Spice, Scams and Spectres

Let us begin without any pretenses about my pretentiousness.

Sartre writes that stories are told backwards. First we choose an endpoint, then moments of retrospective significance flow from it in reverse with collusion and coherence they never had in their time. And the things we neglect the present for, the memories and reflections we sketch in our heads, are pictures of experiences that were themselves probably spent remembering and reflecting. We put now on ice for later – it’s meaning is inscrutable and we have other concerns. If the moment rots a little in the interim, so be it. Here on the internet, nothing is fresh at all. We dwell in a palimpsest past that masquerades as the present, just as this single cyberspace is really a billion spaces, or none.

So it is that I’m lounging on the island of Gili Air, beer in paw, before a blackness I know is the beach, listening to the ocean gurgle and lap.

So it is that I’m sitting out the front of a stark hotel room in southern Lombok, watching the rain carve continents onto the concrete.

So it is this that I’m hunkered in the back of a minibus cutting a serpentine swathe around Bali as nausea honeymoons in my gut and I contemplate the curse.

But that’s all backwards.

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I have always believed there is only one airport. It straddles the earth like a transcendental lobby, pinching and contorting space thanks to some trick of quantum physics. Sure, there are many rooms in its limboish dominion. Some smell of clove cigarettes and rotting fruit, others of freshly-pressed suits and rotting psyches. But in the important ways it’s always the same – a part of you is vaguely scared and you have to walk through a Myers. Cheapish booze and pat-down-checks, duty free and duty bound, the Toblerone-and-stick approach. These (the security circus and its snack bar) are the pillars of our civilisation, the waxed legs of this teetering colossus. And for those of us who would see it tumble – how else, exactly, do we propose to fly?

I’ve spent my first fortnight in the Spice Islands. It’s the last month of rainy season here and the storms do not so much brew as steep, infusing darkness into the soggy, nearby sky. I spent the first week traveling with my good friend Alexis, a practical, motherly young man with phenomenally small ears. I do not, alas have many photos, so you’ll have to make do with a shitload of adjectives.

Our first stop, Ubud, was Bali for those tourists who prefer organic avacado juice to Bingtang, who like to imagine that their pale feet tread more lightly than the sandled hooves of Kuta. But beneath the bourgeois Eating, Praying and Loving lies a deep and ancient superstition. Stone spirits with mossy rashes, temples, shrines and other, stranger testaments to the divine crouched and stretched in every strangled corner of the place. This created a sort of psychic humidity that fed the mildew of magical thinking. Maybe it was tiredness, or the rattled disorientation of a transported animal, or the $3 longnecks, but I couldn’t help but feel that the membrane between story and reality was a little more diaphanous.

My troubles begun when I kicked an offering. Not on purpose, but still. My great white foot swung down like a wrecking ball and sent flowers, incense and the little paper tray scooting along the footpath. I hurried on guiltily, riled spirits trailing me like streamers.

These meddlesome sprites have pestered me with a phalanx of technical difficulties: leaving my phone at home, my iPod briefly stopping working, struggling to buy a phone, feeling guilty about borrowing Alexis’ tablet, struggling to buy a charger for the tablet, the tablet briefly stopping working, three pairs of headphones breaking. I’ve tended to get frustrated at this then frustrated at my frustration. (Kerouac didn’t need a WiFi enabled device. Byron didn’t need a a WiFi enabled device. Gautama fucking Siddhartha didn’t need a WiFi enabled device.) But back to Ubud.

In the Sacred Monkey Forest tiny old women sold green bananas by the bundle, bamboo poles beside them in case the legions got too close. The Crab-Eating Macaws had human eyes, hands and habits. They fought, screwed, played, stole, moped. One doggedly stalked my matronly friend Alexis for a good hundred meters before hilariously attacking him. Grooming families chatted while babies swung, hugged and explored. When one tried to sneak away her mother pulled her back with a tug of the tail.

Deeper in the forest huge, whiskered patriarchs lay breathing raggedly as their nervous partners tended to them with expressions of unmistakable grief. In the shady heart of the jungle I saw a god. I recognised him from the temples. He lay snoring in a circular clearing, twice the size of any man, skin the colour and lustre of blood. I didn’t make a sound, but my whispering spirits gave me away to his attendants – tusked chimpanzees in ornate golden armour. One of these retainers shrieked and pointed her spear at me. Macaws rained from the trees and poured from cracks in the earth.

They couldn’t follow us into the sacred cemetery on the other side of the forest. Once every lustrum the bodies are exhumed and burnt en masse in a festival of joy and grief. I like the idea of that, borrowing a plot just for a while before mingling with your community forever. At home we cling to property even after death.

That night we went to a traditional dance, despite my demon-induced migraine. A thousand golden mallets chiseled at my skull while the jeweled dancers waved and twitched. We visited the terraced rice field in Bali and temple after temple. One contained a bizarre, life-sized nativity of a cock fight, resplendent with grotesque gamblers covered in chipped paint. The frozen scene was presided over by the statue of a goddess. She wore thousands of glued-on seeds and sweets and an equanimous smile. Outside, on a bridge over a tranquil most, I watched an offering to being eaten away by transparent red ants.

On the slow ferry to Lombok we played two-player Five Hundred and, like anyone would on a tropical cruise, wrote a morbid sea shanty.

Oh the waves can’t crash on our ghostly ship,
And the rum can’t fill our guts,
Oh the seaweed’s fingers find no grip
But the sun’s fierce rays still cut.

Our cause of death still evades our minds
For we’ve no way to recall
How our bodies sunk but left us behind
In this ship so grim and tall.

Oh time she be a dark mistress
Who rules the taunting sky,
In the salty lace of her watery dress
We sail on begging to die.

Needless to say we were hungover at the time.

Lombok was stark and poor, it’s sycophantic tourist facade a needling reminder of my privilege. We stayed in a town in the south also called Kuta, which was supposed to be a remote paradise. A couple of tourist seasons later and it was still underdeveloped but drowning in refuse. On the desolate beach we were outnumbered twenty to one by women and children selling bracelets along the brilliant, rubbish-cluttered sand.

My prim, meddling friend Alexis and I also made the mistake of purchasing an “open ticket” from the charismatic front man of the Lombok Family Travel Company. The open ticket system is extremely convoluted, but the gist of it appears to be that you pay premium for a shuttle-bus ticket in advance under false pretexts, then, after getting picked up before dawn to ensure maximum compliance, you turn over everything else in your wallet or get dropped in the middle of nowhere.

The once illustrious Lombok Family Travel Company seems to have seen better days. It consists of a single beaten up van; an office down a dark ally in Mattaram; a mute, expressionless driver with a Nietzschean moustache and the aforementioned front-man, a middle aged, wisecracking charlatan whose wife happens to be the precise nationality of his customer at the time. I like to imagine there is also a Gothic, rice wine-addled matriarch, hunchbacked by tragedy, who spits abuse at her son and nephew from the depths of a dilapidated rocking chair.

We spent a couple of hours in the van, locked in a tense negotiations that could have at any stage devolved into a hostage situation (though in this case we were bigger than him, a google search I really should have done beforehand reveals that Mr Lombok Family is not above physical threats.) After arguing and pleading didn’t work, I realised that the whole scam rested on us getting frustrated and losing our cool. At that moment some gnawing tension inside me snapped and I decided to flip the board of our game of psycho-emotional chess. Sparking with adrenaline, I begun the most sickly small-talk charm offensive I’ve ever done in my life, simply to confuse him. I smiled, chattered, thanked and feigned indecision as he grew increasingly frustrated.

Meanwhile, my smothering, shrewish friend Alexis busied himself with the far less important tasking of keeping track of where we were and where we could safely get a taxi. It ended in a stalemate. After a nail-biting double bluff we refused to pay another Rupiah and they turned around and dropped as at a random KFC, whereupon I earnestly shook their hands and promised to wait for them until the afternoon. At least content that we’d wasted an additional hour’s worth of their petrol, we ate deeply distressing “waffle sandwiches” at the dirty bird and hired the loveliest taxi driver I’ve ever met.

I don’t hold a grudge against the Lombok Family Travel Company. I would probably do the same in their position. All these pale, bloated millionaires, the slaughterers and slavemasters of my ancestors, stomping into my home, haemoraging more easy money than my family will see in a year and expecting me to treat them like little kings. I always wonder why people in the developing world don’t hate us more. Perhaps they do, and we just don’t care enough to notice.

Me and Small Ears parted ways on the idyllic island of Gili Air, where I’ve lounged for the last week, walking, snorkeling, reading and writing. This is post is preposterously long already, so I’ll only say that it’s beautiful here, from the celestial sunsets to the haunting call to prayer.

But even here the world grinds on. The beach is covered with mounds of bleached coral the shape and hue of bone. You can hear the pieces tinkle like chimes with every ebb of the waves.

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