Balicious

Jolly Green


I’ve started to behave towards the greenery here in Bali as people do with their newborn babies: just can’t get enough of that pinky toe.  Look at the way this leaf curls.  Look at the way the light sits on its wide sheaf.  Look at the way it deals with the rain. I take so many photos of leaves shaking in the downpour that even my camera gets nauseous.  The flora, as it strikes the optic nerve with a gameloneon bang, is like an Epi-pen for an anaphylactic: one shot and the body is soothed.  Another, and it’s overcome (oh yes we shall, someday!).  Another, and one understands, as only death must bring an understanding of death, why in the yogic model the color of the heart chakra is green: impossible not to melt in its presence and to feel the living “quality” the skin barely demarks and certainly does not divide.

Learning How To

When we first arrive in Bali, the line to pass through immigration is longer than Rapunzel’s prince-hauling braid.  A chubby Aussie girl, headband just barely holding back her thick dark hair, whines to her mom, while the last nomadic peoples of Russia cut in front of J and I, “Why does it have to take TEN THOUSAND YEARS?”  Right?

The driver from Ubud is there to meet us, loading our impossible coterie of luggage into the back of his S.U.V.  On the road, we quickly wind up talking about development in Bali.  Bali is like a colossal Santa’s lap for tourism: ask and you shall receive.  Have you been naughty or nice?  Who cares! Coal is too precious to the degradation and gear-shifting of the planet to put in your stocking, and anyway, this Tropical Shanti Santa is a behavioral egalitarian.  His sack is so laden it has become a biomechanical hazard, so he’s chucked it to the East, disguised as a Volcano, its lips pursed towards God’s cheek, which turns away and back, away and back, like my grandma’s Lazy Susan.  Every so often, the Gunung Agung burps fire, plaything of the deities, to signal to them, in the celestial dark, where the unwinding earth might be.

The island’s hoards of visitors run the gamut from root to crown: from those looking for cheap sex, cheaper beer, and a beach as photo-backdrop, to those seriously convinced that personal enlightenment is as ubiquitous and potassium-rich as bananas.  Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the most yogic of them all?  We ask the driver if he learned yoga in school and he says, “Yes, but we didn’t know what we were doing until we asked the tourists, ‘Is this yoga?’ and they said, ‘YES!’  You know: learning how to sit.”

Yeah, Learning how to sit. When I taught yoga to Kindergarteners, I would ask with mock consternation: Are you the boss of the wiggles, or are the wiggles the boss of you? I’M THE BOSS OF THE WIGGLES! They would yell.  No doubt, in an ideal world.  But by that time the Wiggles had already formed a Wiggle Union and set the terms of the contract.  There was no severance package.  The yoga in question was a conscious confrontation with a wiggle-imbued world: not merely hathis bending their feet around their necks to catch god’s attention, not merely transfixing on the breath to the point of fetishizing it—but rather Yoga,  “what means union.”  A complete intimacy with what animates us.  There is something of this in Bali, the constant growth and falling away of “wiggles” both natural and psychological.   Who is the boss of what is not so easy to discern.  Better to stick your finger up your nose as my five year olds would gladly demo and contemplate the mysteries of all bodies, human and otherwise, to produce that which astonishes.  And then to sit there, astonished into quiet.

Along the changeable terrain, the roadside is lined with open-air shops selling statuary, as if one had nothing to do but decorate holy spaces.  Many of these are the familiar cast: Ganesha, both grumpy and jovial, Shiva, imperious and mountain-bound, and Buddha busts as common as the rain.  When we ask, our driver lets us know these are not really the Gods that Balinese Hindus are concerned with: for them, god has no face, so why bother to make a representation?  And all of god’s henchmen: who would want their terrifying visage in the living room?  They are just too horrific looking to sell in a shop.

To sell in a shop.

peekabooasana

But Ganesha still lords over the doorways of many homes and most establishments here.  If nothing else, it’s an indelicate reminder, as you skirt around a cement half-elephant with fresh flowers stuck in the crevice of its ears; the only obstacle to entering this experience fully is the one you embody, and you are welcome to leave it outside with your shoes.

Weary Hobos Inc.: All We Need Is Opposable Thumbs

J and I arrived in Bali as mascots for a kind of weariness we didn’t elect: one that grabs you by your proverbial balls and tells you you just can’t be foreigners anymore.  This particular injunction is so loud you have a hard time hearing other thoughts squeak out for a platform.  Their weenie, neuro-transmitic attempts to be profound or conciliatory are about as successful as trying to hock a plastic mug you’ve freshly finger-painted while beside you an Auctioneer is selling the King Arthur’s Chalice through a megaphone.  You get it. Love may conquer all, but meanwhile Apathy kicks your ass in the sandbox.

We had a sharp distaste for our own malaise, disinterest and what felt like total laziness…the end result?  Lying on the four-poster bamboo bed with deteriorating mosquito netting in an air-conditioned guestroom talking about how distasteful we found our apathy.  It was hard to finish sentences. The green-drenched rice-field just outside piped in: blah blah blah.  An old man emerged from his resting spot with a scythe and hacked at some of the unruly growth while his young protégé threw miscellanea into the nearby hotel pool.  Tiny Japamonias flit down and stole long stalks of rice to take back to their nests or attract the lady Japamonias with an eye out for a good homemaker.  At four, dragonflies burst from nowhere in particular, just to see if nature was still regular.  The volcano, Gunung Augung, holy of holies, fading out of sight beyond the white-flagged border of the field, kept its thoughts to itself—like a New Yorker, it was apt to be fiery when opining.  Anyway, the mountain knows the ropes: life is better behind a cloud.

materials

Turns out you can’t really talk yourself out of apathy.  Our process was about as metaphysical as possible before the manifest world withers and decomposes like toilet paper in the rain.  “Love bade me eat,” confessed George Herbert, who had the munchies and made a famous poem out of it.  But Ennui bade me, Engorge! Our air-conditioner had the temperature fluxes of a menopausal woman.  With the cool air, it also blew mold in recycled circles.  Much of this mold found its way up our noses, where it mixed with our bad attitudes.  Rain broke out in the afternoon.  Rain broke out in the afternoon.  Rain broke out in the afternoon.  It came over the sky in a purposeful dash, paused, and flung itself onto the island with a kind of abandon one scarcely sees in embodied creatures.  The roads flooded, the geckos shat with glee, and incense, somehow, still burned.

Everything grows fast in Bali: plants, entrepreneurial fungi, even attitudes… According to a few people I met, in the more congested areas of the island, we’re viewed (dismissed? baited?) as merely monkeys with Wallets—and by and large we’re dumber than your average street monkey, who knows how to get what it wants and isn’t fooled by pastoral sun hats and cutesy half-peeled bananas.  Thanks, the monkey hiss seems to say, but you can keep your potassium to yourself, you a-tropical sweat-ball. One’s wallet, then, stuffed with rupiah, is the only thing that does not grow, as one wanders from shop to shop to shop…

There are authentic monkeys around here, ones who put their opposable thumbs to good use.  I search “opposable thumb,” hoping to hit on a cheap ego-stroke for humanity– for I’ve been a bit despairing in our willful ignorance the last few weeks.  I find this on NST: Home Connections activity will help you understand the importance of your thumb for doing simple, everyday activities. Like grabbing shit? Because both our more dexterous brethren and we are good at that; it might even be a defining characteristic.  Proof? It’s one of the first tests of whether or not your baby’s motor-reflexes are operating properly.

We stay in the artistic center of Ubud near to the sacred Monkey Forest where the tourist buses pull up faster than ants to crumbs.  The boutique-lined streets here, though they are not built widely enough to accommodate anything bigger than a motorbike, funnel many buses each day, full of Japanese or Aussies, and the Gods, who habitually check on the intricate coconut-leaf décor left out to bait them, squat on the roof like seasoned hobos.  Balance indeed.  Atop the huge stone statue of a monkey at the entrance to the preserve, a primate clutches a supersize McDonalds cup in his little, deft hands.  He appears to have entered a deep Samadhi, induced by the day’s good luck, and thanks to the golden M that surpasseth understanding.

Mama O Knows

o o o!

What J and I needed to set us right was an appointment with Mother Ocean.  There’s an unpredictable feral quality to her, as there is to so-called “hybrid” writing: who, really who, is in charge of this form?  You can smell and sense the ocean when she’s close.  Her rhythms exceed your own in their grandeur and consequence.  One can learn about feral best through two great teachers: the right and left nostrils.   I understood its significance first the night my housemate M rescued an owl hurt on a busy Colorado road. As the expert instructed, she brought it home in her trunk wrapped in a sleeping bag, the bird of prey looking more in need of prayer than capable of hunting anything, one wing precariously splayed.

When we snapped on the basement light long enough to move it to a cardboard box, it’s eyes, which had appeared so absurdly human in the dark, became an unwieldy yellow and pin-wheeled frantically. One claw hooked the sleeping bag.  It died in the night, facedown in the box, having collected itself into a posture imitative of something that could soar at any moment.  The whole house took on her smell—it leached into everything, the dank, rich odor of the forest-dweller, who never should have been privy to furniture or electricity.  The smell was of bodies but not of bodies.  The ocean, likewise, is a body but not a body at all.  It’s smell saturates your skin.

o-scapes

Mama O took us in her massive salty lap and…she’s as curative as her reputation claims.  You can take on all the fancy healing modalities you like or you can go swimming.  As apprehensive as I was, J and I learned to free dive (“Sport Apnea”) under the auspices of a Calm, Cool, Incredible Hulk, M.   Apnea, which most people know only as a disturbance to sleep, is (here) the fine art of diving on a single breath.   It involves the surprisingly complex skill set of: relaxation and pushing into the expansive and contractile properties of the body as it responds to natural and artificial pressures.

There is much pranayamic foreplay to the actual dive, and a good dose of hard science, which puts even an Imperiled Jew at ease; you really can’t kill yourself doing this.  Turns out: the body remembers its origins.  Maybe not so far back as stardust (though some claim mineral reminiscence not impossible), but definitely its watery embryonic stint, and even more evidently, a time when it shared more intimately the habits and environs of whales—who shame all yogis by holding their breath for an hour or more on deep plunges– than of lice-pickin’ chimps.

We have protective and elating reflexes that kick in (god, body, you’re so good!) when we hold our breath under pressure and sense water on the face.  To reap the benefits, we have to accustom ourselves to certain discomforts, which seem to indicate danger, but with right understanding, are revealed as mere adaptations in themselves.  Though the Buddha was mythologized as a tree-sitter for convenience and relatability, I suspect to attain realization he actually utilized a wetsuit, fins, snorkel and mask: for one finds a reservoir of calm focus in this art usually reserved for the underwear aisle of Nirvana.

The biggest obstacle was getting our ears to equalize—who knew an eardrum was such high maintenance?  At only three meters deep the eardrums already protest if they can’t adjust properly.  Beyond that, you’re just an idiot if you try to spite their griping.  It sounds simple to manage, “popping” the eardrums, when you’re snarkily breathing air and discussing underwater tactics in a dry classroom; ensouped in H2O, however, this becomes as challenging as tying your shoelaces with numb hands.

You begin the dive many meters out from shore by holding onto a buoy, establishing a two-part inhale to the diaphragm and chest, and a long exhale through the mouth.  Face-down staring into the abyss of mother ocean, there’s nothing “to do” but find your meditative mojo (or, in J’s case, get sea-sick and puke) by patterning the breath.  Fish of electric blue and zebra’d yellows shimmy past—some the size of hail, others mistakable for dune grass; it’s a veritable amphibial meteor shower  you watch, which makes you think all the cool kids really are in school.  You just breathe.  You just breathe.  Rain rolls in, breaks over everything like thin-stemmed wine glasses as the party approaches midnight.

In nearby zones of the same sea, large turtles angle up with what seems a mix of dignity and indignation from the aching coral reefs towards the gawkers and weekend naturalists in glass-bottom boats.  Slick eels swim with a grace that knows no sushi terminus.  When ready, you take two “breath-ups” at surface without the snorkel, and then descend following a rope—hand over hand shimmying into the deep or head-first propelled by gentle kicking.  Your tissues are so oxygenated from this process that the initial yelps for air can be totally ignored—the “need to breathe”, which understandably makes headlines in the psyche, is just the freak-out of the quick-fix habit-mind, while the body is willing, groping in the Darwinian dark for its blubber and ribs the size of rafters.

Our teacher, M, is a Coach of coaches.  He creates such a safe environment under water I wish he had been in the ICU following my birth.  His eye-contact and solid presence speak the volumes he doesn’t, when he meets you below to wait out your limit.  Can you say someone is grounded when you’re both floating at negative buoyancy?  Well, it’s a relative world.  Just when you’re ready to panic as you (bad idea) glance upward to see how very far off are the bright lights of day, the surface, the kicking legs of your friends, he releases his body visibly as demonstration, points at the rope to re-orient your gaze on the appropriate object; Isn’t this the most natural thing? It is so smart, what we do, what we can overcome, if we relax. Thank you, M.  May the gods always smile kindly upon your snorkel.  And, of course, you make it back.  And when you pop through the dividing line to your old friend, air, and into the world as it is?  Breathe, M intones, Breathe.

And you do.

Parade of Offerings

god snack

After this experience, we find it’s better to stay in the village, to be hugged by green things rather than commerce.  We choose a little place outside Ubud in Keliki, with an organic garden, tender staff, and an excess of plant and insect life.  Here, we make friends and decompress, the ocean still brimming in our ears, the commercial violence of Ubud (and it does feel like that) receding as Balinese children with nothing to sell run up beside the motorbike and call: “How are you good I am fine!”  Apa kabar?  Bagus! Without the interference of money and its shimmering dictates, the smiles we trade are smiles just because.  Smiles begin and end the interaction, and are also the substance of it.  The thick, aseasonal rains have fallen the same way on foreigners and locals alike.  Everyone is wet as the day they were born.

At night, I sit on the stone steps with some Balinese women in their finery.  One holds her sleeping son, whose head lolls back so far in the angle of dream that his wrap brushes the ground.  Most of the other boys, clothed in white and barreling from the temple, pause on their way to throw aberrant objects into the little lotus pond at the base of the property.  So much incense has been burned in the course of the day’s celebrations that it occludes the smell of bodies and even the smell of the jungle.  Intimations of all the burnings that await us.

The day is clocked by offerings, which have a certain choreography and sweet aesthetic allure.  Watch a few and it seems the only intelligent way to organize time.  It doesn’t matter, to the generalist who feels compelled to offer, what one offers: a helpful website tells me that the only concern is to choose materials that are the rightful belongings of the earth—sand, water, flowers, snow—and of the place where one is.  Better not to worry about the durability: better, in fact, that it not be durable, but degrade under natural conditions.  After all, the theory goes that The Gods suck up the essence right away, like Bounty Paper Towels.  The process serves as a reminder that all created things also decreate.

some sugar in my bowl

Acts of Mercy

We meet some fantastic fellow travelers.

I spend the afternoon with C, who is 8, saving invisible, imaginary drowning people in the pool.  Being a Good Samaritan is exhausting work, but someone has to do it.  The drowning people materialize faster than you would think, given the lack of precipitating conditions.  There’s another one! Shouts C.  Quick!  Grab my hand!

It gets to the point where I’m actually shivering.  I say to C: I need to get out and pee.

Let me tell you something. She says in a Conspiratorial Whisper.

Me: What?

C: Just pee in the pool. 

Me: Hmmm.  Good idea, but I think I should get out and use the bathroom.

C: Trust me.

Me: Well, it’s probably better if I—[pee in the pool but really….]

C: [sternly] I’ll be your best friend.  Just do it.

Me: We’re already friendly, aren’t we?

But she’s forceful, and at the end of a long journey, one easily falls prey to forceful individuals.  I make a compromise and hold it as long as I possible can.  And then.

C, a feisty Vietnamese girl, is traveling around Asia with her equally feisty and huge-hearted Dads, who scour the world for Environmental Scoundrels with a karmic itch for a green makeover, and then supply them with correct behavioral modification protocol.  They feel considerable despair over what they witness in the upper-echelons, where the money and power are.  But somehow, they keep creating templates for humans to hold the buck, along with the coveted bucks, in our very own fanny packs.   Which are more capacious than you’d think, since they are made out of recycled jackasses.

P explains to me that C, abandoned by her birth mother, was born with a cleft on one side of her brain due to a blood clot during gestation.  This resulted in five strokes and certain learning and neuro-motor difficulties.  I suspect her difficulties are being understated, as her Dads are categorically respectful in their terminology. But what you find in C is not a child who lacks, but one who was carried from a rotten cavity of affection to a spewing volcano of it: love like lava from her parents.  C’s eyes wander a bit, but her conviction and curiosity don’t wander at all.  As J affirms afterwards: Well, a pool really is just like a big toilet.

And C knows that one efficacious tactic to cope with the crazy conditions into which we arrive and perhaps the crazier conditions in which we participate is a seriously good game of pretend, one in which you keep your focus entirely on what you’re doing.  Pretending, which is like lying, but not lying. And anyway, it is with the magic of this that we can rise in a single day from saviors duck-diving among the pool casualties to Royalty:  that night she wants to play queen.  Woman is queen, the manager of the hotel says to me, as I wait for J to arrive, so I can hand off to him our fruity welcome drinks.  I’m not sure if I am supposed to agree or if he’s just trying to make nice for not giving me a discount on our room rate.

C reads me a composition she’s done for school on the road about her impressions of Bali: The Balinese believe that if they treat the Gods well, the Gods will also treat them well. And this arrangement works out well for everyone.

On many fronts, C is as savvy as can be.  While we wait for dinner, she teaches me a shading technique for coloring that a Balinese artist taught her that very day.  I watch her shade a leaf over and over, and then attempt myself. If I do a good job, she gives me a check mark, a bad job, and I receive an “X.”  Turns out I’m repeatedly X-rated.  In the end, begrudgingly, she gives me some checks for my efforts, not so much to signal my budding artistic potential, but to encourage me not to return to the adult conversation, which is about the Joy of Bureaucracy in Other Countries.  I’m no shading expert, and we both know it, but we let that fact sit, like a gnat in newly-poured glass of two-thousand year old Bordeaux.

artwork

Green Reprise

Even in our bathroom, there is an orchid with three white blossoms growing out of the exposed wall.  In the early morning after practice, I do a photo-shoot, though I do not know what I am trying to capture, since its beauty exists primarily in the spell it casts over ordinary spaces.  The enormous spider, who had prowled in the evening as the alpha-male of the W.C., has surprisingly elected to drown itself in the toilet bowl.  Bye-bye.  In and around the room, leaves curl and fan and relate to the chemistry of the air and light.  The gecko orchestra pauses and J makes Nescafe, powdered nectar of Southeast Asia.  There is so much of life I do not understand, but when it touches me, I am no better than a cloud at holding myself together.  The water comes from the eyes while the Gods clean victuals from their teeth with a toothpick.  All this green, all this downpour and blossoming and falling away, has my heart on the offering table.  It is not mine to take back.

intersections

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2 Responses to “Balicious”

  1. David Kuefler Says:

    a brilliant read, capturing both the subtle and obvious of this interesting, perplexing place. lovely meeting you on this leg of our journey. our family had a ball with you and James. blessings, dearest one.

  2. Jennifer K Dick Says:

    I loved reading about all of your travels, and seeing these lush photos. The world is so vast and sometimes when one remains in the same place one fears moving away from it and losing the connections one has established. Your photos and travel tales remind me of the richness that I should go out and reach gladly toward, about the connections and visions that await. Thank you for the fearlessness and excitement and lushness of the world you shared here!!!

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