Thursday, March 13, 2008

Clearing the Cobwebs

I think it's important to break free of the daily routine every now and then to seek new perspectives and to remain alive, creatively speaking. Travel is my way "clearing the cobwebs" and recharging my batteries. Entering into new and unfamiliar, sometimes even uncomfortable situations forces your mind into a new state of alertness. New sights stimulate me to attempt to capture a bit of the essence of things newly encountered.

Nowhere on earth have I found to be more stimulating creatively than the "Island of the Gods", Bali, Indonesia. This tiny island of 2, 174 sq. mi. hosts 3.5 million residents and thousands of tourists from all over the world. Located in the Indian Ocean at the southern end of the Indonesian Archipelago, Bali is a tiny enclave of mostly Hindu worshipers surrounded by the world's largest muslim nation.

Once a backpackers & surfers paradise, Bali has recently begun making a move towards a more upscale resort destination. While you can still find very cheap accommodations, food, etc., you can now also surround yourself in luxurious pampering in world-class five star resorts & spas.

Bali is a feast for the senses... I often describe the experience as walking around with a head full of acid... sensory overload. From the moment you set foot on the island, you are bombarded with unfamiliar sights, smells, sounds, tastes... most of them pleasant, some decidedly not. The island's small land mass and large population, combined with their traditional communal way of living means very little privacy once you leave your hotel and venture out. The Balinese and the immigrants from other parts of the country are aggressive business folks to say the least. Just walking down the street in the more populated areas where tourism thrives means navigating a gauntlet of vendors arms thrust in your face selling everything from foreign newspapers,  to silver bangles, "magic" massage oils, music cd's, movie dvd's, transportation, ornate carvings of bone, horn & wood, sarongs & other local handicrafts. Should you desire any of these items, you will be forced into feverish negotiations with the seller on setting an acceptable price. As you enter into negotiations, every other vendor within eyesight will spot you as a "mark" and immediately surround you too, thrusting their wares at you, shouting to attract you attention. Add to that the very necessary awareness required to just negotiate sidewalks and roads in a very third-world country with crumbling infrastructure to avoid being run down in your tracks by an entire family riding on a tiny motor bike or falling thru a cracked sidewalk and into the open sewer waiting below and you get some small idea of the sensory overload that is to me, a part of Bali's charm.

As a photographer, the Bali experience is equal parts exhausting and creative stimulation. There is never any lack of exotic subject matter. Landscape photographers will be entralled with the rich, verdant rice terraces, sculpted into steep mountainsides and gorges over centuries, by the incredible variety of coastline... from sandy tropical beaches, to craggy sheer ocean cliffs, to beautiful, picturesque volcanos. Street photographers will find no shortage of amazing faces, solemn as well as colorful religious ceremonies and processions that seem to appear out of nowhere. 

The picture accompanying this blog entry was taken a few years ago and only recently rediscovered as I was scanning old film archives in an effort to digitize & streamline the delivery process of future stock requests. My Balinese partner, friend and teacher of all things Balinese, Ida Bagus Adi, and I had ventured high into Bali's central mountains in search of a tiny remote village scheduled to be the only temple odalon (temple "birthday") ceremony scheduled during my stay. As we climbed high into the mountains of Tabanan, the roads became increasingly rough almost to the point that I feared Adi's van might break an axle if we continued in our quest. Adi assured me we would be fine and I settled back into an uneasy trust in the gods, as one must do when visiting their island. Before long, we spotted a tiny temple in a valley just below us, decorated in full ceremonial beauty with long red "penjor" flags guarding the temple gates, bright yellow & orange umbul-umbul umbrellas shading the shrines and a mass of human activity. The entire village was busy in making preparations to welcome their ancestral gods home for this all important annual birthday celebration. Quickly tying a sarong and temple sash around my waist (proper balinese dress is required for entry into all balinese temples) and grabbing a couple of cameras, I was welcomed heartily in true balinese fashion as all participants stopped their activities momentarily to see the newly arrived "tamu" (visitor), then went back to their preparations. Men were shinning and boiling small sucking pigs in large woks to prepare the ritual meal of lawar, women were tidying up the temple grounds, parading in and out carrying large, ornate and carefully designed offerings to place on the shrines, holy men were sitting in the shade of a large tarp as they chanted magic incantations, inscribed magical symbols on the leaves of frangipani flowers and blessed the accumulated paraphernalia rituali required to comfort of the gods and entice them into lingering long enough to bestow their blessings and absorb the essence of the offerings. The boy in the photo, dressed in his best, if a little soiled, ceremonial finery stands before a shrine where the colorfull stacks of fruit are artfully arranged as offerings.

I've just booked a flight for early May. I can't wait to return to Bali, recharge my batteries and return home once again with fresh, even for only a short time, eyes.

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