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Power relations in Indonesia (a Javanese perspective)

26 May 2012

A couple days ago, someone introduced me to the concept of kaula-Gusti. He used this concept to explain to me a kind of cultural sensibility that continues among the Indonesian people today.

Rather than try to repeat his explanation, I’ll use this:

The local term ibadat or ibadah, is a direct borrowing from Arabic ‘ibada. It means, according to Pak Sholeh, “to enslave oneself to God (ngaula ning Gusti Allah).” Semantically (munggu logat), the notion of ngaula (to enslave) entails at least two implications. The first is affirmation of the existing bond between man and God in a slave-Master (kaula-Gusti) relationship where man is the slave or servant (kaula) and God is the Master (Gusti); the second is an affirmation that man, the servant (kaula), has the task of obeying the Master (Gusti), both by doing continuously what the Master orders and by avoiding what the Master forbids. However, acknowledging that the God is the Master who, despite His absolute power and omnipotence, is exceedingly beneficent and merciful, giving the servants life and invaluable nourishment, has a third implication; that is, that the servant has a moral obligation to express thankfulness, to do his utmost in his service, and to be generous in his obedience. (Muhaimin, 1995, p. 84)

The text is from The Islamic Traditions of Cirebon: Ibadat and Adat Among Javanese Muslims, by Abdul Ghoffur Muhaimin (Canberra: ANU E Press, 2006).

As my friend explained, however, this is much more than the master-slave relationship with which most Western people are familiar. Notice the references to God in this explanation — but my friend said this relationship exists between the rakyat (the public) and the ruler, whether that ruler be a sultan or a president. It also exists between various higher and lower people in Indonesia.

So I asked the woman who comes three days a week to clean my apartment to explain her understanding of kaula-Gusti to me. She grew up in Central Java, the child of farming people. The idea is very familiar to her; she knows exactly what it is, but she had a hard time figuring out how to put it into English. So I said: “Is it about the relationship of God to the people?”

She looked shocked. “Oh, no, it’s not about God,” she said. “It’s more like … the sultan.”

“The sultan and the people?” I asked.

“Yes, but not only the sultan. It’s also, well, like you and me. You are the Gusti, I am kaula.”

So this is what my friend was explaining. He focused on the “moral obligation to express thankfulness,” which sounds quite perverse to an educated Western person — he said the kaula wants to serve the Gusti. This goes against everything an American has ever learned about slavery, coming from our history with Africa and the brutal slave trade between that continent and ours. No one wants to be a slave.

But the long ingrained cultural condition here in Indonesia is like a different kind of soil from which grows a different kind of plant life, well adapted to that earth and its nutrients. I’m not saying it’s right or good — it’s just different.

And if you want to know what sparked our conversation about kaula-Gusti, my friend and I were talking about the bribe that Indonesians say is not a bribe. An example came from another American, when he had finished getting all his immigration documents from the local Imigrasi office. The American man and his sponsor, an Indonesian college professor, were preparing to leave the Imigrasi office when the Indonesian handed a folded bunch of money to the immigration officer. As they left the building, the American asked if his sponsor had just given the officer a bribe.

The Indonesian professor said it was not a bribe, because the paperwork was all finished. It you give money before an action is complete, then it is a bribe, and that is wrong, he explained. But if you give money after, that’s not a bribe. It’s more like a tip, because the Imigrasi officer did a good job, and the American had all his forms and permits now.

So the other day, I asked my Indonesian friend to explain why that money is not a bribe. He had a good laugh and then asked me if I understood the concept of kaula-Gusti.

The Indonesian professor was expressing thankfulness to the Imigrasi officer when he gave the money. But, my friend added, that Indonesian professor would be lying if he said he did not expect the Imigrasi officer to remember that payment in any future encounters they might have.

I’m not really clear who is the kaula and who is the Gusti in that transaction. But I do see now how the subservience one sees everywhere in Indonesia has roots that go back hundreds of years — and in a way that is very, very strange for a Western person, it contains a voluntary aspect, an acquiescence, an acceptance of one’s kaula-hood.


Making Batik in Bandung

6 May 2012

Saturday morning, I went with three other Americans to a local batik design and production business to learn more about how batik is made. Our workshop lasted three hours and cost each of us less than $20 U.S.

See an audio slideshow I made about our workshop and the Hasan Batik studio.

The woman above is a real pro, applying wax by hand to a large piece of fabric that has already had a pattern of wax applied with copper stamps. The stamps are also pressed by hand, one by one, in a very time-consuming process. This fabric is dyed again and again, with new patterns layered on, in wax, after each dying and drying stage. The first application of wax, on white fabric, will leave a white pattern after the wax is removed.

Her technique is batik tulis (tulis means to write). She uses a tool called a canting, a kind of pen made from a stick of wood or bamboo and fitted with a small copper reservoir that holds a small amount of the liquid hot wax. The reservoir is shaped like a tiny teapot. When she tips it forward, the wax flows out of a teensy little spout.

Above you can see three different stages of wax. Since the wax used is always the same — and will be removed later — the darker color of wax indicates a different stage in the process. Below you can see a finished product from this batik producer — Hasan Batik, in Bandung. Their designs are a mixture of traditional and new, unique motifs, and the fabrics they use are really lovely.

For the workshop, each participant receives a square of white cotton cloth. We could apply wax with any copper stamps we wanted (they have hundreds). After all the wax had been applied, we then colored our cloth by hand, using fabric dye and small paintbrushes. Like glazes for pottery, these dyes are not deep or and vibrant when they are applied. After they are fixed by a dip in a solution of hydrochloric acid, they become very bright. Below is my finished batik, after the dip, washing, and removal of wax.

We really had a great time in our workshop. I’m thinking about going back to do it again!

See an audio slideshow I made about our workshop and the Hasan Batik studio.

Human trafficking and Indonesia

26 February 2012

People fleeing from Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq often pass through Indonesia as they try to reach Australia. It’s like people from Mexico and countries farther south crossing the border into the United States. They pay large sums to shady operators who promise to get them to Australia without legal permission.

The immigrants to North America often die in the desert, abandoned or lost. The immigrants to Australia often drown.

This is something I never knew about until I lived here in Indonesia and read/watched the local news.

My U.S. readers might not have a clear picture of how this could happen, so here’s a little geography lesson. Picture India on a map, and then, just to the northwest, past Pakistan, you’ll see Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan standing in a line from west to east. People can cross through Pakistan and India to reach points in Thailand or Malaysia. Thousands of miles of coastline run south, straight to Indonesia. Some of these refugees may even enter Indonesia legally on tourist visas — I don’t know.

Australia lies just south of Indonesia:

Click to enlarge: Map from PCL Map Collection, University of Texas

Indonesia is an archipelago, a nation consisting of more than 17,000 islands. There are lots and lots of boats, for fishing as well as for transport. Poverty is widespread and severe. So the traffickers — the people who take the immigrants’ money — can find plenty of willing boatmen who will risk taking illegal passengers. All you have to do is pay them.

Ose, 15, his 16-year-old cousin Ako and their 15-year-old friend John Ndollu were selling their catch at the local fish market in Kupang when they became unwittingly embroiled in a people smuggling ring.

“To tell you the absolute truth if I knew what was going to happen, I would have stayed here and kept fishing near my home. I was tricked,” says Ose.

Offered the equivalent of more than 10 years’ wages to work as cooks on a boat, the two cousins and their friend didn’t think twice about saying yes. Earning a monthly wage of Rp 25,000 (US$2.75), the prospect of a Rp 5 million [about US$550] paycheck was unbelievable. [source]

Those three boys, from an island in East Indonesia, spent one year in an Australian jail — charged as adults with people smuggling.

Late last year, a number of editorials contrasted the plight of an Australian teenager, held in a Bali jail, and that of many Indonesian teens who are held in Australian prisons for working on boats that brought illegal immigrants to Australia. The Australian boy admitted to having bought a small amount of marijuana while vacationing with his parents in Bali. Australian newspapers ran editorials expressing outrage that a minor might be sentenced to spend years in a foreign prison for such an offense.

Some refugees from various countries do stay in Indonesia — some even legally — but a large number have their hearts set on settling in Australia. So long as extreme poverty persists in Indonesia, it will be easy to find people who will risk carrying the immigrants across the sea.

As for the refugees themselves — can we blame them for wanting to escape from their war-ravaged or oppressive countries? The flow of people will not be stopped by throwing the smugglers into prisons.

A demand for Indonesian students to publish research

18 February 2012

All over Indonesia, university lecturers and professors are discussing a new requirement that was announced in January by the Directorate General of Higher Education (Dikti). It is known as memorandum No. 152/E/T/2012 (subject: Publikasi Karya Ilmiah). I heard about it last week and wrote an opinion column about the matter; it was published in today’s Jakarta Post (see it online). Here is my original text.

Update (Feb. 19): This other opinion column ran on the same day, directly below mine, in The Jakarta Post.

Update (Feb. 19): View the original document (PDF, 1 page; 1.1 MB) from Dikti.

Meanwhile, an Indonesian lecturer, Yohanes Sulaiman, wrote a similar opinion, which was published in the current (Feb. 13–19) English version of Tempo, a weekly news magazine here. He has posted a copy of his article on his blog.

Yohanes included some very interesting stats in his article, which I will quote:

…there are approximately 270,000 lecturers and professors in Indonesia, with about 24,000 of them holding doctorate degrees, not all of them are involved in publishing.

Yohanes also referred to the low pay of university professors in Indonesia:

In July 2011, during a Supreme Court hearing on a prospective judge, it was revealed that Doctor Dewi Kania Sugiharti, a law professor at Padjajaran University, one of Indonesia’s most respected state universities, received a monthly salary of 6.7 million rupiahs [about $740 U.S.], compelling her to take a second occupation …

Another opinion column about this matter was published in Kompas, in Bahasa Indonesia, on Feb. 9. The author is Franz Magnis-Suseno.

There are three related matters that I did not discuss directly in my opinion column.

First, to put the requirement for publication in scholarly journals on students is a poorly conceived strategy. Most scholarly research is published by scholars who have completed their education — in the Western countries, the authors of such research are typically people who have already completed a Ph.D. It is true that the better doctoral students in the Western universities will usually achieve publication in scholarly journals before their graduation — but only if they have had good training and a lot of mentoring from their professors.

Second, if you refer to the first quote above from Yohanes, you’ll see that the number of Ph.D.s who are teaching in Indonesia is very small: about 24,000, he says. (In the United States, we graduate 64,000 Ph.D.s each year, according to The Economist.) So, who is supposed to mentor and train the Ph.D. students here in Indonesia? Not many Indonesians are able to study abroad, and of those who do, not all are able to complete the Ph.D. The research facilities at the Indonesian universities are, understandably, not up to par with those in the Western universities. The resources too are not equivalent. A Ph.D. received from one university is not equivalent to a Ph.D. from another university.

Third, few Ph.D. students in Indonesia have access to the international scholarly journals. To subscribe to even one journal can cost hundreds of dollars per year, and the fact is that Western universities pay enormous sums to subscribe to entire databases of journals. When we begin our research, we log into the databases through our university library and conduct thorough searches for related previous research. We also train our master’s and doctoral students to do this. By reading the earlier studies concerning similar research questions, students learn how to shape and pursue their own original research agendas.

Lacking these resources — enough qualified professors and free access to all of the top international journals — the Indonesian students cannot be prepared adequately to meet the demand of memorandum No. 152/E/T/2012.

Sheep fighting in Subang

7 February 2012

Those are the biggest testicles I have ever seen, I thought as the rams came off the small trucks, wrangled by men holding the animals’ giant crescent horns. Each ram’s scrotum looked like a jackfruit, huge and pendulous.

These rams are bred for aggression so that they will fight. The event, called adu domba (sheep competition) was held on a large flat lawn at a site that reminded me of a small-town fairgrounds in the United States. We drove in through a gateway in a wrought-iron fence. There was no admission fee.

We arrived early, three Indonesian men and me, and about two dozen domba were already tied to stakes in a bamboo grove beside the competition field (lapangan). The bamboo offered good shade, but the sky was mostly overcast, and it was cool there. There would be more than 200 sheep in the one-day competition, Luthfi told me, before he and his friend Ilham went off to buy breakfast from the food vendors. I stayed in the bamboo and watched the sheep arrive.

Stakes had been driven into the ground in long rows, at a distance intended to prevent adjacent sheep from starting the fight early. Two long canvas straps tied to a sheep’s broad leather collar secured the sheep to the stake on either side of him. Even so, sometimes two sheep managed to start butting their heads together, sideways, and then men quickly came to re-tie the straps.

The atmosphere seemed like a livestock show at a county fair, with the rams’ owners excited, but reserved, strutting in their cowboy hats, but mostly wearing flip-flops. No one wore boots. Many small boys wandered about in groups, pointing and talking about the sheep. The men wandered too, but with more purpose. I didn’t see any money and I don’t know if there’s gambling, but Islam forbids it, and all or most of these men are Muslims.

Many people took photos of men and their sheep. Women and children arrived, and with them, men selling balloons and es lilin (a frozen sweet). The rams filled the bamboo grove.

Luthfi came to find me as the music began. He told me the same music is performed for pencak silat — when men compete in martial arts. In fact, many men wore the loose black shirt and trousers of silat fighters. This music sounds quite different from the gamelan at wayang kulit puppet shows and Balinese dances. It is insistent, inspiring. It gives the sheep courage to fight.

Around 9 a.m., the first bout began. The referee blew his whistle. Each ram was handled by men who functioned like the trainers in a boxer’s corner in the ring. To start, the rams are placed head to head, like a handshake. Their men then walk them backward to opposite ends of the field, pinching a bit of flesh just in front of the hindquarter — and let them go.

Two rams charge and crash together, their massive horns meeting with a resounding clack. The music, however, is louder.

If they lock horns, or if one ram goes for the side of the other, the men rush in and drag them apart. Pulled to the ends of the field again, the rams charge as soon as they are released.

Sometimes one ram hesitates, seeming uninterested. When he sees the other ram hurtling toward him, his indecision is forgotten immediately, and he charges straight at the challenger.

The bout lasts a couple of minutes. The ref counts the number of contact butts between the two rams and calls an end to the bout when a certain number is reached (it may be 20). Scoring, I was told, is something like boxing, with more points being awarded to a sheep who knocks down his opponent.

When a sheep falls to the grass during a bout, the ref blows hard on his whistle, and both sheeps’ trainers run in (always barefoot). The trainers of the standing sheep pull him back so he doesn’t inflict more damage. Meanwhile, the fallen sheep’s main trainer picks him up and rubs him all over — head, body, legs and tail. Sometimes the sheep staggers, punch-drunk. Then the man lifts him up by his forelegs, hugging him from behind, and walks him back and forth on his hind legs, all the time talking into his ear.

I really enjoyed seeing the bond between man and ram. “These men are like brothers to their sheep,” I said to Luthfi, and he agreed.

When a bout concludes, a whole team runs onto the field, often with several little boys wearing black silat clothes, to put the big leather collar around the ram’s neck and tie the straps and take him away. No one wears shoes on the field.

I could have watched all day, but it began raining around 11:30, and although it was not a heavy rain, it seemed likely to go on for hours. The competition continued and most of the local people, standing four and five deep all around the perimeter of the field, stayed. But I called together my friends and we left.

Many Western people, I suppose, would consider this animal cruelty, but I wasn’t disturbed by it. When one bout ended quite quickly, I asked Luthfi why it was so short. He said, “One of the sheep is hurt.” As we were standing right beside the corner where the sheep entered and left the field, I got a close look at the injured ram. He had a raw spot on his forehead that looked just like a skinned knee when you have fallen hard on concrete. I’m not saying that’s nothing, but I survived a lot of skinned knees in my childhood.

What’s really wonderful about having the chance to watch an event like this, which has been part of the local culture for a long time, is that I get to see people doing what they enjoy. It’s not staged for someone else. It’s their own thing. The children, the women selling fried snacks, the men swaggering in their cowboy hats, fathers carrying small children and pointing to the sheep, and teenage boys hanging on the sidelines — jealous, maybe, that they’re not part of the show.

Getting the MERP Permit to Leave Indonesia

27 January 2012

Another bureaucratic hurdle jumped, and no bones broken. Hooray! Today I received this permit (izin), which allows me to leave Indonesia and then return without losing any of my other hard-won privileges, such as the KITAS and the SKLD.

I will be traveling to Vietnam (Hanoi) and to Singapore in March.

I’ll provide a brief overview of the MERP process, but note that I live in Bandung (not Jakarta), and I’m here on a teaching Fulbright, not a research Fulbright, and not a student Fulbright.

Friday, Jan 20: My first visit to Imigrasi for this process. In addition to my passport, my blue book (Buku Pengawasan Orang Asing), and photocopies of all the relevant pages in each of those (including both sides of the KITAS, mind you), two critical documents are required to move forward: (1) a new letter from your sponsor (in my case, this is my department head at my university here) that specifically states your need for a “multiple exit reentry permit,” including the dates and country or countries you will travel to; (2) a photocopy of your IMTA form or letter from the Labor Ministry (Tenaga Kerja dan Transmigrasi). AMINEF sent an e-mail to my sponsor telling her exactly what to put in the letter.

You will also need to submit one completed form with all your personal details, supplied by Imigrasi (Formulir Izin Masuk Kembali dan Pemulangan). I had sent my driver to pick up the form earlier that same day. My language teacher then helped me fill out the form, because it’s completely in Bahasa Indonesia. Note: In the Permohanan section (Section 1), No. 2 is the one that allows multiple re-entries (Izin Masuk Kembali Beberapa Kali Perjalanan).

And do not forget the new pink folder! You can buy one just outside the Imigrasi office.

You’ll get a receipt. You must leave your passport and blue book with the other items.

Wednesday, Jan. 25: Because Monday was a national holiday (Chinese New Year), I was not allowed to return until Wednesday. My only task that day was to pay (Rp. 600,000, or $67) for the permit, but this required several trips back and forth between the cashier window and the counter (loket) where I had done all my business the first time. My receipt was stamped once or twice and returned to me. I was told to come back on Friday.

Near the cashier’s window, there was a large signboard (in Bahasa Indonesia only) that listed the price for each type of permit (more than 10 were listed). This made it clear to me that the MERP for Rp. 600,000 would be valid for six months. Since I’m scheduled to leave at the end of July, this six-month period is ideal for me. But note that I was asked when I paid how long I wanted the permit to be. And the cashier asked me in in Bahasa Indonesia. My language skill is now adequate to handle that exchange, but it just goes to show that it’s always good to have a native speaker with you for this kind of thing.

Also note that a permit covering a full year costs much more, and the single re-entry permit costs less.

Friday, Jan. 27: I asked my driver to pick everything up, if they would allow it, and gave him the receipt. There was no problem; he came back with my passport and the blue book, and now I have an official purple stamp inside my passport that says “Multiple Re-entry Permit” (yes, in English! Go figure), and it’s valid until July 25, 2012. It has writing in three colors of ink across it, and an extra stamp with the date of issue (Jan. 25). Very nice!

I was happy to find this process was much shorter than the original KITAS process, but it now seems to me that the KITAS process could have been much shorter — and would have required me to make far fewer trips through endless traffic jams — if only the information given to my sponsor had been clearer.

I have also learned that one should make multiple photocopies of everything (every letter and every form, not to mention your passport pages), because there will always be some other office, later, that will want to see something you have already given away.

Bali: Return to Ubud, Then North to Lovina

15 January 2012

The rest of Indonesia is nothing like Bali. That’s what everyone says; I can only speak for a little part of Java, and that certainly is nothing like Bali. The obvious difference is culture (budaya): Visual arts (particularly stone and wood carving) are evident all over the island of Bali in a profusion matched by few other places in the world (Rome and Florence come to mind). That’s why I chose the photo above as the first one for this post.

Monkey Forest, Ubud. The stairs come off a bridge crossing a narrow gorge in the middle of the Monkey Forest. The two dragons, larger than a man, provide a good example of typical Balinese carving. I can’t say whether these dragons are old or (relatively) new — both stone and concrete darken in the wet, tropical climate, and a lovely pelt of moss covers anything in the shade.

The monkeys (long-tailed macaques) are the big attraction for tourists in the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary, but as the name indicates, there’s more here than our 537 primate cousins (that’s the number given in the current brochure).

Three different temples (in good condition) stand within the lovely forest, which is delightfully free from vendors and other humans who might want to bother you (e.g., asking if you want a taxi). Pretty much every little desa (village) on Bali has multiple separate temples (pura), some of which are used often and others only for special ceremonies, so it’s not unusual that so many temples are so close by one another.

But back to the monkeys — okay, these are real, wild monkeys. There are no fences, and certainly no cages. They are used to having hordes of tourists tramping through their forest, so they have no fear of us. Some of them jump right up onto people’s shoulders or clamber up their legs. I saw numerous people allowing this, but luckily I didn’t have to figure out how to avoid it because none of them tried to use me as a tree. One of them did make an aggressive run toward me, but I tried the old “show your teeth to ’em” trick, and it worked: he shrank back and then retreated.

Anyway, I love watching monkeys, so I spent a good two hours or so walking and watching and trying to take good photos (most of my pictures are complete blurs, because with the heavy shade the shutter is not so fast). In many parts of Asia, macaques are considered pests (just as many Americans consider squirrels to be pests), but here they are revered. If you know the basic story of the Ramayana, you know that Rama (the hero) could never have defeated Ravana (the baddest of bad guys) without the help of Sugriya, Hanuman, and their giant army of monkeys!

Close to one of the temples in the Monkey Forest, a small army of stone carvers was hard at work. Watching them addressed an important question I had: Of the zillions of statues of gods, demons, dragons, assorted animals and heroes and (yes) monkeys seen all over Bali, aren’t a lot of them actually concrete, not volcanic rock? And if they are concrete, then are they simply cast from molds?

Probably not. This man, and about 12 more like him, was working on what had been a big block of concrete. Nearby stood several new blocks, curing in the hot sun. The small cement mixer, empty and silent, awaited its next load. One man in the early stages of his work was whaling away on a raw block with a large metal mallet and a big, broad chisel, but already I could make out the shape of a crouching bear. Another man, at a much later stage than the one seen above, was polishing the rough spots with an electric burr sander. This man was doing some gentle tapping around the area where lion cub almost touched mama lion.

My Bahasa Indonesia is now passable, so that I can ask simple questions like “How long does it take?” and actually understand the answer: One week. From the untouched concrete block to a finished statue, carved by one man (no assembly line here), takes a week. In a year or two, when it’s darkened and half covered by velvety moss, I won’t be able to guess its age.

Watching these men work was much more interesting than watching the monkeys (although not nearly as amusing). In contrast to all the mass-produced so-called handicrafts churned out by workshops all over Bali, it was clear to me that the stone carvers near the graveyard in the Monkey Forest approach their work as artists. (I’ll post more photos of them on Flickr.)

Walking south of the Monkey Forest, I got to see a lot of traditional Balinese houses — well, you don’t really see the house; you see the entrance to the compound, and you get little glimpses of the assorted buildings inside. This arrangement is very typical: Two matched figures flank the main doorway, which is set into a tall gate-frame. The narrow wooden door is often wide open (the door is often elaborately carved, and sometimes brightly painted), and close inside is a stone (or concrete) statue, very often of Ganesha, the elephant-headed Hindu god (seen here).

On an all-day bicycle ride through the countryside near Ubud, I learned from our excellent guide the reason why a big statue blocks your way immediately when you enter the Balinese home through the front gate: “We believe the bad spirits cannot turn corners,” he said. So by placing the statue just inside the door, you force anyone who enters to turn, and no bad spirit will be able to come in.

Bicycling around central Bali. Ah, rice terraces. This was a roadside stop before we actually mounted our bikes. We first rode in a van (there were nine of us, plus our guide and then two sweepers who rode at the back) to breakfast in a restaurant overlooking Mount Batur (which unfortunately was completely hidden by mist).

Then we had a great tour of a garden where we saw coffee growing (both robusta and arabica beans), fruit trees, vanilla beans, ginseng, etc., and afterward had a wonderful coffee and tea tasting. I tasted the kopi luwak! That’s coffee made from beans that have been eaten — and (ahem) expelled by the Asian civet cat (see story). It’s actually quite tasty, but like Kona coffee, it doesn’t taste different enough to me to justify the premium price. I was more excited about the ginseng coffee, which tasted amazing!

I didn’t take a lot of photos on the bike ride (about 25 km, or 15.5 miles) because we had a fair bit of rain (it is the rainy season now), but it was never too heavy, and it was warm. We wore rain jackets. We rode through lots of rice fields (mostly flat, though, because the route is designed to be mostly downhill — sweet!) and several small villages. In spite of the weather, this was great fun, and I would like to do it again on a dryer day. (Contact: Bali Eco Cycling.)

I stayed five days in Ubud (at Murni’s Houses, which I liked very much), and there was one full day (and night) of heavy, heavy rain, and rain most afternoons. I knew this might happen, so I had a list of three art museums, and that’s where I went when the rain came. Ubud is known as a center for art and culture; it also has wonderful restaurants and hundreds of shops (many of which have very nice things and not the tacky “handicrafts” abundant elsewhere). It’s very walkable, and if you set out in almost any direction away from the center of town, you’ll be in the rice fields.

  • ARMA (Agung Rai Museum of Art): A bit out of the way on the southeast edge of Ubud, this museum has two big buildings and a very good full restaurant. Paintings are the focus here, and the big collection of early Balinese paintings gave me a good foundation for understanding how painting developed here. With all the stone and wood carving, two-dimensional painting had not really been done on Bali until Europeans introduced it in the 1930s and ’40s. The paintings reminded me of Bruegel in showing everyday Balinese life (work in the rice fields, etc.), but with a stunning amount of intricate detail.
  • Museum Neka: This is on the opposite corner of Ubud (northwest), but an easy walk from Murni’s. It has more (but smaller) buildings than ARMA (set among lovely gardens) and a wider variety of works. Again the emphasis is on paintings, but here I saw few examples of the early style. Some of the modern works are marvelous (Cattle Boys, 1991, by Putu Ngurah Wardhana); some show too much Gauguin influence for my taste.
  • Museum Puri Lukisan: On Jalan Raya Ubud, about two minutes’ walk from Monkey Forest Road, this museum is really easy to visit, has gorgeous landscaped grounds, and must really delight fans of woodcarving, as there are numerous examples, most of them in a modern style and very expressive. There are many paintings as well, and a fair amount of space is dedicated to explaining the role of two influential Europeans, Walter Spies and Rudolf Bonnet, on modern art in Bali.

Balinese Dance Performances. Seeing these (and many are available, all over Bali) is something most tourists do. The ticket is less than $10 (U.S.), and the dancers are amazing to watch. On my only previous visit to Bali (in 2005), I saw the Barong and Keris Dance (photos) in the morning, in the village of Batubulan, possibly about an hour’s drive from Kuta, where we stayed (I hope I never see Kuta again — what a dirty, loud, tacky place!). I really enjoyed that dance! It was the first time I listened to a gamelan orchestra.

Staying in Ubud, I was able to choose among numerous different performances every night, and most of them were an easy walk from Murni’s. I went to two: the Kecak and Fire Dance (Friday), and the Legong Dance (Saturday). I mention the days of the week because the performances will be different depending on which troupe performs them and on which day. I didn’t take photos because (a) it was dark, and (b) it interferes with seeing the performance!

Kecak and Fire Dance: This was so awesome, I considered seeing it again on Monday. About 70 bare-chested men of all ages sit in a circle on the ground, three men deep, surrounding a big fire device (like a 6-foot-high candelabra made of torches) and chant the most amazing a cappella accompaniment (continuous for 90 minutes) while Rama and his brother Lakshmana — aided by the clever monkey Hanuman — fight the giant Kumbakarna, brother of the evil lord/ogre Ravana. There’s more, actually four “acts,” including a fabulous scene when Garuda (the mythical eagle/man, rising up, red wings spread wide) frees Rama and Lakshmana from a death-like enchantment. The intricate costumes for all, but especially those of Hanuman and Garuda, were fantastic. Watching by firelight made me imagine the distant past, when this must have been so much more real — and scary!

After Kumbakarna is dead, the Kecak/Ramayana portion ends, and a single man comes out and performs the Sanghyang Djaran (which is a lot like kuda lumping in West Java), in which he gallops around on a hobby-horse and repeatedly runs through live burning coals! Okay, not actual coal, but coconut husks that have been drenched in gasoline and set alight. This is a traditional trance performance, and at the end two other men come out and wrestle the trance-rider to the ground, breaking the spell. Spectacular!

“Kecak & Fire (Ramayana),” at Pura Dalem Ubud, performed by Krama Desa Adat Ubud Kaja. This could not have been more convenient (about 3 minutes’ walk from Murni’s), at the point where Jalan Raya Ubud continues west but changes to Jalan Campuhan. It was performed under a roof because rain was expected (and in fact a deluge came soon after the show began), but in good weather it’s done on the adjacent plaza.

Legong Dance: A good gamelan orchestra accompanied this program of several separate performances, two of which were “mask dances” performed by a single male dancer. These were quite interesting to watch because while I’ve seen the female Balinese dancers do all their fancy mind-boggling finger movements, in the first of these (“Topeng Keras”) I saw a male dancer do equally intricate hand and finger positions, as well as the measured foot turnings and so on. The second one (“Jauk Dance”) was not quite as fascinating because the dancer wore the super-long fingernails or claws of a demon character, and so he could not do the most complicated finger movements. Other scenes included the three-woman “Legong Kraton” dance, a dance involving a flower and a bumblebee, and a somewhat similar one in which a woman dances as a butterfly.

“Legong Dance (Saturday Special),” at Ubud Palace (Saren Agung), performed by Bina Remaja Troupe. This is at the corner of Jalan Ubud Raya and Monkey Forest Road, and it’s done under a roof. Dancers are on an elevated stage.

After Ubud, I went to the north coast of Bali, where I’d never been before. Lovina (or Lovina Beach) is a string of villages extending west from Singaraja, the second largest city on Bali. Its claim to fame: Dolphins. I did see them, about 20 feet away from our little boat, powered by a small but noisy motor (just like the two boats in the photo above), but I didn’t get any photos. We saw them jumping, their dorsal fins and tails curving out of the water, and twice we saw one racing like a torpedo at Speed Racer velocity. The boat ride is quite nice, and less than $8 (U.S.) per person.

I stayed in Lovina four days (at Hotel Melamun, very nice) and rented a motorbike for the whole time. It was a bit rainy, and the sea was ugly — churned up and brown. The beach is not nice either. I knew it was a black (brown would be more accurate) sand beach, but it’s really rather muddy when wet, and at many spots, there’s trash.

But hey, it’s the rainy season, and I did not expect to be lying on the beach — hence the motorbike. The first place I went was the Brahmavihara Arama Buddhist temple and monastery (the photo above shows detail of the stupa there), which was a very nice ride west and then south and uphill through little villages. They have Vipassana retreats there. I only saw one monk, and he appeared to be doing walking meditation, so I didn’t speak to him. The setting is lovely — views of the mountains and trees all around. There were two meditation halls and then, farther up the hillside, a big new monument that borrows elements from Borobudur, with a circular meditation hall inside and partly underground. (I’ll post more photos on Flickr.)

On another day I rode to Pura Maduwe Karang (above), a Balinese Hindu temple about 45 minutes east of Lovina. It was easy to find on the main road, using directions from my Lonely Planet guide.

Balinese temples have many statues surrounding them, and guarding them, and many carved reliefs on the walls, and leering demon-heads on the corners of pedestals and so forth — but at the center rear, where Buddhists would have a giant Buddha statue, or Christians would have a huge crucifix, or a painting of Jesus, the Balinese have an empty throne. Also, no one is allowed to go inside that area except on special ceremony days, and then only certain people — never tourists.

So when you visit one of the bigger Balinese temples, you put on a sarong and a sash, and you go inside the walls, but you can never go up the steps to the innermost part.

Above, the figures flanking the left side of the outer set of steps. Below, the ones on the right side. According to the particularly poor (and pushy) so-called guides who insisted on following me around, the good guys (above) are Rama and Hanuman, and the bad guys (below) are Ravana (the big one) and his brother Vibhishana — but I have some doubts about that, as Vibhishana turned out to be a good guy and helped Rama defeat Ravana.

In case you were wondering — on my previous trip to Bali, I saw some famous temples, including Tanah Lot and Pura Besakih (“the Mother Temple”), so I didn’t put seeing temples high on my list for this trip. I also saw Kintamani and Lake Batur on a beautiful, clear day! My primary aim on this visit was to wander around without guides or itineraries.

One day at breakfast in Lovina, I heard some commotion in the street. This procession was under way. I was told the people went down to the temple at the end of the street (I didn’t even shoot any photos of that one — it’s very nice, but quite new) as an early part of the days-long cremation ceremony that had just started.

About 50 people (including musicians) walked from an area on the main road to the end of our small street. Everyone appears to be wearing their best clothes.

On just about any day, anywhere in Bali, you can see women dressed this way (in kabaya, sarong and sash), carrying something on their head in a basket or on a platter, walking to a temple. Sometimes it’s just one woman alone, walking along the roadside. Other times, it’s a whole line of women, walking single file. People also dress up nicely in this way when they make the morning offerings that one sees absolutely everywhere in Bali.

A cremation ceremony will cost the family of the deceased about $1,500 (U.S.). That’s more than a year’s pay for many people here.

On a third day — the best and sunniest day I had in Lovina — I rode through the villages south of the main Lovina road. I happened upon this big walled area, with a sign that said it’s Desa Pakraman Galiran.

The very long wall was covered (at least on the two sides I walked along) with these carved panels — some representing happy scenes, and others obviously intended to be disturbing!

Interestingly, this fine wall, covered with carvings, surrounds an empty lot filled with weeds. Yet the wall and the carved panels are clearly recent. I have to assume that a fine temple will be built inside at a later date!

Later on that same sunny day, I rode west of Lovina and found the rice fields were full of people cutting and threshing the padi.

I walked on the narrow wall of packed dirt that separates two padi fields from each other until I joined this group of women. The four you see above are given the mostly threshed stalks, and then they hit them a few more times with a metal rod to get the last kernels to fall. There’s a big pile of rice kernels lying all around the wooden thing in the foreground.

Men who were cutting the rice elsewhere carried it here and piled it up. These two younger women would each pick up a bunch and bring it to this trestle, then whack the top end of the bundle against the wooden slats about three times. After that, they toss the bundle to one of the older women sitting around the perimeter.

As I watched and chatted (again thankful for my somewhat passable language skills), a boy appeared carrying a plastic cooler, which he announced was full of es lilin, a candle-shaped homemade frozen treat that I’d already eaten in Bandung. He was asking the women if they wanted to buy, and then he suggested that I could buy a round for everyone. Well, I haven’t mentioned it yet, but the heat was blistering. The women are covered in clothing from head to toe because otherwise their skin would fry off. So I asked the boy how much it would cost to buy one for everyone on that patch, and he counted 13 heads and said 13,000 rupiah.

That’s about $1.50.

So I bought an es lilin for each person, and everyone laid off work and started happily sucking a frozen stick of strawberry, chocolate, or … I think there was another flavor, but I didn’t ask what it was. Mine was strawberry. It was delicious. I was really, really hoping it wouldn’t make me sick (it didn’t!). One of the women patted the rice stalks beside her under the flimsy umbrella, and I sat down. She was hoping I would give her my hat — she had a hat, but mine has a much wider brim. I told her I like my hat a lot, and I want to keep it. She tried hard to convince me to give it to her, but eventually she gave up.

We all agreed it was very, very hot. We discussed the huge, long, heavy rain of the previous day. We agreed it was the rainy season, so it must rain. I observed that their work was very hard. One of them said, well, you have to work, or you don’t eat. I agreed.

When the es lilin were finished, they went back to work. I asked if I could take some pictures. They said yes. Some of them wanted to pose, and some said no picture. When I left, everyone said thank you, many times. I said thank you too.

So that was Lovina — I liked it because it’s quiet, but I gather that it’s quite busy in July and August, when it’s wintertime in Australia. The drive from Lovina to the airport in Denpasar took three hours, with some rain (but not very heavy).

I think I’ll try to go back to Ubud in May, when the rains are finished.

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