Monday, August 20, 2012

Bali: Week 2

At a Belgian owned restaurant in Candidasa called Vincents (where we celebrated Natalie's birthday dinner) we met Toliman. Locally born and raised, Toliman seemed to us a young and "hip" 25 year old Balinesian: tight jeans; designer, collared shirts with the second button undone; belts with large insignias on the front; hair died red in a mohawk line along the top of his head; he obviously spent his free time on the beach partying with friends, "a bottle of Arak, and some Bintang."  His laugh was an outragious, greedy, air sucking cackle. He was generally very easy going  and we enjoyed his company. Most people in Bali obviously did not have the means to live as Toliman did (i.e. nice clothes, partying), but Vincents was without question the foremost dining in Candidasa and surely one of the best in all of East Bali. Secondly, Toliman worked as a Taxi driver on the side for extra money. (And as we  find out, so too did everybody work as a Taxi driver on the side; a very interesting phenomenon actually.) So one evening while we were dining at Vincents he solicited us for taxi driving and we hired him to take us to Ubud.

Ubud is artistic mecca about 2 hours from Candidasa, famous for the creative climate, spiritual awareness, and the book Eat Pray Love.  Local artists seem to specialize most in silver smithing, stone carving, painting, and wood working. Naturally the renound art and the fame of Eat Pray Love have attracted a prolific number of tourists, and while Ubud is much smaller than the capitol Den Pessar, it is significantly busier. Tourists are as numerous as blades of grass on a golf course. Local merchants seak you out in a crowd like ants on a sugar trail. Wending through the central market felt strikingly similar to coursing through a shopping mall on Black Friday with a nasty migrane and wearing shoes two sizes to small. I do admit my unrelenting bias against large and busy crowds, but you none the less get the point. Safe to say we spent the vast majority of our time in Ubud outside the city center (i.e. outside the central market). Ironically, it seemed that the best art was not in central Ubud anyway, but rather in the outer edges of Ubud proper. On our way into town for example, Toliman stopped at several thematic spots for artistry: a silver smithy, an art gallery, and a famous wood carving shop. The most impressive was the wood carving without question. Below is a small section of a 7 x 4 foot wooden tapestry made from 1 piece of solid wood that took over 1 year to make exclusively by hand (as the artist's sole project!). And truly, there are five or six other picture of equally impressive wood carving whose picture we could show instead (e.g. a 6 foot tall carving of a dragon pouncing on a legendary beast, also made from 1 piece of wood, and emaculately detailed as below).

7 foot by 4 foot wood piece

When we finished at admiring the wood carvings Toliman drove us to our hotel in Ubud, "Michi Village." Where to start with this place. Well, Michi Village is exactly that, a small village; or a large compound really. It was built into a hill on a ravine overlooking the water below and an extensive rice field on the opposing hill. Sometimes during lunch we would gaze across the gap to the rice field and see one or two rogue field workers. The Michi restaraunt rests on the precipice of a 50 foot sheer drop down to the river , along which several caves delve into the hillside, inviting both mystery and wonder ( I can't help but think that the Java Man was found within 50 miles of Michi, also near a cave and along a riverbank). Michi itself is a sort of quiet dreamland. It sprawls along the hillside over the course of several hundred meters, It's constitution is mostly colorful mosaic rock and glass, and flowing stone angles as if carved from water; Japanese style rooves; tile and grout: Gaudi meets F.L. Wright meets an Arabic cathedral. One walks onto the grounds and says, "This is impossible." And yet, it is. And yet, it remains distincly Balinesian. It looks as if it was orininally a small set of buildings, and as the years went by additions were made where they best fit. And so, Michi is 300 sprawling yards of random, unorderly, charming village. In fact, as its creator says of it, "Michi is a tapestry."

One cannot discuss Michi without discussing its creator, who goes by "the professor." An elderly, Manchurian born, but ex-patriot of a dozen or so countries, who for the most part now remembers only English and Japanese, man who taught Cultural Anthropology for the greater period of his life, and is the author of 11 books, is Michi Village personified. In many ways, he is your classic absent minded professor, who lives among his privacy and books and clutter, but who is miraculously not disorganized. We had the pleasure of spending a few hours one evening drinking sake with him and discussing topics as mundane and necessary as where we were from, to the the trash problems in Bali, to the philosophical problem concerning identity: what really constitutes who a person is, their experiences or something deeper, or both - are we more than we can account for in our memories? He is one of those rare people you come across in your life who you will never forget and will always remain enigmatic. He did however, impart us with his card and asked us to keep in touch.

Michi spreading out along the ravine hillside, with a small view of the water below. Rice fields are off camera to the left.

After spending a day absorbing Michi and the downtown sector of Ubud, we signed up to take a silver working class. Now, as I mentioned, the silver/gold smithing in Bali (especially Ubud) is a prolific and highly prized artform. Whereas in the states you would hardpressed to find gold higher than 18k, the standard karrot in Bali is 22, and the silver is all 92.5%. We were impressed that for $40, we had the opportunity to design, create, and keep our own piece of silver jewelry. Natalie and I arrived in the morning at the silver smithy, which turned out to be a guys house, and we were the only people taking the class that day. So, we received a "private lesson" of sorts. Our instructor Wayan was an incredibly charming man, who might in a word be summed as joyful. He had this habit of clapping his hands together and closing his eyes when something pleased him greatly. He was a fabulous instructor, who was unimposing and let you do as much as you wanted, but who was also happy to take over when needed. It was great fun and he even served us the special coffee (which was absolutely delicious!) that is harvested from Civet droppings, aptly called Civet Coffee; he was kind enough to tell us what kind of coffee it was after we drank, but the brew was so delicious we did not care and we even asked for more. Below are some pictures of me working and another of Wayan and I.

                                 Wayan and I                                                    Cutting silver

Forest will suffice to establish the trust that these monkeys really were foul and nasty creatures, but nonetheless extremely entertaining. The Monkey Forest is exactly what it sounds like: it is a small forest near central Ubud, with a paved walking path, along which several hundred torists go to see the local monkeys. At the various entrances into the forest, locals sell bananas and nuts for people to feed to monkeys. Fortunately, we were warned ahead of time not to buy bananas. Once you enter the forest, you are literally surrounded by little monkeys. They are totally comfortable around humans. They lounge in the middle of the path, attempt to climb on you, fearless. Furthermore, without going into great detail, I will just say that if humans were to act in the likeness of these monkeys they would swiftly find themselves at the local precinct with a harrassment charge among others. I've seen roadside bathrooms that were cleaner than these monkeys. Well in the center of the small forest is a large square in which monkeys and people alike gather in great numbers, and here people who have bought bananas feed them to the Monkeys, or sit down and put the foot on their heads to let the monkeys climb on them and take it from their heads. More aggressive monkeys who either correctly or incorecctly figured that someone had food would jump on and strip search people in search of food. One unfortunate Frenchman managed to quickly find both his shorts and underwear on the ground with a monkey clinging to them, "nope, no food in there." Another man decided he wanted to get a close-up video of two rival monkey factions in action against each other, and much to his chagrin (and probably anyone who eventually watched the video) one of the monkeys he was filming turned around and sprayed at him - lesson learned. Natalie and I, after having seen the monkeys' general disregard for hygene, were fortunate enough and wary enough to escape the forest untouched, though greatly entertained by the tourists' equal disgregard for the monkeys hygene. One time in the monkey forest was enough.
Despite my feelings, it's hard not to find this adorable.

Although we never returned to the Monkey Forest, we did spend a great majority of our time in Ubud shopping along the road adjacent to it, “Monkey Forest Road.” People in Ubud keep things straightforward. Though I mentioned earlier that much of the art is made outside the city, the shopping is in the city and therefore the art filters its way into the city. This shopping was not like shopping in the markets however. Along the 2 miles or so that comprise this road are probably four or five hundred shops – all of them being almost exclusively and in order of frequency: clothing shops, restaurants, silver shops, wood working shops, a few art shops, and various combinations of these things. You would think that the redundancy would make it boring, but the vast range of flavor of each shop was enough to keep us heading back along Monkey Forest Road everyday of our time in Ubud. The clothing was well stitched and tailored, with bright colors and rather fashion forward. The silver shops carried jewelry that upheld the meticulous standard for detail and perfection, creative and thoughtful designs which, because I never saw the same pair of jewelry twice, make me think that most of the jewelry was one of a kind.
Now, as you can imagine, shopping in Ubud is not the same as shopping in the states. Here, you check the price tag, make a decision about whether that price is worth your money, and then you may or may not buy. In Ubud, you do not look at a price tag. You ask the shop owner the price. They will say their price, for example 200,000 rupees (20 dollars). You do not like the price they say. It doesn’t matter what the price is, because as a matter of principle you never like the price they say. So when they say the price is 200,000r, you simply reply, “I’ll give you 70,” (generally offer about 2/5 the total price). And from there most transactions will settle at around 3/5 the price, or if you get a good deal ½ the price. To put this in perspective, in our whole time in Bali, we only came across two shops in which the listed price was the actual price – nonnegotiable. I’ll admit, at first it feels a little strange offering what seems like such lowball offers : it feels rude, especially considering relative to them we are very wealthy. But this is their culture, this is common to them, and making such low counter offers is their expectation. And the shopkeepers know their own limits too, and they will not acquiesce below what they consider to be fair. It certainly made me feel good when, on several occasions, I walked out of the store not having bought anything because the shopkeeper and I could not agree on a price. They are poor, but they are honorable people and will not sell their self-respect for the almighty dollar. There is a great deal to respect in that.
A common shop with wood carvings, some baskets, and clothes.

We spent a majority of our time in Ubud between Michi and Monkey Forest Road, but perhaps the highlight of our time in Ubud was the Trek we took just outside of the central square. Technically, the routed Trek starts at the before mentioned central market. Starting there, I had my doubts about the upcoming “scenic” Trek. Much to my surprise, a short 10 minutes later, we found ourselves suddenly entering a quiet, riverside path with climbed up into hills and the ridge standing sentinel above the city. You get to the top and look down: grass, green grass long and soft; each blade distinct but melting into the uniform green stroke; blades bent in long carved paths where the wind stepped down the mountain side. You get to the top and walk along the ridge, gently a light breeze whispers in your ear, a clear blue sky, on our honeymoon, only peace. Now I know what Van Gogh meant.
Our Ubud trek along Campuan Ridge above the Gunung Agung River

When not in city, the Monkey Forest, or Treking, we were probably in our room at Michi: me, studying chess or reading alongside Natalie. Each room in Michi is designed differently. Our room in Michi was what the professor called “the peaceful room.” It is in fact the most “Japanese” room in Michi. When we first arrived, and before we had visited our room, the professor, who lived in Japan for 18 years, asked us what room we were in and we told him he exclaimed, “Oh! Hondasan, Hondasan, this is a very good room, a very good room for you Hondasan!” He was rather smitten with Natalie, and was even more delighted that her ethnicity half-haled from his beloved country. Indeed, our room was decorated with a nice selection of Japanese art (and judging from the professors enormous personal collection in his house, I am guessing the paintings were his personally before he built the Village), with bamboo floors and a table that required ground seating. I have never visited Japan, but I am a great enough fan of old Japanese movies that I have gleaned enough knowledge from them to say that the room was a nice taste of Japan before we visit it the coming months.

Relaxing with Natalie and chess.

And so finally we arrived at our last day in Ubud, and our last day in Bali. To our great delight, a water pipe exploded sometime in the night, and the faucets exuded no water. This promised us 24 hours in airplanes and airports unshowered and unbrushed. About an hour before we left, they patched the faucet up enough that the hot water (scalding hot) was able to trickle out of the faucet. It was a barely mediocre sight to see at best. But alas, we were at least able to wet ourselves and take a hot sponge bath, kind of. Despite this minor setback, we have nothing but the best memories of Michi, Trekking, shopping, fine dining (which was every meal!), and even the Monkey Forest remains a wildly entertaining memory. So with elated spirits, and with a bit of regret at having to say goodbye, our cab took us to the airport. And the rest they say is history.
Saying goodbye! 

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