The Celebrity of the Bali Bule

[Biaung 2013. From my article in the now defunct Bali Times newspaper]

There are not many Caucasians in my neck of the woods, being as it is rather off the beaten tourist track, and as a result of being rare in this sense, I will often experience a bit of celebrity. Not like, say, Brad Pitt or Lady Gaga, given that people neither go into a frenzy at my presence nor violently protest it, but more like a giraffe or a duck-billed-platypus.

I’m unusual. I’m odd. Children cannot help but shout at the sight of me. “Hey bule!”*  Either that or they shy away hide behind a parent or a nearby tree. Some of them merely stare, like little deer caught in headlights. The older boys, the adolescents, have learned some English, and they like to employ it whenever opportunity knocks. “Hey, Mister! Beer! Obama! Boom-boom!”

Honestly, it find it all purely delightful.

I suppose this is because I a so accustomed to being fairly perfectly anonymous.  In America, if you are not Brad Pitt or Lady Gaga or some reasonable facsimile, people simply don’t give a damn. You may as well be a fire hydrant or a telephone pole. And if you were to pipe up and say, “Hi,, how ya doin’?” or “Hey, where ya goin’?”, the stranger so addressed would more than likely avert his eyes and walk a little faster, taking you for some kind of weirdo or pervert. Either that or he’d flip you the finger, if he had enough time to bother.

I’m not saying it has always been that way. It’s more of a recent development, over the last half century or so, a period of time that has seen the division of community into small, somewhat paranoid special interest groups, isolated cliques through which society in general is negotiated with watchful caution, being considered vaguely dangerous and by and large threatening.

I’m reminded here of a scene from the old movie Blast from the Past. In this movie, Brandon Frasier has from childhood been sequestered with his family in a fallout shelter since 1950 or so., the father having mistakenly believed that the world above had been wiped out in a nuclear war. When finally Brandon emerges from the shelter, some time in the 1970s, one of the first  creatures he sets eyes upon is a black female mail carrier. Astounded, nearly frozen with delight at the novelty, Brandon finally exclaims, “Oh my lucky stars–a Negro!” In the deeply segregated society of the 1950s, one simply did not see black people, nor did black people see white people. We knew of each other’s existence, of course, but to behold the actual creature was extraordinary and inspired and inspired a certain sort of amazement, a passing enchantment.

So it’s kind of like that. Oh my lucky stars, a bule! And why not? Brandon’s character intended no insult, but merely expressed a child-like wonder at the brave new world he had suddenly entered. Here was something beyond the pale of everyday experience–the environment of the self-sufficient yet hopelessly remote fallout shelter–and by extension, the social environment of 1950s America. In the same way, these people who greet me in Bali mean no insult or intrusion. They simply acknowledge the uncommon event and are driven to connect, and thus take part through speech.

The beach nearest my home is not a tourist beach. There are no shops or cafes, no chaise lounges, no sellers or hawkers. From Padang Galak to Ketewel and beyond, the sand is black, and hot like smoldering coals. People don’t swim or snorkel here, partly because it’s a rather dangerous sea, and partly because you’d come out looking like a loaf of poppy-seed bread. It is local people who frequent this beach, to fish, to collect black and white rocks for sale to the warehouse down the road, or attend a ceremony or a ritual bath; and in the evening they come to stroll, to chat, to let the children play in the lake-like shallows left by an outgoing tide.

It is here that my celebrity seems most noted and esteemed. Everyone wants to say hello. They need so say hello. They alter their path to approach nearby, to smile, to wave, to say hello. Where are you from? Where are you going? Where do you live? How many children do you have? It is simple; it is the same; and yet it’s newly pleasant with every occasion. I am alive, after all, and they are alive, and we are alive together on this one small island, in this huge, non-negotiable, impersonal world.

“Om, Om,” one man exclaims, calling me “uncle” as he turns his little daughter by the shoulders to face me. “Minta uang dari Om,” he tells her. Ask for money. And I am slain by the innocence of the thing, the faith of the man, the sky anticipation in the eyes of his little girl. Ask and you shall receive, knock and the door will be opened.

Sadly, I am helpless to help them. Silver and gold have I none. My pockets are quite empty, and my wallet as well. But such as I have, I give. Friendship. Kindness. Humanity. Celebrity.

[*Bule: In general, any person who is not Indonesian; more specifically, a Caucasian person]

Monumental Shame

[Though nearly seven years outside of America, nearly seven years on the far side of the world, I am connected at my core to America. Like a ship that remembers its home port best, no matter where it sails, my anchor is ever sunk in the waters of my country. Therefore, I offer this rumination on the events in Charlottesville, and the nature of monuments (aka hunks of dumb stone)]

I never much cared for statues and monuments. Still don’t. I can remember, as a kid, riding in my parents’ car through downtown Portland and seeing the statues that stood at some of the street intersections. They were always covered with bird shit. It seemed a sad sort of way to treat dignitaries from the past (whoever they might have been). Better to have not stuck them up there in the first place, and let the shit fall more unobtrusively where it may.

I remember there being two or three statues on the grounds of the university I attended as well. Who knows what figures they were meant to honor? People ignored them. They were just there. Who cares? I suppose they could be useful if there had been room on the base of the monument to set a spell, or have a quick cigarette, or a sandwich, or a Twinkie, or kiss a girl–but then, those things would have had nothing to do with the statue anyway, and everything to do with anything else.

Somewhere in the mid 1990s, I visited Washington DC, and still suffer a mental exhaustion at the memory of being dragged from this famous monument to the next and the next, each a tourist trap, each just sitting there, or standing there, immensely drab in the humid Maryland July, each standing dumbly by, posing for the next obligatory photograph which would soon be eternally tucked away in a laptop folder, never, most likely, to be seen again. And in the meantime, miraculous things were occurring all around us. The cherry trees were in blossom. Pink petals fluttered down from the branches. The park blocks, which stretch from the capital area right up to the rows of ramshackle apartments in the hood, lay cozily in the shade of trees with a history their own, grand, tall, spreading trees that had stood watch through the decades, and given, as well–beauty, shade, shelter. Homeless people meandered beneath the leaves from chance to chance, hope to hope, hands out, wrinkled palms open. Stark red cardinals flashed from branch to branch. And there we were, our backs turned to the world, staring at grand chunks of stone.

I am willing to bet that if Charlottesville’s statue of Robert E. Lee had been knocked over by a falling tree in a storm, no one would have thought much of it. If it had been shattered too badly, I doubt whether it would have been replaced anytime soon. There are more important things to think about, more important things to do. People have more pressing concerns to think about.

Or do they?

Some speak of honoring our history. I can’t help but wonder what is honorable about the prosecution of a war that ended in more casualties than all the American wars put together. Should we not rather lament such a costly inability to seek and achieve peace in our own family?

Some have turned these dumb statues into living causes, forcing those who can no longer speak to stand now as icons for racism, bigotry, hatred, white supremacy. Do these people, so loudly waving the banner of Lee, know anything about the actual man. No. They don’t.

If history itself is to be trivialized by ignorance, then yes, tear down the statues, every one of them. And in as far as no man among us now, or ever before, has ever been anything other than flawed and weak, full of hatreds and jealousies, greed, self-interest, tear down the memoriam of every member of the sad and fallen human race. And plant olive trees instead. And let no man blight that hallowed land.

Let’s Go Glamping!

[I reprint here one of my pieces from Bali Style Magazine]

It’s called ‘glamping’, and to be honest (at the risk of seeming obtuse), I had not so much as heard of the thing until about two weeks ago when Bali Style asked me to stay a night at recently opened Sandat Glamping , in the scenic countryside near Ubud.

‘Glamping’ is a portmanteau word, a combination of glamour and camping, and, as I soon discovered through a perusal of the website (www.glampingsandat.com), as well as other internet info, glamping is a global trend, with sites spreading from South Africa to Europe. The idea is to merge the uniqueness and character of the camping experience — the quality of serenity, a closeness with nature, locale and culture — with the personal luxuries so closely associated with the comfort of a rewarding travel experience — in other words, to enjoy the best of both worlds, nature and luxury.

As a younger man, in another country (long ago and far away), I did a lot of camping — without the ’glam’. While rewarding in its own right, this does come with some minuses. Exposure to the whims of the weather, for instance. Hardships such as wood chopping and fire building. Trips to the outhouse (if there is one). And meals of generally blackened campfire cuisine.

Not so with glamping. At Sandat Glamping you will find five spacious luxury ‘tents’ and three two-storey lumbung huts. Each high-ceiling tent is built on a raised wooden platform and has two rooms — a living room/bedroom and a fully equipped, modern bathroom. Each has, also, a generous front deck with a small, private swimming pool beautifully situated at the verge of a breathtaking, jungle ravine.

The tents are equipped with mesh-screen windows, which may be covered against a chilly night, and a powerful, perfectly substantial ceiling fan, while the lumbung huts have a large living area on the ground floor and a bedroom and balcony on the second level, including air conditioning unit. The lumbung units share the large main swimming pool.

Each dwelling has been lovingly decorated and furnished by Emanuela Padoan, co-owner with her husband, Federico Carrer — each with a welcoming, gracious mood of its own, furnished with cosy antiques, playful lamps and other, friendly little touches which put an accent on the ‘glam’ experience. The bathrooms are fully equipped with modern toilet, sink and shower. Ours even had a chandelier! In the front room is a centrally placed bed for two, a sofa, other seating options, coffee table, side tables, dressers and more — without the slightest hint of crowding. These are not pup-tents, folks! They are family dwellings, perfectly comfortable for three or four occupants. Wifi is also online, and music is available — but no TV.

The idea here is escape. It is a place for quality time, shared with one another and with the natural world — for personal reflection, renewed appreciation, the chance to have a genuine conversation with the world you had somehow left behind while busy in the concrete jungles back home. Here, the voice of the natural world reasserts itself above the noise of man and machine, such that you can hear the wind again in the tops of the trees, the chirping of birds, the buzzing of insects, the whisper of the river far below in the ravine.

I took a cool dip in the afternoon, leaned on the lip of the pool to drink in the breath of the untouched, unspoiled landscape, and then laid on the poolside lounge chair, half-awake, half-asleep to the profound and inimitable dialogue of nature. I had all but forgotten what I was missing, transported anew on the wings of peace and quiet. I felt like a child again, somehow — full of wonder and tranquility, in a place where time, if only for a time, is able to stand still for precious hours on end.

Situated between the glam-tents and the lumbung huts is a spacious dining area — an open-air, A-frame structure made completely of bamboo. This features a long, communal dining table as well as an additional social area with sofas and a large, square-ish table made from railroad ties. As with the individual dwellings, this too has been tastefully attended to by the interior decorating talents of Emanuela, featuring antiques and other conversation pieces, a small library, and one wall devoted completely to mirrors (a particular passion). Each mirror has been sourced from local shops around Bali and has been fashioned from a variety of materials, from bamboo to metal, glass and paper. Well, all but one — a favourite, good luck mirror which has travelled all the way from Italy. I’ll let you guess which it is.

Italy is the home country of Federico and Emanuela, who now spend their year between Italy, Spain and Bali. They are a delightful, friendly and easily befriended couple who will join their guests for breakfast and dinner, for the character here is communal as well as private and peaceful, all in its proper time and place. Sumptuous meals and amity are shared by glampers and owners alike. It is a spirit which extends as well to the surrounding community and its Balinese culture, as the ideological aim is to be one with the surrounding world in every possible aspect, with a compassion for the place, the society and the culture.

In this respect, glampers may easily spend a day exploring the surrounding countryside, with its temples, rice fields and forest attractions, as well as the charming town of Ubud, with its countless shops and restaurants — and still return in the evening to refresh and renew.

Glamping has become a global trend, devoted to eco-structures with zero environmental impact and a sense of responsibility to the land and its people. But it’s more than that, and I, for one, can see why. In a time of increasing concern for the environment, and a heightened drive to find truly fulfilling, personalized experiences in the midst of options that have become common, or even mundane, here is a shiny new key to open beloved old doors and return to the incomparable amazements of the real world.

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My Practical Paradise

Though I have maintained a blog for some years (Everyone Here is Jim Dandy, on blogspot), and will continue to maintain that blog, what I want to do in My Practical Paradise is to create a blog, using the powerful WordPress platform, that will focus more particularly on travel and on expatriate life in Indonesia through entries that will be generally longer and more polished than those I jot down in Jim Dandy and Facebook. Admittedly, this will be somewhat of a challenge for a lazy old man such as myself. Pressed, however, by the fond memory, at least, or more productive days, as well as the nagging of my wife, whose energy is unbounded, I hope to achieve a sense of meaningful employment, one might say, and kind of stir the still waters of my restful proclivities such that I may avoid becoming stagnant rather than merely still. Peace and comfort, after all, are not necessarily the products of inaction, and may, in fact, left to themselves, morph to boredom and anxiety.

Once I learn to navigate and interact more fully with WordPress and its multiplicity of features and options, I will also utilize ad sites, links, and access to other accounts, such as Instagram, for instance, featuring many more photographs of all the beautiful locales one may enjoy, as well as the stunning beauty of Bali itself. I will also likely add some of my past articles from The Bali Times and Bali Style Magazine.

To the meantime, help is on its way in the person of my friend, Chipon, from Java, and others who possess the aptitude I lack for website engineering.

To Begin With

Two things I know about myself, now more distinctly than ever before, are that 1) I am a writer, and 2) I am not a software technician. It has been a particular challenge, therefore, to clumsily roam through the process of setting up a WordPress blog with Bluehost hosting. This is not to say that these maneuvers are so very difficult to accomplish by the vast majority of users, or even in the deft hands of most 12-year-olds in this day. No. It is to say that I bring a singular sort of incompetence to nearly all areas of modern technology, from the i-Phone to the laptop, from Facebook to gmail, from the cable TV controller to the electric can-opener.  I’m more of a manual can-opener sort of guy.

Back in high school, one-hundred years ago, give or take, my English teacher might read one of my compositions to the class as a shining example in the use of the language, while my shop teacher would hold up my latest project as a classic example of how not to do things. In art class, every piece of pottery that I fashioned became an ashtray, whether it wanted to or not. In my drawings, I never really moved beyond the stick figure.

This is the technical aptitude I bring to webhosting and blogging. So please bear with me.

The irony, of course, is that the entire purpose of blogging (for me, anyway) is to share ideas and experiences primarily through language; but as one sets up WordPress, the shape of the page, the outward appearance and the underlying machinery, the stage settings threaten to usurp the role of the players. One trembles at the idea of common words marring the beauty and complexity of the platform. It is rather like spinning a fine piece of pottery, firing it and painting it and adding an appealing glaze, only to scrawl Fido on the side with a magic marker and set the carefully crafted vessel before the dog at dinner. Surely, the container was made for something better.

Interestingly, and rather coincidentally, I recently read the marvelous introduction of contemporary Japanese writer Haruki Murakami to his first two novels, Hear the Wind Sing, and Pinball. In his introduction, Murakami describes how he first decided he should write a novel, and then how he went about the task. He had always loved reading, but knew very little about the conventions of writing a piece of fiction, narrative ,theme, dialog, and so on. Night after night, at his kitchen table, Murakami worked on the first draft of Hear the Wind Sing. Upon finishing, however, he re-read the novel and found it, quite honestly, rather stiff and tedious, even boring. Discouraged but not defeated, Murakami decided to start over again, this time telling his story in English rather than Japanese. His ability in English was rather limited, confined to a world of short sentences, circumscribed by a modest vocabulary, and yet his gut feeling was that he needed to find something original, inventive, outside the preconditioning of his native language. Having finished his version in English, Murakami then set about translating the English back to Japanese, bringing along something new and crisp and rare, like a traveler returning home from a foreign shore, the same, yet changed. And so it happened that he found his more complete self, and his voice as a writer.

You can’t judge a book by its cover, but readers are, in our tech savvy time, inclined to be influenced by the instantaneity of handsome appearances in an online blog. To me, therefore, although writing is everything, it is also nothing if it goes unread. For that reason, I will do my utmost best to maintain the comeliness and functionality of the container itself while still leaving it open to the air, such that I may climb out freely and then back in, bringing something new and nutritious, so to speak, to the fine container provided by WordPress.

As the reader will have noticed, the blog is entitled My Practical Paradise, subtitled An American Life in Bali. It is the particulars of this life, and of various travels in Southeast Asia, that I hope to make the focus of the blog, whether it be descriptions of places, or events, or cultures, or slice-of-life episodes.

And I will have more to say about this in the post coming up!