Steph’s note: This story is more of a Travel Oops when I tell it in the United States, and I see people’s reactions. It still doesn’t seem truly like an oops to me.
Everybody on the island of Bali treated Kurt, my kids Eddie and Kasey, and me like VIPs — Brangelina even. Asian tourists often asked to take photos of the kids, who are blonde and blue-eyed, or even pose for pictures with them. We happily consented.
There were no strangers in Bali. We made friends with everyone we met and even flew kites with local boys at a beach in Sanur. Each driver we hired to take us sightseeing instantly became our best friend. Putu, a young, skinny man who had spiky black hair and wore a mint green button down shirt, was our favorite.
“I love to practice my English,” he told us on our way to visit an elephant preserve. It turns out Putu is the fourth child of his family. In Bali, there is an interesting and often confusing custom of giving each child a particular name according to birth order.
The first child is named Waylan; second is Made; third is Nyoman; the fourth is Ketut and then it starts over with Waylan for the fifth child. Understandably, some parents give their children a common variation of the established name. Putu is a variation of Ketut.
Five-year-old Eddie immediately connected with Putu, who fielded questions about every vehicle we passed. “Putu, why is the trailer set up that way?” “How can it take a big turn and not tip over?” “Why do all those men ride in the back with those antlers?” (Yes, why do they?)“Why aren’t the roads made wider so semis can drive on them?” Putu offered thorough answers.
“Putu, do you have your own kids?” I asked since he was so good with ours and because I knew family was very important in Bali. “No, no, but I hope someday.” He then added, “My mother wishes it so also.”
“Oh, it will happen,” I reassured him. “You’ll find a nice woman and you will make a great father.”
“Yes, you think it is so?” He broke into a full-on ultra bright smile. Looking over his shoulder, he gazed at the kids for what seemed like a full minute before returning his eyes back to the road.
“Definitely,” I said clamping on to my kids. Kurt, who had been quiet most of the way, spoke, “Take your time, Putu. Enjoy yourself now, because kids are awesome, but they are a lot of work.”
Interrupting Kurt, I asked Putu how we could see Tegalalang, a beautiful rice terrace I had seen in a Bali brochure. He offered to drive us to there.
Arriving at Tegalalang, we couldn’t see it initially. Several shopping stalls obscured our view. Because it was a bit of a madhouse at this popular tourist attraction, Putu suggested dropping us off, and then he would drive around the area while we took in the terrace. Meanwhile, due to “relaxed” bedtimes, Eddie had fallen asleep in the back seat. He desperately needed the nap. Putu saw me looking at him.
“I will watch Eddie and you go to see Tegalalang.” He nodded and smiled while the engine was idling.
“Would that be okay? He’s so tired,” I explained to Putu. He nodded again sympathetically. It was a deal. Kurt and I got out of the vehicle with our three-year-old daughter Kasey, and then Putu drove away.
We dodged shopkeepers peddling sarongs, dragon masks and wind chimes. Making it past the hagglers and souvenir stalls, we stopped above the terrace at the top rim and looked down.
It was like a Roman coliseum with descending rows of green steps interspersed with palm trees. The curving rows were alternating tiers of green – a completely green rainbow offering shades of emerald, jade, evergreen, chartreuse, lime, cucumber, broccoli, asparagus, brussel sprout and whatever else you could find in the green spectrum.
The colors surpassed even the expansive hues listed in a J. Crew catalog. Toward the bottom tiers, a constant breeze blew the longer rice stalks in unison, making it look like giant centipedes were wriggling away. Meanwhile, the clonking of large wooden wind chimes, and tinkling of the smaller metal ones coming from the market stalls were the soundtrack in my head.
At some point, while absorbing all the green and completely zenning out, I realized something. “Kurt, we just left Eddie in a running vehicle with a guy we only just met today whose name is Putu, and there are probably about 4,000 Putus on this island. We don’t even know the license plate number of his vehicle.” Hell, I didn’t even know the make of the car. Then after about a few seconds, Kurt and I looked at each other and shared the same expression. Complete calm. It’s Putu we’re talking about. No worries.
Perhaps the “serenity now” feeling that emanated from the terrace, or the intense humidity was dulling my soggy senses, but I was completely at ease. I had total faith in Putu. It would be only later, when retelling the story to friends back in the US, that the concepts of child abduction, the sex slave trade and bad judgment entered my mind.
We took some photos and savored one last moment of tranquility. Weaving back through the market, we saw Putu on the road next to the idling car. He waved vigorously to us, beaming as always. Perched on his back was Eddie, who also waved. Raising his extended arm up and down, Putu turned to Eddie, clearly pantomiming an elephant to amuse my perfectly safe son.