Thursday, February 14, 2008
Garuda Birds and Flowing Fire (2)
((Back to Bali and 1986.))
Night. Rick and I have just returned from a long, hot, and harrowing day spent driving much of the island with three young women, our neighbors from across the garden. (Pleasant enough, I suppose, but truly spoiled daughters of the upper middle-class: too much money, leisure, and "social" drugs.) We repeated whole chunks of the Besakih tour, but this time the mountain was enveloped in clouds: peak hidden, views conscribed, the experience less magical.
But I did get to watch old women and tiny girls piling heavy rocks atop their heads and then balancing these up the slopes for repairs to a part of the temple. And I spent a good half hour talking with some gamelan players and temple guards; though the complex stays empty, the area around it serves as a kind of community-hall gathering place for area villagers.
Later we prowled among ornery bearded monkeys worshipped in a nutmeg forest: tumbledown ruins, creeper vines, nutmeg seeds scattered. Rick and one of the women got nipped trying to cuddle up with the little beggars; I used a stick and kept them honest. Had more trouble, in fact, with a persistent guy at the parking area who wanted my shirt in exchange for a keris knife with a carved-wood handle.
Then we drove back down to the southern coast, to a much-favored temple beside the sea, to watch the Bali sunset come on; scores of curious schoolchildren and older believers were in attendance too, but the clouds never parted.
(Earlier on, we had passed a village where a Hindu cremation ceremony was about to begin. We saw the flower-bedecked procession route, the waiting platform, and the happy family and friends, but didn't stay for the burning--which I think we'd have been welcome to attend. Worth observing someday, I guess, but a bit ghoulish just to sit there as curiosity seekers. At any rate, Bali is still buzzing with talk of the festive cremation day a few weeks back: some regional prince, a venerated, almost holy ruler, died at last, and 500 of his followers, people already dead and buried, that is, were dug up and burned along with the prince. There were flowers and funeral pyres, parades and pyromaniacs, all over the island!)
The "harrowing" part of the trip came after dark, driving back to Kuta. It was my shift in the four-wheel-drive rental, and I quickly discovered that the headlamps didn't work at all! So there we were with no car lights, no streetlights along the way, the moon obscured by clouds, and 45 kilometers of pitted road to navigate. With five pairs of eyes staring and five different voices shouting warnings, I sped along, weaving in and out among the nearly invisible pedestrians and bicyclists, pounding on the horn--which beeped only intermittently--perspiring frantically, riding the brakes but also trying to keep our speed at about 35 m.p.h. so we could get the car back before the agency's closing time and thus avoid paying a whole second-day's rental fee.
I hit branches, spun the tires in rocks off the side of the road, and drove down a one-way street the wrong way at the end, but we made it. Drenched, gibbering like one of those damned monkeys, I got the car part-way into a cramped slot and then the engine killed. "Fuck it," I said, and walked away.
I haven't spoken to any of the others since. Whatever else happened, I've just been finishing my South of Bali poem, riding on the adrenalin, burning out...
Sunset at Kuta Beach
The sky breathes red and gold, a Balinese dragon
consuming the dregs of the sun.
To the west, Java seethes with volcanic change;
each night, chaos remains.
But at Kuta, the last Australian surfer drags
his board past the beach flags,
the multitudinous native masseuses and stubborn
sun-worshippers who yearn
for a few more hours of fragrant oil. Baked
bodies are rewrapped, naked
caramel breasts tucked reluctantly in sarongs.
The South of Bali belongs
these days to tourists and jet-setters, a president
whose posh, rent-out residence
goes for more per night than one Indonesian
can make in four seasons
of farming, and locals who've become most adept
at chivvying rupiahs kept
loose in these travellers' well-padded pockets.
Kuta's sky late at sunset
cools into shapes of garuda birds and flowing fire,
as sun-drugged desire
reawakens to evenings of more fleshly pleasures,
and lager-Fostering tours
of the flash, Aussie-catering watering holes.
The sky's glowing coals
are scattered thin, dyeing through twilight's batik
into indigo and black.
The evening kecak dance, staged for paying
customers only, rings
out in percussive rhythm and chanted monkey cries.
That trance may be a lie,
but part-way up Mt. Agung, where lava still rumbles,
above the Mother Temple--
the island's beating heart--a scimitar of moon
has hung by a thread since noon.
And now it falls. But no one bothers to notice,
neither hedonist nor Balinese.
((It occurs to me now that my chastising and moralizing tone, and the imagery chosen, isn't all that far removed from the words of our terrorist enemies today... But it's only a poem, folks, really.))