Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Kraton, Yogyakarta

Due to our time difference, it seems like every other time I talk to 'Tut, he's at our fave nasi campur warung. So since we speak several times a week, several times a week I end up with a craving for nasi campur made just the way I like it. I would love to have some right now, as a matter of fact. This place is outside Ubud near Pengosekan and has absolutely nothing to do with this post, except when he called from there yesterday, 'Tut mentioned something about our trip to Yogya a couple months back. That reminded me I had not posted about the Kraton, which I've been meaning to do.

Yogyakarta in general kind of struck me like a bigger Denpasar; not sure what I was expecting. The Kraton, of course, is the palace complex where the sultans of Yogya lived - and there is still one in residence when he's not busy other places.

We got there early in order to beat the heat ("mad dogs and Englishmen" and all that) so the exhibits were not quite open. But no surprise that some shops right in the Kraton were. We ended up in this kris shop where the owners live in back.

The two photos above are 'Tut examining a couple of the kris, checking them for beauty, and much more importantly, power. As it turned out, the more attractive ones that day were not all that powerful, so he did not make a purchase. 'Tut comes across so westernized I forget sometimes that at his core he's Balinese.

Finally the various exhibits opened, and I snapped a few photos in a building of carriages owned by the sultans. The one above was one of the oldest - 17th century, I think. Seemed like from a fairy tale.

For some reason 'Tut wanted me to snap him in front of one of these carriages, and then I noticed most of the tourists there were also positioning themselves for photos where the horse should be. No idea what's up with that, but I took the photo above. I see now 'Tut looks tired with red eyes, because he's so exhausted from all the cremation ceremonies he had been part of in Bali for the preceding month and a half.

Later in the day, we took a becak (basically an Indonesian rickshaw) over to the Water Palace. 'Tut loves these things. I prefer the little horse-drawn carts myself.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Borobudur, Yogyakarta, Java

The day after we went to Pranbanan (July 2008) , we visited the famous 10th century Buddhist temple site of Borobuduer near Yogyakarta. It is so big, I could not fit it into my lens view - not having a wide angle lens.

Ketut looks up the steps

'Tut sits on the steps waiting for me. We arrived shortly after sunrise.

Just a few of the many. many stupas. Under each is a statue of Buddha.

Peeking through to Buddha

Buddha uncapped

These Japanese tourists were pushing everyone out of the way, yelling at people to get out of their frames and climbing all over the statuary - throughout the temple! I began giggling uncontrollably, the British woman next to me followed suit and 'Tut tried to shush us to no avail.

One of my favorite views


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Monday, August 18, 2008

Pranbanan, Yogyakarta, Java

I went to Yogyakarta, Java, rather than stay in Ubud, Bali, for the Coq's cremation (the Coq was Ubud royalty if you haven't read previous posts), but watched part of it on Australian tv from Yogya. They said there were 300,000 people in the tiny streets of Ubud. What blew me away before I left was the Media Center sign on the quickly constructed gate around the soccer field/playground off of Monkey Forest Road in Ubud. Media Center? In Ubud? Friends who attended said it was an unbelievable crush of people.

When we returned the night before the big Padang Tegal cremation of 87 people, of which Tut's grandfather was one ( a second cremation for a different banjar), I was sick with a bad cold. I always get sick when I get exhausted. I slept two days while 'Tut stayed up most of the following 48 hours, as he had a lot of duties to perform for that cremation.

So instead of cremation photos, I'll give you some from Yogya. In this post, are photos of Pranbanan, the 10th century Hindu temple complex built about 50 years after Borobudur. It suffered a lot of damage in the earthquake that rocked Yogya a few years back, and there are still some scaffolds up as repairs continue.

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Sunday, July 13, 2008

Preparations for Royal Cremation in Ubud, Bali

Some photos taken of cremation preparations for Coq Suyasa of Puri Ubud . Ubud is planning a royal send-off for the King of Ubud and also a second member of the royal family. Look closely and you can see there are two bulls (the sarcophagi). These photos were taken July 13 and the cremation is July 15; there is still a lot of work to do.

See more on cremations going on near Ubud right now.

It takes a village...

Checking the progress

Hard at work by the palace.

This tower will carry the remains to the sarcophagus. Many people will be needed to
support it, and this is a much bigger tower than is used for people who are not royalty.

Tourists aren't the only ones taking photos. Note the Balinese man from Ubud with cameral at the lower left. These bulls are much bigger than the sarcophagi used for non-royal people.

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Cremation Preparations, Padang Tegal

Some photos taken of cremation preparations in Padang Tegal follow. Padang Tegal is the area of the Monkey Forest and also on and about Jln. Hanoman (which is considered to be Ubud in casual speech and tourist guidebooks).
See more on cremations going on near Ubud right now.

Making offerings on Jln. Hanoman

Structures built in the Monkey Forest to house individual places for each deceased where ceremonies take place before the cremation. Inside are a photo of the deceased, clothes, and other objects. This is not where the remains are cremated.

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Sanur, Bali, Kite Festival

Before I start posting photos for cremation preparations, I'd like to post a few from the Kite Festival I attended in Sanur yesterday. Kite flying is a competitive sport here in Bali, and there is something about that I just love. No tackling people, no knocking it into the goal, just kite flying. Though I found it is a bit dangerous, when we had to dash away as a kite threatened to fall on us. Some of those kites are 100 meters long, so being clobbered by one is no laughing matter.

Hey, I told you this is a popular sport. Check out this crowd.

The front of a 100 yard kite.
More kite flying hopefuls from a different village.

My silversmith, Dedo, is also a buddy. Here he's buying us some roasted corn. I chose the chili sauce, he chose the sweet sauce. Dedo was flying a kite competitively here with his friends from Batubulan the day before. And they won! Because they kites are so large, they require several people to operate them.

Kids on the beach, just to the side of the kite flying field in Sanur.

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Cremation Season in Bali

I generally avoid going to Bali when I know there are a lot of cremations going on around Ubud, which is my base. As anyone with even the most passing acquaintance with Bali knows, cremations mean about two months of intensive labor before the big event and a month of ceremonies after.

The time the banjar (community group) requires of its members to prepare for cremations is no less than the time required by a full-time job. For those who actually have full-time jobs, they are run ragged. So that is why, despite the pomp, ceremony and undeniable photo ops, I try to avoid visiting Bali when my close friends are in the middle of cremation preparations. Unless I am close with their village and actually helping in those preparations myself, I know my friends will barely have time to see me during the month ir two preceding a cremation. .

Because cremations are extremely expensive, bodies are normally buried, and every five years or so the entire village digs up their dead for a fiery send-off. People of stature may enjoy their own cremation after only a month or two in the ground – or possibly awaiting the event above-ground by the benefit of preservatives

But whichever is the case, the final fire and smoke is the least of the labor. There are offerings to be made, multitudes of baskets to be woven, huge towers to transport the remains to be built, and of course, sarcophagi to be built in the shape of animals, such as lions and bulls. These are hand-painted in detail and hold the final remains when the torch is lit. The bodies are transported to the cremation grounds in the towers with much fanfare, ceremony, music and excitement. There the remains are transported to the sarcophagi. In villages near the tourist eyes, it is, in fact, a huge tourist attraction.

I remember when I was living with friends in a distant, hidden village preparing for village-wide cremation of 20 people.. As I shopped for an appropriate sarong and black lace for my kebaya, cunning vendors tried to pry from me where the cremation was taking place – so they could charge tourists to transport them there. I’m not much of one for a circus, so I demurred to give this information..

But in Ubud, a tourist town, there is no getting away from the fanfare. A Balinese friend from the area recently told me that when important royalty is cremated, filming rights are sold to big news stations. The last big royal cremation in Ubud, he told me cost over $1.5 million U.S. – this does not include labor, because of course the men and women of the village are not paid for their work, it is part of their civic duty. The rights were sold for over $ 2.5 million U.S .- A tidy million dollar profit for the very rich banjar of Ubud.

After I bought my ticket to Bali, I was sad to hear that the “king” of Ubud had died. I did not know him personally, but just about everyone I knew around Ubud did. The Coq (a royal title) was a sociable and popular man. There was to be a cremation for him two months after my arrival. Of course, this meant that any friend from Ubud I normally hung out with would be too busy to do much but go to work and go to banjar. It also meant a lot of traffic jams as work was done at the palace right off the main road.

The main reason I was going to Bali was to see ‘Tut anyway… and he is from Padang Tegal not Ubud. (Casual tourists think Padang Tegal is part of the same banjar as Ubud, but in fact Jln. Hanoman, the other tourist drag that runs parallel to Monkey Forest Rd. and, indeed, the Monkey Forest itself is all the Padang Tegal banjar.) So you can imagine how I looked up to the heavens when Janna told me Padang Tegal had decided to hold a huge cremation for 87 people June 17. That meant the entire time I was in Bali Janna would be deep in cremation preparations and we would be lucky to catch even a few minutes together here and there. There go the travel plans around Indonesia. Well, I went anyway, and the cremation date was extended to July 19, partly because they needed to get more wood from Java.

So in the next few posts, I’ll put up a few photos of cremation preparations around Ubud.

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Sunday, June 15, 2008

Ketut Soki, Balinese Young Artist master

As I mentioned in a previous post, some people I met in California were here in Bali for the first time, and I suggested they hire my old and dear friend Wayan Subawa as a guide for a day. I tagged along, and suggested to Wayan that before we went on our way, we drop by the artist village of Penestanan. I had noticed one of the women seemed to be drawn to the Young Artist style of painting.

Wayan said we must go to Ketut Soki's. Well, Ketut Soki is quite famous and is internationally exhibited. He was at the very forefront of the Young Artist movement, one of the first two young boys who studied with Ari Smit in the 1960’s. (Check him out on or just google him.) I had more of a no-name, much cheaper artist in mind, as I did not think any of us could afford the works of this master. But what the heck, I figured, let's go see Soki. Always fun to meet a celebrity.

Soki, now in his late 60's, greeted us himself as we came into the compound and led us to the room that houses his paintings - the few that aren't in museums, expensive galleries or on their way to far-flung parts of the world. He was charming and friendly with a ready smile. He spoke little English, but with my very little Bahasa Indonesia (plus Wayan) we were able to communicate.

After my companions spent a lot of time looking, I pointed out a medium-sized painting Soki said he favored. It represented scenes from the market, rice fields, ceremonies, barong, lots going on. Yet it was cohesive and very well done. I was considering buying it myself, though I’m usually more of a fan of the Batuan style of painting. We took so long that I was feeling a little guilty, because I thought we were wasting the great master’s time.

Then, suddenly, one of my friends started crying. She was moved by the sense of community represented in the paintings and the affability and graciousness of Soki himself. This surprised us all, and especially her. Wayan asked Soki if anyone had ever cried in his studio before, and he said many times. Once an American man cried in his studio from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.!

When we finally asked for prices, Soki named a fraction of what his stuff goes for in the galleries. I almost fell over, because they were quite affordable. I told the women they were being given very good prices by a well-known artist and should buy one. The woman who was so moved bought the one I had my eye on (I figured I’d give her first dibs as I could come back) and also a second marketplace scene.

You can see from my recent posts that I have become a bit jaded regarding Bali. But meeting this man went miles toward renewing my faith. Before we left, he and his charming daughter also showed us around the compound, full of orchids and positive energy. I liked the daughter quite a bit, and Wayan told me later she also paints. Lovely people, and I hope to see them both again.

I’ve posted a photo of Soki here (as well as one of a tree in his family compound). He was smiling the entire time we were with him, but put on a stern, professional face for photos. When I return, perhaps I can capture his smile.

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The devil in 10 cent beads

I met a couple women at a travel book reading in the San Francisco Bay Area where I live; they were friends of a friend. When we found our trips to Bali would intersect, we decided to get together. It was their first time to Bali, and I wanted them to really “see” it.

Because Bali’s economy revolves around tourists (and also handicraft exports), it is quite possible to go to Bali and never see it, only seeing the false, sometimes overly soft and sometimes overly harsh world created for tourists. It’s not difficult to find Bali underneath the tourist trappings. Back in the villages, away from the tourist towns and the tourist traps, it’s still Bali. But you do have to make a bit of an effort.

I met up with my acquaintances in Lovina where I was visiting some friends I had not seen in years. They had spent a week in Ubud taking batik and cooking classes for tourists and learning to tie sarongs. They had gone on bird walks and generally seemed to have made good use of their time. I introduced them to some of my friends, took them to dinner at a local friend’s house in a nearby village and suggested quiet, nature destinations. Back in Ubud later, I arranged an introduction to a famous painter, took them to temple in an out-of-the-way village where another friend taught them how to pray, and went along with them when my friend Wayan Subawa (who I had recommended as a guide) drove them through the villages where they saw wedding preparations and visited some ancient ruins. In return, they let me come along on some of the jaunts you really have to make the first time you are in Bali, but probably don’t want to do again. I wasn’t all that busy, so I thought, what the hell.

That is how I recently found myself at GitGit to see the waterfalls once again, GitGit, that enclave of women waving sarongs at you and children of tender years running after you in hordes, frantically pushing junk necklaces in your face and chanting the prices in a deeply disturbing, monotone – many too young to understand what they are saying. The mothers train their children from toddlers to run up the hills and through the jungle to cut tourists off at the pass so they can not get by without fighting their way through outstretched hands filled with cheap beads. GitGit is always like this, even at the so-called “quiet” waterfall. (There are three different waterfalls at three different locations in GitGit.) The mothers themselves stand at their vendor stalls on the upper path of the long way down to the waterfalls, demanding outrageous prices for other junk, and when you keep walking, of course those prices suddenly drop to 1/20 of the original price quoted. Hey, I’m all for bargaining, but don’t insult me.

Cut to Denpasar. Yesterday I went to the lavish opening parade of the huge, internationally famous, annual Bali Arts Festival. I’d gone to performances there before, but never the opening parade, so when my friend Ketut A. asked me to go with her, of course I went. I’ve known Ketut for years, and had not seen her for a few weeks, not since I brought her a letter from her sister in the States. We decided to go in style by car rather than motorbike, so my buddy Wayan Subawa drove us down. He always goes every year to the parade anyway, so we made it a party.

The Bali Arts Festival is probably the biggest yearly event in Bali. Dancing and musical troupes from all over Indonesia and even the world perform there. In addition, there are exhibitions of painting, wood carving, cooking, clothing and every kind of art. In other words, it is a very big deal. It attracts a primarily local crowd. The westerners you see there are mostly expats (trust me, you can tell) with the occasional tourist who is usually an arts connoisseur.

There were thousands of Balinese lined around the huge, beautiful green square in Denpasar to watch the parade of dancers, musicians and floats go by. Picture the Macy’s Day Parade, Bali style. Vendors walk through the crowds selling drinks, peanuts, lumpia and even pizza. Other vendors grill babi (pork) sate along the sidelines. After about an hour there, shuffling for a place to best see and photograph the parade, something struck me. Not one person had run over to me shoving any trinkets, drinks, sarongs or anything else in my face because I am “tamu.” (Literally, “tamu” means “guest”, but it often really means anyone from outside Bali with what might locally be considered big bucks.) In Denpasar, at the biggest event in Bali, I was just one of the crowd.

And that is the difference between visiting a tourist trap and visiting anyplace or anything at all away from the traps. I remember the same thing in Jamaica. In Negril, being the target of annoying beach boys trying to pick up “rich” white women, and in Mandeville, being treated like a human being, because Mandeville is a working city, not a tourist destination.

Heavy influxes of tourists who are substantially richer than the local population always mean a devastating corruption of the culture. The result? The mothers at GitGit shamelessly teaching even four-year-olds to run after tourists and shove necklaces at them even when they are told “No” repeatedly, even when it is said in Indonesian or Balinese. Poverty, you say? Most of those people own land, luxurious vegetable gardens and rice fields. These are not desperate people, yet they exploit four-year-olds for the price of a 10 cent necklace. What life lessons are these children learning? Of course, I can't speak for the Balinese, but many I know are also truly horrified by this.

There’s a lesson in this someplace, but I’ll let you come to your own conclusions.

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Monday, June 02, 2008

Bali beauty regimen

Upon returning to Bali after three years, I'm aware I've put on weight and I'm definitely feeling older. I was a bit concerned about this, because they pull no punches in Bali. They'll tell you to your face you're more "gemuk" (fatter) than you were last time they saw you. But, as it turns out, no worries! It is the general and unanimous (and, of course, unasked for) consensus here, from the mountains of Ubud to the beaches of Lovina, that I look "younger and more beautiful" than I did before. Why you may ask? What is my beauty secret? Well, it turns out that my "skin is whiter" (no tan 'cause I just got off the plane) and I no longer have "those dark spots." (Heck, I always thought my freckles were cute.) This should not have surprised me, I suppose, given the fact that every other ad on TV here is for skin whitening cream, and they go so far as to artificially lighten the film in most TV shows and all commercials so the actresses look paler than Casper. It's always a stark contrast when the news comes on showing people with normal, healthy Indonesian skin tones.

This preoccupation is not because Indonesians want to look like white people or due to vestiges of colonialism. On the contrary. I'm not sure about the rest of Indonesia, but I'm pretty sure the Balinese are completely convinced they are the most beautiful people in the world. (They have a good argument.) The roots of this pale skin obsession are older than colonialism, harking back to the distinction between royalty and the priestly classes and, well, just about everybody else. The bottom line is that lighter skin still equates with wealth here. Field workers and laborers who tan in the sun tend to be browner than Indonesians of means who loll about inside all day. Indonesia is extremely class-conscious, and in Bali, you can throw caste-awareness on top of that. There must be this same fascination with light skin in Japan, because I see 99% of the Japanese female tourists here wearing god-awful ugly sun hats that look like something my grandfather went fishing in. (Yes, yes, yes, I know it's good to protect oneself from harmful rays of the sun, but have you seen those hats?!)

Needless to say, I don't agree politically or aesthetically with this attitude. To me, the artificially washed-out skin tones shown on Indonesian TV commercials appear somewhat ghoulish. But no one much cares about my opinions here, so I've put away the bronzer and slapped on the SPF 50. Still, my freckles accumulate in the Bali sun despite all precautions. Secretly, I continue to admire them.

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An old flame in Bali

I saw an old flame this week. I hesitated to stay in that section of Lovina, because I didn’t know if I wanted to run into him. But as I was moving to a different bungalow (one where the water actually worked) at the small family-run establishment where I usually stay. I heard him call to me, lounging on the porch of the bungalow next door, hidden by the lush foliage.

“Do I know you?” I said. Often people know who I am in Bali, though I don’t know them. Not that I’m that interesting – it’s just people in the village generally know everything going on.

“I don’t know, do you?” he said.

Smart ass answer. Could only be one person. Was he on that porch by chance? No, he would have heard I was here. I called his name as a question as I stepped away from the greenery in order to see him. He had cut his hair.

“I knew your voice,” he said.

I thought running into him would be awkward, but instead it was good to see an old friend. “I heard you got married.” I said.

“Who told you that?” he asked.

“Oh, we know everything in America,” I joked. He knew the lines of communication, who had told me.

“Any children?”

“A boy, two and a half,” he said.

I was glad for him. He had been having a lot of bitter family issues in the compound where his volatile older brother dominated. So when he married, he moved to a rented house with his new wife. He had met her at the Kalukbukbuk Hotel where she started working. I remember I used to call him there, and his friend would run down the beach to find him to take my call, years ago.

“How long has it been?” I asked.

“Four years. A long time,” he said.

Yes, he was right. It was three years since I had been to Bali, but four since I saw him. It was about six years ago I met him, about the same time I met ‘Tut. It could have gone either way, but due to a miscommunication, a misunderstanding, a chance of fate, I left him in Padang Bai, the eastern beach town where ferries leave for Lombok. He returned to Lovina. And I returned to ‘Tut. As I face him in the bright sun, it all washes over me. Fleetingly I wonder if I had made the wrong choice. But it is only wistfulness at the creak of a door swinging shut.

“Can I still talk to you?” he asks.

“Of course,” I smile. “I want to meet your son.”

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