By C.G. Fewston
“The real treasure from traveling is not the souvenirs, but the lasting inner change and learning.”
—from Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey
If you really want to know the truth about it, then I’ll tell you. About a year ago, I had an awful mess of things. Twice I came home to an empty apartment where my wife and kid should have been. My daughter was only three then, and it really knocks something out of you when you come home after a hard day’s work and find that the place is empty. No notice. No warning. And twice I had to go through with that. Each time, I cracked open the whiskey, cursing my wife under my breath, ordered Mexican takeout—and this was in Saigon, mind you—and over a period of a few months became a drunken slob, gained about thirty pounds to peak at 210. One night after my Vietnamese mistress had come and gone, I woke in the middle of the night with my heart pounding something fierce, and I had to grab my chest and really hold on to whatever it was I still had left.
A few weeks later, I had a second heart attack. Though I went to the cardiologist several times for check-ups and ECGs—not EKGs like some people say—and each time the moron would tell me that my heart was fine, but I was a little over-weight. I knew my heart wasn’t fine. And then one afternoon, I remember well, the sun was setting through the great open bay doors in my flat, which was eight stories high, and I had just taken some vitamin-energy mix in a glass of water, and I stood up too fast and turned to see that beautiful sun dropping over the Saigon-city landscape and felt the grip of death on me. I dropped to my knees, and I could sense my heart—the one that was all fine and dandy—was about to explode. What I can remember of it—if you really want to know about it—was that I feared an artery was clogged, and I could feel it too, and one side of my heart swelled with too much blood, and I dropped to my knees with pain beyond anything I had ever experienced, and because I was afraid I was going to die, I said out loud, ‘God, please help.’ And you wouldn’t believe what happened next. The blood that had kept swelling and swelling inside one of the arteries just shot up and clean through to wherever it was headed, which was up my left pectoral muscle, up and around my left shoulder, and down my left arm. I could really feel the blood travel, and my heart deflated back to its original size. I stayed on my knees for a moment just thanking God for sparing me, and I wasn’t sure why because I was still alone and separated from my wife and child. And so that was what led me to go to Bali, and try to make some sense out of my life, and try to heal my heart in some way.
So on September 21st, 2013 at 2 a.m., I found myself in Singapore’s airport staring mindlessly at the Redemption Booth where you could win $1,000,000 dollars, which amounts to something like 800,000 US dollars. ‘Be a Changi Millionaire,’ the sign read in front of giant teddy bears seated on a castle. I had about five more hours until my flight to Bali, so I just walked around the airport, where a man and woman were huddled and wrapped together on the floor near the entrance to the Sunflower Garden on the roof of Terminal 2. Most couples were like that. Even some dads with their sons. And so with the strap of my bag wrapped around my leg, I dozed fearful of loss. Especially here and now on the eve of Bali. With fits of five minutes or so of sleep, spurts of sliced dreams, and images of new travelers sitting down next to me, I saw an older woman peel an orange. Eyes close. Open. Close. Lifting heavy lids to a man in his twenties with a pony tail, and I kept drifting to the flight over from Ho Chi Minh City where from the moment Pi said ‘hi’ and sat down next to me, we talked the entire flight. Pi was a French-Vietnamese intern working in marketing at GlaxoSmithKline in Saigon, and we talked the entire flight of some two hours and down the connecting tunnels and even as we parted to go our separate ways, she heading to immigration and I to transfer, we paused not knowing what to say. Not wanting to say goodbye. Not really. And then she was gone down the escalator. I watched from the deck above, followed her every movement as a mother does a child on the first day of school. And I never saw her again.
Bali Flight 835 held a resemblance to Steinbeck’s The Wayward Bus, an eclectic people from around the world: a reggae guy with tats and a multi-colored headband; lesbians in gray shirts and matching short hair; a guy with a straw hat and an expensive camera next to some honey Asian doll; an elderly couple, likely returning to Bali, holding hands; and me the outcast, the lone writer in a gray cardigan and cargo pants. And if you must know about it, I felt quite alone being in that airplane with those people who seemed to have someone close to them at all times. And as I stepped down from the plane to where three dark men were chalking cracks in the tarmac by hand, I swear to you I saw a massive sign with the red letters that read: ‘You’ll never have to walk alone.’ I can’t make this stuff up. When I read that sign—the early morning sun rising over Bali—I thought of God and how I was really alone despite what I could try and fool myself into believing.
The new international airport in Bali had just been open for about two days prior to my arrival, and the hotel manager was there to greet me with a sign that had my name scribbled on it. Wayan was his name, and he drove a black minivan with the steering wheel on the right side as we drove on the left side of the road. His friend Ramaht would also be joining us, he said. I nodded and said that was all fine but didn’t feel like it was going to be. I looked out the window to see ‘Miss World Indonesia 2013’ plastered on a black billboard in gold lettering, and I was in no mood for women. I just kept thinking how I must be a madman to fly to Bali and then take a ride from two strangers to head to the east side of the island. A death wish was what it felt like to me. But I had already faced some of the worst things a man can ever face in his life. If I had to choose—if you just got to know—I would take a heart attack over opening a door to find all your furniture has been moved out while you were hard at work and your family is just gone. There’s something fierce and unforgivable in that treachery and deception. But to tell you the truth, I probably deserved it and much more. I sat in the back of the mini-van thinking these thoughts as scraps of multi-colored cloths to scare away the birds flapped inside cornfields.
I spent the rest of the day by the pool getting a massage and had a quiet dinner alone at the ocean-side restaurant. By candlelight, I had Mahi Mahi, known as dolphin fish to us foreigners, wrapped in a banana leaf, a side of fish cakes and salad, a refreshing Bintang beer to drink, an iced Arak that tasted of honey and lemons, and for dessert, I smoked a Cuban cigar. The next morning, I had an appointment with White Sand Divers, and promptly at 8:30, they were there in a white minivan to pick me up and head out to the reef. The first dive was a coral reef, and the second was at the USS Liberty wreck some thirty meters down.
The Liberty, with no lives lost, appeared to be at home thirty meters below the surface in the year of its 50th anniversary being pushed into the sea by Mt. Agung’s lava flow in 1963. Edging my way through and around the nooks and crevices of the Liberty, I challenged myself and my inexperience at diving. To look up and see corralled-steel above you, bubbles from the exhalation rising around your goggles, and to have that one thought of absolute fear to fight down and suppress, to conquer the possibility that if your mask comes off, you could so very easily become disoriented and drown.
Deep down there in that calm, I kept thinking of how before I left Saigon, my sister Amanda messaged me on Facebook and wrote: ‘Enjoy Bali. Don’t Drown!’ Now, peering up and seeing three divers floating-swimming across my new under-water sky of thirty meters, I felt relaxed as if I was supposed to be there, alone at the bottom with only two options left to me: rise or drown.
But with so many tasks set to me while diving, my mind had little time to consider, or even contemplate, life and death. Water in my mask was priority number one. I needed to see, and it came to me how important vision was when set next to abstract concepts of life and death, causes and effects. Only two or three times did I check the depth and oxygen gauges strapped to my dive-vest. My ears I must place as the second priority. The pressure could be so vicious that I would cease my gradual descent. To stop the pain in my ears, I had to rise then dive down again. Go back to where I had just come from, if just for a moment, then the pressure would release, and I could proceed to go deeper. A step back to move forward. By the time I got to the bottom, my eyes and ears were fine. I longed to stay there at the bottom.
There is a haunting peace about rising and falling in gradual motions in and out of the sunken warship. Shadows loom down over the divers as they pass into the Liberty’s broken belly, and the questions come as naturally as you must learn to breathe below the surface of the water. Can I trust my dive master, Noman, not to lose me down here? Can I trust the regulator to feed me oxygen? Can I trust my ears, my senses, my mind to hold up beneath all the pressure pushing inward at 15 meters? 20 meters? 30? To be quite honest, I didn’t know what or who I could trust anymore. I remember swimming along next to that old ship that no longer had its heart and thinking of how I didn’t know who or what I could trust. A husband is supposed to be able to trust his wife, but if he doesn’t have that, what does he have? And I wanting nothing more than anything to sit at the bottom of the ocean floor, and did for a minute or two, but dive master Noman called me up with a tap of his metallic baton on his oxygen tank and a wave of his hand. I followed Noman’s call. I followed him because I knew the tank on my back had a limited supply of oxygen, and there was still much to see: the bed of slender fish imbedded into the sand with their tails, the brown sweet leaf twice the size of my head, a manta, and the sea turtle luring me out to deeper waters. I would have swum on forever, chasing that old sea turtle if not for a swift tag on my flipper from Noman.
As we surfaced and walked up the stony beach, a nicely tanned Javanese girl with a tribal tattoo on her left forearm was sunbathing in a black bikini. Oh how I wanted to take her back to the hotel for a few hours—if you really have to know all about it—but I knew she was waiting for another. So instead, I paid Noman for the two dives and for two more the following day, then I sat at a poolside café near the dive site, divers emerging out of the water like the first tetrapods climbing out of the ocean depths, and watched the tourists as I drank a Bintang while a ringing in my ears came like a constant low-pitched siren. My thoughts drifted to the young girl, Pi, I met on the flight to Singapore. Both of us sitting next to one another, leaving Vietnam for the exact same reason, and from the moment she sat down, we never stopped talking despite the fact that she hated people more than I did. We blended for two hours. For a change, that unwelcomed, unexpected, unknown feeling found me welcoming, expecting, and knowing this beautiful woman by my side. I’ve come to understand, through years of disappointments, such moments, albeit delightful and fulfilling, are fleeting.
For lunch, I had Nasi Gareng, which was stir-fried rice with chili peppers, tidbits of chicken and onion, and its special sauce. The Nasi Gareng tasted heavenly as it was light yet spicy. And as I ate alone looking out over the ocean waters, I thought of how East Bali is a spiritual oasis. An oasis not hampered by aggressive sex tourism so often found in other Asian countries like Bangkok, Thailand or Wan Chai, Hong Kong, and it’s very likely due to its Muslim faith. Some of the women wear hijabs to cover their heads and faces. Ceremonies for the dead are also frequent and commonplace among the Balinese. And then there are the Java girls from the north in Jakarta who migrate down with their sexy, smooth-tanned skin and large breasts to get wet in West Bali. The Balinese appear to be a trusting people on the outside—if you must know—but one never knows even about the people closest to you.
Later that night, I had dinner at Bali Beer & Grill, where I had grilled tuna and prawns with limes and a fried banana dessert called Pisang Goreng topped with honey, which is also a breakfast dish among the locals. Beer & Grill was empty except for a back-packing couple in the corner. A little later, two Russians, one wearing a leopard print dress with an open back, entered.
The next day, I hired a jukung, a small boat named Pajar, for $30 USD to take me snorkeling at a Japanese warship, and I kept thinking how much of Bali’s diving industry prospers from left over artifacts, which is a better descriptor than ‘abandoned garbage from a distant time.’
I sat at the front of the Pajar as the boatman steered us up along the coast of East Bali, and I kept thinking—if you just need to know—that I was following the universe. That was what I was really doing. And I didn’t have a damn clue if I would make it back alive or where the next day would even take me. I couldn’t tell you who I was anymore. I had lived my life the way I wanted for so very long that all the in-betweens were lost to me then. It is true that I never settled as I searched the horizons for my true tribe, only to find myself on the jukung facing cerulean waters ahead, the craft splashing through the surf, my skin developing a dark, rough tan from too much salt-water and sun.
Make lemonade, is what they say. Squeeze the lemon dry. Toss away the pulverized peel. Knowing that the world was my companion, and that was enough because the world could be as small or as large as one wishes to make it.
I dove down with my snorkel still in my mouth alongside the Japanese ship, my body and senses slowing to a near halt some ten meters down inside the open hull. I swam free, my flippers kicking gently through the water to propel me forward and up to that burst of fresh air, just as my daughter would do when I taught her to swim at the deep end of the pool where she would then push off the bottom to rise like a mermaid into a new breath, where I would be there—yes I would be there—to catch her by the waist, and she telling me, ‘One more time, Baba.’ Yes, one more time, my darling, and all I could see was that strange boatman on the jukung waiting to take me back to Arya Amed Resort, where the staff constantly swept up flower petals that fell from the trees.
In the afternoon, I rented a motorbike for $5 from the resort and headed along the winding east coast to Pantai Putih, which means ‘Beach White.’ The beach was sandy white, and I swam against large incoming waves and felt the tide pulling me ever out, and I had to fight my way in with each stroke. Afterward, I got a massage for $8 right there on the beach and had a few beers to relax as I sat next to an Asian woman speaking French. In Bali, there was something sexy about an Asian woman speaking French.
But the real adventure was when I was on my way back from the White Beach. I pulled off to the side of the road to snap a few pictures of the rice paddies in the valley below. A local man, shirtless where you could see his skin worn thin to the bone, parked his motorbike about fifteen yards ahead of mine. He slipped off the bike and walked back towards me with a small object in his hands. One step closer, I could see that he unfolded a portable scythe. He was nonchalant about the cutting blade in his hand. I had my sunglasses on, so I knew he could not see how wide my eyes were getting, but I did not look away from him as he drew closer to me. Would this be my last moment in Bali? On Earth? I looked straight at the solemn, brown-faced figure that stared back. He had no emotion on his face. He was calm and patient. His steps drew slower. My heart beat faster. Then all of a sudden, he stepped off the side of the road and vanished down a trail leading deep into the jungle alongside the mountain.
Perhaps death was close to me that day, as it was on the days of my heart attacks, but I had to stop and consider how at any time, day or night, my life could be put in jeopardy, or even lost. I knew either way I was ready for the end, or a new beginning if that was all that ending turned out to be. Such was that experience on the road from Amlapura to Amed.
If you want to know the real truth of it, I had a wonderful time in Bali. That’s not an exaggeration. Life is magic. And I learned that trust grants a powerful spell over people, and once that bond becomes broken, anger and doubt and fear are allowed to enter and divide even the closest of companions. And I thought of my estranged wife as Wayan drove me back to the airport in Denpasar, and I could see rivulets running on the edge of farms where men and women bathed and headed back to their thatched huts. I imagined that at least they were happily married, happily in love despite having nothing else.
And if you want to know the deep down truth of everything, on the plane that would take me back to Singapore and back home to Saigon—where a home was not really a home—I could see puffs of white clouds like freshly whipped cream hanging low over the rolling mountains, those heavenly green slopes leading to snowy peaks and hidden valleys, the far-off horizon dividing the world below into shades of blue, light above and dark below, I tell you honest: I sat looking out the window, and I couldn’t hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone’s heart but my own.
C.G. Fewston holds the post of Visiting Fellow in the English Department at City University of Hong Kong. He has an MFA from Southern New Hampshire University, where he worked with best-selling novelists, Matt Bondurant and Wiley Cash. He also has an MA in Literature and an MED in Higher Education Leadership and Administration. he has had stories, essays and photographs appear in Bohemia, Tendril Literary Magazine, Foliate Oak Magazine, Driftwood Press, The Writer’s Drawer, Moonlit Road, Nature Writing, and Travelmag: The Independent Spirit. You can read more about him and his writing at www.cgfewston.me