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August 15, 2010

Around Ubud: Temples, Mangled Tails, and Monet’s Descendant

I’m pretty much located in the center of Ubud, so it’s easy to walk anywhere I want, but then I don’t have to if I don’t want to.  Apart from the free motorbike I can use, there is a guy every dozen feet with his own motorbike or a taxi who asks you, “Tak-si?” or “Transport?” while making hand gestures like he’s driving a car.

There are Hindu temples every fifth building or so (Bali, unlike the rest of Indonesia which is Muslim, is mostly Hindu).  They are made of stone and usually have a coating of moss on them.  There are shrines inside, usually the same kind of stone, with small containers containers made of bamboo reed and banana leaf, stitched together into a square with thorns, and will have anything from flowers to rice to small pieces of meat in them, usually with a lit incense stick. Gustee puts one on the altar on my porch every night and morning as well.  As I understood from a local they are offerings to the gods to bring good fortune.

Backroad of Ubud

I suppose you could call the city dirty, but I don’t really notice that straight away.  Instead I notice all the friendly people, all the shops and varieties of eateries scattered all over the place.  Even though this is a highly touristed area people will still talk to you even if you don’t plan on buying something from them.  There’s usually garbage lying in the gutters (they sweep the streets and sidewalks every night) and there are dogs everywhere.  Most are simply lying in the absolute middle of the sidewalk sleeping, most look like they have mange, but most appear otherwise healthy as many of them actually are pets I believe, or are simply fed leftovers all the time.

There are a lot of cats too but they are not as prominent, but many of them have broken or entirely absent tails.  This is seen all over Southeast Asia and yet no one that I meet in any country, whether local or tourist, seems to agree on exactly how or why the tails end up like this.  In Ubud I am told the tails are purposefully cut or broken to differentiate them from strays.  It’s the first of many explanations that I hear.

Every few years the government sponsors a program to round up and de-sex cats a dogs.  This is only done when overpopulation becomes a problem (who can say when enough is enough though?) and the program fizzles out when the problem has more or less receded.  Then they start it up again a few years later.

There are lots of Westerners around.  They congregate at the nicer looking restaurants, not realizing that in a place so touristy most of the eateries, even the not-so-posh ones, have a higher standard of hygiene than those bad places they’ve read about.  The restaurants that cater to Westerners always have much less spicy dishes and always have things like pizza or spaghetti and meatballs on the menu.  I have a much better chance of meeting an English speaking local eating suckling pig at Ibu Oka or at the foodstall down the street.  Meals anywhere range from US$1-8 with drink(s), averaging at around US$3 total.

My favorite night spot is a stone’s throw from Loka House, where I’m staying, called the Deli Cat.  Run by an Icelander, one is sure to find plenty of musicians, writers, artists, and other various ne’er do wells of society, both local and Western, to have a fun night any night of the week.  I even meet one of the most popular Bali artists (emigrated 15 or so years ago), Jason Monet.  He doesn’t care to talk about his ancestral connection to Claude Monet nor his paintings, which are found in the finest resorts and museums around Bali and all around us in the Deli Cat.  Instead he stops women passing by letting them know how devastatingly beautiful they are. Later he makes this noise for me, a gutteral noise from his throat, which sounds exactly like a digeridoo (those things aboriginals play).  Of course, he also makes a similar noise when growling at the previously mentioned devastatingly beautiful women with differing effects.

Jason Monet's Kuching, Sarawak 2000. Jason Monet died in 2009 in Bali, his home for over 15 years.

Originally published July 11, 2007

August 12, 2010

Ocean Worms and the Delicacy of Fruit Bat

A local takes me to Sagur Beach, the annual site of a huge festival that takes place in February when worms come ashore from the ocean.  The myth goes that a princess couldn’t choose between three men and so flung herself onto the rocks below the very hill I am photographing from.  There’s some reason why she represents the worms but I can’t quite recall what it is.  At the festival people eat the live worms to have something (luck? rains? I can’t remember that either) for the year.  Also it’s supposed to be a killer party.

Sagar Beach

My last night in Kuta, Lombok is spent fruit bat hunting with Made and my neighbors.  Made loves bat hunting, and his wife thinks it’s gross so he doesn’t do it that often.  We go out into the hills on our motorbikes when I find out that my bike has no low beams and a high beam that points almost straight up into the sky.  We stop once in a while and shine a flashlight up to the trees, or just point my bike toward them.  Nobody but Made actually sees the bats in the trees until they fly away, so he’s the hunter.  Sadly the bats aren’t out tonight and we only get one.  We cook it for breakfast the next morning and I become privy to a great secret: bat meat is really really good.  It’s a tiny bit sweet because of the fruit it eats, the texture is softer than jerky but still kind of tough, and it has a range of great flavors, somewhere between pork and duck.

Originally published August 4, 2007

August 8, 2010

Entering Ubud Through the Veil of Night, Banana Pancakes

At close to midnight, after about 30 hours of travel time, my taxi driver Putu drops me off in downtown Ubud.  I wander around past some quiet bars and restaurants until I find the entrance of Loka House, the guesthouse picked out of my guidebook, tucked back past a row of restaurants and a 10-20 foot stretch of pitch dark sidewalk.  The entrance makes me feel like I’m entering paradise: walled on either side with green vines growing all over it, dull lights every few feet to light the path.  There are two fountains in the courtyard and I can immediately hear the water running and creatures chirping (this is actually just the noise that the water pump makes, but I swear it sounds just like a lagoon).  Gustee greets me and shows me the 2nd floor room.  We walk in through two ornately carved doors and he shows me the bamboo lined bed, the bamboo chairs on the porch, and tells me all this is mine for $10 a night, plus breakfast, plus free use of the motorbike (or free shuttling on the motorbike), plus private toilet and shower.  Gustee is thinking he has to sell me on his small place but he doesn’t know I am extremely tired and was sold by the entrance alone, and the lagoon further entranced me in my state to the point where there is no chance of me leaving to find some other place to stay.

Entryway to Loka House

Gustee brings my breakfast whenever I get up, and before I wake he has said prayers for me and the guesthouse, lit incense on the altar on my porch, and brought me a pot of boiling water and tea and coffee. It is here that I fall in love, as most Westerners do, with banana pancakes.  It’s apparently difficult to perfectly replicate these outside of this area due to the ingredients they use, so I can’t accurately relate to you the absolute joy it is to eat a single banana pancake in the morning, with a large side of fruit.

Doorway to my room in Ubud

Originally published July 11, 2007

August 1, 2010

Arrival Indonesia: Drugs, Mobs and Motorcycle Gangs

The first sign I am greeted by in Jakarta says, “Welcome to Jakarta! DEATH TO DRUG TRAFFICKERS!” The only signs in English say something of this sort and they are posted about every 10-30 feet. Hello to you as well, Indonesia.

I’m immediately introduced to Jarkarta mobs. There is a mob of people getting through immigration, customs, visas.  Hoards of people all surging toward the same place.  Luckily they don’t really seem as concerned about safety as Western airports are and I shuffle through to my baggage claim in a matter of minutes.  When I take a bus (free! one point Jakarta!) to the other terminal where my plane departs from for Bali I am told check-in doesn’t start for 3 hours. There’s a mass of people sitting or standing in this outdoor area right outside the airport, and I sit and join them.  I’m off in a semi lucid dream state due to traveling for the past 30 hours when my alarm tells me it’s ten minutes to check-in time.  I grab my stuff and stand up and am immediately in the check-in line, which I haven’t noticed growing beside me.  It’s about 300 feet to the door, and again there’s this mob of people.  It’s supposed to be a single file line, as we can only go in one at a time, but we’re about 4-6 people abreast.  No point worrying over it, I just get in line, thinking about the process I’ll have to go through when I miss my flight.  However, again, luckily, security isn’t a big issue!  Within ten minutes I’m pushed through to check-in and get to my flight’s waiting room with about two hours before it’s scheduled to take off.  Of course, scheduled takeoff times are for fools.  Everyone sits calmly as that time ticks by, all obviously used to such late leaving times, and an hour later we are finally allowed to board.

I get to Bali and get a taxi to Ubud, about an hour away. Putu is my cab driver, and the first thing he tells me is “I am very happy!  I like no trouble.”  He’s a black belt in karate and teaches classes for friends around the area.  When we stop and get gas for the car everybody there knows him.  He tells me he used to be the leader of a motorcycle gang when he was in his 30s and everybody knew him, still knows him.  But, he says, his fighting days are over and he only wants to be peaceful and happy, unless he is helping out a friend in a fight.  You see, Putu really likes to fight.

Originally published July 11, 2007

October 27, 2009

Sumatran fishermen

I watched as a man, perhaps their father, dove into the cold, mountain river over and over.  Every few dives he’d come up with a fish and put it in a bamboo basket floating near the bank.  The boys would wade over to it with him and watch him plop the fish in, look and exclaim over it for a while, then go back to watching the man with intent and focus as he watched for the silver flash beneath the water, then slide in after it.  Sometimes they’d dive in trying out what they’d been watching, but they always came up empty-handed.

Ketambe, Sumatra

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