There are drugs in this story. But it’s not about drugs. I’d like to think it’s a story about people, and about truth.
When I was in Bali, I made friends with a guy called Chuk.
He was, for want of a more diplomatic word, a drug dealer.
I met Chuk in Kuta. Anyone who’s been to Bali labels Kuta as a tourist trap, and I don’t blame them. Don’t let the magic hour lighting in the photo below fool you. Kuta is a district consisting of narrow streets: unruly scooters; drunk white surfers; crowded warungs; trash-littered expanses of beach.
Given the space in which I met my entrepreneurial acquaintance, it’d be easy to reduce him to the stereotype of a con artist. Chuk had a smile that flashed like a kris, a way of looking at you sidewards, like you were both playing heads-up poker, and he could see your hand.
“Elephant ride, brother?” were Chuk’s first words to me, as he walked up and started matching my stride. I casually demurred. Like any good sales person, Chuk remained undeterred. “Surf boards? T-shirt? Keychain?” And then, as I continued shaking my head at his improbably large inventory of wonders: “Mushrooms?”
That gave me cause to hesitate. I stopped in my tracks, lit up a cigarette. Pragmatism finally won out over impulse; but to be neighbourly I offered him a Malboro Red. He readily accepted in exchange for a black name card, folded around the edges, which he fished out of his back trouser pocket.
It read ‘Chuk Norris’. I couldn’t help grinning.
“Maybe not, brother, but could you tell me: why ‘Chuk Norris’?”
‘Because in Kuta, my mushrooms have the most kick’
Chuk smile expansively, theatrically, beatifically, pantomimed a roundhouse kick with his hands. “Because in Kuta, my mushrooms have the most kick.”
It’s strange, how we use the word ‘authentic’ when we travel.
The way I hear it being used, ‘authentic’ is what separates the ‘tourist’ from the ‘traveler’, the ‘spiritual’ from the ‘kitsch’, the ‘traditional’ from the ‘tourist trap’.
According to advocates of this belief, there’ a ‘real’ way to travel that will lead us to the ‘Truth’ (with a capital ‘T’).
The ‘Truth’ will lift us up, transmute the core of our being, make us into wonderful people who appreciate our lives and do our laundry on time; individuals who Eat, Pray and Love instead of Gorge, Self-Obsess and Fuck.
I’ve a problem with this belief. When we bring our expectations of ‘The Truth” to a new city, a different country, it prevents us from experiencing the place for what it really is, on its own merits.
We waste energy on trying to figure out which products are fake, or which restaurant serves inauthentic cuisine. We reduce the individuals we meet to stereotypes: Conmen, grumpy cabbies, drug-addled punks, hobos. We reserve our wonder for places deemed by guidebooks to be culturally importance, or pretty enough for our Instagram accounts.
And we become blinded to the more important truth: The truth without the capital ‘t’, the truth that’s all around us.
I’m not saying to be naive when you travel. There are people who will fleece you, take you for a ride, get in your face and spout racist shit. I don’t doubt that if I had bought magic mushrooms or an elephant ride from Chuk, he’d have fleeced me for every last rupiah I had.
He definitely wasn’t shy about sharing the tricks of his trade with me during our conversation, which ended with us sitting down in his shop down a side alley, filled with bric-a-brac: lingam keychains and bottle openers, cheap Hawaiian-print shirts, wooden statues of grotesque-faced gods and demons from the Balinese syncretic religious tradition of Hindu-Dharma.
“What we do with bule [Caucasian tourists] is we get them to drink mushroom shakes. Then we entertain them for fifteen minutes,” Chuk gestured expansively around the room. “Then they buy everything.”
“So,why tell me? Isn’t it a trade secret?”
“Ah, but you I like, bro. And maybe tomorrow… tomorrow you’ll buy my mushrooms.”
These days, the Indonesian authorities have clamped down on the sale of magic mushrooms, reclassifying the once ambiguously labelled substance as a narcotic.
Inevitably, individuals like Chuk will find their livelihoods threatened, their risk-to-profit margins eroded by bribes to corrupt cops and lengthy prison sentences. And then what? A subculture, a way of life – more sordid than those found in monasteries or temples, but no less authentic – will have disappeared for good.
Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter if one call a product fake, or a location kitsch. But people are not handbags. The authenticity of lived, human experience is a spectrum, not a black and white binary; the life of the street vendor touting ripoff Megadeth T-shirts is no less important than that of the monk who taught you to meditate during your last ashram.
And what make us travellers aren’t just the places we visit, but the type of truth we’re looking for.