In Bali With Baggage: Madai

[read earlier parts of "In Bali With Baggage" here]

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.

“Wood. Wood.”

“Wood?”

“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.

Check back tomorrow for part eight of Jonathan Goldstein’s series “In Bali With Baggage,” or follow the daily-updated thread here.

[Photo credit: Flickr user tiltti]