Me and My Guru

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Of all the talented gamelan players I was lucky to meet and play with in Bali, my most consistent musical companion was an old man named Pak Dig. I met Pak Dig a few weeks after arriving in Bali. Our communication was limited to greetings and gestures, but he took me on as a student and with no explanation, began playing one of the long meandering pieces that are used to accompany shadow-puppet plays. He played, I followed. We continued like this for almost three hours until my arms ached and my mind had turned to mud. This was our pattern for the entire year: no chit-chat, he picks the song, I play along.

Pak Dig never went to high-school, never studied music formally, and never played professionally. He is as handy with a hatchet and a hammer as he is with a drum or mallet. These days he works on projects around the family compound, exept when he is teaching or out playing for ceremonies and puppet plays. I spent my last month in Bali living in Pak Dig’s family house. Every morning I would find him sitting out in the morning sun. Once I stepped outside he offered me a banana and asked if I wanted to practice. We played every day, till my arms were sore and my mind was mush, and during that time we recorded some of the two dozen pieces I had learned over the year. Some were standards, some were obscure tunes from distant corners of the island, and some were unique pieces known only to a few old men in this one village. You can hear some of each here.
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Goodbye Bali

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I wrote this post in mid-July as I prepared to leave Bali. After two months of big city life, I can say that the predictions I made were correct…but mostly about the things I miss. 

As my time in Bali winds down I am feeling the natural mix of sadness and relief that accompanies the end of any adventure. Bali has undoubtedly been good to me, but no paradise is perfect. Here is the good and the bad: three things I will miss and three that I won’t.

I will miss the constant activity of Bali. This is no tranquil tropical retreat; it is a tiny island packed with four million people on the move, plus or minus a few million tourists. The sky buzzes with kites, food carts signal their passing with a tapped bottle or wooden block, plumaged fighting cocks mark every hour of the day (and night), and motorcycles whiz around carrying all sorts of objects you never thought to put on a motorcycle: a family of four, a pig, or a statue.

Much of the islands bustle comes from its religion, which must be the most demanding faith on earth. The dual calendars of Balinese Hinduism spin through a never-ending cycle of ceremonies and holy days on top of all the daily rites. You can’t escape religion or fail to take notice. Gongs reverberate over the paddies at night and Hindu epics drone on from crackly speakers. I will miss the sensory overload, the smell of incense, the buildings and trees wrapped in bright yellow cloth, the ever present offerings that range from woven baskets and car fender ornaments to conical towers of fruits and cakes. The sum of all this activity is striking, giving the island a colorful and enchanting energy that has charmed so many generations of foreign visitors.

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I will not miss the trash. Four million people on the move generate a lot of it, especially when they love their food to-go and have no qualms about littering. All year I have painfully watched people casually drop their bottles, bags, and wrappers wherever they please. I guess Bali has always been like this, a take-away throw-away society, but traditionally that meant banana leaves and palm-leaf baskets. Now it is wax paper and plastic shopping bags. They choke the gutters and pile up on the beaches, except where the resort hotels rake the sand for rubbish each morning. Even if you do take responsibility for collecting your garbage the disposal options are not great. Most trash seems to get piled in unofficially designated dumping zones (always with a big sign saying “no trash here”), or simply burned in the front yard. That smell of thick plastic smoke at dusk will always make me think of Bali.

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I will miss snacking in Bali. Food is cheap, fast, and absolutely everywhere so filling up is never a hassle or a chore. Street food is loosely organized by time of day and location, so each outing brings different options. In the morning I head to the bubur cart: sweet rice porridge with lentils. He also does chicken if you prefer a savory breakfast. The bubur tends to disappear by mid-day; no one wants porridge in the heat; then reappear at night. If I am biking home at 11pm it is often the last food option of the night. For a light lunch, fried tofu and rice cakes tossed in beans sprouts and peanut sauce. The same places usually do a strange sweet and sour fruit salad with shrimp paste and chilies. Not my favorite. In the afternoon, the deep fryers start bubbling. They will smoke and sizzle into the night, crisping up bananas, tempe, vegetables, chicken, and fish. Nighttime brings the greatest variety of street snacks, often lined up side by side around bus stations and busy intersections. The ideal midnight snack is a terang bulan, basically a giant chocolate chip peanut butter pancake. Ask for cheese on top if you are feeling adventurous. Spring rolls are always sold on the beach, carted around on the vendor’s head in a big glass case. Cock fights always have steamed soy beans and meat skewers. There is a snack for every occasion and I have made it my business to try them all.

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I will not (however) miss Balinese food. Better to snack than to feast in Bali, because the ceremonial food is just not that good. The first time I ate lawar, I convinced myself I actually liked it. I couldn’t tell what was in the stuff but it was salty and oily and everyone seemed so excited for me to try it, so why not just like it. This was in those first few glowing weeks when I could see and taste positive only. It took me a few months after that first tasting, and many more goopy mounds of lawar to realize that I didn’t actually like it.

The dish starts with big slabs of boiled pig that are minced thoroughly, then mixed with spices and grated coconut. If you are lucky they leave out the raw pig’s blood and chewy bits of shredded pork fat. In either case, the pile of finely chopped ingredients is bathed in oil and salt, and then mashed together in a big metal trough. The first problem is consistency: mushy but slightly crunchy, almost piggy paste. Another foreigner I know calls it “raw pig salad.” The meat is always cooked, boiled to death in fact, but something about the presentation makes it hard to say for sure. What you really taste, of course, are the spices. The intensity of the lawar’s flavor comes not from the chilies, but from the heaps of raw garlic, onion, ginger, and black pepper that are minced into the meat. It is the kind of spice that lingers in your throat, mouth, and stomach for longer than you’d like. Nothing can cut it but straight palm liquor, the perfect digestif for a lawar breakfast.

Now to be fair, there is some good Balinese food. They do a tasty spit-roasted pig and a nice stuffed duck, which make lawar’s status as the staple food of all ceremonies all the more mystifying. If something big is going down, you can be sure that the local men will be butchering a pig in the street in the wee hours and mincing furiously till dawn. And as the local foreigner I will be served up a generous portion, topped off with deep-fried pork lard and organ meats. Whether I like it or not, I seem to eat lawar about once a week. Here there is just no saying no, but I sure won’t miss it when I go.

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I will miss talking to strangers. Bali is a wonderful place to study language because you can practice anytime, anywhere. Just open the door and people start talking to you. The questions are predictable enough that within a few weeks you can master the basic routine: where are you from? How long have you been in Bali? Where are you staying? From there you can start to work in new vocabulary and topics, even asking your own questions. When I first arrived I would block out time just to wander the neighborhood and work on my language skills. I have met people from all over Bali and a handful of other islands: teachers, farmers, travelers, cruise ship workers, and tour guides. They happily tell me about their work and families, where they come from, and all the upcoming ceremonies and holy days. The rice farmer tells me about different crop varieties and the juice lady tells me which fruits are in season. The genuinely friendly, open, and curious nature of the Balinese has made this year of living alone a little less lonely and my evening strolls a little more lively.

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I will not miss the nosiness. Curiosity is endearing, but in Indonesia they have a tendency to take it too far. The questions start when I open my door: “where are you going?” This most fundamental of all Indonesian phrases seems to function as a kind of greeting. I will hear it a few more times before I reach the main road, and even there, passing motorists often hastily inquire of my destination as they fly by. I can’t say what response they expect in these briefest of encounters, but they just have to ask. When I get home it’s “where have you been?” If I am carrying a bag: “what’s in the bag?” Then in quick succession, “have you eaten yet?…what did you eat?…have you bathed?” It is not that I have anything to hide, but I have realized here how much I appreciate being able to go about my day without everyone being all up in my business. I like my privacy and my anonymity, two things I can never have here.

New introductions set off a flurry of questions. Once all points of origin and arrival have been established we get into the personal details: age, marital status, religion, number of siblings, whereabouts of siblings, and number of children if any. Once I reveal that I am unmarried they want to know about my girlfriend (“what! She’s not Balinese?”), and when (“now!”) and where (“Bali!”) we’ll get hitched. If I say where I live they want to know how much I pay per month… “is that including electricity and water?” I like to think that Indonesians keep files of this information, right next to their photo albums of pictures they have taken with random foreigners (another bizarre Indonesian behavior that I won’t miss).

I tell myself it is just culture, just another way of looking at the world where your business is my business and my presence on your island clearly demands a group photo. And on an otherwise good day I can take it all in stride, even see the humor in the crowd of boys standing behind me at the internet café watching me video chat with my girlfriend. But on the bad days I bristle at each passing question and query, sneaking about in hopes of avoiding interrogation. But that’s how life is here. When things are going well, even the lawar tastes good and the burning garbage smells like rustic third-world charm. In my worse moods I wouldn’t mind if one of those looming volcanoes blew its top and swallowed the whole archipelago. Normally I consider myself a pretty even-keeled person, but living here brings out my moody side. One day enamored and mourning my imminent departure, the next day cynical and eager to leave. I continue to vacillate even as the end nears. Hopefully when I finally board that plane I can feel both the sadness and relief, look out the window and see the good and the bad, the annoying and endearing, the things I will miss and the things I will not.

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