Monday, September 19, 2011

Innocence Lost?

Iraq invasion victim.
Americans have to stop talking about how 9/11 shattered their innocence.
The US dropped 2 atomic bombs, held slaves, segregated people by color and race, built numerous military bases around the world, spies via satellites, eavesdrops on its citizens, keeps dictators in power, embargoes poor nations, decimated its native population, put its citizens of Japanese descent in camps, invades countries that are not a threat, and generally treats the world like an outhouse.

9/11 was a horrible occurrence, to this day myred in mysteries worthy of a blockbuster Hollywood conspiracy flick, with an aftermath that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan—by the Pentagon's estimation—while the supposed instigator sat safely in a walled compound in Abbotabbat, drinking Coke, smoking marijuana, and watching porn.

Meanwhile, America's shattered innocence syndrome introduced us to Abu Grahib, the now familiar term "rendition", secret CIA torture chambers in countries whose human rights violations we condemn in the UN, the burning of religious books, photos of soldiers urinating on killed enemy combatants, kidnapping combatants on their own soil and whisking them off to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba where they're held without due process, and countless other facts that are hard to chalk up to "innocence shattered" behavior.

Now, I'd go along with Pearl Harbor shattering America's innocence in a time when big news made for big headlines, shouted out by newspaper boys, but even then we see that the rise of fascism and Hitler couldn't happen without the support from American business giants like Henry Ford. Rarely do in history events stand on their own. There's always an underlying web of interests, money, and power-grabbing that serve as conduit for change.

Surely, 9/11 served some in the US well, if not splendidly without incurring much scrutiny, like the Republican Party, President George W Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, the entire industrial military complex, and the banks. That is, until the euphoria over I'll-gotten gains deflated into reality and the period ended with worlwide stock market crashes, the American automobile industry collapse, bank bailouts, mortgage crises, home foreclosures and Wall Street bankruptcies that threatened to drag down the economy of the "free world".
Yes, Bernie Madoff's innocence was shattered, and so was Abramoff's, in court that is. Courts that have up to now had little to no interest in prosecuting the architects of doom America had fostered within its own bosom, the greedy profiteers that only needed a foreig eccentric with a match to set off a bonfire of profits, unmatched in history. So, exactly whose innocence has been shattered when Americans wallow on national TV in self-pity?
Waking up in a house that's on fire is surely a shock to the senses, but then one springs to action, tries to douse the flames and save what can be saved. Instead, Americans yawned and changed the channel, tired of reality, hungry for the confinement entertainment provides.

Obama's pastor famously said that 9/11 was America's chickens coming home to roost, pointing to failed foreign policies, such as America dropping its support for the Mujihadeen that had kept the Russians' in Afghanistan's toes to the fire with CIA-delivered Stingers and AK-47’s, or selling weapons to Saddam Hussain, thereby consolidating his position as a ruthless dictator who can be seen shaking hands with Donald Rumsfeld to seal the deal in which he received the gas he'd later attacked Kurd women and children with. America's politics abroad has never been one that can be compared to a humanitarian rescue mission. Every dollar that went to alleviate the suffering of poor nations was accounted for in exchange for favorable trade agreements, mining rights, oil exploitation, and other cold calculations that were based less on Christianity than pure profit.

9/11 is now history and much of what went on that day is forgotten, such as the absence of fighter jets in the sky, the pinpoint accuracy with which untrained pilots were able to find their targets you and I would miss by a mile while playing Microsoft Flight Simulator. Questions remain, but no one's asking them anymore at risk of being called a fool. We all want to feel good, and maybe painting yourself as a victim is a psychological response to masking bad things that have been done in your name to others.

I still remember the Iraqi boy whose limbs had been blown off, surrounded by cameras as he was airlifted to a hospital in the US to receive prosthesis. He has to live with our shattered innocence. We? We just continue shopping. Just like we were told to do by George Bush in response to 9/11.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Ghostly Confessions

©2011 Rudolf Helder
To the reader of these notes it's clear by now that I engage in an inordinate amount of walking compared to my previous sedentary lifestyle. It's not that I never walked, but it was mostly a basic utilitarian motion used to shorten the distance between myself and my car, and any accompanying thoughts were likely equally limited. In contrast, my walks into and out of Ubud have taken on a much more contemplative nature, partially explained by the fact that I must pass a place of death, and isn't death the most suitable of all contemplative subjects?

The particular place of death I refer to is a grassy area just off the road of Tirta Tawar in the Banjar of Kutuh Kaja. For those of you not well versed in Balinese lore, a Banjar compares loosely to a neighborhood watch group comprised of village elders that periodically meet to plan ceremonies and set important dates, like those for cremations, which involve a large part of the Ubud community. In the Banjar I reside these cremation ceremonies take place on temple grounds nearby my house.

When it's late at night and I have negotiated the last barking dogs belonging to the string of compounds that spread out from town I must continue my way on a remaining stretch of road alongside the cremation grounds. Interestingly, only a few headstones are present in the grass, maybe no more than 4 or 5, looking old and forlorn as if the practice of setting them had gone out of fashion with the invention of matches.
On my last walk the night air was still warm from the day and the surrounding palm trees and other vegetation stood scissored against the dark indigo sky in which a waxing moon shone palely. A dog walked by hastily, shiftily glancing up, making a wide arc around me, seemingly as uncomfortable by my presence as that of the recently charcoaled. Smoke from a slow simmering pile of dead leaves drifted silently over the area which was littered with an unholy amount of trash left by merchants that had set up shop along the road during the last cremation. Indeed, Balinese cremations evoke an atmosphere not unlike that of a small county fair in rural US, a place to gather, eat, drink, laugh, and jostle some dead folks before burning them to ashes.
Well, except maybe for that last part.

With the cremation over the area had taken on the desolate appearance of a dump site for the dead as well as the living. A perfect setting for a zombie or vampire flick and a good time for ghosts to manifest themselves, were it not that I no longer believe in them.
When I was a young boy my father died of lung cancer. My mother and I shortly thereafter moved from our village to Amsterdam and the chair my father used to take naps in came along to the new house and in a hanging closet my mother kept his suits. His presence was felt by me long after his death. Sometimes I dreamed of him walking back into our lives, all suited up, and reclaim his favorite chair. It wasn't until after my mother finally parted with my father's suits that his ghost could begin to fade from my consciousness. From then on I understood that ghosts were part of our ability to imagine things.

I know plenty of people who would not want to even pass a cemetery during any time of day if it could be avoided, yet few, if any, claim to have ever seen a ghost, a popular image most often associated with the departed, other than of course, blood-thirsty zombies in various stages of compost crawling out from under heavy tombstones they have, in spite of decaying muscles, no trouble pushing aside with surprising agility.
Didn't mean to heap humor on a deadly serious post.
Meant instead to mention that at the edge of that field where many had been sent on a disembodied voyage I experienced several times a strange sense of calm and peace even as an occasional moped or automobile sprinted by noisily. Apparently, it's a place to let go of earthly sentiments even though nowadays, as I walk by I think about which tasks I must complete before I too sojourn on, not because my demise is within calculated range, but it's the ultimate fate we all meet one day and no matter from which culture you hail, it's best to be prepared for that lo-o-ong vacation.
After all, aren't ghosts restless manifestations of those that haven't completed their mission in life? Let's not take a risk here.

Seeing how the Balinese treat death has made me re-examine our Western approach to mortality, not because saying farewell to this world and loved ones should be a festive affair, but expressions of grief and loss are obviously also geographically, socially, and culturally predetermined. Maybe our tears are not only for the newly departed, and we also mourn our inability to indulge in the cycle of life with equal parts enthusiasm at every stage.

Tired now from all the contemplatin'. Time to relax. Think I'll walk to the video store and rent Shaun Of The Dead. I know it's late, but gosh, I need a good laugh!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Expat Culture

©2011 Rudolf Helder
The expats in Bali are a mixed lot, as you can expect. I've only met a few so far, but in general they appear a bit unkempt and covered with a layer of fine dust that over time has nestled in their pores, adding a thin gray filter to their appearance that seems to foreshadow imminent decay. Fitting, as they may be destined to die in their newly adopted domicile. Distancing themselves from their country of origin is also evident from the garb they don, a mix of resort clothing, semi-transparent tropical tops, vests of various folklore, big ass harem pants, and Balinese ceremonial sarongs, with or without head dress, beads, noisy bracelets, ankle bells, nose rings, sailor tattoos, rubber tire sandals, and local companion, human or canine, in tow.

They often hang around the kind of place that caters to the less affluent traveler, the more organic-aware, where they can be found lounging home-style, dirty feet on the cushions, replying email on laptops plastered with more stickers than a steamer trunk, or spelling every article from ads for door nails to the obituaries in a several days old L'Express, Herald-Tribune, or Stuttgarter Zeitung. Time no longer matters, but stale news from the homeland does...

Many have acquired a scooter, moped, or motorbike and figure that, while not enforced, wearing a helmet buffers them against the kind of reckless driving the Balinese, and dare I say Asians as a demographic, engage in.

What strikes me most is that, save a few, most of these expats are—brace yourself—butt ugly, no really, as if cast from their country by border officials, told not to return and create their offspring elsewhere, which some have, colorful children, many of mixed heritage, growing up without other role models than a tribe of misfit aliens.
While I'm not sure how to jive this last bit of observation with my sense of compassion toward those less fortunate in the physical attractiveness department, the good part is that it makes the Balinese look so much better in comparison.

Not to appear rudimentary () in my observations I must make a distinction between the kind of expat that appears to be adrift with little or no interest in the surrounding culture and only try to stretch their funds to the max and those that have anchored themselves in Bali's society, in short the entrepreneurial kind, brains hard-wired for business, but fueled by alternative energy from organic compost, rather than a singular recipe of unadulterated greed that powers mainstream America's enterprise. They operate small businesses that cater to the green crowd, no-longer-young yoginis, the natural this and that faddists, maybe even their aforementioned apathetic, lethargic, beadie-smoking, dreadlocked, dropped-out counterparts, and seem to do well.
These expats are not content becoming part of the timeless wallpaper every popular destination plasters over locales that seem to impede improvement: bus terminals, open air chess clubs, street corners, fast food joints, video game arcades, internet cafes, and night markets, all "last gas station before the desert" kind of places. In fact, they may very well deliver the crossbreeding every society needs that's otherwise stagnant in thoughtless exploitation of its history and cultural expressions, even though "progress" will no doubt exact a hefty price.

Where in these characterizations I fit (if ever and if at all) I'm not sure just yet, but I promise you'll be the first to know.

Ketut and the Case of the Disappearing Tourists

©2011 Rudolf Helder
See more pictures of Ubud sidewalks here.
At first the people of Ubud did not notice anything different. There were suddenly fewer tourists. Not really suddenly, but who misses a few in the beginning? It was when a whole bus of tourists went missing that people started talking and even that took time, because who wants to be the first to create a rumor? Right, no one. It was Ketut, one of the local policemen, who wanted to know more when he overheard Nyoman, a Jalan Raya Ubud shopkeeper that sold sarongs, mention to one of the waitresses at the next door restaurant that a tourist who had a moment before stood in her doorway had simply disappeared. She couldn't say, "Like snow before the sun," because that just doesn't make sense in Bali, so she said something similar in Balinese. You get the idea. And so did Ketut, but only after picking up more bits and pieces of conversations between locals.
Now, Ketut had no business in Ubud central. A few years earlier he had been delegated to his own neighborhood of Banjar Kutuh Kaja, just up the road of Jalan Tirta Tawar, where hardly anything ever happened. Maybe a stray dog causing an accident, or a foreigner renting a bungalow forgetting to re-register his passport with the police for a 30 day visa extension. That sort of thing. Nothing to write home about. Not that he would, because Ketut still lived at home and probably always would being the youngest of the family, as in Bali it's custom that the last born inherits all, thereby guaranteeing longer care for aging parents than in the case of an older sibling.

That all being beside the point, now that his curiosity was piqued Ketut decided to do some undercover investigating—which would be hard since everyone knew him. He seldom wore a complete uniform, instead opting to cover his gun and belt with an oversized T-shirt, which he reasoned made the people of the Banjar feel less intimidated by his presence and they'd speak more freely, often forgetting that he in fact represented The Law. Dressed thusly he wandered on his next day off into Ubud because Wayan, his wife, had forgotten to repair his civilian pants, which had a rip due to him having rather formidable thighs, courtesy of working out twice weekly at the Ubud Gym. That too being beside the point, it was a very alert Ketut that day who sauntered up and down Jalan Raya Ubud.
It wasn't before long that he noticed some tourists trudging along the sidewalk, hopping in and out of stores selling typical tourist stuff, like masks, batik, sarongs, silver jewelry.
Sure enough, although he wasn't too sure as he had just waved at his old schoolfriend Made, the tourists he'd been following were suddenly nowhere to be seen. He walked a few times by the places where he'd last seen them but they had simply vanished. He didn't know the expression "in thin air," but it was like that.

Still, there was no reason for panic, not for a cool-headed policeman like Ketut. Doing police work, and also from reading Mickey Spillane crime novels, he had learned that for even the most mysterious occurrence there was usually a rational explanation.
It wasn't until after turning into a side street and finding himself another tourist to shadow—a big fellow with a red complexion and a cowboy hat—that he got his first clue, even though he didn't know it at the time: a peculiar twist in the man's step. Looked more like he played a game of hopscotch, the way the tourist walked. Most curious. And as he followed the man at some distance he noticed a tourist family of five across the street doing the same thing. Tourists were so rampant in Bali that Ketut had to admit to himself that he never even paid attention to any of them unless they caused a problem. But now he stood frozen in his tracks, rubbing his chin and scratching the back of his head at the same time.
Strange, he said to himself, except he said it in Bahasa, and he preceded it with "Aduh," which is not really a word at all, but more of a verbal exclamation mark. "Aduh, aneh!"
Barely had he said those words or he realized that his ruddy-faced tourist was gone. Something strange was going on in Ubud, but exactly what it was—other than tourists disappearing ad hoc—was not clear. He turned to look at the family of five and they too were gone. Ketut rubbed his eyes as if he had just gotten out of bed, but that didn't help. People were vanishing in droves and they wouldn't reappear because he was rubbing his eyes.

Clearly, a full-scale investigation was called for, but he'd have to approach the police commissioner who'd certainly have questions of his own, like why had he left his Banjar and was messing with someone else's beat, and why had he not properly asked for permission to conduct his own investigation, and maybe most importantly, how could they keep the disappearances a secret if they went out in full force and started asking questions?
After all, every Balinese is aware that it is tourism that supplies almost everyone with a lifestyle an average Indonesian citizen could only dream of. In the course of less than twenty years almost every Balinese had acquired a motorized vehicle and new villas, bungalows, and homestays were being built at an accelerated pace to cash in on tourism.

Those and several other completely beside the point thoughts went through Ketut's mind as he walked back to Jalan Raya Ubud, keeping an eye out for tourists, of which he now realized there were remarkably few considering the time of day and season. He was so engrossed in thought that when a fast approaching minibus forced him off of the road he almost tripped over a large slab of stone that lay wedged crookedly in the sidewalk with one edge protruding dangerously above the surface, one that he had avoided since stubbing his toe on it as a boy. Immediately he had to sidestep yet another obstruction, a large hole where the sidewalk had completely caved in, which he did with a hop and a scotch of his formidable Ubud Gym-trained legs. As he continued, still thinking about the mystery of the disappearing tourists, he automatically avoided many perils on his way, until he came to a particularly deep crevice between sidewalk stones where a whole slab had deteriorated and fallen into the sewer that runs below almost every street of Ubud. The sewer and the sidewalk constructed over it were, if you thought about it, an ingenious system, one that dealt well with waters from rain storms. Ketut had wanted to become an engineer, but funds had been limited and so his education had been halted in favor of Wayan, his older brother who had gone on to study in Jakarta. Ketut was proud of getting a good job anyway, as competition to join the police was always fierce, but since the head of the Banjar was good friends with the police commissioner it had been arranged in his favor. It was a job he'd probably have for the rest of his life, one with certain prestige, and it had allowed him to marry a bit above his own caste to the one girl in school he'd always liked best.
Not that any of this mattered, but to Ketut it did, as few things were as important as being married, having babies, and providing for one's old age, which was where tourism came in, in a big way, because without it there simply wouldn't be a future for Bali and going back to planting rice was out of the question now that many of his peers had found employment in the hospitality industry. Ketut was well aware of what the word "hospitality" means, as every Balinese, every Indonesian in fact, is obliged by culture and religion to treat strangers as guests, and it was this welcoming attitude that had made Bali such a popular place in the world. Could all that be at risk, now that tourists were mysteriously disappearing around him? He could not let that happen, and so he continued his investigation on his own, more vigil than he had been earlier that morning and that was a good thing, otherwise he might have tripped on one of the drain cover grills that appears in many Ubud sidewalks every few meters. That'd be funny! Most local folks had after all developed a sixth sense for avoiding such obstacles.

The afternoon sun was already beginning to lengthen the shadows of the trees lining the streets when Ketut finally stumbled upon the break he'd been looking for. Not far after passing Jalan Bisma, where the road winded down toward the bridge at Murni's, he suddenly heard from below his feet a faint yelp. At first he thought his ears were playing tricks on him so he looked up and around instead of down, but then the cry was repeated, louder this time, and he heard, "Help. Help us, please," just as it's written here, in plain English, but with a German accent.

Ketut understood a little "Ingris," as Balinese call it. Just enough to know someone was in distress UNDER THE SIDEWALK! That fact did throw him off momentarily as it was just plain insane, the idea that someone had managed to slip under the heavy slabs of stone and concrete, but when he lowered himself on one of his formidable knees it was unmistakingly true as he spotted four boney fingers reaching out through a crack in the sidewalk. "Someone there?" he asked, immediately aware of the stupidity of the question.
"Yes," the voice replied thinly, "there's a whole busload of us here and we want out."
Ketut was not only in shock, he also realized that at this place in the road, in spite of all the cars, taxis, and mopeds racing by, he was very much alone, even helpless, and desperately needed backup. He reached for his phone, but his hands were sweaty and the thing jumped in the air like a bar of soap and disappeared into the crack.
"Thank you," someone said. "Hey guys, this phone works. Who's first?"
"Me," "No, me," "No, no, me, me, me," he heard people shouting and it seemed like a struggle commenced.
Oh, my, Ketut thought, how many are there?
By this time, he had lowered himself flat out on his belly and tried to peer through the crack in the sidewalk. At first he didn't see anything, but then a dirty face appeared briefly in the light falling through the crack. Angry hollow eyes that looked more like those of an animal than of a human being stared back at him.
"Are you going to get help, or what?" the mouth in the angry face shouted.
"Yes, yes, sebentar," Ketut mumbled, "Just one moment."
"Well, hurry up! We feel ignored and we're hungry. We've been eating nothing but rice washed down from your offering baskets, maybe a wrapped candy now and then, but mostly we've been starving. We want to go to Café Lotus and Casa Luna and have a good meal. We've been hallucinating about hamburgers, fish and chips, spaghetti, french fries, and Haagen Dasz ice cream!"
Food was important in Ketut's life. If he went half a day without nasi campur, soto ayam, or gado-gado he'd become irritable, so he could imagine how the tourists under the sidewalk felt.
"Hold on," he shouted into the crack, "I'm going to get help!"
Just then a voice above him said, "Officer Ketut, what in the name of Shiva are you doing, sprawled out on the street like roadkill?"
It was City Administrator Dewa, the eldest son of a good friend of his father and an important figure as all police salaries were being processed by his department. Ketut scrambled to his feet, saluted, and pointed at the crack in the sidewalk. "Tourists," he stammered. "Hundreds!"
"What are you talking about, Ketut?" Dewa asked. "Have you gone mad?"
"Yes sir, no sir, I mean, hundreds of tourists vanished because of cracks in our sidewalks." With his formidable hands he began pulling up one of the slabs of concrete that had been dropped over one of the enormous holes. Immediately several skinny, dirty hands appeared, grabbing Ketut by the wrist.
Dewa looked like he heard it thundering in Jakarta as he watched Ketut pull out an emaciated tourist in a tattered Hawaiian shirt and flip-flops with chew marks. He wanted to take his hat off and scratch his head, but he wasn't even wearing a hat. That's how confusing it all was.
"Impossible," he said, glad that he had found the strength to recompose himself as could be expected of someone with a pencil mustache in a handsome dark brown government uniform with his name stitched in gold on his chest. "The sidewalks, they've always been... Just there, like always. Why now...? And suddenly?"
Ketut was too busy pulling more tourists out of the sidewalk to answer. He wished Dewa would help him, but as he was of a lower caste he didn't dare summon the aloof administrator. Soon he was surrounded by a bunch of filthy, rich tourists that squinted at the daylight and began dusting one another off. Many had remnants of morning offerings in their hair. Now cars and mopeds came to a halt, their drivers gaping at the spectacle unfolding before their eyes. At Murni's a makeshift triage station was established for tourists with scrapes and bruises and those unable to walk. Weakly waving their credit cards they ordered coffee and cake for themselves and ice cream and soda for the kids that had been clamoring for them day after day, or rather, night after night, because that's how it had felt, being buried under the sidewalks.
It wasn't long before the police commissioner showed up with a couple of traffic cops in tow that began blowing their whistles and swinging their arms as only traffic cops can.

Now that the cat was out of the bag, or rather the tourists out from under the sidewalk, the gathered Balinese started talking about who was to blame as a few able-bodied tourists took them to the holes in the sidewalk that had swallowed them. When one claimed that the Ubud sidewalks looked as bad as they had 17 years earlier during his first visit it began to dawn on some that the ones responsible were each and everyone of them. They had just accepted a bad situation as the way it was and likely would always be, not thinking that it would get worse.
That is until someone uttered the word, "Karma."
Hearing that Ketut, who had momentarily stopped lifting tourists out of the sidewalk with his formidable arms in order to wipe the sweat off of his brow, found the courage to address the passive onlookers. "Brothers... and sisters," he said upon discovering his wife's face in the crowd, and he spread his arms out wide. "We ought to be ashamed of ourselves." At once it was so quiet you could hear a palm frond fall noisily, birds sing in the trees, and the river rushing under the bridge—sounds usually muted by traffic noises.
"We've taken these tourists for granted, thinking they'll always be there. We lined our pockets, sent our children to universities, built big compounds and homestay bungalows, started importing goods from Java while telling tourists we were making them ourselves, and to express our thanks for all the wealth, good health, and the grace the Gods bestowed on us we began to neglect the very fabric that brought these people to our doorsteps, the sidewalks on which they ought to walk safely without risk for life and limb. While we grew fat and lethargic we were undermining the very core of our being, our faith, by not caring anymore."
At this point Ketut looked lost as he saw everyone staring at him stupidly, but then someone started to clap her hands, a frail, elderly tourist in a torn dress and a Balinese hat who understood some Bahassa. Others joined in and soon everyone was putting their hands together and bowing to Ketut. He caught his wife's wide smile as she looked proudly at her husband. Seeing a new determination spread among his people Ketut mumbled, "Balinese are the best." Someone grabbed him by one of his formidable legs and he was hoisted up on his several shoulders and together with the freed tourists a spontaneous procession began that ended at Banjar Kutuh Kaja. People went home and quickly changed into their best garments, musicians gathered their instruments, and soon gamelan music united everyone, dirty tourists and impeccably dressed Balinese, and even the dogs barked with new-found fervor.

THE END, but not entirely. See my pictures of Ubud sidewalks here.

Saturday, February 19, 2011


©2009 Rudolf Helder
The girl that gave him a foot massage and pedicure was young, maybe 24, lean and with supple skin. The way she sat, in the way of the locals, more like a squat on a low kind of upturned bucket, he could see some belly fat which surprised him considering the way she was built. Maybe older than he thought. You'd never know with Asians. Maybe a mother already. They liked to start young.
The girl looked up with a quick movement of her head, caught him staring down her neckline. Smiled. Vapid eyes. Customarily. No expectations. Just doing her work, which was well what was it? Soaking his feet and scraping dirt away from under his toenails. Some job. He looked at his legs, a scarecrow's sun-bleached fake limbs, pale and veined coming out from under his rolled back pants. Shit. It'll take a while to get tanned here in Ubud. Wasn't Kuta Beach where most tourists hung out. He'd been there, years ago. Maybe seventeen. Over here, Ubud, they'd come for the day to marvel at the architecture of the Balinese, their crafts, carving and painting, not much else, certainly not foot massages.
He was still staring at the girl, trying to get a peek at her small breasts that didn't need a bra, which she wore anyway like every woman he'd seen so far, not like the first time he learned about Bali as a boy, sneaking a peek at a book in his big sister's library—more a bookshelf, actually—called what? The Family of Man, a collection of nice black and whites from around the world, in which one showed a young Balinese woman with fantastically formed bare breasts balancing a basket on her head, talking to an old Chinese-looking man in a market. The fact that the girl was half naked in public, that that was normal there and that the Chinese guy was looking at her face as she was saying something to him, not at her full breasts with nipples you just wanted between your lips to drink milk from, which he now thought was probably what they were for back then, not be put away in a bra, but for nourishment, with babies just flying out of their wombs, at least that's what people said back then, talking about the yellow peril, that one day Asians would overrun the world, that there were millions and millions of them breeding more all the time. Talk that made them faceless, subhuman and scary to think of when you're just a kid sneaking a peek at boobs in a book.
Now he knew better. He'd been coming to Asia for years. Maybe because of the succulent breasts he'd seen as a boy in pictures from Thailand, Burma, Vietnam, Philippines, but mostly Indonesia because, after all, they'd owned the country for 350 years. Did she even know that, or cared about that, that her ancestors were maybe forced to give foot baths to the Blanda, the colonial occupiers, coming from a country of a few million, ruling over some 350 million on thousands of islands? Insane. Crazy lot the Dutch were, or rather, had been, killing their kings, imprisoning them, or driving them to suicide, whole courts walking into a hail of Dutch bullets.
When you walk around bare breasted pride is all you have and pride they had plenty, the blue ones, as the Dutch called 'em then, supposedly for the blue spot Asians have at birth at the bottom of the spine.
The blue ones.
Then two Indonesian boys took that nickname and started a musical duo proudly called The  Blue Diamonds. Clever. He smiled. The girl in front of him wore looked up and smiled back adding life to her eyes, making them prettier. She was wearing hip jeans, made for a body like hers, a disastrous idea for anyone with excess weight which nowadays was, like, everyone. While preparing for her task she'd frequently bent down exposing the cleavage of shapely butt cheeks with just a remaining tinge of blue skin. He liked the sight of it, stared absentmindedly at it, because she was the most interesting thing in the room, everything else devoid of inspiration: the windless banner in the doorway limply advertising the price of treatment, the cheap Chinese fan in a corner rattling faintly, the customary Balinese mask with bulging eyes on the green paint blistering wall, even the looped gamelan music coming from a silver painted speakerbox sitting on a black couch with leather cracking at the edges.
Now she turned her head up, as if remembering something. Looked at him inquisitively. Fuck. He knew that look.
Siapa nama? You name?
John, he lied. She couldn't pronounce his name anyway. John was convenient, expected, inconsequential.
You? He cared as much as she pretended to.
Mah-deh. Sure. Meant something like first born, or second born, and so on. Read about it. Couldn't remember the correct order. Stupid system. After the fourth child they started the whole naming system all over again. Imagine that, your fifth child would have the same name as the first. He smiled, repeating the name. Made. She smiled, bowed her head and scooped water over his ankles with her long, strong, perfectly formed fingers.


©1994 Rudolf Helder
Made was talking to Wayan when Sari called her for a foot massage. Sari'd just given some guy a haircut. Military style. Really the only one she knew how to. Foreigners liked it because it was hot, temperature-wise that is. This guy no different and all the same to her—the new foot bath specialist. She didn't like giving foot baths, but bills needed to be paid and Ketut had gotten her pregnant again. Hopefully a girl this time. Wayan was a handful. Always getting in trouble as boys do. Girls were easier. She could've gone to Kuta, work in a hotel come home weekends. The money'd been better. In Ubud most jobs were taken. She didn't want to end up walking up and down Jalan Raya Ubud with her breast hanging out, baby in a sling, tot teetering behind her, holding out her hand because Ketut had crashed their moped, hurt his foot and lost his job waiting tables up on Jalan Tegallalang where tourists stopped to photograph rice terraces, where the government had killed their business selling sarongs because they'd set up shop right in the middle of the padi. Seemed smart, but tourists complained. Wanted the view clear of business. Good luck with that! When the foot bath job had come along she'd taken it. The other girls had uniforms, she didn't. That's how shitty her job was. The Chinese boss had not even wanted to try her out, but Sari was getting older, fatter, didn't want to always squat anymore. Learned to cut hair. Badly, but the foreigners didn't complain. To them Bali was cheap. She looked up at the guy's haircut. Uneven, like she expected. Caught him looking down her blouse. She smiled. Not much there with her knees pressed against her chest.
She should say something. Make small talk. They tipped you for that Sari said. Easy for Sari. Chatted all day long. She only knew five words. Then Melati. Had come from Bandung. Spoke Ingris so easily. Even had foreigner boyfriends, because she was Catholic she could. One Australia. One UK. One America. If true! She never shut up about it. Not much else to talk about anyway. Boyfriends! She never had one, except Ketut, but they knew each other from the Banjar. Didn't even date. Just marry, then pregnant and now again.
Siapa nama? You name?
Sure! John. Most common name, like Made or Ketut.
Melati walked in, finished massage. Going out for a smoke, sit on her moped, talk to tourists, saying, How about relaxing massage, everything included? Winks, laughs. Javanese girls are easy, especially Bandung, is what she says. You'd believe it, how she brings them in by the elbow and she's not even a woman. Had sex change in Singapore but hair on her lip keeps growing back. Still prettier than Sari. Chinese boss thought Melati be good for business. Tried her out. Many tourists like happy ending. Maybe this guy John too.
You try, she said. Melati very good. Many come back for her.
I bet, he said, but she didn't know what that meant so she smiled and scooped water over his ankles.

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Monday, February 14, 2011

Terimah Kasih

©1997 "Fallen" by Rudolf Helder
As I write this I'm having a foot massage. I hesitated writing "Balinese" foot massage, because whatever that would be, that's not what this is. I've had better in Thailand and Vietnam. I can't blame the young man pretending doing his best right now with stealthy glances at the clock, and I can't blame the blasé tourists for having jacked up the prices of everything except bottled water and laundry. Unlike the Thai and Vietnamese the Balinese simply don't have to work that hard anymore to earn our business. There's simply too many of us foreigners here, even in the off-season.
Another thing that may play a roll in my assessment of the pussyfooting I'm undergoing is the love that's going around. Of course, one cannot consider that necessarily a bad thing, especially if you're coming from the US, where it's merely a word, not a practice to be bestowed on your fellow (wo)man. That's definitely different in Indonesia, where the word for love, "kasih," even made it into the expression for thank you: terimah kasih. Indeed, respect for your neighbor, or the person next to you, is a basic law that governs all interaction and by extension all living things although dogs seem to be largely exempt, probably due to some karmic curse they'll just have to live with in their current incarnation.

Which brings me to today's cremation ceremony, part of which I witnessed earlier. Two huge, black, paper bulls with a single man on top were being carried on large, heavy platforms of thick bamboo poles, followed by another one with a tall, ornately decorated tower of paper and wood. Hundreds of strong men carry the platforms down the main street and up the road to the temple. Three distinguished gentlemen, their framed pictures carried in front, were dug up for the event and placed inside the paper structures for violent jostling and water hosing (the latter courtesy of the Ubud fire department, leading the procession with spouting water canon). The purpose of all this is to confuse evil spirits that might otherwise come along for the ride to the afterlife. The three gentlemen's earthly journey will end this afternoon in purifying flames.

Watching this circus the question forms: "What do we do it all for? What's the purpose of life? My life?"
Of course, we like to think that it is oh so valuable, that what we do has merit, because in the short run we provide for shelter and food, and in the long run for our offspring and/or old age. The work we do, the women and men we live with, the compromises we make, our defining decisions, none of it is so significant that it can't be contained in a moment's reflection, and none of it provides an answer.

In reality, we do not matter. Oprah doesn't matter, Obama doesn't matter,  Osama doesn't matter, the Pope doesn't matter, green energy doesn't matter, eating organic doesn't matter. Nothing matters. You don't matter. I don't matter.
It doesn't even matter that that's the secret we're never told, but deep inside we've known this for quite a while, and it probably has depressed many in a society that's all about entitlement, success, and self promotion.
Of course, ours is to live the life we aspire to, but unfortunately we trade-in dignity, trade-in time for money, and money for more and more stuff, often acting as not much more than an extension of various powers and corporations that thrive on our proclivity to belong to something greater than ourselves, whose badges we wear proudly, from the nation's flag to Abercrombie & Fitch and BMW gear, or, as I see here sometimes, one can have nothing, but still have one's dignity.

Death will come to us all, either we're fallen angels or distinguished members of the community. In the mean time (I say silently to the young man holding my foot in his hand), put your heart and soul into what you do, and if you don't like what you do, find something else that you love doing, because when you find love in what you do it doesn't matter what it is. Love, in any form, will transcend beyond the limitation of life span. Things that have been preserved from the past, art, buildings, poetry, teach us that love for someone's trade can turn into something that is tangible, and when you are touched by it, you smile and form the words in your language for "Terimah Kasih."

Friday, February 11, 2011

Outsider Insight

©2011 Rudolf Helder
A good portion of my life I've been an outsider. It's a position I'm familiar with ever since I moved as a ten year-old from a small village in Holland to the big city: Amsterdam. Playing cowboys and Indians changed abruptly into kissing girls and fighting boys from the street behind mine for territory.
Often there's fighting involved, either physically or mentally, to change one's outsider status to that of insider. In Amsterdam I fought one battle after another, making my mother doubt the wisdom of moving right after my father had died, as she sewed back on buttons some kid had ripped off my shirt.
But what was done couldn't be reversed. I was being called names on the street and made fun of in school for being a farmer's boy, which I wasn't. Tell that to the big city folks who look at anyone not from a big city as having been yanked out of the mud. Stereotypes abound. I fought them all, and increasingly with my tongue, which proved mightier than the proverbial sword, as I found that I could cut down bullies just by making the girls in class laugh. But even that was a delicate dance I found out one day when the class bully knocked over my ink well on purpose after which I punched him in the grimacing face as he turned around to savor the sight of the spill.
"I'll get you for that," he said, the sound muffled by his hands trying to stop the flow of blood from his nose. "At 4."
All afternoon I trembled with fear. At 4pm I reluctantly and sheepishly surveyed the schoolyard from the school's steps. No one was waiting for me, except a skinny girl with glasses I'd barely noticed in class before. She said it was awesome what I had done and we walked direction home together. Turned out she lived in the street behind me, one her hero didn't dare enter without some buddies.
It was only years later that I begun to realize that all my fights had been for acceptance. That was shortly after I had floored a so-called friend in a disco who had the nasty habit of punching me in the stomach whenever I expected it the least. We'd lost track of each other after school, but when he suddenly stood in front of me on the dance floor, flanked by two girls, and stuck his hand out I bypassed it in a reflex and punched him in the gut. Not hard. Just for fun. He went down, turning into a heap of pale skin and awkwardly composited arms and legs. One of the girls snapped, "How could you? He just had a stomach operation!"
Karma's a bitch.
After that incident I changed my ways, at least to some extend. Physical altercations became a thing of the past. Instead I tried to understand others, rather than triumph over them intellectually or otherwise. I've not always been successful and my outspokenness has irked plenty of people who prefer to be treated with gloves. The losers.
Oops, there I go again.
Anyway, maybe I'm finally beginning to get it right. After Amsterdam I moved several more times, sometimes to other countries, sometimes to other cultures, like the office culture, teaching culture, the publishing world, the art world, the music world, exploring the artist in me, the musician, the writer,  the businessman, always the outsider, at least at first until I earned some recognition for my efforts.
I still fight to understand what makes a place different, the people an almost different species, and alien habits and customs worth giving a try. I've now carried the fight to Bali, where I understand little, where the people are gentle and quick to laugh, where no one seems to want to sucker punch me, and most of all where they make me feel welcome as if they don't see a stranger in front of them, but just another person, another soul seeking acceptance. The hardening I've undergone for so long is almost reluctantly beginning to curl back, like the petals of a flower turning to the sun. Hawaii never did that to me, in spite of all the elements being present it's a tough world to break into. Maybe Bali can force me to surrender.
As the saying goes, it's not the man in the fight that counts, but the fight in the man. Right now I'm out for the count. What bliss!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Mendengarkan (listen)

©2011 Rudolf Helder
Listen. No, really, do yourself a solid with this one. Listen for a little while to nature itself. Mother Earth it's called. Spaceship Earth. Call it what you want, the void outside the window. Turn off any audio equipment, the air conditioner, the friggin' fridge, your freakin' phone, and listen. It's a symphony out there, or a cacophony if you will, of bird calls, chirping crickets, crowing cocks, burping frogs, and faraway barking dogs among a million other sounds down to the flapping of butterfly wings and the curses of dung beetles. If you listen attentively, all the noises our busy lives produce are filtered out by these natural sounds.
I just rediscovered this. Rediscovering is what Columbus did when he returned to America and found that everything had changed.
Like me, instead in Bali.
Recently, in Honolulu, a woman was arraigned in court for killing a peacock with a baseball bat. The free roaming birds in her compound interfered with Oprah and the commercials for hemorrhoids and one day she  snapped. The prosecutor had no other laws he could invoke than cruelty to an animal, which she contested because the bird had died instantly. Her lawyer had entered a no-guilty plea for reason of temporary insanity. She was acquitted.
In a nutshell, that's the insanity I escaped, or rather exchanged for the sanity that is Bali, which is a crazy place. In our Western eyes cruelty to animals is despicable and rampant in Asia, where they eat animals we keep as pets. We always want to be the ones who know what's best, but we don't want to talk about a meat industry giant like Tyson because whenever their soon expiring drumsticks go on sale we scoop them up, addicted as we are to tranquilized poultry and drugged cattle that are butchered conveyor-belt style by human robots. It's easier to get upset about a few squatting sinewy Asian farmers next to a cage with yummy puppies at a village market as seen through some sweaty tourist's camera.
Westerners, and perhaps city folks in general are so removed from what living in a close-knit community and interacting with an immediate environment is like, that the fact that they breed loners with baseball bats and mentally challenged with access to guns, both slowly going berserk on slime squeezed into their living rooms and cars by lunatics like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh is merely an unwelcome side effect of the fact that we no longer know how to distinguish between separate realities.
Over here, in Ubud, where mopeds and motorbikes, cars and buses churn around Monkey Forest Road in an insane maelstrom of cacophonic noise and nauseating exhaust, you're always just a few steps away from the sounds of chattering schoolchildren on their way home from school, cackling geese, a fast rushing stream near the rice fields, a softly clanging bamboo wind chime, an unseen child practicing violin, and the symphony of silence I mentioned at the beginning. Quiet is an avalanche of sounds.
Just step off the road, listen, and you will be presented with your true sane self. You don't have to be in Bali for that, but somehow I forgot.

First Impressions Last

©2011 Rudolf Helder
What have I learned these first few days in Bali? First, the people are just wonderful, which I knew and which has drawn me to this island for a long time. They smile at every opportunity and I'm smiling back. Almost forgot how to, what a shame.
What I haven't forgotten after nearly twenty years is the language,and words and expressions are flowing back into my consciousness surprisingly effortlessly, as if I have been rehearsing them in my dreams. I'm very happy about that because knowing a language is the key to understanding everything. Not that I pretend that whatever few words I know are going to unlock the mystery that Bali is, but this afternoon I was joking with two waitresses in a small restaurant in the middle of the rice fields and one of them told the other that I was "lucu," or funny, and the fact that I picked that up gave a roundness to the afternoon, a sense that, like Monkey Kong, I had completed a level and maybe I can move one up. We'll see.
But, I'm noticing something that tourism has brought along: the people are less interested in their work. While before dedication went into everything they did, a more lackluster attitude has taken over. Yesterday I had to straighten a painting in the restaurant where I had lunch, which the waitress, who had been working there for five years, failed to notice hung lopsided. Seriously lopsided, or I wouldn't have bothered. There are other indications. In my bungalow there was no soap, no drinking water, and no mosquito coils present. At another restaurant table cloths were dirty and the forks bent. Yet, Bali is no longer cheap and compared to my previous stays prices have at least quadrupled. There's money being made, but at the cost of attention to detail. We all know, that's the beginning of the end.
Another thing I'm finding out is that people don't advance in position. For example, Arsana, who recognized me after twenty years when I returned to his place of work, is still doing the same. His boss should have made him manager a long time ago. He will die as a driver, groundskeeper, guest confidant, and repairman, all tasks younger men could be doing. Does he belong to a lower caste? Could that be the reason? I'll find out.
With the continuously expanding numbers of tourists Ubud's infrastructure is cracking at the seams. Literally. It's easy to imagine incapable administrators behind the potholes in the roads and sidewalks, both to be maneuvered with utmost attention. Why some of that tourist income is not being used to make improvements is a question even a child could come up with.
In a way I'm glad to see through the gloss quickly so as not to be romantically naive with Bali, as I probably was when I arrived in Hawaii 23 years ago. So, what am I going to do here one might ask, if I'm not going to be a tourist and can't stay unless I marry a local or commit a serious crime?
The answer, my friend, is blowing in a soothing breeze that carries hints of hibiscus, plumeria, and coconut. Why, I've stood at the same crossroads before, inhaling the same intoxicating mix of perfumes...

Saturday, February 5, 2011


©2011 Rudolf Helder
Today I'm "sakit." Sick. Don't know why. I just am. A few things may have contributed. Leaving, as the French say, "est mourir un peu," and they're not talking about "the little death."
In my case, the last month in Honolulu had been exhausting.

"Aren't you excited to go to Bali?" asked several friends who'd probably given an arm or a leg (not both, I know them) to up and leave in my stead. Indeed, several months in Bali doesn't sound so bad, not even to those living in paradise, as we Hawaiians like to call Hawaii. No, I wasn't excited and I didn't know even how that feels anymore, living in today's world of unlimited possibilities and fast jet travel. I already knew I could get there in little over 24 hours. It isn't exactly an undertaking like traveling around the world in a balloon, a papyrus raft, or a solar car. Thàt I'd be excited about.

In my case it was more a matter of getting it over with, the selling of broken belongings, the shredding of sensitive documents from my FBI informant days, the burying of loot under a tree somewhere I wouldn't forget. Indeed, these were all timed procedures, and if executed well within the timeframe I'd set for myself I'd automatically be ejected upon logistical completion.

But when that moment came I was depleted. Lacking a bed to sleep in I became dependent on the goodness of strangers. Well, not really, just a friend who's a little strange. So, when I boarded flight UA 873, or one with a similar sounding name, I'd become a little weak in the knees.
Imagine, the total weight of what was in my house had passed through my hands, from feather light to fucking heavy.

It began with an extreme allergy on the plane. Running nose, itchy throat, watery eyes. I knew my immune system was, as Dick Cheney would call it, in its last throes, although who knows, it could have been its first throes.
Anyway, throes and throat were in cahoots. And my only weapon of mass destruction was an antihistamine bought at an airport shop in Bangkok, manufactured by an American company I'd never heard of, but luckily extensively tested on animals that had experienced side effects such as vomiting, headaches (how'd they know?), and stomach ulcers. Aren't humans animals too? If you want you can get away with anything.

Long flight short, in a mini bus on the way from Denpasar airport to Ubud I had become physically frail, just no spitting image at all of my former robust self. When Trishna, the driver to whom I had been serenading all the Hare Krishna songs I know--realizing my mistake when he handed me his card later--made a wrong turn into Monkey Forest Rd, I knew the end was near. My end, not the trip's, as throngs of cars, moped, buses and walking tourists were reinventing American politics gridlock in traffic form. Maybe the word even comes from that, but who knows (for sure)?
By that time it had become abundantly clear that the nasi goreng I'd quickly eaten at the airport may had something to do with the worsening of my situation, but being forced to suck it back up my spine while stuck in traffic was contradictory to what my body was telling me, and I translate liberally: Mon, let's get the fuck to a toilet! Like, NOW!
Well, I couldn't obey nature's call. To my own credit I did run a few scenarios where I'd kick the door open, rush past a coffeeshop counter straight to the bathroom and exploding in privacy, but none of them seemed, well, doable without getting arrested less than an hour of touching down in Denpasar.
So I held it.

The body is a strange thing that we inhabit. We know our bodies to some extend, like we know it has a backside, but when was the last time you examined it? My point is, there's all kind of things going on in our vehicle of which we are supposedly the captain, high and dry in the cockpit, that we have no clue about. To exhaust the analogy of the pilot further, here's a gal or guy, who knows what she or he's doing while kicking the tires pre-flight, while most of us have simply no idea what goes on in our ever forward moving mobile.
While awaiting arrival I had time to visualize the worst: rapturing spleens, collapsing kidneys, intestinal knotting, billowing bile, and for good measure, tide pools of puss, all clearly contaminated with hastily chewed nasi goreng that had not even tasted good (which should have been a clear indicator of its value as food and stopped me).

Anyway, by the time I completed my tight-assed walk to my bungalow and stuck the key in the lock with quivering fingers I had become fully aware of major damage to several organs, something that became even more obvious when I had to flush a few extra times...

And that was only the beginning.

All of today was spent in the greatest discomfort, just the Bali experience everyone thought I'd be so excited about, but the good news is that it's going to be better--eventually. If not, this may be the last post you'll ever read from me, but don't hold your breath. Better yet, do what I've been doing, hold your nose.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Father O'Blivion

I considered myself lucky. The first leg of my flight from America I was given first class and for a while I was suspended in the deep, satisfying, oblivion airline brochures speak of. It wasn't free, but the bill would come later. However, on the following leg of my trip I'm  sitting in steerage among the great unwashed, or rather the restless. In first class there's no need to get up, other than to go to the bathroom or just pass a fart because your co-passengers sit a mile away, but here, in coach, you get up just to be free. Free of your neighbor, free of the seat that instead of affording you comfort pains you left and right and pushes your head forward where it should be yielding back, so you can take a goddamn nap.
The elderly guy next to me has been elbowing me for at least an hour, shifting continuously in an effort to find comfort. I don't even try. I just sit  and practice "discomfort control", a kind of yoga I developed over the years. I think its what fakirs on nail beds practice, a secret stance that allows one to bring most everything to a stop, except thought. Thought is what keeps me interested. I never quite understood the idea of meditation, where one would cease to exist, only to find oneself watching oneself from above, suspended in inertia. How boring is that? No, floating on one's thoughts, like right now provides the stuff stories are made of, or inventions, ideas that can't be swept under the rug of timelessness. Oh, yes, we're all one, but the old guy next to me expresses that by invading my space with his elbow. I don't want to be one with him. He sleeps with his mouth hanging open to one side and has one eye that stays open. Not pretty.
So, in a way you might say that coach creates more introspection than first class. So be it. Don't think there's much use for my thoughts but I write them down nonetheless.
Oh, now the old guy's awake and holding a Kindle. How about that! He has joined the digerati. Give him credit for that. Probably a gift from his granddaughter who otherwise wouldn't know what to get the old guy. Tell me about it. I'm totally Mr. Dig-it-all myself, iPod-connected, iPhone in pocket, plus a hard drive, camera, and this iPad I'm writing on, all in a small vest I'm beginning to love for allowing me to ditch the murse, the man-bag I otherwise would have to lug around.
All my gear is about the smallest currently available, and still it weighs a ton after 30 minutes. I'm dreaming of a iPhone 5, or 6, some future model Steve Jobs is probably perusing right now in his aqualung or whatever it is he waits around in while watching his own dialysis.
I'm so glad Steve Jobs doesn't meditate.

Steve Jobs is sick. I'm sure Matt Groening can't wait for his screen-test imagining future episodes of Futurama, where Steve can play a disembodied head next to that of Nixon (previous sentence is only for folks who know what I'm talking about). The future is already present in a world where prognosis and procrastination dictate a tomorrow where nothing is the way it was, or will be better, except for the gadgets through which we helplessly try to connect with ourselves and our base. It's all in vain. You may be Steve Jobs, brilliant and futuristic, but you're going to die yelling for your mommy, or god-forbid, Bill Gates.
What pathetic lives we live. And here, in the air, high above it all, of all places, we temporarily coexist in the vacuum of a pressurized cabin, shaped like a salami with barely more worth were we to hit the ground a little too hard.
I'm the first to admit that I have contributed little more to this world than helping populate it with one more inhabitant. Although I wish my son all the best, a rightful position in society, recognition for his talents, and gobs of love and happiness, our worth as a species has become highly questionable in my mind. We're all expendable and if not for some tv cartoon going to make fun of us years into the future we'll soon be forgotten, no matter what our accomplishments were.
And see, exactly those kind of thoughts I wasn't having in first class. That's why I considered myself lucky, no matter what class I fly. Oblivion to the rescue.


Reflecting a bit more on the idea that in America violence is too often called on as a first response I like to touch on the current pending overthrow of the Egyptian government under Mubarak, a dictator who could only tighten his grip on society because the US was backing him to the tune of making his Israel-friendly regime the greatest recipient of foreign aid. Of course, in this case violence is not direct, but rather almost invisible as the people experience it by extension, by being subjected to harsh laws and treatment of their own government with the blessing of the US who sees no problem in selling Mubarak the teargas canisters as recently held up in a protester's hand, with the "Made in America" label clearly to see for the world.
When Saddam Hussein, another dictator buoyed by the US, started behaving as a bully, the US did little more than acting as a bully itself, trashing Iraq and killing tens of thousands of innocents, or causing their displacement, just to evict one bully from his throne by unleashing a shock and awe campaign the likes of which the world had not yet seen. I'm not saying Saddam was a nice guy, but he wasn't involved in flying airplanes into the World Trade Center. In response to 9/11 the US invaded Afghanistan after carpet-bombing it for weeks with daisy-cutter bombs. I'm not saying the Taliban are nice people, but they were not the ones flying into the twin towers and the Pentagon, and the one who supposedly was behind it was given a free ride to Pakistan, actions which are as questionable as the multiple reasons behind invading these countries rich in oil as they are.
Is there actually anything wrong with letting things be sometimes? Apparently, if you are the US, you cannot. All options are always on the table, including nuclear.
Just days before I left Honolulu I was in my almost empty house with my girlfriend when some bully tried to come in to "kick my ass." He was a big guy in his late thirties, overweight to the point of morbid obesity, who used his weight to shake the wooden house as he flung himself against the wall. I stood in the front room, holding a knife behind my back, calling 911 with my other hand, telling him he'd be a dead man if he dared come in through the screen door he had opened halfway. How did I get into that situation, and how did I get out of it?
One of the items I had posted on Craigslist was my Apple eMac. Someone had called me while I was away and I had rushed home to sell it to him. I had placed it on the floor, powered it up, and the start screen's blue light illuminated the now mostly empty room when the guy pulled up in a Hummer. I went outside to meet him. He seemed nice enough, wanted the Mac for his 5 year-old daughter, and paid me the money right away. I asked him if he didn't want to see the Mac as I had set it up for him. Just put it on the backseat he said, opening the door.
I don't know about this guy, I told my girlfriend after the transaction. I had a strange feeling about him, like when food in the fridge has been there a long time but still looks good, you know it's not going to taste fresh. He was off, with his weight, his Hummer, and his quick transaction. Something didn't smell right.
Close to midnight he called, not once, but 7 times. I missed the first call and was listening to the message he'd left when the next call came in. "You fucking prick, I'm going to rip your fucking head off and kick your fucking ass if you don't call me right back, asshole. You sold me a fucking computer that doesn't even turn on!"
We were already in bed. "Don't call him back," my girlfriend said. He sounds like he's drunk or something. Exactly my idea. Maybe he was high on meth. We went to sleep, but after I had mulled over the vulnerability I exposed us to by using a service like Craigslist. The next morning his Hummer was in front of the house and he called me out, using nothing but profanity.
When the police came he turned all soft, becoming the doting father, making me a Craigslist scammer, something the nice policeman on my front step seemed to give the benefit of the doubt to. How I wanted to resolve it? Me? For a while I remained the righteously wronged party, weighing my options to charge him with terrorist threatening, as suggested by the police who kept us at safe distance, until reason set in and I reached in my pocket and walked to the bully with the 100 bucks in my hand he had paid.
"You can have your money back, but only if you withdraw your threats in front of these policemen and promise not to come back here. If you do I will have you arrested."
We shook hands on it and he left. I didn't want the eMac back because apparently it had stopped working or not and he didn't know how to turn it on, and I didn't want to see him back with his particular style of dealing with people. I didn't feel good about the deal, but sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, and I reasoned I'd gain a lot more by making him go away.
Did I want to follow him and burn his house down with everyone inside? Of course, because I was mad and full of revenge, until it dissipated.
The thought I'm having today is that a big country like America can also hold a knife behind its back, but you don't always have to start stabbing and burning houses down with inhabitants whose fight it isn't.
My girlfriend said that even bullies have a code, a code of the street, and that our handshake meant something to him.  Maybe she's right. I was glad she was there to give him a bit of a human face. That's something that seems to be absent in congress every time America is called out by a stupid, simple minded bully.


©2011 Rudolf Helder
The first surprise I had in Bali was one that sent me straight back to the airport building I had just walked out of. Apparently the money I had kept from my previous visit was no longer current and one of the money changers whose soliciting I had earlier waved off by saying, "Sudah ada uang," or, "I already have Indonesian money" quickly painted on a smile when I stuck out a hundred dollar bill. Rp 8,700.000. Already I was getting 200,000 less than in the street, but the street was just what I had been negotiating a few minutes earlier with the cab driver, or rather, the distance from the airport to Ubud.
Of course, I could've gone to Kuta for a few days, which would've been cheaper, but its hustle and bustle plus looking for accommodation at a time when thousands of Chinese had descended on the town to celebrate Chinese new year, not to mention hordes of beer-guzzling Australians, wasn't my idea of reacquainting myself with Bali.

Big flying black ants were.

These appeared to have overtaken the room I'd rented across the river just outside of Ubud when I turned the light on for a midnight trip to the bathroom. The bathroom itself had attracted me when I inspected the small bungalow I had rented many years ago at Taman Indrakila, a place with a stunning view of Ubud's surrounding landscape. The bathroom had a completely open window with access to a small pool in which tiny fish lived whose job it is to eat the eggs mosquitoes lay in the water. Earlier I had enjoyed a cup of coffee on my veranda as a worker swept the grounds and I let the sounds and sights seep back into a region of myself the Indonesians have a single word for, "senang," meaning something like "a feeling of universal happiness, of being at ease with one's surroundings."
I was, until the flying ants turned up.
Not that I was too dismayed. They're Balinese and I am the invader of their territory by definition, but that rationale didn't make mankind advance to the top of the food chain, but starting the eradication of a swarm of unknown proportions seemed futile in advance. After I determined they weren't the biting kind I went back to bed.

I got up at 6, just when the sun began airbrushing heavy low hanging gray blue clouds with bursts of orange against which palm trees formed black quick-scissored paper cutout shapes. As I watched this "pemandangan," or landscape, a young Balinese woman appeared and placed a can with tea on the table in front of my bungalow.
"Selamat pagi."
Good morning Bali.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Wild West Exit

Today I exited the United States, and perhaps for good. Next time I may return as a visitor. For a long time I have not been happy with America's politics, neither at home nor abroad, as it seems that no matter which political side is in power, war, economic mismanagement, and disregard for human life is the norm, even if those are US citizens (not talking about crazy abortion activists). It's now a fact that foreign war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan approach an involvement lasting twice as long as WWII, with new war plans being concocted by the Pentagon that seek to control strategic oil reserves, strategic mineral mining, and as usual, supporting regimes and dictators that treat their citizens in ways supposedly contradictory to how the US treats its own citizens, but in actuality are more similar than different, which may explain it. The gradual militarization of the US, by way of militias and their spokespeople, the emergence of the Tea Party, idiots like Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck being taken serious, and laws that allow citizens to carry weapons, even to political meetings where the president appears or the recent carnage in Arizona reflect more the days of the Wild West than a society that has developed into a peaceful and emphatic body, seeking solutions for problems of magnitude that threaten the health and very future of the Nation, unless one remains stoic about the oncoming changes in weather patterns, rising sea levels, river levels, and the resulting mass migrations as areas fall victim to flooding, erosion, and loss of industry and livelihood.
Not many seem concerned with that as most limit their already clipped attention span with what's being discussed by Oprah, or Whoopy, or Glenn Beck, that is, if one's not too busy twittering or facebooking, both the epitome of self-congratulatory backslapping nitwittery, and hardly indicative of sharing ideas worth pondering.
And so, feeling increasingly isolated, misunderstood, ridiculed, and disappointed in the direction things are heading I could only come to one conclusion: sell everything, hop on a plane, and make a fresh start elsewhere, perhaps ahead of the throngs...
And so, writing this finds me on a plane heading for Indonesia, a destination presented by destiny on a day when I learned of the end of my home's lease as well as of a friend's offer to dwell a while in her house in Bali, which would become available around the same time.
I am not expecting to find Shangrilah there, rather just a different place with different people, different customs, and possibly a different view of a world I was seeing more and more through pin holes in the blinders worn by the quintessential ugly American, a glutinous, obese, natural resource-devouring, multinational predator with a disdain for the French, Europeans, Russians, Africans, Asians, and Arabs, maybe even the Dutch, all of whom have either tasted its nuclear recipe or at one time or another have been deemed welcome to swallow it in the form of imagining their country turned into a parking lot. Let's say that the tough cowboy image America is relentlessly exporting was beginning to wear me down and I didn't want to end up like so many others, beaten down by bad news, seeking comfort in gated communities, watching cable shows and late night commercials selling more of the useless crap that's already oozing out of people's houses, finding refuge in giant self storage buildings springing up everywhere.
Oh, but wait, I did enlist a friend's help and squeezed a few boxes with photographs alongside the unused belongings he has stashed in storage for a modest monthly rent a third world family could live a whole year on. Much appreciated!
Other than that, everything else I own now fits in the overhead bin of the flight I'm on and under the chair in front of me. Oh, and I'm wearing a Scottevest, a piece of american ingenuity: a garment with 22 pockets that serves as a digital knapsack containing besides the iPad on which I type this, a 1Tb hard drive with all my personal and business files, pocket camera, iPhone, passport, a few thousand dollars in cash, and an inflatable neck pillow.
I know, it's not as romantic as being a young wide-eyed sheep herder in Paulo Coelho's Siddharta-like novel of travel, destiny, and fate, "The Alchemist," but we'll see how this turns out. I do know that all the trappings of a space age roman are here: ship adrift, new galaxies, black holes, and who knows, the chance to save the world and mankind, now that everyone else seems too preoccupied with doing nothing of the sort.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The onanistic experience...

After using Facebook for over a year I must conclude that it seems to heavily facilitate fostering relationships based on congratulatory responses, the absence of which—or expressed as critical commentary—results in discarding those that threaten the desired onanistic experience in which one's ego is constantly stroked in abbreviated outbursts of riskless and reciprocated approval.

Does pointless pandering for acceptance serve to silence doubts and dialog about our selfish and gluttonous behavior, questionable ethics, disastrous desire for wealth, and blatant disrespect for our talents and ability to create empathic relationships by recognizing our weaknesses and need for change and improvement?

Facebook reminds me of that castle under a spell, its inhabitants in a dream from which only a beautiful prince can awaken them. Oh, how I wish I were that prince instead of a frog...

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

You Sir, Are No Jimmy Carter!

Yes, may the real Jimmy Carter stand up. The venerable ex US President Jimmy Carter recently declared himself severed from the Southern Baptist Convention, an organization that couldn't distance itself any sooner from its past attitude towards slavery than 1995.

I pity those that need the words of Jimmy Carter to wake up to the notion that rational thinking is the enemy of religion and believe itself. Had he gone one step further he might as well have condemned the "Holy Scriptures" of the world as having been written by men if not perhaps with the singular aim to control women, but to enslave mankind itself with silly tales of virgin birth, talking snakes and burning bushes, all the way through to denying millions proper education, life-saving birth control, and the practice of free thought and freedom itself.
As much as I applaud Carter's long-delayed moment of clarity, the case for equality will not succeed as long as people are either born into a controlled environment of a singular belief system, forced to adopt one, or persecuted for having a different belief as these religions are more than cults, they have grown into massive mind-controlling powers that influence trade, governments, social life, and human interaction.
Carter's ascend to the club of Elders conjures up images of the wise men and women of the past who'd blow smoke up on youngsters' asses by relishing in the respect they hope to have earned by those that don't remember their youthful mistakes. So, yeah, we may listen respectfully when someone of stature makes an unexpected statement, like breaking with a splinter cell of the larger belief franchise, but until the same rationale is applied to those aspects of "Holy Scriptures" that don't (yet) fly in the face of currently fashionable conversation topics the liberation of women and logic will only pay lip service to those that hold the reins of the various clergies. By the very belief their foundation is based on they will delay any and all attempts to undermine it.
So, I humbly invite Jimmy Carter to put his thinking cap on once more and draw the only logical conclusion he can make when beginning to question why we need to be told what to believe by a "higher authority" that defies much, if not all, common sense, and when it comes to discrimination, decency.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

GLAAD Slams 'Bruno'

I went to see Brüno last night with my son and we laughed from beginning to end. Brüno does what many other comedies do, making fun of stereotypes, or use them to score a laugh. Sure, there will be anti-gay people lured into seeing this movie but it's them this movie makes fun of and they will only see themselves on screen.

As far as stereotypes go, gays are well aware of the kind of over-the-top Priscilla Of The Desert queen Brüno portrays, glimpses of which we recognize in Miss J (Tyra Bank's Next Top Model), or in some of Bravo's characters in Queer Eye, or Runway. Richard Simmons is another example of someone who takes "gayness" to the extreme and millions adore him and buy his tapes. You can hate Brüno and see him as someone who does a disservice to the gay community, but I think he succeeded in holding up a mirror to America and homophobia in general. As Brüno, Sacha Baron Cohen had the courage to even confront a known terrorist with his narrow minded world view. If anything, GLAAD should welcome the discussion and the opportunity to share their views, but making Brüno the bad gay, uh, guy only shows their lack of vision. At least Kazakhstan awarded Borat a prize for putting the country on the map...
Read the Article at HuffingtonPost

Saturday, June 6, 2009

All In Favor Of Many More Wars...

U.S. law enforcement officials say that more than a third of the cocaine smuggled into the United States from Colombia travels in submersibles.

An experimental oddity just two years ago, these strange semi-submarines are the cutting edge of drug trafficking today. They ferry hundreds of tons of cocaine over the Pacific Ocean route for most northbound shipments.

So, if the government, administration after administration, remains in the business of protecting its citizens with a War On Drugs at the tune of $20 Billion a year, thereby acting preventively with concern for the health of its citizens, why not extend the same policy by implementing a War On Cancer, or a War On HIV, or a War On Obesity, or a War On Overpriced Medication, or a War On Stupidity, or a War On Greed, or... you get the idea. There are many threats to our health and well-being but we've seen that the government cannot and will not interfere on our behalf, which is why we're in the mess we're in, health-wise, economy-wise, and otherwise. So, I suggest to either abandon the selective "War On Drugs" concept or extend it to all areas related to our well-being.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Vietnam Defeats America's Paranoia With 80 Million Smiles...

©2011 Rudolf Helder
This morning we arrived in Vietnam. While I had arranged for a visa to Vietnam for our party of three, Tiger Airways snatched at the last minute our carry-on bags from us and put them in the baggage hold. Because of that two of my companion's visa photographs were not available as they were in one of the bags. So, instead of entering Vietnam smoothly new pictures had to be taken, and as we discovered, with one of the immigration officers' personal camera. The money he charged went into his pocket, and we have a bet that the pictures never made it onto the visa applications... Oh, well...

Saigon, as the locals prefer calling Ho Chi Minh City, is a testament to the Asian mindset to see oneself as part of a greater whole rather than as an all-important self-indulgent individual. As an example traffic, even when it merges into opposite directions, like rivers that meet and continue in different streams, is an organic experience where everyone sways, nudges, accelerates and yields in order to allow others to advance in their respective directions. Think of all the scooters, mopeds, trucks, taxis, buses, and other vehicles like fishes in a school of fish that swirls around in one big floating ball in the ocean. They never hit each other, and are in perfect harmony as they move. We quickly learned to calmly walk at intersections through dense throngs of traffic that flowed around us uninterrupted. In Amsterdam, New York, or Rome where every driver has an ego as inflated as their tires you'd be dead...

At the time of this writing we sit in a small hotel in some back alley in the old section of Saigon that's decent for the price and has WiFi in the room, in stark contrast to Singapore where WiFi was practically unavailable and hotel rooms are crappy and expensive. The streets below offer great food for those daring enough to sit with the locals on 2/3 size plastic chairs and sample dishes with unknown names and content. As a reward for all the walking, flying, waiting, and sleeping slumped on chairs in a Singapore airport Starbucks we topped our day off with a full body massage at a parlor we stumbled upon. Reminiscent of Thai massage, Vietnamese massage added a for us new twist with the use of heated stones and intense knuckling of the foot soles that would have Dick Cheney and Shaun Hannity cry "torture!"

While the day had started bright and sunny and soon turned the city into a hot pot, it ended with crackling thunder and a steady sheet of rain, and a very welcome cooling off of the air.

After a few days of Saigon we set out to Hoi-An by way of a slow train that started in the evening and got us there by following noon. We shared a small cabin with a young man and his toothless grandmother who turned out to be his mother. The Hard Sleeper was the only configuration available to us, having missed out on the one-dollar-more-expensive Soft Sleeper. Three bunks were lined up on each side, the middle one made with a hinge so it could be pushed up, allowing for the bottom dweller to have his upper neighbors join him. Through AC vents in the ceiling descended at times horrendously strong cold air. Alas, we saved on a night's hotel expenditure, traveled while sleeping, and got to see the landscape and occasional station or little village whenever the train stopped, which it did from time to time. We got into a few battles in the gangway with a conductor who insisted we keep the window up through which we tried to take some pictures. Supposedly, we could get injured by stones that children throw at the train. None of that happened and we defended our unwritten right as travelers to aim our cameras at whatever strikes us as interesting.
As the train wormed its way through the rice fields and over rusty brown rivers I couldn't help but be reminded of films and pictures in which heavily armed American GI's trudge through Vietnam's lush landscape.

When morning came the Hard Sleeper had turned into the more appropriately termed Sleeping Hardly. Yet, we arrived reasonably energetic because a train as opposed to a plane allows for the stretching of the legs, although a walk to the latrine must be strongly discouraged a few hours into the journey...
In Hoi-An we located a charming little hotel by the name Thanh Xuan, where we got 2 rooms with fabulous bathrooms for $32 a night. Not per room, per both. Shutters on the windows, towels folded into swans with orchids on the bed, and more orchids in the bathroom.
The Vietnamese may not display the same tranquility and sensibility the Thai have incorporated into their contemporary interior design and decor products, but on the human side they make up for it with sheer friendliness and perhaps even gratitude that you favor their place over other destinations. It quickly becomes obvious that their standard of living is a few notches below that of Thailand—a country that never endured a setback in terms of a national war.

One thing the American War, as the Vietnam War here is called, teaches me at this point in time is that in spite of its devastating defeat here America continues to cultivate its paranoia with regard to other civilizations, their culture, religions, and political systems by invading countries, establishing military bases, and seeking regime change by installing puppet governments, or flat-out waging war on its inhabitants without knowing much about them, their situation, or their sentiments. Surely, the Vietcong in its days was seen as an insurgency that had to be stopped fueled as it was by communist doctrine, but just as today's mislabeled insurgents often revolt against a government whose legitimacy it can't accept, the Vietcong were fighting for freedom and reunification of a country that had been butchered to pieces by the Chinese, the French, the Japanese, and finally by the misguided American resolve to halt the advancement of Kremlin communism through no other method than sacrificing Vietnamese and American lives.

So, today Vietnam is communist, or socialist, as it prefers to be called, and if it wasn't for the political posters and prominent displays of Ho Chi Minh's portrait and name you'd never know it. There are no troops on the streets and even police appears absent. People are friendly, quick to smile or laugh, or engage in simple conversation. Shops and restaurants are well-stocked and appear open to all, and people go about their business on mopeds, scooters, motorbikes, and cars just like in any other Asian nation, making comparisons between Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, or the Philippines easy to draw without Vietnam ending up any gloomier, disadvantaged, repressed, or impoverished in a way that points to a brutal socialist regime. In fact, its people enjoy universal healthcare at affordable rates, 4-weeks of state-paid maternity leave, and not a single person or situation we encountered hinted at a repressing government.

Over the years, I've seen several documentaries on American TV in which returning GI's were brought to tears as they realized that the Vietnam War had been waged upon a kind, hard-working, and forgiving "enemy." Some have banded together and collect funds to help establish hospitals or do other good work in an attempt at war reparations on an individual scale, while the US government still gnashes its teeth and makes war reparations conditional to the recovery of American MIAs, as if it's the Vietnamese fault they ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. In effect, the US still wields the threat of a trade embargo with Vietnam as a stick that lamely keeps beating its victor over the head, long after Hanoi has sought reconcilliation.

A young woman whom we met in Saigon declared that a recent viewing of a documentary about the American War had made her cry as she sympathized with victims on both sides. Indeed, one feels that for the Vietnamese life has moved on and that instead of lingering resentment about the past, the future, and a positive outlook based on understanding and acceptance is of much greater value.

We've met Christians and Buddhists, and learned that they and others can practice their religions freely. Successful business people flaunt their wealth with late-model Lexuses and BMW's and while such status may not be for everyone, in this nation of 80 million it appears that at the very least each citizen has acquired a bicycle, moped, scooter, or motorbike.
Again, the caricature commie bastards of America's paranoia propaganda machine, ready to devour the West and bring much-dreaded equality, universal health care, and socialism to our shores, turns out to be little more than a family of 4 on a single motorbike, or a mother with child on a scooter on their way to school, or a worker carrying items much larger and heavier than anyone would consider safe on his moped, or a student, a doctor, farmer, or just about anyone else going about their business, providing food, making a living, earning their keep, living a life much like you and me...

I'm not about to glorify or idolize Vietnam and the Vietnamese after a mere 10 days here, but it gladdens me to see that at first sight the country is vibrant and full of energy and that its people appear content, healthy, and industrious. Perhaps it pleases me extra that I finally get to enjoy the return on a small investment I made. Still a student, living off a scholarship I remember well the days of the Vietnam War as it played out on TV screens in my native Holland. My disgust for the incessant hammering of farms and villages by carpet-bombing B-52's and horrific images such as of the My Lai massacre and napalmed children running down a road prompted me to allocate a small portion of my meager allowance every month to Médecins Sans Frontières, or Doctors Without Borders, the humanitarian help organization that along with monetary contributions collected used eyeglasses, prothesis, shoes, and other things that they practically had to smuggle into Vietnam to aid the victims of war. Maybe that's why while I'm here and as people look me in the face and kindly ask me for the hundredth time where I'm from and what my name is and how long I'm staying I look back and patiently repeat the same replies rejoicing in the knowledge that it has all turned out okay in the end and that we can have a purpose in each others' lives.

So, as the day of my departure nears I allow myself new thoughts and impressions that replace those of days long gone. I think of America's new president, Barack Obama, whom I wish has the courage to face the CIA, Pentagon, and the US military complex, and steer a course clear from confrontation and the gargantuan greed and profit war and the cost of human suffering brings to those that heavily invest in it. The people of North Korea, Afghanistan, Iraq, Venezuela, Syria, Pakistan, or Darfur are in the end just like the Vietnamese, likely willing to fight for what they think is right, but even more so just mothers, fathers, children, grandchildren, babies, brothers and sisters going about their business as they quietly eek out an existence within the family of man...