Thursday, May 31, 2007

Hindu statues

Hindu temples are full of statues, and the statues are full of personality. Like this one.

Or this guy who seems to be holding up the world.

Or this long-tongued evil spirit.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Kopi Susu a la Volcano

There is a kind of mania here for watching the sunrise from beautiful spots, so when we signed up for a hike up Gunung Batur in Bali, they came to roust us out of bed at 2 a.m. Before we knew it, we were scrambling up a sandy, rocky path with only flashlights and a sliver of moon to light the way.

Maybe they were worried about me and Colbert. When we pulled into the dark parking lot at the bottom of the mountain, I had heard the driver tell the guide: "Cewek-cewek" (CHAY-wek CHAY-wek): "Girls." His tone did not suggest confidence in our hiking abilities.

We were the first ones on the mountain, and we held our own. All the way up, we could look back and see the flashlights of later hikers bobbing their way up the slope.

The sunrise was nice, but the mountains are so stunning they don't really need any help. Batur is a double crater. The outer cone is 17 kilometers around, with a little lake nestled inside; next to the lake is a smaller, sharper peak.

The whole landscape is shaped into steep slopes and distinct waves, the legacy of eruptions in 1994, 1974, 1963, 1926, 1917, and on back through the centuries. I've been lucky to hike in a lot of amazing places -- the Rockies, the Whites, the Andes, the Alps -- but this is one of the amazingest.

I was somewhat dubious of our guide, Nyoman, at first, because he seemed to talk a little loud. (Are the Balinese generally loud-talkers, or have I just gotten used to nearly-inaudible Javanese speech?) But he won me over with his obvious desire to get away from the crowds. There are four huts at ever-higher spots on the mountain, and every time a group arrived at our hut he would take us on to the next one.

One time another guide swaggered in, caught sight of me and Laura and bellowed, "HEY, dude, how ya DOIN'? That's what AMERICANS say." He was so secure in his knowledge, I saw no point in answering. I just heaved a sigh of relief when Nyoman picked up his bag and headed for the door.

After sunrise we played that timeless volcano game, "cooking in the steam vents." The eggs came out hard-cooked and a little smoky, and very tasty after a long climb.

A glass of kopi susu from the hut lady rounded out the meal. She hikes up every morning from the nearest village and sells tea and coffee till about noon. It's a strenuous job, but it comes with a great view.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Self-loathing revisited

Back in New Hampshire, when I had a bad case of writer's block, I'd go to the icky convenience store across the street and buy what I called the Lunch of Self-Loathing: a small can of ravioli and a small can of peas. The Lunch must be eaten cold, straight from the cans. I don't know why, but it usually made me feel better. Maybe it harmonized my physical and emotional states.

I recently re-created the Lunch after a visit to a fancy expat grocery store. Here, it's something of a splurge; the canned spaghetti alone cost three times what I would normally pay for a warung lunch. I skipped the peas. I wasn't really feeling bad about work, either; it was just kind of a trip down memory lane. Can a person feel nostalgic for self-loathing?

Saturday, May 26, 2007

The long walk

One of the great things about Ubud was just strolling, which as I've mentioned is difficult to do in Jakarta. On Monkey Forest day we walked all afternoon and part of the evening. The book said it was a two-hour walk, but we cleverly extended it by getting lost about 15 times.

The nicest part was this path through the rice paddies. If you look hard, you can make out Gunung (Mt.) Batur in the background, which we climbed later.

Maybe Colbert has been traveling in China for too long. We had to ask for directions a lot, and every time someone smiled and was helpful without also trying to sell us something, she would heave a long sigh and say, "I love this place."

Friday, May 25, 2007

Dancing on fire

Ubud is the cultural capital of Bali, so there are traditional dance performances almost every night. The dancers have elaborate costumes and move in a slightly crouched stance; the motions, especially the turning of the wrist and the pinching together of fingertips, are very fluid and specific.

Then a guy came out and built a big fire with a lot of help from his bottle of kerosene.

A male dancer on a stylized wooden horse came out and danced barefoot around the embers. Then he danced through the embers ... kicking them toward the audience so energetically that the woman in front of me curled up on her chair to get her feet off the floor.

The dancer had very black feet afterward.

Some say he's protected from the embers by a trance state. Others say it's a low-energy fire and he's merely shuffling through it, not actually stepping on the coals. I say I'm not volunteering anytime soon -- not without asbestos booties.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Grabby paws

In Ubud we visited the famous Monkey Forest, where for a modest fee you can be assaulted, robbed and kicked out the back gate by rapacious Balinese macaques.

Laura bought a bag of bananas and rambutans from an elderly woman at the front gate, with the intention of distributing them one at a time. But this big guy had other ideas. Minutes after we entered the park, he pounced on her, grabbed the whole bag, and proceeded to stuff himself with the contents.

I didn't buy any fruit because I'm a little afraid of monkeys. More precisely, I'm a little afraid of monkeys who aren't afraid of humans.

They're pretty cute when they're not exhibiting criminal tendencies, though.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Motorcycles repaired, ducks and chickens sold

Another great business combo, this time down the alley from our homestay in Ubud, Bali. You can get a glimpse of the ducks through the bamboo fence. I never knew ducks were so noisy; they made a hell of a racket every time we walked by.

Colbert has headed back to China by way of Bangkok, leaving our guest room/office sadly empty. Now my laptop is developing a terrible problem with its screen - everything looks distorted and psychedelic - which means I might have to take it to the dreaded service center. So, continued interruptions in blogging are possible.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Rolling across Java

We're back from Bali and Yogya for a round of hot showers and real coffee, and tomorrow we take off for a weekend at the beach in Pelabuhan Ratu with friends.

We took the train back from Yogya, which is one of the world's great train rides. There was a really funny little kid in the seat in front of us who was wearing a plastic bag on his head like a hat. We made faces at each other, and then he shot me with a toy gun.

Outside was the usual panoramic view of mountains, trees and rice paddies. Did I mention this is a great train?

Monday, May 07, 2007

On the road again

My friend Laura Colbert is here from China for two weeks! Colbert of the funky pants. Colbert in all her Colbertiness. We are wandering around Bali so posts are/will be infrequent again for a bit.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Junk food of the week: Ginger brittle

These are known as "Ginger-Flavored Chips" (Kripik Rasa Jahe), but they're really like peanut brittle, minus the peanuts, plus coconut, ginger and sesame seeds. They're sweet and so gingery that they're almost hot like chilis. Ginger brittle is very sticky and should not be consumed by small children, unless you like having gluey sugar contrails on the walls and furniture.

Mystery theatre II

On my last weekend in Yogya, there was a shadow puppet play (wayang kulit) to mark the opening of a new government office downtown. As I understand it, performances like these aren't just celebrations; they're also spiritual events that help bring the new building harmony and good fortune.

The puppet-master uses the attached sticks to manipulate the figures. But where are the shadows? you may be asking. The answer is, we were in the cheap seats. To see the shadow side of the performance, you have to sit on the other side of the screen, where all the high muckety-mucks of local and regional government were sitting. Hence the bright light hanging in front of the puppets on our side, which you can see in the photo below. You can also see the dalang, or puppet-master, moving one of the puppets.

Being a dalang has to be one of the world's most demanding creative jobs. The dalang manipulates all the puppets and does all the voices, while giving frequent cues to the orchestra (which he cannot see) by striking a set of bronze plates with his right foot. He is a storyteller, comedian, singer, actor and political and spiritual commentator. He may dip into high Javanese, low Javanese, Indonesian, and even English during one play. Since wayang traditionally lasts all night, he performs for eight hours at a time while sitting cross-legged and constantly moving the puppets.

The screen was on a raised stage, and an entire gamelan orchestra sat between us and the puppets. Behind these singers you can see all of the dalang's puppets lined up. All the characters have to be present, even though most of them won't be used (there are hundreds of wayang stories and characters).

(Pardon the blurry photos; I didn't want to use my flash.)

Like all traditional arts, wayang is being challenged by TV, movies, etc. It's becoming more of a formal artistic and touristic event, rather than an ordinary expression of the culture. But it's clearly still lively and relevant. It was cool to see cigarette vendors, cold-drink sellers and other regular people gathered around laughing. To them this was clearly not a museum piece; it was just a good story.

As Inside Indonesia magazine points out, one of wayang's strengths is its ability to adapt to stay relevent: "When President Sukarno used to arrive everywhere by helicopter there was a period in the 1960s where the god Visnu would descend in the same manner. TV and video created a demand for faster action and more realism if wayang performers were to attract younger audiences. ... Sometimes the puppets even move through film projections of exploding volcanoes. These changes are popular with audiences. There are rock songs in the middle, comedians (pelawak), singers, and people get up and dance. In one wayang performance the dalang smashed his puppets in a manner reminiscent of Who concerts."

Friday, May 04, 2007

Missing dog posters

... are just as sad in Indonesian as they are in English.

If anybody's seen Jelly in the Yogya area, could you call the number here?

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Hot sauce for terrorists

Special Sambal (SS) started a few years ago with one warung, and has spread across Yogya like a wave of sambal kecap.

Their secret to success is offering inexpensive food to college students, along with a menu of 20 sambals with fun names like Sambal Terrorist and Sambal Smackdown.

I managed to try 7 of the 20 during my stint at school. I have to say the Sambal Terrorist was rather mild, but Sambal Horror, made with vicious little green chilis, almost peeled the roof of my mouth off ... in a good way.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Shoes, sandals, help with your Master's thesis

That's what this little store down the street from the school offers. Although I'm told what you usually get is not so much help with your thesis as a thesis itself, custom-written to meet the demands of your program. If you can't afford that, you can buy an old thesis from several years ago and recycle it.