Trip Reports

Ain't No Bali High Enough (15-Nov-2001-12-00):
12 Noon local time, Thursday, Nov. 15 (0400 Nov. 15 UTC) 08 44 S 115 13 E. Temp. 89, Humidity 75%, Cloud Cover 15%. Bali Marina, Benoa Harbor, Bali, Indonesia.

We hired a car and driver for two days to take us around Bali. Those who have been to Bali can profitably ignore the rest of this missive, knowing well enough that even one as erudite and knowledgeable as the Captain will not in this case be equal to the task of describing our investigations. But as surely as Maverick's bow must rise to every sea, we must not shrink from the attempt though it is our part in this little drama to concede before we begin.

It may seem unfair to the rest of our ports of call, but is not really an exaggeration, to say that any twenty minutes of our tour of Bali taken at random would have contained more exotica than the entire South Pacific put together. There are many reasons for this and they are the people. Whether by design or culture, the Polynesians and Melanesians are a little shy about sharing themselves with outsiders. There is little of this reticence in Bali, to put it mildly. Also exotic are the prices: One night at a charming inn in Ubud with private bath, a real--not faux--bamboo and palm roof, balcony overlooking a rice paddy and forest, was $8, including breakfast. Of course, there are also prices that are exotic in the other way.

One has to revisit one's skepticism about alien abductions after visiting here, but with little doubt we believe the people we see are also the ones who make the architecture. The crafty South Pacific Islander can make a dwelling for free in a short time using found organic materials, and as a result most traditional structures are temporary. In Asia the architecture of the temple, and in Bali this is usually a Hindu temple, is highly ornate, ancient, and meant to last. The Hindu temple is the most elaborately symbolic physical creation of the human mind, making by comparison our gothic cathedrals seem, aside from the flying buttress, unimaginative. The Captain has not the space to treat it here, but the reader is assured that his time will be well repaid by even a brief perusal of the literature on the subject. Not only is the temple itself physically representative of animal and vegetable fertility, the makeup of the physical and spiritual structure of the human being and the world, consciousness and release therefrom, the cycle of death and rebirth of the individual and the cosmos and again, the release therefrom, various mythological stories and other abstruse theological themes; but the very process of building the temple is structured so that this activity also symbolizes most of the above. Just for example, when a temple is to be properly built, astrologers are consulted and a year before building commences, sacred cows are put on the plot to fertilize the soil in preparation for the implantation of a seed, represented by a box wherein are seven little fragments representing the fundamental elements of the universe. On the appointed day, an elaborate ritual takes place and the priest, having purified himself, places the box in the fertilized ground while imagining he is having sexual intercourse, as a representative of the male half of the world, with the earth, representing the female. The details of this ceremony are so complexly symbolic they can be described here only in outline. Of course, Christian architecture has the disadvantage of being much more limited by its own creed, as many of the themes considered sacred by Hindus are no-no's to the Christian and others are not recognized at all. The temples are everywhere in Bali, and their design and construction, influencing the houses and workplaces, by itself gives the country that never-never-land feel.

What reaches one's ears is also exotic, and the word falls far short of suggesting anything meaningful about the sounds of the gamelan orchestra. I would be willing to stipulate without bothering to carry the investigation further that this musical group creates the strangest sounds, musical or otherwise, ever heard on our planet. For starters, each orchestra is tuned only to itself, there being no objective tuning standard. Secondly, the group is split roughly into two, one playing a scale that divides the octave into five intervals, the other dividing it into seven. Among these two groups are gongs, xylophones, metallophones (a xylophone-like instrument), and bonangs (which are tuned, kettle-shaped gongs), as well as bamboo flutes and a bowed string instrument called the rebab. The latter two carry a very weird melody that relates to the percussive sounds of the others in a manner that, I'm quite sure, cannot be described by science. There are also drums. The xylophone-type instruments are struck by what look like geologists' hammers, and who knows what kind of pattern they could possibly be up to, even though it's clear there is a sophisticated structure, or several at once, being observed. Each instrument's tuned metal plates are separated from one another by the intervals above, but separated from their neighbor's instrument, with whom they are playing in something similar to, but not the same as, unison, by odd fractions of tones because we have that 5 or 7 tone scale. Something like that. Things speed up and slow down, dynamics are dynamic, and the general effect is that of the Furies let loose and freaking freely in a magic forest on Venus. It makes one quite schizophrenic, if to be schizophrenic is to be separated from what is widely considered to be reality, to have these sounds enter your brain.

The gamelan band may play on its own but also accompanies the shadow puppets and the traditional dances including the Barong Dance, of which we attended two. These are performed in intensely elaborate costumes and portray simple mythological themes from a dream universe that are no doubt as familiar to the locals as old I Love Lucy reruns. As part of this presentation one sees that weird Balinese dance the women do that you may have seen on TV. They move in spectacularly strange yet graceful ways, complete with that side to side head movement, and then strike a really warped pose while they give out a Mona Lisa smile and do that wiggly Vulcan thing with their bent-back fingers. It is hard convince oneself that they are not communicating with an overlord on the home planet to tell him to take the short one in the third row with the beard. (Where did the little guy go?) The effect of the gamelan orchestra and the Barong Dance together cannot be described, so I will attempt an impression. Suppose you go to a concert and there are three pairs of musical groups playing: bluegrass band, chamber orchestra, and a percussion ensemble. By some trick of subspace, a time warp allows you to hear all six simultaneously, as one of each pair plays forward and the other backward, even though they both start at the beginning, end at the end and vary their speed independently. Meanwhile, as the lead singer starts to sing his limbs fall off and become the Three Stooges with Dan Rather. A skilsaw blade flies in from the sky like a Frisbee and cuts of the top of Curly's head, revealing a musical top therein. But as Rather listens to it, the sound makes him turn into a red and green parrot that lays an egg which turns into a life-size replica of the Statue of Liberty, which, it turns out, only comes up to your knee. That would all make sense, compared to the Barong Dance.

Bali has an aroma, or perhaps several. I think I misspoke in the last dispatch about the odors of the marketplace. It may very well be that I was not smelling rotting vegetation alone, but a combination of that and fresh durian fruit, which smells like rotting organic material of some sort to the uninitiated. Among those aboard, only Ship's Fresh Fruit Enthusiast Terry Sh rode has tasted this delicacy, and he bought one that has been lending poor Maverick its fragrance. But that's not the main aroma in Bali. Rather, I believe it comes from the ubiquitous handcarts from which vendors sell their hot soups and curries. It's a reasonably sweet and smoky smell, not at all unpleasant but definitely not London.

The landscape of Bali is nearly as dramatic as Moorea, the flora as luxuriant as Tahaa. There are recently active volcanoes, peaceful rice paddies from 1000 years ago, and jungle-y forests where sacred monkeys cavort in their own temple. But the land is upstaged by the scenes one sees as part of everyday life, as cockfights, the sometimes-pestilential vendors, monkeys, motorbikes, and brightly costumed religious processions coexist in close proximity, all surrounded by mysterious buildings and bathed in strange aromas. On the way to Candidasa we saw a very colorful funeral procession wherein the pallbearers, carrying the bier on a bamboo platform topped by a costumed person on a throne under bright yellow and white umbrellas, were doused with bucketfuls of water as they circumambulated a statue of Brahma and Vishnu in the middle of a roundabout, stopping traffic. The water tossers accompanied their assault from a pickup filled with water with shouts and laughter, feinting this way and that as those carrying their heavy load ducked and sidestepped, themselves laughing almost hard enough to drop their burden. One really has no suitable western intellectual, emotional, or spiritual category to file this under, nor an appropriate response, and the scene you just read about may never have happened, and you may never have read about it. In this land one is subject, like Don Quixote, to enchantments.

PS to Peter Siegel (Mr. Siegel is every bit as much of a Britney Spears devotee as the Captain, and he writes to find whether our Britney is here as popular as elsewhere.) If the above hasn't convinced you that, with Bali, we have parted the curtain shielding us from the weird part of the universe, you will certainly be persuaded by the rather icky fact that NOT ONE Britney poster was seen during our outing. Eeeeeeuuwwww. I was all it's kinda creepy to be in a place like, so far away from reality.

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