Mark of the Mouse

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    John Michael Gorrindo

    It was the night of Monday, July 11th, and possibly the single worst day of the calendar year to book overnight passage on a boat traveling from Manado to Sangihe Island.  The hot season’s only school vacation had commenced just the day before, and passengers eager to visit their families and friends on Sangihe were overbooked on the Terra Sancta, a passenger ship designed to safely carry maybe seven hundred.  Under the demands, the ticket office had issued three thousand tickets, and all were on board.

    I knew nothing of this coincidence, but quickly came to understand overbooking to be standard practice of Indonesian shipping lines.  As a country which pays scant attention to safety regulations- especially as concerns travel- it was clear that straining a boat’s carrying capacity if need be was to be anticipated and accepted.

    So there were no bunks available for either me or most of the passengers, and we were forced to find a seat somewhere- anywhere- a body could fit.  We disembarked around 7:30 PM with arrival scheduled for around 5:00 PM the next morning.  It was not exactly akin to sailing on a refugee boat, but there were experiences to be had that so reminded.

    Most memorable was sitting on deck while being urinated on from above by a bare-bottomed baby being held in its mother’s arms- the poor woman having to stand in a bathroom queue that snaked its way from the top deck near the captain’s bridge down two sets of stairs, and on through the ship out to the bow where were located the ship’s six toilet stalls.  The conditions were so dire that to be angered by such an accident would be tantamount to a crime against humanity.

    I simply took it all in good humor- and so did everyone else around me.  I wiped the urine off my head and shoulders the best I could with a handkerchief, which by the way, may be the single most important piece of traveling necessity to carry along when visiting the tropics.  Also in passing- for those who may need reminding- baby’s urine is pretty harmless in its own quaint way.

    Once everyone was settled into whatever niche they could beg, borrow, or steel, there was no spare room remaining in which to move.  One was planted where one sat.  That was true anywhere on board the ship.  I sat somewhere along the ship’s upper deck passageway just across from the side railings.  It was wall-to-wall bodies and baggage, and impossible to pass through.  The more intrepid would clamber along these railings and their longer vertical members attached to the roof above in order to traverse the passageway, scaling the bars and rails like monkeys, with nothing between then and the ocean twenty-five feet below but the salty sea air.  The need to risk their lives in order to move closer to the exit stairs must have been worth the trouble, as the chances of an overboard rescue at night would have been slim.  But then again, this is Indonesia, and fear of death- as opposed to risking one’s life- isn’t much of a motivational factor.

    Knowing that by morning I would be checked into a hotel made things more tolerable, as well it should.  Still, I am no spring chicken, and the discomforts of this ship passage were compounded by having felt exhausted from the day’s earlier events, not to mention the extreme heat and humidity.  But there was plenty to stimulate me on this, my first ocean voyage across the Celebes Sea.

    I soon discovered that feeling sorry for myself was boorish at best.  It was the young girl sitting next to me for the full length of the passage who reminded me what some have no choice but to tolerate in their day-to-day lives.

    She was the slightest slip of a fragile being who at fourteen didn’t look a day older than eleven.  Her hair was cut short and boyish, with saucers for eyes that carried within them the sum total of the world’s sorrows.  She reminded me of a poor, unfortunate creature from mythology who had had this burden forced upon her by means of bewitchery or as commanded by a wayward god.

    Even so, a natural beauty shone through her life’s burdens as it must have Joan of Arc’s- at once tragic and arresting.  She was a most grievous angel, and she told me her painfully short story soon after we exchanged our first greetings. 

    “Ibu menjual saya.  Ibu menjual saya.”

     It was all one needed to hear in order to understand.  “My mother sold me.  My mother sold me.”

    She repeated the defining event in her tragic life like a mantra, her unblinking stare boring holes into the core of my being.  My Indonesian was proficient enough to ascertain a few details.  Having been sold in Manado, she had become part of a family on Sangihe Island- a family that neither treated, nor fed her well.  Neither did they pay for her schooling.  It was news I neither wished to accept nor believe at first hearing, but I quickly took her story to be a bona fide case of human trafficking.

    My profound sense was that she was still in shock over her fate, and as such, didn’t accept it as her lot in life.  It seemed her saving grace was this non-acceptance, and in the corner of her soul I could perceive a growing force that would soon find the strength to openly rebel against her indentured servitude.

    Despite her pain, she was not so preoccupied as to disregard the beauty that lie before us just beyond the railing of the dangerously overloaded Terra Sancta.  She knew it was my first journey out onto the Celebes Sea, and she generously pointed out sights that caught her eye in passing.  She took delight in the bobbing lamps alit and tied onto the hull of small fishing boats out alone on midnight fishing runs; or of the existence of a small island whose light house signaled the warning of its very existence to any vessel interested enough to care.

    But the appearance of Siau Island at midnight was a sight for which only the dead would need rousing.  As seen at night from a ship, Siau could best be described as being mystical and otherworldly.  The ship lay abreast of the island some twenty or thirty kilometers, and so the Terra Sancta slipped by very slowly.  We sailed parallel to its slender length- along the north-south axis that put it in clear profile.

    Karangetang- Siau’s 1927 meter volcano- dominated the northern half of the island.  It was majestic and larger than life, but more striking was the island’s singular contour as presented in profile.  Karangetang was the first of a half-dozen sine-wave shaped mountains that rippled in geometric perfection from north-to-south, each proportionally smaller than the next, starting with Karangetang being the largest.  In purely two-dimensional form, the island looked like an episode or excerpt from the first quadrant of a Cartesian graph charting some simple trigonometric function superimposed against the tropical night sky, sitting flat on the ruled line of the horizon which like an “X”-axis delineated where the sea met the sky.

    Karangetang was capped by its characteristic and eternal plume of smoke.  It appeared against the dark canvas of sky as more a painterly gesture than real- static and glowing iridescent as lit by the full moon hanging high above it.  As Karangetang was a geometrically perfect, inverted smoking cone, its pure form fulfilled the popular notion of what a true volcano is supposed to be.

    The sea was as calm as a pane of glass- a flat, motionless plane stretching out in all directions.  The only signs of marine life visible on the water were the flying fish swimming along side and keeping pace with the ship- their silvery flanks flickering reflected light from the ship’s lamps shining overboard.  It made for a grand scene of a volcanic island as seen at night; and only a master of light such as Rembrandt or Monet could have thought it possible to do it justice in the confines of a painting. 

    As part of the larger Sangihe Island group, Siau’s history has been greatly determined by its geographic location which during the four hundred and fifty year history of European colonialism placed it strategically along a trade route connecting the Philippines with the spice islands of the East Indies.  Siau is a bona fide spice island itself which along with nutmeg produces large quantities of clove.

    It is thought the original peoples of Siau inhabited the island after migrating south from Mindanao, the Philippine’s southernmost province.  The first records concerning the islanders were written in the logs of Spanish missionaries attached to Magellan’s expedition in 1521.  It was reported that the Siauans cultivated some crops, lived off the land and sea directly, and more no clothes.  The missionaries were taken by the islander’s love of singing.  Living in small tribal groups scattered about the island- their datu, or tribal chief- negotiated their survival once the outside world discovered and invaded their once remote paradise island.

    The biggest threat to Siau came from the powerful sultanate of Ternate to the south, intent on raiding the island in order to kidnap its people and sell them into slavery.  Slave trading was rife throughout the entire East Indies archipelago, and practiced by the likes of Muslims, Christians, and animists alike.  The Europeans- including the Portuguese, Spanish, and later the Dutch- were interested in making Siau a vassalage which would pay annual tributes and swear allegiance.  The datus were quick to see it was far better to fall in league with a European power than that of a Muslim sultanate, as the former only exploited them economically, whereas the latter was intent on enslaving them on another island.  And in return for their allegiance, the European powers swore to protect Siau from the Muslim threat.  Caught between the tides of two opposing forces, Siau had no choice but to side with the European colonialists.

    Tributes and allegiance not withstanding, the Siauans were also forced to convert first to Catholicism as per the Spanish, and then later Protestantism as demanded by the Dutch.  For reasons still unclear to me, they were easy converts, and to this day remain staunchly Christian, with Protestantism far and away the predominant faith.

    Fast forwarding to the present day, Siau remains somewhat sheltered, and outside of its short occupation by the Japanese during World War II, has enjoyed more or less uninterrupted peace for hundreds of years.

    With the rise of the Indonesian Republic, Siau’s ancient kedatuan system of tribal governance was finally usurped by the strong centralized governance of Jakarta, and the island’s economy and politics became inextricably tied in to that of the new republic. 

    Long after my first sighting of Siau from the decks of the Terra Sancta, I finally came to understand that the romantic ideal of the tropical volcanic island is best preserved in the context described- as sighted from afar at sea- especially if that volcano is dangerous.  To say Karangetang is active is an understatement of considerable magnitude.

    My realization came months later during the Christmas season when I was finally able to set foot on Siau.  I arrived as an invited guest of an Indonesian teacher who was originally from the Siauan village of Sawang, located ten kilometers from the base of Karangetang.  In Sawang I was given a guest room in the home of my friend’s in-laws.  My host’s name was Arens, a sixty-four year old man who except for brief stints as a seaman had lived in Sawang his entire life.

    Sitting with Arens at the dinner table after a meal of fish, pig, and rice, he answered my questions concerning Karangetang’s natural history.  In his sixty-four years, Arens had personally witnessed no less than eight eruptions, including the largest of recent years in 1974 when the lava flow added a full one hundred meters of height to the cratered peak.  Gray ash up to a meter deep covered the entire village of Sawang in the aftermath.  Arens said it was the closest thing he had every experienced to a snow storm.

    Great fingers of lava scorched paths down all the volcano’s flanks during that particular eruption, setting off forest fires that destroyed thousands of acres of rain forest and coconut plantations.  The rivers of molten rock achieved mammoth proportions as evidenced in Babali, where a cross-section of the flow had to be blasted away in order to uncover the only road that crossed over from one side of the island to the other. From road side the visitor is dwarfed by the flow’s one hundred meter width and twenty meter depth. Still, the Karangetang base circumference is dotted with tiny hamlets, the inhabitants of which live in respect but with no appreciable fear of the volcano.  Everyone knows that the next eruption could cause their ruin. 

    One morning I traveled by local transport from Sawang to the village complex of Dame.  Dame consisted of two distinct parts- Dame Bawa and Dame Tinggi (lower and upper Dame).  A long, steep road connected the two sister villages, traveling more or less straight up one of Karangetang’s flanks from the coast highway.

    The allure of living in such a dangerous location was immediately evident.  The volcanic soil supported the most fecund of plant life.  One felt privileged to be in the presence of the world’s most fertile soil.  Nutmeg trees in the area produced the second best quality pala in the world.  Mango trees grew to unfathomable heights of thirty meters- their broad canopies chock full of ripe, round fruit.  Cinnamon trees- or kayu manis (sweet wood) - grew wild in the rainforest.  To chew on a strip of freshly peeled cinnamon bark produced a state of divine revelation.

    I experienced the most spell-binding example of volcanic soil’s special properties soon after arriving in the tiny village.  Accompanied by a guide, my teacher friend and I walked out of Dame Tinggi into higher elevations of rainforest.  We hiked along a trail that occasionally passed by the dwelling of lone villagers living off the land in simple wooden houses.  In one such encounter, we happen chanced upon a man butchering a chicken in his front yard.  He was close to the trail, squatting over the chicken he had throttled. We were upon him just as he slit the fowl’s throat.

    Blood gushed from the knife wound.  It was an iridescent red as if supercharged with phosphorescent minerals.  Never have I seen blood appear electrified.  It emitted a strange light that even the dark tones of thick rainforest canopy set under the somber, low hanging cloud cover couldn’t mute its brilliance.

    Hallucination might have overcome me- but the chicken had fed directly off the surrounding land cover, and its blood certainly bore the chemical stamp of the minerals originating from the earth’s core as delivered by lava flows.  It is not an image I can shake from my visual memory.

    Higher up some two kilometers from the outlying houses of Dame Tinggi were great lava beds deposited there in the 1974 eruption.  It gave visceral pause to see how close the lava flow came to obliterating Dame.

    There may be no more treacherously hard scrabble landscape in the world than the lava bed I saw that day.  Imagine a river of lava settling into place after the flow had stopped- still 2000 degrees Fahrenheit in temperature and in places ten meters deep.  After a period of cooling, the bed’s surface begins to crack along a million fissures which with the help of plentiful tropical rain eventually cleave deep into the bed’s mass.

    The bed crumbles into a sea of jagged-faced boulders of black ancelite rock- some the size of a car and many times the weight.  The bed’s tortuous surface can only be navigated by the nimble and strong willing to scramble up, over, and around one boulder after another, progress measured in feet, and not miles.

    I had previously entertained the idea of climbing Karangetang, but it was dismissed by every local Indonesian I mentioned it to without a desire for further discussion.  I was suggesting such ignorant folly that the notion deserved no response.  As I stood in the lava bed, my eyes scanned back and forth across its width and followed it up to the peak a vertical mile in elevation above.  To climb this mile high volcano was both impossible and sheer lunacy.  There existed gaps between the fingers of lava where trekkers could skirt the beds as one could move through patches of dense coconut plantations mixed with wild jungle, but the final few hundred meters of vertical rise to the peak consisted of nothing but vast fields of black boulders- every square centimeter of which was dimpled with a sharp edge.  It was a veritable sea of razor blades.

    Karangetang was impregnable after a fashion different from mountains much larger in scale and steeper in rise.  But the farmers who favored living on the lower slopes had long ago made their peace with the volcano, cultivating whatever exposed pieces of land they could and as high up the flanks as was tenable.

    Most often a volcano gives ample warning before it erupts.  Earth tremors and increased activity in the crater which glows hotter and redder at night may also be accompanied by the release of greater volumes of hot, poisonous gases.  As the signs become evident, geologic teams arrive with their scientific instrument and station themselves near the volcano, monitoring for as long as necessary.

    But when a volcano finally does erupt, it is difficult to predict how explosive the cataclysm will be.  Plans for evacuation can be carefully laid, but getting out in time is always a gamble. 

    When, indeed, do the leading indicators urge immediate evacuation?  Rarely can anyone persuasively answer that question. Lava flow is not usually the immediate problem.  Most dangerous in the release of pressurized gases bottled up in the volcano’s vents.  If the volume of hot gas is large and released in full, it will rush roiling down the flanks of the volcano as a superheated cloud of gas, ash, and rocks; a poison laden mass heavier than the surrounding atmosphere that advances downhill, driven at high speeds like a wind from hell.

    I can vividly recall flying over Mount Bromo in East java and noticing a trail of hot gas venting from one of its multiple craters.  One tends to think of hot gas as always rising, but this particular plume laced its way down the side of Bromo- a thin, concentrated stream so dense that its weight caused it to droop and flow lazily downhill.  It was a sight at once ominous and counterintuitive for right next to it was a second plume, streaming straight upward into the sky.

    These rolling clouds are called pyroclastic flows- and they rank as one of nature’s most deadly phenomena.  They travel with hurricane speed and incinerate everything in their path.  Their acidic vapors poison and suffocate as well. 

    Karangetang’s next eruption is just a matter of time.  If Siau is taken by surprise, people will try and evacuate, streaming down the mountainside in a mad rush on their way to one of two ports located on either side of Siau; each separated by only a few kilometers on either side of a narrow neck of land just south of the volcano.

    If the geologic teams are sufficiently convinced of imminent eruption, they can advise the government to order preemptive evacuation, but such a decision has its political difficultiesPredictive techniques are by no means sure.  No villager will easily abandon their land.  Then there is the cultural quotient concerning the fear of death. As mentioned, this fear is not appreciable in Indonesia.  Ask a villager in Dame Tinggi, and they will scoff at the volcano.  In fact, one realizes that raising questions concerning fear is a borderline insult.

    But history shows that the residents of Siau will flee not only their volcano, but in its eruption’s wake, their island itself.  As part of a nation whose population explosion ranks high on the world’s list, Siau has experienced a net loss in population over the past three-quarters of a century.  After each serious eruption on Karangetang, a portion of the island’s population packed their belongings and found a new life.  Post-eruption, the population increases steadily until the next cataclysm, whereby it plunges again.  Presently it is holding stable at about forty thousand.

    It might be said that an unstable island that exists at the whims of the volcano that created it makes for an unstable society, as the periodic waves of emigration following each major volcanic eruption indicates.  Siau does have its share of social problems, too, some due to this forced dislocation, others due to economics.

    Siau’s main port town of Ulu is a depressing, tawdry little provincial capital whose streets remain mostly empty except when ships are coming in and out of port.  One might expect more of a spice island’s capital city.  Siau’s only economic mainstay is agriculture, and the scores of villages scattered about the island are pretty much self-sufficient.  Aside from supplying the small mercantile sector with household goods for sale, supplies for housing construction, and motorized vehicle parts, the only established trade through the port is agricultural.  Ulu has no industrial base to speak of.  It is a town that wallows in stagnation.

    In the greater Indonesian society, if a married couple has several children chances are at least one will remain living with their parents until they die or live very close by.  Though conditions have changed with influences such as transmigration programs displacing large numbers of people, the obligation to family occupies center square in the heart of the average Indonesian.  There are ethnic groups who encourage their young to strike out independently on their own, such as the Miningkabau and Batak of Central and Northern Sumatra, but these remain exceptions.

    Siau is one of these exceptions.  I’m not aware of all the factors contributing to the large number of young men who leave Siau, but lack of job opportunities is certainly a motivation.  Many become seamen, traveling to the largest nearby port in Bitung, North Sulawesi to find work on cargo ships.  Arens did the same when he was young, so there is a tradition as such on the island.

    Ulu doesn’t have enough work to go around and even given Indonesia’s generally bloated governmental bureaucracy, few job opportunities for civil servants exist.  The schools are low quality and disaffected youth with little education behind them fraternize with the older unemployed men in small groups along the main street, sometimes looking for trouble and often drunk by early afternoon.

    Incidents of drunk driving are not only high, but the authorities often look the other way.  It is partially so because the police- bored to tears- are often drunk on duty themselves.

    When a Siau seaman comes home after his work contract has expired, usually a prolonged period of unemployment follows.  Herein lies a problem, and alcohol more often that not fills the void and kills the time.  Substance abuse in Indonesia is not a crisis issue, but on the other hand, the country is ill-equipped to deal with it in any degree or form.  That is especially true in an isolated island setting.
    As Islam forbids the use of alcohol, it is uncommon to observe in public any form of alcohol consumption amongst Indonesia’s Muslim population.  But in Christian strongholds such as Siau, the situation can be quite the opposite, as alcohol is not only accepted and consumed as would be in any western country, but its abuse tolerated.

    I have traveled a fair amount in Indonesia, and have worked and now live in the country.  Siau is the only Indonesian island I have visited where I was struck by the high incidence of alcohol abuse.  Whether it was groups of drunk teenagers staggering down the streets of a quiet village raising hell at midnight; or the local preacher dropping by at dinner time visibly inebriated while asking for a church donation; or unemployed men hurling verbal insults while driving drunk on their motor bikes down main street in the afternoon- these were scenarios foreign to most places in Indonesia.

    The local moonshine is known as cap tikus, which translates as “Mark of the Mouse.”  It is plentiful and cheap.  It is a unique libation as it is distilled from the fruit of the Arens palm, which is also used to make a red sugar called gula merahGula merah is a staple food used in many local recipes throughout the North Sulawesi region.  As for the alcohol, it is rather tasteless and carries no distinctive qualities.  Cap tikus is usually a clear distillation sold in used, plastic water bottles. I gauge its strength to be somewhere in the neighborhood or forty or fifty proof.  When sharing a glass with Siauan men at dinner for instance, I never felt like anyone cared about the taste of the stuff.  It was simply about getting schnockered- not enjoying the unique taste of a potable spirit.  

    As with other forms of distilled homebrew, cap tikus carried the danger of being poisoned by improper preparation.  In neighboring Sangihe Island, eleven men died after imbibing a poisoned batch during my stay in Siau.  When I brought this story to the attention of the locals, they were unfazed by the news.  Apparently, it was not an uncommon occurrence.

    Yes, cap tikus was a force to be reckoned with on more than one account, and the “Mark of the Mouse”- like Karangetang- made its indelible stamp on the life of Siau.  There are many things about Siau that turn my mind to thoughts about the subject of control. In all man’s hubris, he has yet to control nature, though he does his damnedest, usually with disastrous results. The primary expressions of a changing earth- whether it be global warming, earthquakes and their attendant tsunamis, or volcanic eruptions- are all beyond our present control.   It is difficult to envision how they ever could be controlled. 

    As for some additional thoughts on volcanoes, and in extension, the fate of the earth- think about this.  For every volcanic vent through which the earth’s core may expel its heat there follows a slight drop in the core’s temperature. The atmosphere may be warming, but the earth itself is cooling.  At some yet undetermined time in the geologic future, due to this cooling the motion of the earth’s core will slow sufficiently that the electromagnetic field it produces will weaken.  First the poles will shift, and eventually the field which is emitted from the poles which wrap the earth in a protective, invisible sheath will weaken as well, becoming pervious to the sun’s radiation.  The earth’s atmosphere will break down and render most life forms extinct.  The sun’s radiation will burn us to a crisp.  At least this all amounts to a current theory- but it is hard to imagine that all things don’t tend towards entropy. 

    A friend of mine recently alerted me that it was time for mankind to find another planet, quoting as her source of alarm none other than Stephan Hawkings.  The fact a living genius of astronomy would announce such a thing gave her great cause for alarm.  But the doomsayers have been around for time immemorial. Apocalypse is the oldest form of prognostication- that famous bit of news that has yet to happen, but is always just around the corner.

    Finally, we can touch very lightly on what makes Siau and the rest of Indonesia tick- religion.  Though I had some occasion to share in Siau’s religious life- most notably as a participating musician in a cakeléli orkes that provided some of the music for the Christmas day service at one of Sawang’s Protestant churches- I certainly carried on no conversation with any Siauan concerning the apocalypse.

    But the apocalypse as grand connotation of ultimate destruction and reordered rebirth is too unmanageable a concept for most Indonesians to comprehend as set forth by ancient Christianity.  For a Siauan, the apocalypse pertains to Karangetang’s frequent eruptions that each time carries the threat of the island’s annihilation.  In other words- the real apocalypse happens where home is.

    Ours is a world within worlds many times over, and for each self-contained world there exists the potential for its own home grown apocalypse.  It is in this breach that the seeds of faith- and faith- can take root.  For those who remain on the little, self-enclosed world of Siau- like my host Arens- their lack of fear is commensurate with the degree to which they hand their lives over to their faith and fate as predetermined by their Christian God.

    In the meantime, many of the men of the island cling on to little hope of making much of a living unless they leave their native home, and ease the pain over a bottle of cap tikus.

    Thrown into this mix is the invasion of western-style pop culture- mainly in the form of recorded music- which in the hands of young men is blasted from oversized sound systems found in their homes but most ubiquitously in the passenger flat beds of local transport vehicles which many of them drive for a living.  An unusually observant Indonesian made the prescient comment that such aggressive expression is the “mark of an island in transition.”  On an otherwise quiet island, the absence of noise abatement ordinances leave the older generation vulnerable to the constant explosions of electronic music which creates its own version of volcanic eruptions.  Nothing like this has ever been experienced on the island until the last ten years.  Siauan youth is asserting itself in ways that are at the very least changing the island’s soundscape.

    I’m not sure into what state Siau is transitioning.  As part of the younger generation seeks life elsewhere, most of the remaining population continues to lead their traditional way of life, living off the fertile land.  But as sure as the Karangetang giveth with one hand, she will surely taketh away with the other.  Who knows how many must flee come the next major eruption.

    I have visited only one inhabited tropical island I could plausibly term as “paradise.”  Siau doesn’t qualify, no matter its physical beauty.  There are few sights more beautiful than beholding Karangetang’s from a small fishing boat offshore of Sawang, but the restless beast in the volcano’s fiery bowels lives as well in the hearts of many islanders.  I saw too many souls lost, loathesome, and drunk.

    In all man’s hubris, he has yet to control nature- including his own.  We merely mirror the restlessness that is the dynamic process that for purposes of convenience is called the earth.  We tend to think of the earth as our home- a place where we live, when phenomenologically-speaking it is a more a grand process which subsumes us.  Beneath the veil of beauty if the beast of destruction and as a volcanic island, Siau is a convenient microcosm that delivers the message on a humanly manageable scale.

    It is from the mouth of the mouse you can hear the tiger roar.