As soon as I’d booked my ticket to Bali, all I could think of was cheap massages and meeting monkeys. I bought a new camera with shutter speed fast enough to capture moving monkeys, packed a backpack, and left.
While waiting in line in the Denpasar airport, I met a fellow traveler named Brittney. Both of us were solo American women with plans to go to the northern coast of Bali. We decided it was logical to pair up. We rode a rickety bus through the rainy mountains of Bali for nearly five hours and wound up on the northern coast. Having spent the day trying to translate our mutual vegetarian needs, we’d gotten quite close. We found a hotel that cost $20 a night for a room with a double bed. The hotel was in a paradise of flowering plants and Hindu stone sculptures. Plus, breakfast was included.
We checked in and each chose a side of the room to dump our backpacks on. Brittney picked up a pamphlet in our room. It advertised various spa treatments that were offered just across the street. “Damn, have you ever heard of vagina steaming?” Brittney asked, laughing.
“Excuse me?” I reached over and grabbed the pamphlet from her. Sure enough, underneath a photo of a woman with hot rocks across her back was a photo of a woman sitting on a toilet-like chair, smiling in relaxation as hot scented steam drifted up her vagina. I laughed. “Holy shit! Would you ever do that?”
“No,” she answered immediately.
“I wouldn’t really want to,” I said, checking the price. “But for five dollars… I mean, I’m only in Bali once…” I flipped a page and saw less invasive treatments advertised. “But tonight, I think I’ll stick to some basics.” I was in a spa chair 15 minutes later, letting a wonderful Balinese woman melt me into vacation mode as she kneaded my feet.
Three hours later, I had freshly pedicured feet, manicured hands, and a smooth face. “You’ve got to get a facial,” I told Brittney as I climbed into our bed. “I swear they removed blackheads that had been there since I was 14.”
“I’m not typically a spa kind of girl, but while they’re so cheap here, I probably should.”
“Do it. It’s funny too, I always look for jobs I could do, and I think I’d like giving facials. I’d be good at puss removal because I love popping zits and squeezing out blackheads.” Brittney laughed. “I’m serious,” I continued. “One time I saw a buddy with his shirt off and he had, like, six big zits on his back, and all I could think was, ‘his girlfriend is SO lucky.’”
“Oh that’s gross! I have weird quirks too though. Like, I’m a nervous farter,” she confessed.
“Like, I don’t like being in fast-moving cars. I had a friend who bought a new mustang, and when we went for a ride he sped the whole time, so by the time we got out the car just reeked.”
“That’s so weird!” I said laughing. And with that, we settled in to sleep; two complete strangers sharing a bed and gross stories on vacation.
The next morning we rented scooters and loosely planned out a route along the coast. Though there were hot springs and waterfalls we could have found, our destination was to reach the Buddhist temples and to see the monkeys that lived inside.
The scooter I had rented was similar to my own, and I was instantly comfortable on it, even though I had to adjust to driving on the left side of the road. Brittney had less scooter experience than I did, so she rode carefully behind me.
The road had far more scooters than cars, but as we rode away from the city, the street gradually emptied so that it was just us. It was sunny, and we paused often to take pictures of the green plains that lead to palm tree-covered mountains. One time we stopped to refuel, and after paying a dollar for gas, I saw three children looking at me. I was carrying chewy candy, and I walked over to them and gave them each a piece. They grinned and thanked me in English. I took a picture of them.
The open road and fast scooter made speeding a little irresistible. I repeatedly flew ahead of Brittney and then pulled to the side of the road to wait for her to catch up. I was just thinking about pulling over when I saw a massive stone staircase on the ocean side of the road. I figured this would be a great place to take pictures while waiting for Brittney. As I braked, I saw a monkey walking along the staircase. MONKEYS! Two hours into scooting and I’d stumbled into the monkey area! I turned off my scooter and pocketed the key.
As I neared the stone structure, I saw more and more monkeys. There were tons of them! They were long-tailed macaques, gray and bearded and little bigger than a housecat. I stood near the side of the road so that Brittney would see me when she came up scooting up. While I snapped pictures, an old woman pushing a wheel barrow walked up to me. It was filled with bags of grapes. “You buy,” the woman told me. “Feed the monkeys.”
“Okay! How much?” I asked.
“20,” she said. I pulled out the equivalent of two dollars and swapped the money for fruit. As soon as I had the bag in my hand, a male monkey came charging towards us. The woman saw it coming and yelled out “HAA!” as she whipped a stick around the air above the monkey’s head. The monkey stopped running but hissed, showing his sharp little fangs. And then the old woman was gone, leaving me weaponless and baited with a bag of grapes.
Just then Brittney pulled up and parked her scooter behind mine. I waved at her and shouted, “Monkeys!” I was trying to remain optimistic while I backed away from the fanged male monkey. As I reversed, I heard leaves rustling above me and saw another monkey hungrily watching me from the branches of a tree. In all of my excitement to see monkeys, I’d never thought I’d wind up scared of them. “Brittney!” I called. I’d feel safer if I wasn’t alone, but she was still across the street. Turning off her engine and taking off her helmet seemed to be taking forever.
In the meantime, monkeys were closing in on me. I squeezed the top of the bag closed as though it could make the grapes disappear. It was like trying to stop a nosebleed in shark-infested waters. I was envisioning the monkeys teaming up to jump on me, scratching at my face and stealing the grapes. The fanged monkey started gently running in my direction. I screamed and ran blindly into the street. An oncoming truck beeped and swerved around me. It wasn’t nearly as scary as the gang of macaques.
“Brittney, help me feed them!” I tried to sound more excited than panicked. Brittney had made it to the monkeyier side of the road, but she wouldn’t come near. I opened the bag and flung out a small bunch of grapes. Gray monkey heads swiveled away from me, finally, and they began charging. I quickly threw the grapes in clumps as far from myself as I could. I clutched the empty bag and ran one way as Brittney, farting, ran the other way.
We crossed the street and walked back to our scooters. “They’re scary,” we said in unison.
“There is no way I was getting near them,” she told me.
We walked along the sidewalk beside a tall stone wall that was lined with monkeys just chilling in the sun. I began relaxing a bit once I no longer had things that monkeys wanted to eat.
The wall ended at the entrance to a temple. Stone steps rose up between two stone lions posed to forever roar with their paws batting the air. Monkey mothers climbed the stairs with dark-furred babies hanging from their necks. Before entering I passed a sign with temple rules posted in an Indonesian version of English. ‘#1-Please wear the sarong and sash, #2- Ladies during are menstruation not allowed enter the temple.’ I wrapped a sarong around myself, dropped a few dollars into a donation bucket, and entered.
I walked up the stairs, continuing to adjust to the troops of monkeys. They seemed indifferent to me, and my fear slipped away. I walked into the temple, passing the stone-cut dragons, a fountain, and several golden Buddhas surrounded by flowers, fruit and incense. Then I saw two monks sitting on a platform among the monkeys. Their brown skin was a startling contrast to their full length white robes and white hats. The men smiled and waved at me. I pointed to my camera and then to them, and then shrugged. I’d gotten good at nonverbal requests, and I wanted to take their picture. They understood me, nodded and smiled for the camera. After, one monk said, “I’ll take one of you.”
“Thanks,” I said, pleased to meet an English speaker. I sat between the other monk and a fat gray monkey. The monkey jumped a bit as I sat down, and then lazily settled back into his relaxed legs-spread position. I smiled at the sight of a monk holding my pink digital camera, and he clicked away. “Thanks,” I said again. Then I pointed at the monkeys. “Do they scare you?”
“No!” said the photographer monk. “Watch this.” He walked back to the platform and sat so close to the fat monkey that he almost smushed tail. Again the fat monkey jumped, and settled back.
Laughing, I waved goodbye and left the temple. Brittney had waited outside. She said she didn’t care to go in, but I wondered if it was her time of the month. After all, ‘ladies during are menstruation not allowed enter the temple.’ We walked back to our scooters and revved the engines, ready to head back.
As we rode away from the monkeys, the clouds drifted across the sun. Nervously, I sped up. I’d always had a tendency to travel off-season, and in Bali that means facing the rain. We were two hours from our hotel and I didn’t want to get stopped by rain, or attempt to drive through it. I was also in a hurry because a neighboring hotel had dolphins and you could swim with them for $60. I’d always wanted to swim with dolphins, and we had to reach the hotel before 4:00.
I went ahead of Brittney, cruising over the wet road and hoping that we could somehow avoid the rain’s path. As I reached the one slightly confusing part of the journey, where one-way roads weave a loop away from the main street then back to it, I decided to pull over and wait for her.
This area was a mini town and there was a fabric store on the corner where two pre-teen girls were hanging out. I slowed along the gravel-covered shoulder of the road beside the store. I gently braked with one hand, and my bike lurched to the right. Suddenly I was flung to the ground; a freak accident. I locked eyes with the girls as my chest hit the gravel, all of us equally wide-eyed. Then I felt pain.
Mostly my ribs hurt. I was breathless. I rolled to my side and pushed myself into a curled up sitting position. I wanted to stay still for a minute, but many people had seen me wipe out, and I was quickly surrounded by Indonesians who jabbed their hands beneath my pits and pulled upward.
“Just stop my scooter, someone stop my scooter,” I begged, not knowing if anyone spoke English. The hands kept pulling at me, so I willed myself to stand.
A man nearby was turning on a hose, and he grabbed my hand and said, “Come with me, we’ll get this mud off you.” Apparently the little town had had some early afternoon rain. I looked down at my limbs and saw that they were mud-soaked. As my breath returned to my body I followed the man.
Someone had turned off my scooter, and I kept one eye on it while the cold water rinsed the mud off my hands and legs. The man gently brushed at the gravel pieces, and when he dragged his hand across my right shin, I screamed. “I know, I know, but we need to get this cleaned,” he said.
It had been years since I’d felt like I needed someone’s help. I was little-miss-independent-world-traveler. But now I just felt like a child. I was leaning on this man. His were the only set of brown eyes that mine would meet. He seemed fatherly, but I mostly took comfort in the fact that he was a fluent English speaker.
The water rinsed clear and I surveyed the damage. My left hand had a gash, my right ankle was scraped, and my shin was shredded to the knee. The man brought me water, and my hands shook as I drank. I sat on a plastic stool, trying to relax enough to be able to leave. The people who had gathered when I fell hadn’t left, and I hated being the mud-streaked white girl bleeding for attention.
The man came out of his store again. “Listen, I have some medicine for that leg and I think we should clean it up. Wont you come inside?” I knew going inside meant Brittney would drive right past my sideways scooter and not see me, but I was desperate to get away from the circle of curiosity. I grabbed my purse and followed him in. As I sat, I realized I was still wearing my helmet. I took it off and stuck out my bloody leg. He dumped an Indonesian version of hydrogen peroxide across my cuts, and the stinging made me squirm and moan.
“That’s good enough, thanks,” I said, trying to stand. Tears were running down my face.
“Just relax, here’s some tea and more water. We don’t want this infected.” He dumped more stinging medicine from hell on my wounds. “So what’s your name?”
“What are you doing here in Bali?”
“I live in South Korea. I just finished my teaching contract and decided to do some traveling.”
“Oh, you’re a teacher? How old are the kids?”
“Elementary and middle school,” I said. I’d always been a talker, and even in my pain I was taking advantage of his English. It was a great distraction, talking. He was still patting my wounds with clean paper towels and dousing me with disinfectant, but I wasn’t squirming as much anymore. I know what he’s doing, and it’s working, I thought.
“I have another kind of medicine,” he said. “It’s the best kind. People who have this can scoot all across Bali and be okay. Can I put this on you?”
“Yes, alright,” I said.
“It hurts more than that one did though,” he pointed at the bottle of disinfectant.
“Oh, no, I’m okay then.”
“It will make you better, you really should let me do this,” he held up a new, smaller orange bottle. I bit my lip and nodded, tears already in my eyes. He dribbled it across my leg, and I wailed. After he finished, and the wound began drying, I walked outside with him. He took my key and test drove my scooter. “This seems to be running alright,” he said.
I hugged him and mumbled into his chest, “I’m sorry. You’re my angel.”
“All these tattoos and you’re afraid of a little medicine,” he said laughing. I laughed with him, feeling as though I’d cried enough for one day.
I waved goodbye to him and scooted away, knowing I’d have to save my dolphin swimming adventure for another trip.
(written in 2011)