Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Revenge of Uluwatu

We heard of Uluwatu from a Canadian, at the beach in Parengtretis, Java. Most of the good places we visited, we heard of from other travellers. The exhaustion and heat of Jogjakarta was replaced by the air conditioning of the bus which dropped us off at Parengtretis. Cooling at the beach helped temper our return to the heat. We were sitting on the dark sand, enjoying the sea breeze, when a man approached us with a hash joint. He was the Canadian who told us about Uluwatu. He first came to warn us about the rip tides in the ocean. He was concerned, good enough to ask when he saw us swimming. “Know the rips?” He explained that seven different currents in the Java Sea converged at Parengtretis, nobody swam there. The rip tides were like undertow, travelled parallel to the shore before returning out to sea. The strategy, he said, if one did get caught, was to let the current take you out to sea, body surf back to shore. We felt only the cooling water when we waded around after that, too wary to swim. We were grateful to him. He recounted stories of people wandering into the ocean at Parengtretis, never to be seen again. Most were stoned on the mushroom soup and omelettes which were cooked at the crude restaurants behind us. Psilocybin mushrooms grew in buffalo dung around Parengtretis. The children sold them in the street in a conical palm leaf for pennies. The restaurants were full of western travellers talking, listening to music. Some sat motionless, staring out to sea. The only western dishes the locals knew how to cook for the visitors were omelettes and soup. The Canadian from near Ottawa had hung out with some surfers in Australia, joined them for their trip to Uluwatu. They had spent the night there at full moon. He recommended it, but said he wouldn’t do it alone. We went on to Legian Beach, in Bali, where we found a comfortable losmen, settled in. The day of the full moon approached. I had spent too many cold, wet winter days in Canada to run around checking out every sight which the travel guides had recommended. I was content to read on the porch of the losmen or swing in the hammock beneath the green papaya trees. For meals we walked to the restaurants. Our furthest trips were to the beach where everyone went to watch the sunset. The beach at Cuta and Legian is miles long. It is wide, the jungle doesn’t impede sight by hanging over the water, the sand is fine. The dangerous surf rumbles in white, foaming lines. It is common knowledge that frequent drownings are kept quiet because it’s bad for the tourist trade. People regularly drown in the sea even near the part of the beach marked ‘safe’ in five different languages. The French had a direct flight from Paris to Denpasar which enabled them to leave France one day, arrive in Bali the next. Unfortunately they behaved like the other tourists. When the day of the full moon came I went to Uluwatu alone. I was the one caught up in this romantic adventure, Joyce wanted the relaxed comfort of the losmen. Uluwatu is forty kilometres south of Denpasar on the easternmost edge of the round bulge at the bottom of Bali. The trip, by bus, bimo, motorbike and horse cart, took most of the day. The temple of Uluwatu stands on high cliffs overlooking the ocean. It is the ruin of an ancient stone structure, the holy site of several different religions. In the past, many people threw themselves into the sea from the five hundred foot cliffs during a religious rampage which swept down from Java. The temple looks down on a small strip of sand which is the beach used only by expert surfers. In high tides and treacherous currents they paddle over razor sharp coral reefs, homes of poisonous sea snakes, to the waves. From the centre of the old temple there is a three sided view of the coastline: pale blue, giant waves roll in sets, in slow motion. The cliffs are carved into jagged walls by the sea and the weather. When I left Legian Beach, that morning, Joyce had been smoking a joint of Afghan hash with Rosalyn and Sally, Australian women, who believed in the power of black magic. It was practised everywhere in Java. Rosalyn stayed with a Javanese family on vacation. She said the son, the guy she was with, could butt out a cigarette on his arm without leaving a burn. Sally told us of a tourist couple who had everything stolen from their losmen room while they slept. She said they were put under a spell by the thieves. I had equipped myself lightly after hearing this, carrying only a small pack with a hatchet, a canteen full of well water and a groundsheet. I was drawn to the ocean from the hot, dry ruins of the temple. At the road beneath the temple an old man sat carving. Grey stone parapets surrounded him upon which were perched families of monkeys. An old one with a crushed left hand jumped onto a nearby wall, stared at me. I yelled at him but he just blinked. The old man smiled, handed me a fist sized rock from a pile beside him, made a throwing motion. I threatened the monkey. His face registered surprise as he retreated. The old man produced a book which was signed by visitors, a box for the admission price. He warned me about “the monkey people” when I told him that I had come to stay the night, asked him how to get to the beach. I reached an agreed price with a local boy, both of us sweating. I followed him through parched fields fenced by hedges of cacti and bamboo barricades. I clambered awkwardly over mounds of earth, trying to control my swinging pack, keeping my sarong free of branches. An open valley appeared before us, a jagged crevasse had penetrated the land. Women were descending into it, in a line, baskets on their heads. I paid the boy, sat in the shade, sipped water from my canteen, the cold Fantas I bought at the temple, long gone. I watched the women move gracefully up and down the trail. The vessels on their heads never wavered, all of the impact absorbed by their rolling hips. I followed them to the bottom of the crevasse where they turned off. I kept going straight ahead. The Java Sea was rolling in loud, spectacular breakers into the small beach where a group of western women and a photographer stood. They looked out to sea, turned to follow the photographer up the trail. Publicity pictures for the surfers. They greeted me on the way past, impressed to hear that I was staying at Uluwatu, alone, under the full moon. They warned me about the rock throwing monkeys. The spectacle of the booming surf held me. I sipped from my canteen in the blazing, windy, stereophonic roar. The power of the sea put the world into perspective. I returned up the trail before sunset to watch it from the top of the cliffs and heard the last of the surfers’ motor bikes leave. I thought I was alone. Below me, bobbing lights appeared and small fishing boats braved high tides near the cliffs. I laid with my head on my pack, staring at the stars and the moon. The moonlight looked impossible to capture in a painting or a photograph. I felt the first stab of pain in my abdomen at the same time that a rock landed beside me. The monkey people. I realized that I was surrounded and the rain of rocks began. One hit me at the same time that I vomited. An uncontrollable attack of diahorrea overcame me. The rocks came faster, liquid poured from both ends of me. I staggered toward the road holding my fouled sarong, cursing the rock throwing monkeys and the well water. The night heard my spasms and loud retches. Having been in Asia for more than six months, I felt acclimatised, adjusted, immune, cocky. I had drunk the well water without putting a chlorine tablet into it. The band of monkeys were fast moving shadows, small stones were hitting me. In desperation, I jettisoned the pack. The rocks stopped. When I looked back, the monkeys had fallen upon it, one was brandishing my hatchet, another drinking from my canteen. I staggered down the road, each step causing a squirt, a belch, a knee trembling retch. At dawn, I endured the giggles of women and schoolchildren when I crouched by the side of the road, stinking, dehydrated, desperate. A young Balinese with a two fifty Honda drove me back to the losmen in Legian. Joyce paid the guy an outrageous price. I showered and collapsed in bed.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Sumatra: Brain Fever

I chalk it up to heat-induced temporary insanity. It could happen to any Canadian crossing the equator. I had a strong desire to make my way to Germany, dye my hair orange and drum for a punk band which specialized in industrial music. The desire passed as the bus followed the road through the lush jungle vegetation past rice paddies and wilted looking livestock. When I thought about summoning enough energy to listen, I was convinced I could hear the plants grow in the humidity. The whole island was a hothouse. The single minded bus driver seemed to be the only one expending energy as he missed pedestrians, livestock and other vehicles, leaned on the horn. We were used to the danger by now. A sort of fatalistic resignation takes over on breakneck bus rides through the countryside of Sumatra. It was too hot to care. We had left the craziness and heroin of Penang behind. The sweat dripped off of our noses. Everyone on the bus, even the natives, had a worn out, washed out look. We were travelling from Medan, where the ferry from Penang had taken us, down the spine of Sumatra to Lake Toba, thence to Padang, about halfway down the island, on the coast. In Padang we spent hours at the consulate waiting to get our visas renewed because it was cheaper there than in Bali. Of a dozen uniformed clerks, two were reading, the rest inspected the Western girls or stared into space, a paper clip twisting in their fingers. When they did stir to attend the sweating crowd of travellers they wanted to first see proof that you had a return ticket. It’s the only legal way to enter Indonesia. It didn’t matter that we’d entered days before at Medan. The passports and applications lay in a pile on a desk. They didn’t have to worry about an overwhelming influx of immigrants heading south since the island of Java is the most thickly populated place on earth, but it was one way for the government to get money from travellers. A Japanese girl told Joyce that she had tonsilitis and that they didn’t have toilet paper even in hospitals in Padang. Seventy-five cents for dormitory beds at the local hostel. Officially marrying before getting to Asia saves a lot of problems. Single women are targets. At Lake Toba, we recovered from the bus ride during which it was too hot to sleep. The soaking heat deprived us of every traveller’s last resort, the final escape from the tedium and discomfort ... sleep, oblivion. There, time stood still, then went backward. We had landed in a timeless, primitive existence. Surrounded by the jungle and jungle sounds. Old men wailed their night songs in the dark. It sounded like a Tarzan movie. Wild boar lived in the jungle, endangered humans occasionally, provided meat and tusks more often. Snakes and mongooses and their spirits were part of the diet and the mythology. Ancient Sumatran devils caused poor sleep, restless dreams. All the dwellings had horned roofs which intruded, then dominated. A reminder that no matter what it was like in the outside world, this was here and now. This primitive existence was the present. Reality. No luxuries, no concrete, no advanced plumbing or electricity. Rats made nests in the roof so when you woke up into the flickering darkness from a dream of ancient enemy skins hanging by the fire, you could hear them running along the rafters over your head. You could see their shadows on the thatched roof when the candle light caught them. Sleep again became a refuge along with a short prayer for the balance of rats. We finally boarded a freighter, in Padang, the cheapest way to travel from Sumatra to Java. The beginning of our sea voyage was normal. We watched the port, then the island of Sumatra fade into the distance behind us and with it, the confusion and brain fever. Deck space, a place to sleep beneath the canvas strung across the deck for protection from the sun and rain, was what we paid for. Two big, deeply tanned Aussies who were obviously used to the sea and travelling by sea, probably lived by the sea, told us they had accompanied fishermen from an island near Bali on an early morning trip. They witnessed, then tried, the eating of the raw hearts of the fish they caught. They found it to be a life giving experience with aphrodisiac powers. Meals were cooked in the tiny galley below deck; a green vegetable which had obviously been boiled, over a bed of rice, on a tin plate. Tasteless but necessary to settle the queasy stomachs everyone felt The sea looked calm enough. But a rhythmic sway began to get to everyone. Coconut oil smoke made it worse. Even the regular crew and the Aussies were hit by sea sickness. They laughed and made wise cracks between spews. The rest of us weren’t so lighthearted about it. Soon there were travellers and crew members staggering to the rail to vomit over the side. The unwary ones stood downwind from others puking over the side near the front, got splashed. One grain of rice, well soaked in the stomach’s digestive juices, inadvertently snorted while vomiting, causes untold misery in the nasal passage and a long lasting, unpleasant reminder of how sick you really were. Finally, that particular movement of the ship passed and so did the seasickness. The travellers and crew wobbled about unsteadily for a while, then settled down. No one offered the travellers rice after that. Our diet became the fruit we had brought on board with us. We settled down on the deck, tried to sleep through the hot days and windy nights. Serge from France, tanned dark brown, curly hair down past his shoulders, wispy goatee, regained his happy smile as he recovered from the seasickness. He wore a sarong like a native, always carried a flute attached to his backpack. Everyone commiserated with him when we found out he was on his way back to France to fulfill his military obligations. He had been drafted. These were his last few days of freedom. He had made his choice. He was tempted to keep travelling, but he knew that eventually he’d want to return to France. The army was one step above jail. He couldn’t go back on the run. He was a proud Frenchman, but that had nothing to do with the government’s army. His ideas and life were far from conformity, uniformity, the military. One night, in a Tull like performance, he started playing. Under the canvas, starry night above, the sea breeze blowing his hair in time with the tempo of his song, Serge captivated everyone. All the travellers stopped talking or sat up to look and listen, even some crew members, smoking by the dark rail, paid attention. He started in the familiar pose which we had all adopted... leaning, laying back against our packs and bedrolls, then he seemed to find something as he played the first few, hesitant notes. He stood up, still playing. His flute came alive. His song gained and lost volume and speed as he breathed life into it. It wasn’t recorded, probably forgotten even by Serge, a few days later. There was the soft soughing of the ship as it made its way through the water, the sea breeze in the wires, occasionally something would flap in the southern night wind. The notes of Serge’s flute seemed to linger and then be snatched away by the other sounds. His eyes closed, Serge stood and played to the night, to his humble companions, listened to the sounds around him and echoed them. He didn’t stand on one leg, but he carried us all away as he talked to the wind in its own language. Selamat Jalan...Good Journey. A fitting Indonesian goodbye to Sumatra. Then someone told us that we were passing Krakatau which erupted in 1883 killing thousands of people. It was just a lump on the horizon from the deck of the ship. A famous volcano which the world knew about because of the tragedy. Later that day, we landed in Djakarta.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Penang Blues

We sit watching a young Chinese guy getting drunk in the restaurant on Penang Road where they serve fried eggs and chips. I feel weak and sick. The past few weeks of high speed travel and junk food combined with the humid heat and heroin is causing my stomach to flare into violent nausea. Every quick movement, each meal, causes it. I=ve lost so much weight after four months in Asia, I spear another greasy chip, rub it in the yolk and force it down. The Chinese guy drinks his beer with a flourish and makes a show of smoking his Pall Mall. He plays western rock on the juke box. He sits with his elbows on the table, stares at the bottle cap twisting between his fingers and casts pugnacious glances at the surging noon hour crowd around him. Like thousands of other young Asians we=ve seen from Tokyo to Kuala Lumpur, he wears a neat white shirt, stylish dark pants, leather shoes, well groomed long hair and shades. We rise to pay for our breakfast and make our way back to the hotel. The Chinese guy orders another beer. When we reach Chulia Street, the clamour of trishaws and blaring cars and trucks which assaults us from every direction on Penang Road, changes. It becomes a less frenzied throng of Indian and Chinese pushcart vendors, labourers carrying huge loads and children playing in the street. Food wagons strung along half the length of Chulia Street display bowls of rice and noodle soup, deep fried snacks and roti. They waft food smells over us mixed with the ever present tang of boiling coconut oil. My stomach begins to erupt when we pass by the small crowds seated at rough tables which surround the more prosperous wagons. We hurry to the far end of the street, our refuge in sight. The old Chinese custodians glance up from their newspapers in the lobby of the Yeng Keng Hotel to watch us make our way into the courtyard and on to our ground floor room. The grey day bursts into a violent downpour. I lay gingerly on the bed waiting for the nausea to pass while Joyce goes to get some cold soft drinks. The old Chinese manager appears at the door with a quiet knock and a handful of Sumatran weed, tied in sticks. We haggle. I pay for them, and lay down again to sip a Fanta and watch Joyce roll a joint. We smoke the joint watching the ceiling fan turn slowly. The lizards dart after flies on the walls. The marijuana helps. It started a few nights ago when we stepped out of the Yeng Keng and walked up to the first trishaw driver we saw. He hadn=t even begun his spiel, the spiel every trishaw driver in Penang sings softly from the side of his mouth, on every street corner, near every hotel which lodges Western tourists, AYou want to smoke opium? You got any problem? You need something? You want smoke? Buddha? Number one! You want smack? You want to smoke opium?@ As he opened his mouth to begin his pitch, we stepped into the trishaw. AWe want to smoke opium@ He hesitated, surprised and broke into a wide grin as he hopped onto his bicycle seat. He pedalled in slow circles around some busy, bright streets as we negotiated the price. It was a little higher than what we expected, but still cheap. We stopped in a dirty back alley. It was lined with small, crowded hovels built of boards, signs, sheet metal and tarpaper. The driver jumped down, greeted by a throng of young children and dogs. He looked over the crowd, chose a little ten year old girl, charged us a small fee for the ride and left us with the child. She led us, by the hands, to one of the ramshackle buildings where we were greeted at the door by a teenaged Chinese boy. He informed us of the prices in a bored, professional manner and showed us into a fifteen by twenty foot room. We sat on a wooden bed without a mattress. This opium den was made of tin and tarpaper. It was lit by flickering kerosene lamps and contained a tidy arrangement of meagre furnishings. There was a small wood stove, some dishes on a bench and the bed we were sitting on. In the darkness, at the rear of the room, two ancient Chinese men reclined on a large, wooden bunkbed. They were withered up, old, opium addicts with shocks of white hair and emaciated faces. They indicated, by their manner, that they were the bosses. When the boy spoke to them, they produced a wooden box from the darkness and put our money into it. They spoke to him quickly and lapsed into silence, not uttering another word while we were present. Occasionally one would light a large, old pipe for the other, but neither moved from the bed. The opium came on small squares of paper across which it had been painted like an ebony brush stroke. The boy indicated that we must lay down, one at a time, on the bed. He produced a wooden head rest which looked like a miniature pulpit. Joyce laid on her side first, head propped up on the slanted board. The boy scraped some of the gummy opium from the paper with a small stick. He held the stick over an ancient kerosene lamp until the opium began to bubble and move. A cloying sugar smell filled the room. The opium pipe, rubbed smooth by use, had a glass bowl stained yellowish brown and a long, dark, wooden stem. When the opium reached the proper temperature on the stick, it=s constituency a delicate balance of solid and liquid, not hot enough to burn, but hot enough to work with, the youth placed the pipe stem in Joyce=s mouth, the bowl upside down. As he rolled the stick around the inside of the bowl, all she had to do was lay still, steady the pipe with one hand and inhale. The opium peeled off of the stick onto the inside of the bowl. He lit the stick on the lamp flame, held it to the bowl and told Joyce to smoke. He got three pipes from each paper. Joyce smoked two pipes, I smoked two papers. It became easier to draw on the pipe the second time around. I elicited the only reaction from any of the Chinese that night as the two old men smiled with the teenager when I got a good enough hit to burn one whole pipe without pausing for breath. I waited for him to make the sixth pipe. The small lamp burned black and orange, feet from my eyes, the sugary smoke filled my lungs, a lethargy settled through me, a feeling of well being. A flickering tar paper shack in a remote Asian city. Coleridge came to mind. It was at this moment that a young Malay woman appeared at the door and began talking to Joyce. She had beautiful, brown eyes and a radiant smile, despite large holes in her front teeth. She was the mother of the little girl who had led us there, asked if we would like to smoke some smack. I finished my pipe, Joyce inspected the vial of white powder and tasted it. The woman borrowed a cigarette, emptied the end, refilled it with a tiny amount of heroin and twisted it closed. We were already stoned on the opium but a few puffs of this legendary China White produced a weakness in the knees and a tingling in the groin. We decided to buy a small amount of powder from the lady and bid our inscrutable hosts farewell for the night. As we left with the young woman, she whispered to Joyce that we should return to her place next time. She said that she gave better prices for smoking and buying. Back at the Yeng Keng, we smoked a small amount of the white powder. Greed made us snort two little lines each. The euphoria of the opium and the venerable reputation of this particular kind of junk made us collide at the sink in our room at least four times. We were vomiting and spewing all over the place. I lost count of my own retches at an even dozen and fell into an exhausted sleep. The next few unsteady days were spent fasting, mailing home letters and presents and doing a bit of wobbly shopping. It was time to push on to Sumatra. We decided to pay one more visit to the smiling lady. By now we had realized that the circuitous route which the trishaw driver had taken on our first visit ended up a few blocks from the Yeng Keng. We walked slowly through the dusty streets in the tropical night. A trishaw bearing a western couple passed on its way to the opium alleys. Another came from the alleys carrying a couple. We acknowledged their knowing smiles with a wave. A crowd of children descended on us when we reached the alley. They tried to take us by the hand as they imitated the sales pitch of the trishaw drivers in their musical, broken English. The little girl from our last visit dragged us to her door. We were greeted with open arms by the smiling lady. She hugged Joyce like a long lost sister. Her husband appeared in the doorway behind her to welcome us with a hearty handshake and a glowing smile. Their one room home was too small to accommodate more than two visitors. We got the chairs, the lady sat on a box, the man on the bed, an infant asleep beside him. We sat in semi darkness for a time, their kerosene lamps barely working, listening to stories of the many western friends they had entertained. They said they had done business with a lot of westerners and showed us a collection of snapshots and visa pictures with, >To my friends=, >Love= and >Thank you for everything= written on the backs. We couldn=t see much until one of the children who had been scampering in and out produced a bright kerosene lamp. They wanted us to smoke some opium, but my stomach was still in a shaky state. Joyce didn=t want to spend the money on opium so we bought a vial of white powder. The lady apologized for charging what she considered a high price, but explained that the dope came from the old Chinese men next door. They were her landlords and forced her to charge high prices to tourists on the threat that she and her family would be evicted. The prices were low by western standards. We had to have a sociable smoke before we left so the man made a joint with one of Joyce=s cigarettes and her dope. He recounted stories of the trade. We found ourselves charmed by his sincerity and open smile. He spent long minutes telling us he liked foreigners, tourists, westerners, always did his best to help them out and tried to keep his dealing fair and square. They talked of the black American who lived with them for some months while he was stranded in Penang with no money. A short time after he arrived, he hit up the white powder against our friend=s advice and was unconscious for days. He slept in the chair on which I was sitting and was treated like one of the family. They had, just that day, sent him a shipment of junk back in the States. My system wasn=t ready for more dope so I declined the joint after one hit and sat watching the others smoke it. The lady had a great fondness for Joyce and rummaged around at the back of the dark room to find a bunch of clothes which she gave her. They were Chinese in style and didn=t fit Joyce so she never wore them. The idea of accepting gifts from these people while we sat in the smallest house we had ever been in, in the midst of the worst poverty we had seen, seemed logical at the time. When the joint was finished, the man announced that we were lucky because we=d arrived just at the time of day when he fixed up. He offered us a hit but added in the same breath that he didn=t want us to partake because he knew we wouldn=t be able to cope with it. We declined, grateful for his honesty and watched as he unrolled his outfit. He cooked some powder in an old, battered spoon, cleaned his eyedropper squeeze syringe with water and a cigarette filter and tied off his right arm. The dark room filled with that electric silence which descends when a person ties a band around their arm and pumps their hand to swell the blood vessels. The meticulous, gentle care he takes in finding a vein and pushing the needle in, the blood drawn back into the tube of the syringe, the careful surveillance of the two liquids. The whack, bang, crank which follows. We watched the dark vein pierced, the concentration and perspiration on the dark brow. The smiling lady smiled with her arm around a small girl. The baby, the only son of the family, breathed softly on the bed beside his father. The tiny room was heavy with the smell of burnt heroin. He began to tell us again of the many foolish tourists he had seen shooting the drug, coming close to overdosing or dying, full of confidence before, switching to smoking or snorting after. Then, in the sad, soft light of the kerosene lamp, his eyes glazed over. He stopped in mid sentence to allow his moment of ecstasy to rush through him and forgot what he was saying. I thought frivolous western thoughts of Clapton and Neil Young. We sat in silence in the sweaty Penang night. We left their house amid fond farewells and walked back to the Yeng Keng. I was still too sick to do any heroin. I smoked a joint of Sumatran and laid on the bed. The little green lizard darts like an arrow and gobbles up a lazy fly with a lightning tongue. A peal of laughter rings from an upstairs room of partying Australians. The ceiling fan turns slowly.