Every morning starts pretty much the same.
Take the 30 minute drive into town by shuttle bus or private driver. The same roads, maybe speed up and overtake the scooters on the straights. Hesitate around the bends and the dogs covered in sores that scuttle like crabs to avoid being hit. The driver will usually ask about breakfast, and you will say how good it was, because you think that’s what they want to hear. And they will smile and say how good that is, because they think that’s what you want to hear, to know they’re happy you are so pleased. And the transaction goes on much like this until you are no longer taking up space in their backseat.
How can Bali survive? This woman from Australia wears bindis on her forehead and a traditional kebaya and is late to the forum she organised. The conversation soon turns to tourism, the types of tourists. Apparently more Chinese have been visiting her restaurant here. They spend only enough for one-third of a brownie. They are so loud that she seats them on the bottom floor to keep them away from the other tourists. She says all this in a manner that makes it seem easy for half the room to laugh alongside her, and they do.
Two stray dogs fucking on the roadside. Your greatest fear is to look down and see a mosquito on the fleshy part of your arm or leg, its belly pulsing to the rhythm of your heartbeat. Swipe it away like a scabies dog tail.
Today there’s a new driver named Jo. He is young and the conversation flows more naturally, even from the backseat. He preaches the value of silence and identifies which leaves can be used to salve a wound when you’re injured in the jungle. Here he is at home but in Java he is scared. Borderlines of the mind, of belief. Many many years ago we escaped Java to come here, he says. To go back is to feel alien. To speak out is to go missing like the sarcophagus in the caves; nobody is interested to study the original tribes so it’s as if they are not even there. All the time telling you this and calling you mister, sir. What he thinks you want to hear.
How can Bali survive? A local writer apologises for not speaking much English, then returns to his native tongue so he can be most direct. Men praying once and then gambling, then going to a cock fight, then looking at a woman’s cleavage. This is his concern. I wonder if it’s my fault.
There are always these tensions and inattentions, he explains. Like how enough water flows from the rainforests but there isn’t the means to contain it properly. What can be contained flows to Nusa Dua, the resort towns. The rice fields miss out sometimes so maybe look for work elsewhere, where other people’s bellies pulse more often and they don’t wait for you to pass on the footpath. Where the water flows but you can’t seem to catch it. Where this woman from Australia will employ you to her restaurant, promote you, then mock you for wanting your old job back. They are all the same, she tells us. They don’t want to be better. It’s simple, a simple life to enjoy and forget.
Jo’s mother is a farmer. She is his treasure and he will take her away from here one day, but probably not one day soon. Maybe after he’s done studying economics. Think about the economics of how 1.2 million can choose to visit every year, to live cheap and ignore four zeroes. We pass a papaya or some other fruit fallen from a tree. Jo can eat this, he says, even if it’s not on his land. If he’s hungry he can eat it but he cannot sell it. This is an unwritten law. And, if it’s in his way, he can get out of his car to move someone else’s scooter off the road with no commotion. It’s there and then it isn’t.
But back in Melbourne, when your mum puts her hand out to stop traffic so your dad can reverse safely, she is in the road five seconds before this man leans out his car window to yell at her. Maybe he sees the road as something he can own, something that can be conquered. Maybe he has a claim on it, and this confident Chinese woman is in his road. Get off my road. And soon even his passenger reflects his anger, because maybe she knows to be seen as agreeable is better than to not be seen at all. Invisible women often go missing.
Like at the temple, this old woman gives me a free banana and tells me to find her in the car park on the way out so I can buy more. But on the way out I can’t find her. She’s nowhere to be seen. Maybe because I put the free banana in the bin.
Maybe she existed only for me in that moment, and me for her. But to look away isn’t to vanish her. To look away from a little girl begging out the mouth of an alleyway as her pregnant mother breastfeeds behind her. Breastfeeding in a dirty hoodie behind the garbage, tit out.
Water from the temple: to drink from it can bring back the dead; not recommended. Take fruit from this tree, bite into it. Look down at the rot. Black juice in your teeth and lie down.
Jo tells of corruption, of baron kings that do nothing and collect tax from the people born of unroyal blood. Back in our room, you look up the history away from the poolside meals and the fake-brand markets and the haggling with taxi drivers. You read how a raja once stood in front of the invading Dutch army and put a dagger in his own chest before hundreds more did the same behind him. Puputan: if you don’t leave we will die anyway. They throw their coins and jewellery at the Dutch, to mock them, and afterwards the army loot their corpses for whatever else is left.
This man is named Agung like the mountain volcano. He says it is not as simple as the woman from Australia suggests. For his people, there are two truths: seen and unseen. To devote more time to physical duties is to ignore the duties of the afterlife. A temple in each home, several more in each village.
But how can Bali survive? A woman in the audience asks this almost furiously. The question is the title of the forum, after all, and the answer has yet to be provided. The Balinese writer, head like a monk’s, responds in his language and the moderator translates gleefully: Do nothing. He says it directly to her.
We drive past a pink sun. It peaks out between buildings and treetops every so often. You say it’s the same sun from yesterday. And tomorrow and the next. And again it’s gone.