Happy Halloween, folks. Now, I’m not one for superstitions and scary movies. Outside of sometimes excessively flowery prose, I’m a straight talker. But last night on All Hallows Eve, that changed. Everything I’m about to say in this post is real. It happened to me.
That was a hook. Nothing supernatural going on over here, folks, except the imposition of Westernized nature-human-spirit relations on the Borneo Jungle.
Halloween is truly nonexistent in Brunei, and Malaysia in general. Without the damp smell of autumn and large bags of supermarket candy to remind me, I honestly almost forgot it was coming up until I checked social media. And I was fine not celebrating in any major way until my diplomat friend Ally invited me to the Brunei Hash; the theme this week was “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”
Hashing is one of the most fascinating manifestations of 19th Century-style of colonialism out there. The Hash House Harriers are a loose organization of runners (“Hounds”) who chase someone who has set a trail with paper or flour (“The Hare”), and gather together at the end for beer, songs, and food. The practice started in 1938 in contemporary Malaysia (Hello!), then known as Sengalor, for British colonial officers to “rid themselves of the excesses of the previous week-end.” Even the Wikipedia article is absolutely British, as are the principles of hashing listed on their group page. Now it involves a mix of locals and foreigners, but you have to come with a member. Besides acting as a hangover cure, Hashing has the additional effect of inserting foreigners into the wilds of the colonized space – the jungle, “unsavory neighborhoods” – in an unassailable group. Hashing is rife with traditions, including the assignment of a Hash Handle; mine is “Anna Conda,” which I will explain shortly.
This isn’t the first time I’ve Hashed. Amelia (throwback to the Bahamas experience that started this whole shenanigan) and I hashed a few times to get to know Nassuvians a bit better, and get a little exercise. Every Monday at 6:30 pm, in some corner of New Providence, a gaggle of red-faced runners dashes to shouts and horn-honks. Described as “a mixture of athleticism and sociability, hedonism and hard work,” maybe with some orienteering too, one runs a trail with false starts, 360 degree options, joke boxes, and beer stops. In the Bahamas the Hash was actually sponsored by a local beer (god bless Kalik). The Brunei Hash, instead, has in its 50+ year history seen the closing of Brunei to alcohol consumption, among other things. This might explain its immense popularity locally, with over 100 consistently participating members.
Last night I went out to the Hetero Hash (I’d been to the Ladies Hash earlier that week) in honor of Halloween. A guy from the gas station gave me a ride through a monsoon, shooting through the green shadows of traffic lights and tar-black puddles. At the end of a winding road in the diplomatic quarter (“Diplo”), I met Ally at a tent set up in the middle of the Brunei jungle. The crowd is pretty mixed in terms of age but I’m certainly the youngest. Ally and I were the first pair to enter the trail, buddies entering minute by minute to give “scare teams” the chance to regroup.
The city’s sky was orange and lightening-white, with the kind of thunder cracks you hear in Young Frankenstein. Monsoon winds were still blowing though the rain had stopped. Fireflies watched us scramble through the jungle, far brighter against the pitch black jungle than my flashlight. Our early scares included Ally getting shot at by a water gun and me getting grabbed by a skeleton-man hiding behind a tree. Ally got a bonus scare when she was assaulted by a Tarsier on its commute home. We screamed very easily.
Back at Reed, Brynn, Stella and Erin had showed me this terrifying video game, SlenderMan. At 3 minutes, it begins to look a little more like my Friday night:
Ah, but yes, Anna Conda. So we’re sliding down hills in the dark, dodging hairy spiders and tree limbs as we follow the paper trail. I look like something between somewhere in between a ghurka and Harpo Marx. I talk pretty much incessantly (Hi, I’m Rennie) and yell into the woods that I see all the traps waiting for us every few minutes. Ally, in the lead, is about to ford a small stream when she screams. Like, really screams. Slithering upstream was a wild 10 foot python. We’re talking Dudley Dursley’s new nightmare (Comme ça, ou ça). We waited a few minutes for it to wiggle upstream before crossing, but Ally was a little on edge the rest of the run.
It was so much fun.
The rest of the night involves booze (beer! after a month!) and schmoozing. New dream couple are the lovely Jessica and Steven, who met in Baghdad while she was working for the Aussie Ambassador and he was serving as a US Marine. Steven is from NOLA and has damn fine taste in music; when Boyz II Men’s “I Will Get There” came over the speakers I’m sure I made a great impression with my well-practiced lip sync, which I took straight into Whitney Houston’s “When You Believe.”
So yeah, Hashing is basically a way for foreigners to feel comfortable in an intimidating environment without needing to engage locals extensively, and it works. Hashers make new claim to colonized lands and impose Westernized methods of interacting with nature (with themes! and booze!). You play adventure, systematically poking around with the comfort of a sign out sheet at the end of the run. But after a month of feeling really isolated and stuck in my homestay, I confess that it’s made the past few days my best in Brunei.
Happy Halloween folks. I hope you get as spooked as I did by snakes and imperialist recreational practices.