Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Renting a house in Bali

We've been on the road for 10 months now, and many people have been asking us: "aren't you homesick?"

Not exactly. We're not homesick for Colorado, per se, but we do miss HAVING a home. We miss being able to unpack our belongings. We miss being able to store food in the refridgerator and cook our own meals. (The service is quite slow at most restaurants, so every breakfast, lunch and dinner turns into a one-hour affair. There's no such thing as snacking; no such thing as grabbing a 'quick bite'.)

The solution? When we arrived in Bali, we decided to settle down in one place for three weeks -- that's the longest we've spent in any area -- and rent a house.

For the first time in a year, we've unpacked. I mean, really, unpacked. We've put our clothes on shelves. We put our sunblock inside a drawer. Our books are in a cupboard. We've even used hangers. It's amazing to use a hanger. Remember that everytime you see one. When you can open the door to a closet or cupboard, and see your shirts just hanging there -- not bunched up inside a stuff sack at the bottom of a backpack, but actually hanging up, as shirts are meant to do -- it feels like order is restored in the world again.

The house a two-story beauty; two bedrooms, wood floors, tiled roof, floor-to-ceiling windows, and an enormous front porch that looks over a koi pond. The kitchen is a detached from the house, due to a culture that sees cooking as servant's work -- the kitchen is made of concrete and has no windows, so when we're cooking we occasionally lapse into coughing and sneezing fits and have to run outside for air. The rats are everywhere, so we have to store everything in the refrigerator -- Oreos, Ritz crackers, cooking oil, ketchup, all must live in the rat-proof fridge. In spite of this, the rats ate our soap and toothpaste on the first night; items we forgot to protect.

The rats accessed it because the bathroom, though attached to the house, is "outdoor" -- it's made from stones and has no roof. There's just a big hole in the wall, and when you step through it, you enter a beautiful garden with plants and flowers and a stone fence, with moss creeping up the stone and plants growing through the cracks. And on one end of this stone fence is a little showerhead, and that's where we bathe. It's quite beautiful to shower outside; like being under a waterfall.

We chose to live in Penestanan, on the outskirts of Ubud, Bali for two reasons. First, its a lush region where life can't help but grow. Life is everywhere. Vines creep up tree trunks and wind around fences. Little plants grow on the vertical rise of each stair. Trees bloom with pink and red flowers, whose petals get blown to the ground by the wind, so that the streets are littered with flower petals. The Balinese people leave offerings of rice to the gods every morning, and chickens and birds spend the afternoon pecking at the offerings. Caterpillars climb up walls, ants build highways along the sidewalks, and we can see every variety of butterfly and bird known to man -- purple/red/white/orange/violet butterflies and blue-white-black winged birds with long curious beaks.

There are water fountains and water fixtures everywhere (apparently water fountains are quite cheap: just dig a hole, fill it with water, stick a jug in the center and attach a pump.) Fish, usually koi, live in all of these, and all day long they dig up insects from the bottom for food, so all through breakfast we listen to fins splashing as the koi dive-bombs to the bottom of a pond, and the afternoon soundtrack is the crowing of chickens and twitter of birds, and evening brings a symphony of insects (along with a smatter of mosquitos.)

Nighttime is also when the geckos come out to hunt, big blue-striped geckos bigger than the distance between my middle fingernail and my watch. We watch them, sometimes, as they hide behind a clock or a roof tile, waiting for a praying mantis or a smaller gecko to wander near, and then *snap*, they catch their dinner. Life just keeps happening in Ubud, playing out its many dramas.

The town of Ubud itself, about a 20-minute walk from our home in Penestanan, is dedicated to art. There are galleries and museums strewn all over the city, and spas and restaurants offering 1 hour Balinese massage for $5 dollars, or one-and-a-half hours for $7. Every night there are cultural performances, which I usually shun (cultural song-and-dance feels contrived, when most of the locals are listening to Bollywood soundtracks on their mp3 players). But Ubud is like the New York City of Balinese music and dance; the cultural performances are the authentic production of talented lifelong dancers, who get on stage in silks and gold and heavy makeup and tell the Hindu saga of the Ramayana with their hips.

But the art and culture isn't the second reason we chose to live near Ubud; our second reason was for the food. For the first time in nearly a year, we can eat more than rice. I repeat -- we finally are free from the obligation of eating rice and noodles. These supermarkets sell bread; real sliced bread. They even sell brown bread and focaccia bread, which now tastes to me like manna from heaven. And I nearly fell down and wept with joy when I saw that they sell cheese. Cheese! I can't remember the last time I ate cheese, except on the occasional overpriced pizza. But here it was in all its varieties: feta, brie, goat's cheese, cheddar, mozzarella, edam, gruyere. I bought it all and ate until I was sick and loved every moment.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Five weeks in Flores, Indonesia: an anthropologist's dream

Most people go to Flores for a week, hit the tourist hot spots, and jet away. We stayed for 5 weeks.

Why, you might ask? In a word: transport.

The roads on Flores are undivided unmarked lanes, suitable for one and a half lanes of traffic, and filled with two lanes of cars and motorbikes flying around blind curves and weaving around each other. Buses are filled with live chickens, chain-smoking passengers, and sacks of potatoes. The bus conductor hands you a plastic vomit bag when you board, and all through the ride, you watch and smell fellow passengers get carsick. When you're trying to get off the bus, a team of 10 hawkers surround you, blocking your exit, yelling "taxi? taxi?" The daytime heat this close to the equator is oppressive, and you sweat buckets as you haul a backpack around.

In other words, there's ample incentive not to move around too much. If you find a nice spot, you stay there.

We found our first nice spot in a verdant hilly town called Moni, in eastern Flores. Because of Flores' arduous terrain, ethnic tribes speaking distinct languages and practicing various faiths blossomed in valleys that are as close as 20 kilometers apart, but seperated by the volcanos in between. Moni is a tiny village of Catholics -- population: 300 -- who speak a local language, Lio.

The village has only one road with very occasional traffic; the odd motorcycle cruises by every few minutes. It has a tiny number of cafes, where chickens wander freely around your feet as you wait for your order.

Once at dinner, we ordered chicken. "How many people want chicken?" the waiter asked. Three of the four of us raised our hands. He nodded. "Okay, I go kill it," he said, and began walking out back, where the livestock roams freely in the fields. "Wait, no, no!" We couldn't stomach the thought of issuing a death sentence -- fresh as the meat would have been.

The same is true for vegetables. It takes at least an hour, sometimes 90 minutes, for the servers to bring you a simple fried rice with vegetables, and I suspect this is because they're picking the vegetables after you place your order. All the houses and cafes onto terraced hills where the villagers grow rice, corn and various staples.

We stayed in a spacious guesthouse, elevated on stilts to protect it from the nearby creek. It was built entirely from rough-hewn wood, with big gaps in the floorboards that allowed the sun to shine through (and that you could lose earrings or loose change through.)

All the furniture was handwoven bamboo, which means its both authentic and uncomfortable. (Suggestion Box: A few cushions could really improve a bamboo couch.)

Every morning we awoke to the sound of hogs squealing in the field next to our house; in fact, we awoke BECAUSE of the volume of hogs squealing.

Space is ample in this village, so our guesthouse had a wraparound front porch and an actual living room -- yes, a real-life living room, a room with just a coffeetable and chairs, and a sink (sinks are a luxury here), and a door connecting to the bedroom.

This guesthouse bore the closest resemblence to a "house" we've seen in the last 10 months, and having that living room plus porch was a major reason we stayed in Moni for so long.

Most tourists dash into Moni, spend one day seeing the tri-colored volcanic lakes nearby, and promptly leave. We defied convention by staying for a week. For the first two or three days, this confused all the villagers. "Why aren't you leaving today?" they'd ask, or they'd try to sell us on a taxi ride to the tri-colored volcanic lakes.

But after we'd stayed for 3 days, they understood that we were comfortable, and we weren't leaving. And that's when Moni became really, really nice. That's when locals stopped trying to sell us things, and just started to talk to us like fellow humans.

So we spent our days reading books, splashing around in the nearby waterfalls, and taking long walks through the lush green rice paddies. The showers at our guesthouse were too cold, so we bathed in the same place all the villagers bathe -- in the natural hot springs. For a week, we got to unpack our belongings, spread them out, and LIVE somewhere.

Then we flew across Flores, and took a boat to some very remote islands off the western coast. These islands had the capacity to hold 24 people -- in their 12 bungalows -- but only 2 bungalows were occupied. In other words, we had the island all to ourselves. White sand. Clear blue water, great for snorkeling -- in an average morning, we could see moray eels, stingrays, parrot fish, angel fish and all kinds of multihued coral. The front porch of the bamboo bungalow made a perfect spot for reading.

Our days fell into a blissful routine: watch the sunrise, eat breakfast, read, go snorkeling, eat lunch, read, go snorkeling, take a walk, watch the sunset, eat dinner, read, fall asleep by 9 p.m. We stayed for 10 days.

I took a break from paradise long enough to complete the next level of my scuba-diving certification. I completed four dives in Komodo National Park, some in water with very strong currents, and recieved my new license to dive down to 60 feet, independent of a divemaster's supervision.

We also saw the Komodo dragons -- enormous lizards. "Lizards" is too weak a word. The Dragons are larger (from head to tail) than I am tall. The adult lizards outweigh me, outrun me, and are natural predators against humans. They're also cannibals; the mothers eat their own babies. Many scholars believe that the mythological Chinese dragon is based on the Komodo Dragon.

Komodo dragons are also nearly extinct. They only live in one place on earth: inside Komodo National Park, a series of islands off the west coast of Flores. (Between the dragons, the skeletal remains of the prehistoric "hobbit," and the vast array of tribes and languages, Flores is an anthropologists' dream.)