“I forgot my camera,” I said to Wayan, the tour guide on our bicycle trip. He had, moments earlier, announced “Kodak moment!” as we slowed for our first stop—a lookout point over a mist-filled valley of tiered rice terraces. Two Swedish girls, two Dutch girls, and an English girl posed at the precipice, photographing themselves with evidence of having been to a beautiful vista in northeastern Bali.
“Oh no,” said Wayan. “Well, you will keep it in your head.”
My head already resembled a home interior from the TV show Hoarders, more so now that the compulsive caretakers within had made it their mission to collect as many Indonesian words as possible. I knew the word for “beautiful,” but lacked the impulse to document beauty. If I had to build a new mental wing to house the active volcano Mount Batur, so be it.
Still, imagined disappointment from intimates ate at me. It seemed I could not cement a solid habit of picture-taking, and in this way I felt I failed the demands of our time at every picturesque turn, successful only in my failure to do the thing I should have, in retrospect, done—done for friends, for family, for Facebook.
The feeling left me as the day progressed. The Swedish girls took cheeky snapshots of themselves knee-deep in the mud of a rice paddy outside a small village. “Dirty feet!” they cried, flashing smiles.
“It’s like a spa treatment,” one joked, stepping out with wet muck on her calves.
“I used to help my father do this when I was a boy,” said Wayan. He crouched down to plant a few sprouted seedlings.
“It must be kind of fun for little kids to be in the mud and the water,” said one of the Swedes. “Like playing.”
When we stopped at a coffee plantation, the Dutch girls took pictures of a caged civet, whose digestion and excretion of raw beans is essential to the production of expensive, earthy kopi luwak. Pictures of old Balinese women in their family compounds chopping and peeling bamboo into usable strips. Pictures of a five-hundred-year-old banyan tree. I would later persuade my fellow tourists to e-mail me these pictures, so that I could pass them off as my own when I returned.
At a particularly stunning view of the volcano, the English girl said to me, “Bet you wish you’d brought your camera now.”
“There’s a lot of things I wish,” I said in my head, keeping that there as well.
“What do you do all day? Just sit around?”
The English girl had said this in response to Wayan’s description of Nyepi, the silent day that marked the Balinese Hindu New Year. On Nyepi, the streets stayed empty, and the people shunned work, cutting their lights and electricity if they had them. Entertainment and pleasure were supposed to be forbidden, too; NO AMUSEMENT MAY BE MADE, read one of the headings in a brochure from the tourism office. A day for self-reflection.
In Ubud, where I had checked into a homestay, big ogoh-ogoh—monstrous demon figures with snarling faces, sagging breasts, huge paunches, and splayed talons, each built by a different group of artists—waited in temples or on the street, parts peeking out from under protective tarps. These would be paraded through town on Nyepi eve, and finally burned in a cemetery, a ceremony of purification and evil spirit-banishing.
I felt rather like an evil spirit myself some mornings in Bali, waking to a volatile mental whirl of excitement, confusion, and dread. This restless energy knocked around my head like a poltergeist, hurling perceived needs and whims and insults across the room until about midday, when the blunt reality of being in an new place eclipsed headier concerns.
Stretches of acute self-loathing, though, are a natural, perhaps even desirable byproduct of travel. I met many variations on an Eat, Pray, Love theme in Ubud who might disagree: women and some men who wanted only to feel the wind in their hair as they motorbiked into their bliss, whose billowing pants and serene, smiling frontispieces suggested every satisfaction, whose lust for remedy drove them to many local healers, much processing, much groping of and after the idea of a more authentic life—a concept as slippery as a fresh fish, and eventually as fragrant as a spoiled one.
Bali is, among many other things, a prime destination for travelers who loathe loathing, and who will spare no expense in their quest to scrub themselves of its all too familiar fetor.
In any case, I would usually be on a rented motorbike by early afternoon, hightailing it away from Ubud to lose myself hours out of town, buoyed by the village kids who gave me low-fives as I cruised by, or by awesome temples, like the eleventh-century Gunung Kawi, with its shrines carved into a rugged cliff face, its clear, cool brooks. I might stop to eavesdrop on a group of musicians practicing the gamelan, or to eat roast suckling pig at some roadside market among chain-smoking, silent Balinese men, men who turned on me the same wary curiosity they might a limping, three-legged street dog with its tongue lolling out.
One day, I went for what is called a healing Balinese massage. I figured it might help with my back pain, which had flared up in Sydney a week earlier. My masseur warned me that the massage itself might be painful, and before long, with his thumbs and elbows digging into pressure points on my upper back, it was.
As the intensity of the treatment mounted, I started, involuntarily, to giggle. I wanted not to giggle, but by the time he got to my legs, I was convulsing with laughter, face-down on the table.
“What is your job?” he said.
“Nothing,” I sputtered. “Writing.”
“How does this feel?” He grabbed the spot on my hand between left thumb and index finger, and I nearly screamed with pain.
“Bad,” I said.
“Connected to your head,” he said. “You think too much. You writer, think too much. You write with left hand? Try relax.”
I tried. Soon, however, I was laughing again, laughing so hard that tears streamed from my eyes. (The next day, I had a bruise on my thigh.)
“Hurts?” he said. “Ticklish?”
“It’s okay,” I said. “Saya suka ini.”
“Ah, you speak Indonesian?” he said, surprised.
“Tidak,” I said, meaning “no.”
“You write for newspaper? Or write the book?”
“Both,” I said, for simplicity’s sake, though the thought of the latter undertaking was perhaps one of the least relaxing topics of conversation on my list at that moment. My laughter, rushing out of me like the mad cackle of a screen villain transported by his own evil, kept pace with the pain, and soon the masseur started laughing too.
“You write for newspaper,” he said, “say, ‘Come to Bali, have painful massage here.’”
“‘Don’t come to Bali,’” I said I would say, “‘Terrible place. Too much pain.’”
“‘Come to Bali, have massage you can’t enjoy,’” he said. Then, turning serious, he added: “First time massage with me, you can’t enjoy.”
“That’s okay,” I said. “Who needs pleasure all the time?”
He instructed me to breathe deeply, and with his thumbs pressed into the back of my skull, he leaned closer. Then, in a tone of voice one might use to cheerfully check in on someone and make sure every little thing was as it should be, he asked, “Are you suffering?”
Nyepi came, the silent day. I thought it might be pretty quiet around the homestay, but it seemed all of the other visitors had saved up their noisemaking for that day in particular. The walls of my room, made of overlapping strips of bamboo using a technique I had witnessed firsthand on the bicycle tour, did little to silence the rowdy sex taking place between my French neighbor and a prostitute he had managed to hire for the occasion. In the lingua franca of my native English, they negotiated extended rates for services and discussed, midfuck, how best to improve upon whatever apparently advanced sexual maneuver had been included in the bargain—a maneuver that was, from the sounds of things, proving more difficult than expected.
A good amount of amusement was being made. This seemed to me, if nothing else, a somewhat culturally insensitive way to spend Nyepi. And from another room, music and singing! The young son of a German couple downstairs threw a screaming, crying tantrum. One of the Balinese tots that lived in the family compound lost his composure too, running in circles and making a sound like the revving of a tiny, angry motorcycle.
“Hard for them to stay inside,” his father said when I emerged for tea.
The next day I would fly to Jakarta and, I knew, would get to gossip with the homestay proprietor on the way to the airport, to speculate with him about the Frenchman and his prostitute. The proprietor and I had struck up a friendly, conversational relationship that began with his showing me music videos of Indonesian rockabilly bands on his iPhone over breakfast. (When I asked him one morning if he had read Eat, Pray, Love, he said, “My culture not reading culture—gossip, talking.”)
Back in my darkened room, I threw myself down on the bed. “I wish I had a prostitute,” I thought, sighing. “Any kind of prostitute.”
Without a prostitute, I had to create my own forbidden amusement. I closed my eyes and pictured myself walking into one of the many healing centers in Ubud, one of the many bodyworks or crystal consultants, and making a beeline for the resident guru. I smiled as the scene unfolded, now only dimly aware of the cicadas clicking outside, the Frenchman fucking his way into the Balinese New Year next door.
“Excuse me,” I said, entering the shop.
“Yes?” said the wise man. “How can I help you? What is the problem?”
“I hate myself,” I said. I announced it with good cheer, with the embarrassing royal bearing I reserve for fantasy, with what is sometimes described as “obvious relish.” “I hate myself!”
That’s how it began in my head, where all my snapshots of beautiful vistas are stored—pictures of Mount Batur, pictures of Tampaksiring. What happened after that, friend, stays between me and my healer.
Evan James is a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Sun, and elsewhere. He is writing a novel. He is also on Twitter.
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