Like a client of one of your less reputable pufferfish sushi chefs, Randy Waterhouse does not move from his assigned seat for a full ninety minutes after the jumbo leaves Ninoy Aquino International Airport. A can of beer is embedded in the core of his spiraled hand. His arm lies on the extra-wide Business Class armrest, a shank on a slab. He does not turn his head, or turret his eyeballs, even, to look out the window at northern Luzon. All thats out there is jungle, which has two sets of connotations going for it now. One is the spooky Tarzan/Stanley & Livingstone/"The horror, the horror"/natives-are-restless/Charlies out there somewhere waiting for us kind. The second is the more modern and enlightened sort of Jacques Cousteauian teeming repository-of-brilliant-and-endangered-species lungs-of-the-planet kind. Neither really works for Randy anymore, which is why despite the state of hibernatory torpor he shunted into the moment his ass impacted on the navy blue leather of the seat, he feels a little spike of irritation every time one of the other passengers, peering out a window, pronounces the word "jungle." To him, it is just a shitload of trees now, trees going on for miles and miles, up the little hilly-willies and down the little hilly willies. It is easy, now, for him to understand tropical denizens shockingly frank and blunt craving to drive through this sort of territory in the largest and widest available bulldozers (the only parts of his body that move during the first hour and a half of the flight are certain facial muscles which pull the corners of his mouth back into an ironic rictus when he imagines what Charlene would think of thisit is just too perfectRandy goes off on a Business Foray and comes back identifying with people who bulldoze rainforests). Randy wants to bulldoze the jungle, all of it. Actually, thermonuclear weapons, detonated at a suitable height, would do the job faster. He needs to rationalize this urge. He will do so, as soon as he solves the running-out-of-planetary-oxygen problem.
By the time it even occurs to him to lift the beer to his lips, the heat of his body has gone into it, and his hand has become as chilly and stiff as an uncooked rolled roast. For that matter, his whole body has adjourned into some kind of metabolic recess, and his brain is not exactly purring at high RPMs either. He feels kind of the way he does, sometimes, the day before he comes down with a total-body cold-and-flu scenario, one of those crushing viral Tet Offensives that, every few years, swats you out of the land of the fully living for a week or two. It is as if about three-quarters of his bodys resources of nutrients and energy have been diverted to the task of manufacturing quintillions of viruses. At the currency exchange window of NAIA, Randy had stood behind a Chinese man who, just before he stepped back from the window with his money, unloaded a Sneeze of such titanic force that the rolling pressure wave turbulating outwards from his raw, flapping facial orifices caused the wall of bulletproof glass separating him from the moneychangers to flex slightly, so that the reflection of the Chinese man, Randy behind him, the lobby of NAIA and the sunlit passenger-dropoff lane outside underwent a subtle warpage. The viruses must have roiled back from the glass, reflected like light, and enveloped Randy. So maybe Randy is the personal vector of this years version of the flu-named-after-some-city-in-East-Asia that annually tours the United States, just barely preceded by rush shipments of flu vaccine. Or maybe its Ebola.
Actually, he feels fine. Other than the fact that his mitochondria have gone on strike, or that his thyroid seems to be failing (perhaps it was secretly removed by black-market organ transplanters? He makes a mental note to check for new scars in the next mirror) he is not experiencing any viral symptoms at all.
It is some kind of post-stress thing. This is the first time he has relaxed in a couple of weeks. Not once has he sat down in a bar with a beer, or put his feet up on a desk, or just collapsed like a decaying corpse in front of the television set. Now his body is telling him its payback time. He does not sleep; he does not feel drowsy at all. Actually, hes been sleeping rather well. But his body refuses to move for an hour, and then most of another hour, and to the extent his brain is working at all it can only chase its tail.
But there is something that he could be doing. This is why laptops were invented, so that important business persons would not fritter away long flights relaxing. He can see it right there on the floor in front of him. He knows he should reach for it. But it would break the spell. He feels as if water condensed on his skin and froze into a carapace that will shatter as soon as he moves any part of his body. This is, he realizes, exactly how a laptop computer must feel when it drops into its power-saving mode.
Then a flight attendant is there holding a menu in front of his face and saying something that jolts him like a cattle prod. He nearly jumps out of his seat, spills his beer a little, gropes for the menu. Before he can drop back into his demi-coma, he continues the motion and reaches down for his laptop. The seat next to him is empty and he can put his dinner over there while he works on the computer.
People around him are watching CNNlive, from CNN Center in Atlantanot a canned thing on tape. According to the plethora of pseudotechnical data cards jammed into the seatbacks, which Randy is the only person who ever reads, this plane has some kind of antenna that can keep a lock on a communications satellite as it flies across the Pacific. Furthermore, its two-way, so you can even transmit e-mail. Randy spends a while familiarizing himself with the instructions, checks the rates, as if he really gives a shit how much it costs, then jacks the thing into the anus of his laptop. He opens up the laptop and checks his e-mail. Traffic is low because everyone in Epiphyte knows hes en route somewhere.
Nevertheless, there are three messages from Kia, Epiphytes only actual employee, the administrative assistant for the whole company. Kia works in a totally alienated, abstracted office in the Springboard Capital corporate incubator complex in San Mateo. It is some sort of a federal regulation that nascent high-tech companies must not hire pudgy fifty-year-old support staff, the way big established companies do. They must hire topologically enhanced twenty-year-olds with names that sound like new models of cars. Since most hackers are white males, their companies are disaster areas when it comes to diversity, and it follows that all of the diversity must be concentrated in the one or two employees who are not hackers. In the part of a federal equal-opportunity form where Randy would simply check a box labeled caucasian, Kia would have to attach multiple sheets on which her family tree would be ramified backwards through time ten or twelve generations until reaching ancestors who could actually be pegged to one specific ethnic group without glossing anything over, and those ethnic groups would be intimidatingly hip onesnot Swedes, lets say, but Lapps, and not Chinese but Hakka, and not Spanish but Basque. Instead of doing this, on her job app for Epiphyte she simply checked "other" and then wrote in trans-ethnic. In fact, Kia is trans- just about every system of human categorization, and what she isnt trans- she is post-.
Anyway, Kia does a great job (it is part of the unspoken social contract with these people that they always do an absolutely fantastic job) and she has sent e-mail to Randy notifying him that she has recently fielded four trans-Pacific telephone calls from America Shaftoe, who wants to know Randys whereabouts, plans, state of mind, and purity of spirit. Kia has informed Amy that Randys on his way to California and has somehow insinuated, or Amy has somehow figured out, that the purpose of the visit is NOT BUSINESS. Randy senses a small pane of glass shattering over a neurological alarm button somewhere. He is in trouble. This is divine retribution for his having dared to sit still and not do anything for ninety whole minutes. He uses his word processor to whip out a note explaining to Amy that he needs to straighten out some paperwork in order to sever the last clinging tendrils of his dead, dead, dead relationship with Charlene (which was such a lousy idea to begin with that it causes him to lie awake at night questioning his own judgment and fitness to live), and that he has to be in California in order to do it. He faxes the note to Semper Marine in Manila, and also faxes it to Glory IV in case Amys out on the water.
He then does something that probably means hes certifiably crazy. He gets up and strolls up and down the business-class aisle on pretext of using the bathroom, and checks out the people sitting nearby, paying special attention to their luggage, the stuff theyve jammed into the overhead compartments, the bags under the seats in front of them. He is looking for anything that might contain a Van Eck phreaking type of antenna. It is a completely useless thing to do, because just about any type of luggage might contain such an antenna and he would never know it. Furthermore, any actual spy who had been planted on this plane to eavesdrop on his computer would not be sitting there holding up a big antenna and peering at an oscilloscope. But performing the check (like checking the rates for live data transmissions to the satellite) is sort of an empty ritual that makes him feel vaguely responsible and arguably non-stupid.
Returning to his seat, he fires up OrdoEmacs, which is a marvelously paranoid piece of software invented by John Cantrell. Emacs in its normal form is the hackers word processor, a text editor that offers little in the way of fancy formatting capabilities but does the basic job of editing plain text very well. Your normally cryptographically paranoid hacker would create files using Emacs and then encrypt them with Ordo later. But if you forget to encrypt them, or if your laptop gets stolen before you get a chance to, or your plane crashes and you die but your laptop is sieved out of the muck by baffled-but-dogged crash investigators and falls into the hands of federal authorities, your files can be read. For that matter it is possible even to find ghostly traces of old bits on a hard drives sectors even after the file has been overwritten with new data.
OrdoEmacs, on the other hand, works exactly like regular Emacs, except that it encrypts everything before writing it out to disk. At no time is plaintext ever laid down on a disk by OrdoEmacsthe only place it exists in its plain, readable form is in the pixels on the screen, and in the volatile RAM of the computer, whence it vanishes the moment power is shut down. Not only that, but its coupled to a screensaver that uses the little built-in CCD camera in the laptop to check to see if you are actually there. It cant recognize your face, but it can tell whether or not a vaguely human-shaped form is sitting in front of it, and if that vaguely human-shaped form goes away, even for a fraction of a second, it will drop into a screen-saver that will blank the display and freeze the machine until such time as you type in a password, or biometrically verify your identity through voice recognition.
Randy opens up a document template that Epiphyte uses for internal memoranda and begins to lay out certain facts that will be fresh, and no doubt stimulating, to Avi, Beryl, John, Tom, and Eb.
MY TRIP TO THE JUNGLE
THE DRUMS OF THE HUKS
GET A LOAD OF THIS
HE SQUEEZED MY TESTICLES
THE WEIRD TURN PRO
a tale of adventure and discovery in the majestic rain-forest of northern Luzon
Randall Lawrence Waterhouse
As I stepped on this unknown middle-aged Filipina's feet during an ill-advised ballroom dancing foray, she leaned close to me and uttered some latitude and longitude figures with a conspicuously large number of significant digits of precision, implying a maximum positional error on the order of the size of a dinner plate. Gosh, was I ever curious! Subject provided these numbers as part of a conversational gambit/thought experiment concerning the inherent value (as in monetary) of information, a subject (coincidentally?) of interest to us, the Management Team of Epiphyte(2) Corp. Examination of high-res maps of Luzon indicated that the lat. and long, in question were in a hilly (let's just go ahead and call it mountainous) region some 250 km north of Manila. For those of you not familiar with WW2 history, this area was within the final perimeter controlled by General Yamashita, the Tiger of Malaya and conqueror of Singapore, at the end of that war, when Gen. MacArthur had driven him and his approx. l0^5 troops out of the populated lowlands. And no, this is not just a fundamentally irrelevant historical note, as we shall see.
Relayed said data to one Douglas MacArthur Shaftoe (refer to my exceptionally colorful and readable status reports on cable survey for more anecdotal material concerning same) who asserted "someone is trying to send you a message" (note: all cheesy dialog hereinafter is DMS's) and offered his assistance with a vigor bordering on scary aggressiveness. DMS is energetic and enterprising to a degree that from time to time leaves certain persons (e.g. those burdened with a petty fear of death or torture) uneasy (see my prior speculation as to possibility DMS may have been born with a redundant Y chromosome) Primary role of Yours Truly became as follows: source of repetitious and evidently irritating counsels of caution, restraint, other virtues given a low priority by DMS, who cites his longevity (which unavoidably exceeds that of Yours Truly as he was born before me), network of close personal relationships (murky, globe-spanning, reputedly puissant), financial prosperity (commodities, e.g. precious metals, distributed among many locations DMS declines to reveal) and (as trump card) the corporeal perfection of his girlfriend (she must carry an umbrella while out of doors lest her face cause pilots of overflying commercial airliners to pitch forward, dumb and inert, onto their control yokes) all as proof that the ideas shared by Yours Truly vis-a-vis how to avoid death, dismemberment, etc. need not be given more than the most cursory attention. Yours Truly's only bargaining chips were appropriately and ironically enough, information: namely the final few digits of the lat. and long, which were with held from DMS lest he simply go there himself and check them out (note: DMS is honest to a fault, and so the concern is not that DMS might steal or appropriate anything but that situation would get out of hand, to the extent it ever was in hand to begin with)
Plans were made for a journey ("mission" in DMS parlance) to said lat. and long. Extra batteries were purchased for the GPS receiver (see attached expense report). Drinking water, etc. laid in. A jeepney was retained. Concept of jeepney is impossible to convey fully here: a minibus, usually named after a pop star, Biblical figure, or abstract theological concept, whose engine & frame come from American, or Nipponese auto company but whose entire body, seats, upholstery, & encrustations of lurid decor are locally manufactured by high-spirited artisans. Jeepneys are normally made outside of Manila in towns or barangays (semiautonomous neighborhoods) that specialize in same; the design, materials, style, etc. of a jeepney reflect its provenance just as good wine allegedly betrays climate, soil, etc. of its terroir. Ours was (anomalously) a perfectly monochromatic jeepney mfged. out of pure stainless steel in the stainless-steel-fabrication-specialized bgy. of San Pablo, with (unlike normal jeepneys) no colored decorations at all-everything either stainless-steel-colored or (where use was made of electric lights) pure piercing halogen-white with bluish tinge nicely complementing hue of stainless steel. Seats in back were stainless-steel benches with surprisingly ergonomic lumbar support capabilities, Name of our jeepney was THE GRACE OF GOD. Readers of this memo will be disappointed to know that Bong-Bong Gad (sic), designer/owner/driver/proprietor of the vehicle, anticipated the inevitable "there but for THE GRACE OF GOD go I" witticism by unloading same on Yours Truly while we were still shaking hands (Filipinos go in for long handshakes, and the first party to initiate termination of a handshakeusually the non-Filipinois invariably left with a nagging feeling that he is a shithead)
Yours Truly, in discreet one-on-one mode with DMS, adverted to lack of windows in the rear (passenger) section of THE GRACE OF GOD as prima facie evidence that it lacked air-conditioning, a technology widely adopted in Philippine Islands. DMS evinced skepticism as to moral fiber of Yours Truly, commenced with a series of probing questions aimed at establishing my commitment to Mission, fiduciary resp. to Epiphyte shareholders, level of physical & mental vigor, and overall level of "serious"-ness (being "serious" is some kind of umbrella concept strongly correlated with my fitness to live, to have the privilege of knowing DMS, and to go on dates with his daughter. This gives me an opening to mention what would normally be no one's business but my own but which in these circumstances it is ethically mandated that I disclose, namely, that I am infatuated with daughter of DMS and that while not exactly reciprocating these feelings at full strength she finds me sufficiently non-loathsome to have dinner with me from time to time. It has only occurred to me at this very moment that my pursuit of rel'nship w/the female in question, one America (sic) by name, would in context of modern U.S. society be classified as SEXUAL HARASSMENT and that if desired culmination is achieved it might be classified as SEXUAL ABUSE or RAPE owing to "power imbalance" existing between me and her. Viz, Yours Truly is on Management Team of Corp that has retained Semper Marine for large job & provided them with majority of their revenue during last fiscal year. Anyone with thoughts of summoning federal authorities to apprehend me upon arrival at SFO & expose my misdeeds & subject me to public disgrace & compulsory consciousness-raising workshops is advised to acquaint him or herself with the Shaftoes first & to at least remain open to possibility that Dad's martial prowess in combination with traditional feelings of psychotic protectiveness toward his female offspring, combined with Daughter's habit of carrying large Palawan stabbing weapon known as a kris, and Daughter's overall psychic fierceness & physical fitness & courage exceeding that of Yours Truly, mitigate any perceived power imbalance, particularly given that most of our interactions take place in settings which lend themselves admirably to discreet homicide & corpse disposal. In other words, I make you aware of this amor stuff not as confession of personal misdeeds but to make full disclosure of situation that could influence my judgment vis-a-vis Semper Marine and conceivably negatively impact shareholder value, or, much more plausibly, that could be SEEN as doing so by minority-shareholder lawyers who infest our industry like guinea worms, and used as pretext for legal action).
Back to the question at hand, then. Yours Truly asserted calmly (feeling that vigorous assertions would be perceived by DMS as defensiveness & hence a de facto confession of lack of "serious"-ness) that (1) a couple of days' travel in open AC-less vehicle through Philippine hinterland would be a day at the beach, a picnic, a walk in the park, & a sunday stroll all rolled into one, and (2) furthermore that even if it were the most hideous torture Yours Truly would gladly undergo it given that the stakes, for all concerned (incl. Epiphyte shareholders) were so high and generally Serious. In retrospect, (1) and (2) in close succession seem to betray some kind of hedging strategy on part of Yours Truly, however at the time DMS was mollified, formally withdrew previous accusations as to moral fiber, etc., and divulged that use of jeepney was tactical masterstroke on his (DMS's) part in that, where we were going, a Merc with smoked glass or fifty-thousand-dollar Land Rover, or (by extension) any vehicle with extravagances such as upholstered seats, windows with glass in them, shock absorbers dating from post-Kennedy-assassination era, etc., etc. would only draw undesired attention to Mission.
America Shaftoe remained in Manila to stay in touch with Mission via radio & (I supposed) to call in napalm strikes should we find selves embroiled. Bong-Bong Gad & his approx. 12-yr-old son/business associate Fidel occupied front seat. DMS & Yours Truly shared rear (passenger) section with three mysterious, precisely packed G.I. green duffel bags; approx. 100 kilos of drinking water in plastic bottles; & two Asian gentlemen in their 30s or 40s who exhibited stereotypical inscrutability/impassivity/dignity, etc., etc. during the first four hours of the journey, which were spent simply trying to drive from center of Manila to northern outskirts of same. Nationality of these two was not immediately evident. Many Filipinos are, racially, almost pure Chinese even though their families have been living here for centuries. Perhaps this explained strongly Asian features of our traveling companions and (I now had to assume) business associates.
Proverbial ice was broken as one consequence of pig truck incident which occurred on four-lane highway, narrowed by construction to two, leading N from Manila. Casual obsvn. of Filipino swine suggests that their ludicrous, pink, tabloid-sized ears function as heat exchangers, as do, e.g., the tongues of dogs. They are transported in vehicles consisting of big cage constructed on bed of a straight (as opposed to semiarticulated) truck. Construction of such vehicles appears to tax local resources to the point where they are only economical when maximum conceivable number of swine are packed into confines at all times. Heat buildup ensues. Pigs adapt by fighting their way to perimeter of cage & hanging ear/heat exchangers out over the side to flap in the wind of the truck's motion.
The appearance of such a vehicle when approached from behind can be easily envisioned without further description. Readers who devote a few moments' consideration to the subject of excreta need not be pounded over the head vis-a-vis what flies, sprays, drips, etc. from such vehicles either. The Pig Truck Incident was a humorous demonstration of applied hydrodynamics, though since no actual water was involved perhaps "excretodynamics" or "scatodynamics" might better fit. THE GRACE OF GOD had been following a representative Pig Truck for some miles in the hopes of passing it. The sheer quantity of excess body heat radiating from its vast phased array of flapping pink ears caused several of our drinking-water bottles to achieve full rolling boil and explode. Bong-Bong Gad maintained a respectful distance because of excreta hazards, which in no way simplified the problem of passing the truck. Tension climbed to a palpable level & Bong-Bong was subjected to steadily increasing stream of good-natured heckling and unsolicited driving advice from passenger area, esp. from DMS who viewed lingering unwelcome presence of pig truck in our planned trajectory as personal affront & hence challenge to be overcome w/all due pluck, vigor, can-do spirit, & other qualities known to be possessed in abundance by DMS.
After some time Bong-Bong made his move, using one hand to manipulate steering wheel and other to time-share equally important responsibilities of shifting gears and depressing the horn button. As we drew alongside the Pig Truck (which was on my side of the jeepney) the Truck slalomed toward us as if perhaps swerving around some real or imagined roadside hazard. The primary horn of THE GRACE OF GOD was apparently going unheard, possibly because it was competing for audio bandwidth against large numbers of swine voicing their displeasure in same frequency range. With aplomb normally seen only among senescent English butlers, Bong-Bong reached up with his horn/gearshift hand and gripped a brilliant stainless-steel chain flailing from ceiling of cab with a stainless-steel crucifix on the end of it and jerked downwards, energizing the secondary, tertiary, and quaternary honking systems: a trio of tuba-sized stainless-steel horns mounted to the roof of THE GRACE OF GOD and collectively drawing so much power that our vehicle's speed dropped by (I would estimate) ten km/hr as its energies were diverted into decibel production. A demi-hyperbolic swath of agricultural crops twenty miles long was flattened to the ground by the blast, and, hundreds of miles north, the Taiwanese government, its collective ears still ringing, filed a diplomatic protest with the Philippine ambassador. Dead whales and dolphins washed ashore on the beaches of Luzon for days, and sonar operators in passing U.S. Navy submarines were sent into early retirement with blood streaming from their ears.
Terrified by this sound, all of the pigs (I would suppose) voided their bowels just as the driver of the Pig Truck swerved violently away from us. Certain first-year-physics conservation-of-momentum issues dictated that I be showered with former pig bowel contents in order to enhance shareholder value. This was evidently the funniest thing that the two Asian-looking gentlemen had ever seen and rendered them helpless for several minutes. One of them actually retched from laughing too hard (the first time that our vehicle's lack of windows came in handy). The other extended his hand and introduced himself as one Jean Nguyen. This is the French male name "zhohn" and not the Anglo female name "jeen." Jean Nguyen looked at me expectantly after telling me his name, as did DMS, as if they were expecting me to get a fairly obvious joke. Perhaps preoccupied with hygienic issues. I failed to get it. and they pointed out to me that when "Jean" is pronounced like "John" and "Nguyen" is pronounced the way a lot of Americans mangle it, the name sounds arguably like "John Wayne," which is how I was encouraged to address this Jean Nguyen from that point onwards. It seemed in retrospect that I was being given an opportunity to have a small chuckle at Jean Nguyen's expense and thereby to even the scales, in some small but symbolically important sense, for the pig shit incident. My failure to exploit this opportunity left everyone feeling mildly uneasy and like they still owed me one. The other gentle man was introduced as Jackie Woo. He spoke English with a vaguely East Indian crackle which led me to peg him, speculatively, as a Malay Peninsula native of Chinese descent, e.g.. from Singapore or Penang.
First day's travel got us across the central Luzon plain (rice and sugar cane) to the town of San Jose at the foot of the southernmost extension of the Cordillera Central (trees and bugs). By this point it was dark, and to my relief, neither DMS nor Bong-Bong was eager to brave twisty Cordillera roads in darkness. We stayed in a guest house. At this point, having devoted much time to detailed Pig Truck description I will elide various details concerning San Juan, its inhabitants (of various taxonomic phyla some of which I had never encountered until that night), the character-building nature of our lodgings and, in particular, their fanciful plumbing system which was a credit to the imagination, though not the hydrostatic acumen, of its anonymous creator. It was the kind of hostel that makes a traveler eager to get an early and explosively sudden start in the morning, which we did.
A note now about the physical properties of space, as perceived by human beings imprisoned within bodies of limited physical capabilities. I have long noticed that space seems to be more compressed, more involuted, some how psychically LARGER in some places than others. Covering a distance of three or four miles in the totally open scrublands of central Washington State is a simple matter, and takes less than an hour on foot. and only a few minutes if you have some kind of vehicle. Covering the same distance in Manhattan takes much longer. It's not just that the space in Manhattan is more physically obstructed (though it definitely is) but that there is some kind of psychological impact that alters the way you perceive and experience distance. You cannot see as far, and what you do see is full of people, buildings, goods, vehicles, and other stuff that it takes your brain some amount of effort to sort through, to process. Even if you had some kind of magic carpet that would glide past all of the physical obstructions the distance would seem much longer, and would take longer to cover, simply because your mind would have to deal with more stuff.
The same thing is true of a jungle type of environment as opposed to the plains. Traversing the physical space is basically an ongoing battle against hundreds of different combatants each one of which is, to a traveler, an obstruction, a hazard, or both. I.e., no matter which one of them predominates in a given ten-square-meter area, you are still screwed, as far as getting across that ten square meters is concerned. There are roads through the jungle, but even when they are in good repair they seem more like bottlenecks than vectors of motion, and they are never in good repair-mudslides, fallen trees, huge chuckholes, and the like block them every few hundred meters. Also the same perceptual thing is at work here-you can't see more than a few meters in any direction, and inputs, some of which, like butterflies, are (okay, okay) beautiful. My reason for mentioning this is that I know that everyone who reads this probably has multiple maps of Luzon on their wall or in their computer, which, when consulted, will cause it to seem as if we are dealing with a triflingly small area, and covering minuscule distances. But you must try not to think this way and instead imagine that Luzon is effectively as large as, say, the United States west of the Mississippi. In terms of the time it takes to get around the place, it is at least that big.
I mention this not out of some impulse to mewl and convince you all of how strenuously I have worked, but because until you grasp this central fact of the effectively vast size of this part of the world. you will be completely unable to believe the dumbfounding facts that I am slowly getting around to revealing.
We went into the mountains. Around midday, we encountered our first military roadblock. Distance covered from San Juan was pathetic from cartographic p.o.v., but in terms of unexpected hassles creatively surmounted, wrenchingly difficult decisions made, & pits of despair climbed out of by the emotional fingernails, should be considered magnificent achievement on par with any given day of the Lewis & Clark expedition, (excluding, of course, anomalous days such as their first encounters with Ursus horribilis & their epic, stocking-foot traversal of Bitterroot Range.) Roadblock was established in the low-key Filipino style: one man in military uniform (U.S. Army castoffs) standing by roadside smoking & beckoning. We were at a rare wide spot in the road, a place where oncoming Chicken-playing vehicles could pull aside abjectly. Four members of Army (later pegged by insignia-savvy DMS as a first lieutenant, a sergeant, and two privates) had ensconced selves on parked Humvee type vehicle w/absurdly long whip antenna clamped to bumper. The privates, armed with M-16s, stiffly unfolded selves from repose & adopted positions flanking THE GRACE OF GOD from behind, keeping their weapons pointed vaguely at the ground, as if more worried about entomological threats than our little band of travelers. Sergeant was armed with what I first perceived as L-shaped nightstick fashioned from parts scavenged from plumbing aisle of home improvement store & painted black, but on further examination proved to be a submachine gun.
Said Sergeant approached Bong-Bong Gad's door & conversed with same in Tagalog. Lieutenant was armed only with sidearm & supervised these operations from a shaded area near the Humvee, seeming to espouse a hands-off, as opposed to micromanaging, leadership style. This inspection was limited to the Sergeant peering in through TGOG's glassless windows & exchanging hearty greetings with DMS (evidently Jean Nguyen & Jackie Woo spoke even less Tagalog than Yours Truly). We were then allowed to proceed, although I noticed that the lieutenant immediately commenced a radio transmission. "The sergeant say there are Nice People Around," Bong-Bong Gad explained to me, using a coy local euphemism for NPA, or New People's Army, a supposedly revolutionary, but evidently somewhat feckless guerilla organization descended in a direct line from the Hukbalahaps, or Huks, the fighters who resisted the Nipponese occupation (but not so desultorily) in WW2.
We then covered an amount of distance equivalent, in terms of Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt, to one more Lewis And Clark Expedition Day, a convenient unit of distance, danger, perspirational weight loss, poor sphincter control, wishing you were at home, exasperation, & emotional toll which I will hereinafter abbreviate as LAC. So after 1 LAC we arrived at another roadblock similar to the first except that here there was a troop truck in addition to the Humvee, and some tents pitched, and a pit latrine, whose odor & appearance suggested a long-standing military presence in this area. A luckless private was made to crawl underneath THE GRACE OF GOD with a flashlight, inspecting its undercarriage. The three duffel bags were removed and their contents spread out. I should mention that upon my joining this expedition in Manila, DMS had gone through my bag with a level of inquisitiveness annoying at the time, refused to allow me to bring certain items (such as pharmaceuticals) and transferred remaining items to clear plastic bags of Ziploc type which were placed in the duffels. Merits of this highly modular approach now became clear as inspection of our cargo was wondrously facilitated: duffels were simply upended over tarps spread on ground & contents inspected by sight through transparent inner bags, sometimes by feel to check for compositional inhomogeneities. Certain of these bags contained cartons of American-brand tobacco products which as expected did not make it back into the duffels. Most of my DMS-mandated supply of alkaline AA batteries, which I had thought radically out of proportion to projected demand, also vanished at this time. We were sent on our way and after approx. 0.6 LAC (mostly occasioned by need to remove downed tree from roadway) arrived at a town that appeared seemingly out of nowhere in jungle valley, astride a river. Slept like a dead man in startlingly decent guesthouse that night. Woke up next morning & looked out window to observe large crowd of locals milling around in street below in their best meshback caps & American basketball t-shirts. Descended stairs to discover DMS in dining room, strategically flanked by Jean Nguyen & Jackie Woo, at other tables in corners of room, wearing climatically inappropriate jackets & generally projecting the image of concealed-weapon-equipped badass motherfuckers not to be trifled with.
Not wishing to interfere with this psychodrama, Yours Truly took innocuous position at yet another table, well away from projected gunfire corridors, accepted coffee from proprietor, declined local delicacies, negotiated (see expense report) for loan of bowl & spoon, breakfasted upon Cap'n Crunch & warm UHT milk from duffel bag (former had been packed into a Ziploc that when fully loaded adopted the distinctive pillow shape of an individual nugget of Cap'n Crunch, only much larger). Explosive crunching noises of nuggets caused Yours Truly to feel conspicuous and Western. Jean Nguyen & Jackie Woo had declined all refreshments except tea, the better to project image of hair-trigger alertness & potential for instantaneous violence, DMS was eating an omelette with approx. diameter of a Hula Hoop & engaging in one short conversation after another with locals, who were admitted through front door of building one at a time by proprietor and allowed to present their cases to DMS as if he were a traveling magistrate. Between two such interviews, DMS noted my presence in room & bade me join him. I moved my Cap'n Crunch infrastructure to corner of table not occupied by omelette & sat with him during the next couple of dozen interviews, which were conducted in mixture of English and Tagalog. Crowd in street dwindled gradually as they were interviewed and then dismissed by DMS.
Subject matter of interviews could be induced by Yours Truly only by recognizing occasional English words & adopting a basically intuitive pattern-recognition approach not amenable to rational explication here. Most common keywords: Nippon, the Nipponese, the War, Gold, Treasure, Excavations, Yamashita, Mass Executions. Emotional tenor of these conversations consisted of polite but extreme skepticism on part of DMS, while confronted by desperate need to be believed on part of interviewees. In the end DMS did not believe any of them as far as I could discern. They either became obstreperous & had to be shown the door (glancing warily at Jean Nguyen & Jackie Woo) or adopted a wounded & aggrieved stance. DMS was amused by the former & disgusted by the latter. Yours Truly mused silently upon inappropriateness of his own presence in this setting & fondly remembered predictable comforts of home, even of Manila. Upon completion of breakfast & of interviews, DMS divulged, in response to my inquiries, that he had been at it for two hours before I had arrived & that formation of this milling crowd occurs spontaneously before doors of any lodgings he takes in the Philippines owing to his reputation as treasure-hunter. We had avoided it in San Juan only because he goes there frequently and has already interviewed everyone in region with Nipponese War Gold stories found 99.9% of them lacking credibility, investigating the remaining .1% with occasionally lucrative results.
THE GRACE OF GOD had been washed and buffed by Fidel Gad in magnificently insouciant gesture of defiance of jungle elements. We proceeded across river. Racial variations were conspicuous on faces, and in physiognomies, of townspeople. Philippines were settled by countless overlapping waves of prehistoric migrants each racially & linguistically incompatible with the last; this in combination with the spatial involution phenom. which I have, I think sufficiently belabored by this point, makes for your basic patchwork of different ethnic groups. The fork in the river around which this town was nucleated was meeting-point of unofficial turfs of three such different cultures. Lure of bright lights, or even dim, flickering ones, has drawn thousands down from mountains in recent generations to establish several distinct barangays. This morning's interviewees were migrants from the mountains, or their sons or grandsons, who claimed to have first-hand knowledge of sites of Yamashita's hoards, or to have heard about same from late ancestors.
After covering about 1.6 LACs through jungle (roads, slopes, & conditions getting worse all the time) we encountered another military roadblock that had (somewhat incredibly to my mind) been established at a pass over a ridge, overlooking some rice terraces that had (even more incredibly) been hacked out of an essentially vertical south-facing slope thousands of years ago by the evidently fearsomely tenacious ancestors of the locals. Here we were thoroughly searched. My testicles were squeezed at some length by a sergeant with a pencil mustache, whose motives did not appear to be sexual, but who simultaneously looked me searchingly in the eye, awaiting a look of submission or hopelessness on the face of the squeezed. The others were subjected to the same treatment and probably endured it with more stoicism than Yours Truly. No lethal weapons were found attached to any of our scrota, but (surprise!) Jean ("John Wayne") Nguyen and Jackie Woo were discovered to be armed to the teeth, and DMS somewhat less so. This is the part where Yours Truly expected to be shot in the nape of the neck whilst kneeling above a shallow grave, but ironically the authorities were far more interested in my cache of Cap'n Crunch than the weaponry sported by my comrades. Negotiations took place between DMS and the captain in charge of this outpost, in the privacy of a tent. DMS emerged with a thinner wallet and full clearance to proceed, on the conditions that (1) all supplies of Cap'n Crunch be donated to the officers' mess, and (2) a full inventory of weapons and ammo would be taken upon our return & compared with today's findings to make sure that we were not smuggling arms to the Nice People Around.
Three days' excruciatingly slow travel, comprising maybe another 10 LACs, awaited us. According to my map and GPS we were circumnavigating a cluster of active volcanoes that frequently spew out lahars (mud avalanches) which, when they impact upon ruts in the jungle that I'm here calling roads, cause logistical problems well into the realm of the absurd. We passed entire towns that had been buried and abandoned. Church steeples projected at angles from the grey mud, held up by the same flows that had knocked them askew. Skulls of goats, dogs, etc. protruded from mud that had hardened around living animals like concrete. We bedded down nightly at small settlements after propitiating locals with gifts of penicillin (which Filipinos use like aspirin), batteries, disposable lighters, & whatever else had been left to us by the soldiers at the roadblocks. We slept on benches, floor, roof, or front seats of THE GRACE OF GOD, beneath mosquito nets.
Finally, when my GPS revealed that we were less than ten km. from our mysterious destination, a local instructed us to wait in a nearby village. We remained there for a day & a night resting up and reading books (DMS is never without a milk crate of techno-thrillers) until, at dawn, we were approached by a trio of very young, short men, one of whom carried an AK-47. He and his brethren climbed on the roof of THE GRACE OF GOD and we proceeded into a jungle track so narrow that I would not have pegged it even as a footpath. A couple of km. into the jungle we reached a point where we spent more time pushing the jeepney than riding in it. Shortly thereafter we left Bong-Bong and Fidel and one of the duffels behind, the four of us taking turns humping the two other duffels. I consulted the GPS & verified that, although we had for a time (alarmingly) moved away from the Destination, we were now moving toward it again. We were eight thousand m(eters) away and proceeding at a rate that varied between about five hundred and a thousand m per hour, depending on whether we were moving steeply uphill or steeply downhill. It was around noon. Those of you with even rudimentary math skills will have anticipated that when the sun went down we were still a few thousand meters away.
The three Filipinosour guides, guards, captors, or whatever they werewore the obligatory U.S. t-shirts which make it so easy, nowadays, to underestimate cultural differences. They had not yet, however, attained transethnicity. While in town they were shod in flip-flops, but in the jungle they went barefoot (I have owned pairs of shoes less durable than the calluses on their feet). They spoke a language that apparently had zero in common with the Tagalog I'd heard ("Tagalog" is the old name; the government is ragging on people to call it "Filipina," as if to imply that it is in some sense a common language of the archipelago, which, as these guys demonstrated, is not the case). DMS had to converse with them in English. At one point he gave one a throwaway plastic ballpoint pen and their faces absolutely lit up. Then we had to scrounge up two more pens for his companions. It was like Christmas. Progress halted for several minutes while they marveled at the pens' handy clicking mechanisms and doodled on the palms of their hands. The American t-shirts were, in other words, not worn as Americans wear them but in the same spirit that the Queen of England wore the exotic Koh-I-Noor Diamond on her crown. Not for the first time I was overtaken by a strong not-exactly-in-Kansas feeling.
We slogged through the inevitable late-afternoon thunderstorm and kept moving into the night. DMS produced U.S. Army MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) from the duffels, only a couple of weeks past their stenciled expiration dates. The Filipino men found these nearly as exciting as the ballpoint pen, and saved the disposable foil trays for later use as roofing material. We started slogging again. The moon came out, which represented a bit of luck. I fell down a couple of times and banged myself up on trees, which ended up being a good thing because it put me into a state of mild shock, dulling the pain and jacking me up on adrenaline. Our guides, at one point, seemed a little uncertain as to which way they should go. I took a fix with the GPS (using the screen's nightlight function) and established that we were no more than fifty meters away from the destination, almost too small an error for my GPS to resolve. In any event, it told us roughly which direction to proceed, and we trudged through the trees for another few moments. The guides became animated and very cheerfulfinally they had gotten their bearings, they knew where we were. I bumped into something heavy, cold, and immovable that nearly broke my knee. I reached down to touch it, expecting to find a rock outcropping, but instead felt something smooth and metallic. It seemed to be a stack of smaller units, maybe comparable in size to loaves of bread. "Is this what we're looking for?" I asked. DMS turned on a battery-powered lantern and whipped the beam around in my direction.
I was instantly blinded by a thigh-high stack of gold bars, about a meter and a half on a side, sitting out in the middle of the jungle, unmarked and unguarded.
DMS came over and sat down on top of it and lit a cigar. After a while, we counted the bars and measured them. They are trapezoidal in cross-section, about 10 cm wide and 10 high, and about 40 cm in length. This enabled us to estimate their mass at about 75 kg. each, which works out to 2,400 troy ounces. Since gold is normally measured in troy ounces and not in kilograms (!) I'm going to make a wild guess that these bars were intended to weigh an even 2,500 troy ounces apiece. At current rates ($400/troy oz. ) this means each bar is worth a million dollars. There are 5 layers of bars in the stack, each layer consisting of 24 bars, and so the value of the stack is $120 million. Both the mass estimate and the value estimate presume that the bars are nearly pure gold. I took a rubbing of the stamp from one of the bars, which bears the mark of the Bank of Singapore. Each bar is marked with a unique serial number and I copied down as many of those as I could see.
Then we went back to Manila. All along the way, I tried to imagine the logistics of getting even a single one of those gold bars from the jungle out to the nearest bank where it could be turned into something useful, like cash.
Let me transition to a Q&A format here.
Q: Randy, I get the feeling that you are about to lay out in detail all of the hassles that would be involved in moving this gold overland, so let's just cut to the chase and talk about helicopters.
A: There is no place for a helicopter to land. Terrain is extremely rugged. The nearest sufficiently flat place is about one km. away. It would have to be cleared. In Vietnam this was accomplished using "blockbuster" bombs, but this is probably not an option here. Trees would have to be cut down, creating a gap in the jungles conspicuous from the air.
Q: Who cares if it's conspicuous? Who's going to see it?
A: As should be obvious from my anecdote, the people who control this gold have connections in Manila. We may assume that the area is overflown by the Philippine Air Force regularly, and kept under radar surveillance.
Q: What would be involved in getting the bars to the nearest decent road?
A: They would have to be carried over the jungle trails I have described. Each bar weighs as much as a full-grown man.
Q: Couldn't they be cut up into smaller pieces?
A: DMS rates it as unlikely that the current owners would permit this.
Q: Is there any chance of smuggling the gold through the military checkpoints?
A: Obviously not in the case of a mass shipment. The gold weighs a total of around ten tons, and would require a truck that could not negotiate most of the roads we saw. Concealing ten tons of goods from the inspectors at these checkpoints is not possible.
Q: How about smuggling the bars out one at a time?
A: Still very tricky. Might be possible to hike the bars out to an intermediate point somewhere, melt or chop them down, and somehow secrete them in the body of a jeepney or other vehicle, then drive the vehicle to Manila and extract the gold. This operation would have to be repeated a hundred times. Driving the same vehicle past one of these checkpoints a hundred (or even two) times would strike them as, to put it mildly, odd. Even if this were possible there is the payment issue.
Q: What is the payment issue?
A: Obviously the people who control the gold want to be paid for it. Paying them in more gold, or in precious gems, would be ludicrous. They do not have bank accounts. They have to be paid in Philippine pesos. Anything bigger than about a 500-peso note is useless in this area. A 500-peso note is worth about $20, and so it would be necessary to bring six million of them into the jungle to perform the transaction. Based on some rudimentary calculations I have made here using a mechanic's caliper and the contents of my wallet, the stack of 500-peso notes would be about (please wait while I switch my calculator over to the "scientific notation" mode) 25,000 inches high. Or, if you prefer the metric system, something like two-thirds of a kilometer. If you stacked the bills a meter high, you would need six or seven hundred such stacks, which if jammed close together would cover an area about three meters on a side. Basically we are talking about a large Ryder box truck full of money. This would have to be transported into the middle of the jungle, and obviously, melting down cash and secreting it inside of a truck is not an option.
Q: Since the military seems to be the big obstacle here, why not simply cut a deal with them? Let them keep a big cut of the proceeds in exchange for not hassling us.
A: Because the money would go to the NPA which would use it to buy weapons for the purpose of killing people in the military.
Q: There must be some way to use the value of this gold to leverage some kind of extraction operation.
A: The gold is worthless to a bank until it has been assayed. Until then it is only a blurry Polaroid of a stack of yellow objects in what seems to be a jungle. In order to perform an assay you need to go into the jungle, find the gold, bore out a sample, and transport it safely back to a large city. But this proves nothing. Even if the potential backers believe that your assay really came from the jungle (i.e., that you did not switch samples along the way) all they know now is the purity of one end of one bar in the stack. Basically it is not possible to obtain full value for this gold until the entire stack has been extracted and taken to a vault where it can be systematically assayed.
Q: Could you maybe just get the gold to some local bank and then sell it at steep discount, so that the burden of transporting it would be on someone else's shoulders?
A: DMS relates the tale of one such transaction, in a provincial town in north Luzon, which was interrupted when local entrepreneurs literally blew one of the bank's walls off with dynamite, came in, and grabbed both the gold and the cash that was going to be used to pay for the gold. DMS asserts he would rather slit his own throat quietly than walk into a small-town bank with anything worth more than a few tens of thousands of dollars.
Q: Is the situation basically impossible then?
A: It is basically impossible.
Q: Then what was the point of the whole exercise?
A: To come full circle to the first thing DMS said. It was to send us a message.
Q: What is the message?
A: That money is not worth having if you can't spend it. That certain people have a lot of money that they badly want to spend. And that if we can give them a way to spend it, through the Crypt, that these people will be very happy, and conversely that if we screw up they will be very sad, and that whether they are happy or sad they will be eager to share these emotions with us, the shareholders and management team of Epiphyte Corp.
And now I am going to e-mail this to all of you and then summon the flight attendant and demand the array of alcoholic beverages I so richly deserve. Cheers.
Randall Lawrence Waterhouse
Current meatspace coordinates, hot from the GPS receiver card in my laptop:
27 degrees, 14.95 minutes N latitude 143 degrees. 17.44 minutes E longitude
Nearest geographical feature: the Bonin Islands