The use of traveling is to regulate imagination by reality,
and instead of thinking how things may be,
to see them as they are.
-Mrs. Piozzi: Anecdotes of Samuel Johnson 
A fierce downpour ripped leaves and palm fronds as I dashed from the bus to seek shelter at a losmen. A houseboy on the veranda greeted me with a smile. I wrung out my soaked T-shirt, dripping rust-colored water onto the wooden floorboards. The verdant forest and hills blurred behind silver-gray sheets of rain.
The Ubud bus was an ordeal, stopping frequently along Bali’s twisting, red dirt roads, loading and unloading a ceaseless parade of people, their distressed chickens, and one frightened goat. Windows were wide open allowing in clouds of red dust to mix with my sweat, much like being rolled in flour. Grit peppered my teeth. I craved a bath.
The houseboy Agung, brought tea and bananas. He was a classic handsome Balinese; a bit over five feet, short black hair, dark eyes, and skin the golden hue of most Balinese. He wore a blue and white patterned sarong and a common white short-sleeved shirt.
Ubud, nestled in the mountains, was cooler, a welcome respite from the blistering heat of the coastal lowlands.
Agung directed me to a room adjoining the veranda. Inside were the usual losmen furnishings: a raised wooden platform with a thatched mats for a bed, one tiny end table, and a rickety cane chair. Two green geckos skittered along the far wall and braked to a sudden stop.
The rain stopped abruptly as if a tap had closed, leaving an echo of the torrent. Agung beckoned me to the far end of the veranda and the washroom.
My eyes immediately went to the tub: a cement cubicle set chest-high in the far corner with smooth rounded edges making it easy to slip in. A tin pot for rinsing hung from a hook. Perfect. I looked down at my streaked red legs and was about to retreat for my towel when I noticed murky water in the tub.
“Agung. The water’s filthy.”
With a communal bath, one couldn’t expect complete sanitation, but it appeared the last bather had rolled in mud. Who knew what lurked in it? After all, this is the tropics; a stone’s throw from the equator. Stories abound with exotic water-borne diseases. Third World organisms had a nasty habit of sneaking into body orifices or small cuts, then hatching larvae to slither in your skull for years. Years from now, a doctor would say to me, “Good news. We removed the worm–unfortunately it was a female.”
I wasn’t about to risk my health.
Agung returned, distressed at the alarm in my voice.
“Clean wa-ter,” I said, pointing to the tub.
Agung frowned deeply. “Wa-ter good,” he replied, nodding emphatically.
Obviously, a communication glitch.
“Clean wa-ter, please!” I said, in a somewhat higher pitch, making sure of no hearing problem on Agung’s part. No way would I immerse myself in there, not for the quickest of dips.
Agung’s hands waved back and forth, slowly fluttering down like two feathers drifting to earth, ending it with a grin, sure of his perfect pantomime. A gold tooth flashed brightly even in the dim room. I reckoned he had gotten the gold from the money he’d saved on the water bill.
This appeared to be another awkward situation, culture shock of sorts. Two days previous, I exposed the soles of my feet to a group of locals. The tone of our conversation/transaction suddenly changed and I was dumbfounded as to why.
Agung’s smile withered to a polite grimace as he pointed to a drainpipe protruding through the wall just below the ceiling. Fat drops of water from the pipe plopped into the tub, echoing in the dank room. His hands floated back and forth in a smoothing motion to the floor. He walked his brown fingers along the pipe.
“Okay, I get the rain dance thing–rainwater. But it’s dirty rainwater.” I wanted clean water. My impatience and frustration smoldered. I wanted a bath, and it would damn well be a clean one. “No! It’s dirty!”
My roar sent Agung back a step. Get on with it, you stupid peasant, I thought, uncharitably.
Bali is renowned for serenity and its gentle people. Raising one’s voice in anger is bad form and frowned upon, as it disrupts the harmony of life. It can also draw a crowd. Babies are carried everywhere and none cry. Stress is non-existent.
Bali was my first experience in the Third World. I was raised in an over-sanitized society. Whether I checked into an Aussie hotel or a Canadian motel, I wanted my demands met–now.
Agung’s face contorted as if he had inadvertently eaten a bug, but he unflinchingly repeated the pantomime.
I bent down and pulled the plug.
Agung watched in horror as the murky water gushed into a floor gutter and disappeared through a hole in the wall.
“Clean wa-ter, please!”
Agung stammered in his best? worst? broken English before pivoting around, switching to a flurry of Balinese as he fled. The sharp flip-flopping of his sandals hung in the air leaving me in limbo and still dirty.
The hard sun came out, filtering through to super-heat the landscape, creating thin wisps of steam, like smoke from a million small cooking fires. Birds screeched, skipping across the canopy.
I returned to the veranda feeling my demand was justified; this was a black-and-white issue of health. I assumed Agung would bring a hose to fill my tub, I’d take a refreshing dip, then visit the ubiquitous food stalls. I’d missed lunch. In a land of delicious cheap eats, any sensation remotely akin to hunger could be immediately satisfied.
I sat on the veranda’s high-backed cane chair, the red dust caking on me again, wondering how many active volcanoes were in the neighborhood. .Bali, being on a fire line, was no stranger to eruptions and earthquakes. So far, the only rumbles had come from my stomachs. No phoning to order in pizza from here. Agung wouldn’t be pleased if I twisted his arm for more bananas. Every now and then, I rose to peek into the washroom, wondering if Agung would now ignore me for being so rude.
A well-worn path ran parallel to the veranda, disappearing into an arbor of brush where a flutter caught my eye. From the greenery, a brown bucket appeared, suspended in the air. At first, I thought it a hallucination caused lack by of food and the heat.
A man stepped into view, an old man. Thin to the point of gauntness, he was all bone and sinew. A broad conical hat covered his head shading his face and shoulders. Behind his neck, across his slight shoulders, a thick bamboo pole bowed deeply from the weight of a wooden bucket suspended at each end. Long, bony fingers grasped the pole. From baggy white shorts he extended a reedy leg, placing his foot on the muddy path with all the care The Great Farini might take on a tightrope over Niagara Falls. He moved like a whisper in a precise economy of motion: one foot in front of the other in a fluid cadence.
The broad hat tilted back as he glanced at me, halting his progress for a barely perceptible moment, caught in the sunlight blanching his face. Deep lines carved his forehead and framed his mouth. Eyes like deep inky pools gazed at me. He lowered his head and advanced. Sinews, like strands of cord, stretched from chin to collarbone.
Water lapped from a bucket. I could almost hear his bones creak along with the groaning pole. He reached the veranda stairs and pivoted his torso, aligning the buckets before attempting to cross the veranda. I hoped he wouldn’t buckle under the load and die. He glided past me, inches away as if I didn’t exist and disappeared into the washroom.
A hollow splash of water echoed out.
For my bath.
I sank low in my chair as the ancient one emerged, the buckets swinging lightly. He walked past me in a springy stride, free of the millstone with which I’d unintentionally burdened him with. Along the path he went and through the wall of vegetation.
How was I supposed to know there wasn’t any plumbing? I went inside the washroom and stood before the tub, scrutinizing the area. Not a tap or hose in sight. The tub water was only a few inches deep.
And it was clean.
I tried to recall high school physics and the weight of water; ten pounds per gallon, I think. With about four gallons per bucket, the old man had to be lugging nearly a hundred pounds or so.
Agung greeted me outside the room. “Wa-ter?” His eyebrows lifted.
“You could’ve told me,” I muttered, angered by his presence.
My tone wasn’t lost on him.
Agung frowned and crossed his arms. “No good? Wa-ter?”
“Man old–tired! Too much work!” I waggled my index finger as if scolding a small child.
The old man emerged from the bushes again with his head raised toward us. The exact load; the exact step. The old man paused a fleeting moment, his dark eyes locking onto ours for what seemed like an eternity.
The gaze at once seemed to be examining our souls yet looked through us as if we were invisible. Not uncomfortable or embarrassing; almost spellbinding.
Guilt and empathy began to gnaw at me. ”I help,” I offered, rising.
Agung flew in front of me. “No, no! He work! Long time!”
“I guess his pension contributions came up a bit short, eh?” I said.
I sat as the ancient one climbed the stairs. Agung warned me not to interfere. My mind wandered to some tough jobs I’ve had. I had my share of blisters from picks and shovels, unloading freight, and nailing lumber–but I wasn’t 200 years old and I weighed twice as much as him. Curious to see where he filled the buckets from, I followed the path through the arbor of bushes.
I emerged at the edge of a ravine that fell away to a cascading stream which cut a gash into the red earth. Under the hard blue sky rose a stunning vista of terraced rice paddies like steps of the Gods. Cooler air, scented with aromas of pure rich soil and tropical musk floated above the water to whisk my face. A red trail down glistened wetly, clinging precipitously to the steep bank.
With buckets already full, the old man threaded the pole through the bails. He squatted and lifted, pushing up mightily, thigh muscles straining taut under golden skin.
Now I really felt bad. I ducked back into the foliage to spy on his progress. His torso twisted perpendicular to his feet. The front bucket nearly touched the rising trail before him. His head, hidden under the great conical hat, never wavered in its concentration. Splayed toes anchored before each foot planted itself.
Back on the veranda, I realized my ignorance, a stupid bloody tourist. Culture shock and Third World plumbing clashed. I wondered how many times this episode had played itself out after every rainfall, every guest.
More and more buckets sloshed into the tub.
Most old men around here appeared to be taking it easy, enjoying their elder years passing lazy days by hanging out at the temples, betting on cockfights, squatting in the shade and sipping hot tea.
I couldn’t imagine my grandfather doing mule work like that. I couldn’t see myself getting up that trail without tumbling down, dumping the water, and every Balinese in sight laughing.
I wondered if the old man hated me for my ignorance.
Agung returned, somehow sensing balance was restored.