It was just barely 1992. My family and I had just spent two days traveling on boats, buses, taxis and planes to get from Koh Samui, Thailand to Bali, Indonesia. At about 2 o’clock in the morning we finally arrived at the regal sounding Rama Palace in Kuta Beach, Bali. It was pitch dark and the night staff was there to greet us and drag our luggage around for us and cram us in a bungalow, like a small house, stuccoed and a roof with turned up corners, in case you didn’t know you were in Asia. Barely even locking the door behind us, we drop our bags and fall into bed, asleep before we feel the cool, clean sheets on our skin.
The perfumey smell of hibiscus and mangoes and orchids and incense is probably one of the most brilliant things to wake up to. Even better was realizing what an amazing place we were staying in. The Rama Palace was Edenic; luscious, dewy flowers in startling pink, white, yellow and bamboo, so much bamboo, everywhere. Everything was made of bamboo, blinds, pillars, deck chairs, tables and umbrellas. There was a pizzeria, a restaurant, a karaoke bar, a games room and the most magnificent scented gardens. There was a pool larger than I’d ever seen in a hotel before and in it was a bar. Sit on the stool and you’re waist-deep in the pool and they would serve you alcoholic beverages, soda, pizza and pies and steaks and fries.
Our hotel in Bali
The beach in Bali was a disappointment, littered with garbage and fish carcasses, dark brown sand and the moment you walked onto the sand, dozens of Balinese were on you, selling watches and more ear pickers and women begging to braid your hair for a couple of rupees.
We spent the first few days exploring as much of Bali as we could. We paid a taxi driver to take us inland, and we stared in awe-inspired silence as we passed through tiny villages, temples and breathtaking rice steps, glistening in the Asian sun.
We pulled into a temple, or rather, a large grassy yard decorated with shrines filled with gold and giant bamboo poles sporting streamers and ribbons twirling in the wind, stroking the heads of towering stone jolly fat Buddhas and everyone is happy with their hands together leaving oranges and apples and sticks and sticks of foreign smelling incense. I remembered how I used to feel in the sadness and mourning of church back home – I’d only been a few times for family affairs, but I remembered feeling uncomfortable, staring at the the gory carcasses of Christ adorning the walls, the slow monotonous speech riddled with references to sacrifice, death and sin. This temple didn’t feel like church. It felt like a celebration. I didn’t want to leave, I wanted to give offerings, light incense, meditate, reach Nirvana, become one with the Buddha! But alas, Mom and Dad dragged me away to see the rest of Bali.
Against gravity, we sped into the hills through more villages, jade shops amongst more rice steps, the air moist and oily. Step after step in the side of the emerald mountains, each dotted with tiny women under pointed hats, sending their hands into the step-water and coming up with rice. We took the road right up to the top of Bali, Indonesia, where there sat a restaurant serving local fare, the entrance next to a stage. Sitting cross-legged like buddhas, with drums and a sitar, they squealed erotic mesmerizing songs that weren’t like songs I’d ever known up until that point. I watched in awe, their silk bodies writhing to such a stunning sound. I couldn’t eat my food. I didn’t have the palate.
Bali Rice Steps
On our way back to the hotel we drove past crowds of schoolchildren heading home for the day. Small girls in plaid skirts and white shirts carrying books were walking from a schoolhouse that was half charred from a recent fire. There were cows and goats and animals being led along the side of the road. When we drove towards a group of chickens in our path, our driver didn’t slow, and we felt bumps, heard squeals and saw feathers launch into the air. He turned to us, grinned with pride, and declared, “dinner!”. Unimpressed, I closed my eyes and drifted off, the ringing of the sitars still fresh in my mind.
One of the roads we took in Bali.
Bali was perfect except for one thing: I have blonde hair. Everywhere I went in Bali, men turned their heads. I was 15 years old and they didn’t care. They would come up to me and ask me to go home with them, persistently, for “jiggy-jig”. They were twice, three times and sometimes even 4 times my age. When the bartender in the pool bar at the hotel would not leave me alone, asking me for jiggy-jig and making lewd gestures, I complained to my Dad. He promptly took the man aside and told him if he ever did that again, he’d cut his fucking nuts off and stuff them up his ass with a broken beer bottle. The man made a comment the next day, disregarding my Dad’s warning. All I know, is that was the last time I saw him and we were there for a week afterwards.
My Dad at the pool bar with Chester the molester in the background.
It got worse. We went walking in town one oven of an evening, where we were chased and followed by watch merchants and jewelry merchants and people selling pins and t-shirts and incense and paintings. We bought a few things, spoke to some of the locals, got my hair braided into a million tiny beaded braids, and as we were walking back to our hotel, one final jewelry salesman came up behind me and started talking. He asked where I was from and, being respectful, I answered and we had a little small talk. I looked at some of his bracelets and rings and suddenly felt an arm decorated with Buddhist prayer beads go around my shoulders, reach down and squeeze my 15 year old boob. I gasped in horror and ran to tell my Dad and another man we were walking with we’d met from back home.
“He did what?” My Dad asked in horror. He turned and slowly started toward the man, fire in his eyes, exclaiming, “Motherfucker!”. Mr. C, the man we met from back home, followed him in just as much horror, having a young daughter himself. I crammed my eyes shut until I heard a crack followed by the tinny sound of cheap jewelry hitting the floor. I opened my eyes a sliver and could only make out a streaking cloud of colour and fists and white skin and brown skin dancing on a pile of broken merchandise. I saw the man drop. My Dad and Mr. C turned, fire in their eyes, to join me again alit with adrenaline. Both of them randomly swearing as they came down from the rush, like they had Tourette syndrome.
I was shaking all the way back to our hotel, reenacting the scene in my head over and over. My family and our friends breaking my trance every now and again to ask if I was okay. I was fine. I was just deep in the realization that my image of buddhists as peaceful, respectful, humble people was entirely wrong. They’re just like every other group of people, religious or not. Some are assholes, and some are incredible and there’s a whole ton of people who fall somewhere in the middle.
I was totally fine and even though I’m still blonde, I’d go back to Bali in a heartbeat.