Monday, September 2, 2013

Singapore/Bali trip diary - day 10

Today we ordered room service breakfast for the first time, and as with everything here, it felt extremely rarified to be eating croissants and fruit by our pool. Even more than in other higher-end places where we’ve stayed, it’s evident how every detail of the way things are done has been worked out and honed and drummed into the system – the checklist for cleaning the room and for the evening turndown service (whether it’s a mental or physical checklist) must run to several hundred items. A lot of it must seem oddly abstract – to take one tiny example, every evening they fill a container up with ice, the next day they pour out the water and dry it out, the following evening they fill it up again, and so on forever. But I suppose even the most elevated jobs, if you look closely enough, are made up largely of rituals which only occasionally intersect with actual needs (this certainly goes for the accounting world!)
Agusta picked us up again at 10 am and we spent six hours scooping up some of the emblematic sights of Bali. First we repeated our textile experience of the other day, except this time with wood carvers: you see a few carvers outside, working meticulously away, and then inside there’s a whole former forest’s worth of product. We bought what I think is the most expensive item we’ve ever purchased on a vacation – a handsomely carved and painted lion that should help keep evil spirits away (so there goes Ozu’s job). I must confess that as I write this, I’m not entirely sure it’s worth what we paid for it (even after the seemingly generous discount he threw in) but anyway, it’ll add to the variety of items around the apartment.

We then visited the Gunung Kawi royal monuments – a series of monuments carved into the side of a valley, at the bottom of a long climb of steps with further views of ricefields; accompanied by a temple and other monuments. It’s a large and fascinating sight, although as always, our engagement with the complexity and the history was merely superficial. As with everywhere in Bali that might be of interest to visitors, you pass a surely unsustainable number of small retailers along the way. The same was true for our next stop, Pura Tirta Empul. Although it has aspects going back centuries, much of this temple is more anchored in the present day – some sites were off-limits to those not actively praying, and a group of women (and one man) were standing in the bathing pools, where the spouts dispense holy water. At both these locations, by the way, I wore a sarong again, so maybe I’ll relent now and include a picture of that (even though the signs were very clear about needing to wear the sarong, some visitors nevertheless didn’t, for which I imagine there’ll be a huge spiritual price to pay).

Not that we needed him to, but Agusta said he was unable to enter the temples with us because he was in one of the periods when this is forbidden: these relate to childbirth, menstruation and (in his present case) the recent death and pending cremation of someone in the community. We drove to a look-out point from which to survey Mount Batur, one of the island’s largest volcanos, and the valley below. On the way up there we had to go through a police cordon, and when we asked about it, Agusta said it was just simple corruption – he handed over a folder which was rapidly returned, absent the money inside it. We ran into another one later on and on that occasion he didn’t even bother with the folder – he just slipped the money into the guy’s palm. I assume the amounts involved are small, but still, a sign it’s not all tranquil brotherhood here. He said similar principles apply in many government dealings. As a general impression, there was a somewhat rougher and more desperate air to more of what we saw today, and to the way we were approached by street vendors.
Shortly after that, a little dog ran in front of our vehicle and we felt the wheels go over it. Agusta was apologetic but made no attempt to stop. The dog was plainly too young for its owner, if he or she cared, to allow it such freedom, so I guess there is a mutually fatalistic attitude to these things. Still, given our enormous investment in the well-being of our own dog, it was a low-point to the day. Our next stop was at the rice terraces near Tegallalang – more magnificently scenic rice fields, except rising in fairly steep layers. We took the path that winds through them: as you move along, you’re regularly asked for a “donation” (which translates into around 50 cents) to enter the next stage. We followed that more or less to the point where the rice terraces turned into woodlands, and then went back. And then we returned to the hotel. I think I’ve adequately conveyed by now how things go from there! Except that Ally didn’t have a nap, perhaps because she was overly electrified by the book she’s reading (Barbara Kingsolver).

Back in Toronto, the webcam suggests that Ozu and the other boarding dogs slept in for Labour Day. We had dinner one last night at the hotel. At the next table was a Mexican couple who insisted on rejecting the menu and summoning the chef to specify their own meal in immense detail (for example, beef cooked “between medium and medium-rare”). It seemed to us both overwhelmingly pretentious and a denial of one of the great pleasures of foreign travel, but maybe I’m missing the more elemental joys of ordering people around. Once again (to acknowledge that we also are settling more into certain patterns of repetition as we get older) we drank wine outside our villa. It always sounds like there are frogs nearby, but we never see them. Sometimes I think it’s just water dripping. Ally had overdone it and, for the first time, went in before I did. So I had the night and the space and the wine and the frogs (or is it just water, or at best lesser insects?) all to myself…

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