I had dinner last night with George Orwell in a small Balinese-style restaurant on the main street of Ubud. I learned about his philosophy. I laughed too loudly when he described the horrible, exhausting struggle of writing, comparing it to a long bout with a painful illness. Writing and painting are very similar. I had been painting that day in the garden of the villa where I am staying this month. I was sipping on a glass of wine in celebration of the long and painful painting illness that I had just survived. I toasted George, for his insight, his beautifully crafted words, and the fact that he was my night’s dinner companion. I laughed again as he described writers as vain, selfish, and lazy. He noted that they were driven by an unknown demon that can neither be resisted nor understood. Cheers, George. You got it. I put down my wine glass and turned the page of his book. I could not be happier, sharing my satay with such a renowned author. His book was a gift from a new friend on Bali. When I am finished, someone will appear who will want and need to have dinner with George too. I will pass my gift on.
Seven months ago, I was on a tour bus in Bali heading to the volcano Batur, where I was to have lunch. Although I was with a dive group from Seattle, I was alone. I sat with the only child on our tour. All of the other adults were in pairs. She liked my attention, and I like kids. As our guide, Made, talked into his microphone and described the rice paddies we were passing, I noticed a large cabochon ruby ring on his finger. It was set in the yellowest of gold and was sizable enough to be worthy of the Smithsonian’s gem collection. The brilliance of his ring washed away his monologue. I could not hear his words. I could only see his ring. When he paused, I complimented his ruby. He thanked me and told me the story of his treasure.
In broken English, he relayed that while visiting his temple, the priest had found a large ruby. Made was not specific. Perhaps it had been a gift to the temple. While Made presented his personal gift of offerings, the priest handed him the ruby and said it belonged to him. I was amazed. Such a precious stone, one that would have been the show piece of any Seattle jewelry store, was given to a man of limited means and without any thought of compensation. Made spoke into his microphone with little flair, as if this was just another day in his life. He had a jewelry maker design the setting. I commented with a chuckle that his children must be thrilled with the thought of inheriting such a prize. My thoughts had wandered back to Seattle and the Last Will and Testament that lay tucked in my safe in the event of my death. Made tilted his head back and laughed in a high pitched giggle typical of Balinese men. No. This ring was his, until it was time came that it was no longer his. Then he would pass it on to another.
Such a simple thought devoid of greed. I had a similar experience. The day before Palm Sunday in 2008 was a particularly rough day for me. I was in the middle of my divorce. That Saturday ended with a flurry of emails that left me with a feeling of helplessness. My husband had photographed and counted the candlesticks, as well as all of our possessions, down to the Halloween and Easter decorations. Nineteen pairs of candlesticks. Half of the Halloween decorations? I felt emptied.
The next day I was accompanying my niece as she went shopping in Palm Springs. I had been looking for something special to wear on my left hand, but was afraid to spend any money. I wanted a Greek ring to replace my wedding band. My mother’s family was from Greece. I watched my niece trying on jewelry, as I chatted with a stranger at the counter. After purchasing several pieces for his girlfriend, he insisted on buying something for me. Despite my objections, he chose an expensive ring and handed his credit card to the clerk. This ring was designed by a Greek artist and looked nothing like a wedding band. It was exactly what I had wanted. It had a cross of topaz in the center. I tried not to take it. He handed me a small shopping bag tied with a ribbon. The transaction was complete. The gift was given. It was what I wanted, on the day that I needed it most.
I spent months looking for the stranger to thank him and send him a gift in return. I never could track him down. I wear the ring every day as a reminder that God will provide, and that I will be safe. It is my ring until it is no longer mine. When the time comes, I will pass it on. It is not my gift to keep. The gift for me will be giving it away. Whether gifts comes from a Hindu temple or a jewelry counter in Palm Springs on Palm Sunday, I am convinced that we are all connected through the gifts we give to others. Some gifts are expensive treasures like rubies or Greek rings. Some gifts are simple as a smile.
My waiter stopped at my table to pour more water. I read his name tag. He was Wayan, He asked where I was from. I placed George Orwell on the table and smiled at Wayan. He smiled too. He was eager to use his English in conversation. I told him that I was from Seattle. His smile hung on his face without changing. America, I continued. He brightened and told me that he had a friend in America. I introduced myself by name, and we shook hands. He explained the meaning of his name. He was the first born in his family. The Balinese have four names. It does not matter if the child is a boy or girl. Their name reflects the birth order in the family. Wayan was proud of being the first. I loved his smile. I explained that Microsoft, Bill Gates, and Starbucks came from where I lived. His smile never changed, and thus I was sure that he did not know to what I was referring. However, he was enjoyed our connection. We shook hands again, and I told him how pleased I was to meet him. I assured him that we would meet again. I returned George Orwell to my backpack, and headed down the stairs from the restaurant and onto the sidewalk.
The evening had grown dark while I had been at dinner. I was not particularly interested in wending my way home with my small flash light. The sidewalks dip and rise like a mountain chain. They are littered with offerings. Walking the streets of Ubud is like traversing an obstacle course. My villa is on a street with no sidewalks. Jalan Sandat is a rocky dirt road with few street lights. Chickens roam free and fighting roosters crow from their bamboo cages. Bali street dogs are everywhere, and at night their barking scares me. I have been told that they will not bite, but I have also been told that rabies is a new problem. I chose not to get the rabies inoculation before traveling to Indonesia. I was feeling vulnerable.
There was a crowd of men standing on the corner of Ubud’s main road and my dark side street. They looked up and stared at me as I approached. Their motor scooters were parked in disarray by the sidewalk. Could anyone give me a lift to the end of Jalan Sandat? What? Two thousand-five hundred Rupiah. Two dollars and fifty cents. Sidewalk robbery! I negotiated the price down to two dollars. I was desperate and did not want to walk by the dogs that I heard snarling in the distance. As I hopped on the back of a scooter, a stockier man approached. I could not understand his sentence above the revving of the engine. Cremation? Yes, I was at the Cremation the first day when I arrived. He smiled broadly. I remember you, he said. You were at the Cremation of the King. Yes I was. You remember me? He tilted his head back and laughed. Yes. I responded that he had a wonderful memory, and that I was sorry that I had not recognized him. I was so tired for having traveled for 32 hours to get to Bali. His smile seemed to say that he did not understand me. My name is Tula, and I held out my hand. He grabbed my hand and introduced himself as Made. He was number two in his family. I told him that Made had picked me up from the airport that day, and he laughed. He said if I needed another ride to come and find him. He pointed to the store closest to the corner of the main road. This was his home, above the snack shop. He lived on Jalon Sandat as well. We were neighbors. We both smiled. I waved goodbye as my motorcycle roared off. The dogs were barking while I sped away, up the dirt road thinking about all of the interesting connections in life.
The first place that I visited upon arriving in Ubud, was the high speed internet café at the corner of Jalon Sandat and the main road, the main source of connections in Bali. I wanted to chat with my friends back home. The café is air-conditioned, serves lattes that can rival a Starbucks, and attracts Expats from around the island. At each table are two chairs that face each other. I settled into my chair and connected my net book. As I sipped my coffee, I looked up to see a handsome man smiling across from me. I asked where he was from. California. We were both Americans and both from the west coast. We laughed at the coincidence. He asked me how long I was staying in Bali and why I had decided to come alone for a month. I told him that I was in search of connections, to see if Indonesia was a place that I might return to live. I wanted to see what role I could play if I lived in Bali. I had already met a friend from the internet who had spent the past twelve years of his life devoting himself to the orphans of the island. He was to show me around.
I continued on. I also love to paint, write, and scuba dive. He smiled again. He was a scuba diver. Although he would be leaving for Napa Valley in a couple of days, he had time to go diving one more time before he left. He would make the arrangements, and we could discuss them that night at the trivia contest at the Fly Café. Lots of Expats would be there. It was guaranteed to be lots of fun. Just grab a scooter and be there by 8:30.
I had been in town for hours. I had a dive buddy and someplace to be on a Friday night. I remained at the Internet café and talked with a Canadian realtor who ran a Bali bookmobile program and supported a medical clinic. I listened to the discourse from a retired analyst who was convinced that the monetary system was soon to collapse and recommended buying gold despite the current high selling price. I agreed with the students from Ireland and France that Bali would be a great place to be if all hell broke loose.
I remained in the café for most of the afternoon. I got the scoop on island life from the next group of expats connecting to friends across the globe. I was told that there are three groups of foreigners living in Ubud. Everyone had been reduced to a stereotype. The hippies, health nuts, and spiritual ones meet at a café nearby. A finger pointed to the window toward the left. They love to meditate and do yoga. There will be a meditation festival next week in the soccer field near the palace. They would all be there. I thought of Eat, Pray, Love. The second group was the European intellectuals. They meet at a restaurant farther away off the main road. They drink a lot and think they are smart. They love to discuss books and politics. They are mostly from Germany and Holland. Then there are the artists, writers, and Australians. They drink a lot as well. It was decided by the internet café crowd that I was one of these. I tried to explain that I didn’t drink much and couldn’t see myself fitting into any stereotype. No. It had been agreed upon. I would be a perfect Aussie drinking artist writer. They meet at the Fly Café just beyond the statue on Friday nights for a wild game of trivia. Hey, maybe they were right. I had already planned to go there that night. Everyone shook hands, smiled, and wished each other a happy day. I headed out to explore the sidewalks. I waved to the men smoking on the corner by their motor scooters. Made dropped his cigarette and smiled. Sorry number two. Don’t need a lift today. Thanks anyway.
I had come to Bali by myself, but I did not feel alone. I arrived at the Fly Café with my new dive buddy calling my name to join his table. I was introduced to my team of trivia competitors. They were called the Big Lebowski’s which is one of my favorite movies. This was a definite fit. Tonight however, the group’s name had been changed. Because of a tennis match being aired on television, many people had not shown up to play. The team was much smaller than usual. They needed me. We were now the Little Lebowski Urban Achievers. I like these people. They are funny.
By the end of the competition, I had connected to another close friend, a beautiful woman who had come to Bali to teach English. I wanted to be a teacher too. We planned to meet for brunch and discuss the process for getting certified to teach English abroad. The puzzle pieces of my life were fitting together, one at a time. Perhaps this part came from a stack of pieces carved in Indonesia.
Conversations continued around the table. My dive buddy had met me before. One year ago I had been in his shop in northern California. My nephew had designed his website. After a tour of wineries in Napa, we had stopped by his design shop to do business. Now I was about to go diving half way around the world with someone I did not know that I knew. If you miss a connection, sometimes you have the opportunity to make it again. Life is wonderful that way.
One connection seems to lead to another, like synapses firing off each other in the brain. Connections expand like a web reaching out and growing from one thing that it touches to another. Trivia night with the artists, writers, and Australians, led me to Wednesday Movie Night at the home next to my villa. When Lauren Bacall finished kissing Cary Grant in the Alfred Hitchcock film, Notorious, and I could barely contain my romantic sigh. My new movie loving friends felt the same way. Before the evening was over, I found myself with plans to attend Saturday Trivia Night with the Dutch at Ubud’s romantic hideaway restaurant, Han Snell. I had crossed over into the Expat’s second group.
Han Snell was a Dutch artist. He died in 1998. He had been sent to Indonesia as a soldier to fight the nationalist, and defected to their side. He lived in Bali as a painter from 1950, became an Indonesian citizen. This had been his restaurant. Now after winning Saturday Trivia with a charming Dutch Expat from Holland, I was sharing dinner with his family in Han Snell. They had all been friends of the famous artist. His daughter is the current owner of the restaurant. Before they drove me home to number thirty Jalon Sandat, I was invited to world’s best spa, where my new friend, the owner, worked in the daytime as the general manager. The world’s best spa? I am a person of superlatives. I could hardly wait. I had been the only person from the Wednesday night movie to attend Saturday Trivia. I was not about to miss a connection.
Movie Night also provided the introduction to my third group of friends, the hippie spiritual healthy eaters. Before the film began and Cary Grant took my breath away, I introduced myself to a fascinating French woman drinking a glass of red wine. She wore several beaded necklaces, a flowing vest over her sheer top, and multiple bangle bracelets. She was an artist and a writer, and had lived in Bali for years. She handed me her card. I told her how I loved being in Paris for Christmas and New Years. I raved about French food. I listened as she spoke with her flowing French accent. She would be covering the meditation festival on Saturday. Do I meditate? Would I care to join her? If not, go to the painting workshop on Saturday morning. There would be a live nude model. The model was a ballet dancer. All the artists in Ubud would be there. The studio was just around the corner from Jalon Sandat. She could not come because of the festival, but we would find a time to go out into the countryside to plein air paint together soon.
She told me of a yoga class that met in her friend’s home. It was run by a famous instructor whose books had sold millions of copies. There are two students in the class, but I could come too. It was alright that I could not touch my toes. Yes, it was even alright that I cannot touch me knees. She would bring a mat for me. I need only bring a sarong and show up. I will show up. That is what I do in life now.
Everyone I met has been surprised that I have no card or cell phone. Do I not want to be connected? You must get a cell phone. I laugh. I have a deposit slip with me. Feel free to make a deposit anytime. I can walk down to the internet café. I have the movie night, and two trivia nights. I have been invited to the monthly Bali Women’s club luncheon by a founding member. I have been asked to volunteer at the private English speaking school in Ubud. I have cards for clinics, bookmobiles, and resale shops that benefit the handicapped. My teacher friend and I are responsible for the turkey and dressing at the Expat Thanksgiving dinner. I also have the street corners with the waiting drivers and the smiling waiters at the restaurants throughout Ubud. And there are always the orphanages. I have promised to go back. In my busy life, it is important to return there with a gift of hugs, and the willingness to listen.
Am I alone on an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, exactly twelve hours ahead of New York, where I know not a single soul? Not at all. The French couple from the small flat at the entrance to number 30 Jalan Sandat has moved in with me. They had to leave their flat as it was rented to two teachers who have come to Ubud for a couple of weeks. My new French roommates live in India. They moved to be close to their spiritual teacher and have taken on Indian names. They have to leave their country every six months as a requirement to renew their visa. Health care is also excellent in India. I was told by Hiadas, that Shanti needs to be there. She is dying. The housekeeper tells me that she has some form of cancer. My French is limited as is their English. We communicate mostly with smiles. I do not know the details of her disease. She is in a wheel chair, and he lovingly cares for her. I have watched him gather flower blossoms that have fallen from the trees on Jalon Sandat to bring home to her. He floats them in a bowl of water to see her smile.
My villa is large. There is plenty of space for a wheel chair to maneuver, and there is a beautiful lotus pond by which to sit. They are paying me to be here. I feel embarrassed taking their money, but the owner of the villas negotiated the deal. He did not want me giving away my privacy for free. He did not know that I have come to Bali in order to make connections. For the next week or so, Shanti, Haidas and I will sit by the pond and listen to the roosters, the lizards, and the barking dogs. We are surrounded by the loud hum of life reverberating from the jungle and the small rocky road outside of our gate.
The Tokay Gecko calls his name from the thick greenery that forms the invisible walls of the villa. Tokay, Tokay. To the Balinese, the voice of a lizard is the voice of God. In any serious discussion, God’s support or anger is determined by the response of the lizard that calls from the distance. Bali must be blessed because the lizards cry continually. The Tokay is the loudest.
I think I will paint a portrait of Shanti for Haidas. Maybe that is why they have moved in with me. Tokay, Tokay. Today will be a good day.