Atchafalaya Swamp

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

An Evening In Africa

Between A Gated Community and a War Zone

It was 6.00 p.m. on a Tuesday on a hot African bush evening. I was smoking outside my container office, eagerly waiting for the food to arrive, and along with the food, two of my crew and fresh laundry.

I was but a few hundred kilometers from the borders of Uganda, Kenya, Congo, Central African Republic and Ethiopia, in the southern-most corner of Sudan.

As a “key personnel”, I was required to be on site, but the rest of the crew lived at the ‘camp’; the ‘camp’ being 10 km away on a bone–jarring ride by pick-up truck. The container cabin at the rig where I was sequestered is comfortably equipped with bunk beds and a shower. I share this cabin with my Romanian colleague Ciprian (pronounced Cheep-ri-yan) who is, in rig parlance, my night guy – taking care of activities between sunup and sundown.

The date was 2 August 2005, and I had no inkling that ‘war’ had already started.

My uncouth oilfield brain would later say, hey, this is interesting, how often does a middle-class Bolehsian get to experience being in a war zone, and in the dark corners of Africa at that?

Ciprian and I stood uncomfortably swatting mosquitoes while chain smoking cigarettes in a pathetic attempt to additionally thwart the agressive mozzies away. These are not your run-of-the-mill mozzies, no sir, but killer ones guaranteed to cause malaria; they are also more persistent and a shade bigger than you find in Bolehsia. Thwack! I gave my face a sharp slap but missed the damned mozzie. So what else is new? And where the hell is that pick-up?

(Ciprian posing away)

Ususally the pick-up would arrive by a quarter to six carrying our two north Sudanese (a distinction is made here, northerners are invariably Moslems) crewmembers, along with our food and clean laundry. Occasionally, the clean laundry and food would go ‘missing’, and for the latter I will be forced to pry into my emergency ration of Yeo’s Curry Chicken or Maggi Mee, whose stock was already fast dwindling.

As we stomped the finished cigarette with our steel toes, only to immediately light another one with my Zippo, the tell-tale dust trail in the distance beckoned. Finally, our empty bellies would soon be filled by some bread and beans! A note about the bread here: Some client rep once remarked that if you throw that offending bun at a dog’s head with sufficient force, you might invariably kill the poor canine – it was that hard. I was also eager to eat quickly so I can rid the red dust of my coveralls and have my dirty laundry sent back to the camp. I was left with just one pair of coveralls, and if I lose any more I will then be reduced to wearing jeans and t-shirts - which will look silly on a drilling rig, not to mention unsafe.

Presently the red pick-up (originally white) came to a halt. My empty gut told me something was wrong. Our driver Hafiz, a Darfur native or thereabouts, stepped out with an expression bordering on fear. My two crewmembers Ma’mon and Bashir stayed rooted in the rear seats. As it was already dark, it was hard to see their faces.


Hafiz, our driver, cut to the chase.

“They cannot stay in camp, boss, just now Ma’mon got beaten in the galley while eating dinner,” the words came tumbling out in sing-song African lilt.

Before I could respond, he continued, “Didn’t you know? John Garang killed in chopper crash Sunday . . . martial law declared by President Omar (El-Bashir) yesterday . . . looting, burning in Khartoum”.

What? Looting? Burning? I heard myself thinking; no wonder I couldn’t reach my boss in Khartoum last night.

I rushed to the rear doors. Ma’mon looked forlorn, his large African chiseled head nestling in his hands. Bashir, the quiet one, just stared ahead, as if in shock. I opened the door, and Ma’mon slowly raised his head to look at me, his eyes red from crying.

“I’m scared . . go back to camp, boss, the bloody Christian workers want to kill us …” his voice trailed. “OK man, go inside, go relax in the container”, was all I could say.

He looked none the worse for wear, for someone who was ‘beaten’ I mean, and except for a few scratches and the scruff coveralls, torn near the pockets, he was, in my estimation, probably just a victim of some spirited pushing and shoving. No harm done, I thought. But still I needed to quickly evacuate these two North Sudanese back to Khartoum just the same.

The threat is very real, the Southerners hate the Northerners with a vengeance, and no telling what the recriminations will be, especially if John Garang’s death was an assassination ordered by Khartoum. Only three weeks had passed with Dr. Garang’s appointment as Sudan’s Vice-President in a landmark peace treaty cum power-sharing agreement with Bashir's government. The motive was definitely there. Why share power when you can suck that Black Gold out in wanton abandon rather than share it with the infidel Christians?

The capital, being a thousand kilometers away, is served only by an air charter service provided by our client. The dusty airfield (well, it gets muddy if it rains, which is often) is about 30 kilometers away, so I needed to contact my bosses in Khartoum to get the client to send in the twin-propeller Beechcraft.

I later found out that all civilian aircraft in Khartoum was grounded.

I went inside the container office and grabbed the ‘Thuraya’ satellite phone. My hands were shaking, and I even failed to notice that the pick-up was bereft of packed bread and beans. Worse, I also ignored my gnawing hunger. I quickly scrolled down the address list and hit ‘Call’.

“Come on, pick it up”, I cursed under my breath. A few attempts later my boss’s high-pitched wail crackled in. He tried to hide the panic in his voice as he explained that he was holed up in so-and-so apartment, and that the office would be closed until further notice. Martial law was already declared, and he dared not even go back to his apartment as the news reports there said his part of town was the worst affected. They were already deaths in Khartoum. Yes, yes, I know all that, I replied, but he quickly hung up.

He was holed with three families with crying spouses and infants in that so-and-so’s apartment meant for just one family. He was also having tough time, he claimed, and if that was an understatement, I don’t know what is.

In effect, he more or less told me I was on my own. Time to take the bull by the horns, I muttered to myself.

Moslems versus Christians, North versus South.

To be honest, flashes of scenes of the gated community I lived in Bolehsia did pass by me; scenes of my then twelve-year old and four-year old boy happily playing in the park straddling an odd-sounding place called The Curve. And my darling and eternally suffering wife, coming home from work, stopping at the park to take the boys home. Never in wildest dreams did I consider not being able to see them again.

The workers on the rig, being mostly of the Southern Christian variety, a sub-Dinka tribe that Garang belonged to, were all ready to revolt. This was after all, their territory.

Drilling was suspended, as the roughnecks refused to go the rig floor. Ciprian and I climbed up to the floor to see if we can double-handedly continue the drilling operations. But the headlights of a familiar pick-up bearing the SPLA sub-commander was making its way to our site, replete with a heavy caliber machine gun looming menacingly in the rear, causing us stop mid-way up.

I knew the sub-commander would be looking for me.

The reason we had a 'relationship' going was because I had a portable satellite phone. Indeed, a most valuable commodity in the bushes of Africa. And he was probably just as lost as I was and needed to find out from his rebel commanders up the hierarchy as to who would fill Dr. Garang’s big shoes. And what the next course of action will be. Slaughter all the foreigners on the rig, perhaps? How about holding them hostage for hard currency?

In the course of our ‘friendship’, Commander Johnson as he liked to be called, had many times been at liberty of sampling my cigarettes and whisky (ho, ho the latter is used a ‘bargaining chip’), and the dollar-a-minute phone of course. Not too mention the tons of bottled mineral water for his goons.

The Commander's goons goofing off...

Commander Johnson, in my book, is one of the good guys. My bleeding heart will always give ANYBODY the benefit of the doubt, even if they were to show up with rifles and side-arms.

After having spent some time picking his brains in the past, I came to the conclusion that indeed, the SPLA rebels had a valid grouse against the government (read: Moslems in Khartoum). I not only sympathized with the rebels, but also grew to view the government in Sudan with distaste, much like I view the government in Bolehsia.

Now this is dicey, for I claim to be Moslem, and Commander Johnson knows this. But the good Christian Commander also knows Mat Salo is a ‘good guy’ (hopefully the feeling is mutual). Now as I walked to his battered truck, I needed to get Commander on my side more than ever.

I noticed he still had his shades on, even when it was well past sundown.

Without much preamble, I handed Commander Johnson the phone. I was sweating bullets, I admit, but forced myself to slow my movements, in an effort to show I was relaxed and without a trace of fear. I didn't want to give the good commander any 'ideas'. But honestly? Where it matters most, they 'jewels' had already shrunk on its own accord.

I needed to ask him a safe passage for my two North Sudanese engineers to Heglig, where our base sat eight hours away in the safe cocoon of Government (North Sudanese) control.

I gently coaxed him to provide armed escort for my crew to the so-called ‘demarcation’ line, about three hours away. As ‘head’ of my cell, I was already doing a couple ‘CYA’ motions to comply with my company’s extra-stringent ‘journey management’ policy. The manual stated, a trifle bit ambigously, ‘ ensure armed escort for personnel movements'. But it failed to specify from which 'side'. As long as the 'escorts' are armed, that’s good enough for me.

Right away I saw the irony, and possibly the folly of my quest.

And again, scenes of the guardhouse of my Bolehsian gated community flashed before me.

Imagine then, as an asinine analogy, the Residents Association of the housing estate convening a meeting. The security company that the residents employed has absconded, because one of the guards was badly injured in a scuffle for thwarting a robbery attempt. And the break-ins, which have been going on too long already, so they decided to deal with the devil. Thus the ‘thief’ was now called in to provide security. It does nothing for their piece of mind, I tell you, but in terms of performance, it does wonders. No more break-ins at the gated community.

And that was exactly what I was doing, negotiating with the ‘devil’.

But ah, this is the devil I know, and sure enough, a few ‘swigs’ later, and a carton of Chinese cigarettes to sweeten the deal, Commander Johnson agreed for a pick-up to chaperone the ‘valuable assets’ of a multinational oil service company, for evacuation to Heglig the next day.

Thus the insidious seed was planted in my idiotic nether region that I was never going back to that hole in the wall they call Africa.

I miss my ‘gated community’ too, too damned much, and all it contained there-in.

And that was how I found myself in the boondocks of Borneo not too long after.

In happier days, when Dr. John Garang was still alive and Mat Salo without a care in the world . . . Again, no prizes for guessing which one's Mat Salo (hint: he doesn't claim to be a non-smoker)

© Mat Salo All Images from various borrowed cameras.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Hal Politikus


“Shit, Dang . . .” I just can’t believe it.

How the hell did he get here?

The ‘he’ I’m talking about is none other than kickdefella– blogger extraordinaire, film director, political commentator, social satirist - and if I may, grand-nephew of the current CM of Kelantan. What a resume, huh.

What I couldn’t believe was - ‘sheih’ as he calls himself, had a paid a visit to my blog and left a comment. Man, in the realm of Bolehsian blogosphere, I’m just one of the many, many, many anonymous bloggers out there. In the normal course of things, my site is visited by some former classmates and close associates and only when I implore them to. Don’t even ask why I bother to do it, because frankly, I don’t even know. Maybe because it’s free, and if there’s an internet connection than there’s a will.

But for ‘sheih’ to come waltzing in, well indeed it was a surprise, albeit a very pleasant one. This guy probably gets tens of thousands of ‘hits’ per day mind you, but still has the time to scour the net for some obscure blogger (humble me?) thoughts. I’m still scratching my head, because I have never posted a comment on his blog, but have mentioned him somewhere in one of my articles. But even if one were to Google for one’s own name, especially someone as famous as he – he’d surely have to sift through thousands of potential sites to come to mine. Hmmm.

In the event, I was flattered that my story moved him. Not only that, he even linked mine to his. Now I’m really going to get creamed – because I noticed on my ‘sitemeter’ that the ‘hits’ have come in, mainly directed from his site. Hmmm.

Thanks for dropping by sheih. And I hope you find what you’re looking for in Kelantan, for I know a mother there might be very pleased indeed.

Hey, mung nok masuk tanding gok ke? (Chuckles . . . internet rumors saper ni weh?)

* * *

RR - the Pot calling the Kettle black.

RR made the news (well actually, as an editor of the pseudo-Government of Bolehsia broadsheet, the Enesty – he is the one making the news these days) recently by suggesting that internet bloggers are a bunch of semi-literate, rumor-mongering shitheads. At least that’s what the editorial reprimand felt like, if you’re an internet blogger like me. Be that as it may, once upon a time as a Budak Kolek, I had only utmost and profound respect for this ‘super-senior’ of mine, a wordsmith of the highest order.

Well, not any more. I had even bought a book of his once, detailing his ‘self-imposed’ exile from Bolehsia. To refresh you a bit, this MM contemporary (some say they were once more than just friends?) was a high-flying scribe until ‘Ops Lallang’ came along. Then he went on to Hong Kong and London as a luminary foreign correspondent with London broadsheets and premier magazines. After Doc M won by the skin of his teeth in '87, and the Star came to life again, all was forgiven. Journalists and opposition politicians were released from ISA detention to the bosom of their families. Some years later, the prodigal son came home, published a book about his ‘exile’, and started a new life.

Then Brendan Pereira (some had allusions of him being a Kiasulander ‘operative’, along with K Mullah MH) had created a booboo in his Enesty column by allegedly committing the crime of plagiarism. So he was given the boot, and in stepped our hero RR.

One Bolehsian Member of Parliament (of Whores – to borrow a phrase from PJ O ‘Rourke’s excellent satirical insight into the workings of the US government – buy it!) and Minister, a born-again Tengku, fired the first salvo. Essentially what he said was, 80 percent of the bloggers are women, housewives who like nothing better than to create rumors. A furor of the highest order was thus established. And who better to drive the proverbial nail in the coffin but RR?

It didn't help that a Deputy Minister called Fu Manchu said he was not averse to calling Bolehsia's major newspaper editors to 'scold' them when the news didn't favor the government's version.

So now you have it. We have a Deputy Minister running the newspapers in Bolehsia.

And to RR, what exactly happened to you, sir? Does the term ‘turncoat’ mean anything to you? Even your once erstwhile colleague MM is against you. Can money, wealth (I heard you drive a Porsche) and political favors change a person?

Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Matriarch, The Nude and The Chicken Coop

The year was ‘69 and I was in my first year of school.

With the day drawing to a close, Nenek’s high-pitched shrieks can be heard permeating the soggy evening air - summoning me for my evening bath at the well. In the days before electricity found its way into our kampong, the path to the well could very well be perilous you can imagine. It got dark very quickly too, because the sun seemed to set a lot earlier in the kampong. But a likelier explanation would be the abundance of tall trees quickly blocking the sun’s rays, and thus with an irrational jealous pang I wondered (no, I'm sure) whether kids in the city would still be out playing.

I sat on the stoop of out in front, defiant and ignoring Nenek's calls, the cement feeling like a block of ice under my buttocks; the stone made cold from sun's fading warmth.

In that melancholic evening, I believed I felt the first stirrings of emotions that I can ever remember. It was feelings of hate and of rejection all rolled into one – the exaggerated version for seven year olds.

The reason for my slow-burning resentment was my being exiled from my parents. Father worked in an estate faraway where the only primary schooling available was for the children of estate laborers (read: Tamil). In the highly gentrified environment of post-colonial plantations, no conductor or mandor worth his salt would be caught dead having their children in a vernacular school, especially a Tamil one. But given a choice, I wouldn’t have minded being in an impoverished Tamil school. At least I would be in the bosom of my beloved parents.

My grandparents were the kindest of people, just like most grandparents the world over. Their efforts to cheer me by spoiling me didn’t often lift the veil of sadness that hung over like a monsoon cloud. And spoiled me they did, because Atuk catered to (almost) every whim of their first grandchild. He even got me a dog once, but that story will have to wait. Strangely I hear they weren’t always kind to their own offspring – I remember Mother telling me a story once when uncle broke his arm after falling from a rambutan tree—an additional beating was in store for him when Atuk came home from work. To drive the lesson home, I suppose.

That very same uncle, who was an overdue bachelor at the time of my incarceration was entrusted to keep me in line, and he took on the sacred covenant from my parents with utmost religious zeal. And trust me, he had quite a few sticks rather than carrots in his bag of tricks to enable him to carry the job. Sorta like George (Bush).

For failing to memorize to multiplication tables, an apt punishment for one was where I would have to spend moments of sheer terror in the chicken coop. The sheer terror factor was ratcheted manifold if the sentencing was conducted after sunset. Not one to go down without a fight, I was often dragged kicking and screaming into the hen house. And only to be released when either Atuk or Nenek happened to chance upon the scene. Uncle’s intentions were good no doubt, but what if there was a thirty-foot long python lying there in wait?

The chicken coop had its place in history somewhere further down the line and became (to me at least), one of the most celebrated but unknown chicken coops in existence. How so? Let me explain. Late into adulthood I discovered that my grandparents at various times before I came into being had hosted ‘foster’ children in their government quarters in Seremban. Atuk’s job as a chief clerk in the old colonial administration allowed them a modest wooden house across the famed King George the Fifth School, popularly known by its acronym KGV.

These weren’t real foster children you see, but kids of distant relatives and acquaintances from remote villages who were sent (boys usually) to my grandparents house because of its proximity to the premier British institution. One of the ‘foster’ children – this shocked me really – went on to become one the most celebrated and highest paid painters in Bolehsia. In ’98 one of his Pago Pago Series oils went under the hammer for a record 40,250 Singapore dollars at a Christie’s Singapore auction.

Just before leaving for Europe in the 60’s to live the bohemian life as an artist, Latif Mohideen gave three of his paintings to Atuk and Nenek as a token of gratitude. One was an 'impressionist', the one I recalled hanging high above the grandfather clock and was the first thing you see upon entering the threshold of our kampong house. Alas it graced our living room but for the briefest of time. Later, Nenek came to realize that it was a rather convoluted surrealist version of a nude with a huge single breast and an outsized areola. Latif must've painted this during the phase when and Picasso and Dali were considered de rigueur.

Of course, this didn’t fit well with nenek’s image as an Ustaza who taught the Koran at the village Madrasah, so one fine afternoon she got Atuk to take it down. And there it stayed in the shed at the back of the house, forever to remain anonymous to people with fat wallets who attend Christie’s and Sotheby’s auctions, and also to scholars in fine arts departments at universities the world over.

The Matriach, 2003. © matsalo.com

Years passed and with Atuk’s demise in the very early 90s, nenek had no choice but to shuttle between my one surviving uncle and a Chinese daughter-in-law (Yes, that uncle has since passed on - Al Fatihah) in Seremban. On occasions she would stay with Mother too. With no one to care for the creaking boards and peeling paint, the house became more and more decrepit, as unloved homes are wont to do.

It was only a decade or so ago that I decided to enquire about the painting. You don’t how much I’ve regretted my tardiness since. Nenek is still alive but is somewhat senile, and once, in between bouts of lucidity, she let it slip to her favorite grandson (that’s me) - that Atuk had used the painting (yes, "breast/areola") to patch the roof of the chicken coop.

I don't blame Atuk at all for his lack of aesthetic acumen - because who was to know what the future holds? Atuk had also once also traded his Rolex (it had cost him seven-hundred in 60s Bolehsian ringgits) for a dinghy digital watch to a backpacker who passed through the village. Please remember that this happened in the 70s and digital watches with blinking LEDs with faux gold bracelets were a novelty, if not expensive. That's the sort of person Atuk was - bless his soul - always ready to oblige.

I’m still in the hunt for the other two paintings though, one of which was a typical scene of village women toiling in paddy fields at harvest time. For the life of me, I can’t quite remember what the other one was.

Further inquiries revealed that none of my uncles knew where the paintings went. Nor Mother. Nor anybody else. Even Latif Mohideen has fled the scene. Hmmm . . . I shall need to pay a visit to the village house soon - but the dilapidated doors and windows have remained shuttered since - what ? - two, three years ago?

Somehow I have this burning need to fulfill my quest, just to give it some closure, if nothing else. Maybe I should give it a rest. But maybe I should start looking at the cow shed, because the chicken coop has long been gone and the chickens have since been converted to human protein or quite possibly devoured by that thirty-foot python or its progeny.

Years ago I paid the village idiot some money to dismantle the chicken coop and burn that sorry piece of eyesore (and of bad memories) to make the grounds presentable for a Hari Raya Eid celebration - the photos you see in the story. Deep, deep down, my brain strongly rejects any possibility that the Nude could have already turned to carbon. I'm sure some good sense must have prevailed, but we're talking about the village idiot here, who is known only by his nickname Berok (Malay for Monkey) for his climbing prowess and proclivity in collecting coconuts from trees. Perhaps, and most very likely, that the idiot here is me.

Whoa - there could be a gross total of somewhere between 100 and 200 thousand Bolehsia dollars out there sitting among the rafters and junk of my childhood home.

But who am I kidding?

Sunday, March 4, 2007

The Thirteenth Hour

What is Lost May Be Lost Forever (I)

A little update on the 'situation' last week. All that planning came to zilch. Talk about lost opportunities. Building castles in the air, that kind of thing. Man proposes, no need to tell you Who disposes.

I missed by my planned rendezvous with Father by thirteen hours. And whose fault is this? If you prescribe to the maxim, when there's a will...then you already know my answer.

Father's return flight was scheduled on the 27th. So I had a few days, and a few tricks up my sleeve to 'cilok' on that particular day to make a quick exit to town. I didn't tell him then because I wasn't sure at the time if could finish the well quickly ( I had some tool failures remember?).

A day before he was scheduled to leave and with my heart ramped up in maximum anticipation, in comes his frantic SMS saying he has already finished doing what he needed to do and was now already in Balikpapan!

So I immediately walked down from the rig floor to call him from the rear deck. What's the rush? He was already at the airport and was being waitlisted on the next available flight to Jakarta. Couldn't you wait one more day Pa? After all isn't the client picking-up the tab? Yes, but No, he needed to go.

I had already booked for a room for Father at the hotel where I'll be staying so we could have a serious chat - but he quickly cut me off with that 'ol standby -never mind . . . we can always meet in KL.

That's the thing, we can't always meet in KL.

Anyway, the opportunity is gone (for the moment).

The hotel where my dad stayed barely 13 hours prior to the picture being taken from my hotel window.

What is Lost Might Be Forever Lost (II)

I take this opportunity to convey my Takziah (condolences) to my two very two close friends who each lost a parent over the past few days.

Stone's father drew his last breath yesterday morning in Chicago (Kg.Congo, near HUKM) while Kue's mother passed away last Tuesday, just after returning home from Isya' prayers at the mosque in Balik Pulau.

Innalillahi wainna ilahiirrajiun...


Dawn breaking outside my container office, Rig Yani. Hand-Held, Canon Digital Ixus 850 IS, 1/8 sec., 4.6 mm, F/2.8, -0.33 EV

Now, you can imagine how important it is to put things right . . .

And I still

Haven't Found

What I Was Lookin' For. . .

© Words: Bono, Music: U2 - The Joshua Tree (1987)