Atchafalaya Swamp

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

SSS Reprise: The Quest For Eve

Thar Jath, Nunia

State of Alwehda (Unity), 1200 km southwest of Khartoum

I SQUINTED AT the luminescent display of my Casio Protrek - 33 degrees C it read; the sun blinding in the hot African bush afternoon. I alighted from the twin propeller Beechcraft thinking how much cooler it was compared to Khartoum, a brief respite from the forty-plus day temperatures in the capital. I stopped midway down the door (which doubled as the Beechcraft's stairs) and sniffed the air where the biological Eve and Adam once roamed. The humidity is about the same as Malaysia’s - in fact, if not for the barren landscape, it could very well be someplace in Kodiang, Kedah. But where is the airport terminal? None that I could see as Thar Jhaj is only a dusty airstrip. Except for a small white tent in the periphery there was no other man-made structure in sight. A few pick-up trucks had parked close to the aircraft, which I spied out the plane’s window moments before, looking desperately for the familiar tell tale markings of my company’s pick-up truck. No such luck.

The Beechcraft is a small 18 passenger plane, if you will, a minibus with wings. It has 11 rows and can actually sit 22 passengers but hey - this isn’t Singapore Airlines - the “cargo hold” overflowing into rows 10 and 11; bags, boxes, and critical rig supplies like rolls of toilet paper (sorry, no Scott's easy-on-your-bum but rather abrasive kind that wouldn't do your piles any good). What was a divider I’m sure, between the passenger cabin and cargo hold has been torn down. I can actually see our bags among some netting at the rear of the plane jumbled with a few boxes on top.

So here we are milling about the aircraft, my new white New Balance sneakers now reddish, covered in dust. I kicked the sneakers against the aircraft’s landing gear which brought a glare from the pilot. The pilot has since shut the propellers down - the signal to dig in our pockets for our much delayed nicotine fix. The Canadian captain and his Australian co-pilot, I noted, were also not immune to the ravages of nicotine dependence. Ah, Thank God for life's small pleasures, when your next flight could very well be your last.

After the Dunhill has glowed near its tip, I sauntered over the captain to make amends and small talk. A veteran of Africa, having done countless of airlifts for the UN and the International Red Cross in Sierra Leone, Senegal, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia and Darfur - that renegade western state of Sudan - a state bigger than the whole of France, the Captain has now decided to save up for retirement. He claimed one can only take so much of "social work", which I take to mean as not getting paid much if one is in the employ of the UN or Red Cross.

He saw me eying the cargo hold door with a small aluminum ladder beneath it, the kind you can buy at Ace Hardware, and gestured with a nod and a wink. Everyone else seemed to be just lounging and milling, and I had no choice but to take the hint by gingerly climbing up that ladder. I have a similar ladder at home used for changing burnt light bulbs. But I’m not about to change feather-light light bulbs, mind you.

My assistant, Triantono -Tonto, a smiley buck-toothed thirty-something from Indonesia positioned himself as the catcher. And here I was hauling boxes and bags down onto Tonto simply because there was no else to do it. I think I am beginning to understand the African mentality; the Africans on the flight seemed to suffer from the “boss” syndrome - being cooks, minor officials and clerks, baggage handling was definitely beneath them.

I cast a disapproving look at Tonto.

He had put my RM 478.00 Scuba-Pro bag squarely on the red earth. Why couldn’t he put it on the boxes instead was beyond me. I shook my head in disgust. He noticed my reprimand and quickly hoisted my 30-kilo bag off the offending dirt (part inventory: Yeo’s-canned-chicken-curry, packs of Maggi Mee Ayam Flavor, mosquito netting like the one used in Malaysian boarding schools, two bottles of Johnnie Walker’s Black Label—can’t go wrong with the world’s most popular brand, a prayer mat, and some books to while away my time) .

As my assistant, Tonto had more to carry for sure; a largish Epson printer and other consumables for our worksite and his own personal bag. I quickly took pity on him and transferred the Scuba-Pro to my sore shoulder. When I bought that duffel bag I had in mind the most robust and heaviest-duty bag I can find, something that would exceed US Army specifications (if Armoured Personnel Carriers in Iraq is anything to go by, that isn't saying much). I had purchased it a dive shop back home where the pretty sales clerk said that it is used for oxygen tanks and divers’ paraphernalia. (Good enough for me, I remembered saying. But she was curious as to why I would want one, since I admitted that I never went diving.) The bag also has a set of solid wheels on one end where you can slide it over nice air-conditioned airport lounges and corridors. I never factored-in the parched African red earth. I shifted around to balance the offending weight on my shoulder, resolute in my determination to save it from further indignities.

You can’t stand around with about 40 kilos on your back and shoulder (inclusive of a 10-kilo laptop bag) under the dry African sun can you?

As luck would have it a small off-white twin cab Mitsubishi pick-up came careering out of nowhere, the two blue clad Sudanese in the front cab a welcoming sight indeed. The blue coveralls meant they were part of my crew coming from the site to pick us up. Hafiz and Moustafa, about a years’ oilfield experience between them, both recent engineering graduates from the elite University of Khartoum.

Here’s the thing: Both Hafiz and Moustafa are as befuddled as I am. They are from the Muslim North while we are in rebel—controlled Christian South. They natives here are either Christians or Animists, and they don’t speak Arabic. A sensible Assalamua’alaikum will not earn you brownie points among AK-47 carrying child soldiers. You’re better off claiming you’re Christian. Remembering my security briefing the day before I asked Hafiz about the so-called armed escorts. He cast a nervous smile, and said he’ll explain later. The rig was about thirty kilometers away but it took us the better part of an hour in this pock marked terrain to get there, as I was later to find out.

I dumped my dusty bag at the back of the cab and sat in front. Hafiz took the wheel with Moustafa and Tonto nicely catching up on company gossip in the back. The air conditioner was on full tilt, recycling gritty air in the cab. We trailed some trucks and visibility was down to tens of meters in the dust. I can forget returning my Scuba-Pro duffel to its former glory. As I peeked over my shoulder all I saw was red dusty clouds kicked up by the truck’s wheels.

Progress was excruciatingly slow. As we thrown about in the pick-up, I can tell that the truck's shock absorbers and springs were already shot . The cab also has a make shift roll cage, courtesy of our company’s welders in Hegleg, to survive a rollover impact. Or potentially survive a rollover, provided rocket-propelled grenades haven't got to you yet. Crash test engineers at Volvo’s Goteburg facility in Sweden would snicker at this pathetic attempt but we can’t blame our employer for trying, can we?

In this parched bush flatland occasionally dotted by grass and mud huts and burnt out trucks from the civil war, I wondered what the denizens do for a living. I saw neither domesticated animals nor cultivation. Only eagles and buzzards hover overhead. Obviously there must be people around—it’s just that I cannot see beyond the tall elephant grass perhaps. Frankly, I cannot imagine anyone could survive in such an inhospitable place.

Sometimes we saw people walking by the side of the road, the women fully swathed in colorful garb to protect them from the sun and sand. Where were they going? It’s always the women, I noticed, that was doing the work. Carrying firewood and earthenware pots on their proud heads and carrying naked little babies (sometimes two, one on each hip). Except for the huts, I couldn’t make out anything from the air earlier. On every point of the compass my eyes could only see the same desolate landscape scape, nary a village in sight.

Occasionally our truck was stopped by a few Dinka Bushmen. I noticed their faces scarred around the forehead, probably done at puberty as a rite of passage, or a badge of honor. Were they anesthetized when they went under the knife - or precisely - under sharp stone implements? More likely they used Gillette razor blades. The Bushmen just wanted to ride at the back of the pick-up for some unknown destination along our way. Now that I've arrived and become the de-facto "Boss", Hafiz looked deferentially my way. I was worried whether they would pilfer our bags (my instant noodles, for instance), but gave my thumbs-up anyway.

Earlier on the way to pick us up Hafiz said the child rebels had put a small log across the dirt track, setting an impromptu roadblock. I asked what they boys wanted, and how were they dressed? Hafiz said they were in camouflage and slippers asking for some bottled waters and candy bars. Slippers, hmmm, not combat issue boots? Always wise to humor the kids, he added, and let them ride in the back. Give them water or cigarettes in case they remember the rebuff. I readily agreed, because I don't fancy being used as a live bait to these children-in-arms.

I was quite humbled actually, to be in such a place. Evolutionary biologists and archeologist have found evidence that the Homo sapiens hailed from parts of what is now Sudan and Kenya. It's quite inspiring to think our original ancestors once walked the earth where I now am flying over ruts in our diesel-powered pick-up. If the evolutionist are correct, this is indeed home, before the progenies of Eve and Adam evolved enough to cross whole continents.

After a few kilometers of small talk, dodging potholes and slithering snakes on this Highway to Hell I again asked Hafiz on the security situation. Since it’s quite an effort to talk and drive at the same time, he just shrugged. It would seem that I would find out for myself in due course.

I was thinking of the child soldiers, as Hafiz recounted the spot where the he was stopped earlier. I continued to scan the horizon half-hoping to see rebels. I asked where the insurgents get the money from. From the way he looked at me, I already knew that to be a Silly Question. His black obsidian eyes seemed to say: Where else but from that Evil Outpost of Tyranny headed by a real Bushman in the White House?

Yeah, but why are these kids carrying AK-47's? If the Yanks were to supply arms, it would surely be M-16's wouldn't it? Of course I was being naive. What the Yanks does best is supply money, and loads of it. Who cares where they get the weapons from?

I finally saw some child soldiers by some trees under the wayside. I'd put them somewhere between Primary IV to Lower Secondary if these kids were in school instead of playing Combat in oversized faitigues with real guns. Waving at us with their AK-47’s, they seemed harmless, if you can suspend disbelief for a moment and their AK's are indeed toys. Maybe these were the rebels that Hafiz had hosted earlier on the way to the airstrip. We waved back, in the universal gesture of Howdy.

I also saw some backhoes and caterpillars parked by the road, the work gang taking a break from resurfacing this sorry piece of red earth they call “road”. Moustafa explained (shouting from the back actually) that the rains would come in a month or two, hence the need to elevate the present road from the coming floods. Floods? What, here? Apparently it does flood here in the May-July monsoons. That’s when it gets “fun”, said Moustafa, slapping my shoulder for added effect. That’s when the snakes come out, he added, and all the bugs you can imagine that one needs full net masks when working at night.

The stark monotone landscape was finally broken by a tall structure in the distance. It was the rig’s derrick structure sticking out like a sore thumb in the bush. As we came to the perimeter I saw several large tents, dark green in the unmistakble color of the army. My heart leaped and I gave my "protectors" a cheerful smile and a wave as we passed.

Another quick look from Hafiz and I knew this wasn't the government army. The original fifty-plus North Sudanese Army had long abandoned their post. Now the rebels themselves have taken to “guarding” us. Although I have no proof of this, through local militiamen - The Client - headquartered at the Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, is actually paying the rebels for the usurped security service. Great, let’s pay gangsters next to guard our nice freehold, gated community in suburbia Malaysia. Unbelievable, but true, because oil has to flow, people to be employed, guns to be bought. Let’s roll with it.

Truth is indeed stranger than fiction.

The rebels are part of the SPLA (Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army) headed by John Garang. Apparently they have come to some sort of a truce with the Sudanese government, and in fact, Johnny Boy has been given vice-presidential status (First Vice President no less!) by President Omar Basher in a bid to further quell rebellion. But surely it offers no comfort to me when I see mostly pre-teen soldiers barely 100 yards away. Silly thoughts of whether .22 caliber AK-47's bullets can penetrate my sorry Malay ass at that distance floated in the back of my mind.

What I can surmise was renegade Johnny Boy telling the Sudanese cabinet that only SPLA will be allowed to provide security for rigs in the autonomous Dinka heartland, and he proceeded to chase out professional government troops only to be replaced by amateur soldiers. I suppose this is free market at work, let the locals benefit so to speak - trickle-down economics of the perverse kind. But I can bet The Client never factored this into the equation either.

Finding Eve

One fine morning some weeks later I heard a familar rustling outside my work cabin. I was enjoying my second cup of thick Sudanese coffee and my fifth Dunhills of the day, doing nothing in particular, perhaps even musing about writing a journal about my experiences in Sudan. The reason I lay idle was the rig was "shut down" due the unavailability of a critical piece of equipment - a frequent occurrence anyway. I had earlier radio-ed my crew at the camp to sleep-in and not show up. I looked forward to enjoy my solitude.

Sometimes a mule would forage around our work-site, among the thrash, no-thanks to sorely lacking sanitary habits of rig personnel (the don't call rig workers "oilfield thrash" for nothing).

I thought I heard a females voices, so I went outside to investigate.

This was my encounter with the mythical Eve that would forever burn into memory.

And there they were, a family of three; a girl of about twelve, and a boy on his mother’s hip. They must have been going through our thrash outside, but was now rooted to the spot, three pair of eyes on me. The mother was in her late twenties, but I couldn’t be sure. She had a dirty t-shirt on and and a piece cloth that reminded me of cheap curtains wrapped around her hips .

They were wondering how to proceed, at least Eve and the mother were, and I was at a loss myself. The boy, naked, perhaps two years old was already showing signs of malnutrition—the disproportionately large head and belly. But with malnutrition, one can never be sure. They could be younger than they looked, especially when it comes to children. Eve, I could not help but notice, had breasts that reminded me of lemons; perky and upturned. She also wore a rag that covered her modesty below, but not her pubescent mounds - symmetrical and really quite beautiful to look at but got me looking cross-eyed . Oh, and I now thought that she really must be older than twelve. She wasn’t shy, just an indignant look about her, like I was the interloper and not her. I forced my eyes to look away, thinking of what I was going to say to mother and the girl.

But what could I say to them?

They were pitiful to look at, Eve the girl held a banana peel that I had discarded only yesterday. What was she going to do, eat it? I gestured them to come inside, holding the door open, but still, mother and daughter just stood in their tracks. They didn’t quite know what to make of of my intentions. I don’t blame them. I myself am not sure what my intentions were.

I have a mini-fridge in the cabin, my last stock of orange juice, UHT milk, and a loaf of rock hard Sudanese bread. There was a small bar of Cadbury’s as well. I took the chocolate and bread out to show them. I gave them my most friendly smile, a bit hesitant at first but Eve came came forward to unabashedly take the chocolate from my hand. Careful not to draw my eyes to the inevitable, I motioned for them to come in. This time they did come, sat on the floor and ate in silence while I dug out some bottled water from a box.

Some gleam in my eye maybe, because even with her mother and little brother with her, Eve still looked at me with suspicion. For some reason I desperately wanted to win her over, I wanted her to know that I'm a friend, a person you can trust. But how do I convey this without talking Dinkanese or whatever the hell they speak around here?

I sighed, and what else could I do but light up and take in the precious scene before me: A once-proud people so pure and untainted from the dawn of civilization now brought down by the ravages of war. Or rather, brought down to sit on the floor facing me. I believe it was probably the first time they laid eyes on a Malay.

Soon they finished every last bit of bread, the girl imploring me for more chocolate. I turned my palms over and curled my lips in apology. As they got up to go, I thought I detected a hint of a smile from Eve. Her breasts resplendant, as usual, arose with her with the minimum of fuss that can only come from skin so taut and young. She was not at all self-concious, comfortable in her sexuality, or rather, unperturbed by it.

Ah, Eve, from thy wombs I have descended forth, and I asked myself why am I waxing lyrical over some girl in the bush? It must be Sudan, I thought, it must be the atmosphere that did it for me.

I turned on my notebook computer, made my fourth cup of coffee for the day, and began a business letter asking for a transfer.

©2007 MatSalo Images. Some rights reserved. Canon Digital Ixus 850. Top Image: Full Moon Over Straits of Makassar, Celebes Sea, May 31, 2007