For whom the bowl tolls: how I was busted with cannabis in Bali, Indonesia and what it took to escape

Appeared on therooster.com on April 17, 2019

by Juan Wilder


It was my first time outside of a western country. It was my first time in Asia proper and everything was bright and vivid and new to me: the scents, the architecture, the people, the food, the drinks, all of it seemed like another world. It felt as though I had wandered into a fantasy novel.

But it was only Kuta.

Which, for the unfamiliar, is not exactly a paradigm of paradise. Kuta is more like the Mos Eisely of the Pacific, a true hive of scum and villainy, a place where rowdy Australians go on holiday to break things, drink things, eat cheap, buy sex and feel lucky.

There are many beautiful parts of Indonesia and many beautiful parts of the island, Bali. However, Kuta is not necessarily one of them. Kuta is a place for scoundrels.

The Australians had warned me. They’d told me that Indonesia was not a place to fuck with cannabis. I’d heard all the horror stories of innocent students getting arrested for buying a little bud off the wrong person. I’d heard about the strict and even abusive Indonesian laws concerning cannabis consumption and I had no intention of seeking it out while I was visiting this strange island nation.

But reality has a funny way of derailing my intentions. Especially when they’re serious.

I was visiting Kuta with some loose friends — people I’d met in Perth, Australia who’d convinced me to travel up to Bali with them before I headed home to Colorado, to the Rockies, where I’d teach skiing, live at home and save cash all winter, all over again to hit the road next summer. Money, that great and powerful illusion, was a necessary evil that I was running out of. And quickly — as always.

Which meant that my journey was nearing its end. The End. The terminus of a long tramping campaign that had taken me from Colorado to California to Australia and now to Indonesia. It had been an insane journey, full of new places, new faces, beer, wine, weed, women, beaches, wild animals, wild parties and psychedelic mushrooms (you can buy all the psilocybin in the world in Bali, legally. But cannabis? Nah that stuff will get you 5 years easy).

Anyway, this was my final morning. It was 4 a.m. and I was sitting by the hotel pool, still tipsy from a night out on the town drinking with strangers in strange bars all over that strange city. I hadn’t slept. I had determined not to. Why bother? I thought. Why tease myself with a few hours of honest rest and waste my last glimmer of Asia unconscious in a bed?

No. I was going to fight through the fatigue I already felt creeping over me, order a goddamned pizza from the kitchen, watch the sunrise and bask, alone, in the rays of one of my last days on the road. Like a true tramp.

The pizza arrived quickly, but my solitude was not absolute. Across from me, likewise enjoying an early morning pizza, was an agent of fate, a karmic emissary come to test the size of my testicles.

He was a portly Indonesian fellow. Mid-forties probably, burned out, inked up and dangerous looking. And he wanted to talk. From across the pool he started asking me questions; asking me about my trip, how long I’d been there for, where I was from, small talk stuff. Then came the Big Question:

“Hey, man,” his shifty eyes narrowed, a Grinch smile crept across his dark face, “You wanna’ smoke some weed?”

The question hung in the air between us, over the still pool, hovering like a hummingbird.

I did want to smoke some weed. I almost always do, when the opportunity arises. I love weed. I’m from Colorado, for chrissake, where cannabis is our unofficial state flower. Weed is my weakness, my vice of vices.

However, I was also wary. Just the idea of smoking bud in a country so strict and tight assed about pot gave me The Fear. You promised yourself you wouldn’t do this, I thought, you know what kinds of consequences there could be.

But this man was not offering to sell me weed, he was offering to smoke it with me, I reasoned. I had not sought the marijuana out. It had sought out me.

So where did that leave us?

“I’m not buying anything man,” I told him. “I’m headed out of the country in a matter of hours.”

“No, no, no. It’s my weed. I just want to smoke with someone,” he glanced over his shoulder, towards his room, “It’s good stuff, man. Those guys smoked it a few hours ago and still haven’t woke up.” He motioned towards the room, where I could see two large men passed out on the floor.

“You just want to smoke with someone,” I repeated.

“Right, with you.”

“We’ll smoke together?”

“Yeah man, of course. I’m not going to let you smoke my shit without me.”

“Where?”

“Right here,” he glanced around at the empty pool deck.

“Are you fucking crazy?” I asked him, nervously cramming a slice of pizza into my face.

“No, man, I’m from here, I know the rules. Trust me…”

I did not trust him.

On the other hand, a little green buzz sounded delightful… We would be smoking together, after all, we’d be co-conspirators in this meager crime, equally guilty of breaking the same silly law. Besides, a good blaze before my flight home sounded like just the ticket. Nothing makes a long flight more digestible than a good blaze right beforehand.

And hell, I thought, even if he was a cop, how could he bust me while we’re both stoned?

It’s worth noting here just exactly how strict Indonesia’s drug policies are. If you are a foreigner caught importing hard drugs into the country it’s the death penalty, no questions asked. If you are a tourist caught in possession of cannabis, the minimum sentence is four years in prison. They do not take kindly to drugs in that country — even though psychedelic mushroom smoothie stands line the streets and men selling Viagra out of hollowed out AA batteries prowl the sidewalks at night like horny ghouls.

I knew all this. And still, only moments later, this stranger and I were passing a dokha bowl packed with weed back and forth, laughing, bullshitting, talking about tattoos and women. Finishing our pizzas.

“What’s your name, man?”

“Juan,” I told him.

“Phelix.” We shook hands.

Phelix was a local. He was a father and a husband, who, as he explained, was staying at the Surfer Bliss Hotel because his wife had kicked him out. She’d caught him in their bed with another woman and understandably, lost her shit.

“That bitch,” he said. “She’ll be begging to have me back by tonight.”

“You’re sure of that?”

“One way or another, man,” he said, taking a long draw from the dokha pipe. “One way or another I’ll be sleeping in her bed tonight and she’ll be glad to have me.” He exhaled the smoke through his nostrils.

This man, whoever he was, was dark. Something about him made me uneasy, unsure and anxious. Or maybe that was just the weed? It had been a while since my last toke, after all. Was I just being paranoid?

Probably, I decided.

When we finished the second bowl Phelix rolled a couple of joints.

“What do you say we go for a drive and smoke these? I gotta drop those assholes off,” he motioned towards his room, where, I could see the two unconscious giants had not moved. “We can blaze on the way there and on the way back, then I’ll give you a ride to the airport.”

“Hell,” I said. I was feeling good and stoned and I had nothing to do. Plus, a ride to the airport would save me some cash for a meal on the way home. “Sure.” I agreed, already getting the munchies, already thinking of airport food, overpriced sustenance.

Phelix pulled a flipflop off his foot and threw it at the men. “Hey!” He shouted, “Get the fuck up!”

The bodies stirred. The two men groaned.

“Lazy fucking Arabs. Get the fuck up!” he repeated, throwing his other shoe. “I’m taking you back to your hotel.”

When his companions had mustered the willpower to get vertical we all walked out to his car, a tiny blue Hyundai parked right in front of the hotel and we piled in, the Arabs in the back, Phelix and I in the front. The two in the back were so dreary eyed and hungover they surely didn’t realize how ridiculous they looked back there. Both of them were huge, hulking humans, that barely fit in the back seat of that Hundai. I almost laughed at them. Phelix and I chilled comfortably in the front seats, jamming out to Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds,” passing the first of the two joints back and forth.

We dropped them off unceremoniously. Phelix pulled right up to the front door of some lavish looking hotel, unlocked the doors and told the Arabs in the back to get out. They obliged. Confused and likely still drunk, both men stumbled out of the car looking around and scratching their heads like they’d never seen the place before.

“Fuckers,” Phelix said, watching them dodder inside. “Some people just can’t hang.”

I figured we’d just head back to the Surfer Bliss after that, but Phelix wanted to take a little detour. We had another joint after all and he was determined to smoke it with me.

“Most people can’t handle their weed like you can,” he said, admiringly as we finished off the first joint.

“Most people don’t have the same tolerance I do.” I told him.

He laughed at that.

A few minutes later we’d parked near Kuta beach, facing the water, Bob Marley still serenading us over the sound system. Phelix lit then second joint, took a long draw from it and handed it to me.

“What do you do in the U.S., Juan?”

“I’m a student,” I told him. “I teach skiing in the winters. Just trying to travel, though, really.”

Phelix nodded. “That’s cool man,” he took the joint as I passed it back. “What do you think I do?”

The question caught me off guard. I hadn’t really thought about what Phelix might do for work here in Bali and now that he mentioned it I was at a loss. I couldn’t picture this strange, dark character working in retail or the service industry.

“I’m not sure.” I answered after a moment.

“Just guess.”

“Do you sell weed?”

He laughed at that. “Look up there,” he said nodding towards his dash.

Right in the middle of the dashboard, above the sound system controls, was a small orange Ducati motorcycle model. I had noticed it as soon as I got into the car. It was a tacky decoration, a weird toy to use as Hyundai décor, but I had chalked it up to some cultural difference.

“You sell motorcycles?” I guessed.

Again, he laughed. And, at this point I started to feel uncomfortable.

“No,” Phelix chuckled, ripping the joint and smiling stupidly, his eyes squinting and peaceful, stoned and relaxed. “Behind the motorcycle. Look behind it.” He told me, chuckling.

I leaned forward and peered over the model motorcycle and my blood froze in my veins. Gleaming in the Indonesian sunlight, placed strategically behind the Ducati model, hidden from plain sight, was an Indonesian police officer’s badge. As soon as I laid eyes on it I felt a cold, moist hand close around my wrist. I looked over at Phelix, who’s demeanor had changed entirely. His eyes now burned fiercely. Furious, malicious joy was etched upon his face, as his wolf-like smile spread.

“I’m like the DEA here in Indonesia,” he whispered, holding my arm in a vice-like grip. “And you’re my bitch, Juan.”

Terror seized me. I don’t remember exactly what happened next, I was so flushed with raw adrenaline. But I know I somehow rolled out of his car, breaking his grip and spilling awkwardly out and onto the pavement, strangers watching with surprise. I rolled again. I lost my flip flops. I stood up and saw Phelix getting out of the car as if in slow motion and took off down the street. Sprinting. I hailed the first empty taxi I saw and leapt inside, sinking in the back seat, low, beneath the windows to escape his view.

“Kuta,” I told the driver, panicked.

“Kuta?” He asked, clearly confused and unsettled by my strange demeanor. “You’re in Kuta.”

“Just drive!”

So he drove. But we didn’t get far, before I saw Phelix out the front window, standing in the middle of the street, arm extended, his police badge shimmering in the sunlight. My taxi driver stopped, “What is happening?” he asked, as Phelix moved swiftly to the side of the car. As he threw open the door on the passenger side, reaching in, grabbing at me, I screamed and jumped out the other side.

I have never been much of a runner. In fact, I absolutely hate the exercise and always have. But in that instant, without shoes and with so much adrenaline coursing through my body, I ran faster and further than I have ever run in my life, before or since. Down the street, up an alley, back to the beach, through a neighborhood, left, left, right, left again, trying to lose this insane man before he caught up to me.

At a certain point, I realized, though, that there was only one way I was going to get out of this situation safely. I needed to get back to my hotel room, back to the hotel where Phelix knew I was staying, grab my bag (which had my passport and my wallet in it) and get the fuck out of dodge.

However, if this bastard had any brains, that was where he was going to be waiting for me. He knew I was headed out of the country that morning and he knew I needed to get back to the room in order to get my stuff. I was absolutely certain that Phelix would be waiting there for me, perhaps with more cops, ready to bust my stoned ass and send me to Indonesian prison — which, from what I understand, is not exactly a cheery place.

Every part of me trembled with terror as I scurried back to the Surfer Bliss, still buzzing on adrenaline. I peered in the lobby — no sign of Phelix. I snuck up the stairs and glanced down the hallway, towards my room. No one. With a deep breath, I sprinted down the hall and blasted through and into my room. It was empty except for me and my backpack. The window curtains waved gently in a quiet breeze.

I started cramming things into the bag, hastily jamming my clothes and anything else I could see into it. As I was doing so, my phone started ringing. I was getting a facetime call from, of all people, my mother. Strange, I thought, it’s about 3 AM back in Colorado. What in the world could she be calling at this hour for?

“Hello?” I answered, trying to hide the terror in my voice.

“Juan! Oh my god, I’m so glad you answered.”

“Is everything okay?”

“That’s what I’m calling you about!” she said, clearly shaken up about something. “I had this terrible… feeling that just woke me up. It wasn’t a nightmare, just some awful sense that made me terrified for you. I’m so relieved to hear your voice."

I didn’t know what to say to that. A mother’s intuition is a strange and inexplicable thing.

“I’m totally fine mom!” I lied, stuffing things hastily into my red backpack. “All is well! I’ve had a great time and I’m just getting ready to go catch my flight, now. No need to worry!”

“Are you sure? You sound anxious.”

“Totally sure!”

“Okay, well,” she said. “God, I’m just so relieved, Juan. That was the weirdest thing. I was so scared for you. I don’t know why. I’m so glad you’re alright.”

“Right as rain, mom. Nothing to worry about here.”

Knock, knock, knock.

I froze at the sound. I stared at the door, ready to shit my pants if I heard Phelix on the other side. I could just imagine his big angry bellowing voice, “You thought you could run from me?! You’re fucked Juan! You’re my BITCH!

Instead, I heard a timid, quiet voice: “Herro? Room service. Herro?” Knock, knock, knock.

“I’ll be out in just a minute!”

And I was. Less than a minute in fact. When I came barreling out of that door the Indonesian room service woman was still standing there and I almost bowled her straight over.

Again, I found myself peering around corners, checking to make sure that Phelix wasn’t waiting for me, lurking somewhere in hiding, biding his time until he saw me fleeing.

But I would never see Phelix ever again. I got a taxi, made it to the airport and then to my gate (where I half expected to get stopped by police). I don’t know that I’ve ever felt more relief than I did when that Air China flight took off, when the wheels of that plane finally left Indonesian soil and I watched the small island of Bali shrinking beneath me. It was a wave of warmth, happiness and sheer liberation.

I felt dumb when I finally got back to my bed. I felt lucky and stupid, brilliant and foolish all at once. What would my life be like, if Phelix hadn’t let me slip (literally) out of his grasp in that terrible moment? Would I still, today, be fending for my life in some hell-hole Asian prison? Sometimes I wonder. Sometimes I wonder if Phelix did actually catch me and if this all isn’t just some weird and wild DMT trip, a psychic illusion forged of terror and disbelief, meant to protect me from the horror of my true reality: living life locked up abroad. Am I actually in that prison? Am really here?

For now I believe that I am. And I feel indescribably lucky that I somehow managed to slip through a crack in the walls as they closed in around me. Though, I’ll never be able to explain the feeling my mother got, some 10,000 miles away when I found myself neck-deep in that shit. Call it what you will, to me that is proof of telepathy, evidence of some psychic connection that mothers feel with their children, no matter where on Earth they might be.

When I finally, some 36 hours later arrived home in Colorado, my very first order of business was to smoke a fat bowl of Colorado bud. I loaded my bong, covered the weed with a generous blanket of kief, packed the ice catcher with fresh snow and sunk into a bliss that cannot be accurately described with words.

It was the safest I have ever felt in my life.

Will Brendza