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The International Writers Magazine : Dance of the Dophins - Bali - From Our Archives

Night Fishing: Chasing Tail in the Tropics
John M. Edwards

Well, er, the problem was, I thought I saw a real live mermaid.
Get that? The genuine article. This was a fantastical phantasm (or orgasm) that was hard to shake. Was there this fabulously phishy, demure dreamgirl warmly waiting for me in the waves?
Or did I need corrective brain surgery? My pumped-up prothalmus energetically explored the possibilities of doing it in the waves with this evasive Darryl Hannah-like damsel of my dreams. Part woman, part fish. Splash!

Here’s how it went. There I was in Bali, Indonesia, feeling as worthless as a college graduate setting up his own (euphemism) “import-export” business. Loping purposefully on the beach under the cover of night, I came across a troglodytic Indonesian man crouching over a campfire. With several Bir Bintangs (Indonesian beer) buzzing under the belt, I though I might be imagining things. Was he eating a cat?!
       “Very nice bitch,” this local sarong hawker (or potential pickpocketer) staccatoed, spitting in the sand, while cooking the defenseless stunted animal on the edge of a skewer.
       Which was mildly surprising on a mostly Hindu—and vegetarian—island.
       “You wanna womans?” he offered obligingly, in that endearing third-world dialect called unregulated capitalism. Certainly I was game, inspecting the lovely lonely beach of Lovina, looking for love under a moonlit sky that resembled a tight pair of stonewashed denims. But I didn’t want anything dodgy, and I could tell the man was untrustworthy as a matchmaker, would probably offer me his daughter or his wife. As long as he didn’t insist on me sharing in his barbecued midnight meow.

       No, I was walking just to sort of forget myself and happen upon some naked body lying in ecstasy on the beach, real casual like. I trudged onward in my rubber flipflops, rolling some Indonesian “shag” (tobacco), fondly gazing at the moon, which on this enchanted eve resembled the pearlescent pairing of a clipped fingernail.
       Night Swimming.
       Lo and behold! I saw something splashing out in the water. At first I thought it was a blonde woman skinnydipping in the waves, but then, glint: a flash of tail!

       Aha! I stripped down to my bulging baggy boxers and rushed out to the water. This seemed too good to be true. Bali Baywatch. But when I breaststroked like Buster Crabbe out to the surrealistic vision, an apparition usually confined to the edges of 16th-century maps, I found myself dangling alone in the deep. The sexy siren had vanished like a dissipating dream. Disappointment lapped at the shore like a blind man licking his false teeth.

       The waves breathed heavily in relief in the darkness. My heart thumped louder than a fundamentalist preacher. What had I just seen? Legend. Myth. Fable. Pshaw.  Mermaids are real, I’m serious. They’ve got to be. As T. S. Eliot wrote in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock: “I heard the mermaids singing each to each./I don’t think they’ll sing for me . . .”

       Bali bops. The seas surrounding this island are said to be swimming with evil spirits (many of them suncream-slathered beasts sporting masks, snorkels, and flippers from the cruise ships). So the traditional Balinese are mostly landlubbers who stay put on dry land, tending their ornately decorated temples and emerald-green, terraced rice paddies. Instead of chasing mermaids in the deep, they sculpt colorful statues of their frightful gods and Garuda (the winged serpent) and sell pieces of paradise at a discount. On a short vacay, one may purchase an attractive “partygirl,” witness angle-defying Balinese dances, ogle Australian surfies, or dine on “Rijstaffel”—the colonial Dutch version of a multicourse Indonesian dinner.

       Those longing for a longer stay, such as I, though, may malinger and witness stuff from another realm, which confounds the eyes, clouds the mind, and defies all logic. The Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore said this of Indonesia, “I see India everywhere but I don’t recognize any of it.” That’s particularly true of Bali, where Rama rules with an iron fist and multi-limbed Kali whips up a bevy of dishes in the volcanic kitchen ranging from gado gado (salad with peanut sauce) to nasi goreng (spicy rice dish) to ayam sate (chicken satay).

       Here on this iconic and ironic island, instead of rock music (outside the booming late-night Hard Rock Café, at least), there is the dissonant gonging of gamelon music; instead of exhaust fumes, the scent of clove cigarettes and chickens burning on coal fires; instead of Gucci and Versace, the hand-carved masks of deities both demonic and divine. You can’t trust your senses here because they cheat on you. Lovina, a low-key beach resort village, where people openly practice all the world’s oldest professions, is a baffling mixture of the sacred and profane. A monkey bars your path. A beggar holds out his palm. A woman offers to blow you.

       Bali is like a mystical art installation. In the early 20th century, artists pounced upon the island with paintbrushes in hand, setting up an alternative Western community of dropouts and castaways. And even now there is a fair share of unemployable hipsters in baggy Bali pants strumming guitars on the beach, “Those lazy Bali Days!” Helping to prolong their stays are periodic cash advances on American Express cards:  Don’t drop off the planet without it.

       On this strictly Hindu enclave in a sea of Muslim isles, ancient animist beliefs guide locals through each day, dealing with pagan tourists, with offerings of flowers on doorsteps and cheap dates on the streets. The occasional terrorist bomb may go off at Kuta Beach, but that doesn’t keep the flock of foreign visitors away from strutting their stuff on Indonesia’s number-one tourist attraction: the Balinese beaches. And throughout this otherworldly cultural demesne is the running thread of recycling life. Which of course means: there’s no avoiding the wafting plumes of smoke from the cremation ceremonies. Say so long, sayonara to the soul.

       “My dad died this year!” happily related the hostel manager, positively beaming, running his fingers through his thick black impressionistic mane of Elvis hair. “Many peoples come to see him burn.” Indo Elvis had the peculiar air of someone who knew with certitude that his dad was coming back. The Balinese believe the deceased go on to a new and improved reincarnated future, depending on their behavior in this life. In Hindu Bali, death is a party.

       “If you want see cremation ceremony, I sells you tickets,” Elvis offered, in that easy ungrammatical way of third-world touts encountered amusingly in travel essays. This kind of creeped me out. With my Disneyfied Western  sensibilities, no way was I going to dis the dead by photographing a burning corpse. The sepulcher was a serious matter, not to be treated as a spectator sport. But when you come to think of it, what’s so great about lying down in a box covered up by dirt, getting eaten up by maggots and worms? An aging mermaid would probably be heroically eaten by a shark and return triumphantly into the life cycle as an Alanis Morrisette.

       “I get you what you want,” Elvis continued. Pregnant pause. “ Ah, except woman, very difficult!” The friendly, but conspiratorial, look on Elvis’s face betrayed the fact that this might in actuality be the easiest thing for him to arrange, for a price. “Maybe you want see dolphins?”
       “The dolphins? Hey, that sounds interesting,” I said.
       “My friend take you in boat. He make it cheap and nice for you because you my friend. When you like go?”
       “Whenever.” This sounded like an adventure well worth taking. I was a huge fan of Flipper.
       “Okay. I arrange.”

       As the manager went about scheduling my dolphin trip, whistling to friends and gesticulating wildly, I ventured out onto the beach. When I saw her again. This time on dry land. The mermaid! There she was, reclining comfortably on the beach in a skimpy bikini. They say that when a mermaid comes ashore she can grow legs to walk upon the earth. As if to prove this, the woman started to do leg lifts, perfectly aware that many eyes were trained upon her. Mine were hidden behind dark sunglasses and a Yankees cap perched at a rakish angle. I positioned my psychedelic sarong for a better view.

       I heard the sound of a lethargic Germanic language issuing from her sultry lips, and since she resembled the statuesque prow of a Viking ship, I dubbed her “Brunhilde.” A good-looking guy who bore a suspicious resemblance to a buff Rolf Potts kept bringing her beers from the bar at the beachside hotel we were in front of, offering to massage her back with an enormous tube of Coppertone. Ah, the mermaid. Killer bod, possessive boyfriend. I knew the type. I didn’t stand a chance.

       Instead, I got a one-dollar massage from an itinerant massage therapist with few teeth roaming the beach. As the old Witchy Poo crone rubbed emollients on my skin and murmured an incantation, I saw Rolf Potts (I’m sure it was him) shrug and slouch off dejected. Aha! Not her boyfriend.

       Feeling like the gods had sailed me a blank check, I sallied forth, placing my towel closer and closer after each swim, hoping to make contact with Brunhilde. Then finally she waved me over. “Haben sie einen Cigaretten?” I made a great show of procuring the elusive smoke and lighting it with a John Hancock flourish, then said something awfully stupid and obvious in English, “Where are you from?”—everyone’s favorite conversation starter.

       “Nicht sprechen. No English.” The mermaid turned away with a disinterested danke and began rubbing suntan lotion luxuriantly over her bare breasts. The interview was over, apparently for good. Was it my deafeningly voluminous swimming trunks? Just because every other guy on the beach was swinging his equipment in too-tight Speedo briefs didn’t mean that that was what would win over a mermaid.

       I, too, slouched off dejected back to my spot on the beach. The thing about Brunhilde is that she was clearly okay to look at but not to touch. That is the way with some overly beautiful women, perpetually on show, always out of reach. Like Tantalus, I could not do what I could not have. She got up and retreated back into the waves.
       Oh well, they say it’s fatal to get too close to a mermaid anyway.

 Dolphin day arrived. As promised, the old man, with a soiled rag tied around his head, greeted me on the beach. His smile betrayed a ragged set of Chiclets, unknown to modern dentistry.
 “Hey, how are you doing?” I said.
 He shook my hand, shyly staring at me as if I were the first customer he had ever had. He winked, a cataract, an evil eclipse. His wallpaper skin was so rough and wrinkled I thought it was going to peel off

Maybe there was a tour guide who was a bit younger? He looked as decrepit as the demonic emcee from Tales from the Crypt. I didn’t want him dying on me or anything as he piloted me around in his outrigger. But hey, the boat looked sort of seaworthy, and an adventure is an adventure. So I gave him a handful of rupiah and we dragged the canoe out into the water. Once aboard, he ripped the cord of the motor, and off we went coughing and spluttering into the ocean.

       The antique ship of fools glided through the waves like an ungodly phallic symbol, a paradigm of wishful thinking. And then: halfway out the motor conked out and a worried look appeared on the ancient mariner’s face. Gulls laughed overhead. You loser, I thought, I’m being kidnapped and held for ransom, or worse. It was a long way back to shore.
       “What’s the matter?” I asked with trepidation. Would this canoe become my coffin?

       The old man lifted his hands dunno, then rattled off a rusty chain of virulent curses in Bahasa. Perhaps he was a lonely sea gypsy taking time off from pirating to plunder a different kind of booty: mine. Was this a ploy to get more money? Again, the bruit of Bahasa. Great. Not only was the motor kaput and the seawater undrinkable, but the Cryptkeeper didn’t speak any English.
       As he began unfurling the heavy sail, I squeaked, “Uh, you can head back to shore now.”
       He pointed out into the ocean.
       “No, really. You’ve done a great job. Let’s go back.”
       He pointed out into the ocean.
       I looked over and saw a fin slicing the water.
       And another. And another. And another.
       Hence, we were surreptitiously surrounded by a school of playful dolphins. Soon there were over twenty of them dancing in the foam in undulating curves, coiling like question marks. I’d never seen this many dolphins together at once, not even on TV. The old man grinned at me, my respect for him rising inestimably. How did he know where to look? He appeared proud of his own ability to hunt down dolphins, was positively beaming. I laughed just to hear what my own voice sounded like in the spray.

       We were now officially in shark-free waters. An Australian marine biologist once enlightened me with the fact that dolphins, with their superior intelligence, can easily kill sharks—by ramming them between the eyes with their bills. All around us were these loping friendly bodies of the second most intelligent mammals, after monkeys, I guess. Imbecilic humans comme moi hadn’t quite made the learning curve, I’m afraid, considering we go out to sea in hand-built disasters like this one, without being able to swim very well. If man were meant to swim, he would have scales. If it hadn’t been for the hoisting of the colorful pirate sail, we’d have been stuck in the ocean forever, like phantom skeleton sailors circling endlessly on a ghost ship.

       But this was what travel was all about. Taking chances. It had all been worth it. I’d witnessed something that even most Indonesians were perhaps not supposed to see. Nature naked.  Did the divine dance of the dolphins go on every day here in Bali away from the prying eyes of primitive primate privateers? What universals governed such an event? So what if my miraculous mermaid that auspicious night on the beach had actually probably been a dolphin. Out here on this listing boat off an island at the edge of reason, I wondered now not how I was going to get back to shore but how many more dolphins I would see. And who knows, maybe somewhere out there, way way out there, I’d once again glimpse that familiar flash of feminine tail.
© John Edwards November 2008
pigafet at

Little Denmark
John M. Edwards
I was standing at the bar at the Jolly Trolley, staring at my beer when I decided I was so drunk I would indeed have a hangover in the morning

Bio: John M. Edwards has traveled worldwidely (five continents plus). His work has appeared in such magazines as CNN Traveller, Missouri Review,, Grand Tour, Islands, Escape, Endless Vacation, North Dakota Quarterly, Richmond Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, and North American Review. He has won several NATJA (North American Travel Journalists Association) Awards and a Solas Award. He lives in a loft in New York City.

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