In Defense of the Dustah (and other shapeless garments)

Lottie Nevin is one of the most intriguing women I ever met. She was living in Jakarta with her husband, Irishman she called him, when our paths crossed. He was teaching at a university there but they were often at their vacation home in Bali. Lottie and I were instant friends. Then they moved to Spain. I miss her.

She was a sunny-side-up, can-do person and everything she said was hilarious. One comment in particular has stuck with me. She was talking about her garment of choice. “I hold comfort in the highest esteem,” she said. “Why would any woman want to be trussed up like a Christmas goose and totter around on pointy-toed, spikey-heeled chambers of torture?” Her look of baffled disdain spoke louder than words. Then she shrugged, shook her head, and groaned. “But Irishman hates my dustah.”

“What’s a dustah?” I asked. It sounded exotic and foreign. She looked at me aghast.

“You don’t know? It’s that shapeless thing that hangs off your shoulders and doesn’t come in contact with your body anywhere else…the most comfortable thing alive. You can go naked as a jay underneath – it’s heaven.”

A memory took shape in my mind’s eye of my mother’s floral pastel, snap-up-the-front housecoat. She’d called it a duster – dustER. Ah-ha!

So that’s what we were talking about. Lottie’s accent was decidedly not English in the Midwestern U.S. style. It had the delightful flavor of the British Isles that made ah’s out of r’s.

I remembered Mom wearing her gown in the morning. But after school lunches were packed and breakfast eaten, she exchanged comfort for clothing that fit her form. It sounded like Lottie missed that step and dear Irishman didn’t approve.

Mom had Dad to impress. Lottie has Irishman.

I don’t cater to anyone but myself. But Lottie’s words stick in my mind every time I slip into my most comfortable outfit. I’ll have walked a mile or more with intense tropical sun beating on my head. I’ll be dripping, my clothing drenched in sweat. As soon as my feet touch home turf, I beeline for the shower and peel off the soggy garments.

Showered and refreshed, I reach for the dress. As it slips over my head, pure joy floods my soul. Stress leaches out of my body. Invariably I inhale, deep and long, and release a blissful sigh. Nothing else even comes close to the relief of lounging the afternoon away in unbound ecstasy.

The pandemic has changed my apparel. Comfort is the ultimate driving factor and yesterday I came face-to-face with the consequences of that. For eighteen months I’ve worn nothing snug – nothing that requires me to suck in my stomach. I’ve sat way more than I’ve stood or walked. Now that I’m packing for a trip to see family in the States, I’m trying on ‘real’ clothes. To my horror, a fleshy spare tire seems to have settled around my waist and hips. I’m pear-shaped with toothpick legs and that is not okay.

There’s not much hope of remedying the situation in the eleven days before I leave. But once there…

Jessa and Dan have promised long hikes on the ridges along the California coastline overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

In Minnesota, I’ll stroll the path along Minnehaha Creek to Lake Nokomis and Lake Hiawatha with my twin grandsons.

Pennsylvania with Joy and Kellen and my very active, very precocious granddaughters will be anything but sedentary. By the time I return to Bali I’ll be whipped into shape.

Re-formed.

Or…Maybe I’ll melt back into my ‘dustah,’ breathe that blissful sigh, and revert to my old, wicked ways.

Do any of you out there share Lottie’s love of the shapeless, unconfined comfort of the dustah?

Has the pandemic changed the way you dress?

Has anyone else gone pear-shaped?

Pandemic life in Bali eighteen months and counting

We’ve logged eighteen months of Covid in Bali. Nobody thought it would last this long. Nobody had a clue how devastating it would be to the economy, to morale, to human life. I wish I could say we’re learning to live with it. We’re not. There’s still a never-never-land hope that soon tourists will return. Soon everything will be like it was before. Soon.

Soon was supposed to be June, 2020. That was scrapped and moved to August 2020. Each new date set for the reopening of international tourism was exchanged for a later one. The most recent was this month, September 2021. We all knew it wouldn’t happen as the Delta variant bore down on Indonesia making it the world epicenter for the virus.

I hate to preach doom and gloom, but the only upside I can see to this prolonged slog through hell is a return to the land for those who didn’t sell out to the highest bidder. Paddies, neglected for years while their owners taxied foreigners to and from the airport, guided tours, sold sarongs, or opened cafes, are being tended again.

Fireflies haven’t returned yet but birds and butterflies have. Roads aren’t clogged with trucks belching black fumes, and there are no drones, helicopters, or planes disturbing the peaceful sky. Only kites. Hundreds of them pirouette on unseen currents high above. These photos are from the annual Kite Festival in Sanur, Bali. This year it didn’t happen, of course.

When there’s no work there’s an abundance of time – time enough to go fly a kite.

For many Balinese, however, there isn’t enough money to buy food, and the lack of funds affects the animal population as well. This article, Bali’s tourist drought sees hundreds of hungry monkeys raiding homes, hit international news today. These are the monkeys that visit me. They never used to leave the Sacred Monkey Forest which is a quarter mile from my home. But now they have no food and no tourists to entertain them. They’re bored, hungry, and they’re multiplying at an astonishing rate. (Nothing else to do, may as well make love.)

The longer the situation persists, the more aggressive they become. They use my roof to stage their battles. I wake up at dawn to the sound of snarling monkeys waging war as clay roof tiles crash to the ground. If Ketut isn’t here to do immediate repairs, I know the next rain will pour through the ceiling wreaking unspeakable damage.

I captured a photo of this guy coming toward my upstairs landing across the old roof.

Hoards of roving monkeys, thirty to fifty at a time, appear multiple times a day every day. Whatever isn’t behind closed doors is fair game, a plate of fruit, a bottle of water, a bouquet of flowers. They’re looking for something – anything – to eat.

Their petty thievery was manageable, but the roof issue was not.

Ketut and I engaged in endless conversations attempting to arrive at a solution to the problem. The situation was dire. I had to replace the fragile tiles with something monkey-proof.

Last week we found the answer. Genteng pasir. Literally translated that’s sand tiles, a pressed metal shingle coated with a gritty substance and painted the color of a traditional roof. The look was perfect and the price was right.

Ketut lined up a team, placed orders for shingles, nails, lumber, and cement, and work began. First, the old tiles came off.

The three-man crew worked, ate, and slept here, on site. They began at 8:00 a.m. and stopped at 6:30 p.m. when the sun went down. We provided their meals, coffee, and beds.

Ketut was the busiest of all, running to get take out food three times a day, making coffee, keeping the necessary building supplies on hand. Food, coffee, and snacks were all part of the package to ensure that the guys stayed well-nourished and happy.

They worked seven full days, non-stop, and did a stellar job.

Isn’t that a splendid sight?

I didn’t realize how on-edge I was. Even now, three days later, I find myself stiffening with a lump of dread in my stomach when I hear the beasts coming. Then I remember, oh! My roof is monkey-proof. I can relax.

Just in time.

Rainy season approaches and there’s nothing as important as an intact roof when tropical storms shed their pent-up tears in torrents – gallons per second!

It doesn’t solve the greater problem. The economy is worse than ever. People and monkeys are still hungry. I’m acutely aware of my privilege as a foreigner living here. Because I’m a long-term expat with the necessary documentation, I was given my vaccinations free, same as the locals. I follow government protocol to the letter, grateful for the measures they’re taking to end this plague so living can find its rhythm and a better life for all can begin.

Soon. Hopefully, soon.

About the Monkeys…

Like slogging through a muddy rice paddy, we enter our seventh week of lockdown in Bali.

There are places to go. Grocery stores are open, Some restaurants ignore the take-out-only mandate and allow customers to sit and eat. It’s business as usual at petrol stations, banks, clinics, and pharmacies. What boggles me though, is the overwhelming number of buildings being built or remodeled. Is it optimism? Do they know something I don’t know? Or is it simply wishful thinking as numbers of new Covid cases in Bali nudged 2000 this past week. Builders’ supply stores are doing a booming business. That’s good news because I’m in the market for a new roof.

Ubud is home to The Sacred Monkey Forest. In the past, tourists paid handsomely to walk the mouldering jungle paths. They bought bananas at the gate which, one-and-a-half steps later, were snatched from their clutches to the absolute shrieking delight of besotted onlookers.

Those visitors have been gone for over eighteen months and none have come to replace them. The monkeys are bored without their daily entertainment. What’s worse, they’re hungry. Funds that used to feed them evaporated with the death of tourism.

They roam through town, performing acrobatics on electrical cables that festoon the streets. They savage neighborhoods, thieving food from fruit stands and pilfering bags full of groceries as customers depart the store. They stage war games on rooftops sending fragile clay tiles crashing to the ground.

My roof is in their path.

This never used to happen. The smart, mischievous macaques were happy in their forest sanctuary. At first they paid an occasional morning visit. As Coved droned on, that progressed to every morning. Then a late afternoon stop-by was added to the routine. Now they’re a constant presence, appearing throughout the day. If I lunch on the terrace I’m certain to attract a furry guest, or ten, who think it’s perfectly acceptable to snatch the plate from under my nose and eat the contents in front of me. Any move to salvage it is met with barred teeth and gut-chilling snarls.

It requires constant vigilance. If the house is left open and unattended, havoc is wreaked.

I’ve actually learned to tolerate most of it. But the roof is a constant source of concern. If a tile slips even a little, I’ll know it when the next storm passes through. If several are broken and I’m unaware of the damage, I’ll be scooping buckets of rainwater off the floor as mattresses get soaked and I practice words I didn’t know I knew.

Ketut spends more time on the roof than he does on dry land these days, replacing tiles.

That’s why we set out on the motorbike this morning. I’d found a shop online that sells metal roofing that looks like clay but it’s nailed in place. No slipping. No shattering into a million pieces on the ground. Ketut tells me metal isn’t completely monkey-proof. If one of those hungry beasts decides to break open a coconut up there, all bets are off. Even metal can’t withstand the jackhammer pounding of a determined monkey with a fresh nut. What are the odds that will happen? Quarterly? Once a year? Never? I’ll take my chances.

Today was gorgeous. Twenty-five minutes past lime-green rice fields, across bridges spanning bottomless gorges, through eye-blink villages, brought us to Sinar Sukses, a miniscule shop. The young man laughed when I told him Google said he had metal roof tiles. “Why would Google say that?” he shrugged. “This is a plumbing shop.” He suggested we try the building supply just a few blocks back the way we came and around the corner. Two women there listened to our request then pointed. Sheets of corrugated tin in various colors leaned against the far wall. No, they didn’t have metal tiles. Only the sheets. We asked if they knew where we could find what we were looking for. We left with an address a few miles away.

This store was large. It looked promising. We removed our helmets, washed our hands, entered and stated our business. A sad-eyed girl behind the counter shook her head.

It was on the way home that Ketut remembered a cousin recently roofed his home with metal tiles. He said he’d ask him where he bought them. A few minutes ago, the answer came. It was a building supply next to the market in Gianyar – the town we’d left a few short hours before.

I love it. I really do.

No, not the crashing roof tiles. That sound fills me with sickening dread and blood-lust – monkey blood.

I love the adventure. The thrill of The Hunt. The camaraderie as Ketut and I zip along roads that used to be clogged to a standstill with traffic this time of year. The laughter at our inside jokes that nobody else in their right mind would find even remotely funny.

The thing is, we’ll locate the tiles. Over much hemming and hawing – maybe this, perhaps that – a price will be negotiated. The job will get done. But right now, for my sanity’s sake, the longer a project takes the better. The more convoluted the search, the less time I spend missing my faraway loved ones. I seek out distractions with the same manic fervor I used to employ to avoid them.

It’s Bali. It’s lockdown. It’s life.

Baffling Bountiful Indonesia – Doors Fly Open For Wayan

Mysterious Indonesia, the largest island country in the world, is made up of over 17,000 separate island provinces. Most of them have their own language, their own religions, rituals, and customs. The country spreads in a graceful curve just north of Australia and has the world’s fourth largest population.

I’m reminded of the Tower of Babel story – in reverse. According to that tale, the Babylonians were building a magnificent city that would touch the heavens. They wished to make a name for themselves. God foiled their plans by confusing their language.

They could no longer understand each other so all work ceased.

Indonesian leaders realized the only way they were going to successfully govern such a mixed bag of rugged individualists was to create a national language and make it mandatory throughout the entire educational system. So when the country gained it’s independence in 1945, that’s what they did. That action emphasized and underscored Indonesia’s motto: Unity in diversity.

Because this diverse population is able to communicate with each other, the people, goods and wonders of all the islands often intersect.

In Bali, I’ve come to expect the unexpected. Opportunities to experience vastly different cultures and viewpoints present themselves daily. At the same time, the potential for misunderstanding is huge. Patience is essential and waiting until all have had their say, then coming to an agreement that suits everyone is diplomacy at its best. “Good for me, good for you,” is a familiar phrase in Bali indicating a satisfactory compromise.

The Balinese have also mastered kesabaran.* They sit for hours in full temple dress waiting for the high priest to arrive so a ceremony can begin. Unlike us in the West, they don’t expect anything to happen fast, not in ceremony, not in life.

I’ve sat with them on the ground, sweating in my corset and lace, eaten by ants. But when it begins…OMG! The pageantry, the ritual, the sound and color make me forget the hours of discomfort.

Wayan’s journey is proving to be no exception. As we go forward, we make new contacts and realize there isn’t just one option available. Right now we’re in the process of researching an offer that would allow her to begin training sooner and work abroad more quickly.

Every step advances Wayan’s adventure. It thrills me to see how willing people are to help this young woman achieve what very few in her position can hope for. All of you who donated so freely are the ones making this possible.

Hang on, friends! I’ll keep you posted as we go. This promises to be an exciting ride!

*kesabaran – patience

GoGetFunding and other nightmares!

In spite of tutorials…

In spite of Google searches…

In spite of having created my own websites and accomplished other technical tasks on my laptop, setting up a fundraiser for Wayan pushed all my luddite buttons.

Luddite (Urban Dictionary): One who fears technology (or new technology, as they seem pleased with how things currently are…why can’t everything just be the same?)

I’ve never felt so ill-equipped to deliver on a promise…EVER! That will teach me (hopefully) not to offer up specific help without doing a tiny bit of research first so I know what the heck I’m talking about.

But this is not all about me. It’s about my Balinese friend, Wayan, whom I’ve known since she was thirteen – she’s now twenty-one.

Wayan is Ketut’s sister-in-law. The oldest child in her family was a boy. He died young leaving six sisters and his grieving parents to cope without him. When I visited Wayan’s family home, I felt like I’d been whisked backward in time to a much earlier period.

At one point during my visit, Wayan’s mother handed her a large bucket and asked her to get water. I tagged along thinking I’d help her carry the pail. Once it was full it was bound to be heavy.

We walked a fair distance then the path dipped over what looked to me like a cliff. Wayan proceeded as though still on flat ground. I hesitated. Should I follow her, scooching down on my bum? I managed to keep up, slip-skidding sideways, grasping branches, and maintaining somewhat of a grip with my flip-flops – not the best for mountain climbing. We descended a distance of a two-story building then Wayan stopped at a bubbling spring. She filled the bucket, placed it on her head (no, really???) and began the ascent while I clawed my way behind her, crablike, in awe.

I think that’s when I knew this girl could accomplish whatever she set her mind to.

Unlike many young people raised in remote mountain villages of Bali, Wayan had aspirations. As I grew more adept at the language she began to share stories of her life. Her parents could not afford tuition to pay for high school so Wayan worked on a construction crew, carrying washtubs of rocks on her head to building sites. When she had enough saved there was a family emergency and her parents needed her money. “I was very sad, but I must help them,” she said.

Her education was delayed. Eventually, Wayan found a school in Tegalalang that offered night classes. She stayed with a family that had a small cafe there, working in the cafe during the day and going to school nights.

It was during that time, while still attending night classes, she came to work for me. She was even more industrious than I had believed and her desire to excel in everything she did was inspirational.

The need to better herself obsessed her. After graduation, she heard about a culinary program at Crystal College that offered evening courses. She was accepted into the program. Upon completion, she was granted an internship at a five-star hotel in Bangkok, Thailand.

There’s a phrase in Indonesian for that kind of resilient courage. Keberanian tangguh. Wayan has it in spades. She went to Bangkok and began her work at the hotel. Two months later the hotel and the whole world shut down. Covid had arrived. Wayan came home, devastated. She felt she’d failed.

Her parents had plans for her. She would marry her cousin. That way they’d have a male heir and the home would remain in the family when Wayan’s parents passed on. He’d agreed to come and live with them contrary to Balinese custom where the wife always goes to the family home of her husband. Women inherit nothing.

Wayan wasn’t on board with the plan.

In March, she came to visit so we could celebrate her 21st birthday. She was working to support the family, selling vegetables at the night market in the capital city of Denpasar. When her shift ended around 6 a.m. she motorbiked to Kintamani, 1 1/2 hours away, to cook in a cafe during the day. This was her schedule seven days a week.

“When do you sleep, Wayan?”

“There’s no time to sleep,” she said, and the deep purple half-moons under her eyes confirmed the truth.

Wayan’s 21st birthday dinner at Famous in Ubud

So when I got an excited message from her weeks later that said she was considering a job in Japan, I wanted details. Crystal College works with an international employment agency and they were interviewing for positions at the Park Hyatt Hotel in Tokyo. Wayan had interviewed and been accepted.

I messaged her and asked why she wanted to work in Japan. She sent this reply:

“I want to change my life to be better and all people who underestimate me see me success even though I’m just a poor person. I want to pay for my sisters’ school, I don’t want both of them to feel same as me – can’t continue to senior high school because my parents couldn’t pay for it. I want to build a new house and family temple for my parents. That is why I want to go to Japan.”

Wayan (center) with her parents and two sisters in front of their home

There was only one catch. Money.

Wayan’s current two jobs gross about $10.00 US/day on the days she works both of them. She’s supporting her family since her father is out of work and her mother isn’t well. Her starting salary in Japan would be many times that.

If she wants to work in Japan, she has to pay the agency 35.000.000 rph ($2,500 US) for providing her with two months of Japanese language education, a visa allowing her into the country, a work permit and sponsorship authorizing her stay there, arranging accommodations, providing airline tickets, and a three-year contract. She’d also needs to buy warm clothing – something unheard of in Bali.

That’s when I made my harebrained promise to set up a fundraising campaign to help her finance this opportunity.

It’s taken three days and many frustrations, but as of now Help Wayan Change Her Life is live on the GoGetFunding platform. If you have a little extra to spare, I can’t think of a more deserving person than Wayan to bless with a leg-up.

That Miserably-Addictive Chemical-Laden Seductive Killer

I awoke feeling virtuous.

Yesterday I walked the Campuhan Ridge at midday, a sweaty mile of uphill exertion and epic beauty. It was a solitary endeavor – a chance to collect my thoughts, commune with nature, and see if my post-lockdown body could still do it.

There were changes. In places the jungle encroached, overhanging the path with a dark quiet that spoke of slithery things hiding in its depths. A giant swing that had once enticed Instagram photos was gone and with it the man selling beverages and snacks. But most noteworthy was the absence of hikers. I passed a tall blond woman, and later two Indonesian women, the only humans besides me on the trail at eleven-thirty that morning.

Cloudless skies overhead, full equatorial sunshine, and a steady incline ensured an intense aerobic workout. The reward at the end of the climb kept me going. Karsa Kafe – the second floor seating overlooking swathes of green paddies – a haven of repose.

I arrived and settled in. The ever-present breeze licked away perspiration. Far in the distance, hazy purple mountains stood sentinel, their peaks ringed with clouds. All was as it should be – all except the emptiness. I was it, the sole patron of those glorious surroundings.

For two-and-a-half hours I drank in the peace – and the beer – undisturbed. A giant plate of crisp, sweet-potato fries fortified me while I let the frustrations and stresses of an unknown future slide off into the fields.

When my phone rang, I answered it. There was no one to disturb. Jessa, my oldest, was calling to congratulate me on getting vaccinated, the first long-awaited jab.

“When will you get your second dose, Mom?”

“It’s scheduled for August 20th.”

“Three months? That means you’ll come in September?”

It felt odd to make a plan after ages of uncertainty. Dare I hope? Could I be reunited with children and grandchildren as early as September? It felt surreal, intoxicating yet suspicious, like a gold-wrapped gift had been placed in front of me but would be snatched away the moment I reached for it. And yet, my optimistic nature overruled and I strategized whole-heartedly with her, stuffing doubt into a cramped corner with fear and worry.

High on hope, cooled and refreshed, I trotted the downhill path back home.

That’s why this morning I awoke feeling virtuous – all that great exercise – I deserved a treat. And what could be more delicious to kick-start the day than a steaming cup of 3-in-1 Nescafe?

I don’t drink coffee anymore. It wreaks havoc with my nervous system and my sleep. I weaned myself off by substituting ginger tea. I blend raw ginger root with a little water, squish it through a strainer, and store it in the refrigerator. One tablespoon of concentrated raw ginger juice mixed with steaming hot water lights my mouth on fire and curbs the craving for anything else.

Except Nescafe.

So I limit my intake of that miserably-addictive, chemical-laden killer to special occasions.

Like this morning.

I savored the aroma, salivated, nested the hot cup in my hands and sipped.

Bliss!

When the refined white sugar, glucose syrup, hardened palm oil, caramelized sugar, maltodextrin, mystery stabilizers, milk proteins, salt, emulsifier, instant coffee, and natural and artificial flavorings kicked in, which took all of about three minutes, a sense of magnanimous well-being settled over me. Anything seemed possible – even a trip to the States in September. Especially a trip to the States in September.

Five minutes later, the many forms of sugar I’d just ingested slammed my bloodstream with a megablast of energy. Luck was with me. Multiple pieces of furniture in various stages of refinishing waited on the terrace.

Ketut did the bulk of the work but he’d gone home for a few days. Within seconds I was armed with 1000 grit sandpaper, vigorously skimming the varnished surfaces until they shimmered silken-smooth to the touch.

Moving my body eased the hyped-up edginess.

But I know this story.

The rest of the day I’ll be aware of the low buzz. My limbs will tingle – not altogether pleasantly. And if I allow it, low-level anxiety will haunt me. By bedtime I’ll be tired but chances are I’ll sleep fitfully, if at all.

Is it worth it, that seductive killer cup?

Once every month or two?

You’d better believe it is!

Please don’t ever let this become ordinary

You know how things that once amazed and delighted you fade to ordinary over time? It happens with just about everything: jobs, clothing, marriage.

When I moved to Bali, I remember sucking in fragrant, moisture-laden air, staring enraptured into bottomless ravines, tasting foods that exploded with heat and thinking, “Please don’t let me ever take this for granted.” I’ve gotten comfortable here, but I’ve never lost the tingle of delight at the scents, the landscapes, and the bursts of fire on my tongue.

Early on, I learned to ask for “Not spicy, please,” whenever I ordered Balinese fare. There’s one memorable eating adventure that still makes me giggle. I’d pointed to the word Rujak on the menu and asked the server what it was.

“Fruit salad,” she replied.

“Safe,” I thought. Little did I know the sweet papaya, pineapple, banana, and watermelon would be served drowned in a dressing heavily laced with cayenne pepper!

I’ll admit, though, there is one thing that did fade over time.

I was curious about the whistling I heard daily. It wasn’t raspy, electrical-wire-humming sound that cicadas make. This was pure, melodious, and it went on continuously for around thirty minutes every morning. One day I was having coffee with my neighbor and there it was. The whistling.

“What makes that sound?” I asked.

“What sound?” It had faded into background noise for her.

“The whistling,” I said.

“Oh, that. It’s just birds.”

Whistling birds circling over my Bali garden

I accepted her explanation and thought little more about it. Nine years later, I sat down to lunch with an expat friend who had lived in Asia most of her adult life. I’d watched the birds circling and whistling that morning and was mesmerized anew by their disciplined flight pattern and ceaseless sound. Once again, I wondered what kind of bird it was. No amount of Google searching on my part had turned up any evidence. She answered immediately.

“They’re a kind of pigeon – like homing pigeons. They’re trained to fly in circles.” I quizzed her for more but she shrugged and said that was all she knew.

Later that afternoon, I refined my Google search and this time hit pay dirt. It was one of those mind blowing moments of discovery.

Wikipedia told me that whistling pigeons have been used in China since at least the Ching Dynasty (1644 – 1912) and are also popular in Japan and Indonesia. But wonder of wonders, the birds aren’t born whistling. Tiny, lightweight whistles, painstakingly carved, are sewn into their tail feathers. The sound changes with the speed and direction of flight.

Photos from China Today

I was instantly obsessed and had to learn more. Who makes the whistles? How are the birds trained? This video answered all of those questions and several others I hadn’t thought to ask.

It seemed the flock that circled my garden was the only one of its kind in town. Over the past year of lockdown however, with time on their hands, it sounds like others may have gotten into whistle carving and pigeon training. Now there’s a new school that circles high over my back garden as well. (Pigeons. A band, dropping, flight, kit, loft, passel, plague, school – notice I resisted using plague for obvious reasons!)

The practice in China has diminished due to increasing urbanisation and regulation. I understand why. It’s a noisy hobby.

Ubud is more laid-back. People here can raise anything they want. Across the street from me in the town’s center, a family keeps chickens in makeshift coops on their flat rooftop. When the humidity is high and the wind is right, I’m keenly aware of the pig farm a block away.

It’s the complexity. The element of surprise. The strict rituals of Bali Hinduism nudged up against the relaxed approach to the rest of life that keeps amazement and delight alive in me. There will always be a mind-blowing vista to discover, a suspicious cuisine to sample, a new perspective on an old idea to explore.

Ordinary? I should say not. Extraordinary? Absolutely – like falling in love again with each sunrise.

Mother’s Day Confessions

I’ve never admitted this to anyone but as Mother’s Day rolls around, I’m reminded of the strange disconnect I experienced as a mom. Maybe you can relate. Maybe not. Here’s the story.

As a young adult, motherhood wasn’t on my to-do list. I’d never given it much thought. Neither had my first husband. We were about three years into the marriage when his highschool sweetheart wound up pregnant. As it turned out, he was the father. I left him with her in Muskogee, Oklahoma – can’t say I was terribly disappointed to escape Muskogee or my philandering husband.

Children weren’t on the agenda three years later when I married again. But after a tumultuous six months we had a night of unprotected passion and…our divorce was final the day before my first daughter was born.

Six years later, married again, I gave birth to my second daughter near Alum Creek, Texas. My husband was an accountant for a company that laid oil pipelines, hence Texas. Two years after that, my third sweet girl arrived. By then we’d moved into the eye-blink town of Smithville.

My daughters are the joy of my life. As they were growing up, every year when Mother’s Day approached they went into giggling-hush-hush mode. Breakfast in bed was the highlight. I awoke to chocolate ice cream on Trix cereal one memorable morning.

But I promised a confession and here it is.

Every year it was the same. Amid the hubbub of my own household, I forgot that I also had a mother. It would hit me, perhaps the night before, or the morning of, and I’d panic that I hadn’t given a single thought to honoring that dear woman on her special day. It was too late to mail a card, but with a hurried personal call to the florist in my hometown who was a friend from school, and a Happy Mother’s Day Skype with Mom later in the day, I always covered my dilinquent tracks in time.

Mom passed a year and nine months ago. But it’s strange – as that day approaches and I see promos for flowers or gifts popping up on my phone, I forget that I’m a mother. All my thoughts are of her until one of the girls calls with a cheery, happy Mother’s Day Mamma, and I recall that I’m the matriarch now.

As a result of those chotic, childrearing years, I understand if my kids momentarily forget me. In Bali I’m a day ahead anyway and no one caring for toddlers can be expected to keep in mind the time zone variations of my reality on the other side of the globe. It’s a thrill and a joy whenever I hear from them.

Before I bid you a happy day and get on with mine, I want to mention how freeing and healthy it is to have no expectations. It’s the key to contentment. If you don’t expect something from someone, you won’t be disappointed if it doesn’t materialize. Unmet expectations are at the core of unhappiness.

Here’s wishing you a very happy Mother’s Day whether you hear from your offspring or not! Send your wishes to them first If they have children – jog their memory – remind them that you exist. They’re busy!

Adventure! Following the FBI in Bali

One of the first Indonesian words I learned was petualangan. Trying to wrap my Midwestern American tongue around that one was a challenge. But so worth it. Petualangan means adventure.

I woke up this morning with itchy feet. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the UNESCO rice terraces of Jatiluwih and they were calling. At 7:30, Ketut popped his head around the corner of the veranda where I was journaling. We exchanged the usual pleasantries and when he asked if I had a plan today, which he always does, I said yes, adventure.

“Where?”

“Jatiluwih. Okay with you?

“Ya! What time?

“9:00.”

“Good.”

It was a glorious morning, sunny with breezes. A quick check of the weather app showed a high of 77°F (25°C) in the mountains where we were headed. This would be a much shorter journey than the ridiculous 12-hour bike ride that left me feeling every one of my golden years for weeks afterward. I estimated one hour thirty minutes to get there and a quicker trip coming home, downhill all the way.

As soon as we left Ubud, the landscape opened. I sucked in lungs full of farm-scented air (through my mask, of course) and shed the cloud of gloom that’s enveloped the town since lockdown, March 2020.

It’s impossible not to feel a surge of joyous abandon when flying through the coutryside on the back of Ketut’s motorbike. The wind in my face, the congenial chatter, the comaraderie, the laughter – it’s a higher high than any drug or drink could possibly achieve.

Soon the road narrowed and we began to climb.

First we passed this guy.

Then we followed this guy.

It probably says something obscene below the big letters. I couldn’t make it out. If you can, and it does, don’t think poorly of me. I captured the photo on the fly and it was too good to pass up.

I wanted to have this adventure during Galungan. For ten days every six months, the ancestors return from the spirit world to visit their villages. As if by magic, streets transform overnight and elegant penjors arch and sway gracefully overhead.

Each town has its own style. You can tell how well-off the village is by the grandeur of the penjors.

The moment I set foot on this island, the profusion of artistic detail amazed me. From temples, to ogoh-ogohs, to the massive bulls and cremation towers that carry the deceased to their final farewell, the creative wizardry of the Balinese people is astounding.

And then…

What is it about rice terraces that unravels me? It’s been that way since my first trip to Bali in 2010. The guide stopped the car and said to walk around the curve and maybe I would like to take photos. Around that curve was the most jaw-dropping view I’d ever seen. Sunlight glittered on hundreds of pools of freshly planted paddies cascading down the mountainsides. I clutched my throat so my heart couldn’t escape, then burst into tears.

Today I didn’t cry, but reverent awe is always there.

At approximately thirty minutes in, our walk came to an abrupt halt. Heavy rains had washed out the land beneath the trail. The concrete path was broken and hung precariously over the abyss.

“What do you think, Ketut? Shall we try?”

He looked at me like I had two heads. “Maybe never come back,” he said.

“Good point. Let’s go eat lunch.”

By the time we’d hiked the thirty-minute return, starvation was setting in. My mouth watered thinking of the overflowing buffet at Billy’s Cafe. As soon as we entered, I realized that was a pre-covid memory. There was no buffet. There were no patrons. The menu had shrunk to a single, laminated sheet, drinks on one side, food on the other. But the view remained.

We ordered and chatted, ate and chatted, sat enjoying the perfect weather, the idyllic view, and the empty restaurant – and chatted – for hours. Bliss.

There isn’t much I enjoy more than lingering over a meal in the company of a good friend. But shadows were growing longer. It was time to go.

My favorite photo of today’s grand adventure is this one. Three Indonesian flags, whipping in the wind atop needle-thin poles marked the beginning, or from this perspective the end of the path through the terraces. Gratitude welled up within me for this country that has been home for the past nine years. I’ve been treated with utmost kindness. I never realized how much I needed that.

As I stood rapt, gazing upward, I could almost hear the national anthem of Indonesia. It’s blared from loudspeakers every Independence Day but I’ve never known the lyrics. Today I looked them up. The last stanza speaks my heart’s wish:

Let us pray

For Indonesia’s prosperity:

May her soil be fertile

And spirited

The nation and all the people.

Conscious be her heart

And her mind

For Indonesia the Great.

Now I’m curled in my comfy cushions at home, relaxed, rejuvenated, nurtured, and at peace. What a perfect day and a magnificent adventure. Thank you, Ketut.

I’m a Capricorn – the epitome of disciplined self-control…!

What high expectations I had for the regular Friday afternoon meetup with my neighbor. Our weekly chats run the gamut from current Visa regulations here in Indonesia, to quirky relatives, to where to buy the best bunkus in Ubud. If you aren’t familiar with bunkus, they’re cone-shaped packages of rice with various toppings: vegetables, chicken or pork, spicy noodles, egg, with a few mystery ingredients thrown in that you’re better off not questioning.

Besides stimulating conversation, I usually furnish beer or wine and something crunchy to munch on. Today it was Thai peanuts with lime leaf, carrot hummus, and krupuk – special crackers from the granny down the road who sells them in her tiny shop.

This time though, instead of Bintang beer, or Anggur Merah, the 14.7% alcohol Bali wine, I had a real surprise for my friend. Pu Tao Chee Chiew. I found it on a recent excusion to Grand Lucky, a grocery store that stocks things not available anywhere else in Bali. The name sounded like an exotic Chinese elixir and when I read the label and saw 37.15% alcohol I grabbed two bottles.

I feel the need to add a disclaimer here. Perhaps I’ve mentioned alcohol in too many posts lately because I had a very discreet email from a reader who wondered if I’d become a bit too dependent. I felt like saying, I’m a Capricorn, the epitome of disciplined self-control. There’s no way… but I didn’t. I decided to write this blog instead because I know she’ll read it and have a good laugh.

Here’s a snapshot of my life.

Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday – wake up. Journal. Do yoga. Meditate. Eat breakfast. Write. Take a nap. Read. Eat dinner. Answer emails. Shower. Go to bed. No alcohol.

Every Friday – wake up. Journal. Do yoga. Meditate. Eat breakfast. Write. Take a nap. Prepare snacks and some fun alcoholic beverage for the four-hour chat with my neighbor.

So…about my neighbor…

This woman is one of the busiest people I know. She works two online jobs, cooks for her husband and daughters ages 5 and 13, tutors a Balinese child in English, helps with homework assignments, writes middle grade fiction, and I’m sure I don’t know the half of it. How she carves out time every week to entertain me is one of life’s greatest mysteries. Of course, I do ply her with alocohol…

Speaking of intoxicating beverages, I introduced us to Orang Tua – translated Old People – a wine with a nasty flavor reminiscent of the hot grog we had at Christmastime in the Midwest. I’ve served Brem – a thick-ish, cloudy rice wine, and Anggur Merah, a decent red grape wine made in Indonesia. But when I told her about my latest find she was as intrigued as I was.

She arrived and settled into her usual spot just as the afternoon rain started. I popped the cap and poured sparkling amber liquid into two glasses.

“Mmmm. Bubbly. It looks like beer,” she said.

We toasted then took that first tingling swig. “Oooo, sweet.” She licked her lips with only a slight grimmace. “Like dessert wine.”

“Or communion wine,” I added. “Or like drinking perfume.” A cloying floral bouquet lingered on my tongue.

There wasn’t much else to say about it, so we turned to the snacks and commenced our animated give and take filling each other in on the events of the week, which, if you recall what my Saturdays through Thursdays always look like, could put a caffiene junkie to sleep. But her lively stories more than make up for my yawn-worthy tales. Most importantly, we laugh a lot.

Around about the third hour of chatter, my guest frowned. “How much alcohol did you say was in this stuff? Thrity-something percent?”

“37.15 %. Why?”

“Well, I must have built up a heckuva tolerance because I don’t feel a thing.”

I took a minute to assess my own buzz but found none. “Now that you mention it, neither do I. How can that be?”

She reached for the empty bottle. “This is it, right? Let’s have a look.” Still frowning she sqinted at the small print,then exploded into laughter. “Guess what?”

I shook my head. “No idea.”

“This says fermented green grapes 37.15%. But up here at the top – see?” She twisted it so the label stared me in the face and pointed.

There it was, the sad truth if I’d taken time to actually read what it said. Mengandung Alkohol 5%.

“What?” I shrieked. “Five percent? That’s less than Bali beer. And I have another bottle of this worthless (expletive deleted) in the fridge?”

My feeling of betrayal was short-lived. We laughed until our sides ached.

So please, for anyone out there who might have wondered…I thoroughly enjoy my two glasses of wine once a week. But if my neighbor can’t make it for some reason, Friday joins the rest of the non-alcoholic days. I find no pleasure imbibing in solitary. And as for that extra bottle of Pu Tao Chee Chiew…it’ll make a great gift.

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