the Long's Strange Trip

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~  Christmas Island ~
December 19 through December 28, 2000
$1 U.S. = 9200 Indonesian Rupiah
(Remember to click on the thumbnails for enlargements of the photos)

Ubud, Bali, Indonesia
December 19 through December 28, 2000

(ccl) My friend Andre' Golubic recently told me about a German word for the anxiety that many people feel before they travel.  It's called reise  veber, and probably most of us have had it at one time or another.  Andre' asked me if we get it, and I told him that with the number of times we've made a move in the past eleven months, we'd be in the hospital if we got too anxious before each one.  But I suppose there's still a small amount of tension that accompanies each bus ride, train trip, or airplane flight, and we try to lessen that as much as possible by preparing for the move to the degree that we can.  To this end, we bought our Lonely Planet Bali book while in Bangkok, and read up on the procedures for entering the country.  We also got on line and found a nice hotel to stay in over the holidays, since we knew that accommodation can be difficult to find there during Christmas.  We found out that immigration authorities may ask you to show your onward ticket upon entering Indonesia (Bali is one of the more than 17,000 islands that make up the Indonesian archipelago.), but felt pretty reassured by Lonely Planet that they almost never do.  We actually even tried to purchase tickets in Bangkok, but were told by travel agents there that they could not sell tickets for flights that originated in Bali.  

So now, of course, given Murphy's Law, you know what happened...

We were nearly the last people to move through the achingly slow immigration line upon arriving at Denpasar Airport.  When we finally got to the counter, and laid down our passports and documents, the immigration official asked to see our onward tickets.  We had gambled and lost, and now this bored civil servant had the power to refuse us entry into the country.  We told him that we didn't have onward tickets, and he suggested that perhaps we'd like to go buy them from one of the airline counters.  Knowing that this is probably the least cost-effective way to purchase air travel, we told him that we really didn't want to do that.  He then glanced furtively around him, lowered his voice, and looked us in the eyes: I knew what was coming.  He suggested that he might be able to help us if we would only help him.  He would be willing to stamp our passports if we'd give him $20.  The fact that his cohorts were well within earshot led us to speculate that this was a common practice, and that reporting him to his supervisor wouldn't do much good, so we decided to pay the bribe and get on with things.

This left a pretty bad taste in my mouth: after all, it was our first exposure to the "friendly people of Bali".  Sometimes it's tough to shake an incident like that.  You feel taken advantage of, yet you know you were in the wrong as well.  But we've both been trying to get better about "letting go" of angry feelings, something that challenged us constantly in our careers before we began this odyssey.  So we put it aside, letting it well up only a couple more times, and settled down to introduce ourselves to the island in a more proper manner.

Sun setting over the rice paddies outside Ubud  Part of our pre-arrival research involved figuring out where we were going to go once we got to Bali.  It's an island, but it's still a pretty big place, and the options available to tourists run the gamut from deserted beaches to quiet fishing villages to the pre-fab party beach town of Kuta.  We had heard enough about the artist community of Ubud to know that it sounded, to us, like the right combination of natural beauty and creature comforts.  We booked reservations on-line at a little hotel called Ketut's Place, and planned to stay there through Christmas until the 28th when our friends, the above-mentioned  Andre' Golubic and his girlfriend, Sha Ficarrota arrived from Atlanta to kick off their four week tour of Bali, Thailand, and Cambodia with us.  

We met the owner of the hotel, Ketut, upon arrival.  "Ketut" sounded like a pretty strange name to us then, but after spending a few days on the island we got used to it.  The reason?  The Balinese name their children depending on their birth order.  The first child is named Wayan, the second Made (pronounced "mah-day") , the third Nyoman (pronounced "yo-mon"), and the fourth Ketut.  These names are used regardless of sex, so if the fourth son marries the fourth daughter, you have a married couple who are both named Ketut!  And, what, you ask, happens when there are more than four children?  It starts all over again!  Number five is Wayan, number six is Made, etc., etc.  We have met a few people with other names, but about 90% of the people we have met are named these four names.  Confusing?  Not for them, and at first we thought we would have no problem with it, either.  That is, until we had met four or five Ketut's, and two or three Made's.  Then we had to add our own modifiers, like "Ketut the hotel owner", and "Nyoman the batik artist, not Nyoman the sarong salesman".  Even now we find ourselves whispering to each other, "Now, is he a Wayan or a Nyoman??".

The Balinese have a culture like no other we have seen.  Two million tourists come to Bali each year, and tourism accounts for about one-third of the economy here, yet Balinese society seems to have remain relatively untouched by it.  On our first night in town we witnessed a procession of hundreds of men, women, and children, on their way to the local temple to celebrate a festival.  All of them were dressed in the traditional Balinese costume, which is required for entry into a temple.  Both men and women must wear a sarong and a sash called a selandong  around the waist.  Women wear beautiful lace tops and men wear colorful handkerchiefs tied in such a way as to leave a jaunty little "fan" in the front.  Gamelan players waiting for the parade to start 

Women carrying offerings to the temple  I know that one of my most lasting impressions of Bali will be the sight of these beautifully dressed women nonchalantly balancing huge offerings of fruits, sweets, and flowers on their heads as they chatted and laughed with friends on the way to the temple that night.  Some of them looked to be close to two feet high, and many of the women were able to balance the offerings without even using their hands.  Every time I see this in Bali, and since that first night we have seen many similar processions, I think about how my mother threatened me throughout my adolescence with a posture bra, and how if I was a Balinese woman, I'd probably have to drive my offering to the temple in the car.

The procession we saw that night included several gamelan  orchestras.  Gamelan has its roots in Java, but the Balinese have their own style of playing.  The band consists almost entirely of percussion instruments, with the main instrument being the gangsa, which is much like a xylophone.  Played by striking the bars with a hammer held in the right hand, and then quickly dampening the sound by touching the bars with the left had, the gangsas produce a clanging, clattering cacophony of sound that takes the western ear by surprise, but which grows on you soon enough.  Imagine your doorbell possessed by the devil, and you're getting close to what a gamelan sounds like.

Balinese families on their way to the temple  The thing that began to sink in that first night, and which I continued to witness throughout the next several weeks, is that cultural preservation is of central importance to the Balinese.  Bali is a Hindu island smack dab in the middle of the string of Muslim islands that make up Indonesia, and it is committed to keeping alive the religious and social rituals that have been part of life here for centuries.  I like this piece of a Noel Coward song I found in a magazine about Bali (Noel and Charlie Chaplin, who he had in mind when he wrote this song, were just two of the many famous westerners who frequented Bali in the 30's and 40's):

As I said this morning to Charlie,
There is far too much music in Bali.
And although as a place it's entrancing
There is also a thought too much dancing.
It appears that each Balinese native
From the womb to the tomb is creative,
And although the results are quite clever,
There is too much artistic endeavor.

Little Balinese boy, learning the traditions of his ancestors  Coward, of course, had his tongue firmly planted in his cheek when he wrote this, but what he writes about is something that surely every visitor to Bali must discover.  EVERYONE seems to have an artistic or musical skill.  Hotel managers paint, waiters perform the traditional dances at the Ubud palace, economics students apprentice to batik masters.  The Balinese place an importance like no other people I've seen on younger generations understanding the traditions, values, and crafts of the older ones.  In fact, every Balinese house includes a temple where respects are paid to the family's ancestors.  Kids learn to dance and to play the gangsa and to paint and to carve wood, and they learn to make temple offerings and will participate in as many as thirteen celebrations during their formative years.  If children of any society experience a profound rite of passage, a coming of age, it is the Balinese. 

And, luckily for those interested in preserving Balinese religion and culture, rice growing, one of the main occupations of the Balinese people, allows for plenty of time for the above mentioned pursuits.  The rice terraces that seem to occupy every spare inch of land have been in place for quite a long time, some of them centuries.  Once the rice is planted, there just isn't that much to do until harvest time, so there is spare time to relax and play music and tell stories and go to the temple.  Maybe the kids don't have Nintendo and there's no two week family vacation at the beach every year, but the family unit is intact and most people appear happy and content.  Every day we saw families riding together on their motorbike, husband driving, little boy in front of him, wife in back with one hand around her husband's waist and the other helping to balance the family's offering on her lap, and another child sandwiched between the mother and father, all dressed in their finest and heading to the local temple.

So we began to settle into life in a tropical paradise.  Christmas was rapidly approaching, and while there would be no major gift-giving, no multi-present extravaganza this year, we wanted to get a few little presents for each other.  I spent my first full day in Bali in bed with some sort of strange stomach ailment, but it only lasted about 24 hours, as many of those things do.  Ubud is rife with shopping opportunities, so we split up for a couple of afternoons and bought each other some nice pieces of local art and other items.  We decorated the porch of our bungalow at Ketut's place with some paper lanterns and a couple of metal Christmas trees, all of which were loaded with small candles and produced a Christmasy-glow in the sticky tropical heat.  It was my first Christmas away from either of my families, and it seemed a little strange, but we enjoyed the peace and quiet and absence of the shopping and partying frenzy that leads up to the day every year.  Although several restaurants around Ubud were advertising Christmas dinner specials with turkey or goose, Wiley deferred to my new-found pledge not to eat meat or chicken, and we had a Christmas dinner feast of sushi. 

I spent the day after Christmas being pampered like never before, as Wiley had given me a spa package at a place just down the road from Ketut's Place.  My day started with an hour-long massage, followed by time in a dry sauna, a steamroom, and a whirlpool.  Then I was slathered with Dead Sea mud, which was then rinsed off after it hardened.  After that, I spent 15 minutes in a perfumed Jacuzzi tub, and later had my hair steam-conditioned and had a manicure and pedicure.  The whole thing culminated with a facial, a vegetarian lunch, and the presentation of a free t-shirt!  It was a banner day, and I felt glamorous and spoiled when it was over.  I plan to do it one more time before we leave to come back home to the real world.

Santa spreads cheer (and cigarette smoke) at the Jazz Cafe in Bali  As part of our continuing quest to find jammin' tunes wherever they may be around the globe, we sought out some jazz music at the local venue in Ubud, The Jazz Cafe.  I've always been a casual admirer of jazz, but have never known too much about it, and we don't own a lot of recordings.  The group that was playing the night we were there, we later learned, was a hodge-podge of local musicians, who were just sitting in for a jam session together.  To me, they sounded like they had been playing together for years, but much of jazz is improvisational, and good musicians can sound great together without having played together before.  After a fantastic three hour set, the group called it a night, and to our surprise and delight, the bass player made his way over to our table and sat down!  Ito was from Java, and played the bass like no one I had ever seen before.  He turned what is typically a rhythm, accompanying instrument into the lead guitar.  Ito had a ready smile and we liked him immediately.  He invited us to come see him a few nights later with his regular band in the neighboring town of Sanur, which we did.  We plan to seek him out a few more times before we leave the island.  Ito jams on bass

One of the unexpected rewards of this trip has been meeting, either in person or virtually, other round-the-world travelers.  Certainly, we have met lots of people in hotels, restaurants, buses, and bars along the way and have shared travel adventures, but we've also received email from other travelers who have found our web site through various methods and have written to ask questions or just say "Hi, we're about to do what you're doing.".  Several months ago I heard from a couple from San Luis Obispo who were doing much the same as we had - selling the house, quitting the jobs, and hitting the road for a year.  By coincidence, it turned out that we were on Bali at the same time, so we made arrangements to met them for drinks and conversation a couple of days after Christmas.

Ed Hawkins was a lawyer, and his wife Linda worked in compliance for a bank, when they decided to chuck it all and hit the road.  They have been traveling since September, having stopped first in Hawaii, then the Cook Islands, before making their way to Bali.  Ed spent some time traveling around southeast Asia shortly after the Vietnam War, but it was Linda's first trip this far east.  They were funny and interesting and loved good music and beer (well, Ed loved beer - he had to take up the slack for Linda, who doesn't like beer), and we shared advice and stories well into the night.  I found myself remembering when we first met Scott and Laura Kruglewicz from Atlanta, who had traveled around the world in 1999 and whose web site I had read religiously.  When we met them, I knew so much about them already that I begin to feel like a stalker.  Ed, who had read our entries from the countries they were going to, also knew a lot about us and our experiences, and at first it was a little odd, meeting a stranger who knew so much about us.  It was a great night and it was wonderful to make new friends and exchange war stories.

Making palm baskets for offerings  We had begun to feel like Ketut's Place was home.  The place was immaculately kept, and the employees couldn't have been nicer.  Ketut's kids usually visited daily, especially once they discovered the one pound bag of M&M's that Santa brought Wiley.  Ketut tried to explain to us that his family was preparing for a big festival that would take place after we had checked out, and that his whole family was there to help get ready for it.  Each day we nodded hello to Ketut's grandmother, who must have been well into her 90's, as she sat making little palm baskets in which offerings to spirits are placed.  It's possible that Indian Hindus wouldn't recognize their own religion if they came to Bali.  That's because the Balinese had a well-defined religion when a prince from a neighboring island brought Hinduism here hundreds of years ago.  They still worship the main Hindu trinity of Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu, but their supreme god is Sanghyang Widi.  Also, in what is probably the most obvious display of religious beliefs to foreigners visiting Bali, the Balinese have a hefty dose of animism in their religion.  Animism is often explained as the belief that God is in everything, and the Balinese interpret this as meaning that spirits, both good and bad, inhabit all things.  Offerings for the spirits are visible at the entrance of shops, hotel rooms, rice fields, government offices, and restaurants.  It is the job of the women to make these offerings and ritually place them every single day.  One store owner told Wiley that his mother spends three hours every day making little baskets from palm leaves, filling them with offerings, and placing them in his shop and home. 

On the 28th, we bid a fond farewell to Ketut, after promising him that we would stay at his place the "next time we come to Bali".  We had paid in advance over the Internet for all eight days of our stay with Ketut, and were relieved that it turned out to be such a nice place.  Ed and Linda told us about how that same situation had backfired on them when they pre-paid to stay at a place for a month in the Cook Islands.  Their bungalow was filthy, and the mosquito net they brought turned out to be more useful in keeping the rats at bay during the night.  The owner insisted that they were seeing crabs, not rats, and they ended up leaving there after staying only two weeks.  

We had made arrangements several days earlier to rent a house on the other side of town, where we could stay once Andre' and Sha arrived.  Their flight was scheduled to land at 2:30 from Hong Kong, so we packed up and moved to our new location, and headed off to the airport to pick them up.

Click here to continue in Bali with "2001: A Gutter Odyssey"



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