Wednesday, December 25, 2013

From Bali to Bellingham

24 December 2013

Everything has its ups and downs - life is just like that.  So there are wonderful things that are involved with travelling, and this blog has been a testament to that.

There are also the downsides to travelling - the cockroach that runs across you in bed.  (Okay, so it really only ran right at me as I jumped out of bed shrieking.  It was still a big roach, in our bed.)  Not being able to buy necessary undies in your size.  Lots of paperwork and red tape.  No drinking water unless you buy it.  Little things that happen that wouldn't necessarily happen wherever your home might be, but things that are regular occurrences in the everyday lives of people in other countries throughout the world.

And then there are the major things.  Like when you find out your father is terminally ill, and didn't say anything because he didn't want you to stop travelling.  This is where I am right now.  So of course I left Bali, and flew home, and I'm now in Bellingham being helpful and supportive, taking care of my dad and giving my brother a break and taking care of whatever family members are visiting to say their final goodbyes.

There's a certain amount of peace that comes from stepping in and being helpful and supportive when needed.  Despite the emotional drama of the situation.

And of course, because this started in Bali, there is also the red tape craziness side of the situation - because when you find out that there's a family emergency, the first thing you do is book a flight home, right?  Easy with the internet.  And then, if you are me, you remember (after booking said flight) that your passport is in some bureaucratic office where the visa is being renewed - meaning your passport is not in hand - meaning you can't fly anywhere.


Okay, so a flight booked online can be cancelled online.  Except Cathay Pacific wants you to talk to an agent to get the refund credited to your account.  Ack!  I need the refund!  We call the phone number, and somehow end up with a phone sex line.  Twice!  Okay, something having to do with using a MagicJack to call an international number, or something.  So I look up the number online, we try that, it goes to some office in Hong Kong.  Next best option - take a taxi to the airport and talk to someone in person.  So I do that - but by now it's raining, I get to the airport in a monsoon deluge, I'm running around slipping and sliding on the shiny wet floor, I'm shuffled from office to office and finally sent to another building - my sweet taxi driver, who is waiting for me, drives me around and around looking for the right building, and finds the spot so I can go inside without getting drenched - finally the nice agent is able to cancel my flight and refund the money to my card.  And of course when we drive back to our hotel, the taxi is driving through such deep accumulations of water that we feel the waves smacking the sides of the car!

That's the amusing side of the tale.

The other side?  I went to the airport on Monday.  We didn't get our passports til Thursday.  I flew out Friday.  It's a long 22+ hours of flying from Bali to Vancouver BC.  It's the day of a freak snow storm and the snow has stuck, so the roads are slick and slushy.  My wonderful youngest brother has driven up to pick me up, but I don't even have a coat.  I change into my one pair of jeans in the airport restroom, and wear my one wool sweater.  Since I don't have a cell phone (because roaming international rates are insane and the only other option is to get a SIM in each country and keep topping up and then making international calls) I'm Facebook messaging back and forth with my brother to find where we're meeting up.  Yes, this is just another kind of adventure.

So I'm in Bellingham WA.  The up side is that I can shop for those bras.  The down side is that I'm here dealing with end of life issues.  That it's to say a final goodbye.  That this is not the happy Christmas visit people think it might be (despite the fact that we don't celebrate Christmas anyway).

That's the update, people.  I thought you might want to know why the blog is silent, why there aren't any updates, and why there aren't any photos.

I'll report back when there's something more to say. 

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Holidays in Bali

19 December 2013

Things are filling up quickly with tourists - more and more families, couples, singles - mostly Australians but tourists from all around the Pacific and beyond.  Our favourite little Italian restaurant which used to be a quiet little spot is now bustling and full each evening.  Roads are crowded, sidewalks are crowded, and there are Christmas decorations everywhere!  

We went to a mall today, just to do something different, and I had a bite at Starbucks.  (I know, but it's Seattle comfort food.)  The air was full of Christmas music.  I asked the guy behind the counter if he celebrates Christmas.  He laughed and said no, he's Balinese.  I asked if anyone working in the store celebrates Christmas.  He laughed harder and said no.  I leaned in confidentially and told him that not all of the tourists have Christmas either - he was surprised and I told him that we, my husband and I, don't have Christmas.  That was new for him, but, well, tourism expands the horizons of both the tourists and the host country.

Anyway, I enjoyed the center of the mall which was a huge Balinese knicknack market - just chock full of carvings, masks, puppets, fabrics, everything a tourist could want.  Including luwak coffee.

I really liked the puppets lined up like some girl band, all ready to break into a song and dance number!

I also had a funny discussion with the lady at our hotel who goes around doing the shrine offerings - we said hello this morning, and she told me that she liked my dress.  (It was just a simple long swingy tank over a short pencil skirt, all in black, with my red Birks.)  So we had a little discussion about clothes, where I bought this, comfort, etc.  One of those women bonding moments.  (Or maybe a fashionista moment!)

Okay, last little thing - except it isn't - it's rainy season here, and we are now seeing these MONSTER snails every night!  HUGE!  I had to photograph one next to my foot so you could see how gigantic these snails are - like the banana slugs of the Pacific Northwest, but with a shell on the back.  Mutant snails!  Probably radioactive!  I was afraid to put my foot any closer, they look like they might take a toe off!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Understanding the Mysteries of Offerings

17 December 2013

The shrines have been more ornately decorated for the past few days - one man told me it was a special festival for the full moon.  Which explains why we've seen people riding around on their motorscooters, all dressed in white.  White is worn for special festivals, and now we know the full moon is a special festival each month.  (My favourite family was a mother, father, and two small sons, maybe about 4 and 9 years old, all in white, males with the tall white head covering, riding on the scooter, the littlest child standing in front of his father and holding onto the handles along with his father - such a cute child!)

We found an article about the offerings in a magazine for expats living in Bali - article by Stephanie Brookes.  And learned ALL kinds of things about the offerings.

The article focuses on a young woman, 16 years old, who has been making the offerings for her family's shrines or temples for the past six years.  She makes the offerings herself, from making the little leaf baskets to adding the items to carrying them to the shrines.  

She begins with the temple in her family compound, then walks to the rice fields to place the next offerings.  (There are small shrines dotted throughout the rice fields.)  And then she goes to the temple in the village, ending with a villa (article isn't clear if this is another family home or what).

The special occasion offerings (such as the full moon) must have banana, rice, peanuts, and coconut - just one of those things, I guess.

Part of the ritual includes lighting incense and carrying it, burning, while walking to the various places where the offerings are made.  The offerings are set in the location, holy water is sprinkled, prayers are said (usually asking for health, good fortune, happiness, and peace).  And incense may be placed on the offering as well.

The offerings often contain whatever food was just cooked for the family, as well as flowers, and often something sweet.  They must be visually attractive and smell good.  (I suspect there's also an aspect that unites the four major elements - fire, water, earth, air - maybe incense for fire, holy water, flowers and food from the earth, and the scents rising in the air?  Just my instinct.)

This is the part I found most interesting:  "offerings are gifts to the gods which express gratitude to benevolent spirits and as well, they serve to placate mischievous demons who disturb the harmony of life.  These shadow world inhabitants of Bali are treated an honoured guests through this act of offering.  The offerings must always be attractive.  Once an offering is used, it may not be used again, so each and every day, new ones must be made.  Offerings to the gods and ancestors are placed in high altars while the demons receive theirs at ground level."

Fascinating - gods and spirits and ancestors reside in the upper reaches of the world (up always being seen as good?), while demons reside on the ground (or underground?).  Kind of like our Judeo-Christian concept of angels and demons or devils, isn't it?  

I like the fact that these spirits reside beside us in a parallel or "shadow" world.  Not that I specifically believe in this concept, but I can understand it.  Again, the Judeo-Christian cultures believe we have guardian angels - sometimes the spirits of ancestors - who follow us around.  So the offerings - these beautiful, sweet smelling, pretty, tasty offerings - keep them happy.  Same for the offerings for the demons, they too must be appeased so they don't wreak havoc with our lives.  
Don't you love the big candy bar in the offering?  Simple and to the point - here, demons, have some chocolate and hazelnut yumminess, and please don't mess with us, thank you.  Sort of like some of the old practices we use in the western world today - the bridesmaids to confuse demons about who is the real bride, things like that.

Richard and I talked about some of these food items - it isn't as if there are a lot of street people in Bali, but there are the occasional people and children begging for money.  So wouldn't you think there might be some hungry people who would eat the offerings?  There are the occasional dogs, and of course birds and the wonderful monkeys - but we haven't seen people taking these items.  I would think that any Hindu person would believe that these offerings belong to the spirit world, and taking them, no matter how hungry you might be, would be a major taboo, sure to bring horrible consequences.  But what about people of other religions, other beliefs?  I'd think they might be tempted to eat the offerings, but we haven't seen that.

It's just part of the mystery of Bali.

I need to add that I might be off line for a bit, there are a variety of issues we're taking care of and they just need to be dealt with.  So please keep checking back, I'll report in when I'm able.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Adventures in Shopping

12 December 2013

We went to the Galeria Mall today, so Richard could see a dentist.  

We spent some time wandering around stores - I found a great store, the Hypermart, which is sort of an Indonesian KMart - a mix of clothing, souvenirs, groceries, toiletries, etc.

I of course found all sorts of wonderful things, like this little Balinese lion dancer figure, who was part of a display.  I never figured out what the product was, but he was just such a cute little thing, I had to take his picture.  He looks sort of evil and fierce in a cuddly kind of way.

Luwak coffee - the civet poop coffee - comes with guarantees that it's from WILD civets - as in no civet cruelty.  Good news for the civets.  I'm still trying to figure out who combs the ground of the coffee farm each day to collect the civet poop.  And who figures out if the beans are arabica or robusto.  Yeah, and who washes the beans.  Inquiring minds want to know.

Other good news - Matahari is no longer a spy, she is now a baker.

I'm not sure if the rainbow cake is safe to eat, however.

The fish displays were gorgeous - and I tried to get a photo of the live fish in the tanks, but they weren't as photogenic (or easy to photograph) as the fish on ice.  In such lovely fan arrangements.

When was the last time you saw bananas in so many different colours?  And each colour tastes just slightly different!

The dragon fruit is always gorgeous! 

Yes, I walk around supermarkets taking photos.

Not my best photo, but we had so much fun being silly with these figures!  However, this leads into the story of the day.

Keep in mind that we've been on the road for 15 months now.  Some clothing holds up better than others.  I could use some new undergarments.  As in brassieres.  (Men, you can stop reading now.)  Now, Balinese women are small - I didn't need to stand on the step to fit my face in this Balinese dancer, I just stood on the floor.  I tower over Balinese men, and look like an giant compared to most Balinese women.  (I'm all of maybe 5'4", or roughly 1.78 meters.)  

So I walk into the lingerie section of the Matahari Department Store.  I chat with the sales ladies.  I tell them my size in US measurements, and the lady converts it to centimeters.  I explain that I don't need the padding or moulded cups with layers of foam - but that I do need underwires (and I explain why, which leads to fits of giggles on the sales lady's part, because the stupid bras tend to not stay put otherwise and I had to sort of act this part out).  Anyway, the ladies gather several items, which I try on in the fitting room.  And these bras are works of art - I have never seen such decorative bras.  Black with pink embroidered flowers.  Silver grey with flowers and sequins.  Lavender with a few rhinestones.  Deep grey with silver embroidery.  Absolutely lovely bras!

Now, trying on bras is NO ONE's favourite activity.  Add in that we have this communication gap.  And in the trying on, nothing fits.  The proportions are wrong.  I don't need depth of cup, I need width or distance between the ends of the wire (as in the measurement around).   There's a fundamental difference between the tiny-boned Indonesian body that seems to need padding and maximizing, rather than the big-boned and square eastern European body I have inherited from my ancestors.  As I said, the proportions are just wrong.  Things might FIT, but they don't FIT - wires are in the wrong place, parts aren't supported, other parts are just in the wrong place - this just isn't working.

I brought everything back out, thanked the ladies, explained that things didn't fit right even though they fit.

So yes, adventures in bra shopping in Bali.  An interesting experience, if a little frustrating.

I think some internet shopping may be in order.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

From Ubud to the Beatles tribute band

11 December 2013 - yes, that's 11-12-13 to those of you who put the date before the month.

We enjoyed our last few days in Ubud, where it seems that there's some new festival or religious celebration. We found these huge statues on the main road into/out of Ubud - the statues seem to look quite surprised to find themselves out on the road, saying hello (or goodbye) to everyone.

And there are new road decorations going up - new cut paper lantern like things, and it was interesting watching people put the various leaves and grasses all over the bent bamboo stick.  

There were also people dressed up the past few days, with the special clothes people wear to temple festivals and celebrations - a sarong, a nice top, something on the head, and a sash.  Plus the telltale rice design on the forehead and the base of the neck.

But my favourite sign of something special were the school kids firing off different firecrackers after school, gathering in the neighbourhood football field and shooting these smoking whistling popping things.  Especially the little things that they'd light, throw some distance while running in the opposite direction - then the thing would start smoking in bright pink or fuchsia and then start popping and exploding.  Who knew there was pink smoke?

Of course, there are the usual holiday decorations, like the chrysanthemum Christmas tree.  Yup, a Balinese original - an orange Christmas tree covered in mums, with fuchsia paper floral decorations, and the mandatory star on top.  I could enjoy a Christmas tree like that.

I also liked the garbage truck painted with lotus blossoms.  Who says a garbage truck should be ugly?

We left today (Wednesday) for Seminyak, although there's some question whether our hotel is really in Seminyak or in Kuta - Kuta being the major touristy center that we were hoping to avoid.  But we're south, near the coast, and ready for some more touristy, city time.  Plus some dental work, some shopping, and hopefully some diving before we head north.

Being rainy season, we hit a point where traffic came to a standstill - the road had turned into a river - and we barely crept along, trying to see where the road began and the sidewalk ended and hopefully there wasn't a ditch in there somewhere.  It was dramatic!!  (And reminiscent of a certain November week in St. Thomas.)

We're in a cozy bungalow in Seminyak (or Kuta) - a big room with a king bed, nothing special but definitely roomy, with a dressing room, huge bathroom, and lovely windows in the bathroom.  (They're my favourite part!)  Plus a very large front porch with seating and space to hang up your wetsuit, or whatever.  But I love the windows.

And yes, we drove past all sorts of beautiful arts and crafts - and amazing quilts, just gorgeous.

I might have to come back to Bali and learn how to make all these fabulous arts!!!! 

Anyway, we've found a club with a Beatles tribute band who are quite good. We even got up to dance to "She Loves You Yeah Yeah Yeah" - a twist and a frug, or something - great fun!!!!

We'll see what other touristy things we can do while we're here!

Friday, December 6, 2013

Back Home In Ubud

6 December 2013

We're back in Ubud, and it really is amazing how it feels familiar rather than new and exciting.  We were here all of ten days, gone for a week, and it feels like coming home.

So, we had an uneventful trip back across the water, a long and winding ride in a bemo (a long van used as a mini-bus), and we're settled back into our lovely bungalow.  Same room, back to being a Balinese prince and princess.

And dealing with the usual business of travel - seeing an agent about renewing our visas (when you enter Indonesia you get a 30 day visa, and then it's a long and involved process to renew or extend that visa, you can't do it when you arrive, don't ask, it doesn't make sense), and dealing with receiving our medications.  (Tax and fees are over one million rupiah - don't worry, this is under $150 US.  It just sounds so impressive in rupiah.)

But we're having fun walking around in our neighbourhood, or seeing new places.  And of course trying new restaurants, and revisiting favourites.

So, at one of our fave brekkie/lunch spots, we have a great view of the road.  I was able to get several photos of the ubiquitous motorscooters that weave up and down the roads and alleys of Bali, and probably all of Indonesia.

There's the drink stand motorscooter, selling a variety of drinks.  The propane tank delivery motorscooter.  The proper young ladies riding sidesaddle.  Entire families on a motorscooter - really, we saw five people on one (two parents and three youngish children).  Men and women in traditional Balinese clothing.  Men and women in traditional western clothing.  School children in uniform.  Parents with school children.  It goes on and on, in an endlessly fascinating parade of Balinese life and colour.

And then there are the Balinese women - somehow, the people who serve as unskilled labourers for construction sites seem to be women.  Not the carpenters or painters - no, the people who carry buckets of sand for cement, or stacks of tile - they seem to almost always be women.  And not exactly young women at that.  I'm amazed at the strength these women have to carry heavy loads on their heads all day long.

Of course, then there are the occasional grande dames of the street, lovely old grandmas who still carry large loads on their heads, while walking with perfect posture and directing younger people on what to do.  One lovely woman motioned to us that a restaurant had food to eat, because obviously we tourists couldn't read the Indonesian signs.  I do love these little Balinese yentas.

I've been watching people set out the offerings at the shrines, or in front of places of business, and there is a definite pattern to the way this is done.  First, the offerings are carried by either a man or woman in proper respectful dress - this means a shirt with sleeves, either a sarong or slacks, and a sash around the waist.  (The sash seems to be important.)  The offerings (which are sold in the market, or made by someone in the home or business) are placed - two or three in the front, one each to the left and right of the entrance, often on a statue, and then two for the exit.  The person placing the offerings often has a bowl or glass or water with a flower, and they use this to sprinkle (fling!) water on the offerings as they say a prayer.  Yes, even in a store - I've seen the fabric or clothing get water droplets while this is happening.  Sometimes the incense is already burning while the water thing is done, sometimes lit incense is added after the water part.  If there isn't the water thing, the offerant still waves their hand, often with the flower between fingers.  Then, some people put that flower back into the offerings - but others throw it away, or even drop it in the sea.

I find the procedure, and all the shrines, endlessly fascinating.  I'm not sure if it's the reverence, or the colour, or the incense filling the air, or the whimsy of adding wrapped candies to the offerings (you'd think they'd unwrap them for the gods?), or what - the entire ritual just has a lovely peaceful quality to it.  

And then of course the stray animals and neighbourhood monkeys eat the offerings when they can. 

The various shops provide unending colour, whether they're selling fabrics, clothes, carvings, or my favourite, the kites.  I just love the dragon kites.  Not that I need one.  But again, there is something whimsical about a kite that is a fierce dragon, often carved into the shrines and temples as a guardian against evil - and suddenly that guardian spirit becomes a kite, a child's toy, an item of fun and joy.  Intricately made and beautifully rendered, of course - because in Bali, stairs are decorated with frangipani blossoms or bowls of multicoloured petals creating little bursts of beauty.  The mundane and average is made special and decorative, all the time, everywhere.  There is just a sense of aesthetics permeating the everyday here.  And I think that might be my favourite thing about Bali, that unassuming sense that "pretty" is enough.  That something can exist only to be decorative, pretty, beautiful.  That an object like a flower exists only to be pretty and that beauty is its entire reason to be - and that that is revered.

Maybe that's just my artist's perception of the decorative aspect of Balinese culture.  My interpretation.

But then, maybe that's the way it is, too.