On My Own…
This is the first time in my whole life that I’ve ever been on vacation by myself. I’ve traveled for business, gone to conferences, and gone to visit relatives and friends, but setting out for an unknown place without an agenda, a plan or a purpose—that’s new, and definitely outside my comfort zone.
I said goodbye to Allison today. When we left Pemuteran, we shared a car; she was on her way to Ubud and I was on my way to Amed, several hours past her drop-off point. We were both feeling sad about saying good-bye. We’d very successful traveling companions.
As we headed into the Munduk region, we started to see cloves in big tarps drying by the side of the road. Cloves are big business here; one clove tree can produce 20 kilos of cloves, and the price for one kilo is $18.00; that means each tree produces a yield of $165 dollars.
In this area of northern Bali, you see green and brown cloves drying everywhere along the roads. The green ones are newly picked; the brown are dried, ready to be shipped to Java for clove cigarettes. None of them are used in Bali as a spice.
We passed miles of rice fields, a construction site with huge hand-broken boulders lined up by the side of the road. We passed a tree with eggshells poked on top of a cactus by the side of the road. Crates filled with chickens.
We talked with our driver, Whidi Kadek, as very chatty, self-promoting entrepreneur. Allison started referring to him as, “Mr. Special Price,” because he could get us a special price for everything. He was a totally enjoyable wheeler-dealer.
People rent him for the duration of their stay in Bali to arrange all their activities and to take them wherever they want to go. I’m sure he’s a great tour guide.
We asked how he started working for himself. He’d been working at a hotel, getting paid $170 per month, working 26 days a month, 8 hours a day. He said he needed $250 a month to live and so he’d work on his days off to make up the difference. To get ahead, he felt he had to start his own business. And with his drive and initiative, I do believe he will be successful. “I have control,” he told us, “Now I don’t have to miss ceremonies because I have to go to work.” I found that intriguing; his job had gotten in the way of his religion.
Kadek has a baby daughter and when I asked him about his hopes for her, he said he’d like her to be a nurse, but the schooling would be too expensive. In Bali, elementary school and middle school is free, but the family has to pay for high school, 95,000 rupiah a month, about ten dollars, plus the cost of books, and many families can’t afford it.
When I asked if he was having more kids, Kadek replied “I need boys. I want one girl and two boys. Boys will the ones taking care of me at the end of my life.”
About an hour or so into our trip, we decided to mark our separation with a ritual cup of Lewak coffee at our favorite coffee place in Munduk. Allison discovered this place last year, and all of us quickly had to have the Lewak coffee experience, too.
Some of you read about this last year, but for those of you who are uninitiated, Lewak coffee is the rarest, most coveted coffee in the world. Special coffee beans are swallowed, digested and pooped out by civet cats. The beans are then gathered from the ground and cleaned and processed. I kid you not. This is how Lewak coffee is made.
Here’s what the beans look like after they’ve passed through the digestive system of the civet cat:
After they’re cleaned and ground, this most expensive coffee in the world, is brewed in a special machine that looks like this:
Fortunately for us, the owner of A Farmer’s Cooperative: Genuine Natural Civet Coffee was there. This is one of the few places that the civet cat is not caged or mistreated in the production of this coffee. This whole region is big on organic farming.
The man behind the cooperative, a community organizer in this area, I Nyoman Budi Artama, was the man we’d all met last year. But he told us, in his impeccable English, that he hadn’t been around for a while, until today. We lucked out. After we chatted for a while, I told him if he emailed me his brochure, I’d polish up the written English for him.
Here is Nyoman making our coffee:
This process takes a long time; the coffee is brewed three times before you drink it. You cannot be in a hurry for this coffee! But why rush, when this is your view?
While we waited for our poop coffee (as Mr. Special Price called it), we got in to a discussion about how to deal with the garbage problem in Bali. Allison was optimistic about a solution, but Nyoman seemed to feel it was much more intractable.
Kadek and Allison and I shared two pots of Lewak coffee. Our driver laughed, “Two angels drinking poop coffee!” We laughed. “Well, it’s better than calling it shit coffee, right?”
Allison (referring to me): “She’s drinking a lot of it.”
Kadek: “She loves poop!”
We all laughed again. The coffee was delicious and I’m not a coffee drinker.
After three small cups of Lewak special blend, we were all sailing high and got back into the car and headed to Ubud, where Allison and I would finally part ways.
This is typical of what we saw along the road:
We passed an Italian pizzeria advertising wood-fired pizzas. We could see a huge pizza oven inside the open walls of the restaurant. We passed a town where a monkey was using the crosswalk.
And then we got to the place where Allison had booked the rest of her vacation. Obviously we both felt sad about parting:
It was another several hours to get to my destination. Kadek drove me through all kinds of towns and terrain. Deep tropical forests. Palm trees. Smaller and larger cities and villages. An election was going on. Posters like this were everywhere:
What I was struck by is how much of Balinese life happens by the side of the road: boats and built and rebuilt there, construction materials and supplies are stored there. People are hammering, drying their clove crops. There are machine shops and fruit stands and piles of scooter tiles by the side of the road. A woman sat cross-legged on the ground, right at the edge of the road, selling mackerel. So much of life happens out in the open, on the side of the road.
We even passed a billboard that advertised, “Bug Bug Beach Resort.” Who the hell came up with that appealing name?
If it weren’t for the diesel fumes, and the fact that Kadek was passing cars and scooters far more frequently and with greater abandon than I would have liked, I would have been truly happy. Curves, slick roads, nothing stopped him.
I noticed the car had become much quieter since we dropped Allison off. I realized how much she carries the conversational ball. Or maybe it was just fatigue from the long drive. I kept the windows open for ventilation, but the smell of diesel was everywhere. I couldn’t wait to get out of the car. And then we passed through Cutik, and its community rice fields. That view alone made the whole trip worthwhile:
As we approached Amed, the setting grew much more rural..and that made me happy. I could see the water on my left as we curved into Amed. But then the last mile or so into town was one blaring ad for tourist dollars after another—mostly dive shops and hotels and guests houses. Billboards advertised fast boats to the Gilly Islands. I saw a sign “Dharma Yoga Homestay,” and another that said, “Om Shanti Villa,” and I immediately thought of Karyn back home, and couldn’t wait for her to arrive. There were lots of vacancy signs everywhere. Tourist season had not yet begun. I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. This wasn’t the idyllic little fishing village the advertising had led me to believe.
And then it was my turn to be dropped off. I could see that the resort was almost empty, and once I’d been led to my room, I started to feel as if I’d made a terrible decision in coming here.
I’d wish I could report how happy I am in my new surroundings, but I’m not. I feel lost and at odds. When I first arrived here, there was blaring music across the street that was unrelenting—and the complete antithesis of “peaceful.” It looked as if I were the only guest here. When I wandered down to the beach to check out the snorkeling scene, locals, trying to sell me fishing trips and massages, immediately surrounded me and suddenly, as a single woman alone, I didn’t feel safe.
I came back to my room with only one panicked thought in mind, how the hell can I get out of here as soon as possible? All my courage and all my spirit of adventure drained right out through the bottom of my feet.
Yet I also felt like leaving was admitting defeat before I even got started. And where would I go? I wasn’t going anywhere tonight.
I was hungry, so I headed up to the dining room to eat. Their food had gotten rave reviews on Trip Advisor. I was the only person in the restaurat. Later I saw there were two other guests—a French family of five, who passed through the dining room and didn’t even bother a grunt of hello as they passed, and a British couple eating at the next table. We are the only guests. Apparently, despite all the huge signs down the road hawking everything, tourist season here has not yet begun.
I called one of the local recommended dive shops and set up a dive to Gili Selang, one of the best dives in Bali. But I was the only person who wanted to go and would have to pay a premium. That was okay with me, but when the divemaster talked about the strong currents in the area, I had an uh-oh feeling that told me I might be out of my depths, despite my advanced open-water certification. I booked the dive, and twenty minutes later, trusting my gut, canceled it. The man on the phone said they had no business at all for tomorrow—he would have said yes if I’d said I wanted to dive to 200 meters looking for whales. Everyone here wants a piece of the tourist dollar.
I couldn’t bear the panicky feeling I had, so instead of just sitting with it, I wanted to launch into action. So I looked at the notebook of all the things to do in this area and decided to try the downhill bike ride from the top of the mountain. But when I called that man, once again, I was the only person who wanted to go, and he couldn’t run his tour for just one person. But he said he’d try his friend who runs similar tours and get back to me.
Half an hour later, as I was eating my dinner, he came by to basically explain that he couldn’t run his tour for just one person (me). I understood and we started joking around with each other. When I told him my name was Made Laura (2nd born Laura) he burst out laughing as do most Balinese when I introduce myself that way. “You’re almost Hindu,” he said. “But to become Hindu, you have a lot of rituals you have to do.”
He explained that to convert to Hinduism, I’d have to go through all the different life cycle rituals that all Hindus do—beginning with birth all the way up through my current age. We kept laughing and he apologized again for not being able to take me on the bike tour.
My conversation with him—another human being—improved my mood. So did my dinner: fantastic mahi mahi and organic green salad for dinner—my first salad since arriving in Bali. As a treat, I ordered myself a piece of triple lemon cheesecake. It was fantastic, light and fluffy with fresh grated coconut on top. Nothing at all like the dense, super rich, heavy cheesecakes at home.
And that’s when the most amazing part of the day happened. One of the local guys who works here came over and since I was the only person in the restaurant, we started to talk. He was standing and I was sitting. He wanted to practice his English and I wanted someone to talk to. I wanted a human connection.
I had to concentrate completely to be able to understand his English and so I was totally focused on him. We began talking about the cheesecake and how good it was and then the conversation began to deepen. He told me how lucky I was to be able to travel and how he’s dreamed of going to Europe. He said he would never be able to travel because in order to travel, he has to show that he has enough money to do so and that will never happen for him.
I asked him enough questions to keep him talking. I told him I was a writing teacher and that I always listened to peoples’ difficult stories and that I was very good at keeping them private. And then instead of standing like a waitperson, I invited him to sit down next to me. And I leaned in toward him and listened, and he leaned in toward me and talked.
Slowly, and then with increasing intimacy, he started to tell me the real story of his life, his family, and his unhappiness. I had to stop him often to try to clarify something he said and occasionally, I taught him a word he was reaching for.
I can’t reveal his name or what he told me because he spoke to me in confidence, but he did tell me how much he smiles for work, for all the guests, while inside his heart is hurting so much.
We spoke for almost an hour—one of the most focused intimate conversations I’ve ever had. I felt such love and concern for this young man and I taught him the phrase, “You have the weight of the world on your shoulders.”
At the end of our conversation, he smiled and said, “My friends don’t know about my life. No one knows what I’ve told you. But my heart feels lighter after talking with you.”
It was one of the most profound and intimate conversations I’ve ever had—just one of the rare moments that can happen across cultures and across worlds.
I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, if I will stay here or head out again, but this evening taught me how many mood swings I can go through in just a few hours. The despair and panic faded and was replaced by connection and awe. Just like that. Maybe I came all the way out here just to talk to that one young man.