Dance of the Dolphins
It was in Bali that I swore I saw a real live mermaid.
I was walking on the lonely northern beach of Lovina under a moon-lit cloud-speckled sky that resembled stonewashed blue denim. Without hallucinogenic prompts but plenty of Bir Bintangs under the belt, I saw something splashing out in the water. It appeared to be a woman skinny-dipping in the waves. Then I thought I saw a flash of tail!
I stripped down to my trunks and rushed out to the water. It seemed too good to be true. But when I got out to where the surrealistic vision dangled in the deep, a phantasm usually confined to the edges of 16th-century maps, the sexy siren had vanished, evaporating in a curling wave like a question mark, a dread disappointment, a dissipating dream.
The waves breathed heavily in relief in the darkness. My heart thumped louder than a fundamentalist preacher. What had I just seen? A fable. A myth. A legend. Mermaids are real. I’m serious. They’ve got to be. As T. S. Eliot wrote, “I heard the mermaids singing each to each./I don’t think they’ll sing for me…”
Anything seems possible in Bali. Magic saturates the air like a salt-laced breeze. The seas surrounding Bali are said to be filled with evil spirits (many of them lumbering beasts with zinc-creamed shnozzes from the cruise ships). So the traditional community-oriented Balinese are more comfortable sticking to dry land, tending their ornate temples and terraced emerald rice paddies, sculpting colorful statues of their frightful gods and Garuda (the winged serpent), and hawking postcards and pieces of paradise to tourists at a discount. Visitors here for a short vacay might witness angle-defying Balinese dances, ogle Australian surfers, or dine on “Rijstaffel”–the colonial Dutch multicourse meal based upon an Indonesian theme.
But those here for a longer spell may witness things that confound the eyes, cloud the mind, and defy all logic. The Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore said 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, instead of rock music, I hear everywhere the disonnant clang and gong of gamelon music. Instead of exhaust fumes, I smell the scent of clove cigarettes and chickens burning on coal fires. Instead of Gucci and Versace, I see in the shops the hand-carved wooden masks of deities both demonic and divine. You can’t trust your senses here because they cheat on you. Bali is a spicy mixture of the sacred and the profane. A monkey bars your path. A beggar holds out his palm. A woman offers to blow you.
They say the island is one big 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 today there are a fair amount of young unemployed hipsters in baggy Bali pants involved in the vague activity of “Import-Export” and making periodic Amex cash advances to prolong their stay.
Here, 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 sex in the streets. Terrorist bombs may go off in Kuta Beach, but that can’t keep the flock of foreign visitors away from Indonesia’s number-one tourist attraction: the Balinese beaches. And throughout all this outlandish cultural melÃ©e is the running thread of the recycling of life, the wafting plumes of smoke from the cremation ceremonies: the soul’s great send-off accompanied by the kind of pomp and circumstances only possible in remote paradises.
“My dad died this year!” the hostel manager, with slicked-back Elvis hair and too-loud batik shirt, told me excitedly, a beatific smile creasing his face. “There was many peoples at his cremation ceremony.” Elvis had the air of someone who knew with perplexed certitude that his dad was coming back. The Balinese believe that 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 to see a cremation ceremony, I can get tickets.” To my Western sensibilities, charging admission seemed a little like dissing the dead. A Disneyland of Death, wherein burning corpses become a spectator sport. But who was I to judge? Elvis looked over his shoulder, checking if the coast was clear. “I can get you anything you want. You like smoke, I can get it. I can get everything.” He paused. “Everything, that is, except a woman.” He looked a little wistful at this. “Maybe you want to see the dolphins?”
“The dolphins? Hey, that sounds interesting,” I said.
“My friend can take you in his boat. He makes it very cheap and comfortable for you because you are my friend. When you like to 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, I ventured out onto the beach. When I saw her again. This time on dry land. The mermaid! She was reclining comfortably on the beach in a skimpy bikini. It had to be her. They say that when mermaids come ashore they grow legs to walk upon the earth. As if to prove this, the Darryl Hannah-esque 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. Yet I made sure I positioned my sarong towel for a good view.
I heard the sound of lethargic German issuing from her sultry lips, and since she resembled the statuesque prow of a Viking warship, I dubbed her “Brunhilde.” A 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, capering around and gesticulating wildly. Ah, the mermaid. Brown hair, killer bod,
possessive boyfriend. I knew the type. I didn’t stand a chance.
Instead, I got a two-dollar massage from an itinerant massage therapist with few teeth roaming the beach. As the old Witchy Poo crone rubbed emolients on my skin and muttered 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, after each swim I placed my sarong closer and closer to Brunhilde, hoping to make contact. Then finally she waved me over. “Haben sie einen Cigaretten?” I made a great show of procuring the elusive cigarette and lighting it with a John Hancock flourish, then said something stupid in English, “Where are you from?”
“Nicht sprechen. No English.” The mermaid turned away with a disinterested “danke” and began rubbing suntan lotion luxuriantly over her sun-blessed skin. The interview was over, apparently for good. Was it my baggy flowered swimming trunks? Just because every other guy on the beach was swinging his equipment in too-tight Speedo briefs didn’t mean 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 somehow made it clear with an aurora borealis of boredom that we could all look, but not touch. That is the way with some very beautiful women, perpetually on show, always out of reach. Like Tantalus, my eyes roamed her body for what I could not have as she got up and retreated back into the waves from whence she’d come. The waters of Bali are indeed awash with mysteries.
Oh well, they say it’s fatal to get too close to a mermaid, anyway…
Dolphin day arrived. As promised, the old man greeted me on the beach. One of his rheumy eyes sported a creeping cataract that stared at you like an evil eclipse. His skin was so wrinkled I thought it was going to peel off like old wallpaper. He looked as decrepit as the emcee from “Tales from the Crypt.” I didn’t want him dying on me as he piloted me around in the outrigger. But hey, the boat looked sort of seaworthy. So I gave him a handful of rupiah equaling about three dollars. And then we boarded the canoe, he ripped the cord of the motor, and off we spluttered into the middle of the ocean.
The antique canoe 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 at us overhead. It was a long way back to shore.
“What’s the matter?” I asked with trepidation. Would this canoe become our coffin?
The old man lifted his hands holding nothing at all, signaling “I dunno,” and rattled off a rusty chain of virulent curses in Bahasa. He looked a little like an out-of-work sea gypsy taking time off from pirating ships and plundering booty to piloting lone travelers into trouble in the great unknown. 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. Then he began unfurling the sail and luckily we began moving again.
“You can head back to shore now, I’ve had enough, ” I said, voice squeaking like Minute Mouse with cartoon emotion as I motioned wildly back toward shore. “Hello?”
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.
Apparently, we were surrounded by a school of playful dolphins! Soon there were over twenty of them dancing in the foam in undulating curves, dangling like participles in a diagram of the barely possible.
The old man grinned at me, unevenly spaced Chiclets unknown to dentistry, obviously proud of himself and his ability to hunt down dolphins.
We were now officially in shark-free waters. An Australian marine biologist once told me that dolphins, with their superior intelligence, can easily kill sharks–by ramming them between the eyes with their bills. Everywhere I looked I saw the loping friendly bodies of the second-most intelligent mammals (after monkeys) humping it in the deep. Humans hadn’t quite made the learning curve, I’m afraid, considering they went way out to sea in hand-built boats like this one, trying to “discover” the world without really being able to swim very well. If it hadn’t been for the colorful pirate sail, we’d have been stuck out in the ocean forever, like phantom rag-covered skeletons endlessly circling on a ghost ship.
But this was what travel was all about. Taking chances. It had all been worth the effort. I’d seen something that landlubbers were perhaps not supposed to see. Did this divine dolphin dance go on every day away from the prying eyes of primates and privateers? What kind of magnetic pull of nature guided such events? So what if my miraculous mermaid had probably been a dolphin. Out here on this listing boat off the shore of an island at the edge of time, once again I imagined I perceived that familiar flash of feminine tail glinting in the Impressionistic sun-dappled deep.
John M. Edwards has traveled worldwidely (five continents plus). His work has appeared in Salon.com, Escape, Grand Tour, Islands, CondÃ© Nast Traveler, Endless Vacation and International Living, among others. He has just written a novella, Move, and a travel book, Fluid Borders.