Sunday, June 29, 2008

Perhentian pictures, Ubud, Surfing and Going Home

In case anyone is still curious, here are some pictures from the Perhentians, those tropical islands I visited in Malaysia some weeks ago:

It’s been a while since my last post, so I’ll quickly summarize my remaining weeks in Bali.

Before I do so though, I should comment on the experience of being Indian in Bali; the island sees droves of tourists every year, and we weren’t expecting special treatment. However, Indonesians LOVE Bollywood movies, and as were three of maybe six Indian tourists on the entire island (an almost certainly the only Indian surfers), invariably shopkeepers, touts, hotel owners, waiters, anyone really, would see us and start inquiring:
“You’re not from Australia, are you?”
“No, we’re not”
“New Delhi?”
“Yes” (it was easier than trying to teach them how to pronounce “Hyderabad”)
“Hey, hey, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Kabhi Kushi Kabhi Gum, Kaal Ho Na Ho....
(all titles of Bollywood movies)
They would go on like this for a while, and soon start calling us by the names of certain actors. My cousin Sahan is about 6’2, and so would invariably be compared to Abishek Bachan. I was usually Shah Rukh Khan (not sure if that’s a compliment). Sadly, wherever Naj went, he was still Osama Bin Laden (to be fair though, he had a ridiculously large beard by this time).
I know a few Indian dance moves, and it would always elicit peals of laughter from crowds of spectators when I started dancing around, so by the second week in Bali, we more or less had a scripted performance to serve as an icebreaker. It was actually a lot of fun, and helped us meet a lot of people we would normally have never spoken to.

We attracted even more attention when Henny, a German exchange student joined our group; Henny is the stereotypical Aryan, with platinum blonde hair (it almost glowed in the the dark), blue eyes, and very fair skin. Naj pointed out that we looked like Goldilocks and the Three Bears when we were all together.

Following my last post, I made a three day trip to Ubud, the epicenter of art and culture in Bali. A village located 20 km inland from the ocean, Ubud became a center for the arts under the patronage of the Gianyar dynasty a few hundred years ago, and attracted artists and performer from across the island. Such was the inertia of this patronage, Ubud continued to be a cultural hotbed long after the end of royal support; its status was bolstered considerably by the influx of a large number of expatriate painters during the 20th century. Attracted by the lush, temperate climate (Ubud is vibrantly green), the spectacular vistas (traditional Balinese village life, rice paddy landscapes, volcano backdrops, you get the idea....), and the existing artistic traditions, these artists were to provoke a cultural renaissance, giving rise to the Ubud schoolof painting, a striking contemporary movement. I went to Ubud primarily to experience the fruits of Ubud’s artistic traditions and was not disappointed. The Neka Art museum, one of multiple collections in Ubud, has the largest concentration of top-quality works, and I was taken aback by the quality and accessibility of the art. Some of the work, particularly by a luminary import from Holland, Walter Spies (image at right), looked like something Diego Rivera might have painted had he lived in Bali. Moreover, many pieces were imbued with a sarcastic and raunchy sense of humor, subtly mocking politicians, sexual practices, tourism and other aspects of 20th century Balinese life.

In addition to sampling Ubud’s visual traditions, I enjoyed two traditional Balinese dance performances. I went to the performance with low expectations (because I’ve seen “traditional dances” staged specially for tourists in India, and was shocked by how poor they are compared traditional temple dances), but both performances were quite good. The first, accompanied by a ~20 man orchestra consisted of a medley of dances, all interpretations of a central Hindu epic, the Mahabharata. They are similar in style to South Indian dance, although they involve no facial expression, and tend to employ rather spectacular costumes (in one instance, a ten foot long mythical monster). The second dance was quite raucous. Probably the most recognizable Balinese dance, the Kecak, consists of a 50 man a capella chorus who also serve as extras and human set pieces as needed. By varying tone, rhythm and volume, the Kecak dancer/singers are able to create an almost orchestral sound by making only the sound “cak,” making for both an atmospheric and humorous backdrop the action of the main dancers.
When I wasn’t sampling Ubud’s cultural fares, I was sure to make trips out into the surrounding rice paddies. The Ubud countryside was characterized by mesmerizing vistas, in which staggered, geometrical panes of water (the flooded rice paddies), reflecting mountains and clouds animate the stillness.

Photos from the two dance performances, and a bike ride through the country side:

After returning from Ubud, our time more or less centered around surfing. By this point we had a stable group of friends, consisting of Jacopo, the Italian couchsurfer we had first met, Phillipe (a Swiss friend friend of Jacopo) and Henny, a German exchange student who was living in Bali. All of us were there to surf, and so a usual day would go something like this:

- Wake up, grab our boards, and surf until whatever break we were at got too crowded (by midday, some breaks were so crowded, you ran the risk of getting in fight with other surfers over a wave)
- Lounge on the beach till late afternoon, and depending on what the tide was going to be for the evening, head to surf spot that works best at low, medium or high tide.
- After surfing till sunset, the whole gang cleans up at their respective homes, and we’d all get on our motorcycles to meet up for dinner at one of the hundreds of restaurants in the Kuta-Legian-Seminyak area
- After dinner, go home and play guitar/watch a movie/talk about where we’re going to surf tomorrow

Below are some sunset pictures from Kuta beach at low tide:

The week before we left, a pretty epic swell hit the South Bali coastline, and waves were in the 8 - 10 feet range. That might not sound very big, but when you’re in the water, it’s pretty heavy (anything 10 feet and above begins to be potentially dangerous). The first day the swell hit, we didn’t even bother getting in the water. Even at the easiest surf spots, the waves were massive barrels that were closing out (i.e. breaking and then rapidly collapsing onto themselves, offering no ridable face). To underline the point, we saw a number of surfers limping out of the water with broken boards that day.
The surf did mellow out as the week wore on though, and the two days before we left made for some spectacular surfing. The day before we left, we visited on of Bali’s best and most visually spectacular spots, Uluwatu. Consisting of five different breaks, Uluwatu is rendered particularly dramatic by the jagged cliffs that overlook the breaks; moreover, to access any of the breaks, you have to descend a steep flight of stairs in to a cave which floods at high tide. Once in the cave, you hop on your board and paddle out over tropical reefs to gorgeous aquamarine waves (my photos are taken a low tide, so the cave is sort of dry)
I would have loved to surf Uluwatu, but it can be a dangerous break for beginners. The swell wasn’t particularly large, but the wave breaks over reef. If you wipe out (which I frequently do), there’s a good chance you’ll land on the reef, which has the texture of jagged concrete. I’d seen enough surfers in Kuta with entire sides bandaged to know it was a bad idea to go in. But as you can see from the photos below, plenty of surfers were catching great rides.

Leaving Bali was hard. I woke up early to surf the day we left, and enjoyed some of the best waves of the entire trip in a deserted line-up under a beautiful dawn sky....pretty, damn idyllic. My cousin Naj and I had been discussing how difficult it was going to be to go back to India (the overpopulation, the smell, the hassle, etc.). Sure enough, as soon as we get on our Thai Airways flight, we’ve been seated next to one of the only Indian men on the flight. When I try to get to my seat, instead of getting up into the aisle like most polite passengers, he merely slides his knees back a half inch, and gives me a stupid grin, as if he expects a gold star for effort. Naj and I actually burst out laughing. He then passed extremely foul gas the entire trip back, and snapped his fingers at air hostesses whenever he needed something. Bloody Indians......
When we landed in Hyderabad, it was no better. The customs officials regarded our surfboards with complete befuddlement, trying to decide if they could charge us import tax on “two dining tables with no legs.” The surfboards caused further problems when we got picked up as both were almost longer than the tiny 3-cylinder Maruti my family owns. Eventually, we reclined the seat and put Naj under both boards for the hour long ride home (you can see him at the end of the slide show above). The trip was largely uneventful, but it was nonetheless hard to go from island paradise to an overcrowded, polluted Indian city.

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