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.

Tangled Up in Bali Blue (Apologies to Bob)

These months are, of course, summer in the States. For me, despite the 25 years that I’ve been living in Asia, June, July and August are still summer for me. Could be all those years spent teaching with the traditional American summer vacations regardless of geographic location; could be the weather or something like that. And what do I do on these summer vacations? Get the house ready for another rainy season (winter).

balconyAs I written many times, life living on the edge of the sea might seem idyllic, but it’s hell on buildings – all that salt, water and wind. So, everyone here does repairs during these beautiful months when the weather turns hot, sunny and arid. I don’t know why, but blue is filling my life these days. Walking around the city anything blue startles me, dreams are blue tinted, the sea outside my window turns from crystal blue to deep ocean blue. Maybe it’s a sign, maybe some twist of unconscious desire, maybe a repressed memory. Sometimes you just have to act on these feelings drifting by on the languid afternoons when the only sounds are a baby’s cry or a child’s laugh.

Blue. Houses here are white or gray, sometimes a little green thrown on a wall, or worse, that mournful mauve that reminds me of a grandmother’s cupboard off in some distant homeland. This house has gone through white, green, pink and mauve stages. We’re going retro with a blue bend; back to the original white house with a few blue walls and ceilings and floors thrown in for some… Some what? Maybe color relief, maybe an acknowledgment to those blue visions, maybe getting ready for another sign.

side houseAnd plants and vines hanging from here and there. Their job is not an easy one – to protect the walls from the ravages of our winter weather and to survive those windy, wet and salty months. I started playing with this plant and that way back in February when the winds were dying down and the sun was thinking about coming back for another season. Now as August is just about here, vines hang down from all the balconies covering these walls; red and yellow flowers blossom on the roof; bees zoom about; birds come by for a snack; bats soar by at night leaving fruit seeds to mix with my garden; another illusion of life in this concrete urban landscape. Yesterday I discovered a papaya tree growing in one of the planters on the third floor. The jungle is playing its cards close to the vest, just waiting for its time to come back and reclaim what was taken from it.

In Search of the “Real” Bali: Another Road Trip to Denpasar

The “real” Bali. What is it? Where can it be hiding? It must be hidden away somewhere on this island because so many foreigners seem to be looking for it. According to some foreign residents, Ubud is the real Bali. According to others, the real Bali can be found over on the east side of the island where tourism hasn’t had such a significant impact as it has in other places around the island. According to other, newer, foreign residents the real Bali is found inside their villa walls alongside their swimming pools or on their teak decks. The real Bali may exist in those rice paddies that are so popular with foreigners as a symbol of Bali’s “naturalness.” But, it’s those rice paddies that their villas are rapidly rendering extinct.

This search for the real Bali appears to be bound to a craving for authenticity; the authenticity that foreigners can’t seem to find in their homelands. And so, waves of foreigners arrive here daily, most only to visit for a relatively brief period of time, but others have plans to stay because, as we all know, Bali is paradise, even if paradise means living behind three meter high walls topped with nails or broken glass and supported by CCTV, security guards, and vicious canines. The authenticity often comes via tales told by maids, drivers, and gardeners (colloquially called staff to make the culturally sensitive foreigners feel less like wealthy neo-colonialists and more like generous culturally aware benefactors). When push comes to shove, foreign residents tend to be more interested in how long it takes to have pizza delivered to their villas or finding the best place to do yoga than they do in learning the language and culture of the island and country that they claim is their new home.

Life, that messy, complicated, multi-layered reality that Balinese and other Indonesian residents of the island live daily is just that – a little too messy and complicated for the foreign residents who would rather spend their time navel-gazing and being served (where can I get fresh, organic veggies delivered to my villa) than getting out on the streets meeting the people that they allegedly adore and supporting local businesses or the ladies that sell produce in the local markets.

I’d be hard-pressed to find an expat who would call Denpasar the real Bali, but the banjars are there, ceremonies take place daily, Balinese carry out their daily tasks of making a living and completing their ritual duties, Indonesians from other islands arrive looking for work and daylaborbuilding relationships with the Balinese either as employees or neighbors. The shops of Denpasar (and Singaraja and Klungkung and Gianyar) are filled with all these people: the grubby little hole-in-the-wall building supplies shop; the glittering, ultra-tech handphone store; the old-fashioned warung with two benches in front filled with local folks having a quick meal, a cup of coffee and some conversation; the Padang restaurant packed every lunch time with hungry customers. No terraced-rice fields, no rushing rivers, no breath-taking gorges, but surely one section or Balinese life even if it is the urban part that’s less photogenic and far from the image that the purveyors of “Bali as Paradise” want to put on their glossy brochures and fancy websites.

Out on the road with my favorite brother-in-law: we were traveling down to Denpasar, the capital and largest city on the island, so that I could buy some trailing vines to plant on the balcony in a possibly futile attempt to protect the walls of our house from the ravages of the seaside climate here in Singaraja. I look forward to our little trips because it gives me a chance to hear some decidedly local views on life on the island, plus gossip a little bit about what dramas are currently going on in our large, extended and dispersed family. Up over the mountains that separate the regency of Buleleng from the rest of Bali, we chat about the upcoming elections – yes, I met him when I was working in Papua and I don’t like him; he’s running again?; he might be good, at least he’s not a general – the change in the weather, my Indonesian granddaughter’s latest developmental wonder, the state of the economy, life for the salt of the earth.

We reach the little plant nursery down in the Renon area of Denpasar and buy plants and earth and concrete planters. We discuss the needs of the vines that I’m buying and why the business next door is not the place to buy the planters. We engage in some small chit-chat and smoke a cigarette. We buy 72 plants, 20 sacks of earth and four concrete planters and head off to home.

On our way down to Denpasar, we pass fruit stands selling durian, a fruit common to Southeast Asia and known for its pungent scent. This is durian season so there are plenty of stands to choose from. We stop at one not too far outside of Denpasar; we get out of the car and my brother-in-law starts bargaining. The lady is maybe thirty although she might be as old as forty. She offers us a price just barely below what we would pay back in Singaraja. My brother-in-law starts to bargain. I ask, in my limited Balinese, if the durian are tasty. She looks amazed, laughs, and punches me in the arm. “The tourist speaks Balinese,” she shouts to my brother-in-law. “He’s my brother-in-law,” he says with a laugh. “How much are they?” I ask in Balinese again. More laughing, more the tourist speaks Balinese. We get a good deal on the durian. The lady is smiling and we’re smiling as we get in the car.

Small interactions, but ones that reinforce my belief that Bali isn’t a location or a house or villa or , it’s a collection of people and their ways of life: something we anthropologists call culture. And that, in fact, the farther away you get from the “real” Bali, the more likely you are to find what you’re looking for.

Surprised on Bali II

A common form of initial interaction between Indonesians is to exchange places of residence, birth and family ties. It gives them a basis for communication and an idea of who they are in relationship to each other. Symon did just this when I first met him. Where am I from, what am I doing here, where do I live. I responded pretty much the same way. I discovered that he’s originally from Michigan and has been in Bali for 35 years and up in Air Sanih for the past 15 years. So, we had our lineages in line.

The Art Zoo is 28 are, that’s about 2800 square meters with a cluster of buildings and a large empty pool. The Zoo is filled with hundreds or thousands of paintings and statues (why did I not ask if I could take a few photos of the place). Symon is a gregarious guy, talking quickly (and sometimes elliptically); he covered such a broad range of topics – work, art, Ubud, Air Sanih, politics, land use, Singaraja, books and more – that it was sometimes hard to keep up just having driven three hours across the island.

And back now in the homeland of the pure and victorius, I keep wondering what the lessons are from these travels other than to pass every vehicle on the road, one more skeleton machine escaped. Could be don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, always wear long pants on a motorbike, don’t assume that the attractive new-ager is completely without sense or worth or merit, look at crossroads for sly cats and crippled dogs, take the time to smell the cloves, a rolling stone gathers no moss, a bike key is not the same as a room key, still waters don’t always run deep, that doe-eyed girl is just a doe-eyed girl, never race a kid on a bike less powerful than yours, death is as unreal for the young as for the old, the Jester is a universal trope, the blind lady that calls you into the sun isn’t always real, that narrow alley may lead to the ganganswer.

We wonder what fate will bring. Each religion or philosophy has their own window onto this existential question. I wander through this symbolic landscape, brushing traditions great and small, skirting religions compact and diffuse, negotiating with the sighted and sightless, crying with the legless man, laughing with the infant, peeking over the sunrise hoping that the light will change the day. And what more can we expect than that?

Surprises in Bali

Sometimes things that aren’t planned turn out the best. Bali, despite the many years that I’ve been here, always seems to have something ready for me just when I need it, and I was in an existential need of a surprise or two.

The tourist season is upon us once again. I usually date the start of the tourist season when I see the first small clusters of tourists wandering through our kampung. Usually, it’s rare to see tourists show up here as we’re somewhat off the beaten track. Back before the local temple closed off access to our kampung from the harbor, tourists would often just wander in here from a visit to the harbor. These days it takes a bit of work for outsiders to show up here. So, the tourists are back wandering through the kampung and with that I traditionally stop taking my motorcycle trips around the island. But this past weekend the weather was just right for a road trip – blue skies with a few clouds drifting by to give a bit of shade along the road, warm but with a slight breeze. And after a week of watching my granddaughter and 8 weekends of working on the house, I was ready to get out on the motorcycle for a day or two.

I’ve lost my desire to visit Ubud after my last trip where the streets were so packed with hordes of tourists that even walking in the street dodging traffic was almost impossible because the groups of Korean and Chinese tourists spilled over the sidewalks and out into the streets where they would stand taking photos oblivious to the motorcycles and cars speeding by. So, I was set on visiting Padang Bai and the Zen Inn once again. It turned out Zen Inn was full for I went with Plan B, which was working on finishing the paint job to the ceiling of the second floor. Getting done with half the work, I wandered upstairs for a break and found a message from Liam, the proprietor of the Zen Inn along with his wife Wayan, that they did indeed have a room if I wanted one. I quickly threw some clothes in my traveling backpack and headed out onto the road down the east coast. Surprisingly there was minimal traffic and much of the resurfacing of the road that slowed me down last trip was finished, so it was easy to speed along under clear skies with the smell of drying cloves awakening my senses and reminding me that there’s more to Bali than just Kampung Bugis and my life as a housegrandpa and handyman.

tirta ganggaEnsconced in the Zen Inn, I spent the late afternoon and evening eating a fine steak and having a few Bintangs and JW’s with Liam. Guests came in and out and the conversation moved from tourist talk to politics to culture to the inevitable topics of the recent “crime wave” and the “what is happening to Bali.” Wayan and the staff moved in and out of the bar and kitchen keeping food and drinks coming. It was another fine visit to the inn.

Late the next morning, I set off for Singaraja hoping that the traffic backup in Manggis (due to road work) would not be as bad as it was the day before. The work had stopped for the day, and I was able to glide on through. Heading back home, I came across ceremonies in a number of villages with the enticing sound of gamelan music floating through the air. I was in no hurry to get home and with minimal road traffic, I slipped into one of my thought games about what it might be like to live in any one of the bucolic villages that I drove through. The east coast villages are about as far from life in the southern tourist area as it’s possible to get. Early afternoon sun filtered thorough trees overhanging and shading the road, and as I entered the small tourist area of Air Sanih I thought about stopping at this strange place that I have passed dozens of times called the Art Zoo. As I heard later from Symon, the founder and owner of the Art Zoo, he’s heard that story about meaning to stop in but putting it off until later many times. Well, I finally did make the stop.

As I hesitated at the entrance where I found a sign announcing a 50,000 rupiah entrance fee, a young man came hurrying up from across the road. As I discovered later, Tompong is Symon’s personal assistant and an artist as well (he showed me some of his interesting silkscreen works that were reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s work in the 60s). Tompong led me up the entrance stairs and introduced me to Symon who was laying comfortably in a hammock reading one of Toer’s novels; I believe it was House of Glass.