Borneo in the sixties (2): the satrap

Once upon a time, people travelled intercontinentally by boat. When long-distance flights took over, I had just started to work for a well-known multi-national. At the time that I arrived in Borneo, the Firm was still organized like the Roman Catholic church. Or like the Persian empire who, after having beaten Babylon, ruled their empire in a decentralised fashion, under satraps. For example, they let the Israelites go home and take care of themselves under such an official.

In the early 1960s, it was unwise to rule the worldwide activities of a multinational firm centrally. Poor communications and local politics required a local approach. The Centre posted a Managing Director with fairly flexible terms of reference and let him go about his business. If something went terribly wrong, the solution was simple. The man was replaced. Nowadays, this has all changed. Something got lost in the process, though. In the old days, some overseas satraps of my Firm were men larger than life. Like one comes across in the stories of Somerset Maugham.

It has happened more than once that a satrap built himself a palace. I spoke about that one day, with one of the Company pilots. He had seen everything. He had even flown in grass sods for a similar project, in Trinidad. The air lift had lasted several weeks. So he was not surprised at all that our Managing Director built himself a palace, overlooking the South-china Sea, with an immaculate lawn where he played croquet on Sunday afternoons with the happy few.

My pilot friend, a second pilot and a board mechanic carried out a shopping flight to Singapore, once a month. The satrap and his wife then went  shopping, for the finishing touches of the House. In order to give the flight a democratic touch, wives of carefully selected employees were allowed to make a draw from the hat. The lucky ones were allowed to join. The pilot had just returned from such a flight.

He and I were having a shandy under a parasol in the Club, near the swimming pool overlooking the sea. I had joined him because I wondered why he had a black eye. Also the co-pilot and the board mechanic, who were sitting at a nearby table, looked a bit battered. He told me that there had been a brisk fight the evening before in Singapore, outside the Cockpit, a Dutch restaurant opposite the Goodwood Park Hotel, where good Indonesian rice tables were served.

The satrap had refused to pay the bill because he was charged for something which, he claimed, had not been on the table. Upon leaving the restaurant, six Chinese cooks had been waiting for them. Only the satrap had come away unscathed. He had overseen the fight with folded arms, as behoved him.

The pilot had defended his boss with fervour, because the man had just bought two new twin-engined Beechcrafts in the States, without consulting the Centre. Moreover, also on his own initiative, he had hired a Hovercraft – for testing at sea. The test succeeded for going on and off beaches. But its main purpose was mooring to offshore platforms and that led to hefty bumps and dents in the flimsy vehicle, so these tests had to be abandoned.

As the contract was for a year, the pilot (or does one say the driver?), a nice chap by the name of Harry, had not much to do and did odd jobs. Like transporting our cast and props of the Christmas Old Time Music Hall  by Hovercraft to the neighbouring Sarawak, just across the border. I was part of this trip and I remember vividly how we sang ‘Harry row the boat ashore, halleluja”, as the flat-bottomed hovercraft made terrifying slaps on the water between the wave crests.

I have to admit that I admired him, our satrap. He had style. He wore air-conditioned colonial pants with knife-sharp front edges, above immaculate white knee stockings. Also, he wore a peper-and-salt Hitler-like moustache. Firm jaws. Penetrating eyes. He was the Boss, no doubt. Every day, he covered the two kilometers between his palace and the office in an immense black Daimler with Malay driver in  black songkok and white jacket. Lovingly, my English colleages called this car The Hearse.

Ten years later, I ran into my satrap in a bar in Abu Dhabi. He worked for another firm. His own. He had mellowed. He introduced me to his very British looking drinking companion, the Manager of the local State Power Plant. He had forgotten that I knew that man already. In the Old Time Music Hall in Borneo, mentioned before, I had accompanied him on the piano when he sang ‘The man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo’. A good baritone, too. At the time, he was the Manager of the Government Power Plant in Borneo. Those were the days. Read Somerset Maugham.

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Borneo in the sixties (1): water spirits

During the Middle Ages and before, the areas behind the dunes along the North Sea coast of Holland, Belgium and Northern France consisted of moors and small peat rivers. The few people who lived in the dunes went about in canoes in search of fish and water fowl. They often saw spooky patches of fog hanging above the bogs, which they called Witte Wieven, white women. In France they were called Dames Blanches. White women, white spirits. Some learned Dutch onomasticians say that witte could also mean wise or witty but as far as I am concerned, blanche is white and not wise.

Water spirits. You find them everywhere in the world. Also in the Far East. Chinese and Japanese dragons are water spirits. During a stay of five plus six is eleven years in Northwest Borneo, I met the Melanaus and studied their customs. I even had the good fortune to meet and discuss with dr. H. Stephen Morris, the world’s foremost expert on Melanaus. They continue to believe in water spirits, notwithstanding Christianity and Islam.

The Melanau of Sarawak call themselves a-likau, the river folk. They are a very small people living along the Mukah and Oya rivers which flow into the South-China Sea. They have their own language and social system, basically a hindu caste system although there is no trace of Hinduism anymore. Their culture is very different from that of the Iban cultures along other Borneo rivers. More than 600 years ago, there were trade settlements at these rivermouths, founded by indianized states like Majapahit in eastern Java and Champa in the south of present-day Vietnam. The Indians were followed by the Portuguese. The name Melanau can be seen on a beautiful map on parchment (1598) by the Dutchman Cornelis Doedsz of Edam, which he copied so faithfully from a Portuguese portolan that he even copied the colourful coat-of-arms of the Portuguese king. On that map, one of great artistic beauty, one can see all the Far Eastern coasts frequented by the Portuguese in the 15th century around South-east Asia, China and Japan, with an astonishing multitude of small but named coastal places. The eastern shores of Borneo however, are depicted by a smooth curve. Apparently the Portuguese never went there on their way to Japan. This large map arrived on the shore of Kyushu in Southern Japan with the Dutch ship De Liefde which shipwrecked there in 1600 and was confiscated by the Shogun. The map is now kept as a National Treasure in the National Museum in Tokyo and may not leave Japan. I have a large high-definition colour diapositive of that map – but that will be the subject of another story.

Ancient animist customs are still practiced occasionally among the Melanaus. In particular when healing. Illnesses are thought to be water spirits. In order to cure an illness, a shaman called dukun or bayoh first establishes its nature, with the help of an image carver (the tudok belum) who carries in his head the images of all illnesses, including those of the soul. Such an image is called a belum. The artist then carves the likeness of the illness out of soft wood, like from the roots of mangrove trees. A belum has a disturbing surrealistic beauty.

The water spirit who troubles the soul (beduah) of the patient, is invited to leave the patient and install itself in the belum. Discussions take place with the belum, it is spat at with a mixture of sireh, betelnut juice and pinang nut. The belum is bathed now and then and the patient is washed with the bath water.

The worst danger for  patient and caring bystanders alike is deemed to be over after about three days. The belum is then put into a beautiful carved miniature boat and the boat launched into the river which carries the spirit off to the infinite sea whence it once came. As I am writing these words  I have to think of Carl Jung.

On the picture above you see my small colllection of belum, by the master carver and connoisseur of illnesses Tausap. Some of them he carved before my very eyes, with ordinary but very sharp pocket knives. He wrote the date on the bottom, with a Bic ballpoint.

These belum still watch over me, day and night.

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Execution Day – Nigerian memories (5)

Lagos is almost paralysed by a continuous traffic grid lock. So, the government decides that today, only license plates with even numbers may be on the road and uneven numbers tomorrow. And so on. That works. That is to say, it works for a few days. Then we are back to square one. Everyone has bought an extra license plate.

People are inventive and effective. When the Head of State is on his way to the airport, the main street is cleared in a jiffy. Cars which do not climb onto the high sidewalks instantly are fitted with a series of grooves in the roof by rubber baton wielding, hardhitting, motorcyclists in the cortege. Insiders wait for a chance to join the tail of the motorcade, just behind the airconditioned Landrover with British bodyguards. In case of success, they will be in the airport in half an hour instead of the usual two.

At times, there is no petrol for days. Long lines of waiting cars at the filling stations, where one can also see pedestrians, armed with buckets. I see two men having what seems to be an enormous row, next to a pump. When I get of my car and walk towards them with the most effective weapon in this country, a big smile, the row is over at once. “Don’t  worry, aïbo”, they say and we enquire mutually about our fa-mi-ly and the wife and the children. Aïbo means ‘white-skin’.

Next Sunday will be ‘Execution day.’ Armed robbers will be shot on the beach of Victoria island. Masses of spectators dressed in their Sunday best will fill the roads to the beach, the small children in festive dresses. One can expect loud cheers before and after the gun vollies. “Serves you right!”

To my horror, some expats who have been here for years have become accustomed to this sort of thing. An American colleague from whose roof terrace one has a good view of the road to the beach, invites his friends for an Execution Lunch. One will also be able to hear the shots and the roar of the crowd. Not for me.

The people are warm-hearted and incredibly optimistic and cheerful even in great adversity. Every morning, in a very crowded elevator, I hear their very humourous comments on the situation. Nigeria has been one of my happiest postings. The people made me feel at ease.

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Silent witnesses – Nigerian memories (4)

Once in a while, staff in the camp in the Delta could put their name down for a free weekend in an old planter’s house, inland,  on the bank of the Ethiope River, a fairytale river with crystal clear water which probably came from a spring. It was run by some servants in starched white jackets complete with brass buttons. They served breakfast and some simple meals. No airconditioning. There were ceiling fans and one slept under mosquito nets which added to the colonial atmosphere.

The trip was an adventure. A few hours on a red sandstone road, very bumpy, across a hilly countryside. At the bottom of every hill was a small stream and a narrow concrete bridge across it, with low unforgiving concrete walls on either side. There, I discovered another national sport: the race to the bridge. A mammy wagon would come thundering down the hill at the opposite side and you had little time to decide if you could make it across the bridge in time, or not. If you did, the mammy wagon would pull into the steep rocky edge of the road and one would see a big smile with flashing teeth and a raised thumb. Good sports.

These were quiet weekends, there was nothing to do but sleep and go for a swim in the river. Still, a servant would gently tap the door every evening with the whispered question: “At what time shall I knock you, Sir?”

Along that beautiful stream I was reminded of the slave trade. Near to a jetty, looking down into the water, one saw a dark heap which proved to be a mountain of empty bottles. My wife made several dives and came up with some ten of them. It cost her a bloody nose because she had to make dives of  more than five meters. Square bottles, tapering down towards the bottom. The names of Dutch distilleries pressed into the dark glass. Hoytema & Co. Culemborg, v. Marken & Co., A.C.A. Nolet Schiedam, African, Boll & Dunlop Rotterdam. Dutch gin. Silent witnesses? Was this the location of a slave trading station?

Today, one can still buy these bottles in Nigerian drugstores, in miniature, attractively packed in small cartons with colourful advertisements of the health benefits of the “Elixir” or “Medical Compound” which the Dutch gin is still claimed to be. Its magic persists.

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No fussing about – Nigerian memories (3)

A few weeks after my arrival in Lagos, I am going to the Delta, for a month of introduction in field operations. I am flying by Norman Islander, a small two-engined plane with very large wings. It has been developed for service in the Hebrides and the Shetlands, where planes have to be able to take off and land on short airstrips, in strong winds. It has room for seven passengers, their luggage and some freight.

The pilot of the day goes under the nickname ‘The Fiddler’. Starched white shirt, dark epaulettes with three golden stripes each, dark blue razor sharp shorts and white knee stockings. I am told that he has been a captain on 747’s with BOAC. To compensate for the difference he goes by the book. He follows the manual meticulously. Before starting the engines, he turns around in his seat (there is no partition), looks us in the eyes and says in a rather affected Oxford English: “Good morning gentlemen, have you all flown this aircraft before?” I keep my mouth shut because I have been warned. If I would utter a word of denial, he would keep us busy for at least fifteen uneasy minutes and give us the creeps.

During the flight, he cannot stop fiddling with the engines, he seems to be ‘fine-tuning’ them but not both at the same time. The engine noise goes up and down, right, then left, once in a while we fly in gentle curves leaning from left to right, it is nerve wrecking for all. Every time we cross the littoral, that is to say twice, because we fly across the sea along a gentle curve of the coast, there is hefty turbulence, the plane is dancing up and down by many meters. Our Captain seems to enjoy it as if he were riding a horse cross-country over hedges and ditches.

The man next to me says that everyone’s favourite pilot is an elderly gent, a kind grandfather, who is here to augment his pension. He wears an old checkered sweater as if he is mowing his lawn on a Sundaymorning, no epaulettes, no words. He takes the plane steeply to cruising altitude, levels it to horizontal, switches to automatic pilot, pours himself a cup of coffee from a battered old thermos which he puts on top of the dashboard  and munches a sandwich. “You see,’ says my neighbour, ‘those are the best, no fussing about.”

We descend and fly circles around the grass runway. It is crossed by an asphalt road and the barriers are not yet down. The official involved is probably asleep under a tree because we see a long black arm come out of an open window of the control shed, which hits an empty oil drum with authority. That works, after the next round the pilot lands the plane on the grass as gently as a 747 on the tarmac. I am in the Delta.

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Nigerian memories (2)

The Office is situated in the centre of the city. A well-known American bank occupies the ground floor. The building has no court yard so the offices in the centre of each floor lack natural light. These rooms are separated from one another by smelly soft-board partitions. Exposed to cigarette smoke for years, they turn wet then dry with each outage of the airconditioning system. In these damp grottoes, wary geologists peer at maps and seismic sections under TL lighting or, if need be, by candle light. Need occurs frequently, because there are powercuts each day.

It has been decided to buy a stand-by generator. Our Nigerian hosts say, with a big smile, that once the generator is installed the official power supply will be re-named ‘standby.’ The public power company is called  NEPA, Nigerian Electrical Power Authority.’ They say that in reality that means ‘Never Electrical Power Again!’

On my first day in the office, there is a shout from our colleagues who are lucky enough to have a table near to the window. We have to come immediately and watch a scene which apparently happens more often than once. Someone has withdrawn cash from his account in the bank. The unfortunate.  His creditors are waiting for him in the street and jump on him between the slow-going traffic.  Traffic comes to a halt. The fight takes place with bystander and driver participation. Policemen with truncheons try to separate the fighters. We hang out of the windows, like the people in neighbouring buildings, to cheer them on.

I make my first visit to the toilets. They look modern and clean. I stare at sheet of paper which has been pasted on the wall behind the toilet pot : ‘No squatting.’  Midday – we go out to have lunch in a tiny restaurant nearby.  They serve us a ‘minute steak’. A tough steak which has been cut so thinly that it is almost transparent. Local logic. A great help with chewing and swallowing.

At the end of the day, we’re back at the parking lot where we are treated royally, the boys even stop the traffic for us as we are leaving the compound. They feel proud to give us all-in service. This is my second day and it already feels as if I am starting to get used to my new environment. There is no alternative.

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Nigerian memories (1)

April 1972. Lagos. My new posting. The arrival in the African capital is sensational. I am processed and released in a chaotic arrival hall and from there accompanied to a waiting Peugeot 404 station wagon. Over here, this particular work horse is very much sought after. I am told that expatriates who import one, specially the version with a thick bottom plate (protection against potholes and stones), can sell their new car at an enormous profit upon arrival. In this car I am taken to a hotel in the city, all windows open. There is much to see, hear and smell. In order of emotional impact: the deafening noise, the overwhelming smells, the loud images.

Colourful signboards and slogans all over the place. They adorn buildings, trucks and mammy wagons, collision with which can only be avoided at the very last moment. The local passion: dangerous overtaking. Some slogans on mammy wagons and trucks try to be helpful, like: ‘Hornb4 Overtaking’. A truck, full of mobile toilets, has an artistic painting on the back: ‘Shit business is serious business!’ Slogans on the cabins of mammy wagons are philosophical, practical or religious, like: ‘Time shall tell’, ‘No condition is permanent’, ‘No destination, why hurry!’, ‘Safety is of the Lord’. Indeed! A cattle truck packed with people admonishes the drivers behind: “No Standing”. All this leaves me breathless and I sympathise with an a enormous painting on the back of a truck: ‘Oh, my Mother’.

Rows of men in long robes stand along a ditch, having a community pee, and rather visibly, too. We have to stop frequently. Traffic jam. Fights between drivers. These stops offer business opportunities to newspaper boys and sellers of clothes or smuggled cigarettes, who surround the car, arguing and elbowing. Some two or three boys simultaneously offer their services to wash the wind screen. Pandemonium all around.

The hotel. From a distance it looks attractive, it is surrounded by palms and it has gardens along the waterfront. Inside, no airconditioning, it is broken, no spare parts until the next ship arrives and is cleared through customs which takes ages. The smell in the room  is more difficult to suffer than the heat.

The next day, I am picked up by an expat colleague. Near to the office, we park his car in a large empty space along the water. As we get out of the car, we are surrounded by a band of cheerful but mutilated lads. “They take care of my car collectively,’ says my new colleague, ‘it costs very little, I pay The Chief and he takes care of the rest.’

The Chief is a smiling young man without legs who propels himself with ease and rapidity on a wooden board on four old metal rollerskate wheels. It is evident that my colleague is on very good terms with this team. He knows them all by their first names, he cracks crude jokes with them which I find a bit shocking but which are obviously much appreciated by his friends and returned in kind. Rather startled, I follow my colleague to the office. The culture shock continues.

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Colombia in the sixties (3): Cafecito Puccini

During my career, I have often flown in helicopters. All sorts. My first heli flight, in Colombia,  was in a Bell 47, a dragonfly-like aircraft. Later, in other countries,  I flew hundreds of kilometers above the  sea, in large Sikorskis and Pumas. Once in a Chinook, a big two-engined banana, which I found a pretty scary machine, to a lay-man it appears to be so much more unstable than a single-engined one.

The flights in the dragonfly I remember best of all. 1964. A never ending industrial strike. Hit and run sabotage of our powerlines through the jungle, with homemade boleadoras, like those  in use with the Argentine gauchos. The saboteurs, formally disavowed by the Sindicato, move rapidly from place to place. So we patrol the kilometers long clearing through the forest by helicopter, keeping in contact with army patrols on the ground. We have left the small glass doors behind. I hang in the  straps, looking vertically downwards over the side, walkie-talkie in hand, passing on information to the army. Funny feeling, to hang in the sky like a buzzard. On another occasion, having taken off from the plateau of Bucaramanga, we cross a mountain range with a few meters to spare (helicopter pilots love that) and suddenly there is 1500 meters of empty space between me and the earth, which I cannot clearly see because of a layer of morning haze covering the ground. Think of it: you sit in your chair, elbows on knees, looking straight down through a glass bubble, watching the trees and the rocks slowly pass backwards below you and then oops,  you’re in space. A sudden very strange feeling in the stomach region. Silly reaction: you grab something firm, as you are holding your breath and close your eyes. Not for very long though, because, as the hangman said to his client: ‘one gets used to everything, my son, even to hanging.’

One day, the Bell 47 takes me to an outpost some thirty kilometers down the Magdalena River. With my bags and instruments, the pilot and I only just fit in the bubble. The glass doors are closed this time, with simple leather straps like those an a saddle bag. As we  follow a straight line, skimming across the swamps lining the  river, Toni looks out for duck, the Pato Real. He is our Italian-American pilot, dark blue polo shirt, cigar butt in the corner of his mouth, red baseball cap, Rayban sunglasses. A cool dude. He grins and tells me over the intercom that now and then, when he has some time to spare, he chases flights of Pato Real until some of them drop on a stretch of dry ground, by exhaustion or heart attack. He then lands to pick them up and wring their necks, if still necessary. ‘Nice guy’, I ponder, ‘must come from Sicily and have relatives in Chicago .’ (I had just seen the film Some like it hot ).

A little while later, he gives me the surprise of my life. We are flying above the rain forest. A broccoli field, as far as the eye can see. He points at a distant thin column of smoke. ‘Let’s go listen to Puccini’, he says. We land in a small clearing, vertically, engine roaring and rotor flapping. Next to a wooden house. An elderly couple comes out to greet us and offers us a cafecito. What on earth are these people doing here, in the middle of nowhere? I understand that they have a very large vegetable garden and a speed boat, which takes them to the Magdalena along a tiny stream. ‘What kind of vegetable?’,  I ask myself as I am writing these lines, almost 50 years later.

Then, in a corner of the room, I see a large chestnut cupboard. The man opens its doors and I gaze into the mouth of an enormous phonograph. Victrola. He then opens the toplid, puts on a record, installs a fresh bamboo needle in the pick-up, winds up the motor and off we go. Puccini! Toscanini! Viva Italia! Toni looks a happy man. I am amazed at the volume and quality of the sound coming out of this pre-historic machine, both are much better than I had imagined. We stay for about half an hour, listening and chatting. Then we have to continue our journey. Toni does not say much. Only: ‘Good cafecito, let’s get a move on.’

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Colombia in the sixties (2): Jungle golf

Colombia. Rainforest, 1963. During the Second World War, The Firm has built a settlement here, complete with houses, offices and workshops. A hospital catering for almost all interventions. Schools. Two thousand small houses for the workmen, grouped together in what is called La Colonia. Separated from the Colonia by the golf course, a small group of some hundred houses for the employees. Forest on all sides. In the rainy season, this area is sometimes flooded. For that reason, these houses are built on high dikes in interconnected loops, some 3 meters above ground level. Looking downward inside these loops, one sees dense shrubbery which hides snakes, iguanas and other crawly creatures. There is a cinema. Separate clubs for staff employees and workers. The staff employees have their own swimming pool and the nine-hole golf course with 18 holes, cut out from the jungle, with its own separate club house. There is also a well-stocked commisariato, a kind of  small supermarket, run by a tiny Scotsman, scratch golfer, who speaks Spanish as fluently and rapidly as the locals but with hilarious mistakes like saying fundido instead of fundado with great aplomb, when talking about the year that Cartagena de las Indias was founded. The Colombians love that and never correct him. Some kilometers away  from the camp, close to a small lake in the jungle ominously called the Laguna de Miedo, stands the power generating plant provides electricity to the installations and the living areas. It is connected to the camp by high tension lines running high up in the air, in between the tree tops, along a narrow clearing. Just outside the camp, there is a Colombian military base, housing our private battalion which guards the camp and the installations. The roads are scratched out of the surface by bulldozers and graders and have been sprayed with a very thin layer of liquid asphalt. The surface is hard but it becomes very skiddy under the slightest drop of rain. If that happens when you’re on the road, you have to hammer the yellow handle in the  Landrover with your fist to engage four-wheel drive and be able to continue your journey on the road in a straight line. At the landing of the ferry and around the road barrier at the camp’s entrance, plenty of soldiers in American fatigues and caps to match. In the camp bus, there is always a soldier next to the driver.

Outside working hours, there is nothing else to do but play golf. No television, no cultural life of any kind. Except german style nine-pin bowling. So I buy a second-hand golfset and take lessons. No wind. We’re situated  somewhere in the middle between the Caribbean coast and  Bogotá in the mountains.The 1500 kms or so in between: mostly jungle filled. When somebody lights a cigarette on a putting green, the cloud of smoke hangs motionless in the air. Until you walk through it. One day, as we are walking down a fairway, we hear a rustling in the palmtrees. Not caused by any  wind. It is caused by a temblor, a slight earthquake which shakes the trees. Over here, there are small earth quakes every day, like everywhere along the Andes.  We carry on, passing some houses overlooking the fairway and hear  Louis Armstrong. Weird, to hear Hello Dolly in these surroundings. Must be the new Dutch schoolteacher, who claims to have the black belt in judo. Very effective deterrent indeed, it keeps the Don Juans at bay.

One day, I can hardly sit or walk or lie down. Hospital. I am going to be seen by the chief doctor. As I am entering his room, he is busy. On the carpet, with a rather extravagant looking putter. Trying to tap a golfball into a tiny tin. ‘Three yard putts are the meanest’ he says, in English. Apparently he is not too impressed by my Spanish. ‘Sit down, have an ant’. On his desk I see a tin of large chocolate covered ants, hormigas culonas. ‘A proven aphrodiac’, he says, carrying on with his putting without any hurry. I try a few. I’m surprised, they taste quite nice, actually. I like the crackling sound  as I munch them. I am not surprised to see the head physician practicing golf. All the doctors here are fanatic golfers. Most ‘inmates’in this camp are quite healthy. The doctors are here ‘just in case’, por si acaso, because we are so isolated from the outside world. They have short and lucrative contracts and use the time to lower their handicap.

The doctor sees how I am struggling, listens to my story and says: ‘Over here, we have always 30 C and 100 % humidity. You run in and out of aircondioned offices. Hot and cold and wet and dry. There is only one remedy and that is: Vitamin B pills. Take a few a day, like I take my ants.’ He puts a mega-pot vitamin B capsules  on his desk, in front of me. ‘Put on some weight, too, Negativo, that will help.’

I measure 1m87 and weigh 64 kilos. The locals give every gringo a nick-name upon arrival. One single glance is enough for them and you have your name. You’re stuck with it for the rest of your stay. Mine is ‘El Negativo’, although they find me a cheerful and positive fellow. I make them think of a photo negative. I love it.

 

 

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Colombia in the sixties (1): El Jefe

1963. Just arrived in the heart of the steamy jungles of Colombia. Landed by Superconstellation in Barrancabermeja, a small city on the banks of the river Magdalena. First encounter with the damp heat which prevails anywhere around the equator, all around the globe. 30 degrees, 100 % humidity, 365/365.  As I was descending from the plane, it felt as if a hot wet towel was draped around me. There is someone waiting for me. Don Germán. We drive by Landrover through sand streets. I see vaqueros and pistoleros on small horses. A big knob on the saddle, lasso hanging down. The typical Colombian woven hats. My first thought association is with  ‘Le salaire de la Peur’, the blood curling movie with Yves Montand. Same sort of streets, same sort of people. High Noon feeling, too. We stop for cigarettes at a Lebanese shop. In a corner I see a powerful radio transmitter, the owner is in daily contact with Beirut, he says. We continue along bumpy streets. Some girls of pleasure stand chatting in front of their operating base, the Hotel Pipatón, the largest building around with, appropriately, a red roof. Only then I discover the river, which races along, wildly, risen to almost street level. Floating trees. It is the rainy season. The stone stairs towards the river are now submerged. I am told that once the rainy season is over, frantic activities along those steps will resume, loading boats with green bananas, for example. Along the bank, a flotilla of ‘aluminios’ is awaiting customers. These small aluminium speedboats with colossal outboard engines pull at their moorings, nose up in the air. We drive the Landrover onto a two-story ferry. It takes us across the river along a parabola shaped trajectory, first upstream against the strong current, then crossing the very wide river,  then dropping off downstream and braking, with the propellors in reverse before mooring, the engines roaring. I see young soldiers in American fatigues, bored, finger at the trigger. A loud beng, laughs, one of them has shot a tiny bird out of a high tree. ‘Keeps him sharp’, says Don Germán. ‘Apparently, bullets are not counted here before and after guard duty’, I reply, remembering my days on duty, in military service. A long drive through the jungle, along a clay road. We stop at a military checkpoint at the entrance to the camp. Once inside, I see modestly sized houses, their windows without glass, but with mosquito screens. Only the bedrooms have glass windows. Some of these houses have a roaring airconditioning unit protruding from the bedroom wall.

The next day, I have  to present myself to the  head of the DAS, the Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad. I am taken there without delay. I wait in his untidy hot  office for more than an hour. Not particularly cooling my heels. On the desk I see, facing me, a signboard. A fairly large smudged piece of white paper glued on a piece of carton.  It says JEFE in large letters, each of which is composed of a very large number of typed capitals X. It must have taken someone, the Jefe himself in all likelihood, the better part of a day to figure it out and type it. Towards the end of the afternoon, the Jefe steps in. He seems to be in a hurry. A somewhat unkempt man, unshaven, installs himself behind the desk. He interrogates me thoroughly. A severe test on my budding Spanish. After filling in many forms and signing numerous declarations, he takes prints of my fingers. Rolling them over, one by one, side to side, on an ink pad. All ten of them. He then pours a small hill of white kitchen scouring powder into my cupped left hand. Thus armed, I am taken to a tiny wash basin in the corridor where I am invited to clean my pitchblack fingertips under a very small trickle of water. I am back in the camp just before dusk.

 

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