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We’re Not in Kansas Anymore

Oct 18, 2008

Location: Bali
Author: Jack Pincus
This one will be a long one, so for those of our readers that are in a rush, here are the cliffnotes: (1) unreliable men disappeared with our passports, (2) a monkey stole Garrett’s glasses, (3) Brian was physically coerced by a man wearing a mask to dance in front of hundreds. A fairly standard Sea|mester day. For those of you not in a rush, here goes: All twenty six of us sat under a baking sun on the hot deck of Argo looking longingly at the shore we were still forbidden to explore. As soon as the tropical sun comes up in Bali, it is like an oven being switched on, especially on a day like today where the air is lifeless and still, not even the slightest hint of a zephyr. It was that much more painful because just at the end of the pier that we were docked on lay the marina restaurant that we could see with our own eyes, cold drinks and exotic foods served with a smile. Beyond that we couldn’t see, but we were guessing that it had refrigerators full of cold drinks just waiting for the crew of Argo. Not to mention, there was a lot of Bali to explore, and we had too little time to do it, and here we were sitting and waiting. We were waiting for our group of perpetually late customs officials to return with the stack of our passports that they had disappeared with earlier in the day. Until they gave us the go ahead, we were not allowed to set foot on land. They had told us that they would return around 1 p.m., but that just meant after lunch. Judging by when the officials returned, lunch ends at around 2:30 in Bali. We were finally cleared to wander out into this foreign new land at three in the afternoon. Four or five hours later than originally planned. The original plan had been to take care of chores and customs in time to walk off the dock and into a restaurant for a 12 o’clock lunch and then have the rest of the day to wander around on our own with eyes widened and jaws dropped. That plan walked right out the door with the customs officials and our passports. We were bummed to say the least. Luckily a new plan walked in when the customs officials brought back our passports. The translator that we had hired to help with the customs process suggested an excursion for us. We weren’t quite sure what it involved, but to the best of our understanding it involved driving to a temple to see some sort of sundown ceremony or dance. We would have to leave the boat at five, so that would give us a little bit of time to fan out, guzzle cold drinks, change dollars to rupia, and poke our heads around the harbor neighborhood. It sure beat doing nothing at all. Once freed from the boat, Garrett and I wandered off down a side street in the harbor neighborhood. The street was lined with shops of all kinds; there was a diesel mechanic next to a used clothing store next to a pool hall and general store. In front of the shops there were scooters and bicycles lining the sidewalks. There were Balinese men lounging about in whatever shade could be found smoking clove cigarettes, the sweet smell of which is quite pleasing in contrast to regular cigarettes. In front of one shop an impromptu barbecue was taking place over a grill made from cinderblocks and rusty metal scrap. The main course was fish. The marina we were staying in was near a working fishing dock, in other words, it was not a tourist zone. As we made our way along it was clear that we were a bit of an oddity. Dozens of pairs of curious eyes watched our progress down the street. Shopkeepers got up from the TVs in the backs of their shops and walked out to the sidewalks to get a closer look. We were strange men walking through a strange land. At the end of the street that we had chosen lay the fishermen’s docks. Hundreds of fishing boats of all sizes lined the docks. Many of them were stacked up four or five deep, so to get the boat on the inside out to sea, four or five others would have to be moved first. As we walked along the dock, we realized that this was no Atlantic City boardwalk. The docks were made from a rough cut heavy timber, they were uneven and rickety. We had to be looking down so as not to put our feet through the holes where planks had broken away or gone through. The place had its own sort of beauty to it. Everything was built for function but was still given aesthetic consideration. The boats were all painted bright colors, and had ornate decorations in unexpected places. One boat had a balcony above the bridge, the safety railing was held up with intricately carved columns, that made the boat seem that much more foreign and exotic. Garrett and I were still in a deep state of shock. This was the kind of stuff that you see on the pages of national geographic. You can look at the pictures and acknowledge that it is real and it does exist easily enough from the comfort of your living room chair. But actually having the panorama spread in front of us as we dodged trucks loaded with hundred pound tuna forces the senses and processing centers into overdrive whether or not you are ready for it. The foreign smells of a working Indonesian fishing dock wafted around us. It was equal parts diesel fumes, trash fires, fish guts and more clove cigarettes. I exchanged a look with Garrett. We weren’t sure what we were getting ourselves into, but we weren’t about to turn around now. We walked down the dock snapping pictures along the way. On one boat, one of the deckhands took a strong curiosity to us. He came up and, in broken English, asked us where we were from. We spoke with him for a while, and then asked to take his picture. He was quite happy to have his picture taken. Once the captain saw that there were visitors he hopped up to a deck on level with the dock, and began smiling for the camera. The fishermen invited Garrett and I aboard their boat. They showed us the hold where they keep cool the tuna they catch until they can bring it to market. The showed us the cockpit which was about the size of a closet in a dorm room, and very disconcertingly provided no view forward for whoever was steering the boat. Then they showed us the galley which was about the size of one of Argo’s refrigerators, I couldn’t even begin to think about jamming my six foot frame into the space in any comfortable manner, let alone slaving over a hot burner. When I asked where they slept, the fisherman guiding us around pointed proudly to a small hole in the corner of the galley. I inspected the small hatch that the man was pointing to. It was an opening about two feet square that looked dark and unpleasant. I think that Argo’s bilges might be a more luxurious space. The best part of it all was that these fisherman were content. They were proud of what they showed us. They joked and laughed as they worked, and grinned for the camera when we pointed it their way. They expected nothing from us. It was a magical experience. As we wandered back to Argo to get ready for our temple tour, I remembered that I had a date with a cold drink. We stopped at a store that had a refrigerator full of cans. I opened the refrigerator door and scanned the selection. There were a few different cans that were very foreign to me, and one that just about everybody recognizes, the coke can. I stared for a moment longer before reaching in and choosing one of the strange ones. It had a picture of a rhino on the side and it tasted like flat orange Fanta. It was cold and that was the important part. We arrived back at the marina in time to have a little wait before the taxis arrived to take us to the temple outing. As we all congregated at the rendezvous point, each group of people had a different story about what they had done with their short shore leave. One group had gotten a taxi to take them to a shopping area filled with fake outlet stores, fake Gucci, fake Bulgari, fake everything. Another group had found an arcade filled floor to ceiling with blinking lights and electronic games. Bali was most definitely new territory. When the two small vans that were going to take us to the temple arrived, we packed in and got on the road. Driving in Bali is a largely improvisational game. If there is an opening where you need to be, then you go for it. This goes for all vehicles of all sizes. There are no hard and fast rules, except maybe that the larger your vehicle, the more likely you are to have the right of way. The horn is as essential as the headlights in Bali, actually it seemed to be more essential judging by the numbers of vehicles driving around at night with burnt out headlights that were still able to honk at us. The horn in Bali is very useful since at can be used to indicate anything. Drivers seemed to honk it whenever they were about to do something, whenever someone around them was doing something, whenever they wanted someone to do something, or whenever they forgot what their own horns sounded like. Our van drivers made their way into the central part of the city weaving through the slower traffic as small scooters passed us by whatever means possible. The scooters in Bali seem to possess some magical qualities: There seems to be no passenger limit, it was not at all unusual to see a whole family riding on a single small scooter. The kids sandwiched between the parents, or in some cases standing on the front of the seat bracing themselves on the handlebars. The scooters are also able to fit through gaps that are smaller than the scooter itself. It was astounding, our driver would be busy passing a truck in a lane that did not exist. To someone used to driving in the United States’ large and luxurious roads it felt like I was closer to the truck driver than I was to my own shipmate jammed into the seat next to me. Just as I was waiting for the crunch when our vehicle would be unceremoniously joined at the fenders with a large truck, a scooter came buzzing in between the two of us. Violating the laws of physics by creating space where space did not exist a moment before. We wound our way past a central junction where a massive and detailed statue of a man doing battle with a dragon dominated the center of a free-for-all style roundabout. We made our way out of the city onto meandering secondary roads. The roads twisted and climbed over hills alternating between wild jungle and small shops selling everything, including gasoline in glass bottles. The traffic was no more orderly than in the city, and the road only had one lane in each direction. Passing often involved pulling into the wrong lane and forcing oncoming scooter traffic to the shoulder while hoping that a truck wasn’t about to come barreling over the top of the next blind hill. There was something exciting and new and fresh about all of this to me. There was clearly a strong western culture influence here, shops peddled Nokia phones, Marlboro cigarettes, Coca Cola and Pringles. But underneath it all there was still a fundamentally eastern and original culture. Cows, considered sacred in the Balinese Hindu culture, grazed on odd patches of grass, entrances to courtyards had traditionally decorated entrances, there were small shrines everywhere, and, everywhere we went, small square trays made from banana leafs held flower petals and small offerings with an incense stick burning out. These small offering trays were placed everywhere, in the middle of streets, on the edges of walls, in small nooks and crannies and even one atop another. I never had the chance to find out the significance of these offerings. We finally arrived at the parking lot for the temple. It was jammed full of cars parked wherever convenient. There was a market full of stalls selling tourist kitsch. I had the sinking feeling that we had been taken to a false attraction designed to separate us from our money without giving us any actual Balinese culture. Our handler had the vans drop us off at the edge of the market and pointed us in the direction that people of all nationalities were funneling towards. We approached a large entrance gateway where men tied brightly colored sarongs around our waists. At the gateway there was a large sign warning us that we should remove all jewelry, hats, glasses and anything else shiny, or else risk having them stolen by monkeys. There were thieving monkeys here? This was definitely something new. I reached up and played with the shiny studs in my newly pierced ears that could not be removed without risking the piercing closing up (The piercing is a whole different Sea|mester story). A risk I would have to take. Besides, how could a monkey move quickly enough to take something from me without me stopping it? Still, I stuffed my sunglasses and hat into my bag before moving on. As we made our way down a wide path winding beneath a canopy of trees we spotted our first monkey. He was about two feet tall and a creamy brown color. The monkey barely glanced up at us, before directing his attention back to the ear of corn that he had been nibbling on with an unnerving similarity to the way that a human might be eating the same ear of corn. We dubbed the monkey Jabba the Hut in honor of his voluminous gut. This monkey clearly led an easy life. We wandered on. At the end of the path we came to a stone-block wall in front of a sheer cliff that ended abruptly hundreds of feet down in the crashing waves of the Indian Ocean. The wall ran along the cliff, up a hill that ended with a spectacular temple sitting on the top. A single building with a square, peaked roof, it sat at the edge of the cliff, and the top of the hill, contrasting strongly with the pink sunset behind it that was outlining it’s shape. The golden light from the setting sun reflected the pinks and golden yellows of the sky on the ocean dotted with small fishing boats and gently lit up the green foliage growing on the cliff face. Again, National Geographic incarnate. We didn’t have enough time to take a look at the temple before the start of the dance. We headed the other way along the wall towards the stage that the dance ceremony would take place on. There were more of the same monkeys perched at intervals along the wall. Tourists reached out towards the monkeys with peanuts in their outstretched fingers. The monkeys would trot up, take the peanut and then retreat quickly to eat their food. As we made our way along the wall, Garrett approached a perch where a monkey was watching the traffic pass below him. With amazing fluidity and grace the monkey sped down the wall and snatched the glasses from Garrett’s face. Dumbfounded, Garrett gave chase while trying to reason with the monkey. The monkey was unpersuaded by Garrett’s pleading, “Come on man, I really need those!” The monkey watched as Garrett grew desperate and the rest of us watched with a mixture of shock and amusement (I fell mostly on the amusement end of the spectrum). Garrett reached out and tried to snatch the glasses back from the monkey, who at this point was doing his best to devour the glasses. The monkey held his ground, and bared his teeth, which were large enough to put a check on Garrett’s plan of physical altercation with the monkey. A local man who had been watching this then jumped into action and ran up with food in hand. The monkey quickly took the food and dropped Garrett’s glasses. These monkeys may be thieves, but they know that glasses don’t taste nearly as good as the local fruit. Garrett was only too happy to give the man a generous tip for his help. We made our way into the area where the dance was to take place. It was a large circle, paved in stone. In the center sat a large carved candelabra with four lit flames. The seating was arranged in a semi-circle with the audience of hundreds of camera toting tourists, a category that we fell squarely into, facing towards the cliff and the ocean, and the performance area in between. As we took our seats, I looked back along the wall that wound its way gracefully back, and up, towards the temple at the peak of the cliff. This was real, we had just crossed an ocean and to find a new land, and here was the glorious proof. The dance started when dozens of men all wearing nothing but a black, white, and red Sarongs filed out, chanting in time. They sat in four distinct groups around the candelabra. The men in the back led each group in a different chant. Each of the chants came together to form a hypnotic rhythm that the men swayed back and forth to. In time two women dressed in elaborate Balinese costumes came out and began dancing in and amongst the men. The women retreated to behind a wall serving as the backstage area and more characters came out and danced among the chanting men. There was a story being acted out in front of us, but I lost it fairly quickly as I was too busy alternating my gaze between the setting sun, the temple on the hill, and the performance beneath my nose. Each was equally breathtaking, and choosing just one was impossible. Eventually, the chanting men filed back out and two of the characters from the storyline came back in. They were both dressed head to toe in fancifully embroidered cloth. They had on a sort of Balinesian fat suit underneath, that looked like a large ball had been stuffed down the belly and the backside of their outfits. They wore handpainted masks complete with gnarled hair coming out of the top. They began dancing around the circle and playing with the crowd. The characters somehow seemed to have a special interest with the Sea|mester students interspersed randomly in the crowd. First, one played with Xander’s red beard. Then, to everyone’s great amusement, one of the characters pulled Brian by the hand to the center of the circle, and mimed for him to dance. Brian stood there dumbfounded for a moment before quickly inventing a dance move that approximated what the character had been doing with just a slight modification of his own. It might have been named, “The dance that takes me quickly back to my seat.” The character was having none of it. He intercepted Brian’s beeline dance to his seat and dragged him back out to center stage to try and encourage more dancing before he finally allowed a red-faced Brian back to his seat. The climax of the show was when the a man dressed as a white monkey, who I understood to be the villain of the show, was placed in a ring of five or six bunches of dried grass. The chanting men then filed out and formed a circle around the outer edge of the stage right in front of the audience. The bunches of grass were then lit on fire. The white monkey character disappeared in the center of the ring of flames. Quite suddenly, he then sprang out of his ring of fire, skipped his way to the edge of the stage, took a running start, and using his bare feet, booted the flaming ball of grasses across the stage. The burning grass flew in all directions, including right at the chanting men, who were now being used to block the audience from third degree burns. The white monkey character repeated this for all of the bundles of grasses until the stage was littered with the burning remnants of the grass balls. As we filed our way out of the arena we were all chatterboxing about what we had just seen. Were we really living this? If something is going to top this, and that doesn’t seem unlikely, what is it? Will we survive the drive back? If it is ever appropriate to use this phrase, now is the time: We aren’t in Kansas anymore.