Saturday, January 14, 2006

Back to Ubud

Now on the improve and with time on our hands, we took advantage of the situation and caught a tourist shuttle bus back to Ubud where it was cooler and quieter. We checked back into Sania’s House and Nyoman, a lovely Balinese male cross dresser (“waria” in Bahasa Indonesia) whose family ran the place, had a big grin on his face as he was happy to see us again and inquired after my health. Daniel had spent time trying to get to know him during our first visit while I was holed up in my room and had taken quite a shine to him (Daniel had just the smallest crush on him).

We don’t know much about the tradition of Balinese cross dressers but there is a brief snippet of information in our Lonely Planet guide which wasn’t particularly informative. We weren’t sure if Nyoman was also transgendered or homosexual. He had long hair which he wore tied back often with some hair clip of sorts. He mostly wore a sarong as a skirt (this is very common for Balinese men) and a top. He wore his nails long (again, very common for men) but with nail polish on both his finger and toe nails. There was a women’s gold diamond ring on one of his fingers and he wore a strand of pearls around his neck. He also wore earrings most days. He did all the ironing (including ours) and generally other female-designated tasks. He was just so gorgeous and we wished that we could have asked him more questions about how he lives and how his family and society treat him. We have read that although Balinese culture is quite tolerant of cross dressers and homosexuality, they still expect them to marry and produce children because family is so important.

Therefore, many Balinese men (and women?) leave the island and typically go and live in the big cities of Java where they have more freedom to live their lives without pressure to marry from their families. Ironically, other homosexuals, transgenders and cross dressers from across the Indonesian archipelago come and live in Bali because of its tolerance! (Most of Indonesia is Muslim which does not tolerate any deviation from heterosexuality.)

While in Ubud I read The Go Between by the now deceased English writer L.P. Hartley which was published in 1953 and subsequently made into a film in the 1970s starring Julie Christie and Alan Bates. At first I found it difficult to get into a novel set in 1900 and accompanied by Edwardian English, but in the end I quite enjoyed it although I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that you seek it out. I would however like to see the film but goodness knows how I might obtain it. I then began and am still reading The Understanding of Jenner Ransfield by Imogen de la Bere an unlikely book that I picked up from the Xanana Reading Room in Dili. Both the title of the book and its cover picture belie the contents of this very engaging and humorous novel set in modern day England. It’s just so funny and I wish someone would turn it into a film (and then send me a copy!).

We managed to read a couple of newspapers while in Ubud including the Jakarta Post. Two stories in one edition of this English language newspaper really disturbed me. One was on the rise in reported child abuse cases in Indonesia and despite most cases being sexual in nature, which are mostly perpetrated by male family members, the heading of the article and the thrust of the article blamed mothers for the increase in cases! It was such appalling reporting and just typical to blame mothers for child abuse (all problems with children are a result of bad mothering never bad fathering). There is no doubt that mother’s commit child abuse but if the majority of cases are sexual abuse, which are overwhelmingly perpetrated by men, how can mothers/women be blamed for the majority of cases? The article failed to mention male child abusers at all. It made me so angry!

The second article concerned the apparent killing of three Timorese Indonesians on the West and East Timor border. The article made it appear that the people killed were Indonesians (legally yes, but they are East Timorese living in Indonesian West Timor). Apparently they were killed by East Timorese border police for doing nothing but fishing on a lake. Unlikely story! Daniel checked his email soon after and discovered an email from his NGO which included an article about the incident which stated that the three men killed were East Timorese militia members hiding out in West Timor for fear of prosecution (since then, it has been confirmed that at least one of them was militia). As to why they were killed by the border police is under investigation. Really, the reporting in this paper was so misleading (to us better informed folk) that it is no wonder that the majority of Indonesians still have no idea as to what went on during their country’s brutal 24-year occupation of East Timor.

We managed to go on short walks around Ubud and enjoyed some memorable meals at Casa Luna, Bali Buddha and Terazo and some not so memorable ones at establishments not worth mentioning. (The food available was so good and cheap compared to Timor that it is worth visiting Bali at least every six months just for some gastronomic respite!) We also did one more long walk to the River Ayung, which is west of town. We tried to follow the directions in the Lonely Planet book but got a little lost.

We then came across the would-be tour guides who typically harass you and won’t let you walk down to the River without their assistance (at a cost). They were so frustrating because they chased you and wouldn’t let you be. Bali has a problem with this sort of enterprise particularly around Gunung Batur where tourists are actually threatened if they try and climb the mountain alone. Then there was the man who kept following us on his motorcycle offering to take us places and simply wouldn’t leave us alone.

Then there was the family who used their youngest female adult and a child to beg for money because they were hungry while they all looked well fed to me (certainly compared to the Timorese children I see). In the tourist spots of Bali there are young mothers and babies standing at traffic lights deliberately targeting foreigners with their hands outstretched saying money, food, hungry while none of them look starved. Our initial driver from the airport to Gaia Oasis told us that most of them are not Balinese and that they come from elsewhere in Indonesia. In Timor it is mostly the kids who beg but usually they’re just regular kids with families who have been taught this appalling habit by UN peacekeepers who gave out small change willy nilly, sweets and gifts at Christmas time which has unfortunately cemented a culture of dependence in their minds. I have now learnt the words in Tetum for “no, you must not ask for money, it is not good!”

We took a break at a restaurant perched on a hill overlooking the banks of the river and while we drank cold drinks had to endure looking at scantily clad Russian women in their two piece bathers, see through sarongs and high heels or barely there shorts and high heel shoes and their overweight bare chested male partners just like the Aussies. (I really had to restrain myself from saying “put some clothes on!”) They had all just taken a white water rafting trip down the river during which I hoped they had managed to remove their high heels! Bali has been inundated with Russians this holiday season as numbers from Australia are down due to the latest bombings in October; the Russians for some reason don’t seem to mind (maybe it has something to do with their history and present state of affairs eg Chechnya). Overall tourist numbers were down one third, which affects the livelihoods of many Balinese.

After talking to a Balinese rafting guide, we finally managed to find the official path down to the river. However, all the way down the steep but paved path we were bombarded by hawkers selling mainly junk tourist stuff like cheap sarongs, carved wooden masks and animals too big to take home and impossible to get through Australian customs due to the nature of the material and if you did manage to get them home, were simply dust magnets in the making. It was so annoying. All I wanted was to walk down to the river and take a pleasant stroll along its banks like I would do in Australia, unencumbered by hawkers and mothers and their babies begging me for money. In the end we couldn’t walk very far along the banks as the path had not been kept in order and was overgrown and dangerous and so had to turn back.

At the top of the path where it joined the road, we were stopped by two children asking for money while their mother and aunt or grandmother looked on (again all looked well fed). I really cannot stand this sort of thing: adults forcing children to beg for them knowing that it will tug at the heart strings of foreigners. Bali is so much wealthier than Timor even if a lot of that money is in the hands of a few. Even in the smaller, less touristy towns, people live much better lives than most Timorese, and I have yet to see mothers and children begging in Timor. So far all I have seen in Timor are mostly children trying it on (although there are some genuine street children and they really harass you so you definitely know the difference) and an old bloke who regularly stands outside “malae” eating places.

Do I sound callous and cruel? Perhaps I do but I guess it’s a combination of anger at the person for begging for I cannot be sure if they are in genuine need, and anger at a society that produces the need to beg and my desire for harassment free living. I also have to confess that when I was 22 and living in London, a young supposedly pregnant (she looked pregnant and told me she was thus but then again, maybe she just had a big tummy) Irish woman approached me outside the tube station near where I worked, and asked me if I would help her out by lending her 150 pounds until the following day when her dole check came through. She said she needed to pay the rent on her accommodation today or else she would be evicted. She promised that she would meet me the following day to repay me. I believed her and duly went to the bank and gave her the money. She never turned up the following day and I never saw her again. When I told my boss about it he just laughed and said, “How could you be so naïve?” And naïve I certainly was. All I wanted to do was help a woman in need and I got severely burned. Ever since I have tried to find other ways to help people without directly giving them money (unless of course it is my fellow Timorese colleagues who must pay me back because we work together), whether that was regularly buying The Big Issue from the man who looked like my father outside the very same tube station where I got burned or to today donating 10% of my salary to various NGOs. But I still feel guilty and angry when beggars ask me for money.

The other thing about Ubud that drove me nuts was the number of times we got asked if we needed transport or a taxi. Many men hang around the streets and proposition foreigners with requests to drive them places. It’s so annoying. You’re constantly saying, no, thank you, and shaking your head. In the end to stop myself from saying, “fuck off”, I would smile and say, “jalan jalan” (going for a walk). They would inevitably laugh for in my mind, I was imagining them thinking, “foreigners are so lazy they couldn’t possibly want to walk anywhere.” Then in the evenings, the touts for Balinese dance performances are on the prowl trying to thrust information brochures into your hands.

I really cannot stand the desperation of local people and the attendant harassment that comes from being a visitor to a Third World country (remember, I have felt under siege for the past six months and just wanted a stress free holiday). I want the world to be fairer and for everyone to have enough and not to suffer and not to make others suffer (as I feel I do when I’m living in or visiting a Third World country). But we don’t live in that kind of world and even though I would love to shut my eyes and make it better for everyone, that simply ain’t gonna happen. The disparities between rich and poor countries are so great and although I think it important to see how the majority of people live, I simply cannot enjoy a holiday in a poor county and would rather stay home. I must sound like a selfish whingeing Westerner but all I want is to live a harassment free life. I certainly want to take my holidays in places where I am free of harassment and that can only be achieved (I believe) in the West. I long to visit a national park again, to camp under the stars, to drive myself into the park and out again, to pay the requisite fee that everyone pays, free of beggars, hawkers and would be tourist guides not to mention bloody roosters (yes, Bali has them too). So, the question is, can I continue to go on living and taking holidays in a Third World country? At the moment I don’t know the answer.

Category: Timor-Leste (East Timor)

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