Thoughts on an island
We sat on the wooden platform of the traditionally constructed house. Below a wooden terrace with a small kitchen and above it on poles the closed part, where there was a small radio station. We ate together from the rice with fish, in which everyone helped themselves from the plate with their bare hands. In addition, there was cold tea with small pieces of jelly from a carafe.
“Andreas, are you coming to the island tomorrow?” asked Big Roy. Like the other locals around me, he had adopted this name as a substitute for his Islamic name. Fat Roy, Indian Roy, Little Roy, but also “I”, “AI”, “G”, all beach boys, officially bore a miserably long string of their father’s name, their father’s father’s name, and a religious symbol name. Pretty uncool if you wanted to live the life of a rebel. It was the time of the Corona Pandemic and the resulting “Mobil Control Order”. According to this order, only absolutely necessary things were allowed to be done. The beach was closed and any activity there was prohibited by the authorities. On Langkawi, an island in the Strait of Malaka, a rather excessive measure. We were sitting together in April and the last two Corona falls were three months in the past. Since then, no one had come to the island. The locals present and the few backpackers had been squatting together for over three months. If any of us had had Corona, it would have come out long ago.
But in an office someone had made a rule for the whole country. To prohibit swimming in a hotel pool is understandable. But visiting a mile-long empty beach and swimming in an ocean? There’s plenty of room there to keep your distance at all times. There the petulance is pre-programmed. In fact, Corona caused strange things to happen. In the small markets, customers had their body temperature measured with a laser device. The devices were rather nice gadgets, because someone could not take them seriously. The measured values were entered in lists. According to what it said, there must be a lot of zombies surfing around with a body temperature of 32 degrees. In other stores, everyone was measured at 42 degrees. The insanity spread. A visit to the island did not violate sanity, but it did violate rules. A violation that could result in imprisonment or at least a fine of the equivalent of 200 EUR. At least this was true at that time. In the meantime, the situation has worsened considerably. Recently, the police organized some raids. Everyone who was found after midnight and especially without a mask was collected and taken to the “Lock – Up”. The idea is similar to the German police custody. In the arrangement everything looks a little differently. The small concrete cells are usually overcrowded with 10 inmates. Only three or four can sleep on the bare floor, the rest have to stand or squat. In the back there is a gutter for defecation, the water tap is installed low with an attachment. To eat, there is half-cooked fish, which reliably causes diarrhea. Make a long story short: You don’t want to end up there! Women are particularly hard hit.Sanitation is not provided and among 10 women at least one has her period. The authorities had been watching the game with the tourists for a while. During the last raid, they must have run out of patience. This time it hit not only the locals, but also the tourists who were present. Better yet, the locals were released after 48 hours, while the tourists were not brought to justice until two days later. The customs there might have surprised one or the other. The police enter a resistance by default. If one admits this in court, there is a small addition. If one contradicts the statement of the police, there is a proper penalty surcharge. Without any ifs and buts, the police are the extended arm of the government. Doubts about their actions are inadmissible. But they also have to reckon with being nastily punished in the event of an investigation, usually arising from a competitive motive. At Lock Up, everything is available for a fee. Medicines, halfway tolerable food, drugs … Outsiders have to bribe the guards and pay ten times the price.It’s a shame when you, as a tourist, have no one to help you.
But as mentioned, it hadn’t progressed that far at the time I asked. “Who else is going to be there?”, I inquired. Big Roy shrugged his shoulders. “I think the usual people, maybe a few more backpackers.” With that, he nodded in the direction of a group that had sat down by a small lake belonging to the property. A Swedish woman, two Norwegians, a couple from Belgium, two Germans and an Austrian, all of whom had been at the Lockdown for three months. I knew them quite well by now. The Belgian was not exactly the smartest. He had met his girlfriend on the road. Unlike him, she had a lot on her mind. Her problem was her experimentation with magic mashrooms. The Norwegian girls were not real backpackers. With interruptions, they had been on the island for five years. The Swedish girl had some kind of problem going on. I didn’t know anything for sure, but Big Roy had mentioned that she had said something about trauma and therefore smoked weed all the time.Because one of the Germans had told around everywhere that she had taught English in Vietnam, the locals gave her the nickname “Teacher”. I knew nothing about the other one. The Austrian had probably run away from home. She didn’t have a real plan. She talked without interruption and, above all, unpleasantly loudly. Because she was running out of money, she had grabbed one of the beach boys. The poor guy thought he had made a good catch. But she had long since turned the tables on him.
According to her self-image, the German teacher, who was barely 24 years old, was an experienced woman who had the talent to make anyone successful. For this reason, she had set her mind on becoming a life coach. The Beach Boys were suspicious to her. She did not understand their consistent resistance to career, success and consumption. Their lives did indeed have some pitfalls. On the surface, they seemed like guys who lived a free, self-determined life, either spending most of the day dozing in one of the guesthouses or working on the beach. There they waited for tourists to whom they rented a jet ski. Some of them even rode the skis on the water or hired themselves out as tour guides. The money was enough for rice with chicken. The young backpackers who succumbed to her charm provided a change of pace. With them they made trips on their scooters. In return, the girls paid for the food. If you looked a little closer, tragic stories often came to light. Most of them belonged to families with many children. In Malaysia, social security often still works through the children. At least two are chosen to provide for the parents in their old age. For this to work, despite possible failures, most families have around five children. Beatings and draconian educational measures, which one does not even want to call such, are not uncommon. The contrast could not be greater. Young people from the western industrialized countries, who complain about the lack of understanding on the part of their parents and see this as a sufficient reason for their behavioral problems, meet young men whose childhood took a clearly different course. On the islands, people try to avoid the police and the authorities as much as possible. What cannot be settled alone is negotiated beyond the “officials”. Thais and Malays argue about who has more corruption to offer. In my observation, this does not take much. The local police participate diligently in the drug trade by maintaining their own dealers who have to pay money to them. Everything they do in terms of prosecution is to eliminate the competition. In addition, they themselves throw in everything they get. Twice a year is hunting season. An officer explained to me that this is when they fill their quotas, which they report back to headquarters in Kuala Lumpur. During this time, anything with long hair and dreadlocks is fixed. Those with a positive urine test go to a re-education center for a month. Those with drugs on them first get a fine, in case of a repeat they end up in jail. Since they are usually only tested for THC, the beach boys switch to other drugs during this time. A tactic that has the expected consequences. By their early twenties at the latest, most are addicted to meth, heroin and pain pill cocktails. Despite all this, there is little acquisitive crime among beach boys. It is not entirely absent. I heard about various failed jobs.
Once, someone had the glorious idea to attack the hut of a Rohingya family living on the beach. I think it was a case of mistaken identity. In any case, he was first disarmed by the father, then beaten up by the mother. As I was told one day excitedly by the youngest son, a peck of 9 years, the children attacked him afterwards.
Already after my first visit to the island, I was not surprised by the soundtrack that sustained them. Reggae! None of them has ever dealt with the history of reggae. They are concerned with the idea that was born in the slums of Kingston Town. Bob Marley, and especially “One Love “, is present everywhere at all times. In fact, there is also a hard rock, trash metal and jazz scene. But reggae always prevails. Conveniently, the music draws tourists to the beach bars. If you cannot have the original on the other side of the world, you can at least have a cover. Here, too, an exciting contrast is created. The beach boys who live the roots of reggae and the young tourists who buy into reggae as a fashion movement. It is strange for an observer to see a Canadian with dreadlocks being served a shisha by a beach boy. In the end, capitalism buys everything. Some people got their act together one day. Often, they then turned more intensely to religion. There is no such thing as a rehab facility according to European ideas. The existing facilities have the same effect as Synanon in Berlin. By means of brainwashing, one addiction is exchanged for another. But at least it prolongs life.
There is a motto among travelers. Why not? Those who have a fixed plan or shy away from risks don’t even need to go on tour. Plans are for tourists who have an agent design a fortnight of their lives. Perhaps tour is inappropriate. Most ask among themselves how long they will be on the road. On the road is a better term. Time spent beyond the place where one started. This “Why Not ” is a kind of compass like Jack Sparrow uses. It leads you to places you never had on your mind. Well, as described, there were some reasons. It was a bit presumptuous to sit on an island with two seasons during the pandemic, of all times, and long for something new. After all, people were stuck in their homes all over the world. For me, it was less about the island than spending time with the locals in a special environment.
“OK! I’m in!”, I replied. The next day I set off for the beach. Before that, I bought cigarettes, six cans of beer, and three servings of rice with chicken. Roy had said noon, adding with a grin: “But Langkawi style!” That meant at least an hour’s space. It turned out to be two hours. Even the backpackers arrived an hour and a half later. I sat down in the shade of a jet ski rental that was fallow because of Corona. One by one everyone gathered as if there was no Mobil Control Order. Roy had a small boat that he had built from the hull of a jet ski. Five people could just fit in it. The dudes had organized another boat, which was normally used for tourism tours into the mangroves. After twenty minutes we reached the other shore. I was a little concerned that although the beach was difficult to see with the naked eye, it could be easily observed with simple binoculars. The beach boys had created an adult adventure playground on the island over the years. With whatever was around, they erected small huts. Around them were some improvised seating, two fireplaces, and a long table carved from an old plank. I grabbed a machete and started cutting firewood from old stranded trees. As I did so, I felt the skeptical looks of the locals on the back of my neck. A Westerner with a machete. One wrong blow could quickly sever a finger. I could understand the concern. People from the island rarely get to see a Westerner who cannot handle his hands. German tourists have countless times given me the feeling of second hand embarrassment.
Since the incidents in the USA, racism has also been discussed in Germany. The pack of self-proclaimed left-wing intellectuals pulls itself up on trivialities. Words, bad sayings or bad jokes are identified as signals of racism. Yet most of those who take them on are simply harmless helpless people who are out of their depth. Tourists who go to a bar and consistently turn to the white barker to pay are living in racism. Or ignore the local owner in the guesthouse because they think the white volunteer is just that. Then there are the Germans who show a bossy attitude with every gesture. “I pay money here, so everyone has to jump.” Once, a couple of Germans walked in front of me on the street. It was late even by island standards. The group was headed to a Thai pedicure. A woman among them wondered if the store was still open. Her companion replied, “We’re Germans and they want our money, so you can expect them to reopen.” Beyond these aspects, the boundless naiveté of the young women from Europe is remarkable. They’ll let guys from tougher countries tell them almost anything. The Members of the Nigerian gangs mutate into failed businessmen, lawyers or formerly successful consultants. Locals sell themselves as architects with marriage problems or are at least involved in a startup, which is still in the startup phase, as the name suggests. European soldiers of fortune tell the most outrageous stories, some of which I wasn’t sure they didn’t believe in themselves. There is this effect that liars eventually believe their own fictions. The result is a pack of liars who portray themselves as victims and a crowd of naive young women who buy their stories and bask in the role of savior. Until one story really hurts them and they grow up to be frustrated adult women. Somehow a pretty tricky act.
When it came to eating, the wheat was separated from the chaff for the first time. The Austrian woman loudly demanded chicken and a beer. She had paid nothing. Which raised the question of what she derived a claim from. A little later I understood. I talked to her about possible checks. “Then I play the little girl and make pretty eyes. And I speak bad English. Don’t foreigners do the same in our country?” I let her believe. She would learn on her own that predominantly male Malay policemen have a somewhat different image of women than their European counterparts. “Teacher” gave me a sociological lecture and how much she had tried to help the poor beach boys. She talked herself in trouble. She thought of herself as a descendant of a higher level organized society. One in which the environment is respected, garbage is separated and animals are loved. Certainly this corresponds to the attitude towards life of many Germans. Across the face of Roy, who speaks pretty good German, flashed an expression that struck me as a mixture of contempt, rejection and anger. But it was minimal tinge. He had trained for years to hide his language skills from Germans. Traveling through Southeast Asia, garbage and the careless handling of it cannot be overlooked. Piles of garbage are everywhere and an army of giant rats roams the cities. The consequences of poor waste management and the effects of a throwaway culture that is spreading globally are present at all times.But the facts are not quite that simple, in my opinion. I thought about this on a Thai island. There, every day, I walked past the back of a pile-dwelling settlement of the indigenous Moken people, half-built into the sea. Lots of trash collected in the outflow area of the tide. Plastic packaging, all kinds of affluent plastic garbage, old nylon nets, almost everything was synthetic. Accordingly, garbage from a world with which the Moken had only marginally something to do. Rather, one that had driven them out of their own within the past forty years. Everything accumulating had to be transported away from the island by boats. A luxury hotel company operated a kind of garbage incinerator. Servants collected the garbage on the beach every day and in the evening it was chased through a high chimney. Of course without a filter system. Until the seventies, the Moken lived the life of a sea nomad people. Then a deadly disease struck the islands. Mass tourism discovered the area. This changed everything. The range of goods in the stores adjusted to the tourists. The Moken lost the right to be anywhere they wanted. Fishing, employment, business, nothing remained. They are simply overwhelmed with what is happening. The sea washes up, their traditions were destroyed by consumption, and behind the house everything piles up.
In Germany, the mountain of garbage that is created every day is removed from sight in a tightly organized manner. Somewhere where the average citizen is no longer bothered by it. The plastic cup, neatly disposed of in the right garbage can to ease the conscience, disappears, at least from view. So it goes with a container ship on a long journey. There, where also all the crabs caught by German cutters land. Asia! There it is granulated and processed, to then return home again together with the crabs, which are now freshly poulticed. If Germans can do anything well, it is to make everything beautiful. Chemicals disappear into the sea, into rivers or are seeped away into desert sand. If the cutting down of forests is forbidden, one simply commissions a mercenary force in distant countries through three or four intermediaries to convince an indigenous people to move and shoves it into the pocket of a right-wing populist president, who puts it away with a smile and a full wallet.On the one hand, angry young protesters demonstrate against domestic environmental sins; on the other, they post the system’s opposition with smartphones whose components come from the steppes of Mongolia, which become a little more rugged every day. Part of the truth is that their peers in the dark alleys of Bangkok, Bangladesh, who have sewn their fancy clothes, lack a little time for reflection. There is a reason why German houses have significantly more curtains, blinds, opaque fences, rooms that guests never get to see. Not everyone has to see everything! The Moken are different. Their houses are open in almost all directions, fences do not exist, everyone sees everything. But is someone who could see something, but in order to feel better, does not want to see anything, a better person?
During this time, a refugee boat landed on the main island. About 150 Sunni Rohingya had made it to Langkawi in their old cutter. Another 150 had died on the three-month journey. During the last part of the escape, the fugitives orient themselves by the lighting for the airport on Langkawi, which shows them the way. Although Malaysia is a Muslim country, the refugees do not expect solidarity. Belief doesn’t go that far, then. An abstruse number. They are driven to flee by Buddhists and turned away by Muslim co-religionists, as Christians do with Africans. At least Malaysia has little to do with the causes of the escape, and to the rescue of the Buddhists there is a faint ray of hope. All the major Buddhist movements have joined together to sharply criticize what is happening in Myanmar. No, this is not a ray of hope. To me, it is the end of a hope. Buddha: Who knows the teaching and lives contrary to it is a shepherd who tends the herd of a neighbor and abandons his own herd.
The unimaginable horror that takes place there is incomprehensible to any human being. Who of us wants to presume in the face of all this misery from Myanmar, Central Africa to Syria to speak of justified fears of the Germans of uncontrolled refugee movements? It is also the story of Bangladesh. The largest refugee camp in the world. Nearly 1 million people escaped there. As almost always, it is also a remnant of colonialism. The British used the Rohingya to fight the rest of the population. The resulting hatred they share with the Hmong in Laos, who were captured by the Americans in the Vietnam War. Last but not least, good old capitalism comes bending around the corner. In the Rohingya territory, there is uranium, nickel and rare earths under the surface, which the military wants to grab. One particularly colorful figure is a monk named Ashin Wirathu, who cannot be called a Buddhist. The man is a racist, agitator, hate preacher who found an orange cloth on the side of the road. After all, there is now an arrest warrant against him and Thailand, a central point in Theravada Buddhism, refuses him entry.
I always think of the words of a Vietnam veteran when I think of things like this, which I wrote down before. “The Vietnam War did not show what man is capable of. The war showed what man is. A vicious, brutish, intelligent predator who, with those traits, became the dominant species on the planet.” But predators don’t kill senselessly. They follow the instinct of survival. I made a mental mistake while visiting the Killing Fields in Cambodia, the Vietnam Museum in Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City, or the Amputee Aid Center in Vientiane/Laos. For a very brief moment, I wondered why Asian societies, of all societies, showed such brutality. Strange how one’s own history slips away in such moments. Against the Germans under Nazism, the Khmer Rouge and the Junta in Myanmar look pale. Not that these atrocities somehow deserve a ranking. But it shows that this predator is in all of us. Only one thing tames it: the ability to develop a will that tames it. If this will is removed, however, or not developed at all, the consequences are bestial.
With these thoughts, I was miles away from Teacher. I asked myself at the sight of the carefree looking backpackers, why I had done all these things to myself. No one had forced me to go to these places. Is there a duty for a privileged person to look? I have been asking myself this question for a long time. No one cannot turn back time. There is no reparation. I wanted to understand what the perpetrators saw. How can one, even if blinded or filled with hatred, bear these images, the screaming, the smell, the despair? How can it be? I don’t live and never lived non-violently. Physical struggle, fisticuffs, pain, injuries are not foreign to me. But I know my limits. A friend of mine once said that I should begrudge people for not having some images in their heads. Can this be right? Look away? Move on? Keep silent? On the other side, can something be changed? Change? I don’t believe in that. In all systems, which I got to know a little bit in the last years, a similar type of human being has pushed himself up in hierarchies. Maybe that is exactly the point. You need special characteristics to be able to work and live in a team or within a small anarchy for a long time, just as you have to be suitable to box your way up in a fixed hierarchy. I don’t possess the latter idiosyncrasies, so I won’t change anything. Somehow this is a dead end. The hierarchy freaks won’t change anything, certainly not the hierarchy itself.
A guy like me, can’t get past thinking in a place like this. I know some people who also have this problem and avoid such places. The desire for the simple island is quickly expressed. But who protects you from having to deal with yourself? The many images, stories, decisions that suddenly catch up with you. The presence of young women and guys under thirty doesn’t make it any easier for a man in his fifties. The comparison between their lives and your own practically jumps out at you bare-bottomed. You can hardly think of a better training session for getting rid of the addiction to evaluation that already developed in childhood. Different does not mean wrong and certainly not worse. A process is happening around us that cannot be told exactly when it was started. No one can say exactly when Europeans began to intervene devastatingly in the global system. The course was set with industrialization at the latest. In the case of processes, it may be possible to predict what the outcome will be if the process is unimpeded. But how likely is it that the process will not one day experience a vehement interruption? Clever philosophers could make some prediction under the yoke of church and monarchy. They could not count on the replacement of the centralist worldview and the Enlightenment. Anyone with a little sense can see that neoliberalism and similar capitalist models of society are languishing. The only question now is: when will death occur and who will inherit? Nothing significant will come from the former dominant Western civilizations. Those from the island will have little to do with what is happening.
The day passed little by little. Suddenly, a Coast Guard boat appeared. It was too late to hide. But they showed no apparent interest in us. Nevertheless, a worried mood spread among the sensible ones. They could alert a police boat by radio at any time. Together with Roy, I vigilantly watched the water. After some time the boat returned. I took a hike in the direction of the jungle. But again they did not stop. When I returned to the beach, I found that Roy had joined a small group that was crossing to the beach on a passing fishing boat. For me, this meant being stuck on the island for over hours with the remaining adventure-oriented rest. The guys had already enjoyed a few bongs. Relaxed, they camped by the fire. I had no choice but to resign myself to fate. With a last burst of energy, I asked one to drive to the opposite beach that night. Talking to a palm tree would have promised more success. For a full seven hours I sat on the beach and looked angrily at the black sea. Actually, there were two sitting there. Me and my inner self in dialogue. I thought about Germany and my life there. I wondered if I would ever get rid of the police. As soon as I pondered this, I asked myself why I wanted to achieve this at all costs. Yes, it had been wild times. Much of it, a young detective of today cannot imagine. A different police force in a different society with different demands, ideas, informal rules. There was that day when we realized as a team that every squad has its time. At some point, you arrive at crossroads. There, a decision must be made as to how to proceed. Follow the old direction, or choose to turn left or right? I wanted to go further. But the instructions were different. In this case, one is free to leave the troop. For far too long I followed a path that had nothing to do with me. This feeling of not being able to get away from the island, of not being able to get my butt to safety according to my own ideas, suddenly seemed unpleasantly familiar to me.
When we made the boats ready at high tide, the sun was already high up. Unprotected, we set sail. Except for the Russian woman, who enthusiastically filmed herself and the trip, everyone had a sinking feeling. But we were lucky. The police patrols were still in the quarters. After landing we hurriedly searched for the distance. For me it was clear that I would do without further adventures of this kind. A few days later, most of the locals involved were arrested on the occasion of a small drink at Big Roy. Three months Lock Up and loss of the Dreadlocks, were a hard, and I find disproportionate, punishment. The Russian woman was also arrested, but at that time she could still buy herself free. Teacher got an apprenticeship in Germany and the Austrian is back home. Big Roy was briefly in Germany to see his son. I will definitely return to Langkawi. Why? That is another story and another post.