Tuesday, March 10, 2020

In Search of the Happy Ending

In Search of the Happy Ending

By Arlo Hennings

Arlo Hennings and daughter

After a year and half of unanswered emails/entreaties/pleas to my 22-year-old daughter, Danika, I received the long-awaited reply. She had been working 10 hours per day in an $8-per-hour, no-benefits fast-food job to finagle time with co-workers so she could visit me. She had never traveled overseas by herself, so I booked a route with the fewest connections and layovers as possible. I cashed out my last bit of savings from a 401k savings plan to pay for the trip. Soon, my precious daughter and I would be reunited.

Before she left America we spoke by phone.

“I hope you still recognize me,” she said in a trembling voice. I answered, wrought by guilt, that it didn’t matter what she looked like. Her remark puzzled me until I saw her at the airport.

I had met foreigners on Bali who wanted to be as far apart from their family as possible, but I did not share the sentiment. I had always wanted to remain close to my daughter. Once again, I had that chance to clear the air between us and reconnect.

I divorced when Danika was 17 years old; about the same age I was when my parents divorced. Like my own parents, my wife and I were torn apart long before legal separation.

I knew that misunderstandings and unresolved issues stood between Danika and me. I had left her to fend for herself when her mother’s drinking drove me to pack my bags. Along with my deep desire to heal our wounds from the past, I also wanted us to build new memories together.

It was hard for me to accept that clearing the air and re-bonding with family was something I had done my whole life.

“I didn’t know when I’d get another chance,” was what I had said about my parents, too. The important thing was, to be honest with her about my feelings. It might not be easy and I might hear things I didn’t want to hear, but I remembered that anything that comes out of it can’t be as difficult as the ongoing uncertainty I was experiencing. And also, I tried to remember how differently I viewed the world, and my parents, when I was 22. I hoped that we could at least gain some ground in understanding each other. I thought of activities that would give her a chance to meet the local people and experience how they lived. That would be a wonderful experience for her.

I would look for cues from her and find out what she hoped to get from her time on Bali. Relax, I thought to myself. Enjoy your daughter and don’t take yourself too seriously.

Tuti, my Indonesian wife and I set about preparing her room. I drew up some tentative sightseeing plans and we’d play it by ear. That night before she arrived I looked at her two framed photos next to my bed. One frame she had made out of painted noodles in third grade. In the other photo, which I downloaded off her Facebook page, she looked so grown up. The cruelty of time pulled at my heart, and I stared at the ceiling, seeking solace in memories of her childhood.

I considered myself fortunate that I was able to experience Danika’s life during her key developmental years. Those years helped me to more clearly define my manhood and to grow from the responsibility that can only come from caring for a child. My heart goes out to those brave solo moms and dads who have raised children by themselves.

As Tuti lay next to me in bed and worked on Sodoku my thoughts filled with images of parenthood.

I spent my rainy days remembering when I first saw her enter this world. I organized, into chronological order, every photo I had of her. My snapshots of her life spanned 21 years, but I lingered over her newborn photos. I chose the name Danika because it means “Morning Star” in old-world Slavic. Our family isn’t Slavic, but I liked the meaning of the name and how it rolls off the tongue. When I looked into the dawn sky, the first star would always be Danika. In her first photo, Danika’s face looks like a little squashed bean bag, skin turned fuzzy pink, cheeks appearing softer than bunny fur, and her eyes are closed tightly in the sanctity of the newborn dream. She is cozied up in a blanket, stocking cap, and a pair of socks adorned with Tinker Bell.

The little girl I raised had matured into a complex young adult. Now, on the eve of her arrival, I didn’t know what her vision was — or whether she had one. What were the young woman’s dreams? I wanted to know.

I hoped that our father-daughter love/connection/bond would encourage and guide us to be open, honest, and patient with each other. I was willing to listen, even if the truth, or her views, might hurt me. I wanted Danika to understand many things about me, too. I wanted her to know how I looked at my own, self-made life. I felt that she was old enough to relate and grasp the meaning of it all. Our relationship, more than ever, was about balance. So I thought it would help if I told her how I perceived balance, and I hoped the time and place for such talk would come.

The next evening, I waited for her arrival at the airport with the same anxiety as the night she was born. An endless line of passengers walked by and, still, where was she? I checked the arrival screen 10 times and her stork wasn’t there. Perhaps, I missed it. My heart fell off a cliff as I pondered what to do.

Suddenly, there she was — rushing for me in slow motion, suitcase dropped, arms wide open, happily in shock. Her face, a female, cloned version of my own, was full of travel stress. We embraced, rubbing our cheeks together. Danika gave me the first of my long-overdue daddy hugs. Tears from her beautiful, round, green eyes soaked my shirt collar as we stood there speechless. I inhaled her perfume and felt her soft skin again. The little mermaid (my nickname) and I were finally reunited.

My daughter arrived late in the evening after a spine-bending, 27-hour flight. I broke the ice and whispered into her ear, “Welcome to Bali, Danika!”

I stepped back and introduced her to Tuti. Danika gave her a big smile and a hug, and Tuti blushed. Not knowing English, Tuti acted a little awkward and stumbled into the conversation with uncertainty. Finally, I introduced my taxi driver, Made, a young, handsome Balinese man with a gift for manners. He picked up Danika’s luggage. Together, Tuti and Made repeated my words, “Welcome.”

As I walked with her arm in arm like a proud dad to our taxi, I noticed why she was so nervous over the phone about her looks. In the past year and a half, she had become weight-challenged. I knew this wasn’t normal for her and I thought carefully about how I might respond if she invited me to talk about it. If she wanted to lose the weight, I knew she could if she set her mind to it. However, it was not my agenda. If she was comfortable then there was no fix needed, but I wanted to help her conquer that mountain if it was an issue. We might begin by trying some of the Indonesian vegetable diets, walking through rice fields, and swimming.

All that mattered to me was that she be happy. More than anything, I wanted to hear about her dreams. She mentioned midwifery earlier; Robin Lim’s famous birthing clinic is in Ubud. I could take her there. I didn’t know what else might interest her, but I would show her as much as I could.

Made tossed Danika’s backpack into the trunk and we were off. She watched with awe as we passed by the deities and shops that lined the same road that first bore witness to my arrival. Danika wasted no time asking what everything meant.

The rest of the ride back to my guesthouse was filled with catch-up gossip from everything about her annoying job, car repairs, and a revealing laundry list of complaints about her mother — a subject I mostly succeeded in transcending. For the sake of my daughter, I let her vent and unload while I nodded attentively in a caring way.

Tuti, however, remained silent, and Danika did not address her. We would need more time to sort it all out together and to talk about new beginnings.

The next morning, the island personally welcomed her. The sun rose with the vibration of an ancient gong. Butterflies danced in a mad ballet above the bright red flowers. Morning dew dropped from the jungle flora like the notes of a plucked harp. White-winged egrets flew overhead with the soft flutter of a fanned violin.

Because it was an important ceremonial day, Danika awoke to the sound of chanting from the nearby Balinese temple. While she drank her first cup of the unfiltered, raw grounds of the Balinese coffee, she watched a long line of old women carry construction rocks on their heads. A breeze kicked up and a group of colorful dragon kites took to the wind and defied gravity in spontaneous aerial acrobatics. The loud cough of a broken motorbike muffler sent a herd of ducks quacking across the road. Bali was in full swing.

“What do you want to do on your first day?” I jumped up and down on her bed like I did when she was little.

“Let’s go for a motorbike ride,” she said, excited.

I took her on a “jungle tour” of the many ancient, moss-encrusted temples, neon-green rice fields, plantations, and dwellings to meet the local people. I could hear her camera click away as she held onto me on the back of the motorbike. I loved the feel of her arms around my waist, holding her daddy like she did when sledding down a steep hill.

I was surprised by how Danika began to record the details. Nothing escaped her attention: spiders on the wall, geckos clinging to the ceiling, (she named the critters) exotic flora or a bowl of rainbow-colored dragon fruit, soursop, mangosteens, passion fruit, snake fruit, and mango. She was also intrigued by the traditional Balinese artists in the village: works by the master painter Ketut; handmade wood carvings of masks and animals; woven baskets, and pottery. She saw local men pushing street cart grills; signs in Sanskrit; plows pulled by cows; roosters and chickens everywhere; women balancing giant bowls of fruit on their heads. And she heard the music.

“What are they playing, Dad?” she asked as we drove past a temple.

“That is called gamelan,” I answered. “It’s a rhythmically complex, traditional musical ensemble. They use a variety of handmade musical instruments: metallophones, xylophones, kendang (drums), gongs, bamboo flutes, bowed and plucked strings. Sometimes there is a vocalist, too. I will arrange for you to try it if you like. To be an artist in Balinese Hinduism is a way to be close to Saraswati, the goddess of literature, music, and the arts. So, almost everyone is some kind of artist.”

Everything was meticulously recorded into her camera and diary.

“Why are the gamelan players all male?” she probed.

“There are a few women gamelan ensembles too, but most are men. Why I am not sure. Mark that question down.” Her map of Bali got a red mark on it indicating where we had been. It was hard for me at first to really believe she was here. It felt like a broken puzzle that was magically reassembling itself.

I reflected that there was no good reason for the lack of communication from her during the past year and a half, and I didn’t care to pursue it. I gathered she was bummed out when her seven-year boyfriend dropped her in favor of another woman? However, she had skipped over Father’s Day, my birthday, Christmas, and any acknowledgment of the birthday gift I had sent her. Also, she never responded to the wedding photos I had posted online. Honestly, I felt a bit hurt.

The more time I spent with Danika the more Tuti’s behavior progressively changed in an unexplainable way. I had a premonition that there might be a storm brewing between the two, but wasn’t sure from which direction it would come. Tuti was my third wife. Danika was downright inhospitable towards my second wife.

“People shouldn’t get married so fast after meeting on the Internet,” she scolded. No matter how hard I tried to bring them together my second ex locked herself behind the bedroom door. I prayed that Danika would accept Tuti and be grown-up about it.

“I can’t believe how well you’ve adjusted to the time-zone change,” I said to Danika. “It’s like you’ve suffered no jet lag whatsoever.”

“I got to sleep right away when we got back from the airport. With the trip, and working 10 hours per day for months to come here, I needed a lot of rest.”

“Is the room okay?” I asked as I helped her to unpack her things.

“It’s perfect. And I love your little guest house. I think it’s cute. I can’t believe you only pay $450 per month for it. That’s so insane, Dad. My friends would be so jealous.”

“I wish you could live here with me, hon. There’s so much we could do together.”

“I’d like that,” she said without hesitation. “Bali is so mesmerizing. My friends will flip out when they see my photos.”

“Besides what you told me about Mom and other things, how are Boo Boo and Aunt Laurie?” I asked, wondering about my cat and my ex-sister-in-law, who was fighting cancer.

“Until I can find a permanent home, Boo Boo sleeps at the end of my bed. He’s one happy kitty cat, Dad. Aunt Laurie isn’t doing well. The treatments aren’t working.” Danika paused and changed the subject. She asked me for some fatherly-type advice about this new guy she met and that bowled me over emotionally. The question was, he had a girlfriend and what should she do. It hurt not being involved in her life, but I knew it was time for her to face the uncertainty of life, too. She showed me his photo.

“He’s a good-looking guy,” I said. “What’s his name and where did you meet him?”

“His name is Brian and he delivers sandwiches at the shop where I work,” she explained.

“How long has he been with his girlfriend?” I said.

“I’m not exactly sure, or even if she is really his girlfriend,” Danika said.

“I suggest you stay friends and see what he does.”

“I thought the same thing,” she nodded, approvingly.

“How do you like Tuti?” I said, wanting to get at what was really on my mind. “Did you like my wedding photos?” A giant photo of Tuti and me hung on the living room wall. Danika walked by it many times but never commented. Talking about the photo helped her process my new relationship. I explained the wedding attire and told her the amusing tale of the (first) ceremony. I acknowledged her feelings and invited her to join me on this journey.

“I’m hoping you’ll accept Tuti as my life companion,” I said, “and also think about adopting her 25 family members as your relatives. They’re all a lot of fun.”

I heard a few spokes pop loose in her head.

“Dad, you look killer in your Aladdin costume and Tuti looks great as Jasmine,” she responded in a neutral, semi-flattering tone. I took it as a promising sign.

Danika added, “Tuti seems like a nice person, Dad. But you’re so out there. Did you really understand what was happening?”

She had me on that point. “No, I didn’t understand the ceremony, exactly, but they gave me good direction.” I shrugged my shoulders. “During the ceremony, I had my laptop set on the Google translator.” I paused to chuckle. “We haven’t been together that long, and the language I admit is a challenge. Please be patient with her. She is painfully shy and has never had interaction with a “white” woman before. Can you try to be open-minded?” I said looking for the understanding in her eyes.

“Chill out, Dad, you look a little tense.” She pulled her hair behind her ears.

I put my hands in my pockets to show I was not getting defensive.

“Oh, Dad . . . ” she rolled her eyes.

Her attitude wasn’t exactly supportive but it wasn’t negative either. She had changed a lot since I last saw her. She progressed from drawing a dry, hard line to lubricating it with a bit of open brio.

Tuti was in the kitchen cooking and Danika did not offer to go lend a hand. She was our guest and contributing to the event wasn’t a requirement, but I thought the kitchen was a place where women could begin a bonding thing? Nevertheless, I felt as though we were moving forward. I let it go as an adjustment period.

Later, Tuti came into our room and began rearranging the place as if to make it into two separate apartments. One was for Danika and me, and one for her. Several times Tuti had me reposition the TV set so it would be viewable only where Danika and I could see it separately. I assumed we would be together in whatever we did. That prompted the question of why the remodeling project?

Danika retreated into the upstairs guest room with my laptop and that left me trying to translate like mad from an Indonesian dictionary. Since I couldn’t form complete sentences I had to do it Pig Latin style, unsure if the meaning was backward.

“Tuti, what is wrong with you?” I said slowly in her language.

Like a Balinese Legongdancer, I got a lot of intricate eyes and hand movements. I figured the story meant something along the lines that she was jealous of my daughter and frustrated because of the communication. I explained again that I hadn’t seen my daughter in a long time and to please try to be accommodating. Try and fit in. Whatever I said or how I said it sent her crying to Wayan’s house. Thankfully, Wayan’s wife spoke Javanese and got the problem resolved. Well, for the most part. Tuti eventually came around but it was a slow warm-up process.

Danika noticed Tuti’s behavior as being a little peculiar.

“She’s just a little nervous, that’s all.” I sighed.

I wanted Danika’s 23rd birthday celebration to be the special birthday of birthdays. Wayan and his family stopped by to show their respects and my daughter was deeply moved by their gratitude and graciousness. They offered to help her dress up in a formal Balinese costume for her birthday, as well as adorn the yard with handmade Balinese birthday art.

I had invited many of the local villagers to the party. Wayan’s wife and her friends cooked for hours, stirring up traditional Indonesian food like Laksa (vegetable soup), nasi goreng (rice with egg) and many types of fruit. Afterward, while sampling the local cuisine, Danika said, “If I could only eat like this at home.”

In addition, Wayan called upon the local salon girls to give my daughter a traditional Balinese ceremonial makeover. The makeover consisted of a golden headdress and exotic makeup, including a colorful dress called payas besar. Once they finished, my daughter glowed with positive energy equal to Sri Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of love and beauty.

Putu and Komang, the salon girls in their early 20s, normally performed their art for weddings because the Balinese don’t celebrate their birthdays in the western sense. But for Danika, they turned my bedroom into a palace and Danika was the reigning princess.

As the two girls began to paint Danika’s eyes with a hue of pink and purple, Danika sat there like a wise caterpillar waiting for her transformation on the sacred leaf of life.

“How do the Balinese traditionally celebrate their birthdays?” she hummed.

“They don’t do it with cake, candles, and formal invitations like we do,” I explained. “Instead, the family makes offerings called natab. The person whose birthday it is will pray for health, happiness, and guidance, amidst wafts of ritual smoke. At the end of the ceremony, a piece of white cotton called benang sri datu is tied around the person’s right wrist, hung over the ears, and one is placed on the head. These all fall off in time. While on the body, they are said to protect the wearer from negative influences such as demons known as buta-kala.”

Putu and Komang made a fuss over Danika adding and subtracting makeup to the cheeks, above the eyes, and along the nose. They were creating a goddess and it had to be perfect. Next, they carefully fitted Danika into the dress

“Do you remember your birthdays when you were little?” I smiled and snapped a photograph.

“I vividly recall my birthday when I turned seven. You got me a Snow White costume and a wand. You tied balloons around a tree and we played games,” she said. A tear grew in the corner of her eye. “But, this is unbelievable, Dad. I am so happy right now.”

Putu grabbed a tissue and dried Danika’s eye. She spoke a few words in Balinese. I understood it to mean, “Don’t ruin your makeup.” Finally, the headdress was placed on top of her head. The goddess was now complete.

“Holy crap, Dad, the crown is really heavy,” she laughed and touched it with her right hand. The salon girls gave her a hand mirror and Danika stared into it with a bedazzled, frozen expression; unsure by what magic whose reflection was in the glass.

“You look awesome,” I kissed her on the forehead. “Happy birthday, sweetie.”

I took Danika by the hand and walked her out to the patio where the party awaited her.

Wayan had also worked tirelessly for hours, meticulously cutting and threading paper bamboo into intricate hanging designs called paku pipit. Made brought his daughter and friend to perform a traditional Balinese Pendet “welcome” dance. As each guest greeted my daughter they bowed in her honor. No one had ever bowed to Danika before and she was drop-jawed. She sat happily speechless with colorfully wrapped presents at her feet. Tuti was the last one to kneel down before her and handed Danika a wrapped present. Danika wasted no time unwrapping it and to her surprise, she held the gift for all to see as if it were a personal endowment by the gods.

“Thank you, Tuti.” Danika hugged her.

Tuti took the golden necklace and placed it around her neck. cantik, (beautiful) she said and lit the candles on her cake.

“Make your wish, kiddo.” I urged.

Danika took a deep breath until her face turned blue.

She blew so hard that the frosting almost came off her cake. We called it an early evening and Danika asked the salon girls to remove her crown because the weight was giving her a headache.

“Goodnight,” we bowed before our departing guests.

I let Danika decide what she wanted to do on the island. She had bookmarked a few places: Uluwatu Temple along Bali’s southern coast, and a temple in the north. We visited both of them.

The tour ended with the two of us side by side on the bed, curled up to a 99-cent, pirated movie that a local merchant was peddling. It was called, Spring Break; about a bunch of college kids partying on the beach. I watched up to the point when the girls started to take off their clothes.

As she was growing up we watched all of the Disney movies 100 times over, and it was “tradition,” Danika used to call it, that we relaxed together, engrossed in a story. We read books, too, but the movies were her favorite. Chilling out before a flick together went a long way in re-establishing a lost comfort zone we both desperately needed.

I left Danika to her movie and I crawled into bed with Tuti. It was only 8 p.m. and she was already sleeping, which was not her routine. I knew it was an escape. I felt guilty that she was feeling neglected, and I would make it up to her.

The next morning I talked about one possible future.

“I have one plan that might work as a way I can afford to support myself and possibly a way that you can stay for as long as you want.” I showed Danika an architectural drawing of a villa I wanted to build. “It’s a risk because it will take all my savings to pull it off. If I fail, well, I guess that’s not an option. Would you be interested in helping me design the interior?”

Danika looked at the drawing carefully. “Where is it located and how big is it?”

“It’s just down the road from here in the next village. I got a deal on approximately two Are of land (400 meters square). It sits on a riverbank and overlooks rice fields. That way, I don’t use any important agricultural land.” I waved a ruler over the picture. “It will be a one-bedroom, kitchen, living room, upper deck, and two lower jungle terraces. The front will be all sliding-glass doors. I want there to be plenty of light. The way land prices are skyrocketing here, I think I can get good rent or sell it. What do you think?”

“I would love to be your decorator, Dad,” she replied, with excitement.

“Can you also help me think of a name?” I joined her enthusiasm.

We were halfway through our coffee when the owner’s mother of my guesthouse walked through the gate carrying a basket full of incense, flowers, and rice decorations. She looked like royalty in her lacy white kebayas and sarong with colorful flowers painted on it. The traditional Balinese ceremonial clothing was complete with a jacket-like blouse that is usually made with sheer material and embroidered with a floral pattern. They are custom made and fitted to each lady, who looks elegant in them. The Ibu (middle age) woman also had her hair tied back into a bun and wore a small yellow flower behind her right ear.

I greeted her, “Selamat sore. That means good afternoon.” I told Danika.

“What is she doing, Dad?” Danika carefully watched her every move.

“At different times of the lunar cycle, and other ceremonial times, they come and bless our home to ward off evil spirits,” I explained.

Danika grabbed her camera. “That is so cool, Dad. Back home all the neighbors do is complain about mowing the grass.

I chuckled, “Here they consider their land sacred. It all goes back to that balance thing we saw at the temples.”

“I want to be in balance with you, Dad,” she sneezed. “Do you have a tissue?”

“Save that thought,” I handed her a tissue. “Are you coming down with a traveler’s cold?”

Tuti recognized what was happening and gave Danika some local medicine to help with her cold. We picked up our dishes and took them to the kitchen where Danika rinsed them off. Tuti tried to stop her.

“Relax Tuti,” Danika said, politely. “You’re not our maid. Being our cook is enough.”

Tuti had been hard at work in the kitchen cooking many types of vegetables, rice, and spices for dinner. When her meal was ready, Tuti brought us the steaming plates and joined us at the table. Enjoying food is one of those times when body language can fill any void left by words. We happily ate everything. Together.

For one final trip, Danika asked to visit the peaceful little island of Gili Air. Motorbikes and cars are banned there, and transport is via donkey cart. In the morning, we caught a fast-craft boat that had us anchored in the harbor within an hour and a half. We were greeted by brightly painted red, blue, and green wooden fishing boats that rocked gently on the water, like toy boats in a bathtub. The color of the water was the first thing that spoke to me. It reminded me of the crystal clear ocean of the Maya Riviera, Mexico. “This place reminds me of where we stayed in Xcalak, Mexico when I was a kid,” Danika reflected. “The roads are all sand, everything is sand and seashells.” Her voice jumped a notch in pitch.

“Dad, give me your camera,” Danika exclaimed. “Everything is made out of bamboo.”

We hired a driver and cart, which felt like it was hitched to a raging bull. The donkey cart rocked so bad that we almost bounced off our seat to the rutted road below. Danika tried to get in a shot when she didn’t need both hands to hold on.

“This is a blast, Dad. More fun than a ride at Valley Fair,” Danika yelled over the beating hooves of the donkey.

“I’m glad you like it, hon,” I said, as my words bounced out of my throat.

We were greeted by the eager-to-please resort manager, Dune, a Muslim and native Gili islander. He told us that due to the Ramadan holiday, we wouldn’t hear beach discos from the neighboring “party island” of Trawangan. I welcomed the extra peace and quiet. While we waited for Dune to prep our room, Danika and I grabbed a beer.

“I really like the beach here, Dad. It’s so dreamy. I want to lie out and get some rays. I am so pale and my nose is stuffy,” she complained.

I watched her observing local beach boys who were about her own age. I suspected that she needed a break from guru dad and would like to hang out with other 20-somethings.

“Let’s get settled and find a beach chair and chill out Dad,” she said, finishing her beer.

We soon discovered that our “resort” lacked the promised amenities. We had arrived on the Island of No. No electricity, no air conditioning, no toiletries, no drinking water, no Wi-Fi, and (for a short while) no beach chairs. The place had six guests, but only four chairs and they were occupied. Danika, taking it all in stride, set out to search for seashells.

“Look at this one, Dad. It’s an arrowhead sand dollar.” Danika held it to her throat. “It would make a cool necklace.”

“What about this one?” she asked.

“It’s a sea biscuit. You’d have to drill a hole through it for a pendant.”

Purple, orange, and pink sea fans decorated the sand like the bottom of a pet shop aquarium. Danika picked one up and hooked it to her hair.

“That’s cute, mermaid,” I said.

She bent down to carefully comb through the sand.

“What are you looking for?”

“I’m looking for a seahorse,” she answered.

Finally, the guests left their beach chairs and we, with respect for nature, left our shells where we found them. Danika claimed a chair and stretched out the stomach-side down.

“Dad, will you please put sunscreen on me?” she asked. Like I did when she was a baby after a bath, I spread the lotion over her arms, back, and legs.

“What would you like to do tonight? I asked. There’s a traditional Joged dance on the beach. Would you like to go?”

“That sounds awesome, Dad,” she gave two thumbs up.

As the sun began to set we found our own private slice of paradise and waited for the show to start. Several heavily ornamented young girls appeared in costumes made of shiny gold headdresses and flowing dresses. They played recorded gamelan music and began to tell their story. Danika studied the multiple levels of articulations in their faces, eyes, hands, arms, hips, and feet, which were carefully coordinated to reflect layers of percussive sounds. The sacred stories are many and varied but usually an accompaniment to the perpetual dissolving and reforming of the world. The creative and reproductive balance is often personified by a conflict with a demon, deity, or god.

“They’re like cosmic dolls,” Danika whispered to me. “Their grace is remarkable.”

“Most of the dance stories, everything we’ve seen in the temples and ceremonies, more or less pertain to balance. How to be in balance with the universe?” I sighed. “That’s why I asked you to hold that thought back at the villa. The more time we are spending together, the more I believe that Bali is bringing us back into balance with each other.”

The dance ended and the tourists scattered. Danika and I looked up at the last rays of sunlight bouncing off the peak of Mt. Agung, and I said, “Ever since you were born and now more than ever since you arrived, I have been thinking about balance.”

“How can we be in balance, Dad?” she queried.

“How about we talk about it over dinner?” I offered.

We walked down to Captain Jack’s warung, a rustic, bamboo restaurant on the beach. Jack’s had chairs for everybody. For the first time in years, my daughter and I sat together at a seaside table. Musing over the various menu options and exotic tropical drinks like Yoga on Ice and the Red Octopus, kept us in a happy-tourist state of mind.

A gentle breeze caused the table lamp to flicker and the overhead lamp to sway. After that brief distraction, I started to dread the thought of her leaving. I sat quietly, mustering the courage not to fall apart in despair. The plan was that she’d return for the building/decorating later, was all I had to hold on to.

My little mermaid broke the silence.

“I don’t know what to think about marriage, having a child, school, my job, and things like my car,” she said in a frustrated tone. “I don’t want to end up over my head in debt to a student loan and credit cards.”

“Whatever you decide to do, Danika, I will support it any way I can.”

Danika picked up the menu. “I want to order the Strawberry Fields Forever shake,” she said. “It says here it’s full of those mushrooms?”

“Oh, you know about stuff like that?”

I grabbed the menu and read the small print: This drink contains locally grown mushrooms and the management takes no responsibility for any side effects thereof: enjoy in moderation.

She reacted to the look of disapproval on my face.

“I’m old enough to make my own decisions, Dad. Besides, you did it, too, didn’t you? Why can’t I? Besides, I’ve done it before,” she smirked.

“Okay, it’s your vacation and you are free to do what you want. However, those mushrooms can be a little hard on your stomach so maybe better you should have a salad or something small to eat first.”

“Got it, Dad…”

We moved from the table to the beach where we chilled out.

Danika finished the rest of her drink, then held the glass high. “Bon voyage, peace, Dad.” She closed her eyes, laid quietly on the sand, and didn’t move for the next few hours.

I sat like a hawk, fulfilling my old role as the gate guardian.

If I could help it and I knew unrealistic, it was to spare her a life of drama, dogma, ceremony, and misspent energy. She was at a crossroads, figuring out about life and where she was going with it. I was also at a crossroads, asking the same questions. I hoped she would leave Bali with a sense that beginning again was a good thing. It could be something we could do together?

Our solitude was interrupted later by the twang of an out-of-tune guitar. An attractive young man appeared and started singing to her. She opened her eyes, sat up, and smiled. In a gentle and romantic voice, he serenaded her with a traditional Indonesian cinta (love) song.

“How do you feel?” I said.

“A little thirsty and spacey, but cool, Dad.” She touched the ground with the palm of her hand.

I handed her a bottle of water and recalled how I used to sing to her, too. Guru Dad was a lot of things but born yesterday wasn’t one of them. I caught the hint and left her on the beach to follow her own path. I could stop protecting her now. I would later learn about her vision, assuming she had one to share.

She returned to the beach villa around sunrise and woke me.

“I don’t want to go home, Dad. I feel like I’m just getting started,” she sighed. As soon as her head hit the pillow she was under.

While I watched her sleep, I embraced how her trip to Bali was a new start for both of us.

“Twelve days isn’t long enough,” she complained. “I can’t bear the thought of going back to being a sandwich maker.”

“I know how you feel; minimum-wage jobs suck. And our time together was too short, but there will be another,” I promised, twice.

“When you get back, do one thing for me, okay?”

“Name it,” she snapped.

“Go easy on Mom. On this trip I’ve seen you grow into your own truth; it can put a whole different face on things. In other words, at some point, you’ll get it. I don’t know what mom’s honesty issues are, but as you’ve so wonderfully shown me — you are your own woman now, with your own dreams. I am no longer the sacred key holder of ‘the why.’ You are.”

“I swear, Dad, I will try.”

By 10 p.m. she was packed for the inevitable and awaited Made’s arrival. Along the way back to the airport, Made’s van was filled with a reflective, temple-like solemnity.

At the terminal entrance, Tuti gave Danika a warm hug. Danika returned the embrace. “You were wonderful, Tuti. Thank you for the wonderful meals and necklace, terima kasih (thank you). I think I lost 10 pounds.” She put her bags down and hugged her again. “I wish you and my dad a beautiful marriage.”

Danika then faced Made. “You were great too,” she shook his hand and bowed. “All of you, including Wayan and the whole village. You were truly unforgettable. Please don’t forget to send me a friend request on Facebook,” she waved.

I escorted my daughter past security to make sure she didn’t get lost in the confusion of the airport construction. We hugged one last time before she crossed the security barrier.

Our hearts had gone through an X-ray.

“I can’t believe you’re leaving. You just got here. I will miss you.”

“Until next time, Dad.”

Danika stepped back through security, wrapped her arms around my body, and squeezed me tight. I gave her everything I could and hoped that our story would keep changing for the better.

“Let me know what happens with your villa,” she said, then released her embrace.

I watched her pass through the point of no return, and my mermaid took wing.

I wrestled in agony on how to end this story. I was torn between letting it end leaving to think everything worked out for the better and life went on. Or should I share the truth on how it ended? Do you want a happy ending or the truth? I’m torn.

You decide –

“I’m sorry we can’t help her here. We are transporting her to a specialist ICU for liver and kidney failure.” The doctor called me long distance from the emergency room in America.

In the interim, her mother had drunk herself to death. During the depression, my daughter started drinking too. Possibly too much. Nobody is certain. She was the youngest patient in the hospital for liver disease.

I arrived as soon as I could.

Her liver team informed me she would need a liver transplant or die. My daughter was now homeless and disabled. I helped her to obtain a small disability income. There was no other family to help and I am her guru again.

What was I going to do with the life I created on Bali?

I covered my face with my hands and said, “How will this end?”

Please consider a donation to my daughter's medical GoFundMe 

Hennings is the author of “Guitarlo” an award-nominated memoir that includes his experiences living in Minnesota and Indonesia.

Guitarlo - available where ever books are sold

This disclaimer informs readers that the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the author’s employer, organization, web site ISP, search engines, committee or other group or individual.

© Arlo Hennings 2020

Sunday, March 8, 2020

I Married the Sultan's Daughter

 I Married the Sultan's Daughter

(a Minnesotan in Islam)

by Arlo Hennings

I was on my way to find a gift for my daughter’s birthday when my motorbike hit a hill of construction dirt and sent me hurtling barelegged into the merciless jaws of the pavement. In a daze, I looked up from the street and saw a brown-colored angel standing over me, offering a hand back into this world. The hand was that of Tuti, a lovely woman I had recently met online. I was happy that, in the short time she’d known me virtually, she had recognized me and decided that I was worth rescuing.

After I asked Tuti for her cell number. Should I call her? What did I want? But was anyone ready for me? I had two failed marriages, a list of physical problems, a history of rootlessness, and a questionable ability to handle a motorbike. I dreamed of my collaborator and the life we might celebrate together. I held, in my mind, the image of Tuti.

At that time, she wore her jet black hair in a braid. I admired the flawless bone structure of her face. The noble edges on her nose and cheeks indicated, to me, a knowledgeable and thoughtful person. My memory traced the high, v-shaped slant to her eyebrows. Her eyes shone darker than burnt coals; a place where my reflection might enter and never be seen again. I appreciated the natural color of her rich brown skin, in contrast to the lily-white Scandinavian women who baked themselves on the beach. The attraction, though, was more than skin deep. I dreamed of having this intriguing woman in my life.

Tuti came over from eastern Jawa. She spoke the national language of Indonesia, various dialects from Jawa, and 10 words of English. I spoke less than 10 words in Indonesian, English, and a dialect from the Upper American Midwest.

I picked up the phone and told her my name.

From there, our numbers game evolved: one word, one phrase, one Google-translated sentence at a time. We played Q and A at the keyboard. She asked me about my daughter, and how my parents had died a day apart from each other. I asked how her Muslim family would feel about hanging out with me. At one point I typed in my name and asked her to list three things that she didn’t like about me. She typed, “Suka,” meaning all good. (She was just getting to know me.)

When we met, Tuti was employed at a motorbike repair shop in Ubud, Bali. Unlike Muslim women, Balinese women have daily religious duties that would interfere with work outside the home. Therefore, most of the women clerks come from Jawa.

Tuti was the first Javanese woman I met. As such, there was a lot I didn’t understand about her world. I was barely grasping the complexities of Balinese Hinduism and now I was on a crash course to understand Javanese Islam.

She was caring, humble, and malu (shy) in public. She felt self-conscious about not meeting standards of western appearance, as she perceived them. The first time I took her to a restaurant she froze at the door, thinking that her hair, makeup, and attire weren’t up to fashion code. She looked perfect. When the menu came, she ordered the least expensive item listed. Then she turned the dinner table on me when I tried to order in her language. Although I met “the foreign dress code,” she cringed with embarrassment at my attempt to order a smoothie. Quite imperfect.

In working through the challenges of communication, I suggested we try sports, which didn’t require speaking. She had worked 10 years as a caddy on a top PGA-level course, where she learned golf from the pros. I soon learned that she could drive a ball over a volcano. When we played billiards, she wiped the table clean, and badminton sent me tripping over my feet while trying to return a volley. “The agony of defeat,” needed no translation.

Tuti had never heard of Wall Street, the Occupy Movement, women’s liberation, feminism or the MeToo movement. She knew little about the United States, except for a few pop stars and the name of the president. I didn’t care that she couldn’t read my biography and understand where I came from. In time, I believed, we would come to understand and embrace each other’s worlds. At least, we both showed an eagerness to try.

One day, Tuti accepted an invitation to my villa. After admiring the garden, she crossed the threshold. I watched her look around and assess the general untidiness of the place. Her facial expression told me that my neat-freak days were a matter of opinion.

I didn’t know if the timing was right, but I took a brave gulp of air and nervously invited her to stay. I promised to clean up my act. She reacted to my question with an affectionate smile of “yes,” and in my imagination, we kissed, awkwardly, for the first time. Our lips met, a bit crooked and unsure, experimenting, searching, longing, and dreaming. It was a hard kiss, too; one refusing to let go, bonded by magnetism.

Tuti moved out of her tiny, beat-up, rental room and moved in with her one suitcase full of shoes. The next day, she volunteered to do all of the domestic chores, which left me free to write and to fight my demons?

My travel clothes were meticulously washed, ironed, and folded or hung. I had forgotten the comforting smell of a steaming iron on clean clothes. It took me back to childhood when I would sit for hours by my mom while she pressed through a week of laundry.

Each part of the day became a song of Tuti’s routine. In the morning, before I could rub the dream sand from my eyes, she put a cup of hot coffee in my hand. Before I could take a sip, she was sweeping under my feet. When I became absorbed at the computer, she would tap my shoulder for lunch.

Tuti shopped for groceries and filled the kitchen with tantalizing aromas that led me to a healthy weight gain. Her favorite TV show was Master Chef, and if I blocked her view she would pull me onto the couch to watch with her. Eventually, I had to put the brakes on chocolate cake.

She fretted over me, almost like a mother — cutting my hair, clipping my nails, and making sure I looked nearly flawless before going out in public. I felt embarrassed for myself. For too long, I had no one in my life who gave a rip about my needs or feelings. Now I was being treated like a prince and rendered helpless during such loving care and attention. She genuinely seemed to enjoy the activities and role she had taken on. I did not want her to be a servant, but I wanted her to be happy. I knew that she deeply cared about people. Often, while watching a TV show about a celebrity in Jakarta who helps the poor, she would watch with a tissue in hand, holding back her tears.

Tuti ended up taking charge of housekeeping for my guest house, as well. I had been maintaining it, but she kept it in better shape. In return, I shared earnings from the guest house, and she was able to quit her job in town.

Once when she sat off by herself, I thought she was tired or bored. On the contrary, she held up her cell phone to reveal her “addiction” to Sudoku, and puzzle-solving. It took me back to our numbers game. Tuti was 36 and I was 59. Going forward, though, the age gap didn’t matter. We had already figured out that part of the puzzle.

In a few short months, we were living happily together, booking up the guest house and our dream vocabulary. Then, unexpectedly, I broke down and wanted to end this story. I admitted to myself that I was falling in love with her. The hopeless situation left me sobbing without words over my keyboard. She was clueless and beautifully ignorant of my feelings, I thought.

Tuti wasn't a practicing Muslim but her family was and frowned that we were living together for over a year out of wedlock. Tuti's parents had passed away and I found myself getting a serious marriage sales pitch by her Uncle.

I didn't have an excuse for not marrying her except I felt uncertain about my future and couldn't speak the language. It was a big, scary step into another unknown but not any different than the unknown step I took when I moved to Bali.

I came to the conclusion, why not.

On our auspicious wedding day, I woke up in Tuti’s rickety bed in what used to be her bedroom at Uncle Matt’s. The pink cement walls showed their age by the length of cracks from floor to ceiling. A century-old, black-and-white photo hung sideways above the door. The one low-watt ceiling light cast a pale twilight across the room.

Tuti spent little time there; her only clothes cabinet was stuffed with moldy-smelling shoes. Before she met me, Tuti had dated a Swedish tobacco salesman for seven years and lived in nice hotels. The house vibrated with a dozen women, young and old. Wearing traditional Javanese headscarves (hijab), the women sat in a circle on the kitchen floor. They chopped chicken and vegetables into meticulously assembled gift-wrapped boxes of food. Others cleared furniture and rugs from the living room, to create space for our wedding ceremony. By the time I drank my first cup of coffee, Tuti was off to a salon appointment.

During the early hours, my only morning task was to bathe — with a bucket of cold water. So, I took a stroll through Tuti’s village. I tiptoed carefully down a busted up pathway of chicken poop, and out to the main road. I avoided, as much as possible, the creek of raw sewage that crisscrossed my path. To my surprise, I did not see any wild dogs as seen in Bali. Here, feral cats seemed to rule, and keep down the rat population? In stark contrast to the lush botanical garden of Ubud, the village was made up of small, houses, standing side by side. Flower pots, and colors of red, blue, pink, and green, helped to brighten up the weather-beaten buildings. Terraces and front yards with laundry lines opened to the neighborhood. I felt welcomed here. Children, playing badminton and snapping the ceremonial pecut whip, greeted me with some English they knew: “Gerd m-o-o-ning, Miztrrr.” Women held their babies out to me, smiled, and blushed. I can only begin to imagine what they thought. Who was this stranger, and why was he here? For the first time, a white man came out of their TV set and stood in their village. I got a rock star treatment that I never took for granted. The thought of getting married again did not weigh on my mind. I was too overwhelmed trying to absorb what was happening. When I turned a corner to circle the village, I ran into a pengamen. This is a type of street performer, similar to the street guitar players who sing at taxi windows. Here, the entertainer goes door to door, hoping for a donation. This young man was dressed in drag, singing with a portable karaoke machine in his hand. How, I questioned, did that person fit into this Muslim culture?

I didn’t need a watch to know when I needed to head back. Each day is divided into five prayer times. The ubiquitous mosque speakers remind everyone of the time to wake up, eat and break for prayer. I got the message, loud and clear.

My knowledge about Islam was none, however. All I knew was Indonesia was the largest Muslim nation in the world with 90% of the population being Islam. Most Muslims are either of two denominations: Sunni or Shia. The overwhelming majority in Indonesia adheres to Sunni Islam. Honestly, I have no idea what that means. I can't read or write Arabic and unfamiliar with the Koran. My wedding was Javanese, Islam. A unique, ancient cultural tradition filled with beautiful ceremonies, music, art, folklore, magic, and mysticism. These people hated radical Islam terrorists more than Americans. There are Islamic extremists just like there is Christian extremist. I can share after the many years I lived in the heart of this Islam that the xenophobic hatred that is promoted against Muslims in America is bogus. So deep runs the anti-Muslim American propaganda that my sister looked at me in fear that I might have converted to Islam. In some people's minds, I married the "enemy,"

Hour by hour, Uncle Matt's house slowly filled with family and relatives. They had only one new name to remember: mine. I could not remember or properly pronounce all of theirs. I greeted them in the best way I knew how. They arrived in their best sarongs, peci hats, and colored hijabs. Each smiled courteously, gave a slight bow, then took their place on the living room floor. Tuti wanted to forego the groom’s traditional “Aladdin-looking” attire. Instead, she asked Uncle Matt to outfit me in one of his business suits. Had I known, I would have bought an affordable new, odor-free suit that fit. Instead, I squeezed into a jacket and pants that smelled like Tuti’s musty old shoes. Uncle Matt sprinkled me with cologne, which did not enhance my scent. I did have a pair of new black shoes and socks, and a gold-colored tie. I wore a traditional Muslim hat, edged with golden leaves.

When I looked in the mirror, I saw a new me. Not a sorrowful man defined by his relationship failures. I straightened my tie and hat, and said to my reflection, “You’re a lucky man.” Mr. (Pak) Modin, the elderly holy man arrived. He greeted me and asked me to recite my vow. When I said it, he shook his head. I memorized the wrong vow, so he wrote a new version. Tuti’s English-speaking cousin said, “You have a few minutes to get the new one right, or recite it in front of everyone until you do.”

No pressure. Here’s what I practiced: Saya berjanji, dalam kejujuran dan ketulusan, menjadi bagi anda suami yang setia dan membantu. Roughly translated: “I, Arlo, take you, Tuti, to be my lawful wedded wife.” The mixup occurred because wedding vows, ceremonies, and rituals vary from region to region. Somehow I had been told to memorize a vow not customary in this area. At 4 p.m., Tuti — in a white, lacy wedding gown called the kebaya — made her gala entrance into the living room. We sat before Pak Modin, and in the presence of her admiring family. Lacking a wedding rehearsal, I must have looked like Mr. Bean goes to the Mosque. I misplaced the ring, handed the dowry at the wrong moment, and, to the delight and amusement of her family, reversed our roles. Everyone laughed, lovingly. After my first attempt to recite the new vow, Pak Modin smiled in approval. Tuti’s older brother, Kamid, stood in for the ceremonial role of her father. When her turn came, Tuti glowed like a goddess (widodari ) and happily recited her vow.

Click to watch the Javanese, Islam marriage vow video

We could now share Tuti’s old bedroom without shaming the family. The ceremony was followed by a prayer and a reception line. I touched each person’s hands to my forehead in honor of the almighty, Mohammad. We then relaxed into the reception. Tuti’s family sat on the floor, passed rice, made small talk (I was told), and shared gifts. I bought ice cream for all the children in the village, cranked up an old karaoke machine, and passed out modest gifts of money throughout the clan. We hired a photographer, who turned the living room into a photo studio. First, he took formal photos of the kids, brothers, cousins, uncles, and aunts. The sessions lasted for hours. They were eager to pose because it was the first time they had ever been photographed. I was thrilled for Tuti that her family gathered for this occasion. But I pictured one more witness — my daughter, Danika. I wanted to see her and hear her say, “I am happy for you, Daddy.” The women (of course) cleaned up, while the men went outside to play cards — until 6 a.m. About 3 a.m. I spotted Uncle Matt 100,000 rupiah so he could stay in the game.

I framed my favorite photo of Tuti and me. For our honeymoon, we returned to Bali, ordered pizza delivery, and snuggled up to our favorite dangdut singing contest on TV. A year and a half later, when we returned to her uncle’s place, Tuti was told by the village authorities that we were not legally married. Due to improper paperwork, we did not have the official buku nikah (marriage book) and were not allowed to live together?

Our requisite marriage book traveled through a labyrinth of government offices, ending up in the Department of Religious Affairs. There we faced the director, Mohammad Bejo, a stocky, middle-aged man wearing a batik shirt, and a black peci. While Tuti went into a lengthy explanation of our story, I crossed my legs and spaced out on the ceiling fan. When the attention focused on me, Tuti slapped my leg to uncross them. I later was aware that crossing one’s legs in a business meeting is considered to be impolite.

“I’m from Hollywood, USA. You know, Tom Cruise, President Obama, ” I said. Bejo nodded approvingly. Tuti roughly translated that he wanted to wear my sunglasses. “Those are Ray-Ban, American,” I commented. He put them on and smiled, “Are you a movie star?” Everyone laughed except me, I didn’t get it.

Because my permission to marry an Indonesian from the US Embassy lacked an American flag stamp on it our marriage application had been denied three times. Saved by the Ray-Bans they tipped the balance in our favor, and he “legalized” us. My marriage book was green and Tuti’s book, red — like a couple’s passport to Christmas. The photo looked like me, but the name of my dad, my birthdate and birthplace were misspelled. The documents claimed that we were Muslim. I did not designate that. Nor was I asked. Technically, I followed no organized religion and neither did Tuti. I supposed that our previous wedding suggested that we are Muslims. I hoped this squared with the authorities now. Tuti and I signed the buka, shook the director’s hand, and thanked him. We quickly set up a new wedding date, auspicious or not.

For marriage #2 we dressed up in traditional Javanese costumes, and I got to look like a sultan. The 'new' holy man who married us complained about my lack of Javanese and the time required to conduct the ceremony. The holy man said, “I could marry three people in the time it takes to marry you!” Uncle Matt and the gang kept with their tradition of all-night poker. Would we receive new wedding gifts? Did we have to return the ones we’ve been using?

An upside to all the craziness was a change in my visa status, which reduced my fees by nearly half. Our holy union, however, did not grant me any civil rights to property, employment, or a process of dual citizenship, no matter how long I lived in Indonesia. Besides tradition, what was the legal point of marriage? Our marriage is not legally recognized in the United States. If we ever decided to live in America, I would have to file a marriage petition for Tuti through US immigration. I do not know whether we will marry yet a third time.

Over the course of years, during our marriage, Tuti took good care of me. Eventually, we learned each other's language. After moving around Indonesia we finally settled in her family's village. The topic of religion never was never raised. If this is what it's like to marry the enemy then I highly recommend it.

Hennings is the author of “Guitarlo” an award-nominated memoir that includes his experiences living in Minnesota and Indonesia.

Guitarlo - available where ever books are sold

This disclaimer informs readers that the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to the author’s employer, organization, web site ISP, search engines, committee or other group or individual.

© Arlo Hennings 2020

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

My Bali Guest House: Ubud, Bali

  My Bali Guest House: Ubud, Bali

a true story by Arlo Hennings

I gave up on a plan to reverse course and reinvent myself back in the States. So I focused on the present time and place — life in “The Bud” (Ubud, Bali).

Renting out guest accommodation had become a popular way, for foreigners especially, to earn extra income on the island. This is the kind of place I first rented, and the idea appealed to me. I began to search for a suitable place where I could create my own guest house. Soon enough, I found a two-story bungalow that I could rent for one year.

Armed with a new sense of purpose and proper visa, I named my new place “Siddharlo’s Guest House” in honor of the prince who became the Buddha, Siddhartha, by Herman Hesse. In June of 2012, I hung out a new sign under the Bali sun: Siddharlo’s Guest House.

Siddharlo’s Guest House was more like a fifth-dimensional train station for aliens than an inn for travelers. It was located about 10 minutes by motorbike from Ubud’s spiritual, arts, and trinket center. My villa was easier to find than most, past the only resort with a big swimming pool and down a well-paved driveway. The drive from town to my villa was an adventure in itself. The road, with all its twists and turns, was bordered on either side by a wide array of visual imagery: rice fields, villas under construction, ancient Hindu temples, botanical gardens, and an authentic Kundalini yoga ashram. In addition, driving along the narrow, congested road was like navigating an obstacle course of dogs and more dogs, ducks, cars, motorbikes, and people.

I had sometimes dreamed about having a resort or a guest house business and thought that people who owned these types of places really had it made. It was a way to sustain yourself while doing something you enjoyed, with the possibility of even making a little extra. Ideally, I would have chosen to go eco-friendly with a totally self-sustainable dwelling, operating off the grid using solar power, rainwater, and recycled gray water, which would leave only a minimal ecological footprint. That ideal would have to wait until I had a better understanding of the local tourist accommodation business and had accrued sufficient resources to procure my own land on which to build it. So, Siddharlo’s was a practice run — the first step in self-sufficiency on the island and in moving toward the realization of that dream.

I would describe the structure I chose for my new home, and guest house, as a poorly designed Indo/European style villa. It was built in the late ’90s, constructed mainly of painted brick and concrete, and already showed signs of wear. The sinks, toilets and ceramic tile were damaged and in dire need of replacement. Doors and windows did not fit or function properly in their frames, and part of the patio was sinking. In fact, the entire place needed renovation.

The disproportionate use of space in the typical Balinese home is an architectural oddity by American standards. For example, most bedrooms are quite small, while a bathroom can accommodate a king-sized bed.

The house had no living room area or office space. Fortunately, I found a villa with an unusually large indoor kitchen. Most Balinese houses have either a tiny indoor kitchen or an open kitchen located outside. The kitchen, however, consisted of a countertop, a sink with only cold running water, a refrigerator, and a camping stove powered by a tank of natural gas. I added a microwave and an electric oven.

One feature needed no fixing: the view. The spacious patio overlooked an expansive garden of coconut trees and tropical flora in a myriad of sizes, shapes, and colors. In the early morning, a veil of mist lay across the garden, creating an enchanting and inspiring ambiance. Intoxicating fragrances floated gently on the jungle breeze.

Despite the villa’s drawbacks, or because of them, the rent was affordable. I still had enough money to make necessary repairs and to create a pleasant retreat for guests.

The guest quarters offered a private entrance to the single spacious room that could accommodate two people comfortably. I brought in a queen-sized bed, new bamboo furniture, and Balinese art. The private, modern bath was plumbed with hot and cold running water and equipped with a shower and tub. A balcony, overlooking the garden, doubled as a kitchenette.

Along with free wifi, I also set up services including transportation, bike rentals, laundry cleaning, massage, clean drinking water, delivery of meals and organic vegetables, and tour guides.

Finally, I created a roadside sign, and I employed a local Balinese man, Wayan as my assistant. He would also add an entertaining touch by shimmying up the coconut trees to retrieve coconuts for my guests. I took photos of the villa, set up a website with online booking, and officially opened Siddharlo’s.

After all the preparation, I remained uncertain about whether I possessed sufficient knowledge and skill to adequately meet the demands of a cross-section of international travelers. How would my past business and social experiences serve me in this venture? I wanted to connect with my guests, befriend them and hear what they had to say. I wanted to use my artistic knowledge and be sensitive to my guests’ creative needs. I wanted to be an unobtrusive, smiling presence and provide them a calming, harmonious environment that would enrich their experience and foster a sense of well-being; a place where they could unroll their yoga mat, have a veggie shake, sing a song or two and tell me their stories.

My fears turned out to be unfounded and I soon began hosting guests from all corners of the globe. Many of my guests were free-spirited young people who had traveled the world for years. I enjoyed the entire parade of colorful characters, and some stood out more than others.

Jaguar X arrived at my villa at the appointed time. Seeing her up close for the first time, I was taken aback by her striking presence — tall, fit, ebony-skinned, beaded, braided, and broadly smiling. Topping off her image was an exaggerated crown of black braided hair full of bright pink and yellow string that seemed to ensnare moonbeams before falling from her shoulders, and draping her slender body to the waist like a cape of light. The statuesque cat woman stood in my doorway and surveyed the space.

“Aren’t you going to invite me in?” JX queried through an American southern drawl, half-smile.

We couldn’t have been standing there for more than a few seconds. I felt flush with embarrassment and checked to make sure my jaw wasn’t hanging open.

“Yes, of course. Come in,” I said.

I helped her carry in luggage and several hula hoops. Her cat-paw feet seemed to barely touch the floor as she appeared to float in fluid silence to the chair I held out for her. After pouring us each a cup of tea, I joined her at the table and we began to exchange stories. JX began by telling me that she was in her late 30s, unmarried, had no children, and was self-employed.

“My mom kicked me off the couch and my brother was getting on my back,” she explained. “I have an idea for a goddess empowerment retreat.”

This was her eighth sojourn to Bali in as many years. JX continued to return because she felt certain that in Bali, among those she considered to be of highly evolved consciousness, she could develop her hoop tribe. JX had already sold many retreat tickets, had a huge following, and was a role model for the New Age entrepreneur.

JX took a sip of her tea and continued. “I consider myself part of the Hoop Love Tribe.”

“Can you tell me what you mean by the Hoop Love Tribe?” I asked.

JX paused for a moment as though collecting her thoughts. I suspected that she’d never been asked to explain it before. Perhaps she searched for an explanation that a mortal could understand.

“The Hoop Love Tribe is at one with universal goddess energy. The body of the goddess is translucent, pulsating with complex systems of glowing energy that is visible to those who have the sight; or what you might call a clairvoyant. She is not a person, but pure awareness. To be a goddess is about the integration of body, mind, and spirit into a single spectrum of light and consciousness.”

JX sat back in her chair and twisted a long strand of her hair into a knot. Three of her long fingers were adorned with onyx stone rings embedded in silver. I sensed that she placed some significance on the rings, other than feminine adornment. Searching my memory for symbolism that might reveal the rings’ secrets, I recalled that onyx was believed to have the power to align its wearer with higher consciousness, facilitate wise judgment, deflect grief, and repel the negative vibrations of others. Silver was considered a mirror of the soul, a conduit connecting the physical and astral bodies, thus enhancing intuition, and was akin to the moon and feminine energy. The number three was harmony and balance; a synthesis of opposing forces. I was feeling a little hip having remembered that bit of trivia.

She caught me eyeing a satchel.

“I see that you’re curious about what’s in my luggage?” JX said.

“Yes, I suppose I was,” I replied. I felt somewhat nosey.

As JX removed a set of bronze bowls from her satchel, she told me that they were Tibetan singing bowls. She actually traveled to Tibet to purchase them. As JX was arranging the bowls, I noticed in her open bag what appeared to be a deck of cards bearing an intricate etching of an angel, several books, and a small silk pouch tied with a golden string. Apparently detecting my interest she told me that if I was in need of divine guidance, she could give me an Angel Card reading. JX went on to say that she also had the ability to read love auras and how that might be helpful if I was seeking romance or having trouble with relationships.

“And what does a thing like that cost?” I asked. I tried to maintain a respectful level of composure, but when she told me her fees, I couldn’t help but react.

“Do you realize that that is enough to provide for a family of four for a month here?” I asked. I was thinking of Wayan and how hard he worked to earn less money in a month than what JX charged for a 45-minute session of reading one’s “love aura,” whatever the heck that was.

I became somewhat concerned about what I might have gotten myself into financially.

As though reading my mind, JX said with a soft smile, “There is no charge for a healing session with the bowls, but I do appreciate a small donation.”

JX directed me to lie face down on my bed and relax, then proceeded to explain how the bowls worked by resonating with the body’s seven chakras.

Having once been a student and practitioner of yoga and meditation techniques that were rooted in Eastern tradition, I knew about chakras and understood their significance in healing and spiritual practices. I also knew that they actually have a basis in early anatomy, corresponding with the five major complexes of nerves along the spinal column and the two major parts of the brain, associated with lower and higher functioning. I didn’t know a great deal about the singing bowls, other than that their use as musical instruments dated back to Tibetan monasteries around the 8th Century AD, where they were used to begin and end daily meditations. I had heard them on relaxation discs and found the deep resonance produced by the bowls to be very soothing.

As JX placed a bowl at each chakra point, she explained how each resonated in a certain key, or harmonic tone, that corresponded with the natural frequency of the associated chakra.

“The bowls have the ability to detect the source or location in the body where there is illness or injury because there is a blockage of the energy flow through the chakra associated with that function or part of the body. The blockage causes an audible modification in the tone of the bowl’s vibration.” JX went on to explain that a recording is done of the session because it is a more reliable way of discerning subtle dissonance than trying to gauge by ear alone.

“Once the problem area is isolated, more emphasis can be placed on that chakra,” JX said, as she described how the bowls also had the ability to unblock the flow of energy because they seek to self-correct any dissonance in their tonal quality.

For the next 30 minutes or so, JX moved around and across my body, striking each bowl in turn, allowing the vibrations of the bowls to resonate into and throughout my body. JX remarked that my heart was very strong; one of the strongest she’d heard, but advised that the bowls had detected blockages in my lower three chakras. JX instructed me to remain very still, keeping my eyes closed and my mind empty of thought, in order to allow the bowls to work. JX added that the residual vibrations would continue to move through the body with healing energy for several minutes following the last strike of the bowls. I expected the energy would stay, circulate the chakras, for as long as needed, but I suppose it depended on the healer.

When I opened my eyes a short while later, I felt very relaxed, but it quickly became clear that there had been no substantial improvement in my physical symptoms. When I turned to ask her if more sessions would be required, I realized that JX had vanished into the other room, as though fading into the trees on an afternoon breeze, along with the vibrations of her bowls.

I wasn’t upset, or even especially surprised, that my Bali belly still held me captive. Maybe I was a bad patient? What I got was another in a sequence of strange afternoons on what I’d come to laughingly refer to as “Fantasy Island.” The outcome was too bad as there are true healers among us, but they tend to not charge an arm and a leg being aware of Spirit.

I wished her well.

JX’s retreat turned out to be one of the most successful in Bali.

My next guest, “the doctor,” was a first time visitor to the island. The middle-aged man’s stocky build, rosy cheeks, and big, bushy eyebrows reminded me of Grumpy the dwarf in Snow White. I chuckled to myself as I pictured him lumbering through the airport toting an ax instead of a single suitcase. His large, square face was accented by thick, black-rimmed glasses that gave him a stern and scholarly appearance. I asked about his flight and if he was experiencing any jet lag.

“No….no jet lag,” he said, as he brushed his short, stiff brown hair off of his perspiring forehead, “and I take special herbs to combat motion fatigue.”

On the drive from the airport, I learned that he had been a practicing physician in his native Russia before emigrating to the United States a decade ago. He had arrived in New York with only $20 USD to his name. He later relocated, settling in Los Angeles, where he established and operated a clinic as an acupuncturist, herbalist and holistic healer. I asked what had brought him to Bali, to which he replied in his heavy accent, “I was curious what all the hype regarding healing on Bali was all about and wanted to find out for myself.”

Once we arrived back at my villa, the doctor set about inspecting his room with such attention to detail that I was tempted to ask him if he’d like a magnifying glass. He bounced on the sofa, opened and closed the refrigerator, checked the water pressure and looked into, under and behind every nook and cranny, all the while making grunts, hurumphs, hmmmms, and nods of acceptability or disapproval. He seemed to find everything in order. Well, almost everything. He stood staring at the bed and rubbing his chin as if it had just spoken to him, then asked if I had two wires. When I asked what he needed the wires for, he told me that he practiced the art of dowsing, as well as teaching it to others, thus adding to his ever-increasing resume of professed skills and talents. Dowsing, more commonly known as “divination” and best known as a method of locating underground water, is also employed for the purpose of locating metals, ore, oil, and even gravesites. What the doctor was looking for just now were signs of problematic energy flow.

I provided the wires as requested and watched as he bent them together and passed them over, under and around the bed. When he’d completed the ritual he announced that there were several veins of negative energy in that area and was insistent that the bed be moved to another part of the room. I was determined to build a reputation for excellent hospitality and do whatever I could to assure the comfort and well-being of my guests, even if it meant going the extra mile, a philosophy that the doctor would put to the test over the next few weeks. Although I could see no real necessity in doing so, I acquiesced to his demands and moved the bed to a location more to his liking.

I asked him if there was anything else I could do for him, before turning in. He advised me that he was a vegetarian, and asked if I could arrange delivery of fresh vegetables in the morning. “Did you know that before the collapse of communism in Russia, it was illegal to be a vegetarian?” he asked. “If you were discovered, you could actually be sent to prison.” He went on to say that he had helped to create the first vegetarian union group in Russia.

I thought it was a pretty radical idea and considered what possible reason the Russian government could have for meddling in the dietary proclivities of its populace. It was one of those profound moments of clarity in which I recognized how much I took for granted and was thankful I’d been spared many of the unpleasant circumstances that life had to offer.

“No, I didn’t know that. It is hard to even imagine,” I told him. I promised to see to the vegetable delivery and bade him goodnight.

I had heard that following the collapse of the former Soviet Union, a sizable number of Russia’s wealthy had relocated to Bali and invested large sums of money in property and business ventures and established their own expat community. They reportedly lived in close proximity to one another, set up their own websites and were pretty much self-contained, choosing not to mingle with other communities, whether foreign or native. I hadn’t had any personal experience thus far.

My knowledge of communist Russia, too, was very limited and over the next few weeks, I listened with interest as the doctor shared many stories of his life before the collapse of the USSR and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Stories lavishly seasoned with boastful accounts of his own accomplishments and heroics that would have you believe that he could deliver a baby with one hand tied behind his back, diagnose some rare, obscure illness by reading tea leaves and “leap tall buildings in a single bound.”

I asked him if the movie, “Dr. Zhivago,” was realistic in its portrayal of the hardships endured during the revolution.

He thought about it for a moment before replying, “Some of it was true. You could wake up to find that a village of peasants had moved into your house.”

I nicknamed him “Dr. Zhivago” after that, which seemed to please him.

His petulance was only equaled by his miserliness. On his first morning as my guest, he presented me with a list of his expectations. Although it was posted clearly on the booking website what amenities were and were not included, he apparently chose to ignore it and leaned on me to act as his tour guide, transportation manager and dating service, all at no extra cost. As if that wasn’t presumptuous enough, he acted as though my kitchen was his own personal internet cafe, using my computer of course. The doctor grumbled and complained about the cost of everything, from a motorbike ride to an article of clothing and haggled with the local merchants over even a few cents more than what he thought he should pay for an item or service, frequently comparing Bali with India and saying how much cheaper things were there. His attitude about money seemed odd to me for a man who had lived behind the Iron Curtain and who, even now, lived in subsidized housing that he described as an apartment the size of a shoebox.

Apart from the many temples visits the doctor made on his daily outings, he was most interested in meeting with an authentic Balinese healer, more out of curiosity than need. During his stay, he connected with a fellow Russian on Facebook who was able to book a session with a healer through a Russian-owned hotel. Upon returning from the day’s session, he told me how the healer had done a “body reading” and raved about having had the best massage he’d ever experienced. He didn’t disclose what, if any, diagnosis and recommendations were made, but overall it had been a wonderful experience...except for paying the bill. He was upset and confused by what he considered an exorbitant price tag, having been under the impression that true healers offer their services requesting only donations as payment. He had apparently asked the healer about it, who responded that he was unaware of what was being charged by the hotel for providing his service.

When he wasn’t out visiting temples and healers, taking in the sights or complaining about one thing or another, he was shopping for a wife and offering unsolicited medical services. His practice seemed to cover everything from hypnosis and past life regression therapy to dietary analysis and marriage counseling. No one was safe from diagnosis and treatment. One day Wayan was confronted with the pronouncement that he would not live past the age of 40 due to complications from smoking cigarettes. His treatment plan for Wayan involved a session of hypnosis and acupuncture. Wayan was trying to be a good sport about it, but when he saw the box full of small needles, he was having none of it. He mumbled something about black magic and found an excuse to make a fast retreat. The doctor’s attention then focused on Wayan’s wife, who he diagnosed with marital insecurities and prescribed several hours of mental dowsing. Finally, he addressed my chronic stomach problems, naming improper diet as the culprit, once snatching a bag of chips from my hand to make his point. I had to laugh when he read the ingredients label and realized that the organic chips contained none of the offensive contents he was expecting. Nevertheless, he prescribed numerous herbs and nutritional supplements, many of which would be unavailable anywhere on the island.

After 22 days, it came time for the doctor to return home. As he prepared for his departure, I asked him what he thought of Bali. He said that he loved the Balinese temples and was very impressed with the unique spirituality and architecture of the indigenous people, but the pseudo-spiritual healing businesses that targeted the tourist dollar and were run predominantly by Western immigrants, he viewed with disdain.

“If I wanted to deal with the trendy and pretentious New Age scene and holistic medicine with an overinflated price tag, I wouldn’t need to come to Bali. There’s plenty of that in L.A.”

I asked him if he would return to the island. He laughed and said, “You never know.” We took pictures together, shook hands and wished each other health, love, and clarity.

“Good luck with the wife search,” I bid him farewell.

Siddharlo’s fifth-dimensional train station in its first year of business accommodated more than 15 guests. Nazareno and Lisa were two of my youngest guests, gone from dawn to dusk, and I enjoyed “their paradise is where I am” attitude. Both turned 30 years old in “The Bud” and had been backpacking Asia since they were 20. He was from Uruguay and her, Sweden. Both were yoga teachers. Marriage was a discussion point but not planned in their immediate future. Luckily for them, a local yoga shop contracted them to lead a “couples’ yoga,” but unfortunately the customers were few and far between, mostly due to the fact that Ubud was saturated with yoga instructors. Thus, I was constantly asked to lower their rent, and it beckoned the question, how they managed financially?

It was unusual for me to meet young people who globe trotted the world in the name of spirituality. Most people of their generation only wanted money. The two vegetarians wanted harmony and balance for the mind and body, not a mortgage and a fancy car. They were poster material with Lisa’s yoga perfect figure, bright Swedish blonde hair, turquoise colored eyes and a sun healthy, freckled face. She was mature beyond her years and it gave her a magnetic attraction I found to be radiantly alive. Nazareno was the guy I always wanted to be. He loved life with a bungee jumper’s conviction. His yoga and PADI certified body were chiseled: stomach muscles and metal pipe arms sporting beach burned tattoos. On top of his outdoorsman body was a strikingly handsome face that caused the local maids to giggle. Yet, he was so utterly unpretentious and comfortable with himself that his aura and smile pulled you in with an infectious likeability. No people, I thought, could be this happy and content. How to obtain such inner peace?

I was horribly jealous and regretted why I had not shaved my head and become a Zen monk when I was their age. That way I could have voluntarily absolved myself from my worldly possessions rather than being robbed of them. Should’ve, could’ve and what-ifs twisted my thoughts into a pretzel of senseless clouded exasperation.

“I am sorry to see you go,” I said.

“We really like it here, but a friend is willing to take us in for practically nothing. I hope you understand,” Lisa explained.

“Would you like to try the yellow coconut water?” I asked them. “The water inside them is considered sacred and used for ceremonial purposes. I was also told the water cleansed the intestines.”

“I would love to try it,” Lisa answered in plain English as if she had lived her entire life in Minnesota.

Wayan shimmied up a tree and cut down six coconuts. He then carefully took a hatchet and cut the top off. We poured the refreshing coconut water into three glasses.

“That’s really good.” Nazareno’s eyebrows lifted as he emptied his glass.

“There’s plenty more, so help yourselves.” I made a toast. “Here’s to your 10 years traveling on the dharma triangle: India, Thailand, and Bali.”

Lisa and Nazareno both raised their glasses in a toast.

“How are your yoga classes going?” I queried.

“Slow…” Nazareno answered.

“Do you know how to design a website?” Lisa asked.

“Yes, I can help you with that,” I offered. “Are you looking to promote yourself?”

“We were thinking of our own studio. Not sure where or how yet, but that is our direction,” Nazareno explained, in his Spanish tinged accent.

“Nazareno, I have been curious about one thing. How have you managed to live so long abroad? Do you get money from your parents?” I asked, respectfully.

“My parents have no money, amigo,” he laughed. “One time I worked for a year at a car rental agency in Amsterdam and saved.”

Lisa showed no interest in the question. I calculated that working one year at a car rental company could not cover the next nine years abroad, even for backpacking. Plane fare and passport visas cost money. If they didn’t want to tell me how they managed it, I didn’t press the question. Most foreigners I met on Bali pretended to be "something else" so the vague response came as no surprise.

“I hope you write a book about your journey. My 22-year-old daughter will be your first reader.” I shook his hand. “Thank you for making Siddharlo’s home. Please tell your friends about me.”

They zipped up their packs. Nazareno pushed a pair of complimentary yoga class passes into my hand. “Stop by, amigo.”

“The month is already gone,” I said and hugged Lisa.

“I’d like you to have these as a token of our gratitude for your hospitality,” Lisa said and handed me two yoga mats. “We’ll come back and say hi.”

I was sorry to see them go…but they all come and go. Being transcendental was part of their nature.

Hennings is the author of “Guitarlo” an award-nominated memoir that includes his experiences living in Minnesota and Indonesia.

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© Arlo Hennings 2020