In the early 90s diamonds were priced to the advantage of the dealers on 47th Street. 50% profit was normal for most stones and my boss Manny gave his sales staff commission based on 5% of the gross. In February of 1991 I had the luck to hook a middle-aged woman looking to buy a 5-carat F-color diamond for her aged mother in Florida. The transaction was concluded within a week. The customer paid out over $50,000. Everyone was happy with the sales, except for one person and Manny wanted company, so my boss made the woman cry by charging $100 for shipping.
“Her tears were fake.” Manny was a firm believer in Cato’s old adage that the strongest acid in the world is a woman’s tears.
“That may be true.” I had fallen in love with enough women to agree with his assessment of her weeping. “But a $100.”
“Doesn’t matter.” Manny smiled with the joy of this little victory.
“She’s a potentially good customer.” His son was trying to educate his father to the modern world.
“No customer owes you any allegiance.” Manny was Bowery to the bone. “Like everyone else they only think about themselves.”
“Thanks. It’s a good thing that we don’t need repeat customers.” Richie Boy shook his head and returned to working the phone.
We never saw the woman again, although she did call to thank me for my help. My commission came to $2500. My savings account held over $6000. An ad in the NY Times Travel Section offered around-the-world ticket for $1500. I planned on spending most of my trip in Indonesia.
“I’m going on vacation after you come back from Miami,” I informed Manny the next day.
“For how long?” Manny looked out the window. Snow flurries were swirling in the air.
“Six months.” I planned on writing a novel about pornography. My finances allowed a budget of $1000/month. The Lonely Planet Guide suggested $10/day for Bali. At $30 a day I was going to live like a pascha.
“Your job won’t be here when you come up.” Manny had worked 6 days a week since the time he was 15. He hated layabouts.
“If it is, it is.” I was hoping to get lost on the other side of the world. Few of my family and friends had been to the Orient.
At a farewell dinner at my parents house outside of Boston my family members were curious about my trajectory around the world.
“First stop is LA.”
“The home of Mickey Mouse.” My youngest brother loved Disneyland.
“The second will be Honolulu.
“We’ve been there.” My father tenderly held my mother’s hand. They loved their stay at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. All their trips were second honeymoons.
“Next stop is Biak.” It was an island off Irian Jaya. The stopover was optional.
“Biak?” My mother was great at crossword puzzles, but she had never heard of this destination.
“Biak.” My Uncle Dave tapped the kitchen table for attention. He had served in the Pacific during WW2. “I fought there in the Battle of the Sump. We bombed the hell out of the jungle. The Japs didn’t surrender easy. I lived on a destroyer for six months off Biak. I bet it hasn’t changed since. Let me know if the Dutch hotel is still open. Buy yourself a beer on me, if it is.”
Uncle Dave cuffed me $20 and back in New York I read about the Battle of the Sump at the NY Library.
The US Marines and Imperial Army fought the first tank vs. tank battle in the Pacific Theater. The defeated Japanese forces hid in a gigantic cave. The marines poured gasoline on them. Only few hundred survived the conflagration spreading through the cavern. I would drink a beer for them too.
I told my travel agent at Pan Express to book a stop on the island.
Two weeks later a Garuda 747 landed on the lengthy tarmac of Mokmer Airfield. The Indonesian Tourist Board hoped to develop Biak as a tourist destination. The disembarking passengers were greeted by a trio of black guitarists playing BY THE RIVERS OF BABYLON. The musicians were completely naked near-naked, except for a long the gourd capping their penis. A string of amulets directed the shell skyward. After a quick tour of the souvenir shop the hundreds of weary passengers reboarded the trans-Pacific. They were bound for Bali.
I watched the 747 lift from the runway. Silence descended on the airfield like a long-borrowed cloak. The customs officials processed two missionaries and me. Dusk was roiling from the east with a rapidity contradicting the laziness of the languid evening.
Across the street from the terminal was a low wooden building with the name HOTEL IRIAN JAYA. It was Uncle Dave’s hotel. The establishment wore neglect with understated pride. The tropics were hard on buildings and even harder on people. Booking a room was facilitated by the absence of other travelers. The bellhop was wearing a vest along with a gourd. His skin was the color of an old piano. Anthropologists called the inhabitants of Biak Melanesians.
“Have you ever heard of Africa?” I asked slowly in English, as I entered my room.
“Africa.” His eyes revealed a maze of miscomprehension.
“The continent of Africa.” I pointed to his skin. Somewhere in the past his ancestors had to have come from there.
“Tidak tahul, mistah.” The bellhop didn’t understand a word that I had said and shook his head.
“No problem.” I tipped him a dollar, which was big money this far from anywhere and he said, “Terami kasih banyak.”
I figured that had to mean ‘Thank you alot’ and replied, “You’re welcome.”
I put away my bags and opened the door to the veranda. Indonesian music was playing in the bar. The sun was setting on a mirror of slate gray sea. Joseph Conrad might have sat in this room. So had my Uncle Dave. I sniffed at the air, then went to the front desk to ask if I could make a phone call.
“Sorry.” The Indonesian manager explained that the phone only worked for the island. My mother would like to know that I was safe.
I was cut off from the world and decided to celebrate my isolation with a beer. The bar was at the end of a bamboo hallway. Two 40-watt bulbs provided illumination for the swirl of insects.
Someone was smoking a clove cigarette. It wasn’t an Indonesian or Biakian either. A white man with a beer-barrel chest was sitting with a diminutive oriental female. He looked like an overweight Popeye and noticed my staring. There was no one else in the bar.
“You get off the plane?” His accent was Panhandle Texas.
“Yeah, my uncle fought on Biak. He gave me $20 to drink beer at this hotel.” I pulled out Dave’s ‘double sawbuck’ and walked over to the table.
“Then you’ve come to the right place.” He introduced himself as Larry Smith. We shared the last name, but he was a diver hired by a Singapore concern to open a scuba school on Biak. “The sea here is virgin. The reef drops into chasms. Fish everywhere and even better old Jap ships sunk during the war are scattered underwater. Wrecks, reefs, and cheap beer. You can’t get better than that. I have a good boat, but it has a shit engine. Waiting for someone to fly in a new one from Surabaya.”
Every word was magic. Larry had learned his diving skills on the oil rigs of the Gulf. His right hand was missing two fingers from an accident off Mexico. None of his stories were lies, because he had nothing to lose by telling the truth. His girlfriend came from Jakarta. They were staying at a less expensive hotel in town. My room was less than $10. His was $3. At midnight we finished the last beers in the hotel as well as my Uncle Dave’s $20
“I’m going diving tomorrow.” He stood like he had spent too many years off dry land. His girlfriend helped balance him with her 40 kilos acting as a crutch.
“Out there?” He pointed to the black sea. “You want to come along. I’ll show you the island too.”
“Sure.” The hotel wasn’t pushing tourist tours. “See you in the morning.”
“We don’t get up early.”
They wobbled from the bar and I returned to my room. My one luxury was a world-band radio. I tuned to the BBC and fell asleep to a report about the first McDonald’s opening in Moscow. I hadn’t eaten a Big Mac in 10 years.
Hunger growled through my stomach like a rabid tiger in the jungle. I washed my face in the sink and stumbled down the hallway to the dining area. I was the only guest for the breakfast buffet of eggs, bacon, toast, coffee, rice, and fruit served by a gourd-adorned waiter. I didn’t have the courage to ask why they didn’t bother to cover their balls. Michael Rockefeller had been eaten by my server’s brethren on the Asmat coast.
Food was not the answer to my hang-over, so I drank bottled soda water and ate a slice of toast. My waiter was grateful for his tip of $1. His smile revealed sharp teeth. The guide books assured travelers that no Biakians had eaten human flesh for over 50 years. The waiter’s fangs looked flossed from use and I exited from the hotel with a shiver.
The gunmetal sea was flat as a young girl’s chest. The palm-fringed beach was littered with broken boats and bare bone pig carcasses. Large fish quivered at the banquet of dead flesh. I put my foot in the water. I hadn’t come halfway across the world to be squeamish and stripped off my shirt. I swam out beyond the filth. Within seconds my hangover was history, thanks to a surge of exhilaration.
Most Americans aspired to visit the cathedrals of Europe. I had lived in Paris for six years. A single night in Biak exorcised those years and I asked myself why I ever bothered living in the West. This was the real world.
I came back to shore and toweled off the wet. I walked over to Larry’s Hotel. Biak’s market was flush with exotic fruits and multi-colored birds. This was Conrad’s Orient. LORD JIM. Jack London’s TALES OF THE SOUTH SEAS. MCHALE’S NAVY.
“Mistah.” A banana salesmen pointed to an unpainted barrack. Larry’s hotel would have been condemned by a bribed housing official in Appalachia. His girlfriend was outside on the patio, washing a tattered shirt the size of a tent.
“Rarry.” She called without lifting her head.
“Hey, man.” Larry exited from the room naked. His girlfriend threw him a sarong with horror. He wrapped the shredded fabric around his waist. “Go figure. All the men around here wear nothing but a gourd. That’s all right. But I go buck and she has a cow.”
“You mistah.” She didn’t look his way. His penis was erect without any help from a gourd.
“Yeah, I mistah Rarry. The Indonesians still show a little respect for the white race. Guess the Dutch knew how to whip ‘em good. Me, I believe in the carrot and not the stick, but the Dutch are a tough people. Have to be to grow a tulip. Give me a few minutes and we’ll start our tour.”
I tried to start up a conversation with his girlfriend. She spoke no English. Larry seemed stuck on American as his language. He didn’t say good-bye to her, but confided to me, “A good woman. Hard to find any good human this far from anywhere.”
An Indonesian was waiting by a Toyota Landcruiser. The rental cost was $20/day with fuel. The owner didn’t ask for any ID. There weren’t too many roads on Biak and we weren’t going far. “First stop is the caves.”
“Where the Japs died.” Larry got in the front and I squeezed into the back. He took up a lot of room.
“Good, you know your history.” We headed toward the airport.
“My uncle fought here.”
“Ugly fight.” He didn’t say much on the rest of the short ride. We got out of the car and walked to the edge of a cave.
“This is where the Japs were trapped by the Marines. Maybe 4000 of them. Maybe more. The Marines asked them to surrender. The Japs said no. The Marines poured gas into the pit and burnt them alive. Every week a few survivors fly in from Japan to honor their dead.” Larry threw a rock into the pit. The smell was of deep earth. “I’ve never gone down there. You want to go?”
I shook my head. The smell of burnt flesh lived on the rocky walls. 4000 dead for an Emperor who spoke like a crane. They deserved their rest.
Larry and I drove back to town. We stopped at the fish tanks swarming with rare species for export to the West. He showed off his boat. It had no engines.
“Fucking chinks in Surabaya me promised engines last month, but out this end of the world time is the only luxury not for sale.” He shouted to a Biakian puttering with a Zodiac inflatable. “You ever free dive?”
“I have good lungs.” I could hold my breath underwater a good two minutes.
“Where you free dive last?”
“Isla Mujeres, Mexico.” I had swam through a cave 100 meters long. It was 20 meters deep. I hadn’t tried the hole until I was ready and said to Larry, “I’m good for 10 meters.”
“What I have to show you won’t take us that deep.” He ordered the mechanic to fill the gas tanks and a minute later Larry and I were skating atop a reflection of the sky. Islands floated on the horizon like ships dedicated to never sinking. Their distance promised that their beaches were preserved in a time warp dating back to Uncle Dave’s time and beyond that into the dust of time. Larry slowed the engine and handed me a diving mask.
“This is the place.”
“Aren’t you coming?” We were a good three miles from Biak.
“Only got one mask. Don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere.”
“Sure.” I strapped the mask over my head and he handed me a large rock.
“What’s this?” I was a good diver. Not very good. Only good.
“The rock will take you down fast. Stay as long as you can. You’ll never see something like this ever again. Few people will, unless I get that engine from Surabaya.”
I held the stone in my arms. It weighted over ten pounds. Larry nodded with a heavy head. I looked at the sky. The clouds said nothing about the sea. I dropped into the water on my back and plummeted into its depth for several long seconds until I spotted the long shape of a destroyer on its side. The markings were Japanese. Fish flowed through the battle wounds like smoke through a chimney. They numbered in the millions.
Other ships lay in reflecting shadows. This was defeat. Uncle Dave must have seen the shattered ships aflame. Sailors like soldiers never tell the truth of horror. No one would believe them. My lungs were burning like those of a drowning man and I rose to the surface half-expecting to not find the Zodiac.
“Pretty damn impressive.” Larry pulled me from the sea. His eyes scanned the horizon from something dangerous. He had not mentioned sharks.
“Japs.” I huffed air into my depleted lungs.
“And there’s more down there. I once found a sea cave stacked with artillery shells. 20 meters down. Who the fuck would do something like that?”
“Japs.” I was brought up to think of them as fanatical. So was Larry and Uncle Dave.
“Yeah, and now all they want to do is build a golf course here.”
“And dive a little?”
“I can only hope for the best. What you think about beer?”
“Like it’s a good idea.”
Larry drove the Zodiac back to Biak without any detours. It was early afternoon. I suggested that we drink at the hotel.
“Sounds good to me.” He was a man, who could drink anywhere.
We toasted Uncle Dave with the first beers. The rest were to the dead. The beer tasted cold under the palms of the Dutch Hotel.
They were almost as cold as the dead.