International Writers Magazine : Dance of the Dophins - Bali - From Our Archives
Fishing: Chasing Tail in the Tropics
John M. Edwards
er, the problem was, I thought I saw a real live mermaid.
Get that? The genuine article. This was a fantastical phantasm (or
orgasm) that was hard to shake. Was there this fabulously phishy,
demure dreamgirl warmly waiting for me in the waves?
Or did I need
corrective brain surgery? My pumped-up prothalmus energetically
explored the possibilities of doing it in the waves with this evasive
Darryl Hannah-like damsel of my dreams. Part woman, part fish. Splash!
it went. There I was in Bali, Indonesia, feeling as worthless as a college
graduate setting up his own (euphemism) import-export business.
Loping purposefully on the beach under the cover of night, I came across
a troglodytic Indonesian man crouching over a campfire. With several
Bir Bintangs (Indonesian beer) buzzing under the belt, I though I might
be imagining things. Was he eating a cat?!
Very nice bitch, this local sarong
hawker (or potential pickpocketer) staccatoed, spitting in the sand,
while cooking the defenseless stunted animal on the edge of a skewer.
Which was mildly surprising on a mostly Hinduand
You wanna womans? he offered
obligingly, in that endearing third-world dialect called unregulated
capitalism. Certainly I was game, inspecting the lovely lonely beach
of Lovina, looking for love under a moonlit sky that resembled a tight
pair of stonewashed denims. But I didnt want anything dodgy, and
I could tell the man was untrustworthy as a matchmaker, would probably
offer me his daughter or his wife. As long as he didnt insist
on me sharing in his barbecued midnight meow.
No, I was walking just to sort of forget
myself and happen upon some naked body lying in ecstasy on the beach,
real casual like. I trudged onward in my rubber flipflops, rolling some
Indonesian shag (tobacco), fondly gazing at the moon, which
on this enchanted eve resembled the pearlescent pairing of a clipped
Lo and behold! I saw something splashing
out in the water. At first I thought it was a blonde woman skinnydipping
in the waves, but then, glint: a flash of tail!
Aha! I stripped down to my bulging baggy
boxers and rushed out to the water. This seemed too good to be true.
Bali Baywatch. But when I breaststroked like Buster Crabbe out to the
surrealistic vision, an apparition usually confined to the edges of
16th-century maps, I found myself dangling alone in the deep. The sexy
siren had vanished like a dissipating dream. Disappointment lapped at
the shore like a blind man licking his false teeth.
The waves breathed heavily in relief in the
darkness. My heart thumped louder than a fundamentalist preacher. What
had I just seen? Legend. Myth. Fable. Pshaw. Mermaids are real,
Im serious. Theyve got to be. As T. S. Eliot wrote in The
Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock: I heard the mermaids singing
each to each./I dont think theyll sing for me . . .
Bali bops. The seas surrounding this island
are said to be swimming with evil spirits (many of them suncream-slathered
beasts sporting masks, snorkels, and flippers from the cruise ships).
So the traditional Balinese are mostly landlubbers who stay put on dry
land, tending their ornately decorated temples and emerald-green, terraced
rice paddies. Instead of chasing mermaids in the deep, they sculpt colorful
statues of their frightful gods and Garuda (the winged serpent) and
sell pieces of paradise at a discount. On a short vacay, one may purchase
an attractive partygirl, witness angle-defying Balinese
dances, ogle Australian surfies, or dine on Rijstaffelthe
colonial Dutch version of a multicourse Indonesian dinner.
Those longing for a longer stay, such as
I, though, may malinger and witness stuff from another realm, which
confounds the eyes, clouds the mind, and defies all logic. The Indian
poet Rabindranath Tagore said this of Indonesia, I see India everywhere
but I dont recognize any of it. Thats particularly
true of Bali, where Rama rules with an iron fist and multi-limbed Kali
whips up a bevy of dishes in the volcanic kitchen ranging from gado
gado (salad with peanut sauce) to nasi goreng (spicy rice dish) to ayam
sate (chicken satay).
Here on this iconic and ironic island, instead
of rock music (outside the booming late-night Hard Rock Café,
at least), there is the dissonant gonging of gamelon music; instead
of exhaust fumes, the scent of clove cigarettes and chickens burning
on coal fires; instead of Gucci and Versace, the hand-carved masks of
deities both demonic and divine. You cant trust your senses here
because they cheat on you. Lovina, a low-key beach resort village, where
people openly practice all the worlds oldest professions, is a
baffling mixture of the sacred and profane. A monkey bars your path.
A beggar holds out his palm. A woman offers to blow you.
Bali is like a mystical art installation.
In the early 20th century, artists pounced upon the island with paintbrushes
in hand, setting up an alternative Western community of dropouts and
castaways. And even now there is a fair share of unemployable hipsters
in baggy Bali pants strumming guitars on the beach, Those lazy
Bali Days! Helping to prolong their stays are periodic cash advances
on American Express cards: Dont drop off the planet without
On this strictly Hindu enclave in a sea of
Muslim isles, ancient animist beliefs guide locals through each day,
dealing with pagan tourists, with offerings of flowers on doorsteps
and cheap dates on the streets. The occasional terrorist bomb may go
off at Kuta Beach, but that doesnt keep the flock of foreign visitors
away from strutting their stuff on Indonesias number-one tourist
attraction: the Balinese beaches. And throughout this otherworldly cultural
demesne is the running thread of recycling life. Which of course means:
theres no avoiding the wafting plumes of smoke from the cremation
ceremonies. Say so long, sayonara to the soul.
My dad died this year! happily
related the hostel manager, positively beaming, running his fingers
through his thick black impressionistic mane of Elvis hair. Many
peoples come to see him burn. Indo Elvis had the peculiar air
of someone who knew with certitude that his dad was coming back. The
Balinese believe the deceased go on to a new and improved reincarnated
future, depending on their behavior in this life. In Hindu Bali, death
is a party.
If you want see cremation ceremony,
I sells you tickets, Elvis offered, in that easy ungrammatical
way of third-world touts encountered amusingly in travel essays. This
kind of creeped me out. With my Disneyfied Western sensibilities,
no way was I going to dis the dead by photographing a burning corpse.
The sepulcher was a serious matter, not to be treated as a spectator
sport. But when you come to think of it, whats so great about
lying down in a box covered up by dirt, getting eaten up by maggots
and worms? An aging mermaid would probably be heroically eaten by a
shark and return triumphantly into the life cycle as an Alanis Morrisette.
I get you what you want, Elvis
continued. Pregnant pause. Ah, except woman, very difficult!
The friendly, but conspiratorial, look on Elviss face betrayed
the fact that this might in actuality be the easiest thing for him to
arrange, for a price. Maybe you want see dolphins?
The dolphins? Hey, that sounds interesting,
My friend take you in boat. He make
it cheap and nice for you because you my friend. When you like go?
Whenever. This sounded like an
adventure well worth taking. I was a huge fan of Flipper.
Okay. I arrange.
As the manager went about scheduling my dolphin
trip, whistling to friends and gesticulating wildly, I ventured out
onto the beach. When I saw her again. This time on dry land. The mermaid!
There she was, reclining comfortably on the beach in a skimpy bikini.
They say that when a mermaid comes ashore she can grow legs to walk
upon the earth. As if to prove this, the woman started to do leg lifts,
perfectly aware that many eyes were trained upon her. Mine were hidden
behind dark sunglasses and a Yankees cap perched at a rakish angle.
I positioned my psychedelic sarong for a better view.
I heard the sound of a lethargic Germanic
language issuing from her sultry lips, and since she resembled the statuesque
prow of a Viking ship, I dubbed her Brunhilde. A good-looking
guy who bore a suspicious resemblance to a buff Rolf Potts kept bringing
her beers from the bar at the beachside hotel we were in front of, offering
to massage her back with an enormous tube of Coppertone. Ah, the mermaid.
Killer bod, possessive boyfriend. I knew the type. I didnt stand
Instead, I got a one-dollar massage from
an itinerant massage therapist with few teeth roaming the beach. As
the old Witchy Poo crone rubbed emollients on my skin and murmured an
incantation, I saw Rolf Potts (Im sure it was him) shrug and slouch
off dejected. Aha! Not her boyfriend.
Feeling like the gods had sailed me a blank
check, I sallied forth, placing my towel closer and closer after each
swim, hoping to make contact with Brunhilde. Then finally she waved
me over. Haben sie einen Cigaretten? I made a great show
of procuring the elusive smoke and lighting it with a John Hancock flourish,
then said something awfully stupid and obvious in English, Where
are you from?everyones favorite conversation starter.
Nicht sprechen. No English. The
mermaid turned away with a disinterested danke and began rubbing suntan
lotion luxuriantly over her bare breasts. The interview was over, apparently
for good. Was it my deafeningly voluminous swimming trunks? Just because
every other guy on the beach was swinging his equipment in too-tight
Speedo briefs didnt mean that that was what would win over a mermaid.
I, too, slouched off dejected back to my
spot on the beach. The thing about Brunhilde is that she was clearly
okay to look at but not to touch. That is the way with some overly beautiful
women, perpetually on show, always out of reach. Like Tantalus, I could
not do what I could not have. She got up and retreated back into the
Oh well, they say its fatal to get
too close to a mermaid anyway.
day arrived. As promised, the old man, with a soiled rag tied around
his head, greeted me on the beach. His smile betrayed a ragged set
of Chiclets, unknown to modern dentistry.
Hey, how are you doing? I said.
He shook my hand, shyly staring at me as if I were the first
customer he had ever had. He winked, a cataract, an evil eclipse.
His wallpaper skin was so rough and wrinkled I thought it was going
to peel off
Maybe there was
a tour guide who was a bit younger? He looked as decrepit as the demonic
emcee from Tales from the Crypt. I didnt want him dying on me
or anything as he piloted me around in his outrigger. But hey, the boat
looked sort of seaworthy, and an adventure is an adventure. So I gave
him a handful of rupiah and we dragged the canoe out into the water.
Once aboard, he ripped the cord of the motor, and off we went coughing
and spluttering into the ocean.
The antique ship of fools glided through
the waves like an ungodly phallic symbol, a paradigm of wishful thinking.
And then: halfway out the motor conked out and a worried look appeared
on the ancient mariners face. Gulls laughed overhead. You loser,
I thought, Im being kidnapped and held for ransom, or worse. It
was a long way back to shore.
Whats the matter? I asked
with trepidation. Would this canoe become my coffin?
The old man lifted his hands dunno, then
rattled off a rusty chain of virulent curses in Bahasa. Perhaps he was
a lonely sea gypsy taking time off from pirating to plunder a different
kind of booty: mine. Was this a ploy to get more money? Again, the bruit
of Bahasa. Great. Not only was the motor kaput and the seawater undrinkable,
but the Cryptkeeper didnt speak any English.
As he began unfurling the heavy sail, I squeaked,
Uh, you can head back to shore now.
He pointed out into the ocean.
No, really. Youve done a great
job. Lets go back.
He pointed out into the ocean.
I looked over and saw a fin slicing the water.
And another. And another. And another.
Hence, we were surreptitiously surrounded
by a school of playful dolphins. Soon there were over twenty of them
dancing in the foam in undulating curves, coiling like question marks.
Id never seen this many dolphins together at once, not even on
TV. The old man grinned at me, my respect for him rising inestimably.
How did he know where to look? He appeared proud of his own ability
to hunt down dolphins, was positively beaming. I laughed just to hear
what my own voice sounded like in the spray.
We were now officially in shark-free waters.
An Australian marine biologist once enlightened me with the fact that
dolphins, with their superior intelligence, can easily kill sharksby
ramming them between the eyes with their bills. All around us were these
loping friendly bodies of the second most intelligent mammals, after
monkeys, I guess. Imbecilic humans comme moi hadnt quite made
the learning curve, Im afraid, considering we go out to sea in
hand-built disasters like this one, without being able to swim very
well. If man were meant to swim, he would have scales. If it hadnt
been for the hoisting of the colorful pirate sail, wed have been
stuck in the ocean forever, like phantom skeleton sailors circling endlessly
on a ghost ship.
But this was what travel was all about. Taking
chances. It had all been worth it. Id witnessed something that
even most Indonesians were perhaps not supposed to see. Nature naked.
Did the divine dance of the dolphins go on every day here in Bali
away from the prying eyes of primitive primate privateers? What universals
governed such an event? So what if my miraculous mermaid that auspicious
night on the beach had actually probably been a dolphin. Out here on
this listing boat off an island at the edge of reason, I wondered now
not how I was going to get back to shore but how many more dolphins
I would see. And who knows, maybe somewhere out there, way way out there,
Id once again glimpse that familiar flash of feminine tail.
© John Edwards November 2008
pigafet at earthlink.net
John M. Edwards
I was standing at the bar at the Jolly Trolley, staring at my beer
when I decided I was so drunk I would indeed have a hangover in the
John M. Edwards has traveled worldwidely (five continents plus). His
work has appeared in such magazines as CNN Traveller, Missouri Review,
Salon.com, Grand Tour, Islands, Escape, Endless Vacation, North Dakota
Quarterly, Richmond Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, and North American
Review. He has won several NATJA (North American Travel Journalists Association)
Awards and a Solas Award. He lives in a loft in New York City.
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