The wiry skipper didn't beat around the bush. He maneuvered the boat with confident precision and gently banged her nose against the wharf, skillfully turning the steering wheel while shifting forward and backward with the outboard motor - to keep the rear of the fickle boat under control - with her nose against the wharf and then ran from his steering position athletically back and forth to lock her in tight. The front, then the wavering rear, which after a jerk with his thin but muscular arms on the quay pole, had little choice left. The scene inspired confidence. With this man and his tawny face - no doubt from a lifetime on the water - not big in stature but clearly in control, we certainly wouldn't drown in the muddy river on which the boat now bobbed quietly up and down. She flowed past Kuala Selangor, a fishing village where we stayed, and emptied into the Malacca Strait, the sea on the coast of West Malaysia, a few miles past the village.

_ _ _

Kuala Selangor in the dusk of sunset.

_ _ _

I stared at the flowing brown water and could only guess what was hiding beneath that murky surface - life threatening animals like crocodiles, anacondas and leeches.

“Let's go outside, enjoy nature”. It's a Western-European luxury unknown here. Nature here is deadly. Hot, mean, poisonous, strangling or parasitic. From deadly mosquitoes to snakes to centipedes to spiders to scorpions to heat stroke or dehydration. Unprepared and with little knowledge? Nature here doesn't know compassion and will merciless punish you.

Take the day before, in our freshly made up hotel room we entered for the first time.

You know the feeling. You have booked a hotel room, you get the key, and then you want to see where you have to spend the next few nights. Is it an upper or a downer? Like unwrapping a present. You open the door for a first look - oh pretty big - explore the room - nice view - test the beds - oh look, we have a balcony - and inspect the bathroom - but why not a chair on the balcony, do we have to sit on the floor or something - and then you come to your final conclusion. Often you try to rationalize the disappointments away. Stains in the sheets, pubic hair in the shower drain or no chair on the balcony... it wasn't that expensive. You don't want to spoil your holiday on the first day already with too much First World crankiness. But when I, not unsatisfied overall, lifted the toilet lid in the bathroom, the insect I saw - scuttling over the toilet seat - was a bit of a nasty surprise. Not because I immediately recognized what we were dealing with, but because in the tropics you really do not want to find any insects on your toilet seat. Especially the idea that you land with your bare ass on something poisonous in the middle of the night, or that something obscure is possibly trying to nestle into your ass crack? Warm and moist, the ideal climate for almost anything here.

“E.” I yelled loudly, already a bit panic stricken “come have a look, what is this thing?” E., local as he is, is the expert in all that flies and crawls around here. Even if he doesn't know every insect, the dangerous ones he usually recognizes, due to his life long experience in this country. The creature looked insignificant: thin, not longer than a centimeter and I thought we might have a small centipede on our hands. I know centipedes here can bite viciously and that smaller usually means more poisonous, which explains my request for a consultation by E.

E. immediately recognized the villain.

“That's a Charlie ant! Very poisonous! Don't touch.”

Talk about coincidence? A few days before this meet with the Charlie ant I had seen a documentary about a very mean beetle. Like coincidence sometimes seems as if the universe is trying to tell you something? This creature looked more and more like that beetle. Small, insignificant, poisonous as a cobra.
“Is a Charlie ant the same as a rove beetle?” I asked, hoping that it wouldn't be true and that we were far better off with the poisonous Charlie ant. E. pulled out his mobile phone, after he had squashed Charlie with his sandal, and fired up Google… rove beetle…
“Yes! It's a rove beetle.” In Malaysia also known as Charlie ant, because it looks a bit like an ant.

“Oh my god.”

The pussing blisters, open wounds and eaten away body parts from the documentary were the first images that started blinking alarmingly in front of my mind's eye. Quickly followed by the images of my own pussing body parts… because that beetle was sitting here in the flesh, squashed on our toilet seat. In our hotel room! This wasn't a documentary. This was real life! My life!

Was this the only rove beetle in this hotel room or was there a nest somewhere hidden? Carefully I inspected the toilet, the bathroom, all the nooks and crannies.

The mean thing about the rove beetle is that it doesn't bite: it squirts. Poison from its behind. And that poison is also mixed in with its blood. So what does the ignorant traveler, who's never heard of this little creature, do? He squashes the thing on his arm or leg. Or even worse: the risk avoiding traveler, who loves certainty. He rubs the insect to pieces! So the beetle didn't just squirt poison over you after that initial blow, but through its blood, the poison is now spread out over a big piece of your arm or leg - or worse. After that, the poison has also contaminated the hand with which you rubbed the insect to its death.
Then for the ultimate meanness: you don't feel a thing.
The insect is dead. Mission accomplished, you think. But without you knowing, you have poison on your arm or leg, that's now slowly working its way in, through your skin. Only some twelve hours later it starts to irritate. Twenty-four hours later the spot is covered in painful burning blisters. A week later it's a pussing open wound and with a bit of bad luck you rubbed your eyes with the hand that had the poison on it and now you're blind or you were in hospital two days later, screaming from misery, with blisters on your eye balls. Scars or blindness guaranteed, when - only some two weeks later - you finally start to feel a bit better.

After some more Google it was clear: the hotel was located on the edge of a river with jungle across, on the other side of the river. Ideal conditions for the rove beetle. Most likely the beetle had flown into the room, through the open balcony door, attracted by the light, the night before we received the key. They are not aggressive. They don't attack humans and their poison is a defensive measure, only if you bother them. But well, that's something we do all too quickly with insects: bother them.

An inspection of the hotel room revealed a suspicious spot on the edge of the wall and the ceiling. But it was too high to clearly see what kind of insect it was. Not at ease, our first thought was: we buy a can of pesticide and clear the room of any insects.

I don't like pesticides. They are used here constantly, inside, against mosquitoes - mainly prevention against dengue - a tropical disease caused by a virus that's spread by mosquitoes - but it's deadly for way more useful insects and innocent little creatures that all have their use. I'm also not too fond of that initial reaction ‘kill it': I'd rather put it outside, alive.
But “Principen fürhen zum Teufel” (sticking to principles leads to the devil) wrote Goethe and in this case he was right. Not so much to the devil, but certainly to hell (of pain and pussing blisters). The idea of sleeping in a hotel room with rove beetles and not knowing what I would do, half asleep, if one of them would land on my naked belly - squash the bug without me realizing it perhaps - was too much. They had to die or I wouldn't sleep at all. And, let's be honest here: the rove beetle itself wasn't too squeamish about the use of poison either. What goes around comes around seemed appropriate reasoning to rationalize my ecological principles out the window.

Goethe nodded in agreement.

The first foggy load from the big blue can was directed towards the mysterious insect on the ceiling that still hadn't moved. After the spray that changed. It began to crawl and fell, intoxicated by the poison, off the ceiling, somewhere in front of my dancing feet. E. picked it up.
“Don't touch it” I yelled, somewhat shocked, ready with my sandaled foot to stamp the poisonous bomb to its death, “that's a rove beetle, are you nuts, what are you doing?” The insect, to me, with my bad eyes and without my glasses, looked exactly the same as the dead one in the bathroom.
“No” E. said determined, knowing that by now I saw rove beetles everywhere “this is a termite fly” and he dropped the innocent half poisoned animal onto the balcony.
After that we sprayed the whole hotel room, including the bathroom, and left the deadly space, to let her stew for a few hours in the swirling poisonous vapors, while we enjoyed a cool drink and the perfect meal: Kuala Selangor is known for it's wonderful sea food. I didn't assume that the termite fly had survived our rampage, but at least I would sleep that night without worries about rove beetles.

_ _ _

The squashed rove beetle. The orange poison visible from its behind.

_ _ _

We were to sail upstream that evening, inland. It had been a warm day with plenty of sun and a humid 34 degrees. The breeze over the river at dusk, the sun just over the horizon, felt pleasantly cooling in this land of perpetual sweat. Wind is rare, unless close to shore or in the path of an approaching thunderstorm.

E. got into the wobbly boat easily. I grabbed on a little tighter, almost lost my sandal between shore and ship, but finally landed safely on the bow, where I was directed down by the tan skipper, towards the life jackets, which were piled up on the long benches on either side of the boat. Safety first. Another plus for this captain.

After being released from the quay, with all the tourists on the benches, tucked safely away in life jackets, the skipper accelerated and the boat took off, growling, at a speed I hadn't expected. This pace seemed more appropriate for a speed boat than for a boat full of tourists. I suddenly realized that earlier that day I had seen logs floating in this river, that the boat didn't have a searchlight and that the lack of light was probably the reason why our skipper was so intensely focused staring out of his window, half standing with one leg on the floor, peering into the darkness. A collision at this speed with a log or wreckage or any other tourist boat - we were not the only boat heading towards the kelip-kelip - would be disastrous. I wondered if, in addition to the life jacket, a helmet should have been provided too.

_ _ _

A comparable tourist boat.

_ _ _

After racing across the water for about ten minutes, the boat slowed down and skimmed close to the jungle on the riverbank, the branches of the various vegetation slapping now and then in our faces, if we didn't duck quickly enough. I didn't quite understand why the slow down, until the soft surprising shouts of the other tourists made it clear we had arrived.

Then I saw them too.

Hidden in the dark vegetation along the riverbank, thousands of blinking white lights, like a forest of Christmas trees: kelip-kelip. Fireflies. Dozens of meters along the bank, up to a height of about two meters.

In this murderous nature, among all that's poisonous, suddenly this beauty. The other side of the coin.

What struck me was the silence. The blinking flies didn't make any sound. No buzzing or chirping. Only that peaceful blinking. On an internal biological dimmer, because it wasn't an abrupt on and off, but a fast zooming in and, after a second or so, a fast zooming out. All on their own dreamy frequency.

Some flies flew into the boat and E. managed to catch one. Under the light of his mobile phone we carefully looked into his blinking hands.
“Just like a rove beetle” I giggled, a bit disappointed, when I saw the somewhat insignificant insect: a small brownish nobody, where I expected at least some sort of peacock under the insects.

Until it turned on its light.

Nothing insignificant about that.

And off again.

The boat started to speed up and we released the firefly. It couldn't keep up with the boat and fluttered out of sight, still blinking.

With the sultry wind and smell of Malaysia in my face, on the way back, the roaring of the outboard motor and the splashing water, raging over that unknown river, after the spectacle of the fireflies, that rare feeling that usually only lasts seconds came over me: a melancholic contentment about the here and now. Not wanting to be anywhere else but in this moment. Not wanting to feel anything else but in this moment. Melancholic, because you know it can't last... everything comes to an end.

Light on...

Light off...