Tooele Transcript Bulletin – News in Tooele, Utah

November 1, 2012
In politics, as in life, there are limits to local wisdom

After several years of covering local elections, I’ve noticed a common strategy among candidates: trying to out-local each other. I’ve heard campaign speeches mentioning grandparents by name. Other candidates have boasted about having never left the county, either for education or employment, during their lifetimes.

As a fifth-generation Tooele County resident, I know these messages are aimed right at my heart. However, they hit my memory instead, reminding me of a story:

About 13 years ago, my wife and I went backpacking in the jungle in Borneo, an island just larger than Texas in the middle of the Indonesian archipelago. We’d been living in the country for several years and spoke Indonesian well. Our plan was to trek into an area where Dayak tribesmen still dwelled in communal longhouses and had little contact with the outside world.

We arrived at the literal end of the road — a market town called Loksado from which there were only footpaths veining up into the wet Muratus Mountains — and accepted a room in the home of a young forestry official from Java who promised to guide us for the next three days.

When sunup came, it was apparent arms had been twisted. The forestry official, whose enthusiasm and jungle lore had charmed us the night before, was sullen. He explained he was going to fetch our new guide. This was someone older than him and related to somebody important. A man who had spent his entire life in the town.

In a few minutes, an impossibly old man turned up wearing a floppy fedora and threadbare purple golf shirt with a lumpy canvas rucksack on his back. Holstered on his side was a mandau, the wicked-looking machete once favored by Borneo’s famed headhunters. He had cheekbones as big and bony as ankles, and a mouth that didn’t move when he greeted us by asking, “Sudah?” Ready?

We set out on a broad red-clay path, the old man in front. He lit up a cigarette as soon as we left and kept on smoking one after another, trailing the sweet smell of cloves behind him. It was two hours before we rested. I offered water but he shook his head and turned away to light up again. My wife said, “Don’t you think you ought to say something to him?”

I told the man I’d seen a lot of cassava planted around Loksado and asked what else people grew there. He repeated the Indonesian word for cassava and looked away. A minute later I asked how often he’d been to the village we were heading to. This time he pretended not to hear. My wife asked if he had a family. He grunted ambiguously.

The first of our fantasies was dead — there would be no explanation of the medicinal uses of plants, no talk of Dayak mysticism around the campfire. Our guide didn’t speak the national language, only a local one, and he didn’t appear eager to talk anyway.

Still, he got us to a jungle longhouse on stilts, where we spent the night.

The following morning, the old man made us understand, by rough hand gestures, that we were going to see a waterfall. We abandoned the main trail in a gorge of primary rainforest and headed up burnt-out, hacked-apart hillsides where villagers had cleared the land for farming and charred logs as big around as airplane fuselages lay rotting and slick with moss. It was the end of the dry season, meaning the nights, lacking clouds to trap the earth’s heat, were not just cool but cold, and noontime, especially out from under the cover of the giant trees, was sweltering.

I soon realized we were lost. Our guide kept trying to find high ground so he could have a look around, but each time looking around told him nothing, and in an effort to preserve his authority he silently plunged us into another valley. We slid down muddy chutes on our backs and crawled up the other side on our knees. I was exhausted. Clouds of mosquitoes rose up with every step. We drank the last of our water and had to pump more through a purifier. This time the old man, his face dripping sweat and his throat dry from chain smoking, held out his hand for the bottle.

We crossed deep gorges by straddling toppled logs and inching forward. Each time he was across, the old man turned back and smugly asked, in perhaps his only good word of Indonesian, “Berani?” Brave enough?

At some point in that endless day we met a farmer who set us back on the path to Loksado. Our guide wanted to stop for the night in the first ramshackle village we came to. Despite the suffering he’d brought upon us, he was clearly angling for a third day’s wages. We pressed on. The moon was already coming up when we approached Loksado, marching him in front of us like a work-release prisoner. I could tell his feet were blistered and his legs were shot. I didn’t care. I had been wearing a full pack all day and my shoulders ached, but anger powered me in a half-trot up every hill we came to. As he sucked for breath, I longed to ask, “Berani?”

We had been wandering, lost in the jungle, for 15 hours.

I think of this episode every time a political candidate puts out localness as his chief virtue. My Borneo guide was most certainly local. He was also of an age that implied wisdom. None of that mattered, however, because he could not do the job we’d hired him for, nor could he communicate with us.

So, candidates, impress me with your credentials and ideas, but don’t count on winning me over by being more local than the other guy. I’ve been down that path before.

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