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The Balinese Man Who Saved My Life

I lived to tell the story

By Arlo HenningsPublished 2 years ago Updated 2 years ago 9 min read
The Balinese Man Who Saved My Life
Photo by Gita Krishnamurti on Unsplash

I set about my day with renewed vision and focus. I am more determined to break down the barriers that separate me from my Balinese companions.

I'd had little success at connecting with foreigners on this journey. It was important to me to build new friendships. My experience thus far with native or foreign. Or even fellow American expats - often left me feeling discouraged.

Besides insisting I have a housekeeper. My expat landlord had also seen fit to hire a gardener to care for the grounds. I considered domestic servants, indoors or out, to be an unnecessary extravagance. I had come to be grateful for them. Not so much for their domestic skills as for the role they would play in my enculturation. And adaptation to my adopted home.

Over the past few weeks. I began to develop a congenial relationship with Wayan (pronounced Why-Ann), the gardener. Like Made, my housekeeper. Wayan is a common Balinese name, indicative of the lowest Hindu caste, called Anak Agung. All were equal within their temple. In the outside world there existed prejudicial attitudes. The Anak Agung and the people of the upper two castes.

Wayan was 38 years old at the time; small in stature and handsome. With his Javanese Muslim wife, Etty, Wayan had a 12-year-old son, who was a budding music prodigy. Contrary to accepted tradition. Wayan had adopted his wife's religion. Despite the strong disapproval of his large, traditional Hindu family. Etty worked from sunrise to sunset seven days a week making hand-beaded bracelets. Earning two cents per bracelet, to help make ends meet.

I came to look forward to Wayan's daily visits. Besides keeping the bushes trimmed. The leaves raked. And the outdoor area of the villa is tidy. He was an exceptional handyman and competent mechanic. It seemed there was nothing he couldn't do. Because Wayan was fluent in English. Communication between us flowed. And he often served as my interpreter with non-English speakers.

He could repair my scooter. Extract a wasp nest from my bedroom. Or shimmy barefooted up a 30-foot coconut tree - with the ease of a monkey - to fetch me a coconut. What Wayan lacked in stature he more than made up for with his vibrant personality. And generous heart. He was hard working and fearless, with a warm, genuine smile that could light up a room. He possessed a plethora of attributes that would be the envy of most Western men. He bore himself with such gracious humility that I stood in awe of him.

What blew my mind most of all about Wayan, was his shyness about asking for money, even when it was well earned. When it came time for payment. I would ask what I owed, he would look down at the ground; shuffle his foot, and say, "Whatever you want to pay." Sometimes he wanted nothing. And only when I would shove money into his pocket would he accept it. I found Wayan's unpretentious demeanor so endearing. It reaffirmed my belief in humanity. that which I was sure lost back in America, along with everything else. Unlike other Balinese that I had paid for various services rendered, Wayan didn't call me "Boss," but "Bro." I finally had a real friend on the island other than an ant and my guitar. In some ways, I felt more of a connection with him than with anyone else I'd ever met.

Wayan became an indispensable guide and source of strength. I came to think of him as my guardian angel. I was certain that without him. I would have abandoned my quest altogether and returned to America more defeated. More broken than when I left.

Like Made, Wayan shared his story. By allowing me to see the world through his eyes. I was able to gain new insight and perspective into the world of the Balinese. Before they were thrust, with little or no preparation on a wave of technology and tourism.

Wayan was born in the spring of 1975 to a family of rice farmers. He grew up sharing a traditional family compound with his parents. And at least 50 other relatives. 50 people living together may seem like a staggering number by American standards. Some family compounds are even larger and might house as many as 100 family members. Their village of Kutuh Kaja had a population of approximately 1500 at the time, made up of some 300 families. I listened as Wayan recalled stories of his youth and told of the Bali of not so long ago.

Wayan is in the same age group as most of the children born to American baby boomers. And that's where the similarity ends. Completely foreign to him were such contrivances as mechanized toys and electronic gadgets. The first wave of baby boomers' offspring in the U.S. was flipping through 100 TV channels by remote control. playing Super Mario Brothers on early game systems, watching videos. Wayan and his peers were doing school work by oil lamp. because electricity hadn't yet made its way to Bali's remote villages. When not occupied with schoolwork or daily chores. He would swim in the river that once ran behind the village, an activity he remembers.

Wayan recalled the construction of the first paved road in his village in 1995. Only the wealthiest of villagers had a motor scooter for transportation. Wayan was in his late teens when television made its debut. TV was a community event in which one day of each week a nearby soccer field served as public theater. It wasn't until the age of 25 that Wayan had the opportunity to attend a rock concert. There were no malls and muscle cars. No telephones in the village, and no air conditioning to counter the brutal tropical heat. It was hard for me to imagine such a primitive lifestyle, compared to my life growing up.

I learned that neither history nor English is taught in most Indonesian schools. And those who became proficient in English learned by independent means. Wayan had learned English from an Indian man. I inquired about his knowledge of his country's history. He said the past had never been of much interest to him. The reason because his life had always required staying focused on the present. Wayan listened as I gave him an overview of what I had learned of Indonesia's history of genocide. Occupation, slavery, terrorists, and political upheaval. Before finally becoming the outpost of art and culture. The Mecca of healing practices that have made Bali a popular tourist destination.

Wayan lit a cigarette and sat for a few moments before commenting, "Thanks, Bro. Good to know." I felt he was humoring me and didn't care much one way or the other. It is the Balinese Hindu way to live in the moment.

The river that had once been a valuable resource and hub of activity and recreation was now gone. Most villagers now own motor scooters and even smartphones. The fortunate ones have laptops and a few even own a car.

By 2009, internet usage was commonplace. And the island was teeming with tourists and ex-pats. Less than two decades, Bali and the surrounding area had traveled from the 19th to the 21st century.

For many villagers, like Wayan, it meant new jobs that had not existed before. Landowners could now get a significant sum of money for their rice fields. That had, in many instances, failed to make a profit for many years. And for the "beautiful people" from foreign lands. With time on their hands and money to spare. It meant a new venue for self-discovery. Where they could visit healers. Admire ancient temples. Meditate at a local yoga center. And later exchange their tales over a skinny caramel macchiato at Starbucks.

Wayan had difficulty pronouncing my name. The sound of the letter "r" is absent in the common Balinese language. Even though he would practice saying it, it usually came out as "Aldo." Our relationship grew. I helped Wayan with organizing and promoting his local accommodation business. I printed business cards. Social media promotion. And a nice new dress shirt bearing his business logo, Ubud Royal Properties. It wasn't long until his cell was ringing. his company was thriving, and his income had increased.

I learned from Wayan local schools did not offer a music program. So it was difficult for his son, Dewa, to pursue his musical interests. I found it odd since Indonesians love music. I wasn't in any position to change the Indonesian school system. But I could make a difference in the life of one child. Wayan's son taught himself how to play guitar. He followed along with music clips played back on his cell phone.

Having grown up without support for my musical passion, I'd had to learn on my own too. I could identify with Dewa's hunger for the guitar. I would donate my time and skill to teach him. I took him under my wing and bought him a guitar. His comprehension and the natural ability he demonstrated were impressive. He was an eager and diligent student and learned his lessons faster than I could give them.

His gift became my gift. It was my way of preserving and fostering the higher essence of the human spirit. Through Dewa, I became, once more, the kid who'd loved to dance with his guitar.

I had begun to feel more confident in my surroundings.

Wayan devised a crude. But effective, plan to break the social ice with other local Balinese men. Beer and harmless gambling. We started by inviting the staff from a local resort for a card game.

I bought the beer and spotted each of them a little cash from which to bet. The language of the cards was universal and they took it with great seriousness and relish. Drinking beer and lighting cigarette after cigarette. We played well into the night and, whether winning or losing, everyone was having fun.

Whenever I would lose. I would exaggerate the angst and add a few local profanities for emphasis. My companions found it funny. The more I lost the harder they laughed. By the time the game broke up and everyone went their separate ways.

Thanks to Wayan, I had gained new companions.

On the sacred Balinese day of silence "Nyepi", I woke up in a hospital with no memory of my name. I don't know how I got there and if it wasn't for Wayan who found me passed out on the floor of my villa I could have died. I did not know the hoops he jumped through to find a driver. And willing to defy the Gods by penetrating the dark and guarded roads of Bali to bring me to a doctor? He saved my life.

For the next years, Wayan helped me with everything.

During that time he often complained of stomach pain and I gave it no second thought. He said it was gas and not to worry. His wife said it was from drinking beer and smoking.

Wayan's stomach problems grew worse. He died from Hepatitis B.

I have never met another greater human being.

Read the book!

Short Story

About the Creator

Arlo Hennings

Author 2 non-fiction books, music publisher, expat, father, cultural ambassador, PhD, MFA (Creative Writing), B.A.

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