Life

Shadows and Light in Bali

Terrorism's pall can't obscure the kindness of Ubudian strangers.

By Steve Burgess 14 Feb 2006 | TheTyee.ca

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

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It's Oscar season. Which is to say, the scene has shifted to Bali, but just as in Bangkok, everybody wants to talk to me about movies. "You like movies?" says the front deskman at my little hideaway just outside the town of Ubud. "What kind movies you like?"

I like older movies, I say. "Gone With the Wind, maybe?" he inquires.

Well, how about Casablanca?

"Yes, yes! Casablanca! Humphrey Bogart!" he enthuses. "OK, maybe you know another movie -- you know, 'Dude, What Have They Done to My Car?' You know? Very good!"

I just play along. Why not? It's Bali, an easygoing place if ever there was one. Maybe too easygoing these days -- the locals could certainly use a little more action. Thanks to the International League of Bomb-Carrying Assholes, times have gotten a lot tougher around here. After two bomb blasts in four years, some people are afraid to visit, even though they should probably worry more about their own driving. This supremely good-natured Indonesian island deserves better than the murderous religious fanaticism that has twice been foisted upon it by suicide bombers who would love to shatter the tolerant traditions of the Balinese.

Pre-asphalt technology

Canderi is an old woman with about four teeth that make up in size what they lack in frequency. She has run Canderi's Restaurant on Monkey Forest Road since 1972, before there was asphalt. "I used kerosene lamps," she tells me.

The artist's community of Ubud has gotten progressively busier over the years. But these days, Canderi says, it's about as bad as it has been in many years. "After Bomb Two, it is worse," she says. "Many restaurants close." Ubud is about an hour away from the Kuta Beach bombing sites, but everyone suffers.

She shakes her head about the extremism that has touched her island. "If you are going to Denpasar," she says, "maybe you will go this way. Maybe I will go another way." She shrugs. "I don't care how you go. We will all get to Denpasar."

A couple of her 11 granddaughters appear beside her, and she stands up. "I go to the temple to pray," she announces. "Maybe you put me in your magazine."

Offerings dot the sidewalks and storefronts everywhere, little trays of incense, flowers, aromatic leaves and little piles of rice. Geckos are everywhere too. I am quite certain that one of them crapped on my head in a café today. Good luck or bad? I'm afraid to ask.

'Antiques - Made to Order'

Ubud may be an artisan town, but one look at the local menus will tell you who's paying the bills. You'd be forgiven for thinking local dishes consist largely of pasta and chicken wings -- Balinese cuisine is there only at the margins, and even then rarely proves memorable.

More evidence of the adaptive local nature can be found on a drive out of town toward Tegallalang. Mile after mile of shops and warehouses show a staggering variety of carved wooden goods. You'll recognize items that stock every down-home shop and restaurant you've ever visited, from the vintage-looking chalkboards to the little wooden hands that displays bracelets and baubles. It's like the Folksy Hall of Fame. Many shops feature the local staples of Hindu mythology, large painted figures of Garuda, Singa, the Monkey God, Barung, and so on. But that large statue of Garuda might just be sitting beside another one of Bozo the Clown. There are entire shops of wooden Santas, others full of wooden angels, acres of cats, giraffes, and a wide selection of cigar-store Indians. Want something less racist? No worries -- a couple of shops specialize in West Coast aboriginal carving, and one advertises Maori artifacts. Perhaps the most telling sign I saw was the one that read, "Antiques -- Made to Order."

Good-natured hucksters dog your steps here -- friendly opportunism is the rule. "Newspaper, sir?" asks a kid sitting in the doorway of a bookshop. "50,000 rupiah." (About six dollars).

Five paces behind him, the store is selling that same paper for 15,000 rupiah, or a buck and a half. But hey, it's worth a try.

Mostly, the unforced friendliness of Bali punches through the sales pitch. In one store I was treated to an impromptu traditional dance by a precocious three-year-old. And I didn't even buy anything.

'Good natured shrieks'

Another night I head home along Monkey Forest Road -- named for a popular, monkey-infested sanctuary/tourist attraction that leaks stray monkeys all over the street -- when the skies opened up as they frequently do here this time of year. Only one nearby shop is open, a Prada store catering to upscale visitors that, unlike the weather, have been drying up of late.

Two young women work the store. They smile as I came in, folding my umbrella, to wait out the deluge. Where am I from, how do I like Bali, where am I staying, etc? I show them the location of my hotel. After we watch some more rain, one girl speaks up. "Can she go home with you?" she says, pointing to her friend. "Walk home, same way."

Well, well. I am a devilishly handsome sort, but my charms are not usually lethal so quickly. I agree, and they start closing up the store.

The rain has stopped. My new friend, Kutut, emerges from the backroom with a motorcycle helmet. Apparently the improved weather has meant a change of plan. "OK?" she asks. OK. Let's go.

I climb on the back, not sure where to hold on. I put my hands on her waist and she gives a little shriek. A good-natured shriek, but nonetheless I grab the seat instead. Away we ride up Monkey Forest Road, around a hairpin turn, drawing stares for my incongruous frame, poking up over her helmet. Down around another bend and here we are at my hotel. I hop off, and her friend pulls up on another bike beside us. They both wave at me. "OK! Bye-bye!"

And off they go, two representatives of sweet, kind, slightly innocent, lovely Bali. May their offerings be accepted.

Steve Burgess is The Tyee's at-large culture critic.  [Tyee]

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