Monday, March 7, 2016

Getting to Bali, Getting to Ubud

I can’t tell if the tranquil Hindu goddess in front of me is amused or annoyed by the flanking busts of hyper-masculine demons, but the contrast seems oddly appropriate in Bali, an island exuding the mindful care and attention of some other Asian cultures, and yet, facing the overwhelming realities of a tropical climate with its inclinations instead towards luscious, verdant chaos. How I got here, however--seated in a family’s courtyard garden tucked away along one of Ubud’s countless narrow gangs with my pack of Marlboros and pot of coffee that pours like motor oil and tastes like heaven--seems more of the latter.

Deep Outback

I boarded a plane last evening from Perth, Australia to Denpasar, Indonesia. The short flight was one of the more spectacular in my life but not for the service or anything like that. In previous weeks, I had the opportunity to travel north into the Australian desert on a short road trip. It was enough of an excursion to get a taste and provide at least a few moments to push my luck, but certainly not the full experience. After all, it is the oft-repeated, re-iterated, and re-enforced advice in Western Australia that ONE DOES NOT GO INTO THE OUTBACK ALONE IN THE SUMMER--advice to which I, to even my own surprise, was keen to follow (for the most part). But the flight over the northern desert at sunset on my way to Bali helped to fill in some of the missing pieces.

First, there is the sheer scale of the desert--once clear of the outskirts of Perth, there is little except for rolling bush, national parks and scattered small towns until Geraldton (about 5 hours north of Perth). After Geraldton there is, quite literally, next to nothing. It is here that the bush fades away leaving vast tracks of bare earth for many hundreds of kilometers. The few towns here function as oases of fuel along the few major paved roads which are otherwise unpopulated. Just to give an idea of the remoteness and emptiness of Western Australia more generally, consider this: the entire population of the state (by far the largest in Australia) is generously 2.5 million, with 2 million of those residing in Perth and surrounding areas. That leaves just over 500,000 people for the rest of a state the size of Texas, California, and Alaska.

On the flight, looking east over this land, a rare summertime cloud bank was rolled out like soft dough across the sky. Behind it was the dark, fathomless blue of a storm, penetrated only by yellow spires of lightning lashing harmlessly in the void of the outback (such storms I had the pleasure of watching from afar several nights in a row while I was in the bush--nature’s light show, indeed). In front of this cloud bank, on the western slope of the cumulous wall, the setting sun had settled into the warmest palate of sandalwood colors I have ever seen--equal parts pink and gold, radiating and amplified between the bare land and the sky and back. The desert itself was snaked by networks of dry riverbeds extending like the pulmonary veins of lungs that had long since ceased their breathing and as the sun sank in the sky these colors reached an almost fever pitch before quickly dissipating into the greyish-blue of late evening.

Denpasar and Kuta

But the desert is long behind now, climatically speaking, at least. Less than a couple hours by plane and we have reached the saturated cocoon of the near-equatorial tropics. Humidity: approximately 5 million percent. Temperature: at a certain point, it doesn’t even fucking matter.
The plane landed in Denpasar a little after nine at night and, in an impressively efficient manner, I had passed through customs, been asked if I was smuggling drugs in my rectum, collected my bags and found myself sitting in a taxi by half-after. My request to the driver was, at least in my estimation, rather straightforward: Hotel Bandesa, please. Off we go, meandering through narrow streets flanked on either side by tourists and an army of taxi (‘taksi’) motos and cars, seemingly two- or three- for every white person. The traffic was a mess, as it is in many of the countries I tend to frequent, but in Bali this is made all the more difficult by the fact that the roads are not only narrow, but also possess here-to-fore indecipherable lane and directional designations (to me, at least--the taxi driver understood just fine).

Every conceivable gap between cars was filled by motorcycles in an insane and unwinnable game of automotive Tetris. Navigation was not a matter of following a queue, but a matter of dipping into the opposite lane and passive-aggressively (though politely) cutting off any number of cars in front of you on your way left or right. ‘Sorry, sorry, so sorry’ the taxi driver would mutter unheard to the other cars he was gently cutting off, his apologetic hand gestures hardly much of a consolation amidst the fray. What was most amazing, in the midst of all this chaos, was how moderately the traffic kept moving along--despite the number of cars, motos and pedestrians dodging each other as well as food carts, street dogs and opportunistic shop owners, we were never at a stand-still, at least not for long. There was so much happening around me, so much aesthetic, sensory stimulus, however, that I found it hard to even notice the pace. I have never been much for the city anyway.

Kuta, the town just outside Denpasar, seems like mecca for drunk, white, college-aged tourists. For many of Australia’s misguided millennial youth looking for an international experience without any of the hassle, Bali (and especially Kuta) is their Cancun. And yet, here I was. Just another sweating white asshole among the masses, soon to learn that I had no idea where the fuck I was.

The driver dropped me off. Fifty meters down the road, he assured me, which was too narrow for him to enter by car, I would find my destination. Bags in tow, off I went.

Fifty meters.

A hundred meters.

By a hundred and fifty meters I realized he had dropped me off at the wrong hotel: Hotel Bena-Yesa was not Hotel Bendesa. I hopped another taxi with a driver who did not tell me he had never heard of the hotel until right when he was ready to drop me off. He assured me, it was somewhere. No doubt. After 30 minutes of walking around the charming alley ways of Kuta, each of which seemed alive and vibrant with nightlife, restaurants, live music, and outdoor bars (all I could think was how desperately I would like a smoke and a beer, let alone something to eat) I finally decided to hell with Hotel Bandesa and, for only about 10 dollars US, stumbled into a few bungalows at a home-stay somewhere in the pulsing center of the madness for the evening. I did finally get my beer and it was as cold as any I have ever had before. Thank christ.


In the morning, I woke to birds, a blanket of stale, tropical sweat and a lightly thumping fan--in my mind, possibly the most glorious way to wake. Outside my room was a small pool and an elaborate raised platform veranda, which are common in some of traditional Balinese culture. As the family of the home-stay began bustling about sweeping, the mother took incense and flowers to each corner and all entrances to bless the home. By the time my taxi arrived at nine thirty, I was as bathed in a gentle wafting aroma of lavender as I was in humidity.

Ubud is the city famously featured in the book Eat, Pray, Love, and while the prospects of re-living a white woman’s mid-life metamorphic rebirth tends to repel me on more levels than I care to recall, it is an important city for spiritual purposes. This being the week of the Balinese New Year, the festival of Ogoh Ogoh will be taking place in Ubud followed by the day of silence.

Bali in general is known for its uniqueness, which lends itself towards it popularity with tourists and an ever-increasing expatriate population, foreigners who, for one reason or another, just never went home. While the rest of Indonesia is predominantly Muslim (the largest Muslim country in the world actually), Bali is predominantly Hindu, but the spiritual and cultural differences do not end there. Balinese religion also incorporates many aspects of Buddhism as well as traditional animistic beliefs. The result is a gorgeous hybrid religion replete with a uniquely eclectic pantheon of gods and goddesses, an incredibly dense concentration of temples (there is a temple everywhere you turn), and an entirely distinctive aesthetic which likewise borrows liberally from the above variety of traditions. The combination of these things on the infrastructure and feel of Ubud is stunning.

Streets waft with incense from day break to sun down. Small reed plates filled with spices, flowers, and small offerings are placed in front of almost every household, business, and temple daily. And if the smell of burning herbs is not enough to heighten the senses, the narrow roads and uncountable alleys are lined with busts and statues of gods--some fiendishly terrifying, others peaceful and elegant, and still others somewhere in between. These figures can be large, sometimes stretching well into the second story of the house, and they can be small, tucked away in some small unnoticed crevice around an unexpected turn along the gang, covered in moss or stuffed full of flowers and offerings. Their pervasiveness and their incorporation into the overall aesthetic of the city gives the impression--and here is perhaps the animistic legacy in Bali--that these gods are everywhere. They are among us at all times, whether in overwhelming, monstrous proportions, or in the smallest of moments, the most forgotten of spaces.

Walking the streets mesmerized seems the order of the day. It is a complete overload of the senses--my eyes and nose and ears feel inundated with exotic stimuli that I at once feel drawn to and welcomed by. This is, no doubt, the epitome of the naivety of the white tourist in a new place. For sure, such enamored stories played a part in convincing any number of otherwise disillusioned foreigners to ditch the sterility of the West for the far-preferable wonders of the East. And so it is in Bali, and Ubud specifically, where so many still remain. There is poverty here, and an economy spurred on by the continued disparity between local and global markets; like so many other countries, Bali has fallen into a tourism-dependence, which brings in revenue, but relies on global currency deficits. Put another way, while so many foreigners have the opportunity and financial capacity to travel to Bali, so few Balinese have the opportunity to travel elsewhere unless they do so by working in the service industry. And for those in the service industry, the industry that employs some 60% of all Balinese, a university education is hardly a necessity--an unfortunate ceiling for the young people working hard to provide tourists (often university students or graduates themselves) with a nice experience.

But for now, the daily marvel of a new, exciting, beautiful place seems more than sufficient to distract me from such graduate school analytics. Other than the climate, Bali is so vastly different than anywhere I have yet been in Africa or Latin America. This is, after all, my holiday in celebration for the completion of my masters degree. Even for a radical left-wing Feminist Marxist scholar such as myself, perhaps little fun is permitted. Then again, fuck me, I am just another white jerk off with too much money in Bali. Might as well own that shit if the shoe fits, right?


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