Bewitched on Bali

All love affairs are like journeys, deep into a foreign country, where you can't read the signs.

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It was dark when first I set foot on the island, and the jungle all around
was chattering. I heard gamelan music through the trees, saw oil-lamps
flickering along the narrow lanes. The last parties were breaking up along
the back streets of Kuta, and when the taxi dropped me off at an unknown
hotel, I was alone in a confounding darkness.

That first night in Bali, still jangled and discombobulated from two days
and nights in the air, from New York, through Tokyo, to Jakarta and then
here, I wandered out onto the beach at dead of night, and a figure
appeared, smiling, and asked if I’d like “jig-jig” or some carnal services
I couldn’t follow. I woke up often in the dark, fitful and scratchy,
mosquitoes whining all around, and when I went out again at dawn, I found I
had landed up on a pockmarked lane, with psychedelic paintings hanging
from storefronts, and demon masks fringed with human hair, and a few
long-hairs slumped among the bushes, deadened by the magic they’d eaten or
smoked.

I sat on the beach, that first day at sunset, and watched bare-chested boys
frolicking among the reddening waves, and snake-armed masseuses packing
away their charms, as in some Gauguin fantasy. A girl came over and sat
down beside me. “I saw two flowers in my dream last night, and one of them
was you,” she said. “I put that flower in my hair.” She wasn’t beautiful,
and I could hardly see her face for the sarongs she was carrying on her
head, and the night that was falling around us. But I followed her, and
followed her down the beach, and into the dark, till I could see nothing
but the whites of her eyes and her teeth.

We walked along the buzzing lanes, dogs howling on every side. She took me
to a night-market, a movie and then, again, into the whirring
back streets, where, in memory, I can see her eyes burning. I remember her
sobbing, I remember her panting, and laughing when least I expected it.

In the nights that ensued, we went deep into the interior, through magic
forests and small towns, into candlelit guesthouses at midnight. We
walked on a beach where couples walk under a huge full moon.
She laughed as I unbuttoned my shirt, and dug her nails into my arm.

All the best journeys, I have always felt, are like love affairs, not least
because they turn you inside out and leave you within a darkness where you
can’t tell right from left or good from bad. And all love affairs are like
journeys, deep into a foreign country, where you can’t read the signs, and
you don’t know the language and you are drawn into a wilderness alive with
mystery and possibility, and the knowledge — certain knowledge — that who you
were is irretrievable.

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But in Bali, the whole spell is heightened and intensified, as in some
charged re-creation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” where queens fall in love
with asses, and young men lose their heads. In Bali, lovers sit all night
with the image of their devotion in a coconut-lamp, or catch unwilling
souls with moon coins and magic potions made from a serpent’s saliva mixed
with an infant’s tears.

I remember how I would walk through the night — always night — with Wayan,
and she would tell me of the pills she had swallowed once, and of the first
boy who’d ever loved her, who died soon after in an industrial accident.
She took me into the humming darkness of her culture, its dream-messages
and leyak witches, its singing cremations and unwanted ghosts. Her mind,
her being, seldom touched the ground.

Bali is at the best of times a kind of vibrating altered state — a different
zone of consciousness, in which dancers are often in trances, and spirits
appear at the foot of your bed, and always, at the edge of your mind, you
can hear howling dogs and the tinkling gamelan; it is also a province of
romance, like some Arcadian forest where bodies fall into couplings, by the
light of a hundred temples. But I was entering both states at once, with a
spirit that didn’t seem earthly. Anyone who points out, quite rightly,
that Bali is a paradise of angels and Edenic pleasures has to acknowledge
that there must be demons there, too, and serpents in the garden.

When Wayan took me to the airport my last day there, she said, “Last night
I dreamed I died. I dress all in white and go away.” I tried to brush it
off, but she was insistent, her gaze intense. I wouldn’t see her again,
she said; she would be in the realm of her ancestors.

I kept in touch with Wayan from afar, and sent her presents for her
birthday; I often thought of her trembling form, shaking in the back lanes
of Kuta. Yet I realized, too, that it wasn’t wise to toy with what I
couldn’t fathom. The undertow in Bali carries several foreigners to their
deaths each year.

The next year, when I returned to Kuta, I didn’t tell Wayan when I crept
into her village. But she found me, that first night back, in the same
lane where she’d held onto me so fiercely I thought she’d draw blood. I
heard the sound of her laughter again, saw her rolling eyes.

We went back to the full-moon beach, at noon, and walked along its
unmagicked sands. I told her I had stumbled into a forest I had not sought
and did not trust. She said almost nothing, her dress not flaming scarlet
as before, but the blue of daytime skies.

She said almost nothing, and I
went back to my hut. For three days after that farewell, I could not move.
I lay, feverish and awake, in a room full of insects and crawling bodies.
I heard cats yelping outside, and the gamelan incessantly. Dogs, more
dogs, howled in the dark, and lizards stood on my walls till I could no
longer tell them from the light switches. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t
sleep, I couldn’t think — could only hear whispers and rustlings from next
door, where a soft-limbed local sprite danced in and out of an Australian’s
arms.

When finally I could move, I went up into the hills, far away, to a village
where I’d been with Wayan a year before. But something in me was lost; I
was waterlogged and sluggish, a sleepwalker in a phantom state. It felt as
if some guardian spirit had stolen away from me, leaving all the lights
turned out.

I finally picked up enough strength to leave the island, and I never heard
from Wayan again. But when I returned to New York, I put up on my wall an
owl mask I’d bought in her village — and instantly the Manhattan night was
so full of chatterings and hauntings that I had to tear the mask down from
the wall and stash it away, in a closet, behind a stack of boxes, where I’d
never have to lay eyes on it again.

Salon Travel Contributing Editor Pico Iyer is the author of "Video Night in Kathmandu," "The Lady and the Monk," "Falling off the Map," "Cuba and the Night" and "Tropical Classical."

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