In Bali With Baggage: Monkeys, A Cat, A Lotus Flower

[read earlier parts of “In Bali With Baggage” here]

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.”

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

[Illustration: Dmitry Samarov]