Satellite dishes wherever you look
A shaman emits a ritual song, shaking little bells and cymbals at the door. Women in sarongs wash their long black hair, the family’s clothes or dishes. A man energetically soaps himself, a white foam covering all his olive-skinned body. A naked child happily rides a bicycle down the road in the pouring rain. A little smoke seeps from the shelters, smells of wet wood and sticky rice. And, like in all the world’s rural areas through which I’ve passed, satellite dishes and stocks of sugar snacks under plastic bedeck the roofs and stalls.
I have never before frequented such noisy forests. Often, I mistake for human activity the saw-like yelling of giant cicadas, the crack of trunks bending under the weight of humid foliage, the echo of waterfalls meeting rocks.
Morning life happens outside: one washes with the water springing out of the soil next to the wooden huts on stilts which bring shade to muddy sows still immersed in their dreams. Asian cows chew on high grass, dogs bark, waiting for me to pass before trailing me, sniffing my particular Farang scent. (‘Farang’, from ‘Franks’, means any white western foreigner. As a French ‘Farangset’ I’m thus the walking metonym of the White Other). The earliest risers are already far away, on secret dirt tracks to trees full of ripe fruit, their billhook, machete and basket in hand.
When at dawn I pass through those mountain hamlets, more than anywhere else I have the feeling of trespassing upon the intimacy of villagers from whom I gather daily rituals.
A young woman enters the hut where I have found shelter for a night and a day of downpour. She is carrying a large canvas bag, fully loaded. I first guess that she has some propriety right to the place and beg pardon for my intrusion. Then I soon realize that she’s just passing, like me, happy to be out of the rain, maybe pausing from fruit searching and picking. She notices the wet clothes, scattered all over the place, on the smallest nail and board available, in a desperate attempt to dry them in this pregnant humidity.
She gathers a few pieces of burnt wood and three wet batons, looks out for anything to start a flame, picks up a plastic bottle cap, ignites it. It does not take long before a thick smoke rises above our cabin, and soon we sit side by side, holding my clothes above the brasero. An hour later she goes out, rummages, and comes back with two corn cobs she throws on the coals. Then she goes. It is still raining. I realize she took care only of me.
What am I doing here? What is this relationship with the earth, what am I witnessing after thousands of miles by foot, dozens of countries explored, years passed in a quest for the simple life, looking for fair exchange with the environments in which I evolve, meditating on the march of the modern world? Did I end up here to find an aborigine starting a fire with plastic? What teaching comes from that encounter? Gary Snyder writes that the wilderness is neither really forgotten nor gone away but always somewhere in front of us and in our mammalian bodies.
Maybe nowadays the task is to look for and express a fair wilderness up until, and maybe above all, the hybrid space of a prefab, of a cement flat in a giant tower, of a straw hut full of petroleum residues. Is the wilderness, a fair relationship with an environment, possible in a world of artefacts made by human and animal slaves? He also writes, “When an ecosystem is fully functioning, all the members are present at the assembly. To speak of wilderness is to speak of wholeness.”
I stumbled upon her again the day after, 20 miles down the trail: she was sitting near a waterfall, eating corn. She was still carrying (since when?) her heavy sack on one shoulder, walking in flip-flops. I did not get to know where she was from nor where she was going. She just laughed. She appeared an exemplary vagabond to me: I felt very small. I knew then that wilderness couldn't be in the fire started with nothing but what the modern world presented. But there certainly was a good heart in the gesture of this young woman who made fire for me and gave me food, without a word. I had desperately scrutinized, whilst looking in the wrong direction.
Reminiscence of Conrad, Coppola, Kubrick and others
Pretty soon came an inexorable sinking into a humid belly saturated with flora, the impossibility of ever getting dry, the arachnidan effect of those creepers, trunks, clawing plants, giant leaves, trailing things tangled in impassable webs as soon as one set foot off the beaten track, and those warm showers, that blinding dust, the slow progression and forced steps on tricky climbs, soon came some of those images which support the modern western imagination: never-ending crocodiles of heavily-equipped soldiers, sticky clothes, weakening soggy feet in troubled jungle water, pouring rain for days, rain on cranes and on helmets, showers of shells and grenade juices, liquid curtains of napalm, machete and helicopter blades splitting wood and clouds, feverish looks, a growing darkness in the human and anthropomorphised atmosphere endlessly spinning in heavy vegetation, leading to destructive madness and thunderstorms. Heart of darkness, nocturnal swirl, souls consumed by fire, I naively thought of Conrad and Coppola, of Kubrick, Zemeckis, of Kipling.
It is delusional to think that one can arrive chaste of foreknowledge in an unknown land, to imagine grasping some nude substance of the world, informed and aided, as one is, by a traveller’s maturity; better to know how to observe and welcome the strange chimera rising from the precipitate of an encounter through which are revealed the most archaic fears and dreams.
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