This is Part Two in a two-part series. You can read the first installment here.
Jakarta, Bali, Gili Air, & Yogyakarta
Our second flight was less violent. We landed and a flurry of missed texts from Chelsea’s mom, Ming, sent Chelsea into a panic, foretelling the small stresses in the days to come. Under the densely overcast sky, vegetation pushed up through the cracks in the cement city. We met up with Colin and Shannon, Chelsea’s brother and sister-in-law, at Chelsea’s grandma’s house in Jakarta. I was slightly wary because Chelsea and I are unmarried, and concerned that my presence would be seen as uncouth. We sat in quiet. There was hugging and other wordless gestures of love. Granny grew tired.
We checked into The Ascot, the fancy hotel Ming was treating us to. I joked that we should all wear ascots to mixed results from our new squad. We ate sushi. The fish flakes coating one salmon roll were a bit strong for my palette, but everything was otherwise good. The Ascot was gorgeous—our huge presidential suite had marble floors. Ming treated us to massages. Four ladies kneaded us into oblivion for twelve US dollars a pop. With our faces down in the pillows, it was at times hard to breathe and Chelsea had to ask her masseuse to ease up.
We were suddenly the son and daughter of Jakarta royalty. This feeling, along with the family time and my precarious position as The Boyfriend, sent me into a sort of daze. I mostly succeeded at being engaging and not a total sloth. Colin and I made a short faux-art film for his Snapchat account, in which I played the white dude abroad staring into flickering lights à la Lost in Translation, emerging slowly from pools, set to a background of classical music.
After caking on more mosquito repellent, we walked around a large square under white monsoon skies, where Ming showed us to a history museum built over an old, flooded military prison. I took a picture of an executioner’s sword. We looked at the beautiful batik clothing in enormous malls. We took lunch with Ming’s fabulous cohort—a group of powerful women, mostly lawyers, all very witty—in a gorgeous restaurant in South Jakarta. We ate oxtail, lamb biryani, and nasi goreng. I became the Big Boy Who Could Eat A Lot and so was fed any food left on the table.
One of Chelsea’s cousins said it would be good for Indonesia’s economy if Hillary won the U.S. election because she would lead us into more wars and oil prices would spike. Throughout the trip, I watched Trump satisfyingly fall apart amid allegations of sexual assault and a recorded “locker room” conversation.
Dinner was all the greatest hits of Chinese and Indonesian cuisine—grilled fish cakes, sweet & sour fish, ayam skewers, choy sum, and several others. Colin had a polaroid and an analogue camera, and the families took photographs.
I left with just the core Snow family: Colin, Shannon, Ming, Chelsea and I flew in a small, roaring plane to Bali. We stayed at Sahana Villas, with a private pool between our rooms. When we arrived, plumerias lay on our beds and atop the large island countertop in the outdoor kitchen. The place was well beyond our range, but Ming was treating.
Bali embodies popular depictions of paradise pretty well, with several distinct flourishes. I grew quickly obsessed with the alleyways overflowing with bougainvillea, palm leaves, and with the vines spilling over white walls. I looked closely and saw small yellow geckos skittering around looking for bugs. There were large drooping, lamp-like decorations hanging over the street.
Everywhere, the incense on banana leaf dishes burned with flowers and herbal cigarettes—offerings to various deities. The owner of our villa was a bulky Austrian man who had been in Bali for 20 years. He had opened the villas with a friend when Bali was “cheap,” and since moved onto other ventures like selling luxury batik scarves, raising black Balinese pigs, and trying to start an heirloom tomato farm. He is married to a devoutly Hindu Balinese model who came by once to lay down offerings and pray.
In Bali, we saw a temple on a small island, marooned by the tide, and visited others inhabited by clam-eating macaque monkeys. We ate delicious fresh butterfish and spicy marinated shrimp, and compared sambals—a small salad or dry salsa of mixed chilis that frequently attended the meal. We shopped and Ming helped us haggle in Ubud’s famous market.
I bought key chains for my students and a wooden Garuda statue for my brother. Chelsea and I picked up a wooden carving that would prove far too massive for our luggage. We bought a painting that I thought avoided enough of the visual clichés that adorn white liberals’ homes in the west. We ate Anthony Bourdain-grade pork. The jury is still out on whether it was the correct establishment. There were no photos of him, sweating and leathery, sitting on an upturned bucket with a hip local, so we cannot be sure.
On our last night in Bali, we watched a kecak dance, a performance of the Hindu epic the Ramayana. It was performed at Uluwatu, a temple perched high up on the cliffs overlooking the sea. Men sat in a circle and repeated a chant filled with hard “ch” and “k” sounds. Europeans whispered, somewhat annoying, as they tried to parse out the meanings of what was on display.
From the pamphlet, the story goes somewhat like this: Sita is walking with Rama in the forest during Rama’s exile. Sita sees a golden deer, asks her husband to catch it, Rama heads out after the deer and leaves Laksamana to watch his wife. Sita hears a cry for help and sends Laksamana out to see if her lover is okay. A storm hovers over the forest. Rhawana comes along and tries to seize her, but she is protected by a magic circle. Then, he comes back as a beggar and nabs her. On the way back to his palace, Garuda swoops in to help, gets beaten back, but is able to gather info for Rama. Rama meets with the monkey king, Sugriwa. Together they select a scout, Hanuman, a white monkey with magic powers, to find the palace where Sita is held. Hanuman finds her on the brink of suicide. He then attempts to destroy the palace, but is caught by giants who attempt to burn him to death. He escapes, causing much chaos and destruction on his way out. Rama is guided back to the palace and defeats the giants with help from a monkey army. He then faces Rhawana in face-to-face battle and defeats him. Finally, he is reunited with his beloved Sita.
When performed, it looked a little different. The actor playing Hanuman was painted in white and gold body paint. He entered from high up on the theater walls, gripping a stone spire, as if he’d crawled up from the craggy Bali cliffs. He leapt down 10 feet onto stone. There was much use of actual fire. The giants had what looked like knives for fingers and intricate multi-hued masks. The actor playing Hanuman jumped into the audience and ran down the aisles. He stole one woman’s glasses—which the actual monkeys had a habit of doing (we even had just seen one do precisely this in line to the show. They will, apparently, dangle your belongings off the cliff and extend a hand for fruit, as if trying to barter). The giants put their masks on peoples’ heads.
The playfulness took me out of it a bit. People laughed. It started to rain as the show ended and we filed out with the wet mass of people on the brink of stampeding each other. We huddled under Chelsea’s sarong, found an awning, and waited for our cab.
On the ride to dinner, we traded riddles and ate again at Warung Made: two grilled snappers and beef rending, which I stubbornly insisted on even though it isn’t a Bali specialty. Colin and I had double scoops of gelato.
In the morning, we caught a boat to the small island off the coast of Lombok called Gili Air. Here we waded far out on the coral reefs looking for creatures. I saw a brilliant blue starfish and a chocolate chip sea star. Colin showed me a white eel trapped at low tide in large pool. We suffered cuts on our toes and ankles. Colin fell and was left with an abrasion on his wrist. Bleeding, we found a bar to drink the pain away, and asked for bandages. There are no motorized vehicles allowed on Gili. You get around by catching carriages pulled by small horses, or you rent a bike and spend most of your time dragging it through the sand. Otherwise, you find a beanbag on the beach and drink.
While we were sitting at the bar, we heard a woman’s screams coming from inside the hotel. The bartender carving Chelsea’s mango ran with knife in hand toward the screams. Colin and I jogged after, thinking the worst, but stopped before entering the building at the bartender’s request. Afterwards, he explained that the hotel was haunted and the woman thought she was being possessed by evil spirits. We watched a medic enter the building. The screams subsided, and then came back again. We hoped it was merely spirits.
We ate fresh fish that night at a place called Scaliwags. It had a salad bar. I had Mahi-Mahi; Chelsea had butterfish—the superior choice. All was delicious. Gili is entirely devoted to tourism. The majority of people living there do so temporarily, or they own a business. They serve mostly westerners. It was only recently turned into a tourist destination and you can feel it. Most of the bars are empty, with the staff out front, trying to persuade passersby to come inside. Chelsea had a few lewd comments thrown her way when walking alone.
In the morning, we went snorkeling and were taken by boat to the other neighboring Gili islands. Even without a life jacket it was easy to remain buoyed because the water is dense with salt, so we floated in what could have been a lukewarm dream state, but I kept taking water in through my snorkel and coughing. I saw sea turtles, and angel, clown, and tiny brilliant blue fish darting over complex, mushrooming coral reefs. Chelsea pointed out a moray eel poking its fat neck out from an underwater cave. She was worried the whole time that I would lose track of the group and be marooned in open water. Our guide plunged down 50 feet, pointed out sea turtles, and took a few shots at some fish with a spear gun. Colin and Chelsea got seasick and lay for a while along the boat’s benches until we made our way back to shore
After snorkeling, Chelsea and I dragged bicycles around the island and saw the first luxury hotel being installed. Other lots were vacant, littered with emptied coconut drinks and food wrappers. We passed bungalows and bars, sandy beaches, and the endless turquoise sea. I rode my bike along where the hard sand meets the surf, garnering a few giggles from Europeans basking in lawn chairs.
That night, we ate steak at a restaurant recommended to us by our bungalow-owner, Jacques, a large French man who had opened shop on the island just a year prior. I remember him walking alongside the pool, chasing a rogue rooster while Colin and Shannon swam.
The restaurant was very dark, and after much prodding from the waiter to opt out of the crispy chicken and instead go for the steak, Colin and I did, asking for medium. Due to the lack of light, Colin only realized halfway that his steak was barely cooked at all. He went to the bathroom and forced himself to throw-up, but I powered through mine as it was slightly less raw. We walked back down the sandy paths to our bungalow and went to bed with beef-induced nightmares, swatting mosquitos, and dreaming of paradise.
In the morning, we said goodbye to Colin, Shannon, and Ming. Chelsea and I flew off to Yogyakarta, which is pronounced, “Jogjakarta.” Shannon and Colin were off to Hong Kong and Cambodia to visit friends. The Snow family has a habit of stressing out about what the right way to relax is. There were so many cars, planes, and hotels to arrange that some small crises did erupt here and there.
In Yogya, Chelsea and I took our time. We saw the sun rise over the largest Buddhist temple in the world, the Borobudur. The pink rays reflected off the volcano Bromo, which had erupted and caused much destruction just 10 years prior. After the sunrise trip, we crawled back into bed and watched The Ring.
Later, we shopped for souvenirs and bought batik clothing for friends. Yogya is much more ‘chilled out’ than the other cities we had visited. There are more Indonesian tourists than the other parts of the country we’d seen. We joked that it seemed hip, almost like the Brooklyn of Indonesia, with creatively designed coffee shops and street art tucked into its alleys. One piece of graffiti said, “Xenophobia is an adorable disease.”
We ate at places where you grill your own food. We watched some gamelan at the Kraton (palace) and swam in the hotel pool. We did our best to do nothing. We drank in a Cuban-themed bar that had decorative umbrellas hanging from the ceiling, and talked about literature. We read—Chelsea: Jonathan Safran Foer’s latest and The Fellowship of the Ring for me.
It was not long before we were back in Jakarta feasting and lying about in Chelsea’s Granny’s only air-conditioned room. I talked with Uncle Jimmy and Chelsea’s cousin Brian about Elon Musk, robotic engineering, and the fate of the world. I played too much Minecraft while hosts of the Australian Animal Planet yelled at animals on TV.
In the game, I built an enormous castle with vast tunnels creeping down into the earth. Some of them I had completely forgotten about. I would perpetually slip and die in algorithmically-created underground rivers. I write this now, longing to stop writing, and play the game more. At the airport, Chelsea wept as she said goodbye to Granny, and I attempted to console her.
The plane has four jet engines on each wing. The clouds are below us. We are halfway to Taipei, and a quarter of the way home.