I had travelled to Bedugul, on the shores of lake Beratan, to spend the night – the plan was to leave bright and early the next day to walk to the summit of Puncak Mangu – indicated in English language sources as Mount Catur.
I duly set out in the morning with a picnic of water, tea, bananas and purple dried sweet potato snacks. I reached the road where I thought the walk began, but I wanted to be sure. To my left was a walled compound with an open gate. In its far corner was a house, in front of which sat three people, two Moslem women in headscarves – one robust and middle aged, one slight and youthful, both chattering gaily – preparing ingredients for food, and a young man apparently engaged in no other task than not assisting with the culinary chores. I was in unfamiliar territory and, relying only upon information gleaned by word of mouth, I strode through the gate. When I drew near enough, I stated my purpose. I was greeted without undue surprise and some warmth, but was told firmly that the mountain was closed, due to the “current situation”, or C—-. I expressed my surprise – unlike Mounts Agung and Batur, which were famous sunrise trek destinations, Puncak Mangu was, to my knowledge, less of a tourist attraction.
True, it was acknowledged, but the mountain was the site of large and frequent local (and Hindu) processions, and therefore mass gatherings, and as such was closed until further notice (or “Father notice”, in the case of one local restaurant in Ubud, where I remember thinking that such a paternal figure might prove to be a welcome and reasonable source of authority – but I digress).
Not prepared to give up so easily, I suggested that, since there was nobody around and that I would be all alone on the path, among the trees and surrounded by nature, and moreover certainly back before the sun reached its zenith, perhaps I could give it a try, and make my way up and down discreetly? By now, the two ladies had risen to their feet, perhaps because of my relative height and their low wooden stools. Their kitchen knives lay tossed into plastic tubs, among vegetable peelings. I could always, I continued, turn back, should any Pecalang, or Balinese police, be strolling around the deserted hill at this early hour? The youth rose, shifted his weight onto one leg and began twirling his cap in one hand, while the women looked straight at me, and everyone started talking all at once. This was not a good idea, I was told (or perhaps admonished). If something happened to me, they too might incur a measure of responsibility – at least, that was what I gathered, though my Bahasa was being stretched to breaking point. There was, however, no mistaking the finality of the tone.
I thanked my informants for their time and, feeling as conspicuous as a clothed man on a nudist beach, took my leave, carrying my now obsolete supplies, disappointed but resigned. I had at least succeeded in getting right to the lakeside, I reflected, all other access points I had tried seemed to be cordoned off inside temple grounds or the gardens of expensive hotels. Not for the last time, I pondered the oddness of the concept of exclusive ownership of natural spaces.
The young girl had suggested Ulan Danu temple as a possible plan B. I was unconvinced, but cruised slowly towards it while contemplating other options. As I entered Bedugul, a stone arch bearing the words, “Botanical Garden” in large letters, called out to me. I rode under it, but although I passed all manner of shops already open for business, and clusters of bamboo scaffolding and slabs of fresh concrete, I saw no further indications, or even signs, of gardens, botanical or otherwise. I did see an arrow marked, “Mesjid”. I had seen the mosque from the road, a handsome building with blue cupolas and a brown and cream façade, perched on a slight hill behind an IndoMaret – another Moslem-run establishment, though one with a distinctly more worldly raison d’être. The entrance to the mosque looked curtained off, but I only wanted a look at the building itself. I parked my scooter by a rickety wooden table beneath the awning of a roof, out of the way of the street, and when I returned to it, I was met by a smiling man. I explained my mission, and we both lamented my thwarted plans on Puncak Mangu. The sun rose above the buildings, bestowing its welcome warmth upon us and, having nothing better to do, I fell into easy conversation with my new acquaintance. Ram explained he lived in the house behind the table. In normal times, he explained, flicking his dark gaze to a muddy bicycle leaning against the wall, he was a mountain bike tour guide. He was also an active volunteer in environmental causes, such as the recycling of waste materials and educating people in sustainability and low-impact lifestyles. He told me he was, however keeping a low profile of late – having been quite vocal in his criticism of plastic and pollution, he had attracted media attention, and the wrath of certain business owners. If he was to be believed, his very physical safety was threatened.
Inviting me into his house, however, was deemed a risk-free endeavour, and moments later I found myself seated on a woven plastic mat over a bare concrete floor, in a sparsely furnished room. A slightly out-of-focus television was broadcasting Chinese cartoons, and two small boys looked up from their school work (the school being closed). Although a little wary, they were surprising unfazed by my sudden intrusion, and were happy enough to tell me they were aged seven and eight. A smaller girl, however, took refuge by her father’s side, then wrapped herself in the long skirts of her mother, a pleasant woman with a round face and a tray bearing silty Bali coffee in porcelain cups. Having exhausted my basic Bahasa skills, we switched to “Indoglish”, and I learned that Ram also had a keen interest in botany, and had learned about medicinal plants from his grandfather. The more we talked, the more my first impression of Ram as a simple, unassuming man was confirmed. He spoke softly and articulately, at times pausing as though weighing the importance of his next utterance. At no time did he mention money, or complain about the situation, but I understood he had not worked for months. The frustration of forced inaction was clearly gnawing away at him. He was obviously passionate about his work and life, and grew animated as he spoke – of “very ancient” places in the forest on the slopes above the lake, and the birds and other wildlife there. And there was a glint in his eye when he talked of his grandfather’s legacy. I warmed to him, and as the last of the coffee settled in my stomach, felt moved to help him in the only small way that I could. I asked him straight out about work – was he still able to get piecemeal employment, or was it non-existant? Predictably, it was the latter.
I suggested we go for a walk down to Ulan Danu temple, if he was open to guiding me there. Ram seemed marginally caught off guard, but after all, why not, he seemed to think. We left the house without further ado, and as soon as I could, I discreetly slipped what cash I could spare into his palm, concealing my gesture (no doubt fairly obviously to the attentive observer) as a handshake. Ram seemed at first taken aback, then surprised and delighted, and there and then our destination changed – we were going to wander the woods and fields nearby instead. This involved hoisting ourselves over two concrete walls thanks to makeshift stiles of logs and branches – perhaps tiny incursions into botanical garden territory – then walking through vegetable plots, and past a lonesome cow, tethered inside a low shelter. I greeted it, to which it responded by urinating copiously in the mud at its feet. Soon, Ram stopped, crouched, and pulled a small plant out the soft earth.
“This is medicine,” he told me, “for stomach and for cold.” It did indeed smell very medicinal, particularly the root. A little further down the path, he located wild cinnamon. He rolled and crushed the leaves, liberating the strong, sweet and powerful aroma of the spice. Next was a soap plant, the leaves, and more so the stalk, yielding a milky, soapy liquid, that turned frothy between my fingers. Our walking route appeared to be circuitous. Ram seemed to know everybody we met, and I turned down several offers of coffee. Where the path was narrow and we could not walk abreast, we talked little, comfortable in each other’s simple company. And before long, the mosque, and his home, appeared once again. Here, Ram halted, for another plant with thick, large and soft leaves.
“I hope this works!” he said excitedly, tearing a leaf up and mashing it between his fingers.
“This one for headache,” he told me, “It’s OK if I put here?” he asked, pointing at my brow.
He applied the leaf paste to my forehead, and within seconds I could feel a hot, burning sensation on my skin. I was impressed. But also keen to get back on the road. We reached the house, where I collected my few belongings from an empty front room, and exchanged a warm handshake with my host. We parted ways with as little ceremony as we had met. I am not prone to headaches, but for whatever reason, my head certainly felt clear, and my senses sharp. As I rode home to Ubud, I reflected on how painful it is to be deprived of one’s livelihood, and the work that one loves and finds meaningful.
Back in Ubud, I learned that the immigration department had made an official announcement. The open-ended emergency visas most of the foreigners had here in Bali, were going to expire. Some of us might have thirty days to up and leave the island. The news came as a mild shock. I had been wallowing in a kind of comfortable bubble, blissfully not thinking about the future. And while I was fairly confident I could renew my own visa, it was a stark reminder of the impermanence of things. I spent the next day and a half with exponentially renewed appreciation for life, beginning with the small things – for the sun on the leaves outside the window, warm tea and a mug to drink it in, my yoga practice – and for my great and undeniable privilege. I read a book, and it seemed like a wonderful gift. I rode my scooter out to buy dinner, and felt like a King. I fell asleep in a warm, dry bed, in a mosquito-free room, and felt blessed, undeservedly, and not because of any merit of my own making.
The next morning I bought flowers for M. Because I happened to pass by the florist’s. And because last time she had to buy her own. Because the day felt precious and unique, and I knew it would not come around again. But most of all, because I wanted to.