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Saturday September 27, 2008

Ignorant Bliss in Borneo

We were sitting in the midst of a vast rainforest when one of our tribe arrived with some importance to tell us that he’d just heard faintly on the BBC Radio World Service that Lehman Brothers and fellow Wall Street giant Merrill Lynch had been kicked into touch. We looked at each other and shrugged. ‘Oh well,’ someone said. ‘That’s life. Can someone help me remove the leech on my back?’

It’s a funny old thing how matters of national importance seem awfully trivial when you’re miles from home with an empty belly and a bunch of macaque monkeys howling overhead. World economic crises seem so at odds with a natural and harsh environment where survival is a catch word every day and pressures of a material kind seem quite irrelevant. We were a bunch of volunteers on a scientific expedition to study the Borneo pygmy elephant (one critical discovery we made was that there isn’t anything pygmy about it at all) and came from all walks of life. Among us were a police fingerprint officer from Merseyside, psychologist, chemical analyst from Munich, Australian air traffic controller, journalist, environmentalist, doctor, occupational therapist, army administrator, and respected wine specialist. In other words an eclectic bunch. Thrown together on tough terrain with an uncompromising climate of 45 degrees heat and monsoon rains every afternoon, we got to know each other very quickly-warts and all. Our encounters with local Malay, simple river or forest folk, who survive on next to nothing was humbling to say the least. They marvelled at our plastic washing lines strung up in the trees, our spindly tents, and doted on our head torches. In just a few weeks, we had learned to cope with little luxury save a cup of black tea boiled over a fire, a plate of hot noodles or fish caught in the nearby Kinabatangan river. A simple existence, miles away from cares and troubles.

So returning this week to planet reality was hard. Having been on many wild and woolly expeditions in the past I know what to expect on my return, a feeling of being disconnected from the world about, a smug insouciance at the seeming nonsense and hysteria being spouted by politicians. Of course, there is economic gloom, and life is going to get much tougher for us all but no one can take away the Mallorcan sun, the mountain air, the simple pleasures of an espresso, a kindly smile and a warm welcome. I stepped into my local café for a coffee yesterday and was besieged with kisses and hugs from local patrons. Owner José treated me to coffee and chocolate cake and said he’d been counting the days till I was back. It brought a lump to my throat to think how much Sóller has become my home. If my little sojourn under canvass has taught me anything, it is to appreciate what I have and to celebrate the wonderful souls with whom I share my everyday life.

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