More Travels: Back in Ubud, Changes in Bali

After five days of stormy weather, yesterday was one of those beautiful January days that are interspersed with the usual deluge of rain and strong winds. Light cloud cover, cool breezes and just the right amount of sun made it a perfect day for a road trip. Seems like we are still in mango season, as all the little roadside shacks had an abundance of mangoes for sale.

Traveling. I’ve been traveling around the island for over 25years, and I’ve always gone by the rule that the less that you take the better. When I started my traveling around the island laptops didn’t exist, nor did cellphones or tablets or any of the technological tools that we’ve all become so dependent upon. So, usually I’ve traveled around the island with a small grammar school notebook and a few pens to make my notes about where I was, what was interesting, how much things cost. Normal traveler’s fare.

This trip I was planning on three days in Ubud, a day longer than usual. My ancient notebook is filled with scribblings in tiny script, sentences punctuated by small holes made when a solid pen meets paper that is limp with humidity. Planning on a reading, writing and visiting holiday, I decided to go hi-tech: I brought the laptop, tablet, cellphone, digital camera, portable hard drive, flash disk and chargers for everything. This added significantly to the weight in the backpack that I stash in the little box on the back of my motorcycle and the backpack that I wear, but I thought that I might be more likely to write if I went tech. Turned out I was right. I worked on the book that I’m writing on Islam, did a few pages on a novel that I started in 1986, started two new blog posts and wrote a few short letters to friends.

Tech. It’s made some things more seamless, but has added new dimensions to life. While I was sitting in Paula’s Rice Terrace Cafe in Ubud having lunch with a few friends, I noticed a couple sitting at a table in the corner. They were having a rather large lunch, which they were working at eating with one hand while their other hands were busy texting or browsing on their smartphones. Neither looking at the other. A 21st century version of a scene from the old movie Two for the Road with Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney. Two older people are sitting in a restaurant not speaking to each other. Finney says to Hepburn, “What kind of people just sit like that without a word to say to each other? “ Hepburn replies (in all her loveliness): “Married people?” This couple may not have been married, but there they sat in this cute restaurant with beautiful views engrossed in their private cyberworlds. OK, so I made a good living for a number of years being a tech teacher, and I have all the tech toys, but we have a no tech devices rule at dinner.

So there I was back in Ubud after nine weeks at home doing Grandpa duty with my little jewel, and I was ready to have a little Grandpa time. Sitting out having breakfast on the terrace of my room on first morning back in Ubud, I recognize the sounds of chanting coming from the next room. Glancing over, I realize that it’s an American traveler that I had meet six months before in the same place. A diehard baseball fan. Knows statistics, player histories, why the mound was lowered after the 1968 season. We chat: baseball, Bay Area happenings (he lives not far from where I taught in Marin County, travels. I’m somewhat shocked that I’ve become so friendly with foreigners lately. Age? Senility? Too much baby time? My friend who co-owns Paula’s Rice Terrace Cafe is from the same neck of the woods in the States. We make plans to have lunch there later in the day. I wander off to buy some clothes for Zoey and a dress for my wife. Along the way, I stop and have a few small conversations with people that I’ve gotten to know along Jalan Kajeng.

As I move through the main street of Ubud, I notice that the number of tourists is down significantly from my last visit. I get my shopping done quickly and head off for Ganesha Bookshop where I buy a Paul Theroux novella and a book on Islamic law. Back at the homestay, I have a coffee and do a little writing thinking about the changes that have taken place here as I usually do when I’m in Ubud.

The changes here are so much more apparent than in Singaraja, which still has this sort of timeless quality about it: I’ve been buying snacks from the same little shop for decades, been buying building supplies from the same shop for the same period, foto equipment, fishing supplies, electronics, local booze all from the same shops. The kids that used to run around these shops are grown now and out in the world, but their parents (like me) remain fixed in time playing our usual roles, having the same conversations. There something settling about this for a man in his sixties and, at the same time, something stultifying. And thus my need to get out and travel around on a regular basis.

So over three days, I spend time with two foreign owners of restaurants, an American spiritual traveler, an Australian who is building an eco resort in Flores, an old American couple from up where I did my fieldwork in Northern California, a young Chinese lady working on getting a visa, an American antique dealer and half a dozen old Balinese friends. I live in an Indonesian world most of the time: few people speak English in my little kampung in Singaraja, our conversations are about local issues – the weather, a new hotel, fishing, our children and grandchildren, the price of gasoline. There are times that I crave a few conversations in English about American issues and concerns; speaking in my mother tongue, using slang, plays on words, references to significant events for Americans that have no meaning for Indonesians, even watching the different body language. And that is comfortable and a pleasant change from my normal routine. But then too, I have these conversations with local Balinese and gently (and sometimes not so gently) probe to see what they think about the changes in their home. And the answers are similar in theme.

Too much, too fast. The traffic, the crime, the rising cost of living. Foreigners that have no idea about Balinese culture, that move around Ubud as if it’s a playground. There’s a tension, hidden beneath that culturally required politeness, that suggests that enough is enough. That, as a friend said to me, “You might be here a long time, but you aren’t Balinese and we think/feel differently.” And, “Dogs, foreigners are more worried about dogs than they are about people,” And, “Foreigners will argue about paying 25,000 rupiah more for a room than last year. What’s that in US dollars? Two dollars? How much has the cost of living gone up here. Tourists think we live in a museum. Life changes here like it does everywhere else.”

Kintamani-Kubutambahan Road

Kintamani-Kubutambahan Road

Back to Singaraja. The drive through Kintamani and down to Kubutambahan and then along the coast road to Singaraja. The road is a trip back to the Bali of my early days; people burning wood for cooking fires, the smell of cloves drying alongside the road, topless grandmas. In Singaraja, I meet an old friend from my early days in Bali. He buys me a coffee and we talk about children and grandchildren, changes in Singaraja, the price of land. I’m amazed by the prices for land in the city. There’s a tidal wave of changes coming around the island; the question is how we deal with it.

Five Years into Retirement: Life in Bali

When I retired from teaching five years ago, I wrote a list of what I was going to do during my retirement. Since then, I’ve come back to this topic a few times to see how the list worked out. Somewhere on this computer lies the original list, but I lost it from this blog when it was hacked a few years ago, and I had to start all over again. The list had 35 things that I was going to do on a regular basis to keep from falling into the sloth and idleness that is fairly easy to do when living in the tropics without having a job. I was consciously working to keep out of the start the day off with a beer and then carry on throughout the day. I’ve seen that here and in Bangkok. Out of those 35 things-to-do, I’ve dropped 10 as no longer being of interest; I regularly do 6 and occasionally do the other 19.

This is partially due to my underestimating the amount of time that it would take me to do all the things on the list. It’s also partially due to the tendency in retirement to slow down and enjoy tasks rather than just shooting through them in order to get them done. Or, said somewhat differently, it’s taking time to smell the roses. And then there’s Zoey. I wasn’t expecting another granddaughter, especially one that I would be raising. So, Zoey takes up most of my time, and I squeeze the other things in when I can. So looking forward to the next year, what are some of the things that I want to do this year? Here are my top six in no particular order of importance.

Online Education

In 2009 the free online university courses hadn’t appeared yet, so I didn’t include that in my list. Over the past few years, I’ve completed 10 courses ranging from Anthropology to World Music to Philosophy to Astrobiology. I continue to take courses when I find ones of interest, and continuing on with learning has been one of the most satisfying activities over the past few years. I enjoy taking a history or philosophy course just for the pleasure of the material without being concerned about grades, scholarships, fellowships and class rankings. I’m hoping for a few more anthropology/archaeology courses so that I can see what’s happening in the field that I spent so many years studying.

Being a Grandfather

Not easy to get away with no doing that with the little monster living here. We’re together most of the day. We start out the day doing our morning walks around the city, then come home and have something to drink and watch the baseball game of the day. Then it’s reading and playing and sometimes I even get Zoey to take a nap. She’s the focus of my days and that’s just the way we like it.

Being a grandparent

Being a grandparent

But, I have two more granddaughters back in America. And, as I’ve written about so many times since I first started my own webpage back in 1994 or so, keeping in touch with family and friends back in your home country is one of the hardest things to do for an immigrant. Technology has made it easier, but even that has limitations. So this year, I thought that Zoey and I would make some videos for my granddaughters in the States so they can see what their grandfather and cousins do over in Bali. They’re at the age now where I hope that they will be able to appreciate the differences in culture and life between the United States and Indonesia.

Being a Parent

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASomehow, I ended up with five children. I’m not sure how that all came about, it just seemed to develop over time. My oldest is already a professional back in the States, three others are still studying at university level here in Indonesia and the last is a busy high school student. Parents tend to become somewhat less important as children age, but there’s still emotional and financial support. So I’ll continue to do what I can and what they need me to do until they’re all ready to take off on their own.

Doing the Handyman Thing

balconyAs I written about for years, houses in the tropics require a lot of care. The salt air, wind, rain, and sun all take their toll on a house not only in the tropics but right on the sea. There are times when keeping the house semi-presentable seems like such an unending job (and it actually is) that I just want to give up on it and let it revert to it’s natural state. But, as long as I look at the long range picture that this old rambling house will come to the kids one day, I can continue to enjoy doing the little things week by week without feeling like everything needs to be done at once. I could hire someone to do the painting, the plumbing and the electrical work, but it just somehow seems more satisfying doing it by myself. And being from the generation where physical labor has a high value, I love the exhilaration that comes from an exhausting day of working on the house.

Getting Out and About

I've been playing with plants today. One of those things to do in retirement.

I’ve been playing with plants today. One of those things to do in retirement.

I’m a natural introvert. I’m more comfortable with myself, or a few people, than I am in large groups. This has served me well in some tough job postings over the years. I make friends slowly and tend to keep them for a long time. And over the years, I’ve made some new friends around the country. Armed with the new five-year visa and motorcycle license, I want to continue to get out and around while I can; spending a few days visiting friends, feeling the freedom of my favorite roads, smelling the freshness of the mountain air. A few more trips this year to my favorite places and maybe a few trips to a few new ones.

Remembering Good Fortune

Singaraja sunset

Singaraja sunset

It’s easy enough to fall into an expat mode of whining about life in a developing country, whether it’s government corruption, the hot weather, tropical diseases, poor infrastructure, neighbors that keep chickens, the lack of good cheese, the expense of stylish yoga outfits, or those damn locals who just don’t seem to get that they should get with the program and do things our way because…well, because our way is better. And even someone who has been here as long as I have been and who has been trained to deal with cross-cultural differences and who has experience in a variety of cultures, even that someone gets cranky and pissy about the broken sidewalks, shop owners with vicious little dogs who attack children in strollers. And there’s got to be a time to step back and remember why I came here, why I stay here, why I still love this incredibly beautiful country after a quarter century and innumerable changes in the country and myself. Those cracks in the wall, the peeling paint, the armies of ants chewing away at the window fittings, the kite strings wrapped around my orchids; all of that, all of that, they’re just more manifestations of life in the tropics for better or worse.

Living Legal in Bali

Living in a foreign country involves a variety of questions; the majority of which seem, to most of us living overseas, pretty basic – what type of visa do I want or can I get, can I buy a house or an apartment legally, what do I need to do if I want to get a driver’s license, how do I go about making sure my children are legal residents? We tend to sort these things out fairly quickly in our lives as expats or immigrants.

Of course, there are some who live under the radar for one reason or another; they work with no legal permit, they live in the country with expired visas, they use one hinky tactic or another to find a place to live. It’s a hell of a lot cheaper in the short run, but it means always looking over your shoulder. These folks eventually show up on an expat forum asking what can they do because their visa expired twenty years ago, or how can they get some financial recompense for the house that they’ve been kicked out of by the woman that they’ve been married to. I would guess that the majority of foreigners here in Indonesia try to avoid those stress-filled lives and moments.

Being a legal immigrant can involve all sorts of paperwork. My second wife was from Argentina, and we went through paperwork and interviews before we got married, but, as I remember it many decades later, it was all fairly simple and straightforward. Living in Indonesia as a legal immigrant is something of an art form. There are thousands of posts on hundreds of forums and websites describing the process to get one or another type of visa in order to be here legally. The procedures and processes are more open than they were when I first arrived here, but different immigration offices interpret the law differently, and we supplicants have varying levels of patience, time and money.

indexI’ve had good and bad experiences over the past twenty-five years with immigration, and I have a neurologist who strongly advises me to avoid stressful situations. So, I use an agent to do my yearly visa application. It’s simple – she brings the documents already filled out, I sign them and she takes them back to immigration. Some months later, she comes back, asks for payment, has me go to the immigration office to sign off on the completed visas and that’s it. I pay a premium for the service, but it’s legally done and in terms of a cost/benefit analysis, the premium is well worth it.

Having an Indonesian wife, I’m eligible for a spousal visa. I’m also eligible for a retirement (being over 55 years of age). The requirements for the spousal visa are somewhat more relaxed than for a retirement visa, so I’ve had a spousal visa for the past four years. I’ve actually been eligible for what is sometimes referred to as a “permanent residency” visa (actually only good for five years). I’ve passed on that for the past few years because I felt that planning five years in the future at my age and with my history of strokes was somewhat hubristic. But, being one who finds excessive worrying an unfortunate character trait, I decided this year to forgo the annual angst at visa renewal time. And, yesterday, my five-year visa came through. I keep pulling that little card out of my passport and gazing on the 2019 expiration date.

2019. It’s amazing what will happen by then. My oldest son will be closing in on 50; his children (my granddaughters) will be closing in on being teenagers. My oldest daughters will be out of school and working, as will my youngest son. My youngest daughter will be in university. My youngest granddaughter will be in school, and maybe our roles will be reversed and she will be pushing me around the city in my stroller. A five-year visa – a lovely end-of-the-year present.

simBut, more legal stuff. I’m a stickler for having an Indonesian driver’s license and all the proper documentation for my motorcycle. Years ago, I used to have my license done by the school secretary or my wife. Over the past few years, I’ve gotten into the habit of doing it myself. It’s a fun trip down to the police station to fill out the paperwork, chat for a while, get a photo, a fingerprint, and walk out a little while later with a form of documentation that says I’m a legal resident who can drive the roads legally. So, with my new KITAP in hand, I rushed over to the local station where Indonesian driver’s licenses are processed. I strode into the office, photocopies of all my documents neatly tucked inside a new manila folder. Two young policemen were at the desk. “Yes, can we help you? they asked.

“Ahm, my driver’s license is expired. I’d like to renew it.” They smiled, took a look at the proffered expired license, and said, “Yes, it expired last week.” More smiles from me. “Yes, I know, I’ve been waiting for my KITAP to be processed.” Now their turn to smile and say Ahm. “We’re sorry sir, but the office is closed for the holidays.” They pointed to the docket behind me that said Tutup (closed).

My turn again to Ahm. “Oh, so bad for me. But, Christmas isn’t until tomorrow and Kuningan two days after that. So many holidays. What can I do because I can’t drive legally right now?”

Yes, you’re right, sir. Lots of holidays in Bali. Isn’t it nice? Better to stay at home with your family, enjoy the holidays and come back Monday. We can help you then.”

And a few more smiles. Another pleasant morning in the island of the gods and Santa Claus.

Traveling Around Bali: The Vampires of Ubud

Not so long ago, I made another trip down to the cultural/spiritual/existential hotbed for wannabee gurus and the culturally/psychologically/philosophically confused and entitled. Of course, I mean Ubud. I wanted to visit a few old friends, meet a new friend and get out on the road for a few days. Repairing our house gets old after doing it week after week, and while repairs are needed, they’re always needed – there’s no time limit on them or date of expiration. Every few months, I need a few days away from the kampung and Zoey in order to stay fresh. Granddaughters don’t need cranky grandpas. And the island always appears more beautiful when I get out on the road up through the mountains and the small villages. The smell of cloves drying by the roadside, fresh wood fires started up for the day’s cooking, frangipani blossoms, mountain air.

I’m known by my friends here as somebody who prefers the company of Indonesians to the “expat” population. But, there are times when I like to meet with other foreigners who have decided to call Bali or Indonesia home. Speaking my mother tongue and using familiar cultural metaphors and references is one of those refreshing treats that I love about my trips around the island. So visiting friends in Ubud gives me an opportunity to slide into one of those experiential slots where the bridge between cultures is open, and I can move where I choose rather than just reacting to the realities of daily life. Because, despite what many visitors and foreign residents to this little island believe, most Indonesians/Balinese do not speak English. Once you get out of the main tourist drags, the level of English speaking drops precipitously.

On my way up to Ubud I stopped in a roadside warung to buy a pack of cigarettes. This little business was nothing more than a semi-permanent stand put together with a few pieces of wood, some bamboo and a little rattan. A few bowls of reddish ripe mangoes rested on the wooden table, an assortment of cigarettes, some soft drinks, and a few bottles of the local beer were on display on a wooden shelf. It wasn’t much, certainly not enough to attract the attention of most drivers traveling up to Kintamani from the north coast. But, I needed cigarettes, and I noticed a thermos and a few cups sitting off to the side of the main display of cigarettes and drinks. A hot cup of Balinese coffee would keep me warm as I reached the higher elevations – Kintamani can be cold early in the morning. A lovely young lady and an older man (who turned out to be her grandfather) were sitting behind the display on two blue plastic stools listening to a small radio. No handphones, iPads, or tablets. I pulled off my helmet and asked for a pack of Marlboros and a cup of coffee. The grandfather visibly breathed a sigh of relief. “You speak Indonesian?”

Hmm, why the question, after all I was speaking Indonesian? But, could be because, as I’ve been told many times, I speak with a heavy Chicago accent and use a kampung vocabulary and intonation. “Why’s that?” I asked. “We get foreigners who stop here sometimes,” he replied, “and we don’t speak English or any other foreign language. So it’s frustrating communicating, don’t you think?” I agreed. Damn, communication is such a pain. We all should speak Esperanto and just make things easier. So, a nice chat, a hot cup of Balinese coffee and a few Marlboros later, I headed off to Ubud.

Back at my favorite homestay, I discovered that they were actually almost full – first time in 25 years. But there was a room in the new building that a family member had built. And, complicated as usual, because there was some family problems with this (all of which I had been aware of while the building was under construction, but conveniently ignored as I was sure that I would never have to spend a night there), but not wanting to look for another place to stay, I took the Bali Modern room. After a shower and some quick unpacking, I headed off to Paula’s Rice Terrace Cafe up a bit from my homestay on Jalan Seweta. Met the American co-owner (and his lovely Balinese wife), and spent a few very pleasant afternoons eating, drinking and discussing a variety of subjects, both local and international. The beer was cold, the food was excellent, the setting was beautiful. A lovely place to spend an afternoon and have a few drinks and a meal. And to top things off, an assortment of expats wandered in and out during the two afternoons that I was there, and despite my reservations about mixing with foreigners, they were delightfully funny and interesting.

Over the two days that I was in Ubud on this trip, I visited a few other restaurants that were popular with the Ubud expat crowd. Back in the old days ( for me back 20 – 25 years ago, the local expat population was smaller and not so easily accessible; that is, they were ensconced in their homes and local communities and if there were expat hangouts, they weren’t openly accessible unless you had the latest travel guide. For those of us who lived on the north of the island, Ubud was still a fairly mysterious place. We’d travel down there to see what life was like in other parts of the island. But, this is the age of social networking and self-promotion so it’s just a few clicks away to find where the latest gathering points are for resident foreigners.

So there I was in Ubud, visiting new and old friends and wanting to see what it is that draws so many foreigners to Ubud besides the bizarre claims of some of the New Age crowd that Ubud is one of the 9 most spiritual places on the planet. (And where did that come from?) I visited a few Balinese-owned places where I usually eat dinner and buy some snacks and necessities. They were all closed, under renovation, trying to keep up with the changing times. There was a time, long ago, when most restaurants were locally owned; that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore.

After a few days of snacking and drinking at the popular expat places, I felt like I had time-traveled back to a 1950s United States Elks lodge. The white hair of the foreign guests contrasting vividly with the black glossy hair of the Balinese/Indonesian workers. OK, descriptions of the local expat flora and fauna, but still no real understanding as to why all these people collect here.

As I carried on one conversation after the next with these exotic transplanted peacocks, it became clear that beyond the claims that Ubud was home because of its spirituality, quaintness and rusticity, the underlying cause seemed to be money, business. Filmmakers, artists, writers, restaurateurs, bar owners, yogis, alternative health practitioners, self-promoters, scam artists, and wannabee digital business moguls (although with a heart). Everyone has a project on that is impacting the island. Maybe for good, maybe not. No telling until things get sorted out in the cosmic wash.

What was the metaphor that I was looking for – a nest of vampires? And I don’t write this in a bad way. I like some of those vampires. They have some good restaurants, a few nice bars, create some visually captivating art, but they’re vampires nonetheless – sucking at the traditional cultural vein, trailing along in the wake of Ubud’s reputation as the cultural center of Bali (to mix metaphors). And they may be contributors to the development of Ubud as many like to claim, but I taught a course back in Berkeley in the early 80s where we examined the Western idea of progress as a cultural universal need and… well we created a few questions about the glory and inevitability of the notion of progress. Many of which I’m still struggling with. The notions of empire and the white man’s burden still exists.

I had my usual morning breakfast at the homestay, said my farewells and hit the road back to Singaraja where our level of cultural infection is still low. And, as I drove through the small villages, not physically far from all ceremonycrossingthis development in Ubud, but culturally light years away, I wondered how all this will work out in the future. Will there be some blending of the diverse cultures that have found their way to Bali’s shores? Will Balinese culture persist despite the attractions of globalization to the young generation? What happens once the island sinks under the weight of the relentless (and thoughtless) development, and tourists and expats look for some place more authentic, more spiritual, less crowded? Just how many more new arrivals can the infrastructure deal with before all the island roads becomes gridlocked and the air too thick for breathing? Or, will this be another “all things will pass” moment in time? I keep looking for signs, but all I hear are the birds of night looking for another meal.

Out and About in Singaraja, Bali

For the second largest city on the island, Singaraja gets much less attention from tourists and resident foreigners than does other cities like Ubud, Candidasa or even little Amed. Perhaps because the city isn’t really a main tourist attraction; most visitors to the north of the island stay in the Lovina tourist area, and why not? Lovina has bars, restaurants, beaches, and other amenities that attract both tourists and foreigners who want to live in Bali without really changing their lifestyles. Singaraja is still its funky old self.

singarajaBut Singaraja is a city in the midst of some major changes; upgrades in tourist-oriented facilities perhaps in anticipation of the mythical new airport that may or may not eventually be built either in the west or the east of north Bali, or maybe nowhere. But still there is hope for investors and developers who see vast fortunes to be made if the north of Bali becomes the next hot place to be.

For the past few years, my granddaughter and I have been watching the construction of a new, large hotel located just about 500 meters from our house. The new hotel is one of the Pop! Hotels financed by the Hardy’s group. Located in Singaraja Square, the hotel has 149 rooms renting out at close to 400,000 rupiah a night. It has a small outdoor pool, and the promo says that it has a private beach – first time I knew that a hotel could take over the beach here, which, as far as I know, is open to the public. I talked to a variety of folks in the neighborhood: residents of our kampung just to the west of the hotel, residents of the kampung just to the east of the hotel and some local business owners in the area around the hotel. The size of the hotel, its price for a room and its location in an essentially empty Singaraja Square has most folks baffled. I have to say though that when Zoey and I went to investigate, everyone was very friendly and gave us a guided tour. So, who knows, maybe we will be inundated with business travelers from around the country and the globe.

Singaraja Square, in the meantime, remains largely empty. There’s a dress shop, a bakery, a kareoke place, a medical supplies shop and a few other businesses there, but still lots of empty shops that are renting out at extremely high prices. Maybe the property boom in Bali has hit the city, or maybe not because the Square is still looking like a failed project, or maybe one that is just ahead of its time.

The city has a KFC; however, there are no Starbucks, McDonalds, Burger King, Pizza Hut or Dunkin Donuts, but who knows what the brave new world after the airport will bring. The mention of all these Western franchises brings copious amounts of handwringing from the foreigners in the Ubud area, but the fact is that Indonesians seem to enjoy going out to a KFC or McD’s (as they are known here) for a quick meal. Seems that for some Westerners, it’s ok to live in a villa with a pool, wifi, cable TV and a “staff” to take care of those nasty little things like cleaning, cooking and driving, but it’s not ok to interfere with their Balinese background of salt of the earth rice farmers, bakso sellers and little warungs. Because as a Balinese friend recently said, “why should we be allowed to have modern conveniences and toys; it makes us less exotic.”

And while you can still see mothers carrying their infants around in the traditional sling, you’re just as likely to see them pushing them around the kampung or desa in a stroller sucking on a bottle wearing a Mickey Mouse hat. Just yesterday, Zoey and I were strolling down Jalan Dewi Sartika when we came upon another grandfather with his grandson in a decidedly upscale stroller. This had all the bells and whistles and was at least twice as large as Zoey’s little transport. “Wow!” I said, “Where did you get that? It’s really nice.” “Down in Denpasar,” he replied. “It is nice but hard to push around on these terrible streets.” Umm. Finally someone who agrees with me that the sidewalks in Singaraja are in terrible shape. We chatted for a short time while our grandchildren sucked on their bottles and eyed each other somewhat suspiciously. Stroller jealousy? The new reason for black magic attacks? Bali goes modern.

We strolled on into a less fancy neighborhood. A group of small children rushed over to greet Zoey – her looks attract a lot of attention wherever we go – and she greeted them with the appropriate Indonesian kin terms for older and younger siblings . And she threw in English terms for the dogs and cats and horses passing by as she and I chatted with a little group of moms and kids. She’s something of a bridge between worlds, Eastern and Western, the new Bali and the old, the modern and the traditional.

By the time she grows up enough to appreciate all of this, she will only have vague memories of what the city was like when she was small, just as my children don’t remember what their kampung was like before the government came in and destroyed the beach,cut down the trees and built up the sea wall that radically changed the coastline here. There’s no telling what will happen in the city over the next 20 years, other than to say that the changes will transform the city into something much different than what we’ve all become accustomed to.

Little Trips, Little Pleasures, Little Horrors: Life in Bali

Getting out these days gets harder and harder. There’s Zoey who I hang out with most of the time; she’s too young to take on my trips around the island. There’s the house on the edge of the Bali Sea; keeping it from turning into the Mold Palace takes more work than I care to do these days, but it needs to be done so it gets done. Reminds me of an old Polish joke from my Chicago days, but I can’t remember the punch line, so I’ll just say it was about how we Polacks are suckers for hard work. And then there’s the fact that my three usual destinations when I get out on the road have lost some of the glitter in drought-ridden Bali these days. It’s just incredibly hot and muggy, and my house is one of the more comfortable places to be.There’s not much of a breeze coming in from the sea, but there are fans and AC and dinner down in the kitchen where I can quickly eat, have some words with the family and then retreat upstairs to my little den which is relatively cool, self-contained and filled with books and technology.

But, on the other hand (there’s always an other hand here), the skies are clear, the road is dry and that means a good time to get the bike out on the road. So, thinking about a “refreshing” trip – as my daughters would say – I’d decided not to take several days down in Padang Bai at the Zen Inn, or in Ubud at my favorite homestay. Too hot, too much to do. Something of a compromise. The sea has been gorgeous for the past few days – crystal clear and placid, great for snorkeling. My compromise plan was to do some snorkeling, clean the house and take a short drive over to the Bondalem area to visit with Symon, the American artist, who has the psychedelic wonderland of a house called the Art Zoo. It’s only 21 kilometers from home along my favorite east coast road. And, I could get back in time to give the rabbit a haircut before dinner.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been out snorkeling – various tropical illnesses, childcare duties, local festivities taking place in the sea, and just a general sense of malaise that seems to go along with the heat. Out in the sea there are still patches of living coral teeming with fish. Always a chance for some solitude and peace while I commune with the creatures. A few good sea snakes, the general collection of coral fish, visibility that goes on forever. Lovely as always. Back on land, a quick cleaning of the house.

artzoo1And then, on to my favorite road on the island – the east coast road. It’s been a few months since I’ve been out past the local Carrefour, and it seems that the urban sprawl has reached North Bali. Singaraja blends in with all the villages to the east to make a long stretch of shops, car repair garages, motorbike dealerships with the odd temple thrown in for relief. Coming out of Kubutambahan, I hit a traffic jam. I pull out past the line of vehicles at a standstill and drive in the oncoming lane of traffic which is curiously empty of vehicles. My first thought, being in Bali, is that there must be a ceremony. But, as I reach the front of the line, I see a monster size truck holding up traffic with a crowd standing over a body with a bloody head. They have that shocked Balinese look as they go off into some other more pleasant place while, at the same time, still wanting to be there witnessing this thing, this corpse testifying in his silent way to the dangers that exist on the road of Bali even in these more remote, out-of-the-way places. A man is standing in the road shouting at the vehicles to keep moving. Gawking here is as common here as it everywhere else. I move on, shuddering at the thought of this old man making contact with the green monster truck.

I drive past the five-meter high walls surrounding luxury villas in the Air Sanih area. I notice for sale signs up on some of the walls and land for sale signs alongside the road. Luxury villas behind tall walls, barriers from contact. The wealthy keep themselves separate from the island and culture that they immigrated to from their home countries. I hear later that Air Sanih is dead (for tourists and expats that is).

artzoo2The Art Zoo is filled with activity; painting, carving, packing. Symon is up in his hammock as I arrive. I meet Tompong, his assistant and an artist as well. Greetings to all. No blessings. (I don’t know where this arrived in common discourse on the internet, but it’s far too chichi for me.) Symon offers me a chair and we immediately launch into a discussion of life in Bali, the life of an artist, the history of Kampung Bugis, some suggestions for some of my videos of Singaraja, traffic fatalities, the state of Ubud, life in the kampungs and more. I wander around the Zoo taking some photos. Symon has disappeared by this time to somewhere in this huge maze which is good as I’m about to head home as a storm appears to be heading towards Singaraja. We’re all waiting for the rainy season to begin. It’s been far too dry for far too long, and it appears that the planet is getting back for all the evil that’s been inflicted on it by human greed.

Heading back home in heavy traffic, a motorbike zooms past me far too fast for driving conditions; I assume that it’s some high school boy, but I see that it’s a young foreigner. Then another and another and another, all just barely missing smashing into my bike and the dozens of bikes around me. A hundred meters up the road, I see them all gathered on the side of the road in some discussion. A kilometer on they zoom past me again, weaving in and out of traffic. Another kilometer on, they are all gathered on the side of the road again. I pull over to the curbside part of the road for the rest of my trip home. I’ve already seen one dead person today, and I don’t want to be the next one, wiped out by some fool foreigners.

Back home still in one piece, I hug my granddaughter, chat with my wife and daughter number 2. Tell a few stories about the trip to a neighbor. Life here goes on as it has for generations, and while this can be maddening at times, in the final analysis it’s the reason that I’ve lived here on the edge of this small little world for so long. Little pleasures are always good to come by.

The Sense of Discontinuity in the Immigrant Experience in Bali

I was watching/listening to a lecture on the American Novel Since 1945; the guest lecturer was discussing the novel, Lolita, by V. Nabokov, and commenting about how Nabokov’s exile from Russia related to the writing of this novel. The lecturer discusses the nature of exile being the need to invent a new culture because nothing is familiar: that which is accepted as common by natives is for the exile, or the expatriate, unfamiliar and in need of translation or decoding. The world is denaturalized. Nothing makes sense. It’s a state of discontinuity with the new home. Of course, in the exile’s case, their move is often necessitated by events outside the control of the exile. In the case of the expatriate, this move is not necessarily necessitated by events outside his control, but rather from events that he can control, such as finances, emotional entanglements or difficulties of one kind or another. But, the end result is similar.

I came across this joke in an article by William Deresiewicz in Winter 2012 issue of The American Scholar

The Devil appears to a man on his deathbed. “I’m going to give you a choice between Heaven and Hell,” he says. “And just to make it fair, I’m going to let you see them first.”
Heaven is, well, Heaven: halos, harps—pleasant but dull. Hell, however, looks terrific: drinking, music, dancing girls. “I’ll take Hell,” the man says.
Once he dies, though, Hell turns out to be exactly what you would have imagined in the first place: flames, screams, demons, pitchforks. “Wait a minute,” the man complains. “This isn’t what it looked like before.”
“No,” the Devil says. “But then you were a tourist, and now you’re a new immigrant.”

So then, the expatriate (or immigrant, to use a less exotic term) moves to a new country that he may have visited once or even many times as a tourist (how many times have I heard the heartfelt, Bali is like my second home, I’ve been there so many times). The new home is often one with an unfamiliar culture where the immigrant (or expat) needs to decode everyday events that make sense to most everyone around him, but are completely, or nearly so, alien to him. An expatriate can, and often does, take up residence close to others who are in the same situation, perhaps even from the same country as one way to negate this sense of discontinuity. While this solves some of the immediate negative effects of cultural discontinuity, in the long run it can make integrating into the new culture or, as an alternative, creating a new hybrid culture, extremely difficult.

Or, the immigrant can surround him(her)self with reminders of “home” such as familiar books, music, clothes or food. In this digital age, the immigrant can use the internet to keep in touch with family and friends back in their home country, and reach out to other expatriates in his new home. But, again, this approach leads the immigrant into a situation of existential angst – yearning to be one with the new culture, while clinging to the old.

Picture 071To return again to the joke – it can take us to an examination of the difficulties of leaving beside our preconceived notions of the place that we are moving to (often highly romanticized) as well as how our natural ethnocentrism leads us to misinterpret events, cultural concepts, and everyday occurrences as mundane as shopping for food or as exotic as attending a religious ceremony. The tourist can navigate these discontinuities with a local guide or a handful of cash or even just a smile and a shrug. The expatriate, knowing that (s)he’s going to be here for a long time, wants to get the local prices and the local feel, to be let inside this new home. But, there is a price to be paid for admission, and this price requires some work – learning a new language, studying up on the local culture to find out what’s taboo and what’s not, getting out on the streets to meet neighbors and shopkeepers on their ground. It means going beyond the order-out culture becoming so prevalent in the new Bali. What looked like good fun as a tourist, suddenly becomes a somewhat onerous task to complete as an immigrant.

How then to resolve this sense of cultural discontinuity? For some new arrivals it’s easy, they use the new culture as a picturesque background for their life and continue on in a familiar cultural bubble that, in Bali, is easy to find. Ubud, Seminyak and Sanur are three destinations where many immigrants can be found that have taken this road. Others, more a minority in the wave of immigrants flooding the island, set off for out-of-the-way villages and try the deep immersion route. And then some folks, try to mediate the problem of cultural discontinuity by dipping into the immigrant world as needed while basing themselves in the local culture as much as possible. I took the second path for better or worse. How about you?

Baseball, Zoey and Me

The 2014 season is over. I was disappointed with the Cardinals finish, but it was great to watch my old home team beat KC in an exciting Game 7. Over the long season, Zoey has gotten to love watching baseball. As we enter the kampung after our morning walks, she asks, “Baseball?” Yes, I say, today is the Yankees and the Red Sox. “Baseball! Hooray!” is her regular reply. Of course, she’s only 20 months old, so most of her attention goes to her dolls and cars and books, but she checks the game out when I get excited or the fans start up a chant to energize the home team.

And so, the season is over. What to do for the next five months? I want to develop her love for the game – it gives me someone to watch baseball with and it will be a reminder of that part of her heritage that goes back to Chicago and San Francisco. YouTube has turned out to be our filler for the offseason. I’ve just started looking for games and have found ones going back to the 50s. And there seem to be plenty of classic games available for downloading. We watched the first game of the 1968 World Series where Bob Gibson struck out 17 in a record setting performance. When the game started, I noticed Zoey staring at the TV with a question she repeated over and over, “Baseball? Baseball? Baseball?” It took me a minute to realize that she has never seen anything in black and white on the TV. I reassured her that we were watching baseball, and once Gibson took the mound and threw the first pitch of the game, she cheered, “Baseball! Hooray!” So each night before I go to bed I download a game for the next morning.

MantleMickey2.previewToday we watched Game 7 of the 1960 World Series best known for the Pirates beating the Yankees in the bottom of the 9th on Mazeroski’s home run and Tony Kubek getting knocked out of the game when a ground ball took a bad hop and hit him in the throat. Scanning the fans, it seemed like most of men were wearing ties and the women were dressed up for a day out on the town. I was trying to remember if my father wore a tie to the games we went to as a kid. Most likey as he was always one to look his best.

When Zoey and I are on our way home from our morning walk, people in the neighborhood ask her where she’s going and she tells them milk and baseball. How to explain baseball to a population that loves soccer and badminton? I was trying to figure some way to describe the game the other day when a brother-in-law popped in with his explanation: A man has a piece of wood that he uses to hit a ball that another man throws at him. They play in a park with no trees and when the man hits the ball he runs around and touches some white bags. There are four bags, if he touches them all, his team gets a point. The team with the most points wins the game like in soccer. That seemed to settle everyone’s curiousity. So I guess I’ll go with that in the future.

Gibson-cardWatching the Cardinal/Tiger game the other day with Hall of Famers like Lou Brock, Bob Gibon, Al Kaline and Red Schoendienst, I got to thinking about how many HOF players I actually saw play a game in a ball park (not on TV). I started with teams that I saw play either at Wrigley Field or Commisky Park and then moved on to the Candlestick and the Colisieum. I’m probably missing a few here, but these are the ones that I remember.

Cubs: Fergie Jenkins, Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Billy Williams
White Sox: Nellie Fox, Luis Aparicio, Hoyt Wilhelm, Early Wynn, Larry Doby
Cardinals: Stan Musial, Red Schoendienst, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Ozzie Smith, Steve Carlton, Orlando Cepeda, Bruce Sutter
Giants: Willie McCovey
A’s: Reggie Jackson, Dennis Eckersley, Rickey Henderson
Yankees: Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford
Red Sox: Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski
Braves: Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Warren Spahn

So, Zoey and I watch our daily game; I get to go back in history to see some of my favorite players once again. This trip back into history goes with a book that I’m reading now about Carl Furillo, the great outfielder for the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers. I met the author, Ted Reed, decades ago through a mutual close friend, and he was kind enough to put a message in the book for me. I remember that great Dodger outfield. Of course, I was a Yankee fan then.

As a boy, I cut out the Sunday Chicago Tribune’s list of the major batting statistics for all major league players. I’d memorize the stats of my favorite players on a weekly basis. My favorite baseball cards were the ones that had the year by year stats. I suppose my love for math developed alongside my love for baseball as it’s game for stats nuts.

A few fine dreams of an earlier time when baseball was the driving force in my life. I grew up when the game really was the national past time, and for me, no sport can take the place of baseball in my heart.

25 years and 19 months: Two lives in Bali

In a world dominated by a 19 month old time passes quickly. Days blur by; Monday becomes Friday becomes Monday before you know it. My work is to adapt myself to Zoey’s rhythms, and when possible, to get her to adapt to a few of mine. So, the 17th of August came and went; the 17th is Indonesian Independence Day, and it’s also the anniversary of my move from California to Indonesia. Usually I write something about my anniversary, but the date just skipped by me this year. Looking back at what I wrote last year, I notice that not much has changed in terms of how I feel about living here on this small, tropical island ( referred to far too often as “paradise”).

DSCF0691If anything, the flood of foreigners moving here for one reason or another has become even more intense than a year ago. Where I live that’s not an issue; there are no villas in this kampung, no pools, no trendy restaurants, no sacred ice cream stores, no yoga studios, no acolytes channeling Lemurian goddesses; foreigners that wander through this kampung usually do so by accident. What they don’t know is that within two hundred meters, they can come across a major Muslim mosque, a Balinese temple and a Chinese temple. Singaraja is one of the main mixing points on the island for religions and ethnicities. That we’re a long way from the airport has been a major factor in keeping the numbers of tourists and foreign residents down. There’s no telling what will happen if the proposed new airport is built just 15 kilometers to the east of here.

But, the waves of foreigners arriving here (tourist or “expat”) have played a major role in creating a real estate bubble that makes it next to impossible for young couples to purchase land or a home in their own country. Balinese and Indonesians from other islands are finding themselves devolving into a servant class for wealthy foreigners – both local and domestic – (except it’s more politically correct to call them “staff” as that bit of wordplay puts the employer and the employee on some kind of level playing field, at least in the minds of the employer) if for no other reason than that they can often make more money being a servant for the neocolonialist than they can working as a civil servant, a professional or an independent tradesman. Life in a developing economy.

So, for the 25 year anniversary, I have these mixed feelings. Life is better in some ways for the Indonesian people. More stuff to buy that makes life easier like refrigerators and stoves, better healthcare, a stronger economy. But, the basics of life are more expensive – rice, vegetables, fruit, a decent place to live, running water. My children will be the first in their Indonesian family to graduate from college, but job prospects with good salaries are still developing. The highest unemployment group in Bali are young people with university educations. The water and air are more polluted than they were 25 years ago, but most people in this kampung have toilets and bathrooms now.

For we immigrants, the scorecard is also mixed. Our children now can be dual citizens until they turn 18 which means that we don’t have to go through the hassle and expense of getting them visas for foreigners. There is a retirement visa for folks over 55 and a spousal visa for those of us who are married to Indonesians. Western comfort food items are easier to find these days, although they can be extremely expensive. Satellite TV makes it possible to watch baseball games during the season and popular US television programs and movies. The increasing numbers of wealthy foreigners has given some weight to the common opinion that anyone from a developed country is loaded with money, and foreigners have now become popular targets for criminal activities in Bali. While healthcare is getting better, foreigners are routinely charged far more than local residents for the same treatment (in the past, we were generally charged the standard price). Alcohol prices have gone up 300% over the past few years, so having a sundowner has become prohibitively expensive unless you drink local booze.

And for baby Zoey who just turned 19 months? She has the opportunity to grow up in a new democracy, to be part of a new generation that will help move Indonesia past its colonial heritage and the corruption and incompetence that followed the revolution. Education is improving, but still has a long way to go. Things change here so quickly that it’s impossible to say what Indonesia will look like in another two decades. This kampung is a microcosm of the changes and currents that run through the country. It’s still a poor kampung, but there are more multi-story houses with modern appliances and life is a bit easier than it was 25 years ago. Zoey will come of age with a multitude of options for her life, either here in Bali or somewhere else around the country or the world. The government plans to demolish part of this kampung in the near future to make it more suitable for tourism – that is, cleaner and less efficient for the local residents. I take a lot of photos and videos of the neighborhood so that Zoey can see what life was like here when she was a toddler. 25 years ago we had a beach in our kampung, but that was destroyed when the government came and built a seawall to support what was supposed to be a new road around the island for tourists. The road never materialized. The community adapted and remained a fishing community. Zoey has grown up in that fishing kampung, but the planned changes to come along the north shore of Singaraja may completely transform this area in the next twenty years.

My Indonesian children have grown up in this changing country; the Suharto era is only history for them, and the Sukarno period the same. They’ve adapted and will continue to adapt as Indonesia morphs into its next stage. My first child is a successful professional with a lovely wife and two beautiful daughters. I’ve gone through a rewarding career as an international teacher and administrator. I wondered when I first retired how I would deal with unlimited free time. In the early period, I traveled a lot around the island; these days I hang out with a toddler teaching her English and a love for baseball and what can be better than that?

A Trip to Yogyakarta: Traveling with Zoey

Over the years, I’ve travelled a lot, mostly for business, but also for pleasure. These days I’m not so interested in leaving the island; buying tickets, getting to the airport and dealing with immigration lines are some of the reasons that I’m more than content with my occasional road trips around the island on my motorcycle.

However, I had to leave Bali to travel to Yogyakarta to attend my oldest daughter’s graduation from nursing school. Being the primary caregiver for my youngest granddaughter, I had to take her with me on the trip. Memories of traveling with small children in the old days of living in Tembagapura gave me shivers at the thought of a long drive down to the airport with a child prone to motion sickness and then waiting in lines to get into the airport, acquire a boarding pass, get through all the security gates and then sit on a plane where motion sickness would once again be a concern.

So, I was somewhat less than enthusiastic about leaving home with Zoey. I woke up at 1:30 to dress and move our bags downstairs to the front door. I made a bottle for Zoey, woke her up and we loaded everything into the car. With my brother-in-law at the wheel, Zoey and I sat in the back. I was hoping that she would go right back to sleep, but she loves being in the car so she was up pointing out trees and landmarks as we left the city in the still of a Singaraja night. As soon as we hit the curvy road on the way up into the mountains, Zoey quietly threw-up. She cried softly for a minute, asked for her bottle and immediately fell asleep. She slept through the long drive down to the airport, waking just as we arrived.

Anticipating difficulties at the airport, we were traveling light: a backpack and a baby bag with diapers, formula and some extra clothes. Paul Theroux said that old men are invisible travelers. This was my first trip as an old man traveling with a toddler, and I was pleased to discover that many people went out of their way to give us a hand. It helped that Zoey was at her best on this trip: smiling, chatting with new people, wandering around the airport. She wandered up to a young Indonesian woman who was texting on her HP. Zoey said, “Duduk (sit down).” The young lady said, “Yes, sit down.” Zoey climbed up on the seat next to her and immediately grabbed her HP and started yelling, “Hello, hello,” into the phone. So there was her first fan. She spent the next hour wandering up to random strangers and starting conversations ( a mix of English, Indonesian and baby talk) with them.

On the plane, Zoey watched the takeoff, made a few comments about trees and ocean and boats and then fell right to sleep. She slept until we landed in Jogya. She loved the crowds at the airport (even if Grandpa didn’t), and the taxi ride to the graduation venue. Later in the day, we wandered around Jalan Malioboro and did some shopping, and again, she enjoyed the crowded streets and stores.

zoeyKFCEarly the next morning, Zoey and I went out for our morning walk, stopped in a KFC and had scrambled eggs for breakfast. She was loud enough in her comments on the food and the people that a foreigner who was scrunched over his eggs, coffee and tablet to give us an evil look. Feeling slightly naughty, I stuck my tongue out at him, Zoey followed my lead. The Indonesians in the restaurant found this silliness wildly amusing. The foreigner grimaced and went back to his tablet.

The trip home was another easy journey. Looking back, I think that the 19 months of Zoey and I wandering around the city everyday have given her a feeling of comfort dealing with new people in a variety of settings. And so the little traveler had her first trip offisland. A fun trip but good to be home again.