Listen To ‘In Bali With Baggage’ On CBC’s ‘WireTap’

Jon Goldstein was able to publish our excellent series “In Bali With Baggage” over on “WireTap” this past weekend, marking the first time that a Gadling story has ever been broadcast on the North American radio waves.

You can check out the landing page for the show over on the CBC or subscribe to the weekly podcast here.

Our thanks to Mr. Golstein and the producers of “WireTap” for sharing the good word.

In Bali With Baggage: Rince

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

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.

[Illustration: Dmitry Samarov]

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]

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]