Computer Rusak

Rusak means broken. Indonesians love to say things are broken, which is often the case in Indonesia. A song poorly played is ‘broken,’ as is a road with many potholes. Anything not acting as it should is said to be broken: a person, a country, an event. I get a lot of use out of the word. In fact, Indonesian has separate words for ‘broken but fixable’ and ‘broken beyond repair.’ Unfortunately my computer has recently fallen into that latter category. The power supply and some internal components have been fried by the erratic elictricity in Bali. As with most elderly electronics, the professional advice is ‘get a new one.’ But there is no way I am buying a brand new machine just to subject it to more spikes and surges, so I will be passing my final month in Bali without a computer. That means this blog will be pretty quiet, and whatever I post will not be the rich multi-media fare I have tried to serve up in the past, just whatever words come to me in the stuffy concrete cubicle at the internet cafe.

In January, when I decided to buy an internet modem and bring the world web into my home, I thought: “this is it, I will never live without interet again for the rest of my life.” At the time that seemed certain, when again would I choose to live unplugged from the flow? I am trying to see my fried laptop as a blessing in disguise, a second chance at life without internet. I would never choose thist life for myself, but now that I am here, it is almost a relief. I can already see the change in my daily routines. I was in the habit of reading the news while eating my breakfast, now I have returned to dining on the balcony. I read books more; I also watch more bad movies on TV. I check my email and facebook a few days a week and that seems to be plenty. The best part is that when I do make it online there is usually something to check. No more expectantly signing on only to find the same empty in-box and remember that I just looked at it a few hours ago.

This is not to say that I have really learned from the experience. In a month, when I leave Bali and rejoin the connected world, I will be right back to my old ways. Obsessive email-checking just never felt like a serious enough vice to warrant correction. With infinite opportunity and limited self-control it hardly seems worth the effort to resist. Which again makes me wonder, is this truly the last time in my life I will go days without going online? Well…I’ve thought that before and here I am, once more severed from the stream. Luckily, things have a way of breaking once in a while.

 

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The Night Market

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One of the quirks of public transportation on Bali is that it really only runs in the morning. In the early afternoon, once the rickety mini-buses have ceased their regular routes and the long haul coaches have picked their way out of town, the bus terminal takes on a new function. Food carts and vendors of every variety converge on the empty space and turn the lot into a bustling market. Every afternoon the same transformation takes place, and every night the fluorescent lights and deep-fryers burn late into the night until they are finally extinguished and wheeled back to a deserted corner to wait out the morning hours. Here is a day at the Batubulan Bus Terminal:

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8am– The terminal is quiet. Buses to other parts of the island have already left or parked themselves along the street to await more passengers. The bemos, large vans that run local routes for highly negotiable prices, are still coming and going occasionally. I have to imagine that this terminal was once a much busier place. Private ownership of cars and motorcycles has exploded in recent years as tourism and development have brought rising affluence to the city. Denpasar now has more vehicles per capita than any other city in Indonesia; use of public transport (as well as bicycles and feet) has obviously dropped.

At this early hour, the only sign of the night market is a single food cart selling fried tofu or perhaps rice porridge. Across the street, a morning produce market is in full swing. Between these two markets the area is a 24-hour hub of commerce. The fruit and meat sellers are open by three in the morning, just a couple hours after the night market usually peters out. By the time the produce market shutters its doors, the terminal is already a sea of blue tarps and steaming street snacks.

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2pm- The first stirrings. At this point the remaining busses are confined to one corner of the terminal as the evening vendors begin their daily set-up routine. Extension cords are laid out, poles are erected, alleyways and thoroughfares are framed by the tent city, and out this fleet of compact carts comes every good and ware that your average Balinese family could need. Food vendors are organized on one side, household goods on the other, with amusement rides and sunglasses hawkers scattered in between.

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5pm- By late afternoon all the pieces are in place. Shoppers and diners trickle in; after a few hours the night market in is in full swing. The lights are burning brightly and the dangdut music, Indonesian pop-tunes set to Bollywood-style tabla beats, is thumping out of stalls selling bootleg CDs and American action films. Leafing through the foreign music offerings is a review of the MTV playlists from my early teen years: Blink 182, Green Day, Celine Dion, Limp Bizkit, Aqua, etc. For some reason, Indonesian tastes are firmly rooted in the late 90’s. Past the music tent are aisles of clothes and shoes, then traditional cloth, jewelry, goldfish, knives, loose tobacco, and heaps of plastic trinkets.

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For those of us who don’t spend our evenings sparring fighting cocks, grinding in seedy resort towns, or drinking palm liquor at the billiard hall, this is the happening nightspot. I rarely do any shopping, just take in the scene from whichever food stall looks promising. Tonight I choose a small cart selling noodles topped with sweet shredded chicken. The noodle man has a headset attached to his cellphone so he can keep up a steady conversation with his football buddies as he lowers my noodles into a pot of broth. He only pauses his call to ask if I want an egg on top.

I like to sit and watch the food vendors’ work. They may not seem like artisans or skilled craftsmen, but the repetitive nature of their work gives an elegant confidence to every movement. The sate man fans his charcoal embers with a piece of woven palm leaf, burning his meat skewers to the perfect crisp. The gorengan man expertly turns his fried bananas in a wok of oil, while the gado-gado lady patiently grinds peanuts and spices with a mortar and pestle. Watching the preparation is half the feast.

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An equally charming spectacle is the small collection of amusement rides that whirl and beep every night. My favorite (not that I have actually taken a ride) is a bicycle-powered merry-go-round for little kids. The best part about this contraption is that it is actually a functioning bicycle. Sometimes in the evening I will pass the young man who operates it as he pedals his way to work. He rides with all the lights on, quite a sight, then parks himself at the terminal and turns kids in circles all night.

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The night market scene is truly mixed. While slurping my noodles I see young couples out on a date, families with small kids, and commuters who don’t even bother to take off their motorcycle helmets as they grab a quick meal. Rice farmers come to get their tools, teens to get their frilly tops, and mothers to pick up some spicy meat for the family meal. A handful of sad-looking kids circulate in search of spare change. The vendors are as diverse as the customers, coming from all over Bali and Indonesia. Most of the food sellers seem to be Javanese, having moved to Bali in search of work. The noodle vendor I am sitting with has been in Bali for just a couple years. He used to work in a regular restaurant but had some personal issues with the staff there, so now he runs his own noodle cart.

After fielding all the usual questions (where are you from?…are you married? how long have you been in Bali?..etc), I pay about 75 cents for my noodles and wander once more among the food carts. I pick up some ‘mixed ice,’ basically fruit salad with shaved ice and sweetened condensed milk, plus some seaweed jello and fermented tapioca root on top. That satisfies my appetite and puts the evening’s expenditures around an even dollar. I work my way towards an exit, where the unbroken roof of blue tarps finally ends and I can see beyond the haze of fluorescent lights and sate smoke. I look up and see the station signs advertising different destinations: buses to Ubud depart here where the black jeans and flannel shirts are sold, southbound buses leave from the stand now occupied by the fried chicken dealer. Yup, this is still a bus terminal, and in a few hours all these shops and stalls will be gone. But they won’t go far, and whatever the signs may say, this parking lot’s real purpose is the night market.

Wayang Songs

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The Balinese puppet-master, or dalang, draws on many skills in the performance of a wayang. He selects a story, casts its characters, and manipulates them into a unique performance filled with music and humor. Reaching this point of mastery requires years of study, typically starting at a young age. Recently I had the chance to work with some high-school puppetry students on one of the wayang‘s most challenging aspects: the songs. These lengthy tunes drift on for minutes without repetition, usually with no clear rhythm or tempo. To make matters worse, they are sung in an archaic poetic language known only to scholars and puppet-masters.

To help the students memorize this music my teacher brought a famous dalang to the school to record the half-dozen songs that are essential in performing a wayang. I came along to accompany the dalang, Made Juanda, and manage the actual recording. I set up my microphones in a small classroom, and after much fussing over which set of gender instruments was the least broken and out of tune, we started working our way through the wayang repertoire.

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The wayang starts with a long instrumental overture, in which the dalang lays out his complete set of puppets and decides which characters and story he will use for the performance. Once the casting is complete and the tree of life puppet has danced across the screen, the dalang opens the show with “Alas Harum.” Alas means forest, which is where every wayang story begins. The piece sets the scene for the whole show, introducing the first characters and setting the plot in motion. Many of the wayang songs we recorded are optional, used at the discretion of the dalang to match a certain mood or scene, but “Alas Harum” opens every show.

In wayang songs, the relationship between the vocal melody and the music provided by the four gender players is often difficult to discern. The voice seems to float on top of the accompaniment, only occasionally joining with the instruments in a clear way. In fact, many of these songs can be performed as instrumental pieces without any singing. One exception to this style is the “Pengalang Ratu,” in which the voice and gender move in almost perfect unison. For this piece the musicians and dalang must be very attentive. Neither is the clear leader; the whole ensemble must feel their way through the tune.

Rebong is music for a love scene, and the most commonly used of the ‘optional’ wayang songs. I included this recording mostly because of the vocal introduction, which perfectly showcases the range and power of Juanda’s voice. Traditionally, the wayang was performed without any amplification, so the puppeteers have developed an incredibly loud vocal technique. The piercing tone and intense vibrato are typical of Balinese singing; they also help the dalang’s voice cut through the loud instruments (and the shadow screen that hides him from the audience). For the recording session I gave Juanda his own microphone but he really didn’t need it; he could easily hold his own against a quartet of musicians pounding bronze keys.

Just keeping the microphone close to Juanda was a challenge. With a box of puppets in the room he soon found his way to the shadow screen and staged a comical scene for the students. When the musicians couldn’t keep up he came over to the gender instruments to demonstrate what he wanted. New songs seemed to start spontaneously as the musicians and dalang settled into their practiced routine. After three hours we had recorded the basic repertoire requested by the school, as well as a handful of other pieces that just came up along the way. Now the students can receive this ancient tradition in a slightly new way, by loading their cell phones with audio clips and pressing their ears to the tinny little speakers.

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