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Postcard from Indonesia (3) – Grunting in Bali

February 8, 2015
Mr Turner

Timothy Spall in Mr Turner


Last week I posted a couple of missives from Bali, where my wife and I are on holiday. If you didn’t catch them, let me explain that I tore a hamstring just before we flew there, and as a result I’ve been in a wheelchair more or less ever since.

I’ve become quite used to being wheeled everywhere. My lovely wife is tending to my every need, though she no longer has to help me pull my trousers up. My arm muscles are bulging thanks to all the wheeling.

There is one disturbing development, though – at least from her perspective. During the first few days, every time I moved I let out an anguished yell. That has now changed to a low grunt, so much so that she is now calling me Mr Turner. Anyone who has seen Timothy Spall in the biopic of the great English painter JMW Turner will recognise my grunting repertoire.

Where my standard expression of pain was AAAAAH, it’s now WURRRRGH. When my wife offers me a cup of coffee, it’s URRRR (pitch descending). If I ask for coffee its URRRR (pitch ascending). Getting up: a short UH. Sitting down: a long doleful AAAR culminating in a slow expulsion of breath that sounds rather like a death rattle. It’s driving her crazy, and I confess that the more she complains the more I come up with creative variants. If any organutans have escaped from West Java to Bali, I would be able to have long and intimate conversations with them.

Having said all that, we finally managed to go on a trip a little more extensive than the regular visits to the hospital for physio. We hired a driver for the day, and took a trip to the Ubud area, described in the guidebooks as the cultural heart of Bali. We made it clear to the driver that we could not/would not stop for shopping, so we did a series of drive-bys.

The odd thing about the area is that the outlying villages seem dedicated to artefacts. Paintings, mosaics, wood carvings, stone sculptures and batik furniture. There are hundreds of shops selling more or less the same stuff, some of which is gorgeous. Yet you could probably bring the combined populations of Britain and Australia down these streets and the shops would be unlikely to sell more than a fraction of their stock. So why keep adding to an inventory you might not clear in a couple of decades?

I felt much the same when wandering around the oriental carpet shops when I lived in Bahrain. A visit from a potential customer seemed like a rare event, yet each shop had hundreds if not thousands of beautiful hand-made Qoms, Isfahans, Herekes and Kilims piled up from one end of the premises to the other. But whereas it’s relatively easy for a traveller to pack a silk Hereke into a big bag, getting a six-foot hardwood carving of a rearing horse or a two-hundred kilo statue of the Buddha back to London or Perth would be a matter of eat, pray, hire a shipping container.

I’ve asked one or two locals why these shops keep such huge stocks and haven’t yet received an answer that makes sense. Perhaps it’s because sense doesn’t come into it – there’s a tradition in these villages that has its own momentum. You create things because that’s what your family has done for centuries, and if it takes a couple of generations to sell what you’ve produced, so be it.

We did manage one stop-off, an excruciating hobble to a café overlooking a terraced rice plantation on the tourist trail. Very beautiful it is too, though I suspect it’s maintained for the benefit of visitors these days, since there are many rice fields on flat land nearby that must be much easier to cultivate.


Bali Rice 2

Rice Terraces near Ubud


There I had a cup of kopi luwok – allegedly. This is made from coffee beans that pass through the digestive systems of a weasel-like animal called an Asian Palm Civet. I say allegedly because it’s supposed to be the most expensive coffee in the world. Given that there’s only a limited supply of civet droppings to be harvested, I as surprised that my cup was only twice the price of a cappuccino. Apparently the beans are miraculously transformed as they pass through the civet, and the result is supposed to be a smooth and rich-flavoured brew. Anyway, it slipped very pleasantly over my uneducated taste buds even if it wasn’t the real thing.


Asian Palm Civet. Pic: Praveenp/Wikipedia


So a good holiday thus far, with no sign of the dreaded dengue fever, which is apparently endemic in Bali, and recently struck down a friend of ours so badly that he had to spend a week in hospital on a drip. Being mindful of his ordeal, we came equipped with all kinds of insect repellents and long-sleeved shirts to keep the bugs at bay, but within a day or so we were walking (or wheeling) around in shorts and t-shirts like everyone else.

I suspect that the mossies would recoil in terror at the sight of the tattoos sported by some of our fellow inmates – extremely large Aussies, Germans and Russians who like to congregate at the pool bar for much of the day. Perhaps I should visit one of the many tattoo parlours in Kuta for a tasteful rendition of a Balinese dragon to ward off the nasties. On second thoughts, I would rather eat raw civet droppings.

I write this during the glorious Bali morning, when much of the world with which we interact on a daily basis even while on holiday is asleep. A good time to plan what we might do if we visit the island again. Hopefully by then I’ll be walking as normal. So a climb up the cone of an active volcano, a bit of white water rafting and a hike through the jungle come to mind, as prompted by the Lonely Planet Guide. But the reality is that we’ll do what we normally do: walking around, looking, listening, eating, talking to people.

In other words – to use the term coined by Robert Heinlein in Stranger in a Strange Land – to try to grok this lovely island. As Heinlein put it:

“Grok means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed—to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in group experience. It means almost everything that we mean by religion, philosophy, and science—and it means as little to us (because of our Earthling assumptions) as color means to a blind man.”

Not something you can realistically do in a two-week trip, especially if you’re shuffling around a beach resort, but surely a concept that many of our gracious Balinese hosts would understand. And if Turner had come grunting this way, I think he would have too.

From → Postcards, Travel

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