It was the fall when I first flew out to the North Cormorant. It was one of those flights which you caught in Aberdeen, took a fixed wing to the Shetlands, did the rest of it by helicopter. The platform was halfway between Norway and the Shetland Islands in the North Sea. I had no idea that I would spend six of my next twelve months there.
There weren’t many who survived falling into the North Sea. There was one on the opposite shift from us. He was a roustabout named Neil from Barra, an ex fisherman. The circling survival ship got him, two miles from the rig, in a gale, at night. You might say he was very lucky. He was supposed to be dead after ten minutes from hypothermia, but when they picked him up after twenty minutes, all he said was, “Gee, thought I was a goner”.
The companies screwed Neil around for years after that. I used to see him in the Aberdeen pubs. He hit his leg on the way down that night, wasn’t fit to work. He had been walking along, hit a spot where someone had left the grilling off the deck. The companies didn’t want to pay for his time off.
There were stories that some companies had tried to charge guys for their issued rig wear when they were in a chopper crash at Sumburgh, in the Shetlands.
Graham was a roustabout on my shift. The roustabouts could work their way up to the drill floor to work as a roughneck or they could work their way up to boss of the roustabouts on the deck. Some got their crane operator papers. They were guaranteed jobs as bosses of the roustabout crews.
Graham wanted to work as a roughneck on the drill floor. He came up from the deck, relieved all the roughnecks to get the experience. He took the taunts, jokes and insults on the drill floor until his bafflement subsided. He learned the names of the tools and the procedures we used.
He was a young guy who lived in Oban. We became friends, planned the next trip for a visit to the west coast. We piled into a borrowed Volkswagen bug, drove to Oban.
Oban was a tourist centre in the nineteenth century for the English and rich Scottish. It still welcomed tourists and was the home of a fishing fleet which specialized in shrimp.
Graham’s friends were shrimp fishermen who arrived onshore soon after we landed there. We drank with them for days. They were doing a more dangerous job than we were. They went out in the treacherous waters, for ten days at a time, in small boats, with no safety. They made good money, but they were thankful to return in one piece.
Chingy, Graham’s best friend, was up on charges of assault. One night, in Ullapool, the Russian fleet sat offshore. Chingy heard that one of the local girls had been attacked by a Russian trawler man. After enough drinks in the bar, Chingy found a Russian, kicked his eye out. It was more of a local tradition than an international incident. Chingy would be prosecuted some time in the future. He said he could handle jail time.
The fishermen gave me a running commentary on the females as we sat in one of the bars on the local circuit. They pointed out the ones they had “rode”.
Graham’s phone calls were taken at the Oban Hotel. His own flat was bought and paid for by money he made poaching from a fish farm. He said his ancestors had been hunted by the English and often dodged “mantraps”. I had no idea what he was talking about until I read the books Brodie lent me.
Brodie was big Bob. He was, like Graham, a Highlander. He had a mechanical engineering degree, but came to learn the hard way. He was earmarked by the drilling company to follow the usual sequence of roughneck, derrick hand, assistant driller and driller. From there he could become a toolpusher and a company man. At that level, the money and perks were very good. It was a long, hard road, but he wanted to do it honestly.
The problem in the oil patch is that a university education only equips a person with the theoretical side of drilling. The old veterans with little education and a lot of experience were being replaced. Their wisdom was being lost.
Brodie and I pulled slips, threw tongs, took our turns riding up and down on the riding belt in all kinds of weather. He lent me The Highland Clearances and Culloden by John Prebble upon hearing that my father’s mother was a Ross.
I found out, talking on the drill floor or reading the books, that the Scottish suffered as much as the Irish in the nineteenth century. I learned that a man trap was exactly that, a trap for a man. They were a kind of leg hold trap designed by the English and rich Scottish landlords to kill or cripple poachers like Graham’s ancestors.
Brodie took a trip, by train, across Canada in the middle of our time on the North Cormorant. He visited my mother in Ottawa, stayed at the youth hostel which used to be the jail. All he had to say to me, when I saw him again, was that I was a “bad bastard” My mom figured I went wrong right after I started to play rugby.
Davey was the derrick man I shared a bathroom with. He lived on the island of Mull, tied his own lobster traps. He said his kids used to call him “the lodger” because they saw so little of him. His wife ran a B&B in their house.
Construction workers, guys from way across the rig, nothing to do with us, used to show up at the cabin just to see Davey’s forearms. At first, to me, he looked like Popeye. His forearms were extra well developed.
When it was my turn to “go up the stick”, Davey was my teacher. I had done a little in Alberta. I was scared up there, ninety feet above the steel floor. Davey came out on the monkey board to help me as I struggled to haul in the ninety foot collars and lengths of drill pipe.
I had the security of the thick, leather belt, tied to the derrick by four ropes, the belly buster: he had nothing. My leg trembled uncontrollably when I waited for the block, dog bones and elevators to rise to my level.
I was concerned for Davey’s safety because he was always laughing so hard. He would do a Groucho Marx imitation of me in the smoke room later, illustrating to the boys how I looked handling pipe on the monkey board. His rear end stuck out, he put a hand like Groucho’s out, flicking ash off a cigar.
Davey’s other duties consisted of keeping the pumps running and the drilling mud to a certain viscosity. He, and no one above him, ever missed the chance to tell you how great it was not to have to put up with the abuse which the roughnecks did. They crowed and preened about it until the guy above them rubbed their noses in it.
Davey was Bob, the rig electrician’s, brother in law. They would see me covered in diesel based drill mud or soaked from the weather or paint. Bob would say, “Stevie yer a midden”. He and Davey would laugh as Davey did his silent Groucho impression for Bob.
Alan was the assistant driller, from Dundee. He was everything you wouldn’t expect in a rig worker. He was short, had a pot belly and a partially bald head. He would tell me I had no manners when I looked at the paper over his shoulder in the change room before the shift started, crack the filthiest joke, in the same breath. He was a little crazy. You came to see, after a while, that he was given a wide berth by his bosses on the rig.
Alan had the easiest job on the drill crew. He bossed everyone around, except the driller and the toolpusher. He did little, himself. He was at the point where his knowledge became more important than his physical effort. He loved it.
Our crew sometimes stopped work because we were laughing so hard at the antics Alan got up to on the drill floor. He could imitate Rick, a Canadian toolpusher who relieved sometimes, in such a hilarious parody of confusion, that everyone would be doubled over laughing.
When there was slow drilling or some other delay, Alan wandered around talking to everyone. The motto on the North Sea rigs is, “If it moves, grease it, if it don’t, paint it”, so Alan often found the roughnecks scrubbing, painting or greasing. He would give a few unnecessary orders, just hang around. He could tell you about the gangs of Dundee settling their differences with shotguns and then sing the lyrics of every one of Paul Macartney’s songs. Alan threw a couple of the bigger roughnecks around the change room when they challenged his authority.
Alan was the only guy on the crew who didn’t take the time to call or visit me in the Aberdeen Hospital. I almost lost my eye, scrubbing down the drill floor walls, had to be medivacced to Aberdeen.
The Kiwis, whose couch I was using at the time, snuck a couple of pints into my room. Most of the North Cormorant crew visited. Alan, I was told, shook his head,
“I never go”
It wasn’t because we weren’t friends.
On one of the visits by the Kiwis, we asked a nurse what all the kids were doing outside the window. She explained that, for some reason, psylopscybin mushrooms grew in great profusion on the lawns.“We ‘re always chasing them away” she said.
Ronnie was the boss of the roustabout crew. He was from the old part of Aberdeen. He could translate for Bill from Buckie, up the coast. The man sounded like he had a mouthful of marbles, when he spoke. It took me the whole trip, when I returned, to figure out what he meant when he asked, “How’s yer een, Stevie?” I later found that “een” meant eyes. He was asking about my eyes.
Ronnie worked on deck directing the cranes, foreman of the roustabout crew. He began relieving the roughnecks, eventually worked his way up the derrick. We met when he took me up to the blocks on a riding belt, him on the air tugger which controls it.
I had still not gotten used to the damn riding belts. There was no such thing in Alberta. Roughnecks weren’t expected to go up every time a derrick man threw a pipe across the derrick. In the North Sea it was standard practice.
Ronnie was just getting used to the drill floor. Whether it was because he had a plan with Alan and Chris, the driller, or because he wasn’t used to it, he gave a fast jerk on the air tugger handle, sent me thirty feet upward by the belt.
I wore the belt around my waist, under my rump. It was attached to a quarter inch cable which ran through a shiv at the top of the hundred and twenty foot derrick, back to the drum.
The worst thing you can do in a riding belt, is to hang onto anything. It still keeps going up. Nothing slows its progress. You turn upside down, with your hands grasping something, while your bottom half rises above you.
Ronnie caught me by surprise. I stood adjusting the belt and the grease gun. I was ascending to grease the blocks. I lost my hard hat, panicked when I shot up in the air. Ronnie mouthed an apology as he lowered me to get my hat. Later, he said he hoped we weren’t going to have words over the incident. I looked at his big arms and open smile, laughed it off.
Chris was the driller from Newcastle Upon Tyne who was often bent over the brake handle, helpless with laughter at the jokes on the drill floor. On a trip onshore, a dentist told him he was getting “a little long in the tooth” when he looked at his receding gums. Chris tried to cut down on the snuff and chewing tobacco after that, but we were all addicted to it, he never quit.
Chris had worked his way up the ladder. He could do any of our jobs, if he had to. He wasn’t as cruel as other drillers and toolpushers. They often popped the pipe, full of mud, on the roughnecks or made green hands crawl into filthy spots to clean, during down time.
In Alberta, there are certifiable sadists running brakes, working as drillers. There are (unshared) bottles of whiskey awarded to drillers whose crews make hole the fastest. To these drillers, men are expendable.
The last I heard of Chris was in a pub. Somebody said that he went home unexpectedly, caught his girlfriend in bed with his best friend. The guys on the North Cormorant never saw him again. They tried Chinook flights from Aberdeen to the North Cormorant and the surrounding rigs, but the helicopters were too big, the headwinds too strong. The smaller, one bladed choppers, which they went back to, were not staffed by the smiling British Airlines hostesses which the Chinooks had. They were less safe and comfortable, but faster.
In a wet phone booth in London with a Scottish girl and tickets to Paris, I made the phone call which ended my year on the North Cormorant.
It was the fall when I first flew out to the North Cormorant. It was one of those flights which you caught in Aberdeen, took a fixed wing to the Shetlands, did the rest of it by helicopter. The platform was halfway between Norway and the Shetland Islands in the North Sea. I had no idea that I would spend six of my next twelve months there.
My first offshore rig job was on the Piper Alpha. I didn’t know it at the time but the Piper was one of the biggest, oldest, most profitable production platforms in the British sector of the North Sea. I emerged onto the helideck from my first chopper ride with the wide-eyed feeling you tried to hide on your first trip offshore.
I had time to dump my duffel bag in the cabin they assigned me, get some pairs of coveralls, a bag of gloves. It wasn’t a normal crew change. I was replacing a guy who got hurt and medivacced off the night before. I started a twelve-hour shift with a crew of three other roustabouts and the crane driver, Kenny.
I was bunking in with Kenny for an unknown reason. Normally, the four roustabouts, alternating twelve hour shifts, shared cabins with their opposite numbers. Mine was a bottom bunk in a room of crane drivers. Kenny was the boss of the crane drivers. I was replacing a guy on his crew, so we slept and worked at the same time.
My first job, on my first shift as a roustabout, was dumping fifty-five gallon drums of radioactive shale into the sea. I watched the roughnecks shovel the shale into a drum on the drill floor. In addition to their usual coveralls, they wore outer suits which looked like rubber. It was supposed to be protection against the radioactivity in the rock that was coming out of the hole. Because of the work on the drill floor, the protective suits were shredded and torn, hanging off the roughnecks in strips. There was an engineer running up and down the catwalk with a crackling Geiger counter. Roughnecks, in the smoke room, joked about watching their appendages fall off.
The smoke room provided breaks in the twelve hour shifts, scenes of laughter, boredom and rage. When you were new, they tested you. They tried to scare you, probe you, disturb you, wind you up. Then they sat back, chuckled at your reaction. The Scots were masters at this. It seemed to be a racially imbedded talent. All done in good humour, anything for a laugh.
During one of those breaks, soaked in mud and oil from relieving the roughnecks, I listened to one the veterans talk. He looked around the steel room, at the walls.
“You could put your fist through the legs of this old piece of shit. If there’s ever gonna be a disaster in the North Sea, it’ll be on this old piece of shit”
I didn’t think much about it at the time. I laughed like everyone else.
There were moments in the next years when I did think about it, though. His words came back to me on other rigs, as I was getting cozy in a bunk. Exhaustion, food, a hot shower, warm inside; outside, a gale blowing between the Shetlands and Norway. Nights like that, I remembered, had a shiver, as sleep descended. Was it just another trick to scare a green hand? The old guy who said it, didn’t laugh.
By the time the crane brought the first drum down from the drill floor, I had been told what to do by the man I relieved. When the crane driver lowered the drum, I gave him a signal to stop at the right spot so I could tip it over the rail, while he held the weight.
As I tipped the first few drums of shale over the side, I was thinking about the wisdom of dumping radioactive rocks into the North Sea. Who would believe me onshore, who would care? There was no point in complaining. This was the job I’d tried so hard to get. What choice did I have? Pack my bags and wait for the next flight on the helideck?
So when the drums of radioactive shale descended from the sky, seawater pouring out of holes in the sides, I dumped the grey, flat pieces, hoping they wouldn’t poison anything.
The Piper Alpha, like most platforms, had big cranes on opposite sides of the deck. The deck held all the pipe and equipment needed on the drill floor. Almost everything brought on board was moved by container. Supply ships filled the deck with steel containers which had to be stacked on top of each other, for lack of space.
The roustabouts, one with a radio on the same the frequency as the crane driver, landed the containers and pipe.
The crane driver moved back and forth between the cranes, depending upon the load, where he had to pick it up, where he had to land it.
A night shift, on deck, in a North Sea gale, wasn’t a good time to discover that Kenny was near sighted. The remarks weren’t made by the other roustabouts, as I suspected, to try to scare me. In the black and white shadows of the big, swaying lights, in the horizontal rain, it was an unwelcome revelation.
Kenny’s cranes lifted tons of steel from the decks of bobbing sea going tugs, up over the sides of the platform, across containers of different heights. They said that it was his perspective which was bad. On those stormy nights, when it was hard to see and he was tired, the best tactics were to find the spot the container was supposed to go, do your best to signal him, get out of the way. You always looked around for an escape route, in case he didn’t see you. Your greasy rain suit and slipping boots didn’t help when you were being chased across the container tops by steel boxes, in high winds.
What could you do about a crane driver with bad eye sight? Everyone knew about it, but no one seemed to care. Kenny was Kenny. He was a fixture, no one had been killed or crushed yet.
During my time offshore with Kenny and the boys I did little except eat, sleep and shower when we weren’t working. On occasion, I lay half asleep in my bunk, while Kenny did business with visitors from all parts of the rig.
I had long ago given up trying to sort out the dialects of the British Isles. Many of the thousands of offshore workers were from Northern England and Scotland. The money to be made on the rigs, for fishermen who were risking much more, for no guaranteed income, drew the coastal Scots like flies. Since they were sailors to begin with, they knew about ropes, knots, shackles, hard graft in the rottenest weather. It was understood that they would prefer to fish rather than this, but their fishery was in trouble, they had families. The oil business, like the British army, was happy to recruit there, because they knew the value of the workers.
The industrial cities of Britain all sent men to work offshore. There were men from the islands and from small farm villages. There were ex military men as well as merchant mariners driven off their decks by containers. When you mixed in some Aussies and Kiwis, you came close to Babylon when they all spoke fast, at once.
Many of Kenny’s conversations took place while I was in the cabin but were unintelligible to me, though I heard them. The language was impossible to understand.
Kenny, was a partner with another crane driver in a pornographic video scam. He got videos for the rig. Probably he was selling them to individuals, as well.
I laid in my bunk, reading, when a conversation about videos took place. It was business talk with a group of guys, about a week after I arrived. By then, Kenny judged me to be safe to have around. He knew that I was only there till the end of the hitch, I’d probably never be back.
On this old rig, the crews were pretty well set. The company had a seniority list they’d use if the injured man didn’t return.
As they left the cabin, one guy told me to keep my mouth shut by zipping his lip. I nodded. He left with a smile.
What was I going to say about it? I had enough problems surviving the twelve hour shifts. We were a hundred ninety kilometres northeast of Aberdeen in the North Sea. Like dumping the shale into the ocean, it seemed a necessary compromise. I did the job, kept my mouth shut, in return for good money and experience offshore.
The first step in working offshore was to get experience. It was the first thing they asked when you applied for a job. When you had worked offshore once, you were ahead of the game. There were piles of applications for the jobs on each company’s desk. It was the classic catch – 22.
The Piper had two theatres. There was a regular theatre, with comfortable movie type seating, where they showed contemporary movies. They even had a guy outside the theatre with a request sheet on a clipboard. If you wanted to request a movie, they’d try to get it.
The other theatre, with the same interior, was strictly for porn. Kenny had a connection, through the supply ships, to Denmark, where they manufacture a lot of porn. He got every kind of porn.
I tried the porn theatre one night. I didn’t like it. There were forty or fifty guys sitting together with their hands in the pockets of their accommodation coveralls, watching endless sex videos. Living for two weeks with three hundred men was bad enough. That just made it worse. I went to bed.
Kenny and his boys were busy. To supplement the porn enterprise, they were stealing from the containers. Word was, there were cartons of cigarettes and booze stashed all over the rig.
As the roustabouts and crane driver landed containers on the deck, they tried to place the ones for the galley as close to the accommodation as possible. There was even a small deck outside the back door of the galley where some containers could be landed. That was supposed to be the end of the roustabouts’ and crane drivers’ dealings with those containers.
Certain sealed containers were locked by Customs and Excise. They were opened only by the galley boss, emptied into the galley by the stewards. There was no drinking allowed offshore but at Christmas each man was allowed one beer and a cigar. It varied from company to company, rig to rig. Who knew what the bosses got shipped in? Teetotallers became very popular around Christmas time, offshore.
The Christmas I was there, Kenny’s gang, the other crane driver and some roustabouts, managed to land the special containers at night, break into them, steal the booze and cigarettes. They had a system of ripping off the containers, stashing the goods, blaming it on the cooks and stewards.
I didn’t know anything about it at the time. It could have happened on a shift when I was working. There were jobs all over the rig to which Kenny could have assigned me to get me out of the way.
There were no fire drills when I was there. No one knew if the evacuation procedures would work. The platform kept pumping oil, one hundred twenty thousand barrels a day, everybody made good money, the company was happy. The British government collected five hundred million pounds a year, in revenues, from the Piper Alpha.
When my hitch ended on the Piper, I took the taxi from the heliport to the warm Aberdeen pubs to have a drink with the boys, say our goodbyes.
I met one of them, a few years later, in Aberdeen. He had left the Piper, was working on another rig, like myself. He told me that the police had finally raided the platform, searched lockers and the rest of the rig from top to bottom, found all kinds of contraband including a working homebrew still. Some guys lost their jobs, some were charged.
I assumed Kenny would have been fired. But, sometimes, guys like him never get caught. Even if he did get run off of the Piper, it might have saved his life.
A few years later, I was in Ottawa, trying to deal with my mother’s Alzheimer’s. It was a major change after what I’d been doing for the past twenty years. I picked up the paper outside of the apartment we shared. The headline read, ‘153 missing in rig disaster’.
Two hundred, twenty-seven men, including construction workers, were working the night shift or in their bunks. The ones inside the accommodation, near the centre of the platform, were killed immediately by the explosion and shaft of fire, which sucked up all the oxygen. The ones working their shift up on deck, were lucky. One survivor said, “It was a case of over the side or die there”. They jumped seventy metres into the heaving, black North Sea. Some were rescued. The emergency procedures didn’t work, nor did the lifeboats. As for the spark which ignited the leaking gas, a welder’s torch was suggested, but it could just as easily have been a guy having a smoke where he wasn’t supposed to.
Some of the men I worked with were on the Piper, that night. There were stewards, cooks, office workers, even a few roustabouts, who were lifers on the platforms. They said goodbye to families and friends, went off to work for two weeks at a time, for their whole working lives. Two weeks off every month beat a nine to five. The money was good, there were no expenses at work except tobacco and toothpaste. Your bed was made, your laundry done, there was good food, all you could eat every day, prepared by professional chefs. Many guys got addicted to it. They couldn’t work any other way. The longer you did it, the harder it was to leave. Those crews packed their bags for that two week trip in the summer of 1988, said their goodbyes, never came back.
The final count was 164 dead.
I was leaving Matala with Anne and Thomas, the dedicated communist German from Ulm, who owned the French Peugot which elevated and lowered its suspension at the flick of a switch. He and I had argued about communism and democracy for a week every night in the taverna. My strongest argument, the one which he couldn’t answer, was to ask him where all the communist travellers were? Why was he the only one from a communist country who was free to travel where he liked, do what he wanted?
Thomas’ idealism was admirable. We agreed, at least, that the rich, communist or capitalist, were still screwing the poor. He owned a car and offered me a free ride to Iraklion when he learned I was leaving.
Anne was leaving Greece, too. She was from England, I was heading for London. She had seen me around Matala, decided to accompany me.
I collected the drachma which were saved for me by my boss, Costa, the young, local godfather in Matala. He gave me an allowance each week, kept back a portion of my pay. I worked on various construction jobs he had, was hardened, tanned and strong when he paid me off.
He held back a bit for himself, just to make sure everyone knew who was the boss. If he hadn’t saved some of my pay for me, we both knew I would have blown it all.
The ferry from Iraklion to Piraeus was boring and uneventful. Just as well. After living for six months in Matala, on the southern coast of Crete, never leaving, it was a slow emergence into the outside world.
One of the most embarrassing occasions in my life occurred just then. I had the crabs. I got them in Matala and was at the stage of exterminating them which required sexual abstinence. There was to be no carnal contact, not even snuggling, in case of infection of another and a rebirth of the cursed bugs. But I was ashamed. I was too embarrassed to tell Anne.
God knows what she thought.
Anne had lived in Matala long enough to know that I wasn’t gay. She was attractive enough, the ex girlfriend of a guy who was the grandson of Robert Graves, the poet.
But I passed up perfect opportunities and situations which thrust us together. You don’t get much closer together than when you hitchike together. I had recently been through hell, living in my makeshift tent in the campground, scratching at myself. I wouldn’t have wished it on anyone. But I couldn’t bring myself to tell her.
It was bad enough telling Costas and the boys in Matala. They all took a step away from me.
Costas wrinkled his nose when he asked why I didn’t tell him sooner. Later, he admitted that when he got them, he separated himself from his family home and friends until he got rid of them.
After a few smog filled days in Athens during which we were treated as fair game, ripped off everywhere we turned, we concluded that the air fare to Britain was too costly. There was an election on in Greece, something catastrophic was happening in Northern Europe, living in Athens, even on our skimpy budget, was too expensive. Reaching London could be done, cheaper, by hitching most of the way.
Anne was fighting with her parents, proving her independence. She could easily get the required air fare home but refused to make the call, thereby signalling to her family that she was dependent upon them.
I thought she was crazy.
A guy seemed to meet us in Brindisi, when we landed in Italy. He appeared, smiling like a long lost brother, gave us pizza and a room for the night, ostensibly, for free. He finally demanded payment in sexual favours, from Anne, but too late. By the time he sneaked away from his wife, it was morning and we fled.
On the motorway, heading north, it was easy to see why veteran travellers advised always to hitch with a woman in Europe. Even eighteen wheelers with full loads stopped for women.
The first big rig which came by, skidded to a fishtailing halt, up the highway. The driver didn’t care about the truck, the load or the other high speed traffic.
We had travelled most of the day when he caught me dozing, told me to climb into the bed behind us. Everything looked fine. I gratefully passed out in the bunk after Anne and I oohed and ahhed over the pictures of the driver’s family.
I wasn’t expecting to be awoken by Anne’s kicks as she scrunched herself up against the passenger door and yelled at the driver. We were shocked that the friendly family man was so intent on groping Anne that he nearly ran the big Volvo off the road.
We got him to pull over and let us out.
The next driver who picked us up in a big rig on the freeway which runs up the spine of Italy, showed us his automatic revolver which he pulled from under his seat.
We were thinking furiously, Anne prodding me in the side, our eyes glued to the weapon as he casually handled the pistol while driving. He explained, near the turnoff to Milan, that every truck driver who stopped in Milan carried a weapon to defend against hijackers.
He smiled, checked out Anne’s body openly, when he let us off at a truck stop. We clambered down from the cab, grateful for the lift, glad to be getting away from his aura of danger.
Anne and I finally separated in a train station in Switzerland. By this time we were barely speaking. I was irritated at her stubborness. She was frustrated at our slow progress.
I didn’t have anything to prove to anyone so she seemed, to me, to be involved in a frivolous game. I had given up hope that she’d call home for money enough for two flights back to England. The Greek bread had hardened in our packs. We could barely afford coffee and chocolate bars.
The tension between us grew every hour.
We stopped, at night, in the little station where we got some sleep on benches, warm and dry When we awoke, we were greeted by backpackers with English accents who got along famously with Anne and onto whom she latched. She went their way and I went mine. We were glad to part.
I headed for Shaffhausen, on the German border. In Matala, some of the German visitors had given me addresses and phone numbers for places to stay and jobs. If I could get into Germany, it seemed worth checking out. My resolve to reach London didn’t waver, but I took a detour. It seemed logical that I should see a little of Germany while I was so close. Some of the jobs were even on Canadian bases.
The Alps were truly breathtaking. Some of the rides were with young, Swiss natives who pointed out that the idyllic scenes in the postcard mountains contained, in reality, many poor people struggling to get by. The underside of Switzerland was obvious to them, never explained to the tourists.
When I arrived, I called the number I had in Shaffhausen, knocked on the door of the address I was given, but there was no response. I stayed around for two more days but never found anyone.
I couldn’t find a youth hostel in Shaffhausen and I couldn’t afford a room so I used the only shelter I could find, a public toilet, in a park. The place was clean. If I laid in a certain position I could manage a few hours of sleep in the glare of the all night lights.
I waited, for two days and nights, walking around, looking at windows full of displays of Swiss chocolate for the tourists, living in the public restroom, eating my loaf of bread with the last of the jam I had carried from Greece.
Finally, I couldn’t wait any longer. I approached the border crossing between Switzerland and Germany. The early morning traffic was travelling slowly, I got a lift with a young businessman who lived in Shaffhausen, crossed the border, every day, for work, in Germany.
The German border guards ordered me out of the car, searched my pack, studied my passport, ordered me to take off my cowboy boots. They studiously examined the Greek sand which fell out, presumably for drugs, counted my little wad of American bills, rejected me.
I had to shoulder my pack and walk back across the border beside the line of cars going to Germany.
The Swiss guards shrugged and laughed when they saw me.
“Germans” they said with a gesture that was meant to explain that they were as baffled as I.
I consulted a map, took the rest of the day to hitch to Basel.
On the side of the highway, at an intersection, I talked to a hippie looking couple who were hitching in another direction. They said they had slept in a park last night, had awoken to find food and coffee in the grass beside their sleeping bags.
Through Basel I would get to France, then England. If I had stuck to my original plan, with good luck, I’d probably be there by now.
The day was ending, darkness approaching, the sky spit rain. I stood on the side of the freeway outside of Basel, watched the lights of the comfortable houses, wondered how many cities I’d stood outside of, how many hours I’d spent waiting for lifts on freeways.
Then Bernt stopped.
At first, I thought he was gay, picking up a hitchiker in the dark. But his simple reason for helping me out was that once, on a motorcycle trip around Germany, someone had helped him out. He asked only that I do the same for some other stranger when the opportunity presented itself.
Bernt took me home to his comfortable, modern apartment, let me use his shower and phone.
I called Canada to borrow a little money. It was sent by American Express. It meant nothing in Canada, the world to me.
Bernt and a friend wined and dined me. We ate and drank in the tavern which Hermann Hesse frequented while he wrote Steppenwolf. We ate Swiss rosti, drank wine, tried to remember which parts of the tavern Hesse described in his book. Perhaps from outside the window.
They took off for a weekend, left me with the house after Bernt showed me his copious wine cellar.
I used the Basel trams to get my money from the American express office, left Bernt a thank you note and hitched to France.
From Basel I was lucky to get a lift all the way to Strasbourg where I stood on the freeway with my thumb out until a funky looking, old, walk-in van pulled over and picked me up.
The driver was French, returning from Poland where he worked with Solidarity to press for democracy. The paintings and slogans which decorated the van were encouragement to Solidarity and its cause. He had installed a finely tuned, powerful engine in the old van. He laughed at the system the Poles were overthrowing as we sped toward Paris.
When he let me off at the suburban metro station, I consulted my address book and called Frank.
He had given me his number when he visited Matala, insisted that I call him if I ever got to Paris.
I spent the next few days in Frank’s family’s expensive apartment.
Frank, a handsome blond Frenchman, was an expert in judo. He had trained for most of his life, had awards, could truthfully say that it saved him once when he was attacked by a gang in a metro station. He was about to join the French army. Frank had lots of girlfriends.
We sped around Paris in someone’s car, visited expensive restaurants and cafes. Of course, I started out nearly broke and that finished it. I thanked Frank and hitched to Calais.
One way of avoiding the fare from Calais to Dover and London was to get a lift with a trucker. I canvassed the truckers I saw waiting for the ferry. There were dozens of big rigs heading to London. Most of the drivers wouldn’t risk picking up a hitchhiker because of the travelling insurance inspectors. I was looking as desperate as I felt.
Finally, a driver with an English accent told me to wait by the dock, then to get into his truck, quick, while he was loading. That way, he passed the custom inspections before picking me up.
Once we rolled onto the motorway, he checked the mirrors, installed me in the cab so that I couldn’t be seen from outside. He told me of his life driving regularly all over Europe. He worked shifts which allowed him some time with his young family in the north of England. He let me off with a cheery “Good luck” at the southernmost tube station in London.
By the time I reached Rob’s co-op flat in Finsbury Park, I was exhausted. I had been thoroughly shaken out of the dream I had lived beneath the Matala moon.
We sat around his kitchen, drinking tea, reading newspapers, one drizzly morning. That was when I found the article on the shortage of rig workers in Scotland.
Matala is a small fishing village on the very southern coast of Crete, between Africa and Greece. It is famous among travellers like the route from Australia to Europe is famous. By the time it is listed in the travellers’ books, it is old and well known.
I was staying with Rob, a friend from Canada, who lived in Finsbury Park, worked at the London zoo. He mentioned that ”beneath the Matala moon” was in the lyrics of ‘Carey’, that he’d had a good time there when he’d gone in the past. This was all the direction I needed. I had always liked Joni Mitchell’s songs.
My first memory of Matala was waking up, hung over, a dog barking near the fence. I felt around my sleeping bag, couldn’t find my passport or traveller’s cheques. There was a guy cowering by the fence. He had them. His name was George.
George was frozen to the spot, quaking in fear, confronted by a big, hostile German Shepherd named Cello. Harry was Cello’s owner. He was a big Dutchman with a mullet, a FREE SONNY BARGER sleeveless t-shirt, big muscles. He liked to push people around.
Harry had seen Cello trap George as he ripped off my stuff. He was up early, making a coffee in his trailer, just outside the wire fence of the camp grounds. He lived there for the summer before travelling with Cello, his two boys and wife, back to Holland, for the winter. He knew Manoli who had, by this time, responded to the barking. He stood, sleepy, beside George, smiling resignedly. I tried to look serious and angry, thrashing around in my sleeping bag.
We had a meeting in Manoli’s office, where he had a cot and some coffee making utensils. Everybody in the campground left their valuables there when they went to the beach. I slapped George once, settled for my passport and Traveller’s cheques back. I found out later that George could have killed me in a fight, nothing short of a gun was going to stop him.
As we talked, George quiet because of Cello’s presence at the door, Harry and Manoli believed that what I said was true: I wasn’t a rich tourist, I dug ditches at home. All I wanted was a coffee, some boiled eggs at the taverna. I told them to tell George not to do it again, to let him go. There was no harm done, no cops for miles.
Harry gave me a tarp, to put up between two trees, for a tent. I joined the other tourists at the taverna. We sat, guys from three or four countries, rock and Marley turned up loud, at the taverna across the road from the campground. We’d welcome, with quarts of German beer, the buses which showed up from Iraklion, four or five times a day. They would stop, disgorge passengers in front of the taverna, refill themselves, before heading back to Iraklion with their load of tourists.
The departing tourists had done their time in Greece, were moving on. The visitors in the summer months were two or three weekers. Some, were on package excursions from Australia, some, on two week vacations from their jobs in England or Germany or Norway. They were all replaceable to the Greeks. They were all replaced.
I didn’t notice the Greeks at that time. I had the same attitude toward the locals as most of the tourists. They were there for my needs, but they weren’t important. The other tourists and travellers were interesting to me, the Cretans, who I call Greeks, were in the background.
Matala was crawling with women. Every bus disgorged more who only stayed around for a few weeks. I didn’t see the Greeks, but they were there. Sipping quietly on a Coke or coffee, they were, like us, watching the girls.
There were caves in the cliffs at Matala. Some said the early Christians used them to hide from the Romans. Someone in Joni’s crowd discovered them. Probably hippies looking for a Journey to the East. But they shat in them. They were, according to tourists and Greeks, too gross to be worth looking at. I saw the Matala moon many nights, but I passed on the caves.
The Greeks approached me after I stuck up for a Greek, in a fight with some Germans, over a woman in the disco. They had been watching me since the incident with George. They knew, through the staff at the taverna, that I would be out of money soon.
My first job was with Janni’s crew of woodcutters. He owned a dump truck and a few chain saws. He employed some older Greek guys and an Austrian also named Janni. The Austrian Janni spoke only Greek, lived with his wife, in a quiet village, away from tourists. I accepted him as he accepted me, neither of us asked the other why they were there.
They were all amused by me. I was as blond as they were dark but I could work like them, withstand the heat and bugs, put up with the cuts and scratches I received on the job without complaining. I was satisfied, if not happy, with the wages they paid me.
I felt better getting home to the campground, having a shower, getting drunk, eating in the taverna at night, than just crawling off the beach, drunk by three in the afternoon. After roughnecking in the bush of Alberta, there wasn’t much one couldn’t make one’s self do. Every year the Greeks took some tourists or young locals to work with them, every year most quit.
Austrian Janni was a hard worker. He and Greek Janni, a large, jolly man with curly brown hair and a bushy moustache, kept three of us busy picking up the old branches, throwing them into the dump truck. At the end of each tree, we combined to throw the bigger logs into the truck.
They were old olive trees, eighty to one hundred years, which didn’t produce any more. So every day with Janni’s crew was, for the most part, in an olive grove.
By tradition and custom, the boss supplied the food for lunch. Sometimes we’d all clamber into the dump truck, Janni would head for the nearest restaurant. It wasn’t a tourist place, more for Greeks like these woodcutters. There was nothing fancy out front, just a couple of tables and chairs where the old men could drink their coffee.
I rubbed a cold quart of Henninger over my forehead in the shady back of one of these places, watched Greek Janni bargain with the owner over our lunch. He inspected the carcasses of freshly killed rabbits, they reached an agreement.
The parts were fried, in a pan, there in front of us. I started to understand, a little, the Greek, the communication between the men. I stuck to the large parts of the rabbit, those that looked familiar. The Greeks and Janni the Austrian popped the lemon shaped rabbit skulls into their mouths, crushed them with their teeth, devoured the contents. They laughed at my look.
I took two buses, to meet Janni, in the morning. I changed buses on a hill where students in uniform waited, buses and cars full of people went to work. There was a cement plaque by the side of the road which I couldn’t read. People had been waiting in that spot for thousands of years. The cliffs fell to the Mediterranean Sea, beside the road. Before the heat of the day descended, the sea breeze blew across Crete.
When we were on the job, in the olive groves, we had the best lunch. The two Jannis shut down their screaming chain saws, the crew made itself comfortable in the shade of a big olive tree. The Greek Janni supplied the wine and feta from his house. The tomatoes, onions and cucumbers were cut into the big bowl with a generous slug of olive oil, to soak them. The bread, from the bakery, that morning, and an occasional can of mackerel pieces were bought. The rest of the meal was grown at home.
The best of the olive oil was kept for the family, the rest, sold. Janni’s olive oil was smooth, golden. You could eat it with just a piece of bread from the loaf. All of the Greeks seemed to have another side, a hidden side, which you could only see if they trusted you.
My next job was for Georgio who called me “Stefanos”. He had a farm in the mountains, drove a little Toyota pickup. He showed up one day at the taverna, offered me a job. I agreed, he picked me up every morning until the job finished. He and his compadres squeezed me into the cab of the pickup, talked to me all the way to the job. They wanted me to hear their illegal Partisan songs on the cassette tape.
Georgio owned a huge field, maybe many fields. All I knew was that he needed wire to be strung across hundreds of the concrete posts which we had planted, so that his usual crop of tomatoes would climb, avoiding spoilage on the ground.
Costa had seen me in action, by now, with the tourists, the travellers and the Greeks. He knew I was ok. He checked me out in the campground, taverna and disco and knew I was no threat to his position as godfather of the surrounding valley. He knew that I could do the Greeks a lot of good. He gave me a job working with his crews on construction and, then, in the new disco he was building, in Matala.
Costa picked me up each morning at six am on his Yamaha 750, at the campground. We roared off into the hills to one of the many construction jobs he had going. Sometimes he walked through the campground to survey the sleeping women. If I slept in, he approached my tent, moved my sleeping bag, with a toe, to see if it was empty. If it wasn’t, he looked over the woman I had slept with. He turned up his nose or gave me an approving smile, depending on what he saw.
One hot day, the tourist police showed up on a job. The guy, with a uniform, gun and a belt that went over his shoulder, talked to someone on the other side of the site. Costa left the forming he was doing beside me, touched my shoulder as he passed, confronted the policeman. His brother George, a big guy who spoke no English and wore a carpenter’s belt, like everybody else, stopped work, stood beside the policeman. The other guys told me that George was a champion boxer. He was built like a weight lifter.
They looked over at me a few times but the outcome never was in doubt: Costa had a job to do, there were houses standing half finished all over Crete. If a man was willing to work and he was productive, why stop him? Because the young locals won’t do it for the wages? Bah! The policeman walked away, smiling at George. Costa gave me a wink and a smile when he returned to our forming.
At Costa’s mother’s, we sat beneath the grape vine filled pergola, drank iced tea, his mother bringing us glasses. He said that he’d been to London, checked it out. His sour look was tempered by understanding, but I had no inclination to defend London while I sat there with Costa and his mother on their family farm.
I was sleeping half at the campground, half at the new disco, when Rob came to visit me from London. He brought a forty ouncer of Johnny Walker Black which he called “mother’s milk”. Thomas was a German who made friends with Rob the second he saw the Johnny Walker. I was working, only saw George and a band of young guys from the area heading up the hill. George, who I met when I first arrived, liked ultraviolence. He had a determined frown, a long, lethal looking flashlight in his fist, as he started up the hill.
The young men of the village took care of business. They had recently kicked a whole tent of Frenchmen out for attacking the other guests, especially the females ones. They had, just last week, shot an Italian dead on a nearby beach, for selling heroin to the kids. The legal inquiry had just finished. Nobody knew anything, therefore, no one was guilty. There were no cops in Matala. Rob had, long ago, given Thomas the bottle to drink. The German was getting violent, challenging the whole campground and the Greeks, to knock him off the hill. Rob was protecting himself as well as getting away from Thomas’ aggravating bleating. He had to see a Swedish girl, anyway. Why hang around Thomas?
Thomas, I saw the next morning, as I waited for a lift, suffered a lot of cuts from some bats around the head. He was unceremoniously trundled onto the first bus leaving Matala in a near catatonic state. He had big clumps of hair missing beneath the bandage on his head.
As the season went on, the disco neared completion. I was living day to day, Costa holding back some of my week’s drachma so I’d have something to leave with.
There were women from all over the world there. Some women were there for the weather, some because Greece was Greece, but these Greeks believed, and it seemed to be so, that women were there, to be with them. One girl told me that a Greek propositioned her on the beach, saying, “Maybe you’re with Stevie, but he’s not a Greek”
The Greek men had a heart sworn assumption that the tourist women should pay for everything. If I, in my goofy, chivalrous way, paid for the drinks or the snack for myself and a woman, I was the butt of a lot of jokes the next day or considered a sad case, to be pitied. They spoke of a man as “poly mafia” when he was seen night after night with a tourist girl but didn’t pay for anything. The “Papa” (Pope) was the greatest Godfather of them all, the Catholic church was the greatest mafia body.
I was constantly getting called from the disco or my tent to come settle disputes. An Australian or Dutch girl would be trying to explain to Manoli, in a headlit scene, that just because she danced with a Greek guy or let him buy her a drink, that she wasn’t giving herself for the night or marriage. The Greeks loved the drama of it. Manoli would console the Greek guy, I would shoo the tourists to their tent. The guy would look mad for a while, then, after making sure that the girl wasn’t with anyone else, go back to the disco to see if he had time to pick out another. I don’t know what the married Greek guys told their wives. All of the tourist women agreed that the Italians were worse than the Greeks at aggressive come ons. The women said that if they slapped a rude man in Italy, they got slapped back.
I stuffed myself at the snail feast. The snails grew on everything below a foot. I saw women and children out gathering them off of rocks and plants in the fields. We gathered in a shack near Matala, ate our way through many pounds of the little shelled creatures. They were served by the men, to the other men, from a big, boiling pot. More were boiled while we ate. We sucked the little critters out of their shells by windpower alone. Until I got the hang of it, I had to use the fork on the table to loosen that last little piece of flesh stuck to the shell. After a while, I could get the last piece by using, as the Greeks did, the shell from the one before. We ate them for hours.
One morning, on Costa’s bike, we stopped at a crossroads, in a sleepy village, where an old man with a net hat, baggy jodhpur pants, big, black, leather boots, stood under a tree. He had a grey, bushy moustache. The dappled sunlight glistened on his knife. Costa and he exchanged greetings and information. He had hanging, in front of him, the carcass of a goat, half skinned. He told Costa something, looked over for confirmation to two young boys who were sitting in the shade of neighbouring tree. Above them, two goats, which had grazed on the lower branches of the tree, were standing on the thick, lower limbs to get at the leaves above them.
Tourist season was ending, regulars who had been there all summer, were thinning out. Some of us got drunk on the raki they made from the dregs of the wine harvest. We finished the disco. Prospects for the winter narrowed. I could leave Matala to work at a tomato canning factory, in Crete, or hitch north. It was time to go. Costa paid me off, one night, at the disco. He told me
“To work in Greece, Stevie, takes some grease” and pocketed a percentage of my savings.
I hitched back to London where Rob and I found a pub with ‘Carey’ on the jukebox.
We heard of Uluwatu from a Canadian, at the beach in Parengtretis, Java. Most of the good places we visited, we heard of from other travellers. The exhaustion and heat of Jogjakarta was replaced by the air conditioning of the bus which dropped us off at Parengtretis. Cooling at the beach helped temper our return to the heat.
We were sitting on the dark sand, enjoying the sea breeze, when a man approached us with a hash joint. He was the Canadian who told us about Uluwatu. He first came to warn us about the rip tides in the ocean. He was concerned, good enough to ask when he saw us swimming.
“Know the rips?”
He explained that seven different currents in the Java Sea converged at Parengtretis, nobody swam there. The rip tides were like undertow, travelled parallel to the shore before returning out to sea. The strategy, he said, if one did get caught, was to let the current take you out to sea, body surf back to shore. We felt only the cooling water when we waded around after that, too wary to swim. We were grateful to him.
He recounted stories of people wandering into the ocean at Parengtretis, never to be seen again. Most were stoned on the mushroom soup and omelettes which were cooked at the crude restaurants behind us. Psilocybin mushrooms grew in buffalo dung around Parengtretis. The children sold them in the street in a conical palm leaf for pennies.
The restaurants were full of western travellers talking, listening to music. Some sat motionless, staring out to sea. The only western dishes the locals knew how to cook for the visitors were omelettes and soup.
The Canadian from near Ottawa had hung out with some surfers in Australia, joined them for their trip to Uluwatu. They had spent the night there at full moon. He recommended it, but said he wouldn’t do it alone.
We went on to Legian Beach, in Bali, where we found a comfortable losmen, settled in.
The day of the full moon approached. I had spent too many cold, wet winter days in Canada to run around checking out every sight which the travel guides had recommended. I was content to read on the porch of the losmen or swing in the hammock beneath the green papaya trees.
For meals we walked to the restaurants. Our furthest trips were to the beach where everyone went to watch the sunset.
The beach at Cuta and Legian is miles long. It is wide, the jungle doesn’t impede sight by hanging over the water, the sand is fine. The dangerous surf rumbles in white, foaming lines. It is common knowledge that frequent drownings are kept quiet because it’s bad for the tourist trade. People regularly drown in the sea even near the part of the beach marked ‘safe’ in five different languages.
The French had a direct flight from Paris to Denpasar which enabled them to leave France one day, arrive in Bali the next. Unfortunately they behaved like the other tourists.
When the day of the full moon came I went to Uluwatu alone. I was the one caught up in this romantic adventure, Joyce wanted the relaxed comfort of the losmen.
Uluwatu is forty kilometres south of Denpasar on the easternmost edge of the round bulge at the bottom of Bali. The trip, by bus, bimo, motorbike and horse cart, took most of the day.
The temple of Uluwatu stands on high cliffs overlooking the ocean. It is the ruin of an ancient stone structure, the holy site of several different religions. In the past, many people threw themselves into the sea from the five hundred foot cliffs during a religious rampage which swept down from Java.
The temple looks down on a small strip of sand which is the beach used only by expert surfers. In high tides and treacherous currents they paddle over razor sharp coral reefs, homes of poisonous sea snakes, to the waves.
From the centre of the old temple there is a three sided view of the coastline: pale blue, giant waves roll in sets, in slow motion. The cliffs are carved into jagged walls by the sea and the weather.
When I left Legian Beach, that morning, Joyce had been smoking a joint of Afghan hash with Rosalyn and Sally, Australian women, who believed in the power of black magic. It was practised everywhere in Java. Rosalyn stayed with a Javanese family on vacation. She said the son, the guy she was with, could butt out a cigarette on his arm without leaving a burn. Sally told us of a tourist couple who had everything stolen from their losmen room while they slept. She said they were put under a spell by the thieves.
I had equipped myself lightly after hearing this, carrying only a small pack with a hatchet, a canteen full of well water and a groundsheet.
I was drawn to the ocean from the hot, dry ruins of the temple.
At the road beneath the temple an old man sat carving. Grey stone parapets surrounded him upon which were perched families of monkeys. An old one with a crushed left hand jumped onto a nearby wall, stared at me. I yelled at him but he just blinked.
The old man smiled, handed me a fist sized rock from a pile beside him, made a throwing motion. I threatened the monkey. His face registered surprise as he retreated.
The old man produced a book which was signed by visitors, a box for the admission price. He warned me about “the monkey people” when I told him that I had come to stay the night, asked him how to get to the beach.
I reached an agreed price with a local boy, both of us sweating. I followed him through parched fields fenced by hedges of cacti and bamboo barricades. I clambered awkwardly over mounds of earth, trying to control my swinging pack, keeping my sarong free of branches. An open valley appeared before us, a jagged crevasse had penetrated the land. Women were descending into it, in a line, baskets on their heads.
I paid the boy, sat in the shade, sipped water from my canteen, the cold Fantas I bought at the temple, long gone. I watched the women move gracefully up and down the trail. The vessels on their heads never wavered, all of the impact absorbed by their rolling hips.
I followed them to the bottom of the crevasse where they turned off. I kept going straight ahead. The Java Sea was rolling in loud, spectacular breakers into the small beach where a group of western women and a photographer stood. They looked out to sea, turned to follow the photographer up the trail. Publicity pictures for the surfers. They greeted me on the way past, impressed to hear that I was staying at Uluwatu, alone, under the full moon. They warned me about the rock throwing monkeys.
The spectacle of the booming surf held me. I sipped from my canteen in the blazing, windy, stereophonic roar. The power of the sea put the world into perspective.
I returned up the trail before sunset to watch it from the top of the cliffs and heard the last of the surfers’ motor bikes leave. I thought I was alone.
Below me, bobbing lights appeared and small fishing boats braved high tides near the cliffs. I laid with my head on my pack, staring at the stars and the moon. The moonlight looked impossible to capture in a painting or a photograph.
I felt the first stab of pain in my abdomen at the same time that a rock landed beside me. The monkey people.
I realized that I was surrounded and the rain of rocks began. One hit me at the same time that I vomited. An uncontrollable attack of diahorrea overcame me. The rocks came faster, liquid poured from both ends of me. I staggered toward the road holding my fouled sarong, cursing the rock throwing monkeys and the well water. The night heard my spasms and loud retches.
Having been in Asia for more than six months, I felt acclimatised, adjusted, immune, cocky. I had drunk the well water without putting a chlorine tablet into it.
The band of monkeys were fast moving shadows, small stones were hitting me. In desperation, I jettisoned the pack. The rocks stopped.
When I looked back, the monkeys had fallen upon it, one was brandishing my hatchet, another drinking from my canteen. I staggered down the road, each step causing a squirt, a belch, a knee trembling retch.
At dawn, I endured the giggles of women and schoolchildren when I crouched by the side of the road, stinking, dehydrated, desperate. A young Balinese with a two fifty Honda drove me back to the losmen in Legian. Joyce paid the guy an outrageous price. I showered and collapsed in bed.
I chalk it up to heat-induced temporary insanity. It could happen to any Canadian crossing the equator.
I had a strong desire to make my way to Germany, dye my hair orange and drum for a punk band which specialized in industrial music.
The desire passed as the bus followed the road through the lush jungle vegetation past rice paddies and wilted looking livestock.
When I thought about summoning enough energy to listen, I was convinced I could hear the plants grow in the humidity. The whole island was a hothouse.
The single minded bus driver seemed to be the only one expending energy as he missed pedestrians, livestock and other vehicles, leaned on the horn.
We were used to the danger by now. A sort of fatalistic resignation takes over on breakneck bus rides through the countryside of Sumatra. It was too hot to care.
We had left the craziness and heroin of Penang behind. The sweat dripped off of our noses. Everyone on the bus, even the natives, had a worn out, washed out look.
We were travelling from Medan, where the ferry from Penang had taken us, down the spine of Sumatra to Lake Toba, thence to Padang, about halfway down the island, on the coast.
In Padang we spent hours at the consulate waiting to get our visas renewed because it was cheaper there than in Bali.
Of a dozen uniformed clerks, two were reading, the rest inspected the Western girls or stared into space, a paper clip twisting in their fingers. When they did stir to attend the sweating crowd of travellers they wanted to first see proof that you had a return ticket. It’s the only legal way to enter Indonesia. It didn’t matter that we’d entered days before at Medan.
The passports and applications lay in a pile on a desk.
They didn’t have to worry about an overwhelming influx of immigrants heading south since the island of Java is the most thickly populated place on earth, but it was one way for the government to get money from travellers.
A Japanese girl told Joyce that she had tonsilitis and that they didn’t have toilet paper even in hospitals in Padang.
Seventy-five cents for dormitory beds at the local hostel. Officially marrying before getting to Asia saves a lot of problems. Single women are targets.
At Lake Toba, we recovered from the bus ride during which it was too hot to sleep. The soaking heat deprived us of every traveller’s last resort, the final escape from the tedium and discomfort … sleep, oblivion.
There, time stood still, then went backward.
We had landed in a timeless, primitive existence. Surrounded by the jungle and jungle sounds. Old men wailed their night songs in the dark. It sounded like a Tarzan movie.
Wild boar lived in the jungle, endangered humans occasionally, provided meat and tusks more often. Snakes and mongooses and their spirits were part of the diet and the mythology.
Ancient Sumatran devils caused poor sleep, restless dreams. All the dwellings had horned roofs which intruded, then dominated.
A reminder that no matter what it was like in the outside world, this was here and now. This primitive existence was the present. Reality. No luxuries, no concrete, no advanced plumbing or electricity.
Rats made nests in the roof so when you woke up into the flickering darkness from a dream of ancient enemy skins hanging by the fire, you could hear them running along the rafters over your head. You could see their shadows on the thatched roof when the candle light caught them.
Sleep again became a refuge along with a short prayer for the balance of rats.
We finally boarded a freighter, in Padang, the cheapest way to travel from Sumatra to Java.
The beginning of our sea voyage was normal. We watched the port, then the island of Sumatra fade into the distance behind us and with it, the confusion and brain fever.
Deck space, a place to sleep beneath the canvas strung across the deck for protection from the sun and rain, was what we paid for.
Two big, deeply tanned Aussies who were obviously used to the sea and travelling by sea, probably lived by the sea, told us they had accompanied fishermen from an island near Bali on an early morning trip.
They witnessed, then tried, the eating of the raw hearts of the fish they caught. They found it to be a life giving experience with aphrodisiac powers.
Meals were cooked in the tiny galley below deck; a green vegetable which had obviously been boiled, over a bed of rice, on a tin plate. Tasteless but necessary to settle the queasy stomachs everyone felt
The sea looked calm enough. But a rhythmic sway began to get to everyone. Coconut oil smoke made it worse.
Even the regular crew and the Aussies were hit by sea sickness. They laughed and made wise cracks between spews. The rest of us weren’t so lighthearted about it.
Soon there were travellers and crew members staggering to the rail to vomit over the side.
The unwary ones stood downwind from others puking over the side near the front, got splashed.
One grain of rice, well soaked in the stomach’s digestive juices, inadvertently snorted while vomiting, causes untold misery in the nasal passage and a long lasting, unpleasant reminder of how sick you really were.
Finally, that particular movement of the ship passed and so did the seasickness.
The travellers and crew wobbled about unsteadily for a while, then settled down.
No one offered the travellers rice after that. Our diet became the fruit we had brought on board with us.
We settled down on the deck, tried to sleep through the hot days and windy nights.
Serge from France, tanned dark brown, curly hair down past his shoulders, wispy goatee, regained his happy smile as he recovered form the seasickness. He wore a sarong like a native, always carried a flute attached to his backpack.
Everyone commiserated with him when we found out he was on his way back to France to fulfill his military obligations. He had been drafted.
These were his last few days of freedom. He had made his choice.
He was tempted to keep travelling, but he knew that eventually he’d want to return to France. The army was one step above jail.
He couldn’t go back on the run. He was a proud Frenchman, but that had nothing to do with the government’s army. His ideas and life were far from conformity, uniformity, the military.
One night, in a Tull like performance, he started playing.
Under the canvas, starry night above, the sea breeze blowing his hair in time with the tempo of his song, Serge captivated everyone.
All the travellers stopped talking or sat up to look and listen, even some crew members, smoking by the dark rail, paid attention.
He started in the familiar pose which we had all adopted… leaning, laying back against our packs and bedrolls, then he seemed to find something as he played the first few, hesitant notes.
He stood up, still playing. His flute came alive. His song gained and lost volume and speed as he breathed life into it.
It wasn’t recorded, probably forgotten even by Serge, a few days later.
There was the soft soughing of the ship as it made its way through the water, the sea breeze in the wires, occasionally something would flap in the southern night wind.
The notes of Serge’s flute seemed to linger and then be snatched away by the other sounds.
His eyes closed, Serge stood and played to the night, to his humble companions, listened to the sounds around him and echoed them.
He didn’t stand on one leg, but he carried us all away as he talked to the wind in its own language.
Selamat Jalan…Good Journey. A fitting Indonesian goodbye to Sumatra.
Then someone told us that we were passing Krakatau which erupted in 1883 killing thousands of people. It was just a lump on the horizon from the deck of the ship. A famous volcano which the world knew about because of the tragedy.
Later that day, we landed in Djakarta.
We sit watching a young Chinese guy getting drunk in the restaurant on Penang Road where they serve fried eggs and chips. I feel weak and sick. The past few weeks of high speed travel and junk food combined with the humid heat and heroin is causing my stomach to flare into violent nausea. Every quick movement, each meal, causes it. I’ve lost so much weight after four months in Asia, I spear another greasy chip, rub it in the yolk and force it down.
The Chinese guy drinks his beer with a flourish and makes a show of smoking his Pall Mall. He plays western rock on the juke box. He sits with his elbows on the table, stares at the bottle cap twisting between his fingers and casts pugnacious glances at the surging noon hour crowd around him. Like thousands of other young Asians we’ve seen from Tokyo to Kuala Lumpur, he wears a neat white shirt, stylish dark pants, leather shoes, well groomed long hair and shades.
We rise to pay for our breakfast and make our way back to the hotel. The Chinese guy orders another beer.
When we reach Chulia Street, the clamour of trishaws, blaring cars and trucks which assaults us from every direction on Penang Road, changes. It becomes a less frenzied throng of Indian and
Chinese pushcart vendors, labourers carrying huge loads and children playing in the street.
Food wagons strung along half the length of Chulia Street display bowls of rice and noodle soup, deep fried snacks and roti. They waft food smells over us mixed with the ever present tang of boiling coconut oil. My stomach begins to erupt when we pass by the small crowds seated at rough tables surrounding the more prosperous wagons. We hurry to the far end of the street, our refuge in sight.
The old Chinese custodians glance up from their newspapers in the lobby of the Yeng Keng Hotel to watch us make our way into the courtyard and on to our ground floor room. The grey day bursts into a violent downpour.
I lay gingerly on the bed waiting for the nausea to pass while Joyce goes to get some cold soft drinks. The old Chinese manager appears at the door with a quiet knock and a handful of Sumatran weed, tied in sticks. We haggle. I pay for them, and lay down again to sip a Fanta and watch Joyce roll a joint.
We smoke the joint watching the ceiling fan turn slowly. The lizards dart after flies on the walls. The marijuana helps.
It started a few nights ago when we stepped out of the Yeng Keng and walked up to the first trishaw driver we saw. He hadn’t even begun his spiel, the spiel every trishaw driver in Penang sings softly from the side of his mouth, on every street corner, near every hotel which lodges Western tourists,
“You want to smoke opium? You got any problem? You need something? You want smoke? Buddha? Number one! You want smack? You want to smoke opium?”
As he opened his mouth to begin his pitch, we stepped into the trishaw.
“We want to smoke opium”
He hesitated, surprised and broke into a wide grin as he hopped onto his bicycle seat. He pedalled in slow circles around some busy, bright streets as we negotiated the price. It was a little higher than what we expected, but still cheap.
We stopped in a dirty back alley. It was lined with small, crowded hovels built of boards, signs, sheet metal and tarpaper. The driver jumped down, greeted by a throng of young children and dogs.
He looked over the crowd, chose a little ten year old girl, charged us a small fee for the ride and left us with the child.
She led us, by the hands, to one of the ramshackle buildings where we were greeted at the door by a teenaged Chinese boy. He informed us of the prices in a bored, professional manner and showed us into a fifteen by twenty foot room.
We sat on a wooden bed without a mattress.
This opium den was made of tin and tarpaper. It was lit by flickering kerosene lamps and contained a tidy arrangement of meagre furnishings. There was a small wood stove, some dishes on a bench and the bed we were sitting on.
In the darkness, at the rear of the room, two ancient Chinese men reclined on a large, wooden bunkbed. They were withered up, old, opium addicts with shocks of white hair and emaciated faces. They indicated, by their manner, that they were the bosses.
When the boy spoke to them, they produced a wooden box from the darkness and put our money into it. They spoke to him quickly and lapsed into silence, not uttering another word while we were present. Occasionally one would light a large, old pipe for the other, but neither moved from the bed.
The opium came on small squares of paper across which it had been painted like an ebony brush stroke. The boy indicated that we must lay down, one at a time, on the bed. He produced a wooden head rest which looked like a miniature pulpit.
Joyce laid on her side first, head propped up on the slanted board. The boy scraped some of the gummy opium from the paper with a small stick. He held the stick over an ancient kerosene lamp until the opium began to bubble and move. A cloying sugar smell filled the room. The opium pipe, rubbed smooth by use, had a glass bowl stained yellowish brown and a long, dark, wooden stem.
When the opium reached the proper temperature on the stick, it’s constituency a delicate balance of solid and liquid, not hot enough to burn, but hot enough to work with, the youth placed the pipe stem in Joyce’s mouth, the bowl upside down. As he rolled the stick around the inside of the bowl, all she had to do was lay still, steady the pipe with one hand and inhale.
The opium peeled off of the stick onto the inside of the bowl. He lit the stick on the lamp flame, held it to the bowl and told Joyce to smoke. He got three pipes from each paper.
Joyce smoked two pipes, I smoked two papers.
It became easier to draw on the pipe the second time around. I elicited the only reaction from any of the Chinese that night as the two old men smiled with the teenager when I got a good enough hit to burn one whole pipe without pausing for breath.
I waited for him to make the sixth pipe. The small lamp burned black and orange, feet from my eyes, the sugary smoke filled my lungs, a lethargy settled through me, a feeling of well being. A flickering tar paper shack in a remote Asian city. Coleridge came to mind.
It was at this moment that a young Malay woman appeared at the door and began talking to Joyce. She had beautiful, brown eyes and a radiant smile, despite large holes in her front teeth. She was the mother of the little girl who had led us there, asked if we would like to smoke some smack.
I finished my pipe, Joyce inspected the vial of white powder and tasted it. The woman borrowed a cigarette, emptied the end, refilled it with a tiny amount of heroin and twisted it closed.
We were already stoned on the opium but a few puffs of this legendary China White produced a weakness in the knees and a tingling in the groin. We decided to buy a small amount of powder from the lady and bid our inscrutable hosts farewell for the night.
As we left with the young woman, she whispered to Joyce that we should return to her place next time. She said that she gave better prices for smoking and buying.
Back at the Yeng Keng, we smoked a small amount of the white powder. Greed made us snort two little lines each. The euphoria of the opium and the venerable reputation of this particular kind of junk made us collide at the sink in our room at least four times. We were vomiting and spewing all over the place. I lost count of my own retches at an even dozen and fell into an exhausted sleep.
The next few unsteady days were spent fasting, mailing home letters and presents and doing a bit of wobbly shopping. It was time to push on to Sumatra. We decided to pay one more visit to the smiling lady.
By now we had realized that the circuitous route which the trishaw driver had taken on our first visit ended up a few blocks from the Yeng Keng. We walked slowly through the dusty streets in the tropical night. A trishaw bearing a western couple passed on its way to the opium alleys. Another came from the alleys carrying a couple. We acknowledged their knowing smiles with a wave.
A crowd of children descended on us when we reached the alley. They tried to take us by the hand as they imitated the sales pitch of the trishaw drivers in their musical, broken English. The little girl from our last visit dragged us to her door. We were greeted with open arms by the smiling lady. She hugged Joyce like a long lost sister. Her husband appeared in the doorway behind her to welcome us with a hearty handshake and a glowing smile.
Their one room home was too small to accommodate more than two visitors. We got the chairs, the lady sat on a box, the man on the bed, an infant asleep beside him.
We sat in semi darkness for a time, their kerosene lamps barely working, listening to stories of the many western friends they had entertained. They said they had done business with a lot of westerners and showed us a collection of snapshots and visa pictures with, ‘To my friends’, ‘Love’ and ‘Thank you for everything’ written on the backs. We couldn’t see much until one of the children who had been scampering in and out produced a bright kerosene lamp.
They wanted us to smoke some opium, but my stomach was still in a shaky state. Joyce didn’t want to spend the money on opium so we bought a vial of white powder. The lady apologized for charging what she considered a high price, but explained that the dope came from the old Chinese men next door. They were her landlords and forced her to charge high prices to tourists on the threat that she and her family would be evicted. The prices were low by western standards.
We had to have a sociable smoke before we left so the man made a joint with one of Joyce’s cigarettes and her dope. He recounted stories of the trade. We found ourselves charmed by his sincerity and open smile. He spent long minutes telling us he liked foreigners, tourists, westerners, always did his best to help them out and tried to keep his dealing fair and square.
They talked of the black American who lived with them for some months while he was stranded in Penang with no money. A short time after he arrived, he hit up the white powder against our friend’s advice and was unconscious for days. He slept in the chair on which I was sitting and was treated like one of the family. They had, just that day, sent him a shipment of junk back in the States.
My system wasn’t ready for more dope so I declined the joint after one hit and sat watching the others smoke it. The lady had a great fondness for Joyce and rummaged around at the back of the dark room to find a bunch of clothes which she gave her. They were Chinese in style and didn’t fit Joyce so she never wore them.
The idea of accepting gifts from these people while we sat in the smallest house we had ever been in, in the midst of the worst poverty we had seen, seemed logical at the time.
When the joint was finished, the man announced that we were lucky because we’d arrived just at the time of day when he fixed up. He offered us a hit but added in the same breath that he didn’t want us to partake because he knew we wouldn’t be able to cope with it.
We declined, grateful for his honesty and watched as he unrolled his outfit. He cooked some powder in an old, battered spoon, cleaned his eyedropper squeeze syringe with water and a cigarette filter and tied off his right arm.
The dark room filled with that electric silence which descends when a person ties a band around their arm and pumps their hand to swell the blood vessels. The meticulous, gentle care he takes in finding a vein and pushing the needle in, the blood drawn back into the tube of the syringe, the careful surveillance of the two liquids. The whack, bang, crank which follows.
We watched the dark vein pierced, the concentration and perspiration on the dark brow.
The smiling lady smiled with her arm around a small girl. The baby, the only son of the family, breathed softly on the bed beside his father. The tiny room was heavy with the smell of burnt heroin. He began to tell us again of the many foolish tourists he had seen shooting the drug, coming close to overdosing or dying, full of confidence before, switching to smoking or snorting after.
Then, in the sad, soft light of the kerosene lamp, his eyes glazed over. He stopped in mid sentence to allow his moment of ecstasy to rush through him and forgot what he was saying.
I thought frivolous western thoughts of Clapton and Neil Young.
We sat in silence in the sweaty Penang night.
We left their house amid fond farewells and walked back to the Yeng Keng. I was still too sick to do any heroin. I smoked a joint of Sumatran and laid on the bed.
The little green lizard darts like an arrow and gobbles up a lazy fly with a lightning tongue.
A peal of laughter rings from an upstairs room of partying Australians.
The ceiling fan turns slowly.