Culture Shock

Excerpt from my book, BIG LIKE: CASCADE INTO AN ODYSSEY.

Bali, April 1996. The taxi driver honks his way from the airport through Denpasar’s polluted, dusty chaos and drops me off at a walled compound in Kuta across the street from the beach. From the gate, I see a tropical garden, a bar-and-restaurant pavilion with a pointy ceramic-tile roof, a swimming pool, and two-story guest buildings farther back. A girl in red flowery sarong and sheer blouse checks me in. My room on the second floor is the size of an Aussie hostel dormitory for sixteen people. It has a king bed, rattan furniture, a sliding glass door to the garden, and an AC that isn’t disabled during the day.

At the pavilion, another girl, also in red flowery sarong and sheer blouse, smiles at me when I show up to have lunch. I haven’t been smiled at by a waitress in weeks. She recommends local dishes, which turn out to be excellent. Later, I recline in a chaise longue and sip a beer. A butterfly lands on my belly. Birds twitter. A woman massages the hirsute back of a guy on a mat in the grass. Hubbub percolates over the walls. And nearby, the gardener goes snip-snip-snip, trimming flowers.

Culture shock. It’s the low price I’m paying for all this, compared to the prices I paid in Australia for dingy hostels, vapid food, and surly service.

Then restlessness sets in. This kind of experience is worthless unless you can share it. I think of Ginger, who is pursuing her dream, and of Izumi, who has become an illusion.

This is the mood I’m in when I cross the street to watch the sunset, a popular event, judging from the people along the beach. Sunsets are brief this close to the equator, and as the spectacle above the Indian Ocean wanes, a boy of maybe eight tugs on my sleeve.

“Where are you from?” he says.

“America.”

“Where are you going?”

“Nowhere.”

“You want girl?”

Stupid question. But I don’t say that. I ignore him.

“I show you.”

“No thanks.”

“Many girls.”

“No thanks.”

“You choose girl.”

“Go away.”

“Two girls, same price.”

I shake my head. His faceless shapeless girls don’t inspire me.

He offers cigarettes, then wrinkled postcards. “Buy something,” he pleads, now a street urchin struggling to stay alive.

Excerpt from my book, BIG LIKE: CASCADE INTO AN ODYSSEY.

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