Notes from a Tiny Island

I was doing some digging and found some great old stuff from my year in Indonesia, 2008-09. Enjoy.

You Just Wish You Were Balinese

It’s not that I hate white people.  Some of my best friends are white people.  Regular readers know that from time to time, I indulge in white people things like parasailing and say white people things like “gosh.”  Overall, I don’t approve of many things white people choose to do here in Bali — say, women who sport lime green Crocs, or men who not-ironically wear sarongs), but I tolerate it, so long as they do it in the privacy of their hotel rooms and domiciles.

However, after this weekend in the sleepy mountain tourism center of Kintmani, my policy of lenience turned to one of narrow-minded fanaticism that will require weeks of workshops on political correctness to repair.  You see, this weekend Kintimani was the venue for the Aware-Dance Festival.  I should have smelled trouble all over this thing when the esoteric drivel on the website forecasted things like “spiritual awakening” and “connection with the Earth Mother” and some stupid crap about Mayan calendar prophecies.  Don’t get me started on Mayan calendar prophecies.  I should have detected the subtle notes of cynicism in Watu’s voice when she delicately asked, “You’re still wanting to go to that thing?”  There I go, not listening to my woman again.  But I was sold a convincing bag of goods by a guy I’ll call “DJ DJ.”

DJ DJ is one of those guys everyone in a scene knows.  In this case, I refer to the Bali ex-pat scene.  He’s at all the local events, typically promoting another local event.  In many ways, he’s a great guy to know.  For example, he introduced me to the Philly cheese steak sandwich at Devilicious, which is a far cry better than the hopeless imitations found at most American eateries outside of Philadelphia. But often, DJ DJ can be the “Wikipedia of Bali,” meaning that you can never be completely sure if his information is right on or way off. 

On this occasion, he told me all about the upcoming Aware-Dance festival.  His diatribe went something like this:

“Dude, this thing is gonna be off the hook.  I mean, we’ve got DJ’s from all over the globe coming to spin.  I’ve been helping the crew get this gig set up.  We’ve got campgrounds, we’ve got security, we’ve got plenty of beer or water depending on how you want to party… yeah man.  Tight.  Oh, and it’s on a volcano, so you know that will be sweet!  Have you ever seen the sunrise from Mt. Batur?  No?  Then dude, you should definitely go!”

A rave on an active volcano?  How could I refuse?

Watu secured a rented jeep and we set off immediately after school, camping gear packed in the back.  As a compromise, we reserved a hotel for the first night and would camp the second night.  We followed the route taken by Sayulita and me last December, this time without running out of gas.  As soon as we arrived at the Surya Hotel, a heavy weight of doubt began to sink in. Generally, if you pay more than 100K rupiah for a room (that’s about $10) you can expect to get, at minimum, a decent room with a nice view and perhaps even air-con and television.  Remember the “Happiness Hotel” in The Great Muppet Caper?  This place was worse, and the Muppets there were not nearly as friendly.  Rather, the people were downright horrible.  

We walked up to our door and noticed our neighbors sitting outside, about to enjoy a bottle of imported spirits, no doubt purchased from the duty-free shop at the airport hours before.  I gave a friendly hello, which is generally met with an equally amicable hello back.  Without a word, they muttered something in French and filed into their room.  Okay, so maybe they didn’t want to share.  Or maybe it’s just because they’re French.  I don’t know.

As soon as we plopped down on the bed, we heard the throb of repetitive trance dance music.  I thought it was the French.  After an hour of this, we came to learn it was the Italians… three doors down! The walls in this place were paper thin and the ceiling sagged as though it would collapse with the next season’s rains.  Not only was there no hot water (as they’d promised in the reservation), there was no running water.  The room had all the ambiance of a crime scene.  We caught a quick nap, but didn’t linger much longer.  Time to get out of this dingy place and hit the volcano.

If your clothing sports a swastika, and you are Balinese, it probably means you are Hindu.  If foreigners take offense, it is because they do not understand the history of this symbol in Eastern culture.  If you are white and your shirt sports a swastika, you may think it makes you Hindu, but you look like a neo-Nazi.  I don’t care if you know the true deep meaning of this symbol in Eastern culture.  You know very well that in Western culture it represents Nazi Germany so if you are wearing it on your hoodie it doesn’t make you cultured.  It makes you an asshole.

This is just one of several casual observations made at the festival.

I made several more and recorded them in a letter to the organizers, reproduced here.

A few words of advice for future events:

1. Bali is not Amsterdam.  Bali is not Stockholm.  Bali is not Chicago.  Therefore, unless your event is held in a place with a rail station or other mass transit stop (of which Bali has none), assume that guests will DRIVE. Knowing this, provide advice on how to navigate up the last 2km of off-road action in their rented Yaris (or other vehicle lacking mud tires and 4-WD capabilities) without losing an oil pan. Successful festivals often provide a shuttle of some kind, which makes more sense than an army of local guys on motorbikes offering to bump people up a rutty stretch strapped with camping gear. 

2. Ensure that spaces have been cleared for parking said vehicle. Know that large volcanic boulders and walls of lemongrass thistle can make parking prohibitive, even with modified suspensions and Bigfoot wheels. Especially in the dark. 

3. Ask that the volunteers manning the welcome station are WELCOMING. Smiles help.

4. Attention all staff, volunteers, and guests: When somebody says hello to you, they are trying to be friendly. You can say hello back. It is something that humans do.

5. Back to those festival officials: If a patron is going home early because they are sober and bored and tired of watching that French couple scream at each other because they’re having a hard time handling the local mushroom tea, and they ask for your help when their non-4-WD vehicle is spinning tires in the volcanic sand, a good response is empathy or aid. Not walking away, saying “good luck with that.”

6. More on point #5… we did get our car unstuck, but no thanks to you. A team of local Balinese guys eagerly volunteered to help us out. Because that is what you do when a fellow human being needs help.

7. Mandalas for your promotional materials?  SO 2003. 

8. Just because you browsed a website about numerology or watched both Stargate movies, that does not make you an honorary Mayan.  Unless you hold a Masters or Doctorate in Central American Studies, you probably don’t know squat about the sacred calendar.  So stop trying to make it into a theme party.

9. You named the festival Aware-Dance.  First off, sappy name.  If your intention is hipster irony, you failed.  If your intention is to “raise spiritual awareness” or some other form of feel-good nonsense, please read on to my next point. 

10. Maybe you believe that heightened awareness comes through meditation, yoga, hallucinogenics, or some kind of crystal fairy magic.  I’m no authority on the subject, as I have enough trouble staying aware of the empirical world all around us.  That is, observable phenomenon such as suicidal dogs running across my path on the roads or bugs that sneak into my coffee.  You should try it.  If you spent less time fretting about your sixth sense and focused on the other five, you might realize that your festival is poorly planned and no amount of esotericism will fix that until you address the realities listed here.

I sent DJ DJ a text at some point that night.  “Where are you?  This event blows.  What the hell?”  His response, “Yeah I bet it sucks. Man, glad I’m not there.”  Last time I use Wikipedia as a reference. 

We returned to Earth from the ill-fated 20 hours in the clouds pretty much unscathed but desirous of fun found closer to home.  Lucky for us, the Mepantigan performance was on for this fully moon lit night. For the uninitiated, Mepantigan is not a Transformer.  However, it would probably be a fair match against any robot in disguise, be they Autobot or Decepticon.  It is a martial arts style combining several forms from throughout the world.  Mepantigan founder Pak Putu Witson (his family name means “Victory”), an active member of the Green School family, explains it this way:

“When I was young, I decided I was getting tired of getting beat up, so I got good at fighting instead.  I really liked it.”

Pak Putu did not stop at the art of fighting, however.  Like any one of us who’s ever attended a martial arts performance in a dojo or mall or what-have-you, he realized one component was missing – the art of performance.

Sadly, Karate Kid is probably the most exciting tournament any of us will ever see.  For the spectators, watching a tournament is exciting for all of what?  Ten minutes?  How many parents walk out of the stadium after they see Little Johnny earn his blue belt?  Many, because the real thing is not like Karate Kid.

Considering this, Pak Putu created a show for every kind of spectator.

Every full moon, fans gather at the Mepantigan stadium, which encircles an enormous mud pit.  Incorporating martial arts demonstrations with satirical drama, lots of fire, and other surprises, no two shows are ever the same.  The whole production rolls out like a Steven Chow film.  The skits tend to address typically sober Asian perceptions of spirituality, virtue, and philosophy with a high degree of snarkiness (a welcome relief from all those Europeans on Mt. Batur who seemed to believe they were saving the world through their mantric chanting and Sasha remixes).  Dialogue is usually Indonesian, but the role plays are easy enough to follow, even without subtitles.  Bear in mind, all this takes place in a giant pool of thick mud.  Don’t wear your cotton whites if you sit in the front row. 

This particular production was the biggest yet.  Hundreds of spectators showed, Green School’s newly opened warung, normally a canteen during school hours, provided bar services.  After an hour of dancing, dueling, and drama in the mud, the entourage led the audience across the campus to the landmark bamboo river bridge.  Before us was laid out a spectacular sight:  torches had been lit all along the holy Ayung River.  Candles placed in small banana leaf boats floated downstream.  Meanwhile, a crew of young Mepantigan fighters, dressed as demons, fought along the edges of the surrounding river banks. Other fighters blew fire at each other.  In all, this was a far more spectacular show of talent than that lousy Kintimani event. 


What’s in Terry?  Dysentery.

For weeks, something uncomfortable was churning in my abdomen.  When it first hit, I had to take a day off and ride up to the local clinic. The practitioner (not a doctor, methinks) tapped my belly in a few places, determined it to be an imbalance of some kind, and gave me a bottle of probiotics.  The symptoms disappeared in 24 hours.

A few days later, the symptoms returned – mild at first, but eventually building to a frenzy of raucous gastric activity in places where such activities are discouraged.  By the time I schlepped back to the clinic, everything inside me felt incredibly wrong and queued to exit through whatever orifice would allow them passage.  There, I was greeted by the same receptionist and handled by the same practitioner. They tried to prescribe me the same bottle of meds.  I told them I’d already finished the first bottle and it was not fixing the problem. They insisted I had not been prescribed any such thing.  I demanded to see my dossier.  They read the file and realized I was right.  They suggested I just “wait it out.”  I said I would sooner carve out my own viscera with a dull junkie spoon in Hell than wait out this horrible organism living in my abdomen for free rent and no deposit. 

My message may have been lost in the translation.

Thus, my ambitions for a weekend of surf and cold beers mutated into a weekend of medical crisis.  I went to SOS, which is known island-wide as the only reputable clinic, one which hires actual doctors.  There, a doctor requested the sort of sample which is acquired only through awkward positioning of the body.  Sometime later, he sternly grimaced at the lab report with the sort of furrowed brow only licensed to medical professionals.  Then, with a somber tone and Jakartan accent, he reported “amoebic dysentery.”

Oh dear God.  Isn’t that what wiped out the American Indians?

Yes it is, but fortunately Western medicine has replaced those free blankets on the reservation with a wonderful green pill called Flagyll.  By the next day, I was feeling 80% better.  So it made sense to accompany Watu to a soiree hosted by a potential future employer. The party was lovely, and set in an affluent Ulu Watu neighborhood in which the proprietors of Quicksilver and Surfer Girl (to name a few) own their homes.  The host’s residence was modeled in the style of Fantasy Island, with a tennis court by the gate.  I was engaged in conversation with a group of Peruvians about the benefits of retiring in a shack on the beach far from civilization when I looked over at my date.  Despite her Javanese complexion, she was greener than Al Gore at a global sustainability conference.  Rather than wait for her to expel her gastric demons into the courtyard fountain, we made the long, dark drive back to our hotel in the comparably bustling city of Kuta… barely.  Thankfully, hotels in Kuta, unlike certain other places, are without exception clean, cheap, and include running water. 

A good thing, because she was two seconds away from losing it all over the side of the car.  Lovers share many things.  Amoebic dysentery should not be one of them.

Presently, we’re both back in good health (so long as you don’t include the thick mold in the walls of my bungalow which I freebase all evening long).  But the whole episode got me to reflecting on the benefits of living in the modern Babylon of an urban metropolis, as opposed to a Eurotrash raver mountaintop utopia or that dream shack on the beach, miles from anywhere.

The Man Walks Alone

After two weekends of questionable fun factor, we were long overdue for a good weekend.  However, we decided this time to do it on our own terms.  My brother-in-arms, Panic, is due to be married in a matter of weeks.  With his fiancée due to arrive so they may begin their ceremony preparations, an early bachelor party seemed appropriate. 

Chief Hobbo made all the arrangements.  We would do it Bali style,with lots of good eats, cold drinks, and surf, surf, surf.  As per bachelor party tradition, it was guys only.  Watu elected to book a nice five-star for her and a girlfriend to occupy, so as to do “girl things.” 

The party was everything we hoped for.  Nearly every male from the Green School family showed – Quiet Ivan, Pak Putu, Widi Wifi, and a few other notables.  We threw down accordingly.  By night’s end, I was sitting in my favorite island bar, The Streets of Kuta.  From this curbside, one can witness the depravity and fearlessness of swarms of highly intoxicated Australian tourists.  Such glamour!

By the next morning, Panic and the Chief were dead to the world, having done a proper job of bidding farewell to Panic’s career as a freewheeling male.  Quiet Ivan missed his lady and his yurt back at the school and prowled for a ride home.  The Indonesians, in typical Indonesian fashion, had vanished without a trace at some point in the night.  Absent my fully inoperable cohort, I enjoyed a leisurely brunch of poached eggs and hollandaise over potato latke and very nearly completed the Saturday crossword.  The lot of us had made plans to surf Canggu; now it seemed I would be the only one going.

The idea appealed to me.  As all of us seasoned romantics know, when you couple with someone, you trade in a degree of personal liberty for the joys of sharing your life’s passions with a significant other. You can’t just go bowling with the lads anymore, not until coordinating your plans with your loved one.  And your lads will ridicule you for this mercilessly, despite their similar circumstances (or the bitter alternative – spending the majority of nights alone with a lukewarm beer, watching the last season of Lost on DVD).  This weekend was mine, a free bird with a wailing guitar crescendo.  First stop Canggu, last stop DESTINY.

I’ll admit, managing to get lost and drive in a complete circle during the first hour of my adventure made me miss Watu as a travel partner. But on the same note, I was able to fail in private.  I felt like a man, and damn if I wasn’t going to get myself as lost as manhood entitles a man to get.

My lack of direction found me in some unexpected places, which made all the turnarounds well worth the time and petrol.  In one case, I had traveled a lonely, thin, badly pockmarked road for a couple miles, all the while considering the sensibility of my route.  The only thing urging me forward was the scant trace of salt in the air.

“I must be getting closer!” conjectured my nostrils, and if Neighbor Wilson from Home Improvement taught me anything, it is that the male proboscis contains a small deposit of magnetically charged iron which acts as a (sometimes deceptive) compass.

Very suddenly, the horizon opened to the familiar vibrant blue of the Indian Ocean and the road came to an abrupt end, in a state of slow collapse before the sand which was slowly reclaiming its rightful territory.  The beach was completely empty as far as the eye could see, save for a lonely vendor selling cold drinks and renting surfboards.  He told me it was not Canggu Beach (I was off by several miles), but who cares?  The waves looked ideal, so I took a dip to test the waters.  A rip tide immediately pulled me nearly half a kilometer down the beach.  Remembering my desperate fight for life at the Double Six beach last month, I decided not to test the frivolous nature of the surf and declined the board rental.  The water was pleasantly warm as I enjoyed some time in the relative safety of the inland stretch.

Plenty of light left in the day, I remounted my trusty steed and set out once more to find the fabled Canggu.  Checking a few times for directions, my efforts paid off.  Canggu was populated, but only sparsely.  Most of the crowd consisted of surfers.  I watched their motions from the sea wall for awhile before renting a board, monitoring for drowning souls.  It seemed pretty safe, and a lot of fun.

Once in the water, the waves did all the work for me.  I barely needed to paddle at all before the surge took control of my Cadillac-sized McIntosh board and sent me wailing along.  The only detriment of Canggu Beach is the solid slab of rock which dominates the inner shore.  Come in the wrong way and you’re fish meal.  The mix of bliss and fear wore me out quicker than a typical surf session so I called it an early day.

I had noticed signs for Tanah Lot on the way up to Canggu.  I had meant to hit this spot for a long time, as it is considered the holiest of the Hindu temples on Bali, but the opportunity never presented itself until now.  So with my internal GPS navigating me like a drunken sailor, I completed my adventure of man-dom.

The “Lot” in Tanah Lot must refer to the parking, because at no other time in my life, no amphitheater concert, no theme park, no Baptist tent revival, have I experienced such a chaotic mishmash of super-sized tour buses, crowded rented SUV’s, and traffic cops dancing like they were at an Irish funeral.  Thank Ganesha, the Remover of Obstacles, for the motorbike which allowed me to bypass much of that crowded silliness.

Once in, I found the temple to be center ring for a literal parade of local talent.  Every village from around the island had sent its best dancers, percussionists, and performers of the barong, a sort of ballet in which the actors fall into a deep trance and replay scenes from the Ramayana, a holy book of the Hindu faith.  While in this trance, the participants attack the villains from the story.  The villains are dressed in ornate, larger-than-life costumes.  No matter what your take on the supernatural may be, to watch the barong performed by men with their eyes full of spiritual ecstasy and fear is to witness something not of this world.  But don’t worry. I’m not joining any Mayan cults in this lifetime.

The temple itself is not only the holiest on Bali, it is also the most expansive. Just to walk the grounds takes a good hour, not including the time needed for studying the marvelous Balinese architecture, smiling under the hanging floral gardens, photographing the sun as it sets over the long volcanic beach, and receiving the holy water blessing from the temple priests, which is why you see rice stuck to my forehead in the photos.  Add to this the time needed to peruse the souvenir stands with their wide variety of oleh-oleh (I got some sweet prezzies for my cuzzies) and the food vendors with their meats all goreng and bakar (if it’s on a stick, it’s fair game). At the end of the evening, a full belly and tired legs. 

My man-venture was man-errific. If I gave it a grade, it would be straight man-A’s (get it?) and if it were a woman, I’d name it Man-dy.  

Watu reported an equally well-spent woman weekend, as she and our tall friend Ellen took advantage of all their five-star amenities from the meticulously landscaped and primmed beach to the shameless patronage of room service.  They were instant celebrities, two Asian women, one Indonesian and one Chinese, without a single wealthy bule boyfriend in sight.  Once we were both back at my bamboo bungalow, we did what any hot couple does after being separated for more than a day, away from their love nest.  We played computer games all night long.

Hey, we can’t be rock stars all the time.