I believe, if you wear the Balinese clothes, you will be very beautiful. Because you have the good skin, the white skin, my guide says, pointing to the masses of women in the street preparing offerings for Galungan, the most sacred of Balinese Hindu holidays. The women wear folds of silk and satin in vermillion, sanguine red and yellow while they weave together blooms and wave incense. Some wear blue the color of certain skies as they prepare jaja, a Balinese fried rice cake. I’m quiet for a moment because I realize the deception my skin bears, and the privilege it affords me. I tell him the women are beautiful just as they are, and I’d hope that I would be the same not because my skin is the color of parchment, but because my heart is one where the good parts of me (dharma) smother the darker parts (adharma).
My guide, whose name translates to swastika in the Sanskrit, apologizes often. He offers regret over the enormous step I have to take when coming out of the car or if there’s traffic in the one road that snakes through much of Ubud. At one point I tell him that he’s nothing to be sorry for, he’s done nothing wrong, and he looks both startled and relieved. We spend most of our day winding around the Northeast part of Bali, visiting Mount Batur and feasting on sweet oranges from the groves that crowd the mountain while men sell adorable furry dogs locked in cages and chidren hock local fruit. We visit the Gunung Lebah Temple where I watch scores of tourists cleanse themselves in the purification waterfalls while the Balinese in traditional garb smoke cigarettes and attach themselves to their phones, texting, game-playing, Facebooking. I hike the grass covered Tegalalang Rice Terrace steps and weave in and out of dozens of shops known for intricate wood carvings, stained glass and iridescent shell art.
Often, my guide asks me questions about my work, life and travel. He can’t fathom a life like mine where a woman manages everything on her own. Often he calls me strong, and his words are tinged with a kind of respect that borders on envy, and I tell him it’s less about bravery than about choice. I’ve no choice to support myself. I choose to travel alone. And if given the choice, I would have a partner but we would be equals because I would never, ever, be with a man simply for means, simply to be taken care of.
I think about how my guide and others must see me–a prosperous white American woman on her own. No husband to command her time and attention. Enough means to demand it on her own. I am all of the things but none of things, and it’s midday and I’m tired.
Sometimes I try not to think of class division even though I know it exists. We sit in the back of cars when we pay someone else to drive them. We are polite, if not downright deferential, when we pay others to take our food away after we’ve eaten it. In no way would I ever be foolish enough to believe that my privilege affords me a better sense of self simply because I’m in the position of sitting in the back seat. I am of no better character because of it, despite of it, although I’m certain there are many who believe they are better than simply because of the weight of their wallet.
Often I consider the burden of it. The cruelty, or adharma, money can cause.
I had an odd day, the kind of day I wouldn’t have had four years ago (I wouldn’t have been present or healthy enough to see the subtle signs), but over the course of the day my guide’s despair become palpable. He revealed that his wife is away on a contract hotel job in Turkey for two years while he raises their five-year-old son. He repeats, this is her last contract, and I vacillate between wondering if this is a good thing (she comes home) or a bad thing (financial uncertainty). When he plays me the song he played the last day he spent with her before she left for an inn named after Snow White, I realize that her return is auspicious and desired. I feel this ache, his longing.
Although he lives with his mother, whom he loves, he’s lonely and doesn’t much like his job (we compared stories about working for sociopathic, dishonest people), and sometimes feels he doesn’t like his life. Even now, as I type this, as I try to decipher his halting English, I wonder if he told me that he contemplated taking his life. I acutely know the comfort in confiding to strangers, so it wouldn’t surprise me if he did mean this, but it pains me nonetheless. I remember his nervous laughter when he tells me that his life is so hard. I know that laughter because I’ve used it when saying things too painful to say in the company of others (I’m fine, everything’s fine–my constant, cold refrain). Part of me always wants to correct, to save, but over time I’ve learned that sometimes people don’t want to be taken care of, they just want someone’s kindness. They only wish to be heard.
So I did just that. I listened without waiting for my turn to speak. And I tried to be kind as I know how.
I invited my guide to have lunch with me at a fancy restaurant, and he refused for some time. He’s never been in a restaurant where he takes his tourists, much less enjoyed a meal served by the people with whom he would share a lunch (don’t worry, there’s free food for me in the back). I felt my privilege so deeply it almost made me feel ashamed of it. Of how he felt odd sharing a meal with me until I made him realize that we’re people who like watching animal videos on the Internet (we referenced a particular camel video we saw and we collapsed into ugly guffaws). We’re two people who love food.
I talked a lot about my father, how much I’ll miss him when I move to California. My guide shows me photographs of his sweet son (very fat, but very, very happy). We speak of karma and how we both try to be good people even if we don’t always do the right thing.
On the drive back I grew sleepy as he played songs off his phone–rock songs that are riffs off American music (Skynyrd, Zeppelin) and songs about leaving. We pass some words on leaving, on time, and how we fear both of these things yet have to consistently face them.
I would be silly or arrogant to think I made any impact. And it’s not about the meal I can afford. It felt more like I was able to listen and give someone else the compassion and kindness they needed–to not make this day about me. I think sharing a meal, albeit briefly, is an intimacy, a deep kindness, toward myself and for this great man who’s suffering perhaps more than I know.