Thursday, December 1, 2011

Bali Journals: Part II, Fear & Loathing In Yakistan, Head For The Hills, The Cobra Ate My Homework...

I suppose that I should warn you that my entries into the blog for the next few weeks will fall more into the category of a personal diary & travel journal than the usual photo-centric scribblings you may have become accustomed to. I am on the road... Southeast Asia, Indonesia to be specific.... the Island of Bali to be very specific. My intent will be to share the experiences.... educational, mystical, dazzling and even horrific, as I trod the streets and rice fields of this distinctly unique part of the world. There will be photographs to accompany my ramblings, rest assured. So... if you’re game, join me as I recount experiences & encounters with the best and the worst, all presented from my own, maybe a bit twisted & always very personal, point of view.
After landing in the dark hours of early morning nearly a week ago, I can say that I have now begun to settle in and regain my Bali legs. Jet lag & culture shock have now abated and I have begun to settle into the flow of a stranger in paradise. 
My first destination on the island, the bustling beach enclave of Legian-Seminyak on Bali’s southern coast, was a daily assault to my senses & sensibilities. This area of the island is one of the principle districts for tourism and has been since the mid-1970’s. When I first visited this country back in the 1980’s, Legian & Kuta were just beginning to see serious development on a large scale. Kuta. Even with the development & growth, the cutural aspects of Bali’s village life was still very much in evidence. It was commonplace to see ceremonial processions parading through the chaotic traffic, women making daily offerings at shopfronts, canang (pronounced cha-nang... small woven palm baskets containing a tiny bit of rice, other foodstuffs, a sprinkling of the rice wine known as Brem, flower petals and several smoldering joss sticks) - offerings made three times daily to appease lower ground spirits... so many that extreme care had to be taken not to trip over them as one wandered about town.
All of that is gone now.... well covered by asphalt, concrete and most recently, cobblestones. Loud discos with flashing lights and pumping house music turned up to 11 now line the strip... low rent glitz & noise competing for the tourist dollar. Kuta now looks like any asian tourist district... the uniqueness that is Bali has been virtually paved over. As you move up the strip towards Legian - Seminyak - Kerobokan, things get just a bit quieter, more upscale & glitzy & considerably more expensive. While Kuta continues to attract a less well-heeled patronage of Australian teens & nouveau-rich asian travelers from China & Korea, The northern end of the strip is filled with the trendy set... Europeans,  Brazilians, Argentinians seeking stylish & over-priced dining venues and late night club activities. I won’t dwell on this area much longer. It’s not my thing. There was one particular evening where I was shocked... even disgusted with the whole scene....
While having a coffee & checking email one late afternoon in a Legian Beachside cafe, I was invited by a group of Dutch women to join them for dinner. They had been enjoying sunset cocktails at the cafe and were planning on dining at the ultra trendy Italian Restaurant Ultimo. Happy for the company & conversation, I followed them to the restaurant... enjoyed a decent meal and met another group of their friends who were already well into their meal. This was all fine. The food was decent, not excellent, but very decent. After finishing a long, leisurely meal and lively conversation, one of the women suggested we head to another nearby bar... a place called The Red Carpet. “Where Everyone is a  Star...” was the tag-line for this venue. At the door, we were greeted by hostesses & wait staff, all dressed up in crimson uniforms circa 1940’s bellmen or elevator operators, complete with golden brocade trim and shoulder ropes and tiny red pillbox hats to complete the look. 
Now... let me say that I fully understand and have no grudge with the Balinese love of wearing a good uniform. Basic security guards will be issued only a t-shirt and a name badge by their employers. At their own expense, they will often compliment this minimalistic stab at officialdom by wearing polished jackboots, official looking caps, tool belts, etc. However, the staff uniforms at this particular club, at least in my mind, gave more the impression of an organ grinder’s monkey. I was mortified. I felt sorry for the staff... sorry for the owners of this establishment for thinking this was a good idea in the first place and even more so for the patrons that felt this was good entertainment. I just felt dirty after climbing out of the place and heading back to my lodgings.
The next morning, I fled Legian and headed inland to Ubud & not a moment too soon was my thinking.
In Ubud, or Penestan to be more precise, I have now settled into a small villa leased long term by an old friend from H’lulu who is back home at the moment. The villa is nestled deep in the jungle on the edge of a deep river gorge... a valley lush & green & full of wildlife. The villa itself is a bit rustic but with all the necessary comfort requirements, even an ornately carved wooden four-poster bed that has been like sleeping on a cloud. Here, it’s a bit remote, quiet and a perfect retreat for writing, reading, yet still close to the dining, shops and entertainment of Ubud. In this area, I have several long-time expat friends and have spent the first couple of days making the rounds, catching up on life in this village during the past three years of my absence. 

Gunung Agung, Bali's Sacred Volcano, As Seen From My Villa Lanai
Adi & I have also taken several trips out to the village where I own property to check on progress in the village where expat villa development is just now beginning. Improvements to the road fronting my parcel, underground electricity access & replacement of a small bridge washed away during astorm of a couple of years back have all been finished now. A luxury villa complex called Villa Ketapang, 50 meters down the road, has recently been completed and opened to guests, complete with beachfront pool, tennis courts & it’s own helipad to transport it’s clients above the maddening traffic of South Bali. Plans are underway & initial preparation for development of my property is one of the goals of this visit and I am happy to see that I will have a little bit of company out here in an area which was once considered quite remote and devoid of other westerners.
In between all of this, I have managed to spend some time with a man I met several years ago... a man somewhat renown in Bali for his gifts of healing and premonition. In my previous visits, I have been doing research & making photographs for an eventual book of photos & essays on my experiences with the mystical aspects of the Agama Hindu faith in Bali. This man immediately agreed to be my friend & my guide into this world that is so completely foreign to anything I have previously known prior to coming to Bali. Oddly enough, this man’s name is also Tony.
 Not only is Tony highly skilled in the “arts”, shall we say... but also a fabulous collector & dealer of Indonesian Art & antiquities (he is currently working on providing replacement art & antiques for Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson’s recently burned villa complex on his private Caribbean Island retreat) , not to mention a very accomplished photographer in his own right. So accomplished is he, in fact, that after viewing his recent work a couple of days ago, I was wanting to sell my cameras. Not likely to happen but just the same, he’s very good.... you can feel his love for the people he photographs... their dignity, no matter their position or status in this society. I am hoping T will allow me to publish some of his work here in coming days... he has no website I can link you to as of yet.
When I first met Tony several years ago, we talked about my interest in Balinese religion & society. Shortly after taking my leave of him after our first encounter, while walking one late afternoon thru ricefields near where I was staying, an old man from the village began to approach me waving a live cobra dangling from a stick. Cool! Never seen a live cobra in the wild. Returning back to my lodgings a short time later, I showered and walked out of the hotel complex on my way to a nearby restaurant when a live cobra crawled across my feet as I headed down the path. “ Not cool “ I thought to myself and vowed to be more alert. The next morning, I was up early, sitting on my lanai, sipping coffee and writing when the gardener reached into a bush just a few feet from my feet, extracting yet another, quite large cobra. “Hmmm... this is getting a bit weird”  I thought.
Later that day, I reported my snake encounters with T. He laughed and said something to the effect of “Good, good... that’s a very good sign.” Having no idea what he meant, I shrugged it off but the experience stayed with me, if only from a safety & caution perspective.
Three days ago, my first reunion with Tony at his compound in the village of Mas, I had been sitting in his living room for less than 1/2 an hour when a small, maybe one meter long, spitting cobra crawled up on his lanai, reared itself up and spread it’s hood. OK... this is getting a little bizarre was my only thought at this point. Tony had calmly pinned the snake’s head with a nearby broom handle, grabbed it safely behind it’s head and carried it off to release it in the nearby riverbed. While he was occupied by the cobra, I asked on of his assistants if it was common to see cobras in the compound. “Yes”, he replied, but they hadn’t seen one in a very long time. 
When Tony returned, I asked him about the snakes and the fact that I have been having close calls with them every time I see him. “It is mere coincidence...?” I half-stated, half-asked. He only smiled at me coyly, explaining that the cobra was the holy snake, seen wrapped around the neck of Goddess Shiva whenever she is depicted in drawings or sculpture. Again, he tells me this a "good" sign.  Hmmm... ok.

Cobra Encounter# Empat
Yesterday, I received an offer from one of my better half’s jewelry suppliers to join her at a wedding ceremony of friend high in the interior mountain region of Bedugul. I immediately accepted Ayu’s invitation. As I had brought no formal ceremonial dress with me on this trip, Adi arrived early this morning and we headed off to the nearby village of Batubulan in search of proper Adat (traditional/formal) attire. The women of the market made a great fuss over me, helping to select a lovely batik sarong, matching waistcoat (saput), temple sash and the Balinese headscarf known as Udeng. It was quite a scene as the ladies helped undress & redress me... then insisting that I pose for photographs in my new costume at the market temple in the rear. Adi, of course, handled photo duties using the camera in my iPhone. Great fun that was!

Fashionista Adat Photo: Ida Bagus Adi
On the way back to Penestan, Adi told me that there as a big temple ceremony taking place in Tony’s village of Mas tomorrow but today they were holding the required cockfights in preparation for tomorrow’s main event. Off to Mas we headed, arriving to find a sea of people gathered inside a large, hot, sweaty & dusty arena just outside the temple complex. Cockfighting in Bali, like in Hawaii, is now illegal because of the gambling that always accompanies it. Temple ceremonies, however, require the offerings of spilled blood to appease the lesser ground demons in Balinese religion. Traditionally, cockfighting is the method of choice in making the necessary offerings of blood and the government allows 2-4 “legal” cockfights to be held the day before the principle ceremonies. As you might suspect, 2-4 cockfights turns into a day-long event with lots of noise and enthusiasm from the audience, not to mention the fat wads of money changing hands as the audience wagers on their favorite birds.

Cockfight Arena, Mas, Bali

Show Me The Money
I got quite good at choosing the eventual winning birds at each match and wished I had wagered some of the rupiah in my pocket. Eventually, drenched in sweat, we took our leave a couple of hours later so that I could return to my villa and edit the morning’s take.
Tonight I am dining on the invitation of the executive chef at the former Begawan Giri resort, now Coco Shambala Estate in Sayan. Chef is in the midst of testing recipes for her new cookbook and over drinks at the communal expat watering hole in Ubud last night, invited me to be her guest & guinea pig. I am honored and will report on the cuisine and the wedding event in the next entry. Until then, Selamat Tidur...


Stephen said...

No way can I "whatevah" this...THIS is very cool.

It fits you...feels right...

london said...

Tony you look smashing in your Balinese outfit. It' s so nice. You sound happy and I can feel Bali in the writing. Thanks so much.


Tony Novak-Clifford said...

Stephen... are you losing it? I count on those "whatevahs" from you. Very disappointing!

London... I HATE shopping but had such a great time with the ladies at that market. They had as much fun dressing me as I had, I think.