Once Again Back On the Road: Another Ubud Trip (Where Else?)

I’ve been back from my latest trip to Papua New Guinea for almost two months now. I’ve been working on writing about the changes in me that those trips have brought about, but I haven’t quite completed figuring the whole thing out – but soon, it’s just on the tip of my tongue.

After being out on the sea for three months out of five (before these two months at home), life in the kampung has gotten a bit ho-hum. Everyday is the same: get up, play with Zoey before school, get her off to school, clean the house, play with Zoey after school, do a little reading and writing, play with Zoey again while my wife makes dinner, eat dinner, watch tv and sleep, Reset and do it all again tomorrow.

Now, that’s actually not a bad life. I don’t have to work; I wouldn’t mind having some extra money, but we have enough to get by on, and for me that’s cool. I have a great bunch of kids and grandkids. Somehow all the neurological problems that I had a few years back after a stroke have disappeared. I live on a tropical island, which I’ve wanted to do since I was in high school. I speak two languages and bits of three or four other ones. I have a beautiful and extremely challenging wife. I have a completely strange and blind monkey that I would love more if he didn’t insist on peeing on me.

So, what I have always needed when I get these stay-at-home blues is a road trip, and where else to make a trip other than to Ubud to visit some old friends and see what the Yoga capital of the world is up to these days. Really the trip is not just about visiting friend or getting out of the house. It’s as much about seeing Bali. Getting out to the villages and the small roadside warungs and life outside of tourism central.

Life on this small island now regularly called a resort island (how ugly can we get) has always been about what happens with the masyarakat (the people). All the rest is window dressing for anthropologists, royalty-struck tourist hangers-on, and, of course, the wealthy and connected. And for me, the best way to get to see what is going on around the island is to head out on my motorcycle and make a few stops along the way to chat with folks. The destination of Ubud is really of secondary importance to the physical act of the ride over these twisty roads that run through some of the best of traditional Balinese villages.

The weather on the trip down and back was beautiful: clear skies, a slight breeze and that Balinese sun to keep me warm when I got up into the mountains just before Kintamani.

These trips give me a chance to let the thoughts flow freely, unencumbered by the daily trivia of life back home. My children call these trips “refreshing,” and while I used to think that was kind of a strange way to put it, it’s actually the perfect word to describe what happens when I get out on the road. On this trip, I was playing with the concept of consciousness (not in the sense of how some of the new arrivals to Bali use it, such as in “Oh ya, I’m a conscious person,” but in the scientific sense of the word.) Consciousness is a favorite concept to think about just because of the act of perceiving and thinking about the beauty found around Bali on the way up to Ubud from Singaraja. The sense of being in the world can be really startling when immersed in the lushness of a tropical island.

By the end of the drive, I was, as is said, refreshed. Down in Ubud, things are as busy as usual; the tourist season really doesn’t exist anymore for Ubud, it’s always the tourist season. The narrow sidewalks that were once a pleasure to stroll along in early May before the onslaught of the traditional tourist season that began in June, now are packed in early May with the wandering hordes of tourist walking two or three abreast making it difficult to do an absent-minded stroll. Seems like there is always someone pushing you off towards the street, which is extremely hazardous with all the traffic in Ubud these days.

I had a chance to catch-up with the Balinese family that I have been staying with for the past 29 years, as well as spending a pleasant afternoon catching up with an old American friend and his Balinese wife. And, as usual, I did my shopping tour through town to get a few things for Zoey, Zander and Su. I made my obligatory stop at Ganesha Books to get Zoey a few books, and I succumbed to the desire to spend a quiet evening in my room by ordering a pizza from a local restaurant.

Getting out of town is for me a chance to get out of a few of the daily routines, and this trip was successful and pleasant. And now back home to start on some new projects.

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Time and Time Again: Life in Bali

Bali. For some people the name says it all – warm seas, soft sands, cold beers, vibrant colors, exotic sounds, friendly people, wide smiles, laughing children, a multitude of inexpensive small hotels and homestays. Bali. A land of wonder and magic set in the warm waters of the Bali Sea and the Indian Ocean.

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Bali. The tourist-ruined, money-soaked island sucking in foreign dollars for the Indonesian government in Jakarta. Hand-planted rice, delicately crafted religious offerings, vibrant cloths used in ceremonial clothes. Gamelan orchestras practicing in the warm nights under a brilliant moon, fishing in a traditional prahu chasing tuna and flying fish, the mystery of a wayang kulit in a village with the children laughing, the men gambling, and the women making comments on their husbands’ performances or lack thereof. Bali. Which one is it?

The answer is that there is no answer – it all depends on what you bring to Bali and where you take it. There are foreigners who have come to Kuta and have never left. The excitement, opportunity and midnight rush have seduced them into finding a way to build a life there. Sanur, a twenty minute ride from Kuta, is a more relaxed village catering to generally more upscale tourists. Then, too, there are the tourists who come and drink, dance, spend and flee looking for one more country or island to “do.” Come up to the north and you might find boredom or bliss. Quiet sunsets on Lovina or Anturan Beach, serene walks in scenic villages. Try Ubud, the fabled center of Balinese ‘culture,” and you may find fantastic artists and musicians, thrilling performances of ancient dances and plays, or you may find digital nomads wandering the street half-naked, rabid dogs, muddy pathways and cold showers.

Bali. I first heard of the legendary Indonesian island during my freshman year at the University of Illinois in my Introduction to Cultural Anthropology course. Years later, I was a teaching associate in the anthropology department at UC Berkeley teaching an introductory anthropology course with Bali as one of the culture areas. And, while I had never been to Bali, my readings and lectures lit the desire to visit this island about which so much had been written just to see what the fuss was really about. As these things sometimes go, not long after I was offered a teaching position in a mining company on the island of New Guinea – not all that far from Bali. The fulfillment of my desire was just on the horizon. When I left San Francisco in 1989, I never imagined that I would still be living overseas 28 years later. As the Grateful Dead say, it’s been a long, strange trip.

 

Being one of the old-timers now on the island, I tend to get lulled into thinking about how much better the island was before tourism boomed – there were plenty of tourists when I first came here, but every year the numbers go up and in some parts of the island – Ubud and the Kuta/Legian/Seminyak area in particular – high season just means even more tourists than usual. We like to talk about the adventure that life here was back then when many places still had no electricity, it was more common to drink warm beer than cold, streets in the villages would turn into streams of mud during the rainy season, and you never knew what strange thing you might find around the next bend in the road.

Thinking about the lost, the real and the imagined Bali. I find that living in a developing-world slum keeps me somewhat less in need of a reality check than some of my friends who actually buy the market-driven fantasy of a paradise island. And, yet, driving through these solitary mountains and antique villages bereft of Mercedes Benzs, delivered pizzas and organic carrots grown in soil saturated with the green revolution’s chemical remnants reminds me that something brought me here so many years ago long before it was discovered by yoga-drenched sybaritic youngsters looking for one more fix for their god-obsessed wandering. We project our needs, desires and dreams on this little, overcrowded island of drama, ceremony, magic and tedium. People of all ages, classes and nationalities arrive here daily: many are physically ill, emotionally-drained, financially or intellectually challenged. They are looking for something special to recharge, revitalize or renew their lives. They’re looking for that special magic that Bali is so famous for. Some find it and go on to develop their lives, others just can’t connect to the realities of life in a developing country.

So why have I stayed in Bali and not gone back to the States or off to another country around the world? Serendipity is one short answer. A close American friend and long-time Bali resident has the saying: many are called, few are chosen. Without getting overly mystical, I felt a pull here within the first month that I was here. Not as soon as I arrived; I stayed my first week in Kuta and while it was a welcome break from life in the mining camp where I lived, it was not what I had hoped to find here. But slowly over the month of my vacation my perception of Bali developed. It was a combination of the natural beauty of Bali and the friendships that I developed with Balinese. It happened when the giddy edge of exotic strangeness started to wear off and a feeling of normality set in. It was then that I realized that I wanted to live here permanently. It wasn’t cheap living, it wasn’t being able to build a “villa,” (never been there, never done that), it wasn’t having a “staff” to cater to my every need, it wasn’t even because of a woman (I had already set my mind to living here permanently before I met the lovely Suhana). It was that mystical something that drew me here and keeps me here.

We imagine what we’d like to see when we travel. In the days before social networking, smart phones and instant images that can be transmitted across the globe in seconds, tourists would develop mental images of what they might meet upon entering a foreign country, then those imagined images would be adjusted to the reality. Now we can see our hotel room online, read updated reviews of the restaurant, check out the toilet facilities, see who our neighbor is going to be on the airplane, view anything and everything in a 360 degree total surround sound view. Traveling around to exotic locales isn’t what it used to be in terms of adventure, but for those of us who have been around this tropical “paradise” for a long time, we need to remind ourselves that others arrived here before us and said pretty much the same things that we say now. We just need to remember that the beauty of the island is not just in a startling sunset or a lush paddy but in the dignity and strength of the people that live here.

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On the Road Again: Another Visit to Ubud

farviilageGetting out on the road in Bali just before dawn is one of my special loves. The air is fresh; a gauzy haze blankets the countryside; small, wood cooking fires send up snake-like streams of smoke from dozens of kitchens along the rural roads that add the hint of an exotic smell to the morning crispness. Markets are busy with a mess of motorbikes, trucks, cars, bicycles and pedestrians all maneuvering for space. The earliest and most eager students begin to appear alongside the rode ready to begin another school day.

dscf4048The road from Ubud to Kintamani via Tegallalang is mix of stretches of new, smooth asphalt and crumbly, potholed rubble. It’s better now though than in the past and it lends itself to a reflective drive – on cruise control most of the time as the early morning traffic thins out once past Tegallalang.

A three-day rest back in my usual homestay – my home away from home- for the past 27 years. It had been almost a year since I stayed these last: too many responsibilities at home with my job of raising my inquisitive little granddaughter, a month long cruise to Papua and the Moluccas, and the usual tedium of house repairs. So, back at the homestay a morning of friendly and surprised greetings – bapak, you’ve been away for so long, we were just talking about you, how’s Zoey, how’s Singaraja, have something to eat you must be tired from that long drive. Wonderful to know that I have my secret little sanctuary away from the bustle of city life in Singaraja and from the craziness of Ubud even though the homestay is only a hundred meters off the main street of downtown Ubud – if I can call it that.

Time to meet with old friends – foreign and local. Talk about the state of the world and the country in these post US-election days because everyone wanted to talk about that. And a lot of talk about the state of Ubud. My first surprise as I turned onto the main road on my way to the homestay was to just miss getting slammed into by two foreigners on a motorbike – obviously not used to driving in Indonesian traffic. And just as surprised by their state of dress – or perhaps state of undress – is a better word. The young man shirtless, wearing only shorts and flipflops, no helmet. The young lady on the back barefoot wearing only a bikini and no helmet either. It was the first sight of foreigners sporting beachwear in Ubud – far from any beach. Later I was to run into more of this as I walked around town: men shirtless, women in bikinis. I had to ask my friends because this was something new for me.

The responses from my foreigner friends were expected – something along the lines of “disrespectful,” “rude,” “clueless.” Maybe because we’re from another generation, or maybe just getting older and more conservative. But, what I really wanted was to hear what the Balinese think about this because regardless of what we foreigners think, if the Balinese aren’t offended by this type of dress in public places, well then, we should just get on with things and forget about it.

So, I asked a cross-generational group from great-grandpa down to the teenagers in the compound. Responses were pretty much uniform except varying in degrees of irritation: “rude,” “disrespectful to the local culture,” “eww, who want’s to eat in a restaurant when people are at the next table undressed,” “idiots” (a teen, of course), “kind of funny to see people walk down the street like that,” “OK for the girls but not for the boys,” “don’t they read the guidebooks on how to act in Bali?”

And it was that last comment that set me off on another line of thought. Whose responsibility is it to tell foreigners what is acceptable locally and what isn’t? Should they just figure it out on their own, should there be some kind of handout at immigration on how to behave in Bali, should the locals tell them directly (a bit confrontational for most Balinese that I know), should we old-timers act as the fashion and behavior police?

Well, there was no real consensus from my friends, but generally the idea of having some sort of informational pamphlet at the airport received the most positive responses. However there was also a pretty adamant group that thought that tourists should find out for themselves – “that’s what you did,” said an old-timer, “you were always asking can I do this, is it alright to do that. What’s so hard about that?”

So, I guess life with tourists will just muddle on as it has always done except for those extreme situations when tourists decide to have sex in a temple (yes, it’s happen a number of times here), or relieve themselves on a temple wall (yes, been done as well). So, in the meantime,  I’ll just continue to look somewhat bemused when I see strange tourist behavior and just get on with things.

And when we got to politics, no surprises there. No Trump fans and some worries that things will get worse in the world with a loose cannon in charge of the US. Despite what Trump likes to say, Obama is respected here, and no one is looking forward to the change.

A lot more from this trip – it was eventful – but that’s for another time. Zoey will be home from school soon.

And another local take on Ubud and its foreign residents:

And another with a relevant comment even though the location is Kuta:

And since I’m on with Natasha today, one more cute take on foreigners in Bali:

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Back to the Source: Lessons from Zoey

Getting older I’ve been somewhat surprised that I tend to live more in the future than in the past or present. This seems to be pretty much a function of raising a granddaughter (and still having several children in university or close to it). I’m continually thinking about how their lives will turn out and how long I’ll be around to help them as they transition in adulthood.

It’s gotten a little frustrating – this living in the future – as Indonesians are not generally known for their proclivity for living in, or planning for, the future. So, I’m usually out of time-sync with most everyone around me. And, as my memory continues to deteriorate at a faster-than-hoped for degree, trying to keep track of everything swirling around gets more confusing and frustrating. I wasn’t consciously aware of this (even though the signs have been fairly evident for months now), but weeks of nightmares led me to go back to the source of my early graduate school training in psychological and psychoanalytic anthropology. So out came the Freud in an attempt to figure out what my unconscious was insistently trying to tell me. I went through Interpretation of Dreams, Civilization and Its Discontents and a variety of essays in a few Freudian collections. The common thread finally became evident – a loss of control.

According to my neurologist, this feeling of a loss of control isn’t uncommon in people who have had a number of strokes. So the problem was how to deal with this disconcerting emotional state. Going back to the source of my sojourn in education brought me to the realization of what it was that was troubling me, but it hadn’t given me to way to deal with it. And, that’s where my youngest granddaughter comes in.

dscf1791Zoey has already developed a basic understanding of time – before (the video we saw before, Grandpa), present (let’s play ball, Grandpa) and future (when we get home we can go upstairs?). But, in the main, Zoey lives in the present: she’s acutely aware of everything that goes on around us – on our walks, when we play in her room, when we’re about to take a nap. She catches the details of the moment both for good (wow, big goats!), and bad (oh no, the nasi lady is gone). She sees the butterflies across a crowded street and the new house under construction a block away. Her greatest concern is the problem immediately confronting her. She enjoys life, she laughs a lot, she’s always present even when I’m not. That vacant look that she occasionally gets from me elicits a response of “no sleeping, Grandpa.”

This three year old bundle of energy takes things as they come. Her big thing now is sharing, and she believes that everyone will share like she will, that everyone will have the same big open heart that she has and that everyone will play fair and be friends and that things really are good and beautiful. That’s a lot of faith in believing that things will all work out for the best, and it’s something that our children and grandchildren have (and that we once had when we were younger). And, a lot of that faith, I think, has to do with her living in the present; she doesn’t remember when her friend smacked her over the head with his toy or when Grandpa was grumpy and made her take a nap, or when the crazy lady in the street hit her with a newspaper. She lives in the now, she has faith that things are going to be great – it’s a beautiful day Grandpa; look at that, Grandpa, it’s amazing. It has nothing to do with religion or politics or ideologies; it comes from deep down in the human DNA, that inherent optimism that we often let get buried by all the layers of cultural conditioning. She lives in the Now and that seems to me to be about the best place to be these days.

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City Life in Bali: A Walking Tour of Singaraja

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A few posts ago, I mentioned that I was going to get some needed exercise while exploring the city that I’ve called home for most of the past 23 years. I’ve been waiting to get over a bout of pneumonia, but it’s been a long time coming – getting well that is – so I’ve decided that the best way to speed my recovery at this point is to just get out and do some walking. One thing that I’ve discovered while planning my walking tour of the city on a map is just how big Singaraja actually is. That little discovery has surprised me, I think, just because I’ve taken the city for granted. It’s a fairly common thing for people to fall into comfortable routines, and we miss all of the wonder and the changes around us. So, if I really want to do right by Singaraja, I’m going to be doing a lot of walking over the coming months.

I’ve been thinking about how best to do my little walking tour, and I finally decided that the best place to start is from home. It makes a lot of sense geographically because we are right at the edge of the world – so to speak – because three meters in front of our house is the Bali Sea and that’s where Singaraja ends. So, I’m starting out from home and making little forays farther and farther out from the house.

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My first walk is just a little stroll out of Kampung Bugis past Masjid Taqwa down Jalan Diponegoro (Singaraja’s central business district – that’s probably too grand a title for Jalan Diponegoro, but I like it so why not) then over to Jalan A. Yani and back down Jalan Imam Bonjol to the harbor and home again. The route is traced out on the map of Singaraja for readers who want to locate the areas that I’m writing about on a map. Jalan Diponegoro is the central shopping area and the city’s main traditional market is located right in the middle of the street although it can be a bit difficult to discover because the entrance is just a small opening on Jalan Diponegoro – the actual market is between Diponegoro and Jalan Imam Bonjol. The market has fresh fruits and vegetables, meat, spices, clothes and a variety of other dry goods. Really, I don’t find it all that interesting, although it does seem to attract a number of tourists who want to see a traditional market.

The street also has electronic stores (I buy all my electronic equipment there), a few small restaurants, shoe stores, a few book stores (including a new one that I just discovered on this walk), a pharmacy, a few doctor’s offices, some fishing equipment shops, a small mini-market, two or three clothing stores, the main branch of BII (Bank Internasional Indonesia), a few hair saloons, a few gold shops, and an assortment of shops selling household goods. The street is almost always crowded with traffic due to the relatively new practice of allowing double parking which causes traffic to back up during the busy shopping hours of the day. I’ll get back to discussing Jalan A. Yani in another post.

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Jalan Imam Bonjol is another busy street just to the east of Jalan Diponegoro. It is filled with shops selling a variety of things, such as household goods, furniture, car and motorbike parts, gold jewelry, and children’s toys. This street also has an entrance to the main market and a new mini-market. While Jalan Diponegoro is a one way street running north, Jalan Imam Bonjol is a one-way street running south. Most of the buildings are two stories with a shop on the ground floor and a residence on the second story. Running off of Jalan Imam Bonjol to the east and west are several small streets called gangs in Bahasa Indonesia.

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The Expat Life in Bali

Expats can be incredibly difficult people to deal with. I say this after 26 years of expat life, and I include myself as someone that can be difficult at times even though I generally make an effort not to be quite so difficult. The internet has made expat life even more bizarre than it has historically been because now expats can act out in public for large (or small) groups of strangers without taking even the least bit of responsibility for their weirdness.

image from planetasia.org

image from planetasia.org

What brought this topic up? A few paragraphs in one of Paul Theroux’s travel books about his meeting with some expats in Thailand as well as the regular shenanigans over at any one of many expat forums and facebook groups. And so, the expat life (including myself at times although I generally refer to myself as an immigrant):

  1. You pretend not to notice other foreigners around you.
  2. You regularly bring up the days, months and years that you’ve been an expat on the belief that the longer you reside overseas the more you know.
  3. You love to speak Indonesian, or better, Balinese in front of your expat friends, but only if you know that they know less than you do.
  4. You make a point of eating all the local dishes including things that no regular expat would eat including parts of a chicken like the feet.
  5. You have a significant other who either speaks English (or your national language for those of you who come from non-English speaking countries) fluently or not at all. You never want your significant other to speak “broken English” because your friends will think your S.O. is either a bar girl or a cowboy.
  6. You have children who speak at least two languages.
  7. You make a point of eating local food, but have a kitchen filled with the most expensive imported items available.
  8. You make a point of knowing obscure points of Balinese or Indonesian history so that you can best your expat friends on forums or at dinner parties.
  9. You regularly drop the names of well-known local politicians, business leaders, or artists (musicians, painters, writers, etc.). You don’t actually need to know them, you only have to convince others that you do.
  10. You only wear local traditional clothes on the proper occasions. If you wear them regularly, people might mistake you for a backpacker or tourist.
  11. You have a lawyer or notary who you regularly consult whether you need advice or not.
  12. The manager of your local bank pays social visits to your house and invites you to ceremonies at his or her house.
  13. You complain about your household help while explaining how much you pay them and what tremendous benefits you give them, and how three of their children are in university because of your generosity.
  14. You collect all the new expats before your friends do so as to enhance your status as an Expat-With-Influence.
  15. You extol the beauty of traditional architecture and the joys of tropical design, but also make a point of letting everyone know that you have the latest imported shower from Ace Hardware. Your house has a two page photo spread in the latest coffee table book on tropical architecture written by an expat.
  16. You have an architect – either foreign-trained or a local one who has lots of expat clients – who has designed your house and garden and charged you the cost of ten locally made houses.
  17. You complain about the corruption in the country, but have many stories to tell after a few too many drinks about all the times that you’ve bribed either the police or a local politician.
  18. You live in a kampung, not one of the new expat only compounds.
  19. You call your house a villa and have an infinity pool. You have solar panels on the roof for hot water to showcase your green lifestyle, but also have four air-conditioners running 24 hours a day.
  20. You have a long-term relationship with the head of the immigration department or the chief of police.
  21. You live in Ubud, Seminyak or Canggu.
  22. You have had at least one mystical experience in Bali and speak about it in hushed tones and explain your experience as an example of how integrated you are in the local community.
  23. You shop for imported delicacies at the expat delis and drink imported wine.
  24. You express your deep love and affection for Bali and the Balinese/Indonesians who live there, at the same time that you complain endlessly to your expat friends about the life, culture and religion of Bali and Indonesia.
  25. You’ve lost your sense of humor about life here and your role as an expat many years ago.
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