Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Day trippers

1st August 2006 – Part II

Next on our list of places to visit was Batuan, home of the distinctive black and white paintings that depict scenes of daily Balinese life. It’s an art movement that started in the 1930’s which was more or less confirmed by our guide at the gallery where we had been deposited who explained how his parents had taught him this style and his parents parents before. He talked us though the process of creation and we watched an artist at work. There is nothing like seeing an artist at work to make you think ‘Mmm I’d like that’ (and that’s why I have a Nicaraguan weaving taking up vast amounts of space in my cupboard), but the little stickers in US dollars on the corners of the painting were at best extortionate. “Oh, those are gallery prices.” Our guide explained. “Here we have discount 60%”. Uh oh! Those words trickled into my brain and I began imagining what the pictures would look like in my new lounge. Of course I could have picked one with just the hairy old barong in it. Or I could have picked another one with no background, or no foreground, but I picked one with both and my small but detailed Batuan painting was the most expensive of the lot I had arranged around me on the floor, not to mention that I wasn’t even thinking about how it would fit into my rucksack.

Next stop was the craft market at Sukawati. It was an indoor market where the preferred way to get a customer to distinguish one sarong out of the hundreds and millions displayed there was to block said customers path with it. Kim bowed out and left me and Estrella to it and like the hardened marketeers we were we emerged breathless and emboldened a few minutes later clutching our masks and cat shaped coat hook.

After vital refuelling stop no.4 was FINALLY Goa Gajan, or the Elephant Cave, so called... well couldn’t exactly work that one out. Maybe the carved entrance could be an elephant, but not really. Maybe it’s because there is a Ganesh statue inside. There were some other bits and bobs in there too: a lingam, a yoni and some stones representing the elements and it was all very holy, but being a wee bit heathen I can’t quite remember why. We then lent on the wall overlooking the bathing pool with the enormous boobied lady fountains and wondered what lay to the south. You see the LP said we had to do some clambering and after the 1001 steps of the day before none of us felt like ‘clambering’ so we tootled back off to the car to be taken to Gunung Kawi.

Gunung Kawi is described as the place where you find these amazing candies (shrines) carved into the cliff face. Now cliff face suggests steep descent doesn’t it? Not to us, we were most surprised to find that we had to go down through a town, and then down through some paddy terraces, and then down again. It was all very pretty and all, but I just couldn’t stop thinking that in this case what goes down must come up later. However... when we got there it WAS pretty amazing. There are those shrines poking out from the forest with a river gurgling below and a temple opposite.

And finally to end our day of Balinese art and culture (with a wee bit of shopping thrown in) we decided to go to a shadow puppet show. I can’t remember when I first became aware of those delicately thin puppets with lace like designs, but I was definitely into them by the time I was eighteen and watched proudly as my little troupe of five year olds performed their own rendition of the Teddy Bear’s Picnic behind the screen my Dad had made.

The Balinese version is slightly more complicated and highly religious. It’s only recently that the Palang (puppet masters) have begun performing them to tourists. There is a set list of characters; good versus evil (that old tale again) and the shows can last up to three hours long. We didn’t quite last an hour. In retrospect I suppose something of this significance was never going to be performed in its true sense to a bunch of tourists, but the crude jokes were just too much. We laughed politely at first, but as the audience gradually trickled away we joined the flow.

The night before we had discovered this little side street where all the paving stones have inscriptions dating from 1979-2003; as well as the decorative paving it was remarkably free of dogs, tourists, touts offering ‘transport’ and flashy restaurants. We had our cheapest and best meal ever and I finally began to get some crucial vocab: Ikan – fish, terima kahsi – thank you. Oh and the onion rings were good too.

Bloody Blogger. There are meant to be more photos with this post, but I can't upload them. Will try again sometime soon. And I thought switching to beta would make all this easier... (shakes head sadly from side to side and sighs loudly).

Saturday, September 23, 2006


1st August 2006 – Part I

After experiencing Ketut’s late night rafting arrangements, we decided to test him to the limit. The LP pointed out that some of the villages around Ubud were worth visiting, but quite difficult to get to. So I asked and not only did he agree to what I asked, he even threw in a few extra things.

So the morning started off in Batubalan. Although this is the central stone carver’s village, we had actually come here to see the morning performance of the Barong dance. Like the Kecak dance, the Barong is an epic tale of good versus evil. This time the hairy dog type dragon thing battles...

against the equally hairy witch Rangda.

Of course the story was more complicated than that, but they are the main players; the ones the audience ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ over. There are beautiful princesses (I think she was a beautiful princess) and her son...

and at the end the Rangda almost gets her wicked way by putting the Barong’s army into a trance and making them stab themselves,

but clever old Barong has made the knives harmless so what we see is a group of men screaming ‘HAY’ and depending on their acting skills varying attempts to stab themselves which range from dramatic to comically absurd.

All this is played before us with the soundtrack provided by the now familiar Gamelan Orchestra.

Nevertheless it was a jolly good fun and I rated it second after the Kecak. I guess I just like a good yarn.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Mind the Toes

This isn’t quite finished and these toes seem to be wandering their own way!

Mind the toes get their dose of
dew and wet blades of grass
between their inner most creases.

Mind the toes dig into the generations
of blunted glass
cooly cascading as they emerge.

Mind the toes dip and float
in the crystaline salty
blues and greens.

Mind the toes feel beneath them
the life, soul and grain
of the creaking floor.

Mind the TOES!

Thursday, September 14, 2006

My Birthday

31st July2006 – Part II

The drive to the Sungai Agung river was up and up through coconut palms, banana trees, banyan trees, acacias, rice paddies and small villages all advertising the Ubud Festival: ‘Ubud the centre of culture and art for the world!’ In one village I saw a group of men sitting in a circle each one caressing the crest of his prized cockerel. I spun round in my seat and asked the girls: “Did you see the men on the corner stroking their cocks?” Estrella blinked at me, turned to Kim and said: “That’s why I teach kids to say rooster." Rooster, cockerel, le coq qui chant, anyway, cockfighting is a big thing here.

At the top of the Sungai Agung we were met by a guide who told us a bit about out descent: 9km, two hours and lunch when we get out at the other end. The other END! Two hours away! We were starving NOW. OK we were probably nowhere near starving, but we were ready for lunch now, it was lunch time after all. The guide ignored our long startled faces and pointed us in the direction of our rafting guides Yoga and his trusty sidekick (whose name was no doubt Wayan, Made, Nyoman or Ketut, but we never picked it up). We were kitted up and pointed in the direction of the rafts and not one of us thought to ask where the raft was. Well, maybe after the first hundred steps when we were still thinking about the benefits of stairs for your bum. By the next hundred steps we were definitely asking, and after the next hundred any energy expenditure other than stepping down could have tipped the balance towards complete collapse. Which is practically what I did as soon as they dumped the raft in the water; straight into the front seat because it was the nearest. Estrella who has collapsed next to me scooted over to the back when she realised the repercussions of sitting at the front and so Kim was my brave front seat partner. Yoga taught us the important rafting terminology: paddle forwards, paddle backwards, stop, boom boom and jiggle jiggle. Mostly Kim and I didn’t need the stop and boom boom signals because we could see perfectly well where the rapids suddenly dropped away or the solid walls of rock we were being directed towards while the guides cackled boom boom behind us. Another of their favourite jokes was to count so that we could paddle in time and then speed up! Oh and then there was ‘Look at the waterfall’ which we would do just as we went under it. Some were like showers, but the biggest with its spray rainbow at the bottom was like a massage we hadn’t booked.

The scenery around us was fantastic verdant forest (maybe rain) with little birds the size of large butterflies zooming across our path in a crazy zigzag way. Sometimes in the trees with gigantic leaves we would catch a flash of bright blue. These were Kingfishers. When still, you could see their bright blue breasts and vivid red beaks, but when they took flight and the sun caught their feathers, what I had mistaken for black wings and back transformed into flashes of blue.

Luxury hotels nestled in the hills above the gorge for the ‘honeymoon couples’ and below the sculptors who were working on a complex scene from the Ramayan dozed on the scaffolding.

Finally Yoga informed us that we were coming up to our last ‘boom boom’ and lunch. Suddenly we all remembered how hungry we were and perhaps rushed towards that last rapid ignoring the raft that had sprung a leak and was looking for a less exciting route.

In remembering our hunger we obviously forgot something else; the steep descent. The way up was equal if not worse and for the first time this holiday I recognised that this could be a near death experience. Would my lungs survive the whole way up? The only thing that buoyed me on was the thought of food at the top.

When we got there it was to be greeted by cheesy out of focus photos of us in the raft and a rather disappointing buffet affair that was being cleared away as we ate. Before we knew it we were back in the car fighting to keep our eyes open and our mouths closed, but after our forced halt behind the marching schoolgirls I could fight it no longer and the next time I was aware we were outside Ketut’s place.

To make up for lunch and Estrella’s altogether different near death experience (the whole rafting affair), she found us a restaurant in the grounds of the Pura Taman Suraswati (Ubud Water Palace). We sat slurping our Purple Lotuses (Fizzy rose and grape juice – yum) overlooking the lotus pond and filled our tummies, before running the gauntlet of the barking dogs and falling into bed. All in all it was a pretty successful birthday.

Erratum: In the previous post it was indicated to me by an irate reader that I may have lied to get them to go rafting. If I did do this I a) don’t remember and strongly deny lying and b) wasn’t going to let Estrella back out of rafing.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

My Birthday

31st July 2006 - Part I

Thirty five years ago on this day I was born hours early (probably the last time I was ever early for anything) thus denying the midwife who had finished her day shift at Nelson’s Hospital her 100th delivery, or at least that’s the story I was told. I was also told I had blonde hair and blue eyes and my Mum told the nurse I was not her baby. But my hair turned black, and my eyes turned brown and over the intervening years my hair started to turn grey and I went through a succession of horrendous glasses before turning to contact lenses. And so I found myself in the company of a couple of mates at Ketut’s place cancelling our rafting trip, while Ketut called a friend and booked us on a cheaper trip with lunch included – yum.

Before the trip we decided to tootle down to Ubud Palace to catch it in the daytime. Because everything is so intricately decorated, in my mind I decided that the palace had to be hundreds of years old, but in actual fact it is full of red brick and concrete like so many of the other temples around here and was reconstructed in 1917 after an earthquake. I still took pictures aplenty because the architecture is so different to anything I’ve seen before.

In the outer courtyard are open pavilions (usually three). You then go up the steps and pass through the Kori Agung or Paduraska (doorway) before entering the inner courtyard. At the top of the steps is the Aling-Aling – in this one stood a masked woman, her enormous tongue hanging between her well rounded breasts warding off the evil spirits.

The Pavilions in the inner courtyard are dedicated to various gods or to the founder of the village and there is even one where the gods congregate to watch ceremonies. Nowadays they seem to be resting places for weary travellers waiting for ‘transport’ out of Ubud or photos of JFK visiting the temple hang there.

On our way back to the hotel via the shops we commented that in the daytime the dogs that lazed in our path barely had the energy to raise their heads let alone keep up the relay of barking that accompanied us at night time, but we couldn’t have too much of an in-depth conversation about it because our pick up was already there and we needed bathing suits and change of clothes and Estrella needed to be reassured that Rafting was perfectly safe – even though I had never done it before, but our travel insurance covered us, so how dangerous could it be?

Find out in the next thrilling instalment...

Saturday, September 09, 2006


I had a sudden realisation this morning while chopping up the last of my melon: Children like cats and dogs should not be kept in Paris apartments. I fear I may have been a little uncharitable to these children who are so proudly announced on the letter box label above mine ‘Philieas Fogg and their children’. I may have wished them nailed to the floor or cursed their parents, I may even have wished them an early death, but now I realise that if I am ever going to sleep in on a Saturday again I should wish for a pair of earplugs. My second wish should be to befriend the father (who always seems to be leaving or entering as I leave or struggle to enter my front door – haven’t quite got the hang of the locks yet) and subtly share my theory with him. No, if I am going to wish for slow, painful, early deaths I reckon I need to save all my death wishes for my absolute fuckwit of a boss; that is if I get through today.

You see this is the absurdity of the situation, yesterday my friends and I sat in an Ethiopian restaurant next to three of the funniest gay guys I have ever eavesdropped on, planning how to get a fridge down four flights of stairs. Actually I wasn’t planning, I was listening to the little guy explain how he feels who he is may have traumatised the younger half of his family and then talking about all the ‘lovely’ people in his new job without drawing breath. Then the tall one started in on his family and his favourite aunt this, and how he was close to cousin so and so and the middle aged on just provided the uhms and appropriate ahhs. After the three of them had whipped out these fabulous mobile phones – they all looked great compared to our cheapo plastic Nokias – the little one said that since he had lost his he wasn’t spending large amounts on phones anymore. At this point I think I had managed to miss the more absurd proposals for getting a fridge out the flat such as getting climbing rope and lowering it out the window or using the wheelie bit of a wheelie shopping trolley.

After I had ploughed my way round the injera covered in various delicacies in concentric circles we arrived at one of the more lucid plans. Cover it in blankets and slide it down, one at the top and two at the bottom. It was also probably at that point that we all began to phone Jim begging for help.

So this morning when the screaming herd of elephants made their presence known to me by cannoning into our adjoining wall every few seconds I woke up and gasped. But how the hell do we get the fridge out the kitchen, down the hall and at the stairs?

And unbuild the wardrobe? And clear the cave and... OK deep breaths and don’t panic. Colleen and Lise are going to help you and it will all be alright even if Lise does have to go and grab a perfect stranger from the street. OK calm, calm and calm.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Kecak (chakachakachaka)

30th July 2006

I love water though I’m not very good in it and as teen/young adult I had certain pyromaniac tendencies; although this tended to be limited to picking up lighters and seeing what I could burn around me. I also have this vague memory of reading a description of fire personified as a licking monster which made me admire it in a new way. So I suppose I was looking forward to the Kecak dance which was described as the fire and trance dance. We were also kind of excited because Ketut had told us he would be performing. Would he be Rama or the White Monkey, or the Monkey King, or part of the 120 strong male choir I wondered as I sat entranced by the centrepiece of tiers of burning candles. Behind me I spotted some of the major cast members donning their elaborately decorated costumes and above me to the right of the stairs I could see groups of men in their checked black and white sarongs which symbolises the conflict between good and evil chatting away.

When it started it was nothing like I had expected. The choir came down the stairs chanting chaka chakachakachaka chaka. Every now and again someone would shout out and the chant would speed up, slow down, rise and fall in intensity. As they descended they waved their hands in the air, bowed to the left, bowed to the right and eventually formed a circle around the candles where they sat cross legged and continued to chant. An older member of the choir provided the haunting wailing melody which weaved and entwined with the chanting. But in a way the choir was more than a choir. They were the scenery and supporting cast; one moment representing fallen armies, the next the snake that swallowed Rama whole. They provided bridges and tunnels and the dignitaries welcoming the Monkey King, all the time keeping up the chant. And throughout the whole time that this dance kept me rapt, every single hair on my body stood on end.

But if that wasn’t enough after the Monkey King defeated the baddie and the choir disappeared back up the temple stairs and the candles were put aside, two members of the choir returned and piled up a bunch of coconuts. Once they were lit the heat off them was incredible and the three pronged prickly monster danced to a tune of its own as its innards glowered through shades of red and orange.

As I sat hypnotised by the flames a third bare foot choir member now sporting a hobby horse came flying down the stairs and straight through the fire kicking burning coconut shells at startled tourists. The two others swept the shells back into one burning mass and horseman ran through the fire again. This continued until the fire was almost tamed at which point the two sweepers decided enough was enough and began chasing the horseman kicking up a storm of embers and finally wrestling him to the ground.

Later Ketut told us that he hadn’t performed that night, but that he was the head of the village and they had only begun putting on the Kecak dance eighteen months ago. The villagers were all pleased with the result because now the door money paid for the upkeep of the temple. So Ketut’s talents add up to running his hotel, putting on feasts, Kecak dances and organising anything we wanted to do in and around Ubud (as we were soon to discover).

Unfortunately camera had even less to focus on then the night before, but I still kind of like these pictures. And I wonder if it's the same big head as the night before! Mmm.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Legong, Very long and Not Long Enough (a tale in three parts)

Part III – 30th July 2006

This is a fairly short story, for the hour and a half after we got back from the walk whizzed by. The Javanese Flower bath and deep tissue massage went too quick. It was kind of a birthday treat as Estrella’s was the day before and mine is tomorrow. So we were lathered up and man those hands were good. OK it was the most expensive yet (the third in four day) but so far it was the best.

Did I mention we were staying at Ketut’s place? The hotel is a kind of traditional compound, with the kitchen at the front as you walk in and our little bungalows behind. Ketut had warned us that our rooms were not deluxe. This meant no windows and a 5.30am alarm call from the neighbourhoods cockerels with harmony provided by the howling dogs and croaking frogs. But as we descended below the swimming pool for our massages we discovered the meaning of deluxe: windows, air con (not that you needed it), the sound of the river gushing below and the masseuse cooing over the colour of my hair as she plastered me in yellow exfoliating stuff and the promise of a flower bath.

As Made (pronounced Mah-day) kneaded into my tight muscles she asked me my name and what number I was. I was a bit drowsy by then and didn’t quite understand the question. “What number?” I tried to clarify. “Yes, first, second? Brothers, sisters?” Oh, suddenly something we had read dawned on both Estrella and I. “First.” Estrella said. “Second.” I said. “You Wayan.” She told Estrella. “You Made like me.” She said to me. Nyoman is third, Ketut is fourth and if there’s is a fifth child it goes back to Wayan and starts all over again.

Estrella and I got a bit chilly as we waited for the yellow goo to dry. It was at that moment that Kim decided to wander by looking all dreamy and relaxed. She took one look at us huddled up and laughed. “You think you’re cold now wait until you get into the bath.” “Oh yes.” Ketut said later. “The bath is new, no hot water yet.” Even the slug that had found its way into our flower bath was doing its best to escape quickly. The masseuses laughed and giggled as Estrella and I squealed and screamed. “Like babies.” They commented.

So yellow goo off, skin feeling great, muscles starting to relax we ambled back to our room before the evening’s Kecak Dance (performed by Ketut’s troupe) and Feast (made by Ketut’s wife).

Saturday, September 02, 2006

A Soft Target

I typed up the third part of the Legong tale this morning, but I’m sorry that post it going to have to wait because something else has not been sitting well with me since yesterday (and it’s not the vast amounts of wine I drank yesterday to numb the shock of going back to work). In the two months since I last walked through the building’s doors we have been classed a ‘soft target’ for terrorism and have had anti blast film stuck on the windows. Security cameras have also been installed and we now have to wear security badges at all times. Admittedly much piss taking ensued yesterday and we had great fun waving them at Colleen and making out that we were better than her because we had one and she didn’t, but then in the light of a more sober day I’m beginning to realise what is not right about all this.

Don’t get me wrong I don’t take security or safety lightly. No way, when I book overnight field trips I book with a company that charges three times more than a French company because I feel that their levels of security and safety are better. When I go on trips I am anal to the point of ridicule, but I just can’t take these measures seriously, I never have.

Weeks after 9/11 I remember being dragged off by my principal so that she could go over the ‘red alert’ measures with me. I found it very difficult to keep a straight face (not helped by the fact that my colleague was pissing herself behind the principal’s back) as she scribbled the measures down in red pen. After the Iraq war started the new principal decided to take the sign down. Well fine, but perhaps she should have discussed this with the RATP and Bus company where we are still clearly advertised on their maps. And now this.

It’s not because I grew up in the 70’s that I think these measures are stupid. I grew up in London under the shadow of IRA terrorist attacks. But I guess what was different then was that we weren’t so scared. Last year I was definitely a little bit uneasy going through Aldgate East station in late July and that really pissed me off. Not as much though as a colleague changing seats on the metro because the man opposite was reading something in Arabic script. That’s what all this is building too; people sitting on the tube looking at my brother funny because his skin is a bit darker and he’s carrying a rucksack.

And what really pisses me off with this business at work is that we are an educational establishment. There we are spouting off to the kids that we value traits such as being open-minded and principled and yet what are our principles? Trust no one and fear everything? Are these the values I want to instil in the future generation? Absolutely not.

Maybe I am creating a worse case scenario here. Maybe we are doing enough, but I just can’t help thinking that if we have got to the state that we are in today it’s because society (and that includes educationalists) have been sitting wrapped up in their four walls navel gazing ignoring the real problems of the world at large. Perhaps it’s too simplistic to say that poverty and greed are the driving force behind the world’s problems today, I’m not an economist. I’m just getting this growing feeling that if I am to do my job well then that means making my mind up and guiding students towards asking those difficult questions and challenging paradigms.

Friday, September 01, 2006

The force is with me

I always knew that I was destined to be a Jedi Knight. Yesterday Estrella sent me this webpage: You upload a picture and it tells you which famous person you look like. I got a bit carried away and uploaded four! Estrella asked me after the first pic if I thought it worked. "Well these women are all gorgeous, so... yeah, it's pretty accurate." I replied my tongue firmly inserted in my cheek. But by the third picture the odd bloke was turning up and eventually LUKE SKYWALKER. The force is with me, what can I say.


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