When I was younger, I used to think I would never get out of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Luckily, at fifteen, I traveled to Europe with two friends, my sister and our neighbor. The next summer I stayed home, once again stuck in the habits of Santa Fe, tanning, hanging out with friends, watching clouds roll by, sitting on our downtown plaza watching tourists.
I had heard of the Bali Art Project before, a non-profit organization, run by Gaylon Duke and Zenia Victor, a smart, travel happy couple who took eight kids each summer to the Indonesian island of Bali. I was amazed, after a short interview I had been selected. Not only to travel to Bali but to meet new people, study a language, practice my art, and be enriched.
Nine months after being selected we arrived in Bali, jet lagged and stuck in an airport, we walked past signs declaring death to those who imported or exported drugs. We definitely weren’t in America anymore. Stepping out of the cool airport in Denpasar at eleven in the evening was like stepping into a sauna.
Moisture wrapped its hands around your mouth and nose, pressing the air down your throat as though being smothered. In a stupor we all climbed into bed, overhead fans pointlessly spinning on the ceiling, we tried to ignore the wet sheets that would become normal to us as we lay there, sweat like dew already forming on our foreheads. This is a third world country.
People drove past, four on a motor-bike, they walked past, shoeless with hats made of palm leaves and coconuts weighing down the ends of a bamboo pole set across their shoulders. Bali is the kindest place one could ever go. Here, people have nothing and are willing to share it all.
Here, people greet one another and smile, ‘Apa Kabar?’ ‘How are you?’ they ask, ‘Baik Baik,’ you would reply, ‘Very well.’ We took many classes: Batik, wax painting and dying of a cloth, with a man named Nyoman. He was a large man, and a beautiful painter. Large glasses framed his face as he exercised his knowledge of American culture on a daily basis by saying expressions like ‘hasta la vista baby!’ Our painting teacher Gusti Kwanji is imitated every year, by the past students, the same way, by inhaling deep and holding in air, as though smoking.
He smoked clove cigarettes through every lesson as he nodded in approval of our work. Balinese dance was tricky, bobbing ones head and squatting for an hour is not easy when you are sweating enough to soak your shirt. Gamelon, a form of metal percussion, gave me a headache.
I would sit and think of how I would rather be sleeping, seeing as the geckos had kept me up with their mocking laughter the previous night. Tinklet, similar to marimba but made out of bamboo, was my hearts desire. Your hands move at different paces, hitting different notes and creating different rhythms. Frustration came easily with this class, but so did pride, one could simply not give up.
The island changed you. Here my hair curled, full like the eighties, my skin softened and fingernails grew at three times the normal rate. Here you could be whomever you wanted, and considering I was there with relative strangers that made it all the more interesting.
Traveling with someone is the best way to get to know them. When someone hasn’t slept for forty eight hours, or has seventy bug bites on their back thighs, as was my case, or when you have parasites from Costa Rica and can’t keep a meal down for a week and a half straight, that’s when you really get to know them. You share these beautiful and exhausting moments together that can never be re-created, like reading at the public library in our home town Ubud, capturing the only breeze on the island, or walking, just you and the boys, watching the tall grasses dance next to palm trees.
Traveling to Bali opened my eyes to the realities of the world. Understanding the cultures around the world is the pathway to peace, and a pretty great way to spend a summer.
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