f, for reasons best known to yourself, you were to imagine purgatory as a spit of desolate wasteland barely elevated above a boiling sea, you would, as a matter of course, find yourself in possession of a not inaccurate picture of the island of Tanjung Pinang, which lies hard on the 104th parallel of longitude east, in Indonesian waters just south of Singapore. Though from time to time one hears a place described as existing "at the edge of nowhere," for those travelers unfortunate enough to have found themselves stranded there, Tanjung Pinang surpasses even this unflattering description. It is nowhere itself.
Almost every afternoon a shiny boat butts up against the dock and a troop of brightly clad day-trippers steps ashore, come presumably to gawk at the open market, the open sewers, the pariah dogs--sights no longer easily come by in the steel and glass tourist mecca to the north. In their defense, it must be admitted that the contrasts are striking. In Singapore one can be jailed for throwing garbage into the street; in Tanjung Pinang there is, strictly speaking, nowhere else to throw it.
At high noon, on a day when the sun is obscured in a caldron of superheated mist a billion miles away, and the air is so stupefyingly still it seems ready to ignite, I am crouched in the damp shade of the customs shack on the dock, staring across the surface of the sea, which at this moment seems less a liquid than a boundless, infinitely pliable metallic skin. With an ever dwindling reserve of patience, I am awaiting the arrival of the Sempoerna, a vessel whose alleged mission it is to transport, twice weekly, passengers and cargo from this running scab on the face of the waters to the infinitely greater nowhere of Sumatra, traversing in the process a hundred miles of open water before heading upriver to the oil boomtown of Pekanbaru. The entire journey reportedly never requires less than twenty-four hours. But for a journey to blossom and bear fruit, it must first begin, and the Sempoerna is now five hours late.
I reach down to the dock beside me and pick up my canteen and unscrew the lid. I carry it to my lips and allow the last drops of spit-warm water to dribble down my throat. Replacing the cap, disgusted, I sit back and make an effort to resist the mental cataloguing of all my needs, the greatest of which probably is sheer distraction--a flashy drugstore thriller, a slick magazine... But the case is hopeless.
I find myself at the moment in uncharacteristic possession of a single book, a paperback copy of August Strindberg's Inferno, described on its back cover as "an intensely powerful record" of Strindberg's "mental collapse"--discovered two nights ago under the bed in my room at a cheap Chinese hotel in Singapore. Soiled, dog-eared, with all the juiciest passages underlined, it appears to have already served some hapless traveler as a guidebook to the nether regions of the mind. What I know, having read a few pages, is that old August would have loved Tanjung Pinang; it would have slipped under his skin, coursed through his veins like a virus.
That leaves only the letters. Reaching into my shirt pocket, I remove one of them--the one without an envelope, the one I picked up in Kuala Lumpur four days ago. It is damp with sweat, transparent as a fish's skin. I unfold it carefully and begin to read:
I fold the letter and slip it back into my pocket, at the same moment aware that someone has invaded my solitude--a European, thirtyish, bearded, a bit scruffy. Turning my way, he stares intently for a moment, offering the sort of desultory nod that recognizes presence but demands nothing in return. Walking directly in front of me, eyes averted to avoid any further contact, he proceeds to the far side of the customs shack, drops his pack onto the dock, and sits down, back to the wall. Staring directly out to sea, he makes it abundantly clear, without saying a word, that he has no wish whatever to be disturbed.
It will be a long journey to Sumatra; it might be nice to have someone to talk to. But this guy does not exactly radiate friendliness. Looking at him, I can't help feeling it might be best on the whole to steer clear of him.
Excerpted from Of Tigers and Men by Richard Ives. Copyright © 1996 by Richard Ives. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of the Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.