Unexpected Offerings On A Return To Bali

Last month, I spent a week on the Indonesian island of Bali as a guest of the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival. This was my first visit to that blessed place since I’d fallen in love with it 34 years ago.

Like me, the island had lost some of its innocence in the intervening years. Unlike my earlier trip, when the Balinese I met had simply welcomed me with wide eyes and hearts, this time most immediately asked me if I’d been there before. When I answered, “Yes, 34 years ago,” their eyes opened wide for a different reason and they smiled and shook their heads. “Oh, Bali has changed much since then!” they’d laugh, though many of them couldn’t say exactly how because they hadn’t even been born 34 years before.

Of course, to my eyes too, Bali had changed. The streets were much busier, clogged with trucks and motor scooters, than I remembered, and the towns were more built up; the road from Denpasar to Ubud was lined with many more buildings and fewer rice paddies than I recalled.

But in a deeper sense, the spirit of the place seemed hardly changed at all. During a few free days of wandering, I passed a number of festival processions flowing through the streets. Every day I was enchanted as I had been three decades before by the sweet, simple canangsari offerings – hand-sized compositions of colorful flowers on green coconut leaves, some graced with a cracker – that were meticulously placed outside my door and on bustling sidewalks, off-the-beaten-path foot trails, temple thresholds and business entrances alike. And while I realize I know nothing about the difficulties of being Balinese – the need to scrupulously follow rigorous traditions, for example, or the unpredictabilities of relying on a tourism economy – the people I met exuded a gentleness, tranquility, contentment and sense of sanctity in the everyday that was as exemplary, expanding and restorative for me as it was 34 years before.

But it wasn’t until my last day in Ubud that Bali’s soul-binding offerings really came to life for me.

%Gallery-171375%I began the day with a mini-pilgrimage to a paradisiacal place I had visited earlier in my stay. I had been introduced to it by a local expat named Liza who had taken my all-day writing workshop. During the workshop lunch break, she had described a beatific organic restaurant perched among the rice paddies, a short walk from central Ubud. She kindly offered to take me there, and the following day we met at Tjamphuhan bridge, walked a few minutes uphill along Jalan Raya Campuhan, then turned left up a wide paved driveway. At the top of this driveway was a sign neatly hand-lettered: TO RICE FIELDS SARI ORGANIK.

After a few minutes following this narrow path, and frequently having to step aside for a seemingly endless succession of motor scooters, we entered what seemed an enchanted land of rice paddies, palm trees and, here and there, one-story “villas” with red tile roofs. As we threaded through the paddies on this narrow path, we passed a spa, an art gallery, a couple of “house for rent” signs-of-the-times and a fledgling neighborhood of new homes called Dragonfly Villas. After about 20 minutes, we came to a sign and a stone pathway that led to Sari Organik.

An open-to-the-breezes restaurant of some two-dozen tables blossoming in the middle of verdant rice paddies, Sari Organik has one of the most exquisite settings of any restaurant I’ve ever visited. We sat in this tranquil place sipping juice from fresh-cut coconuts, and as sunset slowly gilded the paddies, the centuries seemed to slip away.

I went back on my last day to pay homage to Sari Organik and to see if it could possibly be as magical in the harsh light of midday. Happily, it was equally lush and glorious and vibrant at noon, pulsing with the peaceful energy of the land around it. I savored an omelet of organic mushrooms, tomatoes and onions, fresh-squeezed orange juice and delicious strong coffee, and struck up a conversation with a smiling, energetic woman who turned out to be the restaurant’s extraordinary founder and owner, Nila, who told me that her goal is to help the local farmers grow a diversity of crops organically, so that they can preserve the environment and become economically self-sustaining. (You can read more about her amazing story here.)

After that serendipitous encounter, I walked back through the rice fields, feeling singularly content. I had gotten to do just about everything I had been hoping to do on Bali, I was thinking. There was just one exception – I hadn’t heard a gamelan orchestra. I’d caught snatches of gamelan music at a couple of different performances during the festival, but I hadn’t had that soul-transporting immersion in the music that I remembered vividly from my first trip to Indonesia.

Just as I was having these thoughts, approaching the end/beginning of the path, the sounds of a gamelan orchestra drifted on the air! I could hardly believe it – it was as if my thoughts had conjured those notes.

I reached the sign for Sari Organik. To my right was the wide, paved driveway that led to the main street, but then I noticed to my left a narrow, hard-packed dirt path that paralleled a rock wall twice my height. The sounds of the gamelan were coming from somewhere beyond that wall. The wall disappeared into a densely vegetated interior, with a couple of red-tiled roofs visible in the distance. I figured that if I followed the path, eventually it would lead to a break in the wall where I could enter and discover the source of the gamelan music. I wanted to see the orchestra with my own eyes.

So I set off down this winding path, following the sinuous curve of the wall and the music’s tantalizing rise and fall.

I startled two workers who were on their way to restore a magnificent old house set among the paddies on the other side of a stream that paralleled the trail. They laughed and welcomed me to the forest. A few minutes later, a lone and lanky Western woman with a backpack passed me and pressed on into the green. After 15 minutes of ambling, I came to a lush setting where palm trees, twining vines, giant ferns and slick bushes with propeller-like leaves tangled the air. Still there was no break in the wall, and the gamelan music was sounding fainter and fainter.

I stood in the shade of that jungly patch, puzzling over what to do, wondering if I would ever find the break in the wall, when suddenly it hit me: I had already found the break in the wall; it was in my mind. Listen! I didn’t need to see the orchestra – my wish had been to hear the gamelan. And there it was, all around me. What more did I want?

I walked back down the path and the sounds of the music swelled in the shadowed air. When I reached a point where it seemed loudest of all, I stopped and closed my eyes. Gongs, flutes and drums gonged and trilled and boomed in layered patterns, lapidary high notes skipped like diamonds across a pond, bong-gong-gong-booming low notes reverberated in my ribs, rising and falling and rising, staccato and slow, each note like a drop of water from heaven, submerging me in a pool of otherworldly harmony. Time stopped.

After a while – ten minutes? twenty? – the music ceased, and the forest echoed with its silence.

Then the harmonies flowed anew, and suddenly I felt released. It was time to move on; I had a taxi to catch, a plane to board.

I realized that all day I had been regretting my imminent departure, despairing at having to lose this blessed place. Now Ubud had answered that need, bestowing one last canangsari-lesson that would allow me to leave: I didn’t need to see the gamelan to hear its music, and I didn’t need to be in Bali to have Bali in me. It was already there, gonging and trilling and booming, rice paddy blooming, and it always would be.

[Photo Credits: Don George]

Listen To ‘In Bali With Baggage’ On CBC’s ‘WireTap’

Jon Goldstein was able to publish our excellent series “In Bali With Baggage” over on “WireTap” this past weekend, marking the first time that a Gadling story has ever been broadcast on the North American radio waves.

You can check out the landing page for the show over on the CBC or subscribe to the weekly podcast here.

Our thanks to Mr. Golstein and the producers of “WireTap” for sharing the good word.

The Trick To Surviving Thanksgiving On The Road

I woke up last Thanksgiving with plenty to be thankful for. The sun was shining. The air was fragrant. Outside my guesthouse window, rice paddies extended as far as the eye could see. I was in Bali, for Christ’s sake. There wasn’t much to complain about.

Yet, I felt empty. Thanksgiving is one of the toughest days to travel, especially when you’re alone. For a while, I puttered around my room, checking my email and looking at photos of friends and families on Facebook. It was the seventh Thanksgiving I had spent away from family, and it had yet to get easier.

I do, however, have a strategy for Thanksgivings abroad, and it’s pretty simple. I indulge. If I’ve been on a tight budget, I splurge on a nice guesthouse. If my neck is stiff from a 14-hour bus ride, I spring for a massage. I sleep in. I watch movies. I basically give myself permission to do whatever the heck I want, even if it’s not what you’re “supposed to do” while traveling.

And in the spirit of the holiday, I eat – well, and often.

In 2008, it was a midnight Egyptian feast on a rooftop in Luxor. My friend and I were dirty and dusty from a day spent exploring the temples. We scarfed down specialties like kofta and stuffed pigeon while our waiter played a special iTunes mix of Usher songs for his American guests.

The following year, it was a breakfast of eggs, bacon and sausage in the beachside town of Anjuna in Goa. It was one of the few times I ate meat in my six weeks of backpacking through India. I spent the rest of the day in a food coma on the beach.

And last year in Bali, it was a lunch of crispy duck at Ubud‘s Bebek Bengil, which is famous for the dish. The duck is first steamed in Indonesian spices, then deep fried for a crispy finish and served with rice and Balinese vegetables. It is, quite simply, extraordinary. I savored it slowly and washed it down with a midday beer while reading a collection of short stories from Jhumpa Lahiri. By meal’s end, my self-pity had all but vanished.

It’s not easy being away from home on Thanksgiving. But indulging in the world’s pleasures – particularly its culinary ones – can certainly help.

[Photo Credit: Jessica Marati]

In Bali With Baggage: Rince

[read earlier parts of “In Bali With Baggage” here]

As I wander Bali for the next few days, I can’t stop thinking about the pink lotus incident, how bending down to pick up that flower inaugurated a flood of emotional introspection. On my last day here, I stop into a restaurant and have an iced coffee and, as I’ve been doing a lot of lately, pull out my notebook within which I’ve been trying to figure it out. This is some of what I’ve jotted down so far:

Even one’s own fear, when looked at with compassion, can be something to embrace, like a crying child.

Borghes describes a dream of Dante’s where he awakens feeling as though he’s both discovered and lost something infinite. I feel a bit like that, too.

What is my true fear? To be exposed as a fraud? To lose all self control? The respect of others? To reveal something shameful to others that I don’t know I’m exposing.

It was like the galaxy had aligned itself, through an act of cosmic timing, to have the cat and the flower come together. And I had to travel a far ways to reach it. It was a matter of shedding layers of the regular life that over time desensitizes you to the world around you.And now what? Now that I have had this moment of clarity, what to do with it? When Moses was handed the word of God, he took it to the people while Jonah ran from it. And look what happened to Jonah. You can hear the world of God – have the truth downloaded into your brain – but then what? Certainly this is a beginning, but what now?

It was while pouring over the moment at the temple, poking and prodding it and of course also worrying that I was fetishizing it, that Rince walks in. He looks like a skinnier, laid-back Shia LeBoeuf. He has the at-ease-ness of someone who feels OK in the world, in his own skin. He is 25 years old and though well-traveled, he is without that neediness, that slightly smarmy charm of the traveler who’s been traveling too long, by himself and compelled to constantly be interrupting conversations, on the make for new companions to stave off loneliness.

My assumption is that he’s been here forever, but when we get to talking, through my initiative and not his, I learn that he’s been here only three days and it’s his first time in this part of the world. He’s come here to learn to surf. Maybe this deep cool is a surfer thing, or a people-driven-to-learn-to-surf thing.

Rince explains how he’s just flown from Hochi Minh City after a month-long motor bike journey from Hanoi.

“When you travel for a month, then you don’t have to worry,” he says. “If tomorrow you don’t do anything, if you want to lie in bed all day, that’s OK.”

When I ask him if he was ever afraid while making his trip, he says that the Vietnamese are the kindest people he’d ever met. And in some rural parts he travelled through, they’d never even seen a white person.

“The world is a playground,” he says.

Is this the wisdom of being 25, or will Rince always see life in this way?

When I was 19, fuelled on books like “On the Road” and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” all that desire for play, experience – everything at once – exploded in me in the form of a Greyhound bus trip across North America, from Montreal to LA with my friend Avi. It took us a month to get there and a month to get back. It was my world-is-a-playground moment and I was not afraid. Not really. Whether I was sleeping in a field in New Mexico or hitchhiking on the back of a pickup truck in the rain, there was a romance there, a story I was looking forward to telling that diluted the fear. I was in tune with the uniqueness of every place I went to, the uniqueness of each moment. The smell of a hotel lobby in Cheyenne reminded me of a soap I’d smelled in childhood. Everything felt special. Every new thought was immediately catalogued in a notebook. What happened to me? As an adult I stopped seeing the world as a playground. I came to see life as days you try your best to get through with as little pain to yourself and others as possible.

I remember how in “On the Road,” Sal Paradise and his friends spoke of those squares who worry the whole trip about where they’re going to eat, where they’re going to sleep while they, the original hipsters, just knew they’d be OK, that those things always just take care of themselves. That that was inevitable. When I read the book at 18 I felt I knew this and never thought I could forget it, that I could never be one of those squares. Now of course, I see Sal and his buddies as a bunch of mooches, the kinds of guys who didn’t have to worry because they probably had a friend like me somewhere, built for responsibility and worry, with a couch to crash on and a fridge full of groceries.

I am reminded of DH Lawrence’s description of Starbuck from “Moby Dick”: “dependable, reliable – in other words, afraid.” What a brilliantly nonjudgmental way of putting it. Being dependable isn’t all bad, but it can be a drag.

Meeting Rince makes me feel like maybe I shouldn’t be so worried and afraid all the time. And even as I think this, I can’t let go of my undying, hardwired and ingrained belief in the ironic workings of the universe within which I live, a place where even considering such a thing will have irritated the evil eye, ensuring I will now be mugged and left for dead in an alley.

When Rince and I part, I walk to the beach, and along the way, something that looks like a large cockroach scurries across my path. Again I feel the familiar sensation of my stomach tightening and I embrace it – a Buddhist bell calling me back to my true self. I struggle to see the truth, the beauty, the me-ness in mistaking a date pit, blowing in the wind, for a bug.

[Illustration: Dmitry Samarov]

In Bali With Baggage: Monkeys, A Cat, A Lotus Flower

[read earlier parts of “In Bali With Baggage” here]

Madai and I study the tourist map and decide our next stop will be a place marked as “The Monkey Temple.” It is in Ubud, in the midst of a forest overrun with monkeys.

As we make our way, I find myself growing giddy, like a kid. One thinks one has hung out with monkeys because one has seen so much of them on TV and in movies. Wearing diapers. Dropping flowerpots on people’s heads. Sitting in the passenger seats of mac trucks and pulling on that steam whistle. But to actually be in their presence is both mesmerizing and nightmarish. They flit around like human-faced squirrels and, seeing them for the first time in person, they strike me as being as improbable a creation as a unicorn, perhaps even more improbable because, when you think about it – one horn instead of two? It almost makes more sense. But beings who look like us but have tails that they can use to swing from trees? To see it feels like a lucid dream.

No matter our language, English, French, Balinese, we can all appreciate monkeys. Clowns of the forest! Unless of course they’re biting into your nose like the dough ball on a pizza pie. And this is a possibility I cannot help feeling acutely in my groin. In fact, each time I take some video, I feel the possibility of slipping into Youtube memehood. Holding out a chunk of banana one minute, having a monkey scrape away at my face like a Lucky 7 scratch card, the next.

When I go back to the car, I find Madai sitting with some other drivers, feeding monkeys and laughing. Except for the feces-pitching and constant threat of unexpected violence, how much better would it be to always have monkeys around? Especially if like Madai, you do not fear them.
Our next stop is a temple in Batuan. It is beautiful and awing, filled with statues and artifacts, but because I’m sort of a behind the scenes kind of guy who as a kid was always looking for the wires and mirrors at the magic show, I walk outside the temple’s courtyard to take look at the alleys that lay beyond it. I’m curious about what might go on in the alley of a temple, what the nearby houses look like, and as I stand there, my hands held behind my back (a relatively new move of mine that I developed to seem/try to be more at ease in the world), I see, from the corner of my eye, a flower flutter down from the sky. But when I look up, I don’t see any trees.

The flower has landed on the other side of a narrow drainage gutter and when I begin to walk over to it, to pick it up and smell it – for that’s what it seems a man with a flaneur’s gate who walks with hands clasped behind his back such as myself should do – I see that it is a pink lotus. As I stoop to pick it up, something big and black scurries through the gutter and quickly, I withdraw my hand and leap up. As I do, I feel a familiar sensation in my stomach. Fear. My fear. I look down the length of the gutter and I see it turn to look at me. An alley cat. A tabby.

I can’t quite explain it – and believe me, I’ve thought about this a lot since – but I am suddenly seized with the feeling of “this is who I am.” To describe this feeling, this revelation, might be as foolish as trying to describe the ineffable atmosphere of a dream but, fool that I am, here goes.

Just then, I felt my fear as a fact. Like having brown eyes or a slight build. Attached to the fear was not the Siamese twin of shame for feeling it – which for me, steers the fear into explication and a defensive posturing and thus, shtick. There was only a naked, pure recognition of it, a recognition of it as being mine.

But then, there was also the reaching out for the flower, the attempt to seize life’s beauty. These two impulses, tendencies, are the halves that form my whole. Fear and aspiration. Fear and the pursuit of something else. Pleasure, perhaps. It is not a very profound insight, but it is direct and clear, as though I am standing outside myself, like I am reading it in a textbook or standing on the roof of a house and seeing it from above. And balancing between these two states is how I live, every second of the day. I guess I’ve always sort of known it, but at this moment I’m feeling it. Feeling that the fear isn’t external from me, something to be removed like soul smegma, but it is me. I was not waiting to see who I was once the tug of war was won, but that the tug of war was me.

There is the person you tell yourself you are, through the stories you tell yourself and others, but then there is also the person you discover, or that you feel as a feeling of your you-ness, that sneaks up on you.

Here it was with a perfect haiku-like economy: the cat and the lotus leaf.

How strong it was, how fortunate I was to be alive to it, to see the significance of everything that was happening, everything that was spiraling off that initial moment made me weep. Fear felt significant. Spending money and meeting new people felt significant. Life felt significant. Everything about the day, about the trip, about life, all of it leading up to this moment and then past it, felt significant. It was in fact good that I was alone, because this moment might not have happened otherwise, and certainly could not have happened had I been safe at home. Suddenly the whole trip felt worthwhile. Of course it was worth traveling. The question was as basic as whether life was worth living. Of course. Of course.

An old woman suddenly appears and unlatches these gargantuan doors that open up onto the courtyard. The doors look like they’d been closed for centuries, and I walk through them and into the temple.

Back at the car, I put my hand on Madai’s shoulder. This was to show him I liked him. Even though we didn’t speak the same language, at least there was that, and that seems like the point of language anyway, to let each other know that we are enjoying each other. And then there is that other point, too.

“The toilet?” I ask, and Madai points over to a door, just behind me, upon which is written in English, “toilet.”

Check back tomorrow for the concluding chapter of Jonathan Goldstein’s series “In Bali With Baggage,” or follow the daily-updated thread here.

[Illustration: Dmitry Samarov]