The Entranced Duck Always Gets the Laugh

Adrift in Bali, quacking against the current of time


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It was 11 years ago, and I was strolling through a Balinese temple with my younger brother, Nyoman Wirata. An important religious ceremony was about to begin, and it was likely that several of the men would fall into trances. Before long we expected to see some socially acceptable and highly controlled violence as the priests and handlers, using blessed water, attempted to wake the men from their religious ecstasy.

“Older brother,” Nyoman said. He had begun calling me older brother, beli, some weeks previous, thanks solely to the 15 years I had on him. “Beli, look. There is your wife.”

I turned to see a Western woman improperly dressed for the ceremony. She was, in fact, wearing short shorts. In contrast to the lithe and graceful Balinese women all around, the woman—an American, I feared—strode about as if stomping large poisonous spiders with every step. The concept of cultural respect seemed somewhat alien to her.

She stood in front of one of the altars and was examining the offerings: two 10-foot-high pyramids of brightly colored fruit placed on either side of a pig’s head. There were a dozen sticks protruding from the head, and strung between the sticks was a delicate white lace, like the finest embroidery. The lace was made of pig fat.

“Eeeyew,” the woman said loudly. “Gross!” An American, all right.

“That is not my wife, little brother,” I said to Nyoman. “That is your wife.”

“No, big brother. I will marry Ketut in six months. You do not have a wife.” In fact, I’d had one until very recently.

I was staying in Nyoman’s family compound, in the mountain town of Ubud, and my back window looked out on a green rice paddy. During the days, Nyoman drove me to various ceremonies in a car I had rented. Many of the remote villages we visited did not have electricity or running water, and the people we met were very adat, or traditional. Nyoman made sure my pakaian, or clothes, were properly adat, because forms of reverence were important.

In the Agama Hindu religious ceremonies we sought out and witnessed—Nyoman was a tireless and invaluable researcher—a man, self-selected, breathes the smoke of scented wood and then falls into a rapturous ecstasy, during which he becomes, for instance, a pig. It is called going sangyang. The supernaturally controlled pig crawls about on all fours, grunts convincingly, eats garbage, and rolls in the mud in front of the entire village. Sometimes an entranced man will become a monkey and climb trees with startling, simianlike strength. In sangyang djarum, the fire horse—a man riding a tree branch as a child rides a hobbyhorse—runs through a rather large fire, barefoot, and then systematically stomps out the scattered embers.
In the most violent of the ceremonies, in the most remote of villages, entranced men fought with sticks or swords, and yet no one was injured. At the conclusion of the event, a gang of village men directed by a priest, or pemangku, sprinkled blessed water on the foreheads of those who had gone sangyang. As the men swam up out of the trance, they seemed almost stunned, and there was a dazed, drunken expression in their eyes. It was then that they sometimes swung fists or threw elbows. Often, half a dozen men had to subdue a particularly fractious trancer. The man was tackled and held on the ground until he fully emerged from the trance. And it was almost always the headman who stepped away from the pile with a bloody nose. My theory was that trance was a way to channel violent, antisocial behavior in a culture that frowns on argument and aggression, a culture that values harmony and respect and smooth interpersonal relationships.

Nyoman pointed out that the ceremonies were generally about healing and were performed when someone was sick or when an epidemic was raging.

“Why,” I had asked him early on, “doesn’t anyone become a bebec, a duck, when they go sangyang?” There are lots of ducks in the terraced green rice paddies of Bali.

“I think, beli, no one knows how to be a duck.”

“Where I live, every child knows.” A demonstration was in order: I began talking like Donald Duck and worked myself up into a hysterical, quacking fury. Nyoman literally fell on the ground laughing. Thereafter, I found myself obliged to be sangyang bebec pretty much every place we went. Every new person had to meet the entranced duck. I was quacking myself hoarse.

The amazing thing was, no matter how many times I did sangyang bebec, it never stopped being funny.

My last night in Bali, during that trip, I took Nyoman and his intended bride, Ketut, to a fancy new restaurant in Ubud.

“Beli,” Nyoman said, “you should stay here in Bali. You should marry someone here.” Nyoman, ever perceptive, had cut to the core of my discontent.

“Younger brother,” I said, “I hardly know how to talk to Balinese women.”

“It is easy. You must talk sweet. Tell them they are like flowers, like colorful little birds.”

Ketut covered her mouth in the polite Balinese manner, but her eyes were bright with laughter.

And so we parted. I promised to come back. Maybe marry a Balinese woman. That was 11 years ago.

I heard news of Nyoman periodically, because I recommended his services as driver and guide to any number of Bali-bound friends. The reports were always favorable. People liked Nyoman’s low-key style, his gentle professionalism, his sweet, teasing humor.

A business trip to the Far East gave me an excuse to hop a short flight to Bali. My first day, I hired a car and drove from my beachfront hotel up into the mountains, where Nyoman still lived in Ubud.

Muka, my Balinese driver, pointed out what was new: the four-lane highway past the luxury hotels on the beach at Sanur and, farther on, the shops where there had been only rice paddies. I’d heard complaints that Bali had changed, that it was “spoiled” now, inundated with tourists and golf courses. It was true. On the other hand, the people generally looked healthier than I recalled.

Muka said that health care had improved remarkably in the past 30 years or so. Children were inoculated. Life expectancy in Indonesia as a whole had risen from 45.7 years in the 1960s to 62.7. Indonesia had had a good economic run in the ’90s, and despite recent currency problems, Bali was more conventionally prosperous than it had been when I’d last visited. Almost all the mountain villages, for instance, now had electricity and running water.

In Ubud, the main street was choked with shops and galleries, with new restaurants and upscale hotels. Traffic was a constant snarl. Muka and I walked up to Nyoman’s family homestay, where I’d lived more than a decade ago. The sign—HOMESTAY ADUR—was still there, but a huge pile of rocks blocked the entrance. I climbed over and walked up the stairs. Balinese homes are generally walled compounds, consisting of several houses. There had been three or four at Homestay Adur, but when I stepped over the threshold, I saw that all but one of the small wooden houses had been torn down. There was a huge hole in the center of what had been a graceful courtyard, and workmen were busily digging into the earth, setting the foundation for a new central building. In the single house left standing, a dozen or more people sat at sewing machines, sweating in the heat and making T-shirts. Nyoman, I was told, wasn’t in at present. He had gone down to his T-shirt shop on the tourist beach at Kuta. He wouldn’t be back until tomorrow. I could, however, give him a call on his cell phone.

Nyoman’s cell phone didn’t work. I liked to think that the sacred peak of Gunung Agung, an active volcano more than 10,000 feet high and locally regarded as “the navel of the world,” was causing the problem.
The next day I took a scuba-diving excursion to the island of Lembongan. The dive boat was a 22-ton catamaran with air-conditioned decks. The complicated process of outfitting dozens of divers was handled with dispatch. The last time I had dived in Bali, the equipment was ratty and the reef was so overfished that it was more or less bereft of life. My current Balinese guide, who wore a fairly expensive dive watch, said the cruise company, Bali Hai Cruises, had hired an independent marine biologist to monitor damage done to the reef by its operations. In fact, he said, the reefs were in better shape than before. I could see that with my own eyes. Local education programs had curtailed the worst of the overfishing.

It is, I suppose, a commonplace observation, but people who are starving or fighting epidemics seldom concern themselves with environmental issues. I thought about this 45 feet under the surface of the sea, as the current drove me along the reef at a speed of about three miles an hour. There were purple-green tube sponges and waving whips of golden soft corals. The reef was alive with moray eels and clown fish and all the darting neon life of healthy tropical seas.

Because this was a drift dive, it was hard to stop and examine any one thing very closely. I had to fight hard against the current simply to stay in one place. As I drifted, I wondered if what I had seen a day earlier could possibly be right: Nyoman, a hotshot with a cell phone, running a sweatshop in what had been a graceful homestay? I felt that I was swimming against the current of time. Bali changes, Ireland changes, North America changes. People age and drift apart. The flow of time seemed to be accelerating and no person or place could fight the current for very long. A melancholy epigram kept banging around inside my head: Life is a drift dive and then you run out of air.

Time and tide change all. Humans age, cultures evolve, and my own home continent hasn’t been the same since the first American stepped onto its soil sometime deep in the Ice Age. History is a chronicle whose function is to iterate change. Humans may not like it, but we tolerate this current of disruption to the degree that it provides us with those things we want: a decent place to live, food to eat, a quality education for our children, and some leisure time to enjoy our lives and families.

I drove up to Ubud again and finally found Nyoman at the homestay. He looked little changed and we embraced, both of us a bit embarrassed. Nyoman, who had been a tailor before I met him, said the place was being torn down so that he could expand the T-shirt-making shop. The conditions would then be better for the employees, who were, in fact, all members of his family. In any case, no tourists wanted to stay in the place anymore. The traffic noise was unbearable.

Nyoman had married Ketut, and they now had three children. Ketut sat with Nyoman, sometimes holding his hand as she nursed their youngest child. Nyoman said he didn’t do much guiding anymore, only for friends or friends of friends. He’d traveled himself: A rich American client had bought him a ticket to the United States. He’d seen New York and Cape Cod and Miami and San Francisco. It was all very nice, especially San Francisco, but his youngest child was only four months old at the time, and he had been homesick among the tall buildings.

Nyoman, clearly, was no longer the little brother: As a family man, he was addressed as pak, or father, roughly equivalent to “mister.”

The talk turned to economics, a subject never broached in our previous relationship. “I think,” Nyoman said, “we will be all right if the rupiah stays below 10,000 to the dollar.”

“It was 7,500 this morning,” I said.

We were silent for a moment.

“Remember those trancing ceremonies?” I asked. I wondered if rural health clinics had obviated the need for the healing rituals, or if communal village televisions were now the nightly entertainment.

Nyoman said people still went sangyang, and that the ceremonies were actually better now. “People have more money to buy better costumes,” he said. “They have more time to practice and they do the ceremonies more often.”

“Do tourists pay to see them now?”

“Where we went? No, it is like before.”

“And the headman still gets hit?”


I liked the idea that as Bali changes, it somehow contrives to remain the same.

“I think you are married now,” Nyoman said.

“It’s true.”

“So you are happy?”

“I think so. Most of the time.”

Nyoman nodded. “Do you remember the duck?” he asked.

“Very well.”

He asked me to become sangyang bebec, for his child.

And so I quacked out the duck’s furious rage. I quacked about loss and change, about the current that drives us ever forward and entombs each moment as it passes, leaving only memories before we run out of air. I quacked so long and so fervently that I could feel moisture forming at the corners of my eyes.

It was an inspired performance. Probably the best sangyang bebec I’ve ever done. Nyoman and Ketut collapsed in helpless laughter. The baby in Ketut’s arms looked up, amused by the commotion. I quacked on, a little happier now.

Time and tide change all, I thought, but the entranced duck always gets the laugh.