When evolution gave humans their big frontal lobe, things became at once very interesting and decidedly uninteresting. It drove survival of our species into the realm of thought, which is invisible and not at all majestic. But before this, for many species, just biting something was top-of-the-line technology. How did it get that way?

I ask this now because I have just had one of the cat’s fangs plunge all the way into my thumb, and for an instant of white-hot pain I was on the wrong end of the same implements that the animal once used to maim a competitor or to kill food.

Why was my thumb in the way of the cat’s fangs? Apparently even hunters, the pinnacle of million-year refinement, get bronchial infections and need pharmaceuticals. I was trying to pry open the mouth of the cat to insert an eye-dropper full of antibiotics that are supposed to taste like mint, as if a cat cares what they taste like and as if mint were it.

This required trapping the animal in a kind of fake TV wrestling move on the floor. My method was to press in from each side of the mouth with thumb and forefinger until “Lily” couldn’t bear the pressure on her gums. Then she would snap her mouth open and I would squeeze the dropper in the miniscule timeframe in which this had a chance of working. This way I was able to get in a dose of something called Clavamox, which is manufactured by Pfizer in Hyderabad, most of which came back out of the cat straight away. There I sat with Lily gagging health all over me.

Suddenly my thumb slipped into her mouth and into my flesh went the fangs, to the hilt, as I mentioned earlier. The pain was beyond description, a satanic mix of avulsion (when flesh is torn away) and stabbing (penetration with a sharp or pointed object at close range). It is only a cat, yes, but my hand is only tissue and that little jaw can generate pressure well out of proportion to its size.

My hand was now stuck on the cat’s fangs and I was on the floor in a kind of pretzel configuration with Clavamox spraying everywhere and no way to let go easily. The cat was half under my left leg and trying to slink out backward while I was wedged up against the door frame for support.

So I took the natural course of action: panic. Panic is how I chose to deal with a leech attack in Borneo in 2009.  The animal had made its way onto my foot through leech boot, leech sock, and my new cargo pants. I ripped the leech off and my foot bled for four hours.

Now it was a cat’s fangs.

I jerked my hand out of Lily’s mouth and blood came streaming out with no interest in stopping. Lily is a Himalayan. I don’t know what that means except that her fangs are curved, like an Asian upland scimitar-type thing, rather than straight like a European-style pike. So the opening in my thumb was as long as the entire curve of the blade.

I sat there agape at the wound that the cat had just induced in my hand. But then the shock mysteriously evaporated, driven away by fascination at the process that gave this animal rigid, calcium scimitars in its mouth. These were tools aeons in the making, used to puncture, disable and then disassemble a far less well equipped being, all aided by equally destructive hooks protruding from each of twenty digits, and sometimes more if it’s one of those cats. I stared at my hand, transfixed as the blood radiated through the creases in my skin.

Charles Darwin found that when species are successful this is because random mutations in their form accumulated doggedly over immense time scales produce a favorable trait. Something that gives the animal an advantage, like enormous, sharp teeth. Reproduction passes the mutation on to offspring, a process finally mapped by Gregor Mendel in 1863. The offspring benefit from it in the same way that the parent did and in turn pass the trait on to their offspring, multiplying this modification exponentially until they outnumber whatever form of the species it was that initially produced them. Then they themselves become a “species”.

What causes the mutations then? Although environment appears to be the greatest source of pressure on living things, to say that evolution is simply adaptation to it misses the mark. The first life on this planet had to emerge, again, doggedly, from lifeless, organic molecules, which implies chance. The breeding ground was only part of it.

Are mutations then cosmically driven and therefore subject to the imperceptibly slow rate of change you would expect if baryonic matter, that is, the tangible stuff, is really only five percent of all the matter in a universe that has been expanding for 13.7 billion years at light speed at least? In miles that’s 13.7 billion times about about 6 trillion, or an 82.2 with twenty zeros after it.

Remember Carl Sagan sitting in a cave with a Geiger counter saying that cosmic rays from across the galaxy are piercing everything, all the time, including the cells in you and me right now, and that this causes mutation? If this is true, then at what rate? And are cosmic rays the only driver?

One standard answer for why mutations occur is still “errors introduced into the genetic code” as strands of DNA are unwound and strapped back together to make new strands by proteins in cell nuclei. What causes this, then? And why, if natural selection rewards favorable modifications, have successful species gone extinct unless something in their environment made their supposedly superior form unfavorable? Or was it just by more accidents of mutation that they then lost whatever element gave them the advantage and died a death as long and slow as their gradual rise?

What is certain is that somewhere long ago, an animal like a cat was born. It had slightly longer teeth than its predecessors and found that these longer teeth aided the ripping of the flesh of other animals, which put a meal into its mouth, which increased its chance of survival, which increased its chance of producing offspring with the same teeth. Over tremendous time scales these fangs grew into meat hooks, the sabre-toothed cat for example, whose sabre teeth were the key to success. The animal grew large and strong and lived a long time, until something changed.

We’re still trying to answer the question, “Why do living things change and how does this occur?” Current research being conducted in the tropics, where biodiversity is greatest, has found that some species may even be re-evolving traits that they once lost, which dramatically challenges the ‘one-way’ idea of evolution. It is likely that living things retain the genetic architecture that they have accumulated like a journal of this wandering process. Which would make every house cat still a wild predator inside, which seems to argue in favor of random mutation but still doesn’t answer why the mutations at all?

Cut to about 1,500 BCE. Sabre-toothed cats of any sort are long gone and Egyptians are mummifying their descendants. From that point, dispersion of cats as house pets follows civilization mundanely westward through the Hellenes and Latins, down to the animal that shredded my hand at about 9.30 this morning.

When I was growing up (no story about pets would be complete without a “when I was growing up”) we owned a large, black cat with white paws. The unimaginatively named “Sylvester” was the son, among 10 or 12 others, of a feral calico who we took off the street in 1976, called Lola. In Sylvester’s later life my mother would call him “the Thing from the Cellar” because he would retreat to this, his lair, every evening and maul any dog, in our case two extremely stupid setters, that dared poke their giant snouts down the stairs.

Sylvester was the heir of the entire sweep of evolution. But he was the last of his kind. What happened to me today, fang ripping flesh, instigated not by a struggle for survival in the cellar but by the routine administering to a house pet of a tri-hydrate amoxicillin clavulanate potasic something-or-other, was just an outburst perpetrated by an animal named for a flower that I’m allergic to. We’ve sought to administer nature and have rendered her fangs just something not to get stuck into your hand. What will we do with this power?


Last night I had an avalanche of dreams and when I woke I resolved to write them all down, or at least remember them. But as the thoughts of the morning came crowding in, I forgot all but the last two. In the first of these two I was trapped in the basement of an old row house in a dusty, burned out city. I was looking at the sky through the window grate and I was full of regret, or longing, or some other bottomless energy that I still can’t identify. The surface of the earth was heaving like an ocean swell as if a fist below it were punching to get out.

The second dream was quite different, however. I was sitting on a sofa in a dark room desiring to see the “fourth dimension” that Albert Einstein talked about. He said that this was what we perceived as time. In my mind was the scene from the 10th episode of Cosmos, called “The Edge of Forever”, where Carl Sagan is sitting at a desk demonstrating the fourth dimension by holding up a clear plastic hypercube, a rendition of the shadow that would be cast by a four-dimensional cube called a tesseract. This appears as two nested cubes where all the angles are supposed to be right angles. Of course this isn’t possible in our three dimensions so it’s difficult to visualize. All we can see of this four-dimensional cube is its shadow in three dimensions, which just looks like a cube inside a cube connected by some slanted plates. The slanted plates represent the fourth dimension flattened out in our three dimensions. Sagan turns this object over in his hands as if transfixed by something at its center.

But in my dream I was going to see this fourth dimension and, because anything is possible in dreams, I was able to pull a cube, the outer cube of the tesseract, out of thin air between my hands. It took a few tries to get the axes right, and my cube was tinted blue rather than clear.

Once the outer cube was finished I was going to have to do something that I always have to do in dreams when I want to make something impossible happen: I concentrate on it. This usually works. I often use it to fly.

So I stared at the center of the first cube and willed the second cube to appear inside it, in a fourth dimension. But even in a dream I couldn’t imagine what this would look like. A blue blob began to appear but it took no cubical shape. It filled about half the interior of the outer cube, melted outward and disappeared. I should have made the inner cube first.

Einstein’s fourth dimension is simply beyond the capacity of our brains to see. At least for now. But there is another image in Cosmos, an animation of the universe imposed on the surface of an expanding sphere. Which seems like a fine way for non-specialists to understand how space can be expanding. The galaxies are all moving apart on this beach-ball-like thing, which disagrees, incidentally, with what we observe locally: Andromeda and the Milky Way are converging. This expansion is occurring on the largest scales, however, and gravity seems to prevail on smaller scales, but not too small.

This then begs the question, what is the relationship between spacetime and matter in the Cosmos beach ball? Is this expansion a demonstration of Einstein’s fourth dimension, where matter is being dragged along by the expansion of space and time is simply us barely keeping up. If so, where is this dimension exactly? Is it arranged so that it takes longer for it to pop out at us than the other three dimensions take because the speed of light through this dimension somehow isn’t fast enough for it to appear alongside the others? Is time, local time anyway, simply us waiting for information to reach our senses through Einstein’s unseen fourth dimension, which is somehow constricted? (Time across interstellar distances doesn’t seem to need the fourth dimension to arrive late. It already has trillions of miles to cross and it’s only going 300,000 kilometers per second.)

Asking these questions is an excellent way to get agitated, and the Cosmos beach ball animation turns out to be just that. But one thing the animation does do is to help visualize why the universe may appear the same in all directions from all points, an issue that dovetails with the questions in the previous paragraph in no immediately obvious way unless we consider general relativity. If the universe is indeed closed by matter and its ability to warp space, as Einstein proved, yet is also expanding, then perhaps everything that we see, including ourselves, is just enormously refracted – for lack of a better term – through as many dimensions as we can think up to the point where every observer is at their own center. And this is where I lose even myself because I’m not a physicist: Spacetime would be warped differently, in different places, by every conceivable collection of matter, but this would have a net effect. In describing the position of objects, and the time it takes for information to reach them from other things or for information from them to reach other things, we are then limited to up-down, left-right, and nearer-further because, thanks to the shuffle of matter and energy, we are limited to three spatial dimensions in this infinitely twisted loop.

That still doesn’t explain why we got just those three dimensions, though, and if I now go read “Hyperspace: a Scientific Odyssey through Parallel Universes, Timewarps, and the 10th Dimension” by Michio Kaku, which I’m about to do, then I’m sure he can clear things up and my little hypothesis here may become so much pseudoscience. Sigmund Freud probably would have associated my apocalyptic dream with Oedipean tendencies or with the time in 1977 when the neighbor’s boxer bit my face, and would have said it had nothing to do with the Riddle of the Tesseract. In which case I’ve spent 1000 words sorting out little but having tremendous fun being laughed at by general relativity.


August 30, Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysian Borneo

I’m checked into the Step-In Lodge, a backpacker dormitory near the waterfront in Kota Kinabalu. The doors to each level are locked with electro-magnets and if the clerk isn’t at the reception to hear you ring for an opening, you’re imprisoned in the stairwell. The stalls down on the street offer mounds of knock-off shoes and there is a giant shopping mall, Wisma Merdeka, serving Starbucks to bands of teenagers on forbidden dates.

“KK” is a Muslim, island city that looks back across the South China Sea to the Malay Peninsula. It has its own interpretation of modernity. It’s wired for broadband and AirAsia has dozens of flights each day from the Peninsula. But the men swagger more than a little and the women, who are always in hejab, keep to themselves. I make the mistake of ordering a beer at an eatery called Restoran Islam and the waitress shakes her head and gasps, “oh no”.

Kota Kinabalu is the nexus for travelers on Borneo and most passengers from the mainland de-plane here. Mt. Kinabalu, the highest peak in Southeast Asia, dominates the Eastern horizon and on a clear day the Crocker Range is visible to the south.

In about 24 hours I will be entering Maliau Basin, a peculiar indent in the earth deep in the interior of Sabah state. The Basin is 25 kilometers across and the forest cover there represents perhaps the last true, old-growth rainforest in Southeast Asia. The list of flora and fauna supported by this habitat runs into the thousands. Bornean rhinoceros, pygmy elephant, and clouded leopard have all been recorded and there are eight species of the carnivorous pitcher plant.

To the west is Sarawak, the other Malaysian state on Borneo, and notched between Sabah and Sarawak is Brunei, a tiny sultanate built on oil. Although largely developed now, Sarawak still has populations of Penan hunter-gatherers who live several hours inland by logging road. When they do intersect society it’s not to exchange pleasantries. The timber industry invites riff-raff into delicate tribal areas the same way offshore oil invites it into fishing communities and Penan girls are often the victims of sexual abuse at the hands of loggers. Health workers regularly find family groups subsisting on sago palm and the children are commensurately malnourished.

Sabah forms the upper horn of this island world so rich in resources and the Maliau Basin Conservation Area, or “MBCA”, sits along its southern boundary. South of her is Kalimantan State, Indonesia. MBCA is now largely reserved for research, a desperate redoubt in a sea of commercial interests. Maliau has been called “The Lost World”, a reference to a story published in 1912 by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle about a plateau in the Amazon basin where evolution hangs suspended, permitting dinosaurs, Neanderthals and a kind of early Homo sapiens to live side by side.

To get to Maliau I will fly Malaysia Airlines’ local service, MASWings, on the twin-engine Fokker, which would have been better named Shakker, to the southern port city of Tawau. There I will transfer to 4×4 and be driven four more hours on logging roads. As one Australian diver I met here said, it’s “way off the map”. There will be no roads inside the Basin and I will have to travel with two rangers. Communication will be by VHF only.

To make the arrangements, I consulted several strings on Thorntree and all said exactly the same thing: this place is not easy to get to and the terrain is “Hell”. Several Skypes later I had lined up transport and ranger escort. I was originally calling the rangers “guides” but was quickly corrected by the manager at MBCA headquarters, who said “we prefer the term Ranger”. They also required a physical and proof of helicopter evacuation coverage.

 

September 1, Agathis Camp, Maliau Basin,  

 “It was, as seen from this height, of an oval contour, with a breadth of about thirty miles and a width of twenty. Its general shape was that of a shallow funnel, all the sides sloping down to a considerable lake in the center”

-The Lost World

I’ve been here at Agathis Camp, named for Agathis borneenthis, one of the gargantuan trees that thrive in the Basin, for three hours. This is the jumping-off point. There is rainforest all around, or more correctly, mixed dipterocarp forest, Greek for “two-winged fruit”. There are at least 70 species of dipterocarp here. The air is humid and the temperature is 20°C on the forest floor.

Maliau harbors flora with delightfully primordial names like the ‘strangling fig’, a heavy vine that winds itself up the trunk of its host like the threads of a giant corkscrew until the tree dies, falls, rots, and leaves the strangling fig still alive but laying across the forest floor like an enormous spring. Maliau is also very hospitable to leeches. As I walked along a narrow footpath of mossy terrain it was not 10 minutes before I had my first one.

A leech is innocuous and if you didn’t see it you wouldn’t know it was on you. But, where we tolerate mosquitoes, for some reason leeches horrify us. It’s probably their dark, wet shapelessness.

I arrived here this morning from Tawau, a small, boisterous city on the Sulu Sea, where I had flown yesterday from Kota Kinabalu. I was picked up there by the MBCA driver, Bromley, who stood out from everyone else I’d seen in Tawau in that he was tall. In fact he was giant and had a face that, with a mustache and the right sunglasses, could be made to look like the soldier who waves you over at a the checkpoint in places where it’s not entirely certain who operates the checkpoint. He said he had spent time in the military 20 years ago and that his service had taken him to Cambodia, which he still called “Campuchea”. He told me that he would like to trek with the rangers inside the Basin but, at 49, he was now too old. “If they cut the forest down I would leave the area,” he said.

Leaving Tawau on a paved two-lane road, we had passed a collection of corrugated aluminum dormitories behind barbed wire. This was one of the detention centers for Indonesians who cross the border from Kalimantan to work the palm plantations that are transforming the face of Borneo. The palm oil is rendered in colossal plants that fill the valleys with smoke. It is then sent to China. The oil palms are planted by the millions in a grid and stretch over rolling hills nearly all the way to the sea. From the road they look like an Earth-sized set of hair implants. The indigenous people of North Borneo, the Murut, Dusun and Penan, either refuse to participate in, or haven’t been asked to participate in, the desecration of their land and this is likely what attracts the illegals from Kalimantan.

Then, just outside Tawau, the road had abruptly turned to gravel and stayed that way for the next three hours. It was technically a logging road, an ominous contradiction in an area designated for conservation by Yayasan Sabah (the Sabah Foundation), the body in Kota Kinabalu that manages the southern interior forest of Sabah state.

Bromley appeared to believe that the absence of an actual road was no reason to slow down, however, and he admitted that in one round trip from Tawau he used an entire tank of petrol. He told me that eventually the gravel “highway” would be paved to bring more tourists into the rainforest. What they will experience is anyone’s guess. Large-scale tourism would burden the jungle just as badly as would unsustainable logging.

The Sabah State Legislative Assembly created Yayasan Sabah in 1966 to “improve the standard of living and education of Malaysians in Sabah”, endowing it with a 10,000-square-kilometer timber concession. Maliau is at its heart. The implication was that logging revenues would allow these improvements, and they have somewhat. A plaque on one of the observation towers outside the Basin announces that timber has been “very important” to the economy, furnishing up to 70 percent of revenues. But the newspaper also speaks of “timber barons”, suggesting a less altruistic motive. And Lonely Planet notes that only five percent of revenues actually come back to Sabah.

But now at Agathis, all that seems far away. The last 30 kilometers up here, on the Maliau Basin Access Road, a single-track, made it obvious why the only transport up here is by Land Cruiser. As soon as you cross the line dividing plantation and forest you’ve stepped back into the Miocene era. The road is either up or down over steep hills, and tree height instantly triples. This is the only way in legally. Poachers enter on foot through the jungle and, once inside, take whatever game or medicinal herbs they can find. They seek gaharu, a dense, fragrant wood prized on the black market as incense. They carve their names in a tree and then disappear. Sometimes they will come into the camps set up by Yayasan Sabah and ask for food. Rather than drive them away the rangers try to persuade them to give up illegal hunting, but to little avail.

Tomorrow at 7.30 am we will enter a time on earth that humans never new.

 

September 3, Ginseng Camp  

“I could testify that it was full of strange creatures, and I had seen several land forms of primeval life which we had not before encountered.”

-The Lost World

 Borneo is one of history’s chopping blocks and the last constructive influence was Islam 800 years ago. In the 20th century it was contested by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and, famously, Imperial Japanese troops, all against the backdrop of the Raj. When the Japanese invaded in 1941 they turned Borneo into an internment camp. Watching all this from a distance were scattered indigenous groups, the Murut, the Dusun, the fabled headhunters living deep in the interior.

After the war, the northern coast of the island returned to British Malaya. Then Kalimantan, the mountainous south, returned to Indonesia, both with a new sense of statehood. Putting two countries on one island has been less than amicable and accusations of cultural plagiarism fly back and forth across the border, typically over dances, music, and most recently batik, the intricately colored cotton wrap that serves as a global backpacker beach garment. The controversies are erupting into violence in Indonesia and the Star carries reports of vigilantes in Kalimantan and Jakarta seeking out and attacking Malaysian students.

The war and its aftermath never truly came out here except as prisoner marches or downed planes, and it’s not difficult to see why. The terrain simply wouldn’t allow it. We’ve been in the Basin for two days now. I was too exhausted to write yesterday and have spent all of my energy just trying to take in all that has happened. We’ve walked over 20 kilometers. My left foot is a bloody mess from a leech that found its way there after falling out of the folds of my pants as I undid my leggings. There is no electricity here. The generator is down and the night is coming on. If I had to describe where we are all I could say is that we are deep in a ravine, by a river, hidden by the canopy and surrounded by shrieking jungle. When I look beyond the camp all I see is tree and every dark recess contains something looking back.

When we left Agathis two days ago, we climbed out of the foetid lowlands into the cooler air of the plateau. The hardest part came first, which wasn’t the best placement for it. This was the wall of the southern escarpment, 300 meters up at 60 degrees. Here I had to accommodate myself for the first time to having mountainside right in front of my face as we ascended. In some places there were ladders and fixed ropes to get us up to the ridges and in others the path was little wider than our feet, falling away 20 or 30 meters on either side.

About 230 degrees of Maliau Basin, on the west, north and east walls, is circular, but the southern escarpment is broken by a plateau seven kilometers across and covered in lower montane and dipterocarp forest. Then at the higher elevations it becomes all montane and tropical heath, a misty, quiet wood choked with mosses and lichens. The ground is mud, leaves and roots that tangle themselves into a mossy bed thick with humus.

There were three of us, the lead ranger Lawrence, then myself, and after me the junior ranger, “JJ”.  Lawrence looked much younger than his 37 years and kept a brisk pace. He said he came from the Dusun people in the north of Sabah. About the trail he would say, “I prefer going up”, and at every rest stop would nonchalantly smoke a cigarette.

In my pack I had two changes of clothes, my papers, a point-and-shoot camera that proved useless, four packages of noodles, a package of almond biscuits, a tin of Penang curry, several packages of dried fruit, a fork, three flashlights, and an extra pair of shoes. I also carried several handfuls of spare batteries and my toiletries.

Now and then Lawrence would point out branches suddenly shaking violently overhead. This indicated common Borneo gibbon, a larger species that races through the canopy and rarely shows itself. Their call was a quick, low whooping, a warning that there were Gringos about. Immense coniferous trees swayed overhead, their crowns well out of sight. Some of them were over 200 years old, which made them contemporaries of Sir Francis Light, the first British governor of Penang. These trees can reach over 180 feet in height and it is their root systems that hold the mountains in place. That’s why deforestation is literally washing Borneo downriver.

Twenty million years ago Borneo was seafloor until crustal movement lifted it clear. The faults along which this movement occurred now form the Ring of Fire. One of these faults, at the boundary of the India Plate and the Burma Plate, produced the Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004. This same one just let go again off Sumatra too, nearly leveling Padang. The area now forming Maliau then became a river floodplain and this accounts for the layers of mudstone and deposit under the forest floor.

Crustal movement continued to buckle the surface, throwing up ridges and then rounding them into a circle. Then erosion took over, washing out the center and exposing the thick, jagged edges of substrate that we are now scaling. The whole island is in fact still being lifted out of the sea.

This is why Maliau is impassable. Whole sections of crust are falling away abruptly, in geological time. The Murut people live on the slopes of the northern escarpment and, even when they could get in to hunt, would have found it untenable to stay.

The Basin is also an enormous catchment. The flanks slope inward like a saucer, steering water and sediment south. Maliau has its own climate and rainfall is higher here than in the surrounding areas. The runoff escapes through one outlet in the southern wall, the Maliau River. This eventually joins the Kinabatangan River, which empties into the sea near Sandakan, on the east coast. All of the water in Maliau is tinted with tannins leached from the humus on the forest floor and the rivers all run the color of Lipton Tea.

Maliau Basin is true primary forest, the way the earth looked before humans. Walk 200 meters and you will see giant ants, termite nests as large as a sofa, and medicinal plants that have disappeared elsewhere on Borneo. In 1988 scientists discovered a previously unknown Rafflesia plant that had no roots, no stem and no leaves, surviving on its host as a parasite. Its appearance can only be described as urchin-like and bright orange. Maliau is one of the last two places on earth that this ‘plant’ survives now.

Unless you grew up here, unless you are Murut or Dusun and have this place in your blood, entering this environment is akin to a sea voyage. You are no longer on stable ground. Everything about your condition is your responsibility. You are imprisoned in a regimen of just keeping the jungle off of you. You must constantly inspect your clothing for parasites. Shake out your shoes for scorpions before you put them on. Hydrate endlessly. Unpack your whole pack to find one item that is suddenly necessary, a tool or clothing item, and then re-pack the lot.

Last night I ate one of my ramen kits for dinner. Every country in Southeast Asia has its own range of ramen kits complete with flavor packet. In Malaysia this is either ayam laksa, which appears to be for people who like their fish off, or “kari” (curry), which is for people who like their fish slightly less off. The difference in flavor appears to be effected by altering the amount of MSG. Then I tried to sleep, contorted by pain in my feet and shoulders. The journey up onto the Southern Plateau was over, and so was I, nearly. I listened quietly to Lawrence and JJ talking late into the night.

Then today we woke at 6.30 am, washed, cooked, and packed. The air was cool and the ground was wet from overnight rain. A rat had eaten part of my soap. I had my tea, an almond biscuit, and some figs and then we were off to Ginseng, six kilometers due east at the hub of Maliau’s trail network. We struck out into heath forest on a trail no wider than our legs. It was a balancing act just to stay upright while squeezing between heavy mounds of mossy undergrowth. A bright morning sun filtered through the mist and the pitcher plants grew thicker in a latticework pattern, like a spider’s web. We were literally enveloped in growing things.

The trail led east and slightly upward. According to the map we were at 900 meters and headed toward the Maliau Gorge. After about two hours we reached wide montane forest and the air freshened. Here the trees were agathis, belian, and soraya, all colossal and stately.

We were travelling along steep ridges on the eastern extremes of the southern plateau and in the distance I could see the eastern rim of the Basin. After four hours we were at the mouth of a ravine that would take us down to Ginseng.

Then Lawrence stopped suddenly, something he did when he sensed movement in the trees. As a ranger he was trained to count the animals he saw and report this back to the Maliau Basin Studies Center, 20 kilometers to the east. Normally I would never see what he was looking at and would just wait for him to give the signal to keep walking. But this time I saw it. About 50 meters away, high in the canopy, a heavy bough in an agathis tree was shaking violently and seemed to be laughing. Then three red objects shot across an opening between branches. They were maroon langur, commonly known as red leaf monkeys, and had probably smelled us before we had even come over the horizon. Then they disappeared into the canopy.

The sight of wild primates at a distance was actually sharper than seeing them in a zoo because their behavior was authentic. You see them in natural motion with their arms and legs flexing, and in their form you see humans.

Then the trail turned almost straight down on one of the steepest descents yet. My feet were raw and blistered, but down we went. Soon the rush of Ginseng Falls, another of Maliau’s hundreds of waterfalls, came into earshot and thirty minutes later we were in the camp, a collection of stilt houses in a tiny clearing that clung for all it was worth the side of the ravine.

I asked Lawrence why he did this job.

“Because I like to see the wildlife”, he says.

“I like to be in the forest.”

At 37 he was probably older than the average trekker but younger than the scientists who’ve studied the basin. Lawrence was Dusun, a people who now live around Ranau high in the Crocker Rage, which runs east to west across Sabah. That name, Ranau, is infamous beyond Borneo. The Japanese marched over five thousand British and Australian prisoners to their deaths there. There were others sites too, Jesselton, now Kota Kinabalu, and Sandakan, now a place for luxury dive tours. But Ranau was one of the worst. As the Japanese Forces advanced down the Malay Peninsula – on bicycles – the British commander, Henry Wavell, retreated. On Borneo the British were cut off and captured. They were forced to march through the jungle carrying sacks of rice. The marches continued well into 1945 and there are tales of summary executions even after the Japanese surrender.

From prisoner trains to nature treks in 70 years. As we walk, are our legs brushing the same bushes as theirs did? When you’re marching through the jungle with a 60lb sack of rice on your back, no shoes, and a rifle pointed at you do you note that the place you’re marching through is the very cradle of biodiversity?

There are strict guidelines for entering Maliau on scientific business: No taking of samples without permission, and that applies to everything, stones, leaves, wood, insects, and vegetation of any kind, and positively no hunting. One expedition proposal housed back at Agathis Camp stipulated that samples be lodged with Malaysian institutions. Full stop.

Funded by IKEA, the Maliau Basin Studies Center is where master-level students come to learn about MBCA’s rare fauna and flora. It’s a living program with rangers like Lawrence constantly bringing data out of the forest. The rangers are denizens of the Basin themselves and can deduce life from a gust of wind or a falling leaf. I watched Lawrence mimic the sound of the hornbill by placing a leaf between his lips and playing it like a woodwind. And for that instant he was a hornbill.

Tomorrow we will see the great Maliau Falls.

 

 “The big blank spaces in the map are all being filled in, and there’s no room for romance anywhere.” 

-The Lost World

 In 1947, a British airman flying across Sabah came suddenly upon a giant ring of cliffs reaching to 1,500 meters. This was the northern escarpment of Maliau Basin and was still terra incognita. From the air it looked like the edge of a massive, upturned seashell.

None of the extant materials on this event name the pilot and they don’t say why he was flying that route. The only account readily available is in a large hardcover for sale at the MBCA Study Center, Maliau Basin: Sabah’s Lost World, by Hans P. Hazebroek, Tengku Zainal Adlin and Waidi Sinun.

“In 1947 the Borneo Bulletin reported that the pilot of a light aircraft had only just avoided crashing into then uncharted cliffs on the Basin’s northern rim.”

The war had just ended and the interior of Borneo was still unexplored. The Murut people had hunted wild pig and collected medicinal herbs here, and there were records of attempts to build a railway past the southern plateau in 1906, but no one knew the scope of this perplexing geological feature. The Murut named it maliau, meaning muddy, a possible reference to the color of the water according to Hazebroek.

Doyle’s work appeared to have acquired a location. Maliau quickly became known as Borneo’s “lost world”. Sporadic surveys approached the Basin in the 1960s and 70s, and in 1976 a team of botanists tried to enter from the north but failed. In 1980 another expedition was “turned back by malaria and lack of supplies”. Then in 1981 Yayasan Sabah designated Maliau a protected area for “research, education, and training” and finally got a team in.

Hazebroek, Adlin, and Sinun write:

 “Yayasan Sabah dropped off teams by helicopter on the northern rim. These teams demarcated the boundary of the conservation area and cut three helipads, enabling a survey team to go in by helicopter in 1982.”  

To this day Maliau Basin remains only partially explored.

 

I first read “The Lost World” as an adult and felt foolish afterward. It seemed a blast of Edwardian propeller wash about Englishmen in the jungle complete with dinosaurs. Were it not for Doyle’s incredulity at his own characters, his sheer joy at insulting them to their face, the work would be unreadable. Edward Malone, a young newspaperman, is keen to impress his love interest, Gladys, who seems to calculate his worth by how willing he is to risk his life in order to thrill her. To this end he seeks out Professor Challenger, a brilliant but unpredictable scientist and hero of Doyle’s Challenger Series. Malone thinks that association with this volatile personage would provide an opportunity to deliver on Gladys’s wish.

Darwin’s theory of natural selection would have still been heresy and, through Challenger, who communicates with fellow scientists solely in pronouncements on his own superiority, Doyle seems to be suggesting that evolution is only for people so smart that they are in fact deranged by their own intelligence.

Professor George Edward Challenger is wide and short and has has “no neck”. He is incapable of preventing himself from assaulting anyone who doubts his assertions and particularly enjoys hurling journalists out of his office. On a personal expedition he has been to a terrible jungle in the Amazon where flying creatures that apparently aren’t birds occasionally swoop down from a raised formation. He operates on an account by an obscure American traveler named Maple White, who had been to the formation ahead of Challenger and had left sketches before dying in a remote village. Challenger has obtained these sketches and the stage is now set for another expedition.

At a meeting of the “Zoological Institute”, possibly a reference to the Royal Society, Challenger literally causes a riot when he asserts that dinosaurs still inhabit this plateau and, to prove it, proposes that he go back to find this place. Malone is in the audience and signs on as scribe. Also in tow will be Challenger’s nemesis, Professor Summerlee, and the moneyed hunter-adventurer Lord John Roxton, whose job will obviously be to operate any firearms that need operating when the dinosaurs become thick.

For effect, Challenger crosses the Atlantic on a separate ship and reunites with his companions in Manaus. They then travel for several weeks through the undergrowth, sometimes covering a hundred and twenty miles in the span of one sentence. According to the “Indians”, the place is inhabited by an evil spirit, Curupuri.

Challenger’s party arrives at the base of the plateau and a pterodactyl then indeed appears overhead, carrying off a pig that they had just roasted. The party then ascend the plateau and almost immediately spot what they had come for. Doyle’s dinosaurs are gleefully stupid, emitting “a mephitic, horrible, musty odor”.

Challenger and the party are then chased by hideous frog-like creatures, are hunted and imprisoned by a kind of Neanterthal race, and then engineer a revolt against this Neanderthal race by the squeamish, proto-homo-sapiens race that the Neanderthals had been hurling off cliffs for fun. The name Darwin appears several times and Challenger may be referring to him indirectly when, upon seeing the fresh tracks of an iguanadon, says that he had seen them before, fossilized in the “Wealden Clay”, in England, where they had “puzzled a worthy Sussex doctor some ninety years ago”. Darwin lived in Sussex for a time, but not in the 1820s, when Challenger places him there.

Although The Lost World is grade-school, it is still eerily predictive of Maliau. On Doyle’s plateau, “The ordinary laws of Nature are suspended. The various checks which influence the struggle for existence in the world at large are all neutralized or altered. Creatures survive which would otherwise disappear”.

Thousands of environments on earth today bear these characteristics but none so markedly as Maliau. In a time when old-growth forest has been cut into planks and stacked on the shelves of home improvement superstores it’s all the more remarkable that Maliau preserves the last communities of species that hang on the edge.

 

 Maliau Falls, Final day 

 “How shall I ever forget the solemn mystery of it?  The height of the trees and the thickness of the boles exceeded anything which I in my town-bred life could have imagined, shooting upwards in magnificent columns until, at an enormous distance above our heads, we could dimly discern the spot where they threw out their side-branches into Gothic upward curves which coalesced to form one great matted roof of verdure, through which only an occasional golden ray of sunshine shot downwards to trace a thin dazzling line of light amidst the majestic obscurity.”

-The Lost World 

 It’s evening and we’re preparing for the descent of the southern plateau tomorrow, back to Agathis Camp where our journey started four days ago. We’ve walked 30 kilometers. I’ve taken in my washing and have organized my pack, which is hanging from the rafters to deny the rats floor access to my soap.

Today we did an eleven-kilometer round trip to Maliau Falls, a torrent of dark water cascading over seven pools carved over a million years. This was the most difficult terrain since the trip up onto the plateau three days ago. It began with a steep climb out of the ravine containing Ginseng Camp and then proceeded through broken montane forest, before descending into Maliau Gorge. The trail was nothing more than a narrow muddy shoulder etched into the rock face.

The gibbon had decided to send us off this morning with their customary warning. In the right conditions this call can be heard for two kilometers and we had front row seats. Then, just before descending into Maliau Gorge, I unearthed a large black scorpion, not a remarkable event except that we had all been posing for photographs just inches from its lair.

This was on the bald ridgetop forming one of the first helipads in Maliau. It was a testament to the ruggedness of the terrain that this place to land a helicopter was little wider than the skids.

This spot furnishes a famous 230-degree view of the northern escarpment, the only place where you can see the entire curve of the Basin’s northern wall with the naked eye. It is a snapshot of how the infinitesimally slow processes of riverine deposit, compression, uplift and crustal movement created a circle, revealing order in the massive, and massively chaotic, forces churning the Earth’s surface.

Tomorrow we trek nine kilometers out of the basin, back to Agathis Camp. The trail will be “flat, down, flat, down”, Lawrence says. I’m ready to leave. Maliau Basin is meant to remind us how fragile is our situation, and also that it is not for us. Doyle’s plateau in the Amazon only occurred away from humans, hidden by geology and jungle. But we’ve conquered both now, and we throw away the spoils. When Edward Malone returns to London with the story of the century, Gladys has forgotten about him and married a clerk. Challenger unleashes a pterodactyl in the halls of the Zoological Institute and it promptly flies off to an ignominious fate, drowning in the Atlantic.


The jungles of Laos never produced the riches that the French envisioned when they arrived in the late 18th century. The rubber and timber produced some wealth but they were too dearly extracted and the weather swung between extremes. It was foetid, dangerous, and restive. There was some silk and weaving to be had, and minor substances, like dyes and of course opium. But the monsoon turned rivers into mudflows and drenched every living thing. Still, the jungle did produce certain other commodities, particularly, stories of the individuals who hacked a path to infamy through the undergrowth.

With that in mind, on a brief sojourn away from Hanoi where I live and work, I went to view the tomb of Henri Mouhot in Luang Prabang, the small city on the upper Mekong and Laos’ chief tourism draw. Luang Prabang was once the seat of the Lao monarchy before re-forging by the French as a provincial capital in the north. Mouhot was the naturalist and explorer who filled in much of the map as colonial officials cobbled the disparate tribal areas and minor kingdoms of this mountainous peninsula into French Indochina. His agonizing death in 1861, at the age of 35, went largely unnoticed.

Mouhot is remembered for one spectacular feat of exploration: trekking to Angkor Wat when the complex has been all but buried in the undergrowth. He did not discover it, guidebooks are quick to point out. It had never been lost, merely avoided in the aftermath of the wars that engulfed the Khmer and Thai kingdoms three centuries before. Southeast Asian communities take ghosts, most of them war dead, very seriously. The monolithic stone faces staring dispassionately out of the jungle would have only made the memory that much more terrible.

In Angkor, one of the most thoughtfully researched guidebooks on Southeast Asia available, Dawn Rooney pays tribute to Mouhot. He set out from England in 1858 with funding from the Royal Geographical Society bound for “Siam”. From there he made his way to Cambodia and mapped Angkor. He was a scientist and able surveyor, so his expedition was probably something halfway between the standard cluster of Europeans in pith helmets with an army of bearers for the silverware, and genuine scientific enquiry.

Rooney’s book contains the well-known photograph showing a row of men sprawled on the steps of Angkor in trousers, cotton shirts and ties. This is the 1866 Mekong Exploration Commission expedition. Mouhot is not in the photo. He was already dead. But rightmost in the photo is another mysterious figure, Ernest Doudart de Lagrée, whose maps would break open Angkor for the French. De Lagrée’s face is careworn and his eyes sunken, or, more correctly, stricken. Eventually he would fortify Mouhot’s tomb and fix a plaque to it in 1867. Then he too would die in his tracks, just two years later, in China.

From the guidebook I knew that Mouhot’s tomb was 10 kilometres outside of Luang Prabang near a village called Ban Phanom. At the public market I hired a small covered lorry, known as sangthaew, and asked the driver to take me there. The trip to Ban Phanom only took 15 minutes and I realized that, at five dollars, I had overpaid.

The tomb was supposed to be four kilometres past Ban Phanom on a dirt road, then down a steep track, and then 300 metres along the Nam Kan River, a tributary of the Mekong. All the way it was supposed to be marked by signs saying “Mouhot”.

I started walking under a sun rivalled in its intensity only by that of southern Thailand in the dry month of April, and 20 minutes later realised that I was already fouling it up. The temperature was hitting 39 degrees and I had only one bottle of water. The road had no shade and, worse, little traffic. It was just me, the sun and the dust. I have been in Southeast Asia for five years and can verify that the sun in summer hits you like iron. It warps your vision and makes your limbs tremble.

I have a macabre habit of visiting the tombs of individuals who endured severe hardship in distant places. The farthest flung was Ernest Shackleton on South Georgia. I wasn’t there expressly to see his monument, but to see the island, which, if you know what Shackleton underwent there, is, in effect, the monument. I also once had aspirations of seeking the site of Hannibal’s last stand in what is now an industrial city in Turkey called Gebze. Roman agents pursued him there, where he may have committed suicide rather than surrender. But from the bus Gebze didn’t look so welcoming and apparently there is only a plaque inside an industrial park with the defiant general’s head in relief and little more.

The most obscure was Sir Richard Burton in a suburb of London called Mortlake. His monument is  a Bedouin tent rendered in stone. It is eerie and unusual. I had first heard of Burton at university in 1991 in passing. Then, in the university library I had stumbled upon Death Rides a Camel, a 1963 biography by D.A. Kinsley, which I didn’t read probably because of the overcooked title. Seven years later I purchased Rage to Live: a Biography of Richard and Isabel Burton, by Mary Lovell. This one I read.

To anyone interested in travel, the name Sir Richard Burton is instantly familiar. But to generations X, Y and whatever comes after that he is either a wonky actor from the Elizabethan Era (as in Elizabeth Taylor) or just some sir. The real Burton was an officer, linguist, consulate, explorer and spy for the Crown. He is also occasionally referred to as a “sexologist”, although the term meant something very different in the 19th century. He was one of the first Europeans to make it into, and then back out of, Mecca. He confirmed that Lake Victoria was the source of the Nile and in 1854 survived having a spear thrust through his face in Somalia. When he died in Trieste in 1890 Isabel shipped him back to London in a lead-lined coffin and had him interred in his stone tent.

On a blustery day in October I had put myself on the Tube out to Mortlake with nothing but the name of the church where he was buried, Mary Magdalene (though he was not catholic, Isabel had Catholic rites administered), and an A-to-Z. But the London suburbs were a jungle of a different sort and two hours later I was walking around what appeared to be a retirement community looking for the place where the map said Mary Magdalene would be, marked by a cross. There were at least six other crosses, however, and I found all of them, inadvertently taking myself on a tour of every known denomination of Protestantism in Southern England.

Finally, with the light fading, I asked one last time of a family out for a stroll, “Do you know where I can find Mary Magdalene Church?” One of the family, a young mother, suddenly looked at me with a strange glint in her eyes: “You’re looking for the tomb of Richard Burton”.

They directed me down a series of winding paths between garden walls, through gates, and finally to a back road, where I found Mary Magdalene barely accessible behind enormous stone walls. I entered through a wrought iron gate, but the priest was nowhere to be found and the cemetery was locked.

I knocked on the door of the parish house and the maid answered. She directed me to the door of the priest’s rooms and told me he would be out presently if I knocked loud enough. A dog somewhere in the house erupted with very high-pitched snarling. Then a priest, a mild, grey-haired man, came to the door. I told him I had come a long way and asked if I could to see the tomb.

“How far is ‘a long way?”, he asked.

“The USA”, I replied.

“That’s long enough,” he said, and insinuated that donations were appreciated.

He explained that I could not go through the main cemetery gate because that was now permanently locked due to vandals, and I would have to go through the kitchen instead, out the back door, through the maintenance yard and past the tool shed. There I would see the mausoleum.

He didn’t make it clear where any of those things were so just started walking. But it was hard to miss a giant grey pyramid among the gravestones and soon I was sitting across from the man himself, Hajji Abdullah, translator of the Thousand-and-One Nights. The satisfaction was well worth embarrassing pleas to strangers about a neglected tomb in a Roman Catholic churchyard in London. I left one quid on the kitchen counter as I departed, the earlier dog nipping at my heels.

Now in Laos, I was performing the exercise again, only this time under vastly altered political and weather conditions. Laos has always been a battleground, contested by the Khmer, the Burmese, the Mongols and even the Javanese. In modern times it has been ground down into particularly dire straits first under the French and then by American bombs. Now the Lao labour under a crumbling kleptocracy that used to be vaguely communist and is now just vaguely nothing. Vietnam clearly influences defence, China is buying up the timber and cars with the logo of the United Nations Development Programme abound in upscale tourist towns like Pongsavan, near Plain of Jars.

After thirty-five minutes urging myself on, I came to a sign, “Mouhot”, and assumed I had found it. There were mountain bike tracks from people clearly much smarter than me. My clothes were sopping with sweat and I felt the first signs heat exhaustion.

Down I went into the jungle, and was at the river in a few minutes. I began walking along what looked like a track on the riverbank. But this eventually tapered out into nothing and I surmised that either no one had been to this tomb in years or I was in the wrong place.

It was clear now that I was in snake territory. There are cobra in Laos and numerous lesser serpents that may or may not be poisonous, which equals poisonous when you don’t know what you’re looking at. Then I came to a bamboo shack with discarded clothes on the floor and thought I had probably wandered into a smugglers camp and was likely being watched by someone holding a machete.

Now I turned around and walked back about 100 metres. Then I turned around again for no reason. I realized that delirium was setting in. I decided then that I would go back to the road and hitchhike another two kilometres, and if that didn’t do it I would hitchhike back to Ban Phanom and ask the sangthaew to take me down this road until either the road stops or we find Mouhot, who was clearly not on this path. It was good that my wife was not there because if she were she would be assisting the smugglers in administering whatever sort of procedure they would be performing on me with the machete.

Back out on the road, my reasoning that snakes were part of the population was confirmed when first I saw the glint in the sun, then the head and then the whole body of a medium-sized grass snake freshly run over that morning. These are not venomous. Then there was another snake. And then about 100 meters later I saw an item that is indeed venomous, a scorpion, happily flattened on the road.

Then a ride came along and took me what was probably a kilometer, to a construction site  (here I discovered that the road I was on was not named). I enquired after Mouhot and tried to make the shape of a coffin with my hands, even mimicking death by sticking my tongue out, tilting my head unnaturally and squeezing my eyes shut. A worker there proceeded to tell me in perfect English that he “didn’t understand English so well”. I headed back out on the road and found another ride, this time back to Ban Phanom. It had now been an hour and half.

Dawn Rooney says this of Mouhot’s death “His last journey of the region was an exploration of uncharted territory in north-eastern Siam and a survey of the Mekong in Laos designed to fill in the blanks on maps made in the 17th century. Mouhot continued his work until 1861 when he contracted a fever and died at Luang Prabang in Laos at the age of 35.” My guidebook noted his last journal entry: “Have pity on me, O my God.” The “fever” was malaria.

Back in Ban Phanom, my driver, whose name I now learned was Noi Noi, was dusting the fender of  his sangthaew. I told him, “I want to find Mouhot”. I expected a blank stare.

“Oh! Moo Hoo!”, he said, and proceeded to take out a tourist guide with a map to the exact location as if he picnicked there regularly. It was three kilometres, or about two miles away. I had stopped one kilometre short.

“One-hundred thousand kip,” he said ($11).

“To go three kilometers?” I said. “I’ll give you thirty thousand.”

“OK”

The Khmer and the Cham, predecessors of the modern Lao, built thousands of magnificent wats right across Southeast Asia. But rapid, unsustainable growth led to rapid decline. Mongols, Thai and Burmese sacked what they could and left the rest to crumble. In Collapse, Jared Diamond also surmises that  Angkor Wat used up all its water. Today the Lao still cultivate the stone face of the ancients, always regal, never belying emotion. At other times they are jovial. Bargaining with them is a joy. You just come in at about a third of what they first quote you and then count up in fives until you meet halfway.

They can be aloof, however, perhaps owing to the heat. Yet they don’t practice outright obscurantism like the Vietnamese, whose favourite word is “No”. Nor are they so parsimonious. They are Animist, Buddhist, or just disinterested and are generally referred to as “laid back”. They can be imperious, however, particularly over social protocol, and do sometimes seem to suffer the little emperor syndrome (something they share with the Vietnamese). There is an expression in Vietnam, “the Vietnamese plant rice, the Cambodians watch it grow, and the Lao listen to it grow.”

Now Noi Noi and I were off to finally pay our respects to the man buried in the jungle one-hundred and fifty years ago. In about nine minutes the sign, “Mouhot”, hove into view with the Tricolor above the name. I observed also that the reputation of a sangthaew driver is not built on speed.

I clamoured down the riverbank and found the track. In a few more minutes I saw higher on the bank a large, white sarcophagus with a fake elephant rearing its trunk from the trees behind. I walk up the path and regard the last resting place of Henri Mouhot, the first French do-it-yourself tourist to Angkor Wat.

The sarcophagus is stately. It would look at home in Montparnasse, where Charles Beaudelaire is buried. There is a plaque on one end placed in 1990 by the people of the town in France where Mouhot was born, Montbeliard, and the one placed by Lagrée on the side. The only sound is the river below, the song of Laos. There is a small meadow, some benches and a statue of a haggard, bearded man in bare feet and a linen waistcoat. This is him. I snap a few shots of the tomb from different angles.

Perhaps Mouhot’s death and interment were too far from his home. We can’t know the discomfort these people endured, nor what was in their minds, nor what drove them on to such punishing expeditions. We are simply not like them and their memory seems as hard as the blank faces of the Lao. The tomb does have a peace about it, like a jungle encampment where the fire is out and all of the party are sleeping. I head back to the road and to Noi Noi the Accidental Guide feeling the earned exhaustion of a trudge through the heat to one of the rare places that make Southeast Asia so mesmerizing.

Year of the Rat

March 24, 2009


This post is not about AIG or Bernard Madoff, although it should be. It is about a rat that lived under the sink in my kitchen, until one hour ago, when I caught him, stuffed him in a bucket, and threw him into a lake. But now I’m wondering why I did that.

The animal made its presence known three days ago when I came downstairs and witnessed him scurrying across the living room floor toward the kitchen and then disappearing I couldn’t tell where. It was a smallish rat, not like the mammoths you see in the sewer grate or at the seashore. It was about the size of my hand and moved somewhat arrogantly that first time, prancing strangely across our simulated hardwood. He seemed clean enough and not so belligerent, though, so I only mentioned it to my wife through the stairwell.

“I don’t want to kill it,” I said.

“Can’t we get some of that sticky stuff to catch it and just peel it off?” said my wife.

“No. That kills it. It crawls across the sticky stuff and its feet get stuck. Then it dies there. Do you want to peel it off?” I said.

“And I don’t want one of those (I made the snapping motion of a standard rat trap with my hands). That’s disgusting.”

We discussed asking the maid to go buy some kind of have-a-heart trap, and then realized the folly of that notion considering the place we live. We reside in Vietnam. Hanoi, to be exact. There are rats everywhere. They walk around in broad daylight eating garbage and sneering at pedestrians. When the Vietnamese catch a rat they throw it into the street where it is immediately run over by 50 Honda motorbikes. The body is macerated instantly and by afternoon has been ground to molecules.

I had grown used to rats long before coming to Hanoi. They were particularly prevalent in another crowded city where I used to live, Washington, D.C. Only in D.C. they just flitted about momentarily and spent most of their time in the Metro trying to figure out how to get up to DuPont Circle through the drains. Here in Hanoi, rats are just another denizen, part of a seething mass of living things drifting through space on a wayward planet. They figure heavily in East Asian lore and aren’t always bad. This is, in fact, the Year of the Rat. I asked a friend with six years in the country why rats are even regarded in Asia. She said, “because they are highly intelligent animals”. That’s not to say they are kept as pets. But the Vietnamese have resigned themselves to the fact that there will always be rats.

The one now inhabiting my flat, however, would have to go. I had visions of the maid crouched on the stove, saucepan in hand, screaming and whapping the countertop to bits as the animal danced below. I began to survey the possible routes of rodent ingress and egress under the kitchen cabinets and under the refrigerator and devised a model for trapping the animal that would be touchless, instant, and in compliance with the tenets of nonviolence.

The next day, a Sunday, there was the animal again as I came downstairs, travelling the same route, from the living room toward the kitchen. Only this time I visually confirmed that it had gone under the refrigerator, which is actually outside the kitchen, next to the kitchen door. I located my Maglite in the lighting equipment drawer of the dining room hutch and peered behind the refrigerator, where I saw the rodent looking impassively back at me.

Rats are not pleasing to view at close range. They have black eyes that lend themselves too much to the animal’s reputation as vermin. By now I had enlisted my wife to help throw some yellow curtains, long balled up in a cabinet, around the base of the refrigerator. The curtains had come with the flat and we had taken them down straight away.

I peered in from the other side and confirmed again the rat’s presence. Only this time it squared off into the light of my torch and actually made to leap out the very opening I had made to look for it. I recoiled and closed the gap. My wife and I then went out to run some errands and discuss strategy. When we returned, the rat was gone.

The next day I called the landlady, who sent someone to squeeze caulk into the opening under the sink where I believed the animal to be entering and exiting. That made the house smell like caulk. I asked, “Since it always retreats in the same place under the cupboards, shouldn’t we nail strips of wood over those places?”

“But what if the rat dies in there and starts to smell?” asked the rat-catcher-caulk squeezer, who wasn’t a real rat-catcher-caulk-squeezer, but the landlady’s brother.

“I still want something here,” I said.

He nodded yes, which, in Vietnamese, means “no”.

We dined that night unconvinced and were confirmed when I came downstairs one last time before bed to see the rat picking at a small sack of rice that we had placed two shelves up on our uninspiring wood and metal dining room hutch. The animal could scale sheer surfaces! It bears mention here that we don’t really have a living room or dining room, but one space of about 50 square meters with dining furniture at one end and living furniture at the other.

Again the rat shot under the kitchen cupboards near the sink. The caulking had trapped him in with us, or us in with him.

This morning was quiet. I reconnoitered the kitchen. I would take it upon myself to savage a spare piece of shelving, saw it into strips with my Leatherman, and drive the strips into the openings under the cupboards. Note: The locking mechanism on a Leatherman is designed to behead your finger if you try to force it.

But this would trap the animal under the sink and starve it there or it would trap him in the open where I could descend from above. He had been about in the night. I saw that a bag of coriander seeds had been chewed open, the seeds shelled and only the soft flesh inside them devoured.

It took two hours to erect my barricades. Morning passed into lunch and lunch passed into after lunch. I knew the animal was there. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw him leap across the counter. I quickly exited and shut the door, put on my shoes, a pair of ski gloves, and my bicycle helmet (visor down), and covered every bit of exposed skin. I wrapped an orange scarf around my neck and collected the blanket, which I would use as a rat net. This blanket is red and sits on the sofa. I’m not fond of it because it’s too red. I then sealed myself inside the kitchen and seized a pair of tongs so that I looked like a bike messenger on the way to a barbecue in winter with a red blanket.

When the rat saw me he scaled the edge of a mirror behind the wine glasses to the top of the cupboards. In two lurches I was up on the counter peering at him. He was under a polished stainless steel Martha Stewart fry pan that had been on sale at Macy’s. Immediately the tongs became impractical and I jettisoned them. I attempted to get him in the blanket instead, but failed. He then skirted the cupboards to the other side of the room and tried to hide under a set of nested plastic salad strainers.

I caught my breath and pounced again. Still the rat was too quick, and here I saw something that terrified me. The animal launched himself from the cupboard and flew eight feet to the kitchen floor just like Voldemort. From high above I saw him frantically searching between the cracks of my barricade. But I had built it too well.

Now we were sparring on the floor. He led me on two circumnavigations of the space and I momentarily despaired that he had an emergency exit somewhere in the door frame. Then there was another terrifying demonstration. He positioned himself in front of the lower panel of our corrugated aluminium kitchen door – not corrugated aluminium like on the roof a tool shed, more like an indoor kind of nice kitcheny corrugated aluminium - and crabwalked right up it, gripping microscopic ridges left in the aluminium at the time of forging. On his face was a look of utter focus, if rats can be said to have a face.

Now the rat was just running to run. The vertical walk up the door required all of his resources and I hurled my blanket at him, knocking him to the floor. Even with my blanket on him he managed to wriggle free once, but then he seemed to tire, and fell. I closed my hands around him like a spider and stuffed him, blanket and all, into the bucket. The only thing visible now was that hairless tail.

I removed my protective uniform, put on my Ray Bans, and went out into the street carrying my bucket. The route would take me about 200 meters out to the small lake in my neighborhood. This is the same lake that John McCain had parachuted into before they put him in the old Maison Centrale, a.k.a. the Hanoi Hilton.

At the water’s edge I positioned the bucket between my feet with the mouth pointing seaward. I held a corner of the blanket tightly and whipped it over the water. The rat flew out sideways and sunk so quickly that I thought maybe he had suffocated on the trip over and was just dead. But then he surfaced a meter or two offshore, paddling out into the stream like a tub toy. I watched him out to the middle of the channel hoping he would reach the far shore. He swam fast for an animal with sticks for legs. But then there was a gust of wind and the waves took him.

I walked home. The house seemed somehow diminished now, too quiet and too clean. The animal had brought activity to a mundane life and had given our minds something to grapple with other than how to get Microsoft Word to automatically put the same margins on all bulleted lists. We’re still jealous of our place at the top of the taxonomy and will not countenance anyone from below. This hairball of an animal with a small brain had taken three days to catch, and even then it was never certain until I had him stuffed into my red bucket. Victory now mocks me, King of the Rats, and I am no happier.


 

The rain is coming on harder and black clouds are bearing down. I see a cleft in the rock ahead, and beyond that what looks like a chasm miles across and bordered by mountains. A sign announces “Frontier Area”. We pass through the cleft and the slope falls away to the valley floor. We are motorbiking in Ha Giang Province, pronounced haa-zaang, in Vietnam, along the Chinese border, and we’re on the road too late. I’m traveling with three colleagues from Hanoi, Koen, Noortje, and Jan. We are on Минск, or Minsk, the Belarusian two-stroke with an engine like a meat grinder. This is the it-bike for the haul up into these mountains to see an isolated world that can leave you wordless.

Unlike Sapa, which is heavily staged, this area is off the tourism radar. It is almost entirely mountain tribes, mostly H’mong. The situation is delicate and access is still restricted ostensibly to preserve tradition but more likely due to mistrust in Hanoi. Though this area is physically on the Vietnam side of the border with China, the people belong to neither society and the two countries only just agreed on the actual demarcation. Foreigners still need a permit to be here.

The faces up here are not angular, as with the Kinh film stars you see in When the Tenth Month Comes and other Hanoi cinema from the postwar era. (When you say “Vietnamese” you are really referring to the Kinh majority, pronounced king). These mountain faces are more Chinese, rounder, and poorer. The government calls these people ethnic minorities and tourism promoters call them hill tribes. They watch foreigners impassively, as if from a perch their thoughts. With eight years in the country and a Vietnamese wife, Jan has a theory: when the Mongols invaded a thousand years ago they left behind more than burned villages.

The H’mong are subsistence farmers and tend what seem like endless terraces cut into the mountainside, sometimes to the summit. They can be cantankerous, and two young women bolt up a hill and into the bushes when I try to photograph them. But then others queue up, smile, and wave. The women wear heavily embroidered dress with colored panels that denote sub-group. They wrap their legs in thick bands of cloth and walk everywhere on paths or alongside the road. They carry infants in slings across their backs and, when they are not ferrying children, fix massive bundles of greens, firewood, or maize to themselves and start walking to market.

There are children everywhere and in the remote family areas along the mountain paths the younger ones go naked from the waist down. Housing is mud huts and bare wood houses with dirt floors. If the American War came here at all it didn’t visit in the same way that it visited the South. But French missionaries did come here, and then French garrisons, which were supplied by the same roads we’re now transiting.

We traveled out a day ago from Lao Cai, the terminus of the northern railway. The train had dropped us off at 5:00 am, when we were woken by the conductor walking the passageway and rapping his keys on the door. When we stepped onto the platform in heavy morning mist we realized we were travelling with about 500 French, Australians Germans, Dutch and the odd American now bumping and nudging each other in one great mass in the strange half light before sunrise, all bound for Sapa.

The crew had deposited our bikes on the platform with no petrol; it had been drained off before loading in Hanoi as either a safety measure or convenient source of fuel for the rail yard staff. Minsk are simple, robust machines of 125 CCs and they smoke like chainsaws. They were imported into Vietnam in the Soviet era as farm equipment according to the service manual of the Hanoi Minsk Club, which holds a drinking binge that doubles as a rally every spring for 150 riders. The bikes are easy to come by for anyone who wants to own a piece of Soviet nostalgia in one of the last communist states. The Vietnamese don’t quite know what to make of it.

With bags strapped onto rusty, miniscule racks behind our engines we had set off  by six o’clock. The mist burned off and gave way to sun and breezes, revealing a riot of verdant slopes and wooded ridges. It seemed like everything, the streambeds, mountaintops, even the meadows were terraced and cultivated with rice. We entered valleys on steep, winding roads and at one point I saw, far off to the north, paddy above sheer cliff. The H’mong had terraced right to the cloud line.

Koen had been here before. As an irrigation specialist trained in the very necessary Dutch science of controlling water, he was helping mountain communities build waterworks. Two years ago he wandered into Ha Giang without a permit and was immediately sequestered at his hotel. The police questioned him and could have arrested him or put him on the next train. But they let him stay one night on the condition that he remained in his room and left the next morning. He later learned their cold comfort was to guard against American “missionaries”, possibly a reference to the old US habit of trying to turn the H’mong against Hanoi, as if they needed help. When they left him that night they locked him in his room.

Koen’s partner, Noortje, is a migration specialist with the International Organization for Migration (IOM), a UN specialized agency founded after World War II to resettle refugees. As Asian economies have developed, the promise of increased wages is driving young people away from home for better livelihoods in the city. This internal migration has swollen the cities, burdening already scant social services and firing activity in the underworld. Human trafficking to Cambodia, Taiwan, Korea, and China is rampant. China has a deficit of females due to sex-selective abortions favoring sons (a result of the one-child policy), and poor Vietnamese women fall prey to traffickers who promise work or marriage if they come to fill the gap. They are then sold into abusive “marriages”, sweatshop labor, or sex work. Some flee back to Vietnam on foot, afraid for their lives. The Vietnamese authorities are policing the issue, but the networks are well-organized and often ignored by local officials. Some trafficking rings are even headed by women. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has been able to present repatriated women, victims of this trade, to tell stories of virtual kidnapping and sexual slavery. Some of them no doubt came from these mountains.

Last in our party, Jan, a giant Dutchman with an equally giant voice. At our first coffee stop I saw him sneeze a giant Dutch sneeze that caused a small group of schoolgirls passing by to start in terror.

Always moving northwest, we had continued deeper into the mountain passes. In a small city on a ravine called Hoang Su Phi we passed men in Mao hats and others in berets. They were taking their rice wine at breakfast and smoking their tobacco from the traditional bamboo water pipe, a dieu cay, living elbow to elbow. Breakfast was chicken pho, pronounced fuuhh, the national morning meal. We pushed closer to the border, up against a last shoulder of even higher peaks hulking overhead, the only wall in Asia that keeps the Chinese out. Behind us we were leaving a trail of oil smoke as we wound around ravines and along ridges, the straggler, usually me, in a permanent exhaust cloud. My eyes burned and my lungs ached and I came down with a roaring headache.

In Ha Giang City we secured the permit we needed to legally be there and the authorities told us we must have a guide as well. They referred us to Nam, an informal agent of the start-up motorbike tour agencies in Hanoi, whose job appeared to simply be present whenever a foreigner turned up on a motorbike. He insisted that we were all going too slow. Night was coming on and our next waypoint, Dong Van, was still a long way off.

 

Now, about 25 kilometers out of Ha Giang, we’re on the plateau 1000 meters above Dong Van, literally in the clouds. We cut through the cleft, which another sign announces as “Heaven Gate”. There are many of these in the world; this one deserves its name. (There are many Hell’s Gates too, only they’re not marked.) We enter the valley, wider and deeper than the last. It’s raining harder now and the last of the daylight is behind us. I see the outline of a more easterly arm of the range forming the border. It is everything I envisioned of Asia after reading Kubla Khan, the shadow of a floating mountain world blurred to the senses by mist.

Here you understand how far you are from the life you know. The scale of this particular opening in the earth is far beyond that of ordinary lowland valleys. And trudging up and down these slopes are trains of H’mong, Dao, Lo Lo and countless other tribes, all hidden from the world. Their nature differs from village to village. Some are hard and unsmiling, others outgoing. They defy the one-place-one-culture model.

Hanoi is trying to populate this area with Kinh, however. They make up 94 percent of the population in Vietnam and are settling in villages strung out along the road, each one a little Hanoi. There are cafes and restaurants, all cramped and grey. There are karaoke bars and shops selling all manner of mundane item from knock-off clothes to flimsy bicycles to the patently inedible Choco-pies. I see a sign for Vinaken, Vietnam’s answer to Heineken but wrought in Coca-Cola red. It’s all the material of the new consumerism. There is TV in English. Trucks barrel along these roads working the highways under construction, which will eventually bring easier trade with China.

This area is becoming vertically stratified with Kinh at the top driving cars and buying satellite dishes, and minorities at the bottom subsistence farming, building the buildings, or working the quarries. The settlements also establish a presence along the border so that when China looks south it sees more Vietnamese faces then it expected.

We make Dong Van just as the light fails. It’s a telling outpost of the new expansionism with one hotel operated by the People’s Committee and the ubiquitous public announcement system reeling off pre-recorded polemic literally past midnight. On the menu, sautéed pig’s heart, an omelet, fish, and green beans. (Pig hearts are also used for transplant in humans, which I now wish I didn’t know.) Finally there is the obligatory bottle of rice wine infused with bits of the chief local crop, corn. All over Vietnam localities have their own cuisine. One facet of this is rice wine, which always incorporates traces of the local crop or some other incongruous item. But different villages also put in things that are definitely not from the local cash crop, like snakes and scorpions. None of it makes the final product particularly appetizing. You drink it for the strangeness. It tends to make you violent, perturbed, nauseous, or all three. Only the late-middle-aged men drink these things, often until they are unable to prevent themselves from singing. There is supposedly a jar of rice wine in Hanoi with a bear cub in, and elsewhere there is talk of pickled monkeys staring out from inside the glass. The manner of distillation is probably akin to that for making biogas.

As we leave Dong Van the next morning a policeman approaches and motions for me to irrevocably hand him my Ray Bans. I conjure my best perplexed look, quickly put them on, and rev my engine (which until now I have despised) to a fever pitch to shift the mood. In the pause we drive away and I will later come to learn that when a policeman in Vietnam signals you to stop, you never do so.

This day we ascend to 1500 meters. My clutch hand has hardened into a permanent grasping gesture. We file along the slopes passing baggage trains of Black H’mong. Then we are in a town with an old French armory called Meo Vac. Lunch is a table full of local meats. There is su si, literally, sausage. It’s dry, spicy, and rich, cured to the point of being tangy. There are also bowls of fresh pork rind and a famous local “black” chicken, which is “very good for the health”. After three-and-a-half years in Vietnam I have heard that said about nearly everything.

We travel 220 kilometers in one stretch, nudged right up against the border under a leaden sky. I notice a change in the people based on altitude: the higher we go, the more they smile and wave. I wave back with my clutch hand, which can now only affect a kind of Papal blessing. We end with a 50km dash in the dark through deep valleys swarming with flies for our last night before the marathon back to Hanoi.

 

Looking south to the gathering forces of modernization I see more clearly than ever that the Kinh are still searching for their nation and squeezing the minorities deeper into their mountain realm. This is post-modern nation building on virgin ground. Villages have the inevitable national flags, a gold star on a red background, the symbol of oneness. Propaganda posters laud new factories and billboards glorify the worker-soldier-farmer triumvirate. But the ideal up here is still to resist change. They’ve been flogged with that word for centuries, always by flatlanders. Ultimately our foreign motorbikes will carry us past miles of idyllic scenery and then take us back to the city, the Kinh will eke out an existence in their own settlements, and the H’mong will still sleep on wooden platforms long after we’ve gone.


 

I live in Hanoi and I commute to work on a folding bicycle. If you’ve been to Hanoi recently, or have seen it in the news, you’d probably say that this is tantamount to suicide, and you’d be correct. As Asian cities develop, the streets are literally becoming impassable with motorbikes and cars. Infrastructure is not catching up because public funding rarely goes where it’s supposed to, and each day more and more people stuff themselves onto roads that are not growing to accommodate them. They regard red lights as electric things next to the road that make a nice color as they blow past.

Or there is Bangkok, which doesn’t suffer so much from planning malaise as from a penchant for directing eight-lane motorways through the city center at ground level. This creates too much space, which invites another problem: when there is a freak instance of open road, cars immediately accelerate to triple digits as if it were possible to go faster than the earth is spinning and get back to where you would have been were there no initial delay. (By the way, none of this is researched or fact-checked. I live it.)

The air pollution is beyond belief in all of these places. At major intersections here in Hanoi the fumes actually distort your vision like the heat off a desert road and I once saw a lorry driver roll down his window and vomit for lack of real air. Public transport is too little too late and in most cases just makes things worse particularly because city traffic authorities buy used busses from developed cities like Seoul with diesel engines that have already done several hundred thousand miles.

Riding through the middle of this is me on my ‘folder’, offsetting at least one person worth of crowding and carbon monoxide. I would like to stop being a minority, but how do you tell people who have been poor for centuries, attacked, invaded, colonized, and ruled by despots that just as soon as they get enough cash in pocket to improve their lot with personal motorized transport, they can’t because the West has already brought us to the brink?

The history involved in answering that question is far more than any folding bicycle ever asked for. The Indochina Wars proved the volatility of the region and it’s not an environment conducive to high-minded talk of saving the air. The French colonial era (and I’m already omitting 1,000 years of Chinese occupation before the French) gave way to World War II, which, in Asia, was exacerbated by a policy among the last French governors of stifling any sort of civic processes. Then there was a brief Japanese occupation, which sparked a famine in Vietnam. East Asia, except for a few Islands of British hegemony like Singapore and Hong Kong (and a de-fanged Japan under US control), then devolved into communism. Then came the US war. Then communism failed and a flagging Soviet Union had to prop Vietnam up with subsidies, which it promptly withdrew in 1986, forcing the country to quietly go capitalist.

No one’s quite sure how it’s all being governed now. Assume all of the above minus the Soviets. That leaves an absolutely gigantic mass of people, 85 million by last count, trying to make sense of their world, make a little money, and enjoy themselves for once. What does that mean in terms of trying to get more people on folding bikes? These people were already riding bicycles because they had no choice, until, again, 1986. (Remember all those photos in the news magazines in your parents’ attic, of young women in ao dai dress pedaling through the rice paddy?) Then came the US’ and other bilateral trade agreements, and with them the fleeting prosperity of today, which people demonstrate by buying a motorbike or car. Most Vietnamese would just as soon never be seen on anything with pedals again and there is virulent disdain among the nouveau riche for real peasants in their conical hats, flooding onto the cities, hawking tomatoes from rusted, brakeless bicycles that may very well have been the bicycles in those photos.

The average age in Vietnam is around 30 now, they are more highly paid, and they love expensive European things. Even though they still live at home with several generations of the family, they will spend all of their money on a five-thousand dollar Vespa just to be seen on Saturday night. But there may yet be a way to make use of having entrained 85 million people in Western consumerism. I do see more folding bikes each day, although people still think they’re for children, paint them bright colors, and install plastic spoke covers with lightning bolts or racing stripes on them. I want to believe, however, that these kids will grow up and remember their folders fondly, and somehow in this spun-around world, associate them with reduced carbon emissions.

A lot has to happen first, however. Like broadcasting the message in awareness-raising campaigns that motor vehicles create harmful emissions and bicycles don’t. The United Nations Environment Program, IUCN, WWF, and some others are tapping young people too, and they’re finding that there is a healthy respect for sustainable development. It’s just a sprig now, and survives on foreign funding, but it is there and the Vietnamese will probably go along with it as their cities are increasingly flooded during the monsoon by rains that even they have never witnessed in thousands of years of living next to a shallow, warm sea.

Last autumn Hanoi had its worst flooding in 20 years and I saw, for the first time in my life, a drowned person. It was in a small lake in my neighborhood that had overflowed, by coincidence the same lake that John McCain had parachuted into before they put him in the Maison Centrale, the ‘Hanoi Hilton’, also called Hoa Lo Prison (which now has an office tower financed by Singapore at one end and a museum with a refurbished guillotine at the other).

The key is to get people to see that their personal transport is the place to start. They haven’t reached the stage where they are asking themselves what effect the gasses coming out their tailpipes have on their own air, and that would be the natural place to insert folding bikes. But, again, style is everything here and while images of chiseled Dutch tooling to work on their bikes in Amsterdam may exert some kind of influence on the psyche of the emerging Asian super-class, it still isn’t as cool as a pink Vespa.

So I take it one commute at a time. I ride my Dahon, made, ironically, here in Asia, through the middle of the traffic jams and people get a kick out of it. The bike advertises itself and people treat me better. They recognize immediately that it’s practical. I notice that they don’t actually look at me, but at the frame.

But will folding bikes ever have a meaningful opportunity to prove themselves amid the mind-boggling urbanization? Based on what I’ve observed, yes. It’s already nearly impossible to get through intersections on a good day and permanent gridlock is not far off. And re-design of a city’s entire transportation infrastructure is simply not feasible yet for governments that are just getting traction after decades of hardship. In which case, if you ride a folder, continue riding through those traffic jams wherever you are. In a hundred years they’ll call it a revolution.

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