Saturday, January 19, 2008

Food (Bhuana Sari, 1993)

Memek tilts her head in the red brick door frame. She keeps her full lips closed over her orange teeth out of shyness, but when she sees me and the nurse approaching the wooden gate of the kubu, her mouth bursts wide open.

"Maee," she urges, motioning us to come with her fingers.

She sees that my sarong ends at my knees, and comes over to pull it down to my ankles, as is proper for a young woman, shaking her head at my violation. Then looks at the nurse and back at me and suddenly she bursts out laughing.


Stepping over this threshold starts a meal. With a guest, a special meal that includes fresh eggs and sometimes a chicken.

She pulls a rattan seat into the dusty courtyard for the nurse and gestures for her to sit.

We are far from the beach. It is hot and humid up here, the air, still. The nurse pushes her hair back from her forehead. The kubu has a brick doorway but is mostly made from bamboo. Its three tiny rooms have housed two parents and at least five children, and one of the rooms is reserved for prayer. Chicks hop in and out of the doorway.

Cooking means at the very least wringing the flesh of coconuts to derive their oil, a process that takes some time. Putu is sent to pick green beans, gather corn. Made arranges the firewood. No one is talking, but everyone takes small actions to help fulfill the larger goal.

My role is to entertain the nurse. I show her where the cows are tethered, where the chili grows. I show her the stream we bathe in, I show her where the pigs are snorting through the garbage and the place to shit and look at the view across the gorge.

She asks me again about Suki, the local restaurant owner who wrote her a love letter. I shrug, suddenly feeling fearful about sharing too much with an outsider. Expectations are different here, and Suki is Pasek's cousin. She will leave in a few days, so what is the point.

The sun, which sets at the same time every day on this equatorial island, is getting lower in the sky, which is fantastically purple. A fighting cock crows, getting restless in his rattan cage. This dusty courtyard is surrounded by a fence made of branches, covered with furious green vines. Time seems to bend and hang in the shimmering air.

I think about Suki's German wife, and how we met a few years ago, before the restaurant was even built, when it was a plot of banana trees right by the beach. There were one or two restaurants then, more like shacks serving up big heaping bowls of nasi goreng, and Bali Bintang was the only bar, by the river flowing to the sea. The German wife had worked as a translator for ten years in Munich, when she came to Bali and met Suki, and decided to put her savings into building a new restaurant in Lovina for the tourists.

Their new restaurant was right across from the temple where I saw an old woman spontaneously fall into trance, and next to the temple had sprung up the bar where Australian women ate salted peanuts at tables with the local teenage boys, and the blind man Losmana played Spanish guitar, his fingers dancing across the strings.

When that temple was empty it was a place to hide at midday.

It abutted the black sand of the beach crowded with European sunbathers and Balinese sarong sellers. It was a place where at midday, Pasek took my hand and drew me behind its sheltering walls and slowly slowly pulled me to its ground, and it was hard to ever again get up.

It was where the sky was turning, where my trajectory began to switch direction. I was just there for fun, I was leaving in a week, I ignored the stars falling out of the black night sky and was turning my attention towards confirming my plane ticket which took a nine-kilometer ride to the telephone office in Lovina, a sobering wait, a series of calls.

At that temple, two things happened: the old woman fell into trance right in front of my eyes next to the temple wall, by the side of the dirt road, and then either before or after, in the middle of a day spent sitting at the wooden bench of Made Sutra's warung drinking jasmine iced tea with an inch of ant-laced sugar at the bottom, either before or after he took my hand, my not-serious hand, and pulled me gently behind the labyrinth of the temple walls to the empty inside that everyone knew to leave empty, and this-is-not-my-place became my place, the place where I finally understood what I had missed.

"Is he married?" the nurse asks again.

The coconut oil is finally done, and Memek begins to grind chilis and shallots and ginger with a mortar and pestle made of black volcanic stone.

The sky is a peculiar combination of purple and orange. When I was a child, I learned the sky was blue. Mosquitoes buzz. The nurse fidgets in her seat. I know what she is thinking, that this is taking too long.

She is from my country, after all. She deserves to know, or maybe I want to tell her so she won't go back to him and his wife will never find out and be hurt. Or maybe I am just a gossip who can't control my big mouth.

I begin to wish the nurse had never confided in me. As I have spent more and more months here with Pasek, the villagers are expecting me to follow local norms, and why shouldn't they? Why shouldn't I?

"Pretend you tricked me, " I begin, caught between two worlds.


Blogger Work in Progress said...

I think people must be more close-mouthed in Lovina. Anywhere else I've been in Bali, gossip is the local sport. I can give you some examples of similar situations, but they probably each need a blog post of their own. I have to wonder why the community expected your loyalties to be with the guy involved rather than his wife though - why you had to pretend you had been tricked. Did even the women feel this way?

7:37 AM  
Blogger Ali la Loca said...

I hope I can write about Mozambique like this at some point.

And, my friend, when is the complete novel coming out? :)

2:29 AM  
Blogger joyfish said...

Ali - I'm working on it! I'm going over to visit Austin to Africa, Brasil to the Bay now - to see how and what you've been writing about Mozambique lately. One day let's meet in a bar somewhere in Africa or perhaps Santa Fe...

11:06 PM  

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