When You Have Nothing, Yet Have It All

By Nicholas Rety
For The Bali Times

Were he not so inconspicuous I might not notice him. Not one to rivet my attention, he drifts through the landscape as a bird in flight, shadow of a passing cloud, a leaf driven by the breeze, a distant song dying on the wind. He appears again and again, oblivious of all as the world is of him, living in his own time, his own space. The view from my window, the landscape he inhabits, comes alive with his presence, a presence so transient, so trivial, so fleeting that I question why I notice him at all.
Then it dawns on me that it is his transience, his simple life in harmony with nature, his seeming dismissal of all the irrelevance the world showers on us, his seamless coexistence with the elements that mark him as a man of note. He embodies the reason why I come to Bali: not to recreate the glitter, the noise, the mindless waste of the world I call home, but to find refuge from all that. This figure in my landscape represents another way of life, a freedom from greed, a contentment with what is enough; maybe even a prescription for mankind’s long-term survival.
He comes again, on time, as is his way. He heads for his hut among the palms, a flimsy refuge from vagaries of the weather, the heat, the rain, but his home all the same. He walks by his outdoor kitchen, no more than a corrugated iron roof on a few bamboo sticks, his stove a metal grate bridging two large stones, with pots and pans hanging above, dancing to the wind.
In the hut, his home under a thatch roof, a sheet of wood, raised above ground to stay out of the rain represents his bed, with a round log to serve as a pillow. An empty birdcage speaks his love of pet animals. Then, maybe it is a symbol that birds should be free, not caged. Against all reason, an old telephone sits on a wooden box beside the bed. Its bell is silent and the receiver has not heard a human voice for years. The ceiling is festooned with discarded plastic bags from expensive shops, now serving for storage of his few possessions. Fears of losing them? He has none. When you have nothing, you have nothing to lose. Any thief would disdainfully pass by this humble abode without giving it thought.
Outside, a washing line attests to his cleanliness. A new crop of laundry each day, faithfully washed and rinsed, awaits the sun. The grey tinge of shirts once white betrays the fact that he has no money for detergent.
The proudest, most striking feature of this dwelling is a flagpole, a tall shoot of bamboo, with a faded rag on top. It does not presume to be a national symbol. Yet it is a declaration that in its shadow there exists a human life, a soul clothed in poverty but not defeated by it, a pair of hands roughened by work but not disgraced by handouts, a man with no earthly possessions who is still richer, happier, more satisfied than the grumbling, greedy, anxious, insecure men of wealth in my world.
Oblivious to his penury, a contented cow grazes in the grass and calls him master. Broken shells of coconuts cut from the tall palms, fuel for the kitchen stove, are drying in the sun.
I never see him eat, never witness his private moments. He has no visitors, save for stray dogs which run back and forth, oblivious of his perimeter. There is no litter around him; he is as fastidious about his surroundings as he is disciplined about the routines of his day. Maybe in his mind he envisions himself occupant of a mansion or a villa giving on to the sea. Then I see him wander over to the cow and lead it gently to another spot, where fresh grass awaits.
Man and his animal living in peace, not dependent on outsiders. Man in a world of his own. Man in harmony with nature, the constant provider, adjusting to nature’s moods and ways, taking in moderation only the essentials for day-to-day survival. He knows no excess; his wants encompass only the things he can carry. He is living a life that is, not a life that might be. His movements are slow and purposeful; he is not the prisoner of deadlines.
I approach him and start a conversation. He receives me calmly, with the dignity I was expecting. Ready to smile under the straw hat which never leaves his head, he gives me a firm, friendly handshake. His grip is that of a man who expresses himself by the toil of his hands. I am taken by his sense of humor, by his total lack of guile, his openness, the absence of any social obstacle between us, the readiness to be taken as he is, with his total existence on public view.
The one thing I do not see at a glance is what goes on in his head, his thoughts. He talks to me on the level. I feel at ease. Money he has none. His home is not visited by comforts. He is gracious, yet has no social status nor any prospects in view. His life is ruled by the rhythm of the seasons. Everything he needs he provides for himself. No wonder he is so positive, so self-assured. I have scaled a few peaks in my life but I am starting to look up to him. He knows, he understands something I do not. As a Western man, I feel I am still on the quest, searching for the answers to many unknowns, the enigma, the purpose, the futility of life; but here is a man who is content, serene, above it all. I am humbled by my discovery, glad that this inconspicuous, simple, almost invisible man wandered into my path.
And then I learn that this idyllic setting will soon cease to be his home. Someone has recognized the value of the land and he must go. One by one the palm trees will be cut down, the bamboo carried away. Plans do not allow for him to stay, for his animal to graze. The hut will be bulldozed away and the flagpole used for someone’s building project. The flag, if it is one, will be hauled down and end up in a rubbish heap. For many of us this would be the end of the road: our home, the shelter to lay our heads when day’s work is done, no longer a place but just an evanescent memory.
Scavengers are already at work, salvaging anything remotely useful at the site. The landscape is changing, the felled palms prostrate, lifeless. Where once an interplay of light and shade delighted my eyes, I now gaze into the vacant stare of an empty lot.
He shrugs his shoulder, shows no emotion. He even permits himself a smile. I am desperate to know how he can cope with all this, how he perceives his next step in life, the future or even just the next day. Too late. He mounts his bicycle and with a faint smile and a wave of his hand pedals down the road.

Filed under: The Island

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