Touch the Holy SnakeI am too disappointed in humanity tonight for its contribution to global warming to be able to write something scintillating, timeless and original for this blog in my usual fashion. Instead, I'm treating you people to one of my own re-runs. The following piece was published in Student Traveler Magazine in (I think) March, 2004. Almost everything about my life has changed since then. All the blue and yellow cartoon illustrations are by a fine young man named William Matelski, and the Photoshopped one is by yours truly.
Once everything that is currently frozen melts, the incredible island of Bali will be the size of a largish mini-golf course...
Touch the Snake -- the Real Rock and Roll Bali
I went to Bali kicking and screaming. I had to leave Australia to renew my visa, but I was too broke to do anything at all. I had zero desire to spend money I didn’t have to go to a recently terrorized country where the only thing more dangerous than the crooked cops is a glass of tap water.
What I nearly forgot in all my penniless angst was that attitude makes all the difference on the road. My rotten attitude lasted all the way through the plane ride and into Customs. If I hadn’t shaken it, I’d have wandered through the whole trip grumpy, irked, wanting to get back to my favorite Aussie beach, not seeing the humid green paradise in front of my frowning face. Bali is a steaming island full of fresh fruit and floral offerings, a rich pop/religious culture, and tremendously warm people. If I hadn’t chilled out and cheered up, I wouldn’t have gotten over my own sense of Yankee imperialism, past the curtain of cute mystery surrounding monkeys, or understood the meaning of the holy snake, and I certainly wouldn’t have beat time to the heart of rock and roll.
what every local knows about monkeys
I never thought I would say this, but I am absolutely sick and tired of monkeys jumping on my head. Bali has a number of forested public parks where tourists can feed crowds of wild macaques. The Balinese know that visitors love to feed the monkeys, and have conveniently set up card tables where they sell bananas and bits of sweet potato—monkey treats which cost three or four times what you’d pay for an American-sized plateful of suckling pig, rice, greens, and red-hot chili in the same village. The monkeys themselves are accustomed to eating food from the hands of tourists, and it’s made them even cheekier than the banana salesmen.
At Uluwatu, I watched one monkey casually masturbate while another male monkey picked his body for nits, nibbling away as he found them. They caught me observing their little homoerotic escapade and decided it would be more fun to have a go at my bag. I took a bit more pleasure than I should have in kicking them away. Once the masturbator stopped skidding across the pavement (propelled by my foot), he picked himself up and told me to fuck off. For real. He leaped right in my face, mouth opened wide so I could see all his teeth and a little bit of his appendix, clapped twice and barked quick two times, and I swear it sounded like “fuck off.” So I did . . . You can’t waste all your time in the temple at Uluwatu fighting with monkeys. I started the long hike up Uluwatu’s crumbling mossy concrete path along the cliff by the sea.
As I traversed the hilly cliff, the ocean booming hundreds of yards below, a squadron of vengeful monkeys followed me through the trees at just about head level. I sped up into a sort of trot, but they were gaining. As I bent to take the camera out of my bag, one soldier attacked. All I heard was a whooshing rustle as he leapt from the trees squarely onto my shoulders. He ran several laps around my head and shoulders, clawing my temple and screaming the whole time. This simian soldier managed to knock my glasses onto the edge of the walkway (which was on an exposed cliff dropping into the ocean). I thought one of his homeboys was going to steal my glasses or toss them thousands of feet down into the crashing waves, and I got mad. I nearly threw that furry little bastard into the ocean right in front of his whole rotten monkey family, but he just laughed and vanished into the trees. I thought that the monkeys were having a lot of fun with that, even for monkeys, by the sound of the tittering laughter, until I heard clicking, turned around, and saw a horde of Japanese tourists photographing the whole escapade.
After I settled into my hotel, I hit the throbbing streets of Kuta to look for dinner and got clobbered with my first lesson in Balinese commerce. Clusters of men squat in the nighttime alleys of Kuta, Bali’s tourist mecca by the beach, racing up to Westerners, grabbing them by the arm, and asking, “You want a girlfriend tonight? Teenage girl, veeerry sexy,” while making the hourglass-shape motion with their hands. Packs of prostitutes flood Kuta’s nightclubs looking for johns and free drinks, and it makes it real difficult to have a decent conversation with a local at a bar. He’s either trying to sell you a woman, or she’s trying to sell herself to you.
Indonesia is in total economic ruin right now. Westerners could get by cheaply before, but now we are all royal pimps of commerce. Instead of blowing Indonesia away from its dependence on the dollar, the Bali bombing has crippled the economy and made the dollar even more precious. Walking down the street in more heavily touristed areas like Kuta and Denpasar can be deeply annoying. All you have to do is look someone in the eye, and he tries to sell you a ride somewhere, a teenage girl for the night, 20 crappy postcards, a coconut with a straw in it, or some seriously low-rent surf gear. Before you start passing judgement on the pimps, keep in mind that they wouldn’t do it if it didn’t work. I saw dozens of English, Australian, Canadian, and American men out shopping with teenage girls in tow. I doubt this was a big-brother program at work.
It’s hard to overlook, and it makes it tough to make real friends. I really hated when someone was being genuinely nice to me there and I caught myself thinking, “What does he want? Will he still be my friend if I don’t want to buy his cousin’s batik, or his friend’s silver?” It makes you cynical when you shouldn’t be, and you catch yourself getting mad at someone over what amounts to 50 cents.
One night I started talking to a Balinese guy in the street about rock music. As it turns out, he’d heard the Cramps a time or two and loved American punk rock. “Alright,” I thought, “this is cool.” We talked about music, drums, how good it is to hear something nice and loud where the bass thuds your groin and stomach. Then there was a lull in the conversation. He asked, “You traveling alone?” I said, “Yeah.”
“You have a girlfriend?”
“Yeah, in Perth.”
“You want one here for tonight?”
comfort and transport
Rains fall biblically at least once, maybe twice a day during the rainy season in Bali. Public transportation means nothing more than riding on the back of a hired guide’s scooter, and that means you get drenched.
I spent two hours on a scooter in a blinding rainstorm, huddled under the back of my guide’s poncho in a pathetic (yet popular) attempt to stay dry. The streets flooded deep with garbage and cast-away Hindu offerings floating downstream to drainage ditches. My driver wasn’t concerned with staying dry, just cursing his way through the waterlogged roads. In general, traffic in Bali is like blood platelets gushing through an artery, with scooters for red blood cells. When the streets are flooded, all those scooters splash.
Bali reeks of clothing that has been left wet for too long—because everything has. You look around and smell your shoes and yourself and other people—whose clothes are gently moldering and mixing with the ripe odor of fresh fruit and flowers, incense and omnipresent offerings to the gods that litter the streets—and you think, “Screw dryers. These people are onto something good.”
the true meaning of life
The clouds were gray and low when we rocked up to the temple at Tanah Lot. The air felt nine months pregnant with a hot rain and the sweat of a thousand merchants condensed on my glasses. Tourists lurched about listlessly clicking and walking and grunting like tired animatronic robots. The temple itself is a massive stone edifice sitting off a beach of jet-black sand and surrounded by the crashing sea. It was kind of a letdown to see it, to be honest. I’d been stumbling through temples all day, and after a while I had kind of gotten over it. It’s a little embarrassing to admit, but at this point I was pretty much like, “Yeah, great, ancient temple: check. Stunning ocean view. Gotcha. Sure, I’ll walk up to it, but then can I please get a Coke?” Uluwatu, Tanah Lot, Tabanan, they were blending together into a big pile of crumbling blocks of mossy stone and unpronounceable syllables. My crankiness from the airplane was coming back with all its homeboys, and I was getting ready to sit down and demand a slice of pizza, followed by a nap.
Then it all happened, faster than I lost my virginity but with just as much impact. When my life is made into a movie, the sky in this scene will part and blast my face with sun, but in reality everything stayed an anticlimactic shade of gray. However, time itself slowed down and echoed the exact moment a tiny old man with skin like blackened leather croaked “Don’t you want to touch the Holy Snake?”
Let me tell you something about life, people. I don’t know much, but I know this: When you are at Tanah Lot, the temple of the sea, and waves are crashing around and an old man in a loincloth and headband asks you if you want to touch the Holy Snake, you best believe you touch that Holy Snake. Even if you do want some pizza and a cold Coke. The old man took my hand in his hot palm and jammed it straight into the Holy Snake’s house. The holy snake is the god of the temple, a surly and tired god with black and white stripes who lives in a hole off the side of a small cave made of black sand. I touched this snake-god, a living freaking snake, and the old man closed his red-hot hand over mine and I felt the cool, dry scales of the snake on my palm, and he said a prayer for my blessing. Then he turned right around, shoved a cigar box full of bills into my gut, and asked for a donation.
When the keeper of the Holy Snake asks for a donation, you give it, quick, and don’t be a jerk and ask for change like the Germans did.
I spent my first 24 hours in Bali telling everyone I was Canadian. Then my conscience got the best of me. Every local I met, Muslim, Hindu, or otherwise, was thrilled to meet a genuine American, and they all took great pains to explain in broken English that we have all got to stick together and fight Al Qaeda. The Bali bombing is what shoved Bali’s dangling economy off a cliff. It’s ruined a lot of families and created the financial desperation I mentioned earlier. My favorite guide claimed that Americans and Balinese are brothers in spirit and adversity . . . and he’s right.
Think about it. You wouldn’t be at all frightened to visit D.C. or Manhattan, even post-9/11. Everything I was afraid of didn’t happen. Just be cool.
real rock ‘n roll
It was my last night in Bali, and I was ambling down the street, yawning and getting ready for an early bedtime. And then:
I heard the most spazzed-out, funky live version of James Brown’s “I Feel Good.” Across the street, by the poolside bar at a serious tourist trap of a hotel was this electrified Balinese rock band, kicking out the jams. The singer might have burst into flames if he wasn’t covered in sweat. He was shaking and grinding like Mick Jagger on fast-forward. He kept leaping off the stage and running up to quiet English guests who were just trying to politely eat. He’d shake sweat on them and howl into the mike right at their table, vigorously humping the air by the guests’ ears, then climb the empty chair and jump off, yowling his way through the dining area.
Some insanely feral Greek neo-locals jumped on the stage, pushing the smiling djembe player aside and grabbed all the other djembes and bongos and just tore it up right along with the band, playing Stones and Beatles hits with heavy jungle drums.
This one Greek guy who looked like a cross between Charles Manson and Animal from the Muppets did this shaking, terrifyingly sexual dance with these two undulating Indonesian women. Sweat flew everywhere. It was rock and roll at its hottest, rawest, and most primal, and these English fools just kept eating and clapping politely.
I’ll tell you this: The Strokes need to fly over here just to wipe this band’s ass. They’re trying to be a garage rock revival, but these guys are the real deal.
If there’s one thing I learned from punk rock, it’s that you should never be afraid to talk to the band. My God, was the band ever nice. Alfan, the singer, works by day in a traditional Indonesian gamelan band, and soaks his jeans with sweat three nights a week at the Hotel Camplung Mas. I told him I was American and a huge fan already. He was tremendously impressed and invited me to the table, introduced me to the rest of the band, hunkered over Chinese food and bottles of Bintang, and put me on the band’s bar tab immediately.
Booze and rock and roll are the two other international languages. There was a brief, awkward silence, and then the drummer leaned over and said, “So which songs by the Rolling Stones are your favorites?”
Conversation rolled on a tide of Indonesian rice wine, and I mentioned that I play the drums. The guys all got really excited to be hanging out with an American rock drummer, and one asked me, hopefully, “You play the drums with us?” I joked, “Well, I have to go tomorrow, I don’t think I’ll be able to make it to practice.” They all laughed a little too hard, and I wondered what was going on. I had some more Bintang to chase the awkwardness away.
The band, whose name I never got, pushed out some more strange, island sweat-drenched rock classics, then Alfan said, “Now, all the way from America, our new friend and drummer . . . Jeff!” The Greeks and the band all clapped and chanted and hooted, and I took the stage.
Azhar, the guitarist, launched into a heavy wandering version of Clapton’s “Cocaine.” I’m pretty far from the best drummer in the world, and it’d been awhile. I was crammed behind a shabby drum kit that had been set up to accommodate a small Balinese drummer. I am 6’2”. I had to adjust the kit while finding the beat with the kick pedal, and I was afraid I was dropping the whole thing. But I looked up, and they were all smiling so broadly, and so was I. The guitarist launched into the most amazingly tropically stretchy guitar solo and then the jam devolved into this thudding orgy of rhythm. American culture teaches us to sit back and watch, but I was part of it, holding the backbeat down while the djembe players just went apeshit. Alfan began crooning in Balinese a traditional Hindu prayer and chant over everything. Alfan’s mother got on the stage and started grinding with two Greek girls and Animal Manson, then every man and woman in the place was on the stage in between the musicians, furiously gyrating. Finally it all thumped to a halt.
That’s when the birthday cakes came out. Turns out it was Animal Manson’s 34th. The band rocked a version of “Happy Birthday,” and the dancing resumed, people smearing their faces with cake. It was easily the best birthday party I’d ever been to, and I didn’t know anyone there.
American neo-hippies with clean dreadlocks and SUVs need to get on that plane with the Strokes and come wipe my ass right now, because this drum circle was the real deal, Holyfield.
I stayed up till 3 a.m. drinking Bintang and arak with the band and the singer’s mom. They, and most Indonesians, are the warmest and most genuinely friendly people you can meet. If you hang for ten minutes with an Indonesian guy, you’re friends for life. We talked about religious intolerance, how Muslims get a lot of heat unfairly now after 9/11. They asked about playing rock music in America, and about my girlfriend in Perth, and we talked about everything but money.
I nursed a stinker of a headache on the plane the next morning, watching the sweaty, rain-soaked island recede into a smear of clouds. I’d felt every emotion I could feel about a place in the space of four days, but it all gets filed under Love. I said it before and I’ll say it again: When you get a chance to touch the holy snake, you touch that damn snake, and don’t ask for change from the donation box.