For guys like me, men who soldier through life with their chins glued to their chests, men who have never stopped to smell a single rose once, what is the point of travel? Travel insurance, shots, $15 sandwiches at the airport that usually involve cheddar jack. Feh.
And let me be clear: I do not say “feh” with pride. I don’t even know if such a thing is even possible. I dribble my puny feh into the world shamefully, from the side of my mouth. You know how Whitman had that mighty Yawp? Well my feh’s the opposite of that. Why don’t I “get” travel while so many just can’t seem to get enough of the stuff? I know that to travel is to learn and learning is what being alive is all about. And you shouldn’t question being alive. Who questions being alive?
For men of a certain temperament – high-strung types who feel safest when caged like veal – travel is a distraction from keeping their eye on the prize. And what prize is that? Getting work done. Keeping things on course. Cooking dinner at a reasonable hour so they can eat early enough and be done with the dishes early enough so they can make lunch for work the next day and not have to do it in the morning so they can catch a bus early enough to get to work early enough so they can get home early enough to make dinner at a reasonable hour.In a phrase, men who are competing in the 1000-yard dash to the grave and are not looking for hurdles.
Again: not proud of this at all. But now in my early 40s, having blown so much time, money and effort on trips that have left me broke and unenlightened, I think I might be ready to just stay home and drink in front of the TV.
And so I ask: fellow home-slices hovering by the living room electrical outlet, making sure to keep your iPhones super-juiced just in case – is there any point?
You see, I hardly ever notice things and, when I do, I forget them almost immediately. What have I retained of my trip to Jordan in 1994? I remember losing my camera lens cap. I remember finding a dirty diaper in the hotel room bathtub. And I remember a cab driver who was a little taciturn. There was Petra, but that was sort of overshadowed by the aforementioned lens cap incident.
As a species, we’ve grown past nomadism. We are safe from danger within our homes. We know where and what we are going to eat for dinner and how it will affect our digestion. We have friends with whom we can communicate through a shared language. Why step backwards on the Darwinian chain? Why flush all that evolution down the toilet? Why deviate from the routine because routine, as we now know, is the pinnacle of human accomplishment? Routine unburdens us of the albatross of choice, and travel is the opposite of routine. You see, with choice, there are wrong choices – thousands of them, everywhere, all possible at any given time. Juicy, ripe and ready to be plucked. Wrong countries. Wrong hotels. Wrong travel guides.
What’s that you say? Travel helps us get out of our comfort zone? I like my comfort zone. It’s comfortable and it smells like me. Travel reawakens us to the beauty of life? That’s what pills and poetry are for. Travel gives us a rush? That’s for adrenaline junky feral cats sun bathing on the railroad tracks.
And so my final question: taking into account all of this, why am I setting off to Bali? Because I don’t give up is why. Because Dina and Buzz Goldstein didn’t raise a quitter. They raised the kind of kid who, even after almost being hospitalized – mental hospitalized – because he’d managed to convince himself he’d forgotten how to breathe while smoking pot for the first time, kept right on smoking pot – for years. They raised a self-doubting lad who always felt like maybe he was wrong, that pot was right, and he had to get in step.
So this is my referendum on travel, one last try, a question shouted to the universe: should I just give up?
Sure, I’ll still make trips for work. Or for weddings, bar mitzvahs and other necessities – but travel for the sake of travel? To “see the world,” “broaden my horizons” and other such garbage that I just don’t get – Bali might very well be the end of all that.
My ambivalence about travel probably began in childhood with our family’s summer road trips. They just weren’t fun. Except for the time my father had to pull into a Frontier Town parking lot to urinate and possibly weep in a locked toilet stall, we never stopped any place good. We just drove along, wanting to make good time, our colons clenched as we force-fed ourselves boiled eggs and scorching cans of no-name soda.
At 8, there was the trip to Maine, significant for being the first time I ever consciously realized I would one day die. It was while standing at the cashier’s mint dish in a seafood restaurant and seeing the lobsters piled in the tank awaiting their death when this magnificent, horrible leap occurred: we were all awaiting our death. And no matter how big our tank, at the end of the day it was still a tank. If only we’d stayed home, I remember thinking, this might never have occurred to me.
At 9, there was a trip to Toronto where my uncle took me to the zoo. He bought me cotton candy and stood me on top of the fence caging in the lambs and it was there that I cried out, “This is the best day of my life.” No sooner than I’d said it, I was fretting over my phoney line reading. What 9-year-old frets over a line reading? I did – because I was lying. I found the look and texture of cotton candy unwholesome (like a circus clown’s pubis) and the smell of animals when uncooked, unpardonable. I just thought it was the kind of thing that kids said, that adults needed to hear.
And at 10, our family made the biggest trip of my childhood: Disneyland. It was the year Space Mountain opened and we stayed at an old friend of my mother’s in Anaheim. Both families were going to ride it, but when we got there and my father saw the line, our family went instead to a film about “cultures of the world” at a “pavilion.” Afterwards, when we all met up again, the Californian family seemed changed forever, re-invigorated and bonded, whereas our family, aside from learning how to say hello in Hindi, was the same as ever.
Traveling was weird because of the little things. For instance, at home my mother never took meals with us, always hovering in the background washing dishes and boiling yams, leaping this way and that on a continual runner’s high. But when we were away, she took her meals seated – with us. Making conversation as well as eye contact. The whole thing felt off.
For my father, there was always something that ruined each trip. A broken room thermostat. A sarcastic concierge. And the price of everything! Each purchase was an agony and an insult, and so to compensate – to fight back! – we would keep a quart of milk on the air conditioner overnight so we needn’t be robbed at the local diner in the morning. No, we would eat cereal, our fanny packs and money belts cinched so tight we could hardly breathe. We’d spoon our corn flakes seated on the edge of the unmade bed, all in a row, my father repeating all the while, “I’m not so sure about this milk.”
And could we be sure of anything? That the effort was worth it? That we wouldn’t have all been better off, been happier, at home, in our own rooms, left to our own company?
Now an adult, I’ve made my parents worries my own. Swallowed in youth, these seeds of anxiety have sprouted into anxiety apples. And so it is at this point that the one thing ruining every trip is not my parents or lobsters. It is my constant travel companion: me. And tomorrow, the two of us will be boarding a plane bound for Bali, to try, once and for all, to do it up right.
It’s the first time I’ve ever traveled business class and getting on ahead of economy feels strange. I am now one of those guys I’ve always hated. Seated at the front of the plane as the second-classers trudge by, grunting and depleted, I’m tempted to call out, “I was once like you.” But instead, I sip my sparkling wine and fiddle with my screen remote. A remote. Because God forbid you should have to reach the extra 10 inches to touch the actual screen like a peasant.
One in a long list of reasons I don’t travel well is turbulence. Each tiny bump feels like I’m being pinched awake to the fact I’ll one day die. If not on this flight, some day. The whole voyage, in fact, becomes a meditation on death. And not just theoretical death but painful, visceral, smashed-against-a-mountain-
The beauty of business class, though, is the way they ply you with drinks, and drinks make me brave. And philosophical.
“We all must die one day,” I think, as though I am a South American colonel.
I watch TV sitcoms while drunkenly coming up with travel tips. Among them: a good way to fight back against travel paranoia is to get the jump. On your first day in a new city, pick someone’s pocket. Statistically speaking, what are the chances of robbing someone and then getting robbed? Practically nil, I’d say.
Sparking wine, scotch, two glasses of red wine and port after dinner. I pass out and am actually able to sleep on a plane like I never have before. And when we land, I’m still pleasantly buzzed. Despite my prior worries, getting my visa is a breeze. Not only that, but the airport smells of incense.
Outside I catch a cab. The streets are narrow and twist and turn. I do not see one traffic light. There are a million things going on and much to honk at. My first thought is that the Balinese are a very honky people.
“You like girls?” the cab driver asks while leaning on his horn for no obvious reason. “I’ll get you.”
“No thanks,” I say.
“Don’t you like girls?”
On the way to the hotel, we pass Circle Ks, Alfa Marts, Mini Marts and Maxi Marts. Everything is so topsy-turvy that, sometimes, the Minis are larger than the Maxies. This was also the case with my grandparents’ friends, Minnie and Maxie Greenberg. Bali clearly plays by its own rules. I only hope I can learn them.
Getting A Look Around
Perhaps it is some fluke of Balinese grammar. Perhaps the words for “lonely” and “alone” are the same. But the hotel staff keeps asking me, “traveling lonely?” and I say, “Yes.”
“No friends?” they continue, just to make sure.
“No,” I say, feeling my nose being rubbed in it. “No friends.”
In my short time here, I’ve already learned that the Balinese are really sweet. Despite the surge in tourism – often a loud, drinky, druggy kind of tourism – they’ve retained their basic niceness. But if this wasn’t the case, why, I’d think they were sticking it to me.
“Oh no,” they say, making a frowny face. “You are traveling lonely, Mr. Jonathan.”
That’s another thing. They call me “Mr. Jonathan.” Respectfully, like I own a schmata factory. Like I’m Mr. T’s brother.
I walk out of the hotel and onto the street. The sun is bright, the air warm, and I am filled with nausea. Not the hangover kind but the French Existential kind. As always, on my first day of travel, I can’t help thinking of the city I come from, Montreal, empty of me and it makes me feel dead there. Because in the streets and buildings of Montreal, I no longer exist.
On the sidewalks are freshly laid out offerings. They are called Canang Sari and everyone seems to make them. While most of Indonesia is Muslim, Bali is predominantly Hindu, and offerings are made three times a day. The ones I see are made up of little baskets filled with rice, crackers, flowers and even cigarettes. It is later explained to me that these offerings are made in thanks, in celebration, of life’s abundance – as opposed to being made in fear like, say, Jessica Lang being turned over to an adenoidal ape in “King Kong.” Later in the day, I will see these offerings run through with tire tracks and flattened by people’s feet. And in the days to come, I will even see these sacrificial flowers clogging bar room bathroom sinks. (Another neat thing about Bali are the bathroom surprises. I’ve already seen multi-colored urinal stones and above them, at eye level, aquariums.) But right now, the sacrifices are bright like children’s book drawings.
Up in the sky, over the beach, kites swirl. At first, because of the way they swoop, I think them some kind of colorful breed of daytime bat and I retract my head into my shoulders. Down below, I watch a 15-year-old Australian boy haggle with a woman his grandmother’s age over the cost of the bracelets she’s selling. She is seated down by his feet with her big see-through bag filled with colorful thread. The boy sits in a beach chair and dangles a bracelet in front of her and she snatches at it. The boy pulls it back and flashes her the smile that probably gets him out of trouble with his mom. It seems like he is taking a sadistic delight in keeping the bracelet just out of her reach while she lunges at it. He tells her it’s not worth more than 10 cents, but he will give her 50 and she should take it. You feel like you’re watching some age-old colonial drama playing out. Was Gauguin such little asshole, too?
I lay my towel out and indulge in some irrational thoughts while putting on sunscreen. Who am I to think the sun will bother tanning me let alone burn me? A man like Captain Ahab would have punched the sun in the face if it insulted him with burns, but I on the other hand squeeze lotion from the tube – the flatulent sound draws attention and makes me feel like Mr. Bean on holiday.
The desperate, reaching finger streaks of whiteness on my back will bear testament to the world of my loneliness, the shame of sitting on the beach – in this world – all by myself. As I never have occasion to take my shirt off in room light, this loneliness will only become apparent if I am in a medical emergency that necessitates my being stripped. And laid out on my stomach. I’m imagining some kind of rectal accident involving a rodent or rake.
“Call his emergency number,” the nurse will say, “but get ready for an out of service message. The poor, friendless bastard probably just made the number up.”
Because they’re so cheap and good, I find myself wandering from massage to massage. I walk out of one and right into the next, like I’m trick-or-treating. In the Balinese style of massage, the masseuse gets up on the small of your back and rides you like a horse – a nice horse that has worked hard in the field all day and has earned his massage. And where as in Canada, I am viewed as pasty, here my whiteness is celebrated.
“My, how white you are, Mr. Jonathan,” they say after I’ve returned from an entire day sweating like a rotisserie chicken in the sun. And they are right. But rather than seeing me as some old white whale of a man in a Coen Brothers film, they see me as a delicate white flower – mid-’70s David Bowie.
I’m halfway through probably the worst massage I’ve ever gotten by one of the prettiest women I’ve ever been undressed in front of, a woman named Sara, when she stops all together and starts telling me her romantic troubles, the story of a British man who broke her heart. She’s been waiting for him to come back to Bali for going on two years. He sends her gifts in the mail, like the necklace she’s wearing.
“I don’t care about money,” she says. “I care about love.”
She went to the doctor and he told her there was too much in her head.
“I was stupid,” she said.
She tells me about all the weight she lost out of lovesickness, how worried her mother was. She is 23 years old and, if I’m to believe it, today is her birthday.
If she is scamming me, setting out some kind of love trap, then it’s the long scam, the relationship scam. And it can hardly even be called a scam since it’s being executed so little kid-like. She’s telling me she believes in love, of all things, and she tells me this while looking into my eyes.
Lying there prone, hands behind my head, listening to her, I can’t help thinking that, if I had the guts, right now, this moment, could be the one where my whole life changes. It is indeed possible for me to extend my trip and court Sara. It is indeed possible that I could propose to her and, if I got really lucky, marry her and then bring her back with me to Canada. It is indeed possible to then have a pretty wife to call me Mr. Jonathan and compliment me on the wonderful whiteness of my skin. I mean, it couldn’t turn out any worse than some of my previous relationships – relationships where we had “things in common” and “spoke the same language.” Possibility fills the room like sunlight. But then my time to dream is up. Sara has another customer to handle like pizza dough while sharing her heartache.
I will give travel this: it gives us an excuse. It allows us to get away with things we never could back home. In Bali I can have beer with my breakfast. I can take three baths during the day. I can spend a great deal of mid afternoon time staring at a tree and thinking about trees without the risk of running into an old friend from high school or an ex-girlfriend’s father who always suspected I was a flake. Travel is permission to be absurd, to play, to make believe, to see that all things are make-believe. With its technicolored currency, Balinese rupees seem like the money in a 1960s LSD-inspired board game. It seems like the kind of money Ringo would use to buy magic seeds in “The Yellow Submarine.” By which I mean to say that we are reminded in travel that even the things we take most seriously, that we see as irrefutable metaphysical bottom lines, are relative. When we travel, we look at ourselves differently in the mirror. We talk to ourselves differently in the shower. We dream differently. What does it mean to dream upside down, on the other side of the Earth?
It is with these thoughts in mind that I decide to explore Bali’s nightlife. I should here say that I am not the type. My “going out” shirt makes me feel like I’m wearing a sandwich board that reads “What’s the use?” and bassy dance music makes me feel like I’m locked in a Polo cologne saturated car trunk. But partying is serious business in Bali. And partying means getting F’d up. Magic mushrooms are legal and bars have banners hanging outside that say things like, “All you can drink 100 k” which is about ten US dollars. And there’s “sexy partying,” too. In a horrible place called “Double D” there’s a huge poster on the wall with a quote from Michael Jordan, “Playing every games [sic] like it’s your last.” And just below it, a man approaches trying to sell me Viagra. He calls me brother as the song “Ice, Ice Baby” blares from ceiling speakers.
The streets of Bali seem to throb with bass. It’s the kind of thing that normally sends a “Retreat! Retreat!” message to my brain. When I think about all the things that bassy dance music has kept me from – the women I might have met, the pants I could have bought in stores I was too terrified to enter – it just seems unfair. Not tonight, though. I won’t let it.
I sit down at a place called The Espresso Bar and watch a Balinese man phonetically sing the deep tracks from Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.” It is across the street from a place called Bounty, a foam bar disco with a sign above the door that reads, “Snow on the Bar Party.” Since I’m all in, I cut out and head to my first foam party, but when I get there it isn’t like I imagined. The floor mostly looks like an apartment laundry room when one of the machines has overflowed. There are suds, but you’d probably have to roll around on the floor like a rutting pig to get the full effect.
I watch a guy seated at a table who could pass for an old boiler repairman in a Mike Leigh film. He is seated with a woman who looks like a Polynesian weather girl. What is the story here? The man is actually picking his nose right now. Like he’s back home watching TV.
After spending most of the night pretty much hiding behind a cigarette machine, I realize that in Bali or back home, I’m just not much of a nightlife kind of guy. I decide that tomorrow I want to see the other side of Bali – the spiritual side. Tomorrow I want to see temples. Tomorrow is a new day and the great thing about a new day is that it actually is a new day.
Is it possible to avoid the snare of Bali’s cheap drink, massages, great food and beaches to hit the countryside and visit temples? It seems like it’d take some will power. But as indicated in earlier installments, I come from educational film stock. Not amusement park ride stock so, not to brag or anything, but I think I can handle it.
I approach one of the stands on the street that advertises tour guides. For not very much money at all, I’m told I can rent a car with a driver who would take me around all day, from morning until night, showing me rice fields, volcanoes, farms, villages and temples. I ask if I can get a driver who speaks English and they assure me I can. But then the next day, they send me Madai.
Madai can only speak about a dozen words of English but with them, he does a great job of expressing regret for being 15 minutes tardy. He’s in his early 20s and has a very sympathetic face that he’s able to make even more sympathetic by crinkling his brow in a universal show of “what can you do?”
I get into the back of his minivan, feeling like a visiting dignitary. About a half hour into the trip, Madai speaks for the first time. He stops the car and points at a billboard. He mimes snapping a photograph and then points at me.
It appears to be an advertisement for a restaurant. Not wanting to hurt his feelings, I take a picture of it.
During our road trip, many of our conversations go like this: after seeing men on the street wearing festive looking paper party hats, I ask Madai why this is.
“For wood,” he says.
“Wood?” I ask. “To carry wood on their heads?” I tap the top of my head.
“No! Not wood. God.”
Our route is made up of one-lane highways, and Madai likes to pass as often as is possible. And this is something he seems to almost exclusively do on turns – sharp ones – while going uphill.
Along the road it looks like this: rice field. McDonald’s billboard. Junkyard. Rooster. Hovel. Luxury hotel. Beautiful natural vista. Children playing in the dirt. A temple. Graffiti for rock bands like Rancid.
There are also many signs advertising products that use the language of “the soul.” Even a dish detergent might employ “Journey of the soul” in its ad copy. (The night before, I came across a drink made of vodka, cranberry, pineapple and lychee syrup called “the soulgasm.”)
DH Lawrence said of Americans that they do the most impossible things without taking off their spiritual get-up. But I would argue that that isn’t just an American thing, but is the essence of being human. Right now, Madai is driving along, tattooed, smoking, toggling between radio stations that play Hindu chants and dance music. The spiritual lives alongside the workaday in an easy way that I can’t seem to grasp.
Madai pulls into a coffee plantation and introduces me to the manager. She makes an attempt at explaining to me kopi luwak, which I’ve never heard of before. Later I will look it up online and learn that it is the caviar of coffee and can go for $35 to $80 a cup; but just now, as she explains it to me, I can only think something is being horribly lost in the translation.
“The cat,” she says, “he eat coffee then he poo and it is very superior coffee.”
“What do you mean ‘the cat poo?’” I ask.
She points to her ass. She smiles. She is cute smiling and pointing to her ass.
I know I’m missing something – that she can’t actually be pointing to her ass. Maybe her hip? It’s a “hip” coffee? “Poo” is Balinese for “top rate”?
But we keep going back and forth, the pantomime becoming more and more explicit, until the conclusion is inevitable.
“You mean the cat shits out a coffee?” I ask.
We laugh and laugh as she nods her head, yes.
“Wow,” I say. “There’s no way I’m going to drink a cup of cat shit!”
“It doesn’t smell like poop,” she says sternly. It seems I’ve gone too far, stepped over a line. Still, each time she says the word poo, she points to her ass. We both do.
She takes me out back to a cage in the forest where inside I see a civet – a jungle cat – sleeping, surrounded by what appears to be berries.
I don’t want to insult her, the cat, or their livelihood and so botulism be damned! What is spirituality anyway if not a willingness to see past the material to the realm of ideas? And so I say yes to a cup of coffee that CNN once referred to as “crappacino.” And it doesn’t taste bad at all.
Monkeys, A Cat, A Lotus Flower
Madai and I study the tourist map and decide our next stop will be a place marked as “The Monkey Temple.” It is in Ubud, in the midst of a forest overrun with monkeys.
As we make our way, I find myself growing giddy, like a kid. One thinks one has hung out with monkeys because one has seen so much of them on TV and in movies. Wearing diapers. Dropping flowerpots on people’s heads. Sitting in the passenger seats of mac trucks and pulling on that steam whistle. But to actually be in their presence is both mesmerizing and nightmarish. They flit around like human-faced squirrels and, seeing them for the first time in person, they strike me as being as improbable a creation as a unicorn, perhaps even more improbable because, when you think about it – one horn instead of two? It almost makes more sense. But beings who look like us but have tails that they can use to swing from trees? To see it feels like a lucid dream.
No matter our language, English, French, Balinese, we can all appreciate monkeys. Clowns of the forest! Unless of course they’re biting into your nose like the dough ball on a pizza pie. And this is a possibility I cannot help feeling acutely in my groin. In fact, each time I take some video, I feel the possibility of slipping into Youtube memehood. Holding out a chunk of banana one minute, having a monkey scrape away at my face like a Lucky 7 scratch card, the next.
When I go back to the car, I find Madai sitting with some other drivers, feeding monkeys and laughing. Except for the feces-pitching and constant threat of unexpected violence, how much better would it be to always have monkeys around? Especially if like Madai, you do not fear them.
Our next stop is a temple in Batuan. It is beautiful and awing, filled with statues and artifacts, but because I’m sort of a behind the scenes kind of guy who as a kid was always looking for the wires and mirrors at the magic show, I walk outside the temple’s courtyard to take look at the alleys that lay beyond it. I’m curious about what might go on in the alley of a temple, what the nearby houses look like, and as I stand there, my hands held behind my back (a relatively new move of mine that I developed to seem/try to be more at ease in the world), I see, from the corner of my eye, a flower flutter down from the sky. But when I look up, I don’t see any trees.
The flower has landed on the other side of a narrow drainage gutter and when I begin to walk over to it, to pick it up and smell it – for that’s what it seems a man with a flaneur’s gate who walks with hands clasped behind his back such as myself should do – I see that it is a pink lotus. As I stoop to pick it up, something big and black scurries through the gutter and quickly, I withdraw my hand and leap up. As I do, I feel a familiar sensation in my stomach. Fear. My fear. I look down the length of the gutter and I see it turn to look at me. An alley cat. A tabby.
I can’t quite explain it – and believe me, I’ve thought about this a lot since – but I am suddenly seized with the feeling of “this is who I am.” To describe this feeling, this revelation, might be as foolish as trying to describe the ineffable atmosphere of a dream but, fool that I am, here goes.
Just then, I felt my fear as a fact. Like having brown eyes or a slight build. Attached to the fear was not the Siamese twin of shame for feeling it – which for me, steers the fear into explication and a defensive posturing and thus, shtick. There was only a naked, pure recognition of it, a recognition of it as being mine.
But then, there was also the reaching out for the flower, the attempt to seize life’s beauty. These two impulses, tendencies, are the halves that form my whole. Fear and aspiration. Fear and the pursuit of something else. Pleasure, perhaps. It is not a very profound insight, but it is direct and clear, as though I am standing outside myself, like I am reading it in a textbook or standing on the roof of a house and seeing it from above. And balancing between these two states is how I live, every second of the day. I guess I’ve always sort of known it, but at this moment I’m feeling it. Feeling that the fear isn’t external from me, something to be removed like soul smegma, but it is me. I was not waiting to see who I was once the tug of war was won, but that the tug of war was me.
There is the person you tell yourself you are, through the stories you tell yourself and others, but then there is also the person you discover, or that you feel as a feeling of your you-ness, that sneaks up on you.
Here it was with a perfect haiku-like economy: the cat and the lotus leaf.
How strong it was, how fortunate I was to be alive to it, to see the significance of everything that was happening, everything that was spiraling off that initial moment made me weep. Fear felt significant. Spending money and meeting new people felt significant. Life felt significant. Everything about the day, about the trip, about life, all of it leading up to this moment and then past it, felt significant. It was in fact good that I was alone, because this moment might not have happened otherwise, and certainly could not have happened had I been safe at home. Suddenly the whole trip felt worthwhile. Of course it was worth traveling. The question was as basic as whether life was worth living. Of course. Of course.
An old woman suddenly appears and unlatches these gargantuan doors that open up onto the courtyard. The doors look like they’d been closed for centuries, and I walk through them and into the temple.
Back at the car, I put my hand on Madai’s shoulder. This was to show him I liked him. Even though we didn’t speak the same language, at least there was that, and that seems like the point of language anyway, to let each other know that we are enjoying each other. And then there is that other point, too.
“The toilet?” I ask, and Madai points over to a door, just behind me, upon which is written in English, “toilet.”
As I wander Bali for the next few days, I can’t stop thinking about the pink lotus incident, how bending down to pick up that flower inaugurated a flood of emotional introspection. On my last day here, I stop into a restaurant and have an iced coffee and, as I’ve been doing a lot of lately, pull out my notebook within which I’ve been trying to figure it out. This is some of what I’ve jotted down so far:
Even one’s own fear, when looked at with compassion, can be something to embrace, like a crying child.
Borghes describes a dream of Dante’s where he awakens feeling as though he’s both discovered and lost something infinite. I feel a bit like that, too.
What is my true fear? To be exposed as a fraud? To lose all self control? The respect of others? To reveal something shameful to others that I don’t know I’m exposing.
It was like the galaxy had aligned itself, through an act of cosmic timing, to have the cat and the flower come together. And I had to travel a far ways to reach it. It was a matter of shedding layers of the regular life that over time desensitizes you to the world around you.
And now what? Now that I have had this moment of clarity, what to do with it? When Moses was handed the word of God, he took it to the people while Jonah ran from it. And look what happened to Jonah. You can hear the world of God – have the truth downloaded into your brain – but then what? Certainly this is a beginning, but what now?
It was while pouring over the moment at the temple, poking and prodding it and of course also worrying that I was fetishizing it, that Rince walks in. He looks like a skinnier, laid-back Shia LeBoeuf. He has the at-ease-ness of someone who feels OK in the world, in his own skin. He is 25 years old and though well-traveled, he is without that neediness, that slightly smarmy charm of the traveler who’s been traveling too long, by himself and compelled to constantly be interrupting conversations, on the make for new companions to stave off loneliness.
My assumption is that he’s been here forever, but when we get to talking, through my initiative and not his, I learn that he’s been here only three days and it’s his first time in this part of the world. He’s come here to learn to surf. Maybe this deep cool is a surfer thing, or a people-driven-to-learn-to-surf thing.
Rince explains how he’s just flown from Hochi Minh City after a month-long motor bike journey from Hanoi.
“When you travel for a month, then you don’t have to worry,” he says. “If tomorrow you don’t do anything, if you want to lie in bed all day, that’s OK.”
When I ask him if he was ever afraid while making his trip, he says that the Vietnamese are the kindest people he’d ever met. And in some rural parts he travelled through, they’d never even seen a white person.
“The world is a playground,” he says.
Is this the wisdom of being 25, or will Rince always see life in this way?
When I was 19, fuelled on books like “On the Road” and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” all that desire for play, experience – everything at once – exploded in me in the form of a Greyhound bus trip across North America, from Montreal to LA with my friend Avi. It took us a month to get there and a month to get back. It was my world-is-a-playground moment and I was not afraid. Not really. Whether I was sleeping in a field in New Mexico or hitchhiking on the back of a pickup truck in the rain, there was a romance there, a story I was looking forward to telling that diluted the fear. I was in tune with the uniqueness of every place I went to, the uniqueness of each moment. The smell of a hotel lobby in Cheyenne reminded me of a soap I’d smelled in childhood. Everything felt special. Every new thought was immediately catalogued in a notebook. What happened to me? As an adult I stopped seeing the world as a playground. I came to see life as days you try your best to get through with as little pain to yourself and others as possible.
I remember how in “On the Road,” Sal Paradise and his friends spoke of those squares who worry the whole trip about where they’re going to eat, where they’re going to sleep while they, the original hipsters, just knew they’d be OK, that those things always just take care of themselves. That that was inevitable. When I read the book at 18 I felt I knew this and never thought I could forget it, that I could never be one of those squares. Now of course, I see Sal and his buddies as a bunch of mooches, the kinds of guys who didn’t have to worry because they probably had a friend like me somewhere, built for responsibility and worry, with a couch to crash on and a fridge full of groceries.
I am reminded of DH Lawrence’s description of Starbuck from “Moby Dick”: “dependable, reliable – in other words, afraid.” What a brilliantly nonjudgmental way of putting it. Being dependable isn’t all bad, but it can be a drag.
Meeting Rince makes me feel like maybe I shouldn’t be so worried and afraid all the time. And even as I think this, I can’t let go of my undying, hardwired and ingrained belief in the ironic workings of the universe within which I live, a place where even considering such a thing will have irritated the evil eye, ensuring I will now be mugged and left for dead in an alley.
When Rince and I part, I walk to the beach, and along the way, something that looks like a large cockroach scurries across my path. Again I feel the familiar sensation of my stomach tightening and I embrace it – a Buddhist bell calling me back to my true self. I struggle to see the truth, the beauty, the me-ness in mistaking a date pit, blowing in the wind, for a bug.
[Illustrations: Dmitry Samarov. Road Photo: Flickr user CraigCloutier. Sunset Photo: Flickr user ^Riza^. Massage Photo: Flickr user HeyItsWilliam. Night Photo: Flickr user Carl Ottersen, Coffee Cup: Flickr user tiltti]]