In 1984 I was in Bali, Indonesia researching traditional musical instruments, I decided to briefly study the suling, an end-blown bamboo ring flute. I easily found a teacher in one of the villages and rented a small beach hut close by. The hut was owned by an old Balinese man who spoke no English or Indonesian, but only Balinese, a language I knew nothing of. To make arrangements for the rental we communicated through a young neighbourhood girl he had hired for just that reason. Other than making the initial arrangements, the owner had virtually no other contact with his guests, and I would only rarely see him briefly in the distance.
One evening after a particularly long week of lessons, I sat on the porch of my cabin facing the ocean to play my suling. Although I was really enjoying Bali, I was in a remote area away from tourists and there were few people to talk to. I was starting to feel a quite lonely and homesick. After briefly practicing what I had learned that day, I decided to comfort myself by playing for a while. I sat back, closed my eyes, listened for a while and then started to play. Soon I was engrossed in the music. I played the wind in the trees, the ocean waves, the sounds of the night; and I played my feelings of being alone, so far from home in a land full of adventure and wonder.
Hearing a sound beside me, I stopped and opened my eyes to find the cabin’s owner walking past. He nodded to me as he sat down on a rock a short distance in front of the cabin, and smiling, gestured for me to continue playing.
Although feeling surprised and a bit self-conscious, I nodded and smiled back, then closed my eyes and continued to play. I was soon so engrossed again in the music, that I completely forgot about my unexpected audience. After about an hour, I stopped playing and slowly opened my eyes to find the owner still sitting on the rock, with his head bowed and eyes closed. As I watched he slowly raised his head opened his eyes, turned, nodded to me, and then slowly got up and walked off into the night.
It was late and I was tired. I only briefly thought how nice it was that he stayed to listen to my music, and within minutes I was in bed and fast asleep.
The next morning, as I got up and opened the door to my cabin, I was surprised to find the owner sitting on my doorstep holding a giant basket of fruit. Smiling a big smile, he handed me a piece of fruit gestured for me to sit down, and started to talk rapidly in Balinese. Although I didn’t understand a word he was saying, by his gestures I understood that he was talking about his property. He talked about the trees, the birds, and everything that we could see or hear around us. Then he began to teach me the names for everything in Balinese and asked me its English equivalent.
I didn’t have much time to think about this instant friendship, as our conversation in gestures and bits of language was totally engaging and would rapidly jump from one subject to another. It felt as if my new friend was trying to make up for his weeks of silence all in one day. We talked for that whole day and well into the evening, and he was at my door again the next morning and for many mornings after!
During the rest of my stay we became good friends, spending most of our mornings together and learning more of each others language. We often helped each other with each others chores from laundry to yard work, always with a running commentary of gestures, and a lot of laughter. His warm friendship had made my loneliness and homesickness totally disappear, and every day I looked forward to our time together.
When it became time for me to leave, we exchanged gifts, smiles, good wishes, and even a few embarrassed tears. We parted as good friends, knowing that we may never see each other again, but that we would never forget each other.
It’s strange that with all the time we spent together and in all our conversations, never once did either of us mention that evening of music. I guess we didn’t need to.