Shedding a Skin

Shedding a Skin

Faro travels to Bali in search of solitary walks and a way to carry his loss.

After eight days in Bali I have finally shaken the sensation that my head is a coconut, impenetrable on the exterior, milky within. At first I couldn’t even learn to say “Good morning” in Bahasa. Now, with consciousness a notch revived, words queue up for storage, and some make it on the shelves. “Selamat pagi,” I chirp to Ketut, the manager of Yulia’s Home Stay, taking a cue from the birds in cages hanging from the eaves.

Two cages with two birds each stood on pedestals in the courtyard of the hotel where I first stayed in Ubud. The birds were chosen, I surmised, for the energy of their vocalizing. Each morning their chants reverberated against the ceramic and stone of the compound. It took me awhile to realize the clamor was not coming from unseen trees but from these long-term residents. Their unrestraint and seeming lack of complaint neutralized some of my reservations about cages, and about mornings in general.

Welcome, morning.

The birds here at Yulia’s, and there must be nearly 30, belong to Ketut. Glittering trophies crowd shelves behind his desk and the platform where his two young sons watch TV. The trophies were won at songbird competitions, he told me.

Now that would be something to write home about. As a tourist without a camera, I operate under the assumption that I need to bag some existential trophies, some exotic experiences to justify massages, unfocused forays into Virginia Woolf and lazy swims in the pool. A songbird competition would surely qualify. More fun certainly than a cremation, an event which the Balinese apparently don’t mind sharing. I’ve already attended one, with an invitation to another.

Pagi,” Ketut responds. His smile matches his demeanor, efficient and sweet without being overly friendly. His reserve might be due to spotty English, or a residual shyness from having a leg so twisted that he walks weaving in wide loops side to side.

It’s breakfast time for the birds. He goes from cage to cage, extracting tiny water bowls. With quick swipes of his fingers he cleans them and then refills them from a green glass pitcher. A flick of the wrist tosses husks from the food trays. I sense the myriad bits of knowledge that go into each movement, the mechanics that compose a routine. I have a host of questions, but don’t know where to start. The cages covered with cloth, he says, anticipating one, are covered so the birds inside don’t pick up the songs of the other birds. Do I get this correctly? Hearing another bird’s song doesn’t affect the integrity of the bird’s song as long as the bird doesn’t see the other bird?

“Look at this one,” Ketut says, lifting a pale, celery-green parrot from its cage. “I mated a yellow African with a blue Brazilian and got a green one.” Surely he’s kidding. I study the bird, her (his?) head demurely turned and tucked. Believe it, the parrot seems to be saying.

“These,” Ketut says, indicating a duo in another cage, “are called lovebirds. Put two males together, they make love. Two females, they make love. Male with female, they make love. Love love love.”

Ketut’s own mate calls to him from the doorway of their cottage, and he goes to see what she wants, leaving me to commune with the mysterious parrot. Here is another day served up, to shape as I will, pristine and full of possibility, or else hackneyed as a barnyard rooster because my head won’t give up the cock-a-doodle-do. There is nothing and nowhere new under the sun.

My attention veers from the parrot to a small brown and gray bird in a nearby cage. This one is a singer for sure; its coloring would never win a beauty contest. I have become aware of a song, its song, threading through the palm leaves. The bird appraises me as I approach, without ceasing its singing. I suspect I don’t hear all the notes, but even so, I could soon be entranced. I am eager to be.

“You take breakfast now?” Ketut asks, startling me. “Coffee, yes?”

“Here I am, shedding one of my life skins, and all they will say is, ‘Bernard is spending ten days in Rome.’”
—Virginia Woolf, The Waves

After breakfast I decide it’s time to go north. I’ve gotten comfortable, but I didn’t come to Bali for comfort. I repack my suitcase, taking out extra clothes to put in storage at Yulia’s. I tell Ketut I’ll be back in 10 days, and book a shuttle to Bedugul.

The trip is mostly uphill, through a sculpted landscape of terraced rice paddies, pockets of jungle and villages with shops strung out along the road. Thanks to its spine of mountains, Bali has a topographical richness that’s lacking, say, in the Texas Panhandle, and it makes this trip seem longer than it is, plus the fact that the weather has changed quickly, the sky grown overcast.

Now the shuttle is skirting the flank of a mountain. It’s neither the Mother Mountain nor the Father Mountain, this much I know. Probably an Aunt or Uncle. I glimpse a sign over a fruit stand that says Bedugul, so I get ready to disembark. There’s a botanical garden nearby, the reason for coming here. We travel a few winding kilometers farther and the shuttle pulls into a lot next to a stucco bungalow bearing an advertisement for the local Doktor.

“Fifteen minute break,” the driver tells his seven passengers. Only I retrieve luggage; the others are going onward. What do they know?

The reception area is the first drab space I’ve been in Bali. Flies, numerous and aggressive, inspired perhaps by rank tourists and breaded meats in display cases, swarm my bare legs. To find a hotel is my immediate order of business, especially as it is looking like rain. Sure enough, a few drops drum on the roof of the shuttle, then with a slash of lightning and a crash of thunder, down comes a torrent from the Great Spigot in the Sky.

Anthropologists have done numerous, sometimes poetic studies on the relationship of the Balinese to water, how it is venerated, tended and distributed from its source here on the mountain throughout the island in a remarkable comity, given those on the top do most of the work while the rest benefit. My relation to this gift from the heavens is simply “sans parapluie,” as my French friend-of-30-minutes commiserates. I wait to ask the woman trying to sell comestibles if the hotel Ashram is anywhere nearby, hoping she’ll lend me an umbrella. In the meantime her daughter, bless her, sizes up the situation. A customer. They have rooms here. Would I like to see?

Only two moments in a tourist’s life are really worth noting: moments of wonder and moments wondering what you are doing on a damp bed in a chilly room beneath a five-watt bulb far from home. I would slip under the sheet but there is no upper sheet. I think how three hours ago I put my long-sleeve shirts and my jacket in a storage room at Yulia’s next to more trophies. Rain continues to barrel out of the downspouts, cackling on the walkways.

What am I doing here? I have traveled halfway around the world to, as they say, move on. During this month away, Flora will move out of my house, ending an era that (was I kidding myself?) once seemed full of promise. Our drift apart, felt early on, seemed navigable, yet nothing— therapy, trips abroad, good times—put it in abeyance for long. My heart paddled madly, continues to paddle, even as my head uncharitably says, Didn’t I warn you?

I could take this personally, or not. I think of my garden, of the changes she instigated. I wonder how they will appear when I get home. I once heard of a “Divorce Garden,” created by a local designer for a very unhappy ex, in which all the costly and tasteful hardscape was smashed and stacked in ghastly terraces and planted with cacti. I won’t go around that bend, but I lie here wondering how these feelings will play out.

Self-pity is soporific, and I doze. I wake, doze and wake. Two hours have gone by. It’s still raining, but lightly. The sky is infused with golden light, a promise that the rains will soon be over. I rise, put on a long pair of pants, and head out into the remains of the day.

We are all so afraid, we are all so alone, we all so need from the outsider the assurance of our own worthiness to exist.
—Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier

The shoulder of the road is muddy, and the cars and motorcycles sizzle in a soft spray. I round a bend, and see before and below me a finger of the lake, Danau Bratan, and right next to the water Hotel Ashram. This close all along but, seeing it, I don’t regret my accommodations. It’s just one night, after all.

Level with the lake, a parking lot opens to a group of handicraft stalls and a nursery. I do a quick tour of the nursery: bougainvillea, begonias, heliconias, mostly things familiar, then stroll to the back of the lot where there is an ornate entrance to something, presumably a temple. I go in and instantly the other moment of note arrives, the moment of wonder. At the edge of the lake is a meru, a shrine to Sanghyang Widi, the chief of the Hindu deities. Eleven palm-thatched roofs, elegantly diminishing as they rise, reflect on the surface of the lake. A blue mountain towers in the background, trailing amber rags of clouds. A wave of feeling pushes out from within, squeezing self-pity into inconsequence, until all that remains is gratitude for this gift, without giver, without recipient.

In the surrounding garden, needle-like cypresses in intersecting semi-circles point heavenward like the meru. I walk twice around the garden, pausing both times at a parterre leading to a stupa with four ensconced Buddhas. On the right side is a bank of scarlet salvias complementing the orange scarf draped over the shoulders of one—divine accessorizing.

When I leave the temple compound, sunset is not yet imminent. I walk back toward the town thinking I might find the botanical garden so that I might get an early start in the morning, and be back in time for the afternoon shuttle.

In 15 minutes I have arrived at the garden entrance. The gate, of carved stone, is even more imposing than the temple gate. Here is another thing to contemplate: the importance in Bali of entrances, but later. There is no one at the ticket booth, only a guard in the hut opposite, looking annoyed. Given the general friendliness of the Balinese, his manner is disconcerting. He waves me away, just go. Yes, go? I point through the gates. He waves me on. Minutes later his scooter fires up and he drives off toward town.

“But what can one make in loneliness? Alone I should stand on the empty grass and say, ‘Rooks fly; somebody passes with a bag; there is a gardener with a wheelbarrow.’”
—Virginia Woolf, The Waves

A mass of some kind of insect electrifies the air with dot-dash pulsations, a sound that liberates the refreshing strangeness of the world. From the map near the entry I see that the botanical garden is vast. There seems to be no one else here. The clouds have mostly dispersed, allowing the light to distill from golden to a deeper brass, to near darkness in the thickets of angel’s trumpet by the stream. Their fragrance permeates, unmistakable but subtle. In the gloaming the purity of the white dangling flowers, set against the newly washed green of the grass and trees, augments the illusion of a world without history, without blemish.

But something is missing, always missing: another pair of eyes. Love love love. Against my resistance loss is rekindled, and I feel as if I’m being refused paradise for no fault of my own. But it might be, it just might be, that this is what shedding a skin feels like.

A car enters through the gates and comes up the drive, the tires on wet asphalt like something being peeled away. Without hesitation I slip into the cover of the angel’s trumpets, and stay hidden in the perfumed darkness until the lights have disappeared into the darkness over the hill.

For a decade, dispatches from Faro’s garden have appeared seasonally in The Monthly. We are pleased to announce that Ithuriel’s Spear Press has just published them as a collection, entitled In Faro’s Garden, A Tour and Some Detours. The book is available at, and Black Oak Books in Berkeley. R. E. Faro can be reached at

Click here to view the Faro’s garden archive.

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