Orkestar Bobana Markovica – Otpisani!!!

Tonight I’ve got a bunch of friends coming over for a Balinese influenced dinner. Now I know, should be listening to gamelan music, but to be honest, South East Asian food requires a lot of pounding with a mortar and pestle, plus a heck of a lot of fine grating and Balinese music just doesn’t suit such activities.

A while ago, fellow blogger Vanille and her husband Paprika came over from N.Z. for a visit and I met up with them. As we toured the city together, conversation turned to music. I’m always interested in what other people’s taste in music is and we pledged to swap some music that we like, to turn each other onto something new and not on commercial radio (in Oz and N.Z. at least).

Vanille is from France and Paprika is from Hungary, so I knew they’d send me some stuff I’d never heard before. Today as I pounded and grated for what seemed like hours, I listened to the Bobana Markovica Orchestra and it struck me how perfect the music was for what I was doing, even though I was preparing Asian food.

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Street ceremony. Munduk, Bali, Indonesia. 2010

Just about anyone I’ve spoken to, who has been going to Bali over a long period time will comment on how the island has changed so much over the decades but the people are still pretty much the same.

Bali is such a magic place that despite recent terrorist attacks, it attracts more tourists every year. With over half a million visitors a year, Bali is in danger of being loved to death. More tourists, means more development to cater to their every needs. The Balinese seem fairly pragmatic about the huge influx of foreigners. I suspect it’s because the average Balinese only makes about $125 a month and there is a lot of unemployment, so they probably think of tourism as a boon.

In many places around the world that have been overrun by tourists, the locals can get quite jaded and nasty (as I’ve seen in parts of Croatia), but not the Balinese. With the exception of Kuta beach, which has been the stomping ground of drunken tailer trash Aussies, most of the locals in Bali are such nice people.

Actually they a really, really nice people. So warm and friendly.

As a foreigner walking down the street in a small town away from the touristy areas (which are full of hawkers hassling for a sale), you will be greeted with huge genuine smiles and a “hello!” “How are you?” Where do you go?”  The Balinese love to have a chat and it’s not uncommon for people serving you in restaurants etc, to try and strike up a conversation. Just to make a connection, and for no other reason than they friendly people .

A hotel (a very nice one) owner I met in Ubud, told me that most foreigners are reasonably understanding of the chatty locals, but he mentioned a French couple who told one of his waiters, “please don’t talk to us, we don’t talk to staff”. The hotel owner then went on to explain that the Balinese waiter didn’t take offence, but he did think that there was something a bit mentally wrong with the abrupt couple and as such, he felt a bit sorry for them. Whereas the Danish guy who owned the hotel wanted to throw them out for being so rude and “up themselves”. Same situation and such culturally different responses.

In my experience of three visits to Bali (the first in 1976, the second in 2004), the Balinese have retained such a beautiful countenance that it truly astonishes me and it makes me wonder why I’m amazed and why they seem to be so relatively unaffected by the tourist onslaught.

Just like other people in the world, the Balinese would like to live more comfortable lives and even though the average Balinese doesn’t have that much in a material sense in comparison to us in the “west”, they seem to have a very rich community life that is held together with the glue of a multitude of religious obligations they have, and all the Hindu ceremonies that they participate in.

When we were being driven around (about $45 a day and way less stressful than driving Balinese roads yourself) in Munduk by a local, we passed a large gathering of people sitting on the footpath.

Our driver stopped the car and said, “you go take a picture”.

To which I asked, “are you sure, is it all right, will they mind?”

The driver then said, “just stand back, and keep out of the way and it will be O.K.” He seemed to be proud of what was going on and wanted us to record it.

So I took a few shots and we went on our way. As we drove off I asked our driver what it was all about, and he said, “Don’t know, some ceremony for family”. At first I thought this was an odd answer but later on I saw a Balinese religious calendar and I was stunned to see so many religious events all around Bali. I don’t think I’d be exaggerating if I said there is probably some public ceremony going on somewhere in Bali every single day.

Although I haven’t got a religious bone in my body, I find myself thinking, “oh well, what harm does it do?” It keeps them busy and happy. I’d say that Hinduism has had a very positive effect on the Balinese.

As a matter of fact, I’d much rather hang out with a bunch idolatrous Balinese than fundamentalist monotheists back home, any day.

Sacred banyan tree. Botanical gardens, Candikuning, Bali, Indonesia. 2010

Nearly every where one looks in Bali, there are stones and trees that have been religiously decorated. The decoration can be as simple as a chequered cloth or the whole shebang with umbrellas and little shrines. Even on little walking tracks out in in what seems to be the middle of nowhere, it’s possible to come across little shrines with fresh offerings, in amongst some rocks or in a tree .

The Balinese are Hindus with a fair amount of animism thrown in, and as such they have no problem believing that spirits might inhabit trees and rocks. To a Balinese, it’s perfectly rational and just plain good manners, to have seats in their shrines and temples for the gods to sit in if they should want to visit.

It’s not hard to see where James Cameron got some of his ideas for his movie “Avatar”, from.

 

Early every morning, women go out and place offerings at all the places that have any kind of religious significance. The offerings are usually quite beautiful and consist of little woven palm baskets, that would fit in a child’s hand, filled with a bit of rice, a flower or two, some incense, and sometimes even money.  All throughout the day, it’s possible to see women preparing offerings in open doorways or by the side of the road while at work as they sell things.

Over the years I’ve found myself thinking about how much industry religion has created. Huge stone cathedrals in Europe, religious statue sellers in Italy and Thailand, etcetera ad infinitum. Thousands of acts, great and small to try and relate to a deity. To me, the idea of trying manifest faith in the material world is such an odd thing. To somehow bridge the gap between the corporeally knowable and the incorporeally unknowable.

Perhaps Marx was right, when he said, “religion is the opium of the masses”. I’m pretty sure Marx didn’t mean that religion was an addictive drug, but rather something that takes pain and care away.

Little girls at the beach. Gili Air, WNT, Indonesia. 2010

As I walked past these little girls who were having such an unselfconscious blast in the water, I felt uplifted and glad to see people so blithely happy.

 

Then, I couldn’t help but feel a bit sad for them, knowing that when they get older, going to the beach won’t be such a simple and carefree affair because they live in a Moslem community. Before anyone thinks that I’m trying to start some kind of anti-Moslem rant, consider a strange man taking a photograph of little boys at play at the beach in the West and what kind of suspicions that would raise.

All around the world in so many societies, men are often seen as predators.

What I think that what so many people forget, is how many men have an instinctive need to protect. Years ago I remember being brought to tears whilst reading the paper about the “Port Arthur massacre”. The article recounted how some of the men who died that day, did so because they stepped in front of their loved ones to protect them from the gunman and took the bullets themselves.

So heroically selfless.

Yet this same heroic protective instinct causes some men to oppress others for what they think is for “their own good”.

On the outskirts of Laplapan. Bali, Indonesia. 2010

I got back from Bali this morning and I’m still shattered from the flight overnight, and the fact that I didn’t get much sleep.

My apologies to those who commented while I was away. I tried on several occasions to reply, but for some unknown reason, my comments didn’t get through and just disappeared into the ether.

Starting tomorrow, when I’ve had a decent sleep and some rest, I’ll be putting up a series of posts about my trip.

The butcher of Belize City. 1983

This is one of the scariest old men I’ve ever met.

As I was wandering around Belize City market when I came across this gentleman. I found the colours and textures immediately appealing and I wanted to take a photograph.

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Years before I would’ve just taken the photo, like a thief and run if I had to. Those days were behind me and I didn’t believe in doing that anymore. I now believe that photos can be much more interesting when the subject responds to the camera and it’s ethical to ask first. So I walked up to the butcher who was chopping up the meat with a very big cleaver, and I asked him if I could take a photo of him and his shop. His response shocked the hell out of me.

He raised his cleaver and pointed it in my direction and in an angry and aggressive tone, asked me why he should allow me. I told him I that it would make a good photograph but he was not having any of that, and then he also told me that he wasn’t interested in being portrayed in a way that would make him look like fool. I tried to explain again that it was the colours and textures that I was interested in. He said he thought I was trying to make him look like fool, all the while, brandishing the cleaver. I was starting to get worried as his voice started to raise even louder and the cleaver got more animated. I was feeling very threatened and wasn’t too sure how I was going to get out of the predicament without just running.

My break came when I told him my grandfather was a butcher who had trained in England, and that he might be interested in seeing how the butchers do things in Belize. His mood changed immediately. He asked me how old I thought he was. I said late fifties (I was telling the truth about what I thought). He smiled a big smile, puffed out his chest and said he was 78. He then said, “O.K., you can take your picture. So I took the first picture from a distance and I noticed he wasn’t smiling, so I asked him to smile.

“So you want to make me look like some grinning old fool?”
“No! No! I won’t have it!” He picked up the cleaver again.

To mollify him, I backed down with an, O.K., O.K! I then asked him for one more shot a little closer with him standing and he didn’t have to smile.

After that, I put down the camera (I didn’t think it would be wise to take anymore) and he relaxed. He then started asking me questions about my grandfather. He loved it when I told him my grandfather once got in trouble with the law in England, after the war during the time of food rationing. Both my Grandfather and his boss were brought up on charges for putting too much bread crumbs in their sausages and not enough meat.

In hindsight it’s not hard for me to understand why he was annoyed. I’m sure that people in markets all around the world are sick of having their photos taken by tourists for nothing in return. He just wanted to be treated as a human being, to be engaged with, rather than be photographed as some colourful object.

 

This post was first posted on the 24th of April 2007

My great shark hunt. Queensland, Australia. 1971

This is another episode in the “All the dumb things” series

When I was about 15 in 1971 I got interested in going to Queensland. At the time, I had a friend called Karl and I talked him into going up (we lived in Sydney) there with me during our school holidays in the summer. Back then airfares to Brisbane were very cheap so we caught a plane. From Brisbane we decided to take a train up to Cairns, stopping off at Proserpine on the way. I wanted to go Proserpine because from there we could go to Airlie Beach, which was near a few well-known resorts and the Great Barrier Reef.

The resorts had names like Daydream Island and South Molle Island. As a small child, growing up in the city, places with exotic names, evoked in me, visions of “Adventures in Paradise” a show that I used to love. Also as a kid I was fascinated with the idea of small islands and I used to fantasize about living a subsistent life on one.

It never occurred to me that the tropics were, about the last place on earth that a pasty, freckled, red haired, white boy should try and make a home. It was only years later when I lived in Vancouver, Canada did I understand what habitat my genes were suited to. Long periods of rain and overcast skies made me feel “right”. I suspect my gene sequence was evolved as a good survival strategy in the last ice age by one of my mammoth hunting ancestors. As a teen, such realities never intruded into my thoughts.

Another reason why I wanted to go to Airlie Beach, was that at the time I used to do a lot of skin diving. I even learnt how to scuba when I was 14. The scuba course cost me $11 and was taught at a Y.M.C.A. indoors pool over a couple of nights. FAUI? PADI? Decompression tables? Never heard of them! We were told; ” just don’t come up faster than your bubbles and you’ll be O.K”. Every one knows that the Great Barrier Reef is a Mecca for divers and I considered myself one, so I just had to go.

When I look back, I’m amazed that my parents let me go, at that age, with only another teenager as a companion. Come to think of it, what was Karl’s family thinking? Letting him anywhere near me, never mind traveling up the coast thousands of kilometers away, with me.

The plan was that when we got to Airlie beach we’d hire a boat and live in it for a week and when we got there, that’s exactly what we did. We hired an open fourteen-foot aluminium dinghy equipped with a small outboard motor for eight dollars a day. After 5 minutes of instruction we were in the water and heading out to sea for the nearest island. Lifejackets? Never heard of them!

Enough of all this intermediate stuff and onto “all the dumb things”!

One day, while out in the boat, Karl and I saw some bad weather closing in so we headed for shelter in a fairly protected bay about 10kms north of Airlie Beach. We anchored in about 2 metres of water and swam ashore. We did this because the tides in that area are quite high and when the tide goes out you can be stranded on a tidal flat until the next tide comes in. The looming weather wasn’t as bad as we expected and we spent the next couple of hours ashore exploring the nearby bush.

Yep! You guessed it, when we came back to the boat the tide had started to go out and the dinghy was sitting in about 30cm (about 1′) of water which was too shallow to use the motor or row, so we started pushing the boat as fast as we could, towards the receding water. The problem was, was that the seafloor in that area has an incredibly level surface with not much of a slope for kilometers. This all meant that no matter how fast we pushed the boat, the water quickly went down to a level where we couldn’t push it any more. So there we were, stuck out in the middle of nowhere on a tidal flat for the next 8 hours which meant that we wouldn’t be able to leave until after dark. Food? Water? Didn’t have much of that. Contingency? Never heard of it!

The good thing was, that after the squall had blown over there were millions of butterflies migrating out to sea. It was sublimely beautiful and calm. Karl thought it would be a interesting thing to see how far out to sea we could walk. We walked for what seemed like an age, following the butterflies straight out to sea. When the water was only half way up to my knees the dinghy was nothing more that a speck the size of a piece of dust. On we walked following the butterflies straight out to sea until the water was up to our knees, further and further we went.

Not looking at where I was treading, staring at the horizon and the butterflies, I stepped on what I think was a Giant Reef Ray (Taeniura meyeni). The ray was huge, about 1.8 metres (about 6ft) across and about 3 metres long (about 9ft). As I stepped on the stingray, I barely had time to feel the ground move from away from under my feet, all I saw was an enormous mottled disc shape fly up out of the water with a tremendous splash, landing back in the water about 3 or 4 metres away with another big splash and then off it flew away under water. It frightened me so much that I just about rin over the top of the water all the way back to the boat without stopping or gasping for breath. It was a real son of mammoth hunter meets monster of the deep, adrenaline moment.

Back safely in boat we waited for night to fall and the tide to come in. As soon as the water got deep enough to put the propeller in the water we tried to start the motor.

Yep! You guessed it. The motor wouldn’t start and in our continued efforts to get the engine going we succeeded in flooding it. By this time we were both hungry and thirsty so we decided to take turns rowing back to Airlie Beach, which was quite a way off. On we rowed into the night, occasionally trying out the motor. This went on for what seemed to be hours and hours. During my turn at rowing we hit a large soft floating object, which jumped up out of the water creating a gigantic splash, drenching us and almost tipping over the boat. Needless to say it scared the heck out of both of us. We didn’t know what is was but we assumed it was either a dolphin or a dugong.

By this time I was a shattered nervous wreck and Karl wasn’t a happy camper either, but probability snapped back like an overworked waitress and we finally had some good luck, the motor started. Within about an hour we were back in Airlie beach dining on fast food.

Since the night was warm and the water was calm we decided, for a change to sleep in the boat while it was in the water. We usually dragged the boat up onto the beach (which is made up of finger sized pieces of coral in that part of the world). It was a beautiful balmy night, I felt safe, fed and comfortable. As I was lying in the boat enjoying the night, it came to me that a spot of night fishing would go down well. We rowed out a little further into deeper water and baited up our hand lines.

Both of us weren’t having any luck until I felt a weight on my line. Usually when you get a bite you feel the fish through the line take the bait. This felt like I’d snagged on old boot or something like it, so I reeled it in. As I got it close to the surface I could dimly see that it was a fish, a decent sized one at that, but it wasn’t fighting the way that fish usually fought and we didn’t have light so I couldn’t see what it was clearly. The only option was to lift it into the boat. As soon I lifted the fish out of the water I could see it was a small shark (cool!) about 50cm (about 20″) long, but it wasn’t moving around much like hooked fish usually do. So I lifted the shark with the line into the boat and as soon as I did, it bit through the line and all pandemonium broke loose.

It was dark, and we had this small shark that had suddenly sprung into action snapping at us from the bilge. Both Karl and I fell over our benches backwards; Karl into the bow and me into the stern and the shark had the middle. The shark was going berserk, jumping and snapping all over the place. It took me awhile, but I finally located my diving knife and stabbed the shark. That only annoyed it and the jumping and snapping were getting much more frantic. The situation quickly degenerated into a jumping, snapping, stabbing frenzy. The shark just didn’t seem to want to die (strangely enough), so I eventually ended up pinning the shark down with the knife and we waited for what felt like an eternity for it to stop moving.

The middle of the boat was now covered in shark blood and guts so we ended up dragging the boat onto shore and having an unpleasant sleep on the beach. In the morning when it was light we got a good look at the shark that was still in the boat. There, in the bloody bilge, lay a poor little shark that had been rendered inedible by my panicky ministrations. One side of the fish looked fine, the other side was a mixture of bilge, fish mince and guts.

I didn’t go into the water again for the rest of the trip.

pasty, freckled, red haired descendent of mammoth hunters with monster of the deep

 

This post was first posted on the 19th of April 2007