Archive | February, 2010

Gone Asiatic

25 Feb

It’s been many months since I traveled to Indonesia.  I don’t know why I didn’t put up a post about it before.  But now I find myself thinking back to it, perhaps longing for its lush greens after staring at drab, boxy Korean concrete dulled with the pallor of winter.

Our trip to Bali was jam-packed.  There was no down time in our quest to see as much as we could.  Yet the nature of Bali means than you don’t have to go digging for something of worth.  It’s in everything you see and touch.

Many people associate Bali with surfing.  There is indeed a lot of it going on, with individuals paddling out to catch the bigger series of waves, leaving the more timid surf school types to flounder near the beach (the latter being our three person traveling troupe, I will not hesitate to mention).  The surf school guys were Balinese and they acted like they had the best job in the world.  They just might.

Looks like Monopoly money, worth only slightly more.

But the surfing and nightlife down on the coast is the anomaly to placid Bali.  It’s wild and distracting, a thousand possible delights and entertainments to be had.  It also highlights a dark side of prosperity.  At night, poor women come out to beg by the bars and nightclubs.  They bring their infant children with them, carried in the sling, resting on the hip.  They walk up to drunken Australians, Swedes, and Spaniards dressed to the nines, hands outstretched, asking for money.  They are persistent and will not leave for five or ten minutes some times.  Packs of kids roam around even though it’s three in the morning; you can see their eyes studying the pockets of passersby, clearly gauging the worth of what’s inside.  The poor are very present there.  In the West, we push the poor away into their own places of town, mollify them with handouts and services, pass laws to keep them off the park benches and street corners, all so we don’t have to really deal with them.  In Indonesia, the poor are right there with you.  For the affluent man (myself included) who pays enough money for a single drink to give a family rice for a month, that is how it should be.   What then must I do?

But people do with less in Bali.  If they have a small house for their big family, a motorbike, and a dog, they are happy.  You will never see more smiles or experience such a genuine willingness to be hospitable than here.  Life may not be easy or expansive but, if glimpses into passing faces mean anything, there is at least contentedness and even a little joy.

We got away from the coast thanks to Greg, who is my friend Drew’s uncle.  He’s a businessman who decided that, if he was going to travel the world, and especially Asia, he might as make paradise his base of operations.  Greg sent his driver, Ketut, down to the coast to pick us up and haul us and our over-sized American bodies in a little Suzuki inland to his villa.  Yeah, a villa.

Greg lives in a village outside of Ubud, the cultural center to Bali.  We drove down narrow roads past endless villages, ornate walls of family compounds lining the route.  How anyone could have found the narrow, hidden alleyway for Greg’s house, I don’t know.  We got out of the car.  Pig farmers lived next door.  Everything was green and tangled, no matter which direction you looked, the sheer depth and labyrinthine intertwining of vegetation impossible to capture even on camera.  And right there, on the banks of the river, was Greg’s villa.

Greg’s place was all open air, except for the two bedrooms.  When the rains come, they just roll down rattan blinds from the eaves.  The design was beautiful and freeing; I wouldn’t mind having to wear bug spray in my living room.

That’s a traditional Javanese house next to the swimming pool.  Nick, Drew, and I just sort of stood around for a long time, marveling at it, the villa, and the surrounding landscape.  It was one of those perfect moments when you learn everything anew.  The image created by your mind’s eye from books and pictures is instantly shattered, indeed, banished from your mind, never to be thought of again.  Your brain goes into overdrive, redefining the relationships between things, creating new ways of understanding.  It was truly thrilling.

Perfection on earth.

Beyond the river that bordered Greg’s property were terraced rice paddies.  You could hear the Balinese men out banging on pots to scare away the birds; on the far side of the paddy you could see the lights of the community center burning at night.  It was at this very moment that I openly wished I had been a colonizer.  I wanted to have been Dutch and owned this piece of paradise, to have made this very place mine even as it made me even more a part of it.  I suddenly understood the feeling that had chased me across the island.  It was a feeling of seduction.  Bali truly does draw you in, for it is so utterly different from anything else than you can almost see no wrong.  Perhaps you sense it but you cannot see where exactly the wrong is, so you let yourself be pulled in anyway, content with whatever may befall you.  I understood now why sailors, merchants, marines, and soldiers who took one tour of the Far East often never returned home.  In the parlance of the time they “went Asiatic.”  E.B. Sledge in his book With The Old Breed writes of the eccentric old Marine sergeant who stood on the stern of the ship practicing bayonet drills by himself for hours on end.  Everyone knew why he was so odd: he’d been in Asia so long his whole self had changed.  The East had captured and sucked him in completely.

The land certainly is incredible, and intimidating.  Everything, even still plants, seem ready to creep up on you if you turn your back.  You walk around in sandals wondering what kind of tropical rot you’re going to get in that little cut on your foot.

There are probably lots of travelers with their Lonely Planet books, Chaco sandals, and bamboo oil hand salve who go ga-ga over the rice paddies:  “The Balinese are just soooo in touch with the environment.  They have real harmony with nature.  They, like, totally shape their agricultural needs to meet the land.  You have to check it out.”  Yet, Greg pointed out to us, the Balinese are not stewards of the environment like we’d like to think they are.  They cut down huge swaths of jungle, cut away the land to make terraces, and in general do precisely what they want with the land.  If the environment seems healthy and thriving, it’s because of the incredible fertility of jungle soil and year-round good temperatures for growing (the Balinese get three full rice crops a year).

Balinese life is intensely spiritual.  Never have I seen a place where religion plays such a huge role in every waking moment of life.  It is not verbalized but you sense that, for the Balinese, each action has a fundamentally spiritual meaning to it.  They do not appear to express it and may not even be aware of it, but it is utterly apparent that higher meaning guides every thought, every uttered word, every twitch of their muscles towards an end.

There is no separation between things here, no material versus spiritual, no mind versus body; the dialectic holds no grasp.  There is merely the inescapable, inexorable weight of tradition and a complex, intertwined place bearing down upon them.  There is but one way to be.

A woman saw us rather rudely peering over her low wall into her family compound.  She invited us in to see her family temple.  She was glad to show it to us, demanding nothing for it, just wishing to let us see it up close.

The devotion to the spirits is incredible.  This woman had three children and clearly little money.  Yet she and her husband kept the temple in tip-top shape, repainting when necessary, even choosing the expensive blackened-palm roofs over cheaper material.  We gave her money as a donation for the temple, which she accepted with surprise and thanks.  Would we like to come have some fresh coconut? she said.  Her shirtless husband shimmied up a tree with a knife and chopped down coconuts for us.  We then sat on the step of her house, drinking the milk through a straw and spooning out the soft meat.  She told us all about her family, particularly her sons, who sat making a kite out of string and sticks, completely happy with their little contraption.  We were so thankful for her hospitality.  Drew gave her 50,000 Rp, which she didn’t want to take, but Drew insisted.  This was about five dollars to us but to her it was certainly enough to feed her whole family for a while.  She accepted it with glowing eyes.

There are people in the world who do not have what we have.  That is often a good thing.  The Balinese who live in their villages, in simple stone houses, eating rice, going to temple regularly, having families, have simple lives.  Their existence is not burdened by the pressures of progress and technology.  They also know more about real living than us more modern humans.  They know how to grow their food, know which roots will heal an aching stomach and how to build houses and survive with little.  They understand what community is.  The West has not had something comparable for at least a hundred and fifty years.  Those frontiersmen and farmers who lived on the land in the middle of the nineteenth century were the first of the last; even their progeny who stayed agrarian became more dependent on material goods to produce food and live.  The Balinese are more intertwined in their relationships that us, but perhaps less dependent when things get bad.

But they also lack the opportunity that we have.  They do not have the same sort of freedom.  Not freedom in the trite, politicized sense of the word.  Rather, consider freedom as the ability of a man to exert his will and develop himself.  To take himself from mediocrity to finding the fulfillment of his calling.  To learn and test his limits and become extraordinary, unhindered by the limits of tradition, culture, religion, history.  Community is important, interconnectedness is important, but it can hold people back, unwilling to test themselves because of the pressure to conform.

Which life is right?  To live simply, within unbreakable limits, yet with contentedness?  Or to experience uncertainty, the potential for despair, failure, alienation, yet with also the promise of true agency, flourishing and reaching ever higher?  Yet the choice is not ours.  It never has been.

But if one thing is clear after going to Bali, it is this: that the traveler must go and see what is local, to taste that sense of community and place.  Yet there will come a time when he realizes he cannot travel and also truly be a part of that community and he must therefore go where he can be a local.

It is beautiful to behold, no doubt.  But to make it your own?  Can you?  If you embrace this as your locale, will you understand the meaning as fully as the woman in the dance?  Or must you return to the place you have known from birth, where you fit in, as unglamorous and ordinary as it may be?

Bali is an ordinary place for the people who live there.  They gripe about corrupt cops, dangerous traffic, the capriciousness of the village priest.  They, like every man, sometimes ignore the beauty around them because of the inevitable ugliness that rears its head.  Paradise fades.  Everywhere is special; nowhere is special.


War On The Hills

15 Feb

“Even the hardiest Chinese soldiers in the opposing positions declared that the Korean summer was unbearable.  Until winter came, that is.  Then, as men plodded between positions with the studied clumsiness of spacemen, movements muffled by innumerable layers of clothing, they gazed in awed disbelief as the thermometers plunged to new depths. . . . An hour of carelessness in exposing a corner of flesh to the naked air was punished by frostbite.

“There were no officers’ clubs or bars, no drugs or movies or diversions.  There were only the mountain ridges, surmounted by the defenses which both sides now dug with extraordinary care and caution.

“Down the slope from the bunkers, a host of ingenious and intricate devices had been created and deployed to break the momentum of an assault: wire, minefields, trip flares, booby traps, and a few uniquely Korean innovations, such as barrels of napalm or white phosphorous that could be unleashed and ignited by a wire pulled from a foxhole.  The slightest movement observed or imagined in no-man’s-land attracted the sudden pop and dazzling light of a flare.  For no apparent reason, a sector of the front would suddenly erupt into an artillery duel that might last for weeks, with men lying in their bunkers while shells pounded overhead for four, five, six hours a day.

“By day files of men seemed to be toiling up and down incessantly in the Sisyphean labor of moving food, water, and ammunition from the nearest point in the valley below that a truck could reach.  American or Commonwealth fatigue parties were assisted by hundreds of the inevitable ‘chiggies,’ the Korean porters with their A-frames on their backs, whose dogged support even under fire became one of the most vivid of all foreign veterans’ memories of Korea.

“All the UN forces observed a ‘one winter’ rule in Korea.  No man, it was decreed, should be asked to endure more than one season of that terrible cold in the forward areas.”

– Max Hastings, The Korean War