The thing I love most about Bali is that everything is connected to the
spirits. Every morning, Balinese women place sweet-smelling offerings at
doorways to greet friendly spirits. Offerings are prepared with sprinkles of
rice, burning incense, flower petals, and jasmine. Even nasty demons are
treated with concoctions of blossoms and delicious things to eat. All
villages, including those no larger than a crossroads, are adorned with
elaborate shrines and temples. Above dangerous curves on the roads and at
intersections sit sacred shrines to watch over passersby. In the countryside,
stone-carved deities hide in the bushes to ward off evil demons. One is
protected by the spirits in Bali.
Almost every day of the year is celebrated with a ceremony or ritual. Once I
was awakened in the middle of the night by a dreadful squealing noise. The
next morning I discovered the neighbors had sacrificed a pig outside my window
in some sort of pork chop offering to the gods ceremony. Not a day went by
when I didn't see a procession of colorfully dressed women balancing pyramids
of tropical fruit, cakes, and flowers on their heads as offerings to the
fertility goddess, or whoever the deity of the day happened to be.
Not only are the Balinese intimately connected to the spirit world; they're in
touch with the animal world too. One morning I walked out of the artists'
village of Ubud, past the Monkey Forest Road and into the Monkey Forest. In
front of me walked an older man, a European tourist carrying a camera.
warning, a monkey swooped down out of a banyan tree, ran over to the man, made
off with his camera, and clambered back up the tree. The man stopped and
his fist at the animal, as if that would mean anything to the monkey. Just
then an old woman came along, singing to herself. Dressed in the traditional
batik sarong of her village, she was carrying an armload of bananas.
"Bananas, you want to buy? Feed the monkey," she said to the old man. She
didn't offer to sell bananas to me.
"No, thank you. I want my camera back."
"Buy bananas. Feed monkey bananas. Monkey give you camera back."
She was right. When the man bought bananas from the woman and offered one to
the monkey in the tree, the monkey jumped down, dropped the camera at the
feet as it grabbed the banana, and tore back up the tree to eat it.
Brilliant. I wondered how many people a day the old woman and monkey tricked
in the same way.
Bali is a country of sweet swaying bodies on buses and exquisite women who
spit. My flight arrived in Bali so late one night that I decided to sleep
outside the airport on a bench in a little wooden pavilion surrounded by tall
grass. The next morning, I caught a bus for a mountain Village. The bus was
hot, sticky, and crowded. Some of the people had to stand and I noticed how
easily they melded with a roving bus that flew over curves, as if they were
raised on rolling waves. Next to me on the bus sat a woman with such a serene
smile and quietly delicate features, I thought she must have soaked herself in
the juices of roses and must have been sung to all her life. She had the kind
of gentle grace of a Gauguin Tahitian painting. I watched her gather her long
black hair into a perfectly smooth collection of silk and then twist it
ingenious knot on top of her head. I watched her, amazed, then tried the same
maneuver with my hair. No matter how many times I tried, my hair refused to
stay in place on my head. She had made it look easy. I was hot, and I wanted
my hair out of the way. The woman turned to me, closed her eyes and bowed her
head, and took my hair in her hands without speaking. She ran her fingers
stream down my scalp to the very ends of my hair, then pulled it behind my
ears. I felt her nimble hands whisk my hair around and around until it was
secured tightly on top, just like hers.
The woman got off the bus when I did. I followed her, not meaning to follow
her, but I found myself walking behind her along the dirt road of the
I was looking for a guest house, but was in no particular hurry. The woman
carried on her back a basket of vegetables with green shoots that stuck out of
the top and rubbed against her neck. Around her waist hung a well-worn
gold-and-red batik sarong that reached just below her calves. Her blouse was
an unmatching floral design, and on her tiny feet were flip-flops. She took
small steps. She waved and called out to another woman as she kept
continued to walk behind her, vaguely watching for the guest house, or a place
to eat, but really I wanted to know where the woman would go, to discover what
her house, her family, might look like. She swayed her small hips back and
forth, kicked little stones out of her way, and hummed to herself.
Then she spat. Right there on the road she spat without any grace
She spat as if she had spat every day of her life, as if it was something that
did not interrupt her stride, or even her thoughts, in the least. It shocked
the hell out of me.
I continued to follow her. Not long after the spit, she strayed over to the
side of the road and stopped at a voluptuous bush, a bush intoxicated with
creamy yellow flowers. She bent down to breathe in the blossoms. I slowed
down and watched. I heard the inhalation, the ecstatic cry of the flowers as
their scent rushed down her lungs. With her head in the bush, she turned to
look at me as if she knew I would be there. I walked over to where she stood
bent over the blossoms. When I stood next to her, I noticed how small she
was. I hadn't noticed before. Tiny bones, tiny hands, like a little girl.
Yet her hands were lined and weathered as if she had used them for many
She picked one of the flowers off the branch, made another bowing gesture
towards me, and put the flower behind my ear. She picked another flower and
put it behind her own ear. We stood facing each other like two comets
colliding, reeling from flashes of light, falling into the flames of each
other. Then her face, so serene and still, broke into a smile. She turned
walked away. I remained standing by the tree, with the blossom behind my ear
and my hair still in a knot. I wanted to watch her walk away until she
disappeared down the dirt road, until I couldn't see her anymore. I didn't
follow her. I didn't want to see her spit again.
I can still tie my hair in a knot that special way, and whenever I do, I think
I love the Balinese because they love the moon as much as I do. Late one
afternoon I was walking down a country road outside a village. The moon
be full that evening and I wanted to be out in the open country when the moon
rose, to watch it rise over a rice paddy. I came across a young Balinese man
sitting on the steps outside a shop. He flashed a smile far too beautiful for
me to ignore.
"Hello, what are you doing?" I asked him, surprised at my forwardness.
"Waiting for the moon to rise."
"So am I."
"Come watch with me. It won't come up until the sun goes down."
I joined him on the steps. He was wearing cut-off short pants and a white
T-shirt, bare feet. His hair fell naturally into one eye and he kept tossing
his head back to flick it out of his way. His forearms were muscular and
darkly tanned. "What's your name?" he asked.
"Yes, and you?"
His name intrigued me. The Balinese have only four first names, regardless of
their gender. The first child is Wayan, the second child is Made, the third
child is Nyoman and the fourth is Ketut. If a mother has a fifth and sixth
child, she starts all over again, calling the children Wayan, Made, and so on.
So Nyoman Bagus was the third child (or else the seventh) but his last name,
Bagus, I had learned meant "good." The woman I rented my guest house from had
explained that the Balinese say "bagus" with varying emphasis, depending on
"good" something actually is. If someone were to ask you how you are feeling
and you're just OK, you would say "bagus," flatly. If you happened to be
exceptionally happy that day, you would say "bagus!" with great emphasis,
practically shout the word.
Nyoman Bagus was an artist, a painter. This explained his well-developed
forearms. He offered to show me his latest works of art. Inside his dark and
cluttered shop, I saw massive canvases of jungles and dark forests filled with
mythological beasts, freakish ghouls and demons, winged maidens, sleeping
princes, and golden mountain people. Other paintings were of bizarre hairy
animals entwined with powerful goddesses, ocean birds, and sorcerers. One
painting was of the moon. I got lost inside Nyoman Bagus's paintings. Only
when he suggested we go for a ride on his motorbike to watch the moonrise
find my way back to earth.
"I'd love to go."
Nyoman Bagus put on some shoes. They were leather sandals and would not be
considered safe, or even legal, to wear on a motorbike where I come from. He
owned no helmets either, which was fine by me. I watched him swing his leg
over the bike and rev the engine. He tossed the unruly flop of hair out of
eye as he turned to smile at me. "I usually drive my mother on here. This is
much better." I laughed and climbed on the back. I was used to riding on the
back of motorcycles.
We set off to the west. "We'll go to the sea," he shouted over his
we sped down the winding dirt road beside the rice paddy.
"To the moonrise," I shouted back.
We passed through village after village, all alight with color and ornate
temples, golden gates, and art in every crevice. We saw carvings along the
roadside, carvings of beasts, gods, and demonic masks. I could smell roasting
bananas and sweet blossoms, incense and musty bamboo mats. We passed seas of
terraced rice fields that looked like green ocean waves. Bali is volcanically
active and the fecundity is extravagant. The scent of frangipani blossoms
saturated the air so thickly, I felt drunk. Prehistoric tree ferns and
passionate wild flowers hung down from the cliffs beside the road. Color
out of the moist ground. And in every village, in front of the thatched huts,
children laughed and waved at us. Outside one village, women with sarongs
around their waists were washing themselves beside the road in a bathing place
under a grove of trees. They had come in from the end of a day's work in the
rice paddles. As we drove by the bathing women, they laughed and covered
breasts, waved at us, and splashed water at each other. We passed high
lush river gorge and I saw red temples hidden down in the trees, temples to
house spirits of the dead. Through a jungled woods we drove too fast around
curves. At the edges of my eyes were flashes and movements among the
mystical birds, I imagined, and wild, running animals. If I looked directly
into the forest, I couldn't see anything but trees. Finally we reached the
"The Balinese don't look to the sea. We look to the mountains. People are
afraid of the sea," said Nyoman Bagus when we stopped and parked on the
"But I like it here. I like the life of the sea, the things that crawl out of
the water and under the sand, the sea beasts."
We walked along the shore examining the sea beasts. Everything we picked up we
would inspect with the utmost attention and fascination. We found vibrant
purple coral formations that we stuffed into our pockets, perfect sand dollars,
hermit crabs and jellied things attached to stones. On our stomachs we lay
down to watch tropical fish trapped in shallow tide pools. We skipped down
shore using giant rubbery seaweed tubes as skipping ropes. The white surf
crashed over our feet and the salty wind blew warm sultry air on our faces as
we gazed into the sand. Then we looked up.
"Look, the moon." Nyoman Bagus saw it first, the sea giving birth to the
As orange as the setting sun it reflected, the moon stirred the sky in a hush
too soft for human ears. The sea beasts must have heard the rising of the
because the beach began to transform. Everything was quieter, more muted.
Sharp edges of rocks and even the cutting surf adopted subtler tendencies,
mistier, as details became lost in shadowy curves and shapes impossible to
define. A sea bird cried out for love down the shore. A fish flung itself
straight up out of the ocean into the world of air, then down again into the
water. I wanted to dive into the ocean, enter the sea beasts' domain. "Oh no,
we can't go in there. Poisonous snakes, the sea is full of them," said Nyoman
We sat on the sand instead and watched the moon. Nyoman Bagus put his arm
around my shoulder and asked what my favorite American movies were. It had
been months since anyone had put his arms around me. I felt like
entire body into the tender sand.
"My favorite movies aren't American, but I like a lot of American movies."
"The best movies are American," he said. "Thelma and Louise is the very
I have seen this movie four times. I like the part where Geena Davis shows her
underwear to the bad boy with the cowboy smile. My brother wanted cowboy
after seeing that. I laughed at him. I told him Geena Davis wouldn't show
underwear to everybody in cowboy boots."
"I'm sure she wouldn't. Is your brother an artist too?"
"He's a farmer in the day and a dancer at night. He dances the temple
our village. He paints his whole body, feathers, masks, beautiful costumes;
you should see him. The village women love him. He'll marry soon.
"And you? Will you marry soon?"
"My parents will find a girl for me, but I have things to do first."
"What kind of things?"
"Understand the world, then paint it."
If the world were just slightly lighter in weight, if the moon had remained
suspended over the water and deep orange in the sky a moment longer, I could
have fallen in love with Nyoman Bagus for saying that. I stared into the
complex organization of his face and wondered what he thought about at night,
what he saw in the dark woods to be able to paint the way he did, and why the
rising of the moon was important to him, as it was to me.
The stars were beginning to brighten as the moon rose above the sea. "Where's
the Southern Cross?" I asked. Nyoman Bagus lay back on the sand to survey the
"It's there." He pointed. "No, I think that one over there. Or maybe that
little one out there." His arm flung back and forth across the stretch of
heavens as he tried to find the constellation for me. Finally, he admitted he
I lay back on the sand with him to fall into the sky's naked eternal
its bursting ecstasies. Soon we were kissing each other. I tasted salt water
on his lips and knew that one day he would leave the island of Bali. We must
have been kissing for hours, lost in the warm scent and skin of each other,
because when we looked for the moon, it was high and alone in the sky,
conjuring shadows on the beach.
We drove back through an indigo haze of eerie shapes silhouetted against the
sky. The villages we passed were now silent in a lantern-lit red glow, and
still; the children had gone. Banyan trees, the enormous Indian fig trees
considered holy, with creeping branches that grow back down into the ground to
take root, seemed to lurch through the darkness. Nyoman Bagus drove much more
slowly than he had before, slowly enough for us to melt into the pure air of
the night, slowly enough to be part of a painting. Almost slowly enough to
understand the world.
On our way home, as night blanketed the gentle land, I realized that a million
years would not be enough to repeat that fraction of eternity when we passed
the place where the women had bathed, and I put my arms around his waist, and
he leaned back into me, his hair and the moonlight resting on my face. When he
stopped in front of my guest house, I got off the motorbike and kissed him
"I had a wonderful time. I loved it," I said. "Thank you, Nyoman, Nyoman
BAAAAGUS." I tried to emphasize the word Bagus, since it meant something
I said it louder than the Nyoman
part, with as much emphasis as is possible to enunciate. But when I said his
name that way, something curious happened. Nyoman Bagus narrowed his eyes and
looked at me as if I didn't belong in his dimension of reality, as if I
alien life-form he had allowed on the back of his motorbike. He blinked a
couple of times. He made little inhaling noises. He opened his eyes very
until they took over his face, as if something was occurring to him that never
had occurred to him before. His mouth dropped open. He began to laugh. He
laughed without restraint, and continued to laugh while I stood there watching
him. He laughed so hard he had trouble sucking in air. The laughing looked
painful. He was still laughing when I turned to leave and go back to my guest
That was the last time I saw Nyoman Bagus and I like to remember him that way,
convulsing on his motorbike with his head falling to his knees. It's a good
way to remember someone. I still haven't figured out what cultural gaffe I
made and I don't know if I ever want to.