You can also check out Rowan’s post on Jakarta’s horrendous traffic here.
You can also check out Rowan’s post on Jakarta’s horrendous traffic here.
So far in Semawang Stories, I’ve described what life is specifically like in Bali and some peculiarities therein. This week I thought I’d give a little insight into what I actually do all day, you know, for, like, money and stuff.
First of all, Semawang Stories does not make any money and likely won’t in the foreseeable future. Unless one makes it big, being a mostly full-time writer isn’t exactly a lucrative business so I’m not exactly planning on making it rain anytime soon (plus there aren’t any (legal) strip clubs in Bali).
The best part of this ‘job’ is that I make my own hours and work is almost entirely on my own schedule. I say almost because deadlines from editors are a thing but fortunately I haven’t had too many as of yet. With the exception of my Vice Sports article on the #muzzaswell, which was somewhat time-sensitive because it was essentially on a weather system, my pieces haven’t needed to be rushed out.
The real reason I chose this subject is that the past 48 hours have been a pretty rapid series of highs and lows. On Friday, I wrote a piece about a local jazz festival I attended last weekend which should be published next week. And frankly, I kicked its ass. It’s the same feeling you get when you drop 20 in a game of basketball. The piece will be on a site called Bali Coconuts that I’m just establishing a relationship with having written this article for them about an art festival here in Sanur. On top of writing what you know is a good piece, submitting two articles within two weeks and getting paid for both (albeit underpaid) is damn gratifying.
Then, I woke up Saturday morning to find that a piece I’ve been working on for almost two months, one that will be my first in print, will likely be delayed until the next issue. The Editor-in-Chief wants it re-worked and some more urgency put into what I find to be an already engaging narrative. But as my editor put it, this is a big boy magazine and the Editor knows what the hell he’s talking about. More to the point, I’m incredibly proud of this story and this is absolutely the right magazine so I’m content to let this play out.
And yet, in the very same batch of emails (since I’m +12 hours from the East Coast, I get a whole day’s worth of email first thing in the morning), came a positive reply from an outlet I’ve been trying to pitch for months about a story I’ve been trying to pitch for months. This is no guarantee that I’ll be published, but it’s a big breakthrough and could very well lead to more consistent work in the coming months.
And this is basically what I spend most of my time doing, finding stories anywhere I can, putting together pitches that will grab an editor’s attention and then waiting. The waiting mainly consists of finding more stories and, in this age of constant media, keeping up with what’s going on in the world (i.e. surfing the web and reading content. Also, pro-tip, if you want to improve your writing, start reading more, find an author you like, and copy their style until you find your own.).
On the whole, I really can’t complain. I love doing this and, while I may not be making much money at the moment, I know that I can write as well if not better than many others (present post possibly excluded) who are doing it for a living so I know I can be a success if I put in the time. And I don’t mind doing that. As with many jobs, success depends as much on whom you’re connected with as how good you are at your job.
I’ll end this spiel here with the promise to return to a non-insect and more Bali-related topic next week. Thanks for tuning in and make sure to check out this week’s Frying Pan Podcast. It’s our best yet.
Rowan also wrote a piece a while back on the remnants of Dutch colonial bureaucracy in Indonesia. You can check it out here.
So last week I had to get ants off my mind, which now seems a little absurd and entirely self-indulgent but since I promised a Part II, I guess I should follow through. And really this should be the more interesting of the two because not only am I going to include some videos but I’m also hoping to make some more insightful commentary. Granted, said commentary surrounds ants and their behavior, but there are some parallels between the eusocial insects and things here in Bali.
The first has to do with traffic and driving.
Now, I’ve written in these pages about the traffic in Jakarta, and while the traffic in Bali isn’t quite as bad it’s not exactly flowing. Many of the roads are too narrow, the ones that are wide are over-crowded with both cars and motorbikes, and, most relevantly, drivers here have their own ‘style’ of driving.
This ‘style’, for lack of a better term, is both aggressive and passive. It ignores much of the standard rules, like staying within one’s lane and/or waiting for a clear opening to enter a road, and yet it has its own conventions. For example, a high-beam flash that would ‘I’m yielding to you’ in the US, here means the opposite; essentially, ‘Get out of my way.’
But amidst this significant amount of confusion, ignorance of traffic protocol (because despite the actions of drivers here, the written rules of the road are just about the same), and the limited road-space that only becomes more limited with the lack of parking (cars (or buses or) can be parked seemingly anywhere here; on the curb/sidewalk, on streets that should be one-way but aren’t, behind a row of already parked motorbikes… you get the picture), it all works. The point I’m trying to make here is that Indonesian driving; especially the way motorbikes crawl through traffic at stoplights and find spaces unusable for cars ,is a lot like watching ants. The patterns can be hard to visualize or understand but they’re there and there are, maybe not rules, but guidelines. It might look messy and confusing and borderlines dangerous, but there’s a system. I think.
Next, I want to return to a book I cited in Ants: Part I and one that I’ll refer back to again, Bali: Sekala & Niskala, by Fred B. Eiseman, Jr. In Eiseman’s chapter on cremations he writes:
“When the big day is finally picked, an unbelievably complex, interlocking series of preparations is set into motion. And yet, in spite of the thousands of little details that must be attended to, there is no checklist of tasks, no boss who assigns jobs and see that they are carried out. Somehow it all works out, in typical cooperative Balinese fashion.”
Now, I mentioned above that ants are ‘eusocial’, which, according to Wikipedia is the “highest level of organization of animal sociality,” and because of this, ants are able to achieve pretty remarkable things. Here’s where the videos come in:
(Ok so no videos at the moment because of some technical difficulties but here are some snapshots from the vids)
So while it’s always dangerous to compare things like a human society, with all its intricacies and conscious thought, with that of a chemically-automated social structure (Maybe? Don’t ants communicate with chemicals? But I guess so do we in a lot of ways, too. Right?), but I’m going to do just that.
Balinese society – especially the way in which everything gets done with no outright or imposing leadership and how everyone knows their task, seemingly without being told – looks a lot like ants to me.
So there you have it; just around 1000 words on Ants and Bali. I’ll be moving away from Formicidae-related topics next week so stay tuned and make sure to check out my podcast with Louis Rive. It’s called The Frying Pan, and this week we’ll be talking about the frustrations of foreign bureaucracies which is a lot more interesting than the bureaucracy itself.
Rowan and Louis get together to discuss the age old nectar of the gods (booze) in their respective lands.
I’ve been thinking about ants a lot lately, so I’m going to write a two-part post on them. The likely cause of this – the thinking about ants bit – is that they’re everywhere: the big red ones are on the kitchen counter and ready to spring if I leave any food unattended; the medium-sized black ones are on the floor next to me while I’m doing my morning stretch (it’s a new thing); and the tiny brownish-red and translucent ones are crawling up my forearms and giving stinging little nibbles when I’m writing this very post.
The omni-presence of these little buggers is at first vaguely worrying in the “We should do something about that soon” kind of way. This is especially the case when they’re boring into the walls and furniture and leaving little piles of their refuse/excrement at the entrance to their colony. And if I were in the West, I would probably do something like getting the house fumigated. But instead I find myself in a country where the ant (and probably the termite as well from what I’ve seen) is lived with in seeming tolerance, if not outright harmony.
I have a couple theories about this and both are probably incorrect and/or incomplete, but I’m going to give them to you anyway.
The first idea I came up with is that ants are a part of the Balinese Hindu universe. This struck me when I saw that ants (and birds and rats) all partake in the daily offerings that are left out for God.[i] Whether they’re meant to or not, these offerings – “a kind of self-sacrifice,” according to Fred Eiseman in Sekala-Niskala – provide a little boost to the bottom of the food chain and thus the bottom of the universe. I don’t think this is entirely theologically correct in the current incarnation of Balinese Hinduism, but I would like to believe it was (maybe) an original motivation. The Mahabharata and Bhagavad-Gita had to come from somewhere, right?
My second running theory is that the Balinese just don’t care about ants and the fact that they’re literally eating their house is inconsequential. This, I think (which I’ve said far too many times in this post), has something to do with the idea that homes are not seen as precious long-term investments (as they are, let’s just say, elsewhere). Fixing shit is easy because building costs, labor, and materials are incredibly inexpensive, so if a roof-beam or whatever is eaten away, just replace it. No harm, no foul.
So ants are pretty much just ignored and left to go about their business, which I might add, can be very impressive and in a lot of interesting ways mirrors Balinese society. But I’ll leave that to Part II.
[i] Here’s where you interject with, “Hey, doesn’t Hinduism have lots of gods?” To which I reply, “Yes, and so does Balinese Hinduism, except that in order to fit within the Pancasila (the five founding creeds of Republic of Indonesia) that requires a ‘belief in one God’, Balinese Hindus performed a feat of theological gymnastics and began using the term that Christian missionaries to Bali had invented in the 1920’s and 30’s, Sang Hyang Widi, as an all-encompassing entity. Now, stop asking questions with complicated answers so I can get back to ants.”
The Frying Pan #2
The Frying Pan #1
Meet Louis and Rowan (again), formerly of The Volterra Podcast, who have restarted and revamped their project with a focus on their lives as expatriates in hot countries. In this, the inaugural Frying Pan, find out where the podcast’s name comes from, where Louis and Rowan are living and why they are there.
It’s always dangerous to compare places, especially when they’re 10,000 miles away and have entirely different histories, societies and politics, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Ubud is the Brooklyn of Bali.
I feel confident making this analogy because, while I came up with it on the fly while having a coffee in a really cool warung kopi called Tutmak, I actually had to articulate it on the spot to two people who know Ubud relatively well (certainly better than I do) and who ended up at least agreeing with the premise.
Tutmak sits on the northeast corner of an impressively long football pitch-cum-park in the middle of Ubud and while its rear looks out over the pitch, the front faces Jalan Diwisita, one of the town’s narrow roads that is lined with restaurants, bars, and shops. It’s got three different levels and platforms where you sit on pillows (which isn’t as rare as it might sound). In other words, it’s a cool spot. There are lots of cool spots in Ubud just like there are lots of cool spots in Brooklyn but really that’s just the most facile parallel.
Both the origin stories of Ubud and Brooklyn’s current generation of coolness began around the same time. Vice moved to Brooklyn in 1999 and has since made billions as both the mouthpiece and id of the hipster (my) generation. A few years later, Elizabeth Gilbert ended her memoir-inducing year of travel in Ubud where she found the conclusion to what would be Eat, Pray, Love and made the village destination for self-seekers.
Now neither Vice nor Gilbert invented their locales, but I don’t think I’m giving them too much credit when label them as progenitors to a movement; the flag to which others have rallied. I would not be surprised if there was a strong correlation between housing prices in BK and the number of foreign tourists that arrived in Ubud.
And here, as a good friend of mine would say, is the rub. Brooklyn and Ubud are (were?) cool because they don’t (didn’t) have the Wall Street types or expensive rents and don’t (didn’t) have resorts or bused-in-tourists. Both have fallen victim to the paradox of attracting the very things whose absence made them attractive in the first place.
But Brooklyn and Ubud are still there. Despite all the hipster-nostalgia that says they aren’t what they used to be, they are still unique and cool and hip and fun. There’s a quote from HST that I posted a couple days ago and I think it’s relevant here:
“San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run . . . but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant. . . .History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of “history” it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time—and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.”
Neither Brooklyn nor Ubud will have the political or social power that came from the San Francisco of Thompson and Kesey and Garcia, but maybe in five years, or six, maybe a lifetime or a main era, we’ll be able to look back at Brooklyn and Ubud with a sense of nostalgia, as places where some special things happened.
Also, Sanur is Queens.