Old friends and new memories in Ubud. January 2019


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Post monkey forest, Sarah and I had a lovely relaxing mid-day (while Jen got her “art museum fix” in town), and were invited to a complimentary afternoon tea at Alena. My younger self very much believed one should never take a break when traveling; go go go. See everything. Who knows when you’ll be back, and you can sleep when you get home. Now, staring down my late thirties, I’m finally recognizing it’s not only nice but important to have some “down time.” otherwise you return from vacation more exhausted than when you left.

That evening, we went into town to meet Jen and to see one of the dance performances. We chose the performance at the water temple, as the location itself is so special. And it was fantastic people watching. A whole community affair. The families of the dance troupe all attend, making offerings, and watching the show as well. Lots of little kids in their formal wear, trying to hold still (or not, as their age and temperament dictated). Noticed some of the younger girls would kneel with their flip-flops under their knees (very clever and more comfortable than just on concrete, for sure). Didn’t notice any of the adult women doing this, though. But I did see that the adult men, as well as the young boys, would sit cross legged atop their flip-flops, rather than sitting directly on the ground.

The dance was fascinating, but unfortunately Sarah started to feel unwell, so we had to leave early. Then it was a bit stressful trying to find a taxi to take us back in time to tell the hotel not to look for us at the 9:30pm shuttle stop. It worked out, but was stressful.

We had planned to do a lot of exploring the next day. Sarah decided to stay behind, resting up, as she’s gotten a bad cold. We offered to do a truncated/half day tour but she didn’t feel up to it. And so we were a group of two on our adventures. Took the scenic drive up the mountain to Pura Ulun Danu Batur. A gorgeous lake temple. Being Sunday, which tends to be family day (as most work 6 days a week here), it was very busy. As well as lots of bus tour groups from Jakarta and other parts of Indonesia, too.

Jen went off to find a toilet and I was just taking in the view. From one of the Jakarta bus tours, Two Indonesian grandmas in their headscarves were smiling and taking photos nearby. One looks at me with a giant grin and asks me, “Photo?” I thought she was asking me to take a photo of the both of them. But nope. They wanted to be IN a photo WITH ME. Why yes, I am a larger than average person. They seemed very pleased to hear I was from America and not Australia. Ya know, it’s always a little awkward being exoticized, but they were so dang happy and appreciative of my large size, it was hard to feel too badly about it. Weird, but also not the first time encountering such throughout SE Asia. Big smiles for the photo, and then one of the old ladies patted my butt! Like, her arm is around my waist, starts to drift lower, and then two bigs pats on my butt cheek. Oh my! That’s a first. Huh. (If I’d been thinking, I should’ve asked to take my own selfie with them in their traditional clothing, so we could’ve shared the exoticization experience). Such big smiles, though. After a few words of conversation had exhausted my Indonesian language skills, they wished me good health and went off to explore. So I’m now a part of their Facebook forever, probably. Jen came back just one minute after. Timing!

As we started to explore the grounds, the skies opened up, and the crowds of people scattered. Suddenly everyone was huddled under shelter from the rain, and we had the whole place to ourselves. We managed to easily get some photos in iconic locations without having to wait for people to walk by. We had it all to ourselves. Ha.

Then a drive through Mount Batukaru. An area of rich farmland, we’re told that these families now make very very good money, because they contract with hotels for daily delivery of fresh high quality produce. And tourists can pay big dollars so everyone does well. Being at the top of the mountain, the weather is often damp and good for the soils. And the houses we passed were very impressive. Multi-story affairs, with lots of marble. Big family temples, full of gold and rich decorations.

(Every Balinese Hindu family has a family temple, but few can be as lush as these). It was interesting to hear the longing for such a life. And to have farming so exalted. (To be clear, there’s a lot of subsistence farming and rice farming and it’s all hard, and very little is glamorous. But those at the top of the mountain, while still working very hard, are able to grow a wide variety of crops for good prices). The prices for garlic and chiles and tomatoes and squash are much better than the prices for just growing rice. It was also acknowledged that there is risk involved, as landslides are a problem on the mountain. So there is opportunity for those to have a more comfortable life, but unpredictable risk of losing it all, too. (Although Bali has many natural disaster risks, from earthquake to volcano to tsunami, so many recognize that they can only trust to the gods and try to live a good life for good karma)

Then to explore the Jatiluwih rice terraces. Truly gorgeous. A UNESCO world heritage site. I visited here on my last Bali trip, but was more than happy to see it again. Plus, this time I actually got to trek through the fields. We picked the one hour route. It just boggles, so green and lush. And this route took us through some of the terraces, where we got to make small talk (very small) with some of the rice farming family. Many use cows to till, and so we got to meet some cute cows and cute baby cows, too. AND happily we’d brought snacks on this trip, so got to munch on an apple (as it was now 1:30pm with no lunch in site). Gusti was waiting for us at the end of our trek, with cold water bottles. Heaven!

We were advised against getting lunch at Jatiluwih itself, “you pay for the view here, not the food.” He said maybe we’d find a good Warung (small street side Cafe) to get all three of us nasi goreng (fried rice). That sounds great to us, as Jen and I munch on our dried soursop pieces and he crunches his peanuts. Great conversation as we drive toward Tanah Lot temple on the coast (famous sunset). Unfortunately, as we’re getting closer to temple, we still haven’t found a place for fried rice, and he’s not comfortable having us eat just any random street food, whereas fried rice is made to order (“your stomach, I think, would not be happy”). Darn. Ah well, we’ll just have to grab dinner on the giant temple compound (there are rows of stores and stalls, offering all kinds of items).

Although now Jen and I have no guidance on where to eat. Three cheers for TripAdvisor that steered us to a decent place (being 4pm/off hours for dining, we couldn’t use the old “this place is busy so it’s probably good” trick). There is a menu item “Texas Burger” (which was actually chicken patty with bacon). And the man working the coconut station, using machete to open young coconuts for drinking the water, he is so delightfully grumpy, it was entertaining people watching. As waitress clears our plates, she asks if food was good. I said “Makanan ini enak” which is something like “this food is delicious.” And she about lost her mind that I knew three words of Indonesian. (To be fair, she does work at a hotel at their number one tourist site, where thousands of people from around the world come through every day). But her reaction was more than most. In general, people have been slightly pleased. She was gobsmacked. Her eyes got huge and it was like she was seeing a mythical beast. A unicorn in her restaurant! She walks away, shaking her head, as we sip our beers. A few minutes later, she comes back to the table to ask another question in Indonesian, where are we from? My answer again has her flabbergasted. She walks away. A Few minutes later, she comes back to ask my name. And she just keeps repeating, “Tracy” (which I love how Indonesian people say my name, as all their R’s are rolled, so there’s a wonderful trill to it) with a laughing voice and beneficent smile as she walks past. Honestly, Jen points out that we can’t quite believe she hasn’t dragged a coworker over to watch me perform. Ha. Then she walks over and says, “it is very nice to meet you” and is staring at me intently and expectantly. Now, this is strange, as we’ve talked for twenty minutes and she learned my name/met me awhile ago. She’s walked past three times saying “Tracy.” But I can tell what she’s wanting. The Indonesian phrase for I’m very pleased to meet you is quite long. Or maybe it’s just that it’s been quite hard for me to memorize. Now, I know it. I’ve said it to many people on both of my visits here, and it’s a crowd pleaser. Maybe because it’s one step beyond the basic “good morning” “thank you” phrases. I dunno. Or maybe because it’s very formal, so it’s extra incongruous to see a large western tourist use such a formal Indonesian phrase. Or maybe it’s just an appreciation of the politeness of it. But this woman is staring SO intently, that I just became convinced she would spontaneously combust if I told her it was a pleasure to make her acquaintance in bahasa Indonesia. So I just said it in English. And she nodded and said thank you. Afterwards I confessed to Jen that I felt she was seeking that phrase, and Jen agreed it might’ve done her in. HA. (Jen has spent the last two days trilling my name with a big goofy smile, “Trrrrracy”).

Tanah Lot exploration was cool. The temple in the ocean is lovely.

And we got to watch several surfers. The people watching is amazing, as giant tour groups from all over the world are wandering by, posing for Instagram, etc. It’s also very hot and the humidity is out of control. And we can see the clouds increasing, knowing there won’t be much of a sunset to see. Plus it’s been a long day and we feel badly Sarah has been solo all day. So we make the choice to head back, 50 minutes before sunset. This is the right choice! We beat traffic and the skies start dumping rain a few minutes after we’re in the car. Phew.

Along our drive, we were given great insights into Balinese life. In addition to the big famous all-island temples, and the family temples, each village has three village temples (one to Brahma, one to Vishnu, one to Shiva). Each of these must have its own priest.

Priests are not allowed to work other jobs, as they have to be on call 24/7. If baby is born, or there is death, or for any of the many rituals where they are required, they must be reachable. The village provides for their needs (with food, housing, gifts), but priest always must be at home, waiting. Gusti says, if you need a priest for a ceremony at your family’s temple, you can pick the one of the three you like best. Not necessarily dictated by Brahma, Vishnu, or Shiva. I said it’s the same at home, this priest is boring and talks too long, that one has good heart and powerful words, etc. He agreed, it’s about finding the right spiritual personality.

We also learned that the duties/job of being a specific village temple priest is descended along family lines. “But what if a priest has no children?” “Ah. This is very good question. And this is very big problem!” If a priest has no children, then the entire village gets together to pray and ask the Gods for guidance on who should be the next priest. This is a big commitment for oneself and their future generations. Jen asked if it’s something where a person can have a spiritual calling and nominate themselves. It’s not exactly saying “I want to be a priest. Seems like a good job.” But there are situations where someone comes forward to say if they’ve had the same prophetic dream five times, or other instances where a person has signs the Gods are choosing them. Then, in that case, the village would get together to vote on whether they think this person is truly God-chosen or not.

The next day, final morning at Alena. Early breakfast so we can have leisurely packing time, as we hadn’t felt up to it last night. Then drinking Bintang beer on our balcony. Followed by prolonged and heartfelt goodbyes. All the staff members come out and we talk for twenty minutes, sharing hugs and a group photo. The front desk calls the manager Gusti so he can come say goodbye, too! Gusti our driver is going to take us to our next stop in the coastal village of Candidasa, but he has to go into Ubud to pick up two other guest first. So the hotel treats us to green tea while we sip and watch the rice fields.

Along the way, we make a few quick stops. One at “Balinese original house.” This is just a traditional home set up, where the family allows guests to be shown around, for a small donation. Gusti had taken me and Jessica here on my previous trip, too. It’s Gusti’s knowledge and genuine desire to share his island’s culture that makes this such an informative visit. Learning how each room has directional significance and is used for different stages of life. We get to pet the family’s three legged dog, too! There are several impressive looking roosters, each in a separate section. For cock fighting. “But I think this is not very good karma. Very popular, but not good because the roosters must kill.” There’s also a bunny in a large cage. “For eating?” I ask. “Noooo. In Bali, we don’t eat these. I think maybe it was sick or hurt. The dogs, they can chase or bite the rabbits. So now they are helping it heal.” And then the family’s cat made an appearance. I was pleased to see same cat as two yr ago, with its very striking, angular, irritated face! I’ll try to upload photo later. 

Then we’re driving across the island, with the shared experience of judging other drivers. Some serious rain starts falling. Which only emphasizes how lucky we’ve been in the weather. While it’s rainy season, we’ve mostly had gorgeous sunshine, with a few short bursts of rain. The rains let up in time for us to visit Pura Goa Lawah (a holy temple built around a bat cave). Gusti pays for our admission, as a beautiful gift. He shows us where a big celebration is being prepared for tomorrow, and that a cremation ceremony is ending. Several hundred people are leaving. The whole village will generally come to these ceremonies. There are many stages, including gathering water from the ocean right here, too. After, we are allowed to walk through the temple, wearing our Sarongs and sashes to be respectful. You can hear the bats as soon as you walk through the gate. And then you see them at the back in the cave. Thousands! It’s very impressive.

Then to our destination of Bayshore Villa at Candidasa. Extended goodbyes with our very good friend Gusti.

Several group hugs and gratitude for wonderful shared stories and laughter. After he drives away, Sarah starts to cry a little bit, “I’m going to miss Gusti!!” Me too, sister. Me too.

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