swimming with turtles

i'm floating face down in the calm sulu sea. sort of like william holden in the opening scene of sunset boulevard. not dead in norma desmond's over-chlorinated, tepid swimming pool, but floating in the briny sulu sea off the east coast of borneo. floating? well, not exactly that either. i'm gently kicking my blue flipper-clad feet, snorkeling in the sulu sea off selingan island, one of the three protected "turtle islands" off the east coast of sabah about ten kilometers from the philippines. the water is pristinely clear, the coral more dead than alive, more pale white than coral red, crustaceous green , or fish blue - nothing like the intensely colored underwater world of the red sea off the sinai desert shore. but as i scour the waters for the small piscean life – angel fish, neon striped pikes, scores of other underwater bedfellows whose names i'll never know, i'm relaxing into the snorkeler's graceful surrender, telling myself to stop comparing one coral reef to the other. "just be here now", i tell myself, as my oft-quoted spirit friend, ram dass, would say. dass, nee richard alpert, that underwater and psychotropical adventurer who has often had words to the wise.

i'm floating face down, trying to not think about the pivotally placed, camouflaged-uniformed malaysian soldiers "with big guns" posted ashore here on selingan island, who we've been told are "making it safe" for us privileged tourists paying the big bucks to see the endangered giant green sea turtle mamas crawl desperately ashore each night, burrowing into the cool equatorial sand to lay their clutches of perhaps 60-100 white slimy eggs, of which perhaps 80% will prosper into young frenetic hatchlings who will be lovingly released back into the dangerous sulu sea, unfortunately only about 5% of which will escape the marauding sea predators and the misfortunes of sulu sea life to grow into full-fledged green sea turtles, prehistoric brethren of the long extinct brontosauri and tyrannosauri of walt disney cartoon and japanese horror movie fame.

i'm also trying not to think about my fellow camouflage-uniformed countrymen stationed perhaps 50 kilometers away across the sulu sea on basilan island, the good ol' US marines putting up the barb wire and entrenching themselves against the muslim guerillas, or the muslim freedom fighters, depending on whose side of the wire fence you're sitting. my good ol' american countrymen who're the reason for the malaysian soldiers "with the big guns" who are protecting me here swimming with sea turtles and other tiny piscean life. oh, what a lucky man.

four days ago my indonesian girl and i were white water rafting down the infamous padas river in the thick green interior of western sabah. it had just rained the night before, so the river was high, meaning fast, and while i always thought this rafting thing was something my nature-loving and more adventurous friends did on the colorado river way out west in the rockies – or something you watched on the discovery or national geographic network when channel surfing late at night, here i was, here we were, being tossed and flipped this way and that by the roiling rushing river. rated 4-5 on a maximum scale of six, the padas had been young wati's choice – refusing to start out on the gentler, more tame, kiulu river in tuaran, though she can hardly swim; no she wanted the roaring padas – so there we were bucking and broncing on yet another of nature's natural horses, i mean forces, that no amount of cyber or architectural design could match in disney's, universal's, or anybody's else's overpriced and over-attended capitalistic adventure theme parks. no, here was the real thing. and here i was on the front right paddle, thrashing my way through the white water, trying desperately to follow the directions of the screaming and excellent borneon guides, wati holding onto my bright orange safety vest by a single sturdy waist strap, except when she's being thrown backward into the raft, letting go of said strap by instinct, simultaneously squealing with frightened and exhilarated delight. the hell with me.

my feet haven't touched ground – or sand – in over an hour. i am one with the all-knowing sulu. every once in a while i look up through my slightly fog-breathed dive mask back at shore – to see just how far out i've ventured – and to wave to my wati, assuring her that i'm still alive -and that i haven't been swallowed whole by jonah or shot at by one of my fellow countrymen. last night we were at the sepilok orangutan rehabilitation center. we went on a guided ranger night walk in the borneon rain forest, not so much seeing the myriad and multiples of jungle wildlife, but certainly hearing them. squawks and howls and cricket-cricketing under the million-starred black night. and the surrealistic metallic screech of the flying night squirrel as it appeared punctually at dusk, poked its head from the tall dead rottan tree, spread its huge bat-like wings, and leaped into the unknown night, flying off and foraging for its next nocturnal meal. green poisonous vipers, black burrowed scorpions, horntoads, geckos, all kinds of jungle residents that we'd never see without the trained eye and shining torch of the guide. all in the protected home of the endangered orangutan (orang, people; utan, forest). the malaysian government wisening up on both the ecological – and the green-eyed dollar fronts. our favorite photo op occurring when suddenly running smack dab into mighty joe young right there on the wooden planked path, not far from the cordoned-off feeding platform "A". joe being one of the pampered giant orangutans who have been re-educated in the ways of the wild. we humans being the greedy trespassers who have gobbled up or polluted his natural habitat. joe and his buddies, some of whom have been reclaimed from their formerly proud, now ashamed, former owners who kept and displayed them as giant house pets, are now being gently and generously "rehabilitated" by the government for life on their own back in this natural jungle wilderness. pretty damn thrilling to be a foot away from a rehabilitated orangutan.

i'm floating face down in the gentle sulu sea; no, swimming face down with my bright blue rubber foot flippers, searching for giant green sea turtles and iridescent small piscean marine life, and now i think maybe i'm hallucinating. because right there in front of me is a small iridescent fish swimming amidst the coral – and he's (she's?) painted exactly like the american flag. red, white, and blue. stars, stripes, the whole megillah. i follow him (her?) for a while, speeding up my flipping to keep up with the flag bearer. but i'm no match for him. she disappears amidst a tuck of coral and i'm gone. floating on my own again. searching for another word of wisdom from mr. alpert or any other miller i might have in my head. but then, there behind me, is another one. another small piscean treasure painted just like the american flag. and then another. a family. brothers. sisters. a veritable school of american flag fish. i'm shocked. amazed. i mean, what are these american flag fish doing here off the turtle islands in the great sulu sea? oh, i get it – my camouflaged-uniformed american marines (ancient mariners?) of the afore-mentioned basilan island have planted these little symbols of american supremacy here in the green coral waters. here in islamic malaysia – not far from the islamic philippines. but wait, aren't the philippines catholic? right. oh… so maybe these artificial little american flag floating fishies are just to be seen by the muslim guerillas across the way, off basilan island. or maybe some of them just got distracted enough – or hungry enough – to swim over here to eat – or spawn – or maybe just to freak me out, to fuck with me, the lone american ex-patriot trolling the turtle islands looking for trouble. yeah – that's it. it's a plot. a cabbalistic, american-muslim plot to root me out, to dissemble me, destroy me, play with my water-logged, turtled-out brain.

and now i'm seeing the next many east borneon days sprawling out in front of me, floating down the fabled kinabatangan river in my little green-painted wooden row boat. no double-barreled, twin-motored 85 rpm evinrude speed boat to get me out of trouble in a turtle island jiff. no, just me, wati, and the giant monitor lizards – or the sneaky river crocs – or the green river vipers – or the coiled black and yellow coral snakes – or the oh-so-clever, bloated-belly, manchung-nosed proboscis monkeys – sitting like wise old jewish scholars in their jungle schetlel perches along the kinabatangan, also waiting to do me in, undermine me, search, destroy, & attack me. me and my young indonesian princess - when what? what are we doing here but visiting the local orang sungai (river people) and their throw-the-dice-game sprawl of local wildlife. we mean no harm. we meant no offense. just a few stolen photos here and there. maybe we made a few politically incorrect jokes on the wrong occasion. laughed at the wrong monkey's expense. or maybe the jungle wildlife is working for the CIA? or the ancient mariners? cheap rubber plants – the snakes, lizards, turtles, monkeys - the lot of them.

i'm swimming in the treacherous sulu sea, no longer calm, relaxed, and controlled. just face down. the great green sea turtles, the neon iridiscents, and the red white and blues are after me. the willowy coral is strangling me with its octopi tentacles. i'm going down. the marines, the CIA, the jew-nosed proboscis monkeys – they've all betrayed me. or have i betrayed them? betrayed my own? my own country? my own family? my own friends? my own gray-haired, loyal pooch, clay? yeah, that's it. i see clearly through fogged-in dive mask. through my own soggy narcissism. i'm the only benedict arnold in the great sulu sea. and i'm payin' for my crimes. the undertow has me. the red, whites, and blues have me. and i'm going dowwwwwwwnn.