ZEBRA DOVES OF BALI MATE FOR LIFE. Two of them are building a nest under the roof of my neighbor’s house. One dove carries a bamboo twig, the other stands watch. The house I’m renting sits in a rice field in Penestanan, a village near Ubud. That is, it used to be a rice field. Ten years ago, it was a rice field. Today, the land slopes downhill in terraced, level plots, but instead of rice growing in paddies, houses now grace the land, like so many wallowing pot-bellied pigs. Decades ago when the first few homes were built, it was simply a marvelously pleasant and heavenly idea: a home with a view of the vast rice fields all the way to the ravine where the jungle thrives along the river.
Today, it’s pretty much the Burbs, Bali-style: house after house in rows—oozing carbuncles of bamboo, teak, volcanic rock and tile. In some places, houses sit side-by-side so close you can hear your neighbors fart. And some houses have no view of rice growing.
Definition of irony: you pay a premium to rent a house sitting in a rice paddy—which technically, it still is—but your view is your neighbor leaning to one side, lifting one butt-cheek. In some areas, there are patches of rice growing, for effect, a reflection of a modicum of sanity, but closer to the epitome of “too little, too late.”
It is true the houses possess an interesting Balinese-fusion architecture, and many are quite lovely when viewed alone as architecture. I particularly appreciate their roofs and outdoor bathrooms full of plants. But side-by-side in what was once a rice paddy—no, that’s just wrong. That’s just greed twisting the arm of poor farmers, greed and maybe a soupçon of stupidity staring you in the face. If a person were inclined to make value judgments, this would be one place where it might make sense.
But say you’re one of those people who expect titles to be reflected in the story, and you want to look at both sides of things here: sure, capitalism fuels the world, why shouldn’t these people pull themselves up and out of the drudgery of growing rice, become landlords, join the 21st Century, buy cell phones, spend time on wi-fi instead of chasing magpies out of their rice paddies.
I’m lucky, though, because this particular house I’m renting has a small rice paddy on two sides, the north and south; a bit of jungle to the east; and…well, the owner’s house right there to the west where you see the zebra doves building their nest. Nothing’s perfect, even in paradise. But from my third-level veranda, if you wake up just before sunrise before the land heats up and veils the horizon in mist or cloud, you have a view of at least thirteen volcanoes, poised like majestic lords beyond the jungle.
Everything has two sides—good & bad, high & low, near & far, in focus & out, Burbs & vistas. The trick is to embrace both sides and accept what is. The problem is this: sometimes, you just don’t want to embrace that other side. Accepting what is seems to be a long-term learning process. It does not seem to happen overnight. It does not happen because you read a book, or meet an enlightened being, or because you believe it’s a great idea—I’ve done all three of these. Perhaps it happens in increments. Perhaps it starts with accepting small things first, like losing $700 on airfare to Cuba and ending up flying to Bali. Then you can move on to accepting larger issues—like, neighbors leaning onto one cheek. My preference, however, would be to have no issues to accept. If I were in charge of the cosmos, there would only be one side of things: good stuff.
I’m feeling a tad guilty today. Each night before going to sleep, I say something like this: OK, tomorrow, you’re going to practice yoga. Then, I don’t. I did go to two yoga shalas—Radiantly Alive and Yoga Barn—and picked up their schedule of classes. Like my friend Lisa says, “Bird by bird, baby steps.” But I may be feeling guilty because I’m looking across the rice paddy looking at one of my neighbors in the house over there beside the banana trees and coconut palms, and she is sitting in full lotus on her veranda, and meditating. And I look the other way across the rice paddy, and watch a guy send his kid off to school and then spend the day in his ad hoc studio—with floor-to-ceiling windows perfect for catching ambient light—and painting a large seascape in acrylics. These people have come to this island for inspiration, and they are doing something. They are following through with “following their bliss.” And me—sitting here in half lotus gandering 13 volcanoes, embracing guilt. Like everything, bliss is relative.
I’m also embracing some guilt over not actually traveling this summer, not actually going on an adventure, not seeing some place new and exotic, like Cuba or Timbuktu. I’m supposed to be a traveler. It’s my life, has been my life. Not vacations, not tourism—but traveling for months on end until I run out of money. And now, I’m at a point in that life where I may not be that traveler any more. I may not want to embrace the travail of travel. I may prefer the security and routine of 3 o’clock Frappuccinos to the researching of departure times of trains and planes, and the packing, unpacking, and schlepping of bags everywhere. I may no longer desire to traipse over that next hill or happen down that next path just because it’s there. Not to mention the din and dinginess of hostels or four-dollar hotel rooms. Or the flimsy seats and odious exhaust of tri-shaws and third-world buses. I’m guessing there may be a saturation point for everything in life: mangoes, illicit affairs, travel?
FYI: I would only know—from personal experience—about two of those examples above.
Guilt, perhaps also, because of my simply returning to Bali where I can predict whole days and know they’ll go pretty much just like this—
coffee (French press),
photograph gecko and volcano from veranda,
write and comment,
3 o’clock Frappuccino and ogling main street characters,
walk to market or down Monkey Forest Road,
maybe a cruise through a rice field,
vegetarian dinner at KAFE,
an episode of True Crime,
read a chapter (Vagina, hard cover…well, it was on the bookshelf here, who wouldn’t read a book with a title like that?),
wash feet (paradise is dirty in thongs),
lower mosquito net (downside to paradise),
sleep (maybe dream of ex-wife).
And at some point in the day, I will believe I will practice yoga at some point, and at no point in the day will I do yoga. My inner psyche has obviously chosen this direction for itself, my psyche accepts what is. But my conscious mind does not yet quite grasp it as reality, or at least not with relish or total spiritual acceptance. Life, apparently, is a difficult and slightly ironic place for human beings to live.
Yesterday, though, the island of gods and demons offered up a treat for me, a little lesson in miracles. I have pretty much accepted that I’ll be getting very little “done” this summer, I am on Bali specifically because I like doing nothing some times, and I want to do nothing now. I came here to do nothing—no requisite tourist sites to visit, no treks up the volcano, no bike riding down the volcano, no jungle hikes searching for orangutans, no learning how to roll cigars, no rafts down the Ganges. Just my daily 3 o’clock Java Chip Frappuccino at Starbucks, a massage at the day spa (a whopping 7 bucks!), and maybe, say, the Pasta Pesto and a cup of hot ginger at KAFE. Then, early to bed. Watch the sun go down, watch the sun come up over a ring of regal volcanoes. I know that nothing will happen this summer, that I will simply settle in to hibernation mode. Screw guilt, I’m accepting it, embracing it, as the other side of doing nothing.
But get this. After my 3 o’clock Frapp-fix yesterday, I mounted my bike and drove toward my favorite T-shirt seller, Wayan. She was sitting at her stall, as usual, her son playing in the street, as usual. Few things change in a place like this. I like visiting her shop because when I stop by, her face lights up as though we were old friends. She greets me with a warm smile and holds my hand in both of hers. Reality is, she knows how to sell shit. I bought nothing this time, though, because I own all the T-shirts with OM in Sanskrit on them that I need right now. But I’ll probably return next week and buy one, make Wayan’s day. A few dollars buys a lot of rice for her family. And who doesn’t need one more OM T-shirt? This particular little street where Wayan’s shop sits is lined on both sides with food stalls, tiny shops, and budget bungalows. At the far end, the street narrows into a concrete path wide enough only for two motorbikes to pass, then runs out through a vast complex of rice fields, and eventually turns into a dirt walking path unfit for anything but bare feet and gaggles of ducks. There are a few houses scattered about here and there, but it’s nothing like the burbs of Penestanan, where I live. Here, these are still rice fields, not burbs.
I always like riding, or walking, out in these rice paddies for some reason. Well, sure, the rice fields are beautiful here; they run for miles in all directions, and I never tire of looking at them no matter what phase of cultivation they are presently experiencing. But it’s something more than just beauty. There seems to be a palpable energy that washes over you and somehow calms the mind, and soothes your spirit. Spiritual, in the true sense of the word.
I pull over just past where Nyoman sells his coconuts. I’m miffed at Nyoman. I’ve been miffed at Nyoman for years now. Metaphorically miffed, not in reality. He uses this antique knife with an atavistic and outrageously unique handle to cut open coconuts for people who walk out this path to view the rice fields. And a couple years ago, I offered to buy his knife from him. But he wouldn’t sell it to me, even for the incredibly high price I offered him. He wouldn’t have needed to work for six months. That’s how badly I wanted that knife. Now of course, you have to remember he’s selling coconuts to day-hikers, not performing heart surgery—six months’ pay for him is way over priced for his knife, but it’s not going to break your bank. I have a little collection of knives, a number from Bali: two ceremonial knives and a hand scythe used in the paddies. I imagine Nyoman’s knife must hold some personal meaning for him (the way my 1970’s Buck knife and deerskin sheath holds for me—I’d never sell it) because you can buy knives similar to his in the market for a few rupiah, but they lack his unique handle.
I’m going to confess something here: In the past, I harbored notions of stealing that damn knife. What’s his deal? Why won’t he sell it? Piss on him. I want it. It should be my knife. I could wait till he’s busy taking money from a customer, slip in, slip out. Maybe I’d need to create a bigger diversion, maybe employ some thugs. But that ever-apparent concept of karma saunters into the conversation, and always wins an argument. Still, if I were in charge of the cosmos and could put a curse on someone to make them do as I command…
So I’m sitting on the side of the path just past Nyoman’s and getting pretty close to accepting what is regarding knives and other people’s priorities. I’ve been out this path many times. And I’ve seen this smaller path leading off the main path many times, knowing that it went deep into the rice fields and leading to maybe two or three houses there, and perhaps a water buffalo wallow. But I’ve never seen the hand-written sign that now sits here and says that this small path leads to the main road to Ubud, only 300 meters down that path. There is also a warning that mentions that it’s slippery when it’s wet, and you could fall. “DOWN” it says…written in capital letters by itself. In many foreign countries, you see poorly-worded signs in English like this. You understand what they say, usually, but you have the desire to edit and revise the things.
The last time I was in Bali, six months ago during rainy season, it rained pretty much every day. Hard. DOWN. It was wet everywhere the whole time I was here. Today, the sun shines, and all paths are dry, although that line of bulging cumulus on the horizon with gray underbellies could hold some rain. Because I’ve been to Bali numerous times and know at any time it might rain, I carry my rain poncho with sleeves at all times, folded away in the bike’s storage bin under the seat, along with the helmet I should be wearing. I had no idea about the adventure I was about to wander into when I decided I’d take this shortcut back to the main road to Ubud instead of going back the way I came. And just so you know, the 300 meters felt closer to three kilometers. Like some people say: “you can’t trust anybody.” And apparently, you can’t trust hand-written signs.
I should have realized something might be wrong in the cosmos as soon as I moved off the main path and onto the narrow path leading into the vast rice fields. The small path began with a few flat stones, then quickly turned to dirt. Dirt paths are what you generally find in rice fields, if there is a true path at all. People who build houses in rice fields sooner or later lay down flat rocks or cement paths, so they or their tenets can ride motorbikes to their house instead of walking all that way into the field, which can get old for some people after a while, or impossible for some folks, or discouraging for anyone carrying a bag of groceries after the novelty wears away. While sitting just passed Nyoman’s, I had watched two people on motorbikes ride onto this path, but I was unaware they were not going all the way to the main street in Ubud; they would be stopping at their bungalow or the warung (food stall) serving day trippers bakso and sodas, located in a prime location overlooking the expansive fields of rice and coconut palms.
The second issue occurred less than one minute down the dirt path. I looked around and realized there was a nice photograph to take. The problem was I had not brought my camera. I always take my camera, especially in Bali: a lesson learned the hard way more than once, and even on my most-recent trip to Bali. But today, I had decided I would just “be” here. I wouldn’t be photographing, I’d just hit Starbucks for my addiction fix and do nothing, except embrace what is. I know better than to not carry my camera in Bali. Because you may walk out of Starbucks believing you’re headed home, but your handlebars will themselves toward Wayan’s T-shirt shop. But it turns out not so bad, because I did bring my new smart phone. So I photograph the paddy with the palm trees in the background, and move on down the path toward the main street of Ubud. It was a shot better captured with a camera, but we are embracing what is here; so fine, we’re now embracing iPhoneography.
I have been very lucky over the years with every house I’ve rented in rice paddies in Ubud. Rice grows in cycles, maybe four months long. In each house I rented, no matter the month of my visit, the rice was growing, and thereby creating a changing and beautiful, green vista each day. After the rice is harvested, the paddy lies fallow for a period before the growing phase begins again. During this time, the lying-fallow phase, or even during the planting phase, rice paddies are not as beautiful as they are—say a month into the cycle—when full of thick and lush green plants. Maybe it’s a personal thing, but I prefer to look at the lush of green rather than the muck of brown. But I know people who feel the brown muck is just as interesting. I’m a libra, I need beauty surrounding me, not muck. Some say muck can be beautiful if you squint. Libras abhor squinting in order to find beauty. Libras need it to be there in abundance, surrounding us.
A few minutes further down this narrow path, I come across a number of locals planting rice seedlings in their fields. There are five main phases in rice cultivation: paddy preparation, planting, transplanting, growing, harvesting. This group of rice farmers had already prepared their paddies and were transplanting their seedlings into the larger field. I call it the mid-muck phase, where it’s mostly still muck, but with tiny stems of green.
A little further down the narrow path I came across a man and woman still in the first stage of preparing their paddy. They had already churned the mud, using a water buffalo and a till. You have to admire the amount of work that goes into processing rice. It is one of the most labor-intensive crops we grow. And it takes a considerable amount of know how, preparation, and skill during each phase. At this stage the ground must be level, so water is used efficiently, and at the same time, there must be a drainage system for quickly draining water when necessary. Weeding is ongoing throughout the cycle. What they say about needing a village to raise a child is also true for growing rice. Most everyone in the village—kids, parents, elders—all take part in the process in one way or another: tilling, planting, weeding, keeping birds at bay.
I realized my acceptance of iPhonography was beginning to deteriorate, because I was again half-wishing I had my camera along to photograph this couple deep in their muck. But fine, I repeat my new mantra: “acceptance, embrace the shit.” I may also have been speaking a few other words under my breath to the gods and demons. But then, the road got dangerous, no time for idle chit-chat with deities. The dirt path turned into a couple of bamboo boards running above a small gully. I figured, fine, it’s not slippery. But if it had been slippery, it would have been a bit dangerous to cross on foot, and ill advised altogether on a motorbike. And DOWN, as the sign said, was actually dangerously down—capital-letters down. Down, meaning a steep drop-off from the path to the bottom of the ravine fifteen feet below. I walked the bike carefully across. We moved slow, the bike and I side by side, and made it with no mishap.
And then a little further along the path—Mishap Hell showed up out of nowhere. What I had just crossed was merely the appetizer. I was now staring at the place on the path that the DOWN sign must have actually been referring to. A vertical wall of stone hunkered directly to the right of the narrow path. You can’t understand the meaning of the word DOWN until you’re standing next to a vertical wall butting directly against your very narrow path holding bamboo logs for safety (but seeming more like danger when crossing with a bike), and inches from the path the land falls into a vertical drop-off. So your path has turned into a narrow ledge of land, wall on one side, air on the other. When you find yourself in a place like this in your life, you begin to understand the terms “narrow” and “DOWN” in capital letters. You are no longer thinking about editing hand-written signs.
My second thought was to turn back. But there was no way to turn the bike around. Had it been my first thought, I would have had the option. And pushing the bike backwards seemed a bit too risky. How do people end up in situations like this? Life is moving along nicely. No cares in the world. You’re meeting old friends and contemplating OM T-shirts. Then BOOM! Your lover leaves you, or a bird poops on your head, or you drop a hammer on your toe, or you slice a finger instead of the tomato, or you ride your motorbike into a rice field where you should be walking on foot and discover…just that. But by then, it’s too late—too late for whatever we should have done before. A man might want to consider whether or not karma extends to the continued coveting and desire to possess another man’s knife as well as to actually perpetrating the deed.
We cross that tricky, narrow spot in the path. I am not thinking anything as I move slowly, inch by inch across those large bamboo planks, beyond considering just where to put my foot next and maintaining my balance. I simply know that I am not going to fall. That is not an option. No falling. Definitely no falling with a motorcycle falling on top of you as you fall. The rubber handles bump and scrape the wall on the right as we millimeter our way across. I lean into the bike, fingers on both brakes, while my feet find their way as if reading braille on the trail. There is just enough room to move across like this. If I had paint, I would hand write this on the wall: If you are 5’3” tall and weigh 300 pounds, there is not enough room for you to cross this spot—please go back to the warung for hot ginger tea and return to town the way you came.
After getting across that section, the path seems to move downhill. Then turns steeply downhill. This seems worrisome (yeah, I hear you: finally, he understands his situation). I leave the bike leaning against the wall and go to reconnoiter the situation in front of us. Yes. Downhill, indeed. But it gets worse. Downhill with hand-formed steps of large stone. Perhaps thoughtful and convenient for getting down and up hill if you’re walking. But if you’re tempting your own destiny by riding your motorbike, this is the perfect place to discover just what the future has in store for your butt cheeks.
I know a few words in Bahasa Indonesia: kopi hitam is black coffee. Silakan means please. Gula is sugar. Awas means be careful. Hati-hati means caution. DOWN on a hand-written sign means down on the rock steps, down the side of the ravine. DOWN is down. Hati-hati! I keep both hands on the brakes as we move down. Awas! This is not a hill. This is a slippery slope as they like to say in movie scripts. But this is no metaphor for drama, nor virtual drama. This is drama in real time. Here on these steps, however, it would mean more drama for the bike than for me, I’m guessing. The bike is in more danger now. The bike might scrape a rock or get hung up on one. The bike is fairly heavy. If I could not hold it, and it got away from me, I would not fall down the slope, I would simply let go of the bike and watch it tumble downhill and crumble in a heap at the bottom of those stone steps. Hopefully, that’s the way things would play out, with only the bike falling, but you can’t trust someone else’s gods to take care of you in foreign lands.
There is very little going on in my mind. Certainly no room for doubt. Although that is what my body seems to feel. I sense every muscle doing its job. I’m not a big man. Nor a finely-tuned young man. I’m not completely out of shape, I’m just not the man I used to be. And on The Scale of Stupidity, from 1 to 10, I might be leaning a little more towards the higher end these days. My main thought now is that I do not want to lose the bike, or scrape it. Or worse, get it caught on one of those rock steps. Or even worse, have it tip this way and fall on top of me. There’s no Triple A in Ubud. You crash your bike in a rice field or hang it up on a stone step where it should not be, you’re pretty much on your own.
I make it down the steps. No real hassles. The underside of the bike did hit some rocks a few times, but no bad scrapes, no big dings, no getting hung up, no crashing and burning. I did bruise my right calf just below the knee and took a hunk of meat out of my shin. When it’s metal against skin—metal always wins. Small price for a blunder of this magnitude. I round the corner, and see the back of two buildings and between them, an alleyway that leads to the sidewalk and the main street of Ubud just beyond. I hear a bus, a motorbike, a horn. A Japanese tourist in a bright yellow sundress and a green wide-brim hat sashays by the alleyway. I’m almost there.
But no cigar. My mind turns itself off of its auto-pilot-survival mode, and begins to function in real-life mode again. My mind understands the problem lies just where the back of the buildings and their foundations begin. There’s a two-foot-high concrete step up to the sidewalk from the path. No way I’m lifting that bike that high. My mind now says something like: “poop.” I begin to feel something like fear, or is it just defeat.
That’s when I hear voices behind me. Four reasonable young people. Two couples of sturdy Northern European stock. Reasonable—because they have no motorbike along with them, and they’re wearing hiking boots. One of the young women is smiling, mouth open, bright white teeth: “Did you just do that with your bike?” Emphasis on “with your bike.”
“I did do that with my bike.” I now realize how…ludicrous things are. I laugh out loud. “Nobody told me it was gonna to be like that!”
“We had a hard enough time on foot.”
The four of them laugh and nod—either with the understanding of the faulty machinations of luck, or in disbelief of how foolish some brains become with age.
You always hear people say things like “keep your eye on the ball,” or “stay focused,” or “concentrate.” I’ve heard them all my life. And even though I thought I was doing it, being focused, I never actually understood precisely what that might feel like. Maybe I never had been truly focused. Maybe I actually do have ADD. At the time I was millimetering along that narrow path, I did not realize it, but as I think back now, I realize just how focused I became. And I finally understand that if you can get, and stay, truly focused, you could accomplish anything, even seemingly impossible feats. I had never felt the kind of focus I experienced while moving that bike across that narrow ledge where one wrong move meant heavy-duty disaster, so focused that I had no thoughts, no worries, no doubts. I felt no fear, though maybe I should have.
Now, I start the engine and ride the bike toward the buildings, the alleyway, and that too-tall step. The feeling of defeat is mitigated, and I’m smiling on the inside because I know there’s an impossible two-foot step up ahead. I know I cannot lift this bike—being focused is not the same thing as performing miraculous feats of strength. And I know these young folks will offer to help me once they see how helpless an old man can get when he does not plan ahead, or heed the warning signs all along the way.
And they do. I don’t even ask. They see the barrier. They understand the problem. They offer. One of the guys takes the other side of the handle bar; one of the ladies—a tall, lithe, and muscular young woman—lifts the tail end by herself. I begin to imagine that this woman, if she also has a wicked sense of humor, would make a great travel partner: a traveling man needs a woman along who makes you laugh, and can also lift the tail-end of your motorcycle by herself. If we’re looking for perfection, it would be cool if she were also a master chef and a technology geek. And totally uninhibited in—no, wait…now we’re just running off on tangents.
With little effort, the bike is standing on the sidewalk in the alleyway between the two buildings. The two young couples cheer. “Terima kasih, banyak,” I say in Indonesian, which means something like: “thank you, thank you, thank you, big time.” One minute later, I am dropping off the sidewalk and joining traffic on Ubud’s main street and heading toward my own small rice paddy and home. The island of gods and demons is just that: an island with both gracious deities and benevolent devils—where sometimes, you find the demons may merely be your own.
You can find other entries for the DP Photo Challenge here: Half and Half
You can find other entries for Lucile’s Photo Rehab here: Photo Rehab.