On our last day in Ubud, we sat and talked with local men on our front veranda.
`You must be careful in Java’, someone said, `Be careful of pickpockets. Never leave your luggage unguarded. There are gangs who specialize in stealing luggage: they carry suitcases with a few rocks inside to exchange for cases which are similar.’
`And’, said another, `if you are wearing spectacles, do not lean out of the carriage window as the train moves off, or a thief might grab them and stand there smiling and waving goodbye.’
`And’, said yet another, `in a crowd, a whole gang might gather around you and jostle you and . . he mimed two fingers creeping into a pocket. `Always keep your hand on your bag, Nonja Betty.’
`You will find the food much spicier in Java’, said one. `And much hotter’, said another.
`And,’ said yet another, `if you reach Sumatra. ..’ and he mimed a hot mouth by fanning with his hand.
`The girls are very pretty in Java, Tuan’, said one to
`Our girls are too stocky’, said another. `The girls in Central Java are prettier. You’ll see for yourself when you get to Jogja.’
Said yet another: `I think in Sunda the girls are even more delicate than in Central Java’.
We pondered for a little on this. I thought the girls of Bali seemed quite beautiful; in fact the Balinese in general are a handsome lot of people. But there is one girl I remember as being particularly beautiful. We would see often on the road to Denpasar, where our colt transport slowed down for roadworks. She carried loads of rock balanced on her head, which made me think of models in training who balance books to improve their postures. She was as good looking as any model or film star that I had seen.
When we left Ubud, we had to charter a colt to take us to Denpasar. Our luggage had grown. Betty had bought a huge basket, two beautiful small bamboo percussion instruments, male and female, called guntangs and two large bamboo instruments on the xylophone principle, called tingkliks. I had two flutes of course, but they were small and fitted in my little rucksack.
At our small hotel, our arrival created some interest. The boys crowded around and talked knowledgeably about tingkliks. `These are used for the dance Joged Bumbung’, one said. ‘Ah, there will be a Joged Bumbung at my village tomorrow night. I could take you to see it’. So on the following evening, we set out, again by bemo, to Sempidi. In the wide village roadway, large enough to be called a square, there were people in groups and bright light from petrol lanterns.
Our friend, Made, took us first to his house. His poor house, he called it and it was certainly simple, small and thatched; but it was beautifully kept and the ground around was swept clean as could be. His small wife greeted us very shyly with her head bowed and looking at us solemnly. The only words she spoke were of greeting and farewell.
The Joged Bumbung had been arranged by the Girls’ Club of Sempidi. Made took us to a pavilion where a welcoming committee was passing out rice cakes and orange soft drinks. Benches were placed in rows and there was a banner with the initials of the club and the words for welcome ‘Selamat Datang’. The girls serving the refreshments were dressed in their best kebayas and kains. The boys sat on the benches and were served. When we arrived the ones nearby engaged us in conversation. It was all as polite and respectable as a church fete in a country town.
In the open air, small crowds gathered round games where you bet money on numbers. One game was for children and the stakes were low, the next took in a little more money and, hidden behind a compound wall, was a small huddle of grim men, squatting round a shaded petrol lamp, intense in concentration … the big-time gamblers. A young man of the village had drawn me aside to show me this little bit of night life. Betty had sat herself down beside the area marked off with poles and hanging lanterns where the dance would be performed.
`I will show you my humble house’, the young man said and, lighting our way with a torch, he took me on a tour of buildings in his family compound. There was a large shed where harness hung on pegs and behind it, in stalls with bamboo rails, were a mare and foal, a yearling pony and a stallion, all munching at green grass which had been cut for them. My new friend carried a torch and as he walked he flashed it about. In a small pavilion, the light caught the figure of an old, old woman gazing out at us. `My grandmother’, said the youth.
Where he led, I followed. We mounted the steps of yet another pavilion. `My mother’, said the youth and he flashed his torch into the eyes of a woman stretched out on a cane bed. She was bare breasted and beside her lay a baby. The unfortunate woman sat up, tousled and alarmed. We were introduced, both embarrassed. But it was not the mother who was on display, it was the baby. ‘Adik laki laki saya’, the youth said with warmth, ‘My little brother.’ and he held up the child for me to see. I held out my arms for him and he was given to me. He was soft and warm and firmly fleshed, knuckling his face. When I held him, the mother smiled for the first time.
When I took my place beside Betty, the dance, the Joged Bumbung, was about to commence. The stage was similar to what we had seen at the Topeng Dance: a small tent with a curtain for entrances, a rectangle marked off with tall poles on which hung lamps with mantles glowing white. The orchestra was made up of tingkliks like the ones Betty owned and of sulings like mine. The players sat low behind the instruments looking about in a distracted way as they played; Balinese musicians often seem to be thinking of something else while they play intricate music. The music of these bamboo instruments was soft and woody.
The first dancer emerged, moving with little steps, placing her feet gently, while her arms swayed and her hands twisted and flicked like the hands of a Hindu Priest performing sacred mudras. She was small and vital, perhaps thirteen years old. On her head was a golden winged head-dress with blossoms arranged within it. From amongst the blossoms stood two sticks of smoking incense.
The girl’s body was tightly bound in rich cloth with a golden thread and kain wound tight around her thighs. Her black hair hung in a thick tail to her hips and was decorated with frangipani flowers. The backward curve of her hands, like the curve of a pagoda roof, was repeated in her hollow back, her slightly bent knees, her upturned toes. The dancer became a series of graceful undulations which matched the music and the movement of the dance.
And crushing close to the stage were the boys of the village, who must have seen the dancer differently from the way we did. We saw only the dancer; they saw her as a village girl dressed up and dancing. They knew her as we did not and they jeered a little, though without cruelty. The little dancer smiled self-consciously.
After she had danced for a while, she looked directly to her audience. As her eyes travelled along the front rank of the crowd, it gave, rippled a little like grass before a breeze. She circled the stage, looking outward she circled again and always there was the ripple of the crowd before her gaze. Then she stopped.
The boy in front of her shrank back, to be pushed forward again by the ones behind. The little dancer tapped him lightly with her fan. The boy shambled on stage, hanging his head and grinning foolishly. He lifted his arms to allow the dancer to tie a sash around his waist, and then as though this one act had caused the transformation, he looked up into the girl’s eyes and they began to dance.
The Joged Bumbung is not a serious dance. Mention it to the Balinese and they smile: `Yes, Joged Bumbung, good fun’. There is no story, so how could it be taken seriously. It is a dance of flirtation. As he dances the boy makes sly passes with his hands towards the girl’s breasts or thighs and he tries by intricate movements, turns and feints, to catch her off guard. She fends him off with a tap of her fan and turns away haughtily.
Three girls danced during the evening and each one, out of sheer politeness, tapped me. I accepted and when I rose there were jeers, and cheers, from the little boys.
No doubt the audience saw a clumsy, comical, white faced man going through grotesque motions. From the puzzled expression I can remember seeing on my partners’ faces, they saw the same thing. But seeing it from the inside I was a Balinese dancer; my dark eyes and teeth flashed, muscles rippled under my brown skin, I moved to the music and wooed the maiden whose eyes were claimed by mine.
I was tolerated more than enjoyed and each time I danced it was for less than a minute.
Among the Balinese men, some dancers were much better than others. One man who was tapped, struggled out of the grip of his friends and fled. Twice the dance was taken to a final climax. Two of the male dancers were exceedingly good. Their eyes and teeth did flash, they danced with graceful vigour and took control of their partners. When this happened, an old man who squatted nearby, tossed a branch of green leaves onto the ground near the dancing pair. The young man picked it up and furiously beat the girl. Then he hurled her to her knees. The girl kneeled, head bowed. The man, his anger spent, smiled at her then gently moved around her, wooed her, cajoled her sweetly till she was on her feet again.
It was David’s night. I was full of admiration too, for the beautiful girls and men so lithe and virile as they danced. The dance was fun, the men abandoned in their wooing. Yet superb technique made each movement secure, controlled. But it was midnight and the dance was over. We had to go home and the last bemo had stopped several hours before. What to do? While we dithered the situation was in hand, motor-bikes and drivers appeared beside us.
Off into the dark night I roared, my hair flying in the cool wind. The stars were big and bright, lighting the road as it wound through the forest like a ribbon. I was exhilarated like the dancers. Swerving to turn a corner I saw behind, the lights of the bike that carried David. He drew abreast and he and his driver passed us, speeding on to Denpasar. At once my driver slackened pace and I was startled as we drew to a halt.
He turned to me and I understood he was offering himself to me, at a price I can’t recall, should I desire. I certainly did not. I urged him to hurry on to David who would be looking for me and who held the money should he wish to be paid for my transport.
He kicked over the motor and we started off again but we gathered little speed. My high spirits were numbed as again, and yet again, he repeated his proposition. He even offered time to pay. He said he would collect the cash next day. I never wished to see him again and whipped him home with warnings of my husband’s fury.
The lights of Denpasar that night were spectacular and a feeling of calm took hold of me. We reached the main street of the city, but instead of taking the turn for the short route home, he stubbornly persisted with his offers as we toured the suburbs. Maybe his tank was low but at last he turned into Jalan Diponegoro. And I was home at last. David was not there; he was out searching for me. The driver did not wait. Without his money and without stopping the motor he roared off into the night.