Friday, December 31, 2010

Oz

There are many things I love about my roommate, but what I admire most is her menschness. She is far more feminine than me-she enjoys pedicures, wears mini skirts and make up- but she also opens beer bottles on counter tops without ever breaking the glass. When she burps it registers on the Richter scale. She will clean clumps wet hair out of the shower drain without flinching, while I gag at the mere thought. And, when she gets doused with burning hot tikki lamp oil, she doesn't scream. In fact, when I turn around, she is merely holding her bare arm out in front of her and quietly stating, "It burns."

I put my complimentary cocktail-filled coconut back on the table and stand helplessly beside her while the hotel staff round up wet towels and ice cubes. They offer to serve us dinner in our room but that seems to be as far as they'll go by way of compensation. Stacy though, is a mensch and wants to eat the compulsory New Year's Eve dinner with the rest of the hotel guests, so, Adik and I bring her a plate with everything from the buffet which consists of steak, lobster, chicken, potatoes, salads, rice and fruit.

We have to pay for wine and Adik begins her protest, "Please, don't drink tonight." Having already explained that bule New Year's Eve involves alcohol I ignore her. The food is delicious and, while the entertainment is mediocre and somewhat off key, the fireworks shot up every second on every street corner are fantastic.

After dinner the "sexy dancers" show up. They pivot and bump and grind their way to the table next to us where they proceed to give a ten year old boy a lap dance. We take that as our cue to leave before I have to poke out my eyes.

At the front desk we try and procure some gauze and tape. If we're going out, Stacy needs to ditch the towels, but the staff don't seem to know what we mean by medical gauze. They tell us we will have to go to the pharmacy but, just as we're about to leave, a first aid kit is produced so we go up to the room where Adik wraps Stacy's arm like a mummy. Not the most auspicious way to celebrate a New Year but, as Stacy optimistically points out, "At least it happened at the end of the old year and not first thing in the new."

We stumble out into the street to join the throngs of celebrant tourists blowing noise makers and carefully avoiding the firecrackers being lit in every door and alleyway. "Please," Adik begs again, "don't drink tonight. Please."

"Adik," I say evenly, "It's New Year's Eve. With the exception of one year when I was ridiculously sick, I have never not drank on New Year's Eve. Why are you trying to ruin the tradition?"

"Because I will be alone," she wails.

"Um, Adik. I think it will be pretty hard to be alone tonight."

And it is. We find a bar with a decent cover band and pull up a seat to watch the audacity of the dance floor.

"I love New Year's Eve," I say. "It's a carnival."

And it is. We watch people in masks bumping and gyrating under the heaving lights. People wearing blinking devil's horns raising toasts and slamming down empty glasses. Half naked people making out in darkened corners and seniors slipping on the rain soaked dance floor.

An hour before midnight the band takes a break and a bar tender comes out to put on a show a la Tom Cruise circa "Cocktail." The bottles fly and seem to suspend in the air as he juggles glasses and pours a line of drinks. By the time he starts lighting things on fire for the finale the enthusiastic crowd is drowning out the thumping bass that's shaking the floor.

After we toast in the New Year Stacy wants to go next door to visit her bartender friend but when we get there the place is dark and deserted save for a few drag queens and midgets grinding on the stage. I head back to where the drinks are flowing and the people are lively.

I make friends with some middle aged Australians who make up a drinking game involving me naming an Australian band for every Canadian band they name. I am not very good at this game. By the time Adik and Stacy return to tell me they're going to the beach to light fireworks, I am drunk.

"I think," I slur, "I'm going to stay here."

But, shortly after they leave, the Australians decide we should all go to Kuta beach.

Kuta, on New Year's Eve, is probably the closest I will ever get to Mardi Gras. The crowd are not people but a pulsating wall of human flesh. I am possibly the only person there wearing clothes. Inside the club, the stage is crowded with naked strangers undulating under strobe lights, grasping and holding on to each other knowing if they let go they will drown in the sea of bodies below them.

I am quickly separated from my drinking buddies, and with sweaty bodies pressing against me from all sides I feel acutely alone. Two more Australians swoop in to fill the void and I decide, at this point, I haven't much choice. I smile, lift my drink and shout out a toast before giving myself over to the vibrating night.

Long Goodbyes

"But rainbows are for skies
And hesitation is for sad regretful eyes"
  -
Lowest of the Low

In the morning I realize I don't have enough money left to pay the hotel bill so I set out to walk to the only ATM on the other side of town. As I cross the street I spot Nathan and assume he's heading to his dive but when I get closer I can see something's wrong.

"After we left the Corner I went back to my boat but the engine wouldn't start so I had no way of getting back to the yacht."

Some locals had stopped to help him and offered him a place to sleep but still he looks worn out. Watching his face as he speaks I have to consciously resist the urge to reach up and try to smooth out the wrinkles around his eyes and tell him to reconsider his dive today as I'm having visions of him making a fatal error in his fatigued state; I would sound like someone's mother and besides he, like me, wouldn't listen anyway. Instead I say simply, "Take care," and give him one last hug before I turn to go, already late for our flight.

"Hey," he calls after me, "don't behave yourself."

The two smarmy men are sitting outside our hotel room again.

"Are you leaving today?" Asks the muscled one, with slicked down hair and mirror shades. His friend, with bad skin and oversized head, is Japanese and doesn't speak English.

I nod.

"Where are you going?"

"Bali."

"Oh yeah? Us too. Where are you staying in Bali?"

"I'm not sure," I answer vaguely, "I think Legian. We're meeting our friend there. She booked the hotel."

He nods but I can tell he knows I'm prevaricating.

"Well, why don't we meet tonight? We'll take you out, celebrate the New Year."

"Thanks but we're going to another friend's party."

He nods, waiting for an invite but I don't offer him one.

Adik comes outside then and he turns his attention to her. She falls into a too easy conversation with them and I am amazed again at how poor her judgement is. Is she really that naive? That innocent? I know she's not. She's wily. She lies, she cheats, she steals. Even to, and from, me. I stay close but I realize all too late that she's telling him everything he wants to know about her, about us, about where we are staying, including the address of our hotel.

"Hey," she says to me in English, "they're on our plane. Do you want to share a taxi? It's free!"

Dear, sweet Adik. Nothing, in a man's world, is free.

But I nod.

In the cab, Smarmy asks if I have a boyfriend. When I say "Yes" Adik looks at me wide-eyed at the unhesitating lie, but I don't flinch.

"Is he Javanese?"

"Australian," I say, staring out the window. Australia is so convenient.

Our flight is scheduled to leave at 8:00 am but by 10 there's still no sign of it.

The precocious boy from Rinca is there though. "The head's the heaviest part of the human body, you know, that's why I'm vigorously exercising my neck." he says strapping a loaded duffle bag to the top of his head. "I'm reading a book about Artemis and Apollo. She liked to hunt. Do you like to hunt?" By the time he announces "Wow, that bathroom stinks like butt waste" I am convinced I am in a Kids in the Hall  sketch with Gavin.

I go outside and stare forlornly at the mountains beyond the landing strip. We're on the homestretch and I am not sure I have the fortitude to return to Batam.

Adik materializes beside me, wide eyed and frightened.

"Do you know, that man asked me to go with him tonight."

I shrug. "And?"

"And I said no but he wants me to sleep with him tonight."

I sigh. "Well, that's going to happen to you. You're a beautiful girl. Men are going to try and get you to sleep with them."

"He said no sex. He said he is a good man, a police man. I said my brother is also a police man but he is not good."

I don't know what to tell her. She's already given him all the information he needs to find her, and me for that matter.

"When we get to the hotel I will talk to the front desk and tell them if anyone comes looking for us they should say we never checked in. This is why, Adik, you should never tell anyone where you are staying when you travel."

When the flight finally arrives at noon, Adik and I choose separate seats. She spent most of her time in Labuan Bajo at the internet cafe, or locked up in our hotel room. We no longer give high fives and utter the blessing "bismillah" before starting a new leg of our journey like we did when we set out. We barely even look at each other.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Snake Hunter

Back in town I head to the Corner to see if Nathan has any sound advice on dealing with my waterlogged camera but he isn't there. Adik takes me to a Javanese restaurant she's been eating at while we've been in Labuan Bajo.

"It's so cheap!" she says, very pleased.

I spend my meal picking chicken innards and cartilage out of my soto and bite my tongue to keep from saying, cheap or not, bad food is never a good deal.

I go back to the Corner, with my notebook this time, to drink and write, but as much as I need them to, the words won't come and when Nathan shows up late from a dive I am grateful for the company.

He tells me stories, we talk about genetics and psychology. He tells me he doesn't date, that when he asks girls out it's to go snake hunting. I remember him saying he was going snake hunting when we got back from Rinca and I wonder if he was going out with Hat Girl, but I don't ask. I tell him instead, from the studies done on the psychology of love, this is a very good strategy.

"Girls are easily seduced when they're scared out of their minds."

He shrugs. "I just figure, that's where I'm in my element."

At the end of the evening one of his diving friends comes over to introduce himself.

"There's a party tomorrow night if you and your 'friend?' want to come," he says extending his hand.

I shake it, tell him my name and Nathan answers, "She, is going to Bali for New Years."

The lights go off and we are the last one's to leave.

"Well," he says as we walk down the stairs, "I guess that's it. It's over."

I guess so. I tell him I'll miss him, he tells me to take care, gives me a hug, then a kiss on the cheek and finally a punch on the arm and I walk back to the hotel alone.

There are two skeevy men sitting outside the room next to ours and as I walk past one of them says, "You are a very beautiful woman."

I slide the key into the lock and say, "I don't know about that. I make babies cry," before closing the door behind me.

Please Forgive Me, I Know Not What I Do

When we finally drag ourselves out of the mountain jungle our guide insists we go back to his house for coconut milk. My ojek driver also insists on driving me there even though it's 60 meters away. That's 60 meters of cavernous ruts and potholes and, even though he's mostly walking the bike, Flintstone style, I'm nearly thrown off the bike.

"Hati, hati," I admonish, laughing.

He responds by gesturing wildly and yelling something that I think would loosely translate as, "What do you expect me to do, princess? Have you seen this road? Sorry it's not paved in gold for you, you uppity bule" and, when we stop and dismount, he stalks off angrily towards the house.

Within minutes of taking our seats inside the dark, musty, hut the whole village has gathered outside the house, taking turns poking their heads inside to gawk. Three girls sit on the dirt floor across the room from me whispering to each other and giggling, their wide brown eyes carefully analyzing my every move. Our guide's father, whose bright, laughing eyes and toothless grin contrast the hard life mapped out in the lines that crease his face, interviews me.

After I have answered the requisite questions about my religion and the whereabouts of my husband, I am largely ignored, a curiosity to watch while they drink their afternoon coffee and discuss the rice crops. My ojek driver pulls out his hand phone and puts it on speaker. We listen to an entire Best of Brian Adams album while we sip tea and coffee.

Outside, the men produce machetes, skillfully split the coconuts and carve spoons from the trimmed shells so we can scoop out the coconut meat. The coconuts are so heavy that, when mine is set on the coffee table, I have to use both my hands to lift it up. Adik can't lift hers even with both hands so glasses are produced and the milk is poured out for us.

My glass is still half full when the baby wakes up. He doesn't notice me at first and toddles happily back and forth between his grandparents on either side of the room. He points to the coconuts and says, "Enuk", clapping one hand excitedly as though trying to grab it. He sees the puppy outside and heads towards the door to chase it, but I am sitting by the door and when he finally notices me he stops so suddenly, he wobbles from the sudden inertia and falls to the floor. He stares for a moment, his eyes growing wide so I flash him a big grin and say a sing-song, "Hello," but before I get out the last syllable he screams and bursts into tears.

He will not be comforted. He shrieks and wails for the remainder of our visit. On the one hand I am grateful to him for drowning out the sound of Brian Adams singing "Please forgive me, I can't stop loving you," on the other hand I am more than a bit distressed to discover that the mere sight of me can make babies cry.

After about twenty minutes of this, our guide apologizes, "He's not used to bule skin," and suggests we leave.

I stand beside the motorbike, waiting for my driver to mount it but instead he says, "Kamu" and gestures, haughtily, that I should get on and I should drive.

"Me?" I laugh, "No, no you drive."

But he takes out his keys and thrusts them at me. He's still angry about my back seat driving. If I think I can do better I should prove it.

Still laughing I get on the back of the seat saying, "Fine, fine, I'll keep my mouth shut, just drive already."

Driving back on the highway, it occurs to me that tomorrow is New Year's Eve. I think about where I was this time last year, how impossible everything seemed then. I think about the year I've had, how the world opened up with opportunities and how many great adventures I've had, people I've met and the people I've helped and who have helped me, along the way. I think about the year to come, I start to make wishes, I start to make plans but I realize I have no idea where on this earth I will be this time next year, and I like it that way.

I tap my driver on the shoulder, lean in and ask him to drive faster. He's still sulking but he lets out the throttle and the scenery blurs to a blue and green smudge leaving only the open road ahead.

Soft Landings

My driver swerves to avoid the oncoming truck and squeezes the ojek between it and a minivan. We barely fit, but instead of being terrified I just feel free. Around every bend there's excited children calling out in the only English they know, "Hey mister!" while we follow an overloaded bus, the people riding on top with the luggage waving at me, up the winding mountain road. The air is fresh and cool, the scenery verdant and lush and god it feels good just to be alive.

We drive all the way to the top but the man stationed there to guard the power generators says we've gone to far. The driver idles the engine on our way back down the mountain and we weave in and out of traffic as we coast. Eventually he turns down a dirt road that turns into a muddy path that, at times, he navigates by propelling the bike with his feet.

The path opens up into a field and we stop at a gate where we are greeted by a man who tells us we must have a guide. I look at Adik skeptically, but she shrugs and says, "That's the rule."

As we hike the jungle path, through the rice fields, than back down more jungle paths I'm glad we hired him. The path ends at the river and without him, while I can hear the water running in the distance, I'm not sure we'd have made it. Still, I am annoyed that my ojek driver has insisted on accompanying us, and worse insists on trying to help me. This is not the sort of terrain that's easily negotiated while someone tries holding your hand. We scramble across razor sharp stones, clinging to to tree trunks and branches along the river's edge to keep from falling in but when we finally reach the flat stones we stand in awe of the giant waterfall before us.

Clear, blue water rushes in a pounding cascade over black rocks, while kupukupu in vivid shades of green and blue flit and flutter around us. I pull out my camera to try and take their portraits but my camera falls into the river.

The boys cross the river in their underwear, which is more than Adik or I really wanted to know of them. When we reach the other side we climb the rocky cliff and our guide, doffing his shirt now too, throws himself over the edge.

"Now you," he urges from the river below.

I laugh and tell him he's gila but even as I say it, with fear churning my stomach, I know I'm going to do it. I look around for a place to change into my bathing suit but resign myself to one of two options; jump in fully clothed or strip down to my underwear.

Pulling my shirt over my head I tell myself it's no worse than wearing a bikini, which I'd never do either, but it's been two years since any man's seen me without clothes on and I really had imagined, if such a thing were going to happen again, there'd be softer lighting and a bit more affection involved, rather than these two jokers, particularly the ojek driver who has taken out his cell phone and started snapping pictures. I grab it from him and threaten to throw it in the water.

"Ok, ok" he says angrily, as though he's the one wronged.

Still, now that I'm standing in my underwear on the edge of the cliff, staring down at the water three stories below, I am not, as I'd hoped I'd be, any more keen to jump.

"Fuck's sakes Eris, just jump," says a distant memory.

You are sitting on the dock, watching me stare into the abyss of the cold black lake.

"If you're not going in, let's go back inside. There's no point in standing out here freezing if we're not going swimming."

"I'm going swimming," I answer, more to myself than to you, my eyes never leaving the water.

"Then, let's go already!"

"Do you have any idea how cold it's going to be? It hasn't broken 20 degrees all summer."

"Well, it's not getting any warmer while you stand here staring at it."

"I know that," I snap back. Of course I know that, but still, I cannot force my feet to leave the dock.

"That's it, I'm not waiting another ten minutes," and before I can pull my eyes from the water below you're on your feet, you've picked me up and tossed me in.

A sharp pain rockets through my body when I make contact with the water, the cold knocking the wind out of me and numbing my nerves so quickly my skin stings. When I resurface, gasping for air, you're in the water beside me, your face so twisted with fear I nearly drown from laughing. We both flounder for the dock and, when we've hauled ourselves out of the water I lie on the wooden platform convulsing in a fit of laughter.

Later, in front of the fire, you say, "You are the craziest woman I've ever met."

I start to giggle again. "You should have seen the look on your face."

"Well, I thought I was dead for sure. My own life flashed before my eyes when I watched you flying through the air and I realized what I'd done."

When we're done laughing this time I kiss you deeper than the ocean, warmer than the midday sun and longer than a leap year but when we come up for air you say, quietly, as though afraid I will hear and we'll have another fight, "That's our problem, you know. You think too much."

"Well, you're half right," I say, turning back to the fire, "half the time it's because I think too much and the other half it's because you don't think enough."

But today, my half is the only half that matters so I take a step forward and I jump. When I surface, there is a smiling, brown face beside me and when our eyes meet he lets out a victory whoop that ricochets off the rocks.

"Lagi," I say, laughing. "Lagi, lagi, lagi."

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Moment of Zen

The man behind the counter tells me he does not recommend I kayak today.
"The waves are very big."
As I paddle to their peaks

and surf the swells

I think of paddling the waves


(and sharks)

and that is all.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Corners

There's a lot of things I don't understand,
why so many people lie.
It's this hurt I hide that fuels the fire inside me
-"Empty", Ray Lamontagne
 
On our way out of the park a knobby kneed, tow haired boy asks Nathan a million
questions about his camera. He reminds me of Kleenex Kid and I can tell Nathan is annoyed 
so when the precocious child shows me his carved komodo souvenir I smile as brightly as I can and try to 
seem interested. 

Back on the boat our fisherman friend wants another $60 to take us to Komodo Island so we head back to Labuan Bajo. I ask Adik to ask if we can stop on one of the islets for a swim and, with the exception of the precocious kid who calls out excitedly to show us where his room is as his houseboat leaves the dock alongside ours, the trip back is quiet.

I wrestle with your ghost. The last time I saw you was through the same window I had been sitting at the night we met. My friend thought you were cute but had her back to you so I'd been giving her the play by play on all the girls who were hitting on you. I thought pigtail girl was the prettiest but you were doing your best to ignore them all.

"Well, this is ridiculous," I said, slurred "he's standing out there smoking with all those cute girls ogling him and he's just staring off into space. I'm going to help him out."

"No! Don't do that! Stay out of it," my friend protested. But it was too late, I'd already knocked on the window.

"Oh god, I can't take you anywhere."

When you turned around and our eyes met, your face lit up like a fireworks and I saw what all the other girls saw that I hadn't when you were playing stony and aloof; Russell Crow with a hint of Brad Pitt in your steel eyes. I tried to tell you, through a series of poorly mimed gestures that pigtail girl liked you and you should quit being a douche and go for it. Instead you made fish lips on the window and, laughing, I fish lipped you back. You nearly knocked over the barmaid trying to get to our table.

That table. In front of that window where you were now sitting with a woman I was relieved to note was neither pretty nor plain. Seeing you sitting there, laughing, with her, I was surprised that, even after what you'd done, I could still love you.

When I got your e-mail it was only two short sentences:

"I seen you last night. You look good."

I didn't bother, in my response, to try one last time to impress upon you the difference between "seen" and "saw". Instead I wrote:

"I saw you too. You looked happy. That made me glad."

And I meant every word of it. Still, I changed my e-mail address, double checked my locks and poured myself a bottle of wine.

The beach we stop at is sandy and clean and the water is surprisingly cool. I begin to feel calmer, think more clearly. I tell Adik I think we should at least try to catch our flight and her face falls though she nods in agreement.

"What, you don't want to go? What's that sad look about? Do you want to go or do you want to stay?"

She's quiet a moment before answering. "Stay!"

"Alright, but we better head back then and see if we can cancel our flight."

But back on the boat I fall asleep and have that dream, only it starts differently this time. I am at an airport but there are no planes. An old lady all alone behind a long mahogany counter tells me the planes only fly once a year and I missed them. I am stuck wherever here is. I try to leave but I'm suddenly trapped in the glass room without a door. Now everything's familiar.

When you appear in the window before me you are wearing your favourite brown, wool snowboarding sweater, and when you place your hand up to the window your thumb is threaded through the hole in the cuff of the right sleeve. When I reach my hand out to place it next to yours the glass turns to mirror. I don't know anymore which image is the you I want so badly to touch just one more time so I turn round in circles calling your name. Everyone of you looks worried, you're trying to tell me something but I panic and focus on your image instead of your voice. Too late I understand you're saying, "This is your last chance." Last chance for what? "You have to get out," is your only reply. All I want is out, but how, how do I get out? "This is your last chance." For what? "Get out!" You're screaming now, banging on the window and I'm looking everywhere for a door, a key, a clue but all I see is you in every mirror. "Now! Get out now!" Your voice is muted but I can hear the panic. How dammit? Where? But as you raise your finger to point the glass shatters and I am thrown backwards by the force, an explosion so powerful it thrusts me all the way back to the waking world.

The boat is pulling in to dock when I open my eyes, and my heart is racing miles ahead. I have to catch up with it. I tell Adik I think we should try to make our flight. She looks confused but I don't care. She wouldn't understand even if I tried to explain. "I had a dream that there were no flights out of here New Years," I offer lamely, realizing I sound utterly gila. Still, after sorting out the payment for the boat I hoist my pack onto my back and say, "We gotta run."

"Yup, run away," I hear Nathan say quietly behind me.

I freeze. What the hell is that supposed to mean? I decide I don't have time to figure it out but when we get back to the main street and he says, "Well, I guess this is goodbye then," I realize, I don't I want to say goodbye. I ask Adik to run ahead and talk to the travel agent, see if there's another flight out of here on New Year's Eve, while I give him my e-mail address.

As he gives me a hug goodbye I think, "Damn he's tall," and as I walk away he calls after me, "Geez, you're short."

The travel agent says no we won't make our flight, no there are no flights out on New Year's Eve but they will try to get us at least part of our plane ticket back. I finally leave forty-five minutes later telling Adik I need to go eat and agreeing to meet her back at the agent's when I'm done. "If you need me I'll be at the Corner, come get me."

When I get there, Nathan is finishing his lunch so I order a glass of wine and chicken curry and join him. He tells me he needs to go back to his boat because he's going snake hunting tonight, but he's just leaving when Adik arrives saying, "Where have you been. I wait at travel agent for you for three hours!"

Watching Nathan go I realize I am feeling better and think, has it been three hours already?

I look back at Adik and shrug, "Well, you knew where I was. Why didn't you come and get me?"

"I go back to travel agent by myself. They gave me refund but not you."

"Why not me?"

She shrugs and looks off in the distance, "You weren't there."

"Okay, we'll stop by there now on the way to the hotel."

She shrugs again. "No. They're closed."

"Okay, I'll go in the morning."

Her eyes grow wide. "No. Oh no. Can't. Now is too late. No more refund. Only today can get refund."

"Let me make sure I understand this: Today was the only day I could get my refund and you didn't come get me when they said we could have one."

She laughs too loudly, then looks off in the distance without saying another word.

Rinca: Part II

"There's a lot of things 
that can kill a man
There's a lot of ways to die ...
Will I always feel this way?
So empty, so estranged" - "Empty", Ray La Montagne 

At the park office Nathan and I pay extortionist rates, $30 for me, for admittance. Adik pays 25 cents. "So cheap for Indonesians!" she laughs and the park ranger laughs along. I bite my tongue.

Stepping out of the office and back into park Nathan says, "Are you okay? You look like you're going to cry."

I shake my head, I try to smile, "I'm fine."

Our requisite guide stops in front of a fence decorated with skulls and gives us the usual warnings about wandering through wilderness and reminds us that we may not see any dragons today. We stop again in front of a staff building, where a herd of well fed dragons lounge sedately, before continuing through some grassland and into the trees.

I follow the others down the easy, though mucky trail, thinking of you and the hike we took our first summer together. It was unusually cold that summer, and you were rarely able to work because of all the rain. Maybe you were worried about money, maybe I didn't have the fortitude for all those grey skies but all we seemed to do was fuck and fight.

You'd disappeared for four days that time, the longest yet, and when you showed up with groceries and wine, the food went untouched for another two.  On the second night, when you found me in front of the window watching the lightning paint the sky you yawned, "What are you doing? Come back to bed. You need to sleep." as if that's what we did in bed.

I wanted to tell you I was wondering where you got the money for the wine and the red kimono. I was wondering where you'd been sleeping. I was wondering what I would find in your bag if I dared to go looking. But I was scared to ask, couldn't bear the thought of you leaving again so instead I said, "I need to get out of the city. I need to breathe."

So, when day broke with a bright cloudless sky, we borrowed a car and drove out to a part of the forest neither of us knew. My body was bad that day, I was exhausted before we left the parking lot, but the musky smell of earth, the rustling quiet and the roiling sunshine haze buoyed my spirit and that was good enough to get me through the first two hours.  But by the end of hour three it was apparent, despite your denial, that we were lost and I couldn't push myself further on little more than a good mood.

I sat down on the bared bones of the Canadian shield and refused to move until we'd determined where we were.

"We're not lost," you insisted.

"Then why have we crossed the cut line five times and are back at this clearing with that burned out tree?"

"I grew up in the wild, I don't get lost," was your adamant, illogical response.

"Oh, well, that's helpful. You grew up in the wilds of the rocky mountains. This is the flatlands of the boreal forest. Recognize anything?"

"I don't have to. I know which way is North."

"Oh good, which way?"

You pointed towards the burned out tree.

"And where, in relation to North, did we park the car?"

"Fuck's sakes Eris, let's just follow the cut line..."

"Follow it back to where? The cut line is a swamp of redundant landscape."

"Well at least we know it runs East and West."

"Great. We'll just wade through the mosquito infested bog until we reach Toronto."

I swear I heard a door slam when you turned and walked away. I lay down on the sun warmed rock, the heat burning my skin but such a relief to my aching body I fell asleep.

"Look kakak, water buffalo," Adik whispers excitedly. There is a water buffalo immersed in a mud hole to his neck, but after staring at him for well over a minute, he doesn't twitch a muscle. I'm convinced he's not living but has been stuffed and planted here so the tourists can say they saw something on their hike. I resist the urge to throw something at it and test my hypothesis, still, nothing about this shady forest seems conducive to spotting solar powered komodos in the morning hours.

The guide shows us a big empty hole he claims is a dragons nest, points out some more skulls- alleged komodo dinner leftovers- decorating a tree, and warns us to watch out for tree vipers. Naturally, this only encourages Nathan to go looking for them. I think he's absolutely cracked but I love that about him and part of me hopes that he finds one.

We come to a dry creek bed and Adik excitedly shows me the kaasan littering the ground. I don't like them enough to battle the people crowded around the bins at the store to buy the cultivated ones but these ones have a nice sharp tart taste. Nathan decides to give it a go and pops one in his mouth before I realize he hasn't peeled it and can stop him. He immediately spits it out. "That's horrible! That's absolutely vile!" I laugh and pick up a few more for the walk.

We hike up into the grassland, where the grass grows almost as tall as me and the unfiltered sun has free rein of the field, heating the sea salted air to oven degrees.We climb up the hill, take in the view then start to head back.

I don't know if I dreamed or not but when you shook me awake I wasn't ready to forgive you.

"C'mon! Get up! I've got something to show you!" As always, your boyish exuberance, so dichotomous to your masculine features won me over and I followed you back into the trees.

"Where are we going?"

"Just trust me. Just once trust me. You know I always come through for you, take care of you. When are you going to learn to trust me?"

I know you're right. It's just that no one's ever done that for me before, ever, I've always had to look out for myself and whoever else needs me. I don't know how to let you take care of me. I should have told you that, but I was still too young to know that being vulnerable is not being weak so I said, "Well, possibly if your methods of taking care of me weren't so dubious..."

"Dooby what? I have no idea what that word means, but if it means brilliant then I am the king of dooby what the fuck."

I laugh, despite myself and we walk another half hour in silence. Just as I'm about to make a snide remark about the second coming of christ and wandering in the wilderness we stumble on a brand new, three story log cabin.

"It's a beauty ain't it?" you said, proudly.

"You'd think you'd built it yourself," I answered drily. "Why, exactly, did you drag me half an hour through the woods to see someone's cabin?"

"Because, there's nobody here!"

"Oh, even better. You dragged me half an hour through the woods to show me a deserted cabin, a cabin with no one to tell us how the hell to get out of here."

"Why, would we want to get the hell out of here when we have our very own cabin in the woods?" you answered.

And then, seeing understanding beginning to dawn in my eyes, a great big grin lodged itself on your self-satisfied mug.

"Oh no, no,  no you didn't! We can't!" But you had already made use of some of the skills that had you in and out of jail, so when you scooped me up and tossed me over your shoulder like a two by four the door was no longer an obstacle.

"We cannot do this. This is someone's home," I protested when you tossed me down on the couch.

"No it's not!" you answered, triumphantly waving the brochure on the coffee table with the rental rates and terms of use. I was about to point out that you had no way of knowing that until you'd already invited yourself inside when you added "It's an eco-lodge. No sense in letting it sit here empty."

"No sense at all, except that, while you may not mind traveling on a fake passport, I happen to like using my government issued ID..." But then your lips were on mine, your hand on my thigh and all my senses flooded in to fill the space where reason had been only moments before.

Adik asks if I want to go to Komodo. "It's only another two hours and our passes are good for three days." She's already told me she doesn't want to go to Ende, "Besides, you need to rest, kakak", she argues but I spent half my twenties resting, I have no more time or patience for rest. And there's the problem of the plane tickets, time, your ghost.

"I don't know," I tell her.

When we get back to the entrance Nathan starts photographing in earnest. He's so focused, so obviously passionate about what he's doing, I love watching him. Occasionally he asks me to help him with something and I do my best but it's been years since I held a video camera and being around all that expensive equipment makes my clumsy self nervous. While he works his cameras I watch the docile lizards and try to imagine them as creatures needing to be fended off by the stick of our ever alert guide but I can't.

I walk behind the staff house and see one jogging towards me. Watching it, I remember the story on the news the day of your father's retirement dinner. A woman, in Japan, had thrown herself into the alligator pit at the Tokyo zoo and an astonished crowd had watched her being torn limb from limb after she embraced the largest gator in the pit.

"Can you imagine how dark that woman's mind must have been," I said, sitting on the edge of the bed watching you knot your only necktie "to see that kind of a death as salvation?"

Today I can almost imagine. I can imagine a woman who is afraid to sleep, afraid of who she'll meet in her dreams and, once she's asleep, she's afraid to wake up, afraid of who will not be beside her. I can imagine a woman tormented by nothing more than her own memories. I wonder how long it might take for a komodo to kill a human, or if it would even notice if I tried to wrap myself around it's neck.

"Fuck's sakes, would you stop thinking about shit like that?" you said, zipping up my black dress. "It doesn't help anyone."

Rinca: Part 1

Well I looked my demons in the eyes
Lay bare my chest
Said do your best
To destroy me

I've been to hell and back
So many times
I must admit
 
                                    You kinda bore me - "Empty", Ray LaMontagne


I have that dream of you again. Just when I think I've finally purged you, finally made it to that promised land where time supposedly heals all wounds, there you are. And today, when the thunder shakes me awake, you follow me back to the world of the waking ensuring that big empty place where my heart used to be rips open so wide I curl my knees up to my chest in defense and groan, "Not today."

"We're stuck," answers Adik, throwing herself back on the bed.

In this palpable pit of loneliness, so excruciating even my skin aches from longing, I've forgotten I'm not actually alone. I jump out of bed and start loading my pack. It’s not too late, I might still send you back to the land of nod, still shake you off, I just have to keep moving. I can outrun you.

But the storm outside is vicious, even our concrete bungalow trembles and the sixty watt bulb in the bathroom flickers on and off uncertainly before going out for good. I finish my shower, dress and pack the last of my stuff by groping in the darkness punctuated by strobing strikes of lightning. But, stepping outside, I curse. I curse the storm and I curse your hovering ghost. It's almost 5:30 but our boat to Rinca's not going anywhere in this weather. I pull up a chair and wait for it to pass; the storm and this misery.

It' s these damn port towns, I think, looking down on the harbour watching the waves tossing the boats below. They remind me of our plans to sail round the world if I ever got well again. You spent hours looking at boats while I scoured National Geographics and atlases scattered like throw rugs on the hardwood floors. One day you said, "I'm going to have to teach you to shoot my gun."

"Why?" I asked, my eyes never leaving the islands of the South Pacific.

"Pirates," you said.

"I don't suppose," I said, looking up now that you had my attention, "We could be good pirates? Like the kind that raid your bar in exchange for cooking you dinner?"

"I mean," you said patiently, in that way you had when you weren't certain, and you were never certain, if I was serious, "protection from pirates."

"Well, I don't imagine we'd need protection from pirates if we were pirates ourselves."

At this your face lit up and you declared, "I'll call you Ann Bonny!"

“If this is another one of your exes, I don’t want to hear about it.”

So you told me the tales of your favourite pirate, the most heartless woman to ever sail the seas and when you were done I said, “Well, I’ll call you Travis.”

“There are no famous pirates named Travis,” you protested, disappointed.

“Not yet, but there will be by the time we wash ashore.”

But our landlocked love sank a thousand ships before I walked away. How could you blame me? How could I blame you for blaming me? How could I possibly have made the right choice between peace and love? This was, it turns out, a swindle, a shell game, I ended up with neither, still sitting here with the ashes of regret, a remorse I never felt after a divorce from a much longer marriage. For a thousandth time I try to shake the thought I’d be better off miserable with you than alone and haunted. More years have passed than the number I knew you and still your memory’s like a cancer. I anesthetize it, I cut away at it, but it just burrows deeper waiting for me to let down my guard in order to consume me again.

Every time I think of you I think of the Fox telling the Little Prince that once you tame something you are responsible for it. I think Exupery had it wrong. It’s the Little Prince who ought to have warned the Fox to be careful who he let tame him.

I tell myself I’ll feel better in Ende but it’s well past dawn and the storm is only now moving on. Even if we leave for Rinca now we’re unlikely to make it back in time for our plane. Which do I want, komodos or coloured lakes? But I am so tired of making impossible decisions, I wake Adik to ask her the time- later than I thought- grab my rain jacket and walk down the hill instead. I’m on my way to the pier to see if Nathan, the Ozzie snake hunter, has made it to shore from his own boat to meet our charter yet when I run into the captain of the boat.

“Only one?” his English forms thick and slurs in his mouth. It takes me a few seconds before I figure out how I know him. “We go. Right now. Mister waiting.”

Cursing, I run back up the hill, grab my pack and shout to Adik that we’re leaving. By the time I reach the boat, with your shadow at my heels, Nathan is fuming.

“Have you been waiting long?” I ask.

“I was here at 5:30, just like I said I would be. Where have you been?”

I know that tone of voice. “For f*ck’s sake Eris,” you’d say, every time I couldn’t find my keys, every time I bought more eggs, which we already had, instead of milk. The problem is, this always made me laugh and then you would start laughing along but I’m fairly certain he hasn’t known me long enough to find my haplessness endearing. I apologize profusely.

“It’s just that I really didn’t think any boat was sailing in that storm,” I say, feeling like I’m stating the obvious.

“I made a promise to be somewhere, so I made sure I was there,” he replies indignantly.

God help me. Last night at the bar the boy was charming and funny and smart and now I find out he’s a mensch too. If there’s any chance you might be rooted out for good, a man like him is my only hope. But, after he regales us with tales of his harrowing trip ashore, I am reminded he’s obsessed with Hat Girl- a tall willowy thing with a nice butt from what I could see when he pointed her out at the bar- and I assure him she likes him and he ought to just kiss her and get it over with.

He protests that he can’t stand her, in that way my students do when they have a crush on someone and they’re not quite sure what to do about it. Somehow, it’s cute when ten year old boys do it, but rather incongruous for someone who just sailed through a quasi hurricane, even if all men are just ten year olds trapped in adult sized bodies.

It’s almost two hours to Rinca and I try to focus on the conversation but you will not leave me be. With the waves rocking the boat like you used to rock me when the pain became unbearable, I feel even closer to you. But now it's not comforting, now it leaves me restless and empty. I want to run.

Someone once told me no one ever thought the earth was flat, at least no one who lived by the sea, because, if you look at the horizon of vast bodies of water, you can see the earth bends. I search the horizon now for the world’s curves, for evidence that she is soft and broad and round. I may have started by running away from something but, on a round planet, won’t I eventually be running towards something?

Nathan says, “Look, dolphins.” Watching them surface and dive, I smile a little and tell him about the dolphins on my escape from Montezuma after the mudslide. He tells me about the tectonic plates, an unceasing geological battle beneath the earth, pushing Australia and parts of Indonesia slowly north. He tells me about Darwin and Wallace, which I already know, but I don’t stop him because I like listening to him. For a while it seems you might just fade away but the desolate landscape that greets us on landing at Rinca is so sympathetic to heartache, it’s all I can do not to weep.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Rub-A-Dub-Dub

At the airport landing strip in Labuan Bajo, Yeni chooses the one tout wearing a tour guide T-shirt. I neither like nor trust him but my body is bad, my spirit beaten and I don't have the will to fight. We've decided to cancel our tickets from Maumere and fly out of Ende instead but this turns into a half day ordeal and, Jack the tour operator, insists on accompanying us. This is very handy but as the day wears on I'm becoming increasingly impatient with the situation and him. I have two goals in Flores: 1) see Komodo dragons 2) See Mount Kelimutu but it's becoming apparent I am going to have to choose.

After endless hours of driving in circles and being told by one airline they fly on Tuesday, another only Thursday then the first one decides they fly only Wednesday, then the second is booked and so on I have reached my limit. My head is pounding, my joints are aching and I'm having flashbacks to Nepal.

"It can be done," Jack assures me. But for a price. He wants $2 million rupiah ($200) to take his boat to Rinca and have us back in time to catch a flight to Ende tomorrow afternoon. This is where I politely thank him and try to say goodbye but when I ask him how much we owe him for the chauffering he cops an attitude, then refuses to take the money. Exasperated I walk away.

I tell Adik I want, no I need, a bowl of soto. I haven't eaten all day and I'm cranky and can't think straight. We duck into a shed and order food from a grisly old woman with a hunch back. The food is terrible and some men there tell us the ferry to Komodo Island is at least 1 million rupiah. We might, they suggest, want to inquire about an ojek .

Back on the street Adik stops to talk an ojek driver and while I stand by wondering why I've never wanted to go to Hawaii say, or Acapulco, an Australian accent behind me says, "Do you need help?"

I turn and look up, way up into a decidedly masculine sunburned face with friendly eyes.

"We're trying," I say with all the patience I can muster, "to figure out a way to see Komodo dragons without paying 2 million rupiah for a tour."

"Well, I'm going down to the docks later this afternoon to talk to the fishermen about renting a boat," he offers.

"Can we tag along? We'll split it with you."

After Adik and I find a hotel with a great view (read: at the top of a hill involving an arduous climb with 13 kilos on my back) we meet up with him at the bar and he shows us his photography. Wild things. Beautiful, fascinating, creepy fantastic wild things. He's a photographer going pro. He likes to hunt snakes and tease crocodiles. He knows far more about ornithology than anyone that good looking should. I like him.

Down at the docks we negotiate a boat to Rinca for 400, 000 rupiah, then sit on the rocks and watch the rats float by.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Magic Ferry Wings

The cab drops us off about seven blocks away from the ferry terminal but it's not until we discover the terminal is closed that I realize the hubris of what we've done. There are no cabs here, no buses and no ojeks to speak of, no way at all to get back to Kuta.

"What are we going to do?" Adik wails.

"Well," I say, blowing my nose, "my guess is we're going to have to walk until we can find a taxi." But, instead of getting up from the bench, I lean forward and massage my aching temples. The only thing worse than having a head cold is having a head cold in tropical heat. All I want is my bed, my Canadian bed in my old apartment, with all it's superfluous pillows, flannel covered goose down duvet and inconsistent radiator heat clanking beside it.

I try to will my aching joints into motion but just as I'm about to stand a black SUV pulls up outside the gate. A fat, balding man with thick glasses and walks towards us carrying his over sized briefcase with both hands. I remain seated hoping he works here, hoping he will sell us a ticket across the sea.

"Hello," I nod at him.

"Hello," he answers walking past me and staring at his watch.

He pulls out his keys and starts unlocking the door. Adik looks at me questioningly so I say, "We're trying to get ferry tickets to Flores?"

The man takes his keys out of the lock and he and Adik begin an exhange in Bahasa Indonesian that I can only imagine would translate as:

"What did that crazy bule just say?"

"Oh, just ignore her, she's madder than a hatter. Thinks there should be a ferry to Flores over the Christmas holiday when everyone is traveling."

(Both tilt their heads to the side and laugh)

"Well, that's not going to happen. I have to make a phone call, then we'll explain, four or five times so she thinks that we think she's very stupid and crazy, that there's no ferries until January 10th."

Each time they do I say, "Then I guess we'll have to go to the airport," but they just begin all over again emphasizing that there are no ferries as though I'm still interested in these non-existent vessels. After the fifth time, as if to solidify my growing fears that I've gone down the rabbit hole, Adik asks, "So? What do you want to do?"

Scream, I think, but out loud I say as calmly as I can through my blocked sinuses, "It seems we'll have to go to the airport."

The man locks the door again and tells us he will give us a ride to where we'll be able to get a taxi. We follow him back to his SUV where his wife and kids, ten year old fraternal twins, are waiting for him. As we drive they and Adik begin to chatter while I stare out the window. It's not until I can no longer understand the exchange of pleasantries that I realize I have been following an entire conversation in Bahasa!

"So where are you from?"

"I'm from Java, she's from Canada?"

"We're from Java too!" (Of course you are, I think, everyone's from Java)

"Really? What part of Java?"

"Jakarta."

"Oh, we were just in Jakarta."

"What for?"

"We're just traveling around, backpacking."

"Really? Where to?"

"We started in Batam, flew to Jakarta, stayed in Bandung, visited the Baduy then Jogja, Malang and Banyuwangi."

"Wow, that's quite a trip. and she's from Canada? That's really far away? What's she doing here?"

"She's a teacher."

And so on. It isn't a fascinating conversation, and I am in no position mentally or linguistically to join in but I understand it. By the time we get back to civilization the family has decided to take us all the way to the airport, which is a huge blessing and does a lot to lift my flagging spirits.

Adik and I spend the next two hours running from airline ticket window to airline ticket window trying to get out of Bali. When we finally find a flight to Labuan Bajo, we have to start all over again trying to find a flight back to Jakarta because I have vetoed Adik's plan for ground travel back. It will take too long and mean spending New Year's Eve on a bus. Not happening.

By the time we leave the airport I am utterly exhausted but I'm back in high spirits. I can and will get off this island. We'll soon be moving again.

In the evening we go out for dinner and stop for drinks on the way home. I spend the evening flirting with an Australian surfer dude across the bar whose not even pretending anymore to be watching the soccer match. A short energetic Indonesian man greets my mark and, as annoyed as I am that he's distracting my source of amusement, he soon becomes my entertainment. He's so lively and animated, I can't stop watching him. Just as they're about to call it an evening, Stacy wonders out loud where we might get fireworks for New Year's so I call him over.

"You seem," I say, "to be the sort of fellow who would know where we could find fireworks for New Years."

"Me?" he says with a thick Australian accent, "I haven't been in Bali for New Years in over ten years. What am I crazy? Want to get blown to bits? Ka-boom!" he says, adding more exploding sounds for effect. I laugh and he pulls up a chair.

His name is Winston, like the cigarettes. He has a mass of raven curls tumbling round his head and the shifty, darting eyes of a hustler. I know I shouldn't give him more than a minute of my time but I've always gotten on well with shady characters and I like his quick wit, dry humour and somewhat dubious tales of real estate investment and surfing. He's a tattoo artist, "but I only do the ladies" (this makes me laugh) he's throwing a New Year's bash in his shop, we have to come. When I ask him if he knows a good Indian restaurant he says, "You want Indian food. I'll take you. No, seriously, tomorrow night. I'll pick you up at six."

"I'm leaving for Flores in the morning," I say, grateful for the escape and the excuse.

 "For 'ow long?"

"Five days."

"Okay, when you get back then."

I smile. Ten years ago he's exactly the sort of trouble I'd have gotten myself into, but tonight I am far too old and far too tired to even consider it. Instead I get up to leave and say, "I'm sure we'll stop by your party New Years Eve."

Saturday, December 25, 2010

An American, Canadian and Indonesian Walk into a Mexican Restaurant ...

I wake up in the morning in a giant bed with clean sheets, a head cold and Santa Claus ringing the doorbell. I pull the covers up over my head and wait for the Muslim representative in our party to open the door and make the doorbell and jingle bell noises stop.

"What time is it?" I whine.

"Six."

"Augh," I say pulling the extra pillow over my head.

By the time I wake up the complimentary breakfast is almost over. I rush downstairs and fill my plate. I borrow Stacy's lap top to try and skype home. My mother's the only one who comes to the computer which is probably for the best. It makes it easier, being away from home for Christmas, when no one is missing you.

After breakfast we take a walk down the beach from Legian to Kuta, stopping to buy a bottle of wine at the circle K on the way. This makes it easier to feel okay about the fact that no one's missing you.

The beach is grey sand and full of litter. The water is also grey and empty pop bottles, plastic bags and food wrappers bob up and down in the surf. Bule's line the sand like beached albino seals and and the touts flock around them like seagulls hoping for some leftovers. In exchange they offer bracelets, t-shirts, sunglasses, umbrellas and when you shake your head "No" they just say "You're beautiful, I love you." I wonder if that ever works for them.

In Kuta we try to find a travel agent to tell us what time the ship leaves for Flores but it's Christmas day and most of the agents are closed. We find a tour agent who tells us there are no ferries to Flores between Christmas and New Year's. This seems ridiculous but we change tactics and start looking for an agent to find out the cost of flights.

As we wander I shop and stop for the occasional drink. There are three kinds of shops in Bali. Sarong shops for clothes, souvenir shops for obscene bumper stickers and dildo bottle openers and art shops for pastiche art of Bali beach babes. I eventually find a comfortable pair of pants, bargain the price down to $5 we focus on the travel plans.

Adik takes us to meet her friend who works in a hotel and says she will try to get us quotes on flights for the next day. None of us has a working phone at the moment so she takes Stacy back to the hotel on her ojek so she knows where it is if she needs to find us.

Adik and I are to meet them outside the Hard Rock Cafe but we beat them there. I spend almost forty minutes sitting on the curb having my picture taken by Asian tourists who treat me like a cardboard cut out or mannequin in Madam Tussaud's museums, some of them not even bothering to ask before draping an arm across my shoulder and snapping the picture. I watch a circus parade of people pass by; overweight middle aged women in dresses like sausage casings, barebacked geriatric men in cut off jeans, chip n dales clones in sexy Santa suits and sunburned valley girls in thong bikinis. The cardinal sin of socks with sandals is committed ubiquitously here and almost everyone has a party horn or noise maker. There's a group of college kids pushing their rented car down the street and a very inebriated Australian taking a piss in the gutter. I heart hate Bali.

When Adik's friend and Stacy show up the friend already has plane tickets lined up for us but I don't like the price and am too hungry to make a decision. I suggest we go back to the hotel and go for dinner. I invite Adik's friend and she agrees but when I say we will meet her there, we want to walk down the beach she insists no, she will take us one by one on her ojek. When we insist that will take as long as walking and waste gas and besides we really want to walk down the beach and watch the storm that's rolling in she gets angry and shouts at Adik. I decide I don't like her and am not concerned when we never see her again.

The storm is brilliant, swirling sand at our feet and lighting up the navy sky and when it finally hits shore the rain is cold and hard sending everyone, except us, running for cover.

At the hotel we ask for the name of a good Mexican restaurant but when we find the place they recommend, the menu consists of wienerschnitzel and borscht. The decor is definitely a contrasting Santa Fe bohemian and there is a mariachi band playing "O Holy Night" but we decide to head back to a deserted Mexican restaurant we'd passed on the way.

Here Adik has her first taste of Mexican cuisine, a chimichanga, and I scarf down a whole plate of nachos. On the way back we stop at another tour operator who offers to sell us $100 ferry tickets but we decline as this is almost as much as a flight. We stop at a bar on the way home and I drink two screwdrivers in hopes they will help me make a decision but, by the end of the night, the only conclusion I've reached is we won't be leaving for Flores tomorrow.

Back at the hotel we ask at the front desk about ferries -are they running or not- and after making some calls they conclude that they might be but probably not and we should probably go to the terminal and check.

I give Stacy her Christmas present -the turtle ashtray and a bracelet from Borobudur- and call it Christmas.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Trouble

"You dress nice," says one of the men gathered outside Wavi's house to see me off. "Not like other bule in little shirts and short shorts." He give me the thumbs up sign.

Another, with tobacco stained teeth and blood shot eyes asks me to marry him.

"How do you say 'No thank you, men are trouble' in bahasa?" I ask Adik.

Laughing, she translates it for me and soon everyone else is laughing too.

Wavi tells him, see, she's too smart for you but he insists he will be no trouble at all.

"The one's who say that are always the most trouble of all," I say climbing onto the back of an ojeck. The gathering follows us down the shady alley to the main street where they stand waving and calling "Selemat jalang" and "Hati, hati" as I wave goodbye.

I promised Wavi's wife I would try to come back and visit. I told her I would miss them and the village. Driving past the fields with their mountainous backdrop, I realize I meant it more than I knew, I really am sad leaving the fresh air and good people behind.

In Banguywani a bus leaves for Bali every twenty minutes but we wait for nearly two hours before a bus stops for us.

"They're all full," says one of Adik's friends from high school who happened to be passing by and has stopped to wait with us and catch up on old news. He tells Adik he wants to marry me but he doesn't know English.

"Sounds like the perfect marriage to me," I say. Adik looks confused. "Well, think about it. You'd never have anything to fight about if you can't understand each other." She laughs but after she translates he just smiles, looks at me then at the ground.

When we finally get on a bus it's already completely full and they're handing out plastic stools for the rest of us to sit in the aisles. They charge us an extra $20,000 rupiah, blaming Christmas but it's really bule tax. It takes about an hour to get to the ferry and by the time we're standing on the ferry deck it's already dusk.

I spend most of the half hour ferry ride posing for pictures with groups of Asian teenagers. I have reached a level of exhaustion beyond anything I've experienced before and with at least another four hours of traveling ahead of me this is the last thing I want to be doing. Smiling requires a herculean effort, a few times I don't think I managed to pull it off, and all I want is to sit listening to the waves and taking in the view.

When we reach Bali we have to walk through a customs checkpoint before getting back on the bus. I stand for the first two hours of the trip because there are even more people on the bus now, and not enough plastic stools to go around. A handsome young man in a leather jacket offers me his seat but I decline saying I've been sitting a lot lately, which is true, but mostly I feel less claustrophobic standing above everyone than squished in among them.

When the person in the aisle beside him gets off Leather Jacket wards off the other passengers scrambling for the seat and insists I take it. We fall into a conversation I find difficult to follow above the roar of the engine.

"You like Indonesia?" Yes.
"You like Indonesian men?" Yes, they're very gantung, I lie politely. Truthfully, like anywhere in the world, the odd one catches my eye but few are interesting enough to be worth the trouble.
"Maybe you find husband in Indonesia?"  I sigh, which he mistakes for romanticism rather than weariness, and offer my stock response, One never knows.
"Maybe I can be your husband?" I laugh and hope he'll leave it at that but I spend the next half hour trying to politely spurn his advances until he accidentally mentions his wife.
"You have a wife?" I say, happy to turn the conversation to talking about his wife and family.
But he expounds instead on his unhappy marriage. His wife who, like the wives of so many poor beleaguered men, is a horrible woman, mean and doesn't understand him. They married too young and now she's so busy working he hardly ever sees her. In fact, it's not like a marriage at all.
"Sounds like a normal marriage to me," I say wryly.
"Really?" he says.
"Yeah, in fact almost every married man I meet has exactly the same story, no matter what culture I'm in."
I try to text my mother and then pretend to sleep but he keeps touching me,  his hand wandering first to my knee and when I shift my leg out of reach, my arm. I shake it off and say no, but he is also pretending to not hear me.

I finally switch places with the man beside me who has eked out a small space for himself by wedging himself between me and the child sleeping next to me while balancing on the edge of the seat and leaning on the bus driver's seat in front of him.

"You look tired," I say, "let me sit there for a while."

Leather jacket moves then too, so we have more space, but in the taxi on the way to the hotel Adik tells me he moved next to her and spent the remainder of the trip trying to get her number.

Sisters

I follow Adik through a maze of lanes and back alleys. She says it's been so long she can't quite remember where it is but, finally, we turn a corner and I say, "My god something smells fantastic!"

"Sorry Kakak, you cannot eat!" says Adik flashing me her Julia Roberts smile.



At the end of the lane is a large woman holding court in front of two giant woks. Her hands work deftly and without pause- ladling batter into the woks, folding the finished omelets in banana leaves -they seem to work of their own accord as she laughs, teases and harangues the customers seated at the few small tables and lined up waiting for take away. It takes her several minutes to notice us but when she does, she commences scolding Adik without any ceremony and never pausing from her work.



When she finally has to stop long enough to take another order, Adik tells me. "I came every day when I was in high school. Indry is like my kakak. She knows why I had to leave. She says I am ugly now, my skin is too dark and I am too skinny. She says I need to take care of myself."

"Your skin is beautiful, you look healthy and you definitely need to take care of yourself," I put in my two cents hoping Indry isn't listening because she's not the sort of woman one contradicts. But I can feel her watching me so I turn and smile at her. She says something to Adik without taking her eyes off me.

"She says," Adik translates, "you are very beautiful and should get married soon."



When Adik orders, Indry asks why I'm not having one so Adik explains I have a bule disease and cannot eat tepung. No problem. She will make me one without flour. I know I should protest, I shouldn't eat anything cooked in the same pan as tepung either, but I'm so hungry after spending the morning swimming, and it smells so good I can't resist.

She takes her time with our order so she and Adik can catch up. All the customers join in their conversation and it feels like a backyard barbecue. When I have been driven to the edge of sanity watching others devour their pieces of heaven on a plate while my stomach rumbles like a freightliner, Indry finally hands me mine. I am not disappointed. I pour on the chili sauce and don't stop to breathe until I take the last bite.

Reluctant to leave but with the afternoon slipping away Adik asks Indry for the bill, but Indry will not hear of it. When Adik insists, Indry replies in a sharp tone and feigns disgust. Adik laughs. "She will not let us pay. She says she will not take my money because I am too ugly."

Laughing, I reply, "Well, I guess she'll have to take my money then."

Adik's face brightens and she tries to hand Indry my money but Indry looks at me and says she won't take my money either because I am ugly too. She stops working long enough to give me a hug goodbye. It broke my heart to see her and Yeni, whispering urgently between their multiple goodbye hugs. Still, I thought, it's good to spend Christmas Eve with family.

Some Things Lost, Something's Gained

Four hours later I'm again sitting cross legged on the kitchen floor at the edge of the cloth that serves as a table. There's hardboiled bird's eggs with fish and rice for breakfast and everyone's too sleepy to talk. This morning there's a parade of village women who come to greet me, though most just giggle at the curious bule.

After breakfast Hauri comes with his ojek and takes me to see the beach, pointing to Bali in the distance, then to the post office so I can try to mail my post cards but the post office is closed. He along with Wavi, his wife and Adik, takes me to the local waterfall.

Like most of Indonesia, it's beautiful, but the beauty is marred by the mountains of litter and refuse along the trail, on the rocks and in the pool below. Still, I'm so ecstatic to see fresh water, and the water itself is clean, that when some workers tell us they are cleaning it I shrug. I change from my skirt to sarong and leave my camera on top of a rock before heading straight to the stairs leading down to the pool. I note that the pool is really shallow, which is perfect for giving Adik a swimming lesson, let my sarong drop to the steps and wade right in. My body thrills at the sensation of frigid freshwater against my skin leaving me breathlessly happy.

Watching Adik follow suit I realize I've forgotten about my jewelery so I wade back and leave my rings and meditation bracelet with my sarong on the second step. Adik and I play for a while then I try to get her to practice her doggie paddle. "It's so hard," she protests as usual. I imagine it is harder swimming fully clothed, still I've come to suspect is the most commonly used phrase in Indonesia. I tell her what I tell my students ten times a day. "It's as hard as you tell yourself it is and if you don't practice it will always be hard." But like all people who cannot swim she is terrified of the water so at the end of every lesson I always tell her how proud I am of her for being brave and trying.

This lesson though ends abruptly when Adik realizes that, where she could touch bottom only a few seconds ago, she no longer can. I find a place nearby where I can touch and tell her move over there but she's starting to panic and cries out that she wants to get right now. I grab her arms and pull her towards me but realize that in only these few seconds I can no longer touch here either. Adik looks around desperately for her escape to safety and exclaims, "Kakak, the steps are gone!" I look back and realize they've finished cleaning and have opened the water gates. I pull her to the steps, and once she's safely on dry land, I turn back to play in the falls.

Only when I'm properly pruned and get out of the water do I appreciate that I've lost my sarong and my jewelry in the flood. I wrap my skirt around me and tell Adik my mistake but she holds up my favourite ring. "I felt it under my foot on the step," she says. We both laugh with amazement and I thank her with a great big hug.

Hauri comes to join me on the rock. He is not as jovial today, instead warning me about the dangers of everything from smoking Indonesian cigarettes while he puffs away, to swimming, to Indonesians themselves. "There are many bad people," he says, looking at me worriedly. "It's very not safe for woman alone." I tell him I know. "I am always hati hati." He repeats the words, smiles, pats my arm, then tells Adik he and Wavi must go pray but they will be back in an hour.

While they are gone I look at the day's pictures on my camera and discover Hauri has spent his time documenting the afternoon for me with my camera.






I try out the makeshift water slide before trying to dry off in the sun and when Wavi and Hauri return Hauri asks me to jalang jalang with him. He leads me up the path, wheezing and coughing all the way. In the parts he deems difficult he stops and places my hand on his arm. We stop at various turns to take in the view and when we get to the top he asks if I want to keep going. Of course I want to keep going. I always want to know what's just around that bend, the other side of the mountain, behind that locked door with the danger sign. He pushes through the tall grass then turns and with a distressed look on his face says, "No, no, no" and shoos me back. But I really want to know and try to move forward. "No!" he says, both angry and worried as he grab my wrist and pulls me back down the path before I can see. With the exception of when I ask him if I can take his picture a few moments later, which makes him noticeably proud, he is upset for the rest of the afternoon.

Despite Wavi's constant urging that we stay until Saturday, it's getting late and we need to catch our bus to Bali. But before we go Adik wants to go to a certain restaurant for a local specialty that, "You can't eat, kakak, sorry." So Hauri, Wavi and his wife drop us off in the village and we go for a walk.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

It Takes a Village

When we arrive in Banyuwangi it's almost midnight and there's no one there to meet us. I fall asleep for a few minutes but wake when Adik's adik arrives to pick up a phone.

"Isn't she fat?" Adik asks me.

"No!" I say, "She's beautiful."

Adik laughs and shakes her head. "No. She's fat!" And then, as if to prove it, she slaps her sister's thighs. They talk only long enough to make the transaction, then they hug, and hug again and then one more time before Adik's adik slips back into the night careful to not let anyone she knows see her with us. As she walks out the door a short, man with a receding hairline and happy round face walks in with a very skinny woman on his arm and, when our eyes meet, he breaks into a broad grin. I smile back knowing instantly this must be Wavi.

Outside there are two ojeks waiting for us. I'm to take the one with the man wearing army fatigues but I lose my balance and the weight of my backpack pulls me to the ground instead. Laughing, I flail my arms and legs helplessly like a beetle marooned on it's back for added effect, which tickles the gathering onlookers into laughing along with me. When I right myself in one quick motion the crowd cheers and the ojek driver insists on taking my bag in the front.

We've barely left the town limits when I nod off and drift in and out of dreams. Sleeping on the back of an ojek is not a feat to be scoffed. To remain undisturbed by the cool night air rushing past you, your hair dancing wildly about and occasionally slapping you in the face while teetering on the back of a bike as it bounces down cracked and pitted roads is not an achievement within the grasp of the well rested or sane. Still, it's a relief of sorts, and a blessing because we may be only minutes away from Wavi's village and a bed but we're many hours away from being allowed to sleep.

When we arrive Wavi insists on feeding us so we drink tea and wait for the food to be cooked. Adik reminds me of the oleh oleh I brought for our hosts so I proffer two bottles of Canadian Maple syrup my mother sent from home. They examine the bottles and smell it and Wafi pours some on his finger to taste it. It tastes, he declares, even better than honey.

I am somewhat concerned when no less than two giant bowls of fried cassava are put on the table in front of me. I am even more worried when a third, even larger bowl, of boiled bananas is added to the feast. I think boiling is the cruelest thing one can do to a banana, leaving it flavourless and rubbery, but here it's a favourite dessert. There is enough food here to feed a large army and can't imagine why they've prepared so much.

Until the men start arriving. Every man in the village, it seems, has been woken from his sleep and told the bule has arrived. They are all wearing their very best prayer clothes, kurta pajamas, vests and prayer caps. Most want to shake my hand but some ignore me completely while helping themselves to the food. An elderly man, youthful looking despite his deeply lined face single front tooth takes a seat next to Wafi and beings to interrogate me using adik as interpreter.

"Are you happy here? Do you like Indonesia? Are you married? No? Do you like Indonesian men? Then you must marry an Indonesian man."

When I say maybe, one never knows when love will strike, he eyes me suspiciously.

"Why aren't you married? You are beautiful, with beautiful skin, not like most bules with freckles and bad clothes, why aren't you married?" Sensing his underlying accusation, and uncertain what it might mean for Adik, I confess that I was married.

"Oh. How did he die?" I am tempted to tell a half truth- he was a pilot and his plane crashed- in order to avoid the inevitable fallout from this line of questioning but answer truthfully instead, "He didn't die, we divorced."

Everyone in the room and the men gathered outside on the porch listening stop their chatter at the sound of the word.

"No children?"

"No," I say.

"Well, this is okay. It happens. Now you can marry and Indonesian man," he smiles broadly revealing his lone stalactite tooth. I smile back and shrug, repeating, "You never know."

As if on cue a short barrel of a man with a square, pock marked masculine face pushes through the crowd outside and sits down beside me. Hauri speaks a smattering of English and between us we manage a rudimentary conversation that consists mostly of us laughing at our misunderstandings. He tells me he learned English when he lived in Bali but now he never uses it so he wants to practice with me. "And also only to make you happy."

Wavi, meanwhile, is showing everyone the Maple Syrup and they hand it around the room like the coke bottle in "The Gods Must Be Crazy." I answer all the questions about maple trees, processing, it's uses, nutritional content and medicinal properties the best I can and when they are satisfied, a spoon is produced and everyone gets a taste.

My earlier inquisitor tells Adik to tell me they are all very proud of me, to have traveled so much, seen so much of the world, and all by myself. The turn of the phrase serves to solidify the feeling I've had all night, that I am more than just a bule to them, I am their daughter and their sister. "Terima kasih," is all I can say in response but something in me feels proud to make them proud.

That is the way Indonesia swings and turns you round. In the course of a day I went from feeling like I was nothing more than a wallet on legs to feeling warmly embraced and something akin to cherished.

It's almost time for the morning call to prayer by the time Hauri demands I go to bed, though I don't want this warm gathering to end. "You must sleep. You are tired." Then he announces to everyone I am going to sleep and pushes me towards the bedroom.

This Was Pompeii

"I think about Pompeii when I feel an end is near
Just before the rain and every time you disappear
I think about a tea cup, suspended and half served
All the scholars know is that it's perfectly preserved." 

We take the early train to Banyuwangi though this means an extra hour on the train. Although we fight the crowds to get on the train, it's traveling farther up the line then back to Malang again to reload. We are lucky enough to find seats though, unlike the unfortunate University students returning home for the holidays most of whom must stand for up to seven hours.

A man tries to sell us newspaper. The headlines say Mount Bromo, a few hours farther down the track, is erupting. I eat a piece of geblong Adik spotted for me in the market. The train rocks me to sleep. I wake up when the IndoMariachi band board the train and serenade us, marveling at the tenacity of their bass player, hauling his cello on and of impossibly crowded trains.

"They never leave this station," Adik tells me, unlike the food and drink sellers who make their own routes hopping on and off trains.

And then, as though it were the most natural topic for our conversation to shift to she tells me my housekeeper wants me to loan her a few million rupiah so she can buy some land.

"I would like someone to loan me money to buy some land too," I laugh. But Adik bites her lip. "I told her you wouldn't. I told her no I don't want to ask her but she said she can't speak English so I must ask even though I knew you say no."

I realize she's serious. "Adik," I say, "I give money to friends and family who need it if I can afford to give it but I never loan money. To anyone. Ever."

Her face goes blank and she pretends to not hear me. This is , by far, one of my greatest frustrations with Indonesia. Indonesians are, by and large, passive and avoid any type of conflict or discussion that might lead to conflict, or even a conclusion they might not want to hear, by simply looking away and pretending you don't exist. This makes it impossible for me to deal with my students when they lie, cheat and steal. (I am slowly learning that there's no need for me to teach them not to lie, cheat or steal because corruption and dishonesty are practically virtues here. Their parents think it's cute that I try though.) So, while on the one hand I admire it as a good strategy, it works well, it's not one I can respect.

I turn to watch the scenery, cursing Elizabeth Gilbert for writing "Eat, Pray, Love." In Bali, the day the movie version was released, they declared the day a holiday so everyone could go see it and now, I think sulkily, everyone who knows a bule by six degrees of association is looking for a house or a piece of land. Then I think of the ironically named Charity, who scolded me in Nepal for giving a school girl a tissue to wipe her nose. "Now she's going to expect Kleenex from every tourist who comes through here."

It's so ridiculous and far fetched I smile at the memory, but living here where at least once a day someone tries to scam or rob you, I begin to wonder if there isn't a small grain of truth in it. And whose fault is it, this assumption that because I have white skin I am essentially a bank machine with limbs? Despite hours of grappling with this question and the innumerable questions that follow it, (What impact do I have on other cultures as I travel, am I selfish to have chosen this lifestyle, unreasonable to want to be known for who am I am not what might be gained by association with me?) I can't find any satisfactory answers.

Four hours later the sky turns grey and as we pass by Mount Bromo I think instead about how much I miss the snow.

Why the Caged Birds Sing

The overnight train to Malang is slightly more comfortable by virtue of the fact I score a window seat and manage to catch a few minutes of fitful sleep but I'm still worn out when we arrive and there really isn't much to do except stretch our legs before the final eight hour stretch to Banyuwangi.

Adik takes me to yet another traditional market in search of pants but we come up empty handed. At one point when Adik asks a shopkeeper if he has any pants without elastic waist bands, he becomes  animated, verging on angry. As he shouts and gesticulates wildly Adik starts laughing and tells me as we walk away he said if he had pants without elastic the religious police would come and arrest him.

I don't know if it's the overwhelming fatigue or the city itself (another traveler I met later confessed to falling into a deep depression in Malang) but as we wander the streets my mind begins to shift to shadows and I can't shake the thought that I will never understand a culture that hides women under veils and is enamored with caging birds. Why am I here?

Adik leads me through a maze of lanes and alleys to a neighbourhood of potters and we watch one making turtle ashtrays and candle holders in a lean to shed. Here, in this musky workshop with sunlight dappling the clay dust floating in the air and the smoke of the moldering kiln stinging my eyes I remember the words, "There is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in." I buy a turtle and still my mind, brace myself for the days yet to come.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Kota

Jogja, it turns out, is the Budapest of Indonesia, at least in terms of street art and graffiti. After a heaping plate of my favourite food, chicken sate (for only $1!!), from two gossiping street vendors we wander the streets killing time until our night train rolls into town.


 I stop to take a picture of a mural on the wall of some stairs that lead down to the river. A group of kids at the bottom spot me and call up, "Hey Mister, Mister picture us picture us."


After I show them their picture they giggle and scamper into the dark past a giant green tent that serves as a temporary shelter for the refugees of Mount Merapi. A poodle sized rat scurries past my feet in the opposite direction and I follow it down the alley to discover an entire neighbourhood covered in murals.





At the end of one alley we meet some industrious ladies who tell us the entire neighbourhood worked on the murals together. It isn't the best art I've ever seen but knowing a community came together to make it made it possibly the most beautiful.