Thursday, August 4, 2011

Ground-Shaking Joy

I am beginning to feel slightly less than an outsider. After a few days of exploring I can get around Ubud fairly easily, despite the fact roads aren’t labeled and most streets blur together in an endless string of restaurants, shops and spas hoping to attract tourists. Every ten feet on an Ubud Street there is the endless call of “Taxi? Transport?” from young guys with motorbikes or vans. Those words, the sound of gamelan practice, the roosters outside and the honking traffic have become my daily soundtrack. Without exaggerating, I say the words “no thank you” about fifteen times an hour. People are not pushy, however, and after you refuse them they often wish you a nice day or ask where you are from anyway. The other day after I politely refused “transport” from one guy on a motorbike he asked, “Why no transport?” “I like to walk.” I told him. He thought about it and then said, “Okay. Transport tomorrow, no?”

I went to a Kekac performance the other night (more on that below) and after the dance all of the male dancers, seeing the sea of tourists exiting the performance quickly pulled street clothes on over their costumes and began a different choral cry: “Taxi? Transport?”

There is a kind of honesty here that pervades conversations. It is (and will continue to be) difficult to write about my experiences here without bordering on the spiritual or cliché. Whenever I’ve begun a conversation with anyone here, the topic heads towards the personal almost immediately and the personal is expressed in large, abstract ways. Phrases like keeping the “heart satisfied,” the “love strong” and (my current favorite) "so much joy the ground was shaking" are used frequently—not in greeting cards or poetry, but in the day to day processing many Balinese seem to use to evaluate their lives with. Today I listened to my new friend Gusti telling me a story about how he had to change his life because a shaman told him there was a bad aura coming from a painting of Albert Einstein he had made. I no longer question this, but nod seriously and tell Gusti, “yes, you were right, it is good you burned the painting and switched to music.”

In another interesting conversation, today I spoke with Nunik (Wayan’s wife) about my visit to see her family the other day. Nunik had been at work at the time but I stopped by the store where she works (“The Drum Factory” right outside the Monkey Forest) to tell her how much I enjoyed it. She speaks very little English but I tried, “Nunik, it was so nice to see your family’s home. Your daughters are very nice and very beautiful.”

“You think so?” She said. “But they have dark skin.”

To which I finally mustered up, “Yes, they do...That is good though…They are very beautiful.”

“No. They are not so beautiful. I like the light skin.” She told me, gesturing to her own which was indeed lighter than her daughters’.

There are lots of things that I hear in Ubud that I don’t have a response to. I am learning a lot by being quiet. And I am finding that the openness of strangers coupled with my willingness to listen is leading to long and generous conversations over "Bali coffee" and cakes. I am learning an immense amount for my project which I’ll share in separate posts about names specifically.

In addition to these conversations and wandering the streets of Ubud, this week has included a variety of activities to get to know the area:

A Kekac dance performance which Made & Kadek (from my homestay) both danced in. There are performances right across the street twice a week. In terms of dance and music Ubud is the place to be, and I’m hoping to go to a variety of performances and try out a number of venues over the next few weeks. I really enjoyed Kekac which features a huge rhythmic male chorus and also a fire dance in which a man on a bamboo horse who is said to be in a trance walks around and kicks burning coconut husks.

A visit to the ARMA museum that features the work of many Balinese artists as well as work that European artists made while visiting Bali (like Walter Spies, for example). I also arrived in time to witness a children’s dance class. (Made & Kadek tell me their youngest daughter used to take classes there but now she’s good enough to dance in Denpasar).

A trip to the Monkey Forest, which is a major tourist destination in Ubud and is exactly as its name sounds.

Roaming the Ubud streets. I especially liked witnessing pick up time at a local school. So many motorbikes and backpacks.

Becoming an excellent bargainer, if I do say so myself. Maybe too good. Last night I tried to bargain for postcards and the woman at the store just looked at me as if to say, “Seriously?” These pants are the one item I have allowed myself to purchase so far. It is absolutely tragic that anything I buy I will have to somehow squeeze into my luggage and be carried around for a year. Everything is so beautiful and so inexpensive it is hard to resist.

Today I made a fool of myself at my homestay (which is becoming a regular occurrence). There is construction outside my room because Made & Kadek are adding four new rooms for guests. The construction workers often listen to Balinese music while they work. Today, however, I was sitting in my room trying to plan my next move when I heard Dido’s White Flag blasting outside. I came sprinting downstairs to find Wayan (Kadek & Made’s oldest, home from University in Denpasar ) playing it. “Wayan!” I yelled, “This is my FAVORITE song! My favorite song in America!” (This is perhaps a slight exaggeration but not by much, especially because it was the first American music I had heard in a week). Poor Wayan nodded, unsure what to do with my enthusiasm. “It’s a good song” he kindly offered.

In other news, I decided to extend my stay with Made and Kadek for a month and negotiated a good price with them. It feels really nice to have a temporary home base and exploration in Ubud feels limitless. I think I will use the first few weeks of September before I head to India to explore other parts of Bali and do more research there. I have realized that my original plan of getting in touch with NGOs and schools as a way of meeting families in Bali to talk to them about my project is actually sort of unnecessary and perhaps not that helpful. I’m realizing more and more that actually my greatest friend is time. No one seems particularly shy here, and once you get involved in a conversation, it usually lasts for hours. One thing leads to another and I am lucky that my “research” in Ubud really can just consist of wandering the streets and being willing to listen. Or following whims, like when Wayan texted me this morning and said, “Go see my wife at her work.” It is sort of lovely not to make phone calls in advance, not to schedule things, not to send e-mails. To simply just show up. This inevitably seems to lead to more Bali coffee and more stories. For that I am so grateful.

(An offering I stumbled over on the street this morning).



  1. forget the pants and pack me a monkey.

  2. Nell I'm obsessed with the blog. And that offering is beautiful.

  3. maura--thank you so much! i am so flattered you're reading it! the offerings are insane, aren't they? they're all over the sidewalks here and just considered no big deal. i accidentally step on them all the time.

    hadley--i'm on it. and get home already so you can get your package. (although that one was monkey-less).