getting to know you

I have loved every place I have ever traveled to, but it has not always been easy. Sometimes, like with Bangkok, it is love at first sight, a torrid affair of lust and passion. But others take time. My love for Indonesia has been slow-burning, the kind of thing that comes upon you almost imperceptibly, until one day, in the midst of the endless traffic and pollution and chaos of progress, you wake up and say to yourself, I really like this place.

Indonesia is the kind of place that reveals itself to you in mere glimpses, refusing to give it all away at first glance. You have to search for it, and some never find it. Those who do never leave.

I knew from the beginning that I would never find Indonesia in my spotless, air-conditioned five-star hotel, where orchids and birds of paradise are relegated to ornamental vases in unnatural arrangements.

Where I found it, instead, was in the people themselves.

Indonesia is said to have the Earth’s greatest concentration of natural resources, where almost every element in the periodic table can be found naturally. But I would say, as many others have, that Indonesia’s greatest natural resource is its people.

Never have I met a people whose patriotism and pride approaches that of Americans, but Indonesians are enthusiastically happy about their country. Sure, they’re poor, and some still don’t have running water or electricity, and unions have labor demonstrations every day, but on the whole, they’re just happy.

And you will never meet a gentler group of people with bigger hearts. When I say this, I think of Nengah.

Nengah is my Balinese friend, and one of the most beautiful men I think I have ever seen. He is also, incidentally, the nicest person on the planet. When Nengah was twelve, he left his village in the interior mountains of Bali, where there is still no running water or electricity, because he didn’t want to take his gambling father’s money, so he moved to the “big city” of Denpasar and worked as a stockboy in a market. He has been making a living on his own ever since. He works at the hotel where I like to stay, but he is also a silversmith, and owns a small bookshop where he likes to encourage education. This is the kind of person that built a library in his village with donated books, and who teaches his neighbors in his spare time so that they will learn to read. He has been to Japan and speaks some Japanese, and his main goal in life is to get to the U.S. and make enough money in a few years to go back to his village and change the lives of the people there. Oh and did I mention that he’s also a Balinese dancer? If that doesn’t intimidate you, I don’t know what will.

Nengah and I are in the middle of a market in a little town in Bali, and there is an exhibit of photography. I am glad Nengah is there, because he is explaining everything to me. The photographs were from “Bali’s past,” and though most of them were taken in the past seventy years, they look as if they are reflecting a world of two hundred years ago. Most of the photographs are of bare-breasted women, dancing, weaving, carrying offerings. There is one of three men climbing a coconut tree. Nengah tells me how he used to climb coconut trees when he was younger. No rope, no knife, no nothing…just inching his way up a tree ten meters above the ground. In another photo, some men are playing a favorite gambling pastime. In some cultures, men fight dogs or cocks…in Bali, they fight crickets. I can’t imagine crickets fighting, but just trying makes me laugh. Nengah says he used to fight crickets as well. Another photograph shows two men with what appears to be a limbo stick, with a child arching backwards over it. Nengah tells me that the boy is in a trance; in this ritual, normally only children can achieve the trance state and be closer to God because they are pure and unhindered by worldly matters. He tells me that, when he was a boy, many children could do this. Now it is very rare because people are more and more overcome by greed and worldly desires. I find this very sad. Then he points to the last photo, a picture of an old, toothless woman with a brown, wrinkled face, sitting at a loom. “This reminds me of my mother,” he says. “She’s old, but she’s still very strong. She can carry 50 kilos on her head.” Again the intimidation. Nengah has fourteen brothers and sisters. Only eleven are still alive.

Nengah once told me that when Bali was bombed in 2002, the people of the island did not ask who was to blame, but instead asked themselves what they had done, where they had gone wrong to deserve such an attack. They could only imagine that they must have somehow warranted this treatment, and asked themselves how they could become better people so it wouldn’t happen again.

It’s hard(in fact, I think it’s really impossible) to imagine what it must be like to be Nengah. And yet, when I walk in the room, he always greets me with the kind of wide, genuine smile that you know comes from nowhere but the heart, and he laughs with the contentment of one who needs little from this world. He, like all Balinese, may have nothing, but are more than willing to share it with you. Graciousness and generosity ike this is a true gift.

Nengah is the kind of person that makes me love Indonesia. Through him, what I see is real…not polished, or silver-edged, or buffed to a high sheen, but it is real. It is Indonesia, that elusive spirit, and it is what I have been hoping to find since I got here, and I will truly miss it when I leave.

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