Monday, October 18, 2004

What was good about the lunch at Maya

Nury kept things light and funny (even, at times, hilarious). He's a bright wit and dedicated writer, and the fact that he's been blacklisted in the Hong Kong press means that he must really be onto some hot stuff.

But the luncheon was about all things light and fun, and it was especially nice to have a chance to chat with Chris Sylvester, who has no small hand in running all the museums in Darwin. I made sure to haul her over to meet Ubud's champion of women's art, Gallery Seniwati owner Mary Northmore. Here's hoping some wonderful exhibition or cultural exchange comes out of their meeting.

Enjoyed another chat at the lunch with the tall photojournalist Irina Kalishnikova. And what a name! Really, all we needed that day was her ability to document the proceedings, but someone brought in a truckload of Balinese paparazzi, who snapped shots of the food, the celebs, the garden. Just a tad surreal after Sunday's beautifully subdued opening party, elegant for its lack of shutterbugs running around like hunchbacks.

So that was the literary lunch. One wit, one know-it-all. Veg or non-veg? Red wine or white?

Hitched a ride back to the Indus on the festival purple van. I had already missed Diana Darling and Jean Couteau speaking of Exiles, Expats, Diaspora. But I happened in on Tony, Ryan, and Bill's Guide to Bali. The fellas were able to fess up to their personal favorite spots in Bali, most interesting Bill Dalton's Pabean, where indeed my more interesting friends have gone for true relaxation. Oh, I may be misspelling Pabean.

Next up: that afternoon's surprisingly interesting look at contemporary Filipino literature.

Saturday, October 16, 2004


The day: Thursday, the place: Ubud. The event: Literary Lunch with Hong Kong's Nury Vittachi and Australia's George Negus.

Because I knew I would want to do a little drinking, I rode in to the luscious hotel Maya Ubud in a festival vehicle. I joined in with a gaggle of stylish Australian women who mostly had not met until this festival.

They all know TV journalist George Negus from their home country. I do believe I've seen his show on ABCTV via satellite here in Bali. If I'm not mistaken, this was Negus. If I am mistaken, I apologise. The odd thing is, the particular interview which I viewed happened to be a chat with a gynecologist. The two men were speaking about menopause with utter seriousness, dragging their drawling Okker Aussie accents through an in depth view of Hormone Replacement Therapy and possible alternatives. It was as surreal as a Saturday Night Live sketch. Hey, good on them for tackling the subject, but what a scene! Once in a while, if we are surfing with the remote control, I say to my husband, "do you think we might be able to watch macho menopause again?"

Well, perhaps that introduction is unfair. But let me say that the moment we ladies slammed the doors and headed off to the Maya, the car came alive with titters about George's fauxes pas of the day before. Apparently shoved into a session about Islamic literature at the last minute, George had seized the opportunity to show his great knowledge of Islam and the Arab world. I have no quotations to support or deny the truth of this, but the opinions around me were that he dominated the discussion, concentrated on Arab Islam, and potentially insulted every muslim in the room. To be sure, he has written a book called The World of Islam, but I don't believe this makes him an expert. Alas, George would present himself throughout the festival as a man blessed with the gift of gab, glibness being what gets you through live television and, perhaps, uncomfortable moments under the limelight. I sympathise that he was drafted for a panel at the last minute. But read on.

George and Nury took to the stage just as we finished our main course. The Maya Ubud is such an elegant place, in sumptuous gardens, with amazingly refreshing breezes wafting in from the ravine. Nury didn't have a glass of wine at hand, but George did. And why not, for the food and wine and atmosphere were so seductive and relaxing. They bantered about Nury's muliticultural awarenesses and background. Nury joked about the ridiculously bland names of buildings in Hong Kong. George got things steered around to religion, sex, and politics, self consciously & humorously pointing out the problems of doing so. Well, here's where George repeated himself. I myself got to hear Negus in a panel on Monday, remarking that there needs to be a new religion which, right off the bat, reveals to all its followers that nothing is known, nothing is claimed, and there aren't any rules. He said it at the Maya again. In a way, he was paraphrasing something Michael Vatikiotis had said about urging Moderates of the World to unite, but I do believe that George was on his own when he said the UN needs to meet to discuss the problem that extremist views have on the world. And there was no mistake that this was about religion. Oy! Not nice.

More later, am dining with an author now. This was really the only black spot in a fine festival.

This Planet Ain't Lonely

Ryan van Berkmoes, latest Lonely Planet plant in Bali, presented to a packed room at the Indus the venerable trendsetting guidebook writers Tony Wheeler and Bill Dalton.

Tony is a quiet fellow from Australia, but he's on the ball and quick-witted, making it easy to see that he could start an empire of travel guiding. Tony has a Clark Kent - ish everyman quality, undoubtedly an asset to the one who must spy for a living. I could indeed envision him traipsing through Asia in the closest thing to anonymity any bulé / farang / gweilo / gaijin could hope for.

Bill Dalton is a wiry raconteur with down-east Yankee resourcefulness and energy. If Tony embodies the Australian's penchant for the walkabout, Bill embodies the American pioneer spirit of independence and exploration.

The two men related with vivid memories how they first crossed paths in the backpacker neighborhood of Kings Cross, Sydney, 1972.

On wits, willingness to connect with others, and pennies in the pocket, each figured out how to print up their tips on travel in Southeast Asia. Bill's area of concentration was Indonesia and may I add that his Moon Pubs Indonesia Handbook was what guided Jay and me through our 4 week honeymoon in 1979 ...second edition, that is. Although Bill's book beat Tony's Southeast Asia on the Cheap to the press by three weeks, Lonely Planet has become a mega business.

In Singapore in 1975, they bumped into each other again, at a time when Bill wanted to sit down and do some writing. Tony was able to tip off Bill which room in which hotel was conducive to productive writing; he'd just been there himself!! Room number two, but I missed the hotel name. Watch this space. Below that room, those many years ago, was a motorbike repair shop. (Bill went down to sit with the boys there to watch a Mohammed Ali match... who would that have been... Foreman rematch?) It was lovely to see these two guys reminisce on the old days... travelers' tales are a rich source of entertainment and even literature. Think of Somerset Maugham and Joseph Conrad...

Tony and Bill asserted that guidebooks have perhaps outlived their usefulness, and remark that we are close to a change in travel guiding, but neither man is sure he can see it exactly. Bill concedes that someone will and will start a new trend, just the way the Lonely Planet took over from old type Froemer's, Fodor's, and Fielding's guides from earlier decades. He pointed out that the traveling world is going to be changing its very STYLE of travel.

Look no further, fellas, because Paul Otteson has written that new guide book. The World Awaits (ISBN 1566912431) rides the wave of the future in travel writing. His advice for travel is like a platen for application to a multitude of destinations. And, interestingly enough, his take on the real pleasures of travel is that the destination is not what travel's all about. Otteson's book outlines suggestions for getting the most out of any journey, using the most refreshing concept in travel today: a pace and itinerary called threading. Otteson points out that paying attention to the actual roads and places between destinations is as rewarding as the arrival at a known landmark. Stop sleeping on trains from Point A to Point B. Stop using airports. Walk. Talk to locals. Camp out, perhaps. All suggestions; Otteson is no preacher. But he supports his style of travel with great appeal.

Let's thread on back to Ubud.

At one point, Tony talked about someone he knew who recently used an old edition of Europe on $5 a Day simply to see what's still feasible, what's survived of the beaten tourist and backpacker path. How fun, and I wholeheartedly agree with this revival of old guidebooks! Certainly, on my Spain trip in 2001 I had with me old guidebooks, and the one from the late 50's on the Prado Museum in Madrid was priceless. Even Washington Irving's Tales of the Alhambra was the most useful guide book in my posession, when we walked through that fascinating architectural treasure.
Bill likes to bring literature with him on trips... Somerset Maugham (also a favorite of mine), for example. And Tony spoke of "parachuting" writers into any number of destinations for Lonely Planet updates... no language, no clues, no help... the tips garnered by these intrepid travelers would prove better than those from a researcher armed with every sort of brochure and book and lesson. And I tell you, in a time when the world is virtually all "discovered" and there's even a map of Baghdad in a Sarasota 7-11 (seen with my own eyes), a person is well advised to encounter a foreign country on wits alone, just to invoke that unbeatable traveler's high of being a stranger in a strange land.

Bill stressed that the Lonely Planet and his books offered a certain style of travel. And this is indeed the style to which a place like Ubud caters. For better or for worse, the town (just like a hundred other backpacker ghettos in this world) has a plethora of desks for booking a last minute, cheap tour or air ticket. An Ubud banana pancake can also be had in Sri Lanka, Cairo, Puerto Princessa, and Cairns. The same sarong you bargain for in the Ubud market is also available in Boracay, Wellington, Bora-Bora, and Cairo. The backpacker profile shops the world, and don't think the crafty tour guides and taxi drivers don't know it. I'm guilty of having done the ten-dollar-spa-scrub tour of Asia, as blindly as a hippie in Rajahstan making a pilgrimmage to every cheap hostel in the backpacker grapevine. I see a pattern here.

I took the microphone to ask the writers if they had ever printed anything which was a regrettable mistake. Bill mentioned a shortcut to Lake Toba that had been supplied by a flakey woman (and the readers trying this route became lost in the deep Sumatran rainforest for 6 weeks, not the published day and a half).

Time and again, during this festival, various people reminded me of the second remark I made to Bill, Tony, and Ryan about how to find a certain East Bali beach. Ryan had mentioned that he put Pasir Putih in the latest LP Bali because it was too beautiful to leave out. From the audience, during the Q&A session, I said that I supported him in this because it's a nice place and people who like to snorkel should enjoy it. Apparently, there is a backpacker undercurrent of secrecy, but I certainly feel that Bali has been well and truly discovered and there's no real reason to hide a good beach from visitors. The worst threat to that beach, I feel, are the local guys who bring cyanide to stun fish for the aquarium trade. Always better in the long run to have a working dive shop around, which becomes a force in curbing such destruction.

Amounts of money to be reaped from tourism are usually higher than money from poaching.

There was an earthquake at 11:09 that morning, and I must have been off in my room getting changed for the lunch. I totally did not feel it, and it was epicentered just south of Denpasar!

Why pay RP250,000 for lunch at the Maya Ubud? First of all, the food, next, the atmosphere. But really, truly, it was to hear Nury Vittachi, an old friend from Hong Kong, speak about whatever came into his head. No, it's not a lonely planet anymore. I have dear friends all over it.

Thursday, October 14, first installment

There is a lot to say about Thursday, but I will just begin with a teaser.

The theme for the day was "The Long Road Home."

This was the day for travel writing, expat lit, exile lit, and other Southeast Asian voices.

It was a good day and a strange day.

But as I write this, magic time is beginning in Ubud. A salt water pool beckons from the Honeymoon Guest House. Big shindig at the Amandari tonight. Have to shake off today's wines. Have to make myself presentable when I crash the Amandari.

Next installment soon.

My Wednesday

On Wednesday, October 13, I got up at dawn and grabbed a few more flowers from the market and from the Jalan Raya Peliatan. Beautiful watermelon colored heliconias and bags of petals.

I zoomed into the Regency of Karangasem and dialled my friend Fran the Croupier, who lives in Padangbai. Her two day headache was a thing of the past, and, yes, she would help me host the big writer lunch at Tanjung Sakti. I made the detour into Padangbai, the bustling port. I bought ice and boxes of tissue - decorated with reef fish, go figure - and turned up at her gate. She hopped into the car and we drove to Seraya.

My handphone rings.

It's Wayan, my cook.

Yude has called me from Casa Luna... the party is off due to lack of interest. Four people showed up for the bus ride to east bali salt and sugar plants and they all wanted to leave the event early... oh, dear. So that was that. No lunch at my place.

I drove into my parking area and sighed. All of my staff were dressed in their special polo shirts with Tanjung Sakti badges. Very sharp. but it would be lunch for two. Ah, it's okay. I spent awhile getting flowers into pots and the place, oh, the place looked stunning. Pool's never been cleaner, the penjors looked wonderful in the steady sea breeze, and a bottle of Margaret River wine was chilling in the fridge.

I gave Cakra two envelopes of consolation pay to give to the two guys who were booked to come and play Gerentang. That's the bamboo instruments, tuned slightly off from each other to resonate well. They were to provide a little ambient music for the visitors.

Oh, well, so Fran and I had a good chat and I worked on some poetry and prose texts to bring to the festival. It was actually a restful day. The writers missed out on a gorgeous east Bali afternoon, but there's an upside to all this... the event was staged as a diversion for our author visitors. The fact that almost no one wanted to go to east Bali shows that the festival was just so much fun, who could bear to leave it, even for half a day?

Fran left for John's house at sunset, and I spent the night at home in my own bed.

Next morning, after pineapple and coffee, I got right back into the gold Toyota Kijang and blasted off to Ubud. Yeah, that was Wednesday.

Sorry to have missed some of the events back at the festival, but on the bright side the lack of interest in Janet's east Bali tour means one thing. NO ONE WANTED TO LEAVE UBUD. The writers all were having such a marvelous time at the festival... they didn't need a distraction like a trip to east Bali. A very good indicator of the festival's success.

So no hard feelings at all. Glad to be of service to the fest.

Tuesday night at the Festival

Tuesday night I had a nice little dinner fixed by my cook, Wayan. Then I zoomed off in the car to Ubud in time to catch the English language Wayang Kulit by dalang Wayan Wija in Ubud's Wantilan.

Okay, what is it with Wayan Wija? Is my memory colored and blurred? Didn't I see him perform shadow puppetry in English a couple of years ago at Ubud's SaiSai Bar? Wasn't he a sexy young guy with long hair to whom all of the white girls flocked after the performance? Tuesday at the Ubud Wantilan, the dalang was a serious but heavily talented fellow with short hair and no groupies. Ach, maybe it is just that Ubud is not currently attracting so many hot young gals who pick up extra pay as artists' models. Maybe our amazing Wayan has matured. Maybe he just got a haircut.


The Wayang Kulit Tuesday night was wonderful. The truncated team of musicians and puppet master was off to a late start and I am ashamed to admit that I left sometime between the obligatory fight scene and the moment when balance was restored in the forest and in earth itself. I was dog tired and wanted to collapse in my lovely room at the Honeymoon Guest House.

But let me say this, Wayan Wija is a master... his chorus of frogs and his mastery of character voices are the product of genius. My hat is off.

Friday, October 15, 2004

October 15, afterthoughts

This was to be the most magical day of the festival.

I'm at an international literary festival and the hottest ticket is "Children of the Gods"?

Well, Ubud is no stodgy, oppressive gathering place, after all. The visitor to Ubud will probably fall under the influence of good magic. As a tree bends gently to offer shade, a silent protective spell is cast upon those who come here to rest.

You feel like a child again. When everything is new, when people smile at you for no apparent reason, when fantasy seems possible.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

The Heavy Stuff

Alright, so Blogger lost my post from yesterday.

I was reeling from a day with a two star general, a Russian photographer, and a Balinese environmentalist. I was also reeling from at least 3 hefty Caipraihnas (how on earth is it spelled) consumed at the opening of Jill Gocher's photographs of Nepal at Ary's Warung.

The festival covered the tough-as-nails/won't-go-away issue of the 2002 bomb in Kuta. It was a senseless act that killed 202 people, more than 80 of which were Indonesians. I believe 21 countries lost citizens in that terrorist crime.

In the beautiful setting of Indus, there were panels on journalistic ethics, police work, and the notion of Bali as spoilt paradise... so much to chew on!

When I wasn't scarfing gourmet food at Indus, I was listening to some of Southeast Asia's published and polished. Most interesting people were George Negus (Aus) and Goenawan Mohamed. There were far too many cliches Monday, so maybe that's out of the system and we can move on for the rest of the week.

Because I am hosting a lunch for the writers tomorrow (in conjunction with Casa Luna), I spent most of my day preparing for that. Cheap wine glasses at Ubud's brand spanking new Bintang Supermarket, painting toilet-this-way signs, and picking up white chairs for the overflow tomorrow.

Had to miss my dear friend Nury Vittachi, whose Tuesday presentation was entitled, How to Write a Novel in 20 Minutes. Nury's Feng Shui Detective books are great fun and catching on in Australia, but he's paid his literary dues. I am indebted to him for editing and publishing about a quarter of my own published works.

Just so it's noted... Woke up to another subtle Ubud dawn, in the gloriously low key Honeymoon guest house. Hit the pasar in time to get several bags full of flowers... cempaka, jepun (that's frangipani), parigata (bougainvillea), and marigolds. Nice breakfast, ran right off to East Bali. Seraya's beaches are looking extra dramatic today after the horizontal lines of rice fields.

The Muezzin has called the faithful to prayer in this mixed city of Amlapura. It is hot, hot, dusty, and hot.

Tonight I zoom back to the festival in time for the English language Wayang Kulit.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

The Festival Begins!

Quick report before I run off to this morning's keynote speech by Goenawan Mohamed.

The very first Ubud Writers and Readers Festival began on the 10th of October amidst a palpable buzz, mucho polisi presence, and true elegance.

Sound a bit schiz-y? Well, yes... expatriate life can seem a bit like having multiple personalities, so why not multiple viewpoints and multiple writing styles...

I checked into the restful Honeymoon Guest House and sent obligatory email to family members. Ubud is bedecked with pink and white banners welcoming all to the festival. The core of the event, the Casa Luna restaurant, is a hive of activity... tourists, locals, writers, and expats converge to get their tickets to the various workshops, luncheons, and events. I receive my volunteer's tee shirt and pass, and I'm raring to go.

The royal palace is THE place, magic hour is the time. Crowds of the curious gather outside as those of us lucky to be invited are searched by the police before entering. The very best dancers of Ubud perform a delightful welcoming dance, and we get a few speeches, each blissfully short. The Consul of Australia to Indonesia is there, the local prince, literati, and amazingly no true glitterati. That is significant. This event is all about the word, the story, the creation of literature and literacy. No fluff, and even the volunteer paparazzi are so mesmerized by the atmosphere of altruism, that few shots are snapped.

Of note, Tony Wheeler (Southeast Asia on a Shoestring got his legend going), Rucina Ballinger (hula and Balinese dance expert), Michael Vatikiotis (Hong Kong's most caring journalist/editor), Sarita Newson (her graphic and publishing work has set the mood for the festival... and doesn't she look wonderful with her grownup kids ...all in impeccable pakaian adat).

Organizers Heather Curnow and Janet deNeefe keep a dignified low profile, but their names are invoked again and again, in gratitude for their efforts.

The red wine is excellent.... and did you try the asparagus wrapped in smoked salmon?

I join Murni and Jonathan Copeland and Mary Northmore (Ubud's expert dealer in women's art) for a lovely dinner in the utterly magical setting of Murni's Warung.

I fall into bed, under mosquito mesh, exhausted and thrilled to be here.

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Magic Hour, definition

At about 3:30 in the afternoon, when the sun falls off the center of the sky and there is a hint of a drop in temperature, a person in Bali perceives a slight cooling. It is possible to stand under the sun without baking like a potato.

This is the hint, the preamble, a welcome end to midday. Siang is ending, soré will begin soon. Borders are subtle in Bali. There is a melting and blending of time, a lack of precision in the sense of clockwork or the four temperate seasons.

Sometime around 4:30, there is a new shimmer to the sun's light. It begins to hit the leaves of every tree at an angle, just so. It is lovely to drive at this time, but it can mean a pre-mandi rush... when the Balinese hurry off to take a bath. It may be a bath in a stream or road ditch, it may be a shower in a modern home. Tradition remains; late afternoon is time for a well-earned immersion in water.

Drive through any village backroad between 4:45 and 5:15. Lovely girls walk contentedly with the newly washed household laundry in a bucket. Usually, still, on their heads. Fresh clothing covers their refreshed bodies. They've been bathing together in whatever area is designated for females. Alas, men were upstream (or perhaps clinging to a bridge, enjoying that uniquely Balinese voyeurism... checking out the women's bathing pool). But look at the girls now, strolling with brushed, freshly washed hair. Having an aversion to hair dryers and a lazy sense of hairstyle, I do love to see so many heads of wet hair.

It is the unabashed love of bathing. It is the glorification of water on skin. It is one of the charms of Bali. It is the beginning of magic time.

Get home, quick. Run to the kitchen to make a gin and tonic or a cup of tea, and march it out to where the sun can be seen, ready to set. Who's got a guitar? Anyone got a drum or claves? This is magic time at Tanjung Sakti, when Jay practices riffs from the "fake books" for a couple of hours. And I get to sing along.

But what's happening all around us is the rapid ripening of the sky. Blue becomes yellow and pink, violet, gold, anything goes and it goes quickly. The last straggling egrets have left for the roost and we are amazed to see a few swallows or swifts, darting around for bugs to eat. Soon, a gecko will call from a roof eave, and a bat will take over where the swallows left off. In the jungle, the cliche goes, night falls like a bullet. Too true. Suddenly, magic time is over.

I will be eating my dinner in darkness when I begin to hear the music of Pak Sukarsa, the farmer next door. Jay plays his guitar at magic hour, but Sukarsa waits until nightfall to bang away on his bamboo invention, or to play flute. Or host a cackling storyteller.

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

So She's Going Back to Bali

Ach! Yet another extemporaneous entry.

Time to get on a plane again. I am leaving a house construction project that is nearly finished. I have the bathrooom I want, the fireplace I want, the friggin' door knobs I want, and yet I leave it all behind for ten or twelve days.

I will be taking this trip for several reasons.

The first reason: A theory... I have traveled so much and so often in the last 16 years, I tend to mark the passage of time in terms of trips taken. I had to book a flight. Back in June, I could not think about the future without a flight itinerary acting as a kind of softly glowing beacon demarking the limits of my time in California.

The second reason: the girl can't pass up a bargain. In the month of June only, Cathay Pacific Airways (nice seats, pleasant crew, good routes, terrrrrrrible food) was offering US$600 round trip flights (economy class) from SFO, LAX, EWR, or JFK, to Denpasar. How can you beat that?

The third reason: I miss my loving husband, who will be in residence at the Bali house, having just returned from a business trip down under. My marriage vows did not say, "for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, separated by the world's largest ocean..." It's high time we renew our reciprocal slavery. Truly, I could have booked the mini-break for 3 weeks ago, and it would have been just fine, but back in June I thought my will power was stronger, I guess.

The fourth reason: My dear friend Ann S., sound engineer and video editor at ABC News in LA, is already there in Bali. It'll be great to see her (even though she lives in Manhatten Beach and I have spent most of this year in the Bay Area) and it's too wonderful that she and a friend have planned this holiday in my Asian stomping ground. Actually, I don't seem capable of socializing unless I get out of the Bay Area. I have gone out to dinner with exactly one friend this whole summer. Jetting to Bali to host a dinner party for my Canadian pals does not seem so bizarre when I think of my local duties to my ailing mother and the house. These are enormous pulls on my attention, and I have to really get out to loosen their hold on me.

There may be other reasons, but I know when I am getting boring.

What is so great about Bali?

The weather, the color of the sea and the fishes that inhabit it, Wayan's cooking, the greenstone pool, the feel of my own mattress. It's home.

There is a big volcano that looms over much of Bali... the 10,000 foot Gunung Agung. It erupted in, what - 1963?, blowing a perfect apex and making everyone realize that he wasn't dormant after all. Agung is visible from our property when I cut behind the dining balé to turn on the hose there. That's a very powerful geographical marker for me.

There is nothing better than hopping into the car to go to the waterfall or to snorkel the Liberty Wreck or to go have dinner someplace fabulous like the Serai (woops, renamed the Alila Manggis).

We love to take in a shadow puppet show, a Kecak trance dance, or something unique to the island, whenever we want a dose of foreign culture. We love to hire the local dancers of our village, too, whenever we have a big dinner party. The girls have an audience, they become better performers, and they earn some very valuable pocket money. Also, there is a real charge to be had from moving about in a place where the culture is colorful and high profile. To drive the byways of Bali is to suddenly come upon beautiful ceremonies and processions along the side of the road. The architecture is continually fascinating. Parts of the countryside are wonderful, just wonderful.

The expats, though a varied lot, have many within their ranks who are so much fun to be around. Knowledgable and talented, or intrepid and entreprenurial... it's a great little scene in the intense global realm of explorers. There are plenty of flakes cluelessly using Bali as a way to find their way in the New Age, but there are also people who have a quest and stick with it. There are helpful people, concerned people, compassionate people. There are those with a real sense of adventure and style. There are some truly wonderful people at work in this little pocket of the world.

There is my crazy, loveable neighbor, Michael C., whose heart is in the right place even if he sometimes does the totally wrong thing. He has a way of garnering enemies, but I have to say that my husband and I can't get enough of the guy. He is bright, creative, energetic, and funny. He is never at a loss for words, nor for a new project or idea. He is mercurial but somehow genuine. When I tell them my C. stories, my friends beg me to write them down... to get a book together a la Colin McPhee's A House in Bali. I don't know about that, but I will say that having Mr. C next door is a lot like being able to tune in to some really great comedy show on TV... like Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In or The Simpsons... you don't know what the plot is going to be this week, but you know it's going to be great!

What else about Bali? The sunlight glinting way down from just above the western horizon... the cast of the light at magic hour. When my husband J walks outside to the banana leaf chair, guitar in one hand, music book in the other. The day is almost over, and its light flames out in a climactic spectacle.

I can't wait to get back to all that.

Sunday, August 29, 2004

Bruce Beasley's Sculpture Garden

Finally made it to Bruce and Laurance's sculpture garden in Oakland. I was so sorry to have missed the wedding on June 21, 2003, of Lise Gulassa and her handsome guy (whose name I forget, and my notes are not here), which occurred at this same site. It's quite a place.

Today, the Beasleys invited sculptors young and old, and the gates were open to a gorgeous sunny day. Bruce's cool geometric sculptures, some echoing the stretching limbs of Tai Chi artists, stood on pedestals like guests at a simultaneous party for the bronzed and ripped. For we of the flesh, a barbeque was going, ice cream was being scooped, and wine was served in real glasses! Plenty of nice garden/café chairs to sit on, plenty of people to chat with.

I had a pleasant little chat with Anne Healy, who did a lot of great things for UC Berkeley when she was a professor of Art there. Tracy Hussong was there, too, looking like she'd been posing for Joe Bahama or whoever the new tropical clothier is who's buying a lot of ad space nowadays. A clean, fresh look. Cool-looking hiking sandals on her peds. She and Randy are talking about going to Mexico at Christmas, because their little boy (who shall go nameless here only to protect his privacy) speaks Spanish like a native. Randy's gotta learn Spanish for, "talk to the kid!" I can see it now, the little guy dealing with hotel front desk staff, souvenir hawkers, corrupt cops, the usual cast of characters one must deal with on vacations.

So Bruce and Laurance have been to Bali... 6 years ago, Laurance thought. They went all over, she said, but she was not sure if they'd visited Tirtagangga... since the volcano figured in, perhaps they went to Kintamani. And they stayed in Ubud, that magnet for Californians.

Since my mom was having ice cream, I had some, too. She's doing great lately, and it's great to see her out socializing. I am getting hefty, filling out my "fat jeans" as I encourage my mom to put away the calories.

Weight loss tip from my dad, who's cutting down and looks good: stay off the booze.

Thought for the day, conclusion to this missive: Maybe we really are all on pedestals. Of our own creation. At the very least, each of us views his or her own body very formally, framed within mirrors, in private spaces. We are sometimes very careless sculptors, but we most often view the results as sharp, overly attentive critics.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Best Little S**thouse in Bali

This photo (below) depicts the fully plumbed outhouse at the Ryoshi Japanese Restaurant in Tirtagangga, Karangasem, Bali.

It overlooks rice terraces near the royal family's swimming hole (a pretty grand affair). Little brown ducks fuss around in the streams, little flocks of finches swoosh by, and it seems there is always the calling of a rooster, somewhere, nearby.

The food is decent at Ryoshi, cheap enough, and the view is lovely. Skip it at night, though, when massive numbers of bugs swarm to all the lights in and around the moist neighborhood of Tirtagangga.

The Most Beautiful "Comfort Room" (that's Filipino English) in the World! Posted by Hello

Sunday, August 22, 2004

Ubud Writers and Readers Festival 2004

This is IT!

Bali asserts herself as an anchor point in the literary world! If you've never been to a literary festival, this would be a great one to cut your chompers on.

Bali is a unique island in the fascinating archepelago of Indonesia, separating Australia from continental southeast Asia. Even the Dutch knew this place was special when they colonised islands in that region. They didn't allow factories and trains to sully the picturesque landscape of rice paddies, volcanos, mountain lakes, and sandy beaches. There was a lot of effort to keep the place preserved as a kind of living museum, but even if you're heart's in the right place, you can't keep a culture under glass. Indonesia gained its independence after WWII, developed tourism (especially to Bali), and the Balinese entered the world economy as a crafts and cultural center.

Ubud is Bali's seat of culture. Wander around by day and pick up carved masks and wooden sculpture, notice the elaborate offerings placed at fine little temples right in front of shops and homes, have a gourmet meal served in a coconut wood platter... for a song! That young foreign couple at the table next to yours is probably from Berkeley, New York, or Paris. Take a late afternoon stroll alongside a rice paddy where ducks are assembling to totter and quack home. After sunset, pay your admission for a front row seat at a music or dance performance, possibly the kecak dance/chant made famous by Margaret Mead in the 1920's and 30's.

Like Santa Fe, Paris, Marrakesh, Guanajuato, or Venice, Ubud is a world class cultural mecca that draws people from all around the world. Wander any of these cities and you will see the architecture, ambience, and flavor of a unique culture. All of these cities have their cultural milieu, their patrons, their reclusive expatriate population (& a flamboyant one as well), their art galleries and marketplaces, their stages and street corner attractions.

Come to Ubud Oct 11 through 17. Hear readings from international writers and dynamic scholars like Amitav Ghosh and Garrett Kam. Attend a rare English narrative shadow puppet performance by a master dalang puppetmaster priest. Rub elbows at a party with Balinese royalty and old China "hands." Join a café round table gathering that mixes Indonesian student poets with published stylists, graceful dancers, and world class photographers. It will be week-long cultural campur (an Indonesian dish of mixed delicacies) you will not want to miss.

Speaking of food, we are fortunate that festival organizer Janet deNeefe is also a renowned chef, restaurateur, cookbook writer, and hotelier. Her sense of style infuses every aspect of the festival, combining the incomparable Balinese sense of presentation to her bon vivant love of cuisine. This may be a first: a festival combining great food and great lit. From the humble cup of Bali coffee (your curative mud bath in a demitasse) at a morning panel discussion on political communications in emerging democracies, to the huge spread at a writers' party, food is a celebrity in Ubud.

Come to Bali and enjoy the festival! Web address above. Are you coming from the States? Check out for some great discount package deals.

Readers and writers, there's no excuse for your absence!

Roger Ballen Photograph

Roger Ballen, Two Figures, 2000 Posted by Hello

Some astonishing figures, but just as important, a composition that is matter of factly beautiful.

Sunday, August 15, 2004

Roger Ballen Photographs

Roger Ballen, an American geologist working in South Africa, is also a celebrated photographer.

His exhibition Roger Ballen: Photographs has just closed at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum. I was fortunate enough to have the time to see it today, before it is taken down. I don't think the show will travel again soon, but Ballen is represented by the Gagosian Gallery, and he has published books of his work.

This is an artist who perfectly understands the medium of black and white photography and makes his art in a land famous for a history of thinking in terms of black and white. He found most of the human subjects in this show living in poverty in towns full of unemployed whites who have not benefitted from recent reforms. Most of the models are white, but there are some black Africans as well. The show has garnered attention for being horrific and creepy because the models are often shown filthy and shirtless, with bare light bulbs and dirty walls. I disagree with this evaluation of his work.

Too often, people assume that the photograph is the closest thing to reality. Many people have difficulty thinking of ANY photograph as art, because of the medium's long history as a documentary tool. The photograph stands as a yardstick of reality. "That painting is just like a photograph," we say, or "he has a photographic memory."

Photography, however, is not just a tool, but a complex art form in which the artist uses light, timing, and composition, and often painstaking planning. Ballen exploits all of this technique in his crafting of his photographs. He truly understands the flat nature of the photograph, especially the black and white photograph. In each finished work, the identities and lives of his subjects are not as important as his sense of line, composition, and chiaroscura (light and dark).

Ballen's work has been justifiably compared to Diane Arbus', but Ballen's work is far more artful and complex than that of Arbus. Arbus is fully recognized as a documentary photographer. Her subjects were photographed in their environments, and there was very little manipulation of pose. In each photograph, Arbus virtually bowed to the subjects' realm. While Arbus sought out unusual posers, she was very much concerned with flaunters, transvestites, nudists, eccentrics, and congenital abnormality: people who wore their differences on the outside. She had a true admiration for this. The photographer's own demons were trapped within her; Arbus dealt with her anxiety and pain by committing suicide in her forties.

Ballen is not at all a documentary photographer. While his work has brought to light a marginalized population of impoverished white South Africans, his sense of surface is the real subject matter. Like a master craftsman, Ballen works toward his finished product, a composition of lines and shapes on a flat sheet of gloriously glossy paper. There is no escaping the fact that Ballen has befriended his models. In their faces and postures, there is a great sense of trust, relaxation, and, at times, play. In this way, Ballen has developed the traditional artist-and-model relationship that invigorates a long history of works of figurative art. This is an important key to appreciating Ballen's work.

The fact that Ballen is continually and unfortunately discussed in the same breath as Arbus (documentary and portrait work) and Joel-Peter Witkin (primped and ornamented fetish contrivances) shows how the art world has not fully understood the scope of his work. Witkin and Ballen do share a superior inventiveness for the camera, but that's where the similarity ends.

In every work in the current exhibition, Ballen composes by looking toward the flat surface of his paper photographic print, a yet to be realized object at the time of his photographing. He always uses a wall backdrop, a powerful plane that sometimes appears quite massive, a sensation usually determined by a low, dark horizontal plane such as a bed or floor at the bottom of the composition. Never totally smooth, the wall is often distressed by stains and the stresses of time. Corners, when they appear, seem to be nothing more than a vertical line. Often an electrical outlet, with plugged-in cord, sits as frankly upon the wall as any chalk drawing or smudge that Ballen's camera means to capture. In a few photographs, the wall is all: Hand Drawn Hearts on Wall (2000) is one such work, and it is no less powerful than many of the works which include animals or human figures.

Ballen's keen eye for line is seen in his use of stained walls, wire objects, chalk renderings, and shadows. A fine nuance of delicacy is the effect of a deceptively simple-looking work, Man With Back to Viewer (1998), where a hairline shadow made by the camera's flash defines the profile of the model, who is pressing to the wall a white cross, possibly made of two thin sticks, which barely casts a shadow at all. The mottled wall seems written upon by the lines of the cross and the man's black edge of a shadow. Tangles of wire are used in various works to evoke pencil scribbles with a great graphic impact. Often placed near a figure, as in the breathtakingly beautiful Twirling Wires (2001), the photograph melds abstraction with the figure, transcending any sense of the documentary or of realism.

Ballen's excellent use of texture (Puppy Between Feet, 1999), chiaroscura (Elias Coming Out From Under John's Bed, 1999), and form (Dog, Feet and Wires, 2001) all show what a brilliant painter he actually is. While squalor and hardship can be read on the faces of his models, his occasional use of masks (Room of the Ninja Turtles, 2003, for one) reminds the viewer that his work is about surface.

Ballen does not ask for sympathy, tears, laughter, or disgust. He does not allow the viewer to learn about the personalities or pathos of his models. Skin (warts and all), drool, wrinkles, or staring eyes are of the body only. This is the realm of the outside, not necessarily of inner suffering or psychology. As an artist, Ballen concentrates on the appearance of things available to the camera's eye. Unaided by computer manipulations, his focus and vision bring an exceptionally abstract type of imagery to contemporary photography.

copyright 2004 Renée Melchert Thorpe

Sunday, August 08, 2004


From the series, Everybody Buddha (detail)
by Renée Melchert Thorpe, acrylic on canvas, 2000 Posted by Hello

Sometimes it's great, just great, to simply sit down.

This has been a hell of a week, but I was buoyed somewhat by the memory of my first date with the man who became my husband. That was August 5, 1977. We went out to lunch at a San Francisco restaurant which no longer exists.

One of the other regular patrons of that restaurant was a woman who, very incongruously, dressed straight out of 1965. She even had a kind of Tippi Hedren hairdo. She was utterly age-less. She could have been 45, she could have been 25. She looked slender while seated, but one time I noticed her standing up and I discovered that she was slightly plump.

She was conservative in that classic San Francisco way. Greige, fingertip-length, loose jacket. Simple black dress. Nylons. Little shoes. The only thing that I ever saw her eat there was a hamburger with cole slaw. She would take off the top bun, lump the slaw over the meat, and eat the whole thing with a knife and fork.

She did not seem lonely, eating by herself. She was pensive, not rushed. She was suspended between frumpy and classy, beautiful and plain. She didn't blend, but she didn't make any waves. I always suspected she was the private secretary of someone rich and low-profile, but I never saw her again, after the restaurant disappeared.

Now I have to go get some rest.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Do NOT mess with me! This is me and my bodyguard.
Just to cover both bases, I'm brandishing a mighty pen
and he's hefting a big sword behind his head. Posted by Hello

Monday, August 02, 2004

Had a wonderful evening...

This might serve as an open letter of thanks to Jeff Kelley and Hung Liu, who hosted a small dinner party at their home tonight. It was delightful to be in the gathering.

It is wonderful when eight people can sit at a table and all take part in one fascinating conversation. Sometimes eight is a risky number... factions break off and the party never stays together as one. Tonight, it worked.

Liu's son Ling Chiu was there, late of Beijing. I so hope he will contact my own son, Evan, whose xanga blog "bauhinia" is his own open book to the world. They actually have a lot in common.

Jeff offered an excellent California Zinfandel to start with. We never got past the second bottle (Cabernet), which was also enjoyable. Liu's cooking (especially a certain fungus dish) was delicious and filling. It was great to see my mom eat so much. She's not in good health and rarely goes out to eat, never mind dinner parties.

Ron Nagle and Cindy Ehrlich were there. Ron is a heroic musician and quite amazing ceramicist. He is the sort of person who seems to be destined for enormous fame at some future date, when I will be long gone. Art history recognises true greatness; I think Ron will have a large place in the art history texts of the future. He is far too much of a renaissance man for his contemporaries to give him his due. America doesn't like a multi-talented person. American fashion champions the expert but not the explorer. So I figure he won't get his due in this life, not yet.

Over time, Ron's cut two albums of his quirky rock ballads. He still writes songs and records them... as he mentioned tonight, his "Don't Touch Me There" is a rock classic and yet our relatively prissy Barbra Streisand sang two of his songs on her Superman album. He is a tough-looking guy but his ceramics are smooth and sensitively glazed... some quite streamlined. He has a way of being a curmudgeon without being at all a party pooper. You gotta love a guy like that. I admire contradiction and imperfect genius.

Cindy, his longtime girlfriend, was there. She is a sensitive journalist and writer with a lot of heart. I haven't seen her since I was about 10 years old, at a party given by Rayer and Leslie Akiko Toki. Cindy is a writer, but we connected easily and chatted the whole time before dinner was on the table. She spoke so easily about her writing, her life. I don't know why, but we found common ground that opened up large, like a soundless earthquake from the panels of a comic book. Woah, is that the zinfandel?

We talked about mainland Chinese artists and their patrons, their mammoth studios, their work, their hangouts.

We talked about popular music. Jeff (who must have been born in 1951), extolled the revolutionary messages of his incomparable Beatles, and could not convince me that our young postmodern music fans are missing out on something big... for he started 3 sentences with, "Kids nowadays..."!! Ach, a bad choice. Ron was in fine form, berating Train and Dave Matthews and Elvis, dismissing The Dead and The Airplane, too. Iconoclast, thy name is Chuckie.

Fashions tonight... for what it's worth: My mom wore blue cashmere under a beautiful Janice Bornt serape. Hung Liu wore a black silk pyjama set and her little silver earrings were adorable. I wore my Shanghai Calico cheongsam and a bulky wool sweater - it's a typical August day in the Bay Area you understand! And Cindy wore a white skirt with cherries embroidered on it. Her haircut was the most chic of the group... a sort of Eddie Haskell - meets Annie Lennox thing. Since she has the figure of a pinup, it is not hard for her to look great. Winner of the menswear award: LC for his blue polyester dragon monstrosity of a shirt.

Did I mention the dessert? Ron and Cindy brought it... some fantastic choco-mocha thing with shavings of white chocolate on top. I loved the way Ron sliced the thing "like Solomon" said my dad, "and the baby" said Ron!