Let’s Get Together

Boudha Stupa, Kathmandu, Nepal

As I walked through Boudhanath, Kathmandu, one evening in September of 2013, under a light rain, I was enveloped in the crowd. Everyone was headed in the same direction, toward the Great Stupa. I was reminded of Barcelona, where I had been the week before. But here, instead of heading to the plaza to sip wine and share food with family and friends, we were headed to a sacred place to walk in brisk clockwise circles murmuring prayers.. or chatting with family and friends. I love both customs and the way they bring people together in a shared space at the same time.

 

Beaches

Full disclosure: I’ve never been much of a beach person. As a child, I got severely sunburned more than once on beach outings, so I learned early on that sun is not necessarily my friend. There’s a lot of sun at the beach.

I also react badly to wind; it exhausts me very quickly. There’s often a lot of wind at the beach.

Sand? It’s fun while you’re there, but it has a bad habit of lingering in shoes and clothing, where it is considerably less fun.

My main character, Meg, in NOT KNOWING has an aversion to large bodies of water. The water, in fact, is perhaps the only thing I love about beaches. But do I swim in it? No. Like Meg, I wade and dabble and admire it from the shore.

The beach here at Labuan Sait and Padang Padang, Uluwatu, Bali, is a beautiful beach, with majestic rock formations and soft white sand caressed by turquoise waves. Indonesians and foreigners mingle pleasantly, sipping chilled coconut water straight from the coconut or maybe a couple of Bintangs (Balinese beer). There’s also skewered chicken and corn on the cob, grilled right on the beach.

But that was yesterday, at low tide.

This morning the tide has come in, the beach has shrunk by half,  and the surfers are taking over. I have nothing against surfers, mind you. I know some really nice folks who surf and I get that it could be a really amazing experience, riding the crest of a wave and feeling the power of the ocean beneath your feet, trusting your strength and skill to keep you from being swallowed up. So it’s not the surfers I mind, it’s the culture that tends to spring up in their wake- the generic shops and cafes. Even worse is the luxury beach culture, with its insistence on all the modern conveniences of home, sprinkled lightly with a curated collection of enticing local flavors. But then you already know I’m not much of a tourist.

And yet…here I am, on the beach at Padang Padang. In Bali. I intend to enjoy my day to the fullest. Pass me the sunscreen!

 

Guests & Tourists

I’m not a very good tourist. I tend to either avoid the highly packaged “attractions” or else sneak in around the edges, on my own time, doing my own thing. I deeply respect the rights of the local people to keep us gawkers cordoned off, herded into manageable tours and treks that interfere as little as possible with their “normal” lives while still permitting them to earn income from our desire to gawk.

Don’t get me wrong, I like to see the historic and cultural “places of interest.” But I like to know what I’m seeing. All too often, what you get from tour guides is a watered-down (and occasionally downright fabricated) version of history and culture. Like pablum for babies, with lots of sugar.

I’m reminded of clearing my Uncle Bill’s bookshelves in San Antonio, Texas, after he passed. His partner, Ann, had owned the travel agency at Joske’s back in the latter half of the 20th century and my, how the two of them did travel! Uncle Bill’s books were not travel guides, however, but travelers’ memoirs and language books – Chinese, Korean, Greek, Italian, Spanish, Russian, French, etc. They always wanted to know at least a little of the language of their hosts. Sometimes they even took classes before the trip. I think “tours” have changed a lot since Ann was selling them at Joske’s. I also think Ann and Bill were not themselves tourists. They were interested and respectful guests.

Earlier this week I stopped in at a little shop in Ubud that sells locally crafted fabrics. The girl behind the counter seemed quite knowledgeable as she told me about the beautiful cloth she spread in front of me and how it was used in her village as protection against bad magic. She would sell it to me for a mere five million rupiah (~$350US). She seemed almost apologetic about the backwardness of her beliefs and offered some admiring words about the culture I come from. “But why do you think we come here?” I said. “It’s because we have to get away from the chaos and noise of our culture. We come here for beauty such as this.” And she smiled as tears glittered in her eyes.