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Rescuing Personal Mysticism Across a Balinese Island

INDONESIA | Tuesday, 19 August 2008 | Views [1384]

Twenty five years man. I’ve seen a lot of change.”

I looked across at Jack, Jack the Hawaiian, Jack the man—my idol.

“Bali is beautiful to this day, but 25 years ago it was a land of mystery. And before than… I can only imagine.”

“So what’s changed?” I asked, forking a slice of banana pancake into my mouth. The fruity syrup hit my taste buds with explosive rapture.

Across the table from Laura and me, Jack hovered over an unshelled egg. With a thrust of his spoon he chopped the globule in half. I expected it to ooze a sinewy clear fluid and mix its yellow severed yolk, but instead his shiny metallic weapon of choice proved breakfast to be hardboiled.

Underneath Jack’s massive shoulders and large Neolithic head, the egg looked like a small mite crushed in his grips. He scooped the contents into his mouth, chewed and swallowed. “Bali was magic. It was a culture of intense superstition that led the day-to-day lifestyle. Festivals, feasts, ceremonies—Bali was settled by the artisans of Java’s fleeing royal court. And through all the cultures I’ve traveled and their waves I’ve surfed, I’ve never known a culture so mysterious as Bali on my first visit. And that’s what led me to stay… besides the waves of course.”

Jack went on to explain the mass degradation that tourism catalyzed. It was an influx of Western trade and modernity. “But don’t get me wrong,” he emphasized. “Tourism is wonderful for any culture, especially since this island’s economy relies on the trade, but as far as the amount of tourists and the type of travelers arriving more and more…” He paused to breath. I could see his brain ticking behind those narrow blue eyes. “You know what Bali needs, or what it needed ten years back?”

Laura and I looked at each other and shrugged. We each chewed another wedge of our pancake.

“Regulation. Bali needs regulation. There is no stopping the constant assault of big western money that floods the Indonesian market. Who doesn’t want a slice of paradise, and Bali is the perfect paradise.”

We couldn’t disagree, but regulation? I wanted to shovel further into his thoughts.

“Take Bhutan, for example. Bhutan only allows a certain allotment of tourism per year. Everything is regulated including where the tourist stays, the tour the traveler takes and the amount of money spent each given day. And look at Bhutan. It is thriving and still retains its mysticism. I would love to go, but there aren’t any waves.”

In the end we concluded together: what was lacking besides a strict regulation was infrastructure. Under every culture is its infrastructure. Unlike major SE Asian destinations like Thailand and Malaysia, Indonesia (especially the island of Bali) does not have the appropriate infrastructure to support the flood of global tourism. It is tiny: 3.2 million locals on 5620 square kilometers of island. It’s a speck on the earth lying directly east of Java, completely surrounded by the Indian Ocean and Bali Sea.

Less Armpits, More Freedom

As we left Candidasa, Jack gave us a ride in his rigged van. Gutted on the inside and armored with tinted windows and a technical alarm system, he carried three surfboards of varying size, a mountain bike, a propane stove and cooking ware, an amplifier system for speakers and electrical outlets, a mattress for sleep, an indestructible safe, and a hammock. Up front accompanying the bench seat for three was a stereo hooked up for iPod listening pleasure and an audio system feeding a set of speakers, including two tweeters. We listened to a live album by Anoushka Shankar—the twang of the sitar entranced in a rhythmical raga—while Jack swerved around sloth-like lorries, dodging oncoming traffic with the other cars and scooters.

“My philosophy,” Jack stated, “is less is more. Apart from my one-bedroom apartment in Nusa Dua, this van is all I own. And it’s totally mobile.” Clearly, Jack was proud of his possession, and I would be too.

“Did you buy this set-up in Bali?” I wondered.

“Yeah, and the stereo system as well. I’m thinking of heading to Java in a couple of weeks. I found a secret surf spot in the south, so I’ve got myself a bona fide surf safari.”

Yes…without question this man was my idol. Less is more, Jack said. He was an American after freedom and freedom to him was the ability to have less and be as mobile as possible. Here in Bali he discovered it, and here in the Indonesian archipelago he continued his search. “Someday,” Jack relayed, “I’d like to have absolutely nothing and start from scratch. No back account. No money. No house, van or surfboard. I’d like to totally trust and experience the universe to provide the sustenance I need for survival when I need it. But at this point in my life, I’m not quite ready. I wanna find this wave in Java first and foremost.”

I was ready to ask Jack if we could come along, but our destination arrived. With the less is more mentality, Laura and I entered the so-called armpit of Indonesia. Properly named Kuta, the city is equivalent to Cancun for the Aussies and Khao San Road for the Bangkok backpacker. It is a twenty-four hour party; a DJ-bouncing strip paralleling the sands that cater a perfect beach break for any surfer. Not too bad for an eight hour flight from Sydney. And better yet, it’s dirt-cheap.

Parked in the Hotel Lusa for US$11 per night (breakfast and wi-fi included), we were transported from the northeastern haven of Pondok Pisang in Candidasa to Kuta Beach in the south just above Bali’s international airport.

But not bad, we first thought.

Streets line with shops, stalls, bars and restaurants. T-shirts with Bintang Beer logos waver in the breeze. Handbags, batiks, blouses and boardshorts hang from metal pipes. In the road, a constant stream of traffic; taxis honking for your attention, drivers calling out “Boss! Boss!”, those dune-buggy vehicles called Things transporting locals and ex-pats, and scooters galore toting everyone and everything from seven year-old girls at the handlebars to surfers and their boards in padded racks. It is a flurry of movement, a clash of noise, from 6am to 2am. It is the nonstop pulse of the Asian backpacker’s ghetto.

And rightly so, it is dirt-cheap. But wonderfully so, it is Balinese hospitality. It is energetic and full of inexpensive shopping for anyone with a knack for bargaining. To bargain is a game for the Balinese. They love it and expect it.

For two days we wandered the streets and beaches, offering half price and negotiating from there. We relaxed, watched pirated movies, drank coconuts out of thick husks and ate more banana pancakes for breakfast. We explored the alleys, observed tan legs below bleach-blonde hair parade in designer wear while surfers took them by the arm. At one point as the day darkened, we passed a familiar face. The typical tan skin, the bald head and those deep blue eyes. He carried a new pair of Reef boardshorts in hand and strolled down the broken asphalt in a pair of floppy thongs. Our eyes crossed and once out of earshot I turned to Laura.

“Guess who that was?”

She smiled and waited.

“Kelly Slater—the surfing world’s greatest athlete. He was my high school hero. Simon and I used to idolize him. Shit, and to know he’s only my height. Hah!”

Later that night my recognition was reconfirmed when we spotted him again. This time he was with friends who yelled his name in a restaurant. They were suggesting he stop designing surfboards painted with naked chicks.
With our bags slightly heavier—the plastic buckles showing signs of stress like knuckles on a tightening fist—we dashed the traffic, the haggling and pestering, the Balinese selling fake Oakleys and knockoff Rolexes, and sought a hinterland westward.

Emptiness is Closest to Paradise

Another typical day. I just polished off my second coconut milkshake as the sun beats down and the waves blow out. The wind has risen since morning, pushing down the surf as it flies in from off the sea’s horizon. If only it were a strong offshore, keeping the break tall, their face smooth and cresting high, I would be back out. But at this point, my belly is feeling queasy and the coconut juices are loosening my intestines. So, it’s better this way I suppose. Instead of surfing, our afternoons are spent reading, lounging by the river and investing in a sweaty yoga practice—outdoor Bikram. With this schedule, the breeze was welcome.

In the mornings I surfed, catching a clean left or right break, ate an Indo breakfast of nasi goreng (fried rice with a crowning egg sunny-side up), and then went off exploring. Laura and I perused the beaches of Mejan in search of booty. Betwixt long stretches of black sand, the sea’s crustacean pearls shone like gold among rock. Shells of intricate color and exquisite design caught our eyes. We pillaged. We examined the hightide line, filling our hands and pockets with treasures. In our scourging tracks, we left the famed toothpaste mollusks and shoe-piece shells, along with the fish-head carcasses from nearby fishing villages as well as the occasional dead dog. The latter protruded out of the sands like a dark castle in the miniature fantasy world of crabs. The body ballooned belly up, legs wide and stomach bloated to a point of bursting. I could only imagine what would happen in a matter of time if the tide didn’t flow quickly enough underneath the sultry sun of the tropics. We carried on with our booty like pirates fleeing a superstitious omen.

Yet this was not the end of our animalistic endeavors. At the cliffs on the local beach Laura heard the cries of a feline. Tucked in a niche as the waves threatened with its frothy claws, a kitten a mere few weeks young crouched against the rocks frozen in fear.

“We can’t just leave it,” Laura pleaded.

“Well I ain’t gonna touch it.” To be honest, I’m not very fond of cats. Survival of the fittest in this circumstance.

“No, we’re taking it. You grab it Cameron.”

“Me? It could be feral!” I proclaimed.

“It’s a kitten and it’s going to drown if we don’t do anything.” Laura looked at me and wasn’t moving as I slowly crept away.

Turning around, I raised my eyebrows in question, realized I was going nowhere without her, and then walked back over to the cliff-face where the grey and white kitten hissed. As I reached out to offer a helping hand, the beast struck.

Eventually, it surrendered and with saving grace, Laura brought it off the beach to a home where three other kittens wished for another sibling to fight for scraps. It cried the whole walk back, but a few days later we saw it again, cleaned of its sand facemask and plump with food beside its new mates.

Other wildlife beckoned. We spotted a 6’ python in the grasses between banana groves, equally-sized water monitors splashing into the water off the river’s bank, and a dying gecko uttering its last bark just before falling from the ceiling and disappearing between the cracks of the floorboard. Then, of course, are the Third World dogs. In a way, they’re not even dogs, more like canines of a whole different breed of species. Mangy? Yes. Rabid? Most likely. Feral? Most certainly.

Found in the busy streets of larger towns, these beasts are hairless, tumored, three-legged pieces of civilization that snarl as they hobble like defeated outcasts. It is hard to witness as locals continue their business blind to the animal’s suffering, but it is a fact of life—the bottom-suckers in every culture. Often, these varieties of Indonesian mutts can be found feasting on the scant Hindu offerings left by humans.

So we drink our botol besar Bintangs (they’re large and in charge) and shoo away the begging puppy from hopping up onto our table and munching slices of our vegetarian pizza. We sit by candlelight at twilight and eat a fresh grilled fish with more massive Bintangs. As a vegetarian, I can’t help but eat the eyeballs and say Terima Kasih to the sea, eventually offering our puppy-friend a bony savor. And there in paradise, full as the tailored dogs of Bali wearing their flashy collars, we watch the sunset at our secret hideaway. Come to Pondok Pisces if you dare.

Imprinting the Mystical

We were hoping to see Jack again while we spent eight nights at our oasis. I wanted to have the chance to surf with him and reassure him that Bali is indeed magic. From Candidasa down the roads into Kuta Beach and then westward along the Indian Ocean to a famed surfbreak, local mysticism was alive and well. Every morning we witnessed the locals attend to their altars and deities, presenting offerings in square banana-leaf boats containing flowers, victuals and incense. Watching them, they acted in praise and devotion. They appeared to put their hearts into the sacred rituals of their mystic Hindu faith and allowed the peaceful or tumultuous surroundings to fade away. In their trace, a floral scent lingered in sweetness, filling the tropical humid air with sanctity.

Bali is magic, and the people are rooted to continue to appease the mystical, whether above on the mountains or below in the sea. And so after two weeks, Laura and I proceed with our Indo explorations, open to the vastness of this mystical universe. Our minds are broadening. Each of our bodies loose, the muscles of our bones soaking up the 10 massages in just 14 days. Bliss.

Tags: bali, cam2yogi, cameron karsten, indonesia, laura defreitas, lauranidra

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