That evening, after dinner, we were listening to the Ramayana Monkey Chant. Performed out in the open on the island of Bali by several dancers and about hundred shirtless men chanting “chak ke-chak ke-chak ke-chak,” it’s more properly called tari kecak. Although it’s been repurposed, reproduced, decontextualized, made a tourist attraction. and on and on by the west, it is still a powerful piece of music. My daughter Maggie, who was nine at the time, was dancing to it while my son Julien, who was two and still yet to talk, waved his arms. My wife Heather and I swayed to a beat created solely by human voices as we stood by the dining room table at our house in Front Royal, Virginia. The tari kecak, of course, was my choice for after dinner music because it takes not just me but all of us far, far away.
Maggie and Julien, on hearing it for the first time that night, were hooked. Heather, being married to me, first heard it a long time ago. It was one those things I had have her listen to soon after we got together sixteen years earlier. Just as I had to have her watch Im Lauf der Zeit (aka Kings of the Road), Wim Wenders’s beautiful, plotless three hour film. And then had to have her read Harry Crews’s Feast of Snakes. These are, yes, some of the more pleasant things I’ve put her through.
In this photograph, Maggie, after listening to the Ramayana Monkey Chant, has cloaked herself with a blanket as a way of concluding her own Monkey Chant dance, while Julien’s eyes are focused on the men performing the music. Behind them, only partially visible, is our framed print of the Remedios Varo painting titled “Exploración de las Fuentes del Río Orinoco,” which translates as “Exploring the Springs of the Orinoco River.” Remedios Varo, at least to my eyes, looked a little like the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector, though perhaps it’s only a similarity in attitude and not a physical resemblance. Me, I’ve been told I bear a resemblance to Mexican painter Diego Rivera, though perhaps this is more a physical likeness, since he was rather portly and, although not balding, had an almost freakishly high forehead—like me.
The next day, after dinner, we were driving on Route 40 west, the gas gauge of our car slightly below empty, trying to get to Uniontown, Pennsylvania, where we hoped there would be a gas station. Suddenly we were going uphill, and the sign above the dark road said, “Steep Grade Next Three Miles” and “Hazardous Mountain Road.”
We’d just left after the first evening of Heather’s family reunion, which that year was in Ohiopyle, Pennsylvania. Family reunions are one of the first things Heather had me experience soon after we got together. It was, for me, something completely new. Heather’s family reunions bring together a group of around forty to fifty people (Heather’s immediate family alone includes a group of eight brothers and sisters). With most of my relatives being in the Philippines or far on the west coast, I had never experienced a family event of this size. I got used to them, though. And just like Heather, Maggie, and Julien had no choice but to learn to appreciate my musical, cinematic, and literary tastes, I had no choice but to learn to appreciate massive family get-togethers.
At the reunion, I’d spent most of the day running after Julien—since family reunions are rarely ever baby proofed—and eating. There is, in Heather’s family, a wide range of political views. Still, I was pretty sure that I was usually the only wild-eyed socialist in the room, which meant that most of the time I’d try to stay calm and silent. Back then, anyway. Nowadays, I don’t think I’d be able to stay at all quiet, but then it’s been years since Heather’s family has had a big reunion.
When I saw the sign above the road warning of the upcoming steep mountain road, I looked at the empty gas gauge and yelled… well, one can imagine the words I screamed, though Heather, Maggie, and Julien didn’t have to. At any rate, we were leaving the realm of surrealism and ascending towards the heights of its real world opposite, whatever that was. We climbed and climbed as the gas gauge seemed to sink even lower, but somehow we made it to the top. Then, just as quickly, we were going downhill, and I put the car in neutral, hoping that might save a little gas. At the bottom of the hill, we saw an exit for Uniontown’s business district. When we got there, everything was closed. One gas station, then the next: closed.
Finally, I pulled over so we didn’t end up stuck in the middle of one of downtown Uniontown’s streets (not that there was anyone driving by). We called AAA to see if they could get us some gas, but we couldn’t explain exactly where we were. We were on some road in Uniontown, but there was no sign. We gave them the name of a nearby landmark—we were down the block from a church–but they couldn’t locate it.
At last I saw, appearing out of the dark, a woman walking down the road towards us. I thought, what the hell, let’s ask her. Maybe there’s a gas station nearby that she’s knows about that’s open. Heather opened the back door and called out to her.
“Oh yeah,” the woman said. “Just go down to that light, take a right, and it will be on your left.”
“Is it within a couple of miles?” I asked.
“Oh yeah,” she said, “it’s just around the corner.” Then she added, “It’s a bad neighborhood, though. You should just get your gas and go.”
Bad neighborhoods, however, were the least of my worries. I’d lived in places people thought were bad neighborhoods. I just wanted to get back to our motel and rest. I thought she might then ask us for a ride, but she started moving on. We thanked her, then drove down the road. The open gas station was right where she said it would be. When I got out of the car, I started hearing the music again, in my head. The Ramayana Monkey Chant. Tari kecak: “chak ke-chak ke-chak ke-chak, “chak ke-chak ke-chak ke-chak…” It was a beautiful night again.
I filled the tank, got some milk for Julien (that was why we were driving around to begin with), then went back to our motel, The Lodge at Chalk Hill. Old, out of date, and desolate, it was the cheapest motel we could find when we looked on the internet. One comment we saw about the place on some hotel search website sealed the deal for us: “It’s owned by foreigners, but they were nice.”
So we decided that yes, we would stay here. And let the owners know that we don’t think they’re foreigners. We think they’re Americans. And we don’t care if they’re nice.
Photograph by Jose Padua