I leisurely bicycled along the dusty barely two-lane wide coastal road, amidst carts, cars, bicycles and pedestrians. It was sweltering in the late afternoon sun. The proximity of the vast Indian Ocean seemed to make little difference. In spite of the heat, I felt lucky. I had found what appeared to be the only 10-speed bike on the island of Bali. The high school I had accosted just hours after my plane touched down at Denpasar trusted me enough to rent me his bike for just $10 US for the entire week. And the strenuous two-day mountain crossing lay behind me.

The sound of staccato shouts and movements ahead caught my attention. As I got closer, I saw two teams of young shorts-clad men playing volleyball. "Playing" was an understatement; they were slamming the ball like Olympic athletes with bullet precision from one extreme corner to the other, frequently jumping high into the air to kill it at the net.

I was envious of the comradeship, the jocular laughs and shouts, the healthy dissipation of energy. As I slowly wheeled past the net, I heard one of the players shout to me in English, "Come and play with us!" I was speechless for a moment by the unexpected invitation, grateful and appreciative. "Why not?" I decided. I stopped and walked my bicycle to the primitive makeshift volleyball court, an open space amidst sand dunes and bushes. I walked behind a bush, stripped, pulled my swim trunks out of my sparse backpack, put them on, and joined the team that was one player short. Although I was the tallest player by at least a head, it soon became obvious ton all that I was also the poorest player. I didn't mind that, and neither did they. My delight at making contacts with these locals far outweighed my feelings of inadequacy.

After the game ended, the young mustached man who had initially invited me to play and was the only one who spoke English, introduced himself and the others to me. His name was Putu. As everyone started to disperse, Putu invited me to come with him to his nearby village. "I would love to," I said, "but I want to swim in the Indian Ocean before I head back towards Denpasar this evening." I would barely make it back over the mountains to Denpasar airport in time for my plane's departure in two days. "We'll bicycle to the beach--its not far from here," Putu assured me in his clipped British accent. "Don't worry."

Soon we arrived at a small village, teeming with people and activity. We entered one of the plain, mortar and stone houses. In the cool living room where were two sari-clad women with four children. Putu hurriedly introduced me to his wife and sister, and grabbed his towel and bicycle. Accompanied by several of the volleyball players, we headed down a path towards the nearby beach.

A few minutes later I smelled and felt the cool ocean breeze. Soon we arrived at the sandy wave-swept beach. Other young and old people sat around just beyond the surf, nut no one was in the water. This reminded me of my beach experience in West Australia from where I had just come. Apparently the Balinese, like the Australians, feared encountering a shark or deadly sea snake, an infrequent but real danger. I enjoyed the refreshing waves, but kept my eyes open for the telltale fins and wavy dark spirals characteristic of both feared creatures.

We leisurely returned to Putu's home, slowing down or stopping briefly to converse with the passing villagers who greeted Putu and me. Although I had determined to continue my journey that evening, I finally succumbed to Putu's repeated invitation to stay. What finally persuaded me was his revelation that a rare "horse dance" rite would be performed in the village square that evening to mark the autumn equinox.

Earlier, I thought I had perceived an desperate edge in Putu's voice when he almost pleaded for me to stay. I felt some apprehension about the motivation behind his invitation. However, after I looked at his beautiful family, took in his general openness and generosity, and observed the respect the other villagers displayed towards him, my fears diminished. When it became time to think and talk about supper, I realized the reason for Putu's mysterious demeanor. He admitted as diplomatically as he could that he and his family were without food, moneyless and hungry. That evening, a part of Putu saw me as a privileged American "meal ticket" who he wanted somehow to provide food for the supper table. Once I understood his dilemma, I was relieved and happy to help. We walked to a nearby dingy-looking market building that transformed itself inside into an exotic food bazaar. We bought a succulent array of rice dishes, all wrapped in appealing palm leaves, and some plum wine and Coke. While I was fascinated by the palm leaf wrappers and fantasized their use as a new biodegradable McDonald or Kentucky Fried Chicken container, Putu was looking forward to consume what was for him a rare, exotic, expensive treat: the large bottle of Coca Cola. This wonderful banquet-sized spread cost me less than $5 US!

Before supper, Putu and I walked to one end of the village to clean up. We undressed and joined the other nude males, ranging from children to octogenarians, who were bathing in the cool, refreshing stream. Under Putu's protection and sponsorship, I was promptly treated like a long lost family member. As Putu and I walked home together, I felt refreshed, comfortable and almost at home in this faraway land and culture.

When we returned to Putu's house, the food was already spread out elegantly on the long, primitive wooden kitchen table. I sat down at this veritable banquet with Putu, his wife and children, and a cousin and friend, feeling happy. The many dishes were delicious and appreciated by everyone. After eating, we sat around the table, and communicated in words, sign and body language, and simultaneous Indonesian and English translation, trying to learn about each other. I learned that Putu was an unemployed taylor, who worked in Bali's capital when he was fortunate enough to find customers. While we talked, Putu's children, now joined by what seemed like the entire child population of the village, sat on the floor mat watching the sole Bali TV channel on probably the village's only TV set.

Putu excused himself to help prepare the horse dance rite. He had certain Hindu religious duties to perform in preparation for the event. Soon the rest of us wandered through the narrow, darkened alleys and pathways to the nearby village square. The night was balmy, the huge moon cast its brilliant yet soft glow over everything and everyone. The entire village population was gathered there, forming a large dense circle, or corral. Looking over the crowd--my head protruded over the more diminutive Balinese--I realized that I was the only outsider. I felt a wave of gratitude and affection for Putu for picking me up and inviting me into his life.

Suddenly I noticed that everyone's attention was riveted on the middle of the enclosed circle, where a man lay, shirtless and motionless, his moist skin glistening in the moonlight like gold. Putu had explained to me earlier that this man had spent the day going into a deep trance, and would soon "awake" with the soul and personality of a horse. I learned from him only the rudiments of a complex, elaborate religious and spiritual ritual: that the "horse man" would try to dance his way out of the human corral through the adroitness, cunning, trickery, or brute force. The crowd's objective was to contain him within the human corral.

Soon the horse man, object of at least a hundred pairs of eyes, awoke, slowly rose, and started dancing, galloping, bolting, prancing and charging, in an effort to escape. His movements often were graceful, eloquent, ballet-like. At other times, he lunged at or drove into the human mass, to find a wedge and escape, only to be restrained or pushed back amidst much shouting, laughing, crying and chanting. His encounters with the clusters of assembled children, were especially touching, with just enough surprise and roughness to challenge them, but not enough to hurt. After an hour of this parry and thrust, the horseman's movement waned, then became lethargic and sluggish, obviously from exhaustion. Finally, in response to some musical command from the choral section, he slowly lowered himself back into the trance like fetal position from which he had originally risen. It was over.

When we arrived back in Putu's home. he showed my room and bed. It was obvious that somebody had been expropriated from the room. When my protests were of no avail, I decided to accept this act of hospitality with the same grace as it was offereed. Soon the lights throughout the house and entire village went off, as is the custom in this power deficient island. It was only 9PM.

I awoke with the daylight, conscious of much noise and activities. Even though my watch said only 5:30AM, the village was bustling with activity. Looking out of the window, I saw children playing and shouting, women shopping and chatting. I wondered if my biological clock, accustomed to late night sojourns and late morning awakening, could ever adjust to this barbaric way of nature! I dressed and hurriedly prepared for departure. I had a long bicycle distance to cover this day, if I expected to get back in time for my flight's departure.

After Putu and I hugged each other good bye at the main highway junction and I rode off in the direction of the distant mountains, I wondered if I would ever return. I had been allowed to glimpse a way of life which had disappeared decades ago in my own home orbit. I realized that I was trapped in my "high tech" world, with its material excesses, just as Putu and his fellow villagers were trapped in their still material-deficient world. At that moment I couldn't help being envious of my new friends' simplicity and quality of life. Maybe some day, I thought, we can both reach the Utopia I envisaged, where every one's material needs are met, but where quality of life and spiritual wealth, not material wealth, is the criteria for success. In such a world, I wondered, would there still be room for the village bath and the full moon horse dance? I hope so!

(No part of this story may be reproduced without the author's prior approval. 03.30.95)

all rights reserved © 2005 - 08 Shimon Schwarzchild