Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Galungan (Balinese new year)

We wanted to stay in Ubud for a few extra days so that we'd be in town for Galungan, which started on 29th August. It's the most important festival of the Balinese calendar, marking the new year every 210 days and when ancestors come back to visit. Compared to celebrations in the West, it's about as big a deal as Christmas.

Staying at a family homestay was perfect, as it meant we saw the Indras carrying out their preparations. We felt really privileged to be able to share the time with them and witness this special event.

You could really feel the excitement and energy in the air all over Ubud during the couple of days leading up to the start of the festival.

Small groups of women carried gifts of food piled high on their heads, visiting friends and family around the town. 

Men busied themselves with erecting penjor - tall, heavily ornamented bamboo poles that bend at the top to hang above the streets. The decorations were made of cloth, paper and palm leaves in many colours, shapes and patterns. Each one was different, and families and businesses created their own for display... just like Christmas trees! It was a hive of activity and there was lots of laughter and banter going on.

The daily canang also increased around Galungan, both in number and elaborateness. Each day, women use banana and palm leaves, flowers, rice, fruit, crackers, sweets, incense sticks and more to create little trays of goodies as offerings to the gods, left on the pavements and in special alcoves. The ones on the floor were frequently kicked and trampled and there were canang in various states of repair strewn everywhere we walked. Any damage didn't seem a concern though; fresh offerings were always appearing. All this happened more than ever during the festival.

Dave and I made our own small contribution to the Galungan decorations with a gift of five little origami roses to the Indra family. It seemed they were gratefully received and I was delighted on Galungan morning to spot them adorning a table in the homestay. 

The first day of the 10 day festival began with a simple breakfast for us of banana toasties; the Indras were too busy with more important, fun things to be slaving over hot stoves for us! Incense burned around the family temple... in fact, in burned almost everywhere; you couldn't escape the smell of it all day.

Special decorations made from banana and palm leaves and flowers
The Indra temple was draped in beautiful fabrics and laden with fruit and other food offerings, piled on multicoloured melamine plates and golden platters.

The family were dressed up in beautiful traditional clothes - sarongs, shirts, lace, headwear and jewellery. They gathered and exchanged gifts, the children shouting and singing with excitement. Then they were off to visit one of the large temples, and we made our way into town to see what else was going on.

The penjor and pop-up alters lining the streets had been finished and were really impressive. Jalan Hanoman was abuzz with motorbikes and scooters, ridden by locals in all their finery, more women carried baskets of offerings on their heads, and families walking together to temple. The sun shone down on everything.

In the centre of town, where Jalan Raya Ubud meets Monkey Forest Road, we saw a troupe of small boys playing instruments (mostly percussion) and some wearing costumes. They headed for a large open-air pavilion, where it seemed they would put on a show. But they just milled around a little, chatting and playing and running up to smiling, snap-happy tourists for donations. They posed and grinned. One boy wearing a monkey mask strutted over to me and gazed into my camera, fluttering his long black eyelashes, all confidence and swagger. Lacking any adult supervision, the boys held court with their own charisma and were just as entertaining as if they'd have been performing something rehearsed. 

We visited a couple of the larger local temples, both of which were beautiful and shabby in good measure, but they were mostly full of tourists like ourselves; the locals must've been tucked away in holy areas closed to the public.

One of the temples we visited has a large lily pond out front with dark green pads and big pink flowers. 

Next to the pond is one of the key examples of Ubud's Westernised face... a great big Starbucks. They've gone to great lengths to create a facade that compliments local architecture, with carved wooden signage and the company logo fashioned into an ornate gong at the entrance. Balinese coffee isn't bad, so we refrained from the Extra Coffee Caramel Frappucinos!

Heading back to the homestay, we saw some of the most elaborate and impressive penjor decorations yet - big peacocks and dragon heads:

Just like most religious festivals, Ubud pretty much shut down during Galungan and many local businesses, shops and restaurants were closed for a couple of days. This led to a really big disappointment for us! Warung Ibu Oka - the fabled purveyor of unrivaled suckling pig - was somewhere we'd been looking forward to eating since seeing it featured on Rick Stein's Far Eastern Odyssey programme a couple of years ago. In Ubud, we kept saying we'd "go tomorrow" and finally headed over on the 28th to eat our fill before we assumed it'd close for Galungan on the 29th (like the vast majority of other businesses in town) and we left Ubud on the 30th. But when we got there we were confronted by a big sign saying "We..! CLOSED 28 UNTIL 30". 


Sad, hungry Dave
Important traveler lesson: procrastination is all very well but not at the expense of a good feed!

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Getting to know Ubud

The road Jalan Hanoman, where our homestay was, is charming. It runs off of Jalan Raya Ubud - the main drag through the town, which struggles with heavy traffic of both the motorised and tourist varieties, and includes the large market, main temple and loads of shops and restaurants.

Jalan Raya Ubud
Hanoman has a quieter pace, though still busy, and is pretty upmarket compared to some places we've seen since. The shops sell all the common souvenir stuff like bright cotton trousers and tie-dye dresses, bangles and beads, and then there are little boutiques selling jewellery, jams, art, yoga wear and soaps. The eateries range from average Indonesian warungs to Western-inspired, new age cafes serving homemade cakes and pastries (huge slabs of almond chocolate cake, apple pie and glazed fruit danishes), potato wedges, chicken parmigiana, huge salads and health juices. They're popular spots with tourists and ex-pats - all sporting deep tans, linen pants and Apple hardware. The food is great but pricey and the staff lack the charm of smaller, less commercial places.

Kafe is the key example and has a sister branch at the nearby Yoga Barn (A.K.A. The Hippy Mothership). We headed over for their Monday night movie, which was really good fun. We paid 85,000 rupiah each (about £5.50) for an all-you-can-eat buffet of delicious food. There was green salad, grilled tuna, watermelon, pasta, rice, tofu and tempe*. The movie (Lost In La Mancha) was after dinner, projected onto a screen in a massive wooden yoga hall. There were probably 30-40 people there so it was cozy with a nice atmosphere and we all laid on the floor with cushions and yoga mats, munching free fresh popcorn and listening to the rain hit the thatch overhead.

*Tempe is a soya bean product used as a meat alternative, but the beans are left more intact than in the mushy curd they use for tofu. And it's great. Good taste and texture and really versatile; during our time in Indonesia we ate it marinated and stir-fried, deep fried and crispy, curried, in omelettes and more. I can't understand why that bland crap tofu has become so pervasive in the West yet we've never heard of tempe!

Jalan Hanoman also has some cool stone carvings/statues etc... 

Check out this little dude throwing a peace sign
And this badass tiger! Rargh.
The weather in Ubud was much greyer than it had been on the north coast. We didn't get much rain but there was a lot more cloud cover to break up the sunshine. Still hot though!

We rented bikes one day and cycled up to the Neka Art Museum, which is reputed to have the best examples of Balinese art in the area. It didn't disappoint. We saw a wide variety of traditional paintings - many based on the aesthetic style of old shadow puppet shows - through to some by the 'Ubud School' depicting everyday life, and contemporary artists doing more abstract work. The Arie Smit collection was lovely too. Interesting sculpture as well, both traditional and modern. It was a nice way to spend a couple of hours and the setting itself was peaceful, set out among a quiet compound of gardens and pavilions. It was good to absorb something really Balinese, away from the tourist-centric town centre.

A door carving
Dave contemplating
A little of the Keith Haring about this one, m'thinks
Our next experience of hired transport was the bemo... retrofitted minivans that have the seats replaced with low benches running the length of the vehicle, which speed along with no seat belts and the doors open. Fast and fun! Our driver Kadek took us out of Ubud to see a couple of sights.

We went to a largish temple (Pura Ibu Pejeng) that houses the Moon of Pejeng, the largest bronze kettle drum on earth. It was 'on display' at the top of a tall, decorated (but dilapidated) stone platform and you couldn't see much. The temple was practically deserted and in places was very shabby, but it was nice to wander around the grassy areas with trees and bright tropical flowers dotted about, seeing the stone Hindu idols, the towering pagoda-like stupas, the statues draped in different coloured cloths and the gold-painted wood carvings. 

The Moon of Pejeng
Dogs sleeping on the platform of the largest pavilion, which looked newer than the rest.
We had a nice encounter with the couple of young lads manning the entrance of the temple. One tied on our obligatory sarongs, carefully reaching round our waists and deftly knotting them. We didn't have the correct money for the donation and they didn't have change, which wasn't a problem and we went in to look around giving it no more thought. But as we were leaving and returning our sarongs, one of the boys handed me a few rupiah - they'd clearly gotten the right money from another tourist while we'd been inside and remembered to give it back to me. It was a heartwarming example of thoughtfulness that was refreshing after the regular barrage of pushy hawkers we'd encountered a few times in town. Obviously, I asked them to keep the money.

After Pejeng, Kadek drove us to Yeh Pulu, a small area among some rice fields that's home to some 14th century reliefs carved into the rockface. And more hawkers and chancers...! "I show you stones? Tour? You have transport? You need trek tomorrow? Sarong sarong? My wife makes! Transport? Tour?" Plus the lady sitting by the carvings who ignored by protests against the blessing she forced on me and quickly uncovered an until then hidden pile of folded donations which I was then obliged to contribute to. 

But the carvings were cool, and we saw a praying mantis.

All in all, a few good days sightseeing and getting to know Ubud and the surrounding area.