An ode to the grand and peculiar magic that awaits us all in the hard corners of our very darkest places.
Poverty. My friend, Made,* has it.
Made’s world is collapsing. We have been watching it, visibly, sinking into the sand, succumbing to wind and rain before our very eyes these last few days in Bali.
Yes, Made’s business is collapsing, and so, he points out to me, wistfully, are those of all the free range Balinese on this lovely stretch of sandy beach just south of east coast Amed.
Made’s livelihood, peaking at about $30 on the best day, and troughing at $zero for weeks on end these days, has Terminal written all over it, unless some savvy digital nomad or life coach from Canggu can be bothered to turn up here and do some good for somebody who actually needs it.
It was a thin living anyway. Renting out from a bedraggled deck, sets of snorkels, masks and fins for $4.50 a day does not make a man rich. Even when things are on the up. But it did make a man, as Made is reminiscing, free!
“The massage ladies also,” he tells me, taking long, salacious sucks on his sweetspiced Gudang, and nodding at a tangle of scrawny-elbowed women hugged up under a shade shack nearby. They have been waiting all day for an $8 customer, or a $6 customer… and been shrewdly ignored by a scant flotsam of fat westerners who chug beer by the twinkly blue pool beside them.
“The tourists don’t want them anymore,” says Made. “This life, it is dead. The tourists not coming for what we have; the simple way, with the really local people. They want only the resort way. They want $25 sessions at the spa, $50 dinners at the hotel, wifi all over, clever eyelashes. And, they bringing their own masks and fins.” Made exhales lush plumes of curly smoke, like a big, gentle dragon.
Of the meagre tourists around, very few even snorkel at all. They stick inside the little cement walls of their resorts streaming, reading, eating. They slink off to their AC rooms instead of into the cool breast of the sea. And they know the coral has been smashed to bits by divers before them.
“Yes, we are dying,” Made stares across the flexing ocean. “These, I think, coming the final days. Thees world will be kill the last of us – the simple people, the people small, like me.”
Made shakes his bangs, cracks his neck and grins at me, wide and cheeky. It must have been a killer smile when he was working this exact same square meter, never to have been scanned by Google Earth, nor to have felt the fizzle of 5G, twenty years ago.
“So, what you thinking, Jedi? We go swim? You got de power?” He pinches the unmotivated flesh where my bicep once crouched. “I can be see it now! Your lucky coming back!” he teases.
There are no obvious signs at all that my lucky is coming back. Ever. And I flinch at the reminder, slapping Made’s tattooed shoulder, hard. He is a small man. Not much taller than me. But he is a man of muscle, tight and smooth, made from work and water. A man of the village. The kind of man who can take a sisterly slap from a woman without making a Facebook post out of it.
My lucky has, we have already agreed, taken a swan dive off the edge of the world, complete with several of my other best attributes. It is only week three since I fled a violent man, and landed here, in the deep mulch of shock, shame, depression and grief.
I plunged out of a life of expensive champagne, diamond rings, de gustation menus, theatre and violence, practically overnight.
Flashback to he and I on a couch in Sydney – glued to Netflix, suckling on expensive wine, settling into the tepid suction that is love trellaced on money and on secrets. There’s me, massaging his limp arm for hours on end, bruises up and down my sides. And there is him, giving me his whole self in return: the Archangel he sometimes was, and the demon as well.
It was me who made the last cut. I flinch at the thought. It was me who walked out, after all the fights and chaos that were meant to seal our union. I snuck out secretly. In the most shattering way I could. I stuffed my bags in hidden places and evaporated from under his weight. Not because he was violent. Or because he was destroying me.
I walked out because I had found it impossible to love all of him. And that was the sharpest slap ever given between us. He will feel that one forever.
While I feel…. nothing at all for him. No tender nostalgia remains. Just husks. A diamond ring. Some photographs I dont look at. Songs I dont care to play. Expensive lingerie, already fatiguing, and these scars – on the inside – claw marks, open, but not infected.
I am a miracle, really. Most women spend years in hell after this sort of bullshit. I am not spending hours of life trawling the net for articles on Narcissistic Abuse, or 5 Ways to Stay No Contact, or Why Empaths Constantly Get Screwed Over by Psychopaths. I am not going to take a trauma counseling course. I am not plotting revenge.
I am quietly rotting in my aftermath. Considering what my culture has to offer at times like this; booze, drugs, tv, online support groups and even worse – therapy! I have chosen to refuse them all, because I am convinced that whatever has been sucking the life out of my lucky all along are other ‘triumphs’ and values of this same, sick and surreal culture.
I am well aware, though deeply stewing in my very personal bucketful, that I am among the majority of people of my society – teetering on the brink of depression, or wading about endlessly in its muddy mangroves, heart-sore, lonely, and seeing naught but a shark-patrolled drop-off, where there should have been a forseeable future.
We are all plunging headlong into lifelong insecurity, or slaved to deals that give stability at the cost of liberty, and anyway, doing all this on a planet that looks seriously like it has fallen into the grip of psychopaths and zombies, heading into apocalypse of war or weather because of the spoils of progress and the natural debt for all our wealth… which kinda undermines the whole security strategy anyway… and which not everybody can run away from overnight.
It’s true. I have been contemplating whether I could just end it all by swimming out with rocks in my bikini. Or placing myself under a likely coconut palm. Or overdosing on dragonfruit and Sleepytime tea. I have been contemplating what my life might be if I can’t get ‘on track’. I have been spending considerable time future-casting what might go horribly wrong, and all the woe in that, if I can’t get more…. what? more…. upwardly mobile, basically.
Meanwhile, Made is downwardly mobile at a rate that defies Newton.
His business is not so much collapsing, as actually collapsed. He is a victim of circumstance and culture change. A great, nostalgic story for National Geographic, perhaps, or some earnest, sad doco about The Last Free Range Humans of Bali.. or of Earth… very …. profound.
Made, as I know him, is being made extinct as progress cleaves his culture apart like a scythe, and strangles his coral gardens in giant tentacles of plastic waste. There’s a nobility of sauvage in that, I suppose, but not when you’re sitting next to it. Sitting next to a person in that position, there is far more life and humour and irony in the story. And sometimes also, there are painful flashes of light across the face.
“Jedi, I can be tell you; I have had the very good the life.” he tells me.
“I having this little office,” he nods to the simple bamboo structure, currently half-devoured by sand. “Here I can be work, smoke, see my friends, do the business, the sleeping and play de guitar.
“I having the simple life; de little bit de money, de very big the time, and my small house also, it is enough. I always had enough, and enough was very good. When there is enough I can have the time to see my mother, to know my family, to know the life, and my gods, to help the people, the village, everything.”
Made smells of clove and tobacco, of soap, salt spray and shampoo. Luxuries I bought him from the little store yesterday, along with a new toothbrush and some chocolate, to thank him for his kindness. Made grins and shines. The scents curve off him like French cologne. This man, who does not venture further than his little arc of beach much .. “What for I go out?” he laughs incredulously. “To sit in a cafe, listen to de blah blah blah, and cannot be afford to buy de fancy coffee? Ha ha ha!”
This man, who values the scent of Lifebouy, and wears it proudly.
“This my life: the life of the free,” he sweeps his arm across the curve of the quiet bay, the seashells tinkling on the tide, and not a soul in sight. “I am not like the businessman. His life has guarantee! Me? No! Not guarantee. Not salary. Not big man like that, with sure the money every year, every month, every minute! Me… I am simple man, only waiting the guests, one by one.
“I live free – not have insure, not have guarantee, but I have the friends, family, the village life – this is the way we know it here, the way it always has been. I, myself, I live only on the small way, and the care for my lucky. This the life… this is for me; I want to be the man who knows his heart, and not only just his pocket.”
Then Made leaves me be. Through highnoon I lie on the sunbed and let the gentle breeze, the turning shells, be enough.
At mid-afternoon he comes back. He is courting cigarettes. He looks me over carefully. He is carrying little plastic bags of bleeding fish and coconut charcoal. He has planned a bbq for us. We talk about the weather. I give him my Ray Bans. And he sleeps in them all afternoon, on the slated bench of his office half-eaten by the beach.
He rests easy in a $200 pair of sunglasses and looks the picture of bliss, belly rising and falling, soft and heavy to the rhythm of the sea. When he rises, shakes his body down against the goldening light, he comes to sit beside me, and we talk some more.
Made, do you regret your life? You are 40 now, and you have not made yourself a business that can last through all of this. How will you live? How will you eat? How will you survive?
“Ah, Jedi. Here we have the ways. The water give us fish. The forest give us fruit. Me? I am happy with my life, but I am worry for my self. I am worry I dont have business, yes, but the business man, he lose a lot. He give a lot away for his car, his bike, his phone, his house. And what he think? He can buy the gods with money? He can buy the happy?
“No. It is like this one, Jedi: we must build the life with friends, with the good way, and the strong heart. This we always had before in Bali. You need house? We come and all we build you house. Not money. Just food. But now we have to pay, everything by contract, and the people, they are work, work, work, work… for money! And then, what? Even with the money, and all their life for working, they can never buy the house! Crazy! This one the very very crazy!!
Everybody like this now. You pay, you pay, you pay, you pay! And here, in Bali, it is because we had the life so simple, the tourists come and buy it all – the land, the worker, the business. They just come in and buy our life, and sell it to the next man!
Before, the life was natural. It was still close to the friend, the family, we were still helping each other, and the business could not break us. But now, it is different.
Some thing good; we have cement on the road.
But many things, it is bad… my friend have Scooter: I must have Scooter! My friend have car: I must have car! My friend have Smart Phone: I must be having Smart Phone also! I must be show to my friends that I am a good enough man, not just always poor, poor and cannot have new things.
Thees life, it give us the stress. Oh, very bad it give to us this stress.
We never crazy like now! We go crazy for all thees things, and we forgetting, day by day; We are the same! We are the same! In really, we are all the same.
We not have this before. When we had the jungle, the simple electric, the good coral and the beautiful water; then we had enough. The tourist coming, very happy, to enjoy the life. They come be here, with us – and everything, enough for all. We never thinking who is rich? who has car? who has motorbike? And now, Jedi, tell me… why the tourist not speaking with me? am I dirty man for these, the new kind of the guests?
In another land, at another time, in different skin, perhaps, Made would be maybe known as an ideal man. He can catch a fish, light a fire, and hold court in philosophy, mythology, politics and matters of a tattered Western heart. He speaks five languages fluently, knows how to rig a boat, throw a picnic, climb a tree, and rescue a fallen woman, as we are to discover.
Right now he is doing pretty much all these things at once, kindling a flame out of coconut husks with a dive fin, while three pretty mackerel melt on the hot griddle beside us on the empty beach as he regales me in Balinese, in French, German, in Japanese and Aussie slang. “When I am dead, I will not be carry the money, and not the new car either!” he explains. “I will bring my karma.”
But the days of ideal men are gone. Even in Bali. The tourists have dried up. Those who come don’t want to be pestered by touts, or beach spiders, like Made, who make a living making friends. The old Bali street vendors get short shrift from new tides of package and resort tourists. In a world grown ever more suspicious of strangers, even the famous Bali smile, perfected by Made, disintegrates in mid-air as the few uptight tourists who drift by us, hungry for selfies, ruthlessly ignore his welcome, even when he offers it in their own languages.
On top of this, recent volcanic hiccups cast a very long shadow over east coast travel, and shrivelled up the livelihoods of the most vulnerable, as usual.
Made has the bank on his back. They are coming to see him about his $80 mortgage. He has been given a two-month reprieve on his tiny cement house, with its chickens and its humble mattress. He does not have the money. The weather is bad, the volcano is puffing. The plastic is thickening, like hordes of geometric jellyfish, in the grubby water. The coral is broken. The tourists are not coming. And he does not have the money.
And yet. Made is, without any doubt at all, still one of the most generous people I have known in all these ten years in Indonesia.
When he met me, he knew straight away… “Ah, you have de problem with the lucky? You must be need talk to your gods, make peace and know your karma.”
“Hmm..” I said. “
“And what is it, this karma?” he continued.
“Karma is like, what do I do in my life. Am I helping the people? helping my friend? Taking care for my family when they are old and cannot peepee? Am I gentle with the life? Am I respect and love my gods?
When I live like this, when I meet my gods, they will decide about my lucky. The luck, it comes from the gods. And when I be born, and when I remember the way, then they can make me lucky – or maybe they will not.
They cannot be give all the lucky to all the people. This is just the way. Everything like that; black and white, the morning and the night, the girl and the woman – we must have all the colour of the life, every different part – this is the beauty of it, all the difference, everywhere.
For you, you must just come, sit and listen for the gods – they will be the ones who can bring you back the lucky.
Made has been single-handedly responsible for saving me from days of such bleak and total despair I could barely get out of bed, let alone into the sea. While I flicked him an easy $20 for a mask I didn’t even get wet for three days, he gently lifted me out of weeks of abject misery and saved me several years of therapy, as well.
It was Made who, on the breakpoint of my despair, even though I had been mean and sultry and snarly, ran up to my room one day and shouted, “Jedi! Come quick! It’s raining on the ocean! Let’s swim!” and we did… and it was exactly the right kind of beautiful.
It was Made who bought four Bintangs (with my money) and sat chain smoking while I danced around to smash hits from archive of Australian rock on YouTube and said, “you are a beautiful dancer,” even though I am six kilos overweight and haven’t washed my hair in two weeks.
It was Made who wanted to be friends with me, even though I am completely wrung out on life, in general, riding dangerously close to a nervous ‘event’, and have nothing much but scowls, cigarette ash and a savagely precarious temper to share.
Made was there when I threw down my books and shouted at the too hot sun that I DO NOT HAVE A GOD! And Made it was, who looked at me very gently, and told me…
“The gods, they cannot be come directly, Jedi.
Because you cannot see the gods.
I never see the god. But I am feel my god.
Like the wind – I never see, but I can feel her. You know this – you also feel the wind, you also see the wind; the affect. See now, you can feel it, the sensation,” he reaches out across the lovely wild. “See the pattern on the water, in the leaves, across the sand?
“This the gods, and they come so very gently. You can be learn to see them, softly always coming. Love them, and care with them then maybe they be help you, be guide you, be bring you back to lucky.
We met by accident.
He was cruising the strip of his seaside village on a sick-looking Yamaha, held together with string. I was staggering about looking to upgrade from the rat-infested seaside ‘oasis’ I had fled to from Ubud for my birthday. At the precise moment of our paths crossing, as I recall, he was astride the bike, under a tree, peeling open his second pack of cigarettes for that bright Friday. In a sort of Balinese James Dean kind of way. And I was scuffling about on the shade-side of the tree, trying to feed scraps of fish curry to a starving cat mewling from a roof.
He had said hello. I had scowled at him, most likely.
He had said, “You, Australia?”
I said, “Whatever. Don’t ask.”
He had laughed, and said, “You need nice place?”
And so it was. For odd reasons associated with desperation, hope in meaningful coincidences, a sudden rainstorm and lucky connections, Made swiftly arranged for me a very large discount at a brand new water-side villa in a small, deserted fledgling resort called Bintang; Star. And the next day I moved in.
Well, the next day, I actually, to be more explicit, dragged myself in. I staggered down the garden path under weight of a pink candy-striped cotton sports bag, flicked off my ratty old flip flops, tossed my luggage on the step, dragged closed all the curtains, hit the AC and lunge-dived at the massive, freshly laundered bosom of the king sized bed, where I stayed for three days and three nights, straight.
I lived on the blood-dripping bodies of three dragonfruit I had brought from Ubud. And my last remaining sachets of Sleepytime Tea.
Made surfed my nest, leaving trails of spicy smoke behind him. He peeked in from safe distances through the curtains to make out the various depths of my dive, to check my safety stops, to see if there was pulse… and met a blazing gaze of ferocious, maximum security FUCK OFF if we ever happened to lock irises.
And then he would go away. And then he would come back. Spying gently from the shrubbery. Maybe to check if I hadn’t died. Maybe to see if I wanted to come out yet. Maybe something more sinister, as I know my male readers already suspect.
I rode that bed through Eulysian Hells and Kafkaesque voids. I did not peep out through the curtains. I did not set foot in the sea. I sheltered from the killing gold of the dawn light. I rode the acoustic roll of the gentle shore break. I invented beautiful, soothing breathing techniques – or perhaps, they were given by the grace of some sort of personal gods who were watching over me, despite having apparently failed to step in during events which led to this.
One day, quite by surprise, I found myself down at the wave lap. It was as if I had never seen the sea before. I put my toes into the silken foam of tender bubbles and felt myself to be made of something other than lead and bile. The horizon was shot through with rose pink and charcoal. The descent was over. Now for the climb.
“You have a problem with the lucky?” Made had asked me, in a sideways kind of way, that first afternoon as I was doing fancy rescue breathing on my sunbed, beneath looming coconuts, which I knew full well could fall and kill me… clonk! I had been scowling at him through my sunglasses all day, from under my sarong where I was pretending to read my books on Taoism and complex metaphysics.
Actually, he didn’t start that way. He offered small talk. I aced that crap back at him with acidic brilliance. He offered friendly questions. I snapped them at the cervical vertebra and spat them in the dirt beside the coconut palm. He offered silence. I built a mansion out of it, and spied at him menacingly from eerily lit windows in my turrets.
In short. I was pissed off. Hurt. Isolating and sticking with it. And Made was being human, which I not seen a lot of lately.
“You want come with me? to see the snorkelling?”
“No I do not want to come with you see the fucking snorkelling,” I said.
“Hi Jedi, you like to come, try some fish? I make barbecue….” he tempted cheerfully when he swung back by later.
“No. I do not want to eat the fish. Or anything. Go away. I am reading about complex astro-physics type stuff. I am very very busy.”
“You like Bintang?”
“Ok. Maybe one.”
“I get, you buy, ok?
“Sure. Better get three.”
It went like that for three more days.
On the seventh day, I put on the mask and waded out with Made to find the last remaining corals at Lipah Beach.
When we found the coral garden, it was shimmering like a newborn planet, struck radiant with sharp light from a dipping Bali sun, and swaying like a ballet. The water was uterine. The seabed hurt, but thriving with little shrimp, and clown fish – all sorts of little beings were making a life in the broken reef.
And I could hear my breath, made circular by all that misery breathing I’d been practicing. I could taste the sweet salt of grief made beautiful out there in the once-was-blue, and in among the coral, jubilant in its clinging on to life – despite everything – little fish were parading their spectacular coats of every happy colour.
We swam for three hours. I did not know if I was made of skin of scale. Made dived for shells. And I tucked pieces of plastic bag in the leg of my bikini pants.
Our lives went on like this for nearly two weeks, and by the time the moon rose fat and pulled the swell up close to us, all full and ripe, I was to be seen, on occasion, picking flowers for my ear, and rising at dawn every day, for my walk with the early gods of breeze and ripple.
Made had not made a single dollar in all that time and I was worried for him, really.
“So, Made,” I asked him gently, one morning over bowls of 30cent coffee. “I want to ask you this: you try to be a good man, and even though you smoke a lot, I really think you are. But you really think it’s true for you, that the gods will make you lucky later? Do you think they will make you happy, even if they let you suffer now, like this?
“Ha!” He looks at me like I am utterly stupid, and slaps me hard across the arm. “You think the rich people happy? Ha! Ha! Ha!,” he pantomimes collapsing in the sand.
“You think they have all the lucky!”
No. No. No!
Maybe they have all the money, but then they always wanting more, and more and more. Even when they balanced, they knowing this for sure – that when you be rich, you be not always happy.
But me, I am very in the big problem. Yes, I knowing that. But I am also, I am knowing, that when I have the gods, and when I have the friends, and taking care like now, with you, then I am happy from the morning until the stars are coming – even if it rains!
* You say his name like Mar Day. Not Made. He is not made. He is closer to May Day, really, but let’s not get too clever!
And if you would like to send him some support, or digital nomad his ass, then please get in touch – that would be Tops!