We stayed for three days in Denpasar, dodging traffic, then moved on eagerly into the countryside on a route to the north into Bali’s interior. The village of Ubud was our destination. Colts, trucks canvas covered behind and fitted with benches, left from a crowded narrow street, Jalan Kartini (after 5 p.m. it always became even more crowded as a night market).
Young boys cast about in the main street calling the names of distant towns and villages. ‘Ubud-Ubud-Ubud-Ubud’ we heard. ‘Ya, Ubud.’ we answered. Two youths took our arms and piled us onto one of the colts, which soon left with all the drama of a stage coach in a western film. Our boy was on the rear step hanging by one hand and leaning far out, he was shouting: ‘Ubudubudubudubudubud ubudubud’. Whenever the truck stopped, he ran off like a sheepdog in all directions to round up passengers for Ubud..
We were pleased when he failed, because, when he succeeded, we had to shuffle ourselves into a tighter weave. There was our hillock of luggage, and several women had brought along the large round baskets they carry on their turbaned heads. A bundle of hens, small and brown and tied by their legs, gazed mutely from the corner in which their basket had been thrust. A large, large fish lay for a while along the seat. Juices oozed from him to a puddle on the floor. I gathered my skirt close, my bare shoulders were pressed against the warm shoulders of my neighbours. Amongst the baskets and produce we left the dreary dust and smells of Denpasar and hurtled headlong into green hills and sunshine. There was rhythm in the movement from lush forest to shining padi fields to villages with houses hidden behind mud walls. Our spirits soared like the coconut palms.
Our assertive and agile colt boy shouted instructions to passengers and also the driver; he gathered our fares, and happily assisted all loading and unloading. Before we left the hotel, Amos had briefed us on local fares. I was careful to hand the boy two hundred rupiah, exactly the right amount, avoiding the hassle and bargaining that so far had been part of every small journey we had taken. I was baffled about prices and was at a disadvantage in the bargaining which seemed part of every purchase.
We stopped at a river where the old bridge would take only one line of traffic. A new, concrete bridge was being built, so up the steep river bank women toiled, with trays of stone and gravel on their heads. Far below, in the water, naked villagers bathed, ignoring one another and the passing traffic.
The road to Ubud was a tourist track, a pathway of culture… for sale. Elaborate art shops stand out from the common village warungs, at times they were often set quite apart amongst the padi fields. Sleek airconditioned buses passed us and disappeared: a little further along the road we would pass them again, parked beside another art shop.
In an hour we had driven the twenty-five kilometres from Denpasar to Ubud. This was the end of the trip. The village featured in tourist brochures as a centre of fine arts and crafts. There were palaces and warungs, village temples and a large wantilan, a great thatched, open sided pavilion that served as a meeting hall, concert hall and theatre. We got off in the centre of the village and asked our way to the Menara Lodging House.
Menara’s foyer cum lounge cum dining room is a series of three overlapping roofs on high poles over three levels of packed earth floors. The sides of the building are open to the world. The extraordinarily thick thatch of the roof is made of lalang grass, marvellously simple and ingenious, it is a typical sight in Bali. At the high end of this open area are flat cut-outs, painted as temple doors which serve as an entrance for dancers; and propped up, a large barong, the mask and shaggy body of a mythical beast, under which two dancers can hide. Off to one corner is the office, walled by bookshelves. The proprietor, Cokorde Agung Mas, sat at a big brown desk stacked with papers and surrounded by drums.
Back in Sydney, Richard Murdoch, the renowned musicologist, had written two words on a slip of paper: ‘Mas, Ubud’, he handed it to me and said, ‘Look him up.’.
To come across him like this, the first man we spoke to in Ubud, was a surprise. Unfortunately, at that time he had no room for us. `But no problem’, he said, `I’ll send a boy to find you one’. A young man sauntered into the sunlight and we sat down to black, grainy Balinese coffee, steaming and served in a glass. Milk is scarce so it’s invariably black tea or coffee either hot or iced. I wound my handkerchief round the glass so I could hold it to drink. This amused the Balinese who wait till the contents of their glass are luke warm.
Very soon the young man came back, smiling broadly and he had been successful. His name was Denik. He was stocky and strong and hefted our baggage easily to take us to our new home.
It was only a short way along the road, through a gateway in a high wall. `Typical Balinese house’, Denik said. It was a fine little white cottage set in a family compound of small square pavilions in a well- loved garden. The earth was dark and packed hard. There was not a blade of grass, but frangipani, bougainvillea, hibiscus and roses bloomed profusely. There were coconut palms, breadfruit and banana trees and a dark green citrus tree with fruit, like lemons but as large as coconuts. It was a fruit good for tummy troubles I was told. Along the western boundary ran a swift flowing, gurgling stream. Nothing could have been better.
Our host was busy, in a gentle way, perfecting his garden. A tall man and extremely thin, Anak Agung Gde Raka greeted us quietly and apologised for his clothes. He wore a conical straw hat, shirt and shorts. His wife beamed at us softly. Later, when we were settled and resting on our back veranda, he came and talked. We would value our talks with Raka.
That day, a regular, relentless sound, at intervals of five seconds, was always in the background. A wooden, ‘toc … toc … toc’. It was not an insistent sound; it was there with the rustle of leaves or the crow of distant cocks. A man of the village had died. His knell was sounded on a wooden bell, a kul-kul. It hung high up on the trunk of the sacred banyan tree we could see from our cottage.
The main street of Ubud, being part of a long main road, is never empty. Farmers from villages further along the road come jogging to the market their produce bobbing on the ends of springy shoulder poles. Women with great baskets on their heads, kains (single bolts of cloth) wound closely on their thighs, walk strongly, staring into the distance, straight ahead. Now and again, young men or tourists on motor-cycles roar past. Busses halt and tourists file down and follow their guides to the art shops.
This is how we saw it on our first morning in Ubud.
Tjokorde Mas had offered to introduce me to a good musician. His boy, Denik, came to escort us to meet my teacher, (a relation of our landlord). It was raining. We walked under umbrellas to a plain stucco building in a side road. This was the rumah gong, the home of the instruments of the gamelan.
Pak Raka, his name was exactly the same as that of our landlord, came from the opposite direction. He too carried an umbrella. He wore a long woven kain and, amazingly, a heavy roll necked sweater. He was a man of good looks and dignity with a fine-boned face, erect carriage and, like his relation, Agung Raka, the air of a philosopher. Inside the rumah gong, dim light picked out the bronze of instruments scattered about the floor: the line of small pot-like gongs of the reong, the great gong itself, the keys of the metalaphones of different sizes. Different sexes too, for the Balinese and the Hindu religion preach duality and instruments are in pairs of slightly different pitch, male and female.
My instrument was to be the metalaphone called gangsa. Two of these were placed facing each other. Pak Raka sat me on a low box at one, the female, and he settled himself, cross-legged on a mat behind the male. David sat on a stool to draw the scene. I think he was a little nervous.
Pak Raka took up a small mallet, something like the picks of mountaineers, and l took up another. He played a succession of notes and I repeated them. So we progressed and I learned from memory. I had to. Music is taught aurally by a patient and thorough repetitive process. The traditional music of the gamelan is recorded in the mind not on manuscript. When I did well, Pak Raka smiled with his brown eyes and it was worthwhile. I wanted to please him.
In fact, in most ways, it was much like music lessons I have known since I was three years old. I was excited and stimulated by the sound. It pleased me. I was eager to follow where he led.
There were differences of course. After we had been playing for a little while, people appeared. There were faces at the windows, old faces and young ones; four little boys wandered into the room and squatted and stood, watching and listening, behind Pak Raka. A young man with a fighting cock in the crook of his arm came close and squatted by me. When he was asked he put down the bird, took up a pick and helped to demonstrate a passage of syncopated and very subtle rhythm. For the whole of our time in Ubud, this young man would always stop his work, his motor-bike or his conversation to come and inquire about my progress, politely and seriously.
My conversations with Pak Raka were odd. While he spoke Balinese, Indonesian and only a few words of English, I spoke a few words of Indonesian and understood nothing of Balinese.
David and I had made a big effort to learn Indonesian, attending classes for several months before our visit. We practiced conversation and vocabulary daily. David has a natural ability with languages and was soon far ahead of me. Unfortunately what I had learned seemed to vanish now I was confronted with the reality of having to speak it. I began to understand the huge problem and loneliness of non-communication.
But for Pak Raka and me a curious new language evolved. We developed a distinctive rapport. Facial expression became exaggerated but totally readable. Gestures were important. And of course we spoke with each line of music. We were soon friends, we were intrigued with the situation, aware of each other as musicians. We walked together, Raka speaking in Balinese, while I spoke English. We laughed a lot.