Dinner And A Movie, Indonesian Backpacker Style

Dorks on the Highway And Other Misadventures In Capitalism

“I know she wants money, but she’s not going to get any. She can just bugger off.”

–British tourist to wife after taking picture of Indonesian woman at the Elephant temple.

Nice work if you can get it: Antiques manufactured here. Hmmm, I wonder if they can make me the desk Abraham Lincoln used to write the Gettysburg Address while traveling on the back of an envelope.

Ubud isn’t far from Denpasar, about one hour as the crow flies or two as the bemo drives, but it seems a whole planet away. With such attractions as the Monkey Jungle and the recently excavated Elephant Caves temple, there is no doubt that it’s a tourist town, but it’s so much more mellow than crazy Kuta just down the road. Souvenir stands still line both sides of the two lane road leading to the town’s main attraction — not too surprisingly, the street is called Monkey Forest Lane — but the merchants in the smaller town aren’t as aggressive as their big city brothers. At least, they’re willing to wait until you get into their shops before they apply the hard sell.

About the only time I ever got the hard sell in Ubud was when I stepped off the bemo and was met by a gaggle of losmen owners promising me the world to stay with them. Some promised big rooms, others breakfast and the smartest vowed they had hot water — a commodity in short supply on the road. Half the owners stated their case to me while the other half plied Chris the Canadian with promises. (By an odd coincidence, we had both booked tickets on the same bemo without knowing it.) Since Chris had more experience finding places to stay in Indonesia, I followed his lead and we split a large room with two beds, a regular toilet, a nice porch, free breakfast and hot tea for $6 each. As nice as getting so much for so little was, what thrilled me most was the absence of roosters in the courtyard. Finally, a good night’s    sleep appeared within reach. 

A new take on dinner and a movie including a quick glimpse of home and a film made before Mel went meshugenneh.

Ubud also marked my first brush with a unique restaurant hybrid that is quite popular in tourist areas throughout Southeast Asia: Eateries that show the latest western movies to attract tourists — a sort of Far Eastern version of what used to be called Cinema Taverns. The only difference between the failed enterprise in the U.S. and the ones here is that the ones on the road showed the latest American movies while the ones back home showed older movies that had been out for months. In the restaurants of Ubud in mid-March 1996 it was possible to see “Braveheart,” “The Perez Family” and “Assassins.” What amazed me most about having the opportunity to see the Sylvester Stallone/Antonio Banderas movie here was that it hadn’t even hit the theaters when I left Seattle and it was already out on video elsewhere despite its popularity back home. The films weren’t actually on video yet, of course, but there were plenty of bootleg copies of varying quality.

The most amusing thing about the bootlegs is how obviously bootlegged they are. The restaurant owners not only advertise the films they’ll showing during the dinner hour over the coming two days, they don’t mind showing video copies of movies that were obviously shot in theatres where the film was shown during its first run. In fact, it wasn’t unusual to see copies so bad viewers can literally see the shadows of the heads of patrons in the theater when the copy was made. I even saw one where an important detail in a scene was obscured when an audience member got up and walked out of the theatre at a key moment in the film.

I promised myself I wouldn’t waste time on the trip by doing stuff I could do at home like watching television or going to movies. There would be plenty of time to rent videos of the films I’d missed once I got home, I reasoned. But I had to eat. Besides, I reasoned, I wouldn’t really be breaking my ban if I just happened to find something I liked to eat on the menu of a restaurant showing a movie I wanted to see and I also timed dinner so that I ate when the restaurant just happened to show a movie. As a result, Chris and I saw “Braveheart,” “The Perez Family” and “Assassins” over our half-week stay. Being a Canadian who hadn’t had much experience with Cubans, Chris had difficulty understanding what the actors were saying in “The Perez Family” because it was a film about Cuban refugees who migrated to Miami during the Mariel boatlift of the late 1970’s. (I thought his inability to understand was a bit odd considering that most of the Cubans were played by Italians or Jews including Marissa Tomei, Chaz Palmintieri and Anjelica Huston.) Even though I’m no Sylvester Stallone fan, I liked “Assassins” best because it was shot in Seattle and gave me the first glimpse I’d had of home since I’d hit the road three months before. It even showed a few of my favorite parts of town like Capital Hill and the scenic Alaskan Way Viaduct. It also featured a few of my favorite local television news broadcasters. Up until this time I never really liked local television anchors but, when you’re this far away from home, you can’t afford to get picky. A familiar face is still a familiar face. 

A scene from the Monkey Forest in Ubud.

The open flouting of copyright laws wasn’t even the most flagrant violation of laws, rules and mores governing practically everything from international trade agreements to just plain common sense. No, that was saved for the Monkey Jungle, the home of a large temple and way too many ornery monkeys. Yes, they’re cute, but they’re ornery because everyone who visits the park buys peanuts and bananas to feed them even though the stand selling their favorite foods is next to a sign in many languages telling tourists not to feed them. Apparently, visitors must think the government put the sign up for its health because almost every one who enters the park has bananas or a bag of peanuts, including me. This is why the monkeys attack.

When monkeys attack: This woman learned the hard way when she fed a monkey, then tried to hide her nuts.

Perhaps attack is too strong a word. Maybe mug is better. All I know is that any tourist who was foolish enough to hold a peanut out to a monkey with one hand while holding a bag of peanuts in the other learned a hard lesson when the monkey reached for the treat in one hand then used the other hand to snatch the bag. I also saw one animal chase a visitor he thought was holding out on him while another hung from a woman’s leg with his hand in the pocket of her shorts seeking a hidden bag of peanuts. A third visitor who put her purse down on a chair to hand out one banana at a time was surprised to see a monkey rifling through her purse in search of the rest of the bunch.         

I vowed not to make the same mistake. Whenever I gave out all the peanuts I had in my hands, I walked out of the sight of the group I had just fed while I reached into my pocket and pulled more out of the bag. The strategy worked until one of the monkeys got a notion in its head I was holding out and advanced on me menacingly. In this case, I figured the best defense was to throw what was left, plastic and all, at my hungry pursuer, look at my assailant and say, “Here have it. I don’t have any more. Please stop. I’ll give you my firstborn son Rumplestiltskin (sorry, got a little carried away there).” Oddly enough, the monkey seemed to understand what I was saying.

Not all of the simians on site were as intelligent, however. As Chris and I left the park we saw a monkey poised on the seat of a motorbike peering into the rearview mirror. Seeing his reflection, the monkey tried everything he could to investigate its newfound friend. He kept reaching out to touch what should have been its twin’s shoulder, an area right behind the mirror, only to come up with nothing but air. Instead of discouraging him, this only made him try harder. Perhaps he thought his companion was being coy. When those attempts failed, he hopped on top of the mirror itself in an effort to get on top of the mysterious animal and look down on it. Although this was a small monkey, his weight proved too much for the arm holding the mirror and it drooped under the additional load, much to the amusement of the crowd that had quietly gathered around the monkey who was stunned to discover he had become the center of attention. It was not amused.

Monkey in the mirror: this monkey thinks he’s made a new friend.

Since the Monkey Forest and the temple dedicated to the animals was so interesting, I had high hopes for the rest of the day when Chris and I rented bikes and pedaled to the Elephant Caves. It seemed like the only thing many of the tourists I chatted with could talk about. Quite a few talked about it reverently in hushed tones. As any good Robin Leech impersonator would say, “I don’t know why” (and then they would go on to talk about champagne wishes and caviar dreams). Anthropologically speaking, I’m sure the complex is quite interesting, but it just didn’t seem all that impressive to me. After all, there wasn’t much to the temple. Just guys renting sarongs for people who hadn’t worn long pants (bare legs are considered disrespectful to the gods, I guess), a series of cement holes in the ground that had obviously once been a fountain and a small cave with an entrance made to look like an elephant’s mouth. No disrespect intended, but there were more merchants outside the site than there were things to look at onsite. Even the cave itself was too dark to see much. 

As with the Monkey Forest, this attraction had its own amusing moment. It started when an English tourist snapped a photo of an old woman near the cave who felt it was her job to be picturesque for camera-toting tourists…

This has always seemed like an odd career choice to me. I mean, who is to say what’s picturesque and what’s butt ugly? Is there some village authority who decides who is pretty/ugly enough to so captivate tourists that they must have a snapshot to show friends back home? I can just see it now in a den somewhere in the middle of Nebraska, Sam Burkhead showing vacation slides to his friends and saying, “If you thought that one was ugly, get a load of what we saw at the Elephant Caves.” Then there’s the whole issue of whether the woman needed special training for and where she went to get it. More important, once she finished her schooling was she free to roam about the grounds of an attraction soliciting people to take pictures of her or does she have to stick to her own carefully guarded turf like New York City corner shoeshine boys from days of yore.

And, of course, no one ever bothers to ask what impact it has on kids, especially around career day. 

“Suzy, what does your mom do?” 

“She’s a dentist.” 

“Tommy, what does your dad do?” 

“He’s with the security police.” 

“And Jane, what does your mother do?” 

“She stands around and looks picturesque.” 

“Does it pay well?” 

“Yes, as long as we don’t get English tourists.”

At least not tourists like this one, anyway. Without asking for the crone’s permission, he fired off a shot, then quickly walked away, leaving his wife to deal with the unhappy woman who had extended her arm with her hand open asking for money that she felt the had earned a right to, being so picturesque and all. 

“She wants some money, dear,” the distressed woman told her husband. 

“I know she does, but she’s not going to get any. She can just bugger off,” the man shot back.

On the way back from the caves we ran into the Seattle couple. And once again, they had no guidebook and were spending exorbitant rates for lodging. Further proof a good guidebook can set the proper tone for the whole trip. 

As nice as the Ubud was, I felt the two days I had already spent there was plenty and it was time to be move on. This was before I tried to do a favor for my family and do some buying for my mom’s airport gift shop. 

Most people who have ever worked for their parents know things are never as simple as they sound and always take longer than they should. Much longer. Add to the typical complications of trying to please parents the need to deal with the vagaries of international shipping and customs regulations and you’re looking at a situation that could drag on into your grandchildren’s dotage. I thought starting early in the morning would give me enough time to catch the final bus of the day to Penelokan Crater at Lake Batur, home of a sunrise walk so famous that I had never heard of it. What the hell was I thinking?

The ordeal started at 10 a.m. when I walked into Melanka II (I never could find Melanka I) and told the owner I wanted to buy souvenirs for an airport gift shop in Florida. After first balking at my plan to pay via American Express card (I never left home without it), he said the store had a minimum international wholesale order of $125 U.S. I then spent the next hour ordering more carved wooden dolphins than any human should see in a lifetime: 7-centimeter dolphins, 10-cm dolphins, black dolphins, blue dolphins, key ring dolphins, light switch dolphins and even two heavy big-ass dolphins. Everything is so cheap in Ubud that it still wasn’t anywhere near $125 so I ordered carved fish, cats and birds. Then, we had to deal with shipping. The shopkeeper first said sending the 5 kilo parcel to the U.S. would cost $125. The price crept up when a shipping agent told him he had to charge for the container. Seeing I was beginning to lose my patience, he suggested riding to the shipper’s to get everything hashed out. 

When he said ride over, I thought he meant in a car. I discovered he meant motorbike when he tossed me a helmet and told me to hold onto a box filled with the items I’d just bought. Yes, there’s nothing cooler in the world than two dorks riding down the highway with one of them holding onto a box with one hand and hanging on for dear life with the other. Upon our arrival, the shipper not only said the merchant had miscalculated the weight, but he’d forgotten to include the weight of the wood crate used for shipping. He didn’t bother to ask if I wanted a crate, however. 

Negotiations continued into the late afternoon as each new unexpected eventuality sent me scrambling for the phones to get another ruling from the folks back in Florida. It would have been easy if Melanka’s staff had asked all the questions at once, but, no, they kept coming up with new ones every 10 minutes or so. Did I want to send it port-to-port (from a port in Indonesia to the nearest large port in Florida, Miami, which is a three hour drive away from Fort Myers)? Did I want to send it post-to-post? Did I want fries with that? By the time it was over, I missed two meals, made Fanta fruit soda (which is tasty, indeed, but tastes unlike any fruit I’ve ever had) the official beverage of my visit to Indonesia, paid $150 for shipping and signed so many documents I may have promised the shipper my first-born newt even though I wasn’t entirely convinced that the box would ever get there. 

For good or ill, I learned there are times I had to take people’s word for it, and it usually worked out. Hell, a person who found my checkbook on the streets of Sydney mailed it back to the States and never gave a return address so I could send a letter of thanks, and a woman who took a picture of me at the Waitomo Caves in New Zealand actually sent it when most Americans I know would have forgotten it. So, who was I to argue? I just took it on faith that I had discharged my duty to my family and that the shipment would get there, or it wouldn’t.

In some ways, it reminded me of former Seattle Mariners broadcaster Ken Levine’s First Rule of Baseball: If you walk the lead runner, he’ll always come around to score on you unless, of course, he doesn’t.

By the end of the negotiation, one thing was eminently clear. I had missed the last bus to Lake Batur and was spending another night in Ubud. There are worse fates. Besides, the extra night gave me the chance to see “The Perez Family,” a film I’d wanted to watch before I left the States, but never had the chance. It also allowed me to see how attractive Angelica Huston was. 

And that worried me.