Yup, that's an infinity pool. I also had my first beer in 12 days. Also had my first hot shower in 12 days. Very luxurious.
After a fairly decadent meal at the bungalow, I rent a sepeda motor and go explore; Tengannan Pegringsingan is home to indigenous Balinese called Bali Aga, and known to have maintained its appearance and customs from the old days. After submitting donation you're allowed to their village which is strictly exclusive to the natives, and one of the strangest space I've set my foot into; all the villagers are minding their own doing their things while tourists take pictures of them. The only way I can describe how I feel would be that it's like walking into Safari Park, only with people; the villagers are setting up shops in their residences, selling their crafts such as ikat weaving and carved wood, not many of which I see people buying. They might not give a fuck, but this underlined sadness is killing me, which is further enhanced when I get to the end of what seems to be the main plaza and see a pile of garbage with a few chickens picking out whatever they think is edible. Balinese in general are pretty horrible with littering, and its not rare to see garbage piles on the side of any road, but this one looks more like a deep ditch they dug to throw in whatever they decided they don't need, probably some from the tourists added in as well. I could turn around and exit, but I do see that the path keeps going into the woods and the Google maps show that its a loop. Might as well earn some step count on my Health app.
You know where you are? You're in the jungle baby, hope you're not gonna die.
Imagine the last act of Apocalypse Now where Captain Willard finds Colonel Kurtz, but with natives wearing T-shirts and no dead bodies hanging from the trees. The path has been unpaved for the last 20 minutes now. And I know that I'm still in the village because I still see the bamboo fences, and through its openings some signs of civilization like chickens running around, cows hanging and huts that look inhabitable. Occasionally a few sepeda motors pass me by, staring at first then cautiously smiling. There's a few water fountains and what I assume to be shared shower room (with people bathing and staring back at me). I should probably turn around; I wasn't in the mood for this kind of adventure especially after spending a night in a resort. Then I remember the time in Kuala Lumper, what we thought was gonna be a short hike up to the waterfall turned into a full-on jungle expedition with our shoes drenched and wherever our skins were exposed visited by leeches from all directions, meanwhile our poor driver was scared shitless for having to wait for our tourist asses for 2 hours longer than expected, thinking we might've gotten lost. Well, at least I still have LTE and as long as I don't upset the locals by invading their homes...
Then I hear it; gamelan from the distance. I have heard that Tengannan was known for the rare Galeman Selunding but was not expecting since there was no ceremony or occasion that'll involve music. But maybe they're practicing for an upcoming one, I HAVE to check where it is coming from.
Then someone from up top yells "Hello?" I meet a lanky local as he comes down the hill and asks what I'm up to. I tell him I'm studying Gender in Sukawati (thought that might give me some credential) and wanted to see where the music was coming from.
"Are you guys practicing Gamelan?"
"Oh no, just the speakers."
Turns our they are playing recordings from a pair of bigass speakers they set up in their hut, while the whole family is chillin. A lanky guy offers me their house brew saying "the best in Karangasem," but I had just heard that people die from drinking house-brewed Arak so I decline and leave. Well it was exciting for a moment. Also, this is where they actually live; away from the front and the facade by the entrance, deep into the rain forest with no pavement or signs. I hear kids playing, people cutting trees and random conversations, sounding from somewhere in the woods that I cannot see, or from the valleys or streams that look dried up. And on the dirt road I've been walking are opened plastic packages of instant ramen and roti bread, empty pet bottles etc. Okay, I need to take a shit. Enough adventure for today.
OR NOT. Instead of going straight back to the oasis with hot water and Indonesian MTV, I decide to get my rental fees keep exploring. There's gotta be a beach that's not blocked out by any resort where locals hang, let's turn this corner and see what I end up with. And I end up with this.
I see an middle-aged man sunbathing, and a group of white people looking up at their friend on a parachute, and a few roosters. I'll take it - kick my sandals off, take a walk along the waves hitting the black sand under the blazing sun. Much like in Hawaii, the rain doesn't last long and the sky keeps switching its color between blue and grey. It has been surprisingly chilly occasionally but at this moment, I'm getting baked. Soon there is no one in sight - can't remember the last time I got to be completely alone in an open space, which I cannot have enough of. I have known that I have the loner tendencies. I enjoy the silent solitude, the reason I prefer traveling alone. Balinese folks think doing things by yourself is weird or eccentric. They think I'm crazy that I take my bike to wander around the island all by myself ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ If I didn't have the language barrier it might have been harder to find the alone time, just out of their sweet hospitality.
Then I hear engines roar behind; looks to be 6 or 7 local teens staring at my sepeda motor. Then one of them finds me - everytime I am spotted by locals the questions are the same; where you're from/where you're going. I tell him I'm from Sukawati lol which sounds less touristy than Chandidasa or so I thought, and that I'm going to LEAVE. He goes "there's a beautiful white sand beach, 5 minutes from here - you should go." Sure - I know you want me out of YOUR beach ;) Totes okay. Lemme be on the move. Then he goes, with underlying hostility and menace,
"It's gonna cost you 100k."
Ah, THAT'S what you want. Okay then, I'll just head back. "To Sukawati?" Yes, an hour and half away. "Are you sure?" Yes, I'm pretty tired sitting on your beautiful black sand beach. It's time for mandi (shower) "Okay, well, let us escort you" which he does not say, but he and his gang ride along my ass till the main road, out of "their" territory. I must say, that was the least intimidating extortion I've ever seen, or the most hostile tour guide. I had a dude that would not let me leave before I pay 100k for a ray-ban knock off at Sukawati market (which a convenience store one block down sells for 25k) while two other squeezing in their products like mardi gras beads and model trains, but this was just weird.
Well, I also know that on the other side of mountains is another beach called Amed, where a lot of snorkelers and scuba divers have moved from Candidasa after the development in the nearby area destroyed coral reefs there; a tragedy which seems to happen almost everywhere there are corals. The bali that Maria remembers from 1987 is no more; the back road that used to host magnificent views of nothing but rice patties are now featuring villas and yoga retreat centres, or the construction sites for either. As much as I love Sukawati, the air quality has not been the best due to all the exhaust gas and people burning shit on the roadside (what they're burning I don't wanna know) but largely from construction dust. But I digress. Only an hour away, let's just stretch and see what I see.
The bottom line; the beach turns out to be another tourist haven but along the way I see some of the most gorgeous landscape of this trip. Much like the Golden Circle drive in Iceland, the best part I failed to capture with my iPhone 7+ ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ but the majority of my 2-hour ride (there and back) was mostly on single-lane roads among the hillside villages surrounded by woods, rice parties and streams, running away from the massive cloud swiftly spreading its fingers over the mointains. I really was running away from the cloud because under it I was freezing my fingers with no gloves or jacket. Didn't check the altitude but my fingertips were getting numb. When do I ever over-prepare myself? Why does the weather always betray me? Who woulda thought you'd be longing for leather jacket in Bali? Well at least I'll have my hot shower when I get back to the luxurious bungalow.
I dropped my clothes to jump into shower - the water never got hotter than semi-lukewarm.
It's no surprise that white people congregate where they offer free wifi, but it's funny to be writing these posts often surrounded by English speakers. I listen very intently to Indo/Balinese conversations in my dire attempt to pick up the launguage, whereas English I proactively tune out; otherwise I get distracted by how enlightened they feel in this environment and/or some bullshit they have carried over from wherever they come from. Also, why is this a destination for a bunch of yoga-practicing white ladies? According to Cliff (see his comment below) Yoga has been present in Bali for centuries but I never see any yoga studio for locals, as you only see English signs for them at least in Ubud, "a cultural center of Bali." Are they so racist that they've mistaken Indonesia with India?
A striking difference between here and Europe, though, is the attitude of the locals towards tourists. After seeing Europeans grudgingly serve foreigners because they have to, Balinese seem way more accomodating, friendly and smiley to them, which I'd expect from Japanese who suffers from the everlasting white envy. Balinese on the other hand seems very confortable with who they are, then they'd still go out of their ways to help you. Maybe that's just how they are; helpful, friendly and smiley. Such a blanket statement, I know, It's only been 10 days. But I've motor-biked through the insane foot/motor traffic of Denpasar, Sanur, Ubud and the craziest of all, Art/Food Market of Sukawati (I find it easier to navigate through the swarm of sepeda motors/motor bikes going all directions than to carefully avoid stores spread to already-narrow streets, street vendors pushing carts, and a few totally clueless tourists lost in the Deep Asian Madness #nextsongtitle), attended 4-day temple festival at Banjar (a local gathering where community more or less governs themselves), a rather elaborate wedding and a temple anniversary, hung out with some random locals that were drinking wara (an Indonesian sake) by my doorstep, and ate at a few very touristy spots asking for wifi passwords. And my impression of Balinese so far comes in ambivalence; approachable but distant, helpful but unyielding, hardworking and lazy, generous and stingy, proud and humble, traditionalist and modern - but the post title above, the phrase Maria often uses, encompasses it all.
An example; as gorgeous and mysterious as these temples are, you find it in literally every corner of Bali streets so it would get old fast if you took pictures every time you see it (although I still can't help but sometimes). That does not mean they are like some city parks, you need to have a traditional outfit on to enter such as udeng and sarong for men, Kebaya for ladies etc. Females are also not to enter when menstrating, one of many misogenies you'll see in Bali. Once you're in though, it seems anything goes; there'd be priests chanting and people praying kneeled down on the ground while kids play and run around or, yes, selfie-ing. Even on the bandstand in between pieces you'd catch gamelan players gaming on their smartphones in the middle of a ceremony. At the aforementioned wedding we attended, Sarga the guru in the middle of a piece took a phone call, a VOICE CALL while playing on one hand. This is right in the middle of an actual wedding ceremony mind you, not a reception. I once witnessed the one and only Chili Charles (for whom I'd have to dedicate a post at one point) finish a drum solo with one hand while checking his watch, but this kinda tops that. That being said, there were many aunties socializing sitting in the same hut as the bride and groom were receiving blessing from the priest - #zerofucksgiven everywhere I guess. But I digress.
I find Banjar to be a perfect peek into Balinese culture; it's got everything (credit: Stefon @SNL) - on stage there's Wayang, a shadow play on the first night, the night 2 and 3 are Dance Drama featuring kids and newbies on the former, seasoned performers on the latter. Night 4 featured 2 comedy duos with the same amount of makeup on both ladies and men. All of these are accompanied by Gamelan ensembles of different sizes, with the third night being the tightest of it all which I will detail in another post. While all of this is happening on the lighted and heavily-decorated stage, the back of the temple hosts 4 to 5 tables, I mean sheets on the ground, of gambling games. I don't understand how all of it works, but at least one seems to be a dice game only with monsters as numbers, and there is one that involves coins which seems very, very simple. This by far is the most consistently attended part of the festivities, with even kids getting in on the action with real cash on their tiny hands. Some of them already has an attitude of a veteran, only no cigarette or facial hair (and if you think asians look younger, wait till you see these mofos). I heard cock fighting has been banned but are being held everywhere, maybe not at temples - just re-establishing how Asians love to gamble. Towards the entrance and just outside of temple are food vendors, offering anything from fried tofu, sate, rice porridge with chicken (which seems to be a hit for all the ladies #healthychoice) and kids favorite; crepe with black rice. Too bad I've been always stuffed with Mrs Sarga's delicious meals every time I visited.
On top of all this, you see socializing of all generations from aunties, dads, elders to kids; the most entertaining of all. Their fascination with Maria has brought to us so many #adorbs moments that I can't even, with the funniest being their attitude towards photos. They LOVE being photographed but never want to smile when prompted. They'd come with all smiles and sometimes even demand that we photographs them, then when we points the lenses their faces turn all serious and devoid of emotion. Thank gods I managed to grab a few candid shots from the side. At least from what I have seen, the community manages to ground all their youth onto this occasion and maintain their involvement; the performances on the second night was mostly carried by youth, with some really talented comedy act that closed the night. The talent pool here must be pretty hot; Sukawati is known for producing virtuosos of Gamelan as I mentioned earlier, and one young local player from I got to sit behind at a wedding was a winner of national competition a few years back I hear. Again, lucky to be here.
Yet another example of Everyhing Sacred/Nothing Sacred, or the testament to the character of Sarga the guru; after mere 4 lessons and barely learning how to hold mallets without dropping, the Bird of Gender decides to have me play a piece at the said temple anniversary gig. My plan that day was to visit Ubud to check out music stores (which have been shitty. They have nothing worthy to mention) and some wifi time to leisurely blog while sipping veggie juice lol but now he is "enticing me" to come back to Sukawati for 3pm lesson to go over the last section of the only piece I have been learning, I mean, struggling to memorize, and sit in with up to 8 players at the gig so "no one will notice if you play wrong." Yea, VERY ENTICING. He might not give a fuck but I do. And right I was; the vibe at Keramas temple is more intense than Sukawati banjar which felt more like some fiesta and well-attended. Everyone seems to greet Sarga with respect; he is the living legend whose reputation brings certain gravitas to occasions which he is invited to. I see 8 genders with 4 being smaller, which I'm supposed to play on. Along with Sarga are the local kids who all seem to be way more comfortable with the music and the occasion, playing some RPG on their android while waiting. Or on facebook which seems to be exploding right now here. I try to maintain my cool while others play.
4 or 5 pieces in, "Tulan Lindun" is called; my piece. FUCK its happening. Reluctantly slide my ass in front of the small Gender, then Sarga proceeds to walk from the big one upfront to the one to the right of me, sits down, and smiles. Points to the first key of the piece, and I realize the keys are numbered 1 thru 5. Nice, the kid set. Then we begin, the first key I hit sounds...different. Well maybe its like a soprano/alto set, a higher register. Then I move up the scale and the intervals sound different. I panic - did I start on the wrong key? I don't think so, I seem to be playing the right keys but it just sounds different. Could this gender be in a different scale? Or am I fucking tripping?
Later I find out, I was basically correct; yes it is a higher register, yes the intervals are different. Still the same slendro scale, but the tuning of instruments differs from a village to a village, giving a distinctive flavor to each community ensemble. There's no A = 440. GREAT, it's like playing a guitar that's tuned standard but frets are uneven everywhere on the fingerboard, still creating harmonies. It's so native to their musical perspective that it didn't occur to them to warn me. Don't get me wrong, it is an amazing concept; the same tune can sound slightly different depending on who plays it, let alone how they can tune the instruments ever so slightly different for each ensemble. #Zerofucksgiven to the idea of standardizing, but #allthefucksgiven to make it sound magical and distinctive every time you build it.
Maybe I was so racist that I thought all Balinese music are the same?
Amazing how quickly I have immersed myself in Sukawati, where I would stand out as a pale-skinned foreigner. After about 5 days of eating fried everything over rice with bare hands, and of private lesson with I Wayan Sarga, a master Gander wiz and one of the surviving Gamelan royality of Bali, the OG, it feel very, very strange sitting at a coffee/smoothie bar in Sanur or Ubud surrounded by white folks ordering a salad. I make no mistake about being a total alien myself, but the way that Sarga and the Mrs (whose name we haven't figured out yet) Pak Dek, Dwi, and the Old Man (whose name we haven't figured out yet) have welcomed me into their homes - it sometimes gives me the illusion of belonging.
My arrival was delayed thanks to Air Asia, who apparently only hires "porno-hot" (coined by Jay Mohr) flight attendants but alas, I was dead asleep after alcohol-infused 8 day stay in Tokyo. Once my drive Made Alit drove out to the moped-filled streets of Denpasar, the rush came back. Yes, I am back - in DEEP ASIA (coined by Shinji the GM, my buddy in Kuala Lumper) where traffic laws are merely suggestions, the city streets are store fronts/eateries/toilets at the same time, and #zerofucksgiven is on yet another level.
Here comes another ant the size of my pinky nail.
Right away, it comes down to eating. That's Asia for ya; drop everything you have - first you eat (and bath which seems to be another one of main concerns Balinese have). Shortly after my reunion with Maria the mastermind of Bali and Beyond, and meeting the host of my stay and his lovely family, Sarga the guru and Mrs would not let you be without meal, let alone skipping it. Along with the huge round tray is a bowl of water to wash your right hand in; always with your right hand #notetoself and I'm sure I could have asked for utensils, but when in Bali ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
And before even asking for/about it, there is Sambal; yes, THAT sambal from Amsterdam which I described at the earlier post, but in its original form which is more like salsa and not in paste form I saw in Ams. The word Sambal literally means hot sauce, and comes in many variations. Upon throwing just a tiny bit on steamed rice and grabbing a half handful to your mouth, you immediately realize that the lady does not fuck around. Mrs Sarga's recipe takes fried shallots, fried garlic, fried chili and add shrimp paste, then some coconut oil - you end up with a complex mixture of flavors and the kick, you'd be sweating after a few bites if youre not careful. Now I see and taste the origin of what I had in Ams, what Dutch based their version on.
Hold the phone, that is merely a half of the equation; she has fried chicken marinated with chilli peppers, tempeh their primary source of protein, chicken nugget-like fried morsels, and a special dish for us westerners who demand vegetables; water spinach with top ramen. Yuck, you might be thinking, but mind you they are poor; the monthly minimum wage in Bali was at around $155 last year, a bottled water costs about .40 (and they do not drink tap water) This feast we have been served almost twice daily is not their regular meal. Besides, this spinach ramen is tastetown; surrounded by heavily-greased and deep-fried, its a nice breeze with subtle saltiness and whatever she has going for the soup base. The tricky part is throwing this on a bed of rice and eating it bare hand, but that also has proven to be the best part; everything on the plate, including sambal, mixes up with rice and creates this amazing incidental rice dish midway through the meal. And when youre just about to fill up and ready for that same bowl of water to wash, signaling that youre done with the meal, plates of mango, papaya and watermelon. Of course they are amazing, not just sweet but has this refreshing sourness that makes the sweetness pops even more. A perfect dessert.
I have not eaten out as much since Sarga kind of expects me and Maria to eat with them, but there have been a few meals I have had outside; a local favorite called Waroeng SS (stands for Spesial Sambal) who offers more than a dozen kinds of sambal, a crazy flavorful spinach and a fried egg which killed me, also a very decadent Avocado juice mixed with chocolate syrup - I need to revisit. Mai, a fellow japanese Gander student of Sargas brought some Nasi Goreng and fried banana desert from a nearby stand which were killer as well. And at this place in Sanur, a few other places in Ubud where I had gone craving fresh vegetables have been great in terms of being able to get an LA-type food for less than half the price, but Mrs Sarga is not even the same ball park, not even the same sport. The assault of flavors, the explosion in my senses, and the homey comfort; the trifecta of homemade cooking. It can be a lot to take on a daily basis, but when I don't have it I crave. My body craves it. GIMME.
Now I need to talk about the living legend I've been sitting across 2 sets of Gander from.
Actually, lemme start from how lucky I have been to have met someone like Maria and Cliff who were there when David Lewiston, the recordist who opened the minds of western listeners with the 1967 release "Music from the Morning of the World: The Balinese Gamelan," revisited Bali in 1987 and helped him gather the local musicians for the session which ended up in "Bali: Gamelan and Kecak," the only recording of this music I owned then. Through 3 decades of coming here and making real connections with people in Sukawati, which is known for its lightning fast style of Gamelan, Maria has earned the love and respect of the community, along with the friendship with Sarga, the last standing master of Gander.
I am not ready to detail where he comes from; for that we need to wait for Maria to compile all the information she has gathered in the last 30 years. All I know is that, in the changing landscape of Balinese Gamelan music, he holds the key to the old and mysterious ways. Another student of his and an acclaimed shadow puppeteer, Kohei, a Tokyo native who's been filling me in on a lot of background as Maria has been #blessed tells me that the younger (and possibly more well-educated in western ways) can play just as good as Sarga does, but tends to lack the vibe, the tone, the magic that he has (and a bunch of old guys used to). And the magic it might as well be; it is the sacred music designed to please gods, and when played by a great ensemble like the one I got to see at the Temple Festival called Banjar, it sucks an audience into a kaleidoscope of polyrhythms and resonating frequencies. The magic Sarga or a Gander virtuoso has is that s/he can create that kaleidoscope with just one instrument, 10 keys consisting of 2 octaves of a pentatonic scale. If you gather everyone in a village, 80% has the knowledge and the ability to play at least one out of many Gamelan instruments, a testament to how important Gamelan is to Balinese culture. Only 1% though, can play a Gander. And the masters enjoy the respect and adoration of the community, which comes with a price however; Gander players tend to be a bit eccentric because, according to Kohei's theory, as hard as the instrument is to master Gander often gets buried in a big ensemble. Surely a source of frustration when a pair of Gander players can basically replicate what an entire ensemble does, if you can imagine a pianist playing in an orchestra with a toy piano.
Now, I cannot fully speak of the eccentricity of Sarga for I lack the language skill to understand what he says, but my impression has been sort of what I would imagine hanging out with Charlie Parker must've been like, minus the dope. You cannot trust him with scheduling; either he is casually late/early or he gets it completely wrong (I had to lose a hotel reservation because of it). He is loud, loves to joke often inappropriately, and loves women. He spits a lot; I initially thought it was his chewing tobacco, but then spotted him spitting on a floor to wipe the dirt off where he was about to sit. Demands everyone to basically go with his plan, even when there seems to be none. #facepalm 😂 Even the lessons have been pretty loose with plenty of time just hanging out with each other and with occasional visitors. He does not verbally explain things much, even to other students who's fluent in Indo. All that said, he does not let one wrong note go by even from a beginner like me. One of the very few English words he knows; WRONG. He visibly gets annoyed when you play wrong. On the flip side, he puts on a big, almost comedic smile when you play right, and starts playing all kinds of fancy shit on top of your notes to fuck you up.
I do not play percussions. I don't know rudiments. I can barely play keyboards. It was my bad going into this with basically no prep. The biggest challenge has been the memorizing; Satu (one) - my brain is old. Dua (two) - every phrase is pentatonic and indistinguishable until you really know it. Tiga (three) - there'll be an extra beat or two here and there which breaks the 4/4 norm. I never took this long to learn a song which only consists of a pentatonic scale. I couldn't even hum it for the love of gods. Day Tiga or empat (four) however, there was a moment when I was playing somewhat right and Sarga started playing the counterpoint - it made sense. The series of notes which felt to me monotonous and indifferent up to that point started to really sing. It open the window to the kaleidoscope of sounds so slightly that I got the sneak peek of it, something that has been beyond comprehension until I sat in front of the instrument.
That doesn't mean that I got though the tune without fucking up; I fall apart shortly after. When I look up to Sarga though, I'm sure he could tell that I was hooked.
Soundchaser/two-time Independent Music Awards finalist. New EP "Six Songs from Insomnia" is out on all major streaming platforms.