Monday, August 8, 2011

Tasting the Cake

The generosity of strangers here continues to surprise me. After just one conversation, I often find that people refer to me as their friend and we talk about “the tourists” together (as if I wasn’t one). On the way back from Mas yesterday, a man stopped me because he saw I was walking towards Ubud. Trained to be skeptical, I kept walking but he persisted, “No no no. I don’t want your money. I’m going to Ubud anyway. And this way I make a friend!” I hopped on his motorbike with him and his four year old son, and sure enough he dropped me off in front of my homestay with a handshake and a, “Nice to meet you, my friend.” In fact, for better or for worse, since the day of my arrival, I haven’t paid for a ride here. There are plenty of people willing to offer me free rides and most often I accept. It’s one of the few places where it is safe enough to do that.

In Bali, people don’t say “Hello” or “Good morning” in passing. Instead the greeting is often, “Where are you going?” “What did you eat?” or “Do you have children?” These are considered standard greetings between strangers, not personal questions. A new Balinese friend recently told me that most often people don’t really care very much about what you ate or where you’re going, but it’s a way of being nice and of following “Basa Basi” whih is a sort of code of friendliness. She said when she was a girl and took English classes at school, the first thing her instructor said she needed to know about English was, “None of your business.”

People often say that Ubud is the “real Bali” because most other Balinese tourist destinations are closer to the beaches and have more western-style accommodations. The town of Ubud actually consists of fourteen villages that are each run by different small committees. Ubud is considered both the spiritual and artistic hub of Bali and its name comes from the ancient Balinese word for “healing” or “medicine.” Supposedly this is because of a Buddhist Priest who stopped here on his way from Java. It is said that everyone traveling with him was very ill and near death, but when they bathed in the rivers at Campuan, they were completely healed. Tourists today often still seek this kind of spiritual or physical rehabilitation here but now there are metallic sculptures of the words “Eat Pray Love” at almost every gift shop. I’m finding Ubud to be an interesting combination of local village life set back from urban streets and touristy cafes from which you can watch Balinese ceremonies that stop traffic and run on their own calendar.

Despite being a busy and noisy place, it is also a place where time slows down. Last night I met up with Gusti to watch him teach a drum circle and we didn’t start until an hour after it was scheduled. He says people call this “Bali time.” I am getting more accustomed to this. Usually when traveling I feel the urge to be out and about all the time and take advantage of things while I’m here. In Ubud I am learning to relax a little bit and spend time reading and writing and having Bali coffee at a cafĂ©. It gets dark early here (around 6:30pm) and the community rules say there can be no loud noise after 10:30pm, making it a very restful place with an early bedtime. As a new friend, Anom, told me yesterday, “It’s good you’re here for a month. You can be slow. When people are here for just ten days or two weeks, they don’t get it. It’s like they are just seeing a cake. But you, you get to taste the cake.”

Although I am liking this slow pace of life, after a few days of haphazard conversation with people and roaming the Ubud streets, I realized I needed a bit more structure in order to feel like I was accomplishing something. My research is sometimes challenging in that I have no set times or places to be; I really am just seeking people out for conversations. This makes it hard to feel accomplished at times, and hard to define when exactly I’m working on my project and when I’m not. Feeling a bit aimless, I turned to what I’ve turned to for the last seventeen years to keep myself occupied: School.

I have enrolled at the Pondok Pekak library Bahasa Indonesian class. It’s a language class (with homework!) that will meet three times a week for a month. I’m hoping learning the language will help make my conversations with people more fluid and I find that learning a language is often a very informative way to learn about a culture. I bought a notebook on the street a few days ago in anticipation because I was so excited to have somewhere to be. Today we learned about Basi Basa, sentence structure, grammar, past, future and present tense (it’s quite easy in Indonesian) and the names of some food. While talking about the names of fruit, I came across my most memorable phrase so far. In Indonesian, when someone is gay, they are described as “jeruk makan jeruk”, or literally, “orange eating orange.” I will leave it to your imaginations to wonder why that's the literal translation. I myself am not so sure.

The view from my classroom.

My classroom

My class currently has seven students of all ages who are from the USA, England, Austria and Australia. Today, on the way out, I overheard a girl in my class from North Carolina talking about her stay in Bali. We got to talking and as it turns out, she is another Watson Fellow (!!!) Absolutely unbelievable. (To have you fully appreciate my awe/surprise, imagine this: There are only forty of us and we could be anywhere in the world. It is absolutely insane that we would both happen to be in the Pondok Pekak Library in Ubud, Bali on a Monday afternoon for a language class).

It was a joyous and exciting discovery that was made more joyous by the fact that on my walk home from the library my stream of “no thank yous” to taxi drivers could be replaced by “tidak terima kashi.”

The family at my homestay has started playing Dido for me, although their favorite American song is Justin Bieber’s “Baby.” Justin Bieber is quite popular here because he recently had a concert in Java. I’m hoping before I leave my Bahasa Indonesian will be good enough to explain what Bieber fever is.

I discovered this homestay from a guy named Peter on the TripAdvisor website. Made & Kadek think very fondly of Peter because he was their first guest and helped them get some publicity as they started out. On my first night here, they had me Skype with Peter so that I could meet him as well. They found out that tonight is Peter’s father’s birthday and although they’ve never met him, and neither Peter nor his father will be present, they are having a birthday party in his honor. Nita, their 16 year-old daughter kindly invited me to come and is currently next to me decorating the balcony with streamers.

I’m going to go help her, and perhaps sample some banana fritters (pisang goreg) before the other guests arrive. Tomorrow, I’m going to travel to a rural village to see the first day of a tooth filing ceremony with a couple from Beijing and their four year-old daughter who I met in Mas. For now, I will use my newfound knowledge to say, proudly, “sompai jupa lagi.” (See you again).



  1. Great photos, Nell! Love the tables in your classroom. Wish mine looked like that. xox

  2. I was just going to say, BEST CLASSROOM TABLES EVER.