Nine Lives

Sometimes I like to count the number of times I have narrowly escaped death. Once I fell backwards off a two story balcony. Another time, I got swept into white water rapids and carried down a 15-foot waterfall. I was caught by a lawn chair and some large puddles, respectively.

Choking on the hamburger at summer camp.

A near drowning in Hawaii.

The accidental date with a convicted murderer.

Some crazy lung disease I had at birth.

Most close calls are the direct result of bad decision making. Take for example, the time I got kicked out of Mexico, carried across the border by the federal police, and got in the back of a pick-up truck with 12 guys I didn’t know. I watched the driver down a bottle of tequila before we peeled out and drove back to Tucson. This memory still makes me cringe a little bit.

The first night I arrive in Indonesia I am invited to go to a bar with the caveat, “Someone died there last night.” I have been in Bali only two hours and all I can think is, “Okay, how do we get there? And who’s driving?”  I am prone to recklessness. Also, one reckless person usually begets reckless company, a.k.a. “the bad influence.” There are some people you meet who know are going to be trouble. It’s like two people with really bad ideas bolstering and building upon each other’s really bad ideas. Like a messy snowball of trouble. We find eachother, because together, we feel normal.

So, upon considering my options (death club or rest),  I decide to climb on the back of a motorcycle with a 24-year-old Finnish kid named Janne (pronounced Yanni) who looks as out of place as the McDonald’s on the corner. He owns his own web design business and runs around third world countries slinging more money than most wage earners in the U.S. In addition to his being young, he has literally, been around the world—living all over Asia, Africa, Europe, South America (although never in the U.S.—“there are too many rules”).  I learn very quickly, that nothing seems to frighten him.

I climb on his bike in heels and a black dress and he careens through narrow  streets, darting between trucks, on sidewalks and through allies. If you have never driven in Indonesia, imagine no lanes and winding roads packed with motorcycles and scooters, all trying to race against the cabs and overloaded trucks.  It is not uncommon to seem them packing on more than two or three passengers. Also, they carry everything by scooter and motorcycle—flowers, food, animals, infants. It is kind of brilliant how they rig things up and even manage to balance stacks on their heads while riding.

I had a moment of panic when Janne starts going 70 kilometers per hour down a Balinese highway and find myself gripping his shoulders so hard that I am probably leaving chewed fingernail marks. Possibly a bite mark. He still doesn’t slow down. We are cutting so close that once I feel warmth on my right knee and realize we are rubbing against the side of a truck. When we draw closer to the club, he takes me down a winding ally, flanked by cement walls: it is only four and a half feet wide. He is speeding, honking as we round each corner, to warn any other traffic that may be coming head on.

We meet up with some other hostel kids at the club: the Belgian (who I call Belgian Waffle) and a pretty girl from Quebec (The M.I.L.F.). Belgian Waffle is wafer thin and reminds me of Kate Moss. I ask him if he is eating enough. The M.I.L.F., a single mom, is on a long-vacation looking to detox and get over depression while she waits for a diagnosis on a suspected personality disorder.

We are a motley crew.

Janne comes back from the bar and gives each of us what he calls a “smoothie,” then says, “The mushrooms are legal here. No big deal.”  For some reason, I trust him. Pretty soon I am thinking that Belgian Waffle is an elf with purple hair and The M.I.L.F. is a winged fairy. Janne has turned into an Avatar and the bathroom walls are the talking trees from Narnia. Turns out that those Grateful Dead stoners were not exaggerating.

And this whole time I thought mushrooms were a joke.

Janne fills my days with little reckless adventures. We ride past the “No Vehicles” signs and take the motorcycle down the beach. He teaches me how to surf  (ignoring the shark warnings). One night we climb to the roof of the hostel. Standing on the ledge, we look around: “I wonder how many angles there from the roof that would reach the pool?” I ask him, “Do you think we could make it?”

“That is so funny. That’s the exact same thing I thought of when I got here.”

One afternoon, we are riding back from the beach when we are stopped by the cops (no helmets and no license). Janne is taken by the police and I stand outside to wait for him, hoping that he recovers the bike and that neither of us get fined.

I am kicking dirt on the corner of a busy intersection, watching about 40 bikers lined up and revving their engines. Just before the light turns green, a small Balinese woman falls from her scooter and into the line of traffic. I run up to help her and realize she is frantic and panicking. This was definitely a “lost in translation” moment and I am unable to figure out if she is hurt. Between some hand motions and broken English, I find there is a small cat wedged in a rucksack and trapped under the bike. She had him dangling from the handlebars before she fell. We examine the cat: not visibly bleeding, but is scratching and trying to get away (understandably).

The woman is more worried about getting the cat back in the bag than the line of traffic coming up behind us, so I help her tie the rucksack and balance as she gets back on the bike. This part was admittedly strange for me: tying the knot around a cat’s neck so that she could hang the bag and keep riding. Another cringe moment, but… who was I to judge?

Janne walks out of the corner cop station smiling. He was able to keep the bike and get back on the road ticketless after paying a mere 50,000 rupiah (the equivalent of about 5 dollars).  We jump on and pull back into traffic as he speeds towards the beach.

In the following days, we are stopped two more times, each with the same result: a quick pay-off, a smile, and then the engine. All except one time, when the a cop stepped in front of the motorcycle waving  his arms and Janne just sped up and went around him: “He had no bike or car,” he explained, “He can’t follow us.”

There are some laws that don’t exist here. I don’t look them up, but trust Janne that buying mushroom shakes and evading officers are two of those absent laws.

My last week in Indonesia, I walk through the streets sort of blindly, taking steps over the potholes, and jumping on the back of motorcycles with the Balinese without thinking twice. Most things stop being scary after you do them a few times. And if you keep doing them, you end up thinking nothing is scary at all.

If you are fearless AND lucky, you get nine lives… just like a cat.