Bali, Hi - Eight months in Bali

Part I
We're all Wayans on this tour bus

by Mad Dog

Here on Bali people only have one of four names: Wayan, Made, Nyoman, and Ketut. Which one they get depends on the order in which they were born. This must make life hell on teachers. 
    I’m sitting on the veranda—what you and I call a front porch—in the middle of some rice paddies just south of Ubud, a city on Bali. The fields are brown, for which my landlords have apologized profusely, but that’s because they were just harvested. The fields, not the landlords. I’d asked that they spray paint them green for my arrival but as I learned quickly, many things are easier said than done here.

    The fields are full of ducks. Thousands of them. They’re eating leftover rice at the bottom of the paddies. When they’re done here they’ll be taken to another set of fields to continue dining in style. To the ducks a rice paddy is an All You Can Eat buffet. Well, as long as you don’t mind choosing between uncooked rice, uncooked rice, and uncooked rice.

    Ducks have it good here. At least until they stop eating the buffet and become one. Each morning the duck herders lead them single file along the narrow paths between the fields. The herders each carry a long bamboo pole with a couple of rags tied to the end. By waving them and giving commands the ducks do what they want. Let me tell you, these are some well trained ducks. As they move from paddy to paddy (or sawah to sawah as they say here) the herders count their flock. How they can tell one duck from the next is beyond me. They’re light brown, most have tufts on their heads, and near as I can tell they all sound alike. Especially at 6:00 in the morning when they congregate under my bedroom window discussing how ridiculous today’s’ exchange rate is. The ducks and their herders are close, so close that I suspect they name the ducks. Of course they’re all probably Donald.

    It wouldn’t be surprising. After all, here on Bali people only have one of four names: Wayan, Made, Nyoman, and Ketut. Which one they get depends on the order in which they were born. If there are more than four children in a family—and if you’re any sort of Balinese there will be—they start over with the fifth child being Wayan, the sixth Made, etc. Girls and boys both receive the same name, though when they need to be formal they put an “I” in front of it to indicate a male and an “Ni” to indicate a woman.


The flight felt a lot like being on the 45-Stockton bus in San Francisco riding through Chinatown except I had a seat, the plane didn’t lurch every twenty seconds, and I didn’t have old Chinese women knocking me out of the way to get on board.

    To complicate life, they don’t have last names. And, for reasons no one’s been able to explain yet, the first-born is sometimes called Gede, the second-born Kadek, the third Komang, and the fourth, well, he or she is shit out of luck because it’s Ketut, whether they like it or not. Thus my landlord is Kadek and so is his sister who comes by every day to place the offerings.

Balinese women    All this must make life hell on teachers. I mentioned this to Mindy, Kadek’s wife (and also my landlord), and she told me about a time she was out somewhere, saw a friend, called out “Wayan!” and half the crowd turned around. On the other hand, though, it can make a mother’s life much easier. Instead of having to call ten different children in for dinner she can just yell out four names and the whole brood comes running.

    Although the rice paddies are brown now, they won’t always be that way. Mindy and Kadek say that during the six months I’ll be here I’ll get to see the workers plow, plant, nurture, and harvest a rice crop.

    Did I say six months?

    Yup. A couple of months ago I saw a posting on an email list I get ( about some cottages on Bali that were being offered cheap for long-term lease. Well, cheap by San Francisco rates, where annual rents equal the gross national product of, well, Bali. I answered on a whim. You see, since leaving the east coast 3½ years ago I’ve been house-sitting, subletting, and petsitting. I’ve been a modern day nomad, traveling with a laptop instead of a tent. I’ve spent most of the time in the San Francisco Bay Area, but also in L.A., Oregon, Hawaii, France, and Michigan, taking road trips when I didn’t have a place to stay. But I’d never stayed in one place longer than two months, and that was in France last year (see: A Mad Dog in Bretagne). I’ve been in one city longer, but over a six-month period I might have stayed in eight or ten different places. So you can see how the idea of a year was scary.

The airport architecture gave me a glimpse of things to come while that stupid song from South Pacific kept running through my head. It could have been worse. It could have been “Mambo Number 5.”
    My younger brother and a couple of friends suggested that six months might work better. Or at least not make me crazy. Ah, they know me well. The landlords said okay, I made the arrangements, and 

    Since the plane left at 1:30 A.M. I slept. When I woke up it was breakfast time. We had a choice of frittata with bacon, croissant, yogurt, and fruit or congee with shredded pork, 1000-year-old egg, other stuff, and fruit. I got the congee since I felt adventurous and wanted to fit in. I think I was the only one on the plane who did.

    Fifteen hours and 6,450 miles later I arrived at Chiang Kai-Shek airport in Taipei. You can really tell a lot about a country by how they greet you when you get off the airplane. In Hawaii they smile, put a lei around your neck, and you know your stay will be pleasant. In Taipei they do things a little differently. The first thing you see when you get off the plane is a big sign that says: “Drug trafficking is punishable by death in the R.O.C.” Now that’s what I call a drug policy. 

Temple at the Monkey Forest    After a couple of hours chatting with two Americans who were separately heading to Nepal, one for three months and one as the start of a year-long around-the-world tour, I got on a plane for another five hours and 2,375 miles. And slept most of the way. When I looked out the window we were taxiing down the runway at Ngurah Rai Airport in Denpasar, Bali. The airport architecture gave me a glimpse of things to come while that stupid song from South Pacific kept running through my head. It could have been worse. It could have been “Mambo Number 5.”

    My nearly all-Asian flight gave way to an overwhelmingly Australian immigration line. Apparently all planes arrive in Bali between 2:05 and 2:15 every afternoon. I went through customs, declaring my cell phone since the form said “portable phones” were illegal to bring into the country. Not that my cell phone will work here. The United States, thinking free enterprise is more important than common sense, is one of the few countries that’s not on a compatible system with the rest of the world. Come to think of it I shouldn’t have bothered declaring it at all—as far as I know paperweights are legal to bring into Indonesia.

    As it turned out it didn’t matter because the customs agents were way too busy enjoying my moustache to worry about whether I was bringing anything I shouldn’t into the country. Mindy was waiting with a sign that said “Selamat Datang Mr. Mad Dog” (think: Aloha). As we walked outside the heat and humidity smacked me in the face. As I wiped the sweat from my jet-lagged brow I thought to myself, “Did I say six months?”


Previous ] Bali, Hi - Part II (Welcome to the 'hood) ]    [Bali, Hi INDEX]


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