BEEN THERE, DONE THAT…… I’ve Been to Bali Too…

| August 13, 2011 | Comments (0)

 COLLECTIE TROPENMUSEUM Aangekleed beeld met offer in de hand en bloemen achter het oor TMnr 20017986.jpg





When I lived on the Upper West Side in New York City, on weekends and as often as I could during the evenings of a work week, I would go to Central Park. Usually I walked to the Lake that snaked around the forested islands at mid-park. In summer the water  presented a Monet-like panorama of boaters and flaneurs lounging on its banks; during the cold months, it was steely and quiet. One winter Saturday afternoon, a freezing, sunny day in late January, we went there with our Balinese friend, Nyoman.

Although Nyoman had lived in New York City longer than we had – my partner and I had arrived in Manhattan from Indonesia five years before and he had already lived in the city for  nearly 15 years – he seemed to us the foreign one. There was an exotic bubble of strangeness about him; he talked and acted as though he had never left his Island of Bali.

Even though his job in New York was mundane enough – he worked as chef at the Indonesian Mission to the United Nations – our friend was also an accomplished Balinese dancer and a practitioner of the dark art of Balinese witchcraft. Depending on his moods, which were changeable, to say the least, the quality of the food he cooked at the Mission was horrible or wonderful. His human relations were equally unpredictable and  he was apt to tell us, ” Today I love you, but some days I hate you. And if I hate you enough I will put a curse on you.”  We were always careful never to antagonize Nyoman, lest his wrath be unleashed and a curse  placed on us. That Saturday we were on a happy errand with no seeming risk of being the victim of his curses and plagues.

We had gone to the shores of  Central Park Lake  to take a photo of its frozen expanses. The idea occurred to us to walk out on the congealed whiteness, defying sanity and risking cracked ice and a plunge to freezing depths.  Kind of a dare, a thrill. There were crowds of people playing that dangerous game, walking out on the iced-over lake even though there were warnings  that the weather wasn’t cold enough nor the ice thick enough to sustain the weight of hundreds of humans who were gathering far from the shore.

Prudence prevailed and we settled for a picture on the lake bank, snapped by a passerby, of the three of us, arms linked, with the Manhattan skyline behind us, exhaling furls of frosty air. As a dancer Nyoman kept his fingernails long and finely filed, but  that day his hands were covered with thick mittens and no one seeing us as we posed for the picture would have guessed that the person in the middle of our trio was a dancing sorcerer.

It turned out that day was the last time we would see Nyoman. Not long after our outing, he left for Indonesia and Bali. He had decided rather suddenly, impulse being a sorcerer’s prerogative, to leave New York  City and his job, and return to Bali to enroll in what was a kind of graduate school of witchcraft. Unknown to us, he had been thinking about retirement from the workaday world. At 50-something, he had salted away enough savings and bought  land in his native Singarajah on the black-sanded shores of north Bali. With a diploma from witchcraft school, he could practice his dark art and, in time,  even open his own academy of the occult  with the added prestige over his competitors of being “New York -returned.” He had also talked of opening his own guesthouse, Nyoman’s Bed & Breakfast he said he would call it, catering to tourists who ventured off  the beaten track to the wilds of North Bali. We laughed to ourselves when we heard this hotelier’s plan. Pity the hapless travelers, we thought, who would be prisoners of Nyoman’s moods and other-worldly ministrations if he happened not to like them ! 

Some weeks after our wintry park outing, we received a call from another Indonesian friend saying that Nyoman had died of a heart attack soon after reaching his native Bali. We located the picture of us taken with him in Central Park along with another photograph of Nyoman in full regalia dancing at our house for a party we had given the previous New Year’s Eve, and placed his likeness on our altar which housed our family photos, statues of Buddha, holy strings blessed by Bhutanese  and Burmese monks and fragrant dried flowers.

Thinking about our friend, Nyoman, my mind went back to Bali and the dozens of trips I had made to that strange, wonderful island when I lived in Indonesia. My office in Jakarta was always dreaming up pretexts to go to Bali – project visits, training workshops, retreats, without any particular rationale other than the call of the lush beauty of the place.

 Work aside, my experiences there seemed to swing from trashy to sublime and included a truly liberating experiment one evening in Kuta Beach with halucinogenic mushroom soup. Although that  “trip” occurred over 30 years ago, I don’t think I have ever gotten over it; its imprint has been permanently stamped on my soul. The high point of the experience was eating an ice cream cone. As I licked the peaked chocolate treat, I burst into heavy, uncontrollable laughter  which was followed by a wave of joyous tears dripping and streaming onto my cone. The taste of salted tears mixed with ice cream was heavenly.

Someone described Bali as “the morning of the world.” There is no place quite like it. Its utter beauty  was a compelling backdrop for the foreigners who played out their strange, confused games on that other-worldly stage. I remember a weekend in the hill station of Ubud where a group of expat acquaintances had rented a bungalow perched over rice terraces with sweeping views of a rain-swept, emerald-green valley. The motley crew assembled was a ship of fools among whom were an eccentric lawyer from Alabama with a rapier wit and a cackling laugh, and an imposing Belgian woman, Trina, with flaming red hair and bulbous, darkly painted lips, who had just completed her gender  “re-assignment” from male to female. Joining the crowd later was Fanny, a short, 300-pound girl from Wisconsin who worked for a local Balinese charity. Fanny arrived on her motorcycle with a strapping, young blonde Australian toting a  surfboard. Inebriation was well advanced by the  time Fanny and her escort from Down Under joined us. We never caught his  name and  dubbed him ” Surfer Joe.”  As the evening advanced, the air was thick with the sweet aroma of cannibus and Balinese rice wine flowed while  a relentless monsoon  rain poured on our bungalow’s thatched roof, so intense that conversation became a blur.

 I do have a hazy recollection before passing out of Fanny falling into a drunken slumber, snoring loudly, her immense torso heaving up and down, lying on her back propped up on a pile of batik pillows like a beached whale. I also recall Surfer Joe and Trina stepping over her inert body, climbing the dark stairs to Trina’s bedroom from where loud squeaking and moaning sounds ensued. 

As often happens in Southeast Asia, time melted.  When dawn broke, I pulled myself up from the floor arising from my drunken slumber, hearing  what I thought  were heaving sobs interspersed with an ever-continuing, thunderous  downpour. I lurched  from the bungalow in the direction of the tearful voice and saw Fanny at the bungalow gate, sitting on her motorcycle drenched to the bone, bleating to anyone who would listen – and there was no one there save a clueless Balinese night watchman sheltered under the cottage eaves, watching in silence – “Trina stole my Surfer Joe and they’re upstairs fucking !” Speechless, I hugged Fanny in consolation, our soaked bodies hunkered over her Honda hog. We looked at each other in silence, and with nothing else to say, she  revved up her bike and as water dripped from her thick, fogged-up  spectacles, throttled her chopper  off into the rainy morning mist.

Hours later, the rain stopped and the sun began to shine. As my Alabama lawyer friend and I sipped tea on the verandah of our bungalow and rice farmers moved to their fields, Trina, with an alligator-like smirk on her face, emerged from her cottage next door.  Grinning like a Cheshire cat, my legal friend mustered a vulgar, graphic gesture with his fingers, saying, “Have a good night, Madame?” Trina emitted a deep-throated, baritone chortle indicating that perhaps her  gender re-assignment had not been a total success and disappeared into a grove of coconut trees.

Another night in Bali had just played out.

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