March 15, 2010

The Vanishing Guru

Takayo and I flew to Bali for Chinese New Year.  When we first arrived in Kuta, a beach town near the airport, we dumped our bag in the room and threw on our bathing suits.  We had finally made it -- Paradise, throngs of bronzed bodies laying on white sands.  Or so we thought.  The only thing covering the shoreline was plastic bags, packs of wild dogs, and fly-swarmed coconuts.  Was the illusion of paradise just one big farce?  It was hard to believe, but we kept our shoes on just in case. 

    We later discovered that Kuta Beach was the budget seeker’s answer to Bali.  It didn’t explain the condition of the beach, but at least now there was somebody to blame.  I didn’t feel the magic that people associate with Bali until we reached our palace-style hotel outside Ubud, the art community in the center of the island.  Our hotel was eerily vacant and surrounded by rice paddy fields on three sides.  We saw men balancing large baskets upon their heads in the distant bogs.  I had never seen a paddy field up close before.  Right away, those emerald rows had a strange draw on me.  They were perfectly manicured and spanned out to the edge of the jungle.  A distant volcano towered over the palm line and clouds wreathed its midsection like a tutu.  A band of teenagers awoke us at six each morning, giggling and sweeping the paths with hand brooms. 

    There was a ramshackle hut on the edge of the paddy field about 50 yards from the hotel.  I sat on our patio and watched the small man (who lived in the hut) go about his day.  His presence somehow added to the mystery of this crumbling palace.  The hut man sat on a wooden box every afternoon, whooping and clapping like someone at a Lynard Skynard concert.  At first, I figured he was trying to scare away rice-eating birds, but nothing ever flew away.  Then I figured him for a lunatic, but that only made me paranoid about the locks at night.  How many hacks does it take to get through an old teak wood door.  Finally, I got scientific:  Perhaps he was whooping at the rice, encouraging it, the way classical music is supposed to stimulate growth in houseplants.  Personally, I couldn’t imagine working in a rice paddy, no matter how mystical it seemed.  Just once, though, I wanted to walk through it, just to feel the slender leaves rubbing between my thighs. 

    “Go for it,” said Takayo.  “I’ll watch from right here.”

I thought about hopping the barbed wire fence, but the idea of coiled snakes and sprained ankles from rodent holes gave me the heebie-jeebies.  

    The next morning I sat on the patio looking out toward the hut.  The man was crouched behind a palm-thatched screen attached to the side.  He was taking a shit, but only the top of his head was poking out.  All of a sudden, a rooster emerged from some thicket and strutted along the screen toward the front of the hut.  When the rooster rounded the corner, he saw the man, or what the man was doing, and lunged back with wings and feathers flying everywhere.  The man’s head disappeared, and the rooster darted back into the undergrowth.  It wasn’t much, but compared to the shows on TV, this little incident was downright compelling.

    Another noteworthy character on the property had waist-length dreadlocks, and was known only as "The Guru."  His picture was at the reception bungalow.  I spoke with him one morning, hoping he might impart a jewel of wisdom upon me. 

    “Call me,” he said.  “Twenty minutes in advance, and I will drive you to Ubud in the shuttle.” 

The ‘shuttle’ was a flesh-colored mini van.  We took him up on the offer and hit the art markets of Ubud. 

    We didn’t know it, but living in China had turned us into ruthless street bargainers.  Some Westerners described bargaining as a ‘stressful’ experience.  For us, it was more like a game of bring-the-merchant-to-his-knees.  Takayo and I walked around, discussing what we wanted and what we were willing to pay.  We saw a meter-long painted mask, so I walked over to the booth.  The dealer noticed me so I feigned interest in a bongo drum.  Rule #1:  Never reveal what you’re interested in right off the bat.

    “You like,” asked the dealer.  “200,000 rupiah.”  That was about $22.
    “Two hundred?  I can’t afford that.  How much is this?”  I picked up a smaller instrument and began plucking the metal tabs.  Rule #2:  Get them involved.  This went on for a minute or two.  Takayo stepped over. 
    “This mask is nice,” I said, ‘nice’ being our codeword, enacting the good shopper/bad shopper routine.
    “How much you pay for mask?  200?” 
    Takayo stared at the thing as if she could give a spit.  “Fifty.” 
    “No, that too low.  150, OK?”
    “Fifty,” she repeated.  Rule #3:  Stand firm.
    “Where you come up with FIFTY?”  The man was dumbfounded.  He pointed to a mask half the size.  Of course, we didn’t want that one, so the whip song continued. 
    “Okay, 100.” 

At this point, the man was shaking.  I offered him 80 which must have sounded a heck of a lot better than fifty.  He thought hard about it, but declined.  Rule #4:  Walk away. 

    “Okay, okay,” he said.  “Eighty.”  He started wrapping it up. 

A similar situation took place at a silk table.  Takayo was stonewalling one woman when another silk vendor across the aisle started negotiating.  Everyone began shouting and shaking scarves, or staring in disbelief at the amount of noise these small Asian women were making. 

    We called the Guru later that night and he told us he’d pick us up in twenty minutes.  It was always twenty minutes with him, so we ordered another milk tea and waited.  Thirty minutes went by, but there was still no sign of him.  After an hour, whenever a vehicle approached, we stared into the headlights like a moth, asking “Is that him?” or "Marishka Hargitay!" Perhaps it was karma for the grief we caused those poor vendors, but the Guru never arrived.  After calling the hotel, one of the thirteen year old groundskeepers eventually showed up in the shuttle.  He had to sit on phone books to see over the steering wheel.  I lost my faith in the Guru that night.  Strangely enough, we never saw him again.

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