On Swear Words and Other Lessons of Life

Earlier this afternoon, I was expecting to return to my lovely room at the guesthouse and write about this past week, which I spent with a friend on an island off Lombok, about an hour’s boat ride away from Bali. But life being what it is, and bringing us the lessons we need – so often when we least expect them – I’ve decided otherwise.. because what I really want to write about is swear words and presence of mind.

Let’s just say that, after a treacherous sea crossing and way-too-long drive home (splayed out on the back seat of a van, thank goodness), I was more than looking forward to flopping myself onto my bed, emptying my bags, getting settled, doing a bit of laundry, eating and sorting through a week’s worth of unread emails.

I entered the family compound with the driver carrying my bag, asked him to place it on the bottom step of the staircase leading up to my room(s) and bade him goodbye. Then I noticed a number of relatives scattered throughout the compound: little Dede was in sarong, prancing about with a palm leaf, Ibu’s mother was busy concocting sweets in the kitchen, Wayan was outside her storage room preparing tomorrow’s offerings and the birds were chirping away in their cages. I didn’t see Iluh or Ibu (Nyoman) anywhere, but Kadek just then came out of the kitchen.

Hi Kadek, I said to her, apa kabar? (how are you?) Pointing a finger upstairs, and with a smile showing that I was happy to be ‘home,’ I continued: can you please ask Ngurah to carry my bag upstairs? The steady look on her face belied her confusion (and, in retrospective, carried also the weight of anxiety), as she pointed in the other direction and said: kamar anda di bawah (your room is downstairs). To which I answered: Apa? (a ‘what?’ that I hoped came across sounding calmer than the more exasperated question simmering just beneath the surface, which would have been: WHAAAAAAT?????!!!!)

Cloudy weather & rough seas... here and there

I asked Kadek to explain. She knew me enough to gauge the disappointment (an understatement) in my face. Then I asked her to call Iluh. Cannot, she is home now. Then I asked her to move the guest who was in my room to the room they were sending me to. Cannot, she is not home now. Trying to calm my nerves and weigh my alternatives, I lay on my back, on my pillow, on the floor of the communal pavilion across the kitchen.

I’d just learned a new word which I thought came in pretty handy in light of the unexpected and somewhat annoying predicament, so I turned back to Kadek and said  quietly but in a serious tone: Saya MARAH. Which means only one thing: I am ANGRY.

I regretted it as soon as the words left my mouth: A veritable no-no in these parts. So much so that I immediately wished I’d never learned that word.

Because if there is one thing that is critical to learn on this island, it’s that expressing one’s anger in Bali – towards the Balinese – is tantamount to accusing them of fraud, hitting them over the head, in other words, doing the unthinkable.

They are a people that laugh off mistakes, accidents and misunderstandings like nowhere I’ve ever lived before. People just don’t get angry here, most especially in view of others (oh how I erred); if they do, they keep it to themselves, they share with others, but they avoid confrontations like the plague.

And so, though it’s a four-letter word with five letters, I vowed to stuff marah in my back pocket, like I do with expletives, using it only sparingly and even then, absolutely only as an ultimate, no-choice-but, last resort. Otherwise, it’s bound to cause a rift that may be difficult to repair or undo. For long as I’m living in this part of the world: not worth it.

As I rested briefly on a bed-that-is-not-my-­bed shortly after, and reflected on the incident that might have spiraled out of control, I came to realize that when I am told something that triggers within me disappointment, anger, hurt or any kind of intolerance, I am doing myself a disservice; I am missing the presence of mind that is so essential to cultivate, and to exercise precisely at these moments, when we are called to practice forbearance and compassion.

I was almost immediately sorry that I didn’t have the presence of mind to stay silent in response to Kadek offering me another room; that I didn’t stop myself from expressing my upset; that I didn’t slough it off as a simple misunderstanding; mostly, that I didn’t have the presence of mind to laugh it off as yet another example of Balinese carrying on as they always do, doing what they want, without a hint of malice.

Once I’d had time to decompress, I realized a few truths: it was nothing but a minor inconvenience because I could put off a few things until tomorrow; the room upstairs is not and never will be my room; and keeping the peace with my Balinese neighbors and friends is infinitely more important than having my way.

A few months ago, after I read a heart-warming story about a man’s presence of mind after a mugging, when he turned to the thief after handing over his wallet and expressed sadness at the man’s despair – then offered to buy him dinner. I hoped that I would learn from his experience; I hoped that I too would be able to react to an irksome situation with grace, with tolerance, with understanding. I didn’t do so today. I still hope that the lesson, one day, soon perhaps, will stick.

p.s. Just as I was about to publish this ode to equanimity, I was tested yet again: the power went out.


  1. Our egos easily get bruised but it is so important to remember when things happen it is often because someone else has a burden and it our opportunity to be there for them. Such a hard lesson to move our ego aside, this can help bring joy to others.

    Mindfulness is so hard.

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