DRAGONS IN THE BATH: TALES FROM RURAL BALI BY CAT WHEELER
(Dragons in the Bath was re-issued under the new title of Bali Daze in 2012)
In November 2000, after living in Singapore for over 10 years, a Canadian woman stepped off the plane in Bali to begin a new life. Thus begins Ibu Kat’s first chapter, “Stepping Off the Cliff” in her book Dragons in the Bath, a singular blend of memoir, non- fiction essays, ethnological observations, social commentary and flat out editorializing.
After relating how she came to the decision to leave Singapore and how she had come to love Ubud, ‘the little mountain town’ she had visited since the early ‘70s, Ibu Kat subsequently describes her humble beginnings in the rice fields of Bali just a few meters from the jungle.
She first had a house built in three and a half months by 14 men using the most rudimentary traditional tools and no electricity. Determined to make the smallest footprint possible and ever mindful of her energy consumption, she personally limited her power supply to 2000 watts.
The author gradually adjusts and in a short time revels in her newfound rural lifestyle in the company of three dogs and a bald parrot. We read about Ibu Kat’s travails with immigration, her first time behind the wheel of a car, her troubles hauling water for a week, constructing a septic tank, a wastewater garden and her hilarious ill-fated experiments raising ducks and chickens.
In 2001, she began an environmental awareness column called Greenspeak in the popular local newspaper, Bali Advertiser. Her column has since become a voice of conscience for the Bali expat community as well as a valuable source of information on what it’s actually like living in Bali.
The everyday occurrences Ibu Kat describes are the same scenes that we pass by on the road or observe in our own yards that usually don’t deserve our attention. But in the hands of a skilled writer with a keen and subtle sense of irony and humor, ordinary and mundane events can come to life.
In the same way that Thoreau saw a microcosm of the universe in the tiny workings of an ant colony and Whitman a splendor in the grass, this writer describes the minutiae of nature with rapt precision – waxing rhapsodic over the spectacular colors of a reticulated python or the olfactory, auditory, hygienic and composting charms of the swayback Balinese pig.
Above all she is a lover of animals. This is a good thing when you consider the never-ending succession of unsolicited wildlife that wander in and out of her garden and home. Like the book’s cover which shows a veritable Noah’s Ark of animals in a tropical domestic setting, the majority of the stories are, in one way or the other, about her friendships, accommodations or confrontations with dogs, snakes, spiders, birds, meter-long monitors and tokay lizards.
Read about the Rat Zapper which kills rodents by electrocution, a breed of ducks so stupid that they are unable to reproduce, the secret life of bats, her irrational fear of Canadian bears, the paradoxes of the Bali Starling breeding program, and the important work carried out by Bali-based foundations that rescue and neuter tens of thousands of dogs.
Most of the stories are about the misfortunes, behavioral quirks and myriad personalities of stray mangy mutts that she has adopted or is breaking in, the pecking order of her three dogs, her dachshund who thinks it’s a Doberman, her thwarted attempts turning her dogs into vegetarians.
In the truly haunting and unforgettable Kasey & The River People, she tells of one of her dog’s encounter with the mystical Orang Sungai, the River People, who lurk down in the ravine below her house. I told the tale to my 10-year-old daughter and she had nightmares for three days and still keeps her curtains tightly shut every night. (Her room faces a river.)
With intriguing titles like Pit Bulls Don’t Eat Tofu and Two Naked Men in a Ditch, readers at first never quite know where a story is going to take them. One might begin with her sitting by her pond enjoying morning tea, and then before you know it she’s telling you how to build a pond. An errand to the warung for more sugar leads to an essay on the history of coffee.
Besides herself and all the creatures that populate the book, the only other main character is her housemaid Wayan. In the delightful story, “The World According to Wayan,” this likable Balinese woman comes across as knowledgeable, superstitious, down-to-earth and fiercely protective of her mistress.
Wayan keeps popping up throughout the book – cooking, preparing traditional herbs, serving as a foil for Ibu Kat’s naivety, bemused by her various projects, all the while interpreting, negotiating and acting as go-between. The only other person we get a glimpse of is Wayan’s husband who serves as gardener, handyman and occasional driver.
Of course it is the author herself who is the most developed character. Her thoughts and actions reveal a patient, worldly, eccentric, culturally and ecologically sensitive, and acutely observant woman who loves animals, gardening, a sip of wine now and then with friends.
Because each story must adhere to a set word length in the newspaper where they were first published, the book is divided into easily digestible chapters of 2 or 3 pages. This is our gain as it gives us a chance to absorb several episodes each night – like “eating one chocolate after another” her friend Diana Darling wrote in a review – and get a bit of insight or a chuckle before falling asleep.
Yet in spite of the brevity of the chapters, Dragons in the Bath is packed full of intensely lived experiences and a wealth of direct and indirect advice on how to negotiate with a Balinese builder, design a Balinese garden, plant and spread mulch, make compost. An index or simply a list of chapters in the front matter would’ve given the book more utility as a work of reference. (A book without an index is like a house without windows.)
In “Ethical Villas,” Ibu Kat spells out the responsibilities of villa ownership. In other pieces, she’s an outspoken environmental crusader pitching permaculture, electric motorcycles, the use of vevitar grass to prevent soil erosion, or a social activist promoting charitable associations, a dental program in one of the remotest villages of Indonesia, volunteering help in the recovery of tsunami-devastated Aceh.
As a loving tribute to the Balinese dog, zoology lessons on animals she has encountered all over the world, and as a chronicle of the island’s developing rural infrastructure, Dragons in the Bath is ultimately a warm-hearted and engaging on-the-ground account of how to live a responsible life in the countryside of Bali – equally appealing to the animal lover, foreign homeowner and anyone contemplating ever living for any length of time on Bali.