Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Rise and Shine in Seoul

It's seven o'clock in the morning, and I'm about to do something I promised myself I would not do this year. But resistance is futile; the time and place is not right.
I have no choice.
I'm putting on a hat and winter coat.
I'm in Seoul, Korea, and it's the end of March. After four months of tropical heat and humidity, we're back in a cold climate. I had promised myself at the start of the trip that, for once in my life, I would have no winter.
So it goes.
All's quiet in Hong-dae in the morning.
I zip up, adjust my toque, and head out the door. The morning air is cool, I can see my breath and feel a peppermint tingle on my nose and cheeks. It's nothing like a Yukon March morning, there's no real bite, no snow on the ground. But my blood's been thinned by Beer Lao and Lombok peppers these last few months, and the chill cuts me.
I'm on my favourite morning mission, the breakfast hunt. I scouted out a bakery nearby the night before, and made sure it would be open this time of day. In a big city, it pays to check.
Big cities don't do mornings. Most shops and stores don't open until 10 or even 11. Seoul follows the pattern.
A morning person will tell you a city is special that time of day. It's quiet. The air is still reasonably fresh. There are no lineups, no traffic jams, no hassles. It'd be paradise- if there was actually anything to do.
I turn down another street from our guest house, ignoring the sidewalk. Cars are scarce this time of day. A clutch of school girls in uniform, laughing and hugging, fall up the street. The clip clop of high heels approaches from behind, and pass brusquely. The woman is clearly not an early riser... she's lost in thought and a scowl as she heads to work.
I'm in the Hongik University section of Seoul, or Hong-dae as the neighbourhood is called. It's a island of three and four-storey older brownstone buildings, edged with major roads and tall skyscrapers about half a kilometre away.
Hongik's an art school, and this is a trendy area, a hipster area. You see young photographers and aspiring fashion models doing shoots on the street. Galleries are everywhere. The local book stores specialize in graphic design texts and architecture magazines.
It's a human-sized part of Seoul, not like the monstrous aggregations of dozens of 30-storey apartment blocks that jut out from the landscape in the satellite suburbs. There are family stores here, tidy little pocket cafes, cute restaurants, used clothing shops, and the ubiquitous bars. The people of Seoul love their booze. Love. Their. Booze.
Alcohol may be why, I think, Seoul seems even quieter at 7 a.m. than a lot of other big cities I've been to. That suit heading to the subway over there looks a little bleary- that college student and his girlfriend are moving a little slower. Soft nights make for hard mornings.
It's not far to my destination, and the comforting hug of baking smells hit me as I open the shop door.
To a wall of nothing.
The shelves are bare.
No financial crisis at this institution.
There are no bagels, no baguettes. No croissants- butter, cheese or chocolate. No loaves of fresh morning toast, no strudels, no tarts, no muffins- you get the point.
This town is so slow getting going in the morning, even the bakers sleep in. Who ever heard of a bake shop that wasn't ready by 7:30?
Fortunately I have a backup plan.
I walk down the street, passing the sole other European out this morning. He looks like he's heading to work. We exchange the Significant Nod of Shared Race Acknowledgement and head our separate ways.
I head into another shop, and speak the universal pidgin of coffee drinkers.
Hi. Venti. Americano. Black. Hot,” I order. The girl acknowledges and sets me up, with a bagel beside.
I head back to the guest house, coffee comforting my hand though the insul-sleeve. My head is warm under the toque, so the cool air is actually refreshing.
After four months of stifling heat, of sweat, of shirts that won't dry and underwear that only sticks, it's nice to be cool for a change. No mosquitoes. No tropical disease. No touts, no bugs, or rats, and tapwater you can drink. I like Seoul.
And I think, I really didn't break my promise. The equinox was a week ago. It's already spring. I have had my Year of No Winter.
Behind me, the bright sun is beginning to peak around the blue-grey buildings, warming my back. A few more people are stirring on this beautiful day.
I'll get to the bake shop a little later.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Quantum Physics and the search for peace in Ubud

I'm sitting at a round table on an open-aired tiled patio, under thatched roof, finishing off breakfast at our spa in Ubud, Bali. The only other guest up this early, Alice strikes up a conversation about her experience in town.

“I don't know where to find the tranquility and peace here,” said Alice, a 30-something former fashion consultant from the States. “It's not easy to find.”

Nearby an attendant is cleaning the pool, in that slow back-and-forth motion that soothes and relaxes just watching. And we're surrounded by various flowered statuary, potted plants, and birdsong. Incense is burning somewhere, and butterflies are chasing each other in a merry game around massive flowerheads.

It is utterly peaceful, but I couldn't agree with Alice more. Ubud is really all it claims to be- but far less besides.

The small city (or collection of villages, slowly merging with growth) is built on a series of hills and gullies in east-central Bali. The millenia of carving by water lends an incredible variety to the visual landscape. My bedroom is level to the peak of the roof of the cottage next door. Palm trees seem to reach for the sky a few metres away, while the aforementioned pool seems to float on the land.

Not pictured: inner peace
The physical construction of the community is stunning as well. Strangely, the architecture reminds me of nothing less than ancient Rome, or at least what I imagine ancient Rome to have been like: each walled unit opening into a decorated and gardened courtyard. The various levels of each building, which rise three or four stories into the air, display a hodge-podge of porticoes, columns, balconies, thatched roofs, brickwork, plaster, statuary, and all manner of flourishes and colour. Take a look at HBO's Rome series and you'll get a sense of what' I'm talking about.

Then there's the landscape it's set in. The town is surrounded, and infused, with rice. You can walk a few steps down an asphalt lane, past a store selling the latest cell phone SIM cards, and stumble into a field of knee-high rice plants right out of the 18th century.

And unlike many other places in SE Asia, people of Ubud seem to genuinely respect their environment. There is a refreshing cleanliness to the town, even in the out-of-the-way corners one usually finds heaps of rat-infested trash, where the tourists are unlikely to look.

So what's not to like? Why can't my new acquaintance see what should surely be before her eyes?

Ubud was featured in the movie Eat Pray Love as a place the Julia Roberts character could go to meet a spiritual need. And indeed, it has a long history as a place of arts, culture, and spirituality. It was here long before the tourists, and was obviously built on far firmer moral and economic foundations than keeping Australians in Foster's Lager. It has always had a connection to the deeper truths, to mysticism, to New Age before it was New Age.

The stories of Ubud draw people here, no matter what the degree of spiritual need they might have. Some are truly hurting. Some just come to watch the show.

Perhaps, I think later as I walk down the alley to the main road, we can turn to hard physics to solve this new age conundrum.

Quantum physics is spooky. 20th century classic physicists were genuinely disturbed by the behaviour of atomic and subatomic particles. Electrons and protons and all manner of energy particles seemed to behave like they 'knew' they were being watched; that they 'knew' what was going to happen before an experiment even started; that they were in some sort of communication between each other, instantaneously, no matter the distance.

One important element of quantum mechanics, the Heisenberg principle, says you can measure how fast a particle is moving, but you can't simultaneously say exactly where it is; or, if you tried to measure exactly where it is, you couldn't say for sure how fast it was going at that moment. In observing the particle to make the measurement, you change the nature of what you are measuring.

Perhaps that is what we have done to Ubud.

In Ubud, the store called “Bliss” pitches facial treatments and massages. “Truth”, prominently displayed on another, sells gem stones. “Peace” sells t-shirts. Ganesha, the Hindu elephant god, is a bookhawker. Buddha has been enlisted to shill everything from vegan desserts to wifi to mojitoes. Krishna runs a cargo shipping company. Dharma, Karma, Ananda, Brahma, Puri, Ashanti, and a variety of other Hindu terms direct tourists to everything from painting to antiques to palm readers.

In trying to draw more people to their community, to make it easier for them to find the peace and tranquility they are seeking, Ubud has become loudier, noiser, and hungrier. It is impossible to walk more than a few metres downtown without being pitched for a taxi ride or massage.

In the hustle and the vibe, in getting busier to make a living, move more tourists, the very thing they are basing their economy on moves a little farther away, finds a home somewhere else.

That won't stop the tourists from coming. Ubud will feed for years off the image and promises made by Hollywood. Its just that most of the people who come here won't find what they're looking for- and even though they observed all the forms, did all the right things, they really won't know the reason why.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Rice fields, out of time

The Starbucks in Ubud has to be one of the nicest on the planet. Set at the corner of a 17th century Hindu temple property, the building has more the appearance of upscale art gallery than coffee shop. Its interior walls and floors are marbelled, thick comfortable chairs dampening the echoes. Its patio overlooks an ancient water garden, its lotus leaves occasionally disturbed by the invisible movements of gargantuan carp beneath the surface.

In Ubud, global commerce has attached itself firmly to the spiritual world.

But we're looking for a little more... or maybe a little less. To get away from the manufactured Ubud, the movie town, to what was here before. We are going to see the rice fields.

We turn off the main road, and walk up a side street that seems to have been a communitytourism project at one time; visitors to Ubud have left their names engraved on squares of concrete. Little messages into the future from around the world. Reading them helps pass the time as we walk past the homestays, villas and corner stores that trickle away into simpler structures.

Another hundred metres and we reach the edge of town, emerging into a vista simply out of time. Stretching out before us are fields of rice. We can see for at least a kilometre, before low rolling hills and stands of trees block the view. Terraces of uniform green, knee-high stalks of the food that feeds more than half the planet.

The pathway continues between the fields. It's trimmed by a deep groove in the earth where water flows. The irrigation system, powered by gravity, provides a trickle of water, just enough, to millions of plants over thousands of hectares of land.

The fields remind me of a golf course, in their uniformity and precision. After centuries of use, every plot of land is trimmed, tended and defined. Low-lying groundcover plants edge the fields. There are no weeds to be seen; the lip of one terrace drops, black earth and vertical, onto the next. The water paths are deep and edged in rock; the fall of water is measured in centimetres over football-field lengths. The paths twist and turn on occasion, as they branch off to field fields in the distance. Nothing is wasted.

The path has carried us into a different time, a different cycle of life. The pace here is the seeding of the rice, of the flooding of the fields, the weeding, of harvest and feasts. Its rhythm is the waxing and waning of the moon, the steady demands of the gods. It's the birth of children, the application of life's energy for decades to growing things, the final spreading of an elder's ashes. Its soundtrack is the wind blowing over the fields, growing louder as the sun pulls the stalks up to fruit.

The cement path turns to dirt and we enter a stand of trees. We are moving upstream, against the flow of the channelled water. We pass small control structures, not much more than cement gates a half-metre high. Here some ducks are splashing in a small pond caused by a fallen palm leaf blocking the water's path; there a yellow-headed lizard flits into invisibility in the underbrush.

It's cool under the canopy, a refuge from the equatorial sun.

We're just on the edge of town, but far away in time. There's nothing that couldn't have been here a century ago. Each corner of each field has a small temple or spirit house; incense curls from the box where the gods take their percentage of human attention. Scarecrows chase birds away, and bring the only incongruity to the ancientness of the scene- they wear old gortex sportwear, and promote a local football club. But the anachronism is easy to ignore.

We ascend from the treed gully into more open fields, and are greeted by a man along the path. “Water?” he asks, pointing a few yards away. He's set up a small kiosk, selling snack foods and soft drinks from a glorified lemonade stand. We buy a couple of bottles of water from him.

“Sit, please,” he says, pointing to a rickety old picnic table next to the stand. “it's nice there. Very hot this morning.”

We decline awkwardly. We tell him we have to get back to our kids, sleeping back at the hotel.

It's only partly true- sure, they are there. But they'd be fine without us for a while yet. It's more like we want to avoid the contact, we don't feel part of this time, his time. It makes us anxious somehow. We say our goodbyes and continue down the path.

There are more reminders that people follow a different pace here. A woman bathing in the stream, covering herself as we pass. A browned elder washes some roots for his lunch. A woman in fine dress carries offerings and carefully refreshes a field's spirit houses.

We approach an ancient temple, with chest-high walls and low-lying altars inside. A group of farmers are chanting low hymns. A woman regards us cooly as we walk by, and resumes her singing. We move away in silence. We are not of her time.

We've turned around now, and just as the trappings of modern life slowly disappeared as we entered the fields, they begin to return. The path changes back to cement. Small buildings, selling local art or housing families, dot the land. Motorcycles twist and turn up the path, forcing us off with an apologetic smile from the driver. The world becomes noiser. The pace becomes faster as the cement turns to asphalt. We pass by a construction site, machines screaming as they cut wood and ceramic.

We're back on the main road. We've returned to our time, our pace.

We head into the Starbucks.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Lost Script for Eat, Pray, Love

A little-known Hollywood legend tells of the chaotic making of the blockbuster hit Eat Pray, Love... how the star, Julia Roberts, insisted the script be worked from the novel during the actual shooting, to capture the essence and atmosphere of the exotic locations. Writers would gather material from Rome, or Bangalore, write dialogue, and present them to the actress and director for approval each day.
In a backstreet in Ubud, Bali, we found a rare piece of memorabilia... a first draft of the first scene from Act Three of the movie from that location. The manuscript was in bad shape- dirty, mouldy, and only a few pages survived. But indeed, it shows how the writers captured the essence of Ubud, a community well documented in the travel industry as an artistic and spiritual destination.
Here, then, presented for the first time, is a transcript of one of Hollywood's great might-have-beens... the lost first scene of Act Three... Love in Ubud.


ESTABLISHING SHOT: Street in Ubud, LIZ is exiting from van.

Ok, thanks. No, I won't need you tomorrow. Thanks, bye.

CLOSEUP: Liz looking off down the street

I had eaten my fill in Rome; searched my soul in India. Now, here in Bali, I seek- I don't know yet. I am here in Ubud, where I have heard a man of great wisdom lives. Perhaps he can tell me what I seek.

SHOT: Liz starts walking down the street

MAN 1 
Taxi Lady?

No Thanks

Maybe tomorrow?

No, I don't think so. Sorry.

WOMAN 1 (Female)
Massage ma'am?

No Thanks. I'm here to find my spirit guide.

OK, take this pamphlet

You need transport Lady?

No, thanks

Sorry. Perhaps Tomorrow?

No, thanks.

Liz walks a few more steps.


No, I just told that man there (points right behind her) I don't need one. Thanks

Maybe Tomorrow?

No, no.

MAN 4 
Taxi Lady?

No. Thank You.

Maybe Tomorrow?

No, I don't think so. Sorry.

MAN 5 
Pretty lady. You want Taxi? Go on tour, all day perhaps?

No, really, thanks. Please.

Sorry. Tomorrow?

No, I don't think so. Sorry.

Liz stops suddenly. She looks down. Before her, the sidewalk is a gaping hole. The sewer is running just a few feet below her. CU of her face, in fear and shock.


She steps over the hole. She turns as she hears a whistle from across the street.

MAN 6 (holding up paper sign) 
Taxi Lady?

No! Dammit!

Maybe Tomorrow?


WOMAN 2 (handing Liz a pamphlet)
Here you go. Professional massage. You need massage?

LIZ (getting very exasperated)
No. Thank you.


Oh my god. Please no...

MAN 7 
You want knife lady? Special price for you?

No, thank you. No.

Liz resumes walking down the street. Suddenly, she jars her back when the sidewalk drops beneath her six inches. Recovering her poise, she spies a man waving at her from across the street.

Please miss, please. This way.

Liz follows across the street.

MAN 8 
Miss like to go on tour? All day?

Oh god. No! What is with you people?!

Maybe tomorrow?

WIDE SHOT/MONTAGE Liz tries to walk down the street, is handed several more massage pamphlets and receives more offers for taxis. Finally she breaks out of the crowd. SHOT of beautiful park, greenery, walkways. Obviously a peaceful place.

This looks nice....

WOMAN 3 (holding up basket)
Banana for monkey miss?

Monkeys? How sweet!

Liz purchases small bunch of bananas, enters forest.

Oh, cute monkeys. Oh. There's a momma and baby.

Look at that big one. Yikes... he's big.

CU LIZ Look of disgust crosses her face.

Oh. You can't unsee that.

A monkey jumps up on Liz. She smiles and offers it a banana.

Hey little fella. What you doing? You're a cutie.

Another jumps on her other shoulder.

Hey, now. Not so fast now.

She offers another banana. Then a third, then a fourth, then they all start scrambling up on her. She drops her bananas in a panic.

No please! Oh god, no! Get them off, get them off!

Liz is seemingly overwhemed by the apes. One even begins pissing on her. Then, the animals all stop at once. They look in one direction, and all take off, suddenly.
Liz, scraped and her hair in a shambles, is momentarily stunned. Then she looks up. A man is next to her. Tall, clean-cut, handsome. His hair is framed golden in the backlit sun. He reaches out to her.

Are you OK?

Yes, yes, I am. Thanks so much. You saved me.

CU LIZ has double take at man's good looks.

(Laughing) Hey, no problem.

Oh my. This man is a hunk. Could this be love?

So, are you going anywhere right now?

Why? You need a taxi?

Maybe tomorrow?


Monday, March 14, 2011

Spicy's Big Break

   I'm woken in the morning by a strange, haunting whistle. I try to place what can possibly be making the eerie noise. It resembles the sound you make spinning a hollow, plastic tube; certainly it would be a perfect soundtrack for a UFO movie.
   I go outside and try to locate the source. At first it's above me, then moves away, then is in the distance. A few moments later it is back. 
   "Come look over here," says a staff person lounging in the courtyard, when I ask him what is making the sound. I go over and see where he is pointing.
   Above us, a flock of pigeons whirls by, about 50 strong. They are making the sound. It's a mystery what exactly causes the noise, whether the beat of their wings or a call they make as they fly. I'm told by one person they are kept birds, and the sound is from a kind of noisemaker around their necks. Will report back.
   What is clear, though, is Gili T (for Trawangan, or fortification, or gun emplacement, after its colonial role) is different from Gili Air, where we have spent our last few weeks. T is the big brother, the Big Apple, of the Gili Group. It is larger physically, and even has a hill in the centre of the island; its downtown area is more urban, more 'sophisticated', more developed. There are many more places to shop, eat, or sleep, arrange boat tours and diving, and buy mouldy second-hand books. Even the horses pulling the carts (motors are banned here too) are bigger by about 30 per cent.
   The beaches are wider, and whiter, there are more tourists- the young and the old, the suitcasers and the backpackers, than on Gili A. It's country mouse and city mouse, and after two weeks of watching cattle graze I'm actually feeling overwhelmed. And this is the off-season.
   Gili T has more of the hustle to it, more hunger, more need. We meet a young man we dub 'Spicy'. He worked on the beach when we first met him. He directs arriving tourists to a hotel, and gets the equivalent of a dollar if the person books there.
    He needs to do that twice a day to make ends meet. 'Ends' being his own, and his family's. His parents are sharecroppers on Lombok, renting land after their handicraft business folded in the economic meltdown from the Bali Bombing in 2002. They still dream of returning to their home island, Spicy tells us.
   He lives on the beach during the day, eats at the local's market, then sleeps, with a dozen other young male workers, at an empty gazebo after the bar's patrons have abandoned it for the night. It has no walls, no washroom.
   But Spicy is optimistic. He just got a real job.
   He gets to train to work at an upscale resort. For the next month, he'll learn to sweep, wash, change sheets, and maintain the grounds. He'll learn proper deportment and how to deal with people of privilege.
   And he'll do it for free. After a month of unpaid labour, he'll get an interview with the French owner of the resort, who comes in periodically to check his property. If the owner likes him, he'll pay Spicy 800,000 Rp a month. About $90.
   It's Spicy's big break, and he's excited by the prospects. At $3 a day he can start thinking of someday paying his family's way back to Bali, maybe getting married.
   The next day I hop on a bike to tour the town. Turning away from the beach, with its persistent dope dealers and pearl hawkers, I'm trying to find the pastoral heart of Gili T., the way Gili Air kept an English-country-garden style hidden in its interior.
   The difference between the two islands become immediately obvious as I move beyond the walls of the villas and resorts defining the beachfront. Most of the homes here are hovels, punctuated by empty lots of garbage, construction waste or fallen, decaying buildings. It's far more close to the third-world norm we've seen in other parts of SE Asia.
   Among the cat-urine stink and goat pastures, women gossip and go through each other's hair for lice. Half-naked children play in the pitted, puddled streets, dodging fast-pedalling teens and horse carts. Images of western rock stars- Jim Morrison, Bob Marley- are painted on walls of yoga retreats and convenience stores.
   There's not the same sense of orderly, supported community here that you sense instinctively exists in Gili Air. You are on your own here to make it on your own. With bigger and more, it seems you get harder and meaner too.
Gili T. might be the Big Apple of these islands, I think as I head for the beachfront again, but it's rotten at its core.
    I emerge on the island's west coast. Bali can be seen lying blue and distant under the setting sun. I bike past abandoned resort projects, returning to the land under moss and scrub brush, more victims of the Bali bombing.
   Instead of restarting those, new projects are being built, skeletons of walls rising among the grey bags of cement powder and piles of bamboo. Swallowing more pasture land and coconut grove, more of the only means for people here to make a living independent of the recommendations of the Lonely Planet.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Soundtrack to Paradise- Part 2

   Good DJs get people to dance; better DJs get people to drink. The best DJs get girls to take their tops off.
    Based on that universal principle, the DJ aboard the Pirate Ship was very good indeed. Parked 50 meters off the main beach at Gili Air, the faux two-masted schooner, ersatz tourist 'pirate ship', had just dropped off its day passengers. A handful of lithe young women remained aboard, quickly doffing their tops while music throbbed hypnotically from speakers tied to the masts.
    A phalanx of heads snap to attention from the recliner chairs on the beach, tanned young men peering over their dark sunglasses to try to make out the just-visible naughty bits offshore. Tomorrow's ticket sales for the pirate ship were assured.
   I make my way from the beach and head back to the house. The sky is darkening, rumbling thunder in the distance.
   Sexual tension is muted on Gili Air, the most laid-back of the three islands off Lombok. Gili Trewagan is the party island, filled with bars and flops and besotted vagabond 20-somethings. Gili Air is the 'newlywed and nearly-dead' island. Older couples, quieter, less booze flowing- and far more frustrated local boys as a result. While the odd one scores a young traveller, most are left to leer and awkwardly cat-call unattended women walking down the beach road.
   Trance music, electronica, and reggae mixes play from the beachside bars to accompany the tropical tension, the game.
    But for me there's just one music that fits afternoons on Gili Air. The Doors, raw and animal, threatening and poetic at the same time. And with thunder in the distance, clouds of ultramarine blue forming overhead, I cue the iPod to one song: Riders on the Storm.
    The piano slowly building tension, the tinkling of keys like the first fat drops of rain splashing into the sand.
    Take a long holiday
    Let your children play

   Doors music just works in Southeast Asia. The opening strains of The End plays in my head every time I glance at the cathedral of cocoanut palms. Lines from When the Music's Over raise up unbidden with every plastic bag I pick out of the surf:
      What have we done to the earth/
      What have we done to our fair sister?

  The Doors music was born in the chaos of the 60s. Now it is crystalized, perfect, bounded, like our memories of that time. But not safe, still. Powerful, weaponized.
   The tune takes me back, to being 10, maybe 11. On Friday afternoons CBC Ottawa local television ran a preview show about the Rough Riders football club game that weekend. One time, some editor had dubbed 'Riders on the Storm' over footage of the team play. It worked so beautifully. I remember running outside afterwards, energized. The sky darkening above with a full summer thunderstorm, about to break. Playing football with my brothers. Being a Rider, being a Door, in the storm, being that cool.
   Of course, I never was and never would be that cool. But the power of the Doors music still works in this island, in the blue-glow calm before a tropical cloudburst.
   But tonight the clouds blow away, the sky lightens. On Lombok, across the bay, the rain is falling in grey curtains. The local boys pull out their guitars, play soccer together. Taking long glances at the women walking by.
   The song ends with the hissing of rain- from 40 years ago, fading keyboards, fading feelings.
  On the ocean, in the distance, boat lights on the horizon make a string of pearls in the deepening dusk. The pirate ship is among them, no doubt, heading for her harbour.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Soundtrack to Paradise- Part 1

The air is fresh and clean- washed by a light overnight rain. The wet season is slow to wind up this year.
It's time for a morning stroll. I head down the path from our cabin, brushing away black and orange butterflies dancing around around me in the garden. The sky is a bright white: overcast days here charged by the tropical sun somewhere above the scattered clouds. There is the promise of blue sky later in the morning.
A lizard, like a miniature dragon, is wandering across the cow pasture next to the resort. They don't bite, we're told, but its floppy swagger still triggers some primeval warning deep in my mind. It's just looking for fruit, I tell myself. My shrew-brain watches it anyway, glad to be moving at right angles to its path.
Gili Air has a horsepath that runs the perimeter of the island. A herringbone pattern in the grey sand shows the resort girls have already been out this morning, sweeping the path with their short-handled brooms. It seems a shame to put footprints across it.
The views are stunning as I turn down the path. Clouds still cling to Lombok, the island across a narrow channel from Gili Air. All shades of powder blue and mountainous in the distance, like a Toni Onley painting.
But today I turn down a connecting path, away from the shore. To the island's interior, following a new route this morning. I'm looking for the 'cross-island expressway'. For no particular reason, just to see if its there. This is tourist work.
I pull out the iPod and turn it on. The headphones are cheap knockoffs from Vietnam, tinny but functional. I let the player pick the music, hoping for inspiration in the algorithms created to shuffle the music.
A song from Another Green World by Brian Eno comes on. Back home this is fall music for me: sombre, electronic hymns, long quiet passages of ambient tones. Suited for the first snows of October, the dying light of November. I have listened to this a long time, 30 years now.
Interesting choice. I turn off shuffle, selecting instead to play the whole album.
Oh me oh my, I think it's been an eternity/
         You'd be surprised at my degree of uncertainty/
How can moments go so slow?

Strangely, this brain-music takes on a new character on this tropical island. Rather than sobering, it seems to celebrate the morning. The piano riffs are light. The music swells. Uplifting, embracing. Lyrics about the fall of night and passing of time somehow complement the daylight and the greenery, the richness of earth and water.
The path widens a bit, and an old brickwork pattern begins to reveal itself under my feet. Some old project, half-done, to formalize the path. The hedge grows bigger, turns into a canopy overhead, cooling the path below. I enter the locals' village.
Homes here are neat and tidy. Gardens, filled with palms and banana and mango trees. Flowers in pots and vegetables in raised beds, all order and care. Here, a goat stands on the stump of an old palm; there, a man is hand-cutting two-by-fours, the shavings smouldering beside him, the aromatics framing the scene. People move quietly through the morning, working at the speed of hand and foot.
You know how they build a fence on Gili? Take sticks- cuttings- from a tree. Commonly, it's caragana, or tamarind, or a grape-like stalk. Stick them in the ground in a row. Use some bamboo to keep them in line. Step back.
In a few months, the plain sticks sprout new shoots, new branches. A few years, you have a strong, fence.
Could you ask the earth for more? Stick a piece of wood in the ground, and in a while it will feed you. And cool you. And shade you. And keep your animals in.
I'll find a place somewhere in the corner/ 
 I'm gonna waste the rest of my days 

New life from old sticks.
New context for old music.
The earth provides on Gili.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

What is lost...

   What do you get when you let go of the internal combustion engine? You could ask the people of Gili Air...
   We left Bali in the morning, taking a fast boat across the straight to Gili Trewangan, the largest of the three Gili islands. The trio sit off the northwest corner of Lombok, the next island east of Bali.
We then piled aboard a low-slung fishing boat, captained by a grizzled local tanned into immortality. Our first view of Gili Air was from the boat's wild pitch and yaw, as our Ahab fought the waves and current ad naseum (literally) to get us there.
   Gili Air (gili means 'small island'; air is Bahasa Indonesian for water) is perhaps a kilometre in diameter, with maybe a highest point of 5 meters. We can see a few low-slung cottages as the boat drops us off at the shore. Fishing nets and floaters, and no small amount of garbage, litter the dockside beach.
Touts try to grab our bags, but we wave them off. We're then offered rides to our hotel in, of all things, horse-drawn carts.
   Having given tuk-tuk drivers the once-over, it's only fair to describe the horse-drawn carts of Gili Air. The motor is a pony, about chest-high to an average person, coming mostly in shades of brown. Compared to some of the emaciated creatures seen shackled to carriages in Jakarta and Bali, they look relatively healthy and happy. They are harnessed to a small, single-axle wooden cart, with padded seats for the passengers around the edge.
   At $7 bucks a pop, we demur on taking more than one, figuring some of us can walk; we relent when we're pitched how far it is to the hotel, and we pile into two carts. The back of the cart tilts hazardously low with our weight before the driver climbs on to balance the load.
   With a tinkle of the horse bells we're off, and it's an utterly charming ride. The dirt track muffles the clip clop of the hooves, forcing the driver to honk a cartoon horn to warn pedestrians of our approach. Songbirds and roosters compete for the title of Chief Ambient Sound as we saunter along. The path is lined with flowered hedges, glimpses of surf and sand to our right, palm trees and neat-clipped pasture to our left.
   Now, just like in North America, a lack of distance to travel has been no barrier to using cars or motorcycles to get there. The islanders on Koh Lipe were fine with sandwiching their wives and children on noisy little Japanese wasp-waisted machines, hurtling along the island's one kilometer of paths in any direction.We have been looked at askance in many countries when we told drivers we were fine walking to our destination.
   The hydrocarbon addiction is as strong here as anywhere.
   But on Gili Air, they've broken the habit. Internal combustion engines have been banned on the island.
“Motors scare cows, and a lot of people had cows, so they said 'no engines',” says Kamil, our hotel owner, of the decision made long ago. People who have tried to bring motorcycles have had stones thrown at them, his wife adds.
   Now that I can admire.
   Here's what you lose when you lose internal combustion. It's obvious to say noise and fumes, but the full realization of what engines mask takes days to reveal. Like the blind man, your senses grow sharper, working to fill the hole created from a lifetime of the sound and smell and taste of exploding gasoline.
   The air is salty, humid and fresh, perfumed with delicate scents of hedgerow flowers teasing your nose. You remember how to smell the coming rain, a field of grass, or the presence of an animal.
   You can hear forever- an axe working across the island, a pony's throaty challenge to a rival, the surf pounding offshore. There's a gaping hole in the aural tapestry, a place your ears search until your shoulders relax and fall.
   You lose the speed of life. The psychic edge brought on by having to remember to shoulder check or step aside for the noisy, hurtling metal. Toddlers can play bare-assed in the streets and you don't fear for them. The road becomes a thing for humans, for living things, not the machine. The earth matters.
   And people matter more, it seems, here on Gili Air. There is little noticeable poverty on the island. People have clean clothes, white smiles, bright eyes, strong lean bodies. Their homes are well-built, gardens everywhere, litter hardly to be found. Their pastures are neat, their animals healthy. People share and support each other, we're told.
   Music is everywhere- and not canned. Young men serenade passers-by on cheap guitars and bongo drums, singing songs about their island. No radios, no news. You can't find a TV or an episode of Friends here to save your life.
   Is all this something that is a function of not having motorized vehicles on the island, or is that just another consequence of something larger?
   I ponder this as the rotating fan blows air on me from the restaurant's bamboo and thatch roof. It's the noisiest human-made thing I have heard for three days.
   Finally, I am far away.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A Beach Too Far...

   It seems obvious to me that you can't have a store in your town called 'Jimmy Fucking Hendrix”, while simultaneously claiming to be paradise on earth.
   Such is the state of affairs on the Indonesian island of Bali, or Kuta Beach, specifically. This tourist hub at the southeast corner of the island is like an aging hooker- trading on her reputation and former good looks, she has to get her clients drunk as possible before parting them from their money.
   Our cab weaves its way down a narrow alley. Tourists cling to the walls on our approach, and motorcycle drivers somehow find the room to squeeze past. We're dropped off in the dusk and car exhaust, at a sleepy hotel. It's made momentarily beautiful by the orange glow that fades even as we walk to our room. We drop off our bags, wash up and head out onto the street.
   We enter another William-Gibson dystopia- broken sidewalks, sewer holes that can swallow a child, locals hustling and jiving for your rupiah. The low walls of the storefronts, busy with slogans and brand names painted with crude brushes, seem to close in. We are the ones dodging the cars now. Avoiding eye contact with locals to avoid the pitch that inevitably follows- hustles for fake pearls, or swimwear, or dope.
   Hot blonde Australians wander in groups, in muscle shirts and flip-flops, halter tops and sarongs. Energy and beauty to squander. Their eyes red, almond-shaped and unfriendly, reflect hours of self-abuse.
  The beach, we are told, should be avoided in the evening; the streets even less safe, for pickpockets and muggers. Rabies and dengue are both in epidemic in Kuta. More than one mother, her child a poignant prop, holds a hand out for change. For the first time since Bangkok, I put my hand on my wallet in my pocket as we walk down the street. Starbucks and KFC and Body Shop offer to take our money back to North America ahead of us.
   This was not the Bali I had anticipated, even when told Kuta was Australia's Florida. To attract people who seem culturally incapable of speaking in an Inside Voice, the beach town has become loud, drunk and obnoxious. That has curdled with desperation and hunger into a poisonous and sad stew, where people with no hope for tomorrow serve those who party with no mind for it.
But then, I was only there 12 hours.