If you ever find yourself trapped in an elevator, sharing a taxi, or picnicking under a frangipani tree with a Balinese, there’s a very good chance that his or her name will be Wayan. As the name given to the first-born in every Balinese family, Wayan is always a safe-bet guess in initial encounters and awkward situations (SPECIAL NOTE: coming upon a stranger, simply smile and confidently say, “Hello, Wayan!” If Wayan happens not to be the name of the person in question, you can easily apologize with “I’m sorry. I must be mistaking you for your brother/uncle/child/sister/nephew/grandmother.” One or all of these is guaranteed to be right.) Should a family reproduce beyond a Wayan, the second child is named Made, the third Nyoman, the fourth, Ketut, and, should a fifth come along, the naming cycle returns to Wayan. We booked our first hotel with an email to Wayan (when we arrived at the hotel, there were two Wayans behind the counter, one male and one female, both of whom appeared to recognize us. We never figured this one out), attended cooking school under the instruction of master chef Wayan, ate a late night dinner at Wayan’s House Restaurant, and bought a Balinese mask from a woodcarver named Wayan (whose father, Wayan, had actually made the mask.) It was no surprise, then, when on our third day in Bali we hired a driver to take us around the Island, he introduced himself as Wayan.
It was to be a full day of island exploration, made possible by Wayan’s impressive driving skills (how can he ride that close to those little girls on bicycles and not hit them?) and his air-conditioned Toyota. Together we explored temples, trekked along rice paddies and made fun of other tourists. Wayan taught me how to tie a sarong (it was purple, to match my eyes, he said) and helped me to retie it when the Balinese pointed and laughed as it transformed itself into a billowy dress a few hours later (this process was likely exacerbated by my tendency to twirl and sing songs from ‘The Sound of Music’ to Jess). He shared stories with us about his nine-year-old son, Wayan, and answered our questions on everything from rice farming to the eating habits of monkeys.
At midmorning, we pulled into a coffee and spice plantation. Wayan gave us a tour of the plantation and its multitude of tropical plants before we settled in at a sampling table (our real reason for stopping). It was here that Jess and I paid – yes, paid – to sample a type of coffee made from the droppings of a jungle rodent, kopi luhak. There are farmers who search the jungle floor – or their farms, if they are of more intensive poo-farming stock – for coffee beans that have passed through the digestive tract of a fuzzy, opossum-esqe creature, the Luhak, largely intact. In undigested, jungle-floor form, these coffee beans are clustered together in something that resembles a Payday candy bar. The farmers harvest these jungle bars and roast them into a premium form of coffee. Though I never saw one, I imagine these harvesting houses to be designed like chicken coops, where all the Luhaks are confined to small enclosures and spend most of their time sitting on porcelain “nests”, chatting with one another about the weather, and reading magazines while frantic farmers run around collecting the fine produce. When offered the opportunity to sample the fine poo brew, Jess and I agreed to split a cup (at $10 per cup, this coffee was the equivalent cost of three Balinese meals). I was not able to taste the flavors I was supposed to enjoy, and thus assumed that I had either just purchased a very expensive instant coffee or had had the misfortune of tasting the product of a less-refined Luhak digestive tract. Most telling, however, was that when offered a sip of our brew, Wayan smiled and politely declined.
So we were already busy digesting the indigestible when we climbed back into the Toyota to head to our next destination. It was within the first few minutes of travel that I heard what appeared to be a kitten. It wasn’t the gentle meow of a kitten wanting food or attention but the shrill shriek of a kitten in distress. I looked around the car, under the seat, in my bag. Did it jump in at the last stop? Was Wayan a black market kitten dealer? Were there heaps of them bound and gagged in the trunk? If so, should I alert the authorities or offer to take a cut of the profits to keep my mouth shut? The crying stopped. Then it started again. It was getting louder, to the point where it sounded as if the kitten was in the cabin with us. Then it stopped – the moment Wayan picked up his cell phone.
“Wayan, is that your cell phone?” I asked.
“The cat – is that your cell phone ring?”
He chuckled, meowed, and then laughed again.
Stunned, and a bit disappointed that I would be neither hero to the captured kitties no accomplice in a profitable black market enterprise, I opened my book to read about our next stop, the Hindu temple complex of Besakih.
We had been warned about Besakih. As the most significant and beautifully situated of Bali’s temples (near the cloud line on the side of Bali’s highest mountain) it was also its most visited tourist site. The men here were “tricky,” Wayan told me as he helped me back into my sarong. He encouraged me to “negotiate” the guide fee, but not to tell them that he told me it was negotiable.
We purchased our entrance tickets and made our way to the front. Things did not look promising. There, smoking and chatting near a sign marked ‘Ticket Check’, were some thirty or forty men, all of whom appeared to be “guides” for the temple complex. I thought perhaps we could circumnavigate the mob, by now all watching our approach, by going directly to the security stand. The policemen there, however, pointed us on to the ‘Ticket Check’ counter. As we made our way to the Counter, the gentlemen of the mob halted conversation and began to encircle us. I handed our tickets to the one man behind the counter. Without glancing at the tickets, he placed a spiral notebook on the counter in front of me and opened it. “You should make donation,” he muttered with a cigarette dangling out of the side of his mouth. “You make donation, and I give you guide.” I looked down at the notebook. There, laid out on the pages before me, were the names of fellow victims. A German man and his wife had “donated” forty dollars. Jacques from France had dropped forty-five. William and offspring (there were three of them, according to the ledger) had coughed up the same. The list went on and on. The man behind the counter handed me a pen. I hesitated and turned to Jess. “What do you want to do?” I whispered. The man behind the counter broke our conversation – “You get guide and access to sacred parts of temple. Make donation.” Surrounded as we were by thirty-some men, there didn’t seem to be much choice in the matter. Jess and I could attempt some sort of Chuck Norris-meets-Charlie’s Angels type of daring escape, but, lacking both the skill and energy to engage the enemy, we chose instead to make a statement with our donation. There, next to my name in the Temple Extortion List is written the lowest “donation” amount in the notebook: five dollars. That, gentlemen, is what happens when you extort a Norcini, a tribe of men renown the world over for their cheapness.
Though clearly displeased with the size of our “donation” to the Besakih Men’s Club, the man behind the counter did provide us with a competent guide. We introduced ourselves and asked him what his name was.
“Wayan,” he responded. He then gestured us forward and we headed into the temple complex.