May The Bird Of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose

Or, How A Legend-ary Singer Was Slayed By Metaphor-Wielding Paper Mache Dragon

My last few days in Bali I loosened up my purse strings a bit – my impending return to the United States, and the recent semi-existential crisis, has guilted me into being more adventurous – and I actually went to the semi-pricey (but yum) tourist resto Cafe Smorgas for my last breakfast. Part of this was to reward their owner for stepping up with a security video of my recent mugging (I am proud to report that it only took five seconds – digitally verified – for me to notice my IPhone was missing; sadly three seconds too late to make any difference), and partly because I wanted a ridiculously expensive chocolate martini as evidence that yes, I did live on a tropical island, even if I didn’t luxuriate in the sand as much as I probably should have.

While I was there I was treated to an acoustic set by an Australian female singer/guitarist who had a lilting contralto and a quiet, earnest style (she very beautifully, and without a trace of the jadedness that I would have displayed in the same situation, essayed that John Legend hit that I can’t seem to escape hearing). I had seen her once before passing by a different club a few years ago, and taken note of it because she is the only non-Indo musician I have ever seen doing a proper set in Sanur. Because of Indonesia’s strict working visa requirements, it is unusual to say the least (because for a non-local to do a whole set, even for free, is to tempt deportation – and she certainly had the look, sound and demeanor of a professional working acoustic musician, not someone jamming for kicks).

As many of you know, I did this kind of thing for years before it totally killed my will to live (I exaggerate, but only slightly), and speaking from within the field, she was pretty good at doing that earnest female singer-songwriter thing. Not really my cup of Joe, but very little is these days, and she was inoffensive enough that I wasn’t motivated to move or drink my martini any faster. I know that sounds like pretty weak praise but after having seeing about 6,000 singer/songwriters in coffee houses at this point in my life and having built up a raving intolerance to mediocre live music that’s actually something of a major accomplishment.

So a few more beautifully sung and painfully sincere tunes later, she starts talking conspiratorially with her dining tourist audience about Bali the gorgeous island and how it’s so wonderful, etc., etc. and says she is going to do a song next by a New Zealand songwriter whose name I didn’t catch that was written about Bali. And she begins this very quiet, reverential, peaceful tune that has words along the lines of “this island paradise” or some such.

Now, what you need to know is that along the streets of Sanur, there’s this monster. When my American friends Teresa and Mike were here I conditioned them to be constantly on the watch for it and to avoid it, but that it was essentially inevitable, and it indeed nailed us on our very last night together there. This monster is not a lizard or a giant spider, but rather a ceremonial huge-faced Balinese dragon of the paper mache variety, and it is given animate life by a gang of little kids who assemble inside it on the street, and then walk into various restaurants along Jalan Danau Tamblingan, with their confederates loudly banging Balinese gongs alongside them, and terrorize tourists to part with money. This is such a well-tolerated, frequent and organized undertaking I always assumed it was for charity but come to think of it after all this time I have no idea where the money goes. For all I know the Indonesian mafia gets it though I hope and assume otherwise. The point being the dragon is loud, it is inevitable and it wants your money. The first few times I came to Bali I ponied up but since I became a semi-permanent resident I give the dragon – and the touristy places it is drawn to – a wide berth. Sorry kids but I got no budget for that.

Anyhoo. Now the sincere Australian lady is about halfway through the Bali paradise song and from my perch next to the street, I can see that in the other part of the restaurant behind and to her right, the dragon is assembling itself to strike. And sure enough, suddenly a horrific CLANG CLONG CLANK ushers forth as the paper mache dragon, carried by three or four pairs of little Balinese kid feet, starts to make its way through the dining tables on the porch.

Even though sincere Australian lady has the benefit of amplification, and she is about 10 meters away from the dragon, she is no match for kids with a gong. Her song about the peaceful Balinese paradise is utterly and completely drowned out by the locals…and even though usually a dragon attack only goes on for about a minute, this one just kept right on trucking, and what an usually lusty, mechanical-sounding, Gamelan-tastic racket it was. CLANG CLONG CLANK CLONG CLANK BANG!

Out of professional curiosity I wondered how the singer would handle this ironic disruption. As it happens, she never once broke character, to her credit (though it must be said this kind of stoic commitment to decorum is probably why I tend not to resonate with singers like this very much). She just kept right on with her now completely inaudible ode to the peaceful, quiet Bali paradise, until the song ended – which I only know because her fingers and lips ceased moving and the people in front of her politely but just as inaudibly made clapping motions.

One might wonder if this disruption was intentional, but since the kid-dragon assembled and approached from the other direction, I am sure it was not. Indeed, I doubt the kids were ever aware that there was a bule singer songwriter holding forth daintily on the other patio. Nor do I think it ever would have occurred to them to check or think about this possibility.

So that’s how my stay on Bali wrapped up. As a metaphor for the gap between how we foreigners like to idealize our surroundings and giftwrap cultures to ourselves, how the reality is often much more boisterous and disruptive to our assumptions, and how much denial often goes into maintaining our illusions in the face of that, I thought it was pretty dang perfect. The martini was good too.

Bye Bali. Miss you, in all your beautiful and ragged glory.

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