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.

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

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.

Is this what normal feels like?

I awoke with the stangest feeling today. What was different? I could breathe. My jaw was unclenched. My skin wasn’t burning. The twisted circuits in my brain that had been trying to wrap themselves around chaos, lies and deception for four years were melting down and dribbling out my eyes. A wave of joyous relief swept over me. Is this what normal feels like?

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.

Could my gratitude for their willingness to step into the wreckage that is our un-United States be any greater? I don’t think so. It overwhelms me, gives me more hope than I’ve had for a very long time. Makes me cry.

In his first day as President, Joe Biden reversed ruinous mandates of the past administration in a grand swoop of legislation. With each stroke of his pen my heart soared. Thank you, it said. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

I know we still have a raging pandemic that is gathering speed as it tears a swath of death across the world. But now the United States has leaders who care, who are willing to act, who are already doing what it is in their power to do to staunch the viral hemorrhage.

In my gut I feel we were perilously close to losing what I had taken for granted my entire adult life.

Under the sham of governance for the past four years, our allies no longer trusted us – those who had come to our aid time after time when we needed them most were treated shabbily. The courageous people who committed their lives to protect our country were disrespected in the basest ways. Racism at its ugliest ruled. Living in Indonesia I didn’t want to admit I was an American. I felt ashamed of my great country, ashamed and dirty.

It is a shock to the system to realize how quickly black becomes white, how readily we numb to unacceptable behavior, how willingly we turn blind eyes to atrocious wrongs against humanity and how almost half the U.S. voting population was ready to continue that devastation for another four years. There is a hideous cancer at the core of our country that fed on the steady diet of excrement being doled out from the top.

That food chain has been sliced off.

I don’t know of anyone else who has the experience, knowledge, integrity, faith, and compassion to work the miracles needed at this time. President Biden is our man of the hour and Vice President Harris is his right hand. It’s a Herculean task before them but I believe they were born for this, a calling if you will, their karmic purpose.

That feeling I couldn’t recognize this morning – I’ve named it now. Relief. Huge, nomalizing relief. And gratitude. They’re mixed together in a healing soup called HOPE. That’s what’s on the menu for our country and there’s plenty for all.

Eat hearty.

Sink them! she said.

 

Susi

Susi Pudjiastuti Indonesia’s Minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries (Photo from Wikipedia)

Susi smokes and has tattoos. She’s also the Minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries in Indonesia and is credited with sinking 87 boats caught fishing illegally in Indonesian waters.

But I’m getting ahead of myself…

The Ubud Writers’ Festival is underway. Each of the four days of this world-class production has as many as 18 panels, ninety minutes each, where authors, journalists, and activists from all over the world expound in their areas of expertise. Since there are three venues and three different sessions going simultaneously at all times, I can only physically attend six per day.

I feverishly waited for weeks for the Festival Program Book to be available. When at last I held it in my sweaty little hands, I pored over the events, agonizing that I couldn’t be in three places at once.

One description, in particular, grabbed me. Who would not want to hear from an Indonesian woman who is high in government in a fiercely patriarchal society and is sinking boats? She must be really something, I thought.

Susi Pudjiastuti is not merely something, she’s something else, and she’s doing everything that her position in government allows to protect the ocean for the people of Indonesia. “The blue of the sea is my medicine,” she said, and I listened, mesmerized, as she told how boats disguised as fishing vessels were engaging in trans-national organized crime. Not only were they depleting the supply of fish available to local fishermen they were also trafficking humans for commercial exploitation and transporting illegal drugs.

But Susi had a plan: Terrify them. She also had a flair for drama. At this point in the interview, laughter erupted and I may have missed or misinterpreted what was said. But I swear Susi indicated that she staged explosions at sea and made certain they were captured on social media. It sent a stern warning: Don’t mess with us!

She wasn’t kidding. Illegal ships were apprehended, evacuated, emptied of fuel, swept clean of environmental hazards, and blown up. No lives were lost but boats were sunk – 87 of them in 2017. Now the waters surrounding Indonesia are fished by Indonesians only. Her methods may have been unorthodox, but they were effective.

Susi didn’t finish high school but her message to the women of Indonesia is clear: “Education gives you access to opportunity and women in business actually do better than men.” When asked about her nicotine habit and tatts she didn’t miss a beat. “None of that matters,” she said. “It’s time to change stereotypes. The most important measure of success is a good job done.”

What a way to kick off the 2018 Festival. The sessions that followed Susi’s were equally phenomenal. The Ubud Writers’ Festival is like drinking from a gushing fire hydrant. It’s enough intellectual stimulation in four days to keep me satiated until the same time next year. I can’t wait for tomorrow!

Wisdom from Never-Never Land

 

In that groggy place suspended between dreams, I often get my clearest insights. Inspiration lurks there and I have to be quick to capture it before it dissolves into the murky shadows of Never-Never Land.

It’s fortunate on such mornings that I live alone. When I leap out of bed, throw covers on the floor, dash across the room, stub my toe, hobble to the table, scrabble among the papers for a pen, and write furiously without being able to see the words because it’s still that dark, anyone watching would have to laugh…I have to laugh!

Sometimes I return to my cozy nest and immediately fall back to sleep. When I awake again an hour or so later, I have no memory of my pre-dawn brilliance, throbbing toe aside, until I sit down with my first cup of coffee and see the scribbled note.

That’s what happened this morning.

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When I looked at what I’d written, the concept my subconscious mind had been chewing on all by itself with no help (or hindrance) from me came back in a flash. The more I considered it, the more it made sense. Here’s the gist.

1 – 20 Lost.     From birth to around twenty years old, we’re not our own. The adults in our lives make the plans. They mold us, scold us, and hopefully we arrive at adulthood fairly unscathed. Those years are lost in the sense that we don’t control them.

20 – 60 Learning.     I’d like to say that we have things pretty well figured out by age forty or so. But I didn’t. I was still repeating the same stupid mistakes I’d made in my 20’s and 30’s. They wore different clothes and had new faces but underneath those choices were driven by the damaged sense of self that hadn’t changed since childhood. Damaged or not, our child-rearing, career-building years are spent learning.

60 – ?  Living.     There should be another category tucked between 50 and 60 called Transforming. It’s a time of reckoning. The kids have gone on to start their own learning years. The nest is empty. If we’re still married there’s nothing to distract us from our mate any longer. It’s just the two of us trying to remember why.

And we change. It’s impossible not to. But is it conscious change or unconscious? If we’re aware of the growth opportunity and work with it, we’ll advance into our sixties wiser, making good decisions for ourselves and modeling positive aging for others. If the change is unconscious we may go to the grave still making the same mistakes.

The morning insights could have stopped there.

But my subconscious has a mind of its own and it likes to do math. (This is definitely not me.) What it came up with was so simple and obvious I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of it myself.

Bear with me now. We’re going to throw away years 1 – 20, we had no control over them anyway. From 20 – 60, then, are forty years of self-management, probably much of it spent meeting expectations, shouldering responsibilities, keeping the nose to the grindstone, the pedal to the metal, with a two-week vacation thrown in now and then to maintain sanity.

But consider this: our life expectancy in North America is around eighty years. Think about all that happened between ages 20 to 40, then from 40 to 60. Now we have another 60 to 80 ahead, one-third of our adult life yet to be lived. My mother at 90, still works out five days a week, beats the pants off the others at Bingo, and pretty much rules the roost in her assisted living facility. So where am I going with this?

Don’t waste the Living years.

What did you always wish you could do but never did? Make a plan and do it. Have you neglected exercise and proper diet? Start now to implement healthy habits. Does the cost of living where you are prohibit retirement? Move. I did, and it was the best decision I ever made. Did you fail to finish your degree? Check out your state’s Statutes. In Minnesota senior citizens can attend college tuition free. Maybe your state has a similar ruling.

Live like dying isn’t an option.

It’s not denial, it’s grabbing hold of the greatest gift we’ve ever been given, life, and running with it…wee wee wee, all the way home.

 

 

 

 

 

Ignorance Is Not Bliss

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I didn’t cry right away.

My expectations for the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival 2017 were low. It would be my sixth year attending this epic literary event in the town in Bali where I live. Perhaps it was due to the volatile shaking of Mt. Agung threatening to erupt just fifteen miles away. Perhaps it was because my friend and fellow writer, Carol died two months ago. Her wry humor and cynical critiques wouldn’t be part of my Festival experience this year. Whatever the reason, I approached the first day’s events with little more than casual interest.

As always happens, two minutes into the program I was hooked. An Indonesian woman, Nh. Dini, now in her 80’s, but with more attitude and spunk than anyone half her age, traced her colorful life from flight attendant to environmentalist to her courageous and ongoing battle against gender discrimination. When told that her bold opinions might get her arrested, she shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t care,” she said.

Ms. Dini was followed by anthropologist, Nigel Barley, who mixed fact and fantasy to write, Snow Over Surabaya, a historical novel about Surabaya Sue, best remembered for her work as a radio broadcaster for the Indonesian Republic during the struggle for independence. Sue was somewhat of an embarrassment to the Indonesians, it seems, with her love of attention and her unorthodox lifestyle.

The discussions had me entranced, but not tearful.

After Nigel, a panel of expatriate authors pondered how we relate to the places we leave behind when we relocate and re-imagine our lives. Their thought-provoking questions echoed my own as they talked about the widening gaps in frame of reference the longer we’re away from our places of origin.

It was approaching 1:00 p.m. Although still dry-eyed, my stomach growled ominously. A break for lunch does not exist at the Festival, but the food court wafted mouth-watering aromas across a section of parking lot where tables topped with red and white checked cloths waited for the catch-when-catch-can, hungry crowd.

These food vendors knew how to entice. Their exotic dishes rendered to perfection sat on display. I drooled over them all and finally pounced on terong ayam, a spicy dish of chopped chilies (lots and lots of chopped chilies) with bits of chicken and other vegetables. At another booth I added a springroll with tamarind sauce and stuffed tofu, then grabbed a latte to make sure I stayed alert for what was still ahead.

Tummy full and happy, I rushed to the next venue and settled in for charismatic Robert Dessaix as he bantered with the moderator over The Pleasures of Leisure, his devilishly humorous take on a stressed-out, overworked world. He asked us to consider how taking leisure seriously could give us back our freedom and deepen our experience as humans. I thought of my daughters, the toll of working too long, too hard, and their complaint that there’s not enough time to create the kind of lives they really want. I thought of myself doing the same until age 62 when I finally quit the rat-race and embraced my current life of focused idleness.

Over four days, I attended nineteen panels, two book launches, and one documentary film. The experience of this Festival, as one friend put it, is like gulping intellectual stimulation from a fire hose. Concerns from every corner of the globe, political, environmental, ethical, social, literary, journalistic and more, are raised, debated, and explored by the people who are living the issues.

For the first three days I was entertained, shocked, and enlightened. But day four infused me with agitated inspiration. Each presenter was more passionate about their work, and more driven to make positive change than the one before.

And then Nila Tanzil took the mic. The tears began. I can’t even write this without crying.

A forty-something fire-ball, Nila looked seventeen. Her corporate career was humming along, propelling her to the top of her game when she heard a statistic: her country of Indonesia had the second lowest literacy rate in the world. She was horrified.

The fact that Indonesia consists of 17,000 islands, and villagers in remote areas have limited electricity, or none, and no running water, suggests that education and books are not uppermost in their minds. Nila went to those villages and asked children what they wanted to be when they grew up. They had two answers: teacher, and priest. Those were the only occupations besides farmer or fisherman that existed for them.

Determined to make a difference, Nila personally funded a library in one of those remote areas. She was told by the villagers that they wouldn’t go into official buildings. They felt they had to bathe, put on their best clothes, and wear shoes to enter such important places. Adding a library to a school wasn’t the answer either. Schools were often a distance away and school libraries usually consisted of textbooks. They were synonymous with pekerja rumah, aka homework; not where kids tended to hang out.

Nila wanted books to be accessible after school, on weekends, whenever children had time to read. She approached individuals in the village and gained their cooperation. Her first libraries occupied a corner of someone’s home or shop and contained about 200 books. Every few months the books were rotated providing a fresh supply of reading material.

At some point she quit her corporate job and formed Taman Bacaan Pelangi (Rainbow Reading Garden) a non-profit that has, to date, established 63 libraries on 15 islands in Eastern Indonesia with more on the way.

I’d just sat through hours of talks about things that won’t change in Indonesia, or the world, unless people change. And people won’t change unless they have knowledge. Knowledge is obtained by access to information through reading, yet vast areas of the country still have no books.

What Nila is doing will alter the face of Indonesia. It may not be this year, or next year, but it will happen. The need for more books, and more libraries, in more villages is beyond imagining.

I found Nila afterwards, thanked her, and told her I wasn’t a professional fund raiser and I wasn’t rich, but what she was doing resonated deeply in me and I wanted to help.

This blog post is my first step. Below are links to the Taman Bacaan Pelangi website, Nila’s TED Talk, and her personal website. There are clips to watch of the kids she’s helping. Her voluntourism company, TravelSparks, invites travelers to spend a bit of their vacation volunteering at one or more of the libraries. She’ll arrange everything.

You can’t come to Indonesia without feeling something. For me, it was love at first sight. But the problems are glaring and the elite have intentionally kept the masses uneducated. I believe that time is ending because people like Nila see a different future. I’m crying again.

Take a look at the links. If you feel inspired to contribute something, a bookshelf, books, cash, please DO IT. I’ve never felt compelled to help like this before and I hope to learn how to do it better. But for now, thank you for reading.

NILA’S FESTIVAL VIDEO     (Yes, I cried through this, too!)

WEBSITE

TED TALK

NILA TANZIL

DONATE

Mt. Agung – You’re not in Kansas anymore!

 

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I grew up with prairies, forests, and the sky-blue lakes of northern Minnesota. The earth under my feet didn’t move. Ski hills were hills. They didn’t erupt. My nervous system calibrated to this solid certainty and made assumptions.

I’d heard of The Ring of Fire – first when the scratchy voice of Johnny Cash made the song popular – and later when the Science Museum in St. Paul brought the reality of volcanoes and earthquakes to the tundra.

The IMAX film produced by the museum introduced a different world. I watched mountains spewing fire, their molten guts dribbling down like icing on a cake. I remember the shiver of terror and the thought that followed: why would anyone live there? And yet, fascination gripped me. For weeks afterwards I felt a bit off-kilter and walked around humming, “I fell into a burning ring of fire,” under my breath.

Fate takes interesting twists. Was that day a foreshadowing of things to come? Now I live in Indonesia. This nation has the most volcanoes and earthquakes of any other place in the world. I’ve transplanted my Midwestern beliefs about solid ground to a country that shivers and belches daily. What was I thinking?

For the past week, Mt. Agung, 25 miles from my home in Ubud, has been threatening to blow. There’s a side of me that has gone untested until now. I’ve never faced a looming natural disaster. Ever. In northern Minnesota the worst we had were blizzards. Roads closed, 4 – 10 foot snowdrifts piled up, and school was cancelled. Yippeee!

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Waiting on Mt. Agung is different energy. With every tremor, adrenalin floods my system. I have caffeine jitters though I haven’t touched coffee for months. And there’s an overwhelming helplessness that triggers people in different ways. Some get angry. Some rush out to stock up on food, water, flashlights. Some spring into action organizing shelters, collecting donations, working round the clock. Some cry.

I haven’t gotten angry, and I haven’t cried. But I’ve worried, and I’ve haunted the news channels as well as Twitter, Facebook, and the Indonesian government sites that dole out information in careful bites. Through it all, I’ve realized how little I’ve changed. Something in me needs to know, needs to suss out every factoid and warning. In the U.S. we get used to 24/7 reporting when disaster strikes. We expect to be fed a non-stop diet of fear and distress as stories repeat and images burn their indelible imprints on our retinas.

There’s a better way – I’m sure of it – a kinder way. Somewhere between getting ready, and having done everything I can do, there must be a quiet place in the mind to go and wait. There must be an off switch that allows silence from the clamoring voices and peace in the midst of uncertainty. In the interest of self-preservation, I’m determined to get there. The well-being of my Midwestern nervous system depends on it!

 

 

Naughty Nuri’s: Anyone for a Body Scrub and Cleanse?

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Naughty Nuri’s is well-known in Ubud for its barbecued pork ribs. Always packed, most people who eat in this popular restaurant are not part of Ubud’s thriving spiritual community. Those folks go to the organic, vegan, and raw food places where to even whisper pork is anathema!

I gave up most meat long ago so I’d never been to Nuri’s. But after living in Indonesia for five years and eating fruit, veggies, rice, tofu, tempe, and not much else, about two months ago I began to crave nachos.

I coerced my partner in crime and chief confidante into weekly walks to Devilicious, a street-side eatery near her house where they make a few Mexican dishes. Nachos is one of them. An ice cold beer with a heaping plate of crisp, cheese-and-jalepeno covered tortilla chips became a weekly ritual, until last Sunday. We approached the sign with a red devil caricature boldly displayed and my heart sank. Devilicious was closed.

There’s nothing worse than having your taste buds set for a certain flavor and being denied that pleasure. We stood outside the empty café and I was less than cavalier. “I want nachos. Where can we get nachos?” I’m sure my whine was about as pleasant as a spoiled 5-year-old’s.

Without missing a beat my friend said, “Nacho Mama’s has them.”

“Nacho Mama’s? Why haven’t you mentioned this place before? Where is it?” As it turned out it was just a few blocks the opposite direction so we set off, saliva flooding my mouth.

I smelled barbecue long before we arrived at the entrance to Naughty Nuri’s and my friend stopped there.

“This isn’t Nacho Mama’s, it’s Naughty Nuri’s. They sell ribs, not nachos. Look at the sign.” Had she lost her mind? She knows I’m a closet vegetarian and although I may not be the brightest bulb, I can read!

“Relax already. This is the place. It used to be called Nacho Mama’s. They serve nachos, don’t worry.”

Skeptical, I followed her inside looking for an empty table. There were none but a lone man occupied a spot with seating for 8 so we parked ourselves at the far end. We’d been there a few minutes when a group got up and vacated a nearby booth. We grabbed it. The table was loaded with platters of gnawed rib bones and bowls still full of Nuri’s special sauce.

One of the wait staff began to bus the table. My accomplice and I were deep in conversation when the tray the girl had just loaded crashed to the floor. Something globby and wet splattered my hair, my face, arms, legs, and my favorite cream-colored skirt. A spoon still dripping with the stuff lodged under my thigh. Dazed, I saw that my entire right side was plastered with rich, red, oily, lumpy blobs of barbecue sauce.

For a split-second there was silence. Nobody breathed. In the next instant, the entire Nuri’s staff rushed to my aid. One dabbed my hair, another scrubbed at my clothes, grinding the stains deeper into the fabric. The skin on my face where barbecue had landed, burned from the chilies abundant in Nuri’s special recipe. No matter how they tried to swab me down with paper napkins the situation worsened.

Perhaps it was Isnuri herself, the Indonesian wife of the American owner, who finally took charge and hauled me to the sink at the rear of the restaurant still in plain view of all the diners. Scrubbing commenced in earnest. She grabbed my skirt, hoisted it high and pulled it into the sink so she could hose off the mess (which, by the way, is the consistency of chunky salsa but stickier.) How much of my white leg and Victoria’s Secrets were exposed I’m not sure. It was about then that I decided to take the matter into my own hands and shooed the hovering attendants away.

At some point in my energetic scouring, a flash of movement caught my eye. Off to one side, a Japanese man stood mopping at his cream trousers. I looked at him, he looked at me, and I recognized him as the person who had been sitting with his back to me in the next booth. Not a word passed between us but we simultaneously broke into uproarious laughter. It was the first time I’d realized that I wasn’t the only star in this drama!

When I returned to our table, soaking wet from hair to sandal on my right side, the surroundings would suggest that nothing untoward had occurred there. All was wiped clean. We ordered nachos and beer and rehashed the blow-by-blow account of what had just happened. The food came followed by the bill. My meal hadn’t been charged.

Out on the sidewalk I said goodbye to my friend. Before leaving we agreed that Devilicious still makes the best nachos in Ubud but Nuri’s can’t be beat for barbecue sauce! I walked home in the 88 degree heat, damp and comfortable in my ruined clothing.

After treating the skirt and blouse with Balinese bleach paste and soaking everything for several hours, miraculously the stains came out. Those areas are a little whiter than the rest but I can still wear the outfit. When I do, it will remind me that anything can happen on a beautiful Bali Sunday afternoon nacho run!

The Crabby Old Lady Syndrome

Mild panic grips me when children visit. My house isn’t fragile, but little ones have a way of ferreting out exactly what I don’t want them to find and desiring it. If parents hesitate to say no, I’m left in the awkward position of either allowing the treasure to be handled or becoming The Crabby Old Lady.

Don’t get me wrong, I have colored markers and reams of paper. When my girls were little those would have kept them enthralled for hours. There’s also a covered cup with dice inside that can be rattled, or opened to explore the contents. Dice. Right. That’s about the extent of my toy collection. Balls roll off the edge of my living room and drop two floors to the garden. Can’t have balls. Everything requires storage space. There’s not an extra inch of that.

Dad always said, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” So when Ketut and Komang brought three-year-old Nengah to visit me yesterday, it was time for creativity overdrive. I remembered a collection of empty yogurt containers that substitute for the non-existent Tupperware here. My guests watched with curiosity while I assembled the bottoms with the matching tops and stacked them, one by one, higher and higher. In less than a nanosecond we were embroiled in a wild game of build the tower and knock it down. Everyone within miles heard Nengah’s shrieks…and mine!

I don’t remember when I’ve had so much fun. Later, alone in the happy aftermath, I waxed reflective. It struck me as ironic how the richness of life seems to multiply with simplicity. True happiness requires so little.

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