(Excerpted from The Grateful Unrich: Chapter 8: The Rambutan & the Thief)
I set out hitching south. After three short rides I am still twenty-five clicks north of Kuantan. Dark clouds are forming. Drizzle begins to pelt my sunburned face. The green jungle is a steamy cauldron. The road is busy with holiday traffic in too big a hurry to stop. I carefully cross a narrow bridge and go around a sharp curve. A 4-wheel drive Isuzu finally pulls to a stop in front of me. I run and hop in.
“Fred Bain,” shouts the man in the passenger seat, extending his hand. “Whereabouts are you from? This is one of my boys, Allen. One of those damn Chinamen, but he’s alright. Ain’t that right Allen?”
The young man behind the wheel forces a smile and shakes his head, partially immune now from the white man’s spears. Fred is from West Australia, a place that until this moment I have badly wanted to visit. He and his partner have been in Malaysia for the past six months, subcontracting for the Malaysian Mining Corporation. “You in a hurry?” he asks.
“Never”, I mutter, my shields going up.
“Ol’ Alan’s headed to Sri Jaya. Gotta’ do some explainin’ to his girlfriend. We’re just back from Thailand. Had to try a little of that Thai pussy out, right Alan? They’re cheap up there. A couple hundred baht for the whole night. Shit, here we pay a hundred ringit for a half hour. Anyway, we’ll drop him off, then run up to the mine and take a look.”
I can hardly wait.
We stop for smokes and Alan jumps out. Fred turns the Isuzu off the main highway and we head up a logging road into the jungle. Fred beams like a little child about to show me the toys he got for Christmas. “Sri Jaya is a mob town”, he blurts. “Just the other day a guy got hacked up in the barber shop, which is also a bar and massage parlor. As long as you stay on their good side you’re alright. Besides the Malays are always fucking with the Chinese, so they need some protection. I’m in good with Mr. Lee, who is also Chief of Police, and that’s the main thing around here. Got stopped just the other night at a roadblock, drunk off my ass, but as soon as I told them I knew Mr. Lee they let me right through.”
“How did you get started working here?” I ask, in an attempt to extract information from this penal colony escapee.
“Some MMC officials were in Australia doing metallurgical research. They needed some experienced drillers for subcontracting and got ahold of our names. Two weeks later we were in KL bidding on a million ringit contract. The clincher was when we promised to throw in a two week all-expense paid trip to Australia for the CEO. That’s the way they do business here.”
We drive past denuded hillsides where rivers of mud run past stumps and brush piles.
“Back in there’s alot of rubber plantations. One company owns 320,000 hectares all over Malaysia. Over there are some palm plantations. Mostly Indonesians and Thais work there. Snake-infested. They’re illegal immigrants. That way they only gotta’ pay the lazy bastards $4/day. If you hire Malays, you gotta’ pay them $26/day, so we only hire the minimum. Out of a kampong of 100, you might find one good worker. We mostly hire Filipinos. We generally work twelve hour shifts, six days a week. Then on Saturday night we head into town to have a little fun.”
We arrive at the mining camp. The place is deserted, except for the guard, who remains planted in front of a magazine housing explosives 24-hours a day. We drive through the camp and up into the mountains to a mining site. The Isuzu spins and sputters, lurching slowly up the muddy trail. Each mining site consists of a shaft reaching around 700 meters into the earth. A diamond drill is used. Gold, silver, copper and zinc ores are sucked up into a machine resembling a giant vacuum cleaner. Brownish-red clay oozes everywhere, amidst piles of monstrous felled hardwood trees. I want to get past that guard and blow this place sky high.
We head back down the mountain in silence, Fred slowly becoming aware that I despise him. We eat makan in the company mess hall, which is stocked only with rows of canned sardines and huge bags of rice. As Fred is preparing a plate for each of us, another 4-wheel drive pulls up loaded with Filipino workers. They enter the hall and prostrate themselves to Fred, as the great white father spews forth an array of bigoted condescending jokes. This is their one day off. But if they want to keep their jobs they know it’s wise to hang around camp stroking Fred’s megalomania. They have no money to be anywhere else anyway, since they send most of their meager paychecks to family back home. I notice two younger fellows with hollow angry stares, still showing signs of life in the face of Fred’s facetious onslaught. I throw an intense nod their way, as if to say, ‘Keep up the struggle. Someday we will make sure this bastard grovels in his own shit’. They fully comprehend my thoughts.
Another company vehicle pulls up. Out of it climbs a massive Aryan with red hair and a bushy red beard, adorned in a mud-streaked t-shirt and mukluks cut just below the knee. Behind him trails a meek looking woman, whose traumatized gaze is amplified through her thick glasses. The brute barks authoritarian greetings to the crew. Bob and June are Canadians who abandoned plans for an overland tour of Asia three years ago when Bob was offered a job in Australia with Hanover Drilling- which then transferred him to Malaysia.
June seems to come alive when I tell her I am undertaking a similar journey to the one they had forsaken for this muddy hell. Remorse is visible on both of their faces as I speak. Bob drops his macho miner facade for the moment and passes out bottles of Carlsberg beer to the crew in violation of company policy. A case of imported Carlsberg costs $52- two days wages for the Malays, two weeks wages for the Filipinos.
Bob says there is a wild party at a Kuantan truck stop tonight and begins prodding the workers to attend, saying he will drive them. They don’t look enthusiastic about the prospect of pissing away their meager wages. They are eager to bolt this miserable existence as soon as they have saved enough money to return home and maybe build themselves a tin shack on a hectare of land. They are tired of the booze and the women that eat their paychecks and leave them trapped in this Gestapo jungle camp. But Bob persists, his surly side now resurrected. He talks to the men like they are his little puppies. He would like them to do tricks for him. He clings to his boss identity, all he has in this remote emptiness. He can’t stand the thought of his subjects deciding for themselves what they will do on their time off.
“Well hell,” Bob rants, his voice taking on a slightly more deranged tone, “lets just throw ‘em in the back of the truck and go. There’s no sense staying here while the rest of us are having fun.” Considering this to be a final order, the men dejectedly get in the vehicles. Bob’s insanity has again carried the day. I can only imagine what the other six days of the week are like, taking orders from this asshole and his fellow expatriate power-tripper, who have made personal fiefdoms of this job site- some Apocalypse Now-type personality cult where all repressed boyhood pain is unleashed upon “the little brown people”.
As we drive down the muddy mountain towards Kuantan, the two young defiant workers, spared from this charade only by their age, gaze angrily at the vehicles. Fred instructs a worker to toss out a case of empty Carlsberg cans into the jungle, one final symbolic exclamation point to this heinous charade now churning in the pit of my stomach, one last metaphor for Fred’s relationship to this land and this people, and indeed for the relationship between the First World and the Third. By now Fred cannot help but sense my total repugnance towards his mini-Babylon. As if needing to reassure himself that he had not become the tyrant that he knew he had, he turns to me and says sheepishly, “Yeah Dean. Out here we’re just one happy family.”
I nod with an expression of incredulity, light a cigarette and without a word, gaze out over this desecrated sea of green. I search its recesses for reason and wisdom. My heart is heavy with gloom, this Mother Earth attacked by the violently psychotic paradigm of conquest and colonization. She whispers to me not to worry. She will prevail long beyond these parasites.
Dean Henderson is the author of four books: Big Oil & Their Bankers in the Persian Gulf: Four Horsemen, Eight Families & Their Global Intelligence, Narcotics & Terror Network, The Grateful Unrich: Revolution in 50 Countries, Das Kartell der Federal Reserve & Stickin’ it to the Matrix. You can subscribe free to his weekly Left Hook column @ www.deanhenderson.wordpress.com