Day 659: Gods And Monsters


Up at 8am and onto the bus to Sandakan – the port town where the boat leaves for  country 182: The Philippines.  Happily, the bus left on time, but unhappily the onboard film was the most turgid, rotten waste of photons I’ve seen since Dreaming of Joseph Lees.  It was like the worst bits of Star Wars Episode I (i.e. all of it) mixed with the soggy turd that was The Matrix Revolutions sprinkled from the leftover crud from the backstreet abortion that was The Golden Compass.

The only funny thing about the film is that it was about -finarr finarr- BENDERS.  Christ WHY DID NOBODY TELL THEM??  I was seriously perplexed.  Was there not a single person from the UK on the crew who could tap M. Night Shallaballadingdong on the shoulder and say “M, we need to talk…”.  Did nobody suggest that since there were these people with magic eastern powers, maybe their power could utilise an eastern sounding word, like ‘xi’ (pronounced ‘chi’ – and mentioned in the film), ‘tan’ or ‘jedi’.  Rather than –woop woop guffaw!- ‘BENDER’.  So you’d have something like the water-xi’tan, the earth-xi’tan, the fire-xi’tan and the air-xi’tan.  The Last Air-Xi’tan.  There you go, sounds better already.

The script was so so bad it made my toes curl – many of the lines seemingly ripped straight out of Star Wars Episode I (and delivered with the same po-faced green-screen emotion).  And the acting, and the pacing and the… oh god everything really.  I can’t WAIT until RedLetterMedia tears this one a new a-hole.  Luckily for me, also onboard was a delightfully chatty Aussie couple, Riki and her boyfriend Liam;  nattering always makes the journey go quicker, and before 4pm I had forgotten all about the BENDERS -snoot snoot!- was in town checking into the Sandakan Backpackers.

No time to waste, I jumped a taxi to the ticket agents for tomorrow’s ferry to Zamboanga in Mindanao.

WHAT?  MINDANAO?  Are you CRAZY??! I hear you scream.  Well, those of you that have heard of Mindanao are screaming that I’m sure.

Mindanao is not the happiest of Filipino islands – yes more religious fundamentalism and yes you can probably guess that the gruesome and disturbed hooligans running around murdering innocent woman and children are not Jains or Buddhists or Zoroastrians.  They happen to be the same religion of ‘peace’ that you might be familiar with: over the past turbulent decade of world history, its rather over-passionate clientele have been known to run about murdering innocent bystanders in Indonesia, Thailand, China, India, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Morocco, Turkey, Spain, the UK, Sudan, Algeria, Mauritania, Nigeria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Egypt, Somalia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Yemen, Chad, Niger, Cote D’Ivoire, Senegal, Tajikistan and the USA, so there’s a good chance you may have heard of them.  Of course by ‘peace’ I mean ‘all out war’ but then I’m guessing you understood the comedic tone of my apostrophes.

The only funny thing about this horror show that’s been rumbling on in Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago for decades is that one of the main terrorist groups is called ’MILF’. Seriously!  Maybe I’m just having one of those days.  Reminds me of Rimmer’s Committee for the Liberation and Integration of Terrifying Organisms and their Rehabilitation Into Society…

I think the Filipino government should fight back with an elite army commando brigade called ‘Cougar Force’.  MILFs versus Cougars! Who wouldn’t pay to watch that?!

So anyway, getting back to the point, Mindanao is a heap big dangerous place of whose midday sun only mad dogs and Englishmen would venture out into.  In fact, it’s probably going to be the most dangerous place I’ve been to this entire journey: Colombia is safe enough as long as you stay away from the rebel-held areas, the DRC is cool as long as you don’t venture too far towards the borders with Uganda and Rwanda, Somalia is laughing as long as you stay in Somaliland, Iraq is not just safe but also a wholelottafun as long as you stay in the Kurdish north and Afghanistan is only really a danger if you venture down to Helmand or travel at night.

Actually, Mindanao itself would present little to raise the blood pressure if I was going to be kicking around the north and east of the island, but I’m not.  There is  only ONE international ferry service to The Phils and, unfortunately for me it only goes to Zamboanga in western Mindanao: right into the eye of the storm.

So it’s going to be a case of keeping my big ginger bounce down and cowering in my hotel room until the ferry returns to Sandakan two days later.

But after all that, the shipping offices were closed for the day.  I was told to come back the next morning at 8am and the ship would be leaving later that day.  So returning to the backpackers I updated the website and then ventured out into the night for some din-dins.  I was invited to come and sit with the nice couple that were sharing my room, a bloke called Adam and his girlfriend.  As the night went on our discussion turned into a kick-ass debate, the kind I love to have (yes the world would be a boring place if we all agreed on everything) about environmentalism, cultural relativism and scientific fundamentalism.  Like I say, it was a kick-ass debate.

Adam accused me of being a scientific fundamentalist, and as nobody likes being called a fundamentalist I tried to make out that I wasn’t – I just really, really love science in the same way I love the works of Rembrandt, Verdi, Wren, Hemmingway, Hitchcock and Johnny Rotten and think that YOU SHOULD TOO!!  But, upon reflection (and the here’s-what-I-should-have-said thing that hits you the next day) in the grand tradition of the Socratic method I’ve had my brain expanded by debate and I’m proud to say that yes, yes I AM a scientific fundamentalist and you know what?  I strongly believe that you are too.

Warning – rant ahead! Feel free to skip to the next blog…!

It would help if I explained what I mean by fundamentalist: someone with absolute blind faith in what they believe.  Fair enough?  When this blind faith is in a unproveable but ultimately silly bronze age creation myth invented by some illiterate goat herders in the Middle East back when us silly humans thought the world was flat, the stars wheeled around it for our delight and epilepsy was caused by demonic possession, my heart sinks and I may well invite you into my kitchen for a cup of tea and a dose of reality.

But it comes down to this: blind faith = I don’t know how it works, but I’m willing to stake my life on the fact it will.

Now the funny thing is that many people infected with the mind-virus of religion like to talk the talk, but when it comes down to brass tacks, the only ones who walk the walk are the fundamentalists who 100% honestly believe that if they accidentally fell off a cliff that their chosen god would reach down with his big invisible hand and save them – you know, the exceptionally rare ‘oh goodie gumdrops, I’ve got cancer’ people.  Or, in the case of the 9/11 hijackers, they believe that whatever they do, no matter how disgusting, depraved, sick and twisted (murdering 3,000 people is all these things and more) if they do it in the name of God, Allah, Zeus, Gandalf, Santa Claus whatever, then it’ll all work out in the wash, because it’s what THE EASTER BUNNY would have wanted.

No evidence required!

However, science is all about the evidence and the evidence is all around us because we can see it works – chemotherapy, television, the internet, X-rays, digital photos, video games, 100% accurate predictions of future events such as eclipses or cicada plagues.  The mad thing is that very very few of us knows how it works: and therein lies the fundamentalist part – the part that requires faith.  Which is why I just accused you of being a scientific fundamentalist.

Two reasons:

The first reason is that you owe your life to science.  You are reading this, which means you are alive and (presumably) you have reached adulthood (it also infers that you are highly intelligent, good looking, are dynamite in bed and have great taste in fashion, music and art, but that’s not important right now).  The only way you could have made it this far is because of modern western science.  There are no two ways about this – Queen Anne had what?  Eighteen pregnancies?  And how many of them made it out alive?  Five.  How many of them made it to adulthood?  NONE.

And she was the goddamn QUEEN OF ENGLAND.  She had the wealth, the riches, the access to all the best medicines of the day…  But you’re talking about the days before germ theory, sterilisation techniques, ultrasound, incubators, saline drips, safe caesarean procedures etc.

Robert Hooke, Isaac Newton, Leonardo Da Vinci, James Watt, Joseph Bazelgette, Edward Jenner, Alexander Fleming, Watson and Crick, Marie Curie, Christiaan Barnard… there is a good chance that you owe these one or all of these scientists your life.

And if you want to come at me with evidence that you were born without any medical assistance, that you were never inoculated or vaccinated, never used antibiotics, you’ve never had a broken bone, a major operation or a life threatening disease, you have no allergies, you don’t have asthma and you don’t wear glasses, I have just one word for you: Nitrates.

You know, grim old Malthus was almost right: by the end of the nineteenth century the world was beginning to contain too many people to feed itself.  Having to leave a field fallow every few years to regenerate was not a very economic way of farming, plus over the years the quality of the soil would diminish to such a point that you might as well rake gravel over it and give it to the pikeys.  But why was this so?  What was the magic ingredient in cow dung that brought a dead field back to life?  By the turn of the last century, scientists had cracked it: Nitrates.  Now you could buy nitrates in the form of liquid fertiliser, spread it all over your fields, never have to let them go fallow and (weather permitting) enjoy a bountiful harvest every single year: year in, year out.

Before the discovery of nitrates, the world could barely cope with one billion people.  Now there are six and a half billion people, five and a half billion of which I would argue owe their very existence to science: and chances are you’re one of them.

In short, the entire human race was heading towards an abyss and science swooped in at the last minute to save us all (as I sadly believe most people think it will do over the rather pressing issue of climate change – save us lazy bastards from having to do anything about it ourselves eh?).

The second reason is that you have undoubted blind faith in science.  I know this for a few reasons, the main one being that you’ve all probably been on a plane at least once in your life.  Now if doing something as unnatural as being shot through the sky at 700mph doesn’t scare the willies out of you, there’s a good chance you either a) have drank to many JD miniatures to care or b) you have 100% blind faith in the principles of aerodynamics, jet engines, electrical circuitry, radio communication, radar, air pressurisation etc.: ie. a bunch of stuff you (or I) know little or nothing about.  I say blind faith because even if you’re an aeronautical engineer it’s doubtful that you know how every little bit of an aeroplane works: some things you’re just taking as red that they will work, work, work and work again: because if one of those things fail (as they occasionally do), you’re going to be a whole new shade of dead.  Every time you get on a plane, you are staking your life on a whole bunch of science – science you don’t even understand.

Sadly, even the most mental of religious fundamentalists who really believe that what their invisible sky wizard wanted more than anything was for them to fly a plane into a building would use a plane engineered by science, rather than the one engineered via magic, prayer, superstition or dumb luck.  Although the latter option obviously would be better for the unfortunates in the building.

I would also wager that you are absolutely and inseparably hooked into the world of Information Technology.  You probably own a mobile phone and you obviously have access to the internet or you wouldn’t be reading this.  Now I’m sure you could go for a while without these wondrous things that science has bestowed upon us at a reasonable price, but for how long?  In fact, without science, how would you last the day?  Unless you’re a religious studies teacher, how would you do you job without a constant and steady flow of new information?  How would you get to your job?  Could you seriously live without your creature comforts: your car, the train, central heating, air conditioning, television, radio, iPods, DVDs, telephones, the internet…?

It’s the same argument that says nobody in the right mind would call out for a homeopath after being hit by a car: no matter how hippy-dippy and ‘sceptical’ about science we pretend to be, we begrudgingly owe our very existence to science and we use the fruits of scientific wisdom every single day of our lives.  We are all, in a very real sense and although it’s uncomfortable to say it, scientific fundamentalists.  But don’t worry: science asks nothing of you: it doesn’t want your prayers, your thanks or even your appreciation (it would be nice, I guess, but I don’t think the Royal Society is waiting on a thank-you card from us spoilt, ungrateful post-modernist brats), and more importantly, your faith in science will never compel you to strap a bomb to yourself.  Because that would be SILLY.

I’m no scientist, I don’t shave with Occam’s razor nor eat Fermat’s Last Theorem for breakfast.  But I know my protactinium from my protractor, my polyethylene from my buckminsterfullerene, my DNA from my RNA, my quasars from my pulsars and my neutrons from my neutrinos: all from the comfort of my armchair.  Since when did you have to be a musician to enjoy music, a filmmaker to enjoy movies or a sportsman to enjoy the footy?

I don’t just love science for the sake of knowledge, beauty or entertainment (although I’m convinced it delivers all three), I love science because I understand how much I owe it, and how much I’m going to rely on it day-in and day-out until my time on this great little (slightly) pear-shaped planet comes to an end.  Yes, I admit it – as unfashionable, culturally insensitive and as disrespectful as it sounds, I’m a scientific fundamentalist through and through.  I’ve won Pascal’s wager and the bastard owes me a fiver.

A final thought: you know those western chicks sitting cross-legged going ommmmm with the multi-coloured beads in their dreads in an ashram in India; their heads full of magic pink unicorns dancing in the moonlight on a distant crystal planet vibrating with pure positive lifeforce energy?

You can bet your bottom dollar that they flew there 😉

Graham Hughes

Graham Hughes is a British adventurer, presenter, filmmaker and author. He is the only person to have travelled to every country in the world without flying. From 2014 to 2017 he lived off-grid on a private island that he won in a game show, before returning to the UK to campaign for a better future for the generations to come.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. max

    Great rant, Graham, but I hope you know that many food additives cause serious illnesses; many comforts of civilization have us getting fatter, lazier, more individualistic/self-centered and less ambitious than before.

    I’m not calling on people reject everything scientific discoveries and civilization have given us and go back to the stone age, but science is not perfect and has given a great deal of rotten stuff – namely weapons and uber effective methods of mass destruction.

    In my country we have a saying: “There’s no bad without some good in it” (I’m sure there’s something similar you folks in Britain can quote). Nothing in this life (or at least what we define as life and existence) is purely good and bad (once again, what we define as good and bad), but indeed a stew of both.

    And I can rant about the more uglier sides to the modern Western consumerist society, so please hear me out Graham..

    1. Graham

      Yup yup, Western (and – sod it – Eastern) consumerist society gets right up my nose too, but one of the comforts of civilisation is that people are free to choose the way they wish to live their lives: and think about it, the problems you identify are more to do with culture and corporations (profit and greed) than the pursuit of science. If we bothered listening to the scientists, nobody would smoke, we would all eat healthily, exercise regularly and watch less telly – as well as be prepared to do our bit to prevent the seas rising and reign in the unchecked population growth of our fragile little planet.

      There is some ying-and-yang about anything in life, but while I wouldn’t support the work of all scientists (Edward Teller can f— right off) I certainly (and passionately) support the forward march of science and democracy as critical components of a future more peaceful, happier world.

  2. Isobel

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