Maybe Will could just watch. Pretend that he was back in Borneo, following Captain Kirk or one of his other favorite wild orangutans:
Despite no hopes of reproduction resulting from such a consort, Human Male A (HM-A)—a tall, carefully-tanned specimen with a thick, healthy crown of dark brown hair—approaches Human Male B (HM-B)—young, blue-eyed, built like a featherweight boxer. HM-A smiles, compliments HM-B on his Pet Shop Boys T-shirt, asks if he was at their concert at Music Venue X in May.
What’s this? Human Male C (HM-C)—1.8 metres tall, 80 kilos, unsure of his outfit, an unattractive expression of grim determination on his face—consumes a single glass of fermented agave and lime juice. After zero attempts at social contact, HM-C wanders away on his own, returning to his depressing puke-green-colored chain hotel nest to fall asleep hours earlier than is typical for a human male of his age.
To be fair, the hotel room was more of an olive than a puke. And Will was jet-lagged, so he didn’t fall asleep right away when he got back to his room. He changed into the T-shirt and boxers that he’d brought to sleep in and pulled the hotel comforter off the bed, folded it loosely, and tossed it freethrow-style to the corner on the floor. He climbed into bed with a print copy of his presentation and proceeded to stare at the opening slide for half an hour:
PALM OIL in BORNEO:
Will would ordinarily have been the last person to volunteer for a glad-handing expedition. However, he had felt obligated to accompany Wan to San Francisco. Will knew these international development types. He knew how to appeal to their sense of righteousness in a roundabout way, how to get the wheels of change in motion, all the while letting them think that it was their idea in the first place. You had to flatter these people’s sense of virtue and sidestep guilt—both as a philosophical concept and a fact-based judgment.
Wan had already made the case in Malaysia at the local and national levels against the clearing of 20,000 hectares (the equivalent of 40,000 football fields) of primary growth forest at the edge of their research area for the cultivation of oil palm. Will and Wan had had eight meetings with forestry, agriculture, finance, and international trade officials in Kuching, Kuala Lumpur, and Putrajaya.
The Malaysian officials were actually sympathetic to their position. Will and the others at the O/URC didn’t really give them enough credit—it was easy to underestimate the (albeit self-serving) impetus towards patriotic emotion for a mid-level bureaucrat. Most Malaysians were all too aware of their awkward cultural presence on the world stage, especially since 9/11. Their prime minister was an uninspiring, effective, openly anti-Semitic executive of an above-average-performing but far from powerhouse Asian mixed economy. The country’s rainforests offered a much more beatific vision of Malaysia: a Lewis-Carroll-worthy wonderland of curious pitcher-shaped plants; long-nosed proboscis monkeys; gigantic, stinky rafflesia flowers; and regal red-haired apes that floated their one-hundred-kilogram bodies effortlessly through the trees. The government officials that Wan and Will had spoken to were just as protective of this Malaysia as the O/URC was. However, they were stuck.
The 20,000 hectares in question were the subject of a five-year dispute with an Indonesian palm oil firm. The Indonesian government had issued the palm oil firm concessions for the land in 1997. All but ten hectares of the land had subsequently been found to fall on the Malaysian side of the border (where it was considered part of the national reserve); however, the palm oil firm (a subsidiary of ICT Industries, a major corporate donor to some prominent national politicians in both countries) had refused to give up its claim on the land. And then, just a few months ago, a three-way agreement had been brokered: Malaysia’s forestry ministry had agreed to let the firm develop the land, the firm had agreed to pay a fine of 100,000 ringgit (about $25,000) and develop the land in keeping with the highest existing international labor and environmental standards, and the Indonesian government had agreed to aggressive new security measures targeting cross-border timber smuggling from Kalimantan into Malaysian Borneo.
Wan had explained to Will that things never worked out so neatly in this part of the world unless it was the will of entrenched and powerful forces, the kind of forces that weren’t accountable to anyone—not even, in some cases, rational thought.
Then came that off-hand remark by a finance official at the end of another dead-end meeting in K.L.:
“Who knows, maybe nothing will even happen,” the official had said, “everyone knows ICT Industries is taking years on their contracts. Maybe this time all this crony capitalism will work in our favor, for once.”
Wan later confirmed it with his contacts at a competitor company. ICT Industries relied heavily on a steady stream of lucrative development contracts with the World Bank and the Pac Development Bank. Therefore, a kind of sovereignty for the O/URC’s situation lay with two multinational lenders headquartered in the U.S.
Will had proven his use several times over on this trip already. Even though he had never been to San Francisco before, he’d figured out the local public transit system in no time. For dinner, Will had immediately zeroed in on Tadich Grill, the oldest continuously running restaurant in San Francisco. Tadich’s historical credentials turned out to be improbably matched by a charming ambience and delicious and fresh food. They’d eaten at the bar, and Will had made friends with the woman sitting next to them. It had turned out that her cousin was a senior economist at the International Monetary Fund, and she had given them the cousin’s phone number.
High on these most preliminary of successes, Will had fished the tightest of his T-shirts (which, luckily, was also one of the few unruined by the harsh local detergents he used back east) out of the bottom of his suitcase and snuck off to the Castro district for a drink after dinner. Disembarking the street car at Castro and Market, Will had followed a pair of hot guys holding hands into a bar. The bar had been clean and bright, and there’d been a good-sized crowd for nine o’clock at night. However, Will hadn’t known any of the music playing, and for the entire twenty minutes that he’d been there he’d kept thinking that he saw Wan walk in the door. If anyone had taken enough interest in or pity on him to talk to him, Will had been so nervous and self-conscious that he probably would have sabotaged the conversation and run away.
This fantastic performance was the closest that Will had gotten to having sex in ten months. No, actually, it had been eleven months. He’d been living in a Muslim country where having sex with another man was a criminal act punishable by caning and up to twenty years in prison for the past nine of that eleven. (The hidden costs and irrevocable consequences of falling in love with a certain rubber-cheeked redhead in an evolutionary biology elective at McGill University nine years ago.)
The next morning, Will found Wan in front of the hotel restaurant scowling at the menu that was mounted inside a glass-topped lectern by a potted plant with long fronds.
“I think there’s a buffet,” Will said.
“Will there be fruit, do you think?” asked Wan.
Oh, that is the question, Will thought, that is really the question.
“It’s my one vice, you know,” Wan said.
Will liked Wan—he was a charismatic leader of their little jungle outpost, thoughtful but decisive, and inordinately worldly for a fisherman’s son from Mersing. However, as with his other coworkers at the O/URC, Will was never sure when he crossed the line with Wan vis-à-vis sensitive subjects like race, religion, gender, and of course sexual orientation. Just how worldly was Dr. Wan Mohammed, and how open-minded would he be about a certain mildly tart Canadian fruit that had been imported to the O/URC nine months ago?
Will led the way to the buffet area and took a heated plate from the spring-loaded dispenser. The plate was still slightly wet with warm wash water. The centerpiece of the buffet was heated round metal tureens covered by dome lids that swung open on a hinge. The first tureen was a pie-sized mass of scrambled eggs. Will picked up the large spoon at the foot of the tureen, scooped out some spongey yellow egg onto his plate, and handed the spoon to Wan, who was right behind him. Wan took the spoon, looked at the open tureen full of egg, and closed the lid quietly, putting the spoon back on its resting plate.
Tureen number two: pork sausage links, smelling deliciously of maple syrup and fennel. Oh, how Will had missed the smell of caramelized pork fat in the morning. He was hungry and wanted four of the small links, but, not wanting to seem obscene, took only one, closed the tureen lid, and put the serving tongs back on the resting plate himself.
Tureens number three, four, and five were bacon, biscuits and gravy, and home fries. Will took two strips of bacon inextricably tangled together like the intertwined legs of the damned and two biscuits which he slathered with white gravy. Wan took a biscuit and home fries and made a beeline for the fresh fruit at the salad bar.
Will went the opposite direction to the made-to-order crepe station. A cute young black woman, her shoulder-length hair tied back in a tight scouring pad of a ponytail, was slicing bananas at the back counter. Six tiny pans sat on six tiny burners surrounded by bowls of sliced strawberries, sliced bananas, orange marmalade, slivered almonds, chopped walnuts, chocolate sauce, and powdered sugar.
“Hi, could I get a plain banana crepe?” Will asked the woman.
“Keith should be back any minute now,” the woman said. “He makes the crepes.”
Will should have known better. He did know better, but before he could summon up the will to act on what he knew, a young man with strawberry blond hair in a gray chef’s coat appeared at the edge of the buffet area, stopping to horse around with the Hispanic guy restocking the home fries tureen with fresh potatoes from a metal roasting pan.
“Hey Keith!” the woman called out. “You got a customer!”
“Alright, alright Lizzie, geez,” Keith said, coming over to the crepe station. “You’re such a micromanager.”
Lizzie rolled her eyes, sliced quickly through the white fruit.
Keith put on a fresh pair of latex gloves, picked up a large Pyrex measuring cup filled with batter, and gave it a good stir.
“Okay, what can I get for you today?” Keith said to Will, giving him a big smile of perfect, white American teeth.
Will looked over at Wan, who was opening an english muffin and putting it face-down on the slow-winding grill of a toaster oven a few yards away.
“Just a plain banana crepe,” Will said.
“Plain?” said Keith, popping on the gas in one of the burners. Fingers of blue flame tickled the bottom of the small pan on top. “Maybe a tiny bit of powdered sugar on top?” he asked, again with the big smile.
“He just wants the banana crepe—he don’t need it to be pretty,” said Lizzie.
Lizzie’s objection made Will certain that Keith was flirting with him. Oftentimes, straight girls picked up on these things without even realizing it.
“Sure,” Will said.
Keith was already pouring a circle of milk-white batter into the heated pan. It caked up quickly, and Keith scooped and flipped the crepe skin with a spatula.
Wan appeared out of nowhere and said, “What are you getting, banana pancake?”
Keith’s fingers nimbly arranged banana full moons in the center of the crepe skin. The back of his right hand was covered in pale brown freckles. Will caught the chef’s eye briefly, and for the first time Keith seemed uncertain of himself. Or, more likely, uncertain of Will.
“In Thailand they make this with the condensed milk,” Wan continued. “Sometimes you find it in Malaysia too. The tourists like it.”
Keith was turning around the crepe in the pan, folding the skin around the banana filling with the edge of his spatula. He scooped up the finished roll, shimmied it onto a small plate, and placed the plate on the glass counter in front of Will, forgetting, Will noted painfully, the powdered sugar.
“Thanks,” Will said. “This is exactly what I wanted.”
Keith nodded politely and started cleaning up his workstation.
Will felt cheated. Was Keith’s newfound dispassion disappointment at seeing (mistakenly, as it were) that Will was “with” someone? That Will was “with” someone like Wan? Or had Keith guessed at the truth?—that Will, at thirty, was still closeted (not to all people, just some! Will was out to all of Canada!)—and the cook’s sudden coldness had been pity and disdain.
Will took his crepe plate and walked out to the dining room with Wan to find a table. Waiters in white aprons poured fresh coffee and orange juice out of white plastic pitchers into giganto white mugs and thick-bottomed glass tumblers for families and businessmen. Hotel silverware tinkled against hotel china. Even the white sunshine that filled the room seemed to have a preciously cultivated hotel glow about it.
“Is this okay?” Wan had chosen a small table for two with two big armchairs.
“Sure,” said Will. He put his plates down at his setting, his stomach grumbling. He was just hungry, that was it.
“Your pancake looks good, man,” Wan said, sitting down. “But do you think that guy making the pancakes was... you know?”
Will had a blistering hatred for fascist euphemisms for homosexuality.
“I mean, I don’t really know anything about anything like that,” Wan continued. “He just seemed different from you somehow.” Strikes two and three.
Now was Will’s chance. He knew that Wan respected him, as a scientist, employee, and friend. It was two words. Well, one contraction and one word. All that he had to do was say them.
“Yeah,” Will said. “Maybe.”
He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t be the O/URC’s first gay. He was already their only white person, which was an incredibly exhausting job in and of itself, if also an enlightening one in some ways.
The Pac Development Bank’s reception area was as big as the largest branch of Will’s bank in Kuching. The furniture, floors, and walls were all colored the same expensive-looking shade of charcoal briquette gray. The path from the elevator bank to the reception desk was flanked with two long granite museum-style exhibit walls displaying plastic models and framed photographs of hydroelectric dams, school and hospital buildings, and bridges, and backlit blueprints for electricity grids and other projects. Two receptionists, a young white man with long hair pulled back into a ponytail and an Asian woman with a Spock haircut, sat behind a narrow desk speaking softly into the pill-shaped microphones of their headpieces. Silver-plated letters spelling out “Pac Development Bank” were mounted on the gray wall behind them, along with the Pac logo, a crescent with a serrated outer edge.
The male receptionist wrapped up his call and pulled the microphone up and away from his mouth. It stuck out straight from the side of his jaw in the pulled-out position, a bug leg in rigor mortis.
“Selamat datang Pac Development Bank,” he said to Will and Wan, in a voice ordered to match the charcoal gray of the room.
Wan asked the man if he spoke Bahasa Malaysia.
He replied in very fine Bahasa, “a little bit of Bahasa Indonesia, but I’m still working on it. You are Dr. Mohammed?”
“Yes, yes,” said Wan. “Dr. Wan Mohammed and Dr. Will St. James.”
“Our regional director for Southeast Asia, Ray Marcos, will be meeting with you today,” the man said in English. “I have let Mr. Marcos know that you have arrived. Please have a seat to your left. He will be with you shortly.”
He motioned to a waiting area around and behind the exhibit wall on their left. Will and Wan walked to the waiting area and sat down in low-seating gray leather armchairs. Will stared hard at the gray bowl of gray plastic fruit on the small gray table between them. Behind him he could hear the receptionists answer a steady stream of phone calls in Korean, French, Mandarin, English, all in the same dulcet, inviolable tone. On the wall behind Wan was a series of gray abstract paintings: each cool, firm, textured stroke glorifying some apocryphal sameness.
Waiting rooms were still the liminal petri dishes of the powerful that they had been for Will ever since he was little, wreaking mild havoc with his sister on their father’s gastroenterology practice.
The one place in Dr. St. James’s office to which the St. James children had never dared venture was the waiting room. They were not shy children, but their father’s patients terrified them. They could sense the unholy mix of scatology, science, and servicing that had brought the six to ten Montrealeans outside to the blue-carpeted waiting room on a given day.
One of the doors behind Wan opened, and a man emerged. He was tan and heavyset, but not fat. His large brown eyes recessed back into a face densely populated with tiny riddles and stresses. He was dressed with the sartorial flair (or was it nonchalance?) of a movie producer: pressed olive-oil-brown slacks, white button-down oxford with the sleeves rolled up, and sockless feet in Italian leather loafers.
Will and Wan stood, and the man approached them.
“Dr. Mohammed?” he asked, reaching out his hand to Wan. Wan shook it. “Nice to meet you,” said the man. “I’m Ray Marcos.”
“Nice to meet you,” said Wan. “This is Dr. St. James, a primatologist working with us in Sarawak.”
Ray and Will shook hands.
“Great to meet you,” said Will.
“Very nice to meet you too,” said Ray. “We’re going to be in Meeting Room C-1 today,” he said, crossing in front of reception to the other side of the room. He opened a gray door and led them down a short hallway to a large conference room where a tall, bird-framed blonde about Will’s age (thirty) and a younger Asian woman with shoulder-length hair were sitting at the far end of a long wood conference table inlaid with a runner of espresso-colored leather. Although of average height and weight, there was something Amazonian, something of a cud-chewing woodland creature about the latter. She was wearing a sleeveless black knit dress that revealed a black crow-shaped tattoo on her right upper arm.
Will had memorized all three of their bios from the Pac website. Ray Marcos, regional director for Southeast Asia, was a Filipino-American from Queens, New York. He had studied political science and economics at Columbia University and then worked as a commodities trader on Wall Street for three years. After getting his M.B.A. from Harvard Business School, Marcos had worked at Pac’s Asian headquarters in Bangkok for fifteen years until his transfer to Pac’s global headquarters in San Francisco four years ago. He spoke Tagalog, Thai, French, and Japanese.
The blonde was Jennifer Olyphant. A Pasadena native, Olyphant had studied sociology at Vassar and received her J.D. from Berkeley in 1997. Prior to joining Pac as a regional associate, she had worked for three years as a bankruptcy lawyer in Tokyo. She was fluent in Japanese and conversant in Korean.
The punk ingénue was Marin Choo. Born and raised in Naperville, Illinois, Choo had very recently graduated from Stanford, Phi Beta Kappa in international relations. She had also won the prestigious Soames Fellowship in Public Service, which was funding her work as a regional specialist at Pac for one year. She was fluent in Tagalog, Amoy, and Cantonese and conversant in Mandarin.
Ray introduced them as Jen and Marin.
Wan took out Will’s laptop, connected it to the projector set up on the table, and pulled up Will’s presentation. The first slide appeared on the white screen at the head of the room:
PALM OIL in BORNEO:
“First off,” Will said, “I just wanted to say that both Dr. Mohammed and I have so much respect for everything that Pac does to alleviate poverty and build infrastructure in developing countries around the world. The O/URC is also extremely indebted to the indigenous communities of Sarawak, whose relationship with the jungle goes back more than six hundred years. That being said, there are some things that cannot be ignored.”
“As you probably know, the oil palm tree, Arecaceae Elaeis guineenis, is not native to Borneo. However, cleared rainforest land in Borneo has shown suitable for few other agricultural products in high demand in the global economy. In a very short amount of time, the edible vegetable oil derived from the fruit of the Arecaceae Elaeis guineenis has become one of Malaysia’s and Indonesia’s biggest export products, and currently these two countries account for 84% of palm oil production worldwide. Palm oil accounts for 23% of world production and 51% of global trade in edible oils, filling the surging demand from multinational corporations like Unilever, Cargill, Proctor & Gamble, Nestlé, and Kraft for non-hydrogenated solid vegetable oils. Do me a favor. When you get home tonight, turn over the bag of chips and box of crackers that you have in your pantry. If you use bar soap, look at the packaging. Even if you only buy all-natural, organic, low-fat, multigrain, free trade... if you’re not Amish, chances are that you have a number of palm oil products in your home.”
The Marin girl scribbled something down in her notebook. Jen Olyphant looked longingly out the window at the sun-drenched bay. Ray Marcos was looking right at Will, listening intently, and seemed... amused.
“Oil palm was responsible for 86% of all deforestation in Malaysia from 1995 to 2000,” Will continued. “Forest clearing for oil palm results in the loss of 80% of area plant species and over 80% of local mammal, reptile, and bird populations. Deforestation has been shown to eliminate or endanger a wealth of evolutionary data—it’s quite possible that oil palm has already wiped out that one undiscovered exotic plant that secreted that one enzyme that had the ability to reverse cancer-like cell growth. With hundreds of thousands of hectares of primary growth rainforest being practically given away to oil palm firms by the Malaysian and Indonesian governments every year, such hidden costs are not built into the current economics of oil palm: thus the astounding 26% annual internal rate of returns for some oil palm firms in Indonesian Borneo.”
“And then there are the orangutans.” Will paused. This had been the most difficult portion of his presentation to write. The temptation was to cast the orangutans as the adorable innocents requiring protection from the ubiquitous evil of human industry. However, not only was this a terrible cliché, it was also not true. The orangutans were what they were. They could be wise, ferocious, obnoxious, and, yes, adorable, depending on their personality, mood, and the situation at hand. “I have news for you about the orangutans that might surprise you,” Will said. “They don’t need us. We need them.”
Will clicked to the next slide: Daisy the orangutan, biting into a termite nest like it was a chocolate fudge brownie fresh out of the oven. Next: Kitana, an exhausted new mother, breastfeeding the collection of amber fuzz, black wrinkles, and big brown eyes that was her newborn baby, Kay. Next: Thierry, a wild sub-adult male, hanging sideways in the forest canopy, his long black hands and feet wrapping around the hardy dipterocarp trunks that were so attractive to local loggers.
“Sharing 97% of our DNA, orangutans are some of our closest living relatives,” Will continued. “Orangutans are us without the bullshit. They have emotions without drama. Memory without history. Behavior without psychiatry. With all of modern Homo sapiens’ technology, medicine, twenty-four-hour satellite TV, and psychotropic drugs on demand, we can’t seem to quite figure out how to be happy and healthy, how to live peacefully and sustainably. The truth is that even with universities and libraries full of knowledge, we remain mysteries to ourselves.”
This was not a line of argument that Wan had used at any of their meetings in Malaysia, and Will looked at him to see if there was any hint of disapproval. On the contrary, Wan was nodding his head in approbation.
Will continued: “The study of great apes such as orangutans affords us a unique opportunity to unpack the mysteries of human nature from human civilization and self-consciousness. And one does not study orangutans for very long before one realizes that the study of orangutans makes no sense outside the context of their natural habitat. As orangutans are highly nomadic creatures, traversing many miles of rainforest in a year, the continued study of orangutans is dependent on the preservation of very large areas of primary growth rainforest, complex ecosystems that Malaysian and Indonesian oil palm firms burn down to clear and repopulate with a single species: Arecaceae Elaeis guineenis.”
Will pulled up the next slide: a map of Borneo. Their research area was highlighted in blue and the 20,000 hectares in danger in orange. Will explained the devastating direct and ripple effects that losing this parcel of land to an oil palm plantation would have on wild orangutans throughout Borneo. Will then explained the historical confusion regarding the ownership of the land; referred to a written statement from Malaysia’s Minister of Forestry confirming Malaysia’s commitment to protect the 20,000 hectares should “all other claims and concessions” to the land be renounced; and briefly referenced the corporate relationship between the oil palm firm and ICT Industries, ICT’s political connections, and ICT’s access to valuable development contracts with Pac and the World Bank. Will let go unstated the understanding that ICT Industries’ contracted services may have been less than satisfactorily completed. “Pac has given over $1 billion in loans to projects in Malaysia and Indonesia combined over the past ten years,” Will said. “We need your help to make certain that ICT Industries’ subsidiary relinquishes its fictional claim on this land.”
Wan clicked out of the presentation, pulling up a full-screen image of part of the O/URC campus, a cleared-out portion of the jungle with a single paved road that curved around the center of the clearing and then left the way it came. Amiable, nondescript bungalows dotted the landscape, not with a complete absence of charm.
Ray spoke first. “What does the ‘R’ stand for again?” he asked.
“Excuse me?” said Will.
“In O/URC. Rehabilitation or research? What does the ‘R’ stand for?”
“The full name of the organization is the Orang-Utan Rehabilitation Center,” said Wan.
“I’ve heard about this rehabilitation,” Ray said. “Have you heard about this Marin? What they do is they recover the monkeys that people have been keeping as pets. Really, really disturbed and damaged animals. They confiscate them from their ‘owners,’ and then they try to retrain them for life in the wild. A few of them turn out okay, but the vast majority are too damaged. Even worse, they spread diseases from their human rehabilitators to wild orangutans, the very beings that everyone is trying to protect and study in the first place.”
“We do not have ex-captives on the main grounds except under very controlled conditions now,” said Wan.
“Yes, the O/URC follows a very strict program of quarantine, vaccination, peer rehabilitation, and release of ex-captives,” said Will. “The kind of rehabilitation you’re thinking of is no longer standard practice.”
“Yes, but you see, my issue is that you come here under the pretense of scientists, throwing around the Latin. And yet, you do not even mention the rehabilitation portion of your organization’s mission in your presentation. ICT Industries is a local company. Where does the O/URC get its funding? Pac is 87% funded by its Pacific-Rim member countries, by the way.”
“We have WWF funding,” said Wan. “We also received two foreign research grants this year—coming from the Netherlands and Britain, yes—but the Malaysia government provided seed money to build the original camp, to make renovations last year, and always is supplementing where it can. Dr. St. James is the only expatriate on staff. We also have a Singaporean botanist, but everyone else on staff is Malaysian.”
“I think that it’s tempting,” Marin said, “to draw parallels between ‘imperialism’ and the work that all of us do when Western developed nations and Eastern developing nations are involved.”
“I’m not drawing parallels,” said Ray. “I believe that our guests believe that what they want for this piece of land is better than what ICT Industries wants for this piece of land. I am just skeptical that this is true. Do you know how poor the country of Indonesia is, Dr. Mohammed? Gross national income per person in 2000 was $600. The same figure for South Korea, which was also hit hard by the financial crisis and received IMF aid, was $5,900. For the U.S. it was $34,000. We can afford to protect status quo in this country. In Southeast Asia, well... Dr. St. James himself has just illustrated very clearly how vital oil palm revenues have been to growth in the Malaysia and Indonesia economies over the past decade.”
“Maybe oil palm makes the neat little numbers in your reports go up, but it doesn’t mean that it’s actually making life better for all but a handful of people in Borneo,” said Will.
“ICT Industries’ motivations are self-serving,” Ray said. “I do not doubt that much. However, the development of a major new agribusiness sector in a country where the annual GNI per person is the equivalent of my cable bill for the year is something more than status quo. Dr. St. James, I’m surprised that you, of all people, are here today as such a fierce proponent of status quo, considering...”
There was only one thing that Ray Marcos could have meant by that, and yet Will was strangely calm. He silently dared Ray Marcos to out him.
“Considering what?” asked Wan. “Sometimes it takes the most vision to see what’s worth protecting, what’s worth keeping.”
Ray looked back and forth between Will and Wan with the same amused expression that he’d had during Will’s presentation. “You’re quite right, Dr. Mohammed,” he said. “However, withholding aid to a country (which I believe is what you’re asking us to do) is not only a strict violation of Bank policy, but would be dangerous politicking not to mention incredibly hypocritical, considering that developing a plantation for an agricultural export in high demand is the very kind of thing we regularly lend money to our borrower countries to accomplish. It’s been very interesting meeting you both. I’m sorry but I don’t think that we’ll be able to help you. Jen, can you see them out?”
Jen looked up at Ray, then at Will and Wan, as if they’d all just asked her to join a marching band. “I’ve got a 3:45 call with Warren,” she said.
“I thought you talked to him this morning,” said Ray.
“I was supposed to,” said Jen, “but Dadinth didn’t finish rendering my charts until two o’clock.”
“Who in Dadinth?” asked Ray.
“I can see them out,” said Marin.
“You and I need to talk about the Laos review,” said Ray.
“I know,” said Marin. “We will.”
Ray nodded, but seemed unsatisfied.
To Will and Wan he said, “Don’t try stealing this one—” Ray indicated Marin with his thumb. “—away to Borneo. She’s an endangered species around these parts, you know.”
He and Jen left, arguing about “Dadinth,” whatever that was.
Marin stood up and grimaced sheepishly. “You’ll have to forgive Ray. He does a lot, but he comes from a different generation so he’s not as open-minded about projects outside of the mainstream of traditional development as he probably should be.”
“You don’t know what you don’t know, I guess,” said Will.
“Well, he really should know,” said Marin. “It’s our job to know.”
Marin opened the door and propped it open as Will and Wan packed their things.
“Sounds like you have a pretty interesting job then,” said Will. He meant this as another round of wordplay, playing off her use of the word “job,” but Marin understood him literally.
“I got this fellowship,” she said. She had told this story many times already and was tired of telling it, Will could tell. “So I could have worked anywhere really. I interviewed at eighteen organizations in New York, D.C., and San Francisco. I chose Pac because I used several Pac projects as case studies for my senior thesis, so I thought that I had a good sense of what they were about, and also because they offered me this regional specialist position. A lot of the other positions that I was offered were much more marginal.”
Will and Wan shouldered their packed bags, and Marin led them back out, through the reception area, through the double doors to the pearl deco elevator bank, which was empty. Marin pressed the down button.
“If you and Mr. Marcos ever come to Borneo...” said Wan.
Marin grinned an unexpectedly dimpled grin. “You wouldn’t know it by the looks of him now,” she said, “but Ray used to backpack all over Asia.”
“That doesn’t surprise me, actually,” said Will.
“He was apparently very hardcore,” she said. “He claims that he lived on an insect-only diet for a month in Thailand in the eighties.”
“That explains a lot,” said Will.
The three of them laughed.
The elevator on their right dinged open, and Will and Wan walked inside.
“Marin, you must have to travel in Asia sometimes for the Bank,” Wan said. “Come to Borneo: what we do is not like anything else that you’ll ever see, really.”
“Nice meeting you,” Marin said. “We’ll see.”
Wan pressed the “G” button, and the elevator doors dinged closed.
“Nice young woman,” said Will.
“Yes,” said Wan. “We could use someone like her, no?”
Will nodded, feeling depressed. They had another twenty-four hours in San Francisco before their flight to D.C. for what was sure to be a fluffy meet-and-greet with some low-level World Bank staffers, and he didn’t think that he could bear any of it in the wake of their utter failure at Pac.
“I mean, someone like her exactly,” said Wan. He cracked the knuckles in his left hand.
“I don’t think that Ray Marcos would be too happy with that idea,” said Will. The name already had the salty tinge of a thousand bitter-ironic/ironic-bitter non sequiturs about it. “He seems pretty attached to the girl.”
“Exactly,” said Wan.
What was Wan proposing, a poaching expedition? Although oil palm was the primary bad guy in the world of orangutan conservation these days, local poachers were still a problem too. They hunted orangutan mothers: killed the mothers and kidnapped the children to sell on exotic animal black markets for $1,000 a head.
“Do we have a job to offer her?” Will asked.
“We have plenty jobs,” said Wan. “She has that fellowship, remember?” He thought a moment. “Anything Consultant, lah.”
“She’ll never go for it,” said Will. “She had her pick of every single job in the universe before choosing this one, remember?”
The elevator doors dinged open, onto a young woman in glasses and a young Asian woman, both carrying salads in plastic takeout boxes and looking like they hated the world.
“Palm Oil Corporation Bankruptcy Consultant,” said Wan, as they got out of the elevator.
Will laughed and shook his head in a negative way, but he was realizing: it was the perfect compromise. He could stay in Borneo and also be out, in a way, if Marin came—because he could be out to her. “This is crazy,” he said. “We don’t even know her.”
“I found Linda in 1994 by posting five flyers at UNIMAS. It was between her and this old guy working out his own home in Sri Aman. Two years later this young guy came with two orangutan he bought with all his money at a market in town—he wanted to ‘returning them to forest,’ lah. This was Anwar. And you I spoke to on the phone one time only before offering you the job. When Anwar and I get you that first time at Kuching Airport, every strange-looking white guy that came out the gate we were afraid was you.”
They pushed through double doors onto a city sidewalk. Far above their heads, the squared-off roofs of modestly proportioned skyscrapers scraped at a fair blue sky. Strong, chapping winds blew in from the bay.
“Director of Communications,” Will said. “She can help do all this bullshit political stuff that we don’t really have time to do.”