I just got home from handing out free novels and music for the guerilla indie art project that’s been my main gig since I arrived in Los Angeles. Back in Koreatown, back pounding the pavement to make a buck, I find it hard to believe just last week I was in a bar in Bali, listening to an Indonesian band singing Pink Floyd, watching the lead singer snuggle his Dutch girlfriend between sets, struck by how lovely his brown skin looked entwined with her very pale skin. I stole glances at them over my watermelon juice, they both chain-smoked between kisses, and when he looked away she’d rearrange her cleavage in her red dress and fluff her hair. She did it every time he looked away. Every time! I’m guilty of doing the same in the company of boys, maybe all girls do, as if somehow every thirty seconds your entire appearance needs a refresh.
That night, in the bar, was one of the only nights I went out during my stay in Bali, and I was struck by how much rock n’ roll has the power to affect me physically. After so many days alone in my hotel room, removed from all things noisy and messy, removed from everything really, it felt good to have the bass thump in my gut and the guitar riff in my soul (or whatever that place is inside me that hears classic rock and has to hold back the desire to scream something, smoke something, smash something, love someone).
The next night I went to a full moon temple ceremony with a few new friends I’d met in the bar, a fun Indian couple and Moss, a tall Canadian who runs the Love Space, a creativity center where I went on to teach a writing workshop. A local had invited us, and he took us by his home to loan us some sarongs so we’d be appropriately dressed for the ceremony. His mom met us (typically most Balinese live in family compounds, each home with its own temple), and she had a few grains of rice pressed into her forehead and chest, a symbolic gesture I would accept myself at the ceremony. We then drove through what seemed like an endless valley of rice paddies, all lit up by the eponymous full moon. The moon then went into hiding, however, perhaps shy from all the attention, and by the time we arrived at the ceremony it was pouring rain (what’s another adjective to describe how rain falls? I’m tired of “pouring”). We were the only non-locals at the ceremony, and were greeted with friendly curiosity. I couldn’t get enough of how beautiful the women looked, no matter how old or how “attractive” they were, they were stunning in their lace blouses and long skirts, dancing barefoot in the rain to the gamelan choir. I thought they couldn’t get enough of me either, when I took refuge from the rain under a sort of tall parasol staked in the ground, out in front of everyone. Several women were gesturing at me, laughing and waving their hands. I waved back, like, Cool! They like me! Then I realized they were pointing at my purse, which wasn’t under the protection of the parasol, but sticking out behind me getting totally soaked. It broke the ice, however, and later a woman offered me a treat wrapped in a banana leaf, and her friends all giggled as I wolfed it down (I love treats!).
I got closer to myself in Bali. Especially as an artist. The understanding of slow the hell down, enjoy making your art, working on your craft. There are no lost days in writing, no wasted time. Only improvements made, one word at a time. Gotta keep rising above what I “need” to do daily…..the chores and bills and little details, and keep realizing all I really NEED to do is write, chip away at my art sculpture of text, one page at a time.
Since I’ve been home I’ve gone to the desert to appear in a video performance art piece directed by the visionary Machete Bang Bang, acted as “the girl” in a music video, given away tons of free art for my job, went back out to the desert to start shooting an art book I’m modeling in and writing the text for in collaboration with a landscape photographer, and started spring cleaning my closet.
I am productive. I get things done. I am an AmeriCAN!
I miss Bali so much my bones hurt.
At the risk of simplifying something incredibly complex, here is what I know: the Balinese know how to live life. They surround themselves with beauty and culture, honor family and spirituality above all else, and create art for the joy of the process, not the product.
This last bit is the essential thing I’m taking away from my month in Bali. I have become way too focused on what my art can give me, rather than what I can give my art.
One afternoon, on my walk home to the Matahari (my hotel) past the pool hall and the green Mercedes and the five massage shops, the rain started pouring (need new adjective!) down. I ducked into the nearest doorway, because when it starts raining in Bali it goes from “sprinkling” to “downpour” in one second. Turns out the shop I took refuge in is a store selling sculptures and masks, and the family who runs it are sitting on the floor, working on their craft. They smiled at me but didn’t say anything. For the next hour, I just stood in their shop, leaning against the counter, watching the man and woman varnish a wooden mirror frame and the boy paint flowers on a mask. They weren’t rushed, weren’t worried about if they were doing it “right”….they weren’t anything really. They were just existing, slowly, steadily working on their task. Simple, I know. But to me, a revelation.
Another day I made jewelry with some locals. I was working on a copper bracelet made of several small rings, but kept getting frustrated at how clumsy I was handling the tools. At one point a boy says to me, and he’s only got like ten words in English total, he puts his hand on my arm and he says: “Don’t panic. Then you won’t finish anything.”
In the last few years, I’ve come to view my writing as a commodity, worried more about what it can give to me than what I can give to it. I get frustrated when I don’t see results fast enough, annoyed when it’s not “just done.” In Bali I witnessed art for the love of making art. The most poignant was the women making daily offerings. The offerings are literally everywhere. They usually appear as palm fronds stapled together to make little baskets, and hold a mixture of flowers, pieces of fruit, bread, and rice. The offerings are placed along with an incense stick both up high, on ledges and sculptures, as offerings to the gods, and down low, on the ground, in the streets, as offering to the demons. I’m told the idea is humans are in the level between the gods and demons, tasked with maintaining a balance between the two. I love that the women get all dressed up to place the offerings. Literally every day, they make these little treasures, then everyday according to some mysterious schedule (doesn’t seem to matter when) they put on their long sarongs and lace blouses, arrange their hair with pearl and gemstone pins, and go around placing the offerings and giving a prayer. Then they take off the fancy dress and go back to what they were doing.
Fun fact: The drummer of Caught A Ghost, the crazy good band I shot the music video for, helped me calculate that if I live to be 100 years old, so for another 73 years, I could spend the rest of my life in Bali for $932, 575. That’s $35/day (living like a queen at $20/lodging, $15/for two meals a daily massage).
I miss Bali, like I miss a new friend I’ve grown to love dearly and know I might not see again for a while. I miss the friends I made, the lady with the pretty plum lipstick who worked at the Matahari and would walk me to my room, linking her arm in mine and asking me in the Balinese way where I’ve been and where I’m going. I miss the Balinese waitress I befriended one night when she messed up my order and gave me a ride home on her motorbike to make up for it. I miss My Friend the Drum Lady. I miss me, the relaxed Balinese version of Erin.
I want so badly to hang onto these hard-earned perspectives, this new way of looking at life. But I always feel like this when I return from a trip, and inevitably the old life will creep back in. The main thing I want to hold onto is conquering the “more” disease. Having a coffee at a cafe and thinking it would be better if I also had a cookie, or had nice company, or was alone. Basically, wanting more than what I have right then. More money, experience, love, insight, talent, connections. More more more. Now, I’m just trying to move slowly. Verrry slowwlllyyy. I’ve realized this is the only way to handle the pace of LA. Deal only with what’s directly in front of me.
On my trip home the final flight of my travel was canceled and I had to stay the night in Tokyo. I spent a nice evening discussing films with a pair of human rights activists, painting my nails, and calling Beth back home to tell her how small and Japanese everything in my room was. At the airport the next day, enjoying some pre-flight sushi, an elderly Chinese man says to me out of the blue: “Don’t be stressed in life. Play more. Talk to God. Then you’ll be happy.” He gave me this unprompted. And what excellent advice.
The frustrating thing is nothing in this blog post comes close to explaining how I’m really feeling. How adrift I feel, maybe always feel. How daunted by this city I am, how right back in the turmoil I am of go go go all day and never get anything done. But at least I wrote a little. At least I wrote these words.
Something I’m chewing on, that I read recently, some words from Anais Nin: “Once we engage with the real people and real circumstances in our lives, we discover our own inner excitement and every day the real caress replaces the ghostly lover.”
I got *somewhat* hit by a motorbike yesterday. I’ve been on my favorite writing schedule, working from 8pm–4am, and have accomplished more in the last week than I was able to all last month in LA (screenplay draft, almost done, CHECK!). But the night schedule does make me rather bleary when I emerge from my cave for food around 2pm. So I walked into the street and looked left, but not quickly enough to the right, and then BAM!, a motorbike gets personal with my thigh. It didn’t really hurt; the remarkable thing was the motorbike was driven by THREE little Balinese girls. They couldn’t have been older than age ten, and they were all three whizzing along on the same seat, no helmets, disintegrating the macho tradition of Easy Rider and those chopper shows with the guy who wears overalls and was married to Sandy Bullock. The motorbike fell over, they fell over, and I felt like the Big White Evil. We were right next to a pool hall and a bunch of men rushed out. I thought they would yell at me, or at the girls, but they just calmly propped the bike back up, looked around like “No one died, right?,” chuckled, gave the girls some money, and that was that.
Eat, Pray, Leave Me Alone. And thus my mantra for life in Bali has been declared. I apologize for going the obvious and making an EPL reference, but it’s impossible to write about Bali without mentioning the book/movie, someone will say it eventually so it might as well be me. Especially now that I’ve extended my stay and am here by myself, just like E. Gilbert (extra groan for being a writer wandering around Ubud alone).
Many events of note have transpired, in the way that everything seems eventful when you spend a lot of time alone. I’m doing the things single women traveling solo are wont to do, like writing really long blog posts while having beer for dinner and getting misty-eyed over the Indonesian bar band playing my favorite Creedence song.
Confession: I was with a boy these last few weeks. I know this is “I’m-single-for-the-first-time-in-years-self-growth-Erin-time,” but some boys have strong hands and rough beards and wicked senses of humor (this one especially) and so it just seemed silly to refuse a boy’s company. So I didn’t. But he flew home and now I’m Eat, Pray, Leave Me Alone.
The “leave me alone” part is difficult to enforce, as there are many interesting people to meet in Ubud. Like Anna, the yoga instructor, Lana the yoga instructor, Shakti the yoga instructor, TyeZan who does “human design,” Kenny who used to be a hustler and a pimp then had a spiritual revelation in jail and wrote a book about it. But after the last five years of relationships, the last five years of constant togetherness, it’s a revelation to spend time alone. I’m working toward being the person I most want to hang out with.
There’s a large community of Westerners who’ve settled here, it feels like Berkeley or Santa Cruz. I met a lot of these people at a poetry slam the other night, I competed for the first time! I received 8’s and 9’s! Although, perhaps predictably, almost everyone in this “om shanti” crowd got a high score (my fave summary description of this crowd, from a German: “You know, people who eat tofu and wear long, soft pants.”).
I’ve met people at ecstatic dance as well, which is a lot like my ecstatic dance community in LA except here we dance surrounded by jungle and lightning bugs buzz above us and when it rains the whole sweaty mass of us cheers as the tropical heat subsides for the first time all day. In LA, I dance at a Masonic Lodge. So, actually it’s pretty different. I went to an all day 5 Rhythms workshop and a butterfly floated in while we were dancing AND LANDED ON THIS GUY’S HAND LIKE SNOW FUCKING WHITE, then clung to his shorts and stayed there the rest of the day. Yeah, that’s definitely never happened in LA.
I’m also hanging out with My Friend The Drum Lady, who works in the drum store (duh). After looking in vain for some sort of drum lessons here and finally giving up, one day I wandered into My Friend The Drum Lady’s store and started fiddling with a tambourine. She laughs at my fiddling (she has a great laugh, like a bell ringing), offers me tea, then sits down to a djembe and invites me to join her, and suddenly its been an hour and I’ve just had one-on-one instruction in hand drumming. I bought a patica (also known as an asalato, basically two shaker balls on a string) which is rad because it makes not one but two rhythm sounds. I’m practicing while working out writing ideas, and hope to finally become the percussionista of my dreams (Crap. I just remembered Gilbert had a store lady friend in EPL…maybe this is what happens to all Ubud visitors? Actually, the real-life lady from EPL (who in the book turned out to be a trickster, which was conveniently left out of the movie) has her shop next to my hotel. I bet my drum lady would kick her ass if they met in the street, if for some reason they, uh, felt compelled to fight over their American gal pals). I’m going back tomorrow for another lesson.
The metaphor of the impromptu drum lesson: What you seek will find you, when you stop looking so damn hard, also happened with a cat (you know I can’t blog abroad without mentioning a feline). There’s a kitty I can hear meowing across the river from my room at night. It’s either lonely, or mating, and although I’m neither, it’s been weeks since I had a proper kitty hug. So I’ve been going out on the patio at night and calling “Here pretty kitty, here kitty,” and even meowing back, but alas I haven’t seen its furry face. Then on Friday I’m at YogaBarn and sit near a black-and-white cat hoping it won’t attack me, and it climbs right into my lap! I proceeded to hold her captive for the next twenty minutes as I forced my love upon her. At one point she looked right in my eyes and made the exact sound Chairman Meow makes in the morning and I just know it was him wailing at me across Sumatra and Borneo and Papua New Guinea to come home already (this not accurate geography, but I might never again be in Indonesia and thus have a reason to name drop such fabulous sounding places). Not yet, my meow. Not yet.
Bali just might be the hardest place on earth to leave. It’s both intoxicating and incredibly gentle. It’s humid in a cradling way, that womb feeling you only get near the equator. Most nights thunder storms gather around the volcanoes, and the sky is illuminated with flashes of lightning. It’s almost as if the Gods in the sky are taking pictures of their creation, flash photography allowed. At every turn, I see an image my mind associates with “exotic foreign land,” women carrying towers of fruit on their heads, kids drinking out of whole coconuts, plants as big as small cars and monkeys in the trees. One girl I met who’s been living her several years (she’s a yoga instructor) said it’s “Bali Mama,” the spirit energy who sucks you in. I can feel that. I can also feel that I don’t want to leave because for $15/day I can have two delicious meals and a massage.
I went to a Kecak dance the other night, the Balinese fire trance dance, which is an incredible performance where the only music is made by dozens of men chanting in a circle around a fire while the mesmerizing dancers act out the story of Ramayana, the Hindu epic. The dancers are choreographed to unbelievable precision, every hand and foot movement extremely precise and meaningful to the story (I didn’t want to video during the dance, but you can check out the Kecak scene in the mind-blowing 1992 movie “Baraka,” should be required cultural viewing).
Toward the end, the character of the white monkey appears, and at this particular Kecak I saw, the man playing the white monkey got a little out of control. At first, he leaped over the flaming coconut husks in the center of the circle—lots of ooh’s and ahh’s. Then he started walking right into the fire and kicking the husks. Kinda intense. Then something in him switched, maybe from the chanting and the heat, and he starts kicking the husks at will, several fly into the audience. The tourists are alarmed, and clutch their digital SLR cameras close their bodies. When a flaming coconut landed in the lap of one of the chanting Balinese men the white monkey was finally tackled to the ground. I watched him take off his monkey mask, wide-eyed and breathless, completely outside himself.
I wondered if it was all part of the show, until I’m told he had “run amok,” a common phrase we use in English, that I learn for the first time is a word of Indonesian origin. Says my pal Wikipedia: “Amok is rooted in a deep spiritual belief, and is caused by the hantu belian, a tiger spirit that enters one’s body…Running amok would thus be a way of escaping the world.”
Did I “run amok” out of America and straight to this island of rainy days and hot nights, the smell of incense and the taste of lemongrass, crickets and my own peace of mind ringing in my ears?
Going to have to be with that tiger spirit a little longer to get the answer. Just a little longer.