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Bali

(Side note: I’ve gotten a lot of emails asking why I haven’t been writing. I see this blog more as a place to share my experiences living in a new culture, not as much a travel blog. So while I’m travelling I won’t be writing every day, but I will be posting a few times. We’ll be back in India June 30th though!)

So…

The second time we tried, India let us go. And we arrived in Bali – a tropical mountainous volcanic paradise halfway around the world from where we started in New York.

Mount Batukaru and rice paddies

We drove an hour and a half north to Ubud, which is in the center of the island. When most people think of Bali, they do not first think of Ubud (unless you’ve read Eat Pray Love where Ubud features prominently. And at this point it seems everyone has read it). Bali to most people is beaches, partying and, unfortunately, nightclub bombings.

Daniel and a monkey side by side in the Monkey Forest

But Ubud is a thousand years away from any party central you can imagine. Ubud is an ancient city hidden among jungles and mountains. When we arrived we first went to a forest that is literally called “Monkey Forest.” It’s called this because when you walk inside you curiously find yourself walking along with hundreds of monkeys. Most are waiting for you to feed them one of the bananas you can purchase at the entrance (“Official Monkey Forest Bananas”. The only thing official about them is that they are 10 times the price of a normal banana). But these monkeys live among thousand year old temples in a forest sanctuary. Let me just say it is not something you see every day.

Daniel and Ali in Monkey Forest temple

Our first night we met a driver named Wayan, and we agreed with him that he would take us on our varying excursions over the next few days. Meeting Wayan I think was the luckiest part of our stay in Bali – but as Wayan would say, “You do good things, so you have good karma, so good things come back to you.” That is the wisdom of Wayan. He is a man who owns his own business in partnership with his friends, speaks three languages (English, Japanese and Balinese) and is devoutly Hindu. I think that the wisdom of Wayan should be written down somewhere, so I shall do it here. A sampling:

“No one feel stress as long as they don’t have target. Target means you must make more money than you make now or must get better job. But without target, you just happy living your life.”

or

“I do not understand Muslim Jihad. Why would they want to hurt people? Jihad brings very bad karma I think.”

or, after Daniel asks how the government prevents tax evasion in cash businesses like his:

Me and Wayan on a rice paddy

“Yes, the government doesn’t know what I do. But God does. So even if I get away with it with government, I would not really get away with it. Bad karma.”

Karma. What a beautiful amazing concept. It drives Wayan and it certainly seems like a very good way to live. But, as you learn wherever you go in the world, people can lead happy successful lives but they are still only privy to the knowledge that their society affords them. And while Wayan lives by his karmic wisdom, not everyone around him does. For example, when we ask Wayan if he has a website he says he can’t have one anymore, because its too expensive. But more importantly, it’s too dangerous because the website operators in Bali will take bribes to steal emails from their site and give the emails to competitors. If they pay even a day late the operators will send viruses to their computers.

Seriously.

So Daniel very animatedly told Wayan about how you can build a website for free or even just get a domain name very cheaply. It really hit home that education and technology can do so much to even the playing field in a world where monopolizers will take what they can when they can. So, while I write this, Daniel is currently helping Wayan build his website. Wayan says this is good karma. I certainly hope so, because we need it after our initial difficulties in India.

Gunung Kawi

Prayer march at Besakih

But beyond website building we’ve also been able to explore the incredible and varied sights of Bali. On our first day with Wayan we went to a number of ancient Hindu temples, such as Besakih, which was built in the 14th century at the foot of a large volcano. You can’t imagine a more beautiful view.

Besakih

On our second day we decided to take the more scenic route and go for a hike near Munduk, in the north of Bali. Wayan took us to meet his friend Budi, whose family owns a plantation in Munduk and gives tours of the plantation and the nearby waterfalls. It turned out that Budi was no ordinary tour guide – he speaks 5 languages, has a civil engineering degree from a university in Tokyo, is an architect, and is sought after for his knowledge of coffee, specifically the rare Kopi Luwak coffee (if you’re thinking this is the world’s most expensive coffee that is made after a cat-like creature digests the beans, then you are correct).

Daniel and Budi in Munduk

And yet, when Budi was asked to speak in Denmark about his architecture (he designs and builds villas when he’s not running the plantation or showing people around the plantation. Naturally.) he didn’t enjoy it because the cold was too off-putting. Like most Balinese people he can’t really imagine why anyone would want to live anywhere else.

And when you tour the plantation with Budi you tend to agree with him.

What I’ve come away with from my trip to Bali is that for all the amazing things there are to see, the people here are very special and that whatever their station in life is, they all tend to find comfort just in being from Bali. I think that in itself describes the beauty of the island.

I know this blog is more about people than places, but for the rest of our visit the pictures truly are worth more than any thousand words I could write. I also have included a video – because things like monkeys up close, sprawling vistas, waterfalls and loud bugs that sound like the whole world is coming to an end are things you can only watch for yourself.

Gungung Agung

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Today I felt my first hard dose of disappointment and frustration, Indian-style.

We had settled on the apartment I loved. Daniel was convinced and I was starting to feel like moving forward in India would be easier than anticipated. But when the broker called just to see if we could look at it one more time, we found out someone had put in an offer this morning. Just like that and my dreams of sitting on the balcony watching the monsoon hit the sea while drinking a cup of masala chai were dashed.

Instead I sat drinking my masala in a coffee shop while our broker tried to persuade the owner into considering our counter-offer. No luck. I stared into my milky tea trying to not let that overwhelmed feeling creep back in. I didn’t want to get frustrated with India, with all my warnings about everything moving slowly and inefficiently.

We decided to put an offer on our second choice right away so that we wouldn’t face the same problem again. It had been Daniel’s favorite to begin with and I had liked it before I became so singularly focused on the beach.

We drove into La Paloma, the second choice building, and walked in. I knew what I had loved about it at first, so I went straight to it – the terrace. While we might have lost out on a view of the beach we were gaining an outdoor space that is legitimately larger than our old apartment in New York. And in a city like Mumbai where the average family home often consists of a shack in the slums, I decided to stop being a brat and let go of the old apartment.

With a verbal offer in place I took Phoebe for a walk in the neighborhood we’re staying. We had to maneuver around Monsoon puddles on the way out, but once past those we encountered an obstruction of a different kind.

As we walked I heard a shout from behind – a young Indian girl in a red plaid Catholic school uniform and red barrettes was looking at me. “Can I touch?” she asked, motioning towards Phoebe. I nodded, and then remembered that in India, indicating yes actually entails tilting your head from side to side, akin to the Western standard for no.* “Of course,” I said, since I wasn’t sure that my head tilt was going properly yet. She touched Phoebe’s tail and then ran ahead to catch up with her mother.

When we turned the corner I saw what was happening: school was out and all the sudden the street was filled with a color explosion. Mothers in saris of all different hues escorted more girls in red with red barrettes or red bows. Tiny red patent something shoes (could they be made of cow leather for Hindis?) walked next to sandals. Snow White and Hannah Montana backpacks hung over the shoulders of children climbing into three wheeled open-air rickshaws. One of the Muslim mothers, wearing a hijab, held the hand of her child in school regalia, who carried a backpack emblazoned with a photo of Barbie wearing a hijab just like the mother’s. The whole picture was the weirdest intersection of East and West I had yet to see.

(There’s no picture here for this, sadly, because my desire to capture the imagery is often at odds with my desire to be respectful in residential neighborhoods. Respectful won this particular round. But here is a photo of Phoebe in a quieter area – just to show she’s looking happy!)

The reaction to a small furry ball wandering down the street in a red harness and leash was certainly varied. The children parted either to stare at her or shriek in fear or reach out to touch her. She looks like none of the short-haired large street dogs that roam the streets of Mumbai so she must have looked like a zoo animal. In either case, when the tide of little red dresses receded I think both Phoebe and I were relieved.

At the end of the day we settled in to watch some World Cup action- a perfect bookend to a day of cultural learnings. If Cote D’Ivoire can tie Portugal then maybe I too can conquer Mumbai and get past any new hurdles I might face tomorrow.

*(For those wondering about the Indian head bob thing, I found a Youtube video that hilariously encapsulates the issue)

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“Oh these rains? This was just a drizzle compared to the pounding that’s coming soon”.

That’s how my second night ended – thinking I had survived the first afternoon of monsoons only to be told that we hadn’t seen anything yet. I was prepared to write about and post video of the unstoppable and sustained violent rains I had watched through the evening. However, as I’m learning, it’ll take me a long time to see what Mumbai has in store.

But long before the monsoon, we were awoken at 4am by the arrival of Phoebe, our dog, fresh off her flight into Mumbai. Daniel opened her crate and she shot out. She was embracing Mumbai because it wasn’t a confined space on a plane. And with that early morning arrival our little Mumbai family was complete and ready to look for a home to make our own.

And that search was to be the focus of our day: find an apartment. Make sure it’s clean. Don’t get ripped off for being foreign.

We were greeted at 10am by our broker. She immediately came off as a powerhouse. She made demands of brokers we were meeting into her iphone: “”Is it a renovated exterior? Or a dilapidated exterior? Because we only want new”.

And so we drove into Bandra, one of two areas we are considering. It’s the northern suburb that has become a small city in itself. Tree-lined streets and colorful sidewalks play host to varying apartment buildings and restaurants of every possibility.

We went to apartment after apartment. We learned early on not to let on to the countering brokers what our highest limit was, because suddenly every apartment would cost that much. Some exteriors WERE dilapidated by any western standard. But they still held home to brand new interiors and expensive rents. Others were a beautiful shell hiding dingy bathrooms, peeling ceilings and lizards running up walls. Our broker made demands of the other brokers in Hindi, Marathi and English.

After noting a few buildings we liked, I finally fell in love in the most unexpected place. Despite saying off the bat that we didn’t need a view (“we’ve never had one in New York so it doesn’t matter to us”) and that we wanted a new looking building, we walked into just the opposite. The exterior was fading and peeling. Rain stains were visible on the paint before you even walked in. But it looked out onto Bandstand’s beach and the promenade and I saw myself suddenly seeing character and charm in the beachy building. Once again, in such a short 2 day span, Mumbai had taken my expectations and turned them on their head.

We walked in to an apartment that was kitschy and beachy and pure India. I would never decorate an apartment like this one on my own, but for our time here it seemed to feel right. And looking out at the beach view I felt this was an oasis of calm in a crazed city. I’d still have to convince Daniel and our broker still wanted to show us buildings in the Central Belt, but I was hooked.

We drove into the Central Belt next. It was, as we’d heard, the opposite of Bandra. Just yesterday I had been convinced that this would be the place for us. It’s right in the middle of the city – it sits between Bandra and South Bombay where Daniel will be working. All the buildings are brand new with modern facilities. But the downsides are only understandable once you’re there: they have to contend with slums and no neighborhood to speak of. “It’s ok though”, our broker said, “You’ll have a compound with a gym and pool and when you want to leave you can just drive to the mall.”

It truly feels like the new Mumbai – everywhere you look you see structures of building rising quickly among cranes and scaffolding, itching for occupancy in this growing part of a metropolis. I looked out of one building and saw a large swath of slums in between where we were and the newer buildings on the water. I ask the broker: “What happens when the developers inevitably want to build where the slums are?” “Some developer will probably just set fire to them if the people in the slums don’t negotiate. It’s sick”. I just kept looking out the window to the complete dichotomy that faced the old and new residents of the central belt.

We went last to a building adeptly named “Planet Godrej”. It was huge. And coming from New York I believe that’s saying a lot. It was 5 towers of 50 floors. A massive space overlooking massive grounds that held the aforementioned pool and gyms and squash courts and gardens. It’s so new that Tower 5 is still under construction. But the apartments inside were gorgeous and the definition of modernity. Marble floors, even layouts and floor to ceiling windows looked out onto the racetrack and the sea. Yet the building I had expected to love was paling in comparison to my kitcschy beachy yellow-walled Bandra apartment.

We drove away and prepared to see more tomorrow. And as we did the rain began to fall. With it, people came out – overjoyed that the oppressive heat of summer was ending and monsoons were coming. I’ve always seen rain as a nuisance. It blocks my quick walk up avenues and afternoons in Central Park. In Mumbai this sentiment doesn’t appear to exist. Rain trumps heat. Three months of rainwater provides showers and drinking water for the entire year. Hands reached out of taxis to touch the rain. Men women and children walked through the streets – some casually holding umbrellas but others just grinning and bearing it. I’ve never seen so many people walk through a torrential downpour as casually as if it were a sunny day.

We were meeting our friend Elise for dinner but traffic stopped us. How can you move in a 3 wheeled rickshaw or a 20 year old car when rain is beating down faster than you can imagine? The slow traffic of Mumbai halts in the rains and I’m starting to wonder how we’ll survive the next 3 months of daily rains and constant floods. But a dinner of Indian seafood and a familiar face quashed my fears. And as we drove back the rains stopped and I could see Mumbai once again.

It feels like we’ve been here forever but tomorrow will just be our 3rd day. I’m ready for more monsoons and more apartment hunting and, hopefully, I’ll end my next day having convinced Daniel to move forward in my little oasis of calm.

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