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April 20, 2011

The Vagaries of Getting Older

Tom McLaughlin

Kuching, Malaysian Borneo – I guess age is a state of mind. One can be old at 25 and young at 60. I hope I am the later. But, I try and tell my body that I am 25 and it just does not want to cooperate.


My last foray into challenging my body was a weekend or so ago. I took some students, along with a film crew, to trace the life of the great naturalist, Alfred Wallace.


Mr. Wallace was the guy, who – along with Charles Darwin – came up with the theory of natural selection. His first revelation occurred while staying at Kampung Santabong, about 24 km from here. As a biologist, I have an interest in the man who came up with “every species has come into existence coincident in both time and space with a pre existing closely allied species;” an obvious deduction now, but heresy in 1855.


In the blazing tropical sun, I charged forward through the kampong leading the way to the hilltop where Mr. Wallace wrote those immortal words. The students and film crew all obediently followed and I hid my huffing and puffing and acted like a true adventurer. “Look, this is where Wallace probably sat,” I blurted out as I plopped myself on the ground to hide the fact I would probably collapse.


The students and camera people all had enough energy to fire the sun for at least a week as they swarmed over the site exploring every nook and cranny. I regrouped, and like a tour guide, showed them the secrets of a dilapidated house under old trees with surrounding vegetable gardens and a peek through the vegetation of the South China Sea.


Broiling again under the baking sun, (there’s a lot to be said about “only mad dogs and Englishmen like the noon day sun) I led the group through the paths of Santubong to a very secluded postcard beach. Then on to a short forest (read jungle) walk to a mountain stream gurgling toward the sea. All this time the filmers are filming and the students, like students everywhere, were enjoying themselves as the camera rolled, recording their actions and reactions to my pretend talk about Alfred Wallace.


The day ended with a meal at the resort (a motel-like affair stretched along the seaside) where I collapsed into a bed after the students headed back to school. My wife and my four-month-old son joined me for a grand western meal later that evening.


The next morning, still filled with adrenalin, or something, we had breakfast and marched into the rain forest for about 100 meters where I turned around and announced that was it. My knee began to throb and my eye was swollen shut because of some bug bite. And believe me, we have more different kinds of insects around here than Frederick County has conservatives.


Brain fried, we returned to the hotel and I hobbled into the sea for the refreshing salt water. I have always said a swim in the ocean will cure almost anything. Of course, I stayed too long and got sun burn. Untouchable, eye swollen shut, limping, head ache and mosquito bitten, the rest of the week was written off as I slowly recovered.


Clarity has finally returned, my skin peeled; the eye, with a doctor’s help, has returned to semi normal, at least things aren’t as blurry; and I wear a brace on my knee. Forty years ago nothing like this would have bothered me in the least.


I need to pace myself and slow down but when I am with young people my vanity just wants to keep up with them and show them the old guy can still do it, but while out of sight, I need to regroup. I need to admit to myself that – to keep on going – I must admit this weakness to save strength for later years. Or do I?


…Life is good. . . .


For articles about Borneo see Tom’s blog at He is also on FaceBook at Borneo Tom.


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