With Vietnam still in pandemic lockdown, the author raids his memory cells to recall his earliest travels in Southeast Asia. The Indonesian isle of Bali was a very different place 45 years ago than it is today.
Bali was a remarkable place to take my first steps in Southeast Asia.
In August 1976, I flew into Denpasar airport from Darwin, Australia, after a 10-day hitchhike from Adelaide via Alice Springs and the Red Center. At the age of 25, I was already a vagabond. I had been on the road for 20 months, drinking kava in Fiji, skiing and playing music in New Zealand, cooking and writing for a weekly newspaper in Australia.
Bali represented the beginning of the next chapter of my adventure. The Western world — burgers and baseball, meat pies and rugby football — was in the rear-view window. For months to come, I would be in Third World Asia, learning to live in societies where prayers to a Christian god carry far less cachet than Buddhist meditation or supplications to Shiva.
At Kuta Beach, the backpackers’ alternative to the upscale hotel strip of Sanur, I reconnected with my photographer friend Bret Lundberg, with whom I had shared a house in New Zealand and traveled in Australia. In years to come, he and I would climb the slopes of a smoldering Mount St. Helens before its historic 1980 eruption, and work closely as an editor-photog team for a Singapore-based travel publisher. (These days Bret has a pet cremation business in Southern California. I’ve never understood how that transition came about. He always did like cats.)
On the beach
Kuta was the perfect setting for dealing with the culture shock inevitable in a first-timer’s jump from West to East. Bret and I stayed in a small guest house, a losmen, a short walk down a flower-lined path from surf gently rolling upon a sandy beach. In the morning, we ate black rice pudding with coconut milk and fresh fruit. In the afternoon, clad only in colorful new wraparound sarongs, we succumbed to therapeutic coconut-oil massages from a gnarled grandmother with hands like vise grips. In the evening, “magic” mushroom omelets enhanced the sunset-viewing spectacle.
In short order, we had gathered a posse of other travelers. Herbert (Bert) Campbell, a soft-spoken, introspective teacher from Ohio, years later would become a psychiatrist for the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C. Paul Hyslop and Ian Cottingham from England were on a lengthy vacation between the completion of their degrees in biochemistry and the beginning of their doctoral studies.
Bali has a unique culture, as anthropologists recognized long ago: It is an oasis of animistic Hinduism in a far-reaching archipelago conquered by Islam in the 15th and 16th centuries. Our tight quintet bathed in royal pools where fountains spewed water from the mouths of mythical monsters. We bowed our heads in ancient red-brick temples labeled with signs that warned in awkward English of the importance of cleanliness: “It is forbidden to enter women during menstruation.”
We learned the Ramayana story, how the armies of the monkey king Hanuman defeated the demon Ravana after he kidnapped Sita, beloved wife of the Hindu prince Rama. We relived this epic at ritual performances of the barong (lion) dance, during which warriors in spiritual trance turned their deadly keris (daggers) on themselves, and the fiery and heavily acoustic kecak (monkey) dance. We even experienced a Balinese funeral, including an impressive parade and animal sacrifices.
Most people think of beaches when they think of Bali. I think of mountains, specifically Gunung Agung, which rises nearly 10,000 feet above the surrounding landscape. In 1963, the volcano erupted for the first time in more than a century, spewing lava and killing thousands. (It erupted most recently in 2019.) The Balinese people consider it a divine miracle that the lava flows divided as they approached Pura Besakih, the island’s mother temple, and spared the 15th-century complex.
Our group was drawn to the foothills of this peak, to the town of Ubud, which has earned fame as a center for arts and culture. In the Sangeh “monkey forest,” home to many hundreds of macaques, Paul tempted fate as he clutched a handful of peanuts during a forest stroll. In no time, he was beset upon by a throng of the nasty little creatures, biting and pulling at his clothes and hair. He quickly tossed away the nuts and dashed from the wooded area. Lesson learned. (Some years later, when we rendezvoused at England’s Stonehenge, he had neither peanuts in his pockets nor a monkey on his back.)
Of more lasting impact to me was the enchanting music of the gamelan orchestra and wayang kulit puppetry. Gamelan is a traditional percussion orchestra comprised mainly of gongs, bells, drums and xylophones, tuned to a different, six-note scale than the standard eight-note European scale. I found the melodies haunting, especially when they accompanied a performance of wayang kulit, traditional shadow drama. (When I later did a graduate fellowship in Asian studies at the University of Hawaii, I made it a point to study both arts in academic courses.)
My first time ever as the pilot of my own motorized two-wheeler was on a motorbike trip with these friends. We spent several days bonding on a circuit of the island, staying in small villages and eating at local dining spots. And when Paul and Ian caught a night flight from Bali to Singapore, and Bret headed back to the beach, two of us weren’t yet ready to call it quits.
Bearing only day packs, Bert and I took off walking from Ubud, not knowing where we might be going. We left the main road, then turned from a narrow lane onto a trail leading into the lush green padi fields. Hours passed. We were never bored. Even non-agrarian intruders such as ourselves found the dynamics of irrigation fascinating. The terraces enabled rice farmers to inundate some plots as others were drained, allowing for an almost never-ending harvest.
By now, we had learned just enough of the Bahasa Indonesia language to get ourselves in linguistic trouble. We could count (satu, dua, tiga), express pleasure (Ini bagus!), and offer greetings such as “What’s up?” (Apa kabar?) But our arrogance in asking directions did us no favors.
We still didn’t know where we were headed. The fruit and snacks we had carried were long gone. We had convinced ourselves that our rural trek would soon lead us into a larger town. Indeed, several times we had posed the question to villagers: Dimana? We asked. What is this way? The answer was always the same: Sawa! We knew the town of Sawa must be near.
As the veil of twilight fell upon the terraces, we accepted that we would not reach Sawa until the next day. A village head man offered us nasi goreng (fried rice) and a mat where we could sleep on the floor of his hut until morning. He was pleased to have visitors with whom he could practice his few words of English and, at the same time, boost his esteem in the village.
Early the next morning, as we prepared to depart after fortifying cups of tea, we thought to confirm direction and time before our steps led us into Sawa. Our host laughed and spread his hands in all directions. “Sawa!” he exclaimed!
That was how we learned the Indonesian word for “rice fields.”