A few years ago I dug out an old and mercifully unpublished manuscript – my early attempt at writing a travel book about Indonesia. I conducted a sort of scholarly excavation of the manuscript and its supporting materials (a diary and a handwritten early draft), and published an article about my findings in the Journeys journal. I called it “Counting Up the Lies: A Self-Reflexive Investigation of Craft and Fictionalization in a Modern Travel Book” (behind the academic paywall, unfortunately). I also wrote a sort of “creative” response to the way the manuscript was plainly interacting with an established discourse. I’d forgotten about this piece until I was having a digital spring-clear over the weekend. Here it is, for what it’s worth. It’s a bit weird…
A ferry, turning on the milky water of a broad inlet in the heat of the day while small figures clamour at the dockside.
There are trees behind the harbour, and somewhere a mosque with the midday prayer call ringing out [The mosque is certainly there; I cannot be entirely certain about the prayer call]. The ferry is white [I am reasonably confident of this]; a lumbering castle of a thing, lurching as the engines thrust in reverse and the workers on shore strain at the mooring ropes [reasonable assumptions, these, though not strictly verifiable]. There are cars and motorbikes and trucks [probably] in its belly, Indonesian passengers on its open-sided middle deck [definitely], and out in the scorching sunlight on the uppermost level a gaggle of young foreigners [definitely, though there may also be other foreigners on the aforementioned middle deck, and they may not all be particularly ‘young’] – a dozen of them [regrettably, even as an obvious approximation this figure cannot be deemed particularly reliable], with improbably long limbs, bronzed by weeks and months on the Southeast Asian backpacker trail [or possibly just by living in Australia, and having flown in to Indonesia a few days earlier]. Down the gangplank they go when the ferry is finally secure, into the arms of prearranged drivers, waiting to shuttle them to Lombok’s main tourist centres [a guess, and perhaps a reasonable one, though I cannot possibly ascertain all of their immediate destinations or modes of transport].
One of their number, though, breaks away and crosses the broad blanket of greasy tarmac that expands from the dockside to the spot where the public minibuses to Mataram are waiting. He is a British citizen [of this I can be completely certain]. He carries a backpack, and is dressed in a short-sleeved shirt, shorts and rubber sandals. On his head is a panama hat that doesn’t quite fit, with a band made of rusty-brown batik cloth. [Of these sartorial points I am very confident indeed, though I cannot make any claim about the colour of the garments – hat excepted. With complicated further research I might be able to establish certain empirically-grounded possibilities for the colours of said shirt, shorts and sandals, but given that it would ultimately remain impossible to be categorical about their tint at the specific moment described here, I have decided that such research would not be a valuable use of my time.] He clambers into the first of the waiting minibuses. [At this point it would be pleasing to say that his fellow passengers were a pair of old men, dressed in sarongs and with betel-blackened teeth; or a trio of giggling schoolgirls in white headscarves; or a bulky matron with a red bandana and a basket of vegetables. Likewise, one might say that the driver of the minibus was a shrunken man in middle age, with a crocheted skullcap and a clove cigarette fuming between his lips, or a rangy youth with a pirate’s earring and a flare of lurid colour dyed into his hair. It would arguably be of little consequence, and would certainly add to the atmosphere of the scene. But I have no way of knowing with whom he shared the journey. I do know the colour of his backpack, however: it was grey, with blue piping. I can’t say whether it was carried on the roof of the minibus, or in the cramped space behind the driver; that would have depended on the number of other passengers, and as has already been made clear, no information is available on this point.]
Inside his backpack there are two notebooks, both with hard covers and lined pages. One is black, A4-size; the other is blue and smaller, A5 [there is tangible evidence for this]. As the minibus bears away northeast along a road that strikes through the rice fields [this information is readily confirmable via a home internet connection and access to Google Earth], he watches intently from the window [obviously this point cannot be verified, but I am reasonably confident about it], eagerly grasping at the passing scenes he will record – slightly differently – in each of the two notebooks.
He wants very badly to be a travel writer.
The smaller notebook is a daily journal, but the bigger one is a working draft of the book he hopes to write – about the journey he is now making, from Bali, across Lombok and on eastwards, hopping through the scattering of islands that run out towards Timor. He will write the book on his return – battering it out on a rickety desktop computer with the light of a British summer coming in greenish through the window to his right – though it will never be published.
And I? Many years later I sat down in a library in Leicester to read through what he had written.
My desk was on the upper floor of the library, a space full of the furtive rustle of quiet study and the occasional industrial rattle of roller stacks on the move. The view to my right was cut into thin strips by a bank of window-mounted solar panels. Between them I could make out a city sinking into autumn and a quartet of wind turbines on the skyline in a milky distance.
I had three artefacts before me: his manuscript, a daunting slab, just shy of ninety thousand words in twelve-point type, bound into two separate bundles; that hardback A4 notebook, filled cover to cover with scribblings in black ink, the pages crackling stiffly like some far older manuscript; and the blue journal, somehow softer to the touch, with a hand-drawn calendar of the journey inside the cover. There was a fourth artefact too, hovering invisible around the desk, though it turned out to be a disturbingly fickle thing, far more so than I might ever have imagined: memory.
I began to read.
He moves – I see him (and you’ll have to take any incidental details on trust from hereon in; I’ve made the challenges I face clear enough already) – walking beside a canal clogged with water hyacinth, sitting on a tiled floor after dark with a family from Flores while a soccer match unfolds on a television screen above, riding more of those minibuses (occupied by what other passengers I still cannot tell), and then striking out on a rented motorbike (what does he do with the panama hat? I have no idea. Perhaps he ties it to his backpack). A sun sets, and then sets again, lavishly coloured over the smoky cone of Gunung Agung on Bali, back across the strait, and he rolls northwards, under the slopes of a nearer volcano, the rough and ragged hulk of Rinjani.
I see him, tripping along the narrow paths between the fields, talking to the people at the roadside and in villages in garbled but earnest Indonesian. There he is in a mosque beneath the mountain, chatting to men in black hats, and there he is, passing a funeral procession on a blue road in the highlands and then riding the motorbike down into south-facing forests and stopping for the night in a bamboo bungalow in the rice fields in a village called Tetebatu. There are cobwebs in the corners of the bungalow, and the fields are full of furious insect noise after dark. There is a mosquito net over the bed like a grubby bridal train, and as he fades into a sleep stirred by antimalarial medication they begin to pass on either side: a cavalcade of wraiths, those who have come this way before him.
They begin with a duo, a pair of Italians jostling one another over a slender gap of twenty years which cleaves the fourteenth century from the thirteenth, one a merchant, the other with the tonsure of a Franciscan monk. They wander around the bed in the bamboo hut, uncertain even of where they are. What do they see? What do they write? – Shadows of nakedness and license and a rumour of cannibalism, a great king in a gold palace and a marketplace dizzying with spice. Behind them, haunting the steps of the Franciscan, comes a faceless, nameless, nationless harlequin, whispering in Latin and English and French, stealing the monk’s unbound pages as they fall. He fills their margins with all the fantastical flotsam of a thousand years – inking in islands of two-headed geese where the people feast on the flesh of snakes, islands where the men have lips so vast that they spread like umbrellas to ward off the sun, islands of men with eyes in their chests and mouths in their bellies, and islands where the people have the heads of dogs. He pours it all out, and something like a river is now flowing past the bungalow in the rice fields.
The traveller beneath the mosquito net sleeps on though, shifting once or twice at the calls of the geckos in the rafters, but oblivious to the rumble from outside, where a vast and shadowy form is cleaving the black volcanic soil – a carrack, bearing in from Portugal under a great cumulous of square-rigged sails! It is crewed by a legion of barrel-chested men, and amongst them is an apothecary from Lisbon with a scroll and a quill. He writes, he writes – what does he write? Again of a great king and again of spice, and when the king’s women go out in state they look like angels.
On and on they come, longer and sleeker ships under Dutch and English flags, thundering through the night and a scribe on every one. They write what they see – always of kings and spices – but they write what they read too, and the whiff of the harlequin’s whispers still floats like camphor over their pages. With it come other words, mouthed and mouthed again, along with the spice and the cannibals and the kings – laxness and laziness and sometimes demonic violence too, with a borrowed word: mengamuk, amok, amuck…
Now the flimsy window shutter of the bungalow bursts open, and Englishmen in frock coats with factory chimneys at their shoulders and the Enlightenment in their eyes come clambering through, brushing the mosquito net, and striding out of the doorway in the opposite wall. Knowledge is power, they say as they pass, and in the intercourse between enlightened and ignorant nations, the former must and will be the rulers, and the grandeur of their ancestors sounds like a fable in the mouths of these degenerates, and in most of their Mahomedan institutions, we discover the marks of Hinduism. They write and they write and they write, these Englishmen, and they measure and catalogue and categorise, and they pour out their words into a river of their own making. The bungalow itself is islanded in the flood.
And now the tide is actually passing through the cramped and cobwebby room, lapping at the hem of the mosquito net and flowing beneath the bed. Figure after figure comes bobbing through the window, each with a book for a raft – an Englishman with a shovel beard and a butterfly net and a half-made idea about the diversity of animal life, an American anthropologist with a bursary from MIT, a squat and scowling fellow from Trinidad who mutters sententiously that this is not a book of opinion as his book-raft bounces off the corner of the bed. And more besides, each one drinking from the flood that bears him, then pouring his own water back in, drinking up lazy natives and cannibals and dog-headed men and spewing them all back out…
It is almost dawn, and by now the whole bamboo bungalow is afloat and tumbling eastwards with all the rest.
The sun slips up over Sumbawa and the traveller beneath the net wakes from a sleep of centuries. He steps out, bleary-eyed. The man who runs the guesthouse brings him a breakfast of banana pancakes and grainy black coffee. He eats on the creaking balcony outside the room with the heat rising and the volcano to the north fading in the haze. He knows nothing of the cavalcade that swept past in the night. He has read nothing of them, not one of their works. What he does have, though – he’s leafing through it now as he slurps at his coffee and munches his pancake – is a guidebook. And he is already adrift.
© Tim Hannigan 2021
My next book, The Travel Writing Tribe: Journeys in Search of a Genre, takes a look at some of the fraught issues involved in writing about travel. Published by Hurst, it’s out in May 2021.