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]

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]

Photo Of The Day: Boats Off Jimbaran Beach

photo of the day
This Photo of the Day is titled “Boats Off Jimbaran Beach” and comes from Gadling Flickr pool member philbardino. It shows a variety of fishing boats anchored off Jimbaran Beach in Bali, Indonesia.

Jimbaran beach, on the West Coast of Bali, is small, secluded and offers stunning sunrise and sunset views.

For more on Bali, see Jonathan Goldstein’s “In Bali With Baggage” series here on Gadling.

Upload your best shots to the Gadling Group Pool on Flickr. Several times a week we choose our favorite images from the pool as Photos of the Day.

Tips for getting featured: include the camera you used along with any other equipment or processing software that might help other photographers know more about your image.

[Photo Credit: Flickr user philbardino]

In Bali With Baggage: A Night

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

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.

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

[Photo credit: Flickr user Carl Ottersen]

In Bali With Baggage: A Massage

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

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.

[Check back on Monday for part six of Jonathan Goldstein's series "In Bali With Baggage," or follow the daily-updated thread here.]

[Photo credit: Flickr user HeyItsWilliam]