March 10, 2010

Temple of the Thug

The Uluwatu Temple in Bali sits atop a lip-shaped cliff overlooking the Indian Ocean. It's the sort of place that seems to say "forget all your troubles.  This is paradise."  Of course, my wife, Takayo, and I did not know this just yet.  We were a quarter-mile away, roasting in the parking lot as an old man wrapped a purple sarong around my waist.  I was patient.  Next, the man fished around a basket of sashes before choosing a pink one. At least I think it was pink. The sun was bright, but our driver was adamant that we leave our sunglasses in the car.

"Monkeys.  They are very greedy animals."

The old man pointed us toward the path from his stool. We began our hike to the temple when all of a sudden, a woman was walking with us through the wooded footpath. She was probably sixty years old, but the weathered lines in her face made her appear much older. Good for her, I thought, she's still got it.  She said something to me, but her voice carried like a whisper over the squawking birds. I slowed my stride and leaned down to hear what she was saying.

“I come with you to temple” she said. “I protect you from monkey.”
I nodded my head. “Sure.  Whatever you’re into.”

With the prospect of a monkey guard, I became excited and picked up my stride.  The path meandered and sloped toward the ocean, which was still just a blue glimmer of hope beyond the palm fronds.  Unable to keep up with me, the woman spoke to Takayo.

“So, you pay me 50,000 rupiah.  OK?  I protect you from monkey.”
“Uh, wait a minute… what?” said Takayo. “Noah, hold up a minute. This lady wants 50,000 rupiah to do what?”

I stopped and turned.

“Your driver, he ask me to come with you. I protect you.  OK?”

It was strange, but not surprising.  Our driver had spent the hour-long drive to Uluwatu trying to sell us a volcano tour.  The odd thing was that she didn't inspire the sort of fear one expects from a hired thug.  It wasn't the fact that she was 80 pounds that raised doubt, but rather, her weapon of choice:  A stick the width of a chicken bone.

She assured us, “I protect you when monkey attack.”

Now it was no longer if the monkey attacks.  It was a matter of when.

“Um no,” Takayo said. “We don’t need protection from the monkeys, OK?”

The woman stopped in the path and we continued without her. It made me wonder:  How many people, on average, pay for this woman‘s services?  Monkeys are the quintessential clowns of nature.  The thought of physical harm does tap into a persons psyche, especially on vacation.  But hiring security?  Personally, I enjoy the rush of plunging into the unknown.  A safari is one thing, but if you need to fork over cash to avoid contact with nature, should you really be traveling?

As we continued down the trail, I wondered what the monkey protector would have done in a monkey attack. Would she lay down her life, like a secret service agent protecting the president? Had that ever happened? Her services, in all likelihood, were not licensed by the Indonesian government. It's not like you can take her to court or anything.  I began to wonder about the temple, its money-grubbing underbelly, and the undertones of her violent insinuations.

Was it all necessary? Perhaps the monkeys had mastered the art of primitive tool making, chipping away day after day, perfecting the meat slicing blade. They probably had stock piles hidden all over the temple preparing for the strike. First the tsunami wreaked havoc, and now it was evolution -- the return of a primate New World Order. They’ve always been bloodthirsty, but now they were prepared. The closer we got to the temple, the furry paw of paranoia began to tighten its grip of me.

“Can you believe that?” Takayo said. “I could’ve carried that woman with one arm. Protector of monkeys? She should call it ‘Adopt a Grandparent’ instead.”

“What if we made a mistake? What if we do need a monkey guard after all? Suppose they‘re crazy monkeys…evil monkeys.”

“Well, it’s too late now. Unless you want to go crawling back to her.”

So much for apocalyptic delusions.

We had already put on the sarongs, so we would just have to take on whatever came our way. As the path lead out of the canopy, it edged along a steep cliff overlooking a remote sandy beach and an electric blue sea. Moss covered boulders cluttered the shoreline, assaulted by sets of broad white crests. We spotted some monkeys when we approached the base of the temple. There were a lot of Japanese tourists congregating in groups around their monkey bodyguards. Things seemed under control.  Like small furry humans, they munched bags of chips, took hand offerings of peanuts, and drank from plastic water bottles.

An old man was sprawled out under a stone doorway, reciting some ancient chant. I watched him in passing, unaware of the low-slung tree branch just ahead of me. By the time I turned forward it was too late -- a monkey sitting on the branch whacked the back of my head with its tail. I felt ringing in my head, numbness, and then finally, betrayal. It wasn’t particularly painful, just humiliating. Thankfully, this particular strike didn’t warrant the services of a medevac team.

As for the temple, well, it’s made of stone and it’s old and inspiring, but you already knew that. If you’re interested, take Anthony Bourdain’s advice and catch it on the Discovery Channel. Better yet, go and discover it for yourself. Just know that there are options when it comes to protection from monkeys. My wife and I may not have needed monkey protection services, but we respected the way she laid that monkey hustle down.

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