As I rode the violent fast boat from Gili Air to Amed, Bali, deafened, fume-headed and focusing all of my will on trying not to munt, I couldn’t stop thinking about Tony Blair. What does he want? Does he self-medicate? What’s his golf handicap? Why don’t I think about him more often? I tried to contemplate something else, but just as my eyes were fixed on the spirit level of the horizon, my mind was stubbornly glued to that aging, mild-mannered war criminal. It was as if Tony Blair was my sea-sickness, chaperoning me across the furious depths like a grinning, nervous tapeworm.
Blair is just a symptom of a larger lurgy. My intention is to submerge myself in the world completely, but a part of me often remains resolutely afloat, a mental buoy stuffed with hot air. Despite being in radically different environments a lot my psychic content is just the same as back home – elaborate fictional genealogies and fantasy Q&A speeches. Whenever I get a whiff of WiFi I, like Pavlov’s bloodhound, can’t help but have a cheeky glimpse at the latest Newspoll. And as for Facebook and Twitter, whatever I tell myself about moderation they still have me in their fluffy blue shackles.
I stayed in a guesthouse on the beach in Amed next to a construction site. A whole family lived in the ragged shadow of my room. It was clean, pleasant and cheap, despite the wailing warfare of crook-tailed cats and the occasional whiff of sewerage. Chickens pecked at the ash-black sand while the sky filled the places the sea couldn’t reach. A crescent cove rose in the jungled slopes behind me.
I took a liking to Arakh Jemulek, local palm liquor mixed with lemon and honey. (I was later informed by a mortified Australian couple that the stuff can kill you, but the villagers were drinking it. There’s something about tourists thinking their lives are more precious than locals’ that makes me sick.) A local guy I befriended shared his home-spun philosophy with me and a pair of German girls.
Q. Why do babies cry when they’re born?
A. Because they still have one heart with their mother and their mother is in pain.
Q. Why do people love?
A. Because without love we go crazy.
Q: Why do we have sadness and laughter?
A: Because without them there is no life.
One thing that’s become clearer with less access to the usual apothecary of technical anaesthetics is that my mood tends to swing every 6 to 24 hours. Not anything major; just the difference between excitable and lazy, scotch-guarded against irritation or magnetised toward it. Seeing the arc of my emotional pendulum means I can play games in the face of that clockwork, defy it with jabs of adrenaline and beauty. Noble struggle and graceful surrender, these are bamboo oars we have to ride the endless waves. On a twilit hill in Amed I trekked through the chest-high bushes and brambles, scrambling like a hunter beneath a half-empty moon.
Also chest high (though barely) was my host and guide in the village of Tirta Gangga, an ancient, grinning local who took me on a four hour walking tour of the rice fields. His English was shabby but coherent, and he said “making photos” instead of “taking photos”, which makes a lot more sense. We went to the market, where there was a whole warehouse for offering flowers and men spruiked aphrodisiacs from briefcases. In the livestock quarter the shrieks of crucified piglets calcified my guilt about eating mammals into a commitment not to. (I had a burger the next day. It was my last, I swear.) At the prawn farm my tiny guide told me about the 1963 eruption of Mt Agung, when the sky turned black. At a temple on a hill he told me about Balinese Hinduism, and how it especially associates the Trimurti with three elements – Brahma with air, Shiva with fire and Vishnu with water.
It was the last of these primeval forces that inspired the obsession of the last Raja of Karangsem. At the end of the war he built the pseudo-ancient water palace that gives Tirta Gangga its name. I spent a whole day in the dead king’s playground, lounging around the concrete fountains and lapping the low black pool. As I paced the palace in the rain I was acutely aware that I wasn’t wholly there. I was using experience as fodder for thought and thought as fodder for writing. Can we really live like that, I wondered, thrice-removed from reality? But surely the senses are illusions too, from the feeling of fat drops breaking on my skin to my broken reflection on the surface on the water. It would be easy to drown in the world. I imagined the Raja meditating on the ripples of his Koi filled ponds; eating nothing he couldn’t drink; skin puffy and wrinkled; little streams trickling from his ears, mouth and eyes.
I spent a day in Singaraja, which means “Lion King”. The cafe I lunched at played the soundtrack to the same-named film on incessant loop. In Lovina I visited a sulpherous hot spring, where large, middle aged European couples – forced to figleaf their bits – still managed to outsource any discomfort they had about their bodies to hapless passersby. I chilled in a Buddhist monastery and confirmed that if you look at something after staring at a waterfall it psychedelically shifts and swells. There’s no rest for the idle, and years of low employment mean I find it hard to relax without feeling guilty. But I’ve still enjoyed days at a time devouring novels on the beach. The fish in Lovina, grilled in banana leaves with a symphony of spices, was the best I’ve ever had.
I thought I was being a thrifty, worldly vagabond by taking a five-leg public bus and bemo odyssey from the north to the south of Bali. Then I worked out that because of my shitty bartering skills a direct shuttle bus would have been cheaper anyway. So it goes. But my worst mistake, by far, was going to Kuta.
I’d like to say that I stayed there for one night because it was close to the airport, but that’s not the whole of the truth. Morbid curiosity dragged me in and the vortex dragged me down. Kuta teeters some unholy boundary between Dante’s Inferno and Surfer’s Paradise, a satellite Babylon to comfort the punters. Cries of “transport?” and “massage?” attack you every step, like hands clawing at your ankles through the bars of a pyrite cage. It’s pretty hokey to reference Heart of Darkness when talking about travel in the developing world, but I say unto you truly – every tanned, unsmiling tourist in Kuta is a Kurtz.
After an afternoon of staggering past the the “spooning leads to forking” bumper stickers and phenomenally awful portraits of Rowan Atkinson I decided to do as Romans do and eat nachos and beer in an “Aussie Bar”. I enjoyed this experience, as can be seen in what I wrote at the time:
“The walls are smeared with AFL flags, the air is thick with dread… My consciousness is spooled out like a limp yoyo, dragged down by weariness and booze. Why did I buy a Heineken when the local beer was cheaper? Because it was a brand I knew. A little piece of mental real estate I no longer own was cashed in on, once again, with a barely audible “ching”. I wonder who owns Heineken, probably Coke or Blackwater or something… Triplicate flatscreens hang behind me like Christ and His robbers; some kind of football booms from them, slightly out of sync. As many men as were in Caeser’s legions scream and chant in Gaderine unison, their emotions dictated by the movements of a melon-sized ball…”
I spent the night in a grim hotel haloed by barbed wire, stacking the twin mattresses for comfort. The next day I spent four of my last hours in Indonesia hunched in an internet cafe. I also went to the shopping complex, a sleek and glittering hive in the model of Melbourne Emporium. Time fell away as I wandered around that air-conditioned Cocytus. Taylor Swift crooned on high and organic, dairy-free raspberry gelato (48,000 rupiah a scoop) bloodied my sticky little hand. Meanwhile, outside, kids crouched in allies between the cracks. Up and down I went, up and down, until my stagger turned into desperate jog. The labyrinth lacked nothing for Prada Stores and Genius Bars, but I couldn’t for the life of me find water.