Saturday, September 17, 2011

Bali: More Impressions

Thanks for all of your well wishes. Yesterday’s blood tests reveal my cell counts are returning to normal, meaning the antibiotics are doing their job and there’s no need to do further tests. I’m feeling much much much better and have been fever free for more than 24 hours now. I’m currently celebrating with a mango lassi that comes with an internet connection at a place down the street.

I was recently reminded I had written a post when I first arrived about my first impressions of this place, and I realized there are a few things about daily life here I’ve been meaning to write about but haven’t yet. Stuck with a few days in bed, I decided to write these things down now (bear with me, it’s a long one). Calling this “last impressions” sounds too fatalistic, so for now, we’ll just go with “more impressions” and postpone the goodbye for later this week.

FOOD: One of my favorite parts of travel, and surprisingly, something I haven’t written much about yet. You can basically find any kind of food that you want in Ubud. Exhibit A:

Note: I have yet to step inside this building, but I do get a kick out of the wood carved Starbucks sign. (Stop pretending. No one believes you're local, Starbucks).

There are western-style restaurants for tourists right next to food carts that most locals frequent. If I give into my craving and get an iced coffee at a western style café and use their internet, an hour later I can get an entire dinner for less than the price at a local food stand.

Balinese/Indonesian food seems to be a convergence of cultures. It’s a blend of many different Asian dishes thrown in with some “Ayam Goreng Kentucky” (Kentucky fried chicken). People here love fried chicken. Below is a typical buffet meal with some really popular dishes (this is what my homestay family served at a birthday party):

From left to right: Bakso ayam (chicken meatball soup), ayam goreng (fried chicken), ikan satay (fish satay) mie gorgeng (fried noodles) and nasi putih (white rice).

Bakso ayam (chicken meatball soup) is also a really popular snack on its own and is sold by vendors on the street.

Some other popular meals:

Gado-Gado. Every visitor’s favorite local dish. Mixed vegetables smothered with a rich peanut sauce. Served in every warung here. Also I recently learned that while “gado gado” is a food, it can also be used to mean “mixed.” So if someone asks what nationality you are, for example, and your family is from multiple countries you can just respond, “gado gado.”

Nasi Campur is also on every menu. Pictured above is “nasi campur” from a restaurant (with a little nicer presentation than is normal, but it gives you a sense of it). Nasi campur implies rice, vegetables and usually a mix of main dishes like chicken, tempe, tofu and egg. In the photo above is: egg, vegetables with a coconut sauce, fried chicken (of course), a corn fritter, perkedel (fried potato), tempe, peanuts and tofu.

On the side, you might notice the two small dishes—the ubiquitous sambal. Balinese food itself isn’t that spicy, but it’s the sambal that makes it so. I’ve come to love it, especially the “sambal balado” (pictured on the bottom, with onions and chilies).

The picture above is of a typical local food place where you’d go in and just point to what you’d like to eat. Buying food wrapped to go (in paper or banana leaves) is also big here.

A typical lunch from a street cart that's been wrapped up in paper: fried egg, fried rice, a prawn cracker and of course, some sambal (in the plastic bag):

There are some other (more eccentric) meals I’ve experienced here including lawar (a celebratory dish made with spices, pork and pig’s blood-- I had the unfortunate experience of discovering this only after I ate it), babi guling (suckled pig), and oxtail soup.

Also, the fruit! Oh the fruit. For a Vermont girl, having a mango whenever I want it for approximately 30 cents is a dream come true. And then there’s mangosteens and snake fruits, things I had never tried before but have fallen in love with. And then there’s fresh juice from any fruit I want! And the smoothies! Just don’t make me eat the durian.

Also, sugar. There is so much sugar here. When Kadek at my homestay makes me western-style scrambled eggs, she puts sugar in them. My first few weeks when I ordered any kind of tea or coffee anywhere I could barely drink it because it was so sweet, and now anything remotely unsweetened that I get at western cafes I have to add sugar to.

As my language teacher once put it, “I don’t understand. All of you say things are too sweet here. But then you also say they’re too spicy. In the west, food is not sweet AND not spicy?” She has a valid point.

HUMOR: The humor here took some getting used to. People laugh at everything. Namely tourists who are trying to cross the street. Situations that would not at all be funny to people at home are hysterical to people here. My language teacher told me a story of her friend who was teaching an Indonesian language class when a girl stepped outside to take a phone call. She came back in tears because she got news from her family in England that her cat had died. The Indonesian teacher had burst into laughter. She had no idea that a cat’s death would be considered a sad thing. Similarly, my homestay family made jokes with me that I had no idea how to interpret initially. One night, Nita (the 16 year-old) came up to me and said, “Nell, I sleep in your bed tonight, okay?” “Umm…okay…” I told her, trying to figure out what kind of communication barrier we were dealing with. She never came upstairs, but this question continued for a few days, “Nell, can I sleep in your room tonight?” Made, her father, started to say the same thing. I brought it up in my class and my teacher explained that this was a common joke here. It was just a way of being funny. I tried to explain why, in the United States, a forty year-old man saying, “I sleep in your bed tonight, okay?” would be super inappropriate and super not funny.

TRAFFIC: This has definitely taken some getting used to (see above about crossing the street). No rules seem to apply here. Too many cars in your lane? Use the other one! Traffic jam? Take your motorbike on the sidewalk! No helmet? Use the route where there are no police! Also honking implies something totally different here. Instead of it indicating the error of another driver, it just means “I’m here!” People honk whenever they go around curves here, they honk whenever they think someone might not see them, they honk whenever they make a turn that they can’t see the other side of. Basically, it’s a free for all, and you keep honking and hoping the other drivers will hear you and stay far enough away.

DOGS: The state of stray dogs in Bali is absolutely abominable and so heart breaking. Everywhere you walk there’s a dog, usually clearly diseased and limping and who lives on the street. There are several shelters that have recently been set up in Ubud to try to remedy the problem, but it seems like it’s an issue on a really massive scale. They also can be really dangerous because a lot of these dogs fight with one another, and people walking by can inadvertently be bitten. (And I do know it's sort of naive to be writing about dogs in a place where there are also a lot of people living in extreme poverty, but that's another issue...)

EAT PRAY LOVE: I actually think the hype around the book was probably much bigger a year or two ago. Still, everyone knows of the book here, and some love it and some hate it. When I tell people I’m going to India next, the most common reaction I get from people (most often other western travelers) is, “Oh, Eat Pray Love in reverse?” Places here do try to get every penny they can as a result of that book, and driving around Bali there are often signs saying, “Eat Pray Love Movie Spot” to indicate landscapes where the movie was filmed. Gift shops will sell metallic frames or towels with the words “Eat Pray Love” all around them. A lot of the sights used in the movie don’t actually exist, but the people do. Although I have not paid him a visit, Ketut Liyer does not live too far from me. I don’t think he’s missed my business. My teacher told us that since the book came out, he’s been making 7 million rupiah a day (the equivalent of about $800). A lot of locals here believe that it’s gone to his head and now he tells every woman who comes to him the same thing.

KUTA COWBOYS: Are a real thing! One of the dozens of reasons I've stayed away from the major tourist-district of Kuta. For anyone who wants to watch an interesting documentary with beautiful shots of Bali, I'd recommend "Cowboys in Paradise" (released in 2010). I recently watched it and it gives an interesting (if not overly simplistic) picture of the impact of the tourist industry on Balinese local life.

PARENTING: I find parenting absolutely fascinating because parents here seem to be the complete anti-Tiger Mothers. Kids in Bali are absolutely spoiled. They can sleep whenever they want, eat whatever they want, and are never disciplined, even when they do something wrong. I have seen a three year-old boy yank actual strands of hair out of a four year-old girl’s head while she wailed and when they were finally separated, his uncle kicked around a soccer ball with him. Nothing was said about what happened.

From an American approach, it is kind of amazing to me that there seem to be no consequences, but as someone pointed out to me, no Balinese man is going around pulling strands of hair out of people’s heads, so somehow, without being told, kids learn not to. It seems so obvious, but also such a different philosophy.

If you are young or old in Bali, you are thought to be closer to the gods and because of that, you are thought to be precious. All of Bali essentially acts as a babysitter. Because most families live with grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings and cousins, it is just assumed that wherever the child is in the house, another person will be there. On the street, children are collectively smiled at, collectively fed, collectively watched. No one seems to worry about where their child is because there is the assumption that they will be taken care of by someone, even if it’s a stranger.

KIDS: One thing I absolutely adore is watching the rapport between kids here and the physical affection, specifically. I see kids walking to and from school all the time here and most often (regardless of age, regardless of gender), they are linked arm in arm or holding hands. Watching pairs of nine year-old boys in their school uniforms holding hands and walking down the streets is one of my favorite sights in the morning.

Even cuter: as part of the girls’ uniforms at most schools they require that they wear two braids in their hair. The color of the ribbon that they put at the end of the braids is to indicate what grade they’re in.

Yet still cuter: On the days of the full moon, kids get to be uniform-free.

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