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Bali hoorah: east meets westward-ho in the American Purgatorio of Ubud


Coming from the hell of East Timor, Bali is heaven. All the requisite clichés apply .... Balinese have perfected the art of living. And here we are.

American Purgatorio by John Haskell

Back in Timor, i delved into Dante's Hell some. I have a dual-language version that i read in Italy a few years ago .. but i was so focused on the language that i wasn't processing the content much. So now i'm just reading mostly the english (right) side (having given up on the somewhat archaic italian on the left). Perhaps i'll get to Dante more in the next post, but for now, waiting at Dili airport & on the plane here i read most of American Purgatorio by John Haskell .. which not only sort of steals its title from Dante, but each of the seven chapter headings is taken from Dante's Seven Deadly Sins.

rainy mopeds

riding thru Denpasar

American Purgatorio doesn't have a whole lot to do with this part of the world, but i figured it was appropriate for our impending repatriation back to the states .... this Bali trip being our last hoorah before facing the island of Manhattan in the depths of winter.

rooster baskets

basket-cased roosters waiting at a bus stop

Indonesia is the land of islands .... there's some 10 or 15 thousand of them .. depending on the definition of 'island' & who's counting. (Also see, the Croatian definition of island). Since 2002, this count is half an island less .. after Indonesia pulled out of the east half of Timor in a 'a large-scale, scorched-earth campaign of retribution,' as i mentioned before. The general impression, asking Balinese people about Timorese, is that they are a bunch of spoiled babies that Indonesia was trying to help before the Timorese cried to the UN for help. One man (who was selling Timorese folk arts in his store) told us that all Timorese do is drink & fight. In this sense, i feel a bit conflicted being here (as i typically tend to side with the underdogs or non-aggressors). But here we are.

ubud temple

one of thousands of temples

But Bali is a sort of exception (& thus you'd think they'd be able to relate to Timor's situation) .... being a Hindu island in an enclave of mostly Muslim islands. And Indonesia is complex .. it's never black & white, but 10,000+ shades of gray (some of which i experienced on a 2-month trip in the early 90s, when i traveled the length of the archipelago, from Timor to northern Sumatra, by land & sea .. perhaps one day i will transcribe those hand-written journals & scan the photos for 5cense, if anything for comparison). These islands are (or were) bubbles, each with a unique culture. Haskell talks about people or cliques of people as bubbles, but i don't have the book with me anymore (i left it in the hotel book swap for someone else to read) to find the passage.

lotus flower

lotus flower

The comparison between then (1990) & now (Dec 22, 2012)(a day after the apocalypse!) is night & day. I hardly recognize anything, at least here in Ubud. I mean, the women weren't walking topless in 1990 (except for a few old die-hards with saggy breasts), but Ubud was just a one-street town with a few guests houses. Now it's a proper city with lots of traffic & all the ugly annoyances of tourism. But i'm not going to make this a lamenting 'the way things used to be' post .... though a prevailing thread in Haskell's book is the disconnect between the way you want or expect the world to be versus how things actually turn out .. & the inner-peace you must obtain to accept things as they are .. not to get all new-agey, but i am in Ubud after all, which is like the Sedona of SE Asia.

rotten jackfruit

rotting jackfruit

In American Purgatorio, the narrator Jack (who not only is the narrator in at least one of his other novels (which i blogged about here), but the few emails i've exchanged with John Haskell he signs 'Jack') walks into a convenience stores on the Palisades just on the other side of the GW bridge (near to where we will soon be living) to buy some sundries for him & his wife. When he comes back out his wife is missing .... so begins the odyssey, leading the narrator across the country from Brooklyn to San Diego .. a strangely out of sync odyssey fueled by denial .. denial of what really happened to his wife .. denial that his reality is out of whack from the world. A lot of his (superficial) issues stem from a car he buys (to drive across America in search of his wife who left behind a map with certain cities circles for reasons he knows not why)(& in this sense, the book draws parallels to Zen & The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance). The first thing that happens when he drives the car away is that the steering goes out of whack.

choking lizard

boy choking a monitor lizard he found in his garden (what he called a crocodile)

My first car was a 67 Mustang that had a series of such issues, including increasingly wonky steering .. until the steering column completely snapped while i was driving on a windy road in the foothills above Palo Alto & fortunately rather than drive off a cliff (which there were many of on this road), the car went off the road & up an embankment. I walked out of & away from the car & didn't even ponder the situation or look back .. i just kept walking for miles & miles all the way home & called a towing company & told them to tow it to the 'Mustang glue factory' (that bought wrecked mustangs for parts) .... the same destiny of Haskell's car, after he drives it most of the way across the U.S. I didn't care about the car, i just felt luck to be alive.


janky Ganesha

There's this whole nother layer lurking beneath the surface of things, when you look through Haskell's eyes. Jack moves along this boundary often stuck in the moment .. other times cognizant of his denial.

«That's not right. It was all happening. I just wasn't seeing it.»

styrofoam statue

If you get wrapped up in controlling the outcome of a situation, then you can fail to see this other layer, to pop the bubble. This, after Jack wins a bunch of money playing poker & just leaves it on the table:

«I knew it didn't always happen like this, but if a person pays attention, sometimes the underlying logic of the world is revealed, sometimes there's a convergence of desire and actuality, and because it comes in waves, it's possible to ride those waves.»

rooster temple

Convergence of desire & actuality .. this book comes at a good time, at a fortunate time of such wave-riding .. everything just seems to be falling into place without any hassles or struggles. We've been able to do all this travel & when we get back to NYC everything is set in regards to getting an apartment, etc.

spent offerings

spent offerings

I had a job interview one morning at 6 am (5 pm NYC time), on skype that barely worked. It was really weird & garbled & even though i could barely hear what they were saying, i understood enough to trigger memories of what bullshit it is working in corporate America .... but i have that luxury to pass on these bullshit opportunities, whereas before i've had to take jobs i'd rather not do. What more can you ask for of life? I say this, from the paradise of Bali. But like Haskell, you shouldn't let it affect your approach to things. Things can suddenly change & your happiness shouldn't be dependent on whether things are going your way or not. Either way, just go with the flow, take it as it comes. 'Adjust to circumstances,' is i think how Haskell puts it .. what Jack is good at (both in reality & in writing).

hindu jank

Ubud in ruins

This detached nonchalance is also reflected in Haskell's writing .. it comes very naturally & unforced. Which is not to say it's linear or has a clear plot .. at times it is random or Jack finds himself in absurd situations, but he reacts naturally, and in the scheme of the narrative it somehow feels logical, like life .. everything in its right place. Which is not to say the narrator is reliable .. far from it:

«I thought I was cleaning, and wanted to be cleaning, but I was just standing there the whole time, slightly off to the side, watching her. I thought I was holding a sponge, but when I look at my hand nothing's there. I thought I was making some progress. I thought I was feeling connected to the world but instead of connected, I'm disconnected. And in the middle of that disconnection I seem hardly to exist.»

ubud roadside

This lucidity in detachment is a theme common to virtually all Haskell's work. As Ben Marcus said (before Haskell even wrote American Purgatorio): «Haskell is expert at clarifying the moments when his characters feel estranged from themselves.» It's like Haskell is some sort of zen master, always once removed, ever taking a step back .. & reading him causes us to take a step back & see things in a different light .. to walk in Haskell's shoes.

«The outlines are sharp but the things themselves—the palm tree growing in the grass, the oil stains in the street, the sound of a motorcycle—all the things in the world are separate from me. Separate, and also the same. There's a certain pleasure in standing there, seeing the world in front of me, and not constantly wanting something from it all the time.»

heron banana

in the Petulu Gunung heron colony

Haskell is bi-coastal in spirit (both Jack & what i know of John, hanging out with him in Rome & Brooklyn). He seems equally comfortable on either coast. In American Purgatorio, Jack starts off in Brooklyn & ends up in southern California .. vagabonding through the interior of America in the process. He doesn't turn his nose at the grittiness of NYC, but doesn't sneer at all the over-the-top new-agey-ness in the west. Some of the situations he finds himself in (i.e., in a yurt getting a foot massage-cum-hand job from some hippie guy whose girlfriend (named Feather .. the object of his desire) is in the same yurt .. or maybe it was a VW bus) are hilarious & revealing only because he doesn't resist. This east-west duality of America is in reverse to the east-west duality in a global sense (perhaps why America is flipped upside-down on the cover of the book). Haskell purges himself by moving east to west (within America), while others (hippie types, bohemians) traditionally purged/sought enlightenment in traveling globally from the west to east (like to Bali, where i write this from).


This over-arching theme of the west is also interesting (to me) in relation to the book i'm working on, West of Kingdom Come (that starts at the end of the road on the west-most reaches of the left coast):

«Like a bloodhound with the scent of some discarded scrap of clothing I kept my concentration on the road, connecting myself to the road as if by a mental thread, and I was following that thread forward, which in this case was westward. "Westward-ho," I said under my breath, and them again out loud, "Westward-ho!"»

frangipani statues

And in relation to my recent post about visual ethnography, Haskell also says some interesting things about photography as a means to frame/control an event:

«The camera is recording what's happening, but it's the photographer's eye that places it into memory. And maybe it's memory I want because when Geoff sets the camera on the table I reach out.»

In the end (as in the beginning .. & all along the way), not even language can save us. Or language is at the root of such detachment. To cope, you need to picture yourself immersed in an isolation chamber embedded in the landscape of the world .. you have to get into this space. You don't even need to try, you already are in this space .. you just have to accept it.

«It doesn't happen like that. "Accepting" is a word in a dictionary and what happens isn't a word, just like clouds aren't words, or the man driving by with his arms out the window isn't a word. But they happen. They all happen and then they're gone. Clouds, people, buildings, laughter, darkness. It all happens and then it's gone.»

discarded hindu props

discarded Hindu props

Anyway. That's how American Purgatorio made me feel in the context of going from Timor to Bali. Just being in Bali gives you a certain sense of balance .. there's this balance of ecosystem that trickles down to its inhabitants & tourists even .. an ecosystem predicated on rice .. whose fields form the topographic contours of the island (pictures & continued commentary of which will have to wait for the next post ....). Though with the influx of people (not just tourists, but someone told us a million Javanese now live here) & cars this balance is being thrown out of whack. We went for a few long walks, but it is not something i would recommend in Ubud .. the roads are narrow & chocked with cars & mopeds & the roadsides are lined with houses & galleries & shops so that you can scarcely get 'off the beaten path'. Gone are the days (in Ubud at least) when you can just rent a bike & cruise around in the rice paddies on dirt roads with ducks trailing after you. One day we walked north up through the Petulu Gunung heron colony. Another day we went on like a 10 mile walk on the  east side, stopping at the Neka museum, which was strangely nostalgic as i remember seeing, at least some of the art from it, back in 1990.

wayan sika neka

Kintamani by Wayan Sika (1995) in Neka gallery


dude boobs

unknown artist, Neka gallery


abdul Aziz

Legong dancers by Abdul Aziz, oil on canvas (1983)

One night we saw a dance performance of Legong & Barong .... which i also remember seeing 20 years ago. But back then the Legong dancer was barely pubescent (once they are women they are not supposed to perform the dance) & her movements were very slow & subtle. Now the Legong dancer was an older women who was just going through the motions for the tourists, in forced, fast, exaggerated moves. But still spectacular to behold.


legong dance





After the Legong was the Barong dance, also dumbed down for tourists (but what do you expect .. being tourists as we are).


barong monkey




gamelan flank

Walked to the monkey forest another day. When i went back in 1990, i remembered riding a bike a few clicks out of town on a dirt road. Now the sprawl of Ubud encroaches on the monkey forest & the paths in the monkey temple are paved.

monkey elephant

monkey on elephant


monkey forest

in the monkey forest


monkey shoulder

sneaky monkey behind me trying to climb up on my shoulder (see also my Krabi, Thailand post)

Another night we saw a puppet show (wayang gulick, not to be confused with Wolfgang Gülich). Little known fact about me .. i played in a gamelan orchestra for a few years when i lived in Santa Cruz (and also did kecak) .. one of the things that motivated my first trip to Indonesia straight out of college .. to see what kind of country would produce such spectacular music. While i was playing in this gamelan troupe, we played for a few puppet shows in California, with puppet masters visiting from Indonesia. So while i'd seen a few puppet shows from behind the scenes, i'd never really seen one live from the front (aside from the musical breaks where we'd sneak up & look from the other side). So it was cool to see this one in Bali (though again, it was a tourist sort of thing).


shadow stage

wayang gulick


shadow puppet


behind the scenes

the wizard behind the screen


wayang behind

behind the scenes (with flash)


 >> next: Purging Paradiso & evil spirits in the underworld of Bali

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