Thursday, December 8, 2016

April in Ubud

Ambedo (n). a kind of melancholic trance in which you become completely absorbed in vivid sensory details—raindrops skittering down a window, tall trees leaning in the wind, clouds of cream swirling in your coffee—which leads to a dawning awareness of the haunting fragility of life. (English, obscure)

Hello again.

Let's just say things got complicated, and take it from there, eh? We'll just ignore that five and a half months have passed, and pick up just like—

I was in Ubud, on the island of Bali in Indonesia, for just under a month. Surprisingly (to anyone who doesn't know me) I didn't see the beach once. Rather, I rented a bike and hauled my cookies around the island. Here's a disclaimer, to all of you who want to Eat, Pray, and Love: GET A SCOOTER. I feel slightly betrayed by Julia Roberts and her casual, easy-breezy pedaling around the island, as I hauled my tuchus up those mountains. Bali is hilly as HECK. I was disgusting. Like, darn. Not a cute look.

A favorite moment of mine was meeting the eye of a man biking in the other direction, him having just come up a massive hill and me about to go down it, and rolling our eyes simultaneously at each other. Why the hell didn't we just shell out the extra cash for a scooter? You got me, mate.

I rented a small cottage in a Balinese family complex and took it from there. Since the closest "supermarket" to me was a forty-five minute bike ride away from my house, I spent the month eating cup noodles, chicken nuggets cooked in the toaster, and surprisingly delicious burritos from the local hot spot, Taco Casa. The cottage itself was excellent, and partially open-air. My kitchen and work room/dining room/ living room were roofed, but otherwise open to the elements, which made for some excellent thunderstorm-viewing. There were also at least eight million geckos, which I tried with middling success to befriend, and some ginormous monitor lizards. We got along for the most part; if I promised not to laugh when they fell off the ceiling, or out of trees, or off the fence, they would promise not to scritch-scratch their way across my ceiling at 2am. Let's just say it was a scritchy-scratchy month.

A major highlight of the trip was my trek to Goa Gajah, a temple complex a little ways outside Ubud. This temple is home to some 9th-century Hindu caves, some totally awesome ceremonial baths, and also has a Buddhist temple on the premises. The syncretism present in the temple is astounding, with Buddhist and Hindu iconography blending seamlessly together, and worshipers paying their respects at each site with equal reverence. It's also a tourist hotspot, and just a tip: they will give you the required sarong for visiting the temple inside the gates. You don't have to ride up all sweaty on your bicycle, realize this is the first time in a year you've gone anywhere without a giant wrap, and then panic-buy a sarong from an all-too convincing vendor. Not that I did that. I'm just saying.

Goa Gaja's "Elephant Caves" entrance

I also had the immense pleasure to attend a Kecak and Fire dance while in Ubud, which was a fascinating experience to say the least. Kecak is a kind of Balinese dance/performance art that is performed by a cast and chorus, usually to tell parts of the Ramayana, a Hindu epic poem. It's breathtaking, with about a million candles and a cantor and a chorus of men shouting "kecak, kecak" it's impossible not to get caught up in the moment and movement. What's interesting for me about the Kecak, however, is the fact that the form it exists in today is almost completely different from what was first encountered by Westerners in the early 1900s. It has been adapted, reproduced, and redistributed so many times over that it only exists now as a form of entertainment for tourists, no longer holding any of the power that it did in its first iterations. The fire dance, however, still maintains some of its spiritual components, as it requires the dancer to enter a hypnotic trance before he begins to dance the hot coals. It is performed almost always in combination with a Kecak.

I'm sure you can hear all the questions whirling around in my head by now, thinking about legitimacy and my old nemesis Tourism and all that, but I'm not sure if it's my place to get into that. The funds that tourists pay for the show go to maintaining temple functions and spiritual practices for local residences, plus upkeep and income. Is that so bad? And as for legitimacy, well, I wish I knew more about performing arts to weigh in on that one. Maybe that's for another Watson.

I stayed in Ubud for a little under a month, and I found that month to be frustrating project-wise and complicated soul-wise. Ubud is an artistic and spiritual center in Bali, a serene mix of temples and small shops and endless rice fields, and it was there that much of the weight from losing Gamgam hit me. I got quite sick—nothing dangerous, just drawn-out—and took it as a sign from my body and the universe to take it slow. So I took long walks, worked on my fiction in progress, got local therapeutic healing, read several books, and carefully monitored my emotions. I took several very long and taxing bike trips to temples around Bali, and found very limited material for my project that was strictly conservation-based. As an alternative, I made an effort to talk to and work with Ubud artists who work in the religious and tourist trades of sacred Balinese art. Still, contacts were pretty thin on the ground.

It wasn’t all bad, however—there was a moment when I could feel my heart start to clear. I was sitting under a pagoda at The Agung Rai Museum of Art in the midst of a torrential downpour (I had worn white and walked to town without an umbrella, so I was trapped at the mercy of the elements) and I pressed play on my iPod. Jordan Lee’s acoustic Amazing Grace filled my ears, and I felt a heart-stopping calm come over me, like I could feel every raindrop hit my soul and wash it clean. Things got better from there.

I can't believe that this time last year I was in Kyoto. I've still got some thoughts left on New Zealand, plus the Returner's Conference in Maine and re-entry. They're forthcoming, I promise! Until next time~

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