Culture in Ubud

I came to Ubud because it is touted as a Balinese cultural hub, and not just because it received such positive reviews from Elizabeth Gilbert. Bali is such a culture-filled destination because as the Hindu states fell all around Bali, many of the intelligentsia fled here along with artists, dancers, musicians, and actors. As the only surviving Hindu island, the Balinese show intense pride for the culture and enjoy sharing it with the outside world. Having so many tourists leave their homes for theirs must reinforce their confidence in their unique and creative culture. In addition, throughout this Hindu rice-farming society, I saw daily offerings made using Banana leaves outside of homes, hotels, shops, and as far reaching as the top of the Batur Volcano.

rice field Ubud
A rice field just outside Ubud, Bali
more rice field
Another rice field near Ubud

Ubud is full of live music and dance performances both modern and traditional. I enjoyed sitting in cafes in the evening listening to drum-heavy music as well as attending two traditional Balinese dance performances. The Legong Dance, performed at the Ubud Palace, included gamelan music and ritual dance. The Legong Dance also included a mask dance, contemporary dance, and sacred dance. Another evening, I attended the Kecak Fire and Trance Dance where I will never forget the last scene of a dancer kicking flaming coconuts around the stage from what used to be a coconut bonfire.

balinese dancer
A dancer from the Legong Dance in Ubud
Kecak Fire and Trance Dance
The Kecak Fire and Trance Dance

Ubud is home to many shops, but unlike most other places I’ve visited, there were less knock-off sunglasses and the like, and instead, many shops sold artwork and other cultural handmade Balinese craft. Window shopping became an enjoyable experience when simply walking through the store taught me about Balinese art. Unfortunately, Ubud is swarming with tourists who can make it hard to find an authentic Balinese experience, but I did meet some great people. Lauren from England and I went to one of the evening dances together, three German friends joined me on the sunrise volcano hike, Bruce and Carol from Vancouver who I had also sat next to on the plane bumped into me and we recapped our Bali adventures together, and Made, the driver to the sunrise volcano trek. His English was far from perfect, but his energy was high and he exuded such an optimistic vibe, that while helping him improve his English, I continued to learn about Balinese culture through his stories. Ubud, the people I met while staying there, and the places I visited in its surrounding areas are the ingredients that made for the hard-to-leave feeling I now have.

Come of Age in Bali

When I hear about a coming of age ritual, I naturally imagine a 13-year-old memorizing a Torah portion in preparation for his or her Bar or Bat Mitzvah. After all, that is when I made the transition from boyhood to manhood. I still wasn’t ready to drive, join the army, vote, drink or smoke, but in the Jewish tradition, I was ready to lead a Shabbat service. But in all seriousness, more important than becoming a certified “man” or being considered an adult, having my Bar Mitzvah connected me to my family and to my greater Jewish community. I am the eighth of ten first cousins, the seven older cousins had already had their Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, and the two younger were still waiting their turn. We happen to be spaced about one-year apart spanning a decade; therefore, our yearly family reunion during the 1990’s revolved around this coming of age ceremony. And from that experience, I can appreciate a coming of age ritual regardless of what the ritual may specifically consist of.

My Bali expert, Fred Eiseman (writer of Bali: Sekala and Niskala), describes this coming of age ritual as a Tooth Filing. A time when an individual moves away from being “kasar” or coarse, and moves closer to being “alus” or refined. Eiseman puts it best in his book when he writes, “Balinese Hinduism can be very highly symbolic, and the one characteristic that epitomizes uncivilized, uncouth, coarse disposition is protruding canine teeth.” And like a Bar Mitzvah in the Jewish tradition, tooth filing has become an all-out event in the Bali Hindu tradition. Extended family, friends and community members celebrate this event together. The ceremony is called matatah. I will probably not opt to have a matata, but I did want to draw its possible similarities to events more familiar to me.

Hangzhou Encounters

Staying at the Hangzhou Hofang International Youth Hostel just off the busy Hefang Street, I met people who had come to Hangzhou for a variety of reasons. As an example, Monday night, I shared a beer with someone from Lithuania who was traveling the world trying to sell his artwork. Then the following morning, I met another individual, Leonardo, who had traveled to Hangzhou with his family and was staying an extra day. Leonardo was a practicing Buddhist who had come to Hangzhou to visit the famous Buddhist temples.

After breakfast, Leonardo and I walked to the West Lake, which I learned is pictured on the 1 Yuan bill, and walked across the Su Causeway through the middle of the lake. Although it was a little cold, the view and the company was great. I learned that Leonardo is going to school in Vancouver, is studying physical chemistry, and is back in China because it’s his Spring Break. He explained that although his English was pretty good, it was not as good as the Chinese humanities and art majors. I also learned that Leonardo picked his English name based on Leonardo DiCaprio’s award winning performance in Titanic.

Su causeway west lake

Later in the day, after making my tourist rounds and visiting Failei Peak, The China National Tea Museum, and the Nangsong Dynasty Palace Porcelain Museum, I ran into another U.S. Spring Breaker, Yvonne, who had returned to her family in Hangzhou but is going to school in Pennsylvania. I met Yvonne at the Porcelain Museum in an area offering ceramics classes. I was watching as she formed an owl out of clay, and eventually, she looked up and blurted something out in English. I was so surprised by her English, that I forget what it was that she initially said to me. I asked if I could sit down near where she was working and then proceeded to interview her, flooding her with many questions. Around closing time of the museum, she asked if I would like to join her and her family for dinner. I immediately accepted under the condition that I wouldn’t be intruding.

I followed her to the bus station, where she insisted that I have the fried tofu on a stick that was being sold right at the station. I then had my first experience on the not-so-English-friendly bus system. Unlike the subways and railroads, the buses had no English instructions. We make it to her home, where I am greeted by her grandparents and invited inside. I take off my shoes as is the custom in most Chinese homes, and they lend me some slippers to wear while I am inside. While getting a tour of her home with tea and snacks in hand, I soon meet her mother, brother, and aunts and uncles. There was also a one a half year old who was a lot of fun once he got over being shy. Also during the tour, Yvonne tried to teach me some of the basic rules of the game Majiang before we eventually all went out to dinner.

hangzhou tea museum

The whole family came out to dinner, where among many things, I learned that the location one sits at a round table is significant. The head of the table is seated facing the door. The two most important guests are then on either side of the head. Finally, the level of importance of the other guests either travels counter-clockwise around the table from there, or varies as the seat is farther away from the host. We ordered many different dishes, including some that were a little more exotic such as the tongue of duck. Being the guest, the family would generally want me to try something first; however, I was hoping that someone else would start so that I could learn how I was supposed to eat it, with what utensil and on what plate or bowl. I usually had to start and then alter my method of eating once I learned I had being doing it incorrectly. Throughout the dinner, the smallest would find someone around the table, many times me because I was the new face, and raise his bowl yelling “Gan Bei!”. I soon was told that this was the equivalent to “Cheers!” in English, and would repeat it back to him. Being welcomed into this family’s home and joining them for dinner was easily the highlight of my Hangzhou experience.

After dinner, although I was already very full, Yvonne wanted to take me to a street market where they prepare some of her favorite foods. We enjoyed all sorts of delicious snacks on skewers despite not knowing exactly where it all was fitting in my stomach. These snacks ranged from spiced vegetables to the more adventurous squid.

hangzhou street market

What drove me to that Porcelain Museum is a mystery other than I saw it on the map and thought it might be interesting to explore. But whatever the reason, it led me to Yvonne, who in turn welcomed me into her home and provided me with a very authentic and memorable Chinese experience.