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On the Left Side of the Road

January 24th, 2013 Leave a comment Go to comments

Sure enough, as soon as I felt well again it was a very happy living situation.

The nearby Bintang grocery store has a number of items that we’ve taken to be the emblematic staples of Balinese cuisine.  We bought a 5-kilo bag of rice and make daily progress on it (amazingly, it cost less than $4), and Tracy has quickly become masterful at fixing up many variations on the theme of rice (or noodles) plus vegetables plus tofu (or tempeh) plus a base of flavorful elements like garlic, ginger, soy sauce & apple vinegar, and finally topped with freshly chopped cilantro and/or spring onions.

I add my carnitarian twist to this mix by way of the fish fillets that Bintang offers, the tuna and red snapper being my favorite.  Available for under $2 US and perfectly cut like a single serving steak, these easily sear to perfection with a little butter, squeezed-on lime juice, and a few shakes of salt and pepper, completing the meals which feel light, filling, healthy, and very nutritious.

I could get used to this, which is good.  During one of our state-of-the-union pool meetings I began to lobby for two months in Bali, which met with little resistance.  “The way I see it, this place is good enough to merit two months, plus staying a while will give me time to work and replenish the well of travel funds.”

Once back again on my feet the first order of business in adjusting to life in the outskirts of Ubud was to learn to ride the motorbike.  Our landlord Nyoman had me all set up with a motorbike parked right outside our door, and left us helmets and a pancho on the table in our living room.  When I stepped out one day to give riding a try he was right there to give me a little lesson.

Nyoman doesn’t speak much English (Indonesian is much more his forté, really), but he’s got enough to give me a lesson on operation of the motorbike.  I believe the sequence of words uttered were, interlaced between demonstrations, “blinker”, “horn”, “break”, “gas”.  The information-rich (and words-lean) demonstration was capped off with “Don’t panic”, accompanied by a bright smile and thumbs up.

It is with no sarcasm that I say it was a rather confidence inducing lesson.  Seriously: just the basics, none of the over thinking.  Pure presence.

I was ready.

I slowly made my way down the alley walkway and onto our quaint, outskirts street.  I went to the right, so as to enjoy a larger radius for my first motorbike turn.  We’re in a country that drives on the left side of the road here, don’cha know.

To recap: in this moment I’ve never driven a motorbike, I’ve never driven on the left side of the road, and I haven’t driven any sort of vehicle in about 6 months.

Everything seemed to go by so fast, for in this situation my brain was going quite slow.  Everything needed to be run through conscious awareness, so much of what I was experiencing and doing was not yet automated.  So I went super slow, taking it all at my own pace, but then of course having to contend with getting passed a lot more.  I went north a ways, did an about face and then went south a ways.

All I really wanted was to get a little experience without incident.  Have an accident on the first day and I was apt to deem it a bad idea overall, if not for my own lack of faith then perhaps for a most reasonable concern from my beloved over my well being.  Thankfully my 15 or so minutes of riding passed without incident, and I pulled back into our place with an air of triumph.  Not because my riding was particularly studly, but because I’d survived the first experience unscathed.  It was all downhill from here.

A motorbike is a perfect example of the brain’s ability to rapidly learn and condition itself to something very new as an adult.  One round of geriatric-style driving was all it needed to go to work during sleep, and be ready to go the next day.  My second ride was a different experience: it was like time had slowed down considerably from the day before.  By the fruits of offline learning work done in the night, my brain this time had plenty more bandwidth to deal with the (now) somewhat familiar happenings.  Throw in that increased comfort meant going faster meant less getting passed, and you’ve got a nice upward spiral of confidence and ability.

It was like magic.  Brains are awesome.

In the days that followed I took on progressively more difficult situations as I grew into comfort with our new means of transportation.  Open ended cruising around.  Taking the narrow path into town.  Navigating traffic on the main drag.  Going up and down steep, winding hills.  Schlepping groceries over my shoulder.

On about day six I was ready to take the most precious wife cargo.

One of our first field trips together on the bike (aside from groceries, of course) was to the Sacred Monkey Forest.  I think we can all agree that monkeys are, ostensibly, cool and a worthwhile attraction1.  Every country I’ve been in that has indigenous monkeys has some sort of attraction or tour promising to show monkeys.  The thing is, though, most of the time your guide will point to some indiscriminate figure up high in a distant tree and say “Look at the monkey!  Do you see it?”  Umm…. yeah, I guess that’s a monkey.  Alright, cool.

In my experience, best case scenario you’ve got like 3 monkeys whose figures can be made out clearly, at least two of which are taking a nap.

So against this backdrop of mild monkey frustration2, it is hard to overstate my jubilant delight over the literally hundreds of Macaque monkeys milling about and playing throughout the tidy and beautiful Sacred Monkey Forest.  Spanning little more than an acre or two, the forest has enormous ancient trees, beautiful stonework temples and bridges, and a river running through a deep ravine with vine works and stone steps that collectively constitute a platinum-class monkey playground.

And play they do.  All around the forest are piles of yams, yucca root, coconuts and corn to serve as veritable buffets for the inhabitants, and just watching a pudgy Macaque gnaw on a coconut is enough to keep me entertained for 10 minutes, minimum.  They climb, they swing, little ones cling to the underside of mothers, and they all think of you as a more or less interesting distraction from whatever little tedium they experience in their monkey days.

The advice ’round these parts is to not carry any food on your person, for they will take to it in a very forward manner, as if to say “Aw, you brought me a treat!  Here, let me get that for you, no need to make you carry food all the way into my den AND have to get it out from within that zipped compartment, that would be asking too much!  I’ll just be a minute.”  Even without the lure of food, stay stationary enough and they’ll take to your sitting presence as an invitation to use your body as a newly installed climbing fixture.

You bet that I sat idly long enough to take in the experience.

After our jaunt through the Monkey Forest we took lunch at the Pu Nani Warung3 and then tried our hand at negotiating for some Balinese fashion to wear about our swanky villa.  We stopped in one of the many many clothes shops lined upon along the major streets in town, preferring it for the prominence of dresses that were apt to fit both Tracy’s style and (apparently) enormous ribcage (when compared to the cuts of cloth more suited for the locals’ frames).

By now I was fixing to have some traditional garb of my own, and a silk sarong looked mighty comfy.

So Tracy and I went about our parallel tasks of shopping, her picking a dress and me a sarong.  I quickly converged on a royal blue silk one with golden patterns.  Before long Tracy found a nice flowing dress of auburn red patterns on a very light creme color.  When it came to talk price we realized our mistake: because we were shopping in tandem and had both found items we liked, it was harder to negotiate.  There’s a dampened ability to make like you’re going to walk out on the sale when you have concerns of depriving your spouse of the purchase they want to make, so without better-than-average married people ESP that day our tandem negotiation only got us a few bucks off: my $25 sarong came down to $23, and Tracy’s $30 dress came down to $25.

Pricey prices by Bali standards, but still not bad for what we’re used to in the US.

Back at home, the sarong with nothing else has quickly become a preferred outfit.  Cool breezes wafting off the rice terraces, and me rockin’ a 3×6 foot piece of silk wrapped around my waist.  Delightful!

It’s funny how things come full circle.  Back in Madison during college, one of the regulars of the ballroom dance club scene used to wear a sarong all the time.  Between long hair, big nerdy glasses4, and what my 20-year-old self took for a woman’s skirt I thought him rather eccentric.  I was “polite” enough to not say anything, but the thoughts “you’re dressed like a girl”, “you’re a weirdo”, and “don’t stand so close to me” all totally crossed my mind.  (I was a charming example of a human being back then, I know.)

But now?  Holy smokes, sarong guy, you were on to something.  Here in Bali that sort of traditional garb is worn all over the place by the men folk, and there’s nothing effeminate about it.  It’s cool and light, positively agrees with a tropical climate, and these fabric rectangles have no shortage of style in the myriad colors and patterns.  You’d be an oddball to condemn anyone for wearing one in these parts, and I bet on a crowded ballroom dance floor the sarong scores serious points for both thermal comfort and movement freedom.

I find it instructive indeed to see how relative tastes truly are, particularly as they pertain to fashion, and even deeper issues like masculinity and femininity.  It’s freeing to realize the degree to which it’s all made up.

Bali bliss continues to run high.  We should probably begin tending to the visa renewal process soon to up our welcome for another 30 days.


  1. The barrel-full thereof does constitute a standard metric of fun, after all.
  2. Which I presume to be essentially universal among your average, North American monkey-going tourist.
  3. Giggle.  Ahem, “warung” is the word that designates a small shop that serves food.  If you’re hungry in Bali the word to look for on street signage is warung.  Through sheer coincidences in language, some are named more humorously than others.
  4. For the benefit of those who didn’t know me back then, let me lovingly sound the insecure hypocrite alert.
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