Saturday, June 17, 2017

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.

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