Even if the street was empty I waited at the red light—Japanese style—so as to leave space for the spirits of the broken cars. Even if I was expecting no letter I stopped at the general delivery window, for one must honor the spirits of torn up letters, and at the airmail counter to salute the spirits of unmailed letters.
I took the measure of the unbearable vanity of the West, that has never ceased to privilege being over non-being, what is spoken to what is left unsaid.
~Chris Marker, Sunless (Sans Soleil)
Along and down the breadth of Jalan Raya Ubud, people are there – but as cellphone and camera batteries are charged, in varying degrees. A wallflower, Polish photographer notes this: the presence of the people here. ‘Their smiles shame Warsaw,’ says Ula and Kaszia. Not anything you’d see on a street car going from Liberty Village to Broadview Station along Queen Street in Toronto. In Toronto, where I myself am as ever-absent as I sometimes imagine the chatter of me has taken my place; where I am presently not sitting at that table of four – perhaps more so than if I were?
Just thoughts, my trying home-country…
I stop at that Circle K by the post office and sneak in to check my mail – though it’s just about closed. The one clerk is glued to the tube as Jokowi has just become President. The mail box for foreigners without proper addresses is wanting of some attention. The presence of these letters belies the absence – both of the recipients to the senders, and of the recipients in this over-crowded jungle. I walk my fingers through them. Smudged ink and black fingerprints date some in months. Nothing for me, today.
From my scooter, I try on this new perspective – of seeing everyone in terms of being presence and absence; the spirals of emptiness licking off an oar cross the lake on their own. Locals are mostly present-present. Beggars absent-absent. Shoppers absent-present, or absent-absent. Drivers are either-or. Tourists are present-absent, or absent-present. The Chinese following their flag as ducks follow their masters down Jalan Bisma. Jalan Bisma, where in 2007 there were villas between rice-fields; where now there are rice-fields between villas. In Kuta there are cowboys, in Ubud there are tattooed Made who aspire to life-drawing. And as these Ketut declare, foreigners come with a tangible absence. As the bar girls lining the stairways of Taman di Langgit see so clearly it hurts – or the dark, Batak boys of Pasar Patimura – travellers spin pockets of igneous bombs in flowing lava, whisking behind as they move through space – or, unmoving, still try to keep themselves revocable, year after year, holiday after holiday.
In the great colonies of Canada, our presence is the absence of the first dream-catchers of that muted landscape. Here in Bali though, I am only the presence of my own absence ‘back home’, as they say. Like most foreigners, I strive to occupy the same moment as the locals, making sure at the very least never to detract from it.
The Candy Factory Lofts, and other big brick blocks like it, in Toronto’s West Side, owe their voluminous emptinesses to the presence of sweat shops around Jabodetabek. There in Toronto, our parents are from cultures we know little about, we work in offices made by builders we’ll never meet (or we are those builders), offices of imported materials and machinery, eat Chinese bananas when it’s minus twenty seven, wear clothing made in the third world, and drive sensitive bulldozers considerately across Earth’s ancient cosmogonies; our presence rises out of what is absent. This should be as visible as a doughnut hole (also known as a Timbit).
Capitalism maintains a colonial idea of the caste structure in which foreign labourers are the unseeables and the untouchables. Yet the presence of even the smallest amount of money is preferable – for the absence of their free time – as the presence of wealth in the first-world seems to necessitate this poverty.
And cheap labour abroad means for the absence of yet another ethnocentric Canadian tradition that saw Chinese tailors doing alterations as you had afternoon tea in the first-floor coffee shops that still line the streets of Liberty Village (liberation of Chinese Canadians – can they be called ‘jobs’ for the Filipinos?).
Anyway, back to occupying the moment. I try to be here and now – more than I did when I was a labourer in Burnaby and Surrey, plastering and caulking a sloppy signature, writing ‘Enchilada Kneecap’ and ‘Vigour-mortus’ on Winona garbage cans – to be around when I’m not.
Your absence owned a presence in me so I’d go and see you. Your presence made an absence in me, and so I would walk Kunningan alleyways and gang all the way home, for what more.
What am I absent for, in being alive? What am I missing out on? Would I wonder the same if I were dead? Would I ever imagine this?