Peace Corps Stories Section:
Main Page (Introduction and Contents)
PCV FAQ, questions about my experience and the Peace Corps in general
I Was (Almost) Tattooed by Headhunters
Quentin, the World Traveler
Stalking Extremely Small Game
The Christians and the Pagans
We Visit the Land Dayaks
Maps of Malaysia and Sarawak
Pictures of Sarawak
Peace Corps Links
Christmas News Letters
(Historical note - I wrote this in 1971. Portuguese Timor is no longer quiet, nor is it Portuguese.)
What would you do if your dream knocked on the door?
I asked mine to spend the night.
He was an ordinary dream, wearing dusty blue jeans and a smile. He carried a rucksack and one of those waxed-paper umbrellas everyone in Southeast Asia uses. He was a little thinner and a lot browner than most tourists, and just by looking I could tell he wandered the back lanes of the world, drifting as gently as the south wind, carrying everything he owned in his rucksack, soaking up adventure and not worrying about tomorrow. That's what I want to do, too.
I teach in a small boarding school in Sarawak, a state on the northwest coast of Borneo. Adventure? The school compound had jungle on three and a half sides, where wild things scream in the night. Exotic places, far from the beaten paths? I'm 600 miles east of Singapore, 500 miles south of the nearest TV set. But I've been here for a year, I'll be here for another, and I spend a great deal of time worrying about tomorrow's class, next week's lesson plans, and the term end exams. "6,000 miles from home," I sometimes mutter, "and I'm in a well- upholstered rut."
I had just finished the dinner dishes that night when he knocked on the door of the house I share with two other teachers. He told me his name was Quentin, and asked if he could sleep under our mangosteen tree. I invited him in, told him we could do better than that. Would he like to have the guest mattress for the night? That would be nice. Had he eaten? In the bazaar. Would he like to wash up? He said that would be nice too, and started rummaging around in his rucksack for soap and a towel.
"Are those all your worldly goods?" I asked appreciatively.
He paused, as if he had never thought of them like that before, shrugged, guessed they were, and went to bathe.
"I have to type up a stencil for tomorrow's class" I called. "Have you been in Malaysia long enough to know that you don't sit in the tub . . ."
"You stand next to it and pour water over yourself with a bucket," he finished. "Yes, I've been here that long."
When the stencil was finished I made a pot of tea and joined him in the front room. He put down a magazine, waited as I set things down, then picked up a mug.
"Oh, that one's mine," I said. "No offense -- I usually just rinse it out instead of washing it all the time." He nodded agreement but held on to the mug, turning it over in his hands. He touched the flower decal on one side, then put the mug down.
"It would be nice to have a mug like that," he said slowly, " . . . special."
I poured, and we settled back into the chairs. He held his mug in both hands, reflectively.
"Where are you from?" I asked.
"Ohh, London . . ."
"You say that like someone from a small town no one had ever heard of, and London was the city nearest to it."
He laughed. "No, I really lived there. I've lived in a lot of places, here and there; London the most, I suppose. And you? You're in the Peace Corps, aren't you?"
"Yup. I've been a volunteer for almost a year now. I'm from San Francisco."
He laughed again. "You say that like someone from a small town no one had ever heard of, and San Francisco was the city nearest to it."
I smiled, told him I was from Modesto (he hadn't heard of it) but I had gone to school in Berkeley, which was close. "What's it like in London?"
"I couldn't say, really, because I haven't been there for so long. In fact, I haven't been much of anywhere recently; I was in Australia for the last year and a half, working in the outback."
"Australia? That's a place I've always wanted to see. What's it like?"
"Big," He didn't say anything more, but he smiled.
"That was a vague question. Ummm - did you ever see a kangaroo?"
"I'd see them from the road, some times, and at water holes. You can see quite far in places, because it's so flat. It's dry, too. Flat and dry -- it reminded me of Spain."
"Spain? You're getting better and better. What did you do in Spain?"
"I used to spend a lot of time there when I was a boy".
I waited, but he didn't elaborate, so I asked him how he had come to Sarawak from Australia.'
"I took a ship from Darwin to Portuguese Timor, went through Indonesia to Sumatra, then took another ship to Singapore and over to Kuching."
"Portuguese Timor? You know, I wonder about that place every time I see it on my map. It looks so -- so out of place in Indonesia. You never hear about it. Tell me, does it still exist?"
"Oh yes, it's still there. It has 5,000 Portuguese troops, holding down the last dregs of Empire. The natives grow rice and sleep in the afternoons."
"How did you get through Indonesia?"
"Busses, mostly; they're terribly cheap. I took little boats between the islands, and a tramp steamer from Sumatra." That was enough, he thought, and fell silent."
"But what is it like," I asked, "what do the people do, what does the land look like, and how did you feel about the places you went through?"
"Well, Bali is nice. The hills there have terraces, so they look almost sculpted. The cities on Java are dirty -- I think all the cities in Asia are dirty -- and the roads in Sumatra are an adventure, if you don't mind having your kidneys pounded to jelly. I liked Kuching; it was clean."
I waited for him to fill in his story, but he didn't. Instead, he asked me about the road, so I asked him into my room to look at a big wall map of Sarawak.
He stopped just inside the door. "Oh. You have books." (There are about a hundred paperbacks in a case near my table.)
"I've inherited some of those from former volunteers, and the Peace Corps loaned me a book locker. I bought the Sherlock Holmes, and the ones about Sarawak's history. That's a fascinating story, if you get into it."
I went over to the map, pointed to our position, then noticed Quentin was still at the bookcase, reading the titles. He read with great care, his head tilted to one side so he could read the spines easily, pronouncing the names of the books to himself, almost as if he was savoring their very existence. I waited until he finished, then asked if he'd like to take one with him.
"No, not really. I have two, a book of chess problems and some Zen stories. It's enough, if you travel."
He moved over to my worktable, looked at the pile of exercise books I had corrected that afternoon, at the home-made pencil holder, pipe stand and letter rack. He moved slowly, giving the impressions time to sink in. He reached to touch the thick packet of unanswered letters, saw me watching him, dropped his hand.
"Do you write a lot of letters?"
"More than I would if I lived in the town. It's half an hour away, and the last bus comes out at 4:40, so we're pretty isolated. I usually plan lessons and do corrections in the evenings. Sometimes I play Scrabble with Mr. Wu and Mr. Lim, and I write letters."
"Do you ever feel trapped in such a small place?"
"Stuck, maybe, but not trapped. I get to the bazaar once a week, and I go to either Sibu or Kuching in the long breaks. Sibu is big -- it has over 40,000 people."
I wondered, later, if he had meant the school, or the whole state.
Quentin looked at the table again, then came over to the map. I like maps. They're colorful, and you don't get tired of looking at them, the way you do with posters or prints."
Sarawak is shaped like a fat trout leaping upstream along the northwest coast of Borneo. Kuching, the capital, is down by the tail, and Saratok, where I am, is about a fourth of the way up. I showed Quentin the road he had hitchhiked along. (That was easy, since there is only one long road in the state.) Then we looked where he wanted to go. He planned to go up the coast to Sabah, the state at the very tip of Borneo, then on to the Philippine Islands.
I pointed out his route. "From Saratok you go to Sareiki in a bus filled with Chinese vegetable farmers taking their produce to market." My finger traced the road, then moved up the Rejang River from Sareiki. "From Sareiki you take an express, a boat like a Greyhound bus with a hull, upriver to Sibu, the second largest city in Sarawak. From there you catch smaller boats north to Mukah, where the Melanaus harvest sago palms to make laundry starch. The Melanaus are a friendly people. Then" (as my finger went up the coast) "you can catch coastal launches from Mukah to Bintulu -- it has great beaches -- and on to Miri, Sarawak's oil town." My map ran out, but we talked about Sabah, where Mt. Kinabalu rises over 13,000 feet into the clouds, about cheap boats across the Sulu Sea, and about Manila. "It will be a great trip for you."
"How far have you been along that route?"
"I've been to Sibu twice, and to Kuching three times."
"Is that all?"
"Oh, I travel in the district, when students invite me home for a wedding or a religious festival. I'd like to go more, but there's usually something to do here at the school on the weekends -- a track meet, or a pile of essays to correct, or a clean-up party."
"You seem pretty well settled here.")
"Pretty well stuck would be better."
We spent the rest of the night talking about the world. Quentin told me about gum trees and cork oaks, about friendly villagers in Indonesia and hostile border guards in Singapore. (He thought his long hair upset them.) He described a dust storm near Alice Springs and a monsoon on the Indian Ocean, eating with his left hand in England and with his right in Indonesia.
I kept asking him questions, but he slowed and stopped. Then he started asking me questions, so I told him about the shop in town that fries noodles well, and why I never order chicken on a Monday after a cockfight. He was interested, so I told him how tall the 4-H club's banana plants had grown and how much money they made on their pig. He asked me about teaching, and I described the struggles my students have with their compositions, how we financed the school magazine, and the time Kho Hu Chiang ran for Student Body President.
The next morning, after breakfast, I told Quentin that if he caught the early bus to Sareiki he would get there in time to catch the nine o'clock express to Sibu. If he was lucky and the tide was right he might be able to get on a boat for Mukah this afternoon. He said that was what he would try to do, slung his bag over his shoulder, and set off.