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.”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.