I went to McDonald's today. This is a fact I admit freely, and, I should add, without shame. It is a well-tested and well-accepted fact that when overseas, I eat there about once a month, a much higher McDonald's-to-life-hour ratio than when I'm in the States, partly because it's something from home, but also and largely because it's the most reliable food in the world. It was primarily for this latter reason that I accepted wine and wafer at the Church of the Exalted Redemptionburger on this particular occasion.
You see, two days ago, I thought I was getting sick. A cold, it seemed, the burning eyes aching joints nauseous energy draining kind, and more than hating being sick, I hate being sick when I'm on the road. Besides which, I'm planning on leaving town the day after tomorrow to go climb a volcano, and it is my considered opinion that mucus and lava don't mix, the result being that, shocking though it may seem, I decided to take care of myself. I drank a lot of water, didn't drink a lot of alcohol, hid my pack of Gudang Garam cigarettes away for a later time, adopted a more regular sleep schedule, and tried to fuel my body with nutritious and wholesome food.
One thing I have to say for Indonesia is that there are a whole lot of chickens here. They strut around with proud stupidity in the alleyways; they hang dead or dormant from street stalls and passing handlebars; they dangle plucked and naked from hooks in every market, each slit throat revealing an open esophagus looking like a tiny white anus. They are everywhere. And when you're getting sick, chicken soup, as all mothers and their children (of which I am one) know, is the best thing for you. No problem: I hit the warung.
And sure, a couple of benches set up on the sidewalk tended by a guy behind a wok atop a burner fuelled by a tank of liquid gas on which the guy sits while he cooks may not look to the untrained eye like the ideal dining site, but believe me: it's generally reliable, always cheap, and usually offers delicious if simple food, the food the people eat, the food of the real culture. Anyway, I was doing pretty good for a day or so. I didn't really miss the alcohol or cigs, I had to pee so often from all the water I was force-drinking that my urethra had begun to itch, and I was scarfing chicken soup with noodles morning, noon and night. Mom'd be right proud, don't you agree? And I did start to feel better.
Now here's a lesson for you: if you ever encounter a piece of chicken meat so dense and hard that you actually have to struggle to get your teeth into it, all the while trying to make it look easy for the benefit of the woman who just cooked this meal for you and is watching you eat it because you're white and any white person doing anything counts as a spectator sport over here, and which meat is so literally dentally impenetrable that you end up having to swallow it whole if you're going to swallow it at all, don't eat it. Go ahead and offend the nice lady.
Because just as my cold was beginning to get better and as a result of trying to cure myself, I think I ended up with salmonella, or dysentery, or something else the name of which I don't know, but several adjectives for which I have quite handy: bad. Runny. Frequent. My first real bout with any sort of digestive disorder on my so-far four months in Asia, and it isn't pretty. Keep in mind that squat toilets don't make this reality any more attractive (although I must say there occurs to me no more natural position for forcing intestinal evacuation (and it's good for your balance and shin muscles as well (this is the audience participation section of our show, folks: put your knees in your armpits, don't let your butt touch the ground, and see how long you can hold it (during which time, incidentally, if it feels right, let it flow)))). I realized as I assumed the position for the x-teenth time last night that the chicken-rock must have been the responsible party, but it was a realization without much non-educational utility.
Anyway, in a situation like that, the one really essential thing is to eat neutral food for a while. Generic food. Clean food. Reliable food. That's where McDonald's comes in. I'd be disappointed but not really surprised if the moon suddenly became hexagonal, and I might blink when shown that all math is fiction, but I'd feel downright shocked if I went into a McDonald's and got anything other than... well... you know than what. That's my point: everyone knows it, and it doesn't change. So, I went.
The trick to eating at a McDonald's as an American in Asia is to always keep in mind that all the other people there, all the people who are there to see you there, are eating there as well. They do not see it as a capitulation, the way so many of your fellow countrymen might. Not only do the people there really like McDonald's and see it as a symbol of everything good in the world and everything they want their country to be, but they're pleased as punch that you've showed up to confirm their notion that the golden arches are a symbol of white skin, of the first world, of progress. But still the fear lingers... the fear of seeing a mirror, or worse, another expat, or god forbid another backpacker in one of those sterile Americoid environments. Jeesh! For the locals they have installed huge plate-glass windows to promote the aim of being seen there, but I'm convinced that if there were a back room for whitey, somewhere dark and inconspicuous where the itinerate caucasian could devour his Big Mac in relative anonymity and away from the gaze of passers-by, their expat client list would skyrocket.
Anyway, as I keep getting away from, I went. Tonight. I boldly gripped the ice cream cone door handle, and flung the big glass door open wide. I courageously strode across the room, feeling the appreciative eyes of every seated customer follow me as I walked, fulfilling the limit of their dining experience. I bravely approached the counter where, like timid butter expecting a hot knife's imminent arrival, the crowd parted and you could hear a pin drop, "E.F. Hutton says" -style, as every ear and cochlea in the place strained to hear me proclaim with all due pomp given the circumstance, "I'd like a Big Mac meal, please."
Oh, but I left out one very important detail: as I so firmly and purposefully crossed the chamber, my will as inflated with determination and resolve as my bowels were with lumps and liquid, I noticed a very beautiful, unusually sexy Indonesian girl sitting alone, eating her dinner.
I say unusually sexy because in strict Muslim places like Indonesia, women generally downplay their sexuality by wearing baggy clothes, towels on their heads, etc., and also by not having sex. But this girl, although tastefully, was dressed to attract, and it worked on me. Of course, like everyone else in the room she noticed me too, but our eyes met and locked, and we exchanged a little bit of energy as I passed.
When my food had arrived I chose a nonchalant spot where I could see her, sat down, and began to dine. After an initial gawk at me taking that first picturesque bite out of my big burger, everyone for the most part did the polite thing and tried not to stare at me too openly as I ate, everyone, that is, except for her. But her I didn't mind. She and I continued to look at each other, throughout my meal, across the McDonald's dining room. Total TV commercial, no? "If this were real TV," I thought as though there could be such a thing, "we'd soon end up across the table from one another throwing fries at each other and laughing."
Well, that didn't happen, but as she rose to leave, she threw me one long hard look, and then walked as determinedly as I had in, out.
Every few steps she'd glance back to make sure that my eyes were following her, and even after she'd left the building those plate glass windows I was cursing earlier actually came to our aid, because she kept looking at me, and I at her, for a good two or three minutes. Then she did something extremely abnormal, and disappeared.
Normal Indogirls don't wear sexy clothes, as I mentioned, but even moreso, normal Indogirls are certainly discouraged from writing their names and phone numbers down on small slips of paper for later distribution by the McDonald's staff to strange whiteguy customers with whom they happen to have shared a few minutes of eye contact. But that's what she did.
"Emirra. Call me sometimes. 5930330," it said. I saw her write it, I watched her pass it to the guy with the broom by the door, I noticed her not-very-well-concealed instructions to him, complete with a shy finger pointed at me behind a cupped hand, and I then waited amused as the floor-staff read it, passed it around among themselves, and giggled, before one was finally nominated by the group to make the auspicious presentation.
He approached timidly (this place is so un-Indonesian, where the men are shyer than the women) and started to stutter a brief explanation, but I cut him short by holding out my hand, to show him that I knew all about it, and that he could just make the hand-off and scurry away.
I read the note and looked up, but she was gone. I read it again.
It made me feel good. I read it again. Wow. A girl making the first move in this country of all places. So untraditional. "What else untraditional does she do?" I wondered to myself as I pocketed the shard of paper and, even more proudly than I had entered, walked out of the restaurant.
So will I call her? Unfortunately, I doubt it. It all depends, really, on my digestive system. The bowel moves in mysterious ways. I'm leaving town soon and I'd like to take her out, but I refuse to go on a date where... well... I think I'm gonna stop writing now. I have to go to the bathroom.
I know you'll say no, but I just want to say
that I want you to join me in running away.
We'll just pack up our clothes and our Swiss Army knives
and then wander the globe for the rest of our lives.
We will feel so enriched by our spirits so freed,
just the world and each other is all we will need.
We'll be one happy family adrift in the sky:
mother earth, sister sun, brother moon, you, and I.
Golly what a day today. I woke up in the home of my friend Guy. I'm neither crazy nor joking, I met a guy with my same name here, a Canadian environmental biologist, who lives in a 4-block town here called Trawas, where I just happened to visit. And before you might have the opportunity to form a different opinion, let me assure you: when you're a white man named Guy in a small Indonesian village where there against whatever odds lives another white man named Guy, you find out about it. Fast. Before we met, I'd heard about him maybe ten times, and I'm sure it was reciprocal. But despite the build-up we seemed to get along pretty well, and I ended up staying at his house.
It was a real pleasure for me to stay in a home, my first in a while, unless the boardinghouse in which I rented a room for two weeks in Pontianak counts as a home... but even that was over a month ago. Anyway, it was nice to sit up talking late over beer and candles with Zappa playing in the background... a taste of a former lifestyle.
So. Back to my story. I woke up this morning and decided to go to Pacet, an even smaller village even higher up in the East Javan hills. Guy put me on an ojek (aka motorcycle taxi) and went off to work. An hour later I was here. I found a cheapish place to stay and moved in, an easy enough process since moving in essentially entails unzipping my pack and putting my sarong on the bed. It was still only 9 am, so I slept for another hour, and then headed out for smokes and coffee, and to explore the town.
It didn't take long. I do not exaggerate in claiming that every block in this country, every block in every town, offers no less than five opportunities to purchase dozens of kinds of cigarettes. In a town like Pacet of 3 blocks... well, you do the math. I smoke Gudang Garam, and scored myself a pack... 1,000 rupiah. Okay, this'll be fun, let's track my expenses for the day. 2,500 for the ojek from town to town, and a whopping 6,500 for the room, plus my cigs... wow. Already 10,000 rupiah and it's only 10 am! Golly. Add coffee and a plate of fried rice for breakfast, and the needle climbs to 12,500 rp.
While I ate my breakfast, I was aggressively befriended by a guy named Boedi. He holds some minor position in the even more minor local government. I didn't get all the details because I'm still learning the language, but our conversation inevitably turned to the address exchange phase, a phenomenon unavoidable as toast. I've given my address to so many people in this country, and of course they're never gonna write, so by now I've sort of taken to making a game of it. Today I wrote down my name and address: "Encyclopedia Brown, 13 Rover Ave., Adenville, TX USA".
After eating I explored the town, a really beautiful place with views of lush farmland all the way across the valley, and the volcanic mountain peak rising above us. But after an hour I'd pretty much checked out what there was to check out: a nice lazy town made lazier by the lethargy that accompanies the fasting month of Ramadan, and even lazier since it's Friday, prayer day. By 11:30 I'd decided that I couldn't live here, and by 12 I knew that I didn't even really want to spend the day here. And misfortune on top of unlikelihood, it was turning into a hot sunny day. Up here, in the mountains, during the rainy season? Heat and sun are rare, and, for me today, unwelcome, because the reason I came to Pacet is... well, more about that later.
So where are we... the clock says noon, the money meter says 12,500 rupes, and my brain says I've gotta do something today. I don't want to sit drinking coffee, reading and writing all day... that's what I did in Trawas. I decided to check out Tretes. It's another town in the area, one I had planned on bypassing, since by reputation it's nothing but a red light district. But, I reasoned, why not take a look? It might be interesting. And so concluding, I chartered another ojek, bargaining him down to 4,000 rupiah for the long ride.
And oh, what a ride. More beautiful country you won't find on earth. Winding roads through mountain forest, passing through valleys of terraced rice paddies which revealed like a gigantic fingerprint the rain-sculpted mountain topography with their layers upon layers of contoured ridges, each containing shallow pools bright green with young rice. Incredible country. Fresh air country. And a long ride, too, during which my driver, whose name I later learned was Janji, would cut the engine at the hilltops to save gas, allowing us to coast silently down through the stunning land. I resisted all temptation to comment on the scenic beauty, preferring that Janji keep his eyes on the treacherous and twisting roadway. But wow! What luscious terrain. At last we came to Tretes.
"Mau perumpuan?" Janji asked: "You want a girl?"
"Mau lihat," I told him: "I want to look."
He smiled and steered the bike, which, I should note, like every other motorcycle I've seen in Indonesia had for some reason had its speedometer disconnected, toward the kompleks.
I suppose I should say something on the subject of Indonesian prostitution. This being a rigidly Islamic country, premarital sex is, of course, forbidden. I know lots of 25, 30, etc. -year-old Indonesian men who have, during moments of personal-pride-overcome-by-curiosity pulled me aside to ask, "Have you ever kissed a girl? What's it like?" Really. I've said it before, and I'll say it again because I liked it: sex is a result of physical maturity and a cause of emotional maturity. You should hear the adolescent humor coming from educated adults sometimes here. But I digress. A symptom of sexual suppression of a population is rampant prostitution. For years the government tried to stop it, but in the end realized that it was an uncurtailable reality, and chose rather to accept and control it. It's still technically illegal, but there are now compounds for it, equipped with doctors, peace-keeping cops, and of course hundreds and hundreds of girls. As compensation for their unsavory jobs, they receive guaranteed wages (plus commission), medical care, and organized sports and recreation. People still debate the government's wisdom in establishing such places, but it does work: the hookers are localized and relatively well-treated, and the spread of disease can be easily checked. It was to one of these kompleks that Janji brought me this afternoon.
And I must say that the girls here are incredibly beautiful. At the kompleks I found no exception to this. Every building had a long living room with numerous girls semi-clad and lounging on a couch running the length of the room, in front of an equally long window. Hundreds of them. Gorgeous girls. Take your pick. Prices range from 20,000 rupiah up to as much as you want to pay. I walked around for two hours, ogling, inspecting, making eye contact, and smiling. And with no doubt, I was severely tempted. 20,000 isn't so much really, and these girls were more than beautiful... they looked fun, really like nice, friendly people who one way or another ended up here, but who nonetheless had a real sparkle in their eyes, and in their smiles.
But in the end, I decided against. And I admit that it wasn't really the girls who settled my mind... it was the men there, the administrators and hawkers, standing out front shouting prices, calling "Hey Mistair!" and trying to herd me into their places before I could see what their competitors had to offer. It wasn't really for the girls that I said no: they'd still be where they were regardless of my decision and at least I could promise them a nice gentle time. No, it was these sleazeballs I didn't want to support, who turned the whole thing into a sour business, and who made up my mind for me. So ultimately, I went back to the ojek station and found Janji still there, unemployed since I left him. Hopping back on behind him, we zipped off once again, through the Java wonderland.
Back in Pacet, I paid him his 8,000 rp, bringing today's total to... wow: 20,500 rp, and I told him to wait outside my losmen (which is Indonesian for a little hotel-like place). the clouds had long since covered the sun, and begun to drizzle slightly. Our altitude once again showed its cool climate, and I could at last fulfill my intention in coming to Pacet in the first place. Returning to my room, I grabbed my swimshorts and towel (beginning to get the picture?) and checked my clock: 3 pm. And once again seated behind Janji, told him the magic words: "air panas." Air means water, oddly enough, and panas? Ah, panas is what the cities in the lowlands are too much of, but which up here is a welcome thing: hot.
Half an hour later we arrived. It took the form of three pools, channelled from one to the next, providing three different levels of heat. I enjoyed them for maybe half an hour, but still wondered at the water's source, since the pools were fed from a pipe coming from... where? Besides, these tubs were tiled and cared for, and I much preferred the natural vibe of stone walls and such... but when school let out and the place filled with children, that was the final straw: it was time to investigate.
Up I headed on foot. Into the hills, into the woods, and into the cold, cold rain which had now begun to fall in abundance. I followed the pipe as far as I could, but soon it went underground and I could no longer track its path. I continued up. After a while I began to think of my time in Thermopolis, Wyoming, home of the world's largest hot spring, where it took two days of constant questioning to finally find someone who would let me in on the local secret: where the real, natural, un-tiled, un-touristed, un-waterslided hot spring could be found. His name was Binky. "I need Binky now," I said aloud to myself in the Javan woods, and even as I did so, spotted a cabin up the hill. Inside lived an old man.
"I'm looking for the hot spring," I told him. (I had looked up the appropriate vocabulary ("sumber"="source") in Guy's dictionary this morning.)
He smiled. I guess it was pretty funny, actually, a white guy in purple shorts, blue flip-flops, and no shirt standing in the rain with a leather knapsack slung over his shoulder in the volcanic hills looking for hot water. Yeah, he smiled, but he also nodded, and then pointed. Not up the hill but over. Across.
"Far?" I asked him. He shook his head. Thanking him, I set off, to soon discover that he hadn't lied: 100 meters away I found a huge tree, around which a low stone wall had been built. Incredible. A spring seemingly bubbling out from the massive knarled and knobby roots of an enormous tree, which rose out of the middle of the hot water and provided marginal raincover as well. My back against wood, my feet pressed up against the smooth stones of the wall, I soaked and marvelled at the water, the forest, the rain, the trees, and my good fortune to be who and where I am, for an hour. And satisfied, I eventually returned to civilization, psyched as fuck and relaxed from my first hot bath in over three months, since the last hot spring I'd been to, in Poring.
Again I found Janji still waiting. And again I hired him. He got me back to the town, and I paid him another 2,000 rupes. (ch-ching! 22,500 so far.)
It was 5:30 and I slept until 7:30. Very well, I might add.
When I headed out to find dinner, I also found the night market in full swing. The mosque had just concluded its evening service, and the place was aswarm with people, all dressed to pray, the women with their ornate towels on their heads, the men with their little Muslim caps. And after a day of Ramadan, everyone could finally once again eat, the sun having crashed for the night. Crazy gastro-orgiastic scene.
I walked around watching for a bit, and also checking out the market's assortment of clothing, fruit and hardware, before choosing a nice little warung for dinner.
Its menu consisted of one item: bakso. I ordered some and it soon arrived. Bakso is technically only pork dumplings, something equivalent to hot-dog balls, but when you get it in a warung it comes in noodle soup, to which you add to taste chillies, vinegar, and this stuff they call kecap (which is pronounced like "catsup" (which is pronounced like "ketchup")) but which is actually sweet soy sauce. Yummy. I devoured it with dispatch. Afterward, as I paid my 1,000 rupiah, the nice bakso man told me, "I gave you double, but I'll only charge you for one, since you didn't ask for it." I mock-protested a bit, knowing full well he wouldn't accept more money (hospitality really goes out of control here sometimes), thanked him profusely, and walked out into the lovely night.
I wandered and meandered for a few hours. the moon is about two-thirds today. It shines so bright and warm, but we're so high up here and the night is so black that the moon's atmospheric glare has little effect, allowing the stars to penetrate in all their twinkling brilliance. This plus the mountain peak rising above us and the lights of distant towns below made for a glorious evening stroll in this charming little village.
But I was still hungry. No problem. I found a satay warung and, for another 1,000 rp treated myself to ten sticks of chicken satay. Yummy sweet peanut sauce. Excellent woodfire taste. Thick sticky rice. Mmmm. Two extremely fine dinners raising the total now to... 24,500.
While I sat there, a girl of perhaps 15 wandered aimlessly up and plopped herself down near me on the sidewalk bench, mumbling to herself in Indonesian. At almost 11 pm in a small quiet town, this was no normal sight. I had been sort of chit-chatting with a couple of ojek drivers who had taken time out of their futile wait for fares to grab a snack as well. When the girl arrived, one of them pointed at her and said, pointing then at his forehead, "crazy." I guess every town has one, but this town had a young, nice-looking one, and I felt bad for her. But then something happened which warmed me. Without anyone saying anything, the maitre d'warung gave her food. A full satay dinner. She wordlessly (except for her continued mumbling) accepted it, ate, and then wandered once more off down the street. She hadn't paid. He didn't expect her to. "People rock," I thought, and rising, I, too, drifted into the road.
After that, not much to tell. I walked more, I made a few friends and used them to help arrange tomorrow's transportation to Batu, another hot spring town, and eventually retired to the losmen to do a touch of writing (well, I guess more than a touch). It's been a long day. And I'm sure I won't spend any more cash today... I've gone way over average already...
And the result? Rp 24,500. Just about U$10.50... and worth every penny.
I woke up this morning with a feeling of dread. Why? Because it's Sunday and I should be praying? Certainly not. Because it's just beginning to hit me that Sonny & Cher got divorced? No - well, maybe a little - but no. Because the end of the world is nigh? Hell no: that'd get me out of my predicament. The reason I woke up not wanting to wake up is that I knew that today, at long last, I would have no escape, no avenue of avoidance, no opportunity to procrastinate, some things eventually must get done... and today, my laundry was one of them. I'm an ambassador of my country, after all, and I can't have all Indonesia forming the opinion that America smells bad, regardless of what Indonesia may smell like. I reluctantly got out of bed.
Of course my blood was screaming at me, so I first had to wander out in search of coffee, knowing full well that, crazy though it may seems, the beast in my blood is tamed by stimulants... anyway, with my kopi thoroughly ingested, I returned to my losmen and to the task at hand.
I hate doing laundry. Back home in the States, where the laundromat method holds the spotlight, it's bad enough, but here even that option is unavailable: here you scrub your clothes clean with a brush and a bucket, and hang them out to dry. A sometimes therapeutic but more often distasteful chore, and one which I put off as long as I can... but only having 5 shirts and two pairs of pants in this sweaty country... well, I know every inch of those clothes pretty well, you might say.
Setting down to it, I filled a borrowed bucket and pretty much did the deed as planned. And of course as soon as I'd finished, wearing my cleanest shirt and pants both of which I'd rolled up to my elbows/knees, and got ready to hang the rest of my now soaking clothes out beneath Indonesia's famous equatorial sun, it began to rain. Great. But figuring more water could only make up for my no doubt inadequate rinsing technique, I hung them out anyway and returned to my room. Some days just don't start right.
Sorta grumpy. It's Sunday. It's raining. I don't feel quite adequately caffeinated. Grrr. But it's only 10 am and I've gotta do something. I can't afford to let myself get bummed by precipitation; after all it is the rainy season here. OK, I know of two hot springs in the area, let's do one today, I conclude, and one tomorrow. Cool? Cool. I consulted the nice old man who runs the losmen, and he assured me that Songgoritti's spring is much nicer than Changar's. And so hearing, off I went. Songgoritti is a small village of resort houses outside of Batu, a place for rich residents of Malang, the nearest big city, to go on weekends.
To get there I boarded a public taxi, a phenomenon here worth a whole book's treatment on its own. It's basically a minivan into which get packed unbelievable numbers of people. The other day I counted 23 of us in a single car. Anyway, I caught one today, whose driver assented when asked, "Songgoritti?" and squoze myself into place. And, this being the superoutgoingextrafriendly country that everyone marvels at it for being, I was, as usual, bombarded with questions from all sides, the same questions I'm bombarded with all day every day. Usually I deal pretty well with it. Sometimes I enjoy making friends as my truthful self, while on other occasions I've had fun impersonating any number of different characters. I have been known to be known as Fred. Once I was called Blergenthanski. Often I'm from Iceland. More rarely from Burkina Faso. But today I wasn't up for it. I didn't want to play games, and I certainly didn't feel friendly, so I just answered their persistent queries with one of my own, over and over: "Why do you want to know?" I was rude, I know it, I didn't care, I was in a sour mood.
Which didn't improve when the driver informed me that his taxi actually wouldn't be going to Songgoritti. "You can walk there from here," he said pointing, "it's not far." Excellent. So I went, plodding through the rain, my only dry clothes soaked to the bone, cursing life itself.
Sometimes traveling is a blast. Sometimes it isn't. Occasionally I'd pass people, people who seemed to know where they were. "Air panas?" I asked each, and was each time told, essentially, "Keep going. Not far." Except that I'd long since passed the "far" marker, and their assurances of proximity had turned into something of a joke for me, an example of the Indonesian conceptions of distance and time, both of which operate on a much more lenient level than their American counterparts.
But finally, of course, I did arrive... well, sort of. Drenched but hopeful I did find, ultimately, the hot spring. The problem was that, after more than an hour of wandering around in the rain, meandering inquisitively from resort to resort looking for the spring, somebody had to show it to me by lifting a cement manhole cover off a cistern behind a hotel. I reached in and touched the water, clear, sulfurous and hot... "... and it's channeled into all these luxury hotels," he said with a wave of his hand, "for sulfur baths in the rooms."
"There's no public spring? Something outside? And cheap?" He shook his head. "We do," he said, "rent bathtub rooms by the half-hour... " I was irate. "But this is majikwater, free, from the earth!" He smiled and shrugged. "Our rates are... " I turned, and set off back through the wet grey air for home, more discouraged and cranky than before.
When I got back I encountered the nice old man. "Back already?" he asked. I related the gist of my excursion to him. "I told you it was nice there," he replied, "real deluxe." He seemed pleased that my findings had confirmed his advice. I smiled, went to my room, stripped of my sopping shirt and jeans, and went back to sleep. Some days truly aren't worth being awake for. I'll pass. It was 12:30, and still raining.
And, an hour or so later when I awoke, the rain still poured out of the sky, splattering down. But my nap had invigorated me a little. "Dammit," I thought, "my clothes are all wet, it's a cold day, and I want a fucking hot bath." I pulled on my dank and heavy outfit, and set off again, this time for Changar.
The rain felt good, sort of resopping my clothes with warmer, fresher water, and when I climbed into my next public taxi (called "mikrolet" by the locals), I got a perverse pleasure from the drenched-fur stench that stagnating wet jeans tend to exude, and with which I was bombarding my densely cramped neighbors... and as an added result of which I was mercifully spared all the usually obligatory probing queries. We rode up, up and up through small villages and misty hill crests, until the mikrolet came to a stop and the passenger compartment drained out into the street.
"Ini Changar?" I asked, and received the dismaying déjà-vu reply, "No. Taxis don't go that far. You'll have to walk. It's about 4 kilometers, and there's only one road... you can't miss it." Beautiful. I paid the man and headed off on foot.
Then an incredible thing happened, something so bizarre, and so human. After I'd rounded the first big bend in the winding mountain road, putting all buildings out of sight and leaving me alone with the hills and fields, my grump and scowl vanished, and I found my self in a good mood, I mean a really good mood. I was laughing and skipping, alone in the rain on a snaking strip of wet black asphalt in the East Javan hills with the layers of terraced fields like beached waves, each lapping and overlapping the next, a fertile amphitheater of lettuce-heads and rice silently watching me giggle and jump through the mist.
On I walked. A few turns, hills and dales further, I encountered two teenage couples and their twin mopeds parked on a scenic slope snapping pictures of each other. I offered to capture them all in one frame, and after I had made good, they insisted, one by one, on photos with me beside each of them in front of the misty green beyond. I've had my picture taken beside more strangers than I can remember in the last few months, and I kind of like the idea of being "the anonymous white guy" in so many photo albums across Asia. Anyway, we bid our fond farewells and I continued on my way.
Eventually I came to Changar. It's not even really a town, but more of a place, a small collection of farm huts and an intriguing stone path leading into the woods. Taking the bait, the squelching rhythm of my flip-flops smacking against my heels joined by the growing sound of bubbling water, I traipsed on down the walkway.
And I think that the nice old man at my losmen must have done too much acid in the 70's ‹ the 1870's ‹ because this place was absolutely perfect. Ancient stone-walled tubs surrounded by trees and clouds, with drifting and eddying wisps of steam rising from their surfaces into the cool forest air. Clear sulfur-green water, and really really hot. Almost too hot, in fact, but since the pool had been cleverly placed to run off into an icy stream, there was an easy alternative to the heat. I languorously bathed, swam, and soaked for almost three hours.
A few other people had made it to this magic place, and my love of the world now restored, I quickly made friends. In particular I met a Sumatran guy who lives in Jakarta working for a French telecommunications company. He spoke: lots of Indonesian, a little English, and a little French. I spoke: a little Indonesian, lots of English, and lots of French. Put it all together, and we had the key to unlock any door. We talked for a long time and laughed a lot. Ultimately, of course, we conducted the less-than-optional address-exchange ceremony, during which I also got the address of an internet gateway in Jakarta, and wiping myself "dry" with my heavy-with-water towel, I dressed to go. My friend offered me a lift, but he was headed the opposite direction, toward Surabaya, so I headed out once again on foot for home.
It was growing dusky, and about 8 minutes into my walk a pickup truck full of farmers heading home for the night passed me and stopped. I climbed aboard, and rode the rest of the way to the town-at-the-end-of-the-mikrolet-line surrounded by the maple-sweet aroma of organic fertilizer material, er, that is to say, shit, and happily. The fog had deepened, and the terraced fields were now just strips of varying greys fading away into the white air. the road was a narrow one, maybe two-thirds of a lane, yet we had no problem somehow in passing several cars heading the opposite direction, which came sporadically looming towards us through the opaque atmosphere. This I ascribed to supernatural force.
As we passed through one small village, I spotted a young tan-skinned girl of maybe 6 or 7 years, leaning against the windowless white side wall of a small house. She waved at me, I waved back, and she grinned, her smile becoming quickly lost in the mist. None of the farmers noticed this, and I suppose that if I weren't writing it now, no one else would ever know it happened.
The truck stopped, we all got off, and I caught a mikrolet home.
I found myself inexplicably before a large light-stained oak door on the front porch of a big house at dusk. The house definitely had money in it, but also class: it was of grand design but tastefully simple, with original architecture giving it an air of artistic consideration. The obvious wealth of whoever lived there was so taken for granted that I derived a feeling of comfort and ease just from standing on the brown-tiled verandah, gazing around at its white walls and cane chairs and, of course, the door. I rang the bell.
A man answered, a middle-aged, slightly grey, art-rich type of person, relaxed in his domain. He looked at me warmly and inquisitively.
I started to try to speak, but soon saw in his face that no explanation was necessary. There seemed to be between us some sort of connection already established. He nodded and silently stepped aside, motioning for me to enter.
The house's interior showed even more the high quality of life of its inhabitants. Both well-lighted and well-lit, it was Spartan and tasteful, with large expanses of empty wall and floor space between extremely beautiful and impressive art and furniture, all fine to their deepest detail, all looking right and comfortable as and where they were.
Two more people lounged inside, two beautiful women, one with dark shoulder-length hair, the other with red hair of that color that looks artificial but which you know isn't. Both women were slim and fit and again, both had that air, that relaxed security that comes from education, money, art, and home. They all wore comfortable clothes and sipped fancy drinks from lightly-held glasses. Feeling extremely welcome, I joined their conversation.
We discussed high topics enthusiastically and without pretence, an extremely progressive exchange in which I was somehow able to converse intelligently about any subject, despite my foreknowledge of seemingly nothing at all. This lasted several hours without strain until the man who let me in, apparently the owner of the house, and the dark-haired woman, apparently his wife, excused themselves to leave the room.
I was alone with the red-haired woman. I would never know any of their names, mentally labelling them only by their appearances and characters.
She and I talked, we sparkled, we linked. After a bit we rose so she could show me some of the house's spectacular artwork. Her knowledge of it was as impressive as the art itself. Each piece had a story and a theory to recommend it in addition to its aesthetic beauty - just like her, as it would turn out.
One piece was particularly fascinating. It seemed to be a painting in a red metal frame. It looked like a sort of hybrid of Dali, Escher and Kandinski, full of feeling and detail, but with a geometry so complex I could hardly focus on its vibrant colors and lines. And as I watched, it seemed to quiver and undulate, barely perceptibly. She noticed it too.
"It's having a hard time holding," she remarked, "they're not made to hold more than 24 hours. OK," she now addressed the painting itself, "go." And to my shocked amazement, it did. The whole picture changed, evolved, morphed, mutating from one incredible image to the next through dozens of intermediate masterpieces, and then on to others. Even the frame altered itself, changing its color, its material, its shape, always with acute sensitivity to the needs of the image it contained. The thing, whatever it was, eventually came to rest as a triangular impressionist nightscape with blurrily twinkling stars set in a blue-black lacquered wood frame.
"No, keep going indefinitely," my friend admonished. It started again to destabilize and shift.
"I could stare at this thing for the rest of my life," I told her, "what is it?"
"Art," she mysteriously smiled, and then more seriously, added, "No one knows how it works and the man who made it is dead. He was a good friend of ours, as well as a devoted mystic, a gifted physicist, and an incredible artist. He only made three pieces like this, though, this painting and two sculptures, all of which are in this house. Nowhere else is appropriate for them... the world isn't ready for it yet, I think."
"Amazing," I gasped. I couldn't tear my eyes from it. "Where are the other two?"
"That's the tricky part," she smiled, "they're sculptures, and you never know what they're gonna look like. And," she added, "they can't take the same form twice. You just have to sort of know the house and learn to spot what doesn't belong. they do have inert phases into which they can be commanded," I had begun to browsingly follow her, listening enthralled as she wandered around in search, "and which they can hold indefinitely, but they prefer to mutate. I don't think they like staying still." She continued to hunt.
"You say that as though they had emotions," I commented.
"They do," she said, glancing at me, "but limited. They must, in order to have the aesthetic sense they do. But they feel no pain. We can't go around guilty because we've insulted the art, now can we? They also seem to be incredibly intelligent, or at least able to mimic... aha!" Reaching down, she picked up a calico kitten with white paws curled up under a footstool. "I've never seen you before," she said to it, and playfully tossed it to me.
Fumbling, I threw out my arms to catch it, but before I could, it turned into a bird and flew to perch on the arm of a chair, where it again changed into a book, which fell to the floor. There it started to revert to kittenhood, only now as a tabby. My friend laughed and said with authority, "Go inert," whereupon it grew into a plant a small potted tree situated perfectly beside the wing-backed reading chair.
"Not a very exciting pose, I admit, but harmless enough," she continued to me. "The other sculpture does sort of the same. They both actually bear edible fruit, but one makes a sweet berry while the other only produces sour fruit. The only difference between them, but I guess it's ideologically important as an artistic statement... and you can sometimes see it reflected in the forms they take." She plucked a berry and tasted it. "Sweet. The other one's around here somewhere... " But before she could start to look, two children appeared, a boy and a girl, both beautiful, both with the look of innocent wisdom that comes from being treated as an equal by adults.
"Hey," my friend greeted them with positive familiarity, "what's up?"
The boy spoke clearly and without fear, educated, eloquent. "We'd like to go to the celebration next week, but mother and father don't want to take us. Are you going?"
"Yeesss... ," she answered cautiously, "but you know very well that you must get there on your own for your presence to be accepted."
"But no one will tell us how," the girl complained.
"That's the point and you know it. You must find your own way. I'm sorry." Her voice was firm but supportive. The boy whispered something to the girl behind his cupped hand. Then they giggled mischievously and left the room.
"I wonder what will become of that," my friend smiled, throwing herself loosely onto the couch. I joined her there, and we talked fluidly, each of our bodies held open to the other in that posture that expresses unhurried availability. At one point I looked into her eyes and said freely, "Life is so beautiful, here, like this. I never want to leave this place." "You can stay here as long as you like," she assured me, placing a caring hand on top of mine, "you belong here." I felt a joy well up inside of me, and before long I moved to kiss her.
Soon thereafter our clothes lay in heaps on the floor. We ravaged each other gently but with passion, with complete wordless understanding. She was magnificent, incredibly sensitive to my every touch and desire, and I felt in fine form, inspired by her dazzling perfection.
I also found a few surprises. At one particular juncture my tongue was lightly drifting from her elbow down to her wrist, dancing across her pale skin. When I reached her closed fist, I playfully nuzzled it open with my nose, only to find a small cookie in her hand! My mouth dropped open in surprise, giving her the perfect opportunity to push the ginger-flavored treat in and my jaw up. I looked at her inquisitively, but she only laughed and changed the subject with a burst of frenzied kisses all up and down one of my legs.
A bit later we were playing mouth-to-mouth, lightly brushing our lips against one another's, when she again widened my eyes by spitting a piece of hard candy into my mouth. Butterscotch. This time my curious look held more force, and she whispered, "I'm magic too. We all are," then again changed the subject as before. In neither the mood nor the position to argue, I readily accepted her explanation and acquiesced to her continuing games.
But still, her words, "we all are," rang cavernously through my head. Did that include me? I decided to try, and to my continuing surprise, I could indeed play along - well, sort of. For my first attempt I produced a scented oil from my fingertips with which to rub her back... but it smelled acrid, so I quickly abandoned the effort. She looked at me and laughed. I then tried emulating her trick with the candy, but was only able to produce a bitter sort of licoricey glob on my tongue. Again she caught my eye.
"Don't try so hard," she said. After that I left the magic alone, and dedicated myself to what I knew.
The festivities progressed, finding me before too long in a strange situation: my friend was more or less in a slouching seated position on the couch, with me on top/in front of her, when I happened to glance up at the magic painting behind her on the wall. It had assumed the form of an hourglass-shaped mirror, in which I spied the dark-haired woman watching us from halfway down the darkened stairway across the room behind me. She wore a faint smile of approval. I'm sure my friend saw her too, but everything in this house felt so natural, so open, that neither of us thought to stop what we were doing. When I checked again the picture was no longer a mirror, and when I manoeuvred myself so that I could see the stairway directly, she had gone.
Eventually we fell asleep together on the couch. I did not dream. When I awoke, she was already dressed, sitting on a chair opposite, watching me. I smiled and stretched, and then began slowly to sort out my clothes. The night had passed, and when I was ready she led me to a dining room, a place I hadn't seen before but which was as carefully appointed as everything else in the house, and where we found the other couple already chatting over coffee, drenched in sunlight and looking fresh.
Upon our arrival the man left for a moment to return with a delicious breakfast of foods I hadn't ever tasted before. By now I just accepted new experiences as commonplace, and didn't make an issue of it. The conversation sprang to life like a gas burner catching fire, and after breakfast we four spent the balance of the day wandering from room to room like kids on a playground, listening to courageous new music here, talking about books and art there, playing pool on a gorgeous carved wooden table in one room, curling up with big pillows and each other to watch fascinating films in another, eating a satisfying lunch, and generally feeling well-placed in the world.
Toward dusk we had all retired to the living room, the first room I had entered and where I spent the night. We sat talking over more fancy drinks in lightly-held glasses, when suddenly I felt very strange, but in a way I could not identify. My friends apparently noticed it too, for they all stared at me with a kind of grinning surprised recognition.
"So it's you!" the red-haired woman exclaimed with a tone of chiding amusement, "I never would have guessed."
"I did," put in the other woman, "but I wasn't sure. Clever," she said, shaking a finger at me.
I felt disoriented, not at all myself, like some deep upheaval was taking place within me. "I don't understand," I pleaded. I was scared and confused. Why were they all laughing at me? Then, suddenly, I understood.
I begged, "No! It isn't true!" They laughed, watching me, but I was frantic. I don't want to leave! I like this life!"
"You've outdone yourself," said my red-haired friend, "this is your sourest fruit yet. Cheeky boy." She sipped her drink.
I was destabilizing quickly now, all of their attentive eyes following my form. I struggled to remain intact. I rose to my feet, pathetically sputtering, "But... but you liked... you li- lied to me... you ‹ you said I could... I could... "
And as I felt my new form take hold, the words "feel no pain" echoing silently through my leaves and branches, I shed a single bitter tear, a hard, sour berry which fell with a thud to the floor.
I get to act silly and daffy and strange.
I can, if I like, be completely deranged.
I also can play charming, suave and polite.
I can say "you know best" when I know that I'm right.
I get to be wicked or stupid or rude.
I get to hock mucus up into my food.
I can try being you, I can change what is me.
I am nothing and everything, totally free.
The rain fell like the stained glass of an unholy church at the moment of apocalypse, chipping away at the vibrant and colorful landscape on which it sprinkled, tinkling, twinkling down. It's all part of the system, washing away the life-giving soil with the life-giving water that erases the world like a Michaelangelo chalked onto cracked pavement. Eventually the sun demanded a turn, pushing the wind to scatter the clouds so that light could flood down, light so thick you could barely see through it, light so heavy you didn't want to move beneath its stifling mass, a paralyzing mixture of red, yellow, and pain. Too quickly even the wind burnt itself out, leaving the oven on broil, the world still and quiet and waiting for the night, night the time of creamy cool darkness, of gusting air and congealing dew, of drums and dancing around blazing fires, a minute and fearful substitute for the raging inferno which lurks, always, just around the corner of the globe. And per usual, after the whooping red howling has died, beyond the extinction of the glowing coals smothered in their own ash, when the passion, like the air, has chilled and slowed, the sun peeks around the horizon's edge, glimpses its calm prey, and moves in position to conquer once again, and again, and again, fearing none, fighting against only the rain, and the night, never to lose and never to win, a stable dynamic static in its regularity, a vacillation between a series of nothingnesses, a spinning top in a dark room, going nowhere and amusing no one at all.