Letter from Bali: Living in a Terrarium

Ubud, Bali. 

Ubud, Bali. 

I live in a house that has three frangipani trees in the garden and an unseen lizard who I have concluded is monstrously large because at some point each night, it leaves behind a dropping the size of a pebble. Being the civilised sort, it poops in the bathroom. This place, with lizards and frangipani trees and a Ganesha at the entrance and an occasional visiting cat, is home for a month. Every morning, for the last five days, I've woken up to watch the sky turn from shadow dark to cloud-dulled light. I'm learning to listen to the wind, as it whispers and rustles its way past the leaves of coconut, banana, papaya and frangipani trees. It seems like the palm and banana gossip most with the wind. The frangipani -- sturdy with thick bark, branches and leaves -- seems like it's the least moved by all this green banter, but then, when the rustling from the others stops, it'll drop a cluster of flowers and leaves, leaving itself exposed as having given away more of itself than those who only fluttered for the wind. The skies are so often dotted with little palm swifts and big kites shaped like tigers and horses with wings. Some kites look like black birds. I wonder whether the Balinese birds -- the swifts, the kingfishers, those white birds who fly in flocks and whose wings turn opalescent in the falling light -- I wonder whether they eyeroll the kites. Every day, I walk on moss and there's a stretch on my daily outing that's canopied by ancient trees whose thin pink and earth-toned roots drop like sheer curtains. They stop a few feet above the tar road. Modern, man-made solid progress under my feet and the blessing of greenery above. It's an illusion of balance and I think of this when I read Brazil is opening up 860,000 acres of the protected Amazon rainforest to logging, mining and farming. Those trees that you can see from a distance, standing like sentinels over this undulating landscape, they're the last ones standing and they must remember a time when it was another tree at its shoulder rather than a temple or a house at its feet.

Still, In Ubud, it's impossible to forget just how much nature gives, how much it takes and how much nature demands. Farmers are at their rice fields from the moment light breaks. The moss fuzzes over almost every surface that hasn't been diligently cleaned. Leave the bread outside and a patch of fungus is growing on it. It's like the green, carefully manicured into gardens and groves, is just itching to take over. Every flower, so many cut fruits mock the artificial colours that claim to be "tropical". You want to see the tropics? Take off your sunglasses. As Neha put it the other day, "Living in Bali feels like living in a terrarium."

Yesterday marked the completion of week one in Ubud. So far, we've avoided some tourist traps and landed with both feet into others. I'm still struggling with the local accent, as a result of which when someone asked if I have a boyfriend back home, I snorted and replied staunchly, "Of course I have wi-fi in India." If you think "boyfriend" and "wi-fi" sound nothing like one another, you get a Balinese man to drop either word into a sentence and then we'll talk. It's kind of insane to walk up to ATMs and pull out six-figure sums nonchalantly. Here in Bali, two unemployed writers from India are (temporary) millionaires.  

Seven days is when most holidays end. Mine though has just begun and I realise that fittingly for someone who seems to specialise in navigating limbo zones, our long stay in Bali makes us neither tourists nor locals. Now we recognise the names of streets when people give us directions even if we remain clueless about the tourist-beloved sites that locals figure we should know, being outsiders. We know that dragonfruit here is a rich, dark, almost inky shade of fuchsia and fruitier than the pale, white versions that are imported to our markets in Mumbai. We know watermelons can be yellow here, which is strange but sweet. This morning, I woke up wanting the salty porridge that is sold at the market for crumpled notes that convert to medium-sized change in our currency. I'm having prawn crackers as I type. We live in a home, not a hotel, which means we make our beds, do the dishes and laundry. We live here in Bali. But we will still be charged double of what those who belong here, because that's how it goes and no, you don't get credit for having found a good 'local' destination. The tough Balinese auntie selling vegetables at the morning market doesn't know or care that we've rented a place for a month. We bask in the friendliness that the Balinese reserve for tourists because I don't see them smiling at each other when they pass but when they walk or drive past one of us outsiders, we get a warm grin and perhaps even a greeting. When we ask people, "Where do you go to eat/ buy?", they talk rapidly about vague places while clearly racking their heads to come up with names of places that will be tourist-friendly but seem local enough for us.  

Since both my friend and I are writers by profession, we've been asked by different people whether there's a story we're working on from Bali. It's difficult for people to believe we're here without an agenda. It's sort of surreal for us too. We're two people, unemployed, clueless about the future, faced with enormously difficult decisions when we return home, but here we are for now, in Bali. For no reason whatsoever other than the fact that the tickets were cheap in June and rent is cheaper in Bali round-the-year in comparison to Delhi and Mumbai. 

At a warung (which is the Bahasa word for 'shacks'), we spoke briefly with an British-Indian family that's come to Ubud for a holiday. Hearing we've been here for a week, they asked us for recommendations of spas and sights. We had very little to offer because all we've done is walk, through the centre of town, out to the fields, into forests that lead out to the rice terraces. We haven't entered a single temple, paid entry fee for a single monument, taken a tour or checked any must-see boxes. But we've seen pink sunset clouds reflected on paddy fields. We've met an old woman who's made her living for 30 years running a breakfast stall, surrounded by steamed chicken, roast pork and sauteed veggies. We have found a few favourite groves and trees that we want to gaze at for hours, cricks in necks and mosquito bites be damned. We've seen about 70-odd Balinese girls stand in neat lines, wearing sarongs and those sashes that cinch the waist, wait for the music to come on so that they can practice their legong routine. When the sounds of the gamelan dinged their way through the tinny speakers, the older girls curved and fluttered to perfect time, but the chorus was beautiful, adorable chaos. Some forgot moves. A few felt the sarongs were wrapped too tight. The munchkin-sized ones tottered, a little confused but deeply committed to just being there and remaining a few steps behind. Then, the music stopped and in less than a second, the sarongs were whipped off to reveal shorts and capris, turning the little dancers into everyday girls.  

This is when holidays end, with wistful what-ifs and golden memories. We're staying on. There will be better prawn crackers and no what-ifs.  

Deepanjana Pal