Saturday, January 22, 2011

I WILL SURVIVE


At some point during the day we cross the border. I'm not sure where, or when, cramped as i am into the back of this tiny Yugo for the long drive back from Dubrovnik. It seems this car has only two shock absorbers - and we are both stuck in the back, sweating like pigs. Lili raises her head from time to time to take in the scenery, while i lie slumped against a non-functional window winder. Goran, at the wheel of this Yugoslavian version of hell on wheels, is attempting to set a land speed record for the slowest ever circumnavigation of Kotor lake. I feel every bump, every nuance of his hand on the wheel.

I muse on the disappointment that was Dubrovnik. Cruiseships of tourists forensically traipsing its stony streets; a brute force of clueless investigators. The Croatian restaurant prices rising in direct proportion to the slowness and rudeness of their waiters. The residents mimicking the drabness and dullness of their visitors, blending with the tourists in shapeless t-shirts, thongs, long shorts - and the men are not dressed much better - with their backpacks, digital cameras, and Amex cards. Banal. That's the word for it: banal. Dubrovnik: a lifeless, decrepit stone monument to the banal turista.

Still, the sea was a nice colour.

Driving back, we pass two tall, tanned girls walking side-by-side along the road. I pull a muscle in my neck as i turn to watch them slowly diminish in the rear window, in their high heeled shoes, stylised make-up, long raven hair, tiger-print bikinis, and legs.
Montenegro, da? i ask Goran, our Yugo pilot.
Da.
I thought so.

We part company with Goran and Valentina at the waterfront with meaningless platitudes and promises to catch up soon. What i really need is a drink and a lie down. A good strong drink and a good lie down. And some shade. And a chair. My needs and wants are minimal. We weave our way along the boulevard towards our street. Everywhere, the tall Montenegran women sway their bikini-and-shawl-clad hips, some with their hair piled high, others wearing it long over hooped earrings and smooth, spotless olive skin. God, i need a drink. Walking up to our room overlooking the bay, we watch as two muscular guys come barrelling down the winding mountain road on Yamaha road bikes, racing each other at speed, leaning into corners with about six degrees of separation between them and the hot bitumen. No shirts, no shoes, no helmets. They pass with a sound like hornets slung from a slingshot.

Lili and i continue up the winding, near-vertical climb as one of these maniacs roars back up the hill, the other presumably dead in a ditch somewhere. We pass a gym, its doors open wide onto the pavement, and as i glance in i see what looks like a heavyweight fighter belting the shit out of a big black punching bag. Probably practising for the next turista who happens to look sideways at his girlfriend. We climb higher up the side of the mountain, towards our room at the villa. Bright white houses fan out behind us around the bay, asleep in the afternoon sun, catching a slight breeze under the hot orange din of the terracotta tiles. The pool of the Hotel Avala lies still beneath us, the sweeping resort almost devoid of guests, its vaulting lobbies and promenades having witnessed more sublime times.

The old lady greets us on the terrace, and brings out a tray of ice, water and Coca Cola. We slump in the shade, absorbing the curves of the white wooden lilos. I need alcohol. I'm too tired and parched to talk, so i signal to Lili with a simultaneous raising of wrist and eyebrow. Lili translates. The old lady with the white hair nods, disappearing back into the villa, and returning with a bottle of something with a label that looks ... ah ... local. I pour a splash over ice, and add some coke.

I met Lili at university, after returning as an allegedly 'mature' age student to study philosophy and photography. And women, like Lili – forever changing my disinterested, anarchic, and vaguely nihilistic attitude to politics. I met her, ironically, in a Practical Ethics class. On semester break i stole her from her dull-witted uni-student boyfriend, packed her into a borrowed car, and drove her up the coast, camping all the way from Cervantes to Broome, where we ran out of money and lived on one of the northern creeks, cooking up fish from the mangroves with a few vegetables. Lili had been dragged to Australia from a beautiful, tourist spa town in central Serbia by her mother, kicking and screaming, at the tender age of 17, knowing barely a phrase of English. She had been suffering post-Terra Australis depression ever since. She had barely been out of the city, so our regular forays into the bush introduced her to this weathered and beautifully brutal red land. It altered her perception. As did the drugs. But don't get me started on drugs.

It seems we are drinking šljivovica. I can feel it putting hair on my chest with each sip. I twirl my moustache. Judging by the label, my testicles are about to swell up like two huge blue plums. I raise my glass in honour of my beautiful sidekick, Lili. It doesn't count unless you look each other in the eye. She taught me that.

На здоровье!

After knocking back a few, i realise Lili is deep in conversation with the old lady with the white hair. Later, in our room, she tells me what they were talking about. It seems the "old lady" is younger than me. Her husband was the same age as me when he died. 42. Sitting in a café in Belgrade, sipping coffee with his wife, talking about nothing in particular when a NATO bomb struck the street.

His wife's hair went white overnight.

There is a disco here which goes all night long. It's loud. I can't sleep. Ah well, if you can't beat them (and you can't - they have security) join them. I suggest to Lili that we should venture out and join the eurotrash now dancing to the strains of a house version of Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive". The clubs are like an endless screening of Fashion TV, the fabulous women in their perpetual high heels clad in little more than underwear, parading up and down anything that looks like a catwalk, the men muscular, shirtless, and ridiculously tall.

I'm too drunk, Lili says.
Well let's fuck, i suggest, remembering the time in the hotel in the middle of Belgrade last week, when she was leaning half-undressed on the windowsill, looking out onto the street ...
I'm too drunk, Lili says.
So how about you slip into something more comfortable, like a coma, i suggest, in what passes as foreplay when you've drunk half a bottle of šljivovica. I take a swig from the bottle secreted by the bedside, my testicles swollen like plums, and fall asleep.

In the morning, i hire a scooter and we shake off our hangovers as we breeze down the coast to Sveti Stefan. The views are spectacular. I pull over and we soak it in, the narrow causeway stretching out to the sheer walls of the island citadel, perched dramatically on the outrageous cyan of the Adriatic. We head down to a beachside bar to swim and lie under an umbrella on a lezalika. As i take off again along the winding mountain roads, Lili begins belting me about the head. I round a blind curve and come face-to-face with an oncoming truck, and i realise she is trying to gently remind me that we are not in Australia and i should, ideally, be on the other side of the road.
When i signed the scooter hire contract, i noticed it did at least acknowledge the fact that an accident was inevitable if you rode the scooter long enough:

Mini Moto does not contribute to the insurancy of a person who rents the vehicle or the third person in case of the eventual accident. Hmm.

When we first rode out this morning, were immediately overtaken by the maniac on the Yamaha R1 we'd seen tearing up the mountain yesterday. Last i saw of him, he was pulling a wheelstand down a crowded main street, between pedestrians, cars, and market stalls. At least when Valentino Rossi races, they are all going in the same direction.
Of course no-one here wears a motorcycle helmet. And who are we to break this centuries-old Balkan tradition?
On the way back into Budva, we miss the turnoff and are stuck on the main road – steep, busy, with nowhere to stop and turn around – so we just keep going, up the winding mountain road, before plunging into a dark tunnel where i can't find the headlamp switch and we ride on screaming at oncoming headlights on both sides of the road – until we emerge on the far side of the mountain to a brightly stunning, sheer view down a beautiful beach about a kilometre below.

We swim, we explore, we ride. We drink like loons. At the end of the day we find ourselves on a hillside at Podmaine Monastery, taking photographs and talking to a mad Serb who wants to drive us around his village in his Mercedes and treat us to a pig on a spit. Thanks, champ, but no thanks. We go inside and i light a candle for Alexei's mother. I am deep in contemplation when a rather striking-looking nun arrives, and ushers us into the kitchen, where we sit on a wooden bench at a wooden table with the monks as she serves soup, bread, and shopska salad.

Montenegro. Even the fucking nuns are sexy.

Monday, January 10, 2011

JUANITA'S WILD ANIMAL PASSION

I'm straining the coffee grinds through my teeth, the ceiling fans whirring like upside down helicopters, when the Indo man enters the cafe and greets me like an old friend. Oh dear. He must be selling something. At this juncture i might consider life insurance, but not much else. I see is carrying an ornately carved wooden tube, about thirty inches long, which he raises to his lips. Oh no. Ethnic music.

He blows suddenly and hard, and a six-inch steel dart appears with a thwack in the wooden column next to my head. He smiles, and holds out the instrument for my inspection. I shake my head. Undeterred, he demonstrates how the weapon comes apart, folding down into a short tube. '100,000 rupiah. From Kalimantan.'

It's Christmas in two days. I consider briefly whether any friends or family members could benefit from a gift-wrapped set of blowpipe and poison darts.
'No, thank you. Far too impractical,' i say as he fits the darts one by one inside the tube. 'I prefer the Smith and Wesson.'
He shows me the wrapped product in a short tube of newspaper and cardboard.
'Very good, very small,' he says. 'Only 100,000. from Kalimantan.'
I shake my head and return to my typing. 'Sorry. I'm working. Terima kasih.'
I wave him away. I'm loving this little folding keyboard. Somehow the phone knows when i open up the keyboard, and lets me type little stories. Blue teeth. I don't pretend to understand them, but, like women, you don't have to understand them to love them. And soon i will publish my first blog post created directly from this freshly blown technological bubble. I'm back in the zone. Back in the zone, man. I strain more coffee grinds and keep typing.

The taxi driver has now developed a nervous twitch, a kind of car-based St Vitus Dance. We have, by some miracle, suddenly found ourselves on a stretch of open road in the centre of Jakarta. But the driver has become catatonic, and is nervously scratching while veering across the road, lurching about in a series of sudden stops and starts. Clearly his meth-addled brain is having difficulty processing the idea of a traffic free -

'For you sir, 90,000 rupiah.' The bubble bursts as though pricked by a dart.
The smiling Indonesian again proffers his newspaper-wrapped bundle of Christmas joy.
'Please, I am writing,' i beg. 'Terima kasih.'

After driving at a lunatic pace between lanes on Jakarta's main roads - barrelling along the breakdown lane, passing cars and trucks on the inside, pushing his way though traffic with millimetres to spare - after driving at impossibly high speeds through dense traffic, twisting across lanes to avoid looming police traps, he is now on a stretch of open road, and appears not to know what to do. Now he scratches wildly at his feet, which he has lifted up (thankfully one at a time) to rest on the steering wheel. Now he is scratching wildly at his back. We have come to a complete halt on a roundabout in Jakarta Plaza. Cars make their way around us like a creek around a fallen tree before he suddenly breaks out of his torpor and is whirled away into the stream of traffic, cutting off and almost sideswiping a driver in a black 4WD.

'Please sir, you buy now?'
I sigh. 'Mate, even if i wanted a portable pygmy blowpipe, which i don't, it would never pass through customs. And if i really wanted to kill someone, which i don't, i'd use a gun, not some souvenir from the wilds of Borneo.'
'No sir, customs no problem. You can take. I promise. If you no can take, you come back and kill me.' He thrusts his chest forward as a potential target. Hmm. This is one of the more bizarre lifetime guarantees i've come across.
'How about i save us both some time and kill you now?' i suggest.

I cast a sidelong glance at the taksi driver. His red eyes are narrowed to slits. Beads of sweat form on his brow and his shirt is soaked, despite the arctic blast of the aircon. He is clearly the throes of some Malaccan drug overdose. Perhaps they have cut his meth with cyanide.
'You OK?' i ask. Not that i particularly care - but i do want to find a hotel sometime before midnight. Everything is taking far too long. Late connecting flights, and now all this traffic. Who would have thought they'd be celebrating Christmas on the roads of Indonesia? 'We arrive Jalan Jaksa soon, yes?'
He has slipped back into his toe-scratching reverie. In answer to my question, he selects another tune on his dumb smartphone. Once the volume is turned up full, he slides the shiny device into a slot on the dashboard, where it blares out a harrowing, distorted whine.
'Mariah Carey!' he shouts.
I press my eyes into my hands.

The man touting the blowgun has finally relented, and is now simply sitting at my table, smiling. I'm waiting for Juanita, former lifestyle editor of the Phnom Penh Post. She is threatening to take me to Jakarta's wildlife market. She wants to adopt a slow loris, and needs me to help her choose one. I'm not sure i am ready for this level of commitment. My son's girlfriend has just had a baby boy, and this is as close to caring for a small simian creature as i care to get.

'Isn't this illegal?' i asked her over the phone from my room on Jalan Jaksa.
'Yes and no,' she said. 'Everything is illegal; everything is permitted. But I think I can give a lazy loris a better life than it would have otherwise.' A pause. 'But then, buying these animals just encourages the trade.'
'Oh dear. It sounds like human trafficking. Why don't you just get yourself a slave? A slave would at least be useful. What does a lazy loris do, anyway?'
'Nothing. They do nothing. And when they move, which is hardly ever, they move very, very slowly.'
I've had experiences like that. They must subsist on a steady diet of magic mushrooms. That would explain why they have eyes like saucers and can barely move.
'So what happened to Billy?' i asked, in reference to the pet crocodile she had in Bali.
'Billy and i no longer talk. He was a little shit.'
'And your pet rabbit?'
'The rabbit died. I don't know why.'
'I'm not convinced your apartment is a safe haven for wildlife, Juanita. Can't we just rescue the loris from the market and return it to the wild?'
'We'd have to fly to Sumatra. And besides, the monkey dentist removes his teeth so he can't bite, so i don't think he would survive. It's a jungle out there.'
My curiosity getting the better of me, I arranged to meet Juanita and go with her to the illegal wildlife market. Given the layers of satire and irony in which Juanita's existence is swaddled, i had my doubts that she actually wanted to adopt a slow loris. This whole escapade is probably a ploy to pursue some investigative journalism on the illegal wildlife trade in Indonesia. But you never know with Juanita.

The pet markets are, on the surface, what you would expect - full of the usual innocuous, domesticated animals. Thousands of caged birds piled one upon the other, their tiny bamboo apartments heading ever upward as though in a frustrated attempt to return to their occupants to the sky. We chance upon some glass boxes of tiny hamsters, and Juanita scratches one awake. Apparently he is 'too cute', although the more probable reason for her not pocketing him and taking him home is the frosty reception her prior rabbit got from the management of her ultra-modern serviced apartment. We press on through the menagerie. Kittens, guinea pigs, carpet snakes, geckos, and all manner of birds, from racing pigeons to an astonishingly large black cock (oops, did i say that out loud?)

Juanita has elected to come with a guide, who asks around, enquiring as to the availability of a lazy loris, and immediately finds a willing seller. We set out across the market, following our agent as he gestures us on, winding through the seemingly endless production line of cages and caged animals. We follow our man and the mystery seller through the market before coming to the gate to his apartment.

The wildlife merchant slides the steel bolt of the gate open, and we sidle up the dank concrete stairs into an airless concrete room. Our agent speaks rapidly to him in language and he nods, yes, yes, before disappearing around a concrete wall at one end of the room, into what appears to be a toilet. Juanita looks at me and raises an eyebrow. Almost immediately the wildlife merchant reappears, carrying a steel mesh cage harbouring a loris, or cus cus, which he sets of the floor in front of us. The small furry creature - ridiculously cute and sad looking with its enormous, black ringed eyes - is curled in abject fear on the floor of its cage, head down, looking up at us piteously. We stare at the lazy loris purveyor accusingly, and, believing the animal is not up to our expectations, he shrugs his shoulders, returns behind the concrete wall and comes back with another two cages containing a pair of slightly less traumatised-looking creatures. He says something in Indonesian. 'From Sumatra,' explains our guide.

Juanita takes a fancy to one of them and points, asking how much. The loris purveyor indulges in a deep and extended conversation with our guide.

'One million rupiah,' he says in translation, 'though I think you can get it for less. Maybe 300,000.'
'What do they eat?' asks Juanita. 'Worms?'
The guide patiently explains how unlikely it would be that a tree-dwelling marsupial would eat worms.

No wonder her rabbit died, I'm thinking. She was probably feeding it octopus.

We take several photographs of the caged animals, to the point where the owner becomes impatient and suspicious. We have not bothered to make an offer on any of his animals, and seem to be treating his apartment as a private zoo. I mention this to Juanita.
'Who cares,' she says, 'The guy is an arsehole. What kind of person keeps wild animals in cages in his toilet?'