But the real privilege of humankind is being one with the universe.
I got a message from my friend Phil a few months ago. He said he was in Sydney, and wondered if I wanted to catch up with him in town. I haven’t heard from Phil since undergone major surgeries. It’s going to be a long road to recovery, but also it’s comforting to find out finally he got it done.
So I caught a train to Circular Quay station and walked out from the station toward the Museum Of Contemporary Art (MCA). Standing in front of the MCA, I could barely recognise him. He had lost weight so much.
Though his face was bony and pale, the deep marble eyes remained the same. I couldn’t help myself hugging him. Things had changed since we first met on the opening night of the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival — UWRF — in Bali, October 2014.
UWRF is a world-class cultural event listed by the telegraph, the top 5 literary events in the world. At the time Phil worked for community radio in Noosa, Queensland. He was on a ‘working-but-not-really’ holiday, an assignment to interview Indonesian and International writers at the festival. I was on a month-long stay in Ubud, Central Bali.
We’ve got nothing in common. Phil was in his early fifties, and I was twenty years younger when we first met. He is a typical, straight white Aussie man, laid back and down to earth. He has a great sense of humour, born from a wealthy family, went to a grammar boy school, and grew up in a mansion at an established Northern Sydney suburb of Mosman. Sometimes, I couldn’t help myself that jealousy slipped into my head. Wish I was born with such privilege.
‘The museum is closed,’ He said.
I looked up at the glassy wall of the museum in front of us. There was no sign of any activities inside.
‘How about the museum art gallery in the domain?’ I suggested.
He agreed. We then decided to go to the museum gallery, only one station away from where we were. It was a sunny chilled winter day when we were slowly walking to the museum gallery.
‘Do you remember our trip to Northern Bali?’ I asked.
‘It was a good one,’ He said.
He might have forgotten the details of the trip. Still, being a travel writer, you train your memories to remember the details of your travel.
The Road Trip To The Waterfall
The memory is distant, yet it is close like it just happened yesterday. After the four-day UWRF, we agreed to go on a road trip to northern Bali for many days. For me, it was the first trip further up the north and the second for him. And after the road trip, we said goodbye as he continued travelling to the eastern islands off Bali and I headed back to Seminyak, Southern Bali.
We agreed to meet up at my favourite Freak cafe. I spent most of my mornings there during my stay in Ubud for a month. It was a little, cozy space. Tourists would walk past and miss the cafe. I spent every morning writing ideas on the notebook, and travel diary while watching passersby on the buzzing street of Hanuman.
We parked our rented car at Git Git waterfall car park. When we got off the car, a man came to him and followed him down.
‘Mister, you like me to take you to the waterfall, yes?’
He politely no-thank-you the man. But he wouldn’t give up easily.
‘Beautiful waterfall, Mister. There are many more. I take you, yes?’ The man continued.
His voice echoed in the jungle. The man kept following him. For one and all, this time Phil refused politely in the Indonesian language — he speaks Indonesian fluently. I saw a little surprise on his face.
‘Mister, you speak Bahasa so good. I take you to the waterfall, yes?’
The man was following us down the trail as we were walking under the canopy of tropical trees. All of a sudden, we heard a group of European tourists walking from behind us. The man turned around and flew away like a bee smell pollen-rich flowers from a distance. A bee does what it does.
‘Hello, Misterrrrrr! Where you from! I take you to the waterfall, yes?’ He screamed, echoing in the distance.
His hands were up in the air, waving at them. Phil and I finally could take a deep breath. The European tourists saved us from the hassle.
We only spent a half-day on our trip, but I began to discern something. It ran more than skin deep. I couldn’t help thinking about it. Each time we stopped for lunch or grabbed some snacks at a local shop to what just happened back then, it was apparent to me. Phil’s
‘whiteness’ attracted more attention than my brown skin. Did I witness white privilege? Are white people more visible than the coloured one like myself?
But I buried the thoughts as we hiked the trail. The white noise was echoing in the distance. But the waterfall seemed further away from us. As we crossed past many tourists, we impatiently asked them how far long. Keep going. It’s beautiful up there, they said.
From the top of the hill, the river stream burbled between rocks and branches. As we crossed the bridge, the white noise was closer. The mist was dancing in the air as shafts of sunlight were piercing through leaves and branches. Rocks were darker and glossier. Mosses were greener and more velvety. Then, before our eyes, the body of water was crystal clear. I could see all the way down through to the bottom.
They say boys will be boys. We couldn’t help ourselves, but taking off our clothes, jumping into the water. Woohoo! We screamed. Kids will be kids and let the boys out of the men.
The Real Privilege Of Humankind
We continued our road trip to Bedugul, a village sitting on the central highlands of Bali. The car was running on windy narrow roads. Many thoughts lingered. I wonder if he was born a straight, white male, did he ever feel like he won a lottery? Did he know that the whole world is always on his side?
But growing up gay, with an ethnic background in the predominantly white society, you’re lucky enough being called ‘exotic’ like you’re some bird or ornament. But unfortunately, more often you heard names calling, belittling and derogatory.
It was almost dark when we found a small hotel sitting on sloping land. The Balinese owned hotel had many rustic, rundown bungalows. Each one perched in between towering lines of clove trees.
The cold breeze was low and still. I smelled clove scent filled the air with sweet, spicy, and fruity. Dark fogs had fallen. The green valley in the distance looked like blankets of greyish, white cotton flowers. The sunset gave up the day in saturated silvery gold.
Then the thoughts of being invisible came back to me. But then the night fell, twinkling stars revealed the whole universe. My entire life suddenly reflected across the galaxy. I shouldn’t question how I was born, what package of the family should have come with me, what sexual preference I wish I had, what race I fancied. I shouldn’t even have the thoughts of wanting a white privilege in me.
The whole world might be against me — and in fact, it could get uglier; judging the way you look, telling who you should love, but on that night I had the entire universe in me. I had the privilege of being one with the universe, and most of all, the real privilege of humankind.