattered with ubiquitous coffee chains and clothing stores and buzzed with the fluorescent glamour of duty free shops. I felt like I was in a mall that was being used as a shelter during a zombie war: a luxury lifestyle shopping center where people brush their teeth in the bathrooms and stare vacantly at each other with bloodshot eyes.
As I walked the bleak corridors, juxtapositions reared up like celebrity plastic surgery fails - repulsive and captivating in equal measure. Fashion boutiques displaying images of waif-like creatures stood next to fast food outlets emblazoned with mountainous burgers oozing plasticized cheese. Messages bombarded me: ‘Go faster’, ‘Live longer’, ‘Be whiter’, ‘Use this’, ‘Wear that’. Everywhere I turned, I was being told what I should be, what I should have and where I should go. I wondered how much less self-centered the world would be without advertising. I smiled. And that’s exactly why we have it.
* * *
Truly gifted musicians do not so much write songs as divine them. Like dream catchers, they are attuned to a higher frequency. Sensing a new emotional vibration or social dimension, they articulate songs in rhyme and amplify their meaning through soaring melodies. As with other prophets, Bob Dylan neither lusted for this adulation nor enjoyed the strictures it started to place on his ideas. For playing an electric guitar, he was heckled, berated and called Judas. How ironic, and how singularly Dylan, that he used a profound musical statement to protest and reject society’s attempted confinement.
It’s a shame the way she makes me scrub the floor,
I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more.
I sat back and looked out of the window.
How did I fit into that binary? Was I pushing new boundaries or shouting down the radicals in our generation, labeling them traitors, telling them to get back in line?
Being honest with myself, I couldn’t be sure. Either way, Dylan’s lyrics applied: like the character in the song, I claimed to reject the status quo but remained firmly employed by Maggie’s Farm, Inc.
Well, I try my best
To be just like I am
But everybody wants you
To be just like them
‘Anyway, he’s beautiful and intelligent. I’m addicted. You know, he has lived in Paris. He speaks to me in French. I like it.’ She took a sip of mezcal. ‘We spent last weekend making love and only went out for dinner. One evening we played a game where we thought of all the French words that we use in English, I guess because Los Ingleses -’ she said with a touch of scorn, ‘- don’t have an equivalent.’
‘Such as?’ I prompted.
‘Double entendre.’ She smirked. Then slowly, accentuating each word, she said: ‘Avant-garde, chic, panache, liaison, espionage, sabotage.’ She paused, then added with a raised eyebrow, ‘Agent provocateur, ménage a trois. They’re all very particular, no? Dangerous and sexy.
‘Coup de grace, for example, the final merciful blow.’ She paused, her eyes half closed, her lips in a pensive pout. Then parting them slightly and beginning to smile, she added: ‘He’s teaching me about that. Me encanta. J’adore.’
I let her have her moment, then added: ‘Silhouette.’
‘Indeed, another very particular, beautiful and sexy word.’
I couldn’t agree more. ‘I have another for you,’ I said, ‘Guillotine.’
‘Too true,’ she said, flicking her hair back. ‘He’s married.’
I nodded grimly.
‘But you know what I say, Jackie? Marriage is for quitters. It’s a fait accompli.’ She laughed lightly and finished her mezcal. ‘Otro mas?’ she asked.
‘Sure,’ I said downing the rest of my glass, shuddering as the liquor spiked my soul with a mixture of pleasure and pain.
‘A Manhattan, please,’ I said with a raspy voice.
A man sitting to my left at the bar turned slowly and waited a few seconds before delivering a punch line that sounded like he’d been waiting years to deliver.
‘The first one makes you feel like an angel, the second like the devil himself.’
I turned back to the barman. ‘Make it two.’
The monkey I had securely locked up when I left Cape Town was out of its cage, and sitting very happily on my shoulder.
‘Hmm,’ I murmured as I drank the top off the first one, clenching my jaw as the bitter-sweetness flooded through me. I exhaled a shiver. I wiped my mouth with the back of my hand, feeling the stubble on my chin. I wasn't afraid of this new degenerate state. I welcomed it.
It’s good to feel low, where I belong.
I knocked the first one back in a few deep draughts and let the tide rise. It moved swiftly across the flats and I smiled as the waves met the shoreline, rising to my temples and forehead.
I could have combusted there and then. I felt like dousing myself with the second and setting myself alight, but instead opted for the inner burn. I lifted it and took another healthy draught. It was doing its job. Maybe that’s the attraction of bars. In a world of shabby jobs and complex relationships, alcohol provides beautiful simplicity. You get what you ask for; it delivers with no questions asked. You want happy drunk? You get it. You want a fight? It’s just a few rounds away. I took another slug and held the liquid in my mouth. I nodded in resignation. Time would tell where the trail of empty glasses would lead.
‘It’s good to see you, Tiago. How have you been?’
He laughed. There is time Jackson, he seemed to say, relax.
‘I’m still smiling at life,’ he said. ‘Work is going well because life keeps dealing me hilarity. Still on the comedy circuit, but increasingly I think of myself more as a reporter than a comedian. I can’t help it if life is madcap.’
‘And it’s getting crazier.’
‘In every sense. I have a classic one for you from last night. So I’m at the bar and get chatting to an aspiring model from the Northern Cape; beautiful girl, kind of young, but fun and clearly intelligent. She has sandy hair, these green eyes and her face is super expressive. So we’re getting along and then, bam - she just drops this racist comment and then kind of winks at me.’ He laughed with a sense of disbelief. ‘Jackson, I was like, is she hitting on me with racist chat up lines?’
I took another drag and laughed quietly, ‘Cape Town is a beautiful mess.’
‘That’s what I’m thinking. And then I started to wonder. Man, I bet there are loads of racist chicks out there who want to hear racist chat up lines. Why didn’t I ever think of that before? Pretty, intelligent … and racist. I could imagine introducing her to my folks. “Mum, Dad, this is Andrea. As I’ve told you, she’s clever, beautiful and - as it turns out - a complete and utter racist, just like us.”’ He took both hands off the steering wheel and gave an exaggerated thumbs-up.
I laughed, shaking my head.
He continued, ‘It got me thinking about finding racism, or anti-racism in strange quarters. I came up with this random bit about some hikers meeting a group of West Virginia hillbillies in the backwoods - like the old film Deliverance. The hikers think they'll get them onside with some racist comments. You know, “We’re on the same side, don’t kill us.” But guess what? Those unlucky racist hikers have just met some racist-hating hillbillies.’ Santiago shifted into a southern drawl: ‘Wh-what the hell, seems we got ourselves a couple a racists, some real proper bigots. Hey Billy-Joe-Jim-Bob, look-y here. Seems these fellas' afraid of racial integration. You got a problem with African Americans, there boys?’
I was laughing out of familiarity, out of a love of our friendship and because this one joke summed up countless hours of irreverent chatting we’d done together.
I exhaled. ‘You’re a deviant, Santiago. I love the fact that this is your job, you make money from this … reporting.’
ON CAPE TOWN
ON CAPE TOWN
The plane banked to the left, providing a clear view of Cape Town’s city bowl nestled under Table Mountain. Robben Island, sitting just offshore, stood as a sobering reminder of South Africa’s troubled past and continuing disparities. Cape Town: the city of contrast and juxtaposition; a playground for the rich and beautiful, sparkling with sequins, sundowners and skinny cappuccinos. But underneath the veneer of hats and sunglasses lies the real Cape Town - Kaapstad and iKapa - drowning in poverty, violence, drug abuse and teenage pregnancies. Built by white men whose relentless pursuit for land and subjugation is celebrated in the names of its tree-lined avenues; whose every corner reeks of historical injustice and latent racism like the stench of death after a massacre. And every day, Cape Town’s incredible wealth mixes with unimaginable poverty; people rich beyond the wildest dreams of avarice walk past others deemed worth less than their shadows.
The plane levelled and I gazed across the Cape Flats, an area that was traditionally designated for black and colored communities - the legacy of apartheid’s Nazi-like capacity to integrate unfettered depravity with meticulous planning. Mulling it over, it seemed like Cape Town was a heartless blend of the world’s richest city, Monte Carlo, and one of its poorest and most lawless, Mogadishu.
The Capetonian: Mix a shot each of Monte Carlo and Mogadishu, add a few dashes of entitlement and ingrained poverty and serve over ice-cold social and economic mobility with a twist of drug-fuelled violence. For the flaming variation, add xenophobia.
ON THE SIXTIES
ON THE SIXTIES
'The music emerged from and drove the movement. So when I listen to it, it fills me with all those feelings: the golden optimism, naivety, new love, heartfelt compassion, the horrors of modern warfare and the growing collective anger. It speaks to a kind of lived experience that I don't hear in a lot of music today. I’m not talking about the charts - even the more cutting edge bands. It’s like they are playing good music but - in Sixties' terminology - they’re not plugged into anything bigger than themselves. It leaves the music shallow, just another song floating in the ether. Today people seem to be saying: Look at me. But in the Sixties, people were saying: Look at that! And the things they were pointing out were huge. The era was infused with great musicians who were intellectually curious, and politically progressive, singing-speaking-and-doing in one fluid movement.’
‘I totally agree,’ said Sunny. ‘It’s like what I was saying at the bar. Today it all feels so hashtag: #tokenism, #emptygesture #fakeinterest.
‘Exactly. Where is Jimi Hendrix now? Sorry, I mean #JimiHendrix.’
She smirked. ‘Is he your favorite musician from the era?’
‘Yeah, they’re all exceptional, and made all the more powerful … profound, I guess, by the fact that they were something like feedback; telling the story as it unfolded, simultaneously fuelling it. I like the fact that the music charts the decade’s evolving mood, from the innocence and optimism in the early Beatles’ simple one-two, love-love me do, through to the acoustic protest songs, and on to the later years’ psychedelic rock that culminated, exploded and imploded at Woodstock.
‘Hendrix took it to its zenith in '69 when he gnarled and mangled the Star Spangled Banner, tearing away its candied nationalistic triumphalism to reveal the true nature of the American Dream: greed, intolerance, subjugation and violence. It’s like he became a lightning conductor, a divining rod for the decade’s love and hate, optimism and fear, curiosity and ignorance, hope and rage, expressing it in five minutes of pure epoch-defining purple haze, voodoo child magic. Look, he said: Look. Here is the American Dream, and here is its long shadow in which the depraved annihilate and assimilate with impunity.’