Back in the late-1970s, like a lot of people, I went to Bali. Instead of packing what everyone else “on the road” seemed to – a Swiss Army knife and a Carlos Castenada book – I threw into my bag, though for no special reason, an old insulated screwdriver.
At Denpasar Airport, a gaggle of kids shanghai’d me and my surfboard onto a bemo truck, then deposited us at a losmen guest house somewhere in that rainbow scrum of paddies and people that used to bloom halfway along the coast between Kuta and Legian. The nondescript brick building was distinguished from its neighbours by having once been the home of a Dutch colonial who’d gone, in sequence, native, nuts, then home.
“Hullo, I’m Nyoman,” said the keeper of Losmen Hanuman. “And this man,” he added, pointing to the grinning youth beside him, “is my cousin. We run the place. His name is Nyoman, too.”
“Got it,” I said. “Nyoman One and Nyoman Two?”
Nyoman Two showed me to a batik-curtained room. It was tidy and clean, although dim.
“Is there a light in there?” I asked. Nyoman Two grimaced, poking out his tongue and bulging his eyes like a Balinese Barong dancer.
“Sure, have light,” he said. “But ghosts too. Look.”
Cautiously stretching his finger towards a light switch that dangled from a twist of wiring, he flicked it on. A blue flash raced around the connections and Nyoman pulled back his tingling finger.
“Not earthed?” I said.
“No. Not Earth. Maybe Hell,” he laughed. “Bad ghost, I think. Maybe left here by the Dutchmens. I’ll bring you candles instead. They don’t make the devils angry.”
I took the room then hit the surf. This was my reward for months of ten-hour days building a big power station north of Sydney. Three weeks full of nothing but Kuta Reef and Ulu Watu point surf lay ahead of me. And so it was. Black rice porridge at Mades Restaurant. Hibiscus heat and dragonfly mornings. Massages on the beach. The evening ritual when everyone rolled down to the shore to look out for the fabled green flash just as the sun blipped into the sea.
Every night there seemed to be a different temple dance: Barong, Legong and Kechuk; shadow puppets and the trance Fire Dance. Through the kampong’s black palms came the sound of galloping gamelan orchestras and bamboo sticks clacking away the evil spirits. Between performances, the Balinese appeared to be perpetually making both offerings and money, activities which seemed somehow interlinked.
The Nyomans and their families were prosperous only to the point of not caring whether they were or weren’t. Some days they feasted; on others they ate only rice and papaya. I felt free to leave my door unlocked any time. The little canang offerings of rice and incense in a woven palm frond, which the family placed in front of my room each dawn, seemed security enough for my few possessions.
“Any thieves in Bali?” I asked Nyoman Two.
“No, not in this country. But be very careful with your things.”
“Why – if there aren’t any thieves?”
“The thieves are all in another country. But some comes here from there….” said Nyoman, lowering his voice, “….Java.”
My three weeks in Bwana Nirvana slipped out to sea in an endless session of good waves, fruit salad days and gado-gado dinners. The only interruption to losmen life occurred when Didier, the languid Frenchman in the room next to mine, emerged dripping from the mandi bath and flipped his light switch with a wet hand. The sparking blue demon rushed out of the socket, up Didier’s arm and kicked him onto his bed before short-circuiting the building.
“Nyoman,” I said next morning, “In Australia, I build temples for these sorts of demons. We keep them locked up there, then we let them out only to do work for us.” I winked, hoping it didn’t sound too patronising. It did.
Nyoman One winked back. “It works that way here, too. John, I understand electricity. What you don’t understand are demons. There’s been one in this house from long before tourist times. When the Dutchman left, my grandfather had the priest carry this spirit into the sea. He even changed the name of the house so that the spirit would not be able to find it again.”
“Why didn’t it work?”
“I think the priest made the wrong offerings.”
“OK, Nyoman.” I said. “I’m no priest, but can I have a go?”
“If you can get rid of the ghost, I’ll give back the rent for your whole stay here.”
“If I can do it, I’ll do it free.”
I began the exorcism. With a spool of electrical flex purchased in Denpasar, plus that old insulated screwdriver from the bottom of my bag, I stripped the exposed wiring from the walls and ceilings, replaced the copper vermicelli that bristled from the antique fuse-board, stapled new wires in place, screwed switches securely to walls, and then completed it all by installing a proper earth. The whole ritual took a day and a half.
When I had finished, I waited until dark, then called Nyomans One and Two, their parents and kids, plus assorted neighbourhood Mades, Ketuts and Wayans, as well as the singed Didier and the other guests. Having turned every switch in the darkened building to “on”, I waved my magic wand, the redoubtable screwdriver, and inserted a new fuse.
Losmen Hanuman lit up like a Christmas tree. With lights that stayed on. No flashes, no flicker and fade. Hamming it up now, I stepped up to a light switch and flipped it, then held on – see, no kick! No ghosts. The watchers erupted in their quiet Balinese way, clapping and laughing a great many “baguses” and “terima kasihs”, then gathered round to examine my wondrous demon-slayer, the old screwdriver. Even a couple of passing Javanese boys stopped to look at it, until Nyoman One moved them on.
Next night, the Nyomans prepared a thank-you feast. Roast pig, all the gado-gado I could eat, sticky rice and Bintang beer. Nyoman One attempted to return my rent, an offer I sidestepped by promising to come back and take advantage of next year. Four neighbours tinkled and gonged an impromptu gamelan performance and Nyoman One’s daughter, little Ketut, and her friends danced around the coconut husk fire so fluidly that I thought they must have liquid bones.
Soon it was time to leave. On my last morning, the waves far out on Kuta Reef were pumping and there were still three hours until the plane would exile me back to Sydney. I said goodbye to the Nyomans One and Two and walked down the beach facing the reef, where I dropped my bag and took the long paddle out into one of those surf sessions where nothing else counts. The waves were my own private Fire Dance. After more tube rides than I could count, I stroked, in a bliss of exhaustion, the half kilometre back to the beach.
On the sand was my bag — open. Beside it, my camera and my travellers cheques. A little further away was my passport and wallet, still containing the rupiah I had kept for airport tax. Puzzled, I upturned the bag and inspected the belongings that fell out. Two batik shirts, a kris knife from Ubud, spare board shorts, a sarong for my girlfriend, jeans and towel. All present but nothing correct.
I stuffed it all back into the bag and hopped a bemo to the airport. Somewhere over the Timor Sea, while reading an article about Java, I realised what was missing. The insulated screwdriver.
©2014 JOHN BORTHWICK. May not be copied or republished in any form without permission.