Aussies…pick your battles

Australians are people. I’ll have to admit, my first encounters with that unique breed left me unconvinced. All I knew about Australia I learned in 9th grade history class, and I wasn’t impressed then either. When I came to Bali they were everywhere, loud, behaving badly, at frightful odds with my Victorian morality and Scandinavian reticence.

A lot of things got shaken up when I moved to Bali, and any people group clumped together and referred to as they, tend to bring surprises when they grow individual faces with real names. It wasn’t long before I met Steve, the organizer of the Ubud Writers Group, an Aussie. Suddenly one of them had a face, and even though he was loud, behaved badly, twirled my moral compass and trampled my Norwegian sensitivities, I LIKED him. Then I met Janet, his sister, a milder version, and I knew there was hope.

It’s a process, warming up to these undiluted characters who seem to revel in the discomfort of others. It’s all in good fun and harmless if you have serious rhino skin and know how to pick your battles. But underneath the gruff and bluster, there’s generosity and a loyalty that forms deep attachments.

So when Steve and Janet invited me to accompany them, and Steve’s poodle, Princess Rina, for a pre New Year’s getaway to Sidemen, I was equal parts surprised and delighted.

From the moment we arrived and settled in, conversation flowed around and through every conceivable topic. I alternated between straining to bridge the language barrier and blushing crimson when I did. There were many occasions when I had to stop them and beg a translation of their repurposed English!

Fluffy clouds lazed across the sky all afternoon as we moved from the pool to Janet’s terrace, to the dining area, and back to Janet’s terrace accompanied by attentive staff bearing trays of alcohol. That’s another thing I noted: these Aussies can out drink me five to one, and it’s a little sad because they’re not the ones who need loosening up!

At first there was no hint of Mt. Agung, just the sweeping view of rice terraces. But as cooler air pushed up over the ridge it appeared, the highest holiest peak in Bali, through a necklace of clouds.

Somehow I’d snagged a deluxe upstairs room with an unobstructed panorama from a deck larger than my entire Ubud apartment!

Although slightly less sticky than the lower altitudes of Ubud, the refreshing gurgle of the infinity pool beckoned so we stationed ourselves for deep relaxation and more liquid refreshments.

After cocktails, liquors, and nighttime chocolates (we did eat dinner at some point) it was lights out with the plan to meet for breakfast at no specified time.

I’m an early riser. Catching the view of sunrise over Mt. Agung was ample inspiration to set my alarm for 5 a.m. just to make certain I was fully awake by showtime. I’m also directionally challenged, so as I fixated on the emerging purple outline of the giant mountain, the sun quietly rose somewhere to my right. Orientation miscalculations aside, the reverence and awe inspired by the early morning vigil stuck to me for hours.

It would be easy to develop an obsessive fascination with Mt. Agung. At six in the morning it was crystal clear. By midday the clouds so enshrouded it there was no hint it ever existed.

Sometime later we hiked through the village seeking a more palatable lunch than the options available at our place. Our stroll produced new photo ops and a group of schoolboys who showered the Princess with proper devotion.

Like homing pigeons with a bead on eats, my Australian friends sussed out an exquisite site for dining pleasure at Sawah Indah Villa.

I might add at this juncture that Australian dogs, unlike their owners, adopt the cultural norms that resonate with my comfort level. They’re seen but not heard and speak only when spoken to. Princess Rina excels in the social graces and her dining etiquette epitomizes perfection. That’s why she’s allowed a seat at most establishments and we don’t patronize those that fail to appreciate her advanced evolution.

The walk back was blistering. As a hint of chlorine tickled our noses, Steve shed his shirt and shoes leaving a trail of cast off clothing on the path to the pool and plunged. Janet and I weren’t far behind. Oh delicious clear blue water!

A little nap sparked renewed appetites and we ended the day at a pizza warung. I didn’t have high hopes. The tablecloths had seen more meals than ours and were still wearing some of them. The neon green walls did nothing for our aging complexions. But hailmaryfullofgrace – omg – the PIZZA! It was far and away the best I’ve ever eaten anywhere. A N Y W H E R E !!! Three very happy bellies said good-night and sweet dreams as we trundled off to our beds.

Next morning, packed and ready to return to the crazy bustle of Ubud, I bid goodbye to the magic mountain and the peace and pleasure of a unique escape with my outrageous Aussie friends. Thanks, Steve, Janet, and Princess Rina for this stimulating cross-cultural experience in a setting of unparalleled splendor.

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And a very Happy New Year to family, friends, and all the other beautiful Australians I’ve met and learned to love here in the paradise down under!

He said…She said…

This day began, like most in my blessed Bali life, with Ketut. He appeared punctually at 8:45 with my breakfast and the daily profusion of fresh flowers: blood-red hibiscus, fragrant frangipani, and the lovely golden throated bloom that neither of us can identify.

But today was markedly different. His appearance with food was not preceded by the call-and-response mantra between me on the balcony and him in the garden. Every day for the past three months the pleasantries of “Good morning, how are you? Good, and you? Good. How did you sleep? Good, and you? Good, thank you,” have been exchanged from my lofty perch to his earthy one, followed by:

“You want eat?”

“Yes, please, papaya, toast, tea.”

“You want now?”

“Yes, please, now.”

Nine days out of 10 I order the same breakfast. I am bored hearing myself repeat it.

So yesterday, armed with my dictionary, I said, “Ketut, breakfast is always the same. Why don’t I eat every day at 8:45 a.m. You bring papaya, toast, and tea at 8:45. Does that work?” We agreed that if I anticipated wanting a variation on the theme I would alert him the night before, otherwise he would appear at 8:45 with the usual. So there he was this morning, 8:45 on the dot, beaming.

Feeling almost giddy with a new system that seemed far superior to the old one, we chatted away as I ate. I asked him about his childhood, what did he do when he was little. He made a chopping motion with one hand and said, “For cow.” We have spent enough time with each other by now that even the most cryptic of phrases, with accompanying hand signals, is decipherable.

“Oh!” I exclaimed. “You cut the food for the cows. How old?”

“Ten,” he said.

“What did you do when you were younger?”

“Play,” he said.

“What did you play?” I’ve been to his village. There are no toys, no kiddie parks, no swing sets.

“No have…” he stopped.

“No toys, no games?” I supplied the missing English words.

“Ya, no many many. Play in…” he made horizontal motions with his hands.

“Street? Yard?” I’m guessing.

“Ya,” he said.

“With other children in village?”

“Ya,” he said again. “Like this.” He pointed to the tiles on the floor of the balcony and pantomimed drawing lines. I got excited.

“Oh! You draw rooms on the ground? Pretend house?” He looked confused.

“No. Like this,” he said and began jumping from one tile to another. It was hopscotch! I leaped out of my chair bursting with laughter. “Oh! Sama-sama! In my country also!” Then we bounced around the balcony in an imaginary game of hopscotch wildly impressed with each other. After that we played jump-rope, and hide-n-seek.

These mundane occurrences are profound. They span oceans, decades, and vast cultural divides. They form a link where none exists between a 30 year old Balinese man from a remote mountain village and a 60 something woman from a place and culture he cannot even imagine. It says that maybe we are not so different after all. Once we were children. Once we played hopscotch, and hide-n-seek, and jumped rope with our little friends.

We did not intentionally pose like two peas in a pod for this photo!

We work hard to understand each other. His English is sketchy. My Indonesian is hit and miss, mostly miss. But there is a language that transcends all differences. It is blind to color, class, or creed. It is neither written nor spoken, but today we spoke it fluently. It is called childhood.

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