Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Why I hated Ubud

I had wanted for a long time to go to Indonesia. I loved India; loved Thailand, loved Burma, found Laos frustrating but interesting. Indonesia surely would be another fascinating place to visit.

It wasn't. There were patches of joy; wandering the docks and fish market in Jakarta, the delights of Malang with its tea houses and little street food alleys, the high art of Borobudur, and a Buddhist temple where I stayed for free and drifted to sleep accompanied by the soft tones of a gamelan.

But Bali... the best moment was the sight of the island at sunrise from the ferry. Clouds louring over mountains on both sides of the channel, the grey water shot through with blood red. It never got any better.

Ubud, I was told, was not 'beach Bali', not full of shops selling sex-related t-shirts, not a place I'd find fish and chips and bargain booze. It was the centre of Balinese culture. Temples, art, noble houses, backyard shrines.

As it turned out the most fun I had was watching someone being burned.

First of all, half the temples are closed. Atmospheric enough views from the outside, but no way in. There's one that wants to charge you a ridiculously high amount of money to see it. Another is completely barred by railings. And what there is seems often to be four or five years old - there are new gurning monsters being added all the time, usually in concrete.

Secondly, the service standards are dire. You pay £15 a night - it's not dirt cheap - and you get somewhere that looks okay, but then you find there's no running water, and the attitude is either "You can go to another hotel to use the shower" (yes, but how do I flush the bog?) or "You didn't *ask* for running water, so it can't have been important". One hotel showed me the room and agreed a price - then there was no one there when I went back with my bags.

Getting around Bali is a nightmare in itself. There are tourist buses which cost the earth and which I never managed to book on to; they were always full. There are taxis. (And there are buses that tourists are never told about which the locals use, but of course they go from town centre to town centre and don't deliver you to the places you want to visit; it's as if there are two completely different transport systems, indeed two completely different islands.) Taxis have to be hired by the day, so this is really a backpacker haven where you need to budget £20 a day for taxis. Not, in other words, a backpacker haven at all.

I readily engage with the transport nightmares and discomforts of rural India because I can get to little towns where there's no tourist trade, where I can shop for fountain pens or visit local metalsmiths or spend time with little girls who show me how to walk under the big Nandi bull sculpture and make a wish, or tailors and pharmacists who engage in conversation about English cricket and English food. In Bali, you're just headed from one tourist trap to another.

I took the 'high walk' out of Ubud into the hills. Rice paddies, trees, fieldside shrines. It was nice enough, but I felt I was filling in time. This wasn't a real trek, like Girnar or Doi Suthep, it was a one hour out, one hour back stroll.

I hired a bike. It had a sharp spike sticking out of the saddle that nearly ripped my thigh open, till I stopped at a printshop and acquired enough duct tape to wrap the bike up. There's no signage on the roads, and while there are some places you can go along the flat, the corrugated landscape forces you to ascend and descend steeply if you go in the other direction, and the road is always slippery, so I came off at bends all the time. In the end I gave up.

I was having an utterly miserable time when someone said the one thing that makes anyone even more miserable.

"Where is your Bali smile?"

Oh yes. I'm supposed to be happy, because Bali makes you happy.

I twist my features into a rictus. When a dog 'smiles', it's growling. I feel much the same.

And the worst of it all? The worst thing, without a doubt, is the spirituality. Because, don'cherknow, Bali is a deeply spiritual place for spiritual people. It's got tantric massage, it's got reiki, it's got acupuncture and acupressure and it hits your spiritual aura right on the chakra; there are Buddhas and Shivas and kabbalistic letters and mandalas, dreamcatchers and crystals and horoscopes and copies of Nostradamus. It's the Aquarian age, dude, and you can get a t-shirt telling you that, too.

So this is all authentic Balinese tat, that you could buy in any new age shop anywhere on the planet. Dreamcatchers: Native American. But you can't buy sage, and there are no sweatlodges, and I doubt any of these spirituality teachers can tell a Cherokee from a Chippewa. The Buddhism on sale here doesn't seem to belong to any tradition, with smugly smiling Thai Buddhas next to Nyingmapa yab-yum sculptures; Buddha apparently says "chill out." (The real Buddha, faced with his imminent extinction, told his followers that they were each individually responsible for their own salvation, which is a long way from a generalised it's-okay-dude message.)

There are detoxes with increasingly nasty ingredients. There's massage everywhere, delivered by oily blokes, trim girls, and, sometimes, masses of tiy nibbling fish. (I'm English enough not to like being touched all the time, and that goes for massage, though I gladly make an exception for the large ladies of the Budapest bathhouses, who'll thump you, stretch you, and turn you out limp, limber, and sorted for the next few months. You wouldn't get that kid of massage in Bali.)

The nearest I got to real religious practice was the small temple behind the market, where I sat for half an hour or so and watched (mainly) women come with small trays of offerings, and light incense to the ugly brooding deities.

And then there was the cremation. I was wandering along a back street when I saw the tower; eleven storeys, I think, of bamboo and paper, reared into a fragile skyscraper on a bamboo raft. The mourners were already beginning to assemble, men in black-and-white check sarongs that look like malformed tartan kilts, women in embroidered blouses. One man held a suckling pig on a platter on his shoulder; he was smiling broadly and dancing on the spot. There was a big red bull with a big red pizzle, made out of velvet.

They started off; forty men or more holding each of the bamboo platforms, the tower and the bull swaying down the road. At each junction they turned the tower and the bull round and round, scattering the bystanders, confusing the dead man's spirit; every time they stopped a gamelan played, not the meditative classical gamelan of Yogyakarta but a noisy, rhythmic one that drove for faster and faster climaxes with all gongs ringing and drums bashing out the pulse, and then stopped, suddenly, as if something had broken. The tower nearly hit the electric cables that crossed the road; a new gamelan started up, since it's such sweaty work they were playing in relays.

Down the procession went to the cremation ground, in the 'monkey forest', but the monkeys had more sense than to get in the way. Suddenly the pace picked up; the men carrying the tower were moving at a run, the gamelan was banging away, there was a surge up the earthen pathway like a wave running up the beach. Then, just like the gamelan, they all stopped. We were here. Time for the rites; taking the coffin out of the tower, circling the bull three times with the coffin, taking the body out of the coffin and packing it into the bull, which had been made a few centimetres too short, necessitating a little wiggling and bending of the dead body before it would fit; anointing the corpse, packing the bull with offerings, chanting.

After this, if this were India, the eldest son would touch a burning straw torch to the kindling. But this is Indonesia, and here is progress; asbestos slabs were set up on either side of the coffin, and a huge gas burner roared into life. And at this point, everyone lost interest, and drifted off to what looked like a cross between a picnic and a prayer meeting, sitting on the floor between the slabs that mark the sites of earlier cremations.

And of it all, the thing I most clearly remember is an Italian tourist jumping up on to the bull so that he could stick his telephoto lens into the corpse's face. And (because I should be honest) my own selfish reaction, that I had missed the best picture of the day.

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