Riding into the Sun, Part Two

Luck was with me; Zen Inn had an available room. It was clean and bright with a large comfortable bed, air-conditioning, an outdoor patio, and a bathroom with hot water. I checked in, chatted with the lovely ladies behind the bar and had a few Bintangs to wash the dust and oil fumes out of my system. Feeling relaxed and looking forward to a few easy days at the Inn, I had the ladies open a bottle of Grants. The last time that I enjoyed a Grants was back in my Chicago days. Grants was my favorite scotch when I stopped by the Boul Mich, one of Chicago’s classic bars on Michigan Avenue just in front of the old Chicago Tribune building. It was one of those slightly hazy, hot and lazy Balinese afternoons, and I alternated trading quips with the bartender and slipping back into memory’s haze of those Chicago days of work at the Trib and drinks at the Boul Mich and Billy Goat’s.

But, I was in Padang Bai to wander around the village more than I had on my first trip almost 18 months ago. I headed down the main street and dropped in to a few shops to look for night time snacks and a few outfits for Zoey. Business was slow so there was time to chat with the shopkeepers about life in Padang Bai. A friendly old gent, just about my age, told me backpackers were the main foreigners that showed up in his shop and they always wanted to carry on extensive bargaining even if it was just for a few thousand rupiahs. Things were better in the old days, he said. I agreed and mentioned that that might just be because we were getting older. We had a laugh, and I step out into the late afternoon sun.

A young Balinese guy with a starburst tattoo asked if I wanted to rent a motorbike. I told him I had my own and we started up one of the classic Indonesian conversations about where we were from, families, friends, jobs. I bought a bottle of cold water from the shop behind us and we carried on an amiable discussion until a group of backpackers wandered in from the ferry that had just arrived from Lombok. They were looking for a cheap place to stay and Made made a pitch for a place that he knew. I let him get on with his work and walked around taking photos for a while until I was ready for a short afternoon nap. I feel asleep wondering how much different life might be for some of the discontented expats on the island if they just took the trouble to learn even basic conversational Indonesian.

After finishing off a delicious hamburger (no, I rarely eat local food when I’m in restaurants, I can get that at home in Singaraja or at my favorite homestay in Ubud), I started on scotches and beers. It wasn’t long before Liam, one of the owners of the Zen Inn along with his wife, Wayan, appeared. Liam is one of those classic innkeepers: gregarious and always ready to share a story. We spent the evening talking and drinking; as new guests would arrive, he would seamlessly include them into the conversation.

DSCF0026After a pancake and coffee for breakfast, I headed out to stroll around Padang Bai. I crossed the main road in front of the harbor entrance and wandered up the street. Passing a few homestays and small hotels, I spotted a sign that announced the beach that I had been hoping to find. An old timer was sitting underneath the sign, so I inquired if the white sand beach was up the rock-filled path. He told me that his wife had a warung on the beach – second warung on the beach just under a tree like this, he said – and I could get something to eat and drink there. I headed up the steep incline trying to remember the directions that I had read on a guy’s blog once because he wrote that he had gotten lost trying to find the beach. Huffing and puffing up the hill (and regretting that I don’t spend enough time on my stationary bike back home), I reached a crossroads – two small paths, one going left and the other right. I took the right (wrong) path and ended up at the large abandoned hotel that I had read so much about on the internet. The story goes that it was a Korean project, but lacked the proper papers and was left partially completed. Another Bali story of half-built hotels and villas. I backtracked and took the left (right) path. Despite thinking that I must be on the wrong path, I trekked on. Finally, I came out of the brush to see an azure sea glistening in the morning sun. Heading down the last stretch of dirt and gravel, I came out just at the second warung. I parked myself on a bench, bought a cold water from the owner, had the usual introductory chat with her and watched the waves break on the shore. I was transported back to the Bali that I first came across 25 years ago: a beautiful beach with white sand, inviting waters and solitude. Maybe there still is something to the whole Bali Paradise myth.

Riding into the Sun, Part One

Working backwards. I set off early Sunday morning back to Singaraja after a few days of rest, exploring and conversation in Padang Bai. An early morning start I thought would give me a clear road on which I could collect my thoughts about the past few days. However, this is Bali and you never know what you’re going to get. Because of the extensive road work from Manggis past Candidasa, traffic was heavy and slow. As I entered Manggis, I came across a string of Balinese dressed in ceremonial white heading north walking alongside the road. And then more and more and it went on for kilometers. Obviously a large ceremony, but as Tumpek Landep, the Balinese holiday to pay homage to things made from metal, was the day before, I wasn’t expecting a gathering of this size. So, I slowly moved forward, letting all the impatient drivers squeeze past me. I was finishing a holiday and was on my way home so no worries. I had all the time in the world. But, I had also forgotten to take into account that I would be driving into the rising sun. That in itself was enlightening even without doing any breathwork or sound healing.

It had been five months since I was last on the road. With the rainy season seemingly coming to an early end, I’d been looking forward to taking the bike out for another tour of the island. With the Bali Spirit Festival in progress in Ubud, I’d heard that the village was overflowing with the new age spiritualist crowd. So, I decided to take one of my favorite drives down the east coast road to Padang Bai.

Padang Bai is the harbor for the ferry that connects Bali and Lombok, the island to the east of Bali. The area just in front of the harbor is the actual village of Padang Bai and it hosts a variety of accommodations running from basic backpacker places to a few more upscale hotels aimed at the diving crowd.

DSCF0023The road down the east coast has several attractions for me: the scenery runs from lush tropical to dry moon-like and back to lush tropical; most of the road is newly paved and easy to ride on; and traffic is minimal in comparison to the other main roads around the island. Traffic has increased over the years, but it’s still possible to get the bike safely up to 100 on some stretches. Zooming along a clear stretch of the road just north of the village of Kubu, I get to thinking about the relativity of speed. 100 kph only converts out to 62 mph, not all that fast on a highway in the States, but on the roads in Bali, 100 seems like doing 80 along Highway 1 in California. Coming up on a small village, I eased down to 50 and coasted past a group of kids coming home from school, their blue and white uniforms shining in the afternoon sun.

Driving south into Tulamben, I slowly cruise through the village famous for its dive site. 25 years ago this was one of my favorite spots to spend a day sitting on the beach. No tourists with the exception of a dive group or two that would show up, disappear into the ocean, emerge a while later, climb into a van and disappear. There were only a few places to stay then, and I preferred the cheapest and most basic. Just a room with a fan, a small bed, an Indonesian toilet and a small restaurant with the usual Indonesian dishes and lukewarm beer. Now, Tulamben has homestays, fancy hotels, restaurants and tourists that actually spend a few days or more there.

Up into the hills and down through Tirtagangga and into the city of Karangasem, one of the cleanest cities on the island. Friday afternoon traffic in the city and I slow down, I have plenty of time with two free days. Up and down again, I enter the tourist area of Candidasa. I’ve stayed there a few times in the past, but never really felt comfortable there. Some places on the island just seem to attract me – I’m never really sure why – and I add them to my list of places to visit on my trips around the island. Not many tourists out on the main street. I think that I might want to stop for a beer, but by the time that I’ve decided to keep driving, I’m already out of the village.

It’s not too long before I hit the turn off the main road to Denpasar that takes me east to the harbor of Padang Bai. On my last visit, I stayed in a basic homestay, which I enjoyed for the night that I was there. For this visit, I thought that I would go a little more upscale and try staying at the Zen Inn. The Zen Inn is just at the head of the street that fronts the harbor. I notice the new blue awning and wonder if they’ll have a room available. It’s low season so the odds are somewhat in my favor.

Moving Zoey: A Room in Bali

Over a year ago, I wrote that our lives would never be the same again when Zoey arrived. And, sure enough she has kept all of us in a constant state of motion trying to keep up with her as she has grown from a cute cuddly baby to a pre-toddler. She always wants to be on the move, exploring, taking things apart, poking her fingers into places where fingers aren’t meant to be poked and continually pointing at anything that catches her attention and shouting “this, this.” For this old guy who thought that he’d have a little rest from the demands of children after decades of being a teacher, she reminds me of what I loved about my job and why it wore me out.

Having just had her first birthday, Zoey is getting to be a big girl now. Her favorite mode of locomotion is still crawling, but she also regularly does the stumbling from one piece of furniture to the next move, and occasionally, when she is feeling really brave she takes a few steps. So, she has outgrown Grandpa’s room where she spent a large part of her first year. Too many light pieces of furniture that tip over when she grabs them, too many cables running from my room to the rest of the house for our internet connections, a floor fan that she can easily stick her little fingers in, a television that she loves because she can play with the manual controls (and which Grandpa hasn’t figured out yet) and a printer that she loves to climb on. So I figured it’s time for her to get a larger room with less stuff cluttering her play space.

In this rambling collection of 14 large and small rooms, I searched for one that would be just right for her. At one point in our family history we had 12 people living here, now we’re down to five most of the time, although during the major Islamic and family holidays, we can easily add on another ten to twelve. So where to make a safe, comfortable space for Zoey and her growing collection of dolls, books and stuffed animals?

Many years ago while I was still working in Tembagapura and our main house was still being constructed, I had one room on the second floor set off to be a bookstore and internet cafe. Back in those days, there were no internet cafes her in Bali and very few bookstores. Of course, as usual here in Bali, my life moved on a different trajectory from Bali’s maddening rush towards modernity and its new identity as a resort island. By the time that I was ready to open the bookstore/internet cafe there were plenty of both and so the room became my library – someplace to store that thousand or so books that I have collected over the past 25 years. But, then when we moved back here from Sumbawa, the kids wanted a room where they could watch TV together and sleep together so the room became the family room. Now, with two children away at school and wi-fi available throughout the house, the kids have retreated to their own spaces and the room is generally empty and usual dirty since no one goes in there anymore.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd so, the room that has served so many different functions over the years is now becoming Zoey’s Room. It’s perfect for her: no low windows to attract her, a relatively small amount of cables, a nice breeze when the front and back doors are open, shelves and shelves of books to read, and the whole second floor to explore once she gets ready to start walking. The room needs a new paint job and a few paintings, but after a day of Sam and I cleaning and rearranging things, we’re good to go when Zoey’s mommy goes back to school tomorrow and Grandpa takes over once again.

End of the Year Thoughts on Life in Bali

The end of another year is here. I just had the anniversary of four years of retirement. The time seems to have gone so quickly that it’s often hard to remember just what year I actually retired in. I used to write an annual end of the year post, but the last few years have seen a flurry of family activity around that time and writing was just one of the last priorities of the day.

This year has been a life-changer with the birth of another granddaughter and my taking on the responsibilities of her care on a day-to-day basis. My children’s mothers took most of the responsibility of raising my five children during their first two years as I was preoccupied with my various jobs and careers. So, this is the first time that I’ve been the primary caregiver for a baby. And while, I’ve always been able to do the diaper changing and formula mixing, I’ve found that being with a little creature by myself for 12 hours a day is a taxing job – physically, mentally and emotionally. Now that Zoey is just about to begin walking and talking, I see what I really missed with my children and my two grandchildren in the States. Exploration, discovery, personality development, physical development: constantly learning and growing. It’s as taxing for me as it is for Zoey. And, I’ve felt those moments where you just want to have time to spend with someone who can talk and think on an adult level. But, a smile from a baby goes a long way.

With my two Indonesian children already out of the house studying at different schools around the country, we’ve been left with just the last two, and my youngest son will be leaving later this year and it’s hard to believe that the baby of the family will start high school soon. The empty nest on a modified scale is looming in the near future. In many ways kids in Indonesia are just like kids anywhere else, but then there are the problems that come with living in a developing country where modernity slams into the traditional. The kids still believe in ghosts and the supernatural because that’s what most of the adults around them believe in. But, they are technologically literate and spend as much time on their laptops and smartphones as kids anywhere in the developed world. The economy though growing steadily still isn’t prepared for the waves of new university graduates so they’ll have some problems with finding jobs that come with a decent salary. But, I believe that within the decade there will be new opportunities opening up for them, and I’d love to be around to see how that works out.

And while all this goes on in Bali, there’s family back in the States: a son and daughter-in-law, granddaughters, sisters and brothers-in-law, nieces and nephews and old friends. Despite the new technology, keeping up is not always easy and still can’t beat seeing everyone in person. That’s one of those things that those of us who have immigrated to Bali miss.

State of Indonesia and Bali
Indonesia has been on a rocky ride this year with trying to appear to outsiders as a compassionate, multicultural country that supports religious freedom (as long as one of those religions is on the list of official religions), while trying to satisfy Muslim extremists who feel free to assault members of non-Sunni religions. The resulting messes then are official proclamations of religious “tolerance”, while religious thugs are either ignored when they assault members of minority religions or given incredibly light sentences for vandalism, physical assault and even murder. The current president is generally perceived as weak and ineffectual and with the exception of Bali (money talks here, no one wants to see another tourist exodus should another terrorist attack happen here), extremists feel empowered to do whatever they want. 2014 will see a new president and old Suharto cronies are back in the running once again campaigning on a basic law-and-order, let’s get back to the good old days platform as seen in this recent article.

Bali's trash problem continues to grow.

Bali’s trash problem continues to grow.

I’ve written about Bali recently so there’s not much more to say. Some things have improved – health care and better road conditions generally (although not enough of them to accommodate the increasing number of motor vehicles), while others continue to deteriorate, such as the availability of water and electricity, mountains of trash collecting on the roadsides and increasing traffic jams. Just yesterday, I spend over an hour going nowhere on Sunset Road down south. Motorcyclists were driving on the sidewalks just to go somewhere. It was total chaos and it’s not going to get better unless restrictions are put on vehicle use.

While Bali seems like a playground for the rich and wannabee rich, the New Age spiritualists, and the hordes of tourists from around the world, back out in the villages and in the kampungs in Denpasar and Singaraja life goes on as usual. If you want to see what life is really about here away from the glitz and posturing, try driving the back roads or walking through the neighborhoods, folks are still welcoming and warm as always.

The birth of my third granddaughter has completely changed my retirement plans. I spend most of my days with Zoey, and I love the experience of being with a baby while she discovers what it is to become a small human. But, I do have some time to myself in the evenings and when Zoey’s mother is home from school so I continue to take online university courses and work on making the regular repairs to the house that are necessary when you live in a tropical environment with the sea as your front yard. Life in retirement in Bali is certainly not what I had planned on or expected.

Healthcare in Bali
Healthcare is improving. There are still major gaps between the regencies as far as what is available – for instance, Buleleng is far behind the south as are the other regencies so when someone gets really ill and needs the most well-trained specialists they’re forced to look for care down south. But, it’s far better than having to run to Singapore or Bangkok like in the old days although that is still an option for some who don’t trust healthcare in Bali.

Is Bali Finished?

Traditional markets still thrive  in Bali

Traditional markets still thrive in Bali

Well, folks have been asking that since way back in the early part of last century. And while the Balinese hold on to their culture, the physical landscape is being altered beyond recognition. Eventually, the carpetbaggers that are flooding the island will get tired of the traffic jams, lack of water and electricity and rising crime rate, and they will take off for some new paradise leaving behind them an excess of “villas”, rukos and ugly hotels scaring the landscape. The Balinese and those of us who are immigrants to this island will still be here, and we’ll (or our children and grandchildren more likely) have to sort out the mess and make due with what’s left. Most of the reasons behind my move here are still valid if a bit tattered by the winds of the new reality. Fortunately, most of the foreigners that come here prefer to stick together in little expat ghettos and my small part of the world isn’t on their radar. So, we get up everyday, go to school, open the shop, play with the granddaughter, fix the house and live our lives in pretty much the same way that we did when I first moved here 24 years ago.

Is Bali finished? No, she’s taken some good punches from modernity, but she’s still hanging tough in the villages and kampungs around the island. Here’s hoping that 2014 will see the Balinese begin to punch back.

Free e-book on Bali

I completed the first edition of The Practicalities of Moving to Bali five years ago in 2008 while I was living and working in Sumbawa. Most of the book was written in 2007; I updated some of the material in 2010 for a second edition. It’s almost 2014 and well past time for an update because Bali has gone through some significant changes during this time period. The traditional ceremonies remain the same but the island is rapidly developing a new identity, although what it actually is remains anyone’s guess, (some say the island is sinking under the weight of four million residents, millions of tons of concrete and millions of tons of garbage).

magazinecover2The southern sprawl continues to eat up villages moving outward from the original tourist/expat focus of Kuta and Legian. With the decentralization of political power that followed the fall of former President Suharto, each region of Bali is basically free to do what they want. The impotence of the governor can be see when he asks Bupatis to follow new building regulations. The local papers regularly run stories announcing that a new luxury hotel is being built in violation of these regulations.

Academics, activists, politicians and scientists call for an end to the ceaseless construction in light of an impending water crisis, but then the government proudly announces the impending construction of a new international airport on the north side of the island, which will supposedly bring prosperity to the residents of Buleleng – not to mention more traffic, more pollution and more crime.

The main street of the “cultural center” of Bali now has a Starbucks and glizty fashion designer shops. Jalan Raya Ubud, once a sleepy street filled with small locally owned restaurants and shops selling paintings, carvings and t-shirts, now is jammed with ATMs, fancy restaurants, gelato joints and Circle K’s. The famed rice fields are being plowed under to build luxury villas with a view (of the vanishing rice fields). Chi-chi raw food and vegan restaurants are filled with the New Age spiritual crowd competing to sell their quick (and expensive) fixes to existential angst. But, get back off the main drag and the Ubud that I fell in love with decades ago is still there. Even in the center of town, the homestay where I stayed on my first visit to Ubud is still there seemingly stuck inside a time warp buffeted from the winds of change that have swept through Ubud over the past 24 years.

Sleepy little Tulamben on the east coast only 20 years ago was just a day stop for divers to view the sunken shell of a Liberty ship. Today it has dozens of tourist accommodations catering primarily to diving enthusiasts. Padangbai, Amed, Candidasa, Lovina all have their tourist scenes and expat enclaves and these continue to spread like an uncontrollable virus.

But, it’s still possible to get away from the maddening crowds and find that village life goes on seemingly untouched by modernity. Well, with the exception of handphones and satellite dishes.

Life as it was 24 years ago when I first arrived here was simpler and foreigners could build businesses and lives without the red tape and hidden costs of today. However, in many ways, life has become easier for foreign residents in Bali as of 2014.

Immigration can still be a maze of regulations with individual offices interpreting governmental regulations in their own unique way, but at least those rules are now spelled out. Visas for retirees and spouses of Indonesian citizens, as well as dual citizenship for children of mixed marriages are the positive changes that we’ve see here over the recent past.

Prices rise regularly although until the last few months inflation has generally stayed relatively consistent. While the rupiah seemed to find its level at around 9,000 to one United States dollar; 2013 has seen the rupiah reach its lowest level in the past four years. Land prices may or may not be in a bubble – depends on who you talk to – but the reality is that the price of land around the island has reached the level where the average Balinese/Indonesian newlyweds will be hard pressed to be able to purchase a few hundred square meters to build a new house. Much of this crazy increase in land prices can be attributed to speculators – both foreigners and Indonesians from other islands – who plow over the rice paddies that tourists love to photograph and throw up a few luxury villas with the hopes of making outlandish profits. And there seems to be no end to new arrivals who must have a villa to live in and who have hundreds of thousands of dollars to use in their pursuit of owning a “piece of paradise.”

The lack of infrastructure development in the face of the population boom is a pressing problem that gets little more than lip service. Despite warnings of an impending water crisis, development continues unimpeded. The fact is that the water crisis is here. Around the island residents report difficulties with getting adequate water during the dry season. The regency of Buleleng this year asked residents to restrict their water use during peak periods. This is a problem that will not go away. Electricity is also an issue that will continue to worsen as the rising population consumes more electricity on a daily basis. The island has already gone through a series of rolling brownouts. New power plants are needed but no one wants them in their backyards. And, obvious to both residents and tourists, transportation woes have resulted in gridlock in the south of Bali – on a recent visit I spent an hour in traffic to go just a few hundred meters in Kuta: a similar situation exists in Ubud where expats regularly complain of the difficulty of driving short distances due to massive tourist buses clogging up the narrow roads. While the roads are generally in much better condition than they were years ago, there just aren’t enough of them to accommodate the increasing number of vehicles. The governor has recently discussed banning the importation of new vehicles to the island and requiring vehicles visiting from other islands to be registered. That most likely will be an uphill battle. Road carnage continues due to the congestion on the roads and the lack of enforcement of basic traffic regulations.

Bali’s brand name as a tourist mecca continues to draw the masses despite some negative press reviews that highlight the problems that I’ve discussed above. It’s unclear as to just why Bali seems to exert such a powerful draw on Westerners: it could be the relatively inexpensive luxury accommodations, the wealth of restaurants offering a range of international cuisines, the dream of hanging out on white sand beaches while enjoying a tropical drink, or maybe even something as simple as wanting to sample the unique offerings of Balinese culture. Take a look at this link for an interesting article on the Bali brand and make sure you pay attention to the last paragraph.

In the first edition, I suggested that potential expats needed to do their homework and move slowly before making the big move here. That advice is more relevant now than before. Expats in Bali are almost increasingly becoming perceived as wealthy, spoiled carpetbaggers. While this is obviously a stereotype, there are a few nuggets of truth there. For every dedicated expat working to improve life for the Balinese like Robin Lim with her Yayasan Bumi Sehat, there are dozens of hucksters selling New Age spirituality or trying to flog off a villa or some land for twice the price that they paid.

It’s our job as guests of this island and country to learn the laws and culture and follow them, meet our new neighbors and get to know and share knowledge and experiences. A Balinese friend of mine recently asked me quite seriously why wealthy foreigners would want to move here. And indeed this incredulity is, I believe, spreading as expats become more than just the amusing curiosities that we once were decades ago. We now compete for jobs, housing, land, hospital beds and space on the congested roads.

It’s clear that there is a growing divide between local residents and expats. Take a look at the comments inIndonesian language news sites when they cover some problem between expats and Indonesians: there’s plenty of anger about what some locals see at a sense of entitlement in the expat community. Talking to an old Balinese friend the other day who has long had dealings with the expat community, he noted that, “…things were better in the old days. Maybe we’re just getting older, but it seems that the new arrivals have no sense of wanting to integrate into the community. They see all of us as wanting to get something out of them for nothing.”

As waves of foreigners take up residence here, they appear to be increasingly ignorant of the country’s/island’s history, languages and cultures. Rather than treading lightly, the arrogance of economic power often leads us to assume that we can and should have things done our way, on our time schedule and according to our cultural rules and norms. Far too often, I hear the refrain, “let them try to do that in my country.” The thing is – we aren’t in our country and it’s we that need to adjust not the Balinese. If I was to suggest anything to help bridge the gap between the expat and Balinese communities, it would be to make it mandatory for new KITAS holders to take a class in the language, history and culture of the island. It might help to make them more aware of where they are and what’s acceptable and what isn’t.

So, looking over what I’ve written, it seems pretty negative about what’s happening on the island. And accordingly, I’m not really interested in more updates. A lot of the information – travel, internet technology, construction costs, visa regulations and procedures – changes more rapidly than ever before. I wrote in the first edition that an e-book would be more up-to-date than the traditional guide books, but that was before the explosion of social networking. The fact is that the forums and Facebook pages on Bali offer information that is often only hours old. Sure, there’s a lot of trash and a lot of misinformation on these venues, but for people interested in moving here taking the time to do the research to separate the wheat from the chaff shouldn’t be a chore. For information on visa issues the best forum that I’ve found is the Living in Indonesia Expat Forum and for information about Balinese culture the Home in Bali Forum.

What I’ve written here about the history, culture and daily life of Bali still stands, but for the rest it’s becoming outdated, and I’m just not that interested in trying to keep up with all those things. Life where I live on the island (a small kampung in Singaraja) is still pretty much the same as it was 24 years ago – we don’t have crime, we don’t have problems with foreigners moving in and upsetting the local ecology and folks just focus on raising families and getting by as they have for hundreds of years. I spend most of my time with the few kids still at home and with the next generation that’s going to need to learn about life here.

For those still interested in this book, it is now available as a free download. I hope that you find something in it to help you integrate into life on the island. For folks who bought this book, many thanks, I hope that you found it helpful.

I’ll end my final comments in this book with something a bit more upbeat. Last year I moved down to Denpasar to live with my daughter for a few months. We lived in a banjar not far from Udayana University: our neighbors were a mix of Balinese and Indonesians from other islands. I didn’t know anyone there, but I began wandering around the neighborhood everyday when my daughter was out at school. Far from the expat ghettos and tourist strips, people were invariably lovely: friendly greetings, offers to sit and chat, information on where to buy the things that I needed to equip our new house, and just the give and take of people from different cultures discovering something new. It was this that drew me here and has kept me here for all these years. That magic of Bali still survives; it’s just a little harder to find it these days.

A Galungan Trip to Ubud

I’ve been down to Ubud more frequently than normal this year; usually I only visit the village every three months or so, but I had an invitation to come down for the Galungan holiday so I left home the day before Galungan with the plan to spend three days so that I could see what Ubud is like during Galungan. And, with the weather still sunny and hot, the day I left was one of those perfect days to be out on the road with my motorcycle.

Traveling up to Kintamani, I saw that the sides of the roads didn’t have cloves placed out to dry, and that intoxicating smell was noticeably absent. I figured that there would be a minimal amount of traffic due to most people being busy preparing for Galungan the next day. From Singaraja all the way up to Kintamani and then down to Ubud, Balinese were out on the sides of the roads preparing penjors. These are long, bamboo poles that are curved down from the weight of the decorations (coconut leaves, fruit, leaves, Chinese coins and a few other things that are hung on the penjors that are planted vertically in front of every family’s house.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGalungan is the Balinese Hindu holiday where the ancestors return to Earth and are given prayers and offerings. Galungan marks the victory of dharma over adharma – the triumph of good over evil. The Galungan holiday ends after ten days with Kuningan when the supreme god descends to Earth and then at the end of the ceremonies on Kuningan the ancestral spirits and the gods return to their home.

The family at my usual homestay immediately feed me a large plate of food that they were preparing for the next day. My usual room was occupied for the first time in years, so I took the room next door. The Danish couple were in Ubud to buy a special drum that was made in Bangli and cost a fraction of the price of one made in Europe. My first day in Ubud, traffic was horrendous and the heat wave that Bali has been having over the past month intensified the unpleasantness of trying to wander around Ubud for a few shopping errands. I did make it to my favorite bookstore, Ganesha, to pick up a copy of Orhan Pamuk’s, Istanbul.

Just as much as I was interested in seeing Galungan in Ubud, I also wanted to discover more about the influx of foreigners to Ubud, especially the New Age “spiritualist” people that have stirred up some resentment among old-time Ubud expats. With names like Rainbow Sky and LoveLove, I was looking forward to some flashbacks to the 60s. So on the morning of Galungan I set off after breakfast to wander the streets of central Ubud. It was amazing to see almost no one on the streets except for small clusters of other foreigners taking photos of a traffic-jam free Jalan Raya Ubud. I enjoyed a morning walk past closed shops and decided to try my luck later in the afternoon.

Late afternoon arrived quickly after a short nap and a few cold beers, and I ventured out once again. The streets were still fairly empty, but I did manage to find of the trendy cafes open and packed with iPad and MacBooks users sipping smoothies. Coming upon an empty table, I ordered a coffee which was the only thing on the menu that was not good for the human body. As I scanned the open-air cafe filled with the sound of dozens of softly vocalized mantras emanating from folks blissfully working on memoirs of their six months in Bali, a young dreadlocked foreigner asked if I minded some company seeing that all the other seats were taken. A grizzled senior citizen was probably not his first choice of table mates, but he had little choice other than to move to the decidedly less upscale coffeeshop a few doors down the road.

We stumbled into a exchange of names and places of origin. I could tell that he belonged to that mysterious tribe of spiritual travelers when he listed his recent places of residence before moving to Ubud: an ashram in India, Santa Cruz California, a Buddhist monastery in the hills of Thailand. When my turn came, I was only able to lamely list my house in Kampung Bugis and a few trips to Denpasar and Ubud. The mention of my house brought a look of surprise to his face.

“You mean a villa?” he asked.

Uh, could you describe a villa.

“Everyone here that’s cool has a villa. A villa is a cool building open to the vibrations of the cosmos, and it has a pool of course.”

Gee, I have no pool and I’m not sure about the vibrations.

My tablemate suddenly found some more likeminded friends and departed with little more than a nod.

So, I had discovered one of the New Agers, had a brief encounter, learned something new about villas, and escaped unscathed. Not quite as adventurous as my wanderings through the jungles of Papua during the old days, but good enough for life in retirement.

Back to the homestay, I shared some more of the family’s food and settled in.

The day after Galungan, Manis Galungan, is a time to visit family and friends. I received a last minute message from my eldest son asking if I would be interested in having lunch with two of his old friends from our days in Albany, California. We arranged to have lunch together and I was curious to see what some Albany folks were doing in Ubud just at the time that I was there. One of those small world moments.

I spent my last morning in Ubud shopping for a dress for my wife and then met my son’s friends for lunch. They had two lovely ladies of my generation with them and we had a delightful time sharing memories of Albany, tales of life in the US Embassy in Jakarta where one of the couple was working, and a little anthropology/paleontology talk. I accompanied them down to my favorite bookstore where they did a little shopping and then we parted ways. A great ending to my trip.

Early the next morning, up with the sun, I headed back on a clear day to Singaraja. A few little adventures to reflect upon as I cruised through Bali’s lush mountain forests.

Life in Singaraja Bali: a Video Project

I’ve been writing about Bali for over two decades online in the form of websites and blogs starting from the early days of the World Wide Web to magazine articles to an e-book for foreigners planning on moving here. Over that time period, I’ve also posted hundreds of photos and a number of videos online. Recently, I’ve been posting videos of the walks that I take around the city of Singaraja in the north of Bali with my youngest granddaughter, Zoey. I’ve posted those videos on YouTube, but several friends and readers have suggested that I make the videos available on this blog for folks who don’t follow me on Facebook or YouTube. So, I’ll be posting my Bali videos here as well.

My little videos are mostly driven by a desire to digitally preserve Bali as it is now for my children and grandchildren. While most of the family is here in Bali, I have two young grandchildren in the States who may get to view these videos and get an idea of what their paternal grandfather and their Indonesian cousins are like. And, who knows, perhaps one day decades in the future, great grandchildren may find some digital memories of Bali stored away on some corroding dvd or flash drive.

While Singaraja has a long and fascinating history, it’s somewhat removed from the main tourist/expat centers of interest. Singaraja doesn’t have the flashy cultural reputation of Ubud or the surf, white sands and nightlife of the southern villages such as Kuta, Seminyak, and Canggu. Foreigners that do get up north tend to head directly to the tourist areas like Lovina and Pemuturan with maybe a short visit to the harbor or downtown Singaraja. As I try to show in the videos, this city is filled with fascinating folks just doing the daily work of getting by on a tropical island that is all too often mistakenly referred to as a paradise. Bali is a lovely place with a vibrant blend of cultural traditions, but it’s not a paradise, and, in my estimation, once we can get to seeing life here on the streets and in the kampungs, the better we can appreciate Bali for what it is and not for what is has been marketed to be.

Two Anniversaries in Indonesia

The celebration of Indonesia’s Independence Day, August 17, 1945, was held a few weeks ago. As usual there were marches, games and patriotic speeches from a host of politicians. I generally ignore those like I do with most political speeches filled with the usual platitudes on days like this. But, I do enjoy seeing local people deck out their houses and the streets with large and small Indonesian flags. Indonesians are rightfully proud of their struggle for independence, and there are still some old timers left who fought in the war for independence from the Dutch. And while it’s expected to celebrate the country’s achievements, Independence Day should also be a time to reflect on the pressing problems that this country, the fourth most populous in the world, has to deal with directly, efficiently and honestly.

While Indonesia has only been a real democracy for 15 years (the Suharto years are widely considered to be years of dictatorship), there have been great strides taken in opening up the political discourse to include more than the elite in Jakarta. Endemic problems like corruption are being addressed although the struggle to free the political and economic spheres from the chains of corrupt practices may take many more years considering how deeply corruption is embedded in the country. And, the middle class continues to grow, the GDP gets higher every year, and people seem to be optimistic about the economic future of the country. Indonesia has been called a model of religious tolerance, but, in fact, religious strife continues to be a pressing issue for those Indonesians who do not follow the majority Sunni brand of Islam. And while, it seems to be true that most Indonesians are not interested in engaging in religious battles, a small, but several small but influential hard-line groups seem to be able to attack at will and without punishment followers of non-Sunni forms of Islam as well as Buddhists and Christians. The president of the country said recently that religious intolerance is not acceptable, but many wait to see these words put into action. Indonesia has come a long way in the past 68 years, but it still has much to do.

And, a second anniversary happened on the 17th as well – a more personal one. The 24th anniversary of my move to Indonesia. My move here was one of those serendipity moments. I was offered a job teaching in what was then the province of Irian Jaya, and I immediately accepted. I had a few months to wrap up my life and start to learn the Indonesian language. I left San Francisco thinking that I would probably stay a year and then return to the Bay Area. Just an adventure and a much needed change of pace, but 24 years later and I’m still here. Along the way, I married an Indonesian woman, OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAhad four children, built a few houses and taught on several of Indonesia’s 13,000 plus islands.

When I arrived here, the rupiah was under 2,000 per dollar (it’s now around 11,000), the number of foreigners living here was significantly less, common Balinese could still afford to buy land on their own island and life seemed to be a lot slower and simpler. The foreigners that I knew in those days were mostly integrated into the community in one way or another, lived in fairly simple houses and had a passion for learning about Balinese and Indonesian culture. It was long before Bali became the land of villas, raw foodies, chichi restaurants and hordes of new ageists seeking the latest in spiritual relief for empty lives. The streets of central Ubud were filled with small Balinese-owned shops selling paintings, arts and crafts and cigarettes; now they are filled with spas, meditation centers, networking hubs and trendy restaurants. Nevertheless, I find it somehow reassuring to see the young tourist parents patiently carrying their tiny tots along the streets absorbing the newness of the experience of Ubud in prime season.

There have been many more changes on this fabled island, but I’ve been writing about them for an update to my little book on Bali (that still sells for some reason) so I’ll leave that for another post. Life here goes on despite all the changes. Living here on a daily basis with a lot of time on my hands, the island has gotten to seem like just another place to live, and I find that it’s increasingly hard to understand the fuss that newcomers make about living here. I need to get out on the road again and rediscover the island. Tomorrow, tomorrow.

A (short) Road Trip to Lovina (Dealing with a Past Bali)

Following my neurologist’s orders, I’ve given up my beloved road trips around the island. But just because I recognize that it’s probably a good idea to stay close to home until I discover where my misfiring brain is leading me, that doesn’t mean that the craving for being out on my motorcycle has disappeared. It’s still there, perhaps even stronger than usual, if only because the agency directing me not to satisfy it is outside myself. Perhaps a rather long-winded way of saying not riding my bike around the island sucks.

But as with so many of our cravings that we control for one reason or another, it’s always possible to find ways to indulge them just a little. And so, off for a short trip in search of a high chair for Zoey, I took advantage of the situation to drive just a little farther out to the tourist area of Lovina, that place where I first fell in love with Bali almost 24 years ago.

Out through the growing urban sprawl of Singaraja heading towards the rice paddies, coconut groves, sandy beaches and rural life of my past. Reaching Pemaron, once the start of North Bali’s rural landscape, I encounter an unending line of rukos (shop buildings with living quarters on the second floor), car and motorcycle dealerships, furniture stores, building supplies warehouses, small warungs, and countless signs advertising hotels and restaurants. On to Tukadmungga and Anturan, the rice paddies appear interspersed with commercial buildings and post-modern villas.

I pull into the Anturan gas station, once hosting a few pumps and the only public phone for kilometers, now a massive structure complete with multiple pumps and a mini-store. A flash of dizziness hits me as I wait for my empty gasoline tank to be filled, and I’m not sure if it’s because of my dementia, the fumes from the gasoline, or the shock at how much the first Balinese village that I called home has changed. Carefully pulling back into the steady stream of traffic, I take a deep breath to collect myself.

I decide that a cold beer in a familiar restaurant is called for, and I drive on to Kalibukbuk. The urban sprawl is inescapable; a massive car dealership in place of the rice paddies I used to walk past everyday on my way from Anturan to Kalibukbuk, a few tacky shops on the land where my wife and I used to grow grapes, dive shops, new hotels, more nightmarish villas sitting in the middle of the remaining rice paddies.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI turn down the road to the beach where I’m hoping my favorite old restaurant awaits. This small lane running from the main road to the beach is filled with shops, restaurants and hotels. Farm land is a thing of the past; the small lane that I lived on in the capital of Denpasar a few months ago has more open spaces than this lane in what was once a village depending primarily on fishing and agriculture. The beach is the end of the road, but the beach has been paved over. There’s a paved parking lot along with a guy collecting parking fees. The sand is still there, just less of it – a small skirt edging along the Bali Sea. My restaurant is there, but it’s been upgraded to a sports bar. Still, it looks familiar enough.

The waitress brings me a cold beer and quickly disappears to the back of the restaurant to chat with her colleagues. The beer is icy and lovely; I’m hot and confused. The friendliness, open spaces and rural atmosphere is what drew me to this area. I wonder where it’s gone and why. But as I drink my beer and smoke a Marlboro, I notice tourists – singles, couples, groups – wandering along the beach, taking photos of each other, laughing, checking out the menus in front of the restaurants along the beach. Like a time traveler, I’m living in another reality, one that’s gone and may appear rosier than it was in the pink glow of memory. For me, those days and that landscape is gone, but for tourists perhaps fleeing from the craziness of the Kuta-Legian-Seminyak concrete jungle, perhaps for them this is, as it exists now, the same as it was for me decades ago. Our perceptions of reality are relative to our individual histories. I relax, finish my beer and head back to the kampung.

Magic in Bali?

Magic in Bali has been a source of fascination for foreigners since the days of Dutch colonialism. Many visitors to Bali have been introduced to the subject through Miguel Covarrubias’ book, Island of Bali, published in 1937. Foreign residents of the island tend to be somewhat reticient about publically talking about magic or witchcraft lest they be considered non compos mentis. However, from time to time, the issue surfaces and is somewhat gingerly discussed.

Personally, I tend to be a skeptic having been trained in the Western scientific tradition, although I remember once sitting in a graduate seminar at Berkeley and listening to an African anthropologist tell us not to be too quick to discount local beliefs in magic. So, while skeptical, I work on keeping on open mind, after all, that’s what science is supposed to be about. Where is this leading?

We had one of those strange occurrences that are usually attributed to magic at work. I was up watching one of my favorite tv shows, Bones (a forensic anthropologist working with the FBI), when my son burst into my room to notify me that there was a huge snake downstairs. I followed Sam downstairs and heard shouts and screams coming up from the kitchen on the first floor. The kitchen was crowed with my immediate family and my sister-in-law’s family that live in the adjoining house. Two neighbors were out in the small courtyard that serves as a garden and has a small outdoor kitchen that my wife uses for grilling food. The neighbors, armed with bamboo poles and a broom, were trying to flush the snake out from behind my wife’s small two-burner stove.

Naja_sputatrixThey finally got it out from behind the stove, and I had a chance to see it. (My family had locked the kitchen door so that I couldn’t get out to assist in the capture or killing of the snake.) My wife said that it was an ular sendok (also known as a cobra here – scientific name naja sputatrix – check this link for more information. It was a nice specimen, just over a meter and considering all the beating with bamboo poles and the broom, quite placid in behavior. I finally got out of the house by going around through the front door so that I could see the creature close up, but by that time it was dead. I ran off to get my camera, but by the time I made it back downstairs, the snake and the guys who killed it were gone.

On to the magic part of the story which came the next morning at breakfast at breakfast with Daughter no. 1 and my wife. The two of them were having a rapid discussion about the snake and its meaning. I had to slow them down a bit so I could get the whole story, but just as I guessed last night after the snake incident, the appearance of the snake was being attributed to magic. How? Lots of ways according to the local sources; the way being something of a guessing game until consulting with a dukun or kyai. The why is what interests me usually in these matters. In this case, it may be related to two things according to my wife and some other local sources. One, a recently divorced woman has found some interest in me – most likely because I’m perceived as wealthy, it can’t be my looks at my advanced age- and my wife is clearly in the way of her desires. Thus, the snake. Supporting this is that the snake was found in one of my wife’s favorite cooking spots, and was waiting for her at the kitchen door when she opened it to get something out of the kitchen. My wife slammed the door before it could strike, although it was raised and ready to attack, unusual for cobras which generally only attack when bothered. The second reason is only peripherally related to me: that is iri hati, or envy. This is related to us being perceived as the wealthiest family in the neighborhood – quite probably true as this is a very poor kampung. The snake is supposed to, in this instance, not kill my wife, but introduce marital discord. The symbolism of the snake in this situation being similar to snake symbolism found in several monotheistic religions. However, snakes are symbolic of bravery, strength and wisdom in other cultures and religions (just saying as I like snakes and don’t want to give the impression that they are universally related to evil and cunning). Next were the countermeasures of spreading five kilos of salt around special places in the house. Did it work? Haven’t had a snake since then so who knows.

Bali always has something interesting to offer just when I was thinking that retirement was going to be a one sedate lifestyle.