If you have not read Chapter One of Three Weeks in Bali, you can read it here.
Chapter Two: Motor Scooters and Mangosteen
Anya spent her first morning in Bali learning the difference between “Bali coffee” (the powdered, instant kind) and the more expensive brewed coffee (the better tasting kind), and eavesdropping on the breakfast conversation of four German tourists. She recognized the familiar cadence and intonation of their Southwestern German dialect before she understood their words. The language appeared familiar and exotic at once; familiar, because she had grown up with it; exotic, because she had lived in the US for so long that she could only speak her mother tongue with an American accent. She met the Scandinavian hotel manager and spent a good hour plying her with questions about Balinese culture.
After a lunch of fish and vegetables, Anya finally met Laurel, her group leader and writing teacher. Laurel and her 15-year old daughter Jessie had just returned from their snorkeling expedition, hair wet, faces still glowing from their under-water adventure.
The two women embraced. They had never met in person, only communicated by internet and phone during the preceding six months. Anya had known Laurel’s name since her first book was published in the 1970s and had only recently discovered Laurel’s on-line writing newsletter. That’s how Anya first heard about the Bali writer’s retreat. Somehow, Laurel was exactly the way she had envisioned her: tall and trim, short haircut and glasses and her persona infused with the genuine presence that Anya had intuited from her previous contact with her.
And Jessie – what a beautiful, young woman! She seemed mature beyond her years and was a budding photographer and writer herself. Jessie reminded Anya of her own talented daughter Djamila, already grown and living her own life. She had a brief longing to share this adventure with her. Like her mother, Djamila enjoyed travelling and spending time in the tropics. She was the product of three cultures – a German mother, a Trinidadian father, and growing up in the US. She was too tall to blend in with a group of Balinese women, but her honey-colored skin and brown, almond-shaped eyes would make her less of a stand-out foreigner than her light-skinned, blonde mother.
Laurel informed Anya that the rest of the group members, over 20 women, wouldn’t arrive until early evening and invited her to join them on a motor scooter ride to a coffee plantation. Anya agreed without hesitation, excited to see the “real” Bali beyond the hotel walls.
A short while later, the three women met up in the circular hotel driveway and greeted their motor scooter drivers. Komang , a young man of medium built and cinnamon colored skin, was the leader by virtue of speaking English. He introduced another young man as his friend, Wayan, and the older, thin and wiry man as his father. Seconds after they were introduced, Anya could no longer remember the father’s name. Indonesian names were still so unfamiliar to her. In her mind, she called him Komang’s Dad, and then just “Dad.” Somehow calling this man Dad (even though he must have been close to her own age), eased the anxiety of entrusting this total stranger with her life. Because by now, she had been paired with Dad, after Laurel claimed the backseat of Komang’s scooter and Jessie chose Wayan.
The backseat of the motor scooter was small, nothing even resembling her husband’s comfortable BMW motorcycle seat. She had not been on a motorcycle for many years and tried to figure out how to gracefully mount the scooter while Dad was patiently waiting for her. Anya realized that she could not easily get on without having to hold on to him. And yet, she didn’t know whether she was allowed to touch him or whether that would be considered a forward gesture. In her trip preparations, she had read somewhere that Balinese couples do not touch each other in public. So if couples couldn’t even hold hands, how could she put her hands on a total stranger? In her bafflement, she called out to Komang: “Is it ok to put my hands on his shoulders?” Komang stared at her for a few moments trying to decipher the meaning of her question. Then his face broke into a broad smile and he vigorously nodded his head, “Yes, yes, it’s ok.” Still laughing, he translated the question for his father who turned around and patted the backseat gesturing her to get on.
Anya swung her right leg over the backseat and settled into the small space, a drawstring bag with her camera slung over her right side, left hand on Dad’s shoulder. As the scooter caravan moved slowly along the gravel driveway towards the main road, Anya could see the traffic whizzing by and had a brief moment of anxiety. Did she really want to do this? Was it safe? What if there was an accident?
But then, all three scooters seamlessly blended into traffic. Dad quickly earned her trust by slowing down when he anticipated problems in the form of potholes, slower vehicles ahead, or an oncoming truck in their lane. Dad knew these roads, local driving habits and traffic patterns. With that realization, she began to enjoy the ride. She watched how large groups of scooters somehow ended up at a traffic light or behind a slow-moving vehicle and then spread out again along the road.
Scooters were often packed high with voluminous cargo: large bags of leaves, baskets of produce, even a precarious stack of egg cartons, and the most precious cargo of all, the whole family. Mother, father, and two children riding on a motor scooter was a common sight. Some riders had surgical masks on their faces to protect themselves against fumes. One mother placed her hand over her small son’s nose and mouth to prevent him from breathing in the worst of the nasty black fumes blowing out of a truck in front of them – a loving gesture that somehow imprinted itself in Anya’s memory.
The buildings along the road varied from small, rickety shacks, large sturdy houses, compounds of houses surrounded by tall stone walls, and expansive one or two-story buildings that could have been schools or other government buildings. She tried asking Dad questions, but whatever she asked him, he always said yes and nodded his head. She wished she had at least learned a few phrases of Balinese.
The narrow space between the houses and the road was cluttered with roadside stands offering fruit, vegetables, bottles of a yellow colored liquid which appeared to be vegetable oil (but were later identified as gasoline), baskets, and small packages of food she did not recognize. Children played close to the passing traffic, women swept the sidewalks or made flower offerings to their family’s altar or large stone altars in the middle of a busy intersection.
Some of the offerings had been made right on the sidewalk in front of a house or store. The wind would disperse flower petals, dogs and chickens would eat any edible parts like rice or fruit, pedestrians might accidentally step on the offering. Apparently, the offering itself was what was important; what happened to it afterwards, was not a concern. The divine presence had been acknowledged and infused the rhythm of daily activities.
Anya smiled and waved back at some of the children who waved and shouted greetings at the strangers. Holding on to a man she had not even met an hour ago, she felt a sense of freedom in the midst of noisy traffic, car fumes, and plastic trash dumps along the road. Riding on a motor scooter allowed her to hear and see and feel in a more intense and immediate way than being protected by the metal walls and roof of a car or van. Life was pulsing as busily around her as it was inside of her. This was fun!
By now, they were climbing a hilly, windy road into more mountainous terrain. They stopped by an overlook to look at some luscious, green rice terraces, stretching their legs. Anya told Komang that she wanted to buy fruit before returning to the hotel. He stopped by two roadside stands to introduce them to strange, new fruit. “This is snakeskin fruit. We call it salak.” Komang held up several fruit the size of large figs. Its skin truly looked like reptile skin, brown and scaly. Peeling back the skin revealed three white lobes of fruit which they tasted. “Like a mixture of strawberry and Asian pear,” Anya declared. Laurel bought a bag full of salak to surprise the group at dinner; Anya bought a few for herself. Komang pointed out the salak trees, a species of short-stemmed palm trees, right next to their fruit stand. The slender trunks sported up to 6-inch long, dangerous looking thorns. Nestled inside the thorns was snakeskin fruit! Anya shuddered thinking about the difficult tasks of harvesting fruit so fiercely protected by thorny daggers, like stealing honey away from wild bees – there is a price to pay for sweetness.
A second roadside stand held another surprise – a round fruit with a smooth, brownish skin. Komang called it mangosteen and said that it was his favorite fruit. Again, the women tasted one and liked the juicy, white flesh. While different in size and appearance, the flesh of mangosteen reminded Anya of her favorite tropical fruit, the soursop.
With their newly discovered fruit treasures tugged into their bags, the scooter ride continued to the coffee plantation.
Note: This is a semi-fictional travel memoir based on an actual visit to Bali. All names of individuals have been changed. Some of the characters are composites and certain events have been slightly fictionalized.