Before screaming monkeys fell from the sky to rob me and beat me and leave me for dead, before I sliced a three-iron into the crater of a volcano (and hit a perfect lava wedge out to save par), before a James Bond villain named Mr. Cedok served me up as a cocktail wiener for the water life of the Indian Ocean, I was told to idly bicycle around Bali.
Before I fluffed my hotel pillow and found a live lizard where the mint was supposed to be, before I set out to see this island in Indonesia with nothing but a German guidebook for company, I planned to pedal peacefully around Bali's 2,147 square miles of unreal estate.
That was the assignment: Ride a bike. Clear my head and fill my notebook, take in the sun and bang out the story. One of those life-in-the-slow-lane swimsuit-issue stories. The kind they would no doubt headline BALI HIGH! Or better yet...
GOLLY, IT'S BALI!
February 11, 1991
The island excursion was not what my editors had imagined it to be, though Bali was just as I had pictured it. Alas, my only picture of the island was the 1952 film Road to Bali, in which George (Bing Crosby) and Harold (Bob Hope) were stalked by the evil Mr. Arok, spurned by the lovely Princess Lalah and assaulted by Bogatan the Giant Squid.
These were precisely the sorts of things that would happen to me in my seven-day Balinese sojourn.
This was entirely my fault. My previous international travels had consisted of 45 minutes in Tijuana (I know what you're thinking, but I was 11 years old and it was a family vacation) and a tour of Canada's Smythe Division cities. So once off the North American continent, I went nuts, seeking out the exotic wherever I could.
Greenout greets all visitors to the Emerald Island. George and Harold arrived on Bali by boat, parting the lime Kool-Aid waters off the southern coast. I came by plane, flying in over the green rice terraces that descend from Bali's tree-studded central mountains, themselves more fertile than Jane Pauley.
The greens on the golf course at the Bali Handara Country Club in the mountain village of Pancasari, the first stop on my tour, were said to be the greenest swatches of the greenest mountains on the greenest island on God's green earth. Pancasari is a short van ride from the airport in Denpasar, a sprawling, noxious village of 200,000 that only 20 years ago was quaint and fairly untouched by tourism. Which raises an interesting question:
I confess. My butt cheeks didn't touch a bike seat all week. For while driving in and around Denpasar in search of a bicycle rental shop, I saw:
•A giant stone pedestal displaying the twisted wreckage of an automobile whose driver, a disfigured crash dummy doused in red paint, hung from a window. HATI-HATI was the pedestal's inscription: "Be careful."
•A sign reading, in English, BETTER LATE THEN [sic] END UP IN THE HOSPITAL.
•Two fruit-marketing mopeders broadsided by a truck, sending melons heavenward and the two bikers flying into traffic.
•Countless pieces of spirit-appeasing roadside statuary skirted in black-white-and-gray-checkered cloth. ("Black for evil spirits," said Mr. Ade, whom we will meet later, "white for nice spirits." And gray? "For in-between spirits.")
I also saw zero bicycle rental shops.
On the island's roadways, life in the slow lane moves at breakneck speed. So I forgot about seeing Bali by Schwinn, and instead purchased a shrink-wrapped guidebook called Bali, rented a Mitsubishi Super Kijang van and resolved to drive the 70 miles to Pancasari and the legendary golf course there.
As Denpasar receded and Bali's more breathtaking, break-down-and-weep-beautiful precincts passed the windows, I stripped the shrink-wrap from the guidebook and riffled through it for rudimentary directions to our destination. The introduction to the book began:
"Als die Erstauflage dieses Bali-Fuhrers...."
BALI ON ZERO RUPIAH A DAY
A bit of background would be helpful before we get to the excellent-adventure portion of our story:
Where Bali is. If the world were a cherry tomato, and you were to stick a toothpick through New York City, which isn't a bad idea when you think about it, the toothpick would come out the opposite side near Bali, virtually 180 degrees from Gotham.
Climate. It's not the heat, it's the humidity. The sheets on the bed that you don't sleep in are soaking wet when you wake up in the morning. The fattest James Michener paperback curls into a soggy cylinder on the nightstand. Even in an air-conditioned room, your pillowcase can be mistaken for the natural habitat of the Balinese gecko, as I discovered after turning in my first night on the island.
Come daytime, it really gets humid.
Speaking of Michener. This island is not the fictional Bali H'ai of which he wrote in Tales of the South Pacific, which became the musical South Pacific, which spawned the song Bali H'ai.
History. Java is less than two miles to the west across the Bali Strait, so Bali's history is as old as Java man's. But space limitations dictate that we jump ahead to 1596, when Dutch sailors first set foot on Balinese soil, and then to 1906, when some 4,000 Balinese died in the suicidal puputan, a hopeless fight against the Dutch forces that had ruled Bali off and on for 300 years. The Japanese occupied Bali in World War II, sometime after which the island became part of the newly independent country of Indonesia.
Religion. Bali is 95% Hindu and seems to have a temple for each of its 2.5 million people. Thus Mick Jagger didn't wait in line when he got married and converted to Hinduism here last November.
Temple etiquette. Women bring elaborate offerings of fruit, carried Carmen Miranda-like on the tops of their heads. As for the non-Hindu: "It is better that you go to temple without Balinese people," said Mr. Ade, whom, I promise, we will meet later. "Because if you do wrong, you just say, 'Big sorry. I did not know.' "
What to eat. "Jackfruit may cause nausea," read a warning in the Bali Hyatt. "You should have a glass of boiled water before eating it, and avoid alcohol for three hours after." Otherwise, a treat.
Durian, which looks like a pale yellow softball, cannot be carried onto airplanes or into most hotels. It is said to "smell like hell and taste like heaven." I tried it. It smelled like a Greyhound restroom and tasted like a pale yellow softball.
Where to stay. The Oberoi hotel in Legian Beach has roofless bathrooms, which are nice until you discover that on Legian Beach you can rent motorized hang-gliders. The Oberoi may be the only luxury hotel in the world whose bathroom sinks are equipped with spray cans of Bay-Gon, which combats, according to the label, nyamuk, kacoa, laba-laba and kutubusuk. That's "mosquito," "cockroach," "spider" and "bug" if you're scoring at home.
On the downscale are the Bali Intan Cottages in Kuta Beach, a sort of Fort Lauderdale for vacationing Australian students, (AVOID HANGOVERS advises a sign at the Cock 'N' Bull Pub. STAY DRUNK.)
"We take any kind of card," said the man behind the desk at the Intan Cottages. I charged my room to a long-expired Minneapolis Public Library card but was busted at checkout.
"Big sorry," I said. "I did not know."
JOE VERSUS THE VOLCANO
English-language guidebooks to Bali do exist. "It's often said the Balinese look away from the sea and toward the mountains," reads one book. "The mountains are the abode of gods and the sea is the home of demons and monsters."
The sea, as I would discover when I became human crankbait, was indeed the home of demons and monsters. But the mountains, as I discovered at the Bali Handara golf course, were not all bougainvillea, either.
Lake Buyan and 7,467-foot Mount Batukau overlook Bali Handara. Two years ago, the Indonesian government banned hiking on Batukau, anticipating a volcanic eruption that has yet to come. Nevertheless, "I think Batukau will smoke soon," a Balinese man told me. "On top of Batukau, trees are growing up. I think they are very hot, yes?" But the most unsettling thought as I made my backswing on Handara's first tee was the knowledge that the golf course on which I stood was, literally, 18 holes in one.
The Bali Handara course was laid out 17 years ago in the crater of an unnamed volcano. Sure, the volcano is "long inactive," but so are Tony Orlando and Dawn. Should I not fear a return to activity?
Directly behind me on the first tee box, Mount Catur watched my follow-through like a 3,000-foot instructor. And though my alltime lowest golf score would be a record-high temperature on Guam, I unaccountably spanked that first ball 275 yards down the center of the fairway. My caddy, a 16-year-old Pancasari village girl named Kadek Suartini, admired the flight of the Titleist. Then Kadek the Magnificent, more lovely than Princess Lalah herself, turned to me and gushed:
"Luck-eee! Luck-eee, Mister!"
Somehow, she knew that when it comes to driving, I'm no Pope John Paul II, who, of course, is notoriously long off the tee. In the Handara clubhouse hangs a photograph of the pontiff wearing red-white-and-blue Foot-Joys beneath his white vestments. Two Balinese are posed to the right of the Holy Father. All three stand behind Handara's 18th green. The caption below the photo reads: 1984 Bali Bash. L to R: Low Gross, Low Net and Long Drive Winners. (Golf Clothes Supplied by KB Petroleum Golf Fashion Wear.)
That's right. Apparently, His Holiness not only won a long-drive contest on Bali when he visited the island, he also inked an endorsement deal.
Kadek spent the rest of my round exhausting her English vocabulary. When I told her I was from the U.S., she began calling me Joe. When I blew putts, she screamed, "Aaargh!" When I sliced a three-iron into the flinty bottom of a small canyon and asked for a lava wedge to chip out with, she said, "Drop it."
Drop what? A new ball? My pathetic attempt at an icebreaker? Such language difficulties required that I hire an interpreter. And so, immediately after carding a onetwentysomething, I hired one.
Meet 27-year-old I Made Ade. His long left thumbnail was meant to show that he did no hard manual labor. He was to serve as guide and van driver. I called him Mr. Ade—it rhymes with "body"—and he called me Mr. Stiv. With the characteristic warmth of the (noncaddying) Balinese, Mr. Ade was soon describing to me his village, his wife, his wedding. "I am married one year," he said. "And I have six-month-old child. So I have very quick service, yes?"
We hit it off, Mr. Ade and Mr. Stiv. So why didn't I listen when he told me...
"IN SANGEH, THE MONKEYS ARE STUPID"
"Yes," he said, a nervous smile splitting his face. "I take you to Tabanan."
But I want to go to Sangeh, I repeated. I want to sec Bukit Sari, the sacred Monkey Forest there. I want to see Pura Bukit Sari, the sacred Monkey Temple in the sacred Monkey Forest.
"But friendly monkeys in Tabanan," Mr. Ade replied. "In Sangeh, the monkeys are stupid."
"They go in your hair," he said. "They jump on your shoulders. They scratch you. They take your glasses, take your money, take your camera. They want many fruits to give them back. If they take expensive camera, they want many more fruits. Friendly monkeys in Tabanan."
Take me to Sangeh, I said. I want to see the stupid monkeys.
The Ramayana is one of the great Hindu epics. It holds that Hanuman, the monkey god and a flying white monkey himself, was toting a mountain across the sky when he dropped a chunk, studded with trees and teeming with monkeys, on the spot that is now Bukit Sari.
Bukit Sari is still teeming with monkeys. Teeming with thieving, murderous, corrupted monkeys. Monkeys who would mug me for my Minolta and hold it for a ransom of bananas. Monkeys who would gouge a fistful of flesh from my shoulder just to watch me bleed. More intriguing was the fact that in the deepest part of the forest stood Pura Bukit Sari, an ornate temple to all things monkey: a baroque, Hearstian, palatial San Simian.
Mr. Ade parked the van when we pulled within sight of the forest, a thicket of straight and leafy nutmeg trees. We could already hear the whine of what sounded like cannonballs ripping through the treetops as we read the sign posted at the side of the road: ATTENTION: BE CAREFUL WITH YOUR BELONGINGS (ACCESSORIES) DURING VISIT TO THIS HOLLY MONKEY FOREST. TO AVOID UNDESIRABLE CASES CAUSED BY SOME AGGRESSIVE MONKEYS.
The sign was a model of understatement, if not of spelling and punctuation. The sign maker didn't mention that the human earlobe is an "accessory." For of all the "cases" Mr. Ade has had occasion to witness in the Monkey Forest, perhaps the most "undesirable" have occurred when "some aggressive monkeys" have snatched the pierced earrings—and accompanying pieces of lobes—from the heads of unsuspecting visitors.
On the threshold of the fenced-in forest, a toothless old woman bade me to take the stick she offered, and I did. She also urged me to remove my Coke-bottle-thick glasses, lest the monkeys rob me of my very vision. Impossible, I told her. As I pinned the glasses to the bridge of my nose with my index finger, Mr. Ade broke his nervous silence.
"Mr. Stiv," he said quietly. "Please do not taunt the monkeys."
I assured him that I had no intention of taunting the monkeys.
"Please," he repeated more quietly. "Do not taunt the monkeys."
In the forest, the sunlight disappeared. And so did all sound, save for the screeching of monkeys and Mr. Ade's constantly whispered admonitions against taunting them. As we walked down the single dirt path, I felt the eyes of a million monkeys on me—the new inmate on parade down Cell Block A at Monkeytraz.
Suddenly, a 30-pound animal came cannonballing out of the trees. We half-circled each other as two wrestlers will at the start of a match. He lunged and I jabbed with the old lady's stick. The simpering simian hobbled away.
Another monkey picked the pocket of a tourist walking ahead of us, then bolted into the woods. The tourist sought out a forest ranger, who sought out the monkey, who was found waving a driver's license and motioning for peanuts.
There weren't more than 20 human targets in the forest, but soon all was a black marketplace of gray monkeys—here bartering for bananas, there making off with a baseball cap, everywhere pawning people's goods for a palmful of peanuts.
And just as I glimpsed the magnificent Monkey Temple, one of its tenants hijacked, humbled and dehumanized the Aussie.
An Australian high school kid began bawling and flailing after a monkey had leaped onto his shoulder. A ranger ordered the boy to stand still. Thirty seconds passed, and the kid looked cautiously at the monkey. After a minute or so, the boy was beaming while his two friends snapped their Instamatics.
It wasn't until the boy began to—yes—taunt the monkey that the animal drew itself to its full three feet in stature and cackled maniacally. The monkey may also have beaten his chest with both fists, though I didn't pause to take notes. For at that very moment, as all activity froze around them, the monkey, standing like a hirsute hood ornament on the Australian's shoulder, loosed a hideous scream.
The monkey then took a long leak on the chump's bare neck, rappelled to the ground and disappeared into the forest, howling and giving monkey high-fives to his howling monkey friends.
Mr. Ade and I made tracks for the van.
LOOKING FOR MR. CEDOK
The last thing I remember thinking before I lost consciousness was: How exactly did I let this happen?
How does anyone let himself be ferried miles out into the Indian Ocean in a canoe, knocked unconscious, turned into chum and dangled in the sea spray for the better part of four hours?
Well, he begins not by planning a fishing trip to end his life, but by planning one to end his visit to Bali. Hire a boat. Cast a net. Crack a Bintang, the beer of Indonesia. Maybe tune in a prodigal ball game bounced off an errant satellite.
Which is how I innocently came to hire my own hit man.
I found Mr. Cedok (CHED-ock) in the fishing village of Jimbaran. He is, by his own estimate, "about 24." (The Balinese year is 210 days long.) He is from infinite generations of fishermen. As Mr. Ade pointed out, cedok is an Indonesian word for "something like a spoon, used to scoop the water from the boat."
Of course, Mr. Ade begged off the excursion immediately after telling me that Cedok's very surname implies a boatful of water. I would meet Cedok alone the next morning at six.
"Tomorrow," Cedok said, "be lucky." I didn't know if it was a forecast or a command, but he said it in Indonesian. Cedok doesn't speak a word of English.
His 12-foot boat, the Lumayan, was the same sort of outrigger canoe you see on the opening credits of Hawaii Five-O. Alas, the waves in the Indian Ocean the next morning were also the same sort as on the opening credits of Hawaii Five-O. I swallowed several Dramamine as Cedok zipped us out to sea on the power of the village's lone outboard motor.
I was handed a large plastic spool of fishing line labeled UNBREAKABLE. An enormous multihooked lure dangled at the end of the line. I blindly followed Cedok's pantomimed instructions and realized too late what I had done. Miles from shore and a hemisphere from home, I had tightly wrapped unbreakable line twice around my waist and tied a knot from which there could be no escape.
I was bound to one end of the unbreakable line, which extended 100 yards into the Indian Ocean. A sumptuous lure at the other end beckoned anything to bite. Nearby, commercial fishing boats were using industrial-strength cranes to haul in yellowfin tuna the size of Pontiacs. If I snagged one of those, I knew, I would be waterskiing barefoot behind it.
I sat down on the floor of the canoe and held, viselike, with both hands, onto my wooden-plank seat. Cedok did not seem to think that this was a bad idea.
I prepared to die. And then everything faded to black....
I had fallen sound asleep (too much Dramamine).
But in my sleep I hooked an eight-pound tuna, and I fought it until the fish had no more energy. When I awoke, Cedok was laughing hysterically and pulling in the tuna hand over hand.
I fell asleep again for two more hours but failed to catch anything else. When we returned to Jimbaran Beach, Cedok, who hadn't said two words in the boat, began chattering excitedly to other fishermen. Mr. Ade arrived in the van, and I described to him an epic Melvillean struggle lost by the fish I was holding aloft.
All the Balinese on the beach tossed back their heads and laughed a good long time. "Mr. Cedok says you are very funny," said Mr. Ade, himself convulsed. "Mr. Cedok says you don't know you catch a fish even when it is flopping on the line."
"Tell Mr. Cedok this is the first fish I ever caught," I told Mr. Ade. "Tell Mr. Cedok that I think he is a very wise fisherman. Tell Mr. Cedok to keep the fish."
While Mr. Cedok cedoked the Lumayan, Mr. Ade relayed the message. I dropped the solitary tuna in the boat.
"Mr. Stiv," said Mr. Ade. "Mr. Cedok says, 'Lumayan.' It means, 'Better than nothing.' It means, 'Just happy to be here.' "