The Search for Stuck

Life was easy, but living was difficult. The fifth vertebrate in the lumbar region of my spine was herniated… again.  Simply put, my back was broken.

The interrupted sleep was the worst of it.  Slumber was shallow and brief, and felt like a chore. Comfort was a physical impossibility. Nights were chopped into three-hour segments, separated by desperate and painful stretches on cold, tile floors. Mobility was constrained, forcing slowness into every action. Nursing my delicate spine on a gentle stroll felt like carrying a porcelain vase across a minefield.

For recreation, I’d make walks to a nearby meadow to exchange dull stares with the grazing cattle. In moments of sudden, unprovoked jubilance, they’d come bounding towards me. Clumsy and huge and guileless. And I, so hopelessly, hilariously feeble, could do nothing but stand and pray they wouldn’t crush me with accidental clownishness.

To my great fortune I recovered in Bali with no responsibilities and a low cost of living. Despite the physical debilitation, I actually fell into a productive routine. A complimentary breakfast of toast and coffee supplemented a few hours of writing to begin each day.

Lunch was $2 Nasi Campur (translated literally: ‘rice mix’); a plate of rice onto which a selected assortment of veggies, fish, tempura, egg and/or sauce(s) were piled. After, I’d wander to the beach and play Chess with the locals.

Chess is a quick route to local camaraderie in Indonesia, and India too. Chess is a perfect social pretext. And through it I tasted the local culture purely, outside the realm of commercial transaction.

On Bali, words spoken over that tessellated board revealed where the cheapest restaurants were; where the best masseuse practiced; where I could seek the madness and fury of a cock fight, or the seediest underbelly of the sex industry.

As cinnamon cigarette smoke wafted overhead, I familiarized myself with a darker side of Bali. And using the crudest semantic instruments the locals and I passed the time with laughter and cheer. I’d hang around until the last of the tourists finished their sunbathing. The men would leap up and break down the lounges and umbrellas.

And I’d leave, usually before the dismal sunset. The horizon blurs into a soupy broth that dissolves and consumes the sun; smothers it in a polluted fade. Every day ends with a murky twilight. And every evening, as the tireless engine of commerce it is, the beach seamlessly transforms from beers and beach umbrellas under the sun to cocktails and live music beneath paper lanterns.

During those transitions, I drove to a local market. Dinner for me was a $1.50 plate of fish and rice and veggies. As my jaw champed happily away, my eyes would idly absorb the images of an indecipherable Indonesian soap opera.

I slept at the Eco Hostel in Seminyak for $5.75 a night. Clean, white-tiled floors, fresh-coated green walls, air-conditioned, and with spacious bunk-beds built into the infrastructure of the building. Each bed had its own outlet for power, its own light, and a curtain for privacy. These are the little comforts that make a hostel wonderful.

That was my routine, and there I stayed. But those details are only the skeleton of my experience recovering in Bali. That hostel, that island, was more to me than a destination; it was home.

I fostered rapport with the staff, and they me. They taught me Bahasa, the language of Indonesia.  Those lessons turned to gold one year later on a Blueberry farm in Australia.

I befriended two resident mutts, Dora and Blacky, who’d trot alongside me during my frail walks. Each day I hobbled past a dusty construction site and chat with the workers there.

Moe, a Balinese construction worker, lived in the dust of his vocation to feed his family two islands away. Upon learning of my citizenship, he’d plea without hope to be taken to America.

I felt guilt for the cynical derision in which I hold my native country. I felt despair for my incapacity to help the endless throngs of impoverished people all around the world.  I let Moe’s pleas remind me of the great fortune of my station in life, and so developed gratitude.

I archived his plight in the vault of my worldview to better understand human society, its faults and shortcomings. Through that understanding I strengthened my resolve to improve it, and so grew my ambition and purpose.

Reality felt closer, more immediate and with imposing weight, as Moe and I smoked somber cigarettes on the exposed rebar rib-cage of some new shopping outlet.

How thick and insulated the method of my being. When I work, I might not eat those earnings for weeks or months. Moe eats his day’s earnings every night.  When the shallow pool of available conversation dried up, we’d sit and watch the kites floating over the city.  I’d sit silently and try to empathize with him.

Over the course of a month in Seminyak, the hostel would fill up, then empty, then fill again. I’d come to appreciate the cycles; thriving in the social rush, relaxing in the quiet lull. And it was there in the Eco Hostel, in Seminyak, Bali, where I met Camille.

Anyone who travels and talks about traveling will inevitably gush about the people they met on the road. Camille was, to me, one of those gems. I would immortalize her character in poetry. For her vibrancy, her thirst for life, her genuine affect, all belying an inner softness, a subconscious effort to find her place in this world.

She was at the thin end of the budgetary spectrum having spent a few months travelling India, China, Thailand and other Asian countries. She spent the final weeks of her tour abroad in the Eco Hostel with me, and in that place we became friends.

I’d love her if all I knew about her was that she traveled India. But this girl, she drove across India on a Royal Enfield. For the uninformed, a Royal Enfield is the pride of India, a motorbike that epitomizes bulk and muscle. And while I scooted around Bali on a little 100cc automatic Honda, she drove a heavy five-gear manual.

Why? Because she’s a fucking legend that’s why.

So I got stuck in Bali in the best way possible, and as a consequence of the worst injury I know. Silver linings abound. Life was ideal. Camille and the Fool, the hostel staff and beach-side locals, the construction workers and security guards, the dogs and cattle, and the beautiful randoms from around the world that appeared with such perfect brevity.

Healthy food and fun times. All seasoned with the ability to splurge on all that Bali had to offer; cheap drinks and used books, massages and splendid feeds.

It was there in Bali that I first recognized the slowed pace with which I travel. On my first year abroad, my movement was downright frenetic. I moved on weekly.

In my second year I was inclined to seek out those places that I wished to stay for awhile. Getting stuck would come to characterize how I traveled. To adopt the style requires a taste for local people, simple shared experiences, and genuine culture. The style unearths diamonds of insight and cultivates thick roots of friendship.  But it comes with a cost. It was in Bali that I became aware of what might one day slay my wanderlust; the goodbyes.

Goodbye forever: a vicious consequence of the vagabond lifestyle, of the boundless roam, of purest freedom. It’s heartbreaking man. Memories are a sweet consolation, but laughably unsatisfying compared to continued friendship.

So leaving Seminyak, during a Mid-September sunrise, my stomach knotted from a deep, deep sadness. I was off to Singapore with a heavy backpack and a heavier malaise. That melancholic dark cloud would cloak me for days.

I sweated it out in a fifth floor sauna in that wealthy city-state. Eventually my spine, and my drive, recovered. And I was off to get stuck again.
Thank you for reading.

-C

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