Nearly forty years ago I answered JFK's call and joined the Peace Corps. Borneo was never the same again, and neither was I.
MANY YEARS AGO, IN A faraway kingdom called The Sixties, when doctors drove Buicks and ecstasy couldn’t be bought, there lived a man named John F. Kennedy. One day he stood on the lawn of the White House, pointed at a group of ragtag young Peace Corps volunteers, and said, “You are important people.” And, indeed, time has proven the wisdom of his words. Forty-one years and more than one hundred countries later, the Peace Corps is a shining example of Americans working for the good of the world.
Little did I realize in 1965, as I drank coffee at the Night Hawk restaurant on the Drag in Austin and contemplated joining the late JFK’s dream team, that I would soon be eating monkey brains in the jungles of Borneo. At the time, I was a Plan II major at the University of Texas. Plan II was a highly advanced liberal arts program mainly distinguished by the fact that every student had some form of facial tic. There was nothing practical about graduating with a degree in Plan II. About all you could do with it was leave town with the carnival or join the Peace Corps. After much soul-searching, I opted for the one that would look best on my résumé.
I soon found myself in Syracuse, New York, in about twelve feet of snow, in Peace Corps training. My only friend was a guy named Willard who smoked nonfiltered Camels and, during the first night’s mixer, promptly ran out onto the dance floor and bit a woman on the left buttock. Since these were the good old days before political correctness, Willard was not sent home (“deselected” was the term then in use) and went on to distinguish himself setting up a law school in Africa.
I did not fare quite as well as Willard, however. As part of my training, the Peace Corps sent me on a two-week “cultural empathy” junket to Shady Rill, Vermont, where I lived with a family so poor that they brushed their teeth with steel wool. After returning to Syracuse, I learned Swahili and was interrogated at great length by Gary Gappert, a supercilious, pipe-smoking psychologist who felt that I might not be fully committed to the goals of the Peace Corps because I had a band back in Texas called King Arthur and the Carrots. Soon, much to my chagrin, I was the one the Peace Corps had chosen to be deselected.
I traveled about the country like a rambling hunchback, hitchhiking from place to place, singing Bob Dylan songs at truck stops. The truckers were not pleased. They enjoyed my behavior only marginally more than Gary Gappert had. Yet I had not abandoned my dream, and eventually I landed at another Peace Corps training program, this time in Hilo, Hawaii, where I was, at long last, hailed as a golden boy. It was also where I learned Malay, a language I can now speak only when I’m walking on my knuckles.
Ultimately I was sent to Borneo, where I wore a sarong, built compost heaps, and earned 11 cents an hour as an agricultural extension worker. My job was to teach people how to keep their heaps from falling over on top of the Kinkster. Somehow I managed to avoid the fate of one of my co-workers, who had to be airlifted out of his hut and back to the states by a shrink in a helicopter.
By the time Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated, I’d gone native. I’d taken to spending a lot of time at a Kayan longhouse fairly deep in the ulu, or jungle, up the Baram River from the little town of Long Lama. The Kayans were a spiritual people, but they were also rather serious party animals. They had a traditional combo that might have even been stronger than a John Belushi cocktail. It called for chewing betel nut until your lips turned blood red, smoking an unidentifiable herbal product in a jungle cigar, and then drinking a highly potent homemade rice wine called tuak that would have made George Jones jealous. The Kayans, like a tribe of persistent mother hens, would push this combination on every guest, and it was considered extremely bad form to turn down their offering. Accepting their largesse, however, would invariably lead to projectile vomiting. The Kayans had no perceptible plumbing, of course, so you’d simply vomit through the bamboo slits of the porch, or ruai. If, after being sick, you continued drinking tuak with them, the Kayans considered you a man and, even more important, a friend. The only time the Kayans found my behavior socially unacceptable was once when, after an extended harvest celebration, I accidentally vomited on the chief.
As a Peace Corps volunteer, my mission was to preserve the culture as much as possible while attempting to distribute seeds downriver. In two and a half years the Peace Corps failed to send me any seeds, so I was eventually reduced to distributing my own seed downriver, which led to some rather unpleasant reverberations. I was well aware that the Kayans, though now a gentle people, had once been headhunters, and I did not want an atavistic moment to occur in which my skull might take its place along with dozens of others in the hanging baskets that festooned the ruai. But while I supported the indigenous culture, the missionaries were constantly at work to destroy it. They encouraged the Kayans to cut off their long hair, throw away their hand-carved beads, and dance around the fire singing “Oh! Susanna.” I’ve got nothing against “Oh! Susanna”—only against the missionaries who told the people to bow their heads and pray long enough so that when they looked up, their traditions were gone.
In a few short years, I was gone too. But all Peace Corps volunteers keep a little town or a little tribe deep in their heart, though they may have left it many years ago and many miles away. I remember fishing at night by torchlight with the Kayans in the Baram River in a small wooden boat called a prahu. Everybody got drunk on tuak and had a great time, though the Kayans never caught any fish. Of course, that wasn’t their intention. The Kayan word for “fishing,” in fact, means “visiting the fish.”
I also remember the coffee-colored river. It seemed to flow out of a childhood storybook, peaceful and familiar, continue its sluggish way beneath the moon and the stars and the tropical sun, and then pick up force and become that opaque uncontrollable thing roaring in your ears, blinding your eyes, rushing relentlessly round the bends of understanding, beyond the banks of imagination.