I Think We Just Hit Peak Bali

It's hard to see among the mango leaves...Our gardener comes from a long, long line of balian, or magical healers. He’s a lovely guy. We know him as Pak Kiko, or “Kiko’s dad”, after his firstborn daughter, who’s in her early teens. He’s gentle, kind, serene and smiley, and he pops round our place to do the mountains of stuff that need doing in a tropical garden when he’s not too busy with his main job as a chef.

I’m sure Pak Kiko would be an excellent healer, if you shared a belief system with him. Although I understand from Made, who is no longer the housekeeper, having taken an exponentially more lucrative gig in America, that he’s not quite ready to unleash his powers and go full balian as yet.

The reason my abstruse and thoroughly expat-ty domestic arrangements are relevant is that today Pak Kiko saw a snake.

You could say this was an occupational hazard for a gardener in Bali, particularly one who works in a garden beside a river and therefore full of tasty frogs even before you tuck into the fishponds. You might even be correct in this. But to explain the true meaning of the snake, I need to explain the ghosts.

When, as I understood it, a blood sacrifice was required, Made thought I should check with the landlords.

I’ve touched on the ghosts en passant, I believe. We have the normal-for-Bali pair of a good one, in the kitchen, and a bad one, in the garden, a situation that is, I fear, not helped by our position on a river down which the ashes of the dead may sometimes travel.

Neither Zac nor I can see the ghosts. In fact, only Balinese Hindus are aware of them. But our bad one is particularly bad, apparently. As proven – I believe in its entirety – when Pak Kiko dreamed about a ghost lady with a strangling snake in the garden.

The reason our bad ghost is so evil remains TBC. Made at first believed the issue was that our landlords had failed to hold a ceremony to appease the earth goddess before digging holes for the fishponds and the pool. I went so far as to get estimates from a Hindu priest to undo the insult to the goddess, but when, as I understood it, a blood sacrifice was required, Made thought I should check with the landlords.

After agonising and negotiation, the upshot of this thoroughly Indonesian theological conundrum ran roughly as follows…

Our landlords are Christian. He started out as a Balinese Hindu. She’s from Toraja, so has been a Christian of the buffalo-sacrificing variety since birth. So, naturally, they had a Christian ceremony to appease the earth goddess when the pool and ponds were dug. (Being a priest in Indonesia must, one feels, be something of a shock to the system, not least because this is not the sort of problem the travelling missionary expects to encounter in the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation.)

The Balinese landlord explained they weren’t averse to having a Hindu ceremony on top of the Christian one if that seemed important, but they’d rather not have a blood sacrifice. The Torajan landlady – and Torajans are famously canny businesspeople, due to the fact that they spend most of their lives and income paying for buffalo sacrifices and clan houses so anyone who escapes the village has to be as hardnosed as hell with an Einstein IQ – pointed out that a Christian exorcism is exponentially cheaper than a Hindu one. (All a Christian exorcist needs is a bit of holy water, a bible and some incense, while the cost of the Hindu exorcism included a budget line for a truck to transport the offerings.)

After agonising and negotiation, the upshot of this thoroughly Indonesian theological conundrum ran roughly as follows. Only Hindus can see the ghosts, but the house is Christian, so the ghosts may well be Christian. We should, therefore have the ceremony in the religion that is most important to the household. Since Zac and I, the only non-ghosts resident in the home, do not have a religion and cannot see the ghosts we can’t participate fully in an exorcism either Christian or Hindu. Therefore, we should leave the ghosts to do their thing and get a Christian exorcism as and when we see them.

And so the ghosts removed themselves from my list of things to fix around the house and became a fact of Bali life. They are, unless you’re poor Pak Kiko, rather unobtrusive. Neither Zac nor I have ever registered anything untoward. In fact, it’s for all the world as if they’re not even real.

A large, green snake in a tree didn’t sound good. In fact, it sounded rather like a bamboo viper to me, though I know nothing about snakes.

I think, though I may well be wrong, that many Balinese have been a bit on edge after the earthquake, which comes uncomfortably close to the Nyepi New Year festival. Incense definitely hung heavier in the air than usual the morning after the quake.

So when I returned from school with Zac to see Pak Kiko in the garden staring fixedly into a tree with the long handle of the pool-cleaning net in one hand and a spray bottle of pesticide in the other, I wasn’t unduly concerned.

“How are you?” I asked him in my resolutely rubbish Indonesian.

“There’s a snake,” he said, looking tense, sweaty and grey.

“Oh,” I said, squinting up into the mango and not seeing anything. “What’s it like?”

“Green and big,” he said, frowning.

A large, green snake in a tree didn’t sound good. In fact, it sounded rather like a bamboo viper to me, though I know nothing about snakes. More to the point, Pak Kiko didn’t think it was good either.

“OK,” I said in rubbish Indonesian. “There’s a man who will come and get it.”

Pak Kiko seemed relieved. “Zac,” I yelled through the locked door behind which my spawn appeared to be celebrating the start of the school holidays by sitting beneath a headset definitely not revising for his imminent IGCSEs. “There’s a snake in the garden.”

“OK,” he yelled back, and pulled the blind down.

A tense 40 minutes passed, during which Pak Kiko watched the snake move from different locations in the mango tree into another mango tree, up a palm tree and back again.

I dialled Bali Reptile Rescue, the charity which exists less to protect people from snakes than to protect snakes from people and which helped us out when I found the cobra in my bedroom a while back.

An Indonesian lady answered. I handed the phone to Pak Kiko who described the snake and explained our address, then I explained the address again, then I texted it. (You can live in Bali for decades and still get lost. It’s not an island that’s set up for navigation.)

A tense 40 minutes passed, during which Pak Kiko watched the snake move from different locations in the mango tree into another mango tree, up a palm tree and back again and I, but for a few minutes when I thought a patch of congealed sap was a very small and extremely somnolent serpent, could not see a goddamn thing.

I went out the front to check for reptile rescuers, rang the reptile rescuers, looked up the road for reptile rescuers, rinsed and repeated. Finally, having only got lost once, the cavalry arrived: two Indonesian girls, one wearing flip-flops over socks by way of foot protection, equipped with snake forks and a large white bag. (I suppose this is a step up from the towel traditionally used to protect against rabid animals.)

That’s interesting, I think. Clearly the snake man has found some young local people who share his passion for reptiles and is training them up to continue his good work. Because, believe me, snake-wrangler is not a job that anyone should take without aptitude or at the very least enthusiasm. (And, yes, I know Indonesia is a developing country, but my point still holds.)

Neither of them could see the snake. Pak Kiko pointed it out, then pointed it out again, but it remained elusive. I realised, with a mild sinking feeling, that only one out of four of us had now seen the snake, and that one was the person who had had the dream about the snake lady in the garden. Oh Bali!

“Do you have a ladder?” one of the girls asked, as the three of them stood, hands over foreheads, squinting up into the mango, silhouetted like something from an Eastern Bloc flag-raising sculpture or perhaps an early 80s expressive dance troupe.

Of course we have a ladder! Not a very long ladder, not a very good ladder, and more step-ladder than the sort of telescopic affair that’s really needed to climb our substantial trees, but a ladder nonetheless. At last! I could be useful!

To do anything more would suggest that I’m unreasonably withholding a perfectly good, if rather, umm, shocking, 1990s Chinese factory reject washer-drier from someone who currently does the whole family’s washing by hand as well as working two jobs.

The ladder had moved into the store room because, after the tap came off in my hand the day of the earthquake, flooding the junk area, I had emptied the area of all junk and moved non-junk to the storeroom. Well, apart from the junk which Komang, the helper, or Komang #2, her cousin who was fixing the roof, wanted (and, yes, the roof leaks often, and, yes, there are a lot of Komangs in Bali: in fact, Pak Kiko is also a Komang). They couldn’t, however, take any of it as it wouldn’t fit on a motorbike, so we’re still housing a broken bed, a broken washing machine, and a broken TV.

I am, frankly, concerned about the washing machine as Komang #1 is Made’s cousin, Made has already lost one cousin (quite possibly another Komang) to a badly wired washing machine and I am fond of our Komang. But I have uttered my warnings, if not exactly articulated them, and to do anything more would suggest that I’m unreasonably withholding a perfectly good, if rather, umm, shocking, 1990s Chinese factory reject washer-drier from someone who currently does the whole family’s washing by hand as well as working two jobs to put her son through high school.

This post will answer all your questions, so back to the ladder. Rather than being in the junk corner, this was not only in the storeroom but actually locked in the storeroom. This is because Zac had left his keys behind one day, so I’d left my computer in Zac’s room, locked the two rooms containing anything of value – the storeroom and Zac’s room – and left the windows open so Zac could break in. (At over six foot, skinny and spectacularly supple, he can climb through the most extraordinary openings.)

Of course, because Bali, and because crisis, the storeroom door refused to open. I tried a range of approaches. Despite knowing damn well which one was the storeroom key, I even tried several keys. I pulled the handle a little, pushed the handle a little, yanked the door while pushing the key, pushed the door while retracting and turning the key, for all the world like a queen on his wedding night.

At this point, with three Indonesians still looking for the snake in the garden, and waiting on the ladder, the lock began to come off the door. Sensing a rapid deterioration into farce, I yelled frantically for Zac.

“The screw?” I said. “The screw that has come out of the door handle,” my son said slowly, as if talking to a developmentally delayed child.

“Can you mend the door?” I asked, helplessly. “I need to get the ladder out for the snake people and the door is locked.”

To his credit, Zac inquired neither why the ladder was in the storeroom nor why the storeroom was locked. “Where’s the screw?” he said.

“The screw?” I said.

“The screw that has come out of the door handle,” my son said slowly, as if talking to a developmentally delayed child.

I found it on the floor. “I have a screwdriver,” he said. “Let me have a go.”

Fixing the door handle didn’t make the door any more receptive to the key. “How about you just take the whole thing off?” I asked. “That couldn’t make matters any worse, could it?”

“I don’t think so,” he said.

I ambled off into the garden, where the girls were still looking for the snake and Pak Kiko was still pointing it out. “You have good eyes,” I said amiably, in rubbish Indonesian.

Christ! Taking the lock off, I realised, might make the door unopenable except by taking the thing off its hinges. Further, due to overspending on a weekend’s diving, we were on the verge of breaking into the emergency coin jar and certainly in no position to hire a locksmiths.

I rushed back indoors. Zac was patiently screwing the lock back on. “Yeah, I realised that wouldn’t be a good idea,” he said.

Everyone who works at the property thinks I’m stark staring bonkers because I have long, animated conversations with my computer and appear to spend all day every day frowning, muttering and typing.

Out in the garden, the girls had finally identified the snake, so in came Pak Kiko, with the relieved air of a man who knows people have stopped thinking he’s mad. “The ladder, ma’am,” he said. (Indonesian as a language is hot on terms of address and hugely status-conscious in the way it uses said terms.)

“The door doesn’t want to open!” I exclaimed. “It can’t be unlocked!”

I gave the key one last despairing twist. It turned, smoothly and seamlessly, and the door opened. I’d say it swung, but it graunched and a bit of the facing almost fell off. My point is that it did not behave like a door that has been stuck shut.

I should add, here, that both Pak Kiko and Komang have watched me Skype chatting for the duration they have worked here. It was only after I mentioned to Komang that I was talking to my mother, and pointed to the computer where the voice was coming from, that I think she realised I was not insane. I then made a point of explaining the same thing to Pak Kiko, but I’m not sure he’s entirely got it yet.

I don’t know what they think I do on the computer all day, but they seem to find my habit of talking directly to it quite alarming. (That’s not helped by the fact that, like a lot of self-employed people, I can occasionally mumble when reading things to myself or totaling numbers.)

Which is a long-winded way of saying: everyone who works at the property thinks I’m stark staring bonkers because I have long, animated conversations with my computer and appear to spend all day every day frowning, muttering and typing. The door, perhaps possessed by the kitchen ghost, only served to enhance that perspective.

But apparently we weren’t finished. Oh no. That would be too easy. The ladder had been fetched so the snake needed to be retrieved.

“What snake is it?” I asked, out in the garden, still untarnished by sight of said ophidian.

The girl presented us with our second copy of the reptile rescuers’ handy guide to the snakes of Bali: we’d lost the first. “It’s a vine snake,” she says. “Not dangerous to humans. A pit viper is bigger. This is a thin snake.”

An hour or so in to the saga, I considered this job done, not to mention, the second everyone vacated the property, gin o’clock. “Thank you,” I said. “Would you like a glass of water? Or some tea?”

But apparently we weren’t finished. Oh no. That would be too easy. The ladder had been fetched so the snake needed to be retrieved.

Despite the fact that everyone involved now knew it was harmless and it was, at a minimum, five metres up a goddamn mango tree. What could possibly go wrong?

I’ve crawled through a snowmelt waterfall rather than go too close to the edge of a drop, and at Everest Base Camp muleteers paused entire trains to let me count my way across swaying suspension bridges.

After years of more or less artless pruning, the mango tree in question – we have five – has taken on the shape of an inverted capital ‘L’. I am scared of heights so have endless respect for people, be they window-cleaners or guys who have summitted Everest eight times, who can brave them.

Blimey, I think, as the girl in the shoes shimmies up the ladder and inches her way across the bar of the ‘L’, I couldn’t do that for all the world! Wow.

The chick with the flip-flops hovers below with a large white bag, Pak Kiko keeps his eyes fixed on the snake, and shoe chick pulls out the snake fork and reaches up. Wow! I think. These girls are really showing the snake man a thing or two – he must be super-proud of his new hires.

The second she lets go of the branch, it all falls to pieces. “I”m scared of the snake,” the girl exclaims, in English. “I’m scared!” She looks like she’s going to cry.

Unfortunately, she is now more than her body’s length away from the top of a ladder, so freezing is not an option. Nor is dropping, as she’s more than three metres above the ground.

I recognise the symptoms of someone who’s scared of heights spazzing out, as we acrophobes technically put it. I’ve crawled through a snowmelt waterfall rather than go too close to the edge of a drop, and at Everest Base Camp muleteers paused entire trains to let me count my way across swaying suspension bridges, so I’m thoroughly au fait with THE FEAR. I also identify an absolute clusterfuck in the making.

“ZAC!” I yell, beginning to drag our beanbag loungers into position below the tree so she’s got something to land on if she falls. She could break a limb, I realise. Or even her neck! “ZAC!”

“It’s OK!” I say to her. “Please come down. It’s not a poisonous snake so you don’t need to catch it. The most important thing is that you don’t hurt yourself.”

The lack of venom in the snake and the lack of snake-catching chops of our saviours may be connected. Triage might have identified our household with its puny vine snake as the perfect practice arena for trainees.

As we coax her down from the tree, rather like firemen wrangling a kitten, it dawns on me that, perhaps, the lack of venom in the snake and the lack of snake-catching chops of our saviours may be connected. Triage might have identified our household with its puny vine snake as the perfect practice arena for trainees.

As the girls head off on their motorbike and a visibly relaxed Pak Kiko heads for home, I can’t help but wonder. Will he ever come back?

Has this scenario quelled his fears of the snake lady in the garden by living out the dream with a happy ending? Or is it a sinister precursor of snakes to come that indicates there is more to be worried about further down the line.

I lack the linguistic facility to ask him and I very much doubt he’d tell me anyway. If he doesn’t show after Nyepi, I guess I’ll give Made a ring. But first…. Gin o’clock.

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