I fell in love with the island of Bali and its people who dazzled me with the first true smiles I had seen on humans. Bali is the first of many smaller islands strung along the line of the Java mainland that points ultimately to New Guinea. I have never been to New Guinea. I had planned to go to New Guinea as a Christian linguistic missionary. I never made it. Eventually I thought it would be better if they came to the US and converted me. And in a way, they did. But, Islam terminates with the end of Java and Bali begins a mysterious culture that is a blend of animism and hindu.
This was a long time ago. A little before or after Obama’s mama reached that area of Indonesia in her professional capacity. If I had encountered her I would not have known. I had no idea who she was or that she had a son who would become POTUS before I discovered that a book would be written about her that I would someday begin to read. That someday was far away into the future year of 2011. That book is A Singular Woman, Riverhead Books, published by Penguin Group.
I also did not know that the reason for those brilliant smiles existing could be the natural upwelling of nitrous oxide in the ocean off the north shore of the island. Karl Kempton of Oceano told me about that. I did not even know yet if my Danish friend, Robert Livingston, was correct about the Lotus Blossom Cafe having a secret breakfast menu on which appeared the special item, the magic mushroom omelet. It did.
I did not know yet that to get to the Volcano I would be rowed across by a local in a Balinese version of a dugout canoe. I DID know that spooky things happen. I did NOT know whether a god existed named Coincidence. I DID know that a hundred plus years before my voyage across the lake to the volcano that the volcano had been the destination of a pilgrimage. I DID know that when the people had gathered on the slopes of the volcano, as they did each century the volcano had erupted and swallowed them alive. I Did know they trekked to the volcano again a century later in the 1970s. The volcano regurgitated again. Whenever I tell this story I imagine I am Kurt Vonnegut telling the story. And people know I am Kurt Vonnegut because I continue to pop up the phrase “and so on.” And the last thing Kurt ever says is, “This repetitive feature of existence is a variation of a thing called coincidence.”
My base of operations for the Bali caper series was a hotel, SAS if I remember correctly because I worked then as a software engineer for Scandinavian Airlines who had convinced the SAS Hotel to provide me, and other SAS people I suppose, a substantial discount. Each room was a pointed grass hut about 30 feet high and 30 feet in diameter. My room had a 24/7 reptile which looked like a Geico commercial. I assume his famiy members provided the same service, whatever it was, to the other huts. Perhaps the service was the elimination of spiders big as a George Foreman fist. The teenage entrepreneur who had leased me my Honda 150 motorcyle had also rented me a bungalo behind his parent’s back yard behind a pig sty. I had made the mistake of creating an incident with the spider as he sat watching me from the outside of the window screen. So, he had come INSIDE. We played “guess which end of the bed I am under now, Jack” until dawn.
But, I will cherish the memory of the spacious huts with the body guard reptiles.
A couple was staying in the next hut. He was a business man who had returned to Bali with his Balinese wife. They had lived several years in Hong Kong. She was from Bali and had been raised as a dancer. Specifically, she danced the tales of the mahabharata. So, they took me with them to watch the dances. I recommend going to the dances after specializing for fifteen years in Hindu legends of the Mahabharata or making a friend who was raised as a dancer.
In the hut on the other side was a beautiful woman from Fiji who was awaiting the arrival of her husband who was a pilot for Air France.
I learned at this hotel to distinguish fruit platters left for guests and fruit platters left as offering for the local deities. While I am recommending stuff I should recommend this distinguishing of the platters before you arrive in Bali. Armed with the ability to distinguish my food from god’s, I would wander and wonder off about the island on that little Honda. I often did not return to the SAS hotel in the evening. If i were somewhere like the tiny village near the volcano, I would get a little food and room for four or five dollars.
If you know me long enough you will know when I tell a Bali story I will mention the rice farmer I met while resting the bike and soaking up scenery. Of course, he and I discussed the human condition. Somewhere in there he said, “How could I hurt you? How could I fail to wish you well. We are part of the same organism.”
Toward the end of my stay in Bali I turned my attention to the south coast. Specifically, I was looking for a surfing beach which was supposed to have some of the highest waves in the world. I trekked a very worn path through the brush over dunes, around dunes, for an eternity. I thought I had lost my way when I saw ahead a teetering six foot high sign. I was certain it would have directions on the other side. It was twisted 180 degrees. Reaching the other side I found the direction comprised the following anamistic, spiritual clue to managing reality. It took a while to make out the letters, though they were huge. I finally deciphered the message. The sign was telling me that coke is the real thing.
Enough exploring. The following day I stayed on the main road until it reached a very popular beach.
Along the way I found a coconut forest and paid the forester to climb a tree and fetch me a coconut. And that’s a good thing, Martha, because word, coconut, is the primary keyword and tag to this entire article. And I apologize for not mentioning it up front.
Soon I was roaring down the road to the beach with a beautiful coconut between my knees on the Honda’s gas tank.
I found a comfy table that would be in the shade all day. I took the coconut to the bartender. I told him that I had enjoyed his island for, lo, many a week and was tired. I asked him if he would exercise his creativity in providing me a sequence of rum coconut drinks throughout the day. He complied with an almost true smile and pleasant attitude.
And before I knew it I was back in the arms and wings of SAS and headed for home. Copenhagen would still be weighted down with snow.
I have often wondered how much tourism has changed Bali since I was there. I think about going back. I usually end the thinking as I do about other places. You cannot go back to a place which probably is uniquely your creation. So, collect your building materials well, for you can only return to the place you created in your own mind and heart. And that’s a good thing, Martha. Those memories are part of the sustainability that enables and capacitates the smile of your later years.
I needed to have something to show for my attempted sabbatical in Bali, however. One thing was this. I had now seen what a genuine smile looked like. I vowed to be able to exhibit one any time any where. Two, I had fallen in lover with coconuts all over again. I vowed to learn some things about coconuts. After all I have been a ‘health’ nut since the days of Adele Davis. (ask your mom about Adele Davis)
So, I don’t know how to tell you to produce a genuine smile. But, I DO know how to increase the value of your life and its length.