At a literary event the night before I leave for my trip, a random in the audience gave me the contact info for his friend, a queer guy living in Munduk, a small village in the mountainous north of Bali. A month later at midnight, Qian knocks on my guesthouse door in Ubud (returning from a quick jaunt out of Bali to renew his visa) and climbs into bed wearing only his underwear. In the morning, we wordlessly unroll our yoga mats. Before we hit the road, we have become friends.
Sometimes when you travel, you have control, or the illusion of control — some knowledge of where you are going and what will be there. And sometimes, you are along for the ride, accepting an invitation into the home and life of another, accepting what is offered. I make sure of only two things, boiled drinking water andvegetarian food, the second typical since meat is a luxury.
Qian and I are dropped off on the side of the road near a sign for waterfalls, these the main tourist draws in a town that receives one page in my guidebook. After a 7-minute walk on a dirt path, we approach a clearing where cock-fighting chickens and bred pigeons (apparently birds are decorative) and a well-behaved dog wander. Qian lives on the second level of this humble home in a tree-house like room with glass windows on three sides and a balcony that overlooks the orchard and misty valley.
Qian is here to study, practice, record, and produce gamelan music. As I understand it, gamelan refers to a collection of instruments (loosely reminiscent of xylophones, although some remind me in shape of clay pots used for cooking ) many with bronze keys set above bamboo tubes. The keys are struck with mallets, some round while others look like hammers.
Gamelan is everywhere in Bali. Everywhere. And along with performances and lessons I often see a phrase: “playing gender.” I cannot wait to ask Qian and shout at him, “What does that mean!?” He starts cracking up. The gender (with a hard “G” and an “er” sounding like “air”) wayang is a type of gamelan. With two trans guys, the jokes are endless.
I am excited to meet, Made, the gamelan teacher. He wears bifocals, has an intellectual mien, and everything about him cries musician — he builds and tunes gamelans, as well as teaches, composes, and plays. Having toured in the States, he speaks decent English and eagerly talks to me about his work. In fact, gamelan seems to be the only thing on his mind. During my first day, he sits around smoking, drinking coffee, messing around on the flute, and praying it doesn’t rain so that village gamelan practice will happen.
When it starts to rain at 6pm on my first night, Made turns to me, “Very bad, Nick, very bad,” he says. “God does not like gamelan.”
In the treehouse, Qian and I fall into one of our effortless conversations — about queer San Francisco, artist colonies, art fundraising, touring, or gender (soft “g”). We do not notice the rain has stopped until Made calls up to us. “No, no,” Qian whines.
“This is what I hate,” Qian says to me. “I never know where I’m going, for how long, what will happen, and when I’ll be back.” I get it. I totally get it. I’m along for a brief ride, but this is his daily life.
Made, Qian, and I put on our headlights, plod through the mud, and reach the road where two helmetless young men on scooters pick us up. It is dark, wet, drizzling, and for 2 kilometers along a very windy, hilly road, I think only of one thing — dying.
About a dozen men — ages fourteen to sixty — arrive slowly, cigarettes gangling from their mouths. The gamelans are aligned in pairs on a long raft of cement protected by a corrugated metal roof. Along the cinder block wall, bamboo flutes (sulings) hang. One coiled light on a string hangs from the ceiling. Water drips off of the leaves and roof, a pitter-patter of drops soon overtaken by the twinkling of keys.
Supposedly they are learning a new piece, but it sounds practiced. Up close, what impresses me the most is the way the musicians strike the keys with the mallets and quickly stop each key with the base of a hand. Their movements are so quick, like a magician’s trick, a sleight of hand that I hadn’t noticed until now.
We are staying with Made’s daughter and her family (her husband and three kids). None of them speak English, and I am aware that I am communicating wholly with my body language, my face, my walk, and the few Indonesian words I know. My new favorite words are “Makan, Makan” — “Eat, Eat.”
This is shouted up at us constantly for we are fed constantly — fried bananas with palm sugar, chayote, bamboo shoots, greens that the son hands to his mother through the kitchen window, tapioca, cassava roots boiled and fried, cassava greens — and always white rice. We do not eat with the family for reasons I don’t understand; the cooked food remains under a dirt-caked fly protector, and people eat whenever they want.
Everyone in the family sleeps downstairs on a collection of mattresses, some without sheets, that rest on the floor in front of TVs that blare constantly. We all share the bathroom with a real squat toilet, not the kind at tourist spots where you bring your own toilet paper and leave it in the waste basket on your way out. No shoes are allowed inside the bathroom, or the house.
I do very little while here other than go on a short trip to the waterfall. The middle child, the son, silently guides me. This kid is beautiful, all of them are. He is lanky with fuzz over his lip, ears that stick out, and a kindness that makes me believe (mistakenly perhaps) that he will not become an angry, sullen teenager like those in America.
It is always raining, or about to rain, the water occasionally dripping through the roof of the treehouse onto the bed. Mostly, we work. While I write, Qian sits at a stool in front of his computer (using a modem that uses radio waves) engaged in the creative and business aspects of gamelan — choosing songs for an album, doing the cover art, contacting producers.
I write about Ubud. It takes me such a long time to write the blog post, longer than it should; it always does. In the past couple weeks, I have been rejected (or waitlisted) by the three artist colonies/retreats I applied to for the summer. I have been falling in and out of that rejection spiral — the why bother, “I suck” spin — that every writer experiences.
I look over at Qian with his headphones tuned to his music, and I think of the lunacy of artists, the lunacy of travel, the lunacy of love — the passions that call us, the cultures that steal our hearts, the people who become family. Somehow, isolated in this treehouse on an orchard, high in the mountains of Bali, it all makes sense, for a second, anyways. For this is where the two of us ended up when we let go of the illusion of control.
Check out Qian’s blog to hear the gamelan, support his work, and learn a thing or two from the master about this pretty amazing music.