Next Stop, Australia

Dear Jan:

The last couple of weeks have been non-stop — many short trips mixed in with preparations for our departure from Bali. We are all leaving at different times for different destinations. Alec and I head off for Australia in less than a week, next, William returns to Boulder in mid-July, and finally Maya flies to New York to meet me in August for a college road trip. Whew! And meanwhile, we will be moving into a new home in Boulder and getting Alec started in a new school. Ambitious or crazy? You decide.

The next chapter for me and Alec promises to be an adventure: we will land first in Darwin and depart immediately for a three-day camping tour of Kakadu and Litchfield National Parks, famous for their natural beauty and aboriginal rock art. Next, we fly to Cairns and head to the outer regions of the Great Barrier Reef on a live-aboard dive boat. Alec will get to do 11 dives in 3 days and I will get to snorkel to my heart’s delight. Finally, we’ll head to Brisbane to visit my cousin Alan and his family. Alan works in a marine laboratory studying some of the sea creatures Alec is most enthusiastic about, so it is a great opportunity for Alec to learn more about one of his passions.

While we are in Australia, Maya will be studying Balinese dance in a summer program in Ubud. The program, called Cudamani, is sponsored by UCLA and has on its faculty some of Bali’s most respected dancers and choreographers. William definitely gets the short end of the stick in all of this; he has to go right back to work when he gets back to Boulder in mid-July. He does, however, have a work trip to China scheduled for early July that he is looking forward to.

I am in Jakarta right now, and am overwhelmed by how much this city has changed since I lived here as a child. Back then, Jakarta was a city of a few million, easy to get around, filled with colorful becak, relaxed and friendly. Today, the city has ballooned to nearly 15 million — it is really a “mega-city” — and it contains all the ills of overcrowding and unbridled growth. The skies are so polluted that the sun is just a watery disk obscured by an ever-present brown haze. The traffic is so bad that one can spend an hour reaching a destination just a few kilometers away. Sometimes the gridlock is so severe that traffic simply comes to a standstill.

It is hard for me to imagine dealing with these conditions on a daily basis, yet the city is still a vibrant place — the streets are filled with constant activity, a huge beehive of transactions and interactions. This is a place of dreams and striving and rampant materialism, where extreme poverty coexists with glittering skyscrapers and designer shopping malls.

Yesterday, I went in search of my old home in an area called Kebayoran Baru. As a child, this neighborhood was essentially a sleepy suburb; today it is completely urban and constitutes a central area of the ever-expanding city. As we neared my old address, I could make out a few familiar sights, but mostly what greeted me was unrecognizable. When we reached the place, a tall row of shops stood where my house had once been. Feeling dispirited, I sought out another familiar landmark, a shopping district close to my old house called Blok M. Now dominated by a large mall, I was nonetheless happy to see that many of the old shops and stalls still clung to the perimeter. Jakarta is a crazy patchwork of the old and new, the modern and dilapidated, the spectacular and grotesque. Last night, we ate in a tiny, open-air food stall, down amidst the anthill of everyday street life. This is the Jakarta I know and remember, and am glad to have reconnected with it.

Later today, I head back to Bali to do my last-minute packing and say my final goodbyes. I have mixed feelings about leaving; a part of me is ready to get home to Boulder, another part is not yet ready to let go of this time. One of the things I will miss is writing these letters and sharing my experiences with you. I probably won’t have time to write again for a while, but I will take lots of pictures of Australia and hopefully tell you all about that trip in the not-too-distant future. Until then, I am sending you and the family much love, Katherine

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Yogya Memories

Dear Jan:

Last week’s visit to Yogyakarta was a trip down memory lane. I think you already know this, but William and I lived in Yogya for a year in 1988. It was the year after we graduated from law school and the first year of our marriage. We shared a Collaborative Fulbright Fellowship and traveled all over the archipelago, conducting research on environmental law and dispute resolution. It was an amazing time, so full of adventures, rich experiences and real challenges.

We rented a small house in a farming village called Pogung Lor, just north of the city, off the road that leads to Mount Merapi. We had little electricity and no running water; we shared a well with our neighbors — an extended farming family — and learned a lot about village life in the process. Our only form of transport was our bicycles, which took us from home to office (at Gadjah Mada University) and all around Yogya.

Since arriving back in Indonesia this year, we have been trying to find the right time to get back to Yogya for a visit. The perfect opportunity presented itself at last in the form of an art exhibit by my friend and studio-mate, Sandy Infield. Her show had a 2-week run at a Yogya gallery, and we decided to go for the closing last weekend. We arrived in Yogya early Sunday morning and went directly in search of Pogung Lor and our old home.

We knew that things would have changed since the late 1980’s, but we were nonetheless disoriented when our cab pulled up in front of a suburban-looking neighborhood and the driver announced that we had arrived. The Pogung Lor we remembered was out in the rice paddies, full of cows, ducks and chickens. The roads were not paved and the homes were small. Our elderly neighbors to the north had lived in a rattan hut with a dirt floor.

Before us was an enclave of concrete homes, some with two stories and cars in the driveways. We got out and began wandering around, totally lost. There were literally no remnants of the old village to guide us. We began asking around for our old friends and neighbors, the Badjuri family. A few people remembered them but said they had moved away a long time ago.

It took us about half an hour and the help of a series of locals to finally pin down the location of our former home. And there it was, crowded in among other, newer houses, but essentially unchanged. Twenty three years ago, our home had been the newest and fanciest in the village; now it was among the oldest and most modest.

There was a flurry of activity about the place, even though it was still early Sunday morning. Young men were moving furniture, wielding mops and brooms, working industriously.  We approached them and explained that we had lived there almost a quarter century before. They were clearly dumb-founded. It turned out that the house had been converted to a kos, a kind of dormitory, in this case for students at nearby Gadjah Mada University (our old institution).

We learned that these young men had become friends during their first year of college and had rented this kos together. They were enrolled in various departments at UGM — math, engineering, medicine — and when they heard we were from the U.S., most of the group voiced their ambition to do graduate study in the States, “hopefully M.I.T.!”

We exchanged emails and chatted a bit, and then it was time for them to get back to their Sunday morning housekeeping, a weekly ritual. Here they are with William, still dazed by the idea that we lived in their home before they were even born:

We left Pogung Lor feeling exhilarated to have found it and our house still intact, if utterly changed. We headed south, into the city, where we were flooded with memories of our old life as we passed by places we used to frequent. We found our guest house, a sweet place arranged by Sandy, and from there ventured forth to some of our old haunts. Parts of the city felt relatively unchanged, especially the central market, Pasar Beringharjo.

Always one of our favorite stops in town, Beringharjo has functioned as a trading center since 1758. As in the past, we were transported by the sights and smells of its food market. Fom the bright, coconut sweets,

To the mounds of beautiful lychees,

To the astounding array of local snacks available for a few coins:

After touring the scrumptious possibilities, we entered the inner market in search of old batik. The bustling crowds were the same as ever:

We dove into the rabbit warren of tiny stalls that line the interior of Beringharjo, finally coming across the antique batik we sought. We spent a long time looking at old cloth, and finally struck a deal with these ladies for a number of pieces (it was only a half-hearted debate — our bargaining skills seem to have atrophied with time, age and disuse):

Leaving the market, we were enchanted to find this impromptu concert underway with a lithe and hypnotic dancer performing for the musicians and the crowd:

For transport around town, we chose becak; I was happy to see that Yogya was still filled with the old-fashioned pedi-cabs and that they were decorated with the same brightly painted motifs. Here are two examples:

After spending the day reacquainting ourselves with Yogya, we spent the evening at the closing party for Sandy’s exhibit. The show was held at the Sankring Art Space, an ultra-modern gallery with soaring angles. Here is a photo of the space taken during a previous exhibit:

Sandy’s work looked gorgeous, large batik paintings dancing across the spacious walls. Here are a few of the pieces that were on display:

And below are the words of the show’s curator, describing Sandy’s work:

The batik tradition (Sandy) admires is her point of departure in appreciating the psychological impact of nature’s patterns that are recorded and continuously re-created in batik. The unique techniques she has developed are her in-kind contribution for her lessons here, for they have opened up new possibilities of imagery and signification to the treasure trove of traditional batik symbolism.

The party itself was a delight, peopled by an interesting array of artists and art lovers. There was good food and wine and a band of local music students playing traditional Javanese music with an avant garde twist.

At the party, we met Nia Fliam and Agus Ismoyo, a pair of batik artists who have been working collaboratively since 1985. Nia is from Denver, Ismoyo from Yogya and together they have created a unique multi-cultural approach to batik that has brought them international acclaim. They specialize in intricate, time-intensive contemporary pieces that have been shown in galleries and Biennales around the world. Here are a few details from their rich, multi-layered batik pieces:

The highlight of the next day was visiting Nia and Ismoyo’s gallery, named Brahma Tirta Sari (translation: “Creativity is the Source of all Knowledge”). During our visit, we learned that Nia and Ismoyo have conducted a long-term collaboration with Aboriginal women artists. Here is a gorgeous piece that arose out of this cooperative effort:

From the gallery we headed almost directly to the airport and were back in Bali in time for bed. It was an intense,art-and-memory-filled visit — a long-overdue return to a place that will always hold special meaning for us.

Now, I am just a little more than two weeks out from leaving Bali. Our departure is starting to feel real as we pack boxes and make plans for our homeward journey. Before leaving, I still have another trip to East Java and a visit to Jakarta in the offing, and I’ll write at least one more time before I leave. Hoping this finds you well and enjoying the early days of summer — Love, Katherine

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East Java Jive

Dear Jan:

I’m just back from a quick trip to Malang, a city in East Java that is famous for its cool climate and beautiful surroundings. Sometimes called the “Paris of East Java,” Malang has long attracted Western visitors and still has many remnants of the Dutch colonial era. The actual regency of Malang was established in the 8th century under the rule of King Gajayana. It maintained its independence until 1614, when the city was incorporated into Mataram, then transferred to Dutch rule. Malang was transformed under the Dutch; wide boulevards were built, along with many residential, commercial and administrative buildings.

A stroll down the city’s streets can feel like a return to the Tempo Doeloe, the era when Indonesia was part of the Netherlands East Indies. During our walks around the city, we saw many European-style buildings like this one, named Bella Vista:

And this row of old shops:

And, of course, the inevitable windmill:

Malang’s modern twist on the old architecture is to paint it as brightly as possible, as with the city’s public library:

This library lies along the city’s grandest avenue, Jalan Ijen, which is lined with stately palms (that incongruously brought Los Angeles to mind):

As we wandered along this avenue, a group of university students approached us and asked us if we would pose for them with a Happy Birthday sign — they were planning to give the photo to a friend who was celebrating his birthday. We guessed that it was some kind of a popular novelty to capture foreigners on film — almost like reverse tourism. We agreed to pose on the condition that we could then take a photo of them:

A little further along on our walk, we discovered one of our favorite spots, Toko Oen, an Art Deco restaurant frozen in time:

Here is the interior, apparently unchanged since the 1930’s:

And one of the waiters, wearing the same white uniform and black peci hat as his long-ago predecessors:

Another relic from the past that endures in Malang is the becak. These pedicabs were once a primary form of transport in Indonesia’s major cities. When I was a child in Jakarta, I traveled everywhere by becak, bargaining fiercely for every ride. These days, there are no becak left in Jakarta, and it is hard to find them except in smaller cities like Malang. Here, they are still a popular way to get around:

Some becak double as heavy haulers of every imaginable type of load — this one is piled so high, you can hardly see the becak underneath:

All our explorations of the city made it clear that Malang is a place that proudly protects its heritage. It boasts Javanese traditional arts such as wayang kulit, the shadow puppet shows that entrance local audiences:

Another popular classical art is the Topeng dance drama in which one or more dancers wear masks and perform stories of ancient origin. Here is a display of old topeng from around Malang:

Our hotel, the Tugu, a beautiful complex full of antiques, really captured the feeling of Old Malang. Here is a grand hallway leading between two wings:

A beautiful old door in the spa area:

And the traditional spread of Javanese treats the hotel lays out every afternoon for high tea:

While we reveled in Malang’s past, we also came to learn that the city claims Sukarno — the founder of modern Indonesia, the leader of its independence movement and its first president — as a native son. Sukarno was born about an hour outside Malang, in Blitar, and is buried there as well. He always maintained a connection to his roots in East Java and the people of Malang feel a strong alliegance to him. Sukarno was a complex figure: extremely charismatic and a self-proclaimed “man of the people,” he could also be autocratic, willful and capricious. Despite his flaws, he is still revered in Malang, where homage is paid to him in a myriad of ways. Here is a photo montage we found in a local restaurant, of Sukarno giving a speech in Malang in 1953:

With the overthrow of the Dutch — engineered by a son of Malang — the seeds of a new nation were sown. Malang began to modernize and to grow as an urban center. Shanty towns sprang up along rivers and railroad tracks, and are still in evidence today:

Parts of contemporary Malang look like any other modern city, with all the trappings of global culture. McDonalds, KFC, and Dunkin Donuts are all well-entrenched. Alongside the fast food are sprawling malls:

And gritty street art:

But at its core, Malang remains a serene place with a slower pace and a gentler rhythm than most of Indonesia’s urban centers. It was a pleasure to spend a few carefree days there and to learn more about the eastern part of Java, a place I have passed through but never lingered in. A little off the beaten track, it is well worth a visit. I’ll write again soon and tell you about my next trip, a jaunt to Yogyakarta, in Central Java.

In the meantime, all the best to you and the family, Love, Katherine

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Ibu Made

Dear Jan:

In this letter, I want to tell you the story of Ibu Made, my beloved pembantu, a role that translates as “helper.” Made is far more than that — she is the major domo of this house. Sometimes I feel that it belongs to her more than me, as she was here before I came and will stay after I leave. She knows every nook and cranny, understands exactly what needs to be done, deals with merchants, pays bills, keeps accounts, etc. Not only that, she keeps the house spotless, our clothes clean and folded, and she makes sure that we are well-fed. All in all, she is the model cook/housekeeper. Far more than this, she is an amazingly strong and resilient person who I am lucky to have as a helpmeet and friend.

Made was born in Bali’s capital city, Denpasar, on Christmas Day, 1965. She was born into the lowest caste of Balinese society, a fact that, for her, has had important ramifications. The Balinese caste system is similar to that of India, except that there is no “untouchable” class. At the top of the system are the Brahmans, traditionally made up of priests and holy men, next is the Satria or warrior class, third, the Wesya or merchant class, and finally the Sudras, the peasants who make up more than 90% of the population.

Since the Dutch colonial years and more recently after Indonesian independence, the differences in the economic roles of the members of the caste system are slowly eroding, as the government prohibits treatment based on caste status. But socially and spiritually, the caste system remains influential. During religious ceremonies or village councils respect and special consideration are still expressed to the higher caste members (perhaps with an ironic smile on some Sudra faces). The Balinese language is divided in different levels of politeness: low Balinese, medium Balinese, high Balinese and sacred Balinese. A Sudra will usually address himself to a Satria, Brahman or Wesya in high Balinese, while the higher-caste member will answer in low Balinese to affirm his superiority.

For Made, her Sudra status became an issue when she chose to marry a man of a higher caste, but that is getting ahead of the story. Made is the eldest child in her family, with 3 younger siblings. Her father was a farmer who biked 10 kilometers a day to work in his fields at the edge of the city. Her mother sold produce in the local market, and Made helped out at home while attending school. All seemed well until Made was 10 years old and her mother suddenly disappeared. At first she didn’t know what had happened, but gradually she learned the truth: her mother had run away with another man, something hugely shameful and almost unheard of in Balinese society.

The abandonment of the family by her mother left 10-year-old Made squarely in charge of the household. As the eldest child, she was responsible for cooking, cleaning, laundry and child-care. She did have some help from her paternal grandmother, but she did the lion’s share of the work. And somehow, she managed to attend school through all of this. It is mind-numbing to think of the pressure and responsibility she had to bear during those years. She remembers with regret the “there was not time to play, to have fun, to be a child.”

As Made neared age 18 and realized she would be marrying and leaving home before long, she began to worry about what would become of her siblings, who still needed looking after. Made had learned that her mother had only stayed with her paramour for one year and had since been living with her older brother in Sanur. Made’s mother, had, in fact, made several attempts to reach out to Made over the years through family friends, but Made had always angrily rebuffed these efforts.

Despite her deep resentment, Made decided it was time to forgive and move on, so that her siblings might have their mother back. She went to her uncle’s home in Sanur to meet with her mother and to convince her to return home. Her mother resisted at first, feeling too ashamed, but eventually relented. Meanwhile, Made had been working on her father, urging him to take his wife back for the sake of his children. The reunion, fully engineered by Made, was extremely emotional for everyone involved. With time, the family adjusted to the disgraced mother’s return and the neighborhood also gradually accepted it.

Meanwhile, Made began working at a villa complex in Sanur and soon met Agus, a handsome young security guard from the Brahman class. They fell in love and decided to marry. The problem was their vast difference in caste status. Made’s family did not want the marriage because it would forever create a class difference between themselves and Made — upon marriage, Made would be elevated in caste and would no longer be able to directly participate in her parents’ cremation ceremonies. For Balinese parents, this constitutes an important loss. Meanwhile, Agus’ family was not keen on their high-caste son marrying a Sudra.

Made and Agus prevailed and were eventually married in a traditional ceremony in Agus’ home village:

With the marriage, Made had to give up her birth name, which was Wayan, meaning first-born. Because she was marrying into a higher caste, she could no longer have a name associated with being “first.” Thus, she was given the name Made (meaning second-born) as a sign of respect to her husband. This demotion was a sad harbinger of things to come. While the marriage started out happily enough, things quickly deteriorated. Agus began gambling and drinking and by the time their first daughter, Dede, was born a year later, he was working only intermittently. The family was getting by on Made’s small salary from a waitressing job. Worst of all, Agus had begun to beat Made when he came home drunk.

Made put up with this abusive situation because she felt she had no recourse. It is very difficult to divorce a man of higher caste, and even in cases where caste is not an issue, divorce presents impossible dilemmas for Balinese women. Women who leave their husbands lose their children, who stay with the father’s family, and oftentimes they are not accepted back into their family of origin. They are left in a no-man’s land that is untenable in Bali’s highly communal society. Feeling she had no alternative, Made continued to support the family, to raise Dede and to fend off Agus’ drunken rages.

As time went on, Agus developed a serious condition of hypertension, which caused him to gradually cut back on his drinking and gambling. Things improved enough that Made was willing to have another child with him and Alit, their second daughter, was born in 2002. Here is Alit, now 9, at the local temple with her mother:

While Made adores her two daughters, she worries that she has no sons. In Balinese society, it is the sons who care for the aging parents and take over responsibility for the family compound. She is concerned about Agus’ health and about how they will manage as they grow older. She pins her hopes on her girls and their husbands taking on some of what would be a son’s responsibility.

Dede, in fact, is already married and has two small daughters of her own. Here she is with her younger child:

Dede’s life illustrates some of the pitfalls inherent in the Balinese custom that requires brides to move in with their in-laws. Relations were initially good between Dede and her mother-in-law, and indeed the mother-in-law offered to pay the tuition for Dede’s teacher training. However, as time has gone by relations have become strained and now the mother-in-law has stopped making school payments. Dede is trying to get a loan to finish school, but this is difficult and she is wondering whether she will ever earn her degree.

At the same time, the soured relations with her in-laws makes her daily life complicated — they all live in the same compound and have to interact, but the atmosphere is tense. According to Made, this kind of situation is common and many young couples have to deal with such problems. Their freedom of choice is limited both culturally and financially, so they must stay in the family compound and endure the vagaries of family relations.

Made is philosophical about it all. She is a deeply religious woman who puts her faith in God and accepts what life brings. She does acknowledge that her own life has been unusually arduous, and puts this down to Karma — she shakes her head, wondering what acts in past lives have caused her current difficulties. What she is most fiercely determined about is that her children should have a better life than hers.

She grows tearful when she remembers her own youthful aspirations: she very much wanted to become a policewoman, but her family did not have the money to pay for her training. She says she will do whatever it takes to get Dede through school now that the parents-in-law have withdrawn their support. And she is very clear that Alit will not become a housekeeper like herself — she likes to think of Alit in college, perhaps training to become a nurse. These dreams for her daughters appear to keep her going and to distract her from her daily worries.

As a final image, I leave you with this picture of Made at the center of her family, the pillar that supports the whole structure, calm, accepting and incredibly strong:

That is all for now, Jan. Hugs to you and all the family, Katherine

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Goodbye to the Studio

Dear Jan,

I am starting to deconstruct my life here in anticipation of leaving in a little over a month. The next few weeks will be busy, as I have a number of trips planned, first to Malang in East Java, then Yogya in Central Java and finally back to East Java for a driving tour with the whole family. I am really going to get my Java fix in this final month — while I love Bali, I have a much longer history with Java and miss it.

This week, I am spending my last days in the studio, as my lease expires June 1st. I have been sharing some very basic space with my friend, Sandy Infield, who is a talented and experienced artist from the UK. My trip to Yogya will be with her to see a show she has hanging there. Here are a couple of photos of our space, first, the entryway:

Next, Sandy hard at work:

And, finally, my painting space — while quite primitive, it has good light. Most of all, it has been invaluable to have a “room of my own”:

As I think you know, taking up painting has been challenging for me — I am a perfectionist and engaging in anything that I do not feel skilled at is terrifying (and essential to my growth). My dear art teacher, Julia Schwab, helped me get started last year in Boulder and gave me the encouragement to persevere here on my own. She personifies the non-judgmental, free and open attitude that I wish I had more of, and that one needs to truly let creativity flow. I have bursts of courage and that is when I paint. Once I get started, I become absorbed in and enjoy the process.

I suppose I should show you a few of my paintings while I am at it, much as I hesitate to do so. This vertical triptych was the first piece I did here (well, actually the very first one ended up in the trash):



Looking back, this painting seems rough and amateurish, but the process was instructive and I ended up giving it to Maya for Christmas. The next piece I did for Alec, a “portrait” of Cha Cha, our Bali dog. Really, it is an abstract meant to capture Cha Cha’s exuberant spirit:

By the way, the update on Cha Cha is that she chewed one too many of our landlord’s precious antiques and is therefore currently living with Nyoman, our driver, and his 5 other dogs. Nyoman always bemoaned the fact that Cha Cha had no canine companions, and he blamed her destructiveness on this fact. Cha Cha is apparently very well-behaved at Nyoman’s and is reveling in all the doggie playtime. Sad for us, but probably the best outcome for her, given that we will be leaving Bali soon.

The next painting was done about midway through our time here. This one flowed, and I was happy with the outcome:

My next effort was inspired by a common Javanese icon, the pair of figures received by newly-married couples called Loro Blonyo:

Loro Blonyo in Javanese literally means “two become one.” The statues are a symbol of the God and Goddess of fertility in Javanese culture, Dewi Sri and Sadono. These deities are worshipped in Javanese rural communities, and traditional farmers believe that their crops are a gift from the Dewi Sri. We have a set of Loro Blonyo in our house belonging to our landlord, Yaya, and William and I treasure a set of our own (stored away in Boulder), a very primitive wooden pair we purchased in Central Java 25 years ago. The painting I did is primitive as well, and was done as a playful piece. I think the wife has a hint of of the French cabaret dancer about her, with her choker, low-cut bodice and striped skirt. I wasn’t entirely pleased with the outcome, but it was fun to do:

Finally, here is a recent abstract I am happier with:

Well, that wasn’t so bad. I really appreciate the support you have given me, and I look forward to seeing more of your work, too! Love to you and the family, Katherine

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Manggis, Mantas and Monkeys

Dear Jan,

I have been under the weather with a sinus infection, which explains why you haven’t heard from me for a while. I already had a cold when my cousin Alan arrived from Australia 10 days ago, but I was starting to feel better, so we went ahead with our weekend plans. On Saturday, we all headed up to the gorgeous estate of some friends in the town of Manggis, near Candi Dasa, on the east coast of Bali. Located right on the beach and sheltered by over 100 towering palms, the complex includes a tennis court, an infinity pool, a main house, guest house and spa. It really amounts to a private resort, making it a spectacular place to visit:

Our friends Lynn, a professor on sabbatical from Massachusetts who specializes in Balinese performing arts, and Iouri, an economist from Russia, and their daughter Serey, age 9, were the most gracious of hosts. They put us up in their beautifully appointed guest house (well, actually, Maya got to stay in the spa, feeling like a princess), and fed us a delicious dinner as we planned a scuba and snorkeling outing for the next day.

Our goal was to see manta rays off the coast of a nearby island named Nusa Peneeda. With some trepidation, we left early Sunday in the midst of a rainstorm, worried the weather would not cooperate. We headed for the port town of Padang Bai, and by the time we arrived the sky had cleared and our dive boat was ready to depart.

The day before had been a special Balinese holiday called Tumpek Landep, a day on which homage is paid to the god Pasupati, the lord of steel implements. Gratitude is expressed to all the machines and tools that help the Balinese in their daily lives. The cars we passed on the way to Padang Bai were still adorned with beautiful palm leaf decorations; our speedboat was no exception:

As we pulled away from the shore, we got views of the Padang Bai harbor and the large ferries that leave the port headed for Lombok and points east:

It took less than an hour to reach Nusa Peneeda on our high-powered boat; here is a view of the coastline as we approached:

We pulled close to shore and were excited to see a group of mantas feeding there, but the swells were enormous and too rough for snorkeling. We sped on to another spot that had smaller swells, and there, too, we could see many mantas near the surface. In went our intrepid divers, eager to get a closer view:

Serey and I followed with our snorkels and were amazed to see the huge, graceful creatures cruising by us, unperturbed by our proximity. I stayed in for a good 45 minutes, awestruck by the underwater ballet. Unfortunately, I didn’t have an underwater camera, but here is an image captured by another diver off Nusa Peneeda:

Meanwhile, Serey had gotten out and kept the crew company as they fished:

Here is what they caught, a trigger fish with sharp little teeth that Alec found fascinating:

It was hard to leave the mantas behind, but we had arranged for a second dive at a nearby reef along the coast of Nusa Peneeda. Anchoring there, we spent another hour snorkeling and diving and watching the very colorful reef life. There were lots of parrot fish and tube fish, puffers and trigger fish. My favorite sighting during this snorkel was a very shy spotted box fish:

It was a wonderful day full of marine life, but by the end of it my cold had gotten worse again. By the following day, it had escalated into a full-blown sinus infection and I began a course of antibiotics that did not really take hold for 5 days. Meanwhile, my cousin Alan explored Bali without me, until I felt well enough to join him. Our first outing was to Ubud, where we visited the famed Monkey Forest, a place I had always eschewed as too touristy. Alan is an animal lover and extremely knowledgeable about primates, so he had a special interest in visiting this site.

I have to admit, it was a fascinating experience to be so close to so many monkeys, in this case, long-tailed macaques. They are extremely habituated to the crowds that come to see them, and they carry on their everyday lives in the midst of the gawking. They are mostly interested in what the visitors have in their pockets and bags; i.e. nourishment of any kind. This monkey decided to check out Alan and see if he had anything to offer:

Meanwhile, a scuffle occurred next to us as an adult male macaque tussled with a tourist over her large bottle of water. The monkey won and here he is with his prize, first opening it, then drinking and finally stomping on it:

We also saw lots of mutual grooming:

Some tail pulling:

And a little soulful contemplation:

So, if you are visiting Bali (as I hope you will one day), my advice is don’t miss the mantas and the monkeys. That is all for now, I’ll write again soon and hope that all is well with you, Love, Katherine

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An Artful Exchange

Dear Jan:

After several letters recounting tales of my recent travels, I am returning to the subject of art in Bali. Through visits to local museums and readings on 20th century Balinese art, I have learned of an intriguing and enduring artistic exchange between Western and Balinese artists that began a century ago. This give-and-take has deeply influenced the development of modern Balinese art, while informing the styles of the Western painters who first began arriving in Bali in the early 20th century.

Prior to the 1900’s, Balinese artists produced work under the patronage of wealthy kings or as gifts to decorate local temples. This traditional style is called Kamasan, named after a village in the kingdom of Klungkung. Most of the painters were also farmers who worked the fields in the morning and went indoors to paint in the heat of the day. From their point of view, they were simply doing their part as members of the community and never gave much thought to gaining individual recognition for their efforts. They often worked in groups to produce paintings that were up to several meters long. The unique ‘wayang’ style of their paintings focused on tales from the Ramayana and Mahabarata epics. The paintings are like picture books with no part of the canvas left empty:

Starting in the 1920’s, Balinese artists came under the influence of Western painters, many of whom lived and worked in Ubud. It wasn’t until the arrival of these Europeans that Balinese artists began to express themselves individually and to sign their work. The most famous of the early wave of Western artists were Walter Spies and Rudolf Bonnet. These two painters taught their Balinese counterparts more realistic and expressionistic approaches with a focus on scenes from everyday life.

Spies was the first to arrive, settling in Ubud in 1927. The son of a German diplomat, he spent his formative years in Russia and traveled widely, living in Java before settling in Bali. He lived a heady, bohemian existence in those early Ubud days — it was the beginning of the West’s love affair with Bali, drawing luminaries such as Noel Coward, Charlie Chaplin, Vicky Baum, Miguel Covarrubias and Margaret Mead. As a painter, Spies was profoundly influenced by Bali’s culture and landscape. One can see evidence of this in the following works, the first, Das Karussel, painted in 1922 before his travels to Bali, the second and third after his arrival there:

Spies’ life took a tragic turn after a decade of artistic productivity and growing fame. His openly homosexual lifestyle attracted the disapproval of the Dutch colonial government and led to his imprisonment for “indecent behavior” during much of 1939. Not long thereafter came the start of World War II and the German invasion of Holland. The Dutch-Indies government arrested all Germans, sending Spies to a prison camp in Sumatra. From there, Spies was placed on a transport ship to Ceylon, a voyage that ended his life when the ship sank under bombardment by the Japanese.

Rudolf Bonnet, Spies’ colleague and alter-ego, was a Dutch painter who moved to Ubud in 1929. Often maligned as a still, colorless man, Bonnet’s dedication to the Balinese people and their art was unwavering. Here is an example of his finely executed, understated drawings:

Where Spies was flamboyant, Bonnet was careful and practical; the differences between them seemed to work and led to a fruitful collaboration. Together, with the support of Ubud’s royal family, Spies and Bonnet created a highly influential artist’s association called Pita Maha, which means “great vitality.” This cooperative organized exhibitions in Java and outside Indonesia, raising the national and international profile of Balinese artists. At the same time, the organization brought a new vibrance to the Balinese art scene and encouraged local artists to raise their standards. Out of the Pita Maha movement grew a number of schools of Balinese art that are still in existence today.

Among these are the Ubud School, characterized by stylized human features and strong lines. Bonnet’s influence is evidenced by more careful attention to rendering the human form, use of subjective lighting and greater depth of field:

The Batuan School, another outgrowth of Pita Maha is characterized by large paintings where every square inch of the canvas is covered with tiny figures going about life’s daily activities. By clever juxtaposition, the best Batuan artists have turned their pictures into amusing and astute comments on Balinese society. Many incorporate signs of Westernization into paintings of village life. In the first painting below, there is a tourist with a video camera at the bottom-center, while the second shows a helicopter and automobiles:

Following in the footsteps of Spies and Bonnet, a number of other European painters arrived in Bali and fell in love with its arts and culture. Theo Meier, a Swiss painter, credits his development as an artist to the island. He had already visited the South Pacific in the 1930’s, inspired by the life and work of Gaugin. He wrote, “When I arrived in Tahiti, I was very disappointed that the culture I had dreamed about no longer existed there…I began looking for a place where perhaps more culture had survived…That place was Bali. There I was shaped, and became what I am today.” Here is an example of his mid-century Balinese work:

An artist whose life was similarly altered by his Balinese experience was Jean Le Mayeur, a Belgian painter who savored the light, color and beauty of his island surroundings. Intending to stay for only a short time, he fell in love with a Legong dancer and settled with her in Sanur until his death in the late 1950’s. During WWII, when the Japanese occupied Indonesia, Le Mayeur and his family were placed under house arrest. He continued to work, often painting on rice sack cloth or any other surface he could find. Here is a portrait of his beloved wife, Ni Pollok:

Meanwhile, the pursuits of Balinese artists were overshadowed by World War II and the subsequent struggle for independence from Dutch rule. The 1940’s and 50’s were a time of great turmoil and Indonesia as a whole laid aside art for politics. A new burst of creative energy came to Bali in the 1960’s, however, in the form of Dutch painter Arie Smit.

The story goes that Smit, while visiting Bali, was walking through a stretch of countryside near the village of Campuan when he happened upon a group of boys drawing in the sand. He was impressed by their talent and invited them to his studio, where they promptly became his students. Smit gave them the materials they needed and taught them technique, but was careful not to make suggestions or let them see his own painting.

The Young Artists Movement which developed from Smit’s students was a lively, sometimes humorous, genre with color and line characteristics that, while unique within the history of Balinese art, remained essentially Balinese. At its height, the movement probably included between 300 and 400 artists. Here are two examples of the Young Artists’ work:

I’ll bring my story of 20th century art in Bali to a close here. I hope it gives you a feel for the cross-cultural synergy of that era, a time when the images of Bali that imbue our imaginations to this day first entered the world’s consciousness.

I’ll write again soon with more about goings-on here. My cousin, Alan, will be visiting from Australia soon and we are planning to dive/snorkel with manta rays and to climb Gunung Agung, Bali’s tallest volcano.

Love to you and the family, Katherine

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