Today, November 17 of 2017, I’m in Minnesota, finally, with nieces and nephews—not much time before my nephew goes back to Iowa tomorrow, and I can hear them talking downstairs, so I’ll avail myself of this piece written three years ago about my “Mushroom Years.” It was 1973, a much different space and time when I definitely had much more energy as I back packed from Australia to Africa. This was near the beginning of that journey:
Germans, Aussies, Kiwi, Brit, Dutch, Canadians, Swiss.
I was the lone American who was pulled into this
adventure—just thirteen of us, including them and me
in a tank barge left from WWII, across the Timor Sea.
We did not know that Bugis pirates still set sail out there,
for we were young and reckless, and we didn’t care.
We still felt invulnerable. We would never die.
We all sought our giant chunk of the adventure pie.
We sailed all day and through the night and part of a new day.
Most of the cash that we had left was what we had to pay
to reach the west shore of an Island lashed by monsoon rain.
All bridges and all roads washed out, we searched for rides in vain.
A lonely store stocked not with much—some cans of cheese, two Cokes.
Not adequate provender for such starving, thirsty folks.
We crossed from Portugese Timor onto Indonesian ground.
Although we all had traveler’s checks, there was not much cash found
within our empty pockets, yet to Bali we were bound.
Still an unspoiled paradise—a haven with few cars
or partying Australians or honeymooning stars.
We stopped at one last little hut where I took off my sandals
to ease my feet, and thus were they made off with by some vandals.
And so it was that we set out through jungles vined and rooted,
fording rivers filled with leeches. I, alas, barefooted!
But chivalry was still in vogue and one or two or three
of my fellow travelers shared their boots with me
taking turns at walking barefooted for awhile
as we walked through the jungle, mile after mile.
Till late in the afternoon we came across an inn
(By then my resolution grown dangerously thin!)
Alas, we had no money for dinners and our room,
and here was where the two Swiss guys dispelled our sense of gloom.
They traded the two ten-speed bikes they’d carried or they’d ridden
most of their way around world—and they did it unbidden
by any of us, for we knew those bikes were like their kin;
and yet they gave up both of them for one night in this inn
for all of us, plus dinner—a repast full and rich,
and furthermore, our breakfast and the promise of a hitch
on a truck loaded with grain bags that was headed out tomorrow.
They did this for all of us and did not show their sorrow.
After showers poured from pails, (I noticed, I’d grown thinner)
some of us had a little nap and then a welcome dinner.
And when the Germans both pulled out their guitars for a song,
the sons of our innkeeper brought out theirs and sang along!
We all chipped in to teach the lyrics to Bobby McGee.
Our beds and food cost dearly, but the music was all free.
Next morning, we climbed high upon the grain bags for our ride
while Indonesians hung onto the rear and either side.
That truck looked like a peddler with his wagon piled high,
not with the usual notions, but with humans far and nigh.
We rode along uncomfortably, hour after hour.
No songs for us this long, long day, our mood was turning dour.
When it was nearing dusk, that truck gave one tremendous lurch
that very nearly threw us all from our precarious perch.
The Indonesians climbed on down and vanished all but one,
while the drivers told to us this next stage in our fun.
The axle cleanly broken, they would start out to get aid.
They’d come for us tomorrow—but they wanted to be paid!
We waved them off with promises—just one more awful bungle
and looked around for sleeping spots in this dense, darkening jungle.
We settled on a little hillock clear of trees and vine.
Rolled out all our sleeping bags. On what were we to dine?
One tiny little can of cheese and sardines in a tin
and those two Cokes we’d purchased—our provisions were most thin.
Hans had pellets with him meant for purifying water.
Guys headed out in search of it like lambs led to the slaughter.
The sky was darkening, but I knew I had to go to pee.
I headed down to where the trees afforded privacy,
pulled down my pants and put my hand, to balance, on a tree
when a sudden piercing pain shot from my hand through all of me!
I screamed and all my traveling friends came running down the hill.
I think of all my crises they were soon to have their fill.
I felt as though a burning dart had pierced through my right hand.
Toppled and now hobbled, I was unable to stand.
They helped me pull my pants up, sadly with a still-full bladder
as I heard the Timorese man say that it had been an adder.
I’d die within the hour, there was nothing we could do.
They emptied all their pills out and decided I’d take two
of everything we carried in our pockets and our packs,
for all of us were traveling with a drugstore on our backs.
To wash them down they offered up the ultimate in gifts:
the Cokes that we were hoarding, then they sat with me in shifts.
My finger swelled to such a size that the one ring I wore
cut off circulation until Peter cussed and swore,
“We’ll have to cut it off, so Trevor come here with your knife.
We have to cut if off of her to try to save her life.”
They put my hand upon a rock, I was delirious.
Trevor was looking rather green. Could they be serious?
He brought the knife down to my finger, but his wrist went limp.
The Germans gave a severe look, as though he were a wimp.
They told him to get on with it, but still he chose to linger.
“I just can’t do it,” Trevor said, “I can’t cut off her finger!”
“Not the finger, fool,” they said, “Just cut the ring away!”
And Trevor used the saw blade, for he had no more to say.
All night they held my arm aloft and manned the tourniquet,
It’s clear to me that I will be forever in their debt.
When I hadn’t died after an hour, the old man rubbed his eyes
and said it was another snake and I’d be paralyzed
on my right side but wouldn’t die—somewhat of a relief,
and still, I must admit I viewed paralysis with grief.
Eight hours later, still awake, I heard a distinct pop
and the swelling went down, but the throbbing did not stop.
Years later when I read “The Pearl” by Steinbeck just for fun,
when the baby nearly died, stung by the scorpion,
in just eight hours the swelling went down. That’s how I came to see
that it was probably a scorpion that had stung me.
They came with a new axle and we were on our way
and made it to our destination later that next day.
We caught a plane to Bali, but I got there in a haze,
to fall in bed where I was passed out cold for three more days.
Covered with red rashes from the rivers that we’d forded,
we were treated by the women in the houses were we boarded,
who tended to our wounds from leeches and our dysentery.
Yes, Bali then was paradise, but entrance wasn’t free.
Still, we’d paid the price and we were there right at the start,
before the rush of travelers destroyed some of its heart.
We rented bikes and rode the island, town to town to town
without meeting any traffic to try to mow us down.
A quarter for our rooms each night, a quarter for our lunch.
A lobster dinner for fifty cents—we were a happy bunch.
Processions down the streets at night, where gamelans abounded.
and temple ceremonies—all-in-all, we were astounded.
Magic mushrooms by the grocery bag cooked into omelets for us,
everywhere we went, the people just seemed to adore us.
Kuta beach was lazy then, and as we strolled along,
the most commercial thing we faced to buy was a sarong.
No beggars and no hawkers and no motorbikes to meet.
No half-an-hour to stand and wait to try to cross the street.
You might have guessed from hints I’ve given that there’s been a change.
Everything has altered now and become very strange.
Poppies restaurant—a tiny place in ‘73,
has grown into a restaurant chain with dishes gluten-free.
Hotels abound and hawkers flog their watches on each street.
Young Australians in each bar must drink to beat the heat.
We lived on just one dollar a day, in homes on Kuta Beach,
for there were no hotels yet anywhere within our reach.
There are more stories I could tell, and might, another day.
This tale has gone on for too long, so I must fade away.
But first I must apologize for this long-winded view
and say if you’re in Bali, we were there ahead of you!
Note: I should explain that the reason we had no cash is because we were traveling with travelers checks in this era before money machines and credit cards, and in these isolated regions of the island there were no banks or other places to cash the checks. I’m sure we all later recompensed the two guys who sacrificed their beloved bikes for our room, board and transportation. The prompt today was mushroom.