War or Peace

It took me nearly forty-five minutes to walk to Penestanan, up the stairs to the path leading to the yoga studio. But I didn’t mind at all, because the pain wasn’t bad when I set out shortly before eight this morning and anyway, I was really looking forward to Eka’s class.

When I arrived, it was still early enough that I could stretch my arms out in every direction, twirl around and not hit a dragonfly. I could wrap myself up in the peaceful emptiness of the room; streaks of sunshine painting long swaths of light on the wooden floor; whirring and chirping and crowing sounds competing for air-time; old-growth trees and rice fields meeting blue sky as far as the eye could see; a gentle breeze blowing in through windows large enough that they could more accurately be described as doorways to the sky.

Those few moments of unadulterated calm reflect the best, purest moments of Bali; the ones you want to breathe in, bottle up, bury in a time-machine. So when someone suddenly – almost stealthily – steps into your blissful cocoon, you might imagine (or at least hope) that they hold peace and openness in their heart. But this much I should have known: even high up where the air is clean, in a yoga studio in the sky, you should never take anything for granted.

I turned on my heels when out from nowhere I heard a hello. Oh hi, I said back. There stood a heavyset middle-aged woman, her heavily dyed blonde hair tied back into a faux French-braid, her beige shorts, tank top and accent a dead giveaway that she (1) was not a yogi and (2) was undoubtedly American. Gripping a stemmed glass of water with bright ‘n glossy red nails, the woman hesitated, so I – already painting a picture of her life from an instantly-fabricated first impression – asked where she was from. America, she replied, Colorado.

In those fleeting moments between her next sip of water and her subsequent comments, I made the mistake of mentally laying out the cornerstones of her life: I pegged her for a church-going pie-baking mom of three living in the suburbs of Denver; shopping at Walmart, eating at Pizza Hut; the kids grown up, in college, out of the house; a dog, maybe a picket fence, certainly a flag hanging from the awning above the living room window; perhaps a recently divorced woman taking a break from life or maybe a missionary on her way to Australia.

Then, as if it were a trivial afterthought: Well I’m from Denver but I now live in Afghanistan, she said nonchalantly. My mind did an about-face. So much for typical suburban housewife. Maybe she works for an NGO trying to assist the Afghanis who are living in such oppressively dangerous conditions? Or a nurse who’s on a mission with MSF? The wife of a diplomat who is eager to teach Afghan kids a bit of yoga on the sly.

The possibilities seemed endless. At least they did, until I asked her the question I ought to have left unasked, the question I soon wished had been drowned out by Eka’s voice signaling the beginning of class. Are you working there or…? my question trailed off, almost as if some part of my brain already knew that her answer would startle me. And startle me is exactly what it did.

I’m an engineer, she said. I work for a contractor… for the military

And then, in an instant the sunshine and birds and trees and breeze all fell away. A butterfly had flown in but was trapped at a window, flapping its wings, seeing sky so clearly but unable to reach it. I couldn’t wrap my head around what she said. I don’t remember asking more questions but I must have because, through the haze, I saw the woman mouthing sentences, out of which I seemed to hear words like Kandahar… a nice place… NATO base… people from around the world, including Romania… I don’t think I heard her say the word war even once.

What I do remember is the image, more like an apparition, that came to me in a flash: It was Gino, sidling up next to me, wearing his signature jeans, shirt, black shoes and hunched back; rubbing his beard, looking straight into this woman’s eyes, and asking in the most deadly-serious yet gentle tone imaginable (totally belying his outrage): Do you have any idea what kinds of deaths and injuries your well-paid job, the one that you’re taking a break from in the hills of Bali, are causing to the people of Afghanistan?  Are you aware that the death toll on civilians in that country far exceeds all the military deaths on both sides? If you’ve not seen any of these casualties, please let me be your guide. Even though Gino spoke entirely in Italian, somehow I understood every word; but the woman who was at the receiving end of his condemnation looked nothing short of bewildered.

Yoga class lasted two hours, but I don’t remember much from it. My mind wandered like a restless child, managing to center my thoughts on my practice only when I heard Eka’s soft-spoken reminders to clear the mind – or his hilarious instructions to inhale deeply in our lower Bali and upper Bali…which meant, of course, that he was asking us to breathe into our belly.

But I felt an ache in my belly. A dozen questions were hurtling through my head. Mostly though, I wanted to implore this woman to forgo picking up the usual batik-and-bamboo-bag souvenirs in favor of those hand-crafted Balinese palm decorations – so that she could attach them to the grilles of tanks, jets and super-commando-SUVs back at her (home-) base; offerings to the spirits, talismans to protect the lives of those who were engaged in battle, but even more so those – innocently, unwittingly – who were on the receiving end.

I also wanted to ask her this: If you had to choose and believe in only one, which one would it be, war or peace?

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